7-7-19 The Warrior Within

The Warrior Within

 

Rev. Jay Rowland

Sunday July 7, 2019,

First Presbyterian Church, Rochester MN 

Galatians 6:1-18

2 Kings 5:1-14 

 

Compared with, say, Moses or David or Esther, Naaman is a lesser-known character in the Bible so I thought it might be good to unpack this passage from 2nd Kings. There’s a great deal going on there. 

Naaman is Commander of the military forces of Aram--modern day Syria. So the first thing to know about him is he’s not an Israelite--not one of the Chosen People.  He is a decorated warrior and commander. His success on the battlefield has earned him fame, fortune and the loyalty of his king.  

And this is why Naaman's story is worth some reflection. Most cultures, certainly our own, are deeply invested in what I call the warrior myth.  Naaman fits the warrior archetype: he leads men into battle and returns victorious. He has conquered every foe, perhaps even death on the battlefield. We don’t know anything about Naaman’s life prior to his appearance in 2 Kings 5. But it seems clear that his valor on the battlefield has elevated Naaman to nearly god-like status.  

In spite of all that, Naaman has a serious problem which is identified almost as an afterthought at the end of verse 1: “The man, though a mighty warrior, suffered from leprosy."  

The term “leprosy” usually comes footnoted in the Old Testament to explain that the Hebrew word can refer to a variety of different skin afflictions--including the worst one of all, actual leprosy.

  We don’t know which one afflicts Naaman. All we know is that this mighty warrior and commander is suffering--not from combat wounds or even post-traumatic stress, but from leprosy. 

On the battlefield, Naaman is a conqueror successfully navigating combat with all its carnage, chaos and brutality.  He commands and leads men in battle. Many to their death. He has authority, actual power over others.  But none of that is of any use against leprosy.  

The influence of the warrior archetype upon culture can be seen whenever it’s presumed that fighting is the only response to anything we cannot bear, such as illness or any threat to our existence. For example, when someone is “fighting cancer” or “fighting for their life” (or “lost their fight with” some illness). On a larger scale, we have waged wars against communism, vs poverty, against drugs, and lately against terrorism, none of which has yielded.  

Whenever “we” declare that by sheer force of willpower, we can defeat any problem that’s a clear example of the warrior myth at work.

It has been very destructive myth, at least in my lifetime. We have invested trillions of dollars in the warrior myth in VietNam, then again in Iraq & Afghanistan post 9/11.  We have no clue what to do with our warriors off the battlefield. We’ll root for them over there but then do little/nothing to equip them for the transition back to “normal” civilian life. For every warrior who successfully adapts from battlefield to home-field, multitudes do not. Yet the warrior myth persists. 

Jesus is the antidote, the antithesis, to the warrior mythf. The outcome he seeks is always connection never conquest. Jesus lives (and died) to connect us to God, to each other, to creation. The mightiest forces of this world conspired to oppose him, discredit & shame him, then kill him. Even so, Jesus opposes these mortal enemies not through force in return, but rather with spiritual resolve to keep both his humanity and his divinity intact--come what may. Jesus refuses to use force to overthrow the Roman occupation of Israel, thereby draining the warrior myth of its lifeblood. 

Without his humanity, Jesus' divinity would be to no avail. Jesus understood that using “any means necessary” to accomplish any positive outcome will ultimately corrupt the outcome.  

I would venture to guess that Jesus knew the story of Naaman quite well. In particular, the fact that even though Naaman doesn’t “know” or even worship God, God knows Naaman and cares about him.  

The sound of Naaman’s reputation precedes him as he and his entourage invade Elisha’s quiet, hobbit-like neighborhood. No need to ring Eilsha’s doorbell the whole town knew who was coming to Elisha’s town. When they halt at the entrance of Elisha’s house, you can almost hear the thunderous horsepower grind to a halt. 

Elisha responds to Naaman’s show of power by sending a messenger out to meet him.  

A messenger! 

The Great and Mighty Naaman is insulted.  Warrior Naaman had assumptions about how this was going to go, but this … this … Elisha was messing it all up!  “I thought that for me he would surely come out, and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy!…” 

Nope.  Elisha sends a messenger. This messenger then has the audacity to give an order to Mighty Warrior and Commander Naaman (I would not want to be that messenger!): “Go wash in the Jordan seven times.” 

Naaman is enraged. He fumes: “Are not the Ab’ uh-nuh and the Phar-par, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters here in Israel?  Could I not wash in THEM and be clean?” Naaman storms off in a rage. His “righteous indignation” leaves him disconnected and alone.  

Most of us find it hard – if not impossible—sometimes even unacceptable – to give up control especially when our future is on the line.  Like Naaman, we have expectations about how life is supposed to go.  And even when life goes wrong, we might even have expectations about how it’s supposed to be resolved. We invest a great deal of energy into controlling things beyond our control, which often disconnects us from the God who brings light out of darkness, order out of chaos, life from death.  

In a crisis, perhaps our greatest barrier to resolution is our expectations. Too often, like Naaman, our expectations wall us off from support.  In a crisis, expectations can quickly disrupt our connection with God and God’s community at a time when we need more of both. When we’re preoccupied with who we think we’re supposed to be, we leave no room for Who God Is  

It’s so easy to get stuck living out some image we have of ourselves, which we may have forged from long, lonely hours of fighting some enemy all alone, all by ourselves, in the darkness. And where does that battle get us but more and more isolated, more lost, and disconnected from the God in whose image we are created. 

Even so, God’s love comes through.  

See how God’s love prevails, how it comes to Naaman first through a Hebrew servant girl, then, after he rejects the gift handed to him in the prophet Elisha, through the wisdom of his own servants who, at the risk of offending him and drawing his wrath, boldly say,  “if that prophet ordered you to do something really difficult, you’d do it: if the prophet had said ‘go and fight a hopeless battle, go and lay your life on the line, the odds are against you ... but just go and do it now and your leprosy shall be gone’: you would do it without hesitation.  We know you would … WE KNOW YOU. Yet all that was asked of you was, ‘go and wash in the Jordan ’…”  

Next thing you know, there’s Naaman in the Jordan river … his leprosy washed away by the water and with it perhaps some of that warrior image he’s clung to for most of his life.  

How could this be? Naaman must have thought, the prophet isn’t even here.  

That’s right. The prophet isn’t. But God is. No magic. No drama. Just the mysterious, unpredictable love/presence of God, surrounding him there in the waters of the Jordan River of all rivers.  One he cursed. There, Naaman of all people, Naaman, warrior and demigod experiences the steadfast love of God.  

There are times when we must wade into the Jordan as we leave one reality for another. Whether it’s graduation, job loss, end of a relationship, divorce, diagnosis, or the birth of a child, death of someone we love, whatever it may be, while it’s happening we feel like we're unraveling. That's usually because we are ... but God can work with that.  

Our faith in Jesus Christ is all about crossing over. Because resurrection is on the other side of the cross, we know that the end of one reality is also the beginning of another. As people of the cross, this is not only an obvious message but a hopeful one. Throughout our life, we will face situations requiring us to transition and cross over.  We can learn to embrace these moments, trusting Jesus Christ, who is the timeless Alpha and Omega, is with us every step of the way.   

Jesus Christ comes to heal the warrior within us all.  May this be so.

End note:

[1] if untreated, the worst form of leprosy creates extensive involvement of the skin and nerves. The complications that may occur include eye involvement and deformities of the face, hands, and feet. Deformities of the face can result from destruction of the partition in the nose that divides the nostrils (nasal septum) and other facial tissues. In advanced disease, persons with lepromatous leprosy may lose their eyebrows and eyelashes, and the eyelids may become paralyzed so that individuals cannot blink or close their eyes properly. The earlobes may enlarge or become wrinkled. Deformities of the hands and feet may result from muscle paralysis and repeated trauma that is not felt due to sensory loss. The most serious complication of leprosy is the nerve damage that may occur sometimes even after treatment is begun. Much of the nerve damage occurs during a type of immunologic problem … in 25 to 50% of patients during treatment and is … the patient’s own immune system reacting against the dead bacteria that are still in the skin and nerves. Patients with the intermediate or borderline type of disease may get a type of reaction known as reversal reaction, in which there is redness and swelling of the skin lesions and swelling, tenderness, and pain in the nerves of the hands and feet. During this process, nerve damage can occur.  … (It) may also be associated with joint disease (polyarthralgia), eye inflammation, and inflammation of the testicles.  The second type of reaction occurs only in borderline lepromatous and lepromatous disease, and is known as erythema nodosum leprosum (ENL).  There may also be pain and tenderness of the nerves with subsequent nerve damage in the hands and feet.  During reactions and at times without any signs of reaction, there may be damage to the nerves of the face resulting in weakness of closure of the eyelids and loss of feeling in the cornea (corneal anesthesia). This can result in corneal dryness and scarring and lead to blindness. Persons with lepromatous leprosy may also have inflammation of the iris and the sclera of the eye, which can lead to visual impairment and, in some cases, blindness.   NORD National Organization for Rare Disorders,  https://rarediseases.org/rare-diseases/leprosy/

6-30-19 Freedom's Ring

Freedom’s Ring 

Rev. Jay Rowland

Sunday June 30, 2019,

First Presbyterian Church, Rochester MN

 

Galatians 5:1, 13-25

Luke 9:51-62 

 

In a few days, it will be July 4 again, time to celebrate our nation’s founding and independence and enjoy all the usual trappings: days off of work, cookouts, cabins, swimming, fishing, fireworks, ice cream, etc. Hopefully, as on Memorial Day, we’ll take a moment or two to remember the main reason we all live here: because of every person who sacrificed their own freedom, their life for this nation from the beginning to this very day.  The freedom we enjoy wasn’t free.  It was paid for in human lives, human blood, human tears. And so as we enjoy this wonderful rite of summer, I hope we’ll think about the cost people paid for this great nation.

In much the same way, our spiritual freedom, our free will, tends to fly under the radar most of the time.  Our ancestors in the faith wisely understood how costly free will can be.  Personal freedom can be a slippery slope. Just ask Adam and Eve.  Both scripture passages today explore the hidden cost of personal freedom. 

The most fascinating aspect of God’s character to me is God’s decision from the start to never manipulate or coerce our obedience.  God lets us choose whether or not to love and serve God. 

            An example jumps up in the scene from Luke's gospel today.  When the Samaritans do not welcome Jesus on his way to Jerusalem, James & John ask Jesus for permission "to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them". 

Jesus rebukes them. Forced obedience is not obedience.

Coercion; revenge; punishment … these are distinctly human characteristics.  History tells the tale.  Meanwhile, Jesus, the perfect revelation of God-with-us embodies God’s generosity toward humankind; God’s refusal to interfere, coerce or punish us whenever we reject God.  Which gets me thinking…. If God were merely a human projection as some have said, then Jesus’ never would have been crucified -  he would have defeated any opposition.  That is, after all, human history in a nutshell: self-preservation at any cost.  

Later in Luke’s gospel (Luke 13:1-5), there’s a moment when people are talking about two incidents that happened in the community.  One was an incident of government violence against some sect.  The other was the sudden collapse of a building which tragically killed many people.  The consensus and the talk is that the people did something to annoy or anger God. Going against conventional wisdom at the time, Jesus says to them, “do you think this happened to those people because they were worse sinners than any others? No, I tell you…”

Retribution and punishment are distinctively human traits. There are consequences for every choice we make and every action we take.  So much unnecessary hardship can be traced to human choice or action--not all of it, mind you, but plenty.  These consequences tend to show up in ways that some consider to be divine punishment or retribution when, again, it’s our choices or decisions which unleash harm upon self and neighbor.

We all reject God and "do our own thing" from time to time.  Sometimes it’s intentional, other times it’s unintentional perhaps.  Somewhere along the line and repeatedly so, our decisions & actions contradict our professed love and allegiance to God. If God were in the punishment or retribution business, none of us would be here. 

The phenomenon of our nation’s formation and growth has over time cost countless people a great deal, including ultimately their life.  Much of it was voluntary, but much of it was not. The emergence and prosperity of our nation is neither pure nor unstained by corruption. Slavery and racism are two noteworthy blemishes upon our foundation of freedom.  Our nation’s history is … complicated.  In the same way our God-ordained and God-protected free will is also … complicated.   Or maybe it’s simple but we complicate it.

That is the spiritual dilemma addressed in both scripture passages today.  The freedom we assume, the so-called freedom to do what we please, to have whatever we want, the freedom to follow our impulses and instincts, which God intends for good, has a dark side--its capacity to enslave and imprison us.  This is what Paul means when he explains that our “sinful self-interest is at odds with the free spirit God gives to us, just as the free spirit is incompatible with selfishness.” Paul notes that we cannot live both ways at once. And so the biggest daily obstacle to a vibrant life with God is our human impulse to gratify self first.  Paul describes the various outcomes of in the flesh rather than the spirit (from The Message Bible translation):

loveless, cheap sex; ... frenzied … grabs for happiness; trinket gods; magic-show religion; … cutthroat competition; all-consuming-yet-never-satisfied wants; a brutal temper; … divided homes & divided lives; small-minded -pursuits; addictions; parodies of community; (demonizing) our neighbor or creating unnecessary rivalry.

 

Those last two are wreaking havoc in our nation right now.  People are being demonized and portrayed as rivals rather than as human beings.  Our borders have become the scene of the worst outcomes that come whenever human beings ignore or shut down their spiritual identity.

So much of the ongoing suffering, isolation and conflict we see in the world can be traced to freely-made choices driven by our “desires of the flesh”. Though Paul says living in the flesh keeps us from entering God’s kingdom, he’s not saying that God bars our entry as punishment.  I understand Paul to say that as a consequence of our own free choices/actions, we place ourselves on a detour away from the Kingdom of God.  But it’s not final.  God’s invitation is never withdrawn and never expires. 

Meanwhile, the fruits of the Spirit “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23) bring about NO suffering nor isolation nor conflict.  Thus, Paul comments, there’s no law against actions bearing the fruits of the SpiritOne commentary puts it cleverly: “For Paul it was never a matter of “Become what you are-not by behaving better” it was always a matter of “Be who in baptism you already are.” It was never “Behave or else God will not save you,” it was always, “God already saved you so act like it.” There is a tight linkage between the grace that saves and living a gracious life as a result of God’s generous grace.[1]

God’s grace truly is extravagant.  By design.  Grace produces gratitude which then provokes the fruit of the Spirit which honors God while also benefitting our neighbor. The Spirit is constantly leading the way and blazing the trail. Paul encourages us to learn how to keep pace with God’s Spirit.  Knowing that God already loves us in Christ and saves us as often as needed offers us liberation from debilitating anxiety and fear. As we learn to recognize the Holy Spirit, we learn to dance along with it, drawn and nourished by the fruits of the Spirit which in turn grow with us on the “branches” of our lives.

This is important. Clearly we’re living in a moment in history when political forces are exuding anger, entitlement, and strong-arm tactics to get their way.  Meanwhile, I see people longing for self-control, patience and joy to set the tone in politics and our communities which are more diverse than ever before.  

We all know people who are already good examples of life in the spirit. People in this very room today, people in this congregation, as well throughout our community in all its wondrous diversity.  Their stories, their testimonies, their life in the spirit has the power to move us in the same spiritual direction.  The forces of division are destructive and demoralizing. It’s always been that way.  But we’re called to a better way.  As we open ourselves to God’s spirit leading us and challenging us to come together, we can do so much more good than the ill being wrought by the forces of division.

God forever and faithfully offers us an alternative—a way of life that in turn affirms and upholds life and whole-ness, health and dignity, peace and meaning—even in the midst of death and illness, worldly dissonance and chaos and frenzy—an alternative to the constant barrage of “choices” to put everything else before God.   God is forever diligent, forever willing and forever able to assist us in the difficult work of overcoming “self” finding our way home and living in true freedom. God has planted in our spirits a restlessness that lasts until we rest in the One who is our true home, and our true FREEDOM.  And so, as we approach another July 4 Day of (National) Independence, God’s freedom rings in our hearts and our spirits unleashing the fruits of the spirit to bring about a future with hope.

 


[1] Scott Hoezee, Center for Excellence in Preaching, Calvin Theological Seminary https://cep.calvinseminary.edu/  

6-23-19 Being the Body of Christ

Thomas J Parlette

“Being the Body of Christ”

Galatians 3: 23-29

6/23/19

 

          Author King Duncan loves the tell the true story of something that happened to his grandfather, the Reverend G.F Cox, who was lay pastor in the Methodist Church in the circuit riding days of the church. To appreciate this story you have to understand that East Tennessee, where his grandfather preached, is Baptist country. Even the dogs and cats are Baptists. In the early days people would join the Methodist church, but the Baptists had told them that a person could not go to heaven unless they had been baptized “all over”, meaning by immersion. A little bit of Methodist, or for that matter Presbyterian sprinkling would not open the Pearly gates.

          One day, rather tall lady came to Rev. Cox wanting to join the Methodist church, but first she wanted to be baptized by immersion, “just in case the Baptists are right,” she said. Rev. Cox said that would be fine. So they scheduled a time for the church to gather down by the river for what must have been a most beautiful and meaningful occasion. What happened on this occasion, however, was a little unexpected and just a bit ridiculous.

          The river was quite shallow that summer, and as already noted, the lady was rather tall. To complicate matters, she also wore her hair in a top knot, a once fashionable hairdo in which the hair appeared to spiral upward on a lady’s head for another 8-10 inches – just think of Marge Simpson and you’ll get the gist. So this lady must have approached 7 feet tall, top knot and all, and Rev. Cox was a man of rather modest height.

          So he labored mightily as he eased this statuesque lady with the top knot backward into a shallow river. As she made her entry into the chilly waters, she did what most of us would do – she jerked her head forward until her chin nearly rested on her chest. This, in turn, kept her topknot from going under the water.

          Triumphantly Rev. Cox lifted her from the water and stood her upright as the choir sang the last verse of “Shall We Gather at the River.” He had already started for the bank of the river, when she stopped him. “My hair is still dry. I’m sorry Brother Cox. You’ll have to do it again.” I guess she didn’t want to go to heaven without her topknot.

          So with a prayer for patience muttered under his breath, Rev Cox braced himself to lower her into the water again. Speculation ran through the congregation gathered on the shore as to why the baptism was being repeated. Once is usually good enough. Gently the Rev laid her back into the water. Again, as soon as she entered the chilly water, she pulled her head forward and her topknot stuck defiantly out of the water. So they had to try a third time. This time, the good reverend put his left hand on the lady forehead to make sure the topknot went under the water. Finally, it worked.

          The people on the bank had finally figured out what was happening and were in stitches. They would never forget the lady with the topknot who wanted to be baptized all over. “Interesting,” wrote Rev. Cox, some years later, “most of us are not like that lady. We do not want to be baptized that completely. Most of us want to leave something out when we are baptized – our money, our habits, our moral inclination, whatever it may be.”(1) He makes a good observation.

