Category: Weekly Sermon

Prayer Power – Luke 18:1-8

The texts for today speak about perseverance. In Jeremiah God promises to love and forgive people in spite of any past misgivings or sinful ways.  Paul, writing to Timothy, reminds him that he must be persistent in proclaiming the gospel whether the timing is favorable or unfavorable, to convince, rebuke and encourage with the utmost patience in teaching. In Luke’s gospel, Jesus told a parable about a woman who continually went to a judge to plead her case.  The judge is the metaphor for God, who continually hears the cries of people, who repeatedly  come to God in prayer.  God answers all prayers, but the greatest concern is, “How many will continue to seek God in their lives and live out their faith until Jesus comes again?  Will any faithful be left?

If a thoroughly secular and selfish civil judge ruled in favor of a widow who pestered the judge constantly with her pleas, how much more will God who is holy and self-giving respond affirmatively to our prayers if we bring them persistently to God?  Timothy is urged to react to God through faith in Jesus as the Christ (Messiah) and God is said to react finally to us if we pray persistently following the example of the widow in the parable in Luke 18:1-8.

Have you ever lost heart because of the long, unexpected delay during which God has not yet responded to your prayer (s)?  At least, from your perspective God has not yet answered your prayer request.  The message in today’s gospel emphasizes that believers of Jesus should persevere in prayer and that eventually God will provide a positive response.  This message still rings true today.

Remember the US Postal Service’s “Dead Letter Department/Office”?  That is the place where mail goes that is not clearly addressed, has insufficient postage, or the sender’s identity cannot be determined.  The letter is opened and its contents examined for clues to the sender’s identity.  The letter will be destroyed if the return address cannot be determined.  The letter never gets to its destination and any requests from the writer remain unanswered. Do you feel like your prayers never reach God?  Jesus tells us how to address our prayers to God so that they will be received and answered.  Jesus told us to ask in prayer, “Ask, and it will be given you” (Matthew 7:7).  He gave another example by telling about the widow who went to the judge to ask for justice in a civil matter.  Jesus was not afraid to ask things of God.  He asked for wine at a wedding party in Cana.  He asked for more bread and fish than five small loaves and two little fish to feed a crowd.  Jesus asked God to heal the blind, the lame, the mute and the possessed.  He did not feel like he was imposing.  Jesus tells us to do the same assuring us that we can ask much from God.  We are all children of God and our Father has told us, “Ask, and it will be given you.”  There is power in our prayers.

Years ago a woman I worked with in a hospital laboratory had been separated from her family for three years.  She had suffered cancer, a double mastectomy and had developed serious lung problems from the scaring and from environmental allergies.  Upon examination of the walls of her family home, black mold was discovered between all the walls.  Her husband had taken down all the walls, replaced damaged boards, re-dry walled and installed an electronic air cleaner, while she lived in a rented room during the entire process.  She could not move back in with her family until the filter could be added to make the air cleaner functional.  They had borrowed from every institution that would give them money and all family members until they were told that the well was dry–NO more money!!  They had given up on God answering their prayers for help.  I prayed with her and told her not to give up on God that God had not give up on her.  I loaned her the money to buy the filter so that she could move home with her husband and children.  The very next day I received a check in the mail from an insurance premium over-payment two years before in the exact amount that I had loaned her.  I could not wait to go to work the next day to show her that God had answered her prayers at last–through me.  We were both blessed! “Ask, and it will be given you!”

Jesus told us not only to ask but to seek.  “Seek, and you will find.”  The widow kept coming with her plea, seeking an answer.  Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane in his search for God’s will.  He asked that the bitter cup of death might pass from him that there might be another way than “the way of the cross.”  Jesus prayed, “But Lord, if this is not your will, if I must die, then your will be done.”  Jesus sought God’s will; what was in God’s mind so that he could obey it.

Jesus said, “Whatever you ask in my name, I will do it” (John 14:13).  Jesus reminds us that whatever we ask in his presence, he will do it.  Christians believe in the presence of Christ, that Jesus is with us by the power of the Holy Spirit.  Jesus is so present, that we can take on the mind of Christ.  Prayer is taking hold of Jesus’ willingness, searching for the mind of Christ and then praying in it.  We need to remember to go to the Lord saying, “Lord, I have a need.  Teach me  your mind and how to pray about my need.”  Prayer helps you to see God’s way.  When you pray, do not limit God by telling God what to do, think of God’s presence with you.  Focus on God’s light, love and power and then, lift the problem up into God’s presence and leave it there.  (Let go and let God.)  We ask God to take our mind and make it God’s own and Jesus assures us that we will find an answer.

“Knock, and it shall be opened.”  Keep going to God, keep praying.  Realize that there is more to answering prayer than your will and God’s will.  There are hard hearts to win over, free will, God’s will and the forces of evil in the world.  Things like Satan, evil and spiritual warfare boggle our minds.  Think about Job who lost his family, friends, property and health.  His wife urged him to curse God and die, but he refused and began knocking on the door to God in prayer.  Job had faith in God and his heart was filled with hope.  He said, “I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at last he will stand upon the earth and I shall see God”(Job 19:25-26).  Armed with hope, faith and persistence, Job seeks God and God comes to him to heal Job, restore his fortune and to grant him more children.  Job says to God, “I know that you can do all things and that no purpose of yours can be destroyed.

Why do we have to pray repetitiously, begging God?  Can we force God to change God’s mind?  God’s power begins to flow at the speed only God can determine.  Our job is to turn to God in prayer persistently asking, knocking and seeking God’s will for our lives and the world.  Our prayers are answered eventually.   Perhaps not at the speed we want or with the results we wanted, but God is looking at the bigger picture.  God has to take into consideration how the answers to our prayers affect us and the world around us–forever.  Your prayers do have power with God.  

Categories: Weekly Sermon

Gospel License – 2 Timothy 2:8-15

One of the most coveted rites of passage for American teens today is under discussion from the time they are about thirteen or fourteen:  the Driver’s License!  This requires a trip to the DMV, passing a written test for which they laboriously study all the details, and if successful on that part, meet the examiner (whom they view as the executioner) who will ask them to proceed to the parking lot to traverse a course outlined by orange cones and on to the city streets to make right and left hand turns, perhaps drive a short distance on a nearby freeway and to end by what?  They must parallel park along the street!  If all efforts meet the necessary requirements, they are issued a new license complete with a bad hair day photo to display to all their peers to critique.  Now they can claim that they are deemed competent to get behind the wheel, to get on the streets and promptly get stuck in traffic with some of the five million citizens in the metropolitan Phoenix area to deal with road rage, speeders, drivers who make right hand turns from the left hand lanes and shoot through yellow and red lights while waiting forever to “go” at green lights; some can even text while performing these driving stunts.

