Category: Weekly Sermon

Youth Sunday

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Dear Friends,

This past Sunday, August 31st, was Youth Sunday. The youth put on a skit

for the Message that was a reading of the book, “THE VOICE” by R.W. Metlen.

“Follow me,” said the Voice. He was fishing when he heard the Voice.
He was satisfied with his life, and the time of the call was inconvenient.
He wanted it to go away but the Voice would not. Instead, it offered the invitation again, this time with an added complication. What could he do? Try as he might, he could not ignore the Voice, but neither could he leave his place of security.

Until, suddenly, that, too, was changed.

This is a fable about an invitation encountered during a life given to other pleasures. It is a story to reflect on, to laugh with and to wonder over. The simple text, combined with funny, evocative drawings, is written for people of all ages, faiths and backgrounds. Whoever has heard such a voice, or longs to hear one, will identify with the story and be moved by its possibilities.

I first read this book to campers at Montlure Presbyterian Church Camp in Greer during a session in which “discipleship” was the theme of the curriculum for the summer. The campers loved the book and asked me to read it over again for a “bedtime” story. I think it depicts Jesus’ calling of the disciples and the account in Matthew in which Jesus walks on water, challenging them not to be afraid. Only Peter is willing to climb out of the boat and go to Jesus, walking on the water…until doubt (weak faith) creeps in and he begins to sink. (Matthew 14:22-32).

Find a comfortable chair to sit in and read the text of “The Voice.”

“Follow me,” said the Voice. (A puzzled fisherman has his line in the water.)

“Follow me, said the Voice. I did not want to listen. (Fisherman is peeking over the side of the boat.)

“I love you,” said the Voice. (Surprised, puzzled look on the fisherman’s face.)

The Voice, whoever it was, was very intrusive.

“Go away. I’m fishing.”

I could feel it watching me.

Eventually, I caught a fish. I was feeling very proud of myself.

“You’re welcome,” said the Voice. “Leave me alone,” I replied.

The Voice was silent, but it didn’t go away. I lay back to take a nap.

Then, quite unexpectedly, my boat sprung a leak.

I found the hole and plugged it with one of my toes. (Fish is nibbling on his toe.)

That Voice was putting holes in my boat! (Evil thoughts depicted by a skull and crossed bones.)

I yelled, “VOICE, I DO NOT APPRECIATE YOU!” (Yelling, panting.)

“Stop behaving so badly,” said the Voice, “and just follow me.”

(After being a target of jeering) The Voice let out a long sigh.

My boat began to leak again.

At first, I refused to plug the hole. I thought, “I’ ll show that Voice how tough I am. I’ll just go ahead and drown.” (Humph.)

Then I got scared. I didn’t really want to drown.

It took my whole leg to plug that hole. I could feel the fish tickling my foot in the water below.

“Stupid fish,” I thought.

Everybody was picking on me. (Sigh.)

I wanted to go home, but I couldn’t reach my oars.

I WAS STUCK!

I began to cry. (Wah-h, sob.)

“Follow me,” said the Voice.

“Why won’t you leave me alone?” I asked. I was feeling sorry for myself.

“I already told you. I love you,” said the Voice. “Follow me.”

“I CAN’T! If I move, my boat will sink!” (Whine.)

“Let it sink,” said the Voice. (Puzzled look.)

“LET IT SINK?” I asked. “Don’t you care about me? I’ll drown! I’ll become fish food! I can’t swim!”

“You won’t have to swim. Just follow me,” said the Voice.

I sat there, wondering what to do. This seemed like an awfully dirty trick. How did I know I could trust the Voice?

There seemed to be no other option.

So I pulled my toe out of the first hole. Immediately water began filling the boat. “Better pull your other leg out too,” recommended the Voice, “or the boat will drag you down with it.”

So I did.

The cold water rushed in as the boat sank.

I called out, “Help! Voice! Help me!”

“Open your eyes,” said the Voice.

(Man is walking on the water–gasp!)

“Follow me,” said the Voice.

(Man is seen tip-toeing across the waves on the water.)

So I did.

As you can imagine, the kids acting out the skit with their version of the boat, plus the bouncing paper waves, got the point across.

We are blessed to have faithful disciples in our young people!

Categories: Weekly Sermon

QM=Quiet Mode – Exodus 1:8-2:10

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In our era of technology where communication with a family member, friend or work cohort is just a text message, tweet or face book entry away, what if God turned to a function of the Norton Anti-Virus program for computers? There is a QM, a “Quiet Mode” that refers not to “absence” or to “hiding,” but to a suspension of certain activities. The Norton program doesn’t “cease” to function, it continues to display alerts and notifications during the QM session. While using a computer to perform tasks that require higher utilization of the system resources, Norton automatically suspends the background activities and lets the task use the maximum system resources for better performance. The QM function of the Norton program can be compared to the way God functions. When God sometimes seems invisible, God in fact, is working on our behalf all the time.

Between the close of Genesis and the opening of Exodus is a four hundred year time span. At the end of Genesis, Jacob’s sons (the 12 tribes of the Israelite nation) and their families were living in Egypt as welcome immigrants. One of the sons, Joseph, became Pharoah’s right-hand man, holding an honored and responsible position in the Egyptian government. During the four hundred years Jacob’s descendants prospered and grew in numbers and financial dealings. Various pharoahs came and went on Egypt’s throne, and when the account in Exodus begins, another king (pharoah) has come to rule Egypt, who never knew Joseph or his family. Pharoah felt no obligation to honor an ancient promise of hospitality to the Hebrews made by one of his predecessors in power long ago. The current pharoah perceives Jacob’s descendants as a potential threat to Egypt. He sees their very numbers as dangerous and thinks that if Egypt were ever to engage in war, the Hebrews might side with the enemy–or escape from Egypt, taking a huge number of the labor force with them (What a premonition!). Pharoah asserts his power over the Hebrews by introducing chaos into their lives by enslaving them (work them to death by making bricks) to build massive government projects. The Hebrews did the work and continued to grow in numbers, which led Pharoah to call in two Hebrew midwives, Shiphrah and Puah. He instructed them that when they delivered girls to Hebrew women, they could live, but any boys were to be killed. The Hebrew midwives “feared God” more than they feared Pharoah, and they ignored his decree.