          That story is a reminder that there was a time when denominations in our land would literally come to blows over topics like baptism. We still have our differences, but we’ve become a little more tolerant of different beliefs and customs. But conflict still comes up. It certainly did in the church in Galatia. For them, the topic being disputed wasn’t baptism, but rather circumcision.

          So here was the issue for the church in Galatia – many of the early Christians who had originally been Jews believed that all believers ought to follow the path they had travelled – to undergo the Jewish rite of circumcision as well as the rite of baptism. Since circumcision is not a particularly appealing ritual, especially as an adult, this was causing some tension in the church, as you might imagine.

          It broke Paul’s heart to see the Galatians divided like they were. He knew how dangerous “us vs them” thinking is to the church, and he was not going to go easy on anyone who tried to create divisions in the body of Christ.

          Keep in mind the spiritual background of these Jewish believers before they came to Christ. In the time Paul was writing there was an actual dividing wall in the Jewish temple which separated the Court of the Israelites from the Court of the Gentiles. Signs were posted in Latin and Greek warning Gentiles not to go any farther into the temple under penalty of death. Those who were advocating circumcision for adult men in Galatia were dividing the church into those whom they thought were most pleasing to God – the circumcised, Jewish followers – and those whom they thought were less pleasing to God – the un-circumcised Gentiles, the slaves, and the women. This was the mindset they had brought with them from their Jewish backgrounds. And it was taking a toll on the church.

          It’s like the old limerick”

“There once were two cats from Kilkenny

Each thought there was one cat too many.

They fought and they spit, and they clawed and they bit

Till instead of two cats… there weren’t any.”(2)

          Here Paul was striving with all his heart and soul to build up churches while the “Judaizers” as they were known, were working to tear things apart. That could not be allowed to happen. They needed to be reminded of who they were and, even more important, who they followed. They were the body of Jesus Christ whose love brings people together, not tears them apart.

 

          It’s like a story Martin Luther once told about two mountain goats who met each other on a narrow ledge. The ledge was just wide enough for one of the animals to pass. On the left was a sheer cliff; on the right was a steep wall. They were facing each other, and it was impossible for either to turn around or to back up.

          Now you might expect that they started headbutting each other to force their way through, quite possible sending both of them over the edge. But instead, one of the goats laid down on the trail and let the other one walk over him – and both goats were safe.(3) It takes humility to follow Christ, and humility means accepting each other. For the Galatians, that meant accepting the uncircumcised as well as the circumcised.

          Being the body of Christ also requires that we look after one another’s needs. In short, it means that we develop a generosity of spirit that makes it easy for us to obey the Golden Rule – “Do unto others as you would have them do to you.”

          Pastor Sue Owen travelled to Kenya not too long ago, and she tells of the wonderful experience she had of seeing unselfish sharing among the students at a school there.

          Her group had a bag of gummy bears they wanted to give to the children, but they didn’t know how to do so without having the children fight over them. They feared the kids would become pushy and demanding and get upset over sharing the candy. So they gave the gummies to the head teacher to distribute. Much to their surprise, the head teacher handed the bag to a nearby student to distribute.

          This little girl carefully handed out one gummy bear per child, so that everyone got one. They she went around and gave everybody a second gummy. And then a third. When it became clear that she wouldn’t make it around for a fourth round, she got some scissors and started cutting the gummies in half, so everybody got an equal share.

          There was no crying, no complaining at all. Each child gratefully received his or her allotment of gummy bears, and they all enjoyed sharing a treat together.(4) Being the body of Christ requires that we look after one another’s needs.

          And finally, being one n Christ, a part of the body of Christ, means we are to become advocates for one another, and for all God’s children.

          Author Tony Campolo tells of the time when Mother Teresa visited a town in Pennsylvania, not far from Philadelphia. The directors of the state mental hospital wanted to build some halfway houses in this town to provide living space and mental health services to patients who were transitioning back into society. The local citizens protested that they didn’t want this halfway house in their neighborhood. The city council voted unanimously against the proposal.

          Mother Teresa happened to be visiting this town for a meeting with her order, the Sisters of Charity, and she heard about this city council meeting. She walked into this very contentious meeting, where there was a lot of arguing and finger-pointing. And she walked up to the table where the city council members were sitting. She knelt down in front of their table and she pleaded, “In the name of Jesus, make room for these children of God. When you reject them, you reject Jesus. When you embrace them, you embrace Jesus.”

          So the council took another vote – but it was still unanimous. Except now they were unanimously in favor of the project moving ahead. The sacrificial love of Mother Teresa overcame any self-serving objections they had.(5)

          That is what Paul is saying to the church in Galatia. “In the name of Jesus, make room for these children of God, whether they are circumcised or not. When you reject them, you reject Jesus. When you embrace them, you embrace Jesus.”

          When we focus on the sacrificial love of Jesus Christ, all the self-serving, ugly walls between us fall. There is nothing half-hearted about Jesus’ love for us. Jesus died to take away our sin and restore us to oneness with God. If we are baptized and clothed in Jesus, then we are also one with every believer throughout all time and every nation, part of the body of Christ.

          Imagine how it would change the world if they saw us love another in such a radically authentic and sacrificial way. What a wonderful world it would be!

          May God be praised. Amen.

1.    Dynamic Preaching, Vol. XXXV, No. 2, p75.

2.    Ibid… p72.

3.    Ibid… p72.

4.    Ibid… p73.

5.    Ibid… p74

6-9-19 Life in God's Family

Thomas J Parlette

“Life in God’s Family”

Romans 8: 14-17

6/9/19

 

          In his book God, Help Us!, R.J. Chandler tells a wonderful story of a church that was celebrating Pentecost Sunday. They had the young children process down the aisle while carrying large cardboard flames to symbolize the Holy Spirit.

          However, as in most children’s programs, not everything went smoothly. One little boy became upset when he realized he had forgotten his flame. Not having a flame to carry, he ran up and down the aisle, frantically waving his arms, then stopped and announced to everyone, “I’ve lost my flame!”

          But then a little girl ran up to him, tore off a piece of her flame and handed it to him. “No you haven’t”, she said. “Take this.”

          When she saw the boy’s face light up with happiness, the little girl decided to share her flame with everybody. So she walked down the aisle handing out pieces of cardboard flame to everyone she could reach.(1)

          That little girl understood the meaning of Pentecost. She wasn’t going to keep the Holy Spirit to herself. She was going to share her flame with everybody.

          Today we celebrate Pentecost, the day the church was born. Last week, Jesus offered a final prayer before his journey to the cross. And today that prayer is answered. Jesus prayed that God would make his followers one with him and give them a share of the Holy Spirit, as he had a share of the Holy Spirit. In these events of Pentecost, God sends the Holy Spirit on the gathered believers, and the church is born – empowered to speak of God’s Kingdom.

          On the heels of that story of wind and flame, we turn to Paul’s letter to the church in Rome, in which he speaks to us about what it means for us to receive this Spirit.

          Paul is well known for his theological arguments, and his letter to the Romans is hardly considered light, bedtime reading. It is a dense and heavy theological opus. Yet, here, Paul speaks clearly about life in God’s family, something that we all wish for. “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God,” writes Paul, meaning that we are children of God when we allow ourselves to be led by the Spirit of God. The Spirit leads us away from self-centered living and toward God-centered living. We want God to shape our actions, attitudes and values.

          So what does that mean – to live in God’s family. Paul says in Romans 12 that we should “let love be genuine; hate what is evil; hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.”

          That’s life in God’s family. Love, mutual affection, honor, zeal, hope, perseverance and hospitality. God is like a father or mother who has adopted us – chosen us – to be their child. This means at least three key things:

          We are chosen.

          We can talk to God.

          We are heirs.

          Let’s look at each of those quickly. When we live in God’s family, we are chosen. According to the Roman legal concept of adoption, an adopted child has a whole new identity, status and set of relationships. Such a child is chosen to become part of a new family. “Because the Spirit makes us God’s adopted children,” writes professor of biblical studies Richard Carlson, “we are empowered to address God in intimate and direct parental terms – Abba – Father.(2)

          To live in God’s family means we can talk to God. And it is because of this close kinship that we can approach God with any concern, and do so at any time- just as a child can do with a loving parent. When we come to God in this manner, “it is the very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God,” as Paul says. The Spirit of God makes it possible for us to experience a new identity, a new status and a new set of relationships as members of God’s family.

          In this family, God shows us unconditional love and unlimited grace. Our value comes from who we are, not from what we do. There is truly nothing we can do to make God love us more, and nothing we can do to make God love us any less. In this family, the Spirit bears witness “with our spirit that we are children of God.”

          In addition, life in the family of God means that we become heirs – “heirs of God, and joint heirs with Christ.” When people speak of adoption today, attention is generally focused on the desire of would-be parents to create a family unit, or the need for children to grow up in a stable and loving home.

          In ancient Rome, however, and particularly among higher-class families, adoption was a way for a family with no surviving sons to choose and designate an heir, a person who would become the head of the household, after the death of the current head. Frequently such a person would not be an infant, but possibly a grown man at the time of his adoption. Adoption was not a secret, confidential matter, there was no shame or pity attached, and the adopted person might retain a connection to his birth family. The Emperor Augustus, a figure of very recent history to Paul’s readers, was a famous adoptee, born and raised outside Rome and then adopted by his great-uncle, Julius Caesar.

          The legal process of adoption then, was less about establishing a family than it was about establishing an heir. Being adopted meant you had something to gain. People of humble circumstances would not have practiced adoption in this legal sense, even if they took the children of others into their homes and raised them as their own. They might, however, spin fantasies about someday being adopted by a family of means- sort of like how we might dream about winning the lottery. Being adopted by God meant being a member of the most important family of all.(3)

          Now that we have received the Holy Spirit, we are part of God’s family, and life in God’s family means we are chosen, we can talk to God and we are heirs.

          In her poem “Statement of Faith”, Ann Weems reminds us of the many ways in which the Holy Spirit works.

          “We believe in God, in Jesus Christ, in the Holy Spirit, and in you and in me.

          We believe the Holy Spirit has freed us to worship as a community.

          We believe the Holy Spirit works through

          Balloons and ministers

          Daisies and wiggly children

          Clanging cymbals and silence

          Drama and the unexpected

          Choirs and banners

          Touching and praying

          Spontaneity and planning

          Faith and doubt

          Tears and laughter

          Leading and supporting

          Hugging and kneeling

          Dancing and stillness

          Applauding and giving

          Creativity and plodding

          Words and listening

          Holding and letting go

Thank you and help me

Scripture and alleluias

Agonizing and celebrating

Accepting and caring

Through you and through me

Through love.

We believe God’s Holy Spirit lives in this community of dancing, hand-holding people where lines of age and politics and lifestyles are crossed.

We believe in praising God for life.

We believe in responding to God’s grace and love and justice for all people.

We believe in the poetry within each of us.

We believe in dreams and visions.

We believe in old people running and children leading.

We believe in the Kingdom of God within us.

We believe in Love.(4)

Henri Nouwen reminds us that we must not only cease to listen to what the world says about us, but to listen more intently to what God says about us. “The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs – heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ.

 

When we listen to the Holy Spirit, we are assured of our identity as God’s child and as a joint heir with Jesus Christ that everything Jesus has in heaven today will be ours as well.

Such is life in God’s family.

May God be praised. Amen.

 

1.    Dynamic Preaching, Vol. XXXV, No. 2, pg61.

2.    Homileticsonline, retrieved 5/22/19.

3.    Sandra Hack Polaski, Connections, Westminster John Knox Press, 2018, pg336.

4.    Ann Weems, Reaching for Rainbows, Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1980, pg17.

6-2-19 The Final Prayer

Thomas J Parlette

“The Final Prayer”

John 17: 20-26

6/2/19

 

          In May 2001, journalist Giles Brandeth interviewed South African Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu. As you know, Desmond Tutu dedicated his life to bringing justice, peace and equality to the people of South Africa. There were a million questions Brandeth wanted to ask Tutu. But the Archbishop had been diagnosed recently with prostate concer, and Brandeth realized that this interview might be the last one Desmond Tutu would ever give. So he asked the Archbishop to choose the topic of conversation.

          What would Tutu choose to talk about? Giles Brandeth wondered. Tutu had played a leading role in transforming his country’s politics. He had worked with the most powerful leaders around the world. He had won the Nobel Peace Prize.

          Those topics weren’t Desmond Tutu’s priority, however. He said, “If this is going to be my last interview, I am glad we’re not going to talk about politics. Let’s talk about prayer and adoration, about faith, hope and forgiveness.” This great world leader wanted his final message to be about his faith in God.(1)

          If you knew that the prayers you offered today would be your last, what would you pray for? I imagine you would focus on your truest priorities and most heartfelt desires. That’s what Jesus did. Our passage for today is part of Jesus’ final prayer before his arrest and crucifixion.

          He had just spent three years in intense ministry with his disciples. Thousands of people had heard his message and seen his miracles. By his coming death, he would save humanity from the power of sin and open the door of eternal life. What else could there be on Jesus’ to-do list?

          What Jesus prayer for was – Us. “My prayer is not for them alone – meaning his disciples. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message…” First, Jesus prays for his disciples, the ones who have been physically with him during his ministry. Then he prays for all those people down the line who will come to believe because of what the disciples will do in sharing the Gospel. That’s us! Jesus’ final prayer was for his disciples and for us. Why would Jesus pray for us?

          One reason is that there is more work to be done to satisfy Jesus’ agenda. And you and I are an integral part of that undertaking.

          Bill Crowder tells of his best friend from Bible College, Macauley Rivera. Macauley had two great dreams in life – marry his college sweetheart, Sharon, and start a church in his old neighborhood in inner-city Washington DC. Everyone who knew Macauley knew of his passion to spread the Gospel in the inner city.

          Sadly, just before graduation, Macauley and Sharon were killed in an automobile accident.

          At the memorial service, the pastor proclaimed, “Mac is gone.”

          Then, quite dramatically, he asked, “Who will serve in his place?”

          And over 200 students stood up to commit themselves to spreading God’s word in Mac’s old neighborhood!(2)

          Football coaches have a saying, I think it exists in the military as well – “Next man up” It means if one person goes down, someone else is to step up and take their place. In football, it means that every player should be ready and willing to step up and get the job done even if one of the star players get hurt. Next man up. No matter what, the work goes on. Christ’s work, the bringing of the Kingdom of God to earth depends in part on our readiness to do our part. That is true of being a part of any team.

          Jesus shared the love and message of God with thousands of people while he walked this earth. But he left plenty of work for us to do. Today we see that Jesus prays for our success in continuing that work.

          And in addition, God will give us what we need to get the job done. We have been entrusted to carry on the work of the Messiah. And God will give us what we need to be successful in that work.

          There was once a young man named Pat Dirken who loved to surf. However, one day when he was on the water, he was a hit by a particularly large wave. He was tossed around, and injured his spine, which left him a quadriplegic.

          Pat spent months in physical therapy, and traded in his surfboard for a wheelchair. Pat never lost his faith in God, but after the accident he had trouble understanding why God would allow him to endure the loss of his arms and legs. And then Pat’s church joined a ministry of the Wounded Warrior Project. This wonderful ministry provides lunch and a listening ear to the injured service members at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.

          Pat discovered that his disability allowed him to earn the trust of the injured soldiers. They saw that he understood their suffering and their scars, and they listened to him when he told them about how God had given him strength. Pat now see this ministry as a place where God has put him. He says, “It’s a God thing. I feel called.”(3)

          What is it you feel called to because of your faith in Jesus Christ? Maybe you think to yourself, I don’t know any calling I am qualified for. But God does not call the qualified – God qualifies the called. God assures us, “I will give you what you need to do what I call you to do.” In Jesus’ final prayer, he says in effect to God, “If the believers just stay in relationship with me like I stay in relationship with You, You will enable them to do my work.” We don’t need to rely on our own talents, strength or intellect to do God’s will. It is God’s power working in us that allows us to have an impact on the world.

          It reminds me of something Bob Goff once said. Goff is the founder of “Love Does,” an international humanitarian organization. He says, “God asks what it is that capture our attention, what feeds that deep indescribable need of our souls to experience the richness of the world.” And then God leans in and whispers, “Let’s go do that together.”(4)

          God wants us to do God’s work with joy. God knows that we yearn for a greater purpose and calling than just taking care of our own needs. We were created for noble and heroic work, work that has an eternal impact. And God is ready to equip us for that work. God leans in and says, “Let’s go do that together.”

          One more thing about Jesus’ final prayer – this prayer is a reminder that we are supposed to work together to complete the mission to which we are called. This last prayer of Christ is often called the Unity Prayer. Jesus knew that a unified effort multiplies our individual efforts far beyond what we could accomplish on our own.

          In the last decade, Google has spent millions of dollars on something called Project Aristotle – a project aimed to create the perfect team. What mix of personal character traits or habits would lead to the most productive, most unified team?

          Project Aristotle involved measuring nearly every aspect of Google employee’s lives. The company’s executives interviewed hundreds of employees over several years, and analyzed all sorts of data on the productivity and innovation of almost every team in the company.

          What they found was that the best teams have members who are sensitive to one another’s needs and who listen to each other. That was the result of these years of work. Education, skill sets, charisma – none of those matter most in creating successful teams. What matters most, according to this Google task force, is creating an atmosphere of “psychological safety” where members are respected and listened to and able to contribute their best work.(5)

          Jesus had the power to heal the sick, cast out demons, multiply food to feed thousands. He had the power to come back from the dead. After his resurrection, he was going to grant all these powers and authority to his followers. And yet, the greatest power Jesus desired for his followers was unity. Why? Because our unity is proof to the world that Jesus is who he says he is.

          Unity is an interesting idea when we see the division all around us today.

          Listen to what Jesus says in this passage: “I have given them the glory you gave me – the glorious unity of being one, as we are – I in them and you in me, all being perfected into one – so that the world will know you sent me and will understand that you love them as much as you love me.” Nothing is as important as our unity in Christ. Our unity  will prove to the whole world that Jesus is the Son of God, and that God loves us.

          Composer Giacomo Puccini wrote a number of famous operas. In 1922, while working on his last opera, Turandot, Puccini contracted cancer. He told his students, “If I don’t live to finish Turandot, I want you to finish it for me.”

          Shortly afterwards, Puccini died. His students studied his opera carefully and soon completed it. In 1926, Arturo Toscanini, a student of Puccini, directed the world premiere of Turandot in Milan. When Toscanini reached the part of the opera where Puccini had to stop, he laid down the baton and said to the silent auditorium, “Thus far the Master wrote, but he died.”

          Then he picked up the baton and smiled and said, “But his disciples finished his work.” When Turandot ended, the audience broke into thunderous applause.(6)

          There is more work to do to spread the message of Jesus around the world. “Thus far the Master wrote, but he has ascended… his disciples finished his work.” We, his followers, are an integral part of Christ’s plan to spread the word about the love of God, just as the first disciples were. Our unity multiples our efforts far beyond what we could accomplish on our own.

