Category: Weekly Sermon

Sermon 10/8

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I Love Thy Church, O God
Part II
October 8 2017
Ephesians 5:25 ….even as Christ loved the church and gave himself for it.”

​A woman met her pastor at the door of the church, and said to him, “Your sermon today was so helpful to me.”
​He said, “I’m glad it was helpful, but I hope it wasn’t as helpful as my last sermon, because that one lasted you three months.”
​I grew up a Methodist; I went to a Methodist college and a Methodist seminary and had every intention of returning to my home state of N.C. to be a Methodist pastor. But along the way, an unexpected thing happened. I worked as an intern during seminary at a Presbyterian church in Old Greenwich, Ct. and they ultimately called me to be their associate pastor.
​So I grew up a Methodist, and became a Presbyterian. I married a woman who had grown up first Roman Catholic and then later on became a Hard-Shell Baptist (I don’t know if there is a “real” denomination called “Hard-Shell Baptists” but that’s what they were; they were so exclusive that not only did they think that the Hard-Shall Baptists were the only ones who had a passport to heaven, but that their neighbors down the street in other Hard-Shall Baptist Churches probably wouldn’t qualify for admission through the Pearly Gates.). So in my own life and ministry and marriage I have experienced the universality of the church. I’m always reminded that the church is larger than the Presbyterian church, and that the kingdom of God is larger than the church.
​In the 5th chapter of Ephesians there is a treatise on Christian marriage, and in this treatise Paul says, “Husbands, you must love your wives as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” Most times when you hear people unpacking this verse the emphasis is on a husband’s duty toward his wife…..and that certainly is there. But I would to snip off that first part of this verse and isolate the second part and hold it up before your eyes today: “As Christ loved the church and gave himself UP for her.”
​Chew on that for a second. Christ loves the church so much that he GAVE HIMSELF UP FOR HER. He gave himself up for her that the church might not flounder but flourish. He gave himself up for her that the church might not be petty but expansive. He gave himself up for her that the church might not be narrow but wide.
He loves the church. Our Lord and Savior loves the church. How can he do that? How can he love the church with all those exasperating people in it? (It was said about a woman, a prominent member of a church: She never swore but made everyone else want to.) He loves the church with all those tedious committee meetings. He loves the church with all those incessant stewardship campaigns.
​Someone said that real love is always “in spite of.” We love our mates in spite of their obvious warts and flaws. Of course, we are spotless. We love our kids in spite of their exasperating habits. We love our friends, in spite of their obvious failings. I think that Christ’s love for the church is like that. It is “in spite of” love.
​He loves the church in spite of its divisions. In Christ’s prayer for the church in John 17, he bows in prayer and asks, “Father, keep them safe by the power of your love…that that they all may be one” (John 17:20).
​There was an ecumenical gathering in a large auditorium and during the meeting someone rushed in and shouted, “The building is on Fire!!”
The Methodists gathered in a corner and prayed.
The Baptists cried, “Where is the water?”
The Quakers quietly praised God for the blessings that fire brings.
The Lutherans posted a notice on the door with 95 reasons listing why fire is evil.
The Roman Catholics passed a collection plate to cover the damage.
The Jews painted symbols on the doors so the fire would pass over.
The Congregationalists shouted, “Every man for himself!”
The Fundamentalists proclaimed, “It is the vengeance of God!”
The Christian Scientists agreed among themselves that there was no fire.
The Episcopalians formed a procession and marched out.
The Presbyterians appointed a chairperson who was to form a committee to look into the matter and submit a written report.
The janitor put the fire out and went back to work
​Our divisions, both denominational and personal, are the continuing scandal of the church. “Keep them safe by the power of your name, so that they may be one just as you and I are one.
​Now in the the beginning of the third millennium since Jesus’ time on earth, we know that his dream did not come true. The Church of Jesus Christ is broken, shattered, and scattered into countless traditions, denominations, sects, and cults. It started in New Testament times: the followers of Peter, vs. the followers of Paul, vs. the followers of some guy named Apollos. A major split came at the beginning of the second millennium when the Latin speaking Christians of western Europe split off from the Greek-speaking Christians of eastern Europe and Asia Minor. This split, which happened in 1054 AD, formed the Eastern Orthodox Church, headquartered in Constantinople, and the Roman Catholic Church, headquartered in Rome. Then came the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century, started by Martin Luther’s protest against the corruption and infidelity of the Roman Catholic hierarchy. After the Protestant Reformation, split-off groups, cults, and denominations sprung up everywhere. In the twentieth century we saw the rise of the ecumenical movement, with the formation of the National Council of Churches in the USA, and the founding of the World Council of Churches. Today, there is an organization called “Churches Uniting in Christ” of which our own church is a part. Churches Uniting in Christ is a consortion of ten denominations working together to end racism and injustice. But the truth of it is that all the ecumenical efforts, at least in my life time, have not gone very far. I I think it breaks Jesus’ heart.
​ So when we look at the church, we know there’s a lot wrong with it. Can we imagine that our Lord is less perceptive than we? Can we assume that he looks at the church with a naive optimism?
​So lets be realistic about the church.. Those of us in the church sometimes are the poorest advertisements for the Gospel: petty, unforgiving, gossipy, mean-spirited. We insist on seeing things our own way, and having things our own way, as if there was no one else sitting in the pews next to us.
Then there’s the instititutional nature of the church. Institutions always petrify the idea they are supposed to preserve and spread. The church has its bureaucracies…it has its inefficiencies. If you’ve ever served on an eccelisiastical committee beyond your local church, you know what I mean. So there is a lot about the church which deserves honest criticism and serious reform.
But this is not the whole story and we know it. For all its fault, over the years, the church has preserved and spread the Gospel. It has been responsible for lifting the cause of the poor and marginalized. It has passed on the Bible into every culture. It has built hospitals and nursing homes and colleges and orphanages.
And then there is the second adjective the holy CATHOLIC church, that is to say, the universal church, the whole church, not just the Roman Catholic Church, although that’s a big part of the whole church, but the whole church, from Pentecostal who swing their shoulders to Orthodox who swing their in censers, from Lutherans who sing those old, ponderous
Germanic hymns to new evangelical churches who sing hymns written last week. We believe in all that, we trust in all that….we do that because we believe the church, although terribly human, is instituted by Christ, and is, would you believe, his body?
Yes, that’s the church…pockmarked, shopworn, but ordained by God to be the community who lives out the Gospel and loves with the same passionate intensity that our Lord loved….the church, whom God entrusted to show the power of the Cross to the world.
As I have come to know the congregations I have served, I realize that nearly every branch of Christendom has come together to form an individual church. Each local church is a microcosm of the wider church, the church the Apostle’s Creed calls the “holy catholic church.” To
prove my point, I’d like to take a survey. How many of you grew up in a
Presbyterian or Reformed background?
How about Roman Catholic?
How about Episcopalian?
Or one of the Orthodox traditions, such as Greek, Russian, or Armenian?
Are there any Pentecostal among us? Or Mennonites or Friends?
UCC or churches of Christ?
Pentecostals or Churches of God?
Community Churches, Interdenominational
Mormon Traditions?

