11/30/2014 Sermon: Waiting for the Gift #1 – “Tis’ the Season”

The night before Thanksgiving in Lancaster County, PA.  11/26/2104.
The night before Thanksgiving in Lancaster County, PA. 11/26/2104.

1 Corinthians 1:3-9.  Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.  

4 I give thanks to my* God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, 5for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind— 6just as the testimony of* Christ has been strengthened among you— 7so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. 8He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

Have you come “home” for Thanksgiving holiday? Or, maybe you’ve just come back from going home, wherever that is.  For our family, for most of the last 20-plus years, we’ve gone to Cleveland for the Thanksgiving holiday week. I think most folks know we still have family back there.

I especially remember one of those usual Thanksgiving trips when our kids were fairly small.  Back then, on the day after Thanksgiving, we had a tradition of going down to the Public Square in Cleveland by train to see the decorations and do a little shopping.  This was on “Black Friday” before it got to be so crazy.  On this particular day, we were walking out through the big brass doors of Terminal Tower (Cleveland’s Empire State Building) and there was a television crew outside.  They surrounded us.

I recognized the man in the trench coat with the microphone as one of the reporters I’d seen on the local news.  The camera was on and he started asking questions.

Pointing the microphone toward me, he says, How do you like coming downtown?  I say, “We think it’s great.  We love coming down here.”

You like coming in to shop during Thanksgiving weekend?  “Oh, yeah.  It’s great.  It’s a tradition for us.  We always come down the Friday after Thanksgiving.”

He was on a roll now.  “That’s great.  Where are you from?  When did you get here?”

“We live on the east coast.  We got here last night.”

His shoulders sort of slumped and the microphone dropped.  He turned to guy with the camera and said, “Let’s find somebody else.”  Now in a hurry, he said, “Have a great weekend; have fun shopping.”  And they walked off.

Our shot at fame and it slipped through our fingers.  As I describe that scene, it’s kind of funny, but it had a darker side.  Apparently, a few days before, there had been a violent crime somewhere downtown.  I think someone had been attacked in a parking lot.  If we had seen the news the night before, we’d have known that, but we got in late.  So the reporter was hoping that we were locals and had decided to come shopping in spite of what had been on the news.

We heard from some friends later that that they thought they had seen people that looked just like us on the news – a couple holding the kids hands as they crossed the street.

It occurred to me later that there probably was a family somewhere in or around the city that was having a holiday that was less than festive.  Sometimes, it seems that we remember certain holidays because they happened so close to an event that we wish hadn’t happened.  We look back at the pictures and remember how we were trying to smile.  The holidays are hard for many of us, for one reason or another.

A couple of weeks ago, I was sorting through some photos and found some that my mother had taken around the time Kathy and I were married.  I had no memory of these pictures.  They were taken at a family Thanksgiving dinner.  Kathy was sitting next to my grandfather; he had his arm around her and they were both laughing about something.  When I saw the date on the photo, I remembered that was the year my parents divorced and my father had moved to Florida.  There were some people at that dinner doing the best they could to be happy.

It’s messy.  God sent Jesus into a world that is not perfect, and it goes way beyond weather problems.  God comes to people full of flaws, who have a close relationship with pain, who are trying to remember when they were happy.  That’s the point.  God sent Jesus to Ferguson, Missouri; to Palestine (where the tension is not much different from 2,000 years ago), to Philadelphia, to Manheim, and to your house.

There are no easy solutions to many problems, but the beginning to finding the peace we all need so desperately begins with a prayer from your deepest place:  God, we are imperfect people, living in an imperfect world that is largely our own doing.  Forgive us; we are yours.

We talk about the season as a “journey to Bethlehem.”  We call it Advent.   It’s not so much about us achieving happiness, as if Christmas is a kind of pot of gold at the end of a rainbow, as much as it’s about understanding that we have a spiritual dilemma, and God has sent a solution.  We need help; we are drowning, and God has thrown us a flotation device.  Jesus is coming for you and me.  Got has sent you hope.  In Jesus, God came in person to save you.  The Christmas Hallmark cards are great, but the symbolism might be more effective if it involved a Coast Guard helicopter!  Maybe an ambulance.

God’s mission for the church is always about reaching out.  Jesus said, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…” (Matthew 28:19)  We are God’s rescue chopper, God’s ambulance.  There are folks here in need of rescue, but the 911 call came mostly from the other side of these walls.  Our mission is out there.