          What is God calling each of us to do for the sake of spreading the Gospel message?

 How can we join together with other believers around the world to accomplish it?

          That is the task that awaits the 21st century church.

 So let’s go do that together.

May God be praised. Amen.

1.    Dynamic Preaching, Vol. XXXV, No. 2, p.56.

2.    Ibid… p.56-57.

3.    Ibid… p.57-58.

4.    Ibid… p.58.

5.    Ibid… p.58

6.    Ibid… p59.

 

 

5-26-19 A Tale of Two Cities

Thomas J Parlette

“A Tale of Two Cities”

Rev. 21: 10, 21:22 – 22:5

5/26/19

 

          An interesting trend we’re seeing as Rochester grows is that more and more people are interested in living downtown, or at least close to downtown. And it’s not just Rochester. City loving is making a comeback. A recent report from the United Nations noted that more and more people are moving from rural areas and subdivisions into urban areas and big cities.

          That’s a little surprising considering the bad reputation that cities have had over the years. Comedian Anita Weiss says, “I moved to New York City for my health. I’m paranoid, and it was the only place where all my fears were justified.”

          Or, as Lewis Black says about traffic in Boston, “The last person to get across that town in three hours was yelling, “The British are coming! The British are coming!”

          Many people would agree with Jason Love’s opinion of Las Vegas – “All the amenities of modern society in a habitat unfit to grow a tomato.”

          Or, this from comedian Richard Jeni – “This is how Chicago got started. A bunch of people from New York said, “Gee, I’m enjoying the crime and poverty, but it just isn’t cold enough.”(1)

          “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness… it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness…” Many of you recognize the opening lines to Charles Dickens’ famous A Tale of Two Cities. The two cities that were the focal point of Dickens’ novel were Paris and London during the days of the French Revolution. This morning we will center our attention on a different pair of cities. The City of Humanity and the City of God.

          The Hebrew Bible reveals a certain prejudice against cities. You will remember in Genesis chapter 4 after he slays his brother Abel, Cain is driven forth out of the presence of the Lord, and the first thing he does is build a city. Then again, after the days of the great flood, the people gather to build a city, and in the middle of that city they build a great tower – the Tower of Babel. You remember the result. God destroys the tower and scatters the people out of the city.

          Think of the negative connotations around such Old Testament cities as Sodom, Gomorrah, Nineveh and Babylon. There is a certain sinfulness, a certain grimness, a detachment from God that is associated with cities. “Hell,” wrote the poet Shelley, “is a city much like London – a populous and smoky city.”

          Such prejudice against cities is still around today. There is an old story about the lady in New York City who died willing all her money to God. A probate judge broke the will with the declaration that “after due search it has been determined that God cannot be located in New York City.”(2) There’s a lot of people that might agree with that, I imagine.

          People in rural areas have always regarded city slickers with suspicion. That is interesting when you realize that the word “pagan” originally meant “country folk.” No environment today has a monopoly on problems. Some of the highest suicide rates, highest divorce rates, highest alcoholism and opioid addiction rates in the United States per capita are found in rural areas. You can run, but you can’t hide from the problems of modern day life.

          When you think about it, we all live in one big city these days, no matter how far away the neighbors are. With television, internet and social media, we are more connected than we’ve ever been. For better or worse modern technology has made us one big city – the City of Humanity.

          Which is quite different than the City of God, which John writes about in his revelation.

          In our passage for today, John describes a city coming down from heaven, a city from God that is amazingly glorious. It is an enormous city, 1500 hundred miles on every side. It has perfect symmetry and it’s large enough for all who would enter. It has a wall 216 feet high and 12 gates, just like the tribes of Israel. The city rests on 12 foundations and on those 12 foundations are carved the names of the 12 apostles. This is the New Jerusalem. Within its walls is the New Israel. Its walls are of jasper and the city itself is pure gold. Its foundations are adorned with every known jewel. There is no Temple in the center, as you may expect in the New Jerusalem, because God and the Lamb are the Temple, and the city has no need of sun or moon to shine upon it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb.

          The City of God – the City of Humanity. There are some essential differences between these two cities, besides the obvious differences in physical appearance. The question for us is – How can we make the City of Humanity more like the City of God?

          The first difference is this: The City of Humanity drives people apart. The City of God draws people together. It is an interesting phenomenon that the closer we live in proximity, the more detached we become socially. Consider that ultimate symbol of the city of Humanity – the apartment. The very word itself says it all – apart-ment. Chances are we don’t know the neighbor on the other side of the wall much less on the other side of town.

          Journalist Gregory Favre claims that one of the most important, but least reported, stories of our time concerns our indifference and lack of empathy toward one another. He quotes Pope Francis, who said, “We have fallen into globalized indifference. He have become used to the suffering of others: it doesn’t affect me; it doesn’t concern me; it’s none of my business.”(3)

          Globalized indifference – that is the sickness at the heart of The City of Humanity. But it’s different in the City of God. In the City of God there is an unparalleled unity among people, all peoples. There are no racial distinctions, no class distinctions, no ethnic distinctions, no economic distinctions, even no religious or denominational distinctions.

          It is important to note that the City of God is called the New Jerusalem and that it houses the New Israel. It is no accident that the city has 12 gates – one for each of the tribes of Israel. John in his great vision sees that Christianity is the continuation and the culmination of a work God began with Abraham and Moses and David.

          The City of Humanity drives people apart. The City of God brings people together. This is because of a second truth – the City of Humanity is governed by law, the City of God is governed by love. We have laws to keep people from taking unfair advantage of others.

          The FBI used to publish a Crime Clock, a set of statistics on how many serious crimes occurred per second in the United States. The last crime clock they published in 2016 pointed out that a violent crime occurs every 25 seconds. There was a murder every 30 seconds, a robbery every 2 seconds, a motor vehicle theft every 41 seconds and an aggravated assault every 39 seconds.

          Now, I’m not one who believes our society is disintegrating. If you are a student of history, you know that our time is no better or no worse than others. The point is this: Anyone who expects humanity to save itself – whether through technology or education or the social sciences or whatever, is blind to reality. We cannot save ourselves, for we live by the law of self-preservation, and by our very nature, we will manipulate and take advantage of one another. That is why we live by law- to restrain the worst that is in us; but the law cannot save us, as Paul so eloquently pointed out. Only one thing can save us, and that is God.

          The City of Humanity drives people apart – the City of God draws people together. The City of Humanity is based on law – the City of God is a kingdom of love. One more thing we can say about these two cities. The City of Humanity is based on personal striving – the City of God is a gift from on high.

          There beats within the heart of every human being the desire for recognition and appreciation, for power and position, for material wealth and worldly acclaim. Years ago Wallace Hamilton called it the drum major instinct. All of us long to march out in front of the parade. So we strive for success. We build up our businesses. We work our way through the ranks. We plan and project. Some of us dream and scheme. We build monuments to ourselves. That is often why tall skyscrapers line city streets and names adorn donated buildings.

          Sometimes even the most conscientious of us may step on someone else in order to climb higher on the totem pole of personal achievement. We may neglect the needs of our families, ignore the needs of a neighbor, not because we are bad people but because we are oriented to our own success. That is how the city of Humanity is built. But finally we reach whatever it is that we are striving for, and when we do, we find that it doesn’t satisfy.

          There is only one thing that permanently satisfies and it comes as a free gift. You can’t earn it or buy it or even deserve it. You can only accept it as the free and generous gift of a loving and benevolent God. John saw the Holy City coming down from heaven, a gift from God. It did not rise from the earth. The kingdom of God will never come from our striving upward. The Kingdom of God can only come down from above, as a free gift from God

          But when we recognize that it is a free gift, when we realize that we no longer have to strive to prove our own self-worth, when we are able to relax and receive the love of God as poured out in Jesus Christ – then we will be able to accept and love other people as neighbors, as friends, as brothers and sisters in Christ.

          It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” A Tale of Two Cities. In which of those two cities do you live? Which city claims your primary allegiance? Where are you investing your time, your talent and your treasure – the City of Humanity… or the City of God?

          May God guide us in our choices.

          May God be praised. Amen.

 

1.    Dynamic Preaching, Vol. XXXV, No. 2, pg47.

2.    Ibid, pg47.

3.    Ibid, pg48.

5-12-19 God's Handiwork

God’s Handiwork

Rev. Jay Rowland

Acts 9:36-43

Easter 4C  Sunday May 12, 2019, First Presbyterian Church, Rochester MN

 

This sermon utilizes material published by John Holbert "The Living Power of the Resurrection," 2013; Beth Scibienski "Dorcas' Fashion Show," A Thousand Words of Inspiration, 2013; William Loader  First Thoughts on Year C First Reading Acts Passages from the Lectionary, Easter 4; Rev. Bryan Findlayson, "Aeneas and Dorcas", Lectionary Bible Studies and Sermons, Pumpkin Cottage Ministry Resources, and Mitzi J. Smith, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2016.

 

 

 

It’s no secret that mothers play a prominent role in God’s story of us. A good number of these mothers are women who do not have biological children, but help raise and nurture scores of “other people’s children”.  These are women who have given life to the kingdom of God and to the church.  One of those women we meet today in Acts—a woman in Joppa who answers to two names, Tabitha and Dorcas.   

Remarkably, in introducing her, Luke uses the feminine form of the Greek word for disciple—mathetrias--the only time this word appears in all of the New Testament!!  Luke thus presents Tabitha as fully equivalent to any and all male disciples mathetai.  

Tabitha is her Hebrew name. The Greeks called her Dorcas. Both names mean “gazelle.” With what must have been sheer agility and determination, Tabitha Gazelle (if you will) opened her home to be a refuge for women, a safe place for women. There was no safe place for women who were left vulnerable and homeless due to circumstance:  no place for women abandoned by their husbands or shunned by their family or tribe, or for widows who found themselves suddenly on the brink of poverty, or for women both Jew and Greek who found themselves in dire straits for one reason or another.  

It just so happened that Tabitha was a skilled seamstress.  If we in the protestant church had patron saints, Tabitha (Dorcas) might be the patron saint of prayer shawl groups, quilters or sewing groups.  She was known for the tunics and other garments she created with elaborate design, care and beauty. She gave these to the women she took into her home.  

Luke reports that this vibrant disciple becomes sick and dies suddenly. Her body is reverently washed for burial and lovingly placed in an upper room. Now, homes with an upper room, a second floor, were rare in those days.  Tabitha quite possibly was a single woman of some wealth.  In mentioning this room in Tabitha’s house it may be that Luke is calling to mind another upper room-- in Jerusalem--where the eleven disciples gathered waiting for a special gifting of God’s Spirit (Acts 1:13).[1]  

Regardless, Luke infers that the disciples who are in Joppa are devastated by Tabitha’s sudden death.  Aware that Peter is nearby, they summon him, hoping his presence and prayers would bring comfort. When Peter arrives, the sound of Tabitha’s mourners reaches his ears and his heart before he encounters the women themselves.  They surround Tabitha’s body; through their cries and tears they eagerly show Peter the tunics they’re wearing, seemingly every work of fabric Tabitha created is shown to Peter with stories from each woman in the room recounting Tabitha’s kindness and generosity which created and sustained this community. Tabitha’s handiwork. God’s handiwork! 

It was slightly unusual for one’s body to be taken upstairs and laid out instead of being buried or placed in a tomb. But Luke wants to make sure that his hearers understand that Tabitha really is dead. There are echoes from Jesus' raising of a dead girl in Mark 5, Jesus' words, "Talitha cum" little girl arise, which sounds so much like "Tabitha, arise!"[2] 

Scholars note that this story of the raising of Tabitha may have circulated as a legend related to the establishing of Christian community at Joppa.[3] It is supposed to impress all who hear it. For it mirrors the raising of the widow's son by Elijah (1Kings 17:17-24) and the raising of the Shunemmite woman's son by Elisha (2Kings 4:8-37).  It validates the ministry of Peter and the early church just as the raising of Jairus's daughter by Jesus corroborates his messianic ministry.  Thus it is no coincidence that Luke echoes the terms and the details of each of these accounts.[4]  

Whatever history stands behind this story in Acts, it offers the gift of continuity to the Christian community in the early days of the church: Peter is like Jesus, and Jesus is like Elijah and like Elisha, and all are like God: they raise the dead to life.[5]  God’s power of resurrection in the world has been seen in Elijah, in Elisha, in Jesus, in Peter, and in countless other agents throughout history. God has long chosen agents to work God's power in the world. [6] 

The raising of Tabitha is a sign to the community … it serves as a gospel revelation the kingdom of God is nigh for the dead are raised to new life; the poor and widowed rejoice in plenty. The miracle "becomes known all over Joppa, and many people believed in the Lord." When the dead are raised and widows rejoice, the kingdom of God is revealed in our midst.[7] 

The raising of Tabitha also broadcasts the story of Tabitha’s ministry of care for marginalized and abandoned women. This is a powerful revelation, disciples of Jesus Christ continuing to usher in the kingdom of God.  God's healing power among the poor and the marginalized is a powerful sign to any who have eyes to see.  

The mission of Paul to the Gentiles is more familiar that Peter’s to most casual Bible readers. Evidence of the kingdom of God offered to Gentiles is revealed when the dead are raised, and the broken and destitute find hope and joy in community.  God's people are an enlivened people, a joyously caring people, a people set free. Of course, such transforming power is not ours to create, just as Peter's raising of Tabitha was not of his own doing. Only the living God can empower us with new life. It is the indwelling compelling Spirit of Christ that comes to transform death into life, sadness into joy, carelessness into compassion.[8] 

Such is the good news of the gospel first revealed in Jesus Christ, then also seen in a disciple named Tabitha—in her life and in her rising.  The church bears witness to life arising from death, love outlasting hate, healing meeting brokenness; people learning to stand up for themselves, communities uniting to reverse poverty, enemies moving towards reconciliation, people finding meaning in their lives again after languishing in despair. All of this is evident in the vibrant ministry of Tabitha-- vivid realities to inspire and inform taking up space otherwise occupied by legends from the past.[9]  

Enduring examples abound of God’s habit of bringing transformation, through which we learn to recognize the hand of God working new beginnings in our midst today.  Such transformation comes through the Spirit of Christ who willingly gifts transformation. We must remember to pray the prayer of faith, looking for Christ's renewal enlivening his people. When the church is made up of transformed people, the gospel is proclaimed in sign rather than word and bearing witness to all the world of the coming glory of the kingdom of God in our midst.[10] 

Wherever the powers of death are overcome by the powers of resurrection, the power of God is visible in God's world. In our own time such power has been seen in Martin Luther King, Jr., in Nelson Mandela, in Oscar Romero, Mother Teresa, and countless persons whose names we may never know.[11]  

There are precious few people, disciples of either gender, who would risk their economic status in order to provide for the less privileged. By taking such a risk of love, unjust systems are challenged and transcended.  God’s Spirit in Tabitha is what take on everlasting life among the living. Tabitha used her privilege -- her wealth, her compassion, her acts and her gifts for the benefit of the less privileged: the widows, indigent, the hungry, depressed, oppressed, marginalized, and penalized.[12] 

A life lived for God in this way is a gospel life, a resurrection life, brave in the face of death and the works of darkness and death which clearly remain ever-present, ever-ominous and all-too-real.  Such is the living power of the resurrection to binding all who live in hope, creating community among all who seek Jesus—he who reveals God’s handiwork.  In Frederick Buechner's novel Godric the Saint says,

"All the death there is

set next to life

would scarcely fill a cup."[13]

 

Such is the witness of Tabitha Gazelle.  May it also be our witness and our enduring gift which shall transcend and endure as God’s handiwork.

 

Amen.

 

 

 

NOTES:


[1] Mitzi J. Smith, op cit.

[2] William Loader First Thoughts, op cit  

[3] ibid

[4] Rev. Bryan Findlayson, "Aeneas and Dorcas", op cit

[5] Loader, ibid

[6] John Holbert "The Living Power of the Resurrection," op cit.

[7] Findlayson, ibid

[8] Findlayson, ibid

[9] Loader, ibid

[10] Findlayson, ibid

[11] John Holbert, ibid

[12] Mitzi J. Smith, ibid

[13] Godric: A Novel by Frederick Buechner 1980 in John Holbert, ibid

5-5-19 From Fishing to Shepherding

Thomas J Parlette

“From Fishing to Shepherding”

John 21: 1-19

5/5/19

 

          James Rebanks is a shepherd in the Lake District of England, working the land where his father and grandfather tended sheep and where many others have done so for thousands of years.

          His book, The Shepherds Life: A Tale of the Lake District, takes those of us who are uninitiated into the rhythms of life on those green hills – rhythms that haven’t changed much for shepherds over the course of hundreds of generations. Despite all the advances in technology and progress that characterize the 21st century world, shepherding is still an  ancient and unchanging way of life that is always about the sheep and the land.

          Most of us think of shepherding as an idyllic profession from a bygone age. We picture the green pastures and still waters of Psalm 23. We miss the fact that shepherding is also muddy, bloody, smelly and difficult work. It takes a practiced hand and an eye for detail that is honed over time. It’s not for the faint of heart or for those who just want to dabble in it as a hobby. Nevertheless, for those who can stick with it, the shepherds life can be rewarding and satisfying.

          Rebanks describes some would-be shepherds who rent a farm to try their hand. “The get-up and get-out voice in their heads isn’t strong enough and they just don’t care enough about the sheep and the land to sustain their initial enthusiasm once the going gets tough. Things fall apart, and they soon leave. The voice in our heads is what holds the Lake District together, puts the walls back up, drains the fields and keeps the sheep well-tended and bred… Get-up and Get-out. It is done because it should be done.”(1)

          In this mornings story from John, Jesus calls on Peter, indeed on all his followers, to think of themselves as shepherds, with that Get-up and Get-out mentality.

          This passage is often referred to as a sort of Epilogue to John’s Gospel. It seems like the book should end at the close of Chapter 20, which reads – “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”

          The end. The curtain closes. Thank you for coming.

          But before the houselights go up and everyone exits the theater, John (or someone writing sometime after John) steps out in front of the curtain and says, “Wait, before you go, you should know that after these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberius… and it went a little something like this…”

          This post-resurrection story is very similar to one that Luke tells at the beginning of his Gospel, when Jesus is calling the disciples. Many of the same elements are there.

          Jesus stands on the shore.

          The fishermen haven’t caught anything.

          Jesus tells them to try again.

          And sure enough, the pull out a huge catch of fish.

          In Luke’s version, Jesus then then tells Peter, “Don’t be afraid, from now on, you will be catching people.”

          But in this story from John, Jesus tells Peter what to do with people once he’s caught them. Jesus shifts the call of all his disciples from fishing to shepherding.