​So here we are thrown together in this delicious ecclesiastical stew in Peoria. Here we are living out each day the universality of the Christian Church.
Before we move on, I would like to ask all of you, right now, in a meditative way to pray for the whole church of Jesus Christ.
Pray for the whole church as it includes the church of your childhood; the church back there where you were married; the church from which your mother was buried; the church on your college campus; the church in the mountains or near the coast where you worship on vacation.
Some of us in this congregation have either worked or served in other lands. Think prayerfully now of that congregation gathered in Japan or Korea, in Lebanon or Iran, in Australia, or in one of the African nations. Think of nationals, fraternal workers, and missionaries still serving there. A few of us here today have friends or families in troubled lands. Think prayerfully of them now–Christian friends in Cuba, Christian friends in Northern Ireland, Christian friends in countries such as China, harassed, watched and even persecuted.
We all know about other churches in the metropolitan area. We aren’t alone in the ministry of Christ. Isn’t that heartening! Bring them to mind now in the spirit of Christ; the work of the St Vincent De Paul among the homeless. The work of Habitat for Humanity, Cathedral Center, hospital chapels and nursing homes now patients are being wheeled by volunteers to worship; chapel gatherings in jails and prisons; durable congregations in central Phoenix.
And we all have many friends and loved ones in the church in heaven. May God hear our prayers for them and for theirs, as well.
As we mature in the faith, my friends, we learn more and more not to live as an isolated part of the body of Christ, but to live rejoicing in the whole. Even as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for it. And so it is, that…
It is the whole church we work for,
It is the whole church where we meet our Lord.
It is the whole church which is God’s gift to us.

Timothy Dwight Dwight was a man for all seasons: an ordained Congregational minister, grandson of preacher Jonathan Edwards, personal friend of American President George Washington, and Army chaplain. He was born in 1752 and began reading the Bible at age four, and secretly learned Latin despite his father’s prohibition. In 1785, he published the 11-volume Conquest of Canaan. In 1787, he received a Doctor of Divinity degree from Princeton University. In 1795, he became president of Yale University (where, like his grandfather Jonathan Edwards, he matriculated at age 13). He helped found the Andover Theological Seminarythe first seminary in New England i n 1809. Dwight died of cancer in 1817 after serving as president of Yale University for 22 years.

​This is believed to be the oldest hymn by an American still in use….

I love Thy kingdom, Lord,
The house of Thine abode,
The church our blessed Redeemer saved
With His own precious blood.

I love Thy church, O God.
Her walls before Thee stand,
Dear as the apple of Thine eye,
And written on Thy hand.

If e’er to bless Thy sons
My voice or hands deny,
These hands let useful skills forsake,
This voice in silence die.

Should I with scoffers join
Her altars to abuse?
No! Better far my tongue were dumb,
My hand its skill should lose.

For her my tears shall fall
For her my prayers ascend,
To her my cares and toils be given
Till toils and cares shall end.

Beyond my highest joy
I prize her heavenly ways,
Her sweet communion, solemn vows,
Her hymns of love and praise.

Jesus, Thou Friend divine,
Our Savior and our King,
Thy hand from every snare and foe
Shall great deliverance bring.

Sure as Thy truth shall last,
To Zion shall be given
The brightest glories earth can yield
And brighter bliss of Heaven.

Categories: Weekly Sermon

Sermon 10/1

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World Communion Sunday
October 1 2017

On the outskirts of Nairobi, Kenya this morning, the African Church of the Holy Spirit began their worship service by marching through the streets of their village singing and dancing with instruments in order to rally more believers into their church. After the sermon, an elder of the congregation stood to pray to drive out the evil spirits.
In Basel, Switzerland the morning, the ecumenical patriarch blessed a new Orthodox Church and poured holy oil over the alter. This oil is a visible sign of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and it is also used in worship to anoint the newly baptized. After the space was blessed the community gathered to Holy Communion.
In eastern Syria this morning, the worship of the Syrian Orthodox cathedral in Hassake includes ancient liturgy and the practice of the sacraments. Many of the Christians living there can trace their roots back to the time of Jesus, and some of them even still speak Aramaic, the ancient language of that time. In the midst of violence and war,
they draw together to witness to the love of Jesus.