The Holy Spirit worked through the Apostle Paul to start a new church in Corinth, in the middle of Greece.  The church started to have some trouble, some conflict, and among the first words Paul wrote to those folks were: “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” (1:3)

It’s a traditional opening to a letter, but way more.  Grace is the word that describes God’s love for us when we deserve it least.   The peace of God isn’t just the absence of conflict, it’s the huge sense of well-being we experience when we believe in Jesus. It’s the knowledge that God’s arms are wrapped around us.  It’s experience of God living in you and through you when you have faith.

As we think about who we are and what we are all about, as we think about what our purpose is (making a difference through the love of Christ), we know that this amazing grace and peace isn’t something that we can keep just for ourselves.  This is the great Christmas give-away.   In a world full of tension and conflict, we want to bring our friends, neighbors, and families in touch with the grace and peace of God.   Isn’t that what we all need?  Wouldn’t the best Christmas gift be a big box of grace and peace?  If we surrender our will – our individual will and our collective will to God – that can happen.  We can experience grace.  We can know peace.

We have so much to offer when we come together for this one purpose – to worship, to internalize grace and peace, and to come out of worship on a mission to change the community, to give away grace and peace.  Here are some basics for grace and peace gift-giving:

Pray.  Pray that God shows you how blessed you are.  Think on the things that have gone right for you and give God thanks.  Thank God especially for God’s presence when life got really hard.  God’s grace and peace begins with you; you can’t give it away until you have it yourself.  Then God will show you where to serve.

Invite.  It’s simple stuff. We are big collection of relationships.  There is someone you could invite into your faith world.  The entry point could be the monthly breakfast or one of the fun church events we have.  Just invite them along.  I think a lot of grace and peace happens over a shared meal.

Forgive.  It’s a harder challenge, but there might be someone you need to forgive, whether they know you’ve forgiven them or not.  When you forgive, the grace and the peace lands on… you.  And it can make a big difference in the relationships you have with people you don’t need to forgive.

Give. If our job is to produce grace and peace on behalf of God, at this time of year, when we’re being seriously thankful for blessings, we should all be making a strong plan to support your church financially in 2015. If not the church, support a cause you believe in.  The gift of grace and peace happens when we intentionally create the environment for it and put our resources behind it.  Our world is in serious need of grace and peace, and it starts with us.

Prayer

O God, we are so blessed.  We don’t understand how you could love us so much.  We thank you for your patience with us.  We trust that your Spirit will continue to give us patience with each other, to give us your grace and peace.

Keep that love working among us, keep changing us.  Be blunt with us.  We may never be perfect followers of Jesus, but we can be better followers.  We pray in his name.  Amen.

11/23/2014 Sermon: Taking a Chance #4: “Herding the Flock”

sheep & goatsThis is our fourth week into a theme we’ve called “Taking a Chance.”

It began with the Hebrew people standing at the edge of the Promised Land after a very long walk to get there.  They have to make a decision about whether to forge ahead into the unknown, to take a chance that God will take care of them in a new place that they know nothing about, or stay where they are.  A page needs to turn, and not making a decision is making a decision. Will they cross the river and trust God?  Are they willing to get their feet wet or not?

We find out later that they crossed the river into the Promised Land, but trusting God is easy to say and hard to do.  And so Joshua needs to say, “Choose this day whom you will serve… as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”  (Joshua 24:15)  Take a chance.  Make a choice.

We’ve also been working through the 25th chapter of Matthew. Jesus gave a story about bridesmaids being ready, with lamps lit, to greet the wedding party.  Half of them were ready and half had made a really strange decision to not be ready.  Jesus was saying that his church is sometimes like that.  We take the risk of not doing anything and hope that’s okay.

Last week, there were three servants who were each given a different amount of money to invest on behalf of their master.  Two took a chance on bankers and made money for their boss, and the third buried that cash in a hole.  The master was not happy with the hole-digger.

What’s God trying to say?

I want you to turn back at the beginning of this chapter (Matthew 25), and take a long look at the first verse.  Jesus began this whole train of thought by saying, “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this.”  He is the king.  What is he the king of?  A kingdom. Who is in the kingdom?  His subjects, his servants. Believers.  You and me.  His body, the church.

When Jesus is looking around at the kingdom gathered in front of him, he sees all kinds of people, from every kind of background you can think of, young and old, very rich and very poor.  Blacks, Whites, Asians, Hispanics.  Gay, straight.   People who are doing pretty well and people who have seen more than their share of trouble.  Healthy and sick.  And they all have one thing in common – Jesus is their king.  He is an awesome king.  But he has learned that his subjects obey him… or they don’t.  He’s wondering, will they love God with heart, soul, mind and strength, and their neighbors as themselves, or not?

