Cycling and Faith

1916 - Halderson, Ray & bike

When I was growing up, I heard stories about my grandfather’s athletic prowess.  He played tennis and baseball and with his brother, rode a bicycle from our town to Cleveland, about 30 miles away.  A century ago, this would have been on a bike with wooden rims and one fixed gear, on the hilly, rutted dirt roads of northeastern Ohio.

Rear gear of my 30-speed carbon-fiber bike.
Rear gear of my 30-speed carbon-fiber bike.

I started riding a bicycle myself for exercise in the late 1970’s.  Thankfully, today, the cycling experience is much different: I now mostly use a carbon-fiber bike (17 lbs.) with 30 speeds and Kevlar tires, on smooth roads that make hills much less challenging.  I wear shoes that clip into the pedals for more efficiency.  Averaging about 1,000 miles a year (truly serious cyclists go much farther), over the years, I think I’ve learned some lessons of the Christian life from riding my bicycle!

  • It’s always good to have a goal – either a certain distance or a point B from your point A.  The more you ride, the more you build up strength and the farther you can go. But don’t let the plan limit you – sometimes being a little lost is fun! Your relationship to God and the church doesn’t deepen by osmosis – you have to work at it, like any relationship.  Without goals, nothing happens. But your goals won’t keep God from throwing in a surprise every now and then.
  • Wear a helmet, follow the road rules, and don’t use an iPod when you’re riding.  When out on the roads of life, it’s easy to be distracted and lose the instinct of common sense. Sometimes, you simply have to put aside the distractions to be safe and get the most out of the experience.
  • Don’t avoid hills; the hills make you strong.  One of the things I love most about cycling is the feeling of growing strength and making progress.  Eventually, the hill that bothered you so much at the beginning of the summer is barely noticeable.  Facing a challenge head-on makes you stronger for the challenges that follow.
  • Make rest a habit.  Personally, I stop every ten miles and rest for a few minutes whether I’m tired or not; I know I can go farther if I do that.  God gave a commandment to rest for a reason.  If you don’t, in the end, you become less effective in the things you do when you are not resting.
  • Sometimes, cycling is not fun.  A headwind can be discouraging.  Not long ago, my chain fell off on a hill and I flopped in the middle of the road; good thing the following car was going slowly (“Yes, I’m fine – thanks for stopping…”).  Then a bee flew in my shirt.  Having to change a flat is annoying.  Sometimes something breaks and leaves you helpless; you have to call for a ride (cell phone technology has been a great addition to the experience!).  Having a discouraging day doesn’t mean tomorrow will be the same. Complaining helps no one, least of all, you. 
  • Cycling takes time.  You have to be intentional.  I always feel best after the ride I didn’t feel like doing.  The Christian life doesn’t depend on feelings – forge on!
  • Cycling is so much more efficient when you do it with a partner or a team.  The team gives you encouragement and following another cyclist actually makes riding easier.  They warn you of road hazards.  They help you follow the map.  They help you fix the flat. They make you faster, more efficient.  God never intended the Christian life to be lived alone; we all need each other in many ways and together, God’s love and joy flows through us in ways that would be impossible if we were “doing faith” alone. 

I can do all things through him who strengthens me.  (Philippians 4:13)

9/22/2013 Sermon: “Smart Faith”

Bank 3Luke 16:1-13 (from The Message by Eugene Peterson)

Jesus said to his disciples, “There was once a rich man who had a manager. He got reports that the manager had been taking advantage of his position by running up huge personal expenses.

So he called him in and said, ‘What’s this I hear about you? You’re fired. And I want a complete audit of your books.’

“The manager said to himself, ‘What am I going to do? I’ve lost my job as manager. I’m not strong enough for a laboring job, and I’m too proud to beg …

Ah, I’ve got a plan. Here’s what I’ll do … then when I’m turned out into the street, people will take me into their houses.’

“Then he went at it. One after another, he called in the people who were in debt to his master. He said to the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’

“He replied, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ “The manager said, ‘Here, take your bill, sit down here—quick now—write fifty.’

“To the next he said, ‘And you, what do you owe?’ “He answered, ‘A hundred sacks of wheat.’ “He said, ‘Take your bill, write in eighty.’

“Now here’s a surprise: The master praised the crooked manager! And why? Because he knew how to look after himself. Streetwise people are smarter in this regard than law-abiding citizens. They are on constant alert, looking for angles, surviving by their wits.

