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Christmas Eve 2015

Message Delivered Christmas Eve 7pm

Isaiah 52:7-10

People throughout history have made all kinds of announcements: A wedding, birth of a first child, mile-marker birthday like 40, 50, 70, 100, or even a retirement party.  Whatever your big news might be, how do you pick the most effective way of getting out the word?  You can go the traditional route of sending engraved announcements or invitations by “snail mail,” which shows you took a meticulous effort OR you could send out an “E-vite,” or a “Save-the-date” notice through Survey Monkey.com.  You could post the announcement on social media like facebook or twitter.  Whatever it is that you want to announce, choosing the right strategy to get the maximum impact is critical.

So…if you are God, and you have a huge announcement to make, how do you do it?  On Christmas Eve, God made the most important announcement the world has ever heard.  We have gathered here this evening to hear it once again, spoken through the words of prophets and the song of angels.  We have come to hear the announcement about the birth of a baby in a manger–not just any baby.

John writes that Jesus is “the Word” of God who became flesh and dwelt among us.  God was posting this announcement long before it actually happened.  Research shows that it takes at least six iterations of a message before people actually hear it and respond.  God has done due diligence.  God started announcing the birth of “God’s Son through Isaiah 600 years before it happened, using various media, but the message was consistent throughout, the key to maximizing the impact and spread of an announcement.

It is good to have a spokesperson who keeps the message consistent and focused.  It is clear that God goes right to the best:  prophets, angels and even shepherds. Their message is consistent and commissioned by God alone.  God chose Isaiah to send a message of peace, salvation and redemption through the lens of Jesus, God’s perfect messenger.  Jesus is the one completely accurate, worthy and consistent to take Israel’s message of hope and mission of suffering on himself, carrying it all the way to the cross.

The good news about the baby in the manger is that He is God in person, the one bringing the message, who will make it a reality.  Jesus is fully human and fully divine.  Jesus is and was a Key Message.

Isaiah offers three Key messages to the Israelites in exile:  peace, good news and salvation.

  • “Peace” was essential to a people who had been torn apart by war and captivity.
  • “Good News” was like healing balm for people who had endured nothing but bad news for so long.
  • “Salvation” meant that God would again reign over God’s people, who had been ruled by many tyrants.

Jesus’ birth announcement that the angels gave in dazzling light and song to the shepherds on that first Christmas Eve was:

“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth, peace among those whom he favors” (Luke 2:14).

“I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people” (Luke 2:10).

“To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord” (Luke 2:11). 

The message about Jesus was pivotal to that message that he himself embodied and proclaimed:  Jesus taught his disciples to offer peace to those they met (Luke 10:5) and his first message after his resurrection was, “Peace be with you” (Luke 24:36).  Jesus preached the good news of the Kingdom of God, that God’s salvation, reign and rule was coming upon the earth.  Jesus embodied the work of salvation through his healing ministry, by casting out demons and by loving and interacting with those who lived on societies’ margins.  The Messenger was the Message.  As Christians we have work to do:

–Live and proclaim the peace of Christ wherever we go;

–Share the Good News of the Kingdom with whomever will listen;

–Live as though God’s reign and rule has already been fully realized on the earth.

When we do these things, we begin to embody both the message and the messenger.

The baby who arrived helpless in a manger will grow to be the one who turns the bad news of our sin into the good news of his saving grace on our behalf.

We know the end of the story–a Savior triumphs over sin and death.  The Big Announcement was made to a bunch of shepherds in a field in a little known village, that a baby was born in a barn.  God has spoken to us through his Son.  There is no bigger announcement than that! 

Amen.

Categories: Weekly Sermon

The Force Awakens

Message Delivered on December 13, 2015

Luke 3:3-18    “The Force Awakens”

When Star Wars first appeared in movie theaters in 1977, people flocked to the theater.  “A long time ago in a galaxy far away…”  These words pop up at the beginning of every Star Wars movie, signifying that we are about to see and hear a story that transcends time and space.

In 1999, there were three additional movies following The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi; and now, after a long wait, The Force Awakens is soon to be released (December 18) for your Christmas season viewing pleasure.

Your favorite characters and some newbies will help you to experience “The Force.”  This power was defined by Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi as “An energy field created by all living things that surrounds us and penetrates us; binding the galaxy together.”  The “Force” has been a light and dark side and can be used for good or evil.

An even stronger force appears when John the Baptist preaches to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him in the River Jordan.  He shouted to some of them, “You brood of vipers!  Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”  He described the people as being poisonous snakes, quickly slithering away to escape the danger of a purifying fire.  I wonder what his popularity rating might have been?  The only way the listeners can escape condemnation is to change their behavior and “to bear fruits worthy of repentance.”  John wants them to use the force for good!

The message about the Force reminds us that the greatest evil is the evil that comes from within, not the evil that attacks us from the outside.  Any of us can give in to fear, anger and hatred if we are not vigilant.  These are powerful emotions that can blur our senses and cause us to lose sight of what goodness is.  The crowds gathered by the River Jordan found their security in having Abraham as their ancestor, but John tells them that they can raise up children to Abraham out of the abundant stones of the desert floor.  Goodness does not come from being a branch on Abraham’s family tree, rather goodness comes from doing good.

John challenges the people to be trees that bear good fruit.  He does not want them to share the fate of Darth Vader, who fell from grace when he forgot that goodness is expressed through our love for others.  Vader started out being a generous, loyal, compassionate boy who used his power to do great good as he grew up.  He protected the innocent and opposed the wicked until he lost his way.  Over time, he became obsessed with his own passions and fears that in time, took over what made him truly human.  He lost his empathy and concern for others.  He allowed his ambitions to justify terrible actions against others and became the evil Vader instead of just Anakin.