DSC_9183
Palestinian shepherd leading sheep and goats in the northern West Bank. CN – 2011.

Matthew 25:31-46.  ‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” 37Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” 40And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family,* you did it to me.” 41Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” 44Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” 45Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” 46And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.’

If you were reading along in your pew bible, or the bible you brought with you, there might have been a sub-heading over that section that read “The Judgment of the Nations.”  The Judgment.  A legal term that for the thing that happens at the end of a trial.

Jesus says these words right before he goes to Jerusalem to be crucified.  I think it would be an interesting test to see how people physically react to hearing Jesus speak these words.  Come, you that are blest by my father… you gave me food, clothing, care… you visited me.  Inherit the kingdom.  Depart from me you cursed ones… into eternal fire.  If we had little blood pressure gauges on everybody, I wonder what they would read as we go through each part of that story.

I don’t know about you, but this story, and the way Jesus tells it, has had more of an impact on me than practically any other.  I might not be able to do right at this moment, but I’ve been able to recite it from memory.  I’ve used it in worship services as a dramatic reading.  With soft music behind, I’ll take the part of the narrator, and teenagers in the church would be a sheep or a goat.  It was based on a piece performed by a Christian songwriter named Keith Greene.

Palestinian shepherd & sheep.  West Bank, 2011 - CN.
Palestinian shepherd & sheep. West Bank, 2011 – CN.

(with major, upbeat chords playing…) Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you something to eat?  I don’t remember.  We fed lots of people!

(with minor, dark chords playing…)  Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry?  That’s not fair!  Somebody wanna go down to Twin Kiss (local restaurant) and get the Lord a burger? [looking at “the Lord”]  Oh, you’re not hungry?  Yeah, I kind of lost my appetite too.

It had a way of making you regret sitting on the left side of the sanctuary and being a goat.  But the people of the right side felt pretty good. The sheep chose wisely, even if they didn’t mean to!  And the congregation got a strong message about helping those who are disadvantaged.

shpeherd boy & goat 2
Palestinian shepherd & baby goat. West Bank, 2011 – CN.

So, I was getting ready to bring the sheep and goats show to worship one more time and the girl who volunteered to be the goat said, “This is all kind of fun and everything, but I’m not gonna do this if it ends with “’depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels…’ and ‘these will go away into eternal punishment..’ My God doesn’t condemn anybody.”

I don’t remember how we resolved that – at the last minute, we probably took out the offending words – but she was onto a great question.  Does God punish us for not doing good works?  I do know that this is just one piece of what it means to follow Jesus.  God’s grace covers everyone who believes.

Do you believe in the living, resurrected Jesus?  If you’ve given yourself to him in a moment of heartfelt prayer, you opened the door to a new kind of life and the Holy Spirit of God started working change in you.  You began a lifetime of transformation from the inside out.  The presence of God has locked into you.  You are saved, that is, your salvation has begun.  But even after “opening the door,” after that first rush, it’s still possible to say, “Thanks, God; I only wanted enough change to make me feel warm inside; not enough to make it obvious on the outside. I kinda don’t want this faith thing to be too inconvenient and I especially don’t want my friends to think I’m a nut” (side note: your friends will probably love you for your faith).

This spiritual apathy is a problem for God, and so Jesus needs to use some harsh language to get our attention.  God has spiritually created us to make a positive difference in someone else’s life.  We either do that when there is an opportunity, or we don’t.  The church is a blessing to the community.  Or it’s not, and God cares very much about that.  The “least of these” are not people who are unknown.   To Jesus, they are “the least of these who are members of my family.”  The goats know who they are; they are in the family with us.  They are close by.  We should be very concerned about global needs, but the goats are ignoring people they probably know.  They are the neighbors we are supposed to love as much as ourselves.

So, we have a choice to make.  God needs us to take a chance.

And you might be thinking – God, I know you want me to go to the other side of the river, there’s this Promised Land place you want me to go to, but I’m good here.  Call me next week and maybe I’ll have changed my mind.  I know there’s stuff you want me to do, money you want me to spend, people you want me to take care of, and it’s not like I’m ungrateful all my blessings, especially at Thanksgiving, but could you maybe find someone else right now?

Truth be told, in one way or another, we are sheep and goats at the same time and we drift back and forth between the two.  And God waits patiently for us to take a chance and decide what to do about the needs we see around us.

Let’s unpack the sheep and the goats just a little more.  It’s kind of unfortunate that these animals get picked on, since neither one is especially intelligent.  They both need a shepherd.  The sheep and goats were both part of groups, herds; it’s possible for one to do something that they all will eventually do.  None of them seem to recognize the king disguised as a shepherd. Lord, when did we see you hungry?

