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Spanish Springs Presbyterian Church PC (USA)
Join us for Sunday Morning Worship at 10:30 AM
(Child care provided)
775-424-3622

Events

Spanish Springs Presbyterian Church News

  • We will be taking reservations for Sunday worship services during office hours beginning August 31. Children’s Sunday School and Nursery services are not available at this time.  (As of 8/19/2020)
  • The Women’s Small Group Lenten Study is “Restored: Finding Redemption in Our Mess” by Tom Berlin. Classes will be held in the SSPC Conference Room on Thursday mornings—February 27, March 5, March 12, March 19, March 26, and April 2—at 10:30 AM. Denice Smith will be facilitating the lessons. The format will be a combination of DVD presentation and group discussion. A sign-up sheet is posted on the Accounting Room window, and the donation for study materials is $10.00. Please sign up ASAP so we have enough study books for everyone.
  • The Sunday Lenten Adult Bible Study is The Walk: Five Essential Practices of the Christian Life” by Adam Hamilton, and will be facilitated by Margie Kelley and Vicki Mackey. Classes will be held in the Conference Room each Sunday, March 1 through April 5, 2020, from 12:00 to 1:00 PM.
    The classes will be conducted in the group discussion/DVD format.
    Please sign up on the sheet on the Accounting Room window to indicate your intent to attend and so that study materials (suggested donation: $15.00) may be made available for everyone.
  • The Community Food Pantry at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church is requesting tuna and canned meats for the month of April. There is always a need for EVERYTHING, including personal hygiene items and all sizes of diapers. Drop off your donations at SSPC and one of our volunteers will deliver them to the food pantry.
  • Good Shepherd’s Clothes Closet: Clean underwear and socks are prized by those without.  Travel-size toiletries including razors, deodorant, lip balm, toothbrushes and toothpaste are in short supply. Drop off your donations at church and an SSPC volunteer will take your donations to Good Shepherd’s.
  • Blessings Boxes:   Please remember to drop off items on your way to or from church—toiletries, school supplies, food items, clothing items. These items will be donated to people in need. This is for a Girl Scout Silver Project. Thank you!
  • Nursery    Every Sunday, Spanish Springs Presbyterian Church is offering child care for infants and toddlers during worship. We are so happy to have Sheila Peaslee tend the nursery on Sunday.
  • Handy Helpers—Can Anyone Help Me? It’s hard to ask for help, and we all want to be as independent as possible, but sometimes we need a little temporary help with everyday tasks. Our SSPC Board of Deacons and Men’s Group are developing and expanding our current list of helpers who are willing to assist you. This can bring JOY to those providing the help as well as those receiving it! Helping with small household repairs, transportation to medical appointments (and everything in between) are “on the table,” so to speak. If you would like to be placed on the Handy Helpers list, or are in need of such temporary assistance, please call the church office at 424-3622. For more information, please contact your Deacon or Pat Mullett, Moderator of the Deacons, at 360-6220. Remember, we are all brothers and sisters in the family of Christ and SSPC.
  • SSPC Men’s Group    Our Men’s Group continues to meet on Wednesdays at 10 am for fellowship, study, and prayer. We take time at the end of our gathering to share our concerns, for ourselves, for our loved-ones, and for the world. Then we pray together. Each of us values this time of sharing, learning, and enjoying each other’s company! Come enjoy a cup of coffee and some really great guys! 
  • Presbyterian Women     In 2019-2020, PW will hold its first meeting on Monday, September 16; then, from October 2019 through May of 2020, PW will meet on the 2nd Monday of each month. (Please note that this is a change from our 3rd Monday meeting date in the past.) The meeting and Bible Study will start at 1:00 p.m. Those who would like to bring their lunch and fellowship before the meeting should arrive at 12:30 p.m. The March meeting will be on Monday, March 2* , 2020. The 2019-2020 Bible study is “Love Carved in Stone: A Fresh Look at the Ten Commandments by Eugenia Anne Gamble. * The March meeting reflects a change from the regularly scheduled meeting day due to Spring Presbytery meetings.
  • Prayer List    Do you have a family member or loved one facing challenges at this time? We will pray for you and your family members. If you would like to become a Prayer Chain Angel, our coordinator will forward prayer requests to you.
  • Choir     SSPC would love to have YOU join the adult choir! Rehearsals are held on Wednesday evenings at 6:30. Sunday morning rehearsals will be at 9:30 prior to Sunday worship services. Choir activities will resume with our first rehearsal on September 4, and we will plan to sing during the Sunday worship service on September 8. “Who sings well prays twice.”—St. Augustine
  • LIFE LINE SCREENING–APRIL 30, 2020     Life Line Screening, a leading provider of community-based preventive health screenings will be in our community on Thursday, April 30, 2020, at Spanish Springs Presbyterian Church. Ultrasound screenings to Identify risk factors for Cardiovascular disease include; Carotid Artery (plaque buildup-a leading cause of stroke), Abdominal Aortic Aneurysm (an enlargement or weak area in the main blood vessel that carries blood from the heart to the rest of the body), Peripheral Arterial Disease (hardening of the arteries in the legs), a Heart Rhythm Screening (an EKG to detect Atrial Fibrillation-irregular heartbeat) and an Osteoporosis Risk Assessment for men and women. Being proactive about your health by knowing your risks helps you and your doctor address problems early.  Register online TODAY at www.lifelinescreening.com/communitycircle  and receive your “Community Circle” discount and your Preferred Appointment!
  • VACATION BIBLE SCHOOL 2020–JULY 20-24  The 2020 VBS theme is “Wilderness Escape: Where God Guides and Provides” at Spanish Springs Presbyterian Church. Watch for additional details in the coming weeks. Mark your calendars!

Spanish Springs Presbyterian Church —  Recent Events

  • The Wired Word, An Adult Bible Study will begin on February 2, 2020, following the morning worship service. Participants will receive weekly lessons via email. A sign-up sheet is posted on the Accounting Room window. Please include your email to access study materials. Vicki Mackey will facilitate the classes.
  • COAT DRIVE   The Mission Ministry Team at Spanish Springs Presbyterian Church is collecting warm coats/jackets, hats, gloves, mittens, scarves and other cold-weather items for the homeless. There is a collection container at SSPC, and all items will be given to Good Shepherd’s Clothes Closet for distribution to those in need. All items should be clean, and both gently-used and new items are needed. Items are needed for both children and adults, with the greatest need for teens and adults. We  began collecting items on October 7, and the 2019-2020 Coat Drive concluded on March 1, 2020.
  • Souper Bowl of Caring—February 2, 2020 Souper Bowl of Caring was held on February 2. Souper Bowl of Caring is a national movement of young people, working in their communities on Super Bowl Sunday to fight hunger and poverty. Spanish Springs Presbyterian Church’s collection will be given to help those in the Reno-Sparks community who are food insecure. Look for the SSPC youth with the empty soup pots to make your contribution. For more information, visit the website at https://souperbowl.org
  • The Annual Congregational Meeting was held following the morning worship service on Sunday, January 26, 2020. All are welcome to attend.
  • LIFE LINE SCREENING–JANUARY 23, 2020     Life Line Screening, a leading provider of community-based preventive health screenings was in our community on Thursday, January 23, 2020, at Spanish Springs Presbyterian Church. Ultrasound screenings to Identify risk factors for Cardiovascular disease include; Carotid Artery (plaque buildup-a leading cause of stroke), Abdominal Aortic Aneurysm (an enlargement or weak area in the main blood vessel that carries blood from the heart to the rest of the body), Peripheral Arterial Disease (hardening of the arteries in the legs), a Heart Rhythm Screening (an EKG to detect Atrial Fibrillation-irregular heartbeat) and an Osteoporosis Risk Assessment for men and women. Being proactive about your health by knowing your risks helps you and your doctor address problems early.  Register online TODAY at www.lifelinescreening.com/communitycircle  and receive your “Community Circle” discount and your Preferred Appointment!
  •  Soup and Salad Luncheon–January 19, 2020   The Fellowship Ministry Team hosted a soup and salad luncheon following the morning worship service on Sunday, January 19. The Fellowship Ministry Team  provided soups, salads, bread, and beverages. Members of the congregation were asked to bring desserts.  A sign-up sheet was posted on the Accounting Room window at SSPC.
  • Christmas Eve  Worship Service–Communion: Please join us at our Christmas Eve worship service with Communion on Tuesday, December 24, at 7:00 PM. The service will include the lighting of the Advent wreath, Scriptures, Communion, Christmas carols, a choral anthem,  meditation, and candle lighting. All are welcome!
  • December 22, 2019: A Christmas Goodies/Handmade Crafts Sale was held after the worship service. This was a good time to pick up last minute gifts for family and friends (or yourself). The proceeds went to the General Fund to support the church. If you would like to donate a “goodie” (cake/cookies/candy/casserole/etc.) or a handmade craft to be sold, a sign-up sheet has been posted to indicate your interest in doing so. All handmade craft items were brought to the church office by 12/20.
  • November 17th, 2019: Following the worship service, a Hot Dog/Polish Dog and Chili Luncheon was hosted by the Fellowship Ministry Team. The Muppet Christmas Carol was shown following the luncheon. Hot dogs/Polish dogs, chili and all of the trimmings were furnished along with root beer floats.
  • Adult Bible Study: Our Adult Bible Study from September 8 through October 13 will be Christianity and World Religions by Adam Hamilton. In this six-session Bible study, Hamilton urges us as Christians to build bridges with others so that we might grow in our faith, seek peace in our world, love our neighbors, and find positive ways to share the gospel. This new, fully updated book explores four major world religions—Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, and Judaism—and compares the beliefs of each with those of Christianity. In his trademark honest and open writing style, Hamilton helps answer questions such as: Why are there so many different religions? How should we view their beliefs? And what is the fate of those who earnestly pursue God through other religions? Beginning Sunday, September 8, after worship, our study will be led by Vicki Mackey and Margie Kelley in the Conference Room. The format will be DVD with group discussion. The study has been extended and will conclude on Sunday, November 24. A sign-up sheet is posted on the Accounting Room window. Please sign up ASAP so we have enough study books for everyone.   Please visit the website at:  https://www.adamhamilton.com/books/item/9781501873331
  • Women’s Small Group Bible Study: The Women’s Small Group will meet on Thursday mornings at 10:30 in the Conference Room beginning on September 12 and concluding on October 17, 2019. The title of the study is Unafraid: Living with Courage and Hope in Uncertain Times by Adam Hamilton. Hamilton draws on the latest research, therapeutic insights, biblical principles, and personal experience to untangle the knots of fear and truly embrace Jesus’ recurring counsel to his followers: “Do not be afraid.” Denice Smith will facilitate the DVD/group discussion format. Please sign up as soon as possible to reserve your space and order study materials. Please see: https://www.adamhamilton.com/books/unafraid
  • Saturday, September 14—An outing to the Big Horn Olive Oil Company in Reno. Additional details forthcoming.  See   https://bhooc.com/
  • Saturday, October 12, 2019—An outing to the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno. Additional details forthcoming. See  https://www.nevadaart.org/art/exhibitions/
  • VACATION BIBLE SCHOOL—2019    July 22-26     We are gearing up for an out-of-this world experience with “To Mars and Beyond: Explore Where God’s Power Can Take You” for Vacation Bible School at Spanish Springs Presbyterian Church. Kids from Kindergarten through Sixth Grade are invited to come and enjoy daily Bible stories, crafts, science, recreation, snacks, our mission project, and Scripture-based music. We will start at 9:00 each morning and finish at noon.  Adults are welcome to come and enjoy the adventure! A great time is guaranteed!  For registration, please call the church office at 775-424-3622.  For additional information about volunteering to help, please call Doris Williams at 775-622-9639.
  • Two VSB Mission Projects: The entire Congregation of SSPC is invited to help with both of our VBS Mission Projects. 1. We will be collecting new and gently used children’s books and adult fiction for The Community Food Pantry at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church to give away. 2. We will be collecting coins for the Milk Money project through Heifer Project International. This mission project provides milk for school children in Tanzania.
  • GOURMET BAKE SALE–June 30, 2019–The Mission Ministry Team will be holding a Gourmet Bake Sale on Sunday, June 30. Proceeds will benefit local mission projects.
  • Adult Bible Study at SSPC      Our Adult Bible Study from May 19 through June 23 is  If You Want to Walk on Water, You’ve Got to Get Out of the Boat by John Ortberg. In this six-session Bible study, you’ll learn how to move beyond fear to discover God’s unique calling for your life!Peter may have been the first one out of the boat, but Jesus’ invitation to walk on water is for you as well. But walk on water? What does that mean? If You Want to Walk on Water, You’ve Got to Get Out of the Boat helps you answer helps you answer Christ’s call to greater faith, power-filled deeds, and a new way of knowing how to discern God’s call, transcend fear, risk faith, manage failure, and trust God. Relating to the story in Matthew 14 to life today, teacher and bestselling author John Ortberg invites you to consider the incredible potential that awaits you outside your comfort zone.   Sessions include:
    • What’s Water Walking?
    • The Tragedy of the Unopened Gift
    • Find Your Calling and Get Your Feet Wet!
    • Facing Our Challenges, Conquering Our Fears
    • Good News for Cave Dwellers
    • Learning to Wait on Our Big God

    Beginning Sunday, May 19, after worship, our study will be led by Vicki Mackey and Margie Kelley in the Conference Room. The format will be DVD with group discussion. The study will conclude on Sunday, June 23. A sign-up sheet is posted on the Accounting Room window. Please sign up ASAP so we have enough study books for everyone. For additional information, please visit the website at:     http://www.johnortberg.com/books

  • 2019 Women’s Group Bible Study     Taste and See: Discovering God Among Butchers, Bakers, & Fresh Food Makers   In Taste and See, Margaret Feinberg writes that since the opening of creation, God, the Master Chef, seeds the world with pomegranates and passionfruit, beans and greens and tangerines. When the Israelites wander in the desert for forty years, God, the Pastry Chef, delivers the sweet bread of heaven. After arriving in the Promised Land, God reveals himself as Barbecue Master, delighting in meat sacrifices. God is a foodie who wants to transform your supper into sacrament. Like his Foodie Father, Jesus throws the disciples an unforgettable two-course farewell supper to be repeated until his return. Classes will be held in the SSPC Conference Room on Thursday morningsMay 23, May 30, June 6, June 13, and June 20at 10:30 AM. Denise Smith will be facilitating the lessons. Please sign up ASAP (May 12 deadline) so we have enough study books for everyone. The suggested donation for regular print study materials is $12.00. For additional information on this study, please visit the following link:    https://www.christianbook.com/taste-and-see-margaret-feinberg/9780310354864/pd/354864
  • Day Trip to Martin’s Nursery & Lunch—Standish, California—Saturday, May 11, 2019 Folks from SSPC car pooled to Martin’s Nursery for beautiful plants at reasonable prices as well as fun and fellowship! They then purchased their own lunch at a nearby Pizza Factory where sandwiches, salads, & pizza were available. Everyone who attended enjoyed the beautiful day, gorgeous flowers, food, and fellowship!
  • Easter Week 2019 at Spanish Springs Presbyterian Church   Come and celebrate Easter Week with us beginning with the Palm Sunday service at 10:30 AM on April 14. The joyful Easter celebration and Communion will be at 10:30 AM on Sunday, April 21. All are welcome!  Follow us and like us on Facebook at https: www.facebook.com/SpanishSpringsPresbyterianChurch
  • Lenten Bible Study–2019    Our Lenten Bible Study this year was Simon Peter by Adam Hamilton. There were three opportunities to participate in this six-week study. Beginning Sunday, March 10, after worship, Simon Peter was led by Vicki Mackey and Margie Kelley in the Conference Room,.  The Men’s Group began the study on Wednesday, March 6th  at 10:00 AM  in the SSPC Conference Room; all menwere invited to join the group! There was also  a small group study for women with the same DVD and study book beginning Thursday, March 7th at 10:30 AM in the Conference Room at SSPC. “He was not rich or educated, but was familiar with hard work. He was quick-tempered and impetuous, but possessed a passion that would change the world. He left everything to follow his teacher, yet struggled with doubt and fear.” Join us in this six-week Lenten journey, and take an in-depth dive into the life, faith, and character of Simon Peter.
  • Pancake Breakfast  The Fellowship Ministry Team hosted a Pancake Breakfast immediately following the morning worship service on Sunday, January 13, 2019. Everyone is welcome! Come and bring your appetite!
  • Christmas Eve Candlelight Service with Communion   You are joyfully invited to attend our Christmas Eve Candlelight Service with Communion on Monday, December 24, at 7:30 PM. Nursery care will be available.
  • The Sunday Advent study for 2018 is “The Wonder of Christmas”  by Ed Robb and Rob Parker, and will meet on Sundays starting on December 2nd and ending on December 23rd. All the adult studies are held at SSPC in the conference room at noon following the worship service and fellowship time.
  • WOMEN’S ADVENT BIBLE STUDY – 2018   On Thursday mornings in the SSPC conference room, beginning November 29th and ending December 20th, the Advent study “Faithful: Christmas Through the Eyes of Joseph” will be at 10:30 AM, facilitated by Joy Hutchison. The study includes a DVD presentation by Adam Hamilton, as well as bible study and discussion. Books are available for $10.99, and there is a sign-up sheet on the finance room window. Please contact Joy at 747-1765 or joysigrid@att.net  if you have any questions.
  • Ordination and Installation of new officers will be held during the morning worship service on January 13, 2019.
  • ANNUAL CONGREGATIONAL MEETING   will be held on January 27, 2019, following the morning worship service.
  • The Community Food Pantry at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church is requesting trimmings for holiday meals for November and December. There is always a need for EVERYTHING, including personal hygiene items and diapers sizes 4 and 5. Drop off your donations at SSPC and one of our volunteers will deliver them to the food pantry.
  • LIFE LINE SCREENING–JANUARY 28, 2019     Life Line Screening, a leading provider of community-based preventive health screenings will be in our community on Monday, January 28, 2019, at Spanish Springs Presbyterian Church. Ultrasound screenings to Identify risk factors for Cardiovascular disease include; Carotid Artery (plaque buildup-a leading cause of stroke), Abdominal Aortic Aneurysm (an enlargement or weak area in the main blood vessel that carries blood from the heart to the rest of the body), Peripheral Arterial Disease (hardening of the arteries in the legs), a Heart Rhythm Screening (an EKG to detect Atrial Fibrillation-irregular heartbeat) and an Osteoporosis Risk Assessment for men and women. Being proactive about your health by knowing your risks helps you and your doctor address problems early.

    Register online TODAY at www.lifelinescreening.com/communitycircle  and receive your “Community Circle” discount and your Preferred Appointment! 

  • Good Shepherd’s Clothes Closet Clean underwear and socks are prized by those without. When cold weather arrives, the need for warm winter clothes is high; blankets, sleeping bags, coats, winter hats, gloves and warm winter boots are requested. Travel-size toiletries including razors, deodorant, lip balm, toothbrushes and toothpaste are in short supply. Drop off your donations at church and an SSPC volunteer will take your donations to Good Shepherd’s.
  • The Community Food Pantry at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church requests boxed, bottled, canned, and pre-packaged food supplies to distribute to those in need. There is always a need for EVERYTHING, including personal hygiene items and all sizes of diapers. Drop off your donations at SSPC and one of our volunteers will deliver them to the food pantry.
  • Heifer Project Update Following the Heifer Project Cookie Sale on December 11, 2016, SSPC youth raised enough money to purchase two water buffalo for families in third-world communities! “Buffalo are a blessing! With a Heifer Project water buffalo, farmers can grow four times more than if plowing by hand. Buffalo manure fertilizer improves their crops. They rent their buffalo to other farmers and sell calves for extra income. With a river buffalo, children will get rich milk to drink, as well.”                         www.heifer.org
  • Potato Bar Fellowship Event—January 22, 2017       On January 22, 2017, members of the congregation enjoyed a potato bar followed by the DVD  “Friendly Persuasion”. And a good time was had by all!
  • Education Tree: In February of 2017, members of the congregation took tags from the Education Tree so that our members can help with supplies needed by the teachers at Anderson Elementary School. Participants were asked to take a tag, purchase the item, and bring it back to church.
  •  Souper Bowl of Caring—February 5, 2017      Souper Bowl of Caring was held on February 5, 2017.  Souperbowl of Caring (souperbowl.org) is a national movement of young people, working in their communities on Super Bowl Sunday to  fight hunger and poverty. All food and monetary donations collected from our congregation on February 5 will be given to St. Paul’s Food Pantry.
  • Presidents’ Day Lunch—February 19, 2017   February 19, 2017, members and their guests stayed after worship for a hot dog lunch  with all the fixings and cherry dessert.
  • Ash Wednesday Observances–2017           On Ash Wednesday, March 1, 2017,  the Spanish Springs Presbyterian Church congregation enjoyed fellowship and a soup supper. Following the supper, the Ash Wednesday worship and Communion service was held, including the Imposition of Ashes.
  • Good Friday ServiceApril 14, 2017—7:00 pm   Spanish Springs Presbyterian Church participatedin a multi-church Sparks-wide Good Friday worship service at 7:00 pm on April 14, 2017  at Sparks United Methodist Church. The SSPC choir sang, with our Pastor Pat offering prayer.
  • Palm Sunday Procession, Pancake Breakfast and Easter Egg Hunt–2017  Palm Sunday, April 9, 2017, was a banner day at SSPC. We experienced the Procession of the Palms and heard about “The King on a Donkey” during the morning worship service. The Boca Brass provided inspirational music for the prelude, offertory, special music, and postlude. Everyone enjoyed fellowship and the pancake breakfast that followed the worship service; then the children hunted for Easter eggs outside. 
  • Taco And Talent Show Fellowship Event–2017    On Saturday evening, May 6, 2017, SSPC family and friends participated in and enjoyed a taco bar followed by a star-studded talent show. The stellar line-up included an opening sing-along with the SSPC Bluegrassers (“This Land is Your Land”); Travel Slides ; “Hole in the Bucket”;  a skit with audience participation: The Genealogy of Jesus (Fellowship Ministry Team) with audience participation by applauding, cheering, booing, hissing, and questioning (Huh?); Musical Duet; Artistic Quilt Presentation; Solo with Guitar Accompaniment; Trombone Solo—Dixieland Style; Name That Tune—Golden Oldies from the Hymnal; “Where Oh Where?” (Men’s Quartet); and “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” (Group singing by all). Arts and Crafts displays included the beautiful hand-made greeting cards, artistic quilts, creatively-counted cross-stitch, and decorative potholders. The talent show was opened and closed with prayer. Everyone who participated laughed, listened, and learned!
  • The Church Has Left The Building (TCHLTB)–2017     Spanish Springs Presbyterian Church participated in various Mission projects throughout the year.  On Sunday, May 21 workers met at Sparks United Methodist Church for prayer and a send-off. Volunteers met with project team leaders then returned to Sparks UMC for lunch and a short worship service. Service projects that SSPC folks participated in  included singing at nursing homes, picking up trash in a park, gardening, sorting clothes at Good Shepherd’s, working at St. Paul’s Food Pantry, and distributing sandwiches to people along the river.  Others of our congregation participated by preparing the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
  • Fellowship Activity for June—Day Trip to Martin’s Nursery in Standish, CA–2017  On Saturday, June 3, 2017, members and friends of Spanish Springs Presbyterian Church travelled by car pool to Standish, California and visited Standish Nursery. Folks purchased herbs, flowering annuals and perennials, vegetable plants, hanging planters, and even a peach tree! The group had lunch and fun at the nearby Pizza Factory.
  • PW Spring Tea–2017     All women of the church were invited to attend the PW Spring Tea on Saturday, June 10, 2017 at 11:30 AM. The tea was held in the Fellowship Hall at SSPC. Guests were asked to bring a sandwich to share, a white elephant for the silent auction, and a quilt or other sentimental item to talk about and share a story. Women and their guests enjoyed this time of fun and fellowship!
  • Vacation Bible School—Baobab Blast–June 7, 8, & 9, 2017     On July 7-9, 2017, both the young and the young-at-heart participated in the lively and spiritual multi-age Baobab Blast Vacation Bible School. Participants enjoyed Bible lessons, memory verses, music, crafts, games, and snacks! We included a pot-luck dinner celebration of a family as they prepared to move overseas! The special mission project for our VBS was “Operation Christmas Child” in which shoeboxes are delivered to children in developing countries . The shoeboxes were filled with school supplies, hygiene items, a small toy, and the message of Jesus’ love!
  • Annual Church Picnic on July 22, 2017     The Annual SSPC Picnic was held at the Lions Pavilion in Rancho San Rafael Regional Park in Reno on Saturday, July 22. The temperature was 97o, but attendees were cool in the shade and under the pavilion, enjoying the dragonflies, friendly ducks, and cool breezes wafting off the nearby pond. Those who wished played ladderball, and there was plenty of great food, visiting and good fellowship. Following the meal, participants enjoyed singing some old favorites accompanied by the SSPC Men’s Quartet. Thanks to the Fellowship Ministry Team for organizing and hosting this much-anticipated annual event!
  • Salad Bar Luncheon on August 13, 2017      Following Sunday worship on August 13, the Fellowship Ministry Team served a salad bar luncheon. Lettuce and dressings were provided with attendees bringing the “fixin’s.”  The food was delicious and everyone had a wonderful time!
  • Ice Cream Social    Sunday, September 10, following the 10:30 AM Sunday worship service, an Ice Cream Social was held in the Fellowship Hall. Everyone enjoyed home-made ice cream, sweet treats and great fellowship!
  • Travel Show and Chili Feed    On October 21, 2017, Karen and Trygve Inda presented a travel slide show, set to music, featuring their recent trips to North Korea and Africa. Those attending enjoyed a delicious supper of home-made chili and corn bread hosted by the Fellowship Ministry Team.
  • CROP Hunger Walk–October 15, 2017   Idlewild Park, Reno    Two hearty hikers participated in this year’s crop walk. SSPC has long been a participating church in this community event; the Reno CROP Hunger Walk has raised $259,808 in the past 25 years.
  • Life Line Screening at SSPC was held on October 26, 2017   Life Line Screening, a leading provider of community-based preventive health screenings will be in our community on Thursday, October 26, 2017 at Spanish Springs Presbyterian Church. Ultrasound screenings to Identify risk factors for Cardiovascular disease include; Carotid Artery (plaque buildup-a leading cause of stroke), Abdominal Aortic Aneurysm (an enlargement or weak area in the main blood vessel that carries blood from the heart to the rest of the body), Peripheral Arterial Disease (hardening of the arteries in the legs), a Heart Rhythm Screening (an EKG to detect Atrial Fibrillation-irregular heartbeat) and an Osteoporosis Risk Assessment for men and women. Being proactive about your health by knowing your risks helps you and your doctor address problems early. Approximately 90 individuals from the church as well as the wider community participated in these preventive health screenings. Additional information may be found at www.lifelinescreening.com .
  • Dinner and a Movie was held on Friday, November 3, 2017. Singles on Sunday invited the congregation to a potluck dinner and to view the movie “The Shack”. It is the story of a man whose youngest daughter has been abducted and brutally murdered. The father receives a note, apparently from God, inviting him back to the shack where the murder allegedly occurred. There he meets God and what he finds will change his life forever.
  • An Interfaith Thanksgiving Eve Service was held on Wednesday, November 22, 2017, at 7:00 pm at the Immaculate Conception Church, 2900 North McCarran, in Sparks. The service included prayers, readings, and music from a variety of faith traditions. Canned goods collected were donated to St. Francis of Assisi’s Food Pantry, and  cash donations went to support the Nevada Interfaith Association’s 2018 Youth Leadership Conference.
  • ADULT BIBLE STUDY—ADVENT, 2017—“Under Wraps”       Our Sunday adult study from December 3 through December 24, was “Under Wraps: The Gift We Never Expected” by Jessica La Grone, Andy Nixon, Rob Renfroe, and Ed Robb. Study materials include books and DVDs followed by group discussion. Each week we explored one of four characteristics of God, shown first through the Old Testament and then revealed clearly through Jesus Christ. Each chapter contains questions for reflection, Scriptures for meditation, and a prayer to assist each of us in reflecting on what God is doing in our lives during the Advent season. The Sunday study met in the conference room following morning worship. The sessions in the 4-week study included:  an introduction, 1. God is Expectant; 2. God is Dangerous; 3. God is Jealous; 4. God is Faithful; and an epilogue: A Season of Joy. The Women’s Small Group study, using the same book and videos, will began on Thursday, November 30 at 10:30 AM. December sessions met at SSPC on the 7th, 14th, and 21st of December.
  • ALTERNATIVE GIFT MARKET at SSPC— December 3, 2017   SSPC held the ALTERNATIVE GIFT MARKET with amazing items to purchase. Our vendors included agencies rooted in the peace and justice work of the Presbyterian Church (USA).  These included:
    • Pal Craftaid is a nonprofit ministry and member of the Fair Trade Federation. Your purchase of olive wood and embroidered handcrafts through Pal Craftaid provides needed income to artisans and supports schools, elderly groups and women’s co-ops in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.   https://palcraftaid.org
    • ECPAT-USA (Ending Child Prostitution and Trafficking) TASSA LUGGAGE TAGS. This project enables all travelers to stand up against child sexual exploitation. https://www.ecpatusa.org/
    • MEDICAL BENEVOLENCE providing nursing schools and scholarships, critical health services for women and children, hospital development and support, spiritual ministry, and medical ministry greatest need.   https://www.mbfoundation.org/
    • Items from the PC(USA) GIVING CATALOG that include animals, clean water systems, seeds, tools, refugee food baskets and many more opportunities.   https://presbyteriangifts.org/
  • Heifer Cookie Sale      The the Confirmation Class held a fundraiser with  cookies on December 10, 2017. Proceeds will be used to purchase an animal (or more!) for families in third-world countries.
  • Quilt Raffle Proceeds to Benefit Puerto Rico   The drawing for the beautiful sampler quilt was held on December 10, 2017. Pastor Pat was the lucky winner of the quilt!  The $665 raised during the raffle will be sent to Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA) to support recovery efforts in Puerto Rico.
  • Angel Tree Gifts for needy students were collected from December 3 through December 17, 2017. Gift tags were available on the Christmas tree. Parishioners were able to support 30 families with holiday gifts.
  • Confirmation Class     Those completing confirmation classes and desiring confirmation were received on December 17, 2017.
  • Annual Bake Sale–December 17     All proceeds will be given to the church.
  • Luncheon and Travel Show on Sunday, January 7, 2018      Karen and Trygve Inda presented their Iran and Cuba slideshows on Sunday, January 7th, 2018, immediately after the Sunday service. The slides have subtitles and are set to music. All who attended enjoyed these enlightening presentations. The travel show followed the soup and salad luncheon in the Fellowship Hall.
  • Hot Dog Lunch on February 11, 2018    The Fellowship Ministry Team hosted a hot dog lunch with all the fixings, followed by individual ice cream cups. Approximately 50 members and guests enjoyed  the great fellowship and tasty treats.
  • Adult Sunday School         Our Lenten study “Final Words from the Cross”  by Alexander Hamilton began on February 11, 2018.  Come join us in in the conference room with the DVD/group discussion format as we experience what might have been first-hand accounts of the Crucifixion, then examine the meaning of Jesus’ dying words for our lives today. The seven sessions met each Sunday following morning worship from February 11 through Palm Sunday, March 21.
  • Thursday Morning Women’s Small Group Bible Study continues at 10:30 AM. Classes started on February 8 and ended on March 29.  Meetings will be held at SSPC. The Lenten study will be “The Women of Easter: Encounter the Savior with Mary of Bethany, Mary of Nazareth, and Mary Magdalene” by Liz Curtis Higgs.  All women are welcome!
  • One Great Hour of Sharing–2018     One Great Hour of Sharing will be Sunday, April 1, 2018.  Donations will go to support The Hunger Project, PDA (Presbyterian Disaster Assistance), and Self Development of People.  The customary fish banks were distributed on Sunday, March 4, 2018.
  • Pancake Brunch  April 15, 2018 The Fellowship Ministry Team hosted a Pancake Brunch following the Sunday morning worship service on April 15.
  • Life Line Screening at SSPC was held on April 25, 2018.    Life Line Screening, a leading provider of community-based preventive health screenings was in our community on Wednesday, April 25, 2018, at Spanish Springs Presbyterian Church. Ultrasound screenings to Identify risk factors for Cardiovascular disease include; Carotid Artery (plaque buildup-a leading cause of stroke), Abdominal Aortic Aneurysm (an enlargement or weak area in the main blood vessel that carries blood from the heart to the rest of the body), Peripheral Arterial Disease (hardening of the arteries in the legs), a Heart Rhythm Screening (an EKG to detect Atrial Fibrillation-irregular heartbeat) and an Osteoporosis Risk Assessment for men and women. Being proactive about your health by knowing your risks helps you and your doctor address problems early.  Additional information may be found at www.lifelinescreening.com .
  • ADULT BIBLE STUDY OPPORTUNITIES–Spring, 2018   For both Adult Sunday School after worship and the Women’s Thursday Morning Small Group, the same curriculum is being offered.
    • The Gospel of John
  • We began our post-Lenten studies with the two-part showing of The Gospel of John, directed by Phillip Saville and starring Henry Ian Cusik and Christopher Plummer. The Gospel of John is the latest written of the four biographies of Jesus that have been preserved in the New Testament. The purpose of this gospel, as stated by John himself, is to show that Jesus of Nazareth was Christ, the Son of God, and that believers in him might have eternal life. The Gospel of John meticulously re-creates the era of Jesus during a tumultuous period that changed the course of history. As an eyewitness to the love and power displayed in the miracles of Jesus, John gives us an up-close and personal look at Christ’s identity. Sunday presentations, following morning worship, were on April 8th (Part One) and on April 15 (Part Two). Thursday Women’s Group presentations were at 10:30 AM on April 19th (Part One) and on April 26th (Part Two).
    • The Miracles of Jesus
  • Jesus demonstrated the presence and power of God by performing miracles. He turned water into wine, healed the sick, calmed the storm, opened blind eyes, and raised the dead. It’s natural to focus on the divine power, but these stories have something else in common: the human desperation that prompted the miracles. In this six-week bible study, Jessica LaGrone leads us on a captivating exploration of the miracles of Jesus, helping us to see that our weakness is an invitation for God to work powerfully in our lives and reminding us that we need God on our best days just as much as we do on our worst. Adult Sunday school classes will study The Miracles of Jesus on April 22, April 29, May 6, May 13, May 20, and May 27. The Women’s Thursday Morning Group will hold classes on May 3, May 10, May 17, May 24, May 31, and June 7.
  • Presbyterian Women’s Spring Fling—June 9, 2018    All women were invited to attend the PW Spring Fling on Saturday, June 9, at SSPC. The event featured a guest speaker from the Eddy House, a dump salad for which the ingredients were provided by all the participants, an opportunity to support the Eddy House, and a time of fellowship and fun! Invitations and additional information were distributed before and after Sunday worship services. Everyone was encouraged to “Come and invite a friend!”
  • VBS 2018   This year’s theme was “SonTreasure Island”, with plenty of fun activities, Bible lessons, and great music. The dates were Monday, June 18th through Friday June 22nd, beginning at 9:00 AM and ending around noon each day. Fifteen children enjoyed the daily activities, snacks, music, and most of all, learning about God’s love.
  • Annual Church Picnic–July 14, 2018   On a warm Saturday, July 14, approximately 35 folks gathered at Rancho San Rafael Regional Park in Reno for the annual Spanish Springs Presbyterian Church picnic. Though the temperature neared 100˚ , the trees and pergola provided a comfortable shade. Ages of the participants ranged from two years old to “closing in on ninety.” Everyone enjoyed visiting; eating delicious picnic food (tasty salads, yummy side dishes, fruity desserts, and rotisserie chicken!); watching the children blow bubbles and feed the hungry duck; and joining in on the sing-along at the end. A big “Thank you” to the Fellowship Ministry Team for planning and orchestrating this event, and to all who pitched in with their talents and helping hands.
  • Ice Cream Social and Special Birthday Cake–August 12, 2018    The Fellowship Ministry Team at Spanish Springs Presbyterian Church hosted an ice cream social with a special birthday cake for our very own Pastor Pat following Sunday worship on August 12, 2018. Flavorful, frosty ice creams will be provided, along with sweet toppings. No need to bring anything except your sweet tooth—just come and enjoy! It was a great day to bring the grandchildren to church, along with everyone who is young at heart!
  • Cub Scouts at SSPC!      SSPC has launched a brand new Cub Scout Pack! We are in need of a few volunteers to be a part of this venture, in an advisory role or in a leadership role.  This will be a wonderful outreach to families in our area! We are looking for boys and girls, Grades 1-5, who might be interested in being Cub Scouts! Please get the word out! “Join Night” was held at the church on Thursday, September 7, 2018, from 6:30 – 7:30 PM. The first Pack Meeting was held at SSPC on Thursday, September 28 at 6:30 PM. On October 14, Cub Scout Pack 25 participated in a family hike to see petroglyphs! Cubs and their families marched in the Sparks Hometown Christmas Parade on December 2. In January, 2018, Cubs and their families learned how to start a fire, roast marshmallows, and make s’mores at the First Annual Foul Weather Cookout. Scouts and their families participated in the Pinewood Derby and are looking forward to an outing at Pyramid Lake.  Note: Cub Scouts are no longer meeting at SSPC as of January 2019. 
  • Rescheduled Event: February 17, 2019 Fellowship Event–Soup/Salad/Chili Luncheon   Come and join us for a soup/chili/salad luncheon at SSPC following the Sunday morning worship service on February 10. Following the luncheon, stay and enjoy the movie “I Can Only Imagine.”  There’s no need to bring anything except yourselves. Everyone is welcome, including guests. “I Can Only Imagine” is a 2018 American Christian drama film directed by the Erwin Brothers and written by Alex Cramer, Jon Erwin, and Brent McCorkle, based on the story behind the MercyMe song of the same name, the best-selling Christian single of all time. “I Can Only Imagine” was released in the United States on March 16, 2018. At the 2018 Dove Awards, the film won “Inspirational Film of the Year”. For plot synopsis, cast, and other information, please see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/I_Can_Only_Imagine_(film)
  • Baked Potato Bar—Sunday, March 17, 2019     The Fellowship Ministry Team hosted a Baked Potato Bar following morning worship on Sunday, March 17.  The Christian movie “I Can Only Imagine” was shown following the potato bar.
  • We will be taking reservations for Sunday worship services during office hours beginning August 31. Children’s Sunday School and Nursery services are not available at this time.  (As of 8/19/2020)

Spanish Springs Presbyterian Church

September 2020 Calendar of Events

Mon., Sept. 28—9:00-11:00am—Begin SSPC Reservations for October 4

Wed., Sept. 30—10:00 am—Men’s Group

Wed., Sept. 30—6:30 pm—Choir Practice and Recording Session

October 2020 Calendar of Events

 

 

  • We will be taking reservations for Sunday worship services during office hours beginning August 31. Children’s Sunday School and Nursery services are not available at this time.  (As of 8/19/2020)

SSPC Monthly Meetings

2nd Sunday of the Month

—–Summer Schedule

9:00 am Christian Education Ministry Team
2nd  Monday of the Month 12:30 pm Presbyterian Women Sack Lunch & Fellowship
2nd Monday of the Month 1:00 pm Presbyterian Women Meeting
1st Tuesday of the Month 10:00 am Outreach/Evangelism Ministry Team
1st Tuesday of the Month 11:00 am Mission Ministry Team
2nd Tuesday of the Month

No meeting in July

7:00 pm Session Meeting
1st Wednesday of the Month 10:00am Fellowship Outreach Meeting
1st Wednesday of the Month 1:00 pm Worship Ministry Team
1st Tuesday of the Month 1:00 pm Outreach Ministry Team
3rd Wednesday of the Month 1:00 pm Personnel/Administration Ministry Team
4th Monday of the Month

No meeting in July

1:00 pm Deacon’s Meeting
Every Wednesday 10:00 am Men’s Group
Wednesdays through June 12, 2019

Sundays through June 16, 2019

6:30 pm

9:30 am

Wednesday Evening Choir Rehearsal

Sunday Morning Choir Rehearsal

 

Rev. Patrick Mecham’s Monthly Worship Schedule:

 

October 4

Communion

“To Make It My Own”

Philippians 3: 4b-14; Matthew 21: 33-46

Pastor Patrick Mecham
October 11

 

“Whatever!”

Exodus 32: 1-14; Philippians 4: 1-9

Rev. Kate Freeman
October 18

 

“Word and Work”

1 Thessalonians 1: 1-10; Matthew 22: 15-22

Pastor Patrick Mecham
October 25

 

“Tender Nursing”

1 Thessalonians 2: 1-8; Matthew 22: 34-40

Pastor Patrick Mecham

 

 

September 6

Communion

“The Power of Love: Speaking the Truth”

See Text Below

Romans 13: 8-14; Matthew 18: 15-20

Pastor Patrick Mecham
September 13

 

“The Power of Love: Forgiveness”

See Text Below

Romans 14: 1-12; Matthew 18: 21-35

Pastor Patrick Mecham
September 20

 

“The Power of Love: Generosity”

See Text Below

Philippians 1: 21-30; Matthew 20: 1-16

Pastor Patrick Mecham
September 27

 

“The Power of Love: Unity”

See Text Below

Philippians 2: 1-13; Matthew 21: 23-32

Pastor Patrick Mecham

 

 

August 2

Communion

“Empowered Despite Grief”

See Text Below

Psalm 17: 1-7, 15; Matthew 14: 13-21

Pastor Patrick Mecham
August 9

 

“Sent to Foreigners: Joseph”

See Text Below

Genesis 37: 1-4, 12-28; Psalm 105: 1-6, 16-22, 45b

Pastor Patrick Mecham
August 16

 

“Sent to Foreigners: Joseph’s Brothers”

See Text Below

Genesis 45: 1-15; Matthew 15: 21-28

Pastor Patrick Mecham
August 23

 

“Sent to Foreigners: a Slave/Prince”

See Text Below

Exodus 1:8 – 2: 10; Romans 12: 1-8

Pastor Patrick Mecham

 

August 30 “The Joy of Labor”

See Text Below

Psalm 105: 1-6; Romans 12: 9-21

Pastor Patrick Mecham

 

 

July 5

Communion

“Wisdom Is Vindicated by Deeds”

See Text Below

Romans 7: 15-25a; Matthew 11: 16-19, 25-30

Pastor Patrick Mecham
July 12

 

“Life’s Produce”

Romans 8: 1-11; Matthew 13: 1-9, 18-23

Pastor Patrick Mecham
July 19

 

“What the World Needs Now”

Psalm 139: 1-12, 23-24; 1 John 4: 7-12

Rev. Dr. Richard Young
July 26

 

“A Belle Mélange”
See Text BelowActs 10: 34-43; Matthew 6: 13-19
Pastor Patrick Mecham

 

 

June 7

Communion

“Our Three-in-One God”

See Text Below

Genesis 1: 1-5; Matthew 28: 16-20

Pastor Patrick Mecham
June 14

 

“Uncle, Uncle. I Give Up!”

Genesis 18: 1-15; Psalm 116: 1-7, 12-19;

Acts 9: 1-19

Jacob Kenneth Vogel

Preaching

June 21

 

“His Eye Is on the Sparrow”

See Text Below

Genesis 21: 8-21; Matthew 10: 24-39

Pastor Patrick Mecham
June 28

 

“Choose Your Master”

See Text Below

Romans 6: 12-23; Matthew 10: 40-42

Pastor Patrick Mecham

 

 

May 3

Communion

“Trustworthy Shepherd”

See Text Below

Psalm 23; John 10: 1-10

Pastor Patrick Mecham
May 10

 

“A Glimpse of God”

See Text Below

Acts 7: 55-60; John 14: 1-14

Pastor Patrick Mecham
May 17

 

“Created for Love”

See Text Below

1 Peter 3: 13-32; John 14: 15-21

Pastor Patrick Mecham
May 24

 

“Christ’s Prayer for Us”

See Text Below

1 Peter 14: 12-14; 5: 6-11

Pastor Patrick Mecham
May 31 “The Spirit Gives Variety”

See Text Below

Acts 2: 1-21; 1 Corinthians 12: 3b-13

Pastor Patrick Mecham

 

 

April 5

Communion

Palm Sunday

“The Humble Conqueror”

See Text Below

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4SVNTCQYEa4

Philippians 2: 5-11; Matthew 21: 1-11

Pastor Patrick Mecham
April 9

Maundy Thursday

 

“New Covenant, New Commandments”

CANCELLED

1 Corinthians 11: 23-26; John 13: 1-17, 31-35b

Pastor Patrick Mecham
April 12

Communion

Easter Sunday

 

“Resurrected with Christ”

See Text Below

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pK9PeG_wnrw&feature=share

 

Colossians 3: 1-4; John 20: 1-18

Pastor Patrick Mecham
April 19

 

“Imperishable”

See Text Below

1 Peter 1: 3-9; John 20: 19-31

Pastor Patrick Mecham
April 26 “ Beginning a New Chapter ”

See Text Below

Acts 2: 14a, 36-41; Luke 24: 13-35

Pastor Patrick Mecham

 

 

March 1

Communion

“A Hiding Place”

Psalm 32; Matthew 4: 1-11

Pastor Patrick Mecham
March 8

 

“Stepping Out”

Genesis 12: 1-4a; John 15: 12-17

Garth Butz
March 15

 

“From Theory to Practice”

See Text Below

Romans 5: 1-11; John 4: 5-42

Pastor Patrick Mecham
March 22

 

“Ignoring the Evidence”

CANCELLED

Psalm 23; Ephesians 5: 8-14; John 9: 1-34

Rev. Dr. Richard Young
March 29 “That We Might Believe”

CANCELLED

Ezekiel 37: 1-14; John 11: 1-45

Pastor Patrick Mecham

 

Sermons

September 27, 2020

The Power of Love: Unity                  17th Pentecost

Philippians 2:1-13   September 27, 2020   Matthew 21:23-32

I want you to picture Lucy van Pelt and her little brother, Linus, from the comic strip Peanuts.  Lucy and Linus are having a “disagreement,” but it comes to a sudden halt when Lucy gives a simple demonstration of UNITY.  She says, “See these fingers?  By themselves, they are nothing special, but when they combine into a single unit, they become a force that is TERRIBLE TO BEHOLD!!”  Admittedly, it’s not a very positive example of unity, but it worked for Linus!

Historians and behaviorists have long been curious about a particular human ability—the power to unite.  The power to unite…to reach beyond our separateness, our individual goals, and to work together on a common goal.   This is especially seen when we are threatened by a common enemy.  No matter what kind of squabbles we may be having in our family or in our organization or in our country, those things get put aside when we need to unite in order to survive!

It reminds me of the scene near the end of the film Independence Day (with Will Smith), where people and nations have put aside their differences in order to defeat the aliens that are trying to take over the planet!  That’s one kind of unity.  But what exactly is Christian Unity?  Back in July when I chose our scriptures for today and created a sermon title, I was thinking that it would be fairly simple to talk about Unity.  After all, we have multiple scriptures urging us toward Christian unity, including the record of a prayer Jesus prayed (in John 17).  He asked the Father that all his disciples may be ONE.  “May they be brought into complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”

  • May they be one;
  • May they be brought into complete unity;
  • May the world know God because of that unity.

But when I chose today’s scriptures and topic, I didn’t know just how elusive the whole subject of unity is!  There are some things that it is NOT:

  1. It is not homogeneity, where everyone is the same, sees things exactly the same, lives life and solves problems and operates in the same fashion;
  2. It is not the absence of disagreement or conflicting opinions;
  3. It is not having one voice, with everyone “singing in unison.”

Let me use a choral analogy here.  Unity appears to be a whole choir singing the same song, BUT singing different parts.  The choir starts and ends together, keeping the same tempo and rhythms, but some sing the melody while others sing harmonies or counter-melodies.  In a choir, unity seems more like finding a way to make beautiful music even though we all have different voices, different parts.

Our reading today from Philippians strongly urges us to find a way to make that beautiful music.  And Jesus, in our reading from Matthew, gives us a clue about how to do it.  Let’s take a look.

Paul begins this beautiful passage with the word “IF.”  “IF there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy—make my joy complete.”  And here is how he describes “unity.”

  • Be of the same mind;
  • Having the same love;
  • Being in full accord and of one mind (yes, but how?)
  • Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit;
  • In humility, regard others as better than yourselves;
  • Let each of you look, not to your own interests, but to the interests of (THAT’s how we create unity.)

Wow.  Now, friends, I know this all sounds IMPOSSIBLE.  Just impossible.  But we know that Paul had some really major conflicts with the rest of the early-day leadership when Christianity was just developing.  He understood that the Gospel was for all people, not just the Jews.  And that Gentiles did NOT need to become Jews before they could be followers of Christ.  And he had to hammer it out with the leaders in Jerusalem before they all came to an agreement.

In the opening lines of today’s reading, he gives us a framework within which UNITY is possible:

  1. There needs to be some encouragement in Christ among us. (Have you ever done some nit-picking that contributes to discouragement?);
  2. There must be love (not so much a feeling as a decision);
  3. There needs to be some sharing in God’s Spirit (an openness to God’s leading and direction);
  4. There must be compassion and sympathy (making an effort to see things through the eyes of the other, to feel with the heart of the other.)

Paul says that, IF these things are present, THEN we can be of the same mind, have the same love, be in full accord.  We CAN have unity in the Body of Christ.

Then Paul gets a little more specific, pointing to Christ as not only the SOURCE of that love and unity—but the one we must model ourselves after.  He says that Christ Jesus let go of his exalted position in heaven, let himself be like a slave, born as a human.  And he humbled himself and obeyed—all the way to the cross.  Because of this, he has been exalted so that every tongue will confess, “Jesus Christ is LORD!”

When Paul says to have humility, to consider others’ needs more important than  our own—he is urging us to BE LIKE CHRIST—and, as a result, we will be ONE.

In our reading from the Gospel of Matthew, we see Jesus being confronted by religious leaders who questioned his authorization to preach and to perform miracles.  “By what authority are you doing these things?”  And, of course, the simple answer was that the Father was his authority—that Jesus was simply being obedient to God’s will.  He tells a story about obedience (and disobedience!)  A man had two sons.  Both were asked to go and work in the vineyard.  One said, “NO!” but changed his mind and obeyed.  The other said, “Sure, Pop!” but did NOT go and work—he disobeyed.  Some of God’s children say, “Yes, Father” but do not obey God’s commands.  But there are others who, despite our sinfulness, despite our willful rebellion, who finally DO what God asks us to do.

And, friends, one of the things God is asking you and me to do is to BE IN UNITY with other believers.  Not to be the same, not to silently acquiesce when they are in error, not to try to match our ministry with theirs—but to be IN UNITY, to stand together in our common cause.

I want to finish up today by looking at a few wonderful passages that inspire us to live in unity.  The first comes from Paul to the church in Rome (which would have been composed of both Jews and Gentiles): “There is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him.”  The second is from his letter to the church in Colossae: “There is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!”  And, finally, his most comprehensive statement of unity, found in Galatians 3: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

Friends, Christian unity is God’s desire.  When we grow discouraged at our disunity, we can focus on an idea found at the end of our Philippians passage, “It is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”  It may seem impossible to create unity, but God gives us the ability to CHOOSE unity, just as we choose obedience.  God is at work in us, enabling us to WILL and to WORK for God’s good pleasure!

Prayer: Lord God, there are such divisions in your Body.  Because of our sinful nature, we are natural-born fighters, dissenters, disagree-ers.  Lord, help us to CHOOSE to be made one in the Body of Christ.  One body, obediently doing your will, finding our joy in being in full accord and of one mind.  In the name of Christ our Savior, amen.

 

September 20, 2020

The Power of Love: Generosity                 16th Pentecost

Philippians 1:21-30   September 20, 2020   Matthew 20:1-16

Think for a minute about what a generator does.  It takes some kind of power, like a gas engine or a windmill or a water-powered turbine, and converts that power into electricity.  A generator.

I thought about generators when I was studying Developmental Psychology in seminary, where we learned about the concept of “generativity.”  Erik Erikson, the psychologist who developed the term “Identity Crisis”, coined the word “Generativity” to describe a stage in psychosocial development (a stage that not everybody gets to).  He described generativity as “the ability to transcend personal interests to provide care and concern for younger and older generations.”  Generative people contribute to the next generation through caring, teaching, and engaging in creative work which contributes to society.  It involves asking the question, “Can I Make My Life Count?” then contributing to the development of others through activities such as volunteering, mentoring, and helping upcoming generations.  Transcending personal interests to provide care for others.

I don’t know about you, but hearing about this really made me want to be a “generative” person!  To be the kind of person that transcended my personal interests and made life better for others.  That was forty-something years ago, and now that I am approaching retirement, I want to make sure that, when that day comes, I am engaged in generativity that’s not related to my employment.  As one book suggests, “Don’t retire—rewire!” I know that many of you have already made that transition, finding meaning in making life better for others!

You have already discovered that GOD is at work whenever we let the power of love work through us.

We have already explored The Power of Love through Speaking the Truth, and through Forgiveness.  Today I want to look at The Power of Love as it is expressed in Generosity.  Of course, generosity applies to more than just money or possessions.  We are also called to be generous with our TIME and with our TALENTS.

While it’s a natural thing to offer our strength to God’s service, there are times when the most GENEROUS thing we can offer is our weakness.  That sounds odd, doesn’t it?!  Let me explain.  There are times when our weaknesses can be employed by God to work God’s purposes.