In Seattle, Washington, in the middle of the financial district, the Church of Mary Magdalene is holding a worship service with Holy Communion an hour from now. This congregation is comprised of former and current homeless women. This church provides social services and counseling as well as worship where all of the women are able to take part.

World Communion Sunday is one of the most significant Sundays of the church year. On the first Sunday of October Christians all around the world partake of the sacrament. The idea began at Shadyside Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, PA in 1933. And caught on. It was an effort to remind everyone all of our oneness in Christ no matter what our denomination, or color, or language, or background. “They will come from east and west and north and south, our gospel lesson proclaims, to sit at table in the kingdom of God.”

On the night He was betrayed Jesus took bread. And when he had given thanks and blessed it, He broke it and gave it to His disciples, saying, “This is my body, broken for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”

In the same way after supper Jesus took the cup and gave it to His disciples, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Drink you all of it.”​
As we all know what we call the “Last Supper” was the Jewish Passover meal, observed by Jesus and his disciples on the last night of his life.

In face of his imminent death he interpreted bread and wine as prophetic signs of his crucifixion. Like this bread, so would his body be broken. Like this wine so would his blood be poured out. In Aramaic the words translated literally are: This, my body. This, my blood. This meal portends the sacrifice of my life, wholly and freely given.

Think back to the church where you first took received communion. Mine was the Union Ridge Methodist church in Winston-Salem. We would come forward, kneel on red cushions, and receive the bread and cup from the pastor. I still like that, coming forward, kneeling, always a sign of humility and obedience.

She had sung in several Broadway plays back in the day. Now she was in an assisted living home sharing a double room with a member of my church in Tucson. She had profound Alzheimers disease, wasn’t able to speak much, wasn’t able to recognize much of anything.

I had come that day to bring communion to my member accompanied by one of our Elders. We were ushered in and visited a bit with my church member. The old lady, the former Broadway diva, sat in chair across the room and didn’t respond when I said ‘Hello, how are you?’

Then I asked my member very quietly, “Does she say anything?”

“Hardly anything,” but then she added “When they were showing the Sound of Music out in the Day Room the other day she sang along with all the songs. She knew every word.

We rearranged our chairs, so that there would be four in the circle–my Elder, my church member, the Alzheimers Diva and myself. My Elder prepared the elements. I read a scripture, prayed the prayer of institution, and passed out the elements…the four of us partook, even the Alzheimers lady. And then I said, “Let’s close our service with a song.”

And I began: Doe, a deer, a female deer, ray a drop of golden sun.

Smiles broke out on the faces of my Elder and my member, and then, in an aged, crackling voice, the Alzheimer’s Diva joined in.
Me a name I call myself
Fa a long long way to run
Sew a needle pulling thread
La a note to follow sew
Tea a drink with jam and bread
And that brings us back to doe.

The experts speculate that even when we aren’t able to speak anymore, there are still things that we remember–however dimly. We remember songs. We remember scripture. We remember family. We remember that we are loved.

And even if the experts are wrong, and we don’t remember anything, all of us here today know that God remembers us, that Christ died for us, and gave his body and blood for us.

Categories: Weekly Sermon

Waypoints for Spiritual Guidance

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Waypoints for Spiritual Guidance

September 24, 2017
​Our son is a First Officer with American Airlines, flying the Airbus out of Charlotte, or CLT, as it is known by frequent flyers. The other day he flew from CLT to DFW, Dallas Fort Worth and on to PHX, yes Phoenix and on to MCI, Kansans City.
​That’s airport shorthand for cities; many of us have flown enough to know the most familiar airport codes. LAX Los Angeles, ORD, Chicago O’Hare and so forth.
​But there are other sets of airline letters that most of us don’t know. They are called Navigational Waypoints. A waypoint is fixed point in 2D space (latitude and longitude) used to define points along a route. When you take off you fly from one waypoint to the next. It’s a little like my saying, “How do I get from my home to our church? Well, I take Camelback east bound to the waypoint at Camelback and the 101, turn north to the next waypoint at the 101 and Olive, turn east to the next waypoint at Olive and 83rd and turn north at the waypoint 83rd until I land here. I drive from one waypoint to the next and the GPS in my car indicates where I am, where I’m heading, and my final destination.

Most all navational waypoints are composed of five letters and are supposed to be pronounceable. There are so many clever waypoint names: here are a few:
When you are approaching Schipol Airport of Amsterdam you fly over a waypoint on the Dutch coast called TULIP. Near the India Pakistan border is a waypoint called TIGER.
Near Detroit is a waypoint called PISTN (for the Detroit basketball team.) and MOTWN

Sports fanatics: Near Boston, you have CELTS and BOSOX.

Only in Texas you find: DRPPD, FTBAL,TEXNN, COACH, QTRBK, TAKKL, RECVR, FMBLE and TCHDN. By Soldier Field; KUBBS and BEARS.

In Portland, the pair of TRAYL and BLAZR, balanced by the highbrow OMMSI,(Portland’s Oregon Museum of Science & Industry) and POWLZ (the incredible Powell’s Bookstore).
Foodies: Near Kansas City, you get the regional SPICY, BARBQ, TERKY, SMOKE and RIBBS.

