Author: AJ Langston

He Humbled himself

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James 4:1-8 November 25, 2018 

    Philippians chapter 2 is a hymn from the early church, extolling Jesus Christ.  We hear that t Jesus humbled himself and became obedient, even to death on the cross.  He humbled himself.
He humbled himself.  
    Humility  was not a virtue in the ancient world,  just as it is not a virtue in our day and time.  Those who get ahead in our society are the arrogant, the proud, the pushy.  Interesting isn’t it that we worship a man who was selfless, who put the needs of others before himself.  
    For a moment think with me how influential the life of Jesus Christ has been upon human history.
    Consider the lives that he has mastered, the deeds he has inspired.  Consider the institutions that owe their founding impetus to him.
    Consider the power of his name as it has been sounded in hospitals, at cemetery grave sites, in prison cells, in services of marriage and baptism.
    Consider the affects of his presence–on the weak to make them strong, on the proud to make them humble, on the greedy to make them generous, on the evil to make them good, on the upright to make them loving.
    Give him the test of absence.  Imagine the poverty of a world without Him; without carols to herald His Nativity, without the impact of his life and the impress of his words, a world bereft of His cross and unsupported by the hope that issues from his resurrection.   
    We see in the life of Jesus Christ the highest and best which anyone can achieve.  And in seeing him, we aspire to rise a bit higher.
    In the book of James we read that   “God opposes the self
important, “but gives grace to the humble.”  
    I saw on a bumper sticker “It’s hard to be humble when you are as 
great as I am,” Humility–It’s one of those Biblical words that comes at us sideways.  What do I mean by that?   
       For openers, it is the admission that we are creatures and not God.  It is the acknowledgment that for all our efforts and ingenuity we cannot control our lives or the lives of our loved ones. It is the recognition that when all is said and done, very little we have said and done shapes and controls who we are, where we are, and what has been the course of our lives  to this day
    I was the first member of the Swicegood family in our part of
North Carolina to go to college.  My forebears were farmers and mill-
workers.  I got to college because of a generous scholarship from some
dedicated Methodist people in North Carolina.  I got a scholarship to go
to seminary, and after that, was admitted into the doctoral program at
Princeton Seminary.  To add to all that I was born to loving parents,
grew up in a country with freedom of opportunity, was the recipient of
the best health care in the world.  All mine.
     And you know what?  None of it was earned, and none deserved.
     I’ve often asked myself, “Why was I born where I was born and
not a Palestinian child or an American Indian child or an immigrant   child?”   I don’t know.  All I do know on this Thanksgiving week 
that when I look back over the years of my life, I know it isn’t my might
or power or wealth which has brought me to this day.  It is the hand of a
gracious God, a God who has been work in my life in times of hardship
and joy, in times of trial and testing, at work in the strange and
unpredictable evens that have proven in time to be severe blessings.  
     Humility is never a virtue that any of us can claim to possess.  It is
instead a sensitivity that we can only struggle to sustain against pride
and complacency, a sensitivity to the reality that we are not in control. 
That admission keeps us open to our vulnerabilities.  And I believe we
relate better to each other, and certainly to God, through our
vulnerabilities than our strength.  Our strengths tend to wall us out from
others.  Our vulnerabilities can let others in.  So humility opens us up to
trust, to trust others and God.
     But trust in God doesn’t imply that God exists to meet our desires,
that God’s entire focus is to help us be successful, wealthy and wise. 
Not that at all.  I stumbled across a little piece the other day titled,
“God’s Total Quality Control Questionnaire.”  Here’s a bit of it.
     God would like to thank you for your patronage.  In order to better
meet your needs, SHE asks that you take a few moments to answer the
following questions.  How did you find out about your deity? 
Newspaper, Bible, television, Dead Sea Scrolls, My Mama Done tol’
me.  Which model deity did you acquire?  Jehovah, Jesus, Krishna,
Zeus, Earth Mother?  Please indicate any problems you have with God? 
Not omnipotent.  Makes mistakes.  Permits bad things to happen to
good people.  Permits good things to happen to bad people.  Are you
currently using any other source of inspiration in addition to God? 
Tarot, Lottery, Astrology, Television, Fortune Cookies, Dr. Phil?  
     Well, this isn’t God.  God is not at our disposal.  We do not
understand God’s ways.  We stand under God’s ways.  Trust in God is
no guarantee of a safe and easy way through this world.  But trust in
God is to understand that grace is at the heart of the universe.  
     To know God’s grace is to know that we can look reality square in
the face, see its tragic and sad edges, and yet feel in our heart of hearts
that it’s good to be alive on God’s good earth.  Grace is the power to see
life very clearly, admit that it is sometimes all wrong, and still know that
somehow, in the center of your life, “It is all right.”  This is why we call
it amazing grace.  
        One of the most poignant testimonies to the importance of trust in
the face of our fragility is that of the writer, Morris West, whose best
known novel is The Shoes of the Fisherman.   West had a double by-
pass when he was 72.  “After my surgery,” he says, “the sense of
psychic and physical frailty lasted for a long time.  That was the rough
side of the experience.  The other side was the daily sense of newness, of
preciousness.  Every hour of every day was a bonus.  Your prize people. 
You understand that they can be as fragile and fearful as you have been. 
You don’t quarrel anymore.  You don’t grasp at things because, after all,
the Creator didn’t close his hand but let you sit quietly, like a butterfly,
on His palm.”
     Fourteen years ago almost to this day his day our first grandchild hovered between life and death in Childrens Hospital in Utrecht.  He had contacted a strep infection at birth and thankfully, a nurse noticed he wasn’t breathing properly.  He was whisked off to the neo natal ICU unit.  One of the great features of that hospital is that they have a camera pointed at the little infants who are in neo natal intensive care.  You get a log in number and password and you can watch the infant from your own computer in our case 5,500 miles away.   I would put my hands on my computer monitor and pray for little Liam.  I know it’s corny, but that’s what I did, and if I could have graded my life for his, I would not have hesitated for a second.  On November 9, 2018 he celebrated his 14th birthday with some boy and girl friends.  He is healthy, and happy, and smart (You know where those smart genes come from don’t you?)  
          That experience was the most stressful  experience of my life, much harder in some ways than when my dad died at the age of 53.  You expect to bury your parents, but not your children or grandchildren.  I hope I never look at Liam again without thinking, “A miracle.  A certified miracle”       
          So on this Sunday after Thanksgiving I am grateful, and humbled. Grateful for God’s healing power and goodness.  Humbled by the love and prayers that  sent our way by hundreds of friends some 14 years ago. Humbled and grateful for an exquisite grandeurs of this November Sunday, for the gifts of health, and framily and friendship, and not the least humbled and grateful of being pastor of being a pastor in our small but mighty church.    

