Grace Episcopal Church

Reaching the world for Jesus Christ beginning in Casanova

John 15:9-17                                                                           Grace                           5/6/2018

 

As the Father has loved me, so I love you; abide in my love. John 15:9

You are my friends if you do what I command you.  John 15: 14

 

We heard last week about loving one another from the epistle of 1 John 4.  We heard about abiding in Christ from that same chapter of 1 John AND from the Gospel reading about the vine and branches.  This Gospel for today is the continuation of the vine reading from last week.  Jesus continues to speak about abiding in His love and loving one another as He has loved us.

 

It would seem then that this love thing is important wouldn’t you say? 

 

The humorist Will Rogers is quoted as saying that he never met a man he didn't like.  In the musical that celebrated Rogers' life, there is a song by that title and in that song, Rogers admits that one man "put him to the test," but never pushed him finally to the point where his ability to like evaporated.  I don't know what your response is to Rogers' disclosure, but I am led to think he was, to utilize an overworked phrase "in denial."  Come now, can any of us stand and say that we have, without exception, always liked every single person with whom we have ever come into contact?  I think not!  I appreciate the honesty of one well-seasoned clergy who confessed: "There are some people to whom I couldn't warm even if I were cremated with them!" 

 

My mom used to say, “I love everyone but there are some people I sure don’t like.”  It took me a while to figure out what that meant but eventually I did.

 

Let's be clear before we go a step further.  Christian men and women are not called to like everyone.  The old camp song is entitled "They Will Know We Are Christians By Our Love," not, "They Will Know We Are Christians By Our Likes and Dislikes."  If there are folks to whom you do not warm, know please that you are not in violation of any Christian norm, precept or command.

 

We are not called to like, but we are called to love, and this is the burden of our text: "This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you," says Jesus.  “As I have loved you…”  That means sacrificially, going out of your way, so to speak, to help, or give to or love someone else. 

 

G. K. Chesterton once said that the really great lesson of the story of “Beauty and the Beast” is that a thing must be loved before it is loveable.  A person must be loved before that person can be loveable.  Some of the most unlovely people I have known got that way because they thought that nobody loved them.  The fact of the matter is that unless and until we ourselves feel loved, we cannot love.  That’s not only a principle of theology but of psychology and sociology as well.  Just as abused children grow up to abuse their children, loved children grow up to love their children.  Loved persons are able to love.  Unloved persons are not.  Christianity says something startling.  It says that God loves and accepts us “just as we are.”   Therefore, we can love and accept ourselves and in so doing, love and accept others.  In the words from 1 John 4 last week, “We love because He first loved us.”  And then we are to love one another.

 

It’s a command from God not an option or suggestion!  Sometimes we must love in simple obedience to God’s command to love another.  It has nothing to do with uushy guushy feelings and everything to do with loving and thus obeying God because we are friends of God and we do things for our friends that we might not do for others.

 

Jesus makes this point in the Gospel reading for today.  I call it, “The Big IF!”  “You are my friends, IF you do what I command you.”  If we don’t follow / obey His command to love, we are not His friends.  He still loves us, and He is Lord and Master but without becoming Friend.  Closeness.  Intimacy.  Friendship which comes with obedience to His commands.

 

Do we love out of the sheer joy that’s in our hearts or do we love out of a sense of duty?  Of obedience?  The answer is, sometimes yes!

 

A rabbi was asked, "Which act of charity (read that love) is higher--giving out of obligation or giving from the heart?"

 

All in the class were inclined to respond that giving from the heart had something more in it, but they knew the rabbi was going to say just the opposite, because in spiritual teaching nothing is logical. They were not disappointed.

 

"Giving from the heart is a wonderful thing," the rabbi said, "It is a very high act and should never be demeaned.  But there is something much more important that happens when somebody gives charity out of obligation.

 

"Consider who is doing the giving.  When somebody gives from the heart, there is a clear sense of oneself doing something; in other words, heartfelt charity always involves ego gratification.

 

"However, when we give out of obligation, when we give at a moment that every part of us is yelling NO! because of one reason or another--perhaps the beneficiary is disgusting, or it is too much money, or any of thousands of reasons we use to avoid giving charity--then we are confronting our own egos and giving nonetheless.  Why?  Because we are supposed to.  And what this means is that it is not us doing the giving, rather we are vehicles through which God gives...

 

Thus, we love as He loved us … sacrificially.  Then we abide in Him.  Then we are friends of God.  Then we go and bear fruit.

 

I don't remember where I found this quote, but Bishop Fulton Sheen once asked a missionary from one of the islands in the Pacific which was the greatest virtue of the people whom he helped there.  The Missionary answered, "I can tell you their greatest virtue in terms of what they regard as their greatest vice, namely 'Kai-Po,' which is the sin of eating alone."

 

According to the missionary, some of the people would go without food for two or three days until they could find someone with whom they could share the blessings of their meal.

 

Think about that for a minute, the sin of eating alone.  My least favorite meal is to go home and eat lunch by myself.  Like the South Pacific Islanders, I think all meals are communal in nature.  Food may be for sustenance, but a meal is for community and fellowship together.   I don't think it's an accident that at the center of the Christian faith there is a table where believers break bread and drink from the cup together.  Communion.

 

Think about the image that word alone brings to mind.  We gather together to share the blessings of our mutual love for God, to give thanks for our salvation through Christ AND to experience anew the power and presence of the guiding, comforting, strengthening power of the Holy Spirit.  And we do so around a table laden with the bread and wine which remind us of God's love for us.

 

This table becomes a Holy meal around which the followers of Jesus gather to commune with God, with Christ, with the Holy Spirit and with each other.  This Gospel reading comes after dinner on the night before Jesus died.  The context is the Last Supper after feet have been washed.

 

Jesus said, Love one another as I have loved you.

 

Jesus said, I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.

 

I want to do things a little bit out of order this morning in terms of how we celebrate our liturgy.

 

The Peace of the Lord be always with you…

 

 

 



1 John 4:7-21              Jesus Loves me and that’s that!                      Grace               4/29/2018

 

Beloved, let us love one another, because love is of God, and everyone who loveth is born of God and knoweth God…”     1 John 4:7 (KJV)

 

Rosemary Brown is a highly respected minister in Tennessee.  She has been featured several times on The Protestant Hour National Radio Broadcast.  She tells a story about a little girl in her church named Mickey.  Mickey is four years old.  She is a precious, adorable, out-going little girl who loves to sing.

 

One Sunday morning, Mickey ran down to the front of the Sanctuary just before the start of the morning worship service and with great excitement, she said: "Miss Rosemary Brown, can I sing a song this morning?"  Not wanting to say "no"? or to be a stumbling-block to this vivacious little girl, Rosemary said: "Of course you can."  Then, Rosemary announced to the congregation that four-year-old Mickey would sing the call to worship to start the service.

 

Rosemary Brown picked up Mickey and stood Mickey on the front pew.  She turned her around to face the now expectant and smiling group of people in church that day.

 

And Mickey sang:

"Jesus wuvs me dis I know for da Bible tells me so. Yes, Jesus wuvs me."  And then, Mickey threw her hands straight up in the air (like she had just scored a touchdown) and with a triumphant voice she said:  "And, dat's dat!"  And then Mickey sat down.

 

Mickey was right on target, wasn't she?  What more do we need to know?  Jesus loves us and that's that.  When we are scared or confused or lonely.  When we have to make a hard decision or face a tough challenge.  When we feel rejected or cast aside by someone.  When we lose a loved one or face our own death?  What more do we need to know?  Jesus loves us and that's that!

 

  1. Love one another (John 4:7)

Today John tells us that we should love one another.  We know this.  It’s nothing new.  John stars this by saying, Beloved…  What a term of endearment.  What follows must be something special and it is.  Beloved, let us love one anotherLet us love is an indirect command which includes the speaker.  John includes himself in this.  Why love one another?  Because love is from God.  For all the reasons one might come up with to love someone, this reason trumps them all, no political pun intended.  Love is of or from God therefore love is godly.  Everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.

 

  1. God IS love (John 4:8)

John then goes on to say, God is love…  John doesn’t say God loves but God IS love.  He is talking about an essential characteristic of who God is.  A part of the essence of God is love.  Love is not simply something God does.  It’s who God is.  That’s not to say that God doesn’t demonstrate His love, but God’s love is more than an outward action to show some inward feeling.  God’s love IS God.  And He demonstrates His love, as John writes, by sending His only Son into the world to be the atoning sacrifice for our sin.  The sacrifice that brings us back into a reconciled relationship with God.

 

John then writes about loving God and God loving us and in doing so we abide in Him and He abides in us, much along the lines of today’s Gospel reading.  He says it in several different ways which I shall not repeat but simply point out.

 

  1. We love because He first loved us. (John 4:19)

Thus, if we do abide, remain, dwell with Him and He with us then, and only then, are we able to love one another.  John writes, we love because He first loved us.  WE love because HE FIRST loved us.  Once we are able to know His love, to abide in His love, to rest in His love, then we are in a position to love others.  His love is always there, never waning, never failing no matter what’s going on with us in our lives, God’s love is a constant.

 

I want to read something to you.

 

As I stood near the lake, in the rain, God said to me that His love for me is as the raindrops on the lake – too great to number, constantly there – that His love is like this rain.

 

When I shook the rain off of my jacket, God then said I could never shake off His love – that I would always be in the shower of His love – constantly falling upon me.    10/30/1993

 

Paradise Lake Retreat Center near Bushkill Falls, PA

 

I wrote that in 1993 in the front of the Bible given to me at my ordination to the diaconate 10 years earlier.  I wrote it after God spoke those words to me that morning as I stood beside Paradise Lake in the rain while on a Youth Retreat. 

 

That was God’s word for me that day and every day since then some 25 years ago.  But I want you to know that they are God’s words for you too.  Today.  In this place and for every day hereafter.    God’s love is like a rainfall constantly showering, not just me, but us, in His love.  God’s desire is that we return that love. 

 

  1. The commandment we have from Him is this: those who love God must also love their brothers and sisters.  1 John 4:21

And with that we almost return to where we began.  In the end of this chapter 4 John writes, The commandment we have from Him is this: those who love God must also love their brothers and sisters.

 

You want to love God?  Love those sitting around you here this morning.  Love them when it’s not easy to love them.  And love others as well.  I saw a lot of love yesterday for people we will most likely never meet, except maybe in heaven.  Love placed into bags along with rice and vegetable protein and vitamin packets and dehydrated vegetables.  Love stuffed into boxes and closed up to go to Africa.  Lotta love there yesterday.

 

Little Mickey was right on target, wasn't she?  What more do we need to know?  Jesus loves us and that's that.  When we are scared or confused or lonely.  When we have to make a hard decision or face a tough challenge.  When we feel rejected or cast aside by someone.  When we lose a loved one or face our own death?  What more do we need to know?  Jesus loves us and that's that!

 

And if that’s so, then we can love one another as well.  Amen

 

Let’s sing it one more time:  Beloved, let us love one another…

 

1 John 3:1-7                                  Behold, What Manner of Love                                     4/15/2018

 

"Behold what manner of love the Father has given us." 1 John 3:1.

 

The attribute of God which we focus on most often is that of love.  Everyone who has a healthy mind wants to be loved.  We are greatly moved by it.   How wonderful it is to hear someone say to us "I love you."  Ever hear someone say, "No one loves me!"  That is not true.  It is never true though folks may sometimes feel that way. The most important being in the world loves you.  The greatest, most magnificent being has declared His love for you.  It is a love that is unconditional.  It is a love that knows your faults and yet still loves you.  The world's love is conditional.  It is given only if it is adequately returned and gives a sufficient dividend.  I love you if you love me.  Or I will love you as long as you meet my need and satisfy my expectations.

 

However, if you fail, the world’s love says I will not love you anymore.  This false idea of love has found root in the error of the Arminians, who by their doctrine believe that God is fickle.   They believe that He loves us only so long as we love Him.  Nonsense!  The love of God is conditional only in that it be received and accepted by the each of us.   It is offered unconditionally whether we accept it or not.

 

Many in the world miss the importance of this statement of God's love and, dare I say, affection towards us.  To the sinner the love of God means that there is the possibility of reconciliation and forgiveness. No matter how deep our sin and rejection of God, His love is ever present and so we can have hope.  If the person against whom an offense is committed, still loves the offender, then the offender can still be reached.  This is the very nature of God.

 

"Behold what manner of love the Father has given us." 1 John 3:1.

 

Charles Spurgeon, famous 19th century English preacher, wrote, Behold!" says John, "read other Scriptures if you like, with a glance, but stop here.  I have put up a way-mark to tell you there is something eminently worthy of attention buried beneath these words."   How true.  We hear it at Christmas time when the angel said, “Behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which shall be to all people…”

 

So let us stop for a moment and reflect.  This love which God gives us is a gift.  It comes to us without merit on our part.  God's love is not something we deserve.  God’s love is not something we have earned, nor ever can.  His love comes through unmerited favor.  There was nothing in us that would attract God's love and favor...we were separated from Him by sin.  God did not choose to bestow His love on the best of humankind - not the smartest or most moral or the most attractive.  God chose to freely give His love to all equally. 

 

 “Behold, what manner of love the Father has given us” or as another translation says, “has lavished on us.”

 

We stop and behold not just the love but the manner of love.  The manner, method, mode of love is really quite astounding.  It is well above and beyond our understanding!   The One offended loves the offender. And we see this clearly in a quote from Paul’s letter to the Romans.  Paul wrote,  "But God shows or demonstrates His love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us" (Rom. 5:8).

 

This is incredible.  God's creation rebels.  We, humans, are at the center of that rebellion.   We sin yet it is God who is willing to pay the price.    The manner of love is the sacrifice of the Son of God.  It is quite a demonstration of love and just how far God’s love will go to redeem and save us from our sin.  The result, of course, is our redemption from sin and reconciliation with God.

 

John writes something very specific about the result when he writes, “that we should be called children of God, and that is what we are.” 1 John 3:1   We are not just called children of God but are children of God.  Paul refers to it often as adoption, where we become children of God having once been enemies of God. (Romans 5:10)   In the Roman world adoptions took place, but it was not about compassion for orphans.  In fact, many people were adopted as young adults or adults.  Adoption was about inheritance and name.  Often a man was adopted to carry on the name of a childless family.  The adopted son would sever ties to the old family and this would include relief of any debt owed under the name of the old family.  He would become a whole new person, in a new context, with a new inheritance and name.  This what 2 Cor. 5 means when it says, “if anyone is in Christ - Behold – they are a new creation!” (2 Corinthians 5:17)  There’s that behold again.  Stop.  Take notice.  If you are in Christ – you are a new creation.  If you are in Christ – you are a child of God – a new person through adoption.  How great is that to be adopted by the best Dad ever?!?

 

John goes on in verse 2 to say, “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed.”   Do you mean to say it could get better?  How much better could it possibly be than to be a child of God?  Well we don’t know - except that “we will be like Him.”   We – will – be – like – Him – that is Jesus / God.  Amazing!  We – will – be – like – Him!

 

This is too fantastic to be true but there it is staring right at us in 1 John 3:2.  What a love God offers to us.  So, let me ask you, today, where do you stand in relation to receiving the love of God.

As we have seen from the Word of God...God's love is offered...the question is do you or will you accept it?

 

Let me close with this little illustrative story.  There once was young boy who came upon a stray dog.  It was skin and bones, was wounded and had obviously been beaten and abused by someone.

 

The dog was unable to help itself.  The young man went and got water, food and antiseptic to help this poor unfortunate creature.  However, at the young man approach the dog bared it teeth.  The young man was persistent and kept coming back offering food and water.   All was there to save this poor animal including the concern of the young man, but over and over it refused to accept the freely offered help and favor of the young man.   In time, the persistence of the young man won out.  The animal finally let the boy approach and in time began to take food and water, slowly and cautiously.  Later, as its confidence and trust grew it allowed the boy to treat its wounds.  Months later, healthy and happy, it was clear how complete the trust had become and the dog was the young man's constant companion. Love had won the day.  Unexpected, persistent love freely offered.

 

Like that doggy, you too maybe scarred by life.  You too may be cautious and even afraid.  “But God shows His love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”  Behold, what manner of love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God”  Will you accept God's love today?   Amen

John 20:19-31                                                                                     Grace               4/8/2018

 

Jesus said, “Do not doubt but believe.”  Thomas answered Him, “My Lord and my God!”

 

You may be interested to know that in Matthew, Mark and Luke’s Gospels we are told absolutely nothing at all about Thomas. It is in John’s Gospel that he emerges as a distinct personality, but even then, there are only 155 words about him. There is not a lot about this disciple in the Bible but there is more than one description.

 

I personally tend to think of Thomas as sort of an Eyore figure – just sort of pessimistic in nature.  I base this on my observation that when Jesus turned His face toward Jerusalem in John 11, the disciples thought that it would be certain death for all of them.  Surprisingly, it was Thomas who said: “Let us also go that we may die with Him.”  It was kind of Eyorish, but nonetheless a courageous statement.  Yet we don’t remember Thomas for that!  

 

We also seem to miss the point that in this story of Thomas’ doubt we have the one place in all the Gospels where the Divinity of Christ is clearly and unequivocally stated.  It is interesting that the story that gives Thomas his infamous nickname, is the same story that has Thomas making an earth shattering confession of faith?  Look at his confession, “My Lord, and my God!”  Not teacher.  Not Messiah.  Not Lord, or not just Lord.  But God!  It is the only place where Jesus is called God without qualification of any kind.  It is uttered with conviction as if Thomas was excitedly recognizing a fact, just as 2 + 2 = 4.  You are my Lord and my God!  These are certainly not the words of someone racked with doubt.

 

Unfortunately for Thomas, history has remembered him for this scene where the resurrected Christ made an appearance to the disciples in a home in Jerusalem. Thomas was not present and when he heard about the event he refused to believe it.  Maybe he was the forerunner of modern day cynicism.   Maybe the news simply sounded too good to be true.  However, if you look carefully, Thomas really did nothing different than the other disciples when they did not believe the women who came back from the tomb proclaiming that Jesus was risen.  Those disciples did not believe either…  until they saw the risen Christ with their own eyes.  Thomas was doing the same thing.  The only difference was Thomas saying: “Unless I feel the nail prints in his hands and put my hand in His side I will not believe.”  However, when the time came he did none of this.  At that point for Thomas, seeing was believing, and that is good.

 

A Sunday School teacher asked her class for a definition of faith one day.  One boy says, “Faith is when what you know ain’t so.”  It’s a little bit funny and inaccurate at some level yet very true at another.

 

Some folks we do business with are fond of saying that if you have belief, that is, if your dream for where you want your business to go is big enough, the facts don’t matter.

 

This could similarly be said of faith.  If you believe or have a big enough faith, the circumstances are irrelevant.  Sometimes real faith is when one believes even in the face of the impossible … and the impossible occurs.

 

The opposite sometimes occurs as well, where there is no faith or belief, even that which is highly possible doesn’t occur.  It could have, probably should have but it didn’t.  Even though it was possible, no one believed it to be possible, so no one did anything that might cause whatever it was to actually occur.

 

We have all heard it said that seeing is believing and we see it here with Thomas.  Sometimes however, believing is seeing.  When you believe what you see, that’s not really faith, that’s observation.  The women who believed before they saw the living body of the risen Jesus – THAT was faith.  The men who saw Jesus in the room and “believed” saw and observed.  So did Thomas.  They had observable proof.  The risen body of Jesus who met with them and spoke to them and even prepared breakfast on a beach for them, which is the next story in John’s gospel.    We simply have the evidence of an ancient narrative!  The 12, all of whom died martyr’s deaths, clearly DID believe what they saw and knew in Jesus!  But they saw and knew.  John states the same in his epistle: “what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands…”  1 John 1:1

 

And with that, I want you to understand that we may have a greater faith than the 12, though not one as challenged and tested as theirs.  John writes in the end of his gospel that this is exactly why he wrote what he wrote – so that we may believe and that through believing we may have life in Jesus’ name.  So, it is important for us to read this ancient manuscript that was written down for the specific purpose that we COULD read it.  And believe!

 

Now, as a side note, I cannot help but notice that Thomas had somehow separated himself from the rest of the disciples and therefore, in his solitude, missed the resurrection appearance. Perhaps John is suggesting to us that Christ appears most often within the community of believers that we call the church, and when we separate ourselves from the church we run the risk of missing His unique presence among us as we are gathered.

 

So, what can we learn from the brief witness of Thomas in the Scripture?