The point of the story is whether the herd or flock belonging to Jesus will show real, practical care to others, or do nothing.  Connect it to the stories you’ve heard for the last few weeks.   Will they be ready for the wedding party?  (Will they be ready to do the thing God asked them to do when God needs them to do it?)  Will they invest treasure on God’s behalf, or bury money in a hole thinking that’s what the master wants?

Chances are, if you’ve been a church member for a long time, you first became connected to the church because at the time, it was the thing to do.  My parents brought me.  Growing up, all of my friends belonged to a church somewhere in town. It was normal.  That kind of relationship to a church is not normal anymore. We can moan about the changing times, but it won’t change what’s happening to about 90% of churches in America.

But there is an answer.  It’s not all bad news.  Today, statistically, it’s been shown that most church visitors or seekers who come to our church these days walked in the door because they had a need, they might be in the midst of a crisis, and thought that maybe the church would be able to help.  The churches that care about those needs are the ones thriving.

You heard the answer in the words of Jesus today.  It’s a job description.  Jesus wants to know if we will accept the challenge.  Will we step out and take a chance?  On God’s behalf, say these words to God’s church gathered here…

DSC_7849I was hungry and you gave me food.  What did you think of as you said those words? 

I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink.  What did you think of as you said those words? 

I was a stranger and you welcomed me.  What did you think of as you said those words? 

I was naked and you gave me clothing.  What did you think of as you said those words? 

I was sick and you took care of me.  What did you think of as you said those words? 

I was in prison and you visited me. What did you think of as you said those words? 

As individuals, we can’t accomplish that entire job description on our own.

We hold it to be the mission of the Church to witness to the Gospel and Jesus Christ in all the world, while worshiping God and striving for trust, justice, and peace and to make a difference through the love of Christ. (excerpt of the Purpose of Sr.a Paul’s United Church of Christ, Manheim, PA)  

What did you think of as you said those words?  It takes a team.

 Prayer

God, show us the hungry.  Show us the thirsty.  Show us those who need clothing.  Show us the strangers.  Show us the sick, and those who are who are in all sorts of prisons.  Take us out of our comfort zones – each and all of us together.  Give us the circumstances and the opportunities to serve you by serving them.  Help us learn to take chances for you, knowing that as we do your will as your people, you will never let us fall.  Amen.

11/16/2014 Sermon: Taking a Chance #3 – “Buried Treasure”

Last week, we used two scripture readings that involved looking at options and making a choice, taking a chance.  We all have those moments when we come to a crossroads and have a choice to make. A page needs to turn, and not making a decision is making a decision.

Last week, Jesus gave a story about bridesmaids being ready with lamps lit to greet the wedding party coming down the street.  Half of them were ready and half had made a really strange decision to not be ready.  Jesus was saying that his church is sometimes like that.  We take the risk of not doing anything and hope that’s okay.  And then, the story of Joshua and the Hebrew people taking up residence in the land that God had promised to them.  They are distracted by false gods – idols – they’ve found along the way to get there.  In the middle of the Promised Land, and after everything that God had done to get them there, they are starting to ignore God.  And so Joshua needs to say, “Choose this day whom you will serve… as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”  (Joshua 24:15)

Money 3Matthew 25:14-30.  ‘For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them;15to one he gave five talents,* to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away.16The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents.17In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents.18But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money.19After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them.20Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, “Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.”21His master said to him, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.”22And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, “Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.”23His master said to him, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.”24Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, “Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed;25so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.”26But his master replied, “You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter?27Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest.28So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents.29For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.30As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

Just a few years ago, one of the bigger stories in archaeology was the discovery of a buried treasure in Staffordshire, England.  It was a pile of gold and silver pieces, mostly from weapons made in the 8th century.  It was discovered by a man with a metal detector in a farmer’s field.  He and the farmer split about 2.5 million dollars.  The original owners of that treasure were hoping no one would find it.  Ever.

Have you ever found a treasure in your attic or back yard?  I know that there are several TV shows about people looking for treasures in barns or storage lockers.  The Antiques Roadshow.  That junky thing you bought at a tag sale is worth how much?  The salt and pepper shakers from your grandma’s kitchen are worth… what?  You’re kidding.  Maybe you are an antique collector (usually, I find that people collect certain types of antiques and stick to those).  If you are a collector, you know what it’s like to find some “holy grail” of a thing.  First, there’s a sense of victory.  Then a growing realization that not everybody loves this thing as much as you do.  Then comes the awareness that your kids probably don’t want it.  Then you understand that someone else will eventually have this thing; may as well sell it – as painful as that is.  Or somebody else will.  What’s one thing that’s hard for you to let go of?  (talk among yourselves!)