Categories: Pastor's Message

The Hate Stops Here

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Luke 6   November 11 2018 
    There is an Indian tribe in Ecuador called the Jivaro tribe.  Each night when the children are put to bed, the parents linger by their children’s place of rest and whisper in their ear the names of all the people they must hate when they grow older.  It is their tribal way of keeping the feuds and enmities alive from generation to generation.
I thought about this story as I reflected upon  the killings at the synagogue in Pittsburgh, 11 dead.  It also brought to mind the Oklahoma City bombings in 1995, leaving 168 dead, the shootings at the AME church in Charleston, 9 dead, shootings at gay nightclub in Orlando in 2016.  49 dead. 
    Inflammatory speech, whether uttered by the President or posted on social media, contributes to the radioactivity of hatred.  Inflammatory speech stokes anger, fear, and resentment.  Inflammatory speech divides the world into camps of us and them.
    As I stood in the Lincoln Memorial Friday a week ago and read Lincoln’s words from the II Inaugural Address, “With malice toward none, with charity toward all, let us bind up our nation’s wounds, “ I realized how far we have fallen.  
    Pastor Eric Manning of the Emmanuel African American Episcopal  church in Charleston was invited by Rabbi Jeffry Myers of the Tree of Life Jewish Synagogue to speak at the memorial service of one of the victims.  The two clergy have much in common.  They are the spiritual leaders of groups that have been harassed and persecuted down through the ages.   “This incident” Rabbi Myers said, “like that at Emanuel, was not an attack on a particular group. It was an attack on America because it challenges our right to assemble and worship our God in the way we want. It has continued a downward spiral of hate, one that’s prevalent in all corners of the United States.”
    I have lifted up a scripture for our reflections today on hate speech and hate crimes in America.  It is Jesus’s words from Luke chapter 6: “Love your enemies and do good to those who hate you.  The love Jesus speaks of here  is not romantic love, that gushy feeling that sweeps over us when we fall  head over heels.   In fact this love he speaks of  isn’t a feeling at all.  It is an attitude which leads to an action.   There is a good chance that we will never be able to change the heart of our enemies but we do have control over our hearts toward them.  If we  treat someone lovingly, even if we  feel no real compassion for them, even if we  feel contempt toward  them, we are practicing kindness, and ultimately we will begin to feel kindness. The part of the equation that is most likely to change is us,  not our enemies.   The more that we treat those people in our lives who do not deserve compassion with compassion, the more our hearts  will change towards them.
    An old man was talking to a friend and said, “I’m so lucky.  I don’t have an enemy in the world.”  The friend said, “That’s amazing.”  
    “Yep,” the old man said, “I’ve outlived them all.”
    “Imagine the vanity,” Augustine said, “of thinking your enmity hurts your enemy more than it does you.”  Hatred does nothing to the person that we hate. It only darkens our soul. A. W. Tozer says in The Pursuit of God, “Hate eats on the soul. To get free of hatred is like being healed of cancer.” We experience so much freedom when we can set our hate aside and love people the way that Jesus loved them and see them as image bearers of God.
    Leave it to Charlie Brown to express a theological and psychological truth.  Charlie Brown is lying in his bed, saying to a sleeping Snoopy at his side, “Sometimes I lie awake at night and I ask,’Where have I gone wrong?’  Then a voice says to me, ‘This is going to take more than one night’.”
    The beginning of wisdom is knowing that each of us has gone wrong.  The beginning of wisdom is acknowledging that our own divided hearts contributes to the division and the heart-ache of the world.        No matter how many times I stand in the pulpit, I can never point you enough to Jesus Christ and his cross.  In his refusal to retaliate against those who harmed him, in his indefatigable good will toward  his enemies, Jesus Christ made it possible for us to be reconciled to God and to one another.  And we are in the church not because we have earned our way here.  We are here because Christ reached out for us, paid a price for us, won us back to God, and broke down the walls separating us from God and one another.
    The hurt and pain of the world begins in our own divided hearts.  And it spreads.  Oh, how it spreads from person to person, neighborhood to neighborhood, country to country. But thank God, there is an antidote.
    There is a hopeful sign, a sign that hangs upon the cross, a sign which reads, “The hurt and the hate stop here.”  
    Here are ten affirmations emailed to me this week from my friend, Gae Chalker, who is an Episcopal priest in Hawaii.  She preached here a couple of time last year.  
 1.     I will only use thoughtful, truthful speech and refrain from any words that are a personal attack on another person.
2.     I will seek to understand the concerns of those who are on the “other side of the aisle” and the people they represent.
3.     I will not be afraid to speak up and express my thoughts if I believe something is not ethical.
4.     I will be mindful of the weakest or least powerful in our country – the poor, the sick, the elderly, the marginalized, the alien and all those oppressed by injustice.
5.     I will work to seek non-violent ways of resolving conflicts in our country and in our world.    
6.     I will work to provide opportunities for all Americans to receive quality education, health care, and employment that provides a living wage.
7.     I will learn about how we humans are impacting all of creation and my decisions will consider the future of our environment.
Most important are the following three affirmations:
8.     I will practice every day to be humble and let go of my pride.
9.     I will remind myself that all human beings are God’s children, just like me.
10.  I will pray every day for God’s guidance.
    As I read through Gae’s  list of affirmations, I thought they are not just for the leaders of our country but for all of us.  Gandi said it and it is so true: “ We must be the change we want to see in the world.”