I want you to be smart in the same way—but for what is right—using every adversity to stimulate you to creative survival, to concentrate your attention on the bare essentials, so you’ll live, really live, and not complacently just get by on good behavior.”

Jesus went on to make these comments: If you’re honest in small things, you’ll be honest in big things;

If you’re a crook in small things, you’ll be a crook in big things.

If you’re not honest in small jobs, who will put you in charge of the store?

No worker can serve two bosses: He’ll either hate the first and love the second, or adore the first and despise the second. You can’t serve both God and the Bank.

You can’t serve both God and the bank.  Say it with me:  You can’t serve both God and the bank.  How does that feel?

What do you do to serve God?  What do you do to serve “the bank?”

Most translations have Jesus saying, you can’t serve both God and money.  What do we do to serve money?  We let money control us.

Why is there a conflict?  You shall have no other idols?  If your love focus is not on God, then God can’t work in you.

You know what Jesus did for a living, right?  He was a carpenter.  He worked with his hands.  Humanly speaking, he lived the lifestyle of an average person, and average people in his time were… poor by our standards.  Very poor.  The disciples of Jesus were peasants; farmers and fishermen.

To understand Jesus best, you have to picture this:  there was no middle class in his time and place. Everybody knew where they were on the social and economic ladder: you were rich or poor, and by far, most people were poor.  They loved listening to Jesus tell stories, and with a crowd gathered around, Jesus said, “There was a rich man…” and gets everyone’s attention. There was a rich man who needed a manager.  They would be thinking, “Let’s see how this rich guy gets his!  I know rich people just like this!”

The dishonest manager gets caught and then cheats his boss even more. The people say, “Aha!  The punch line!  Rich people deserve managers like that!”

And then it looks like the rich man pays a compliment to the manager he just fired because he was stealing from him so smartly!  There is a modern proverb that goes something like, “Don’t work hard.  Work smart!”

But there is another way to look at what Jesus is saying.  Jesus doesn’t go into detail about how the manager makes a living, but it was a common thing for people in that position to take a cut of the profits from whatever was being sold.  Jesus might be saying that this manager was simply reducing these bills by going without a commission.  The man with the olive oil only has to give half as much; he is happy. The man with the wheat only has to give 80% of what he owes; he is happy.  The rich man is also happy because he got what he was owed – and sooner.

If you look at it this way, the manager isn’t a liar and his boss isn’t losing anything.  The rich man doesn’t care if the manager doesn’t get his commission.  The only person coming out of this deal on the minus side is the manager.  But that’s not really true either.  He might not have any profit right now, but he will tomorrow.  He made everybody else better off, which can only help him.  He is taking the long view.

In another version, Jesus says: (v.9)  And I tell you, make friends for yourselves with your worldly wealth so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into an eternal home.

In other words, “When it comes to wealth, if you have it now, you’ll be better off in the long run if you give it away.  If you have what you need, then help someone else.”  If you live your life helping others, you are serving God – and investing wisely.

Every week, it seems we hear another story in the news about some white collar crime that lines someone’s pocket.  Yesterday I got an email from someone somewhere that I had won 1 million pounds in the United Kingdom Lottery.   And then the sender of that email wanted a bunch of personal information to confirm who I was. People have made a lot of money from scams like that.  This was using culture for sin, and maybe some people fell for it.  In some ways, kind of clever.  Then there’s Bernie Madoff, etc.  (investors lost $18 billion)

What if God’s church put that kind of energy into changing the world for Jesus?  Why don’t we be that clever?

Credit Card / Gold & PlatinumJesus says, “Let me be blunt: ‘You can’t serve both God and the Bank.’” (v. 13).  He wants to know – whom are you serving?  Whom are we serving? If you have faith, If you’ve believed, if you’ve trusted God with your well-being, God has you.  If God doesn’t have you, something else has you.  So, in the end, it isn’t really about the money or the stuff.  It’s about the relationships, it’s about our relationship with the God who is saving us; it’s about how we live together; it’s about how we share the planet with others.  It’s about how we use stuff, or stuff uses us.  The manager saves himself when he takes a risk, stops looking out for his own best interests, and makes someone else’s life better.

Among the things you have, what do you really have?  You have life, you have relationships.  You have God.  You can’t keep the other stuff – you’re just borrowing.  And you have today to make a difference in someone else’s life.