But the best of all is near Pease, NH, ITAWT ITAWA PUDYE TTATT. Greetings Tweety Bird from the cockpit. ​
So I was thinking about of all this the other day, it occurred to me that just as aircraft need navagational aids to get from one destination to the next, you and I need navagational aids on our journey of faith. Without specific aids, without clearly understood waypoints, we end up wandering and lost. Here are your navational aids for the coming week.

Monday: Judge not and be ye not judged. Matthew 7:1
We’re all tempted to make unkind or derogatory remarks. The basic reason is that pointing out another’s deficiencies makes us feel less uneasy about our own. So on this day start out by asking the Lord to help you stop judging others. Then watch yourself all day long. Though you may think some derogatory thoughts, do not express them. Employ the bloody tongue syndrome by biting your tongue. Count to ten. Put a rubber band on your wrist and when you say something mean pull it to remind yourself what you’ve just done. (The Jesuits do this.) Do anything—but keep the critical or spiteful thought to yourself.
At the end of the day, if you have succeeded, you will feel a deep glow of satisfaction. If you haven’t, write down a brief record of each transgression. The following Monday read those notes, and begin again.
Tuesday–Forgive seventy times seven. Matthew 18:22
Seventy times seven. We’ve heard this verse explained enough times to know that seventy times seven actually means to forgive endlessly, continually, without any preconditions or excuses.
Of all the spiritual disciplines this one is the hardest. There are people who have bullied and betrayed us; people who have deliberately wanted to hurt us, and did.
And so the discipline for Tuesday is to make a list of all the persons you dislike, those for whom you feel separated by a gulf of resentment. Then pick one person and do something specific about bridging that gulf. Make a phone call. Write a note. Go up to that person at the office and say or do something that is a clear and unmistakable signal that the past is forgotten, that hostilities are over. Maybe it isn’t not possible to meet that person face to face. Maybe it isn’t possible for you to do it this week. Maybe if you extend an overture that overture may be rejected. But the fact that you want to do something about it is what counts in the end. Something good inside you will be strengthened. Something worthwhile inside you will grow. And something wise within you will know it.
Wednesday God loveth a cheerful giver. II Corinthians 9:7
In our computerized world, charity has become strangely impersonal. We give to this church or that organization with one eye on our bank account and the other on our tax deduction. Some of us tithe, but too often we are not cheerful givers. One reason may well be that in this kind of giving there is no direct contact between donor and recipient. The results of giving are invisible, and much of the warmth and joy of giving are lost.
The discipline for Wednesday is to take some possession that has real value for you and give it away. Not to a friend, who may somehow repay you, but to a stranger who needs it more than you do and who cannot repay. Carry something to the Salvation Army or Goodwill. I have a conviction that if I haven’t worn it in a year, I need to take it to Goodwill. The costlier the gift, the greater the benefit. But what you give, and how you manage the giving, is up to you. There are are two rules here. One, there must be no hope of reward and two, you must tell no one of what you have done.
Thursday Be thankful. Psalms 100:4
A couple of friends were reminiscing about things and people for whom they were grateful. One man said, “Well, I for one am grateful for Mrs Wendt an old high school English teacher who 30 years ago introduced me to Tennyson.” Someone in the group asked if he had ever told Mrs Wendt of his gratitude. The man admitted that he had not but when he got home he sat down and wrote her a long overdue letter. The letter was forwarded and finally found the old teacher. Back came a note written in feeble scrawl. It said:
Dear Willie,
I can’t tell you how much your note meant to me. I am in my 80s, living alone in a small room, cooking my own meals, lonely, and like the last leaf of fall lingering behind. You will be interested to know that I taught school for 50 years and yours is the first note of appreciation I ever received. It came on a blue, cold morning and it cheered me as nothing has for years.”

All of us are debtors, not just to the Giver of life, but to countless individuals who have helped us along the way. Parents who gave us love and protection. Teachers who helped us gain knowledge. Physicians who guarded or restored our health. Friends who offered sympathy in time of need. Co-workers who carried our load when we weren’t able to carry it ourselves. Pick out just one and give them a phone call or write a note of gratitude this week.
Friday Pray without ceasing. I Thessalonians 5:17

There is a diet in which one of the requirements is to drink eight glasses of water daily. Without the repetition of that simple act eight times a day, the diet does not work as it should. Repetition has its value in developing spiritual awareness, too.
The discipline for Friday is to write down some favorite prayer or Scripture. Then on eight separate occasions during the day find time—or make time—to meditate for five minutes on what you have written down. What do the words say to you? Is there a deeper message?
Saturday “This is the day the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it.” Psalm 118
I take that to mean that it is today and today only that God has given us to enjoy. Tomorrow is not guaranteed. Yesterday with all its trials and tribulations ended at midnight. Tomorrow begins at 12: 01 am. To fret over the past or to worry about the future is to miss to miss many opportunities God places in our path each day.