Needless to say, when Pharoah got wind of the news that his order was being disobeyed, he called in Shiphrah and Puah who created a bold-faced lie in defense of their actions. They wove the response that Hebrew women gave birth so easily that the babies arrived before they could get there to assist. The Pharoah, totally removed from the birthing process, actually went along with their story. The Bible relates that because the midwives feared and respected God, and did not kill the babies, that God gave them families of their own.

Pharoah had a plan and was sticking to it, so he ordered the Egyptians to cast every Hebrew boy born into the Nile River (crocodile infested), but they could allow the girls to live. The threat sets the stage for Moses’ birth, whose mother hid him in a basket in the bulrushes. Moses would eventually lead the Hebrew people out of slavery in Egypt. Pharoah saw male children as a threat, but in reality, the midwives saved many children. He did not realize that his own daughter would adopt a Hebrew boy found in a basket woven by his mother. Moses’ sister, Miriam, would suggest to Pharoah’s daughter who found the baby, to employ a woman to be a wet nurse for him–his birth mother–and even get paid for it! The princess saved the baby who would grow up to undo Pharoah’s plans for the Hebrews.

Where is God in this account? God is only mentioned when the midwives fear God more than Pharoah and God gave them families. God was there in the prosperity and growth of the Hebrew people, in spite of Pharoah’s plans. When Moses was born, something momentous from God happened. There was no angel announcement, only a quiet home birth. There was no prediction that God would send a savior to rescue the Hebrews from their forced labor. Moses’ mother plotted to keep him alive and she set him afloat in the very river in which the Egyptians were ordered to drown the male children they found. What motivated her to conceive the plan and to choose the place to hide her baby? Who made it possible for the Egyptian woman who found the child to be one of power and wealth–and had a compassionate heart? She ignored her own father’s command even though she recognized the child as a Hebrew and took him in to raise as her own son. Had God abandoned the Hebrews or gone into “Quiet Mode?”

Much later in Moses’ life, God will speak to him through a burning bush, inflict plagues on the Egyptians and lead Israel with a pillar of fire at night and a pillar of cloud by day–and part the Red Sea for the Israelites to escape. Certainly the Israelites would have been content if God had engaged in “active mode” many years sooner before conditions had deteriorated. We wonder along with the Hebrews why God waited so long to intervene on their behalf? Shiphrah and Puah knew that God was all about life; creating it and preserving it, flourishing life. God frowns on that which diminishes life and well-being. Even if the current pharoah did not know Joseph, the midwives knew his story and kept it in their hearts. The knowledge of God’s providence of the Hebrews through Joseph was enough to spur them on, both in choosing life and preventing death. The women of Israel know that the God of life offers blessing and they try to put themselves and their children in the way of the blessing. The only way Moses survived was through the bravery of the midwives, his mother, his quick-thinking sister and the compassionate princess.

What would we look like if we put ourselves in the way of God’s blessing? What would it mean to take seriously that we will be held accountable for our time, our talents, and our actions? Even knowing that we have been saved through Jesus Christ, we know that God is still working in us, still helping us to mature in our faith, and still calling us to respond to God’s nurturing and shaping.

Faith is a way of interpreting what we see in the world. Some of us look at the events and see a bunch of happenings, some of which are triggered by cause and effect claims, and some that are unrelated stuff that just happens. Sometimes we detect the movement of God in “Quiet Mode,” but moving nonetheless. Perhaps we should picture faith as the guy sitting at the sonar post in a submarine. He listens through his earphones for the slightest sound to indicate the presence of a nearby, possibly enemy sub, running quiet and deep. The captain has to determine what to do based on the information the sailor at the post reports. A sonar technician must have normal hearing to decipher the various frequencies that are within the standard range. Faith seeks out the quiet sounds of God in a world filled with lots of noise. It does not take extraordinary spiritual ears to detect the work of God, just ears open and listening carefully. Jesus said, “Let anyone with ears to hear listen!” (Mark 4:9). Faith believes that God is in ordinary and troubled circumstances. God works in “Quiet Mode” through people (like the midwives) who trust themselves to God more than they trust the powers of the world and culture around them.

Is God active in our lives today? Is God sowing the seeds of recovery and redemption? Is God working in “Quiet Mode” to allow us to have full access to our own resources to deal with whatever comes at us? Is God staying behind the scenes but working through the lives of people, whom we do not expect to be part of the solution, rather they are part of the solution? God is quietly empowering us to do the work we are being called to do. How long will we be in “Quiet Mode” before we respond to God’s call?

Amen.

Categories: Weekly Sermon

Evil Transformed – Genesis 45:1-15

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Today’s Old Testament reading occurs about three fourths of the way through the account of Joseph, his family and his adventures in Egypt. After several encounters with his brothers in Egypt when they did not recognize him, interacted with him only as governor, and in chapters 43:19-44:34, he charged his brothers with theft, Joseph lost control of himself and emptied his house of everyone except him and his brothers. He broke down in tears and revealed himself to his brothers, asking if his father was still alive. Joseph revealing his identity to his brothers is the climax of a narrative about power, family loyalty and betrayal, and above all, the divine oversight of human affairs. The brothers are stunned as they realize that the pampered and resented younger brother (with the coat of many colors; spoiled rotten) that they sold into slavery decades before, and the one they presumed to be “no more” is alive and very well–well off! He survived their abuse and has become the second most powerful man in all Egypt. Joseph is now overseer of the region inhabited by Jacob’s sons.

Once persecuted and ensnared by an evil plot, Joseph is now in a position to shower God’s mercy to transform the evil acts of his brothers. He could have been arrogant and sang Mac Davis’ song, “It’s Hard to Be Humble:”

Oh Lord, it’s hard to be humble when you’re perfect in every way. I can’t wait to look in the mirror ‘cos I get better looking each day. To know me is to love me: I must be a hell of a man. O Lord it’s hard to be humble but I’m doing the best that I can.”

