Is Christmas Really over -Matthew 2:13-23

Now that it is December 29, 2013, people are saying that Christ is over; finished, until next summer when commercial entrepreneurs begin to put out decorations and ads for the “coming season.”  Christmas is over at the malls—after the “After Christmas Sale,” Year-end Clearance and Year-end Inventory sales.  It might be over at local churches that do not celebrate Epiphany, “Kings Day,” when the wise men arrived to see the Baby Jesus–otherwise known as “Twelfth Night” (for which we sing “The Twelve Days of Christmas”).  The white paraments and The First Sunday after Christmas on today’s bulletins are indicators of the Christmas season winding down.
It always seem like the arrival of a late Christmas card.  I still have not sent mine out, yet.  The cre’che is still waiting for the wise men and camels to be added.  We are no longer lighting the Advent Wreath.  We need to emphasize that the place where Mary and Joseph watched over Jesus has been searched by Herod’s secret police, the manger was probably overturned and the animals have scattered.  Throughout the countryside the lament of parents whose children had been slain could be heard as the result of Herod’s attempt to eliminate any baby king to compete with his reign.  Herod was so infuriated when he could not find the baby that he ordered all male children in Bethlehem and in the surrounding territory who were two years old and younger to be killed.
The real Christmas may be over, but the sentimental Christmas of our fantasies is no more.  This violent text will not tolerate it.  The text shows us that Jesus and his family had left Bethlehem.  They became Palestinian refugees in search of safety far away in Egypt.  They crossed a desert region not knowing where they would find shelter each night.  The sentimental Christmas was constructed years ago to compress and retell the events surrounding Jesus’ birth.  The Incarnation makes a radical claim.  We Christians insist that God took on human flesh and appeared in the midst of the world as we know it.  The hymn, “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” tells us, “Veiled in flesh the Godhead see; hail th’ incarnate Deity, pleased with us in flesh to dwell, Jesus our Emmanuel.”
The Incarnation means that God has entered every realm of human life, both to bless and even to meddle with it and convert it.  God is in the midst of our finances, our families and our marriages to bless and convert.  God is in the midst of our sufferings as well, and all suffering is to some extent the suffering of Jesus.  The writer of Hebrews proclaimed, “He is able to help those who are being tempted, since he himself experienced suffering when he was tempted” (Hebrews 2:18).
How can all of that be good news?  Not an easy question to answer.  We need to read the gospel and to allow it to take root in us.  Everything in Matthew is leading us to Christ’s passion, death, and resurrection.  The brutal slaughter of innocent children is but a foreshadowing of what is yet to come.  It is all through the narrative.  Jesus insisted that he would suffer, die and be raised on the third day.  He insisted that his disciples (includes us) would find life in the same way, by taking up the cross.  The gospel message is clear, even on the first Sunday after Christmas.  Clarity can be a relief.  When it is time to flee violence and seek shelter, a battered spouse needs the truth, not the false assurance that the monster kissed will morph into Prince or Princess Charming.  When cancer invades and overturns our tranquil lives, we do not want to be told that everything is okay.  You lament and seek refuge in chemotherapy or maybe palliative care.
In spite of sometimes shocking news, there are echoes in today’s gospel reading.  Christmas in not yet over, nor is the message of the gospel.  Four times we hear “getup” or “got up.”  The angel said, “Get up.  Take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt…Joseph got up” (vv. 13-14).  Later, “Get up and take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel.  Joseph got up” (vv.20-12).  It is interesting to note that the Greek word for get up and got up is translated from egeiro, the same word that Matthew and others use when they refer to the resurrection of Jesus, to his rising from the dead.  “He is not here because he has been raised from the dead.  He is not here because he has been raised from the dead just as he said” (Matthew 28:6).
God speaks resurrection and God gets the final word.  That is not to minimize tragedy or to say that oppression is insignificant.  But God gets the final word in today’s account, where Jesus and the holy family are preserved.  God will have the final word in our lives as well.  In Jesus Christ, God enters creation and suffers with it.  God is at work redeeming us all, so Christmas is definitely not over yet!  

Categories: Weekly Sermon

Future Hope – Isaiah 9:2-7

Christmas Eve is one of the darkest days of the year.  It is only a few days after the shortest day, the winter solstice, December 21.  Today we have had only nine hours and twenty-six minutes of daylight, leaving us more than fourteen hour of darkness.  The world around us seems dark as well.  We have serious climate changes, a nuclear North Korea, Cyber attacks (Millions of Target shoppers’ credit has been compromised), Global terrorism, insecurity about relationships, jobs, healthy and retirement issues are all looming.  We can identify with the words of “The First Noel”…”on a cold winter’s night that was so deep.”  Deep darkness.  Some folks remind us to pray to God to free us from the dark experiences in life.  Others say that if darkness persists, pay the electric bill.  That might help.
People have been facing dark days and troublesome experiences in life a long time.  Seven hundred years before the birth of Christ, the prophet, Isaiah, warned the people of Israel that they were walking in darkness.  God seemed silent to them and they were “greatly distressed and hungry.”  We are stressed today by economic insecurity, repeated news of acts of global terrorism which add to our anxiety and concern.  We are fearful of the dark times.  We need illumination.
The people of Israel saw a ray of hope and brightness in the promise of a new king, a descendent of David, “For a child has been born for us, a son given to us, and authority rests upon his shoulders.  He is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.  His kingdom shall be established with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore” (v.7).  This promised king was the Future Hope of Israel.
We have reason to hope tonight as well.  An eighteen year old named Taylor Wilson designed a new, safer, more efficient nuclear reactor.  A Kenyan teen, fearful that lions would eat his family’s livestock, built an automated security system.  Sixteen year old Jack Andraka was upset after pancreatic cancer killed a family friend, so he developed an affordable protein-based blood test that is faster and more effective than the current option; all while dealing with homework, parents and puberty.  Children are still being born who are succeeding in making the world a safer, more secure and healthier place.  God’s kingdom  of justice and righteousness is advancing one innovation at a time.  The most impressive of God’s innovators was born in Bethlehem seven centuries after the prophet Isaiah.
That would be like us waiting until the twenty-eighth century to find relief from the multiple conflicts in the world.  No doubt they wished their Future Hope would come a little faster.
Eventually, in God’s time, Jesus Christ was born to show us God’s love and to be our Savior to bring light and hope.  Isaiah said that his authority would grow and that endless peace would come for the throne of David and his kingdom.  More than two billion Christians, about 2/3 of the global population adhere to Jesus’ authority.  Jesus continues to offer us his peace in a challenging and contentious world saying, “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives.  Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid” (John 14:27).
Jesus does not offer us escape from life’s challenges but he gives us peace in the midst of the challenges, “Establishing his kingdom with justice and righteousness now and forever.”  Jesus wants justice for all God’s children: rich and poor, conservative or liberal, immigrant and native-born.  Jesus is focused on people being in right-relationships with God and each other (core meaning of righteousness).
Christmas is the time when the light of Christ enters the darkness of the world.  The birth of Jesus reminds us that children can change things for the better.  In every generation there is the possibility that people will act as counselors and peacemakers, following in the footsteps of the Savior.  On this Christmas Eve, pause to receive the light coming into the world.  Jesus enters each of our lives  to show us God’s immense love, to save us from our sins and to lead us in the paths of justice and righteousness.  Receive, accept, embrace and share the light in whatever way you can.  Reflect the light of Christ into the dark places around you.  Instead of cursing the darkness, light a candle.  You do not have to build a security system for livestock or develop new tests for cancer, but you can visit a lonely relative, invite a neighbor to church, tutor a troubled teenager or even plant a community garden.  Accepting and sharing the light of Christ is the best hope for our future.  Jesus is our Future Hope.  


