Mt. Carmel Presbyterian Church
6410 Lee Jackson Highway, P.O. Box 8, Steeles Tavern, VA 24476 - 540-377-6742
“Imagine” MCPC Nov. 27, 2016 Advent 1 Psalm 122 Isaiah 2:1-5 In April of 2001, The Rolling Stone Magazine ran an article of the top 500 songs of all time. John Lennon’s “Imagine” was the #3 song. This is what they wrote about it. And I quote: “John Lennon wrote "Imagine," his greatest musical gift to the world, one morning early in 1971 in his bedroom at Tittenhurst Park, his estate in Ascot, England. His wife, Yoko Ono, watched as Lennon sat at the white grand piano now known around the world from films and photographs of the sessions for his Imagine album and virtually completed the song: the serene melody; the pillowy chord progression; that beckoning, four-note figure; and nearly all of the lyrics, 22 lines of graceful, plain-spoken faith in the power of a world, united in purpose, to repair and change itself.”(End quote.) Today we open Advent 2016 with Isaiah, and we imagine this world which Isaiah sees, a world where nations come together, swords become plowshares; we imagine the future House of God. The joy of this passage is that Isaiah isn’t the only prophet to have seen this image from God. The prophet Micah preaches these words to his people as well. This vision is often called, the “floating oracle of peace”, because it does make its rounds through the Old Testament prophets. It is apparently part of a general prophetic tradition that was available to the prophets as a promise of the fulfillment of God’s kingdom. These words of hope are offered to the prophets and the prophets give them to the people in times of difficulty, when living conditions are unpromising. They are given in bad times, so the people can hear once again that the future belongs to God, which gives them hope in their present state. These holy words from the prophets are a lot like John Lennon’s song, and that is probably why his song has touched so many and has become timeless. In his 20th Century words, he asked us to “Imagine” what the world could be like; and even though God is not mentioned in his lyrics, for John Lennon, he asks us to “Imagine” what creation could be, as the “Creator” has a perfect place planned for the people. Now, as we think of such a perfect place, we too sit in the midst of troubled, difficult times. For many, the political temperament of our country has caused anxieties, produced fear, and has caused divisions for more than just this past election cycle, where all this undercurrent has seemed to rise to the forefront. So as we deal with difficulties, hearing that the prophet Isaiah sees a better place for us, also can bring us comfort and assurance. That is what the gift of God’s Word can do; speak to any age, anytime, any situation. As we know that Isaiah is divided into at least three major divisions, the book as a whole covers Judah’s history, and the turmoil which Judah faced does seem to cycle through history. As this prophecy is in Chapter 2, we are at the beginning, First Isaiah, so we must put into context what is happening within Judah to cause the people anxiety and difficulty. In this time, the difficult present circumstances were probably centered on the Syro-Ephraimitic War, and we can all say, “The What War?” This was in 734-732, BCE, when the northern kingdom of Israel, and the Aramaean kingdom of Damascus, tried to force Judah into an unwise alliance in opposition to the Assyrian Empire. We probably all missed that day in history class, but this is the important item to remember: When all this came to a head, and the enemies laid siege to Jerusalem, it was King Ahaz who turned to Isaiah for advice and assurance. Isaiah, in this time of difficulty, in this time of war, offers a vision of the true promise; a vision in which the prophet offers a description of what God’s new kingdom will look like. He allows the people to imagine what God can offer them when they listen and follow. First, he shows us that the Lord’s house will be established as the highest of the mountains and the nations shall stream to it. People from all nations, all cultures, all races will be drawn to God and to His house. They will come because they desire God. They desire divine instruction from God, instruction which is full of excitement, instruction which resounds of peace. It is from here that the Word of the Lord will go forth and from that word justice will prevail. Inequalities will be balanced, shackles will be loosened, wrongs will be set right. God will offer a house where his people will be loved and cared for as children, cared for so much that his people will be able to walk in the light of the Lord. Isaiah offers a vision to the people that regardless of what is going on in their lives, war, occupation, famine, exile, regardless of where power seems to be at that present time, the day is coming when God’s reign will be established for all humankind to see, to accept and to live. God’s dwelling on Mt. Zion will be central, it will be elevated over all other claims to the human powers of the world. Isaiah offers a vision where the people can imagine that God will rule; no matter what is offered in the present day, God’s Kingdom will prevail. This vision of the future of God’s House ushers us into Advent, so we too can seek that vision and prepare ourselves for it. In faith, we can open up our imaginations so we too can see the highest mountain and God’s house where through the coming of the Christ Child we are assured of a future in the coming of Christ’s Kingdom. In faith, we can open up our imaginations so we can envision a world where all people are welcomed, all are equal, all are children of God. In faith, we can open up our imaginations so we can envision a world of peace where war is no more. This is the world Isaiah sees and shares as a prophet, and it is the world we imagine, the world we envision, the world to look forward to as we prepare ourselves for God’s Kingdom. What Isaiah offers us is not only a vision of a new world, but the invitation to live toward that day. Isaiah invites the people to come, to walk in the light of the Lord. Isaiah invites us to come, and walk in the light of the Lord as well. It may be hard for us to believe we will see that day come, however, there is power when we walk in God’s light now, one step at a time walking toward that highest mountain. Even as we feel anxieties, even as we might live as cynics, even as we might get caught up in the commercialism of the season, in God’s invitation through Isaiah, we are offered the enormous power of God to look past the difficult times into what we know is to come. The future belongs to God, but the future belongs to those who have caught a glimpse of God’s light and are willing to trust that enough light lies ahead. Amen
“Jesus Ain’t Here Yet!”
2 Thessalonians 3:6-13
In 1988, John came home from a funeral with a booklet that he had been given at the funeral titled, “88 Reasons the world will end in 1988”. He said that it had been given to him by one of the funeral goers who approached him after the service. Out of curiosity, I flipped through it, and then the book went away. 1988 came and went and the world didn’t end; Jesus didn’t come back.
Trying to figure out when Jesus is coming is something many Christians, many preachers try to calculate. We study, discuss, and debate the signs around us and what they mean, trying our best to figure out when Jesus will return; when the Second Coming will occur. Our cry during Advent is, “Come Lord Jesus!” preparing ourselves for the coming of the Lord, not only as a baby, but also as the ushering in of the New Heaven and New Earth. And we look forward to the New Heaven and New Earth which Jesus will usher in, however, it’s not here yet, and we don’t know when it will happen. So, even as Nostradamus did, and other seers do work on predicting when the world will end, just like the group that published that book in 1988, even though it was predicted, and they thought it would happen; it didn’t.
But, the prophets and seers since creation have envisioned a new heaven and a new earth, and today we are hearing about it from Isaiah. This ending part of Isaiah is known as “Third Isaiah”, and it offers us a more realistic picture of restored life in Jerusalem after 538 BCE, when the first wave of exiles had returned, to Jerusalem and are faced with the task of rebuilding a ruined city, a ruined temple, and a ruined Judah. Because of the way things are, life is looking pretty sad and pessimistic. So to hear for the first time, this prophet’s description of Zion’s coming glory, a time when prosperity and peace will reign, when the city residents will be righteous, and good tidings will lift up the poor and brokenhearted, to hear this is good news. For these people, to hear this prophecy is the best news any one can receive!
Isaiah describes a radical transformation from what the people in 538 are witnessing and living, and to what he is calling them. He is calling them to look ahead to what will come. They don’t know how or when the New Heaven and the New Earth will come, however, these people know that it can happen through the mighty power of God. Even the people in Isaiah’s time knew that with faith in God, nothing was impossible, and that in spite of the pessimism felt, as they looked at ruined buildings, they knew and believed that God would see them through.
But, at a second hearing or reading of this prophecy, and as the Word of God has been lifted up for centuries, this prophecy is more than just the celebration of a new heaven and earth. This prophecy goes beyond just Judah, beyond the Israelites and their present time, drawing in and including all of creation, past and present. So this passage is about making everything new; building upon the original creation which God called good. This Isaiah reading is about building on what God knows is coming; the new heaven and earth through Emmanuel, His Son Jesus Christ.
For us to understand this vision of a transformed world, we need to envision it through the incarnation of God, through the life of Jesus Christ. When we join this Old Testament prophecy with the life of Jesus, the picture becomes clear, the message and mission are focused, and it is at this point that we can begin to understand this prophecy. The ministry of Jesus, what he said and what he did, is framed through the prophecy of Isaiah. Let’s look at the similarities. Jesus’ message of inclusivity and nonviolence, as well as his ministry of presence, reveal an unexpected model of messianic characteristics no one was used to, opening up new ways of ministry. Isaiah in the same way, speaks of life, happiness and the richness of faith; he prophesizes of lions and lambs being together and the sanctuary of a holy mountain. Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection provide a new set of lenses, new eyes, for the world to see and to engage in the new creation, the new creation where there is joy and goodness, where the past will not be remembered. This hope in Jesus is not hope to be looked for off in the distance, but hope to be realized here and now.
The whole of Isaiah resets on the messianic activity of God. As a church of Jesus Christ, our job is not to shelter ourselves from the world waiting for Jesus to come. As a church of Jesus Christ, we cannot retreat from the world proclaiming the resurrection, proclaiming everlasting life, proclaiming a new heaven and new earth, and just wait until Jesus returns. As Isaiah did, as Jesus did, we are called to be in the world, out in its messiness, its pain, its suffering and its joy. And we are to be there until Jesus comes, until God’s promise of a New Kingdom is fulfilled.
There is no denying that radical pain and suffering exists in the world. All we have to do it open up our computers, turn on the news, or pick up the newspaper to hear it or read it. However, through our faith in Christ, we are given a foretaste of the new heaven and the new earth. Created by God we are given gifts, we are given abilities and we are invited to participate in the ongoing formation of the New Kingdom of God, the new heaven and earth, the New Jerusalem, whatever you want to title it, we are invited as disciples of God to help diminish suffering for the Children of God. We are invited to work for the gospel until Jesus comes, and he ain’t here yet, so we still have work to do.
We have work to do in the name and faith of Jesus Christ, and everyone who follows Christ, serves Christ. So, we need to ask ourselves how we do this, and how the Spirit can guide us. We need to ask ourselves if we are identifying our God given talents and using them to rebuild the gospel in the world, ushering in the new heaven and earth which Isaiah predicts and God promises. We have such ways within our communities, Kingsway, Mission next Door, Valley Mission, the Salvation Army, The Community Kitchen, the Food Bank and local food pantries. These are ways we improve the lives of those who suffer, as we are living the mercy, grace, love, and hope of the Gospel. We have our personal ways of serving Christ as well. We help our neighbors, we forgive our enemies, we watch over the weak and lift them up. We are concerned for the stranger, the child, the person who doesn’t look, act, or speak like we do. We live with Jesus Christ as our guide; the teacher who reached over the cultural lines to share His message.
We seek to participate in God’s new creation not as a means of earning it, but as a way of responding to God’s grace extended to us. In Christ, we are made whole, and our relationship with God is restored. In Christ, our relationship with God’s creation is one, so that we will usher in the new heaven and earth that Isaiah described, being allowed a foretaste of the greatness which will one day come.
Let us pray. Glorious God, as so often our ways are not your ways and our thoughts are not your thoughts, may this word from you this day, be yours and ours together. Amen
“Thanks Be to God!”
MCPC 11/6/16 Dedication Sunday
Deuteronomy 26:1-6, 10-11
2 Corinthians 9:6-15
Princeton Seminary Professor Thomas Mann, shares this story. “On the 4th of July a number of years ago, well ahead of the collapse of the Iron Curtain, my local newspaper ran a story about a man who had defected from East Germany thirty years before. A picture of the man sitting in his office showed a large American flag spread across the wall behind his desk, with a framed copy of the Declaration of Independence beside it. In the article, this transplanted German, now an American citizen, talked about his experience of fleeing a dictatorship and coming to the United States as if it were only yesterday. “You can’t appreciate freedom”, he said, “unless you’ve lived in a country where it doesn’t exist.”
Now, even though immigration is a hot topic in this political season, we who sit here have not shared such an experience. We haven’t had to decide who in a family stays behind and who gets to escape, we haven’t had to flee with just one suitcase or the clothes on our backs, not knowing if we were going to be caught or not. We have been very fortunate, for we live in a country where the freedom to move around is a given. And unless you were a part of a military family, or you moved around because of employment, most of us have been in the same place, or roughly the same place, for most of our lives. We would have trouble relating and understanding this immigrant’s story.
However, the authors of Deuteronomy can relate to what this immigrant’s story. Moses is ending this section of Deuteronomy with a liturgical recognition of the immigrant status of all Israelites, highlighting the responbility they share as they take care of each other, and teaching the people of the covenant agreement on which the occupation of their land depends. They have already received the legislation, the laws concerning the first-fruits and the third year tithe, earlier in this book, and we still find these laws Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers. What the people are hearing now is a summation of what they have heard before, however, this teaching is for the symbolism of the rituals. The first-fruits ritual is a Thanksgiving of sorts for them. It celebrates the first agricultural produce of the year being brought into the Temple as a sacrifice to God. We like this scripture and scriptures like this, to be read as we are finishing up our gardens and finishing the harvesting, as we are preparing and thinking ahead to our Thanksgiving, as it reminds us of the fact that all we have in this world is from God, including our lives. This passage of scripture is also a favorite when it comes to Stewardship Season within the church. The symbolism of bringing forth a tenth of everything in our lives to God is our celebration, the show of our thankfulness, our gratitude to what God has given us, and how we, as faithful children, recognize the Creator God who is the giver of all life.
However, we come to this celebration with different thoughts and ideas than those who first taught the People of Israel about the first-fruits celebration. We do not come with the immigrant background of living as slaves in a foreign land, escaping in the dark of night and being spared by the miracle of the parting Sea. We are not a people who wandered for 40 years in a wilderness, not able to enter the land God gave us because we were not faithful. So for us, this first-fruits celebration is definitely a more a symbolic ritual than it was for even the Israelites. This is our thanksgiving, a reminder and reinforcement within our lives of what God has given us. This is a recital of God’s providential care for creation, that even though the Israelites challenged God’s patience, God never quit loving them and gave them exactly what he promised them; a land flowing with milk and honey.
Through the centuries, God has never quit loving, and has always been giving. The question for us is how do we give thanks to God? How do we celebrate something as symbolic as a first-fruits celebration in 2016, when our lives are not centered on agriculture like the Israelites were, when we haven’t had to live through the insecurity and pain of not knowing where we belonged, when we, in comparison, live lives of luxury? How do we give thanks to God and be faithful stewards of our lives when we are nothing like these people who were first given the instructions of such a celebration?