The crowds around John wanted to avoid corrupt fate and they asked, “What shall we do?”  John encourages them to share clothing, food and necessities with others.  Tax collectors should refrain from cheating people.  Keep empathy alive, behave in ways that are fair and just–all year round, not just in the Christmas season!

When God’s force awakens in us, we are challenged to engage in concrete actions of justice, care and compassion.  We need a powerful and godly leader to keep us on the right track and to save us when we stray–the leader is “the Messiah.”

John says that he baptized with water but one who is more powerful is coming to baptize with Holy Spirit and fire.  Jesus’ baptism will include the purifying and inspiring power of God’s Holy Spirit.  We need the Holy Spirit if we are going to follow Jesus as his disciples in the world.  We need greater power than mere human effort.  Instead of killing Darth Vader, Luke Skywalker shows sacrificial love to save his father and defeat evil.  Just like Jesus on the cross, who died for us to overcome sin and evil.  God’s force equips and challenges us to bear fruit worthy of repentance.  Each of us is offered the opportunity to open ourselves to God’s force and to receive the help of the Messiah.  We can walk in the light offering food and clothing to the needy and behave ethically in the business world.  We can turn to Jesus when we need positive encouragement.

Amen

Categories: Weekly Sermon

Crisis Management

Message Delivered on November 29, 2015

Luke 21: 25-36             “Crisis Management”

As we begin the Advent season, I am drawn to the account of Jesus’ coming into the world and the Christmas story as presented in Scripture.

Luke’s gospel is the fleshiest of all the narratives of Jesus.  There is more touch, taste, and tenderness in Luke than any of the other books in the New Testament.  It has more healing stories, eating stories, children stories, birth narratives and women’s stories than any of the other three gospels.  This year during Advent, Christmas and Epiphany, we come face to face with our own human story.  We become part of the incarnation–God becoming flesh in the daily routine of our own living.  The message of incarnation comes here now–into every corner and crisis of our living–and wears the skin of our own humanity.

Think back to the early 1990s, to Sarajevo, the gutted and bombed out epicenter of the Balkan War, when ethnic violence had destroyed beauty and buildings and any sense of human community.  One day a man put on a tuxedo, picked up his cello and a chair, and went and sat at the central intersection of town–in the cross-fire of hatred and brokenness and devastation–and there he played his cello for hours, defying all reason, embracing all hope, proclaiming through his melancholy melody that darkness and death never have the final word.  It is too bad that cellist is not playing in Paris and in every corner of the world where terrorists are lurking this season.

The season of Advent brings four weeks of somber, sober, waiting and brutally honest acknowledgment that the world is dark, parts of our lives are dark, and the shadows we have created obscure God’s light.  Just when we are eager to hear a bit of good news, the Scripture forces us to hear even more bad news.  When we are craving the comfort of a cradle in Bethlehem, our gospel text captures the gloomy predictions of an adult Jesus on his way to the cross.  Why is the church tradition so out of sync with the world? Why do we confront ourselves with honest reality, when a bit of cuddly, soft fantasy is what we are longing for?  The world is out of sync with the church and  the world is out of sync with God.

Today’s gospel reading is about Jesus’ second coming, not the first when Jesus embraced us with an infant’s charm.  The second coming is when the cosmic Christ assaults us with cataclysmic change.  We read about strange signs in the sun and moon, and stars falling from the sky (there was a star shower from heaven last week, right on time for Advent to enter our world).  There is a time coming when God will wrestle with the forces of evil and people will faint from fear.

The early listeners of Luke’s gospel existed when Jerusalem had been destroyed, the cruel Roman rule was suffocating the fledgling Christian community, and when staying faithful to God demanded courage amidst the apparent absence of God.  The dire predictions did not come true immediately, which does not mean that they will never come true.  The focus of Advent is that God has a plan and no matter how world shaking our crisis appears, God promises to hold onto us–both with affection and with accountability.

Where are the places where the sun is darkened in the lives of people we care about–the places where literally, all hell is breaking loose and cultural stars are falling hopelessly to the earth?  We have all seen the headlines and heard the news about what is happening in the world.  People are standing in lines at food banks and soup kitchens, millions are dying of AIDS and other diseases, and many are targeted by perpetrators who appear to have little respect for life as they pillage, rape, murder and deprive people of their future.

The litany continues as people within our community are experiencing broken marriages, scattered families, financial debts fed by the consumer seduction of our materialistic society, and bodies crippled by the relentless ravaging of cancer and disease.  We are being called to recognize a world in crisis and to acknowledge that we are not in control of the rhythms of life that can either make us hate God or cling to God as the source of comfort and strength.

Reading the words of Luke 21, we need to recognize a simple outline of a Christian Crisis Management Course:

       Step 1:  Look.  See.  Watch.  Jesus says, “Heads up!”  Look behind the curtain of Christmas nostalgia and see pain, brokenness, despair of the homeless and hungry, the lonely and depressed, as well as the falling stars of our lives–dreams that are deferred, and broken relationships as values are ignored, distancing us from God’s grace.  Step 1 of Crisis Management is HONESTY.

 Step 2:  Stay alert.  “Stay awake.  Stay vigilant.  Plan little.  Expect anything.  Accept everything.  The uniqueness of our Christian God is that God is everywhere: in birth, grief, human striving, loving, suffering, even dying.  God is in the darkness and God is in the light.  God is in the crisis and God is in the mystery. God is in the past and present.  God is definitely, irrevocably in the future.  Step 2 of Crisis Management is HOPE.

