Category: Weekly Sermon

Our Father

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​Our Father
Psalm 121; Matthew 6
February 25 2018

Today I am beginning a series on the Lord’s prayer, a prayer without equal in all the world. We begin with where Jesus began, “Our Father.” We are so accustomed to hearing that address that we miss the remarkable contribution Jesus gave us to shape our thinking about God. In the Old Testament you only hear that word “Father God” whispered seven times. But Jesus took that word and put it on our tongues, so in the New Testament you find it 275 times.
Jesus gave us this image so that when we think of God, we don’t think of a Being who is remote, aloof and disinterested. No, Jesus said, God is like a good father, close and real and personal. In that simple human word “Father” we find gathered up all the yearnings of our hearts, all the hopes of our years. In that word “Father” is the key to unlock the mysteries of our faith.

What’s a Father like? like? We could answer that in a lot of ways. At the time of death, I ask families to come to my office, and I always ask, “Tell me, what was your Dad like?” Oh, there are so many answers, and as the children began to describe their dad, there is always a tear or two. We could spend all morning talking together about the characteristics of a good Father, but I want to pick out just three characteristics of a good Father. I do so not to pick characteristics at random or out of the air, but because these were characteristics of the God we see revealed in Jesus Christ.
First, a good Father is patient. I remember trying to teach my son how to hit a baseball. He must have been about six or seven. I bought him a small bat, and tossed him a tennis ball on the front lawn. I would throw a slow lob, and he would swing and miss. Toss, swing, and miss. Toss, swing, and miss. Over and over again, until the day arrived when he would get a piece of the tennis ball, and then came another day after that when he could hit that tennis ball all the way across the street.
I must have lobbed a thousand tennis balls his way before he could make contact on a regular basis.
This is what we parents do. We patiently and tirelessly work with our children until they get it right.
And our most important work isn’t just getting them to hit a baseball, but teaching them good manners and social graces. Teaching them to say “yes sir” and “no sir” and to look people in the eye when they shake hands. And the most important lessons, teaching them values and faith and self-control.
There was father in the grocery store shopping and he had his three year old in the baby carrier part of the shopping cart. The kid was just a brat. He would reach out from the cart and grab something off the shelf sending it tumbling on the floor. And the Father said, “Kevin, control yourself.” The kid started screaming at the top of his lungs, and the Father said, “Kevin, stay calm.” Then the little urchin picked up a bottle of coke in the shopping cart and threw it on the floor, and it broke open and spewed out everywhere.” And the Father said, “Kevin, you have to restrain yourself.”
Oh the patience of being a parent, and oh, the patience of God. How patient God has been with me, and you too, I suspect. I don’t know why God doesn’t give up on us. We’re always falling back into our old self-defeating habits. But God sticks with us. It’s almost as if God says to us, “I will keep tossing you the ball until you get it right.” God doesn’t give up on us. God holds us even when we are hardly worth the holding, loves us when we are hardly worth the loving.
The patience of God.
What s a good father like? Patient and then provident.
A father is also provident. We don’t use that word much. It means one who looks out for our future needs. It is the root of the word “providence.” When we speak of the providence of God, we mean that God will guide us and stand with us, come what may.
I would like to tell you a little about my own dad. Jim Swicegood was a good man and a good father who died at 53, far too young. He worked during the day as an insurance agent, and in the evening he refereed baseball and basketball games to put food on the table. I never quite understood why he worked so hard until I became a father, and then suddenly I realized what he was doing. He had to work hard to pay for our mortgage, to buy our food, and to give me the things I needed to live. He wanted me to go to college. He had only completed the eighth grade. In a very real and tangible way, he lived and worked for my future.
Jesus talks about his heavenly Father in the same way. In his sermon on the mount he tells us that not a sparrow falls to the ground without his heavenly Father’s knowledge. And then he says, “Are you not of more value than many sparrows.”
God’s providence. We don’t always see it, especially when we are stuck in the muck and mire of life. God’s providence is never known in prospect, only in retrospect. Only in looking back can we see God’s providence at all our important turns of the road.
I know that there is someone here today worried about something, a health issue, a job issue, a family issue. I pass on to you the words passed on to me this week: “When we worry about the future, we must remember that we will meet God there.”
God’s patience, God’s providence, and last, God’s faithfulness. A father is faithful. My dad was faithful to me, to my mom, to my sister, to our community, to our church.
We know that God has been faithful to us in the past, and everything we have experienced suggests that God will be faithful to us in a future not yet seen. It may be that all that can be promised at the moment is that God will provide enough resources for us to make it through just for one more day. But that is enough. As the Psalmist frames it, “The Lord will guard our life; the Lord never slumbers, never sleeps.”
I have an app on my smart phone called “Flight Aware.” Flight Aware allows you to track any flight in this country. All you need, really, is the airline and the flight number, and if the flight is airborne, you can follow it.
Most of you know that our son, Jeremy, is a first officer with American Airlines. I like to follow his flights when I can. When he goes on a trip he sends us his schedule. So, for example, I will activate flight aware, type in the airline–“American”–and the flight number. And then “presto” the map comes alive and there is a little plane making its way across the country.
I can see where he is–over Kansas–or on his way to New York City. I can see the weather on the map, his flight speed, his altitude. It’s great to be able to keep up with him. I just wish I had an app like this when my kids were teenagers, because then I could know where they really were–and not where they told me they would be!
The other day he was flying from San Francisco back to his home base in Charlotte. I watched the plane just after it took off, and during the day would look at the app and see where he was. It was a six hour flight so I had other things to do and could only watch him from time to time. But I did watch the plane as it approached Charlotte and landed safely. It always makes my little heart happy when he’s safely back home. I didn’t know it at the time, but he told me last weekend that he, not the captain, was flying that particular leg.
You know, it’s been for us. Even when we aren’t aware, unseen eyes from on high are watching over us, caring for us, concerned about us. And those eyes have been following us since the day we were born, and will watch over us until that day when we arrive safely home.