Categories: Weekly Sermon

The Unexpected Servant Luke 2:1-7

How do you deal with interruptions in your daily routines?  Do you have to go through specific processes systematically to accomplish tasks?  Some people can fly by the seat of their pants and not be alarmed by changes in routines.  I have grown accustomed to expecting the unexpected and rolling right along, even when someone calls or stops by to chat.  I have learned that sometimes interruptions are just fleeting moments and that it is necessary to stay focused–but powerful opportunities arrive from the ministry of interruption.  I think that sometimes God uses accidental encounters even more than intentional ones to give me a glimpse of something sacred along the way.

Today’s reading from Luke’s gospel, the story of Christ’s birth, is full of sacred interruptions. Mary and Joseph’s lives were interrupted in a way that they had never imagined or anticipated before.  The shepherds had to have been shocked by the angels who came to call on them.  Zechariah, a temple priest, Elizabeth, his wife (John the Baptist’s parents), Simeon and Anna were all intentionally waiting for the Messiah and they were surprised by their providential encounters.  Zechariah had spent his life and work waiting for the Redeemer.  His initial reaction to the news of a coming savior had left him silenced in disbelief for months.  God has a way of interrupting our ordinary lives with something extraordinary.  Perhaps one of our greatest personal challenges is to allow ourselves to be interrupted.  There is a nameless participant in this account of Jesus’ birth whose very ordinary gesture allowed the sacred a place to enter the world.

Luke speaks of hurried, anxious parents, whose lives have been interrupted by an unplanned pregnancy, who need to make a long journey at the worst time.  The journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem to be counted in the census was a little less than seventy miles, but it would have been a treacherous journey by donkey or on foot, especially for Mary in the advanced stages of her pregnancy. Have you ever looked for a motel at night on a trip?  Maybe you made a reservation but by the time you arrived, your room had been sold to someone else. The journey was even more complicated when you add the detail that Mary and Joseph would find no lodging when they arrived at their destination. After a lengthy period of searching and probably at the point of near desperation, a nameless innkeeper allowed the young couple to spend the night in his stable with all the animals, since there were no available rooms.  We have no other information about the innkeeper and yet, he has been portrayed many times in Christmas pageants.  Sometimes he is a heartless man, so concerned with the needs of his other guests that he turns the poor couple away.  Most often, he is depicted as a sympathetic businessman who wishes he had available space to make the extra money during the census but is so moved with compassion for the young couple that he allows them to find shelter in his stable.  No cost is ever mentioned.  Really NO one knows who he was or what he was like.  We only know that he allowed himself and his routine during the busy season to be interrupted.  His inn was full. The “no vacancy” sign might have been on display.  That is all that needed to be communicated to Mary and Joseph.  Yet the innkeeper did more.  He found a spot, or I should say, made a spot in order to serve the young couple.  We do not even know if he was aware that a baby was born in his stable that busy night.  Was he alerted to the arrival of a band of excited shepherds who happened to appear?  What about the unusually bright star gleaming in the night sky?

The innkeeper’s part of the story ends abruptly in v.7 after describing that there was no place for the “beyond capacity” guests.  The innkeeper had a small but important part in the Savior’s birth,  which in so many ways foreshadowed the ministry of Jesus.  The innkeeper allowed himself to be interrupted, moved to compassion, to sow love and grace, even when he had no obligation to do so.  Jesus was on a mission.  God had a plan for him.  Jesus was intentional in what he taught and did in his ministry, and constantly allowed himself to be interrupted.  He had compassion for all he encountered, whether grieving fathers, hurting women, hungry crowds, or even his own doubt-filled disciples. On many occasions Jesus could have just thrown up his  arms in frustration at all he was attempting to do for humanity, but he still stopped and helped people in need.

As disciples of Jesus, we too are called to be interrupted, to take time away from our daily routines and to be mindful of the needs of those around us.  We are called to look outside of our own responsibilities and obligations and to serve others unexpectedly.  We are to pause when we feel the needs of someone tugging on our robe in the journey of life.  Even in the moments we feel tired and drained, we are called to respond to the storms of life and the impact they have on those around us.  Jesus calls us to enter those sacred spaces with people, which might result in being unplanned opportunities of life.  As we remember and celebrate Jesus, our Savior’s birth, we celebrate that God allowed for God’s plan to be interrupted, acknowledging our need for a Savior.  We are grateful for the interruption allowed by the innkeeper in the nativity story, and the way that he responded.  God interrupts in our lives, intervening on our behalf even when we do not realize we need intervention.  Expect the unexpected and we will not be disappointed.  We celebrate the Christ who allowed his divinity to be interrupted to experience what it is like to be us and still loved us so much that he gave his life for us on the cross.  I was once asked why I have to ruin the marvelous birth narrative of Jesus by adding the part that he came to die for us.  The whole point of the birth story is to incorporate us into God’s plan to be interrupted by the Savior who loves us so much that he was willing to give his life for us on the cross.  May we take time out of the busyness of life to allow ourselves to be interrupted, to show the same love to others around us this holy season and every day of the year.     


