First Presbyterian Church USA 
Riverside Presbyterian Church USA

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July 16, 2017

How Well Do You Listen?

Isaiah 55:10-13; Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

Bob Woolf in his book Friendly Persuasion tells a hilarious story that former talk show host Larry King once told him.  It seems that Larry was a guest on a morning show in Dallas, TX.  The woman who interviewed him was the classic host who asks you a question and then looks off in another direction, not paying any attention to what you say in reply.

This host had five questions written out by someone else and she checked off each question as she asked it.  Larry noticed she wasn’t listening at all.  She was looking at the camera, at the monitor—anywhere but at him.  Her third question was, “What do you think is the secret to being a successful talk show host?”

As King started to answer, he saw she was looking at the monitor again, not paying him the slightest bit of attention.  So he decided to have a little fun at her expense.  He said, “In my case, it’s the fact that I’m an agent for the CIA.  They get me good guests and I [broadcast on my show signal words or coded messages] every night for their agents.”

“Without missing a beat,” said King, “she fired off her next question.  ‘Can you tell us some of the outstanding guests you’ve had?”

Larry King says that he whole crew started breaking up in the studio.

According to Woolf, the inspiration for Larry’s put-on was a classic routine by an old radio comedy team whom some of you may remember named “Bob and Ray.”

This skit featured a character on their radio program named Wally Ballou.  Wally would be on the street, saying, “This is Wally Ballou, world –famous interviewer.  Here comes a gentleman.  What’s your name, sir?”

“My name is Jim Frizzell,” said the interviewee.

“Hello, Jim, said Wally.  “Where do you live?”

“Long Island,” Jim answered.

“What do you do for a living?”  Wally asked.

Seeing that Wally wasn’t actually listening, Jim answered, “I’m an agent for the KGB.”

“What brings you to New York?” asked Wally without acknowledging Jim’s answer.

“I’m going to blow up the U.N. building,” Jim answered seriously.

The oblivious Wally asks, “Have you seen [the Broadway show] My Fair Lady?”  Obviously, Wally wasn’t a good listener.

Our question for the day is, how well do you listen?  If I asked your spouse how well you listen, what would he or she say?  If I asked your employees or your co-workers the same question, how would they answer?  If I asked God, “How well does [Joe] or [Sally] listen, how would God answer?

Let’s talk about listening for a few moments.  In our lesson for the day, Jesus tells a parable:  A sower went forth to sow, he said.  Some of the seed fell by the wayside and the birds devoured it.  Some fell on hard ground and withered because the young plants couldn’t put down deep roots.  Some fell among thorns and the thorns grew up and choked them.  But some of the seed fell on good ground and they brought forth fruit—in some cases a hundred-fold.

Now I believe that you will agree with me that Jesus wasn’t interested in teaching them or us about agricultural practices.  He’s talking about people who are exposed to his teachings—those who hear the message of the Gospel.  He knew that some of those who hear the word will leave having heard nothing.  Others after hearing him will make a half-hearted commitment and then fall away.  A few will be sincere, but when they get out in the world they will waver, then wither.  Only a handful will experience the joy, the new meaning and purpose that walking in his footsteps can give.

And the question is why more people won’t pay attention to his words?  The truthfulness of the Gospel message is so obvious to those of us who have trusted our lives to him.  The destructiveness of less worthy styles of living also is evident.  Why won’t people listen to what Jesus says?

Of course it’s easy to talk about the disinterest of the outside world, but an even more pressing question today is why those of us who are supposedly committed to Jesus don’t listen as well?  Why are we not more ardent, more adventurous, more assertive in our commitment to him?  What’s holding us back?  Why does the seed of the Gospel sometimes fall on infertile soil even within the walls of the church?  And so I’m asking you as I’m asking myself:  How well do you listen?  How well do you listen to others, particularly those closest to you, and how well do you listen to God?

Statistics show that most people don’t really listen very well even in the best of circumstances.  Even worse, we don’t remember much of what we do hear…even if we do listen.

For example, if I were to ask you how much you remember from my message last week…  You don’t remember very much, do you?  Actually, if the truth be known, I’m not sure that I remember that much of what I said either.  That’s why I tell so many stories in my messages.

Studies show that people remember stories, and I want to help you remember the things we talk about.  I’m sure that’s one reason Jesus used so many parables.  People remember parables…which, of course, are a particular kind of story.  Note this:  The Scriptures say that Jesus had much more to say than what’s recorded in the Gospels.  That’s understandable.  Jesus never wrote anything down that we know of—except when he wrote in the dirt as he counseled the woman caught in adultery.  Jesus handed out no lesson plans.  He spoke and he expected his listeners to remember what he said.  I’m certain the reason the writers of the Gospel included so many of his parables is that’s what THEY could remember from his teachings.  Stories stick with us.

Listening is difficult business.  The problem could be on the part of the listener or it could be simply the nature of the situation.

In Texas they tell the humorous story of an immigrant from the Middle East named Ahmed who managed a repair service there in the Lone Star state.

One day a man called the repair service and asked to speak to the manager, Ahmed.  “Hello, Ed speaking.  How can I help you?”

“Sorry,” said the man on the other end.  “I was calling for Ahmed.”

“This is Ahmed,” came the reply.  “How can I help you?”

“I thought you just said your name was Ed?”  asked the potential client.

“I did,” said Ed with a genuine Texas accent.  “However, whenever I answer the phone and say ‘Ahmed,’ people think I’m  saying, ‘Ah’m Ed.”  So I figured it’s just easier to be Ed.”

I could see that happening in Texas, can’t you?  “Ah’m Ed.”

Communication is a difficult business.  Listening is difficult.

But notice:  Jesus’ emphasis in this parable isn’t upon the sower or the seed but upon the soil.  Is the condition of the soil receptive to the seed?  God is the sower, the Gospel is the seed, and the soil is our hearts.  The most eloquent preacher or teacher in the world can’t reach the heart that’s hardened to the Gospel or the life that’s choked with the weeds of worldly concern.

Rodney L. Cooper tells about a woman who was frantic when she discovered he daughter was missing in the Rocky Mountains.  This woman thrashed through the woods, screaming her daughter’s name.  She went back to the campsite and called for help.  Within half an hour, a search team had assembled.  It began sweeping the area, calling out at regular intervals for the little girl.

The woman sat down on a rock for a moment to rest.  How would she ever find her little girl?  She was listening for her daughter’s voice, but all she could hear was the volunteer search team pounding through the woods, calling to her daughter and to one another.

Suddenly she decided that she and the other searchers were making so much noise that they couldn’t hear the girl if she was yelling or crying.  She relayed this information to the team and in moments everyone was silent, standing quietly.

The woman listened.  Nothing.  She listened harder.  Every pore of her body, every fiber, every muscle strained to hear the one voice she would recognize above all others.

Then she heard her little girl calling for her.  By carefully listening and following the sound of her voice, the woman was reunited with her daughter.

Sometimes we need to simply get to a quiet place and listen.  Of course, that’s a major part of what prayer is all about—listening.  We need a time when we can simply spend time in God’s presence.  Some people call this centering prayer.

Author, sociologist and outstanding preacher Tony Campolo practices centering prayer.  He says it’s hard to describe just what happens in this time spent exclusively in God’s presence.

He cites Mother Teresa who once explained to an interviewer that when she prayed, she often said nothing to God.  She just listened.  When asked what God said to her as she prayed, she answered, “Nothing!  God Listens!”  Then she added, “If you don’t understand what I’m talking about, I can’t explain it to you.”

Campolo says he knows what she was talking about.  The Psalmist described it poetically by saying, “it is the deep speaking to the deep.”  In another place, the Bible says that such prayers are “groanings that cannot be uttered.”

Campolo says that when he rises after engaging in this centering kind of prayer, he senses a fullness in his soul.  With that fullness there’s awareness that God is a living and guiding presence within him.  He feels like he will be led into encounters with others in which he will have opportunities to share something of what God has given him

One rather dramatic example of this took place one day as he stood on a street corner on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania, where he once taught.  As he was waiting for the traffic light to change, he heard the Duck Lady come up behind him.  They called this homeless woman the Duck Lady because she made an incessant quacking sound wherever she went.  She seemed to be omnipresent on campus, so it was no surprise when he heard her.  “Quack!  Quack!  Quack!”  There she was, standing beside him.

Then, he says, something that was on the verge of the supernatural happened.  He turned to her, and she turned to him.  Their eyes met and they connected.  With all the spiritual energy that had flowed into him during his morning prayers, he focused on her.  He didn’t just look at her.  He says he looked into her.  Somehow he felt empowered to reach down into the depths of her being, and he had an eerie sensation that he had touched her soul.  What surprised him even more was that she was doing the same thing to him.  He could feel her spiritually pouring herself into him.

She stopped her quacking.  He says he’d never heard of her doing that—but in that moment, she stopped quacking.  Then she lifted her eyes and looked around at the sky and the trees and the people nearby, and she said, “It’s  wonderful, really is wonderful, isn’t it?  It’s really wonderful!”

Before he could answer, the traffic light changed, several people rushed by them.  As one of them brushed the Duck Lady, he watched her head jerk ever so slightly.  Then she fell back into her schizophrenic state.  As she wandered across the street and disappeared into a crowd, he once again heard the quacking sound.  Standing motionless on that street corner, Campolo wondered to himself what might have happened if he could’ve held on to her just a little longer—perhaps a minute or two more.  Then, maybe, the deliverance wouldn’t have been temporary.  Just maybe, something more might have happened.

Campolo says that he understands the Duck Lady needs the help of a psychotherapist or a psychiatrist.  But, he writes, when the psychotherapists and psychiatrists have done all that they can to no avail, he believes there’s still “a balm in Gilead” that can heal the troubled soul.  That balm becomes available to him when, in prayer, the Holy Spirit saturates his soul.  He writes, “In centering prayer, something happens to me that’s strange and blessed.  I feel the Spirit expanding within me ‘like a fountain of living water,’ as Jesus said, and I begin to experience a transforming presence and a sense of empowerment from God.”

You and I may never experience what Tony Campolo experiences in prayer that is that intense.  It takes a real commitment to set aside the time to truly listen to God.

It’s ironic, isn’t it?  We will resolve to spend an hour each day exercising our bodies at the gym, but we won’t spend half that time each day getting our soul in condition spending time in God’s presence.

Jesus told a parable:  A sower went forth to sow.  Some of the seed fell by the wayside and the birds devoured it.  Some fell on hard ground and withered because the young plants couldn’t put down deep roots.  Some fell among thorns and the thorns grew up and choked them.  But some seed fell on good ground and they brought forth fruit—in some cases a hundred-fold.  The seed falling on good soil, he later explained “refers to someone who hears the word and understands it.  This is the one who produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.”

In what condition is the soil which is your heart?  It’s a matter of listening.

Let us pray.  O God of mercy, in Jesus Christ you freed us from sin and death, and by your Holy Spirit you nourish our mortal bodies with life.  Plant us now in good soil that our lives may flower in righteousness and peace.  Amen.

July 9, 2017

Like Fighting a Giant Tuna

Matthew 11:25-30; Romans 7:14-25a

Pastor Spencer Homan tells an exciting true story about the Great Tuna run of 1998.  The story begins with tuna running only 30 miles off Cape Cod.  What made that exciting was that such a run hadn’t happened in 47 years.  The tuna were not only running, but they were also biting!  It was a fisherman’s dream.  All you needed was a sharp hook and some bait and you could haul in a bountiful catch.

You could even make some money.  Rumor had it that Japanese buyers would pay up to $50,000 for a nice blue fin tuna.  Here’s the catch:  Atlantic blue fin tuna can exceed 900 lbs in weight which can be a problem if you’re not an expert fisherman.  And not every fisherman is an expert at it, believe it or not.  And some of these non-experts got themselves in trouble in the Great Tuna run of 1998.  Tuna are quite powerful fish.  It’s easier to hook one than to reel it into your boat, especially if you hook a large one.

So it was a problem on September 23rd, 1998 when so many inexperienced fishermen ignored Coast Guard warnings and headed out to sea in small boats.  One such boat, the Christi Anne, a 19-footer capsized while doing battle with a tuna.  Another boat, the Basic Instinct suffered the same fate.  And still another boat, a 28-footer named Official Business, was totally swamped after it hooked onto a 600-pound tuna.  The tuna pulled it under water.

Says Pastor Homan, “These fishermen underestimated the power of the fish they were trying to catch.”  Then Pastor Homan adds this warning, “That is what temptation does to us.  It takes us by surprise.  It looks manageable on the surface.  Only after we hook into it do we discover its strength, and by then it’s too late.  We find ourselves being pulled underwater.”

Pastor Homan is right of course.  Through the ages millions of people have been pulled under by the power of temptation.  For a light-hearted example, who hasn’t succumbed to the power of a delicious, moist, rich piece of chocolate cake—regardless of how hard we tried to resist it?  [Maybe I shouldn’t use that as an example this close to lunch time, but it’s an example to which all most all of us can relate.]

One lady I heard about was scowling at a friend as they sat in a small café.  “I thought you said you were counting calories,” she remarked.

Her friend, who was enjoying her second slice of chocolate cake, said, “I am… So far today, this makes 7,750.”

Of course, chocolate lovers aren’t the only ones where dieting is a constant battle.

A woman noticed her husband standing on the bathroom scale, sucking in his stomach. “Ha!” she said, “That’s not going to help.”

“Sure, it does,” her husband said.  “It’s the only way I can see the numbers.”

Of course, I’m making light of a problem that’s a very serious one for many people.  But I want us to be able to relate to these words from the pen of the Apostle Paul, beginning with the 20th verse:  “Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me.  For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me.  What a wretched man I am!  Who will rescue me from this body that’s subject to death?  Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!  So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in my sinful nature a slave to the law of sin” (Romans 7:19-25a).

Is there anybody today who’s ever done battle with temptation?  Some of us fight that battle every day.  And sometimes it’s like fighting a giant tuna.  We get pulled under and we worry that we’re going to drown.  It’s almost demonic how temptation works.

To use just one more illustration from the world of dieting, a man named Justin joined a Weight-Watchers group six years ago to lose forty pounds.  He succeeded.  He lost the weight and got down to a slender and healthy 170 pounds on the scales.  Almost as he reached his goal, however, Justin stopped watching what he was eating.  Pound by pound the scales sneaked back up until today he weighs twenty pounds more than he did when he began his diet!  Some of you know what that’s like, don’t you?

It’s a battle that many of us wage all our lives, not just with dieting but with life in general.  There are things we know we ought to do, but it’s a battle to motivate ourselves to do them, and there are other things we know we shouldn’t do—they’re destructive for us—yet we go ahead and do them anyway.  St. Paul cries out, “What a wretched man I am!  Who will rescue me from this body that’s subject to death?”

Can there be a more relevant passage of Scripture for many of us?  Doing good and avoiding evil is the primary battle of the human condition.  It means taking control of our lives and ruling our passions.  Have you ever had that struggle?

Someone once said there are only two pains in life—the pain of discipline and the pain of regret.  And then he adds:  Discipline weighs ounces while regret weighs tons.”

That’s true.  If we could only discipline ourselves in all ways, we could have a remarkable life.  The question is, how is it done?  How do we win the battle over our own desires and actions?

Legendary management guru Tom Peters understands this problem.  Most of us have a to-do-list, but Peters also has what he calls a “to-don’t” list—an inventory of behaviors and practices that sap his energy, divert his focus, and ought to be avoided.  As Peters puts it, “What you decide not to do is probably more important that what you decide to do.”  That’s an interesting perspective from a business guru, don’t you think?

Do you have a “to-don’t” list?  I’ll bet you do in your mind.  These are part of your value system.  There are some things you’ve already made up your mind that you will never do—cheat on your taxes, cheat on your spouse, commit murder.  Most of us could improve our lives if we expanded that list of “to-don’ts” and put them on paper.

Sometimes we call it willpower—or in this case “won’t-power.”  Did you know that psychological studies agree with Tom Peters?  They show that willpower is the single most important habit for individual success.  These studies show that self-discipline, or will power, is more important than IQ in how well students do in college

That shouldn’t surprise us.  Self-disciplined young people spend less time watching television.  They have fewer absences from classes.  They’re more likely to earn higher grades in their classes and gain admission into more selective schools.

Think about that for a moment.  So, you want to help your student get scholarships so they can avoid accumulating massive student loans?  Help your children to discipline themselves and you will set them on the path of lasting success.

But it’s not just true of students.  In all of life, willpower is more important to success than talent.

We all know it’s true, at all stages of life.  If you could make yourself do everything on your ‘to-do” list and eliminate everything that’s on your “to-don’t” list you could probably be a super-star in the office… or in your home… or in school… or any endeavor in life.  Plato once said, “For a man to conquer himself is the first and noblest of all virtues.”  The writer John Milton put it like this:  “He who reigns within himself and rules his passions, desires and fears, is more than a king.”

But how do you do it?  How do you rule your passions and desires?  How do you develop good discipline?  It’s like fighting a giant tuna.  How do you pull it into your boat?  No one can do it for us.  It’s a battle each of us faces each day.  St. Paul writes, “What a wretched man I am!  Who will recue me…?”

Experts tell us that establishing good habits is the key to strengthening either our will power, or our won’t power.  If you establish the right kind of habits, you won’t have to wonder what the right thing to do in a given situation is.  Doing the right thing will just come naturally.  Studies by psychologists tell us that developing good habits can become our “default” behaviors so that, regardless of the situation, we will act in an appropriate way.

Those of you who have computers understand about “default” settings.  For example, the font on your Microsoft Word document may be Arial.  If so, anytime you begin a document, the Arial font will show up on your computer screen.  If you want to begin your document in Times Roman, you will have to reset the font.

A default behavior is your natural way of acting—particularly when you’re under stress.  For example, some people when they are under stress almost always get angry.  Others get depressed.  That’s their default behavior.  That can change, of course, depending on who is around.  If the pastor’s visiting that day, you might use different language when you get frustrated than you normally would use.  You delay your default behavior until (he or she) is gone.  Every pastor has seen that happen.

According to these studies, we have only limited reservoirs of self-control.  So when we get stressed, tired, or otherwise emotionally or mentally preoccupied, our ability to will ourselves to eat properly, be polite, or any other positive behavior wanes and we resort to ingrained or habitual behaviors.  Some of these behaviors aren’t in our best interest.  We’ll overeat or go on shopping sprees, for example.

But there are other behaviors that we can default to under stress that are in our best good, if we have established the right habits.  The researchers surveyed college students and found that when the students were tired or stressed, such as during final exams, they would default to good behaviors or bad behaviors, depending on their habits.

For example, students who habitually ate a healthy breakfast every morning continued to do so through exam week, while students who routinely ate junk food ate even larger quantities of junk food through exam week.  Do you see, whatever you have established as a habit is the behavior you will resort to in times of stress.  If we want to guard against giving in to our “to-don’ts,” the secret is to set up new healthy habits.

This was part of the secret of the success of NFL coach Tony Dungy, one of the most respected figures in professional athletics.  He was famous for helping the players on his teams to form the right habits.  “Champions don’t do extraordinary things,” Dungy explained.  “They do ordinary things, but they do them without thinking, too fast for the other team to react.  They follow the habits they’ve learned.”

That’s true in athletics and it’s true in life.  Create healthy habits and you will create a healthy life.  It will be easier if you start when you’re young—and that’s why it’s important for parents to help their children establish positive habits, but it’s never too late.  Even if it’s a simple matter of substituting an hour each day with a long walk rather than sitting in front of the TV, the more good habits you establish the easier it will be to substitute “to-dos” for “to-don’ts.”  But still it won’t be easy.  St. Paul writes, “What a wretched man I am!  Who will rescue me…?”

But then he writes, “Thank be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!”  This is to say there’s help for us in the battle.  We’re not alone, just as St. Paul wasn’t alone.  We have someone who will come along side us and help us with our struggle in our battle with temptation.  This is where prayer is all-important.  Prayer isn’t simply a matter of spending a few moments every day making your requests to God.  Prayer is also a matter of spending time each day listening for God to speak to us about our lives.

There’s a story told of a pastor named Carter Jones.  Jones had a small room in the attic that he used as a place of prayer.  When he was especially burdened, he would make his way up the winding staircase to that room to spend quiet moments with God.  The members of his family knew that when he went to the attic room, they weren’t to bother him.

One day he climbed the stairs and knelt beside a chair to pray.  He had hardly started when the door swung open.  There stood his little girl.  The moment his eyes met hers, she knew she had done wrong.  She said, “Daddy, you’ve been so busy lately I haven’t seen you much.  And I just wanted to tell you that I love you.”  And with that she threw her arms around her father’s neck, gave him a big hug, wheeled around, and was gone as quickly as she had come.

When she was gone, Carter Jones continued in prayer.  “Father,” he said, “I’ve been so busy lately that I haven’t had much time for you.  I just want to tell you again that I love you.”

It’s amazing how much strength we gain for our battle with temptation when we spend time every day simply basking in the light of God’s love.

Life doesn’t have to be like a constant battle to land a giant tuna.  We have a Friend who wants to help us in the battle.  Developing strong willpower or won’t-power will help.  Developing good habits would be even better.  But spending time in God’s presence and asking for His help in the battle is the best help of all.

Let us pray.  We rejoice, O Christ, for in your tender compassion you shoulder our burdens and ease our heavy hearts.  Give us the strength to carry each other as you have carried us.  Amen.

June 25, 2017

How Much Are You Worth?

Genesis 21:14-21; Matthew 10:29-31

A large train pulled by two engines was making its way across America.  While crossing the Western mountains, one of the engines broke down.

“No problem, we can make it to Denver and get a replacement engine there,” the engineer thought, and carried on at half power.

Farther on down the line, the other engine broke down, and the train came to a standstill in the middle of nowhere.

The engineer needed to inform the passengers about why the train had stopped.  He didn’t want the passengers to get too upset and so he tried to look on the bright side of things.  He made the following announcement:  “Ladies and gentlemen, I have some good news and some bad news.  The bad news is that both engines have failed, and we will be stuck here for some time until the additional engines arrive.  The good news is that you didn’t make this trip in an airplane!”

Well, that would be good news under the circumstances.  If you’re going to lose your engines, better to do it on a train and not on a plane.  But I have some even better news for you today.  God’s love for you and me is intimate and it’s unimaginable.

In our lesson from Matthew this morning we have one of the most important Scriptural reminders of the love of our Heavenly Father for His children.  It tells us how far reaching God’s love is:  “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny?” asked Jesus.  “Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care.  And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered.  So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.”  What a moving testimony to the very intimate love that God has for each of us.

A second grader once asked his teacher how much the earth weighed.  The teacher looked up the answer on the Internet.  “One thousand trillion metric tons,” she answered.

The little boy thought for a minute and then asked, “Is that with or without people?”

Viewed from one perspective, it might very well seem that people don’t really matter very much in the grand scheme of things.  After all, we’re but microscopic inhabitants of a somewhat miniscule planet orbiting a relatively obscure star in a small galaxy among the billions and billions of stars and galaxies that make up creation.

Yet the God of creation has counted the very hairs of our heads.  Wow!  What a magnificent picture of the love of our Heavenly Father.

But wait.  There’s a troubling side to Jesus’ teaching about the sparrows, and it has to do with those two engines that failed on that train:  “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny?” asked Jesus.  “Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care.”

This text acknowledges that sparrows do fall from the sky.  It happens all the time.  Jets suck them up in their engines.  Predators prey upon their young.  Sudden storms or droughts can deprive them of their food.

God’s love doesn’t protect those tiny sparrows from life’s tragedies.  Neither does it protect us.  Engines have been known to fail on trains as well as planes, and it makes no difference in the world how many Christians were on those vehicles of transportation.

Mature Christians realize this truth, but there are many preachers who speak of Christianity as the path to ease and prosperity in our society that the point needs to be made.  It’s a troubling truth but its truth.  Sparrows, innocent sparrows, do fall.

Thornton Wilder dealt with this hard truth in a story titled, The Bridge of San Luis Rey.  A village has been hard hit by pestilence.  A priest, Brother Juniper, tries to understand the meaning, if any, of this tragedy.  He draws up a chart of the characteristics of fifteen victims of this pestilence and fifteen survivors, rating them for such qualities as goodness, piety, and usefulness.

When he adds up the total for the victims and compares them with that for the survivors, his figures show that the tragically dead were five times more worth saving than those who lived through the pestilence.  This unexpected result causes Brother Juniper great distress of mind.

And it causes us much distress as well.  God’s love doesn’t protect us from life’s problems.  It’s the most difficult dilemma that Christians face.  Why do the righteous suffer?  There’s a common phrase:  only the good die young.  Scoundrels seem to go on forever.  That’s not always true, of course, but that’s sometimes how it seems.  Why in Heaven’s name, should that be so?

One answer may come from ordinary family life.  Those of you who are parents, let me ask you a question.  Would you protect your young from all of life’s problems if you could?  Without thinking many of us might answer yes.  And it would be tempting.  Deep in our hearts we would like to build a protective bubble around our children.  After all when they hurt, we hurt.  When someone abuses them, it’s we who are angry.  When they’re confronting a crisis, it’s we who toss and turn in our beds with sleeplessness.  We would like to protect our young from any and every hurt.

But what would happen if we did?  They would never grow into responsible, competent, mature adults.  Overcoming obstacles produces character and competence.

God has placed us in a world that’s designed to bring out the best within us if we deal with life in an attitude of faith and love.  That doesn’t mean that God has forsaken us or forgotten us.  It simply means this world is a training school designed to produce souls fit to share eternity with Him.  Sparrows do fall from the sky.

There’s a second truth related to this one.  God’s love doesn’t protect us from life’s problems, but neither are life’s problems God’s punishment for our sins.

This truth is made obvious in the book of Job.  Job was a wealthy man living in a land called Uz with his large family and extensive flocks.  He was “blameless” and “upright.”  Yet God allowed Satan to torment Job to test his faith.  You know how the story goes.  Job’s livestock, servants, and ten children all die due either to marauding invaders or natural catastrophes.  When all this happens to Job he tears his clothes and shaves his head in mourning, but he still blesses God in his prayers.

Then, on top of all this, he’s afflicted with horrible skin sores.  His wife encourages him to curse God and to give up and die.  Job refuses.  Job curses the day he was born, but he refuses to curse God.  Three of Job’s friends come to visit him.  A big help they are.  They accuse him of deserving his wretched condition.  But Job knows he has been a righteous man and he believes that his redeemer lives.  He refuses to give up, and the result is that Job’s faith is finally vindicated and God blesses him more than before.

