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Lincoln and the Lord – 4/5/15

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Message Delivered April, 5 2015


Mark 16:1-8

In our secular society heroes are openly worshiped.  It is no surprise that on Good Friday, April 15th, 150 years ago, President Abraham Lincoln was attending a performance of “Our American Cousin” at the Ford Theater in Washington, D.C. when actor and southern conspirator, John Wilkes Booth, shot Mr. Lincoln in the back of the head.  Mr. Lincoln died the next day–only four days after the Civil War had finally ended.  Americans will once again remember one of its greatest and beloved leaders (beside the IRS) on April 15th.


Lincoln has actually been compared to Moses leading his people out of slavery to the Promised Land and even to Jesus as the savior of his people.  A Baptist minister, Rev. C.B. Crane of Boston, said at Lincoln’s death, “Jesus Christ died for the world.  Abraham Lincoln died for his country.”  Not an actively practicing Christian, Lincoln focused on justice for all, forgiveness and mercy for his enemies, and the liberation of the oppressed–all Christ like qualities but this is where the parallels end.


Lincoln’s body would lie in state at the White House and then in the Capitol Rotunda before the long train ride back to his burial in Springfield, Illinois.  The train stopped over four hundred times for Americans to pay their respects along the way.

Mark tells us that Jesus had been publicly and brutally crucified on Friday afternoon.  A wealthy, secret disciple of Jesus named Joseph of Arimathea, asked Pontius Pilate, the Roman Governor, for Jesus’ body, which was very unusual because most  crucifixion criminals were left on display or discarded into a ditch after death.

Joseph took Jesus’ body and laid it in a newly hewn tomb and rolled a large stone over the opening to seal it.  Lincoln’s body had been carefully embalmed, a new process for American mid-nineteenth century burials.  In the first century it was up to family and friends to do the burial preparations, a two-stage process.  First, the body was washed, wrapped in linen cloths, and covered with spices that would lessen the smell and hasten the decay process.  A year later, the family would gather the bones and put them in a stone box called an ossuary and then, place the ossuary in a niche at the back of the tomb.

Early Sunday morning, the women came to the tomb to do their funeral preparation, found that the stone had already been rolled away, and the tomb was empty.  Had someone stolen Jesus’ body?  What had happened to him?  Grave robbing was so common in the first century that Emperor Tiberias had issued an edict condemning the practice!  The women were shocked when they saw a “young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side of the tomb.”  He proclaimed, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified.  He has been raised; he is NOT here.  Look, there is the place they laid him.”  Jesus definitely had been moved but he had been the one to move himself.

Today respectful mourners can visit Lincoln’s tomb in Springfield, Illinois.  There are monuments to him on Mt. Rushmore, at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania and the massive edifice in Washington, D.C.  He is even pictured on coins and paper money!  In Washington, Lincoln sits on a throne with an inscription over him, “In this temple, as in the hearts of the people for whom he saved the Union, the memory of Abraham Lincoln is enshrined forever.”

  • Lincoln may have saved his country and people from slavery, but the risen Jesus actually saved the world.
  • The slavery Jesus abolished was the slavery that holds humans in bondage to sin and death.
  • Jesus’ emancipation from the tomb means that we all will be emancipated–set free from death and sin.
  • Jesus’ throne is a heavenly one from which he will reign over heaven and earth, Jesus’ kingdom forever. 
  • Jesus has no temple because he is the temple (Revelation 21:22).
  • Jesus belongs to the ages and is the One who will be with us to the end of the age (Matthew 28:20).

What would the United States be like today if Lincoln had finished his term in the White House and his life span on earth?  Easter tells us that true divinity can only be found in the One who can save us, who is still alive and will make us alive as well.  We can celebrate great men like Lincoln but today we WORSHIP the One who is the risen Christ, the Lord and Savior of us all, forever.  Hallelujah, he is risen, indeed, and lives to reign over his kingdom of heaven and earth, forever!  


Amen.

Categories: Weekly Sermon

Beside Jesus at Bethany – 3/19/15

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Message Delivered on Palm Sunday, March 29, 2015

Mark 14: 1-15


This week is Holy Week and begins with Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey, teaching in the Temple and with people everywhere he went.  Thursday is the remembrance of the Jewish Passover, which Jesus celebrated with his disciples in an upper room.  This gathering is the foundation for our Christian celebration of Holy Communion as we remember Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross and his glorious resurrection on Easter.

The lectionary for this Sunday recalls the triumphal entry of Jesus as recorded in Mark 11.  The reading from Mark 14 speaks about Mary of Bethany anointing Jesus at the home of Simon the Leper, who would have been considered untouchable, yet Jesus went to his house to eat.  Luke’s account in 7:36-50 tells us that Simon was a Pharisee and that Jesus was eating in his house, when Mary anoints Jesus and is forgiven for her sins.  How ironic that forgiveness is meted out in the home of a Pharisee, one of the leaders Jesus chastises for spouting off the law but not living the law.  In John’s gospel, Jesus visits the home of Lazarus, whom he has raised from the dead.  Jesus is anointed by Mary.  It has always been a troubling question to me: which Mary is anointing Jesus?  Is the identity of the “Mary” using a costly ointment to anoint Jesus important or is the act the important point?

In Jewish tradition anointing was reserved for the dedication of a king in preparation for his reign over his kingdom. Was Mary anointing the “King” of heaven and earth?  The Mary who  humbled herself and anointed Jesus in a selfless act was chastised for her extravagant gift–her gift of love for the Savior.  How did she know that Jesus would die to save us all from sin?  The guests were concerned about wastefulness but Mary understood self-sacrifice.  Jesus had been teaching everyone he came into contact with since his entry into the city.  He had been speaking about forgiveness and the gift of grace.  The Pharisees and other leaders were unwilling to hear or believe.  They had their own profitable system of attaining forgiveness by bringing offerings to the temple to lift up to God for forgiveness.  It was a profitable system based on works righteousness.  Simply put, work to get offerings to present in the temple to literally buy righteousness.

We think that we have to work to effectively to have approval in our world.  If we think we need feathers in our cap, we will find it tough to live without them.  Our culture lies ethically in the dregs of what used to be the Protestant work ethic.  Remember the “blue laws?”  An arrogant woman wired home from her new job, “Made supervisor, feather in my cap.”  A few weeks later another wire arrived, “Made management, feather in my cap.”  A month later they got another wire, “Fired.  Send money for ticket to fly home.”  Her parents wired back, “No ticket necessary, use feathers.”

In the account of Jesus’ anointing at Bethany, one Christian behaved in a way that many Christians have forgotten how to behave.  One Christian is extravagant and accused of being wasteful.  She gives from her heart.  The disciples want to know why the woman with the alabaster jar of expensive ointment (nard) did not sell it and give the money to the poor.  Jesus’ explanation is simple:  “I am going to die soon.  That is why.”  Surely the disciples did not realize how numbered Jesus’ days were, but the woman with the nard knew.  She knew that she would not have many more chances to anoint her Savior.  She was very different from the young woman of the feathers.  She lived for something more than her own interests, she lived for Jesus.