          Despite Peter’s enthusiastic response to seeing Jesus again – jumping into the water and wading ashore – there is an awkwardness in this scene. As they sit around the charcoal fire, the same kind of fire that Peter warmed himself by in the courtyard outside the Palace where Jesus had his trial, Peter and the rest of the disciples couldn’t help but think of Peter’s boast – “I will never deny you, I will die with you”, and then his three-fold denial.

          So there on the beach, over bread and fish, Jesus gives Peter the chance to redeem himself. Jesus asks him “Do you love me” three times. Each time Peter says “Yes”. And Jesus’ responses move his disciples role from fishers of people to shepherds of the flock. After this lakeside cookout, Peter is forgiven and reinstated back into Jesus’ good graces.

          Normally, we hear this story applying to ministers, since the word “pastor” implies that ministers are like a shepherd, and that is true. But the shepherding task is really for all who follow Jesus. For we all have a particular flock that we tend. Your flock could be your family, or a group of co-workers, or a circle of friends. I bet you can think of a time you have tended to your flock in one way or another.

          In his classic book A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23, Phillip Keller describes how a shepherd’s staff becomes a symbol of the man’s very being. An experienced shepherd has carried a staff for so long, it seems a part of his body. The staff is his very identity – a badge of office. On one occasion, Keller saw a shepherd use his staff to gently guide his sheep. Unlike the rod, which is an instrument of stern discipline, the staff is a gentle reminder of the shepherd’s presence. Sometimes the shepherd reaches out his staff to touch one of his animals on the flank, to gently indicate that a change of direction is in order. Sometimes, it’s even more intimate than that.

          “Sometimes,” writes Keller, “I have been fascinated to see how a shepherd will actually hold his staff against the side of some sheep that is a special pet or favorite, simply so that they are “in touch.” They will walk along in this way almost as though it were “hand-in-hand.” The sheep obviously enjoys this special attention from the shepherd, and revels in the close, personal contact between them. To be treated in this special way by the shepherd is to know comfort in a deep dimension. It’s a delightful and moving picture.” (2)

          You can see how this kind of shepherding applies to Jesus. But I also hope that you can see this applying to you and your own flock, whoever that may be. I’m sure you can think of times when you have walked alongside someone, just to stay in touch, like a shepherd with a staff. That’s what it means to tend Jesus’ sheep.

          Eugene Peterson once wrote, “Pastor, as a vocation, for me seems like a being put in charge of one of those old-fashioned elevators, spending all day with people in their ups and downs, but with no view.”(3)

          That’s what tending a flock is like – spending all day with people in their ups and downs.

          Psalm 23 speaks of the Lord who is our shepherd preparing a table for us in the presence of our enemies. This line about the table doesn’t mean God promises to protect us in this life. What God does is promise to do is to provide.

          Not protection, but providence. There’s a difference.

          Protection would be if the hurricane never makes landfall. Providence means a volunteer from Presbyterian Disaster Assistance shows up after it does with hot food and directions to a shelter.

          Protection means our partner never cheats on us. Providence means that, should that happen, together we work hard to find a way to reconciliation or resolution.

          Protection means the blood clot never travels to the brain, causing a stroke. Providence means there’s still much joy to be found in life, even if some things don’t work as well as they once did.

          That is what Jesus’ shepherdly command to “feed my sheep” truly means. It means that when the world around us seems to be falling apart, we gather together around a table in the presence of the Lord, and find there such food as feeds the soul.

 

          More than that, around such a table, we enjoy a life-changing fellowship with one another. Somehow, the howling wind outside doesn’t seem so formidable when there is food to share and company to remind us we are not alone.

          Through it all, God does provide.(4)

          So let us be led by the Good Shepherd to the table this morning that we may be nourished for our role as shepherds of the flock.

          May God be praised. Amen.

          (Responsive Benediction in the bulletin)

 

1.    HomileticsOnline, retrieved 4/23/19

2.    Ibid.

3.    Ibid.

4.    Ibid.

4-28-19 Blessed Are the Believers

Thomas J Parlette

“Blessed Are the Believers”

John 20: 19-31

4/28/19

 

          Harold F. Bermel tells of driving through Pennsylvania Dutch Country with his daughter and seven year old grandson. They passed an Amish horse and buggy, and the grandson asked, “Why do they use horses instead of automobiles?” Bermel’s daughter explained that the Amish didn’t believe in automobiles. After a few moments, the grandson asked, “But can’t they see them?”(1)

          Good question. Once you’ve seen something with your own eyes, it’s pretty hard not to believe in it. That’s why the followers of Jesus are so often considered fools. We believe in a God we cannot see, in a Savior who performed miracles and came back from the dead, and a Holy Spirit who lives in us and guides us in the way of truth and love. No wonder so many people reject our faith.

          Our passage today is based on a man who has been nicknamed “Doubting Thomas.” In all honesty, Thomas gets kind of a bad rap. He doesn’t deny the resurrection. He has proven that he’s a loyal disciple by staying with Jesus while he was alive. It’s just that he is also a rational man, he is a realist. He’s not going to let himself get too excited until he sees Jesus with his own eyes. “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”

          That of course happened on the following Sunday evening. The Gospel of John tells us, “A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”

          And Thomas responds, “My Lord and my God!”

          Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

          Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed. Blessed are the people who have come to grips with their doubts in an honest and forthright way and have made a commitment of their will to trust in the care and providence of God.

          They are indeed the blessed of this earth. They are healthier, happier, and generally more effective I relating to others than are the doubters, the critics and the cynics. It is they who move the world forward, for there is power in believing – more power than the unbeliever can ever know. Part of that power is the power of vision. If seeing is believing, then the converse is also true. Believing is seeing – seeing possibilities and promises that bode good fortune for all who perceive their presence. Blessed are the believers.

          Of course we all have our doubts. All thoughtful people do at times. Woody Allen had a point when he said “Faith would be easier if God would show himself by depositing a million dollars in a swiss bank account in our name” – but God doesn’t work like that.

          I once read a true story about a young man named Charlie who was in love with a charming young lady named Ava. She was in love with Charlie, but so far he had been unable to persuade her to marry him. Then one day he invited her to lunch. They drove to the Los Angeles Coliseum, the largest sports arena on the West Coast.

          In the center of the vast field were placed a small table and two chairs. A maître d’ showed them to the table, a captain seated them, and a waiter waited behind each chair. Except for them, the whole Coliseum was empty. 100,000 empty seats stared down at Charlie and Ava.

          The table was elegantly set. Caviar and champagne was served. Then a soufflé and salad and more champagne. And as they were waiting for dessert, Charlie directed Ava’s attention to the huge electronic scoreboard at the far end of the field.

          In a prearranged signal he raised his glass, and on the board flashed the words, “Darling Ava, will you marry me?” She of course, said yes.(2)

          Sometimes we wonder, why can’t God do something like that for us? It would be easy. A grand gesture of some sort. A giant comet streaking through a dark winter night with it’s tail sky-writing a message, “I love you, God.” Why doesn’t God do something spectacular to let us know he’s there. We can sympathize with British philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell who was once asked what he would say to God if he had the chance. And Russell said, “I would ask God, ‘Why did you make the evidence of your existence so insufficient’”(3)

          There is a part of us that says with Thomas, “I need to see some evidence before I believe.” We all long for certainty. But that is one gift that God has not granted us.

          I’m sure God has reasons for this. If God’s aim was to produce mature spirits fit to spend eternity in the Divine Presence, it makes sense that God would not reveal Himself fully to us. Such certainty would keep us perpetually immature. If a child knows that his parents with always take care of every problem, resolve every crisis and comfort every sorrow, the child will never develop self-reliance. It may be that our insecurity and doubt is essential to spiritual growth.

          Brennan Manning, in his book Ruthless Trust, tells the story of John Kavanaugh, a man who went to work with Mother Teresa for three months at the “House of the Dying” in Calcutta. He went not only to be of help to others, but he was also seeking a clear answer as how best to spend the rest of his life.

          His first morning there, he asked Mother Teresa to pray for him. She asked what he needed prayer for. He replied, “Pray that I have clarity.”

          And Mother Teresa said “No.” Then she went on to say, “Clarity is the last thing you are clinging to and must let go of.”

          When Kavanaugh commented that she always seemed to have the clarity he longed for, she laughed. “I have never had clarity, what I have always had is trust. So I will pray that you will trust God.” (4)

          God has reasons for not revealing the Divine Presence more clearly to us. Perhaps because it is essential to our spiritual growth to question and to ponder and to seek God as a thirsty person seeks water.

          Besides, most of us have enough certainty. Jesus said that all we need is faith the size of a mustard seed and we will be able to move mountains. It’s not how much faith we have that makes the crucial difference in life. It is how much we love and trust God.

          The poet Robert Frost once spoke of the founders of this country and how they journeyed forth without a map saying: “They did not believe in the future, they believed the future in. You are always believing ahead. Where is the evidence that I can write a poem? I just believe a poem in. The most creative thing in us is to believe a thing in.”

Then Frost says, “The ultimate example is the belief in the future of the world. We believe the future in. It’s coming because we believe it in.”(5)

          The most creative thing in us is to believe a thing in. We believe in God’s kingdom. But the real meaning of our lives as Christians is to believe God’s kingdom into being. Blessed are the believers who believe the Kingdom into being. They are a blessing to this world.

          Believers are those who know that the world can yet be a better place. Consider our own society. Who have been the builders? Who have constructed hospitals, great universities, the social service agencies? Behind every one you will find people who hold in their hearts not cynicism but hope, not hostility but love, not doubt but faith. As someone once said “Where has there ever been a monument erected to the cynic, the doubters or the critics?”(6)

          In 2007, Disney released a wonderful film called Ratatouille. It tells the story of a rat named Remy who has a talent for cooking. He winds up in Paris at the once famous restaurant, Gusteau’s. There he helps a bumbling kitchen worker named Linguine bring Gusteau’s back to prominence on the French culinary scene.

          Towards the end of the movie, the feared food critic Anton Ego visits Gusteau’s to sample a dish prepared by the new chef, who turns out to be Remy. The cynical critic is deeply impressed with the dish and writes a reflective review in the next day’s paper. He has this to say about his role as a critic:

          “In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read.”

          “But the bitter truth we critics must face is that, in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is more meaningful than our criticism designating it so.”

          “But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new.”

          The believers among us, the ones who have believed without seeing, are the ones who risk something in the discovery and defense of the new. In this case, the new life brought about by the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Blessed are the believers.

          So the question for today is – Where are you this morning? Are you on the side of the doubters and the critics?  Or are you on the side of the believers? Anybody can be a doubting Thomas. It takes no particular strength of character to say, “Unless I see some proof, I will not believe.”

          But it does take strength of character to say, “I don’t have all the answers. But I know who is making this world a better place. It’s those who follow the man from Galilee, and I want to stand with them. I don’t have all the answers, but unless someone proves otherwise, I will stand with those who believe that this world was the creation of a good and loving God. I don’t have all the answers, but I believe the death and resurrection of Jesus has somehow changed this world forever. I don’t have ALL the answers, but I have what I need. Put me down as a believer.

          For as Jesus said to Thomas, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.

          Blessed are the believers! May God be praised. Amen.

 

1.    Dynamic Preaching, Vol. XXXV, No. 2, p27.

2.    Ibid… p28.

3.    Ibid… p28.

4.    Ibid… p28-29.

5.    Ibid… p29.

6.    Ibid… p30.

4-21-19 Marking the Moment

Thomas J Parlette

“Marking the Moment”

Luke 24: 1-12

4/21/19, Easter

 

          There once was a Baptist church in Bangladesh that was showing a film about the life, death and resurrection of Jesus to an audience filled with people who had never heard the Gospel before. Little children sat in front and in the aisles. The adults stood in the back. As the story of Jesus’ crucifixion unfolded and Jesus’ broken body was laid in the tomb, there were tears and audible gasps. As the affected audience watched, one young boy suddenly spoke up. “Don’t be afraid, I’ve seen this before. He gets up again!(1)

          Surprise! He’s not dead – not anymore. That’s the story of Easter.

          Or, consider a story told by a pastor named Phil Callaway. He tells of driving with his 5 year -old son past a local cemetery. Of course, 5 year-olds sometimes have an interesting perspective on things. Noticing a large pile of dirt beside a newly excavated grave, the boy pointed and said: “Look Dad, one got out!”(2)

          Surprise! One got out! That’s the story of the Resurrection.

          Many emotions swirl around this story from Luke. We start with grief, as the women make their way to Jesus’ tomb in the early hours of the morning. Then terror, as the men in dazzling clothes stand before them. Then excitement, as they hurried off to tell the disciples about what has happened. Then disbelief, as the disciples dismiss the women’s story as an idle tale. And we end with a sense of amazement, as Peter sees the grave clothes, but no body. He leaves surprised. Not yet full of faith, just wonder and amazement.

          This is the start of a whole new world.

          The resurrection marks the moment when life overcame death. That’s the primary reason most of us are here today. Death has been conquered.

          Professional golfer Paul Azinger was diagnosed with cancer at age 33. He wrote about that experience: “A genuine feeling of fear came over me – I could die from cancer. But then another reality hit me even harder: I am going to die eventually anyway, whether from cancer or something else. I am definitely going to die. It’s just a question of when. Suddenly everything I had accomplished in golf became meaningless to me. All I wanted to do was live.”

          And that’s when he remembered something that his friend Larry Moody had once told him: “Zinger, we are not in the land of the living going to the land of the dying. We are in the land of the dying trying to get to the land of the living.” That’s what Easter is all about.

          Paul Azinger wrote about how his perspective on life changed as he underwent his cancer treatments and then returned to the PGA tour. He wrote, “The only way you will ever have true contentment is in a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. I’m not saying that nothing ever bothers me and I don’t have problems, but I feel like I’ve found the answer to the six- foot hole. I know I’ll spend eternity with God and I have a promise that as a child of God, he’ll help me deal with anything. God promises to offer me contentment regardless of what life brings, even cancer.”(3) The resurrection marks the moment when life triumphed over death.

          The resurrection also marks the moment when hope overcame grief. The power of death and loss and grief can destroy a person. It can make us lose hope.

          Pastor Stephen Brown says he was devastated after his younger brother, Ron, died suddenly of a heart attack. Ron was only in his forties, a popular district attorney, a terrific father. Stephen never even got the chance to say goodbye.

          Several weeks after Ron’s death, Stephen decided to visit his brother’s grave. It was a cold, rainy afternoon in late winter. Ron’s grave was not yet marked, and Stephen couldn’t find it. As he trekked through the mud, his grief overwhelmed him. Standing in the rain, Stephen began sobbing. “God, this has been the worst month of my life, and now I can’t even find my brother’s grave.”

          Suddenly Stephen sensed a presence near him, as though Christ had drawn alongside to help. The words that the angel spoke came to his mind like a burst of light – “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”

          “Those words comforted me,” Stephen later wrote, “and I haven’t been back to the cemetery since. I don’t need to go back. The One who knew and loved Ron came to me in my grief. He promised never to leave, and that has made all the difference in the world.”(4)

          Even death cannot destroy the hope of those who believe in Jesus Christ. The resurrection marks the moment when hope overcame grief.

          And finally, the resurrection marks a moment when we have to make a decision. Not whether the resurrection is true or not – but whether we will live like the resurrection happened in the PAST or whether we will live like the resurrection is happening NOW.

          At the entrance to Jerusalem’s Church of All Nations, next to the Garden of Gethsemane, there is a sign warning every visitor: No Explanations inside the Church (5)

          The warning was meant to discourage tour guides from disturbing the church’s prayerful ambiance with loud lectures and explanations inside the church. But that’s actually some pretty good advice about how to approach Easter Sunday.

          Easter Sunday is a time for proclamation, not explanation. This is not a day to lay out the evidence that once upon a time Jesus walked out of the tomb, alive and well. This is not a day to argue those who have doubts into belief. No – explanations in the church are not allowed, especially on Easter.

          This is a day not to convince, but to invite – to invite the mixed crowd of believers, seekers, hopers and even the doubters, to embrace the Easter experience and appreciate it’s transformative effects. (6)

          Easter isn’t something we remember once a year in the springtime and then get on with life. Easter is something we live and breathe all year long. Resurrection is about the healing and restoration of wounded and severed relationships – between God and humanity, between human persons and, ultimately, among all the elements of creation. The resurrection is more than a proposition we believe. It’s something we prove by the way we live it out.

          The best evidence of the reality of resurrection is a community that lives with the steadfast hope that God will conquer all the powers of sin and death – God has done it before and God will do it again.

          As the Orthodox theologian Patriarch Athenagoras has said, “The Resurrection is not the resuscitation of a body; it is the beginning of the transfiguration of the world.”(7)

          Will you join me in marking this Resurrection Moment by joining together in the Festival of Resurrection litany printed in your bulletin…

 

1.    Dynamic Preaching, Vol. XXXV, No. 2, p22.

2.    Ibid…p22.

3.    Ibid…p23.

4.    Ibid…p24.

5.    Jim Friedrich, Christian Century, April 10th, 2019, p10.

6.    Ibid…p10.

7.    Ibid…p11.

 

         

4-7-19 Prelude to the Passion

Thomas J Parlette

“Prelude to the Passion”

John 12: 1-8

4/7/19

 

          If you were to do a Google search on the word “prelude”, you would find a definition such as “an action or event serving as an introduction to something more important.” Usually we think of a prelude as a piece of music, such as we hear every week here in worship. The prelude gathers us together as God’s people and prepares us for the more important experience of worship and offering our praise and thanksgiving to God.

          In like manner, this passage today about Mary anointing Jesus with some expensive oil, serves as a prelude to the more important event coming up in the Gospel of John.

          Leading up to this story, Jesus has been healing people and doing miracles in the surrounding areas. Just a short while before this Jesus healed the man who had been born blind. Then he brought his friend Lazarus back to life. All of these miraculous “God-signs”, as Eugene Peterson calls them, has created quite a buzz about Jesus. The priests and the Pharisees were getting increasingly concerned. So they called a meeting of the Jewish ruling body and wondered aloud, “What are we going to do about this? This man Jesus keeps doing things, creating God-signs. If we let him keep doing this, pretty soon, everyone is going to believe in him and the Romans will step in and take away what little power and privilege we still have.”

          It was Caiaphas, the designated High Priest for that year, that spoke up and said, “It would be better if one man died for the people rather than our whole nation be destroyed.” There was general agreement on that point, and from that time on they plotted to kill Jesus.

          So Jesus no longer went out in public among the Jews, and in fact withdrew to a little town called Ephraim, about 10 miles north of Bethany and Jerusalem, and secluded himself there with the disciples.

          The Jewish Passover feast was coming up and lots of people were showing up in Jerusalem and everyone was curious about this man Jesus. They were all wondering – “Do you think he’ll show up at the Feast or not?” Meanwhile, the High Priest and the Pharisees put out the word that anyone getting wind of Jesus should tell them. They were all set to arrest him.