Step 3:  Give up control and then take control.  The best way to manage a crisis is to let God be God–intuitively trusting that everything depends on God–a God who tosses life and death into our lap.  God claims each of our souls.  We must keep on working, dreaming, hoping, loving and living as if everything depends on us.  This is the paradox and the power and the promise of Advent.  We are to watch as if everything depends on God.  And then, as we live between the beginning and the end of God’s saving grace, we are to work as if everything depends on us.  Step 3 of Crisis Management is FAITH in a God who works with and for us.

May it be so, for you and for me, in these uncertain times.  It has been said that the only things that change are the date and the place.  Life’s uncertainties repeat themselves in uncertain times.  With honesty, hope and faith in God, our future is secure and God’s will, will prevail. 

Amen.

Categories: Weekly Sermon

What is Truth?

Message Delivered on November 22, 2015

John 18:33-37 “What is Truth?”

The last Sunday of the liturgical year is referred to as “Christ the King” Sunday. It is a celebration of all that Jesus has done for us as believers in him as our Lord and Savior. Next week is the first Sunday of Advent in which we focus on the coming of Christ into the world, once again, as a baby; to walk with us and to help us grow into our ministry as disciples. Today can be overwhelming as we think of the “end” of the year, Stewardship Sunday (how ideal to focus on the ministry potential we have for the year 2016), and the vision of a new year to share the love, hope and peace of Jesus as he breaks into our lives once again with our Christmas festivities.

It seems ironic to think of Jesus’ death as foretold in the gospel reading for today–but the reality is that Jesus came into the world to prepare us for his ultimate death and resurrection; to reign over his kingdom, a kingdom with values and goals to make the world a little bit closer to a place filled with peace and joy, just as God intends.

The account of Jesus’ Last Judgment is vivid in Matthew’s account of Christ the King. Concrete acts are laid out, “As you have done to the least of these,” Jesus says, “You have done it to me.” We can picture this King claiming kinship with the lowly.

Luke speaks of Jesus hanging between two criminals promising to one that “today you will be with me in Paradise.” A dying King is offering kingly gifts, to the dying who trust in him.

In John’s gospel for today, Jesus does not stand with or make kingly promises to the poor, lowly, suffering, or dying. Instead, he trades words with a Roman governor who probably wishes he were home in bed, not mulling over the death penalty for this peculiar Jew.

Jesus’ words do not generate a picture of a reigning king, at least not from the known perspective of rulers in his lifetime. We get negatives and generalities: “As it is, my kingdom is not from this world…You say that I am a king; for this I was born…to testify to the truth” (John 18:237). Jesus gives no details about “the truth.” Is it any wonder that Pilate asks, “What is truth?” I want to ask other questions like “What sort of kingship is this and what does truth have to do with it?”

Truth and a kingdom not from this world are hard to visualize in our minds. They do not reduce to sound bytes or Kodak moments or cell phone camera images through pixels and modern technology. There is nothing to grab hold of for concrete thinkers; the words Jesus uses are frustrating to any “hands on” people. To see how Jesus claims kingship through his testimony to the truth, especially at the end of his earthly life, we have to look at other places in John’s gospel to see what Jesus says about truth. “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory: the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). Jesus said to Nicodemus, “The one who comes from heaven…testifies to what he has seen and heard…Whoever has accepted his testimony has certified this, that God is true” (John 3:31-33). Jesus said to a Samaritan woman, “The hour is coming and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in Spirit and truth” (John 4:23). To the Jews who had believed in him, he said, “The one who sent me is true, and I declare to the world what I have heard from him…If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (John 8:26, 32).

On the night before he faced Pilate (I have stood in that place in awe), Jesus spoke words of assurance to his frightened disciples, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on, you do know him and have seen him” (John 14:6-7).

In John’s gospel we learn that “truth” is the life-giving power of God, given to the world through the death and resurrection of Jesus. Truth is the love and grace of God revealed in Jesus’ words and actions. Truth is the disclosure of God’s heart to us. Truth can be summarized in the verse we know so well, “God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son, that everyone who believes in him might not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). Jesus’ entire identity: words, works, dying, rising, breathing of the Holy Spirit upon his followers, everything was the embodiment of that simple, confounding truth.

Jesus does not act like a king who makes laws, decrees, fights wars and makes treaties–or orders people around, acting as the kingdom’s ultimate

judge, jury and executioner. Jesus reveals the perfect light, utter love, and endless gracious life of God to people who are blind, bound and dead in the oppressive darkness of sin. Jesus offers us a different way–the WAY to a new, freeing, saving relationship with his Father.

Pilate must have been confused. He was used to hidden agendas, mixed motives and plots with layers upon layers. He knew how the imperial world operated, dictating what subjects would do to please the emperor. Was truth a weapon or a tool?

It is hard, even for us today, to imagine a ruler who insists his power consists of bearing faithful testimony to the truth of God. In speaking to the Samaritan woman, he brought all of her heart’s secrets into his light. Instead of being offended, she went and told everyone in her village, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! Could this man be the Messiah?” (v.29).

Would Pilate listen to Jesus and take heart, or would he cave into the tired old versions of kingly power and truth-spinning that he had always known? We know how Pilate responded when confronted by Jesus’ kingly claim.

How will we respond to Christ our King? Will we listen? Will we take his voice to heart? Will we testify to the searching, liberating truth that is God’s inmost heart revealed to us in Jesus? Will we live, forever changed, forever alive in God’s unsparing yet unspeakably gracious light? Will we eagerly anticipate the beginning of a new church year, an opportunity to testify to the power of God’s love and forgiveness in our lives as we pledge to serve as disciples of Jesus, representing the church to others so that they too, can experience the love that comes from God and radiates from us as light-bearers to the Kingdom of God?