Categories: Weekly Sermon

2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17

Years ago when I was a Brownie Scout, in order to pass my “Tenderfoot” requirements and cross “over the bridge,” I had to learn to tie knots: square knot, sheepshank and others I cannot remember anymore.  I was so afraid I would not do them right and not be able to move up in rank.  Instead of “butterflies” in my stomach, I had “knots” in mine!
Being able to lash (tie down) yourself securely in place is a good way to think about something the apostle Paul said to the Christians in Thessalonica, recorded in his second letter to that faith community: “So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught by us…”  The knotted rope image is useful because it suggests that standing firm and holding fast requires us to rely on God, but also to put into place some anchors to keep us from falling off the place God has given us to stand.  If you have ever gone to the circus and viewed the acrobats walking the tight rope (high wire), you realize that they put their life literally on the line and it must be secure, something we need to do in our relationship with God.  Walking the high wire is the walk of faith which is impossible without being “anchored or rooted in faith.”
The shutdown of the federal government by determined legislators and the sluggish economy, along with problems in enrolling in promised insurance plans have Americans feeling glum, like having knots in their stomachs; filled with doubts and insecurity.  Some people will be temporarily distracted if they find temporary holiday work to offset declining spendable income.  It is estimated that 1.5 million recent college graduates will be looking for full-time work in competition with many people laid off their jobs and also seeking employment.  The traditional path of school followed by steady employment has vanished.  The government is embroiled in bi-partisan conflict.  Churches have lost their influence in morality issues like abuse and people are fearful for their lives as more and more stressed folks are committing crimes to diffuse their anger.  Television programs are littered with shows like CSI, Criminal Minds and COPS in which criminal activity of all kinds is displayed on the screen to fuel the devious minds of over stressed folks.
The author of 2 Thessalonians is writing to worried believers.  The times are grim and some believe that Jesus’ return is imminent–the Day of the Lord is upon them.  The events of the world can become a distraction and generate uncertainty about this life.  Their fear was that their faith foundation would be pulled out from underneath them.  They were scared and uncertain about what to believe and how to act.
People today are wondering what to do now.  Today’s Scripture is a note of encouragement to keep doing what we are doing–to press on in faith.  God will let us know when the Day of the Lord arrives.  We are to continue doing mission: good work in the Lord.  In spite of everything that shakes us, we are to stand firm and hold fast.  The response of the faithful is faith, for they had(the Thesssalonians), and we already have, everything we need.  God has called and chosen us, claimed us as God’s own, and that is the foundation we need in such troublesome times.  There is no need to be swayed, moved, twisted and turned about (or tied in knots) looking for more than we already have.
Like the people in the early church we look for more information and wonder who to believe, and where to place our faith.  The big questions today are: will social security survive?  Will we have health insurance and what quality will it be?  Is the stock market at the right place for retirement savings or not?  Should we believe the stuff we read on the internet (face book and tweet)?  What about the things politicians say?  How about clergy, teachers and neighbors?  A number of people today are held captive by their feelings of hopelessness.  We can make ourselves captive to worry, or to the relentless search for more information, or to suspicion of everyone and everything around us.  We can make ourselves captive to success, or position, or sports, or a “house beautiful” decorated room, or focus on raising perfect children.

This letter to the Thessalonians reminds us that we have already been called, chosen and set free from the burden of any captivity we can devise for ourselves.  Our work is to take up our God-given freedom and to use if for God’s purposes in the building up of the Kingdom of God. Our calling is to choose hope in the face of a troubled economy plagued by doubt, mistrust and false information rapidly disseminated via modern technology.  Our gift is “eternal comfort and hope,” so let us not become uprooted, shaken or tied in knots by our lack of faith in what God can do and is doing, for we are in the business of faith.  Christ will come again.  Salvation involves both the work of God’s Spirit and our own belief in the truth.  An old-time evangelist once described salvation as the hand of God reaching down to us and our hand reaching up to grasp God’s hand.  For some, belief in God’s promises come naturally and easily, but many others find they need well-tied guide lines, cross ties and anchor ropes to keep their footing on the high-wire of life–as Paul said, “To enable us to stand firm and hold fast to the Christian faith.”  By embracing faith in God we take the first tentative steps on the wire that is our anchor line.   I would rather be tied in knots to God, because the other end of the wire of faith we walk is anchored in eternity with God.  