The book of Job still leaves many questions unanswered, but it’s a mighty affirmation that adversity doesn’t come as a punishment from God for our sins.

Jesus’ disciples were undoubtedly familiar with the book of Job, yet when they saw a blind man begging on the street, they asked Jesus, “Who sinned that he should be in this condition?”

How often people blame themselves, and ultimately blame God, when life deals them a difficult blow.  “God must be using my child’s sickness to punish me for some sin,” we hear someone say.  What a petty God they must have—to injure a helpless child in order to punish that child’s parent.  No, a thousand times no!  Grief is tragic enough without adding to it the crushing burden of guilt.

Here’s where our theology of the cross of Christ becomes critical.  You and I live under the rule of Grace.  That is, we believe that something happened on the cross of Calvary that has forever changed the relationship between God and humanity.  Because of what happened there, the believer in Christ has all his or her sins forgiven.

Now to be sure, as free moral agents living in a lawful world we have to live with the consequences of our misdoings.  If I abuse my body, sooner or later it will catch up with me.  If I cheat on my income taxes, Uncle Sam may punish me.  In terms of my relationship with God, however, those sins are buried at the bottom of the deepest sea never to surface again.  They’re gone forever.  If you believe that Christ has atoned for your sins, you can’t believe that God is using some adverse circumstance to punish you.  The two are mutually exclusive.

There’s a story about actor Henry Fonda that can help us here.  Fonda’s father disagreed with his son’s decision to become an actor.  Only grudgingly did he attend his son’s debut performance with the rest of the family.

After the performance, Fonda’s mother and sisters glowed with pride and were bubbling over in their praise.  His father, however, said nothing—until one of his sisters made a tiny criticism of Henry’s performance.

“Shut up,” said the elder Fonda, “he was perfect!”

Now of course Fonda wasn’t perfect either, but that’s the way God sees us.  That’s what it means to live under grace.  God’s love doesn’t protect us from problems.  Neither are our problems God’s punishment for our sins.  As the Gospel of Matthew puts it, “He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous”.

Sparrows do fall from the sky.  That’s not because they have been good sparrows or bad—if sparrows can be good or bad.  They fall because they’re part of a lawful universe in which unfortunate tragedies do occur.  But listen, here’s the good news.

The little sparrow never falls beyond God’s watchful eye.  The child of God who knows that he or she is under the watchful eye of the Father can, by His grace, bear any burden, triumph over any tragedy, get on top of any circumstance because he knows that he’s not alone.

Remember St. Paul’s litany of misfortunes?  “Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one.  Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move.  I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers.  I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have of gone without food; I have been cold and naked.”  (2 Corinthians 11:24-27)

Yet, in all that, Paul heard the Lord’s voice saying, “My grace is sufficient for you….”

For many of us the injustice of this world, combined with the love of the Father, is the best assurance we have of a world beyond this one.  Someday, somehow, somewhere accounts must be settled.

In Marjorie Rawling’s beautiful novel, The Yearling, set in rural Florida, there’s a scene in which friends and family gather around the grave of a little disabled boy named Fodderwing.  Fodderwing couldn’t do the things other boys could do, but he had a wonderful way with animals.

There was no minister present at Fodderwing’s burial, so one of the men of the community offered up this simple but moving prayer:  “Almighty God, it ain’t right for us to say what is right.  But if we had been making this boy, we would never have made him with his back bent and his legs crooked.  We would have made him straight and tall like his brothers.  But somehow you made it up to him.  You gave him a way with critters.

“It comforts us to know that he is in a place where his being bent doesn’t matter no more.  We would like to think that you have taken thatbent back and those crooked legs and straightened them.  And Almighty God, if it ain’t asking too much, we pray that you will give him some critters to play with—maybe a few redbirds and a squirrel or two.  Thy will be done.  Amen.”

I don’t know what heaven will be like.  But I know what God is like.  He’s a God who cares for a child likeFodderwing.  He’s a God who notices a little sparrow fall from the sky… and He cares for us much, much more than He cares for sparrows.  That means even though we still must face obstacles and crises, we don’t face them alone, and someday, somehow all that which is hurtful will be turned into that which is helpful, and we shall live with joy in God’s house forever.

Let us pray.  God of power, you uphold us in times of persecution and strengthen us to meet the trials of faithful witness.  As you delivered us from death through our baptism in Christ and the victory of his resurrection send us forth to proclaim that glorious redemption, so that world may claim the freedom of forgiveness and new life in you.  Amen.

June 18, 2017

Are We Offering the Right Cup?

Psalm 116:12-19; Matthew 9:35-10:8

Carl A. Boyle, a sales representative, was driving home when he saw a group of young children selling Kool-Aid on a corner in his neighborhood.  They had posted the typical hand-scrawled sign over their stand:  “Kool-Aid, 25 cents.”

Carl was intrigued.  He pulled over to the curb.  A young man approached and asked if he would like strawberry or grape Kool-Aid.

Carl placed his order and handed the boy a dollar.  After much deliberation, the children determined he had some change coming and rifled through the cigar box until they finally came up with the correct amount.  The boy returned with the change, then stood by the side of the car.  He asked if Carl was finished drinking.

“Just about,” said Carl.  “Why?”

“That’s the only cup we have,” answered the boy, “and we need it to stay in business.”

It’s difficult to operate a Kool-Aid business if you only have one cup.  I want to suggest to you this morning that we sometimes make that mistake in the church.

This morning we’re focusing our attention on the evangelistic task of the church.  For many persons the word “evangelism” brings to mind a few prominent “cups” from the past.  Such cups include, perhaps, a televangelist with slick hair bringing in big bucks via electronic media.  Or, if you’re old enough to remember such things, it might be a tent revival on the edge of town where sinners were invited to walk the sawdust trail and offer their lives to Jesus.  For those whose memories don’t go back to tent revivals, how about a Billy Graham crusade… or a preacher on a street corner… or the person handing out tracts in the airport?

In some churches evangelism has traditionally meant a once a year special event or a particular strategy for incorporating newcomers into the life of the church.  I want to suggest that, perhaps, by limiting our vision of the evangelistic enterprise to some of these rapidly disappearing cups, we may be stifling Jesus’ work on earth and cheating ourselves out of one of the most rewarding endeavors Jesus offers us.

The one commandment that Jesus gave to his church besides “love one another” was the commandment to go out and make disciples of all people (Matthew 28:19).  Our failure to take that commandment seriously has resulted in a church that’s no longer reaching people with the Good News of Jesus Christ.  In fact, a case could be made that we’re an enterprise that’s rapidly going out of business.

Even worse is the fact that helping a friend or neighbor find new life in Jesus gives our own life a huge spiritual lift.  There are few things we can do in life that will make us feel better than having someone say to us, “My life is so much better because of you.”  That’s what happens when you invite somebody to be a part of the family of Christ.  So I would like to focus for a few moments on Christ’s call to be evangelists—those who introduce their family and friends as well as strangers to Jesus Christ.

Let’s begin by anchoring our concern for evangelism in Christ’s compassion for the world.  This compassion is the only reason he sends us out to make new disciples.  We read in Matthew 9:36, “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”

Can you think of a better description of many people today than this:  “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd”?

It’s a striking smile.  Can you not see a flock of sheep milling around in a pen?  Frightened and confused, they stumble blindly, bumping helplessly into one another, because they don’t know which way to turn.  Just like so many of us.

There’s a story by Guy de Maupassant titled “The Necklace.”  The Necklace is a tale of a young woman named Mathilde who wishes she was rich and also wishes she was accepted higher in social circles.  However, her husband is an ordinary French citizen without the resources to fulfill her dreams (high maintenance).

Finally this young woman gets the chance to advance her dreams when her husband gets the two of them invited to an elegant ball.  She spends a huge sum of money and buys a beautiful dress.  She also borrows a beautiful diamond necklace from a friend, Madame Jeanne Forestier.  The stunning necklace draws many compliments from the aristocratic guests at the ball.  However, somehow, the worst possible thing happens.  Mathilde loses the beautiful necklace.

What is she to do?  It was so expensive.  Panic stricken, she and her husband borrow thirty-six thousand francs to buy a new necklace so her friend won’t find out what she’s done.  In order to pay back this vast amount of money they’re forced to go to such extremes as selling their home, dismissing their servants, working at two jobs, even moving into a slum.  After ten years of intense sacrifice, the debt is finally paid off.

One day after the debt is paid Mathilde happens to run into Madame Forestier, the friend from whom she borrowed the necklace.  Forestier is shocked by how quickly Mathilde has aged.  And Mathilde confesses what had happened-that fateful night she lost the necklace—and what they had been through because of it.  Quite shaken, her friend reveals to Mathilde the diamonds which she had replaced at such great cost had been imitation and the necklace she had lost cost less than 500 francs, a fraction of the cost of the replacement necklace.  All those sacrifices had been a tragic mistake.

What a parable of contemporary life!  People frantically slaving for values that turn out only to be paste.People chasing after dreams that only end in heartaches.People worshipping idols that can never bring them real happiness.

Jesus had compassion on the crowds.  We need to see that when we try to reach out to people in Jesus’ name it’s not because we’re merely seeking to build up our church rolls.  It’s because we believe Jesus can help them put their lives in order.  It’s because we believe that Jesus can help them with their family lives, that he can bring them joy and peace and salvation.  Evangelism is always anchored in Jesus’ compassion for people.  It hurts Jesus to watch people make a mess of their lives because they have the wrong values.  He wants them to know there’s a better way.

Many people today feel unloved and undervalued.  They feel estranged from other people and from God.  For example, you’re probably aware that more people are living alone today than ever before.  For some that’s by choice.  But for many others that’s because of divorce or the death of their spouse.  Loneliness is a major problem in today’s world.

Many young people feel that somehow they don’t fit in.  We’re made conscious of this every time there’s a mass shooting, but it’s also reflected in the numbers of people young and old who are becoming drug and alcohol dependent.  Many young people are taking their own lives.  People today are hurting.  Does anyone care?  Yes, Jesus cares.

There’s a beautiful scene in the movie Dr. Zhivago.  The Comrade General is talking with Tanya, who, unbeknownst to her, is Zhivago’s daughter.  He’s asking her about one of the traumatic experiences in her childhood, a time when she became separated from her adoptive father, a lawyer named Komarov.  He asks her, “How did you come to be lost?”

She replies, “Well, I was just lost.”

He asks again, “No, how did you come to be lost?”

Tanya doesn’t want to say.  She says simply, “I was lost.  My father and I were running through the city and it was on fire.  The revolution had come and we were trying to escape and I was lost.”

The Comrade General asked more emphatically, “How did you come to be lost?”

She still didn’t want to say.  Finally, though, she did say.  “We were running through the city and my father let go of my hand and I was lost.”  Then she added plaintively, “He let go.”  This is what she didn’t want to say.

The Comrade General said, “This is what I’ve been trying to tell you, Tanya.  Komarov was not your real father.  Zhivago is your real father and I can promise you, Tanya, that if this man had been there, your real father, he would never have let go of your hand.”

That’s the difference between a real father and a false father, is it not?  A real father would never let go of his daughter’s hand.  That’s also the difference between a real god and a false one.

Many people link themselves to false gods—power, wealth, physical appearance, the approval of their peers, etc.  Sooner or later each of these gods betrays us.  They can take us only so far and no farther.  Then they, too, let go of our hand.  Only one god is sufficient in every circumstance in life and beyond.  It’s the eternal God—the God who made Himself known in Jesus of Nazareth.

Jesus had compassion on the crowds.  He, alone, understood the real tragedy of a life of empty values, a life with no direction, a life linked to false gods.  He “had compassion for them,” Matthew tells us, “because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”

And this brings us to why evangelism, seeking to help people know Jesus, is so important.  Notice what our lesson says.  Matthew writes that he “had compassion for them because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”  Then he tells us that Jesus turned to his disciples and said, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few.  Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.”

He’s talking about the work of evangelism.  He’s talking about reaching out to people and bringing them into his family.  “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few.  Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.”  That’s who we’re called to be—workers in the harvest field.

Can you see the only motivation for what we call evangelism is Christ’s compassion for the world?  We’re not a business enterprise.  Our motive isn’t a more impressive bottom line.  Our goal isn’t to enhance institutional pride.  Our aim isn’t to be the biggest and the best.

There are people outside the walls of this church who are confused, angry, hurting, and dying.  There are families that are disintegrating, young minds being destroyed by drugs, old folks feeling forgotten.  The need is almost overwhelming.  Truly the harvest is plentiful.

The question, then, is:  where are the workers?  Where are those committed to being the body of Christ in ministry to the world?  Where are those who will point their family, their friends and their business associates to the One who can satisfy their needs in all circumstances for now and eternity?

I’m not talking about button-holing people on the street.  I’m not talking about an offensive holier-than-thou kind of sanctimonious salesmanship.  I’m talking about caring enough about people that you try to help them out of their confusion, loneliness and fear.

Jesus had compassion on the crowds.  Harassed and helpless, they were like sheep without a shepherd.  And there were so many of them.  Just like today.  “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few.  Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.”  Where are the workers?  Where are those who care enough to become involved in the lives of others?  Where are those willing to take their time to show love to young people and old folks, to the substance abuser and the victims of broken families, to the down and out as well as the up and in?  Where are the workers?  Christ asks even today.  Can he count on you?

Let us pray.  God of compassion, you have opened the way for us and brought us to yourself.  Pour your love into our hearts, that, overflowing with joy, we may freely share the blessings of your realm and faithfully proclaim the good news of Jesus.  Amen.

June 11, 2107

No Time For a Knapsack Faith

2 Corinthians 13:11-13; Matthew 28:16-20

A ridiculous story made the rounds years ago.  Most of you have heard the story, but I wonder if you have caught its religious significance.

It’s about a pilot and three passengers—a boy scout, a priest, and an atomic scientist—and a plane that develops engine trouble in mid-flight.

The pilot rushes back to the passenger’s cabin and exclaims, “the plane is going down!  The plane is going down!  We only have three parachutes, and there are four of us!”  Then the pilot adds, “I have a family waiting for me at home.  I must survive!”  With that, he grabs one of the parachutes and jumps out of the plane.

At this point, the atomic scientist jumps to his feet and declares, “I am the smartest man in the world.  It would be a great tragedy if my life was snuffed out!”  With that, he also grabs a parachute and exits the plane.

With an alarmed look on his face, the priest says to the Boy Scout, “My son, I have no family.  I’m ready to meet my Maker.  You’re still young with much ahead of you.  You take the last parachute.”

With this, the Boy Scout interrupts the priest, “Relax, Father.  Don’t say any more.  We’re all right.”

The priest asks, “How in the world can you say that we’re all right?”

The Boy Scout replies, “The reason we’re all right is that the world’s smartest man just jumped out of the plane wearing my knapsack!”

A silly joke but there is an important lesson to be derived from it.  Metaphorically, there are many smart people today, successful people, affluent people who are jumping out of airplanes wearing knapsacks instead of parachutes.  That is, they’re reaching for ideas and philosophies that are very appealing, but those ideas and philosophies won’t save them.  They’re knapsacks, not parachutes.  In other words, people today need something they can believe in, and many are looking in the wrong places.

Buckminster Fuller once said:  “The universe is a locked safe with the combination on the inside.”

Buckminster Fuller was an amazing man, but for once in his life, this brilliant Englishman was dead wrong.  The universe isn’t a locked safe with the combination on the inside.  There IS meaning and purpose to this world we live in and that meaning and purpose is available to all those who seek it.  There’s available to us and to everyone on this planet a body of truth that’s knowable, understandable, and eternal.

The early church summed up this truth in the doctrine we know as the Trinity:  God, the Father; God, the Son; God, the Holy Spirit.

Now it’s sometimes difficult to get people excited about Christian doctrines—especially that of the Trinity.  It sounds so deep and so mysterious.  But bear with me, if you will.  There’s an important truth in this ancient doctrine that you and I need to see.

You won’t find the word “Trinity” in the Bible.  In fact, you won’t find it in the writings of the early church father’s until the third century after Christ’s resurrection.

The concept of the Trinity is a product of the third century church, but it’s based upon sound Biblical faith.  This doctrine… God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit… properly understood… meets the deepest needs that we have in terms of understanding who God is and what our relationship to Him is all about.  Let’s explore this great truth together.

You’re familiar with the basic structure of the Trinity.

We begin with God as the creator and sustainer of life.  God the Father:  omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, everlasting.  This is the God who spoke and the world was created.  This is the God who guides the stars, who rules the heavens, who orders the planets in their orbits.  This is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—as well as Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.  This is God in His transcendent authority, Lawgiver and Judge, the God whose ways are not our ways, the God whose glory is told by the heavens.

This is the God in whom all of us believe, as do most of the world’s people.  For many of us, however, this God of transcendence seems far removed from us, out of touch with our needs, our concerns—unapproachable, and unyielding.

It’s like a somewhat humorous true story that’s told about Sir David Edgeworth, an Australian geologist and explorer.  Edgeworth accompanied Ernest Shackleton on his expedition to the South Pole at the turn of the twentieth century, one of the most famous adventures ever made.

During this South Pole expedition, Edgeworth’s assistant, Douglas Mawson, was working in his tent one day.  Suddenly the quietness was broken by a muffed cry from outside.  “Are you very busy?” called this voice.  Mawson recognized the voice as that of Sir Edgeworth.

“Yes I am,” Mawson replied.  “What’s the matter?”

“Are you really very busy?” asked the voice once again.

“Yes,” snapped Mawson, losing his patience.  “What is it you want?”

After a moment’s silence, Sir David Edgeworth replied apologetically, “Well, I’m down a crevasse, and I don’t think I can hang on much longer.”

Mawson found and rescued Edgeworth from near death in this crevasse in the South Pole ice.

Here’s what interests me.  Can you imagine a well-known geologist and explorer who had fallen into a large crack in the Antarctic ice and whose life was in peril being so shy that he was reluctant to let his colleagues know of his situation?  “Are you really very busy?” he asked as he dangled there in mortal danger.  Sir David Edgeworth was obviously quite a timid man.

In the same way, if all we knew about God was this transcendent Lawgiver and Judge that we have described thus far we might also be timid about seeking Him out.  How do you approach a Being who’s omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, everlasting?  How can you even imagine a Being who’s beyond space and time, the Creator of everything that exists?  Our tiny brains can’t begin to cope with such a One.  Such a God may seem far off, out of touch with our situation.

And this is why God the Father revealed His true nature in a gentle, compassionate man, Jesus of Nazareth.  In Jesus we see God the Son cradling young children in His arms, and treating all persons with dignity and respect.  In Jesus, the Son, we’re exposed to the approachable side of God, the God who would lay down his own life in behalf of the creatures He had formed out of the clay of the earth.  Without Jesus we would never have known what God was really like.  Jesus told us to hall Him, “Daddy” (Abba).  He taught us about God’s love and showed us His grace.

In the mid-1950s, the Christian world was shocked when five missionaries were slaughtered in South America by a tribe of Auca Indians.  Incredibly, sometime later this same Auca tribe welcomed the wife of one of the martyred missionaries and the sister of another missionary into their community.  It was an amazing reversal of attitude on the part of the Aucas.  It allowed missionaries to begin translating the New Testament into the language of the Aucas.

But there were difficulties.  For example, the translators had difficulty putting the word “reconciled” into the Auca language.  One of the most important verses in the New Testament is 2 Corinthians 5:18, “All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ.”  Reconciliation is a critical word in understanding the Christian faith.  The missionaries searched diligently for an equivalent word in the Auca language for the word “reconciled” but found none.

Then one day a translator was traveling through the jungle with some of the Aucas.  They came to a narrow, deep ravine, and the missionary thought they could go no farther.  The Aucas, however, took out their machetes and cut down a large tree so that if fell over the ravine, permitting them all to cross safely.

The translator, listening intently to the Aucas, discovered they had a word for “a tree across the ravine” and the translator decided this was the word for the meaning of reconciliation that he was looking for.  Jesus was the tree laid across the chasm that separated humanity from God.

Jesus is our bridge to God and to salvation.  We’re grateful for God the Father in all His power and glory.  But we are also grateful for God the Son in all his gentleness and grace, for he allows us to approach God with confidence.  Because of Jesus, we know that God is our Daddy, or, if you will, our Mommy.  God the Father loves us more than our own parents love us.  We know that because of Jesus the Son.

But, of course, there’s a third person in the Trinity just as important as the first two.  That is God the Holy Spirit.The Holy Spirit is the presence of God in our daily lives.  The Holy Spirit is the inner witness of the reality of God.  It’s the confirming testimony that He who created us is with us.

According to 1 John 4, our life in the world is actually Christ’s life lived within us.  That’s the work of the Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit is that presence in our lives that allows us to get our lives together, to achieve spiritual discipline and direction, to take charge of our lives and channel them in ways that glorify God and enrich the world.

The word “organize” has a Latin root word that suggests something akin to playing an organ, especially a pipe organ.  To play a pipe organ one must get all fifteen hundred pipes to sound in harmony.  For many of us, it’s all too apparent that we’re restrained and restricted from being effective and successful in our living because of inner conflicts that are tearing us apart.  A war is going on inside of us.  We’re being pushed and pulled from within.  We desperately need the Spirit of God to come into our lives and take those warring thoughts and feelings and bring them together.

To achieve such a unity of mind and heart requires a surrender of all we are and all we hope to be to the presence and power of God.  The sad truth is that many of us want only a partial experience of God’s Spirit without total surrender.

A letter was once received by General Electric from a little girl in the third grade who had chosen to investigate electricity for a class project.

I’m trying to get all the information on electricity that I can,” her letter said, “so please send me any booklets and papers you have.  Also would it be asking too much for you to send me a little sample of electricity?”

In like fashion, many of us want just a little sample of the Spirit.  We don’t want the Spirit to come in all its fullness.  We tremble at the idea of God coming into our lives and taking total possession of our thoughts, our feelings, our dreams, our ambitions.  Thus, because we want only a sample of God’s Spirit, we never achieve that oneness of mind and purpose so necessary for effective living.

The Holy Spirit is the inward evidence, the indwelling presence, that which allows us to organize and prioritize our lives.  It’s the Holy Spirit that gives us the peace and assurance to cope daily with life’s varied demands.

There’s a story in the Old Testament that illustrates this truth.  God had chosen King Saul to rule over Israel, but Saul was a disappointment to God.  And so we read in 1 Samuel 16:25 the Spirit of the Lord left King Saul.  And when that happened, Saul was filled with depression and fear.

I know a lot of people who are filled with depression and fear.  Here’s the reason why.  Somehow the Holy Spirit has slipped out of their lives.  It’s the Holy Spirit that gives a lift to our lives and helps us stand on higher ground.  Without that Spirit our lives are like a barren desert.

A mother and child once stood looking at the beautiful picture of Jesus standing at the door knocking.  After a moment of thought, the mother said, “I wonder why they don’t let him in?”

The child considered this and then replied, “The reason they don’t let him in is they are down in the cellar and they can’t hear him knocking.”

It’s the Holy Spirit that lifts us out of the cellars of life by giving us inner evidence of the power and purpose of God.

Do you see now why this doctrine of the Trinity is so important to us?   God the Father—our creator, sustainer, the Source of all that is or was or will ever be.God the Son—our Savior, Redeemer, the one who gave his life for us that we might know how much God loves us.  And God the Holy Spirit—the evidence of the indwelling Christ and our enabler in life’s daily crises.  This is the meaning of the Trinity.  This is the truth that allows us to live our lives as a follower of Jesus.  God has come down; Jesus has died for us on the third day was resurrected; the Holy Spirit is waiting to come into the lives of all who seek to follow Jesus, as evidence of God’s presence.

Why settle for a knapsack instead of a parachute?  Indeed, why settle for a parachute when there’s a Paraclete?  A parachute gently lowers us to the ground; a Paraclete, which is the Biblical word for the Spirit, lifts us to the heavens.  I pray that you will allow that same Spirit into your life today.  In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

May 28, 2917

How Have We Made it This Far?

John 17:1-11; Acts 1:6-14

Charles Killian, a Professor at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky has described a mythical modern worship service like this:  Pastor:  “Praise the Lord!”

Congregation:  “Hallelujah!”

Pastor:  “Will everyone please turn on their tablet, PC, iPad, smart phone, and Kindle Bibles to First Corinthians 13:13.  And please switch on your Bluetooth to download the sermon.”  [There’s a pause.]

“Now, let us pray committing this week into God’s hands.  Open your Apps, BBM, Twitter and Facebook, and chat with God.”  [This is followed by silence.]

“As we take our Sunday tithes and offerings, please have your credit cards and debit cards ready.  You can log on to the church Wi-Fi using the password ‘Lord909887.’  The ushers will circulate mobile card swipe machines among the worshipers.”

“Those who prefer to make electronic fund transfers are directed to computers and laptops at the rear of the church.  Those who prefer to use iPads can open them.  Those who prefer telephone banking, take out your cell phones to transfer your contribution to the church.”

“The holy atmosphere of the Church becomes electrified as ALL the smart phones, iPads, PCs and laptops beep and flicker.”

And here’s how Professor Killian visualizes the Final Benediction:  “This week’s ministry cell meetings will be held at the various Facebook group pages where the usual group chatting takes place.  Please login and don’t miss out.  Thursday’s Bible Study will be held live on Skype at 1900 hrs MT… You can follow your Pastor on Twitter this weekend for counseling and prayers.  God bless and have a nice day.”

That’s one man’s playful description of where the church is headed.  Well, we’re not there yet… but who knows what the future holds?  The amazing thing is the church has survived as long as it has—especially since it depends on people like me and like you.

Dr. Donald Strobe tells about a man who woke up with a hangover.  “Your eyes look terrible!” a friend said.

The suffering fellow said, “Oh, my!  You should be looking out from this side!”

Strobe adds, “To those who would point out the Church’s imperfections, I can only say:  ‘You should try looking out from this side.’”

It reminds me of a silly story about a pastor who was a good man, but a terrible driver.  He was a little vain.  His eyes were failing, but he wouldn’t wear glasses.

One day he was driving on a curvy road, missed a turn and went off into a ditch.  A parishioner came along as this is happening.  Recognizing his pastor, he stopped and approached the car.  “Are you hurt?” he asked.

His pastor answered, “No, I have the Lord riding with me.”

The parishioner chuckled and said, “Well, you better let him ride with me.  You’ll kill him the way you drive.”

