10/27/2013 Sermon: “What God Really Wants”

Prayer (2)

Luke 18:9  He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and despised others: 10  “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.

11  The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank thee that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12  I fast twice a week, I give tithes of all that I get.’

13  But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’ 

14  I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for every one who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

15  Now they were bringing even infants to him that he might touch them; and when the disciples saw it, they rebuked them. 16  But Jesus called them to him, saying, “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of God. 17  Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.”

2 Timothy 4:6  For I am already on the point of being sacrificed; the time of my departure has come.  7  I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.  8  Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing.

I’ve heard another version of that first scripture, and it goes like this: Two people, one a church leader and the other a drug dealer, went into the church to pray.  The church leader prayed thus with himself, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people, welfare cheats, pornographers, or even like this drug dealer.  I go to worship every Sunday, I give a tenth of my salary and my time to the church and I spend two weeks of my vacation every summer building homes for the poor.”  But the drug dealer, sitting way back in the sanctuary, would not even look up from the pew, but sat wringing his hands, saying, God, forgive me, I am nothing but a sinner.”  I tell you the drug dealer went home justified rather than the church leader; for all who hold themselves up will fall, and those who admit their shortcomings will be lifted up.

Either way, this is one of those parables we’ve got all figured out, right?  It’s black and white.  We all know people who seem self-righteous and work out their relationships in an us-them kind of way.  These people are obnoxious and we can be thankful we aren’t like that.  And we can all connect with somebody who feels so low they have no choice but to ask forgiveness of God, and everyone, and start over.  Isn’t that interesting, that it’s easier to connect with, to empathize with, the guy with personal failures, who feels so low about himself?

When the apostle Paul wrote the words in that second passage, he was probably in prison in Rome, and he might have heard that he would be executed soon. I don’t know about you, but if I were him, I would be feeling pretty low.

But he says, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.  From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day, (vv. 7-8)

Fought the good fight.  Finished the race.  Kept the faith.  Paul used athletic metaphors like those more than once in his writing– it’s thought that he might have been an athlete himself at some point in his life.  He traveled quite a bit around ancient Greece and must have known about the Olympic Games, maybe even been a fan.  At the beginning of those games, athletes took an oath in front of the crowd that they would give their best effort and compete fairly (the same oath that Olympic athletes take today). He talks about a crown at the end of the race.  Do you know your Olympic history?  The winner of a race gets a crown made of olive branches.  But Paul doesn’t mention anything about winning the fight or winning the race — just competing, and completing – to the best of his ability.

Is that good enough?  How do you identify a Christian winner?  Are they busy doing good things?  This Christian faith thing can be a lot of work – you should be able to know when you’re a success.  Paul has… Fought the good fight.  Finished the race.  Kept the faith.  Is that enough?

Let’s go for another perspective; let’s ask that Pharisee in the gospel story, what success is all about.  Pharisees have a bad name in the gospels; they seem to be working against Jesus most of the time.  The word Pharisee is even feels kind of bad when you say it – like a cat hissing.  But it’s important to understand the tradition and motivation behind Pharisees.  The word “Pharisee” means “separated.”  Pharisees were a minority leadership group in Jesus’ time, and they were the conservative “party.”  They observed the law – the Torah – to a fault, because they saw their world on the decline.  People were losing their Jewish identity to the Gentiles (non-Jews) creeping in from all sides, and the Pharisees were determined to make sure Israel stayed pure.  They had narrow minds because they saw their survival at stake.

Only by separating themselves from those who did not follow or honor God’s law, the Torah, could the people of God be saved. Pharisees were spiritually different and spiritually superior to all who were not Jewish.  This Pharisee in the Temple has worked hard and sacrificed a lot to be able to point at the tax collector and say, “Thank God I am not like him.”

This is a guy with principles.

On the other hand… first-century Jews hated all tax collectors.  But in that time and place, tax collectors made their living by collecting taxes not for the Jewish community, but for Rome.  And while this would have been enough to make him unpopular on its own, the tax collector was also seen as a kind of traitor and parasite.  The Romans gave him no salary; he earned his living by charging more than the Romans wanted and keeping the profits.

In the Temple, in the presence of God, he feels like a worm.  And who hasn’t felt like this?  I wonder sometimes, if this is the reason many people stay away from God.  They made a mistake; they feel they can’t be forgiven.  They wander into a situation that eventually controls them, they feel helpless, and too ashamed to ask for forgiveness.  But the person who understands that God forgives anything is the one who is able to come together with God, experience God’s forgiveness.  They can know God’s power to change them and move on.

Which one do we want to be?  The answer might not be as easy as you think.  Do you want to be the Pharisee with the clean record and lousy personal skills – or the tax collector with is head in his hands?  The truth is, at the same time, we are both Pharisee and tax collector, or as Martin Luther put it, both saint and sinner together.   There’s a version of the “Serenity Prayer” that goes like this: God, give me the grace to accept when I am wrong, and make me easy to live with when I’m right.

One of the keys to understanding meaning of the parable lies in whom these two people were praying to.  The tax collector, out of his emptiness, prayed to God; the Pharisee prayed with himself.  The Pharisee’s goodness was based on comparing himself with the tax collector – he’s left God out of his picture.  Making judgments about the people praying next to you always keeps God at a distance.  Making judgments about others keeps God from helping you work on your issues.  The tax collector recognized his sin because he knew he was in the presence of God.  And with God, the tax collector is fighting the good fight.  He is running the race.  He understands that he cannot clean up his life on his own – that’s God’s job.  He can see the crown that God has for him.