 

First, that Jesus will be experienced within the community of the faithful, so it is important to be a part of that community regularly and frequently.  Is this the only place Jesus can be experienced?  Of course not, but it is an important one and one that should not be neglected.  As the author of Hebrews wrote, “Do not neglect to gather together as is the habit of some…” Hebrews 10: 25

 

Second, that doubt serves a good purpose when it is doubt that seeks to believe rather than doubt that seeks to hide one from belief.  Thomas’ doubt was not for the purpose of keeping him from believing, which is what we sometimes see in modern day skeptics.  Thomas’ doubt was so that he may believe.  His doubt was backed by an honest desire to move ahead rather than some vague fear of moving ahead.  Jesus welcomed his honest doubt and sought to give Thomas what he needed to believe.

 

Third and last for today, we see in Thomas an understanding that following Jesus is not an easy thing.  It could be very costly as evidenced by his statement in the text I referenced from John 11 about going to Jerusalem to die with Him.  Even as a pessimistic Eyore, Thomas was willing to pay the price to follow wherever Jesus led.   Are we willing to step outside our comfort zone in order to follow and serve Jesus Christ?  Wherever He may lead us?  It may be simple or complex, near or far, free or expensive.  Will you believe, and thus act, because of what you see, or maybe in spite of what you see, because of what and who you know?   “Do not doubt but believe.”  Amen.

 

 

 

EASTER 2018            Acts 10:34-43              1 Cor. 15:1-11             John 20:1-18               4/1/18

 

It is EASTER!  HAPPY EASTER Y’ALL!  NO FOOLIN’!!   To the world, this is a day of Easter baskets, Easter egg hunting, too much candy, a big family dinner and maybe even a new outfit for Easter.  In addition to all of this, there will probably be many April fool’s pranks played today as well.

 

To the church as a whole and Christians in particular, Easter is the day when we celebrate the rising of Jesus from the grave three days after He was crucified and died.  It is the day of resurrection of Jesus Christ our Lord!  We actually celebrate this every Sunday but Easter Sunday is the like big anniversary celebration and this we do in church together.  We may also do all those other things I mentioned that the world does like Easter baskets and a family meal.  Our focus for this day, however, is Jesus being alive once again.

 

Easter Day to us is the second of two major events which occur but a few days apart in time.  Good Friday, the day of the crucifixion and death of Jesus is the first event. (2 clay lumps)   But this is not so for God.  To God, they are one event.  (2 lumps together)  The crucifixion/resurrection event could be seen as the redemption event, but I will refer to them from here on as the Easter Event.  The Easter Event was and is the single most important event in the history of humankind since the creation of humans.

 

Let me tell you a story which may help demonstrate just how important the Easter Event is.

 

This is the story of Mr. Griffith.  Mr. Griffith was a lift bridge or draw bridge operator along the Mississippi River.  His job was to raise or lift the bridge for river traffic and lower the bridge to for train traffic.  The normal position of the bridge was up for river traffic since more boats crossed under than trains crossed over the bridge.

 

Mr. Griffith took his son and daughter one Saturday morning to see the mighty workings of the bridge – to show them just how it all worked.  While he was there, he received a phone call saying that a passenger train was ahead of schedule.  He said to the children, “Stay here!  Do NOT move from this platform until I return for you!  Do you understand?”  “Yes”, they said and off he went.

 

He had a five-minute run to get to his get to his glass control room to throw the large lever which lowered the bridge for the passenger train which had some 500 people on it.  As he went to throw the lever, he saw that his son had left the platform and had climbed back amongst the large gears which moved the bridge.  He’s too far away to yell and he knows he’s got 5 minutes down and another five minutes back up again to throw the lever.  He also knows he does not have that much time before the train arrives.

 

He knows in that moment that he’s faced with a horrible decision.  Does he throw the lever which will mean certain death for his son thus saving 500 lives or does he not act and be responsible for the deaths of 500 people wen the train plows into the bridge at full speed? 

 

What to do?  O what to do?  HE THREW THE LEVER and the bridge went down and the train came through!  He looked through his glass window at the passengers and saw ~~ some in the restaurant car sipping their coffee and reading their morning paper ~~~ some dozing in their sleep cars.

 

As he looked, and saw them in train as it flew by ~~ he pounded on his window with his fists and cried out, “DON’T YOU KNOW THAT I JUST KILLED MY SON FOR YOU?”

 

And they never heard a word!  They didn’t know, unless maybe they read about it later in the newspapers and realized that they were on that particular train, but most, maybe all, probably never knew.

 

It is a very sad story but a very powerful one as well isn’t it?  It is, of course, a very clear parallel example of Jesus Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross.  God could not save man from the penalty of sin, which is death, without killing His Own Son.  The heart of the Father must have twisted in pain and grief as He slammed the gears of death down on Jesus.  What is perhaps even sadder, is that folks have whizzed on by for 2000 years, oblivious to the sacrifice that saved them from a certain and everlasting death.

 

There are two things about Jesus’ story that are very different from Mr. Griffith’s story.  Two very important ways in which the two stories are different.

 

First, Jesus’ death was no accident.  The Bible records this from the first sermon ever preached about the cross.  In Acts chapter 2:23 Peter preaches to the crowds on Pentecost and said, “This man (Jesus) was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge...”  Hear that again, “God’s set purpose and foreknowledge.”  Peter goes on, “and you, with the help of wicked men, put Him to death by nailing Him to the cross.” 

 

The cross was no accident.   This Good Friday part of the Easter Event was purposeful and intentional.  Jesus’ death on the cross was not the result of some panicking cosmological draw bridge operator!  The cross wasn’t a tragic surprise!  Calvary was not a knee jerk response to a world plummeting toward destruction.  The death of God’s only begotten Son was anything BUT an unexpected peril.

 

NO!  It was part of a plan.  It was a calculated choice, once the forbidden fruit touched the lips of Eve.  What does it mean?  It means that Jesus Christ, as God, planned His own sacrifice.  The Second Person of the Trinity, God’s Son revealed in the flesh in Jesus, intentionally planted the tree from which HIS cross was made.

 

It means that He placed in the earth, the iron ore which would be cast into spikes and nailed through His wrists and feet.  He didn’t have to do it.  He didn’t have to go to the cross ~~ but He did.  For you.  Remember the cross, right here this morning ~~ for you.

 

Even the cruelest of criminals is spared the agony of having his death sentence read to him before his life begins.  Jesus was NOT spared this agony, but His death was NO ACCIDENT.  It was both intentional and necessary.

 

The second way in which Jesus’ story is different from Mr. Griffiths story is that Jesus’ story goes on.  The story doesn’t stop at the cross.  There is  a tomb ~~ an empty tomb!

 

God in all His wisdom did not want to spend eternity banging on the glass fruitlessly crying out as folks whizz by missing the cross and its meaning.  So God printed a headline for the world to see!  “HE IS NOT HERE.  HE IS RISEN!”

 

As NOBLE AS Mr. Griffiths gesture was, it meant nothing to those for whom it was intended because they did not know about it.  God didn’t stop at the cross, but He emptied the tomb so that Jesus Christ Himself could make it clear why He died ~~ AND so the world would take notice.

 

On this Easter Sunday 2018 let me ask you:  Have you really taken notice of the cross and its deep implications for your life ~~ or are you still whizzing by like the trains passengers, completely and totally unaware?

 

If you find yourself in the latter group, How long do you plan to remain unmoved by the single most significant event in history?

 

No Foolin’!  I hope it’s not an eternity!

 

IF you are in the former group, let me say to you HAPPY EASTER since you have a real joy and knowledge of what the Easter Event is all about!

 

Alleluia!  He is Risen!

 

The Lord is Risen indeed!  Alleluia!

 

Eph. 2:4-10 & John 3:14-21               By His Grace                          Grace               3/11/201

 

 “It ought to be possible to live a Christian life without being a Christian," laments Roy Hattersley, a columnist for the U.K. Guardian. An outspoken atheist, Hattersley came to this conclusion after watching the Salvation Army lead several other faith-based organizations in the relief effort after Hurricane Katrina.

 

"Notable by their absence," he says, were "teams from rationalist societies, free thinkers' clubs, and atheists' associations—the sort of people who scoff at religion's intellectual absurdity." According to Hattersley, it is an unavoidable conclusion that Christians "are the people most likely to take the risks and make the sacrifices involved in helping others."

 

Hattersley also notes that this pattern of behavior goes beyond disaster relief: Civilized people do not believe that drug addiction and male prostitution offend against divine ordinance. But those who do are the men and women most willing to change the fetid bandages, replace the sodden sleeping bags, and—probably most difficult of all—argue, without a trace of impatience, that the time has come for some serious medical treatment.

 

"The only possible conclusion," says Hattersley, "is that faith comes with a packet of moral imperatives that, while they do not condition the attitude of all believers, influence enough of them to make (Christians) morally superior to atheists like me.” 

 

While that’s a notable conclusion for an atheist to come to it falls far short of the fullness of the reality regarding Christian people.  It’s not about moral superiority.  It’s about new life!  That is the heart of the Gospel and Ephesians Ch 2 is really the heart of the Gospel message.  In it Paul sums up or encapsulates the Gospel in a fairly succinct manner. 

 

Important in this summation of the Gospel message are the three verses at the beginning of today’s reading.  Let me read Ephesians 2:1-3 from a different translation than the one in the insert.  “1As for you, you were dead in your trespasses and sins, 2in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. 3All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and passions. Like the rest, we were by nature objects of wrath.”   

 

Paul does in vv 1-3 what many preachers don’t do in evangelistic preaching – he shows the problem. In vv 1-3, Paul quickly plumbs the depths of pessimism regarding the human condition and then rises to the heights of optimism regarding God’s solution in vv 4-10.  Billy Graham did this and I think it is one of the reasons his preaching was so effective.  He actually followed an early 20th century sales approach.  Show people their problem.  Show how your product is their solution. Give them the cost and then close the sale.  This is the pattern of Billy Grahams preaching.  He and Paul don’t just tell people that they’re sinners in need of salvation, but they show what the dilemma really is.  Then when they share the solution to the dilemma, people are more receptive to buying in.  And this is what Paul is doing in vv 1-10. 

 

As for you, you (Ephesians – but really all humans) were/are dead in trespasses and sins.  Trespass (paraptōma) is a false step, involving either crossing over a known boundary or a deviation from a right path.  A sin (hamartia) is missing a mark, like a target, or falling short of a standard of expectation.  In those trespasses and sins, people follow: ® not God’s ways but the course of this world, ® the ruler of disobedience, ® and the wrong use of rightly given passions and desires…  AKA the world, the devil and the flesh.  Because of this all of us are therefore objects of wrath.  But it is not a whimsical wrath like humans often express, based in emotions.  Rather, it is a just, even, righteous wrath, issuing from consistent standards of justice and righteousness rather than the whim of emotions.  Through trespasses and sins, WE ARE UNDER GOD’S WRATH !!!  That’s the BAD news.  And one needs to know the bad news and how bad it is in order to truly grasp the GOOD news and how good it is!! 

 

So, Paul moves on from the human dilemma to two words which are a great contrast to it. – But God – Here we see the beginning of the solution to our dilemma.  The solution to our dilemma is found in God’s response to our condition and can be seen quickly in four words which Paul uses in today’s reading:  Mercy, Love, Grace & Kindness!  These are why and how God responds.

Why? Because God loves us and because He is rich in mercy!

How?  With kindness through grace!

Two of these words bear defining:

Mercy is when you don’t get something (bad) that you do deserve!

Grace is when you get something (good) that you don’t deserve!

They often go hand in hand – and clearly do here in Ephesians. 

 

We were dead in trespasses and sins but are made alive in Christ – saved by grace (vv 6 & 8).  With this we receive good things that go along with the inheritance of adoption which is stated in Ch. 1.   A picture of how phenomenal this really is might be winning the lottery – without buying a ticket!  You don’t have to play to win.  You just win and accept the prize!  Unheard of!  That would be grace – unmerited favor – didn’t do anything to earn or win it!  The prize (or gift) was simply given.  But there’s a catch, although you may not see it as a catch.  You must cash the check for it to be of any real use to you.

 

Let me look at another example that refers to the Gospel reading as well. Who would like a gift? (GIVE GIFT AWAY!)  If you receive a gift from someone is it yours or not?  - - -  If you receive it but never unwrap and open it is it yours or not?  - - -  It is but it is of no real value or functional use. 

 

God so loved the world that He gave… Gave what?  Gave a gift.  What’s the gift?  His Son.  Yeah.  So, we’ve heard that for years.  - - -  God gave a gift.  To all.  To everyone.  Not just to some.  To all.  To you!  SO THAT – with the purpose that – everyone who believes in Him may not perish but have eternal life.  God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world but in order that through Him the world (we – you and I) might be saved.

 

Yes, Jesus is a gift.  But God does not force us to open or utilize the gift. And if we reject, refuse or throw back the gift so graciously given, by rejecting it altogether or by never “unwrapping” it, then we do not exit the state of condemnation in which we reside due to trespass and sin.  We are already condemned as the Gospel tells us, but it is not where God wants us to be.  Yet it is where we are.  In Romans, Paul writes that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.  That is what this Gospel passage is saying.  That is what Ephesians is saying.

 

So, we see in these passages in Ephesians and John, an incredible contrast.  We were objects of wrath but God … had mercy!

We were dead in sin and trespass, but God made us alive with Christ!

We were slaves to and through our condition, but God set us free and raised us up to sit with Jesus Christ in a place of honor for all eternity!  And what did we have to do for this?  Cash the check!  Unwrap the gift!  Simply accept it in faith!  We can’t earn it by good works or in any other way.  We don’t deserve it!  We simply receive it by faith and give God the glory and honor Him for doing this for us.

We are to do good works – we were made for doing them as the text says.  But such works are not the means to salvation but are more like our response in the light of the gift of salvation which God has given.  One author put it this way: “We are God's masterpiece, remade in Christ so that we will be able to do good works…  To be lacking in good works is to lack the living power of God in our lives. The man who does not have good works has not be re-created in Christ. In this sense good works are essential to salvation. Whoever does not live a life of good works in Christ--good works defined as works of gratitude for grace in loving obedience to the Father in heaven--is no Christian. Good works are absolutely excluded as either the ground or means of salvation, but they are equally absolutely demanded as the true fruit of salvation.”

So we see in Eph. 2 the bad news and the good news that are at the heart of the Gospel - the heart of the Gospel we see written in John 3, particularly John 3:16.  And we see that once we accept by unwrapping the gift of new life which God offers in Christ there is an admonition to action in the light of it.  Therefore, go in faith, saved by grace to work with others in Him and for Him. 

 

To that end I would like to invite you to pray with me.  If you would like to be sure that your gift is unwrapped and useful then pray silently or aloud with me as I pray aloud.  And if you wish to recommit yourself to the gift that is Jesus pray along with me as well.  It can never hurt to renew a commitment to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.  Let us pray:

 

“Father, I know that I have broken your laws and my sins have separated me from you. I am truly sorry, and now I want to turn away from my past sinful life toward you. Please forgive me. I believe that your son, Jesus Christ died for my sins, was resurrected from the dead, is alive, and hears my prayer. I invite Jesus to become the Lord of my life, to rule and reign in my heart from this day forward. Please send your Holy Spirit to help me obey You, and to do Your will for the rest of my life. In Jesus' name I pray, Amen.”

 

[[To the receiver of the wrapped package: “You may unwrap your gift if you wish.”]]

John 2:13-22             Moneychangers and Roast Beef dinners                           Grace      3/4/2018

 

Anger!  A-N-G-E-R!!!   That’s what we see in Jesus in today’s reading.  Zealous anger!  It is what one might call an outburst!  Jesus shows up at the Temple and throws a hissy fit as my mom used to say.  This image is completely out of character with the Jesus we think of.  Calm, caring, compassionate Jesus.

 

Ephesians 4:26 tells us, “Be angry, but do not sin.  Do not let the sun go down on your anger.”

 

Well Jesus was angry and did not let the sun go down on that anger.  But did He sin?  Absolutely not!  His anger was not self-centered or self-motivated.  His anger was motivated by indignation on behalf of God almighty.  Righteous indignation we call it.  When we get angry because someone did something against us it’s almost always sinful anger because it’s selfish, self-centered anger.  When we become angry on behalf of someone else, especially a stranger, perhaps for the way they are being treated or mistreated, that may be righteous anger though not necessarily.

 

So why is Jesus angry?  What’s the situation here?  Glad you asked.  Let’s take a look.

 

The passage begins, “The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.”  Let’s stop there and set it in a context you may relate to.  In the 2010 census, Warrenton is listed as just under 10,000 people and Fauquier County as just above 65,000 people.  It’s estimated that at Passover, the population of Jerusalem would swell from 50,000 (5 times the size of Warrenton) to 180,000 (3 times the population of the whole county).  Pilgrims would come from as far away as Persia, Syria, Egypt, Greece and Rome.  Bring that crowd to Warrenton and hold on to the crowd for a week.  That’s a lot of hungry mouths to feed; a lot of weary travelers to put up for the night.  Plus, they’re coming to the temple to make a sacrifice.  They’re going to need an animal for that.  They’re also going to pay their temple tax. Somebody’s going to have to help them exchange their currency.  Get the picture?  The commercial implications of Passover were enormous.

 

So, I think it’s safe to say the merchants were making a killing off the week of Passover, but were they really doing anything wrong? You could say that, by exchanging money and selling birds and animals for sacrifice, they were providing a service. And that is just how many folks looked at it then.

 

Clearly, Jesus did not.  John writes, “Zeal for Your house will consume me.”  It did that day.  Zeal consumed Him.  Zeal: defined as - Enthusiastic devotion to a cause, ideal, or goal and tireless diligence in its furtherance.  Another definition says: Fervent or enthusiastic devotion, often extreme or fanatical in nature, as to a religious movement, political cause, ideal, or aspiration.  That’s the more negative connotation of zeal which we often apply to those who disagree with or go against what we may be doing.

 

It’s probably how the vendors in the court of Gentiles viewed Jesus that day.   He was one against the many, seeking to right a wrong.  The money changers and vendors actually broke no law that day as they exchanged foreign money for Temple currency or sold animals for sacrifice in the Temple.  BUT they compromised the holiness of the Temple for personal gain. 

 

How?   Those who exchanged foreign currency for Temple currency so that the offerings could be made charged a fee for doing so.  Not unusual. One might expect a small fee for such a “service.” However, since it was Passover, they were doing some severe price gouging to make a tidy, greedy profit.  Perhaps charging a day’s wages for an offering which may have only been half of that.  Imagine going to your bank and getting a cashier’s check for $100 and paying $200 as a fee!  Outrageous!

 

Now on to the vendors.  The merchants who were selling the livestock did so as if they were providing a service for those pilgrims from out of town. The Pilgrims would not have to travel with cattle or sheep or doves because one was available for them to purchase for their sacrifice.  All sounds so innocent but it wasn’t.  These vendors, livestock merchants compromised the purity of the worship by selling imperfect animal specimens for sacrifice to God.  Animals for sacrifice were supposed to be perfect specimens of their kind.  These were less than perfect and were often the least perfect specimens from a flock or herd thus keeping the best for further breeding.  Thus, the worship of God was compromised and that above all the other reasons angered Jesus most of all.   It was just a business for the merchants – religion related maybe but a personal business nonetheless.  And a business dealing in the selling damaged goods.  It may have been “JUST BUSINESS” for them but it was part of a divine mission of restoration for Jesus.

 

A brief aside here.  This wasn’t like having a church bake sale, or a roast beef dinner or giving out and selling raffle tickets thus raising funds for the church.  The money didn’t go to the church i.e., the Temple.  The money went to the vendors.  It would be a little like having Red Truck Bakery come every Sunday morning to do coffee hour for us while charging us all premium prices for their leftover baked goods from Thursday and Friday.  THAT would be wrong on many levels and still wouldn’t be as bad as what was going on in the Temple.  Why?  Because what was going on there compromised the purity and integrity of the worship of God.

 

Are we guilty of being “moneychangers in the Temple” when we raise funds for the church or to give away as outreach?  I think not but there are things we could do or sell or auction that would be unacceptable.  I just don’t see Grace Church going there.

 

Jesus comes to the Temple for Passover.  He comes to be a part of His lifelong heritage.  He comes perhaps as well to pre-view Jerusalem in preparation for His final trip there 3 years hence when HE will be the sacrifice that will take away sin.  What happens when He arrives however is that He is livid over the dishonest, disgraceful, shameful, even scandalous use and abuse of the Temple as the place of business for merchants looking only to line their own pockets. His response that day was zealous.  He had zeal for the house of His Father in Heaven.