God grant that we listen to Jesus’ voice, belong to his truth, and dwell in his kingdom forever. Lily Tomlin would tell us from her rocking chair, “And that’s the truth.”

Amen.

Categories: Weekly Sermon

For the Person Who is Everything

Message Delivered on November 15, 2015

Hebrews 10:11-25 “For the Person Who is Everything”

One of life’s interesting experiences is learning how to respond to gifts (that season is coming up soon). As a child matures toward adulthood, certain practices help the child to understand the importance of responding to those who provide a gift when graduating from high school. Ultimately students send out announcements to family and friends. Often the recipients send cards with gifts and the students need to be reminded/encouraged/coerced to write thanks you notes to the senders. It is hoped that by the time young people reach the state of marriage, that they understand the importance of acknowledging and thanking people who send gifts. The ones receiving the gifts are usually unable to repay the senders. Acknowledging gifts is important. How does acknowledging the sacrifice of Jesus Christ bring us near to God? No thank you card or note is adequate to compensate for the atoning death of Jesus. By life, death, and resurrection, Jesus has made forgiveness the central reality in our life. God remembers our sins no more.

According to Hebrews, attendance at worship is the appropriate “thank you” card for acknowledging Jesus’ sacrifice. Why come to church? Because Christ died for us fulfilling every aspect of the old sacrificial system, making it obsolete and unnecessary.

Hebrews says:

  1. Let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. We have confidence to enter God’s sanctuary because of the blood of Jesus.
  2. Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. God made an unconditional promise to us that he will never go back on and that can never fail because by the very nature of God’s being, God is faithful. We can and ought to hold fast to what we believe. God is unshakable and God’s promises are unbreakable. Let us be faithful to God.
  3. Let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, but to encourage one another, and all the more as you see the day approaching. We need to love others outside our church family and encourage fellowship opportunities to put Christian love into actions.

We celebrate that Jesus died for us in a worshiping context. Do we invite others to worship with an attraction like a pageant or cantata, then have nothing inspiring until Easter? Marva Dawn has written a book, Reaching Out without Dumbing Down, in which she tries to analyze the gap between meaningless practices and those that encourage and build community in any worship setting. In a world of self-interest, it is easier to “dumb down” when facing adversity than encouraging the finest expectations that we can imagine. When we do not meet the spiritual needs of folks, they begin the church shopping process. We work at being the “perfect” church where people love each other and are each other’s best friends, eager to admire the accomplishments of each other. This is unrealistic and historically inaccurate. Why do you think that Paul and authors of others letters and epistles in the first century Christian era wrote so many letters? The congregants were always bickering and arguing and the authors probably thought it was frustrating to visit them in person.

The church is a frail human institution, but it is the one institution for which Jesus died. God uses the church and its worship services to touch people’s lives. To learn about Jesus, you have to be with people who know Jesus and are willing to share their lives with you, to protect you and care for you by keeping you from the influences that would corrupt you. You need to be exposed to the stories and rituals that contain the heritage of Christianity, so they can be passed from you to the next generation.

Churches have one thing in common: worship is their prayer response to the God who is everything to us. Corporate worship introduces us to salvation. David Buttrick has noted that the Bible cannot be read as a mere collection of facts or as an exclusive message of personal, psychological salvation. Such is to ignore its spiritual depth and its social message. Participation in Christian worship seeks to form God’s people in both faith and service.

Church is part of a new order in a New Kingdom that embraces the totality of all the citizens in the Kingdom. Worship is the cement/super glue that holds this Kingdom together. The King who is everything considers worship to be the prayer response to the great gift we have been given.

Worship is the primary heart of a church’s life. We need to thank God for the gift of Christ in our lives before we can spread that gift out to a world in need. Before a jet plane departs the runway, passengers hear a word of caution from a flight attendant. It goes something like this, “Should we experience an unforeseen drop in cabin pressure, an oxygen mask will drop down in front of you. Take the mask and put it over your nose and mouth. Breathe normally for a few seconds (even though your heart may be racing). If you are traveling with small children, put the mask on yourself first and then you will be able to help your child.”

When we respond first to the person who is everything to us, we can then help those children who are traveling through life with us. As I have already said, one of life’s important experiences is learning how to respond to gifts. How do we respond to the person who is everything to us? In two weeks we will begin the season of Advent, the time we prepare to once again receive the greatest gift ever given. How will we respond?

Amen.

Categories: Weekly Sermon

Commitment Beyond Calculation

Message Delivered on November 8, 2015 

I know that we have just had a local election to pass the school funding extension.  Our kids deserve a good education.  I do not want you to think I am a politician stumping to win an office…I am only here to present an annual stewardship sermon.  Talking about money is always complicated.

 Here she comes again:  the widow who goes up to the temple treasury to put in her two cents, that is money, not her opinion.  Every years she shows up at stewardship time.  Teachers and preachers point to her and exclaim, “Look, she has put in more than all the others–even if it was only two coins, it was all she had.”  How do you tithe two cents?

In terms of quantity, many people in the line to the offering box put in a lot more money.  Certainly she has earned a sparkling reputation as an example of sacrificial giving. I would imagine that  humble woman would be greatly embarrassed by the recognition she has received in thousands of stewardship messages.

The woman is one of the nameless saints in Mark’s gospel.  One woman plagued with a bleeding disorder was healed by touching the hem of Jesus’ robe.  Her faith healed her.  Basically, that is all we know about her.  The other woman anointed Jesus for death by breaking open a costly bottle of perfume.  All we know about the widow is that she was poor, and she still gave everything she had as a gift to support her place of worship.