So, the challenge is a real one.  Is there something we can do without in order to make a contribution to someone else’s greater good?  How can we be clever that way?  Working together as God’s church in Manheim is the best opportunity we have to make the biggest impact on our community and our world.  There is something that you can do with your personal resources that can make a huge difference in someone else’s life.  And God will show you.  As a church, a community of believers working together, we can make the world a different place.  It begins with the small things.  “If you’re not honest in small jobs, who will put you in charge of the store?”

Here’s an example. A story told by an unnamed pastor:

“I stopped at the local library one day to pick up a book I wanted. Afterward, as I was driving out of the parking lot, a filthy, scraggly man in ragged clothes pushing a shopping cart filled with what looked to be nothing but junk shambled across the lot exit. As I waited for him to complete his passage, the front wheels of his cart caught on a crack in the pavement and tipped over. I heard some glass shatter as the contents spilled out. This mishap occurred right in the middle of the exit, so there was no way I could get out of the lot until the man picked up his stuff and moved on. But clearly, that wasn’t going to happen quickly because he seemed to be in a kind of daze and was moving as if he didn’t quite know what to do. So I sat there in my car, drumming my fingers impatiently on the steering wheel, getting more annoyed by the second.

“Just then, however, the young woman who was in a car behind me got out and walked past my car to where the man was. In sharp contrast to him, she was nicely dressed, well-groomed and appeared to be in full command of her faculties. I wasn’t close enough to tell, but I was pretty certain she smelled a whole lot better than he did, too.

“As I watched, she bent down and began helping this poor man put his items back into his cart, and she continued until everything was loaded. She then helped him get his cart past the crack in the pavement, and he resumed his shuffle down the street.

 “I have to tell you that never in my life have I felt more like the Levite and the priest who passed by on the other side while the good Samaritan, in the form of this young woman, helped the downtrodden guy at the roadside. And here’s the irony: The book I had come to the library to get was one I wanted to consult for a sermon I was working on. But in that parking lot, I saw a much better sermon played out in front of me.”

 We don’t know if that young woman was a church person. But anyone seeing her being “honest in a small job” could reasonably conclude she’s someone who can be trusted to be “in charge of the store.”

Watch for those surprising opportunities to serve.  You may see something and God will whisper to you.  Pay attention to your giving – when you give to the church, you give the church an opportunity to change someone’s life.  What’s that worth?  Look at all the things the church is doing – it would take too long to list.  Make the commitment to be there, then follow through.  If we all are paying attention to opportunities to serve, think of the difference we could make. What’s your story of serving Jesus outside these walls?  I’d like to know.  How can we organize ourselves to do those things together?

Do all you can. With what you have. In the time you have. In the place you are.” ~ Nkosi Johnson

Prayer

God, help us understand more deeply the gift of life you give us, and the opportunities we all have to make the most of it.  Help us make the commitment that goes beyond what is convenient. Give us wisdom in our values – to understand and see the things that last and the things that are temporary, and the vision to avoid holding on to things that don’t exist at all.  Flow through us.  Help us teach our children to value the things that are truly important.  Most of all, help us teach them to love you and follow you.  Amen.

9/15/2013 Sermon: “Searching the Lost and Found”

Lost & Found
International lost & found symbol.

Luke 15:1 Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him.  2  And the Pharisees and the scribes murmured, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.”

3  So he told them this parable: 4  “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after the one which is lost, until he finds it? 5  And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. 6  And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost.’ 7  Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. 

8  “Or what woman, having ten silver coins, if she loses one coin, does not light a lamp and sweep the house and seek diligently until she finds it? 9  And when she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin which I had lost.’ 10  Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

1 Timothy 1:12  I thank him who has given me strength for this, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful by appointing me to his service, 13  though I formerly blasphemed and persecuted and insulted him; but I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, 14  and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.

15  The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. And I am the foremost of sinners; 16  but I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience for an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life. 17  To the King of ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen.

Lost & Found 0Have you ever lost something really important to you?  Do you have a story about visiting a lost and found? Think for a moment.  You might have repressed that memory out of embarrassment, but I’ll bet that you’ve got your own personal story about losing something that may have been pretty important, and then finding it again.  Maybe a wallet, a camera, or a phone.  You were having such a great time, and to keep your stuff safe, you put it under a seat, or in a corner, or on a shelf.  And you didn’t remember until the next time you reached for it, whatever it was.  Then panic set in.  I’m retracing my steps.  When you’re really desperate, you ask your spouse to help you remember where you were when you last had that thing in your hand.  You don’t do that unless you’re ready to hear: “You lost what?”