Categories: Weekly Sermon

The World Is Charged With the Grandeur of God

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The World Is Charged With the Grandeur of God

(Transfiguration Sunday) Feb. 11, 2018

This is one of the most remarkable and puzzling experiences in all of Jesus’ ministry.  All three of the Synoptic Gospels–Matthew, Mark and Luke–tell this story with a great deal of consistency.

The story begins with the words, “Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter, James and John and went up on the mountain to pray.”

Eight days after these sayings….What does that mean?   Eight days before Jesus had told them that he would undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the leaders of the Jews,  and be killed.

I think Jesus goes up on the mountain top to confirm his decision to make his way on to Jerusalem.  As you study the life of Jesus, you see that there are many turning points, and he has to struggle and pray at each of these defining moments to discern the will of God.  So when we are peering out into the murky future, wondering what’s next, wondering what decision is good for us and our loved ones, wondering what decision would meet with God’s approval, it’s comforting, I think, to know that Jesus also struggled with the same uncertainty.  He wasn’t some pre-programmed robot, destined to follow a certain course his entire life.  He came to many forks in the road, and each time he would go off by himself to meditate and pray about which road to take.

And as he was praying, the appearance of his face changes, Luke tells his, and his clothes became dazzling white.  When Moses went up on Mt. Sinai, and returned with the Ten Commandments, it is written that “he knew not that his face shone.”  To enter, as Moses and Jesus did, into the presence of the Holy One of Israel, to stand in the white, windy, presence of eternity, to hear the Word of God directly and personally, is such an enlightening experience, that a person’s face must reflect a radiance as never seen by human eyes.

The old American preacher, Jonathan Edwards took this as the basis for pastoral care evaluations.  He would assess from someone’s countenance how much they had been impacted by the beauty of God in Jesus Christ.

And Friedrick Nietszshe,  who was a preacher’s kid and knew the church up close, knew precisely that this was clearly not happening.  “Christians,” he said, “ought look more redeemed.”

But before we leave this point,  we ought to note in passing that Christians like Mother Teresa literally brought people back to life and health just by looking at them through the eyes of Jesus.

Back to our story: While Jesus is in prayer, his disciples fall asleep.  The poor disciples.  They are always portrayed in the most unflattering light.  They never get who Jesus is.  They are competitive, selfish, and dull.  Here in one of the most dazzling moments of their life, they are fast asleep.  So take courage, if you are like me, having slept through and missed some of the greatest opportunities to see and know God

But they are awakened by an uncanny voice saying, “This is my son.”  When they looked uphill, there was Jesus dressed in the purest white and standing in the midst of Moses and Elijah, Moses the supreme  lawgiver of Israel, and Elijah, the greatest prophet.  Jesus and Moses and Elijah are in conversation.  James and John, known for their blunt excitements…Peter known for being brash and outspoken, are totally  speechless.