So, in the end, this was not about who has done a better job of living a religious life.  It was about was about understanding your need for God, about being with God, about seeing past your circumstances, whatever they might be, so that God can make you whole.  It was only about faith.  What does God want?  Jesus explains it like thisDR Hands (2)

Luke 18:15  Now they were bringing even infants to him that he might touch them; and when the disciples saw it, they rebuked them.  16  But Jesus called them to him, saying, “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of God. 17  Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.”

I have most often heard that passage connected to baptisms.  But it was a story about children told for adults.  It was told for you, so that you can remember, when the time comes that your world has become small, when the things you have mean nothing, when your achievements are a memory, when your religious habits don’t seem to work anymore – that time when you are kneeling before God like a child because you finally understand that what God wanted all along was a simple “I love you.”  And that was all that was necessary.  All God wanted was your trust, your faith.

When you come to church, whom are you praying to?  Who are you looking for?  Is your mind looking around the room, or is your soul talking to God?  Are you open enough to let God find ways to speak to you?  Think of what God could do with a group of people who are listening.

The crown is given to those who fight the good fight, finish the race and keep the faith. Lets do it together.  God has heard your cry for forgiveness and is filling you with his own Spirit.  You are healed. Now let’s find real, practical ways to make a difference in the lives of others through the love of Christ.

 Prayer

Sometimes, God, like that Pharisee, we wander through life unhappy with ourselves, unhappy with everyone else, never knowing or remembering that the missing piece in our lives is you.  O God, you are open to us; you’ve been trying to have a relationship with us since before we even knew you existed. Through your Spirit, help us be more open to a deeper relationship with you.  Forgive us, teach us, heal us, change our attitudes and lifestyles.  Help us see the ones praying next to us.  Show us how to share, how to give ourselves away.  Help us see others as the friends we haven’t met yet.  Use our faith as the tool that reworks our lives to reflect our relationship with a God who loves with no strings attached.  We pray with faith in the power of the resurrection of Jesus.  Amen.

10/20/2013 Sermon: “Bible-to-go”

SPM Stained Glass  2 - Holy BibleA couple of weeks ago, the sermon scripture was part of Paul’s 2nd letter to Timothy (2 Timothy 1:1-14), who was a young disciple of Paul’s, maybe in his twenties, living in what is now Turkey,  doing the best could to pastor a new church.  These were mostly Roman colonies – pagan, idol worshiping places – and this church was new in all ways.  The whole idea of a group of people gathered in the name of Jesus, living in the power of the Holy Spirit, was a revolutionary thing.  Guided by Timothy, a young pastor who had learned all he knew from Paul, most everything they did was a new idea.  Can you imagine this?  Each of you, and all of you together, are new believers in Jesus Christ.  Where do you start?

In the reading for today, Paul gives Timothy some leadership advice:

2 Timothy 3:14-4:5.  14But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, 15and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16All scripture is inspired by God and is* useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.

4In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I solemnly urge you: 2proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favourable or unfavourable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching. 3For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, 4and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths. 5As for you, always be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully.

Those are the words the Apostle Paul uses as an older man, in prison, getting very close to the end of his life.  he knows that his execution by the Roman Emperor Nero will happen sooner or later.  He’s giving encouragement to his young pastor friend Timothy….

”continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.  All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.  (2 Timothy 3:13-17)

We don’t talk often enough about the importance of scripture.  Every church has a history – a list of founding members and the first pastors, etc.  But these people did not create the church here; they might have built buildings, but they had no power to create faith in others.  It is the Word, the Good News of God living in Jesus Christ that lights the fire of faith in each of us, that creates the Church.  This has always been true.

Genesis 1 3Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light.

God speaks and creates.  In the same way, the church does not exist until God says it does.  God speaks us into existence.  And then these words of scripture that God has spoken still have the power to create light in us, the power to live in us, and create faith.

People like me are always telling others to have faith in Jesus Christ.  One of his names is “The Word.” The Word you find in this book leads you to him and will sustain your faith.  You first connect with Jesus here.  In this book.

Pulpit Bible

John 1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He [Jesus] was in the beginning with God. 3All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

Do you have a memory of a particular Bible?  I’ve described to some folks how having a Bible on my desk as a young art teacher many years ago changed the course of my life toward a direction that led to this ministry here.  I don’t remember who the student was, but I remember the conversation:  “That’s a Bible, right?  You get something out of that?”  This led to after-school conversations with a group of kids in that school, that led to running a community youth group, that led to seminary, that led to ministry in the United Church of Christ.

Not what I was expecting, but that’s how God works.  I realize that not everybody has a story like that, and there are a lot of details I’m leaving out, but it all began with opening this book.

It was a school in a really difficult neighborhood, and the environment was oppressive.  This place had been on the national news because of race riots a few weeks before school started and I heard kids talking in the hallway about how they had set a police car on fire.  My colleagues, the other teachers, hated being there.  And I was thinking, okay, I have this job so that we can eat.  Is eating worth it?

As a kind of security blanket, I began to keep my Bible with me.  That would be the Bible I received as a second grader in the First Congregational Church of Medina, Ohio.  One day, during a study hall that was meeting in my room, quietly, privately, I opened that book to the Psalms.  I was naïve – I thought nobody would notice.

Psalm 119:  17-25.  Deal bountifully with your servant, so that I may live and observe your word.  Open my eyes, so that I may behold  wondrous things out of your law. I live as an alien in the land; do not hide your commandments from me. My soul is consumed with longing for your [word] ordinances at all times.  Your decrees are my delight, they are my counselors. My soul clings to the dust; revive me according to your word.