Categories: Weekly Sermon

Semper Fi

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John 15:1-20; October 7 2018 

    Aaron Feuerstein is a loyal guy.  In a culture where work environments breed insecurity and layoffs are the norm, Aaron Feuerstein is a hero in the dog-eat-dog world of work.
    Decades ago, when textile mill after textile mill moved to other locations, Feuerstein kept his Malden Mills factory open in the blue collar town of Lawrence, Massachusetts.  
    When the mill burned down just a few weeks before Christmas–Feuerstein the owner of this company that manufactures Polar Fleece–announced that his workers would continue to be paid.  He also told them they would continue to receive health care benefits during the reconstruction of the factory.  Yes, he would rebuild.
    Even when a handful of workers sued him, in spite of his unparalleled generosity to them, he empathized with their plight.  “They are poor people,” Feuerstein explained, and with their lawyers tempting them with astronomical settlement figures, they could not resist.  He loyally forgave them even for their own lack of loyalty.
    Susan Stamberg  interviewed  Aaron Feuerstein for NPR’s “Morning Edition in a series on loyalty.  Aaron Feuerstein explained why he did what he did. “It’s the right thing to do,” he said about his decision to keep his employees on the payroll after the fire.  His actions reflected one way “to save” his community and his people.  They needed him and he did not abandon them.  Without his grace, their futures would have been bleak. 
    The loyalty series led Stamberg to talk to teenagers, sports fans, and military leaders–as well as Mr. Feuerstein–on the subject of loyalty.  Some interviews were inspiring.  Most however revealed the sorriness of the human condition.  Most demonstrated that while hope springs eternal, loyalty springs ephemeral.
    We learned, for instance, that teenagers dole out loyalty on a case by case base.  Say you have a movie date scheduled, but then out of the blue your extremely cool fantasy crush who didn’t even seem to know your name calls you up and wants to get together on the night you had your date scheduled.  What do you do?  Simple.  You ditch date number one. 
    Best Friend tells you her deep dark secret and begs you never to tell.  Cross your heart and swear by the power of Britney Spears halter-top.  But what if the secret is drug use?  What if the secret is bulimia.
    Susan Stamberg found that whether the issue is boyfriends, drugs, or health, everything depends on the circumstances.  Loyalty ebbs and flows. 
    In the field of business, the loyalty that once bonded individual workers with a company for a life time went out with the Royal Typewriter.  Loyalty fluctuates with the economy.  When profits go up, loyalty rises. When profits go into the tank, loyalty dissolves.  
    Aaron Feuerstein stands out as the except to the rule of profits first.  Business, for Feuerstein, is also about fidelity, trust, the way people are treated.

    In the 15th chapter of John, Jesus says, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.  Greater love hath no man than this; that a man lay down his life for his friends.”  This section of John’s Gospel is called “the farewell discourse.” Jesus is speaking to his disciples on the last night of his life.  Later, when his disciples recall these words, they link them  with the cross.      
    In a world where loyalty is an endangered species, Jesus stand as an exception to the standard operating procedure.  He remains loyal to his friends and to his mission to the end. 
    “I will never leave you, nor forsake you,” God tells the Hebrew children.  God hangs tough with us.  And God never changes.
    We admire loyalty because we know when we see it, it is a reflection of the nature and character of God.  We admire loyalty, because we know when we see it, we have witnessed a bit of Christ-likeness.
    If the factory burns down, no one really expects the boss to continue to pay benefits.  If profits are down, nobody expects to Board of Directors not to lay off workers.  If things nose dive, nobody expects loyalty to count for much.  
        I mean, who can you really trust?  Corporations?  Look at Jimmy Johns, Fed Ex and Wal Mart, all of whom cheated their employees of rightful wages.  Look at all the retirees who lost their shirts in the Arizona Baptist Foundation.
    But here and there you see a few glimpses of what loyalty means.  According to Jeffrey Pfeffer, the Thomas D. Dee Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Stanford School of Business, companies get what they deserve in the way they treat their employees.  Companies that treat their people right get enormous dividends: high rates of productivity and low rates of turnover.   Companies that treat their employees badly experience the exact opposite–and then end up complaining about the lack of loyalty and lousy performance.  These are “toxic” workplaces, Pfeffer said.  Pfeffer disputes much of the conventional wisdom in the current conversation about work and business.  Loyalty isn’t dead, he insists, but toxic companies are driving people away.  There are plenty of people out there who long for good companies, but the increasing number of toxic companies are giving all companies a bad name.
    When Susan Stamberg interviewed people in the military on this subject,  she discovered that loyalty is one of the virtues most honored.  When Marines declare “SEMPER FI” (“always faithful”) they are referring to more than a motto.
    Best-selling author William Manchester fought on Sugar Loaf Hill in Okinawa during World War II.  Thirty-four years later, he visited that bloody mountain side where he had fought as a Marine.  This is what he recalls:
    “I understand, at last, why I jumped hospital that long-ago Sunday and, in violation of orders, returned to the front and almost certain death.
    “It was an act of love.  Those men on the line were my family, my home.  They were closer to me than I can say, closer than any friends had been or ever would be.  They were comrades; three of them had saved my life.  They had never lt me down, and I couldn’t do it to them.  I had to be with them, rather than let them die and me live with the knowledge that I might have saved them.  Men, I now knew, do not fight for flag or country, for the Marine Corps or glory or any other abstraction.  They fight for their friends.”
    Greater love hath no man than this….Today we remember the One who  pledged his loyalty to us, and then gave his life as an undying and eternal symbol of  that loyalty.  His sacrificial death is the single-most important act in human history.  In that death, we know that he will never leave, he will never forsake us. 