Debri collected after hurricane Katrina. New Orleans, 2006 - CN.
Debri collected after hurricane Katrina. New Orleans, 2006 – CN.

We all have some lesson to  teach someone else about materialism.  Anyone who has helped someone else clean up after a disaster knows that the stuff, the houses, and the money that people might have lost was incidental.

Church life can be much like this:  God gives us treasure.  God has openly given the treasure to us.  Spiritually and in some ways materially. We are just borrowing it, the faith and the material stuff.   In Jesus, when you believed, you found the treasure.  A new relationship with God, a new level of faith, is amazing.  It must be shared.  Christians not only share their treasure, they believe that life itself is a treasure borrowed from God, and that some day, this treasure returns to God.  We can’t keep it; we can only use it for a while, and God is very interested in how we use it. We are accountable for the treasure God gives us.  God is glad to give you life, give you the treasure, and make you happy – now share the treasure.  (v. 24)  The master… (God)  “entrusted to them his property.” I think it’s an easy choice to play it safe and sit on the gifts.

You may have been able to tell from that story in Matthew that in 1st century Palestine, a “talent” was a certain amount of money.  A talent was worth over 15 years of wages, so the slaves Jesus was talking about have been given an enormous amount of money.  They have a choice to take a risk and invest it or hoard it.  Those who take a chance and invest find great joy.  But the motto of the hoarder is:  I was afraid.

In the eyes of God we are not measured by artificial religious standards we make up for ourselves.  God is simply interested whether we take the risk of using the gift or gifts God has given us.  Or not.

Another problem for the one-talent person is a misunderstanding of time. He/she thought there would be plenty of time to do something with that talent, plenty of time before the owner of the estate would come back. They were wrong.  “Life is short” is not just a proverb.

Silver Lake 3It’s easy to bury God and the things God gives us.  It’s easy to do nothing, to just exist, to stay neutral.  It’s a risk to believe in God and make your life reflect your faith in practical ways.  We want the church to be safe, but it’s risky.  It’s a risk to pray; that means you really believe in God and God might work in your life and change things you might not want changed.  It’s a risk to love, to care, when you might not get anything back.  It’s a risk to… (fill in the blank) start a community meal, to sponsor a senior center, a children’s program or a youth group.  It’s a risk to do anything with/for people.

The reality of the kingdom is that if we don’t takes risks of faith and love, we kill God’s church – or at least stunt its growth – and eventually, all we have is a building and a booklet full of rules.  We bury life.  We bury the treasure.  If all you want from your “religion” is to be correct, God has more to show you.  If all you want from the church is a nice building so that your kids and grandkids could have nice weddings and you could have a nice funeral, maybe that’s enough.

But God put us here to make a difference in the lives of people in Manheim (or wherever you are), and the world.  Eventually, God’s going to check on the portfolio and see what St. Paul’s United Church of Christ did with everything it was given, and likewise with each of us.

This is a true story, possibly embellished over the years:

The most famous violin maker in the world was Antonio Stradivari, and it was almost 300 years ago that he made his most famous violin, “The Messiah.”  It took many years for violin players to realize how fine these instruments were, but there was one man who understood – a cabinet maker and fiddler from Milan named Luigi Tarisio. In the early 1800’s, he would make new violins and trade them for old ones, which he would repair.  The Messiah was one violin in a group of six he bought for a low price.

At that time, Italy was in a depression and new makers had sprung up, each claiming their violins were better than those of the older makers like Stradivari. So, it wasn’t hard for Tarisio to gather up instruments as he traveled around Europe.

For twenty years Tarisio brought violins to instrument dealers in Paris, each time mentioning the violin he had at home. The dealers would say: “Talk, talk, how you talk! That violin you have at home is like the Messiah- we always hear about it, but no one ever sees him.”

Twenty- seven years after his first visit to Paris, neighbors noticed Tarisio was no longer coming and going. Police broke into his attic apartment where they found a workbench, two chairs, a sofa, and a hundred and forty-five violins (including two dozen made by Stradivari), violas, cellos, and a double- bass. They also found Tarisio’s stiff, fully clothed body lying on the sofa–with the world’s most coveted violin, the Messiah Stradivari, clutched to his chest. But very few of them were ever played; they were only collected. The Messiah has been described as the most valuable wooden object in the world.  It is in a glass case in a museum in England and has only rarely been touched in almost 300 years.  It is in almost new condition. I have a question: Has the world been robbed of music?