The wonder is that after 2,100 years the Gospel is still alive, considering the group of people to whom God has entrusted it.  Wouldn’t you agree?  The church isn’t perfect.  We have our flaws.  Still, I have to admit being in love with this grand enterprise called the church.

There’s a story about General William Westmoreland who led our troops during the tragic Vietnam conflict.  The General was reviewing a platoon of paratroopers in Vietnam.  As he went down the line, he asked each of them a question:  “How do you like jumping, son?”

“Love it, sir!” was the first answer.

“How do you like jumping?” he asked the next paratrooper.

“The greatest experience in my life, sir!”exclaimed the young soldier.

“How do you like jumping?” he asked the third.

“I hate it, sir,” this paratrooper replied.

“Then why do you do it?” asked Westmoreland.

The young man thought for a moment, then said, “Because I want to be around guys who love to jump.”

There are many reasons why people join a church, but I suspect the main reason is because they want to be around the people who love Jesus.  I know that’s true for me.  Some of the finest people I know are right here in this room.

Still, we’re not all we ought to be.  We’re certainly not all God means for us to be.  The amazing thing about the church is that it hasn’t only survived, but that it claims hundreds of millions around the world in its membership.  How did it happen?  How can it be that with its many frailties the church continues to survive?

One place we can find an explanation is Acts 1:14.  In this brief verse we read these important words describing the early Christian church:  “They all joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers.”

There it is in a nutshell—the secret of a vital church—fellowship and prayer.“They all joined together constantly in prayer…”

The church does many good things, but these two are where the church gets its vitality and staying power.  These activities combine the vertical and horizontal dimensions in life.  We could strip away everything else that characterizes the church, but as long as these two remain, the church will be a force to be reckoned with.

Let’s begin with fellowship.  Luke, the writer of the Book of Acts says, “They all joined together…”

A Sunday school teacher asked the boys in his class to define fellowship.  One bright youngster blurted out, “Its two fellows in a ship!”

Actually, that’s not bad.  The church has often been likened to a ship sailing through the waters of time and space.  Fellowship refers to more than the fact that we are all passengers, though.  It refers to a quality of interaction, of caring, of looking out for one another.

In the earliest days of the church, a Roman named Aristides described Christians to the Emperor Hadrian like this:  “They love one another.  They never fail to help widows; they save orphans from those who would hurt them.  If they have something, they give freely to the man who has nothing; if they see a stranger, they take him home, and are happy, as though he were a real brother.  They don’t consider themselves brothers in the usual sense, but brothers instead through the Spirit, in God.”

It was that quality of caring, so unique in that pagan empire, that most impressed those who encountered early Christians.  That quality is still the church’s greatest earthly asset.  Of course, that doesn’t mean that every Christian contributes a caring spirit.

Pastor Chuck Swindoll tells about a disconcerting experience he had years ago at a banquet attended by almost two thousand Christian people.  The spirit was electric with excitement in that meeting, reports Swindoll.  They had enjoyed a delicious meal and some superb music.  They were experiencing a rare blend of unity and love… It was wonderful!

Suddenly, the meeting was disrupted by a young man who pushed his way into the room.  He began to shout his disapproval of what was happening there and proclaim some particular conviction which he held.  He was asked to leave as people stared in disbelief.  He refused, continuing his tirade at high volume.  His face was stern and his voice shrill.

Finally, after he was forcibly removed from the meeting, they were able to continue and complete the evening, though the spirit of unity and mutual enthusiasm was never fully recovered.

Swindoll found out later this man—a fellow believer—regularly does such things.  This man believes it’s his calling.  He’s convinced he has what he called “the gift of rebuking” (try to find that in Scripture), so he travels around disrupting religious meetings.

Now I know why disagreeable people sometimes find their way into the body of Christ.  They have the gift of rebuking—a new gift I wasn’t familiar with.  All along, I thought they were just obnoxious and miserable.  Fortunately such folks are a tiny minority.

Most of us would agree with missionary/evangelist E. Stanley Jones who never tired of saying:  “Everyone who belongs to Christ belongs to everyone who belongs to Christ.”  We’re a family.  We belong to one another.  The quality of our fellowship determines to a great extent the power of our witness.

Jesus prayed in his prayer for the church recorded in John 17 that his followers would all be one.  Fellowship is essential to the life of the body of Christ.

The second thing that motivates the church is prayer.  With fellowship we draw power from one another.  With prayer we tap into the very power of God.

Many of you know that some of the fastest growing churches in the world are in South Korea.  Richard Wilke, in his study of churches, tried to discuss with a Korean pastor about the marvelous growth of the Christian churches in Korea.  He asked about such things as class meetings and the establishment of fledgling congregations.

The Korean pastor finally replied in frustration.  He threw up his hands and said, “You Americans are all alike; you want to know about our programs, you never ask about our prayers.”

Prayer is the other indispensable element of a church making a difference in the world.  Prayer not only opens up the storehouses of heaven, it also causes us to take heart the causes for which we pray.

Pastor Eric Ritz has noted that some of the greatest moments of history have occurred when Christians prayed so intently that God was able to use them as answers to their own prayers.

Albert Schweitzer prayed for God to save the natives of Africa and God said:  “I want you to help me.”

Mother Teresa prayed for God to redeem the needy of India and God said:  “I want you to help me.”

Martin Luther King, Jr. prayed for God to free his people in America and God said:  “I want you to help me.”

Every time Christians pray, God looks for someone to answer their prayer, and in one way or another, it always involves the one who offers the prayers.  Maybe that’s why some of us are afraid to pray.  Prayer is engaging ourselves in the purposes of God.

Somewhere I read a story about Archbishop Desmond Tutu that sums up the matter well.  During the darkest days of the fight to end Apartheid in South Africa Archbishop Tutu visited America.  He was to speak in a large church in a major city.  The church was packed.  The media was there in abundance.

The Archbishop stepped into the pulpit, looked over the crowd, and spoke only one word, “pray.”  Then he stepped out of the pulpit.  The sermon was over.  Tutu knew what had to be done.  God’s people needed to pray.  And the rest, as they say, is history.

Fellowship and prayer.The horizontal and the vertical.  Whenever both are present in the life of the church miracles are likely to occur.  Where one or the other is absent, there’s a poverty of authentic joy and power.  Fellowship and prayer—these are the marks of an authentic church.  Such a church is a church of joy and power.

Let us pray.  O God of glory, your Son Jesus Christ suffered for us and ascended to your right hand.  Unite us with Christ and each other, in suffering and in joy, that all your children may be drawn into your bountiful dwelling.  Amen.

May 14, 2107

A Man Who Walked the Talk

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

There’s an old story about a rabbi who, while in Persia, found a great ruby.  This was not just any ruby.  It was a ruby that belonged in the emperor’s crown.  An official crier was sent out who went about the capital with this message:  “Whoever returns the emperor’s jewel within thirty days will be rewarded.”  But then he added an ominous warning:  “If it be found on him after thirty days his head will be cut off.”

On the thirty-first day—a day after the deadline—the rabbi brought the ruby to the palace.  The emperor asked, “Did you not hear the proclamation that the ruby must be returned within thirty days or the possessor of it will be beheaded?”

The humble rabbi responded, “I did not return it within the thirty days so that you could not say I returned it because I feared you.  I returned it because I believe in God.”

The emperor was impressed by the rabbi’s witness to his faith and he exclaimed, “Blessed be the God of these Jews.”

It’s impressive when someone who believes in God bears witness to his faith—particularly if such a witness could cost him his life.

Our lesson for the day from the book of Acts tells about one of the most beautiful and important acts of witness in Christian history.  The Apostle Stephen had been so effective in telling people about Jesus that he was brought on false charges before a council to be tried.

Standing if front of the council, Stephen’s face shown like the face of an angel.  Here was a radiant, wonderful witness for the power of Christ working in human lives.  But Stephen’s words fell on deaf ears.  As he described in depth how God had worked both in the life of Israel and in the life of Jesus Christ, those who listened to him were enraged.  “They ground their teeth against him,” says the writer of Acts.

At the climax of his testimony, Stephen lifted up his gaze toward the heavens and saw there the glory of God.  He also saw Jesus Standing at the right hand of God.  He testified to this company, “Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”

At this, those who heard him speak covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices they all rushed at him, dragged him out of the city and began to stone him.  While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”  When he had said this, he fell asleep.

An important element in this story concerns a prominent witness to the stoning of Stephen.  His name was Saul of Tarsus who, of course, became the Apostle Paul.

Let’s look prayerfully at the witness of Stephen.  As we do, let’s ask about the quality of our own witness.  Do we have what Stephen had?

We should begin by noting the integrity of Stephen’s witness.  He lived what he professed.  He talked the talk and he walked the walk.  Obviously this is critical.  The world despises a hypocrite.  If a person is going to witness for Christ, he or she must be a person of integrity.

Bishop ElvindBerggrav was an important figure in the Norwegian Lutheran church during World War II.  He was such an outspoken witness to his faith that he was kept prisoner under heavy Nazi guard.  We’re told that his witness to his faith was so effective and his deeds and words of love so compelling the eleven guards responsible for him were constantly rotated in and out to keep them from coming under his strong spiritual leadership.  That’s a witness to our Lord!

Leighton Ford tells about another man who walked the talk and talked the talk.  His name was Gottfried Osei-Mensah.  He was a leader of a church in Africa.  Osei-Mensah was brought to Christ by an English missionary.  The missionary was the headmaster at the mission school Gottfried attended as a young man.

The first thing that impressed Gottfried about this headmaster was that he called him by name.  He said most of the English men and women never bother to learn his or her name.  It made an impression on young Gottfried that the headmaster cared that much for him.

One day Gottfried went to a Bible class the headmaster was conducting.  Gottfried was a shy boy.  Entering the room he found it full.  There was no place to sit.  Gottfried started to turn and slip out, but the headmaster saw him and called out, “Gottfried come here, there’s a chair for you.”  The headmaster presented him a chair to sit in.  It was the headmaster’s own chair.  Gottfried says, “To my utter mortification the headmaster sat on the floor.”

Those two simple acts of Christian love—bothering to know his name and sitting on the floor so Gottfried could have a chair—impressed Osei-Mensah so much that he was led to Christ.

Years later he saw the headmaster in England and told him what his actions meant to him.  Interestingly enough the headmaster didn’t remember those actions at all.  They were so simple, so unconscious, so natural for one who was an earnest disciple of Jesus Christ, the headmaster didn’t even realize the impact they had.

My friends, could another person be influenced by the quality of your love, your kindness, your life?  Is there integrity in your witness to Christ?  Do you really try to show care and concern for all people in the way that Christ showed his care and concern for you?

Many of us who are believers need to begin in our own home with our own spouses and our own children.

I was amused to read a little story by the noted pastor and writer Dr. M. R. DeHaan once told on himself.  He said that one morning he and his wife had a disagreement.  The disagreement was so sharp that, as they ate breakfast, he didn’t say anything at all to her.  In effect, he was giving her the silent treatment.

Each morning they had the ritual of reading a devotional from the little magazine, Our Daily Bread of which DeHaan was the editor.  His wife read the day’s devotional silently to herself for a moment, then taking it and shoving it under DeHaan’s nose, she asked, “Are you the man who wrote this?”

He says he read the article and felt about an inch tall.  It was indeed a devotional that he had written which had to do with kindness and forbearance.  He said, “That did it, we had to make up right there.”

It’s so easy to preach, but so much more difficult to practice.  And yet we can’t know the deep fulfillment of Christian living unless it’s real and unless it’s every day.  This is the first thing we need to see—the integrity of Stephen’s witness.

The second thing we need to note is Stephen’s willingness to pay any price for his faith.  This may be one of the most troubling aspects of Christian discipleship today—our willingness to pay a difficult price.

Thirty-five years ago M. Scott Peck wrote a very popular and influential book titled The Road Less Travelled.  In that book he put great emphasis on the willingness to make hard choices.  That’s one secret of an effective life.  Of course, we’re all familiar with Jesus’ words about the wide and narrow roads.  The wide road is the road with few challenges.  It’s the easy road that requires little out of us.

We’re a generation of people committed to the wide road—to comfort at any cost.

Clyde Reed, in his book, Celebrate the Temporary, writes, “One of the most common obstacles to celebrating life fully is our avoidance of pain.  We dread pain… We would do anything to escape pain.  Our culture reinforces our avoidance of pain by assuring us we can be pain free.  But to live without pain is a myth… This is an unmistakable, clear, unalterable fact.  Many of us do not realize that pain and joy run together.  When we cut ourselves off from pain, we have unwittingly cut ourselves off from joy as well.”

How can we even speak about taking up a cross and following Jesus to a generation that has been raised up to believe that life can be pain-free?  Taking up a cross means doing whatever it takes even if it’s far outside our comfort zone to make it obvious to others that we’re a follower of Jesus.

Of course, we must be careful at this point.  Christianity has been accused in the past of fostering martyr complexes—people who seek out painful situations to satisfy some deeper need.

It’s interesting that a few years ago manufacturers were able to produce iodine that didn’t sting.  They thought this was the most wonderful product that could possibly be offered on the market—antiseptic iodine that had no sting.  They began imagining the millions their innovation would bring them.

Unfortunately stingless iodine bombed in the marketplace no matter how effective it was an antiseptic.  Many people seemed to feel that without the sting the iodine must not be working.  They refused to buy it.  The company had to add an ingredient to their iodine to put the sting back in so that people would have confidence in their product.

We don’t want to harbor the illusion that in order to be an effective Christian witness you must suffer.  That’s not Biblical truth at all.  However, a generation ago a wise pastor named Ralph Sockman wrote a book titled The Meaning of Suffering.  In it he said there are three kinds of trouble:  There’s trouble we can avoid.  There’s trouble we can’t avoid and there’s trouble we must not avoid.

If standing fast for our faith means that we’re criticized—if being faithful in our service means we have to go to some inconvenience—if in being co-workers with God, we’re required to sacrifice—then those things fall under the heading of trouble we must not avoid.  If we can only be sunshine Christians in the same way that Thomas Paine described sunshine patriots, our level of commitment is inadequate.

Stephen was willing to suffer.  He didn’t seek it out.  He merely sought to be faithful.  Nevertheless, when he was confronted with the need to suffer for his faith, he didn’t betray Christ’s trust in him.  Are you willing to pay a price for your faith—to suffer some inconvenience and some sacrifice because you’re a soldier of Jesus Christ?

This brings us to the final thing we need to see about Stephen’s witness.  Stephen was willing to forgive those who had wronged him.  As he was dying, he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord do not hold this sin against them.”  Those were his final words.

There’s something within most of us that cherishes the idea of revenge.  Forgiveness is for wimps.  That’s the attitude many of us have especially those living in a culture of fighting.

An old Scottish story tells of a man who feared he was on his death bed.  He sent for an acquaintance with whom he had had a bitter quarrel and asked that they put away their feelings of enmity.  The acquaintance agreed and started to leave the room.  The old man rose up on his elbow and spoke one final word, “But remember, if I get well our old quarrel still stands.”

We can understand his attitude.  The need for revenge is a powerful emotion.  However, compare his attitude with a woman in Florida who was raped, shot in the head, and brutally mutilated and left to die.  Astoundingly, she survived the ordeal—though she was permanently blind.  In a television interview the host of the show was reflecting on the bitterness she must feel because of the many scars she had from this experience that she would have to deal with the rest of her life.  Her astonishing reply was something to this effect:  “Oh, no!  That man took one night of my life, I refuse to give him one additional second!”

Most of us aren’t as wise as that woman.  She realized that forgiveness is more beneficial to the person who offers it than the person who receives it.  Bitterness and resentment eat at the soul.  Forgiveness is healing and a key to lasting joy.

It’s very difficult for us to identify with Jesus praying on the cross in behalf of those who had put him there.  Of course, he was the Son of God.  We might expect that out of him.  But what about Stephen?  He was a frail human being like you and me and yet as the stones ravaged his body, he lifted up his gaze and prayed, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”  What a powerful act of witness for the redeeming power of Jesus Christ.  Could you do that?

We’ve already noted that Stephen’s garments fell at the feet of one Saul of Tarsus as the mob stoned him to death.  The Scriptures testify that Saul gave his assent to that act of brutality.  Most of us feel the integrity of Stephen’s witness—the way he lived and the way he died—his willingness to pay the ultimate price for his faith and his ability to forgive those who persecuted him—probably had a dramatic effect on Saul of Tarsus.  They surely prepared him for his experience with Jesus on the Damascus Road.  It would be most surprising if such if such were not the case.  Very few conversions occur in a vacuum.  Usually there are a host of experiences and a multitude of people whose influence and encouragement play a part.

Could somebody find Jesus because they stood by and observed a significant moment in your life?  Thankfully it does happen and it happened to Stephen.  He was faithful to Christ, and we suspect his influence helped shape the greatest missionary that Christendom has produced—the Apostle Paul.

Stephen was a witness for his Lord.  How about us?

Let us pray.  Risen Christ, you prepare a place for us, in the home of the Mother-and-Father of us all.  Draw us more deeply into yourself, through Scripture read, water splashed, bread broken, and wine poured, so that when our hearts are troubled, we will know you more completely as the way, the truth and the life.  Amen.

April 30, 2017

A Most Successful Sermon

Psalm 116:1-4, 12-19; Acts 2:14a, 36-41

Every pastor would like to have the kind of response to a sermon that Peter had on the Day of Pentecost.  Three thousand people were added to the church after Peter had finished.  Even more importantly, three thousand people had their lives profoundly changed.  For most of them it was a change that would make them a pariah in their community and even in their own family.  Some would go on to die for their faith.  Their faith was no surface affair.  It involved a complete commitment to the work of God.

There’s a tombstone in Scotland on which are carved these words about a man named Angus McDonald:  “He wasn’t a particularly religious man, but in all other respects he was an ideal churchman.”

How do you do that—be an ideal churchman without being particularly religious?  I’m not sure exactly, but I suspect that could be said of many who fill the pews of Chirstendom.

You’re familiar with the famous Leaning Tower of Pisa.  It leans almost twenty feet out of perpendicular.  Somehow, when the architect was planning that tower he designed a tower that reached a height of 179 feet but had only a ten foot foundation.  No wonder it leans!

To me, the tower of Pisa is like a person who’s “not particularly religious, but in all other respects an ideal churchman.”  He or she has an inadequate foundation.

Notice how the three thousand who heard Simon Peter that day responded to his preaching.  They came to Peter and the rest of the apostles and asked, “Brothers, what shall we do?”

This is a critical point in their lives.  Will they be “ideal churchmen, but not particularly religious?”  Will they have a tiny foundation under a tall structure?  “Brothers,” they ask.  What shall we do?”

Notice what Peter tells them to do, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.  And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”

Did you catch the sequence?  “Repent… Be baptized… Receive the spirit.”  These concrete steps constitute a proper response to the good news of Jesus Christ.  These are the essentials of a vital faith.

Let’s begin with repentance.  This is a word that will fall on many deaf ears.  Not many people nowadays want to hear about repentance.

I appreciate what former San Francisco Giants manager Dave Bristol once said.  His team was in the middle of a terrible losing streak.  Bristol said to them, “There will be two buses leaving the hotel for the ball park tomorrow.  The 2:00 o’clock bus will be for those of you who need a little extra work.  The empty bus will be leaving at 5:00 o’clock.”  In other words he was saying, everybody needs a little extra work.

That’s true of us as well.  There are many of us who feel that repentance is for others.  We’re like the six-year-old girl who said to her mother, “The number one problem in the United States is climate change.  I read that in my Weekly Reader.  Everybody,” she continued, “knows that the number one problem in the United States is climate change—everybody but our preacher.  He thinks that it is sin.  I feel that is just because he’s a preacher.”

Could I say that if there’s a man-made component to a heating earth, sin is definitely a part of that?  God has made us stewards of this earth, but we haven’t taken care of our environment.  So it is with nearly every problem on earth.  Sin is involved… and the sad thing is that most of us don’t want to acknowledge our need of repentance.

Even more disturbing are the many people who flaunt their lack of moral discipline.  They advertise their flaws on bumper stickers and provide a daily fodder for Hollywood gossip columnists.

I believe it was Tallulah Bankhead who once said, “My heart is as pure as the driven slush.”  I don’t know about Miss Bankhead’s personal life, but there are many people who smirk at the idea of repentance.

Every pastor knows that in counseling very few people express regret for their sins.  Many are sorry that they were caught, but few are willing to admit they have done something wrong.  And yet, as we look at the torment in our society today, the wreckage of home and family life, the destruction of persons by alcohol and drugs, the scandals that have come from our highest echelons of business and government, we’re led to believe that repentance is indeed a universal need.

I read recently about the death of an enormous tree in Colorado.  It was such a large, old tree that some experts believe it was probably a seedling when Columbus discovered America.  It was only half-grown when the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock.  Close study reveals the tree was struck by lightning some fourteen times.

However, lightning didn’t destroy that tree.  Cold Colorado winters didn’t destroy it.  Age didn’t destroy it.  Avalanches didn’t cause it to budge.  Fire didn’t bring its final demise.  No, according to the news report, this enormous tree was finally overcome by beetles.  Little bugs so small that anyone could crush them between finger and thumb.And yet these little unobserved beetles brought down this mighty Colorado tree.

That’s a parable of our lives.  As Solomon once noted, it is the little foxes that eat the vines (Song of Solomon 2:15).

The late Norman Vincent Peale wasn’t a judgmental pastor.  He was known, of course, for his “power of positive thinking.”

I was interested to read about an interview which he had with a very prominent New York City businessman.  The businessman came into Dr. Peale’s office and laid out a tragic tale of confusion, frustration, and misplaced values.  He painted a dark picture indeed.  When he finished describing his misspent life, he asked Dr. Peale, “What do you think I should do?”

Dr. Peale said, “Well, I have a solution for you.  It is simple and you are a very sophisticated and intelligent man.  I doubt that you would want to hear it.”

The man said, “I think I would like to hear it.”

Then Dr. Peale said, “No, I don’t believe you would.  It is too simple.”

Again the man responded, “I want you to tell me.”

Dr. Peale said one more time, “I really don’t think you want to hear it.”

After a while the man became angry.  “Look,” he said, “tell me what your answer is.”

Dr. Peale answered like this, “What I really think you need to do is to get down on your knees and tell God that you are a sinner and ask God to forgive you and change you.”

That wasn’t what that man wanted to hear, but it is what many of us need to hear about our lives.

There’s a universal need for repentance.  Perhaps that’s your need this morning.  The people who heard Simon Peter’s sermon asked, “What shall we do?”  Peter responded, “Repent.”  That’s always the first step in Christian faith.

The second step in Christian faith is to be baptized in the name of Jesus.  For those of us who have already been baptized, Peter might say to us that our great need is to reaffirm our baptism daily.  We’ve already had the water applied at some time in our lives, but we continually need to be re-baptized within.  We continually need to take that step of faith daily that says, “I come with my sinfulness and shame and I yield myself to Christ.  I ask him to cleanse me and to help me to be born anew in faith.”

A great tragedy for many of us who have been baptized and who are pretty good church people, is that we have been only partially baptized.  We haven’t allowed Christ to rule supreme over all of our lives.  That’s why we’re continually in need of this reaffirmation.

Robert Lobert once wrote a little booklet titled “My Heart, Christ’s Home.”  In this booklet he describes a disbeliever as someone for whom Christ is on the outside knocking, and waiting to enter.

He also tells about one kind of believer who has allowed Christ into his house, but who has offered him only the chair in the hallway.  There the Lord sits dressed in his overcoat, holding his hat in his hand.  He sits waiting minutes, then hours, days and even years to have access to the rest of the house.  Meanwhile the host carries on business as usual while Christ sits out in the hallway.

You get the picture.  The baptism that you and I need is a baptism of the whole person—all of our attitudes, all of our actions, all of our dreams and all of our desires.  Christian faith is more than a “just inside the hallway experience.”

You may know the story of Constantine, the Roman Emperor who became a Christian.  Having taken this step, he wanted everybody else to become a Christian as well.  He took his soldiers out into the river to have them baptized.

As they were baptized, however, he had them hold their right arms out of the water.  He wanted them to become Christians, but he didn’t want them to become so Christian they would quit killing people with their swords.

Is that the kind of baptism that characterizes your life?  Has something been held out?  Do you need to make a reaffirmation of your faith?  Do you need to allow Christ access to more of your life than you’ve been permitting him in the past?  Repent of your sins.  Reaffirm your faith.

Finally, Peter says to the new believers, receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.

There was a young lady who worked in an enormous factory, one of the largest factories of its kind in the world.  One day she confided to her pastor that she would have to quit.

“What’s the matter?” he asked her.  “Doesn’t the factory have enough orders to keep you going?”

“No,” she replied, “It’s not that.  They have more orders than they can fill, but they haven’t got enough electricity to keep all of the machines going at once, and my machine has to lay idle part of the week.  I lose so much time and pay.  The trouble is they have more machinery than power.”

That can happen to us—more machinery than power.  We need power if we are to deal with our lives so that we’re kept in the way that leads to life.  We need power—power to make the changes necessary for us to be all God created us to be.

Tom Harris, the famous psychiatrist, who wrote that enormously successful book, I’m O.K., You’re O.K. says there are three reasons why people change.  First, people change when it’s more painful to remain as they are than to change.

Perhaps you’re in a job that’s very painful to you.  You can’t imagine being in that job for the rest of your life.  So, you make a change.  Why?  Because it’s more painful to stay where you are than to change.

A second reason for change, according to Harris, is when we find ourselves at the point of despair.  Perhaps we suddenly come to the realization that we’re about to lose our marriage, our job, our health.  At that point we may change.  You’ve heard people say, “I had to reach rock bottom before I could take hold of my life.”

Harris believes there’s a third motive for change, however.  He calls it the “Eureka Stage.”  That is, some people change because they discover—much to their surprise—there’s something better they’ve been missing.  Of course, this is the message of the Gospel.  There’s a richer, fuller life that’s available to all who will receive it.

Those who heard Peter preach his great sermon knew they had found something that would make their lives more joyous, more purposeful, and more livable.  “Eureka!”  This is it.  “What shall we do?” they asked.

“Repent,” Peter answered.  “Be baptized.  Receive the Holy Spirit.”  You and I need to take each of those steps daily in our Christian walk.  They’re the key to a life that is full, rich and eternal.