Categories: Uncategorized

The Healing Touch

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I once knew a woman once who had chronic kidney disease.  Her life was controlled by her disease.  She had to plan her schedule around when she would receive dialysis.  Her husband and daughter had to adjust their lives around the times when she was sick and when she felt better.

The woman Mark zooms in on in our story today is like my friend with kidney disease.  Her illness had defined her life.  For 12 years she had suffered persistent hemorrhaging.   Such a discharge of blood packed a double whammy.  Her loss of blood made her weak and tired.  And according to Jewish  law, she was ritually unclean.  So for 12 long years she had been ostracized from normal family relations and synagogue life.  She was an outcast in her own community.

Mark tells us that she was so desperate to get well that she had spent all that she had to find a cure.  We are not told how much money she had in the beginning, but however much it was, she had been willing to exhaust it, down to the last penny, in hopes that some doctor somewhere could heal her and return her life to normalcy.  We wonder how far she had traveled in the ancient world to find the right doctors–perhaps to Jerusalem or the coastal cities, or perhaps even to faraway Macedonia and Egypt, wherever she heard there was remarkable physician–in the undying belief that somebody somewhere could heal her.

And we can also imagine what treatments she had to endure.  One doctor would have her wear a bag of garlic around her neck.  Another would examine her skull then give her a mysterious mixture of herbs to mix into her food.  But all to no avail.

It is no wonder, then, that when the word of Jesus’ extraordinary ministry reaches her ears, she begins planning to see him, even though she has no money.  When she finally does cross his path, he is surrounded by a crowd.  He is, in fact, on another mission, on his way to the house of an important dignitary from the synagogue named Jairus, for Jairus’s daughter had died, and Jesus was summoned to see if he could help.

She pushes her way through the crowd, and reaches out and touches his cloak.  It’s interesting.  She assumes she will be healed by merely touching Jesus, or at least touching a part of his clothing.  Immediately here bleeding stops, and she felt that she had been healed.  And Jesus realizes that something has happened to him, some part of himself which Mark calls his “power” has been diminished.  He has been emptied of something, and so he asks, “Who touched my clothes?”

Then the woman shyly steps forward and told him the whole story, and Jesus said to her, “Daughter, your faith has healed you.  Go in peace, and be freed from your suffering.”


Well, what do we make of this story?   There are several dynamics which interplay with each other.  Let’s look at each of them.

First, the woman came to Jesus out of desperation.  All other avenues have been exhausted.

Some of us have known that kind of desperation.  A spouse walks out on us.  The doctor says, “It was malignant and I couldn’t get it all.   We get a call from the police department because our teenager has been arrested for use of alcohol.

Perhaps it is part of our nature, perhaps just part of the human condition that we only truly reach out to Christ in extremis, when we have spent all our funds and energy before we accept his Lordship in his life.

I greatly admire Chuck Colson.  Colson was an official in the Nixon administration and was implicated in the Watergate affair.  He was sentenced to prison.  He tried everything he could think of — judicial appeals, self help of various kinds, and sheer stoicism.  And then, the night before he was to enter prison, a friend said to him, “Chuck, you need Jesus Christ in your life.”  He left the friend’s house and went out to his car.  It was raining.  He sat there in the darkness with the rain hitting the car and began to weep–and he opened his heart to Jesus. It turned his whole life around, and enabled him to transform even his prison sentence into a blessing.  He came out of prison and founded Prison Fellowship, which has brought Christ to thousands of prisoners across America.

So it is that we have to hit rock bottom before we hit the Rock of Ages.

A second dynamic at work in this story is the healing power of Jesus.  This power is so all-pervasive, so intimately flowing throughout Jesus’ being, that it saturates even the clothing on Jesus’ back.

Whenever you read through the Gospels you see that healing real, physical illnesses was central to Jesus’ ministry.  That’s hard for us to understand in a scientific such as ours where healing is tied into high technology such as Cat-Scans and MRI’s and surgery with lasers.

But I believe there is a way for us to understand why it is that Jesus had the ability to heal people.  You talk to any doctor and she will tell you that the only reason a doctor can produce health is because the human body is biased in favor of health.  The universe is prejudiced in our favor, and its powers are working on our side.  Albert Einstein used to say: “When a baby drops its rattle out of a crib, not only does the rattle fall to reach the earth, but the earth rises imperceptibly to meet the rattle.”  So we don’t have to work at seeking health.  It’s the way the created universe functions.  God has built a drive toward health in our bodies.

If Jesus was God in human form, as the Christian faith claims, that means that all of God that can be expressed in a human being was expressed in Jesus.  And if a fundamental part of God’s nature is ultimate healing, ultimate wholeness, that means that Jesus carried in his body that incredible power.  That’s what Mark was trying so hard to express here–that when the woman touched Jesus, some of his healing power was imparted to her.

We don’t quite understand how it happened, but Mark makes it clear that it happened.

Two stories about the healing power of Jesus, one personal, and one not.

I had been counseling with a woman for a long time.  She had been in an abusive marriage, and when she first came in to see me, she was really beaten down.    But over the months she got better and stronger, and one day, she said something extraordinary to me.  She said, “You have helped heal me.”