We give thanks to God and we become and remain faithful stewards because God loved us enough to offer us the ultimate sacrifice which ended all ritual sacrifices; his Son Jesus Christ. Even beyond the lovely comparison and metaphor of sowing and reaping, Paul explains to the church at Corinth why God loves a giver who is cheerful, who is thankful, who is gracious; God loves such a giver because that giver has accepted the gift of grace which was made possible at Christ’s resurrection. Paul weaves together the threads of God’s love, God’s grace, and our reaction in faith and directly interlaces all of this in our personal disposition; our personality, and how we help others and what we do for others. Paul weaves all of this together as discipleship, as stewardship, and works on teaching the church that because of what God has sown and reaped for us, His Son, we as believers have been enriched in generosity, and such generosity not only acknowledge God’s great gift of eternity but also live with such generosity upon our hearts, and in our lives.
If we think about how hard we have worked to arrive where we are, as just people, we are likely to become stingy, because there something innately programmed into us to think that because we have worked hard and we deserve all we earn and everything we have. Unlike the immigrant in the article, we haven’t had to run and leave everything. Wanting everything for ourselves is how we think, that is what we want to do. Yet, what would happen if we looked at what we have worked for all our lives differently? What if instead of looking at how hard we have worked and what we have saved, we looked at how many doors have been open to us because of the work we have done? What if we looked at the people we have met who have changed our lives, how we have gotten to where we are because of God’s providence and grace, because God gave us the strength and ability to work hard? What if we would take a step back, and look at how the Spirit of God has guided our lives, that because of God, not our own doing, we were in the right place at the right time? If we look at ourselves as vessels of God’s grace, our lives are not lives of aggressive or defensive plays, where we manipulate the people around us to get our way. If we look at ourselves as vessels of God’s grace, our lives are responsive to the world around us and the needs of others. If we look at our lives as vessels of God’s grace, we are then stewards, disciples, men and women whose first-fruits are the top tenth of our lives, the tithe given, not in obligation, but in response, response to the blessings of God. The grace of God given to us through Christ demands a response; that is our generosity as it flows from us to others. That grace is our Thanks to God.
Today you all have received your pledge cards for 2017 and we asked to be cheerful, thankful givers. Paul teaches us that giving is a delicate transaction. God does not want our giving to be reluctant, or to have strings attached to it. God’s covenant with us is the unconditional love and grace that came with Christ. What God desires is our open, loving, thankful, faithful response. Our response is given as we think of God’s grace, and how we express our gracious generosity. Thanks be to God! Amen.
“The Church Across Time”
This morning, I would like to try a mental exercise with you. I want you to think back 100 years ago: This would be 1916, and to give a an idea of what to think about, Downton Abbey was set around this time, World War 1 had just ended, Wilson was President, 8% of the households had a telephone, and for us baseball fans, the Chicago Cubs played their first game in Weegham Park, which was later named Wrigley Field.
Now close your eyes, don’t fall asleep, and imagine this sanctuary in 1916. As a rural, family church, probably most of your parents were young adults, or children. For some of you, the generation would be your grandparents; maybe newly married, with no children yet. For a few of us here, our great-grandparents would be who sat in these pews. The church was different, probably a lot fuller than it is today, the fashions were different, church was a dressier occasion, overall, life was different. Think of the saints who have passed before us in this building, the names you placed on the banner, visualize where they sat, and think about how they inspired us, taught us, how they were examples for us. Take about a minute and remember. (SILENCE about a minute)
Now, open your eyes and look around at the saints who are still here, the men and women who still inspire us, who are still examples for us as we live our faith. Look around. For all of us, those who have died, and us who still live, are saints; saints are those who have responded to God’s call with a “Yes, I will follow”. Today we remind ourselves of those who have walked before us, we celebrate those who walk among us, and we anticipate those who will continue to walk in a faith journey which will exemplify peace, justice, love, grace, and joy, through Jesus Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit.
As we celebrate today, we need to remember the words to the Church in Ephesus, for they are words which bring all who believe, all generations of who believe, into a union, not only with Christ, but with each other. Christianity, the Church, is a unifying dynamic in our lives, both in the present time and across time; past, present and future. Unity for Paul came in his need to bring together the Jewish Christians and the Gentile Christians. Paul is insistent that these two factions of Christians, who are divided because of their past, need to come together as one, for Christ resurrected is the unifying connection which brings all believers together, no matter what their background. That was his message for his present time, and unity was a topic easier to write about, and talk about, than to accomplish.
So he turned to the past and wrote about the importance of having unity in the church, and how the past relates to the present, and how it will relate to the future. Paul writes that through Christ and in Christ believers inherit Christ’s resurrection. For the First Century, this message can only be passed on by word of mouth and through letters, and people listened to stories more than they would read. So Paul is bringing the church together through the telling of the stories, through the teaching of the faith, neighbor to neighbor, family to family, one generation to another. The culture could understand this, for this was much like how property was passed from generation to generation, usually no matter if one was a Jew or a Gentile. Paul’s end goal was to pass on to the Ephesians that they are the living manifestation, the exhibition, of unity in God through Christ. Paul refers to the past, but speaks to the present and future of the people and the church. He doesn’t dwell upon the past, but uses it to enforce the hope, the promises, the glory of what is to come. He writes about the inheritance of the saints, and how inheritance is given to the next generation, so this new faith, this new church is being passed on to the future, and through the power of God and faith in God, it will continue. This isn’t a letter about the past and death, it is a letter about the future and eternity. This letter, our scriptures, the Bible, describes the relationship between the disciple and the church for each generation. Scripture is timeless; as it spoke to the saints of the past, it speaks to us, the saints of today, and this message will speak to the saints of tomorrow.
For our faith isn’t about the past, it isn’t about death. Our faith is about the future. Our faith incorporates our past into the present; into everyday living through the traditions, the heritage, and the stories we have been told. We are inspired by the saints who have gone before us, those who sat in these pews and those who encouraged us in other places and timesthroughout our lives. And still through the generations, the faith that has brought us together and made us one is the faith that we have in Christ. The inheritance which we all receive from Christ is what brings us together, and that inheritance is faith through grace. This inheritance of eternal life is what Christ gives us as we come together and give ourselves to him. And no matter what happens in the world around us, this inheritance is and will be ours as we believe, now and forever.
The church has existed across time and will continue to do so. Even as we live in 2016, we are called to think about what legacies we will pass onto the generations to come. As men and women have passed the teachings of faith down through the generations, we have been and continue to pass our faith onto the next generation. The faith that we pass on is being offered to a world which is bigger than what we have previously known. We live in a global environment, where what happens somewhere else affects us and where what we do affects other countries and cultures. And Christianity is not immune from this global reach. Christianity is over 2,000 years old, and it’s not going anywhere; it’s not dying, it’s not even stagnant. Christianity is still alive and will always be a religious force which will influence societies and cultures and in some places, change the world. However, the future we are looking at will not be the church of our parents, or even the church we have today. It will look, act, and be different than what we are used to, but our influence will still be strong, our teachings will still be relevant, and our mission will still be to love all our neighbors, even those we might not agree with, as we love ourselves.
Every generation of saints have been challenged by the cultural changes in which we have all lived. Every generation has faced the reality that what is held dear can crumble away. Yet every generation has found the thread of unity, the thread of what ties everything together in scripture and in the doctrine of the Church, capital C, universal in faith, in mission, in hope. Christ, in unity, calls us together to follow him; as saints, that is what we do, and that is what we will continue to do, now and forever.
Let us pray: Almighty God, as you work within us, through your Word may we accomplish more than we could ever imagine. Bless us as we live out this message through the glory of the church and in Christ, who is ours for all generations. Amen.
“The Stories We Can Tell”
MCPC Oct. 2, 2016
World Wide Communion Sunday
2 Timothy 1:1-14
In my “Stay home mom” time, I worked with churches as they were preparing to look for new ministers. There was one church I worked with, where the mission study team was feeling very down on itself because they were an older congregation, and didn’t feel much good news or hope. Their dream, like most congregations, was to find a young minister with energy and children, who would then be a magnet for other families to join; hence their church would grow and all their problems would be gone. Well, as they worked through their Mission Study, they voiced this opinion more and more and were getting frustrated, because they just didn’t think they had anything to give when it came to welcoming a new minister, their gifts and church growth.
As the discussion went on, one member of the mission study team said to me, “What do we have to offer anyone? We’re a bunch of old people! No young person will ever want to come here!” After some laughs and headshakes from that line, I replied, “Yes, you are an older congregation, but look at what you can offer. What is a better gift to a minister and his or her family than to raise their children in a congregation of grandparents?” I went on to explain that my children were raised in a congregation of grandparents, and it had been such a blessing, not just to them but for John and me, for we watched them get cradled, spoiled, taught, and loved by the men and women who had more wisdom and probably a deeper spirituality than we did; we were tired parents, in which I included that ministers with small children aren’t always the best; they have no energy. I told them that even as our children grew up, and as their real grandparents were dying and not living close by, that it was the members of the churches who celebrated school achievements with them, and they were the people who my children wanted to show off their driver’s license and prom pictures to because these congregations had loved them and taken interest in them. I told this congregation that to be a “Eunice and Lois Congregation”, to claim such a ministry, was a ministry and a walk of faith that would bless them more than they could ever realize. They had gifts which had matured with them, and they needed to not only claim those gifts but use them to God’s glory.
It is for that reason, that I love the story of Timothy, how he was raised and taught by those who loved and nurtured him. He was blessed to have a mother and grandmother who taught him about his Jewish heritage, and his Greek heritage, so that when Paul came along, Paul could step in and share the atonement of Jesus Christ and take Timothy’s faith a step further. For Paul takes caring and teaching the Good News to the next level. Paul realizes that even with his letters, the faith story is just that; a story, a story which is passed on, generation to generation. We pass on the gospel to the next generation, just like Jesus’ message of salvation was given to us by not only our families, but by the men and women who taught us in School, and who took care of us in nursery and Youth Group; those who took an interest in us and shared their faith, wisdom and spiritual example with us as we grew up.
Now I am going to back up a little bit. We credit Paul with these letters, and even though there is data which questions this, for simplicity’s sake, I am saying that Paul wrote these letters. Paul is concerned, concerned that Timothy will be ashamed of the gospel; ashamed that Paul has ended up in jail in the name of Christ. In this concern, and with Christianity growing into a major religion, which made it a threat to Rome, Paul wrote of his concern that new believers, will take a step back and run scared because of threats or persecution, or prison, or death. As Paul moved forward in his writings, he declared Christ the way to salvation, and he also knew that for this message to continue, it must be shared; the word must get out to the world through oral communication; for at that time, oral tradition was still the most important way to share what Paul had to say. His letters at that time were just that, letters to churches or individuals. Paul knew that the message of Christ was one generation from extinction, and the only way this message would live was through teaching, sharing and living the faith. Paul needed Timothy to carry on, and in this letter, encourages him to do so, following the example of his mother and grandmother as they had taught him.
Now we know the power behind what a mother or a grandmother can say, how it can influence our lives, and how they will give us stories and advice that we will never forget. And for the most part, the women were the storytellers, the teachers, because they were at home with the children, teaching them as they made bread, did laundry, and took care of the livestock. These women were influential then and for many of us they still are today, and word of mouth is still the best way to learn.
Oral communication is still the best venue to share our faith. Books, podcasts, and sometimes papers, magazines, and occasional letters are still around, but, we all must admit, telling a person, talking to someone is the best way to share our lives. So, even in these days of electronic ways to communicate, word of mouth still rules. As word of mouth is still the best way to communicate, we still have a call to be the mothers, fathers and grandparents who pass faith onto the next generation. I am not saying that emails, tweets, and text messaging cannot get the message out there; it can and it does. However, what we do say and do does matter when it comes to sharing our faith.
We are called to tell people of our faith, to tell people how God has influenced our lives, to tell people how we rely upon God, Father Son and Spirit. Our calling to share our faith comes through us from the stories of faith which the Eunice’s and Lois’ of our lives told us as we came into discovering our faith, no matter what age. Faith stories and journeys have been passed onto us, and God calls us to share our faith with others.
We are called to be the ones to tell the story of a faith which began through resurrection, and how resurrection means that no matter what the temperament of the world is, the message of a new life in Christ will always be humming throughout the world; shouted from mountaintops, echoed in valleys, talked about in normal voices or whispered in prayer.
We are called to be the disciples, the teachers, the helpers who tell the story to our children, our grandchildren, the neighbor’s children, even the children whose names we do not know. We know that as people grow and move in society today, that they seek new religious institutions and traditions, so our call to be the story tellers of our faith is challenged, but never defeated. We are called to tell them the story and we are called to live the story, full of grace, hope, love, for and to all whom we touch in our lives.
This story includes the manger, it includes the miracles, it includes the cross and the empty tomb. This story cannot be complete without including the Table. The Table is where Jesus announced what God was planning for him, and how not only the disciples would doubt and deny and even run away, but how they would never quit talking about it. Jesus knew that even though things would look bad for awhile, the truth of God’s love would burst through the doubts, the fears, the political persecutions and emerge as this faith which would change the world, and not go away.
We come to this table with many theological memories; remembering that Christ did sacrifice his body; which was beaten, broken, and bumped off and that through the cup we celebrate the blood of Christ which raises us up, restored, and eternal. We celebrate this meal for it is a major part of our story of faith that we share with the world. We come to this table forgiven, healed, and in anticipation of Christ coming again.
We celebrate this meal before us, remembering stories of faith that accompany it; it might be the story of the first time we ever took communion, or that we tried to and our parents said no. It might be the story of the day the communion stewards forgot to put the bread out, or an elder turned too fast and dropped a whole tray of bread on the floor. It might the story of communion on the beach around a bonfire with Wheat Thins and Grape Nehi because that was all the leaders of the mission team could get at that point. We come to this table with our stories, stories we can tell about how and why we believe and we partake in this sacrament. We are Christ’s and as Christ’s we pass onto the next generation, this story, being the Eunice’s, the Lois’, the Paul’s and the Timothy’s sharing our faith, love, hope and grace in what we say and in how we live. Christ invites us to the Table, and we come. We come in faith, we come not ashamed but joyously, and in the name of God. It is our story of faith which brings us here; we come and we need not come alone. Let us pray. Lord, open our hearts to receive this word and open our mouths to share it. Amen.