Let us pray.  Elusive God, companion on the way, you walk behind, beside, beyond; you catch us unawares.  Break through the disillusionment and despair clouding our vision, that with wide-eyed wonder, we may find our way and journey on as messengers of your good news.  Amen.

April 23, 2017

Learning to Doubt Our Doubts

Acts 2:22-32; John 20:19-31

A tourist, for the first time in his life, had carefully planned a vacation trip to the Grand Canyon.  Finally the time arrived, they packed the car, and the family took off.  It was the culmination of a dream vacation they had wished for, and now it was reality.  On the way they discussed what they would do, the sights they would see, and the fun they would have at the Grand Canyon.  This was the father’s dream.  He told his family about how he would like nothing more than to walk some of the rim and take pictures looking right into the canyon itself.

Finally they arrived and checked in to a motel, and rushed out to the canyon to begin their vacation.  The first thing the father did was to make his way along the rim, but he lost his footing and plunged over the side, clawing and clutching frantically to save himself.

After he fell out of sight and just before he fell into space, he encountered a shrubby type of bush which he desperately grabbed with both hands.  Now he was hanging in mid-air, feet and body dangling over the edge, with nothing beneath him.  He looked down to see the canyon floor hundreds of feet below.  He was filled with terror!  What would he do now?  His family had been left behind at the lookout and were too far away to hear his cry for help.  Talk about a tough situation!

Filled with fear, he looked up and called out towards the empty heavens, “Is there anyone up there?”

A calm, powerful voice came out of the sky, “Yes, there is.”

The tourist, feeling just a bit better since he’d received an answer, pleaded, “Can you help me?  Please, can you help me?”

The calm voice replied, “Yes, I probably can.  What’s your problem?”

“I fell over this cliff and I’m dangling in space holding on to a bush that’s about to let go.  Please help me,” he again pleaded.

The voice from above said, “I’ll try.  Do you believe?”

“Yes, yes, I believe!”

“Do you have faith?”

Yes, YES.  I have a very strong faith!”

The calm voice said, “Well, in that case, simply let loose of the bush and everything will turn out fine.”

There was a pause then he yelled, “Is there anyone else up there?”

Certainty is very difficult to attain in this world.  There always seems to be room for doubt.  However, doubt can be disheartening.  So some wise people have taken doubt to its logical conclusion and begun to doubt their doubts.  And they’ve found their way to a most satisfying life.

Such a man was the author Robert Louis Stevenson.  Like many young people in his early years Stevenson rebelled against his upbringing.  He was raised in Scotland in a very strict Calvinist home.  As a college student he quickly shed his rigid upbringing, which he called “the deadliest gag and wet blanket that can be laid on a man,” and adopted a thoroughly bohemian lifestyle.  He called himself a “youthful atheist.”

As he became older, however, Robert Louis Stevenson began to have “doubts about his doubts.”  He came to see that for all its claim to wisdom, the world had no satisfying answers to the deepest questions of life.  Later Stevenson would write, “There is a God who is manifest for those who care to look for him.”

In the later years of his life Stevenson was a man of deep and profound faith.  Toward the end of his life he described his religious outlook as a “Cast iron faith.”

Our Scripture lesson from John’s Gospel is about the world’s most famous doubter.  You already know his name.

The news of Jesus’ resurrection spread quickly among his disciples.  You can imagine the quickened pulse and the rapid, excited speech of those who had encountered the risen Christ as they shared their experience with others.  You can also imagine the difficulty those who heard their story had in believing them.

The first recipients of the good news of Easter were his male disciples and, typically, they considered it the idle nonsense of distraught and hysterical women and didn’t believe it.  But as more and more of the disciples and followers of Jesus encounter the risen Christ the stories gained credibility.

The most famous holdout was a disciple named Thomas, also called the Twin.  “Unless I see the print of the nails in his hands,” said Thomas, “and place my fingers in the prints of the nails, and unless I can put my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

Many of us have had times in our lives when we could identify with Thomas.  We too have rebelled.  We too have doubted.  Here’s something you need to know:  Doubt is one of the most important tools that God uses to produce mighty men and women of faith.

I worry about someone who says to me, “I have never doubted for one moment my faith in God.”  My friend, are you alive?  Do you have a brain?  Do you ever use it?  I’m convinced that God has deliberately placed many obstacles to faith in our world.  If He meant for us to walk with utter certainty, why does He not reveal Himself more clearly?

Woody Allen once said that he would have no difficulty believing in God.  All God would have to do would be to deposit $1 million in a secret Swiss bank account in Woody’s name.

We might not go that far, but it’s a good question why God doesn’t give us an understandable answer to such questions as why bad things happen to good people?  It would be so much easier to believe then.  And why didn’t God give us a guidebook that’s not open to as many diverse interpretations as the Bible?  Why doesn’t He just speak to us in a clear voice at the close of the service and reveal Himself so that, like those early disciples, we could leave here and tell our friends, “I have seen the Lord.”

It seems clear to me that God intends for us to struggle with the great questions of life.  It may be that such a struggle is essential to a strong, mature faith.  Never to have doubted is never to have taken the walk of faith seriously.

Let me use an analogy from the world of commercial fishing.

Years ago seafood companies had a perplexing problem with the shipment of codfish to consumers who lived inland.

Shippers discovered that frozen codfish loses its flavor in the shipping process.  Shipping live codfish is no better.  In the holding tanks they become soft and mushy and later tasteless.

So somebody came up with the idea of throwing in some catfish into each of the tanks of live cod.  Catfish and codfish are natural enemies.  In a quest for survival, the codfish are kept in constant motion as they seek to escape the catfish.  Thereby these cod are kept in peak condition from the ocean to your dinner table.

In a sense, doubt and frustration and other such obstacles are the catfish that God has placed in our tank to keep us swimming, to keep us at our best.  There’s far more hope for the honest doubter than for the person who says, “Of course, I believe,” and never really struggles with the meaning and the misery of life.

That wonderful writer Frederick Buechner, put it this way, “Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith; they keep faith alive and moving.”  Doubt is one of God’s most effective tools for producing mighty men and women of faith.

However, in order to experience the true joy that God intends for each of His children, there must come a time when we begin to doubt our doubts.  Doubting our faith is easy, but doubting our doubts is far more profitable.

In Pilgrim’s Progress there’s a character named Mr. Ready-to-Halt.  Mr. Ready-to-Halt was so hung up on his doubts that he went all the way to the Celestial City on crutches.  He got there but it was a torturous journey with very little joy.

Much of the doubt that we experience in young adulthood is a need to rebel against our upbringing.  Again, I suspect this is part of the plan of God.  If parents and children didn’t disagree on something, offspring would never leave home.

Jesus didn’t condemn the prodigal for leaving.  All of us must do it sometime.  That’s part of the maturation process.  However, one lesson that we learn from the prodigal is that we don’t want to spend a lifetime in a pigpen either.  Spiritual maturity comes when we’re ready to doubt our doubts.

J.Wallace Hamilton once told a story about a Russian girl who was brought up as an atheist.  She had taken a government examination and, like all students, was worried about some of the answers she had given.

One particular question on the exam had bothered her.  The question was this:  “What is the inscription on the Samarian Wall?”

She had written the prescribed answer:  “Religion is the opiate of the people.”

This, of course, was the famous anti-religion declaration of the author of Communism, Karl Marx.  But the girl wasn’t sure of her answer, so she walked seven miles to the Samarian Wall to check it out and, sure enough, there it was:  “Religion is the opiate of the people.”

Greatly relieved, she forgot for a moment her upbringing, and exclaimed, “Thank God!  I had it right.”

Well, there are times when even an atheist must thank somebody!

Communist governments, whether in Russia or China or Cuba or anywhere else on earth, have discovered after generations of propaganda that it’s very difficult to purge people of their belief in God.  There’s something within the human heart that’s ever reaching outward and upward.  There’s something within our very nature that senses an incompleteness to life.

We see through the glass darkly, but somehow we sense the room into which we’re seeking to peer isn’t empty.  This world is far too wonderful to have occurred by chance.  There’s within us a hunger that only a relationship with the Divine can satisfy.  It’s very difficult for most of us not to “doubt our doubts.”

But there’s a final thing to be said.  Christian faith can only be analyzed from the inside.  Here’s where those who have made a god of the scientific method are going to have a problem.  You can’t find God with the most powerful telescope ever built.  You can’t find God with a slide rule, or a test tube or an enormous computer.  There’s only one way to find God and that’s to take a step of faith, entrust your life to Him, and enter into a daily walk with Him as Savior and Lord of your life.  I can’t prove to you the existence of God, but you can prove Him to yourself.

Let’s use an analogy.  Could I prove to you that love exists?  A scientist could attach electrodes to the skin of a person in love and measure the pulse, the respiration and the blood pressure of a person in the presence of their beloved.  But that wouldn’t prove love.  Too much caffeine that morning at breakfast might cause the same bodily reactions.

The only way you and I can ever prove love is to have experienced what it is to love and to be loved.

So it is with faith.  There are only two ways the existence of a loving God can be proved.  The first is by the testimony of others.  We can say with utter certainty there have been millions of persons who have experienced God as a reality in their lives.  That’s one proof—though it won’t satisfy the skeptic.

The most conclusive evidence of the existence of God is to experience Him yourself.  As the Old song says, “You ask me how I know he lives, he lives within my heart.”

The richest man in the world, Croesus, once asked the wisest man in the world, Thales, “What is God?”

The philosopher asked for a day in which to deliberate, and then for another, and then for another, and another, and another—and at length confessed that he was not able to answer, that the longer he deliberated, the more difficult it was for him to frame an answer.

Tertullian, the early Church Father, eagerly seized upon this incident and said it was an example of the world’s ignorance of God outside of Christ.  “There,” he exclaimed, “is the wisest man in the world, and he cannot tell you who God is.  But the most ignorant [workman] among the Christians knows God, and is able to make him known unto others.”

Tertullian was making this very point.  Christian faith must be experienced from the inside.  Faith grows as you walk daily with the Master.  It’s unlikely that Thomas the doubter would ever have experienced the faith if he hadn’t remained among the other believers.  And his sense of loss would’ve been profound.  He would never have experienced the joy and the relief he experienced when he fell to his knees at the feet of Jesus and exclaimed, “My Lord and my God!”

What happened to Thomas after his experience with the risen Christ?  His later career is wrapped in mystery and legend.  An apocryphal book, called The Legend of Thomas, claims to give his history.  It says that when the disciples divided up the world to conquer it for Jesus, Thomas received India.  And there in India Thomas died for the faith that he once had doubted.

Indeed, in South India today you will find a church called the Thomist Church of South India which claims that Thomas was its founder.  Thomas dropped his doubts at the pierced feet of Jesus and became one of those by whose testimony we have the faith today.

Thomas was a doubter.  He had to see for himself.  Jesus didn’t condemn him for that.  However, Jesus did say, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.”  Doubt is an obstacle that, when overcome, can cause us to have a deeper, richer, more meaningful faith.  In the struggle for meaning the wise person learns to doubt their doubts.  The way to prove faith is to surrender yourself to the Lordship of Christ, walk in his way and experience his love for yourself.

Let us pray.  Blessed are you, O God of our Lord Jesus Christ, in whom we receive the legacy of a living hope, born again not only from his death but also from his resurrection.  May we who have received forgiveness of sins through the Holy Spirit live to set others free, until, at length, we enter the inheritance that’s imperishable and unfading, where Christ lives and reigns with you and the same Spirit.  Amen.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Where Is Your Galilee?

Acts 10:34-43; Matthew 28:1-10 CEB

Let’s pause for a moment – before we get to earthquakes and the angel and, yes, even the very-much-alive-Jesus, and consider Mary Magdalene and the other Mary.

I want to give them some attention, in part, because they’re the characters in this Gospel story that are relatable.  I can’t imagine too readily the heavenly being in dazzling white.  I don’t know how to picture the Risen Christ.  But I know the Marys.  I know the faithful men and women who are inevitably around before the crack of dawn or available in the dead of night, no matter how dire the circumstances.  I know the ones who perform like clockwork the rituals surrounding death even when they’re deeply grieving the one for whom those rituals are performed.

They’re the ones who cook the meals and make the fellowship hall look lovely for the reception that follows the service.  They’re the ones who usher the family into the parlor as they gather at the church, making sure boxes of tissues are strategically placed and bottled water is available.  They’re the ones who sit by the bedside, visit in the hospital, place phone calls, write notes and pray without ceasing.  I know Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, don’t you?

What’s it about them that keeps them showing up, even in the most heartbreaking of seasons, even when their own hearts are broken?  Like the Marys in this morning’s Matthew text, it’s surely this:  They love Jesus.  They love Jesus and their love for him compels them to face death head-on, even when most of the rest of us are so consumed with hopelessness that we can’t get up as the day dawns.  We simply can’t face what the light of the morning reveals, so we don’t go to the tomb or the hospital, the refugee camp or the prison.  But the Marys do – even though their hearts are broken at the magnitude of the suffering and loss they’ve witnessed.

Jesus is dead and buried.  They saw him on the cross.  Matthew tells us, “Many women were also there, looking on from a distance; They followed Jesus from Galilee and had provided for him.  Among them were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee.”  They knew where he was buried.  Matthew tells us, “Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were there, sitting opposite the tomb.”  They keep showing up, despite the pain and loss, because they love Jesus.

On this Easter of 2017, remembering the Marys and their relentless showing up for the love of Jesus is no small thing.  I can’t relate too much to angels and earthquakes – or even, at times, to the Risen Jesus – but I know many, many Marys and I can relate to them.  On good days, I may even be able to emulate them and show up in those graveyards of despair, if only for the love of Jesus.  That, it would seem, is the first step to encountering our Risen Lord.

Odd isn’t it?  How those places we least want to go are often the ones where we encounter not only heavenly beings, but our Risen Lord?  Odd isn’t it?  That it’s often in places of pain where Jesus undeniably meets us?  Maybe even when we visit the prisoner, give food to the hungry, clothe the naked… sounds familiar, no?

I appreciate Matthew’s version of the resurrection for including the Marys, ordinary people of faith who love Jesus, and for also having a showy angel who seems to throw down an earthquake in order to roll away the stone.  Heaven and earth are full of God’s glory in this account.  Even stones can’t help but obey the God of all creation.  But really, the angel and the earthquake are a warm-up act to the Risen Christ who meets the Marys on the road to Galilee.  The timing of this is  important.  The Marys have already believed and obeyed.  They took the angel's message to heart and are on their way in joy and fear to tell the disciples, and suddenly Jesus meets them.  Maybe there’s an Easter Word in that, too.  Sometimes it’s in acting out of the hope of the resurrection, before we’ve even seen the Risen Christ, that our Lord suddenly meets us.

Don’t be afraid.  For the love of Jesus, keep showing up, even in grief, even in places of pervasive pain.  Act out of the hope of resurrection and, lo and behold, all of the sudden, the Risen Christ Jesus will meet you, confirming that death doesn’t have the last word, life does.  In the truth of that promise we keep showing up before dawn, in the middle of the night, and even when everyone else has given up.

Could that be our Easter message this year?  Because of the resurrection we live bravely, persistently – and, many would say, foolishly – out of love for and loyalty to Jesus, going to Galilee because he told us he would meet us there.

As Michael Curry, presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church often admonishes his flock:  “Go to Galilee.”  He asks, “Where is your Galilee?”  He says:


Which is a way of talking about the world.


In the streets of the city.


In our rural communities.

Galilee in our hospitals.

Galilee in our office places.

Galilee where God’s children live and dwell there.

In Galilee you will meet the living Christ for He has already gone ahead of       


I think we sometimes want a more complicated Easter message that that.  The angel in dazzling white, the earth shaking, the stone rolling away – all of that’s appealing in its other-worldly extraordinariness.  When we don’t have that kind of epiphany we can fake the ignorance of God’s will and calling on our life.  But the most amazing part of this story is the Risen Christ, the one through whom death and sin has been vanquished, and his message is the same as that of the angel:  “Go to Galilee.”  It’s pretty straightforward.  Will we be like the Marys and heed it?  Will we show up in the painful, chaotic, all-to-earthly Galilee for the love of Jesus and in hope of the resurrection?  Fear not.  Our Risen, life-filled, life-giving, Lord will meet us there.

Let us pray.  Resurrecting God, you conquered death and opened the gates of life everlasting.  In the power of the Holy Spirit, raise us with Christ that we, too, may proclaim healing and peace to the nations.  Amen.

April 9, 2017

Which Parade Are You In?

Isaiah 50:4-9; Matthew 21:1-11

A pastor was asked to speak for a certain charitable organization.  After the meeting the program chairman handed the pastor a check.

“Oh, I couldn’t take this,” the pastor said with some embarrassment.  “I appreciate the honor of being asked to speak.  You have better uses for this money.  You apply it to one of those uses.”

The program chairman asked, “Well, do you mind if we put it into our special fund?”

The pastor replied, “Of course not.  What is the special fund for?”

The chairman answered, “It’s so we can get a better speaker next year.”

Have you noticed?  Life is full of humbling experiences.

A humbler man never lived than Jesus of Nazareth.  That’s the essence of the Good News for the day.  On the one hand, we see that no greater man ever lived than Jesus.  He was the very Word of God come down from the Father.  He was the Life, the Light, the Truth, and the Way.  And yet no one ever emptied himself more completely of pride and arrogance than did Jesus Christ.

Consider the donkey on which he rode into Jerusalem on that first Palm Sunday.  You or I would’ve chosen a handsome stallion on which to ride into the city.  After all, we’re careful about the kind of car we drive.  Right?  The world won’t respect an old beat-up Chevrolet Malibu like it will a new BMW or an Audi.  At least, that’s what we tell ourselves.  Jesus chose a battered up 1957 Studebaker to drive into Jerusalem.  That’s how I like to imagine that lowly donkey.  Certainly that humble beast wasn’t a symbol of pride and prestige.

Jesus’ entrance into the Holy City was consistent with everything he lived and taught.  Remember how offended Simon Peter was when Jesus sought to wash his feet?  That was a job for a servant—not for a distinguished rabbi.  The idea that greatness is related to servanthood was a principle that Jesus’ disciples had a difficult time grasping.

The washing of the disciples’ feet took place at the Last Supper.  Luke tells us that on the way to that sacred meal the disciples had been arguing over which of them would be the greatest in the Kingdom.  The disciples thought of greatness in terms of worldly success.  To achieve success was to have others serve you.  They weren’t prepared, then, to handle Jesus’ teaching that “whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.  For even the Son of Man didn’t come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”  (Mark 10:44-45)  That was a radical teaching for them, and it’s a radical teaching for many of us.  Yet there’s an important truth here for our lives.

Palm Sunday is the beginning of Holy Week.  It’s interesting to watch the strong Son of God acknowledge his dependence on God during those final hours.  In the garden he prays, “If it be possible, let this cup pass from me…”  On the cross, at the height of his despair, he cries out, “My God, why have you forsaken me?”

You and I have prayed that prayer even when we knew that God hadn’t forsaken us.  “Father, into thy hands do I commit my spirit!” Jesus prayed at the end.  My friends, if Jesus found it necessary to utterly and completely depend on God, how can you and I live our lives without depending on God as well?

I read somewhere that ninety-seven percent of all people offered a new pen to try, write their own name.  Now that’s understandable.  After all, the only time many of us use a pen is when we sign our names.  Nevertheless, such a statistic does seem symbolic.

It’s very difficult for many of us to see beyond our own needs and our own circumstances.  It’s so essential this morning that we see that humble Galilean riding into Jerusalem on that donkey.  His concern wasn’t for his welfare but for ours.

In the Nicene Creed, Christians affirm that Jesus was “very God of very God.”  Yet here he was humbling himself to be sacrificed like a farm animal on the cross of Calvary.  Indeed, he’s referred to in the book of Revelation as “the Lamb that was slain”.  No crown—no throne—no comfortable palace—Jesus gave it all up for sinful humanity.

This has always endeared Jesus to people at the bottom of society.

John W. Gardner, in his book, Excellence, includes a letter by Sarah Gooder, a young girl working in the coal mines of England in 1842.  Here is what Sarah wrote:  

“I am Sarah Gooder, I am eight years old.  I’m a coal carrier in the Gawber Mine.  It does not tire me but I have to [work] without a light and I’m scared.  I go at four and sometimes half past three in the morning, and come out at five and half past in the evening.  I never go to sleep.  Sometimes I sing when I’ve light, but not in the dark; I dare not sing then.  I don’t like being in the [coal] pit.  I am very sleepy when I go in, in the morning.  I go to Sunday school and learn to read.  They teach me to pray.  I have heard tell of Jesus many a time.  I don’t know why he came to earth.  I don’t know why he died, but he had stones for his head to rest on.”

Yes, my friends, that’s how people in civilized England lived around the time of our Civil War—an eight year old girl working 14 hours a day in coal mines.

Did you notice what impressed Sarah about Jesus, though?  “He had stones for his head to rest on.”  No soft pillow in a luxurious mansion for Jesus.  He cared enough to come down where Sarah was!  Do you have that much greatness within you—to see the needs of the least and the lowly?  Or are you one of these petty, little people who can see only his or her own needs?

Humility is the key to greatness.  That’s an important thing for us to see.  Servanthood is the path to true success.  Some of the greatest people who ever lived have viewed themselves as servants, and they have blessed our world.

There was an article in the Philadelphia Inquirer sometime back about a 14-year old Jewish girl at the end of World War II who was discovered lost, alone, and barely alive lying on the platform of an abandoned railroad station.  It was the day the Russian army liberated the Nazi controlled labor camp where she was held captive.

Though she was free, she was half-starved and too exhausted to pick herself up off the ground.  She thought she would die there.  But then a young priest came beside her.  He offered her tea, two slices of bread, and some cheese.

“Where do you want to go?” He asked her.

“Krakow,” she managed to reply.

“I’m going there too,” he said.  “Let me help you up.”  He tried to lift Edith to her feet but she collapsed.  So he picked her up and literally carried her two miles to the train to Krakow.

“What is your name?”  He asked.

“Edith Zirer,” she replied.

“My name is Karol,” replied her rescuer.  When they arrived at Krakow, they were separated and they never saw each other again.  Until the year 2000.

In Jerusalem, at the Holocaust memorial, Edith Zirer, with tears in her eyes, clasped the hands of a Polish priest named Karol, whom the world grew to know as Pope John Paul II.  The Pope had performed that quiet act of service of lifting up and carrying this poor Holocaust survivor and had forgotten it.  But Edith didn’t.  Before the whole world she declared, “He came like an angel out of nowhere and gave me life.  He saved me.  There’s no other word for it.  It’s thanks to him I’m here today.”

Then Edith Zirer quoted a verse from the Talmud which says, “To save one life is to save the world.”

Sometimes when we think of the pope we associate him with the pomp and circumstance of his lofty office.  We forget that many of the modern popes, including the current one, have had the heart of a servant.  All greatness grows out of humility and service.

Jesus came into Jerusalem riding on a donkey.  Part of this was undoubtedly to fulfill an ancient prophecy.  When Solomon was anointed king, he rode into the city on a mule, to the shouts and praises of the people.  Zechariah prophesied the Messiah would arrive the same way “gentle and riding on a donkey”.  Jesus knew about this prophecy when he chose a donkey for his ride.

But this act was also completely in his character.  “He humbled himself,” writes St. Paul “and became obedient to death—even death on a cross!”  (Philippians 2:8)

You see, according to theologian Marcus Borg, there were two parades in Jerusalem that Palm Sunday.  We see Jesus riding on a small donkey, accompanied by his followers coming from the north into Jerusalem.  But that parade wasn’t the largest or most spectacular parade in town during that particular Passover season.  Also entering Jerusalem at Passover from the west was the Roman governor Pontius Pilate.

Like the Roman governors of Judea before him, Pontius Pilate lived in Caesarea by the sea.  In other words, Pilate spent most of his time at his beach house.  But with crowds of devout Jews flowing into Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover, Pilate put on a display of force.  After all, Passover commemorates the Jews’ deliverance from the rule of Pharaoh.  Pilate didn’t want them to get any ideas about a similar liberation from Rome.

When Pilate entered Jerusalem with his army, his aim was to prevent any possibility of violent rebellion against Roman rule.  No one likes the foot of a foreign power on their necks and, to make matters worse, Rome imposed high taxes on subject nations.  So there was always the threat that zealots would stir up the Jewish population to try to throw off the yoke of Rome.

The Roman army that accompanied Pilate included, “cavalry on horses, foot soldiers, leather armor, helmets, weapons, banners, golden eagles mounted on poles, sun glinting on metal and gold.”

There was also the sound of “marching feet, the creaking of leather, the clinking of bridles, and the beating of drums.”  All this would have a sobering effect on all those who saw this parade.

No one shouted “Hosanna!” as Pilate rode his imposing steed into Jerusalem leading a regiment of his most trusted soldiers hoping to strike fear into the resentful onlookers.  And if things did get out of hand Pilate had several battalions of Rome’s finest garrisoned on the west side of Jerusalem ready to flood into the city to crush any hint of rebellion.

So, there was Pilate—willing, without exception, to take the life of anyone who dared question his authority, and there was Jesus—willing, without exception, to lay down his life for the least and lowest.  No contrast could be starker.  And we are left to choose.  Will we go with Pilate the merciless who would crush others to gain his own way, or will we go with Jesus, who mercifully lay down his life for others?  It’s a choice we make more often than we think in the way we treat those we come into contact with each day.

I hope we’ll choose Jesus.  I hope that we’ll choose him by opening our own hearts and praying, “Lord, give me the ability to love others as much as Christ loved me.  Help me to live a life of service as he lived a life of humble service even though he was Lord of all creation.  Help me to make whatever changes that you would have take place in my life that I may also be a man or woman committed to the service of others.”  Amen.

