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Building a Wall Against Waters

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Joshua 3:7-17

People have been standing at the edge of waters for thousands of years, just wondering what to do when they have tough decisions to make.  Three years ago a massive tsunami crashed into northeast Japan, causing enormous damage and destruction.  The Japanese government is building the biggest anti-tsunami barrier in history.  Some have begun to call it the Great Wall of Japan, which will eventually span 230 miles at a cost of $8 billion .  Some fear the seventeen foot wall will ruin seaports and tourism.  People are standing at the water’s edge, wondering what to do.

Years ago the people of Israel stood on the banks of the Jordan River, and like their ancestors on the edge of the Red Sea, they wondered how they might get across.  Moses was dead, so he could not lift his hand with his staff to part the waters.  God was with them and had promised their new leader, Joshua, that he would begin to exalt Joshua as the new leader and be with him, just as he had been with Moses.

Joshua, assured of God’s presence, instructed the Israelites to build a relationship, to “Draw near and hear the words of the Lord your God” (v.9).

1. Begin by listening, says Joshua.  Stand still and hear God’s words.  Fall into formation behind God, not march ahead of God.  This was demonstrated when the people set out from their tents following the priests, who bore the ark of the covenant, the symbol of the presence and power of the living God, moving ahead of the people.

We are challenged today to listen to God’s word and to follow where the living God leads us.  God wants to guide us on the path that is best for us, giving us words to maximize our health and happiness.  When Moses said to “Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy,” that meant that working seven days is not good for ourselves, our families, or our relationship with God.

The prophet Isaiah said to “seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan and plead for the widow” (1:17).  We are to care for vulnerable people around us; that is at the heart of our faith.  Jesus said to, “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44).  In other words, destruction of rivals and opponents is unacceptable behavior for his disciples.  All of this is meant to help us, not to hurt us.  Keeping the Sabbath gives us time for rest and renewal. Caring for the poor makes our community a better place, and loving our enemies breaks the cycle of violence and revenge.  Draw near and hear the word of the Lord.

  1. Move forward one small step at a time.  Watch and wait for what God will do both for you and through you.  God’s help does not come in the form of 230 feet seawalls, rather in small acts of healing, protection and peace.  Think of the priests carrying the ark.  They just dipped their feet into the edge of the water, watching and waiting for God to act.  God’s response was to “move the waters into a heap and the people crossed over opposite Jericho” (v.6).  We dip our feet into water when we move forward one step at a time.  Martine Luther King said, “You don’t have to see the  whole staircase; just take the first step.”

In what ways are we asked to take the first step?  Maybe you have tension in a relationship with a friend or relative and need to pick up the phone to talk. Maybe a co-worker makes you uncomfortable and you could get to know them better over coffee.  Are their isolated individuals and families in your neighborhood?  God is leading you to pull people together–maybe a block party is in order.  If you take a step toward healing and peace, God will protect you.

  1. Keep your eyes on the future.  You cannot change the past, but you can be instrumental in building a future.  Just as the priests’ feet touched dry ground, the waters of the Jordan returned and overflowed its banks, as before.  God’s wall against the water was not a permanent barrier; instead, it was a temporary seawall that allowed the Israelites to cross one time.  We are challenged to look to the future:

–if we are granted a physical healing, we give thanks and move forward, not expecting to face the illness again.

–if we receive the gift of forgiveness, we give thanks and move forward.  We do not beat ourselves up for our imperfections or allow ourselves to be consumed by regrets.

–if we receive a new job or a new opportunity, we give thanks and move forward.  We should not obsess over mistakes from the past or hold ourselves to an impossibly high standard.

God’s gifts are life-saving but transient.  They are like the flow of the Jordan River that stops for a moment and then returns.  Once you are on the other side safely, move forward into the land that God has promised you.  Do not be consumed by worry or regret.  When we face raging rivers, God throws up a wall. More often than not, God does this by reconfiguring the water itself, creating a change in the environment that enables us to escape whatever dangers we encounter.  God takes the circumstances that once seemed to impede our progress and reshapes those events in such a way that we are enabled to proceed–to move forward.  When the Israelites crossed the Jordan, the water was still there, but God had taken what seemed to be a barrier and turned it into a gateway–a door that allowed passing into the future God has designed for us all.

As we remember those who took steps to pave the way for our future, we know that they were led by God.  Our ancestors carved a way in the desert, diverted rivers with God’s help, and made the desert a productive place in which we live. Let us pray for all who have gone before us, led by God, to build a future that is now entrusted to us.  (Ask for names of loved ones who have passed away this year, and pray for those saints.)

Amen.

Categories: Weekly Sermon

God’s Party

Matthew 22:1-14

Looking at the most Jewish oriented of the gospels, we see a work traditionally attributed to Matthew, one of Jesus’ disciples.  This text recounts the parable of the marriage feast similar to that in Luke 14:15-24, but Matthew 22:11-14 has no parallel in any of the other gospels.

The king is holding a wedding banquet in honor of his son.  As is the custom, he sends his servants to call those who have been invited to come to the feast that is ready.  But the guests hold the king’s invitation in low regard, which symbolizes Israel’s resistance to the first servants sent by the king, the Old Testament prophets.

The king then sends out “other” servants, representatives of “the way”–the early Christians.  They too, announce the arrival of the Great Banquet: “Behold!  I have made ready my dinner…come into the marriage feast. All is ready.” (salvation language or eschatology speaking of the kingdom of God having come into reality)  The son does not appear in this parable, because the son had been killed previously in the parable of the wicked tenants.  In this parable the son is alive. The story assumes that the son has been raised from the dead.  It is in his death and resurrection that “all is ready.”  This time, the invitees are called neglectful. They did not care about the king’s dinner.  One went to his farm, another went to his business.  Both went back to preserving and expanding their economic interests.

The “other servants” are seized, mistreated, and killed.  The king retaliates by sending soldiers who destroy the murderers and burn the city.  You do not get angry, start a war, and conquer a city all before the pot roast gets cold!

The king zeroed in on an inappropriately dressed guest.  The host must have supplied the wedding garments.  How could you expect people randomly gathered off the streets to have the proper clothes for a formal affair?  You do not leave for work in the morning with a tuxedo packed in your lunchbox on the off-chance that someone might drag you to a formal wedding party later in the day.