“Ransom for All”
MCPC Sept. 18, 2016
I Timothy 2:1-7
Psalm 79 isn’t an uplifting, joyous Psalm which makes us feel good. We hear it and we cringe. Actually, we try to avoid reading those parts of scripture that are challenging, but scripture, as with life, is filled with the good and the bad. Lament psalms, like Psalm 79, are practically absent from Protestant worship, even though they make up approximately 1/3 of the Psalter. We like to hear the good news, the celebration and praise, the joys of God and Christian living instead of the sorrow. For a lament is an expression of grief or sorrow, a way to express the pain of a tragedy or disaster. As we listen to such words, those words may seem light years away from our experiences, but as we are flooded with news feeds of community and world violence, of natural disasters and war, laments are becoming more popular and hitting us closer to home than we like to admit.
Psalm 79 is often called a “national lament”, in which the full expression to God is given by the psalmist on behalf of the nation as the nation has faced calamity. In this case, historians date this psalm as the lament which proclaims the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple in 587 BCE by the Babylonians. This was a horrible time for Israel, they lost everything and were taken into exile. It is divided up into three parts; part one is the descriptions of the terror visited by the nations, reflecting the grief over the destruction of the Temple and the city. Part two is the psalmist’s prayer to God on behalf of the people. For them their foundation, their inheritance from God has been destroyed, they have been taunted by the enemy because it appears as if their God has abandoned them. They wonder how long God will be angry with them. The psalmist assumes help will come, they just want to know why it is taking so long. Part three which is the end, is the expression of the people’s faith in God.
“Then we your people, flock of your pasture,
will give thanks to you forever;
from generation to generation we will recount your praise.” (v.13)
After destruction, and pleading for God to come back to them, the psalmist closes with the promises that if these conditions are met, the people will praise God now and in the future.
If these conditions are met. This is an Old Testament idea but one which we cling to in our lives. Something in our psyche clings to the belief that when we suffer, God is punishing us. Some call it Karma, same call it fate, some call it Murphy’s Law, but for many of us, we have this inner voice which reaffirms in our lives that if something goes bad in our lives, it is because God is judging us, God is punishing us for our sins. However, Jesus died for our sins, he went to the Cross and was tortured and died, so our sins would be forgiven. Even as a New Testament Church, we still carry the Old Testament laws, history, prophetic guidance and wisdom around in our hearts, souls and minds. Then we, in our humanity, strive to blend the two, the Old and New Testaments, so we can try to begin to understand what God has planned for our lives, and how salvation fits into that plan.
For in asking most Christians in Western Culture, they will respond with the theology that salvation comes with strings; that it’s not unconditional, most Christians think Salvation is conditional. Salvation is ours if we play nice with others, it is ours if we live good lives; it is ours if we come to church. We think salvation is our reward for being good Christians.
But we have that so backwards. Salvation is our reward yes, but it is a reward we haven’t won, a reward we haven’t earned; it’s a reward that we have received only because we believe.
“For there is one God,
there is also one mediator between God and humankind,
Christ Jesus himself human,
who gave himself a ransom for all.” (1 Tim. 2:5-6)
A ransom, a payment, a redemption, that is what Christ is for us. That means that even when we suffer, even when we are in the throes of lament, we are not grieving because God has deserted us; we are grieving because something in our lives, something on this earth has hurt us. And in that hurt, God is still present; holding us, caring for us, weeping with us, because, in spite of what the psalmist believed, God never leaves us. Instead, God sticks to us and with us, even though in our pain we might not realize His Presence. This is what Jesus did; being human and divine, Jesus, was able to redeem humanity through his death and resurrection. That is a ransom paid in blood, in death, and in life for each of us.
Now, when we begin to believe and accept that salvation is ours first and foremost, that faith does come first in our relationship with Christ, then our works do follow. When there is no condition surrounding God being in our lives, in other words, when God is always with us, we love serving God so much that we take part in worship because God loves us and we want to share that love. As we accept what God did for us, sacrificing His Son, we want to show our faith and devotion in serving others, in caring of others, in helping others.
We do all of this for others, for all. This can be a challenge, but it is a challenge that we want to accept and achieve. Jesus didn’t just ransom us sitting here, Jesus died for all humanity, so we are to help and serve all of humanity. This means we are to pray for all humanity, and that is a challenge. If we are God’s people and give thanks to him forever, if we believe that Christ was a ransom for our salvation, then he was a ransom for all people, even those who cause us to suffer and lament to God.
We are taught to love our enemies, we are taught to care and pray for them all, however in today’s world, we find ourselves turning away from folks who don’t look like us, think like us or act like us, not caring if they are enemies or not. We can point to the sufferings of the world, events like acts of terror, hate crimes, and gang activity, and say that they are the reason why we turn away and try not to get involved. We can look at political ideology, social-economic statistics, and the fear of the unknown and say that we need to hold fast to what we know, and not let anything new threaten us. These are excuses that we use to not look beyond what makes us safe and comfortable.
But Christ gave himself for us, sight unseen, so we can give praise to him and to open our lives to all people, no matter where they are from, what color their skin, what their family background is or how they define their lives. Christ died for all; Christ rose for all; Christ is in all. Thanks be to Christ, the sacrifice and mediator for us all. Amen.
“What Pleases God”
MCPC September 11, 2016
Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16
I really don’t think we can sit here today and not think about the significance of today. By this time fifteen years ago, we knew that our world had drastically changed. Due to modern technology, we watched towers collapse, we watched a plane fly into the Pentagon, and we were hearing about a plane crashing in Pennsylvania on its way to Washington DC. We prayed for the victims and their families; we prayed for our leaders and our country. We still pray this day for these families as they still are putting their lives back together, for the volunteers, as well as the servicemen and women who have sacrificed their lives for our freedoms, still lifting up the active troops who are deployed, and their families. For some of us, the attacks on 9/11 were a flashback to Dec. 7, 1941, and remembering the news reels of ships burning and sinking in Pearl Harbor, of maybe knowing someone who died there or who survived. We hear our politicians saying they will change things, but we really wonder if violence, if terrorism can go away. It’s a lot like opening Pandora’s Box: once such violence is let loose, how can it be put away?
Even though we live in such an uncertain world, we do not lose hope. Even though we go about our day to day lives, enjoying life in our little corner of Virginia, we know that bad things happen to all of us, we know that there is pain and suffering in the world, and yet we are reminded:
“Jesus Christ is the same, yesterday, today and forever.”
Some might say that these are just words, but for us who believe, who shape our lives around faith in a living God, these are words of comfort for us. These words, this faith, is what we cling to when life gets bumpy; when life gets challenging, painful and dark. When we end up in that place where the activities around us seem to close in and want to suck the life out of us, we need to remember:
“Jesus Christ is the same, yesterday, today and forever.”
We need to remember that the Psalmist is correct: As God is with us we need not be afraid, As God is with us, nothing, not even death, can touch us. So as we believe this, we celebrate our never-ending praise of God in our daily activities, which includes our worship, our work, as well as our down time. As we allow God’s love and God’s Word to absorb into our beings, we are assured that no matter what, God loves us, God is with us, and for the most part, God is pleased with us.
“For Jesus Christ is the same, yesterday, toady and forever.”
Sure, we do things that God doesn’t like, we are not perfect people. There are times we are not even good people, but God is patient, gracious, and loving, unconditionally. Which is good for us, because we need God’s unconditional love, patience and grace to be faithful disciples in this world. We love to think of ourselves as God’s Chosen. We want to think that we do all the right things for God, but let’s face it we are human, and there is frailty and fault in our lives.
The Book of Hebrews addresses not only our faith and assurance in God, but it addresses our frailties and faults. For if we know and believe that Christ has not changed, that we have been the ones to change, then we can read parts of this 13thchapter, not with feelings of fear and failure, but with the feelings and the knowledge that whatever we do in the name of Christ is love.
For first and foremost, love must continue. This love isn’t one sided, it is mutual, together and equal. It isn’t to be abused or taken advantage of, this love is unconditional; we are to love others like God loves us; for Christ never changes. That scripture is the key here:
“Jesus Christ is the same, yesterday, today and forever.”
As much as we change, Jesus doesn’t, and the love Jesus has for us doesn’t change, so the example we have for love is always the same.
When we imprint that scripture upon our hearts, our love of others is mutual and continuous, even as we change and the world changes around us. Our love is strengthened through hospitality. When the church began, the Word of God was spread and shared by those who traveled, and welcoming such men and women was crucial. People were received in trust, in love, and they shared their love with their hosts. In that same love, we are instructed to care for the incarcerated. In the First Century, caring for the imprisoned was not a new thing, as many of the leaders of the early church were jailed by the state. As the early Christians had no power over the government, the people did visit and provide care for the imprisoned. Sexual morality and warnings against the love of money were themes which the early church supported as a means of following God. God was not happy when His followers disobeyed Him, and sexual morality and love of money were probably two of the quickest way to stray from God. As society had changed, wealth was prevailing, and many found themselves tempted in ways they had never known. As marriage laws from the Torah Code were still being followed, and as Jesus had introduced a new law, a new way, the people’s ideas of marriage, of women in general, were changing. Mutual love was a way to show respect, a way to care for others. So as love was constant among the people, they would have faith that no matter what happened, Christ was the same and Christ was love.
The ways of the First Century are challenged in the 21st Century. Our hospitality looks entirely different; our dealings with not only the incarcerated but the paroled has changed, sexual morality is totally redefined, and we feel that money is power, and what we must have. So as the world has reshaped how we follow God, how do we follow God?
We follow God by remembering that Jesus Christ is still the same, yesterday, today and forever. That bottom line keeps us grounded, keeps us faithful in a turbulent world, gives us hope and keeps us in mutual love with others. Even though we don’t welcome the stranger as our forefathers did, we still care for them. What we do when we donate to Kingsway, when we give our church offerings, when we pack school kits, is hospitality in the 21st Century. When we help people who knock on our door, or stop by here seeking food, gas money, or shelter is reinforcing that mutual love that solidifies humanity against wickedness. When we express the mutual love that God has for us with others, we show by example what mutual love is in respect to morality, in respect to equality, in respect to promises we have made in the name of God. When love of God and each other is the #1 care in our lives, we consider that what we have is God’s and we are just stewards taking care of it while on earth. It is them we live with generosity upon our hearts, and our love isn’t for our wealth, it’s for how we can make this world better.
We follow God displaying mutual love because we find strength, hope, grace and love in the belief that Christ doesn’t change. We are the ones who change, but Christ’s love is steady and gracious. This love gives us strength and courage to help others, to speak out for the prisoners, to follow God’s law and word, and to live trying to do as God so desires for us to do.
With our affirmation that Jesus Christ is the same, yesterday, today and forever, we are able to sing praises to him in all we do. We are able to surrender ourselves to the Living Lord, and serve God in all we do. We are able to love others as God loves us. And God finds our service pleasing. Amen.
Let us pray: God as we come to you unafraid, we celebrate the love you give us and pray that through your word we can find ways to share our love in word and deed. Amen.
“Out of Clay…”
MCPC Sept. 4, 2016
Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18
In honor of school beginning, today we will have an object lesson. (Pass out the cans of PlayDoh). I want you to open them and take the clay out. As you hear this sermon, roll that clay around in your hands, shape it, mash it, and reshape it.
Also, we have the lyrics to “Have Thine Own Way, Lord”, and I want to point out the first verse, “Thou Art the potter, I am the clay, mold me and make me after Thy will while I am waiting, yielded and still.” Now, in working with our playdoh, we can mold it, just like we are asking God to mold us in the hymn, making it into whatever shape we wish. Then if we don’t like it or we want something different, we can smash it, and start all over. As the hymn reflects, we envision that God can shape us, and this passage supports that vision, that ability to change.
However, hymns are written based on scripture and this scripture is about more than just us being molded individually; it is about the community of faith being molded. God is not offering this prophetic vision to Jeremiah so he can make it a personal crusade. This vision is given to Jeremiah for the People of Israel, the community of faith who has an eternal covenant with God. God is calling on the whole community to be reshaped, socially, religiously and politically, so they can serve God, their Lord and Creator, in a new way. So, even though we seek God to mold us into more dedicated disciples, we also need to look beyond ourselves, looking to how God molds and remolds our community of faith, so we can serve God in love, grace and vitality. This is a prophetic decree where community comes first, and our individual lives of faith follow. So as each of you have one can of clay, just remember, it takes all your clay together to serve God as God desires.
Jeremiah is watching a potter. If you have ever had the opportunity to throw a pot or to watch a potter at work on their wheel, we can understand that the potter has a great deal invested in their work. They are intent on drawing a useful vessel or piece of art from that piece of clay, and every turn of the wheel makes a difference in how that piece of clay is shaped. The potter has a vision of what they want their finished product to look like, and they are resolved in bringing their vision to life. In the same way, God is deeply invested in our common life as a community of faith. God does not allow aimless thinking or planning to damage the community of faith that he has created; be it the community of faith he led out of bondage, or the community of faith who has received the eternal grace of His Son. God is continually shaping His Children, remolding us for purposes that often exceed our vision and imagination. God is always challenging us as a faith community to grow, to change, to go beyond what we think is our congregational limits.
So, in Jeremiah, as God is invested in us, then, God is the potter, who controls the wheel and shapes the clay. As Jeremiah watches the potter at the wheel and listens to God’s Word, he realizes that God is wanting him to prophesize that God is the potter, the artesian, and we, his community of faith, are the clay that he can mold and change. This means that eternally God is devoted to His Children. Just as a potter begins to feel that the clay is an extension of self, God is the same. God is not indifferent to the community of faith; we are an extension of what God found to be good upon creation, and God knows that through grace we are good. God is overjoyed and excited that the community of faith, the clay, in spite of having times of wandering away, is always pliable, always able to be remolded as God sees necessary.
Yet, we don’t feel pliable, we don’t think of ourselves as flexible. We live a pretty set life, with a pretty set faith structure, usually without a great deal of change. It had been awhile since I had watched a potter at a wheel, so I watched a YouTube video as I worked on this sermon. The potter, as he threw the clay and molded it with his hands, designed an elegant candlestick. When he finished and turned the wheel off, he said that the hardest part of the whole process was getting the wet clay off the wheel without damaging it, so in this case he had secured a bat to the wheel. A bat is flat disc of wood or plywood attached to the wheel, on which he had thrown the clay. So he could just slowly disengage the bat off of the wheel and not harm the candlestick. Once it was off the wheel, he said it would begin to harden and then be put in the kiln and set. We know as with the clay in your hands, if we don’t put it back in the carton after using it, it will begin to dry out. As God shapes us as a community of faith, and there does come a point when we think, the shape, the future is set. In potter terms, the clay is shaped, and in seasoning, becomes set. That is how most of us think of the church, set in its ways, hardened and not changing. The Israelites thought that many times; their hearts were hardened and they knew exactly what they needed to do. Then God would intervene once again and their lives, their community, would be changed. Be it freedom or exile, Kings of Judges, their lives changed and often.
