First Presbyterian Church USA 
Riverside Presbyterian Church USA

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September 24, 2017

Deathbed Confessions

Exodus 16:2-15; Matthew 20:1-16

Did you know that Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis and one of the most important figures of the early 20th century was a jokester?  He was.  In fact, back in 1915 he told a joke about a minister who was summoned by a group of anxious relatives.  They wanted him to extract a deathbed conversion from an atheist and unrepentant insurance salesman.

The meeting between the minister and the insurance salesman took place, and the longer the meeting continued behind the hospital’s closed doors, the more the family members took hope.  When the door finally opened, however, the salesman hadn’t been converted.  However, the pastor went away with ample insurance to cover any eventuality.

There was a time when so-called deathbed conversions were taken quite seriously.  It was important to people that their loved ones sign on the bottom line to become Christians, even if it was at the last minute.  This was to ensure their loved one avoided the fires of hell.

Yet this practice led other Christians to ask an important question concerning faith in Christ:  “Can you really live a terrible life, wait right up until the last minute before you die, then ask forgiveness for your sins, make a confession of faith in Christ and still be received into the Kingdom of God as if you had been the greatest saint who ever lived?”

From a reading of our lesson from the Gospel for today we would have to say the answer is “yes.”

Jesus told a parable about a landowner who went into the marketplace early in the morning to hire laborers—a common practice in rural communities even into recent times.  Those he hired he agreed to pay the standard wage for a day’s work.  Three hours later he saw that he was going to need more laborers if the work was going to get done.  He returned to the marketplace and hired more laborers.

At about noon he again found it necessary to hire more workers, then again at three o’clock, then again at five.  Quitting time was six o’clock.  At six o’clock he had his foreman line up the laborers to be paid.  He began with those who had worked but an hour.  He paid them for a full day.

Watching this were those who had worked since six in the morning, twelve full hours.  They rubbed their hands in delight.  “Wow,” they thought to themselves, “Ife he pays them a full day’s wage for working just one hour, think how much he will pay us!”  When their time came, however, they also received the standard wage for one day’s work.

They were infuriated.  They had worked all day and they were receiving the same amount as those who had worked just one hour.  It wasn’t fair.  It just wasn’t.  But the landowner said, “Didn’t I pay you what we had agreed on?  If I want to be more generous with these others is it not my right?  Is it not my money to do with as I please?”

Since most of us here today feel that we’re those who have labored since six o’clock in the morning, this may be one of Jesus’ most difficult teachings to accept.  Is it true?  Can a person be an absolute scoundrel right up until the moment of his or her death and then repent, confess faith in Christ and receive the gift of eternal life as if he or she had been a saint all their lives?

Why not then, someone asks, go ahead and live a life of sin and wait until the last moment to repent?

Actually the question is more troubling to me than the answer.  Why would we ask such a question in the first place?  Doesn’t such a question indicate that we think we would rather live a life of sin than a life of faith?  Why else would we be concerned about waiting until the last moment?  Are we praying Augustine’s prayer, “Lord save me, but not yet” because deep in our hearts we believe that giving in to God will spoil our fun?  That living a life of faith will be a burden rather than a blessing?

Let me ask you a serious question.  What would you change about your life if you knew there were no heaven and no hell?  Would you be less loving toward your family?  Would you cheat on your wife?  Would you be dishonest in your business?  I don’t think so.  The old saw that ‘virtue is its own reward’ is true.

There are other reasons that we maintain our wedding vows, run our business in an ethical way, and love our families besides the fear of hell.  We seek to live virtuous lives not out of fear but because we have looked around and seen that moral life is truly the best way to live in this world.

We can’t imagine a world without moral values or family ties.  We may joke about the attractiveness of sin and sing with the teenagers, “I was sinking deep in sin…Whee…” but deep in our hearts we know that a life of sin leads only to dissolution and destruction of everything that’s good and lasting and ultimately satisfying in this world.  God isn’t our enemy.  Deep in our heart we know that.  Satan is the enemy—that which tempts us to be less than the beautiful, whole, healthy, loving children of God, God created us to be.

What would you honestly change about your life if you knew there was no heaven or hell?  I suspect very little.  Some of you are probably thinking that you would not sit through any more boring sermons if you had that knowledge.  Did I hear an ‘Amen’ from the back?  Actually, if it’s the fear of judgment that brings you to church, you probably don’t get much out of worship anyway.

When we come to the mature realization that we seek to do right not to please an angry God, but because it’s ultimately in our best interest to do right, then we’ll no longer envy the scoundrel who makes a deathbed confession.  Indeed, we’ll pity him for taking so long to see what we’ve known all along.

If you don’t believe me, would you believe the spooky granddaddy of shock rock Alice Cooper?  A few weeks ago we shared a Breakpoint commentary by Steve Beard about Bob Dylan.  Beard did another column about Alice Cooper, who’s a much more bizarre figure.  A few years ago, Cooper stunned the London Sunday Times by stating, and I quote:  “Drinking beer is easy.  Trashing your hotel room is easy.  But being a Christian, that’s a tough call.  That’s rebellion.”

Cooper practically invented the word rebellion.  Even today he travels with a stage show that features guillotines, electric chairs, fake blood, deadly snakes, baby dolls, and dueling swords.