 

There is a story about young Teddy Roosevelt: “Mittie (his mother) had found he was so afraid of the Madison Square Church that he refused to set foot inside if alone. He was terrified, she discovered, of something called the ‘zeal.’ It was crouched in the dark corners of the church ready to jump at him, he said. When she asked what a zeal might be, he said he was not sure, but thought it was probably a large animal like an alligator or a dragon. He had heard the minister read about if from the Bible. Using a concordance, she read him those passages containing the word ZEAL until suddenly, very excited, he told her to stop. His impression about the zeal was from today’s Gospel reading.  “And his disciples remembered that it was written, ‘The ZEAL of thine house hath eaten me up.”’  

 

Zeal is not a monster to eat you up but a passion to excite you, to drive you and give you a focus.  It is as our first definition said, “enthusiastic devotion.”  Where is your zeal?  If God is not at the top of your list, then you have some evaluating to do.  We are called to give our life to God.  First of all and above all.  With zeal.  With enthusiastic devotion.  To give our life: in mind and heart and words and action to God.  If you’re not there, you have some spiritual work to do.  Let us pray.

 

Lord God Almighty, Lord Jesus, Spirit of the Lord: help us to open our hearts to you that we may live with you and for you with zeal, with fervent passion and enthusiastic devotion, this day and every day.  Amen

Mark 8:31-38               If you ain’t the lead dog…                 Grace                        February 28, 2018

 

The world of sled dog racing is famous for a truism and I once had a t-shirt which had that truism on the back of it. “If you ain’t the lead dog, the scenery never changes.”

 

In other words, only the lead dog gets to see what is up ahead.  Only the lead dog gets to sniff out new possibilities, gets to choose a new path.  For the rest of the pack, there is nothing but a view of bushy backsides.  No wonder in life many are constantly striving to be “lead dogs.”

 

We all want to be “large and in charge.”  Who doesn’t want to chart our own destiny?  Who doesn’t want to choose our life pathway?  Who doesn’t want to decide for oneself?  The problem for Christians is that Jesus had a rather startling response to that kind of an attitude: “Get behind me, Satan!”

 

Jesus’ harsh “rebuke” of Peter (“rebuke” being used here is a strong word used in demonic exorcisms) doesn’t sound so bad when it is directed at a first century disciple who had the audacity to tell Jesus he was wrong.  It is another thing to have Jesus’ words directed at each one of us, reminding us twenty-first century disciples that none of us are “lead dogs,” that none of us get to be “large and in charge.”

 

Jesus’ disciples, then and now, are reminded by today’s gospel text to “know our place.”  And where is our “place?”  Our place is “behind Jesus.”

 

It is often said that a good leader, leads from the front.  It was said by many that our former president led from behind.  For one thing, that’s not good leadership and the reason is that it’s hard to follow from the front.  I have a dog who likes to do that.  Sweet little Belle follows me while she’s in front of me.  When I get up to leave my study she gets immediately in front of me.  We walk through the dining room and she looks back to see if I’m there before she turns into the hallway.  When I walk through that door and into the hallway, she stops and looks back to see if I’m there.  Then she walks into the family room and then looks back to see if I’m still there.  When I am, she moves on into the kitchen and then looks again, you guessed it, to see if I’m there.  Sometimes I turn in the hallway like I’m going upstairs just to get her to actually follow from behind.  It’s really the only way to truly follow.  We must “get behind” Jesus, our leader. In this community of Christ, there is only one Leader: Jesus.  He’s the lead dog.  I am just a sheep dog and with that, we are, all of us, called to be followers.  The Apostle Paul put it this way: “Follow me as I follow Christ.”

 

Even after twenty-one centuries of trying, it is hard for us to “get behind Jesus” and follow him.  We may be willing to “take up our cross” but we would still like to follow from the front or actually “take the lead” on that journey.  It’s the “and follow me” part of that line we have the most trouble with.  In the few verses of Mark 8 just before today’s reading, Peter confessed Jesus as the Christ, as the Messiah.  But his first response to this newly identified Messiah was to try and tell Him what He can and cannot do!  In other words, Peter tried to lead Jesus in the direction Peter thought Jesus should go rather than follow Jesus where the Father was leading Him.

 

In Jesus’ passion prediction Peter heard a message that was so completely unexpected, a messianic mission so radical and outside of Peter’s mindset, that he decided Jesus was wrong. The Christ, the chosen One of God, the “Beloved Son,” “God with us,” was wrong. Peter puts himself and all his preconceived messianic hopes in the driver’s seat, and then tries to throw Jesus and all God’s plans for salvation into the back seat.  Peter wants nothing less than to be in control — in control of his life, in control of Jesus’ life, in control of God’s plans for all life.  That may seem to be an overstatement of what’s going on here.  We would probably not be willing to admit it unless we were being really honest with ourselves but when we say to God that we’re going to do it our way rather than His, we are telling God what to do.  Hmmm.  No wonder Jesus doesn’t mince words — “Get behind me, Satan!”  In trying to be a backseat driver or maybe the lead dog, Peter would have been thwarting Christ’s mission in the world. 

 

Jesus’ flat-out response to Peter makes a poignant point: If you try and drive from the back seat you will die.  If you are the lead dog, you will go off course and die.  You will lose your life by trying to save it.  It is only in following, by which I mean following from behind unlike little miss Belle, it is only in letting Jesus have the driver’s seat, that our lives are saved and assured.

 

Yet there is nothing that rankles our spirit and yanks our chain quite as much as being told to “know your place.”

 

“Know Your Place.” The world uses that phrase to relegate some people to second-class or even third class status.

 

–Do you think it is “second class” to be the first one sent out into the world for an all-out divine assault on sin, evil and death?  Jesus doesn’t…

 

–Do you think it is “second class” to live sinless and blameless and yet be ridiculed, rejected, judged and condemned, and nailed to the cross to die?  Jesus doesn’t…

 

–-Do you think it is “second class” to be the one to descend into hell and break apart Satan’s stronghold with the power of your grace and goodness?  Jesus doesn’t…

 

–-Do you think it is “second class” to be the one to overpower the grip of sin and death on all humanity and rise from the grave as a sign of death’s defeat?  Jesus doesn’t…

 

–-Do you think it is “second class” to be saved from sin, called to ministry and commissioned to a mission in the world . . . in Jesus’ name?

 

THAT is “the place” Jesus asks his disciples to occupy until He comes again.  Do you know your place?  Then Get Behind Him.

 

You will be guided by grace. You will be fueled by fearlessness.

 

Johann Sebastian Bach, who himself sired twenty beautiful children, celebrated in his Christmas Oratorio the birth of “the most beautiful of all human beings.” Why would we not want to share and show that beauty to everyone? Why would we want to hide that beauty under a basket?

 

The more we know our place “behind Him,” the more we show His face to the world.   

Let us pray:

Almighty and most Merciful God, You call us to follow;

to turn away from our own selfish interests,

and to take up our cross and follow You,

even if the path is difficult to see,

or is heading in a direction we would never have chosen for ourselves.

 

Forgive us for being so quick to question and so hesitant to follow.

Help us to see with the eyes of faith, rather than from our own human point of view.

 

Teach us to follow without fear, knowing that You are always with us,

leading the way.  In the name of our Shepherd Jesus we pray.    Amen.

Mark 1:9-15                            Well Pleased or Displeased?                          Grace               2/18/2018

 

It can be difficult to be a Catholic, especially during Lent.  John Smith was the only Protestant to move into a large Catholic neighborhood.  On the first Friday of Lent, John was outside grilling a big juicy steak on his grill.  Meanwhile, all his neighbors were eating cold Tuna fish for supper since it was always fish on Fridays for them.  This went on each Friday of Lent and it was driving the neighborhood men crazy.

 

On the last Friday of Lent, the neighborhood men got together and decided that something had to be done about John.  He was tempting them to eat meat each Friday of Lent and they couldn't take it anymore. They decided to try and convert John to be a Catholic. They went over and talked to him and were so happy that he decided to join all his neighbors and become a Catholic.

 

They took him to Church, and the Priest sprinkled some water over him, and said, "You were born a Baptist, you were raised a Baptist, but now you are a Catholic."  The men were so relieved.  Now their biggest Lenten temptation was resolved.

 

The next year's Lenten season rolled around.  The first Friday of Lent came, and just at supper time, when the neighborhood was sitting down to their cold tuna fish dinner, wafting through the neighborhood was the smell of steak cooking on a grill.   The neighborhood men could not believe their noses!  WHAT WAS GOING ON?  They called each other up and decided to meet over in John's yard to see if he had forgotten it was the first Friday of Lent.

 

The group arrived just in time to see John standing over his grill with a small pitcher of water. He was sprinkling some water over his steak on the grill, saying, "You were born a cow, you were raised a cow, but now you are a fish."

 

I don’t think that’s the kind of transformation baptism is really about.  And I have a feeling that the temptations Jesus faced in the wilderness would be considered far more serious in nature than having beef instead of fish on Friday.  But we wouldn’t know from Mark’s gospel because he leaves those details found in Matthew and Luke’s gospels out of his account.  In fact, Mark’s gospel is quite terse by comparison to the other synoptic gospels – Matthew and Luke.  He doesn’t do a lot with story development. For example, the temptation in the wilderness is at the beginning of the fourth chapter of Matthew and Luke but only 12 verses into Mark’s gospel.  Mark writes with urgency.  He uses the term immediately a lot as we see today.  It’s a hallmark of Mark’s gospel.  Mark has a sense of urgency to get his point across, so he gets right to the story.  In today’s reading, he does include one bit of information the others don’t but otherwise tells the story tersely.  What he includes is that Jesus was from Nazareth of Galilee.  Otherwise, not a lot of details.

 

What do we know other than this?

+ Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River by John.

+ As He was coming up for air, He saw the heavens torn open, the same term used by Mark of the tearing of the Temple curtain on the day of crucifixion.

+ The Spirit descends like a dove on Him.

+ A voice from heaven says, “You are my Son, My Beloved; with You I am well pleased.”

+ Then the Spirit immediately drove Him into the wilderness.  Doesn’t say whether it was a Jeep or Hummer or a limo, just that He was driven there.

+ He was in the wilderness 40 days.

+ Tempted by Satan.

+ With wild beasts.

+ Angels waited on Him.

 

Baptized.  Voice says, “Well pleased.”  Then driven by the Spirit into wilderness.

Tempted by Satan in the wilderness.  What a strange way to show just how pleased God really was.

 

Was God pleased that Jesus was just baptized or was He saying that He was pleased with Jesus?  My guess is the latter.  It’s not, “You did a good job Son.  I’m pleased with you.”  It’s just, “I’m pleased with you.  Pleased with who you are.”  Did you ever tell your kids that?  That you were pleased with them, or maybe you used the phrase proud of them, not for anything they ever did, but rather just for who they were or are?”  It’s a good thing to do.  However, don’t then send them out into the back 40 to camp out for 5 weeks.  The message might get lost.

 

So, what exactly is going on here?  What is said and what happens seems a bit confusing, almost paradoxical in nature.  God tells Jesus He is pleased as punch with Him and then sends Him out into a desert with wild animals and the tempter.  Is it a test?  Perhaps it is.  But maybe not in the way we think of a test.  So often we see tests as showing someone else what we can do.  Maybe many of the so-called tests of faith aren’t really tests to show God what we’re made of but rather to show us.  And maybe they’re not really tests at all but character builders.  Metal is tempered and made stronger through the heat of fire.  People are tempered and made stronger through adversity.  As the saying goes, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. 

 

Perhaps this wilderness beginning to Jesus’ ministry is the first preparation for the test, trial, temptation for Him for the end of His ministry when He’s in the Garden of Gethsemane desiring that the cup may pass.  And perhaps the fact that His ministry begins with this experience in the wilderness is God the Father’s vote of confidence, so to speak, about what Jesus came to do.  When the Bible says Jesus was tempted just like we are (Hebrews 4:15), the Bible isn’t kidding.  We face all sorts of difficulties in life. Like what? Well, like when our child gets sick, our spouse gets sick, our business goes belly up, our marriage falls apart or our car breaks down to name a few.  Is it a test?  Maybe, but not necessarily.  And if it is, it may not necessarily be to show God what we’re made of but rather for us to see.  Is it the way life is?  Definitely.  The question folks often ask is, “Why did God cause this?”  And it’s almost always, I would even dare to say always, the wrong question.  God may have not caused it at all, though He may have allowed it to happen.  The question to ask is, “God what do you want me to do or learn in the midst of this situation?”

 

When Dale and I had our twins, which were completely unexpected, we only found out 16 days before they were born that we were expecting twins.  It was a shock to say the least!  I was quite ready for a second child but totally unprepared to handle the situation of two at once.  A friend from seminary called me after they were born and said something to me that helped entirely change my perspective from the negative toward the positive.  My friend, Jim Pinto, had twin girls just after graduating from seminary and moving to their first parish.  And they had a 16-month-old son when Anna and Rebekah were born.  It was the exact same timing as our situation with the same age first born.  Jim said to me, and he’s the only person I know who honestly could say it to me, “I know what you’re going through.  All I can say is that God knows that you have enough love for two and not just one or He wouldn’t have given them to you.”  What felt like a test by God, became His vote of confidence.  It didn’t change the fact that life was difficult, but it did change my perspective from negative to positive.

 

When we face “tests” in life, whatever they may be, I hope we can all realize that they are character builders to mold and strengthen us to become more and more who God wants us to be.  We also need to see that such character building, molding us to be more and more who God wants us to be never ends.  For young and old alike, they are God’s vote of confidence rather than pass / fail tests.  Realize also that God’s love is not absent because we are facing hard things.  They’re not punishment for doing something wrong.  If that was the case, then Jesus must have done something wrong and maybe God wasn’t really pleased much less well pleased.  I know none of us believe that about God or Jesus.  What we see often see as tests are simply a part of life.  They are also opportunities for God to help us grow.  The good news that we can see from Jesus’ wilderness experience is that God had not forgotten Jesus but in fact sent angels to minister to Him or as this translation says, wait on Him.  Apparently, when we think we’re alone, we’re not. Apparently, when we think God has forgotten us, He is there remembering us with His angels. Apparently, when we think God has abandoned us, He hasn’t (see Isaiah 49:13–18). And that, in part, is why the gospel is good news.  Amen

Mark 1:29-39                          Hope and Freedom                 Grace                           Feb. 4, 2018

 

During this season of Epiphany we see the manifestation, the showing forth, the expression, the demonstration of Jesus beginning with the Magi when He was a baby and moving quickly into His Baptism and ministry.  Last weeks and this week’s readings manifest or demonstrate Jesus’ authority and power.  His authority was first seen and recognized in last week’s lesson by those present in the synagogue.  They acknowledged that He taught with authority and not as the scribes. Then as a demonstration of that authority, Jesus exercised power as well in casting out unclean spirits from a man who was present that day.

 

Today’s story picks up right on the heels of last weeks gospel where the man with an unclean spirit is healed right there during a synagogue service on the Sabbath.  Simon (a.k.a. Peter) brings Jesus to his home along with his brother Andrew plus James and John.  Peter’s mother-in-law is sick with a fever and Jesus heals her.  Her response is that she rises and serves them.  It is entirely possible that she may not have wanted to be healed right then.  Maybe she wanted a day or two in bed to rest.  Maybe so, but it was not to be.  So, she rose and served them.  It does not say whether she did so out of gratitude or out of duty, just that she did so.

 

Then that evening, townsfolk began to bring folks who were sick and possessed with demons to Peter’s house so that all the city was gathered around the door.  Word had obviously spread about what had happened at the synagogue, but folks waited till the Sabbath was over at sundown before they came.  And Jesus healed many who were sick and cast out many demons. Not a bad day’s work.

 

The next day Jesus gets up early, while it’s still dark, in order to go to a quiet place and spend time with His Heavenly Father.  Simon and the boys come out to find Him and even though folks are searching for Him, He says they need to move on to neighboring towns and proclaim the message there.

 

Do you notice what’s happening here?  Jesus isn’t staying in Capernaum till he meets every need of every person there but moves on to another town.  He knows what He has been sent to do.  His purpose isn’t simply to be everyone’s miracle worker but rather to proclaim the message of good news of the kingdom of God.  To do so He must keep moving.  And so, He went about throughout Galilee proclaiming the message of good news and casting out demons.  Marshall McLuhan said it so well in his book of 50 or so years ago with the title, The Medium IS the Message!  It’s not just what Jesus says nor what miraculous things He does, Jesus Himself IS the message.  And much of the message He represents is freedom.  His role is summed up succinctly in Isaiah 61 where the it says that messiah has come to lose the prisoners from their chains and set the captives free.

 

That’s what He is doing here.  He is setting folks free from sickness.  He is setting folks free from unclean and demonic spirits which bind them and keep them from being whole.  And ultimately, though not in this text, He is setting us all free from the bondage of sin which binds us to death.  What prison do you live in or what bonds are constricting you from being free and whole?  A painful past? A poor self-image? Fear? Addiction to power, money, sex, gambling or substance abuse?  The list is long.  The message Jesus has for us is one of hope and freedom and wholeness and He both proclaims it and demonstrates it throughout the gospels.  Through Him and His message we can be loosed from our own prisons and set free from the bonds which constrict us and then strengthened and nurtured to live fuller lives.

 

Some years ago, The British Weekly published this provocative letter:

Dear Sir,

It seems ministers feel their sermons are very important and spend a great deal of time preparing them.  I have been attending church quite regularly for 30 years and I have probably heard 3,000 of them.  To my consternation, I discovered that I cannot remember a single sermon.  I wonder if a minister’s time might be more profitably spent on something else.

 

For weeks a storm of editorial responses ensued … finally ended by this letter:

Dear Sir,

I have been married for 30 years.  During that time, I have eaten 32,850 meals – mostly my wife’s cooking.  Suddenly I have discovered that I cannot remember the menu of a single meal.  And yet … I have the distinct impression that without them, I would have starved to death long ago.

 

What message does Jesus have for you today?  In what way can He minister to you?  Heal you?  Lift, you up from being down?  Set you free from the things which oppress or maybe depress you?  Give you hope in what looks hopeless? 

 

What would happen in you, in your life, if you took 5 – 10 minutes a day to spend time alone with God in the same way Jesus did in this text?  Go to a quiet place, perhaps read the Scriptures or some brief devotional literature based upon Scripture, like Forward Day by Day, and then pray, spending more time listening to God than talking to Him?  What would happen if you took 20 minutes or an hour?  We live in a culture where we are often starving to death spiritually and don’t even recognize it.  Maybe it’s time to stop and be fed and nurtured by the One who heals sickness, casts out demons and cares enough to share what He has with the many and not just a few.                  Amen

Mark 1:21-28              My Heart, Christ’s Home                   Grace               January 28, 2018

 

One day a preacher was asked to explain why his sermons went on for an hour but his prayers only lasted a minute.  He said, ………………. “God listens.”       Ouch!

 

Do you think anyone was listening that day in Capernaum?  Apparently, even when Jesus traveled, He went to church on the Sabbath. Most likely was invited to teach as a visiting rabbi.  It was a common practice to invite a visiting rabbi to teach, which meant there wasn’t a lot of preparation time if you just showed up and they asked you at the time.  So here is Jesus in this synagogue teaching and the folks there are astounded at His teaching because He taught them as one with authority and not as the scribes.  That last phrase says a lot.  Not as the scribes…  The scribes taught in a manner that always quoted another authority.  They basically were the lawyers of their day and they put together their teachings and made their arguments much as a lawyer quotes from past cases that have been decided.

 

But Jesus teaches from the place of His own authority as the Son of God, not that they realize this about Him yet.  But they do recognize that He speaks with real authority.  So people did listen and took notice.  What makes this all the more striking is that it took place in Capernaum.  Capernaum was a city strong in its unbelief.  In another passage of Scripture (Matt. 23) it’s said that Tyre and Sidon – unbelieving Gentile cities – would fare better on the day of judgement than Capernaum.  Even so, there is a local Jewish synagogue there.  And we see in that congregation a man possessed by an unclean or evil spirit.  This tells us something about the church, 2 things actually.

 

First of all, that the church is not perfect yet nor are the people who comprise the church.  We all have sins to confess and problems to deal with – and that’s normal.  That’s a normal part of the life of any congregation and Capernaum was no exception!

 

Second of all, a question.  Is it possible that coming to church is not enough?  Is it possible that it is not enough for us to confess our sins and try to deal with the problems we face?  It was not enough for this man in Capernaum.  He had probably come to church before ---- was possibly a regular ---- but coming to church had not been enough to help him solve his problem ---that is having an unclean spirit.