One fine example of this can be found in the story of a college student who had been in a wheelchair since fourth grade.  She had sensed God’s calling to volunteer for a year in an African orphanage, helping to care for babies and children who had AIDS.  She worried about her wheelchair, and asked God to use her however God would.  At first, she was able to negotiate her way all over in her chair, but she was having a hard time getting the kids to connect with her.  That was during the dry season.

When the monsoon rains arrived, the roads turned to mud and her wheelchair got bogged down.  She was totally helpless in her weakness.  Then the kids saw her situation, and they ran and helped get her unstuck.  They helped her move to the next place she needed to be.  Then they started taking turns, helping her negotiate the muddy tracks in this African village!

In her weakness, she needed help.  And when the students were able to help her, they began to interact with her.  They now had a mutual exchange where once they only had one person giving while the others were supposed to receive!  She had offered up her weakness to God, and God used it to make her more effective.

This reminds me of what Paul learned when he asked God to fix his own weakness.  He shared with the Corinthians that God told him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”  God’s power is sometimes made perfect in our weakness, rather than in our strength.  The generosity this young woman had expressed to the children in Africa was the capacity to receive the gifts they had to give!

In our Gospel reading for today, we heard a story that Jesus told his followers—a story meant to illuminate one facet of the Kingdom of Heaven.  In this story, we meet a landowner who goes to the marketplace to hire some day laborers to work in his vineyard.  In that day and in that place, (and indeed in many places in the world today), people were hired one day at a time to do specific tasks.  Every village, every small town had a certain place where workers would wait for someone to come along and hire them for the day.  And, at the end of the day, they would collect their pay and buy food for their families—enough for supper that night and some leftovers for breakfast the next day.  Being a “day laborer” was subsistence living—barely making it through from one day to the next.  And, if no one hired you one day, everyone in the family might go hungry.

Now, in the story, a group of workers was hired for “the usual daily wage,” and they were put to work.  But the landowner kept returning to the marketplace, promising to pay the “late-starters” a fair wage, and kept sending them into the fields.  He was even hiring workers toward the end of the day, men who figured a small pay was better than no pay at all.  But, when it came time to settle up with the laborers, he paid each of them a full day’s wage!  We can only imagine the joy felt by those who had only worked a partial day; they were going to be able to buy supper and breakfast for their families!  But those who had worked the whole day grumbled, because they had hoped to get an extra bonus.  But the landowner (who represents God in this story) told them that they had been treated fairly, and that he had chosen to give the full wage to every worker.

“Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?!  Or are you envious because I am generous?”

With that question, Jesus puts his finger right on our sinful tendency to resent God’s generosity to others!  But the scriptures have made it clear that God IS generous!

  • Willing to forgive—sending God’s own son to die for us;
  • Like the patient father waiting for the prodigal son to come home;
  • (in James) “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights”;
  • (in Psalms) “The eyes of all look to you, and you give them their food at the proper time. You open your hand and satisfy the needs of every living thing.”

Yes, GENEROSITY is clearly one of the hallmarks of our gracious God!  And when you and I choose to be generous—gracious—then The Power of Love gets busy!

Take Paul’s letter to the Philippians, for example.  In today’s reading, he says that he is torn between two desires: 1. Dying, and being with Christ; and 2. Living, so that he could continue his fruitful labor among the people.  It was his generosity that helped him to know that his work (even though it was tiring and sometimes frustrating) his work was worth continuing.  His life was marked by generosity, and to this day you and I are blessed by his willingness to keep serving!

So, we have been talking this month about the Power of Love—how God’s love, at work in us, builds up the Body of Christ and makes life good; how we speak the truth in love without judgment; and how forgiveness allows us to release both ourselves and those who wrong us from a type of prison.  Now, as we focus on generosity, I want to share a passage from Luke 6 where Jesus takes all of these aspects of God’s love and weaves them into a single command of generous love: “Do not judge, and you will not be judged.  Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned.  Forgive, and you will be forgiven.  Give, and it will be given to you.  A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap.  For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”

I, for one, love the imagery of God’s blessings being poured into my lap.  And what a BLESSING to be part of that life-giving love that God is pouring over others!

Prayer: God, thank you for the life you freely give us in Jesus Christ.  Please help us to be generous, to give others the benefit of the doubt, to let go of our concern for our personal interests and allow you to love the world through us.  We ask in the name of Jesus.  Amen.

September 13, 2020

15th Pentecost

The Power of Love: Forgiveness

Romans 14:1-12     Sept. 13, 2020       Matthew 18:21-35

Part of what it means to be HUMAN is to be vulnerable—to live with the possibility of being hurt by other people. I don’t need to ask if you have ever been hurt, because our vulnerability means that, occasionally, WE WILL BE HURT. It’s part of the human condition. And the antidote to that hurt is simple (and, at the same time, often very difficult.) The antidote to hurt is forgiveness.

It’s been said that when a person wrongs you, it puts you BOTH in a prison. That’s the bad news. But the GOOD news is that a key to the prison is available to you, should you choose to use it! That key is forgiveness, and if you choose to use the key of forgiveness, then BOTH of you can walk out of that prison!

Our Scripture readings for today both deal with the concept of forgiveness. In Romans, Paul is urging us to deal mercifully with other Christians—not allowing different beliefs to cause divisions in the Body of Christ; and refusing to pass judgment on other believers. “Refusing to pass judgment” is one facet of FORGIVENESS, one that requires a good deal of grace on our part…because another part of the human condition is our tendency to divide the world into “them” and “us.” Sometimes, we make ourselves feel better about “us” by putting “them” down! Paul warns that you and I must not judge others because we are ALL going to stand before the judgment seat of God. And God is the only one who can truly judge.

So, if a person has an annoying habit or an irritable personality or an “unenlightened belief” or whatever it is—you and I are called to forgive them. Forgive them for their lack of social skills; forgive them for their insistence that THEIR way is the only right way; forgive them, Paul says. Make the choice to put them in God’s hands.

Now, in our reading from the Gospel of Matthew, we have record of a specific conversation between Peter and Jesus regarding the importance of forgiving others—especially other believers. Peter begins, “Lord, if another believer sins against me, how often should I forgive? (Then he makes an effort to be extra generous.) Should I forgive as many as seven times?”

Then Jesus blows him out of the water by saying, “Not seven times, but seventy-seven times!” (That kind of blows ME out of the water as well!)

Jesus then follows with a parable about a king who was settling things up with his slaves, and one of them owed him ten thousand talents. That may not seem like a huge amount of money, but in today’s dollars it is many, many millions of dollars! It is beyond anyone’s wildest imagination! Jesus uses this figure to indicate that the debt was enormous—something so HUGE there was no possibility of repayment! The king was making arrangements to have the slave and his whole family sold to help repay the debt, and the slave fell on his knees and begged the king to give him time to repay. (How long would that have taken?!)

Instead, the King had pity on him. (There’s that same word that appeared in the story of Moses, when Pharaoh’s daughter pitied the little baby found floating in a basket, and changed history because of that pity.) In this story that Jesus is telling, the King’s pity moved him to completely forgive the debt! (Friends, the first hearers of this parable would have been astounded at the enormity of the forgiveness here!) The King forgave the debt, and that would have been a good story. But it continues.

That forgiven slave came upon another slave who owed him 100 denarii (roughly $1500). He grabbed him by the throat and demanded that he pay what he owed. This fellow slave did the same thing the first one did—fell on his knees and begged for time to repay. But the first slave had the second one thrown into prison until the debt could be paid.

Of course, this ungrateful behavior scandalized all the other slaves, and they informed the King of what had happened. And, of course, the King blew up at this slave, calling him wicked and reminding him of the huge debt he had forgiven. “Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?!” And he was handed over for punishment until he could pay his entire debt. (Again—how long would it take a slave to repay millions of dollars?!) Jesus finishes, “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

In Paul’s letter to the Colossians, it seems he was thinking of this very story, this very command when he urged them, “Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.”

—Forgive as the Lord forgave you.—

—Refuse to pass judgment on your brother or sister.—

[One note of clarification: forgiving someone and refusing to pass judgment on them does NOT mean that they will not suffer the consequences of their actions! When someone does something terrible, they will pay (one way or another). But you will have chosen to relinquish your desire for revenge, and thus you will be freed. Forgiveness will set you free. And a second note: If you find yourself unable to forgive, that’s okay. Just put the person into God’s hands in prayer. Give them to God, and trust that God will do all that is necessary in them and in you!]

Last week, we talked about how Speaking the Truth in Love is an appropriate way to build up the Body of Christ. But because of our natural propensity to have friction with each other, forgiveness also is required to build up the Body of Christ. The capacity to forgive is a God-given gift. Remember when Jesus was teaching the Disciples to pray? He included a line that says, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” And he followed with an explanation: “For if you forgive others when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.

The key to our prison is forgiveness, and when we decide to follow Christ’s command to FORGIVE, we will be set free from our prison. God has had mercy on us, and God wants us to have mercy on others.

Does that mean we cease our efforts to fight their evil actions? NO! It just means that we release the poison of revenge and hatred that is killing us, and we make a conscious choice to forgive—to put our wrongdoers into God’s hands. Paul sums it up best in Romans 12: “Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written, ‘It is mine to avenge, I will repay,’ says the Lord. On the contrary, If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” Isn’t that what forgiveness is? Overcoming evil with good!

But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.”

  • Forgive as the Lord forgave you;
  • Refuse to pass judgment on your brother or sister

Let me conclude by bringing this home for us. All this talk about forgiveness sounds fine when we talk about it as an abstract concept. But last Friday was the 19th anniversary of the Al Qaeda attack on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and what was meant to be the destruction of the White House. The terms “Nine-Eleven” and “September Eleventh” have now entered our lexicon, have now become representative of how America deals with devastation and loss.

I have heard it said that, when we refuse to be beaten, when we insist on living in freedom without caving in to the terrorists’ efforts to make us cower in fear, then we have victory over those terrorists. And there is a great deal of truth in those words. But friends, there is a much bigger victory toward which I want to urge us.”lt’s a victory of forgiveness. It doesn’t mean we pretend that it never happened. It doesn’t mean that we relax our vigilance toward those who wish to harm us. It just means this: IF you and I can visualize these terrorists as poor, deluded people who have been whipped into a tragic fever of destruction—if we can choose to forgive those who have wronged us, then we will have the ultimate victory!

September 6, 2020

The Power of Love: Speaking the Truth           14th Pentecost

Romans 13:8-14   September 6, 2020   Matthew 18:15-20

You all know what a scalpel is, right?  It’s a small, very sharp cutting tool that is used by surgeons all around the world.  In the hands of a skilled surgeon, a scalpel can be the instrument of healing and hope.  But, in the wrong hands, a scalpel can be an instrument of destruction and mayhem!

Did you know that our words also carry this dual possibility?  When we use our words in the right way, they can be instruments of healing and hope.  Used in the wrong way, they are instruments of destruction and mayhem.  Even when we are speaking a truth!

Here’s what I mean: in the hands of a skilled surgeon, a scalpel opens up the patient and is used to cut away diseased or injured tissue.  A sharp scalpel, carefully employed, causes the least amount of damage possible, and speeds the healing along.  In the same way, words can be carefully employed to convey a truth in a way that causes as little damage as possible and helps to promote healing.  If a person blurts out a harsh truth, speaking in disregard of how it will be received, it can cause tremendous hurt.  That’s why Paul urges the Ephesians to speak the truth in love.  Here’s what he says: “Speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ.”  This is the way to build up the body of Christ.  In the Gospel of John, Jesus says, “You shall know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

Well, our texts for today are both about building up the body of Christ—the church.  In Romans, Paul sums up the Christian faith by saying, “Love your neighbor as yourself.  Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”  And in Matthew, we hear Jesus saying that carefully telling a brother or a sister the truth is the best way to restore a damaged relationship.  It’s not about “being right.”  It’s not about taking revenge.  It’s all about building up one another—building up the body of Christ, the church.

One of the reasons that we truly NEED to hear the truth is that you and I are “flying blind.”  We need feedback from others to help us live in a balanced reality, to get a sense of how we are interacting with our environment.  We are “flying blind,” and others help us with our course corrections.  This imagery really came into focus for me when we were still in the Apollo era of space exploration.  When the astronauts were returning to earth, they had to turn their space capsule so that the “bottom” was facing earth for re-entry.  That was where the heat-shield was.  Problem was, turned in that direction, making their final approach was difficult.  If they came in too steep, they would burn up in the atmosphere.  If they came in too shallow, they would “bounce” off the atmosphere and fly off into space, never to be seen again!  So they had a very critical angle in which to make their re-entry, and they were “flying blind.”  That’s where Houston came in.  Mission Control was able to give them feedback, telling them to adjust their pitch until they were just right.  And with that feedback, the space capsules made their re-entry safely.

I sometimes picture myself as a space capsule, needing feedback from others to keep myself on a good course. Those who know me intimately and care about me help me make those “course corrections.”  They tell me the truth in a way that helps me to understand.  They hold up a mirror so that I can see things I could not otherwise see.  They don’t condemn or judge, they just illuminate.  They tell me the truth in love.

Now, some truths are pretty easy to tell.  Like the friend who took me aside and let me know that my zipper was down!  Or like when you tell a friend that they have green lettuce stuck on their teeth!  Those things are simple when you care about a person and want to help them.  But there are times when our caring has to be put into action by telling someone a difficult truth.  It has to be expressed without judgment or condemnation, or it won’t get through—it will simply be rejected.  It won’t do to just ignore something your brother or sister needs to know!  But, even when speaking the truth is done with compassion and gentleness, there are still times when a person refuses to accept the truth.  Jesus suggests in today’s reading that we then take reinforcements, “so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses.”

Isn’t this exactly what an intervention is?  People who care about someone gather and confront their loved-one with their perceptions of the truth—explaining how the person’s actions have affected them—in the hope that the person will not be able to deny that it’s time to change course.  It’s a way to facilitate a life-improving “course correction”!

Of course, we understand that people have the right to make their own decisions, and there are times when even the most persuasive intervention will be ignored.  Jesus says that, if the person refuses to listen, “Let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”  Now, at first blush, this may seem like a command to shun the person, to give up on them, to say, “Well, I did my best to tell them the truth, and they didn’t listen.  I wash my hands of them.”

But wait!  If Jesus says to treat someone like a Gentile and a tax collector, we have to remember how JESUS treated Gentiles and tax collectors!  (And don’t forget that Matthew, the author of today’s Gospel, was a former tax collector.)  Jesus saw them as people who lived outside an understanding of God’s Truth. Jesus saw them as people to be loved, people to be sought after, people to whom he was OPEN.  So if someone refuses to take the truth to heart, we don’t give up on them.  We just love them the way we love children who don’t know any better.  The way we love outsiders who don’t understand the things we understand.  And we keep the door open to them!

One last thing about sharing difficult truths: sometimes we are cowards.  Let me speak for myself.  Sometimes, I am a coward.  But if I truly love someone, I need to love them enough to hold up an accurate mirror for them—a mirror in which they can see themselves clearly in the light of love.  God has NOT given us a spirit of timidity or cowardice, but a spirit of Power, and a spirit of Love!  So I pray, “God, help me to love this person enough to tell the truth with compassion, and without judgment.”

Next week I am going to continue talking about the power of love, and will focus on FORGIVENESS.  This banquet table laid out for us is a celebration of God’s decision to forgive us.  It’s a reminder of the power of love to overcome even death!

Prayer: Almighty God, thank you for loving us.  Thank you for doing everything needed to save us from ourselves.  You promised us that we would know the truth, and that the truth would set us free.  Today we ask you to fill us so full of your love that we will be able to tell others the truth with compassion and clarity.  We ask this in the precious name of Jesus.  Amen.

 

August 30, 2020

The Joy of Labor                          13th Pentecost

Psalm 105:1-6   August 30, 2020   Romans 12:9-21

Most of you know the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, and how they disobeyed God and basically got kicked out of the Garden.  Eve was told that her punishment would be that her pains in childbirth were going to be increased, and Adam was now going to have to earn his food with hard labor.  His punishment is described like this:

“Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life.  It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field.  By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food.

Labor is here being described as a punishment.

Now compare this with a 17th Century monk named Brother Lawrence.  He discovered that he could experience God’s presence while washing pots and pans and cooking for others in the monastery.  The work he did was done for God, and was every bit as prayerful and worshipful as any time he spent in prayer or worship!  You can read all about his insights in a book called Practicing the Presence of God.

Labor is here being described as an opportunity to 1. Serve God, and to 2. Experience God’s presence!  (Notice the difference from Genesis 3!)

 

I know that many of you are familiar with the name, Booker T. Washington.  He was an important figure in the years following the Civil War.  His autobiography, Up from Slavery, is a wonderful and inspiring read.  In it, he describes his earliest memories: playing on a dirt floor in a slave cabin; experiencing the thrill of emancipation after the war.  This thrill was quickly tempered by the sudden need for employment and housing and food, and people who were never allowed to make important decisions now had to use all their resourcefulness just to survive!  At a young age, Booker went to work in the salt mines with his father, but in his spare time he pursued an education.  There came a “watershed moment” in his life when a woman taught him how to thoroughly clean a room.  Booker took great satisfaction in learning this skill, and it came in handy when he had a chance to continue his education.  To “try out” for a custodial position at a college, he was given a classroom to clean—and he did it so perfectly that he got the job—and got on with his education!  But for Booker T. Washington, labor was not something one did until one was able to forsake it altogether.  In fact, when he was called to be the first President of a new school for black students in Alabama, he built into the curriculum a requirement that every student must be actively involved in some area of labor on campus!  They

  • Built the buildings of this new Tuskegee Institute;
  • Planted gardens and grew much of their own food;
  • Cooked in the kitchens, and washed up;
  • Cleaned the buildings and kept the grounds;
  • Fixed machinery used at the Institute;
  • Built the desks and chairs and beds—almost everything needed at the school;
  • Developed a strong work ethic, especially among those of higher privilege who initially balked at the idea of having to do manual labor!

You see, Booker T. Washington understood a fundamental reality: Being industrious builds a solid foundation for a person—a foundation that will serve for a lifetime instead of simply “building on the sand.”  This vision of the value of labor, the joy of labor, is diametrically opposed to the one expressed in Genesis 3—that of labor being a punishment!  Some of you have heard me tell the story about the day when Booker (the new President of the newly-established Tuskegee Institute) when Booker was walking down a street in town, and a white woman called him over and instructed him to chop some wood for her.  Instead of swelling with righteous indignation, and protesting this subservient treatment, he gladly went to the woodpile, picked up an axe, and chopped a load of wood for her.  When she later found out who he was, she went to his office at Tuskegee and profusely apologized.  Booker told her that he had been delighted to have been able to do a service for her.  (Just remember his vision regarding the joy of labor!)

[Just a sidenote regarding this woman: She became an ardent supporter of the Tuskegee Institute, and, when she passed on, she left her entire estate to them!]

Now, a week from tomorrow is Labor Day, and the holiday is usually associated with images of end-of-summer camping and travel and trying to get as much fun in as possible before we settle down into fall.  I hope you will remember that the day is set aside to celebrate those who labor.  I see it as an opportunity to recapture a healthy vision of what it means to labor—all forms of labor.  So what I would like to do today is to, first of all, imagine what kind of labor God has in mind for you, at this stage of your life.  Then we can explore our attitudes regarding labor and our life-long endeavor to live an abundant life.  Our Epistle reading for today has some strong wording, almost a series of commands in the way that they are related.  Let’s see how they might throw a little light on us.

Let’s start by reminding ourselves that every person is different—that each of us has been uniquely gifted with talents and abilities.  We only do ourselves a disservice when we compare ourselves with anyone else—but it is important that we take a look at what God has given us and then ask a question: “What is it that I am able to do?  What is my purpose in life?

I think it helps to start by looking at the world around us.  A fruit tree is designed to bear fruit, and to produce leaves (which give shade and clean the air and put oxygen into the atmosphere.)  In the same way, the Bible tells us that you and I are supposed to “bear fruit” in our lives.  (Simply being a consumer doesn’t cut it.)  No matter our unique niche in the world, we will know we are serving our purpose if we eventually begin to see some fruit from our labors.

Please keep in mind that some work that God calls us to do takes a LONG time to show significant fruit.  For example, missionaries in Asia who labored for more than 20 years before they had the joyful fruit of a single “convert.”  Of course, along the way, God sent them encouragement as they developed relationships and deepened their understanding of the new culture in which they were serving.  Maybe those “little fruits” kept them confident that God was active in their work?

God designed us to fulfill some function in God’s Kingdom.  There is some LABOR God wants us to do.

Now, labor, industry, whatever you want to call it (the word “work” has so many nuances!) is not all physical.  It is important that we honor the work of minds and creativity as well.  But all our work benefits from a certain context, an attitude that is well-described in a short line from Colossians 3: “Whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”

Whatever we say or do, says Paul, we can do it in the name of Jesus.

That means that all our labor counts as Service to Christ, just as Brother Lawrence discovered.  You could even say that Living the Christian life is WORK.  Is it drudgery?  NO!  Does it require discipline?  YES!

Here’s where our Scripture verses really come alive.  Listen to these very active words in our passage from Romans:

Hold fast           Love          Outdo                Be ardent

Serve                  Rejoice     Be Patient         Persevere

Contribute       Bless         Live in Harmony

Take thought            Live peaceably          Feed enemies

Give water

And, finally, my favorite: Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with GOOD.  All of these words come from Paul in the form of a loving command—not the kind of command like “pick up that garbage” or “do as you’re told”—but a command that says, “If you want to live life to its fullest, discipline yourself to do these things.”

Don’t try to do them all on your own, but partner with God.  Join God’s “labor force,” open your eyes to the wonderful works God is doing all around us!

 

August 23, 2020

Sent to Foreigners: A Slave/Prince                    12th Pentecost

Exodus 1:8-2:10   August 23, 2020   Romans 12:1-8

When the kids were little, we used to watch a Disney movie called “The Sword in the Stone.”  Based on a novel by T. H. White called The Once and Future King, the story follows the life of a 12-year-old orphan known as Wart.  Wart stumbles into a relationship with the magician, Merlin, who becomes his tutor.  Now, England had fallen into a dark time because the king had died without leaving an heir.  When he died, a sword had appeared in London, embedded in an anvil on a stone.  There was an inscription that read, “Whoso pulleth out this sword from this stone and anvil is rightwise born King of England.”  But no one could pull the sword from the stone—not until Wart came along!  Then it was revealed that he was Arthur, son of Uthar Pendragon, and he was hailed as KING.  I still love that movie        !

I think it addresses a fantasy that we all hold deep inside:

That, even though we are living as “ordinary” people, in point of fact we are special, extraordinary, perhaps even royal.

Now, the last two weeks we have been examining the life of Joseph, who had lived very much like a prince—the favorite son of a wealthy patriarch.  But he got sold into slavery—going from riches to rags—and then God amazingly raised him up to a high position (second only to Pharaoh himself!)

From prince to pauper and back to high status once again. And his BIG family moved down to Egypt and prospered. Our text for today comes many years after the time of Joseph—in fact, he had been gone so long that a new Pharaoh had come to power in Egypt, one who had no knowledge of Joseph.  Instead, he looked out over his lands and saw another nation living within his borders—and he felt threatened by them.  So he made them into slaves in order to subdue them.

The Hebrews had gone from Welcome Guests to slaves, forced into building cities for Pharaoh!  But they thrived, and were so numerous that Pharaoh tried to get their midwives to KILL all the baby boys as they were born.  When that didn’t work, he decreed that all baby boys born to the Hebrews had to be thrown into the Nile!  UNTHINKABLE!!

But one mother had a plan.  (I admit, it doesn’t sound like much of a plan, but she was DESPERATE!)  She put her boy in a basket and floated him in the reeds at the edge of the Nile, then set her daughter to watch over him.  And here comes the most crucial part of the whole story:

Pharaoh’s daughter came down to the river to bathe (swim), found the basket, and discovered a baby!  He was crying (duh) and she took pity on him.  She knew right away that he was a Hebrew boy, hidden away from her own father’s edict that all Hebrew boys were to be killed.  She had a choice to make: 1. Dump him into the river, or 2. Adopt him.  She took pity on him, and when his big sister, Miriam, offered to find a Hebrew woman to nurse him, the princess agreed.

Now, the Hebrew mother had her baby back, AND she got paid for taking care of him!!  And when he was old enough, he was taken to the palace where the Princess adopted him and named him Moses.  A little boy, born as a slave and headed for an early death, now a prince of Egypt!  The fate of the boy (and indeed the fate of an entire nation) had hinged on one moment of pity.

One act of compassion by a woman whose name is not even mentioned in our text!  Jewish tradition holds that she joined the Hebrews in their exodus from Egypt, and that she was given the name “Bithia,” translated “Daughter of God.”  But, no matter what her name was, she is one whose act of compassion changed history!

You see, by being raised in the palace, Moses most likely received a dual education.  He would have been taught the highest levels of science and mathematics and history and culture known to the Egyptians of that day—a considerable body of knowledge!   And, at the same time, his mother would have told him about his Hebrew ancestry, explaining his roots right back to Abraham himself.  So, he grew up in two worlds, you might say: an adoptive mother in the royal family of Egypt, and a family association with the Hebrew slaves of Egypt.  Because of this dual education, this dual life, Moses was uniquely prepared to be the one God called to lead God’s people out of Egypt and through the wilderness to the Promised Land.  He was uniquely prepared.

In this simple story, we can see the work of God’s Holy Spirit—1. Strengthening the midwives to resist Pharaoh’s command to kill any boys born to the Hebrews; 2. Moving a desperate mother to save her baby boy with just the flimsiest plan (floating him in a basket in the reeds); 3. Moving the heart of a princess to not only spare the boy’s life, but to also adopt him and raise him in the palace; 4. Taking people who were in the midst of hopelessness and filling them with rejoicing!  In this simple story, we see the fragrance of mercy: one simple act of compassion impacting not only thousands of people in that time but also generation after generation in our Family of Faith, right to our present day!

So, let’s talk about what’s going on today, and what any single individual might do in response.  We have seen things that make us angry, things that cause a desire for revenge to well up within us.  We cry out to God, “What would you have us do?!”  And down through the ages, God’s voice answers: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”  (Micah 6:8)

God’s answer is grace—grace that is expressed in compassion, pity, generosity, mercy.  In one moment, you and I can change the course of history if we choose God’s way.

I finish today with a reference to J. R. R. Tolkien’s , The Lord of the Rings.  Frodo Baggins is talking with Gandalf, who acknowledges that the creature Gollum (a villain) has been following them.  Frodo says, “It’s a pity Bilbo didn’t kill him when he had the chance!”  Gandalf replies, “Pity?  It was pity that stayed Bilbo’s hand.  My heart tells me that Gollum has some part to play yet.  The pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many.”  And, indeed, it turns out that, had it not been for Gollum, the evil ring would not have been destroyed in the fires of Mt. Doom!

Just as the pity of Pharaoh’s daughter saved Moses, the compassionate act of just one person may very well have far-reaching impact for many yet to come!  Friends, you and I are just a few of the fibers that are being woven into a magnificent tapestry.  God takes who we are and what we do and weaves things around to accomplish God’s purposes.  And just one act of courage, one act of compassion might be a pivoting point in history—a point in the tapestry that changes the rest of the weaving!

Who you are and what you choose to do are of ultimate importance.  Don’t believe the LIE that you are insignificant.  In God’s hands, each of us has the capacity to be used in an amazing way.

God, help us to do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with you.

 

August 16, 2020

Sent to Foreigners: Joseph’s Brothers              11th Pentecost

Genesis 5:1-15   August 16, 2020   Matthew 15:21-28

My letters went to Curlew by accident.  I had moved from Seattle to Spokane to study counseling at Whitworth.  The secretary at my former church made a typographical error when publishing my new address in the church newsletter, and the ZIP Code was that of Curlew, WA, rather than northern Spokane.  As a result, the first several letters I received from folks in Seattle went first to Curlew, then got re-routed down to me.  My letters went to Curlew by accident—or did they?

Four months after arriving in Spokane, I was visited by a pastor who helped arrange pulpit supply for several small churches in the Presbytery.  He was wondering if I might be willing to spend the next summer in Curlew, and travel up there once a month during the rest of the year to 1. Preach, 2. Celebrate communion, and 3. Moderate their Session.  I didn’t know anything about this tiny congregation just a stone’s throw from the Canadian border, but I felt a STRONG sense that God wanted me to go there.  I started driving up there once a month to preach and get to know the people, and I ended up having a really great summer being their short-term pastor!  This led to a continuing relationship with the folks in Curlew and in nearby Republic, and that summer was a significant chapter in my own personal development.  Sometime later, I found those old letters that had the big CURLEW postmark on them, and I couldn’t help but sense that God had sent those letters “astray” as a way of putting Curlew in my brain!  “We go nowhere by accident,” right?!

Well, in today’s Scripture readings we have 1. The continuing saga of Joseph and his sojourn in Egypt, as well as 2. A brief vignette of an interaction between Jesus and “a Canaanite woman”—a foreigner.

BOTH passages show God’s hand at work in some seemingly random, “accidental” situations!  Friends, can we believe, along with Joseph, that God sends us into different places as part of God’s plan to bless us—and to bless others?  And can we, like Jesus, reach out to folks who are different from us?  And, finally, can we forgive those who treat us badly, trusting that God will use even these bad things to work out God’s good purposes?  Let’s look more closely and see what God might be saying to us.

Grace in Practice

Most of us know the story of Joseph, and of how his jealous brothers sold him into slavery.  He was taken down to Egypt, and sold to a high official named Potiphar.  There, he worked hard and honestly, earning Potiphar’s complete trust…but ended up in prison after being wrongly accused of a crime.

Friends, put yourselves in Joseph’s place for a moment.  One day, he was the favorite son in a large, prosperous family—and the next, tied up and sold into slavery, shipped out to Egypt.  Instead of sulking and bemoaning his unfair treatment, he got busy and worked hard—forgetting the position of privilege he had one enjoyed.  And when he went to prison for refusing the advances of Potiphar’s wife, surely he could be forgiven for sliding into self-pity and despair…but he didn’t!  He made himself useful in the prison, and the warden put him in charge of the place.  (I can almost hear Joseph repeating under his breath, “I go nowhere by accident.  Wherever I go, God is sending me; wherever I am, God has put me here.  God has a purpose in my being here!”)

Indeed, God’s purpose led Joseph into that prison, because there he met some of Pharaoh’s servants and interpreted their dreams for them.  And when Pharaoh himself was having troubling dreams, one of these servants told him about Joseph!  He then interpreted Pharaoh’s dreams and informed him that there were going to be 7 years of plenty followed by 7 years of famine.  He then boldly suggested that Pharaoh find someone to organize the building of storage barns to hold the surplus grain during the years of plenty so that there would be food on hand through the famine.  And, surprise!  SURPRISE!  Pharaoh chose Joseph to be that person.  And Joseph prepared Egypt to survive the famine.

When the famine struck his family back in Canaan, and Jacob sent his sons down to Egypt to buy food, it was Joseph (all grown up and unrecognized)—Joseph who dealt with them!  And when he revealed his identity to them, they were dismayed because of the evil they had done to him (and because they knew he was powerful enough to have terrible revenge.)

But instead Joseph wept out loud, and asked them to come closer, and he told them not to be distressed or angry with themselves.  And he declared his faith in God’s all-powerful hand:

God sent me before you to preserve life!

It was not you who sent me here, but God!

Joseph asserted his faith that God was behind all the events that brought him to Egypt, put him in a position to help build up reserves of grain, and thereby helping to preserve not only Egypt but also Jacob’s family!!

Instead of holding on to the position of anger and revenge, Joseph chose forgiveness.  He chose forgiveness.  And instead of giving in to despair, Joseph displayed a willingness to see God’s hand at work all through his difficult sojourn.  And Joseph’s traitorous brothers?  They got a second chance; they got their (nicer) brother back; and they got a glimpse of God’s amazing mercy and power!

Now, I mentioned last week that being sent to foreigners was especially frightening because the culture was focused around family and tribe.  Most people of that era believed that their god (or gods) were LOCAL—that each land had its own god.  What we see in this story is that Yahweh is concerned about the welfare of the Egyptians as well, and makes provision to see them through the famine.  There’s no room for ethnocentricity in God’s economy.

Grace Extended

We see in our Gospel reading that Jesus had a significant encounter with a non-Jewish woman.  The text tells us that he took his disciples to the district of Tyre and Sidon (Gentile territory), so it’s obvious that he expected to run into some “foreigners!”  And when this woman cried out, asking for healing for her daughter, his disciples betrayed their ethnocentric prejudice by urging Jesus to “send her away!”

As we examine this exchange, I want you to keep in mind that Jesus was speaking a different language, which has been translated into English.  He spoke from a different culture, and we have to somehow translate into our culture.  And we don’t really know his tone of voice, so I will do his voice the way I hear it!

When the Disciples urged him to “send her away,” Jesus seized on this teachable moment by imitating the attitude of his disciples, and he told the woman, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”  She fell to her knees in front of him, saying, “Lord, help me.”  He continued with his charade, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”  (Dog is a derogatory term sometimes used to describe non-believers.)  I believe that, by now, the woman could see that Jesus was saying these things for the benefit of the Disciples, and she played along, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”

In response, Jesus threw aside any barrier between Jew and Canaanite, any sense of ethnic superiority, and declared, “Woman, great is your faith!  Let it be done for you as you wish.”  And her daughter was healed instantly.

Joseph had been sent to “foreigners,” and so had Jesus.

In fact, the Scriptures tell us that Jesus left his place at the side of the Father to come to us foreigners and live as one of us.  He did this to reunite us with God, to bridge the gulf that sin had created between us.  Jesus discerned his purpose from a young age, and was obedient all the way to death on a cross.  Joseph was held in slavery and even imprisoned, but he kept his attitude right and trusted that God would use his difficult situation for God’s own purposes.  His story must have been a source of strength for Jesus as he faced his own imprisonment and scourging and crucifixion.  And that same story can help you and me as we face life’s difficulties.

Grace Received

So, are there times when you feel “imprisoned” by your circumstances?  Do you feel “trapped” in a body that doesn’t work the way you want it to?  Are your choices severely limited because of family needs or financial struggles?  Have you suffered some very real hurt because of someone else’s actions?  When these feelings come along, I invite you to think of William Barclay’s comment on Philippians 1: “God put me in this situation; and God means it, with all its problems and its difficulties, to make for my happiness and usefulness in time, and for my joy and peace in eternity.”

Prayer: Lord, help us to see your purpose in all the seemingly random things in our lives.  And when we can’t see it, help us to trust that you are using every event, every struggle, every failure and hardship, all of it to do your perfect will.  Give us expectant hearts that anticipate your glorious victory in our lives.  We ask it in the name of Christ, amen.

 

August 9, 2020

Sent to Foreigners: Joseph                10th Pentecost

Psalm 105:1-6, 16-22, 45b   Aug. 9, 2020   Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28

Last week, I talked about our Family of Faith—a family that stretches back for thousands of years.  We have lots of characters in our family, some embarrassing events, and a number of miraculous events—but our Scriptures are full of this family history!  Today, I want to talk about an early event in the life of our family, one that shows how to put the FUN in dysFUNctional!  And I want to explore how God can use EVEN A DYSFUNCTIONAL FAMILY to work God’s purposes.  It’s the story of “Jacob and Sons.”

The family in our story has all the ingredients for unhealthy behavior:

  • JOSEPH is a tattle-tail, bringing “a bad report about his brothers” to their father;
  • His BROTHERS are all jealous of him because he is their father’s favorite son;
  • There is plenty of intrigue as the brothers first plot to KILL Joseph, and then Reuben talked them into only throwing him into a pit (so that he could go back later and get him out). Way to go, Reuben. Maybe that’s why they named a sandwich after you?
  • Then, unbelievably, they sold him into slavery so that they could 1. Get rid of him and 2. Make a little money to boot!
  • In our reading this morning, we didn’t get to hear one particularly dastardly detail, which is this: They took his special coat and dipped it into the blood of a goat they had slaughtered—and they took the bloody coat to their father so that he would believe that a wild animal had killed his most-beloved son. And these brothers let Jacob grieve the death of Joseph, knowing full well that he was actually still alive.    Amazing.  Cruelty.

Now, friends, this sounds to me like the worst plot of the most despicable soap opera in the history of daytime television!  But, this is our family we are talking about!  (Some of us, with wacky families, can take comfort from being in such good company!)

Of course, there’s a reason for all the jealousy and conflict in this family.  Jacob, the patriarch, had two wives—who were sisters.  Polygamy is trouble enough, but these gals were sisters with their own history of conflict.  Leah, the elder, was not pretty like Rachel, and Jacob had to marry her first before he could marry the sister that he truly loved.  (That was the tradition then and there.)  Are you following?  Now, add into this hotbed of discontent the fact that both wives had maidservants, and Jacob had children with them as well.  Finally, his beloved Rachel had a son—Joseph—so is it any wonder that Jacob favored him?

As if that wasn’t enough, there was another reason the brothers hated Joseph: he had dreams of superiority that he was all-too-ready to share with them.  Here’s a sample: “We were binding sheaves of grain out in the field when suddenly my sheaf rose and stood upright, while your sheaves gathered around mine and bowed down to it!”  No wonder they hated the little creep!

And they had to hate him a lot to do something so despicable…sending him away to a foreign land.

You and I see spending time in a foreign country as an adventure, an opportunity to see other places and meet new people.  But in the time of this story, being sent to foreigners would have been perceived as being murdered.  Four thousand years ago, people were very tribally-oriented.  The family was everything, even one as full of conflict as this one was.

Being banished from the family would have felt like a death sentence.  There were strong suspicions of “OTHERS,” and sending him off as a slave with a caravan of Ishmaelites heading for Egypt—well, it seemed like the perfect punishment for this little creep who was such a source of grief for these brothers!

By the way—Ishmaelites (modern-day Arabs) were distant cousins of these brothers.  Their great-grandfather, Abraham, had fathered a son with his wife’s maidservant.  Then, finally, Sarah gave birth to a son of her own, and she insisted that Abraham throw Ishmael and his mother out into the desert.  (Talk about a dysfunctional family!)  Now these descendants of Ishmael come along and buy their cousin to sell him into slavery in Egypt.  The price?  20 pieces of silver.

I TOLD YOU THIS WAS WORSE THAN ANY SOAP OPERA!

I wish that Genesis was a little more forthcoming regarding Joseph’s experience.  I wonder: What was he feeling?  Hurt?  Angry?  Betrayed?  After all, he had been on the top of the heap back in his home territory.  (You could even say that he was a spoiled BRAT.)  Now, he was on his way to Egypt to be sold into slavery.  The Psalm we heard today tells us “His feet were hurt with fetters, his neck was put in a collar of iron.”

I’m also curious about what Joseph was learning.  In chapter 39, he is bought by Potiphar, the captain of the guard.  He worked hard, and the Lord was with him, and eventually Potiphar put him in charge of the whole household.  This was not the spoiled little tattle-tale we saw back in chapter 37!  Something was happening in Joseph!

Now, next week we are going to take up the continuing story of Joseph and his brothers.  We will see how God used all this messed-up family stuff to work out God’s purposes.  I wouldn’t be surprised if Joseph was Paul’s inspiration for what he wrote to the Romans: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God.”  As Christians, we can look at a cross and see, not just a horrible instrument of torture and death, but a symbol of the LIFE that is given to you and to me through Jesus Christ.  You see, even though it was the Romans who crucified Jesus, it was actually members of our family— the religious leaders of the day—who arranged to have him put to death.

And, as awful and shocking as that is, we have the great news that Christ is risen from the dead, offering us life as well!  See—God uses all things to work for the good—even a family as messed-up as ours.

And that gives me hope as I look at all the trouble we have in our world today.  I wonder: What is God doing in all this?!

In time, the whole story will be revealed.  But, in this moment, I can already glimpse some of God’s activity!  For example, our little church has been forced to step into the 21st Century, reaching out beyond our walls to folks who (most likely) would never have come to our building.  Just as the Apostles were impelled out into the streets on the Day of Pentecost; just as persecution of the early church scattered them beyond Jerusalem and even into Gentile territory, God’s Holy Spirit is using our current restrictions to help us discover new ways to BE THE CHURCH and to SHARE OUR FAITH!

I look forward to seeing what else God is doing!  God uses all things to work for the good!

Prayer: God, we give you thanks that you can take even the awful stuff we give you and do something wonderful with it.  Help us to trust that you are in the middle of all the mess, and give us the kind of faith that looks for what you are doing, even when we can’t see it.  We ask in the name of Christ, amen.

 

August 2, 2020

Empowered Despite Grief                           9th Pentecost

Psalm 17:1-7, 15   August 2, 2020   Matthew 14:13-21

Friends, you and I are one chapter in a l-o-n-g story—the story of God’s work in this world.  There have been some pretty embarrassing chapters about our spiritual ancestors—painfully recorded in Scripture.  And there have been some funny moments—like when Peter saw Jesus walking on the water, and asked him to call him out of the boat and walk on water as well.  When he suddenly realized that he was walking on water, he started to sink!

Yes, the history of our family is full of all kinds of characters and an amazing variety of events.  I want to begin today with a tragedy—a tragic event that set the stage for our Gospel reading for today.  It’s about a man named John.

Our family has always referred to him as “John the Baptist”, but that gets kind of confusing because we know guys named John who belong to a Baptist church.  I’ll call him “John the Baptizer” because his ministry was all about calling people to repentance and being ceremonially washed clean—baptized as a physical, outward sign of their inward cleansing and forgiveness.  John was some kind of cousin to Jesus, and he was called by God to prepare the way for the coming of the Messiah—and he did his job faithfully.

Of course, he talked to all the common people who came out to hear him, and he addressed the religious authorities when they asked him who he was.  (Or, to put it in today’s vernacular, “Who do you think you are?!)  His call to repentance even extended to King Herod!  You see, Herod had stolen his brother’s wife, named Herodias, and had moved her and her daughter Salome down to his palace in Jerusalem.  John kept telling Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have her.”

So Herod had him arrested and put in prison, and he would have killed him right away had he not been afraid of the people, who considered John to be a prophet!  But you already know the tragic unfolding of events that pushed him to have John’s head cut off.  Then John’s disciples took his body and buried it, and went and told Jesus about the tragedy of John’s death.  And here begins the narrative of today’s reading, “Jesus heard the news, and he withdrew privately in a boat to a solitary place.”

Isn’t that what we do when we are grieving a significant loss?  We take time off from work; most of our responsibilities go into “a state of suspended animation”; and we live in bereavement.

If we want to be alone, people leave us alone.  But our text tells us that Jesus withdrew to a solitary place (i.e. an uninhabited area), a place across the lake.  The crowds of people who had been listening to him found out that he had moved, and they followed him there—walking around the lake.

When Jesus saw the crowd, he had compassion on them. He didn’t say, “Can’t you people leave me alone for a little while?  Don’t you know that I’m grieving John’s death?!  Go away!”  NO.  He had compassion, and he healed their sick.

Suffering his own personal loss did not stop him from identifying with the anguish of those who were ill, with the pain of having a loved-one in need of healing.  While he was mourning the loss of his cousin, he still did the work he was sent to do and cared for the people.

Then our story takes a little twist.  It’s getting late.  The Disciples are starting to think about dinner.  (I can relate.)  They are in an uninhabited area so there are no handy places to get food.  They are tired, and dealing with their own grief.  (After all, Andrew and John had once been disciples of the Baptizer.)  They encourage Jesus to send the people away to a village so they can get something to eat.  And Jesus says the most ridiculous thing to the Disciples, “They don’t need to go away.  You give them something to eat.”

The Disciples responded, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish!”  Now, Matthew doesn’t tell us this little detail, but John adds in his Gospel that Andrew—who is the brother of Simon Peter, the one who brought Peter to Jesus in the first place—Andrew says, “Here is a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish, but how far will they go among so many?”

And Jesus responds, “Bring them here to me.”  And they did.

Friends, you all know the story of the feeding of the 5,000.  It’s a pretty impressive miracle, no argument.  But the exchange we just witnessed is also a mighty substantial miracle.  The Disciples could very well have said, “We don’t have anything to give them.”  But they didn’t.  They are carrying a load of grief and probably hunger—but they feel compassion for the others.  They have taken their focus off their own loss and have identified with these poor folks who are willing to follow Jesus around the shore of the lake on foot just to get within reach of his healing hand.  That shift of focus seems miraculous, too!  And to hear Andrew’s comment to Jesus: “Here is a boy with five small barley loaves and two fish—but how far will they go among so many?” makes me think of the miracles that you and I participate in.  It happens when we see a need and sense God calling us to address that need, AND we also sense our inadequacy to fulfill that task.  We stand in the shoes of the Prophet Isaiah, who was aware that he was a man of unclean lips.  And yet, when God asks, “Whom shall I send?  And who will go for us?” said, “Here I am, Lord.  Send me.”  (It’s implied that he also asked, “Am I enough?)

 

The miracle occurs when imperfect people are empowered to do God’s perfect will.

 

 

Sure, we see the “impossibility” of the task set before us.  And we also battle with the internal struggle that says things like, “I don’t feel like it” or “Not me, Lord, I’m not gifted in that area” or “I’m going to spend my energy pursuing this other thing that I’m fascinated with—don’t bother me.”

But all God needs is a little faith—just faith the size of a mustard seed.  A faith that might say, “Here is a boy with 5 small loaves and two tiny fish—but I don’t know what good it will do.”  But that’s the miraculous good news: God takes even the tiniest shred of willingness on our part, and multiplies it into something enormous and overwhelming!  Even the tiniest shred of willingness.  In the midst of 1. Our preoccupation with other things, and right while 2. We are not feeling like doing God’s work, and at the precise moment when 3. We are doubting our abilities, we can give to God all that we are able, and then just put the rest in God’s hands.  AND THAT’S ENOUGH!

At times like those, I hear a little song that I used to teach the children’s choir, based on Paul’s words to the church in Philipi: “I can do all things, through Christ who strengthens me.”

Friends, God provides the miracle.  God’s power is actively at work around us and in us and through us.  No matter how we feel.

Melissa and I remember vividly a time when the kids were tiny, and both of us had a severe case of the stomach flu.  We were lying on our bed, our bodies aching, and we didn’t want to move.  But the kids had to be put to bed. I got up and got Chris bathed and in his jammies and tucked into bed, then I fell back into bed myself.  Melissa dragged herself into the nursery, changed Erin’s diaper, got her fed and dressed for bed, and then she crashed.  It felt impossible to get up and do this, but we knew it had to be done.

WE CAN DO ALL THINGS THROUGH CHRIST WHO STRENGTHENS US!

God is ready to do miracles despite our shortcomings.  Jesus said, “All things can be done for the one who believes.”  And we cry out, “I believe!  Help my unbelief!”

 

July 26, 2020

A Belle Mélange

Acts 10:34-43   July 26, 2020   Matthew 16:13-19

In the 2001 movie, Tortilla Soup, Hector Elizondo plays the part of a retired chef—retired because he has somehow lost his sense of taste (and, with it, his self-confidence).  But his old partner calls him with an emergency—they are catering a fancy dinner and one of the junior chefs has messed up the dessert.  They need his help to rescue the dinner!  He arrives on the scene, sees what they have to work with, and shows them how to take their ingredients and create a wonderful dessert.  Overwhelmed with relief, his old partner asks him, “What shall we call it?”  He thinks for just a moment, then says, “A Belle Mélange.”  (French for “A Beautiful Mess”!)  Perfect! A beautiful mess.

That scene came to mind when I was asked to address a chapter of M.O.P.S. (Mothers of Pre-Schoolers).  That year’s theme for MOPS International was “A Beautiful Mess,” because it describes what it’s like to be engaged in the enterprise of raising pre-schoolers.  Those of you who are parents know what I am talking about:

  • The house is almost always a mess, no matter how hard you work to keep things picked up and at least sanitary. One parent says, “Living with a 2-year-old is like using a blender without a lid!”
  • The kids are almost always a mess, no matter how clean their clothes were at the beginning of the day!
  • You yourself are a bit of a mess. Hair is not perfect, clothes are not perfect, eyes are puffy from lack of sleep—and I’m just talking about the dads!  It’s usually even worse for the moms!
  • And yet—and yet, living with pre-schoolers can be the most beautiful time in one’s life.
  1. The kids are precious, learning about their world and saying the cutest things. And when they sing, their little warbling voices just melt your heart!
  2. Pictures taken when the kids are little have the power to make you laugh and cry at the same time—especially once you have survived those early years!
  3. It really is “a beautiful mess”—sure, it’s messy, but if you focus too much on keeping it clean and neat, you miss out on the beauty!

As I talked about these things with the moms at MOPS, I realized that the church really is “a beautiful mess” as well.  Think about it:

  • Some people in church are crabby, inflexible, argumentative, irritating—including the pastors!
  • Despite our best efforts, our human shortcomings diminish the effectiveness of many of the things we try to do in the name of Christ. The Holy Spirit is at work, but we are a bit like the Rag-Tag Army described in Martin Bell’s wonderful book, The Way of the Wolf.  Here’s what he says about the church:

“I think God must be very old and very tired…God’s been on the march a long time, you know.  And look at God’s rag-tag little army!  All he has for soldiers are you and me.  Dumb little army.  Listen!  The drum beat isn’t even regular.  Everyone is out of step.  And there! You see?  God keeps stopping along the way to pick up one of God’s tinier soldiers who decided to wander off and play with a frog, or run in a field, or whose foot got tangled in the underbrush.  God will never get anywhere that way.  And yet, the march goes on.

Do you see how the marchers have broken up into little groups?  Look at that group up near the front.  Now, there’s a snappy outfit…at least they’re in step with each other.  Only they’re not wearing their shoes.  They’re carrying them in their hands.  Silly little band.  They won’t get far before God will have to stop again.

Or how about that other group over there?  They’re all holding hands as they march.  The only trouble with this is the people on each end of the line.  Pretty soon they realize that one of their hands isn’t holding onto anything—one hand is reaching, empty, alone.  And so they hold hands with each other, and everybody marches around in circles.  The more people holding hands, the bigger the circle.  And, of course, a bigger circle is deceptive because as we march along it looks like we’re going someplace, but we’re not.  And so God must stop again.  You see what I mean?  God will never get anywhere that way!

If God were more sensible he’d take his little army and shape them up.  Why, who ever heard of a soldier stopping to romp in a field?  It’s ridiculous.  But even more absurd is a general who will stop the march of eternity to go and bring the soldier back.  But that’s God for you.  His is not endless, empty marching.  He is going somewhere.  His steps are deliberate and purposeful.  He may be old, and he may be tired.  But he knows where he is going.  And he means to take every last one of his tiny soldiers with him.  Only there aren’t going to be any forced marches.  And, after all, there are frogs and flowers, and thorns and underbrush along the way.  And even though our foreheads have been signed with the sign of the cross, we are only human.  And most of us are afraid and lonely and would like to hold hands or cry or run away.  And we don’t know where we are going, and we can’t seem to trust God—especially when it’s dark out and we can’t see him!  And he won’t go on without us.  And that’s why it’s taking so long.

Listen!  The drum beat isn’t even regular.  Everyone is out of step.  And there!  You see?  God keeps stopping along the way to pick up one of God’s tinier soldiers who decided to wander off and play with a frog, or run in a field, or whose foot got tangled in the underbrush.  God will never get anywhere that way.  And yet, the march goes on.”  (Martin Bell, The Way of the Wolf)

Friends, this is the church that Jesus describes in Matthew 16.  Peter—fickle Peter—has just proclaimed, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”  And Jesus responds, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar Jonas…you are Peter, and on this Rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not overpower it.”

It doesn’t take much looking to see that the church is indeed a mess, but Christ has empowered it to be a beautiful mess!

  • Despite the mess, God is using the church to heal the broken-hearted and bind up the wounded;
  • Despite the mess, God is using the church to expose people to the Gospel, and to open the doors to God’s grace;
  • Despite the mess, despite the noise, God’s grace is sufficient for us, and we exult in the music of the power of Christ dwelling in us!

And how does this happen?  Well, I certainly don’t understand it.  But we are told, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding.  In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make your paths straight.”  God’s Spirit is at work.

I want to finish today by having you think about your compost heap (if you are lucky enough to have one).  It’s full of grass clippings and vegetable scraps and orange peels and lots of coffee grounds (if it’s like ours!)  You can also put small weeds in the compost.  It looks like a mess.  But, in the spring, you can pull out wonderful, black compost that makes your garden and flower beds very happy!  Even the weeds have contributed to this beautiful mess, reminding us of the promise that “God causes all things to work together for good.”  Even the weeds.  Even the messiness.

Glory to God for the Belle Mélange!

 

July 5, 2020

Wisdom Is Vindicated by Deeds                5th Pentecost

Romans 7:15-25a   July 5, 2020   Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

I am a big fan of Snoopy, the cute little beagle from Peanuts!  When everyone else is going frantic with worry, Snoopy always seems to have a steady compass and an aptitude for JOY!

In one of his more philosophical moods, Snoopy was contemplating the question of whether it is more important to BE or to DO.  Some people emphasize how crucial it is to BE, while others focus on what to DO.  Be, do, be, do, which is most important?  Finally, Snoopy decides…it’s do be do be do!

I thought of this comic strip when I started mulling over our Scripture readings for today.  In Romans, I see Paul struggling with doing what he knows is right.  And in Matthew, I hear the call of Jesus to simply come and be one of his own.  Let’s take a look at these passages and explore what this means for us.