Some people put up signs on poles and bulletin boards, and you’ve seen them… 

Lost & Found 6Lost & Found 7

Lost & Found 2

 Lost & Found 1

Lost & Found 8
For those born after 1990, that’s Lionel Richie and the lyrics to a song he wrote. It’s funny. Really.

Seriously, it’s not some modern problem; people have been losing things for centuries. I don’t know if it’s true in Pennsylvania, but in New England, the older church buildings (17th & 18th century) would have an empty area nearby with a stone wall around it where people could bring stray farm animals.  Lost your cow?  Maybe you’ll find it the next time you come to worship!

The most hurtful loss happens when someone or something just walks away or disappears and you don’t know what happened to them.  There are all kinds of stories of “disappeared ones” and the pain connected to that.  God knows how that feels.

In the gospel reading, Jesus tells parables about lost things and talks about how God has an obsession with finding lost people.  “…there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent (Luke 15:7).  I think most of us have an image of God in our minds – can you picture God rejoicing?  Does God laugh and throw confetti?  God can be extremely happy.

There is something in those readings for everybody.  You can lose things, you can get lost, and you can lose yourself.  You can be lost – in a state of spiritual hopelessness.  If that’s true for you, you need to know that God is spending a lot of time looking for you.  God is pretty close to having an Obsessive Compulsive Disorder trying to find you.  And God has made huge personal sacrifices to reach you.

Jesus used those parables to describe how God wants to save us from being lost.  God spares no expense to find us and to help us find ourselves.  We think of ourselves on a spiritual quest to find God, and we do things – like go to church – to find God.  But God was reaching out to us first, to be with us, to make us complete.  God cannot find someone who doesn’t first understand that they are lost without God.

As an older man and a seasoned church leader, Paul writes to his young friend Timothy and says, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the foremost.”  (1 Timothy 1:15) I would have loved to hear the Apostle Paul preach and expand on those words.  I think he was probably much more graphic than he let himself be in this letter to Timothy.  You see, this man who wrote about half of the material that was later collected into the New Testament, whom, of all the followers of Jesus, is probably the most responsible for us being gathered in this church, was an accomplice to the murder of a man named Stephen.  He was part of the first persecution of Christians (Acts 8).  Actually, he wasn’t just part of it, he was leading it!

[he] was ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, he committed them to prison.  (Acts 8:3)

Okay, not long after that he had a powerful conversion experience and his life changed dramatically.  You would think that after this huge change, after he turned away from his sin and let Christ take over, that his life would be totally pure, and he would be proud of that halo over his head, but years later he writes and says…

“…all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,…” (Romans 3:23) 

“I can will what is right, but I cannot do it.  For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do… wretched man that I am.”  (Romans 7:18-19, 24)

To paraphrase, Paul says, “I was and am a sinner.”  This, from the most significant church father who ever lived.

I don’t know if you remember this, but Bill Clinton’s response to his legal and ethical and political dilemma 20+ years ago was, “I have sinned.”

I have sinned.  A spiritual statement.  You know, in one way or another, we say that almost every week.  Let’s say it: “God, I have sinned, and I come to you for forgiveness.”  In the context of our worship, it feels normal, doesn’t it?

And, as scripture says,

“If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9)

There is a spiritual release that comes with confession.  The burden lifts when you admit to God that you need God, that you need healing and forgiveness.

But it was very strange to hear those words spoken in the real world by our highest civic leader.  Maybe the problem is that we don’t think the sin we’re confessing to here is real.  But it’s real enough. And like Paul, and like the president, we are not perfect.  If you stop and think about it, sin permeates everything we do.  We are part of a flawed human race that desperately needs a Savior.  That is why we are here this morning.

Some people think the nation is “going to hell in a hand-basket.”  I actually think the opposite.  I think, in my lifetime, there has never been a greater opportunity for faith, and we need to be part of that.  We have a mission to be an outpost for Christ.  There have never been greater opportunities for people to open themselves to God, and to know what it means to find healing in Jesus Christ.  When somebody can say, “I have sinned,” which is a spiritual expression, they are also saying “God save me and change me.”   When we turn to God and say, “I have sinned.”  We hear God say, “What a coincidence!  I sent Jesus to save sinners!  Let’s you and I get together!”

