Author: AJ Langston

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.


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 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”).


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! 


Categories: Weekly Sermon


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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! 


Categories: Weekly Sermon

No Shame

Message Delivered on August 2, 2015

2 Samuel 11:26-12:13a                    “No Shame”

Have you been to a ball game, a meeting or any kind of public gathering where someone stands up, says whatever they feel like saying off the top of their head–and then–sits down not worrying a bit how their words or actions will impact the people in the crowd?

People seem to be at their worst when they travel.  It is one thing to be seated next to a mom whose child is hollering, but babies are babies.  What about the person next to you who chats incessantly?  Nancy’s dad used to say that some people rattle like an empty wagon, making lots of noise and saying nothing relevant.  What do you do when your seatmate on a plane, train, or bus clips their toes nails, or a mother changes a baby and stuffs the dirty diaper in the seat pocket next to yours?  These things all happen– and then some.  Flight attendants could fill volumes on their experiences.  Recently, a new URL has been created: Passenger, in which smart phone pictures have captured the behavior of passengers and they have been posted on social media like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.  The pictures show piles of newspapers and other trash, passengers sleeping with their feet between the seats of the passengers in front of them–no shoes or socks–bare feet in the aisles and other obnoxious views.  The site is supposed to be a deterrent for bad behavior.  Whether or not it works remains to be seen.

In the account of David and the prophet, Nathan, Nathan paints a word picture for David about a rich man taking a lamb from a poor man and David is greatly agitated, espousing that the perpetrator deserves to die for his crime.  David had behaved badly by abusing his power when taking Bathsheba for his pleasure and then manipulating her husband, Uriah, to assure his death on the front lines of battle.  David then wants justice for the poor man whose lamb was taken from him and Nathan lowers the boom stating, “You are the man!”  Nathan does not need to spell out the details.  Everyone sees and knows, except David, who is oblivious to the consequences of his actions.  Many, or most of us, sometime behave in ways we do not immediately see as a problem for the people around us.  We can become frustrated with those who drive while being distracted by talking on the phone–until we get an important phone call about a family emergency–and then resort to Bluetooth headsets to chat while driving.  How about sitting in a restaurant next to someone whose phone rings constantly while you are trying to carry on a conversation with your dining companion?

What happens when you are venting to a friend about a bad experience with someone who likes to gossip–and then–whoa! Lights and bells go off when you realize that you are guilty of hypocrisy as you gossip about that person, passing judgment on him/her?  We are so good at seeing the bad behavior of others and missing it in ourselves.

After David’s wake-up call, he realizes that not only has he been blind to his own bad behavior, but he has also been blind to the blessings of God.  Nathan’s “story” about the rich man was a reality check for David.  He had begun to think that he could take whatever he wanted without consequence, including the wife of another man, if only for an afternoon–or if it could be arranged–even longer.  Nathan reminded David that it was God who made him king, who kept him safe from Saul when he tried to kill David and who gave him all his riches, including his wives.  If David wanted more of anything, all he had to do was to ask God .

In the moment that David spotted Bathsheba bathing on the roof top, he was not thinking about how incredibly blessed by God that he already was–or the huge flocks he owned, or the protection he received as king.  All he saw was what he wanted and he put everything he already had in jeopardy.  Do we lose sight of what we already have and in a weaker moment, make a grab for more?

Years ago people dressed up to get on a plane or to take some kind of public transportation.  Things have certainly gone a long way in the opposite direction.  Some have forgotten what they have in our modes of transportation and have lost the ability to appreciate it for what it is.  It is easy to avoid casting ourselves in the role of David as the sinner.  We want to see the sins of others and to be charged with pointing them out.  We are not Nathan.  We have not been called to fulfill his difficult job of advising David.  To David’s credit, he repented.  His prayer of repentance is found in Psalm 51.

There is an old story about a Catholic priest who was hearing confessions.  Nothing the priest heard that day was out of the ordinary…until one man walked in, sat down and quietly closed the door.  The man told that he had not been to confessions for many years.  He had systematically stolen building supplies from the lumberyard where he worked for many years and no one had noticed.  The priest asked, “How much do you figure you stole in all those years?”  The man replied, “Enough to build my house,  a house for my son, and one each for my daughters.”  The astonished priest replied, “That is a lot of lumber.”  The man responded, “Did I tell you that we also had enough left over to build a cottage by the lake?”  In a stern voice the priest continues, “What you have told me, my son, is very serious.  I need to think of a highly demanding penance to give you.  Have you ever done a retreat?”  The priest was wondering if the man had ever gone to a prayer retreat to contemplate his life’s plans and outcomes.  “No, Father, I have not,” said the man.  “But if you get me the plans, I can get you the lumber!”