Often the driver’s license is the first license we obtain but what about licenses relevant to our professions? I was a licensed M.T.A.S.C.P. (Medical Technologist, American Society of Clinical Pathology) after college graduation to work in medical labs.  I even got a raise when notification came that I passed the test!  If you like the outdoors and participate in activities like fishing or hunting, you need a license to stand in a freezing cold stream for the day or to sit in a tree stand through snow, sleet or hail.  You might not catch any fish or even see the flick of a critter’s tail as it scurries past.  Do not forget the license that allows you to carry a gun to go hunting in the first place.  If you operate a computer, you need to purchase a software license for the privilege of installing and using it on your computer.  If you operate or work for a business, a license is necessary and allows you the privilege of paying taxes on your hard earned paycheck.  If you have a dog or cat, you have the joy of paying the veterinarian to give your pet the required vaccinations so that you can purchase a license for Fifi or Fluffy.  If you are a sports enthusiast and want a season’s pass to all the events, you pay for the right to sit in the designated seat–a license.  As a pastor, I am required to remind couples who desire me to officiate at their marriage ceremonies to purchase a license and to register that I performed the marriage.  They ask me if I have a license to provide the service.  I have an expired Ohio license to perform marriages in Ohio, but Arizona does not require me to buy such a license, only to be able to verify that I am a pastor in good standing.  I am certain that many of you have other licenses to places like state and national parks (permits you cannot use right now since the government is shut down).

Having licenses and going through all the protocol to obtain them can be a real nuisance, but who wants an unqualified person to treat them for a medical emergency?  If you have read the paper this week, you know there is a current problem with people “practicing” medicine without proper training and credentials to insure the safety and well-being of patients in Arizona.  Would you want an unqualified person to do electrical work in your home that resulted in a fire?  Licenses demonstrate that we are at the very least recognized and approved by some official agency as being competent to work safely and effectively.

There are licenses for multiple aspects of life, so does licensure apply to our spiritual lives as well?  Paul sounds a lot like a licensing agent when he writes to Timothy, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved by him.  A worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly explaining the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15).  What does a Christian need to be doing to get God’s stamp of approval?  Paul submits a list of criteria to Timothy that describes what effective Christian faith looks like and emphasizes that we should work to maximize these traits in our lives, rather than do the minimal to squeak by.
       1. boldly proclaim the gospel (v.8) that declares Jesus was raised from the dead; he was a descendant of the prototype King: David.  There are multiple competing gospels in our culture today from the social gospel to what others describe as the gospel of sin management (Dallas Willard in “The Wrong Gospel,” May/June, 2013 issue of Homiletics.  The good news for Paul and early Christians was focused on the King whose kingdom challenges the kingdoms of this world.  The gospel Paul preached proclaimed Christ’s authority over kings and kingdoms of this world and landed him in jail for contradicting authorities in power.  He may have been chained as a criminal for preaching Jesus as Lord, but the word of God is not chained; it transforms the world.  Christian workers must be willing and ready to endure criticism and even hardship to work with and for God.

       2. practice endurance (vv.10-13). The world is going in many directions and Paul experienced multiple hardships for being focused on bringing people to God.  Our faith and the grace of God enable us to continue in spite of our failures and sometimes faithlessness.  When we die with Christ in baptism, we are raised to new life; a life that reigns with Christ as he reigns over the world.  It is not an easy life but God is always faithful, even in our weaknesses.

       3. avoid stupid arguments (vv. 14, 16, 23) Christians seem to get energized by arguing over minor points in the faith.  Paul reminds Timothy that Christians should not wrangle over words that can ruin those who are listening.  Such arguments can lead to “profane chatter” that leads people to be less than Christian.  Paul urges Timothy to correct opponents with gentleness so that “God may perhaps grant that they will repent and come to know the truth.”  Licensed, God approved Christians should focus on things like the gospel, the Kingdom of God and the Word of God.

       4. rightly explain the world of truth.  Approved equals tried and tested in Greek.  Wrestling with the truth of God as he or she studies the Scriptures and tests them out in his or her own life and all the while focusing on prayer and Bible study.

       5. pursue purity . Just as a kitchen contains many utensils, some are used often and others are at the back of drawers; all can do their job if they are clean.  All will become “special” utensils if they are ready for work.

The point of being an approved Christian worker is not for ourselves, it is for God’s work, to be used by God for divine purposes.  We need to be clean and ready to be on the job.  The license of faith we receive is not something that shines through in our wallet or purse, it is something that shines through us as followers of Christ. (Old song, “This Little Light of Mine, I’m Gonna Let it Shine”) We are to continue to work on our skills as part of God’s overall plan for changing us so that we can participate iwth God in changing the world.  No trip to the DMV is necessary, only a daily commitment to doing our best for God and the mission to which we are called.  


Categories: Weekly Sermon

Mustard for the Silver Palate Luke – 17:5-10

Years ago when I was a stay at home mom with little ones, I participated in the “Welcome Wagon.” It was a fellowship for new families moving into the area. We had a babysitting co-op, craft groups and dining groups ,which included a gourmet cooking group. If you have seen my kitchen, you know that I have collected cook books for over fifty years. One of my favorites at that time was called The Silver Palate Cook Book and it often called for various types of gourmet mustard: Dijon, coarse mustard with honey, mustard with Cajun spices and other tasty varieties. The mustard seed is very small and the plants grow into shrubs. Mustard seed is quite nutritious in that it is more than 40% protein. The mustard seed was used by Jesus as a model for the Kingdom of God, which initially starts small, like faith, and grows to be the biggest of all garden plants. Some of the recipes in my cookbook took a lot of faith to prepare but the time and effort were worthwhile in the end result. What matters to Jesus is not the quantity of our faith, nor how long it takes before it blooms but if we put our faith into service to build up the Kingdom of God.

Mark Sheerin is currently a financial planner for a wealth management firm in Atlanta, Georgia. He is chief operations officer and part owner, overseeing business for the company and implementing client portfolios. He used to work in third world countries for World Vision, a Christian humanitarian organization that tackles the causes of poverty and injustice worldwide for children, families and their communities. He has been asked if working for the financially well off or for the poor is a greater mission? He wrote an article for Christianity Today. “If poverty is understood in terms of social constructs rather than economic ones, the playing field levels between the refugees and the investment banker. I did not come to call the truly faithful to the mission field, the less faithful to the pastorate and the barely faithful to finance,” said Sheering. Sheerin maintains that finance and feeding starving children both amount to good work in God’s eyes. Jesus’ mission was to conquer sin and its effects in all forms and in every place. Fighting against economic injustice through World Vision or through a financial planning firm are both mandated by God. Both tasks are valuable, both tasks seek redemption of broken systems and fallen people. Instead of digging wells, Sheerin now walks through the jungle of probate with widows. Instead of sponsoring children, his firm partners with families through difficult, end-of-life decisions.