 

It was not until he came in contact with God – in a face to face, personal way through Jesus – that he could find the relief he needed.  And this is true for us too.  We need to get to the point that we meet Jesus – and let Him be the solver of our problems.  Do you ever come to church with burdens or problems and leave with those same burdens or problems?  Is it possible that you have not let go of them and really given them to the Lord?  I’m not saying that Jesus is the quick fix that society is looking for because there is no quick fix to life’s problems.

 

At Capernaum, people marveled in wonder at Jesus’ teaching.  And after the demon was cast out of the man they were all the more amazed because they saw Jesus as one invested with authority – yet this did not lead them to belief.  They recognized Jesus’ authority but did not follow Him.  The unclean spirit recognized Jesus’ authority and even obeyed him.  The unclean spirit recognized Jesus as the holy One of God, but did not follow Him either.

 

In last weeks reading, Andrew, Peter, James & John also recognized his authority -- and they obeyed and did follow Him, and became His disciples.  Are we willing to become disciples of Jesus?  Willing to follow Him and allow Him to truly be the Lord of our lives?  Too often we accept Jesus’ role as Savior, the one who bails us out but do not give our lives to Him as Lord, the one who directs and oversees our lives much as a landlord directs and oversees property. 

 

There’s a little booklet on this topic that had a great impact on my life as a teenager.  The booklet, My Heart, Christ’s Home paints a word picture of a person as a home with different and various rooms.

 

Picture yourself – your life – as a home.  You allow Christ to come into your life by inviting him into your living room. Christ is your guest and He’s pretty safe there.  But He really wants more than to be a guest in your home.  His real role is that of landlord and He wants to be able to move freely about the whole house and to make improvements on the house which will be very beneficial to the tenant – you.  However, these improvements will also cause some inconveniences.  Remodeling is never easy and is often more than a little messy, but Oh the result! 

 

And there lies the trouble.  We are comfortable in our little home.  It may not be a mansion, or perfect, but it’s livable anyway and we like keeping our guest in the living room.  We don’t want our guest to see the junk drawers or messy rooms or the attic of our lives.  What we seem to miss is that He already knows about all of those things which is why He wants to clean up and remodel a house with great potential.  Us!  You and me!

 

Living room or whole house?  After all, it is possible for Jesus just to be ones Savior and never be their Lord, at least in the way live in regard to Him.  But God’s will for each of us is for Him to function as the Lord of our lives.  The reality is that He IS Lord whether we acknowledge it or not. Are you willing to have the carpenter from Nazareth come in and do some re-modeling in your home?  It begins with letting Him in but it continues with giving Him the deed.  Giving Him real control is guaranteed to bring change in your life.  It will challenge you in many ways.  It may mean that you need to change the way you treat your spouse, deal with your kids or parents or teachers.  Following Him as your Lord may mean that you will have to do business differently than you do now.  It could even mean that you need to find a different job in order to be faithful to following Him

 

The only reason that I am here now even saying this to you is because of a decision I made as a 15 year old to follow Christ.  To follow Him not just as Savior but also as Lord letting Him direct my life and lead me where He wills.  If I had done life my way I would own a different vehicle for each day of the week either because my medical practice had done so well or because my business had prospered mightily.  Now that may scare you if you are financially successful but it shouldn’t.  Do I ever look back?  Yes.  Do I look back with regrets?  No.  This is where God has led me these last 48 years though I couldn’t have imagined 48 years ago that I would be in a pulpit.  Is He finished re-modeling me?  I think you know He hasn’t.  Will you give Him the deed so He can re-model your heart to be Christ’s home too?

 

AMEN

Mark 1:14-20              Change Direction                                Grace                           1/21/2018

 

One year ago we witnessed the inauguration of #45 - Donald Trump as President of the United States of America.  Nine years before, we witnessed the inauguration of #44 – President Barrack Hussein Obama, the first person of color to hold that high office.  As any new president begins his administration, or one day her administration, surrounding himself with some very good people to assist him in his task as the President.  Top notch, handpicked people who have certain skills and understanding needed to advise and execute the President’s plan, whoever the President may be at the time.  Barrack Obama’s message throughout his campaign was “Change.”  His slogan was “Hope and Change.”  Donald Trump’s message and slogan was “Make America Great Again.”  Whether you see it or not, both of those messages are about change.  I am not here this morning to approve or disapprove either of these men or their work.  I am also not here to make a political statement except this:  We need to see change in our nation.  We cannot continue to carry on in the same way we have been in the past.  And I think “we the people” need to get behind this message of change, whichever change you see is needed.  It is a good message which rings true for most of us.  It is not, however, a new message.  The fact is that this is the message of the Gospel that has been spoken for many generations.

 

Change!  Change direction.  Isn’t that what Jesus is saying when He says repent?  Here’s an example of the need for a direction change even though it may be reluctantly changed.

 

This is purported to be an ACTUAL transcript of a US naval ship with Canadian authorities off the coast of Newfoundland.

 

Americans: “Please divert your course 15 degrees to the North to avoid a collision.”

 

Canadians: “Recommend you divert YOUR course 15 degrees to the South to avoid a collision.”

 

Americans: “This is the Captain of a US Navy war ship. I say again, divert YOUR course.”

 

Canadians: “No, I say again, you divert YOUR course.”

 

Americans: “THIS IS THE AIRCRAFT CARRIER USS ENTERPRISE, THE SECOND LARGEST SHIP IN THE UNITED STATES’ ATLANTIC FLEET. WE ARE ACCOMPANIED BY THREE DESTROYERS, THREE CRUISERS AND NUMEROUS SUPPORT VESSELS. I DEMAND THAT YOU CHANGE YOUR COURSE 15 DEGREES NORTH. THAT’S ONE-FIVE DEGREES NORTH, OR COUNTER MEASURES WILL BE UNDERTAKEN TO ENSURE THE SAFETY OF THIS SHIP.”

 

Canadians: “This is a lighthouse. Your call.”

 

Change direction.  That is what Jesus is saying when He says repent!  Don’t just continue on the same course, doing things the same old way, your way.  Turn around, take a new direction. Coupled with John the Baptist’s message of ‘repent from your sins’ there was certainly a message of change.  And Jesus too is inaugurating a new administration of sorts– the kingdom of God!

 

As He begins, Jesus is also looking for people to serve in His administration and we see Him on His own “fishing” trip by the seashore as He invites the first four people for His cabinet in today’s Gospel.  He came upon Simon and Andrew, and invited them to join Him in his work. James and John were next, leaving their undoubtedly astounded father by the boats with the hired help as they, too, set out after Jesus. Traditionally, many readers of the gospels assume that these fishermen were poor, destitute individuals with nothing to lose who follow Jesus to try and break the monotony of their everyday lives.

 

A close reading of Mark reveals something quite a different.  The truth is that these four fishermen were at least successful and possibly quite prosperous.  We learn later that Simon and Andrew had a house and an extended family (Mark 1:29-31) and that James and John, along with their father Zebedee, were successful enough to be able to hire additional help for their fishing business.  These weren’t desperate drifters with nothing to lose, but well-established businessmen in a culture where prosperity and family were everything. Following Jesus, then, was no small disruption of their lives but a complete change of course.

 

Was Jesus looking for people with particular skills and understanding? The political and religious establishment would come to think of him as a radical subversive — an ideological terrorist. But Jesus wasn’t looking for a weapons expert, bomb-maker, P.R. person and so on. Rather than looking for specific role definitions, Jesus wanted people with just one primary qualification for discipleship: a willingness to follow, regardless of cost.

 

Sure, the disciples would take on different roles within the group as it formed around Jesus.  Simon Peter would become the leader, spokesman and conscience of the group.  John would be the “beloved” disciple and closest friend of Jesus.  Andrew may have been the hospitality coordinator, and so forth. Regardless of his role, however, each disciple shared a common trait: They said “Yes” to Jesus’ invitation, trading their own futures on His vision for a new world.

 

Mind you, they didn’t exactly understand the ramifications at first.  Mark is pretty hard on the disciples, who seem to be a bit slow on the uptake at times when trying to grasp what Jesus was teaching them.  The courage that they displayed that day on the lakeshore would dissolve into panic in the Garden of Gethsemane, and temporary abandonment at the cross.  Yet they would be recovered by the resurrection and would move the kingdom message out into the world, a move that would cost most of them their lives.

 

Imagine Jesus walking into an office building, a factory or a grocery store and tapping a secretary, a welder or a checkout clerk on the shoulder saying, “Follow me.”  Imagine the looks on the faces of his coworkers when the employee walks out, leaving the file cabinet open, the doors of a new car un-welded or the groceries un-bagged. We have a hard time fathoming that kind of response and would probably chalk it up to some kind of cult-like mind control on the part of the spiritual guru making the call.  We like the idea of religious devotion to a cause, but only insofar as it doesn’t get in the way of our “normal” lives.

 

But such thinking misses the fact that Jesus is all about disrupting our normal lives.  The announcement of the kingdom was a proclamation that everything was changing.  Life could no longer be business as usual.  Later, these same disciples would be accused of “turning the world upside down” through their preaching and activity in the name of Jesus (Acts 17:6).   Being a disciple means being willing to drop our own agendas for life and get on board with the agenda of Jesus regarding the kingdom.  We’re not called to simply be advisers and supporters of Jesus, but friends who invest our lives in His vision for the world (John 15:14).

 

Whatever we’re doing, whether working or in school or retired, Jesus challenges us to see our primary vocation as being kingdom people — people who follow where He leads rather than simply advise and question or worse, turn away!  Are you just such a kingdom person?  Amen

John 1:43-51 & 1 Sam 3:1-20      Follow Me!         Grace          January 14, 2018

 

There was a game I used to play as a child.  Some of you probably played it too.  It’s a game that all ages can play but mostly kids play it.  The game: follow the leader.  It’s what both the OT lesson from 1st Samuel and the reading from John’s Gospel are about today.  Only in the readings, it’s not a game.  It’s life!

 

God calls to Samuel while he is serving in the temple with Eli the priest.  Samuel is there because his mother, Hannah, had been without child for many years.  She prayed to God for a child and said she would dedicate the child to God if He would let her give birth.  Samuel is that child, so when he was old enough to be away from home, he was taken to serve God in the temple under Eli.  Thus, Samuel is there in the temple when God calls to him.  He doesn’t yet recognize that it’s God calling so he goes to Eli and says “Here I am, for you called me.”  This happens a few times before Eli realizes what is happening.  When Eli finally sets Samuel straight Samuel responds when God calls.  “Speak, for your servant is listening!”  God calls.  Samuel responds.  Samuel is now following God on his own without Eli leading him any longer.

 

In the Gospel, Jesus finds Philip and tells Philip,  “Follow me!”   Philip then goes to Nathanael and says, “We have found Him about whom Moses in the law and the prophets also wrote.”  Apparently Philip has decided to follow Jesus along with Peter and Andrew from his same town and he goes to find another friend, Nathanael, so he too can go along. 

 

Nathanael, however, is a bit skeptical.  “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” he queries.  Philip convinces him to come and check it out so Nathanael goes with Philip.  As they approach Jesus, He speaks to Nathanael and Nathanael finds out that Jesus knows something of him, seeing him under the fig tree.  We're not told whether Jesus seeing him under the fig tree was the result of a divine vision, or simply of Jesus passing by earlier. Either way, Nathanael is impressed enough to believe.  What makes us believe?  Is it miracle?  Is it truth?   Is it presence?  Or is it with us, as it may have been with Nathanael, enough to simply be known by God?

 

A child, an adult and a skeptic all respond to the summons to follow God.  Follow the leader really is for everyone!   But unlike the game we played as a child, (or may play now as children,) the follow the leader Jesus is calling for is about life.  It’s about being seen by God wherever we are, like Nathanael under the fig tree, and responding to Him.  Or like Philip responding to Jesus’ “Follow me.”  It’s about hearing God as Samuel did and responding.  We may not hear in just that way.  There are many ways to hear God speak to us but we must be paying attention.

 

In the book Character Forged from Conflict, Gary Preston writes: “Back when the telegraph was the fastest means of long-distance communication, there was a story, perhaps apocryphal, about a young man who applied for a job as a Morse code operator. Answering an ad in the newspaper, he went to the address that was listed. When he arrived, he entered a large, noisy office. In the background a telegraph clacked away. A sign on the receptionist’s counter instructed job applicants to fill out a form and wait until they were summoned to enter the inner office.

 

The young man completed his form and sat down with seven other waiting applicants. After a few minutes, the young man stood up, crossed the room to the door of the inner office, and walked right in. Naturally the other applicants perked up, wondering what was going on. Why had this man been so bold? They muttered among themselves that they hadn’t heard any summons yet. They took more than a little satisfaction in assuming the young man who went into the office would be reprimanded for his presumption and summarily disqualified for the job.

 

Within a few minutes the young man emerged from the inner office escorted by the interviewer, who announced to the other applicants, "Gentlemen, thank you very much for coming, but the job has been filled by this young man."

 

The other applicants began grumbling to each other, and then one spoke up, "Wait a minute--I don’t understand. He was the last one to come in, and we never even got a chance to be interviewed. Yet he got the job. That’s not fair."   The employer responded, "All the time you’ve been sitting here, the telegraph has been ticking out the following message in Morse code: `If you understand this message, then come right in. The job is yours.’ None of you heard it or if you did, understood it. This young man did so the job is his."    Are you paying attention?  Are you listening for God’s call, God’s message that you may not be expecting?  “Listen, for He may wish to speak with you!”

 

And when you hear will you surrender your own ideas and agenda to follow God’s agenda for your life?  That’s what it means when Jesus says “let’s play follow the leader for life.”  He’s calling!  Will you follow?

AMEN

Acts 19:1-7 & Mark 1:4-11                             Grace                                                January 7, 2018

 

My mother used to work for the USIA – the United States Information Agency.  She was, in effect, a film producer for the Federal Government.  She made or was director for films, often produced under the name of famous directors like Walt Disney, who she did work with on one occasion.  She thought filming much of the time.  I remember driving to Atlanta, GA from Annandale, VA for my oldest brothers wedding in 1971.  My mom said something like, “Here is where we would fade out and then fade back in with a written line ‘and 12 hours later’ and we’d be there.”  In only one day, we have gone, liturgically speaking, from the Magi arriving (Epiphany was yesterday) to Jesus’ Baptism – a span of some 30 years.  I think if my mom was producing the film, here is where we would see a fade out and the line, “thirty years later”.  Today we read of Jesus’ Baptism.

 

Baptism is a powerful force in the life of a Christian.  It is something we share in common.  Christians all over the world can say that they were baptized in Christ.  If you meet a Catholic in Ireland.  He was baptized.  If you meet a Pentecostal in Nigeria.  She was baptized.  Every one of us has this in common.

 

This was not the case in our reading from Acts 19 this morning.  Here are a dozen or so men who were disciples… of John.  They received the baptism of John but only the baptism of John.

 

John did not invent baptism.  John takes baptism, a common practice for those who wish to become Jews, and redefines it in a different way.  Baptism is no longer the outward act of cleansing for those who wish to become Jewish but the outward act of repentance for Jews to be ready for the coming Messiah.  John says in another text that it is no longer enough to just be a son of Abraham by birth, implying that there is something else which must happen to be part of God’s family – adoption!

 

That’s what the feast of Epiphany represents to us.  It’s where God clearly shows that His kingdom is open not just to the Jews but to all people.  Epiphany symbolically opened the door to us for adoption into God’s kingdom.

 

So, John baptizes with water but the coming One will baptize with the Holy Spirit.  And that Jesus does.  We see this reflected in the Acts reading where those who were simply baptized by John for repentance but had never believed in Jesus or heard that there was a Holy Spirit.  After Paul tells them about Jesus and the Holy Spirit they were baptized in water and received the Holy Spirit after which they spoke in tongues and prophesied.  This was and is serious stuff here.  They had been prepared for the One to come but then never got the memo that He had arrived until Paul spoke to them.  When they heard, they believed and were baptized with water and the Holy Spirit as John had said.  One might conclude from this that baptism is important and is based on believing in Jesus Christ.  One would be correct!

 

I read this recently and thought it sums shortly and succinctly the difference between John’s baptism and Christian Baptism.  “John’s ‘baptism’ pointed forward to One who was coming; Christian ‘baptism’ points back to One who has come.”  These men were still anticipating the Coming One and somehow missed Him altogether.

 

Something must have prompted Paul to investigate the faith of these men. He asked, therefore, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?”  His criterion for what distinguished the Christian is significant: the Holy Spirit. 

 

In the Scriptures, this baptism is a unique experience.  After these 12 are baptized, Paul lays hands on them and begin to speak in tongues and prophesy.  What is unique here, is that Paul laid hands on them.  This was not the norm and is not repeated elsewhere in Scripture thus it is not something to be exemplified as a pattern.

 

There are many people who have received some variation of non-biblical instruction in how to receive what is commonly called baptism of or by or in the Spirit.  These folks have had some kind of a charismatic experience and are thus united in a bond of fellowship with others who have had a similar experience.  The problem is that this second blessing, as it is sometimes called, is not a biblical norm but rather a deviation from the norm.  Another problem is that this baptism in/of/by the Spirit has, in many places, created a sort of exclusive “second blessing” club that is very off putting to those who do not “belong.”  Those who do not belong are somehow “second class” Christians to which I say “Hogwash!”

 

When you believe in Jesus and are baptized you get the whole kit and caboodle.  It’s a package deal.  You get Jesus. You get the Holy Spirit.  And if you act now, we’ll double your blessing for the same high price.  Just kidding.  Now I am not saying that having some sort of second blessing experience in necessarily invalid or wrong.  It’s just not the norm biblically speaking.  Yet in the 1960’s and 70’s such teaching was normal in charismatic circles.  I was taught these things and “Received the Baptism” but I never quite bought into why all this HAD to be a second experience.  It was the norm then because the church as a whole had so neglected any teaching at all on the Holy Spirit that folks were playing catch up.

 

In some circles, the church is still playing catch up.  In some circles, the charismatic expression of the Holy Spirit is common in worship.  In some circles, the Holy Spirit is all but denied as even existing or having any influence in the life of a believer.  In some circles the Holy Spirit is the guiding force, guiding partner, guiding influence in the life of a person or a church.

 

Let us note that the Holy Spirit is here.  He is here in His abundance and power, in His glory and grace, in the beauty of holiness and in the bounty of His heart.  But He is here, above all, to point people to Jesus.  When people are taken up with the Spirit at the expense of Christ they missed the primary point and purpose of the Holy Spirit’s coming.  Certainly, we need to know all the Spirit of God has revealed to us about Himself, but the Holy Spirit would have us know that, first and foremost, He is here to point people to Christ.  And to help us do the same.

 

We are to be guided by the Spirit, taught and led and strengthened and encouraged by the Spirit.  The knowledge, wisdom and presence of the Holy Spirit is critical to our lives in Christ.  But we are not “saved” by the Spirit.  The Holy Spirit did not die for us or our sins.  Jesus Christ did that and so the Spirit points us toward Jesus.  Always.

 

So, let me stop here and ask: Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you were baptized?  Please nod your head and say, “Yes.”  Now the question becomes, “Are you allowing the Holy Spirit to flow in you and through you?  Is the Spirit flowing out in a way that others can tell?”  Or as someone I once heard put it, “Are you willing to let the Holy Spirit off leash?”

 

If not, then consider the possibility that you’re standing in the way.  Paul told the Thessalonians,

Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing.  In everything give thanks…  Don’t quench the Spirit
(1Thessalonians 5:16-22).

 

We quench the Spirit when we rebel against God’s will for our lives and insist on doing things our way.  Contrary to Jesus, our prayer is, “Not Thy will, mine be done.”  When our humanness gets in the way, we stifle the Spirit and short-circuit His power to transform our lives.

 

To experience the fullness of the Holy Spirit you have to get yourself out of the center of the circle of your life and admit it’s not about you.  It’s about God and the sovereignty of God.  Once we get our self-centered nature out of the way, a transformation occurs.  The Spirit takes over and becomes evident in every aspect of our lives.

 

So we have seen that the baptism of John is about repentance while the Baptism of Jesus is by/with/in the Holy Spirit.  So here’s my closing question for you today.  “Are you willing to let the Holy Spirit off leash” in your life?

 

Let us pray:

Lord God almighty, through Your Holy Spirit, teach us to pray; increase our faith; make alert to hear and swift to obey, through Christ our Lord. Amen

 

Christmas Eve 2017                         It’s all about Jesus                         Christmas Eve 2017

 

Three men were sat nervously in the waiting room at the hospital as their wives prepared to birth their first children. The men were too scared to go in.