We are hearing that we are set in our ways but that God also can mold us. This is a little confusing, but both are true. Even though we think we are set in our ways, God has the power to mold us, to change us because it’s what God does. We need to remember that we are clay, God’s clay full of the grace of Christ and the power of the Spirit. Even though a clay vessel can be hardened, the power of the Holy Spirit is alive, living within us, allowing our hearts and souls to never harden, even though we think they are.
For most of us who sit in pews each week we feel that the Christian Church is pretty much set in its ways. We feel that the clay has been molded, dried, and glazed, and the only way it will change is by breaking it. We truly believe that if we haven’t done it, we can never do it. We might believe that God is a potter who can change lives, but trying to change a whole community of faith, well, that is a different story. However, nothing is impossible with God, especially when working with lumps of clay like us.
It is when we think that change can never occur that God is definitely our potter, sitting at the wheel, and through the power of the Spirit of the Living God, intentionally working on something new. As much as we really don’t want to hear it, the Christian Church is constantly being called to change, to be reshaped into something new. New ministries, new ways to share our faith, new ways to live as Christ’s disciples. And the bottom line is that we really do hate change; we do want to think that it’s only for politicians and wet babies; but God calls us to change as well, to be molded through love, grace and guidance.
As a church in the 21st century, we are being called to change. Unfortunately, we look at change as a negative part of life, something which calls us to struggle between staying in our comfort zone and being called to step out of it. Change within the church is constantly happening; people move, die, or quit coming. New faces and people appear in our pews. Ministers with new gifts are called to walk with us. All this is change, and each change reshapes our ministry, our mission, our purpose.
What we need to remember is that change is okay, it is what guides our faith as we mature. We need to rely upon the Spirit of God to guide us on how we need to be re-molded. When we accepted Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, no matter what age it was, we opened ourselves up to God’s continual seat at the potter’s wheel in our lives, lives of constant change. From God’s love of His creation and His children, grows the desire to shape and mold communities of faith whose ways of worship and life bear witness to the redemptive powers of God’s love and grace.
As each of you take home your playdoh, remember that just like the clay, we are pliable, we are bendable, we are flexible, we can be reshaped, even when we least expect it. That is the power of God’s love for us. God doesn’t see the need to break us, to make us change. God blesses us, the community of faith, as he constantly molds us and shapes us, to be his loving disciples. Let us pray. We pray that these words have been your words, and they are laid upon our hearts. Amen.
MCPC August 28, 2016
Matthew 6:7-14 (NKJV)
In our spiritual discipline, we learn to pray. Probably the first prayers we are taught are easy prayers, like “God is Great”, or “Now I lay me down to sleep”. They are simple prayers for meals and bedtime. But as we mature in our faith, so should our prayers, and sometimes that can prove to be difficult. Often we think of praying as just talking to God; I even have said to people that the best way to begin to pray is to just talk to God like you would talk to a friend, and that is prayer. Yet, as our faith grows, our prayer language also grows, and prayer becomes more than just a conversation. It becomes our way of calling upon the Spirit of God who is always present with us, to receive our innermost thoughts, desires and fears.
The prayer that Jesus taught to his disciples, the Lord’s Prayer, as we know it, is the prototype, of how our prayers should be shaped. Now we usually think of prototypes with inventions, but prototypes are patterns, models, which we use and learn from. So we take this model of prayer, and we learn from it. Even though we consider many of the Psalms, prayers, it is here where Jesus lays out how one should pray. As his Sermon on the Mount is his statement of faith and an outline of what he wants his legacy to be, of how Jesus is introducing a new and different way, Jesus is clear and concise on prayer, and he instructs all who hear and all who read how it should be done.
Now many of us would say, we know how to pray. Researchers publish studies on how much people pray in today’s world. Prayer is how we center ourselves, how we handle the pressures of the world, how we seek the will of God. It is a conversation with God, but it’s not an idle conversation, it isn’t a conversation in which we ramble and gossip, and just ask constantly for what we want. Prayer is a conversation in which we are seeking an intimacy with God; if we are upset, we seek calm, if we are angry we seek peace, if we are hurt, we seek healing. Prayer is more than just a wish list; it is more than just an “I want or deserve this” type conversation. Prayer is an opening up of our hearts to God’s Will, no matter what the outcome.
For the First Century people who sat on the hill side at the Sea of Galilee, this could have easily been the first time they had heard how they should pray. They were used to going in to worship and praying, praying the prayers they had been taught, and listening to the leaders pray prayers for them. This was their prototype, their example. Jesus was giving them their lesson on how to pray and what to pray as they were hearing about the fulfillment of the law, hearing about the new law that Jesus was offering.
So Jesus teaches them to begin with Adoration. In that day, Jewish prayers began with “Our Father, Our King”, however Jesus shortens that just to “Our Father”. The Jewish word for Father is Abba, which was considered a child’s word of endearment for their father, but also older children used it to show respect to their Father, reflecting the intimate relationship that Jesus had with God. With Jesus shortening this prayer opening, he is looking to the One who loves, forgives and knows how to give good gifts to his children. He is changing the relationship between God and the people; whereas before it was considered that only the holy men had this relationship, Jesus is saying everyone is able to have this intimate relationship with God; we just have to ask.
Then Jesus begins to offer language which is considered prayerful: the language of confession. This language is different than conversational talk. We don’t sound like this when we are writing an essay for school or applying for a job. We pray not only to show adoration to God but also to bring to God what we have done wrong, so we can then pray for forgiveness. God and God’s Name are hallowed, sacred, and respected, by the people not only in adoration, but also in redemption. Confession here isn’t just saying what sins are committed; it is a deeper expression of our emotions and convictions. We pray unison prayers of confession each week, with conventional language, asking for God’s grace. Here Jesus is saying that this confession is the deep sin upon our hearts, that would make no sense to any person who might hear it aloud, but it makes perfect sense to God, and grace is still offered. This confession involves surrendering to God so that God’s Will is the outcome, not our desires or plans. As this was a time when everyone was awaiting the Kingdom of God to come, this confession involves surrendering to God so God’s Will ruled and God’s Kingdom was the end result, allowing the people to envision some of heaven’s glory as they were still living upon earth.
Then Jesus offer the people a way to pray in thanksgiving. As the confessional part of this prayer emphasizes the relationship between God and the people, with the people recognizing that God is Lord of All, now Jesus takes their personal relationship with God a step further. It is now that we not only acknowledge what we are thankful for, but we also reconfirm our relationship with God by being thankful for what we have, knowing that God gives us just what we need. This comes in the form of daily bread, our ability to forgive, and our ability to stay out of trouble. These three areas are where the rubber meets the road in our lives. These are petitions, personal petitions that we desire from God, each and every morning as we set our feet on the bedroom floor.
The bread here symbolizes the everyday needs for survival. This prayer, for Jesus, was a way to call upon the poor in his day, assuring them that God would give them what they needed. For us, it means that we have needs, and we ask God to take care of those needs, and he does. God sees what we need and provides it. Now, as we know, often we have much more than we need, and there are those who have none. In this prayer, we are asking God for what we need to survive, but also if we are seeking life on earth to be like the Heavenly Kingdom, we are called upon to share what we have. As we often so admit, we have more than we need; here God is calling upon us, to share our extra with others. God is calling us to be stewards of our abundance, sharing not only the material gifts, but sharing the gifts of faith and love that God has blessed us with, with others.
When it comes to debts and debtors, Jesus is teaching us that we want God to forgive us as we forgive others. Wait just a minute…we just confessed a few lines earlier, and we can assume that forgiveness came with that confession. Well, it did, but this part of the prayer isn’t about us, it is about our relationship with God and people. This petition isn’t about the confession; this petition is about the forgiveness. We are praying, asking, that God forgive us like we have forgiven others. That paints a whole new picture on how we forgive people who have done us wrong or made us mad, doesn’t it? Jesus is teaching us that prayer for God’s forgiveness is unthinkable for one who is intentionally unforgiving. So our petition to God in this prayer is for us to be forgiving, for us to show grace to others like we would want God to show us grace.
Then there is temptation and deliverance. Since the creation story, there has been temptation and evil and our need to be delivered from them. We recognize that the world itself is full of temptation and the evil one. So we petition God to protect us, protect us from such testing of our faith and lives, relying upon God to lead us as we live in this world. Now Jesus isn’t referring to petty pleasures. We aren’t talking the temptations and evils that we joke about, like eating that dessert in front of us, saying nasty things to people, or feeling bad because we wanted something we couldn’t have. Jesus is talking about the displays of the ultimate power of Evil, with a Capital E, like thievery, murder, greed, lust, and hate. He is talking about the evil one who works against God, destroying people as well as creation. That is the petition we need to raise to God, help from God to resist such horrible acts of evil and violence, because we know that such evil is in this world, waiting for our weaknesses to be revealed, so it can tempt us.
Interestingly enough, the last part of the original prayer ends with the hope that God will deliver us from the evil one. That says a great deal of what Jesus was teaching the people. He was teaching the to rely upon God for everything. He was teaching them to pray to God for everything. Tradition claims about 10 different endings to the Lord’s Prayer, which reflect on this prayer’s usage through the centuries, and there are scholars who say the final doxology was added when King James commissioned his translation. The final praise to God for this prayer, is a reaffirmation of what has been prayed; that all we have and do belongs to God, our Father.
We like to believe that our actions reflect our faith, and when we believe that, our prayer life is part of that action. Jesus says not to be hypocritical in our prayer life, but to be sincere and true to heart. The Lord’s Prayer has been time tested and is still our lesson, our pattern, our prototype on how we pray. It is our expression of faith, admitting that we are not self-sufficient, but creatures’ fully dependent upon the Creator. Prayer is not a sign of weakness, but it is the stronghold in our relationship with God; a sign of genuine humanity; not something for emergencies only, but thankful praise that acknowledges our need and dependency on God. And God’s people said, AMEN!
MCPC July 17, 2016
A few years ago, New York Times writer Tom Friedman, wrote a column titled “The Taxi Ride”. He told of being driven by cab from Charles de Gaulle Airport into Paris. During the one hour trip, he and the driver had done 6 different things: the driver had driven the cab, talked on his cell phone, and watched a video, which Tom wrote was a little nerve-racking! Tom’s three things were, that he had been riding, working an on column on his laptop computer and was listening to his IPod. He wrote, “There was only one thing we never did: talk to each other.” Friedman went on to quote Linda Stone a technologist, who had written that the disease of the Internet age is “continuous partial attention.”
Continuous partial attention. We all are guilty of this and we all have been casualties of it. We are guilty of it because we multi-task. We are casualties of it because in our multi-tasking, we try to read a recipe and talk at the same time and the recipe just doesn’t come out tasting right. We are listening to the news and to our spouse at the same time…something doesn’t get heard. We look around public places and the majority of people are looking at their phones, not talking, not even looking around, or they are listening to something with one ear bud in and the other one hanging down, so they can try hear other people. Our ability of only giving someone or something our partial attentions isn’t just a disease of the Internet age, there is a good chance this has always been something which affected us. This makes us people who inflict continuous partial attention on others as well as being afflicted by other people.
When Jesus comes to Mary and Martha’s house, there are a multitude of interchanges occurring which climax with Martha finally fussing about Mary. Martha is doing what is considered proper; she is fixing the food. Now most homes in that day were not much more than one room for eating and socializing and then a couple private areas for sleeping, and the cooking was done outside. So Martha was in and out of the main room as she prepared the meal. Mary was at the feet of Jesus taking in every word, not helping with the meal, where the women of that day and time were supposed to be. So Mary is changing the rules of the game, allowing women a chance to hear Jesus first handed, instead of through the teaching of the men in their lives, be it fathers, brothers, or husbands.
But these are sisters, and even though this is the one time we actually see them together and interacting, I can figure that they are anything but alike. From the little bit we know, Martha is the rule follower and Mary is the rebel. So there have probably been many times when Martha was taking care of the garden, or doing the laundry, expecting Mary to be helping her, only to find Mary watching the bees gather nectar or the butterflies flit from flower to flower. There have probably been times in their lives when Martha had to call Mary “back to reality” because Mary was looking at the beauty of the clouds instead of stirring the dinner pot over the fire. So at this point, Mary probably doesn’t care what Martha thinks or says, so when Martha has her outburst, instead of directing her frustration to Mary, because she figured Mary won’t hear it, she directs it to Jesus, thinking that Jesus will put Mary in her place. Well, this isn’t good. First, Martha, by dragging in their guest into the argument breached the social etiquette of that day. Second, Martha venting to Jesus only makes Martha look petty which plays into the rest of the squabble.
Martha’s gift is hospitality, showing her faith through her actions of making sure that the house is in order and that the food is prepared accordingly and that everyone is served properly. Mary’s gift is listening and learning, moving away from her socially mandated role of being a second class citizen and becoming a student, a person who pays attention to the fine details which are said, and questions the teacher when she doesn’t understand. What we tend to forget is that both hospitality and learning are gifts, gifts needed for the gospel to continue. We need the gifts of those who display their faith through the actions of making sure the details are taken care of, the plan is properly executed. And we also need those who listen, who take the in-depth approach and can envision the larger picture, who ask the what-if questions which cause society to think, dream and see the world through new eyes. So we need the Marys of the world as well as the Marthas, because our faith needs to be shown through our actions, our hospitality and heard and taught through the students who desire to sit at Jesus’ feet.
What is interesting about this account of sisters, confrontations, and gifts of the spirit, is the reaction of Jesus, when Martha speaks to him about Mary. At first read, it sounds as if Jesus sides with Mary; that it is better to sit and listen than to busy oneself with obligations and duties. However, if we look at the whole account, and the fact that we need all gifts for the kingdom to move forward and for all people to find their place in their relationship with God, then Jesus, reprimanding Martha just doesn’t sound believable. And this is where the continuous partial attention which Tom Friedman writes about comes into the equation.
