Category: Weekly Sermon

A Feathered Thing That Perches In the Soul 

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January 6 2019 
Romans 5:1-5

    On this first Sunday of a New Year, I want to talk about hope.  The New Year awakens hope in each of us.   It’s a time to look forward to something fresh, something better.  
    Scientists tell us that even rats without hope drown in a jar of water in a little over three minutes but give them a glimmer of light and hope and they will swim for thirty-six hours.  The only problem is that I never did find out how the researchers gave the rats a glimmer of hope.  
    We are creatures of hope. .  You can see how elemental hope is to each of us by looking at how gullible we are about certain things:  Someone will say to us something like this:  
    ●    You’ll have him housebroken in no time.
    ●    The place will be crawling with great looking girls.
    ●    $50 tops, with tip and wine.
    ●    When the gas tanks says empty, there are always a couple of gallons left.
    ●    You can assemble it yourself in 15 minutes.
    ●    Your new kitchen will be ready way before Christmas.
    ●    It will come in under budget.
    ●    They’ll feel wonderful once you break them in.

    The saying that “there’s a sucker born every minute” is a non-theological way of saying that we are born to hope, to envision the best.
    Much of what we think of as “hope” is nothing more than secular optimism.  Biblical hope is radically different from secular optimism.  You know the line that the pessimist looks a glass and sees it half empty.  The optimist looks at the glass and sees it as half full.  Well, now I am told that a consultant looks at that glass and says, “It looks to me as if the glass is twice as big as you need.”
    Optimism is the belief that my dreams will come true, whereas, Biblical hope always has to do with the promise that God is with us, no matter whether my dreams come true or are shattered upon the anvil of life. 
    Paul writes in Romans, chapter 5 that “hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured  into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”   Biblical hope never disappoints us because it’s always rooted in God’s promises.    It isn’t rooted in what we what we want.  It isn’t rooted in our dreams or our schemes.  Biblical hope transcends all of that because it is rooted in the immutable, unchangeable will of God.  And God’s spirit, dwelling within us, continually prompts us to remember from whence our hope comes.  
    A dear friend of mine was diagnosed with breast cancer.  When I went to see her in the hospital, I said, “Susan, I am praying for you to get well.”  And she said something startling to me, “I don’t have to get well.”  I didn’t understand what she meant at the time.  She is something of an iconoclast and is always saying the most intriguing things.  But later, when I talked to her about her illness, I asked her what she meant when she said, “I don’t have to get well.”  She said, “I am the wife of a physician.  I read everything ever printed on my disease.  I knew that 35% of the women with this kind of breast cancer do not survive.  So I knew that I might not survive, but nevertheless, I was within the providence of God, and that superceded everything else.”
    That is what the Bible means by hope.
    Dr. Paul Tournier, a Swiss psychiatrist and devoted Christian insisted that the secret of his life was a special time of quiet he and his wife had each morning when they “listened to God.”  Even after his wife died, he still observed this custom.  He once showed a visitor a large notebook.  It was his quiet book, crammed with narrowly spaced handwriting.  He confided shyly. “I meet God every morning to listen to dreams and visions for the day.”  Small wonder that into his late eighties he continued to live with enthusiasm and a sense of adventure.
    That, too,  is what the Bible means by hope.    When we open our hearts to God’s sprit each day, God infuses us with a sense of enthusiasm and adventure.  
    When we say we that we have hope, we are not saying that everything is going to turn out exactly as we think it should.  But we are saying that each day, no matter what life throws in our face, God will awaken within us new images of what can be, new visions of the possible. 
    I confess as I look back on my life, I see that some of the best things that have happened to me have been the hardest things.    But no matter how low and depressed I would get, and believe me there have been many days in my life when I’ve felt lower than a pregnant ant, I never lost hope that God a will and purpose for my life, some grand design that I could not see.    I have come to see that God’s will is never known in prospect, only in retrospect.  
    I love the poetry of Emily Dickinson.  One of her poems is about hope:  
Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all.  
    When we trust in God, we are given the hope that even if our plans and dreams must change, there is still goodness and mercy ahead all the days of our lives. When we trust our lives in grateful abandon to our Creator, we are given the hope that nothing in life or death can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord.
    Hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit.    And that hope perches in our soul like a tiny, feathered bird, and sings sweetly–in the darkest nights and the brightest dawns–all the days of our lives.  

Categories: Weekly Sermon

Mary’s Story

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Lule 1:26-45
December 16 2018 

    It’s fascinating to me to read Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus.  When we read Matthew’s account of the birth of Jesus the story begins with Joseph, and he is quite perplexed by it all.  Mark begins his gospel with Jesus as an adult, sallying forth into Galilee and preaching that the kingdom of God is at hand.  John begins with his towering theological treatise on the incarnation, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the word was God.”
    But Luke is in no hurry to get to the birth of Jesus.  He meanders along, beginning with the old priest named Zechariah, serving in a podunk village…and his wife Elizabeth, who gets pregnant after menopause.  For years Elizabeth has lived a disgraced and empty life in a culture that put a premium on child bearing.  Now joyfully and miraculously pregnant, she closets herself away from her incredulous neighbors to contemplate the goodness of God to her.
    Then Luke shifts his story to another woman, living far away in Galilee.  We know nothing about her.  Luke gives us no details  about her parents, her growing up years, what she’s like.  We only hear about Joseph, her fiancé, and he is descended from the royal line of King David.  She’s a virgin, and like old Zechariah, she, too, is visited by an angel.  But while Zechariah dithers in doubt, she accepts the angels word in faith, “Be it done to me according to your word.
    She is pregnant, but not married.  Having this child and staying in her home town under these circumstances represents the risk and terror of ostracism and disgrace.
    In a situation she does not understand, in the midst of a situation over which she has no control, in a situation where she can imagine no future that is not foreboding, she surrenders herself to the will of God.  She does not understand, but she trusts. “Be it done to me according to your word.”
    Mary’s dilemma raises all sorts of questions for us.  Where was her mother and father when she needed them?  What about her sisters, her brothers?  Shy did she have to travel to far-off Judea to get support and encouragement from her cousin, Elizabeth.  Did she leave her home-town out of the shame of an unwanted pregnancy, not wanting to face the knowing stares of a tight-knit community?   As he so often does, Luke tells us none of this, and leaves the details to our imagination.
    But what Luke does hand to us is these two women, two powerless nobodies, who suddenly are thrust front and center of God’s plan for the redemption of the world.  All the men are absent or silent.  Herod is away at his palace.  Speechless Zechariah is writing notes.  Joseph is dithering about as to whether he should get involved.  It’s these two women, cousins, both pregnant, who understand and believe what God is doing.  One is old and has no children.  The other is young and has not husband.  But both are pregnant.  And God is at work.  
    When you think of these two women, you can’t help but think of the long line of women in the Bible who are linked together and bless each other.  The Hebrew midwives conspire against the Pharaoh.  Miriam and Jochabed, conspire with the Egyptian princess to rear little Moses.  There’s Ruth and Naomi, Mary and Martha, Susannah and Joanna, Jesus’ wealthy female supporters, Euodia and Syntyche. Lois and Eunice.
    Mother-daughter, grandmother-granddaughter, cousins, friends, all share the strengths of vulnerabilities of being women, knowing often without words the lives and emotions of the other.  
    I envy the friendship which women share.  Men have a harder time at it.  We are so competitive with one another.  Men could take lessons from the deep and sustaining friendships which are so prevalent in Biblical society and in our society.
    But Luke’s main point here isn’t female solidarity, but rather to hear these two women proclaim the mystery of faith.  Luke’s main concern in telling this story is theological rather than personal.  First, he holds up the blessedness of Mary.   In her womb grows the miracle of the incarnation, the coming of God to join the human race.
    Our Roman Catholic friends raise her status by naming her sinless, immaculate, and perpetually a virgin.  I think they miss the point.  It’s Mary’s faith, her trust in God, that makes her blessed.  Elizabeth reiterates this truth when she says, “And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.  Mary believes in the promises of God, promises that will lead her to sorrow, while at the same time they lead to the salvation to the world.  
    The second theological truth Elizabeth preaches to us is about the fruit of Mary’s womb, the son to be born.  “Why has this happened to me that the mother of my Lord comes to me.”  The mother of my Lord.  In this simple statement Elizabeth announces the astounding truth about the child Mary bears.  He is the Lord.  Adoni.  The Hebrew word for God himself.  He is to be God incarnate.  And Mary is his mother.
    Psychologist Thomas Holmes has developed a stress scale,
based on an assigned numerical value of stress-producing
experiences.  These experiences usually involves changes–the
loss of a job, moving to a new community, a new relationship,
CHRISTMAS!   Yes, Dr. Holmes has computed that simply living
through the stress of Christmas earns you 14 points on the stress
     If you look at the Virgin Mary’s situation, you can see that
she earns a lot of points on the stress scale.  
          PREGNANCY, for instance, earns 40 points.
          A CHANGE IN LIVING CONDITIONS–25.  (Mary stayed with
          her cousin Elizabeth for three months.)
          Surely there must have been words between them when she
          discovered that he had not made reservations at the
Dr. Holmes says that people get sick at 200 points.  I calculate
that Mary’s ordeal earned her a whopping 424 “stressed out”
     Well to ease Mary’s stress, the angel Gabriel has confided in her this eye-popping news:   Despite her age and barrenness, Mary’s cousin Elizabeth is also pregnant.  The mystery of Advent grows in ever widening circles, revealing that God’s surprising
work can take place–
     in age or youth, 
     in the temple or in odd places like Nazareth, 
     in barrenness or virginity.  