Some of us have become victims of our own feathers and our own pragmatism.  We are committed to efficiency, productivity and saving the poor–but we rarely remember why we are so driven in these directions.  As right as it is to work hard for the poor and to impact the world in a positive way, it is more urgent to remember Jesus–especially on this day of the Palms.  We only had thirty-three years with him.

We think we have to be effective to have approval in our world.  If we think we need feathers in our cap, we will find it tough to live without them.  Our culture lies ethically in the dregs of the Protestant work ethic promoted by the evolution of the blue laws. Middle class men and women live by the dim lights of the Protestant work ethic instead of the light of Christian grace.  Poorer people are beaten over the heads with these dim lights daily.  Why are they poor?  Because they won’t work.  Because they are lazy.  Even though many of the poor are mothers of young children, they are labeled as poor because they do not or will not work.

Well, folks, work is not the basis for our salvation!  Grace is!  In the deep down places of life, grace is real.

The work ethic took something good and turned it into something like control.  The one anointing Jesus at Bethany did not try to control life, she tried to spend her life for Jesus.  The work ethic has become perverted into a ploy to control God, hoping that God will do our bidding.  The work ethic began as a belief that if we work, things will go well for us.  If not, it is our fault for not working.  The God who is implied by the Protestant work ethic needs sacrifices laid at the altar daily:  paystubs, raises, promotions, upward mobility, a well-feathered cap.


The God we actually worship in Jesus is a God who requires none of these sacrifices.  Our God accepts gifts in the form of expensive oil (love gifts with no strings attached), praise and grace-filled living.  Originally Protestants meant to experience the grace of God deeply enough so that they could make and do, buy and sell, trade and travel.  They thought that material prosperity was a sign of their election by God to renew and remake their world.  Was capitalist activity an offering to God?  Since the Reformation, capitalist activity has become a sacrificial, controlling offering.  God has been pushed out and off the stage.  We are now human doings, rather than human beings.  We make and do and do not feel elected so much as oppressed.  We allow ourselves to be busied to death.  We accumulate to our own death, afraid that if we spend we might come up empty.  In fact, if we were to spend what we have, we would come up full!  All kinds of people lay their lifestyles and excuses at God’s feet, having very little memory of what it is like to play or do what you want to do, rather than what you have to do.  The woman at Bethany took time out for Jesus.  She did what she wanted to do.  Some people are too far removed from the holy–time off for rest on the Sabbath.  It is what some might call grace and what others might call ointment.  Can’t you hear the disciples complaining?  The woman did what they could not do.  She spent.  She gave.


 What might God be saying about our human economy?  Neither buying or selling is directly related to our reward, not on earth or in heaven.  There is no salvation with having what we can earn.  We can play our way to salvation.  Play is what you want to do while work is anything you have to do.  Play does not mean that we quit our jobs tomorrow and move onto our couches.  Play is an attitude, a spirituality, a home.  It has to do with what stands inside us when we tell the boss we have had enough.  Play is freedom:  the ability to give away what we have, even in the face of what to some is the ultimate scarcity, death.  Play understands what Jesus understood:  time and life go on after death.  There is an eternity to life.  We can enjoy each other now, even if there is not much time left.  Many fear that play is not plausible.  What is not plausible in the terms of the gospel is the world of works righteousness.  Grace is more plausible than any work–any way you look at it.  


 Reformers proclaimed Solo Gratia, Solo Fide.  We are saved by grace alone.  Some of us take off early some days while others are sitting at their desks.  We do not live a switched life, turn me on, turn me off.  We play at work.  We play with God.  Sometimes we play with our feathers.  If we run into Jesus at Bethany, hopefully we will give him all that we have and are. 


Amen.


 


Categories: Weekly Sermon

A New Ethic – 3/22/15

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Jeremiah 31:31-34              


In our Adam Hamilton Bible study, “24 Hours That Changed the World,” we talked about the ethics behind the torture and humiliation of Jesus.  What motivates people to agree to inflict intense pain upon another human being?  The Romans utilized a light form of flogging on lesser criminals; but when they wished to instill terror, they  used methods so brutal that all but the most hardened spectators would turn away.  Those beatings had a great deterrent effect.  Flogging was designed to inflict incredible pain and damage but to leave the victim with just enough strength to carry his cross to the crucifixion site.  Jesus did not beg for mercy which probably confused the Roman soldiers.  They amused themselves by staging a mock coronation of the King of the Jews, placing a purple robe on him and pressing a crown of thorns down on his head that dug into his flesh.  Jesus had challenged the authority of the religious leaders and pointed out their hypocrisy.  Were the soldiers doing their job?  What makes human beings capable of inhumanity toward one another?  Are there times when we as ordinary people lose our humanity, in our fear find ourselves supporting policies and practices that in other, better times we would have resisted?  Ordinary people can be persuaded to do extraordinary and awful things.  Given the right combination of ideology, authority, and gradual desensitization, all of us can become monsters, capable of destroying others with weapons ranging from words to gas chambers.  It is a reality we must face and guard against, looking instead to God and trying to understand who he has called us to be.

How do we set our “ethics” setting?  New advances in technology are evolving daily.  The Apple Watch–just out, an all terrain stroller that can handle grass, gravel, rocks, trails and other “mommy terrain.”  There are now robotic cars that make decisions about what crashes to avoid.  The car is programmed to avoid collisions and to save lives, but what if a person is standing on the sidewalk?  Can the car veer off the road?  The car can decide to swerve to kill one person and avoid hitting a car full of people on the road.  Can the car owner adjust the ethics settings?

If we look at Jeremiah we can see that God intervenes to adjust our ethics setting.  God does this when a new law is written on our hearts.  Jeremiah gets word from God that there will be a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.  “New” sounds good because it usually carries the promise of improvement.  God led the Israelites out of Egypt and they broke the old promise-based relationship, a relationship that God initiated because he loved them as if he were their husband.  God heard their complaints when they were oppressed by Egypt and delivered them.  Then God gave Moses the two tablets of the covenant containing God’s law.  “I will be your God and you will be my law abiding people.”

There was a problem–the people could not or would not obey.  Their disobedience began as soon as Moses descended the mountain with the tablets in his hands and it continued for centuries.  The old covenant was designed to keep people happy and healthy, just as robot cars are engineered hoping to keep people safe.  The old covenant guaranteed rest from work and time for family harmony honoring parents and resisting the temptation of adultery.  The problem was that the old covenant was not working, so God made a new covenant.  God put the law into their hearts through the prophet, Jeremiah.  The ethics settings were no longer recorded on stone tablets.  The ethics settings were placed deep within each one of us, written on our hearts.