I don’t know if it was that Psalm.  I was just trying to get through the day, and it was helping.  And the next thing I know, there’s somebody who wants to talk about it and our talking about it helped us both, then it helped us three, then us five, then the ten of us.  And I was not a theologian.

People are searching.  Their souls are “clinging to dust.” They are longing to be revived.  If that isn’t true for you today, it certainly was true for everybody at Franklin Junior High in Elyria, Ohio in the fall of 1975.

It wasn’t much and I was no hero.  We would just read a few verses, talk for a few minutes about what we thought that reading meant, say a quick prayer, and get on with the day.  God was at work.  It was God speaking to them through what God has already spoken and it made a difference in all of our lives.  God has spoken through this book, and the primary way God still speaks is through this book.

I’ve done short services in nursing homes, noticing that for many of the people, even though it looks to me like they are not paying attention, when I start to say… “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed (holy) be thy name…” They can finish the sentence, just like you.  You realize you’re quoting the 6th chapter of Matthew.

But think for a second about what that means: God is holy. Even God’s name has power.  Each phrase of that prayer from scripture has power.

“The Lord is my shepherd…”  They can finish the sentence, just like you. But think for a second about what that means:  God will take care of you.

     The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. Psalm 23:1.

Can you see why those are important memories to have, especially when life isn’t going so well?  Those are verses of scripture that are given by God to help you live without fear.  These words are gifts from God to create new life in you.

You probably know that it’s not really possible to pick up a Bible and read it like any other book, because it’s a collection of books written by different people at different times in different cultures.  So, it helps to have a guide, like the kind you find at the beginning of each book in some Bibles.

Bible1.  The first step is: find a time.  Pray, then open the book.  If nothing else, make a practice of reading through a gospel a chapter at a time, with the Psalms.  Take a chapter of a gospel, a chapter of Psalms and call me in the morning.  Tell me if life doesn’t seem different for you.  For your e-reader, there are Bibles with devotional plans – www.youversion.com.

2.  When you find a piece of scripture that really means something to you, something that really helps you, memorize it over the course of a few weeks.  Put it on the fridge.  Put it on a flash card.  Keep it in your pocket.

As Moses said in the Book of Deuteronomy…

“Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up…  Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.”  (Deuteronomy 6:7-9)

3.  The most important part is to stop for a moment each time you read it or say it, and realize what it means for you.  Turn the Word on yourself first, before applying it to anyone else.  That’s a good antidote to negative judgmentalism, or what some people call mindless fundamentalism.  Think of a question it makes you want to ask, and then ask it of yourself, or someone else.

4.  Be a part of a group that talks about scripture, even if it’s only brief references to it.  That’s a great way to find answers and stay on track.  We have a list of options in the adult ministry section in our announcements.

5.  Have a Bible-to-go.  A travel bible – a small one in the car or a purse or a book bag or a briefcase.  A powerful weapon against hopelessness.  I’ve kept with me a Bible that just has psalms and the New Testament.  It works.  This Bible has been traveling with me for over twenty years; it’s probably been around the world a few times!  It’s wrinkly because it fell into a lake during a canoe trip!  The Word it contains has kept me going in so many ways.

For some of you, this is old news.  If you are an old hand at bible-reading, I’d like to ask you to stretch yourself.  Don’t just read; these are not just words. This book is describing some new step you need to take.  What is it?

For everyone – this book is your doorway to a relationship with God through Christ, about whom it says… “the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory…”  God speaking through this book will recreate you, and turn all of us into a new St. Paul’s United Church of Christ.

Prayer

God, use your word in our lives to clear our minds and hearts so that we can have wisdom.  Speak to us.  Give us your wisdom.  There are many of us who know how to be smart, and we can do lots of neat things with cars and computers and televisions.  But we need to know how to be wise.  And that wisdom comes from you, and we find it in your word.  We need to know how to be closer to you and how to love each other better.  Through your Spirit, plant your word in us in ways that will make your world a better place for the peace, hope, love, and joy we will bring. Amen.

10/13/2013 Sermon: “So Grateful”

A country road between Galilee and Samaria.
A country road between Galilee and Samaria. CN – 2011.

On a country road (in the area shown in the photo above), Jesus meets 10 people with leprosy who need healing.  To get the full meaning from this story, first, we need to remember why Luke is telling this story about Jesus.

Luke 17:5  The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!”  6  The Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.

Then Jesus gives an object lesson, as he often does, and this one is about faith and thankfulness:

Luke 17:11-19. 11 On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. 12As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, 13they called out, saying, ‘Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!’ 14When he saw them, he said to them, ‘Go and show yourselves to the priests.’ And as they went, they were made clean. 15Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. 16He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan.17Then Jesus asked, ‘Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? 18Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?’ 19Then he said to him, ‘Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.’

Every now and then, I meet somebody who has never been in a hospital.  It comes up when I visit them in the hospital (!) and they say, “You know, I’ve never been in a hospital – until now.”  Then they talk a little bit about why they are there, and sometimes, they start talking about God or their involvement with the church.  They are always the ones who bring it up.  People who are sick or injured and have to be in a hospital are often listening to God a little more closely. Sickness seems to bring spirituality into focus.  Laying on that hospital bed, we realize how fragile and temporary life is.  We realize that we aren’t as invincible as we thought we were.

So chaplains are important in hospitals, probably not so much for the things they say or do, but for whom they represent to people.  They are “R.O.G.s” – Representatives of God.  They have learned that no one is in a hospital because they want to be there – most people in hospitals wish they were somewhere else.  So many hospitals have learned that spiritual support from chaplains is important.