     As we move toward the birth of Jesus one week from today, I
hope we can linger for a little while in that little hut in the
Judean hill country with Elizabeth and Zechariah and Mary, if
only to learn how God comes to us in the mostunlikely places, at
the times we least expect it.  
     The big word we use at Advent is waiting.  We talk a lot
about waiting for God to come into the world and into our lives. 
But we’ve got it all wrong.  The big word is waiting, but it’s
not our waiting that Advent is all about.  Instead, God is
waiting for us, waiting for us to believe, to trust, to open our
eyes to the unexpected.  
     The good news of Christmas is that God doesn’t stand at a
distance, waiting for us to come to Him.  Instead, in Jesus
Christ he has come all the way to us.  

Categories: Weekly Sermon

The Hate Stops Here

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

Categories: Weekly Sermon

The Mystery of Growth

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Matthew 6:19-34: August 26 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories: Weekly Sermon

But God Gave the Growth

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But God Gave the Growth

I Cor 3:7

When John Witherspoon, the only clergyman to sign the Declaration of Independence, preached at the first General Assembly meeting in Philadelphia May 21 1789  he chose this passage from first I Corinthians 3:7: “I planted, Apollos watered the plants; it was not we, however, but God who made them grow.”

Since I could not find a copy of Witherspoon’s sermon of that day,  I can only speculate on what he said.   I would like to think that Witherspoon, was conscious that a new church, like the new nation, the United States of America, faced its greatest threat not from external enemies, but from internal enmity.  That is to say, the Presbyterian Church of 200 years ago, as it launched out into the frontier to carry the gospel message, needed unity of the spirit and unity in the spirit.

So that’s why I would wager that  Witherspoon chose this text.  For Witherspoon knew that the problems the Presbyterian church would face were the same problems Paul faced in Corinth.

Someone said that reading lst Corinthians is like taking the roof off a first century church and looking in.

And when we take the roof off what we see is the most incredible contentiousness you can imagine.  Things had gotten so out of hand that people in the church had brought law suits against each other.  Paul must have worked overtime to keep this congregation from fracturing.   Paul’s appeal to the Corinthians was for unity.  Paul could say, “Diversity in the church, yes; division, never.  Candor in the church, yes, but cantakerousness, never;  frankness with each other, yes, but fractiousness, never.

People who can’t stand each other are always seeking an opening for a new round of the battle.  And so the Corinthians choose sides in support of the leadership of the church.  Some side with Paul, who is the founder of the church.  And some side with Apollos, the eloquent and intellectual preacher from Alexandria, who has succeeded Paul.  With different personalities and styles and approaches, Paul and Apollos come at the Corinthian church from different angles.   The Corinthians seize on these differences by saying, “I belong to Paul; I belong to Apollos.”  Yet Paul and Paul and Apollos themselves always have a warm and cordial relationship.  They were allies, not rivals.  To have the church split over the personalities of the leaders was the last things either of them wanted.

“I planted,” Paul writes, meaning that he was the first evangelist to arrive in Corinth, “Apollos watered,” meaning that Apollos took up where I left off, “but”  and here’s the important point, “God gave the growth.”

But God gave the growth.  Paul separates here what is primary and what is secondary, not only in church life but in all of life.  I planted, Apollos watered–human efforts, human achievement, and no doubt important.   But it is God who gave the growth.  The creation and nurturing of the faith is not the work of the preacher, or even the hearer, but is the gift of God.  The only significance of planter and waterer is that God accepts their labor and works through them; independently, they have no importance.

Look very quickly with me what this means practically, and I think the lesson applies equally in church, in politics, in business, and in the home.


First off, a lot can be accomplished by those who don’t care who gets the credit.  We have the situation in the church of what I call “Altar Egos”, pastors who must take all the credit.  Many of you must see the equivalent of it in the business world.  Such altar egos seem starved for recognition.  As Woody Allen quipped, such people must have been breast fed with falsies, so insecure they are, so hungry for recognition they are, so needing to be affirmed, to be center of the universe.

Barbara and I visited a large Presbyterian Church in a distant city some years ago.  The church had over 3000 members with five pastors.  The senior minister of the church was clearly in charge of everything.  During worship, he led the entire liturgy, gave the announcements, the pastoral prayer, and the sermon.  The only other staff member who had a word in the service was a woman who gave a brief children’s message.  That very style told me everything about that pastor and that church I needed to know. Had I been church shopping that morning, I would have never returned.  For my philosophy of leadership is that it’s extremely important to give staff public recognition, to give them every opportunity to make use of the gifts they have.  In every church there needs to be a competent staff all of whom have a vit  play in building up the church.