For years people have talked and argued about “situation ethics,” and that right or wrong depends on the situation.  Actions are considered to be good if they have a good result.  Even killing and lying are acceptable if they lead to a sufficiently beneficial result.  Such ethics are not what the new covenant is all about.  When God readjusts our ethics settings, God writes the law on our hearts.  Our decisions are driven by knowing God and God’s way–a way we see most clearly in Jesus.  Now, when we meet people who are hungry on the Sabbath, or any other day, we feed them, just as Jesus did (Matthew 12:1-8).  When we run into foreigners who are strange to us, we sit down and talk with them, just as Jesus did (John 4:1-15).  We discover that our true brother, sister and mother is the person who “does the will of God,” as Jesus did (Mark 3:31-35).  Jesus readjusted keeping the Sabbath holy and honoring parents by reminding us that no one should starve on the holy day and family goes beyond the people in our biological families.

We are not robot cars controlled by God with orders to swerve to avoid collisions.  We have choices to make as we seek to follow God and Jesus faithfully.  These choices might lead us to new understandings of what it means to be loving and faithful people.  When we agree to the new covenant, we do not lose our moral compass.  We discover that our moral compass points us consistently to Jesus as we ask ourselves, “What would Jesus do?”


We all have an opportunity to get to know God personally by knowing his son, Jesus Christ. In Jesus, we see the human face of God, and we learn about God’s love, grace, and truth.  Through Jesus, we learn how much God wants to be in relationship with us, and to eliminate any barriers that might separate us from him.  

God even uses Jesus to eliminate the burden of our sins and to reconcile us to himself.  “I will forgive their iniquity,” promises God through Jesus, “and remember their sin no more” (verse 34).  This promise is made true for us by the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, which pays the debt we owe and brings us back into right relationship with God.

“New” is clearly an improvement when we are talking about God’s new covenant with us, one that resets our ethics setting and points us clearly and consistently toward Jesus.  When we walk Jesus’ path, we do not abolish the law or the prophets, but we find a way to bring them to completion.  When it comes to ethics, the Jesus setting is always the right setting.  


Amen.

Categories: Weekly Sermon

Mercy and Graced to Life – 3/15/15

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Message Delivered on March 15, 2015


Ephesians 2:1-10


Grace, peace and mercy to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  I use these words because Paul often greeted the church in this was as a declaration of faith.  Some people believe that they have to be baptized to be saved by Jesus, but Martin Luther emphasized that Scripture says we are saved by our faith and that by the grace and mercy of God, we receive new life and can experience peace–at least the peace that comes from knowing that God claims us as heirs to the Kingdom of Heaven.  We baptize as a profession of our faith and desire to be a part of a faith community that believes in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior of life.  Because of Jesus, we celebrate the gracious gift of God’s mercy and power to forgive us for our sins, if we repent them and ask for God to embrace us with love and forgiveness ane the hope of new life with God forever.

I am sure you have all heard the expression, “Being nickled and dimed to death.”  We can take that metaphor and apply it to Jesus’ saving act on the cross and say that we are being mercy and graced to life.  The nickel and dime problem is big and getting bigger by the minute.  Hidden fees seem to be lurking everywhere in our culture–especially when we travel.  If you own a computer, you have seen all kinds of ads for “Cheap Hotels” and bargain rates for air fares on assorted airlines.  The problem is when you print your boarding pass to fly at a hotel, you might be charged a fee. When you get to the airport, you might be charged an extra rate for your suitcase, as well.  If you do not adhere to weight limits, that too can be an extra charge.  You might get charged for extra bags, extra leg room and sometimes, even for carry-ons if they are deemed too heavy or too large.  They have to fit in the sample bin at the doorway to the entrance of the plane.  Maybe you decide to travel by ground to avoid air fees and want to rent a van to take extra people and gear and snacks to save on restaurant charges–but some companies charge extra for a GPS, electronic toll devices and other amenities, if desired…all for a fee, of course!

Some of you might shop online and think you are getting the best price for an item until your bill arrives and you paid twice as much for the overnight shipping fee when the ad said “free shipping” (You forgot to specify priority mail, not express!).  Do not forget the handling or packing fees–surprise!  Hidden fees have been around for so long that we tend to think that if something appears too good to be true, it probably is.  When a price is too low, we start searching everywhere for the hidden fees.  We begin to read the fine print because we do not like being nickel and dimed to death.  We have learned to negotiate to reduce the fees or to make them go away.

When we read  the words in today’s Ephesians text, our scam radar comes out in full force.  It seems too good to be true–our sins are forgiven.  We are renewed and WOW!  We, who were once dead in sin, receive a new life.  Hee-haw!  This sounds like too much mercy.  This sounds like too much grace.  Could it just be that God is mercy and gracing us to life?  And what’s the frosting on the salvation cake?  All of this comes to us for free.  No hoops to jump through, no hidden costs.  Maybe we should search for the fine print.

Remember Ron Popeil and his television commercials?  Ronco, his company sold products like the Chop-O-Matic, the Inside-the Shell-Egg Scrambler and the Pocket Fisherman.  Ronco became a multimillion dollar money making enterprise not only on the strength of Popeil’s inventions, but also because he was an amazing salesman pioneering the infomercial to sell his products to mass audiences.  Popeil popularized such advertising standards as, “How much would you pay?”  “Wait, there is more.”  “If you order now, you will receive two items and free shipping– if you call right now.”  Today the phone sales representative asks you for your credit card number and the secret code on the back of the card to access your credit.


Ephesians sounds like a sales pitch. You were dead through your sins.  You have been disobedient to God’s ways.  You followed your own desires.  Where does that lead you?  No Where!  You can almost picture in your mind an exasperated person in a television commercial with disheveled hair and an annoyed expression on her face.  She knows it will be a long, untimely, frustrating day if she does not have the special product or ingredient needed for success.

Paul points out the ways the church of Ephesus has tried to find the better way on their own.  They have lived according to the passions of their own flesh and have found them empty.  We have chased after the perfect job, money and power, only to find that when we acquired them, that they were not what we expected.  The self-satisfaction we were seeking just did not “measure up.”  We search for the best vacation deal, the best car sale, computers and other electronic devices, but the joy of our sense passes swiftly by.  The vacation is over sooner that we like, the new car smell quickly fades and the techno toys are rapidly replaced by new, more fan-dangled models.