And likewise, visits from ministers are important to some people.  But I remember being in the hospital when a visit from a minister didn’t seem so positive.

When I was in high school, I had a back injury from playing football that put me in the hospital for a couple of weeks.  The room had two beds in it and I had a succession of roommates: other kids with sports injuries who would stay for a few days and leave.  One of those roommates had a minister who visited, and I remember this man like it was yesterday.  He was tall (anybody seems tall when you’re lying down), wore horn-rimmed glasses, a dark suit, white shirt, and a skinny tie (it was the 1960’s).  And I was the most captive audience there ever was.  He leaned over my bed and said, “Son, do you know Jesus?”

“Uh, well, uh, …I think so.”

“Well, if you would ever like to pray, just let me know.”  And he walked away.

I was scared.  For a few days, I was easy prey.  Most of the time I was there I couldn’t get up by myself and laying that bed, I couldn’t escape.  So I dreaded the moment that he would walk into the room again.  It was good motivation to get better.

I used to remember that experience as something scary and negative.  But it sure made me think.  For years I wondered, why was I so threatened?  I look back now and realize that the spiritual need I had was more important than the sports injury.  It wasn’t such a bad question, “Son, do you know Jesus?”  That minister probably could have used a better bedside manner, but I didn’t “know Jesus” and it got me thinking.  That painful, uncomfortable moment was actually the beginning of faith for me.

We all have a need for spiritual healing, and our physical problems can be the tools God uses to lead us to that healing.  It’s not a strange thing that people meet God when they’re sick or injured.  Now I can look back at that time in the hospital with a certain degree of thanks.  I’d like to talk about giving thanks to God as an important part of faith and one of the most pieces in a Christian’s relationship with God.

Now, leprosy could have been any skin disease and there are two chapters in Leviticus about it (13 & 14).  According to the law, lepers had to wear torn clothes, dishevel their hair, cover their mouths, and yell out, “Unclean,” whenever they were near others. This is why they call out to Jesus from a distance; they were warning him that they had leprosy.

They couldn’t live among healthy people, so they were trying to survive together, just outside of town. Maybe somebody walking into town will throw something their way.  Maybe they have family in town.  I wonder what that would have been like, to discover something wrong with yourself, then to be told, “You, you can’t be here anymore.  Out.”  You get a sense of their shame in the details. There are ten of them, just doing what they can to get by.

Palestinian woman
Scene in the city of Nablus, in the center of ancient Samaria, today’s West Bank/Palestine. CN – 2011.

And one of them is a Samaritan – a kind of religious/ethnic heretic half-breed Jews don’t want much to do with.  But he’s in with this group because he has leprosy.  He has nowhere else to turn.  His situation is truly hopeless.

When you think about it, Jesus has a strange reaction to these people.  Maybe some of the details are missing, but he doesn’t seem to take the time for warm compassion, and doesn’t even seem willing to get personally connected.  He tells them, “Go [to the temple in Jerusalem and] show yourselves to the priests.”  That’s at least a three or four day walk, but that’s what the law requires.  It’s the priests in the Temple who can pronounce lepers clean so that they can live among healthy people again.

I wonder to myself, why the walk? Why couldn’t Jesus just heal them right there?  Maybe that’s what they thought.  It’s hard to know if they were even expecting to be healed.  They might have just been begging for money.  They ask Jesus for help, and he tells them to go do the thing you are supposed to do when you are already healed.

So this is all about faith, believing that Jesus has the power to do the thing you need.  He says, Ladies and gentlemen, believe you will be healed and take that step.  And when the one returns to thank him, Jesus said to him, “your faith has made you well.”  The other nine only got rid of their leprosy; the Samaritan was made well.

If we could only learn to go to Christ when life isn’t desperate.  An 18th century Jewish rabbi once said, “If you are asked how things are, don’t whine and grumble about your hardships. If you answer ‘Lousy,’ then God says, ‘You call this bad? I’ll show you what bad really is!’  When asked how things are and, despite hardship or suffering, you answer ‘Good,’ then God says, ‘You call this good? I’ll show you what good really is!'”

What does God want from us as we travel through life?  Faith!  Trust.  When bad times come along, we go to God for help, for inner strength, for peace, for healing.  And along the way, God gives so many opportunities to be thankful.  Real spiritual wellness comes when we thank God for those good things that come along, big or small, and you can find those good things when even life seems lousy.  We are each part of an imperfect, sinful world.  We need forgiveness.  We need healing.  We need to be made well, to have faith, to trust.  We need to give thanks.  We each have so many reasons to be thankful.  What Jesus was trying to teach his people was, your faith will be increased when you give thanks to God.

I believe this is precisely what Paul was talking about when he wrote:

Philippians 4:4 Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. 5Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. 6Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

Think about a time when you were truly thankful.  You were so thankful, you hardly had words to express how you felt.  You were on a mountaintop.  What was going on right before that?  I wouldn’t be surprised if you had just walked through a valley.  If you are in a valley right now, hear Jesus telling you to get up and take that next step.

Someone here is taking a step of faith toward healing; it might be a healing that no one else can see.  Others are thinking about how God has made a difference in their lives.  God brought you through that valley for a reason.  Today is the perfect day to take a moment and thank God, and be healed.  Your faith has made you well.

Prayer 

O God, we feel so hopeless sometimes, so alone, needing to be healed by you.  And you stand by us, waiting for us to turn to you, waiting for us to believe.  All along, we know that the ups and downs, the good times and bad times along the road, all these things have been leading us to you.  You are the destination; you are the one we have been looking for.  Within ourselves, we know you hold the key to the peace and fulfillment we know we need and only you can give.  Forgive our lack of courage in turning to you.  Forgive us for being so preoccupied with ourselves that we ignore you when you call.