The wedding garment represents the death and resurrection of Jesus, the bridegroom.  The Great Banquet has been made possible by Jesus.  Anything other than the wedding garment of Christ’s death and resurrection is irrelevant. How can we relate this story to our lives?  Jesus put it to the chief priests and elders about God’s invitation to Israel to attend the wedding banquet of his Son.  They offered excuses and even executed God’s messengers.  God was trying to extend salvation to all–but some were– and are unwilling to accept–even today.

Let us look at God as the “Inviter.”  God is always inviting us to come to the water, come home, come to the banquet, come to an abundant life, come to eternal life, come to worship, come to God–be in relationship with God.  In the parable God was excited about the banquet–even prepared the fatted calf, aged the wine and elegantly set the tables.  God wants everyone to come to the feast to honor the Son and his bride.

What exactly is God inviting us to?  What is in the invitation?  God’s invitation is an invitation to service (Matthew 28:19), abundant life (John 10:10), worship (Psalm 100), eternal life (John 3:16), to enjoy Jesus’ presence (Revelation 3:20), to experience rest (Matthew 11:28), to pray (Philippians 4:6), and to turn to God in times of need (Jeremiah 33:3).

The “Invitees” are the people asked to the party, but maybe they do not like to dance (How about the “chicken dance” at weddings?).  Martin Marty talked about a priest who went to visit Mexico.  As each man approached the church, he opened the door for his wife or girlfriend and then gathered outside the church with the other men, who had done likewise.  They would smoke until their loved ones emerged.  The priest asked the men why they escorted the women to mass and then waited.  “You are Catholics, right?   Why don’t you go in?”  “We are not fanatics.”  Maybe that was the problem with those invited to the king’s banquet. They did not want to be considered fanatics.  Fanatic or not, the invitation goes to all in the realm.  Some reject the invitation, treating it casually.  Can’t you hear the king saying, “You are kidding, right?  What could be more important than an invitation to this event?”  As those who have been sent out to invite others to the wedding party, we need to understand that not all will welcome us–they do not want to be seen as fanatics.  Those who were invited from the streets may have been judged to be “unworthy.”  We need to remember that it is only by God’s grace and mercy that we are included amongst God’s guest list.

Invitees need to remember that they cannot come to the party dressed in their own clothes.  There is a “dress code.”  When we stand before God we need to be dressed in the garments of righteousness that do not belong to us, but to Jesus Christ himself. Paul reminds us that righteousness comes to us through faith in Christ.  The righteousness of God is based on faith (Philippians 3:9).

Let’s summarize:

  • God invites us in spite of our background.
  • God invites us without respect to our level of education.
  • God invites us without regard to our bank account.
  • God invites us without regard to our race, gender, or any other criteria.
  • God is building a future for us and a present time.
  • God invites us to a banquet, to be present in what God is doing.

We do not want to treat such an opportunity from God casually, indifferently or even with hostility.  We want to RSVP in the most rejoicing terms possible.  We want to say, “Yes, God, I accept your invitation.”

Amen.

Categories: Weekly Sermon

Radical Honesty

Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20

When the text for the day includes the Ten Commandments, people have a tendency to think, “Oh boy, here it comes, expounding on ancient rules that are not applicable in our day and age.”  So…I have decided to talk about a touchy subject that does terrible damage to our relationship with God and neighbors:lying, most people lie for a variety of reasons/excuses.  A recent survey revealed that the truth is bent an average of 1.65 times per day.

We tell lubricating lies to keep the conversation moving, like “I am doing fine.” We tall logistical lies when we say, “I will be there soon.”  We tell charitable lies like , “Of course, that dress, bathing suit or pair of jeans does not make you look fat.”

Have you seen the GEICO commercial in which Abe Lincoln’s honesty is tested when Mary Todd Lincoln stands in front of him and asks, “Does this dress make my backside look big?”  Being honest, Abe answers truthfully and his wife stomps off in a huff.

A postal carrier appeared on The Price Is Right, raised her arms, grabbed the wheel and gave it a spin–after she had filed for workers’ compensation, saying that she had been injured on the job and was unable to stand, reach and grasp as part of her job skills…skills that she demonstrated quite well on The Price Is Right.  The game show caught her in her lie, as did the pictures posted on Facebook showing her riding a zip line on a Carnival cruise.  She was indicted in federal court for worker’s compensation fraud and pleaded guilty.  We may not tell big lies that land us in court, but we are not always as truthful as Honest Abe in the GEICO advertisement.

Harris, a neuroscientist and prominent atheist, believes we should never lie, that we can radically simplify our lives and improve society by simply telling the truth.  “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.”  Even when we tell “white lies”, which we tell for the purpose of sparing people discomfort, these are the lies that most often tempt us because they seduce us into thinking that we are being good people when we tell them.  Adultery, financial fraud, government corruption– are all connected to a willingness to lie.

God told Moses to tell the people of Israel, “Do not bear false witness against your neighbor.”  God is saying that people should not distort reality, especially in court!  The truth should not be twisted to serve our own interests, or to advance political agendas (the election season is here).  Propaganda should never be used to distort the truth.  Truth-telling supports the vitality of the entire community. Honesty should always be radical–in the sense of being at the center of our life together.

Harris says that lying is the intentional misleading of others when they expect honest communication.  All forms of lying, including “white lies” meant to spare the feelings of others are associated with less satisfying relationships. Simply put:  tell the truth!  If you really love the people around you, do not hide information that would help them to make changes and improve their lives.  Do not encourage them to keep walking in directions that will hurt or disappoint them.

Does that mean that a person is obligated to be truthful in every situation?  What if a known murderer is standing at your front door ( you have seen his picture on the “wanted” posters in the post office and at Wal-mart), looking for a child you are hiding in your house?  He asks you if you have seen the child, his intended victim.  Do you have to say, “Yes”?  Would it be wrong to say, “He just ran by and is headed down the street”?  It is tempting to lie to protect an innocent life, butwhy not say, “I would not tell you under any circumstances.  Take another step and I will dial 911.”  That is no lie!  It is important to testify accurately in court and it is so much easier to keep your story straight when you tell the truth.  A liar has to keep track of his lies and that can become a lot of work.  Think of the Jody Arias trial and all the confusing testimonies.