Not everyone would agree with Sheerin’s conclusion, but most of us would acknowledge that a life of dutiful faith can be lived in many different types of employment and careers. Luke 17 is one of five places in the gospels where Jesus comments about a mustard seed. Three speak of the Kingdom of God being like a mustard seed (Matthew 13:1-32; Mark 4:30-33; Luke 13:18-19), one speaks to the disciples to explain why they were unable to cure a demon possessed boy (Matthew 17:20) and today’s text which responds to the disciples’ request that he increase their faith. Because of the size of mustard seeds, we tend to parallel this metaphor as a comment on the quantity of faith one possesses. NOT SO! Jesus is responding to the disciples’ request for more faith but their need is not for more faith, only a redirecting of the faith they have toward dutiful service to God rather than grandiose exploits.

There is not a heroic figure in this parable like the Good Samaritan, it does not tug at our heartstrings like the Prodigal Son, and no one gets shut out of heaven as in the Rich Man and Lazarus account. This parable has to do with “your servant,” who labors long hours in the field and is expected to fix dinner for his master before having any food himself. Point is: Does our servant deserve thanks for doing what is expected of him? Does your employer deserve thanks for giving you eight hours of work? NO and NO! Jesus says to the disciples seeking more faith, “So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘we are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty’ ” (NIV). “Unworthy” really bites because it implies that no matter how much we do in service to God, we are only doing what is expected and it is impossible to do more than what is expected of us. We can never put God in our debt. In relationship to God, we are always servants. We do what we are told to do and should not expect special credit.

Even though the parable tells us not to expect divine thanks for serving God, there are times when someone says “Thank you” in a heartfelt way. When we see someone lifted from trouble because of our efforts or they relate some remark from a Sunday school lesson that helped them to make a positive career choice, we are uplifted and encouraged. It is nice to experience “warm fuzzies” occasionally, but in Jesus’ parable, he stresses that we should serve God because it is the right thing to do. Doing the right thing brings a satisfaction of its own. Today young couples work long hours and their bodies are in overdrive to achieve everything listed on their daily planners. Sometimes indoor household chores are divided and sometimes outdoor chores and the car care belong to one person alone. If either partner were to come home late, find the table set and pleasant aromas emanating from the kitchen, it would be greatly appreciated. Both people live in the house and keeping it clean, laundry done and meals on the table is shared responsibility. Why should either person be thanked for doing what is necessary to live decently? There can even be satisfaction in serving God when no thanks seems to be forthcoming. Responsibilities are part and parcel of any gift (When my kids were younger, I used to tell them that when they opened a gift, they were obligated to write a thank you note. If they did not want to write the note, do not open the gift! It was surprising how many notes they wrote), including the gift of faith which the disciples had sought from Jesus when they asked him to increase their faith.

The parable Jesus told invites us to see ourselves in relation to God as servants in our work, our church role, in moments of leisure and in the unexpected things that come to us and require a response. We do not earn our way into the Kingdom of God but we are granted entrance because of God’s graciousness to us.

There is an old story about a man seeking entrance into heaven based on good work and has been adapted to Mr. Sheerin’s experiences:
The man came to the Pearly Gates and asked St. Peter for admission. “On what basis?” Peter asked. “Well,” said the man, “I worked most recently in the world of financial management and I worked hard to follow God’s will.” “Yes,” said Peter, “But we expected that.” “Well, earlier I worked several years at low wages in the mission field. I tackled the causes of poverty and injustice in the Third World. I worked directly with children, families and their communities. I even helped people escape from human traffickers.” “We know” Peter said, “but that all needed to be done.” “I have worked hard to be faithful ever since God called me.” “And your point is?” said Peter. “That is all I have got! There is nothing more but the grace of God.” “Exactly,” said St. Peter, opening the gate. “C’mon in.” If mustard were like faith, would a little dab do ya? How big a dab do you need?


Categories: Weekly Sermon

No Smartie, No Cure – Jeremiah 8:18-9:1

Many of us in the “baby boomer” era grew up hearing that when we were sick, the nastier the medicine tasted, the better it was for us.  We were subjected to castor oil which battled with our throats to see if it would go down or return from whence it came, bowls of steaming water with gobs of Vicks floating on it to open our clogged sinuses, and if that was not bad enough, how about a mustard plaster slapped on your chest to continue breaking up the congestion?  I can still smell it now!  Scrapes and cuts were doctored with mercurochrome or merthiolate to kill germs.  I tried unsuccessfully to convince my parents that merthiolate did more damage to my owie than mercurochrome because it made it hurt worse.  Boy, did it sting!!  I was told, “No smartie, no cure!” I found no comfort in the extended stinging of the medicine.

What I did not realize as a child was that sometimes it is the most bitter stuff that produces better medicine that can actually benefit our bodies and souls.  Some vegetables which are deemed nasty and worse than bad medicine contain poisons that are only mitigated after cooking, like lima beans.  Raw lima beans contain limarin and a small handful can make someone violently ill.  They need to be cooked at least ten minutes to insure the breakdown of limarin.  That is why raw lima beans should never be put into salads.  Cooking lima beans renders them harmless and gives you lots of nutrition.  An apple a day can only keep the doctor away ifyou do not eat the seeds which contain cyanogenic glycosides causing cyanide.  Seeds from one apple will probably not harm you, but some people have consumed enough to die from cyanide poisoning.

The Hebrews needed more than a medicine, a balm to cure the illness that had been festering in Jerusalem and the surrounding land of Judah.  In today’s Old Testament reading, Jeremiah is expressing his grief over the destruction about to befall (or perhaps, the recently fallen) Judah at the hands of the Babylonians, either in their initial invasion of 597BC, or more likely, in their definitive destruction of Jerusalem and the start of the Babylonian exile of the Jewish people in 587BC.  The prophet summarized his feelings about the historical moment; devoid of joy, he is heartsick with grief.  His writings can be paralleled to a journalist or editor for the Arizona Republic or any daily reporting publication.  Any day we can pick up the front page and it reads pretty much the same:  an accident, a murder, everywhere a tragedy: floods, tornadoes, massacres, bombings, household violence, drive-by shootings, fires, drownings and death notices tucked in further in another section, but the page is designated on the front page.  Column after column, page after page laments the news of blood and tears.  We do not need the newspaper to tell us about broken hearts due to the loss of loved ones, or failed relationships, a parent with Alzheimer’s, the loss of a job or foreclosure on a home.  Some days our journals or diaries can read like the book of Job.  At any moment somewhere, someone is dealing with a crisis.

2,600 years ago, Jeremiah was in the midst of a crisis surrounded by broken-hearted people.  Babylon had demolished most of Jerusalem and had torn down the temple.  The armies of Nebuchadnezzar had stolen the best stuff and the best, most talented people, who contributed to society and the stability of the economy.  “Is there no balm in Gilead?  Is there no physician who can fix the ailing, hopeless people?  Where is God when needed?  When tragedy strikes, we want an explanation for why God is not doing what we want God to do.  We want to blame God some days and at other times, we want to defend God.  God does not protect us from all harm and yet, we want to pretend that divine protection makes sense.  Truth is that accidents do take place around good people and sorrow comes as part of the broken, random rhythm of the world.  

