First Presbyterian Church USA 
Riverside Presbyterian Church USA

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August 11, 2019

Where’s the Magic?

Genesis 15:1-6; Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-12

Billy Joe, a good ole boy from the Deep South, stopped at a convenience store. There he ran into Ricardo, an old buddy from New York City. Billy Joe was a mischievous sort. When no one was looking he stole 3 candy bars from the store shelf.

Walking out of the store he turned to Ricardo and bragged, “Ha! Did you see what this old Southern boy did? I stole three candy bars and got away with it. Man, I’m slick.”

Ricardo wasn’t impressed. “That’s nothing. Let’s go back to that store and I’ll show you what slick is where I come from.”

So, they returned to the convenience store. Ricardo went up to the young man behind the counter and said, “You want to see a fantastic magic trick?”

The young man said, “Well, I guess so.”

Ricardo said, “Give me a candy bar.”

The clerk gave him a candy bar, and Ricardo ate it. He asked for a second candy bar, and he ate that as well. He asked for the third candy bar, and finished that one too. “That’s it,” he said. “That’s the trick.”

The young man behind the counter was grossly disappointed. He asked, “But where’s the magic?”

Ricardo replied: “Check in my friend’s pocket. You will find all three of the candy bars there.” And, of course, they were there. That’s a pretty good magic trick if you disregard the ethics of it all.

Have you ever sat in a worship service and thought to yourself, “Where’s the magic?” I don’t mean that when you come to worship, you’re expecting a magic show with a charming magician and his beautiful assistant and rabbits that appear out of no-where. You may wish that was going to happen this morning, but obviously it’s not. I have no desire to make a spectacle out of worship. What I do contend is there ought to be a sense of expectancy when you come into this room that something special is going to happen—as if you expected this day that you would come into the presence of God.

I believe the eleventh chapter of Hebrews has that kind of magic. In it the writer seeks to define the meaning of faith and it’s clear he believes there’s magic in faith. He begins with a definition: “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see…”

That’s a nice sounding definition, but it’s kind of abstract. What does he mean by that—“Faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see…”? Fortunately, the writer doesn’t stop with a dictionary definition. He shows us faith in action. “This is what the ancients were commended for,” he continues. “By faith we understand the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen wasn’t made out of what was visible.” That’s a little heavy, still. “What is seen wasn’t made out of what was visible.” But the writer is just getting warmed up. He’s taking us back to that time when God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.

Then, turning to the first chapters of the Bible, he begins with Abel and shows how Abel’s offering to God was more acceptable than Cain’s because of his faith. Then he deals with Enoch and Noah and Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and Joseph and Moses and even the harlot Rahab, and he shows us the importance of faith at work in their lives.

Then he adds these names of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel and the prophets who through faith “conquered kingdoms, administered justice…shut the mouths of lions, quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned to strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies…”

It’s a stirring chapter filled with magic only God could perform. We see that same magic in our brief lesson for today. The writer focuses on a 99-year-old patriarch named Abraham who discovers that his 98-year-old wife is pregnant. That’s pretty fantastic all by itself. Listen as he describes this elderly couple:

“By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he didn’t know where he was going… And by faith even Sarah, who was past childbearing age, was enabled to bear children… And so, from this one man, and he as good as dead, came descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sand on the seashore.”

A 99-year-old woman, way past childbearing years, bears a child whose 100-year-old father is “as good as dead” in the words of the writer of Hebrews. If that’s not magic, I would like to know what is! But it isn’t the kind of magic that a magician can perform. Its magic only God can perform. And it’s magic then can be seen only through the eyes of faith.

Again, the writer of Hebrews is giving us a description of the nature of faith. What’s faith? Let’s begin with the most elementary statement possible.

Faith is belief in God. However, it’s not simply that God exists, but that God is present with us and is working to our best good. In other words, faith is trusting God in all things.

That wonderful writer Max Lucado tells about spending a week years ago visiting the interior of Brazil with a long-time missionary pilot. In his work this missionary pilot flew a circuit of remote towns in a four-seat plane. The plane wasn’t in that great of shape. Lucado says that it threatened to come undone at the slightest gust of wind. “Wilbur and Orville had a sturdier aircraft,” Lucado quips.

Lucado confesses that he couldn’t get comfortable in that undersized plane. He kept thinking they were going to crash in some Brazilian jungle and he’d be gobbled up by piranhas or swallowed by an anaconda. He kept shifting around, looking down, and gripping his seat—as if that would help.

Finally, the pilot had enough of his squirming. He looked over at Lucado and shouted over the noise of the airplane. “We won’t face anything that I can’t handle,” the pilot shouted. “You might as well trust me to fly the plane.”