Think about the issues of elementary school kids today on the playground and in the classroom with bullying. No one likes a bully or a braggart. Joseph’s dreams about his brothers bowing down to him in obeisance caused a sore spot to fester in each of his brothers’ hearts. Joseph got the pretty coat from his father and had sympathy from his father because his mother had died giving birth to his younger brother, Benjamin. At seventeen years old Joseph even dreamed that his brothers were like sheaves of wheat bowing down to him and they questioned his authority over them. The brothers were exceedingly jealous. They did not want to hear Joseph brag about being superior to them. In reality, Joseph was not trying to brag or “lord over” his brothers, but God was weaving a plan for Joseph. He was following the life that God had prepared for him. He would be incorporated into a plan that seemed evil at the onset–his own brothers wanted to kill him out of jealousy for attention and power, an evil plot for sure, but an older brother did not want Joseph’s blood on his conscience forever. So, instead, Joseph was sold into slavery and the brothers were rid of him, they thought.

As a slave in Egypt, Joseph rose to a position of responsibility in the household of an Egyptian official. He was falsely accused of making advances to Potiphar’s wife and thrown into prison–captured again! Still part of God’s plan. Joseph is aware that it is God who has made him successful. When Pharoah remarks about Joseph’s ability to interpret dreams, Joseph says, “I is not I; God will give Pharoah a favorable answer.” God given dreams about Joseph’s brothers bowing down to him have become a reality. Joseph recognizes his brothers, who have come to Egypt to buy grain in the midst of a famine in Canaan. Joseph now holds the lives of his brothers in his hands. It is the perfect scenario for revenge. Joseph does not gloat and say, “I told you so.” He uses the opportunity to test his brothers before telling them that this powerful Egyptian official is in fact their long lost-not dead-brother. Joseph could not stand hiding his identity and had to tell his brothers the truth. “I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?” If you had plotted to kill your brother or a good friend who was portrayed as family, and “despised” him or her, never expecting to hear or see the person again, how would you feel about meeting them face-to-face and to know that they held the lucky card in a poker hand?

You might expect that Joseph would talk about his trials and how he made it from the pit to the palace. But Joseph does not see his brothers as groveling fans, nor does he list all of his accomplishments. Instead, he has them come closer to tell them, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold in Egypt. Do not be distressed or angry with yourselves. God sent me before you to preserve life.” Joseph sees his life through the lens of God’s purposes. If he is going to brag about anything, it is going to be about God. “God sent me before you to preserve a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. It was not you who sent me here, but God. God made me a father to Pharoah, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt.” Even though you intended to harm me (evil act), God intended it for good in order to preserve a numerous people” (transformation in action), as he is doing today. Joseph, who interpreted visions, has a vision of a God who will make things right. God created everything and called it “good” and Joseph sees that no matter what humans will do in their sinful, self-serving nature, it is God who will make it good again. In the end, humans have nothing to boast about unless we are boasting about our God.

It is God who reconciles a broken world and can reconcile even a broken family like Joseph’s or our own individual families. Only God’s grace makes that possible. Paul tells us in Romans 5:11, “We can boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, from whom we have now received reconciliation.” God’s forgiveness is awesome. Joseph realized that God had blessed him with the ability to save his family and to forgive his brothers for washing their hands of their pesky, spoiled little brother, whom God used to save the remnant of Israel from starvation. Hope of survival came to Joseph’s family through the very brother they had rejected. Hate, disdain and evil deeds can be reshaped by God to accomplish God’s purposes. God only wants us to live with his purposes in mind.

Amen.

Categories: Weekly Sermon

Treading Deep Water – Matthew 14:22-33

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When I was in high school, I had to execute a life-saving dive from the diving board ten feet over the pool and tread water for five minutes to pass Physical Education. I have never been able to tolerate the chlorine in the pool; it makes my nose bleed on contact. So…I volunteered to go first after the instructions were given, figuring I would get it over as soon as possible. I jumped, my legs hit the water and then my arms, in what turned out to be the perfect dive–my head never went under the water and I had full view of the imaginary victim at all times as I treaded water. The teacher applauded and said, “That is the way it should be done.” I was so relieved and never had to repeat the dive—until I was a senior in college, visiting my cousin with my date and we were invited to go swimming in his pool. My date jumped in and his feet hit the slope of the decline to the deep end of the pool and he went under. He had had a collapsed lung from pneumonia two years prior to that event and I could see the panic on his face as he tried to surface. I jumped in with my life-saving dive–it worked again, but the victim pulled me under trying to get to the surface. My cousin kicked off his shoes and jumped in to help me. Every time I read this account in Matthew, I remember the fear my date had as he sank in the water. I remember Peter’s prayer, “Lord, save me!” I prayed that same prayer for my date that day–and for myself!

I think that everyday life is a stormy season–an ongoing monsoon that can swallow us whole when we least expect it. In Matthew 14 Jesus was tired. He had been grieving over his cousin, John the Baptist’s death and sought a space to be alone, but the crowds sought him even more. Last week we talked about Jesus feeding 5000 people with two small fish and five barley loaves. He spent time teaching and feeding and healing them–and then sent his disciples off so he could go up a mountain to pray and rest in the quiet eventide.

The disciples went out on the Sea of Galilee and a squall developed, buffeting the boat about and scaring them into believing that they might sink. They were too far out to wade back to shore. The wind was against them and they had been rowing hard. They were soaking wet, hungry and bone tired. Jesus was beginning to miss his friends in the wee hours of morning and did something so unimaginable. He walked out on the roaring sea towards the boat with his friends. “It is a ghost!” the sailors cried out in fear!

Do you ever have days like those of the disciples? Eighteen plus hours of work, meeting crabby demands of people like your boss and co-workers or customers, enduring sleepless nights because of sick family members or extended work hours, your car broke down just before the same freeway exit as it did on the previous day, you are hot, restless and exhausted and afraid because God seems more like a ghost or phantom than a rescuing, comforting savior? Maybe you have even gotten a challenging diagnosis from the doctor or a phone call during the night and you heard the voice of one of your kids say, “I have been in an accident.” Days like that come upon us with little warning and we are consumed with fear. We feel swallowed up in darkness and wonder what to do next. How will we ever get through the current crisis?