April 2, 2017
Fix It, Daddy
Ezekiel 37:1-14; Romans 8:6-11; John 11:17-45
In his book Father Care Charles Paul Conn tells about his two-year-old daughter, Vanessa, who was given a helium-filled balloon at Sunday school.  It was bright blue and seemed almost alive as it danced and floated on the end of her string as she ran through the halls of the church pulling it along behind her.  But the inevitable happened.  The balloon bumped into the sharp edge of a metal railing and popped.  With a single, loud “bang,” it burst and fell to her feet.
She looked down and saw what had happened to her beautiful balloon, now a forlorn wad of wet blue rubber.  It took her only a moment to regain her buoyant mood, however, as she picked up the remains of that balloon, marched cheerfully to where her father was standing and thrust it up to him.  “Here, Daddy,” she said cheerfully, “fix it.”
Sometimes our lives resemble that wad of wet blue rubber lying there on the church hall floor.  “Here, Daddy,” we say to God, “fix it.”
Mary and Martha were two of Jesus’ closest friends.  Their brother Lazarus had been seriously ill.  Concerned about his welfare, and lacking the medical conveniences that you and I take for granted, they sent for the one man they knew could help them.  Mary and Martha had been witnesses to Jesus’ healing power.  They felt their brother would be in no danger if Jesus would come and minister to him.
We can appreciate their feelings.  How many times have we thought, “If we can just get him to the hospital, he will be all right…”  or “if the doctor just gets here in time, she will recover?”
Jesus didn’t return in time, however.  Lazarus had been in the tomb for four days by the time Jesus arrived in their village.  “Lord,” said the sharp-tongued Martha, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
Friends, we need to pause here and add a word of caution.  Sometimes, like the little girl with the balloon that had burst, we have unrealistic expectations of God.  Sooner or later, by some means, everybody dies.  Even though Jesus raised Lazarus on this one occasion, Lazarus would one day die.  It’s difficult to let go of someone we love, but sooner or later we all have to accept the inevitable.
We’re grateful for this story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the grave.  It demonstrates Jesus’ love and his power over death.  But the mature Christian understands that death is part of God’s plan, as is life.  We pray to hold on to our loved ones, but we trust a loving God to care for those we love whether in life or in death.
Nevertheless, it’s a thrilling story.  First of all, we have a picture of Jesus weeping over the tomb of Lazarus.  “See how he loved him,” say the Jews who see him.
Then we have Jesus saying in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come forth.”  Lazarus does indeed come forth from the tomb, his hands and feet bound with bandages, and his face wrapped with a cloth.  Then Jesus says to those who are witnesses to this startling event, “Unbind him and let him go.”  That will make your heart beat faster, won’t it?  “Unbind him and let him go!”  It tells us that Jesus is control.
The story of the raising of Lazarus is a drama of love, new life and freedom.  It’s representative of the sort of thing that Jesus is continually doing in people’s lives.
There are three ingredients in the story of Mary and Martha and their brother Lazarus that are always present at those times in our lives when our balloons are a forlorn wad of rubber and we’re pleading with God, “Daddy, fix it.”
We are heartened in a time of crisis, first of all, by the presence of the Master.  Mary and Martha called for Jesus and he came.  He didn’t come according to their schedule, but he came.  He always does when we have a need.
You may be familiar with the remarkable story of Sir Ernest Shackleton and his journey to the Antarctic in the first part of the twentieth century.  It was Shackleton’s dream to cross the 2,100 miles of this wasteland of ice and snow by foot and by dogsled.  He didn’t make it that far, however.  His ship was stopped by an ice pack and finally sank.  He and his men started out trudging over drifting ice-floes trying to reach the nearest land—nearly 200 miles away and the nearest human outpost—nearly 1,200 miles away.  They towed behind a lifeboat weighing nearly one ton.  When they finally reached waters clear enough of ice to navigate they faced waves as high as 90 feet.
Finally—yea, miraculously—they reached South Georgia Island only to discover they were on the wrong side of the island.  They had to cross a 10,000 foot high mountain range that had never been crossed before.  The story of that crossing as related in the book, Endurance, is an amazing story.
When they finally reached their destination almost seven months after beginning their journey, they were so bedraggled their friends didn’t recognize them.  But here’s what is particularly significant:  To a man those who completed the journey,  reported they felt the presence of One unseen accompanying them on their perilous trek.  Somehow they knew they weren’t alone, God was with them.
Jesus promised his disciples they would never be alone.  He would provide them a counselor, or a comforter.  The word Paracleteis the Greek word for the presence that Jesus promised.  It’s an interesting word.  It comes from the courts of law in that time.  The Paracletewas a person of unblemished character.  When the evidence had been presented and a verdict was eminent in a court trial, this person of unblemished character, this Paraclete, would simply come and stand with the accused.  The power of the Paraclete’scharacter gave the accused not only comfort but also moral support in the pursuit of a favorable verdict.
Is this not what the presence of the risen Christ does for us in life’s most difficult trials?  We may not see a loved one raised from the dead as Mary and Martha did, but it helps when we’re carrying a terrible burden to know that we don’t carry it alone.  We see here, first of all, the comfort of his presence.
In the second place, we’re heartened in a time of crisis by Christ’s power.  Every follower of Jesus Christ needs to understand that Christ has power over both life and death—otherwise we have no news that’s ultimately Good News.
John Huffman in his book Who’s In Charge Here? tells about Robert Dick Wilson, a great professor at Princeton Theological Seminary.  One of Dr. Wilson’s students had been invited back to preach in Miller Chapel twelve years after his graduation.
Old Dr. Wilson came in and sat down near the front.  At the close of the service the old professor came up to his former student, cocked his head to one side in his characteristic way, extended his hand, and said, “If you come back again, I will not come to hear you preach.  I only come once.  I’m glad you’re a big-godder.  When my boys come back, I come to see if they’re big-godders or little-godders, and then I know what their ministry will be.”
His former student asked him to explain, and he replied:  “Well, some men have a little god, and they’re always in trouble with him. He can’t do any miracles.  He can’t take care of the inspiration and transmission of the Scripture to us.  He doesn’t intervene on behalf of his people.  They have a little god and I call them little-godders.  Then there are those who have a great God.  He speaks and it’s done.  He commands and it stands fast.  He knows to show Himself strong on behalf of them that fear him.  You have a great God; and He will bless your ministry.”  He paused a moment and smiled, and said, “God bless you,” and turned, and walked out.
You might want to ask yourself whether you have a big God or a little God.
A little girl listened attentively as her father read the family devotions.  She seemed awed by her parents’ talk of God’s limitless power and mercy.  “Daddy,” she asked, placing he little hands on his knees, “How big is God?”
Her father thought for a moment and answered, “Darling, he’s always just a little bigger than you need.”
Her father gave a wise answer.  God’s always a little bigger than our need.
Finally, we’re heartened in a time of crisis by his eternal purpose.  Our Old Testament lesson is from the book of Ezekiel.  The Spirit of the Lord showed Ezekiel a valley filled with dry bones.  The Spirit said to Ezekiel, “Son of man, can these bones live?”  The answer was that, of course, they can live again.  God can take which is dead, that which is but dust and ashes, that which seems utterlywithout hope and reconstruct, rebuild, re-animate, rekindle, and revive.  Nothing is impossible to an omnipotent God. 
Then God revealed to Ezekiel the dry bones represented Israel.  It was God’s purpose to make a new covenant with his people, to rebuild and rekindle their hopes as a people.  You see, Ezekiel knew about God’s power.  What he needed to understand was God’s loving and faithful purpose.  When we come to a time of crisis, we too know God’s power.  We know He can fix any problem.  The question that often comes to us is whether He is concerned about our particular situation.  And the answer is that He is.
Carl Michaelson, a brilliant young theologian who died in a plane crash many years ago, told about playing with his young son one day, tussling playfully on their front lawn.  In the course of their play Michaelson accidentally hit the small boy with his elbow.  The young fellow was just about to burst into tears when he looked into his father’s eyes.  Instead of anger, his young son saw there his father’s sorrow and sympathy.  Instead of bursting into tears, said Michaelson, the young boy suddenly burst into laughter.  It made all the difference in the world what he saw in his father’s eyes.
The picture of Jesus weeping beside the tomb of Lazarus is such an important and unforgettable portrait.  It allows us a look into the eyes of our Father.  St. Paul tells us in Romans 8 this is the eternal purpose of God, that nothing can ever separate us from his love.  That’s what we need to know.  That’s comfort to the breaking heart.  The Father cares when his children are in pain.
This, then, is the Good News from the story of Mary and Martha, and their brother Lazarus to all those whose lives are a forlorn wad of wet rubber lying on a church hall floor.  God is a Father who can fix any situation.  He’s aware of our needs and will always do that which is to our good.
Whatever our need is, God can fix it.  Christ is alive and we can experience his presence, his power and his eternal purpose.
Let us pray.  God of all consolation and compassion, your Son comforted the grieving sisters, Martha and Mary; your breath alone brings life to dry bones and weary souls.  Pour out your Spirit upon us, that we may face despair and death with the hope of resurrection and faith in the One who called Lazarus forth from the grave.  Amen.

March 26, 2017

I Once Was Blind…And Maybe I Still Am

1 Samuel 16:1-13; John 9:1-41 (CEB)

An English missionary named Roland Allen once told about an older missionary who came up and introduced himself to him one day after he had delivered a sermon.

The older man said that he’d been a medical missionary for many years in India.  He served in a region where there was an environmental condition that was causing progressive blindness in many of the people of that region.  People were born with healthy vision, but there was something that caused people to lose their sight as they grew older.

As time went on this medical missionary developed a treatment which would stop this progressive blindness.  So people came to him and he performed his treatment and people were no longer going blind.  Because of him their sight had been saved.

The old missionary noted they never said, “Thank you,” because that phrase wasn’t in their dialect.  Instead, they spoke a word that meant, “I will tell your name.”

Wherever they went, they would tell the name of the person who had cured their blindness.  They had received something so wonderful that they eagerly told others.

Our story today from John’s Gospel is about a man who was also healed of blindness and who also eagerly told others what had happened to him.

Jesus and his disciples came upon a man who had been blind from birth.  The disciples asked the Master who had sinned, this man or his parents, that he should be born blind.  As abhorrent as this theology may seem to us, it was the accepted way of looking at things in Jesus’ time.  Physical defects were seen as being the direct result of somebody’s sin.  If not you, maybe your parents were at fault if you had a disabling condition.

Jesus immediately put this idea to rest.  “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” he said, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.”

Then Jesus spits on the ground, makes some mud with the saliva, and puts it on the man’s eyes.  Then Jesus tells the man to go wash in the pool of Siloam.  The man does what Jesus tells him and when he returns from Siloam his vision is restored.

The neighbors of this formerly blind man are astounded at what has happened to him.  They take him to show him to the Pharisees.  Instead of marveling at what has happened to this man, the Pharisees are offended that Jesus has healed him on the Sabbath.  “This man is not from God,” they say with righteous indignation concerning Jesus, “for he doesn’t keep the Sabbath.”

Then they try to discredit Jesus’ miraculous act.  At first they dispute the man was ever blind in the first place.  When the man’s parents testify that he had indeed been born blind and could now see, the Pharisees had a dilemma.  In their eyes Jesus was a sinner because he didn’t keep the Sabbath.  God certainly wouldn’t honor the prayers of a sinner.  And yet, here this man stood in front of them who had been given his sight.

The man who had been healed says to the Pharisees, “Whether he’s a sinner or not, I don’t know.  One thing I do know, I was blind but now I see!”

Have you ever noticed that when people get on the defensive, they become all huffy?  That’s how the Pharisees become when confronted with this man.  Like good lawyers, they began to cast doubt on the testimony of the witness.  They accuse him of being a disciple of Jesus and begin to revile him.  It’s interesting that this formerly blind man recognizes that he sees a reality the Pharisees can’t.  He begins to taunt them:  Why do you want to hear [me testify again about my healing?]  Do you want to become disciples too?”

The Pharisees respond the way people always respond when they’re losing an argument.  They toss him out with a final putdown.  “You were steeped in sin at birth,” they say, “how dare you, lecture us!”  This poor man was God’s object lesson to the Pharisees, but they couldn’t see what was right in front of them.

Jesus heard about the man being tossed out by the Pharisees.  He found him and asked him, “Do you believe in the Son of man?”

“Who is he, sir?”  The man asked.  “Tell me so that I may believe in him.”

Jesus said, “You have now seen him; in fact, he is the one speaking with you.”

The man said, “Lord, I believe.”  And the man worshipped Christ.

Then Jesus spoke some most interesting words, “For judgment I have come into this world, so that the blind will see and those who see will become blind.”

Some Pharisees who were nearby heard him say this and asked, “What?  Are we blind too?”  And, of course, that’s the meaning of this entire story.  The Pharisees were just as blind in their own way as the blind man had been whom Jesus had healed.

Our story, then, isn’t really about physical blindness but about spiritual blindness—a disease that afflicted many of these Pharisees and afflicts many sincere people even today.

It’s easy for Christians to vilify the Pharisees but that would be a mistake.  Contrary to popular belief, the Pharisees were the progressive party among Orthodox Jews.  Their teachings were closer to many of the teachings of Jesus than were those of the Sadducees.

The Pharisees derived their name from the Hebrew word perushim which means “separated.”  They were brave and patriotic men who were determined to maintain their distinctiveness as Jews when foreign conquerors attempted to compromise the Jewish faith and wreck it by introducing their own customs and worship.  The Pharisees lived in strict accord with the sacred writings as well as the oral tradition of their faith.

For the most part they were good, solid, respectable people trying to live out their faith in a culture that was continually being corrupted by pagan thought and culture.  They sought to counteract this corruption by living according to the law with extraordinary zeal.  Their religion determined how they dressed, washed, ate, fasted, observed the Sabbath, as well as kept themselves clean from all manner of defilement.

Unfortunately, their all-out commitment to the law produced a kind of spiritual blindness.  Myopia is the popular word nowadays.  They saw only what agreed with their faith.  To everything else, they were blind.  I can think of many Christians today who suffer from spiritual myopia.  They think they’re living according to the will and way of Christ.  And yet they’re blind in so many ways to authentic discipleship.  Let’s consider some of the ways the Pharisees were blind and see if any of them relate to us.

Let’s begin here:  The Pharisees lived by the letter of the law, but were blind to the spirit of the law.  A good example was their attitude toward the Sabbath.  They were so afraid of working on the Sabbath there was a law stating that if a person fractured a bone, they couldn’t have it attended to on the Sabbath.  Imagine having to suffer needlessly for up to 24 hours because of a silly religious rule.  If anyone sprained their ankle or foot, they couldn’t even pour cold water on it to make it feel better.

Then there was that famous law that a woman dare not look into a mirror on the Sabbath for she might behold a gray hair and be tempted to pluck it out.  That would be working on the Sabbath.  Ladies, how would you like being under such a law?

Now please understand.  Jesus wasn’t an enemy of the Law.  He said on one occasion that he had come to fulfill the Law, not to destroy it.  In their zeal to honor the Sabbath, however, the Pharisees had forgotten one thing.  The Sabbath was created for man’s benefit.  The Pharisees had turned it into a crushing burden.

Here’s the point you and I need to see.  Many people in our community see our church as a burden—not as a benefit.  We need to be very careful within the body of Christ to let people see the joy, the love and the fellowship that are part of Christian community.  We need to get the message out that we’re not looking for persons to share the burden.  We’re here to share their burden.  The fellowship of the church is a wondrous thing.  We have a good time when we’re together.  Being part of the church should brighten people’s lives, not subtract from their joy.

People who serve Christ together tend to have a great time doing it.  We need to let the world know that their load can be lightened not increased when they become part of this fellowship.  The first mistake the Pharisees made was they honored the letter of the Law, but forgot the spirit.

Here’s the second mistake they made.  They used religion to divide people rather than to draw them together.  We can appreciate their dilemma.  It’s always difficult to be a minority faith in a culture.  We can appreciate the discomfort that parents of Jewish, Hindu and Moslem children feel in our culture at Christmas time.  Christmas is hard for anybody to resist, especially a five year old child.  It’s a problem being a minority faith in any culture.

We can sympathize with the Pharisees, but, again, they went too far.  On coming from any public assembly, the law required the Pharisee to wash his whole body before eating.  This wasn’t for sanitation.  The reason they washed was they couldn’t know what kind of people they might have passed on the street.  Even the shadow of a Gentile could defile them.  Their faith bred in them a terrible prejudice against outsiders.  Can you see how difficult it was for the Pharisees to accept the idea that Jesus could be a good Jew and actually sit at the same table with sinners and tax-collectors?

Here again, we have to be very careful that we don’t make the same mistake.  There are many people in our community who somehow have the idea they aren’t good enough to come inside these walls.

One little girl said her favorite hymn was, “Just as I am without one flea….”

We need to get the word out that we take people, “fleas” and all.  We dare not have the world see us as an exclusive community reserved only for saints.  The very word “religion” means “to bind together”.  We’re outside the will of God when we allow our faith to erect a wall to others.  Christian faith doesn’t erect walls, but bridges.

In the early days of Christianity, many Christians were buried in the catacombs of Rome.  In the earliest graves the inscriptions are without a single reference to the position in society of those buried there.  The deceased might have been a high government official or a slave, an army officer or a common soldier, a member of the ruling class or a common worker.  It made no difference.  All that mattered was they had been a believer in Christ.  We’re blind if our faith divides us from others.

This brings us to a final mark of blindness on the part of the Pharisees.  They cared more about their principles than they did about people.  [People don’t care what you know until they know that you care.]  That was why it was easy for them to let an innocent man die on a cross.

Again, we have to be very careful at this point.  Jesus wasn’t the only victim of excessive religious zeal.  Many have been put to death in the name of religion.  At the risk of offending extremists of many religions, including some of our own ancestors, let it be forever established that it can never be right to kill in the name of God.  Are we so blind that we can’t see God’s love is for all His children whether they be black or white, Christian or Moslem, first world or third world?

Stan Mooneyham, former president of World Vision, in his book Travelling Hopefully gives one of the best illustrations I know of how a person can use religion as a means to keep from caring about people.  A pious clergyman once wrote Mooneyham a letter in which he posed the following question.  He said that it’s an established fact among Bible-believing Christians that children automatically go to heaven whether they believe in Christ or not—up until the so called age of accountability when they’re able to decide for themselves whether to commit their lives to Christ.

Our humanitarian concern for humanity, this clergyman continued, motivates us to raise money to feed the starving children of the impoverished countries of the world so they can grow up and cross the age of accountability.  This carries the risk, he contended, that these children might die and go to hell because they don’t believe.

Have we really helped them, this completely serious clergyman was asking, if we keep a hungry child alive and thereby increase the risk they will go to hell?

Mooneyman asks whether the man’s attitude would be the same if these were his own children.  Of course, the answer wouldn’t be the same.

Satan often masquerades as an angel of light and sometimes Christians can act very holy and yet still be agents of Satan.  Christian faith can be prostituted to excuse all kinds of indifference to human need.  It’s impossible to exaggerate the distance between this man’s views and the mind and heart of Jesus.  But it’s true that it’s possible to be fanatically devoted to the Christian religion and be totally blind to the will of God as made manifest in Jesus Christ!  That’s the message for the day.  Christ came into the world to save people!  Everything else in our religious beliefs is secondary to that one truth.

Christ came into the world that we may see the greatness of God’s love—for you, for me, and for every person on this globe.  The Pharisees asked, “And we, are we blind, too?”  The answer is, yes, absolutely, if they can’t see the whole purpose of religion is to connect people with one another and with God.

The Pharisees were as blind as the beggar beside the road had been before Jesus healed him.  How about you?  Are you among the vision impaired particularly when it comes to God’s love for all people?  If so, why not allow Christ to heal your eyes today?

Let us pray. Discerner of hearts, you look beneath our outward appearance and see your image in each of us.  Banish in us the blindness that prevents us from recognizing truth, so we may see the world through your eyes and with the compassion of Jesus Christ who redeems us.  Amen.

March 19, 2017
Accept His Peace
Exodus 17:3-7; Romans 5:1-11; John 4:5-26
It was the deciding round of play of the 1983 U.S. Open golf tournament.  A player named Larry Nelson was tied for first place.  But then he hit a difficult situation.  His approach shot to the sixteenth green left him sixty-two feet from the hole. His fans groaned.  In the world of golf, sinking a sixty-two foot putt is about as likely as a hole-in-one.
Nelson paused for a long moment.  Then he raised his head, sized up the terrain, and stroked his ball.  It rolled downhill for a spell, then up an incline, then down another slope, and up another, and finally it curved, and then Ker plunk! Into the hole it went.  Some called it the shot of the year.
Bolstered by this magnificent putt, Larry Nelson went on to win the tournament, his first victory following a two-year slump.
One of the reporters who flocked to get his comments after the tournament asked him if he had been praying during the match, especially before that fateful putt.
“Yes,” Nelson answered.
“Were you praying you’d make the shot?”  the reporter asked.
“No,” Nelson said.
“Well, then, what were you praying for?”  asked the reporter.
Larry’s answer should help all of us.  He replied simply, “Peace.”
Is there anyone here this morning who is not, one way or another, seeking peace—peace in our hearts, peace in our marriages, peace in our relationships with other family members, peace in our work?
Of course, some of us seek peace from some unusual sources.  One woman said her therapist told her the way to achieve true inner peace was to finish what she started.
She took the advice to heart.  She said, “So far today, I’ve finished 2 bags of chips and a chocolate cake…I feel better already.
Well, they don’t call it “comfort food” for nothing.  However, there are better ways to find peace.
The good news for the third Sunday in Lent comes from St. Paul.  He writes in Romans 5:  “Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ…”  Paul goes on to write to us that even in the midst of suffering and misfortune we can have this peace.  Even though we’re undeserving of it, we can have this peace because of what Jesus has done on the cross of Calvary.
Now a word of caution should be spoken at this point.  The peace that Christ gives isn’t a passive peace.  That is, some people are at peace because they ignore the needs of those around them, as well as the needs of their community and world.  “What, me worry?” is their mantra.  That’s not the peace that Christ is talking about.
There’s a story that comes out of World War II.  Japanese war planes were headed toward Pearl Harbor where they would make a devastating attack.  Before these two planes made it to Pearl Harbor, though, two American soldiers stationed on an island in the Pacific spotted them on their radar and reported this fact to their commanding officer, a young lieutenant.  The young lieutenant gave the report a few minutes thought and concluded what these soldiers had seen on their radar screens must have been American planes from California.  “Don’t worry about it,” he said.
“Don’t worry about it.”  Well, they should’ve worried about it.  We don’t know how many lives might have been saved if they had worried about it enough to go into action.  “Don’t worry about it,” turned out to be a terrible bit of advice.
There are some things that we should worry about.  Jesus saw the money changers in the temple taking advantage of worshippers, and he worried about it to the point of driving them out into the streets.
Jesus worried about people who were lost in their sins and he gave his life in our behalf.
On another occasion he said, “I have not come to bring peace but a sword.”
There are some things that Christians ought to worry about.  For example, if you’re not worried about the plight of immigrants today who are fleeing persecution and, in some cases starvation, then shame on you!
If the increasing number of violent deaths from acts of violence in our town and land doesn’t bother you, then may God have mercy on you.
If the disintegration of the family in our nation doesn’t bother you, then something is missing in your spiritual life.
There are problems over which every Christian ought to have a deep and heavy burden.  There’s time for moral indignation and strong remedial action.  There’s a difference between having God’s peace and being an insensitive clod caring only about yourself!  In the words of Patrick Henry, “Gentlemen cry, ‘Peace, Peace’ and there’s no peace.”  In a self-centered generation we must continually be on guard that our desire for peace doesn’t cause us to ignore our responsibilities as soldiers of the cross.
Still the desire for peace is one that God has planted in our hearts.  Jesus said on one occasion, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you, I do not give to you as the world gives.  Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid” (John 14:27). 
Peace is one of Christ’s great gifts to us.  In fact, a strong sense of inner peace is what allows us to make a positive difference in the world.  Sure, we’re called to rid the world of wrong-doing and there are tragic things happening in our world that should trouble us deeply and that we should do something about.
The ironic thing, however, is that these aren’t the things that generally rob us of our peace.  The things that rob us of our peace are often superficial things.  Things like our appearance or whether we’re keeping up with our neighbors.
In our lesson from Exodus, the children of Israel are wandering in the wilderness on their way from Egypt to the Promised Land.  They’re without water.  They’re thirsty and complain to Moses, “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to make us and our children and livestock die of thirst?
That’s a legitimate complaint, don’t you think?  If you’re faced with a problem that severe it’s perfectly all right to complain to the Lord.  If you’re dying of thirst.If your children are in danger of starving.  If you have a terminal illness, you have a right to ask, “Where are you, God?”
The children of Israel after an extended in the desert stay are thirsty and quite naturally they complain to Moses.  Moses cries to the Lord, “What am I to do with these people?  They are almost ready to stone me.”
Now it’s Moses who’s worried.  No leader wants his people to turn against him.  The Lord tells Moses to go to a place called Horeb and strike a rock and water would come forth and the people would be able to have all they want to drink.  Afterwards Moses names the place Massah and Meribah because of the faultfinding of the people, and because they put the Lord to a test by asking, “Is the Lord among us or not?”
Obviously the children of Israel aren’t the only persons who have asked that question.  “Is the Lord among us or not?”  It’s so difficult to trust in God sometimes.  It’s so difficult to heed Jesus’ words in Matthew 6:  “Don’t be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, nor about your body, what you shall wear…your heavenly Father knows you need them all.”
Jesus is answering that question posed to Moses:  “Is the Lord with us or not?”  And the answer is a resounding “Yes, God is with us.  God will provide for us just as He provided for the children of Israel.”
Moses struck a rock and water came forth, enough to provide for this large community of Hebrews there in the wilderness.  I don’t know how striking a rock produces water.  I’ve never seen such a rock.  I suspect that’s the point, however.  It wasn’t the rock that met Israel’s needs, it was God.  God provides for those who love Him.
Some of our anxiety comes from concern about our daily needs.
Ben Franklin, as you will remember, listed his major faults and resolved to battle one fault each week.  One of the faults he knew he must defeat was wasting time and energy worrying.  Have you ever done that—wasted time and energy worrying?
A Peanuts cartoon once showed Linus dragging his blanket and saying to Charlie Brown, “Charlie Brown, you look kind of depressed.”
Charlie Brown replies, “I worry about school a lot.”  Then he adds, “I worry about my worrying about school.”  Then he concludes, “Even my anxieties have anxieties.”
Many of us can sympathize with Charlie Brown.  Even our anxieties have anxieties.  Weall know that needless worry is destructive.  We know that God loves us and will provide for us.  But it’s so hard to cultivate a peaceful heart and mind.
I’ve read somewhere that when Rossini’s opera, The Barber of Seville, was first performed, it was booed off of the stage.  The audience was vigorous in its displeasure.  Afterwards the cast was nearly hysterical.  There’s much pain in being in a theatrical production that has just bombed.  The cast was commiserating with one another, when they noticed that Rossini wasn’t among them.  Fearing that he might have done something desperate, they rushed to his house.  They found him asleep.
“Maestro, are you all right?”  they asked.
“I was until I was awakened,” he responded.
“But what about the opera?”they asked in obvious despair.
Quietly Rossini answered, “So it is not good enough.  I will have to compose something better…that’s all.  But please, let us discuss that in the morning.  I would like to go to sleep now.”
Many of us need to pray for such an attitude as that.  Many of us aren’t as effective in our service to God because we’re not trusting that God will meet our needs.
Others of us have troubled minds because of guilt over some past deed or even an involvement in an unhealthy situation right now.
In our lesson from John’s Gospel a Samaritan woman comes to the well at Sychar to draw water.  She had come in the heat of the day.  Why then?  She will be carrying back a heavy jug to her home.  Heat makes carrying a heavy vessel that much more tiresome.  Why come in the heat of the day?  Probably it was because she was seeking to avoid the other women in her village, worried about what they thought of her.  After all, her life was a mess. She had been married five times and now she was living with a man without the benefit of wedlock—a common practice today, perhaps, but not 2,000 years ago.
Today we would say this woman had a serious problem with her relationships, particularly men.  Maybe she had a poor relationship with her father.  We don’t know her situation, of course, but we do know that in order to give love you must have experienced love.  Chances are this woman had such a low opinion of herself that she couldn’t relate to a man as an equal but only as an object which he might use and cast away at his pleasure.  Now she was looked down on by her community because, in their eyes, she was living in sin.
What a startling thing it was that this pious Jewish Rabbi would show some interest in such a woman.  She couldn’t know there would come a time when he would show such interest that he would die on a cruel cross in order to bring her and others like her into a right relationship with God.  “Why, will one hardly die for a righteous man,”  St. Paul writes incredulously in our lesson for today, “though perhaps for a good man one will dare even to die.  But God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.”
My friends, have you let your life get out of control because you’ve never truly accepted God’s forgiveness and grace?  Do you somehow feel that you don’t measure up, you’re unacceptable, unworthy, or unloved?  There’s a man on a cross who says something quite remarkable.  He says that you are worth dying for.  All you have to do is accept his amazing grace.
I invite you to go to the foot of the cross and see there just how much God loves you.  Accept that love for yourself.  St. Paul writes, “Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Accept His peace today.
Let us pray.  Enduring Presence, goal and guide, you go before and await our coming.  Only our thirst compels us beyond complaint to conversation, beyond rejection to relationship.  Pour your love into our hearts, that, refreshed and renewed, we may invite others to the living water given to us in Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