I get as much satisfaction in seeing one of our staff succeed in something as I might had I done it myself.  Someone in Portland, commenting on something our associate pastor did which was a stunning success, said to me, “Yea, but really, you had the good sense to hire her,” implying that the credit of what she had done finally rebounded to me.”

I replied, “It’s true, I was instrumental in hiring her, but honestly, I’m happy when she is affirmed and when our church is affirmed.  That means more than anything else to me.”

Do you remember  Peter Falk  deceptively bumbling detective, Lt. Colombo.  A few years ago, the t.v. program “Colombo” won an Emmy award for best t.v. series.  Peter Falk stood up to make the acceptance speech.  He said, “It takes a lot of people to produce a winning television series.  Producers, directors, stage hands, writers.  But when the show wins an Emmy, the star gets all the credit.  This is a very sensible system, and I wouldn’t want anyone to change it.”

Well, we all have the star system instincts.  But blessed is the organization that has leaders who are secure enough and mature enough to share the glory, who know that the building up of any organization is a team effort.  A lot of good can be done in any organization when no one cares who gets the credit.


And the second truth which grows out of Paul’s experience in Corinth is is a corollary of the first.  We are not nearly as important as we think.  I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.  I was in Corinth for a while, Apollos took over, but God is the one who responsible for the harvest.

Senior pastors have many personality quirks, but all of us share one thing in common: we need to be in control.  I never realized it so fully as when I resigned in Lake Forest.   I had about six weeks left from the time I resigned until my last Sunday.  After 8 years on the job, everyone was used to checking with me before anything of significance happened in the church.

I felt my last responsibility to the church was to help the leadership prepare for the interim between my leaving and the calling of a new permanent pastor.  So I made suggestions of what would work and what wouldn’t.  The same people who listened to my advice and counsel a month before totally ignored me.  It was maddening.  It was frustrating.  It was infuriating.  I was trying to save the church from some terrible errors.  Nobody listened. I realized once again how much I needed to be in control, and how hard it was for me to see something I loved take a wrong tack.

I saw a cute bumper sticker: “Death is God’s way of saying ‘You’re not indispensable’.”    And yet some of us think we are.  We think the company can’t do without us, and we slave for the company until that day there’s a reorganization, and we’re out on the streets.  We think that our children can’t survive without our guidance and advice, and are crushed when they reject our overtures.

Martin Marty speaks of parenting in his little book on Friendship.

“Parents who make exhausting demands for the affection of their children have not learned that a family is not exclusive or permanent.  A couple comes on stage; they are to reveal the family as an art form.  It is not an art like architecture or painting, finished and there for ages.  Their art is like the ballet, to be danced when the curtain goes up and the stage lights on.  Soon the footlights will dim, the house lights will go up, the curtain will fall.  The dance is over and the dancers move on, with memories, snapshots, and other stages ahead.  Parents who do not learn ow to let go are doing a disservice to family relations.  But if parents and children are friends, they will have been learning how to bid good-byes.”


It’s a liberating thought really, when you think about it, that you’re not as needed as you think you are–that when you submit your resignation as Managing Director of the Universe, the sun still comes up in the morning, the stars still move in their courses, and God still cares about everything you care about.  You don’t have to get as uptight over things, you can relax a little more, and what God wants accomplished, God will find some avenue through which to do it.


And now one last thought, and this is a thrilling thought to me.  When we faithfully plant and faithfully water our little garden in some corner of God’s kingdom, God promises to give the growth.  Maybe it’s not growth according to our time-table.  Maybe it’s not the kind of plants we had in mind.  But when we are faithful on our end, God is faithful on God’s end.

And as I said, that’s a thrilling–and comforting thought to me.  For surely you’ve had days like I’ve had when I’ve said, “Where is this all leading.  I’ve invested myself in this church, with these people, and nothing is happening.”  In the soul’s dark night, and the heart’s deep winter, I get discouraged, and I ask myself, “Why didn’t I choose some other vocation, some other field.”  And at times like this we need to be reminded that the final outcome is not in our hands.   We must work as if everything depended on us, but we must pray as if everything depended upon God.

What Paul is saying that when we totally dedicate ourselves to God’s kingdom, God will use us for a greater glory and greater purpose than we can even imagine.   But what’s so hard for all of us is that we may not see, even in our life time, the results of our efforts.  And that’s very tough for us, immersed in a bottom line oriented society.

A final story.  When George Smith was a little boy, he was filled with a burning desire to be a missionary to Africa.  For long years he sacrificed and studied and prepared.  High school.  College. Seminary.  Language courses.  Finally, he was sent out by the MOravian Church.  But he was in Africa only a few months when the government changed hands, and he was expelled.  He left behind only one covert, an old woman.  He came back home, contracted tuberculosis, and soon died, literally dying on his knees praying for Africa, praying for the people he had come to love.

Think of it.  All his life focused upon a dream, a life time of preparing…then he went there, spent a few months, returned home a young man, and died, feeling he was a failure.

But one hundred years later that mission of one old woman who had been converted by George Smith had grown and grown and grown to a community of 13,000 African Christians.

I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.

Categories: Weekly Sermon

I’m Gonna Sing When the Spirit Says Sing

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I’m Gonna Sing When the Spirit Says Sing

July 22 2018 Psalm 150

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 too long.”

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

So, to prepare for this service I did a google search to find out the most popular hymns for Protestant Christian.  And, as we well know, if it’s on the internet, it has to be true.

The number one hymn is John Newton’s “Amazing Grace.”  No surprise there.  By his own admission John Newton was a wretch (Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a “wretch” like me.”)  Newton was  a slave trader, a torturer, an immoral man and as far from grace as anyone could ever be. As a boy, John was captivated by the adventure and risk of life on the high seas. When he was eleven, young John Newton launched into that exciting life of voyaging, sailing, and living his dream. But the dream turned out to be a nightmare. Later in life he wrote, “I sinned with a high hand, and I made it my study to tempt and seduce others.” Newton lived a hard life with hard consequences. God got his attention though. In 1748, Newton’s slave ship was nearly wrecked by an intense storm. In the tempest, surrounded by crashing waves, cutting winds, creaking timbers, and the cries of onboard slaves, John fell to his knees and pled for mercy, and for grace. God’s grace, which reaches anyone, anywhere, saved a wretch like John Newton. Newton wrote the song years later while serving as a pastor in Olney, England. During America’s Second Great Awakening, the song was paired with its familiar tune and was widely used in camp meetings and revival services. Today, its lyrics still inspire, encourage, and instruct people about the radical reality of God’s amazing grace.

Number two is “Holy, holy, holy.”  Long before Reginald Heber penned the words to this famous hymn, the prophet Isaiah had a vision and heard the call of the angels — “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.” Hearing the chorus, Isaiah crumpled in abject humility and adoring worship — “Woe is me!” Years later, Reginald Heber felt this same awe at God’s holiness, and wrote this hymn in response to what he experienced. Heber, who was a minister in the Church of England, composed the poem for Trinity Sunday. The poem lay forgotten until after Heber died at the age of 43. His wife found the poem in a collection of papers, and shared it with musician John B. Dykes (1823-1876). The song was published with music in 1861. God has used this song to impress millions of people with the truth of his holiness.  Let’s remain seated as we sing hymn number one.