We need to remember Jesus’ soothing words, “Take heart, it is I, have no fear.” Peter spoke up first, as usual. It was dark, the wind was howling, and the sea spray was probably stinging his eyes, making him wonder if he was really seeing Jesus. Only Jesus’ voice was clear and Peter called out, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” Without any hesitation Jesus said, “Come!” The other disciples sat, watched and waited to see what would happen. I would guess that they had white knuckle vice-grips on the sides of the boat, anticipating what they might see next. Thank God for the Peters among us. When life grows stormy, when we cannot see, when all is tired, wet and fearful and no one knows what to do, God sends us a Peter. A Peter is someone who can think outside the box, who has not been told that “it” cannot be done. A Peter seeks adventure and comes to us from the unlikeliest of places. It can be a stranger who offers a kind word, not knowing what traumatic encounter you have recently experienced. Or maybe it is like the little boy sitting on his neighbor’s lap in the rocking chair on the porch next door, crying with him because he is lonely after losing his wife of 60+ years. That child, like compassion and faith, encourages us to ask God for help.

Peter takes that leap of faith as he swings his legs over the side of the boat and drops down on the sea, eyes affixed on Jesus. He does it! He walks on the water toward Jesus. Peter did the impossible–until he looked down at the waves slapping against him and heard the wind howl and he began to sink. He called out, “Lord, save me!” and reached out to Peter with a strong, steady hand. As long as Peter focused on Jesus and only glanced at the danger, he was lifted up over the water. When he focused on the water and only glanced at Jesus, he sank.

It is a matter of perspective and faith. Jesus said that a day would come when people’s hearts would be weighed down with fear of what would happen to the world. We read and hear and see the ugly snarl of humanity all around us. The world and our experiences can be sinking places. John Ortberg wrote, “If You Want to Walk on Water, You Have to Get Out of the Boat.” You have to leave your safety net/zone. There are times we have to abstain from television news, papers and magazines because they disarm us and fill us with despair. We can allow ourselves to sink in the world’s miseries or we can intentionally look to God. We can read examples of other human trials in Scripture, spend time in prayer and spend time with fellow believers to help us stay focused on what God intends for our lives. God who is able–sustains us all. For all who tackle a cause, work to labor with God, to do the impossible, unthinkable and all that– is doomed to failure unless God is in it. We need to remember that it is by God’s strength that we can do what we do. It is like the old story about three friends crossing the stream. The first one confidently stepped into the water and gingerly forded the stream. The second one stepped, wobbled and kept balance and made it to the other side. The third one stepped in, stumbled and promptly fell in with a loud splash. What happened? It looked so easy. Well, the other two replied, you were supposed to use the stepping stones. God is the stepping stone in our life stream. With God we look less to ourselves and look more to Jesus. We gaze less at the world and are more riveted to faith in God. When Jesus and Peter climbed back into the boat, the disciples whispered to Jesus, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

In the times we are treading in deep waters, we need to focus on the possibilities God intends for us. An old hymn chorus says, “On Christ the solid Rock I stand; all other ground is sinking sand, all other ground is sinking sand. Our hope is built on nothing less.”

Amen.

Categories: Weekly Sermon

A Balanced Diet – Matthew 14: 13-21

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What do the Diabetic Diet, Weight Watchers, Jenny Craig, Nutri-System and TOPS all have in common? They are all diets designed to maintain a healthy, balanced diet for the physical body. Losing weight and keeping if off has become a national obsession for some folks. Once the weight has gradually fallen off, it is really helpful to maintain a regular exercise program and to build a support system of folks who have been on the same journey. Jesus and his disciples got in a lot of physical exercise as well, walking everywhere they went.

Weight management can be a journey filled with days of frustration. There are also days when weight loss survivors want to brave the intrusions of personal space to do something new or to be close to someone they admire–even if it means moving from the armchair in front of the living room television to a stadium seat in the nosebleed section of the ball park to experience the game from a new perspective. There is excitement in anticipating what might happen at the game.

Jesus caused crowds most of the time and people had difficulty even getting close enough to hear what he was saying. He once got into a boat and pushed it away from the shore so that more people could hear him; his voice resonating over the water…and freedom from the crowds pushing all around him. He broke away to spend time in prayer with his Father and to recharge his batteries.

Jesus’ presence was inviting. He issued personal invitations with words like: come and rest, come and follow, come and drink, come and dine, come away with me, and leave that crowd to be with me. Jesus’ understanding of people goes beyond the ordinary and usual. He has the ability to give personal attention to every face in the room or to every soul on the hillside and along the lakeshore.

Singing “Jesus Loves Me, This I Know” can make the darkest nights sleep-able and make days bearable. Being in a crowd anticipating Jesus is a good time to have a moment of realization, rather than imagining a “virtual reality” moment, so popular today.

In today’s reading from Matthew, Jesus has just learned that his cousin John, the Baptizer, has lost his head…literally. He is looking for a quiet, secluded place to ponder the loss of a family member, the same prophet whom God had called to prepare the way in Zion/Jerusalem for the One who was to come to usher in the Kingdom of God. Jesus was always surrounded, whether by his disciples or curious onlookers. They asked questions and shared observations. Who would sit at Jesus’ side in the Kingdom of God? When was Jesus going to overthrow the government? We have a reserved place in the crowd because we have some of the same questions and doubts. Included in Jesus’ peripheral vision, are those with no faith and those who are looking for proof of life in the faith of others.

Jesus sees people who are looking for their place in the crowd. Some come early and some arrive late. How can all fit into their respective places in the Kingdom of God? In the grand scope of life, from beginning to end, Jesus is in control and there is nothing in the crowd that is new or anything that will cause his authority to be in jeopardy.