(adapted from Wikipedia and http://circachairs.blogspot.com/2011/02/most-coveted-violin-and-possibly-most.html)

Linked handsGod has made an investment in each of us – and all of us together. God has given us money to use and to share but it’s much, much more than that.  It lives in some area of our personality.  For some people, the gift is obvious in some public way, such as having a beautiful singing voice or playing an instrument.  For others, it might be having an unusually good memory or physical strength and ability, or organizational skill.  It’s clear in scripture that you were given this gift to make someone else’s life better.  I believe God gives each of us a longing to do this thing, whatever it is, for someone else.  Along with that gift, God gave you a reservoir of compassion, a supernatural ability to care.  A gift of forgiveness or tolerance for someone close to you.  Some help for someone far away whom you don’t know, where a little from you means a lot to them.  In other words, God has saved you so that you can help God save someone else.  It was never just about you.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhat is it you’ve dreamed of doing?  What is the gift that’s buried?  Finding time on a calendar might be the first step.  Using your gift might involve saying no to something that somebody else thinks you should do.  Kids, I’m not necessarily talking about your parents.

There are so many ways to serve within the church, with a goal of giving the fellowship and love of Christ to the community.  The list is huge.

There are so many gifts gathered in this room.  A wealth of riches. We have enough personal gifts and finances to be a force.  There is a world full of need that begins within our own building, and we are limited only by our lack of imagination.  I say let’s share the treasure as broadly as God gives us the ability.  As we have faith, God will show each of us ways to live our faith instead of bury it, and may God help the people of this church invest its life in its people, its families, its town, and in its world.  Let’s take a chance.

Prayer

O God, you have taken so many risks with us and through your son Jesus, you’ve invested your own self with us.  Help us follow him in bringing life to our families, our town, our world, and our church.  Help us take the risk of believing in you and trusting you when we’re faced with the needs we see around us: the need of faith for our children, the need of stability in our homes, the need of vision for our future.  Give us the willingness to be your people now, living the life you give us now, leaving clear footprints of love and faith for the next generation to follow.  Amen.

11/9/2014 Sermon: Taking a Chance #2 – “The Choice”

Garden Route

 

Can you think of a time in your life when you made a decision that changed the course of things? Today, we’ve got two scripture readings that both involve looking at options and making a choice.  We all have those moments when we come to a crossroads and have a choice to make. It’s a hard thing knowing that whatever the circumstances were that led us up to this point of decision, a page needs to turn, and not making a decision is making a decision.

 

In first century Palestine, on the day of a wedding, the groom went to the bride’s house for the ceremony.  Then the bride and groom went to the groom’s house for a feast that might last a week.  Talk about an expensive wedding!  Everybody went to the groom’s house as part of a big parade (like honking your horn on the way through town; do people still do that?)

200806-447799_0182The bridesmaids were waiting at the groom’s house to take part in the parade.  The ceremony would take place at night and on the “last leg” of the procession, the bridesmaids would come out with lights as the wedding party came toward the groom’s house.  Listen to Jesus tell this story about making a choice:

Matthew 25:1-13.  ‘Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. 2Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. 3When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; 4but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. 5As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. 6But at midnight there was a shout, “Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.” 7Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps.8The foolish said to the wise, “Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.” 9But the wise replied, “No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.” 10And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. 11Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, “Lord, lord, open to us.” 12But he replied, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.”13Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.

All they had to do was be ready to serve when they were needed.

About 1,400 years before Jesus told that story, the Hebrew people are also faced with a choice.  God and Moses have brought them out of slavery in Egypt and now they have come into possession of the land the God promised them with a man named Joshua leading them. They faced strong opposition, but the walls of Jericho came down (you remember the song!).  Things are good, but now Joshua is about to die and he wants to know what the people intend to do with their freedom. They need to make a choice.

This reading is best heard when we take parts, so, I’ll invite those who can reach a pew Bible watch for your cue!  (on screens)

Joshua 24:1-3.  Then Joshua gathered all the tribes of Israel to Shechem, and summoned the elders, the heads, the judges, and the officers of Israel; and they presented themselves before God.  And Joshua said to all the people, “Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, ‘Your fathers lived of old beyond the Euphrates, Terah, the father of Abraham and of Nahor; and they served other gods.  Then I took your father Abraham from beyond the River and led him through all the land of Canaan, and made his offspring many. (to verse 14)

 14  “Now therefore fear the LORD, and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness; put away the gods which your fathers served beyond the River, and in Egypt, and serve the LORD.  15  And if you be unwilling to serve the LORD, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell; but as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD.”

