9/28/2014 Sermon: New Beginnings #4 – “First Things First”

We started with this YoutTube video…

If you can get your mind back to the beginning of that video, I wonder if you can relate to the kind of day that guy was having: mostly petty stuff; one inconvenience after another.  Annoying things like the skateboarding kid, traffic, parking space, a long line to get his decaf macchiato. Everybody here has had those moments (except maybe having to wait for the decaf macchiato!).

And I know that you are one of those people he begins to see once he puts on the magic glasses.  When someone asks you how you are, what do you usually say?  Fine.  I’m fine.  Really, I’m okay.  But we all know better.  You are recovering.

Chances are, you came in here this morning needing something.  A word, a smile, and okay, maybe a hug.  That’s why I like saying, “No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.”  (common UCC quote)

You can have a new beginning, and it can happen right now.  A simple yes to God is all it takes.  “God, I am yours; Jesus, you are my Lord and I give myself to you.”  A prayer of surrender and your soul can begin to heal now.

Our God is all about new beginnings and that’s what we’ve been looking at this month.  God’s people have escaped slavery in Egypt with a lot of God’s help and God continues to help them on a long journey to the Promised Land.

This morning, we’re going to look at how God leads us through faith in Jesus today.  Listen closely to this reading and let it teach you.

Philippians 2:1-13. If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, 2make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. 3Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. 4Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. 5Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, 6who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, 7but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, 8he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross. 9Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, 10so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

12Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; 13for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

Dominican Republic.  CN - 2010.
Dominican Republic. CN – 2010.

I learned an interesting little piece of language this summer during our mission team’s week in the Dominican Republic.  I have a very disjointed grasp of Spanish; I can do the basics pretty well, but communication can become challenging very quickly.  I would ask, “Como estas?” How are you?  Most people treat that question the same way we do.  “Muy bien.”  Very well.  But sometimes someone would say, “En la lucha.”  It’s another common way to respond to that question.  It means, “In the struggle.”  Not having an easy time right now.  It strikes me as being a bit more honest, especially if it’s the truth!  So we say it around our house a lot now. En la lucha.  At any given time, any of us and all of us are en la lucha (practice saying it!).

You are the church.  How many times have you heard that?  The ancient translation of church is “assembly.”  The people who come together to be followers of Christ.  The building is just a convenience. That’s chapter 1 in a course we could call Church 101.  When the Apostle Paul was writing to the Philippians, he would have sent his letter to someone in the church and found it a strange idea that any church would have a street address.

Buildings were not something that early church concerned themselves with.  For a number of reasons, they did not have that luxury.  They needed to meet in each other’s houses, so early Christians were much more focused on relationships – and how God’s presence in Christ was creating new kinds of relationships among believers.  God was creating a new way to live with God, and a new way to live with each other.  The church is….

“built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built into it for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit. (Ephesians 2:19-22)

Paul was trying to get believers minds away from buildings and on to relationships.

1975 - Halderson, Ray in workshop
My grandfather, Ray Halderson, (1890-1980) in his workshop.

God builds the church.  God keeps the church maintained.  Want a healthy church? Keep Jesus at center.  It’s about the relationships, but I kind of like the picture of God the builder, a guy in a flannel shirt, canvas overalls, and work boots, walking into the church (us), looking around, pulling out some plans, looks around some more, and says to himself, “Hmmm.  Got some work to do here.”

It’s an episode of This Old Church, like the PBS show “This Old House.”  He measures (us), goes into his shop to use some tools nobody else has, and after some shop noises, some glue, nails, a few whacks with a hammer, we’re perfect!

It’s a kind of a fun picture, but Paul’s situation is pretty serious.  From house arrest in Rome, the Apostle Paul is writing to the new Christian church in Philippi, which is on the northeastern coast of Greece.

Probably Valentin de Boulogne, 17th century.
Probably Valentin de Boulogne, 17th century.

Paul is closing in on the end of his life, not from illness or anything we would consider natural.  He is in Roman custody and there are many people who want him dead.  He probably knows it’s only a matter of time.  He’s older, so he’s more mellow, but his words have a different kind of importance.  He’s a little clearer.  A little more to the point.  More apt to say what needs to be said.  Concisely.

I’m picturing a well-to-do group of Romans who have gathered, probably in someone’s house, to hear the latest word from Paul.  Someone begins to read…

 5Let the same mind be in you that was* in Christ Jesus, (then quoting what scholars think was the earliest Christian hymn ever recorded…)

6 who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
7 but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8 he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.

Philippi is a Roman colony in northwestern Greece near the coast, a place where Roman army officers might go to retire.  For its time, it would have been an upper middle class place to be.  Wealthy.  Upscale.  Romans – be like Jesus, who humbled himself to the point of death on a what?  A cross.  The ultimate humility.  The ultimate humiliation!  How do I “have this same mind?”

Shocking!  When the Philippian Romans heard this message, what did they do with it?  Were they asking, “How, exactly, can we look to the interests of others?”  That probably was not something they were accustomed to thinking.  God needed to do some strong, revolutionary work in these people.  Did some new idea spring into someone’s mind right then?  Were some of them thinking about slaves in the church, or women, or beggars outside the door?