March 12, 2017
God Has No Grandchildren
Genesis 12:1-4; John 3:1-17
On a children’s TV program, the announcer asked a little boy what he wanted to  do when he grew up.
“I want to be an animal trainer,” said the child, loudly and clearly into the mic.  “And I’ll have lots of wild lions and tigers and leopards,” he continued boldly.  “And then I’ll walk into the cage…”  Here he hesitated for a second, and then added softly, “but, of course, I’ll have my granddaddy with me.”
Granddaddies and Grandmoms are special.  Ask any boy or girl.  Grandsons and granddaughters are special.  Ask any grandparent.
Grandparents and grandchildren are special.  God is special too, but God has no grandchildren.  God only has children.  Every generation and every individual must embrace the faith for themselves.  “You must be born again, or you will never see the Kingdom of God.”
William Gibson, in his autobiographical book, Mass for the Dead, relates how after his mother’s death, he yearned for the faith that had strengthened her during her remarkable life—the faith that had upheld her during her courageous dying.  So he took his mother’s gold-rimmed glasses, her faded and well-worn prayer book and sat in her favorite chair.  He opened the prayer book and sat in her favorite chair.  He opened the prayer book because he wanted to hear what she heard.  He put on her glasses because he wanted to see what she had seen.  He sat in her place of prayer and devotion because he wanted to feel what she had felt, to experience what had so deeply centered and empowered her.  But nothing happened.  It didn’t work.
It never does!  We can’t claim another person’s faith for our own.  The example and contagion of commitment in other persons may inspire and nurture us, but we can’t substitute their commitment for our own.  We can pattern our faith journey after someone else’s, but no one can make that journey for us.
I doubt if anything Jesus ever said was more important than this, “You must be born again.”  This is the hinge pin of the Christian faith.  Let’s look at it by asking three simple questions.
One, what is the new birth?
Two, who needs the new birth?
And three, how are we born again?
First, what is the new birth?  We all need to know who we are and where we came from.
A little boy came in from school one day and asked his mother, “Where did I come from?”  The startled mother drew her thoughts together and decided that it was time to face the issue squarely:  “Ask your father when he comes home from work.”  When Dad arrived, he faced a questioning son:  “I’ve been talking with my school friends, and I wonder if you could tell me where I came from?”
The father took a deep breath, and proceeded to tell him about the birds and the bees.  The boy’s eager eyes got larger and larger.  When his dad finished, the lad jumped up and said, “Thanks, Dad.  That was great!”  My friend, Johnny, he’s just from New Jersey.”
We all need to know where we came from.  So in response to the question “What is the new birth?”  Let’s begin with an obvious assertion:  If you’re going to grow up, you must first be born.  Jesus made it clear to Nicodemus there are two kinds of life:  biological and spiritual.  For either life, for the physical and the spiritual, there must be a beginning.  There can be no life without birth.
So Jesus is saying that what’s true of the physical is also true of the spiritual—you must be born into the spiritual life.  Jesus uses the words flesh and spirit to talk about this:  “That which is born of the flesh is flesh; that which is born of the Spirit is Spirit.”
Now whatever else that means, it means far more than we can fathom, much less explain in one point of a sermon, it means that we’re brought into a father-child relationship with God.
Our relationship with God has been broken by our sin, broken beyond the possibility of human repair.  The Gospel is that God, through Jesus Christ, repairs what we’ve destroyed.  And what we’ve destroyed by our sin is our relationship with God. 
The universal picture of it is Adam and Eve in the Garden.  Their relationship with God was intimate and unbroken.  But by deliberate choice, by their sinful disobedience, they broke that relationship.  One of the saddest pictures in all the Bible is that which is presented at the close of chapter 3 of the Genesis story, where God expelled them from the Garden.  The Revised Standard Version says:  “He drove them out.”  John Steinbeck picked up that image in the title of his book, East of Eden.  Instead of being a resident in the Garden, in ongoing intimate relationship with God in that paradise which God had prepared for them, the dwelling place Adam and Eve was now “East of Eden”—outside the Garden, outside the relationship.
And that’s our story because of our sin.  So the new birth is a birth to God.  It’s having the relationship with God—which was broken by sin, restored by grace—by the loving acceptance of God through Jesus Christ.
In his gospel, Matthew reports Jesus saying in another setting with other words, the same thing he said to Nicodemus:  “Except ye be converted and become as little children, ye shall not enter the Kingdom of Heaven.”  (Matthew 18:3)
The image is that of becoming a child in relation to our Father God.  And notice, too, that Matthew ties the word converted to the image of becoming a child.  That’s what the new birth means.  It means being converted.  The Old Testament word is shubh, and it occurs almost 1,200 times.  It means basically to turn or return.  If you’re going in one direction, it means to turn around.  It means turning from sin and self, turning toward God and faith.  The New Testament Greek word is metanoia.
“We have an English word, metamorphosis, which comes from the Greek word meta, meaning “to change” and morphe, meaning “form.”  We’re familiar with that process.  A little caterpillar will crawl along in the dirt and the leaves and finally the great forces of nature—the warm weather, flowers and all—begin to work changes and he climbs up on a stem and gets real still and then something great begins to happen.  He begins to split open his skin and out of that little caterpillar emerges a fragile, beautiful monarch butterfly.”
Jesus says that’s what must happen to us in order to live in the Kingdom.  “That little caterpillar can’t reach down and get the nectar out of the flower.  He can’t even get up to the flower.  He’s got to have wings.  He’s got to have a different nose.  He’s got to have a different form.”  And Jesus is saying, so it must be with you…you must meta-morph.  That’s what the new birth means. 
Now the second question:  Who needs the new birth?
I think we can find our answer rather easily by looking at Nicodemus.  Do you know who Nicodemus was?  He was an aristocrat, an educated man, a scholar.  We can assume that he was an older man, old in honor and old in years.  In a sentence, he was cultured, refined, decent, and religious.  Let’s look at him, in our imagination, as he goes through the night and knocks on the door where Jesus is staying.  Jesus answers that knock and Nicodemus stands face-to-face with the Savior of the world.
Here’s one who knows the mind and heart of God, and before Nicodemus can tell Him what the matter is, Jesus has answered his question—not the question of his lips, but the question of his heart.
“What did He say to this man who had dared to come to Him through the night?  He didn’t say to him, “Nicodemus, I know what the trouble is with you; you’re not honest.  Nicodemus, you must quit swearing.  Nicodemus, you must quit Sabbath-breaking.  You must quit breaking your marriage vows.  You must stop yielding to the lusts of the flesh.”  No, He didn’t say that to this master in Israel.  Had he done so Nicodemus would’ve blazed upon Him, for he was guilty of none of these things.  He was a clean man, a moral man, and a religious man.
“but what Jesus did say was this:  “You must be born again.”  He said.  I know what is the matter.  You have been trying to find peace and rest and joy and salvation by doctoring the outside life.  You have found that that your well is poisonous and you have tried to remedy it by painting the curb.  You have found the clock of life doesn’t keep good time and you have spent endless care polishing the hands.  You have found the fountain of the heart sending forth a bitter stream and you tried to remedy it by pulling up a few weeds that grew around it.  Nicodemus, you must be put right at heart.  That is just.  That is fundamental.”
“So Jesus declared to this pious and earnest and honest man the one supreme and universal necessity, and that is the necessity of a new birth.”
So that’s the bottom line, isn’t it—who needs the new birth?  Every one of us.  You see, Jesus didn’t say this to an outcast.  He didn’t say it to one who had wasted his substance with riotous living.  He said it to one of the most cultured and refined and decent men of his day.
I need the new birth.  You need the new birth.  Anyone of us who hasn’t yet come back from our “East of Eden” sojourn away from God, we need the new birth, and we can be “East of Eden” in a lot of different ways.
A character in one of Flannery O’ Connor’s short stories asked the question, “Have you ever looked inside yourself and seen what you’re not?”  Well, have you?  Have you ever looked inside yourself and seen what you’re not?  That’s sin—denying or neglecting who God’s calling us to be.  Sin is falling short of the glory of God.  Sin is searching for self-glory and security in ourselves.  Sin is living the unexamined life to the point that we convince ourselves we have no sin.  Sin is ordering our lives as though we’re not dependent upon God.  Sin is convincing ourselves that we’re good when the only goodness we know is our pride-producing performance that receives the acclaim of the world.
Who needs the new birth?  Anyone who’s still trying to save himself or herself by good works—anyone who hasn’t yet accepted forgiveness of sin by God’s grace.
Now the third question.  How are we born again?  Even as I share with you some specific responses that we must make to receive the gospel, I’m aware of what Jesus said to Nicodemus when he asked the same question:
“The wind blows where it wills, and you may hear the sound of it, but you don’t know from whence it comes or whither it goes; so it is of everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
So let us acknowledge right off that no set formula is the answer to our new birth in Christ—the Spirit gives that birth.  Even so, there’s a response that we can make in order for the Spirit to work.
First, we must repent—that is, be genuinely sorry for our sin, for our sojourn “East of Eden” away from God, and genuinely desire to turn from our sins and our own efforts at saving ourselves.
Second, we must admit our need for Christ, and accept his forgiveness.  His forgiveness is offered—we must accept it.
Third, we invite Jesus to come into our life, and we make the willful decision that we will accept him as our Savior and we will follow him as our Lord.
In all of this, we must remember who Jesus is, what Jesus has come to do for everyone—to save us, to give us the new birth.  It helps us sometimes to remember that dramatic work in others.  We don’t think much of people perishing, but go to some of the forgotten corners of the world.  While on a tour of mission stations around the world, the late Bishop William F. McDowell, of the Methodist Church, came to a village of India.  There one night he met with forty believing men.  Knowing they all had been outcasts he decided to test their understanding of the faith.
“Brothers, who is Jesus Christ?”
Instantly forty hands went up.  Then the bishop singled out a man who didn’t look very bright.  At once the native Christian arose, bowed, and testified:
“Sir, I know that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Savior of the world because he loved me and gave himself for me, and for all of us here, when no one else would touch the hem of our garments.  If he looked on us in mercy, and then died to make us free, he must love everybody.  He must be the Son of God.  Only the good God would do what Christ has done for us outcasts.”
When the bishop came home and spoke of what he’d heard, there shone from his eyes the glint of unshed tears.  After his recital of the facts, he concluded:  “It was worth going around the world more than once to hear those humble native Christians bearing witness to the grace of Jesus Christ.”  Whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”
That’s what we have to keep in mind—that this is who Christ is—the one who wants to give new birth.
Nothing pictured this more clearly than the parable of the Prodigal son.  The central truth of the parable of the Prodigal son is this:  When the prodigal returned home, his father accepted him as though he’d never been away.  It will be so with any one of us.
“You must be born again.”  That’s what Jesus said.  In response to His Word, we simply turn to Him and accept his grace and let the Spirit blow where it will to refresh our spirits, to give us life.
Let us pray.  God of amazing compassion, lover of our wayward race, you bring to birth a pilgrim people, and call us to be a blessing for ourselves and all the world.  We pray for grace to take your generous gift and step with courage on this holy path, confident in the radiant life that’s your plan for us, made known and given in Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

March 5, 2017

Be Reconciled With God

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17; 2 Corinthians 5:20-6:10 CEB

There’s a 1973 motion picture titled “Ash Wednesday”.  It stars Liz Taylor.  Taylor plays an aging woman who wants to return to the heights of her beauty.  In pursuit of this obsession, she boards a plane to Switzerland, where she undergoes extensive plastic surgery.  The doctors promise her that afterwards she will look twenty years younger.

Following the surgery, with her bruised face wrapped in bandages, Taylor dons dark sun glasses and decides to go for a walk.  Slowly, in great pain, she strolls the streets of Geneva.  Seeking a place to stop for rest, she enters an old stone church.

“Hidden in the back row of the sanctuary, she’s like a new woman waiting to emerge from a gauze cocoon…until she is approached by an elderly priest making his way through the congregation.  It’s Ash Wednesday.  And carrying his bowl of cinders he pauses in front of Taylor and intones the ancient litany…’Remember you are dust, and to dust you will return.’”

Talk about a reality check.  Seeking to look a few years younger, and the ancient liturgy reminds you that any improvement, no matter how striking, is but temporary.

This is how Lent begins with a reminder of our mortality “Dust to dust and ashes to ashes…”  For forty days leading up to Easter we assess our lives 40 days because that’s how long Jesus was tempted in the wilderness.  During this time we ask ourselves what’s really important in our lives.  Religious people are often accused of indulging in escapism.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  We’re the only people who deal with the really important things in life.  That’s what Lent is all about.  And it begins with Ash Wednesday.

Ash Wednesday reminds us of our mortality.

In the Garden of Eden, after Adam and Eve eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, God says to them, “Dust thou art, and to dust thou shall return.”

That’s part of the symbolism of the ashes which we place on our foreheads tonight.  It’s a reminder of our mortality.  We like to fancy that we shall live forever.  Some day we shall.  But not in this world.  This world is but a fleeting image of the world that’s yet to come.  Ash Wednesday puts it all into perspective.

Of course, the subject of our mortality isn’t a popular one.  One man named John knew it was a difficult subject to bring before his elderly mother, but he felt that he must:

“Mom,” he said, “you’re not a spring chicken and you need to think ahead of what’ll happen in the future.  Why don’t we make arrangements about when…you know…when…you pass on?”

The mother didn’t speak a word.  She just sat there staring ahead.

“I mean, Mom,” he continued, “like… how do you want to finally go?  Do you want to be buried?  Cremated?”

There was yet another long, awkward pause.  Then the mother looked up and said, “Son, why don’t you surprise me?”

Death is a difficult subject.  We would prefer to disguise it, ignore it, pretend it doesn’t exist.  And never do we want to admit that it can happen to us.

Most of us prefer the attitude of comedian Woody Allen:  “I don’t want to live on in the hearts of my countrymen,” he once said, “I want to live on in my apartment.”

Ash Wednesday is a reminder that this isn’t possible.  It’s a reminder of our mortality.  “Dust thou art, and to dust thou shall return.”

It’s also a reminder that we’re flawed creatures.  “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” writes St. Paul in Romans 3:23.

Pastor Don Schultz tells about a man who had been in an accident.  “There’s nothing wrong with me,” the man says.

“But sir, you’ve just been in a terrific car accident,” a bystander says.  “You’re bleeding and have some deep bruises.  There may be internal injuries!”

“There’s nothing wrong with me!” the man argues.

Then the man walks away from the car accident.  His wife picks him up and drives him home.  Later he dies from internal bleeding.

‘”There’s nothing wrong with me,’ can be a dangerous thing to say,” comments Pastor Schultz.  “Spiritually, it’s probably the worst thing a person could possibly say.  For a person to stand before God and say, ‘There’s nothing wrong with me’ that’s incompatible with Christianity, and unacceptable to God.”

We’re flawed creatures.  Every one of us and the amazing thing is that even when we’re aware of our flaws, we often refuse to let go of them.

A boy was playing in the yard when he decided to hitch a ride on the bumper of his Dad’s truck.  His Dad didn’t see him.  

The truck hit a bump and the boy accidently slipped down the bumper and was being dragged for several yards before his Dad heard him screaming.

The Dad ran around the behind the truck where his son was still holding on to the bumper.  He could see that he wasn’t seriously hurt.  Still, the boy’s knees and legs were scraped up pretty badly.  His Dad asked the obvious question, “Why didn’t you let go?”

That’s a question which God our Father will probably ask us one day.  Why didn’t you let go of your bad habits?  Let go of your pride?  Let go of your fear?  We place the ashes on our forehead as a reminder that we’re mortal creatures and that we’re flawed creatures.  However, the news isn’t all bad.  There’s another side to Ash Wednesday.

Ash Wednesday reminds us that we’re creatures who have been redeemed.  That’s why St. Paul writes in our Epistle for tonight, “We implore you on Christ’s behalf:  Be reconciled to God.  God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”  This is the greatest need that a flawed, mortal creature has:  to be reconciled to God.

One pastor put it like this:  If you were telling someone how to make a cross, you might say, “Draw an ‘I’ and then cross it out.”

As we make the sign of the cross, we first draw a vertical stroke, as if to say to God, “Lord, here am I.”

Then we cancel it with a horizontal stroke, as if to say, “Help me, Lord, to abandon my self-centeredness and self-will; make Yourself the center of my life instead.  Fix all my attention and all my desire on You, Lord, that I may forget myself, cancel myself, abandon myself completely to Your love and service.”

As our sins are canceled by the death of Christ on the cross, then we’re reconciled with God.  Nothing stands between us and our Loving Father.

Ash Wednesday reminds us that each of us constructed the cross on which Christ died.  We’re mortal creatures, we’re flawed creatures, but by the cross of Jesus Christ we’ve been redeemed.  We’ve been reconciled to God.

Many of you are familiar with the name John Wooden.  John Wooden was known as the “Wizard of Westwood” and this legendary coach led UCLA to national prominence in college basketball.  It is said that Wooden always maintained his composure no matter what happened on the court.

A reporter once asked him how he managed to keep his cool under the great pressure of coaching college basketball.  Wooden reached into his pocket and took out a wooden cross.

“When the pressure is on I hold that cross in my hand,” he explained.  “Not as a good luck charm.  I just hold it there to remind me there’s something more important than basketball.”

That’s what Ash Wednesday and Lent are all about.  To remind us what is really important in our lives and in our faith.  As we place the ashen cross upon your forehead this evening, let it be a reminder to you that you have been redeemed.  “We implore you on Christ’s behalf:  Be reconciled to God.  God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

Let us pray.  O God, you delight not in pomp and show, but in a humble and contrite heart.  Overturn our love of worldly possessions and fix our hearts more firmly on you, that, having nothing, we may yet possess everything, a treasure stored up for us in heaven.  Amen.

February 26, 2017

The Ultimate Evidence of God

Exodus 24:12-18; Matthew 17:1-9; 2 Peter 1:16-20

A Hungarian writer once wrote an amusing, but also very thoughtful dialogue which he imagined between two babies in their mother’s womb.  Obviously they were twins.  One twin asked the other:  “Do you believe in life after delivery?”

The other replied, “Why of course.  There has to be something after delivery.  Maybe we’re here to prepare ourselves for what we will be later.”

“Nonsense” said the first twin.  “There’s no life after delivery.  What kind of life would that be?”

The second twin said, “I don’t know, but there will be more light than here.  Maybe we’ll walk with our legs and eat from our mouths.  Maybe we’ll have other senses that we can’t understand now.”

The first twin replied, “That’s absurd.  Walking is impossible.  And eating with our mouths?  Ridiculous!  The umbilical cord supplies nutrition and everything we need… Life after delivery is to be logically excluded.”

The second insisted, “Well I think there’s something and maybe it’s different that it is here.  Maybe we won’t need this physical cord anymore.”

The first replied, “Nonsense.  And moreover if there’s life, then why has no one ever come back from there?  Delivery is the end of life, and in the after-delivery there’s nothing but darkness and silence and oblivion.  It takes us nowhere.”

“Well, I don’t know,” said the second, “but certainly we will meet Mother and she will take care of us.”

The first replied “Mother?  You actually believe in Mother?  That’s laughable.  If Mother exists then where is She now?”

The second said, “She’s all around us.  We’re surrounded by her.  We are of Her.  It is in Her that we live.  Without Her this world wouldn’t and couldn’t exist.”

Said the first:  “Well I don’t see Her, so it’s only logical that She doesn’t exist.”

To which the second replied, “Sometimes, when you’re in silence and you focus and you really listen, you can perceive Her presence, and you can hear Her loving voice, calling down from above.”

Interesting approach to a discussion of the life of faith, don’t you think?  Is there a God?  Is there life beyond this world?  How can we know?  Who can we trust to give us the answers?  There are some things you need to know about the Christian faith.

First of all, no one sat down and thought up our faith.  It’s not the work of philosophers or holy seers, but of preachers, prophets, teachers, housewives, fishermen, and a host of common folk who were witnesses to events they couldn’t understand but cherished in their hearts.  Christian faith isn’t reason, but revelation.  God revealed Himself through encounters with ordinary people like Moses, David, Ruth, Daniel, the Virgin Mary, John the Baptizer, St. Paul and many other saints.  They were imperfect vessels of God’s truth.  Like unseeing people describing an elephant, their testimonies differed.  How does one describe the indescribable?  If God could be expressed in a formula, a test tube or a trite expression, He couldn’t be God.

Even when God revealed himself most perfectly of all in Jesus of Nazareth, it was left to ordinary people to describe what his coming meant.  That’s why the Gospels vary in describing the same events.  These were eyewitness reports, not some well thought-out theology of religion.

Notice what Peter writes in his Epistle concerning an amazing incident which he experienced along with James and John on the Mount of Transfiguration:  “We did not follow cleverly invented stories when he told you about the power and the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of His majesty.  For he received honor and glory from God the Father when the voice came to him from the Majestic Glory, saying, ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.’  We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the sacred mountain.  And we have the word of the prophets made more certain, and you will do well to pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.”

Can you imagine Peter’s feelings as he stood there on the Mount of Transfiguration with James and John as witnesses to one of the most dramatic scenes in history?  When Moses ascended the mountain to receive the Ten Commandments, he left behind his closest advisors.  But when Jesus came into the presence of God, he took with him these three humble fishermen.  Can you put yourself into Simon Peter’s sandals for a moment?  In a vicarious way, can you stand where he stood?

Simon Peter discovered what it was to stand on holy ground.  This is important for us to understand.  We live in a so-called “secular” society.  There’s very little in life that’s sacred to us.  There’s very little that’s mysterious.

Alexander Pope once wrote satirically, “Lo, the poor Indian! Whose untutor’d mind sees God in clouds, or hears him in the wind.”  As Pope is saying, we sophisticated secular people no longer see God in clouds or hear him in the wind.  We no longer see the movement of water in a pool as the special visitation of an angel as did the people beside the pool of Bethesda.  We look to science, not religion, to answer most of our questions about physical reality.

And it’s quite natural that we should.  There have been benefits from the process of secularization.  The quest for scientific truth has brought us a host of technological wonders.  But as Alexander Pope is saying, something has also been lost.  God has become an abstract concept for many of us rather than a present reality.  Intellectually we believe in God, but His existence doesn’t seem to have much relevance to our everyday lives.  Few of us know what it means to stand on holy ground.

This isn’t to say that such experiences don’t occur.  Christian scholar J. B. Phillips lay in a hospital bed after a severe and prolonged operation “unable,” as he says, “to move a finger nor blink an eye-lid.”  Yet he was fully conscious.  Late one night he overheard a doctor murmur to the night-nurse, “I’m afraid he won’t live till the morning.”

Phillips fell asleep.  In his sleep he dreamed that he was alone, depressed and miserable, trudging wearily down a dusty slope.  Around him were the wrecks and refuse of human living.  There were ruined houses, pools of stagnant water, cast-off shoes, rusty tin cans, worn-out tires and rubbish of every kind.

Suddenly, as he picked his way through this dreary mess, he looked up.  Not far away on the other side of a little valley was a vista of indescribable beauty.  He ran toward this glorious world.  He noticed that only a tiny stream separated him from all that glory and loveliness.  He ran toward a shining white bridge that had been built across the stream and was about to set foot on it, when a figure in white appeared before him.

This figure, whom Dr. Phillips  described as supremely gentle but absolutely authoritative, looked at him smiling, gently shook his head, and pointed him back to the miserable slope down which he had to run.  Phillips own words best conclude the story:

“I have never known such bitter disappointment, and although I turned obediently, I couldn’t help bursting into tears.  This passionate weeping must’ve awakened me, for the next thing that I remember was the figure of the night-nurse bending over me and saying, rather reproachfully:  ‘What are you crying for?  You’ve come through tonight—now you’re going to live!’

“But my heart was too full of the vision for me to make any reply.

“What could I say to someone who hadn’t seen what I had seen?

“It’s nearly forty years since the night of that dream, but I can only say that it remains as true and as clear to me today as it was then.