Then the people answered, “Far be it from us that we should forsake the LORD, to serve other gods; for it is the LORD our God who brought us and our fathers up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage, and who did those great signs in our sight, and preserved us in all the way that we went, and among all the peoples through whom we passed; and the LORD drove out before us all the peoples, the Amorites who lived in the land; therefore we also will serve the LORD, for he is our God.”

 19  But Joshua said to the people, “You cannot serve the LORD; for he is a holy God; he is a jealous God; he will not forgive your transgressions or your sins.  20  If you forsake the LORD and serve foreign gods, then he will turn and do you harm, and consume you, after having done you good.”

And the people said to Joshua, “Nay; but we will serve the LORD.”

 22  Then Joshua said to the people, “You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen the LORD, to serve him.”

And they said, “We are witnesses.”

 23  He said, “Then put away the foreign gods which are among you, and incline your heart to the LORD, the God of Israel.”

And the people said to Joshua, “The LORD our God we will serve, and his voice we will obey.”

 25  So Joshua made a covenant with the people that day, and made statutes and ordinances for them at Shechem. 

DSC_7873As the people move from slavery, from the bad place, from the place of oppression and a long time of wandering, there are these moments when the story comes to a climax and the people are faced with a choice.  Will they move forward, live on God’s terms and flourish, or go their own way and die?  Will they take a chance on trusting God to lead them or give into fear and defeat?

God gave them miracle after miracle to get them to this place  They are in the Promised Land and now they have another decision to make.  In this new place, in this new future, do they want to live on God’s terms?  Or do they want to go it alone?  It’s decision time.

Unbelievably, they are still being tempted to worship idols, even though they know the story of the golden calf, and they’ve been punished repeatedly for losing their faith in God.  It sounds like they are telling Joshua the things they think he wants to hear so that… what? God will leave them alone?  Or so that God will help them?  They don’t seem to get it.  All Joshua can do is say, “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”  Ultimately, it comes down to each of us making a choice.

And so Joshua says, “…choose this day whom you will serve…” (Joshua 24:15)

There is a theme here, and it’s repeated over and over in scripture – and in our own lives.  God says, “You cried out for help, and I helped you. You may have been in the desperate place, you may have been in a foxhole or a ditch, fearing for your life.  And I heard you.  I was always there, waiting to hear from you.  Now, do you want to go it alone now, or do you want to live on my terms?”  I believe we have a much bigger struggle to live in good times than it is in bad times.

In the scripture stories, sometimes the people listen and make the right choice, sometimes they make the wrong choice.  And we always have the freedom to choose.  God always gives the choice.

Wouldn’t it be nice not to have the choice?  What if we just didn’t have the choice to “color outside the lines?”  If we didn’t have the ability to make dumb choices, then we wouldn’t get all twisted up inside whenever we disappointed God, or our families, or ourselves.  But if we didn’t have ability to make mistakes, or feel pain, then we would be emotionally and spiritually dead.

God created us to love, and love is not love if it is not a choice.  Love is not love if it doesn’t make us vulnerable to pain. We have the choice to love God and let God love us.  Or to turn our backs on God.

Let’s go God’s way!  Such easy words to say.  Of course we’ll go God’s way.  Joshua says, “…choose this day whom you will serve…”  Every time we worship, God gives us this challenge.  We are always being faced with a choice for the future.  What will you do in this new land God is giving you?  God willing, we have an endless calendar of choices to make.  Choose this day whom you will serve.

In the Promised Land, you live in a new way, learning from what happened on the other side of the Jordan.  But you have to remember – you might even need someone to remind you – you don’t live in slavery anymore, and you’re not wandering in the desert.  You’re home.  But you are at a crossroad.

Choose this day whom you will serve.  It’s a personal choice, and if you choose, a choice that creates something bigger than yourself.  When you join the church, you make promises.  Actually, you take part in a covenant.  When you take part in a covenant, you make yourself available to God, so that God can work through you in the lives of others.  God speaks and works in many ways, but rarely so loudly or effectively as through a local church – a group of people who have made a covenant to live the way God wants them to live.

There’s a life-changing experience for everyone who says yes to Christ for the very first time.  Yes, Christ, I say yes to you, and I will live for you.  I will be ready when you need me to serve.

Our life together is about saying yes to Christ, and each of us does it in our own way.  And then we keep finding ways to say yes.  Is there a choice you need to make today?  Is there something God needs you to do?  Is there something God needs you to be doing instead of the thing you are doing now?