These Romans would have been people who knew what crucifixion was all about.  There may have been someone in the room who had helped facilitate crucifixions!  More than that, the one writing these words is Paul, a prisoner of Romans, writing to Romans, the killers of Jesus.  He has learned to love his enemies, which may be the one of the best definitions of humility there is.  That is exactly what Jesus does on the cross.  Yes, it was Jesus who said, to follow me, you must pick up your own cross.

This is why we talk about the new beginning of faith as a surrender, an emptying. A surrender, an emptying of yourself so that you can be filled with God.

Paul said, “at the name of Jesus every knee should bend…” We claim that we’ve bowed our knee to God here on earth. We pray every week, “Thy will be done…”  But all of us can point to patterns and habits and attitudes in our life where we’re not honoring Christ as we should. To have the mind of Christ means to look continually for areas that need to be brought into submission before God. To preface every decision we make as a church by asking God, “God is this what you want? In what area of our life do we need to bend a knee to Christ?

Paul said, “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” (v. 12)  This is a partnership between God and God’s people. God is at work in us, and we’re to work on that partnershipt with God. God didn’t create us to be robots; we are partners together with God in our spiritual growth. A good partnership takes open, honest communication and a willingness to follow.  Then the Spirit of God living in you gets your eyes off of yourself so that you can see the other people whom God loves.

The full ones feed the hungry ones.  Those with water give a cup to the thirsty ones.  Those with faith find a way to encourage those who are going through an empty place right now. We are sensitive to issues of injustice, willing to do something that makes a difference.  We are all “en la lucha” together.

A couple of months ago, some church leaders asked me to describe my vision for the church.  It’s a challenging question, and the answer didn’t just trip off my tongue.  And I thought it would be easy. So I’m putting on a pair of “See Clearly” glasses.  My vision?  It’s starting to look something like this:

20140920_092242

I know that these just look like church meals, but they are way more than that.  This is us having fellowship and inviting the neighborhood to be part of it.  A lot of new people have been coming and most of them don’t live very far from this building.  (Our monthly free community breakfasts began in February, 2014)

We are taking St. Paul’s to the streets.  By now you know that we have a Farm Show food stand.  And we are having a Make a Difference Celebration Dinner on Saturday, November 1 at the Farm Show Exhibition Hall (Manheim, PA). It’s shaping up to be a fun evening when we can celebrate all the things God has been doing with us and share all of it with the neighborhood.  It’s another chance to share Christ with the neighborhood.

What we are doing is invitational ministry.  To cut to the chase, it is a statistical truth that many of the “mainline” churches that are growing these days are the ones that reach out to their community and intentionally invite the neighborhood in.

You know those rubber bracelets people have been wearing for a few years?  One of the first was WWJD.  What Would Jesus Do?  I think God might wear a bracelet that says WWYD.  What Will You Do?

What will you do?  You have an opportunity every day to represent God and our church to the people where you work, the people you go to school with, the people you live with.  What will you do?

How about your vision for the church?  Like any remodeling project, there are things we love about our church, things God has done that we don’t want to touch; things that need some fixing; and things we aren’t doing that we want to do.  We’re all in it together.  What will you do?  WWYD.

 Prayer

 What’s your vision for us, God?  We need to be asking you.  What’s your vision?  God, you are able to do miracles in people’s lives.  You are able to heal, you are able bring peace.  We believe; help our unbelief.  Give us the courage, and the willingness, and the circumstances to step out for you.  Take away our fear of commitment.    Help us communicate to our world that we are Christians, not just church members.  Then give us dark places to go where we can carry your torch, showing the world that life is not as hopeless as it might look right now.  Through your Spirit, give us the supernatural ability to resolve anger in helpful ways, and the patience to be compassionate.  Help us carry each other along the path you’ve given us to walk, following your son Jesus.  Amen.

9/21/2014 Sermon: New Beginnings #3 – “Counting Blessings”

Sinai Peninsula.  Photo by Ferrell Jenkins.  The route of the exodus route included varied types of challenging terrain
Sinai Peninsula. Photo by Ferrell Jenkins. The route of the Exodus included varied types of challenging terrain.

Exodus 16:1-16.  The whole congregation of the Israelites set out from Elim; and Israel came to the wilderness of Sin, which is between Elim and Sinai, on the fifteenth day of the second month after they had departed from the land of Egypt. 2The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. 3The Israelites said to them, ‘If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.’

4 Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day. In that way I will test them, whether they will follow my instruction or not. 5On the sixth day, when they prepare what they bring in, it will be twice as much as they gather on other days.’ 6So Moses and Aaron said to all the Israelites, ‘In the evening you shall know that it was the Lord who brought you out of the land of Egypt, 7and in the morning you shall see the glory of the Lord, because he has heard your complaining against the Lord. For what are we, that you complain against us?’ 8And Moses said, ‘When the Lord gives you meat to eat in the evening and your fill of bread in the morning, because the Lord has heard the complaining that you utter against him—what are we? Your complaining is not against us but against the Lord.’