In Thornton Wilder’s play “Our Town”, the main character Emily has died, but is granted a wish by the stage manager to return from the realm of the dead to relive her 12th birthday in her home town of Grover’s Corners. She is terribly disappointed because she realizes that her friends and her family are walking through life blindly, not seeing the beauty around them, not seeing the beauty in each other. Just before she returns to the cemetery, she asks the stage manager, “Do human beings ever realize life while they live it–every, every minute?”
The stage manager answers, “No. The saints and poets, maybe–they do some.”
Do you remember those few lines from the “Sanskrit”:
Look to this day, for it is Life
The very Life of life!
In its brief course lie all the verities
And all the realities
Of your existence:
The bliss of growth,
The glory of action,
The splendor of beauty;
For yesterday is but a dream
And tomorrow is only a vision
But today, well lived,
Makes every yesterday a dream of happiness
And every tomorrow a vision of hope.
All of us work so hard to achieve, to get things done, to work, work, work–to feel good inside by what we have accomplished. We are so goal oriented that we have missed something. We have missed the moments. We have missed each other. We have missed God.
Sunday Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy. Exodus 20, verse 8.
The Jewish Sabbath is Saturday; ours in Sunday. But the original meaning of the day is the same for Jews and Christians. Sunday is a day to rest from work and disciplines. The wisest Man Who ever lived took one day off in seven. Our Lord and Master thought rest was important, he thought worship was important. He was in the synagogue weekly.
Why go to church? Especially on those days when you just don’t feel like it. I will tell you a story. If you’ve ever been to the Middle East and watched an oriental rug being made, you’ll notice that the weaver does all of his work from behind the loom. Every now and then he will come out from behind the loom and look at the pattern he has been weaving. If there is an error here, or a lack of symmetry over here, he will go back behind the loom again, and take out some strands, or pull other strands more tightly.
​Six days a week you and I are working from behind our loom, weaving the pattern of our lives. But on the seventh day we step from behind the loom and we look at the pattern we have been weaving. We compare that pattern with the pattern that was set on the Mt. of Sinai or the Mt. of the Beatitudes. When we step out from behind the loom each Sunday, we see which strands of our lives need to be altered. When we worship each Sunday, we get a perspective on our lives we find nowhere else.
​Let me underscore this point by quoting William Temple. The late Archbishop of Canterbury said, “This world can be saved from political chaos and collapse by one thing only and this is worship.”
​I believe he is right. I believe that worship can do that for the world. But I also believe that worship holds enormous possibilities for us as individuals. Whether we are young, fresh from the starting gates, with most of our lives before us; whether we are of middle age, fending off the destruction that wastes at midday; or whether we are in our latter years, living under the sharply slanting rays of a setting sun, I believe–with my whole heart I believe–that we can do nothing more meaningful or therapeutic for ourselves, and others, than to be faithfully present, week by week, month by month, for the worship of Almighty God.
Go to church. Thank God for all the miracles which represents your life. Think back over your life in the week just past. Ask yourself if you have noticeably changed for the better. Give yourself an honest answer. But don’t be discouraged if you haven’t made much progress. For after Sunday comes Monday. And another seven days.

Categories: Weekly Sermon

Sermon 9/10

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Theological Vexations

Romans 8:28   Sept. 10 2017

I’ve called this message “Theological Vexations.”  By that I mean what some people believe God is and what God does vexes me.  Drives me nuts.

Here’s a posting on Facebook earlier this week.

“Those of you that have turned your back better pay attention!! Tornadoes this summer, hurricane headed up the east coast and a 5.9 earthquake in Virginia felt all the way to NYC and Boston along with one in Colorado! Texas with record flooding! Los Angeles wildfires! Not to mention the North Korea mess !!! And people are fighting to take God out of everything, seems to me God is sending an awfully loud message!!!!!! If you agree copy & re-post PUT GOD BACK WHERE HE BELONGS!”

As Hurricane Harvey has just left its wake of devastation in Texas and Hurricane Irma sweeps through Florida even now, that Facebook posting becomes even more diabolically interesting.   If you parse it out, what it’s saying is that God is punishing the world with hurricanes, earthquakes, and wildfires because we have ignored God and taken God out of life.

When you are convinced that everything that happens in this world is the will of God, then there’s a lot of bad stuff you have to explain.

If we can say anything about the recent climate disasters, they are divine punishment for scientific denialism.

To help us with our theological vexations I want to lift up one of the most arresting  verses in the Bible.  It’s Romans 8:28:

JB Phillips: 28-30 “Moreover we know that to those who love God, who are called according to his plan, everything that happens fits into a pattern for good.”

Look  carefully at the wording of this verse.  “We know that to those who love God those who are called according to his plan, everything that happens fits into a pattern for good.”

And notice what this verse does not say, It does not say, as the KJV wrongly translates it that “All things work together for good.”   The original Greek is a little confusing here, but it doesn’t say that everything that happens works for good.  We  don’t need to be a Bible scholar or theologian to know that a lot of things that happen to us and happen in the world aren’t good, aren’t working for good, will never, ever turn out good.

Over the years I have stood with many, many family members who have lost loved ones.  Sometimes, and those were the easy cases, sometimes the death came for someone advanced in years, as was my mother, and in those cases when a friend says to us, “It was a blessing, we respond, “Yes, it was.”

But I’ve heard other responses, some of which are stupid and downright cruel: “God needed her more than you did.”  “God gives his hardest battles to his bravest soldiers.”   Clever, but not good.

“We don’t always understand God’s ways.”  That’s for sure.

Maybe the best thing we can do when suffering and hardship strikes a friend is to say nothing, absolutely nothing, and respond with a hug or tear.

In 1971 I moved to Philadelphia and became pastor of a church just north of the city limits.  Our Clerk of Session there was a man by the name of Al Maul.  He was a man old enough to be my father.  We were polar opposites.  When he would say stop, I would say go; when he would say yes, I would say no.  I was young, impetuous, and aggressive. Al was older, careful, and conservative. I was determined to come in and shape and shake that church up.  I’m sure Al Maul, who had seen a succession of young ministers come and go over the years must have said to himself, “This, too, shall pass.”

Yet, in all of this I respected Al Maul, for he was a good man, and he loved the church and loved our Lord.