When our children and other loved ones get hurt, we try to comfort them by saying, “You will be all right.”  That does not mean that their pain is unimportant, because we know life is hard.  Everything might not be OK right at the moment and everything might not work out in the particular circumstance.  Finally, ultimately, in the end, eternity is structured in such a way that things will be all right.  The pain will not last forever.  God indeed listens to our cries.  God hears our problems.  God knows our needs.  God understands our pain.  God feels our anguish and works on our behalf, bringing joy where there is death, healing where there is illness, peace where there is violence, reconciliation where there is hatred and the presence of the Holy Spirit where and when we feel alone.  We might not get all the answers we want, but we get all God’s love.

Why did Jeremiah speak of the balm in Gilead?  In both Genesis 37:25 and Jeremiah 46:11 the area of Gilead is identified as a source of healing balm, a resin from the styrax tree (a bushy evergreen tree native to Arabia) used for its medicinal properties.  People crushed the plants, leaves, berries and bark to extract a pale yellow gum, which is then mixed with water to make an ointment.  The biblical concept of “balm” symbolizes spiritual healing and Judah’s people are suffering from severe sickness of soul.  God offers a cure, but they refuse to accept it.  Serious illness calls for serious remedies.  Gilead was a frequent place of refuge or deliverance for the faithful:  Jacob fleeing from Laban, Israelite refugees fleeing the Philistines and David’s victory over the insurrection led by his son, Absalom.  The larger, metaphoric understanding of Gilead may lie behind Jeremiah’s imagery, which was commonplace to Jeremiah’s first audience.

The disease in Judah had gone deep into the fabric of the nation:  people acted shamefully but had no shame; people deceived their neighbors, spoke lies, sinned without repenting; oppressed the weak and refused to know the Lord; turned to their own course like a horse plunging into battle; worshiped false idols and had declined living in the image of God; had become adulterous and a band of traitors by turning from God.  A cure for their illness required some bitter tasting medicine.  God decided that the people needed a dose of reality to attack the problems.  God grieved and so did Jeremiah and yet, God knew that judgment and grief were key ingredients to real healing for the sin-sick.

Things to remember:  There is no quick fix.  Getting rid of sin is a life-long process of God continually working in us to heal usThe process of God’s grace in our lives roots out sin and changes us, but that change can take up to a lifetime.  Healing is often painfulwe have to give up habits and practices to which we have become accustomed.  God’s grace invites us to make necessary changes to be whole and healthy God never lets us go.  Despite our sin, despite the disease, God never stops working at healing us, saving us and lifting us up.  Sure, there is a balm in Gilead but sometimes we need to be reminded:  “No smartie, no cure!” 

Categories: Weekly Sermon

Appointed to Serve – 1 Timothy 1:12-17

Scholars have debated for years as to whether 1 Timothy was written by the apostle Paul or one of his devout followers.  Ordinarily, Paul includes a thanksgiving for the work of the group he is writing to, but in this case, the author is thanking God for strength and for God appointing him to God’s service.  He is grateful for mercy, grace, faith and love imparted to him through Jesus.  If the author was Paul, he was attempting to paint a picture of his former self as a blasphemer, persecutor and a man of violence.  The focus of the letter is on the in-breaking work of Christ in his life.

When we meet someone today via written correspondence, e-mail, twitter, facebook or face-to-face, we generally ask: (child) What do you want to be when you grow up? (new colleague) What specific line of work do you follow? (at a party) If you could do any kind of work you choose, what would be your dream job?  Work, jobs, career, occupation, profession.  Whether we love it or hate it, a lot of people spend at least 1/3 or more of their waking hours working for someone else.  This is called a job.  Unless you have been blessed with a humongous trust, have an oil rig in your backyard or your last name is TRUMP, you will spend a lot of time working.  How do you find the best job for you; your dream job?  That is definitely a challenge!  Some have jobs as candy testers, wine tasters, and even a resort water slide tester!  How do you get a job like these and what are the qualifications?  What would you put on your resume’ to catch a potential employer’s attention?  I wonder, where was I when the cushy jobs were being created?
Paul or his understudy makes the statement, “Appointed me to his service.”  Did you ever want to interview Paul for his job as a preacher and apostle?  His job (as it were) allowed him to write letters, travel by boat, on a donkey, in an ox-cart and on foot–to places all over the world, even major cities and the seat of the Roman Empire.  He spoke to thousands of people during his career, and as spokesman for a new movement, he established adherents wherever he went.  He spoke to people of all economic levels, to the humble and the proud, to servants and even kings.  He visited homes, synagogues and palaces–and–spent some personal time in jail on numerous occasions!  Through it all Paul is judged to be faithful, as he tells everyone about good news:  Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (v.15).
Paul definitely did not get his job because he had always been faithful, pious and Christian.  In fact, Paul was probably the last guy in the world you would have predicted to pursue a career requiring him to leave his Jewish faith and occupation of Pharisee.  No one could have guessed that Saul would embrace the radical teachings of a controversial  Jewish subversive who would be executed by the Romans.  If Saul had applied for the job of being an example to those who would come to believe in Jesus for eternal life, he would have been the least likely to get the job.  Who in their right mind would hire a blasphemer, persecutor and man of violence to serve as an example to others?
As Saul, he clearly demonstrated leadership abilities.  Shortly after Christ’s death and resurrection, he was able to mobilize supporters to help him murder Christians, torture disciples of Jesus, and slaughter innocent people.  If he could not find others to carry out the job of making Christians’ lives miserable, then he was happy to do the job himself.  He was a diligent worker who was not shy about sharing his convictions and followed through.  He chased Christians from village to village boldly. He was confident that his reputation would speak for him.  People literally shook at the mention of his name.  He sought to destroy the hopes and dreams of early Christians and did his job well!  If he was asked to write a resume’ on what his greatest attribute was, he could have said, “I am your worst nightmare.  I am a man of violence.”  As a bearer of peace, Saul’s name would never have been submitted.  And yet, God saw more in Paul than he saw in himself.  When considering who to call to promote peace and justice, to be an example of compassion, caring and a model of the gospel, God somehow “judged Paul as faithful and appointed him to the service of Jesus Christ.”  God saw more in Paul than his past and did not define Paul by his resume’.  His past was not to be his future.  God can make all things new, open the door to new life and invite people like Paul (and us) in.
If God can transform a Saul into Paul and appoint to God’s service “a mean-spirited, blaspheming man of violence like Saul”–what are we waiting for?  Paul says he is a follower of Jesus, not because of his upstanding behavior in the past but because of God’s mercy and grace.  God understands that Paul acted in unbelief but is now ready to receive God’s forgiveness.  It is Paul’s experience within, and turning away from God, that makes him appreciate the gifts of God’s mercy and kindness even more.  It was Paul’s shameful past behavior that made him an ideal candidate for a future in forgiveness and redemption.  Who knows more about creating secure banks than a former bank robber?  Former conmen know how to beat the system (at least for awhile).  Perhaps that knowledge can be put to good use as in Paul’s case.  He knew that he had done some things for which he wanted God’s forgiveness and he knew what it meant to “fall short of the glory of God”(Romans 3:23).  Paul certainly did not lead a life that earned God’s trust.  He did not act like a disciple, follower or believer of Jesus–in fact, he was exactly the opposite.  But the reality is, Paul was still called by God!  This is mercy–to be forgiven not because of human action but because God chooses to forgive.  This is gracebecause God can see more in Paul than Paul can see in himself.  Paul has the awakening, the ah-ah experience that he is in a perfect position to talk about the value of God’s forgiveness and mercy.  He has personally experienced these gifts himself and understands their value.  This becomes good news for any of us who would dismiss our chances to be judged faithful or to be a disciple of Jesus; for those who have determined themselves to be hopeless cases, for all who feel like giving up; for all who feel they do not know enough about the Bible to be an active, committed follower of Jesus.
God wants us to know that our past definitely does not dictate our future.  Because of God’s mercy, we are not victims of our resume’s.  Our past does not have the final word.  God will give us the best job, our dream job.  God will create something new out of us.  We might not be asked to travel by boat (I was hoping for a cruise), donkey or on foot all over the world.  We won’t be invited to stay out of prisons.  That was Paul’s job.  We have been appointed to serve and it is our job to determine where God needs us to go to share the good news of mercy, grace, forgiveness and love.  To God be the glory!  

