Author: AJ Langston

Save the Date

Save the Date – June 20th

We are having a Fundraiser at Barro’s Pizza!  We want everyone to get together for a lot of fun and fellowship.  It is on June 20th, from 4:00 PM to Close with 20% of all proceeds going directly to the church.  Barro’s is located at 83rd Ave and Cactus.  We look forward to seeing all of you there to share in the laughs, camaraderie and of course, delicious pizza!

Categories: Newsletter

Super Sized Faith Demo

Message Delivered on February 7, 2016

Luke 9:28-36; 37-43a “Super Sized Faith Demo”

We all know its Super-Sunday, the granddaddy of all gargantuan sporting events–super-sized, America’s high holy day of the year–at least, in the sports’ world. Super Sunday is complete with celebrities, glamour, at least 10,000+ calories per serving of nachos, million dollar television commercials, and–of course–football!

The Super Bowl (we are having “Souper” Bowl to benefit the hungry) and all of the hoopla that leads up to it for weeks, is nearly a national holiday.

This year’s extravaganza will feature the stylistic contrast in quarterbacks Payton Manning and Cam Newton, with a side-order of Beyonce, Bruno Mars, and Coldplay at halftime. Behold, it is also the game’s golden anniversary, hosted by San Francisco’s “Golden” Gate hospitality. Two teams are vying for the coveted Lombardi trophy, but in many ways, it is much more than a game.

Super Bowl coincides with a biblical dazzling spectacle, that of Jesus’ mountaintop transfiguration. The transfiguration demands our attention in a way that surpasses the best football game. This year the NFL may have Manning and Beyonce, but they are no match for the celebrity posse that Jesus summons on the mountain. It is no costume change, no wardrobe malfunction, when Jesus is illumined as if a lightening bolt has struck him. Even Moses and Elijah have cameo appearances.

News flash: The 2015 Super Bowl had 114 million television viewers tune in to see Tom Brady and the New England Patriots beat the Seattle Seahawks in a down-to-the-wire finish. It was a spectacle packed with food offerings, music and eye-popping pyrotechnics. It is a good thing kick-off is in the afternoon or people would be busy looking at their watches, praying the sermon will not be long. Super Bowl is an over-hyped combination of sports, celebrities and money. Super Bowl week is a seven day circus celebrating excess, tolerating stupidity and drawing all kinds of people into the mix. What is overlooked is the true cost of this event. Football players suffer brain and other injuries. Yet for all of the consequences and glory–football is just a game–even when the players lives are at stake.

Like God’s declaration at Jesus’ baptism in Luke 3:21-22, the transfiguration account discloses Jesus’ identity as God’s Son. Any doubts are put to rest. Luke reminds us that Jesus conducted his own poll among the disciples (Luke 9:18-20), but he was equally stern in admonishing them to avoid disclosing his identity. He prepared the disciples for their own transformation by reminding them of the true costs associated with being a disciple.

After sharing all of this, Jesus took Peter, James and John up the mountain. It was a game-changer, an invitation to spend time alone in prayer with Jesus. It was a prayer beyond all expectations as Jesus’ clothes became dazzling white. The brilliance of his appearance was the confirmation of his divine stature. The show continued as Moses and Elijah appeared out of nowhere. There was no celebrity emcee introducing the Old Testament heroes. The disciples seemed to understand that their appearance affirmed the important continuity of Jesus’ mission with the narrative of Israel’s faithful history.

Peter was not like many church leaders. He sprang into action to propose a building project. Habitat for Humanity would love to have people with his enthusiasm. He wanted to capture the glorious moment. God’s voice thundered, “This is my Son, my Chosen.” declared God. “Listen to him!”

Peter is invited to pay attention to what is truly transformative. It is much more than a ground-shaking religious experience. Pay heed to what happens next. The disciples go down the mountain and encounter a man who begs Jesus to heal his epileptic son. It is this healing that discloses God’s glory. All are amazed, astounded, and led to greater belief, not only because of the spectacle on the mountain, but because they have responded to God’s invitation. Listening to Jesus, they begin to let his words sink into their ears.

Like Peter, we may understand the excitement generated by “mountaintop” moments of pure, undiluted spiritual energy. There is more to this than a fireworks or special effects display. God invites the disciples to not just “do something” but to stand there and listen. It is through moments of prayer that faithfulness and courage are revealed. Paul Galbreath notes, “While faith does include defining and transformational moments…Luke connects prayer to the sense of identity and a clearer understanding of God’s call. What is essential to this particular moment is the way prayer reveals a call to a deeper understanding of discipleship.”

For Luke, it all takes place the next day when the disciples are astounded by God’s glory. The journey away from the mountain could actually be as transforming as what they envisioned when atop the mountain. The pace was different on the way home: “On the next day, when they had come down from the mountain,” was when ministry began to happen. Prayer on the mountaintop led Jesus to the encounter of a boy who needed healing. This is what it means to “Listen to him.”

It is easy to remember a touchdown at the very last seconds of the game, but what happens the next day may be more significant. It was at that moment, Luke reminds us, that the disciples were astounded by the greatness of God. It is in the work of coming down from the mountaintop and facing the pressing reality of human misery that the greatness of God shines–in Jesus, of course, but also in the faith and action of his disciples. Are you going to score any touchdowns for Jesus?

Amen.

Categories: Weekly Sermon

Responding to the Call

Message Delivered on January 31, 2016

Jeremiah 1:4-10; Luke 4:21-30 “Responding to the Call”

As you were growing up and even now, when someone asked you to do a job that you did not like or felt unqualified to do, how did you feel? Did you make up excuses to attempt to get “off the hook?”

Imagine the prophet Jeremiah being called by God to warn the people of Judah (Southern Kingdom of the Hebrews) around 600 B.C. that they had better turn from their evil ways or face serious consequences. How does one deliver a doom and gloom message to repent–before it is too late? Jeremiah conveyed the message for forty years! When Jeremiah objected to his calling, God told him that even before he was born, he was chosen (destined) to be a prophet to carry God’s message to the people. How do you refuse to accept God’s assignment? God will equip Jeremiah and put words into his mouth as the spokesperson for God.