A Pharisee’s Expectation

Remember that Paul had been training to be a Pharisee for much of his life.  The Pharisees were men who wanted to follow the letter of the religious law as strictly as possible, in every daily activity.  Six hundred and thirteen laws!  For example, if one was supposed to dedicate one tenth of one’s income to the Lord (often called a tithe), they would even give one-tenth of the herbs from their garden!  No detail was too small for them.  And why did they adhere to this strict application of the law?  For the most part, they believed that doing this would put them in good stead with the Lord—that somehow they would be more acceptable to God if they were successful in adhering completely to the religious law.  They were convinced that it was possible, and that every true believer should be this meticulous in their behavior.  It tended to make them proud and judgmental.  Just look at the Pharisee in the story Jesus told about the two men who went up to the temple to pray.  The Pharisee bragged on himself, thanking God that he was better than others, reminding God that he fasted twice a week and gave a tithe of everything he possessed!

Meanwhile, the tax collector stood off by himself and humbly begged for God’s mercy.  And Jesus tells us that it was this man who was made right with God!

The Sad Truth

So Paul, an ex-Pharisee, still struggled with 1. Knowing what is right and 2. Not being able to do it.  He writes, “Wretched man that I am!  Who will rescue me from this body of death?!”  And then he answers his own question, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”  God’s mercy is the answer.

When I read this passage in Romans out loud, it sounds a bit like the ravings of a lunatic.  Paul is tortured by the imperfection of the human condition, saying, “I can will what is right, but I cannot do it.”  This is a difficult truth for one who, at one time, believed that perfect obedience to the law was humanly possible.  I mean, if anyone could do it, it would have been Paul!  But he discovered that it was impossible.

His letter to the Romans was written in AD 58.  Five or six years later, he wrote a letter to the Christians in Philippi from his prison cell.  Listen to this brief excerpt, and see how his thinking has developed: “It is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”  He previously said, “I can will what is right, but I cannot do it.”  Now, he clarifies: GOD MAKES US ABLE BOTH TO WILL AND TO WORK!

God at Work

In our Gospel reading for today, Jesus is warning us that people will interpret our actions according to their own pre-dispositions.  Those who were opposed to the reformation that John the Baptizer was bringing saw that he drank no wine and ate very simply—and they declared, “He has a demon!”  When they saw Jesus eating and drinking, they said, “Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!”

His response?  “Wisdom is vindicated by her deeds!”

We see this all the time today.  People twist the words of those they oppose, in order to cast them in a negative light.  There is one way to reveal their lie, and that is action—right action that clearly illustrates what a person is truly like.

The problem is that, like Paul, you and I know what is right but we have difficulty doing it.  The imperfection of the human condition brings us up short.

Here’s an example: a Christian posted a question on Facebook, asking non-Christian friends to explain their reasons for not believing in God or Christianity.  There was no condemnation implied, only curiosity.  And there was a promise that uncivil comments would be deleted.

As I read through the thoughtful responses, I was struck by several things, including: 1. The gratitude expressed for an opportunity to share their beliefs without judgment; 2. The feeling that the institution of Christianity was not consistent with the nature of God; 3. The judgmental nature of the church is a huge turn-off.

Perhaps the most helpful comment came from a Christian friend, who confessed that his behaviors may well have alienated some from following Jesus, and this was a heavy burden to him.  It’s as if he was echoing Paul’s frustration, “Wretched man that I am!” and “I can will what is right, but I cannot do it.”

As I see it, this presents a challenge to the church, a call to live the love and the non-judgment that Jesus modeled.  We can show the world that God is at work in us, enabling us both to will and to work God’s good pleasure.  But only if we are willing to let God work through us!

I would like to finish today by taking a look at Charles Schultz, the creator of the cartoon strip Peanuts.  By all accounts, Charles was an utter failure in his earlier years.  Apparently, the character of Charlie Brown was a direct expression of his personal inability to be a success at anything.  Charlie Brown, the Failure.  Charlie Brown, who just can’t get anything right.  But Charlie Brown who keeps on trying, whose persistence eventually made Charles Schultz one of the most treasured cartoonists in history!  People love Peanuts because they see themselves in Charlie Brown, because they are inspired by Snoopy’s joyful attitude, because Linus speaks real truth to them, and because everyone knows a “Lucy”!

Charles Schultz, a follower of Christ, found a way to acknowledge failure AND still be used by God to bless the world!

Friends, we have before us a banquet table that holds the essence of failure—a broken body, blood poured out.  But it also holds the amazing promise of God to live in us and to give us life, to enable us to both will and work for God’s good pleasure.

 

June 28, 2020

Choose Your Master 4th Pentecost

Romans 6:12-23 June 28, 2020 Matthew 10:40-42

Back in the 70’s, there was a mini-series on TV that almost everyone in the country tuned into. It was about a young man, Kunta Kintay, who was captured by slavers and brought to America and sold to a plantation owner. The series chronicled the life of Kunta and his descendants (like “Chicken George”) and how the story of his life was passed down through the generations to Alex Haley, the author of ROOTS. For many, this was the first introduction to the true horrors of slavery—what it meant to not be able to be the captain of your own ship, the master of your own destiny. We had been aware of the existence of slavery, but ROOTS put a face on it—gave us an opportunity to relate to real people who suffered this dehumanizing institution. We also caught a glimpse of what freedom meant for those who were liberated after the Civil War. (However, the initial joy of freedom was soon replaced with misery for many, because they had no idea how to be self-ruling. They had been 1. Trained to obey their masters, AND 2. Trained to be dependent on the plantation for their daily needs. Suddenly, they were on their own, thrust into the clear air of freedom AND laden with responsibility for their lives.)

I thought about ROOTS when I read Booker T. Washington’s autobiography, Up from Slavery. As a boy, Booker had been thoroughly schooled in the importance of making the best of each and every opportunity, and had been taught the value of

hard work. I’ll tell you more about Booker T. on the Sunday of Labor Day weekend. For today, I just want to leave you with this image: Booker T. Washington was a man who knew that slavery was not just an institution where people were owned as property. He also knew about those who were slaves to other things. In Peter’s second letter, he says, “They promise them freedom, while they themselves are slaves of depravity—for a person is a slave to whatever has mastered him or her.”

What Matters Most Is Choosing One’s Master

Our Scriptures for today are precisely about this idea that there is more than one kind of slavery, and there is a great difference in masters. What matters most is choosing one’s master.

Remember with me something that Jesus once said, something that will sound strange to those who do NOT believe they have a master. He said, “No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other.” No one can serve two masters. What matters most is choosing one’s master.

Think about Matthew, the Disciple who once served as a tax-collector for the Romans. He chose a new master, and followed Jesus. He knew it was important to choose the right master.

There came a time when some of the Disciples were looking to be more special than the others. Jesus saw this as a teachable moment. He told them, “Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be

first must be the slave of all. (And then he talked about himself.) For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Did you get that? Jesus came, not to be served but to serve, to be the slave of all!

Choose Jesus, Choose Service to Others

Friends, if we choose Jesus as our Master, then we are choosing a life of service. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul proclaims that if we choose Jesus as our master, then we are no longer slaves but full sons and daughters of God. God has made us HEIRS! It’s as if we have a dual role: 1. We choose to be servants, and 2. God treats us as full heirs of the Kingdom! I love Paul’s way of describing his attitude: “Though I am free and belong to no human being, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible.”

What matters most is choosing one’s master.

Now, of course, there is a voice in each of us that says something like, “I don’t want to be a slave to anyone, thank you very much! I will be the ruler of my own destiny and the master of my own fate.” Yes. But the problem with that is that you and I don’t make very good masters of our own fates! When we think we are free, it turns out that we are being controlled. We might be controlled by our passions and lusts and destructive desires. We might be controlled by others who are simply manipulating us for their own ends. When we think

we have no master, it may well be that we are mastered by things that simply lead to death.

Let me repeat these words from our Romans passage: “But now that you have been freed from sin and enslaved to God, the advantage you get is sanctification (that’s a fancy word that means growing in holiness—becoming a saint!) The end is eternal life.”

I want to finish today with a personal story about a not-so-glorious moment in my life. I was a junior in high school, and my friend and I had gone to a college football game. Since he and I were both in the band, we were always on the field during our high school football half-times, and we never got to catch one of those little footballs that the cheerleaders throw into the stands after the halftime show. But at this college game, we were primed to catch one! Most of the footballs went into the first 15 rows of the stadium, which was disappointing. But the last ball thrown was tossed by a powerful guy with a great arm, and the ball came skimming over the crowd right in our direction. Everyone was stretching up to get it, and it landed in my hands! Wonderful!

Then this mountain of a guy in front of me turned around and just plucked the ball out of my handsL Now, friends, I don’t have any memory of what happened next. I must have gone berserk with anger—because the next thing I knew, my friend was saying to me, “Wow, Mecham! That was awesome! I can’t believe you jumped on that guy’s back and pounded on him!!”

All I knew is that my fury had been expended, and I hadn’t had any effect on the guy who stole my ball. I looked down at my hand, and I saw a stocking cap. I looked at the mountainous guy in front of me, and saw that his head was bare (and his hair was thinning). It was a fairly cold night, and I began to feel sorry for the guy. I reached up and put the cap back on his head so that he wouldn’t get too cold.

Before I knew it, the guy turned around and said, “Aw, you can have your ball back.” He gave it to me, and my friend and I were just flabbergasted. What just happened?!

I’ve been thinking about this event for the last 50 years, and this is the only explanation I can come up with for the dramatic change in my attitude: I had chosen Jesus to be my Master, and it was His Spirit that enabled me to feel pity and return the stocking cap. Sometime later, I read Paul’s advice to the Romans: “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ No, ‘If your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

What matters most is choosing one’s master. Friends, I hope you will choose EVERY DAY the master that will set you free—free to serve and free to live your JOY. The Master that says, “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

 

June 21, 2020

His Eye Is on the Sparrow     Fathers’ Day

Genesis 21:8-21   June 21, 2020   Matthew 10:29-39

Are any of you “birdwatchers”?  I guess all of us are, to one degree or another, because we notice birds.  But can you imagine anyone ever saying, “Oh, look!  There’s a sparrow!”?  It just doesn’t happen.  Sparrows are small and brown and common—almost beneath our notice.  After all, it’s the rare birds, the colorful birds that grab our attention and make us say, “Oh, look!  See that bird?!”

In similar fashion, the world divides up people into more valuable and less valuable.  Personally, I am uncomfortable watching beauty pageants, not because I don’t appreciate beautiful women, but because the pageants make me kind of sad.  Beautiful people already get plenty of attention and preferential treatment, all based on what they look like on the outside.  I feel sad for people who are beautiful on the inside but are overlooked because they are not so pleasant to look at.  And I feel sad for the beauty contestants themselves, because they are being conditioned to believe that their worth is based on their looks: their value goes UP the more beautiful they are judged to be, and their value goes DOWN as their beauty fades.

Fortunately, I know some former beauty queens who have developed their inner beauty, and it shines out no matter how many pounds they put on, or how many wrinkles they have to deal with!  Their real beauty radiates from within.

Enough about beauty pageants.  My point is this:

The world divides people into more valuable and less valuable.

Humans tend to stand in awe of celebrities and people who are in charge of great quantities of money.  If a celebrity goes missing, or a rich person flies off and gets lost, then the national media dive in, our attention is focused on them, and vast resources are spent trying to find them.  Meanwhile, there are children in India and South America and Detroit and Sparks—places far and near—who are in desperate need of just a little support, and the world ignores them.

Well, our Scriptures for today point our attention to a different way of looking at people.  They grab our focus and say “EVERY person is of value!”  They tell us, Even if you feel insignificant, God sees you as precious.

Abraham, Sarah, and Isaac—and Hagar and Ishmael

Last week, Ken Vogel talked about Abraham and Sarah and their long wait for a promised child—a boy they named “Laughter” (that’s what Isaac means).  He was named Laughter because they both laughed when God told them (in their old age) that they were going to have a son.  But today’s reading from Genesis also reveals a dark chapter in the story of Abraham and Sarah.  You see, some years before this startling announcement, they had despaired of having a child and had decided that they needed to “give God a little help” in this department.  Sarah had a maid whose name was Hagar, and she suggested that Abraham have a child with this maid, thereby giving him an heir.  So he did, and she gave birth to a boy they named Ishmael.  (His name means “God listens.”)

Now, people being what we are, a great jealousy and conflict developed between Hagar and Sarah.  And after Isaac was born and weaned, Sarah told Abraham, “Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.”  (Notice how she wouldn’t even use the names of Hagar and Ishmael, just referring to them as “this slave woman and her son.”)  Were they any less valuable?!

Abraham was distressed because he loved Ishmael, but God assured him that God would watch out for him and make a great nation of him as well.  God’s promise was to take care of a boy born of a slave girl and cast into the desert—ejected from the community because they were no longer needed.  This is a dark chapter indeed, but it shows us something about the caring nature of God!  It forces the question, “If God is for us, then who can be against us?”  Or, to state it another way, “If God values us, what does anyone else’s opinion matter?!”

God Cares for Sparrows—and for Each of Us

In our reading from Matthew, Jesus says, “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny?  Yet not one of them will fall to the ground unperceived by your Father.  And even the hairs of your head are all counted.  So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.”

Do not be afraid.  You are of more value than many sparrows, and God highly values sparrows!  Your worth is not based on your appearance or your celebrity or your money—your intrinsic worth is established in the solid fact that the God of the universe knows you are worth dying for!

Both of our readings for today make direct reference to the fact that each of us experiences adversity.  Friends, it doesn’t require a crystal ball to see that we are headed into a time of economic, political, environmental, and personal adversity.  The bad thing about hard times is that they lead us to believe that God is NOT caring for us.  The good thing about hard times is that God’s loving provision stands out in stark relief!  Remember, if God is for us, who can be against us?!

I’ll finish with this word of encouragement, a story about Ted Roberts who is a pastor and speaker and writer.  During the Viet Nam War, Ted was a Marine fighter pilot.  His Christian wife had sent him a book, and in the midst of that terrible conflict, he flipped through it.  It led him to pray a somewhat crazy but heartfelt prayer, “Christ, I really don’t know who you are, but my life’s become totally insane.  So if you’re there, sign me up!”  Well apparently Christ honored his prayer and “signed him up” and, after returning from Viet Nam, Ted felt drawn to ministry.  But he was still suffering from an identity crisis.  Let’s hear it in his own words: “During my first couple of weeks at seminary, everyone seemed to walk around speaking Greek, Hebrew, or theological terminology.  I had no clue what they were talking about.  Everybody had huge black Bibles filled with notes.  My green, plastic-covered Living Bible had coffee stains from reading it in the ready room prior to flight.  I might fail miserably at this theology stuff; then what?  That’s when I started wearing my flight jacket to class to show all the flight patches.  One day as I walked to class, the Lord asked a straight-forward question in my heart: ‘Why are you wearing that jacket, Ted?’

‘It gets cold when I ride my motorcycle.’  Since it was more than 70 degrees that day, I knew my response was ridiculous.  So then I told the truth.  ‘Lord, I’m afraid of failing.  I wear it so I’ll feel like somebody.’  Christ responded, ‘I died for you; that’s what makes you somebody.  Get rid of the flight jacket and trust me.’”

 

Christ died for me—that’s what makes me Somebody.

 

Do not be afraid.  You are of more value than many sparrows!

 

June 7, 2020

Our Three-in-One God              Trinity Sunday

Genesis 1:1-5   June 7, 2020   Matthew 28:16-20

Have you ever been to a circus?  I like watching the tight-rope walkers.  They do amazing things while traversing a cable that has been strung between two posts—a cable that is under tremendous tension.  Both posts are trying to pull the cable in opposite directions, and that is what makes a tight-rope tight—makes it possible to walk on it.  Circuses don’t have “loose-rope” walkers—it just wouldn’t work.  The tension is what makes tight-rope walking possible.

Well, today I am going to ask you to walk with me on a tight-rope of sorts.  It’s a line that is strung between two opposing forces, pulling in opposite directions.  Let me say from the get-go that it is important that we acknowledge this tension, and that we understand it is necessary, because we cannot walk on a “loosey-goosey” rope!

Here is the tension: God is in a relationship with us, and God wants to be in relationship with others; and, at the same time, God has been revealed to us as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  This Trinitarian view of God is very different from the concept that many people have of “The Higher Power.”

Here’s how that tension is lived out in my life: I am the kind of person who likes to relate to others by finding commonalities—things we hold in common, things that seem to have the power to unite us.  And because I want to be in relationship with others, I have a tendency to downplay or ignore those things that we don’t have in common.  And I observe this avoidance of disagreements in all the world around me—especially when we talk about our understandings of who God is.  A conversation among a crowd of people that includes Christians, Muslims, and Jews will most likely include some kind of statement that says, “We all worship the same God, right?”  We desperately want this to be so—because it would give us some great common ground on which to build relationships.

It would be convenient to forget about the Trinity (as God is revealed to us) and to embrace a much simpler, more generic kind of god that we could all agree on.  Wouldn’t this promote relationships?  Sadly, no.

And here’s why: In order to have a genuine relationship with you, I have to be the real me—not the “me” I am pretending to be in order to have some common ground with you!  No real relationship can be built on fakery.  As Trinitarian Christians, we can acknowledge a great deal of common ground with all kinds of people—and we should—but we cannot walk away from who we truly are.  We are a people who have a dynamic relationship with a God who lives in a three-fold relationship as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

You see, our God is a relational God.  I believe that you are worshiping with us today because the Trinity has drawn you here, and because this relational God living in you keeps putting you in touch with other people, reaches out to you through others, and makes it possible for you to relate to others.

And it is my fervent hope that you are being drawn to be a part of a church that is full of people who may be very different from you.  (In fact, it is by being a part of a group that is diverse that you and I are challenged to grow and develop in our faith!)  Being part of a church means 1. Being in relationship with others and 2. Being in relationship with God.

Now, of course, there are others who wish to get in touch with “the divine” or “the spiritual” through solitary meditation and individual effort alone.  But Christianity is not one of those groups!  As William Willimon says, “We are inherently relational because our God is relational.”  Christianity is not a solo endeavor.

So let me restate the dynamic tension I am feeling as I walk this tightrope: God is calling us to be in relationship with others—but, at the same time, holding on to the Trinity can be a source of division with folks who have a different understanding.

It might be that the concept of God in Three Persons is so daunting that we are ready to abandon it or relegate it to the back of our minds.  But we are called to worship the true and living God rather than a host of false (generic) gods that are so readily available.  Here’s how David Cunningham explains it:

In the Trinity, Christians try to account for the complex Biblical testimony that, “1. God remained all-powerful and transcendent, and yet 2. Jesus, who died and was raised by God, was somehow also God; moreover 3. The Spirit, poured out on the church, is also God, and yet 4. There is only one God.”

Oi!  My brain hurts!  Maybe it would help to use music as a way to see how something can be both multiple and singular at the same time.  In music, more than one thing happens at a time.  It is important in music that each note be sounded clearly and distinctly, yet we enjoy hearing a mass of different notes all played at once!  Simultaneous multiplicity is encouraged in music.  Harmony does not seek to include individual notes standing alone—but rather to rejoice in their interesting relationships, contrasts, and contributions to one another.

In our Genesis passage today, we heard the beginning of the account of creation.  In the second verse, it says, “a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.”  Another translation has it, “The Spirit of God hovered over the waters.”  You see, the word for wind and spirit is the same word in Hebrew—“ruach.”  It is the breath of God—that which breathes into the inanimate clay, bringing it to life.

And in our passage from Matthew, we heard Jesus promise, “Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”  Earlier, Jesus had explained to his disciples that the Father was going to send the Spirit to fill them (which it did on that day of Pentecost when a mighty wind blew through the room and anointed them and impelled them out into the world.)  We take this as the fulfillment of his promise, to be with them always.

These and other Scriptures tell us about 1. God creating us, 2. Coming to live beside us (in Jesus) in order to save us, and 3. Coming into us to breathe life into us.  God above us, God beside us, God within us.

So, on this Trinity Sunday, I am asking you to walk a tightrope with me—a rope that is kept taut by the tension pulling it in two opposing directions.  One call is to hold fast to our God who has been revealed to us as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; another call is to develop and cherish relationships with others, including those who do not hold to the Trinity.

And today, the Spirit is asking us to walk another tightrope.  We are called to stand up for those who are unfairly treated because of the color of their skin.  And we are called to stand up for those who risk their lives to protect us.  This is not an either/or—this is a call to both/and!  So, how do we do this?  We walk the tightrope of our faith with the words of Jesus echoing in our ears, “Remember, I am with you always.”  As we receive The Lord’s Supper, we invite the Spirit to live in us.

This is how we do that which seems to be impossible!

 

May 31, 2020

The Spirit Gives Variety            Pentecost

Acts 2:1-21   May 31, 2020   1 Corinthians 12:3b-13

Years ago, I was serving a church in north Idaho. There was a man in our church, Clayton Stoltz, who came to worship every other Sunday. Sometimes he would apologize for missing church so frequently, but he had an appointment with the Alzheimer’s men in the nursing home. Every other day, he would take his shaver and shave these men, while a stream of conversation flowed (even if he was the only one talking). These men trusted him, and they loved having a clean shave, and he loved doing it. So, whenever Clayton apologized for missing worship, I always told him, “Clayton, you have a ministry. Don’t let church get in the way of your ministry!”

Now, the reason I am telling you about Clayton is because I want to hold him up as an example of a unique way that the Spirit both enabled him and used him to do work that is pleasing to God. God gave him “the gift of gab” and his easy talk set the men at ease while his compassion for their situation made him a most useful caregiver! What an awesome ministry!

Today, as we know, is Pentecost Sunday—when we celebrate the day that God’s Holy Spirit filled up Disciples that were hiding in the upper room, then propelled them out into Jerusalem, proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ! But it’s also a day to take a look at what the Holy Spirit is doing IN us and THROUGH us 2000 years later. I am excited about exploring the varieties of gifts that God has given us by the Spirit. So let’s take a look at our texts.

Acts 2: Wind and Flames

Every year at this time, we hear the account in Acts of how the Holy Spirit filled the Disciples and sent them out, able to speak in such a way that ALL the visitors in Jerusalem from other lands heard the Gospel in their own language! From this day forward, they are referred to as Apostles—“sent-out-ones”—because Christ had commissioned them to be his witnesses, and the Holy Spirit sent them out into the world. While some in Jerusalem were amazed, there were others who sneered and accused them of drinking before 9 in the morning! (Isn’t it sad that, even in the middle of a miracle, there are people so blind to God’s activity that they just sneer at what is going on?!) But Peter made it clear that this was simply the fulfillment of what God had promised through Joel: “I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh.”

This tells me two things:

  1. God pours out the Spirit when and where God chooses;
  2. Not everyone will perceive it, even when they are standing in the midst of miracles. (Those who have eyes to see, let them see.)

1 Corinthians 2     Varieties of Gifts, Services, Activities

Paul tells the Christians in Corinth, “There are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord, and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone.” He gives them some examples of various spiritual gifts, all given by the Spirit for the common good. Friends, this is a message we need to hear again and again, because of our human tendency to value sameness—uniformity. We are all aware of churches that insist that all their members hold the exact same core beliefs—valuing homogeneity over variety. But Paul is very clear here—variety is God’s plan, and sameness is not ideal.

Years ago, Madeline L’Engle wrote a book called A Wrinkle in Time. In it, the characters travel to a place where sameness/uniformity are the highest value. All the children come out into their front yards at the same time, play the same game, and bounce their balls in exact rhythm with each other. One little child expresses the tiniest bit of individuality and bounces the ball OUT of rhythm with the others, and the anxious mother has to run out and grab the child and take it inside before this “violation of sameness” is noted by the authorities.

I think of that awful imagery whenever I encounter a rigid expectation of uniformity and conformity, and I give thanks for the testimony of Scripture that variety is divine! It would NOT be helpful if everyone had the same gifts and ministry as everyone else! Paul says, “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” In other words, everyone experiences God’s Spirit in a different way, and each of us uses our God-given gifts in our own unique fashion—thereby giving glory to God, the author of every good and perfect gift.

Paul uses the metaphor of the human body, which is made up of many different parts. Each part has a function which is different from the other parts. But you put them all together, working together in harmony, not worrying that one part works in a different way from the others—and you have a smooth-running machine! This is the ideal for the church.

But one of the problems the Body of Christ sometimes experiences is in how we respond to the Holy Spirit. I have been with Christians who firmly believe that, when Christians gather for worship, everyone should be “speaking in tongues.” They think that if you’re NOT, then you have not yet received the Holy Spirit!

Anytime we try to make one experience NORMATIVE for all, we are succumbing to that natural human tendency to value sameness. It happens with any practice, and with any deeply-held belief—we try to make our preference the standard for all others! And that’s an inclination we have to fight! After all, imagine that someone had asked Paul, “How do I become a Christian?”, and he had told them: “Well, first you go to Jerusalem and persecute the church. Then you head for Damascus to round up some Christians to put in jail, and Jesus will confront you on that road and turn your life around!” We would just laugh, because NO ONE EXPERIENCE of God is normative for everyone else.

So, if you find the Spirit moving you to serve God in a way that has never been done before, or a way that is not being done now, do everything you can to be open to God’s leading.

Let God use all of your life’s experiences and education and passion to be the preparation for what the Spirit is NOW leading you to do! Like my friend, Clayton StoltzJ

I want to leave you with this thought: The Covid-19 pandemic has forced us to be separate from each other—physically. But the Spirit has been moving us to connect with each other through other means! I have experienced the beauty and wonder of seeing connections strengthened through this forced separation—and I celebrate, with you, being One Body in Jesus Christ. And I will remind you of that passage in First Timothy that has lately become a recurring theme for us: “Rekindle the gift of God that is within you…fan into flames the gift of God that is within you…for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-sacrifice.”

Christ who lives in you has something he wishes to do through you!

 

May 24, 2020

Christ’s Prayer for Us                          7th Easter

Acts 1:6-14 1Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11 May 24, 2020 John 17:1-11

In C. S. Lewis’ book, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the Pevensie children have stumbled into the land of Narnia. It is winter, and has been for a long time (but never Christmas!), because the evil witch that rules the land likes winter. The children are told an ancient prophecy:

Wrong will be right, when Aslan comes in sight,                         At the sound of his roar, sorrows will be no more,               When he bares his teeth, winter meets its death,                     And when he shakes his mane, we shall have spring again.

Aslan is the Christ-figure in these stories, and when he returns, all the good creatures are delighted! When the children meet Aslan, he takes the oldest one (Peter) aside and begins instructing him what he will need to do in his battle against the witch. Peter protests, “But you will be there yourself, Aslan.” (In other words, he expected Aslan to be in charge of the battle.) But he replied, “I can give you no promise of that.” Then he continued giving Peter his instructions.

This had to be alarming for Peter because he was just a kid; he had only recently received a sword; he hardly knew how to use it; and he knew nothing about organizing a military campaign! But Aslan clearly intended for him to step into action, not just be a bystander!

I thought of this scene when I was reading the Acts passage for today. And, indeed, the Epistle and Gospel readings seem to carry the same expectation! But it comes with a mighty promise of Christ’s help. Let’s take a look.

Their Plan versus God’s

First, let’s remember a few things about these disciples at the time of the reading in Acts. They had come to Jerusalem with Jesus, expecting that he was going to reveal himself as the Messiah, expecting that he would usher in a new Golden Age and that they would somehow be a part of his administration. But Jesus was killed on a cross, dashing their hopes. Then he was resurrected, and spent about 40 days with them, speaking with them about the kingdom of God.

Then, in today’s text, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” (They are right back at their previous expectations!) He deflected their question about when, and instead focused on who. “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Then he left them! They must have been stunned! But Jesus was commissioning them to continue his ministry, empowered by the Holy Spirit.

Matthew remembers this commissioning in a slightly different way. He has Jesus saying to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

In both accounts, Jesus is making it clear that 1. He will be with them and 2. They will be empowered to take the good news to the whole world!

Yikes! Scary!

Just as young Peter Pevensie would have been alarmed at having a huge responsibility thrust onto his shoulders, I am certain that the disciples had similar misgivings! After all, a disciple is student, a learner, a follower. And Jesus had just told them, “YOU will be my witnesses here, there, and all over the world.” No wonder they went back to the Upper Room and devoted themselves to prayer!

Now, in our letter from Peter, we hear the words of one who has experienced this anxiety and now says with authority that God is dependable. He says, “Do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you…Humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God…Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you.” And how do we do that?!

We get a word of assurance from Paul’s letter to the Philippians: Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.

Cast all your cares on God… in prayer with thanksgiving.

Many of you are familiar with Ben and Erin Napier and their show on HGTV, “Home Town.” They help people in Laurel, Mississippi, to find a home and renovate it. In their book, Make Something Good Today, Erin describes the process she went through as she decided to give up her “safe” job and go into her design business wholeheartedly. In order to overcome her fears, she prayed, she sought counsel, and she kept a “thankfulness journal” every day—writing down things for which she was thankful. She credits that journal with overcoming her anxieties as she waited for God’s clear direction. She seems to have taken to heart Paul’s advice to pray with thanksgiving!

Christ Prays for Us

On those Sundays when we have a Prayer of Confession, we also have an Assurance of Forgiveness. Sometimes we say together, “Who is in a position to condemn? Only Christ, and Christ died for us, Christ rose for us, Christ reigns in power for us, Christ prays for us.”

Our passage today from John is an excerpt from the prayer Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, right before his arrest and crucifixion. It’s always a challenge for me to study this prayer, because I know what’s coming next, and it is painful. But there is comfort in hearing Jesus pray for his disciples. He is asking the Father to protect them when he is no longer in the world.

Now, next week is our celebration of Pentecost, that amazing day when God’s Holy Spirit was poured out on the disciples, just as Jesus had promised. Together, we will remember that day, and affirm that God’s Spirit is working in us and through us to this day!

But, in the meantime, we will keep these three things in mind:

  1. Christ has commissioned US to be his witnesses here, there, and everywhere;
  2. We release our anxiety about this by remembering that God cares for us;
  3. We keep in mind that Christ prays for us, and we focus on our blessings instead of our fears!

These are good principles for life in any season, and they are especially appropriate for Christian life during a pandemic! These are days of anxiety, uncertainty, and fluidity. I need to hear Peter’s words, “Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you.” And that’s the basic question God’s people have asked for centuries, any time there is suffering and pain and injustice, “God, do you even CARE?!” The Psalmist shouts, “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long?…But I trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. I will sing to the Lord, because he has dealt bountifully with me.”

We will sing to the Lord. We will cast all our cares on God because God cares for us. Christ prays for us. And we will prevail.

 

May 17, 2020

Created for Love         6th Easter

1 Peter 3:13-22   May 17, 2020   John 14:15-21

How do you feel about obedience? What do you do when you are told to obey? I would like you to imagine that you have been placed in a BIG playfield. Everywhere you look, there are inviting places to play. There is equipment for all ages, all ability levels to enjoy, and there are open fields with smooth grass just begging for all kinds of ball games. The place is HUGE, and it seems to go on forever.

‘Way off in the distance, you see that the field is surrounded with a six-foot fence—all around the perimeter—with signs that say “stay inside the fence”. It turns out that there are dangerous cliffs beyond the fence line, and the fence is there to keep folks from straying into danger. And then, to your horror, you see that there are people climbing over the fence! When you go to investigate, you are told that they aren’t satisfied with the safe stuff in the big playfield—they want to go beyond the fence and see what’s out there. You might even hear one guy getting ready to climb the fence saying, “Here. Hold my beer, and watch this!”

Now, if this seems a little unlikely, just read the accounts of people visiting The Grand Canyon–people who climb beyond the safety rails “for a picture”, then fall to their deaths.

Well, I’d like you to hold the image of the protective fence in mind for just a little while as we examine our texts for today.

The Ten Commandments

First, I’d like to think a little about The Ten Commandments. Remember that the Hebrews had been newly-freed from slavery in Egypt. For four centuries, they had been very closely governed, not making decisions for themselves. And now, suddenly, they had to govern themselves! Moses disappeared and went up Mt. Sinai to receive the law. He was gone so long that the people thought he must have died, and they reverted to the pagan worship known back in Egypt. They made a golden calf and worshiped it. Then Moses came down from the mountain and gave the people what he had received from the Lord—The Ten Commandments—which are now the basis for governance for the modern world!

Why did God give them (and us) these commandments? The simple answer is: To help us learn how to live in freedom, and remain there.

There is a common misconception that God is a cosmic killjoy! This is beautifully illustrated by a conversation on BBC Radio’s program called Drive Time. The guest was Rev. Steve Chalke, and the show’s host demanded to know, “Why is God so down on everything we do? Don’t do this and that. Don’t commit adultery. It’s pathetic!”

Rev. Chalke interrupted her with a question: “Does the Bible really say, ‘Don’t commit adultery’?”

“Yes, it does,” she bristled.

“I’ve never read that bit.”

“You know that it’s one of the Ten Commandments.”

“Oh, now I get it. Your tone of voice threw me off.”

“What do you mean?”

“God does say we must not commit adultery, but not the way you said it. Before giving these commandments, God introduced himself to the Hebrews as ONE WHO IS FOR THEM. He didn’t just outlaw the things humans like to do to spoil our fun. Rather, he knows the heart-ache we’ll cause ourselves and others if we pursue agendas opposed to the way he made us to be. The Ten Commandments is God saying, “Look, I love you. I’m the best deal you’ve got going for you. Don’t abandon me. Don’t commit adultery because if you do, it’ll unleash destructive powers that will slowly destroy you and your society. Trust me.”

“Well, no one ever explained it to me like that. That makes so much sense.”

We could compare God’s commandments to the fence around the huge playfield. It’s there to keep us SAFE. It’s not there to lock us in, but to help us live well and be happy. God is saying to us, “I love you and I’ve already proved it to you. So trust me. Keep these commandments because they make sense for you, and they help keep you safe.”

Obedience and Love

Jesus illustrated this concept with a story about a Wise Builder and a Foolish Builder. (Matthew 7) “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise person who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. BUT everyone who hears these words of mine and does NOT put them into practice is like a foolish person who built his house on the sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash!” The lyrics from “Once Upon a Parable” say it well: “Hear and do—standing tall. Hear and don’t—twist and fall.”

In our Gospel lesson for today, we hear Jesus saying, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments, and the Father will send the Spirit of Truth.” (He was getting them ready for the gift of the Holy Spirit!) “Those who keep my commandments are those who love me.”

Made for Love!

So we come to the question for the day: Is God a killjoy, or is God a loving parent?

I’m sure many of you have read William Blake, an English poet and artist. Listen for the voice of a petulant child in this couplet of his: “Priests in black gowns were walking their rounds, And binding with briars my joys and desires.” I hear the same voice when people complain about all the “thou shalt not’s” in the commandments.

I prefer to remember that a loving parent creates a zone of safety around children so that they can gradually learn to self-govern. And God’s Spirit does the same for you and for me! Like Paul’s words to Timothy, “For God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.”

  • POWER to live well, to obey, to overcome difficulties
  • LOVE of God, love of others, love of self—a gift of God
  • SELF-DISCIPLINE, which makes the fence of the commandments comprehendible!

Friends, God is our loving Parent, the Creator who created us for LOVE! Within that love is a huge amount of leeway for making choices and being creative ourselves. Because of love, there are also limits and boundaries, put there to make life as good as it can possibly be.

Here’s a quote from Randy Newman (not the singer-songwriter), a teacher at the C. S. Lewis Institute: “If we fail to grasp that disobedience brings bondage, we’ll never understand why our culture continues to spiral downward. Without the boundaries of Scripture, our sinful hearts flee from the good things that God has for us, imagining we’ll find them on our own. Attempting that only leads to misery.”

Friends, let’s pray that God will bless us with such overwhelming LOVE that we are empowered by the Spirit of Love and self-discipline!

 

May 10, 2020

A Glimpse of God              Mothers’ Day   5th Easter

Acts 7:55-60   May 10, 2020   John 14:1-14

Years ago, before he was a popular author and speaker, Tony Campolo was an associate pastor in a church. On Mothers’ Day, he was supposed to read from Second Timothy, chapter one, which includes these words: “I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you. For this reason I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands; for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.” The preacher that day was going to make a point about Godly mothers and grandmothers, and how their faith can impact the younger generation.

But, Tony (as a young, single man) had been out late the night before. He made his way up to read the Scripture and turned to FIRST Timothy by mistake. He read, “This means understanding that the law is laid down not for the innocent but for the lawless and disobedient, for the godless and sinful, for the unholy and profane, for those who kill their father or mother…” Not exactly a great text for Mothers’ Day!

But our passages you heard today really do support the idea that our faith can be transmitted to others. In Acts, we see Stephen being stoned to death in the presence of Saul (the man who would one day be known as Paul). He prays, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” Imagine how that act of grace impacted Saul and laid the foundation for his dramatic conversion two chapters later! And, in our Gospel reading, we hear Jesus telling his disciples, “If you know me, you will know my father also.” Both texts give us a glimpse of God, and illustrate how faith is transmitted person-to-person.

Just imagine for a moment the people who first gave you an inkling of the reality of God. Somehow, through their life, their words, you began to develop an understanding of who God is and how God operates. You began to sense God’s presence in your own life. Here’s one way to illustrate that idea:

In Disney’s The Sword and the Stone, the future King Arthur is being educated by the wizard, Merlin, and he is given the opportunity to see things from a variety of perspectives. In one scene, Arthur is transformed into a fish, swimming to and fro, high and low. Makes me wonder what insights I might get while being a fish!

For instance: what would fish think about human beings? I’ve always been taught to be quiet when fishing, and to not let my shadow fall on the pool where I hope to pull out a trout—because fish can sense our presence. Just imagine: two fish meet at a sand bar, and one asks, “Hey, did you sense something big just go over us? I mean, there’s something up there!” And the other fish says, “Nah. It’s just your imagination. Look, I’ve been up there, jumpin’ up to catch a fly, and I never saw anything weird.” Hmmm.

Now, please, don’t be insulted, but I see a parallel with human perceptions of God. We can sense the Presence; we have a limited intelligence with which to draw conclusions; but then, sometimes, God chooses to reveal God’s own self to us!

Can People See God?

As a general rule, in the Old Testament it was understood that people just DON’T see God. There were, however, a few notable exceptions:

  • Jacob wrestled with God, and named that place “Peniel” (which means “face”): “It is because I saw God face-to-face, and yet my life was spared.”
  • Moses was up on Mt. Sinai, and experienced the Presence of God. As a result, his own face was RADIANT when he came down and he had to wear a veil!
  • And there’s this interesting blessing in the Book of Numbers: “The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace.”

In the New Testament, we find a desire to see “The Father.” Jesus is telling his disciples about the Father’s house; says that no one comes to the Father except through him; and says, “If you know me, you will know my father also.” Then Phillip pipes up: “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Who was this Philip, anyway? Well, he was first identified as a disciple of John the Baptizer, and was directed (by John)to Jesus. He went and found Nathaniel and said, “We have found the Messiah—come and see!” Philip was one who said to Jesus when they were surrounded by hungry multitudes, “Where shall we buy bread to feed these people?!” Despite his doubts and despite his demand to “see”, Philip was used in a mighty way after the resurrection.

In a way, Philip is standing in for us, asking to “see the Father.” You and I have a desire to be bowled over with evidence, to have some powerful experience that removes all our doubt, to be empowered to believe, to obey, to experience God’s presence. So Jesus says to him (and to us), “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?…the Father, who dwells in me, does his works.”

Stephen’s Final Chapter

Now, in our reading from the Book of Acts, we heard about a follower of Jesus named Stephen. And who was he? He was the first person to be named as a Deacon in the early church. He was full of God’s grace and power. He was falsely accused of blasphemy and put on trial. The members of the Sanhedrin “saw that his face was like the face of an angel.” (Now remember, an “angel” is, by definition, a messenger of God—one who is full of God’s light.) And Stephen had a message for these powerful religious leaders. He did his best to persuade them to follow Jesus, and they were furious! It got even worse when Stephen looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God. “Look! I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” They were beyond furious, and dragged him out to be stoned. As he was dying, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit,” and “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And he died.

He died trying to follow Christ, being faithful to God, demonstrating the grace of forgiveness for those who were stoning him! Saul witnessed the stoning, giving his approval to the slaying of this follower of Jesus. As I suggested earlier, this must have had some kind of impact on this zealous, ambitious young Pharisee. And I’m sure it helped all those who were there to get a glimpse of God’s presence, God’s GRACE.

So, here we are on Mothers’ Day, thinking about Timothy’s grandmother, Lois, and his mother, Eunice—and about how their faith was passed on to him. I am sure that he had plenty of opportunities to witness their faith in action as they dealt with the ups and downs of life, letting love and grace be the hallmarks of their faith.

1 John 4 puts it this way: Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. No one has ever seen God; but, if we love each other, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us. God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them.

 

May 3, 2020

Trustworthy Shepherd              4th Easter

Psalm 23   May 3, 2020   John 10:1-10

Have you ever been a shepherd? How about a pretend shepherd in a nativity play, all dressed up in an old bathrobe with a piece of cloth on your head and a tall staff in your hand? In our church family, not many of us have ever actually tended sheep, but the lexicon of our faith is rich with shepherds!

In the Old Testament, we have some big characters who tended sheep. Moses was tending sheep for his father-in-law, Jethro, when he encountered the Burning Bush. The Prophet, Amos, was tending sheep when God called him to carry God’s word to the people. The most notable shepherd was a boy, youngest son of Jesse, who was anointed by Samuel to be the future king of Israel. And David turned out to be the most celebrated king they ever had! He was not only the king, but was also a musician who wrote a number of the Psalms we have in our Bible, the most familiar of which we heard today: The 23rd Psalm. In it, he describes God as a loving shepherd who guides the sheep and protects them.

In the New Testament, we have shepherds being visited by angels and then going to visit the newborn Baby Jesus—the Jesus who grew up and used the “Shepherd Analogy” to describe himself (as in our Gospel reading today). In its 2000-year history, the church has adopted the use of the word “shepherd” to describe pastors and (I’m sorry to say) the word “sheep” to describe all of you. Not very complimentary, if you know anything about sheep.

Now, just to be fair, I also need to tell you that there are some BAD shepherds in the Bible. They are the ones who run away when danger approaches. They don’t really care for the sheep—but only truly care about themselves. I’m afraid the church has experienced some bad shepherds as well. But our passages for today show us one shining image: WE CAN TRUST THE GOOD SHEPHERD TO TAKE CARE OF US!

The Shepherd “Herds” Us

When we look at the 23rd Psalm, we see the shepherd “herding” us, making us lie down in green pastures, leading us to safe water and over right paths, protecting us with rod and staff, making sure we are well-cared-for. As I understand it, a shepherd’s job is to push the sheep to the place where they need to graze for the day. On the way there, they want to stop and nibble on everything that looks tasty, so they have to be driven to keep moving to where they are supposed to be.

I can see that this is precisely what God often has to do with me! I see what I want, and do my best to go to it, and God has to push me along to something that is better. Sometimes, our Shepherd has to get us through barren wastes in order to reach that which is good for us—the green pastures, the still waters. These are the times when we must trust the Shepherd, and the words “He restores my soul.” Times like right now.

There’s a passage from 1 Peter 2 that is part of our lectionary for today. He’s addressing folks who are suffering through no fault of their own. He says, “It is a credit to you if, being aware of God, you endure pain while suffering unjustly.” He reminds us that Christ himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness. By his wounds we have been healed. “For you were going astray like sheep, but NOW you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.”

Jesus Is the Gate

Now let’s take a look at our Gospel reading from John. Jesus is making use of the whole shepherd/sheep analogy to help his disciples understand who he is and to assure them of the Shepherd’s care. He starts out by talking about a “sheepfold.” As a kid, I remember hearing terms like this, but I had no idea what they meant. We even sang a song, “God be with you ‘til we meet again; by his counsels guide, uphold you; with his sheep securely fold you. God be with you ‘til we meet again.” I didn’t know what a “fold” was—fold was something we did to sheets. So, I sang the song, “With his sheets securely fold you.” So we need to know what a “sheepfold” is. Think of it as a sort of corral, perhaps with some kind of primitive cover. The opening to the corral is where the shepherd sleeps, which keeps the sheep in and keeps predators and thieves out. The shepherd is the gate! And in the fold, there is protection and security. A few verses after our reading for today, Jesus tells them, “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me…I lay down my life for the sheep.

“I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice.   So there will be one flock, one shepherd.” (Friends, he is talking about you and me—sheep from a different flock!)

Seeks the Lost Sheep

Jesus is the Good Shepherd. He knows the sheep, and the sheep know the shepherd. The shepherd knows when one of the sheep is missing. Remember with me the parable Jesus told: “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.”

Now, just imagine this scene: the shepherd is searching for the lost sheep. All darkness and danger are disregarded because the focus is the lost sheep. The sheep cries out, and the shepherd locates it and carries it home on his shoulders. All the sheep needs to do is cry out!

This reminds me of a woman named Lisa who was lying alone in her hospital room. She had been sliced up by a man she once loved and trusted, a man who told her, “No one will miss you when you’re dead!” Lying in her bed, crying from loneliness and despair, overwhelmed by a sense of worthlessness, Lisa cried out, “Jesus. Help me.” Immediately, she could sense the Presence of God, warming her, comforting her. She received God’s promise to always be with her, and that God would see her through her trouble. The little lost sheep had cried out, and the Good Shepherd found her and brought her to safety.

Friends, I’ll finish with this thought. Many of us are sailing through this pandemic like it’s a piece of cake. We have a steady stream of income. Those who work are able to work, some from home, some in the outdoors, some in other settings. We have an income and a place to live and supplies aplenty. We gather with friends and family online, and have opportunity for creative expression. We are doing alright.

But others are struggling. Some of them have all the necessities, but they are suffering from “quarantine fatigue”—the wearing-down of our resilience and hope. Many others are struggling to provide for their families, to keep the kids engaged in learning, to address their health needs when they can’t access medical care. Things look and feel hopeless.

And into the chaos, The Good Shepherd speaks a word: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.”

Prayer: Jesus, help us. Calm our fears. Replace them with the Spirit of power, and of love, and of self-control. Help us find creative ways to stay engaged with others, to offer assistance, to spread hope in your name. Thank you for being our Good Shepherd. Amen.

 

April 26, 2020

Beginning a New Chapter                  3rd Easter

Acts 2:14a, 36-41     April 26, 2020     Luke 24:13-35

During this time of quarantine, I have read a lot of comments saying something to the effect of, “When this is over, I’m going to be living differently from what I was before.” Instead of just “getting back to normal,” many folks are going to be intentional about taking what they’ve learned and using it from now on! Yes, we can step into a new way of living!

I was reminded of something I heard during Freshman Orientation week. Gar was a returning sophomore, and he had come back to school early to help us “first-years” get a good start on our college life. He was talking to a handful of us in the music building lounge, telling us some advice that he had received as he headed off to college. “You are going to a place where no one knows you. You can choose to be any kind of person you want to be, and no one will be able to compare you with the old you—so you won’t be considered a phony. Just imagine what characteristics you would most like to have, and then step into being that kind of person!” What Gar was telling us was that we were beginning a brand new chapter in our lives, and we could choose to be the kind of person we always wanted to be. A new chapter!

I thought about this moment in my life (almost 50 years ago!) as I mulled over the Scriptures for today. Both of our texts are about coming to the end of one chapter and launching into the next!

After the Resurrection

The crucifixion of Jesus had put an end to the hopes of all who had been following him. The Twelve (minus Judas) stayed hunkered down in the upper room where they had celebrated Passover. But there were many additional disciples in a much wider circle who also followed The Master. Two of these left Jerusalem on Sunday for the long walk (7 miles) back to their home in Emmaus. They were still puzzling over the recent events when Jesus fell in with them and asked what they were talking about. They explained how their hopes had been crucified with Jesus, but that some women of their company had found the tomb empty and had experienced some kind of vision of angels who told them that Jesus was alive. These two disciples were both sad and perplexed. You see, for them, DEAD is DEAD, and they were not quick to change their world-view!

So Jesus said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?!” Then he went through the Scriptures and interpreted to them all the things that applied to him. When they sat at table and Jesus blessed the bread and broke it, their eyes were opened to Who he truly was!

As tired as they must have been, they returned to Jerusalem that very night. The Disciples there told them that Jesus was alive indeed. And they told everyone what had happened to them on the road to Emmaus. Their world-view had shifted!

Those Who Welcomed the Message

In our passage from Acts, Peter stands and addresses a crowd. He quotes from the prophet Joel: “In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people.” Then he describes the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth, the man they crucified. “But,” he said, “God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power.” (He was trying to help them adopt a new “world-view.”) He continues, “Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.”

The crowd was cut to the heart! They asked, “What shall we do?!” (They obviously sensed that this new understanding required some kind of response—they needed to DO something.) Peter knew just what they needed to do. “Repent, and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.” In other words, “Embrace this new reality and mark this moment by being baptized.” Those who welcomed his message were baptized, and about 3000 persons were added to the followers of Jesus!

Turning the Page

Imagine with me for a moment that you are reading a truly great book. Sometimes, when you get to the end of a chapter, the characters are in a discouraging, or tragic, or hopeless situation. You are suspended in tension, which can only be relieved by turning the page and reading on! We get to the end of one chapter, and we must keep going with anticipation.

The same is true in our lives. We often have discouragement, tragedy, seemingly hopeless situations—but we keep trusting in the face of our fears, our loss. This is how we “turn the page to a new chapter.” The crowd asked Peter, “What shall we DO?” His answer: Repent, and seek God’s direction through uncharted territory. His answer affirms that God can help us, and God will help us. God takes the seemingly hopeless and transforms it when we give it to God!

To illustrate this idea (which runs all through Scripture), I want to share with you a poem by Myra Brooks Welch. It’s called “The Touch of the Master’s Hand.”

‘Twas battered and scarred, and the old auctioneer thought it scarcely worth his while to waste much time on the old violin, but he held it up with a smile. “What am I bidden, good folks,” he cried. “Who’ll start the bidding for me?” “A dollar, a dollar,” then, “Two! Only two? Two dollars, and who’ll make it three? Three dollars once, three dollars twice; going for three…” but no. From the room far back, a gray-haired man came forward and picked up the bow. Then, wiping the dust from the old violin, and tightening up the loose strings, he played a melody pure and sweet as a caroling angel sings.

The music ceased, and the auctioneer, with a voice that was quiet and low, said, “What am I bidden for the old violin?” and he held it up with the bow. “A thousand! And who’ll make it two? Two thousand! And who’ll make it three? Three thousand, once, three thousand, twice, and going, and gone,” said he. The people cheered, but some of them cried, “We do not quite understand what changed its worth?” Swift came the reply, “The touch of the master’s hand.”

And many a man with life out of tune, and battered and scarred with sin, is auctioned cheap to the thoughtless crowd, much like this old violin. A “mess of pottage,” a glass of wine, a game, and he travels on. He is “going” once, “going” twice, he’s “going” and almost “gone.” But the Master comes, and the foolish crowd never can quite understand the worth of a soul and the change that’s wrought by the touch of the Master’s hand.

I love the passage in 1 Timothy that affirms God’s love for us. “God our Savior wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.” Remember with me the moment when Jesus addressed a crowd in Jericho, people who were upset with him because of his kindness to Zacchaeus. You see, Zacchaeus had repented and had promised to start a new chapter, and Jesus proclaimed, “Today salvation has come to this house…for the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.”

Just look at Peter, the man who preached so powerfully in our passage in Acts. Peter denied Jesus and ran away—but the resurrected Jesus spoke encouragingly to him, and restored him! It makes me wonder what might have happened had Judas repented and been forgiven and restored? What amazing things might God have done through him?!

Well, I’ll finish today by acknowledging that you and I are in the middle of a difficult chapter, the Covid-19 pandemic. Loved-ones have been lost, livelihoods destroyed, and everyone has been forced to re-evaluate their lives. The question arises, “When things get back to normal, how will we live differently?” In other words, when we turn the page and begin a new chapter, how will we write it? We have an opportunity to change direction, to pursue the adventure into which God has placed us!

As a church, we can capitalize on the technology we’ve been forced to get acquainted with. As families, we can hold on to the closeness we have developed in recent weeks. As individuals, we can give thanks for all the blessings we took for granted before the crisis, and deeply appreciate the joy of being together with people we love.

We’re getting ready to start a new chapter. Let’s be aware that God’s never-ending love is right here with us, already at work making beauty out of ashes!

 

April 19, 2020

Imperishable             2nd Sunday of Easter

1 Peter 1:3-9   April 19, 2020   John 20:19-31

I’ve always been a “people watcher.” In the days when we were able to be out in crowds, I would observe how people behave and talk and relate to others. One phenomenon I have observed countless times is that of a child carrying something precious but doesn’t want to be in charge of it at the moment. They bring it to Mom or Dad or Grandma or Grandpa and they say, “Hold this for me?” They do this to keep the precious thing safe from being destroyed while they play or do some other important thing. “Hold this for me.” It’s an act of trust in that it signals an understanding between the child and the adult: “I know you will take care of this until I am ready to hold it again.”

In similar fashion, parents who wish to bless their children later in life will often set up a trust that holds something precious for their offspring until they reach the age of accountability. It would be harmful, for example, for young children to inherit a small fortune before they have become mature enough to use it well. So, money and property can be held in trust for those we love. We say to them, “I’m holding this for you.”

Our Scripture readings for today are about the great inheritance that God is holding for us. When you think about an inheritance, you understand instantly that 1. It’s not something you earned for yourself, but 2. It’s a gift from someone who loves you. In the Gospel reading, Thomas is featured as the one who is skeptical about the reality of the resurrection. And until he meets the Risen Lord, there is no reason to believe that God is holding “an inheritance” for him, “an imperishable inheritance of eternal life” as Peter describes it. As we consider these texts in the midst of the Covid-19 quarantine, we will see that God tells us to TRUST that our current lives are a mere shadow of what God is holding for us—“an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for us!”