Categories: Weekly Sermon

Shaped by God – Jeremiah 18:1-11

Sunny Day Sweepin’ the clouds away

On my way to where the air is sweet (sung)

Who knows what show this theme song has been sung on for the last 40 years? American children, at least those with televisions in their homes, have been exposed to these words of the children’s television series, Sesame Street. Kids love and parents replay the song in their heads at the oddest moments, tormented by its repetition. In fact, it ran through my head repeatedly from 1am to 3am this morning, just because I knew that I was going to sing it to you as part of my message this morning. My question to you is how would you get to this place? It has no official address.

In rural American there are still unnamed and unmapped roads. Just try looking some addresses up on Mapquest and see where you might be directed! Residents of McDowell County, West Virginia pick up their mail at the post office. The 224 residents of Bartley, West Virginia consider “the old grade school” to be a landmark, even though it burned to the ground years ago. Did you ever live in an area where they would give directions to someone’s home in the country: drive down Main Street, go pass the old train round house (gone for 40years) until you get to the dead end where the brickyard was (where they used to make bricks for the kilns in the three potteries–all closed and the brickyard had been gone for 35 years), turn right and cross the railroad tracks. Go two miles and turn left at the big oak tree. Turn right at the third driveway with white pebbles. To get from point to point, you follow well known hollows (hollers in West Virginia), dirt roads and dry riverbeds.

Times are a-changing and addresses are appearing in rural West Virginia; street names like “Git-R-Done Dr.”, “Beer Can Alley” and “Dog Bone Dr.” are materializing. The prophet Jeremiah wondered if the Israelites knew how to get to the Potter’s House to hear God’s words. The prophet found his way and met the potter holding a spoiled vessel of clay and he re-worked it into another vessel. Jeremiah recognized that the potter’s work was an illustration of how God was shaping the people of Israel. The clay in the potter’s hand was just like Israel in God’s hand. Jeremiah realized that God controls the fate of entire groups of people as easily as a potter manipulates a lump of clay.

Sometimes the clay starts looking crumbly, but improves. “At one moment, says the Lord, “I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, but if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will change my mind about the disaster that I intended to bring on it”(vv7-8). At other times, the clay starts out looking good, but goes bad. “At another moment,” says God, “I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, but if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will change my mind about the good that I had intended to do to it”(vv.9-10).

Jeremiah is reminding us that God is in control constantly working and re-working us into vessels that seem good to him. If we turn from evil, says Jeremiah, we will be shaped into something wonderful. If we persist in ignoring God and living selfish and sinful lives, we will be radically refashioned. Remember the old hymn, “Have thine own way, Lord! Have thine own way. Thou art the potter, I am the clay.” We sang it this morning. We are not so good at waiting as folks were one hundred years ago when the hymn was written, let alone “yielded and still.” We want to make and mold our own lives, instead of allowing ourselves to be made and molded. We want our own way, not the way of the divine potter. How can we get to the Potter’s House?

Steps to the Potter’s House:

1. Path to the Potter’s House begins with learning the right address. At this particular location, God is not expecting us to show up in some kind of perfect final form, nor is God waiting to jump on us to punish us for our sins. At the proper place on Potter’s House Lane, God shapes us into the people God wants us to be. We are permitted to be “works in progress.” There was a little sign by an artist that said, “Be patient with me, God is not finished with me, yet.”

2. Make a turn, turn from evil ways and God will change God’s mind about the direction to go. Turning and changing is the language of molding and making Nothing is fixed; everything is changing.

3. When you get to the destination, allow the potter to work with your clay as the potter chooses. Let yourself be shaped and re-shaped. Don’t worry about the shape you are in now. The potter can re-shape you.

Has your doctor ever told you that you are in great shape for the shape you are in? Do not fixate on the flaws of the past; the potter can purify you. Do not stress about the wrong turns you have made in the past; the potter can move you in a new direction.

Jeremiah 18:11 says to amend your ways, amend your doings. Allow the divine potter to make you and mold you, according to his will. Open yourself to being filled with the Holy Spirit until all shall see Christ only, always, living in me. Transformation is painful, because we like our old ways. We prefer our own doings and routines but waiting for God and yielding to God run counter to our daily routines.

Unless we find the potter’s address, we will never be shaped into the people God wants us to be. We will end up being less loving, graceful, hopeful, connected and content than we could be. We will never experience the truly abundant and everlasting life that we could enjoy. Take a turn toward the place where God will remold you. Do not be distracted by remote roads and dry riverbeds or pebble driveways.


Categories: Weekly Sermon

Kingdom Etiquette – Luke 14:1, 7-14

Since Jesus was so opposed to the Pharisees’ interpretation of the Law and their hunger for power and authority, it is peculiar to me at first glance, that he would be receptive to going to a Pharisee’s home to eat a meal on the Sabbath. The Pharisees were always so willing to scrutinize Jesus’ teaching and activities, and were constantly looking for an opportune moment to trap him for what they perceived to be a violation of the Law. Luke says, “They were watching him closely.” However, the scrutiny was mutual in that Luke records Jesus’ perfect response, “When Jesus noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable” (v. 7), which became a prototype for the kind of etiquette Jesus was promoting for the Kingdom of God. Jesus had no patience with arrogant celebrations and/or behavior. He did not like prolonged, premeditated and excessive celebrations. He likened the parable to a feast. He cautioned participants not to sit down in the places of honor, lest someone more distinguished show up and give the host a reason to say, “Give this person your place” causing you to take a walk of shame to a lower place.” AWK-WARD! Jesus advises, “When you are invited, go and sit down in the lowest place, so that when your host comes he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit with you’ ” (v. 10).