Lost & Found longIt’s not just us; sin is everywhere.  We have all sinned.  It does not take a theological rocket scientist to figure this out.  We live in a big mess of humanity and a flawed world.  We live in an imperfect country, with state and town governments that are less than perfect.  For the next year, we’ll be reminded over and over again that the presidential candidates cannot be trusted.  We have churches that are less than perfect.  Families that are less than perfect.

Sin, at its root, is separation from God.  Mistakes that we make are just a symptom of sin.  But God is bigger, God is stronger than sin.  Through Christ, God defeats the sin.  And God gives us a lot of good to build on.  When we have faith, God gives us the ability through the Spirit in us to make the good stronger than the evil.

I’ve often said that I can picture myself in a crowd around Jesus.  I love to imagine that he has just walked into the room and sat in a pew.  In his presence, I am utterly and completely aware that I am not who I should be.  It’s at that moment, with my head in my hands, that I feel this tap on the shoulder, and this voice saying, “Let’s have dinner.”  It’s at that moment, when I realize that he wants to be with me, that I realize God is much more concerned with how I live my future than how I’ve lived my past.  And he will be there with me, and I am not lost anymore.

Prayer

God, we have sensed over and over again that something is not right, that something is missing.  Deep within ourselves, we know that the something we are missing is you, and now we know, you have been walking with us all the time.  At the moment of our deepest need, when it seemed healing and forgiveness was so far away, you are there.  We confess our need, and knowing you sent your son Jesus for us, invite you to be our savior through him.  Now use us to be lights in a dark world, live through us, and use us to make a difference in this world you love.

Pray with me…

God, I know I need you.

I have always needed you.

And so, today, I give myself to you,

Making you the master of my world,

Knowing that you will always be with me,

Directing my life, and giving me peace.

In Jesus’ name.  Amen.

9/8/2013 Sermon: “In the Hands of the Potter”

potJeremiah 18:1  The word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD:  2  “Arise, and go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words.”

3  So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel. 4  And the vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as it seemed good to the potter to do. 5  Then the word of the LORD came to me:  6  “O house of Israel, can I not do with you as this potter has done? says the LORD. Behold, like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel.  7  If at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, 8  and if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will repent of the evil that I intended to do to it.  9  And if at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, 10  and if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will repent of the good which I had intended to do to it.

11  Now, therefore, say to the men of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem: ‘Thus says the LORD, Behold, I am shaping evil against you and devising a plan against you. Return, every one from his evil way, and amend your ways and your doings.’

You might have heard me mention at one time or another that my first full-time job out of college was being a high school art teacher and I majored in art in college.  Art is a pretty broad area – everybody who makes art focuses on one or two disciplines.  You might major in music, but you play piano, or oboe, or you sing. As an art major, I concentrated on photography and printmaking.  But in order to get through the program, at my school, you had to take a ceramics course.  This was a challenge for me.  I love colors and two-dimensional images on paper, but working with three dimensions is hard for me. I believe that I am three-dimensionally challenged. And we had to spend a lot of time at a pottery wheel.

Have you ever tried to throw a pot?  I don’t mean that thing you do when your spouse sets you off and a pot smacks against a wall.  I’m talking about sitting at a spinning, horizontal wheel with a wet lump of clay, turning it into some kind of vessel.  It really takes physical skill to do make a decent pot.  Unless this is one of those abilities that comes to you naturally, it takes lots of practice.

I would start with a huge lump of clay, get the wheel going, gently press my fingers into the clay, work with it…  and something would go wrong.  I’d take some clay away and try again with a smaller lump.  I don’t think I ever ended up with a pot that was more than four inches high.  I think I got a C in that course.  Tried as hard as I could; it was just not one of my skills, although I’m sure that if I practiced, my pots would have gotten better.

I would suspect that a town like Manheim (or any town that’s near a crafts market) has a pottery or two somewhere nearby.  And I know that a lot of us have hand-thrown pots or vessels of some kind in the house.  Good potters are like musicians – they can do amazing things with clay – instinctively.  Beautiful things.  What they make is mostly decoration, and today, the making of these pots is a beautiful art.  It adds to the beauty of your house.

DSC_0296[I held up a stoneware jar] When I was growing up, we lived in a house that had been part of a farm and we discovered a cistern in the backyard.  This deep hole collected rainwater and sometimes trash.  This jar is a hand-thrown piece of stoneware (type of clay).  It’s un-useable because the lip is broken; it can’t be sealed.  It ended up in the cistern.  I’d guess it was made in the middle 1800’s, and at one time was important in someone’s kitchen.  It’s a long-lost memory now, but before the Civil War, hand-thrown pottery like this was an absolute necessity.  You had to have it – bowls and plates and cups.  Just as there had to be a mill in town to make flour or saw wood, there had to be a pottery nearby.  You had to have ceramics in the house.  I don’t mean fine china; I mean simple stuff like this jar.