The answer which Jesus gives Martha has to do with the reality that Martha has allowed her discontent and irritation with her sister to override her need to also hear what Jesus has to say. If Martha had used her gift of hospitality with an open heart, she would have been able to also hear what Jesus was saying to the people in her house. Martha had the opportunity to be a student, listening but not sitting. However, because Martha was upset with Mary, her ability to hear Jesus was lost; she was too obsessed with what her sister was not doing to listen to Jesus. Jesus wants our full attention, our full lives to be with and for him. Since creation, God has told us that He is a jealous God, a God who wants us all for Him, always focused on Him, giving God our full attention, our full devotion, giving God our lives. This is why God gave us Jesus so we could be free from sin and be with God, this is why God allowed the Holy Spirit to come into us, so God’s Spirit could guide our lives. God wants us to be his, and he won’t share us with anything that isn’t good.
We live in a world where we get worried and distracted by many things, and often those things take our focus away from God. As God’s chosen people, we need to stay focused on what is important; listening to God in all we do and in how we live. Everything we do in our lives, we do for the glory of God, and because of that we need to give God our full attention, give God our lives. Mary gave her life to God, using her gifts to God’s glory. Martha, in putting her faith in God into action, has the chance to still listen when God speaks and answer. Jesus wants this kind of relationship with all of us, and when we stay focused on God we receive this relationship, giving glory to God in all we do. Amen.
June 12, 2016
1 Kings 21:1-10, 17-21a
When I wasn’t working full time, I occasionally tagged along with John for a bible study. One such bible study brought up the topic of grace, and John asked those attending to describe what grace meant to them. After some silence, an elder from Goshen, who was a commissioned lay preacher, now CRE’s commissioned ruling elders, spoke up and told this story.
“When I was a little boy, I had the bad habit of getting into trouble. For punishment, my father would send me to bed without supper. The first time this happened, I was laying in my bed, thinking about my “crime” but also thinking it was a long time until breakfast, and trying to sleep with my stomach talking to me. As I rolled over once again, my bedroom door slowly opened, and there stood my father with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. That is my description of grace.”
That elder passed away this Spring, but that story will stay with me forever, because it is a beautiful example of God’s grace in our lives. Just when we least expect it, God will offer His grace to us; God will pardon us, God will show us His eternal love. As Paul is working with the church at Galatia, helping them forge their way as followers of this new religion in a world where barriers existed and traditional views of God were accepted and held fast, there were questions, questions about who could and could not be a member of the church. Was membership defined by family, by heritage, by cultures, or was membership defined by faith? Those were some of the topics that Paul addressed when writing to them. He assures the Galatians that all it takes is faith and that a person is justified by their faith in Jesus Christ.
In today’s world, justification is what a computer’s word-processing program does to the margins, straightening up the words so they are in right relationship with the page. Justification is the same with God; He straightens us up when we are out of line, so we can be put in a right relationship with Him through Jesus Christ. Such straightening up is grace. Grace is defined as, “The free and unmerited favor of God through salvation.” And salvation only happens through having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, who died for our sins. Such salvation isn’t exclusive; all of us, Jews and Gentiles, may receive this grace when we ask God because God is always willing to give it away. Once we receive God’s grace, our response is to live in Christ, serving Him, following his laws and being a part of a community of faith.
This is an easy message to hear, but how easy is it for us to live it? We live with personal failures, people we don’t get along with, and events which challenge our patience and our faith. We live with what we think are unforgivable sins, grudges and guilt which we don’t forget. So if we aren’t perfect, how can our faith be justified and why do we deserve God’s grace? We are justified through Christ’s death and by our profession of faith, by our declaring that God is our Lord, that Christ is our Savior and that the Holy Spirit sustains and guides us, we receive God’s grace free and clear, and even when mess up, God still loves us and forgives us.
Now we hear this message, and we like this message, for it does give us hope, but then we think back on that Old Testament account of murder and condemnation, and we wonder if God’s grace could ever be present in such a time and place. Well the answer is yes, God’s grace is present and evident for Elijah and the people of Israel. Let’s look at that story. Ahab was a child of God who had been led astray by Queen Jezebel, and she was taking him down. For her, the overall goal was to take the children of Israel with her husband, turning them all away from God’s love, God’s protection, and God’s grace. But God’s grace overpowered her greed, which was consequently Ahab’s greed, and the final straw involved the murder of Naboth. As God reinforced Elijah’s faith, and let’s remember, Elijah had already confronted them and the Baal priests, and then fled for his life, only to hear God speak to him once again. So as God strengthened Elijah, Elijah then could face them again, this time with the message of condemnation and death to them, in punishment for what they had done, so grace would live within the children of Israel, whom God created and had protected since the beginning of time. The grace which called Noah and Abram, Jacob and Joseph, was now calling not the leaders, but the children of Israel to proclaim their faith in the God who walked with them in life.
God walks with us in life, offering the gift of faith which is filled with grace. There are no ifs, ands, or buts: Christ died for us: period. There is no sin addendum on the cross; no whereas, no supplements, no codicils, Christ died, Christ rose, Christ lives, and when we believe this, we are blessed with God’s grace. God’s grace is unconditional, joyous and uplifting; that is why we call it GOOD NEWS!
However what we find more than we want to admit is that the church, the universal church of Jesus Christ, seems to forget that the good news is good; we tend to focus on the bad news, on the sin and not the sinner, on condemnation and not forgiveness, on shame and not love, on evil and greed and not on love and grace. When this occurs, we become a people who are in the world, not of the world as Jesus taught. When we do this, when the darkness of a sinful world blocks the light of Christ which gives us life, the sparkling gem of grace becomes diminished or totally forgotten. When this happens, we find ourselves standing in judgment of everyone, except ourselves, and we want to close ourselves off from everything that is “out there”, instead of living God’s grace by opening our arms and doors and our lives to those who feel that they can’t receive God’s grace.
Grace is a gift for all who believe, and for us to believe, just as Jesus died for our sins, we spiritually must die to sin and become new people in Christ. This is a must, Jesus tells Nicodemus this and he tells his disciples and followers. Peter and Paul, along with the other apostles, also tell this as they are introducing the Church of Jesus Christ to the first Century people. We must die to ourselves, so Christ can live in us, full of grace and truth. Let us pray: Place these words upon our hearts so we may reflect the grace which fills our lives. In Christ’s name. Amen.
June 5, 2016
I Kings 17:8-16
A big part of our religious teaching centers on praising God. As God is creator, we give thanks and praise for what God has created, the gifts and talents which bless our lives, and the goodness which surrounds us. Interestingly enough, somewhere along the way, a sense of reality begins to set in, and we begin to realize that even though we are to praise God and that God created everything to be good, that there is suffering in the world, there is pain, there is grief, and there is evil. Then, as Children of God who believe in the power of the resurrection, we find ourselves sorting through this reality, trying to understand why bad things do happen, and we find that our faith becomes tried and tested. When faith is tested, we find as many different responses as we find people. Some will find their lives changed, but no difference in their faith. Some will find their faith challenged so severely that they turn away from faith, religion, and the church, in anger and grief. Some will find that tests make them stronger; that they hold fast to their faith letting it guide their lives so they can live. For its not surprising that when trials and tribulations occur, questions of why and how God would allow such things to occur end up outweighing our praise of God. Yet, praise is still a theme even in bad times; because it is the praise of God which helps us to endure the bad times.
When we are in search of scripture which will praise God and also offer the assurance that God is always with us, Psalm 146 is once such passage. Psalm 146 is considered the beginning of the Psalter’s final doxological section, which makes us realize that The Book of Psalms is more than just a haphazard collection of poetry and hymns. Many scholars believe that Psalms was purposely edited and shaped to tell the story of ancient Israel. The complete book is divided into 5 books or sections; book 1 beginning with David’s reign, books 2 and 3 moving the people through the divided monarchy and the destruction of the kingdoms, book 4 recalls the Babylonian exile, and book 5 celebrates the return from exile, and the rebuilding of the temple. As the destruction of the first temple by Babylon occurred around 587 BCE, this event devastated the Israelites. So, the Psalter was a way to remember the past and help the people find meaning in the instability of this time when they did not have a King and court, or a symbol of their faith and nationhood.
And Psalm 146 begins the last book of the Psalms with a doxology, a hymn of praise, celebrating that God is the creator of the heavens and earth and that God has brought His Children back to the Promised Land. As the history of Israel weaves them down a path which they have wandered from on numerous occasions, Psalm 146 assures them that no matter what happens, God always endures.
God always endures; those three words resonate within us, opening up our lives for God’s assurance, comfort, love, and grace. Psalm 146, lays out the examples of how God’s endurance shapes our lives. God endures, so we should not trust in worldly powers; we live believing that God and God alone knows how eternity will play out. We are told to put our hope in the God who endures, the creator, the one who helps the victims of society. We are told to believe in the God who endures, the one who can free us of the worldly bonds that restrict us, the God who watches over us and takes care of us, the God, who in the end, and in his own way, takes care of the wicked in the world. This psalm, which begins and ends with praise, has a core that call us to a faithfulness that frees us from this world and allows us to seek God’s will and work in our lives, rejoicing and celebrating as we do so. And we do so because we know that our faith is fueled in the assurance that God endures in our lives, and that with such endurance we will be just fine, no matter what.
This psalm gives comfort to the victims in the world. As many of us hear these words, we find that by putting our hope in the Lord our God, we receive God’s blessing and we know that God will take care of us. We know that God will take care of those who are oppressed, those who are hungry. We know that God will take care of those who are imprisoned, either by actual cells, or imprisoned by mental illness, addictions, abuse, greed or power. We are assured that through faith and scriptures, our eyes will be opened, physically and metaphorically, so we will be able to see the world and work to make right the injustices we witness. In this Old Testament Psalm, there isn’t the promise of what will come; the promise is that God is here, now and always, executing justice as He has brought his children home.
This sounds like the perfect world. But there is a problem there; for the world isn’t perfect. The facts remain: the hungry often stay hungry, the blind remain blind, widows and orphans are often ignored, jobs are hard to find; water and air are not clean, we live with military threats looming, and there are superbugs and diseases which cause death. And as much as we believe that God endures through it all, when we witness the world around us we are overwhelmed, and truthfully at times we have trouble seeing and singing God’s praise. This was a problem for the ancient Israelites, and it has been a problem throughout the centuries. It is a problem that we have inherited, and it is a problem that will continue, probably growing as humanity continues to grow. So how do we seek faith, assurance, and hope in such times of injustice, war and oppression? How does serving God continue when we see such hopelessness? How does the praise of God continue?
It continues because we believe and live in the belief that the Lord who made heaven and earth will reign forever. We believe that in spite of the world around us, God endures and our faith in God gives us the endurance to carry on, serving God, sharing the good news of God’s salvation, looking beyond this world and to the eternal life which is our reward. We believe in God, and God alone, not trusting in leaders of this world, for we can see where they have faltered, where they have come and gone, but the Lord our God endures forever. We rely upon the endurance of our faith because we know the rest of the story, we know that there is a new heaven and new earth waiting for us, and because of that, we await the coming of the Lord, not with fear, but with hope for we have endured, and we will be God’s Children. God endures and gives us endurance so we can heal, so we can be liberated from this world, so we can trust that God will always take care of us.
May God’s blessing by upon this Word and upon our lives. Amen.
“A Test of Faith”
May 29, 2016
I Kings 18:20-39
It is May and it is test time. Ask any educator, student or parent and it is time for the Standard of Learning Tests, Final Exams, Professional Boards testing, all to finish up and make it to the end of the school year, or to graduation. But not all tests come with graduation as the final goal. There are the professional boards, law and medical are the two which come to mind the quickest, which are taken after graduation. There are certification exams which can be administered whenever the course is completed. We have tests in most every field which measure our knowledge, our ability, our fitness, and they are just that, tests.
Today we are looking at one of the accounts of a prophet and people having faith tested. Now there are many ways to view this account of Elijah and the Baal prophets: We can look at the issue and temptation of idolatry, which entices every generation. We can read this and be appalled at the butchering of the prophets of Baal, which is reflected in the Deuteronomist writers within the Old Testament; the men who could not and would not deviate from the laws of God. We can interpret this passage as the test by which God declared his majesty and power over all people. We can use this as an example of the life and death stakes involved in the cultural disputes between different cultures and religious beliefs. Each of these ideas are powerful themes for sermons and would make wonderful sermons, but they would only touch on one area of what this biblical event really means for the Children of God. What this test of faith teaches us is that to be Children of God means that as believers we are not to despair when we experience God as hidden or absent; we are to trust that God will answer prayer.
As we look at that, let’s get a little background on Elijah, Ahab and Jezebel. Elijah was a Tishbite, born and raised in the Galilee area of Israel. A couple of chapters back, he just shows up saying that God sent him to proclaim God’s message. As Elijah the prophet, he became the thorn in the side of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel. Ahab was a King of Israel, of the line of kings who ruled over Israel during the time of the Divided Kingdom, and Jezebel was his wife, the daughter of the King of Sidon, modern day Lebanon. As queen, Jezebel introduced Baal idol worship into Israel, and God wasn’t pleased. Elijah stood up to them, announcing that a three year drought in Israel would be the punishment for such behavior. It is in the backdrop of this drought that Elijah comes to join the 450 Baal prophets at Mt. Carmel, to really prove his point.
Elijah comes and gives this group the same challenge which the Deuteronomists and Joshua issued centuries earlier, “Who will you serve? If the Lord, serve him, if Baal serve him,” and the test begins. The test is a simple test of a sacrifice to see which deity will respond. The test itself is long, the Baal prophets doing their thing, hours upon hours of dancing around their altar, calling upon their god, even wounding themselves seeking an answer. Elijah rebuilds a former altar of the Lord, symbolically using 12 stones for the Tribes of Israel, builds a trench around it and then does the oddest thing. In a drought, he finds enough water to saturate the meat and the wood. Then he calls upon God, simply calls upon God acknowledging that the people have lost their way and in this test they can be brought back to knowing who’s they are. Elijah’s sacrifice is received and consumed by God, and the people rejoice and bow down before God, the Lord of Israel.
The test, the trials which surround the sacrifices, result in bringing the people back to God. After being able to witness the power of God, the people respond. It is interesting that as God created humanity, humanity has become a complexed, erratic people. Over the centuries, we have developed a pattern in our relationship with God. As we worship a God who is all powerful, but invisible, we can find times in our lives when we begin to doubt and wonder, thinking that God isn’t present in our lives, that God has deserted us. At those times when we feel as if we are fighting our own battles and struggling to resist worldly temptations, it is at those times when self-doubt gets the best of us. It is then when we begin to seek security and comfort in wealth and possessions, influential friends and powerful people, and we, we walk away from God thinking that the “other things in the world” can do a better job taking care of us. It is then when we turn to our Baals, our idols, where we think we can find assurance and trust.