At the height of his worldwide fame, notes beard, Cooper drank a bottle of whiskey a day.  But the bottle almost destroyed his marriage to Sheryl, his wife of twenty-five years.  But then, when he realized he was in trouble, Alice Cooper started heading off to church with his wife and there he felt God speak to him.

Cooper experienced every pleasure that money could buy but he found it didn’t satisfy.  “I was the prodigal son.  I left the house, achieved fame and fortune, and found out that wasn’t what I wanted,” he said in an interview.  “Now I read the Bible every day, I pray every day.  That’s really what I’m about.”  He continues:  “I was one thing at one time, and I’m something new.  I’m a new creature now.  Don’t judge Alice by what he used to be.  Praise God for what I am now.”

In describing the importance of his Christian faith, he says, “It’s everything.  It’s what I live for.  If you gave me a choice between rock and roll and my faith, I’d take my faith,” Cooper told a newspaper.  “Rock and roll is fun—it’s what I do for a living.  But it’s not what I live on.  I believe in classic Christianity.  I’ve given my whole life to the Lord.  But I don’t think that means you can’t be a rock and roller.”  After all, as Cooper has said, “I must be the only father that bangs on the bedroom door and says, “Turn that music up!”

Ask which is more satisfying—a life of sin or life as a follower of Jesus, and Alice Cooper will tell you that following Christ is far superior.  And it’s true.  Some of you, like Cooper, have learned that the hard way.  But you know it’s true.

In his book, Six Hours One Friday Max Lucado tells the story of how he and his boat once survived a hurricane.  An old seaman advised to take his boat to deep water, drop four anchors off each corner of the boat, and pray that the anchors held.  Max survived the storm, but he says that he learned an important lesson:  all of us need an anchor that will hold during the storms of life.

If we’re wise enough to have a strong anchor that will withstand any storm, we won’t need to make a deathbed confession, and we won’t envy the person who does.  We’re not perfect, but we’re wise enough to see there are certain laws—moral laws, spiritual laws, if you will—that govern this universe as surely as does the law of gravity.  By the grace of God we’ll seek to do right, because in the long run it’s in our best interest and in the interest of those we love.

There’s a second reason why this is a troubling question.  If God rejoices when one lost sheep, one lost coin, one lost boy is found—as Luke’s Gospel tells us He does—shouldn’t we rejoice as well?  Those who had worked in the vineyard wouldn’t have been at all dissatisfied with what they had received if they hadn’t compared their wages with what the others had received.  There’s something very human about that.

Some of you are familiar with the Hollywood movie, Amadeus—an entertaining dramatization of the life of Mozart.  The central figure of the drama is a composer who was a contemporary of Mozart, Antonio Salieri.  In the movie Salieri is a man whose life is devoted to music.  Indeed, early in life he made a promise to God that he would give his entire life to God if God would simply allow him to write sublime music.

Salieri’s prayer is answered.  He writes beautiful music and is a success in his chosen vocation.  He earns a place as chief composer in the emperor’s court.

One day, however, he hears the music of Mozart and he recognizes, even if many of his contemporaries don’t, that Mozart has gifts far superior to his own.  Something happens within Salieri.  He becomes obsessed with the desire to destroy Mozart.  He even rails against God.  He believes that God is mocking him through Mozart—even though God has answered his prayer and given him great gifts, those gifts weren’t as great as Mozart’s, and Salieri can’t forgive God.  His own composing career is put on hold as he obsessively seeks ways to undermine the career of his younger rival.  The ending to the movie is a tragic portrayal of the power and envy to destroy a person’s heart and soul.  As one cynic has put it, “It’s not enough to succeed.  Our friends must fail as well.”

What’s there within us that judges our lives not on the basis of what we have received, but on the basis of what we have received in relation to others?  Of course, when that gift happens to be the gift of salvation, the principle is even more critical.

Shall we who have been saved by grace not rejoice whenever any person receives that grace as well, whether they receive it as a child, as a teenager, or at 98 years of age after a life of total degradation?

In questioning God about such matters, what we fail to see is how valuable a human soul is to God.  That’s the important truth here.  God’s primary passion is to save people—whenever that might happen.  That’s the Gospel.

Leslie Weatherhead puts that truth in a beautiful way in his book, Key Next Door.  When Weatherhead was visiting some friends he noticed they had an old dog named “Pete.”  Pete, Weatherhead said, “didn’t have much to commend him as far as appearances were concerned.”  The dog tottered about, had a raw spot on his back, and some had suggested the dog should be put to sleep.

Furthermore, Weatherhead was about to suggest the same thing to his hosts.  But he learned the dog was MIKE’S DOG.  Mike was the son of the hosts and the parents were keeping the dog for Mike.  They admitted the dog was somewhat of a bother, but after all, they said, “He’s Mike’s dog and we love the dog for Mike’s sake.”

They saw the dog as Mike’s dog and they couldn’t have him put to sleep, because Mike and the dog and their love were all bound up together.  They could see Mike coming home from the University and saying, “Where’s old Pete?”  And they couldn’t see themselves saying, “Oh, we put him away because he was such a bother and he wasn’t worth saving!”

“Not worth saving?”  That was a label that Weatherhead could put on old Pete, but not the parents because HE WAS MIKE’S DOG.  Weatherhead adds at this point:  “Can’t you just imagine some angelic cynic looking down on the world and saying, ‘I can’t imagine why God keeps those mangy humans about.  Why doesn’t God just wipe them off the face of the earth?  Look how they disobey.  Look how wretched most are!”