Intellectual Honesty

Now, friends, we know that God has given each of us a brain, and God expects us to USE them! Of course, there are things that we just cannot understand, and we simply go on faith. As Hebrews puts it, “Faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” The Disciple Thomas was not quite there with his faith when the others told him that Jesus was alive. Because of his intellectual honesty, he articulated his skepticism, and I’m glad he did. You see, because Thomas was there, expressing his doubts, having his questions answered, this helps to answer my doubts, my questions about the validity of the resurrection. When I read this, I am Thomas, and I am overwhelmed when Jesus uses this opportunity to demonstrate the “unbelievable.”

It seems that Paul had wrestled with the mystery of eternal life, and he beautifully expresses this in 1 Corinthians 15: “I declare to you, brothers and sisters, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Listen, I tell you a mystery: we will not all sleep, but we will all be changed—in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: (Isaiah 25:8) ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’ (Hosea 13:14) ‘Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?’”

In other words, our inheritance is imperishable (just as Peter wrote), and it can only be received when you and I are no longer perishable—but instead clothed with immortality. This takes the sting out of death. It puts ZEST into life by removing our fear of death! If we trust God.

The Trustworthiness of God

Of course, we would much prefer to trust in ourselves, but God is constantly calling us to trust in God. In two weeks, we are going to be looking at the 23rd Psalm, “The Lord is my Shepherd,” and hearing Jesus tell his disciples, “I AM THE GOOD SHEPHERD.” It rings with advice from Proverbs 3, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways, acknowledge him, and he will direct your paths.” Someone once said, “Faith is stepping to the edge of all the light we have, and taking one small step into the darkness.”

It takes me back to my childhood, to the days when we would sing, “Trust and obey, for there’s no other way to be happy in Jesus, than to trust and obey.”   Obeying and trust go hand in hand. First, we sense God’s leading, the Spirit’s guidance. We acknowledge our fear and hesitation (it’s okay to feel whatever we are feeling). And then we take ONE step “off the map of certainty.” And God’s light expands, our way becomes clearer, and we get ready to take another step into the darkness.

Our trust of God is built on our experience of God’s faithfulness.

I think there are very few people who experience complete trust, complete faith all at once. Most of us develop it gradually, seeing a growth in our TRUST—growth that comes because God is always faithful when we trust in God!

Fear of Death

We all know the name of Woody Allen, a tragic comedian who has made an entire career of being afraid of death! I think part of his success is that he articulates what many people feel deep down inside. My favorite quote of his regarding death is this: “It’s not that I’m afraid to die, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”

Our faith tells us that we can trust God with our lives, and we can also trust God with our deaths.

I’ll finish today by telling you about a man who is not worried about death. (Maybe Woody Allen needs to talk to him!) He is an astute and respected sheriff, so his testimony has a ring of authority to it. He was interviewed by Dr. Janis Amatuzio who wrote a book called Beyond Knowing: Mysteries and Messages of Death and Life from a Forensic Pathologist. He told her, “Dying’s not the big deal people make it out to be. I drowned once.” (He didn’t say “almost drowned”—he said “drowned.”) This man had grown up on a lake. “My brothers and I spent just about every day of the summer swimming there and carrying on. We used to dive off the lifeguard tower and race to touch the bottom.” But that got too easy. He and his brothers added a new twist to the game. The tower’s legs (under water) were ladders. He and his brothers would weave back and forth between the rungs as they made their way to the surface. One day, just a few feet from the surface, he got stuck. He looked up and saw that his brother had made it. First he panicked. Then he blacked out. He later came to in a rescue boat after receiving mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.

Dr. Amatuzio asked him, “Do you remember anything from when you were unconscious?” And the conversation shifted gears.

The sheriff looked down. Something in his face changed. “Why, yes, I do. I don’t usually talk about it, but it’s as clear as if it were yesterday. I remember thinking, I’m going to die. I took in a large gulp of water, and all of a sudden, I was up above my body, looking down on it. There were beautiful colors everywhere. I felt sorry for my body, but I wasn’t worried about it. There was all sorts of activity. My brothers and the lifeguard were there. But I felt perfectly calm, and found myself speeding along above the surface of the water, toward someplace so near yet so perfect I never could have imagined it. Then, all of a sudden, I was jolted back into my body.”

The sheriff told her that what he remembered most was that when he came back from the stunningly vivid world he’d entered for a moment, everything in the regular world looked dull—as if he’d gone from a color movie to one in black and white. “You know, Doc, I know that you’re the coroner and see this stuff every day. You know that it bothers a lot of folks. But I’m not afraid of death. Not after what happened to me.”

It reminds me of The Wizard of Oz which starts out in black and white then moves to color as Dorothy opens the door on a new world. Friends, when we get to “open our doors” and come into the post-Covid-19 world, my prayer is that God will help us retain the good we’ve gained during this difficult time. And may God help us to trust that we are held in God’s hands for these days and for the future.

 

April 12, 2020

Resurrected with Christ                 Easter Sunday

Colossians 3:1-4   April 12, 2020   John 20:1-18

In the middle of the pandemic and all its heartaches and losses, I find myself taking immense pleasure in watching the crocuses and daffodils and hyacinths pop out of the ground and start sharing their cheerful colors! As much as I enjoy winter and snow and the bracing cold, I have been ready for spring, excited to go outside without a coat and smell the fresh earth and hear some birds singing!

Seeing these fresh little flowers reminds me of the days long past when I planted those bulbs. I had an idea that I would need these early blossoms someday, and I was right! I put those bulbs in the ground, knowing full well that they would disappear from sight and I would no longer possess them. I planted them as an act of faith, built on trust that God would work with them just as they needed. I also planted them with great expectations, because I’ve seen what happens when you put healthy bulbs into fertile soil and forget about them through the winter!

One of the favorite things in my ministry has been sharing with children. I love the time in worship when the kids come up for a little story time, we take turns planting some “little seeds” in them! One of my favorite stories through the years has been the one about the seeds that get planted—and die—and eventually grow up as plants that produce LOTS of seeds.

One year, I took some dusty old “Indian Corn” that Melissa had used as a decoration—and now was going to throw out—and I harvested the beautiful red, brown, black, and yellow seeds. I put four or five of them into several little sandwich bags, and on Sunday morning, I gave them to the children and advised them to plant them in the garden and watch them grow all summer. Then they could harvest their own “Indian Corn” and remember the story of how seeds planted in the ground die and then grow up to produce lots more seeds!

After the worship service, the children were rejoining their parents, and I asked one little boy if he was excited about planting his seeds. He said, “I ate mine!” (Kind of reminds me of the birds in the parable that ate up the seed that fell on the path!) Well, apparently this little boy didn’t quite get the point of what I was trying to convey:

Jesus was trying to help his disciples be prepared for his death. He explained to them, “I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” Letting go of the one seed opens up possibilities for many seeds. Indeed, when I dig up my crocuses and daffodils and hyacinths this fall, I will discover that the bulbs have multiplied—and I can divide them and spread them out and have even more blossoms next spring!

Our Scriptures for today are about letting go of our lives here on earth and trusting that God will work with them as needed—and will bring you and me into glorious bloom when the time is right!

Letting Go

John tells us that Mary Magdalene stood weeping outside the tomb. The angels asked her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” It’s kind of obvious, isn’t it? Jesus was her best friend, her teacher, her hope—and he had died. She had managed to keep away from his body on the Sabbath, but now she was determined to show him honor by anointing his body. (The text tells us that Peter and John had seen the empty tomb and believed, and had gone back to the upper room.) So Mary was alone when she saw Jesus standing there. She was so intent on finding a dead body, that she thought Jesus was the gardener, and asked if he knew where the body had been taken!

And all Jesus had to do was say her name, “Mary!” and she turned to him and said, “Teacher!!” Then Jesus sent her to tell the rest of the Disciples the Good News. (They were still grieving, after all.) So Mary had to LET GO of her previous focus—and obey the Master.

Jesus often challenged folks to let go of their current focus and accept a new focus. He said that whoever wants to save their life will lose it; and whosoever loses their life for him will find it. What good would it be to gain the whole world and lose one’s soul?

Friends, you and I are also being asked to let go of our demands of God:

  • That life be “fair” (or at least understandable to us);
  • That our priorities are honored above God’s infinite wisdom;
  • That our comfort level must never be transgressed!

Shifting Focus

There was a time years ago when I had to move “from Sailboat to Surrender.” It was a time when I was reading a lot of sailing magazines that were loaded with stories of people who were sailing all around the world. That life looked so inviting! And, of course, at the back of the magazines would be tons of advertising of “boats for sale.” I looked at those boats with longing and desire. But I noticed a growing discontent with my real life, and this drove me to prayer. In prayer, God convinced me to just let it go, to shift my focus, to seek God’s will, God’s Kingdom. I was much happier when I chose to obey The Master!

I thought about this when I looked at our Epistle Reading for this morning. Paul says, “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.” Think about it: earthly things are only temporary, while eternal things are (by definition) forever.

Paul says to put our focus on UPLIFTING things. Good advice in his day, as well as in this day of quarantines and isolation and sickness and loss. I understand that a bit of juicy gossip or some tantalizing entertainment might be tempting, but these earthly things drag us down.

We are better off if we focus on that which lifts us up. I love Paul’s advice to the Christians in Philippi: “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, pure, lovely, admirable—anything excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”

Your Life Is Hidden with Christ

Paul tells the Colossians, “Your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ (who is your life) is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.” It makes me think about Abraham’s faith. Paul tells us in Romans 4, “Hoping against hope, he believed that he would become ‘the father of many nations.’ He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God was able to do what God had promised.”

Just as a seed is hidden in the soil, Paul says that, in the same way, our real lives are hidden with Christ in God. And we understand that God works all things to GOOD. ALL things! Tragedies, mistakes, losses, personal and global difficulties—God finds a way to transform them for the good.

So, when Paul says, “You have been resurrected with Christ,” it means that we put our lives in God’s hands. Trusting. Hoping. Obeying. Confident in God’s provision for this world AND the next.

 

I will finish with a story. Many of you know the name of Marcia Gay Harden. She won an Oscar in 2001, but my favorite role was that of the “patient fiancé” of the Robin Williams character in Flubber! As a young actress, Marcia was waiting tables, trying to earn her Screen Actors Guild Union Card, and her entire focus was on breaking into the movies. Meanwhile, she was asked by the Make-A-Wish foundation to play the part of Snow White for Bonnie, a seven-year-old girl who was dying of cancer. Her final wish was to meet Snow White, and Marcia gladly accepted. She got a great costume and re-read the book, re-watched the Disney movie and buried herself thoroughly in the character. She could rattle off the names of all Seven Dwarfs without a hitch.

The hitch came when she was offered an audition with a big-name director on the same day that she was committed to play Snow White. There was no way to change either date. It was a moment of truth for Marcia. Her number one priority had always been making it in show business—but she just couldn’t back out on a dying little girl. She cancelled her audition and (with tears and sobs) dressed up as Snow White and went to the hospital.

When she went into Bonnie’s room, all her doubts about whether or not this was the right thing vanished. The little girl’s face lit up like a candy store as she said, “Snow White!” Suddenly, Marcia was no longer a struggling actress playing a part—she WAS Snow White! After they talked for a while, Bonnie took her hand and asked, “Snow White, when I die, will the prince kiss me and then I’ll wake up again?”

Listen to Marcia’s response, in her own words.

“How do you answer a child’s question like that? It had never struck me that Bonnie wanted to meet Snow White in order to answer a life-after-death question. What could I say to this brave, beautiful, honest girl? I closed my eyes for a second and tried to imagine what Bonnie must be feeling. How lonely it must be to be this young and this sick.

‘No, Bonnie, it’s even better. When you go to heaven, God will kiss you and then you’ll wake up again.’ At that moment in that hospital room with Bonnie, I knew that I was exactly where I was meant to be, playing exactly the role I was meant to play.”

Prayer: God, please give us courage to put our lives in your hands. Help us to shift our focus, and be ready to be planted like a seed that will bear fruit and bring glory to you.

April 5, 2020

The Humble Conqueror                  Palm Sunday

Philippians 2:5-11   April 5, 2020   Matthew 21:1-11

Mike and Barbara Weber were practically newlyweds when the Nazi army overran their village. Mike was given two choices: 1. Join their army, or 2. Be killed. He joined them, and fought half-heartedly beside them until the war was over. On VE Day, Mike was far from home, and he was in territory that the Russians controlled. Everyone knew of the horrors that awaited them if they surrendered to the Russians, so Mike began a perilous journey to the closest area held by the Americans—in order to surrender to them. When he finally reached them, the Americans treated him kindly. He was given food and a place to sleep. He was so utterly exhausted that he slept like a dead man. Unbeknownst to Mike, the Allied forces had divided up the conquered territory. And as he slept, the American tanks rumbled away and the Russian tanks took their places. All his efforts to flee to the friendly enemy were in vain, and he spent the next several years in a Russian prison.

Fleeing to the Friendly Enemy is the title of the book Barbara wrote about these turbulent years and their subsequent immigration to an apple-growing community in central Washington. It’s an amazing story of faith, adventure, tribulation, and victory, a story that celebrates God’s real victory on behalf of God’s children.

For years, I have been intrigued with the title of this book—Fleeing to the Friendly Enemy—because it puts two words into a startling juxtaposition. “Enemy” and “Friendly” are not usually used in tandem—and it causes my brain to do a “double-take” to consider them together. Friendly enemy.

Well, our Scripture readings for today point us toward another similar juxtaposition—that of The Humble Conqueror. In Matthew, we see Jesus riding into Jerusalem, hailed as the Son of David—and yet fulfilling the ancient prophecy of Zecharia in which the King would come as one who was gentle, humble, riding on a donkey (instead of the typical white horse of a conqueror).

In Philippians, we see another surprise: Christ as divine and yet humble as he assumed a human life—thus becoming ONE to whom every knee should bend and every tongue confess that he, Jesus Christ, is Lord!

Let’s take a look at how this Humble Conqueror gives us life and makes a difference in the way we live our lives.

An Enacted Parable

Let me begin by talking about how Jesus was getting people to understand the Kingdom of God. We’re all familiar with the parables he told—stories that illustrated some aspect of the Kingdom. Occasionally, he enacted parables in order to illustrate physically what he was trying to get across. Much of what Jesus had to do was to clear up misconceptions the people had regarding the Messiah. The people of Israel were expecting someone who would come in, kick out the Romans, and restore Israel to the “glory days” they once enjoyed! (Jesus had to set them straight, just as he has to set me straight when I have misguided expectations of God.)

Through most of his ministry, Jesus usually kept his full identity hushed up. He knew that people were ready to act prematurely on their wrong expectations of the Messiah. The time to reveal himself had to be just right, and he needed to show everyone Who He Was in a way that would make it clear that he was fulfilling the Biblical role of Messiah. The Prophet, Zechariah, had long foretold, “Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

When Jesus came into Jerusalem on a donkey, he was physically illustrating that he was NOT a warrior king, ready to drive out the Romans, but the humble king predicted by Zechariah. He was not going to force anyone to do anything. He was coming as a Conqueror, yes, but one who was humble and gentle.

And the people (gathered in Jerusalem) participated in this enacted parable—welcoming him with cries of “Hosanna to the son of David!” and with clothes and palm branches strewn on his path. It’s obvious that they did not immediately understand the full message, but we know that it takes time to process, to receive God’s message. Even Jesus in his prayer begs, “Lord, let this cup pass from me.” But he forges on with, “Not my will, but THY will be done.”

Humble Obedience

Our text from Philippians tells us that Christ Jesus did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself—humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death. I heard a great story about obedience. I call it “The Ant and the Contact Lens.” A group of college students were doing some rock climbing and one young woman lost a contact lens while she was ascending. She finished the climb, and the group rappelled back to the ground, and she started looking for it. She was about to give up, when she saw a flash of light that seemed to be moving. When she got closer, she saw that it was her contact being carried by an ant! The movement made it possible for her to locate it! That night, she told her father about this amazing thing, and it got her father to thinking. He drew a cartoon of an ant carrying a contact, talking to God: “God, why should I be carrying this thing? My family can’t eat it—it is of no value to us. But, since you tell me to, I will obey you and carry it.”

This illustrates the idea that God desires what is best for us, and our obedience is the way to receive God’s best. I love what James says: “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights.”

Many of you know the name of Booker T. Washington, the man tasked with developing the Tuskegee Institute. He was a man who was gifted beyond our imagination, but he was NOT puffed up with pride. He was always willing to do the hard labor required, and he instilled in the students at Tuskegee a LOVE of industry and productivity. Here’s a story about his humility:

One day, as he walked down the street, a white woman saw him and instructed him to split a pile of firewood for her. Without hesitation, he split the wood and stacked it nicely. When the woman found out that he was the President of the new Tuskegee Institute, she came to his office and apologized. He told her it was his pleasure to do it for her, and he won an ardent supporter for his school. (When she passed, her entire estate was left to Tuskegee!)

You see, in humility, you and I have a deep awareness of God’s gifts to us AND a willingness to submit those gifts to God’s purposes!

God Has A Dream for You

The good news, friends, is that God has a dream for you! No matter your gifts, no matter your limitations.

Helen Keller was both blind and deaf, but the power of language was unlocked for her by her teacher, Anne Sullivan. Helen became a woman of great faith. The Bible was a source of inspiration and instruction. One day, she questioned The Reverend Phillips Brooks:

“Why does the dear Father in heaven think it best for us to have very great sorrow sometimes?” She was not complaining, but humbly submitting to God. Helen Keller gave all of herself into God’s dream for her, and millions have been inspired to live fully because of her life!

So, how do you and I live into God’s dream for each of us? During this Covid-19 pandemic, we sense that our lives have been pinched down, limited, somehow diminished. How do we live fully? How do we discern God’s dream for us within all these limitations?

We can begin by acknowledging the Sovereignty of God—trusting that God is the Lord of the Universe, and that God is in control. Then we can trust all of our lives, our experiences, our mistakes, our gifts into God’s loving hands as we pray, “Not my will, but THY will be done.” Friends, you and I can count every difficulty as an opportunity to OBEY and to grow.

I’ll finish by taking us back to Mike Weber and how he fled to the “friendly enemy.” Friends, I believe we are being called to turn to the “humble conqueror” who entered Jerusalem on a donkey two thousand years ago. We will be wise to surrender to the One who has reconciled us to God. As Paul says in Colossians, “Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior. But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death in order to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation—as you continue in your faith.”

Prayer: God, we welcome your Sovereignty in our lives, and pray that every knee shall bend, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. Amen.

March 15, 2020

From Theory to Practice         3rd Lent

Romans 5:1-11     March 15, 2020     John 4:5-42

Anyone who has been around church for awhile knows most of the basic theory of Christianity—love your neighbor as yourself, feed the poor, visit the sick and imprisoned, love God with all your heart, do unto others as you would have them do unto you. We know the drill, and we can talk about the theory, the precepts all day long—but it’s the practice that sometimes has us stumped.

If you wanted to fly a plane, you would enroll in ground school and learn all the rules, principles, and techniques of flying. Then you would advance to flight training where you are flying a plane with a qualified instructor. Once you’ve completed your hours and the instructor sees that you are ready, you solo—you fly the plane all by yourself!

Following Jesus is very much the same: We study the book to learn the principles of discipleship; we walk with other disciples as we develop our faith; and the rest of our lives we practice the faith we have learned! Paul tells the Romans that the practice of our faith often includes suffering, producing endurance, which then produces character and hope. Our Gospel lesson shows an example of how you and I might live out our faith—how to go from theory to practice! We get to see Jesus interacting with a Samaritan woman and modeling a core principle for us. I see this text as a challenge to go and do likewise! Let’s look at that exchange, and see what we can learn.

Why Hate the Samaritans?

First, you must understand this: “Good” Jews from Judea and Galilee hated the Samaritans. Let me give you a brief history lesson to explain.

When the twelve tribes moved into the Promised Land, each was assigned a territory to first conquer and then inhabit. As time passed, Israel was divided into two Kingdoms, the Northern (Israel) and the Southern (Judah). Each Kingdom experienced international politics and alliances and invasions. The Southern Kingdom of Judah managed to remain intact and, even when invaded by other nations, kept their traditions of remaining separate from Gentiles. They were strictly Kosher, and they had Jerusalem as their CENTER, plus the area of Galilee.

But the Northern Kingdom (which includes Samaria) was flooded with conquerors, and they intermarried with the conquering population. They developed their own branch of the Jewish religion, and they had their own mountain on which to worship. (They were not welcome to worship in Jerusalem with all the “purebloods”.)

By the time of Jesus, there was very active hatred between Judah and Samaria. If the good people of Judah needed to travel beyond Samaria to Galilee in the north, they preferred to skirt around into Gentile territory, rather than risk interacting with those “filthy half-breeds”! The Samaritans were the people that Judeans loved to hate.

It’s a human propensity, isn’t it, to find our unity in a shared DIS-like?! And, of course, we want to think that God is “on our side.” During the American Civil War, someone said to Abraham Lincoln, “God is on our side.” To which Lincoln responded, “I hope that we are on God’s side.” I love what Anne Lamott says: “You can tell you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do!”

Jesus Models Relationship

Let’s take a look at how Jesus lived his life. 1. When he called his disciples, he invited radically different people into his inner circle. There was a tax collector and at least one or two zealots (who hated tax collectors!) There was a scholar from Judah (Judas Iscariot) and there were several fishermen from Galilee. Jesus helped these followers to overcome barriers—to be united.

  1. Jesus led his disciples into Gentile lands. I can just hear their warnings: “Be careful, Jesus!” He took them into the Decapolis, a ten-city region east of the Sea of Galilee (mostly Gentile). He led them into the area known as Syro-Phoenecia (a Gentile area north of Galilee).
  2. Jesus talked with women! In his culture, men only spoke with women who were part of their family. You notice that, when the disciples came back to the well with some fixins for lunch, “they were astonished that he was speaking with a woman.” But with this woman, and the Syro-Phoenician woman, Jesus was leaping over cultural barriers in a single bound!
  3. Jesus humbled himself in order to engage with people. With the Samaritan woman at the well, he put himself in a position of need, desiring a drink from the well. [When I was working with dorm chaplains at Whitworth, we talked about how to establish a relationship with someone in the dorm. We suggested that they take an empty mug, knock on their door, and ask, “Do you have any hot chocolate?” Most people would say, “Sure! Come on in!” and the relationship could get off to a good start.] Jesus put himself in a position of need. Then, as he talked with the Samaritan woman, Jesus led the conversation to a deeper level, until they addressed her true need. He empowered her to spread the word to the whole village, and they came to hear Jesus for themselves. And the text says, “Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony.” They asked him to stay with them, and he stayed for 2 days. And many more believed because of his word!
  4. In the Relationship Model, one only needs to spread the Good News to those who are nearest, and the Word will go out in an ever-expanding circle.

Going from Theory to Practice

I would just like you to start thinking about the people that God has put you near. Think about your neighbors, your friends, your co-workers, people in your clubs and organizations. These are what I would call “continuing contacts,” because you have an ongoing relationship with them.

Think also about your short-term contacts: people you sit next to on a long airplane ride; folks standing in line with you at the store; others waiting at the doctor’s office. These brief contacts are also important!

Becky Pippert was working for Intervarsity, providing ministry to students at two universities in Oregon. On one bus trip between schools, Becky sat next to Maxine, a woman who seemed pretty hard and “crusty”—not the kind of person who would be interested in a conversation about spiritual matters. So Becky took out her yellow pad and began making notes about a talk she was going to give. Maxine asked, “What are you working on?” Becky just tried to deflect her with a short answer, but Maxine persisted. Finally, Becky gave in and told her the brief outline of the content she hoped to share. And this opened a deeper conversation. Maxine explained that she had a gentleman friend who had lived in the city they were headed to. When he didn’t show up for a date, she began phoning his neighbors to check on him. They reported that he had been found dead in his apartment. Maxine told Becky that she had been lying awake all night, asking questions of the dark, seeking to understand something about the meaning of life. So, she and Becky had a deeply significant conversation. Becky tells this story to remind us that one can never judge another person’s openness to conversations about life issues!

Jesus was trying to tell the Disciples the same thing. Right there among the Samaritans, Jesus told them, “Look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting!”

And what is Jesus saying to you and to me? He is saying that relationships are primary; that caring and listening and respecting and honoring are part of our ministry to the world; that the Good News is transmitted person-to-person as we embody Christ; that Christ, who indwells you, has something he wants to do through you!

Friends, I will close with this thought. You and I are disciples, and a disciple is one who is LEARNING from the Master. We are learning how to go from theory to practice. We are discovering that, in the context of a caring relationship, we can speak about God’s care for us. We can pray for those whom God has put into our lives. We can make ourselves available to be salt and light in whatever way God wants to use us. And we will only get better with practiceJ

February 23, 2020

Eyewitnesses of God’s Majesty              Transfiguration

2 Peter 1:16-21   February 23, 2020   Matthew 17:1-9

My mother was born and raised in Missouri (or “Missour-uh”), a state that is apparently proud of its skepticism. If Mom didn’t exactly believe what she was being told, she would say, “I’m from Missouri. You’ll have to show me.” I didn’t exactly understand until I saw their license plates—The Show-Me State!

We are told, “You can’t believe everything you hear.” (Especially true during an election cycle!) You certainly can’t believe everything you read, and sometimes it’s difficult to believe what you do see (especially if you’re from Missour-uh).

I read a story in the January 2013 issue of Guideposts magazine. The author, Dr. Ralph S. Harlow, began by establishing his credibility, referring to his numerous testimonies in courtrooms and, in other ways, making it clear that he was not a “crackpot”! Then he went on to relate an incident that took place when he and his wife were walking through a park. They heard beautiful voices approaching from behind them, growing closer very quickly. When they looked for the source of the voices, they saw a group of angels flying not far above their heads. When the angels had passed out of sight, he asked his wife in a stunned voice, “What did you just see?!” He knew he wasn’t imagining things when she described the exact same thing!

As blessed as he was to have seen this marvelous sight, it put him in a bit of a pickle. How in the world could he tell other people—stable, steady people—about this experience? Would they think he was starting to go—“around the bend”?

In our Scripture readings today, we have the story of Jesus and a few disciples going up onto what is referred to as “The Mount of Transfiguration.” Peter was so awestruck by the event that he started jabbering, “Wow! It’s great to be here! Let’s put up some shelters!” In Mark and Luke, there is a parenthetical statement that Peter was so frightened that he didn’t know what he was saying! But, by the time Peter’s second epistle was written, the voice was more reasonable and calm: “We had been eyewitnesses of his majesty” and “we heard the voice from heaven, ‘This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’”

Friends, I don’t know if you have ever seen anything quite as astonishing as the Transfiguration, or a flock of angels flying immediately overhead, or even just one angel doing something in your life—but we have experiences like this recorded in our sacred Scriptures and we need to take a serious look at them.

Seeing the Unbelievable

Let’s look first at our human condition. We are hugely aware that there is more “out there” than we can begin to understand—things that we cannot clearly perceive simply because we do not have the capacity to observe them. So we cling to our “Missourian” attitude and pretend there is nothing beyond what we can see, hear, smell, or feel.

As a result, our response to anything Supernatural is usually FEAR. (This is why angels usually begin their message with “Don’t be afraid!”) Something about being in the Presence shakes our self-confidence.

Our Scriptures have plenty of accounts of human encounters with the supernatural. One of my favorites is found in 2 Kings 6. The king of Aram has sent an army to capture Elisha, and when Elisha’s servant saw them, he said, “Alas, master! What shall we do?” He replied, “Do not be afraid, for there are more with us than there are with them.”
Then Elisha prayed: “O Lord, please open his eyes that he may see.” So the Lord opened the eyes of the servant, and he saw; the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha!

Friends, you and I are very much like that servant—and like Peter, James and John. We acknowledge that there are heavenly beings all around, but we certainly don’t expect to SEE any!

On the Mountain

Because they knew the history of their people, the Disciples were aware that Elijah never died, but was taken away by a chariot of fire. And they were familiar with Deuteronomy 34 that says that Moses died, that God buried him, but to this day no one knows where his grave is. But they certainly didn’t expect to see these heroes of ancient times talking face-to-face with their Master! (Their lack of understanding makes perfect sense.)

There was also the issue of the Radiance on the face of Jesus: “His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.” Perhaps they remembered from Exodus 34 that, when Moses came down from Mt. Sinai, his face was so radiant that he had to wear a veil to keep from scaring the Israelites. Perhaps all these things came to mind on resurrection morning, when an angel of the Lord rolled back the stone in front of the tomb and sat on it. “His appearance was lightning, and his clothes were white as snow.”

Our text from Matthew tells us that Jesus was talking with Moses and Elijah. Wouldn’t you love to know what they said to each other? Most scholars agree that heading for Jerusalem was a little bit suicidal, and that perhaps Moses and Elijah were confirming with Jesus both his identity and his direction, and were giving him the encouragement he would need to follow the path to death on the cross. And, indeed, Jesus “set his face for Jerusalem.”

Be Attentive!

The text tells us that a bright cloud (God) overshadowed them, and a voice interrupts Peter’s babbling. It said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” If there had been even a shadow of a doubt, there was no place for it now. Absolute certainty reigned! The disciples still fell down in fear.

Then Jesus touched them and said, “Get up and do not be afraid.”   Then he instructed them to keep quiet about this vision until he had been raised from the dead.

So it makes sense that Peter writes about this in his second epistle. Now remember, Peter had his ups and downs (and don’t we all?!) He denied Jesus three times, and seems to have lost his bearings during the trial and crucifixion. But Jesus restored him, and gave him opportunities to do great things! So he writes in our text for today, “We had been eyewitnesses of his majesty, and we ourselves heard this voice come from heaven.”

I think that one of the things Peter was trying to say was, “Be attentive to what God is trying to say to you!” He writes, “You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place.” From his own experience on the Mount of Transfiguration, he might tell us, “Lay aside your agenda, and listen to God’s Son.” Or he might say, “Open your eyes to things that are beyond the ordinary.”

We can only imagine the effect this experience had on Peter. We do know that he went on to be a central figure in the early church, and was Paul’s partner in bringing the Gospel to Gentiles, opening the doors of the church to “outsiders.” I believe he carried this experience with him the rest of his life.

And what about Dr. Harlow and his wife, Marion (the folks who saw the angels flying past in the park)? He says that his faith took on a fresh perspective, and that he was filled with wonderful hope. It gave him an assurance about the future, as well as a sense of adventure. He writes, “Who can say that the time will not come when, even to those who live here upon earth, the unseen worlds shall no longer be unseen?”

Friends, you and I are surrounded with God’s reality, and we need to be shaken up occasionally, reminded that “those who are with us outnumber those who are against us.” As God opens our eyes to see the amazing things God is doing right in our modern, skeptical world, you and I will be eyewitnesses of God’s majesty. And we’ll be ready to testify to a world that is desperate to experience God’s touch.

Prayer: Open our eyes, Lord. Open our ears. And open our hearts to a world that does not yet see or hear. We ask in the name of Jesus. Amen.

 

February 9, 2020

Passing Along the Blessing             5th Epiphany

Genesis 12:1-4a     February 9, 2020     John 3:1-17

Think for just a moment about all the times you have given someone some money, and they have said, “I’ll pay it back!” It’s the normal way things are done. Now I’d like you to hear a few lines from a letter written in 1784—from Benjamin Franklin to Benjamin Webb:

“I do not pretend to give such a Sum; I only lend it to you. When you…meet with another honest Man in similar Distress, you must pay me by lending this sum to him; enjoining him to discharge the Debt by a like operation, when he shall be able, and shall meet with another opportunity. I hope it may thus go thro’ many hands, before it meets with a Knave that will stop its Progress. This is a trick of mine for doing a deal of good with a little money.”

The same theme was used by Robert A. Heinlein in his book, Between Planets, published in 1951. When a character is told, “I’ll pay it back, first chance,” the response is, “Instead, pay it forward to some other brother who needs it.” This term, pay it forward, is now the title of a book—and a movie—and a movement to encourage people to do good things for others in response to the good they themselves have received. It’s a good thing!

It sounds an awful lot like “Passing along the blessing”—which is a basic principle of our Judeo-Christian faith! You heard in our reading from Genesis 12, in God’s original call to Abram: “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.

Then, in our Gospel reading, we hear Jesus talking to Nicodemus, and he says, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world may be saved through him.”

So, we take these two passages together (blessed to be a blessing and God sent the Son to save the world) and we see that God has blessed us with a fountain of life through Jesus Christ and now we might then “pass along the blessing” to others!

[You’ll be pleased to know that that is my sermon for todayJ Feel free to snooze or read or just let your imagination run around, if you wish, while I simply tell stories that illustrate the central theme!]

Greg Mortenson is a man who stumbled into a new life almost three decades ago. He had been a part of an international team that had tried to climb K2 (the second-highest mountain in the world) in northern Pakistan. As the medical person on the team, he and a partner had thoroughly exhausted themselves rescuing another team member who had gotten into a life-threatening situation. Once they had brought him down to an elevation low enough for a helicopter to pick him up, Mortenson was left to take himself down off the ice to the nearest outcropping of civilization.

His own personal reserves were so depleted that he got lost and might have died himself, had he not “accidentally” stumbled into a humble village of mud huts inhabited by extremely hospitable people. They took him in; they nursed him back to health; and he found himself wanting to do something for them. Because the children had no school, Greg committed himself to raising funds and building them a school.

Now, if you wish to read about this for yourself, let me commend an excellent book to you. It’s entitled Three Cups of Tea, and, even though it has been criticized for some technical inaccuracies, I guarantee that you will be spellbound by it! You’ll discover how the wisdom of the village chief helped Greg to grow into a person who built schools right in the middle of a hotbed of Islamic fundamentalism—schools that educate girls as well as boys—schools that are fighting the root causes of terrorism and are promoting true peace in a part of the world that has known too much war. Greg Mortenson paid his debt forward in a way that is having a tremendous effect in our world!

Remember, when God called Abram and promised a blessing, he also promised this: “In you, all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” Indeed, Abraham’s family has been a central vessel for God’s blessing down through the centuries—blessing that has been extended to every person on the planet. And, as Jesus told Nicodemus, this includes the gracious gift of eternal life.

Some years ago, a young man stopped in a rainstorm to help an older woman whose vehicle was broken down. He took her to safety, helped arrange the needed repairs, and got her a taxi. She was in a hurry, but she got his address and thanked him. Seven days later, a large television was delivered to his home with a note that read: “Thank you so much for assisting me on the highway the other night. The rain drenched not only my clothes but also my spirits. Then you came along. Because of you, I was able to make it to my dying husband’s bedside just before he passed away. God bless you for helping me and unselfishly serving others. Sincerely, Mrs. Nat King Cole.”

 

Now, friends, I am NOT suggesting that we go out and be a blessing to others expecting to be blessed in return—not at all. In fact, Jesus told us that we are to reach out to people who are NOT able to “pay us back.”   But you already understand that it is impossible to do something for someone else—to bless them—without getting blessed as well! As Sir James Matthew Barrie once said, “Those who bring sunshine to the lives of others cannot keep it from themselves.” Just be advised that there will be times when we respond to God’s grace and love by trying to pass along the blessing, and it won’t be well-received (or we won’t see any results). And while that is disappointing, I urge you to not get discouraged. LEAVE THE RESULTS UP TO GOD. After all, it’s the Holy Spirit that moves in us and in the ones we wish to bless—and, just like the wind, it blows where it chooses and when it chooses. We leave the results in God’s hands. We just need to be certain that we are not what Benjamin Franklin would call “Knaves” by simply failing to pass along the blessing!

I want to finish with a story about a little boy who took delight in blessing a poor friend. Marty was an eight-year-old who was deaf in his left ear—which caused him to cock his head like a puppy when he listened to you. His best friend was Kenny, a boy from a desperately poor family on the other side of the horse pasture. Together, they would slip under the electric fence and go exploring, catching frogs, searching for arrowheads. In the weeks leading up to Christmas, Marty was carefully tucking away his tiny allowance, never spending a penny.

Right before Christmas, he showed his mother the pocket compass he had bought for his friend. She knew how proud his mother was, and how she would never let him receive a gift that he was unable to reciprocate. So Marty hatched a plan—a plan to give Kenny the gift in secret. On a rainy Christmas Eve, he slipped out the door, his coat over his pajamas, slid under the electric fence, sneaked up onto Kenny’s porch, left the gift, and took off running for home. Then, suddenly, he banged into the electric fence. He lay stunned on the wet ground. Then slowly, weakly, he began the grueling trip back home. “Marty! What happened?!”

“I forgot about the fence, and it knocked me down!” He was still dazed and there was a red mark beginning to blister on his face from his mouth to his ear. His mother treated the blister, and soothed him with a cup of cocoa, and his bright spirits returned. “Mom, Kenny didn’t see me. I’m sure he didn’t see me!”

By morning the rain had stopped and the sun was shining. The streak on Marty’s face was very red, but the burn was not serious. The family was opening presents when Kenny appeared, excited to show Marty his new compass, saying that he had no idea who gave it to him. Marty just smiled and smiled. And while the two of them happily chatted away, his mother noticed that Marty was not cocking his head—he seemed to be listening with his deaf ear. The school nurse later confirmed what they already knew—Marty now had complete hearing in both ears!

Friends, we might get knocked down when we try to Pass Along the Blessing, but we are blessed to be a blessing!

Prayer: God, we sometimes take our blessings for granted and forget to pass them along. Help us, God, to find our joy by sharing your blessings with others. In the name of Christ, amen.

February 2, 2020

The Light: Foolish Wisdom            4th Epiphany

1 Corinthians 1:18-31   February 2, 2020     Matthew 5:1-12

Who is your favorite fool? If you’re a fan of Shakespeare, it might be Falstaff. If you watch a lot of re-runs, it could well be Gilligan. Attending a “Riders in the Sky” concert at Cowboy Poetry gatherings introduced me to Sourdough Slim! Your favorite fool might be someone as famous as Red Skelton, or as little-known as the person you live with or the person you see in the mirror!

MY favorite fool is Peregrine Took, a character in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Known as “Pippin” or “Pip”, he and Meriadoc Brandybuck are first seen (in the film version) sneaking fireworks out of Gandalf’s cart and setting them off—nearly incinerating themselves in the process! Pip and Merry are Hobbits, and you need to know that Hobbits are famous for the amount of food they eat, and the number of meals they enjoy each day. They accompany Frodo Baggins on his quest to destroy the evil Ring, and Pippin asks their leader, “What about breakfast?” When reminded that they’ve already had breakfast, he asks, “What about second breakfast? Elevensies? Luncheon? Dinner? Afternoon tea? Supper? (It’s important to have some comic relief in this intense story!) Pip’s role as fool becomes even more clear as part of their journey takes them through the vast Mines of Moria, a place loaded with deadly orcs. In this place fraught with danger, Pippin accidentally knocks some stuff down a deep well and makes a horrific noise, which of course attracts the orcs. Gandalf says, “Fool of a Took! Next time, why don’t you throw yourself down the well?!”

We all know that, out of the mouths of babes and fools comes a surprising wisdom. In trying to convince Treebeard the Ent to take them closer to the enemy’s tower, Pip says, “The closer we are to danger, the further we are from harm!” Sounds like nonsense, but somehow Pippin makes it plausible!

In a much-later conversation with Gandalf, a more serious Pippin asks him, “Is there any hope for Frodo?” And Gandalf answers, “There never was much hope—only a fool’s hope.” And yet it was on that hope that they based their courage to take action and face apparently insurmountable odds.

Just as writers put fools into literature, God puts fools into the picture to help convey truths that more serious-minded folks would never get across!

The Apostle Paul writes to the Corinthians, “We are fools for Christ.” You know, Paul didn’t get to be a fool overnight. Oh, no, he started out taking himself very seriously. It took a long time for him to learn that the world’s wisdom is truly foolishness, and that things that seem foolish often turn out to be true wisdom.

Our Gospel reading today has The Beatitudes, a series of teachings from Jesus that all begin, “Blessed are…” You have probably heard these for years, and never questioned them. But, if you look closely, many of them seem like absolute nonsense.

Our Epistle reading begins by saying, “our message is foolishness, but it is the saving power of God.”

Let’s explore these texts and see how God uses that which seems foolish to shed light on those who are struggling with darkness!

Worldly Wisdom versus God’s Wisdom

Let’s start with The Choosing of the Twelve Disciples. The world would say, “Choose some savvy, well-educated people of power and influence, then train them up and leave the message with them.” Instead, Jesus chose a motley assortment of largely uneducated, humble followers.

(Judas Iscariot was the only one who met the world’s criteria!)

The world would suggest that God send a big, conquering army. But God sent a tiny, helpless baby.

Job heard God say, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise. Where is the one who is truly wise?”

Don’t you see? There is our way, and then there is God’s way.

Paradoxical Preaching (Matthew)

Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit—theirs is the kingdom of heaven!” You know how much I love “Fiddler on the Roof.” Tevia (the main character) has so much wisdom to share, despite the fact that he is a humble milkman. He says, “It’s no shame to be poor, but it’s no great honor, either!” For the people that Jesus was teaching, there was definitely a belief that poor people deserved to be poor, and those who were rich were simply being rewarded for a righteous life. Jesus was trying to reverse this misunderstanding. Paul sums it up best in his first letter to Timothy: “Instruct those who are rich in this present world not to be conceited or to fix their hope on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly supplies us with all things to enjoy.” Blessed are the poor—theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven!

Jesus said, “Blessed are the meek—they will inherit the earth.” In modern parlance, the word “meek” usually conveys images of folks who are “mousey” or “doormats.” But Jesus here means “humble people—those who are not always demanding their rights.” Blessed are the meek.

The world says, “Hate your enemies, humiliate those who hurt you, get your revenge.” The Gospel says to love our enemies, do good to them, pray for them; win them over to friendship; blessed are the peacemakers.

Jesus said, “Blessed are those who are persecuted—theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.” This one is kind of hard to relate to. The first century church certainly knew what it was to be persecuted for being righteous. You and I get a small taste of it when the world demands of us, “Dance to our tune!” But God says we should march to the beat of a different drummer. If we DO suffer for following Christ, Jesus says to rejoice and be glad—that we will have our great reward.

The Foolishness of the Cross (1 Corinthians)

Paul asks the Corinthians, “Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” He understood that the world develops its own criteria. And he cites examples: “The Jews demand signs, and the Greeks desire wisdom. But [instead] we proclaim Christ crucified, which is a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles…God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.”

This is a lesson that Paul had learned the hard way. In Acts 17, we read about the time when he was in Athens (the center of art and culture and “wisdom” in that day), and he was invited to speak to the elite in the Areopagus. This is like playing Madison Square Gardens and Carnegie Hall! He made a very clever presentation, with eloquence and persuasiveness—but he got very few responses. These folks loved to discuss great ideas, but taking action was quite another thing. And, have you noticed that there is no letter from Paul “to the Athenians”? His cleverness, his eloquence—“the world’s wisdom”—had failed. By the time he wrote this first letter to the church in Corinth, Paul had learned that human wisdom judges incorrectly. God’s “foolishness” is wiser than human wisdom!

So Paul says, “Look at yourselves. Not many of you are wise by human standards. Not many are powerful, or of noble birth. But God chose what is “foolish” in the world to shame the “wise”; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong!”

Friends, listen carefully to what the Spirit is saying: The wisdom of the world (into which you and I have been so thoroughly conditioned) will not make much sense in the life of faith. Jesus says, “If you want to save your life, you will lose it…but if you are ready to give your life, it will be saved.” Don’t be surprised when God’s light shines out from something that seems like foolishness!

I’ll finish with this thought from chapter 3 of First Corinthians: “Do not deceive yourselves. If any one of you thinks he or she is wise by the standards of this age, they should become a “fool” so that they may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight!”

Prayer: God, you gave us a brain, and we need to develop it and use it. But there are times when we have to abandon conventional wisdom and be responsive to your Spirit. Please, help us Lord, to be sensitive to your leading, to be foolish enough step out in faith to follow you. We pray in the name of Christ, Amen.

January 26, 2020

A Mission Shared

Isaiah 9:1-14   January 26, 2020   Matthew 4:12-23

We’ve talked before about what it is like to live with a 2-year-old. Can you remember? Two-year-olds are famous for having learned how to say “NO!”—it’s an important step in their early development (even if it IS frustrating to their family). Another thing kids often learn to say, around the age of 2, is “I DO IT!” You’re trying to help them put on a coat or color a page or select a toy, and they assert their newfound independence and confidence by politely telling you that they are capable of performing this task—saying, “I DO IT!” Okay.

Of course, we understand that part of the process of becoming a complete, well-rounded human being is to learn to do things for ourselves:

  • Take responsibility
  • Learn initiative
  • Follow through
  • Speak up for yourself

But there’s another part of the process: learning to ask for help, and being willing to accept help from others.

Further, there’s the aspect of partnering with other people, helping them to accomplish their goals, engaging in their lives in an appropriate fashion (not barging in and taking over!) You see, God has designed us to be independent in some things and INTER-dependent in many others. This is God’s design for our well-lived lives!

Both of today’s Scripture readings pivot on one aspect of our growth as human beings and as believers—that of being called into a partnership in God’s mission. Friends, God has big plans and objectives, and God chooses to allow us to be part of a partnership in God’s work! When you read the Bible, you see that “partnering with God” is a strong theme that runs through the Scriptures—and I want to look at some of those partnerships as we explore what it means for each of us to share in God’s mission. Let’s take a look.

Called to Partnership

The Prophet, Isaiah, had a vision of seeing the Lord in the temple. He agonized that he was “a man of unclean lips,” and he saw a seraph take a live coal and touch his lips saying, “Your guilt is taken away.” Then he heard the Lord say, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” and Isaiah’s response was “Here am I. Send me!” And God DID send him.

Then there was Samuel. As a youngster, I was enthralled by the story of the calling of Samuel. He was a young boy, serving in the temple at Shiloh—and he heard the Lord calling his name in the middle of the night. He thought it was just old Eli, the Priest. But after the third time of going to Eli, asking what he wanted, Eli finally understood that it was the Lord who was calling Samuel. He advised him, “Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening’.” Samuel did this, and the Lord gave him an earful, and thus began a long partnership with God!

One of the things the Scriptures tell us about God is that, even though God is all-powerful and can do anything God likes without help from any living creature, God prefers to work with us to accomplish God’s purposes! It’s just part of God’s generous nature, this desire to let us in on the fun and the joy of being a part of God’s work!

Follow Me, and I Will Make You Fish for People

In the Gospel reading today, we heard how Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, saw Simon (later to be known as Peter) and his brother, Andrew, casting a net into the sea. Jesus called out to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” They dropped their nets and followed him. Two other brothers, James and John, were in the boat with their dad, mending their nets. Jesus called them, and they left the boat and their dad and followed him. This seems fairly incredulous! These guys are minding their own business (literally), and Jesus calls out to them and they drop everything and become his Disciples! This kind of thing just doesn’t happen. I grew up thinking that I must not be much of a Christian, because I probably wouldn’t respond to such a radical call “out of the blue”! And THAT is why I am so grateful for the other Gospel writers. One writer gives us details that we don’t get from the others. When we look at the Gospel of John, we see that 1. Andrew was a follower of John the Baptizer; 2. John urged him to talk with Jesus; 3. He had a conversation with Jesus; 4. He had gone to his brother, Simon, saying, “We have found the Messiah!”; and 5. He had taken his brother to introduce him to Jesus; then 6. Simon and Jesus had a conversation that indicated some future relationship!

So, the call of Jesus to those fishermen didn’t come in a vacuum, “out of the blue.” It came in the context of a relationship. They already had a relationship, and it would be easy to imagine that Simon, Andrew, James, and John had been eagerly anticipating the moment when Jesus would give them the signal that he was ready for them. That moment came after Jesus’ own baptism, after his time of temptation in the wilderness, when John the Baptizer was arrested and imprisoned by Herod. (And we all know the gruesome ending of that chapter in the history of our faith!)

Jesus began his public ministry with the calling of the disciples to be his partners in a great campaign, a huge mission to fulfill God’s purpose. And I proclaim to you today that Christ continues to call partners. Christ is calling you and is calling me. The problem is that there are some barriers to that partnership. Do I believe that God wants to partner with me to do God’s will? YES! But there are days when I don’t ACT like I believe it. Those are the days when I am more like a two-year-old, saying “I DO IT!” I forget to partner with God, and I charge ahead under my own steam doing what I think ought to be done. I DO IT! And then, of course, there are days when I just have my own agenda to pursue, and I am deaf to God’s invitation to be a partner in God’s work. “God, you can do that without me.” Another barrier is my imperfect perception of my gifts and abilities. I stand with Moses, protesting that my speaking is not eloquent enough—please, send someone else. I relate to Jeremiah who said, “Ah, Sovereign Lord, I do not know how to speak: I am only a child.” And I join with Ananias who, when told to go lay hands on Saul and pray for him, thought it was necessary to inform God about what kind of dangerous man Saul was!

So many barriers for God to overcome, just getting us to let God share God’s wonderful work!

I try to fill my mind with a visual image—an image of God using me (an imperfect tool) to do God’s perfect work. I imagine myself as a scalpel in the hands of a gifted surgeon—a scalpel that is not too sharp on my own, but one that is being sharpened for the healing surgery about to take place. In the hands of a master, an imperfect instrument can still do miraculous things!

I love that old poem by Myra Brooks Welch called, “The Touch of the Master’s Hand.” It goes like this:

It was battered and scarred, and the auctioneer thought it hardly worth his while, to waste his time on the old violin, but he held it up with a smile.

“What am I bid, good people,” he cried, “Who’ll start the bidding for me? One dollar, one dollar, Do I hear two? Two dollars, who’ll make it three? Three dollars once, three dollars twice, going for three,” but NO!

From the room far back a gray-haired man came forward and picked up the bow. Then wiping the dust from the old violin and tightening up the strings, He played a melody, pure and sweet, as sweet as the angel sings.

“One thousand, one thousand, do I hear two? Two thousand, who’ll make it three? Three thousand once, three thousand twice, going and gone!” said he.

The audience cheered, but some of them cried, “We just don’t understand. What changed it’s worth?” Swift came the reply, “the Touch of the Master’s Hand.”

And many a man with soul out of tune, all battered and scarred by sin, is auctioned cheap to a thoughtless crowd, much like that old violin.

A mess of pottage, a glass of wine, a game and he travels on. He is going once, he is going twice, he is going and almost gone.

But the Master comes, and the foolish crowd can never quite understand The worth of a soul and the change that is wrought by the Touch of the Master’s Hand.

(You may find it interesting to know that the young woman who wrote this poem was so crippled with arthritis that she was confined to a wheelchair. She composed her poems on a typewriter, grasping an inverted pencil in both hands in order to press the keys. Despite her pain, her “disability,” God used her in a mighty way to be a blessing to generations of people!)                                                                                Are you ready to partner with God?!

January 19, 2020

The Light Is the Lamb           Epiphany 2

Isaiah 49:1-7   January 19, 2020     John 1:29-42

There’s a story about a young fellow who had a habit of skipping out on church. He would go across the street and play pinball with the money his folks had given him for the offering. But he was careful to stand near the preacher as people were filing out so that he could pick up on some snippets of conversation about the sermon. He needed to do this so that, during Sunday dinner, he could discuss the sermon as if he had been there to hear it for himself!

But one Sunday, he was late getting back to the church, and wasn’t able to pick up anything. At dinner, his father asked, “Well, what was the sermon about today?” He thought up a lie, and he blurted it out quick. “It was about sin!” His father pressed him: “And how does the preacher feel about sin?” “Well, he’s against it!”

Friends, we all know about churches where SIN is the main topic, and folks are “guilted” into repentance and commitment (or maybe frightened into it). So you may have noticed that we veer away from topics like sin and evil, and instead try to focus on the positive aspects of a life of faith. Last week, we explored darkness and the promise of Light for our darkness, our blindness. In this week’s texts, we have Isaiah reiterating the expectation of light, when God says “I will give you as a light to the nations that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” And, in the Gospel of John, we are told that John the Baptizer saw Jesus and exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”

Before I can get all excited about a lamb who takes away the sin of the world, I need to be upset by the fact that there IS sin in the world! I can start by seeing sin “out there” in other people. For instance: when I read that people have enslaved others, I am overwhelmed with disgust and shame for the human race! And I am reminded that there are children in this country who are kept as slaves, used for unspeakable purposes, and traded around to different “owners” as if they were personal property. I can see the evil there.

And once I have opened my eyes to the evil around me, the next step is to see that the evil within me is part and parcel with that evil. When I can look squarely at my own sin, then I know that there is SIN that needs to be taken away. At that point, John’s proclamation, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” starts to take on meaning.

Why a Lamb?

You may be asking, “Why a lamb? Why not a LION?!” You and I are partial to images of power. Couldn’t a lion overthrow our enemies, and show that God is victorious?

Then we come to Paul’s testimony that the power of God is perfected in weakness. He wrote to the Corinthians that he had been given “a thorn in the flesh”, and he asked the Lord 3 times for relief. God’s answer to Paul was this: “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” Huh. So, how do we overthrow our enemies? How will God be victorious?

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gives us an example in his book, Stride Toward Freedom. In talking about non-violent resistance, he says “it is not a method for cowards; it does resist.”