The point of the parable is that in the Kingdom of God we come as shirt-tail relatives to the marriage feast of the Lord and discover to our amazement that the host has saved the places of honor for us. Rather than being last on the invited guest list, we are called “friends” of the bridegroom (Jesus) in the presence of all. Our true identity, says Jesus is not that of a distant acquaintance. We are among those who sit with the most High as Christ’s friends and equals.

This kind of behavior is not a sign of arrogance, rather it puts you in the Humility Hall of Fame, a concept which is an oxymoron and illogical. Our culture is teaching a totally different kind of action. Children want trophies just for participating in sports, not for winning tournaments. Parents expect their kids to be admitted to Ivy League colleges, even though only one in ten will get in. College students want A’s, not because they have studied hard and learned a lot but because they showed up for class and paid $3000 tuition for the class!

And what about reality television, full of people who become famous for outrageous behavior, not for any particular skills or achievements: The Real Husbands of Hollywood, Jersey Shore, The Bachelor, Keeping Up with the Kardashians, just to name a few. Jesus makes a prediction that should be heeded by the reality television stars and all of us. “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (v.11).

Senator George McGovern died last year, a Democrat who lost to Republican Richard Nixon. McGovern was no coward. He was a decorated bomber pilot in World War II, who served his country bravely and well. His staff urged him to talk about his war experiences, but like many veterans, he was reluctant to do so. He referred to himself as the son of a Methodist minister; a “good old South Dakota boy” who went off to war and had been married to the same woman forever. In short, he was humble. Maybe that humility served him well, because at the end of his life he was awarded the World Food Prize along with Republican Senator Bob Dole. Dole wrote in The Washington Post that “our most important commonality–the one that would unite us during and after our Capitol Hill service, was our shared desire to eliminate hunger in this country and around the world. As colleagues in the 1970s on the Senate Hunger and Human Needs Committee, we worked together to reform the Food Stamp Program, expand the domestic school lunch program and establish the Special Supplemental Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC).

Later, they worked in tandem to strengthen global feeding, nutrition and education programs. They jointly proposed a program to provide poor children with meals at schools in countries throughout Africa, Asia, Latin American and Eastern Europe, a program supported by both presidents Clinton and Bush, which now succeeds in providing meals to 22 million children in 41 different countries. McGovern and Dole, Democrat and Republican. Both fought in World War II. Both ran for president and lost, but neither are losers. Losers do not work together quietly and effectively to provide meals to 22 million children.

Jesus has concern for feeding the hungry, especially those who have no way to repay generosity shown to them. He says, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or brothers or relatives or rich neighbors in case they may invite you in return and you would be repaid” (v.12). Most of us have dinners or gatherings for exactly the groups Jesus mentions. We enjoy feeding them and being fed by them. But Jesus tells us to go a different direction and think of hungry children, whether they are 2 or 2 million. “When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous” (vv.13-14). Feed those who cannot repay you, commands Jesus. Make lunch or dinner for these people, not folks who easily pay you back with a lunch or dinner of their own. And do not just make it a meal, make it a celebration!

As followers of Jesus, we ought to work harder to make Christianity the most popular institution in the land. Being a follower of Jesus is a counter-cultural game to play, one that is based on the belief that “all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (v.11). Anything and everything we do to serve others without expectation of a payback will be seen as a success in the eyes of Jesus, and will move us closer to the expected etiquette in the Kingdom of God.


Categories: Weekly Sermon

Keeping Up Appearances

Luke 13:10-17 

Eugene Peterson in his contemporary version of the Bible (The Message) attempts to portray the Kingdom of God that Jesus has come to proclaim from his perspective.  His interpretation of this passage describes a woman twisted and bent over with arthritis for eighteen years.  If you have arthritis, you know that can feel like a life sentence as you gradually lose your mobility.  Peterson says that Jesus declared her to be free after laying his hands on her.  In response, she stands up tall and begins to praise God for her miraculous healing.  This account depicts an exciting moment for the woman who has been plagued by a spirit (illness was determined to be caused by evil spirits in Jesus’ day) and Jesus had power to remove the crippling spirit.  I want to rejoice for the woman who is now able to walk upright pain free, but the Pharisee at the synagogue on the Sabbath, where Jesus was teaching was angry because Jesus had cured the ailing woman on the Sabbath, the day set aside to worship and glorify God.  Indeed, the healed woman was doing her best to praise God for healing her from her infirmity.  The Law given to Moses clearly states that for six days God’s children should work but on the seventh, no work should be done in order to honor God and to rest as God rested from the work of creation on the seventh day.  Religious leaders saw healing as part of a doctor’s profession and practicing one’s profession on the Sabbath was prohibited.  The synagogue ruler could not see beyond the Law to Jesus’ compassion and pushed Jesus’ button of intolerance.
Jesus became angry at the Pharisee’s interpretation of the Law and called him a hypocrite, challenging and shaming all Pharisees present for their willingness to lead their livestock to water in order that they might not perish on the Sabbath, but it was forbidden to attend to the needs of a precious human, created in the image of God, a daughter of Abraham (a sister in the Jewish faith) and to not minister to her in her time of need.  In the Kingdom of God all should show compassion on other people and work to meet their physical, emotional and spiritual needs.  Those who had come to hear Jesus were delighted, joyful at all the things he was doing.  Jesus did not say, “I have solved your problem.”  He did not suggest that he cured the ailment.  He only says that he set her free from her infirmity.  Jesus’ words gave the woman the confidence and assurance she needed to stand up straight.  Her life was transformed.  A tiny bit of faith can make a profound difference!
This account of Jesus reminds me of the television sitcom, “Keeping Up
Appearances,” a British sitcom depicting the attempts of eccentric, social climbing Hyacinth Bucket (pronounced “Bouquet”), who desperately wants status and recognition beyond her middle class station in life, to be more affluent and influential in her community (like the Pharisees).  In one episode the church vicar sees to it that Hyacinth is assigned to cleaning church toilets at a work party–retaliation for her repeated attempts to humiliate the other women.  The Pharisees were so hung up on interpreting the Mosaic Law so that they would be needed as learned advisors, that they lost sight of their responsibility to be compassionate teachers and guides toward living a godly life.  From Jesus’ perspective they had ceased to serve God appropriately and effectively, and without humility.
The church today is under great scrutiny by the younger generation, gen-Xers, the early twenty-thirty something folks.  At presbytery last Saturday, a presentation was given by a  younger, Christian college professor, Dr. Amy Jacober of Trinity (Friends) Church.  She attempted to tell those who had come to hear her speak that young people have not lost their faith.  They sometimes feel trapped by the legalism of the church that professes to engage in Christian praxis.  She went on to say that young people are hungry to believe in a God who listens to their needs and gives them the opportunity to compassionately serve those in need around them.  They are frustrated by the multiple rules shrouding the processes to help others.
The Book of Order detailing our Presbyterian form of government is grounded in Scripture and build around the marks of the true Church.  It is in all things subject to the Lord of the Church.  In the power of the Spirit, Jesus Christ draws worshiping communities and individual believers into the sovereign activity of the triune God at all times and places.  As the Church seeks reform and fresh direction it looks to Jesus Christ who goes ahead of us and calls us to follow him.  United with Christ in the power of the Spirit, the Church seeks not [to] be conformed to this world but [to] be transformed by the renewing of [our] minds, so that [we] may discern what is the will of God–what is good and acceptable and perfect (Romans 12:2).  The Book of Order states:  We seek a new openness to the sovereign activity of God in the Church and in the world, to a more radical obedience to Christ, and to a more joyous celebration in worship and work.