Categories: Weekly Sermon

Up a Tree or Out on a Limb? Luke 19:1-10

When I think of trees, the words of Joyce Kilmer’s poem, “Trees,” comes to mind: “I think that I shall never see a poem as lovely as a tree.
               A tree whose hungry mouth is prest against the sweet earth’s
                flowing breast;
               a tree that looks at God all day, and lifts her leafy arms to pray;
               a tree that may in summer wear a nest of robins in her hair;
               upon whose bosom snow has lain;
               who intimately lives with rain.
               Poems are made by fools like me, but only God can make a tree.”
Kilmer’s poem has always created a pleasant vision in my mind of a tree as a place of solace; a place to go to make peace with my life and the world around me.  For some, a tree can be used as an observation point or a vantage station.  When you are a kid, a tree with lots of low branches is an invitation to climb up and see the world from great heights.  On the other hand, falling from the tree is often a reason for one of the first trips to the emergency room.  Once healed, the tree beckons again!
Adults have a somewhat more restrained approach to being “up a tree.”  In adult vernacular being “up a tree” implies that one is stressed and at wits end.  Not every adult associates being aloft in the branches with being “out on a limb.”  There is actually an organization called Tree Climbers International based in Atlanta, where the sport of low-impact, high-safety tree climbing for adults using ropes and harnesses are utilized.  I have trouble standing on a ladder and cannot imagine what a deterrent it would be to use ropes and harnesses to assist me while getting down Christmas decorations from the loft in my garage. Supposedly, the tree climbing school helps one to “learn the ropes” and to get climbing for fun and relaxation.  Oh, to be a kid again and minimize the risks!
The account of Zacchaeus in today’s gospel readinghelps to paint a picture of both danger and excitement.  The “wee little man” we sang about in Sunday school is actually described in the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible as being “short in stature.”  Zacchaeus was a local entrepreneur of sorts, a chief fax collector who employed others to collect tolls, tariffs, and taxes in the region of Jericho.  The tax collectors would charge whatever they wanted as long as their Roman overseers got paid the appropri8ate share.  Whatever was left over was pocketed as profit by the tax collectors.  Zacchaeus was quite well to do.  Tax collectors were despised by first century Judeans for cheating their own kinsmen by imposing heavy taxes on folks with shrinking incomes. (Does any of this sound familiar?)
For some reason Jesus was attracted to tax collectors and was mocked for being a “friend of tax collectors–sinners.”  Maybe that is the reason Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus–the tax collector does not have any friends amongst the townspeople, only enemies.  Zacchaeus was so desperate to see Jesus that he ran ahead of the crowd and climbed a sycamore tree to see Jesus as he passed by.,  Running and climbing a tree were both considered undignified and causes for embarrassment for adult men in that culture.  People would have laughed behind their hands, or even more brazenly–out in the open, to ridicule Zacchaeus and push him farther down the social scale.  Being up a tree to see Jesus definitely did not win any extra points for Zacchaeus among his peers.
Jesus saw Zacchaeus in the tree seeking refuge and a place from which to observe Jesus.  Being up and away from the crowd might have been a safe refuge for awhile–at least, until Jesus took notice of Zacchaeus hanging from a sycamore branch and ordered him to come down right away.  How humiliating to be caught up a tree by the Master, but when Jesus called out to him by name and proclaimed that he was going to visit Zacchaeus’ home that very day and prevail upon Zacchaeus’ hospitality, Jesus committed another social “no-no” added to an already growing list:  Jesus called Zacchaeus down from a tree, out on a limb, hanging onto life by his fingernails.  Jesus’ invitation merely added another black mark to the Pharisees’ list of inappropriate conduct: associating with another sinner in yet a new way!  Why would Jesus want to be the guest of a sinner?  Zacchaeus had gone up a tree seeking Jesus, but it was Jesus who came seeking Zacchaeus on his way to Jerusalem.  “The Son of Man came to seek out and save the lost,” showing up in the house of the tiny tax collector (his size adds to his station in life–he is belittled for his line of work, also making him “small”).
Saving the lost is about conversion to belief in Jesus and aiming for eternal rest in heaven.  What happened to Zacchaeus was a more comprehensive kind of salvation.  His salvation came in the transformative healing of the whole person, even before he died–he did not have to look to the future for salvation!  The salvation Jesus offered Zacchaeus changed him so completely that it benefitted all those around him.  The poor received half of Zacchaeus’ possessions–quite a bonus even by today’s standards.  Those who had been cheated by Zacchaeus’ corrupt actions would receive a four-fold restitution making them solvent and secure.  When Zacchaeus was saved the whole community benefited  When the lost are found, the trees are shaken and everyone enjoys the fruit that comes from repentance.
Jesus was looking for people who were up a tree and he continues to seek out those who are looking for someone or something other than God.  Jesus comes to invite us down from the trees we want to climb and hide in, to offer us new lives that reflect the kind of healing, wholeness and salvation that the Kingdom of God brings. Once we meet Jesus and accept his invitation to participate in the Kingdom of God Jesus came to proclaim then it is up to us to invite others to lives that are grounded in the grace of Jesus.  Chances are there are people around you who feel like they are up a tree and need a way, an invitation to come down.  Every one of us has the opportunity to invest ourselves in someone else’s life, to offer him/her the kind of grace and love Jesus has offered to us.  When we invest ourselves with others, the investment can translate to fruit that benefits the whole community.

In Jericho there is a massive sycamore tree that Palestinian guides will tell you is the tree Zacchaeus climbed when Jesus approached.  It does not matter if it is the tree, what is important to know is that Zacchaeus came down and left the tree for a whole new grace-filled life to share with others.  

Categories: Weekly Sermon

Race of Life – 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18

Recently there have been marathons in the Phoenix area, which seem to be growing in popularity to raise money for charities that meet specific needs.

Last week Lizzie Langston and her dad, AJ, ran in their very first race to benefit Phoenix Children’s Hospital.  Next week in New York City runners from all over the world will gather for the 26.2 mile race through the streets.  Some of the runners will be vying for the “prize,” while others will determine that finishing the race is a great accomplishment!

Without proper conditioning, running long distance races can really beat up the body.  A growing number of runners are becoming interested in running up and down the stairs of towering buildings–and–wall-a–the sport of professional stair climbing was born!  Kristin Frey, a 29yr old scientist has turned to stair climbing (aka “tower running”) after qualifying for the Boston Marathon ten times and running a host of other races.  She has participated in a twenty-four hour endurance race in Jacksonville where she and three cohorts ran up the Bank of America Tower’s forty-two floors.  They logged 123,480 steps and 5,880 floors, the equivalent of scaling Mt. Everest two and a half times.  Kristin claims the recovery time for running a vertical course is longer than that of a marathon.  Whether running a horizontal or vertical course, it is a potential way to achieve good health, a sense of satisfaction and a stronger desire to keep moving.  It can help us keep going in the race of life.

Reading Paul’s letter to Timothy hints at the fact that he has endured persecutions of all kinds that have generated wear and tear on his body, mind and soul, traipsing all over the Roman world preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ.  Paul has had many encounters defending the gospel but he realizes that the race was all worth it.  He says, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”

For Paul, the race of life was always vertical because he was focusing upward on Christ.  “I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call in Jesus Christ” (Philippians 3:14).  He wrote to the Colossian Christians, “So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God” (Colossians 3:10).  Paul spent years of his life traveling long horizontal distances, but he was always seeking a higher calling and a prize worth racing toward step by step.  Focusing on the prize at the top kept him going.  God was with him every step of the way giving him “Strength,” rescuing him from “the lion’s mouth,” and saving him for “[God’s] heavenly kingdom”(vv 17-18).

Paul hopes that he has positively influenced Timothy in such a way that he will pick up the baton and continue the climb of following Jesus.  He warns that all who live a godly life in Christ will be persecuted.  There will always be the opposition but nonetheless he advises Timothy to “continue in what you have learned and firmly believe” (3:14).  Paul adds the caveat: “Always be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully!”  Never give up!

