Category: Pastor’s Message

Stars and Stables

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December 23 2018

Christmas would not be Christmas without the star OVER  the stable of  Bethlehem.  There are only two nativity stories in the Gospels.  The Gospel of Luke tells of the pregnancy of Elizabeth, who will be the mother of John the Baptist.   And the pregnancy of Mary.   Mary and Joseph travel to Bethlehem in order to report for the Roman census.  Then the  birth of the baby in the stable, the shepherds rushing to the manger, the heavenly choir singing Gloria in Excelsis Deo.

Matthew on the other hand tells about the three Magi who see a new bright and mysterious star rising in the east.  They make the long journey to Palestine where they are intercepted by the venal ruler, Herod.  And Herod–and now and I can just see him twirling his moustache, his dark eyes dancing about–Herod  tells the three Magi: “When you find the child come and tell me so I can come and worship him.”  You bet.

Some wag speculated on what would have happened if there had been three wise women instead of three wise men..

They would have asked directions, 

arrived on time, 

helped deliver the baby, 

cleaned the stable, 

made a casserole, 

and brought practical gifts. 

But what they would have said when they left? 

“Did you see the sandals Mary was wearing with that gown?” 

“You know that baby doesn’t look anything like Joseph!” 

“Can you believe that they let all of those disgusting animals in the house?” 

“I heard that Joseph isn’t even working right now!” 

“And that donkey that they were riding has seen better days too!” 

“Want to bet on how long it will take until you get your casserole dish back?”

Symbolically the wise men suggest the significance of the Christ child to the world at large.  Though born in Israel Jesus Christ has come for all humanity.  Matthew told this story with an O.T. prophecy in the back of his mind: “Gentiles shall come to your light and kings to the brightness of your rising (Isaiah 60:3) 

But beyond the symbolism of this story the reality is that Magi embarked on a long, dusty journey following the star until it stood over the place where the young child lay.   And what a come down that had to have been.  Looking for a king they find a baby.  Anticipating a palace they find a stable. 

Let’s put on our imagination hats today and think about what the star represents and what the stable represents.

The star represents a vision that reaches us from outside from beyond, from above.  “Hitch your wagon to a star” Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in 1862 in his essay on Civilization.     If Emerson  were writing today he probably would change that line to “Hitch your SUV to a star.” Maybe it would best be put by simply saying, “Hitch your life to a star.”  Look up, pick out a star, a goal, a project, and follow it wherever it leads.

The stable, on the other hand, represents the harsh realities to which our visions often lead.   We Christians romanticize the stable.  Really, it was a place that stank– dark and dank and depressing.  What a disappointment it had to have been for Joseph and Mary for the first night of their child’s life in such an unappealing place.  

But this is the way our visions often end up.  This is the way life comes to us, a mixture of stars and stables.  And we spend our years trying to understand and to reconcile the two.  

So let’s plunge a bit deeper into these two realities, the star and the stable, and see what they might mean for us.  

The star.  Many of us grew up believing we could be anything we set our hearts to. After all, this is America, the land of opportunity.  “You can do anything You can be anything as long as you work hard. And keep at it.”   Failure,” writes Og Mandino, “will never  overcome me if my determination to succeed is strong enough.” 

That’s an appealing axiom , but I thought about it one day  when I was driving from my home in Lichfield Park to the White Tanks and saw a group of field workers harvesting watermelons. No matter how hard they worked , no matter if they doubled their quota in a day, and doubled it again the next day,  they would never get far beyond that field.  What I wouldn’t give to be able to ask each of them, “What is your guiding star.”  And my hunch is that you have to have a certain modicum of privilege before you can even begin to think about a guiding star.

I look back about the young men who were in seminary with me.  (There were no women in my graduating class.)  They sallied forth to change the world, to come into a local church and shake it and shape it so that it was a transforming agent for the congregation and the community.  The gates of hell, so they thought, would not prevail against it. 