          That brings us to our story for today. It is six days before Passover, and once again, Jesus is in Bethany with Lazarus, Mary and Martha. They are enjoying dinner together after a long trip from Ephrain where they’ve been hiding out. Martha, as usual, is busy serving the meal, while Lazarus sat with Jesus and the disciples. Mary comes into the room with a jar of very expensive oil. She anoints Jesus, something usually reserved for a King or as preparation for burial. She then massaged his feet and wiped them with her hair,

          What we see here is a prelude to the Passion. In this anointing we get a prelude to Jesus as The King of Creation. But this is a new kind of King. Jesus is a King who will suffer and die for the people. So we also see this as a prelude to the Passion and resurrection.

          But it’s the reactions to Mary’s anointing that are most interesting.

          First, there’s Judas Iscariot, the one getting ready to betray Jesus. He seems to try to turn Jesus’ preaching back on him when he says, perhaps a little sarcastically – “Why wasn’t this perfume sold for 300 denarii’s and the money given to the poor.” John quickly tells us why Judas says this – he isn’t really concerned about the poor, he just wants the money put into the common purse so he can steal it later. But Judas raises a good point. Isn’t this wasteful? We often experience this tension when, as a faith community, we go through our budgeting process and balance our financial resources between things that seem extravagant and programs to help people in need. We strive to be good stewards and do as much good as we can in our community and in the world. We try to avoid waste – and yet, here is an act of extravagance that seems wasteful. But is it? Or does it show us something about God’s love and grace?

          About 10 years ago, Holy Name Cathedral, a Catholic church in Chicago, had a fire that damaged its roof. Two days later, Neil Steinberg, a Chicago Sun-Times columnist with a famously hard-boiled reputation, walked into the church to see the damage for himself. He saw it, but he also saw the greater part of the church that wasn’t damaged. He went back to his office and wrote a  column about his visit, which he headlined, “Cathedral Can Inspire Cynic.” In it, he said, “Repair of Holy Name is a cause worth supporting. I’m a hardened, godless cynic, but to walk into Holy Name and see that ceiling soar toward heaven, well, I hate to imagine a person so emotionally numb as not to be affected. God may not move you, but God moved the people who built this, and this moves you.”

          Steinberg went on to invite readers to donate to the Holy Name Cathedral repair fund. Then he concluded by saying that he had given $50 himself, which, he said, “seemed a painless, minimal sum for a Jewish agnostic wishing to speed the repairs along.”(1)

          This seemingly wasteful act shows us that God is just as extravagant in pouring out Divine love on us in Jesus’ life, death and coming resurrection, a gift that moves us to build cathedrals in praise of God. It is not a waste, but an act of love and gratitude while Jesus is still with them.

          The other response here is Jesus’ when he reprimands Judas and says “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

          It’s easy to misunderstand Jesus here. It’s easy to come away wondering – “is Jesus saying the poor aren’t important, that they are not a priority?”

          But that is not what Jesus means here. His words do not mean that the poor are not important. Jesus is pointing out that it will always be possible to serve the poor, there will always be those in need. On the contrary, Jesus establishes a parallel between himself and the poor. Now- he is present, and Mary rightly feels the need to be extravagant. When he is no longer around, at least not in the flesh – well, the poor will still be there, to be served with the same extravagance.(2)

          Dorothy Day has been called an American saint. She took her Christian faith right into the most dreadful slums of New York City. There she established the first Catholic Worker House, a place of radical Christian discipleship.

          That house became a place of hospitality for the down and out – for men Day later described as “grey men, the color of lifeless trees and bushes and winter soil, who had in them as yet none of the green of hope, the rising sap of faith.” Not long after, the Catholic Worker House began welcoming women and children as well.

          One day, a wealthy socialite pulled up to the house, in a big car. She received the obligatory tour of the mission from Day herself. When she was about to leave, the woman impulsively pulled a diamond ring off her finger and handed it to Day.

          The staff was ecstatic when they heard about this act of generosity. They ring, they realized, could be sold for a huge sum – enough money to take some pressure off the budget, at least for a little while.

          A day or two later, though, one of them noticed the diamond ring on the finger of a homeless woman who was leaving the mission. Immediately, the staff members confronted Day. Why, in heaven’s name, would she just give away a valuable piece of jewelry like that?

          Day responded: “That woman was admiring the ring. She thought it was so beautiful. So I gave it to her. Do you think God made diamonds just for the rich?”(3)

          An extravagant gift, that on the surface seems wasteful. But looking deeper, such a gift was a reminder of extravagant love for us poured out in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus.

          In this prelude to the passion, we see the grace of God poured out, we see Jesus extravagant sacrifice for us. And we see our proper response to such a gift – an extravagant sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving for the love of God poured out upon us in Jesus Christ.

          May God be praised. Amen.

 

1.    HomeliticsOnline, retrieved March 20th, 2019.

2.    Justo Gonzalez, Christian Century, March 13th, 2019, p19.

3.    HomeliticsOnline, retrieved March 20th, 2019.

3-31-19 A Father had Two Sons

Thomas J Parlette

“A Father had Two Sons”

Luke 15: 1-3, 11b-32

3/31/19

 

          Once upon a time, there was a man who went to the movies one cold and rainy Saturday afternoon. He hadn’t been to a movie in quite a while, so he thought it would be a nice change of pace. He made himself comfortable, enjoyed the pre-movie trivia and the coming attractions, and settled in for the main feature.

          On the screen there appeared the MGM roaring lion, and the man thought to himself, this is the same way the last movie I saw started, with that same roaring lion – and he decided, I’ve seen this movie before – and he got up and walked out of the theater.(1)

          As silly as that story might be, it holds a nugget of truth. There is a word of warning there.

          When we hear that opening phrase in our passage for today – “There was a man who had two sons…”, we might be tempting to check out mentally. We know this story well – it’s the parable of the prodigal son. We might decide that we don’t need to pay too much attention – we already know the story, we already get the point. Time to leave the theater.

          But when we really listen to it, scripture can surprise us. This is part of what makes it the word of God: no matter the situation in which we find ourselves, when we read it afresh God speaks to us and our circumstances. Today, as we read this passage we know oh so well within the context of Lent, that context may help us hear a new word from an old story.

          The passage for today begins with the first three verses of Luke 15, and then skips ahead for 11 and half verses to get the story of the prodigal son. I’m always interested is what the lectionary leaves out, so it’s interesting to note that the stories being skipped or two very short parables – the lost sheep and the lost coin. Obviously the whole chapter is held together by the theme of being lost. The shepherd loses a sheep, leaves the 99 and goes in search of the one that is lost. The woman loses a coin, and then turns her house upside down looking for it. When she finds it, she calls all her friends and neighbors and asks them to rejoice with her. Such is God’s joy when even one sinner repents. So it’s not surprising that we look at these parables as words of hope and invitation for the lost, for that is certainly one of their meanings.

          However, when we look at these three parables in the context of Lent, a time when we are called to self- reflection and repentance, another dimension comes forth. The introduction provides a different setting than we usually imagine. The Pharisees and scribes are disgruntled because Jesus is receiving tax collectors and sinners. These parables about being lost are addressed to them, the religious leaders of the time – not primarily to those they consider sinners.

          Despite all the bad press that Christians have given them over the years, the Pharisees and scribes were deeply religious people. In fact, for those Christians who regularly attend worship and seek to practice their faith, we are most like the Pharisees and scribes. Whenever they are mentioned in Jesus’ story, that’s where we are most likely to stand. They were very concerned with obeying God and all the religious laws of Israel. From their perspective it was others – the tax collectors and the sinners – who were lost. So the Pharisees and tax collectors would have been unlikely to identify themselves with the lost sheep that the shepherd rescues or the lost son whose father awaits. They would see themselves as the 99 sheep, the faithful who stayed with the shepherd, and as the older son, obedient to his father. It would seem shocking to them to see a shepherd abandon 99 in the wilderness to go looking for just one sheep, or to see the older son missing the banquet thrown for his brother. These parables speak of the error of considering ourselves faithful and obedient. Ken Bailey, in his book The Cross and The Prodigal, points out that “a parable is like a house in which the reader or listener is invited to take up residence. The reader is encouraged to look out on the world from the point of view of the story. A house has a variety of windows of rooms, with a different view from each.”(2) A parable works the same way. The view changes depending on where you stand in this story, which character you identify yourself with. The season of Lent invites us to see ourselves through more than one prism- to see ourselves as both the lost and not lost.

          For in reality, both sons in this story are lost. They both have broken relationships with their father. The younger son broke his relationship in the audacious move of asking for his share of the inheritance now. This was basically wishing that your father would die so you could have control of your assets right now – and telling him so to his face. People would have gasped at the gall of the younger son.

          And to top it off, the story tells us that a few days after this shocking request, the younger son gathered all he had and left. Which means he sold everything, took the money and ran. He basically had a going out of business sale, getting rid of his father’s assets for much less than they were worth. And then he skips town – turning his back on his responsibilities both to his family and to his village and community. This is not a case of a young man striking out on his own to make his own way in the world – no this younger son is thumbing his nose at everyone as he slams the door behind him. His relationship with his father – and with his community is broken.

          And then there’s the older son. He is lost in his own way as well. Yes, on the surface he seems to be obedient, staying on the farm, faithfully doing what is expected of him. But does he really?

          In Middle Eastern society at that time – and still true today – the oldest son inherited the larger share of the property. The older son was expected to have a special position, second to his father. So when his younger brother makes this extreme request, it would have been expected that the older brother would intervene and act as mediator between his father and brother. But he does not – he is silent. When his brother has their possessions spread out on the front yard to sell off as quickly as possible, the brother should have intervened and tried to reason with him – but he did not, we hear nothing from him. When his younger brother is leaving town, possibly for good, the older brother should have been there to at least say “Farewell” - but he is nowhere to be seen. The older brother has a broken relationship with the father as well, for he didn’t live up to any of his responsibilities as the older son.

          Throughout the whole story, the younger son’s departure and humbling return and the older son’s refusal to welcome his brother home, the father remains the father. Even though both of his sons have broken off their relationship with him – one by running away and one by following the rules, but failing to love his brother or father in his heart – the father never cuts his sons off. He welcomes one home with a feast, and lets the other know he is always welcome and the door is always open. In the end, we don’t know exactly how it turned out for these two sons, but we know where the father stands -  in the doorway with arms wide open, welcoming them back into relationship.

          In Lent, it is good for us to listen to the parable of the two sons while moving back and forth between seeing ourselves as the lost son who is received with open arms and the obedient one who apparently thinks he is more deserving. Lent is a time to consider both the grace of God that has sought and welcomed us and the constant danger that religious people face – thinking that we are better than we are.

          Jesus is addressing the best and most religious people in Israel. And yet, while Jesus addresses those who consider themselves “not lost”, the lost are overhearing what Jesus says. In a way, we are the lost overhearing what Jesus says to those who believe that they are not lost. From this perspective, this parable – and the other two that were left out – is a parable of joy and promise. No matter how far we have strayed, God awaits us with open arms and a feast of welcome. We have experienced the joy of God welcoming us when we least deserved it, and for that we must rejoice.

          But once we have experienced such welcome and rejoiced in it, we have to watch out for our tendency to stand with the ones who consider them not lost. During Lent, it’s easy to adopt that attitude as we move through the Holy Season with our ashes and fasting and prayer and study. When we lose sight of our “lostness”, we must realize that the parable speaks to us not as the sinners who overhear, but rather as the Pharisees and scribes who resent Jesus’ welcoming attitude toward those who are not as good, or faithful or religious as they are.

          Lent invites us to count ourselves continually among both groups, as we seek to obey God in all things while also grounding our joy in the experience of being found.

          So when you hear that “a father had two sons”, I hope you don’t walk out believing you’ve seen this movie before. Stick around, view this story from another angle, and see what else God wants to show you.

          May God be praised. Amen.

1.    Justo Gonzalez, The Christian Century, March 13th, 2019, p. 18.

2.    Kenneth Bailey, The Cross and the Prodigal, Intervarsity Press, 2005, p. 87.

3-24-19 Church for the Thirsty

Church for the Thirsty

Jay P. Rowland

Psalm 63:1-8   &   Isaiah 55:1-9 (selected verses)

March 24, 2019

 

Every once in a while, I’ll happen to visit someone in the hospital at a time when they are not allowed any liquids, not even a sip.   

There’s always a medical reason for this of course—pre-op, post-op, upcoming scan, etc.  Sometimes ice chips are okay; sometimes ice chips are NOT OKAY—and so only a swab of some mysterious liquid is permitted to keep mouth and lips moist for comfort. Those who’ve experienced this hospital protocol know what we can all assume, which is how utterly unsatisfying a little swab or a small ice chip is compared to the MONSTER THIRST PARCHING away. 

Thirst gets our attention and demands immediate action in a way that few other things can. When we were parched or caught with a dry throat or mouth, our attention to anything else is partial at best until that gets remedied. And then there’s also the feeling that comes when we’re not allowed water so it becomes almost torturous and desperately obsessed over because we cannot have it (whether it be due to hospital protocol or some other situation).  

The same dynamic applies to our spiritual thirst.  The Psalmist expresses this today with lyrical power:

my soul thirsts for you O God;

my flesh faints for you,

as in a dry and weary land

   where there is no water. 

The ancients figured out fairly early on that human nature has an awful tendency to look to almost anything and everything other than God to satisfy our innate thirst for God.  Which, they also attest, creates all kinds of problems for us because nothing beside God can assuage our thirst for God (which is an excellent rationale for the First Commandment).   

From the psalmists, to Augustine, to C. S. Lewis, all spiritual wisdom agrees that what we do with our thirst for God, how we seek to satisfy that thirst, shapes our lives for the better or for the worse. (see Rev. Dr. Tim Smith’s www.waterfromrock.org, and the blog post “Thirsty” published 3/4/19)  

Church is a gathering place of the spiritually thirsty.  And that’s good. That’s how it’s supposed to be. But this means church is a gathering of broken, flawed, mistake-prone people.  Jesus describes this community as being for those who are sick rather than those who are well (Mark 2:17).  But we don’t seem willing to accept this.  We hide our authentic selves (our authentic thirst for God), behind a façade of “everything’s fine” which defeats the whole purpose of a faith community.  

I’m not saying this is bad or “wrong” … it’s just an observation. I contribute to it also.  But deep down I see church as a microcosm of the story of creation in Genesis:  In the beginning, all was chaos, a formless void. Then God said, “let there be light” and “let there be (water and life and plants and animals and humanity)”.  God creates out of nothing. God brings light out of darkness, order out of chaos, life out of death.  And that’s how I see the church—the one hidden behind our facades. In the real world, church is subject to chaos, it’s messy, unmanageable, broken—utterly dependent upon God for life and sustenance. 

Church and worship function best in tandem with other resources and other aspects of church, as well as with resources outside of church, “out there” where God is on the move, always up to something, always offering the sacred and the holy through unlikely people, places and ways.  

We all come away from church acutely aware of how well or how poorly we feel it connects with whatever we’re struggling with.  On any given Sunday in any church, it’s a hit or miss proposition.  On any given Sunday, some leave church feeling like they just drank deeply from a deep well of fresh cool spiritual water, while others leave that exact same experience just as thirsty as they arrived (or perhaps only a mere ice chip or moist swab’s worth).   

Worship at its best can provide draughts of living water through scripture, prayer, liturgy, ritual, music, singing, hymns, preaching, sacrament, fellowship, etc.  At its best church can be a deep well of living water for the parched in spirit.  

At the same time, it also seems as if we have yet to figure out a structure or forum which appropriately allows us to share or channel our struggles and sufferings into the light of church and worship.  We have become adept at engaging worship/church in a way that allows us to anonymously and privately receive comfort in our spiritual anguish, while also keeping it safely hidden.    

The good news is that God is generous by nature, and the Holy Spirit is ever-ready to intercede. I have witnessed sacred moments and connections in worship and church by which living water is abundantly shared and received, and which even allow us to be open and authentic about our depleted spirit.   

And yet. 

And yet I fear that too many of us come to church hoping for or looking for or ready for … something … anything comparable to a deep-well of living water where we might let our thirst be met.  I fear that too many of us sitting here today are struggling with something that has stolen life and joy, and living water. Statistics provide a compelling snapshot of what people are struggling to survive:

  • rape (1 in 6 women);

  • domestic violence (1 in 3 to 1 in 5 women; Men 1 in 4 to 1 in 7);

  • sexual harassment (80% of women have been harassed verbally; 50% through inappropriate touching);

  • prescription drug addiction (1 in 10); 

  • alcoholism (1 out of 16);

  • divorce (1 our of 2 or 3 / 40-50%);

  • pornography addiction (1 out of 3 men);

  • devastating rates of cancer, dementia/Alzheimer’s, mental illness, suicide, etc. 

When I read or hear these statistics, it’s like a prophet’s voice crying out in the wilderness, crying out for anyone and everyone here today and in every church who are suffering terribly--all too many in secret, isolated, alone.   

I’m here to say to anyone and everyone here who is suffering today:  

It doesn’t have to be that way.  

You don’t have to suffer in secret or in silence or in isolation anymore!   

It seems to me that Jesus created the church to be the place where we can be real about our lives, a place where community displaces isolation, where support is available to all who seek it. We are here because of Jesus who “never saw disease without seeking to heal it or any kind of human need without turning aside to help”.  I see Jesus here among us right now, seeing each one of us, especially anyone here who’s suffering today.  I hear Jesus say to anyone suffering here today,  

“come, follow me …”     

“ … come away from your suffering, come with me to healing and transformation …”  

It’s amazing to me that I can count on one hand the number of times any person from any congregation I have served has shared about their alcoholism, or their troubled marriage, or their struggles with pornography or with prescription drugs or with any of those issues that are, at least statistically, happening to so many of us.  Perhaps there’s good reasons for this. I hope so. Because I don’t want any of you to try to get through this by yourself. Hopefully you are finding your way to professionals and other resources, experiencing gradual but real relief, growth, transformation and healing and wholeness. 

But I fear this is not the case. I fear that too many are putting up with the depletion of their spirit and their life.  I wonder how many sitting here today, perhaps in front of or behind or beside you today are struggling terribly. Maybe even struggling with something you yourself have struggled with.  

It grieves me know that we have the resources and the people and the Savior who can lead us out of isolation, help us break our silence or anonymity, help meet our thirst.  

You who are thirsty, come to the waters,” the poet-prophet Isaiah cries out to the church! He cries out to all who are depleted to all who thirst for God,

“why do you labor for that which does not satisfy;

Incline your ear and come to me, says the Lord;

listen so that you may live.” 