My friends, that’s faith! You’ve probably seen the bumper sticker: “God is my co-pilot.” That’s the kind of faith the writer of Hebrews is describing. God is our co-pilot. “We won’t face anything that I can’t handle,” God says to us. “You might as well trust me to fly the plane.” That’s faith.

That brings us to the second thing that faith is: Since we trust God, faith is also living in obedience to God’s will. Here’s where the rubber hits the road. Abraham didn’t just believe in the existence of God. Because he trusted God, Abraham went where God told him to go and did what God wanted him to do. He obeyed God.

Sunday June 16, 2019

A Hall of Fame Dad

Romans 5:1-5; John 16:12-15

Robert Lewis in his book Real Family Values tells a fascinating story about a remarkable, heartwarming discovery workers made at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, Ohio, made in the winter of 1993.

While renovating a section of the museum, they found a photograph that had been hidden in a crevice underneath a display case.  The man in the picture had a bat resting on his shoulder; he was wearing a uniform with the words, “Sinclair Oil” printed across his chest; his demeanor was gentle and friendly.

Stapled to the picture was a note, scribbled in pen by an adoring fan.  The note read: “You were never too tired to play ball.  On your days off, you helped build the Little League Field.  You always came to watch me play.  You were a Hall of Fame Dad.  I wish I could share this moment with you. – Your Son, Pete.”

Isn’t that beautiful?  A son named Pete found a creative way to put his dad into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

This morning I would like to talk about what it takes to be a Hall of Fame Dad, or for that matter Mom…or Aunt or Uncle or Grandparent.

Now I know that our church calendar says this is “Trinity Sunday.”  And I know that many of you came to worship today yearning for a deep, theological treatise on the meaning of the Trinity.  You were, weren’t you?  But doesn’t the doctrine of the Trinity say to us among other things that the first Hall of Fame Dad was God?  After all, the first two persons of the Trinity in traditional religious language are the Father and the Son.

[I can see why women would feel left out whenever we use that language.  I hope you know that I know that God is Spirit and not flesh and therefore has no gender.  But change is slow in an institution like ours.  Please bear with me.]

Today, we salute our fathers.  Dad, we love you.  The role of a Christian father is more important in today’s world than ever before.  Being a Dad is a different role than in earlier generations.  In most households today, Dad is called upon to play more of a nurturing role in caring for children.  If Mom works outside the home, Dad must take a more active role, an equal role, in doing household chores.

The most common image that Jesus used in describing God was that of “Father.”  It makes me think that Joseph must have been a very special kind of dad.  We center much of our attention on his mother, Mary, but Joseph surely combined those very special qualities of strength and gentleness that we associate with Jesus.

Jesus had a very keen knowledge of the Old Testament Scriptures.  In the Jewish home it was the father who had the primary responsibility for his son’s religious instruction.  Of course, we know that Jesus had a unique relationship with God.  Still, I have to believe that Joseph, though barely mentioned in the Gospel narrative, was probably an influential role model for Jesus.  Why else would Jesus have chosen the imagery of “Father” to portray God?  Why would he also have taught us to address God as “Abba” – “Daddy”?  My guess is that Jesus had a wonderful relationship with both his earthly father and his Heavenly Father—the same kind of wonderful relationship he had with his mother.

Now, someone is going to say, “Well, Joseph wasn’t his real father.”  As far as I’m concerned, there are many Dads who aren’t biological Dads, who function more as a real Dad than many biological Dads.  Today we honor all the men in our congregation who put in the time, love, and instruction to be a Dad to a young person regardless of whether they have a blood relationship or not.  The same thing is true of our women.  Some of the greatest moms in the world aren’t biologically related to the children they love and influence.  Some may be a grandmother or aunt or step-mom or whatever.  These Mom substitutes are the child’s real Mom just as some men who aren’t biologically related are their children’s real Dad.  So, we ask the question: what does it take to be a Hall of Fame father?

Let’s begin with the most difficult attribute of a Hall of Fame Dad—time.

Years ago, Dr. Charlie Shedd held a contest called “One Neat Dad”.  He asked contestants to send in letters recommending their dad for this great honor.  The number one attribute that young people put at the top of their list about what they appreciate about their Dad was, “He takes time for me.”  Interesting!  Other qualities which these young people appreciated were: “He listens to me.”  “He plays with me.”  “He invites me to go places with him.”  “He lets me help him.”  Here’s a biggie: “He treats my mother well.”  “He lets me say what I think.”  “He’s nice to my friends.”  “He only punishes me when I deserve it.”  And number 1: “He’s not afraid to admit when he’s wrong.”

How did you do on that pop quiz?