Truth is easy and lies are a lot of work.  Lying affects our relationships and makes it easy to violate most of the other Ten Commandments.  Lying can affect our relationship with God, because God wants to have an open and honest relationship with us.  The first four Commandments deal with our relationship with God and the last six help us to deal with each other.  Honesty is at the heart of our relationship with God, just as it is at the core of our connections to people around us.  Who was taught, “Honesty is the best policy?”

There is an old story about a minister walking down the street and he came upon a group of boys arguing.  They had surrounded a dog and the minister asked, “What are you doing with that dog?”  One boy said, “This is an old neighborhood stray and we all want him, but only one of us can take him home.  We have decided that whichever one of us can tell the biggest lie will get to keep the dog.”  The minister was taken aback and exclaimed, “You boys should not be having a lying contest.  Lying is a sin!  When I was your age, I never told a lie.” There was dead silence and the smallest boy gave a sigh and said, “All right, give him the dog.”

The command to love God in the Old Testament ( “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” Deuteronomy 6:5) is remarkably similar to the Great Commandment  of Jesus in the New Testament (“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.  Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another” John 13:34), and can only hold up if we are willing to be honest with God and the people around us with whom we share our life together.

Amen.

Categories: Weekly Sermon

A New Way to Follow Jesus

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Matthew 21:23-32

You sports fans will remember the great football coach of the 1960s, Vince Lombardi. He had a saying about giving up: “Winners never quit and quitters never win.” That sounds good at first, but if you think about it, history has proved that many winners have quit. Quitting is an essential part of following Christ into a deeper and more loving relationship with God.

Matthew tells us that Jesus left Nazareth (Matthew 13:57, “a prophet is without honor in his own house”), he quit and moved on and made his home in Capernaum by the Sea of Galilee, where he began his ministry. Simon Peter and Andrew quit fishing to follow Jesus and Saul quit breathing threats to commit murder against the disciples of the Lord, and became an ardent apostle (Greek=a person sent out).

Quitting has been going on for a long time. Abraham Lincoln quit being a general store owner to enter politics. Julia Child quit being a CIA intelligence officer and became a world famous cook. Harrison Ford quit being a professional carpenter when he was offered a part in a little “far-fetched” movie called “Star Wars.” “Grandma Moses” quit selling potato chips and began to paint at 80 years old. Clearly, quitter can sometimes win when they discover the benefit of giving up: an opportunity to start off in a new direction: making a new commitment.

In today’s parable of two sons, Jesus tells a story to the chief priests and the elders of the people. I can picture the synagogue where he probably spoke–not far from Peter’s house beside the Seas of Galilee. You can see Peter’s house from the synagogue. A man with a vineyard depended upon the assistance of his two sons. He went to the first and said, “Son, go and work in the vineyard today.” The son already had plans and responded, “I will not.” But he later changed his mind, quit what he was doing and went out to work in the vineyard. The father also went to the second son, made the same request, and the second son answered, “Sure!” He seems like a winner having given an enthusiastic response but he failed to go out and work in the vineyard.

Jesus asked, “Which of the two did the will of his father?” We ask ourselves, “Which is the real winner?” The chief priests and elders immediately responded, “The first!” They understood that the son who quit what he was doing to go out to work in the vineyard was the real winner. This sounds like a first century reality show. “Truly I tell you, ” says Jesus to the religious leaders, “tax collectors and prostitutes are going into the kingdom of heaven ahead of you.” I will wager that statement was a blow to the pretentious, haughty leaders who snorted in derision at Jesus and puzzled over how those kind of people could be winners.

“For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him,” explains Jesus, “but the tax collectors and prostitutes believed him” (v.32). These folks saw the truth in what John was saying and they discovered exactly what they needed to do. But the chief priests and elders did not change their minds and believe him. So…when do we know when it is time to give up?

Hint #1: You heart is not in it. A man talked about his son pursuing martial arts for a couple of years and had advanced rapidly. HIs father was disturbed when the son told him, “At some point I will get bored and quit.” The father predicted that he would still support his son because he believed that one of the most important life skills you can teach your child is to quit. If you are going to try something else, you have to be ready to quit whatever it is you are doing before that “something else” appears on the scene.

Hint #2: You cannot see the path forward. When Jesus comes into the temple, the officials approach him and ask, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority? Jesus senses they are trying to trap him and he answers their question with a question: (It was like dealing with kids, you have to be one step ahead of them all the time!) “Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” The priests and elders argued amongst themselves and they deduced that they were trapped, so they answered, “We do not know.” They needed to rethink their direction and to consider the truth of what Jesus was teaching. Instead of changing their course (The Road Not Taken”), they remained stuck on the path they were on, one that lead them to plot the death of Jesus. Deadlock.

“The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and sorry I could not travel both and be one traveler, long I stood and looked down one as far as I could to where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair, and having perhaps the better claim, because it was grassy and wanted wear; though as for that the passing there had worn them really about the same, and both that morning equally lay in leaves no step had trodden black. Oh, I kept the first for another day! Yet knowing how way leads on to way, I doubted if I should ever come back. I shall be telling this with a sigh somewhere ages and ages hence: Two roads diverged in a wood, and I–I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.

Jesus refuses to answer their questions because they do not answer his questions about authority. They have to quit what they are doing in order to discover that Jesus does have authority–authority to teach, to heal and even to forgive sins.

Hint #3: You have been avoiding what God wants you to do. The first son in the parable declines his father’s request to work in the vineyard, but he dropped his resistance, changed his mind and went out to work in the vineyard. We face the same challenge and do not always receive completely clear guidance about how to work in God’s vineyard. Christians have struggled throughout history to discern what God wants them to do. Some of the best techniques come from Ignatius Loyola.

1.)Clarify the goal of your life to have a loving relationship with God. Each choice should move us closer to God: start a business, go back to school, get married, change jobs. Follow Christ into a deeper and more loving relationship with God.