Being a Christian is not an easy race.  We are each called to pick up the baton and continue the race toward the crown of righteousness.  Kristin Frey has some training tips:

  1. Keep running up, focusing upward, gaining strength and staying in God’s Word.  Lift hearts in prayer and lift others up through service.  The daily discipline of looking up while cultivating a relationship with God and serving others, helps to keep moving toward the finish line one step at a time.
  2. Use any available handrails to your advantage.  If need be, pull yourselves up like yanking on a rope.  Think of the church community as your rails, encouraging each other to keep moving pulling others up when they grow weary, through strengthening each other for the climb.  Do not be afraid to climb new heights and courses to build the Kingdom of God.
  3. It is all about finishing well.  The point of the race is to finish!  Some will be faster and stronger but each participant should concentrate on doing their own personal best.

Tower running is growing in popularity but the unique thing about this kind of race is that all contestants compete against themselves and the clock, doing their absolute best to finish the race in their own best time.  The vertical race of following Jesus is about doing the best we can, not about comparing ourselves to others, but  encouraging each other to do the best we can in running the race to achieve the prize–the upward calling of God in Christ.  We may not be competing in a world famous city marathon like that at Boston or New York City, or even the Phoenix race, but we can think about moving toward the best prize ever–sharing in the glory of God forever!  

Categories: Weekly Sermon

Prayer Power – Luke 18:1-8

The texts for today speak about perseverance. In Jeremiah God promises to love and forgive people in spite of any past misgivings or sinful ways.  Paul, writing to Timothy, reminds him that he must be persistent in proclaiming the gospel whether the timing is favorable or unfavorable, to convince, rebuke and encourage with the utmost patience in teaching. In Luke’s gospel, Jesus told a parable about a woman who continually went to a judge to plead her case.  The judge is the metaphor for God, who continually hears the cries of people, who repeatedly  come to God in prayer.  God answers all prayers, but the greatest concern is, “How many will continue to seek God in their lives and live out their faith until Jesus comes again?  Will any faithful be left?

If a thoroughly secular and selfish civil judge ruled in favor of a widow who pestered the judge constantly with her pleas, how much more will God who is holy and self-giving respond affirmatively to our prayers if we bring them persistently to God?  Timothy is urged to react to God through faith in Jesus as the Christ (Messiah) and God is said to react finally to us if we pray persistently following the example of the widow in the parable in Luke 18:1-8.

Have you ever lost heart because of the long, unexpected delay during which God has not yet responded to your prayer (s)?  At least, from your perspective God has not yet answered your prayer request.  The message in today’s gospel emphasizes that believers of Jesus should persevere in prayer and that eventually God will provide a positive response.  This message still rings true today.

Remember the US Postal Service’s “Dead Letter Department/Office”?  That is the place where mail goes that is not clearly addressed, has insufficient postage, or the sender’s identity cannot be determined.  The letter is opened and its contents examined for clues to the sender’s identity.  The letter will be destroyed if the return address cannot be determined.  The letter never gets to its destination and any requests from the writer remain unanswered. Do you feel like your prayers never reach God?  Jesus tells us how to address our prayers to God so that they will be received and answered.  Jesus told us to ask in prayer, “Ask, and it will be given you” (Matthew 7:7).  He gave another example by telling about the widow who went to the judge to ask for justice in a civil matter.  Jesus was not afraid to ask things of God.  He asked for wine at a wedding party in Cana.  He asked for more bread and fish than five small loaves and two little fish to feed a crowd.  Jesus asked God to heal the blind, the lame, the mute and the possessed.  He did not feel like he was imposing.  Jesus tells us to do the same assuring us that we can ask much from God.  We are all children of God and our Father has told us, “Ask, and it will be given you.”  There is power in our prayers.

Years ago a woman I worked with in a hospital laboratory had been separated from her family for three years.  She had suffered cancer, a double mastectomy and had developed serious lung problems from the scaring and from environmental allergies.  Upon examination of the walls of her family home, black mold was discovered between all the walls.  Her husband had taken down all the walls, replaced damaged boards, re-dry walled and installed an electronic air cleaner, while she lived in a rented room during the entire process.  She could not move back in with her family until the filter could be added to make the air cleaner functional.  They had borrowed from every institution that would give them money and all family members until they were told that the well was dry–NO more money!!  They had given up on God answering their prayers for help.  I prayed with her and told her not to give up on God that God had not give up on her.  I loaned her the money to buy the filter so that she could move home with her husband and children.  The very next day I received a check in the mail from an insurance premium over-payment two years before in the exact amount that I had loaned her.  I could not wait to go to work the next day to show her that God had answered her prayers at last–through me.  We were both blessed! “Ask, and it will be given you!”

Jesus told us not only to ask but to seek.  “Seek, and you will find.”  The widow kept coming with her plea, seeking an answer.  Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane in his search for God’s will.  He asked that the bitter cup of death might pass from him that there might be another way than “the way of the cross.”  Jesus prayed, “But Lord, if this is not your will, if I must die, then your will be done.”  Jesus sought God’s will; what was in God’s mind so that he could obey it.

Jesus said, “Whatever you ask in my name, I will do it” (John 14:13).  Jesus reminds us that whatever we ask in his presence, he will do it.  Christians believe in the presence of Christ, that Jesus is with us by the power of the Holy Spirit.  Jesus is so present, that we can take on the mind of Christ.  Prayer is taking hold of Jesus’ willingness, searching for the mind of Christ and then praying in it.  We need to remember to go to the Lord saying, “Lord, I have a need.  Teach me  your mind and how to pray about my need.”  Prayer helps you to see God’s way.  When you pray, do not limit God by telling God what to do, think of God’s presence with you.  Focus on God’s light, love and power and then, lift the problem up into God’s presence and leave it there.  (Let go and let God.)  We ask God to take our mind and make it God’s own and Jesus assures us that we will find an answer.