Then he goes on, “A second basic fact that characterizes nonviolence is that it does not seek to defeat or humiliate the opponent, but to win his friendship and understanding. The nonviolent resister must often express his protest through non-cooperation or boycotts, but he realizes that these are not ends in themselves; they are merely means to awaken a sense of moral shame in the opponent. The [desired] end is redemption and reconciliation. The aftermath of nonviolence is the creation of the beloved community, while the aftermath of violence is tragic bitterness.”

Isaiah Chosen as a Light

Our theme during these weeks right after Epiphany is LIGHT. Think about these candles we have burning here. In a brightly-lit room, their effect is mostly ceremonial, symbolic. But a single candle burning in total darkness is amazing and helpful. During an ice-storm in Spokane, all the power was knocked out. Melissa lit a candle and placed it on the coffee table, and our little family gathered around it and shared stories and conversation in the glow of its light. Just remember: all the darkness in the world is not able to extinguish the light of just one candle!

Our message from Isaiah tells us that people are used by God to shine God’s light. Isaiah’s light is still shining down through the centuries. You and I can reflect God’s light to others. And Jesus…Jesus is The LIGHT to the nations! “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.” (John 1:9)

God’s Salvation for the Nations

And what does this light reveal? Well, it shows me that I NEED A SAVIOR—I am not able to get rid of my sin by myself. “Bootstrap Religion” is just self-glorification. (The saying, “God helps those who help themselves” comes from Ben Franklin, not the Bible.) It also shows me the path that I need to travel, and traveling that path reflects light to others who are seeking God’s way.

In the Light of God, I can begin to understand God’s work on the cross, which at first blush looks like a tragic failure. But we hear Jesus say, “This is my body broken for you. This is my blood shed for you.” When he told this to the Disciples during The Last Supper, I’m sure they were remembering that he had once told them, “I lay down my life for the sheep…No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.”

And, through the Holy Spirit, Christ lives in us! I love the story that Max Lucado tells about his 6-year-old daughter who was standing in front of a mirror, looking down her throat. When he asked her what she was doing, she answered, “I’m looking to see if God is in my heart.” He chuckled and turned away, and then he overheard her asking God, “Are you in there?” When no answer came, she grew impatient and spoke on God’s behalf. With a voice deepened as much as a six-year-old can make it, she said, “Yes.”

This is a delightful child’s way of understanding what Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “Do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit?”

No, the death of Christ on the cross did not seem like a victory.   But the victory was realized in the Resurrection! And it is found in God’s continuing work, shining through people to us, and shining through us to others.

On this Sunday before we celebrate the birth of Martin Luther King, Jr., we will remember that God works in ways that are different from our ways. While we would seek a Lion to fight for us, God sends a Lamb to die for us, and shows us a new way to fight. Dr. King showed people how to stand up for their rights with nonviolence and love.

He said, “We will counter your force with soul force; we will match your ability to hate with our ability to love.”

This weapon of love is an extremely effective weapon. Instead of wishing to destroy those who opposed him, King worked to develop a friendship with them—to free the oppressors while freeing the oppressed!

 

If John the Baptizer had looked at Jesus that day by the river and said, “Behold the Lion of God, who comes to track down sinners in the world,” it would have made sense to us. But in calling Jesus “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world,” John turns on a light—and reveals something of the peculiarity of the way God saves us in Jesus the Christ.

January 12, 2020

“The Light to the Nations”             Baptism of the Lord

Isaiah 42:1-9   Acts 10:34-43   January 12, 2020   Matthew 3:13-17

We have all been taught that “beauty is only skin deep,” but I say unto you, “real beauty is beyond the reach of the eyes.” But I wonder what it would be like to be able to perceive the REAL BEAUTY in every person I meet? Well, it’s Awards Season in Hollywood, and everyone is concerned with being “red-carpet ready.” The message we usually get from Hollywood is that the people who are attractive on the outside are the folks who are really worth knowing, but in 2001 they hit a surprising bulls-eye with a movie called Shallow Hal. Caution: there is some offensive language in this film, and there are a few scenes you don’t want the kids to see—but the message is wonderful! It’s all about a fellow who is extremely shallow (even by Hollywood standards), and he is only interested in women who are…nice to look at. Then he receives a wonderful gift—the ability to see the inner beauty of the people he encounters. He is amazed that these “knockouts” are willing to spend time with him, and he is even more perplexed when other people fail to see their beauty!

I thought about Shallow Hal as I focused on today’s Scriptures, and I began to see many things that I had not yet connected. What if a person had the ability to see inside others and perceive their REAL BEAUTY? What if you and I could see as God sees, and not be blinded by superficial appearances? When Samuel was looking for the next King of Israel, he saw one of the sons of Jesse and thought he looked very “kingly.” But God told Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”

In our reading from Acts, Peter says, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” And, in Isaiah, we hear God’s promise of a servant who would be a light to the nations, one who would open the eyes that are blind, someone who could bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, those who sit in darkness.

Now, usually, we think of blindness in terms of those who have no use of their eyes. (And Jesus healed plenty of blind people.) We also think of prisoners as those who are literally in prison. But, Friends, what if Isaiah is talking about our blindness—the inability to see as God sees? What if you and I are the prisoners referred to in the text—people who are imprisoned by the darkness of our own mistaken perceptions, living in a dungeon that keeps us from enjoying the beauty in those with whom God has surrounded us? Is it possible that God intends for us to see as God sees?! And can you imagine how the world would be turned right-side-up for us IF we were able to do so? So, here’s our question for the day: “How might I be cured of my blindness?”

Jesus Saw as God Sees

When we carefully read the Gospels, it is obvious that Jesus saw as God sees. He was able to know people for who they truly were, despite any outward appearances. He knew the motives for the questions they asked him; he was able to read their life-situations. And, keep in mind, Jesus saw the Truth about people without condemnation. For example: when he talked with the Samaritan woman at the well, he asked her to call her husband. When she replied that she had no husband, he stated (matter-of-factly), “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!” He was not judging her, because their conversation deepened, and Jesus revealed to her that he is the Messiah. Jesus saw the Truth without condemnation.

How? Well, we get some hints from our Scriptures. In Isaiah, God says, “I have put my Spirit upon him.” And in our reading from Matthew, we hear “he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him.” Jesus walked in the Light, as John described in his first letter: “God is light and in him there is no darkness at all…If we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.”

Some Choose the Darkness

Barbara Mouser says this: “Light obeyed brings more light. Light rejected brings the night.” The more we obey the light that we have, the more light we will be given! But if we ignore the light we have, then we are moving into darkness—and, sadly, some will choose the prison of darkness where they can maintain their cherished beliefs when the light feels too challenging. In Luke 11, we hear Jesus say, “No one after lighting a lamp puts it in a cellar, but on the lampstand so that those who enter may see the light. Your eye is the lamp of your body. If your eye is healthy, your whole body is full of light; but if it is not healthy, your body is full of darkness. Therefore consider whether the light in you is not darkness. If then your whole body is full of light, with no part of it in darkness, it will be as full of light as when a lamp gives you light with its rays.”

In John 3, Jesus is talking with Nicodemus, and tells him the familiar phrase, “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” But just a few verses later, he says this: “And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and the people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”

Choosing the Light

John’s Gospel begins with this wonderful prose about light: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.

Hear again the words of Isaiah: “I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind.”

I want my eyes to be opened. But I have to make a choice between being my own master (living in darkness), or allowing the Light to illuminate my need for a Savior, and choosing to obey what the Light reveals. The Scriptures share the good news that God gives us the Spirit to help us choose the light, to empower us to leave the darkness, giving us eyes to see as God sees.

Prayer: God, you know about our prisons, our darkness, our blindness. By the power of your Holy Spirit, please shine your light on us. Fill us with your Spirit so that we might see as you see. In the name of Christ, amen.

 

January 5, 2020

A New Light Is Shining          Epiphany

Isaiah 60:1-6       January 5, 2020     Eph. 3:1-12   John 1:1-18

Do you remember the movie Hook? Captain Hook (played by Dustin Hoffman) and Peter Pan (played by Robin Williams) continue their epic struggle when Hook steals Pan’s kids in order to draw him back to Neverland. There’s one scene in which Captain Hook is talking to his sidekick, Smee, and he says that he’s had a “sublime vision”—an “epiphany”—and he shares his insight with Smee. Shortly afterward, Smee tries his hand at sharing his own insight, and he tells Hook, “I’ve had an apostrophe!”

The modern-day image of “having an epiphany” is that of a light bulb going on over one’s head—suddenly the light comes on and 1. we understand something, or 2. We are inspired to do something. The light comes on.

Today is Epiphany Sunday, and it is traditional to celebrate the coming of the Wise Men from the East—people of learning and wisdom, people seeking The Light.

So our question for today is: What made Israel’s light different or special? Our text from Isaiah talks about 1. Darkness covering the earth, and 2. The LIGHT of the glory of the Lord coming upon Israel—saying “nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.” Then Paul writes to the Ephesians about the mystery of Christ being revealed in such a way that Gentiles are now brought into the mystery of the boundless riches of Christ.

Are you ready for an apostrophe? Epiphany?! Let’s shine some light and see if we can answer our question.

God’s Dream for Israel

Throughout the Old Testament, we see that God’s dream for Israel is that it would be a nation of light—light for all the nations. Think about the qualities of light:

  • It is revealing—it makes hidden things visible;
  • It is motivating—once we see and understand, we can act;
  • It is healing—coming into the light is synonymous with wholeness

“Nations shall come to your light.” The word for nations is “Goyiim”, and it means “others, outsiders.” In other words, the light of God’s truth will be seen from afar, and people from other traditions and cultures and religions will come to see the light. The purpose of the light is to UNITE the nations, not to divide them. This is God’s dream for Israel, as expressed by the prophets.

Isaiah says that the glory of the Lord will provide light for the darkness, that “nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.” In other words, representatives from other nations will proclaim the PRAISE of the LORD! God’s dream for Israel is that the light of God’s glory will shine through Israel to the whole world!

But, as you know, Israel had a different dream. They chose to focus on the privilege of being The Chosen, rather than the responsibility. They seemed to have forgotten that God’s chosen people were set apart for a special function: to live a different life, and to reflect God’s light. For example: When the Temple in Jerusalem was built, there were four different courts. The Court of the Priests included the Holy of Holies; next was the Court of Israel (for men who had completed their Bar Mitzvah); next was the Court of the Women; and, finally, the Court of the Gentiles. Having a Court in the Temple set aside for Gentiles was a reflection of God’s dream that people would come from far and near to receive the Light! (This makes it easier to understand the righteous indignation of Jesus that this court had been turned into a marketplace—no longer a welcome for “the nations!”) No, by the time of Jesus, Israel had replaced God’s dream of service with a dream of prominence and exclusivity. So, of course, Jesus had to address this issue and make it clear that God’s light is for everyone.

God’s Dream for the Gospel

In Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, he makes it clear that he was commissioned to carry the Good News to the Gentiles. I’m sure you remember what happened when he was first converted to the cause of Christ:

  • Confronted by the Resurrected Christ, blinded;
  • Waiting in Damascus, not eating or drinking;
  • Ananias told by God to go and pray for him;
  • Ananias was afraid;
  • God: “Go! This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel.”

The original dream is that the Gentiles would come to Israel, to worship in the Temple, to receive the Light. Now God’s dream for the Gospel is that it be carried to the Gentiles. And, indeed, the Book of Acts shows how that paradigm shifted. Paul says, “The Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the Gospel!”

This is the message of the odd little story we have in Matthew—the one that’s central to the Day of Epiphany. It’s the story of Magi (“wise men”) who came from the East, asking for the child who had been born king of the Jews. “For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When they were directed to Bethlehem, they went there, saw the child with Mary, knelt down and paid him homage. And they gave gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Then they went home.

It’s an odd little story that ties in with what Isaiah had prophesied: “Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.”

I can just imagine Jesus, growing up hearing about the visit of the Magi, confirming that God wanted the Light to shine to all the nations. No wonder he intentionally led his disciples into Gentile territory and interacted with people who were generally rejected by the religious folks in Israel!

God’s Dream for Us

Friends, here is what God is saying to us about God’s dream for us. We just celebrated the birth of Christ, and Christ’s light is shining among us, right? Well, hear again the words of the prophet Isaiah: “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.”

In the old days, it was enough to wait for people to come to us. But God’s dream for our wonderful little church is that we will take the Good News OUT, beyond our walls, into the community, sharing God’s light!

December 24, 2019

A Sign for YOU             Christmas Eve

Isaiah 9:2-7     December 24, 2019     Luke 2:1-20

Have you ever felt “unwelcome” anywhere? Have you ever said to yourself, “Oh. I don’t belong here”? It’s something we begin to learn at a young age—there are certain places where we are welcome to go, and other places that are off limits. I’m not just thinking about places marked “authorized personnel only” or restrooms that are marked with another gender—I’m really thinking of those times when we get the feeling, “This is not a place for people like me.” Ever feel that way? I certainly have! I grew up in a fairly modest household, and my life was good. But we didn’t shop in expensive stores or eat out at elegant restaurants or stay in nice hotels. In fact, it wasn’t until I grew up and left home that I began to get acquainted with people who were accustomed to these finer (more expensive) lifestyles. And when I went with them to one of those ritzy places, I always felt a vague uneasiness—a sense of “I don’t belong here.”

It really came home to me when Melissa and I were on our honeymoon. We had spent a couple of days in London (you’d be surprised how cheap it was to go there in February!), and then we took a train up to Scotland. We spent time in Edinburgh, then I wanted to show her where I had spent a year of graduate school. In St. Andrews, we went to an old mansion that had been converted to housing for graduate students—my old residence hall—and I showed her the glorious entryway and the ancient wine cellar with a vaulted stone ceiling that was used as the dining hall. Then, I took her to the common room to show off its old-world elegance. At the other end of the room, a few students were reading and relaxing, and one of them (obviously English) said, in a loud voice, “Excuse me! This is not a place for tourists to go ambling about!” I mumbled some sort of apology, overwhelmed with that old sense of “I don’t belong here,” and hurried Melissa out of the room. I tried to make light of it by telling her, “Don’t worry, Honey. The English were cheeky when I was a student here!” But my ears were burning and I rehearsed that scene over and over in my mind, imagining all the snappy comebacks I could have said to that fellow!

I think that, deep down, I still carry with me a smoldering anxiety, a carefulness to not go places where I’m not welcome. It’s a question about my worthiness, my “acceptability.” If you have something of that same anxiety, I’m going to ask you to focus on it for a moment—dwell in it—feel what it’s like to not be welcome. I want you to do this so that you can identify with some of the main characters in the birth narrative read tonight—the shepherds. You may ask, “What’s wrong with shepherds? Why wouldn’t they be as welcome as anyone else?!”

Shepherds in First Century Palestine

Hundreds of years before the birth of Christ, there was a young shepherd boy named David. He was out tending his father’s sheep when he was called in to be looked over by the prophet Samuel. You see, Samuel was looking for the future king of Israel, and God had sent him to Bethlehem, the home of Jesse. But all of Jesse’s sons had been viewed—and rejected—and Samuel asked if there was another son. When he saw David, God let him know that this was his choice for king, and Samuel anointed him! David’s Kingship brought in what is known as “the Golden Age” in the history of Israel. He was an outstanding warrior, a gifted leader, and a fine musician. Many of our Psalms are attributed to him, including the 23rd Psalm which begins, “The Lord is my shepherd.” This shepherd imagery was perfectly acceptable as it described God’s “shepherding” us through all the adventures of life! And shepherding was an honorable profession.

But, by the time of the Savior’s birth, things had changed. The religious authorities advised people NOT to encourage their sons to become shepherds, because they would always be considered “unclean.” They would not be able to keep the Sabbath properly, or follow all the ridiculous rules the Pharisees cherished so much. No, by the time Jesus was born, shepherds were at the bottom of the social scale, just above lepers. They were NOT welcomed in high society. They lived on the fringes, with no expectations of being included in any Godly activity! They would have been considered very unlikely candidates to hear angels proclaiming the birth of the Savior!

Of course, these shepherds were expecting a Messiah, a Child predicted in the passage in Isaiah we just heard. But a child destined for the throne of David would surely be born in a palace, wouldn’t he? He would be born into power, and would wield power to make life better for us, right? They were ready to welcome a king, but expected that shepherds would still be socially unacceptable, and surely not welcome into the presence of the King!

To YOU Is Born This Day a Savior

When the first angel appeared to the shepherds, the first words were typical: “Do not be afraid!” Then came the amazing announcement, “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people. To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”

Needless to say, these shepherds were NOT accustomed to being addressed by their social superiors—much less by heavenly beings! They would usually gather their news by interacting with other common people, hoping to catch scraps of good news. They would never have imagined being the FIRST ones told! The angel continued, “This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”

It was only humble people that wrapped their babies in bands of cloth, and they would have said to each other, “That’s what we do with our babies, we shepherds and other lowly folk.” And this baby was not born in some fancy mansion where they would have a beautiful bed—no, this baby was lying in a manger!

I need to explain something here: when you and I hear the word “manger,” we automatically think “stable,” because that’s where we keep livestock. But, in first century Palestine, every humble home had two levels: a raised platform where the family lived and ate and slept, AND a ground-level area where the family donkey and cow and goat would be brought into every night for security and to help heat the home. At the edge of this raised platform there would be a few scooped-out depressions full of hay so the animals could stand on the lower level and eat the hay. This was a perfect place to put a baby.

So, when the angel said they would find the child lying in a manger, the shepherds would have said, “That’s where we put our babies! The Savior has been born into a poor home, not some palace!”

And, while they were wondering thus, suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

When the angels left, the shepherds remembered that the first angel had said, “You will find the child,” and it hit them: “Maybe they would let us in to see the baby, even though everybody else looks down on us.” So they went, they saw, and they told Mary and Joseph about the angels and what they had been told about the child. Then they had to get back to their sheep, and they glorified and praised God for all that they had heard and seen! They—SHEPHERDS—had been included in one of the most momentous events in history!

A Sign for YOU

I love it that the angel said, “And this shall be a sign for you.” Do you remember that feeling of not being wanted? When we feel that way, we can hardly believe that the good news is for us. It must be for someone else—someone more holy, someone who is smarter, or richer, or more popular, or whatever. But when Jesus started his ministry, the Bible tells us that “the humble people received him gladly.” He made it clear to them that the good news of the gospel included them! Those who were rich and privileged—most of those folks snubbed him. It was the poor, the lame, those who were hurt or rejected by their society—these are the ones who first understood that the Good News is for everybody—especially those who need it most!

I want to finish tonight by reminding you of a story Jesus told about a man who prepared a big feast, a banquet to which a lot of well-to-do neighbors were invited. They all sent excuses that they were otherwise engaged and could not come. So the man sent his servants out to gather in all kinds of lowly people to come to the feast. And tonight we have a reminder of that banquet—The Lord’s Supper.

This meal is also A Sign for YOU—a giant banner that says, “You are welcome here!” All you need do is receive the good news!

December 22, 2019

The JOY of God-With-Us                4th Advent

Isaiah 7:10-16   Ps. 80:1-7, 17-19   December 22, 2019   Matt. 1:18-25

Those of us who have had toddlers remember a phase our kids went through. I call it the “I do it!” phase, because kids begin to understand that they are capable of things they were never able to do before, and they INSIST on doing them! “I do it!” It’s an important step in the continuous process of becoming independent and creative. However, there are milestones along the way that remind them of the inter-dependent nature of our lives.

For instance, when they learn to ride a bicycle. We stand alongside them, holding the seat, keeping them upright and providing crucial thrust until they, wobbling and swerving and screaming, begin to pedal and balance and experience the wonderful rush of riding a bike! This is a milestone in the process of growing up. It means doing something on their own (while grown-ups stay close) and it means achieving a certain degree of self-reliance—and mobility. Driving is soon to follow!

You and I have a similar relationship with God. As much as we wish to be independent (we never truly outgrow I do it!), and as much as God wants us to grow through the process of becoming independent and creative, we were never meant to live our lives in a disconnected fashion. God calls us into a partnership, an INTER-DEPENDENCE that maximizes our JOY and our effectiveness in this world. Like this quote from John Owens: “God works in us and with us, not against us or without us.”

Our Scriptures for today mark a distinctive progression in the development of our Judeo-Christian faith. The ancients perceived a god that was powerful but distant, one who manipulated the lives of mortals for entertainment, rather than a God who is intensely interested in the welfare of humanity. Isaiah proclaims the coming of One who will be known as Immanuel: Imma-Nu-El, with-us-God. These words have been used for over two thousand years, so the revolutionary quality of them has dimmed. Having God with us was once a startling idea, and it’s one that can still make a difference to our jaded and self-willed generation. Let’s take a look.

From Presents to Presence

Let’s listen in as Moses talks to God, after leading the Hebrews out of Egypt. He says, “You have been telling me, ‘Lead these people,’ but you have not let me know whom you will send with me. You have said, ‘I know you by name and you have found favor with me.’ If I have found favor in your eyes, teach me your ways so I may know you and continue to find favor with you. Remember that this nation is your people.”

The Lord replied, “My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” Wow! MY PRESENCE WILL GO WITH YOU!

You see, Moses had been looking for a helper, a co-leader, a human being who would help shoulder the burden of leadership. He did not expect God’s actual presence! And when you and I have a sense that God has given us a task, a special commission, God’s Presence is with us as we face those challenges. I want to keep this in mind in these days leading up to Christmas. God’s Presence is with us!

I don’t know about you, but I need to keep working at shifting my focus away from gifts and shipping and food and stress, and allow some silence in which I enjoy the Presence of the Holy One of Israel! A time to remember God’s decision to come and be with us. To picture God as an attentive parent alongside a kid learning to ride a bicycle, our loving God alongside you and me as we are learning to LIVE!

Rejoice!

In the Old Testament, God’s people are commanded: “Rejoice before the Lord your God.” The Psalmist declares, “I will be glad and rejoice in You!” And the prophets look ahead to the time when “The people will rejoice in the Lord.”

In the New Testament, we hear Jesus’ command, “Rejoice and be glad.” Paul advises the Philippians, “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again. Rejoice!” And we find songs of praise that encourage us: “Let us rejoice and be glad.”

It’s obvious that rejoicing is an act of the will. It’s a rational decision to look for joy, to expect it, to imagine it, to anticipate it. Those who look for joy are far more likely to find it than those who wait for it to sneak up on them!

Learning how to rejoice is part of the development of our Christian faith.

Ministry of Presence

Another thing you and I must grow in is our giving of ourselves in a ministry of presence—being WITH those who need us. Jesus is described as Immanuel, “with-us-God,” and those who wish to follow Jesus are learning how to BE with others. For example:

  • Holding a hand of someone in need, alongside their hospital bed or just walking alongside someone who is struggling;
  • Inviting someone into your daily life—practicing withness
  • God’s presence with us empowers us to be present with others!

Remember the movie “E. T.—the Extra Terrestrial”? At the end, young Elliot is stricken with grief when ET is preparing to return to his home planet. And ET touches Elliot’s heart and says to him, “I’ll be right here.” Sounds very much like what Jesus said to his Disciples, “Lo, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

So, friends, you and I can choose to experience the Joy of God’s Presence:

  • When it seems the struggle is fruitless—God is there;
  • When it feels kind of lonely—God is there
  • When everyone around us seems to be spinning out of control preparing for the celebration of Christmas, you and I can take comfort in the simple name “Immanuel”—God is with us.

I’ll finish with a story about a medical doctor named Amy Givler. Amy was pregnant, but was diagnosed with cancer. Her treatment process was tricky, trying to be careful of her unborn child. But the whole ordeal brought her closer to God as she constantly prayed the Psalms. She completely trusted our “with-us-God.”

She was healed, and reports that now she is much more present to her own patients—she listens much more carefully. She is experiencing the JOY of the Presence of God!

Prayer

December 15, 2019

The One Coming          3rd Advent

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11   December 15, 2019   John 1:6-8, 19-28

Way back in 1967, a movie came out that stirred things up in our country. It was widely received because of the star-power represented: Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn, Sidney Poitier. But it was also controversial, because it portrayed interracial marriage in a positive light—and there were still, at that time, 17 states where it was illegal! Those of you who are chronologically advantaged know that I am talking about the movie “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” The young woman’s parents know that her fiance’ is a highly-respected physician, but they are shocked when they discover that he is also a man of color. And both sets of parents have to get used to the idea of this coming marriage. Their expectations were different from the reality they faced—but it turns out great in the end! It turns out that it was only their expectations that were flawed.

Have you ever noticed that so much in your life depends on what you expect?! Expectations are HUGE, and anticipation is one of the ways we prepare for what is coming. These are good things—but we get ourselves into trouble when we are too specific in our expectations.

We know that God is taking care of us, so we expect good things in life AND we anticipate seeing God working out God’s purposes. (I love the passage in Romans 8, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love God.”) But when we begin to try to dictate exactly HOW God is supposed to do that, we are in for a difficult time!

Well, our Scripture readings for today are both about expectations—anticipations of the One Coming, the One sent from God to make things right for God’s people. And, just like the parents in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” the people of Israel had some mistaken ideas about the One God was sending! The Messiah, God’s Anointed One, is described by Isaiah as one who will:

  • Bring good news to the oppressed;
  • Bind up the brokenhearted;
  • Proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners;
  • Proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God;
  • Comfort all who mourn, providing good things in place of the difficult things they have had to live with;
  • Build Up; Raise Up; Repair!
  • Build up the ancient ruins; raise up the former devastations; repair the ruined cities;
  • Future generations will be known by the world to be people whom the Lord has blessed!

When Jesus came, he claimed to be this One spoken of by Isaiah. We read in Luke 4 that, early in his ministry, he was preaching in Galilee and was very well-received. Then he went to his hometown, Nazareth, and went to their synagogue on the Sabbath. He stood up to read, which was the right of any male who had completed his Bar Mitzvah, and they handed him the scroll that included our Isaiah reading for today. He unrolled it to today’s passage and read it aloud. Then he rolled up the scroll, and sat down to speak. (Rabbis always sat when they taught.) Everyone was watching him, waiting to see what he would say. And he said, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” In other words, he told them directly that he was the One Isaiah had been talking about, 700 years previously!

As they considered his words, the people began to ask, “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” They couldn’t believe that this kid who grew up in their little town was The Messiah! He was certainly NOT what they were anticipating. And he wasn’t acting like the Deliverer they were expecting!

Remember, folks were expecting a strong military leader (like David or the Maccabees) who would organize the Jews and, with God’s help (of course) drive the Romans out of Israel. They expected that he would bring in an era of power and prosperity the way King David had done. But if you look again at the text in Isaiah, or in any other prophecy about the Coming One, you will see that there is nothing about these things. Their expectations were skewed, and they were trying to dictate just how God was going to fulfill the prophecies! Isn’t it interesting that Jesus had lived in their midst for 3 decades, and the people had not recognized Who he was? They were looking for the wrong Messiah.

So, we come to our reading in John, which still focuses on John the Baptizer. He has been a witness to the light, crying out in the wilderness, getting people ready for the Coming of the Lord, baptizing the multitudes who came out to hear him. He was causing quite a stir in Judea! So much, in fact, that envoys from the religious leadership in Jerusalem came out to ask him, “Who ARE you?” (They knew he had to be someone special!) And he made it clear to them, “I am NOT the Messiah.” They weren’t ready to give up. “WHO then? Are you Elijah?”

Now, it may seem strange that they might think he was a prophet who lived more than 800 years earlier, but hear me out. According to the Scriptures, Elijah didn’t DIE. No, he rode away into heaven on a chariot pulled by fiery horses! And, in the book of Malachi, it was foretold that he would return “before the great and terrible day of the Lord.” That’s why, to this day, when Jews celebrate the Passover with a Seder Dinner, they have a place set for Elijah and, at one point, someone goes over to the door and opens it in case Elijah has finally returned and wants to join their celebration! Such was the atmosphere of expectation in the land, and thus the odd question, “Are you Elijah?”

John’s answer came swiftly, “I am not.” So they asked him, “Are you the prophet?” (Seems like they are just grasping at straws by this time.) He answered, “No.” So they asked, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for the authorities who sent us. What do you say about yourself??”

And here’s all John had to say about himself—“I am just a voice—a voice crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ just as the prophet Isaiah said.” John’s attitude was humble, indicating that HE was not the center of his message—he was just the voice crying out what God had told him to proclaim.

Then these guys really got on their high horses. They questioned his authority, his right to baptize people. 1. He hadn’t been to seminary; 2. He didn’t have the approval of the Sanhedrin. Just who did he think he was?! “Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” John doesn’t try to answer “why”. He was sent from God, a witness to the light, so that all might believe through him. His entire ministry was devoted to getting people ready for Jesus, of whom he later said, “He must increase, while I must decrease.”

John focused everything on Jesus. So he told these guys from headquarters, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the One who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” Do you see how John turned this time of questioning into an opportunity so share his TESTIMONY?! He’s saying, “Don’t look at me—LOOK AT JESUS!”

Yes, John told them that there was a very special SOMEONE in their midst, one that they did not yet recognize…just as the people of Nazareth had not recognized who he was.   “Jesus was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.”

Friends, we don’t want this to be true of us. We want to develop eyes to see Jesus. You and I face a huge challenge during this season running up to Christmas. We’ve seen what happens:

  • When people are so obsessed with shopping bargains that they behave like ravenous carnivores fighting over a carcass!
  • When families who are not on good financial footing throw themselves completely off-balance by spending too much money for the holidays!
  • There are people around us who are struggling with sadness and loss and loneliness—which are intensified when everyone is supposed to be “jolly.”

How do we open our eyes to see Jesus in the people around us? How might we best welcome the Spirit of Christ into our celebrations? Let’s not make the mistake of having the wrong expectations for Christmas. We remember that Jesus said, “If you do it to the least of these, you do it to me.” May our hospitality, then, reach out to those who might be overlooked. May our generosity extend beyond our friends and family to share hope and joy with people we might never meet. May our Christmas be blessed with the Presence of the Living Christ. Amen.

 

December 8, 2019

The Hope of the Gentiles       2nd Advent

Romans 15:4-13   December 8, 2019   Matthew 3:1-12

Do you remember “The Little Rascals”? As a kid, I watched old black-and-white re-runs. Then, in 1994, they released a movie with the same characters, introducing them to a new generation! In this film, all the boys belong to a club called “The He-Man Woman-Haters Club,” and just to make it clear, there’s a sign on the clubhouse that reads “No Girls Allowed.” Of course, this is a fun way to point out a very human foible that has been around forever: the tendency to try to elevate ourselves by excluding others from something.

Another familiar scenario from childhood goes something like this: kids have gathered to play a ball game; two kids appoint themselves to be “captains”, and they proceed to take turns choosing up sides for the game. And, of course, the most gifted players get chosen first, then the lesser players, and then (I know it sounds cruel, but it happens), and then one of the captains says, “You can have these kids—I don’t want ‘em.” And of course the other captain says, “I don’t want ‘em either!” And right there on the playground, we see a metaphor for the whole world: the chosen and the unchosen. Sociologists tell us this phenomenon occurs in pretty much every culture around the world. Some people are IN, and others are OUT.

Our Scripture lessons for today very clearly address the question of “Who is God’s good news intended for?” We have references to prophecies from the Old Testament, fiery words from John the Baptizer, and strong words of encouragement from the Apostle Paul, ALL DIRECTED AT THIS QUESTION, and ALL confirming God’s intent for God’s people to live in harmony with one another. Let’s take a look.

Gentiles in the Old Testament

I’d like to look first at the covenant with Abraham, and how his descendants were known as “God’s Chosen People.” In Genesis 17 we hear God talking to Abraham and saying, “I will set up my covenant with you and your descendants after you in every generation as an enduring covenant. I will be your God and your descendants’ after you.” So, there you have it: God chose Abraham and his descendants to be in a special relationship.

Now, 4 millenia later, this concept is still part of the Jewish consciousness. Let’s listen in on part of a conversation in “Fiddler on the Roof.” Tevye is talking with God (as he often does) and he says, “I know, I know. We are Your chosen people. But once in a while, can’t You choose someone else?!”

Through the centuries, God’s prophets made it clear that God chose Israel to be an instrument of healing for the world—a LIGHT shining for ALL THE NATIONS. But remember—there is a human tendency to divide the world into “chosen” and “NOT.”

As the years went by, the idea of being chosen came to be understood as a privilege rather than as a responsibility. Among the people, the covenant felt like being in a “most-favored” relationship with God, and their opinion of Gentiles was sometimes portrayed as only fit to provide fuel for the fires of hell.

So, the Prophets had to remind Israel of its PURPOSE:

  • “Therefore I will confess you among the Gentiles, and sing praises to your name.”
  • “Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people”
  • “Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles, and let all the peoples praise him.”
  • Then, from Isaiah, “The root of Jesse shall come, the one who rises to rule the Gentiles; in him the Gentiles shall hope.”
  • In other words, God’s good news is for ALL people!

New Testament

Our Gospel lesson begins with John the Baptizer, and he is speaking in the spirit of Elijah. He is telling the people to prepare the way of the Lord, to get ready for the coming of the Messiah. And he says that repentance is the way to do this. People were going out to him, declaring their repentance and being baptized—washed clean—confessing their sins.

Then he saw Pharisees and Sadducees, and listen again to what he said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance!” (In other words, let your changed life show that you have truly repented.) Then we get to the central issue as he challenges them, “Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.”

It’s not enough to be a descendant of Abraham, to number yourselves among “the Chosen.”

Then John spoke about the One who was to come after him—Jesus—and what God’s Anointed One was going to do.

And when Jesus came, he said that we will recognize God’s people by the fruit of their life. He echoed John’s declaration that it’s not enough to simply be a descendant of Abraham.

Shortly thereafter, there was a man, full of enthusiasm, studying to be a Pharisee—a man who counted heavily on having Abraham as his ancestor. He comes onto the scene as an enemy of the church, but is confronted by the Resurrected Christ and recruited to the cause of Christ! When God was sending Ananias to pray for him, he told him, “This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name 1. Before the Gentiles and 2. Their kings, and 3. Before the people of Israel.”

And, sure enough, the Apostle Paul traveled far and wide into Gentile territory; he always went to the Hebrew Synagogue first, and then he reached out to the Gentiles. Paul welcomed them into the Christian faith without having them fulfill Jewish law first (much to the dismay of many of the earliest Christians who were Jews).

But one of the original Disciples, a man who was in the “inner circle” of the Disciples, found himself sharing the Gospel with outsiders. God sent him to the household of Cornelius (a Roman Centurion!) and he shared the good news with them. While he was speaking, God’s Holy Spirit fell on these Gentiles, and Peter was forced to acknowledge, “Who are we to withhold baptism from these people?!” Peter, like Paul, welcomed these non-Jews into the faith without requiring them to fulfill the Jewish Law first.

As a result, Peter and Paul were summoned to Jerusalem (which was the center of Christianity at that time) to defend their policy of not requiring Gentiles to convert to Judaism before becoming Christians. Together they testified, “God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. He made no distinction between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith.”

Friends, at this point the earth should have shaken and split! And it did, at least metaphorically. Because the Council of Jerusalem determined that Gentile believers did not need to convert to Judaism! The whole distinction of Chosen versus Gentile evaporatedJ

Welcome and Harmony in Romans

When Paul wrote to the church in Rome, he was addressing a “mixed” congregation, one made up of both Jews and Gentiles. And he writes, “May God grant you to live in harmony with one another and, together, with one voice, glorify God.” He urged them to welcome one another, just as Christ had welcomed them. When Christians use the word “welcome,” we are talking about accepting one another, inviting each other into our lives, extending hospitality. Instead of getting our sense of worth by trying to exclude others, we remember that Christ has welcomed US: forgives our sin; invites us to be a part of God’s family (we are adopted!); allows us to experience the JOY of being part of his ministry to the world!

And when it comes to living in harmony with one another, we must remember that harmony is not the same as unison (where all sing the melody together). We can all sing a different part, but we still raise ONE VOICE to glorify God! We are not looking for “sameness” or uniformity, but we embrace variety as God has embraced it. We’re not even looking for agreement all the time, but we have a determination to stick together. I love the quote I read recently, “Isn’t it peculiar that no two snowflakes are alike, and yet they still stick together?!”

The summary of what I have been saying is represented right here on this communion table. The Lord’s Supper is given as a sign of God’s welcome to all kinds of people, a symbol of the measures God is ready to take to reach out to us, to draw us in, and to give us life.

Friends, this is precisely what we celebrate at Christmas—God becoming human in the person of Jesus of Nazareth in order to extend God’s welcome to you and to me.

 

November 24, 2019

Enduring to the Rescue                  Christ the King

Colossians 1:11-20      Nov. 24, 2019     Luke 23:33-43

Do you remember Rubik’s Cubes? Years ago, I was using a Rubik’s Cube for a children’s sermon. The guy I borrowed it from had aligned all the sides so that they were the same color, and I made just 3 twists to kind of “mess it up.” I thought I could make it perfect again by just reversing these twists, and my talk was going to go something like this: “See this messed-up Rubik’s Cube? Sometimes our lives are messed up just like this. But then God comes along and makes a few simple changes (that’s when I wanted to make those 3 simple moves) and everything is as it should be!” The problem is that, when I made my 3 moves, it only messed up the Cube even more! So I said, “And then, sometimes, it takes God a little more time to fix things in our lives.” And, by that time, it was hopelessly mixed!

Then an 8-year-old boy sitting next to me said, “Mind if I try?” I gave it to him, and, in a matter of seconds, he had it all straightened out! I had to modify my children’s sermon to say, “And then, when things look really hopeless, God sends us help from the most surprising source!”

That was about 36 years ago, and I’m still learning that lesson: When things look really messed up, God might have a solution waiting just around the corner! People of faith are called to trust God’s wisdom, God’s timing, God’s ability to save us.

One of the “problem characters” we have in the story of our faith was named Judas Iscariot. He was a Disciple, a follower of Jesus, hearing him teach and watching his perform miracles—and yet he somehow didn’t GET it. Many Bible scholars look closely at Judas and conclude that he got impatient with Jesus, and expected him to 1. Ascend to the throne of Israel, 2. Use his mighty power to throw out the hated Romans, and 3. Restore Israel to its rightful place in the cosmos. They say he tried to force Jesus’ hand, wanting to be the “catalyst” that propelled him forward. And then, when things didn’t go the way he had anticipated, he gave up hope and ended his own life.

IF ONLY Judas had been a little more patient! If he had been more patient, he would have seen the resurrected Christ face-to-face, could have asked for his forgiveness, and would have been restored. But he did not have the power to endure.

In our epistle reading for today, we hear Paul praying for the Christians in Colossae that they would have the strength to endure to the rescue…that they would see that their Savior had transferred them into God’s Kingdom. It’s a recurring theme in much of Paul’s writing and teaching: hold to the faith as we delivered it to you; stand firm in the Gospel; remember our prayers for you; be on your guard; be strong in the Lord; put on the full armor of God! His words of encouragement and inspiration are just as appropriate 2000 years later as you and I wait for God’s salvation.

And in our Gospel lesson, we go once again to the place of crucifixion of one who was said to be “King of the Jews”, and we hear the criminal hanging on the cross next to him say, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And we hear the reply, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

Waiting for the Messiah

There were many prophecies concerning the Anointed One who was to come. This person would be a righter of wrongs, would set the world right-side-up again, would conquer evil. The Jews had been waiting for generations. This is referred to in the musical “Fiddler on the Roof.” There is a sad moment when all the Jews were being forced to leave Anatevka, and someone asked the Rabbi, “Rabbi, wouldn’t this be a good time for Messiah to come?” And the Rabbi answered, “I guess we’ll have to wait for him somewhere else.” Waiting is a key ingredient in Judaism: “Those who wait upon the Lord will renew their strength. They will mount up with wings as eagles.” The capacity to wait is key.

The same is true for Christianity as we await the Return of Christ—often called “The Second Coming.” At the beginning of the Book of Acts, the Resurrected Jesus has final words with the Disciples, telling them to wait for the Holy Spirit and then carry the Gospel to all the world. After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight. They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.” And every time we celebrate The Lord’s Supper, we hear the words of Paul, “Whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes again.” The capacity to wait is key.

Already Transferred to the Kingdom

But Paul has some good news for the Colossians—and for us. He says that God has enabled us to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light! God has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the Kingdom of God’s beloved Son. This word for “transferred” is a Greek verb with a very special use. In ancient times, when one empire won a victory over another, it was the custom to take the population of the defeated country and transfer it lock, stock and barrel to the conqueror’s land.

Paul says that God has transferred the Christian to God’s own kingdom!

  • From darkness to light (by which to live);
  • From slavery to freedom—emancipation;
  • From a state of condemnation to one of forgiveness: “God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, by making peace through the blood of the cross of Christ.”

In Philippians 3:20 he writes, “But our citizenship is in heaven.” Even though we are earth-bound, we already have new citizenship, and we are just waiting for our transformation. Key word: waiting.

Enduring

While we wait, we must endure. Sir Winston Churchill is remembered most for leading the people of Great Britain through one of the darkest times in its history. In one of his great speeches, he encouraged them, “Never give in; never give in. Never; never; never; never—in nothing, great or small, large or petty—never give in except to convictions of honor and good sense.”

Chris Bradford wrote, “Anyone can give up; it’s the easiest thing in the world to do. But to hold it together when everyone else would understand if you fell apart—now that is true strength.” Here is Paul’s prayer from our epistle reading today:

  • May you be made strong;
  • May you be prepared to endure with patience.

The word for “endure” is hupomone, and it is translated as patience in the King James. But this does not mean patience in the sense of simply bowing the head and letting the tide of events flow over one. It means not only the ability to bear things, but the ability, in bearing them, to turn them into glory. It is a conquering patience. William Barclay says, “Hupomone is the ability to deal triumphantly with anything that life can do to us!”

The choir this morning did a piece called “Restless Weaver,” and it portrays God as someone sitting at a loom, creating a tapestry in each of our lives. It reflects an idea expressed in a poem by B. M. Franklin called, “The Weaver.” Here it is:

My life is but a weaving between my Lord and me.

I cannot choose the colors, He weaves so steadily.

Oft times He weaveth sorrow and I in foolish pride,

Forget He sees the upper, and I the underside.

Not ‘til the loom is silent and the shuttles cease to fly,

Will God roll back the canvas and explain the reason why.

The dark threads are as needful in the Weaver’s skillful hand

As the threads of gold and silver in the pattern He has planned.

I’ll finish today by taking us back to “Fiddler on the Roof.” Tevye, the main character, explains: “A fiddler on the roof. Sounds crazy, no? But in our little village of Anatevka, every one of us is a fiddler on the roof, trying to scratch out a pleasant, simple tune without breaking his neck. And how do we keep our balance? That I can tell you in one word: TRADITION!”

If the Apostle Paul had written this, he probably would have said, “And how do we keep our balance? That I can tell you in one word: HUPOMONE!”—we keep our balance, as we endure to the rescue, with the fortitude which no situation can defeat! Amen? Amen!

November 17, 2019

An Eye for God’s Work                   23rd Pentecost

Isaiah 65:17-25   November 17, 2019   Luke 21:5-19

How many of you can wink? Would you turn to your neighbors on each side and give them a wink? Thanks! A wink is a special thing. I didn’t learn how to do it until I was in college—AFTER a disastrous loss in a ping-pong tournament. I was facing a pretty blonde who winked at me just before she served the ball—and I was unable to return her serves! So, I set myself to learn how to wink, and it’s come in pretty handy!

A wink can say volumes, and it does it silently. It conveys to the receiver an instant connection—and says to them, “You and I have a secret understanding.” A wink can diffuse tension when communication is getting bogged down, or when a bit of teasing has gone on long enough. Only a nanosecond is required to convey goodwill and good humor with a wink. I like winks!

There’s a book entitled When God Winks at You, written by SQuire Rushnell. It’s filled with amazing coincidences–what he calls “Godwinks.” The story I’m going to tell you came from the October 2006 issue of Guideposts Magazine. I think you’ll see that this one’s definitely a “Godwink”!

Stasia Kelly was the daughter of a famous clown, Emmett Kelly. He was famous for his character, Weary Willie, the first clown who always wore a frown! He is described as “a rumpled, sad-sack figure, beaten down by the world; Everyman on a life-long losing streak.” In the 1940’s, the sad clown had become a big hit in the Ringling Brothers Circus. People cared about Willie and his struggles. They saw that no matter how hard he took it on the chin, Willie never gave up. And, even though he never smiled, he brought smiles to many thousands of people!

Stasia Kelly had boarded a plane to go to her father’s funeral. She sat, staring out the window, grateful for her dad but crushed by grief. She couldn’t resist pulling an old newspaper clipping out of her purse. The photo was captioned, “The Day Weary Willie Smiled,” and it shows him on a pay phone with a big grin on his face. He was smiling because he had just received news that Stasia had been born, and a photographer happened to catch that smile! As Stasia wiped away a tear, the man sitting next to her said, “Excuse me…that photo.” “My dad, Emmett Kelly. He died today. But this is from the day I was born…” He replied, “I know, Stasia. I know. I was there. I’ve never seen a man so happy. I just had to snap that picture!”

The photographer, Frank Beatty, the one who took the photo of her father on that happy day, became a friend and mentor to Stasia. He even took the photographs at her wedding! Can’t you see God winking as he set up that “coincidence” of these two sitting next to each other on the plane?!

When my dad was still painting, he did a watercolor for me, and my mom wrote these words on it with her calligraphy pen: “Be at peace and see a clear Pattern and Plan running through all your life. Nothing is by chance.” In other words, God is at work. Open your eyes to God’s work! Friends, as we get ourselves ready for Thanksgiving, we would do well to focus our attention, to develop an eye for God’s work.

Our Scriptures for today make reference to the fact that God is at work. In Isaiah, we hear that God is doing a new thing, creating a new world—and Isaiah is calling God’s people to see what God is doing. And in Luke, Jesus tells his disciples that what they see today is not necessarily what will be tomorrow, because God is at work—so Jesus urges us to be ready for the NEW things that God is doing! Let’s take a look.

The New Jerusalem

Through Isaiah, God is telling us that the work of CREATION continues!

In the creation story in Genesis, God does the creating, then finishes, then rests. But God’s creating process is still going! There is an ongoing process of re-creation. Think about what happens with your garden:

  • There is planting in the spring;
  • There is a season of growth;
  • There is a time of harvest;
  • Then the garden is “put to bed”;
  • There is a time of decay and nothing visibly happening;
  • Spring returns!

What God says through Isaiah is very similar. “I am about to re-create Jerusalem as a JOY.” “I will rejoice in it.” Isaiah continues the prophecies of Jeremiah, Joel, & Haggai by talking about 1. The former glory; 2. The current devastation; 3. And the future glory. Then, in very poetic terms, the new world is described: The Wolf and the Lamb will get along; the Lion will eat straw like the Ox; the Serpent shall eat dust; “They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain.”

In essence, Isaiah is saying, “Be prepared for something different— God is at work!”

The Illusion of Now

In our Gospel lesson, Jesus seems to be challenging our perceptions of reality, trying to get us to see things differently. Keep in mind that most of his Disciples were “country bumpkins” and the Temple was awe-inspiring to them. It was huge and beautiful, and was the symbol of Judaism and of all Israel. It appeared to be solid, invulnerable, and permanent. But Jesus told them, quite matter-of-factly, “The days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.” And, just as Jesus prophesied, the Temple was destroyed, torn down stone by stone in 70 AD, in response to a Judean rebellion. Today, all that’s left of the Temple is the foundation, commonly known as “The Wailing Wall.”

What Jesus is trying to say is “Don’t let the illusion of now blind you to what God is doing.” You see, things that seem permanent are not so. Part of the re-creation process is CHAOS, but God will take care of us through the coming chaos. You and I must be aware (and stay aware) that God will guide us. This means that we keep our eyes open for what God is doing in our midst, and not be alarmed by the changes happening around us. You and I can keep our eyes peeled for those “Godwinks” that are simple reminders that 1. God is for us! 2. God has a plan. Of course, there are those who don’t see what God is doing; but others expect God’s action and anticipate benevolent outcomes! These are the folks who “catch the wink!”

Thanksgiving

November is a month that many folks focus on Giving Thanks. We see reminders from Paul, like “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” Giving thanks in all situations is not easy, but in the middle of difficult times, anyone can stop and focus on how God has blessed them. One family was having financial difficulties—groceries were running out—but they decided to simply focus on God’s blessings. No one in their neighborhood knew about their struggles, but some neighbors brought over several packages of beef! A friend of theirs got a huge wheel of cheese from his brother, and gave a large CHUNK of it to them. This was God’s wink to them: “Things are going to be okay!”

Here’s what happens when we decide to give thanks (perhaps in spite of our struggles, our difficulties):

  • It takes our focus off what’s missing, or what’s wrong;
  • We discover that a thankful heart doesn’t have much room for fear;
  • It’s an Act of the Will to thank God for the future that God is in the process of creating, to ask God for guidance into that future.

Eugene Peterson was a well-known pastor, author, and teacher. He confessed that all his messages boiled down to just ONE message:

God loves you.

God is on your side.

He is coming after you.

He is relentless.

Friends, Jesus calls us to follow. He does not promise that life will be easy as we follow, but he DOES promise that life will be GOOD! As we follow, we can keep our eyes peeled for “God’s winks”—perceiving God’s good will and good humor as we see these little reminders of God’s constant care! Maybe you can try this: just close one eye as you look at your situation—and you might just catch a wink yourselfJ

 

November 10, 2019

A Snapshot of Heaven          22nd Pentecost

Psalm 145:1-5, 17-21   November 10, 2019   Luke 20:27-38

I know that many of you are already familiar with the story of little Colton Burpo. When he almost died in surgery, he reportedly took a little trip to heaven and got a glimpse of what awaits us! He was so little, the memories of his experience came out in brief snippets over a period of many months. He says that, while in heaven, he met members of his family who were waiting for him, including his great-grandfather. And he met a sister that he had never known about! Here’s how he revealed that bit of information to his family:

“Mommy, I have two sisters.”

“No, you have your sister, Cassie, and…do you mean your cousin, Traci?”

“No. I have two sisters. You had a baby die in your tummy, didn’t you?”

At that moment, time stopped in the Burpo household. “Who told you I had a baby die in my tummy?”

“She did, Mommy. She said she died in your tummy.”

Colton’s dad writes, I knew what my wife had to be feeling. Losing that baby was the most painful event of her life. We had explained it to Cassie; she was older. But we hadn’t told Colton, judging the topic a bit beyond a four-year-old’s capacity to understand.

Colton continued, “It’s okay, Mommy. She’s okay. God adopted her.”

“So, what did she look like?”

“She looked a lot like Cassie. She is just a little bit smaller, and she has dark hair…in heaven, this little girl ran up to me, and she wouldn’t stop hugging me. She said she just can’t wait for you and Daddy to get to heaven.”

His mother gave Colton a kiss and let him run and play. “Our baby is okay,” she whispered. “Our baby is okay.” From that moment on, the wound from one of the most painful episodes in our lives began to heal. We had a daughter waiting for us!

Now, if you think it’s odd for people to be given an experience of heaven, think about this. In 2 Corinthians 12, the Apostle Paul describes another man’s experience. He reports, “I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago…was caught up into Paradise, and heard inexpressible words, which a human is not permitted to speak.” A follower of Christ, “Caught up into Paradise.” And, through the centuries, others have reported similar experiences.

Now, I don’t know if there are simply more people these days being given “a glimpse of heaven”—but with modern communication and global networking, these stories are certainly heard more frequently than in years past. And I suspect that God is using them to give us a sense of surety about our future, as well as comfort regarding our loved-ones who have passed on. Paul wrote to the Thessalonians that he wanted us not to grieve like people with no hope—but to have confidence in God, an assurance that not even death can separate us from God’s love.

In our Gospel reading for today, we encounter a group called the Sadduccees. They had one thing in common with the Pharisees: they adamantly opposed Jesus! But in most other ways, they were very different from the Pharisees. The most significant difference is that they did not believe in any life after death. [Here’s a little trick to remember this differentiation: The Sadduccees did not believe in life after death—so they were sad…you see?] And because they were convinced that there was nothing after death, they were ready to do anything that kept them in wealth and power for this life.

William Barclay writes: The Sadduccees were the small, wealthy aristocracy, who were the collaborationist party and were quite prepared to serve and cooperate with the Roman government, in order to retain their wealth and their privileges. Further, the Pharisees looked for and longed for the Messiah; the Sadduccees did not.

It’s obvious that this group was completely vested in this earthly life, not wanting to believe in any hereafter, thereby giving themselves a rationale for wholehearted selfishness! So, in today’s reading, we see them trying to trick Jesus into admitting that there is no afterlife by presenting a hypothetical situation about a series of brothers who marry the same woman, one after another, in order to fulfill the law of Moses. They were pretty certain they HAD him when they asked, “In the resurrection, whose wife will the woman be?” I’m afraid they underestimated who they were up against—someone who was intimately acquainted with heaven and with the Scriptures!

He spoke with authority when he said that those in heaven “neither marry nor are given in marriage.” They are “children of God, children of the resurrection.” And then, using the same method of teaching that they were accustomed to, he went on to PROVE the fact that the dead are raised! “Moses speaks about the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Now He is God, not of the dead, but of the living; for to Him all of them are alive!” The following verses say that some of the scribes answered and said, “Teacher, you have spoken well.” In their opinion, the words of Jesus carried the day!

Jesus came to teach us many things, including: 1. The nature of God; 2. The characteristics of the Kingdom of God; 3. How we are to treat one another; and 4. Truths about himself. One of these truths was revealed when he was summoned to Bethany to heal his friend Lazarus. Listen to what Jesus says: “This sickness is not unto death, but for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified by it.” And he delayed departing for two days. It took them some time to get there, and by the time they arrived, Lazarus had been in the tomb 4 days. Martha said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. Even now I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give you.”