Most people have heard of St. Patrick, or at least celebrated his day’s namesake. Fewer people, however, have heard of the blind Irish monk, Dallan Forgaill, (DALLAN FORGAIL) author of “Be Thou My Vision.” Forgaill was a 6th-century Irish monk who ministered in the wake of Patrick’s evangelization and church planting. He composed the song as he remembered St. Patrick’s missionary labors and the zeal that characterized his life. For generations, the poem became part of the Irish monastic tradition, used as a prayer and chanted in the Old Irish language. It wasn’t until 1905 that the song was translated by Mary Byrne, and it was 1912 before it was versified. Today, the exalted words and Godward vision of the song are loved by believers just as they were hundreds of years ago by the Irish believers.  Let’s remain seated as we sing hymn 450.

Robert Robinson was what you would call an “unruly child.” At only eight years old his father died, and he was raised by his loving mother. In spite of Robert’s intellectual giftedness, he had a penchant for mischief. Robert’s mother sent him off for an apprenticeship when he was only 14, but once he got out of the home his life got worse. Instead of working and learning, Robert chose drinking, gambling, and carousing with the wrong crowd. Caught up in his reckless life, Robert and his friends decided to go to an evangelist meeting one night just to heckle the preacher, George Whitfield. Sitting in that meeting, however, Robert felt as if the preacher’s words were meant for him alone. He couldn’t shake the feeling that God wanted him to surrender his life and serve him. When he was twenty, Robinson gave his life to God and entered the Christian ministry. At the age of 22, he wrote the song “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing.” for his church’s Pentecost celebration. It was written as his own spiritual story — a story of pursuing pleasure and joy, and only experiencing it when “Jesus sought me.” Millions of believers can relate to Robinson’s testimony — “Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,” and the glorious testimony, “O to grace how great a debtor daily I’m constrained to be!”

A Mighty Fortress Is Our God, written by Martin Luther, is known as  “The Battle Hymn of the Reformation,” The hymn speaks of fortresses, strategy, ancient foes, and winning the battle. In Martin Luther’s time, it was an all-out battle for the faith. Martin Luther was a bulldog of a defender, going head-to-head with the established church and her officials. He didn’t flinch when challenging the Catholic Church’s departure from the true faith. Even Luther, however, had his bouts of depression. He penned the words to the song around 1527 as a paraphrase of Psalm 46. At times of discouragement, Luther would sometimes turn to his young friend Melancthon, saying, “Let’s sing the Forty-sixth Psalm. He would pull out his lute, and strum the chords of this triumphant song.  “A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing.” As the Protestant reformation rolled on, believers often experienced the sting of persecution and even death. In their final moments, many were known to sing that inspiring stanza, “Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also; the body they may kill; God’s truth abideth still; his kingdom is forever.”  Let’s stand and sing hymn 27.

How Great Thou Art was written by Carl Gustav Boberg, a 26-year old pastor in Sweden. As the story goes, Boberg was caught in a thunderstorm one Sunday afternoon after church. From his perch in the mountains, Boberg watched as the storm swept in with a bolt of lightning and massive clap of thunder. The storm hurtled through the meadows and grain fields, reverberating across the countryside with the sound of its astounding power. After the storm, pastor Boberg looked out his windows overlooking Mönsterås Bay. A rainbow spread across the sky, the birds were singing, the church bells were softy tolling, and Carl was overwhelmed by God’s power and majesty. The result was an outpouring of adoration and worship in the writing of the song, O Store Gud. The song made a circuit of translations, German, Russian, and English, and picked up a stanza from an English missionary Stuart K. Hine in 1949. Now, the song is sung by millions of Christians in dozens of languages, all praying the same heartfelt prayer of “humble adoration, “My God, how great Thou art!”

How Firm a Foundation, R. Keene (1787)

When it first appeared in print, the author’s name was only listed as “K” leaving many baffled as to the true author of the song. Extensive research has uncovered the songwriter. English pastor John Rippon published the hymnbook, A Selection of Hymns from the Best Authors, in which the song first appeared. Most likely the song was written by Rippon’s song leader, R. Keene. Regardless of its authorship, the Bible is the real foundation of “How Firm a Foundation.” Many of the song’s phrases are direct Scripture quotations, and certainly, the entire song is a Scripture-soaked testimony to God’s Word. The theologian Charles Hodge loved the song. During one prayer meeting in which the song was sung, Hodge was so gripped with emotion that he couldn’t sing the words, “I’ll never, no never, no never forsake.” The song is so rich that it is worthy of meditation, and certainly deserves the place of recognition that it has had during its long history.

It’s inspiring to hear about hymns that were written in extraordinary circumstances — thunderstorms, shipwrecks, or life-shaking events. Still, not every great hymn was written in the throes of danger or the heights of exultation. In fact, one of the greatest, “Great Is Thy Faithfulness,” was written by an ordinary man in an ordinary situation in the ordinary ups and downs of life. Thomas Chisholm was a pastor for one year, but for most of his life, he worked as an insurance agent. He was born in humble means in Kentucky, struggled with health problems, and worked hard to make ends meet the rest of his life. He wrote, “My income has not been large at any time due to impaired health in the earlier years which has followed me on until now. Although I must not fail to record here the unfailing faithfulness of a covenant-keeping God and that He has given me many wonderful displays of His providing care, for which I am filled with astonishing gratefulness.” “Great is Thy Faithfulness is a hymn for ordinary Christians about an extraordinary God.”   Rich or poor, we all can say, “All I have needed Thy hand hath provided.”

Let’s remain seated as we sing verse one of hymn 39.

Isaac Watts was one of the most prolific of all English hymn writers. Today, he is referred to as the “Father of English Hymnody.” Out of his nearly 800 hymn texts “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” is considered to be his best and most poignant. Watts wrote the song to help Christians be “prepared for the Holy Ordinance of the Lord’s Supper.” The song brings the believer from personal reflection to bold testimony, to total surrender. “Love so amazing, so divine, Demands my soul, my life, my all.”  In a survey of Presbyterians a few years ago, this hymn was ranked as number one.  Let us stand as we sing hymn 223

Categories: Weekly Sermon

The Gospel of the Second Chance

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The Gospel of the Second Chance

July 15 2018  Genesis 27: Acts 7:51-8:3

OK, true confession time.  I have been a big fan of Tiger Woods.  It=s not just because of my own golf prowess, that I would have been the Tiger Woods of my generation had I chosen golf over preaching.  Not just that.

But it=s because of his relationship with his dad, Earl, which reminded me of how close my dad and I were.

It=s because he was a role model to millions of kids, particularly kids of color.

It=s because he had a beautiful wife and two beautiful children, and that he was the ideal husband and father.

And so my grand illusion came crashing down around Thanksgiving time several years ago,  when we all learned that my hero Tiger wasn=t what he seemed to be.