9 Then Moses said to Aaron, ‘Say to the whole congregation of the Israelites, “Draw near to the Lord, for he has heard your complaining.” ’10And as Aaron spoke to the whole congregation of the Israelites, they looked towards the wilderness, and the glory of the Lord appeared in the cloud. 11The Lord spoke to Moses and said, 12‘I have heard the complaining of the Israelites; say to them, “At twilight you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall have your fill of bread; then you shall know that I am the Lord your God.” ’

13 In the evening quails came up and covered the camp; and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. 14When the layer of dew lifted, there on the surface of the wilderness was a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground. 15When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another, ‘What is it?’* For they did not know what it was. Moses said to them, ‘It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat.16This is what the Lord has commanded: “Gather as much of it as each of you needs, an omer (about a gallon) to a person according to the number of persons, all providing for those in their own tents.” ’

20140305_184409Un-usual Food.  If I ask you to remember a time when you ate something really special, I’ll bet you could lock into that memory.   What made it special?  The taste? The place where you were eating?  The person or people you were with?  I’ll bet it was some combination of all of those.  Above, that’s a plate of snails and mushrooms with a frog leg (tastes like chicken), but I was on vacation with Kathy and this wouldn’t have meant much to me if I was by myself in that restaurant.  In contrast, I’ll bet if you really thought about it, you also could remember a time when you ate something you really didn’t enjoy much!

Usual Food.  Most of the time, we just need to eat to get though the day. What do you keep in the cupboard or fridge that you could call “survival food?”  Most everybody has peanut butter, which people in other countries think is very strange. Crackers, cereal.   I would think that over time, by volume, you’ve probably eaten more survival food than special food, right?

Un-usual Time.  You can think about time the same way.  There are times in your life that really stand out.  If we were to make a long timeline chart of your life, what would be the markers?  What have been the peaks and valleys of your time?  By the way, we could easily do this as a church.

Usual Time.  But look at how much time is in between those moments when nothing unusual was happening.  It was life as usual, whatever usual was, or still is.  Was God with you in a stronger way during the peaks and valleys, compared to the usual level places? Probably not; you were just more aware of God’s presence during the unusual times, those times when you were really up or really down.

There were two things the Hebrew people were supposed to do once a year to remember God’s care for them:  1. slaughter a lamb, roast it and eat it with their families and neighbors, and 2. during that week eat unleavened bread.  Special roasted meat and plain, flat bread.  Boring bread.  This was to help them remember how God saved them from that last plague by passing over the houses that were marked with the blood of a lamb, and brought them out of Egypt in such a hurry that there wasn’t time for bread to rise.

The Hebrew people have come through the Red Sea, miraculously saved from the Egyptians by God.  A pillar of fire had been following them, keeping the Egyptian army away.  God literally had their back.  Lots of amazing things going on.

But now, about six weeks later, not too far out of Egypt, the people are hungry.  They’ve run out of the food they brought with them.  They tell Moses (they complain to Moses), who tells God, who gives them bread that appears each morning on the ground, which they call manna.  God also sent quail in the evening for dinner.  Then they became thirsty, they told Moses (complained to Moses!), Moses told God, and God sent water out of a rock (this comes in the next chapter: 17:1-7).  God took care of the people of Israel this way for the next forty years as they wandered in the desert.  Manna, quail, water.  Over and over.  For forty years.  I imagine they had to learn how to be creative cooks!  And except for once a week, the people never had to store up any of that food.  Why? God was providing.  God gave enough to keep them going.

Think for a moment about how God has done that for you too.    There was a place where you started out on the journey that brought you here to this moment.  I imagine that there were some really great times and some times you were suffering.  And through all of it, God was taking care of you.

God does not necessarily make things easy, and this story is clearly not about getting material things, or about getting rich.  When we follow God, God provides.  There are great times, there are hard times, and a lot of places in between when God is providing what we need when we are not even thinking about it.  Our job is to follow and be faithful.

Breakfast with Bedouins always includes flat bread , wrapped around other food, dipped in herbs, etc.  Near Jericho, Palestine.  CN - 2011.
Meals with Bedouins always includes flat bread, wrapped around other food, dipped in herbs, etc.   Simple bread, made without ovens by people whose lifestyle is mobile.  Near Jericho, Palestine. CN – 2011.

Jesus calls himself the bread of life (John 6).  When we have faith in Jesus, God saves us.  God provides for us. God helps us live, that is, be alive.  For the spiritually hungry person, Jesus is manna.  In him, God is doing what God does: saves people from whatever slavery they are in and provides for them spiritually on their journey.  God saves and provides.  In that story from Exodus, the people do some things too and a pattern starts to emerge.

The People Travel.  The people go from one place to another. Point A to Point B.  Every people of God moves or evolves from one place to another.  If they don’t, they die.

In the Exodus story, the people of Israel went from Egypt to the Promised Land.  They went from living in captivity, from cruel slavery, to the “land flowing with milk and honey” (Exodus 3:8).  From a bad situation to a good situation.

The reason that the Promised Land was good wasn’t because life had been hard and then it became easy.  It was good because they were lost and God stepped in to save them and provide for them. It was good because they were with God and God was with them. But the people took forty years to get to the Promised Land. It took them so long because of the other thing they were doing: complaining.

The People Complain.  These were the two things the people of Israel were doing: traveling and complaining.  One of the amazing parts of this story is that God was saving people who didn’t want to be saved.  During that forty years most of them died, and it was their children who actually came to the Promised Land.