Moses and Elijah began to fade.  And though his clothes and face were still shining unbearable, Jesus walked toward the three.  He was still not himself–not the man they had known, yet each of them privately came to believe what they would tell one another after his death.  When Jesus reached them, he held out his hands, still streaming light and they must have thought,  “We will never be gladder than this.”

And whatever else this mountain top experience means, what it meant to Jesus is clear to see.  It gave him strength to go on to Jerusalem, Gethsemane, the Judgment Hall, and the Via Dolorosa.  

And the disciples were transformed by this mountain top experience as well.  Oh, not immediately.  It came much later for them, after Jesus’ death and resurrection, but they realized–looking back upon this day, that is was one of the most glorious experiences of their lives.  

As a mountaineer, I’m interested in mountain top experiences, both figuratively and literally.  There’s something awesome about standing on top of a mountain.  I have a friend, a mountain climbing buddy named Dick Miller, whom I have climbed with many times.  One day, as we were sitting on the summit of Mt. Hood in Oregon, after a long and grueling climb, this is what Dick said:

“When the mountaineer returns to a low-world occupation on Monday morning, associates often believe they are in company with a lunatic.  Face swollen from sunburn, feet tingling with frostbite or sore with blisters, muscles and mind limp from fatigue, eyelids heavy from lack of sleep, what is the answer to the question, “Did you have a good weekend?”  Says the thick tongue, still dry and swollen, “Very interesting climb!”  ON the following Friday, when the same mountaineer becomes lost in maps and weather forecast, it is no wonder that associates, who are planning a picnic at the beach or an exciting day watching hydroplanes race, look at one another and slowly shake their heads.  The mountaineer is unquestionably insane to those of the low world, but sanity is relative to time and place.

In the high world it is raving madness to talk about sewer taxes, the late movie, and presidential ejections.  Who can think about mowing a lawn and pruning roses while walking through meadows beyond the skill of the massed energies of every garden club in America plus all the Bonsai artists of Japan?  Who can be agitated by the high cost of living while trying to start a fire in a downpour or rig tent in a July blizzard?  Who can lay waters on the world Series while listening to the winds, and the silence, of high altitude?  Once you have been startled by the brightness of stars or even frightened by the realization they are points of fire in a space that extends around and below, as well as above the world; once you have stood in the sunshine on a rock summit above an ocean of moving clouds, you can never again be entirely sane by standards of the low world, nor will you ever want to be.”

What have been your mountain top experiences?  If you would answer, not many, I mainly live in the flat lands, that would be true of most of us.  But, if we think about them, there are many mountain top experiences, experiences of glory and grandeur that we miss because like Peter and James and John, we sleep through them.  The Jesuit priest, Gerard Manly Hopkins contented that the world is charged with the grandeur of God.

And who on this spring morning, with Bradford Pears lining the road way, daffodils asserting their yellow heads above the earth, and forsythia beginning to wear a yellow coat, can deny that?   Who can deny the glory of the world, the glory of human beings, the glory of every moment of every day.  

Whenever we travel to Holland I nearly always visit the Van Gogh museum.  Two hundred and fifty of his seven hundred and fifty paintings are on display there.  Van Gogh began painting at the age of 27, and by the age of 37 he was dead, a suicide.  He battled depression his whole life, and to compound his depression, his art was not well-received.  He tried to hurt himself by cutting off one of his ears.  

And yet this mad genius gave us some of the wildest paintings imaginable.  He lived with a burning desire to “grasp life at its depth.”  One night he looked out his window, and the sky was spinning with glory.  His painting “The Starry Night, is composed of vivid indigoes, yellows, golds, greens, blues and blacks.  A tree of the left ripples up like flames.  Chimney smoke from village houses connects with the stars.  And the sky!  The sky is filled with mammoth stars that whirl across the canvas like living things.  

That kind of glory is around us, if we can open our sleepy eyes to see it.

One last story, told by my friend, Susan Andrews, a Presbyterian pastor.  It happened when she was spending a summer of Clinical Pastoral Education at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, D.C.  One of her wards was a medical/surgical ward where the patients were both mentally ill and recovering from life-threatening illnesses.  Most of the patients were poor, black, and victims of addictive behavior.