People from 150 years ago would be amazed at the variety and number of containers we all have.  Think about what you would have to do drink a glass of water if we had no paper or plastic or machine-molded glass.

The making of pottery goes back thousands and thousands of years.  Pieces of thrown pottery are used to date ancient sites that archaeologists uncover.  The tools and skills really haven’t changed, except that the potter’s wheel might be electric today.  But electricity isn’t really necessary; you can get a wheel with a pedal like an old sewing machine.  So when you see a potter doing his or her thing at a wheel, you’re seeing something that people from Bible times would have recognized.  The skill isn’t just like what ancient people did.  It’s exactly the same: work the pot, fire it in a kiln, put on some colored glaze and fire it again.  It’s the same.

Both the prophet Isaiah, the apostle Paul, and the prophet Jeremiah used the potter as an illustration.  They wrote hundreds of years apart from each other, but they were talking about the same thing, using the same picture.  You and I are being molded by God.  God’s people are clay in the hands of God.  God is carefully making us into something useful.

Jeremiah says, “I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel. The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him” (Jeremiah 18:3-4). The potter did not give up when the first vessel was didn’t turn out, but he reworked it into something that was just as good and useful.

Then the word of the Lord came to Jeremiah: “Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done? … Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel” (v. 6). God makes it very clear that he can smash a spoiled pot and throw it in the trash, or God can recycle it into something that is good and useful.  This is what God is always doing with us – using the events of our lives, using the people in our lives, using his Word, to continuously make us into something better, something more useful.

I’m sure you can think of a time when you had to learn a different way to live, a time when your faith became stronger because of something you learned, maybe the hard way.  Maybe God’s word spoke to you in a moment when you were ready to hear it, and with God’s help, your path changed.  Maybe you want that, and all you need to hear is that presence of God is only a prayer away.  Jesus, you are my Lord.  Help me live for you!

God says the key is repentance. How things turn out for this pot depends on its willingness to change — or to be changed (7-10).  I know that repentance doesn’t have a happy kind of meaning for us.  You might think of a socially disconnected person standing at a street corner with a sign “Repent!”  But God would rather you think about repentance as an open door to the power of God in your life.  You don’t make this change. This change happens because God brings it.  God is your partner in the change.  That is what repentance means: a willingness to allow God to bring change to your life.

Jeremiah’s description of wet clay on a wheel comes to the people of Israel as a warning, to turn their faith in God around before it’s too late.  If the pot just isn’t working out, God the potter, God the judge, will start over.

But in the potter’s house, molding clay with his hands at a wheel, Jeremiah sees that God does not want to trash us — God wants to recycle us.

Repentance is the key – if we decide to stop living apart from God and open our hearts and minds to God, to the living Jesus, we’ll find that God is willing to work with us and rework us into something that’s new.  Something fresh.  Something better.  God does not want to throw us away.

But we have to make the first move, and turn ourselves around. Actually, that’s the second move. God already made the first move in sending Jesus to give his life for us so that our sins could be forgiven.  Then brings us to a place like this where we hear the invitation to believe.  The invitation to move into a closer relationship with God.  All God needs is the willingness.  God the Holy Spirit in us helps with the heavy lifting.

There is some way in which your life needs to be re-worked, recycled.  Me too. And God is there.  God will fill the void.  Repentance is the first step in becoming a whole new creation, and God knows, you need a fresh start.  You know it too.  Tired of feeling guilty.  Tired of looking over your shoulder.  As the people in AA put it, sick and tired of feeling sick and tired.  We’d all like a new and fresh start.  And that’s what God is trying to give you today.

At the potter’s house, we come to the table – the potter’s wheel, where we God reshapes us.  We understand that the cost of living in sin, hopelessness, misery and despair is too high, and that only a reworking, a re-shaping in the hands of the Master Potter will turn our lives around.  It’s up to us to say yes.

Think of one thing that needs to be different.  All the time you might have been spending praying that someone else would change – use that time to pray that God changes you.  Through Christ, God is giving you the fresh start you need.