The parents of these children complained about leaving Egypt because in captivity, they could at least count on being fed. On the road, they complained about being hungry until God fed them.  They complained about being thirsty until God gave them water.  They could not look ahead; they could only see where they were.  Continuous complaining about the situation we find ourselves in is the same as lacking faith in God.

For God’s people, there are two problems with complaining:

Lack of awareness of blessings, reasons to be thankful.  We fail to remember those moments when God brought us through hard times and brought us really good times. (think on this)  We forget too easily.

Lack of trust in God’s promise of future blessings.  A pessimistic outlook that can’t include the possibility that things will get better. The kind of complaining the people were doing was like a virus that infected everyone’s morale.

There is a way to complain.  There is a large corporation whose employee motto is: “If you see a problem, you own it.”  Keep it small. Fix it before it becomes a problem for others.

For us, I would say, for every complaint, count a blessing.  What was true for the people of Israel is true for us. Complaining, lacking faith and vision, keeps us from getting where we are going.  The Christian message is that we have a captivity to escape from and a promised land to go to.  The Promised Land doesn’t happen when we die; it happens the moment we believe in Jesus and the Holy Spirit enters our lives.  But it’s still easy for us to drift back into complaining and lacking faith.

The antidote is to count blessings, to literally name blessings that God has given you.  Lift those up to God as we pray.

Prayer

God, help us be grateful. Help us know how to be thankful and whom to be thankful to.  Help us know the difference between blessings and distractions.  When we are thankful for what we have, help us know what it is that we really have.

Help us know when we are drifting farther away from you, and make us open to those moments when the hard things of our life are driving us back to you.

Help us to be so aware of your presence and in tune with your love that in spite of our circumstances, we can live boldly, and with confidence that can only come from you.  As we give thanks for the blessings of life that seem most obvious to us, show us how to live more fully and more abundantly through our relationship with you.  Amen.

 

9/14/2014 Sermon: New Beginnings #2 – “Don’t Look Back”

photo by Loryn Pinney
photo by Loryn Pinney

Exodus 14:19-31. 19 The angel of God who was going before the Israelite army moved and went behind them; and the pillar of cloud moved from in front of them and took its place behind them.20It came between the army of Egypt and the army of Israel. And so the cloud was there with the darkness, and it lit up the night; one did not come near the other all night.

21 Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea. The Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and turned the sea into dry land; and the waters were divided.22The Israelites went into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left.23The Egyptians pursued, and went into the sea after them, all of Pharaoh’s horses, chariots, and chariot drivers.24At the morning watch the Lord in the pillar of fire and cloud looked down upon the Egyptian army, and threw the Egyptian army into panic.25He clogged* their chariot wheels so that they turned with difficulty. The Egyptians said, ‘Let us flee from the Israelites, for the Lord is fighting for them against Egypt.’

26 Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Stretch out your hand over the sea, so that the water may come back upon the Egyptians, upon their chariots and chariot drivers.’27So Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and at dawn the sea returned to its normal depth. As the Egyptians fled before it, the Lord tossed the Egyptians into the sea.28The waters returned and covered the chariots and the chariot drivers, the entire army of Pharaoh that had followed them into the sea; not one of them remained.29But the Israelites walked on dry ground through the sea, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left.

30 Thus the Lord saved Israel that day from the Egyptians; and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore.31Israel saw the great work that the Lord did against the Egyptians. So the people feared the Lord and believed in the Lord and in his servant Moses.

That story is about one of the more dramatic steps of faith in scripture; a lot of us were probably watching “The Ten Commandments” in our minds while it was being read.  In your imagination, is this what you were thinking?

If there was difference between the reading and that movie clip, it might have been that God’s “parting of the sea” took all night and not 15 seconds!

I suspect that your own steps of faith have been less dramatic than that, but I wonder if you’ve ever had to take a leap of faith, the kind that involved a permanent decision.  You don’t know exactly what lies ahead, but you’re going to step out, trust God, and go.  You can’t stay here, wherever that is.  You’ve got to go.  Now.  We’re all thinking of a job decision, a move, maybe a relationship.  Or maybe yours really was a life and death decision.

I’ve known several church-sponsored refugee families who escaped to the United States from truly terrible situations.  Unspeakable situations.  They had managed to get themselves on a list, often as a last resort, without any real hope of getting out.  But one day, there’s a knock at the door and somebody says, “There’s a plane leaving in a few hours, and there are just enough seats for you and your family. Each person can take one suitcase.”  And so they arrive, essentially, with nothing.  And the church has the privilege of giving them shelter, helping them learn a new language, a new culture.  It’s a remarkable thing to watch someone embrace a new life.  It is not easy.

A Norwegian relative of mine, who brought a little of the old country with him in the 1860's!
A Norwegian relative of mine, who brought a little of the old country with him in the 1860’s!

I find it remarkable that some of my ancestors came here on sailing ships from Europe.  Yours too, probably.  I think that took fortitude – amazing courage.  Imagine, setting out for a country where you may not know the dominant language, where you don’t know if you’ll be able to survive, or have anything like a good life. But they were willing to take the chance.  They stood on the deck of a ship, watching “home” slip out of sight, knowing there was no turning back.  They were headed for a new home that they could only imagine.