About 630 years later, Jesus was standing in the synagogue at Nazareth on a Sabbath, a hometown boy. All the eyes were fixed on him as he read from Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.” Jesus then closed the scroll and gave it back to the attendant, and sat down.

Jesus was formally presenting the assignment he had come to fulfill on earth. The Word of God is not always pleasant to hear. It does not massage the status quo at the expense of the truth. People do not want their turf invaded, not even by a hometown boy. It has been said that “one of the greatest pains to human nature is the pain of a new idea.”

The citizens of Nazareth considered themselves the favored people and they resented Jesus taking God’s Word of grace to others beyond Nazareth, especially to Capernaum because Capernaum was heavily populated by non-Jews. Dr. Bownell, a Presbyterian minister of another generation, said that “Jesus was favorably received by his townsfolk until he challenged the provincial, racial prejudice. Jesus dared to declare that the children of Israel were not special favorites of God.” The heavenly Father had singled out individuals in places like Sidon and Syria for unparalleled blessings and that caused an uproar. The people were angry and set out to do away with Jesus. The people in Nazareth fell into the error of thinking to destroy Jesus would also destroy the Word of truth. They failed to understand that truth is indestructible (Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life.)

What the people heard that day was not what they wanted to hear from “their” Messiah. Even today there is often a wide discrepancy between the Jesus of Scripture and the Jesus propagated in American culture. Fast Lane magazine conducted a survey in which people were asked whose lives they would most like to emulate? Lt. Col. Oliver North placed first, President Reagan second, and actor Clint Eastwood (“Make my day!”) was third. Jesus Christ tied for fourth place with Chrysler chairman, Lee Iococca.

Today’s Scripture directs us to deal honestly with ourselves. Dr. Benjamin Spock stood up for his ideas even when they were not popular writing, “I got my most basic beliefs–in the sense of unthinking attitude rather than rational credos–from my stern, moralistic, unyielding mother. She was not all grim, though. She had a great sense of humor, was a hilarious mimic, and was invariably charming to outsiders as she was severe with her children. Her scorn was withering. During World War I my parents decided to conserve wool and I had to wear one of my father’s cast-off suits, almost black, floppy, cuff less and exactly the opposite of what youth were wearing. I said, “Everybody at school will laugh at me.” My mother replied, “You ought to be ashamed of yourself for worrying about what people will think. Don’t you know that it does not matter what people will think as long as you know you are right?” “When I was fifteen and peer pressure enormous, I did not believe her.”

It does not matter what others think as long as you are right may cause rejection. You may find yourself in the midst of controversy but Jesus handled the controversy by walking through it.

As you begin the transition and transformation of who you are as a church, and what you want to become as you search for a new pastor in shared ministry, there may be some disagreements along the way. You need to hold fast to the fact that Jesus Christ is the way, the truth and the life. In Christ hangs the destiny of us all. He is the way, the way out, the way home, the only way that matters. If you follow the way that Jesus leads you, you will be successful in following God’s plan to find a new minister and to develop your mission plan for the future. If you follow Jesus’ lead, you will grow as a church spiritually and in number. If you reject him, it can lead to nowhere.

“Come to me,” Jesus said. Jesus is not a way of escaping the world but of loving the world. We are to answer his call and follow him even though the world calls us in a hundred different directions. A poem by an unknown author sums it up well:

To laugh is to risk appearing the fool.

To weep is to risk appearing sentimental.

To reach out for another is to risk involvement.

To expose feelings is to risk exposing your true self.

To place your ideas, your dreams, before a crowd is to risk their loss.

To love is to risk not being loved in return.

To live is to risk dying.

To hope is to risk despair.

To try is to risk failure.

But risks must be taken, because the greatest hazard in life is to risk

nothing.

The person who risks nothing, does nothing, has nothing, and is

nothing.

They may avoid suffering and sorrow, but they cannot learn, feel,

change, grow, love, live.

Chained by their attitudes, they are a slave, they have forfeited their

freedom.

Only a person who risks is free.

To that end, I say, Amen.

Categories: Weekly Sermon

Different but Same

Message Delivered on January 24, 2016

I Corinthians 12:12-31a “Different but Same”

Organ transplants have been saving lives for years and now we can check a box when applying for our driver’s license, so that our organs will be harvested upon death. Saving another’s life comes at great cost, someone has to die in order for another to have life and hope. Doctors and scientists have been working to eliminate the high costs of rejection medicines by regenerating body parts from a patient’s own tissues, thus eliminating the need for a donor and dramatically increasing the body’s ability to assimilate the new part as its own. We used to think that this was Science-Fiction!!

Scientists have been able to generate noses, ears and blood vessels in laboratories by creating a “scaffold,” a mold of sorts, in the proper shape. They place some of the patient’s own cells on the scaffold and put everything in an environment that will give the cells proper nutrition and optimum growth conditions. The cells multiply and form a new nose, for example. The results are promising with a low rejection rate and the parts function like the original part–a true replacement. Doctors are working on techniques for more complicated body parts like kidneys, lungs and livers.

Paul uses the body as an illustration for the church and seeks to find ways each part of the body will function best. In the 1960s, Avery and Marsh wrote a song: “I am the church, you are the church. We are the church together . All who follow Jesus, all around the world, yes we’re the church together.” I would combine the refrain with the old finger play: “Here are the doors and here is the steeple, open the doors and see all the people.”

A church is composed of many people with varying parts having various gifts. Some gifts are preaching, teaching, business sense, caring for family, homes and each member of the church.

Rather than ranking the gifts of the Spirit, Paul gives an example by comparing each member of the church to members of a body. A group of believers, according to Paul, is greater than the sum of its parts: a new mathematical equation defying the norm. We are a group of different parts assembled by God to represent Christ to the greater community. On the surface, we might appear to be a loose collection of people united by geography. It reminds me of a movie I saw this weekend, “The Replacements,” which took place during the football strike in the 1980s. A coach put together a “rag tag” team of players who were “has beens” and they went on to win a championship.