Jesus said, “Your brother shall rise again.” Martha responded, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Then Jesus told her, “I am the resurrection, and the life; whoever believes in me shall live, even though they die, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?

And Martha professed her faith: “Yes, Lord; I have believed that You are the Christ (the Messiah), the Son of God, He who comes into the world.”

Soon after this, Jesus went over to the tomb, and asked that the stone covering the opening be removed. Martha warned him that there would be a stench, but Jesus said, “Did I not say to you, if you believe, you will see the glory of God?” So they removed the stone and Jesus prayed for Lazarus to be brought back to life so that God’s glory would be revealed. Then he cried out with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come forth!” And the man who had been dead came out, bound hand and foot with wrappings.

The Truth about himself that Jesus revealed is that He IS the RESSURECTION! And the truth he demonstrated is that, where the Lord of Life is concerned, death is not permanent.   That’s why we say at the beginning of a Presbyterian statement of faith, “In life and in death, we belong to God.”

Now, just a word of warning: There are folks who have “a utilitarian faith,” and they would urge us to believe in Jesus so that we can go to heaven. Now IF we buy into that self-centered and erroneous idea, we will have missed the message of the Kingdom of God! Jesus taught us about living in a way that connects us with others and with God, a way to live a full life-the abundant life. IF we live for ourselves and think we have Jesus “tucked into our back pocket for later” then we are deceiving ourselves. We are no better off than those Sadduccees who lived for themselves and for this earthly life.

I will finish with this thought: People who have experienced a glimpse of heaven often report that they are no longer afraid of death. They know what is waiting for them! For many, this allows them to live life selflessly, taking risks on behalf of others, venturing fearlessly into situations they might have avoided before their experience. And even more report that they now have no doubts about their own futures or the fate of their loved-ones who died in Christ. They have a here-and-now faith that is based on the Resurrection of Jesus, and they are not sad—you see?

Prayer

 

November 3, 2019

With Understanding Comes Life            21st Pentecost

Psalm 119:137-144     November 3, 2019      Luke 19:1-10

Have you noticed how human beings have a tendency to “pigeonhole” other people? You know, find a little box in which we can neatly place others according to their “category.” I was talking to some pretty savvy high school students 10 or 12 years ago, and I asked them to identify the different groups they saw on campus. Here is a sample of their list (but don’t expect to know what all of them are!): ETK, Stoners, Druggies, Gangster Wanna-Be’s, Skaters, Goths, Emo, Band Kids, Football Players, Jocks, Bros, Cowboys, and Anime’.

Grownups might make a list of people from our social strata using words like “alternative lifestylers,” Preppies, Hippies, Yuppies, Millenials, Generation X. Or, if you are seasoned enough, you might remember Beatniks, Hoboes, Zoot Suits, blue collars, and white collars.

You see, making quick determinations about who people are and what they are about saves us the tedious work of finding out who they truly are! We take a look at the clothes they wear (and maybe some tattoos); we glance at their behaviors; we might catch a phrase that comes out of their mouth, and DING! We know just which pigeonhole to stick them in! Or, we can take another approach.

I love the scene in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone where Draco Malfoy says to Harry as they get to Hogwarts School, “You’ll soon discover that some wizarding families are better than others. Stick with me. I can help you there.” And Harry replies, “I think I can sort that out on my own, thank you.” What an awesome response! It reminds us that you and I do NOT need to accept the judgments (prejudgments) that other people have made, but we can instead do the difficult work of truly understanding people. Yes, it requires work: listening, delaying judgment, etc, but it can also be a delightful journey of discovery!

Our Scripture readings for today lend us some beautiful light on this subject. The Psalmist is praising God for caring about us, and for giving us understanding. Then, in Luke, we see Jesus reaching past the community’s judgment of Zacchaeus and seeing a child of God! How does this impact you and me and our church? Let’s find out.

Give Me Understanding

The Psalmist cries out to God and begs, “Give me understanding that I may live.” This is asking for the ability to go beyond our normal human tendency to judge others—for the ability to see as God sees; to look beyond the surface—in order that we may truly LIVE. You see, judging others diminishes our lives. Life (as God intended it) is rich with relationships and VARIETY. When you and I listen (even when we might not agree), we foster life-giving understanding. I love the idea in Psalm 133: “How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!” But “living in unity” is not the same as homogeneity, where everyone is all the same. Unity is when very different people still share the same heart, carrying the same image of God.

Just take a look at our little church here. We have a variety of people, reflecting a number of personal preferences regarding worship. Some of us love jazz; others, not so much. Some love the hymns written in the early 1900’s; others, not so much. Some love a traditional service, while others prefer something contemporary. So what we do is offer a little bit of everything, so we’re sure to upset everyone just a little! But what we have here is UNITY—people who have different tastes but share the same heart, carrying the same image of God.

Recognizing God’s Missing Persons

Our Gospel passage alerts us to the fact that our fellowship is missing some people—our family is not complete! As Jesus comes into Jericho, the crowds have amassed and are anxious to see Jesus. Among them is Zacchaeus, and he is too short to see over everyone else. Now, the text tells us that the crowd doesn’t like Zacchaeus, a rich tax collector. It’s quite possible that they crowded together in a way that kept him from seeing Jesus, so he climbed a tree! (This is NOT something that a self-respecting adult would do in that culture!) And when Jesus got to the tree, he recognized a Child of God who was not a welcome part of his community—so he made God’s welcome clear by inviting himself to Zacchaeus’s house. The people of Jericho grumbled at this welcome, and said “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner!” But, guess what?! This sinner was moved to repentance, and Jesus declared that he, too, was a son of Abraham. Did the people of Jericho get the message? I wonder if they knew that one of the Disciples of Jesus was a former tax collector for the Romans (Matthew)?

Friends, our story is full of people who have reached past the barriers, the judgments of the crowd, and have connected with a precious Child of God. You and I have to get past our fears and make an intentional effort to see people as God sees them.

Look around this room. We all see pleasant, amiable people—people who are just like us! Can you think of some people that God might want us to reach out to? Folks who need to come to the Banquet Table of the Kingdom of God?

The Kingdom Banquet

You know, there is a lot of eating in the Gospels! Jesus is criticized for eating with Sinners; he feeds a multitude of people on more than one occasion; he goes to the house of a Pharisee for a meal; and after the resurrection, he eats with the Disciples!

Our communion table is a reminder that our Community gathers around a table, a Table where our needs are met, we are accepted by our community, and we acknowledge that (despite our differences) we are all followers of Christ. In the Lord’s Supper, we celebrate God’s forgiveness of us; our forgiveness of each other; LOVE that makes us whole.

I want to finish today with a story from Ben Patterson called, Mr. Flip-Flops meets Mr. Brown Suit. “As I preached, I saw Dave standing with arms folded skeptically in the back of our Irvine church, wearing a wetsuit, his hair matted from surfing earlier. Our parking lot was full of Mercedes and BMW’s. Most of our members were professionals. They were casual southern Californians, but their attire was on the nice end of casual. Dave clearly didn’t come from Irvine.

When we met I learned that he’d never been in a church before that day, and had grown up on the streets in a nearby beach town. His van was plastered with bumper stickers advertising Dos Equis and Corona. [Mexican beers] Its interior was green shag carpet, with surfboards stacked on one side and crushed beer cans scattered about. Dave was a total anomaly in our good, pleasant little Christian community. But God wanted to make us better and more pleasant. In the months that followed, Dave was embraced by the church and soon became a Christian. He was with us for years, never dressed in anything more formal than sandals, gym shorts, and a T-shirt that advertised a beer, a raceway, or a surfboard manufacturer. But now he was carrying a Bible. I loved this guy!

One year, the church hosted a two-day conference. It required that our congregation provide beds and breakfast for the 60 pastors who would attend. I asked my people to sign up. Soon every pastor had a host family. At the end of the first day of the conference, cars began arriving to pick up their guests. Soon every pastor was gone except one. He was a little man from a farming town in the central valley of California. He wore thick glasses and a conservative brown suit with a thin dark tie, and he carried a large Bible. Everything about him said rectitude, provinciality, control. He stood smiling and waiting patiently for his host to appear.

I checked the list to see who he had been matched with. It was Dave! Surfer Dave! Dos Equis Dave! I gasped in alarm. This was not a good match at all. For a moment I considered calling Dave to tell him we didn’t need his help after all and checking this man into a local motel. I may have done that if Dave had not at that moment careened into the parking lot, tires squealing. So I had no choice but to introduce them to each other.

Dave swung open the side door of his van. The passenger seat was out because he’d been working on the engine, accessible only from the inside. So the pastor had to sit on the carpet amid the crushed beer cans. I laughed nervously as I helped with his luggage. As they drove off, I envisioned the two enduring the worst night of their lives.

The next morning the host families one by one dropped off the pastors at the church until all were present except—you guessed it—Dave and the conservative little pastor. Just as the meeting was to start, Dave’s van came roaring into the parking lot. Through the glare of the windshield I could see the faces of Dave and the pastor—laughing uproariously! As they got out of the van they exchanged addresses like two kids who’d become best friends at summer camp.

I remember feeling embarrassed about my fear the night before. I’d sold both men short. Wondering at the power of the Holy Spirit to create a near-miraculous bond of love between the least likely people, I realized I’d sold God short too.”

Friends, let’s not sell short the power of God’s love. When God sends us a “Dave” (or anyone else who doesn’t seem to fit in), let’s create a space for them, one that they will recognize as a perfect fit!

Prayer: God, thank you for our wonderful church. And thank you for helping us to understand others better. You have called us as partners in your ministries of grace. Thank you for that privilege! May our lives reflect your Kingdom’s values as we extend a welcome in your name. Amen.

 

October 27, 2019

Chained to the Rock             20th Pentecost

Psalm 65   October 27, 2019, 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18

While I was serving in Elko, I was invited to be a guest speaker at a class at the local community college, Great Basin College. The class was entitled “The Meaning of Life.” This seminar group had been reading a variety of sources, and talking at length about what gives life significance and, of course, how they could live life more deeply. I was asked to come and share “the Christian perspective” of what gives life meaning, and I saw this as a great honor as well as an opportunity to share my faith. But let me tell you, it was a little intimidating to have to distill down the whole of Christian teaching into a short presentation!

One thing that helped was all the training I had done for Hospice volunteers on The Spiritual Care of the Dying, and we had discussed leading the client through a process referred to as //:a Life Review.:\\ It’s a way of going over a person’s life, highlighting: 1. Ways that they have made an impact on others, 2. Ways that they have brightened their corner of the world, 3. Achievements, 4. Things that have made their lives significant. It’s an important task to do because, at the end of life, it’s easier to let go if we have a sense that we’ve made a difference…that our life has served a purpose.

So I talked to this class about how //:our mortality brings clarity and focus to how we live our life.:\\ I talked about how Jesus faced his own death, and how he lived his life fully and deeply and wanted us to live life to the fullest as well.

Our Psalm for today gives praise to God who takes care of us. And our Epistle reading is just a snippet from Paul’s second letter to Timothy—but it reveals how Paul was doing his “life review” as he approached his imminent death. He refers to it this way, “The time of my departure has come.” It sounds like he has his ticket, and he’s waiting for his cruise ship to leave the dock! Yes, Paul has done his “life review”!

  1. He’s looked honestly at what his life has been all about;
  2. “I have fought the good fight” (the fight is over now);
  3. “I have finished the race” (ready to receive the victor’s crown!)
  4. “I have kept the faith” (nothing in his experience—not even prison—has dissuaded him away from his faith in Jesus Christ!

So, what about you? If you got a terminal diagnosis, with only months to live–//:how would you assess your life?:\\ What is it that has given your life significance and meaning? Are you able to say that you have fulfilled your purpose? Keep these questions in mind as we explore these texts.

The End Is Near

In Second Timothy, Paul is “passing the reigns” of his ministry to Timothy. He does this, NOT with a sense of failure and despair, but one of Triumph and a hint of relief. William Barclay says, “Ever since his conversion, he had offered everything to God—his money, his scholarship, his time, the vigor of his body, the acuteness of his mind, the devotion of his heart. Only life itself was left to offer, and gladly he was going to lay it down.” In history, we learned that Nathan Hale spied on the British, and he was caught. Right before he was hanged, he declared, “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.”

For the Christian, death is laying down the burden in order to rest; casting off the ropes which bind us to this world in order to set sail on a voyage—the voyage which ends in the presence of God. Who then shall fear it?

Paul said he was looking forward to a “crown of righteousness.” He is borrowing imagery from the Olympic Games, where the winners didn’t receive a gold medal—they got a crown of laurel leaves. This crown celebrates the glory of the moment, and it will eventually crumble. The crown Paul is anticipating would never fade, and its glory would last forever!

How Did Paul End Up in Prison?

Well, first he was falsely accused by some people in Jerusalem, and the Roman soldiers there arrested him to keep him from being killed by an angry mob. He spent two years, waiting for justice. During that time, he proclaimed the Gospel to the Roman authorities and to King Agrippa (who was so moved by his teaching that he responded, “Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?!”) Paul finally exercised his right as a Roman Citizen to appeal his case all the way up to the Emperor. So he was taken to Rome to await his day in court.

[I would encourage you to read Acts 24, 25, and 26 on your own—it’s better than any drama you’ll ever encounter!]

While he waited in Rome, he was under what scholars say was “house arrest.” He was in a home, but was chained to a guard day and night. He was able to receive visitors, and MANY came to spend time with him, learning from him, bringing encouragement to him. And, since he couldn’t travel, he wrote letters. In addition to 1 and 2 Timothy, he wrote messages to the Colossians, the Ephesians, the Philippians, and a personal letter to Philemon. These we know about—and there were probably many more that have been lost. And, as I mentioned in a previous sermon, Paul lived the Gospel in such an authentic way that even some of his guards came to the faith!

 

How Then Shall We Live?

You and I can be inspired by Paul, but none of us is Paul. Each of us has a completely unique life situation, and our challenges are our own. But just knowing about someone who faced such hardship, such unfairness, and death—and still had a sense of PURPOSE—gives me courage to live my life intentionally and with hope!

Just imagine that you’ve been informed that you only have a few months to live. 1. What would you do? Whom would you call? What would you say? In Hospice, we encouraged people to say five things:

  • Forgive me
  • I forgive you
  • I love you
  • Thank you
  • Goodbye

(Actually, except for the final “goodbye,” it might be a good idea to express these things to your friends and family even without a grim prognosis!)

If you knew that you didn’t have long to live, you would be helped by doing a Life Review.

  • How was the world made brighter because you lived?
  • Who has been affected by your life?
  • What might your legacy be, and how might it live on?

John Ortberg writes, “You can drift: get up, go to work, come home, eat supper, watch TV, retire, and die. OR, you can take each moment and say, “God, this is yours.”

 

You see, if we live our lives knowing that they are finite—that our days will eventually come to an end—then we are liberated! We can take risks and follow where God is leading and be a part of the Grand Adventure! We can invest ourselves in people, knowing that our relationships will live on long after we are goneJ

At the end of his fatherly letter to Timothy, Paul expresses this thought: “I was rescued from the lion’s mouth. The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and save me for his heavenly kingdom. To Him be the glory forever and ever. Amen.”

This is a man, sitting in chains, knowing that his death is near! He is confident that God is taking care of him, and he gives God glory! He’s not miserable, just hunkering down, waiting for death. NO! He’s living life to its fullest, even though his parameters have been severely limited.

Friends, you and I have limited parameters as well, to varying degrees. But we can live our lives with courage, with forgiveness, with love.

October 20, 2019

A Chain of Thought               19th Pentecost

2 Timothy 3:14-4:5     October 20, 2019     Luke 18:1-8

What is your favorite kind of teacher? I’ll give you a couple of choices, and you decide which one you like best:

  • A teacher who makes you uncomfortable, but helps you grow; or
  • A teacher who confirms your current beliefs and makes you feel good.

I could ask the same question about what kinds of things you like to read. Would you prefer:

  • Something that sometimes challenges you, makes you stop and think? Or
  • Something that purely entertains you and does not require any self-examination?

Fortunately, I am prepared to offer you something that has the best of both worlds!

  • Reading material that is BOTH fascinating AND growth-producing;
  • A Teacher whose teaching will RESONATE with the TRUTH you already know AND will s-t-r-e-t-c-h you into the full-sized person that you were meant to be!

Our theme for today is How to Choose Our Teachers. It turns out that this is one of the supreme tasks of our life! Choose the wrong teachers and your life gets derailed. Think about all the things that are vying to be our teachers:

  1. Television and movies want to be our teachers;
  2. People who post on the internet and on our social media want to be our teachers;
  3. The society at large wants to be our teacher;
  4. Your gossiping neighbor or co-worker wants to be your teacher!

Our Scripture from Timothy is an encouragement to choose a particular teacher. Paul is urging us to read and to trust the Scriptures as we grow in our trust of Jesus Christ! And, though it seems like a HUGE claim, we proclaim that this Teacher is none other than God’s own self!

In the final analysis, the choice is up to each of us. WE are the ones to decide whom (or what) will be the voice of authority in our lives! So today I want to explore some of the claims of Jesus (as revealed in Scripture) as the BEST authority to have in one’s life. Let’s take a look.

Inspired by God

In his letter to Timothy, Paul warns him about people who choose “teachers to suit their own desires” because of their “itching ears.” He says they “turn away from truth.” So, his advice is to stick with the sacred writings that Timothy has known from his youth. (I don’t believe Paul thought that his very letters would come to be accepted as “sacred writings” in years to come, but today we apply his words about Scripture to both the Old and New Testaments.) Stick with the sacred writings, because all Scripture is inspired by God.

This means that God’s Holy Spirit engaged with those who wrote the Scriptures, and is instrumental in helping US as we read and listen for God’s word.

Now, of course, there are helpful things to read besides the Bible. God can speak to us in any number of other writings. I like to say, “If it’s the TRUTH, it doesn’t matter who said it!”

But I think it would be helpful to know how writings have been selected to be in the Bible. Historically, writings (like Paul’s letters) were treasured by the faithful of the day. They were widely-spread, and translated into many languages. They were copied (by hand), even though paper and ink were costly commodities, and they were carried personally from city to village to town all over the known world. [This is hard to imagine in our world of e-mails, where words can be sent all over the world and even put into different languages with a stroke on a keyboard.] The fact that people treasured and disseminated these writings is the first test in their becoming “Sacred Scripture.”

The second test is what we would call “the test of TIME.” When these writings have inspired generations of believers, they might be considered for the Bible.

Just imagine that another letter of The Apostle Paul was discovered in some cave, and all the experts agreed that it came from Paul—it was completely genuine. Would it be instantly added to the Bible? NO, it would NOT! It would need to be made available for people to read (in their own language); it would need to show itself to be inspiring and full of God’s truth; and it would need to stand the test of time (around 400 years). So, even if we were to find such a letter, don’t expect your Bibles to be expanded anytime soon!

Useful For…

Paul goes on to say that Scripture is useful for a number of things: teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness. What does all that mean? Let’s start with teaching:

  1. More helpful than teachers that just tell us what we want to hear;
  2. Scriptures are the only place in the world to get first-hand, eyewitness accounts of the life of Jesus Christ;
  3. Christianity is not founded on a printed book, but on a living person Who is our teacher!

 

Reproof: I love what the Psalmist has written, “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path.” (KJV) You see, we are all struggling with the dark, and Scripture shines light on our path, illuminating when we STRAY from it. (That is “reproof.” There is no judgment or condemnation in reproof!) We all need light for our path.

William Barclay relates a story that illustrates this point: One dark night in a forest in Sicily, a robber held up a book peddler at the point of a revolver. He ordered him to light a bonfire and burn his books! The peddler lit the fire, then he asked if he might be allowed to read a little from each book before he dropped it into the flames. 1. He read the 23rd Psalm from one book; 2. He read the story of the Good Samaritan from another; 3. The Sermon on the Mount; 4. 1 Corinthians 13. At the end of each reading, the robber said, “That’s a good book; we won’t burn that one; give it to me.” In the end, not a single book was burned—the robber went off into the darkness with the books. Years later, he turned up again. This time he was a Christian minister. He had been given light for his path!

Correction: Again, I turn to Barclay for a definition: “The real meaning of this is that all theories, all theologies, all ethics, are to be tested against the Bible. If they contradict the teaching of the Bible, they are to be refused. It is our duty to use our minds and set them adventuring; but the test must ever be agreement with the teaching of Jesus Christ as the Scriptures present it to us.”

Training in Righteousness: Paul says that the Scriptures will help us to be equipped for every good work. It’s not just for our own personal salvation; it leads us to be useful to God in the lives of others!

 

 

Who’s Your Teacher?

So, how do we choose good teachers? I think we listen carefully for a voice of authority that we can trust. This voice would, of course, be one that is concerned with our best good. Think about the people in your life who have proven themselves trustworthy; consider the organizations and institutions and movements who ring true.

Compare them with “false teachings”, a “bum steer”:

  • The meaning of life is found in the phrase, “Whoever dies with the most toys wins!”
  • Grab all the gusto you can—pleasure is KING!
  • Money, Fame, Power are the ultimate goals
  • Is that all there is?!

Now, hear this voice. Jesus says, “Come to me.”

  • All you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest for your souls;
  • If you are thirsty, come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within them.

Conclusion: I want to finish today by urging each of us to Be A STUDENT! Be a student, no matter where we are in our faith journey! It has been said that the Gospel is deep enough for the most mature saints, and it is shallow enough for beginners. Life is designed to be a Journey of Exploration—an ongoing journey. But we will need to choose our teachers wisely—all those things that can point to the truth, or lead us away from it. Let’s choose Jesus as our Teacher.

 

October 13, 2019

The Word Is Not Chained               18th Pentecost

Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7   2 Timothy 2:8-15   Oct. 13, 2019   Luke 17:11-19

 

Katrina Ann Decker is an inmate whose smile belies her bleak circumstances. Although she is in jail, cut off from her children, she exudes serenity, especially when she talks about the Word of God. “The Bible means a lot to me,” she says. “When I’m sad, when I’m angry, and when I’m depressed, I sit down and read it. It cleanses me. It washes the sadness, the anger, and the depression right out of me. It makes me feel good every day. And at night, it makes me sleep like a baby.”

John Allen Rubio sits with his ankles shackled, leafing through his highlighted Bible. Four years in solitary confinement has given him plenty of time to pore over God’s Word. And, in the process, it has transformed his life. “I have peace in my heart now,” he says, his face radiating with joy when he speaks about the Bible. “I have a better relationship with people, with myself, and with God.” His favorite Bible story is that of the woman at the well. He can relate to this story, because he tried to fill the “broken well” of his life with things that could not sustain or satisfy. “No matter what I did, nothing could fill it,” he says. “When I read the Word, I feel full all the time.”

These examples came from the American Bible Society website, describing their special program to reach out to those who are incarcerated with a gift of Scripture. Even in prison, God’s Word is setting them FREE.

In looking at the texts for today, I saw how their messages illustrate the same power of God’s word, reaching into the world, and doing God’s work. The words of Jeremiah traveled from Judah to the people who had been taken from their homeland all the way to Babylon, bringing comfort and instruction. The passage in Luke shows the healing power of God that is given with a simple word. And the text from 2 Timothy is written from prison by a man who was himself in chains. Literally! But his tone is that of victory. He is willing to suffer this hardship because he sees that God is actively working out God’s purposes despite Paul’s being in prison. He declares that, even though he himself is in chains, “the word of God is not chained.”

Paul’s Frame of Reference

In order to understand what he meant by this, we need to remember a few things about him. Paul had been in training to be a Pharisee, so we know that he was very familiar with the Old Testament. He would have understood Deuteronomy 8:3, “one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” (This sounds familiar because it is what Jesus told Satan during his temptation in the wilderness.) See how it dovetails with his statement to the Disciples after he had been having a very fruitful conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well: “I have food that you know nothing about!”

Paul would have been familiar with God’s words in Isaiah 55:11, “So shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.”

And, as he sat in jail, he would have remembered that Joseph was also in prison unjustly—and that God used that situation to introduce him to someone close to Pharaoh! Yes, Paul was intimately acquainted with the history of God’s word accomplishing the purposes of God!

After his conversion, Paul was called to Mission—to go, in person, to some far-flung corners of the known world. Had he been raised in the lap of Jewish culture, it might have been hard for him to travel. But Paul was raised in Tarsus, Turkey, in Gentile culture. His habit was to travel to a new city, go to the Synagogue, share the good news with the Jewish population of that city, and then take it to the Gentiles there. He had plans to go to Spain, but he found himself locked up and unable to continue his missionary travels.

Paul was forced to write instead of going in person—and, as a result, we have many of his wonderful letters, copied and transmitted to more places than he could have possibly traveled in one lifetime!

We also understand that he would have been chained to a series of guards in a rotating shift. Can you imagine being chained to the Apostle Paul for 8 hours at a time?! You would have overheard conversations between him and his visitors, discussions of what God was accomplishing in various places around the territory. You would have been a constant witness to how Paul responded to his difficult situation! It’s not a surprise that Paul writes that many of his guards had come to a saving faith in Jesus Christ!

His words to Timothy are a witness to God’s powerful activity:

  • I am in chains
  • God’s Word is NOT chained (but is accomplishing God’s purposes)
  • I am enduring for the benefit of those who are obtaining the salvation that is in Christ Jesus.

Words vs. The Word

I find it interesting that Paul includes a warning to Timothy about the misuse of words: “Avoid wrangling over words.” He says it does no good. Wow! Talk about a poignant remark about our current struggles with words, words, WORDS! One thing is clear: words are powerful. Words carry healing. They can also carry destruction. And our words cannot be “reeled in” any more than an arrow that has been shot. Words are powerful.

But God’s Word is much more mighty. In Genesis, God spoke, and the world was brought into being. Throughout the Scriptures, God speaks, and mighty things happen. Hear these words again from Isaiah 55, “For as the rain and snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.

Now comes the challenging part of our text from 2 Timothy: “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved by God, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly explaining the word of truth.” Paul understands that, as a preacher, the FIRST priority is to make certain that the TRUTH is understood. This also applies to any who wish to follow Jesus. We need to know the Word—through personal study and reflection AND by participating in group discussions which yield some surprising insights! And then we need to be ready to “rightly explain” the word. Peter says, “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you.” In other words, be ready to articulate your faith to those who are curious. This does NOT mean jamming it down someone’s throat, but to instead share the impact of your faith on your life, share your experience of God’s work in your story. As long as you and I are living a life of hope, it will generate curiosity among those who know us, and we must be ready to answer their questions!

I’ll finish today with a reminder that God’s Word is powerful and life-changing. Despite appearances, God’s Word is NOT chained! It’s on the move, working out the purposes for which God sent it!

Some years ago, there was a representative of the International Bible Society who was trying to get God’s Word into people’s hands. He had small portions of the Bible (much more affordable), and was encouraging people in a remote village to purchase and read them. One man looked at a collection of the Gospels, and saw how thin the paper was. In all honesty, he told the Bible distributor that the pages would be just perfect for rolling cigarettes! Not to be deterred, he responded, “I will give you this book, but only if you promise to read each page before you use it to make a cigarette.” The man agreed, and took the book.

A few months later, he came back and told the man, “I smoked my way through Matthew. And I smoked my way through Mark. Then I smoked my way through Luke. But halfway through John, the Word took hold of me, and I gladly gave my heart to Jesus! Now, I need to buy a whole Bible!”

Friends, remember God’s promise, “My word will not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose!”

September 29, 2019

Godliness with Contentment                  16th Pentecost

Psalm 91:1-6, 14-16   1 Timothy 6:6-19   Sept. 29, 2019   Luke 16:19-31

If I had to name ONE thing that describes what Christian Faith is all about, I would have to say IT’S ABOUT LIVING THE GOOD LIFE! Really! Think about it—all of the concepts and components, all the principles and promises, all the encouragements and examples point in the same direction: how to “live large” in every aspect of life! After all, Jesus did say “I have come that you might have LIFE—and have it more ABUNDANTLY!

Christian faith is NOT (as it is often portrayed) the WET BLANKET of every life situation. It is God’s plan for living life to the fullest, and sometimes warns us about things that (though they LOOK cool) reduce life’s joy. (The “thou-shalt-nots” are there to keep us from ruining our own party!)

When Jesus told a story about God’s word being like seeds that are dropped into various kinds of soil, he was encouraging us to see what kind of soil we are and to then become richer soil. Why? Because rich soil produces a bigger crop—life lived more fully and deeply!

Our Scripture readings for today are a perfect guide to how to take hold of life. The Psalmist encourages us to trust in God’s generous protection and provision. Paul warns Timothy about some things that take away from the full life, as he shares an idea about how to “take hold of the eternal life to which you were called.” Then Jesus tells a story about a man who had a lot of material blessings, but failed to see his connection with a poor man. (This is a man whose greed was his undoing!) Let’s take a look as we listen prayerfully for God’s word.

Pierced with Many Pains

Paul tells Timothy, “There is great gain in godliness with contentment.” Funny, but we don’t hear too much about contentment these days. For us, it’s all about “Going for the gusto” and “accumulating” and “having it all.” There has been some talk lately about a vague fear that seems to be permeating our society—especially young people. The acronym is FOMO, and it stands for Fear Of Missing Out. One of the reasons kids look at their phones so much is that they are afraid that they will miss a photo or a story or something exciting that everyone else receives—and they will be missing out. The only change from the old days is the particular technology that is being employed. I suspect each generation, in its turn, has suffered from “Fear Of Missing Out!”

Paul warns that the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. He says, “In their eagerness to be rich, some have wandered away from the faith, and pierced themselves with many pains.” Chasing money = pain! Wanting to be rich traps us with senseless and harmful desires. It’s what happens when I focus on what I don’t have, leading to ENVY of others. This subtracts from my enjoyment of life!! Paul says, “If we have food and clothing, we will be content with these.”

If love of money is the root of all kinds of evil, how does that affect us? Well, evil can be described as those things that detract us from Abundant LIFE! Greed creates a disconnect from the people that God intends to be a blessing to us. Excessive desire for money indicates a lack of MEANING in our lives.

Years ago, Victor Frankl, a survivor of a Nazi Concentration Camp, wrote a wonderful book about his experience. He discovered that, in the midst of horrible deprivation, it was possible to experience JOY and GRATITUDE! It is called, Man’s Search for Meaning, and it is helpful in the quest to put together a life of Significance and Depth. I highly recommend it to you!

William Willimon has something pithy to say about meaning: “All across the globe, people think they will find meaning through what they buy or aspire to buy. As one Church of England report puts it, ‘Where previous generations found their identity in what they produced, we now find our identity in what we consume.’” Christians have not escaped the consumer culture, but it’s imperative that we RESIST it!

For me, personally, some of my most clarifying moments have come while being with people who are in the dying process. These are folks who are searching for MEANING, and it doesn’t consist in their possessions (which they will soon have to release). It is found in their relationships with people, and a sense of their impact on the world they are about to leave behind.

Antidote to Greed

So, how do you and I fight the poison of GREED? We need an antidote, and I believe I have found it! It’s THANKFULNESS. A heart that is full of gratitude has no room for greed! So, I can do some intentional things to help fill my heart with gratitude. 1. I can make a list of things for which I am grateful—and add to it frequently; and 2. I can express that gratitude to our generous God. It’s that simple. Really.

Another antidote to Greed is GIVING. You and I can give our Time (which is our most valuable commodity) by giving a helping hand or a listening ear. We can give our Talent—some ability or skill or experience, even while we may think “This is no big deal—I don’t really have a “talent.” And, of course, we can give our Treasure. It turns out that the giving away of money is a pleasurable activity! It comes from a great sense of gratitude, and puts power in our hands to say NO to greed. God has enabled every single person to give at a level that is appropriate to what each has been given by God!

Another antidote to greed is seeking an accurate perspective of our situation. We are surrounded with what has been labeled “a climate of scarcity” amid all the abundance from our Generous God. Greed is that great lack of gratitude which comes from a misreading of our situation.

Thankfulness and generosity are the true antidote to greed.

Godliness with Contentment

Years ago, our VBS had a song entitled “I’m Growing”. Here are the words: God is the sower, His Word the good seed, so the story goes.

Our hearts are the field that harden or yield thirty, sixty, or one-hundred fold!

Good soil, good seed; no rocks, no weeds—I’m growing, I GET IT!

Worry and greed are rocks and weeds, Jesus told us so.

Weeds and rocks have got to go; throw ‘em out so God’s Word will grow! Wise words from a kids’ song!

I have also been struck by hearing about people who have had a disastrous loss of their material possessions from fire, tornado, flood, hurricane. Their keepsakes have gone, their heirlooms destroyed. But many report the discovery of a NEW PERSPECTIVE—a sense of gratitude for what they still have. They would understand Paul’s directive: DO NOT SET YOUR HOPES ON THE UNCERTAINTY OF RICHES.

I will finish this morning by asking you to remember people who have moved from greed to generosity. The archetype of this person is found in a novel by Charles Dickens, a character whose name has become synonymous with greed: Ebenezer Scrooge. In A Christmas Carol, Scrooge exhibits all the symptoms of a greedy person: 1. He doesn’t want to spend because he’s afraid there won’t be enough; 2. He doesn’t connect with people (like his faithful employee Bob Cratchit); 3. He has no concern for the poor; 4. He expects his money to provide all the comfort and companionship he needs.

As you know, in this novel he is FORCED to relive how greed has negatively impacted his life, and FORCED to experience how his greed is currently diminishing the lives of others. And then, in a moment of enlightenment, Scrooge understands that his life is interwoven with the lives of others, and that joy is to be found in that interconnectedness—and he moves from greed to generosity. Now, I KNOW that no one here is like Scrooge, but is it possible that our lives are less full and large than they could be—all because we have not let God move us from greed to generosity, from fear to gratitude?

Prayer: God, please give us eyes to see how blessed we truly are, and develop our capacity for expressing our gratitude and repressing our jealous greed. Thanks for giving us opportunities to grow!

In Jesus’ name, amen.

September 22, 2019

Got Your Invitation?             15th Pentecost

Psalm 79:1-9     Sept. 22, 2019     1 Timothy 2:1-7

I’d like you to remember back to when you were in elementary school. You have a bit of a dilemma, because your birthday is coming and you’re going to have a party, and you have to decide which kids in your class are going to be invited. As you look around the classroom, you see a couple of “popular” kids—you know, the ones with more money than the other kids, or better looks (or both). You can’t really invite them because they would be offended and would snub you in front of the others! So you look a little further, and you see the “unpopular” kids—you know, the ones with less money, grubbier clothes, the kids no one would want at their birthday party. So you make your list of kids to invite, and you show it to your parents.

Now, if you had parents like mine, they would look at the list and ask, “But what about so-and-so?” (naming one of the kids you left off your list.) And you might reply, “I can’t invite them—they’re too popular or too unpopular!” Then your parents would tell you, “You have to invite every kid in your class—every kid—no one gets left out.” Does this sound familiar? Well, as exasperating as it is to a kid, it’s even MORE SO to an adult! Thus our dilemma with today’s Scripture readings. The Psalm is full of anger toward the unrighteous and a call for retribution, but finishes with a prayer for forgiveness. Then Paul’s letter to Timothy says that God wants us to pray for everyone; that God wants everyone to be saved; and that Christ gave himself as a ransom for all.

At first blush, this isn’t really problematic for us because we think of it in general terms without thinking too much about specific people. But these verses move us to think outside the box when it comes to those individuals whom we might neglect in our prayers…people we might not want to lift up for God’s blessing. Let’s take a look.

We Are Invited to Pray

Paul says that he URGES us to pray for everyone: that “supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone” including those in high positions. Now, in today’s political climate, we hear all kinds of rantings and ravings against many of our elected officials. It’s nothing new—it was the same in Paul’s day! But he is urging us to pray for them as well, saying “this is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior.”

He knows that prayer makes a difference!

Here’s an interesting example: in May of 1934, a small group met together on a dairy farm to pray. It was the middle of The Great Depression, and the dairy farmer had lost all of his savings when his bank collapsed. But he set aside some precious work time to pray with his friends. In their prayer, they asked God to raise up a person from their area who would share the Good News of Jesus all over the world. Now, at that time, the farmer’s teenage son was in the habit of mocking his father’s faith—but a few months later, he committed his life to Jesus. His name? Billy Graham! Friends, what might NOT have happened if this group of farmers had not asked God to provide a gospel preacher to reach around the world? Prayer makes a difference!

Sometimes you and I will say, “I’ll pray for you.” It might be because we cannot think of something more concrete that we can do to help. We value action, but prayer and action are not mutually exclusive!

Bill Hybels once said, “When I work, I work. But when I pray, God works!” Prayer is just asking God to join in on the workJ

When you and I lift others up to God, then God’s light shines on us!

We Are Invited to Engage God

When God’s light shines on us, good things “come to light.” The shadows within us are diminished, and God’s warmth causes new life to bloom in us—and that’s good news.

I love what Frederick Buechner says about the term “Good News.”

“What is both Good and New about the Good News is the wild claim that Jesus did not simply tell us that God loves us even in our wickedness and folly and wants us to love each other the same way and to love him too, but that if we will let him God will actually bring about this unprecedented transformation of our hearts himself! What is both Good and New about the Good News is the crazy insistence that Jesus lives on among us not just as another haunting memory but as the outlandish, holy, and invisible power of God working in countless hidden ways to make even SLOBS like us loving and whole beyond anything we could conceivably pull off by ourselves. Jesus never claimed that the process of being changed from a SLOB into a human being was going to be a Sunday School picnic. Part of what it means to be a slob is to hang on for dear life to our slobbery!”

Paul explained to Timothy that God’s desire, God’s will is that EVERYONE will be saved (transformed from our “slobbery”), and that EVERYONE will come to the knowledge of the TRUTH. And keep in mind that, before Jesus showed us what God is like, we didn’t really know! But, in Christ, we have a better picture of God’s wide-open welcome!

Christ Died for Thee

Paul tells Timothy, “Christ Jesus, himself human, gave himself a ransom for all.” This came as quite a surprise, quite an upset, for those who thought they had an exclusive lock on God’s affections! But “all” means every person (including those you might not think to include). Buechner makes this winsome suggestion: “The next time you walk down the street, take a good look at every face you pass and in your mind say, ‘Christ died for thee.’ That girl. That slob. That phony. That crook. That saint. That darned fool. Christ died for thee.”

And this is God’s invitation: to give ourselves to God. We are invited to a relationship—one that justifies us. No, we cannot justify ourselves, but God is offering to bring us into a right relationship! Last week, we briefly looked at Paul’s conversion, the experience that put him on a trail away from exclusivism and into a new understanding of God’s welcome. Here’s how Frederick Buechner writes about Paul: “During his Pharisee phase or ‘blue period,’ Paul was on his way to Damascus to mop up some Christians when suddenly he heard the voice of Jesus Christ, whose resurrection he had (up ‘til now) considered only an ugly rumor. What he might have expected the voice to say was, ‘Just you wait!’ What in effect it did say was, ‘I want you on my side.’ Paul never got over it! As far as Paul was concerned, he was the last man in the world for God to have called this way, but God had, thereby revealing himself to be a God who was willing to do business with you even if you were in the process of mopping up Christians at the time! Paul also discovered that all the Brownie points he had been trying to rack up as a super-Pharisee had been pointless. God did business with you not because of who you were but because of who He was!

I’ll finish today with an excerpt from a story by C. S. Lewis, one in the Narnia series—The Last Battle. In this story, Narnia has been invaded by Calormenes from the South—people who brought their own religion, the worship of Tash. When the final battle was over, it was time for the realm of Narnia to come to an end. Aslan (the Christ figure in these stories) set up a door through which all the characters could pass (or not). Those who went through the door went further in and higher up! And, as they went through this delightful land (which was like Narnia only more wonderful), they came upon a young man who had been in the army of Calormen—the “enemies” they had just defeated! He told them his story about how Aslan had found him—and how he had expected to be destroyed. Instead, he related that, after conversing with Aslan, “He breathed upon me and took away the trembling from my limbs and caused me to stand upon my feet. And said that I must go higher up and further in, and then he was gone!”

Friends, we have our invitation! It is stated in the sweet little song from Tanzania that the choir sang today: “Listen! Listen, God is calling, through the Word inviting, offering forgiveness, comfort, and joy!” God invites us into relationship, into adventure, into active prayer—engaging God’s power in our lives and in our world. Let us pray!

 

God, give us the ability to see others with your eyes, to extend an invitation regardless of “worthiness” or “station in society.” Thank you for reaching out to us, even in our slobbery, and inviting us into your welcome arms. In the name of Christ, amen.

 

September 15, 2019

Mercy for the Ignorant         14th Pentecost

Psalm 14   1 Timothy 1:12-17   Sept. 15, 2019   Luke 15:1-10

Every now and then I see a comic strip posted on Facebook called “Coffee with Jesus.” There are a variety of characters who have “conversations with Jesus” over a cup of coffee. It’s an interesting way to explore what it means to live out our faith. Just the other day, I saw this one: A man named Carl says, “I’m such a mess-up, Jesus. Bad husband, lousy father, horrible friend. I’m always falling short.”

Jesus responds, “Go a little easier on yourself, Carl. Did you think you’d be perfect by this point?”

Carl says, “Well, not perfect, Jesus—but much farther along than I am!”

In the final frame, Jesus gives this insight: “Ya know, ‘Carl from five years ago’ would’ve never given these things a second thought!”

This imaginary conversation popped into my mind as I reflected on Paul’s words to Timothy. He candidly says, “I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence.” In other places in scripture, we read about Paul’s previous life. In Galatians, he says, “For you have heard of my former manner of life in Judaism, how I used to persecute the church of God beyond measure, and tried to destroy it; and I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my contemporaries among my countrymen, being more extremely zealous for my ancestral traditions. But God called me through His grace. He was pleased to reveal His Son in me, that I might preach among the Gentiles.”

This truly dovetails with the account in the 9th chapter of Acts when Paul is confronted by the Resurrected Christ on the road to Damascus, and is diverted from his former life into his new calling! In today’s text, he explains that he received mercy because he had acted ignorantly in unbelief! He was rescued because the GRACE of our Lord overflowed for him with the faith and the love that are in Christ Jesus!

Paul describes himself as the foremost or the “chief” of sinners!

Years ago, I was watching an interview with Mother Teresa of Calcutta. The young reporter from the BBC was obviously in awe of this amazing woman, and she was aghast when Mother Teresa described herself as a “sinner.” “Oh, surely, YOU are not a sinner?!” Mother Teresa just laughed and said, “Oh, I am the chief of sinners!” Now, whether we give that title to her or to the Apostle Paul, they would both say that God has displayed the utmost patience with them in order that they might be an example to those who came to believe in Jesus for eternal life. Utmost patience=MERCY!

Just a side note here, folks. Trusting our lives into the hands of Jesus will do a number of things—including giving us a heightened sensitivity to our sin. Just like Carl in the “Coffee with Jesus” comic strip I began with—you and I will become more acutely aware of our sinfulness AND more deeply grateful for the mercy of God! It’s always a good thing to remember how much we need a Savior! (Humbling)

How Far God Is Willing to Go

Our Gospel reading for today gives us an idea of just how far God is willing to go to save us. Jesus is responding to the grumbling of the “holy people” of his day, as they complained, “This fellow welcomes sinners and EATS with them.” [There’s something you need to know: in those days, there was a belief that if you spent time in the presence of a sinner, especially if you ATE with them, then their sin would “rub off on you.” These holy people thought that they were sin-LESS, and they believed that truly righteous people AVOIDED those who could “pollute” them with sin! They thought that being Godly meant staying away from ungodly people.]

So Jesus needed to teach them something about how far God goes to find the lost. He told them about a shepherd who goes looking for a lost sheep until he finds it, then rejoices when he brings it home. He told them about a woman who loses a coin and turns the house upside down until she finds it, then rejoices with her neighbors.

“In the same way,” Jesus says, “there is rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents.”

These two parables were followed by the familiar story Jesus told about the father with two sons, and the younger son takes his half of the estate and goes to a far country, where he wastes it in wild living. And when that son finally comes to his senses and comes home, the Father is waiting…with open arms. Don’t forget the older brother in the story: HE was acting just like the Pharisees and the Scribes, NOT wanting to see the Father have mercy on those who have strayed.

All three of these stories were told to illustrate just how far God is prepared to go to reach God’s children. And Jesus made it clear: God welcomes sinners. Another interesting text that sheds light on this idea of how far God is prepared to go is found in 1 Peter 3. It’s one of the texts that moved the early leaders of the church (the ones who crafted The Apostles’ Creed) to include the line “He descended into Hell.” Here’s the passage: Christ died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, in order that he might bring us to God, having been put to death in the flesh BUT made alive in the spirit; in which also he went and made proclamation to the spirits now in prison, who once were disobedient

 

Peter is telling us that, in order to bring all of us to God, Christ even took the gospel to the spirits in prison (sheol, hell).

This passage is still something of a mystery, but it makes one thing clear: no matter how dark, mysterious, and difficult life gets, Christ is there. After all, what can separate us from the love of God?! Paul says, “I am convinced that neither death nor life, nor things present nor things to come, shall be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord!”

To finish today, I want us to reflect on how we pray for those who oppose us, for those who would destroy us. Are we praying for God’s MERCY for them?  As I’ve said before, I like to think of the Christians in Damascus who heard that Saul was “breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord.” I am convinced that they got busy praying that God would save them and deal mercifully with Saul. Let’s keep in mind that God is ready to go to any lengths to reach those who call themselves our enemies.

Paul says “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” And on the cross Jesus demonstrated that there are absolutely no limits to how far God will go in order to 1. Get us; 2. Grab us; 3. Find us; 4. Save us; and 5. Take us home. It is true that “all we, like sheep, have gone astray.” And we have a Good Shepherd who loves us enough to rescue us—while asking that you and I WELCOME any lost sheep back into the fold!

Prayer: God, we thank you for reminding us of our sinfulness, and your MERCY that reaches out to us. We pray for all those who are ignorant of your love, your welcome, your ability to heal us and to restore us to each other. Savior, like a Shepherd, lead us. Make us instruments of your love, we ask in the name of Christ. Amen.

September 8, 2019

Molding Our World               13th Pentecost

Jeremiah 18:1-11   September 8, 2019   Philemon 1-21

I can still remember an art class when I was in elementary school. I was given a lump of clay, and told to make something out of it. I really didn’t have any idea what to do with it, so I just pinched it into a little container shape, and scratched my name on the bottom. The next week, it had been fired, and I was told to paint it with some glaze. I got about half of it painted (I think I talked too much to my neighbors!), and then they fired it again. The next week, I was given this half-formed, half-glazed thing, and had to figure out what to do with it. I decided to give it to my dad. Now, imagine my surprise when, some time later, I visited my dad’s office and discovered it sitting on his desk—holding paper clips! Well, today, in my office, I have a little pot that was made by my son, Chris—and it holds paper clips, too! And I have a little ceramic snake (made by Erin) that sits on my windowsill and “protects my office from intruders.”

Anybody here have something similar? Yes, clay is part of our heritage, and making things from clay is an ancient art—creating things of beauty and utility! There’s just something about taking an unformed blob and somehow transforming it into something, working with it until it is satisfactory—yes, it’s very satisfying.

Our Scriptures for today are about the work God does, shaping and transforming our world. Jeremiah watches a potter, working at his wheel, and hears the word of the Lord describing God’s own self as a potter, and Israel as the clay in God’s hands. Then, in our Epistle, we hear Paul addressing a Christian slave-owner (named Philemon). Paul is telling him how to deal with a runaway slave named Onesimus. In his own way, Paul is shaping and transforming the way Christians looked at slavery. I’m sure you’re familiar with the Genesis account of CREATION, where God brings into being the earth and water and animals and people. And you can see, in your mind’s eye, God forming Adam from “the dust of the ground.”

But that’s just the beginning of our story—an unfolding story that shows that God is actively engaged in the labor of molding our world, just as a potter molds the clay. What I want to do today is to explore how God molds you and me, and also draws US into the business of molding God’s world. Let’s take a look!

God’s Hands at Work

There are at least two ideas about How God Is Involved in the World. The Deists believed in God, and that God was kind of like a “clockmaker.” God made the world, set it in motion, and from then on God has been “hands off!”

But the testimony of Scripture, and the witness of our own experience of God, show us that God is involved with us! God tells Jeremiah, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you.” You see a similar idea in Job 3, Psalm 51, Psalm 139, Isaiah 44—God is in the creating business. And all one has to do is read the Book of Acts—which is a thriller better than any novel—to see how intimately God is acting in our lives. When you and I listen to each other’s stories (and our stories are not yet finished!), we see God’s hand at work! Isaiah 64 says “O Lord, you are our Father. We are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand.” We are all the work of God’s hand.

Now, according to our text from Jeremiah, you and I are being molded for God’s purposes. He says that God has plans for the people of God. God has plans for us! Of course, we have FREE WILL, and sometimes those plans have to shift depending on our attentiveness to God.

[And we would do well to remember that some lumps of clay are formed into objects meant for a very special purpose, while others of us are formed for a much more common purpose. But since GOD is the potter, who are we to disagree about our place in God’s design?]

Transformed versus Conformed

One particular text has been very important to me in recent years. Paul writes in Romans 12, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

Paul is not suggesting that we transform ourselves, but that we BE transformed—allowing the hand of God to form us, to shape us. In this process, our minds are renewed, and we will better understand God’s will. We can choose to focus on God’s thoughts, God’s ways, God’s word. I really love Philippians 4, where Paul writes, “Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” You and I have a part in the process of transformation and renewal! We can choose what to think about!

Transformation of Relationships

In our Epistle to Philemon, we see the seeds of a relational revolution! Paul has been blessed, while in prison in Rome, with the company of a runaway slave—a slave by the name of Onesimus. His name means “useful” or “profitable” and Paul wants very much to keep this new Christian by his side. But he knows his owner, Philemon, a Christian man of Colosse. Paul knows that the right thing to do is to send Onesimus back to Colosse, back into the service of Philemon. But he sends a letter with him—a personal letter that begs Philemon to receive Onesimus more as a BROTHER in Christ than as a slave!

Now, I have always wondered why Paul never wrote a lengthy treatise against the institution of slavery. We all know slavery is bad, right? Last week, Melissa and I were watching a show in which a couple had an opportunity (in 1769) to inherit a very large plantation in North Carolina. But the property included 154 slaves, and they had no intention of owning slaves. Their first thought was that they would FREE the slaves—but then they found out that the law required that proof must be offered that a slave had performed some outstanding meritorious service (like saving a life) before he or she could be given their freedom. There was also a fee to be paid of 100 pounds sterling for each slave thus freed. Once they learned the impossibility of it, they simply declined to inherit the estate. Things are always more complicated than we at first perceive!

Paul did not write about the wrongness of slavery. Instead, he planted the seeds that would eventually dissolve it. He asked a slave owner to think of his slave as a brother, and to treat him the way he would treat Paul himself if he were there. This was a revolution in relationships! We hear an echo of it in Galatians 3, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

Transformation Possible

I want to give you just two quick examples that illustrate the possibility of transformation; stories of how folks have been transformed and then have been used by God to transform the world. The first is Nick Voyachic (“VOY-itch-itch”). He is a man who was born without arms or legs. There was a time when he felt helpless and hopeless, but now Nick is an inspirational speaker! He talks with kids and adults, and testifies that God can use anyone. “We are put in situations to build our character, not to destroy us!” (Reminds me of “Have Thine Own Way, Lord!”) And Nick affirms that, if one plan gets wrecked, we find ourselves eventually in a much more perfect plan! He says that the wonder of God is experienced when God uses us, imperfect creatures, to do God’s perfect will!

The second example is found in former “untouchables” who were once slaves in the caste society of India. Once they hear the Good News that they are children of the King, NO LONGER SLAVES, they set about bringing the liberating Gospel of Jesus Christ to other “untouchables.” And they are gradually REVOLUTIONIZING an entire society!

See, friends, God transforms us then gets us into the family business of transformation!

I’ll finish today by going back to our friend, the slave, Onesimus. Ready to hear “the rest of the story”? It’s really good! He was not only restored to Philemon, but became his BROTHER, and eventually he became the Bishop of Ephesus! It must have been hard to go back after running away, hard to face the possible consequences—but he had become “pliant clay” in God’s hands, and had discovered God’s good, pleasing, and perfect will.

Friends, God is already at work in your life. Will you and I be pliant clay in the Potter’s hands? I wonder what kind of wonderful purposes God has in mind for us? Let’s find out together!

 

August 25, 2019

Tearing Down, Building Up       11th Pentecost

Jeremiah 1:4-10          Psalm 71:1-6      August 25, 2019    Luke 13:10-17

I once read a story about a father who had given his little daughter a necklace full of fake pearls—just play jewelry. She LOVED that necklace, and wore it very frequently. When she got just a little older, he bought a REAL pearl necklace for her—but he didn’t give it to her right away. He wanted to try something unusual. When he was tucking her into bed, he asked her if she would be willing to give back to him the costume necklace. (In his pocket, he had the pearl necklace ready to give to her.) Night after night, he asked her for the fake one, ready to give her the REAL one—and she just couldn’t part with it. But there came a night when the girl realized that her father loved her and always cared about what was BEST for her—and she said “Yes” when he asked if she would give back the old necklace. When she released it into his hand, he pulled out the necklace made of real pearls—shining and glowing in the dim light of her room. And, of course, she was absolutely delighted with it!

The father, meanwhile, was also delighted to see that his daughter was able to trust him with something so precious as her necklace…willing to trust his love and goodness enough to release her hold on something she loved.