In April 2018, we hosted workshop on suicide prevention and awareness for faith communities.  It was open to the wider community and was well attended. A good many of the participants were FPC members.  One of the many gifts that came from that gathering, beyond the immediate blessing of creating space here at church for people to gather and connect around the reality of suicide … was, for me, the gift of seeing people who have attended here for many years meet other members of this church whose name or face they maybe recognized or even knew (who have also attended here for years), discover that they had in common the experience of being personally impacted—devastated—by suicide.  

It’s an example of the deep well of living water that’s already here.  Gatherings like this addressing suicide prevention and community support and other critical issues and problems help create a deeper community well. So will gatherings around enjoyable or educational interests such as auto repair or music or book groups or poetry or cooking or gardening, or parenting, etc. There are so many ways we can share this living water with each other, here in this community. So many opportunites also to open our doors to the people who live in the neighborhood.  

This church is a vast reservoir of living water: your knowledge, your experience, your skills, your interests, your passions; your struggles, your victories and even your defeats qualify you to be the valued member of this community that you already are. Every single person here today regardless of age or circumstance is a drop of living water in the vast reservoir that is First Presbyterian Church.   

Meanwhile, statistics declare that the mainline church is dying.  But that isn’t the full story. What’s happening “out there” is that the culture has changed dramatically. Newer generations do not interact with church the same way previous generations once did.  But people are just as thirsty and hungry spiritually as they’ve ever been—if not more so.  People continue to thirst for connection and belonging, people continue to thirst for God maybe in all the wrong places.  Meanwhile, here we are, followers of Jesus Christ, thirsting for and seeking connection with God, seeking to assuage our common thirst, together and with our neighbor.  

This church is already a deep well of living water.  Whether or not this living water is getting to those who need it most is our work in progress, God’s work in progress among us.  The church is not the only place where God offers living water, but I can tell you that God loves to show up here, God loves to reveal God’s self to us for such a time as this; God is ever ready, willing and able to lead you and me through whatever we struggle to bear.  This church may or may not yet provide the living water you seek, but I believe that God can and will help us improve and grow and discover and stretch toward our potential  

Surely we can, and surely we must.   Because First Presbyterian Church of Rochester MN has not yet peaked in our mission to reflect God’s love in Jesus Christ.  As we follow Jesus Christ together, He shall help us reach our potential to bring comfort, resolution, growth; to lead people out of isolation and into community, out of anonymity and into identity, a cup of living water to those who thirst for God.  Because, O God, you are our God, we seek you, our soul thirsts for you; our flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.

Come Lord Jesus.

Come Lord Jesus.

Speak Lord Jesus.

We your servants are listening … 

3-10-19 It's Tempting, But...

Thomas J Parlette

“It’s Tempting, But…”

Luke 4: 1-13

3/10/19

 

          Once upon a time, there was father who told his son NOT to go swimming. But it was a hot day, and the thought of a cool refreshing dip in the lake was too much for the boy to resist – so he went in anyway. And the father caught his son swimming.

          “What do you think you’re doing!? I specifically said NOT to go swimming today.”

          “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to go swimming, it just sort of…. Happened.”

          “It just happened? Then why are you wearing your swimsuit, your mask and your flippers – and you brought a towel?”

          “I brought them along just in case I was tempted. Mom would kill me if I got my good clothes wet and tracked water into the house.”(1)

          Temptation. That’s where we begin this morning. Jesus has been baptized, he has been filled with the Holy Spirit. He has heard that voice from the clouds, “You are my son, with you I am well pleased.” And now, Jesus is off to the wilderness.

          Before he goes back to his hometown synagogue to announce his mission, he’s got to figure out a few things. Jesus is in the process of figuring out what it means to be God’s Son. What does it mean to be the One who is pleasing to God? What is he going to do now? Jesus needs to figure out who he really is. And so, he goes to the wilderness, that place of spiritual discovery.

          Now we’ve been to the wilderness before. When you read the story of Jesus’ temptation, you can’t help but think of that other wilderness story, the one about Israel wandering around in the desert for forty years following a guy named Moses.

          You remember that the Hebrews faced many challenges and many temptations out there in the wilderness. There was no obvious source of food or water. It was hot, it was uncomfortable and they weren’t too sure where they were going exactly. And they didn’t have much confidence in the leader, Moses. They often wondered out aloud, “Maybe we would’ve been better off in Egypt – we were slaves, but at least we had food.” And of course, we all remember what happened when Moses went up the mountain and left them on their own for awhile. When faced with their own time of trial and testing and temptation – the Hebrews failed miserably.

          But, as we heard in our passage from Deuteronomy, God did not give up on them. God formed them into a community by giving them a future to hope for in their dreams and a story to tell to their children – “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor…”

          We’ve been to the wilderness before, and it didn’t go well. Maybe it will be different this time.

          While in his own wilderness, Jesus meets the Devil. And the Devil says, “Since you are the Son of God, command this stone to turn into a loaf of bread. Go ahead, feed yourself. Use your power to feed others. Wouldn’t God want that? Isn’t that what God did in the desert during Israel’s Exodus? Come, let’s see some of that divine glory.”

          And Jesus answers, “It’s tempting, but… it is written, “One does not live by bread alone.”

          It must have been tempting to whip up something to eat after fasting for 40 days. It was probably pretty tempting to consider the possibility of feeding all the hungry people in the land too – nothing gets you followers like free food. But even though Jesus will be called to feed the hungry, there is a bigger issue at stake.

          Then the Devil showed him all the Kingdoms of the earth, he offered Jesus all the political power he could dream of. Just think of all the good that could be done if you had that kind of power, Jesus The spirit will be upon you to bring justice and release to the captives. Just think how easy that could be if you had all the political power the world had to offer.

          But again, Jesus answers, “It is tempting, but… it is written, “Worship the Lord your God and serve only Him.”

          “Okay,” says the Devil, “let’s try something else. Let’s go to the top of the Temple and I’ll show you I know my scripture too.” For as a guy named William Shakespeare would one day write, “the devil quotes scripture for his own purposes.”

          And the Devil proves that true here. “You know it is written, He will command his angels to protect you, on their hands they will bear you up.”

          So let’s have a little fun. Since you are the Son of God – throw yourself off the Temple and let’s see if the angels catch you.

          “Ah,” says Jesus, “yes, I know that verse. It’s tempting, but scripture also says, “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.”

          And that’s the end of the scene. The Devil leaves, deciding to bide his time and wait until a more opportune time.

          On our first trip to the wilderness, Israel, God’s chosen people, were tempted and failed. They failed to put their trust in the Lord their God. But on this second trip to the wilderness, Jesus, God’s chosen and beloved Son, faces temptation and he triumphs. He faces perhaps the greatest temptation, the original temptation, and he overcomes it. The temptation here is not just about fresh bread, or political power, or having your own personal security force of angels watching over your every move. The real temptation here is the same one presented to Adam and Eve in the Garden at Creation. The temptation to be like God.

          You remember the story. God created the world and everything in it and called it good. God created man and woman and made the Garden of Eden for them to live in. The only condition? Don’t eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

          But then the snake, the symbol of the Devil himself, convinces the woman that it will be okay to eat the fruit, because then you will be like God. And both the man and the woman give in to this temptation – to be like God.

          The original sin, the original temptation?- is to be like God, possessing all the wisdom and knowledge that God has. That is the greatest temptation that we face.

          Early on in Christian theology, a name was given to this temptation. Gnosticism. According to Harold Bloom the author of a book called The American Religion: The Emergence of the Post-Christian Nation, Gnostics hold two absolute convictions:

1.    Human beings have a spark, a breath of God within them.

2.    That spark can find its way back into a fallen world through Knowledge – or “gnosis.”

In other words, Gnosticism is the belief that we can save ourselves. Through knowledge, we can bring about our own redemption. We need only to look within ourselves. We can be like God. Equality with God is attainable. Through some secret, higher knowledge, we can be like God.

That’s the real temptation for us, and for Jesus – to be like God. But here, Jesus overcomes that ultimate temptation. As Paul so eloquently put it in Philippians: “Jesus did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant…”

Yes, it’s tempting to try and be like God, especially for Jesus – God’s Son, the chosen one, the beloved. But Jesus answers this temptation by emptying himself and choosing instead the path of self-sacrifice and service. A choice that would ultimately lead him to the cross.

But as Paul explained, “Jesus did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped…”, at least, not yet. He will get there, but not now… not yet. There is work to do first. That is the work we relive in the season of Lent.

It is tempting to be like God, to act like we are in control of life. But Jesus shows us the way to deal with this ultimate temptation. Empty yourself, live by the word of God, and serve only the Lord.

It’s tempting to live otherwise, but… let God be God.

Amen.

 

1.    Source Unknown.

3-3-19 Resurrection Rhythm

Resurrection Rhythm

Rev. Jay Rowland

1 Corinthians 15:35-38, 42-50

Sunday March 3, 2019, First Presbyterian Church, Rochester MN

This sermon utilizes material published by Richard B. Hays in First Corinthians Interpretation Commentary (John Knox Press). 

“Someone will ask, How are the dead raised? 

With what kind of body do they come?” 

 

That's rhetorical.  Word has already reached Paul that these questions are being asked (and answered) in Corinth.   

What about you?  Perhaps you may be asking, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body? …”  It seems to me we don’t talk enough about resurrection. Something that is so central to our faith, should provoke lots of questions and conversations.  We all have questions, thoughts, maybe even doubts about the resurrection.  The gospels proclaim the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead—hallelujah—praise God!

 But sometimes, explanation is preferred to proclamation. 

Paul’s effort in the fifteen chapter of First Corinthians begins (v.3-5) with his recitation of the oldest known creedal statement on the resurrection (traceable to within three years of Jesus’ crucifixion).[1] He does this to divert their focus from their immediate surroundings, and maybe even from Paul himself, to the wider Christian community.  Paul then circles back to Corinth, to the misinformation about resurrection rampant among the congregation he planted there. Many are openly declaring that Jesus’ resurrection is merely a metaphor. Paul is convinced this will destroy the church in Corinth. Multiple other controversies are already wreaking havoc there.  Paul devotes the prior fourteen chapters to addressing each one, as requested by church members through letters they sent to Paul asking him to do so. 

The resurrection was not something Paul was asked to address.  But when word of mouth reaches Paul about resurrection bashing he determines to put a stop to it.  These are people who were converted by Paul and his preaching on the-crucified-and-risen-Lord.  What happened?  Why are they now suddenly denying the resurrection? 

It seems they started to take themselves a bit too seriously. Richard Hays reports in his excellent commentary that the faction in Corinth denying resurrection consider themselves “hyperspiritual Christians (pneumatikoi)”.  Some even claim special, divine wisdom and knowledge (gnosis - gnosticism).  They had become so spiritual, they elevated the soul far above the body.  Their idea of salvation was escape from the limitations imposed upon the soul by the body and the distractions of the flesh. Paul’s declaration about the “resurrection of the dead” literally the “rising of corpses” struck them as crass and horrifying, unsophisticated superstitious nonsense. (Hays, p.253)  

The notion of our human soul being at odds with our body is a product of ancient Greek philosophy which was embedded in the dominant Hellenistic culture throughout the Roman Empire. It’s one of those accidents of history that as Christianity spreads throughout these regions, Greek philosophy bleeds into Christian faith formation.   

Two thousand years later Greek philosophy continues to infect Christian faith formation. I could walk into any church on any given Sunday and ask, what do you think happens after we die? Many devout Christians would speak in terms of our soul being released from our body, transformed into a spirit-being, ascending to heaven from where we can observe our loved ones still alive on earth.   

Sounds wonderful. And it is. But it’s essentially ancient Greek philosophy, not Christian faith.   

The New Testament attests to something distinctively different. Jesus was dead and buried. God raised Jesus from death in his body. When the risen Jesus appears to his disciples they see and can touch his bodily wounds. Jesus asks them for something to eat.  Thus the risen Jesus is not a spirit-being. He is embodied. And yet his body is also different, a new creation ... able to pass through locked doors.  Some do not recognize him.  The risen Jesus is not a philosophical abstraction. What he is has never been seen before.  Perhaps that’s harder for people to understand and therefore accept.  Paul’s answer to the question he posed in verse 35 relies upon theology more than philosophy:

It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body. …  The first man (Adam) was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man (Jesus) is from heaven. … Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we will also bear the image of the man of heaven.     

But so what, right?  What if we don’t go for the resurrection?  Is it that big of a deal?  What’s the harm if we mix in a little philosophy.  No harm no foul right? Closer examination may prove otherwise.   

In his commentary, Richard Hays shares an experience of a young woman from his church whose 18-year-old sister was killed in a car accident. Her relatives and friends were saying things to her like, “your sister is in a better place …” and “… she’s happy now, and telling us not to be sad” And “God must have needed your sister up in heaven”  

These pithy declarations denied the painful reality and the bitter tragedy of her sister’s death and left her confused and angry, which in turn produced guilt because she thought she was supposed to agree with what her well-meaning Christian friends and family were saying, and doubting her own Christian faith.   

Hays reports that this young woman felt liberated by Paul’s words which treated death as a destructive enemy that will be conquered only at the end of this age. She was previously unaware of Paul’s explanation or simply had not paid attention until now. 1 Corinthians 15 “enabled her to struggle with the reality that her sister was truly dead and buried in the ground, while at the same time, affirm the Christian hope that she will hold her sister in her arms again one day …” (p.279)   

Paul insists that all Christian proclamation is grounded in the resurrection. Our faith stands or falls to the extent that this is true. “The resurrection of the dead” Hays writes, “forces us to take seriously that God is committed to the creation and that God has acted and will act in ways beyond our experience and external to our subjectivity.” Resurrection does not circumvent the pain of death nor relieve God of any responsibility or accountability.  “The resurrection is not simply a symbol for flowers coming up every spring,” Hays concludes “or for the generic hope that ‘springs eternal’ in the human heart.  Our Christian faith is grounded in the rising from the grave of Jesus Christ who suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried” (p.281).[2]  

Our daily life and movement is infused with the sacred rhythms of God’s movement in us, with us and among us. The very pinnacle of the sacred rhythm and movement of Jesus Christ among us here on the other side of the Transfiguration is and ever shall be resurrection.  Jesus’ resurrection, yours and mine too, declares something deeper happening all around us and with us, something we seem reluctant to accept, and yet, something God-filled and God-blessed.   

In a few days, we will enter again into the season and pilgrimage that is Lent. It begins with a solemn declaration that without God’s breath in us, we are dust. From that moment we begin a long, slow, meandering pilgrimage winding, twisting and turning eventually to Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, and Crucifixion Friday. The pilgrimage of Lent reminds us that resurrection is something that we cannot produce or reproduce, we cannot control nor manipulate. Resurrection places our hope exclusively in God’s hands where it belongs (Hays, p.280).   

As we come to the Table Jesus has prepared for us, a reservation kept in heaven, come and receive sustenance for the pilgrimage, and be reminded that we live and move and have our being in the Resurrection Rhythm of Jesus Christ … who lived, died, and rose again, yet who lives and reigns, here with us, now and forever.

[1] Hays: “It is highly significant that this early creed specifies the story of Jesus’ passion and resurrection must be interpreted in light of the Scripture: the earliest church understood the gospel as the continuation and fulfillment of God’s dealings with Israel” p.255

[2] “Christianity in which Jesus is seen not as the crucified and risen one but only as a great moral teacher (and) … the resurrection, if it is preached at all, is understood only as a symbol for human potential or enlightened self-understanding … (or) a dream(s) warmly of ‘going to heaven’ but ignore(s) the resurrection of the body (effectively) ignore(s) the challenge of the gospel to the world we inhabit” (p.278)

2-17-19 Happy and Blessed

Thomas J Parlette

“Happy and Blessed”

Luke 6: 17-26

2/17/19

 

          Every year about this time, Jay and I both receive a package with a free sample of a pen in it. It’s from one of those companies that want to get you to buy a thousand pens with your church name printed on it. According to the sales letter, this is guaranteed to make your church membership swell. Well, the pen this year was gray, and writes very nicely – if I were in the market for 1,000 pens, this would certainly be on my list. With one small exception. The name of our church – First Presbyterian Church, Rochester – was misspelled. Apparently, they didn’t have enough space on the side of the pen, so they dropped out some letters – mostly vowels, so you could still read what it said. But the problem was, we just didn’t fit.

          This passage for today is scriptural proof that as Christians, we just don’t fit too well in this world. These verses are from Luke’s version of The Sermon on the Mount, nicknamed by scholars as The Sermon on the Plain.

          That’s an important note to consider. Matthew puts Jesus above the people, teaching from the top of a hill. Matthew also takes the sting out of the blessings and woes by spiritualizing them – “… blessed are the poor, in spirit…”, etc…

          But Luke has Jesus teaching from the plain – on level ground with the people, right in their midst. And he leaves the edge in Jesus’ teaching - …”woe to the rich, the full and the laughing…”

          This is a much tougher version of what we know as the Beatitudes. According to Reader’s Digest, in September 1998, Ted Turner called Christianity a “religion for losers…” His reasoning was based in part on these Beatitudes. His thinking was that any religion which asks its followers to be meek and merciful even in the face of oppression can only be a religion for losers. Sure, Jesus said, “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven,” but this reward in heaven business is what Karl Marx called “the opiate of the masses.” No clear thinking, 21st century realist would buy these concepts, would they? No, not really – it just doesn’t fit.

          And to be honest, no self-respecting First Century realist would embrace the lifestyle suggested by the Beatitudes either. The Emperor Julian is reported to have said that he wanted to confiscate Christians property so that they might all become poor and the enter the kingdom of heaven.(1) If that would make them happy – then so be it. Just trying to help. No wonder he was known as Julian the Apostate.

          The Greek word used here, “makarios” which most translators render as “blessed”, can also be translated as “happy”. Happy are the poor. Happy are the hungry. Happy are those who weep. I don’t know about you, but blessed is a little easier to swallow than happy, in those situations.

          But then again, consider Mother Teresa, who worked with dying people in the slums of Calcutta – we can accept that she was blessed in her life of service – but happy really? Seems like that would be very depressing work. And yet people who knew her best said that she indeed radiated happiness. In fact, many authors who have studied the pursuit of happiness have observed that the happiest people on earth are not those who pursue happiness, but those who seek God and serve others.

          Many of you remember Dr. Norman Vincent Peale and his Power of Positive Thinking. Late in his life, Dr. Peale wrote something else. He wrote, “I have discovered that the most optimistic people are the most Christian people in their attitudes. Now, I’ve got to qualify that a little bit. I have seen lay people, preachers, bishops, and so on, up and down the hierarchy who weren’t optimistic, who thought everything was going bad. You see, there are different ways of being a Christian.”

          “A minister in London once told me about a man who would never go inside a church. He would hang around in the vestibule, and when the ushers went away, he would open the door just a crack so he could listen. But he never went any further than the vestibule. Well,” said Dr. Peale, “there are many who have physically got past the vestibule, but mentally, they’re still listening through a crack. They’re only getting a tiny bit, a faint suggestion of the Gospel.”