Jesus does not overlook our needs from day to day or for the future. All are welcome in the Kingdom of God. Jesus looked out into the crowd and had compassion on all of them. They were so needy that it was impossible for Jesus not to notice. They flocked to see him. No coffee breaks, no croissants or watermelon slices. No cookies or bottled water. It was late in the afternoon and the hunger games had started. Jesus saw that there was a noticeable need. His response was tangible. He touched their lives in a way that allowed them to put their trust in him. He multiplied what few provisions that could be found and fed their bodies. His feeding of the 5000 plus was not about future spiritual blessings, but about current tangible needs. It was not about the hope of a brighter tomorrow. It was not about becoming stronger in faith. Jesus cares about what we are muddling through every moment of every day.

Jesus asked his disciples to distribute the loaves and fishes. He invited them not only to sit and eat but to serve all in need. People that day shared a “Jesus Meal–a Jesus Happy Meal.” It was a balanced meal of protein and carbs(carbohydrates), like any of the nutritionally balanced meals I have already mentioned. All present were in need of instant and sustainable energy, to be brought out of a sluggish state to a place of participation and renewal. A chance to get on their feet renewed and ready to get going and share the Word of God. Think of it this way, God’s Word is calorie free, re-energizes and motivates us all to get up and get moving. Jesus promised, “I will never leave you or forsake you.” That promise gets us going and gives us hope.

Jesus has already provided at least a few seeds for what he intends to multiply in our daily lives. No crowd is devoid of hope. There was no need for manna to rain down from the skies, or for one thousand quail to flutter through the air. Just five loaves and two small fish. Not much for a crowd of more than 5000 and barely enough for a small dinner party to eat.

But in addition to the bread and fish there was something else: willpower–an initial act of obedience and sacrifice. One small boy’s lunch and his willingness to share, kick-started a miracle. Jesus has a way of stating the obvious, so when it came to feeding the crowd, he asked them, “What do you have?”

Jesus did not search the crowd for Twinkies, apples, Jolly Ranchers, cookies or popcorn–any of the hidden snacks we may have brought along. Most of us would have answered, “Not much!” and let it go at that. Yet, when all was said and done, the disciples collected twelve doggie-baskets/bags, leftovers to take home. Jesus knew this would happen. After all, God had been providing for twelve tribes on their life journey through deserts and oases for years. He had called twelve disciples to be Jesus’ assistants. Jesus knew his crowd, based on their past. He was concerned about their present and about their future. There is more to life than counting calories. Years ago my children participated in a musical at church that the Youth Choir presented. A messenger from God (named “Grace”) passed out invisible vitamin G tablets to all who came saying that God’s grace is sufficient and vitally necessary to all to have a balanced diet. Jesus came to sustain us all and to give us hope, and to lead us into everlasting life. Jesus is the bread of life we all crave on any diet plan.

Amen.

Categories: Weekly Sermon

Great things come in small packages – Matthew 13: 31-33, 44-52

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When I was young, my parents instilled the idea that great gifts come in the smallest of packages and small acts of kindness and small suggestions can develop into awesome possibilities. My brother and I looked forward to searching our Christmas stockings for the smallest wrapped gift–it was always the most meaningful, selected especially for each of us to fit our personalities. One year my brother received a Hop-a-long-Cassidy watch (Oh, if he only still had it!) and I got a Cinderella watch. We were learning to tell time and were so excited to have our new timepieces. It was our beginning awareness of the importance of time in our lives.

As we encounter Jesus’ parables in Matthew’s gospel, we are awakened to the potential of the power of God’s kingdom that Jesus came to proclaim. The gospel’s promise had tremendous possibilities from very small beginnings. Matthew was a creative writer, who carefully arranged Jesus’ teachings by similar subjects and that concept rings loud and clear in Matthew 13. Jesus told of a mustard see which is very small and grows to be a great tree. Next, he told about what he had seen his mother do many times–she put a small lump of yeast into the bread dough, knowing that soon it would influence all of the flour. Jesus then speaks about a treasure hidden in a field and how a man spent a lot of money to get that treasure by buying the whole field.

One by one or taken as a whole, these vignettes teach a great lesson to us disciples who so often count the cost, the possibilities of failure, the meager size of the project compared with the problems to be addressed, and we never even get started in the first place. Jesus said, “Don’t underestimate how a little beginning can grow into spectacular results.”

If you have ever braved baking bread, you know that the dough has to rest after it is mixed together with the yeast to allow the yeast to grow and emit gas bubbles. The bubbles, working with the gluten in the flour, allow the bread to expand in a warm, moist environment. The recipe usually gives a suggested time period to allow the dough to rise. If left too long, the mass can grow out of the pan, all over the counter and–even drip to the floor producing a big, gooey mess. At the time the yeast was added to the dough it seemed to be an insignificant little bit of something–but oh, how it grew!

Jesus promised that same kind of result in his kingdom. “The Kingdom of God is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into a large amount of flour until it worked all through the dough” (Matthew 13:13) or “The Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed: when it grows it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree…” (Matthew 12:32). Jesus is telling us that it is an important understanding for us who are working at being faithful disciples, that the coming of God’s Kingdom causes a transformation in our lives as dramatic as yeast in dough.

When millions of people are starving, we do not hesitate to give our money to the CROP WALK or to put our pennies in the little house in the narthex for Presbyterian Women to send in to help alleviate hunger around the world. When so many youth in our culture are neglected and age out of “the system,” we can offer weekend food bags, school supplies, toiletries and basic clothing necessities. When the community asks for volunteers or goods to go to New Life Center or Eve’s Place to aid victims of domestic abuse, we report for duty by bringing in clothing, household goods and toys to help improve the quality of life in the kingdom. God can do great things with what others consider inconsequential, not big enough or valuable enough to make a difference. Sometimes a little thing like a thank you note or a phone call of appreciation becomes a small act of kindness that can develop into more acts of kindness.

Christianity can and does bring about big changes in lives. There are transformations of cranky people into kind and patient ones and greedy folks into generous, sharing ones. Whole communities can be changed with Christian leaven, changed to love people of all races, cultures and abilities. The homeless and battered can be sheltered from the cold and the hungry can be fed. It is not because we began a little bit for the kingdom here with great big designs. It is just that we took what little we could do & trusted that these simple parables of Jesus were correct descriptions of how it is in the kingdom–little does grow into much and is sometimes almost unseen and unheralded.