“Knock, and it shall be opened.”  Keep going to God, keep praying.  Realize that there is more to answering prayer than your will and God’s will.  There are hard hearts to win over, free will, God’s will and the forces of evil in the world.  Things like Satan, evil and spiritual warfare boggle our minds.  Think about Job who lost his family, friends, property and health.  His wife urged him to curse God and die, but he refused and began knocking on the door to God in prayer.  Job had faith in God and his heart was filled with hope.  He said, “I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at last he will stand upon the earth and I shall see God”(Job 19:25-26).  Armed with hope, faith and persistence, Job seeks God and God comes to him to heal Job, restore his fortune and to grant him more children.  Job says to God, “I know that you can do all things and that no purpose of yours can be destroyed.

Why do we have to pray repetitiously, begging God?  Can we force God to change God’s mind?  God’s power begins to flow at the speed only God can determine.  Our job is to turn to God in prayer persistently asking, knocking and seeking God’s will for our lives and the world.  Our prayers are answered eventually.   Perhaps not at the speed we want or with the results we wanted, but God is looking at the bigger picture.  God has to take into consideration how the answers to our prayers affect us and the world around us–forever.  Your prayers do have power with God.  

Categories: Weekly Sermon

Gospel License – 2 Timothy 2:8-15

One of the most coveted rites of passage for American teens today is under discussion from the time they are about thirteen or fourteen:  the Driver’s License!  This requires a trip to the DMV, passing a written test for which they laboriously study all the details, and if successful on that part, meet the examiner (whom they view as the executioner) who will ask them to proceed to the parking lot to traverse a course outlined by orange cones and on to the city streets to make right and left hand turns, perhaps drive a short distance on a nearby freeway and to end by what?  They must parallel park along the street!  If all efforts meet the necessary requirements, they are issued a new license complete with a bad hair day photo to display to all their peers to critique.  Now they can claim that they are deemed competent to get behind the wheel, to get on the streets and promptly get stuck in traffic with some of the five million citizens in the metropolitan Phoenix area to deal with road rage, speeders, drivers who make right hand turns from the left hand lanes and shoot through yellow and red lights while waiting forever to “go” at green lights; some can even text while performing these driving stunts.

Often the driver’s license is the first license we obtain but what about licenses relevant to our professions? I was a licensed M.T.A.S.C.P. (Medical Technologist, American Society of Clinical Pathology) after college graduation to work in medical labs.  I even got a raise when notification came that I passed the test!  If you like the outdoors and participate in activities like fishing or hunting, you need a license to stand in a freezing cold stream for the day or to sit in a tree stand through snow, sleet or hail.  You might not catch any fish or even see the flick of a critter’s tail as it scurries past.  Do not forget the license that allows you to carry a gun to go hunting in the first place.  If you operate a computer, you need to purchase a software license for the privilege of installing and using it on your computer.  If you operate or work for a business, a license is necessary and allows you the privilege of paying taxes on your hard earned paycheck.  If you have a dog or cat, you have the joy of paying the veterinarian to give your pet the required vaccinations so that you can purchase a license for Fifi or Fluffy.  If you are a sports enthusiast and want a season’s pass to all the events, you pay for the right to sit in the designated seat–a license.  As a pastor, I am required to remind couples who desire me to officiate at their marriage ceremonies to purchase a license and to register that I performed the marriage.  They ask me if I have a license to provide the service.  I have an expired Ohio license to perform marriages in Ohio, but Arizona does not require me to buy such a license, only to be able to verify that I am a pastor in good standing.  I am certain that many of you have other licenses to places like state and national parks (permits you cannot use right now since the government is shut down).

Having licenses and going through all the protocol to obtain them can be a real nuisance, but who wants an unqualified person to treat them for a medical emergency?  If you have read the paper this week, you know there is a current problem with people “practicing” medicine without proper training and credentials to insure the safety and well-being of patients in Arizona.  Would you want an unqualified person to do electrical work in your home that resulted in a fire?  Licenses demonstrate that we are at the very least recognized and approved by some official agency as being competent to work safely and effectively.

There are licenses for multiple aspects of life, so does licensure apply to our spiritual lives as well?  Paul sounds a lot like a licensing agent when he writes to Timothy, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved by him.  A worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly explaining the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15).  What does a Christian need to be doing to get God’s stamp of approval?  Paul submits a list of criteria to Timothy that describes what effective Christian faith looks like and emphasizes that we should work to maximize these traits in our lives, rather than do the minimal to squeak by.
       1. boldly proclaim the gospel (v.8) that declares Jesus was raised from the dead; he was a descendant of the prototype King: David.  There are multiple competing gospels in our culture today from the social gospel to what others describe as the gospel of sin management (Dallas Willard in “The Wrong Gospel,” May/June, 2013 issue of Homiletics.  The good news for Paul and early Christians was focused on the King whose kingdom challenges the kingdoms of this world.  The gospel Paul preached proclaimed Christ’s authority over kings and kingdoms of this world and landed him in jail for contradicting authorities in power.  He may have been chained as a criminal for preaching Jesus as Lord, but the word of God is not chained; it transforms the world.  Christian workers must be willing and ready to endure criticism and even hardship to work with and for God.

       2. practice endurance (vv.10-13). The world is going in many directions and Paul experienced multiple hardships for being focused on bringing people to God.  Our faith and the grace of God enable us to continue in spite of our failures and sometimes faithlessness.  When we die with Christ in baptism, we are raised to new life; a life that reigns with Christ as he reigns over the world.  It is not an easy life but God is always faithful, even in our weaknesses.

       3. avoid stupid arguments (vv. 14, 16, 23) Christians seem to get energized by arguing over minor points in the faith.  Paul reminds Timothy that Christians should not wrangle over words that can ruin those who are listening.  Such arguments can lead to “profane chatter” that leads people to be less than Christian.  Paul urges Timothy to correct opponents with gentleness so that “God may perhaps grant that they will repent and come to know the truth.”  Licensed, God approved Christians should focus on things like the gospel, the Kingdom of God and the Word of God.

       4. rightly explain the world of truth.  Approved equals tried and tested in Greek.  Wrestling with the truth of God as he or she studies the Scriptures and tests them out in his or her own life and all the while focusing on prayer and Bible study.

       5. pursue purity . Just as a kitchen contains many utensils, some are used often and others are at the back of drawers; all can do their job if they are clean.  All will become “special” utensils if they are ready for work.