“Words are almost useless as a means to describe what I saw and felt, even though I’ve attempted to use them.

“I can only record my conviction that I saw reality that night, the bright sparkling fringe of the world that’s eternal.

“The vision has never faded.”

Each of us will interpret Dr. Phillips’ “vision” in a different way.  For some, it will be simply an easily explainable dream.  For others, it will be a profound religious experience sent directly from God.  Like the two babies in the womb, we have no way of measuring such things—no way of answering such questions absolutely.  For Phillips it was of life-changing significance.  It was no mere dream to him.

You should know that scholars debate the historicity of the scene on the Mount of Transfiguration.  Was it a dream or was it reality?  You and I can’t know.  We weren’t there.  We have only Simon Peter’s testimony.  He reports that he and his two fellow disciples beheld the majesty of Christ.  They saw the Master in the company of Moses and Elijah.  They heard a voice from Heaven saying, “This is my Son in whom I am well pleased.  Hear him.”  Simon Peter knew what it was to stand on holy ground.

The experience on the Mount of Transfiguration confirmed for Simon Peter what he already believed about Jesus.  It was Simon Peter who, in answer to Jesus’ question at Caesarea Philippi, “Who do men say that I am?” affirmed, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”  Simon Peter knew in his bones this affirmation was true.  Still, like us, there were some moments when it seemed truer than it did at others.  After all, it was an astounding leap of faith to say this humble Nazarene was the Son of the living God.

There’s a story told about Robert Browning when he first met the poet, Shelley.  People wanted to know what else happened on that particular occasion when the two met.  Browning is said to have answered:  “What else?  I tell you I saw Shelley, and, of course, in view of that, everything else just faded from my mind.”

That was the kind of feeling Simon Peter had in the presence of Jesus.  Still, to claim him as the long awaited Messiah required a very demanding leap of faith.  So many had come declaring to be the Christ there were others who healed and performed great wonders.  How could he know who was authentic and who wasn’t?

Don’t forget that the experience on the Mount of Transfiguration wasn’t enough to keep Simon Peter from denying Christ when the time of testing came.  It didn’t keep Peter from going back to his fishing nets after Christ’s crucifixion.  You and I shouldn’t feel guilty if at times we find our faith wavering.  There’s a veil over eternity that no human eye can penetrate.

It took the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost to change Simon Peter from a reed to a rock.  His life was a study in uneven growth.  There were mountaintops and there were valleys.  We shouldn’t expect to move from sinners to saints in one fell swoop.  Neither should we wait until we know and understand everything about Christ before we commit ourselves to his kingdom.  That day will never come.

On the Mount of Transfiguration Peter discovered what it was to stand on holy ground.  He also had affirmed what he already believed about Jesus of Nazareth—that he is the Christ, the Son of the living God.

And finally Simon Peter discovered on that mountain what real ministry is all about.  Peter wanted to stay on the mountain.  “Lord, it is well that we are here; if you wish, I will pitch three tents here, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.”

Everyone loves a mountaintop experience, don’t we?  Why can’t we just keep this moment forever?  Simon Peter couldn’t know that Christ’s mission has far more to do with valleys than mountaintops.  It has more to do with hanging on a cross between two thieves on a hill called Calvary than it does consulting with the venerable Moses and Elijah on a mountain.  That’s a truth you and I need to learn.

This sanctuary is a sacred place to most of us.  We meet God here.  For some of us this is the most beautiful and meaningful hour in our week.  We could pitch our tents and stay here all week long.  Some of us are thinking to ourselves, “I might as well, as much time as I spend here.”

But we need to remember the time-honored story of the lady who happened in on a small Quaker congregation.  They were sitting in silence.  “When does the service begin?” she asked a man sitting near her.

His answer:  “As soon as the meeting is over.”

Jesus’ ministry was to the world of hurting humanity.  Matthew tells us that as soon as he came off the mountain, Christ was confronted by a man who had an epileptic son.  The boy’s seizures were so sudden and severe that his family was afraid they might be fatal to him.  Could Jesus please help them?

Who among us likes to be confronted with such demands on our time and energy?  “Let’s pitch tents on the mountaintop and stay there.  The valley is too demanding and too draining.”  But, my friends the valley is what real ministry is all about.

Simon Peter stood with Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration.  He knew what it was to stand for a moment on Holy Ground.  He had affirmed there what he already believed about Jesus of Nazareth—that he was the Christ.  And he discovered what real ministry was all about—not the mountaintop, but the valley was where real ministry took place.

Jesus Christ has walked among us.  And he’s still with us, still revealing himself to us.  Would you open your mind and your heart and allow him to reveal himself to you?

Let us pray.  O God of the covenant, the cloud of your splendor and the fire of your love revealed your Son on the mountain heights.  Transform our lives in his image, write your law of love on our hearts, and make us prophets of your glory, that we may lead others into your presence.  Amen.

February 12, 2017

Choose Life!

1 Corinthians 3:1-9; Deuteronomy 30:15-20 (CEB)

The ability to make concise and accurate decisions is one of the great secrets of successful living.  Those of you who are sports fans will appreciate the story of a college football team whose starting quarterback was injured.  The number two quarterback hadn’t even dressed for the game due to an illness.  This left only a freshman quarterback who also did their punting but had absolutely no game experience as a college quarterback.  The coach had to throw him into the fray, however.  It was first down, but the ball was resting on their own three yard line.  The coach’s main thought was to get them away from the goal line so they could have room to punt out of danger.

The coach said, “Son, I want you to hand-off to Jones, our big fullback for the next two plays, let him run into the middle of the line and get us a few yards.  Then I want you to punt.”

The young quarterback did as he was instructed.  On the first play he handed off to Jones, but almost miraculously Jones found a hole off tackle and ran fifty yards.  The young quarterback called the same play again and once more, miracle of miracles, the hole was there again.  This time Jones ran forty five yards.  The fans were going crazy.  The ball was on the opponent’s two yard line—six short feet from the goal line.

Confidently the team lined up quickly and the young quarterback received the snap, stepped back and punted the football into the stands.  As the team came off the field, the coach angrily grabbed the young quarterback and asked, “What in the world were you thinking about when you called that last play?”

The quarterback answered blankly, “I was thinking what a dumb coach we have.”  Well, at least that young quarterback was good at taking orders.

The truth of the matter is that many coaches today don’t want their quarterbacks making play calling decisions.  Even in the NFL few quarterbacks call their own plays.  The plays are sent in from the bench.

Now obviously we’re not here this morning to talk football.  But there’s an important point here we need to see about our relationship with God.  God has paid us the ultimate compliment.  God allows us to call our own plays.  God allows us to make our own decisions.  When God created us in God’s own image, this was primary among the characteristics with which God endowed us—the ability to choose.

In the Garden of Eden, God gave Adam and Eve everything they needed to sustain their life.  But in the middle of the garden God planted a tree, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  The moment God did that, God provided them with an opportunity to make a choice.  They could heed God’s instructions and live forever in Paradise or they could eat of the forbidden fruit and die.

What an absurd choice, you say.  Who would ever choose death over life?  Yet people make that choice all the time.  It was 50 years ago when the following notice first appeared on cigarette packs—Warning:  The Surgeon General Has Determined That Cigarette Smoking Is Dangerous To Your Health.  It marked a turning point in our society.  Suddenly we had to face the fact that the link between tobacco and lung cancer as well as heart disease, high blood pressure and a host of other diseases was scientifically established.

Did people quit smoking tobacco when that warning appeared?  Millions did, but for many others the habit was too well established.  Why would anyone ever choose to begin to smoke?  Why choose death when you can choose life?  Yet there are teenagers this year who will still choose to take up this deadly habit, though, fortunately, not nearly as many as when most of us were young.  In that respect, teenagers are a lot smarter today than we were.

There’s not a person in this room who’s not aware of the dangers of alcohol and drug abuse, yet there are people within the sound of my voice, who would rather listen to the serpent saying, “Why, that won’t happen to you” then to listen to the voice of reason or of God.

Unfortunately, it’s not only ourselves whom we sometimes hurt through the misuse of our freedom to choose.  There are people who treasure their marriages.  But they’re morally weak.  They wouldn’t want to hurt their spouses for anything in the world, yet they’re playing with fire—choosing, perhaps, the death of a very precious marriage relationship because of a moral weakness.

Many more examples could be used.  Some of us face a choice every day with a variety of unhealthy habits.  Who in the world would choose death over life?  Millions of people do it every day.

That was as true three thousand years ago as it is today.  So it was with great urgency that Moses called the people of Israel together and issued this earnest plea:  “This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses.  Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the Lord your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him.  For the Lord is your life, and he will give you many years in the land he swore to give to your Fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.”

One of the keys to successful Christian living is the realization that God has given us the freedom to choose our own destinies.

A social worker in San Jose, CA tells of knocking at the door of a decrepit house.  A woman opened the door a crack, put her foot against it and said through the opening:  “You needn’t come in here.  Me and my husband don’t take no interest in nothin’.”  What a pitiful description of persons who have given up control of their lives.  “We don’t take no interest in nothin’.”

William Willimon tells of seeing a movie years ago in which one of the leading players lived a tragic life, careening from one disaster to the next, never able to hold a job or support a family or keep friends.  He finally dies in a tavern brawl.

At his death, one of the men who had tried in vain to befriend him and help get his life in order says, “Joe died almost like he was born.  He came into this world kicking and screaming and fighting and understanding nothin’!  And he went out of this world fighting without the slightest notion of what he was put here for or where he was goin’.”  A pitiful record of another life out of control.

God has given us the ability to take control of our own lives.  We can choose our own destinies.  Every study of great leaders has emphasized their decisiveness.  They knew where they were going, and they made the decisions necessary to get there.

A cartoon in the newspaper called Berry’s World says it well.  It shows a picture a down-and-out vagrant sitting on a sidewalk.  Beside him is a large sign that reads like this, “Keeping my options open, Thank you.”

It would be nice to go through life always with our options open, but somewhere along the way we have to make some hard choices.

Some of you may remember one of Uncle Remus’ delightful stories about Brer Rabbit.  [I know the stories of Brer Rabbit are considered racist by many today—which is a shame because they contain much folk wisdom growing out of early African-American culture.]

In this story Brer Rabbit is invited to dinner on the same evening at the same hour at Brer Terrapin’s and Brer Possum’s.  There he stands hungrily at the crossroads… “Do I eat with Brer Terrapin or do I eat with Brer Possum?”

First he runs down the road toward Brer Possum’s.  Then, changing his mind, he reverses himself and starts towards Brer Terrapin’s.  Then he changes his mind again and starts towards Brer Possum’s.  With the thought of two meals awaiting him, he runs back and forth, unable to make a decision until finally he misses dinner at both places.

There are many persons who live their lives like Brer Rabbit.  There’s no firm destination for their lives, no vital commitment, no beckoning call.  In the words of Elijah, “How long will you limp between two opinions?” (1Kings 18:21) Or the words of Joshua:  But if you are unwilling to obey the Lord, then decide today whom you will obey…” (Joshua 24:15, Living Bible).

One of the keys to successful living is the realization that God has given us the freedom to choose our own destinies.

This brings us to the second point and it’s a hard one.  While we’re free to make our own choices, we do have to live with the consequences of those choices.  If we abuse the freedom we have, we pay the price.

You may know the story of a man who had been caught driving 40 miles per hour in a school zone.  He was fined $100.  The court clerk offered him a receipt when he paid his fine.  “Why would I want a receipt for a traffic violation?” the man growled.

“Oh,” the clerk replied, “with four of these you get a bicycle to ride.”

That’s a sad truth about life.  You do the crime, you do the time.

So many of the trials and tribulations of life are the result of bad decisions, unworthy actions, dishonest motives and means and there’s a price to be paid.

God forgives us for our misdeeds, but God doesn’t suspend the law of consequences.  What we sow, we reap.  We have the freedom to choose, but with that freedom goes the responsibility to choose life and not death.

This brings us to the final point.  There’s one choice that surpasses all others in importance.  That, of course, is the decision to choose Christ.

When Moses instructed the children of Israel to choose life, he was impressing upon them they should obey the commandments of God.  To obey the commandments was life in Moses’ teachings.  Of course, you and I have discovered something even more vital than the commandments.  We’ve discovered Jesus himself.  “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life…” said Jesus. (John 14:6) To choose Jesus is to choose life!  Millions of people through the ages have made that discovery and it’s the most important discovery that anyone can make.

In the 1960s there was a player in the NFL named John Bramlett.  Bramlett was once known as the “Meanest Man in the NFL.”  A free agent who became a starting linebacker for the Denver Broncos in 1965, Bramlett was runner-up to Joe Namath for rookie of the year honors.  He played in two Pro Bowls and in 1970 was voted Most Valuable Player for the New England Patriots.

Off the field, however, his life was a mess.  His family never knew when he left home whether he would come home drunk, or call from jail, or not even come home at all, because he was often involved in bar fights.

One day some visitors came by the Bramlett home.  They wanted to talk to John Bramlett about Christ.  The impact of that visit changed John Bramlett’s life forever.  Suddenly he turned from pursuing death to pursuing life.  That’s what repentance is.  It’s the exercise of our freedom to decide, by God’s grace, for those things that are of eternal value.  John Bramlett made that choice.  He even became a Christian minister.  Today his life is a living testimony to the change Jesus can make in a person’s life.

Perhaps Bramlett’s greatest testimony, however, is his son Don.  Don played in the NFL, as well.  Don still has a Christmas letter that he penned in an elementary school classroom many years ago.  The subject was “All I Want for Christmas Is…”  Here’s what young Don Bramlett wrote:

“All I want for Christmas is for my family and me to have a very Merry Christmas like the other two Christmases we’ve had.  My dad was out drinking and fighting three years ago and we were all worrying about him and wondering when he would come back.

“While opening our presents, we were so miserable through those years.  Now we have a happy and merry Christmas after my daddy accepted Jesus in his heart and we have a lot to be thankful for.  This is all I want for Christmas and I’ve got it.”

“I have set before you life and death,” said Moses.  “Oh, but that you would choose life.”  Don Bramlett isn’t the only person to ever offer a fervent prayer on behalf of a father, or a spouse, or a young person.  It’s an urgent plea that comes straight from the heart of God.  It’s directed to every one of us.  God has given us the gift of choice.  Bad choices, however, lead to negative consequences.  Choose Christ and let Jesus help you with all the rest of your choices.  For Heaven’s sake!  Choose life!  Choose Christ!

Let us pray.  Divine Gardener, you give growth to our seeds and to the towering forest trees; you raise to abundant life that which seems dead.  Teach us to choose blessing and life rather than death, so that we may walk blamelessly, seeking you through reconciliation with all of your children.  Amen.

February 5, 2017

We Haven’t Seen Anything Yet!

Isaiah 58:1-9; 1 Corinthians 2:1-12

When some future scholar tries to understand the spirit of our times, he or she might run across a collection of the many derivatives of Murphy’s Law and declare they constitute our national spirit.  We have become such a pessimistic people.  Murphy’s Law, of course, goes like this:  “If anything can go wrong it will.  If nothing can go wrong, it will anyway.”  But there were many derivatives of that Law…

Like “The other line always moves faster.”

Or “When one wishes to unlock a door but has only one hand free, the keys are in the opposite pocket.”

Or “The probability of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich falling on the carpet face side up is directly proportional to the cost of the carpet.”

Or “Anytime you have a 50 50 chance of getting something right, there’s a 90% probability you’ll get it wrong.”

And that real clincher, “Murphy was an optimist.”

Murphy’s Law is amply illustrated in a joke about a man who was crawling through the desert on his hands and knees, desperate for a drink of water.  He encounters a man selling neckties.  “Would you like to buy a nice tie?” the salesman asks.

“What would I want with a necktie?”  the man growls.  “All I want is a drink of water.”

The salesman has no water, so the poor man keeps crawling across the sand.

Miraculously, out in the middle of that vast desert, he comes upon a beautiful restaurant.  At first he thinks it’s a mirage, but as he moves closer he sees that it’s real.  With his last ounce of energy he struggles up to the entrance of that beautiful restaurant and says to the doorman.  “Please, I must have a drink of water.”

To which the doorman replies, “Sorry, gentlemen aren’t admitted without ties.”

Poor guy!  I’ve had days like that.  You have too.  How refreshing it is to come to God’s Word and read this positive and uplifting message from St. Paul, “What no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, and what no human mind has conceived—the things God has prepared for those who love him…”

In other words, if your faith is in God, you haven’t seen anything yet!  We can’t even imagine all the good things that await us as followers of Jesus Christ.  Isn’t that refreshing news for your soul?  I know it is for mine.

It tells me first of all, the wondrous things of this world are but a foretaste of greater things to come.  One reason we have difficulty imagining what the next world will be like is that it’s impossible for us to imagine anything more beautiful than the world we already inhabit.  A drive in the mountains or a visit to an ocean or gazing upon a lovely dew-covered flower as it lifts its colorful face toward the sun—how much more majestic can Heaven be?

There’s a little church in Ireland with beautiful stained-glass windows.  The richness of the reds and blues in those windows is breathtaking.  However, there’s one window that has been left in clear glass.  It’s the most beautiful window of them all for it looks out over a panorama that includes a clear-blue lake and green rolling hills.  Under the window is this inscription:  “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament showeth His handiwork.”

No creation of human hands will ever compare to the majestic creation in which God has placed us.

Walter D. Cavett tells about a boy who was taken by his father on a camping trip to the Adirondacks.  They hired a guide, left the beaten trails, and spent a week in the heart of the woods.  The boy was greatly impressed by the ability of the guide to see all sorts of things invisible to the ordinary eye.  One day, after the guide had been pointing out some of the hidden secrets of nature, the boy asked with an awed voice, “Mister, can you see God?”

The old man replied, “My boy, it’s getting so I can hardly see anything else.”  Anyone who’s a lover of nature knows what he was talking about

The beauty and glory of this world are but a foretaste of the wondrous things that await us.  Even more important, the love of our family and friends is but a pale shadow of the love God has for us.  Can you get your mind around that?  The most beautiful music of this world wouldn’t hold a candle to the music of Heaven’s choir.  Everything we count in this world as good is but an inferior imitation of that which we will one day experience in God’s kingdom.

We’re told the artist John Linnell was very sensitive about friends wanting to see a masterpiece he was working on before it was finished.  He feared that someone might come into his studio in his absence and sneak a look, so whenever he was out of the room he covered the easel with a veil.  Across the veil he threw a streamer bearing the inscription:  “Wait and see.”

That’s St. Paul’s word for us, “Wait and see.”  The magnificence of that which surrounds us gives us only a foretaste of that which awaits us.

That’s why followers of Christ anticipate the future with such eagerness.  Whether it be the anticipation of Christ’s return or the prospect of Heaven, to be a Christian is by definitionto anticipate the future with a joyful heart.  St. Paul is saying to us that no matter how good things are in this world, we haven’t seen anything yet.

We modern, intellectually sophisticated believers don’t have to apologize for that anticipation.  The Christian faith doesn’t make sense, nor does life in general make sense, nor does our belief in a loving God make sense without belief in a world beyond this one.

Much beloved Episcopal Bishop Warren Chandler lay dying.  A close friend sat by his bedside.  “Please tell me frankly,” said his friend, “do you dread crossing the river of death?”

The old bishop smiled weakly and said with conviction, “My father owns the land on both sides of the river.  Why should I be afraid?”

For some people such faith sounds much like “Pie in the sky by and by.”  My heart goes out to them.  They have missed the most joyous good news of our faith.  Belief in a loving God demands a completion to an incomplete universe.  As St. Paul writes, “If for this life only have we hoped in Christ, we are of all men most to be pitied.”

We enjoy a foretaste.  We anticipate the future.  And we cling to our faith.  The Greek philosopher Plato taught that we live in a world that’s but a shadow of a better world.  For Plato the physical world is the best evidence there is of the existence of a spiritual world.  That’s an appealing argument, but it was not sufficient for St. Paul.  Paul knew that reason alone, evidence alone, argument alone couldn’t bring a person to God.  Therefore he didn’t say that this world is evidence for a better one.  He said faith is the best evidence we have for a better world.  He said, “… Faith is the assurance (or evidence) of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen…  By faith, we understand the world was created by God…”  He makes that clear in our text when he says that it’s only by the spirit of God that we can come to know God.

In other words, our anticipation grows out of our faith and not visa versa.  Because we have met the One who holds the future in His mighty hand, we can live in joy and anticipation.  “Because he lives, we can live.”  That’s true in this world and the world to come.  If we hang in there with our faith intact, we shall see the salvation of our God.

Patt Barnes discovered this truth through an old flower lady.  She relates that one Easter Sunday morning she noticed the old lady sitting in her usual place inside a small archway.

At her feet corsages and boutonnieres were displayed on top of a spread-open newspaper.  The flower lady was smiling her wrinkled old face alive with some inner joy and on impulse Patt said to her, “My, you look happy this morning!”

“Why not?” the flower lady answered.  “Everything is good.”

The flower lady was dressed so shabbily and seemed so very old that Pattcouldnd’t help asking, “Don’t you have any troubles?”

“You can’t reach my age and not have troubles,” she replied.  “Only it’s like Jesus and Good Friday.  When Jesus was crucified on Good Friday that was the worst day for the whole world.  When I get troubles, I remember that, and then I think of what happened only three days later—Easter and our Lord arising.  So when things go wrong, I’ve learned to wait three days… and somehow everything gets much better.”

Patt Barnes goes on to write, “[The old flower lady] smiled good-by.  But her words still follow me whenever I think I have troubles… Give God a chance to help… wait three days.”

That sounds like good advice to me.  Doesn’t it to you?  Each moment spent in the love and care of God is a moment of eternity.  We don’t have to wait until we cross the river of death to experience God’s love and God’s beauty.

The wondrous things of this world are but a foretaste of greater things to come.  Thus we anticipate the future with eagerness.  In the meantime, we cling to our faith.

Someone has imagined that once an enormous computer was built by all the world’s greatest scientists.  Into that computer was fed all the world’s knowledge.  Then the computer was asked this question, “How did the world really come into existence?”

The computer ground for hours on that question as all the great scientists hovered around it.  Finally it printed out a short, succinct answer:  “See Genesis 1.”

In case you’ve forgotten, Genesis 1 begins like this:  “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”

I believe if we’re to ask the same computer the question, “What does the future hold?” the giant computer would print out 1 Corinthians 2, verse 9:  “What no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, and what no human mind has conceived—the things God has prepared for those who love him…”

In other words, friends, for those of us who love Jesus, “We haven’t seen anything yet.”

Let us pray.  O God of light, your searching Spirit reveals and illumines your presence in creation.  Shine your radiant holiness into our lives, that we may offer our hands and hearts to your work:  to heal and shelter, to feed and clothe, to break every yoke and silence evil tongues.  Amen.

January 29, 2017

What in The World Are We Doing Here?

Micah 6:1-8; Matthew 5:1-12 (CEB)

The story is told about a concert held in Philadelphia.  One of the pieces played by the orchestra featured a flute solo.  This solo was to be played offstage so that it would sound as if coming from a great distance.  The conductor had instructed the flutist to count the measures precisely in order to come in at the exact time.  After all, with the flutist offstage, there could be no visual contact between the two of them.

On the night of the performance, when the time came for the flute solo, the flutist counted perfectly and came in precisely at the right time.  The light, lilting notes floated out beautifully across the theater.  Suddenly, however, there was a terrible shrieking noise and then the soloist went silent.  The conductor was outraged.  At the end of the piece he rushed off stage to find the poor flutist.  The flutist was ready for him.

“Maestro,” he said, “Before you say anything let me tell you exactly what happened.  You’re not going to believe it.  As you are aware I came in precisely on time and everything was going beautifully.  Then suddenly—this enormous stage hand ran up and grabbed away my flute.  Then he pushed me back and snapped at me.  “Shut up, you idiot!”  He said, “Don’t you know there’s a concert going on out there?”

The poor flutist.  He was only doing what he had been told by playing off-stage.

I don’t know about you, but there have been times in my life when I thought I was doing all the right things and then suddenly life has taken a sharp turn and I have been as startled as that flutist.  At such times I’ve been tempted to ask, “What in the world am I doing here?  What does it all mean?  What’s expected out of me?”

Sometimes it even bleeds over into my religious life.  “Things aren’t going the way I expected,” I think to myself.  “How far do I take this religion business?  How much does God really demand out of me?”

Well, of course, there’s an answer to that question in Scripture.  I suppose that few verses in the Old Testament or the New are better known than Micah 6:8, particularly in the Revised Standard Version translation:  “He has showed you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

I suspect this text is well known for two reasons.  One, it has three easily discerned sections which make it easy to deal with—do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with God.  What a nice outline for a sermon.  But secondly, it deals in a simple way with that age-old question, “What does God expect?”  One of the reasons I like this text is that it’s as relevant to our world as it was to the world in which Micah lived.

Micah is considered one of the Minor Prophets.  We don’t know a whole lot about him except that he was a prophet in the 8th century, a contemporary of three better known prophets—Isaiah, Amos and Hosea.  Micah was a prophet who spoke for the downtrodden and exploited people of Judean society, particularly for the poor farm workers who were suffering at the hands of powerful landlords.  Imagine him as an 8th century version of Bernie Sanders calling for income equality.  This may help you as you seek to understand the three Biblical demands he places upon our lives:  “He has showed you, Oman, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

Let’s begin with the call to love kindness.  Here’s the most basic, the most minimal requirement of all religion—that we should treat other people as we would like to be treated.  A great Quaker gentleman expressed it well over two centuries ago when he wrote:  I expect to pass through life but once.  If therefore, there be any kindness I can show, or any good thing I can do to any fellow being, let me do it now, and not defer or neglect it, as I shall not pass this way again.”

All good religion begins here.  We may not be able to agree on everything.  Indeed, we may have some areas of our lives in which we’re in sharp conflict with one another, but we can at least treat each other with civility, with simple human kindness.

There was an article in Reader’s Digest not too long ago about a man named Patrick Connelly.  Connelly is a fan of country music star and TV celebrity Blake Shelton.  In fact, Connelly was fortunate enough to attend a Blake Shelton concert in Overland Park, Kansas.  Unfortunately, Connelly is in a wheelchair.  All he could see at the concert was a sea of people.  Then the most amazing thing happened.  Without being asked, two strangers hoisted Connelly aloft on their shoulders and they held him there for over 20 minutes in grueling 100-degree heat, long enough for the disabled man to watch his hero perform.  That’s kindness.  To be kind is the least we can do in this unkind world.