We all come to the same church every Sunday because it is close to our homes, or because we like the choir, or the minister does not usually give long sermons, or the food is delicious at Coffee Hour. We selectively get involved in Presbyterian Women, or Youth Group, or teach Sunday school, or work with the children in some way. Maybe you rake leaves, or trim trees, or decorate the church, or help with the annual cleaning of the facilities. You get involved as much or as little as you like.

When the church no longer seems to meet our needs, we disagree with the statements the elders, deacons or pastor has made and stop attending, withdraw financial support, or transfer to another church. Simply put, detach from the body and join another that is perceived to be a good or better fit. Sometimes folks feel that they do not quite fit in and are unwanted or rejected, like a body rejecting a transplant, they feel cut off from the rest of the group.

Church membership is different from a book club or gym membership. We do not just “show up” to have our needs met. Church membership is not like a loyalty card at Fry’s or Safeway. We do not join to receive frequent worship blessings. We are not stockholders whose time of service and financial investment necessarily give us a say in setting the direction of the church’s future.

Paul is demanding a deeper commitment from each of us. Our connection to one another in Christ is much more than to a grocery store or social club. We are eyes, ears, feet and hands, parts of the body of Christ, dependent upon each other. We function best when we realize that despite our differences, we all need to work together toward the same goal.

Paul had no idea what modern scientists would do to regenerate body parts but his idea still works today. Each of our individual gifts is necessary to fulfill the work of the whole body. Some of us are talkers, others thinkers. Some are planners and others are doers. Some of us find energy by reaching out to the poor and needy or ministering to the youth by teaching Sunday school or helping with Youth Group. Some are excited about the music that draws people here on Sunday morning or are inspired by the preached Word of God and how it can apply to their own lives. Some get excited by calling and visiting shut-ins or those outside of our walls to extend Christ’s love. God has assembled us into the body just the way God wants, to enable us to work together to serve Christ in all that we do.

Our Christian DNA makes us one (Different but Same). We have different gifts that come from the same Holy Spirit uniting us into one body. Our cells come together as the church and we are more than our individual selves. We are collectively part of a glorious organism that serves as Christ’s representative to the world. We may be shaped differently, but we are made up of the same stuff, created in the image of God, redeemed by the blood of Christ, and strengthened and renewed by the Holy Spirit.

Each of us needs to accept our role, celebrate others whose roles are different from ours, and work for the common good of our calling in the Holy Spirit of God. Rejoice in our differences and remember the gift of the Holy Spirit living in us. Let us vow to work together to share the love of Jesus with our community and beyond.

Amen.

Categories: Weekly Sermon

Message Delivered on January 17, 2016

Message Delivered on January 17, 2016

I Corinthians 12:1-11

Last Sunday I spoke about the promises God has graced us with in the Sacrament of Baptism and upon ordination and installations of officers, we renewed our baptismal promises. God has blessed each of us, called us beloved, and commissioned us to be servants of love; to offer blessings to others. The gifts of the Holy Spirit given to us at baptism change us, mark us as Christians and compel us to share with the world, to be a blessing to others.

You have or will receive a letter in the mail that I sent to announce my retirement. It was a decision I made at a retirement seminar last March and voiced to the presbytery in October, but I wanted to be with you in the Advent season, to spend one more last Christmas with you. It is my hope to prepare you for the transition that will take place as you search for a new pastor.

Sometimes the lectionary seems to wander astray but this week’s passages are timely. The apostle Paul has gifted us with the Scripture in I Corinthians 12:1-11. It is an appeal to the church in Corinth to be united and single-minded in their purpose. He discusses the particulars of how this should be accomplished, and the unity to be achieved, despite the diversity of gifts from the Holy Spirit and human opinion. All of us have work to do.

Some of our work involves pumping our own gas, booking our travel arrangements, even assembling furniture. My dad used to say that I got my apprentice carpenter’s card from assembling Sauder furniture kits while in college. In years gone by, we pulled up to the filling station and an attendant rushed out to fill our gas tanks, wash our windows and take our payment for the fuel. Remember that? The first time I ever pumped my own gas my friend, Gwen, whom you have met and cared for me during my knee replacement recovery, told me that I could do it–“It’s easy,” she said. She put on her cotton work gloves that she kept in a baggie in her purse, took off my gas cap and began to pump the gas into my car, telling me, “Okay, you take over.” Today only New Jersey and Oregon continue to have attendants pump the gas of customers. I discovered that when I visited my cousin in Oregon last summer.

In years gone by, a number of tasks were done by people we paid but now we do them to save money. That is “Shadow work.” Shadow work is the unpaid jobs that fill up our days. Those jobs take lots of our time. The DIY

(Do It Yourself) approach might be empowering but it can exhaust us. We turn to the computer and technology to assist us. I say that technology is great when and if it works! But technology forces us to interact more with computers and cell phones than with other humans and at unreasonable hours. How do we spend our time? Do we differentiate what is most urgent and what is most important? Answering e-mail, texts, twitter and face book is not as important as attending our children’s/grandchildren’s soccer, basketball, baseball or football games. We need to prioritize family and friends.

I explained last week that in our baptism we become family united and empowered to do God’s work by the Holy Spirit. My favorite ordination/installation question is “Will you seek to serve the people with energy, intelligence, imagination and love?” Almost all of you have answered that question upon ordination as deacons and elders. Once an elder and deacon, always an elder and deacon.

Paul encourages us to focus on “Spirit work” that we can accomplish as members of the body of Christ. Paul does not want us to be led astray by the worldly enticements of today, rather to be concerned with what is important; to utilize the gifts of the Spirit that equip us for service and activities that God inspires us to engage in for the building up of the Christian community, the church.