The point of being an approved Christian worker is not for ourselves, it is for God’s work, to be used by God for divine purposes.  We need to be clean and ready to be on the job.  The license of faith we receive is not something that shines through in our wallet or purse, it is something that shines through us as followers of Christ. (Old song, “This Little Light of Mine, I’m Gonna Let it Shine”) We are to continue to work on our skills as part of God’s overall plan for changing us so that we can participate iwth God in changing the world.  No trip to the DMV is necessary, only a daily commitment to doing our best for God and the mission to which we are called.  


Categories: Weekly Sermon

Mustard for the Silver Palate Luke – 17:5-10

Years ago when I was a stay at home mom with little ones, I participated in the “Welcome Wagon.” It was a fellowship for new families moving into the area. We had a babysitting co-op, craft groups and dining groups ,which included a gourmet cooking group. If you have seen my kitchen, you know that I have collected cook books for over fifty years. One of my favorites at that time was called The Silver Palate Cook Book and it often called for various types of gourmet mustard: Dijon, coarse mustard with honey, mustard with Cajun spices and other tasty varieties. The mustard seed is very small and the plants grow into shrubs. Mustard seed is quite nutritious in that it is more than 40% protein. The mustard seed was used by Jesus as a model for the Kingdom of God, which initially starts small, like faith, and grows to be the biggest of all garden plants. Some of the recipes in my cookbook took a lot of faith to prepare but the time and effort were worthwhile in the end result. What matters to Jesus is not the quantity of our faith, nor how long it takes before it blooms but if we put our faith into service to build up the Kingdom of God.

Mark Sheerin is currently a financial planner for a wealth management firm in Atlanta, Georgia. He is chief operations officer and part owner, overseeing business for the company and implementing client portfolios. He used to work in third world countries for World Vision, a Christian humanitarian organization that tackles the causes of poverty and injustice worldwide for children, families and their communities. He has been asked if working for the financially well off or for the poor is a greater mission? He wrote an article for Christianity Today. “If poverty is understood in terms of social constructs rather than economic ones, the playing field levels between the refugees and the investment banker. I did not come to call the truly faithful to the mission field, the less faithful to the pastorate and the barely faithful to finance,” said Sheering. Sheerin maintains that finance and feeding starving children both amount to good work in God’s eyes. Jesus’ mission was to conquer sin and its effects in all forms and in every place. Fighting against economic injustice through World Vision or through a financial planning firm are both mandated by God. Both tasks are valuable, both tasks seek redemption of broken systems and fallen people. Instead of digging wells, Sheerin now walks through the jungle of probate with widows. Instead of sponsoring children, his firm partners with families through difficult, end-of-life decisions.

Not everyone would agree with Sheerin’s conclusion, but most of us would acknowledge that a life of dutiful faith can be lived in many different types of employment and careers. Luke 17 is one of five places in the gospels where Jesus comments about a mustard seed. Three speak of the Kingdom of God being like a mustard seed (Matthew 13:1-32; Mark 4:30-33; Luke 13:18-19), one speaks to the disciples to explain why they were unable to cure a demon possessed boy (Matthew 17:20) and today’s text which responds to the disciples’ request that he increase their faith. Because of the size of mustard seeds, we tend to parallel this metaphor as a comment on the quantity of faith one possesses. NOT SO! Jesus is responding to the disciples’ request for more faith but their need is not for more faith, only a redirecting of the faith they have toward dutiful service to God rather than grandiose exploits.

There is not a heroic figure in this parable like the Good Samaritan, it does not tug at our heartstrings like the Prodigal Son, and no one gets shut out of heaven as in the Rich Man and Lazarus account. This parable has to do with “your servant,” who labors long hours in the field and is expected to fix dinner for his master before having any food himself. Point is: Does our servant deserve thanks for doing what is expected of him? Does your employer deserve thanks for giving you eight hours of work? NO and NO! Jesus says to the disciples seeking more faith, “So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘we are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty’ ” (NIV). “Unworthy” really bites because it implies that no matter how much we do in service to God, we are only doing what is expected and it is impossible to do more than what is expected of us. We can never put God in our debt. In relationship to God, we are always servants. We do what we are told to do and should not expect special credit.

Even though the parable tells us not to expect divine thanks for serving God, there are times when someone says “Thank you” in a heartfelt way. When we see someone lifted from trouble because of our efforts or they relate some remark from a Sunday school lesson that helped them to make a positive career choice, we are uplifted and encouraged. It is nice to experience “warm fuzzies” occasionally, but in Jesus’ parable, he stresses that we should serve God because it is the right thing to do. Doing the right thing brings a satisfaction of its own. Today young couples work long hours and their bodies are in overdrive to achieve everything listed on their daily planners. Sometimes indoor household chores are divided and sometimes outdoor chores and the car care belong to one person alone. If either partner were to come home late, find the table set and pleasant aromas emanating from the kitchen, it would be greatly appreciated. Both people live in the house and keeping it clean, laundry done and meals on the table is shared responsibility. Why should either person be thanked for doing what is necessary to live decently? There can even be satisfaction in serving God when no thanks seems to be forthcoming. Responsibilities are part and parcel of any gift (When my kids were younger, I used to tell them that when they opened a gift, they were obligated to write a thank you note. If they did not want to write the note, do not open the gift! It was surprising how many notes they wrote), including the gift of faith which the disciples had sought from Jesus when they asked him to increase their faith.

The parable Jesus told invites us to see ourselves in relation to God as servants in our work, our church role, in moments of leisure and in the unexpected things that come to us and require a response. We do not earn our way into the Kingdom of God but we are granted entrance because of God’s graciousness to us.

There is an old story about a man seeking entrance into heaven based on good work and has been adapted to Mr. Sheerin’s experiences:
The man came to the Pearly Gates and asked St. Peter for admission. “On what basis?” Peter asked. “Well,” said the man, “I worked most recently in the world of financial management and I worked hard to follow God’s will.” “Yes,” said Peter, “But we expected that.” “Well, earlier I worked several years at low wages in the mission field. I tackled the causes of poverty and injustice in the Third World. I worked directly with children, families and their communities. I even helped people escape from human traffickers.” “We know” Peter said, “but that all needed to be done.” “I have worked hard to be faithful ever since God called me.” “And your point is?” said Peter. “That is all I have got! There is nothing more but the grace of God.” “Exactly,” said St. Peter, opening the gate. “C’mon in.” If mustard were like faith, would a little dab do ya? How big a dab do you need?