It was not a pleasant place to behold, for a young woman, young in years, young in ministry.  One morning there was a new patient in her ward–a man in isolation–all alone in his room–suspended between life and death.  Both legs amputated, but gangrene still creeping through his body . She could smell the stench of decay even before she entered the room.  The man moaned and sweated in miserable delirium.  For an hour she wandered up and down the hall, seeing other patients, resisting going in to see him, nauseated by his disease and at a total loss as to what to do.  What could she, a 25 year-old white woman, possibly do or so to ease this man’s situation.

Finally, she walked into the room, took the man’s hand, and prayed the Lord’s prayer.  And that’s when it happened, when the holy broke into the human, when God took over and grace flowed through her.  The man stopped moaning, his eyes stopped rolling, his body stopped shaking.  He looked at Susan and began repeating the Lord’s Prayer with her.  For a moment, all was still, and a peace that passes all understanding filled the room.  A few minutes later, after Susan left the rom, the man’s suffering ended.  He died, finding peace at last.  

I can’t  explain moments like that any more than I can explain the transfiguration.  I can’t explain why Moses’ face shone every time he was in the presence of God.  

But I do believe those experiences happen, even though I don’t fully understand them.  They happen on the mountain top and down on the plain.  They happen in high moments of our lives and in moments of deep sadness.  If we stay awake, if we pay attention, we will find that grandeur of God, which electrifies the entire world.

Categories: Weekly Sermon

Super Bowl Theology

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Super Bowl Theology
Philippians 2: 5-11 Feb 4, 2018