I’ve thought about that a lot, and tried to figure out what she meant.  If I could put what she was saying theologically, I think she was saying that by listening to her, by caring for her, I was making manifest the love of God, which by always brings wholeness and health and well-being.

A second illustration about the healing power of Jesus.    Dr. Randy Byrd is a staff cardiologist at San Francisco General Hospital and a professor at the University of California.  During a ten-month study, a computer assigned 393 patients admitted to the coronary care unit at S.F. General Hospital to either a group that was prayed for by home prayer groups (192 patients) or to a group which was not remember in prayer (201 patients).  The study was designed according to the highest standards of clinical testing imaginable.  It was a randomized double-blind experiment in which neither the patients, nurses, nor doctors knew which group the patients were in.  Byrd recruited Roman Catholic, Methodist, Baptists and Jewish groups around the country to pray for the designated patients.  The prayer groups were given the names of the patients, something of their conditions, and were asked to pray each day–but were given no instructions on how to pray.  The results startled everyone.  Prayed-for patients were five times less likely to require antibiotics.

They were three times less likely to develop pulmonary edema.

None required endotracheal intubation–breathing tubes, compared to twelve in the other group.

And fewer of the prayed for patients died.

If the technique had been a new drug or surgical procedure, it would have been heralded a “breakthrough.”  But since it was prayer, it hardly got mentioned.

I know we are all skeptical about faith healing.  I certainly am.  All those t.v. preachers we see have jaded us all.  But maybe we need to take a look again at the Gospels, and replace the negative images we have about the healing power of faith, and see if we can find positive images.

For healing was basic to the ministry of Jesus.  Healing–knitting together fragile bits of our fractured bodies and souls, remains God’s most basic ongoing creative work in the cosmos.  God has provided us with a universal vaccine for our ills in the principle of love and the person of Jesus Christ.

Can we trust God to heal us?  That’s the question.  What in your life, what in a loved ones life, needs Christ’s healing touch?  Is it an incurable illness?   An emotional difficulty?  Some sort of addiction that is preying upon you.  Can you think of one good reason of continuing to carry this problem yourself and not giving it over to Christ.  If you can’t, then maybe it’s time to do what this nameless woman in the Gospel did–reach out and touch Christ’s garment as he passes you.  He will know it if you do, and will bless your life as he blessed hers.  He always does.

Categories: Pastor's Message

When Work Goes Sour

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Sept. 2, 2018  John 5:15-25

When it comes to their work, eighty per cent of all Americans hate to get out of bed in the morning–especially on Monday.

A majority of all Americans wish they did could do something else.      Twenty-five per cent of all Americans suffer severe symptoms of job stress–absenteeism, substance abuse, divorce, physical illness, and the quality of their work is poor.

A few years ago, a popular song captured the frustration people have with work.  “TAKE THIS JOB AND SHOVE IT.   Many people are not happy in their work, and many of us have had jobs we hated.  So on this Labor Day weekend , let’s take a look at work and what our work means to us. Why are do so many people hate to get out of bed on Monday.  What would it take for work to be meaningful and joyous?


There’s a very good little book I find myself coming back to again and again.  It’s called “When Work Goes Sour,” and it’s written by James Dittes, a professor of pastoral theology at Yale Divinity School.  It is a book written about work from a male perspective, but with more and more women now in the workplace, what Dittes says applies to both men and women.  Dittes says that we expect a lot from our work, and usually don’t get it.  We expect fulfillment and contentment from our work.  We expect work to give us a sense of self-esteem, to help us find our sense of place in life.  We have modified Rene Descartes’ dictum: “I think therefore I am” to “I work, therefore I am.”

Dittes says that it is not too strong a term to say that we make work an idol.  If you remember what idolatry is in the Bible, an idol is something which isn’t God but which we treat like God.  We give allegiance to an idol that only God deserves.  We expect more from an idol than it can possibly deliver, because we expect from it what only God can deliver.   We expect our work to give us what only God can give us.  That’s why we make an idol out of our work.

When we find ourselves frustrated and disappointed with our work, then a good question to ask ourselves is, “Have I made work an idol?”  Am I expecting more from my work that it can ever possibly deliver?  Am I expecting my work to help me feel worthwhile, to build my self-esteem, to tell me that I am valuable?”  In short, am I expecting from work the salvation that only comes from God in Jesus Christ.

Over the years I have talked to many to  many parents  who worry because their children aren’t successes.  Their definition of success, invariably, has to do with having a professional job that pays a good income.  A dead end job with a minimum wage just doesn’t cut it.  It’s like the Jewish mother joke.  A Jewish mother can easily say the words, “My son, the surgeon.”  But it’s impossible for a Jewish mother to say, “My son, the garbage  man.”

Erma Bombeck has written a column about success that rates 4 stars in my estimation.  She writes:

“I can’t remember the name of the man who spoke at my high school commencement, but I remember what he said.  He told us the future of the world rested on our shoulders, and charged us with finding our destiny and fulfilling it.  He went on to say we alone must cure disease, hunger and poverty throughout the world and above all, we must find success.

“I glanced over at Jack, the class deficient who couldn’t even find his parents after they parked the car and I got an uneasy feeling.  Not only that, but or those of us who planned to sleep in for a week, the speech was very depressing, as it seemed to call for a lot of work from such a small class.

“After the speech, the entire group scrambled out of the auditorium in search of success as if it were the first item on a scavenger hunt.  We had no idea what it was, where to look for it, how much it cost, whether it was in season or what it looked like, but from that day on, we go up early in the morning and pursed it until night.   Sometimes we heard that another classmate had found it, but when we confronted him, he assured us that if he had, he would be happier.