The work we have comes to us from a divine source: to work for the common good, to move from shadow work (things we do for ourselves) to Spirit work (work done for others). How does that work look? We are given wisdom and knowledge expressly for that work. New Testament scholar, C.K. Barrett, says that the “Utterance of wisdom might deal with ethical matters while the utterance of knowledge includes theological matters.” Ethics talks about what we should do and theology talks about what we should believe. Doing and believing are important work that serves the common good. (Spirit Work!) Thom Schultz, founder of Group Publishing, says that the biggest complaint people who no longer want to go to church anymore is that church people are hypocrites. No one wants to go to a church where people say one thing and then do another.

· We cannot just say we love our neighbors, we have to perform acts of love.

· We cannot simply believe in forgiveness; we must forgive those who hurt us.

· We cannot just talk about justice; we have to do justice.

If we are going to attract people to church, we need to act in ethical ways, concrete actions that give people an experience of the love of God. People come to church to be reassured that God is real, present today and active in the lives of members of the Christian community.

The gifts of the Holy Spirit are tools in the believers’ toolbox. The skills range from healing to the interpretation of spiritual languages. All the gifts are activated by the one and same Spirit. Sometimes a gift of healing is simply listening to a friend in crisis on the telephone, offering words of encouragement, and keeping a friend afloat with a little financial boost. That hand-up might even be seen as the working of a miracle by a troubled friend and build up their sense of Christian community.

We need to clear away the shadow work that clutters our lives so that the gifts of the Spirit can be put to use. We need to look at each other in the eye and engage in real conversation that shows the love of God and how we can be the church in this community. You will need to discern what goals you have as a church in the next one to three years, five years and ten years. That will be important as you seek a new pastor to walk with you in shared ministry.

The good news about Spirit work is that it energizes all of you and connects you to one another. Instead of feeling exhausted and isolated (I have done all the jobs at church before and I am tired–it is somebody else’s turn), you can being to experience inspiration, community and unity.

Energy. Connection. Inspiration. Community. Unity. These are the benefits of replacing shadow work with Spirit work. Claim the gifts of the Holy Spirit given to you and put them into action with energy, intelligence, imagination and love. You will continue to be blessed and to grace others with the blessings that God has so richly bestowed upon you.

Amen.

Categories: Weekly Sermon

Quid Pro Quo or Not

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Message Delivered on September 6, 2015

Proverb s 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23   “Quid Pro Quo or Not”

Today’s reading in Proverbs opens with the admonition that “a good name is to be chosen rather than great riches,” meaning that a good reputation is a valuable asset.  Considered a portion of “wisdom literature,” Proverbs emphasizes repeatedly that one’s place in society and before God directly reflects the degree of a person’s wisdom: wise persons are held in esteem by others and are honored by God; shame is for the foolish, immoral and indolent.  Riches are not despised in Proverbs, but they are prioritized and coveting them has often proved to be the undoing of otherwise sensible people.

 

There is a cartoon of a man and a woman eating dinner in a seafood restaurant.  The man said to the woman, “I will give you a bite of my calamari for one of your stuffed shrimp.”  The caption below said, “Squid pro quo.”  That is easier to explain that the Latin phrase, “Something for something” or you do something for me and I will do something for you.  You scratch my back and I will scratch yours, “Quid pro quo.” ” Quid pro quo” is essentially the basis of commerce. Think of it this way: I pull up at McDonalds, drive through, order, pay money and get a bag of food in return.  Some organizations use “Quid pro quo” as a fundraising tool:  give a contribution and get a coffee mug, t-shirt or cap with the organization’s logo.  If you give a big enough gift, they might name a building or wing after you.  Morally and ethically speaking, “Quid pro quo” itself is neutral but can be positive or negative.

 

Proverbs 22:9 speaks of doing good and loving God, “Those who are generous are blessed, for they share their bread with the poor.”  No “Quid pro quo.”  Some are blessed but not in any you-do-it-for-me-because-I-did-it-for-you way. The “payback,” if that is the correct word, for sharing bread with the poor is exactly that…sharing with the poor.  Giving is its own reward.  The point of the proverb is that serving God has no “Quid pro quo”; serving God is its own reward.  Jesus implied the same thing with what we call the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” (Luke 6:31).  My brother and I would say, “Do it to others before they do it to you.”  In reality, Jesus was calling for a standard of behavior that is its own reward: Do to others as you would have them do to you, whether or not they actually treat you that way.  It is not simply “Do your Christian duty to others even if you never receive any appreciation from the recipients.”  It is more…doing good for others is a way of loving God. 

 

Author Gary Chapman has written about love languages with God.  Participating in services of worship is not the only way to tell God of your love.  Another exciting way to show love for God is by doing things for the kingdom.  I have had life insurance through a Christian company most of my life.  Last months’ newsletter printed a list of ways to serve God in the kingdom–to do mission in the community. Mission is tri-fold.  It can be giving of time, talent or money.  In an age where everyone is asking/ needing money, it was refreshing to see a list of ways to show love to God by serving others.  As the holidays approach, form a team and ring the bell for the Salvation Army–it will give you  joy to know you are helping others when maybe you cannot afford to write a check, but can throw a handful of change into the red kettle and ring the bell until your arm aches and your heart swells. Other things:  adopt a neighbor, become a volunteer, support the homeless, pass along clothing for special occasions (those bridesmaid’s dresses that groups ask to give teens to wear to the prom who cannot afford a dress), volunteer at a public library, send notes to heroes, support the arts in your town, plant a tree, give up your seat, reach out to an old friend, mentor a child, give away stuff you do not need, and offer the gift of babysitting.

 

When we spend time in service, the time for worship comes and we realize we have been in God’s presence all along.  This is the kind of blessing the text is talking about and is pictured on the bulletin cover today: those who are generous are blessed” (Proverbs 22:9).

 

It can be argued that some folks claim the reward for doing a good deed is being “turned on” (I want to think they are turned on for serving God).  In an old television “Friends” episode, Phoebe and Joey discuss the merits of doing good deeds.  Joey insists that since such actions make the doer feel good, the deeds are, in fact, selfish.  He says that selfless good deeds do not exit; the good feeling is the “reward.”