But God can’t do that, can He?  We belong to Christ, and so, are of infinite worth.

That’s why even a sorry old deathbed confession is enough for entry into the Kingdom of God.  God is foolishly, hopelessly in love with humanity.  There’s nothing He won’t give to save us from the powers of sin and death.  But why make him wait that long?  Why wait until the jungle has ensnared us and defaced our divine dignity?  Why not make that confession of faith today?

Let us pray.  God of miracles and of mercy, all creation sings your praise.  Like the vineyard owner, your grace is extravagant and unexpected.  Lead us to repentance and the acceptance of your grace, that we may witness to your love, which embraces both those we call friend and those we call stranger.  Amen.

September 17, 2017

The Power to Forgive

Genesis 50:15-21; Matthew 18:21-35

Pastor John Ortberg tells a humorous story about an umpire in a softball league in Colorado.  One day, during the off season, this unfortunate umpire got stopped by a police officer for speeding.  He pleaded for mercy.  He explained to the policeman that he was a good driver and told why this particular day he had to be in a hurry.  The officer didn’t buy his argument.  “Tell it to the judge,” he said.

When softball season rolled around, the umpire was umpiring the first game.  Guess who was the first batter to the plate?  It was the police officer who ticketed the umpire for speeding.  They recognized each other.  It was awkward for the officer.

“So, how did the thing with the ticket go?” the officer asked as he prepared to swing at the first pitch.

With a menacing look on his face the umpire replied, “You better swing at everything.”  The umpire was set to get his revenge.

Sometimes revenge can be deliciously sweet, yet most of us understand that vengeance isn’t a satisfactory response to being hurt, especially for those who follow Christ.  But neither is carrying around a lifetime of hurt feelings.  The answer as we all know is forgiveness.  But how do we forgive someone who has hurt us?  How do we overcome our painful emotions and reconcile with someone who has done us wrong?  That’s what our lesson for the day is about.  How do we go about forgiving?

Simon Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me?  Up to seven times?”

Simon Peter’s question was a sincere one.  He wanted to know exactly what the Master expected out of him.  The prominent rabbis of the day were teaching that one should forgive someone who has done us wrong three times.  Was that enough Simon Peter wondered?  And so he asked Jesus this important question:  “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me?  Up to seven times?

Some of us would like an answer to the same question.  Forgiveness is a big problem in our lives.  There have been persons who have wronged us and it’s so, so difficult to let go of our feelings of anger, resentment and even hatred.  How many times shall we forgive?

Jesus’ answer was, of course, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.”  That’s a demanding stance.  Some of us may feel it’s asking too much of mere mortals.  And yet Jesus, believe it or not, was looking out for our best interest.  Forgiveness is to our benefit as much as it is for the person who has injured us.

Our question for the day is how do we forgive?  Forgiveness is a redemptive act that’s essential to our mental, emotional and spiritual well-being.  It’s not enough to simply “act civil” toward the person who has wronged us—to let “by-gones be by-gones.”  We must move from our hurt to reconciliation or else we leave an open wound that’s not allowed to heal.  But how?  How do we forgive?

Let’s begin by asking, why do we find it so hard to forgive?  Obviously, one answer is that the pain is simply too deep to forgive.

There’s a man whose name has become synonymous with forgiveness.  It’s retired South African Bishop Desmond Tutu.  After the final defeat of apartheid in South Africa, it was Bishop Tutu who set up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission by which black persons in that country publicly forgave those who had done them serious harm.  It was one of the most stunning events in history…literally.  People who had family members tortured and murdered by police confronted the officers who had committed these crimes and publicly forgave them.

Maybe the reason Desmond Tutu could be so effective in this role is that he himself had to deal with a very personal battle of forgiving someone who had harmed someone he loved.

In a book titled The Book of Forgiving Tutu tells how as a young boy he had to watch helplessly as his father verbally and physically abused his mother.  He says that he can still recall the smell of alcohol coming from his father’s lips, he can still see the fear in his mother’s eyes, he can still feel the hopeless despair that comes when we see people we love hurting each other in incomprehensible ways.  He says he wouldn’t wish that experience on anyone, especially not a child.

He writes, “If I dwell in those memories, I can feel myself wanting to hurt my father back, in the same ways he hurt my mother and in ways of which I was incapable [of understanding] as a small boy.  I see my mother’s face and I see this gentle human being whom I loved so very much and who did nothing to deserve the pain inflicted upon her.  When I recall this story, I realize how difficult the process of forgiving truly is.  Intellectually, I know my father caused pain because he was in pain.  Spiritually, I know my faith tells me my father deserves to be forgiven as God forgives us all.  But it’s still difficult.  The traumas we have witnessed or experienced live on in our memories.  Even years later they can cause us fresh pain each time we recall them.”

Some of you can relate to Tutu’s experience with an abusive parent.  Or it may have been a teacher or a friend or a sibling or a spouse who abused us, but somewhere along the way someone has hurt us deeply and we can still feel the pain.  For some the pain is so intense that it’s simply easier to cut that person out of our lives than to forgive.  That’s one reason it’s difficult to forgive—the pain is too deep.

Pride can also get in the way of forgiveness, as does a mistaken sense of principle.  We think to ourselves, “This will teach him a lesson.”  Then there are family members and friends who may encourage our estrangement:  “You surely aren’t going to forgive him after what he’s done to you, are you?”