2.)tackle the complexities of decision making. Figure out how to avoid God and how to begin working in God’s vineyard. List the pros and cons of activities, ask friends what they think, and pray and see if God give you greater clarity about your choice. Sometimes we live in restlessness as God pushes us in a new direction and sometimes we feel a sense of peace, only to discover our serenity is laziness in disguise. Ignatius wants us to continue examining our decisions and to make choices that increase the feelings of faith, hope and love within ourselves.

Hint #4: We are in a position to change our lives for the better. If we feel that we are avoiding what God want us to do, we need to stop what we are doing, clarify our goals and define what it means to have a loving relationship with God.

What changes do we need to make to start using our time and talents as workers in God’s vineyard? We need to listen to the movement of God’s Spirit within us and make choices that will increase our faith, hope and love.

By quitting and travelling “The Road Not Taken” we might, in fact, be winners. It is a win-win when we choose to follow Jesus and move into a closer relationship with God. Amen.

Categories: Weekly Sermon

Message Delivered on September 21, 2014 – Matthew 20:1-16

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By Elder John Guy

This morning we read from Matthew, chapter 20, verses 1 through 16, in which we learned about generosity, and whether or not we all suffer from the human frailty of jealousy and a lack of appreciation of our blessings. When I first began working at the Maricopa County Sherriff’s office ten years ago, I was one of a bunch of new-hires, who had been selected after the sherriff’s office decided to upgrade their staff. We were all college educated with specific majors that would relate to our jobs at the sheriff’s office, and when we were hired we were paid commensurate with our education and training. Unfortunately, the veterans who worked in this office and had been there five to ten years, did not have college degrees as a whole, and when we were hired we were paid the same amount of money as those employees who had worked five or more years. Needless to say, we were shunned for about the first three months until the county caught up with the pay inequities and adjusted their pay, so that again, they were making more than—or at least—the same as we were. Now, it was not our fault that we had more education but in the end, we suffered because we were being paid the same as they were—and they had been there much longer than we had.

This is exactly like the parable in Matthew and it illustrates that although we can be generous, we also are always looking at our neighbor’s new car or house and wondering why we were not blessed at the same level.

I drive down Grand Avenue in my car with my air-conditioning on and it is a car that is fully paid for and extremely efficient. I will pass a person, usually one of color, wearing raggedy clothes, pushing a shopping cart and carrying all of their earthly possessions on them. And every time I see a person like that I wonder how I would feel had I been born into that station. Because, in reality, I was born into a family who loved me and proviced me the very best in education and career opportunities, and so I was able to sit in a nice car with the air-conditioning running while that poor, unfortunate soul was pushing a shopping cart across Grand Avenue. It made me think how blessed I am with thematerial things that have been provided to me by God, and the lack of those very same things that were provided to the man pushing a shopping cart. Although I am blessed, how often do I then take those blessings and pass them along to someone less fortunate? As Matthew says in the text, “So those who are last will be first. And those who are first will be last.” And the meaning is that although you may have many of God’s blessings, it does not necessarily put you at the front of the line when it comes time to pass between the Pearly Gates. Always remember the man on the cross next to Jesus—the common thief—who was received into heaven as quickly as someone who would have been faithful for years. Because in the end, God does not separate those who come to him at the very last, from those who have come to him from birth. Be generous without fault and keep those who do not have the abundant blessings that you have in your prayers and your deeds.

Amen.

Categories: Weekly Sermon

Message Delivered on September 14, 2014 – Romans 14:1-12

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One of my favorite billboard ads is the cow climbing the ladder to erect a sign, “Eat more chik-in.” Of course, it is an ad to draw people away from burger joints like McDonalds, Burger King, Jack-in-the-Box, and others. I suppose we can think of that competition as a “food fight.” Food fights are nothing new. The apostle Paul stepped into the midst of one as he was writing his letter to the Roman Christians. Instead of a battle between those who preferred chicken to beef, the fight was about judging people. The battle lines were drawn when Paul wrote, “Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only veggies” (v.2). I had overlooked a vegan preference that existed many years ago. Those were fighting words in the first century and remain so today.

Can you imagine an announcement being made in worship before the beginning of an all-church potluck luncheon, “When you enter the Fellowship Hall, those who are strong in faith will put their meat and potato dishes to the left while those who are weak in faith will put their vegetarian dishes to the right?” Thank God, that would not happen here! It could have the potential for a food fight unlike any of those seen in the elementary school or high school cafeterias. Instead of throwing food, people would pick up their dishes and promptly head out, feeling I am not welcome here. What kind of hospitality is shown in this place? Hrr-umph! Off they would go and I would be right behind them.

With Paul, he did not really take a stand on whether a person should eat meat. He would no doubt consider himself strong in faith and able to eat anything. So…his personal conviction is that there are no food restrictions in the Kingdom of God. But his point to the Romans is: meat eaters should withhold judgment toward those who are vegetarians and vegans should welcome carnivores. “Those who eat must not form opinions about those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgment on those who eat.” Do not argue about how to slice the roast or dice the cucumbers.

We live in a world in which people are challenging each other all the time: pro-gun vs. no gun, liberals vs. conservatives, Fox News vs. MSNBC, Cardinals vs. Steelers or Diamondbacks vs. Mariners. Our polarized nation/state is full of groups constantly criticizing each other. Into a similarly divided Roman church, Paul wrote, “Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions. “Focus on welcoming, instead of judging.” Put your energy into connecting instead of quarreling, leading to driving people away. My dad used to tell me that a church is a hospital for sinners and we are all sinners, having fallen short–we all need God in our lives and ought to be willing to share God’s love and forgiveness. Why should we do this? Because God has done it, that’s why! “For God has welcomed them” (v.3). End of story. It sounds simple on paper, but in reality, it is so hard.

Our challenge as Christians is to discern how we can live in a community of faith with those who are different from ourselves, even those we consider to be “weak in faith.” For starters: 1. Make a conscientious decision to let Jesus be the judge. “Who are we to pass judgment on servants of another?” asks Paul. In the first century servants were judged by their personal lords and masters, not by other servants. Let Jesus take care of passing judgment. This is tough for us because we like to respond when someone hits us with an opinion that we find objectionable. It’s hard to hold our tongues when a fellow Christian makes a claim that seems so wrong to us theologically, ethically, biblically and/or spiritually. 2. Paul reminds us that we will all stand or fall before Jesus, as he is in charge. Every Christian will be upheld in the resurrection by the power of their relationship with Jesus their Lord. “We don’t live to ourselves, nor die to ourselves. Whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s.”