But alas!  A few years later they have been laboring away in a small church in a podunk town.  The church members are petty and vindictive.  These pastors sadly realize that their  little parish is a dull reflection of the status quo.  They have followed their star but it has led to a stable.  And those of us who have been in the local church fully understand that every parish, including this one, is a mix of grime and glory. 

So what should we do, those of us who recognize that our star sometimes leads us to a stable?  Should we give up?  Should we conclude that our imagination and vision are destined to be smashed  upon the anvil of history? 

In my lifetime I have known many people who are afflicted with too much stable and not enough star.  They are forever looking on the dark side of life.  They are disbelieving, cynical, and  doubting.  They have never stood in the light of a grand vision that gives meaning to their years.  

Let me tell you.  It’s tough to live in this world without some kind of vision, however modest.  Do you know that verse from Proverbs 29? “Without a vision the people perish.  And we understand that, because if you don’t know where you are going any road will take you there.  

Wouldn’t we love to have been  privy to the conversation of the three magi on their way back to their homes in Persia?   Were they disappointed in what they found?  Did they regret the long journey?  Or were they just confused not really understanding why the star led them to that stable.  My guess is that within their lifetime they never understood it, never knew anything about the baby who would someday grow up and be acknowledged as the Savior of the world.

And more than once in my lifetime–and I suspect yours–we have felt that the bright star has led us to some disappointing stable, but we will never truly know until we,  from the vantage point of the other side of this life,  look down from heaven and review the whole sweep of our years.

Without a vision,  without a star to lead us, we perish.   I think about particularly in our retirement years.  I can’t for the life of me understand how someone can retire and then spend their days playing golf, or bridge or traveling.    I don’t want to embarrass our friends Dick and Ruth Langford, but here they are in their 70’s having started a small organization in 2011 that has mushroomed into something incredible. 3500 school bags packed since last August.  

This leads to the take home question for the day.  What is the star overhead for you?  Where is God leading you to at this point in your life? 

The other morning I was at Ground Control coffee where I go nearly every morning to drink a latte on work on our bulletin and my sermon for a week. A  young woman was sitting near me, working away at her laptop.  She got up to get a refill of her coffee and came back by me and asked, “What are you working on?  A book?”

“No, a sermon” I said,  and then I told her what I do.

“What’s the sermon about?” she asked.  

“It’s called Stars and Stables,” I replied and then I told her what the star represents and what the stable represents.

And then I asked her, “What do you do?

She’s a nurse, works two days a week at Banner Estrella and teaches two days a week at Grand Canyon University.

Then I asked her, “What’s is your guiding star?”   

She said she wants to go back to school and become a psychiatric p.a.  .  She has so many friends and acquaintances with psychiatric problems, depression, p.s.t.d, addictions, and on and on.

Then I asked her “Why this?”  And she said that a friend once told her that she needed to immerse herself into the pain of the world to discover her true vocation.  Her friend said, “Find a need and fill it.  Find a hurt and heal it.”

I said to her, “You know, that will preach.”  And she said, “I too am a Christian.”


This sermon was inspired by a sermon preached at the Riverside Church, New York City by Dr. Ernest T.  Campbell entitled “Of Star and Stables.”  December 22, 1968.  As a young pastor I thought he was the finest preacher I had ever heard.  

Categories: Pastor's Message

He Humbled himself

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James 4:1-8 November 25, 2018 

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

Categories: Pastor's Message

The Healing Touch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They were three times less likely to develop pulmonary edema.

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

And fewer of the prayed for patients died.

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

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

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

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

Categories: Pastor's Message

When Work Goes Sour

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Sept. 2, 2018  John 5:15-25

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories: Pastor's Message

Forgive Us Our Debts

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Matthew 18:2335; June 3, 2018

A few days ago a motorist in downtown Phoenix left a note on the windshield of his car.  “To the Phoenix Police Department: I’ve circled this block for 20 minutes.  I’m late for a meeting with my boss, and if I don’t show up on time, I’ll lose my job, so I really have  to park in this No Parking Zone.  Forgive Us Our Debts.”