Prayer

O God, we believe – help our unbelief.  Work in us and through us toward the helpful change we know we need.  Give us the strength to overcome that spirit of resistance.  Give us a spirit of adventure that explores the life you give us while we have the time. Help us understand this life as a precious gift from you.  Help us not waste this gift on grudges or fear.

We thank you for the new worship space God, but we know that we are the ones that need remodeling. Help us be faithful – full of faith.  Help us know what it means to have your joy deep within ourselves, so that our way of living is an open invitation for others to follow you.  Help us all grow, change and become the people you need us to be.

9/1/2013 Sermon: “Room for Improvement”

Sanctuary
Sanctuary of St. Paul’s United Church of Christ, Manheim, PA. CN – 2013

Hebrews 13:1-8.  Let mutual love continue. 2Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. 3Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured. 4Let marriage be held in honour by all, and let the marriage bed be kept undefiled; for God will judge fornicators and adulterers. 5Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have; for he has said, ‘I will never leave you or forsake you.’ 6So we can say with confidence,
‘The Lord is my helper;
   I will not be afraid.
What can anyone do to me?’

7 Remember your leaders, those who spoke the word of God to you; consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. 8Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and for ever.

Today at St. Paul’s, we are back in the sanctuary after two months of refurbishing.  I think it’s really quite beautiful.  I see heads nodding!

But here’s a reality check.  This is an excerpt of a review that was published in a local newspaper:

“The ceiling is 24 feet from the floor  and is ornamented with a beautiful centerpiece, to a rod in the centre of which will be a splendid chandelier attached.  This room is heated by means of heaters.  There is, however something we cannot admire and that is the color  and style in which the interior is painted – no blame can be attached to the painter.  The pews and front of the gallery are painted in a dirty-looking drab color with the panels in perfect white – making the whole have a horrid effect on those who are in the least sensitive in the harmony of colors.  In our estimation it spoils the whole beauty of the interior – and as if though not enough of this horrid stuff could be put on, the top of the seats and back of the pews are most profusely covered with it.”   ~ from the Manheim Whig Sentinal, December 17, 1853

Well, everybody is entitled to an opinion!  Maybe you could tell from a few of the details that the writer was describing some other building… or was living in a different time.  He/she was in fact, describing this building – 160 years ago!

This church building has seen many changes since 1853.  Except for the basic shape, almost nothing else is the same.

It’s all a matter of taste and time, right?  Back then there were no stained glass windows.  These are not the same seats.  There was a balcony (gallery).  Lighting would have been by oil lamp (gas?).  Now there’s a wing with an elevator.  We’ve got projection screens in the front of sanctuary and sound amplification.

Things change. So many things.  Some things we miss from previous times, some we don’t.  One thing you can count on:  our kids and grandkids will make even more changes.  If they don’t, something is wrong.  We always need to be adapting to the times we live in.

Let’s think about something else that’s seen changes over the years: book stores.

Sometimes, usually when we’re on vacation, we’ll go browsing in a bookstore.  Bookstores have also changed over the years.  A lot of them will have a coffee shop toward the back and really nice bathrooms.  You never have to leave.  It’s important that you are as comfortable as possible, because you don’t have to be there with that money in your wallet.  You could just as easily stay home and download that book to your electronic device.  The bookstore wants you to be glad you walked in the door.  Yes, churches be paying attention to that kind of environment!  We can learn some things.

I like the store.  Just looking at the sections of books is interesting.  Fiction, non-fiction.  Automotive.  Self-improvement.  Under self-improvement, you’ll find addiction and recovery, aging, emotional healing, relationships, sexuality, inspiration, diet and health, parenting and family, and lots of other topics.  The writers include Deepak Chopra, Wayne Dyer and Dr. Phil.  I’m sure many of us have read something out of that section of the bookstore, or heard at least one of these people speak on television.

These books and speakers offer help, and they are gifted at it in their own ways.  But the “self” in self-improvement means that you have to bring your self, you have to bring you, to a moment when you realize change is good, change is necessary, and you will allow change in your life.  12-step groups will point out that lasting change is a cooperative effort, that you really can’t do lasting change by yourself.  It won’t happen is you try to do it alone.  And you need the help of God and your friends for change to last.  You need to allow yourself to be vulnerable.  Ideally, the church is a gathering of people who understand this: we can’t be the people God needs us to be, unless we work at it together.

The building is very nice, but God cares much more about how we live than about where we worship, or the quality of the space we worship in.