God has worked it out to provide our forgiveness, salvation, a spiritual life here, and eternal life beyond the grave. It was an unpromising beginning in a cave in Bethlehem, a ridiculed new kind of ministry, a resented-by-the-religious establishment’s relationship with the church, and a disgraceful crucifixion as a common criminal. The world and our own lives have been changed because of those beginnings.

The man in the third parable who found a treasure and bought the field had his priorities right. He spent a lot but he obtained his treasure. This tells us that sacrifice is appropriate in certain cases of kingdom work. In a day of “You will get what’s coming to you,” and “Don’t let anyone take advantage of you,” we have a lesson in kingdom priorities which says that for some things, it is still worth paying the price.

Because of this parable, we must search our souls to discern what price we and our family ought to pay in order to have what our culture says we should have to be happy. Often we are much older before we realize that true joy does not come from possessing things, but in quality relationships with others. Like Jesus’ first disciples, we are called to find ways to plant seeds, even if they are very small. We also must mix in and be the leaven for the whole loaves. God has called us to be workers in the kingdom. Jesus also teaches that there are treasures on earth for which we ought to sacrifice. In the kingdom sacrifice starts small and grows, and we also benefit from sharing our money, our time and our abilities for others. Sharing our whole self is very much called for in God’s kingdom (we pray: thy kingdom come, thy will be done). If we have a vision for the Kingdom of God, we will be warmed and encouraged by these three kingdom parables of Jesus. The smallest understandings of the Kingdom of God can produce great progress as we work together to make the world closer to the Kingdom God desires. Great things do come in small packages, doses, steps, however you want to describe them.

Amen

Categories: Weekly Sermon

Walking in God’s Shoes – Romans 8:12-25

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Last summer I traveled to Toronto, Canada, where I visited the Shoe Museum. It was a most interesting place displaying shoes from antiquity like Greek, Roman and other civilizations, plus “shoes” from Indian tribes indigenous to Canada, right up to contemporary time. Some of the recent shoes were from famous people like Sir Elton John. His shoes were bright red boots with appliqued initials on the calf: E on one boot and J on the other with seven inch platform soles. Would that bring him closer to God or endear him to his audience?

There is a website called Bored Panda that lists weird and some awesome inventions like a Pizza scissors (combination of spatula and scissors that makes it simple to cut and scoop up a slice), a Weight watch belt (with marks on it to help you see as you are getting dressed whether you are gaining or losing weight–boo!), LED slippers (with bright headlights on the front to make it easy to navigate a dark house) and my favorite: No Place Like Home shoes embedded with a GPS. Put on the shoes, let them know where you want to go, and blinking red lights will direct you turn by turn as you take a walk. Don’t worry about the GPS in your phone, these shoes will do the walking! It’s an interesting idea if you are willing to get up and actually walk somewhere. A friend in the first church I served more than twenty years ago said that our modern generation has “gasoline butt” and do not walk anymore–not even to the park only three blocks away! We could call these “shoes made for walking” God Shoes. According to Paul, we make wrong turns repeatedly and are guided more by our own desires than by God’s will for our lives. Paul’s letter includes a discussion of the Spirit in relation to the flesh, moving on to the hope of fulfillment. He notes first that we are debtors, but not to the flesh, for to live according to the flesh (our worldly desires) leads to death by sin that has corrupted our bodies by living within us. If we live by the Spirit of God, then the deeds of the body are put to death and we will live forever with God. All who are led by God’s Spirit are God’s children and as God’s children, we are heirs with Christ. The Spirit leads us to praise God our Father by our witnessing to the power of the Spirit; by the way we live our lives in service to God.

Paul does not consider the suffering of our present times to be worth comparing to the glory of God which will one day be revealed to us.

Biblical studies professor Richard Carlson, says that if we choose to live according to the flesh, we are: self-centered (our own desires at the heart of our decision making), self-serving (rather than neighbor-serving or God-serving), fractious (irritable and quarrelsome) and engaged in autonomous living (acting independently, without regard for the surrounding community). It means that we are more concerned about looking out for our personal interests and constantly asking the question, “What’s in it for me?” A pair of LED slippers will be no match for the darkness we will encounter if we choose to live by the flesh. Better for us to put on the “God Shoes.” They do not have to be bright red with our initials emblazoned on them. It is better to be filled with the Spirit; like wearing the fan-dangled GPS shoes that can show us the right way to go to keep from being lost. The leading of the Holy Spirit is God’s greatest invention, one that meets our needs at the most critical times, helping us through the twists and turns of life that lie ahead of us.

We realize that we begin to find our way when we accept that we have been adopted by God. We have a chance to step into God’s shoes. We can be like little kids who clomp through the house wearing Mom’s high heeled shoes or Dad’s hunting boots with dangling leather laces–untied, of course, and feel a connection to our Maker.

As adopted children, ones who are willing to call God our Father (or more intimately, Abba=Daddy), we have rights as “heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ.” As heirs, we can expect to receive grace, love and the guidance of God, which are gifts given to us, not because we earn them, but because we inherit them. As members of God’s family, we are given the right and the privilege to step into God’s Shoes and to walk in his way.

As heirs of God, walking in the Spirit requires us to walk in the way of the cross. The path is other-centered (desires of others at the heart of our decision making), other-serving (rather than self-giving), reconciling (focused on healing broken relationships) and interdependent (acting in concert with people around us). This path is tough but it is grounded in hope. Paul says, “In hope…we wait…in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen. But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience” (v. 20-25). Hope is what keeps us walking forward; what motivates us to listen to our spiritual GPS when we are faced with fear and sufferings. Hope sets us free to throw away our old shoes of death and decay and to put on God’s shoes and follow the Spirit’s leading. We have this hope because we now know who our real Father is!”