He talked about all of that in his first press conference on February 19,  2011.

AI’ve had a lot of time to think about what I’ve done. My failures have made me look at myself in a way I never wanted to before. It’s now up to me to make amends and that starts by never repeating the mistakes I’ve made. It’s up to me to start living a life of integrity.

AI once heard, and I believe it’s true, it’s not what you achieve in life that matters; it’s what you overcome. Achievements on the golf course are only part of setting an example. Character and decency are what really count.@

My wife, Barbara,  tells me that one of my blind-spots is that I believe in redemption too much.  I tend to think the best of people, no matter what.  I=m sure she=s right, and that I need a healthier theology of sin, which would make me more wary and more cynical.

But I=ve been tutored by the Bible and so many of the characters in the Bible are scoundrels at heart, yet mysteriously selected by God for God=s larger purposes.

Take Jacob, for example.   Jacob is the second born son of Isaac and Rebekah. He is a twin; his brother Esau is born first, and as such the law of primogeniture applies.  The law of primogeniture was fundamental in ancient societies.  It asserts that the oldest son always come first; the oldest son is the favored son; he carries the family name.   And from  this law of natural rights whole theories of social relationships have been established.

In this story of Jacob and Esau, Jacob (and his mother who is in cahoots with him) both turn out to be despicable tricksters.  He first tricks his brother in giving him his birthright.  On a day when Esau is famished he comes into the house and smells something cooking.  Jacob gives his brother something to eat in return for his birthrightBthe rights that ordinarily belong to the eldest son.  And then in chapter 27, Rebekah suggest that to get old Isaac=s blessing (and here Isaac appears weak and frail and a little demented), Jacob is to cook his father=s favorite meal, put on his brother=s clothes, and put a goat skin on his hands and neck to disguise himself and to feel like his hairy brother.

And the old man gives Jacob the blessing.  He has only one blessing to give.  Death bed blessings were absolutely important in the ancient world; it was like a will, and Jacob, by deceiving the old father, gets written into the will and his brother, Esau,  written out.

By all rights when should we talk about the God of patriarchs, we should say the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Esau, but instead we say the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  From here on, Jacob is the main character in Genesis.  There is more copy about him in Genesis than there is about Abraham.

And because Jacob has tricked his brother out of the father=s blessing, he flees for his life.  In chapter 28 we read about Jacob=s dream, how he has a vision of angels ascending and descending from heavenBWe are climbing Jacob=s ladderBand in this dream the irony of this story comes full circle.  He has won the family=s birthright, yet he has to flee from the family circle because he is afraid of what his brother will do to him.  And God comes to him in the desert, while he is on the run.  God comes to him, while he is asleep, vulnerable, in a dream  bringing not the reproach he deserves, but bringing a promise that he will be the bearer of the covenant, the covenant given to Abraham, given to Isaac, and now given to the second born, Jacob.

The Bible is full of scoundrels.  Moses was a murderer, David an adulterer, and Peter denied Jesus three times.

But for my money one of the most despicable characters in the entire Bible is Saul.  Saul is present at the stoning of Stephen.  For a moment, imagine the scene.  A victim of stoning is either buried up to his waist or bound hand and foot.  Then the stoning begins. The stones are specifically chosen so they are large enough to cause pain, but not so large as to kill the condemned immediately. They are guaranteed a slow, torturous death.

Saul watches all this, and we are told in Acts 8:1 that he approved of it.  And we go on to read how the church was persecuted and how Saul was ravaging the church by going from house to house, dragging both men and women off to prison.  What happens to them in prison, we can only guess, but it was not pleasant.

You know the rest of the story, how breathing threats and murder against the disciples (9:1) Saul goes to the high priests to get permission to travel to Damascus to search out any Christians and bring them bound back to Jerusalem.  And you know what happens on the Damascus road how a lightning bolt crashed around Saul and Jesus appears to him, asking ASaul. Saul why do you persecute me.@

And for the rest of his life, Saul, who becomes Paul, turns his passion inside outBfrom persecution to proclamation and became the individual  most responsible for taking the gospel beyond the confines of Judaism to the Gentile world.

How very odd of God, inexplicable, to choose Saul.  How very odd of God, inexplicable, to choose Jacob.  How very odd of God, inexplicable, to choose Moses, and David, and Peter.

How very, very odd of God, inexplicable to choose you and me.

And I know you are running ahead of me now, and you see where all this is leading.  What we have been talking about this whole morning is God=s grace.  Grace, according to C.S. Lewis, is Christianity=s unique contribution among world religions. AGrace means there is nothing we can do to make God love us moreY and grace means there is nothing we can do to make God love us less.@

Some time ago I was talking to an old man.  Nearing the end of his life, he took the opportunity to tell me as a pastor what a Roman Catholic does in the confessional with his priest.  No matter how hard he had tried over a long life-time, he had failed to  his life completely over to Christ.  He had done some things that hurt his family.  He had not lived up to his own standards, much less God=s.   He cried as he told me all this, a proud, accomplished, educated man, and he cried.

I listened, not saying anything.  I listened to his confession.  And after he had exhausted hiss regret, I said to him: ACould I read to you a few verses Psalm 103?@

AFor as the heavens are high above the earth,

so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him,

As far as the east is from the west,

so far he removes our transgressions from us,

As a Father has compassion for his children,

so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him.

For he knows how we were made;

he remembers that we are dust.@

And then I said to the old man.  As I understand it,  the heart of the Gospel is this: It is not our grasp of God that counts, but God=s grasp of us.  It isn=t how much we believe in God that counts, but that God believes in us.  It isn=t our faith that causes God to loves us.  God loves us in spite of how much or how little faith we have.@

What I told that old man I believe that with all my heart.  AGrace is God giving  us what we do not deserve and mercy is God not giving us what we do deserve.@

God can take our mistakes and failures and turn them inside out.  God is a good of new openings, of bold initiatives, a God who has an unalterable will to redeem.

At the end of Tiger Wood=s press conference he said this: AFinally, there are many people in this room, and there are many people at home who believed in me. Today, I want to ask for your help. I ask you to find room in your heart to one day believe in me again.@ And if I could have a personal word with Tiger I would say this: ATiger, I=m pulling for you bud.  After all, the gospel I preach is the gospel of the second chance

Categories: Weekly Sermon

Three Nights at the Celebrity Theater

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Three Nights at the Celebrity Theater

In the past year Barbara and I have been to the Celebrity Theater downtown f or three concerts.  The first was Franki Valli, the second Tony Bennett, the third Johnny Mathis

Frank Valli, born  Francesco Stephen Castelluccio, May 3, 1934, became known as the lead singer of the Four Seasons.  His hits include Sherry, Big Girls Don=t Cry and Walk Like a Man.  He had a number one hit before the Beatles, during the Beatles, and at least after the Beatles.  All in all, he has had 29 hits in the top forty.  In recent years he has become even more well-known with the play Jersey Boys.

He tours constantly, and here is a free tip, the big take home message from this sermon.  He will be in Phx at the Celebrity Theater on January 19 & 20, 2019.  Tickets go fast.  Let those who have ears, let them hear.