Dr. Seymour Diamond did some research on family problems and he came up with conclusions that provide a glimpse of the problem in many homes.  He claims that today’s average American father gives undivided attention to his children only thirty-eight seconds a day—thirty eight seconds a day!  That’s scary!  He does give them partial attention for an additional twenty minutes while he’s otherwise engaged, watching TV or working on some project.

That’s a problem for both our sons and daughters, but perhaps more so for our sons.  Many people believe there’s confusion among young men today about what it means actually be a man.  In his book, Healing the Masculine Soul, Gordon Dalbey suggests a reason for this.  He says that too many of these young men grew up in a masculine vacuum.  “They grew up with fathers who were non-nurturing, uncommunicative, or absent most of the time.  This left them in a literal no-man’s land of confusion about how to express authentic maleness.”

Think of how many single moms there are today struggling to bring up their son without an appropriate role model.  Surely, there’s a way the church can step in and help with this situation.  But that’s the first attribute of a Hall of Fame Dad: he makes time for his children.

Here’s the second—he makes certain that his children know the difference between right and wrong.  Am I the only person concerned about the moral downward slide of our society?  I know, I’m a pastor.  I’m supposed to be concerned about such things.  But we’re very quickly becoming an “anything goes” society, particularly with regard to sexual morality—and we wonder why our families are coming apart?

I know there are many influential people in society who no longer believe there are any absolute values—which is absurd!  I’ll bet you would become a convert to absolute standards of conduct if someone stole your car, bullied one of your children, ran off with your spouse.  You would feel that something sacred had been violated—and you would be right!

Notice what it says in our Scripture for the day.  Jesus is talking to his disciples about the Holy Spirit that’s to come upon his disciples.  Listen to what he says: “I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear.  But when he, the Spirit of Truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth…”

Isn’t this a primary characteristic of a Hall of Fame Dad?  He leads his children into truth?  But what if Dad is confused about what’s true and what’s false—particularly when there’s so much false information nowadays?

Three brothers, ages 12, 8 and 4, were playing outside, a distance from the house.  Dad had a special call when it was time to come in.  Supper time came and dad called.  The busy boys weren’t ready to come in and kept on playing.  Later, Dad called a second time and the boys still wouldn’t come.  They were busy playing.  The third time Dad called in a “huff,” his voice indicated he meant business.

The boys came running into the house.  When the four-year-old passed Dad, he said, “Daddy, we didn’t hear you the first two times you called.”

Nothing like that has ever happened at your home, has it?  Of course, they heard Dad or Mom the first two times.  And of course, you’re not going to make a big deal about such a small transgression.  But in today’s world especially, it’s important that we bring up our children as people of character and honor, people who know the difference between right and wrong, people who tell the truth.  We’re not going to get role models for such upright behavior out of Hollywood or Washington, D.C., are we?  If they don’t see models of character and morality in their own home, then heaven help them.

Finally, we need Dads who will show their children how much they love them.

I love to see a young father who’s able to express his love physically for his children.  Fathers in our parents and grandparents’ generation often weren’t able to do that.

Comedian Ray Romano, who starred for so many years in the popular sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond, was asked in an interview if his parents were funny people.  He remarked that his mother was very creative, but his father was more eccentric.  Ray’s father loved him, he said, but he didn’t express that love very easily.  As Ray remarked, “I used to say that if my father had hugged me once, I would be an accountant.  I wouldn’t need to do comedy.”  Of course, some of these fathers of earlier generations expressed their love in other ways.

When famed baseball player Hank Aaron was just a boy, he learned a powerful lesson about love and sacrifice from his father.  Every day, Hank’s father would give him a quarter to buy his lunch at school.  Hank knew that his father skipped lunch each day so that he could give his son that quarter.  If he ever doubted his father’s love for him, that daily quarter reminded him of how far his father would go to provide for him.

There are many ways a father can communicate his love for his children.  I hope those of you who are fathers are exploring every one of them.  I wish we could put up a Hall of Fame in our church for fathers and mothers and grandfathers and grandmothers and aunts and uncles and foster parents and step parents and all those adults young and old who are involved in having a positive influence on our young people.  I know your names are written in the Book of Life.

We’re facing some real problems in our society…and I don’t know anyone who can make a big enough dent in those problems except those who are raising our children.  Can we count on you to be a Hall of Fame Dad or a Hall of Fame Mom by giving your time, by teaching your children the difference between right and wrong, and by showing them the love of Jesus Christ who showed us how much His Father loves him and how much His Father loves each of us?

Let us pray.  God of heaven and earth, before the foundation of the universe and the beginning of time you are the triune God; the Author of creation, the eternal Word of salvation, and the life-giving Spirit of wisdom.  Guide us to all truth by your Spirit, that we may proclaim all that Christ revealed and rejoice in the glory he shared with us.  Glory and praise to you, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, now and forever.  Amen.