“By our tenth reunion, no one had found it yet.  The men struggled in their jobs and fertilized their lawns on weekends, and the women raised babies and polished the bottoms of their Revere Ware.  It seemed we were never rich enough, thin enough, secure enough, educated enough, fulfilled enough, or important enough to qualify for success.

“Could it be that success is not a judgment of society, but can only be self-administered?  is it possible that success isn’t a plateau of wealth or honors, but a condition that lies within each of us.”

Erma Bombeck is suggesting something here that is truly Biblical.   If we let other people define success, we’ll never succeed.  But if we decide that we are successful enough, if we feel successful inside, then the standards of the world can never affect us.

There’s one verse that I want to suggest that we carry in our heart over this Labor Day Weekend.  It’s John 5:30, where Jesus says, “I seek not to do my own will but the will of the One who sent me.”  One translation puts it, “My work is not to do what I want to do, but what God wants me to do.”  What a novel definition of work, that our work is to do what God wants us to do, to live our lives to the glory of God.

In 1883 two young medical students graduated from the University of Michigan.  They were best friends, and they had been talking for months about their future.

“Come on Will.” Come to New York with me.  We’ll make a great team.  We’ll set up a partnership.  There are a lot of wealthy people there–we’ll have it made in no time.”

“I’m sorry Ben,” Will said, but the more I think about…I really want to practice with you, but I don’t think New York is for me.”

“Well, at least come East with me.  We’ll go to Europe, meet some beautiful, rich women.  With our talent, we can’t miss.”

Will was silent for a moment then said, “It’s a tempting picture you paint, Ben, but it’s not what I want.  I want to be a great surgeon.  But I want to serve my people back home.  These people need good doctors too–even if they can’t always pay.  No, I think I should go home to Minnesota and give them all the help I can.”

Well, you probably are getting ahead of me.  Ben went to Manhattan.  Will went to Minnesota, where he and his father, a GP, gave themselves to minister to the sick of the small towns and farms in and around Rochester.  In the years that followed nothing more was heard of Ben.  Undoubtedly he lived out his life as he wanted.  Undoubtedly, he made a lot of money.  As for young Will, he and his younger brother, Charles, built the Mayo Clinic.  And the world came to him.

There is something inside us that does not let us rest as long as we are living–and working–only for ourselves.  There is something that beckons us to a life that is joyfully and gratefully given away.

“My work,” Jesus said, “is to the will of the one who sent me.”   The possibility of meaningful and successful work lies within the reach of each of us.  That kind of work involves finding some need and filling it, finding some hurt and healing it.  When we do that, when we have aligned our work with God’s will for our lives, we will find our place, our role, our destiny.  And, we will be pleased with ourselves, and I think, make God smile.

Categories: Pastor's Message

Ira Hayes, An Arizona Pima Native, A Marine WWII Hero

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Ira Hayes was born into a Presbyterian Family in Sacaton, Arizona, on the Pima Indian Reservation south of Chandler, east of now I-10 in 1923. In 1942 Ira joined the Marines and became a paratrooper, graduating from Parachute Training School in November 1942.

After several assignments fighting the Japanese, he helped capture Mount Suribachi, Iwo Jima. Ira was one of the six Marines that raised the Stars and Stripes on Mount Suribachi on February 28, 1945. An AP photographer took the photo of the flag raising which became one of the most published front cover photos on magazines during the war.

One of the six Marines was Harlon Black who was killed on Iwo Jima in March 1945. (Remember this for more details later in the story).

Ira and two flag raisers were sent to Washington D.C. per President Roosevelt to promote the sale of war bonds to help pay for the war. People would recognize Ira and, “Come on, let me buy you a drink”. For several years an Indian could not buy alcohol. Like many white people, they could not hold the spirits but that did not stop them from using alcohol.

Ira was discharged from active duty December 1, 1945 and returned to the Pima Reservation and attempted to lead a normal civilian life. “I kept getting hundreds of letters, people would drive through the reservation, walk up to me and ask, “Are you the Indian who raised the flag on Iwo Jima?”. So use your imagination for the next gesture.” Ira rarely spoke about the flag raising, but talked more about his service as a Marine with great pride. Ira was bothered mentally about his buddies that never made it back stateside alive.

Ira was disturbed that Harlon Block was misrepresented in the flag raising photo with another name. He walked and hitchhiked 1,300 miles to Weslaco, Texas from the Gila River Indian Community to Edward Block’s (Harlon’s father) farm to reveal the truth about their son. The Blocks were grateful for Ira’s efforts. They and Ira were instrumental in getting the mistake resolved by the Marine Corps in 1947.

In 1949 Ira appeared as himself in the Sands of Iwo Jima with John Wayne. After this, Ira was unable to hold a job for a long period as he had become an alcoholic. He was arrested 52 times for intoxication.

Over 100 years ago the Gila River Pima Reservation farmed with water from the Gila river, which comes from the Arizona eastern state line with New Mexico and flows into the Colorado near Yuma. White man constructed Coolidge Dam southeast of Globe in 1924-1928 and dried up the farms on the Gila reservation. The tribe raised hay and grain, selling it to the U.S. Army Cavalry for their horses. The tribe was fighting for water so they sent Ira to Washington D.C. to represent the tribe for water. According to the movie “The Outsider”, Ira got drunk and missed the water appointment. Returning to the reservation the tribe disowned him because he had let the tribe down. Then he ran for tribal council and lost.

Now some Johnson history. My father and I had a family small dairy. We had a radio in the milk barn. Every morning at 6:15, station KOY called the Arizona Highway Patrol, M.C.S.O. and Phoenix Police for a night’s action report. One night in January 1955, on it was cold in the open milk barn. So cold the cows should have produced milk-cicles from their teats instead of warm milk. The news come on that Ira Hayes was found dead from exposer on the cold night in the Gila Reservation. He was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

Sometime later, the surviving family members were sent to Arlington for the Memorial Day Services. Ira’s mother said, “This will be a better trip in warmer weather (May)”. Ira was buried February 2, 1955, and it was cold. “Ira did not like cold weather.”