          “If you take the whole of Christianity, and really give yourself to it and really accept it,” he said,” you are going to become so happy, so enthusiastic, so optimistic, that life will be altogether different for you. Then you will walk in the newness of life – when you have absorbed the quality, the essence, the depth and the height, the glory and the power of Christianity.”

          “So let go of that gloom, let go of that depression, let go of that discouragement, let go of that weakness, let go of that sense of failure. Get with Jesus. Go to him, pray to him, tell him you want to live with him, tell him you want to be guided in your life by him. And I will guarantee, and the basis of everything I have seen in my ministry, that you will become optimistic; you will become victorious; you will have peace in your heart; you will love people; you will feel good physically and emotionally. You will have a wonderful life.”(2)

          Dr. Peale was on to something – something that the world just doesn’t get. Happiness isn’t something that happens to you on the outside, it’s something that happens on the inside. Happiness or blessedness is not found in wealth or power or pleasure or a full belly. Some of the happiest people on earth are some of the poorest people on earth. And some of the richest people on earth in terms of material wealth, are some of the most miserable people in the world.

          We can have the most desperate circumstances and still be happy, according to Jesus. Happiness comes from another source.

          It is a curious spiritual principle that the more we have, the more we demand out of life. So often it is the person who appears to be blessed, with all the external trappings of the good life, who is so easily miffed at God, while the person who has very little feels a much greater sense of gratitude for life’s little joys and pleasures.

          There are only two sources of happiness in this world. One is a right relationship with God. The other is a right relationship with our fellow human beings. Everything else is extraneous. Poverty or wealth, handicap or health, surrounded by loved ones or weeping beside a lonely grave – we can still have a well-spring of joy within, if we understand the source of happiness.

          Happiness is not dependent upon circumstances but on an inner certainty – that we are loved and accepted – that we belong to God, then we are able to want the best for others, our friends and our enemies.

          J.T. Fisher states: “If you were to take the sum total of all authoritative articles ever written by the most qualified psychologists and psychiatrists on the subject of mental health, you would have an awkward and incomplete summation of the Sermon on the Mount. For nearly two thousand years the Christian world has been holding the complete answer to its restless and fruitless yearnings. Here rests the blueprint for successful human life with optimism, mental health and contentment. (3)

          The adage that money cannot buy happiness has been affirmed time after time. According to scientific studies, once our basic needs are met – shelter, food, basic education- income makes little difference in our levels of happiness, except in extreme situations.

          Even celebrities are beginning to recognize that. Late-night talk show host, David Letterman, was quoted recently in the New York Times when he said, “I’m a person who spends a great deal of time wondering why he is not happier. I have found that the only thing that does bring you happiness is doing something good for somebody who is incapable of doing it for themselves.” That’s David Letterman, but it sounds a lot like Jesus.

          To be happy and blessed, we must live with the inner certainty that we belong to God, that we are loved and accepted, and then we are able to want the best for others. That is the road to happiness.

          Author James Moore says that a friend of his once shared with him an experience that she had in an art museum in New York. She went into one special exhibit room where all the paintings were paintings of roads. There paintings of busy modern interstate highways, big city crowded thoroughfares, attractive landscaped parkways, happy neighborhood streets, remote mountain trails, and quiet country roads.

          At one end of the big room was a very large painting of a road. It had an ethereal, spiritual look, with soft pastel colors, and the caption beneath it read: “The Road to Happiness.” As his friend stood there looking at this magnificent painting “Road to Happiness”, two fashionably dressed, middle aged women walked up beside her. One of them was visibly moved by the painting.

          “Isn’t that beautiful?”, she said.

          And the other responded sadly, “Of course it’s beautiful, but there is no such road.”(5)

          But there is such a road, a road to happiness. And it’s found in these teachings of Jesus.

          In 1989, columnist Nick Clooney decided that he wanted someone else to do his work for a little while. So he invited a variety of local celebrities from the Kentucky-Ohio area to send in their ideas for a column about epitaphs. The question was posed: “What would you want written on your tombstones?” He was surprised by the wit and sincerity of the responses.

          For instance, Ira Joe Fisher, a local weatherman, wrote a humorous couple of lines that went like this:

          “He wanted the mind of Plato,

          The heart and soul of Socrates.

          But his life was more of a tribute to Ol’ Mediocrites.”

Paul Knue, the editor of the Cincinnati Post, couldn’t make up his mind about what to write, until after he went on a weekend trip with his family. When he got back, he wanted something that would reflect the importance of family life. So he went with just two words: “He cared.”

But the most sweetly whimsical message was from Charlie Mecham, former head of Taft Broadcasting. His epitaph was:

          “Dear God, Thanks for letting me visit. I had a wonderful time.”(6)

          The secret to having a wonderful time in this life is to know you are loved by God, and then you can live your life desiring the best for those around you. Then you too, will be happy and blessed.

          May God be praised. Amen.

 

1.    Homeliticsonline, retrieved 2/7/19.

2.    Dynamic Preaching, Vol. XXXV, No. 1, p36.

3.    Ibid… p37.

4.    Ibid… p38.

5.    Ibid… p38.

6.    Ibid… p39.

2-10-19 Stepping into the Scene

Thomas J Parlette

“Stepping into the Scene”

Luke 5: 1-11

2/10/19

          One spring afternoon, not long after she and her new husband John moved into the community, Marianne Siebert of Florence, Kansas, decided to visit their elderly neighbors, the Mc Linden’s, who lived about a mile and half up the road.

          The weather was perfect, so Marianne decided to saddle up her 12- year- old Arabian stallion, Phar, and ride him over to the neighbors. When she got there, she dismounted and, reins in hand, approached the back door.

          Apparently, the neighbor had just polished the glass in the storm door, because it shone like a mirror. Marianne knocked twice and waited with her horse peering over her shoulder. After a minute a two, she decided her neighbors weren’t home and she turned to leave when she noticed that Phar was staring at the gray stallion in the glass with fascination. He squealed and pawed the ground – and so did the stallion in the window, because it was, of course, his own reflection.

          Marianne tugged on the reins, but old Phar refused to move. Marianne was starting to get a bad feeling, and she became more forceful, tugging hard and slapping Phar with the reins. Finally, the big horse moved. He swung around, and with both hind legs, bashed in the door!

          Glass flew everywhere and the metal grill work caved in. Marianne was sweating bullets and was just about to jump on Phar and make a quick getaway when she heard Mrs. McLinden call to her husband, who was a bit hard of hearing, “Honey, I think there’s someone at the door.”

          “I could have strangled that horse,” said Marianne afterwards. “But instead, I helped the McLinden’s clean up the glass, promised to pay for the door and I got out of there. My reputation, however soon spread throughout the county – “If Marianne Siebert comes to visit, be sure to get there after the first knock, or she’ll kick in your door.”(1)

          We often talk about opportunity knocking – it rarely bashes in the door, but it does come knocking on occasion. Someone once said that if opportunity came disguised as temptation, one knock would be enough. That may be true. We also think about Jesus standing at the door and knocking. You probably all remember that classic painting that depicts  a saintly looking Jesus with long flowing hair and glowing white robes just about to knock on a little cabin door. I wonder how many have noticed that there is no door handle visible in that painting. The only way to open the door is from the inside. Jesus isn’t going to break down your door – you have to open it on your own.

          These two images – opportunity knocking and Jesus knocking – converge in our Gospel lesson for today. Two fishing boats stand empty by the side of a lake. The fishermen have given up for the day. They are standing near the boats, cleaning up their nets. Their faces are weary with discouragement. They aren’t fishing for sport or amusement or relaxation – this is their livelihood, this is their profession – and things are not going well.

          We know how they feel. We’ve all been there. If you’re in sales, you know what it feels like to have prospect after prospect say, “No thanks, not interested.” Someone once said that’s why they have afternoon matinees at the movies – for people who can’t hear
“No” one more time.

                    If you’ve ever started a business, you know the feeling. There are a lot of rewards running your own business, but there are also a lot of times when it feels like the wolves are right outside your door, too.

          Farmers know the feeling. You realize with a sinking feeling that this year’s crop is not measuring up. It’s not because you didn’t work hard – that’s the frustrating part. You worked harder than ever. But the rain came at the wrong time, there was too much, or there wasn’t enough – it’s just not going well.

          Even young people know about times of discouragement. You work hard studying for a test, but when you look at the questions, it seems like you studied all the wrong things. You had hoped for an “A”, and now you just want to pass.

          We’ve all felt the same sense of discouragement these fishermen were living with, haven’t we?

          There was once a troubled man who paid a visit to his Rabbi. “Rabbi,” he said, wringing his hands, “I am a failure. More than half the time, I do not succeed in the things I have to do. I am a failure. Please, tell me what to do.”

          The Rabbi thought for a moment. “Here’s what I want you to do, my friend, go look on page 930 of the New York Times Almanac for the year 1970, and you will find peace of mind.”

          The troubled man went away and did what the Rabbi said, and here is what he found – the listing of the lifetime batting averages of all the greatest players in baseball. Ty Cobb, the greatest slugger of them all, had a lifetime batting average of only .367. Not even Babe Ruth could match that.

          So the man went back to the Rabi. “Ty Cobb - .367 – that’s it. That’s supposed to give me peace?”

          “Yes,” said the Rabbi. “Ty Cobb, .367. The greatest hitter in baseball only got a hit once out of every three times at bat. He didn’t even hit .500 – so what why do you expect to do better?”(2)

          All of us get discouraged at times. We can sympathize with those fishermen standing by their boats with empty nets, nothing to show for the work, batting a whole lot less than .367. All they can do now is clean out their nets, wash down the boats and hope for a better day tomorrow.

          But then, into the scene steps Jesus. The great actor Charlie Chaplin was once directing a play and he was sitting out in the audience, trying to tell his lead actor what he wanted him to do. But the actor just didn’t understand what Chaplin wanted, so Chaplin walked down the center aisle, jumped up on the stage and showed the actor exactly what he wanted him to do.(3)

          Whenever Jesus jumps onto the stage – whenever Jesus steps into the scene, he does just that. He shows us struggling children of God what to do.

          There was once an old lady in a land hostile to the Christian faith who was thrown into prison because of her religion. She was frightened and alone – but into the scene stepped Jesus. Instead of being bitter or scared, she learned to thank God for confinement, as Jesus had thanked God for his trials. “Now I can be alone with my Lord,” she said.(4) Jesus had shown her what to do – be thankful to God in all things.

          According to legend, some neighborhood boys were visiting the famous artist, Leonardo DaVinci. One of them knocked over a stack of canvases. This upset the artist because he was right in the middle of some sensitive work, trying to paint the face of Jesus. He got angry, threw his brushes and hurled some insults at the boy, who ran crying from the studio. DaVinci tried to go back to work, but found he couldn’t do it. He couldn’t paint the face of Jesus and hold onto his anger at the same time.(5)

          Wouldn’t it be great if every time violence and anger, hate and frustration tried to sneak onto the stage of our lives, we could say – “But into the scene steps Jesus, and I can let go of my anger and hate.”

          Evangelist John Wesley was once robbed by a man as he was travelling on the highway. Wesley said to him, “If the day should come that you desire to leave this evil way and live for God, remember that the blood of Jesus Christ cleanses all from sin.”

          Years later, Wesley was stopped by a man after church, who asked him “Do you remember me? I robbed you one night, and you told me that the blood of Christ cleanses all from sin. I have trusted Christ ever since, and he has changed my life.”(6) That reformed criminal was just one of many through the centuries who were headed down the wrong road until Jesus stepped into the scene.

          Here we have the answer to all our feelings of discouragement, disillusionment, and emptiness. Let Jesus step in to the scene. Let him jump onto the stage of your life and show you exactly what to do.

          These fishermen in our story from Luke had worked all night and had caught mothing. They were tired. They were discouraged. They were frustrated. Then Jesus stepped into the scene. Notice what Jesus told them to do. He told them to push out into the deep. He told them to throw their nets on the other side of the boat. What he was really telling them to do was exercise their faith. Faith in him, faith in their own abilities as fishermen, and faith in the abundance of the sea. It was Peter who spoke up- “Lord we’ve been at this all night and we’ve caught nothing.” But Jesus’s gaze never wavers, there is a long pause, a deep sigh from Peter… “But if you say so, we’ll do it.” Jesus restored their faith, and that was precisely what they needed at that particular moment.

          I wonder how many of us need that same word. Do you know what the biggest barrier to success is for most people? It is the fear of getting started. It is the fear of pushing out into the deep unknown. It is the fear of change. Our biggest barrier to success is our reluctance to take action, because we are afraid.

          But then Christ steps into our lives and says, “Don’t be afraid. What are you worried about? I am with you. Go ahead, push out into the deep, venture into the unknown. Put down your nets just one more time. Trust me.”

          That’s what the disciples did and you know what happened? They caught so many fish that they nearly sank their boats. It would not have happened if they had not exercised their faith. But they pushed out and took a chance and what a catch they had. But they had to get out there and put down their nets first.

          There’s a story from the sailing ship days about a vessel stranded off the coast of South America – unable to move because there was no wind. Week after week went by. The sailors were dying of thirst, but it was just too far to swim ashore. Finally another ship came close enough to hear their cries for help. And they shouted back – “Put down you buckets.” When the stranded sailors did that, they found water fit to drink right beneath their keel. Turns out that even though they were far off shore in the ocean, the fresh water current from the mighty Amazon river surrounded them. All they had to do was reach for it.(7)

          Our lesson for today says the same thing – let down your buckets, cast out your nets. Don’t be afraid to exercise your faith. This is still a wonderful, abundant world that God has created for us. Trust what Jesus says and push out into the deep waters of your life. You are not alone. For Jesus is ready to step into the scene, onto the stage of your life. Answer the door when you hear the knock of opportunity. Jesus isn’t going to break down the door, but if you trust him, he will give you new life.

          And for that, may God be praised. Amen.

1.    Dynamic Preaching, Vol. XXVI, No. 1.

2.    Ibid…

3.    Ibid…

4.    Ibid…

5.    Ibid…

6.    Ibid…

7.    Ibid…

2-3-19 Rejected

Thomas J Parlette

“Rejected”

Luke 4: 14-30

2/3/19

 

          Perhaps you noticed that something sounded vaguely familiar about our Gospel reading for this morning. You may remember that we heard part of this passage from Luke just last week.

          I chose to repeat the reading from Luke because this story of Jesus being rejected in his own hometown is really one story. But for some reason, our lectionary divides it into two separate readings. But they really do belong together.

          I would bet that all of us have experienced rejection of some sort in our life. We’ve all been turned down, told “no, thanks”, or had a door shut in our face. Parents spend years grooming their children for success. Perhaps it would be a better idea to train our children to handle rejection as well because it’s a fact of life. Everyone faces rejection at some point.

          Consider J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series of novels. She was rejected by 12 different publishers before her work was accepted. One of them even advised her to “not quit her day job.” Fortunately, she did not listen. To date, her writings have netted her more than 1 billion dollars.

          Or how about Elvis Presley. He was fired by Jimmy Denny, the manager of the Grand Ole Opry. He reportedly told Elvis, “You ain’t going nowhere, son. You ought to go back to driving a truck.” But as we all know, Elvis had quite a bit of success in the music world.

          Steve Jobs of Apple computing fame was at one time fired by the very company he created. Eventually he was hired back, of course, and Apple went on to become the most profitable company in the world, but even Steve Jobs knew what it was to be rejected.

          Stephen King’s first novel, Carrie, was rejected 30 times before it was published. Steven Spielberg was rejected 3 times for admission at USC’s School of Theater, Fil and Television. I guess they figured that the guy who would go on to direct Jaws, E.T., Raiders of the Lost Ark and Saving Private Ryan, just wouldn’t be able to cut it in the movie business.(1)

          Even faithful servants of God get rejected. John Wesley, co-founder of Methodism, preached his message encouraging people to live like Jesus every day in any Anglican Church that would let him in their pulpit. But time and time again, his journal entries say… “on such and such a date, I preached at such and such church, was thrown out and told never to come back.” John Wesley was kicked out of more churches than we can count. Once, he even had to stand on his own father’s grave in order to find a place to preach without the danger of being thrown out of town! (2)

          It even happened to Jesus. Jesus was just beginning his ministry. He was about 30 years old. He had been baptized by John the Baptist. You’ll remember that, at his baptism, the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”

          Almost immediately he was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. But Jesus rejects Satan’s arguments and interpretations of scripture. When today’s story takes place, Jesus has returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about him has spread through the whole region. Teaching in their synagogues, he is met with praise everywhere he goes. Until… he returns home.

          Luke tells us Jesus went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath, and on the Sabbath day he went to the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:

          “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

          After reading those words, Jesus rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fixed on him, waiting for what he would say next. And Jesus says simply, “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

          Now, so far, people were impressed with Jesus. He had such presence and gravitas, he spoke with such authority. “All spoke well of him,” Luke says, and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips.” There was even some hometown pride showing through. “Isn’t this Joseph’s son – what a fine young man he has turned into.” If only Jesus had stopped there.

          But Jesus kept talking, and the more he talked, the more displeased his hometown congregation became. “Surely, you will quote me the proverb, ‘Physician heal yourself.’ And you will tell me, ‘Do here in your hometown what we have heard that you did in Capernaum.’ Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in his hometown. I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land. Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them – but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon.”

          “And there were many in Israel with leprosy in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed – only Naaman, the Syrian.”

          Jesus sermon there in Nazareth was met with stunned silence. Then the anger started to build. What is he saying? He is not going to perform any miracles like he did in Capernaum? Why not? This is his hometown – surely we deserve a little special treatment. Is he saying that his theological views have taken him far beyond the small town attitudes that he was brought up with? What, Joseph’s son is too good for us now?

          The people in Jesus hometown didn’t understand him at all. Whatever he was saying, it was not what those folks wanted to hear. Luke tells us they were furious. They were so angry that they chased Jesus out of town. In fact, they were so enraged that they took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him off the cliff. “But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.”

          I’ve always liked that phrase “passed through the midst of them.” Jesus didn’t run away from rejection, he didn’t hide from it, he didn’t fight back. Jesus simply passed through the rejection and anger he was facing for speaking for God’s word – and continued on his way, following God’s way.

          When faced with rejection, Jesus passed through it.

          Two important words of assurance spring from this story.

          First – time heals all wounds. We know that Jesus faced a lot more rejection in his life – even the ultimate rejection, death. But in time, Jesus proved victorious over sin and death. Time heals all wounds. And as some wise philosopher later added – “time wounds all heels.”(3)

          Given enough time, God will bring about justice. Persistent hope, persistent faith in the goodness of God will conquer all rejection and resistance. Ask anyone who has made it through a heartbreaking experience, and they will tell you that, if you hang in there long enough, the sun will shine again. Things do get better.