 

Phoebe sets out to prove him wrong by purposely doing good things from which she receives no enjoyment–but she cannot escape some inner satisfaction from the good she did.  The point is for those of us who try to follow Jesus, “What we will get out of it” ought not to be the motivating factor in helping someone.  Both the proverb and the Golden Rule call us to do the right deed without consideration of personal benefit.

 

Jesus never condemned the idea of being rewarded for doing good  He told us not to seek a reward by doing good.  In the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) Jesus said, “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven” (Matthew 6:1).  Act without seeking a reward here, wait for the reward in heaven.  Jesus seems to acknowledge that things people do come with a motive, so let us aim for the highest motive possible: pleasing God.  Whatever motives may be behind our good works, the mainspring of them is to do the will of God.

 

How do we get beyond “Quid pro quo” and as Christians, move to “Quid pro”…NO!  ?  Christ calls us to service.  How do we move beyond “What is in it for me” thinking?  In Acts 4:13 Peter and John spoke of what they had experienced when with Jesus, which enabled them to do what the situation called for.  We can all act without “Quid pro quo” by spending time with Jesus.  We can draw our motivation from participation in worship, Bible study, prayer and other spiritual disciplines influencing our daily thoughts and conversation, causing us to prepare ourselves for right actions. Such actions serve as a tribute to our upbringing, increase the number of our friends, help us to experience self-worth, have pride, meaningfulness and happiness.

 

Like Peter and John, we can live with courage.  “Quid pro quo” becomes “Quid pro No” when we act to please God…and then those around us can flourish because of it.  Amen.

Categories: Weekly Sermon

Products of Technology

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Message Delivered on August 23, 2015

Ephesians 6:10-20

If you have been on a commercial plane at any time in the last twenty-five years, you have been exposed to the Sky Mall catalogue.  The book was full of innovative, yet weird products that most of us really do not need: a sleep mask that plugs into your iPod, a replica Harry Potter wand, or perhaps a voice-recognition grocery list organizer.  Personally, I pore over the weekly grocery ads, select the specials and plan my menus on those products that are available.  It is a bonus when the coupons in the Sunday paper coincide with the store specials.

Alas, Sky Mall filed for bankruptcy and gadgetry is not something people wait to purchase while they are on business trips or family vacations and reunions.  The most appealing of gadgetry has been those which feature wearable technology which leads into today’s text from Ephesians 6:10-20.

 You have all seen ads for the new Smart watch from Apple, activity trackers like Fitbit that you wear on your wrist to assess if you could use more exercise to become healthier, and cameras you can wear from a hat, helmet, shoulder or lapel to be a watchful eye while determining safety/security, or the lack of it.  While a lot of this gadgetry is interesting, most of it is not essential, nor is it a cure-all for the messiness of life.  A Smart watch might make it easier to answer your phone or to check your calendar quickly, but will it prevent/protect you from over scheduling yourself?  Your helmet camera may record exciting videos of some new sports adventure like sky-diving, bungee jumping or rock-climbing and repelling but it will not keep you from bashing into a tree.  Our reliance on technology can get us into trouble, like people who hike with a wristwatch GPS instead of a map and the battery runs out.  What then?

In our era of rapidly developing technology, what would we do if there was wearable technology that never fails, is highly mobile, offers ironclad protection from danger, never runs out of power and is affordable?  Paul offers us an overview of just such a product, and the best thing is  that unlike the defunct Sky Mall catalogue, it is free!  It is a suit of armor that is actually functional.

 

The Greek work for it is “panopoly” which was the light, maneuverable, state-of-the-art armored kit of the Roman legionnaires, who were seen all over the Mediterranean world.  Designed to be used within the virtually impenetrable Roman phalanx, the panopoly featured gadgets with both offensive and defensive capabilities that shielded the empire from outside threats better than any anti-virus software your Smart phone could ever have.

Paul perceived this panopoly as a metaphor for the kind of technology that the church needed to wear in order to survive “the wiles of the devil” and stand against “the rulers, authorities and cosmic powers of the present darkness–and against the spiritual forces of evil in heavenly places.” (We are supposed to be making the world more like the kingdom of heaven right here on earth.)  The church’s enemies are still the powers that seem always poised to invade our lives, upsetting our values and drawing us away from God and each other.  There are plenty of images and invitations on the gadgets we wear and use that are contrary to God’s will, even if you are not looking for them.  My e-mail address has been ypat@hotmail.com for almost twenty years.  It was set up long before the suggested format of lower case and upper case letters, and some numbers or other characters added to the mix.  I get solicitations for merchandise and services I did not know exist, nor do I want them.  The more conveniences our lives have, it seems like we become more complacent about guarding our hearts and minds. 

The apostle Paul is inviting the church to band together to defeat the spiritual enemy that is always ready, willing, and able to strike at us.  Each Roman soldier was protected only so long as he stayed in ranks with his fellow soldiers and kept their shields locked together.  The armor was designed to protect from a frontal attack.  What about the legionnaire’s backside?  His front was facing the enemy unless he broke ranks to fight alone or run–to be vulnerable.  Technology works when it is used in community.  In our highly individualized, cell-phone staring, button-pushing, thumb-twitching world, we do not realize that we are only as good as the community of people around us.  It was not the armor that saved the Roman soldier in battle; it was his connection to the others.

 Paul goes on to describe each piece of wearable technology, that when used together, makes for a strong defense against the forces of evil.  The “belt of truth” is foundational to the strength of any group of people.  The ability to trust each other and to speak the truth is essential to both soldiers and churches.  The “belt of truth” enables the community to “put away falsehood”  that “leaves no room for the devil” to operate.  Truth is most protective of the cohesion of the community of faith.

The “breastplate of righteousness” and “helmet of salvation” are echoes from Isaiah 59:17, where God puts on armor to go out and repay his enemies for their evil.  God’s righteousness and salvation guard our hearts and heads in the knowledge that God has already defeated the enemy through the righteousness and salvation offered by Christ on the cross.  The knowledge of what God has done for us in Jesus, revealed in the “word of God,” helps us to gauge our spiritual health.  It can be like a heart rate monitor app on your Smart phone or Smart watch.  The more we exercise the grace offered to us, the more likely we are to stay strong in the knowledge that we are eternally protected from the arrows of the evil one.