Sometimes, I wonder if we still have a shred of that kind of courage, the awareness to know that you can’t stay where you are, you have to move on.  Then the day comes when you make your move.  You take a chance.  You have faith.  You take that step, knowing that nothing will be the same from this moment on.

Faith in Jesus Christ is the same.  Maybe there’s someone here who has heard that Christ can make a difference in your life.  You’ve been putting off the decision for years.  But now you know you need to take the chance, to take the step, to surrender yourself to God and tell Jesus you believe.  You are a refugee who needs a home, and God is waiting.  God has made a way, you only need to take the step.

Many of us have made that choice.  Then, I think we are faced with that decision all the time, this faith choice.  As individual believers and as a church.  Do we stay where we are or move on?

As mainline churches decline, we are faced with choices.  The old traditions don’t work the same way they once did.  Can we give thanks for the past and move into the future with some creativity? Can we find new ways to grow in our faith and minister to the community?

So, the Hebrew people weren’t just being asked to take a chance on a new place, they were being asked to give up the old life they had known for generations.  This is the question God’s people are always being asked:  “Do you really want to stay in Egypt? “  Do you really want that old life?  It’s a hard choice.  How do you know the Promised Land is all that great?  For thousands of years, this is the question God’s people wrestle with.  God wants you to move on, take that first step, cross the sea.  Go the land that I will show you.  Have faith.  It’s not easy.

There’s that army chasing us, and it wants to kill us.  And we don’t know what’s on the other side of the Sea.  It’s at this climax of doubt, when it seems all is lost, at the edge of disaster, God makes a way.  But God refuses to do it alone.  Moses has to do is “stretch out his hand” when God tell him to and trust that God will do something.  The people have to listen and move on when the moment comes.  Stick together and go.  It’s maybe the best example of collective faith in scripture.  They walked to freedom together.  Don’t look back.  God will make a way.

There comes a moment when you and I and all of us together have to take a step in the direction God wants us to go – and go.  Have faith that you are not alone when you do this.  The love and the presence of God is a promise.  You can sense it in your friends with you. God is there, whether we can sense it, or feel it, or not.

Standing on the edge of the shore, God promises to help us cross the sea.   God promises to bring us through the water – through the water of chaos, and danger.   God promises to be with us when we have to:

¥ cross the sea of a new school year, with new teachers, classmates and subjects and relationships.

¥ cross the sea of a new job, with unexpected challenges and responsibilities, or, cross the sea of a job loss, when everything becomes uncertain.

¥ cross the sea of a lost relationship, with feelings of regret and self-doubt.

¥ cross the sea of a serious illness, with sadness and fear and exhaustion and pain and anger.

¥ cross the sea of a death in the family, with shock and confusion and grief.

Maybe forgiveness is the hardest crossing.  The Bible spends a lot of time and space on this one.  Forgiving others.  Forgiving yourself, letting yourself off the hook.  If you can’t forgive, especially yourself, you can’t move on.  You are stuck on the shore.  There is a sea of forgiveness you can cross today. There is doubt all around; many reasons to stay stuck like an Egyptian chariot.  But God says go.  Step out. I will make a way.  The journey begins in each of our hearts.

Looking back, each of us can find that person in our family background whose step of faith changed everything.  Today, on your own faith journey, God says, Go.  Someday, you will say, what if I had not taken that step?  Others will say that about you as well.

Prayer

God, through your Spirit, help us walk with you.  Someone here has just given themselves to you; show them the way and help them know your presence in a strong way.  We come to you this morning as people whose faith needs a booster shot.  When the earth beneath our feet starts to shake, give us faith that teaches us you are the foundation on which we stand.  When going back isn’t an option, help us know that you are with us when we make that step of faith in the direction you want us to go.  When life changes, help us rely more on you.  Amen.

9/7/2014 Sermon: New Beginnings #1 – “Starting Fresh – With a Memory”

Sunset - Mt. Joy lamp postExodus 12:1-14.  The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt: 2This month shall mark for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year for you. 3Tell the whole congregation of Israel that on the tenth of this month they are to take a lamb for each family, a lamb for each household. 4If a household is too small for a whole lamb, it shall join its closest neighbour in obtaining one; the lamb shall be divided in proportion to the number of people who eat of it. 5Your lamb shall be without blemish, a year-old male; you may take it from the sheep or from the goats. 6You shall keep it until the fourteenth day of this month; then the whole assembled congregation of Israel shall slaughter it at twilight. 7They shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they eat it. 8They shall eat the lamb that same night; they shall eat it roasted over the fire with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. 9Do not eat any of it raw or boiled in water, but roasted over the fire, with its head, legs, and inner organs. 10You shall let none of it remain until the morning; anything that remains until the morning you shall burn. 11This is how you shall eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly. It is the passover of the Lord. 12For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike down every firstborn in the land of Egypt, both human beings and animals; on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgements: I am the Lord. 13The blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you live: when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague shall destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt.

14 This day shall be a day of remembrance for you. You shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord; throughout your generations you shall observe it as a perpetual ordinance.