          Time is a great remedy for rejection. But an even greater ally is God. The second word of assurance here is that when we walk in the ways of God, we can deal with whatever rejection we face.

          In our Old Testament lesson for today, we hear about the young prophet Jeremiah and how he was called to bring the word of God to nation of Judah.

          Jeremiah is one of the premier prophets of the Old Testament, and yet he was rejected in the same way as Christ was rejected, and it broke his heart. In fact, he was known as the “Weeping prophet.” Jeremiah had a good reason for weeping.

          Jeremiah was called by God to prophesy Jerusalem’s destruction. This destruction, he said would occur by way of invaders from the north. This was because Israel had been unfaithful to the laws of the covenant and had forsaken God by worshiping Baal. The people of Israel had even gone so far as building high altars to Baal in order to sacrifice their children. The nation had strayed so far from God that, in God’s eyes, they had broken the covenant, causing God to withdraw his blessings from them. Jeremiah was guided by God to proclaim that the nation of Judah would be faced with famine. Furthermore, they would be plundered and taken captive by foreigners who would exile them to a foreign land.

          So how do you think such a prophecy was received. Not well, not well at all, would be the short answer. The people turned against Jeremiah. They hated him. They banished him. They didn’t want to hear another word from Jeremiah.

          Jeremiah could not have endured the isolation and the scorn that was his lot without a deep and abiding faith in God. When he was a young man, the word of the Lord had come to him saying, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you. I have put my words in your mouth.”

          Jeremiah knew that because he was speaking for God, time would prove his assertions true. He had the greatest ally that anyone could have. He was on the side of God. So, in his own way, Jeremiah was able to pass through the midst of the rejection he faced and go on his way – the way of God.

          When we face those times when we meet rejection – on a personal level, on a professional level or even when we feel that the values and social norms we hold dear are being rejected, remember this story of Jesus’ rejection. He was able to pass through the midst of them and go on his way because time will heal all wounds and he knew he was following in the path of God.

          So may we all.

          Come to the table today my friends, and be nourished for the journey. May God be praised. Amen.

1.    Dynamic Preaching, Vol. XXXV, No. 1, p25.

2.    Homeliticsonline, retrieved 1/24/19.

3.    Dynamic Preaching, Vol. XXXV, No. 1, p27.

1-27-19 All of the People Gathered Together

Thomas J Parlette

“All of the People Gathered Together…”

Nehemiah 8: 1-3, 5-6, 8-10

1/27/19 

          Like most preachers, I tend to focus on the New Testament texts, choosing to preach on the Gospel stories or letters of Paul. But every so often, I like to take on the Old Testament lesson. Just for fun, I looked back over my sermon catalogue and found that over the course of 24 years of regularly preaching on Sunday morning, I have only preached on this text from Nehemiah once – and that was back in the late 90’s. So it’s about time I returned to this little known prophet.

          The book of Nehemiah tells the story of Nehemiah’s return to Jerusalem to rebuild the city and its wall. When he was serving as the cupbearer to the King in Persia, Nehemiah receives news that Jerusalem is in ruins – and Nehemiah is devastated. So much so that the King of Persia, Artaxerxes, releases him to go back home and restore his homeland. Our passage picks up when the city has been restored, at least partially, and now it is time for the people to experience the word of God read and explained.(1) So Nehemiah gathered all the people together… to do a few things.

          First, all the people gathered to hear God’s word. I know this sounds like no big deal, but it’s really very important. Keep in mind that there was no internet, there was no printing press, books were hard to come by. And not everyone could read. So the public reading of documents and scrolls was a big deal. Also remember that the Hebrews had been in exile for decades, hauled off to Babylon, and only recently set free to return to Jerusalem. They hadn’t heard the word of God in years. For some of the younger generation, they had never heard the word, they had never heard of God’s history with the Hebrews and the promises made in scripture.

          Secondly, Nehemiah gathered all the people in order to reclaim the God’s promises as a community. In this public reading, the people would be reminded of God’s special relationship to them as a covenant people.

          And lastly, Nehemiah gathered the people to remind them that their strength was the joy of the Lord. No more weeping, no more mourning, no more “woe is me,” let us celebrate, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.

          Nehemiah, and Ezra the priest, preside over a community in severe conflict, dispute and fragmentation. The effort to rebuild Jerusalem and restore Judah as worshipping community has not been easy. The future of the people is in serious doubt. Enemies attack from outside, but even more disrupting are the internal disagreements that threaten to undermine the community’s future. The people form factions arguing about who is in and who is out, who should govern and who shouldn’t, how the Temple should be rebuilt, and how Jerusalem can be reestablished in safety and peace. In many ways, it sounds a lot like our own day.

          But in these words of Nehemiah we have some good news of deep joy in a shallow world. The people are gathered to remember that no matter how many fears and failures we may have, no matter how many times we have to pick ourselves up, no matter how difficult it has been to get through an average day, let alone life itself, no matter what – God is leading us to a deep joy that is eternal in a world that is often focused only on the here and now.

          Deep, lasting joy is not to be found in what happens to us, but in seeing through what happens to us toward an ultimate victory in the midst of temporary defeats. Gratitude is not for what happens to us but in spite of what happens to us.

          There is a story told about a boy at his Bar Mitzvah, many years after Ezra and Nehemiah’s time. The boy watches the Hasidic masters come forward as he reads and watches them place a drop of honey on each page of the Torah. The boy asks what that means, and the master replies, “It stands for the sweetness of knowing God’s word and the joy God intends for us in the midst of the struggles and pain of life.”(2)

          This deep joy, sweet as honey, comes to the world in several ways.

          First, joy comes on the other side of our demand for justice. Psalm 30 says, “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.” The long night for many people comes when they are too adamant in demanding justice that makes sense in this world, when all along what we really need, and what God gives, is mercy.

          There was once a woman who hired an expensive artist to paint her portrait. The artist had her sit several times for him and then he went off to finish his work. A few weeks later, he came back with the portrait and presented it to his customer. The woman looked at it, frowned and said, “This portrait doesn’t do my face justice.” And the artist replied, “Ma’am, your face doesn’t need justice, it needs mercy.”(3)

          Don’t we all. Justice is getting what you deserve. Mercy is getting what you need, even though you don’t know you need anything.

          We go through so much of our lives wanting justice. But joy comes when we grant the same mercy to others that we insist on having for ourselves. Most often we are not merciful because we have not allowed God’s mercy to touch us. And you can’t give what you do not have. Jesus’ directive to “love your neighbor as you love yourself” implies that we need to experience God’s love and mercy first hand in order to be loving and merciful to others. Too often we don’t hear or heed that advice. When we look beyond our demand for justice and concentrate on receiving and giving away God’s mercy, then we can also receive deep abiding joy.

          Second, joy also comes on the other side of the walls we build, or sometimes when we move the walls we’ve inherited. During World War 1, there were some American soldiers passing through an area in France. One of their friends had been killed, and they wanted a place to bury him. They found a local church with a cemetery next door and asked if their friend could be buried there. The priest asked if he was Catholic. They said he was not. The priest apologized for the fact that it was a Catholic cemetery, and only Catholics could be buried there, but he also had compassion. “Why don’t you bury your friend just outside the cemetery wall.” The soldiers agreed and went ahead with a simple funeral.

          Several weeks later the soldiers were travelling through the area again and wanted to visit the grave. They came to the cemetery but for some reason could not find the spot where they buried their friend. They went to the Rectory and asked the priest, “We can’t find the grave, what happened?” The priest looked rather embarrassed when he said. “After you left that day, I hated the idea that you had to bury your friend outside the cemetery, so I gathered some men from the church and we tore the old wall down and built a new section to include your friends grave.”(4)

          The joy of God comes when, after reading all the earthly rules, we revise them in light of God’s law to be merciful to all. We spend too much time worrying about who belongs and who doesn’t. We should be thinking about inclusion rather than exclusion.

          Third, joy comes on the other side of seeking treasure. There is an old Hasidic tale about Isak of Krakow. Isak, a young Jewish man, wanted to build a temple to God. But he was poor, he had no money. One night he had a dream in which he was instructed to go to Prague, the great capital city, and dig under the bridge that went into the King’s house and there he would find gold.

          So, Isak went to Prague and started digging under the bridge when he was discovered by a guard. He decided in a split second that he should tell the truth. He told the guard that he had had a dream about the gold and come to dig it up. The guard began to laugh, “Oh yeah!? Well I had a dream last night too. I dreamt that in Krakow there was a man named Isak, and if I were to go to his home and move his stove and dig under his floor, I would find gold. But I’m not dumb enough to go all the way to Krakow and dig up your floor.”

          After a hearty laugh, the guard saw that Isak was harmless and sent him back to Krakow. But on his long journey home, Isak couldn’t forget that dream the guard had joked about. When he finally got home, he moved his stove and dug up his floor, and sure enough, he discovered gold – and he was able to build his temple to God. Isak learned that what we seek is usually right under our nose, but most often we have to go on a long journey to find it.(5)

          Joy comes when we stop seeking treasure, and see the treasure all around us, the treasure of everyday life. Joy comes when we live with the knowledge that in the sight of God, we are the treasure.

          There was a woman who once wrote about a precious vase that her mother had owned. It was a family heirloom, a real treasure. One day, when she was just a child, she accidently bumped it and knocked it to the floor. The vase shattered into a million pieces. The little girl screamed in terror of being punished. Her mother ran into the room and said, “What’s wrong, why are you crying?”

          “I’m sorry, I broke the family treasure! I didn’t mean to, it was an accident.”

          Her mother was immediately relieved, and sweeping up the broken pieces, said, “It’s Ok, I don’t really care about the vase. I was scared because I thought you were hurt.”

          The woman closed her story by saying, “It was at that moment that I realized I was the family treasure – and it has made all the difference in my life.”(6)

          Joy comes on the other side of seeking riches and treasure and in realizing that the one who made us delights in us forever. That knowledge doesn’t lessen what happens to us in life – but it does lift us with the knowledge that “weeping may linger for the night, but joy will come in the morning.”

          You know, most of life is built backwards. We think that we must seek joy rather than let joy find us. We think we need and must have more of what we have enough of. In fact, the greatest joy is to be found in the everyday moments when we allow God to find us. It is a great spiritual arrogance to believe that we can find God. We can’t. God finds us. When we are willing to go to places of service and caring, God finds us there with deep and indescribable joy.

          The good news is that it is not up to us to find God. Instead, God is in search of us, and God will always find us. I’m sure some of you remember the days when missing children had their pictures on milk cartons. Well, one day a child was in the grocery store with his mother, and he saw one of those milk cartons, and a look of horror came over his face as he thought of a question. He asked his mother, “What would you do if I was missing?”

          His mother leaned over, looked him in the eye and said, “If you were ever missing, don’t forget that we would never, ever stop looking for you.”(7)

          Never ever stop looking for you.

          Those are also the words of our God. God sees us when we are lost and will stoop as low as we are in order to lift us up. That’s where joy comes from. From the knowledge that God will never stop searching until we are found.

          When Nehemiah gathered all the people together, that was what we wanted them to remember. It had been too long since they had heard and understood the word of God. They needed to hear once more the holy message that God will never stop searching until we are found.

          And for that, may God be praised. Amen.

1.    Kathleen M. O’Connor, Feasting on the Word, Westminster John Knox Press, 2009, p. 267.

2.    Source Unknown.

3.    Ibid…

4.    Ibid…

5.    Ibid…

6.    Ibid…

7.    Ibid…

         

 

         

1-20-19 On the Holy Spirit and the Potluck

On the Holy Spirit and the Potluck

Rev. Jay Rowland

1 Corinthians 12:1-11 (and Psalm 36:5-10)

Sunday January 20, 2019

 

 

 

This past Tuesday evening a few of us gathered here for supper. The incoming class of elders and deacons along with the current elders and deacons, and some whose term ended with 2018, all gathered here for what has become a wonderful annual event every January. This is a warm gathering in the bleak midwinter, fellowship and bonding among our elders and deacons before the first regular meeting of the new year. After supper, TJ hands out blank pieces of paper and instructs everyone to write down their name and “two truths and a lie” about themselves. Then TJ reads each one and we all try to guess each person’s truths and lie. It’s a fun way to get to know one another. In my own case, it can also be counter-informative—when I remember the lie more than the two truths; and that’s part of the fun. 

Perhaps the best part about this gathering, at least for me, is that the menu for supper is soup. It’s a soup potluck (breads and desserts too). In case you didn’t know, I love potlucks.  But I’m guessing many of you probably do too.  Here’s what I love about potlucks:

I love the variety of food.

I love the quantity of food.

I love it when there’s something I’ve never had before. 

I love it when there’s something I have had before, maybe even many times before, but never as good as the way someone here from church made it!

Above all, I love potlucks because I’ve never left a potluck disappointed or hungry. 

That’s a beautiful thing!

I don’t know if the church invented the potluck, but I do know it’s one of my favorite church gatherings. Pondering the 1 Corinthians 12 passage in preparation for today, it suddenly dawns on me: what a cool metaphor for the church!  I believe that God has a habit of showing up in the common, so-called ordinary elements (and events) of life.  And so, as I considered the abundance of food, flavors, recipes, and the personal touch of each one; when I consider the warmth, fellowship and joy that accompanies any church potluck, I see God’s fingerprints all over it.  How did I not see this until now? That this unpretentious, ordinary gathering is an invisibly powerful experience of the Body of Christ, the in-breaking Kingdom of God … what that looks like, smells like, tastes like and … feels like. As I thought about what makes any potluck enjoyable, I realized this is also what makes every faith community the blessing that it is.

I read somewhere that the Holy Spirit doesn’t create Christians for isolation, “there are no ‘only children’ in God’s family” or something like that. The Holy Spirit is the relational energy of our fascinating Triune God.  The Holy Spirit created the Church at Pentecost, and every local church thereafter.  The Lord promises that wherever two or more gather in the Lord’s name, He is there. And wherever the Lord is present, so too is the Holy Spirit.  And the natural consequence of the Presence is to inspire, to guide, to teach, to bless and to multiply. God never tires of showing us that together we can do so much more than we can by ourselves.  Think about it, how many potlucks for one have you been to? 

Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. (1 Corinthians 12:4-7)

Paul was writing to the church he helped plant in Corinth. He’s responding to reports, and requests for his insights, as they struggle to live together as the Body of Christ. In some places, like the chapter and verses immediately preceding this passage), Paul’s irritation and impatience is emphatic. At other places in his letter(s), he’s much more gentle.  In either case, Paul highlights the movement and presence of the Holy Spirit in community. This reflects the Creation story as well as the Pentecost story.

 The simple fact of the breath within each of us is a reminder that the Holy Spirit is what animates our bodies (life).  The ancient Hebrew (נשימה  “ruach”) and Greek (πνεῦμα – “pneuma”) word for “spirit” both have multiple meanings, breath and wind.  God spoke, God breathed into the primordial void bring creation out of nothing.  God spoke, God breathed into the clay/dirt/dust of the earth and created the humanoid. When our breath stops, we cease to be alive.

The same Holy Spirit that animates our bodies sustaining/creating life also animates our community of faith. This enables us to do great things together for God and neighbor, with God and neighbor. The Holy Spirit among us reveals and activates spiritual gifts in each one of us. So whenever we gather together, God is glorified because of the worship, mission and ministry that happens when we do, regardless of whatever problems or difficulties threaten our life together.

 Yes about that. Problems and difficulties abound.  I have mine, you have yours. Clearly we have problems as a nation, as a denomination, community and congregation. It’s easy to get discouraged, to lose sight of what’s possible, to lose sight of all we are capable of doing together, especially these days. And yet, here we are.  We keep coming together, to worship together, to learn together, to eat together, to meet together, and as a result, hope abounds. God has never before and never will abandon God’s people or leave us without hope. 

God creates community. That’s God’s nature. And God sustains community. One of my favorite ways God does this is by inviting each one of us to The Lord’s Table. Whenever we respond to that invitation and come to the Lord’s Table, we see again and again, just like at every potluck, that every person brings something essential to the table with them. Every man, every woman, every child. No exceptions. Each one of us brings gifts. Each one of us at times gives.  Each one of us at times can bring only our needs. It’s the great circle of faith and life together.  If it was any other way, we wouldn’t be here together right now; this building wouldn’t exist. We are here … all of this is here … because of the community God creates here which includes anyone and everyone who ever had anything to do with this place. 

Trusting that God is continually at work in us and among us, in turn, helps us lift our downcast eyes and drooping heads in prayers and songs of praise. Psalm 36 is a good example of what that looks like:  Praise for God’s character and God’s nature to bless and shelter us, sandwiched between observations about the wicked, and a plea for protection, is a fitting description of our walk in the world and the importance of keeping God at the center of everything–potlucks as well as problems.

I see here before me right now an abundance of spiritual gifts. We are a collective (a commonwealth I like to say) of giftedness which has enhanced and affirmed life in this community since the 1860’s, meeting challenges and problems head-on with creativity, determination and faith.  Whenever we come together, regardless of purpose or reason, regardless of how many of us are gathered, together we are the body of Christ, animated by a variety of spiritual gifts, regardless of age, ability, disability, etc.  

Together we are a veritable feast of varied abilities, experiences, gifts, skills, talents, etc., Someone here right now has a gift for organization; someone the gift vision; some of you are good at seeing the big picture; some of you are better with the small details.  It’s all needed. Paul proclaims to the bickering Christians in Corinth, “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” For some it’s nurture … proclamation … prayer … music … cooking … writing … study … painting … poetry … drama … comedy … play … digital understanding.  God uses each one of us to inspire, equip, and, well, feed one another. And so we who are hungry for a good Word come together here and we are filled, and this carries us through the week, through whatever comes our way when we leave here.  

There is no reason at all that any one of us should leave worship hungry today. Just like any church potluck, there is right now so much good stuff here that we can and we shall take it right on out of the building with us, inviting others to the Lord’s Table and putting our gifts and our needs to good use.

 

AfterWord

Some of us are not sure what our spiritual gifts might be.  Others maybe even doubt whether or not they do.  Let me just say for the record, yes, you do have spiritual gifts. Here are some “Questions for Reflection” (below-from Feasting on the Word*)to help you reflect upon and/or identify your spiritual gifts:

Created in the image of God, each of us is uniquely gifted to reveal divine likeness. When our deep joy is united with meaning and purpose, vocation is birthed. The Holy Spirit enlivens each one of us with unique gifts that nurture faith and serve the common good. To identify those gifts we can ask ourselves such questions as,

o   When do I feel most alive?

o   What do I love to do?

o   What things, tasks, or actions fill me with a sense of purpose?

o   What am I doing when time seems to stand still?

 These questions help us discern the Spirit’s movement in our lives.

* Feasting on the Word-Worship Companion, Year C, Volume 1. Second Sunday after Epiphany (2012:Westminister John Knox) p.53.