Some people have no shame.  We can all laugh at or be disgusted by someone else’s poor behavior.  It is so easy to see it in others.  Yet, when it comes to our own bad behavior, we often do not see it.  David needed God, through Nathan, to point out his sin and to remind him of all that he had.  We need to be open to the voice of God telling us about our bad behavior.

We all have sin in our lives and have forgotten how blessed we are.  There is no time like the present to repent. Read Psalm 51:10-12.  Amen.

Categories: Weekly Sermon

Traveling Light

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Mark 6:1-13         “Traveling Light”

Have you noticed the signs of doors of public buildings that have knives and guns with a big red X drawn through them?  It will come as no surprise to anyone today that no guns, knives, crossbows, meat cleavers, box cutters, mace or similar items are allowed in carry-on luggage if you plan on boarding an airliner.  That makes sense to me but what is wrong with mascara, toothpaste, mouth wash, hair gel, yogurt or pudding cups in your carry-on bag or purse?  A few personal care items are permitted in very small amounts, if packed in a special way (see through Baggie), but not any of the other stuff in any quantity. Unfortunately, explosives can be disguised to look like those innocent products, so we either have to put them in our checked bags or leave them at home.

The TSA (Transportation Security Administration) would be happier if we all took nothing more than the clothes on our backs for air travel, but that really is NOT practical. Essentially, Jesus told his disciples when he sent them out in pairs to cast out demons, heal the sick and to call people to repentance, “Take nothing for the journey.”  According to Mark, Jesus allowed them to take a staff and to wear sandals, but no extra clothing, only that which they were wearing.  Like the TSA, Jesus had a list of prohibited items:  no bread, no bag, no money in their belts and no second tunic. (Matthew and Luke do not allow a staff or sandals.) Jesus banned items that could undermine the mission on which he was sending the disciples  They were to depend on GOD to provide for them through the hospitality of strangers.  There is an exercise in faith for you!  How they traveled and were welcomed was to be a demonstration of God’s care.  No check-on bags and only one small carry-on.

A lesson for us:  when Jesus sends us out to be his people in the world and tells us to rely on him–and take nothing, zip, nada, with us–only who we are, including our normal baggage. The baggage we carry is the personal history we drag with us that interferes with our living fully in the present.  This baggage could be non-productive ways of dealing with conflict, inappropriate responses that are triggered at inopportune moments, unresolved fears from childhood, psychological damage from abuse, scary ideas about God–just about any holdover from our past that keeps us from getting on well in our relationships or with our daily responsibilities.  Most of us have some kind of baggage that travels with us even when we think we have taken nothing for the journey. What can we learn from Jesus and his sending out the twelve?

  • He tells them to take nothing extra for the journey, only the clothes that they are wearing. They will be vulnerable.They

can take their shortcomings, scarred psyches and damaged emotions, and they can still do the work to which he calls them: cast out demons and heal the sick.

  • The disciples were working for the Divine Healer.Mathew adds to his account that by casting out spirits and healing the sick that Jesus had fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet, Isaiah, “He took our infirmities and bore our diseases” (Matthew 8:17).  Healing diseases and taking away infirmities (casting out spirits); infirmities could include emotional baggage which needs divine healing.  Sometimes folks who have high opinions of themselves are guilty of pride, while those with low self-esteem attempt to hide how worthless they feel.  These kinds of baggage need healing.
  • On the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus told listeners not to be anxious about their lives, what they would eat, drink or wear.Instead of worrying, he pointed out that we should trust God to care for us and to seek God’s kingdom.  The tendency to worry about everything does not mean we are not faithful followers of Christ, only that we have baggage.

So…how can we deal with baggage?

  • Ask God to help us face our problems head-on without rationalizations that keep us from doing well.
  • Take a look at those whom we blame for some of our hang-ups.Decide what to do to set those memories aside and move-on.
  • Accept the responsibility for how we are today.The past has shaped who we are today but we are responsible for dealing with life’s issues today–to become the whole persons God intended us to be.
  • Lay the problem before God to begin healing.Leave our baggage behind.

Grudges are like baggage.  They are a form of obsession we carry around with us.  When others have hurt us, we fantasize about revenge. Eventually, we come to realize that our grudge is a far greater burden than the original incident.  The only thing to do is to lay it down–like the extra coat Jesus says to leave behind.  When we shed that baggage, we will be traveling light, according to Jesus’ recommendation.

Robert Frost’s poem, “The Road Not Taken” came to mind when  I was writing this message:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood

And looked down one as far as I could

To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair

And having perhaps the better claim,

Because it was grassy and wanted wear;

Though as for that the passing there

Had worn them really about the same.

And both that morning equally lay

In leaves no step had trodden black.

Oh, I kept the first for another day!

Yet knowing how way leads on to way,

I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I–

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.


Categories: Weekly Sermon