And so, that’s the start of the great escape from Egypt for God’s people.  Last week, we heard God speak to Moses out of the burning bush to tell Moses that he had heard the cries of the people in slavery, and even though Moses wasn’t really a hero type, he was willing to trust that God knew what God was doing.

The people are getting ready to go.  They were leaving everything they knew behind and starting over.  A huge new beginning.  And you heard how God was creating this moment in a way that they will remember.  It was important to God that they not forget this moment when God was saving them.

When was the last time you had a new beginning?  I think everyone has had at least a few new beginnings in their lives; some are more major than others.  Some new beginnings are by choice, and you can think of those might be.  A marriage.  A move from one house or place to another for you or your family. Maybe that move is because of a new job.  And of course, some new beginnings are out of our control – a death or a disaster of some kind.

God said to the people, (v.2) “This month shall be for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year for you.”

God says to the Hebrew people, after this, everything will be different.  Together, you and I are going to a new place.  This morning, when you got up, you were slaves.  You did what slaves did.  You worked for a master that took advantage of you.  Your life did not belong to you.

It had been that way since before anyone could remember.  The Hebrew people had been in Egypt since the time of Joseph 400 years before.  Longer than our church has been together!  Many generations of people were born in slavery, lived in slavery, and died in slavery.  They probably thought life would always be this way.

Now it’s time.  God said it is the beginning of months.  God says, “People!  We are starting over!  It is a new day, a new month, a new year!”  They had to throw out their calendars.  That meant they had to throw out their to-do lists too.  And their appointments.  Would you like to do that?

The calendar, that list of things we did yesterday and will do tomorrow, the idea of time moving forward in one direction is called “chronos”  – a Greek word.  Some of us even have that word on our watches: a chronograph.  When you push that button on your watch, it will keep track of how much time you spend doing something.  Of course, that’s useful for many things. What sort of things do we need a chronograph for?

Races, like swimming or running.  Cooking.  Driving.  I have a chronograph in my car and my bicycle.  I push a button to start it – and end it.  I keep my finger on the button if I want to start over.

20140910_111408If you’ve wandered up to the front of the sanctuary, you might notice that there’s a digital clock sitting on the first pew.  A chronograph, helping me remember the time.  Of course, the old joke is that a typical preacher pays no attention to it!

In the Bible, there is another kind of time.  It’s called Kairos.  It’s a moment when God comes and makes everything different.  Kairos is a moment you can mark on a calendar that is so special, you remember it always.  You say, before that kairos moment I lived in the old way.  Now, my life is different.

God says to the Hebrew people. Tomorrow is going to be so different, I want you to start your calendars over again.  This is kairos.  People, we’re starting over.  This cannot happen unless the people totally trust God and what God is doing.

The Egyptians marked their calendars by the movements of the sun and moon, but the Hebrew people are going to start marking their calendars with a story.  A story about how God came to them and saved them when it seemed like life had no hope and life had no purpose except to be slaves.  Before God stepped in to save them, they were saying, “Tomorrow will be just the same as today, the same as last month, the same as last year.”  But God loves to break up monotony and set people free.  This is true for each of us and true for churches.    Famous last words in God’s kingdom are, “We have always done it that way.”

During communion, we heard once more that Jesus used the Passover meal to show his followers that he could take them to a new place spiritually.  To make those words real, he died on a cross and rose from the dead, and if we believe, we are set even more free than the Hebrew people.

It’s all about trust.  Moses has come down the mountain from the burning bush with a message from God.  These people don’t know Moses all that well and don’t know the God Moses is talking about .  This kairos moment is creating a risky situation.  God is about to punish the Egyptians, the slave masters, who have an army and live down the street.

It’s a risk to step out to leave the old behind.  Amongst those Hebrew people, some probably decided – this is too strange for me.  Maybe you can hear them talking.  Moses who?  The God of whom?  We’ve never done anything this way before!

Through Moses, God is going to take the Hebrew people to a better place, but before they go, God gives them a ritual, a kind of ceremony.  Something they can touch and taste and smell, something they can remember.  It’s a sign that God will always be with them in this risky thing they are doing.

Sacrificing a lamb without blemish, one of your best lambs, means you are making yourself more dependent on God.  Putting the blood on the doorpost is a public sign that you trust God.  Everybody will see that you are God’s people.  It will be a sign that they can trust God too.  So what the people are doing is for the community.  What we do here is for the community – for everybody, not just us. Everybody is invited to join in the fresh start God has for us all.

This first Sunday of September is a perfect time of year to think about new beginnings.  School has started again and all the kids are starting some new thing in their schools, which means parents have to join in the fresh start with them.  And so many of the rest of us have found our lives changing… and God taking us to some new place.

It’s scary.  But staying in the place where you are now is not going to be helpful to you or anybody else.  God said the same to the Hebrew people all those years ago and through Jesus says the same thing to all believers.  If you believe and are willing to trust, willing to step out, I will take you to a new place.  The place where you are staying is not helpful to you, the people you are with, or your children who follow after you.

20140412_161917_3God is calling all of us to go from point A to point B.  God is taking us to a new place.  The traditions help us keep the memory alive, to help us remember that God is always with us no matter who we are or where we are on the journey.