Paul offers a solution:  “There is a new life which satisfies deeply: Once we were dead, but we can be made truly alive; we have been struggling and there is one who will save us, we have been poor but there are better riches available to us.”  What would you pay to break the cycle of disappointment, to be raised up with Jesus, to be made alive with him and to be seated with him in glory?  The Bible says you pay nothing.  The price has already been paid.  The work has been done.  The words mercy and grace prick up our ears and turn on our scam radar signals.  We are  cynical.  We have been taught there is no such thing as a free lunch.  We have learned that if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.  We have been victims of corporate greed, commissioned salespeople and fine print.  We do not want to get taken.  Do you ever wonder, what is God really after from us?  What will all this really cost us?  Paul writes, “God is doing all of this out of the great love with which he loved us.”  It is a gift-free-no strings attached.  “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not die but have eternal life”  (John 3:16).  God’s love is for all of us.  God does not ask us to buy a new and improved product or to buy into a program.  God is asking us to accept the love we have already been given.  It is available.  We simply need to live into it.  We cannot buy it because it is a free gift given to us through the grace of God and the mercy of Jesus Christ.  God made us alive.  We have been saved.  God has raised us up with him.  That is the compelling good news of Lent!


Paul summarizes by saying, “For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.  God is calling us to a new way of living and all we have to do is accept it.  In Christ we are being mercy and graced to life by our loving God.  May we accept the great gift of God’s love by living into the life of faith which is already ours.  


Amen.

Categories: Weekly Sermon

God, a Good Ally – Exodus 20: 1-17

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Message Delivered on March 8, 2015


A group of American tourists once listened to a story told by their Jewish guide, Moshe.  He claimed that he could explain why Moses came down the mountain with two tablets of stone containing the commandments of God.  First Moses met some Kenites and asked, “Do you want God’s commandments?”  “What do they say?” asked the Kenites.  “Thou shalt not kill,” replied Moses.  “Thanks, we will pass,” responded the Kenites.  Next, Moses encountered the tribe of Hittites.  “Would you like the commandments? asked Moses.  “What do they say?” “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” answered the prophet.  “No thank you.  “We will just move on,” retorted the Hittites.  Finally, Moses came upon the Israelites.  “Here are God’s commandments,” he said.  “Would you like to have them?”  “How much are they?” they asked.  “Nothing.  They are free,” answered Moses.  “Fine, we will take two,” they replied.


 


In reality, the Kenites were a clan of the Midianites, who are thought to have been part of Moses’ exiles and later confessed Yahweh as their God.  Sinai was a holy mountain for the Midianites before being “discovered” by the Hebrews.  Moses met God in a wondrous way atop the mountain.  God chose to ally himself with the Hebrews and made an offer.  Spokesperson, Moses, extended God’s special favor and the “gift” of the rules of life uniquely to the band of slaves who had made a run for it out of captivity in Egypt.  The Hebrews had already experienced God’s favor or they never would have gained their freedom.


 


God deepened his relationship with Israel by proposing, “You shall be my people and I shall be your God.  Giving the “law” to the people constituted a contract, a law that was absolute: Don’t even think about disobeying!  A law can be a paritycontract (made between two equal partners to the agreement) or a unilateral contract.  It is a law between a much superior party to be subscribed to by a weaker party, which has been aided or rescued by the superior party.  In the ancient Middle East, a superior party (a king) might save the hide of the inferior party and the weaker recipient would agree to the terms of the contract out of gratitude.


 


In the case of the Hebrew refugees, God revealed a grace not capable of human desire or effort.  God did not say, “Look what I did for you, now guess what you get to do for me?”  God saved them and gave them an additional gift–guidelines for living life and for loving God, for loving those within the community and for loving those who would become Israel’s neighbors.  God’s gift and his unique partnership with those in the desert was nothing that could be denied by sane human beings.  The God of Sinai was proving himself to be a good ally.


 


The event of Jesus marked the birth of the new Israel.  The pact with God at Sinai, incorporating God’s goodness extended to people in the wilderness, was taken off the shelf.  Jesus came to endorse the contract and its stipulations and to elaborate upon them in his teachings.  “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have not come to abolish but to fulfill them” (Matthew 5:17).  What does it mean to love one’s enemies in our culture today?  It is not easy for modern Americans to avoid making “graven images.”  A man began to lose his commitment to his church over a period of time.  HIs attendance waned, he stopped pledging and his occasional checks in the offering plate disappeared.  First class letters sent to his home were returned stamped, “No forwarding address.”  He was not angry at the elders or deacons and not offended by changes in worship.  He had no bone to pick with the pastor.  He just did not find church “exciting” anymore.  Christianity cramped his style, so he sought more interesting friends and more exciting diversions–and the thrill of less respectable activities.  One day he appeared at worship and the pastor said, “You have been gone a long time.  Why did you come back today?  His answer:  “I have missed the morning trumpets.”  (Was that a “wake-up call?”)  What will it be?  A lifestyle without responsibility?  A stimulating social life with the local movers and shakers or will it be trumpets in the morning?  It is difficult to imagine that God would condemn anyone who must work on Sunday.  How does one obey the commandment to observe the Sabbath in an industrialized economy?


 


What about the commands not to take God’s name in vain, not to steal and not to covet?  Some folks observing American culture are concerned about the passing of civility.  Jon Alter wrote a piece for Newsweek in which he lamented, “We see vicious politics, abominable manners and a dangerously atrophied civic spirit.”  He optimistically believed that people could still say “Thank you” on the bus and “Excuse me” in passing on the stairs.  There are still the cell phones that ring at the movies, drivers who exhibit road rage (even the ones with the Christian fish symbols on their bumpers) and the clerk at the checkout counter regards the buyer as if he/she was a robot or inanimate object.  What has happened to common courtesy?  The commandments are more than the sum of the total, they are guidelines for living in a community.  (After 200+ years folks want them removed from court houses and other public places where they serve as a reminder to better living.)


 


When God is our ally, God’s commandments are not mere “suggestions” as Roseanne Barr once said on her sitcom.  They are the backup system for the law written into the hearts (Jeremiah 31:33).  We already know the differences between right and wrong.  If the gift of the law was not enough evidence for our partnership with God, then there is more:  God’s Son died on the cross for us, bestowing the greatest gift of all from our strong ally–entrance into the kingdom where rules will not be needed.  For the ancients, graven images were poor divine allies.  The God of Moses spoke from the mountain; he did not threaten.  God gave the people of Moses a great gift: the gift of the law.  If the law were taken seriously, it would go well with the Hebrew people.  Nowthe law has been fulfilled in the person and work of Jesus.  The law helps us to get along with one another but it cannot save us.  Only God’s Son can do that, and praise God, Jesus did!


Amen

Categories: Weekly Sermon

Incredible Blessing – Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16

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Message Delivered on March 1, 2015

When I was eight years old, I received a copy of Eggermeier’s Bible Story Book.  I was so excited because it had colored pictures to go with the stories and the words were easier to understand than the King James Version of the Bible my Sunday school class used.  Bible stories are formative, teaching us about God, God’s love, mercy, expectations and blessings.  They teach us how to live and plant seeds if we are willing to allow our minds and hearts to be fertile soil. 