The Roman boot, “caliga,” enabled the legion to keep pace on the march with more precision than the step counter on your belt.  Paul encourages the church to put on “whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.”  The best defense is a good offense, so a church moving outside its walls to preach the gospel of peace in the community through words and actions will be equipped to “stand firm” while moving out into the neighborhood.

The shield was vital to ward off flaming arrows.  Soldiers would have to drop the shield to put out fire and be vulnerable to attack.  The Roman soldiers would soak their leather shields in water to extinguish the fires of enemy arrows before they got out of control.  Faith acts as a shield to guard against the flaming arrows of the evil one.  A strong faith is the result of a church that rallies together in defense of the gospel and holds up to those who are struggling.

The “sword of the Spirit” is the “word of God,”  easy access to Scripture in our pockets and on our wrists.  A sword can slice into the lies of the enemy and can cut us to the heart when we are convicted or our sin.  Scripture helps us to see the enemy’s catalogue of temptations for what they are–worthless junk that is harmful to body and soul.  Sky Mall is on the way out, but technological gadgets are here to stay with new ideas bursting forth all the time.  Truth, righteousness, salvation and faith, together bound by God’s word become a shield to fight off the temptations and evil doings acceptable to the culture around us.  Paul exhorts us to guard our lives in Christ and to put on the gospel armor, each piece put on with prayer (Verse 3 of “Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus”).

Amen.

Categories: Weekly Sermon

Praise the Lord

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Message Delivered on August 16, 2015

 Psalm 111; John 6:51-58     “Praise the Lord!”

You are probably wondering why I would choose to preach on Psalm 111, right in the midst of lectionary passages about Jesus as the Bread of Life—and on a Communion Sunday.  I want to emphasize that everything in the Old Testament points to God at work, preparing the world for Jesus, establishing a new covenant and making it possible for believers to become heirs to Jesus’ righteousness and the promise of eternal life with God.  WOW!  What an awesome God we have to make elaborate, detailed plans to open the gates of heaven to those who put their trust in God.

Hebrew poetry is very different from the style we grew up studying in American and English literature in grade school, high school or college.  We tend to think of poetry as stanzas ending with rhyming words.  The Hebrew poets thought of repetitive ideas as the focus of their literature.  “He has shown his people the power of his works, in giving them the heritage of the nations (111:6). The works of his hands are faithful and just; all his precepts are trustworthy (111:7).”  Everything God has done intentionally to benefit the faithful (and to redeem the unfaithful).  That is God’s promise and is worthy of thanksgiving and praise.  In fact, the psalm opens with “Praise the Lord!” Psalm 112 can be set alongside Psalm 111 to parallel the thoughts that the righteous are rewarded for their faithfulness to God.  God’s blessings endure forever.

Psalm 111 is a carefully crafted, alphabetic acrostic with the Hebrews letters beginning each line.  The subject of the acrostic is the praise of God for all that God is and does.  The theme is developed by 22 lines of Hebrew poetry, each one of which begins with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet. (aleph, bet, gimmel, dalet)  The content of this psalm makes it very clear that it was written by someone who wanted to give thankful testimony about God’s goodness to the worshiping community.

The psalmist begins with a call to the community to praise the Lord (like our traditional “Call to Worship”).  This praise is expected to give attention to the way that God has blessed those who worship and then the psalmist goes on to lead the worshiping community through a litany of confession about the great deeds of God.  Did you ever wonder why the confession comes after the Call to Worship?  The psalmist gives considerable attention to God’s character, which is described as the motivation for the great deeds God does.  The Lord is described as “gracious” and compassionate.  God is a nurturing presence among the people.  “I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go.  I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you” (Genesis 28:15).  “The LORD himself goes before you and will be with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you.  Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged” (Deuteronomy 31:8).  The Lord remembers the covenant promises and always works for the well-being of those who approach in faith.

The psalmist is also concerned about the character of the worshiping community.  He tells them thanks should be offered with the “whole heart,” and we might add “our whole mind.”  The heart in ancient Israel was believed to be the source of human thought.  Deuteronomy 6:5, “Love the LORD your God with all  your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength,” the words of the Shema, which follows the Law of God, the Ten Commandments in Deuteronomy 5.  Every home had a copy of the Shema in the Mezzuzah attached to the doorpost.  They would touch the box on their way going out and coming in to keep God in their hearts and minds everywhere they went.

The main point of the psalm is that a God as great as Israel’s Lord (and our God, as well) deserves more than half-hearted worship.  Readers of the psalm are also reminded that proper thanksgiving takes place in “the company of the upright” (v.1).  Worshipers are not expected to be morally perfect; that is impossible.  Think of King David, the young shepherd anointed by prophet, Nathan, to become king over all Israel.  He had God’s support and everything material he could ever want–but–he still lusted after Bathsheba, making God very sad.  When David’s son, Solomon, followed his father to the throne, he prayed for wisdom to lead God’s people in the way of the Lord.  God was pleased and most likely relieved, and blessed Solomon with wisdom, power and wealth.  God faithfully keeps promises and is always attentive to the needs of the people, and asks that we have consistency between what we say and what we do.  The worship of a God with integrity is carried out by a people of integrity resulting in a level of spiritual and ethical maturity: “wisdom.”  Worshiping God with integrity leads to wisdom that allows for meaningful living.

“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (v.10).  “Perfect love casts out fear” (1John 4:18).  When God saw that his people kept wandering from the ways he set before them, he created a plan that Jesus, his only Son, would suffer and die to show how great God’s love for them truly is.  Perfect love, or agape, is the answer.  Love engendered and nourished in the context of Christian community can, and does, banish fear.  In a community that understands the need to create a safe place for peoples’ spirits, emotions, and bodies, fear will dissipate.  In a community rooted in the Holy Spirit and leaning into God’s healing grace, fear will fade into the holy qualities of trust, Spirit led affection and hope.  Fear or awe leads to wisdom, being full of hope in the fullness of God’s presence.