Of course, the Bible places no limits on our kindness.  We’re even to be kind to those who are unkind to us.  Exodus 23:5 requires the children of Israel not to oppress strangers—with the reminder they were once strangers themselves.  Jesus, of course, went even farther than that:  “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you….” (Matt. 5:44)  There are to be no limits placed upon our kindness.  We’re to pour out acts of love and generosity even toward persons that we may deem undeserving.  For Christians this is particularly significant because we believe that God poured out his love on us when we were undeserving.

Kindness is among the most basic requirements for the believer.  Sometimes our acts of kindness meet with only cold ingratitude from recipients of those acts.  That’s all right.  That’s on them.  We obey Jesus.  Kindness is the first business of a follower of Jesus.

Someone once asked, if you were given a dollar for every kind word or deed which you said or did, and then had to give back fifty cents for every unkind word or deed, would you be rich or poor?  Think about it.  We’re to love kindness.

We’re also to do justice.  Justice is a much larger and more complicated concept than kindness.  Kindness is an individual act.  I see a person in need and, like the Good Samaritan, I try to help.  That’s kindness.  Justice, on the other hand, is the passion that followers of Jesus have for making certain that every person on earth has a decent opportunity for a healthy, wholesome, rewarding life.

Abraham Lincoln once saw a slave girl being sold on an auction block like cattle.  She was being sold away from her family and friends.  Lincoln saw the fright and terror in her eyes.  “This thing must go,” Lincoln said.  He was referring to the institution of slavery.  And he dedicated his life to the destruction of that barbaric institution.  That’s doing justice.

No concept is more Christian or more American than is the demand for justice.  Wherever there are people who are oppressed—whether it’s political oppression, economic oppression, racial oppression, or whatever form that oppression may take, we must raise our voices.

Pastor Ed Markquart gives one of the best examples of the difference between kindness and justice that I know of.  He reminds us of a story from Charles Dicken’s England some two hundred years ago.  At that time, many twelve year old boys were working in coal mines, down in the dangerous mine shafts.  Their life was miserable but that was what was expected of twelve year old boys in poor families in England at that time:  a lifetime of hard work in the coal mines beginning when they were only children.

The church tried to be kind to these poor boys.  They would offer presents at Christmas time.  Their families would receive charity and holiday turkeys.  The church would offer prayers for the little boys working away in those coal mines.

However, one day some determined leaders in that island nation passed a much-needed law.  The law said that little boys could no longer work in coal mines.  The law also insisted these boys go to school instead of going to the coal mines to work.

There, my friends, is the difference between acts of kindness and doing justice.  Kindness is giving Christmas gifts to disadvantaged boys who work in coal mines; kindness is giving their families turkeys during the holiday season, and kindness is praying for them.  Doing justice is working to change the laws so that it’s illegal for little boys to work in the coal mines in the first place.

I fear that we in the church are content to be kind.  Kindness is great.  It’s the first step in following Jesus, but it’s only the beginning of that journey.  It’s the bare minimum.  We’re to love kindness, but we’re also to do justice.

Whether it’s in Syria or the Sudan or here at home where there are people who are being treated cruelly, we have a mission.  Doing justice is much more complicated than loving kindness—but it’s equally a part of Christian witness.

That’s not a popular theme in our present world as you know.  “Let them fend for themselves,” some would say.  “Charity begins at home.”  For people, however, who recognize their lives have been bought with the blood of the cross, such an attitude is repulsive.  We’re here today because God so loved the world that he gave His only Son.  We’re here today because a Man from Galilee cared more about us than he did himself.  If our response to that is only to shut ourselves off behind a wall in our little designer cocoon with our luxury automobiles, expensive high-tech toys, and big screen TVs while the rest of the world goes to hell, we’re in deep spiritual trouble.

What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?  Few characteristics are as appealing in a person as is genuine humility.  However, here Micah is talking about a special kind of humility.  It’s like unto the meekness Jesus praised when he said, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” (Matt. 5:5).  Jesus wasn’t talking about the shy, timid mouse of a person who’s content to serve as the world’s doormat.  Rather he was talking about people who are so committed to serving God and serving other people they have an astounding impact on our world.

The meekness or humility that Jesus and Micah were talking about is the person witha fierce determination and persistence in seeing God’s kingdom be realized.  That kind of humility or meekness leads to tremendous power and effectiveness in life.

Pastor Tony Bland once described such a humble person.  Bland begins by telling about a statue, the largest cast iron statue in the world that sits atop Red Mountain overlooking the city of Birmingham, Alabama.  What you may not know about Birmingham is that, like Pittsburgh, PA, it once was a major center for the production of iron and steel.  The 56-foot tall statue that sits on Red Mountain depicts the Roman god Vulcan, god of the fire and forge.  It’s a symbol of Birmingham’s past, reflecting its roots in the iron and steel industry.

But there’s another statue in Birmingham.  Down from atop Red Mountain, in the heart of this industrial city is a park in front of a church.  In that park is a statue that portrays a little man on his knees with his hands raised to heaven.  This man was known simply as Brother Bryan.  Bryan had been the pastor of a small Presbyterian Church.

Brother Bryan was a humble pastor who was often seen kneeling hand in hand on a street corner praying with someone.  He pastored in Birmingham for more than a quarter of a century.  He was a servant to all.  He was a meek and humble man.  But when he died, businesses closed, flags were hung at half mast, and the whole city wept in sorrow at his departure.  They built a statue to serve as a memorial to this humble pastor.

Tony Bland writes, “When the statue of Vulcan has tumbled to dust, and Red Mountain is worn flat, the witness and work of Pastor Bryan will remain.”  Brother Bryan was a humble man, but he moved an entire city through his devotion to serving God and others.  That’s the kind of humility or meekness that God seeks in us.

So, what in the world are you doing here?  Whatever else you’re involved in, I hope you’re engaged in these three simple but courageous activities:  doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God.

Let us pray.  God our deliverer, you walk with the meek and the poor, the compassionate and those who mourn, and you call us to walk humbly with you.  When we’re foolish, be our wisdom; when we’re weak, be our strength; that, as we learn to do justice and to love mercy, your rule may come as blessing.  Amen.

January 22, 2017

Fans or Followers

Isaiah 9:1-4; Matthew 4:12-23 CEB

Kyle Idleman has written a very thoughtful essay titled “Why I’m Not a ‘Fan’ of Jesus.”

He begins by noting that, according to a recent survey, the percentage of Americans who claim to be Christian is somewhere north of 75 percent.

“Really?” he asks, “three out of four people are followers of Christ?

“Let’s see, if the population of the United States is about 311 million and 75 percent are Christians that brings the number of Christians to somewhere in the neighborhood of 233 million.  That’s a lot of Christians.”

In his estimation, something about that percentage is off.  “Because if there really are that many Christians, then why will some 35 million people in America go to bed hungry tonight, including 13 million children?  If 75 percent of Americans are Christians…then why are there more than 120, 000 children waiting to be adopted?... The numbers don’t add up.  Jesus said the evidence that someone is one of his followers is love.  So, 233 million?”Says Idleman, “the evidence just isn’t there.

“What’s the explanation for such a discrepancy?”  He asks.  He tells about an article he read a number of years ago about a group the article called, the “new vegetarians.”

“These new vegetarians don’t eat meat—most of the time.  One of them explained that she was a vegetarian, but she really liked bacon.”  [And so she ate it.]  “A vegetarian, by definition, is someone who doesn’t eat meat,” says Idleman.  “Umm, yeah, but isn’t bacon a meat?  Is it really accurate for her to identify herself as a vegetarian?...”  Then he adds the discrepancy was solved by coming up with a new term to describe vegetarians who aren’t committed to abstaining from meat.  They now identify themselves as “Flexitarians.”

“A Christian,” continues Idleman, “by definition, is a follower of Christ.  So, I’m thinking that what might help make sense of the 233 million number is a new word to describe people who identify themselves as Christians but have little interest in actually following the teachings of Jesus.  Perhaps instead of ‘followers,’ it would be more accurate to call them ‘fans.’

“The word fan is most simply defined as, an enthusiastic admirer.  And I think Jesus has a lot of fans these days.  Some fans may even get dressed up for church on Sunday and make their ringtone a worship song.  They like be associated with Jesus.  Fans want to be close enough to Jesus to get the benefits, but not so close that it requires anything from them.  They want a no-strings-attached relationship with Jesus.  So a fan says, I like Jesus but don’t ask me to serve the poor.  I like Jesus, but I’m not going to give my money to people who’re in need.  I like Jesus, but don’t ask me to forgive the person who hurt me.  I like Jesus, but don’t talk to me about money or sex—that’s off limits.

“Fans like Jesus just fine, but they don’t want to give up the bacon…”

Today’s reading from Matthew’s Gospel is about four men who were called by Jesus to be disciples.  They weren’t called to be fans of Jesus, but followers.  Their names were Peter, Andrew, James and John, four fishermen.  But this reading is also about you and me, because we’ve been called to be disciples as well.  We also have been called to be followers and not fans.  I’ll let you decide to which group you belong.  But first let’s ask, what does it mean to be a disciple of Jesus Christ?

Notice, first of all, how ordinary these four men were.  They had no formal education that we know of.  Neither did they possess any particular personal attractiveness or extraordinary talent of which we are aware.  They were just ordinary fishermen.  We often make the mistake of assuming that God calls only the most impressive, the most gifted, the most talented people.  Indeed, that seems to be the exact opposite of what God does.

God comes to Moses with the summons to go tell Pharaoh to “Let my people go.”

Moses responds, “Who am I that I should go to the Pharaoh?”  Later Moses protests that he is too “slow of speech” to carry out such a mission (Exodus 3 and 4).

God comes to Gideon who would later be a great leader of God’s people, but Gideon responds:  “My clan is the weakest in Mannaseh, and I am the least in my family” (Judges 6:15).

Even that most successful of all Israel’s kings, David, was flabbergasted by God’s call.  “I’m only a poor man and little known,” replies David (1 Samuel 18:23).

St. Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 1, that God has deliberately chosen what the world considers foolish.

My friends, he’s talking about you and me.  God chooses ordinary people to do his work so they will depend on His power and not their own.  For this reason, Paul says, no one will ever be able “to boast in the presence of God.”

The late John McKay, was for many years the coach of the University of Southern California Trojans.  Later he was the coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the NFL.  He was known as a superb football coach.

McKay once said that it’s not the superstars who win most football games but average players giving their best.

I’m certain that a Hall of Fame coach like McKay understood the value of having players of a certain level of talent, but he also understood that many talented players never fulfill their potential because of a lack of desire and dedication.

In the play, “Green Pastures”, God asks Gabriel to recruit a leader and Gabriel asks in return, “Do you want the brainiest or do you want the holiest?”

God answers, “Get me the holiest.  I’ll make him the brainiest.”

And that’s the way God works.  Some of His most effective servants have been people with very modest resume`s.

Beginning with the crude manger of Bethlehem no message is clearer in the New Testament than this one—Christian faith is the celebration of ordinary people who come to possess a very extraordinary power.

When you’re asked to serve God in some capacity, don’t talk yourself out of a great opportunity by saying, “I’m too old,” or “I don’t have enough education,” or some other personal putdown.  God can give you the ability.  What he can’t give you is the commitment, the dedication, the faithfulness.  That must come from within.  That’s why God always prefers the holiest to the brainiest.  That’s why Christ prefers followers to mere fans.  The first disciples that Jesus called were ordinary individuals.

And notice what these ordinary individuals were called to do.  They were called to spend three years of their lives in the presence of Jesus.

A disciple is one who studies with a great teacher.  This implies that those who follow Jesus need to grow.  We don’t blossom overnight into mature spiritual giants.

Dr. Dwayne Dyer asked in one of his books, “How do you distinguish between a flower that’s alive and one that’s dead?”  Then he answers his own question:  “The one that’s growing is alive.”  He adds, “The only evidence of life is growth.”  So it is with the life of the spirit.

One prominent evangelist complained during the 1950s when churches were bursting at the seams that the church really wasn’t growing; it was merely getting fat.  That is, persons were coming into the church but they were remaining spiritual infants.  They weren’t growing in understanding and faith.  “We’re simply multiplying spiritual babies,” this evangelist charged.  The past half-century have borne that out.  Many have fallen by the wayside.  Many have proved to be people of shallow convictions.  They have proven to be fans and not followers.

To be alive is to grow.  In his second epistle Peter encourages us “to grow in grace, and in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18).

Growth is why we come to church.  The place most of us encounter Christ and learn about him and grow in our spiritual walk is within these walls.  The cry of a few years ago, “Jesus, yes; the church, no” simply is an illusion.  Follow-up studies on persons involved in Christian groups not related to a local church over the past several decades back that up.  It simply doesn’t last.  The ember removed from the fire soon grows cold.  As the song says, “it only takes a spark to get a fire going…”

Like every pastor I’m astounded at times by the casual attitude many people have about their responsibilities to the church.

I sometimes feel like the orchestra conductor who was quite upset over the fact that at every rehearsal at least one member of the orchestra was absent.  At the final rehearsal before a big concert he announced, “I would like to thank our first trumpet player.  He was the only member of this orchestra who didn’t miss a rehearsal.”

The first trumpet player stood and bowed as the other members of the orchestra applauded.  Then he said quietly, “It was the least I could do, considering I won’t be able to be at the concert tonight.”

I know how that orchestra conductor felt at that moment.  Every pastor does.

The work of the church is so important.  Our ministry to children and to youth and to adults is so vital to the Kingdom of God.  This is a place where disciples grow.  This is where we’re equipped for the work Christ has given us.  The church deserves our best loyalty and service.

I’m reminded of a story about another orchestra that was giving a concert in a large church hall in England.  The place was filled to capacity.

Afterwards a casual member of that church where the concert was held flippantly asked the pastor of the church when the hall would be filled like that for a Sunday morning worship service.  The pastor answered solemnly, “It will be filled when like that conductor I have eighty well-trained, committed and disciplined men and women to work with me.”

How the church needs that today.  Eighty well-trained, committed and disciplined men and women could change a community, maybe even a nation.

I heard recently about a man who was given the nickname, “Honest John.”  It embarrassed him and he protested that he didn’t deserve it.  “Couldn’t you call me, ‘Fairly Honest John?’”  He asked.

That sounds like many of us, doesn’t it?  We want to be ‘fairly committed’ in our service to Christ, ‘fairly committed’ to Sunday school, study, and worship, ‘fairly committed’ to making our church what God has called it to be.  Jesus called those original followers to spend three years in his presence as disciples, learners, students.  It wasn’t enough for them to be “fairly committed.”  Christ was calling them to be completely committed.  They needed to grow.  So do we.  

This brings us to the last thing to be said.  These disciples were ordinary people just as we are.  They were called not only to go with Jesus but also to grow with him—just as we are as well.  Here’s the final thought.

There would come a time when they would no longer be called disciples, but apostles—those who are sent out to proclaim the Good News.  Disciples are those called to come.  Apostles are those called to go.  There needs to come a time when we move from being followers to being leaders.

Our church should never have any difficulty finding persons to serve in the nursery.  To teach in children’s church, or take on leadership positions, or serve on committees, or make contacts in our community.  There comes a time when mature Christian believers realize that it’s time to move from being ‘ministered to’ to the work of ministry itself.

Perhaps that was part of why Jesus chose not to remain with his disciples physically.  He wanted them to understand that now they had the privilege and responsibility of carrying on the work of God.

Remember that scene where Jesus asks Simon Peter three times, “Simon, do you love me?”  Each time when Simon professes his love for Christ the Lord instructs Simon to “feed my sheep.”  That’s the final step in following Christ.  It’s to feed Christ’s sheep.  We need to appreciate that in the church today.  We need to move beyond caring for ourselves to caring for others.

One of the most monumental works in all the world is the Great Wall of China.  The mammoth man-made structure stretches eighteen hundred miles over mountains, plains and deserts.  The Chinese built it to keep out barbarians, but for the Chinese themselves it became a barrier to progress.  Isolated behind that wall from others, they quit progressing as a people.

That can happen to us as individuals or as a church.  Great things happen within the walls of this church.  But if we never see ourselves as the apostles, those sent out in ministry to the world, we will stagnate and die in our own spiritual pilgrimage.

At the beginning of his ministry Jesus called four men—Peter and his brother Andrew and two other brothers, James and John—to leave their nets and follow him.  He called them not to be fans, but to be followers.  These were four ordinary men but God did extraordinary things through them.  The first part of their pilgrimage was spent in the fellowship of Christ and other believers in order that they might grow to spiritual maturity as Christ’s disciples.  But there came a time when in order to continue their growth.   They discovered they must become teachers, missionaries, leaders of local churches, and servants both of the Word and the world.  That’s our calling as well, to move beyond being a fan to being a follower of Jesus Christ.

Let us pray.  God of Blazing light, through the power of the cross you shattered our darkness, scattering the fears that bind us and setting us free to live as your children.  Give us courage and conviction that we may joyfully turn and follow you into new adventures of faithful service, led by the light that shines through Jesus Christ our Savior.  Amen.

January 1, 2017

Today Can Be the First Day of Your New Life!

Isaiah 63:7-9; Matthew 2:13-23 (CEB)

It’s said that in Rome, on New Year’s Eve, there’s a tradition of literally throwing old things right out the window, to start the New Year free from the past.

I guess the moral of that is if you’re fortunate enough to be in Rome, Italy some New Year’s Eve, you best keep an eye on the sky.  Somebody might be throwing out a heavy piece of furniture just as you’re passing by.  That’s their tradition.

A pastor named Patricia Farris tells about being in Mexico one year with her husband on New Year’s Eve.  They found themselves in the middle of something they didn’t understand at the time, but they discovered it’s similar to the tradition in Rome.

It was late in the evening not yet midnight and the central square was full of people, lights, music, kids, old people, families… Stands were set up and people were selling, in addition to all the usual souvenirs and food and so forth, an array of very inexpensive pottery, mostly simple clay plates.  What was interesting was that people were buying these simple clay plates and then standing back and throwing them with full force against one wall of the great cathedral in the community square, smashing the plates into smithereens.

It was loud and raucous and exciting, according to Ms. Farris.  Only later did she learn that this tradition grew out of a deep human need to throw out the old, to start the New Year free of old resentments, old fears, old prejudices, old sins.  “Throw them out!” says Pastor Farris, “Let them smash against the strong fortress of faith and be done with it.  God is ready to offer healing and new life.”

Our theme for our service today, this first Sunday of a New Year is “Today is the first day of the rest of your life!”  You’ve heard that expression before.  It’s a positive expression about life and I want to reinforce it today.  Today really can be the first day in your new life.

Velma Seawell Daniels in her book “Celebrate Joy!” tells of interviewing a man who had made a trip to Alaska to visit some people who lived above the Arctic Circle.

“Never ask an Eskimo how old he is,” the man said.  “If you do, [the Eskimo] will say, ‘I don’t know and I don’t care.’  And,” the man added, “he doesn’t.”

He said an Eskimo told him that one time and he pressed the Eskimo a bit further.  He asked him a second time how old he was and the Eskimo said, “Almost   that’s all.”

So he asked, “Almost what?”  And the Eskimo said, “Almost one day.”

The man didn’t have a clue what the Eskimo meant by that until he talked to another man who had lived in the Arctic Circle for about twenty years.  “He was a newspaperman who had written a book about the Eskimos and their customs and beliefs.  He said the Eskimos believe that when they go to sleep at night they die, that they’re literally dead to the world.  Then, when they wake up in the morning, they have been resurrected and are living a new life.  Therefore, no Eskimo is more than one day old.  So, that’s what the Eskimo meant when he said he was ‘almost’ a day old.  The day wasn’t over yet.”

“Life above the Arctic Circle is harsh and cruel, and mere survival becomes a major accomplishment,” he explained further.  “But, you never see an Eskimo who seems worried or anxious.  They’ve learned to face life one day at a time.”

Have you learned how to put worry and anxiety aside and live one day at a time?  It gives new meaning to that familiar admonition that “today is the first day of the rest of your life,” doesn’t it?

Our Scripture lesson for the day deals with people who also lived in a harsh and cruel world.  It’s the concluding portion of the Christmas story.  After the shepherds and the wise men have gone, an angel appears to Joseph in a dream and says to him, “Herod will be looking for the child in order to kill him.  So get up, take the child and escape to Egypt, and stay there until I tell you to leave.”

It’s a scene of darkness and dread, of fear and flight.  The humble couple gathers their few belongings and their precious newborn babe, and in the darkness of night they silently make their way toward Egypt.

Life’s often like that.  Even in the most beautiful story in all of literature the story of the gift of God’s Son being delivered to humankind in the manger of Bethlehem there is the specter of fear and death.

This is an acknowledgement on this first Sunday of the New Year, that there’s much in life to dread.  The Bible doesn’t gloss over the very real problems of living in this imperfect world.  From the very first family, with its envy and strife; through the daily battles of God’s own people, the people of Israel, with neighboring tribes, with feast, famine, slavery and wandering through the wilderness… through tears and tribulations… we see in their travails that life isn’t easy.  The Bible portrays no Pollyanna view of life.  Life is harsh, demanding, and sometimes cruel.  There’s much to dread.

So Joseph and Mary and their newborn son must flee for their lives into Egypt.  It’s a very human drama that’s been repeated often through the ages.  Even today, around the world and within our own borders, families are packing up their belongings, setting off in the hopes of finding jobs, food, or freedom.  Some in places like Syria and even Central America are actually fleeing for their lives.  They have to leave family and friends behind.  With a sense of dread and uncertainty they move to new homes in search of a better, more secure life.

Mary and Joseph fled to Egypt, but the story doesn’t end there.  Even when Herod dies and they feel free to return to Israel, they dare not return to their former home in the province of Judea.  Herod’s son Archeleus has succeeded him and there’s still much to fear.  Thus they settle in the province of Galilee in a little town called Nazareth.

The Biblical testimony is realistic that there’s much in life to fear.  The problem begins when we allow our fears to overwhelm us.  Fear can do amazing things with our minds.

The most basic of all human emotions is fear.  And fear in proper doses is healthy.  Many people, however, are almost totally dominated by their fears.  It may be fear of failure, or fear of ridicule.  It may be fear of places, or fear of people.  There are as many fears as there are demands upon the human creature.  Anything we’re asked to be or do can create fear.

Of course, everyone is afraid of something.  Actor Spencer Tracy had a fear of flying.  So did Judy Garland.  Modern actresses Jennifer Aniston and Whoopi Goldberg are also said to be afraid of flying.

Pop star Britney Spears is said to panic on encountering large lizards… which I think is interesting.  Madonna is terrified of thunder.

Actress Scarlett Johansson is terrified of birds.  I hope she never sees the Alfred Hitchcock thriller by that name.  She’ll never be the same again.

We’re told that French philosopher Albert Camus was phobic about driving a car.  Ironically, he died in a car accident while a friend was driving.

Sigmund Freud had a fear of traveling anywhere outside of Vienna.  I wonder what kind of repressed desire explains that?

There’s an intriguing story told about the late J. Edgar Hoover, former director of the F.B.I.  The story may be apocryphal, but one source tells it as true.

It seems that Hoover once made a trip to California.  While making a left turn, his chauffeur driven car was struck by another car from behind.  The F.B.I. director, who had been sitting in the left seat behind the driver, was badly shaken by the incident.  From then on Hoover refused to sit in the left rear seat of a car (he called it “the death seat”).  But even more amazing from that day forward Hoover forbade all left turns on auto trips.  Thereafter his aides had to go through the most complicated arrangements to get director, Hoover from place to place without making any left turns.

Think about that, if it’s true.  The director of one of America’s most important law enforcement agencies was reduced to a bundle of nerves by the thought of making a left turn.

We all have the capacity to make our lives miserable by giving in to our fears.

But there’s an antidote to fear, and you can find it in the Scriptures.  It’s an antidote that allowed the heroes of the Bible to dissolve their fears and fight great battles.

The antidote is more than simply being courageous.  Courage is an admirable quality.  It allows us to face our fears for a time and do battle.  But courage is somewhat of a limited ally.  It all too easily falls prey to its greatest enemy, an emotion with an interesting name:  discouragement.  Think about it.  Courage and discourage.  For courage to be lasting and effective, it must be able to see hope.  If it sees no hope, it quickly transforms into discouragement.  The opposite of fear isn’t courage the opposite of fear is faith.

Faith tells us that although the odds are against us we’re not alone.  That’s the Biblical answer to fear.  We may see no hope, but we know the One who’s the source of hope.  That’s faith, not in ourselves but in God.  And that kind of faith can always defeat fear.

It’s interesting that Joseph and Mary, as they fled to Egypt, couldn’t know they were fulfilling an Old Testament prophecy, “I called my son out of Egypt.”  And as they headed from Egypt to Nazareth, separating themselves from their families and friends in Judea, they probably weren’t even aware that according to a prophecy which had been written centuries before, the Messiah would be called a Nazarene.  Even as the drama of the first Christmas begins with them making their way to Joseph’s hometown of Bethlehem because of a ruling by Augustus Caesar that the world should be taxed, they couldn’t know that, according to prophecy, their son must be born in Bethlehem.  Think of it, God had moved a Roman emperor in order to fulfill an isolated piece of Scripture.  God even used the jealous rage of Herod and Archeleus to fulfill His purposes.

Do you see the majesty and glory of it all?  Even in the darkest times, God was there, just as God is with us in our difficult times.  Life was hard for Mary and Joseph, but they weren’t alone.  God was with them.  And that’s the meaning of faith not that the way will be made easy for us, but that God will be with us.

So, why are you afraid?  Why are you dispirited and downcast?  God’s at work.  Because of Him all things are working toward the good for those who love Him.

Why not turn your fears and frustrations over to God?  As Patricia Farris says, “Throw them out… smash [them] against the strong fortress of faith and be done with [them].  God’s ready to offer healing and new life.”  The same loving Father who gently guided Mary and Joseph toward Bethlehem, then toward Egypt, and finally toward a little town named Nazareth watches over our lives as well and he can free you from your fears if you will trust Him.

Without faith we’re in bondage to our worries and anxieties.  But with trust in God, we can be set free.

Let us pray.  Praise is our cry, O Holy One of Israel, for you have come among us and borne our burdens.  Give us open hearts that we might embrace our suffering sisters and brothers, and welcome Jesus in the hospitality we show to exiles.  Amen.