They probably mean well but they may not understand our own need for healing.  Pain, pride, other people—these are usually the reasons why we don’t forgive.  And our inability to forgive can have devastating effects on us as well as others.  Holding on to resentful feelings can shorten our lives, poison our memories, weaken our relationship with God and even affect our own feelings of self-worth.  This is in addition to the damage to the relationship with the person we can’t forgive.

Several years ago a book came out titled To Forgive is Human—How to Put Your Past in the Past.  It was written by 3 doctors who evaluated the various benefits that come when you move past resentment to forgiveness.  Here are three of those benefits:

First of all, when you let go of past hurts and learn to forgive, there’s a physical benefit to you.  Attitudes of bitterness, hostility, and resentment are like poisons and toxins to your body.  Chronic anger and hostility can be more toxic to your health, say these doctors, than being a smoker or eating a high fat diet.

Second, there’s a psychological benefit to forgiveness.  People with angry, bitter thoughts become angry, bitter people held hostage by their own bitterness.

And finally there’s a relational benefit.  Any time you move in forgiveness toward someone you consider an enemy you open the door to the potential of reconciliation.

These doctors say there’s a high price to pay from holding on to resentment and hatred.  But how do we let go and forgive?  That’s the question.  Let me suggest three ways.

We let go, first of all, by recognizing that forgiveness is a gift from God.  We’ve been forgiven, and so we’re able to forgive others.

Jesus followed his answer to Simon Peter with a delightful parable of a man who owed his king ten thousand bags of gold.  Gold today sells for about $1,000 an ounce.  Think how much 10,000 bags of gold would be worth today…maybe trillions.  Amazingly, the king forgave the man this enormous debt.  And here’s the second amazing thing:  This same man who had been forgiven this enormous debt had an acquaintance who owed him a hundred silver coins, perhaps worth a few hundred dollars.  And this very man who had his enormous debt discharged by the king couldn’t forgive the tiny debt owed him by this acquaintance.  To make matters worse, he had this acquaintance thrown into jail.  The contrast couldn’t have been starker—a man had been forgiven a trillion dollars and he was unwilling to forgive a debt of a few hundred dollars.

Of course Jesus wasn’t simply telling about one man in one particular place.  He was talking about you and me.  We’ve been forgiven by God.  We’re sinners saved by grace.  We’ve been forgiven an enormous debt.  If we can see that, it can be a powerful antidote to our feelings of resentment over a wrongdoing someone has done to us.  We remember just how much God has forgiven us and we’re enabled to forgive.

It’s like a little boy who had done something very naughty.  His mother was quite disturbed by his behavior.  In the kitchen there was a chalkboard on the wall where they wrote down phone messages.  When no one was around, this troubled little boy wrote on that chalkboard, “Dear mom, if you forgive me, please wipe out this message.”

He went to his room, and about an hour later returned, and, to his great joy, discovered the chalkboard had been completely erased!

That’s what God has done for us.  Can we not do the same sort of thing for people who have hurt us?  We forgive because God first forgave us.

In the second place, we need to recognize that forgiveness is the most powerful witness we have to the activity of grace in our own lives.

The great Christian scholar and writer C.S. Lewis struggled for many years to forgive a childhood teacher who made life miserable for him.  Just before his death he wrote a letter to a close friend in which he said, “Do you know, only a few weeks ago I realized suddenly that I had last forgiven the cruel schoolmaster who so darkened my childhood.  I’d been trying to do it for years; and…each time I thought I’d done it.  I found, after a week or so it all had to be attempted over again.  But this time I feel sure it is the real thing.”

Lewis was one of the most influential Christian writers of the twentieth century, yet he was a human being.  He struggled to forgive this headmaster.  But he knew that his witness for Christ wouldn’t be completely authentic until he somehow managed to forgive this one who had caused him so much pain.  That he was finally victorious is testimony to the power of Christ’s amazing grace, for there are some wrongs that can only be righted with Divine help.

For some of us the nursing of a grudge has become a deep spiritual problem.  It weakens our witness to Jesus’ presence in our lives.  Besides the damage it does to us personally, it prevents us from being effective in our ministry to others.  We need to recognize that forgiveness is a gift from God to be passed on to others, and that it’s the most powerful witness we have to the reality of God’s grace in our own lives.

We need to recognize, finally, that forgiveness is a positive activity necessary to the healing and wholeness of our own hearts.

Is there someone you need to forgive?  An unfaithful spouse—an overbearing parent—a friend who has stabbed you in the back—an employer who has taken advantage of you?  I know there’s pain.  There may also be pride, principle, and other people to consider.  The most powerful witness we have to the action of the grace of God at work in our own lives, however, is the ability to forgive others.  As we forgive, we heal not only the wounds of a broken relationship, we find healing for wounds inflicted in our own hearts by anger, hurt and resentment.

God has forgiven each of us for every soiled thought, act, and deed of which we’re capable.  Can we not forgive one another?  Three times?Seven times?  Yes, even seventy-seven times?  Forgive and find the emotional, mental and spiritual freedom that only Jesus can give.

Let us pray.  O God of Joseph and all his brothers, your forgiveness transcends whatever wrong exists between us.  Grant us the courage to forgive others, and to practice reconciliation by the kindness of our speaking, the sharing of our resources, and the honoring of your desire for good.  Amen.