The gift of Holy Communion reminds us of God’s eternal love for us and his plan to draw us together into community.  Through the grace and power of Jesus’ death on the cross, shedding of his blood for us, we experience forgiveness and receive strength to follow in his footsteps–all the way to eternity.  And now, you know the rest of the story.  Praise God for everlasting love, mercy and goodness!  Praise the Lord! 

Amen.

Categories: Weekly Sermon

Redeemed

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Message Delivered on July 12, 2015

Ephesians 1:3-14; Mark 6:14-29          “Redeemed”

Whenever I think of redemption, my mind wanders back to the days of Holden Red Stamps, S&H Green Stamps and Gold Bell Gift Stamps, reward programs offered by gas stations, department and grocery stores.  I remember shopping at Rogers Department Store on Wednesdays because it was “double stamp day.”  I always wondered, if the redeemed prizes were free, why did you have to pay sales tax on the items? — Not free!

Today’s text from the Apostle Paul, written to the Christian church at Ephesus, gives us one of the longest continuous sentences in ancient Greek literature.  Ephesians 1:3-14 is one complete sentence from the lofty viewpoint (“heavenly places”) the epistle writer reveals in what he has glimpsed–the vision of God’s purpose and plan for the church and for all who become his “adopted children” through the work of Christ, to be “holy and blameless.”  In love, Paul says, “We are all chosen by God in Christ.”  Our adoption rests wholly upon God’s “good pleasure.”  God’s “glorious grace” is the only official stamp on our adoption papers and no value added tax has been added!  Verses 7-10 enumerate three of God’s great gifts now made available to us through Christ.  First is the redemption  we have received from the sacrifice of Christ’s own blood.  Second, forgiveness, so that no guilt, no past events may stand between us and our full acceptance as adopted children of God.  Third, God bestows on us ” wisdom and insight”  through which we can finally glimpse “the mystery of God’s will.”  The unifying plan of God continues to inform the final thoughts of this text.  In verses 13-14, the writer turns to Gentile believers and notes that “You also” are a part of that select group, full members of the inheritance (Predestined).  Through Christ, Jew and Gentile have been brought together to form a seamless unity, an undifferentiated family in God’s grace.

Phyllis Trible, a Christian author has written about a book she authored called Texts of Terror,  in which she examines the most awful texts in the Old Testament.  They are the accounts we wish would disappear from Scripture: the story of Jephthah’s daughter in the book of Judges.  The little girl loses her life because of her foolish father’s promise.  Mark’s gospel has its own text of terror.  The story of John’s beheading is gruesome.  It reminds me of the beheadings in the Middle East today.  The events leading up to John’s death are hard to believe; they are like reading a soap opera.  King Herod divorced his wife so he could marry his brother’s wife, Herodias.  Oh, yea, there’s more:  Herodias was also the daughter of another of Herod’s half-brothers, so when he married Herodias, he was marrying his sister-in-law and his niece at the same time–a clear violation of Old Testament law.  John the Baptist publicly denounced the marriage, angering both Herodias and Herod.  At least, Herod had a conscience.  He did not want to kill John.  He respected and feared John because he was a righteous and holy man.

Sadly, Herod chose cowardice over courage.  Rather than stand up for what he believed, he gave in to the selfish obsession of his wife.  John was beheaded and the head presented on a platter to his wife’s daughter, who presented it to her resentful mother, fulfilling her wish.

Where is the hope in this story?  It is a story where evil triumphs over good.  True, the righteous man loses his life, and the weak and vengeful people get away with murder, making this a sordid tale of anger and revenge, resentment and death.  The name of Jesus is never even mentioned.  But this account comes right after Jesus’ instructions to his disciples.  Jesus tells them how to embody God’s love in the world.  He even tells them to expect opposition and trouble.  All they need to do is take the gospel to people and trust that God will do the rest.

There is often danger when you tell the truth, especially to those in power.  The story of John’s death reminds us that being a follower of Jesus does not guarantee success in this life, but might even bring some suffering.  This story is also about the delusions of the powerful.  Herod is afraid.  He fears that Jesus is John raised from the dead.  Since Herod had John killed, he thinks that John has returned to get him in the form of Jesus.  Another soap opera plot in the making.  Can dead men come back to harm those who use their power for evil

One of the things that kept Ghandi, Prime Minister of India, going against overwhelming odds was the conviction not just that love would conquer but that evil would defeat itself. Ghandi said, “When I despair, I remember that throughout history tyrants and dictators have always failed in the end.  Think of it.  Always.”

Oscar Romero, was appointed Archbishop of El Salvador because the church hierarchy thought he was a safe and conservative scholar.  He surprised them by becoming a champion for the poor and spoke out against the oppressive government forces.  He won the love of the people he served and the hatred of those in power.  He was murdered during a mass and he became the unstoppable spiritual force in the hearts of the Salvadoran people–and a symbol of freedom and justice around the world–at a price.

God’s work is risky.  When you speak the truth to the powerful, there may be a bitter price to be paid, but God’s plan cannot be stopped.  Being faithful to God is not easy.  John lived for the truth and died for it.  When I was eight years old, the Sunday school gave me a Bible, which my mother wrote in: “Always be truthful to yourself and others.”  This was Polonias’ advice to his son in a Shakespeare play.  God’s truth permeated even Shakespeare’s works!

Jesus lived for the truth, the truth that sets us free, and died that we might be set free from sin, forgiven and promised to be heirs of the Kingdom of God by virtue of our faith inspired by the Holy Spirit.  John Calvin summarized this theology as “guilt, grace and gratitude.”  We are guilty of sin, set free by the grace of God through Jesus’ death on the cross.  Our response is to serve the Lord as a sign of our gratitude.  We have been saved, redeemed, like those stamp books we used to cash in for prizes.  The greatest difference is that salvation, redemption from sin, is free–no tax or cover charge.  Jesus’ saving death accomplished for us what we cannot do for ourselves.