Valli was interviewed a couple of years ago  ago by Dan Rather for ABC tv.  Rather said, AYou=ve still touring….you=ve sold over  100 million record.  You surely don=t need the money.  Your still touring.  Why are you doing it?

Valli: If I didn=t tour  I don=t know what I would do with myself.  I=ve tried to cut down my schedule a few times.  Take some time off.  I go crazy. @

The second concert was Tony Bennett.  He was born in Queens, N.Y. as Anthony Dominic Benedetto, Tony Bennett , was born in Queens, N.Y. on August 3, 1926.  I=ll spare you the math; he=ll be 92 next month. Drafted into the US Army in November, 1944 and spirited to the front.  He fought with he 263 rd infantry division into Germany, which he called Amy front row seat in hell.@  His unit was responsible for the liberation of the Nazi concentration camp near Landsberg, Germany.  As a result of what he experienced in the war, he became a pacifist.  What great songs he sings: rough his songs, AFly Me to the Moon,@ AThe Very Thought of You,@ and of course his standard, AI left my heart in San Francisco.@   In addition to that fabulous voice he is quite an accomplished painter.  He sketches or paints every day, and when, on tour, sketches what he sees outside his hotel window.  And he=s still touring.

Barbara reminded me that we attended a Johnny Mathis concert at my college on the night we were engagedB1965Blong ago, and far, far, away.  Johnny Mathis was born in 1935 in Gillmer Texas of all places.  When he was a child his family moved to San Francisco.  He was track and field star and got an athletic scholarship as a high jumper at San Francisco State.  He aspired to be a phys ed teacher.  He was invited for the Olympic Trials in 1956 in Melbourne, Australia but turned it down to go to New York City to make his first recording.  The rest, as they say, is history.

In 1982 he confided in a magazine interview that he was gay.  Today when he isn=t touring he=s an avid golfer, having had several holes in one.  When he was interviewed on a talk show about his career, he said, AI sing.  I can=t do anything else.@  I sing.

I admire these three men for obvious reasons, but for a couple of reasons you may not know.  The three of them are recovering cocaine addicts.  As Robin Williams once quipped, ACocaine is God=s way of telling you are making too much money.@  Having lived in a family of addicts, I know how cunning, baffling, and powerful addiction is, and sadly, how few make it to a life-long sobriety.  So I salute these three stars for an achievement which is greater than all the gold records they have made.

But I also admire them for a living a purposeful life.     All three of these men are involved in a rigorous touring schedule.  Franki Valli, 100 shows this year.  Tony Bennett 3 to 4 shows a month,   Johnny Mathis two shows a month.

And as Franki Valli observed to Dan Rather: AIt=s not for the money.  It=s to keep from going crazy.@

A friend of mine from PPC and I were talking about retirement.  He said that he knows a man at his golf club who plays golf every day.  AWhy so much, golf, Joe?@  He asked.

AIt=s just the way I fill up my time.@

The golf legend Harry Vardon said, ADon=t play too much golf.  Twice a day is plenty.@

A good friend of mine, Bill Forbes,  a Presbyterian minister was diagnosed with a very serious illness ten years ago.  who had just been diagnosed with a very serious illness. He was not expected to live long.  But he didn=t die.  I saw him at General Assembly.  He had a wicked sense of humor, he said to me, ADon=t ask.  Yes, I=m still here.@  He wrote us all a letter.

AMy docs are baffled,@ he wrote. AI told them it was the power of prayer, reasonable eating habits, exercise, massage, a little snake oil here and there, and a wicked sense of humor.@ AI didn=t expect to be here to write this letter.  And yet, I am.

AWhat have I learned? And then Bill told usC

Each day is a gift.

The greatest gift we can give to each other is encouragement.

Don=t sweat the small stuff.

Prayer shapes my life as never before.

At the end of his letter the pastor became pastoral. Bill wrote,

A None of us knows how many days we will be granted. As you look in the mirror each day, take time to marvel that you have been created in the image of God [and that you are still here]. Count your blessings. Smile more and frown less. Tell those you love how much you love them. Share yourself abundantlyCgive thanksCkeep a twinkle in your eye . . . and laugh.@

Great advice from a good friend, wonderful pastor, and great guy.

Well, like Bill Forbes there is a day coming, sooner than we want, when we will no longer be on this earth.  But in the meantime we can age with pizzaz,  like Franki Valli, and Tony Bennett and Johnny Mathis, and Abraham and Sarah, who reminded us in our scripture reading this mornings that we can launch out with bold new ventures when we are 75 and have babies when we are a hundred.  We can live each day singing our songs, and helping others.  After all ,Yogi Berra said, AIt=s ain=t over, till it=s over.

Categories: Weekly Sermon

The Refugee Family

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The Refugee Family

July 1, 2018

King Herod was troubled, and all Jerusalem troubled with him.   The Magi have arrived in Palestine asking: AWhere is the one who is born king of the Jews?@  Herod summons the chief priests and scribes and inquires where this king is to be born.  And citing OT prophesies they reply, AIn Bethlehem of Judea.@ And so this venal and crafty ruler send for the Magi and instructs them, AWhen you have found this new-born king, come and tell me so that I, too, may go and worship him.@  SURE!

After Jesus is born he is  visited by the AMagi@ who present gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. But the tranquility of Asilent night, holy night@ is quickly broken by news of Herod=s intent to kill this baby. AO little town of Bethlehem B how dangerous you are to this vulnerable child.@

Herod was born around 73 B.C.  He was reared as a Jew.  He ruled in behalf of the Romans.  He was well versed in politics and assassinations.  During his reign Brutus and Cassius assassinated Julius Caesar in 44 B.C.  And a year later, Herod=s father was assassinated .

The Roman senate appointed him king of Judea in 40 B.C., and he retook the city of Jerusalem three years later from enemies from the east B the Parthians.

Herod survived only by ruthlessness.  Kill anyone who posed  a threat to his power. And he seemed to know more about the promise of the messiah than most. Having been raised in the Jewish tradition he likely connected the dots from Isaiah=s prophecy of a Messiah who would take Athe government upon his shoulders@to the king born in Bethlehem of Judea.

Herod was always on the look out for political rivals.  He  captured and killed any in Jerusalem who criticized him, and thus turned Judea into a police state.  Dissenters and opponents were executed. The country was swarming with spies and informants all.   He  regularly tortured confessions out of suspects before executing them. Private meetings were banned. In response to one assassination attempt by ten Jerusalemites, he tortured to death the wouldbe assassins and their associatesCand he had their families killed.

Herod was determined to kill any potential rival king. In 35 B.C., he had his brotherinlaw Aristobulus drowned in a swimming pool Aaccident@ because he had become popular with the people. Political conspiracies and fabricated rumors bred quickly in Herod=s court {and family}. He had ten wives and eight sons, and the question of who would succeed Herod caused incredible turmoil. Y He {even} killed three of his sons, fearing they might assassinate him. And so, the Magi are warned in a dream to not cooperate with HerodYand they get out of town quickly lest they become his next victims.