But now we open the door of our lives to you.  We thank you for all the circumstances and people you’ve given us; we thank you for our church, for all the ways you’ve brought us to yourself.  With faith in your living son Jesus, we each give ourselves to you.  Only you can make us clean.  Transform us through your Spirit into the kind of people, the kind of church, known for their faith in a loving God.  Amen.

10/6/2013 Sermon: “Fire It Up!”

[On this Sunday, the congregation rededicated our newly refurbished sanctuary – and ourselves – to God’s ministry in our community and our families]

SPM Stained Glass  14 - Communion (2)2 Timothy 1 Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, for the sake of the promise of life that is in Christ Jesus,

2 To Timothy, my beloved child:  Grace, mercy, and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord.

3 I am grateful to God—whom I worship with a clear conscience, as my ancestors did—when I remember you constantly in my prayers night and day. 4Recalling your tears, I long to see you so that I may be filled with joy. 5I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you. 6For this reason I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands; 7for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.

8 Do not be ashamed, then, of the testimony about our Lord or of me his prisoner, but join with me in suffering for the gospel, relying on the power of God, 9who saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works but according to his own purpose and grace. This grace was given to us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, 10but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Saviour Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel. 11For this gospel I was appointed a herald and an apostle and a teacher, 12and for this reason I suffer as I do. But I am not ashamed, for I know the one in whom I have put my trust, and I am sure that he is able to guard until that day what I have entrusted to him. 13Hold to the standard of sound teaching that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. 14Guard the good treasure entrusted to you, with the help of the Holy Spirit living in us.

SanctuaryJust for fun, can you remember when you first walked into this room? You probably weren’t alone.  Maybe you were carried.  Whom were you with?  How did you get here?  Why did you come here?  What was the worship like?  What was going on in your life at that time?  What was going on in your family?

There are so many stories in this room.  Stories of joy and happy times, the blessings of life.  And stories of overwhelming pain and huge burdens.  You were thankful to God and you needed God.  You still need God.  I suspect that in the midst of your thankfulness or need, you didn’t care what color the walls were in this room.  How are you different because of the things God did through the people of this church?

SPUCC sanctuary c. 1900A couple of weeks ago, I had a nice chat with Burt and Betty Savtiz about the photo on the cover of the bulletin today (above).  They were able to look at it and say, well, the altar isn’t there, so it’s got to be before 1906.  The pulpit isn’t there, so it’s got to be in the early 1880’s.  This means that photo was taken just after the building was expanded to include the chancel area (the semi-circle where the chairs are sitting).  At least one of the big fancy chairs is missing now; that’s a mystery.  I don’t suppose you know who might have borrowed it.  If it shows up, there won’t be any questions asked!  I can’t imagine it’s especially comfortable and it probably doesn’t recline.

Around that time, and in the years that followed, this church (and other churches in the area) went through a kind of transformation.  We had mostly stopped using German in our worship, for which I’m thankful (no offense to German-speakers intended!).

And some of the clergy had decided that our Protestant churches had over-reacted to the Reformation and had separated ourselves too much from the Catholic Church.  So, to be more ecumenical, to have more in common, we began using an altar (instead of a simple communion table) and a more formal style of worship.

If you’re into history, you love that kind of stuff.  I have to admit that my kids, who are in their twenties, give me blank stares when I begin to talk about these things, and start checking their phones for messages.  It’s not for everybody.  And we have to be careful not to make the church more of a historic preservation society than a thriving Body of Jesus Christ where the Holy Spirit lives and equips us to change the world!

But many of us, including me, are on a quest to find out who we are.  I don’t know how many of you feel that way.  I love finding out about my ancestors.  You do a little detective work to find out some fact that explains why you turned out the way you did and how you got to where you are.  Maybe you can find out how God was working in your life before you ever knew it!

In 1853, the year this building was built, for a short time, my great-great grandfather (Charles Adams) was the mayor of Allegheny, Pennsylvania, the northern part of the triangle where the three rivers come together (about 100 years ago, that city became part of Pittsburg).  He apparently ruffled some feathers and had to leave town.  He joined the Union Army just as the Civil War began and was shot in the leg.  He came home permanently disabled and from what little I could learn, was not a happy man.  He moved the family to Ohio and when he died, his wartime exploits were engraved on his tombstone.  But the family refused to talk about him.  His name was “the name that shall not be spoken.”  His son, my great-grandfather, became an alcoholic.  His children, including my grandmother, were happy enough, but admitted that they could have used better parenting.

Amongst my brothers and my sister, we have talked sometimes about how things like this, some of which happened so long ago, have affected us today.

In some ways, each of us has had to make a choice to embrace wonderful things we have learned from our parents, or to break a cycle, to choose to be different, to live differently.  For me, that would not have happened without faith, and the intervention of Jesus Christ in my life.

I believe that each of us has a story like that.  I can tell you about ten of them in my own family.  There was a road and a journey that got you to where you are.  Your family got you to this place.  For better or worse.  Through some amazing celebrations, and through the absolute worst of times.  And then God brought you hereNow.

We think we find out who we are by learning about our ancestors.  But you get a better idea of who you are by studying your children, studying those you will leave behind.

I love that verse about Timothy’s grandmother Lois and his mother Eunice.  It’s full of relationship.  It’s all about faith being passed between people, given away like a gift, and there it is in three generations of the same family.