In so many ways we are just like the Israelites who had been living in a 3 year drought. As they had been seduced into thinking the idol worshipping god Baal would bring rain, we too get seduced by the glitz and glamour of the world around us, the newest religious theory, and possibly the newest TV preacher, we get caught up in the easiest way to get to the end product, and we forget to trust in God. Our faith is constantly, continually, tested by the world around us, by the people we work with and encounter in all sorts of places, and the ideas we read and hear. But at the same time, we are taught and reminded, not only with this biblical account of testing faith, but throughout scripture, that even though there are times in our lives that we have spiritual droughts, there are times when we feel alone, when we feel as if God has abandoned us, that those are the times we need to trust that God is always with us and is answering our prayers.
Elijah basically asked the Israelites if God was still among them and as they stand speechless, shows them that he is. We need to be asked that same question today, and occasionally be put to the test, so we too can see that God is always with us. Through the faith we have in a Triune God, we know that God is still among us and that God will act when we need a reminder. We know that through the Spirit of the Living God, we are never alone. That is trusting in God and trusting that God will answer all our needs. However, in this world, we still need and seek prophetic voices to guide us as we wander off God’s providential path, because we can quickly find ourselves lost. We need voices that can be heard over the clamor of consumerism and pleasure-seeking social narcissism, because those voices can get very noisy.
As it seems that we live in spiritually drought stricken times, we need to not be like the Israelites and stand speechless as we see false signs and hear false prophets, but we need to speak out about; speak out about our choice in following the Lord, speak out about the trust we have in the Lord, speak out with knowing assurance and faith that God answers prayers, and reaffirms our love through His Son, Jesus Christ who says, “Trust in me and you will not thirst.” Thanks be to God, in whom we do trust. Amen
May 22, 2016, Trinity Sunday
Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31
Recently, as I was internet surfing, I came across this “message from God” that shows His love and concern for you and I so beautifully:
I am in control. I am sovereign. I am able to make things happen the way I want them to go. Yes, I allow you to make your own choices. And I know you don’t fully understand how these ideas can operate side by side. But I’m able to work within and around the choices you make to cause My ultimate purposes to succeed. For this, you must trust Me. Ask Me about your choices and plans. My wisdom is yours if you’ll ask.
I want you to cooperate with My plans. When the people around you don’t do that, be assured, I am still in control. I will fulfill My plan. Their choices are their own, but I’m still in control. Trust me. I’ll use it for your good.
Your Heavenly Father, the King
This letter assures us that God is always there for us and that God will always seek us out, making sure that His plan is what eventually happens for us. In a world of competition, both secular and religious, it is a comfort to know that God maintains control of all that happens and that God will use it for good. Our reliance upon God is faith based on Wisdom, Wisdom, with a capital ‘W’.
If asked if we are wise, many of us will answer, “No” however, wisdom can be found in every one of us, from the youngest to the oldest. We all have human wisdom, call it our gut feeling, intuition, or life experiences, we all have wisdom, and such instincts or wisdom will nag us as we live, so we learn or are taught to rely upon it when making decisions. Wisdom often exists beneath our conscious, but it is there and wisdom is one piece of what naturally connects us to God.
Proverbs provides us a model as we try to define and seek the Wisdom which connects us to God. Proverbs is a different kind of Bible book. The Wisdom literature of the Bible is identified as Job, Psalms, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs, and each of them are different in their wisdom. Except for Job, these wisdom writings are just that; writings which seek God’s guidance and prayer; neither is there no particular plot or storyline found in their pages, nor is there a principal character in the books. For Proverbs, it is Wisdom that takes center stage—a grand, divine wisdom that transcends the whole of history, peoples, and cultures. Even in a routine reading of this magnificent treasury, we are introduced to the succinct sayings of the wise King Solomon, who wrote the book, and such sayings are as relevant today as they were some three thousand years ago. That is because the writings are about the Wisdom of God which has been active since creation and will be active in our lives eternally.
Interestingly enough, and it needs to be added, Wisdom, in the Hebrew language, is a feminine noun. In today’s scripture, I don’t know if you caught it, but Wisdom was referred to as ‘her’ and in other translations, Wisdom is give the title of, Lady Wisdom and Madame Insight. Some scholars claim this is merely a personification of one of God’s many characteristics. I raise this for two reasons: One: As we live in a world where God is often described as gender-neutral, and due to tradition, culture, and/or society, this is difficult for some to accept, it is important to know that in the original writings, there were efforts to describe beings associated with God as feminine as well as masculine. Two: As we read the wisdom writings, realizing that they are written in a feminine genre, it helps us to see God not only as Teacher, Leader, and Savior, but also as Parent; compassionate, and loving with a depth that has no end; God will do anything for us, including sacrificing His Son for our sins. Because of that, we need Wisdom’s presence and voice in our lives, and it is there with God. We need Her beauty, knowledge and integrity, we need her fresh perspective. Today, as we celebrate Trinity Sunday, we need to remember the wisdom we have, knowing that it comes from Divine Wisdom, and it is our blessing, given to us in assurance that we will depend upon it.
For, as I said, Wisdom is in all of us, and in creation itself. In today’s reading, Wisdom tells us that she has been active since creation, God’s helper as creation was planned and shaped. Wisdom is right smack in the middle of everything God does, rejoicing with each wonderful piece of creation that is fashioned. Wisdom is the creativity in which we rejoice and celebrate our faith in the world around us. But Wisdom doesn’t stop with creation; Wisdom continues through the revelation of the Word made Flesh through Christ. Wisdom is the lens in which we see clearly what God has intended for us; our salvation through Christ, as he lives within us. Wisdom is what reveals God’s truth to us through Christ, through Scripture, and through the power of the Holy Spirit.
One might wonder what Wisdom has to do with the Trinity of God, and the answer is that through Wisdom we can accept the mystery and majesty of a Triune God and surrender our faith to such a Deity. Wisdom is in God, Wisdom is in Christ, Wisdom is in the Holy Spirit; Wisdom is what offers us a celebration this day as we rejoice that God came to us in different ways to make our lives complete and faithful. God in His wisdom, designed creation so he can reveal himself to us in many ways, but especially revealing himself through His Word, His Son, and His Spirit, so we can call upon him not only in the darkness times of our lives, but also in the dancing, rejoicing and celebrations of our lives, knowing that God is there in control, fulfilling his plan and making it good. In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit let us receive God’s Word. Amen.
“Showdown at Shinar”
May 15, 2016 Pentecost
There are biblical times when there are showdowns: David and Goliath, Moses and Pharaoh, Elijah and Ahab, Peter and the Sanhedrin, Paul and about anyone who challenged the gospel. These are times when two opposing groups meet, one wins, one loses. Today we have the showdown at Shinar, a showdown more commonly known as The Tower of Babel. This is a small piece of Genesis that we don’t like to mention and preach on a great deal because this is a time when neither God nor humanity show their best behavior.
This story is at the most, God vs. humanity, and for that reason we don’t like to tell this story, for it comes off as God is on one side and humanity is on the other. These two groups have opposing game plans: one wants to build a city with a tower to the heavens and stay as one people, the other wants to sideline this project and complete the original plan of creation. So there is a showdown, a challenge of power, not that God overtakes and punishes the people, but that God, as creator, just has other plans for His creation. God breathes his Breathe, the Ruach, this same Breath which exhaled over the waters at creation, is now moving throughout these people, and with God’s love and blessing, changing their lives. God has had plans since creation of how He saw Creation unfold, however, humanity, through just living, has altered what God desired, and as the readers, we see this. This passage reminds us once again that not only are there times when humanity falls short and misses the mark with God, but there are also times when humanity takes action that run directly in conflict with God’s intentions, thus the showdown at Shinar.
So God, through His Breath, the Spirit, confuses the languages and with communication at a stand-still, construction is stopped and people migrate away, each with their own language and kind. Diversity, what God wanted for creation, is the end result. The standoff is over, and the world continues on full of different people, different customs, different languages, but still One God. This isn’t a punishment, but it is a lesson that gleaming cities don’t matter, towers to the heavens don’t matter; what does matter is God’s love and oversight of His creation. But love and oversight from God, God’s plan for his children, still didn’t become the plan that humanity thought needed to occur. In a perfect world, the people would disperse from Shinar, begin their own communities, and live in peace. That didn’t happen, and with these new communities and the diversities, came problems: the cultures grew in different ways, some communities prospered better than others, and eventually there were social classes, groups of people who were being overtaken by others with wars, and injustice was rearing its ugly head, clashing with the plans which God had intended for his creation.
So there is another showdown, this time between God, through his Son Jesus Christ, and the world humanity had made, a world run by a government who did not recognize this God, and who oppressed another culture of God’s creation, the Roman Empire. At first, in this showdown, many thought that God lost, Jesus died. Then Jesus resurrected, commissioned his disciples, and ascended into heaven. He lived, and again, God’s Breath, the Spirit, the Ruach for the Jews, the Pneuma for the Greeks, and Spiritus for the Romans, exhaled upon the people, again, languages are confused, but this time for a different reason.
As Jesus’ resurrection was the Pinnacle of the New Testament showdown, Pentecost is the continuation of this showdown, because God’s Breath entered the people. This group of leftover disciples gathered and God Breathed his Spirit into them that they would continue the ministry and mission that Jesus began. Again, languages were confused, and Galileans were speaking other cultures’ languages, a sign that this Spirit, this breath of God, was for all people, and that even with different languages, they could still be one with God, their Creator, Savior, and Redeemer.
In 2016, we are still Children of Pentecost and Children of Babel. We come together to worship God, but we are different. Ethnically, we all pretty much look the same, and for the most part we speak the same language, but we do have some differences: different backgrounds, different life experiences, different educational levels, different walks of life. Because of these diversities, we are children of Babel.
However, through Pentecost, we are renewed as Children of God. Where we are different, God calls us back together, allowing those differences not to be a hindrance, but to let them be an asset which brings us together in ministry and mission. Even though we are different, the Spirit of God makes us one, so we can all come to the Table, the Table which celebrates Christ in us. We gather as many, but as One, because through the Spirit of God, through the patterns of humanity, we will be called to face other showdowns; showdowns that will call upon not only our unity, but upon our diversity.
As we move on in the 21st Century, we find ourselves looking at many different ideas, topics, and hot button items, which can easily become showdowns between the world and the church. Some we can avoid, but some we cannot. What keeps us focused, what keeps us unified, is the Spirit of God that lives within each of us, and the faith that in spite of our differences, we are One, in God.
In closing, I want to offer a charge to us all. Today our congregation increased by 4 members, and being the Children of Babel, our diversity became a little more evident for us. These 4 young people, as well as the other young people in our church, are different than the rest of us; first of all they are younger than we are, second of all, they understand and live in a world of much more diversity than we ever did, and thirdly, they live in a world of technology, a world of social media, which has been and is rapidly changing everything. In spite of those differences, we welcome them into our community of faith; but we must realize that they will have new and different ideas because they see the world through different eyes. With that knowledge and recognition, I charge and encourage you, Macey, Maggie, Kelsey and Zach, as well as our other young adult members, to share those ideas you have with us, because the church is always changing and being challenged to grow spiritually. To the members of Mt. Carmel, I charge you to hear their voices and to listen to what they say. We all need to hear their voices, we need to recognize the gifts that they bring to this community of faith and that those gifts will be new and different, just like some of the ideas and gift you all brought forth 50, 40, 30, 20 and 10 years ago. Let us unify our differences through God; Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
MCPC May 8, 2016
For a final paper in religion class, Meg had to interview someone who, in her opinion, demonstrated great faith. She finally decided to talk to her “Uncle Ed”. Now Ed wasn’t a blood relative, he was the church member who had lived next door to them as she grew up. Ed was the Elder who had stood with her parents at her baptism; he was the one who helped teach her confirmation class. He was present for all family events, birthdays, graduations, weddings, funerals, and family reunions. Uncle Ed and Aunt Bebe’s children were older, and Meg and her other sister were in-between their children and grandchildren, so they were like extra children.
By the time Meg was in college, Aunt Bebe had died and Uncle Ed has moved into a home, where he had progressed from semi-independent living to the health care hall, but he still got around with his walker and could hear pretty well. So Meg went by to talk to him, and after all the “catch-up” conversation, they got down to the interview.
Meg began with the background questions, and moved into the core of the interview. Uncle Ed told her about his life in the church, what he had done, what committee in the presbytery he served on, and reflected on the friends he had made. As they talked, one of his answers startled her. The question she asked was, “What is your definition of faith?” And his answer was, “God was the best thing that ever happened to me”. After a slight pause, he continued, “God has been an active part of my life since my birth. Back in my day, church was it on Sunday, so we were there unless we were sick in bed. I came to realize that God was everywhere, doing everything in my life. God’s unconditional love has made me realize that His grace is always bigger than my sin, that God has been that rock from which I have shouted thanksgivings and praise in the good time and anger and curses in the bad. God has allowed the journey of my life and my faith, to never be dull, even though it hasn’t always been easy.” Then he grinned and added, “Bebe was the second best thing that ever happened to me where faith is considered, and I believe to this day it was providence that caused us to meet. I really wasn’t planning on going to that party where I met her. For me, Bebe’s demeanor reflected grace and faith of one another, on earth, and if God had not brought us together, my life would have been completely different. So God really is the best thing that ever happened to me.”
With her eyes full of tears, Meg wrapped up her interview with Uncle Ed. She had what she needed, information not only for a great paper, but wisdom and a new insight on faith in God.
We really do not have to ponder long on the fact that God is the best thing that ever happened to us either. We are assured this, every time we open up our Bibles and read. God is king of all creation, and Christ isn’t something temporary in our lives, he is eternal. Those are incredible things for us to hear, especially as Easter time is coming to a close, and in believing this we embark on a journey of faithful living. It is a journey that has ups and downs, switchbacks, and steep gorges, steep sheer walls we must maneuver around. It is a journey where we will witness beautiful vistas, sunrises, and sunsets, and we will get to stop and smell the elements of creation; flowers, grass dirt, and water, just to give ourselves a beginning picture. We are able to take part in this awesome gift from God because through our faith, God invites us to live in and with Him; as King and as Creator.
The proclamation that God is King is our acceptance of the invitation which God has placed within our hearts. When we realize that God is the best thing that has ever happened to us, we acknowledge Him, as our God and we place our faith in Him. When this happens, we can hear and read of the powerful imagery within this Psalm, and realize that God is right in the middle of our lives, the good and the bad. God is with us through the eruptions and the storms, the triumphs and the celebrations, constantly assuring us that yes, He is with us at all times in our lives, walking with us, protecting us, comforting us and even carrying us when we need it. Yes God is King, and we rejoice and give thanks that we have opened our hearts to him so he can walk and guide us in this journey of faithful living.