When Matthew tells us that Herod was troubled and all Jerusalem with him, we now understand what this means.  The citizens of Jerusalem wondered if they might somehow be linked to this  unknown king.

Meanwhile, Mary and Joseph are also warned in a dream of Herod=s agenda and quickly escape to Egypt. No time to Aenjoy@ motherhoodY no time to take pictures and post them on Facebook. No time to show off their newborn baby. They escape Bethlehem and flee to a safe haven in Egypt.  Lucky for them there wasn=t a wall to keep them out.

It=s an interesting turn of events. Jesus a  refugee child.  Ending up in  Egypt of all places. The very place where Jesus= ancestors were enslaved for 430 years. For that reason it was a place of last resort. But refugees are rarely given options.

Herod is determined that his rival will not survive.  He orders the slaughter of all baby boys in Bethlehem.  But Joseph, Mary and Jesus have already made it to Egypt.  They stay there until the get the news that Herod has died.  Then they return.  By this time Jesus is three or four years old.  But when they arrive back in Judea they learn that  Archelaus was reigning in Judea in place of his father Herod.  Like father, like son.   So they knew they were not safe in Judea.  So they then travel to the district of Galilee and settle in a small town called Nazareth, where Jesus will grow up.   Like so many refugees they have made the journey back to their homeland to learn they are still in danger.  They are seeking a safe haven.  They are seeking a better life.

We hear this story from Matthew this morning, this story we have  heard so many times at Christmas, and yet today in a different time of year and we hear it with different ears.  The holy family as refugees, desperate to escape a perilous situation, packing everything they own on a donkey and making a journey of 1000 miles by foot across the Sinai desert.

Unless our hearts are hardened beyond repair we hear this story with utterly broken hearts.  We hear it and we are reminded that one  in every 113 people on Earth have been driven from their homes by persecution,  by  conflict, by natural disasters.   We hear it at a time our own government is separating children from their parents at the our  border  An act so cruel that it is inconceivable to be happening in a country which is the finest democracy ever to exist on this earth.

We should put duct tape on the mouth of the Statue of Liberty, who has proclaimed to all the world, AGive me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free.@

As much as the refugee problem is in the headlines in our country, our problem is small.

Across the world 20 people are forcibly  displaced every minute as a result of conflict or persecution.

The top 5 areas that refugees are from are Lake Chad Basin, South Sudan, Afghanistan, Somalia, and Syria.

The majority of refugees and displaced persons are being hosted in Africa and the Middle East.

The world=s largest refugee camp is Uganda=s Bidi Bidi refugee settlement.  Over 285,000 people live there.

Roughly 50% of all refugees are children under the age of 18 B despite the fact that children only make up about 30% of the world=s population.

The number of refugees, asylumseekers and internally displaced people around the world has topped 65 million, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said in 2016. As of December 2015, there were 65.3 million displaced people, according to a report from the refugee agency.

But do I hear murmuring in the congregation.  Do I hear someone saying quietly to herself, AA sovereign nation cannot have open boarders.  We cannot let everyone in the world who wants to come here, for whatever reason, to flood into our country.  It would be chaos.@  And I agree with that thought.  This is a complicated problem with no easy solution.

The U.S. has not passed major immigration reform legislation since the Reagan administration, and we still use standards developed in the 1960s to determine who we permit to enter the U.S. A system this outdated cannot meet the needs of our vibrant, growing 21stcentury economy. Progrowth immigration reform can raise the pace of economic growth, increase per capita GDP, and reduce the deficit.  I put in the announcement section President Reagan=s speech on immigration.  It is worth your reading. Here is one quote from President Reagan: AFor one, we very much need an  immigration bill we need protection for people who are in this country and who have not become citizens, for example, that they are protected and legitimized and given permanent residency here.@

Here are five policy recommendations for a new immigration policy  in the United States.

1. Keep Our Labor Force Vibrant Through Immigration.

U.S. natives are not having enough children to replace our current population, and by extension, our labor force. A shrinking population and labor force will cause our economy to contract. More immigrants are needed to keep our population, labor force, and economy vibrant and growing.

2. Move to SkillsBased Immigration

Our current immigration system is overwhelmingly based on family reunification. Other developed economies, like Canada and Australia, admit immigrants primarily based on skills and education. Shifting the priority to a skillsbased immigration system would allow us to get the workers we need to drive economic growth while maintaining the important family reunification component.

3. Overhaul the temporary work visa system. For many temporary worker visa categories, the current system is inadequate. The caps are too low to meet market demand. The process is too burdensome to make using the legal visa system worthwhile. And some categories, like seasonal agricultural worker visas, do not meet the needs of the employers seeking workers.

4. Find a reasonable solution for the undocumented. Nearly 11 million undocumented immigrants and their families live and work in the U.S., contributing significantly to our economy. Deporting all of them is impractical, expensive, and inhumane. A reasonable solution allowing lawabiding undocumented immigrants to live and work here legally is imperative in any serious immigration reform.

5. More legal opportunities create a more secure border.

The U.S. has open jobs. Immigrants come here to fill those jobs. More legal opportunities to immigrate reduces the incentive to cross unlawfully or overstay a visa. With fewer unauthorized entries to pursue, our immigration enforcement resources can focus on the real criminals.

These are policy recommendations from the Bush Presidential Center in Houston, Texas.  Mrs. Laura Bush has said: AThis country will always will always be a place that welcomes each visitor with open arms.@

I want to close with two quotes:

AWhen a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God. Lev 19:3335 (ESV)31

AWhen the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.34 AThen the King will say to those on his right, >Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.=37 AThen the righteous will answer him, >Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?=

40 AThe King will reply, >Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these { brothers and sisters of mine}, you did for me.= (Matthew 25)

Categories: Weekly Sermon

Lead Us Not Into Temptation, But Deliver Us From Evil

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Genesis 22:1-19 Matthew 6:7-15

June 10 2018


Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.@  This is clearly the most difficult and least understood petition in the Lord=s Prayer.  Why would God want to lead us into temptation?

Lets all put on our scholar=s hats for a moment and do a little exegesis of the Greek text.  The Greek word here can mean two things.  It can mean Atemptation@ or it can mean Atrial.@

Again and again the Bible points out that when are tried, it=s good for our soul.  AWhen God has tried me,@ Job says, AI shall come forth as gold.@(Job 23:10)    ACount it all joy, my brothers and sisters,@ says James, Awhen you meet various trails, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness@ (James 1:2).  And one more: AIn this,@ writes Peter, Ayou rejoice, though now for a little while you may have to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith, more precious than gold which though perishable is tested by fire, may redound to praise, and glory, and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.@

So it=s the same word in each of these cases, temptation and trial.  We prayed a slightly different version of the Lord=s Prayer today, the ecumenical version which is used in many Protestant and Catholic churches.  ASave us from the time of trial,@ this version goes, Aand deliver us from evil.@

Although we don=t always like to be tried or tested, we know it=s good for us.  A few years ago I decided to train for a marathon.  A marathon is a little more than 26 miles, and the hardest part of the marathon isn=t the race itself; it=s the training beforehand.  On Sundays after I preached two times, I would attach my Walkman to my waist and go running through the streets of northeast Portland for three hours.  Now that was hard and boring to do those long runs by myself.  But it caused me to reach down into myself to a place I didn=t know was there.  And when I completed my first marathon, running through a driving rain in Seattle with a side stitch so painful I felt like crying, I knew I could do anything.