August 20, 2017

This Woman Was a Fighter

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

She was a single mom with a special needs child, and she desperately needed Jesus’ help.  Okay, so the Scriptures don’t actually say that she was single.  Our lesson simply doesn’t mention her husband, but I’ve seen enough single moms courageously facing difficult obstacles that I can imagine she may have been one of them.

Perhaps her husband had been killed in an accident or simply died young as many people did back then.  Maybe he saw the extent of his daughter’s disability, he decided he didn’t want that kind of responsibility, and simply walked out.  That happened back then as it does today.  We don’t know all the background to the story, but we know this was a woman who needed help.

The story takes place in the region of Tyre and Sidon which was Canaanite territory.  A woman from that territory came to Jesus, crying out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me!  My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.”

Now we don’t know how this so-called demon-possession manifested itself.  Her daughter may well have been suffering from epileptic seizures.  Those of you with a child who has experienced a seizure either from epilepsy or perhaps from having an especially high fever know how scary it can be.  Imagine such a problem experienced by a parent in that pre-scientific time.  You can imagine how they might label their child as demon-possessed.

Jesus’ reaction to this desperate woman’s request is quite disturbing.  The truth is, he didn’t respond at all.  That seems out of character, doesn’t it?  The Master always responded to human need of any kind.

His disciples certainly didn’t want to have anything to do with the woman.  They came to him and urged him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.”

Then, as things couldn’t get any worse, Jesus turned to the woman and said something that has disturbed scholars as well as ordinary Christians for more than 2,000 years.  He said, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”

What did he mean by that?  Was he just testing her?  Maybe so, but didn’t Jesus know his mission was to the whole world?  Actually there’s a theory that says that when Jesus came into the world he totally emptied himself and became as we are.  That is, as a child and as a youth, he grew in his understanding of his relationship to God and that understanding continued to grow even as he went about his ministry.

Maybe at this stage of his ministry he believed that he had been sent only to the Jewish community.  Maybe this Canaanite woman was sent to him by God the Father to show him that he had come not for Jews only but for the salvation of the entire world.

It’s only a theory, but the idea that he did totally empty himself and became as we are helps us better understand such utterances as his words on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  (Matthew 27:46).  It helps us see that his agony on the cross was real and terrifying as he hung there between the two thieves.

Anyway, his response to this woman who had come to him for help was, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.

That wasn’t what the woman was hoping for.  But she wouldn’t be denied.  She came and knelt before him.  “Lord, help me!” she said.

  Here we go again.  Jesus replies in words that puzzle us even today.  “It is not right,” he said, “to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”

Can you believe that?  Jesus was actually comparing this woman to a dog?  Oh, we know… scholars tell us that he used a gentle term for dog that denotes a household pet, and we all love our pets.  But still… Jesus referring to a woman even as a household pet is really disturbing.  “It is not right,” he said, “to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”  

“Yes it is, Lord,” she answered somewhat defiantly.  “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”

I can’t tell you how much I admire this woman.  She lived in a time when women didn’t get the respect [they] do today, although some of you would argue women still don’t get the respect they deserve.  Just as impressively, she wasn’t one of the chosen people.  Jews really did consider Canaanites as not much better than dogs, and not “household pets” either.

But this woman was a fighter.  She was going to gain both Jesus’ respect for herself as well as healing for her daughter by answering him as if she were the equal of any man in the territory.  Don’t you admire her?  She was bright; she was articulate, and she stood up for her beliefs.

I say, I admire her, but it’s evident that Jesus admired her too.  When she had so superbly replied to what could be taken as an insult, Jesus said to her, “Woman, you have great faith!  Your request is granted.”  And her daughter was healed at that moment.

What a great story.  This woman earned Jesus’ respect and, even more important, she had her daughter healed.

What are some lessons we can learn from this courageous woman?

Here’s the first lesson:  There are times when Jesus wants us to stand up for ourselves.  Jesus doesn’t want us to be wimps.

Consider this woman’s situation.  Jewish men, historically, didn’t speak to women in public, even their own wives.  Especially rabbis.  In Jewish culture, women were valued only for their childbearing and mothering skills.  Men had the authority to divorce them at will, for any reason, or for no reason at all.  A woman had no such right.

At the time of Christ, women weren’t allowed equal access to the Temple.  Furthermore, a woman wasn’t allowed to even read from the Scriptures and wasn’t counted as a member of the congregation.  Even one of their most respected rabbis a century after Jesus was crucified was quoted as saying, “One must utter three doxologies every day:  Praise God that he didn’t create me a heathen.  Praise God he didn’t create me a woman!  Praise God that he didn’t create me an illiterate person.”

Every strike was against this woman.  Wrong gender, wrong religion, wrong nationality—but still she spoke up and she spoke out.  And Jesus loved her for it.

Don’t you love it when somebody stands up for their convictions?  Far too many of us give in and give up when we’re confronted with some injustice.

I read a wonderful story recently about a couple who stood up to an injustice during the housing crisis a few years back when so many houses were foreclosed on.  The story is set in Naples, Florida.  In 2011, Warren and Maureen Nyerges paid $165,000 in cash to buy a house.  Imagine their surprise when a few months later, Bank of America, in an obvious mistake, filed a foreclosure claim against them.  How could that be?  They had paid cash for their house—and yet the bank filed foreclosure papers on it.

Warren and Maureen took the bank to court.  Fortunately, they won.  The judge not only dismissed the foreclosure claim, but he also ordered the bank to pay their court costs (about $2,500).