However, as God calls us to live faithfully within the world, we need to realize that this will be different for each individual, just like God created everyone differently, except for identical twins. For some, faithful living is interpreting the Word of God as a celebration of prayer. Christ spent time in prayer, seeking the will of God, as he sparked a belief in God which began a whole new movement through Jesus Christ. For them, being contemplative, prayerful, listening for the still small voice of God to speak is the way to seek solutions for all problems and concerns; poverty, war, discrimination of all kinds, even some illnesses and political strife. For them, the world is that other worldly place, but through their understanding of scripture, wholeness comes through peace, inclusivity, full surrender to God, that they may be used by God. We have seen this through the lives of Thomas Merton, Richard Rohr, Henri Nowen, and Mother Teresa.
For some, faithful living is interpreting the Word of God as a social gospel. Scripture instructs that change can only happen through events which change the world. Jesus was a man of action, challenging the social customs to bring change. For them, this means soup kitchens and food pantries, peaceful protests and marches, action and activism as the ways to get the word out there that society must change. For them, this is how God desires to get the word out there that the world must change. We have seen this through the lives of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Tony Campolo, Susan B. Anthony, and John Muir.
These two definitions have become polarizing within our society. We see ourselves dividing ethically, politically, economically, socially, and this isn’t how it is supposed to work. As Children of God, we also find ourselves being defined and what we think as faithful living being judged of criticized by others. Again, none of this is helpful when it comes to living as faithful servants of a God who is King of all Creation, a God whose grace is bigger than our sin, a God who made His Son the Sacrificial Lamb of God so we could live in a relationship with Him eternally. God didn’t give us this world for us to separate ourselves from one another; God gave us this world that all could worship and work together. As we witness more and more separation, we need to remember that God is the best thing that ever happened to us, and that we need each other, all each others, to serve God in this world as we were created to do.
As Easter Tide comes to a close, as we celebrate God as King, we celebrate Christ Lord for ages past, ages present and ages to come, we prepare ourselves to allow the Holy Spirit to guide us in to living a faithful life, however we define it. We recognize that as wonderful and as stormy as the world may be, God calls us to faithful living as a People of God, not persons of God. God lives in us as we are called to live as righteous people, as faithful children, together, in a world of moral ambiguity and compromise. For as Uncle Ed said, God is the best thing that ever happened to him, and God is the best thing for us as well. Let us pray. As You reign in our lives O God, may your word live full and true. Amen.
“On the Road to Europe”
MCPC May 1, 2016
Often when we travel, especially if we are traveling to a new place or a long distance, we make travel plans. Either through word of mouth, travel agencies, or a great deal of internet surfing, we look at where we want to go and what we want to see while we are there. We plan accommodations, we book flights and rent cars if needed. Now there are those who just take off with no plans and see where they end up. And as exciting as that sounds, having traveled with plans and without plans, well I personally go for the semi-planned vacations; accommodations and vehicles booked, with an idea of what is in the area worth seeing. That way there is still some mystery to the trip, but I know where I will be sleeping come nighttime.
That is travel is the 20th and 21st Centuries. Travel has evolved throughout the course of civilization, and as our grandparents, and maybe even some of us, would never dream of flying somewhere, today if we want, we can fly to the ends of the earth. And as much as travel has advanced, we know that travel in Paul’s day was much different. In seminary we have a saying that experts said that Paul could walk about 20 miles a day, with a sandal rotation every 10 miles. So as we catch up with Paul today, he has come fresh from the first general counsel of Jerusalem, he is ready to continue his missionary work. I even gave you all a visual today, (MAP) As you can see by the map, Paul took off for where he felt God was leading him, heading north through Syria, into Asia Minor, which is present day Turkey, re-visiting cities where he had already been, and picking up Timothy. Paul thought and felt that God was calling him to Bithynia (Bi-thy-nia), which is up to the north of Asia Minor, but so far, everywhere he had stopped there had been a luke-warm reception; Paul could tell the Spirit of the Lord was not there.
So as he continued to turn to God in prayer on where to go and what to do, and he ends up in Troas, the west coast of Asia Minor. There he has a vision in a dream to go across the Aegean Sea into Macedonia, modern day Greece, present day Europe. Even though this was the Roman Empire, at this time, no Christian, no believer in Jesus as the Messiah, had ever ventured that far from Jerusalem. Paul, Timothy and Silas end up in Philippi, where they begin searching for this man in Paul’s dream. (Map can go away)
Now, let me say a little bit about visions. In today’s world, we rarely plan trips on visions we have in dreams. Visions today are defined as strategic plans, where we hire consultants and have financial campaigns because we are building a new building or remodeling an old one, or we are asked to help envision a new direction or endowed chair in a school or a church. Visions for us are dreams, but dreams with a definite end. Visions for Paul were ways the Spirit spoke to him on where he needed to go and what he needed to do in the name of Jesus.
So with the vision to go to Macedonia, Paul sets his sights on Philippi, and on finding this man who was in need of the word of Jesus. So he initiates a ministerial plan. Typically, in a new place, Paul would settle in until the Sabbath, seeking out the Jewish Community to introduce himself and then introduce them to the gospel. This is what he does here, going to a place of prayer on the Sabbath. However, instead of meeting a man, Paul finds a group of women in this sacred place down by the river in prayer. Not exactly what Paul expected. He was looking for a man but instead found a woman; a woman who, again, not as Paul planned, becomes the first Christian convert not only in Philippi, but in Europe.
Again we find visions being an important piece to Paul’s trip to Europe. Visions from God were not strange occurrences in the First Century, yet, a woman cast in the role beyond just being property was exceptional. Throughout the gospels and Acts, we have read stories about the women who followed Jesus, responding to Him and to the visions which the Spirit gave them with the same faithfulness of their male counterparts. These women led the first century church with integrity, energy, and command. But these women were family; mothers and/or servants, they were women who had been healed by Jesus or Peter.
This new convert is different. We don’t know a great deal about Lydia, but what we do know is very different from the women who were already involved in the Christian Church. Lydia is a businesswoman, something not heard of very often in the first century, but this is Macedonia, a new continent, a very new place for the Gospel of Jesus to break new ground. Lydia deals with purple cloth, which is an extravagant textile only affordable by the wealthy and royalty. She is a businesswoman who made an impression when she met someone. Besides being an important and probably affluent businesswoman, she also was in charge of her own household; again, something Paul has never come across before. As the Spirit had led Paul to a new country, Paul was being introduced to new and different ways for the Spirit of God to work in new and different people. Lydia, a worshipper of God, meets Paul and opens her heart to listen to him. For Lydia, God uses a stranger, a foreigner, to bring her the gospel she eagerly wants to hear and accept. Lydia herself now receives a vision, which not only moves her, but her whole household to be baptized. This well-known businesswoman, who is in command of her life, now by receiving the Holy Spirit in her life has become a humble servant of God. Her actions reflect her heart and faith. Lydia opens her house up to Paul and his followers, exhibiting for us the gift of gracious hospitality, a gift which Paul used not only then, but many other times; a gift that we still celebrate today, as we graciously open our hearts, homes and churches, welcoming others in the love of Christ.
Hospitality to strangers is a change for the first century church, it is an opening of hearts and doors to all who hear, all who need, all who know they are missing something in their lives. This ministry began and was supported with visions from God. Visions from God are transforming; a vision sent Paul to a whole new country, affirming what Jesus commanded, “That we will be witnesses to the world”; a vision opened Lydia’s heart and home affirming what Jesus said about “Loving the least of these, and doing it unto me.” Visions are God’s involvement in our lives, involvement that we cannot plan or control. We still have them, we just don’t think about it or talk about it. But a vision from God is when God places us in that specific place, at that specific time, so when we look back on it, we are assured that the Gospel message was proclaimed, in word and or in deed, to those who needed it. Let us pray: Hear this word; place it in our hearts; use it in our lives. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
“Blinded By the Light”
MCPC April 10, 2016
Wayne entered the dining hall, a little nervous but also a little excited. He had just moved onto the seminary campus, and was one in the incoming class of 90 men and women called to the ministry. He took a seat at a table which had some of the incoming new class as well as some of the second and third year students. Everyone seemed relaxed and the meal progressed well, talk about where everyone was from, what presbytery they belonged to, typical icebreaking conversation. Then the question was asked of the new students, “What brought you to seminary?”
After a moment of silence, one student began, “I am here because after a bad marriage and never going to church, I ended up at a soup kitchen which required attending a worship service. I didn’t want to be there, but my daughter and I were hungry. I came just for the food, not to be preached at, actually, I was really mad that they were making me stay for this service, my daughter was getting fussy, it was close to her bedtime. However, that night, as I sat there and bounced my baby to keep her from crying, God spoke to me. I felt his presence at my side and I felt him come into my heart, and I was never the same again. After the service ended, I just sat there, with tears running down my face, and one of the volunteers came over to see if she could help me. We talked, she prayed, and then she introduced me to the minister. From then on, I was saved and eventually God led me here.”
Wayne and the other new students sat there when she was finished, speechless. Some of the upper-class students began telling some of their conversion journeys, and Wayne felt himself shrinking away. His story was so different. He had grown up in the church, his family was there every Sunday, dad teaching Sunday School, mom being organist and choir director. He felt that he was called to be in seminary, but he had never had a “conversion experience” like the one he had just heard; he had just grown up in the faith. He wasn’t sure how people would hear or understand his call experience, he was beginning to wonder if his experience was as valid as the experience he had just heard described.
Wayne was suffering from “faith inferiority”, something with which many Christians wrestle. It is attributed to having a conversion like Saul’s setting such an example of how God calls his children. The famous Damascus Road story is usually read as a description of the transformation which Saul of Tarsus experienced. And it is an awesome account of being called: the blinding light, Jesus speaking, and Saul ending up blind, only to regain his sight as a new person, but it offers a very high standard of what people think they must encounter to have a conversion experience. As new Christians, questions can rise within our psyche: Why didn’t this happen to me? Am I worthy enough to serve God without such an experience? Why do such conversions happen to some people but not others? Therefore, some people feel as if their conversion, their acceptance of Christ as their Lord and Savior, is not good enough, and this unease is called Faith Inferiority.
The Damascus Road experience isn’t about inferiority, for everyone one of us have a unique story on how God discovered and called us into His Church, just like God uniquely created each one of us as individuals. Saul was an individual as well, a Jewish leader who was “breathing threats and murder” against any man or woman who was believing that Jesus was the Messiah and had risen from the dead. He had already been persecuting in Jerusalem and felt he had gotten that city under control, and was now heading for Damascus. Now Damascus today is considered an enemy city to Israel, but in the First Century, it was an important Syrian city about 135 miles north of Jerusalem, and a leading commercial center for the Roman Government. Jewish historian Josephus, wrote that Damascus was the home to a large population of Jews. Even though we are aware of how Saul viewed these people of this New Way, we can also accept as fact that the Jewish Council had an interest in policing all the synagogues, so when Saul asked to go, the Jewish Council sent him with their blessings.
But Saul’s plans got interrupted. Sudden blinding light and a voice from that light can change anyone’s plans. As Flannery O’Conner says, “I reckon the Lord knew that the only way to make a Christian out of that one was to knock him off his horse.” Even though we don’t know if he was on a horse or not, O’Conner is on the right track. God met Saul on that road for one purpose, to introduce himself to Saul. This conversion isn’t about Saul at all, or about the flashy way Saul is approached. God is the main character in this conversion; not Saul, not Ananias, God, and God alone. The one thing that we know happened to Saul was that he was turned from a man who was breathing threats and murder on people, to someone who proclaimed Jesus, and Saul didn’t decide to do this on his own. It was God’s doing.
God changes lives, he has since he created the world and he will continue until he comes again. God comes to us and enters into our lives, through the most mundane growth of faith, as well as through the flashy, blinding conversion experiences, and everything in-between mundane and flashy. And all this happens because God wills it to happen. No matter who we are or what we have done in our past, God calls us to him, God forgives us of our sins, and God changes our lives.
We know this and we believe that God does change our lives, however, this concept can be difficult for us to accept. Look at Ananias, he was a disciple, one who had been called by God, and as much as he knew what God had done in changing his life, when God tells him to go see Saul; that’s a whole new story! But Ananias went and did what God instructed.
We aren’t that much different. We know we aren’t perfect, we know we are headstrong, stubborn, and sinful, but we know that we have been changed by God. Yet it is hard for us to accept and believe that “that person” who has done so much wrong within the world could also be called by God and made a new person. But that is the mystery of God’s grace in our lives, he even took a person as evil as Saul and used him as an instrument of grace. With God nothing is impossible, especially when it comes to becoming a new person. The issue lies with us and how we view God’s grace.
Often we are blinded to seeing God’s grace in others. It’s hard to believe that God could call, forgive, and give a new life to the murderer, the abuser, the thief, the alcoholic, the drug addict, the person who ruined our lives, the person who ruined the life of someone we love, or someone who tortured societies. But again, that is the mystery of God’s grace. Because we see them through human eyes, we see the worst in other people, and that blinds us to see what God has planned for them and how God will use them as instruments of reconciliation and grace. Ananias went to Saul, knowing who he was, because God had told him to go. God opened his eyes to see the new person Saul was. God calls us to open our eyes, our hearts and our minds to what God is doing and how God is calling new people as instruments of his ministry. God calls us to remain open to the new reality created by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, so that we too may be instruments of God’s loving grace. Let us pray. Open our eyes, O Lord that we may see how your grace and love makes us new. Bless these words upon our lives, so we may spread the gospel and build up the church. Amen.
April 3, 2016 MCPC
In John Irving’s novel, A Prayer for Owen Meany, the narrator, John, has a number of conversations with his friend Owen Meany about the meaning of belief. In one scene at the schoolyard, Owen illustrates his faith in God by pointing to a gray granite statue of Mary Magdalene as twilight falls. When it has become so dark that the statue is no longer visible, Owen asks John if he knows that the statue is still there. This is how the conversation went.
“YOU HAVE NO DOUBT SHE’S THERE?” Owen nagged at me.
“Of course I have no doubt!” I said.
“BUT YOU CAN’T SEE HER---YOU COULD BE WRONG”, he said.
“No, I’m not wrong---she’s there, I know she’s there!” I yell at him.