She gave two lepta, copper coins.  The total value in today’s currency is about one penny total.  Not much.  Every so often an official of the United States Treasury talks about removing pennies from United States currency.

When I went to Canada about a year ago, I was surprised that they no longer use pennies, but round up the total amount to the nearest nickel.  Of course, it is always the merchant who gets the extra, rather than the customer.  Are pennies really too small and insignificant to matter much?  In a hungry, hurting world, small donations by themselves cannot make much of an impact. The Presbyterian Women’s Hunger Offering of pennies has raised thousands of dollars to alleviate hunger in all corners of the world through the years.  How can any charitable organization address the great problems of the world?  How can the church afford to reach out in mission if it nods to an impoverished woman and says, “Give like her!” ???

Professional fund-raisers in the world recommend going to the wealthiest people you know and ask them to serve on your boards.  Well, here in the church, we have different values.  We believe every person has infinite worth.  Everybody counts, regardless of who they are or how much money they have.  We can point to the widow in the text and say, “her gift matters, because she herself matters.”  By giving her two small denomination coins, she gives proportionately more than the rest of us.

A few years back in an election year, the press disclosed the generosity of all the candidates in a presidential campaign.  Gary Hart gave $140 to all charitable causes.  Jesse Jackson advocate for the poor, gave $500 to all charities with a reported income of over $100,000.  Ronald Reagan advocated that private citizens should pick up the slack of slashed welfare programs,  and gave $2000 to all charitable causes with a greater than $300,000 income.  The most generous donor was Walter Mondale, giving $13,500 out of a $500,000.  Some people were outraged that misers and hypocrites were running for public office.  The kicker was that their giving pattern was typical for most Americans.  Many calculate what it takes each week for living expenses and then donate a little piece of what is left.  We give a portion of what we think we can afford and want the Internal Revenue Service to take note of every cent.

The poor widow gives her money generously not expecting to receive some services in return.  Her contribution is not based on the size of a potential tax break.  She gives her all and then has to figure out how she is going to live.  She is committed beyond all calculation.  Her faith is so sacrificial that it scares us to death.  Anybody here willing to give your money like she gave hers?  It would be like giving away your very life.

I read about a minister in Gary, Indiana who was approached by a woman who came out of the shadows on a Sunday morning just as the worship service was concluding.   She had two little boys in tow and told the usher that she wanted to talk to the pastor and pay her tithe.  The usher said to her, “You are not a member of our church.  You do not have to give us any money.”  The woman insisted.  After the benediction she was taken up front, to speak to the pastor.  She explained that she had spent a few nights with her sons in a battered woman’s shelter.  On the next day she was going to be on her way to Atlanta, to start a new life away from her abusive husband, leaving behind family and friends.  She had made arrangements to live in a shelter until she could find a job, get back in school and get her life in order.

“Before I leave, I want you to pray with me and I want to pay my tithe.”  She pulled out all the money she had, counted out ten per cent of it, and handed it to the stunned pastor, all $30.53.  “You cannot give this to us, ” protested the pastor.  “You need it.  It can make a difference for you and your boys.”  The woman said, “You do not understand, even if I kept that ten per cent, I would not have enough money to provide for me and my sons.  So, I want to give it to God.  I trust that God will give me a new life.  To show him that I trust him, I want to give my money.”  The pastor accepted the money and gave the woman a Bible to take with her, after praying with her.  Commitment beyond calculation.  That is what God shows us in Jesus Christ.  Whenever we celebrate the central mystery of faith, we affirm a mystery that is the essence of generosity.  Christ has died: he has given everything he had, all he had to live on.  Christ is risen:  he gives us the power to stand free from all the false attachments of this age.  Christ will come again: he will complete the generous acts that he has begun.

In Jesus, we have seen a God who gives his very life to us.  God continues to give us this gift of life, so that we can become the kind of people who give our lives for others.  In the meantime, God will do everything possible to get our attention.

If you have read any of Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon stories, you are familiar with his “tell it like it is” approach.  One Sunday at Lake Wobegon Lutheran Church, the sermon had been droning on for too long and Clarence realized it was almost time for the offering.  He quietly reached for his wallet and oops, discovered that he had no cash.  No worry, he took out the checkbook and his pen and hid the checkbook in the middle of his Bible, not wanting the woman next to him to see him writing a check in church.  He began to scratch out a check for $30 because he almost had a heart attack that week and did not. He wanted somebody in church who would count the offering to see how much he was giving (and figure out that this was a special check because of its size).  He tried to quietly rip the check out of the book and realized all too late, that when he was not looking, he accidentally added another 0—$300!  What could he do?  The plate was coming toward him!  How could he go into the office after church where they were counting the money and say, “I gave more than I wanted to.” He had written the check for all he had in the account, plus a few more dollars.  The family would be eating lots of beans and oatmeal for the rest of the month.  The contribution was going to a good place.  Clarence felt really alive for the first time all day. Commitment beyond calculation.  The Lord has been beyond generous in providing every gift we need.  God watches to see what we do with what has been given to us.  The widow has taught us a valuable lesson.  She did not merely give her money, she pledged her heart to God and the money went with it.

The promise of the gospel is sure.  The Lord can do a lot with a little when he has our all.  Amen.

Categories: Weekly Sermon

Who Are the Saints?

Message Delivered on November 1, 2015- All Saints Day

Many congregations are celebrating All Saints Day today.  Saints are not those who lead perfect lives without sin, but those who do the small, mundane tasks that bring the Kingdom of God to life—in other words, the daily lifeblood of the church.  Being a saint is never as simple or easy as it seems…but the Lord…and our family of faith are always there to help us through.