When we follow the guidance of the Holy Spirit and walk in the way of Jesus, we can be confident that we are playing a part in the plan that God has for the healing of the entire world. In time, says Paul, “The creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” Until then, we keep walking. We have good days and bad, successes and failures. Some days our struggles are painful and we know that is our reality check. We are waiting for adoption, for the redemption of our bodies. So, tie on your God Shoes and allow yourself to be “led by the Spirit of God,” kind of like waiting as a pedestrian wearing a pair of GPS embedded shoes. Focus on being other-centered, other-serving, reconciling and interdependent, sowing unconditional love to those around you. Hope for what you do not see, and wait for it with patience. God will direct you every step of the way–sometimes through suffering and adversity–knowing that “we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. Nothing in life or death or anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (v. 38-39). Put on your God Shoes and let those shoes keep you walking.

Amen.

Categories: Weekly Sermon

People Who Influence Our Lives – Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

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TIME magazine did a survey asking who was the most significant person ever.  The top results were not terribly surprising: 1. Jesus, 2. Napoleon, 3. Mohammed, 4. William Shakespeare and 5. Abraham Lincoln.  Presbyterians will note that John Calvin was listed as 99 out of 100!  All of these folks were real people.  Another list was compiled of the most influential people who never lived:  Sherlock Holmes, Wonder Woman, Ebenezer Scrooge, Betty Crocker, Rosie the Riveter, Mary Poppins, Indiana Jones and Romeo and Juliet.  These folks got a fictional life because someone created them.  Without fictitious people we could not speak of a man having an Oedipus Complex or a woman acting like Cinderella, or battle with Dr. Frankenstein’s Monster.  Our lives are richer because of the people who never lived.

The Bible speaks of a Prodigal Son, a fictional character created by Jesus to make a point.  The Sower is another fictional character created y Jesus.  Unlike a cultural character like the Marlboro Man, the Sower has spiritual depth.  No one comes close except perhaps the Good Samaritan.

Jesus has such a huge following on land beside the Sea of Galilee that he retreats to a boat and teaches from there as people stand on the shore.  Jesus teaches in parables, stories that do more than communicate information; they engage people, sometimes delighting them and at other times, forcing them to dig beneath the surface to understand what is being said.

In today’s gospel reading, Jesus says, “A sower went out to sow.”  In our minds we can picture the Sower in the field with a bag slung over his/her shoulder, scattering seed amongst the furrows.  While walking along some of the seeds fell on the path and the birds came and ate them.  The story never tells us about digging holes or making furrows or covering the seeds with soil.  The Sower just keeps tossing seeds–some on rocky ground and when they sprouted, they were scorched by the sun.  As the Sower continues his work, some seeds land in the thorns and they are choked when they begin to grow.  Some seeds fall on good, fertile soil and bring forth grain, a harvest beyond his wildest dreams:  30, 60, 100 fold.  At first, the farmer seemed a bit careless, tossing seed randomly and assuming that there would be a harvest in spite of the losses.  He believed growth would come.  Jesus tells the account in an effort to keep sowing the word of the Kingdom of God, even though the words land on religious people, some who think he is possessed, on disciples who struggle to understand his teaching, and on one occasion to a rich young man who is unwilling to part with his possessions in order to follow Jesus.  The Sower keeps sowing and Jesus keeps spreading the word.

The Parable of the Sower teaches us that Jesus throws good seed everywhere, knowing that most of it will be destroyed.  As followers of Jesus, we should do ministry and mission in the same way.  We need to welcome others as Jesus has welcomed us, and preach a message of unconditional love and unlimited grace.  Jesus calls us to be faithful to him and to the Kingdom of God, not to be successful in a worldly sense.  It is peculiar, but as Jesus explains this parable to the disciples, the focus shifts from the Sower to the Soil.  When the message emphasizes the Soil, it reminds us that we should all be good soil–people who hear the word of the Kingdom of God and understand it.  Jesus promises that the person who does so bears fruit and yields in multiples.

When you hear about the kingdom, do not be like the path which is susceptible to the evil one who comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart.  Do not be the rocky ground in which a plant has no deep roots and endures for only awhile.  Do not be thorny soil in which the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing.  Do not be like Don Draper, a Mad Men protagonist, who never lived but vividly portrayed the dark side of worldly success.  The problem with the soil is that it merely sits and receives the seed.  It cannot choose to be good or bad.  If you saw a farmer yelling at his soil, ordering it to be good, you might wonder if he was what my husband used to say, “His elevator does not go to the top floor” or “He is one brick short of a full load.”

And then, we read that Jesus commands us to “listen!”  Listen to the story of the Sower and learn that Jesus is generous in sharing the word of the Kingdom with all the people of the world.  God’s Word is fruitful and a great harvest is guaranteed.  The Kingdom will come when God decides it will come.

The Sower reveals to us that Jesus is in charge, spreading the Word about the Kingdom of God.  Our job is to trust what he is doing, and to share this message with joy and generosity.  If we do, we will feel the influence of a person who never lived and we will be following a Savior who really lived and died, and rose to be with us forever.

I like to recall stories told by well known radio broadcaster, Paul Harvey.  In 1978, at a Future Farmers of America convention, he gave a speech that was an extension of the Genesis narrative referring to God’s action on the eight day of creation.  Harvey described the characteristics of a farmer in each phrase, ending with the statement, “So God Made a Farmer.”

The speech was used by Dodge Ram in a commercial during the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XLVII (February 3, 2013).  The ad featured photos of a portion of Harvey’s speech.  In collaboration with the Future Farmers of America, Dodge agreed to donate $100,000 for every one million U-Tube video hits the ad received–up to one million dollars!  The goal was reached in less than five days.

Harvey’s speech in reference to God’s creation work on the eighth day went:

  • God needed a caretaker for the land he created.  So God Made a Farmer.
  • God needed somebody with arms strong enough to wrestle a calf and gentle enough to deliver his own grandchild.  So God Made a Farmer.
  • God needed someone  to call hogs, tame cantankerous machinery, come home hungry, have to await lunch until his wife was done feeding visiting ladies, and then tell the ladies to be sure and come back real soon, and mean it.
  • So God Made a Farmer.

Paul Harvey is a real man with faith in a genuine Savior, Jesus, who listened and understood the parable and related it in a way we can use to visualize the Kingdom of God.  And NOW we know the rest of the story.