Christians rightfully have opinions but when they encounter those in the faith of a divergent point of view, they/we must be very careful before we characterize them as immature in their faith or even outside the family of God. God wants there to be a certain amount of diversity within the faith community. The overarching narrative of the Bible is a story of ever-increasing inclusiveness, beginning with the marriage of Boaz of Bethlehem to a Moabite woman named Ruth–a foreigner who ends up being the great-grandma to Kind David, of the house and lineage of David, the family line of Jesus. It continues with God’s call for cultural barriers to fall and for people of all nations and tribes (nationalities) to be part of a “house of prayer for all peoples” (Isaiah 56). This movement accelerates when Jesus begins his loving and gracious ministry to tax collectors, and sinners, and when Paul takes the gospel to the Gentiles. How dare they break the hospitality rules and traditions of their families?

Paul is concerned that all people can be at peace with their own personal understanding. Neither eating or abstaining is a superior practice for Christians, because both can be done “in honor of the Lord” (v.6). A diversity of perspectives and practices can be embraced by the Christian faith, as long as everything brings honor to Jesus Christ. The Larger Westminster Catechism asks, “What is the chief and highest end of man? Man’s chief and highest end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.” Nancy had a friend who had a tie throwing pastor. We had an occasion to attend a Wednesday night prayer meeting and I sat at the sound mixer with the young man. I asked him why the pastor did that? How did such an action show glory to God? The congregation even presented the pastor with a plaque to the “best tie throwing pastor ever” and wrapped the plaque with a new tie…in a bow. The young man was very uncomfortable with the activity I had witnessed and asked if he could come to church with us some Sunday. He came and saw no “tie throwing.” He asked questions throughout the service of worship and I answered them. He said that worship finally made sense to him: prayers, scripture, sermon, hymns — all shared to glorify God as described in Acts 2.

Paul tells us , “Think about how your own acts of judgment will look on the Day of Judgment.” Jesus said, “You will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven” (Luke 6:37). Jesus is telling us that we will receive exactly what we offer others in terms of judgment and condemnation. The way to prepare for Judgment Day is to treat others exactly like you want to be treated, replacing condemnation with forgiveness. Where have we heard that before? (The Golden Rule–Matthew 7:12).

We need to focus on welcoming others, showing Christian hospitality. All of our words and actions should be done “in honor of the Lord,” and should strengthen our relationship with Christ. In the end, our goal is to build a community that fits the vision of the Book of Revelation, in which there is “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and people and languages, standing before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands” (Revelation 7:9). Our goal is to be thankful that we belong to Jesus, the Lamb of God. There will be no controversy over food, only worship of the one who is the Lord of the dead and the living, liberals and conservatives, strong and weak. Our incompatibilities and objections will be replaced by praise. Jesus is hospitable to all and welcomes them with open arms. As the body of Christ, we are to do the same.

Amen.

Categories: Weekly Sermon

Youth Sunday

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Dear Friends,

This past Sunday, August 31st, was Youth Sunday. The youth put on a skit

for the Message that was a reading of the book, “THE VOICE” by R.W. Metlen.

“Follow me,” said the Voice. He was fishing when he heard the Voice.
He was satisfied with his life, and the time of the call was inconvenient.
He wanted it to go away but the Voice would not. Instead, it offered the invitation again, this time with an added complication. What could he do? Try as he might, he could not ignore the Voice, but neither could he leave his place of security.

Until, suddenly, that, too, was changed.

This is a fable about an invitation encountered during a life given to other pleasures. It is a story to reflect on, to laugh with and to wonder over. The simple text, combined with funny, evocative drawings, is written for people of all ages, faiths and backgrounds. Whoever has heard such a voice, or longs to hear one, will identify with the story and be moved by its possibilities.

I first read this book to campers at Montlure Presbyterian Church Camp in Greer during a session in which “discipleship” was the theme of the curriculum for the summer. The campers loved the book and asked me to read it over again for a “bedtime” story. I think it depicts Jesus’ calling of the disciples and the account in Matthew in which Jesus walks on water, challenging them not to be afraid. Only Peter is willing to climb out of the boat and go to Jesus, walking on the water…until doubt (weak faith) creeps in and he begins to sink. (Matthew 14:22-32).

Find a comfortable chair to sit in and read the text of “The Voice.”

“Follow me,” said the Voice. (A puzzled fisherman has his line in the water.)

“Follow me, said the Voice. I did not want to listen. (Fisherman is peeking over the side of the boat.)

“I love you,” said the Voice. (Surprised, puzzled look on the fisherman’s face.)

The Voice, whoever it was, was very intrusive.

“Go away. I’m fishing.”

I could feel it watching me.

Eventually, I caught a fish. I was feeling very proud of myself.

“You’re welcome,” said the Voice. “Leave me alone,” I replied.

The Voice was silent, but it didn’t go away. I lay back to take a nap.

Then, quite unexpectedly, my boat sprung a leak.

I found the hole and plugged it with one of my toes. (Fish is nibbling on his toe.)

That Voice was putting holes in my boat! (Evil thoughts depicted by a skull and crossed bones.)

I yelled, “VOICE, I DO NOT APPRECIATE YOU!” (Yelling, panting.)

“Stop behaving so badly,” said the Voice, “and just follow me.”

(After being a target of jeering) The Voice let out a long sigh.

My boat began to leak again.

At first, I refused to plug the hole. I thought, “I’ ll show that Voice how tough I am. I’ll just go ahead and drown.” (Humph.)

Then I got scared. I didn’t really want to drown.

It took my whole leg to plug that hole. I could feel the fish tickling my foot in the water below.

“Stupid fish,” I thought.

Everybody was picking on me. (Sigh.)

I wanted to go home, but I couldn’t reach my oars.

I WAS STUCK!

I began to cry. (Wah-h, sob.)

“Follow me,” said the Voice.