Categories: Weekly Sermon

No Smartie, No Cure – Jeremiah 8:18-9:1

Many of us in the “baby boomer” era grew up hearing that when we were sick, the nastier the medicine tasted, the better it was for us.  We were subjected to castor oil which battled with our throats to see if it would go down or return from whence it came, bowls of steaming water with gobs of Vicks floating on it to open our clogged sinuses, and if that was not bad enough, how about a mustard plaster slapped on your chest to continue breaking up the congestion?  I can still smell it now!  Scrapes and cuts were doctored with mercurochrome or merthiolate to kill germs.  I tried unsuccessfully to convince my parents that merthiolate did more damage to my owie than mercurochrome because it made it hurt worse.  Boy, did it sting!!  I was told, “No smartie, no cure!” I found no comfort in the extended stinging of the medicine.

What I did not realize as a child was that sometimes it is the most bitter stuff that produces better medicine that can actually benefit our bodies and souls.  Some vegetables which are deemed nasty and worse than bad medicine contain poisons that are only mitigated after cooking, like lima beans.  Raw lima beans contain limarin and a small handful can make someone violently ill.  They need to be cooked at least ten minutes to insure the breakdown of limarin.  That is why raw lima beans should never be put into salads.  Cooking lima beans renders them harmless and gives you lots of nutrition.  An apple a day can only keep the doctor away ifyou do not eat the seeds which contain cyanogenic glycosides causing cyanide.  Seeds from one apple will probably not harm you, but some people have consumed enough to die from cyanide poisoning.

The Hebrews needed more than a medicine, a balm to cure the illness that had been festering in Jerusalem and the surrounding land of Judah.  In today’s Old Testament reading, Jeremiah is expressing his grief over the destruction about to befall (or perhaps, the recently fallen) Judah at the hands of the Babylonians, either in their initial invasion of 597BC, or more likely, in their definitive destruction of Jerusalem and the start of the Babylonian exile of the Jewish people in 587BC.  The prophet summarized his feelings about the historical moment; devoid of joy, he is heartsick with grief.  His writings can be paralleled to a journalist or editor for the Arizona Republic or any daily reporting publication.  Any day we can pick up the front page and it reads pretty much the same:  an accident, a murder, everywhere a tragedy: floods, tornadoes, massacres, bombings, household violence, drive-by shootings, fires, drownings and death notices tucked in further in another section, but the page is designated on the front page.  Column after column, page after page laments the news of blood and tears.  We do not need the newspaper to tell us about broken hearts due to the loss of loved ones, or failed relationships, a parent with Alzheimer’s, the loss of a job or foreclosure on a home.  Some days our journals or diaries can read like the book of Job.  At any moment somewhere, someone is dealing with a crisis.

2,600 years ago, Jeremiah was in the midst of a crisis surrounded by broken-hearted people.  Babylon had demolished most of Jerusalem and had torn down the temple.  The armies of Nebuchadnezzar had stolen the best stuff and the best, most talented people, who contributed to society and the stability of the economy.  “Is there no balm in Gilead?  Is there no physician who can fix the ailing, hopeless people?  Where is God when needed?  When tragedy strikes, we want an explanation for why God is not doing what we want God to do.  We want to blame God some days and at other times, we want to defend God.  God does not protect us from all harm and yet, we want to pretend that divine protection makes sense.  Truth is that accidents do take place around good people and sorrow comes as part of the broken, random rhythm of the world.  

When our children and other loved ones get hurt, we try to comfort them by saying, “You will be all right.”  That does not mean that their pain is unimportant, because we know life is hard.  Everything might not be OK right at the moment and everything might not work out in the particular circumstance.  Finally, ultimately, in the end, eternity is structured in such a way that things will be all right.  The pain will not last forever.  God indeed listens to our cries.  God hears our problems.  God knows our needs.  God understands our pain.  God feels our anguish and works on our behalf, bringing joy where there is death, healing where there is illness, peace where there is violence, reconciliation where there is hatred and the presence of the Holy Spirit where and when we feel alone.  We might not get all the answers we want, but we get all God’s love.

Why did Jeremiah speak of the balm in Gilead?  In both Genesis 37:25 and Jeremiah 46:11 the area of Gilead is identified as a source of healing balm, a resin from the styrax tree (a bushy evergreen tree native to Arabia) used for its medicinal properties.  People crushed the plants, leaves, berries and bark to extract a pale yellow gum, which is then mixed with water to make an ointment.  The biblical concept of “balm” symbolizes spiritual healing and Judah’s people are suffering from severe sickness of soul.  God offers a cure, but they refuse to accept it.  Serious illness calls for serious remedies.  Gilead was a frequent place of refuge or deliverance for the faithful:  Jacob fleeing from Laban, Israelite refugees fleeing the Philistines and David’s victory over the insurrection led by his son, Absalom.  The larger, metaphoric understanding of Gilead may lie behind Jeremiah’s imagery, which was commonplace to Jeremiah’s first audience.

The disease in Judah had gone deep into the fabric of the nation:  people acted shamefully but had no shame; people deceived their neighbors, spoke lies, sinned without repenting; oppressed the weak and refused to know the Lord; turned to their own course like a horse plunging into battle; worshiped false idols and had declined living in the image of God; had become adulterous and a band of traitors by turning from God.  A cure for their illness required some bitter tasting medicine.  God decided that the people needed a dose of reality to attack the problems.  God grieved and so did Jeremiah and yet, God knew that judgment and grief were key ingredients to real healing for the sin-sick.

Things to remember:  There is no quick fix.  Getting rid of sin is a life-long process of God continually working in us to heal usThe process of God’s grace in our lives roots out sin and changes us, but that change can take up to a lifetime.  Healing is often painfulwe have to give up habits and practices to which we have become accustomed.  God’s grace invites us to make necessary changes to be whole and healthy God never lets us go.  Despite our sin, despite the disease, God never stops working at healing us, saving us and lifting us up.  Sure, there is a balm in Gilead but sometimes we need to be reminded:  “No smartie, no cure!” 

Categories: Weekly Sermon