Amen.

Categories: Weekly Sermon

Jesus Lightens Our Load – Romans 7:15; Matthew 11:16, 25-30

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Every year at this time we remember our country’s birthday and the amazing freedoms we have that came with a price, the lives of many who fought for independence. In my family we added my brothers birthday, July 3rd to the celebration and reminded him that he got fireworks for his birthday! Our forefathers compiled the Declaration of Independence, granting us particular privileges and freedoms in our nation.

In this morning’s New Testament reading from Romans, Paul. speaks of a law that is good, granting us parameters to abide by and we have a choice to make: we can choose to follow the law or we can opt not to follow the law. If we disregard the civil laws, we pay the price for our errant ways. God’s law has an amazing, generous proviso that would not stand up in the courts of our land. If we sin against God and God’s directives, then Jesus steps in to rescue us from death to sin. Jesus paid the price for us who place our trust in him. On Judgment Day, when we stand before the Lord God Almighty, we are trusting that the judgment will be stamped “PAID” in full by the blood of Jesus. Our court system, as wonderfully designed as it was, will not allow a proxy to serve out a sentence in place of the individual convicted for wrongdoing.

We live in the best of times that can also be called the worst of times, to borrow a line from “A Tale of Two Cities.” Jesus lived in a time period in which folks were just as confused, wayward and hardened of heart with inappropriate behavior–not quite so different from our era. The people of Israel were like children playing, but could not get the other children to celebrate, even when they played music. Some of the kids played going to a funeral” as others were celebrating nearby. How is it that people can be so fickle? We grouse about how burned out we are while enjoying the highest standard of living in the world, along with all the conveniences that minimize work. Who here is unhappy about conveniences like gas/electric stoves versus wood stoves/campfires, automatic dishwashers and vacuum sweepers (I used to marvel at the carpet beater Grandma kept in the laundry room to spruce up the area rugs over the clothesline–no wall-to-wall carpet either!)? Think about the squawking we do as we sit at our desks to answer e-mail or complain that it never lets us off the job. How often can you turn the radio on in your car and hear RAP music expounding/lamenting about the meaninglessness of life and the degradation of relationships between people?

The people in Jesus’ day had their own perverse ways of living and thinking, and attitudes which permeated their religious life. Today we tend to criticize some people for being too “extreme” in their religion, and then we talk about those who appear too life affirming to be “religious.” We are certainly inconsistent nit-pickers! Jesus continued his remarks by giving thanks that his teachings are hidden from the wise and intelligent. Martin Luther, preaching on this text, once said that people in the church do things the way they want and feel that they just improve on everything God does. Jesus, using his authority, attempted to alert listeners to the sins of their times and we need to be aware of the sin in our lives. John Calvin put it this way, “Jesus tells us that the reasons why most men despise his grace, is, that they are not sensible of their poverty…Let our miseries drive us to seek Christ, let us learn, that there is no venom more deadly than the slothfulness produced in us either by earthly happiness, or by a false and deceitful opinion of our own righteousness and virtues.” In modern day “speak,” Calvin means that only when we know how sinful and twisted we are, will we appreciate grace, God’s forgiving love and our need for it.

In spite of economic hard times and poverty around us, America is still the wealthiest nation in the history of the world. Wealth cannot buy the most important things in life–inner peace and love in marriage and family life. Have you noticed people who seem intoxicated with life, rushing from day to day, and wildly plunging into supposed happiness because they do not want to admit that they are unhappy and burdened? People spend a lot of time seeking happiness and wanting to be entertained. Some can become a burden to themselves and then realize that they need a person who can be fully trusted, a person who understands, hears, and bears all things. Webster calls a “friend” a supporter or sympathizer. A friend helps us to make the burdens we encounter a little lighter.

Jesus is a real friend, the one who makes God known to us, and in a way that demands so little of us, just as true friends make few demands of their friends. A good friend once gave me a plaque that read, ” A friend is someone who likes you just the way you are.” Jesus said, “My yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” In my life experiences, I have learned that friendship is an unearned, joyful gift, a relationship in which people are free to share life in memorable ways. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said that Jesus is one who thinks and lives for others. In Jesus we have a full time intimate friend who helps make us sane. With all our squawking despite the machines and tools we have to make our lives easier, our moaning when we should be rejoicing sometimes over things that warrant mourning, we need a sane friend to do some thinking for us. I think we need a friend who will exercise authority, take charge and lighten our burdens.

Besides telling us that his yoke is easy and his burden is light, Jesus is reminding us that he is “gentle and humble in heart,” that in him we can find rest. Jesus wants to give us rest from our burdens. Friendship with Christ is not a burden. He makes all our burdens feel so light. It is like the hymn we sang earlier:

“What a friend we have in Jesus., All our sins and griefs to bear!…Do your friends despise, forsake you? In his arms he’ll take and shield you; you will find a solace there.”

How does Jesus make our burdens light? Jesus takes away our sin and gives us companionship as we deal with personal problems and the social issues of the day. Jesus makes life more bearable and a little more firm by giving us the Holy Spirit. Having the Holy Spirit in the trials, challenges and duties in life helps lift us up and enables us to face them. Friendship with Christ and the Holy Spirit makes life easier and more fun.

Hanging out with Jesus and the Holy Spirit makes life fun and shatters a lot of stereotypes about Christian living, but then Jesus was a fun guy. At least, that is what the gossips said in verse 19. Critics say he was a glutton and a drunk who hung with a rough crowd. He is offering to hang with folks like you and me, so maybe we should party with him–and get the word out about our friend.

“We should never be discouraged. Take it to the Lord in prayer. Can we find a friend so faithful, who will all our sorrows share? Jesus knows our every weakness” and loves us just the way we are.

We have the freedom to choose our friends, who are gifts from God. Happy Birthday America! Thank you for freedom of religion.

Amen.

Categories: Weekly Sermon

Youth Program

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Last week’s message was done by the youth group.  Focus was on songs and the Montlure experience.  They also thanked the congregation for sending them to camp.

Categories: Weekly Sermon