All Saints Day is when we, as Christians, remember and give thanks to God for the Christian people, both living and dead, who have helped us traverse faith’s path.  Saints are not perfect or iconic followers of Jesus.  When Paul speaks of the saints, it is always with a lower case “s.”  The saints are simply the people who fill the pews, teach Sunday school classes, paint the nursery, sing in the choir, run the sound system and do a thousand other things that are required for the people of God to be God’s church.  They are especially the Christian people who have accompanied other Christian people along the sometimes steep, sometimes bumpy or ordinary, and sometimes difficult path of faith that leads to the kind of living that Jesus refers to as the Kingdom of God.

Today’s gospel is hard to preach on All Saints Day.  The account of the raising of Lazarus is familiar and uplifting, but this section of Scripture is a little awkward.  We enter into it just in time to witness Jesus’ tears and anguish, some graphic words about how the body would smell, add a little prayer, and almost as an after-thought, the calling forth of four day dead Lazarus, still bound in his shroud, shuffling awkwardly from his tomb before the astonished mourners.  No ringing words about Jesus as the resurrection and the life; just a former corpse blinking newly restored eyes against the light of an ordinary earthly day. That was what the still present shroud signified:  Lazarus has been raised but not resurrected.  He has been given a new lease on his old life; he has not yet been ushered into the life of heaven.  What happened to him when Jesus called him from the grave is marvelous, even miraculous but at most, is a foretaste of the endless new life Jesus promised.  Lazarus was raised to live on earth, with a death still in his future, and with life in heaven still a promise. 

It makes you want to run to the promises of Isaiah:  “And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples…he will swallow up death forever” (Isaiah 25:7).  That’s more like it!  Get rid of that shroud!  Destroy death forever!  That is what we should be hearing on All Saints Day:  a celebration of the Resurrection Life for God’s saints, especially those who have died.  We want to hear that grave clothes and shrouds have been replaced by festive robes and joyous clothing.  Why not visualize glorified saints instead of resuscitated corpses? It is not like we wouldn’t like to have our deceased loved ones restored to us, here on earth, in robust good health.  We would anticipate and pray for just that restoration.  Things left unsaid could be spoken, and unfinished business could be completed.  Milestones like anniversaries, the birth of a grandchild and college graduations could be experienced.  Perhaps the expression, “If only…” could be given a proper burial.  Mary and Martha must have been elated to welcome Lazarus back with them for all kinds of reasons, for however long God granted him to share in their lives again.  In the end, it is not miraculous enough.

It would be more comforting to fast forward the words about death and talk about saints at rest in the peace of God’s presence.  This story is not just about reviving Lazarus or what happens when one of God’s saints dies.  It is about what happens when God makes us his saints.  It is about our own death and rising in baptism.

We have contracted the deadly sickness of sin, which festers in the soul and poisons the body.  We have loved ones who call upon God for our deliverance.  We will be drawn into death and emerge from death at the sound of our Lord’s voice to live again eternally with God.  What Lazarus did not know, what Martha heard but dimly understood…and what we believe, teach, confess and experience is this:  the watery death of Baptism is joined to the suffering and death of Jesus himself.

In Lazarus’ death, Jesus sees the preview of his own death and tomb.  That makes all the difference.  It is more than a mere restoration to ordinary, earthly life, with death still before us and the life of heaven still only a promise away.  Jesus, the Lord of Life is the same Jesus who shares our death.  On the third day his grave was opened, his burial clothes neatly laid aside, he emerged not just resuscitated, but resurrected!  His human body and soul were raised to the endless life the Son of God had shared with his Father from all eternity.

Jesus, who shared the shame and sorrow of our death, invites us to share his life.  The raised Lazarus faced yet another death one day but he knew that because of Jesus, death would never have the last word over him.  He had heard Jesus’ Last Word pronounced over him, “Come out!  Live!”

So it is for us.  When we emerge from the “tomb of baptismal waters” in the ordinary light of our everyday world, we do so with our Lord’s arms embracing us.  In this life we will always struggle with unspoken words, unfinished business and unmet milestones and countless “what ifs.”  We do so with Jesus’ life filling and strengthening us.  Death will never have the last word over any who have been joined to Jesus’ death and resurrection.

That is what being a saint is all about, not about being perfect, sinless, a goody-two shoes, but lives bound to Jesus and lived in the messy realities of our sinful and broken world.  When God goes about making us his saints, he does not make us immune from grief.  He binds us to his risen Son and makes people who grieve but have a hope that cannot be shaken.  God does not make life problem free; instead, he gives us the grace and strength to overcome it.

We need to hear the words of Isaiah and Revelation, also included in today’s reading about the fullness of eternal life that God’s saints will enjoy.  The only one whose words have final power and authority over us is one who speaks words of command and promise and hope:  “Lazarus, come out.”  People of this place, come out.  Come out and live in the strength of his promise and his life, until all shrouds are destroyed and death is swallowed up forever.

“For All the Saints” we sang earlier is the celebration of the reality and totality of the Church Triumphant and the Church Militant.  The observation of All Saints Day goes beyond the bounds of the local congregation, to take in all the saints both living and dead.  It is a day of thanksgiving for all who have been made members of the body of Christ, the church, in baptism, and of hope, and anticipation for all who have departed this life in faith, as well as for the living who hope to move from the Church Militant to the Church Triumphant.  Amen.

Categories: Weekly Sermon

Halloween Party 2015

We had our halloween party tonight.  The kids had a great time.  We had an old fashioned sack race, face painting, bobbing for apples and mummy making.  Glad we could do this for the kids.