In January, 1975, my father had a massive coronary and died before he could get help. He was 53 years old, and up until the last day of his life, had been in good health.  On the Sunday I returned to Philadelphia after the funeral service, I stood in line shaking hands with the people.   When Al Maul came through he gripped my hand with both of his hands.  He looked at me.  There were tears streaming down his cheeks.  He said nothing.  He didn’t have to.

And over the months that followed, the care and the concern of those people at the Melrose Carmel Presbyterian Church helped thin out my sorrow, and helped me recover from grief.  Now the Melrose Carmel Presbyterian Church will never be counted as a great congregation in our denomination.  It was too small in membership and budget, and too isolated in location.  But it will always be great to me, and I think it will always be great in God’s eyes because it was a church that ministered to its minister in the worst thing that every happened to me.

Have you ever found yourself, in the midst of unimaginable grief, pain, heartache or despair, wondering how you are going to make it through another day? Wondering where your next breath is going to come from? Your world has crumbled beneath you and you are left feeling shattered, empty and hopeless.

And then a well meaning friend or family member comes along and drops the infamous “Everything happens for a reason” bomb. You smile kindly and nod—that’s all you can do to keep yourself from punching them in the face.

You can’t possibly imagine a reason for what just happened.

The more you stew about a possible reason for your pain, the angrier you become. You try desperately to make sense of a situation that won’t ever make sense. You reach for answers but none come.

You can spend years searching for answers, “Why did this happen?  You think if you can find a logical reason for this awful event, it will end your pain.  If you can find the cause, you can treat the condition.  But I want to tell you through years of experience that sometimes there are no answers.  Sometimes bad things happen for no reason other than we are human beings living in a fallen world.

“How could this possibly be God’s will?” a woman asked me when her daughter was killed by a drunk driver.  I told her this isn’t the time for a theological lesson.  But I will come back in a few weeks and we can talk about your question.  But for today let’s just read a few passages of scripture together and pray.

When I came back I told her something like this: “

I don’t believe that everything that happens, particularly bad things, are God’s will.  A lot of stuff happens that goes against God’s will.

God’s will is not the path we walk, but rather how we walk the path.

God’s plan is never for someone to have cancer. God’s will is not for an innocent child to be brutally murdered. God’s will is not for a teenage girl to be raped. God’s will is not chronic pain, illness, disability or death.

God’s will for us is to walk with Him through the cancer. Through the abuse. Through the death. Through the illness. God’s will is for us to draw close to him in the midst of pain. God’s will is for us to use our painful life events to carry his message of hope, grace, forgiveness and mercy.

Not everything happens for a reason. But in everything that happens, there can be a reason to bring help and healing to others. God can use our pain for a greater good if we choose to let Him in.  I love this wonderful quote from the end of Ernest Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms”: “The world breaks everyone, then some become strong at the broken places.”

The heart of our faith is this verse from II Corinthians 5.  “God was in Christ.”  That means that Jesus is the human face of God.  What Jesus is like, God is like: compassionate, vulnerable, responsive.  .  What vexes me is the  incapacity of seemingly intelligent people to get it through their heads that God doesn’t go around this world with his fingers on triggers, his fists around knives, his hands on steering wheels. God is dead set against all unnatural deaths. And to demonstrate that Jesus spent a significant part of his ministry delivering people from paralysis, , leprosy, and mental illness.

The one thing that we should say when tragedy strikes someone is:  It is the will of God.” Never do we know enough to say that. My own consolation lies in knowing that it was not the will of God that my father died far too young.  When he pulled his car over to the side of the road that January night in 1973 and took his last breath,  God’s heart was the first of all our hearts to break.

We went to see the movie  “Wind River” last week.  It’s main character is a man named Cory Lambert who is a Fish and Game Warden in Landek, Wyoming.  He has a lot of Native American friends, and one of his best friends is a man named Martin.  Both Cory Lambert and Martin have lost teenaged daughters.  Murder victims.

“I’d like to tell you it gets easier, but it doesn’t. If there’s a comfort, you get used to the pain if you let yourself, I went to a grief seminar in Casper. Don’t know why, just, It hurt so much, I was searching for anything that could make it go away That’s what I wanted this seminar to do, make it go away. The instructor come up to me after the seminar was over, sat beside me and said, “I got good news and bad news. Bad news is you’ll never be the same. You’ll never be whole. Ever. What was taken from you can’t be replaced. You’re daughter’s gone. Now the good news, as soon as you accept that, as soon as you let yourself suffer, allow yourself to grieve, You’ll be able to visit her in your mind, and remember all the joy she gave you. All the love she knew. Right now, you don’t even have that, do you?” He said, “that’s what not accepting this will rob from you”. If you shy from the pain of it, then you rob yourself of every memory of her, my friend. Every one. From her first step to her last smile. You’ll kill ’em all. Take the pain, Take the pain, Martin. It’s the only way to keep her with you.”

Let me tell you what I have learned over a life-time of ministry, found from people who have walked through the valley of the shadow of death.   Even when our pain is deep God is nevertheless good.  I realize that when our pain is most dreadful, God seems far, far away.  “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” Yes, but at least, “My God, my God”; and the psalm only begins that way, it doesn’t end that way. As the grief that once seemed unbearable begins to turn now to bearable sorrow, the truths in those Biblical passages begin to break through to us:

“Cast thy burden upon the Lord and He shall strengthen thee”;

“Weeping may endure for the night but joy cometh in the morning”;

“Lord, THOU Hast been our dwelling place in all generations.” “Blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted.”

“For thou hast delivered my soul from death, mine eyes from tears, and my feet from falling”;

“In this world ye shall have tribulation, but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world”;

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

So let us all seek consolation in that love which never dies, and find peace in the dazzling grace that always is.