When he came back to the car he found a ticket and this note: “I’ve worked this block for 20 years and if I don’t give you a ticket I’ll lost my job.  “Lead Us Not Into Temptation.”  

“Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.”  This is the second of three petitions of the Lord’s prayer: 1. Give us this day our daily bread; 2.  Forgive us our debts.  3.  Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”  It’s interesting to note that when Jesus finished teaching his disciples this prayer, he comes back and singles out this particular petition for further commentary: “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”  

    Why did Jesus highlight this one petition over all the others.  My hunch is that he wanted there to be no mistake about his meaning.  He isn’t saying that our forgiveness of others is a condition of God’s forgiveness.  This isn’t a business transaction where God keeps a ledger on each of us, saying, “Now Swicegood forgave Jones of this, so I will now forgive Swicegood of that.”

It’s not like that at all.  The Scripture teaches us that God’s forgiveness is inexhaustible.  “As far as the East is from the west, so far does he put our transgressions from us.”

So what precisely does it mean, “Forgive us our debts, AS we forgive our debtors.”  I think the key to understanding this is the location of our heart.   If our hearts are hard and unforgiving, if we are unable to let the past go, if we are unable to forgive people who have truly hurt us, then we aren’t soft enough, receptive enough, vulnerable enough to receive God’s forgiveness.

The one character Jesus pictured as the most impossible to respect is found in the parable of the unmerciful slave.  Can’t you just see the twinkle in Jesus’ eye as he deliberately exaggerates the details.  No slave in Palestine could possibly owe ten thousand talents ten million dollars at today’s rate more than ten times the total taxes of Palestine to Rome on an annual basis.  The salve owed a debt he couldn’t pay in a lifetime, or in a million lifetimes.  He comes begging on his knees before his master.  The slate is wiped clean.  Then with this unbelievable mercy still ringing in his ears, the slave goes straight to wring the neck of a poor devil who owes him twenty bucks!

Jesus tells this story to amplify the point that people who are unforgiving are not able to receive forgiveness. Jesus, ever the master psychologist, knew that people who have a hard time forgiving others have a hard time forgiving themselves.  He knew that if we hold onto grudges, we also are pretty tough on ourselves.  He knew that if we continue to stew in resentment and bitterness over the wrongs done us, our hearts are not ready to let God come in and take over and forgive us utterly. He knew that God’s grace cannot dwell in a soul that is essentially graceless.

    I read an interview with a young Palestinian.  As he talked about the

oppression of the Israelis, he said very simply, “I will never forgive.”  

          Is there any thing harder in the world than forgiveness?  It doesn’t come natural to anybody.  All of us, at some point in our lives, have been hurt and hurt deeply by someone else.  We don’t find it easy to forgive, and oftentimes don’t want to forgive.   We rehearse our grudges over and over again to keep the enmity alive.  .

A few years ago this ad ran in the personals section of the L.A. Times.

         “Would the man who lived at such and such address 19 years ago and walked out on his wife and six months old son please  contact me.  I am that son and I would like the pleasure of

kicking his teeth in.”

Something within us all resonates with that ad.  We like to see people get their comeuppance.  The only problem with that, Gandhi so astutely observed, is that if we keep insisting on an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, the whole world will be rendered blind and toothless.

Here’s the question this prayer poses:

Do the Palestinians have to forgive the Jews?

           “Do I have to forgive the person who stabs a knife deep in my soul?”  

    These are not theoretical questions.  They are questions people deal with every day.  History moves in one direction or another depending on how these questions are answered.  Will the Palestinians and Jews move from enmity to amity.  It depends on how the forgiveness question is dealt with.  

        Do we have to forgive?  What are the consequences of forgiving, of not forgiving?  What is like living in a world where there is no forgiveness, only a downward spiral of retribution and violence?  What  is it like for you and me to have done something wrong, and never be forgiven of it?