“a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you [Timothy].”  (1 Timothy 2:5)

Some of my own earliest memories of anything are of being in church, sitting near my mother and grandmother.  I remember them closing their eyes to pray and wondering to myself, “What’s up with that?”  And then my grandmother would doze off and snore!

My personal road had a lot of twists and turns in it – and a lot of wrestling with God.  God took me down the path of being an injured athlete in high school, a college student with a lot of questions about life, and then a first career as a high school art teacher.    It was as unique to me as your path is to you.

I’ve known what it’s like to have a Paul in my life, and I think, so have you.  I’ve also had a few Timothies!  You know who your “Paul” is: that person who was there to say, “rekindle the gift of God that is within you.”  Don’t give up.  Keep the fire burning.  And I believe that each of us, in our Christian life, has a Timothy or two that God needs us to encourage.

Timothy was a young pastor living in a Roman colony in Asia Minor (Turkey) in the first century, and had a close relationship with the Apostle Paul.  They were like father and son, and wrote letters to each other.  Paul was responsible for bringing Timothy’s family to faith in Christ.

Paul was in prison when he wrote this letter. Some think that these might be the last words he wrote. So, with his life passing before his eyes, so to speak, what he says to his young friend Timothy has a different kind of importance.  A different kind of tone.  It’s more urgent.  He doesn’t have long.

Timothy, listen to me!  God lit a fire in you!  Your mother and grandmother had faith; now so do you.  It’s up to you to be strong in your faith so that you can pass it along, too.  When you believe, God gives you a gift; you have the power of God.  You know the love of Jesus in you because you have faith. Don’t be ashamed; be bold!

But it sounds like Timothy was having a rough time. The fire was dying, and he was discouraged, ready to give up.  One thing we know is that Timothy had a self-image problem when dealing with older church members.  Go figure.  So this is the part when Paul says to Timothy, “Trust God.”  Rekindle the gift!  Fire it up!  And Paul passes his faith in Christ along to Timothy.  And a chain reaction happens that leads eventually not just to a church in Manheim, PA, but to your personal faith.  Sometimes I wonder how things would have turned out if the chain had been broken somehow.

What’s so dynamic about this is that Paul is in prison, sending this encouragement to Timothy. He probably knows that he’s going to be executed by the Emperor Nero any day, that he’s facing the end.  But he’s still sending spiritual encouragement, not to a church, but to this one young guy.  I think we’ve all known someone like this – that person, in the worst of circumstances themselves, who asks you how you are and gives encouragement.  Timothy!  Rekindle the gift!  God is using Paul to “fire up” this younger believer.

Faith transcends whatever your circumstances are.  That is what this is all about.  Faith is why we are here.  Faith is what makes us who we are.  Faith is that surrender, that belief, that deep, inner trust that there is a power beyond yourself that you can lock into – and become something that you could never become on your own.  Faith allows God to light a fire in us.  The fire starts when we say yes to God.  We allow God to light the fire and as we keep saying yes, God fans the flames.

As time goes along, and our faith becomes stronger, we stand on each other’s shoulders.  There are people in our lives who make a big difference, people who help God open the door.   People who help us rekindle the gift. Paul believed in Timothy and encouraged Timothy, even when he was in the worst of circumstances himself.  There are people who have believed in us and helped us believe.  Everybody is here because of somebody else.  At some point, someone made an investment that made our faith possible.  Then it becomes your turn to find a younger person whom you can encourage.

It starts with God’s investment in each of us.  God paid a lot for our salvation.  And along with that, other people have made sacrifices of time and money.  Some you know and some you don’t know.  Today is a day when we thank God for the people who made it possible for us to be here.

I know that if God has ever used me, it’s because God used other people first.  Each of them, in their own way, has said, “Rekindle the gift!”  Now, each of us needs to think deeply about the people who will be here next year, five years from now, 20 years from now. Each of us is passing our faith along to somebody.  The building of faith depends on our willingness to be faithful and bring others along with us.  Today is the day when I hope you would recognize your own financial responsibility to keep this Body of Christ strong.  Start planning your own giving for next year and increase it!  Start asking the younger people what they want for this church, how they want to change the world.  And let them do it.

For each of us, there is someone who needs encouragement today, and God will give you an opportunity to help someone’s fire get rekindled.

Over the last month, we’ve gotten a lot of compliments about our building and how we’ve taken great care to preserve it.  As long as we meet in an old building, we won’t ever really be done.  But that’s okay.  People will know us through the faith of those who gather here now – and in the years to come.  They will see Jesus living in these hearts.  And they will study our children.

Prayer

O God, when we see you, we see open hands.  You are holding out your hands to us.  Sometimes we think that your hands are open because we have things you want to take.  We think you always want something.  And we hold back.  But we don’t understand.  Your hands are open because you are offering yourself to us.  You have so much to give us if we were only open to accepting the gift.

So help us open up our hands.  Help us be like you.  Help us be reflections of you, accepting the gift of new life in Christ and passing the good news on to someone else.  Help us accept our responsibility as members of your family to carry on the ministry of your church – with the same kind of love and generosity you have shown us.  Amen.

 

The Samaritan on the Train

DSCN0017Sometimes, when traveling very long distances overseas, I might buy an airline ticket that schedules a change of planes in a place I’ve never been, and maybe I’ll stay for a few days in that place before traveling on.  I think that the extra cost is worth it. A couple of years ago, on the way to Palestine/Israel, the plane stopped in Istanbul, Turkey, and I got off.  I went through all the passport nonsense, took the train into the old city, and stayed for a couple of nights.