 


Today’s Old Testament lesson in Genesis conveys to us that Abram and Sarai were chosen by God to be blessed in order that they might be a blessing to others.  “I will establish my covenant (binding promise) as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you” (Genesis 17:7).  God promised to make them exceedingly fruitful, which meant to have a large family, necessary to care for animals and properties to sustain all.  What a blessing!  Life would never be the same for them.  God even gave Abram and Sarai new names to start their new beginning as a nation.


 


There was a big problem with God’s promise.  Abram was about ninety-nine and Sarai was around ninety–well past child bearing years.  You can imagine the mixed feelings the couple had.  How would you plan a nursery for an infant if you were between ninety and one hundred?  I preached this text in a nursing home with the average aged resident at ninety-five and asked the folks what they would do if God told them to get ready for the pitter patter of little feet and late night feedings.  They did the same thing as Abram and Sarai–they laughed. Yet, about a year later, God kept his promise and Isaac was born, just as God had promised. (Isaac means laughter in Hebrew.) I am not sure aged couples today would be thrilled with the idea/responsibility of raising an infant in today’s times.  In our Judeo-Christian tradition, Abraham and Sarah have become classic examples of faith.  They recognized the voice of God, understood the call and trusted God’s purpose for their lives and followed in faith and obedience.


 


As we reflect over these faithful servants of the Lord, we need to recognize the big challenges placed before our own lives.  Where are we going with our lives?  How have God’s choices and blessings for each of us shaped our mutual journey so far?  What is it that God wants us to do in the future as a church in this community?  Since 1892 we have been privileged to lead others to faith in Jesus and the power of his resurrection.  We have been drawn together in fellowship to share the love and forgiveness showered upon us as gifts from the Holy Spirit at our baptisms.  We are the descendants of Abraham and Sarah, heirs of the kingdom of God promised to us through faith in Jesus Christ.  Jesus said to his disciples, “Just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28).  Each of us were called as Jesus’ disciples to be servants of love, hope, joy, peace and forgiveness to others, not to expect those gifts to be served to us on a platter.


 


Who are we called to serve?  Are we called to be self-serving, focused on our own wants and desires, or to serve others in the name of Jesus, to share our blessings from God?  A colleague of mine asked the question, “Who is the customer?”  Are we customers because we have a lengthy wish list for fuller pews, a balanced budget, inspiring choir music, bell choir, and an entertaining pastor who says what is necessary in the fewest words possible so that everyone can get out of church early enough to pursue other interests?  The whole purpose of worship is to come together to praise and thank God for the incredible blessings continually showered upon us as a congregation and as individuals.  Maybe we need to re-visit our church mission statement:


       Building on our rich heritage of faith, we serve God in word,


       prayer and deed.  We witness to God’s love through worship, 


       education, stewardship and fellowship; reaching out to those


       in need.


 


Steven Covey, author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, suggests that we develop a personal mission statement in which we focus on the values and principles that are central to our lives. We should use as a primary principle, faith, and focus on what God has in mind.  What is God calling us to do as God’s people in this community?  Are we living up to God’s expectations?  


 


Peter Drucker, an American management consultant, educator and author wrote thirty-nine books contributing to the philosophical and practical foundations of the modern business corporation.  He suggested that we focus on two very important questions to help us discover the unique role God wants us to explore: 1. What have you already achieved? (competence)  and 2. What do you care deeply about? (passion) The goal is to find something through prayer, that fits something you are good at and something that excites you.  It has been said that 20% of the people do 80% of the work, but remember, God always takes the initiative and usually approaches busy people.  Sometimes we think that if we take time off and go on a retreat, that God might break through to us and we might catch a new vision.  Such belief is not biblically sound.  God’s call to Moses came when he was busy with his sheep at Horeb.  Gideon was busy threshing wheat.  Saul was busy searching for his father’s lost animals.  Elisha was busy plowing.  David was busy caring for his father’s sheep.  Amos was picking figs.  James and John were mending fishing nets.  Lydia was marketing and selling fabrics.  Matthew was collecting taxes and sisters, Mary and Elizabeth, were busy homemakers.  On and on, God issues a call in a specific way for a unique task–that, friends, has not changed.  When we listen carefully and move out with our God-given abilities trusting obediently, great things can happen.


 


When I was called here in 2002, I promised to serve you faithfully, to deliver God’s word and to carry out my assigned duties.  I have grown to love you as family and you have loved me back.  I have been asked to continue the work I was called to do and to take an $8,678.25 pay cut.  I am willing to preach at 1, 2, 3, or more services of worship, as long as we work together to share God’s love, hope, compassion and fellowship, leading others to faith in Jesus Christ and the power of his resurrection.


 


Arguing over the time to gather to show glory to God is not the way to honor God for the incredible blessings given to us.  It will not save money to go to one service that a number of people have said in verbal and written opinions they will not attend.  Why don’t we continue to worship at two services to allow for growth and the convenience people have experienced for over twenty-five years?  If you want to see more people in the pews with you, invite friends and offer to give them a ride here.


 


Many of us have heard stories about Dr. Albert Schweitzer.  He held PhDs in medicine, theology, music and philosophy.  He even wrote a book titled A Quest for the Historical Jesus.  In the midst of all his successes, Schweitzer heard an irresistible call from God to be a medical missionary in a small rural village in Africa.  He spent the rest of his life there and the hospital continues to thrive.


 


We need to wonder whom God will call next to make a difference in some small way in our broken world.  Would you like to be more fulfilled in your life and responsive to your faith?  God has a plan for all of us.  Maybe the plan is not as grandiose for us as was the case with Abraham or David or Dr. Schweitzer, but it is still significant, purposeful and rewarding.


 


George Bernard Shaw said, “Life is no brief candle to me.  It is a sort of splendid torch which I have got hold of for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it over to future generations.”  We have a lot to do to share our incredible blessings.  

Amen.


Categories: Weekly Sermon

Mark’s Brief History – Mark 1:9-15

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Message Delivered on February 22, 2015- First Sunday in Lent

Each year it feels like Easter is getting closer to Christmas and that Lent is racing forward. Mark’s gospel is believed to be the oldest and it contains the fewest words. My grandma always said that the best things come in the smallest packages. Mark’s gospel is succinct but its words and message are mighty.

Lately novels of more than 700 pages are having a comeback. Remember reading War and Peace, The Three Musketeers, and Gone With the Wind? You knew it would take time to read and digest the contents and maybe there were movies to clarify or embellish the stories. In high school and college we met Cliff’s Notes which provided summaries and helpful incites for essays and tests. There are some new books: City on Fire (900 pages), The Kills (1,002 pages), and others making “must read” lists but small, tightly written volumes that pack the right message can have powers to impact our lives; maybe to make us different and better than when we began to read them.