 

Soon the head nurse arrived with good news from the birthing rooms. She said to the first father-to-be, "Sir, you are a father of twins!"

 

"That's great," he said. "I'm a baseball player and I am going to sign a contract with the Minnesota Twins. This will be good press."

 

Soon, the nurse arrived and said to the second father-to-be, "Sir, you are the father of triplets."

 

"Fantastic," he said, "because I work for the 3M Company. This will be great press."

 

The third father-to-be got up and ran out of the room. He was moving so fast that he did not bother to take the elevator. Finally, the nurse yelled out the window as the man entered the nearby parking lot. The nurse cried out, "What's wrong? Where are you going?"

 

He said, "I've got to resign immediately.  I am Vice-President of Seven-up!"

 

Since it’s Christmas Eve let me say, “Merry Christmas!”

 

If I said to you, “Christmas is all about ______________…” how would you fill in that blank?

Answers: gifts, family, good food, helping others…

 

It’s Christmas Eve.  The shopping is done.  The ingredients of a sumptuous meal have been purchased.  There will be time with family and friends and still time for parties.  Wrapping may still need to be completed and for some, putting together some toys.  The sleigh and reindeer are aloft as we speak and tomorrow there will be stockings and candy and presents to open and good food to eat.  And for many – this is Christmas.  But you know there’s more or you wouldn’t be here – now. 

 

Perhaps the Grinch said it best:

 

And the Grinch,

with his Grinch-feet ice-cold in the snow,

Stood puzzling and puzzling: "How could it be so?"

"It came without ribbons! It came without tags!"

"It came without packages, boxes or bags!"

And he puzzled three hours, till his puzzler was sore.

Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn't before!

"Maybe Christmas," he thought, "doesn't come from a store."

"Maybe Christmas. . . perhaps… means a little bit more!"

 

A little bit more… like (and name some of the things that were mentioned with fill in the blank).

 

But those are what Christmas has become.  We’ve really got it all wrong about Christmas.  Don’t tune me out here.  I’m not anti-Christmas.  I love it.  But we do have it all wrong.  It’s not all about family, unless it’s the Holy Family.  And it’s not all about the gifts we give or receive from others.  Christmas is about receiving and accepting the Gift which God offers to us.  A gift for all to receive.  A gift of “light and life to all He brings” as one carol tells us.  There are several messages in the story I just read from Luke and yet above all, God did not give us a message.  God gave us His Son.  Emmanuel.  God with us.  God in flesh and blood.  God embracing all that it is to be human.

 

When God wanted to become human, then why not skip infancy with its dirty diapers and colic? Why not skip adolescence with its acne and peer pressure?  Why not just come as a fully grown adult ready for ministry?  Why?  Because God wanted to fully embrace our humanity.  God wanted to fully embrace our fallen humanity.  We see it in the reading from Isaiah.

 

“The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned. … For unto us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be upon His shoulders.  And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”  Is. 9:6

 

Be clear about this.  The people had been walking in darkness and living in the shadow of death.  People are still walking in darkness and living in the shadow of death.  We still live in a dark world.  If you don’t believe me just watch the news.  For years folks thought that better education would redeem mankind somehow but that clearly hasn’t worked.  Darkness still prevails in many places and in many hearts.  One of my favorite Christmas hymns says it well.

O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie!

Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by;

Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting Light;

The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.

The streets are still dark and yet there is an everlasting light there as well.  The light of the world has come into the world in a person. 

 

That is what we celebrate here tonight.  We celebrate the birth of a child, but not just a child, not just any child.  We celebrate the birth of God in the flesh.  Foretold in Isaiah, announced by angels and received by shepherds.  Jesu bambino – baby Jesus!  THIS is the gift of Christmas.

 

And if we really want to experience the newborn Christ, and we take Luke’s account seriously, the last place to be on Christmas Eve is in church.  Why?  Because Jesus was born where people need Him most.  Jesus is still being born where people need Him most.

 

I am not suggesting that you just get up and leave.  Please don’t.  Hear me out.  I don’t think there is anything wrong with being here right now.  And I am not one to spurn or mock or avoid worship.  But the real Christmas story is not -- physically or spiritually -- found in the glow of a tree-lit sanctuary nor the sentimentality of the carols and candles nor the warmth of the family hearth.  The real story of Christmas is in the fields of the isolated, the disenfranchised and the forgotten, or in our own painful places of spiritual wilderness, because God speaks the good news of Christ’s coming there.  God brings great joy to those who need it most there.  Where is there?

 

“In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them” (Luke 2:8-9). We for whom the church holds a central place sometimes look upon the shepherds as “outsiders.”  So did the people of Israel.  Shepherds were lower on the totem pole than prostitutes and tax collectors.  And this particular night, at this particular time, the shepherds were literally in the darkness.  Only lepers were more separated from society than shepherds.  And THAT night, God came to them: the isolated, the disenfranchised, the forgotten.  But not forgotten by God!

 

I have come to see God sending angels to shepherds as bigger than reaching out to outsiders.  Spend enough time in the field, shunned by decent and religious folk, disappointed by God, or overwhelmed by grief, and we might stop caring that we are outsiders.  We might give up trying to get inside religion at all.   We may even just give up on God so we can get on with life.  But God does not give up on us.  God sends angels to people who have given up on God.  How would you respond to God sending angels to you when you’d given up on God?  Like the shepherds, I’d be terrified.   

   

But in Jesus, God comes in a way that is far from frightening.  Jesus comes vulnerably, helplessly, as “a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger” (2:12).  Jesus is born like any other baby, except Jesus is born on the road and laid in a feeding trough.   No magi at this manger scene. Jesus is born among the lowly and the poor and they could relate to Him as one of them.

 

The good news of Christmas is that in the midst of a deep darkness there came a light, and the darkness was not able to overcome that light. It was not just a temporary flicker. It is an eternal flame. We need to remember that. There are times, in the events of the world and in the events of our own personal lives, that we feel that the light may be snuffed out. But the Christmas story helps us see that whatever happens, the light still shines.

 

Jesus was born to bring more than a temporary celebration or a flicker of hope.  He came to bring more than just holiday cheer and good feelings though they certainly are good.  The Gospel story we just heard is more than a sentimental story we hear once a year which makes us feel all good inside.  It is the beginning of the story of God’s love, care, forgiveness and redemption for us as seen in and through Jesus.  It is the beginning of the story of One life which would literally change the world.  It is the story of the light coming into the darkness and overcoming it.

 

Jesus said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but have the light of life.”  (John 8:12)

 

Jesus also said, “You are the light of the world…” Matthew 5:14

 

In a little while we will light candles as we sing Silent Night.  Don’t miss the symbolism in the lighting of the candles.  The first candles will be lit from the candle at the center of the wreath up front – the Christ candle.  From there the light will spread as we pass the flame along to others.  It’s a cool, kind of sentimental, kind of adoring thing that we do here at Grace Church each Christmas Eve.  But it is also a powerful symbol of what Christ came into the world to do.  To bring the light and to spread and have us also spread the light in the darkness.

 

Don’t let this evening and tomorrow just be a fun time of family and presents.  There’s nothing wrong with those but they are not why Jesus came into the world.  Let this evening and tomorrow also be a time when the good news of Jesus, the Light of the world, sinks deeply into your hearts.  Let it also be a time when you see and begin to live out the calling that “You are the light of the world”.  Have a very Merry Christmas but more importantly – go in Jesus and Him in you – and be the light of the world!  Amen

1 Thessalonians 5:16-24                          Rejoice Always                         Grace             12/17/2017

 

Christmas is a joyous celebration. You would agree with that, wouldn’t you? The Christmas season is a time of great joy, even if we do all begin the celebration in what is technically Advent.  At some level that’s OK because most of the world around us doesn’t even know there IS and Advent or what it is if they’ve heard of it.  Well, our lesson from the Epistle tells us that all of life is to be a joyous celebration. Because the Lord of life has come into our world, every day should be a time of joy.

 

I Thessalonians 5, verse 16, only contains two words . . . making it one of the shortest verses in the Bible, but what a perfect verse for the third Sunday in Advent. The words of this short verse are, “Rejoice always.” That’s clear enough, isn’t it? It doesn’t say, “Rejoice sometimes.” It doesn’t say, “Rejoice when times are good and the economy is strong.” It doesn’t even say, “Rejoice during the Advent-Christmas season.” It says simply, “Rejoice always.”

 

In many churches the third Sunday in Advent is known as Gaudete Sunday, from the Latin word for “rejoice.” In churches that celebrate Gaudete Sunday, as we do, a pink candle in the Advent wreath is lit. It is a reminder in the midst of the otherwise somber season of Advent, that the coming of the Lord which we are preparing to celebrate is a season of great joy. “Joy to the world,” we sing, “the Lord has come.”

 

Certainly the Christmas season gives us many opportunities for joy. We are surrounded by reminders that this is to be a season for being glad.

 

One woman, Wendy Wright, discovered the joy of the Christmas season in one of the most unlikely of places, a homeless shelter in her city. Wendy and some others from her church visit homeless shelters each year to sing Christmas carols. The people living in homeless shelters have had their childhood dreams shattered, says Wendy. They live with very little hope. “In that setting,” Wendy says, “songs of snowmen and Christmas wish lists and hearty good cheer ring hollow.” What rings true is the good news of a Savior.

 

At one of the shelters at which they were singing, Wendy met a man she says she will never forget. The group had been singing their Christmas carols in a smoke-filled, noisy room. They were ready to wind it all up when a homeless man about fifty in a soiled jacket approached Wendy. She recalls that this man’s “perceptions of things, due either to ill health or some chemical substance, seemed doubtful.” But he asked Wendy if she would sing his favorite Christmas song with him. The song was, “O Holy Night.”

 

Wendy agreed and they began singing. The crowded room gradually grew silent as the two of them raised up their voices together. “O Holy Night! The stars are brightly shining, / It is the night of the dear Savior’s birth . . .”

 

The man in the soiled jacket leaned on the edge of a tattered sofa about three feet from Wendy singing with his eyes closed. As he sang Wendy noticed a change come over the man. “The tired creases of his street-weary face softened as he [sang],” she recalls.

 

As he continued to sing, his face shone and tears fell gently from his lowered eyes. “I knew, at that moment,” Wendy says, “that his longing and mine were one . . . it is etched on the human heart.”  That longing is for a Savior.

 

There are many opportunities during the Christmas season to experience joy but the writer of 1 Thessalonians would have us experience joy all year long. He would have us experience joy when the carols and the lights and the nativity scenes have all been put away. How do we do that? We do that by reading the rest of the sentence from I Thessalonians. The two words, “Rejoice always,” are only the first phrase in a sentence with three parts. The entire sentence says: “Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”

 

These are the keys to having the Christmas spirit in your life at all times.  “Rejoice always, pray continually,” and “give thanks in all circumstances.” That really makes sense if you think about it.

 

“Rejoice always.” Paul is saying to us, first of all, that joy is a primary characteristic of a Christian. If you do not have a sense of joy in your life, you need to examine your Christian faith and life.   Joy does not come from having life figured out.  Joy comes from relaxing oneself in the knowledge that we are loved no matter what.

 

There is a charming story in the book Boswell’s Life of Johnson by James Boswell. Johnson met a man called Edwards who had been at college with him and whom he had not seen for forty years. They went to Johnson’s room and talked of many things. Telling of what he had done since they had been to college together Edwards said: “You are a philosopher, Dr. Johnson. I have tried too in my time to be a philosopher; but, I don’t know how.  Cheerfulness was always breaking in.”

 

There are many people who rob themselves of joy because they think that they have to be able to fully understand life. Let me assure you that will never happen. That’s what it means to live by faith. We don’t understand everything that happens in life, but we know the Creator of the universe loves us. The story of the babe born in Bethlehem reminds us of that.  But it’s not just for a day or a season – it’s for every day, all year long, every year.

 

Joy does not come from having life figured out. Neither does it come from always living in the sunshine. C. S. Lewis used to talk about the difference between joy and pleasure or what we might otherwise call happiness. Joy comes from within. It is steady and abiding. Pleasure, on the other hand, comes and goes with whatever is happening in our environment. It is extrinsic because it arises from the outside. When the circumstances change in one direction, pleasure comes. When fortune reverses, pleasure leaves.

 

We have our small pleasures, and that’s fine. But one day, if not many days, they will fail us. Joy will never fail us. Joy resides within us and undergirds us regardless of what is happening on the outside. It is the free gift of God that comes with faith in Jesus Christ.

 

If you believe in Jesus Christ and your heart is not filled with joy, ask God for it. It is your birthright as one who has given your life to Jesus. Christmas is a perfect time for doing that. Joy is not only the privilege, but also the responsibility of a Christian. It is a significant part of our witness to the world that God is alive.

 

A French philosopher once said, “I look at the Christians or those who call themselves such. They look so morbid and sad. If that’s Christianity, I’ll have no part of it.”

 

I say to you that something is wrong with the Christians he is encountering. If you know that Christ is your Savior, if you know that God loves you, if you know that your life has meaning and purpose and that you have One who will stand with you through eternity, how can you not feel a sense of joy? “Rejoice always.” That’s verse sixteen. Then verse seventeen tells us, “Pray continually . . .”

 

Paul is telling us, in the second place, to cultivate a sense of God’s presence within us a presence that we carry with us always. If we have a sense of God’s presence in our lives at all times, we will be able to rejoice. That’s what it means to pray continually.

 

Prayer is not a mere ritual in which we repeat the same words over and over, “Forgive me of my sins, take care of my family, God is great, God is good, now we thank Him for our food.” Paul doesn’t mean for us to mouth formulaic prayers all the time. He certainly doesn’t mean for us to bow our heads and close our eyes while we’re driving. When he says “pray continually,” he is telling us to get to the very heart of prayer. Live in God’s presence. Let us be open and allow God’s Spirit to fill us so that every moment is touched by God’s glory and love.

 

That’s the second key for keeping the Christmas spirit all year long. Cultivate a sense of God’s presence and carry it with you everywhere you go. “Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances . . .”

 

Here is the final key: “Give thanks in all circumstances . . .” Develop a profound sense of gratitude in your life that you can hold on to regardless of your circumstances.  Paul doesn’t say give thanks FOR all circumstances but give thanks IN all circumstances.

 

During World War II, American soldier David Read spent many years as a prisoner of war in a Bavarian prison camp. For the first few years in that camp, says Read, the prisoners were able to keep their spirits up. They even found a way to celebrate the major holidays, like Christmas. But one Christmas, near the war’s end, the men in the camp were beginning to lose hope. They didn’t even have the heart to plan anything for Christmas. Read wrote a poem encouraging the men to celebrate Jesus no matter what the circumstances. He recalled the apostle Paul’s words in where he wrote about being shipwrecked, beaten, and imprisoned for his preaching. But Paul never lost the joy of proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ.

 

After his return from war, David Read entered the ministry. Many years later, he recalled that final Christmas in a prison camp, and he wrote, “The Gospel is no less true when circumstances are most terrible. If we soak ourselves in this truth we shall never find ourselves making excuses for our lack of desire to celebrate . . . May Christmas joy be real and radiant for us all no matter what our circumstances.”

 

“Count your many blessings . . .” says an old Gospel tune. Do it daily, even when things are not going well.  It can transform your life.

 

“Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”  This is not just a suggestion by God.  It is His will.

 

Ask God for joy if you do not have it in your life already. Joy is your privilege and responsibility as a follower of Jesus Christ. Cultivate a sense of God’s presence and carry it with you always. That’s what it means to “pray continually.” And develop a profound sense of gratitude in your life that you can hold on to regardless of your circumstances a gratitude attitude. This is God’s will for you, says St. Paul. Listen to the message of these three short verses, practice them in your life and you will become a new person. The spirit of Christmas that many enjoy will be with you throughout the year.   Amen

 



Mark 13:24-37            Jesus is the Reason for the Season      Grace               December 3, 2017


Jesus is the reason for the season.  This is one of my favorite phrases for Christmas.  It is a thought to help us focus on the purpose of Christmas.  But it is equally true for the season of Advent.  Jesus is the reason for the season - the season of preparation for the return of Jesus.

 

Advent is derived from the Latin “venite” which means “to come”.  In Advent we prepare for the coming of Jesus into the world.  The themes for the readings during the next few weeks point to this.  But not just baby Jesus.  They do speak about being prepared for the time when Jesus came to earth as an infant but also for when He comes again in glory riding through the clouds.

 

No one was ready for the first arrival, except for Mary and Joseph.  The shepherds got a hot tip from an angel but otherwise no one knew He came.  The next morning in that little village, not a soul knew that the long awaited Messiah had been born right under their noses.  Israel had long awaited the coming Messiah and yet His arrival was missed by all. No one was prepared!

 

Today those shepherds might have tapped into the internet, used Facebook, Twitter and other social media to send out the word of His arrival.  Much of the world would have known within hours and much of the rest in a day or two.  Jesus kindly and caringly notifies us in advance that there will be a return of the Son and that only God the Father knows when it will be.  So we are to beware, be watchful, keep alert, keep awake.  As I said a few weeks ago, the Greek word for watch, beware, keep alert or awake is gregoreo which is better translated be prepared. 

 

The point of these apocalyptic, end times texts is not so much to alarm us as they are to alert us to be ready for such a time to come.  In Advent, we tend prepare for the birth of Jesus, which is not a bad thing for us to do.  But the real question for us to ask ourselves is, “Am I ready for Jesus to come again?  Am I ready if He comes again – tomorrow – or today?”

 

It is a good question for us to ask and not take lightly because we ask it each year at this time.  It is an important question to ask because of the times we face as a nation and as a world.  All the signs that Jesus gives in various gospel texts showing that the time is short are with us now… and increasing.  Changing weather patterns, increased volcanic activity, unstable financial markets, unrest in countries and the toppling of governments all point to the end.  Is the end that near?  I don’t know but the warning to be ready as if it is should be taken seriously.

 

So we begin our journey through Advent with an apocalyptic passage that evokes images of the Second Coming.  The intention is to create the same kind of anticipation that the people of Israel likely felt as they waited for the Messiah the first time.  Even though there was anticipation, they nevertheless missed His arrival.  Our feelings of anticipation are kindled by our expectation of the coming of the Messiah the second time.  As we are able to tap into these feelings of longing and anticipation, we become aware of what it must have been like waiting for the Messiah to come.  What hope, what expectation for good the Messiah would bring.  But as time goes by, we can easily lose that sense of readiness and expectation.  Don’t!!!

 

If I told you that I knew absolutely, for certain, that someone was going to break into your home in the next hour, I would dismiss you now so you could go and be there and prepared for it.  If I told you that I knew absolutely, for certain, that someone was going to break into your home within the next 24 hours, you might want to leave now to be ready to prevent it.  If I said it was going to happen within a week, you might not want to leave now but would no doubt be very vigilant.  You would probably be very watchful if I said it would be within a month.  Maybe a little less watchful if I said 6 months or a year.  But you might be inclined to ignore me altogether if I said it would be in the next 20 years.  Some of us won’t even be here in 20 years so why bother being concerned?  Because within that 20 years, it could still be in 1 hour or 24 hours… or in a week.  Watchful, vigilant, prepared.  These are key thoughts, key words regarding this Gospel and the Second Coming of Jesus.

 

You have heard me say many times that I try to live the Boy Scout motto “Be prepared.”  The Coast Guard motto is “Semper Paratus” which is Latin for “always ready.”  The Coast Guard, our maritime first responders.  They are the police and ambulance squads of our coastal seas.  You don’t want a cop or an EMT or a Coasty to be at home and get a call, then have to dress in uniform, drive to the station or base, pick up their vehicle or boat and THEN FINALLY leave to respond.  That’s NOT ‘always ready.”  Except that they are already trained, that’s not ready at all!  As a chaplain for the Sheriff’s Office, I now carry my chaplains uniform and a go bag in my truck all the time in case I get a call.  Just because I’m not “on call” a particular week doesn’t mean I won’t get called anyway.  I have to be prepared and ready every day.  We may get a sense of this kind of watchful, vigilant preparedness by looking at our own recent American history.

 

Being in a perpetual state of readiness can be hard and exhausting work.  Since September 11th 2001, the Department of Homeland Security has developed a threat advisory color coded system, letting us know how alert we are supposed to be, how likely it is that we would experience more terrorism on US soil.  And since September 11th, we’ve been at an elevated level of risk, half-way up the scale.   We’re meant to be ready and half-expecting an attack at any time.   The idea is to have us be prepared rather than caught off guard if something happens.   But it is easy after a while to become complacent.   It is easy to lose that sense of immediacy and watchfulness.  And yet we’re to be ready, always ready.  As I said earlier, this state of constant readiness is hard work, and the result has sometimes been a climate of fear, anxiety and stress where we feel we’re always looking over our shoulders, always casting a suspicious eye at those who don’t seem like us or look like us.  