Categories: Weekly Sermon

Sermon 9/3

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Psalm 90 (Swicegood paraphrase)

Lord, you have been our protector through all generations!

Even before the mountains came into existence, or you brought the world into being, you were God from all eternity and forever.

You create us, but then we return to the dust,

Yes, in your eyes a thousand years are like yesterday that quickly passes, or like one of the passing hours of the night.

Our lives are like the poppies of the desert

In the morning they open with  the rising sun,

By evening they wither and dry up

The years of our lives pass quickly, like a sigh.

They last seventy years, or maybe eighty if we are lucky.

So teach us to consider our mortality, so that we might live wisely and well.

Luke 12:13-21 (The Message)

15 Speaking to the people, Jesus went on:  “Take care! Protect yourself against the least bit of greed. Life is not defined by what you have, even when you have a lot.”

16-19 Then he told them this story: “The farm of a certain rich man produced a terrific crop. He talked to himself: ‘What can I do? My barn isn’t big enough for this harvest.’ Then he said, ‘Here’s what I’ll do: I’ll tear down my barns and build bigger ones. Then I’ll gather in all my grain and goods, and I’ll say to myself, Hey Man, you have done well.   You’ve got it made and can now retire. Take it easy and have the time of your life!’

20 “Just then God showed up and said, “You are an utter fool because tonight you will die.  And your barn full of goods?  What happens to it then”

21 Jesus went on: “That’s what happens when you fill your barn with Self and not with God.

This sermon was inspired by my visit to N C last weekend.  I went back–to see my two grand girls (of course), but the other reason I flew back was to attend my 55th high school reunion.  There were 104 in our class of 1962; there were forty of us at the reunion, some of whom were spouses.

I was asked to give the blessing at the reunion dinner.  I said, “Before I give thanks for this meal I would like to read the names of our classmates who have passed, and then ..a prayer of remembrance for them.

I read each name slowly in order of the date of their deaths.  21 in all including my cousin Judy Swicegood Bedsaul who died earlier this summer.  And then I told my classmates, “The prayer I am about to offer was written by Marianne Moore, a great American poet, a life-long Presbyterian and passionate New York Yankee fan.  It was a prayer she wrote upon the death of her mother:”

One by one,

Thou dost gather us out of earthly light,

Into heavenly glory.

From the distractions of time

To the peace of eternity.

We thank thee for the labors and joys of these mortal years.

We thank Thee for our deepening sense of the mysteries that lie behind life’s dust.

And for the eye of faith which Thou hast opened for

all who believe in thy son,

to behold through the darkness

the shining future.  Amen.

And then I offered grace.


The fact that 21 of my classmates are no longer walking on this earth shook me to the core.  Perhaps it shouldn’t have.   The actuarial tables would have told me the same thing.   My class mates mused that a lot of us won’t be around in five years for our sixtieth, and that this was probably our last official reunion.   It wasn’t a morbid admission.  Just the facts.

So today my theme is mortality.  Mine and yours.  The brevity and preciousness of life.

To guide our thoughts I’ve selected two scripture passages, Psalm 90 and Luke 12.  The thrust  of  Psalm 90 the Eternal Nature of God, the Ephemeral Nature of Man.”  In my paraphrase of

this Psalm I changed the words of verse 7 to read:

Our lives are like the poppies of the desert

In the morning they open with  the rising sun,

By evening they wither and dry up

This past spring the wild flowers in the desert were the most spectacular I have seen since moving here in 2001.  The brittlebush and the Mexican poppies adorned the hillsides.  One fine April morning Barbara and I along with two friends we have known since our Portland years took a short hike on the RB Valley trail in the Estrellas.  As far as we could see up and down the hillsides, before us and behind us the Mexican poppies competed for our attention.  We posted some pictures from that hike  on Facebook; the poppies in the background make us old folks in the foreground look a little better.

One week later I was back hiking the same trail.  Only a few poppies had survived.  Most had withered during an unusually hot April week.

Maybe Mexican poppies are so appealing to me because they last so briefly.  Never more than, say, two weeks.  They close up when the sun goes down, and open to the face to the sun when it rises over the hills.  But then the desert heats up day by day.  And the poppies? Here today, gone tomorrow.

The Psalmist sees this–the ephemerality of the flowers of the desert, and understands this is a parable of his own life.  And he writes:

The years of our lives pass quickly, like a sigh.  (Like a sigh, Huff!)

They last seventy years, or maybe eighty if we are lucky.

And then he concludes :

So teach us to consider our mortality,

so that we might live wisely and well.

Samuel Johnson once quipped: “When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”

Nothing concentrates our attention better than to know that sooner than we think, sooner than we want, our days will come to an end.

And now our second reading, a parable of Jesus, commonly known as the parable of the rich fool.

It s a parable about a farmer who has had stunning harvest.   He is  already rich but he is about to become filthy rich.  He has a bumper crop, a crop so extraordinarily large that he barns he owned weren’t big enough big enough to hold this terrific harvest.  So what does he do?  Notice, how handles this situation.  He talks to himself.  When  you are rich and successful you don’t need to consult anyone but your own inflated ego.  He consults with himself and says “Now should what I do?    I got it.  I’ll tear down my old barns and build new barns twice as big.  And then he leans back in his rocking chair on the front porch of his 7 bedroom home, with granite tile in his kitchen counters, and gold plated faucets in his bathroom, he leans back, puts his hands in his  suspenders and says, “Man you’ve got it made.  You can now retire and take it easy.”