The gospel of Mark is brief and terse. In the seven verses for today’s reading, Mark covers Jesus’ baptism, temptation, the arrest of John the Baptist and the inauguration of Jesus’ ministry; complete with Jesus’ summary statement of his mission: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

As we begin our Lenten journey with Mark, we encounter the River Jordan which begins above the Sea of Galilee, feeding into the lake and continuing on to the Dead Sea. The northern end of the river is fed by mountain streams from Lebanon. Today there are two stops for pilgrims to rest and imagine the setting for Jesus’ baptism in the shallow, muddied waters. The further south, the shallower and muddier it gets. The desert where Jesus fled to fast and be tempted by Satan is closer to the southern stop and it seemed to me to be the more likely place of Jesus’ baptism. In our minds we visualize Jesus being immersed in crystal clear water, but in reality, that was not the case. So much of human life is not crystal clear and sparkling, but muddy and confusing. Our Lord entered the real and challenging human condition that we all face. He was washed within the muddy water and came up to meet a dove and hear a voice from heaven. Mark identified Jesus as the Son of God by quoting God’s proclamation, “You are my Son, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness.” (Today’s New International Version) Bursting up from the darkened waters is a foretaste of Jesus’ resurrection from the dark tomb. Mark is telling us of One specially sent by God to all people to preach repentance because the kingdom of God “has come near.”

Mark declares that Jesus is the Messiah, the One expected to restore Israel in his opening sentence. Christ is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew word Messiah, connecting Jesus with the Old Testament promises of a redeemer, and that aspect of Jesus’ work is relevant when we have sunk into sin.

When we look at Jesus’ baptism, we recall that it is our Lord who gives us new life, with water being a symbol of destruction of the old life (as in the account of Noah and the flood to rid the world of sinful living) and God as creator of the new life (God has a covenant with us to never again cut off life by floodwaters). The rainbow is the symbol of God’s promise to all people and living creatures. In baptismal water we have an image of ministry. The blessing and empowerment, the life-giving Spirit that Jesus received was not meant to simply bless or to remain stagnant in him, but rather it was given to bless us all. The Spirit is given to us all not to keep trapped within the confines of our buildings and our Bible studies, but rather we are given the Spirit of God to spread to every corner, every inch of the world.

Not only is Jesus the Messiah, but Mark also recognizes him as a unique teacher who instructs “as one having authority and not as the scribes” (Mark 1:22). Jesus had a connection with the Scriptures that enabled him to bring them to life in a convincing way.

Mark understood the ministry of Jesus as calling us to discipleship, following Jesus, implying that we be as obedient to the heavenly Father as Jesus is. Mark shows Jesus’ death on the cross as the will of God. It is Mark who first tells of Jesus’ praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, bowing to the Father’s will about the crucifixion to set sinners free.

Jesus’ death is an atoning act. “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). Clearly, Mark perceives Jesus’ death as a path to God’s forgiveness.

All the gospel writers share a common goal–to bring their audience to faith in Jesus. Bible scholars have noted that Mark’s gospel ends abruptly at Mark 16:8, where the women who have come to anoint Jesus’ body encounter an angel, who tells them about Jesus’ resurrection and they flee in terror. Mark’s surprising ending allows readers to enter the story where Easter morning witnesses stopped. Perhaps he is calling us to be Jesus’ disciples, to tell the good news of salvation.

As we begin our journey this Lent, we do not create our own wilderness or impose all kinds of hardships on ourselves to prove our spiritual muscles or lack of them. We are looking around to see where the Spirit has led us. Just as Jesus’ wilderness experience was a testing of his baptismal call and identity, so it could be that most of our Christian life is a testing and a living out of our baptismal call.

In Mark’s gospel the humility and simplicity of God’s word comes to us. Lent is a time for eliminating distractions. It is a time to remember the clarity and simplicity of the life and name we were baptized into. Binding the voices of evil in our culture takes work and discipline. We can quiet the outer senses by focusing on prayer. We can quicken our spiritual memories by reading and studying God’s word. Maybe our own wilderness experiences will help us to recognize that it is not within our ability to meet all the needs and demands of those whom we come into daily contact with–fulfilling those requests will not make us holy. Acknowledging that Jesus loves us, that he lived and died to make us his own saves us. In baptism he claims us and makes us his heirs. The time is fulfilled, the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news.
Amen.

Categories: Weekly Sermon

Letting Go and New Beginnings Mark 9:2-9

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Have you ever known anyone who was extremely athletic who loved to run, swim, hike or bike? Athletes work at building up their bodies to get in “condition” to participate in their favorite sport. There is something about rigorous exercise that can help people to focus on setting goals for their individual sports–and in setting goals for the rest of life.

This week I read about a man who loved to climb in especially high places. He was exhausted from the hot sun, slope and elevation, but also from carrying baggage. He eased the burden down and rested beside a tree as he listened to a songbird’s music. He eyed the top of the summit and continued his trek without his gear. He celebrated reaching his goal and started back down the mountain. To his surprise, he found his things strewn across the path in several boxes, a large backpack and an overstuffed briefcase. The first box contained mementos like awards, school report cards, and sport trophies. He set the box aside and felt taller, better. Next, he opened the large backpack containing all the beauty he had collected along his journey: some beautiful rocks, a photo of a rainbow and many books that described beauty in the world. He set those aside recalling the beauty from atop the mountain. Again, he felt a spirit of growth and freedom.

Next, he pored over the briefcase and found it stuffed with concerns, issues and initiatives that had inflamed his spirit and impassioned his actions. For some reason these things seemed less important. The overstuffed briefcase was placed with the other discarded items. The mature hiker felt more youthful–and taller. He realized that most of the baggage was no longer needed, except for a small backpack which he removed from the discarded items. Being relieved of multiple burdens and feeling rejuvenated, the hiker continued on with a hammer, saw, a few other tools and a bamboo flute. He gazed back at trail of the worn baggage he had carried so long and realized his journey had ended. Renewed in spirit, he played the flute and walked into the valley of his future. You may recognize this account as an allegory.

Today’s New Testament reading is a familiar story related in Matthew, Mark and Luke. Jesus is transformed, changed externally for a few short moments–dazzling white and then returned to his normal appearance. What happened to Peter, James and John, who had accompanied him up the mountain? They were definitely changed–maybe not externally and not just momentarily. They were internally and permanently transformed to a new relationship with God. The Transfiguration of Jesus and its ability to transform the disciples challenges us to see our need to change, drop the past, and look to the brightness of the future. Rather than concentrating on what happened to Jesus, this stunning event is best understood by centering on what happened to the disciples.