Like all European city airports, you can take the train to just about anywhere from there, so I got my rail pass and went out to the platform.  Since I was by myself and nobody else was around, I had to guess at the direction the train was going; it wasn’t clear from the rail grid sign.  I may also have that genetic male-directionally-challenged-and-won’t-admit-it issue.  So I got on the train and stood underneath the map staring, hoping that the stops would tell me our direction.  Did I mention everything was in Turkish?

After some minutes, a middle-aged man comes up to me and in perfect “sign language” points to a spot on the map and by the expression on his face, “asks” if I want to go there. I knew it was the Turkish name for the old city section of Istanbul, so I nodded yes.  Yes, I’m a tourist.  Then once more in perfect sign language, he explained that I was going in the wrong direction and needed to be on the other track.  He showed me where (on the map) to get off and where to stand.  Then he stood with me on the train, and as it stopped, got off with me briefly to make sure I walked in the right direction, and he got back on.  It was that last exchange of of eye-contact and gestures that helped me understand he was deaf.  He wasn’t fluent in English or even Turkish, but he was truly aware, at least aware of me.  He was the only one on the train who could see how lost I was, I assume because he knew how to read people.  And he read me perfectly, and/or maybe he was the only one who cared.  He and I never said a word to each other.  I’ve been in a lot of spoken conversations when the communication was a lot less clear.

II believe God uses people like that in our lives.  When you are weak and powerless, God sends a Samaritan.  You know about them, right?  Not Jewish, not Christian, a kind of a sect unto themselves, and in the time of Jesus, his Jewish friends didn’t want much to do with them.  But Jesus had high regard for Samaritans and they seemed to “get” him.

We Christians like to think that our job is bring a more authentic version of love to those who are not like us.  But I believe God often sends folks like this into our lives to teach us about grace – unexpected and undeserved care. When I was hiking though Palestine in 2011 (I actually met some Samaritans!), our guide for most of the trip was a Muslim man who was one of the kindest people ever.  He truly watched over us, made sure we were drinking enough water, always had a moment for conversation, always made eye-contact.  He nearly always stopped for his dawn, midday, evening (etc.) salat prayer, washed his face, hands, and feet and bowed toward Mecca.  His devotional life made me feel like mine was inadequate!  But what I remember most is that he cared for me/us.  And my feet really hurt.  There came a point when he asked me to tell him more about Jesus, and I was glad to answer his questions.  No, I don’t think he was converted in that moment.  But I do believe God used him in my life.

Sometimes, the thing you need to do is simply let the Samaritan care for you, wash your wounds, find you a place to rest and heal.  I think sometimes a ministry relationship can only begin when you honor the Samaritan woman by letting her get some water for you (John 4).  I wonder if God has sent a Samaritan to you lately.  Had that vulnerable moment?  Who was that stranger?  What was it like to let them care for you?  Did it matter that this person was not in the same theological place as you?

9/29/2013 Sermon: “Have I Got a Deal for You!”

Baptismal fontWhat a privilege it was to baptize Shane Myers (son of Eric and Stacy)  this morning.  I’m sure you know that from church to church, believers in Jesus Christ have different beliefs and traditions around baptisms.

Some baptize children, some only adults, some sprinkle with water, some completely immerse.  If we were Greek Orthodox, Shane would have been completely immersed this morning – three times in a large font (bigger that the one we use, left!).  So, from church to church, we are different, but each church tries to make that moment special.

I was in one church that would baptize a child, and then, along with the certificate, hand the parents a copy of that morning’s newspaper.  The point of doing that is to help everyone know that Shane’s parents, Stacy and Eric, professed faith in Jesus Christ in the real world.  They promised to lead Shane toward making his own expression of faith some day in a world that can be beautiful and cursed at the same time.  Wonderful and dangerous.  In that big mess, God has a gift to give.

When I prayed for Shane, I said, “Give this child strength for life’s journey, courage in the time of suffering, the joy of faith, the freedom of love, and the hope of new life; through Jesus Christ, who makes us one.”

In the midst of all the turmoil of our personal and public lives, the only sure thing in life is God and the salvation God offers as a gift through Jesus Christ.  Faith in him gives us the freedom to have confidence in the future.  When you have faith in Christ, God not only changes you in positive ways, but has the end of your story written.  You have nothing to worry about.  The daily reality of salvation is us doing faith together.  The Holy Spirit working in each of us, and then as a strong team together – each of using our gifts in real life.  That’s what I want.  I want God with me in real life, and that’s what we bring to each other when we believe.

Out there in the real world, when you look for signs of how things are going in the economy, you watch the stock market reports in the newspaper and on the news.  The things we’ve been seeing lately make people a little nervous if they have a lot of money riding on stocks that have huge gains one day and huge drops the next.  But the fund managers keep telling people that stocks are for the long haul; think long and have faith.  Not so bad lately, but given the last 5 years, that’s a gamble too.

Speaking of gambling, it used to be that investing in real estate was a solid idea.  In fact, for most of history, at least in the cultures that led up to ours, owning land was your only investment option.  If you had land, you had a future, and you could pass that along through your family. But even that might not be as secure as you think.  Ever read through the list of things that aren’t covered on your homeowners insurance?  Among other things, these items are on the exclusions list on our family’s homeowner’s insurance:

War, including the following and any consequences of the following:

  1. undeclared war, civil war insurrection or rebellion or revolution;
  2. Warlike act by a military force or military personnel; or
  3. Destruction, seizure or use for a military purpose.
  4. Discharge of a nuclear weapon will be deemed a warlike act even if accidental.

I suspect that your policy says the same kind of thing.  Now you’re ready for the reading from the Old Testament.