 

Jesus paints such a picture of readiness in this gospel text for today.   But His call to readiness is so often interpreted as a threat leading to fear rather than a warning leading to preparedness.  The difference is that we are to be ready, not for an attacking enemy, whether foreign or domestic, but for the return of One who cares deeply for us, each and every one of us.  We await the return of The One who came for us in the first place.  The only fear we may have would come from not being ready.  That is from not following Jesus, not walking with him, ultimately from not turning our lives over to His lordship. If this is you, then come and let’s have a serious chat because you need NOT live in such fear.  Otherwise, be watchful and ready.

 

This preparedness is at much of what Advent is about. We wait with hopeful, not fearful, anticipation and yes, expectation for the second coming of our Messiah while we also celebrate the joy of His first coming in Bethlehem so long ago.  Jesus is the reason for the season.  In fact, Jesus is ultimately the reason for every season.  I ask, as Jesus does in today’s gospel, that you be prepared for His return in whatever season He does so.  Come Lord Jesus, come.  Amen

 

Matthew 25:31-46 The least of these Christ the King Grace Nov 26, 2017


Philosophy of Love...

If you love something, set it free.

If it comes back, it will always be yours.

If it doesn't come back, it was never yours to begin with.

But...

If it just sits in your living room,

watches your TV,

messes up your stuff,

eats your food,

uses your telephone,

takes your money,

and doesn't appear to realize that you actually set it free in the first place,

you either married it or gave birth to it.

It is easy for us to point the finger at others for their faults. And in so doing, when we joke about such judgement, it keeps the judgement “out there”. Many folks do so because they are uncomfortable with judgement in any form but especially as Jesus expresses it in today’s Gospel. It’s easy in our discomfort to joke it away or say that Jesus couldn’t really mean what was just read because He is so loving. The point is that because He is so loving, He gives warning to all that there is a judgement and a way out of it.

It would be easy to aim this particular passage at say the Pharisees and understand it as a shot at them for their self righteousness. But that doesn’t seem to be the context. This lesson comes just after two parables of the kingdom. It is directed possibly at the Pharisees but clearly toward the disciples. It’s not about gaining entrance into the Kingdom of heaven through good works, though it would seem that way on the surface. Such entrance into heaven is by the grace of God, not our own merit. “The judgement in this passage is an indictment upon the church for its lack of social involvement as Kingdom members. Jesus taught that love for God is evidenced by love for our neighbor, that knowing God’s forgiveness will lead us to share mercy, and that in experiencing God’s love, we will as a consequence, extend that love to others.”[1] What we see here is an indictment for complacency – for not acting in the face of clear need. It is a passage which declares that acts of omission really are sin.

In the book The Screwtape Letters, by C. S. Lewis, a devil, Screwtape, briefs his demon nephew, Wormwood, in the subtleties and techniques of tempting people. Through the letters the devil says that the objective is not to make people wicked but to make them indifferent. Satan cautions Wormwood that he must keep the “patient” comfortable at all costs. If he should start thinking about anything of importance, encourage him to think about his luncheon plans and not to worry so much because it could cause indigestion. And then the devil gives this instruction to his nephew: "I, the devil, will always see to it that there are bad people. Your job, my dear Wormwood, is to provide me with people who do not care."

The contrast in this passage is that those who believe they are righteous do not act in loving neighbor as self and therefore do not extend the love of Christ to others. Those who act in this passage don’t see it as ministering to God in Christ, they are just trying to be responsible to help others who are in need. I want to repeat a comment from a moment ago, which is actually a quote from a commentary. “Jesus taught that love for God is evidenced by love for our neighbor, that knowing God’s forgiveness will lead us to share mercy, and that in experiencing God’s love, we will as a consequence, extend that love to others.” Feed My Sheep is one of the ways that we as a church do this. We may not have contact with those whom we actually help feed. Charlie and Dorothy and Rick and those who sort and deliver the food are encouraged by our giving. And they extend our love face to face. That being said, let us find ways to extend the love of Christ individually and personally as well.

Let me conclude with a story written by Leo Tolstoy.

There once lived in the city of Marseilles an old shoemaker, loved and honored by his neighbors, who affectionately called him "Father Martin".

One Christmas Eve, as Father Martin sat alone in his little shop reading of the visit of the Wise Men to the infant Jesus, and of the gifts they brought, he said to himself. "If tomorrow were the first Christmas, and if Jesus were to be born in Marseilles this night, I know what I would give Him!" He rose from his stool and took from a shelf overhead two tiny shoes of softest snow- white leather, with bright silver buckles. "I would give Him those, my finest work." Replacing the shoes, he blew out the candle and retired to rest. Hardly had he closed his eyes, it seemed, when he heard a voice call his name..."Martin! Martin!"

Intuitively he felt a presence. Then the voice spoke again..."Martin, you have wished to see Me. Tomorrow I shall pass by your window. If you see Me, and bid Me enter, I shall be your guest at your table."

Father Martin did not sleep that night for joy. And before it was yet dawn he rose and swept and tidied up his little shop. He spread fresh sand upon the floor, and wreathed green boughs of fir along the rafters. On the spotless linen-covered table he placed a loaf of white bread, a jar of honey, and a pitcher of milk, and over the fire he hung a pot of tea. Then he took up his patient vigil at the window.

Presently he saw an old street-sweeper pass by, blowing upon his thin, gnarled hands to warm them. "Poor fellow, he must be half frozen," thought Martin. Opening the door he called out to him, "Come in, my friend, and warm, and drink a cup of hot tea." And the man gratefully accepted the invitation.

An hour passed, and Martin saw a young, miserably clothed women carrying a baby. She paused wearily to rest in the shelter of his doorway. The heart of the old cobbler was touched. Quickly he flung open the door.

"Come in and warm while you rest," he said to her. "You do not look well," he remarked.

"I am going to the hospital. I hope they will take me in, and my baby boy," she explained. "My husband is at sea, and I am ill, without a soul."

"Poor child!" cried Father Martin. "You must eat something while you are getting warm. No? Then let me give a cup of milk to the little one. Ah! What a bright, pretty fellow he is! Why, you have put no shoes on him!"

"I have no shoes for him," sighed the mother sadly. "Then he shall have this lovely pair I finished yesterday." And Father Martin took down from the shelf the soft little snow-white shoes he had admired the evening before. He slipped them on the child's feet...they fit perfectly. And shortly the poor young mother left, shoes on her child and tearful with gratitude.

And Father Martin resumed his post at the window. Hour after hour went by, and although many people passed his window, and many needy souls shared his hospitality, the expected Guest did not appear.

"It was only a dream," he sighed, with a heavy heart. "I did believe; but He has not come."

Suddenly, so it seemed to his weary eyes, the room was flooded with a strange light. And to the cobbler's astonished vision there appeared before him, one by one, the poor street-sweeper, the sick mother and her child, and all the people whom he had aided during the day. And each smiled at him and said. "Have you not seen me? Did I not sit at your table?" Then they vanished.

At last, out of the silence, Father Martin heard again the gentle voice repeating the old familiar words. "Whosoever shall receive one such in My name, receiveth Me...for I was an hungered, and ye gave Me meat; I was athirst, and ye gave Me drink; I was a stranger, and ye took Me in...verily I say unto you, inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these, ye have done it unto Me."

While Father Martin was expectantly awaiting the opportunity to meet the Lord face to face, he did not turn a blind eye to the many around him who were in need, whether great or small. In seeing their needs and helping to meet them, he DID meet Christ … in others. Where and how will you meet and serve Christ today… and everyday? Amen


[1] The Communicator’s Commentary by Myron Augsburger Word Publ. p.283


Deut 8:1-20 Thanksgiving: Where Are You Looking For It? Grace T’giving Eve 2017


A little girl whose father was a disc jockey, a radio announcer, was invited to a friend's house for dinner. When she arrived, the mother asked the little girl if she would honor them by saying the blessing.

It delighted the little girl. She cleared her throat, looked at her wristwatch, and said, "This food, friends, is coming to you through the courtesy of almighty God." Well, she was right, all food that we eat comes through the courtesy of almighty God.

Thanksgiving is a special time of year. Can't you feel the great anticipation building in our society as we prepare for this day? Well, maybe not! Unfortunately, being truly thankful is not high on many people's priority list. "Just what do I have to be thankful for?" they ask. Granted, the Pilgrims had reasons to offer thanks to God, but not in this dog-eat-dog, selfish world. Thanksgiving? "No, pastor," they say, "please get real."

David Feddes puts it this way: "For many of us, Thanksgiving doesn't come naturally. It doesn't seem obvious why we should be saying thank you to God.

"Some of us, whether we admit it or not, are like Bart Simpson. In one episode of THE SIMPSONS, young Bart sits down with his family to a meal. When it's his turn to pray and give thanks, he says something to this effect: Lord, my dad earned the money to pay for this food, and my mom worked for hours to cook it. What did you do? Thanks a lot for nothing.' Bart Simpson is only a cartoon character, but he says what a lot of us are tempted to think," says David Feddes. How sad. But that's the way many people today think. Many people have no feeling of Thanksgiving.

Even the biblical writers found it necessary to issue a corrective for ingratitude. We read in Deuteronomy these stirring words: “For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land, a land of brooks of water, of fountains and springs, flowing forth in valleys and hills; a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive oil and honey; a land where you shall eat food without scarcity, in which you shall not lack anything; a land whose stones are iron, and out of whose hills you can dig copper. When you have eaten and are satisfied, you shall bless the Lord your God for the good land which He has given you.

"Beware lest you forget the Lord your God by not keeping His commandments and His ordinances and His statutes which I am commanding you today; lest, when you have eaten and are satisfied, and have built good houses and lived in them, and when your herds and your flocks multiply, and your silver and gold multiply, and all that you have multiplies, then your heart becomes proud, and you forget the Lord your God who brought you out from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery." (NRSV)

We are called to remember to pause long enough to think about what God has done for us. It is so easy to lose track of our blessings in the helter-skelter environment in which we find ourselves. How often we forget to give God thanks for our daily bread, for the hands that prepared it, for the homes that shelter us as we take our daily bread. How often we forget, if in fact some even actually believe, that all we have is a gift from God. As the little girl said, "This food, friends, is coming to you through the courtesy of almighty God."

The roots of Thanksgiving go back to 1621 when grateful Pilgrims in Plymouth, Massachusetts, thanked God for a modest harvest that pulled them through a very challenging time in their journey and quest for religious freedom. Unlike Bart Simpson, they returned thanks to God for they knew that without God's help they would not have survived.

Thanksgiving Day is a special day. As a national holiday it is different from all others. On it, we do not celebrate a great victory in battle. Nor do we honor a great person. It is a day when we thank God for the blessings we, as a nation, enjoy.

Today, I want to share three considerations on how we might find the way to Thanksgiving and thankful living.

First, for thanksgiving to take place in our lives, we need to focus on the presence of God.

We read in Deuteronomy, "When you have eaten and are satisfied, you shall bless the Lord your God for the good land which He has given you." Izaak Walton once said, "God has two dwellings one in heaven and the other in a meek and thankful heart." We can have thankful hearts when we focus on God and what God has done for us.

First and foremost, this is why Thanksgiving Day was begun. Football and parades, turkey and all the trimmings are nice but tomorrow is a day to truly focus on all that we are thankful to God for. Take time to offer up your thankfulness beyond just saying grace before eating.

Secondly, for thanksgiving to take place, we need to be aware of the needs of others.

Not everyone is as fortunate this Thanksgiving season as you and I. If we are truly to experience the joy of this season, a season which leads us into Christmas, we need to remember the needy and less fortunate. Our Thanksgiving will not ring true if we do not.

In a comic strip, a son asked his father, "Why do we always have turkey on Thanksgiving?"

The father hesitantly answers, "Well . . . because it's a tradition."

The son asks: "What's a tradition?"

His brother interrupts to say, "Something we've been doing so long we can't even remember why."

That's the danger isn't it? That we will forget what Thanksgiving is all about.

When we give thanks, we are reminded of our responsibility to others. That is why people open up their hearts this time of year to give to the homeless and to families who do not have the bounty that most of us enjoy.

Oh, not everybody gets caught up in this spirit of giving. I realize that. Some Christians remind me of that humorous scene in the movie SISTER ACT in which the Reverend Mother is approached by a priest about keeping a show girl (played by Whoopie Goldberg) in the convent for safekeeping. Sensing her reluctance, the priest says, "You made a vow of hospitality to help the needy." The Reverend Mother replies, "I LIED."

Thanksgiving reminds us of our interdependence with other persons our need for one another. No person is an island. We share a common humanity, and if there are those in need, it is our responsibility as followers of Jesus to see that their needs are met.

A Thanksgiving Day editorial in the newspaper told of a school teacher who asked her class of first graders to draw a picture of something they were thankful for. She thought of how little these children from poor neighborhoods actually had to be thankful for, but she knew that most of them would draw pictures of turkeys or tables with food. The teacher was taken aback with the picture Douglas handed in. It was a simple childishly drawn hand.

But whose hand? The class was captivated by the abstract image. "I think it must be the hand of God that brings us food," said one child. "A farmer," said another, "because he grows the turkeys." Finally, when the others were at work, the teacher bent over Douglas's desk and asked whose hand it was. "It's your hand, Teacher," he mumbled. She recalled that frequently at recess she had taken Douglas, a scrubby forlorn child, by the hand. She often did that with the children, but it meant so much to Douglas.

We sometimes forget that the only hands God has is our hands. A hand stretched out in love to "one of the least of these" is a hand that reflects a thankful heart.

So, Thanksgiving takes place when we focus on God and Thanksgiving takes place when we share with the needy.

Finally, real thanksgiving takes place when we yield our hearts to God.

Dr. Tom Long, one of America's finest teachers of preachers, attends a rather wealthy Presbyterian church. The church is full each Sunday of people who have great financial capabilities. Their church takes an offering every month for the cause of world hunger. They invite the worshipers to bring their gifts to the chancel up front. One Sunday, as they got to this part of the service, an older, oddly-dressed homeless woman came forward. They knew they were taking this very offering for folks like her. In fact, they were afraid she might help herself to some of the gifts as she approached the altar. They watched her as she drew near. Then she fell down on her knees and clasped her hands in prayer. She prayed intensely and then she rose and went back to the pew. There were few dry eyes in the church house that day. Why? Because they had experienced an offering like they had never seen before. They had experienced a real Thanksgiving. Yes, the woman may have been poor, but she knew the kind of Thanksgiving offering that really matters, the yielding of our hearts to God.

Real Thanksgiving takes place when we focus on God. Real Thanksgiving takes place when we share with the needy. Best of all, real Thanksgiving takes place when we yield our hearts to God. I ask you that tonight, tomorrow, throughout the coming season and far beyond, that you would do these three things: focus on God, share with those in need and yield your hearts to God. My hope in so doing, will be hearts filled with thanksgiving every day of the year and not just one. Amen


Matthew 25:14-30      1 Thess 5:1-11                                    Grace                                                  11/19/2017

 

The day of the Lord and of the Lord’s return is the theme of the NT reading in 1 Thessalonians.  What is most clear about this reading is that we do not know when the day will be.  Because it has not come yet, we are tempted to think that it will not be in our lifetime but we should not be lulled into such thinking.  Paul writes to the Thessalonians to keep awake and sober also indicating that the day of the Lord is near.  How near, we do not know but it is nearer than ever before. 

 

Such a reading raises questions for us about what that day will be like and where we will be when that day arrives.  Sometimes we wonder about what it will be like if we go to be with the Lord before Jesus returns.  For some, such thoughts are comforting while for others they may be disturbing.  It may have a lot to do with how one has lived or not lived and whether or not we are ready to meet our Maker.

 

In the Thessalonians reading, the Greek word used is “Gregoromen” (γρήγορώμέν) which is a plural, indirect command form of the word gregoreo.  Rather than "let us keep awake" gregoromen is better translated "let us be prepared, let us be ready."   Every year this reading comes up, it always seems to me that it would be better in a few weeks later because it has such an Advent feel to it.  And yet, here it is.

 

During his 1960 presidential campaign, John F. Kennedy often closed his speeches with this story of Colonel Davenport, the Speaker of the Connecticut House of Representatives:

“One day in 1789, the sky of Hartford darkened ominously, and some of the representatives, glancing out the windows, feared the end was at hand.  Quelling a clamor for immediate adjournment, Davenport rose and said, “The Day of Judgment is either approaching or it is not.  If it is not, there is no cause for adjournment.  If it is, I choose to be found doing my duty.  Therefore, I wish that candles be brought.”

 

Col. Davenport, whose story I really like and which I know I have used here several times before, had a really good attitude and understanding of his life as ministry.  That’s why I like his story.  Rather than fearing what is to come, we are to be faithful till Christ returns.  Faithful in what we believe, faithful in how we live, faithful in what we do with all that God has given to us.  Thus we see the story Jesus tells in the gospel about the master going away on a journey.  He entrusts his property to his servants (slaves) and gives them talents to each, according to their ability.  Now a talent is weight measure of 66 or 132 lbs. depending upon whether it is a light or heavy scale of measure.  Relating to money, gold or silver, it is 66 or 132 lbs of gold or silver.  For the purposes of Matthew’s gospel a talent can simply be understood as a whole lot of money.   

 

Since today is our Ingathering Sunday you would expect that today’s topic will be money and giving.  So here it is!  Bring your pledge in a few minutes.  Make a pledge if you haven’t in the past since it helps us plan for the year.  And make the tithe, 10%, the basis for your pledge as you have heard many times before.  The money thing is certainly important and we will continue to need the full support of every member of Grace Church in all aspects of our stewardship: time and talent as well as treasure in order to do the work of the Kingdom and not merely survive as a church.  OK.  There it is.  That’s what I plan to say about money today! 

 

Having said that, let’s look at stewardship by looking at this parable in more broad, sweeping, general terms.  The servants were entrusted with something of their masters and expected to use it wisely, responsibly.  THAT is what it means to be a good steward.  Managing someone else’s assets in a wise and responsible manner.  From the results at the end of the story we can see that the servants were to use it wisely for the master’s gain.  Two did so and were praised for their good work.  The third servant was afraid of his master and afraid of losing what the master entrusted to him so he did nothing except hide the talent.  That would be bad stewardship.  Upon the master’s return, this third servant was reprimanded for being irresponsible and unwise in his management of the assets he had been given..  

 

This text has been used to for pledge campaigns for churches for so long that it may be hard to see past the money thing.  While the parable does speak about money it really isn’t about money.  Better said, it’s about a whole lot more than just money.  It is about utilizing well, wisely, responsibly what God entrusts to us.  THAT is stewardship!  Let me say it again: stewardship is utilizing well, wisely, responsibly what God entrusts to us.  What has God entrusted to us?  Everything!  Everything we have and are.

 

I love the story of the thirty-eight-year-old scrubwoman who would go to the movies and sigh, "If only I had her looks." She would listen to a singer and moan, "If only I had her voice." Then one day someone gave her a copy of the book, "The Magic of Believing." She stopped comparing herself with actresses and singers. She stopped crying about what she didn't have and started concentrating on what she did have. She took inventory of herself and remembered that in high school she had a reputation for being the funniest girl around. She began to turn her liabilities into assets. When she was at the top of her career Phyllis Diller made over $1 million a year. In the 1960's that was a great deal of money. She wasn't good-looking and she had a scratchy voice, but she could make people laugh.

 

Well, maybe God is saying something like that to us. Maybe when we complain that we wish that we had more, if only we were like someone other than ourselves, if only... He says to us: Use the gifts I have given you. Stop wishing for what you do not have and start concentrating on and utilizing what you do have.

 

We could measurably strengthen this church if we, all of us, simply reached out to reactivate some of our lapsed, inactive members, even as we bring in new ones!  We could start using some of our unused gifts, start giving some of our one talent sums of money and one talent abilities rather than hiding and burying them. We simply stir up what we already have.  Not so much for our gain as for God’s gain.  And His gain is about the growing of His Kingdom so that when He returns, many, not just some, will be able and ready to go with Him.