The reading from Hebrews could be on that shelf at Barnes & Noble; it’s a guide to living – a little collection of proverbs.  An offering of help of help from a spiritual leader.  And it’s free!

“Let mutual love continue.”  (Hebrews 13:1)  Think of synonyms for love. Respect, admiration, high regard…  Then – let’s continue that, and think of ways to do that instead of just being an organization.  In our life together, where are the places where mutual love grows?  A little bit in worship, but really, mutual love is being expressed between us where relationships happen.  A small group, a dinner, coffee, a visit…  Find a way to be in a place like that.

“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.”  (v. 2)  What do you think of when you read that?  Homeless people?  Strangers who walk through our doors?  How are we at being open to strangers?  That involves risk.  If we are followers of Christ, we need to be hospitable to the “strange” and “stranger” in our lives. But how can you meet strangers if you only go to the same places and do the same things?  So break your own daily routine in some small way. Try some new food each week. A new place to eat.  Take a new route to work – down a street you’ve never been on. Okay, maybe from work.

“Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured.”  (v. 3)  This is not something that’s close to our normal experience, but there are people who suffer for their faith in Christ.  It’s about suffering at the hands of others for your faith, but it’s also a reminder that God cares about people who have been thrown away, and that Christ died for all people.  There are organizations who minister to those in prison, and we should support them.

The reading says, “Let marriage be held in honor by all, and let the marriage bed be kept undefiled; for God will judge fornicators and adulterers.”  Very harsh.  And very true that God is not happy with our behavior sometimes.  But God is in the business of changing lives and it’s the forgiveness of God that brings healing.  “Let marriage be held in honor by all.”  If this happens, the bad things, things that hurt relationships might not.  Let marriage be held in honor by all.  I don’t know if the ancient churches had any customs to reflect this thought, but I know of some modern churches that regularly have services for couples who want to renew their vows.  Something to think about.  It’s also something that goes against the grain of a culture that really has trouble making and keeping commitments.  The writer of Hebrews, by the way, was not making any reference to sexual orientation in that passage.  It’s all about commitment.

“Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have” (v. 5) – God will take care of you.  I think we get that, but it’s a very hard thing to live out.  Who would say no to more money?  “No, I don’t really need that; you can give it to somebody else.”  A little far-fetched?  Next week, we will be sending out the first stewardship letters of the year and we will all be challenged to share.

This section of advice closes with these words: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” (13:8)  When you hear those words, you should breathe a sigh of relief.  There is one thing you can count on. One thing you can be sure of: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.”

But a lot of us are afraid.  We live in fear.  Sometimes it feels like there is so much in life that is beyond control, it’s overwhelming.  We need to hear those words repeated again and again. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.  I once went to a church-sponsored seminar on stress, and the leader suggested that, along with taking a deep breath when you feel overwhelmed, you should repeat words like these.

What does it mean that Jesus is the same, eternally, time without beginning or end?  Did Jesus save you?  Is Jesus saving you?  Does Jesus care for you?

God is very concerned about what’s going on in each of us.  Dwell on that thought and take it with you this morning.   Let’s say it together:  “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.”

When Moses met God at the burning bush, do you remember the first thing God said? “Take off your shoes, the place on which you are standing is holy ground” (Exodus 3:5).

A few years ago, a study in USA Today reported that those people who regularly kick off their shoes under the dining table or their desk or their pew tend to live three years longer than the average American.

Now will you kick off your shoes this morning? In the Benedictine Monastic Order, the monks take off their shoes constantly — for meals, for prayer, for conversation, for reading — i.e., whenever shoes are not an absolute necessity, they go barefooted.  Why? Bare feet are aware feet: aware of the earth, aware of holiness, aware of life.  Why do feet stink?  Because they’ve been bound up in shoes for too long!  Souls that are bound up and cooped up for too long begin to stink as well.

Let some fresh air into your soul. Go barefoot.  Let’s truly appreciate the new building.  Let’s have new ideas flowing.  You are on holy ground.  Breathe slowly and deeply three times, and say, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.”

Prayer

God, we pray this morning knowing that you are always with us.  Of course we know that you are here.  We have experienced your presence through a meal together and through hearing your word.  Use us now to take your presence to a world that knows less and less about trust and commitment.

Help us know how to communicate important truth to our classmates and co-workers, our family and friends.  Help us find the language, and the courage to communicate your love.  Help us demonstrate with our lives that we truly believe, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.”  Amen.