“Why won’t you leave me alone?” I asked. I was feeling sorry for myself.

“I already told you. I love you,” said the Voice. “Follow me.”

“I CAN’T! If I move, my boat will sink!” (Whine.)

“Let it sink,” said the Voice. (Puzzled look.)

“LET IT SINK?” I asked. “Don’t you care about me? I’ll drown! I’ll become fish food! I can’t swim!”

“You won’t have to swim. Just follow me,” said the Voice.

I sat there, wondering what to do. This seemed like an awfully dirty trick. How did I know I could trust the Voice?

There seemed to be no other option.

So I pulled my toe out of the first hole. Immediately water began filling the boat. “Better pull your other leg out too,” recommended the Voice, “or the boat will drag you down with it.”

So I did.

The cold water rushed in as the boat sank.

I called out, “Help! Voice! Help me!”

“Open your eyes,” said the Voice.

(Man is walking on the water–gasp!)

“Follow me,” said the Voice.

(Man is seen tip-toeing across the waves on the water.)

So I did.

As you can imagine, the kids acting out the skit with their version of the boat, plus the bouncing paper waves, got the point across.

We are blessed to have faithful disciples in our young people!

Categories: Weekly Sermon

QM=Quiet Mode – Exodus 1:8-2:10

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In our era of technology where communication with a family member, friend or work cohort is just a text message, tweet or face book entry away, what if God turned to a function of the Norton Anti-Virus program for computers? There is a QM, a “Quiet Mode” that refers not to “absence” or to “hiding,” but to a suspension of certain activities. The Norton program doesn’t “cease” to function, it continues to display alerts and notifications during the QM session. While using a computer to perform tasks that require higher utilization of the system resources, Norton automatically suspends the background activities and lets the task use the maximum system resources for better performance. The QM function of the Norton program can be compared to the way God functions. When God sometimes seems invisible, God in fact, is working on our behalf all the time.

Between the close of Genesis and the opening of Exodus is a four hundred year time span. At the end of Genesis, Jacob’s sons (the 12 tribes of the Israelite nation) and their families were living in Egypt as welcome immigrants. One of the sons, Joseph, became Pharoah’s right-hand man, holding an honored and responsible position in the Egyptian government. During the four hundred years Jacob’s descendants prospered and grew in numbers and financial dealings. Various pharoahs came and went on Egypt’s throne, and when the account in Exodus begins, another king (pharoah) has come to rule Egypt, who never knew Joseph or his family. Pharoah felt no obligation to honor an ancient promise of hospitality to the Hebrews made by one of his predecessors in power long ago. The current pharoah perceives Jacob’s descendants as a potential threat to Egypt. He sees their very numbers as dangerous and thinks that if Egypt were ever to engage in war, the Hebrews might side with the enemy–or escape from Egypt, taking a huge number of the labor force with them (What a premonition!). Pharoah asserts his power over the Hebrews by introducing chaos into their lives by enslaving them (work them to death by making bricks) to build massive government projects. The Hebrews did the work and continued to grow in numbers, which led Pharoah to call in two Hebrew midwives, Shiphrah and Puah. He instructed them that when they delivered girls to Hebrew women, they could live, but any boys were to be killed. The Hebrew midwives “feared God” more than they feared Pharoah, and they ignored his decree.

Needless to say, when Pharoah got wind of the news that his order was being disobeyed, he called in Shiphrah and Puah who created a bold-faced lie in defense of their actions. They wove the response that Hebrew women gave birth so easily that the babies arrived before they could get there to assist. The Pharoah, totally removed from the birthing process, actually went along with their story. The Bible relates that because the midwives feared and respected God, and did not kill the babies, that God gave them families of their own.

Pharoah had a plan and was sticking to it, so he ordered the Egyptians to cast every Hebrew boy born into the Nile River (crocodile infested), but they could allow the girls to live. The threat sets the stage for Moses’ birth, whose mother hid him in a basket in the bulrushes. Moses would eventually lead the Hebrew people out of slavery in Egypt. Pharoah saw male children as a threat, but in reality, the midwives saved many children. He did not realize that his own daughter would adopt a Hebrew boy found in a basket woven by his mother. Moses’ sister, Miriam, would suggest to Pharoah’s daughter who found the baby, to employ a woman to be a wet nurse for him–his birth mother–and even get paid for it! The princess saved the baby who would grow up to undo Pharoah’s plans for the Hebrews.

Where is God in this account? God is only mentioned when the midwives fear God more than Pharoah and God gave them families. God was there in the prosperity and growth of the Hebrew people, in spite of Pharoah’s plans. When Moses was born, something momentous from God happened. There was no angel announcement, only a quiet home birth. There was no prediction that God would send a savior to rescue the Hebrews from their forced labor. Moses’ mother plotted to keep him alive and she set him afloat in the very river in which the Egyptians were ordered to drown the male children they found. What motivated her to conceive the plan and to choose the place to hide her baby? Who made it possible for the Egyptian woman who found the child to be one of power and wealth–and had a compassionate heart? She ignored her own father’s command even though she recognized the child as a Hebrew and took him in to raise as her own son. Had God abandoned the Hebrews or gone into “Quiet Mode?”

Much later in Moses’ life, God will speak to him through a burning bush, inflict plagues on the Egyptians and lead Israel with a pillar of fire at night and a pillar of cloud by day–and part the Red Sea for the Israelites to escape. Certainly the Israelites would have been content if God had engaged in “active mode” many years sooner before conditions had deteriorated. We wonder along with the Hebrews why God waited so long to intervene on their behalf? Shiphrah and Puah knew that God was all about life; creating it and preserving it, flourishing life. God frowns on that which diminishes life and well-being. Even if the current pharoah did not know Joseph, the midwives knew his story and kept it in their hearts. The knowledge of God’s providence of the Hebrews through Joseph was enough to spur them on, both in choosing life and preventing death. The women of Israel know that the God of life offers blessing and they try to put themselves and their children in the way of the blessing. The only way Moses survived was through the bravery of the midwives, his mother, his quick-thinking sister and the compassionate princess.