I feel the movie title, “The Outsider” with Tony Curtis was a slap in the face for Ira’s survivors. Our church secretary, Kira, found about 20 pages on the life of Ira. Toward the end of the article on Ira’s life, the story dwells on his problem with alcohol and sometimes my mind drifts away from IRA, AS A MARINE HERO to the tribe’s “Outsider”. I look at the movie title meaning. Ira was a failure and was put outside of the tribe’s daily life. That is my opinion. Think about it.

In closing, I wrote this article about a Presbyterian family member, Arizona Native that served his country in World War II. For the surviving family members of Ira in both of the movies and the life story that Kira found on the computer, would it have been better not to make an issue of Ira’s alcohol problem?

The movie title “THE OUTSIDER”, leaves I my mind that Ira was socially disowned by the tribe. Even if it was true, what good does it do to list Ira’s faults. I would feel better to remember Ira as a WWII hero and not an alcoholic. And probably Ira’s family DID NOT need to be reminded of Ira’s downfall. That is my opinion. Think about it.

Ira, like thousands of other men and women, fought for the freedom that we enjoy. Many lost limbs or even their lives for the American people and it is appreciated today.

Categories: Newsletter

The Mystery of Growth

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Matthew 6:19-34: August 26 2018

“Consider the lilies…how they grow,” Jesus said.    There are many wondrous mysteries in the world, none more intriguing than the marvelous mystery of growth, that silent, invisible, universal process occurring through eons of time in forest and field, in rivers and seas.  Without that, our planet would be like Mars, red dust and rocks here and there dotting the barren landscape.

Growth–we’re so accustomed to it that we don’t think about it much.  Maybe the scientists in the laboratories do, but for the most part we don’t.  It is so much part of life that we never stop to ponder its intriguing mystery.

Have you ever considered the lilies–how they grow…how anything grows?  A seed sprouts up and becomes a rose,  an infinitesimally small egg becomes a child, then a man, then a profound thinker who can reflect on life’s mysteries.

Here’s how one man who has a way with words considers the mysteries and miracles of this process of growth:

“I remember the red gullies, the broom straw, the fields of corn stubble in the Mecklenburg November, and in the spring, the daffodils that still bloom by the hundreds under a certain Orange County oak.”

“I remember the bobolinks and buntings, and mockingbirds mocking, loblolly pines and live oaks hung with moss, the taste of scuppernongs from the vines my father planted.

“ I remember making a slingshot from the fork of a persimmon tree and hunting rabbits with it along the creek bed.  Those rabbits were as safe as if they’d been in their mother’s arms.  I never hit a one.”

That man describing nature’s bounteous miracle, of course, is Charles Kurault, and I fancy that he would like the subject we are considering today.

The mystery of growth is so profound that we have no language to describe it.  The biologists, of course, are trying.  They look at cells under the microscope and describe their function.  They map the human genome.  They can tell us about the basic building blocks of life, how we human beings share the same basic stuff of the humble protozoa, but they can’t answer the question, “How does it grow?  Why does it grow?  What gives it that “umpff” to grow?”  Some people say, “Mother Nature made it all happen. “ And maybe, without knowing it, they are giving a theological answer, for there is a mother soil in which all living things are nourished.  Some call it “Mother Nature.”  Others call it “God.”

And this is the reason the Sermon on the Mount has a depth that is not readily apparent.  It isn’t just a series of wise sayings about life, but rather a revelation telling us about the essential nature of life.  Underlying every utterance of Jesus is his fundamental conviction that everything that lives is rooted deeply in the providence of God, is enveloped by it, enfolded it, dependent upon it, and apart from it nothing can exist.

So in these few fragmentary sayings about birds and grass and lilies of the field, there’s a  profound insight about mystery of growth.


It’s evident in the area of physical growth.  In our hallway we have a series of pencil marks.  We measure our grand children each time they come out.  My wife said to our oldest grandson this year, “My goodness, Liam, look how much you’ve grown in a year.”

None of us can force growth.  It’s out of our hands.  Of course, that principle does not apply to the growth of our waistlines.

Look at the plant world.  “Consider the lilies, how they grow…”  Consider it.  Drop a seed into the soil, and you see how instantly it is surrounded and enveloped in a providential process involving the total universe.  Ninety three million miles away the sun beams down, the earth turns, the seasons come, the tides move in an out with the pull of the moon, the warm air rises from the oceans in an elaborate air-conditioning system of condensation and evaporation; the lightning flash releases the nourishing nitrogen, drops it to earth in the rainstorm, and our tiny seed is nourished.  Each little flower that opens reminds us of the elemental forces of nature always silently at work.


Jesus might have said, “Consider the children, how they grow” This is equally a mystery.  How does a boy go about growing up?  It’s the quietest thing you ever saw.  He takes no thought of it.  He has his mind on other things, baseball games, and capturing lightning bugs and swimming at the lake. And all the while something is happening to him.  His sleeves get too shot, his pants don’t fit anymore.  And his grandma looks at him and says, “Land sakes, you are growing like a weed.”  And he stands there looking a little sheepish.  He doesn’t know why he’s growing; he just is.  He hasn’t intended it or planned it.

Like the lilies of the field you and I are enveloped in a providential arrangement that takes care of our growth. Doctors don’t understand it; they can tell you how it may be stunted or stimulated, but the process itself is beyond their knowing–a secret that nature keeps all to herself.


Move up the ladder to the rung of mental growth, the kind of growing that is more interesting than adding inches to our stature.  What is it that propels our minds to grow, to cause us want to explore music, and books, and technology?  We don’t sit down one day and say, “I want to be smarter.”  No, we see something that interests us, and we tackle it.  We want to master it.