The bank refused to pay the court costs.  And so Warren and Maureen took matters in their own hands.  They showed up at a Naples branch of the Bank of America with a court-approved “foreclosure of assets” notice of their own as well as a moving-company crew.  The workers began to seize furniture from the lobby of the branch bank in the same way that a large bank might serve a foreclosure on an unsuspecting family.  Can you imagine the scene?  Workers started carrying out chairs and desks and computers.  Less than an hour later, the bank paid up.

We love it when, even in the tiniest way, justice prevails.

I had a chuckle over the story of a guy who rushed down to the local supermarket on a Saturday afternoon to pick up a few snack items.  The big game was going to be on, so he was having a few friends over to watch it.

The store was loaded with shoppers and as he headed for the six item express lane—the only one that didn’t have a long line—a woman, completely ignoring the overhead sign, slipped into the check-out line just in front of him pushing a cart piled high with groceries.

The man was quietly fuming at what he knew would be a lengthy delay.  Much to his delight, however, the elderly cashier at the express lane motioned for the woman to come forward.  The cashier looked into the overflowing cart and asked ever so sweetly, “So Dearie, which six items would you like to buy?”

I don’t know if that really happened or not, but, boy, don’t you wish it would sometimes?  Of course, it would be even better if it happened over something that was really significant.

Some of you will remember a classic movie from the 1950s titled Twelve Angry Men.  It starred Henry Fonda and was based on the stage play of the same name.

In it Fonda plays a character on a jury.  For the other 11 people on the jury, the case was a slam dunk.  The defendant was guilty and they all voted that way right away.  Only Fonda’s character wanted to weigh the evidence and sift through to find a just verdict.

Throughout the lengthy deliberations, Fonda held fast to his insistence the jury owed the young man, who was facing the death penalty, all due consideration.  Piece by piece, each bit of evidence was weighed, at first reluctantly by all the other jurors.  Then, as new information came to light, one by one, the others were convinced by Fonda that reasonable doubt existed in the case.  They too decided to vote not guilty.

Finally, as the last part of the prosecution’s case was stripped bare, the last of the jurors concluded they couldn’t convict beyond the shadow of a doubt, and all voted “Not Guilty.”  Justice was done because one man refused to go along with the majority.

It takes a strong person to stand up to his peers and do the right thing.  It’s so much easier to do the expedient thing than to do the right thing.  That’s true in school when bullying takes place.  That’s true at work when ethical corners are being cut.  That’s true in the community when injustice of any kind is occurring.

I say it takes a strong person to stand up to one’s peers.  I wish I could say simply, it takes a Christian to stand up to one’s peers, but often Christians are content to be “nice” and “sweet” rather than people who stand up to evil.

It’s hard to believe that we call ourselves followers of One who went to the cross because of the evil and injustice of the world, when we in turn are so timid about confronting evil.

One thing nobody ever said about Jesus was that he was a really nice, sweet person.  Jesus was a trouble maker.  He said that he had not come to bring peace, but a sword.  There was no neutral ground in his view of the world.  You were either on the side of the kingdom or you were a child of Satan.  You belonged either to the light or you belonged to the darkness.  You were either hot or cold, but if you were lukewarm, he would spit you out of his mouth.

I’m deliberately speaking in strong terms today because it’s increasingly evident that too many Christians today are confusing humility with timidity.  That’s a sad mistake.  Jesus was humble, but he wasn’t timid.  You don’t drive money-changers out of the Temple if you were timid.

But you say, “What about the beatitude that says, “Blessed are the meek…?”  Scholars tell us that “meekness” in the context that Jesus uses is closer to the word “obedient.”  A tame horse is obedient, but it isn’t timid.  A humble Christian is obedient to the commands of God, but isn’t timid in the face of injustice.  Jesus needs people who will speak out against evil and injustice.  Jesus needs people who will boldly witness to their faith.

Jesus needs people who are conciliatory, who are willing to meet others half way, but he doesn’t need people who are content to be doormats, who let others walk over them or others.  I fear the Christian community no longer has any real impact on our world simply because we no longer stand for anything of consequence.  We’re afraid of rocking the boat.  We’re afraid of offending our neighbor.  We’re afraid of being politically incorrect.  We’re afraid others will criticize us.

What do we think Jesus meant when he said that his followers must deny themselves and take up a cross and follow him?  Do we think that he meant to rush out to the jewelry store and buy a little trinket to wear around our neck and be sure not to miss Sunday school three weeks in a row?  He meant so much more than that.

A woman came to Jesus to beg for his help.  Her daughter was in desperate shape.  At first, he seemed to ignore her request, but the woman wouldn’t be put off.  She stood her ground.  She even engaged in a theological debate with the popular young rabbi.

Jesus was so impressed that he praised her in a way that he only praised one other person in the New Testament.  Jesus said to her, “Woman, you have great faith!  Your request is granted.”  And her daughter was immediately healed.

She was a woman of great faith which made her a woman of great courage.  Can that be said of you?  Are you a woman or man of great faith and, therefore, of great courage?  Or are you satisfied to simply be another nice, sweet person who never ripples the waters, never stands up to your peers?  Let us pray for the courage of our beliefs.  Let us pray to be authentic followers of Jesus.  For it’s in Jesus’ name we make our prayer.  Amen.