Well, it wasn=t true.  I couldn=t do anything, but I thought I could.

A marathon is a trial, a test of character and endurance.

Taking on a job bigger than we are is a trial, a test.

Beginning a marriage is a trial, a test.  Half the couples don=t make it.  Those of us who have been married for a long time don=t criticize those who get divorced, because we know how hard it is.  After all, the bible says the two shall become one flesh, but it just doesn=t say which one.

Every time I date a man I think: Is this the man I want my children to spend their weekends with? ‑‑Rita Rudner

The rock star Rod Stewart said, AInstead of getting married again, I’m going to find a woman I don’t like and just give her a house.@

Well enough of that.  Marriage is a trial, a test of character and endurance.

We admire people like Pat Tillman so much.  Why?  Because he gave up a career as a millionaire NFL athlete to become an Army Ranger.  Being an Army Ranger is far less glamorous, far more risky, and far less rewarding financially than being an NFL star.  But Pat Tillman knew there were some trials in life worth sacrificing for.

So the basic meaning of the word here that we ordinarily pray, ALead us not into temptation,@ is ASave us from the time of trial.@

Let=s go on and talk about this petition of the prayer a little more, in light of what we know about ourselves.  Then we can see how practical this prayer is.  For….

Sometimes we are tempted to take the easy way out;

Sometimes we are tempted to ignore the suffering of the  world,  because otherwise we would have to change our schedules and get involved.

Sometimes we are tempted to justify our actions when we know we have made mistakes.

Sometimes we are tempted to try to get our own way instead of acknowledging the needs of others;

Sometimes it is tempting to live in the past or the future because the present is so unpleasant

Sometimes it is tempting to try to hide from God, because we simply do not want to make the changes we know we have to make if we give God everything we have and are.

Someone passed on to me this week a book about the life of Presbyterian Medical Missionary, Clarence Salisbury.  Dr. Salsbury began his medical missionary career in China in the early 1920’s.  He came home for furlough and was planning to go back.  But he was contacted by Dr. Ned Dodd, the secretary of the medical board of foreign missions.  Dr. Dodd told Clarence Salsbury about the need for a doctor on the Navajo Indian Reservation in Arizona.  He came to visit him with some pictures of the mission and a few scraps of general information.  Dr. Salsbury listened to the need without any enthusiasm.

AGot to find somebody,@ Dr. Dodd said.

Dr Salisbury was uncommital.

Then he realized Dr. Dodd was looking at him.

AI don=t know anything about Indians.@

AYou didn=t know anything about Chinese either.@

ANavajo Indians are very interesting people.@

AI won=t do it.@

AJust fill it, Clarence.  It=s only a matter of time until we find the right man to take it on permanently.  These people have got some serious problems out there. There=s an epidemic of diphtheria.   You can=t turn your back on them.@

AWell, I=ll go for a month.  One month. If we can=t get the epidemic under control in a month, it=s hopeless.@

AOh, you couldn=t do anything at all in a month.  You=d scarcely get your bearings.@

AOK.  Two months.  That=s the limit.  I=ll be back here in two months, and you=ll find a permanent man.@

AWell, try, Clarence, we=ll try.

It was a rather protracted two months.  Clarence Salisbury arrived on the 17th of May, 1927 and retired in 1950.  Today he is a renowned medical pioneer of  our state.

I think this story reveals the meaning of the  first part of the petition.  Clarence Salisbury was praying, ADo not lead me into the trials of Ganado,@but that trial forged his character, and gave him a career more rewarding than any he might have chosen for himself.@

And then the second half of this petition, ADeliver us from evil.@ Clarence Jordan puts it this way in his colloquial Georgia dialect, ADeliver us from evil=s sway.@  I like that phrase Aevil=s sway.@  It lacks the red suit and pitch fork of our comic version of Satan or the haunting and terrifying version of Satan in films like Athe Exorcist, but it captures what the Bible treats far more compellingly, the fact that evil often has a charismatic appeal and is wrapped frequently in the most appealing package.@

Well, most of the images of Satan or the Devil are caricatures.  But there is nothing funny about the power of evil. Every week, it seems, there is another shooting, so many of them in schools  We are five months in 2018 and there have been 101 mass shootings 23 of which have been school shootings.  Each week we have stared into the awful face of evil.

In a wonderful little commentary of this prayer, Dr. Tom Long says this: AThe best way to understand the petition, >Do not bring us to the time of trail= is to envision the congregation heading out the front door of the church to do god=s work in a storm-tossed world and whispering the prayer >Keep us safe out there, O God.  Let the forces of evil tremble to see us coming, rather than the other way around, and bring us home at the end of this day even stronger in faith than when we go out=.@

I hope by now that you all can see that when we talk about temptation and the power of evil, we are talking about serious temptations, not those itsty-bitsy sins, but temptation that strikes us where we are at our weakest and most vulnerable.  For it is only here that the prayer takes on real meaning for us.  For words like Atrial@ and Adeliver@ are words of crisis.  They remind us that to pray this prayer is to be thrust in the middle of a cosmic struggle.

I will call her Betty.  Betty was a member of my church in Portland.  She and her husband, Ken, joined our church when they were both in their late 60’s.  I got to know them, and Betty found out our teenaged-daughter was in treatment for drug and alcohol abuse.  She asked me to come over to here house.  She told me very simply, AI am an alcoholic.@ She told me her story, how she attended AA regularly, but had never managed to have more than seven or eight months of sobriety before she would start to drink again.  I told her I would always be glad to help and to talk to her.  Sometimes she would call me late at night while she was drinking, so I made a pact with her, that I would never talk to her while she was drinking.

At first, when I met her, I think I felt contempt for her.  For I remembered my own grandfather who was an alcoholic, and even as a child, I had no respect for him.  But over time, as I became more educated about the disease of alcoholism, I learned as they say in AA that it is a cunning, baffling, and powerful disease.   And seeing what drugs and alcohol had done to my own family, my contempt over time melted into compassion.

One day Betty asked me to come by her house.  She was sober, but she had drunk all weekend.  And in tears, she said something I will never forget.  She said, AI do not want to die a drunk.@

Even now, years later I can hear the pathos and the despair in those words.  I do not know if Betty died sober or a drunk.  I left Portland and lost track of her.  But I do know the temptation to despair that she felt, for I have felt it myself, and so have you.  The despair that we will never be healed of some festering problem.  The despair that those we love may never  get it. The despair we feel when there is so much wrong in the world, and the wrong is  so strong.

Broken and worn down by this despair, the only weapon we have left is this: this prayer.  When we are angry or despairing or lonely, our only choice as Christians is to turn to the one who taught us to pray.  In turning to him, we know that despair does not have the final word.  And that=s the good news of the gospel.

Categories: Weekly Sermon