    I can only frame the whole issue of forgiveness in light of what happened one Friday afternoon some time ago.  After we had stripped the man of his clothes, spit on him, whipped him, we had a legal trial and decided his punishment would be crucifixion.  And as he hung there, bleeding, he looked down at us in our eternal cycles of vengeance, and this king said, “Father, forgive them.”

         There was once this old rancher who lived in Texas.  He was a tough old bird, and mean as a steer that has just been branded.  One day, one of his cowboy was caught stealing a cow from the rancher’s herds.  When the cowboy was dragged before the rancher, and the old rancher looked down at him, the cowboy trembled in his boots.

    “Hang him,” the rancher said.  “It’ll teach him a lesson.”

    Well, time came for the old rancher to die.  He died and found himself standing before his maker.  When God looked down from the great throne, the rancher thought about his life, all the mean things he had done, the way he had lived.  He trembled in his boots.

    And the Lord said, “Forgive him. It’ll teach him a lesson.”


I’m Gonna Sing When the Spirit Says Sing

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I’m Gonna Sing When the Spirit Says SingJanuary 29, 2017

 ​A little fellow was visiting his grandparent’s church. At the door the pastor asked him how he liked the service. With the brutal honesty of a four year old the kid answered: “I liked the music but the commercial was tooo long.”

​The Christian faith is a singing faith. Historians have claimed that Martin Luther won more converts through his hymns than through his preaching.

 There’s something about a fine old hymn

That can stir the heart of a man

That can reach to the goal of his inmost soul

As no mere preaching can

 So we thank thee Lord for the fine old hymns

May we use them again and again

That we may save from a hopeless grave

The souls of our fellow men.

 It’s an old poem and maybe a little hackneyed, but it has at its core the truth that St Augustine expressed, that when we sing, we pray twice.

 ​My mother and father took me to church from the time I was an infant. And after I was old enough to graduate from the nursery, I sat through church services yes the whole thing, from the time I was three or four. So after several years I knew all the great hymns by heart

​When I begain working as a parish associate at Pinnacle Presbyterian Church in Scottsdale in 2012 the custom was for the ministers to process with the choir. We would walk down the aisle of that magnificent sanctuary hymn books in hand, singing our hearts out. Except I usually didn’t carry a hymn book in because there was so much to do just before the service that I often forgot. My boss, the senior pastor, would remind me during staff meetings not to forget my hymn book. I protested I know most of the hymns heart. But, he replied it’s a good example to the congregation to encourage them to sing when we have our hymn books and a bad example when we don’t. So to appease him I would carry my hymn book not turning to the correct page, not ever glancing down, and singing what I had known since I was six years old.  

  • Hannahs Song I Samuel
  • The Song of the Sea Exodus 15
  • The Song of Moses Deut 32
  • The Song of Deborah Judges 5
  • David s Thanksgiving II Sam 22
  • Hezekiah’s Song Isa 38
  • Jonah’s Song Jonah 2
  • Daniel s Praise Daniel 2

 In the NT the gospel of Luke opens with is Mary’s song, the Magnificat, Zechariah’s song, called the Benedictus and Simeon’s song, called the Nunc Dimmitis. Probably the most famous hymn in the NT, and this will surprise you is Philippians 2–let this mind be among you that was in Christ Jesus.

 And Jesus and his disciples concluded the Passover meal–the Last Supper– by singing a hymn and then going out to the Mt of Olives, where Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane.  

 People tell me they love the OLD hymns, like the Old Rugged Cross and I Come to the Garden alone. But they aren’t really old at all. The Old Rugged Cross was written in 1913. And I Come to the Garden also in 1913.

 If you really love old hymns you should sing All Creatures of our God and King, written by St. Francis of Assisi in the 12th century, or a Mighty Fortress is our God, written by Martin Luther as the national anthem of the Reformation in 1527.

One last word. There have been more Christian hymns and songs written in the past quarter century than in all the years of Christendom before. If you’ve been in a church with bands and contemporary Christian music, you’ve sung some of them. There are a several I really like: “You are my King”: and two of Bill Gather’s songs “He Touched Me” and my favorite Christian song: “The King is Coming.”