How do our minds grow?  A lot like the lilies.  We can’t grow intellectually by trying to grow.  Instead, we walk down some trail of fascinating thought.  We climb the stairway of wonder.  We set our minds to tackle a task too big for them to grasp, and our minds stretch and expand.  Like Columbus, we go out seeking a continent and a lot of other continents rise up in our paths.

Just think for a moment how our minds have been expanded in our life-time in the area of space travel.  We take it as common-place that people go to the moon or circle the earth in a space capsule.  We land a rover  on Mars that can send back photos with incredible precision.  I asked a friend the other day if he ever thought we would land human beings on Mars, and he began to calculate, “Let’s see, it would take two years out, and two years back, and enough fuel for the round trip.”  To be sure, the astro-physicists are thinking about it, computing its requirements.  So our minds are stretched as we follow new knowledge, new vistas, new planets to explore.  And we know that God has many things yet to reveal to the inquisitive mind of seeking persons.


When we arrive at the highest and holiest place of the human spirit, the principle we have been talking about still holds true.  How do we grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ?  How do we add new dimensions to our moral and spiritual nature.  I need not remind you that this has become the pressing question of our age–spiritual maturity.  Where do we find people wise enough in  mind, big enough in soul, perceptive enough in vision to handle the mighty problems of our dangerous world.  There aren’t many questions as important as that.

Like all other growth, spiritual growth can’t be forced.  It comes as a by-product, something that happens to us as we reach for something else.  And this is the secret of worship, why we Christians believe so stubbornly in worship when so many people have forgotten the worth of it.  For worship is the soul of a human being reaching up for the greatness of God.

Alfred North Whitehead, that great process philosopher, was fond of saying that moral education is impossible apart from the habitual vision of greatness.  And that’s what worship is–the habitual vision of greatness, the time-exposure of the human soul to the highest that we know.  We tend inevitably to grow into the likeness of that to which we give our devotion.

When we visited the Sistine Chapel the visitors craned their necks to look upward at Michelangelos frescoes.    Someone visiting the gallery said he didn’t know what was more impressive, to look at the paintings or watch the crowd as they gazed at it.  Invariably, he said, everyone who stood in the Sistine Chapel o began to straighten up, to put back their shoulder, and stand a little taller, the lifting power of beauty.

I think this is what the Bible is about from beginning to end…little people looking up, people like you and me, who one day, like Isaiah in the temple saw the Lord high and lifted up (Isaiah 6:1).  And in seeing the greatness of God, Isaiah became greater himself.

Well, this is the glory of the gospel.  In a time when everything around is causing us to look down, the Christian faith is asking us to look up. To give our devotion to something greater than our little lives.  And the Glory of Christ is that he puts no ceiling on human life. He knows the potential greatness of our soul.  He brings us, one by one, face to face with God.  And when that happens, we will stand tall…and rise high…and grow into the kind of people we are meant to be.

Categories: Weekly Sermon


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Savannah Rodriguez, Carsyn Tupper and Megan O’Kelly were received into the church on Easter Sunday as our communicants class.

Categories: Newsletter

The Big Event

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The Presbyteries of Grand Canyon and de Cristo are proud to present our annual Big Event, Saturday, August 25 from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Tucson. This day-long educational experience has 26 workshops from which to choose ranging from Empowering Servant Leadership to Clerk of session training to dealing with the Opioid Health Crisis to Effective Church Websites and many more! Choose 3 from the list and join fellow Presbyterians from both presbyteries in learning ways to enrich your Christian journey! Join us for worship and meet new friends from across the state. You can purchase a boxed lunch as a part of your $10 registration. For a complete list of workshops and to register, visit the Presbytery website at or . Class size is limited, so register today to ensure you get your top choices! See you August 25 at St. Andrew’s PC, 7650 N Paseo Del Norte, Tucson. (And don’t forget to invite your friends!)

Click here to register

Link to list of Workshops can be found here


Categories: Newsletter

102 years and counting

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The church helped Lester Dray celebrate his 102nd birthday on July 22. As the highlight of the worship service Lester played some of his favorites: “I Come to the Garden Alone”, “Heavenly Sunshine” and as a tribute to his late wife, Sybil, “I’ll Be Loving You”. Lester’s daughter, Susan, and granddaugh- ter, Sadie (Sarah), were in town to honor Lester.

Sunday July 22nd, was a special day at P.P.C. Lester Dray made it special as he said goodbye to 101 years “young” and ushers in his 102nd birthday on July 23rd. Different hymns took the place of the regular readings that opened the worship service. Then Sadie Dawson (Sarah Dawson’s granddaughter) and a friend D’Shay sang a beautiful duet. Then

it was time for Lester to play the piano with a medley of different songs. His daughter, Susan, and granddaughter, Sadie, helped him to the piano.

Lester’s vision and hearing are failing, but that did not stop him from playing. There was no music in front of him and he kept colored glasses on so that gave it away that he was playing by ear and memory for maybe 10 minutes. With the health failures mentioned, Lester’s mind is still as sharp as a tack. Thank you Lester for being a part of the P.P.C. family.

After worship most the congregation went to the fellowship hall for the 102 birthday party of cake and five gallons of homemade ice cream. Maybe the crowd

hated to see the five gallons melt on a hot day because I got home with less than

one gallon of melted ice cream. That made me fell good that the crowd liked my “cooking” or freezing is a better word.

We are honored to have guests attend from France and Holland. Folks, what I am saying is this, It was a special day for all of us, for a special person. This does not happen every day. We’re honored with a reason for the season.

Thank you Lester for giving us the privilege to celebrate your special day. We love you and your family.

Categories: Newsletter