After seeing Jesus in all his radiant glory, the disciples would never again be able to see him as a mere man. There could be no doubt that Jesus was the long-promised Messiah. White clothes are associated in Judaism with the apocalypse. Elijah and Moses appear to talk with Jesus. Elijah’s re-appearance was expected as a sign of the appearance of the Messiah. Moses’ appearance related to his parallel experience reported in Exodus 24. Moses had experienced the glory of God while atop the mountain receiving the Ten Commandments. His face reflected the glory of God and he wore a veil over his face for the rest of his life to diminish the brightness, so people could look at him. The disciples had seen Jesus transformed on the mountain, observed him in conversation with Moses and Elijah and heard the Father speak from the heavens, “This is my Son, listen to him.” Seeing and hearing Jesus in a new light transformed their thinking about him but also challenged them to realize that as Jesus changed, they must change if they were going to continue to be his disciples. What direction would they move in the future? Whatever baggage the disciples had taken from the past before their call from Jesus, would have to be changed. By dropping their baggage they could become transfigured in spirit. Christ was inviting them to walk a new road–albeit an uncertain road, but–they were asked to have sufficient faith to let go of the past and move forward.

Leaving the past and moving to a new future is an integral part of the salvation history in the New Testament. Mary’s call to be the mother of Jesus demonstrates one’s willingness to accept change and move forward. Whatever Mary had planned had to be cancelled and an uncertain future journey initiated. Mary accepted God’s invitation, confident that if she placed her trust in God, things would work out fine. The past was left behind and God’s plan for the salvation of humankind entered into its climatic stage.

The uncertainty of new beginnings, fresh starts in life, raises fear among many people. We tend to cling to the past as a source of strength. We find confidence in what is known and lose our sense of security when we are asked to move from our level of “comfortableness.” We can weigh ourselves down with past burdens and impede our forward movement in a new direction. Why be prisoners of the past? Why not let go of the past, free to move into the future? Through complete trust in God we can let go and move into our future. “Let go, and let God” is the old adage.

There is a tale about a group of botanists in the Amazon rainforest looking for rare and potentially non-catalogued forms of plant life. A leader of the expedition spotted a flower he had never seen while looking through his binoculars down a steep canyon. He wondered how someone could get down the steep canyon to obtain the specimen. A young boy happened upon the scene and one of the botanists offered him money if he would allow himself to be lowered over the side of the cliff on a rope to retrieve the rare flower. The boy agreed after saying, “Wait one minute.” He left and returned with an older man. The boy said, “Now, I will go over the side and get that flower for you but only if this man hold the rope. He is my father.” Who do we trust when we are challenged to drop the past and move in a new direction? Do we trust others, our father or family members, or our God in heaven? The choice is up to you.

Amen.

Categories: Weekly Sermon

Misquotations – Isaiah 40:21-31

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Message Delivered on February 8, 2015

There is substantial theological unity throughout the book of Isaiah, but possibly more than one person speaking for God as the prophet, Isaiah.  Some scholars feel that chapters 40-55 were written after Isaiah, who lived in the southern kingdom of Judah during the 8th century B.C.

Proclaiming and hearing are important to the prophet so that the people will know the mouth of the Lord has spoken to them.  He wanted to assure the people that God’s word will stand forever.  Isaiah asks if the people remember that from the very foundation of the earth, God has called everyone by name.  Isaiah has been sent to comfort the exiles, for whom God is preparing the way which will lead them home–out of captivity.  God’s word is constant but the word of human beings is inconsistent.  God will lead the exiles and feed them tenderly as a good shepherd.  They will experience God’s care and hopefully, their faith in God will be restored.  They will once again trust God and return to their homeland.

Isaiah preached that the Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth.  God does not grow faint or weary and God’s understanding is unsearchable.  God gives power to the faint and strengthens the powerless in whatever situations people find their selves.  The key is to be patient and to wait for God to work in their lives. Be patient.  That is tough. Trust God.  “In God we trust.” (There is a quotable quote.)

Arthur Schopenhauer, a 19th century philosopher saw life as a pendulum between suffering and boredom, and the world itself as a form of hell.  He is what I would label a “glum guy.”  His thoughts are supposedly responsible for greeting cards with wishes like “just remember, once you are over the hill, you begin to pick up speed.”  In reality, Charles Schulz, beloved creator of the Peanuts comic strip, is likely the author of such a quote.  Didn’t Charlie Brown keep trying to kick the football after Lucy repeatedly pulled it out from under him?

Misquoting famous people has become something of a norm in the age of Wikipedia, one of the online search engines,.  People love to research on their computers and hand held devices, but most people do not check the accuracy or the context of the quotation before they click on “send.”

Some well known quotations:  1. “Be the change you wish to see in the world” was attributed to Mahatma Ghandi.  What he actually said was, “If we change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change.”  It is a little less Hall-mark-y.  2. “Age is an issue of mind over matter.  If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.”  Mark Twain is often given credit for this remark, but research into the comment has attributed it to an anonymous government researcher in 1968. 3. Oscar Wilde, is another repository of misquotes and is credited with “Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.”  However, that never appeared in any of his works.  Scripture is full of quotations that get misquoted or taken out of context. “Spare the rod and spoil the child” in Proverbs 13:24, which actually says nothing about rewarding unruly children with i-Pads, game boys or other technological toys. How about “God won’t give us more than we  can bear?”  I am sure that some of you have heard or said that one before.  1 Corinthians 10:13 says that God won’t let us be tempted beyond our ability and that God will provide us a way of escape.  Jesus actually said that we would each get a cross which is more than any of us can bear on our own (Matthew 16:23).

To really know what God is saying to us today, we have to go to the source. Isaiah 40:31 says, “Those who wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”  Did you know that quarterback Tom Tebow had some of that one etched on his eyelid when he was winning championships with the University of Florida?  For Tom, the reference to not getting weary and running without fainting had more to do with getting into the end zone than the prophet’s original intent.

The exiles as strangers in a strange land, under the yoke of slavery, were looking for any kind of hope they could muster.  The people of Judah were exhausted and God’s words spoken through Isaiah were uplifting–and quotable.  “Have you not known?  Have you not heard?  The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth.  God does not faint or grow weary, his understanding is unsearchable.  He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless.”  God is vigilant, always working to save his people.

God spoke through the prophet to say that even if the future looked like a meaningless ordeal of suffering only alleviated by a meaningless death, God hadnot given up on them.  In our era we are good at outsourcing our wisdom and knowledge to whatever pops up on our social media screens.  In spite of frequent warnings, many people still believe that if it’s on the Internet, it must be true!

Isaiah called God’s people to listen to God who ordered all of creation.  We do not find the best wisdom in brainy quotes or pithy sayings, but rather in waiting on and trusting the God who made us and cares for us.  Our strength, inspiration and renewal are assured if we will patiently wait on God.  We need to remember that God has not abandoned us.  God never gives up on us.