Jeremiah 32.  The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord in the tenth year of King Zedekiah of Judah, which was the eighteenth year of Nebuchadrezzar. 2At that time the army of the king of Babylon was besieging Jerusalem, and the prophet Jeremiah was confined in the court of the guard that was in the palace of the king of Judah, 3where King Zedekiah of Judah had confined him.

6 Jeremiah said, The word of the Lord came to me: 7Hanamel son of your uncle Shallum is going to come to you and say, ‘Buy my field that is at Anathoth, for the right of redemption by purchase is yours.’ 8Then my cousin Hanamel came to me in the court of the guard, in accordance with the word of the Lord, and said to me, ‘Buy my field that is at Anathoth in the land of Benjamin, for the right of possession and redemption is yours; buy it for yourself.’ Then I knew that this was the word of the Lord.

15For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.  

We have dates we remember for negative reasons, like December 7, 1941 – Pearl Harbor.  September 11, 2001.  How about the year 587 BC? That’s the year of this story from Jeremiah, and this is the date that will always be remembered as the beginning of the Babylonian exile for the Hebrew people.  It’s year everything changed.

Jerusalem was the capitol of the kingdom of Judah and it’s surrounded, under siege.  The Babylonian army is obviously invincible, and the fate of the nation is clearly sealed.   The prophet Jeremiah has been predicting this situation for years and because nobody wants to hear his message, he is in prison in Jerusalem.  The city is surrounded, Jeremiah is in prison.  Everybody hates Jeremiah.  He keeps predicting doom because the people have turned away from God.

The king doesn’t know quite what to do.  He’s afraid to kill Jeremiah so he tries different ways of punishing him so that he’ll keep quiet.  At one point the king puts Jeremiah in a cistern – a deep muddy pit.  Then he changes his mind and pulls him out (Jeremiah 38:10-12).

In the meantime, the Babylonian army is getting closer and closer.  At that time, a man named Hanamel, who is a cousin of Jeremiah (keep in mind that Jeremiah’s relatives did not like him much), comes to the city offering to sell Jeremiah a piece of property.  And where is the property? It’s about 4 or 5 miles north of Jerusalem.  According to the Book of Leviticus (37:17), whenever property was sold, the law gave relatives of the seller the first right of purchase so that they could keep the land in the family.

Now it’s strange enough that this man named Hanamel shows up when he does, with Jeremiah in prison.  But stranger still is the location of this land.  It’s just north of Jerusalem, right in the middle of the Babylonian army.  Not exactly prime real estate.  He would never be able to get insurance for a house there!

kingdomofheaven-jerusalem_siege_1115317724

It’s possible that this offer to buy the land is nothing more than a put-down from Jeremiah’s unhappy relatives.  But Jeremiah does an imitation of God at this point and does the unexpected.

He says, “Buy the land? Sure, where do I sign?”  And everybody in Jerusalem says, “I knew he was crazy.”

But they don’t realize that Jeremiah is acting on a promise of God to redeem the land and save the people.  He’s giving a little picture of God.  He has faith in the future God is going to give the people, in spite of how things look at the moment.  He looks out over the city wall at the Babylonian troops, tents, armor, horses, sparkling weapons and he asks, “Hanamel, where is that property?”  Hanamel points to a spot in the distance, right in the middle of the Babylonian encampment.  And Jeremiah says, “I’ll take it!”

Sure, he’s been predicting doom all along, the worst of hard times.  But Jeremiah sees beyond the destruction.  He knows that God always has the last word, and the last word is salvation.  The last word is hope.  For Christians, the last word is Jesus.  With faith in Christ, God will give us the wisdom and the vision to see beyond where we are.  That problem will be replaced by a blessing.  Jeremiah clearly heard God say, “Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.”

Life is a gamble.  Can you think of a time when you needed faith?  A time when things couldn’t have looked worse?  Maybe that time is right now.  Maybe there’s an illness.  Maybe a broken relationship.  Maybe a fear about the future.

The key to unlocking peace, the ultimate test of faith, is believing in the risen Jesus as Lord.  From that first step, you are never alone again, unless you want to be.  Life for the Christian is always a step of faith, step after step saying, “God this next one is for you.”  Then one more step.  Then another.

God takes the most unlikely situations and turns them into reasons to celebrate, if God’s people will only have faith. The answer always is: have faith.  Do the right thing and have faith.

What we do here as a church is faith, sometimes faith in impossible things.  Sometimes faith in doing the new things that help us accomplish the mission God has given us.  But having faith doesn’t necessarily mean things get easier.  Having faith is about getting closer to God, and that means faith can be a dangerous thing.  It can mean the Babylonian army is just outside the wall and that’s where the property is.  Faith can mean dropping to the bottom before getting to the top.  God wants to know how much we’re willing to trust.  God has been asking you and me to step out and trust.  What is that for you?  Has God whispered something to you?  Given you a vision?  Some new step of faith?

I’d like you to think ahead now.  And together, as we think about our giving for 2014, how much do you want to do for Christ through this church?  Maybe a better way to phrase that question is, how much will we let Christ do through us?  How much faith do we have?

Prayer

O God, we confess that we have trouble seeing beyond what’s right in front of us.  You give us all we need to live, and too often we spend what you give us as though there was nothing happening outside of ourselves and our families. We don’t remember that all we have is on loan from you, and you’ve intended it for the benefit of many. Help us rely on your Spirit to teach us in the art of wise investment that goes beyond dollar signs.   Give us the good courage we need to go forth.  We give ourselves – and our church – to you.  To follow your son Jesus, we cast our cares aside, we leave our past behind.  We set our hearts and minds on him, the one who died and lives again for us.  Amen.