This story reminds me of what God is always doing with his children:

  • Encouraging us to let go of our grubby little “treasures” so that our hands are empty enough to receive the real treasures God has for us;
  • Tearing down stuff that stands in the way of what God wants to build for us;
  • Clearing out weeds & planting good seeds in the soil of our lives.

Our Scripture readings for today are about this very endeavor.

  1. Jeremiah is given words from God to share with God’s people—words that tell us about what God intends for us;
  2. Then Jesus shows us the very HEART of God in his healing of a woman who is bent over—healing her on the Sabbath Day, which violated the system of religion that was so entrenched that it valued Sabbath laws more than the needs of people!

So, what is God saying to us today? About the little things we as individuals need to let go of in order to receive something better?? About the systems that we have valued more than God’s precious children? We won’t get at all the answers, but we’ll get into the questions! Let’s go.

Jeremiah

The Prophet Jeremiah lived 600+ years before Jesus. While he was quite young, he got a message from the Lord; he had an encounter with God. God said, “I knew you before you were born” and “I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” Of course, we understand a young man’s hesitation, and Jeremiah said, “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” But God overruled his objection! “You shall go to all to whom I send you, and speak whatever I command you.”

We see the same hesitation in Moses who made excuses when God spoke to him from the burning bush, telling him to go speak to Pharaoh and bring God’s people out of Egypt. And God overruled him, saying, “You shall speak all that I command you.” His excuses evaporated.

Just a little side-note here. What excuses do YOU use when you sense that God is calling you to do something a little scary? And do your excuses hold water? Now, of course, as a preacher, I am supposed to have some trepidation when it comes to speaking in God’s name—and I do! But I am encouraged by God’s promise, “I will speak through you.” This is exactly what God promised to Moses, and to all the prophets, and to the young man, Jeremiah. “I am with you; I will speak through you.”

Then God tells Jeremiah of future intentions: to tear down, and to build up. “See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.

In Jeremiah’s day, the “Nations and the Kingdoms” referred to great international intrigue, to political gamesmanship going on with the Assyrians and the Egyptians and the Babylonians. And we know from history the accuracy of God’s words regarding plucking up, pulling down, destroying, overthrowing, as well as building and planting.

Jesus and Change

Now, zoom ahead 600 years to the time of Jesus. In Jesus, we see God in the flesh, a man who spoke God’s words. And as I have said before, when we see what Jesus did, and hear what he said—we get a glimpse into the very heart of God! We can observe God’s love for ALL God’s children. In today’s Gospel reading, we see a crippled woman who defied her infirmity and came to worship at the synagogue. She did not ask for healing, but she was called over by Jesus. And, after 18 years of living doubled over, she was HEALED! She stood up straight and began praising God! Anyone could see that God was actively present in that place.

Well, almost anyone. The leader of the synagogue apparently loved the system of religion that gave him his power, his position. Instead of seeing God’s loving power on display, he complained to those in attendance: “There are six days in which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the Sabbath day.” (He was judging Jesus for breaking the Sabbath law.)

[Doesn’t it make you wonder: WHO was it that decided that healing was work (and therefore NOT to be done on the Sabbath)?! If it’s GOD who does the healing, who are we to argue?! We certainly cannot say that God violates the Third Commandment, “Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy.”]

Jesus responded to this man’s heartless judgment with a logical argument. (Keep in mind: untying a knot was not allowed on the Sabbath.) IF we untie an animal on the Sabbath day (which is allowed), and lead it out to water, HOW MUCH MORE SHOULD THIS DAUGHTER OF ABRAHAM BE UNTIED ON THE SABBATH DAY?! This put his critics to shame, and the common people were rejoicing at what God was doing in their very midst! They, at least, had the capacity to see God’s love in action.

Jesus was trying to demonstrate that people are more important than systems. Some systems need to be torn down (in part or in whole) to be replaced by God’s best. That’s why the Presbyterian motto is “Reformed and always reforming.” The church must scrutinize itself in order to be certain that we are not impeding God’s workings! William Barclay observed (back in the 50’s): “Strangely enough, this ‘worship of systems’ commonly invades the church.

We see that, in both the passage from Jeremiah and the one from Luke, the theme is CHANGE IS COMING. Change is coming.

 

 

 

 

Life in the Age of Change

Many years ago, I flew to New Mexico in order to drive my dad to Elko for a visit. (He was on oxygen, and wouldn’t be allowed on a plane with an oxygen tank.) We drove through southeast Utah where he had been born. He kept commenting on how much had changed in the 80 years he had been gone. Our return trip yielded the same response, and we decided that the theme of our journey was “Change is only constant.”

God’s declaration to Jeremiah is that God is going to uproot—to tear down—to destroy—to overthrow. And then God is going to build and to plant.

This may be a comfort to those of you who feel personally uprooted, torn down, overthrown. If God is doing it, there’s a good purpose at work! The Psalmist has a graphic image in Psalm 29: “The plowmen plowed on my back; they made their furrows long.” In this image, there is the pain of being plowed, but there’s also the hope in what might be planted by the sower!

What about our awesome little church here? Are we facing change? You bet! And do we like it? Well, much of it is difficult for some, while other changes are more difficult for others. But the world we live in is different from the old days, and you and I are called to keep finding new ways to discover Christ’s mission for Christ’s church! (This is not OUR church, after all.) It’s distressing to see old, familiar things being uprooted, torn down, overthrown. But God promises to build and to plant.

 

 

I’ll finish today with a story that Jim Singleton tells. He was visiting the church in East Africa when he was taken to see a large warehouse. It was filled with pump organs, stacked three high, covered with tarps! His host explained that the Church of Scotland missionaries brought Christianity to the area, along with music (hymns) from their homeland. Missionary Aid Societies all over Scotland raised money to buy pump organs and to ship them to Africa so the missionaries could accompany worship! (The Africans had historically used drums and movement in their pagan worship—so these things were strictly forbidden!) But still, the church grew and the Gospel was received and eventually local, indigenous people began to assume leadership. In recent years, the African church had moved away from hymns and pump organs (the European style of worship) and into a more AFRICAN style—with drums and movement! So, the pump organs were no longer relevant. (But, out of respect for all those Scots who had given sacrificially to provide them, the pump organs were saved—and stacked up in the big warehouse!) Change may happen slowly, but it is inexorable!

Now, in two weeks, we are going to hear God send Jeremiah down to the potter’s house where he will see a vessel of clay being re-shaped for the maker’s purpose. And the church sings “Have thine own way, Lord, have thine own way. Thou art the potter, I am the clay.” Because it’s our job to look for God’s activity in the upsetting things going on around us—and to trust God with that change!

August 18, 2019

God’s Love-Song          10th Pentecost

Isaiah 5:1-7   Hebrews 11:29-12:2   August 18, 2019   Luke 12:49-56

Those of you who are familiar with J. R. R. Tolkien’s story of The Lord of the Rings—either the books or the movies—will remember a scene where Frodo and Sam are working their way toward Mount Doom. Struggling through difficult situations, they keep plodding along to the one place where they can destroy an evil ring that Frodo carries. They are weary of this quest, and discouraged because things get more dangerous with every step.

Then there is a shining moment when Sam Gamgee says this: “It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger, they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something, even if you were too small to understand why. But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. They kept going. Because they were holding on to something.

Now, if you know the story, you know that Sam, in his own humble way, made it possible for them to reach their destination—even carrying Frodo for the last part of the journey! Reaching back to the old stories gave him the strength and confidence he needed for his story!

This scene kept coming to mind as I looked at our Scripture passages for today, especially the one from Hebrews. The writer knew the power of remembering the stories of our people! And the Isaiah passage speaks very poetically about “an unfolding love-story” between God and the People of God—a love story like many we hear about today, with ups and downs and betrayals and forgiveness and RESTORATION. It’s an unfolding story, not yet finished.

And then the writer to the Hebrews hearkens back to some major chapters in our story, how people of faith kept plodding along through the dark shadows and became…victorious. He then urges his readers to stay connected to all this history while we “run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.”

Just as the GREAT STORIES—“the ones that really mattered”—were a source of strength for the fictional characters of Sam and Frodo, you and I are strengthened and sustained by the stories of our faith. The ones we learned in Sunday School and Vacation Bible School and sitting on the laps of our grandparents. The ones we read in Guideposts and other devotional readings. The stories of God’s faithfulness to the people of God—taking us through the valley of the shadow—each generation being a “new verse” in God’s love-song for us.

The Apostle Paul writes that “we live by faith, and not by sight.” This is the faith that the writer to the Hebrews was talking about. “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. THIS is what the ancients were commended for.” Then he goes through a whole catalog of familiar events in which people by faith did various things God was calling them to do, and it all worked out in the end. Faith is being sure of God’s love and power and provision even when things around us look pretty “iffy.”

As Frodo and Sam were strengthened and encouraged by remembering their stories—you and I are encouraged as we are “surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses.” This is a poetic way of saying that you and I have a story—we’re IN a story—and we have the chance to be a great part of the story IF…

  • If we lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely;
  • If we run WITH PERSEVERANCE the race that is set before us;
  • if we keep our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith!

I love the way William Barclay writes about this soaring passage in Hebrews! He describes the “great cloud of witnesses” as a huge gathering of people in a stadium, and we are being watched and cheered on by them. He writes, “An actor would act with double intensity if he knew that some famous dramatic master was sitting in the stands watching him. An athlete would strive with double effort if he knew that a stadium of famous Olympic athletes was watching him. It is the very essence of the Christian life that it is lived in the gaze of the heroes of the faith who lived, suffered, and died in their day and generation. How can a person avoid the struggle for greatness with an audience like that looking down upon him?”

Then, we are supposed to “lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely.” You wouldn’t start a race with a heavy backpack on, would you? You and I have encumbrances to deal with before we run the race, so we can “travel light.” They might be habits or pleasures or self-indulgences or associations that hold us back, weigh us down.

Running the race with perseverance means more than just “hunkering down and enduring something until it’s over.” And it’s not a state of denial that lets us just skip over all the hard places. It is, instead, a resilient determination which goes steadily on and refuses to be deflected, staying with it until victory is achieved—even if we have to stop and rest occasionally. We have a “victorious perseverance!”

Then the writer to the Hebrews talks about Jesus, and holds him up as our example of one who persevered to victory. For the goal that was set before him, he endured all things; to win it meant the way of the Cross. He endured the humiliation of the Cross—and arose victorious! (Luke 12)

Which leads to the final point: We have in Jesus not just an example, but a living presence. Jesus is not only our inspiration and model—he is also our companion on the journey! Jesus gives us Himself, and he gives us each other. You see, friends: This race we’re running is not a competition against others as much as it is a cooperation—a “group excursion” in which we are helping each other to cross the finish line. As companions of Jesus, you and I are on an adventure of faith—we’re living the stories that continue The Big Story of God’s work in this world—God’s creation, God’s provision, God’s restoration.

Well, I want to finish this morning by telling you about my Uncle Ozzie, who was a Presbyterian pastor for many decades. While I was growing up, I knew him to be a loving, engaging, self-sacrificing, and inspiring person. Then, as I began my ministry 40 years ago, I often found myself asking, “I wonder how Uncle Ozzie would respond to this situation?” Ozzie loved Jesus, and he loved others without reservation or condition. And he’s one of the characters in The Big Story that makes me want to follow Jesus, to be on this adventure of faith.

Yes, friends. Sometimes the adventure is tough, and we have lots of chances of turning back, BUT we’re holding onto something, something worth holding on to—and we’re in it together! We are part of God’s Love-Song!

August 11, 2019

And God Keeps on Giving              9th Pentecost

Isaiah 1:1, 10-20   August 11, 2019   Luke 12:32-40

You’ve heard those old “Good news, bad news” jokes, right? Like the one where there are a bunch of men rowing a big galley to the beat of a drum, and the slave-driver has them stop long enough to make an announcement. “We’ve got some good news, and some bad news. First, for the good news: the Captain has ordered that every one of you is going to have STEAK for dinner! (Yea!!) And now for the bad news: after dinner, the Captain wants to go WATER SKIING!” (Yeah, groans are appropriate hereJ)

Well, today’s Scripture readings reminded me of this form of story, except that it’s more of a BAD NEWS/GOOD NEWS scenario. Isaiah announces the BAD news that God is fed up with people claiming to be God’s chosen ones, sacrificing animals to God and having BIG religious festivals—but NOT living lives that reflect God’s will. God is sick of it. And then, in our Gospel reading, Jesus gives us the GOOD news—that it is our Father’s good pleasure to give us the kingdom! Now, both Isaiah and Jesus tell us what to do in response to the messages they share, and both are messages of HOPE—the kind of message we need today. Let’s take a look.

God Is NOT Pleased

The message in Isaiah is first addressed to the Kings. They are, after all, the representatives of the people. But they have led the people astray by supporting the worship of the Ba’als!! Isaiah refers to them as “rulers of Sodom and Gomorrah”—cities that God had destroyed because of their incredible sinfulness.

But the people of Israel and Judah are guilty as well. After all, God never asked for their sacrifices! Through Isaiah, God says, “Trample my courts no more; bringing sacrifices is futile; incense is an abomination to me. I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity…your hands are full of blood.”

It’s kind of an odd phrase, to say that one’s hands are full of blood. We say that when someone’s blood is on your hands, you are responsible for that person’s death. It reminds me of Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth. She was a character who had supported her husband’s plot to kill the king, thus making him king (and her, queen). But, during the night, her conscience had her sleepwalking, trying to wash the blood off her hands, and saying, “Out, damned spot!”

When God says that our hands are full of blood, that means that our sins against each other are an outrage to God! And all the sacrifices and religious observances in Isaiah’s day are offensive to God, because people thought they could keep doing evil and somehow make up for it with their sacrifices!

So, the BAD NEWS is that God does not love that kind of religion, that style of behavior.

The Good News

More than 700 years after Isaiah, Jesus came and clarified what God is really like. In our Gospel reading for today, Jesus says, “It is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” Be ready to do God’s work. Now, friends,THAT is good news! Isaiah had tried to tell the people, “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow. If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land.” But Isaiah was largely ignored by the people, just like all the other prophets. So God had to become human in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, and make it clear to us!

Jesus says that God’s desire is to give us the Kingdom! There are other ways to say this:

  • 1 Timothy 2:4 says, “God wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.”
  • Luke 15:7 says, “There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.”
  • Throughout Scripture, it is clear that God is delighted when you and I make choices that are in line with God’s kingdom!

So, what do we do with the anger we hear in God’s voice in Isaiah? I think the answer is simple: God’s distress is just like that of any parent who wants the best for their children, only the children are not choosing the path that leads to LIFE. And sometimes they are doing things that are hurting others. Some of the most harsh words we hear from the mouth of Jesus are words of condemnation against anyone who causes little ones to stumble. “It would be better for them if a great millstone were fastened around their neck and they were drowned in the depth of the sea!”

What Shall We then Do?

In both our Isaiah passage and our Luke passage, we have a prescription for how to respond to God’s word.

Isaiah says:

  • Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of our doings;
  • Cease to do evil, learn to do good!
  • Seek justice, rescue the oppressed, take care of the orphan and the widow

Jesus says:

  • Give yourself away;
  • Make heaven your treasure, not your STUFF (which will eventually be in someone else’s hands);
  • Be ready for God’s activity, which sometimes comes at a surprising time

Both Isaiah and Jesus: IF you respond to God, life will be good!

I want to finish today by remembering Steve Martin’s character in the movie, “Roxanne.” He has a really long nose—a modern-day Cyrano de Bergerac—and at one point he is listing a bunch of ways to describe his nose. He says, “The Lord giveth—and he just KEPT ON givin’ didn’t he?!”

Well, I’m here to tell you that, YES! The Lord has kept on giving to you and to me! Jesus says that it is our Father’s desire to give us the kingdom. But even more than that: “God so LOVED the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” That’s the punch line to our “bad news, good news” scenario…God gave because God loves us. God gave his Son. The proof of God’s amazing love is this: WHILE WE WERE YET SINNERS, CHRIST DIED FOR US. That’s how much God loves us!

August 4, 2019

What God Gives           8th Pentecost

Hosea 11:1-11   August 4, 2019   Luke 12:13-21

I’m sure you’re familiar with a quote by George Santayana, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” It’s a great way to remind ourselves to learn our history lessons, and to let history inform our decision-making in the present. Well, for the next five weeks, I am going to be 1. Reaching back into some of the more ancient history in our faith; 2. Listening to what ancient prophets had to say to the people of their day; and 3. Exploring what those crusty old proclaimers of God’s word might have to say to you and to me today!

Back in June, we had a chance to hear from Elijah and Elisha, and in the coming weeks we will hear from Isaiah and Jeremiah. Don’t worry! I’m not going to give you a “steady diet of Old Testament”…we’ll hold up these texts in parallel with passages from the New Testament. It’s my prayer that these ancient words won’t be dusty and musty and dry, but will be a lively part of the Living Word that God brings to life in us! Let’s take a look.

Context

In order to hear what these prophets were saying, we need to understand the context of their ministry–what was going on in their world that God needed to address. We had a glimpse of it when we looked at Elijah and his battle with Jezebel back around 875 BC. The problem was this: Jezebel was a Phoenician princess, married to the crown prince of Israel, Ahab. When Ahab became king, Jezebel became queen. You know the name “Jezebel,” right? She’s famous for being one of the “Bad Women of the Bible.” Her name is synonymous with evil and wickedness. (I’m sure none of you has an Aunt Jezebel in your family!) But you know what? Jezebel was extremely religious!! Yes! And she was vitally interested in spreading her religion into Israel—the worship of Ba’al, or The Ba’als. These are Phoenician gods of success, gods that were believed to help commerce to prosper, rain to fall, crops to grow—and the worship of Ba’al was Jezebel’s home religion. She imported many priests of Ba’al into Israel and funded the construction of temples to Ba’al—then she launched a campaign to kill the prophets of the Lord and eradicate the worship of Yahweh, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob!

You can see why she is vilified in our faith tradition—and yet, one has to marvel at her single-minded determination to promote her faith! Just a little side-note: Elijah and Jezebel went head-to-head, with plenty of dramatic events unfolding—and then Jezebel died in the manner in which Elijah had prophesied she would meet her end.

But that was not the end of Ba’al worship in Israel. No, the prosperity gospel had taken hold of the people, and worshiping these “gods of success” continued even while the people still considered themselves to be the people of The Most High God. Interesting dichotomy.

150 years after Elijah, our Prophet of the Day (Hosea) enters the scene. God’s people have been running after false gods for several generations, and it’s time to give them a warning—as well as a glimpse into God’s own heart.

I love Frederick Buechner’s whimsical treatment of Hosea. He describes him as a fanatical prophet, “wearing a sandwich board that read ‘The End Is At Hand’ on one side and ‘Watch Out!’ on the other!” In chapter 1, God instructs Hosea to take a wife. (In politically correct language, “an adulterous wife.”) But there’s no getting around the real word. God told Hosea to marry a prostitute. Why?! Good question! As you read the book, you see that there is a similarity between Hosea’s relationship with his wife and Yahweh’s relationship with Israel. Here’s a thumbnail sketch of the first few chapters:

Hosea marries Gomer (yes, the same name as Gomer Pyle).

They have three children, and God instructs him to give them odd names. Buechner says that, every time the roll was called at school, Hosea scored a prophetic bullseye without even being there! The first son was named “Jezreel,” to remind the people of a massacre at Jezreel, signifying the coming defeat of Israel in the Valley of Jezreel.

Then a daughter was born and named “Lo-Ruhama,” which means “not loved,” indicating that God will no longer love Israel.

Then they had another son and named him “Lo-Ammi,” which means “not my people.” This reflects God’s statement, “You are NOT my people, and I am not your God.” Then the plot thickens.

Gomer chases off after her other lovers (just like the people of Israel were chasing after false gods), and Hosea is torn between his love for her and his disgust with her behavior.

In chapter 10, the Lord condemns Israel’s tendency to respond to prosperity with increased worship of the Ba’als! Here’s how Hosea says it: “Israel was a spreading vine; he brought forth fruit for himself. As his fruit increased, he built more altars (to Ba’al); as his land prospered, he adorned his sacred stones.” Just like Hosea, God suffered when his beloved was unfaithful.

Then Gomer got into big trouble. She ended up being enslaved to a creditor. The Lord told Hosea, “Love her, as the Lord loves the Israelites, even though they turn to other gods.” So he bought her for 15 shekels of silver and a large measure of barley. He ransomed her.

Then we come to the passage in today’s lectionary. God is expressing love for Israel, as well as the pain of having them chase after the Ba’als. With anguish, God announces that Israel will suffer foreign invasion (which indeed happens later). But God is not ready to give up on Israel. “How can I hand you over? How can I treat you like Sodom and Gomorrah? My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender.” Then God expresses the hope that, after they suffer these disasters, the people will come back to God.

In Buechner’s whimsical treatment of Hosea, he says that the Prophet changes his sandwich board to read “God is love” on one side and “There’s no end to it” on the other. His experience with Gomer taught him about the deep pain God feels when we are unfaithful.

Greed

Now we are going to zoom ahead 700 years to see how Jesus dealt with a similar problem. Ba’al worship has long been out of fashion, but the basic sin of GREED (which is what fueled the worship of those false gods of success) is still a problem! Jesus says, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” To illustrate, he told a story about a rich man who harvested a great crop, and his only thought was about how to keep it all for himself and live the high life. But God says, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.

Do you see God’s sadness here? God sends blessings upon blessings to you and to me, and (all too often) we are more excited about the gifts than we are about the Giver. What God gives is an opportunity to be in relationship with God—to have a life-giving connection in which we receive God’s blessings and harvest a great joy by 1. Being God’s people; 2. Serving God’s purposes (which are aligned with God’s will and connected to God’s people).

 

I want to conclude today by pointing to this banquet table in front of us, The Lord’s Supper. It represents all that God wants to give to us.

  • It speaks of the ransom from our sins (just as Gomer was ransomed from her enslavement).
  • It embodies the new life in Christ that comes, not as a prize that we have won, but as a simple gift from a loving God.
  • It serves as a reminder that God is ready to go to extravagant lengths to pull us back from the brink, to save us from our folly.
  • And it encourages us to let go of our fears and trust our well-being into the hands of the One who has been looking out for us all along!

July 28, 2019

Keep Living in Prayer            7th Pentecost

Psalm 85   Colossians 2:6-19   July 28, 2019   Luke 11:1-13

Last week, our key idea was to “keep choosing Christ.” This week, the topic is “Keep Living in Prayer.” Prayer is central for the Apostle Paul. In fact, in his first letter to the church in Thessalonica, he instructs them to “pray without ceasing.” Sounds impossible, doesn’t it? My prayer times always seem to be pretty short, so “praying without ceasing” goes beyond my imagination. I can imagine using all kinds of opportunities to pray, like the folks who use their morning commute to take to God the things that are coming up in their day. (I can pray while I drive, but I have to keep my eyes open!)

Of course, when she’s riding with me, I know my wife is in prayer. Occasionally her foot hits her imaginary brake or her hands fly out to brace for impact—but I’m sure she’s praying!

It reminds me of the state trooper who had to pull a car over for driving TOO SLOWLY. “Ma’am, did you know the speed limit is 75 here—and you were only going 42?” She replied, “I SAW the speed limit sign, and it said 42!” He responded, “Actually, Ma’am, this is HIGHWAY 42, and you must travel at least 55 mph.” He let her off with a warning, and turned to walk back to his car, when he noticed a woman in the back seat looking as white as a ghost. “Are you okay, Ma’am?!” She told him, “We just turned off of highway 102!”

Well, maybe it’s a good idea to pray whenever we ride with another person! We can make use of odd little moments throughout the day.

Our Gospel reading for today focuses on prayer, which I believe to be one of the ways we keep choosing Christ, choosing to stay connected. You see, Jesus tells us something about the posture of prayer—our attitude toward God and our practice of talking to God—and listening as well. Jesus is showing us how we can make prayer a regular, natural part of our daily life. And then Paul builds on it with his encouragement to continue to live our lives in Christ! Here are his words: “Continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith.” Rooted. Built up. Established.

This visual imagery reminds me of a climbing vine we bought in Elko, thinking it would climb up and cover a pergola Melissa’s step-dad built for us. We bought the plant in the fall, and we kind of forgot to put it into the ground next to the pergola. In fact, it stayed in its little plastic pot, and the wind blew it over, and the ice and snow of an Elko winter covered it up.

In the spring, the snow melted and I said, “Oh, shoot! There’s that little plant. It’s probably dead.” But I planted it (just in case it was still alive), and that little vine TOOK OFF! It grew so fast you could almost sit and watch it go! Eventually, it got to the point where I had to use the electric hedge trimmers to lop off the tendrils that were reaching everywhere, wrapping around anything they could get ahold of!!

It was amazing. Once it got well-rooted, it was vibrant and thriving! Paul says that you and I are to be “rooted and built up in Christ,” and that this provides a safeguard from falsehood, things that can trip us up. What kinds of things trip us up?

He mentions “philosophy and foolish deception.” He talks about human tradition which has been falsely elevated to “truth.” And Paul says that ritual activity is NOT a substitute for a relationship. Then he specifically names 1. Food and drink laws; 2. Festivals; 3. New Moons; 4. Sabbaths. (NO, these were the things which the Pharisees treasured!) Instead, he advises “Stay rooted in Christ!”

I love this imagery, taken directly from people’s familiarity with gardening and caring for trees and vineyards. You’ll remember that Jesus used that familiar imagery when he said, “I am the vine, you are the branches. Cut off from me you can do nothing.” The idea here is that, IF we are connected to Christ, we will bear fruit. So it’s important to keep seeking that connection. And prayer is one way to do it.

In our Gospel reading for today, we hear the Disciples ask Jesus, “Teach us to pray.” So, he gives them a model prayer that has been spread around the world, and we know it as “The Lord’s Prayer.”

And THEN he shares a story that illustrates the importance of PERSISTENCE in prayer. A person goes to a friend in the middle of the night, asking to borrow bread to provide hospitality to a weary traveler. And, even though the friend is reluctant, persistence pays off.

(ASIDE—Jesus is NOT suggesting that God is like this reluctant friend, and that you and I have to keep banging on the doors of heaven in order to get God interested in our prayers. Of course not! It’s just a story about perseverance, even when we don’t get an answer.)

And then, in our text, Jesus tells his Disciples this: ASK and you will receive; SEEK and you will find; KNOCK and the door will be opened to you. Then he goes on to clarify that God is better than any human parent. “If your child asks for a fish, would you give ‘em a snake?! And if they ask for an egg, would you give ‘em a scorpion?! Of course not! And if you, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask?

I was recently reading some great theology (known to most as Calvin and Hobbes), and Calvin has asked his mother for a flame-thrower! She tells him NO, and then he looks at her with big, sad eyes. She responds, “Not even BAMBI EYES will work!” Good parents only give good gifts to their children.

That’s why we say with confidence, “God will only give us that which is good for us.” So, if God is not giving you what you are asking for, it’s possible that what you desire is not what is best for you.   Hmmmm. Disappointment is part of the life of prayer.

Some of you may remember a song by Garth Brooks that was popular several years ago: “I Thank God for Unanswered Prayer.” The basic message of the story is about a fellow who had a serious crush on a beautiful girl at his school. He used to pray and pray that they would end up together. Well, it didn’t happen, and that was disappointing. But years later, the songwriter was able to say, “I Thank God for Unanswered Prayer,” and all he had to do was to look at his wife–and their kids–and understand that God had something BETTER for him!

And when I am disappointed, I remind myself of the advice from Proverbs: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge God, and God will make straight your paths.” Don’t rely on your own understanding!

Clearly, we all have a lot to learn about living a life of prayer! Consider this essay on prayer by James, found in chapter 5: “Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.”

 

Now, friends, it is important that you do NOT misunderstand what James is saying here. He’s NOT saying that, if you don’t get what you pray for, then you don’t have enough faith, or that you are not good enough, or whatever! Remember—disappointment is a part of the life of prayer. So it’s best to pray the prayer that never fails: “Thy will be done.” Then God will do what is best for all concerned.

You know, Jesus told a story about two men who went to the Temple to pray. One of them was a Pharisee (considered to be the holiest people around), and the other was a tax collector (considered to be scum because of their cooperation with the Romans).

  • The PHARISEE, standing by himself, was praying like this: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers…or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” (Sounds kind of smug)
  • The TAX COLLECTOR, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”
  • Jesus said, “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified (which means that he was made right with God) rather than the other (who thought he was right with God); for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Friends, IF our prayer life reveals that we are acknowledging OUR NEED, and relying on God’s abundant provision—we are in a right relationship with God!

I want to finish today by looking at what to do about ISIS and al Qaida and other people who don’t want to talk, don’t want to cooperate in finding peaceable solutions—all they want to do is KILL us. What is the Christian response? Well, they have declared themselves to be our enemies! And the Scriptures are clear: by loving them and praying for them, we will heap burning coals upon their heads (and remember, burning coals is an imagery of cleansing and purifying, not punishment).

So we are being called to do the impossible: to pray for our enemies, for their eyes to be opened to the truth, for the miraculous healing of their hatred. And you and I can only do this if we are rooted in Christ!

It helps me to imagine the Christians in Damascus who had heard that Saul was getting ready to come and arrest all of them. Back then, he was the “enemy of Christ,” and they must have started praying for him. The Risen Christ met him on the road to Damascus and the world is a better place because faithful followers, rooted in Christ, prayed for a man who had declared himself to be their enemy!

 

July 21, 2019

Keep Choosing Christ            6th Pentecost

Colossians 1:15-28   July 21, 2019   Luke 10:38-42

One day, a woman was having her hair done at a salon, and the conversation turned to God. The hairdresser voiced her belief that there must not be a God, because there was so much tragedy in the world—people being ill, children being abused, violence happening everywhere—you get the idea. “There must not be a God because God wouldn’t allow these things to happen.” The woman getting her hair done didn’t agree with this view, but she just didn’t know how to respond.

She left the salon and, as she walked down the street, she saw a woman who was dirty and disheveled, her hair oily and limp. Now she knew what to say to the stylist, and returned to the salon. “I have proof that there aren’t any hair stylists!”

“What are you talking about?! I’m a hair stylist! I wash and cut and set and perm hair all the time!”

“Well, I just saw a woman on the street whose hair was dirty and unkempt!”

The stylist replied, “Well, she needs to come to me!”

“Exactly!”

Our scriptures today are about the God who is always waiting for us, always choosing us, always saying, “Come to me,” but NEVER forcing a relationship with us! God gives US the choice to seek God or not, to listen or not, to obey or not. I want to focus today on: 1. The REASON to keep choosing Christ and 2. A WAY to keep choosing Christ. So I invite you to explore these texts with me.

 

Choices made FOR you

It’s a fact of life that many choices are made FOR you, on your behalf. Some of these come from the circumstances of your birth, while others are the laws of the state, and still others things beyond our control.

There are choices your parents made for you when you were young. Many of you were baptized as infants—without your consent! Your parents made promises to raise you in a Christian home, and your church promised to nurture and love you into the Kingdom.

In our faith’s ancient tradition, parents chose circumcision for their boys, to be a sign that they were part of the family—and those boys would (hopefully) one day confirm that decision by going through Bar Mitzvah, becoming “A son of the commandment,” or “a son of righteousness.”

Anyone baptized as a child or infant will have an opportunity to confirm their baptism when they get to the age of accountability. The first choice was made by our parents, and the second choice is ours.

Then, as part of the church, you and I are encouraged to Keep Choosing Christ.

Why Choose Christ?

Our passage from Paul’s letter to the church in Colossae says that Jesus is the perfect manifestation of God. In other words, to see what God is like, we only need to look at Jesus. In him we see the personal characteristics of God.

Jesus shows us not only what God is; he also shows us what you and I were meant to be! In Jesus, we see humanity as God designed it! Again, he shows us what we were meant to be.

He goes on to write, “In him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile us to himself by making peace through the blood of his cross.”

So, why do we need this? It says that we were once estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds. (Enemies of God.) But now He has reconciled us in order to present us holy and blameless and irreproachable before God. (Amazing!) And he adds a proviso: Provided that we continue securely established and steadfast in the faith, without shifting from the hope promised by the gospel.

Paul is describing Jesus as our ADVOCATE, one who is ready to “speak up on our behalf.” He is presenting us as clean and pure because of his reconciling work on the cross! And Paul urges us to Keep Choosing Christ, to be steadfast in the faith.

A WAY to Choose Christ

Our Gospel reading for today shows us Jesus in a familiar place—the home of Lazarus and his sisters, Mary and Martha. This is the scene for many revealing events in the Gospels. This is where Lazarus was later raised from the dead. It was where Mary re-enacted the anointing of Jesus’ feet, just as she had once done in the city of Nain when she first decided to choose Christ. But today’s text is the first visit of Jesus to this household, and it illustrates two very different ways of relating to him.

There is “the Mary way.” Mary sat at the feet of Jesus and listened to what he was teaching.

And there is “the Martha way.” Martha was busying around, preparing a meal, making her guests welcome. But the text says she was “distracted by her many tasks.”

Now, when Martha came to Jesus to complain that Mary was not helping her with her tasks, Jesus said, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

Maybe a loaf of bread and some cool, clear water would have been enough of a meal. Maybe Martha was too concerned to provide a fancy meal, going to unnecessary lengths and bother. But Jesus didn’t say that what Martha was doing was bad—he just said that Mary’s choice was better. It puts into perspective our attitude about getting busy in our service of Christ compared with just being with Christ, listening for the guidance of the Holy Spirit. It’s actually tempting to get involved with busywork for Christ. It gives us a sense that something is getting done. But we are also called to set aside time for prayer, for Scripture, to make sure we are not just rushing off to do what we think needs doing. Some people like to picture Jesus sitting across from them in an empty chair, and they tell him what’s on their heart, and they listen for what he might say. (Different things work for different people.)

The point is: doing things for Jesus is good, and spending time with Jesus is even better.

I’ll conclude this morning by going back to the Apostle Paul. He writes this letter to the church in Colossae while he is in prison, and he tells them that he rejoices in his sufferings! He holds himself up as one who has Kept Choosing Christ, and makes it clear that the joy of his life is that he is helping them to mature in Christ.

 

He says pretty much the same thing to the church in Ephesus: “Building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.” I love his use of the word “maturity.” Maturing is a process, and each of us is in the process of growing into the full stature of Christ. Sometimes it’s two steps forward and one step back, and even sometimes a LARGE step back—but Christ keeps choosing us.

KEEP CHOOSING CHRIST!

 

Pastor Pat Mecham, Spanish Springs Presbyterian Church

 

June 23, 2019

In Your Right Mind                2nd Pentecost

1 Kings 19:1-15a   June 23, 2019   Luke 8:26-39

Have you ever had experiences in which you felt like a stranger in a strange land? Where maybe you wondered if you were in a dream? Where things didn’t make sense as much as they normally do? A time when you might say, “We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto!”?

I spent a summer in Georgia when I was 19, and the weather and the local attitudes and the strange speech all made me feel kind of “alien.” A few years later, I did a year of graduate study in Scotland—another opportunity to stretch and grow in appreciation of a different culture. Then I transferred to Princeton, New Jersey. I felt more alien there than I had anywhere! People were rude, their speech was hurried, their driving was insane—and it got even worse whenever I left the campus!

Today, I would like for you to remember your experiences of feeling “alien” as we look at our Scriptures. They both refer to events that happened when God’s servants ventured into strange territory—strange both geographically and otherwise. Let’s take a look.

Our passage from 1 Kings shows us Elijah heading out into the Wilderness. You might call this chapter in his life “The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat!” He had just triumphed over the prophets of Baal in an epic showdown of the Gods—and Yahweh showed up in a powerful way. That was the triumph. But then Jezebel (the queen who had imported Baal worship) found out that her prophets had been destroyed, and she held Elijah responsible for it. She swore that she would have him KILLED! And Elijah ran for his life. That was the defeat.

After he had gone a day’s journey, he was ready to give up. He prayed, “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” An angel came to him two times, bringing bread and water—to give him strength for his journey. And after 40 days and nights he came to a cave at Mount Horeb.

And it is there that God spoke to Elijah.

“What are you doing here, Elijah?” It seems that he had been asking himself the same question all along his journey. His response to God seems a little rehearsed: “I’ve done everything I can to serve the Lord, but everyone has gone to the dogs and they’re trying to kill me.”

God speaks again.

“Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” A great wind blew up, and then an earthquake hit, and then there was fire. But the Lord was not in the wind, nor the earthquake, nor the fire. Then came the sound of sheer silence, and Elijah went to the mouth of the cave. The Lord spoke again, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” And he gave the same LAME response. And the Lord told him, “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus.”

What we see here is a time of weakness and questioning for Elijah—a time of hesitation. We are privileged to see a snapshot of one chapter in the spiritual journey of this amazing Prophet of God. It gives us a reassurance that being on the journey is a good thing. There are “highs” in our Christian adventure—and there are certainly “lows,” and it’s all part of the journey. Next week, we’ll get to see another part of Elijah’s journey of faith—a strong, victorious, and glorious moment!

In our Gospel reading, Jesus goes to the Decapolis, a region of ten cities east of the Sea of Galilee. This is a predominantly GENTILE region, although there would have been Jews living there. This would have been an excursion of “a stranger into a strange land.” I suspect the Disciples were a little nervous to be there. But I can see two reasons why Jesus took them there:

  • There were Jews in the area, and they needed to meet the One who was the fulfillment of their messianic hope;
  • Jesus wanted to show his Disciples that God cares for Gentiles!

When they crossed the Sea of Galilee, they encountered a man (Jew? Gentile?) who was possessed by demons. He wore no clothes; and he lived among the tombs. Jesus commanded the unclean spirit to come out of him, and he fell down before Jesus and shouted, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?!” Jesus then asked him, “What is your name?” The answer: “Legion,” meaning that many demons were possessing him. (I’m sure the Disciples were in unfamiliar territory at this point!)

Jesus sent the demons out of the man, into a herd of pigs, and they rushed down the hill into the lake and drowned.

The people from the city came, upset that the pigs had been destroyed. They saw the man who had formerly been possessed by demons, and he was sitting at the feet of Jesus. He was clothed, and he was in his right mind. And the people from the city were AFRAID. People came from the surrounding territory, heard what had happened, and THEY WERE AFRAID! They all asked Jesus to leave themL

So Jesus got into the boat to leave, and the man begged that he might stay with Jesus—sounds like he wanted to be a Disciple! But Jesus gave him a mission: “Go, return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” And he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.

By the way–we know that his mission was a success, because when Jesus returned to the area, people were excited to hear him. The fear was gone. One of the “feeding the multitudes” events happened in this Gentile territory, and Jesus healed many people!

These are examples of people of God heading into strange territory. It’s actually a tradition in our story of faith! God takes us to places that are strange, even frightening, and God’s purposes are fulfilled in us.

When the captives were taken from Judea and hauled off to Babylon, they were dismayed. Psalm 137 commemorates that event: “By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion. There on the poplars we hung our harps, for there our captors asked us for songs, our tormentors demanded songs of joy; they said, ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’ But how can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land?!” This question is answered by our texts for today!

  • Elijah goes to foreign territory when his boldness has melted into craven fear. (This is very atypical for Elijah!) He is in a physically alien land with wind, earthquake, fire. But the still, small voice of God is with him there!
  • Jesus goes to the Decapolis where he is interacting with folks, most of whom have no background understanding of our faith story. He leaves when requested to do so, but not before giving a commission to a man he has healed—a man who prepared the way of the Lord before he returned to the area.
  • When Jesus told this man to stay in his home territory and tell everyone what God had done for him, he was, in a way, being sent into foreign territory. The geography was familiar, but his new perspective made him a stranger in his own land.

Friends, sometimes God sends us into foreign territory. It might be far away, and it might be right in our own backyard! It’s quite possible that we will feel strange and “out of place.” It might be a time when we feel weakness, hesitancy, doubt.

But we can choose to “sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land!” Perhaps we’ll be like Elijah who had an existential crisis—and God sent him further along into the wilderness in order to bless him.

Or perhaps God will send us on a more short-term mission into “foreign territory” in order to plant some good seeds. It could be the headwaters of the Amazon River in Peru; it could be a “foreign” place right here in our community, maybe the place where we live or work—commissioned by Christ to plant some good seeds.

Whether we are at home or in a distant land, you and I can always be “in our right minds” when we make God our Center; when we choose to let God use us for God’s purposes; when we intentionally deny our fear and put our trust in God.

 

 

June 16, 2019

Waiting for God     Trinity Sunday

Psalm 8   Romans 5:1-5   June 16, 2019   John 16:12-15

In the 1950’s, Samuel Beckett published an absurdist play—absurdist. The play is titled “Waiting for Godot.” It has two strange characters hanging out on a roadside by a sickly tree, and both are waiting for someone named “Godot.” Their conversation rambles and some other characters appear then leave, but these two wait with hope. At the end of Act I, a boy appears and tells them that Mr. Godot is not coming today, but that he will surely come tomorrow. That’s the end of Act I.

In Act II, it’s pretty much the same thing, with a few differences. And again, the boy appears and informs them that Mr. Godot is not coming today, but that he will surely come tomorrow. One of the men says, “Well, shall we go?” The other replies, “Yes, let’s go.” They do not move—the curtain comes down—and it’s the end of the play!

Well, I WARNED you that it was ABSURDIST!! It’s no surprise that people have often asked, “What does it mean?” But the playwright always refused to interpret, saying, “It means what it says.”

The Theater of the Absurd has never been so concerned about meaning as it is about feelings and impressions. I got the impression when I read this play that these two fellows are fools to believe that Mr. Godot is EVER going to come—that their hope is out of touch with reality.   And it’s interesting to me that, if you took the “ot” away from the end of Godot, it would read “Waiting for God.” There ARE folks who think that you and I are fools to believe that 1. God is ever going to act, and 2. That God is ever going to answer our prayers. They believe that OUR hope is out of touch with reality.

Our Scriptures for today all serve to encourage our HOPE. The Psalmist writes about the overwhelming majesty of God and the MARVEL that God even cares about us—cares so much that we are crowned with glory and honor. In the Gospel reading, Jesus tells us that we will gradually grow into that for which we wait, being guided by the Spirit of Truth. And Paul, in his letter to the Romans, puts our hope front and center when he proclaims, “We boast in our hope.” This is hope that carries us through our suffering, and suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character. And, at the end of this process, character produces even more hopea hope that does not disappoint us.

I want to explore this idea of Suffering. A question I often hear is, “Why does God allow suffering?” Now obviously, much of our suffering is caused by our choices. But the rest—seemingly inexplicable suffering—we don’t understand why. But we have seen that it is the only way to achieve some very important things.

We also understand that God suffers with us. God is NOT remote, just watching us deal with our difficulties. No, the cross reminds us of God’s willingness to suffer for us, with redemptive suffering. We understand God to be full of compassion, which literally means “feeling with.” God suffers with us.

The Christians that Paul was writing to in Rome anticipated the imminent return of Christ. And, as they waited, they suffered for their Christian faith. They must have been asking, “How long, O Lord?!” Paul himself knew the meaning of suffering. We read in 2 Corinthians 11:   “I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and have been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received from the Jews forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false brothers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked.”

Don’t get the wrong idea here! Paul was not throwing himself a “pity party”! He is simply illustrating that he knows what suffering is. He would acknowledge that your suffering is real and not to be discounted. And his point is that, in all his suffering, he has never lost HOPE. No. He tells the Romans that suffering produces ENDURANCE.

Endurance

I once read some research in which pigeons were in cages with food dispensers. The pigeons learned that, when they pecked on a lever, food would come out. One control group got food every time they pecked the lever. The second control group got food at first, and then it would only occasionally come out as they pecked and pecked.

Then the researchers stopped the flow of food for both groups. The pigeons who were accustomed to getting food every time they pecked soon stopped pecking. But the second group had learned perseverance, and they kept pecking long after the first group had quit!

This research has interesting insights for understanding human beings. We see that some people are OVERCOMERS while others are helpless victims. Take those who grew up in the Depression Era. They knew what it was to go without. They developed a work ethic, and had an appreciation for everything they had. Then take those of us who were raised with everything given to us. We are like the pigeons who always got food every time they pecked! We always have an expectation of someone to give us something. And when nothing comes, we crumble. We have yet to develop endurance.

Paul says that endurance produces character. The whole subject of character will require another sermon someday. But today I want to focus on one thing that people of character display: a sense of humor. People with a sense of humor have experienced suffering, and their endurance helped contribute to it! It’s as if their lives have become “a comedy of errors” and they have to laugh, “Well, what ELSE can go wrong?!”

Someone once remarked to a person who had endured much, “I can’t believe you have carried your sense of humor through all this!” And the person responded, “Oh, well, actually my sense of humor has carried me!” Groucho Marx was a person who suffered, but was hilarious. Here’s a sample: Leo Rosten once got a letter from Groucho Marx: “Dear Junior: Please excuse me for not answering your letter sooner. But I have been so busy not answering letters lately that I have not been able to get around to not answering yours in time. Love, Groucho.” Talk about absurdist!

Character

Character is not something that can be achieved through study or reflection alone. (Philosophy students don’t actually adopt the philosophies they study.) But those who make decisions and experience life and choose their response to the uncontrollable events of life—these are people who develop Character.

In the Bible, the word “character” is always a positive thing, like “a person of noble character.” It means someone who is fully developed. Someone who exhibits desirable virtues. Someone who produces the fruits of the Spirit—love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. As Jesus says in our Gospel reading today, “When the Spirit of Truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.”

Let me finish with this thought: as we mature in our Christian faith, we learn patience (one of the fruits of the Spirit).

In His time, in His time, he makes all things beautiful in his time.

Lord, please show me every day, as you’re teaching me your way,

That you do just what you say, in your time. (Diane Ball)

Patience means learning to persevere when things don’t go our way! You and I are called to live a life of HOPE through our suffering, through our uncertainties, much like little seeds waiting in the soil through the long winter, trusting that our Gardner will have us sprout up into the truer reality than that which we now know.

They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles. They shall run, and not grow weary; they shall walk and not faint. Teach me Lord, teach me Lord, to wait.

Prayer: God, when we are having fun, time seems to fly past us so quickly. But when things are difficult, the days feel long and the nights even longer. Help us, God. Help us to remember that you cherish us, that you suffer along with us. Help us to grow as we endure, and be our HOPE. We ask in the name of Christ, Amen.

June 9, 2019

Experiencing God’s Presence     Pentecost

Psalm 104:24-34   Acts 2:1-21   June 9, 2019   John 14:8-17, 25-27

Wishing to encourage her young son’s progress on the piano, a mother took her boy to a piano concert by Ignacy Jan Paderewski, the famous Polish pianist. After they were seated, the mother spotted a friend in the audience and went down the aisle to greet her.

Left to his own devices, the little boy soon discovered a door marked “NO ADMITTANCE” and he explored his way onto the concert stage. Finding a piano behind the stage curtains, he began to practice. The lights dimmed and the concert was about to begin. The mother returned to her seat to find the child missing! Suddenly, the stage curtains parted to reveal the impressive Steinway grand piano with the missing child gently picking out “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” Then Paderewski, the piano master, made his entrance and quickly moved to the piano, whispering into the boy’s ear, “Don’t quit; keep playing.”

Paderewski leaned over the boy, filling in a left hand/bass part while the boy kept picking out his version of the melody. Then, with his right hand, Paderewski added a running obbligato to this duet. Together the old master and the young novice transformed what could have been a frightening situation into a wonderfully creative experience!

The audience was so mesmerized that they could not later recall what else the grand master had played that night. Only the classic “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” was the talk of the town.

I tell this story because it reminds me that our infinite God chooses to work with finite mortals through the power of the Spirit. Today is Pentecost Sunday, an annual celebration of a fulfillment of an old promise—the promise that God’s people would be empowered, would be partnered with God in doing Kingdom work.

Our Scriptures for today focus on 1. The dynamic power of God and 2. How God is revealed through his glorious acts and 3. How you and I are forever different when God abides with us.

God’s Deeds of Power

Every year, we hear the story of Acts 2—God’s Holy Spirit filling the Apostles and sending them out with a passion for sharing the Gospel. It’s a great event, often called “the Birthday of the Church.” But God’s Spirit has always been active, mentioned as part of the process of Creation and seen in the characters filling our Scriptures. But the Day of Pentecost was extraordinary. The Spirit molded them into a community, bound together by the same mission as they went out into the streets and proclaimed God’s mighty deeds of power. They talked about the resurrection of Jesus, but they demonstrated God’s power in their own lives! Remember, these were folks who had been hiding in fear, and were now propelled outside, proclaiming Jesus in public!

It brought to mind the prophet Joel and his message from God, “In the last days, I will pour out my Spirit.” Jesus had instructed them, “Wait in Jerusalem until you have been clothed with power—and then you will be my witnesses!”

Show Us the Father (John 14)

Our Gospel reading today gives us some interesting background information through some of the teachings that Jesus had shared. They were triggered by the request from Philip, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” At first, Jesus seemed to be a little put out with Philip when he says, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me?!” Then he makes it into a teachable moment, and tells them, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” And he goes on to say (and this goes hand-in-glove with Pentecost), “Very truly I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.”

Because I am going to the Father.

Jesus told them more than once that he was going to go away, but that they did not need to worry because the Father would then be WITH them in the person of the Holy Spirit. He says, in the very next chapter of John, “When the Advocate comes, whom I will send you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, the Spirit will testify on my behalf. You also are to testify because you have been with me from the beginning.” According to Matthew, the last thing Jesus tells his disciples is, “Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

It is clearly the expectation of Jesus that his followers will be filled with God’s Holy Spirit.

The Power to Will and to Do

So the question that hangs with me is this: IF Jesus intended that I be filled with God’s Spirit, and IF he promised that I will do even greater works than he has done, then WHAT HAPPENED? I am a follower of Jesus, but I’m not seeing those amazing works in my life.

And maybe that’s the answer right there—I am not seeing the miracles that God is working through me. Perhaps it’s because I am expecting something sensational. Or maybe it’s because I, in my smallness, am not capable of perceiving the wondrous things God is doing all around me.

I find myself directed to Philippians 2:13 “It is God who works in you to will and to act according to God’s good purpose.”

Oh! It’s not about me! It is God who is at work in me, accomplishing the purposes of God (not MY purposes).

And God works in me to WILL. Interesting. I don’t know about you, but my will is almost totally self-consumed. Only God makes it possible for me to see others. Only God’s power working through me can help me to WANT to work for God’s Good Purpose!

So God is working in me to want and to ACT. And there’s another problem. There are so many times when I feel just like Paul when he says, “That which I want to do, I don’t do; and that which I know I should NOT do, that’s exactly what I do! I am the chief of sinners.”

And yet.

And yet God’s power IS working through me, and through YOU. I have to keep hanging on to that line from Ephesians 3:20 (which is the theme verse for our Vacation Bible School this year!) “God is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us.” God’s power is at work within us!

I will finish today by taking us back to that young piano player, surrounded by the great virtuoso Paderewski. The boy kept playing, and the Master made it magnificent!

Friends, God keeps whispering in our ears, “Don’t quit; keep going.” You see, God takes our tiny willingness and MAGNIFIES it; God takes our tiny strength and suddenly, IT IS ENOUGH. GLORY TO GOD!

June 2, 2019

All ONE at the Table   7th Easter

Psalm 97   Acts 16:16-34   June 2, 2019   John 17:20-26

In 1994, the world was shocked by an ethnic genocide in Rwanda. The Hutus killed more than 800,000 Tutsis, along with many moderate Hutus. The slaughter lasted for 100 days, but the pain of that event still lives to this day. A young Tutsi woman, Immaculee Ilibagiza, shares her experience:

“My family urged me to run and seek shelter in the home of a local pastor. I hid with seven other women in a tiny bathroom in the Hutu pastor’s house, concealed behind a large wardrobe.

“Many nights, we heard the mob surrounding the house, hunting for Tutsi. ‘We are looking for you, Immaculee Ilibagiza!’ I heard a voice call out one night. Chills ran up my spine. I knew then that the rest of my family had been killed. And when we emerged 91 days later from Pastor Murinzi’s bathroom, it was confirmed. They were all gone.

“In those three months confined to Pastor Murinzi’s bathroom, I prayed and meditated. I gave myself over to God completely. I reflected on the Beatitudes. Blessed are the peacemakers; for they shall be called children of God. If I survived the genocide, I told myself, I would strive to be a peacemaker.”

After the war, she went to the capital and worked for the UN, but she was plagued with sorrow and nightmares. She prayed for relief. And one night she had an amazingly vivid dream in which she saw her family, all well, and her brother called out, “Hey, Immaculee! You’ve been gloomy far too long and must stop all this crying. I know how much you miss us, but we are at peace, in heaven. Now, you must heal your heart.” She woke up calmer and knowing what she had to do. She had to return to her village.

She went to the prison to confront the leader of the gang who killed her mother and brother. The man in charge of the prison had lost four of his six children in the slaughter. Through his interrogations, he knew which killers had murdered whom, and he asked her, “Do you want to meet the leader of the gang who killed your mother and brother?”

“Yes, sir, I do.” She watched as they brought in a disheveled old man, who had formerly been a nicely-dressed businessman, a man whose children she had played with in school. And she realized it was his voice she had heard calling her name when she was in hiding.

He stumbled onto his knees and stared at the floor. “Explain to Immaculee why her family is dead. Explain to her why you murdered her mother and butchered her brother. Get up and tell her!” His clothes were tattered; his body was emaciated; his bare feet were covered with sores. He was broken. Here’s what Immaculee wrote: “He sobbed. I could feel his shame. He looked up at me for only a moment, but our eyes met. I reached out, touched his hands lightly and said, ‘I forgive you.’ That, I suddenly understood, was why God had led me back to my village.”