This parable of the rich farmer reminds me of a poem published in the “New Yorker” magazine way back in 1929.

Elizabeth Bates

Elizabeth Bates has been to Rome

And looked at the statues there

Elizabeth Bates has scaled the Alps

And sniffed the mountain  air

Elizabeth Bates has winced at Nice

And quibbled at gay Paree

And lifted her delicate eyebrows at

Indelicate Barbary

Elizabeth Bates has been to Spain

and sampled her ego there

And viewed the face of the thoughtful Sphinx

And paused to arrange here hair.

Elizabeth Bates has “done the globe

From Panama back to the States

But all she saw on the way around

Was Miss Elizabeth Bates.

Milo Ray Phelps The New Yorker 1929.

But there’s just one itsy bittsy matter that he does not calculate as he congratulates himself on his well-deserved success.  He does not calculate an untimely and unwelcome visit e visit from the Lord God.  If I read his personality correctly, he hasn’t ever considered that there is a God at all, a God who gives us our lives, a God who hold us accountable for the stewardship of our lives,  and a God who ultimately  takes our lives away.  

And so he is rocking away happily on his front porch , surveying his domain, acres and acres of crops, God comes upon him and says, “You are an utter fool, for tonight you will die.”

The Bible uses the word “fool” judiciously.  It is always used to describe those who do not understand that THERE IS A is a God.  Proverbs 14:1 encapsulates it “The fool says in his heart, there is no God.”

And Jesus wraps this parable up with an explosive  question to his listeners: “What will happen to those who are full of self but empty of God?”  What will happen to all those earthly goodies we have striven so mightily to attain– when we dead and gone.

Regina Bret w as a columnist forThe Cleveland Plain Dealer for 17 years.  When she was 90 years old she wrote down the most important lessons life had taught her.  Here they are:

1. Life isn’t fair, but it’s still good.

2. When in doubt, just take the next small step.

3. Life is too short to waste time hating anyone.

4. Your job won’t take care of you when you are sick.

Your friends and parents will. Stay in touch.

6. You don’t have to win every argument. Agree to disagree.

7. Cry with someone. It’s more healing than crying alone.

8. It’s OK to get angry with God. He can take it.

10. When it comes to chocolate, resistance is futile.

11. Make peace with your past so it won’t screw up the present.

12. It’s OK to let your children see you cry.

13. Don’t compare your life to others. You have no idea what their journey is all about.

14. If a relationship has to be a secret, you shouldn’t be in it.

15. Everything can change in the blink of an eye. But don’t worry; God never blinks.

17. Get rid of anything that isn’t useful, beautiful or joyful.

19. It’s never too late to have a happy childhood.

But the second one is up to you and no one else.

20. When it comes to going after what you love in life, don’t take no for an answer.

22. Over prepare, then go with the flow.

23. Be eccentric now. Don’t wait for old age to wear purple.

25 No one is in charge of your happiness but you.

26. Frame every so-called disaster with these words ‘In five years, will this matter?’

28. Forgive everyone everything.

29. What other people think of you is none of your business.

30. Time heals almost everything. Give time.

32. Don’t take yourself so seriously. No one else does.

33. Believe in miracles.

34. God loves you because of who God is, not because of anything you did or didn’t do.

35. Don’t audit life. Show up and make the most of it now.

36. Growing old beats the alternative — dying young.

37. Your children get only one childhood.

38. All that truly matters in the end is that you loved.

39. Get outside every day. Miracles are waiting everywhere.

40. If we all threw our problems in a pile and saw everyone else’s, we’d grab ours back.

41. Envy is a waste of time. You already have all you need.

43. No matter how you feel, get up, dress up and show up.

44. Yield.

45. Life isn’t tied with a bow, but it’s still a gift.

A woman in my Portland church was in her late 60 s when I first met her.  She was an alcoholic.  In our many visits she freely talked about the demons and struggles of addiction.  She was a faithful attender at AA meetings, the last, best hope of alcoholics.  She had fallen off the wagon so many times that she stopped counting.  She would sometimes call me at 11 o clock at night, really snookered, wanting to talk.

After more than a few of these unpleasant  phone calls I had to draw the line.  I told her I would only talk to her between 8 and 5 every day, and only then, if she were sober.

In one of our  talks she laid out her life story.  She had been a social drinker until her son committed suicide.  To mask the pain, she began to drink more and more.  She hated her self for

behavior.  Her sense of shame and failure were palpable.  And she told me, “Terry, I don’t want to die a drunk.”

She was still alive when I left PDX in 1988.  I lost touch with her and don’t know what happened to her.  Was she able to maintain sobriety or did she die a druunk?

I don’t want to die a drunk.  By that, I mean that I don’t want to die with regreets about some action I have taken, some behavior that is damaging to me and those around me.  I want to die with a clear conscience, that I have lived each day reaching for my highest and best living each day in such a manner that just as I fall asleep each night I can hear the voice of God commending me: “Well done, good anbd faithful servant.”

Elizabeth Bates

Elizabeth Bates has been to Rome

And looked at the statues there

Elizabeth Bates has scaled the Alps

And sniffed the mountain  air

Elizabeth Bates has winced at Nice

And quibbled at gay Paree

And lifted her delicate eyebrows at

Indelicate Barbary

Elizabeth Bates has been to Spain

and sampled her ego there

And viewed the face of the thoughtful Sphinx

And paused to arrange here hair.

Elizabeth Bates has “done the globe

From Panama back to the States

But all she saw on the way around

Was Miss Elizabeth Bates.

Milo Ray Phelps The New Yorker 1929.

Categories: Weekly Sermon