Years ago I was asked to officiate at the funeral of a man who had left the Amish order in Millersburg, Ohio.  He had gotten divorced from his Amish wife and remarried an “English” woman (what someone outside the Amish order is called).  Bert had not been allowed to go to high school or college to pursue his interest in engineering.  He made sure that he put his three kids through college and his second wife helped him with that undertaking.  Bert had hemophilia and took Factor VIII, the treatment for his disease.  He had lived a long life on the medication and we had had a number of conversations about how blessed he felt he was.  I had shared with him that the doctor who developed the medication for hemophilia was one of my instructors at the University of Michigan.  What a small world!   Bert was a very gentle, loving man.  When I would visit him the birds would eat out of his hand and the squirrels would come right up to him for their treats. He never gave up on God and drew strength from God’s word.  Someone came to pick me up to take me to the funeral home.  When I arrived I saw fifteen vans in the parking lot.  My cell phone rang and the funeral director asked me if I was ready to do the service.  When I walked in, there were rows and rows of people dressed in traditional Amish wear.  The family was supposed to “shun” Bert and his wife according to the Amish custom, but their chairs were all around Bert.  They recognized him as a gentle soul and they loved him, even though he had left the order.  One of Bert’s sisters had come from Florida and she came up to me afterwards (traditionally not supposed to talk to me) and thanked me for my words and God’s words. She said, “You obviously loved our brother and reminded us of all God’s promises. You can never go wrong with God’s words.” Now there is a quotable quote!  God’s words stand forever.

It is fun to quote things we hear around us, but whatever you do, make sure  you check out the source.  With God, you can never go wrong!

Amen.

Categories: Weekly Sermon

Recognizing the Voice of Authority Mark 1:21-28

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Message Delivered on February 1, 2015Growing up is always hard to do but even more so when a child challenges their parents by asking, “Why?” The child wants an answer that can be understood in language at their age level and more often than not, the response I received from my father was, “Because I said so.” Even when very young, I felt put off and wanted an answer that explained why my request was turned down. I felt unimportant and ignored; maybe like a second class citizen.

When the Hebrews went to the synagogue to learn and pray, the rabbis taught the scriptures and interpreted them from their individual perspectives. Varying oral traditions were woven into the explanations, which meant that the answers to questions were not always consistent. Different Pharisees could use their authority to interject their opinions about interpretations which might contradict the teaching of the local rabbis. The people were caught between the rabbis’ teaching and the legal experts, the Pharisees.

Even before stories circulated on the internet, I heard the plight of a much loved and greatly respected professor, who was called away to Washington D.C. to act as a consultant with governmental matters. He knew he would be gone two weeks and he did not want his students thinking that he was abandoning them, nor that they would not receive the necessary information for the next scheduled test. He came back from D.C. a day early and stopped by the classroom to observe the students listening to his recorded lecture. What he found was a classroom with tape recorders running on each desk–taking notes for each respective student recording from the professor’s recorded message. Sometimes when we think we have everything under control, events turn out much differently from what we have planned.

This morning we are looking at Mark’s gospel on an occasion when Jesus is teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum. Capernaum is the home of Simon Peter, Andrew, James and John, whom Jesus called as his first disciples. All of them would have gone to the synagogue on the hill, just up the road from Peter’s house. We are told that the listeners present that day were astounded at his teaching, which was different from the teaching of the local scribes, most of whom belonged to the sect of Pharisees who relied on the teachings of the Torah, and the accumulated oral traditions down through the ages. There were so many different interpretations that the people were not always certain as to the “correct” interpretation. Jesus’ words were new and refreshing, spoken with authority. He did not quote other authorities from their perspectives. He spoke with authority and no ambiguity. It was like he believed that he had been “assigned” to speak on behalf of God.

In the midst of the synagogue service, a man with a demon, an evil power or authority, came in and asked Jesus, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are. You are the holy one from God.” WOW! What an endorsement for Jesus as God–God with power and authority. Jesus’ teaching showed that the scribes were shallow and stale in their teaching while Jesus’ was deep and original, and he had authority in his real power to contact the forces of evil. Jesus was orderly, rational and believable in his teaching. The people had never seen or heard anything like this in their previous experiences in the synagogue.

There was a letter to “Dear Abby” printed in the newspaper:

Dear Abby: Last week my sister-in-law had a garage sale, and right out front was displayed the gift my husband and I had given her last Christmas. It had never been used and was sold for less than half of what we paid for it. My husband said that it was hers to do whatever she pleased with, and that I was stupid and over sensitive to give it a second thought. What do you think? Signed, Hurt.

Abby’s reply: “Dear Hurt: Your husband is right when he says the gift was hers to do with whatever she pleased.”

A true gift leaves the giver exposed. The giver is out of control. His or her defenses are down. Each day we make plans and occasionally something backfires on us.

During World War 2 the Manhattan Project was started to produce an atomic bomb. The work went on secretly in places like Chicago; Los Alamos, New Mexico; and Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Finally, near the end of the war, the A bomb was just about ready to be deployed. The scientists learned that Germany, weeks away from defeat, was not going to make the bomb. They questioned whether they should rush to complete their project but maybe it would not be needed to defeat the Japanese. Einstein was asked to write to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, on behalf of the scientists to bring him up to date on the progress. The president never read the letter. It was found in his office after he died on April 12, 1945. The letter was passed to Harry Truman, FDR’s successor in office. A decision was made to drop the bomb first on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, and then three days later, on Nagasaki. Einstein was at a cottage on Saranac Lake in the Adirondacks when he heard the news. His comment: “Oh, my God.”

One month later the scientists involved in creating the bomb signed a statement urging that a council of nations be created to control atomic weaponry. Scientists wanted something to be done to control this incredible destructive power that had been unleashed by their hands. The bomb had consequences that they had not foreseen. When the scientists began working on the project, they envisioned the potential good that could come out of their experiments, but by the close of the war they were horrified at the destruction that could come to all humankind. Advances in science and technology can be used with good and bad intentions. Even our brightest and best minds cannot keep everything under control, so we cannot expect those of us who are more ordinary people to think that we can have complete control over our lives. We have problems we cannot solve, heavy burdens, and addictions that enslave us. We have diseases we cannot heal and in the end, death that we cannot escape.

Mark spoke of evil power in Jesus’ earthly reign but he reminded us that there is also good news. There is One who is stronger than the evil we confront. Some one more powerful has come to the world and stands by our side to help us battle against evil. Will Willimon, Chaplain at Duke University, wrote an article in the Christian Century magazine in which

he used The King’s Speech” movie as a basis for speaking about the authority of preaching the gospel. King George VI, plagued with a stuttering speech impediment, worked with a speech therapist for years to be able to speak in public. Willimon contends that it is extremely difficult to teach seminarians how to preach and used King George VI as an example. The king was terrified at the prospect of being put in front of a microphone to say something important to a crowd of listeners, to dare to intrude into other people’s souls with words, to tell them the truth that they have been avoiding–is not a vocation for the faint of heart!

Recognizing the voice of authority is the key to overcoming potential chaos, “the out of control” aspect of so much of our lives. There is only one who speaks with an authoritative voice straight from God–that is Jesus, who astounded the congregation at Capernaum and who continues to astound today as he subdues the unruly powers that seek to torment us. Praise God for Jesus’ power and authority over our lives! Amen.

Categories: Weekly Sermon