The guards dragged the man back to his cell, and the prison director yelled, ‘What was that about, Immaculee? That was the man who murdered your family. I brought him to you to question…to spit on if you wanted to. But you forgave him! How could you?!’

‘Forgiveness is all I have to offer.’ It was true: I did not feel hatred. I did not seek revenge. In my heart, I understood that even the killers are part of God’s family, and I could honor God only by forgiving. This was how to be a peacemaker.”

Even the killers are part of God’s family.

Friends, every time I read the passage in Acts that we heard this morning, I think about Paul and Silas in that Philippian jail, having been beaten with rods and their feet fastened into stocks, and I consider the choice that they had to make. They had to decide, Do we nurse our resentment, or do we forgive? “Forgiveness is an act of the will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart!” (Corrie ten Boom)

So, put yourself in Paul’s place. Unjustly accused, imprisoned without a trial, beaten with rods, feet locked into stocks. You cannot lie down on your side because of the position of your feet; and you cannot lie down on your back because of the pain from the beating; your bottom goes numb from sitting straight-legged on the floor; do you nurse your resentment, or do you forgive?

It’s obvious that Paul and Silas forgave, because the jailer was ready to kill himself when he believed that his prisoners were gone (when the earthquake opened the doors). But Paul shouted in a loud voice, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here!” (I honestly don’t know what I would have done. I’m afraid I might have been just a little satisfied to see my jailer kill himself, had I been subjected to all that pain and injustice.)

BUT that was not the attitude of Paul and Silas. NO, the text tells us that they were praying and singing hymns to God—loud enough that the other prisoners were listening—they were praying and singing songs of faith!! The jailer called for lights, then fell down trembling before them, and asked, “What must I do to be saved?”

Their first response was to say, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” And then they talked with him and his whole household, and they were all baptized that very night! The jailer tended to their wounds, and set a meal before them. (They were all together at the table!)

Then comes the most beautiful part of this story: and he and his entire household rejoiced that he had become a believer in God. The story ends with jubilation and a victory—very much like the one experienced by Emaculee Ilibagiza—a victory that began with forgiveness. We don’t know anything more about this jailer—not even his name is recorded for us—but this family must have been a nucleus—along with Lydia, the lady in Philippi that Paul and Silas had already shared the Gospel with—together, they became the nucleus for the church in Philippi, which was the first church established in Europe! Years later, Paul wrote at least one letter to that church, and we have a copy in our Bible! It’s called Philippians, and Paul wrote it to them from his prison cell in Rome! He tells them that he is once again “in chains.” Here’s what he says: “Now I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel. As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ. Because of my chains, most of the brothers and sisters in the Lord have been encouraged to speak the word of God more courageously and fearlessly.” I can just hear the people in the church in Philippi saying, “O, Paul. Back in prison, again! Christ who indwells you has something he wants to do through you, right where you are!”

I am hoping that, in the next day or two, you will read Philippians. (It’s only a few pages long.) Try reading it from the perspective of the household of the jailer—people whose lives had been vastly enriched when Paul and Silas brought the Gospel to Philippi—people who could picture Paul in jail because they had seen him there—people who knew the power of forgiveness.

Friends, we have two clear choices: 1. Holding on to our “right” to withhold forgiveness (which will slowly poison us and shrivel our lives to nothingness); or 2. Letting it go by an act of the will.

We have the communion table right here in front of us. We hear Christ praying that we may all be ONE—and that means being ONE at the table. The imagery of oneness at the table was portrayed beautifully at the end of the 1984 movie, “Places in the Heart” with Sally Field. The final scene was in the local church, where people were passing the communion elements. (It was a way of doing a “curtain call” for the cast of characters.) It included the main characters, and some folks who were kind of despicable, as well as the sheriff who was shot and killed by a drunk early in the film. And the sheriff then served the man who had accidentally shot him.

It’s a BEAUTIFUL scene, and it illustrates the fact that we can all be ONE at the table of Christ, even if we are very different from each other—and even if our life circumstances have set us against each other. We can leave our differences, forgive each other, and meet at the table. It reminds me of something Jesus taught: “When you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or your sister has something against you, leave your gift there and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.”

Prayer: Father, we do have hurts and injuries. And we have the right to hold it against those who have hurt us. But it’s killing us, and we don’t want this in our life. God, we’re ready to let it go. Father, help us to let it go. We want to experience the joy, the intense love that flows from You when we decide to forgive. Help us to let it go. Bless us and our whole household with the peace that comes from forgiveness. In the name of our Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

 

May 19, 2019

Make Wide the Net!             5th Easter

Psalm 148   May 19, 2019   Acts 11:1-18   John 13:31-35

I’m curious to know how many of you have been, or currently are, part of a step-family? (You know—you have step-sisters or step-brothers, step-mom or step-dad, or step-children.) Family counselors do a lot of work with step-families, helping them adjust to new people who are thrust into their lives. We already know that being a part of a biological family is sometimes difficult enough—but at least you have had time to adjust to each other’s odd habits and annoying ways.

For example, I whistleall the time! It’s not something I choose to do, and many times I am not even aware that I do it. But I grew up in a household where whistling was the norm, so it doesn’t bug me. But it really bugs some people! Melissa (dear, sweet, patient girl) has learned to just tune me out, and our kids grew up with it, so it was just “background noise” around our house. (Still gives me a stab of joy when I hear one of them whistling!) But, even if they were annoyed by it, my family loves me anyway. However, I am aware that those of you with step-family experience understand the difficulty of loving (or even tolerating) near-strangers that are suddenly thrust into your lives! And yet, you are expected to love them.

Well, our Scriptures for today are all about loving the people in the family of God. And this includes people we didn’t expect to even BE in that family! Let’s take a look.

Our passage in Acts is a crucial pivot point in the life of the church. I call it a pivot point because this is the moment when the church was called to widen its perspective and include Gentiles. You see, up to this point, Christianity was considered to be simply a sect of Judaism. The Christians were all Jews who accepted that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah. They believed their “mission field” was Israel (and Jews who lived outside of Israel). The basic attitude they had inherited from their culture was that Gentiles were mostly to be avoided, in order to keep from being “contaminated” by them. It hadn’t occurred to the church leaders that God wanted the Gentiles to hear the Gospel!

I find this very strange. These former Disciples (now Apostles) had been with Jesus when he led them into Gentile territory and interacted with non-Jews. In his leadership, he showed them that Gentiles were worthy of his time, his love, his healing. According to Mark, before he left, Jesus told them, “Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation.” Matthew remembers it this way: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Luke tells it this way: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

Think about it. If they were to go into all the world and make disciples of all nations and be witnesses in Samaria and to the ends of the earth, wouldn’t that mean taking the Gospel beyond the confines of Judaism?!

But it took a series of extraordinary events before they began to catch on. Last week, we remembered that Peter was asked to come to Joppa because a wonderful member of their church had died. Peter went there, and prayed for her, and she came back to life, and many people believed that day. I’m sure Peter was still “recovering” from that amazing event when God sent him a vision of all kinds of animals being presented to him and a voice saying, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.” But Peter’s response was, “By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.” God’s response was, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” This happened 3 times.

While Peter sat puzzling over this strange vision, God’s Spirit said to him, “Look, three men are searching for you. Now get up, go down, and go with them without hesitation; for I have sent them.” The men explained to him that Cornelius, a God-fearing centurion, was told by God to ask him to come and explain the Gospel.

Peter must have been dizzy from all this input: 1. A miraculous healing of a dead woman; 2. a vision from God that seemed to violate all his upbringing; 3. the Spirit telling him to go with these Gentiles to take the Gospel to a Roman Centurion!

He went with them; he spoke to Cornelius and his family and friends; and The Holy Spirit fell on his listeners just as it had fallen on the Apostles on the day of Pentecost! God was moving in a mighty way! Peter said to these Gentiles, “I really am learning that God doesn’t show partiality to one group of people over another. Rather, in every nation, whoever worships him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” This is an amazing revelation to Peter!

However, when Peter returned to Jerusalem, he was sharply criticized and questioned: “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” And all he had to do was to tell his story and finish with his conclusion, “If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” Who was I that I could hinder God?!

When the leaders of the church heard this, they were silenced. It took a minute for the Truth to settle in. AND THEN THEY PRAISED GOD, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life!”

And the church turned a corner.

Friends, I sense that the 21st Century Church is being asked to turn the corner again. Oh, sure, the characters today are different, but the message is still the same: God does not show partiality to one group of people over another.

Jesus once said, “You will know them by their fruits.” In other words, we are not supposed to judge people according to what group they come from, but we must discern the character of a person based on what flows from their life.

The voices in our culture are clamoring for us to judge entire groups of people. Is it fair to judge these groups by the actions of a few of their number? Muslims, Jews, politicians, Raiders fans, Cubs fans, Roman Catholics, Democrats, Republicans, fat kids, skinny kids, kids who climb on rocks, tough kids, sissy kids, even kids with chicken pox?

Our culture insists that we judge, but Paul tells us “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

Discerning the will of God is what makes it possible for the church to turn a corner! When we “conform to the world” and judge people according to their groups, we will not be able to see God’s activity in the people we are being encouraged to distrust. But when we allow God’s Spirit to transform us, we become God’s instruments of peace and healing and joy.

Let me finish today by going back to the idea of being in a “blended family.” God is telling us, “Here are some people that I am including in the family. You may not like them. But you must learn to LOVE them. Start by treating them with love, and look for the ways in which I am moving in them. You’ll see…all will be well! Make wide the net!”

 

May 12, 2019

Walk in the Light                   4th Easter

Psalm 23   Acts 9:36-43   May 12 (Mothers’ Day)   John 10:22-30

Years ago, I went to the hospital to visit a new mom and dad, and see their baby. On the way to their room, I passed the nursery where there was a baby in sunglasses lying underneath a sunlamp! Strange, but cool! When I had a chance to ask a nurse, she told me that the baby had a little jaundice, and spending time under the sunlamp was helping him to process the bilirubin (which was causing him to be jaundiced). I tucked that little scenario into a corner of my brain so that I could share it with you today! It is a vivid reminder that Light is a cure-all. Early in each worship service, we drag our sins into the light of God’s presence, and ask for God’s healing. Anything we keep hidden in the darkness continues to be a problem for usL.

I think John says it best in his first epistle: Walk in the light as God himself is in the light. Here’s the full quotation: “God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; BUT, if we walk in the light as God himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.” Just as a baby’s bilirubin is cleansed by the light, so our sin is cleansed when we drag it into God’s light!

Keep this idea in mind as we look at today’s Scripture readings.

Just a few weeks ago, we looked at the amazing experience of Lazarus, whose return to life from the tomb is known worldwide. Anywhere the English language is spoken, the name “Lazarus” evokes images of death being overwhelmed with life. But our passage in Acts brings us another amazing death-to-life narrative. It takes place a few years into the life of the church. The Apostle Peter, full of the Holy Spirit, has been used in a mighty way, demonstrating God’s power through a variety of miracles. Word has spread. We pick up the story at the death of a woman of Joppa named Dorcas, described as “a disciple.” She was devoted to good works and acts of charity.

This woman was known by two names: “Tabitha” (Aramaic) and “Dorcas” (Greek). Both names mean “gazelle.” (I think I like “Gazelle better than “Dorcas”—which reminds me of the nickname my sister used to call me, “Dorkus Magnus”!) Anyway, she got sick and died. They washed her body and laid her in an upstairs room. Meanwhile, the Christians in Joppa had heard that Peter was only 10 miles away in Lydda, and they sent two men to him with this request: “Please come to us without delay.”

Responding to their “come quick!” Peter went with them, and I’m assuming they filled him in on their trek to Joppa:

  • Dorcas was a believer;
  • She was devoted to good works and charity
  • When they arrived, the widows surrounded him, showing him the clothing that Dorcas had made for them—giving their testimony to the impact this woman had made on their lives!

Well, what was Peter expected to do? Oh, sure, he had healed sick people, and a man who was lame from birth (through the power of God, of course). But this woman was dead! What did they want him to do?

Reminds me of a situation I faced some years ago. I got word that the Lutheran pastor in our community was gravely ill—that her situation was so serious, in fact, that she probably wouldn’t live. While I struggled to wrap my mind around this tragic news, I began to wonder, what should I do? I was scheduled to leave that very afternoon for a meeting in Pittsburgh. Should I cancel my trip and drive to Salt Lake to her hospital and pray with her? And what about my prayers—how should I best pray for her? Well, it didn’t take long to answer that question—I began praying for her HEALING!

Now, friends, keep this in mind: God heals in a variety of ways. Sometimes, God heals immediately and miraculously, just like in the Bible. Most times, God heals more slowly, often using medicines and surgeries and therapies. And then sometimes God heals completely, taking our loved-ones home. Those first kinds of healing are only temporary…these folks who have been healed will still eventually die. Only the COMPLETE healing is a “permanent fix,” one that lasts forever.

So I prayed for healing for my friend, and left it up to God to determine which kind of healing was best. I know that I wanted her to be restored to health and live among us for a number of years—but God healed her completely and took her home.)

I thought about all this while considering Peter, brought to a dead woman in Joppa. What to do? Well, without hesitation, he put everyone outside the room. Then he got on his knees (a position of humble submission and supplication) and he prayed. We don’t have record of his words, but we can be certain that he prayed the prayer that never fails: Thy will be done!

Then Peter turned to the dead woman, called her by name and said, “Tabitha, get up.” She got up, Peter restored her to her people, and many people believed because of this demonstration of God’s power.

It’s one thing to read about it in the Bible, and to believe that it really happened way back then. But what about our loved-ones, the people we pray for and they are not restored to us—how then do we experience God’s POWER when we don’t see a miraculous healing?!

  • We focus on the promises of God;
  • We remind ourselves that, just because a person is beyond our sight, it doesn’t mean that they are not alive;
  • We hear Paul tell us that he wants us to be quite certain about those who have died, to make sure that we do not grieve about them, like the other people who have no hope;
  • We reaffirm that Jesus died and rose again, and that it will be the same for those who have died in Jesus—God will bring them with him;
  • And we remember that Jesus proclaimed, “I am the resurrection and the life; those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.

Walk in the Light

Remember that walking in the light means that we will see the truth more clearly, we will welcome the truth when it confronts us. Sometimes, that’s not very pleasant because we see our own sinfulness. But that’s part of the work of the Holy Spirit—to convict us of sin. But the Holy Spirit also leads us into the light, and it’s in the light that we receive our healing. We are becoming people of the TRUTH!

Now, in case you haven’t noticed, this is Mothers’ Day! It’s a day when we celebrate all of those who have “mothered” us—folks who have shown us the way to the Light by their words and by their actions. My own mother happened to be one who walked in the Light, and I appreciate all she did to help me do so. But I also remember wonderful teachers (both at school and Sunday School) who did their part in opening up the doors and windows that let God’s light shine on me. Today we celebrate those of you who have given birth, along with those who have “mothered” the offspring of others—showing them God’s love as step-mothers, nurses, neighbors, and aunties. Anyone who has helped us to walk in the Light is qualified to claim the name “mother”! May we all be like “the Gazelle of Joppa”!

 

Prayer

April 28, 2019

So I Send You               2nd Easter

Acts 5:27-32   April 28, 2019   John 20:19-31

Have you ever stood up from where you were sitting and gone into another room and then stopped and asked yourself, “Why am I here?” Believe me, if you haven’t had that particular experience, you will…many times! It’s kind of a universal experience for those of us who are “seasoned citizens.” But not everyone gets around to asking the deeper question, the more important one, “Why am I here? What is the purpose of my life?” If you listen to the culture that surrounds us, you’ll be told that your purpose is to consume goods, to have a good time, to pay lots of taxes and fees, and to (hopefully) die at a ripe old age. (Reminds me of that T-shirt that says “Whoever dies with the most toys, WINS!”)

Or the old song, “Is that all there is? Is that all there is? If that’s all there is, my friends, then let’s keep dancing. Let’s break out the booze and have a ball, if that’s all there is.” Did you catch the critical “IF”?! “IF that’s all there is…” And if that’s NOT all there is, then there must be MORE, right? The answer to the question, “Why am I here?” becomes extremely important—in fact, becomes the only truly significant thing in our lives! What Jesus came to reveal to us is that there is more to life than just living—that life has a purpose, a direction; that Christ who indwells us has something he wants to do through us, right where we are!

As I looked over today’s Scriptures, I saw a theme developing that carried over from Easter’s verses. We see Peter and other Apostles explaining to the High Priest that they must obey God rather than any human authority, and that they were witnesses and had to proclaim that which they had seen for themselves.

When later speaking at the house of the Gentile, Cornelius, Peter said, “He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead.” Jesus commanded us to preach and to testify. So, when this High Priest and the council gave them strict orders NOT to teach in the name of Jesus, Peter and the gang chose to put their lives in danger by obeying Christ’s command to preach and to testify! They put their lives in danger.

What do you suppose it was that gave them such courage, such determination, such boldness?! Listen, again, to the description of their first contact with Jesus after the resurrection: “When it was evening on that day (the day of resurrection), the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Shalom’ (Peace be with you). After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, ‘Shalom. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’”

We hear at the close of every worship service, “Christ who indwells you has something he wants to do through you, right where you are.” And I believe that is true. But sometimes Jesus sends us somewhere else—perhaps to another country, perhaps to another city, or perhaps just slightly beyond our comfort zone. Jesus is saying to us, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”

You might be tempted to respond, “But Jesus was only talking to those who were there. I wasn’t there!”

Well, the text clearly states that Thomas was not with them when Jesus came and stood among them. But Thomas clearly understood that he was meant to be sent out. He traveled to the sub-continent of India, and shared the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And, to this day, there are Christians in India who call themselves “Thomists”, named after the Apostle who brought the good news to their ancestors! The Gospel thrives when Christians follow God’s call and allow themselves to be sent, even if it’s no further than to the family next door!

But what happens when we ignore the call, refusing to be sent? Here’s a famous example: You know the name Kublai Kahn, the emperor of the vast empire of Mongolia. When we see Mongolia today, it’s just a little oval of a country squeezed in between Russia and China. But in the days of the great Kahns, it was the largest empire in the world, including much of modern-day Russia and China! Did you know that Kublai Kahn’s mother was a Christian from the Nestorian Church in Persia? She obviously had a great deal of influence on her son, because he wanted Christianity to be taught throughout his empire! And when Marco Polo came to visit in his palace in Beijing, he asked Marco to carry a message to the Pope in Rome. “Please send 100 learned priests to come to Mongolia and teach the Gospel of Christ.” Wow! How often does the church get an invitation like this?!

And how did the church respond? Well, the church was having a lot of difficulties at that time—some say they were “in survival mode.” The Pope didn’t want to invest 100 priests in Mongolia—so he sent two. Yes, two.

Disappointing.

I can just imagine Jesus saying, “Oh, come on, man! Stop listening to your fears! Just as the Father has sent me, so I send you!

In conclusion, I believe the question God is asking the whole church is this: What are we here for? (What is the church here for?) Are we a social club that gets together because we enjoy each other and like being together? [Well, I have to admit that’s true. We DO like being with each other!] And what is our building for? Is it just a comfortable, attractive place for us to get together, or is it meant for something greater?

Friends, when I hear Jesus telling the disciples, “As the Father sent me, so I am sending you,” I hear him telling you and me, “I have drawn you to myself to bless you and to help you grow—and to send you!”

Everything that has gone before has happened to make this moment possible—to create this unique set of circumstances in which God can use you for something incredible. Paul puts it like this in his letter to the church in Ephesus: “God is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us.” THIS is the way God brings glory to himself—doing amazing work through ordinary people. That’s why God wants to send US, not some superhero, not someone famous or rich or powerful—US. And when we say “Yes!” to God, then God comes alongside us in the power of the Holy Spirit, and makes all things possible. Who’ll be a witness for my Lord?

Prayer: Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.

 

April 21, 2019–Easter

It’s Friday, but Sunday’s Comin’       Easter 2019

Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24   April 21, 2019   John 20:1-18

Intro: I need to ask you to do a difficult thing. I’m asking you to dwell on a very difficult time in your life, a time of deep disappointment. Perhaps you were disappointed in a relationship that didn’t work out; or some cherished dream you had was shattered; perhaps being passed over for a promotion or not getting that job you were qualified for; perhaps one of your kids didn’t turn out the way you had desperately hoped, or one of your parents failed you miserably. Whatever your disappointment was, I’d like you to remember the pain of that time, and then I want you to add to it. On top of this bitterness, I want you to relive the GRIEF you have experienced at the loss of someone you treasured—the emptiness, or the sadness, or the rage—however you experienced it—just get in touch with that. And then, on top of your disappointment and grief, add a layer of fear: not just a general sense of unease, but full-blown fear for your life kind of fear. Have you got it?

Now, depending on how wild your imagination is, you are, I hope, beginning to get some sense of how the Disciples were feeling when Jesus was arrested, given a mock trial, sentenced to be executed, and then killed on a horrible instrument of torture. They were disappointed that their dreams of a new Kingdom were shattered. They were grieving the loss of the dearest person they had ever known. And they were afraid—afraid for their very lives.

So, what do people do when they have been disappointed, when they have suffered loss, when they are afraid? Well, usually they just find a way to keep plodding along. 1. They put one foot in front of the other; 2. They try to adjust to their new circumstances; 3. They turn to others for support. The Disciples were no different.

They stayed together in the upper room where they had experienced the Last Supper with Jesus, and where He had washed their feet. You could say they “hunkered down,” not having any idea of where to go or what to do—it was all they could do to just hang on. Some of the women of their company went out to his tomb early Sunday morning (after waiting for the Sabbath to be over), to anoint his body with burial spices. No one had thought about how they were going to roll away the stone that covered the entrance—their minds were fixed on providing this final service for the body of the one they loved so deeply. Turns out they didn’t need to worry about the stone, because it was already rolled away! (Matthew 28 tells us an angel came and rolled it away…and apparently scared off the guards!)

While these women were puzzling about the stone, suddenly two men in dazzling clothing (read here angels) stood beside them. Of course, the women were terrified. (Isn’t that the response we see in Scripture every time an angel appears?!) And the angels told them the good news, “He has risen.” Then they told the women to remember: “Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” They remembered! And thoughts of burial spices and sadness and loss were instantly evaporated! In their joy, they hustled back to the upper room where the Disciples were staying, and shared the news. Most did not believe them, but Peter ran to the tomb to see for himself.   Peter saw that the linen burial cloths were left in the tomb—and he was amazed.

Now, the Scriptures do not tell us what happened during the rest of that Sunday morning and afternoon. (We are told about the two disciples who headed home to Emmaus and encountered Christ on the road.) But just use your imaginations about what must have happened in the Upper Room. The story of the empty tomb and the angels is told and retold; questions are answered; conjecture is offered; memories are rekindled. “Remember how He told us…remember when He said…” The Disciples still don’t have any idea what to DO with this new development—but their sense of mourning and disappointment is beginning to dwindle. They are still, however, afraid for their lives, and they are huddling behind a locked door. And suddenly, Jesus comes and stands among them and says, “Peace be with you.” The text doesn’t tell us how the Disciples screamed like little girls when he showed up, but it does say that he showed them his hands and his side and THEN the Disciples rejoiced at seeing the Lord. He repeated his “Peace be with you.” And at that point, Jesus changed everything for these Disciples. He commissioned them. He said, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”

Up to this very moment, these folks had been disciples—followers, learners, students, if you will. But when Jesus said, “So I send you,” they became something different—they became Apostles. When an important person sends people on a mission, giving them a specific task or message to carry—they become “sent-out ones.” And the Greek for “I send” is apostello—thus the term Apostle, “one who is sent.” From that moment on, these former disciples constituted a specific group referred to in the New Testament: people who had known Jesus before his crucifixion, and who had received this commission from Jesus. This is the definition of an Apostle. (The one exception to the rule is the man we know as “The Apostle Paul,” who was commissioned by the Resurrected Jesus after his conversion on the road to Damascus.)

Jesus said to them, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” And then he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” (A short time later, after Jesus had returned to Heaven, the Spirit came upon them in a very powerful way—on the Day of Pentecost. We’ll get to that story on June 9!)

There’s an interesting side-note in our reading from John this morning. It’s about one of the Disciples who didn’t happen to be with the others when Jesus first appeared to them. His name is Thomas, and when he later heard about what had happened, he declared that he would not believe until he had experienced the risen Jesus for himself. We don’t know the background of his skepticism, but I like giving Thomas the benefit of the doubt. I imagine that he was SO devastated by the crucifixion that he was going to need overwhelming evidence that Jesus was indeed alive again. (As a follower who sometimes needs an extra dose of God’s mercy, I appreciate the fact that Thomas asked for it as well—and received it!) And, when Jesus shows him his hands and his feet and his side, Thomas’s response of “My Lord and my God!” shows that he is thoroughly convinced that Jesus has returned from the dead.

And then Jesus says something interesting—something that speaks directly to you and to me (and to anyone else who has not had the privilege of being there physically with the resurrected Christ.) He says, “Blessed are those who have NOT seen and yet have come to believe.”

John then finishes this chapter in his account by saying that Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples (now Apostles), miracles which are not written in this book. “But these things are written so that you (the readers) may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name. That was John’s purpose in writing down his account of the life of Christ—so that future generations might know the truth and have life in Christ!

Conclusion: I want to finish today with a story from Tony Campolo. Tony was teaching at Eastern College in Philadelphia, but he was also on staff with a congregation that is predominantly African American. He relates a sermon that was preached by the senior pastor, a sermon that went for over an hour, repeating many times the same phrase.

Tony shares just a sample of it: “He started his sermon real softly by saying, ‘It was Friday. It was Friday, and my Jesus was dead on the tree. But that was Friday, and Sunday’s comin’!’ One of the Deacons yelled, ‘Preach, Brother, Preach!’ It was all the encouragement that he needed. He came on louder as he said, ‘It was Friday, and Mary was cryin’ her eyes out. The disciples were runnin’ in every direction like sheep without a shepherd, but that was Friday and Sunday’s comin’!’ People in the congregation were beginning to pick up the message. Women were waving their hands and calling softly, ‘Well, well.’ Some of the men were yelling, ‘Keep going! Keep going!’

The preacher kept going. He picked up the volume still more and shouted, ‘It was Friday. The cynics were lookin’ at the world and sayin’, “As things have been so they shall be. You can’t change anything in this world, you can’t change anything.” But those cynics didn’t know that it was only Friday, Sunday’s comin’!

It was Friday, and on Friday Pilate thought he had washed his hands of a lot of trouble. The Pharisees were struttin’ around, laughin’ and pokin’ each other in the ribs. They thought they were back in charge of things, but they didn’t know that it was only Friday! Sunday’s comin’!’

Tony writes, “By the time he had come to the end of his message, I was exhausted. He had me and everybody else so worked up that I don’t think any of us could have stood it much longer. And the end of his message, he just yelled at the top of his lungs, ‘It’s Friday!’ and all five hundred of us in the church yelled back with one accord, ‘SUNDAY’S COMIN’!’”

 

Well, friends, I started this morning by asking you to get into the depths of Friday and its disappointment and grief and fear. (It’s only when we are in the darkness that the Light has its fullest power for us.) And now I get to tell you, “It’s Sunday! Christ is risen!” He is risen indeed!

 

Prayer: God, many of us are living with Friday realities. We are surrounded with discouragement, loss, fear. We pray, God, that you will come and stand with us, open our eyes to Sunday possibilities, and that you will carry us through from Friday to Sunday! Be resurrected in us! We pray in the name of the Risen Savior, amen.

April 18, 2019

Just as I Have Loved You       Maundy Thursday

Psalm 116: 1-4, 12-19            John 13: 1-7, 31b-35

Every now and then, a preacher finds a story that beautifully illustrates the Scripture passages she or he is working on. I’ve used this one before, and I’m going to use it again, because it is    SO PERFECT!

Rodney Roberson was working in a homeless shelter while he was going to seminary. One night, he learned a truly valuable lesson. Here’s what happened, in his own words: “It was turning out to be a bad night at the Marin County shelter for the homeless in San Rafael, CA. With rain pouring down and a temperature in the 40’s, our gym-sized armory was nearing its capacity of 125. All the cots and sleep mats had been assigned, but people were still coming in, and in no time there were complaints about the shortage. Soon some of the blacks and Latinos started accusing my fellow workers and me of racial favoritism. (We were all white.)

I was working at the shelter as a full-time counselor. Actually my duties were more like those of a handyman, but the money I earned was helping me pay my way through seminary.

When the arguments started, I knew we were in trouble. The armory echoed with shouts and profanity. Some of the street people were trying to take sleeping mats away from others. When Bobbie, a black woman who worked late, found that we hadn’t saved her a mat as usual, she began to object loudly and accuse me of prejudice.

In the midst of all this, a Latino man named José, who had received one of the last sleeping mats, made his bed in the middle of the armory. He threw down his mat, fell on it, removed his tattered boots and collapsed in a drunken stupor. The stench of José’s feet filled the air. The street people, ordinarily not picky about odors, now began to raise a great protest!

I had been passing out towels when a group of men—blacks and whites—came to me, insisting I had to do something about José. The obvious solution was to persuade him to take a shower, but when two other workers and I tried to wake him, it was no use. He was breathing, but nothing would rouse him. We discussed carrying him to the shower, but he weighed more than 200 pounds, deadweight, and we could hardly move him. When someone suggest we drag him back out to the sidewalk, a howl of protest swept through the other Latinos.

God, how am I supposed to handle this situation? I prayed in desperation. I don’t know what to do! Only a few nights earlier one of my fellow workers had been attacked and choked during one of the frequent melees at the armory.

Then a thought occurred to me: If I can’t get José into the shower, maybe I can bring the shower to him. We didn’t have a washbasin, but in the kitchen I found a large bowl and a container of lemon-scented dishwashing liquid. Armed with a washcloth, a towel, and the bowl full of warm soapy water, I headed back towards José. From all over the armory, stares of anger and suspicion followed me.

Back at José’s mat, I knelt, rolled up his pant legs, and began to remove his filthy athletic-type socks, which were soggy on the bottom but dried to cardboard stiffness on top. I finally managed to tug them off, leaving the weave of the fabric imprinted on his skin. The stench would have been overwhelming if it had not been for the scent of the lemon bubbles in the bowl.

It took some persuasion, but one of the men who was helping with the mats finally agreed to throw the socks away and take José’s boots outside to air. Then I went to work with the lemon soap and washcloth. For several minutes I carefully cleaned José’s calves and ankles, feet and toes. (In no time, the water was black!)

I took the towel and dried the area, then, still on my knees, turned to pick up the bowl. As I did, I saw a forest of legs and knees surrounding me. Have they come to throw us both out? I wondered.

Slowly, warily, I stood up. My eyes came to rest on the face of one of the black men who had been protesting the loudest. And he was grinning! I had never seen him smile before! I looked from face to face. I was stunned. They were smiling—men and women of all races. And Bobbie, with tears in her eyes, stepped forward, took my soapy hands in hers, and kissed them.

Nothing could have prepared me for what I experienced at that moment. No sermon, no seminary class. It was as if Jesus’ words had come to life in me: “Whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant.” (Matthew 20: 27) It had not been intentional; I was simply doing my job. But by carrying out this unpleasant task, I had won over an entire auditorium of street people, and gained their respect.

A quiet hush fell on the National Guard armory in San Rafael that night. The shouting and the threats were gone. Someone who had both a mat and a cot gave his mat to Bobbie. After some looking around, we even came up with a fresh pair of socks for José.”

I wanted to share this story with you this evening because it beautifully illustrates exactly what Jesus was trying to communicate: Servant Leadership. As I said last Sunday, this is one example of an enacted parable, one where words are less important than actions.

We’ve all read the account in John dozens of times, where Jesus washes the feet of the disciples. It all seems so antiseptic, more of a ceremony than anything else. But scholars tell us that washing feet was a pretty big deal back then. You can only imagine how grimy people’s feet got, walking the dusty roads in their sandals. But did you know that footwashing was considered to be such an odious task that any wealthy host would have a Gentile slave do the job—it was too much to ask a Jewish slave to perform it! So, when Jesus took up the bowl and towel to wash their feet, he was doing something completely unheard-of!

No wonder Peter refused (at first) to allow Jesus to do it! It seemed wrong for their Lord and teacher to perform this demeaning chore.

When he was done with this enacted parable, Jesus drove home his point. “If I, your Lord and teacher, have washed your feet, you too must wash each other’s feet. I have given you an example: Just as I have done, you also must do.”

Now, of course, Jesus is not suggesting that you accost people on the street and force them to take off their footwear so you can scrub their tootsies! “Washing Feet” is a paradigm for how you and I can interact with others. The way we show the love of Christ is to actively watch for opportunities to serve.

As we gradually adopt the mind of Christ, as we adopt Christ’s attitude, we will be liberated from fear and worry, as well as emboldened and empowered to be God’s instruments of healing and reconciliation!

 

Maundy Thursday is so-named because of the mandate Jesus gave his disciples on that night long ago. He said, “As I have loved you, so you also must love one another. This is how everyone will know that you are my disciples, when you love each other.” And, as Rodney Roberson learned when he washed José’s feet, LOVING SERVICE is a great way to show the world that Jesus lives in us!

 

April 14, 2019

Adulation!                    Palm Sunday

Psalm 118:19-29   Philippians 2:5-11      Luke 19:28-40

Intro: You may know that the Japanese Imperial Army ran the deadliest prison camps in World War II. At one camp, starving military prisoners of war were huddled in dozens of bamboo huts. They had experienced terrible deprivation and cruelty under the iron fist of the camp commander. But it was Christmas! They had been told that there would be NO religious celebration in the camp. But about midnight, someone in one of the little huts began singing “Silent Night.” And then everyone in that hut was singing, and in the next hut, and the next, until the whole camp was singing “Silent Night.” Before the prison guards could react or stop the commotion, the song ended. One of the men who survived that camp said that it was the best Christmas gift he had ever received, the best Christmas he had ever celebrated!

If you are lucky enough to have been on this earth for at least a few decades, you know Christmas carols. You might not know every single word of every verse, but you know them well enough to sing with a crowd! They’re an annual tradition, and many of them carry strong memories of Christmases past—memories that come flooding back with each successive year.

Well, our Scriptures for today have that same kind of power. The ancient Israelites sang Psalms as they made the annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem for Passover—and for centuries they sang the same Psalms as they climbed the hill of Jerusalem, up to the Temple built on Mount Zion. The Psalm you heard read today is one of those special songs, and it would have been embedded in the memory of Jesus and all those present when he made his triumphal entry on the back of a donkey.

The people would also have words from the Prophet Zechariah ringing in their ears: Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See, your King comes to you, righteous, and having salvation, gentle, and riding on a donkey.

There was something special about this procession, both in terms of WHO was coming in and what things were like in Israel at that time. The Romans occupied Israel, and there had already been numerous uprisings against them—so the leaders of Israel were sensitive about anyone stirring up a crowd and being called a KING! (They were supposed to help the Romans keep everyone in line.)

Why did Jesus orchestrate this procession into Jerusalem? And why was the crowd so jubilant in its adulation? And why were certain people trying to hush everyone up? Most important—why is this event remembered every year on what we call “Palm Sunday”? What makes it so important to 21st Century people? Let’s take a look.

Open the Gates of Righteousness (Psalm 118)

“The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.” When a stonemason is laying a foundation, the main foundation stone is one that is true and straight and leads to a good foundation. And when it came to rejection, Jesus really knew what that was. So the Psalmist writes that a rejected stone has now become the chief cornerstone, and it is the Lord’s doing, marvelous in our eyes!

The Hebrew “Hosannah!” means “Save us, we beseech you, O Lord!” This is consistent with the intention of Jesus, because he had a sense of Who He Was. As we read the Old Testament, we see God’s Savior in every book. Jesus knew these Scriptures, and they pointed to this moment. And our Psalm says, “Bind the festal procession with branches, up to the horns of the altar!” No wonder people took branches and laid them in his path.

And with this procession the silence is over. Throughout his ministry, whenever he healed and delivered people, he instructed them to “keep quiet.” But they always ran and told everyone! Up to this point, his disciples are the only ones who know Who He Is, but upon entering the gates on the back of a donkey, he PROCLAIMED HIS IDENTITY. Here’s what I mean.

Blessed Is the One Who Comes in the Name of the Lord!

I’ve talked before about enacted parables. Typically, a parable is a story that is told to help teach concepts, and to help people remember the teachings. Occasionally, a parable was enacted—and it was worth thousands of words. Jeremiah the Prophet was instructed by the Lord to buy a potter’s earthenware jug, then take it and SMASH it in front of the people and say, “Thus says the Lord of hosts: ‘So will I break this people and this city, as one breaks a potter’s vessel, so that it can never be mended.’” An enacted parable. Jesus enacted parables when he washed the feet of the Disciples to teach servant leadership. He calmed the waves, and saved them in a storm, saying “O ye of little faith!” And, of course, he changed the meaning of Passover by saying of the bread and the cup, “My body, broken for you; my blood, shed for you.” And we re-enact it every time we celebrate The Lord’s Supper.

Today, we celebrate an enacted parable that was announcing to everyone, “Yes! I am the Anointed One!” We know that Jesus could have gone anywhere BUT Jerusalem, and he was warned it would be dangerous to go there. He wasn’t going to skulk into town unnoticed. No, it was time to announce WHO HE WAS, to make it clear: He was the One anticipated though the Scriptures. He rode in on a donkey to indicate he was a different kind of ruler. It would invoke the memory of the words of Zechariah, “See, your King comes to you, righteous, and having salvation, gentle, and riding on a donkey.”

IF his kingdom was going to be “of this world,” he would have ridden in on a white war-horse, leading an army of people ready to overthrow the Romans! (In the tradition of the Maccabees!)

But Jesus is the King who comes in the name of the Lord. When he was taken before Pilate, he told him, “My kingdom is NOT of this world. If it were, my followers would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now my kingdom is from another place.” Pilate responded, “You are a king, then!” And Jesus said, “You are right in saying I am a king. In fact, for this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”

The Stones Would Shout Out!

In the Scriptures, all of creation speaks God’s praise (especially in the Psalms and Isaiah). The trees clap their hands for joy; the hills skip into a dance; the waves cry out; mountains shout. Creation speaks God’s praise! This you must remember if you would understand some curious words of Jesus.

When the people were welcoming him with their glad “hosanna’s”, there were Pharisees who said to Jesus, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop!” It’s possible they were nervous about potential blasphemy. I suspect they were more concerned about the “political” implications of this noisy scene. You see, the Sanhedrin had worked out an arrangement between the faith of Israel and the POWER of Imperial Rome. They did not want any disruption of their carefully-crafted alliance. They saw it as just one more rebellion aimed at kicking the Romans out, because they heard the people shouting about a NEW KING! And Jesus replied to their demand to silence them, “If they were silent, the stones would shout!”

I asked earlier, “Why is this event so important, to this day?!” Here are some reasons:

  • It answers the question of who is in charge? Who is KING?
  • There are plenty of forces telling us to sit down and shut up when we should be on our feet, praising God, trusting God to be our salvation!

Our Epistle reading for today comes from Philippians 2. You’ve heard me refer to it any number of times over the last 3 years, because I love it so much! Many Bible scholars believe that Paul has here included the lyrics of a 1st Century song of praise, because of the rhythm and meter in the Greek. It describes the faithful life and humble death of Christ. It declares that God has given him the name above all names, and that at the name of Jesus, every knee might bow and every mouth confess that Jesus Christ is Lord! It’s a great passage for Palm Sunday! The adulation of that day is meant to continue until the end of time.

Conclusion: It is important for us to dwell on this event—the Triumphant Entry of Jesus into Jerusalem—to join with the people in adulation and praise. Oh, sure, we know that Jesus was soon to be given a mock trial and then scourged and then hung on a cross to die—but we also know The Rest of the Story, the delightful surprise ending that we get to celebrate next Sunday!

And that’s the point: Our praise is not dependent on immediate circumstances. We praise God when things are lousy, declaring that, despite the way things LOOK, we know God is the Ruler of the Universe, and God has things in hand. Blessed is the One who comes in the name of the Lord!

 

April 7, 2019

Don’t Be Denied     5th Lent

Psalm 126   Philippians 3:4b-14   April 7, 2019 John 12:1-8

Hello. My name is Lazarus. You probably remember me because Jesus brought me back from the dead. Now, that was pretty spectacular, but I want to share with you the tremendous impact that Jesus had on my whole family—especially my sisters, Mary and Martha.

I guess I ought to start with Mary, because she’s the one who introduced us to Jesus in the first place. I’m not exactly sure what happened to Mary—how she started going wrong—but she ended up way up north in Galilee, in a little town called Nain (not too far from Capernaum). The people in that village knew that she was living a sinful life, but everything changed when Jesus came there!

It all happened when he was invited to have dinner with one of the Pharisees that lived there. Mary had heard Jesus teaching, and had sensed God calling her back from her sinful life. When she found out that Jesus was eating dinner in the house of the Pharisee, she grabbed her most prized possession (an alabaster jar of fragrant ointment) and she boldly went into the Pharisee’s house. While Jesus was reclining at the table, Mary knelt down and wept at his feet—she cried so much, her tears got all over his feet!—and then she wiped them dry with her long hair. Then she kissed his feet and poured the ointment on them.

Mary just focused on Jesus, and ignored the other people who didn’t want her there. The Pharisee, Simon, knew that she was a sinner, and that Jesus was taking a risk letting her touch his feet like that. In fact, the Pharisee was saying to himself, “IF this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is—that she is a sinner.”

Jesus must have guessed his thoughts, because he said, “Simon, I have something to tell you.”

“Tell me, Teacher,” he said.

Then Jesus told him a little parable. “Two men owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii, and the other, fifty. Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he canceled the debts of them both! Now, which of them will love him more?”

Simon replied, “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt canceled.”

And Jesus said, “You have judged correctly.” Then, while looking at my sister Mary, he said, “Simon, do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet. Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—for she has loved much. But he who has been forgiven little loves little.”

Then Jesus said to Mary, “Your sins are forgiven.” Your sins are forgiven! The other guests began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?!” But Jesus said to Mary, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

Your faith has saved you; go in peace! Mary left Nain right away, and came back to our family, back to her village—and she never stopped talking about Jesus. She was obviously a changed person, so Martha and I were excited to hear him ourselves! When he and his disciples came through Bethany, Martha opened our home to them and started preparing a wonderful meal to show them the highest hospitality. Mary sat at the feet of Jesus, soaking up his words (instead of helping Martha get ready for the meal.) Martha got fed up, and appealed to Jesus as a higher authority: “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!” (Meanwhile, I was staying out of it!) Jesus told her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”

Well, no one had EVER talked to Martha that way—firmly but gently—and she took his words to heart. Jesus was continuing to have a wonderful impact on my family!

Some time later, I got very sick, and my sisters sent word to Jesus: “Lord, the one you love is sick.” We all had faith that Jesus could heal me, and that he would want to heal me—but he had other plans. We found out later that he told his disciples, “This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it.” Now, we knew that Jesus loved us, but he stayed where he was for two more days. (Talk about God answering prayer in God’s own time, rather than ours!) Finally, he said to his disciples, “Let us go back to Judea.” His disciples tried to talk him out of it, because danger was waiting for him in Jerusalem and the surrounding area (which is where we lived). Then Jesus told them, “Our friend, Lazarus, has fallen asleep; but I am going there to wake him up.” They thought he meant natural sleep, so they said, “Lord, he needs his sleep in order to get better.” So he told them straight out, “Lazarus is dead, and for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” The disciples were afraid to return to the dangers and threats of Judea, but Thomas said, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

By the time they arrived, I had already been in the tomb four days. Martha went out to meet Jesus, but Mary—sweet child—Mary was too distraught to leave the house. Here’s how I know that Martha had really grown in her faith. She told Jesus, “Lord, if you had been there, my brother would not have died…but I know that, even now, God will give you whatever you ask.” Isn’t that amazing?! She didn’t get the answer she had wanted, but she was willing to keep on trusting for God’s best!

Jesus told her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha thought he was talking about the eventual resurrection of God’s children at the last day. So he told her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”

And Martha confessed her faith, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who was to come into the world.” Then she went inside to Mary and told her that the Teacher was looking for her—and Mary rushed out to him and fell weeping at his feet, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Everyone could see that Jesus was moved to tears.

Then he came to my tomb, saw the stone rolled across the entrance, and ordered, “Take away the stone.” Martha tried to warn him that there would be a bad smell, but Jesus said, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone, and Jesus prayed an unusual prayer, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.” (That they may believe that you sent me!)

Then Jesus said, in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” I couldn’t resist that voice, and I came out of the tomb with strips of cloth wrapped around me—I must have looked like a mummy!—and Jesus said, “Take off the grave clothes and let him go.”

Now, of course, everyone was amazed by this—they had never seen or heard of anything like it. But Mary had a quiet little smile on her face, as if she knew something we didn’t. Later, when I had a chance to ask her about it, she told me about what had happened up in Nain when Jesus first got there. As he and the disciples came to the town gate, a dead person was being carried out—the only son of his mother—and she was a widow. The whole procession was weeping, and Jesus went up to the mother and said, “Don’t cry.” Then he went up and touched the coffin and said, “Young man, I say to you, get up!” The dead man sat up and began to talk, and Jesus gave him back to his mother.

As you can well imagine, they were all filled with awe and praised God—no wonder Mary felt the Presence of God, and let Jesus turn her life around! And no wonder she didn’t let anyone or anything deny her when she wanted to wash the feet of Jesus, and anoint them!

Sometimes, when something seems totally impossible—God makes a way, and Jesus wanted us to know this before he went to the cross.

Well, that brings us to the Scripture you heard read today. Just a week before his crucifixion, Jesus came through Bethany again and had dinner with us. Martha was being Martha, and she served the dinner. Then Mary re-enacted the scene when she washed Jesus’ feet at the house of the Pharisee in Nain. She anointed his feet with pure nard, and the whole house was full of that fragrance. When Judas complained that this expense was being wasted, Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial.” When he said this, we all looked pretty somber. None of us wanted to face the fact that Jesus was on his way to the cross. I hope it gave the disciples some encouragement to see me sitting at the table—to remember that God has resurrection power—and to see Martha, full of joy in her serving and her faith in Jesus, the Messiah.

A lot of years have passed since that memorable day, and we are still learning about what it means to be a follower of the Messiah, the Christ. Saul of Tarsus was a Pharisee, but he found out that his own personal righteousness was just a bunch of filthy rags, just like Isaiah had said hundreds of years earlier. What was it he wrote to the Christians in Philippi? “I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith.” Saul—Paul knew that our own goodness could not save us AND that our own sin—no matter how bad—cannot deny us access to Christ’s forgiveness.

Friends, if there is anything stopping you from asking for God’s grace, get past it! My own family is proof that God can reach past any barrier and restore wholeness again. Don’t be denied!

 

 

March 31, 2019

Welcome, Sinners!                4th Lent

Psalm 32    2 Cor. 5:16-21   March 31, 2019   Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

 

Intro: Home. HOME. I hope that, when I say this word, it conjures up for you images of peace and security and happiness. For some, home is a certain place, like a little village in Nova Scotia. For others, it’s a specific building. And for others, it is a person or group of people with whom one really feels “at home.” Like the young adolescent who had just discovered her love for the theater, and embraced the cast of a small production with, “My People!” I hope the word “home” is like this for you.

When I was in college, I heard a young man say, “Home is a place where, when you HAVE to go there, they HAVE to take you in.” It made me sad to hear it, because home has always been a cherished place for me. Turns out he was only quoting a line from a long poem by Robert Frost, The Death of the Hired Man. But still, it makes me sad that some people feel that way.

Church. CHURCH. I hope that, when I say this word, it conjures up for you images of peace and security and happiness—a place where you belong, a place where you are needed. But I know there are people who feel a sense of rejection at the word “church.” There was a couple involved with a church that had the word “grace” in its name. When the couple (amicably) divorced, they both wanted to continue at this church with their many children—but they were told to stay away. A twelve-year-old boy who was taking science seriously was told that he had to agree that the world was made in 7 days, or he was not welcome in church. At presbytery last week, we welcomed a young minister who had been raised in a different denomination. His careful study of the Bible (in its original languages) had raised questions about some of the doctrines of that church, and he was told that, if he wanted to continue at “Abundant Grace,” he would have to accept all the doctrines. He left. Now he is Presbyterian. (I asked him, “Did they then change the name of the church?!”)

I’m afraid that much of the history of the church (and of Judaism before) has shown that we have been fixated on the question of “who’s IN and who’s NOT”! Surprisingly, there are many places in the Bible that seem to be struggling with the same issue. Here’s an example: When the exiles returned from Babylon, Israel was struggling with its identity. In the time of Ezra and Nehemiah, the boundaries of the community began to narrow. Ezra was concerned with issues of purity, and urged those who had married foreigners to divorce them!

But there were other voices, including the writer of the Book of Ruth. You will remember that Ruth was a native of Moab, and therefore a foreigner. But she was determined to accompany her mother-in-law, Naomi, back to Israel. “Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.” And Ruth married an Israelite and together they were ancestors of King David! One could not ask for a finer pedigree, and proof of God’s inclusive Spirit!

The last couple of months, I have been working my way up to today’s subject. February 3, I talked about how important it is to be connected to Christ, and to allow his love to flow through us so that God’s fruit will grow. On February 10, we looked at the fact that God’s holiness illuminates our sinfulness, but we are still urged to say, “Here I am, Lord. Send me.” On February 17, the text urged us to TRUST IN THE LORD, no matter what our circumstances looked like. And on February 24, the words of Christ made it clear that FORGIVENESS is central to life in Christ.

On March 3, we explored being transformed into the image of Christ. Then, on Ash Wednesday, we talked about what it means to live A Winsome Life. On March 10, we looked at how to discern our path and “resist the devil.” Then on March 17, we heard God’s call to “be strong and courageous.”

For two months, I have been thinking about SSPC and appreciating its ethos, its character as manifested in its beliefs and behaviors. I have known about this church since before it was chartered, and it has been an inspiration to see the clarity of its vision for itself: a worshiping family of Christ that is DETERMINED to welcome all kinds of people with wide-open arms…including those who have been rejected by other faith communities. I see very little energy being expended in deciding who’s “in” and who’s not!

So, when I sat with the scriptures for today, and just “soaked” in them, I could sense where the growing edge of our church is: we are becoming a true Community of Reconciliation. Let’s take a look.

A Father with Two Sons (parable in Luke)

Jesus was criticized for “welcoming sinners,” so he told a story about a man with two sons. The older son was obedient to his father, but it is revealed that he is fairly resentful at having “slaved” for him for years. The younger son wanted OUT, wanted to go his own way, but he came HOME. When he returned and the father threw a welcome-home party, we see that the older son wanted more exclusive parameters around the family, and described the younger son as “this son of yours.” But the father made it clear that he wanted a much wider inclusion, and referred to the younger son as “This brother of yours.” In the light of God’s love, the question of “who’s in and who’s out” becomes moot.

A New Creation (Paul to Corinthians)

Paul says that anyone in Christ is a new creation. ANYONE! And he declares this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ. And God has given US “The Ministry of Reconciliation!” Then he clarifies: In Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them (what a concept)! And now God is entrusting to us the message of RECONCILIATION. So that means that you and I are ambassadors for Christ. In international relations, an ambassador is an accredited diplomat sent by a country as its official representative to a foreign country. But it also means “a person who acts as a representative or promoter of a specific activity.” In the Bible, we see kings or other powerful persons sending representatives (“ambassadors”) to go and do a certain task or carry a certain message. These people spoke and acted with the authority of the one who sent them, almost as if the person were actually there.

How does it make you feel to hear that YOU are an ambassador for Christ?! That God has entrusted to YOU the message of reconciliation?!

The Ministry of Reconciliation

We find in our Gospel reading a strong message about the importance of reconciliation. The father was reconciled to his errant son (just as God is reconciled to sinners, not counting their trespasses against them). The father was reconciled to his stay-at-home son (who was acting like the Pharisees). And the father’s desire was for the two sons to be reconciled with each other: “We had to celebrate and rejoice because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost, and has been found.”

Paul makes it clear that the church is called to be God’s Reconciling Community. This includes welcoming all kinds of people, and helping those who feel separated from God to grow closer, and facilitating reconciliation among others. Our Statement of Faith today says it so clearly: To be reconciled to God is to be sent into the world as God’s reconciling community. This community, the church universal, is entrusted with God’s message of reconciliation and shares God’s labor of healing the enmities which separate people from God and from each other. (From The Confession of 1967)

Yes, it’s a BIG job description! But don’t forget that Christ has called us to this mission and has given us the Holy Spirit. We’re not expected to do this all on our own power! It’s the power of God’s love flowing through us that bears the fruit of reconciliation. Hear these words from First John: “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love…No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.”

Friends, we don’t have to make ourselves come up with a feeling of love for others, we simply have to start behaving in love—starting with forgiveness, intentional forgiveness. THAT is something that each of us can DECIDE to do, and ask God’s help with the process.

Conclusion: I’ll finish today with a look at Simon Peter, a disciple that many of us have been studying during Lent (using Adam Hamilton’s book). Jesus gave him a nickname, “Rock”, and said, “On this rock I will build my church.” We have two letters in our New Testament attributed to Peter, and in describing the church, he speaks of stones. He writes, “Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.”

Fellow Stones, are we ready to let God build us into a Community of Reconciliation? To teach us what that means? To use us as an instrument of healing the enmities that separate people from each other and from God? I pray we are!