One of the Presbyterian theological bugaboos is predestination, described in Ephesians in today’s reading.  I explained to a realtor in N. Carolina who questioned me about Calvin and his interpretation on the phone: Paul reminds us that the Holy Spirit inspires us to faith in Jesus Christ, who died to set us free from sin that we might spend eternity in heaven with God.  We believe we are chosen by God to be heirs of the Kingdom and profess our faith in baptism as we pray for the Holy Spirit to be with us always–always renewing our faith and preparing us to be redeemed servants of our Lord and Savior, Jesus.  Redemption is the free gift of God–no strings attached.  Amen.

Categories: Weekly Sermon

Eating for Eternal Life

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Message Delivered on August 9, 2015

John 6:35, 41-51     “Eating for Eternal Life”

The current suggested lectionary readings for five weeks in a row all have to do with Jesus as the Bread of Life with the eating of the bread of his flesh.  How palatable…  Bread is the universal stuff of life.  Anywhere I have traveled around the world the waiter first brings bread, sometimes butter or oil infused with spices–or not.  In America there are 19,000 bakeries employing over 350,000 people, and each year they mix 11 billion pounds of flour, 163 million pounds of dried milk, and 616 million pounds of shortening.  The average American eats about 70 pounds of bread annually.  That is over one loaf of bread per week!  The top food sold in supermarkets is bread, with 96.8% of shoppers choosing from over 70 varieties.

Spiritual bread is more important and the church’s most vital task is to distribute living bread to every person in the world.  This bread is so vital that Jesus identified himself as “the bread of life.”  It was no accident that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, in Hebrew meaning “House of Bread.”  Bethlehem was situated in a good, fertile area which abounded in grain.  After Jesus’ baptism, Satan asked him to turn stones into bread.  In Jesus’ model prayer, we petition for “daily bread.”  Jesus provided bread for thousands all from five small loaves.  When Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper, he took bread, blessed and gave thanks for it, and said, “Take, eat.  This is my body.”  There must be something terribly important about bread in order for it to get so much attention from Jesus and to form the basis for Chapter 6 in the Book of John.

What if Jesus said, “I am the peach of life, from Xi Wang-mu’s (Shee Wong moo) garden.  Whoever comes to me will never be hungry and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”  Holy Communion services around the world would be forever changed.  Instead of pieces of bread, we would be eating slices of peaches.  Kind of a messy thought.

Peaches have a connection to eternal life in China because peaches grown in the garden of the goddess Xi Wang mu are an example of godly gastronomy.  Chinese mythology teaches that the gods are nourished by a steady diet of special peaches that take thousands of years to ripen, the peaches of immortality” from Xi Wang mu’s garden give long life to anyone who eats them–3000 years from a single peach!  One time, the trickster god, Monkey, devoured an entire crop in one year.  To punish him, he was expelled from heaven and sentenced to a lifetime of stone fruit.

Jesus does not say that he is the peach of life—no, bread of life.  The person who eats this bread is promised endless satisfaction–freedom from hunger and thirst and life everlasting.

Today there are many popular diets.  Pick up any magazine or watch television and see commercials for Weight Watchers, Jenny Craig, Nutri-

System, South Beach, Pro-biotic and a whole lot of others that encourage

healthy eating for a longer life–but which diet advocates eating for eternal life? 

The Jews complained about Jesus because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.”  How could he say that when they knew him as the son of Joseph and Mary, Galileans from Nazareth?  If your neighbor told you that he/she had come from heaven, you might recommend a visit to a mental health professional.  The Jews were not exactly opponents of Jesus, they were confused and concerned.

 

Jesus insisted, “Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life” (v.47).  This is a clue to understanding that belief is the key to receiving

the benefits of the bread of life.  Eternal life comes from putting faith in Jesus Christ.

Augustine preached about the connection between faith and the bread of life.  He said in a sermon about Holy Communion, “What you see is the Bread and the Chalice; that is what your own eyes report to you. But what your faith obliges you to accept is that the Bread is the body of Christ and the Chalice is the blood of Christ.”  With your eyes you see bread, of course.  With your faith you receive the body of Christ.  Jesus invites us to believe in him and to receive the eternal life that he offers us.  The ancient Israelites ate the bread (manna) in the wilderness and they died.  But it was physical bread–the kind that you can see with your eyes and taste in your mouth.  Jesus offers himself as living bread.

Second clue: Jesus offers living bread that is not bread at all but a living person.  Belief is key.  If you want to see living bread, look to Jesus.  “Whoever eats of the bread he offers will live forever, and the bread that he gives for the life of the world is his flesh” (v. 51). Jesus wants us to believe in him and to take him into ourselves; much as we would eat a piece of bread, digest it and incorporate it into our bodies.  Jesus invites us to trust that he is the living bread that has come down from heaven, bread that is broken in communion, just as Christ’s body is broken on the cross.  “The Word became flesh and lived among us” (John 1:14) and “God so loved the

world that he gave his only Son” (3:14).  Bread.  Flesh.  Life of the world.  Love for the world.  The bread that Jesus gives for the life of the world is nothing less than his own flesh.

Jesus is all about giving, not taking.  This is the third clue.  The body of Christ.  Whoever eats this bread will live forever.  We can trust Jesus to be at work inside us.  Because he forgives us, we can forgive others.  Because he loves us, we can love others.  Because he fills us with his Spirit, we can inspire others.  After receiving the body of Christ in worship, we can go out to be the body of Christ in the world.

It all begins with belief and understanding that Jesus gives, offering himself to tax collectors, healing lepers, and blessing the children.  He forgives sinners and challenges his disciples to do likewise by showing hospitality to the strangers at our doors, supporting medical missionaries to underserved communities, helping children to feel welcome in worship, offering forgiveness to those who hurt us and feeding the hungry families who are living all around us.

Believe.  Look to Jesus.  Give.  Whoever eats of this bread will live forever.

Now, that is a menu for eternal life! 

Amen.

Categories: Weekly Sermon