August 6, 2017

A Cat In a Tree

Isaiah 55:1-5; Matthew 14:13-21

One night a woman named Anna Ruth was cat-sitting her daughter’s feline.  Somehow the cat managed to escape outside.  When it failed to return the following morning, she found the cat clinging to a branch about 30 feet up in a spindly tree.  Unable to lure the cat down, she called the fire department and asked for help getting the cat out of the tree.

“We don’t do that anymore,” the dispatcher said.  When Anna Ruth persisted, the dispatcher was polite but firm.  “The cat will come down when it gets hungry enough,” she said.

“How do you know that?” asked Anna Ruth.

“Have you ever seen a cat skeleton in a tree?” the dispatcher said.

Two hours later the cat was back, looking for breakfast.

Come to think of it, I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a skeleton of a cat in a tree either.  Cats must do pretty well fending for themselves.

I wish, though, it was as easy for humans who are hungry to obtain food as it is for felines—especially those humans in undeveloped countries ravaged by drought… or those where cruel dictators withhold food from those who oppose their regimes.  Today I want to deal with an ancient scourge, human hunger.  It’s a terrible thing when you can’t get enough food to feed your family.

Pastor Bill Hybels in his book titled, The Power of a Whisper:  Hearing God, Having the Guts to Respondtells of watching a short documentary about a reporter from CNN who was studying the effects of hunger on the poor.  During the creation of the film, the reporter interviewed a man who had lived with pervasive hunger his entire life.

After hearing the man’s story, the reporter decided to do something quite brave.  The reporter tried for thirty full days to eat exactly what the impoverished man ate—and no more.  And he made an honest effort to do this.  However, by day twenty-one he could do it no longer.  The CNN reporter was so dizzy that he nearly fainted and so lethargic that his mind all but shut down.  His body began wasting away until finally, he said, “I’m done.”

Experts tell us that hunger of that kind does tragic things to the human body.  Don Paarlberg, former assistant secretary of agriculture and a specialist in world hunger relates an old Byzantine proverb that goes like this:  He who has bread has many problems; he who lacks bread has only one problem.  And that, of course, is to obtain food.

Our lesson for the day concerns the feeding of the 5,000.  Actually this story should probably be relabeled, “the feeding of the 10,000”—since the original number didn’t count women and children among those fed.  Any way you count the number of people fed, however, it was an enormous group.  You know the story.

A report came to Jesus that John the Baptist had been brutally murdered by King Herod.  When Jesus heard this, he withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place.  Probably the Master wanted to grieve for John.  After all, they were cousins.

If you have ever grieved for someone, you probably understand.  You appreciate the friends who surround you with love at such a time, but you also long for a solitary place where you can catch your breath and process what has happened.  And it’s evident that Jesus had a great affection for John.  He needed to grieve.

But the crowds that were beginning to follow him wouldn’t let him grieve.  Matthew tells us that when he tried to find a place of seclusion the people followed him on foot.  So, when his boat landed there was a large crowd already awaiting him.  Jesus probably said to himself, “Oh, well, so much for some down time.”  Then Matthew explains something about Christ that’s all we need to know.  Matthew says simply, “He had compassion on them and healed their sick.”

Can you imagine how exhausting this was for the Master?  Healing their sick wasn’t something he did with a wave of his hand.  Healing was almost always a one-on-one transaction.  Ten thousand people.  No doctors in the house.  One reason many of them had come was in hopes of a healing miracle.  So there he is, wanting to grieve, but instead all day long seeking to heal and make whole the great multitude that had come to him.

Then Matthew writes, “As evening approached, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a remote place, and it’s already getting late.  Send the crowds away, so they can go to the villages and buy themselves some food.’”

That was a reasonable suggestion.  There were no McDonalds or Hardees nearby.  Acquiring food would take the people some time.

And yet Jesus made an astounding reply to the disciples’ reasonable suggestion, “They don’t need to go away,” he said.  “You give them something to eat.”

This obviously sounded ridiculous to the disciples.  “We have here only five loaves of bread and two fish,” they answered incredulously.

“Bring them here to me,” he said.  And he directed the people to sit down on the grass.  Taking the five loaves and two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves.  Then he gave the loaves and fish back to the disciples, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over.

Matthew concludes this story like this:  “The number of those who ate was about five thousand men, besides women and children.”

It’s an amazing story regardless of how you try to explain it, but may I suggest to you the most important words in the story are right at the beginning when Matthew tells us that Jesus “had compassion on them.”  This is why Jesus healed and this is why Jesus provided food for those who were hungry.  He was filled with compassion for people in need.  And ever since that time Christian people have understood that if we’re going to walk in the steps of the Master, we, too, must have compassion on those who are sick and those who are in need however that need might manifest itself.  I want to focus our attention today for a few moments on those who are hungry.

There are millions of people who go to bed hungry every night.  Even in this prosperous land, according to the organization “Feeding America,” one in every six Americans doesn’t have enough to eat, including more than one in five children.

You and I have heard that truth so often we might not take it very seriously.  That would be tragic.  The State of the World report, published annually by the Worldwatch Institute, reports that approximately 27,000 children die of starvation and hunger related diseases each day in our world—27,000 children each day.  The mind can hardly grasp the scope of such a catastrophe.

In one of his books, Gordon MacDonald tells a heartbreaking story about an experience he had in Ethiopia a few years back.  He says that one chilly morning he was walking across a field in the Ethiopian countryside where several thousand people had come during the night.  These desperate people were hoping to find food at a feeding center.  Since they had only the clothes on their backs, most of them slept through what was left of the night on ground absolutely bare of vegetation.