 

So what does God entrust to us?  He gives to each of us life.  He gives us talents and abilities.  Gifts from the Spirit for the common good of the body of Christ.  You may recognize these words as from the 1 Cor. 12 passage on spiritual gifts when Paul writes: “To some He gives” and then goes on to list many gifts of the Spirit.  So we say today, “to some He gives”:  Great wealth while to others, lesser wealth.  To some, power or influence.  To some He gives freedom of time.  To some He gives compassion, while to others the ability to organize, while to yet others he gives vision.  All these He entrusts to us.  He doesn’t give all these to everyone.  And to those He does give them He does not give them equally, at least not according to the parable.  He gives to each according to their ability.  What He expects in return is that we will use what He gives us to the best of our ability for His purposes and not just for our own. 

 

If we really understand this and take it seriously, then ministry is not what we do in or around or for the church, all of life is ministry.  Work isn’t just about making money, it is about reflecting the Kingdom that is within us by doing things well, honestly, responsibly and in so doing glorifying God.  School isn’t just something to be endured so that you can get out and play or get a job when you’re older.  It is a time to learn how to do certain things, to learn about oneself and to learn how to not just keep the faith but give it away as well.  To raise a child as a parent isn’t just a responsibility or a tax write-off, it is a sacred trust. 

 

Whatever God has entrusted to us is what we have to make the most of in His name.  Will you utilize what God has given you, not just for yourself but for Him?  Let us go and live such that on the day we meet God face to face He may say, “Well done good and trustworthy servant … enter into the joy of your Master.”                   Amen




Matthew 23:1-12        “My role is strictly advisory.”                       Grace              11/5/2017

 

Last Tuesday was Halloween.  Not so many kids coming around for candy out here in the boonies but when they do, some of them wear masks to go along with their costumed character.  The mask is not who they are, it’s just who they are pretending to be.  And if you watched TV last Tuesday, you once again saw that Linus did not see the Great Pumpkin in the patch.  Poor Linus.  Switching to other Peanuts characters we come to Lucy and good ole Charlie Brown.

 

In one “Peanuts” cartoon strip, Lucy, who is known to be ever-ready with unsolicited advice, is playing right-field in a baseball game.  Charlie Brown is pitching.  “Let's win one for a change Charlie Brown,” Lucy cries out.  Charlie Brown then throws his first pitch and the batter hits the ball to right-field.  But Lucy makes no attempt to catch it.  She just stands there and does nothing.  Charlie Brown yells out at her, “If you're so interested in winning, why didn't you try to catch the ball?”  To which a defiant Lucy replies, “My role is strictly advisory.”

 

The Scribes and the Pharisees, whom Jesus castigates in today's Gospel Lesson, seem to be in that kind of “Lucy” mode. They're ever-ready to act in an advisory capacity. They're ever-ready to teach the law of God about right-living, as they understand it.  But they find legalistic ways to avoid having to do much of what they teach.  Yet Jesus endorses the Pharisees’ teachings, but warns against their practices.  Jesus warns His disciples ... “You must do what they tell you and listen to what they say, but do not be guided by what they do, since they do not practice what they teach. They tie up heavy burdens and lay them on men's shoulders, but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.”   

 

The obvious and practical application here is to practice what you preach.  I have a small bumper sticker size poster in my office that says, “The Best sermon is a good example.”

I am also reminded here of two quotes attributed to St. Francis of Assisi.

“Preach the Gospel to all the world … and if necessary, use words.” 

“Be special. You may be the only Gospel your neighbor will ever read.”

 Of course, if we don’t use at least a few words somewhere along the line who will know for sure that we believe in and follow Jesus?  But the point is well made about living the life of God not just talking about it. 

 

This stinging statement by Jesus is of course pointed at the scribes and Pharisees, the religious leaders of His day.  They were hypocrites.  The English word, “hypocrite,” comes from the Greek word, “hypocresis” which is the Greek word for “actor.” A good “hypocresis” is a good actor.   A good actor is good at playing a part, playing a role, playing a character.  In those ancient Greek plays, all of the actors wore masks to highlight the part they were playing.  The mask made them a better “hypocresis.”

 

The truth of the matter is that all of us wear masks from time to time.  On occasion we all play the hypocrite.  I’m conscious of that in my life, at least sometimes anyway.  Every time I talk about taking up the cross and following Christ, I am confronted with the question of how much my faith costs me and whether I am giving my all to serve the Master.  You understand that.  It’s true of you as well.  The critics are right.  The church is full of hypocrites.  The more conscious you are of Christ’s call, the more you are aware of how inadequate your own witness is.

 

In an interview in the magazine The Door, famed American psychiatrist M. Scott Peck tells about the first time he went to hear the Swiss physician Paul Tournier, one of the most influential Christians in the world some years back.

 

Following Tournier’s lecture there was a time of questions and dialogue, at which point a man stood up and asked, “Dr. Tournier, what do you think about all the hypocrites in the churches of America?”

 

Stumbling over the English words, Tournier apologized and said he did not understand the meaning of the word “hypocrite.” Several people offered definitions. “Phony, pretending to be something that they’re not, unauthentic, false.”

 

Suddenly the doctor’s eyes lit up.  “Ah, hypocrites, now I understand . . . C’est moi!  C’est moi.  I am the hypocrite.”

 

The closer you are to Jesus, the more you measure your life by His life, the more aware you are of your shortcomings.  We cry out with Paul Tournier, “C’est moi!  It’s me!  I am the hypocrite.”

 

There is an expression which says, “If a hypocrite is standing between you and God, it just means the hypocrite is closer to God than you are.”  There is some truth to this expression.  We are all hypocrites.  We all wear masks at times.  Some people, however, take it to the extreme.  Like the ancient Greek actors, those peoples mask of hypocrisy is exaggerated  This is what Jesus disliked about the Pharisees.  We talk about “wearing your religion on your sleeve.”  The Pharisees literally wore their religion on their foreheads and arms for everyone to see.  They wore phylacteries, little leather boxes, on their foreheads.  These boxes contained verses from the Old Testament.  They also liked to wear long tassels.  Both of these actions are based on obscure references in the Old Testament.  Their only practical purpose was to show how religious and devout the Pharisees were.  Common people like shepherds and fishermen did not wear them.

 

That is a lot of what the story from today’s gospel is about.  The Pharisees of Jesus’ day were the symbol of hypocrisy, the symbol of phoniness, the symbol of pretense.  Jesus said, “They do all their deeds to be seen by others…”  Where else do we hear similar words as words of warning of what not to be or do?  Matthew 6.  The Gospel reading for Ash Wed. each year where Jesus uses the word hypocrites of those who do good, religious type things, but not out of love for God but rather in order to be seen by men.  Jesus is speaking here to the crowds and His disciples and He is telling them NOT to be or act like these scribes and Pharisees because they say one thing and do another so they are hypocrites.  Now if you think I am making too much of this read the rest of this chapter in Matthew.  Jesus goes on to begin 6 of 7 paragraphs with the following words.

 

  1. Woe to you teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites!
  2. Woe to you … for you shut the kingdom of heaven. You do not enter the kingdom and you prevent others from entering it.
  3. Woe to you … you blind guides, you blind men.
  4. Woe to you … for you tithe on the trivia but you neglect the weightier issues of law, justice, mercy and faith.
  5. Woe to you … for outwardly you appear beautiful but inwardly you are full of dead men’s bones.
  6. Woe to you … You are the sons of those who have murdered the prophets.

 

That does not feel like the Jesus of our imaginations, Jesus meek and mild, gentle Jesus who would never say anything harsh to anyone.  Think again.  Jesus was deeply offended by the hypocrisy of the Pharisees.  And so he warns the crowds who have gathered to hear Him speak AND He warns His disciples – do what they say because they teach correctly but do not follow their example.  The greatest among you is not the one who gets the best seats at dinners and in church.  The greatest among you is the one who is the servant.  Not just when folks are watching, but when no one is watching as well.  It is they who are the humble ones.  Is that you?  I know I have work to do there myself.

 

Sometimes I get to thinking like Lucy from Peanuts.  “My role is strictly advisory.”  It’s all too easy for clergy to do.  But no.  In reality, if I will be a good leader, I think it will be as a servant.  And if you will be a good follower of Jesus, it also will be as a servant.  Those who serve others with humility tend to be those who exhibit less hypocrisy.  And the higher on the chain of command, the chain of leadership, them more important it is to live out that leadership as a humble servant.  That’s where the greatness is in the kingdom of God – in serving.

 

What kind of church would this be if we all tried to out do one another in serving one another?  Not proudly, but humbly.  And what kind of witness to Jesus would we have in the world if we served the world, locally and globally, more than we serve ourselves?   Well, it would be fabulous I think.  Maybe we should try and see.              Amen

Matthew 22:34-46                  The Law of Love                    Grace              October 29, 2017

           

Before we moved to Buckingham, PA, the location of my last parish, I was the chaplain for 6 years for the Chester County, PA FOP – Fraternal Order of Police.  In that position, I came in contact with a great number of law enforcement officers and became good friends with a few.  For a couple of years, I worked out in a gym lifting weights with these guys and some folk is thought I was a cop.  I was in a deli in my collar getting lunch one day and a guy who also worked out at the same gym and apparently thought I was a cop saw my collar and asked me quietly if I was under cover.  I said, “Undercover?  What do you mean?”  “Well I see you’re wearing a clergy collar so I figure you must be undercover.”  He was still whispering.  No. I’m a priest.”  “You mean you’re not a cop?” “No. I am a priest not a cop.”  He was flabbergasted.  I thought it was pretty funny.  Once folks at the gym realized I was a priest and not a cop, they thought that a priest lifting weights with cops was pretty odd.  I just explained that we represented the whole picture.  They said “What? What do you mean?”  I said, “They’re law and I’m grace.”

 

It is often said that we no longer live under the law but rather grace.  This is true if by under grace one means that we are saved by grace not law.  It is not true if one means we no longer have to live by the law.  The law of the OT, by which I mean the 10 commandments, not the 602 additions made later, still applies to our lives.  Jesus doesn’t set them aside here, but rather re-focuses our approach to them.  Rather than approaching the law as rules to keep, Jesus encapsulates the law as love offered.

 

The Law (big 10) is set in relationship.  The purpose of the law is to make boundaries FOR relationship.  BEFORE the Fall – there was no need for such boundaries.   AFTER the fall, we needed ways to define boundaries for community and relationship because our internal guidelines have been colored by the selfishness and self-centeredness of sin.  Sin = Self Inflicted Narcissism.   

 

We often dismiss our need for such boundaries, saying that we don’t need such law, as I mentioned earlier.  I read on someone’s Facebook page, “Stay away from me with your law.  I live by grace.”  That’s a nice sentiment but it’s a poor understanding of Jesus’ teaching on law and grace.  And the world around us cries out that this person’s statement is false or at least only ½ true.  The last century gave us 2 WW’s where someone wanted more than their share.  September 11th, our involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, any number of school shootings and other shooting incidents, the recent turmoil in Charlottesville, all show that we DO need these boundaries, even though we sometimes ignore them.

 

What Jesus does in today’s Gospel is summarize the law in two succinct statements:

Love God. 

Then love your neighbor as yourself.

He still states them as law, but He focuses them around love.  And it seems that He does so in order to help us to look past the law and on toward something deeper and more meaningful than mere obedience.  His re-focus takes us back to before the fall when Adam and Eve were able to live in harmony with God and one another.  What a world it would be, if we could live in such harmony!

 

There are shining examples of such love that we see from time to time. We would do well to imitate the barber who noticed one week that there was a good increase in his business. When he tried to find out why, he discovered that his competitor, another barber in the village, was ill. When the week ended, he took all that he had made above his average earnings and carried it to his competitor with his Christian love and sympathy.  Now there was no law which compelled him to do this.  He was responding to something deeper than the law.  He had an obvious love for God which was lived out in part by responding with love and grace to his competitor.  The Epistle of James calls this “the law of love”.  It’s hard to imagine seeing that on Wall St.

 

Here is a thought about this Matthew text borrowed from the Rev. Elijah Attungana from Point Hope on the extreme northwest corner of Alaska (where just about everyone is Episcopalian).  Imagine you are in an umiak (that’s a walrus skin boat).  One oar is Love God.  The other oar is Love your neighbor.  If you row with just one oar or just the other, you simply spin in circles.  In order to get anywhere, you have to pull with both oars.

 

It is interesting to note that Jesus is again being tested in this passage, this time by the Pharisees rather than the Sadducees.  He responds to their question, “Which commandment in the law is the greatest?” with a clear answer.  Then He gives a little more than asked.  Jesus’ answer reflects the Shema from Deut. 6:4 when Moses says to Israel – “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.  And you shall love the Lord with all your heart and soul and strength.  These commandments I give you today are to be upon your hearts.”

 

This law shall be upon your hearts, the place of love.  You see, it’s not about legalism that Jesus speaks but about what is deep within us by the grace and Spirit of God.

 

Listen to a quote from St. Augustine.  “Love God and do as thou wilt” or as a friend of mine puts it, “Love God and do as you please.”  If we love God with ALL our heart, soul, and strength, we would only want to do and therefore only DO those things which please God – to the point that what pleases us would be only those things which please God.  Loving our neighbor as we would ourselves naturally (or perhaps supernaturally) follows.  And all of this, as I said in the beginning, is in the context of relationships and community.

 

Jesus’ answer to the Pharisees question has two dimensions involved which demonstrate ultimately the fullness of love.  The first is horizontal (motion b) and has to do with our relationship to God and His with us.  The second is vertical (motion «) and has to do with our relationship with one another.   Together, these make up the greatest symbol of love ever known – the Cross.  God’s ultimate law of love. 

 

A young man who had committed a crime was sent to prison without his parents knowing about it.  When he finally wrote and told them where he was, they hastened to the distant city to see him.  Sullen and stony-faced, he greeted them in the visiting room.  Braced for their recriminations and anger, he was completely unprepared for their loving concern.  "I thought you would never forgive me-that you would disown me!" he cried.  "Why should we do that?" asked his father.  "You're our son, and we only want to help you."  The fact that their love toward him had not changed was the beginning of that young man's redemption.

 

Whose life might you begin to change today or tomorrow or this week by following Jesus’ words– not as a duty – but from the heart?                Amen



Matthew 22:15-22                     All He Wants Is You!                          Grace               10/22/2017


 

In the previous two weeks, you have heard read two gospels which were parables of Jesus.  At the end of one of them, but not read in the lectionary, it says, “When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they perceived that he was speaking about them. But when they tried to arrest Him, they feared the multitudes who held him to be a prophet.”  So we cut in a week and a parable later and we get, “Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what He said.”

 

On the one hand, you have the Pharisees, a relatively small group of extremely pious and spiritual Jews, who are dedicated to following individually the letter of the law, the 10 commandments. Tithing, that is giving 10% of money or crops or whatever commodity one may deal in, among these people was an absolute must. They wouldn't buy food from or go into the home of anyone who did not tithe as they did. For the Pharisees, Jesus presented a huge problem because he came proclaiming change and even a change in the law. The law says, "you shall not murder," but Jesus comes proclaiming, "if you are even angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment." This was too much for the Pharisees to hear. They wanted to be rid of Jesus. They wanted to trick him so that he could be charged with sedition and then sentenced under Roman law, but at this point Jesus was way ahead of their game.

 

Then on the other hand, you have the Herodians who come with the Pharisees to attempt to trick Jesus. The Herodians were followers of the Jewish ruler of Palestine Herod Antipas and the family of Herod the Great.  He was the Jewish ruler who had all the male children killed in hopes that Jesus would be killed as an infant and never be a threat to his power and kingship.  It didn’t work, so here is one family not too happy with Jesus and his following.

 

Now these guys, the Pharisees, are the lawyers of their day.  Since they meticulously keep the law, they decide to ask Jesus if paying taxes to Caesar is lawful. In their minds, their question was exceptionally clever.  As a black and white question for the time and place that Jesus was in, it was a hard one to beat. The Pharisees know quite well that if he says NO - then the Roman authorities will arrest Him, and that if he says YES - then many of the people will reject Him, not only because they hate paying taxes, but because a Yes answer would imply that He believed that Caesar had the right to rule Israel.  Tough spot they’ve put Jesus in because they are sure He must give a yes or no answer.

 

So, knowing that they are setting Jesus up, they begin their trap with flattery, all of which happened to be true.  “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality.”  So far so good.  Too bad they didn’t just stop there.  It would have been so much better for them.  But they go on, “Tell us, then, what you think.  Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?” 

 

Jesus does not answer but asks them to show Him the coin used for the tax.  It was a denarius, a simple silver coin (hold up silver dollar).  The literal translation of the Greek is “Show me the money for the tribute.”  Today we read it, “Show me the coin used for the tax.”  And when they give it to Him, and I look again to the Greek here, He says, “Whose image (έίκον = icon) and inscription is this?”  “The emperor’s”, they respond.  “Αποδοτε unto Caesar that which is Caesars, and to God what is God’s!”  Αποδοτε = give, pay, render; give back, repay, return.  So Jesus says, give, pay, render; give back, repay, return to Caesar what’s his – and to God what is His. 

 

So if one is going to give, pay or render to God what is Gods, one must first answer the question, What IS God’s?  (ask for responses) [[creation, earth, trees, rivers, rocks, lakes and oceans, animals, Ps 50:10-11 says even the cattle on a thousand hills belong to God, the environment, manmade stuff belongs to God – we made it with His materials, even money – because He gave us the means to earn it!]]  It’s ALL His!  And God has made us stewards over it all, managers of that which is His.  And what He asks in return monetarily is 10% - a tithe.  He allows us to use the other 90%, yet His desire is for us to use it, not just for ourselves but also for the good others and for His glory.  So, as you consider your pledge for a month from now, keep that 10% amount in mind as what God wants us to give, pay, render back to Him monetarily.

 

Having said that, I want to look again at today’s gospel.  You may or may not have caught it in the little Greek lesson.  The word for likeness or image in Greek is icon (έίκον).  The Latin is imago.  Whose imago / icon / image was stamped on the coin?  Caesar’s as the Imago Romana = the image of Rome and so the coin for the tax is given to him.  The image is the criteria for what is given, payed, rendered as belonging to the emperor because his image was on it. 

 

Where is the Imago Dei, the image of God stamped? - - - (wait for any response!) - - -  On you and me!  WE are created in the imago Dei – the image of God.  If God’s likeness is on us, then what we render, give or give back unto God is ourselves.  You see, we really get off easy by giving 10% of the money we have to God because it’s all ultimately His.  Yet really, all He wants is you.  The money is an external indicator of our willingness to give ourselves to God. 

 

Sure, the church receives the money and yes, it is used to pay me and fund ministry that we carry out but most of all, it is an indicator of our commitment to God.  If we would be honest with ourselves deep within, we would admit that we are often, maybe mostly, more committed to our money than we are to God.  But we know that one cannot serve two masters , so we must ultimately choose – God or mammon?  That being said, giving money to God, in the way God asks of us, is a spiritual thing.  It’s not just paying the bills, it’s a means of commitment to God.  

 

Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s!  God is pleased with our worship of Him, He is pleased by our giving of 10%, He is pleased when we reach out to help others but in the final analysis, all He wants is you!

 

Here are the lyrics to a short song by the same name:

 

All He wants Is me, unreservedly.
Not just apart, He wants all of my heart.
All He wants Is all of me;
All He wants Is me.

 

All He wants Is you, No one else will do.
Not just a part, He wants all of your heart.
All He wants Is all of you;
All He wants Is you.

What will you do with the simple truth that All He Wants Is You? Amen

 

Matthew 21:33-46                  Rebellion in the Vineyard                  Grace              10/8/2017


 

There is a fictitious story about two men from Mars who decide to do a little sightseeing on Earth. They realize that to avoid causing a panic they must appear as inconspicuous as possible. They obtain American clothing, learn the language, and in general make themselves as ordinary as possible.


During their first day on Earth nobody notices a thing unusual about them. At the end of the day they celebrate their successful foray at an exclusive restaurant. As they are paying their check, they are astonished to hear the waiter say, “You guys must be from Mars!”


“What?” asked the dumbfounded Martians. “How can you tell?”


“Well,” replied the waiter, “you’re the first customers to pay cash since I’ve been working here.”


There were times when Jesus tried to communicate profound truths to those around him and they acted as if He was from Mars. He would say something and He could watch their eyes glaze over. Particularly He had difficulty getting through to the religious officials of his day. They wanted nothing to do with Him or His teachings. They condemned Him without even listening to Him. They were so sure of themselves and their standing in the community that they were impervious to everything He did or said.