These statements from our Book of Order were inspiring to me when Ruth Langford came to me on Thursday with a letter detailing a meeting she had attended at Kellis High School with the vice-principal and representatives from other area churches.  The administration at Kellis would like churches like ours to provide Christian guidance to students who desire it.  The school would like us to pray for Kellis and its students’ needs, and are requesting folks from area churches to show up for games and activities, to be recognized by the students.  The Peoria Youth Pantry workers will be invited to participate in these activities, if they choose, and will have badges provided.  The idea is that the students who have no one to care about them will know that people from our church are there to support THEM.  This project is being coordinated through the counselor who is working with the Youth Pantry.  She wants to come to Peoria Presbyterian Church to convey to you what the Pantry has meant to her students in crisis, what we have accomplished and how we can further our program.  The school needs tutors to come to the school to work with kids and the times and locations can be worked out through the vice-principal.

What an opportunity and invitation for the Church to participate in the life of a public school.  God has great plans for us to meet people in crisis on their turf and on terms different than what we might determine to be the NORM or the Law.  We have the chance to make a difference in the lives of young people who are thirsty for God’s love and compassion, to touch their lives, re-kindle their faith and make God an active reality in their lives through our support. 

We do not have to “keep up appearances” and go by rules that stifle Christian compassion.  The door to the Kingdom of God is being opened to blaze new trails and to introduce young people to a living God who cares for and about them, via the hands and hearts of Jesus’ contemporary followers.  Are you willing to walk through the gate and offer yourself in service as one of Jesus’ faithful adherents?  


Categories: Weekly Sermon

Cutting Pieces to Find Peace – Luke 12:49-59

Each time this passage comes up in the Lectionary (every three years), I am reminded again just how uncomfortable it makes me feel.  I prefer to associate Jesus’ peace with the passage in John 14:27, often used at memorial services and funerals, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.  I do not give to you as the world gives.  Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”  I prefer the comfort and warm fuzzies alluded to by John and the stories in which Jesus reminds us that we are important to him even when we are not important to anyone else.  I like the texts that remind us of the many paintings we see of Jesus with a calm, serene, loving smile.

Instead, we are dealing with this text, which comes immediately after Jesus comforts the crowd, calling them “little flock” (making us recall the imagery of Jesus as the Good Shepherd) and assuring them that it is God’s good pleasure to give them and us, the Kingdom of God.  BUT Jesus turns around and says, “You think I have come to bring peace?  Nope!  Wrong assumption!”  We have only been thinking all along that Jesus was a peace-maker, but the truth is that he warned us that he came to rend/cut families and situations into pieces–to issue a serious wake-up call we need to heed.  The gospel of Jesus Christ is not the gospel of health, wealth, power and success.  It is the gospel of the cross, the gospel of piece-making.  Author Flannery O’Conner, whose writing I was introduced to in seminary has said, “What people do not realize is how much religion costs.  They think faith is a big electric blanket [warm and cozy], when of course it is the cross.”  The cross is where Jesus is headed as he speaks his hard saying.  Jesus was a piece-maker.  Think back to the scene in the temple in Jerusalem when Jesus was twelve years old.  He ditched his family to challenge the rabbis while his family spent three days frantically looking for him before they finally found him.  When they scolded him for his behavior, he tossed back the comment, “Didn’t you know that I must be in my Father’s house?” 

Much later, at the age of thirty, Jesus leaves his family and his father’s carpentry business in order to begin his ministry.  His mother and brothers come after him, but when Jesus is told that they are standing outside and want to see him, he points to his followers and says, “These are my mother and my brothers, those who hear the Word of God and do it.”  OUCH, that smarts!  In Luke 14:26, following today’s Scripture, Jesus says, “Whoever comes to me and doesn’t hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.”  What would James Dobson of Focus on the Family have to say about this one? 

It wasn’t just Jesus’ own family that he cut into pieces; he broke up a bunch of others as well:  James and John were in the fishing business with their father, Zebedee and Jesus came along and said, “Follow me,” and James and John left their father behind as he held the fishing nets in his hands.  So, what is Jesus doing; piece-making or peace-making?  This particular teaching of Jesus is like a slap up alongside of the head or a drenching with cold water in the face.  Jesus didn’t gently ease into these harsh words. Why?  Jesus did not hold back because he does not want us to hold back.  Jesus begins by telling us that he came to start a fire on the earth–to set off a time bomb–to change everything, to turn everything right side up.  He came to disrupt and confront. Fire is a biblical metaphor for cleansing, refining and purifying.  Jesus came to bring fire to the earth so that God’s people might once again be fruitful.  But Jesus does not stop there.  He promises there will be no peace, only division.  Don’t you wish you could have been sitting in the crowd, hearing Jesus speak, so that you could have raised your hand and said, “Excuse me.  Didn’t you promise to give us your peace?  Didn’t the angels promise peace among those whom you favor (in the Christmas account)?  I came for the peace that passes all understanding.” 

Jesus knew and still knows that wherever we go and whatever we do, we are constantly confronted–even in our own homes.  Family is where we want to believe we can find a source of community, a sense of belonging, and now we are hearing that if we allow the fire of Christ’s love to cleanse us, we will be divided.  The division goes beyond my University of Michigan friends cheering against the opposition: Michigan State University. The division Jesus speaks about is not what team color to wear, but whether we are willing to put on Christ, whether we will walk the way of the cross or the way of the world. 

The peace of God is not calmness or contentment or even experiencing the absence of conflict.  God’s peace is about wholeness, being at one with God, being at one with God’s will for us–even if that means dying in exile like John on the island of Patmos–or being crucified upside down in Rome like the legend tells us Peer died.  It is piece-making that leads to peace-making.  We know it is not just our biological families that become divided.  Paul’s letter to the church of Corinth was written in large part because of the division that church was facing.  Churches today find themselves midst controversial division and strife.  Why did Jesus tell the people there will be division?  To warn us?  To assure us?  To prepare us?  Yes, yes and yes!  Jesus did not stop at telling us that there would be conflict and division.  He went on to say that we need to pay attention to what is going on around us–to work out our conflicts.

We are called to feel the heat of the world, and like Moses, to stand before the Pharoahs of our day:  injustice, hatred, poverty–and work to free God’s people for God’s glory. 