You may be someone who is starting over.  A new job, a new challenge in the family.  Time has started over for you. God will be with you as you go to your new place.

Maybe you are a student starting a new year, and you know this year can’t be the same as last year.  God will be with you as you go to your new place.

You may know someone who needs encouragement in their new start.  Help them know that God is with them as they go to the new place.

God is faithful and will be with us all on our journey to the new place.

Prayer

God, surprise us with the new start, the new beginning, the second chance.  Help us see life as a precious gift from you, and you love us too much to be slaves to anything.  Free us from our slavery to schedules we keep that only serve to keep us from you.  Free us from grudges and fear.  Allow your forgiveness through Christ to send freedom flowing through our veins.  Bring us to the Promised Land of joy and peace and the abundant life we find in the risen Christ.  We pray in his name.  Amen.

8/31/2014 Sermon: Family Stories #5 – “Exploring New Territory”

sunsetExodus 3:1  Now Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law, Jethro, the priest of Midian; and he led his flock to the west side of the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God.  2  And the angel of the LORD appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush; and he looked, and lo, the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed. 3  And Moses said, “I will turn aside and see this great sight, why the bush is not burnt.”

4  When the LORD saw that he turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here am I.”  5  Then he said, “Do not come near; put off your shoes from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” 6  And he said, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.

7  Then the LORD said, “I have seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt, and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters; I know their sufferings, 8  and I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the place of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. 9  And now, behold, the cry of the people of Israel has come to me, and I have seen the oppression with which the Egyptians oppress them. 10  Come, I will send you to Pharaoh that you may bring forth my people, the sons of Israel, out of Egypt.”

11  But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the sons of Israel out of Egypt?” 

12  He said, “But I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you, that I have sent you: when you have brought forth the people out of Egypt, you shall serve God upon this mountain.”

13  Then Moses said to God, “If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?”

14  God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you.'”  15  God also said to Moses, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘The LORD, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’: this is my name for ever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations.

Did anybody see the Noah movie a few months ago, just before Easter?  What did you think of it?  It more or less told the flood story from Genesis 6-10, with a few embellishments!  God sends a cleansing flood to the earth to wipe out all the life that had gone bad, but was merciful to at least one family.  If you are a biblical purist, it might have been a little hard to sit through.  There were a few extra details thrown into the story to make it a little more interesting for modern audiences (!).  The Noah in that story (Russell Crowe) was a little hard to like and his relationship with his family was pretty dysfunctional.

It’s so interesting to me that film studios are still making huge-budget movies about Bible stories.  “Son of God” came out around the same time as Noah. This is not to mention all the movies with Christian themes, like “Heaven Is for Real” and “God’s Not Dead.”  I’m feeling some church movie nights coming on!

But maybe you’ve heard, there’s at least one more Bible movie coming out before the end of the year: it’s called “Exodus: Gods and Kings,” and it’s the story of Moses leading the Hebrew people out of slavery.  For the next few weeks, we’re going to look at what God wants us to learn from this amazing story.  But let’s get a little taste of what Hollywood thinks it looks like…

[“Exodus: Gods and Kings” movie trailer]

Did you recognize that actor playing Moses?  Yes, that was Batman, Christian Bale.  I get it.  You need to have an actor who already has screen presence.  Like Charlton Heston 50 years ago (“The Ten Commandments”).

Ridley Scott is the director.  Among his best known movies are… “Gladiator,” “Alien,” and “Black Hawk Down.”  Power stories.

This made me think of a story I heard a few years ago:

A little boy once returned home from Hebrew school and his father asked, “what did you learn today?”

He answered, “The Rabbi told us how Moses led the children of Israel out of Egypt.”

“How?”

The boy said “Moses was a big strong man and he beat Pharaoh up. Then while he was down, he got all the people together and ran towards the sea. When he got there, he has the Army Corps of Engineers build a huge pontoon bridge. Once they got on the other side, they blew up the bridge while the Egyptians were trying to cross.”
The father was shocked. “Is that what the Rabbi taught you?”

The boy replied, “No. But you’d never believe the story he DID tell us!”

Sometimes, when the story gets told on a massive screen with a huge thumping soundtrack, the best stories of the power of God get lost, and I’d like to show you a little bit of what I mean, just from the scripture for the day, those first 15 verses of Exodus 3, way before the Hebrew people know that God is about to save them.

DSC_0226
Palestine. CN – 2011.

If you look behind a little bit in the book of Exodus, in the first couple of chapters, you remember that Moses was a Hebrew baby saved miraculously by the daughter of the Pharaoh, the Egyptian king.  Saved for a purpose that only God knows.  Why are Hebrew people in Egypt?  That’s the place where Joseph brought his entire family hundreds of years before.  And now they are slaves.  When Moses finds out who he really is, he kills an Egyptian in an angry moment, and then spends the next 40 years on the run.  Not exactly running.  He took on the most obscure job he could find:  tending sheep in a remote part of the Egyptian desert. At least in terms of the things the world tends to expect from us, Moses went from riches to rags.