“YOU ABSOLUTELY KNOW SHE’S THERE---EVEN THOUGH YOU CAN’T SEE HER?” he asked me.
“Yes,” I screamed.
“WELL, NOW YOU KNOW HOW I FEEL ABOUT GOD,” said Owen Meany, “I CAN’T SEE HIM---BUT I ABSOLUTELY KNOW HE IS THERE!”
(John Irving, A Prayer for Owen Meany, New York, Ballantine Books, 1989, 451)
“Blessed are those who have not seen, yet come to believe” (v. 29b)
Owen Meany believes so fully in his convictions and faith in God that he doesn’t need to see signs or wonders, he just believes. Just like us. We believe even though we haven’t seen God, we still believe even though we were not at the tomb Easter morning to see Jesus resurrect. We believe because of God’s Word, because of what we have been taught, because we look around us, at the beauty of the world, the miracles that we witness and we are assured that God is the one who has orchestrated the symphony that we call creation, and has preplanned where our lives fit into this world.
But once again it is the week after Easter and we are called upon to hear the post resurrection account of Thomas. In hearing the exchange between Owen Meany and his friend John, we can begin to understand what Thomas was dealing with as he had this conversation with the other disciples. Thomas is nicknamed “The Doubter”, because he questions the return of Jesus. But let’s not pass judgment on Thomas until we have stood in his sandals. When he finally gets to the room with everyone else and hears what has happened, he realizes that he missed something important, everyone else has seen Jesus; The Beloved Disciple, Peter, Mary and all the disciples who were already there. Everyone but Thomas had seen Jesus. Now theologians and scholars have tagged Thomas as a doubter, and he was, but his doubts were there for a couple different reasons. Thomas demands the opportunity to be assured in a physical sense that Jesus is alive, but the question needs to be asked, “Does Thomas doubt Jesus, or the people around him?”
As Thomas voices his doubts, Jesus provides the answer. Even though it is a week later, Jesus invites Thomas to touch him. We never know if Thomas accepts that invitation or not, but from John’s account, just the invitation to touch Jesus is all that Thomas needs. This is where Thomas’ doubting is more than just dealing with the sensory issues of sight and touch. Thomas needs to see Jesus and have the opportunity to touch him to believe; he doesn’t trust the talk of the disciples, and that is where the doubting really becomes an issue. Thomas voices the need to see Jesus, and to touch his wounds not only for his own assurance that Jesus has been raised from the dead, like he taught would happen, but also because he has the human flaw of not trusting what others have told him. Up to this point, disciples have seen an empty tomb, Mary heard Jesus call her name, and Jesus appeared through a locked door and breathed on them; and every one of these events has been crucial to the disciples. Yet when they tell Thomas, he doesn’t trust what they are saying. He needs proof.
The doubting which Thomas experienced wasn’t from his lack of faith in what Jesus taught him; his doubts centered on believing what the rest of the group said had happened. Throughout the Gospel of John and Epistles which John also wrote, love and trust within the community of faith are significant expressions of the work of Christ in their midst. Love and trust are what Jesus teaches the disciples as the fundamental belief in how we are to treat each other, and he isn’t gone a week, before this is being questioned. Thomas reflects the opposite of such trust and love. Since he says that he won’t believe until he sees for himself, he isn’t doubting Jesus as much as he is saying that he can’t believe his friends. What Jesus has worked so hard to build up, is threatened from the beginning because of Thomas’ skepticism.
Thomas’ skepticism was not something new; most of the Jewish culture in the First Century was skeptical about this Jesus who could possibly be the Messiah they were waiting for. As the Christian church grew, the biggest obstacle was people who had trouble with the idea that they could believe in something they could not see or touch, unlike the idols in the temples which dominated the land. Such skepticism still lives in today’s world as well. People question the existence of God, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost; at times even Christians’ question what they believe and why. Skepticism is a human practice; some would say a flaw of faith, some would say a challenge for growth. Even within the church, we find a lack of trust and love for one another; questioning decisions which are made, feeling skeptical when something new is introduced, doubting that change will be good for us. It is then that we become Thomas, and we demand the physical, we want to see and touch and know the results before we begin. So, today as we hear about Thomas, we also can see his reflection in the mirror of our lives. As much as we want to point to Thomas, and call him a doubter, we all have had moments of doubt in our lives. We all have had times when we have felt the need to want to see those pierced hands and feet so we can be assured that Jesus did atone for us.
However, we are taught that faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. For Thomas, the idea of needing to see and touch Jesus had to do more with everything that happened after Good Friday and Easter. Thomas needed to see because he knew that the faith he recognized, was changing. Up to this point, the faith of this group of new believers was based on people seeing Jesus, touching and being touched by Jesus as he healed them and blessed them. There was a person, a physical presence who was Jesus of Nazareth, and it was his appearance and presence which drew the crowds, which threatened the Jewish Leaders and eventually Pilate. Decades after these accounts were recorded, when the last of the first disciples died, faith in a Living God had to be more than seeing a man who performed miracles, faith had to be not seeing the Son of God and yet, still believing. When there wasn’t anyone left who had seen, touched or heard Jesus, faith moved from physical to spiritual; faith grew into, “the conviction, the belief, of things not seen”. Where the disciples related first-handed accounts of seeing Jesus in action became the verbal and written accounts of what Jesus did, what Jesus said, and what other people said about him. It didn’t matter if Thomas touched Jesus or not, Jesus spoke to him and he believed. For us, it doesn’t matter that we cannot touch Jesus, Jesus has spoken to us and we believe. We don’t have to see him to believe in him; His Breathe and His Word are enough.
The Christian Church grew not because Jesus continued to physically walk upon the earth. The Christian Church grew because those who heard the word of God believed without seeing, and they told others. They grew in love and trust of each other to share their deepest faith, their joys and their fears, fighting against the skepticism which had potential to break down what Jesus sacrificed his life to build. As Thomas doubted his fellow disciples, Thomas also taught them that faith in God is trusting completely in God, surrendering to God’s Will, so that love and trust can be demonstrated in every area of our lives. God calls us to blindly trust and love him, because, we do not see him, yet believe. God calls us to blindly trust and love each other, because it is through such trust and love that God’s Word is shared and believed. Owen Meany has it right: “I CAN’T SEE HIM---BUT I ABSOLUTELY KNOW HE IS THERE!” Let us pray: As these words live upon our hearts, let them fill us and flow from us as we are your disciples. Amen.
Easter Sunset Meditation
March 27, 2016
John 20 is an Easter classic, right up there with “The Robe”, “Jesus of Nazareth”, and “The Greatest Story Ever Told”. It has everything; mystery, drama, narrative and the cliff hanger for a sequel. The mystery: the tomb was open, empty, and no one knew where the body was. The drama: three people close to Jesus and their reactions. The first one was The Beloved Disciple. He believed in Jesus with such passion that when Mary returned and told him that the body wasn’t there, he jumped up and ran to the Garden without question. The second person was Peter. Peter ran also, but we aren’t sure why he ran to the tomb; he had just spent the last couple days running away from Jesus. That was a switch. Could it be that he was curious, could Jesus really have risen from the dead? Could it be that now Jesus was dead, he realized what he was missing? We won’t know why The Beloved Disciple and Peter ran to the garden, but there is one thing we do know: the disciples got there, saw the empty tomb and left, they went back into hiding; but Mary, the third person, who was first there and went back to tell the men, came back and stayed.
Mary stayed, she stayed right there, in grief, in confusion, in faith. She inquired of those she saw, and she got answers. Jesus came to her, spoke her name, and she recognized him. Mary responded to the call of Jesus, the Risen Lord, and Jesus commissioned her to go and tell what she had seen.
This is the cliff hanger for the sequel because the story doesn’t end with the resurrection; that is where it begins. The resurrection narratives, all of them, are really commission stories, for us who hear them every year. The call of sending believers out into the world to tell everyone that death is not the last word, is what Jesus did when he called Mary’s name, and became known to her. Just think, if Mary had kept her mouth shut, no one would have ever heard that Jesus was alive, and Easter wouldn’t be a stand of eternal faith, but just a reunion, with tears and no hugs.
However, Mary obeys the risen Jesus, she fights her impulse to cling the familiar, to the body of Jesus, and instead, takes a step toward the unfamiliar, the sequel, the rest of the story. She leaves the garden to tell what she knows to be true, that Jesus is alive, Risen from the dead, just as he said would happen. She came to the garden before dawn, knowing what to expect, a dead body. In its place, Mary sees the Lord and she is now the key to a new beginning: telling others the truth about God’s gift of unconditional love.
We have the advantage that Mary experienced. We know that Jesus is alive and we know that Jesus calls us to go and tell the others. We know that there are many in this world who deal only in death, not knowing of the life offered us in an empty tomb. And we know that it is up to us to tell them about that empty tomb, to share with them the good news of salvation, to love them as God has loved us. Jesus commissions us to leave what is familiar to us and tell what we know, what we see, and what we believe. It is through an empty tomb and the Word of our Lord that we are commissioned to go and tell that Jesus Lives. As Mary found her voice, may we find ours and announce that we too, have seen the Lord. Amen.
“A New Thing”
Today Mary Magdalene takes her place in history. She has been in the background throughout the ministry of Jesus, she is mentioned as possibly being at the cross, but here, Mary comes into her own. As the followers of Jesus have gone into hiding, Mary slips out before the dawn breaks, to go to the tomb. She wants to and is prepared to enter the tomb and cover the dead body of her friend and teacher with spices that will make the decomposition of the body not smell as bad. But instead, she finds the stone rolled back and the tomb empty. This was not what she expected and suddenly her world was turned upside down. Resurrection has a way of doing that; turning the world upside down. God threw the cosmos completely off balance by raising Jesus from the dead. So for Mary, not only was Jesus alive, but she was the first one to see him. From that moment on, her life was changed, and changed for the better. Resurrection did what prophets predicted for centuries; resurrection gives creation new life.
The prophets had been preaching about new life, the people had been hearing about new life, wondering when they would actually participate in that new life they kept hearing preached. This section of Isaiah, Third Isaiah, was probably written after the Israelites were back in Israel, as they survived the exile in Babylon and were allowed to return home. At this time, this prophet talks about a new life, new heavens and a new earth, a New Jerusalem and a new relationship with each other. He is telling them that this is their second chance as the God’s chosen people of Israel, and that they have the opportunity in starting over to literally make everything new. This is an important message for the Israelites to hear, for the exile is the past, their actions before and during the exile are a part of their past, and their past is no more. God is offering them a new beginning, a restoration, a rebirth of their lives and a reaffirmation of their faith in the God who calls them his own. As they were experiencing this new life, they were rejoicing that God had blessed them and that they were being given another chance. As we read this prophecy today, we understand that Isaiah’s new life that he described to the Israelites was what Mary witnessed centuries later: Resurrection in the fullest sense.
Resurrection is raising people from the dead, what Jesus did for Lazarus and what God did for Jesus. Resurrection is not a word we associate with a prophet centuries earlier, it is reserved for Easter. However, isn’t resurrection all about new life? Even though for us, resurrection is usually associated with death, the new life that Isaiah is describing is a resurrection, a rebirth, a restoration of what God originally gave his children. And doesn’t Jesus’ resurrection also restore us, humanity, back to what God originally desired for his children? Through the resurrection of Jesus we are given new life, we are welcomed into a New Jerusalem, we observe and live in the new heavens and new earth which Isaiah promised. The prophet’s message is one of transformation; a spiritual transformation, as the Israelites once again reunite and rebuild their relationship with God, and a tangible transformation, that which the Israelites returning home can see, touch and physically do for their land, and for themselves. God is joyous that his children are coming back home, that they are beginning again in the land He gave them, and that they are coming back working hard to love God, serve God and heed God’s messages. For them this is a new life, a resurrection. God is giving them a new life in joy and anticipation of how they will again be his.
God gives us a new life through the empty tomb on Easter morning, and such a gift gives God joy and excitement, because God loves making things new again. God delights in creating new space, a new situation, a new life. God loves to take the old and just get rid of it, creating something new in His creation, in his gracious space and firmament. It’s a lot like what we see on HGTV, all those house and garden shows where the house is gutted, and when the owner come back it’s a whole new place; God finds joy when we can empty our souls and he can fill us back up as He wants, being our ultimate designer and engineer. Look at what God is doing here in Isaiah; He brings his children back to their land and blesses them as they start building a new life, a life full of praise and joy. This restoration, rebirth, resurrection has got to be exciting and joyous for God for his children are rediscovering Him and their relationship with Him. God weaves that pattern throughout creation, even with us. Look at all the new lives God created throughout the centuries; Abraham and Sarah, Esau and Jacob, Joseph, Mary and Joseph, shepherds, blind men, women with questionable reputations, 12 men who followed His Son, Paul, an Ethiopian Eunuch, Constantine, Luther, Calvin, Bonhoffer, and many more into the 21st Century including us; yes, we are given new life, we are made new when we accept Jesus as Lord, and that new life is one of joy, grace, and love. Such a new life is resurrection at its finest, all coming from the gift of Jesus Christ.
For us, Easter is resurrection at its finest. Mary finding the tomb empty, Mary having Jesus right there talking to her is the beginning of a new life which can only move forward and get better with each day. Not only do we celebrate our Risen Lord, and the eternal life that is ours through him, because of the resurrection we are issued the invitation to celebrate all things new, from the least of them to the greatest. A couple weeks ago, the weather turned warm, and we got all excited. We began looking at our flower beds, our window boxes, we began looking at seeds and thinking about planting. We did this because we got a glimpse of Spring, of the dormant earth opening up once again and sprouting new life. We witnessed buds bursting through the ground; trees budding new growth, and we were excited, joyous, waiting with anticipation for what was to come. That is what Easter is all about; new life, resurrection, restoration, accompanied by the joy and anticipation of what God has in store for us.
But Easter is more than anticipating what God has in store for us, Easter is about the action surrounding our new life that is based in Jesus Christ. For as much as the resurrection of Jesus turned the world upside down, Jesus didn’t just come to earth to create chaos. While here, he taught us about this new life and how to life into it which puts our faith into action the day after Easter. This new life in Christ is about putting down roots of faith and through God’s guidance helping those roots firmly grow and spread to other people. God does not give us a corner on the Easter market; such joy, such love, such faith is to be used and shared with others, through mission projects, through food banks, through taking care of our neighbors, through loving the stranger. We are given a new life to be used and spent and shared, serving to make God’s world a better place and God’s word the standard bearer for all. When this is accomplished, enemies will lie down together and God’s peace will be the reward. Thanks be to God. Amen