Categories: Youth

Calling for Help

Message Delivered on October 25, 2015

Mark 10:46-52       

You have probably seen the commercial more times than you would like to admit:  “Help, I’ve fallen and cannot get up!”  I saw it just last night when I was watching television.  Chances are, if you watch soaps, you have seen the ad for the push button device worn around your neck on a  cord or lanyard.  It’s supposed to summon help if you need it.  My mom had one to wear outside the house–when it was not hanging on the back of the bathroom door or on the garage door handle when she went outside to garden.  It works–if you wear it!  When I went to North Carolina for my mom’s funeral, my brother said that they could not find her “help” necklace.  I went right to the bathroom to retrieve it from the back of the door.  “How did you know that?  he asked.

Asking for help is a universally dreaded endeavor.  Whether we are struggling to get a heavy bag in the overhead bin on a plane, or fixing a flat tire by the side of the road, it is hard to ask for help.  I know a lot of people who would swiftly stop to help someone in distress, but ask for help themselves?  No way!  Not on your life.  They cannot ask for help and inconvenience someone else.  Nope.  It is okay to stop to help a stranger, friend, or family member, but ask for personal help and expect someone to go out of their way–no.  Not.  Uh-uh.

Lots of folks are likely to say, “I am good” instead of “Can you help me?”  Unless it is a dire emergency that involves calling in professional helpers like police and firefighters.  If we fall and cannot get up, we would rather crawl out to the street and climb into the car parked at the curb, rather than ask anyone else to go out of their way.

M. Nora Klaver has written a book, “Mayday:  Asking for Help in Times of Need,” in which she lists reasons we do not ask for help, and try to do it on our own:

       *We were never taught to ask for help and have few role models. The ethic of self sufficiency has been passed down to us from our parents and grandparents.  Nancy used to tell me, “Do it the self!” (She was two at the time)

       *We love our independence.  Americans are becoming more and more isolated from each other.  How many of you know any of your neighbors’ names, besides the ones directly next to or across the street from you?  Attendance in service clubs and community organizations, including the church, has declined.  The advent of the internet has made it possible to chat with friends–no need to meet.  You can shop online and not have to find a parking place–or your car once it is parked, and to even get an education–all online!

       *We don’t think to ask.  We are so focused on caring for ourselves that we do not realize when we need help.

       *It is easier to do it ourselves.  Remember, “If you want something done right, do it yourself!”  My parents recited that litany to me often.  And Americans do not want to be indebted to anyone.

       *We are afraid to ask.  We do not want people to think we are helpless.

Bartimaeus had no qualms about asking for help.  He was calmly sitting by the roadside in one of his many designated spots, realizing that his self-sufficiency might be crippling him–actually blinding him to help that quite possibly was available.  He was sitting by the roadside as Jesus, his disciples, and the crowd that followed Jesus, were passing by on the road from Jericho to Jerusalem.  He heard that Jesus was coming and without any sense of embarrassment, the blind man began to shout, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”  The crowd thought he was acting scandalously and ordered him to be quiet.  Bartimaeus continued to cry out for help loudly.  As a blind beggar, Bartimaeus’ only hope for a productive life was to receive sight.  He knows his need, but he does not cry out about his need for sight, just his need to be seen by Jesus.  He knows that Jesus can do something about the things that bind him, rather than the things that blind him.  He did not say, “Have mercy on me, a blind man, but have mercy on me, a sinner!”  Bartimaeus seemed to understand that his vision was not only blurred, but that he also needed spiritual healing.  He was open to the possibility that he needed both physical and spiritual healing.  Asking for help begins when we acknowledge that we have a problem.  The more we try to hide it, the more it seems to grow.

How well can we see?  Look at these playing cards.  They are face cards and you have seen some like them multiple times if you have played card games like Slap Jack, Fish or learned to do card tricks.  Did you ever put cards on the spokes of your bike wheels with clip on clothespins to pretend your engine was running?  The face cards flashed like imaginary flames as you rode along.  How closely did you view the cards?  King, Queen, Jack?  They are a part of your visual experience.  How fully have you seen them?  One of four kings is in profile.  One queen holds a scepter.  Does every queen hold a flower?  Does every jack have a moustache?  Which jack has a leaf on his hand–or hat? Which king holds an axe instead of a sword?  Seeing and not seeing is an over-arching theme in this section of Mark’s gospel.  Verse 22 involves the healing of a blind man and ends with the incident involving Blind Bartimaeus.  Jesus asks, “Do you have eyes and fail to see?”  “Do you have ears and fail to hear (Mark 8:18)?”

As the disciples walk to Jerusalem, Jesus getting closer to the cross, Jesus’ words about suffering are falling on deaf ears.  Visions of courtly splendor fill their eyes as they jockey for a position in the Kingdom of God, wanting to be at the right and left of Jesus in glory.  They do not see the glory of Jesus hidden in his servanthood.  Blindness is a biblical metaphor for spiritual blindness.

Bartimaeus’ call for help causes Jesus to respond immediately.  His sight is restored.  The blind man is you and I, missing all the details of Jesus’ love that comes to seek us out and open our eyes to living in a kingdom whose priority and values are fashioned by a crucified Lord.  Jesus can do something about things that bind and blind us.  We need to take a leap of faith and ask for help, believing that we qualify for help before we can even ask.  Like Bartimaeus, we are children of God, looking for a Savior who already claims us as his.  Faith can make us well.  Faith is the catalyst for asking and asking is the key to healing.  One of the keys to asking and receiving help is gratitude.  When we have an attitude of gratitude, it shakes us out of our self-sufficiency and allows us to celebrate what others have done for us.  It feels good to receive gratitude when we have done a service for others and it feels good to give gratitude when someone has done something for us.