As he made his way through the crowd, several dozen children crowded about him.  Those closest grabbed his hands; others put their arms about his legs and waist.  He commented to the doctor who accompanied him, “These are some of the most affectionate children I’ve ever seen.”

“It’s not affection they’re seeking,” the doctor said.  “They want your body warmth.  They’re freezing, and it’s all the worse because they’re so hungry.”

What a sad story.  Can you even imagine such misery?  But that’s how many children live in our world today, without adequate food or shelter.  And food deprivation is debilitating in ways we can’t imagine.

The late Dr. Paul Brand, a noted orthopedic surgeon and author, spent many years as a missionary doctor in India.  In his book, God’s Forever Feast, Dr. Brand describes a tragic condition called kwashiorkor.  This is a condition that occurs when a person has been deprived of food for too long.  After a while, such a person loses all sense of hunger.  Even when food is presented, the person no longer tries to eat.  Their body has convinced them that they’re not hungry, even when starving to death.  We see this in anorexia nervosa victims.  Infants who are dying of starvation often must have food forced into their mouths because they’ve lost any interest in eating.

I recognize that many of us would just as soon not hear such dreary facts, but they’re a harsh reality in much of the world today.

This hunger persists in spite of the fact that we live in a bountiful world.

The battle to feed the world’s people isn’t a hopeless one.  God has given us the resources.  And in some places in the world real progress is being made.

For example, when we think of hunger, many of us still think of the nation of India.  Our mothers used to tell us “Clean your plates.  Think of all the starving children in India.”  Yet India today is self-sufficient when it comes to food.  In fact, in recent years India has grown so much grain that it doesn’t have enough room in its storage facilities to hold it all.

Some of you can remember when scientists were predicting world famine by the mid-1980s.  They were wrong.  The agriculture industry responded to the rapidly expanding world population in a magnificent way and today there’s plenty of food to feed the world’s people.  We don’t really have a food problem.  What we have are people problems.

For example, food is poorly distributed throughout the world, which means some of us have far more than we need while others have practically nothing to eat.  In some parts of the world, governments use food as a weapon to subjugate their own people or they feed their soldiers while starving the general population.   And, of course, there are areas of our world that are ravaged by almost continuous drought, a situation that may get far worse in the future.  Still, the problems we face are hardly hopeless.

Dr. Barbara K. Lundblad notes that, according to the Office of Management and Budget, we have everything we need to end world hunger.  We even know how much it would cost.  It would only take an additional $13 billion per year.  That sounds like a lot, but it really isn’t.  That’s just 2.2% of our defense budget.  In 16 hours the U.S. military spends more than the World Health and the Food and Agriculture Organization spend in a year.

What is needed isn’t more food or money.  What’s needed is the determination to conquer this continuing scourge.  What is needed is for enough people to have at least a part of the compassion Jesus had for the needy in this world.  And who are the people who are to have that compassion?  You know, don’t you?

As Christians you and I are accountable for the needs of our neighbors—whether next door or around the world.  I hope nobody ever tells God that we who live in this prosperous nation heard that 27,000 children are dying each day from hunger-related diseases and we did nothing to help.

There’s a story about Rabbi Joshua ben Levi, a scholar of the Talmud, who lived in the Land of Israel in the first half of the third century.  Rabbi Joshua once made a journey to Rome where he was astonished at the magnificent buildings he saw.  He was especially struck to see how the statues were cared for.  He was amazed to see they were covered with fine cloth to protect them from summer heat and winter cold.

As he admired these statues, a beggar pulled at his sleeve and asked for a crust of bread.  “Here are statues of stone covered with expensive clothes,” thought Rabbi Joshua.  “Here’s a man, created in the image of God, covered in rags.”  Then he thought, “A civilization that pays more attention to statues than to people shall surely perish.”  We all know he was telling the truth.

It would be good if we would pay close attention to Rabbi Joshua’s words:  “A civilization that pays more attention to statues than to people shall surely perish.”

Of course, there are hungers in this world besides the hunger for bread.  Some of those hungers are right here in Merrill, WI.  They include a hunger for acceptance, justice and a hunger for love.  Many of you are already involved in meeting those needs.

Of course, the greatest hunger people have is for the Bread of Life which is Jesus.  The Christian missionary enterprise won’t be completed until every child in this world has a full tummy, a safe and comfortable home in which to live, and knows deep in his or her heart that he or she is a child of God.  That’s an ambitious dream, is it not?  I believe that’s a dream worthy of the followers of Jesus Christ.  That’s a dream that all of us should in some small way be working to make true.

Tell me, what is it that you’re doing to meet human needs, whatever they may be, is it because of your commitment to Jesus?  Each of us can do something.  Each of us has some kind of fish and loaves to offer the Master.  What’s yours?  Will you make a determination today to be involved in some way to meet the hungers that continue to vex our world, whatever those hungers may be?  Think about that the next time you see a cat up a tree.  When the cat gets hungry it will come down.  But a hungry child has no recourse but to starve.  Is there something you can do?

Let us pray.  Glorious God, your generosity floods the world with goodness and you shower creation with abundance.  Awaken in us a hunger for food to satisfy both body and heart, that in the miracle of being fed we may be empowered to feed the hungry in Jesus’ name.  Amen.

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.