Maybe you know those things, but here are some details Hollywood tends to leave out:

  1.  Moses may have been as old as 80 when God talks to him out of the bush.
  2. Moses had never been a devout Hebrew and had only lived among people who worshiped strange pagan gods for his whole life.  He was not exactly a pillar of faith when God called him.  He had not been to Hebrew School or Sunday School.
  3. Moses was exactly a Godly person, and he was not looking for God; he was only curious about the burning bush.
  4. The only preparation Moses had for the job was an intimate knowledge of the bad guys, the Egyptians.  This might make you think of another Bible hero from the New Testament – 1,500 years later, God’s man for the moment was Paul, the Jewish/Roman citizen who persecuted Christians until he was brought to his knees by the light of God (Acts 9).

Except for the fact that Moses had known Egyptian kings and worked for them, Moses was the most unlikely candidate for “Bible hero” that anybody could find.  Moses was in retirement.  He’s done.  His life is simple.  Get up, take the sheep to pasture.  Feed the sheep. Watch the sheep.  Go to sleep.  Get up the next day and do it again.  After what Moses had been through when he was younger, he’s happy to have a boring life.  But God had other ideas, and God does not see people the way you and I might.

When God wants to do something significant in someone’s life, a light goes on.  Maybe you know these words: “God is light and in him is no darkness at all.””  (1 John 1:5)  I’ve heard many people talk about how, when they first come to a place where they trust God and give themselves to God, a kind of light goes on.  There is a new kind of clarity.  They see the world differently.  They see themselves differently.

Jesus calls himself “the light of the world.”  (John 8:12, 9:5)  Then he turns to the church and says, “You are the light of the world.”  (Matthew 5:14)  How does that work?  When you have faith in Christ, the world, the people around you, see the good things you do because of your faith, and then make their own connection with God.

God lit a fire in the bush, then lit a fire in Moses.  I hope you noticed that God never gave Moses any special abilities or powers.  Moses had some major flaws – there was his temper, and then you find out later in the story that Moses had some sort of speech impediment – but God never fixed those flaws.  He was right to ask, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh?”  (v. 11).

Moses simply recognized the power of God, and then went where God told him to go, and did what God told him to do.  Moses understood that if the power of God could light up a bush and not destroy it, then God could work through him in some powerful way.  He simply trusted God.

So at 80 years old, with a sketchy past, and a collection of personal flaws, Moses begins again.

The story of Moses’ story should get us thinking not so much about fulfilling the promise of our younger days as of choosing to live now, of choosing to be engaged and involved in the things that bring life to our corner of the world.  There are a lot of ways to light a fire, to begin again in some new way, to respond to the needs you see now.

Much later in the story, we find out that it was not the friends of Moses who entered the Promised Land, not his children; after 40 years of wandering, it was his grandchildren.

If you happen to be an older member of this church, your mission can be to help us fill this place with younger members, younger followers of Christ.  How can you be an encouragement to all of us working with youth and children in the church to help them follow after us?  It’s not about us; it’s about those who come after us – the ones we are leading.

We are all part of a movement, unless it’s not moving.  We are leading.  God uses each of us to bring freedom to slaves somewhere.  Moses job was to bring the Hebrew people into relationship with God – to help them follow a path to freedom.  Moses was a messenger for change.  Beginning with himself.  Moses listens to God and begins again when he was older.

I’m talking about returning to the engagement with life even after hitting the wall, after running into things that knock us down badly.  After the illness, after the divorce, after the personal failure, after the rejection, after the loss…

You thought you were done.  Then, there comes this moment when God lights up a bush and it gets your attention.  I’ve talked about this before: that circumstance, that situation, the sight that pulls you in.  And then God speaks.  And it becomes clear that there is something that you need to do.  And no one else will do it.

Maybe it’s sitting with a group of kids and realizing no one will teach them the things of faith if you don’t.

Maybe it’s realizing that your neighbor is always going to eat alone unless you arrange your schedule differently.  Maybe they could use a ride to church.  Or simply an invitation to church.

Maybe it’s learning that the people in that village on the other side of the river will never get proper medical attention, their kids will never get anything remotely like a decent education, unless you do something about it.

Maybe it’s starting a community meal to feed the people in the neighborhood – which some of us have done this year.

God is there in a burning bush that doesn’t burn.  The power of God is present.  The fire never seems to come when it’s most convenient.

It is always a temptation, when you are wounded by life, to get so focused on your personal issues, on yourself, that you don’t contribute to the larger movement you are part of.  But the story of Moses is a challenge for any of us who are tempted to drop out and let the world deal with its problems without our help. The message for us is to choose to live, to begin again, to make a difference when God gives you the opportunity.

There’s no massive soundtrack for this.  No cast of thousands.  No dramatic screenplay.  No actors.  Just us.  And the God who stands with us and behind us saying, I AM.

Prayer

God, we thank you for the freedom of our relationship with you.  We are not impressive people.  We are amazed that you choose to love us just as we are.  You sent Moses to the Hebrew people to lead them and you sent Jesus to us.  Your love for us never ends.

Now help us follow.  Show us the path we need to walk. When we get off the path we should be on, help us know which way to go, for the sake of those who come after us.  Help us be the people you called us to be – the people we have committed ourselves to being.  And help us show our world that we carry in us a loving, merciful God.  Amen.