I don’t know if it’s divine coincidence or not, but the lectionary reading for today is from Isaiah chapter 40: “They shall mount up with wings as Eagles.”
This afternoon at 4:30 pm 6 pm the Philadelphia Eagles play the New England Patriots for the championship of the entire universe. Well, not exactly the entire universe but pretty close.
The Super Bowl is the single biggest event in America in any given year. No other sporting event, political event, or cultural event compares to the size of the audience that will watch this game today, at least 110 million people. The game will be broadcast to 225 countries. And it will be held in Minneapolis where 1 million people have flocked this week to take in the Super Bowl parties, events, and for a fortune few, the game itself.
Alas, even though the Super Bowl will be held in Minnesota, the woeful Minnesota Vikings failed yet again to make the big game.
The Super Bowl is the high holy day of American sports, the most sacred sporting event of a nation obsessed with sports, and all that sports represents: competition, money, and winning….at all costs.
Now I know that not all of you are football fans. But football fans or not, I contend that there is something about Super Bowl mania that deserves our reflection. I call it Super Bowl Theology. Let me tell you what I’m getting at.
Two years ago the Seahawks snatched an improbable victory from the Packers in the NFC championship. The Seattle quarterback, Russell Wilson, was just awful for nearly all of the game. But in the last five minutes he came to life, and led his team to two touchdowns. He was in tears when he was interviewed just as the final whistle blew. “God is so good, man,” he cried, “God is so good all the time.”
A few years ago in a playoff game the Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback informed a sideline reporter that God was responsible for the Jags victory. Not coaches, player, recruiters, trainers or owners. No, God was responsible. And how does the QB account for his team’s success? “Thanks be to God,” he says. “There’s a bunch of guys on this team who really love the Lord.” (I take it that the other team didn’t love the Lord as much as the Jags.)
Now, all this would be mildly amusing were it not for the fact that a lot of people take this stuff seriously, and swallow a big dose of Super Bowl theology. Children and young people, in particular, are influenced by the set of rules that goes along with it.
I personally don’t think God cares very much about who wins the Super Bowl today–or any game for that matter. With car bombings in Afghanistan and a civil war going in Syria, God has more important business than the point spread of today’s game.
I like what Coach Bill Parcels had to say before a big game between his team and the Pittsburgh Steelers. When asked whether God would favor one side or another, he said, “No disrespect to anyone, but it usually works better when the players are good and fast.”
That makes sense. You could take eleven of the finest, most dedicated Christian pastors in this country, and pit them against eleven nail spitting, big, fast, tough, heathen atheist football players, and the Christians would get smeared.
If you think all this is a little ridiculous I agree, but I have to tell you this kind of thinking slips over into ordinary life. A man doesn’t get a promotion, and he feels that God didn’t want him to have it. A woman fails in her marriage, and feels like God’s hand was somehow in that defeat. A young mother miscarries, and feels like she didn’t do something right.
Let me just say that God is never in the sending of misfortune and suffering, only in the ending of it. Misfortune and suffering first pass through God’s hands before coming to rest in our hands. Super Bowl theology promotes a distorted view of God and promotes bad religion.
Another aspect of Super Bowl theology is how we have distorted the competitive aspect of sports. In every sport, someone wins, someone loses. Winners get an ego-boost. Losers crawl away on their belly. Thus, we have a society of winners and losers. Look at it this way: “Do you want to be called “A winner” or “A loser.”
It’s rare when we think of sports in a non-competitive way. You go out on the field. You give it your best. You may win, or you may lose, but your satisfaction comes from the joy of the sport itself, and the opportunity of pitting all that you have against all that someone else has.
The reason I’ve enjoyed climbing as an adult is that it is a non-competitive sport. Some climbers compete with others for the most peaks climbed, but I have found joy and satisfaction by being with a group of climbing buddies and cooperating with each other, with helping each other. It doesn’t matter who makes the summit first….what does matter is that everyone makes it, that we’ve been together, that we’ve been tested by the mountain, and have managed, on this day, to climb to the top.
When I first climbed the Grand Teton my buddy who was in the lead waited for the other three of us, and we joined hands and stepped on the rocky summit together. In climbing, we all win together, or if we don’t make it, in a sense we lose together, but we come back to climb another day.
And there is one other matter we should note as we sit down today at 4:30 pm with our popcorn and sodas to watch the big game. And that is something we never see in this spectacle. What we never see and are only beginning to realize is what happens to these players after their careers come to an end.
`According to the NFL Players Association the average career length is about 3.3 years. — 3.3 years, a very short career followed by a life-time of devastating consequences.
Why do they do it.Well, certainly the love of the game and a chance to make some big bucks. The average career earning of an NFL player is 6.1 million dollars. It’s very hard not to be tempted by such a staggering pay-out– especially if you are good.
In 2015 there were 271 concussions in practices, preseason games and regular games.
And as regards other injuries–knees blown out, Achilles tendons ruptured, bones broken and other injuries too numerous to mention. Our AZ cardinals at the end of this past e season had only 25 players left on its roster from the 53 who made the club opening day.
96 per cent of ex NFL players have some form of brain disease. They used to call it getting your bell rung. If you want to see a chilling movie rent “Concussion” starring Denzel Washington as the doctor who brought the concussion cover up by the NFL to light.
John Unitas
Jim McMahon
Ken Stabler. …
Tyler Sash. …
Frank Gifford. …
Mike Webster. …
Dave Duerson. …
Chris Henry. …
Jr Seau
Now in interest of full disclosure I’m going to watch the Super Bowl today in hopes that the evil empire headed by Bill Bellichek and Tom Brady get humiliated by the high flying Eagles. But I watch with mixed feelings because I know that some of the players on the field today whose names are unknown by the public, have a frightening prognosis 20 or 30 years down the road. It’s no wonder that more and more parents are saying, “I will never let my son play football.”
Think for a moment about Super Bowl theology and contrast that with the spirit of Jesus. What was he like? Paul says that though he was in the form of God, he did not grasp equality with God as something to be grasped. Instead he was humble, obedient, and accepted death on the Cross.
Jesus never once tore anybody down, never once said a mean thing against another human being. He said hard things, spoke hard truths against the hypocrisy of his day, but he was never mean. He lived life lightly. All he ever owned could have been carried in a little backpack. He was easy on the earth, and not a conspicuous consumer. He never cared whether his clothes were in fashion, or whether he associated with the right people. Instead he associated with all the wrong people. He was particularly drawn to the outcasts and the losers of the world–to women, and children, and lepers, tax collectors and sinners. He never competed with anybody for anything, and he if had anything at all to give, he gave it, without reservation. He never claimed that God was on his side. He said that God was on the side of all who knew what it was like to kneel in the dust and beg God for mercy and cleansing. And at the end of his life, he did something that we ponder in awe and to this day do not fully understand: he chose to go to the Cross.
Consider Jesus. Consider the fact that we worship a loser, a failure, a disgrace, one who died the death of a shameful criminal.
Have this mind among you, Paul says. Have this mind. All of us are a million miles away from that kind of life, but to that kind of life the whole future belongs.

“The grass withers and the flower fades, but the Word of our God will stand forever.”

Rev. Dr. Terry V. Swicegood
485 E Campina Drive
Litchfield Park, AZ 85340
623 521 1711
Categories: Weekly Sermon