What would we look like if we put ourselves in the way of God’s blessing? What would it mean to take seriously that we will be held accountable for our time, our talents, and our actions? Even knowing that we have been saved through Jesus Christ, we know that God is still working in us, still helping us to mature in our faith, and still calling us to respond to God’s nurturing and shaping.

Faith is a way of interpreting what we see in the world. Some of us look at the events and see a bunch of happenings, some of which are triggered by cause and effect claims, and some that are unrelated stuff that just happens. Sometimes we detect the movement of God in “Quiet Mode,” but moving nonetheless. Perhaps we should picture faith as the guy sitting at the sonar post in a submarine. He listens through his earphones for the slightest sound to indicate the presence of a nearby, possibly enemy sub, running quiet and deep. The captain has to determine what to do based on the information the sailor at the post reports. A sonar technician must have normal hearing to decipher the various frequencies that are within the standard range. Faith seeks out the quiet sounds of God in a world filled with lots of noise. It does not take extraordinary spiritual ears to detect the work of God, just ears open and listening carefully. Jesus said, “Let anyone with ears to hear listen!” (Mark 4:9). Faith believes that God is in ordinary and troubled circumstances. God works in “Quiet Mode” through people (like the midwives) who trust themselves to God more than they trust the powers of the world and culture around them.

Is God active in our lives today? Is God sowing the seeds of recovery and redemption? Is God working in “Quiet Mode” to allow us to have full access to our own resources to deal with whatever comes at us? Is God staying behind the scenes but working through the lives of people, whom we do not expect to be part of the solution, rather they are part of the solution? God is quietly empowering us to do the work we are being called to do. How long will we be in “Quiet Mode” before we respond to God’s call?

Amen.

Categories: Weekly Sermon

Evil Transformed – Genesis 45:1-15

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Today’s Old Testament reading occurs about three fourths of the way through the account of Joseph, his family and his adventures in Egypt. After several encounters with his brothers in Egypt when they did not recognize him, interacted with him only as governor, and in chapters 43:19-44:34, he charged his brothers with theft, Joseph lost control of himself and emptied his house of everyone except him and his brothers. He broke down in tears and revealed himself to his brothers, asking if his father was still alive. Joseph revealing his identity to his brothers is the climax of a narrative about power, family loyalty and betrayal, and above all, the divine oversight of human affairs. The brothers are stunned as they realize that the pampered and resented younger brother (with the coat of many colors; spoiled rotten) that they sold into slavery decades before, and the one they presumed to be “no more” is alive and very well–well off! He survived their abuse and has become the second most powerful man in all Egypt. Joseph is now overseer of the region inhabited by Jacob’s sons.

Once persecuted and ensnared by an evil plot, Joseph is now in a position to shower God’s mercy to transform the evil acts of his brothers. He could have been arrogant and sang Mac Davis’ song, “It’s Hard to Be Humble:”

Oh Lord, it’s hard to be humble when you’re perfect in every way. I can’t wait to look in the mirror ‘cos I get better looking each day. To know me is to love me: I must be a hell of a man. O Lord it’s hard to be humble but I’m doing the best that I can.”

Think about the issues of elementary school kids today on the playground and in the classroom with bullying. No one likes a bully or a braggart. Joseph’s dreams about his brothers bowing down to him in obeisance caused a sore spot to fester in each of his brothers’ hearts. Joseph got the pretty coat from his father and had sympathy from his father because his mother had died giving birth to his younger brother, Benjamin. At seventeen years old Joseph even dreamed that his brothers were like sheaves of wheat bowing down to him and they questioned his authority over them. The brothers were exceedingly jealous. They did not want to hear Joseph brag about being superior to them. In reality, Joseph was not trying to brag or “lord over” his brothers, but God was weaving a plan for Joseph. He was following the life that God had prepared for him. He would be incorporated into a plan that seemed evil at the onset–his own brothers wanted to kill him out of jealousy for attention and power, an evil plot for sure, but an older brother did not want Joseph’s blood on his conscience forever. So, instead, Joseph was sold into slavery and the brothers were rid of him, they thought.

As a slave in Egypt, Joseph rose to a position of responsibility in the household of an Egyptian official. He was falsely accused of making advances to Potiphar’s wife and thrown into prison–captured again! Still part of God’s plan. Joseph is aware that it is God who has made him successful. When Pharoah remarks about Joseph’s ability to interpret dreams, Joseph says, “I is not I; God will give Pharoah a favorable answer.” God given dreams about Joseph’s brothers bowing down to him have become a reality. Joseph recognizes his brothers, who have come to Egypt to buy grain in the midst of a famine in Canaan. Joseph now holds the lives of his brothers in his hands. It is the perfect scenario for revenge. Joseph does not gloat and say, “I told you so.” He uses the opportunity to test his brothers before telling them that this powerful Egyptian official is in fact their long lost-not dead-brother. Joseph could not stand hiding his identity and had to tell his brothers the truth. “I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?” If you had plotted to kill your brother or a good friend who was portrayed as family, and “despised” him or her, never expecting to hear or see the person again, how would you feel about meeting them face-to-face and to know that they held the lucky card in a poker hand?

You might expect that Joseph would talk about his trials and how he made it from the pit to the palace. But Joseph does not see his brothers as groveling fans, nor does he list all of his accomplishments. Instead, he has them come closer to tell them, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold in Egypt. Do not be distressed or angry with yourselves. God sent me before you to preserve life.” Joseph sees his life through the lens of God’s purposes. If he is going to brag about anything, it is going to be about God. “God sent me before you to preserve a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. It was not you who sent me here, but God. God made me a father to Pharoah, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt.” Even though you intended to harm me (evil act), God intended it for good in order to preserve a numerous people” (transformation in action), as he is doing today. Joseph, who interpreted visions, has a vision of a God who will make things right. God created everything and called it “good” and Joseph sees that no matter what humans will do in their sinful, self-serving nature, it is God who will make it good again. In the end, humans have nothing to boast about unless we are boasting about our God.