Jesus spoke of facing a baptism, of being purged, drowned to sin, in order to create a new family–the church!  The Body of Christ!  Under the waters of baptism, we have been drowned into the Church, torn into pieces and washed into the new family of God. 

In the early church and in some Christian churches of Africa today, baptismal fonts were shaped like a coffin so that the little child to be baptized can be brought into the worship center (or) carried in a coffin, to be reborn into the new life of Christ and the church in baptism.

It is our obligation as Christians today to battle divisiveness that threatens to rip through the Christian community and to set us at odds with one another–tobecome stronger and more united as we all seek the same goal, living to bring God all the glory and honor.  I have a friend who always signs her notes, “God’s peace be with you.  May we know the peace of which Paul reminds us: “Keep our hearts and  minds in Christ Jesus.”  


Categories: Weekly Sermon

Expect the Unexpected

The Scripture readings for today emphasize God’s desire to do good things for God’s people and for all people who will respond in a positive way to God.  Luke quotes Jesus, “Do not be afraid any longer, my little flock of people, for God your Father has expressed a strong desire to give to you the kingdom of God.”  Jesus urges people to sell their material goods and to provide for the poor, to build up their treasures in the heavens, and to be alert at all times, watching for the coming of the Son of Man.  We are urged by faith to accept good things from God and to be ready when good things are dispensed so that we will miss no opportunity to receive them.  God’s desire to do good things for us is “gospel,” good news for all! 
I find it intriguing that Jesus tells us to be dressed for any and all actions.  He goes so far as to say that if the owner of a house knew what time a thief was going to appear, then he wouldn’t have let his house be broken into.  Likewise, Jesus points to his later coming when the kingdom of God is complete, saying, “You must be ready because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.” 
Life is filled with unexpected events and surprises.  Sometimes the “happenings” are the source of great joy and bring relief to the routine and boring tasks of everyday life.  You have often heard me say, “Expect the unexpected and you won’t be disappointed” and I often pray for boredom but God chooses not to listen to that petition in my prayer!  Sometimes the unexpected event or person is viewed as a disruption, an annoyance or worse still, a source of pain or anxiety.  When the unexpected occurs, there frequently is nothing we can do to avoid it.  Often the difference between an event being one of joy or pain is our degree of readiness for what happens.  Those who have prepared for the unexpected will use the opportunity afforded them to grow. My recent vacation was a mixture of some of those opportunities to grow in patience, compassion and understanding.  I leaned plenty about expecting the unexpected.  On Friday, only four days before I was to leave home and begin my three week sojourn, my mother called to say that she had had an accident which totaled her car, but she and the people she hit were all OK–Phew!  That was a relief because mom is almost 89.  She was planning on buying the car back but it would no longer be insurable–it was totaled, so it no longer exists to be insured–only PL and PD.  I had to rent a car to drive from the airport to mom’s (she usually comes with someone else driving her car to pick me up) and for the next ten days to get her to doctor appointments, shopping and out to dinner (she did not want me to have to work/cook while I was there).  According to the sign on mom’s dining room wall, she only serves three kind of meals: frozen, microwave and take-out! After my adventures with Mom, I drove back to the Ashville airport and flew to the US Air hub in Charlotte, the same city I spent four nights in two years ago when I thought it would be a great stroll down memory lane to visit Mom for Christmas.  There was a blizzard–the worst in 55 years and no snow removal equipment at the airport to clear the runway.  This time, all the planes were overbooked and my college roommate, whom I was to meet in Toronto, enjoyed the hotel room by herself as I arrived a day later.  It rained almost non-stop for three days, but stopped so that we could enjoy the open dome at the Sky Dome to watch the Toronto Blue Jays trounce the Houston Astros, to the delight of the Canadians all around us.  We got around Toronto via trolleys (buses) and subways utilizing the complex public transportation system, rather than pay a fee to get the car in and out of the hotel garage.  Parking in Toronto is like parking in New York City.  At the end of the second day, I read the fine print at the ticket booth in the subway and discovered I could have saved money with the senior citizen’s rate.  We drove to the Muskoka Lake region to soak up beautiful greenery/scenery, and more rain and temperatures from 58-68 degrees, and then went on to the North Detroit suburbs to experience more rain, but I got to visit my Alma Mater and view a whole new campus that has been added in the last 44 years.  I walked across the Diag and past the coffee shop I used to work in, which recently was sold.  It seemed like my vacation was destined to be extended because all the planes were overbooked and I would not be able to return home unless I switched airlines.  My suitcases had an all day stay at Phoenix International Airport and I arrived later in the evening so I could return to work on the designated day.  “Expect the unexpected.”  Lack of readiness and preparation for what we do not know can be unnerving and create anxiety butwhen we get over the initial shock and past the frustration, we can calm down and go about our business until another unplanned event appears.  Jesus is telling us to be responsible people, to ourselves and God, and not to allow the possibilities that events and people present to us to be lost.  We can grow only to the extent that we are open to what is presented to us.  If we are closed off due to lack of readiness, a complacent attitude, or refusal to interact with people or to deal with problematic situations or events, we will be the losers.  If we are not ready when God’s challenges manifest themselves in events to people, then we will lose a whole lot more.  If we are not ready when Jesus Christ comes to reclaim the world, we will lose everything.  We need to be ready and watching, “For the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” We need to ponder these questions: –Challenges in life present us with many different avenues and paths, some of which we would rather not travel when the fork in the road comes.  Have we prepared our minds and hearts for the path it will take or do we miss an opportunity because of our hesitation? –Do we plan for the future and make necessary preparations or live only for the moment and make no provisions for our future? –Do we safeguard the things entrusted to us?  Are we good stewards of God’s gifts? Are we prepared for the unexpected person, the “thief in the night,” who may come to destroy the things God has given to us? –What responsibility do we have toward others to see that they are prepared for the future?  Do we think of ourselves or can we extend our care to others?  Do we keep watch for others as well as ourselves? –It is exhausting and impossible to be awake at all times, but are we ready for the unexpected event when our senses are aroused to its occurrence?  Do we wait with a sense of joyful expectation or of fear and dread? 
I came home from vacation to find the preschool taking on a delightful new appearance under the leadership of our new director/teacher, who is diligently preparing for the opening of our new program.  She sang praises about the more than fifteen people who came to clean, inventory and prepare for school to open.  I went to Chancel Choir practice on Wednesday and was greeted by 25 smiling faces eager to praise God in song under the direction of our new choir director.  The lot behind the Fellowship Hall had two huge dumpsters placed on it to receive the debris from the dilapidated structure on it, due to be removed on Saturday-yesterday.  The ground shook on Friday as the giant palm tree, home to millions of cockroaches and palmetto bugs (and pigeons) was cut down.  God has great plans for the future of Peoria Presbyterian Church as we seek to care for what has been entrusted to us in this little corner of the kingdom of God.  Thank you to all who have been expecting the unexpected in my absence and faithfully preparing for our glorious future–yet to be revealed.  To God be the glory. Amen.

Categories: Weekly Sermon