Do not be afraid to ask, to have faith, and to be grateful to the God who supplies all our needs  Be thankful for the people ready to help us in God’s behalf.  In asking, you shall receive (Matthew 7:7).

Be strong enough to stand alone, smart enough to know when you need help and brave enough to ask for it.—Unknown.   Amen.

Categories: Weekly Sermon

World Communion Sunday

Message Delivered on October 4, 2015                          

Psalm 26

As I pondered the psalm for today’s reading, I thought about the joy we are to share in worship.  The choir sang praise joyfully to the Lord.  There is a story about church the late Erma Bombeck told:  “I was focused on a small child who was turning around and smiling at everyone.  He was not gurgling, spitting, humming, kicking, tearing the hymnals, or rummaging through his mom’s handbag.  He was just… smiling.  Finally, his mother jerked him about and in a stage whisper that could be heard in a little theater off broadway said, ‘Stop that grinning! You are in Church!’  With that, she gave him a glare, and as the tears rolled down his cheek, the mother added, ‘That’s better,’ and returned to her prayers.”  Bombeck reflected, “We sing, ‘Make a joyful noise unto the Lord!’ while our faces reflect the sadness of one who has just buried a rich aunt who left everything to her pregnant hamster.”  She continued, “Suddenly I was angry.  It occurred to me the entire world is in tears, and if you are not, then you had better get with it.  I wanted to grab the child with the tear-stained face close to me and tell him about my God.  The happy God.  The smiling God.  The God who had to have a sense of humor to have created the likes of us.  I wanted to tell him that He is an understanding God.  One who understands little children who turn around and smile in Church, and even curious little children who rummage through their mothers’ handbags.  I wanted to tell that little child that I too have taken a few lumps for daring to smile in an otherwise solemn religious setting.  By tradition, I suppose, one wears faith with the solemnity of a mourner, the mask of tragedy.  What a fool, I thought, this woman sitting next to the only sign of hope–the only miracle left in our civilization.  If that child could not smile in Church, then were was there left to go?”  Lives are changed when we turn the Church on its head.  Children have a way of warming our hearts and moving us to do what we are called to do by our Lord and Savior, Jesus.

Have you seen the HGTV show Flip or Flop?  It is about a husband and wife who attempt to transform run-down properties into valuable homes.  Tarek is a specialist in renovating distressed properties, while Christina is a real estate agent with an eye for design.  Together, they snatch up foreclosed homes, rehab them and attempt to sell them at a profit.  Occasionally, they buy a home that turns out to be a structural nightmare requiring difficult and expensive repairs.

In Psalm 26 the “house of the Lord” is described as the place where God’s glory lives.  The psalm writer goes into God’s house to sing thanksgiving and to speak of God’s wondrous deeds.  God’s house is clearly a valuable property with charming, original architecture.  Many of the people through the  years have not behaved themselves–at least not in the house described in the Bible.  People have been hypocrites and evil doers.  In one of the houses purchased by Tarek and Christina, the outgoing tenants poured concrete in the toilets, smashed out all the windows and pummeled the wooden floors with a hammer.  In God’s house the damage is not so much physical as it is spiritual.  Some church leaders have abused their power and committed various forms of misconduct, leaving a trail of damage in their wake: some physical, emotional and spiritual damage.

How do we renovate the house of the Lord for those who want to sing praise to God, speak of God’s wondrous deeds, to bless the Lord–and to smile with joy at what they are experiencing around them?

Church consultant, Loren Mead, recommends that the church be turned on its head, upside down.  Church members need to be seen as the leaders of Christian mission and clergy supporting the members in their endeavors.  For years the church mission was organizing efforts to send goods and services to far-reaching places.  Our denomination in the past has built a presbytery structure for local, regional and national entities that could gather and deploy resources to the critical points in the missionary frontier.

The missionary frontier has transitioned to around the local church and surrounding state boundaries.  We are not sending as much to other countries, with the exception of Central and South America and Mexico.  If anything, other countries should send missionaries to us to renew and relight a spark within us.  We need to work at ways to fund vital local missions and ministries in our own neighborhood.  Members taking the initiative for mission are flipping the church.  Turning it upside down.  Many churches have fund raisers to make money for mission.

The people in church sitting in worship are not there on Sunday morning because it is time to go to church.  Instead, they are present because they trust in the Lord and are trying to walk in integrity–to be Church is a place to learn, grow and be tested in the faith, knowing that the steadfast love of God is the unshakable foundation of Christian life.  No engineer is going to find any structural damage in this foundation.  All necessary structural repairs have been made.  Even in an upside-down church, the love of God, seen so clearly in Jesus Christ, is going to be rock solid and strong.  Eric will play “Solid Rock” this morning.  Stories are told, liturgies are led, Scripture is taught, sermons are preached and sacraments are given for the very reason of sending the fed and forgiven back into the world.  Worship services are geared toward “living our faith beyond our walls as we do the other 167 hours of the week.  We are called to worship about an hour to support the work being done the other 167 hours.

Flipping a church or presbytery shifts the focus from what goes on inside to what goes on outside.  Energy is redirected to connections that will strengthen everyone for mission and ministry that changes lives.  It can be done by anyone who is willing to make God’s house a base for mission to the community.  Lives will be transformed by the good news of God’s love.  God’s house will never be a run-down property, instead, it will be a location that will inspire people to say, “O LORD I love the house in which you dwell, and the place where your glory abides.”  Upside-down on its head is okay, as long as God is present and lives are changed.  Like the little boy in

Bombeck’s story, are you smiling yet?  Amen.

Categories: Weekly Sermon