It is God who reconciles a broken world and can reconcile even a broken family like Joseph’s or our own individual families. Only God’s grace makes that possible. Paul tells us in Romans 5:11, “We can boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, from whom we have now received reconciliation.” God’s forgiveness is awesome. Joseph realized that God had blessed him with the ability to save his family and to forgive his brothers for washing their hands of their pesky, spoiled little brother, whom God used to save the remnant of Israel from starvation. Hope of survival came to Joseph’s family through the very brother they had rejected. Hate, disdain and evil deeds can be reshaped by God to accomplish God’s purposes. God only wants us to live with his purposes in mind.

Amen.

Categories: Weekly Sermon

Treading Deep Water – Matthew 14:22-33

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When I was in high school, I had to execute a life-saving dive from the diving board ten feet over the pool and tread water for five minutes to pass Physical Education. I have never been able to tolerate the chlorine in the pool; it makes my nose bleed on contact. So…I volunteered to go first after the instructions were given, figuring I would get it over as soon as possible. I jumped, my legs hit the water and then my arms, in what turned out to be the perfect dive–my head never went under the water and I had full view of the imaginary victim at all times as I treaded water. The teacher applauded and said, “That is the way it should be done.” I was so relieved and never had to repeat the dive—until I was a senior in college, visiting my cousin with my date and we were invited to go swimming in his pool. My date jumped in and his feet hit the slope of the decline to the deep end of the pool and he went under. He had had a collapsed lung from pneumonia two years prior to that event and I could see the panic on his face as he tried to surface. I jumped in with my life-saving dive–it worked again, but the victim pulled me under trying to get to the surface. My cousin kicked off his shoes and jumped in to help me. Every time I read this account in Matthew, I remember the fear my date had as he sank in the water. I remember Peter’s prayer, “Lord, save me!” I prayed that same prayer for my date that day–and for myself!

I think that everyday life is a stormy season–an ongoing monsoon that can swallow us whole when we least expect it. In Matthew 14 Jesus was tired. He had been grieving over his cousin, John the Baptist’s death and sought a space to be alone, but the crowds sought him even more. Last week we talked about Jesus feeding 5000 people with two small fish and five barley loaves. He spent time teaching and feeding and healing them–and then sent his disciples off so he could go up a mountain to pray and rest in the quiet eventide.

The disciples went out on the Sea of Galilee and a squall developed, buffeting the boat about and scaring them into believing that they might sink. They were too far out to wade back to shore. The wind was against them and they had been rowing hard. They were soaking wet, hungry and bone tired. Jesus was beginning to miss his friends in the wee hours of morning and did something so unimaginable. He walked out on the roaring sea towards the boat with his friends. “It is a ghost!” the sailors cried out in fear!

Do you ever have days like those of the disciples? Eighteen plus hours of work, meeting crabby demands of people like your boss and co-workers or customers, enduring sleepless nights because of sick family members or extended work hours, your car broke down just before the same freeway exit as it did on the previous day, you are hot, restless and exhausted and afraid because God seems more like a ghost or phantom than a rescuing, comforting savior? Maybe you have even gotten a challenging diagnosis from the doctor or a phone call during the night and you heard the voice of one of your kids say, “I have been in an accident.” Days like that come upon us with little warning and we are consumed with fear. We feel swallowed up in darkness and wonder what to do next. How will we ever get through the current crisis?

We need to remember Jesus’ soothing words, “Take heart, it is I, have no fear.” Peter spoke up first, as usual. It was dark, the wind was howling, and the sea spray was probably stinging his eyes, making him wonder if he was really seeing Jesus. Only Jesus’ voice was clear and Peter called out, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” Without any hesitation Jesus said, “Come!” The other disciples sat, watched and waited to see what would happen. I would guess that they had white knuckle vice-grips on the sides of the boat, anticipating what they might see next. Thank God for the Peters among us. When life grows stormy, when we cannot see, when all is tired, wet and fearful and no one knows what to do, God sends us a Peter. A Peter is someone who can think outside the box, who has not been told that “it” cannot be done. A Peter seeks adventure and comes to us from the unlikeliest of places. It can be a stranger who offers a kind word, not knowing what traumatic encounter you have recently experienced. Or maybe it is like the little boy sitting on his neighbor’s lap in the rocking chair on the porch next door, crying with him because he is lonely after losing his wife of 60+ years. That child, like compassion and faith, encourages us to ask God for help.

Peter takes that leap of faith as he swings his legs over the side of the boat and drops down on the sea, eyes affixed on Jesus. He does it! He walks on the water toward Jesus. Peter did the impossible–until he looked down at the waves slapping against him and heard the wind howl and he began to sink. He called out, “Lord, save me!” and reached out to Peter with a strong, steady hand. As long as Peter focused on Jesus and only glanced at the danger, he was lifted up over the water. When he focused on the water and only glanced at Jesus, he sank.

It is a matter of perspective and faith. Jesus said that a day would come when people’s hearts would be weighed down with fear of what would happen to the world. We read and hear and see the ugly snarl of humanity all around us. The world and our experiences can be sinking places. John Ortberg wrote, “If You Want to Walk on Water, You Have to Get Out of the Boat.” You have to leave your safety net/zone. There are times we have to abstain from television news, papers and magazines because they disarm us and fill us with despair. We can allow ourselves to sink in the world’s miseries or we can intentionally look to God. We can read examples of other human trials in Scripture, spend time in prayer and spend time with fellow believers to help us stay focused on what God intends for our lives. God who is able–sustains us all. For all who tackle a cause, work to labor with God, to do the impossible, unthinkable and all that– is doomed to failure unless God is in it. We need to remember that it is by God’s strength that we can do what we do. It is like the old story about three friends crossing the stream. The first one confidently stepped into the water and gingerly forded the stream. The second one stepped, wobbled and kept balance and made it to the other side. The third one stepped in, stumbled and promptly fell in with a loud splash. What happened? It looked so easy. Well, the other two replied, you were supposed to use the stepping stones. God is the stepping stone in our life stream. With God we look less to ourselves and look more to Jesus. We gaze less at the world and are more riveted to faith in God. When Jesus and Peter climbed back into the boat, the disciples whispered to Jesus, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

In the times we are treading in deep waters, we need to focus on the possibilities God intends for us. An old hymn chorus says, “On Christ the solid Rock I stand; all other ground is sinking sand, all other ground is sinking sand. Our hope is built on nothing less.”

Amen.

Categories: Weekly Sermon