 

What would you do in that situation? You are trying to communicate something important, but they just don’t get it. You’re not getting through. That was the situation Jesus found himself in.  So he did what he often did, he told a story.  Actually, as we have seen over the last few weeks, He told a number of stories in succession.  In this one, He told a story of rebellion that communicates some key information about His kingdom and our role in that kingdom. We are to remember that it is His kingdom, and that we have a responsibility to be good stewards.


So in this story there is rebellion in the vineyard.  We just heard the story Jesus told so I won’t repeat it.  He uses it precisely because it’s not a new theme and folks listening should get it.


Rebellion is an ongoing theme in the Bible. It is the story of Adam and Eve. It is the story of the tower of Babel. It is the story of the children of Israel during the Exodus, the story of the time of the judges, the story of the prophets. And the result is always the same alienation, heartbreak and tragedy.  It was the story of the chief priests and Pharisees about whom this, and the last few week’s worth of parables are directed.  We would do well to see it as our story as well. 

 

Sure.  After the story is told, the chief priests and Pharisees realized that these parables, not just this last one, were directed at them.  And instead of being convicted to change by what was said, they look for a way to preserve the system so important to them.  They wanted to arrest Jesus but were afraid of the crowds because He was popular with them and the crowds regarded Him as a prophet. 

 

In a perfect world, we would be perhaps the obedient servant/slaves in the first part of the story doing the master’s bidding or perhaps the second set of tenants who we assume comply with the next harvest.  But maybe we would do well to see it as our story as well with us as the first set of tenants.

 

A story was making the rounds during the presidential campaign of 2000.  It’s bad theology but it makes a good point. An asteroid hits the speaker’s platform at a Seattle conference center, and Al Gore, George W. Bush and Bill Gates all arrive in heaven at the same time. They are greeted by the Almighty, who is sitting on His golden throne. First, the Lord speaks to Al Gore, asking what he believes in. “I believe in the Internet and a clean environment,” Gore replies. “Very good,” the Almighty says. “Come sit near me. “Then he asks George W. Bush the same question. “I believe in cutting taxes and taking good care of the military,” Bush replies. “Excellent,” says the Almighty. “Come sit near me. “ Then God asks Bill Gates what he believes. “I believe,” Gates replies, “you’re sitting in my chair."


There are times when all of us try to put ourselves in God’s seat. There are times when all of us act, and some who act at all times, as if the world is our fiefdom and we are supreme over all we survey. We forget that everything we have is on loan to us from God. We are but temporary tenants. We don’t truly own anything, even though we sometimes act as if we own it all. Everything ultimately belongs to God.


There was a church located next door to a supermarket. Since the church was short on parking spaces and the supermarket was closed on Sundays, the church leaders asked the owner of the supermarket for permission to park in his lot. The owner’s response was “Fine. You are welcome to use it 51 weeks a year.” “What about the other week?” the church leaders asked. “That week,” said the owner of the market, “I’ll chain off the lot so you will always remember that the lot belongs to me, and not to the church.”


Good point. We act like owners when we are only tenants. These tenants in our story were greedy. They wanted everything for themselves and were unwilling to give the landowner his fair share. The landowner, on the other hand, was generous. He had given them control of his vast estate. They could have all of its abundance except for a portion of the produce from the estate. Sounds like you and me, doesn’t it? Sounds like every person who has ever walked this earth. God has provided for us so abundantly. All He asks is a small portion in return and the good and proper use of it all. But we are greedy. We want to withhold what is rightfully His and use it all for ourselves. How sad. Some of the happiest people who have ever lived are those who gratefully acknowledge the ownership of God and live accordingly.  Those people know it’s not about how much you have but rather what you do with what you do have.


Everything that we have is on loan. Someday it will be passed on to someone else or perhaps destroyed but wind, flood or fire. Don’t you see? No matter how rich we are, if we are not rich toward God, we don’t have anything! The vineyard belongs to Him. Happiness is found in recognizing our place as His tenants, His stewards. And that leads to the last thing to be said.


We have another important responsibility. Jesus asked the religious officials what the owner of the vineyard would do to the rebellious tenants. They had no difficulty responding, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.” Little did they know they were condemning themselves with their answer.  As I said earlier, the parable was about them. They had been entrusted with the spiritual care of God’s people. Unfortunately, many of them looked upon it only as a job, a way of earning a good living, a source of prestige and power.  They were so set in their ways that they stoned the prophets who threatened their comfortable life and eventually they crucified God’s own Son. That’s a warning to every one of us involved in religious work whether as clergy or as laity. We have a responsibility.  But as I also said earlier, we would do well to see it as our story as well and not just the story those in full time ministry.  And how we utilize what God has given to us, or loaned to us as tenants, is important for all.


Tony Campolo, sociologist, preacher and author, tells the story of a great oil refinery. This refinery was huge. It employed all the modern techniques of chemical engineering. It was an impressive structure that was very well kept up. The interior was bright and shining. The workers were proud to be part of such a company. They made sure that the plant was clean and everything was in perfect working order. In fact, the oil refinery soon gained a world-wide reputation. One day, some visitors asked to have a tour of the oil refinery. There was a reluctance at first to allow any guests. The visitors insisted. They had traveled a great distance and wanted to tour the facility. The plant manager contacted his boss who reluctantly gave permission for the visitors to tour the plant.


The visitors walked through the vast chambers where they saw the processing of petroleum, the gleaming pipes that carried the petroleum products from place to place, and the extensive organizational system that had been set in place to keep the refinery going. The visitors were impressed. Near the close one of them asked the guide if they might be permitted to see the shipping department. “What shipping department?” asked the guide clearly confused.


“Why, the shipping department from whence you ship out all the gasoline and oil you process here,” said the tourists. “We don’t have any shipping department,” answered the guide. “You see, all the energy products produced in this refinery are used up keeping the refinery going.”

 

Could that be us? Is all our energy used up just keeping the church afloat? Could it be that we are no better than Jesus’ enemies? Could it be that we, too, confuse our mission with comfort and ease? Would Christ receive the same reception here that he received there?


This is not our world, it’s God’s. This is not our church, it’s God’s. We are only tenants. Stewards. We have a responsibility to return to Him a portion of what is His already, and to use that which we have received for His glory and the growth of His kingdom.  Amen


Philippians 2:1-13     Matthew 21:28-32      “Radio J-O-Y”            Grace          October 1, 2017

 

A mother was preparing pancakes for her sons, Kevin, 5, and Ryan, 3.  The boys began to argue over who would get the first pancake.  Their mother saw the opportunity for a moral lesson.  "If Jesus were sitting here, He would say, "Let my brother have the first pancake.  I can wait."   With that Kevin turned to his younger brother and said, "Hey Ryan, you be Jesus." 

 

Isn’t that the way it is with kids?   We’re always teaching them to share, right?   I mean, how many times have you ever had to teach a child to be selfish?   And when you stop and think about it, isn’t that really the American way of life – me first!?   Isn’t that what we see when someone rushes into a parking space that we have been waiting for patiently.   Isn’t that what we see when we plan a budget for our family and make sure we’ve taken care of all the expenses for groceries, housing, credit cards and so on and then say ‘O yeah, we should give something to God too’.   Then we proceed to give to Him what’s left over or a part of it, instead of the 10% He asks from us right off the top!   Actually, it’s the sin in all of us to think of ourselves first.   That’s really what sin is, me before others.   In the beginning it was me equal to God, but we generally put ourselves first there now as well.

 

Paul is reminding the Philippians of this in today’s reading.   In the middle portion Paul writes what is considered a hymn of praise regarding Jesus.   The Greek word used to describe it is kenosis– which means to empty.   Paul speaks of Jesus emptying Himself of any right and privilege he may have as God in the flesh, and instead being humble on behalf of others.  It’s a lesson for us all.

 

Paul begins the reading by saying if there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the spirit, any compassion and sympathy … Be of the same mind… In full accord and of one mind.   The same mind, the mind of full accord would be the mind of Christ.  Thus, Paul states a few sentences later, let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus …

 

Then Paul goes on to say, in humility regard others as better than yourself – he doesn’t say they are better – he just says treat them that way…  look not to your own interests but to the interests of others.   It would seem then that what Paul is saying is not something just of noble ambition but rather a simple principle upon which to base how we live.   It’s the principle of joy.  J – O - Y.   Jesus – Others - Yourself!  Jesus first – Others second – Yourself last!   This is not the American way.   Yet uncomfortable as it may sound, it’s Jesus’ way for us.  And just so we wouldn’t miss it, Jesus led by example.  Except in His case it was God the Father first, others next and self last.  So when He said, If possible let this cup pass from me, nevertheless, but not my will but Thine be done, Jesus was putting God first because he was willing to subjugate His will to God the Father’s.  He was putting other’s second because his reason for going to the cross was for us not Himself.  And He put Himself last otherwise he would never have gone to the cross. 

 

I believe this principle of J-O-Y is what Paul is talking about in the last part of this Philippians reading as well when he says, therefore, workout your own salvation we fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.   What this does not say is that your salvation will come by works.  A quick read of the gospel for today will show that it is by belief not works that one will enter the kingdom of heaven.  What Philippians does say is that once we do believe, it will or at least should impact the way we live.  Our belief in and love for God will lead us to living out His will in our lives.  The more we do so, the more we worship Him, the more we fall in love with Him, -- the more we will want to live for God and to live out His will in our lives.  I believe that is something of Paul’s meaning on working out our salvation with fear and trembling, because God is at work in us enabling us to will and work for His good pleasure, which we might see as for his glory and honor.

 

In the beginning story, when Kevin told Ryan that he could be Jesus, Kevin meant that in such a way that he, Kevin, would be first.  But in the light of what we’ve just heard, it would mean that Ryan would’ve been first if he was ‘being Jesus’ Jesus first – Others second – yourself last.  So, if Jesus wasn’t there then Ryan still would’ve still been first and his brother last. 

 

So how do we end this little sermon about the principle of J-O-Y?   Why don’t we end it with a children’s song that encapsulates the lesson succinctly?  

 

Sing the song – “Radio JOY”  

 

Put Jesus first – and Others second –  and then Yourself at the end of the line

And you will have true joy in your life through J-O-Y

 

Put Jesus first – and Others second –  and then Yourself at the end of the line

And you will have true joy in your life through J-O-Y

 

AMEN



Sunday's Sermon by Fr. Jim Cirillo
9/24/17    Matthew 20:1-16                  God’s Lavish Grace
 

I will begin today with two rhetorical questions: What does fairness mean to you?    Why is it so important to us?

 

Fairness is one of if not the highest ethical stance of many in our culture.  Children see fairness as the standard.  They are especially keen on fairness if they believe that they have been treated unfairly.  All who are parents are familiar with the cry of outrage, "That's not fair!"   This may be accompanied by that other great ethical benchmark of children, "But all the other kids get to..."  And most parents have a set of responses to these statements that they heard from their parents.   However, children seldom raise the issue of fairness when they are being favored.  In fact, almost no one raises the issue of fairness when they are favored or privileged.

 

And we see that pretty clearly in today’s gospel.  The men who begin working at the beginning of the day and early in the day are angry at the landowner who paid the guys who only worked one or a few hours the same that he had paid them.  It was unfair.  How many of you would agree that it was unfair?  Now…how many of you would like to have been paid a whole days wage for only 1 or 3 hours of work?  I thought so.  When we are being favored we like it but when we think we are being treated in an unfair manner we get upset.

 

This parable which Jesus tells as a lesson about the kingdom of heaven seems to teach us that God is unfair.  At least that is how some people over time and history have taken it.  And there is truth to this.  However, rather than showing us that God is not fair, the parable shows us that God is gracious, perhaps even lavish.  I don’t know about you but I am so glad that God is not fair. If He was fair and gave me what I truly deserve because of my sin…I shudder to think.  Far better than being fair is being gracious and merciful. 

 

The landowner was perfectly just in the parable.  He gave the men who worked early exactly the wages they had agreed to work for that day.  Nothing wrong with that.  They earned the daily wage which would have been just enough to be able to feed his family for a day.  A hand to mouth existence that many, even in America, still experience.  But the landowner simply showed some compassion and mercy on those who began work late in the day.  Most likely they too had families to feed and their days wage was just enough to do it.  An hour’s wage would not be enough but because of his compassion and grace and lavish generosity of the landowner, their families ate that day.

 

You see this parable, and frankly the whole of God’s grace, is more about what we need than about what we deserve.  We pray it weekly when we say give us this day our daily bread.  It is the recognition that we live a hand to mouth existence in this world on a daily basis.  And if we are lucky enough to have more, let us not be tempted to depend upon the more as the place of our security.  Let us rather depend upon God as our security.  Now and forever.  Because the grace of God trumps the fairness of man or the security of stuff forever.

 

When Billy Graham was driving through a small southern town, he was stopped by a policeman and charged with speeding. Graham admitted his quilt, but was told by the officer that he would have to appear in court.

 

The judge asked, "Guilty, or not guilty?"When Graham pleaded guilty, the judge replied, "That'll be ten dollars -- a dollar for every mile you went over the limit."

 

Suddenly the judge recognized the famous minister. "You have violated the law," he said. "The fine must be paid--but I am going to pay it for you." He took a ten dollar bill from his own wallet, attached it to the ticket, and then took Graham out and bought him a steak dinner! "That," said Billy Graham, "is how God treats repentant sinners!"

 

We gather here today to celebrate with Brian and Gaby the life of Victor Aiden Borillo by way of his baptism.  Baptism for an adult is an outward act which publicly professes and inward faith and belief in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.  For a young child, especially an infant, it is an act of faith in God’s grace.  Victor has no idea about what will happen to him in a few moments both physically and spiritually.  Hopefully he will respond well to the water on his head.  But more importantly, we will be placing Victor in God’s hands so that he may receive what he needs more than what he may deserve.  That has nothing to do with Victor’s response and everything to do with God’s grace.  Today we celebrate such grace.

 

Tell me, who would you like to have as your boss, one who paid out wages as deserved by work accomplished or one who was lavishly generous?  And tell me further, who would you rather have be the Lord of your life someone who in all justice holds you to every mistake you have ever made or one who looks for a way to be gracious and generous and finds a way to save you from the just rewards of your mistakes? 

 

Folks, the startling reality is that we worship a God who treats us very unfairly.  That is such good news!  He loves us always in spite of how we act toward Him, even when we ignore Him for long periods of time.  He comes to our aid when we ask Him, even though such times are often the only ones where some speak to Him privately.  He gives us eternal life even though the wages of sin is death.  How good it is for us that, as the Psalmist writes, “The Lord is gracious and full of compassion, slow to anger and abounding in great kindness.”  Thank God that He is.  Amen 

Sunday's Sermon by Fr. Jim Cirillo 

4/23/17     1 PETER 1:3-9     A LIVING HOPE


A middle-aged man was on a Caribbean cruise enjoying his first real vacation in years.  On the first day out to sea he noticed an attractive woman about his age who smiled at him in a friendly way as he passed her on the deck.  This pleased the man greatly.  That night he managed to get seated at the same table with her for dinner.  As the conversation developed, he commented that he had seen her on the deck that day and he had appreciated her friendly smile.  When she heard this, she smiled and commented, "Well, the reason I smiled was that when I saw you I was immediately struck by your strong resemblance to my third husband."

At this he perked up his ears and said, "Oh, how many times have you been married?"

She looked down at her plate, smiled modestly, and answered, "Twice."  Hope is the sustainer of life.  It's the motivator to action.  It's the promise of tomorrow.

We need the vision to see beyond what might appear to be there in front of us, to be able to see what could, quite possibly, be there.  As Robert Kennedy often said about himself, "Some people see things as they are and ask why?  I dream things that never were, and ask why not?"

Several years ago a teacher assigned to visit children in a large city hospital received a routine call requesting that she visit a particular child.  She took the boy's name and room number and was given instructions by the teacher.  "We're studying nouns and adverbs in his class now.  I'd be grateful if you could help him with his homework so he doesn't fall behind the others."  It wasn't until the visiting teacher got outside the boy's room that she realized it was located in the hospital's burn unit.  No one had prepared her to find a young boy horribly burned and in great pain.  She felt that she couldn't just turn and walk out, so she awkwardly stammered, "I'm the hospital teacher, and your teacher sent me to help you with nouns and adverbs."

The next morning a nurse on the burn unit asked her, "What did you do to that boy?"   Before she could finish the profusion of apologies that immediately came out of her mouth, the nurse interrupted her: "You don't understand.  We've been very worried about him, but ever since you were here yesterday, his whole attitude has changed.  He's fighting back, responding to treatment.  It's as though suddenly he's decided to live."  The boy later explained that he had completely given up hope until he saw that teacher.  It all changed when he came to a simple realization.  With joyful tears he expressed it this way: "They wouldn't send a teacher to work on nouns and adverbs with a dying boy, would they?"

Hope can be taken from us when those things that contribute to living are taken from us. We can be discouraged, we can be desolate, we can be knocked down, but that doesn't mean we have lost hope.  As long as we have a breath of life left in us, we have a living hope.  And as long as we have our assignment for tomorrow, we continue to believe that tomorrow is a possibility.  Peter's letter to the "exiles in Dispersion," as he calls them, is a letter of hope and encouragement to the young church as they were facing desperate times.  He reminds these Christians that through the resurrection we have been given new birth in a living hope.  Jesus was not dead, but living. Despite all appearances, Jesus is alive, and as long as he is alive, we live in the same hope.  We live in the hope of a resurrection from the dead in the future and with a hope in truly living now in this world.

Although these people that Peter was addressing had not seen Jesus, they loved him.  And although they did not see him during this time of great trial and tribulation, they believed in him.  That is living hope.  It is hope that cannot be restrained by worldly powers.  It is hope that cannot be thwarted by things of the past.  It is hope that cannot be extinguished by fears that some great calamity might lie ahead.  Living hope does not die.  And for the followers of Jesus, not even physical death of the body will destroy our hope.

None of us walked the earth with Jesus, as did Peter, Andrew, James, John, and the rest.  And yet we love him.  None of us can see Jesus now, not like Mary and the other women saw him after the resurrection.  He doesn't appear to us like he did to Paul on the road to Damascus.  Yet we believe in him.  And we believe that even though we suffer the trials of this life, we will one day rejoice in all things.  We believe that through this enduring faith in Jesus Christ, the outcome will indeed be the salvation of our souls.

Could you imagine buying a car without taking it on a test drive, much less without seeing it?  Would you move to a house in a city where you've never been without checking it out and carefully selecting just the right house?  Would you marry someone without seeing him or her first?  Not on your life!

And yet we put our living hope in someone we've never seen.  We put our complete trust in a notion that says this man Jesus died on a cross for our sins and that God is able to forgive us everything because of him.  We believe that because of him, God is able to forgive and put away our shortcomings and promise us eternal life.  That because of Jesus, we live our lives differently, never losing hope for a better tomorrow and living today with appreciation for what it brings.

Hope, as the scriptures speak of it, is a very strong word.  Hope, as it is used in daily society around us, is a very weak word.  Someone says, “Oh I hope fill in the blank happens!”  What they are really saying is, “I wish that it happens.”  It’s “oh I hope, I hope, I hope!”  The Word of God on the other hand speaks of hope in a manner that shows or exhibits confidence.  In this way of thinking, “Oh I hope fill in the blank happens!”  turns out to mean, “I have a strong assurance that this will happen.”  Rather than “Oh I hope, I hope, I hope!” it’s more like “I know, I know, I know!”  So it is a confident hope rather than a hesitant hope.

The text from Peter tells us that we will be tested, and tested by fire at that.  Sometimes the testing is specifically because of our faith as the saints to whom Peter wrote were experiencing.  Sometimes the testing is just what we call life.  Everybody goes through it, and everybody endures… … as long as they have hope.  In Christ, however, the ending is always the same, regardless of what it took to get there.  The testing always ends, and the results are praise and glory and honor.  Sometimes in this life and sometimes only in the next.  That's living hope.  There's always a possibility.  There's always the strength to reach where you're heading.

Where there is life, there is hope.  Conversely, where there is hope, there is life.  When someone is in a position of being truly hopeless, life often ends – one way or another.  In living hope, there are always possibilities.  And we know and have heard many times before that with God, all things are possible.

We see in this morning’s Gospel reading that Thomas had pretty much given up hope.  He was down and out.  Seeing Jesus changed all of that!  He had his hope restored so that he was able to believe.  Jesus comments that Thomas believed because he saw.  “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.”  While Thomas was down and out, he was not yet truly hopeless in his thinking so there was room for some possibilities.  In living hope, there are always possibilities.

Peter knew this so he was able to write words of encouragement to those who were suffering.  I hope that his words will also give you a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.  Jesus is alive, and in the living Jesus, we find living hope.  Amen?