As a family of God we say yes to Christ in communion together; that might be the most distinct, public way we say yes to God together. So many ministries of the church are yeses to God.   Visiting a shut-in is a yes.  Helping our local food bank is a yes.  There are so many ways. We need to keep saying yes, and finding ways to say yes.  Does God need us to protect the things we think we have, or to change someone’s world?  Let’s invent new ways to say yes to God.   Let’s open the doors and invite everyone to say yes to Christ with us.

Prayer

O God, for centuries before we were born, you were ready to be our God.  We each, in our own way, say yes to you.  And together, as your Body, the church, we are ready to be your people; we say yes to you.  Through your Spirit, help us say the words and do the things that show our town and our world that you live here, in this congregation.  Help us, Lord, in all our words, and all the things we do, to honor you.  Help us find quiet moments to respond to you in faith, and then to go out and invite others to the feast of life you’ve prepared for everyone.  Amen.

11/2/2014 Sermon: Taking a Chance #1 – “Getting Somewhere”

Maine sunrise

Joshua 3:7-17. 7 The Lord said to Joshua, ‘This day I will begin to exalt you in the sight of all Israel, so that they may know that I will be with you as I was with Moses. 8You are the one who shall command the priests who bear the ark of the covenant, “When you come to the edge of the waters of the Jordan, you shall stand still in the Jordan.” ’ 9Joshua then said to the Israelites, ‘Draw near and hear the words of the Lord your God.’ 10Joshua said, ‘By this you shall know that among you is the living God who without fail will drive out from before you the Canaanites, Hittites, Hivites, Perizzites, Girgashites, Amorites, and Jebusites: 11the ark of the covenant of the Lord of all the earth is going to pass before you into the Jordan. 12So now select twelve men from the tribes of Israel, one from each tribe. 13When the soles of the feet of the priests who bear the ark of the Lord, the Lord of all the earth, rest in the waters of the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan flowing from above shall be cut off; they shall stand in a single heap.’

14 When the people set out from their tents to cross over the Jordan, the priests bearing the ark of the covenant were in front of the people. 15Now the Jordan overflows all its banks throughout the time of harvest. So when those who bore the ark had come to the Jordan, and the feet of the priests bearing the ark were dipped in the edge of the water, 16the waters flowing from above stood still, rising up in a single heap far off at Adam, the city that is beside Zarethan, while those flowing towards the sea of the Arabah, the Dead Sea, were wholly cut off. Then the people crossed over opposite Jericho. 17While all Israel were crossing over on dry ground, the priests who bore the ark of the covenant of the Lord stood on dry ground in the middle of the Jordan, until the entire nation finished crossing over the Jordan.

When my wife and I lived near Boston, there were some local radio disk jockeys who were always poking fun at the way Boston people drive (there must be places like this in Pennsylvania).  It seemed to be common knowledge: Boston drivers have a bad reputation, which is unfair, because the real problem in Boston is the way the streets are laid out.  I understand Boston was laid out according to an ancient English road system, tried and true for many centuries which is – cow paths.

stopIt doesn’t seem to make sense, so the way people drive on these streets doesn’t make sense either.  There were “rules” for Boston driving:

1.  The car in front of you is always going slower than you are.

2.  You can get anywhere in 10 minutes.

3.  Speed bumps have no effect at 50 miles per hour.

4.  The driver’s window is always down so that pedestrians can hear you when you yell, “Get out of the way!”

There were a lot more.  Whenever we would go into Boston, I would find myself thinking, “This would be a great city if it weren’t for the cars.  This place was not made for cars.”  Most of the older New England towns weren’t necessarily “made” for cars either.  There were some places we actually wouldn’t try to go to in the summer because the traffic was just too bad.

But it sure helps to have cars here, don’t you think?  This is a good time for some thinking about traveling, about getting from point A to point B.  Every day I find myself going from point A to point B in some way.  Every people of God is going from point A to point B.

Benjamin_West_-_Joshua_passing_the_River_Jordan_with_the_Ark_of_the_Covenant_-_Google_Art_Project
“The Children of Israel Crossing the Jordan” by Benjamin West , 1800.

Out by the edge of the Jordan River, after 40 years of wandering in the desert, the Hebrew people, the people of God, have finally come to the Promised Land.  They aren’t actually in it yet; they have to get over or through the Jordan River.  The priests step into the river, holding the ark, pointing the way.  As they stand there, holding the ark, the priests remind the people of where they came from while they point the way forward.

What is this ark, anyway?  It’s not a boat, it’s a box, a fancy chest with poles on the sides so that that a crew can carry it.  It’s about 4 feet long, 2 high and wide.  The only thing Noah’s ark and this ark have in common is that they both save people from water, at least in this story, but in different ways.  And they both represent salvation.

What’s inside the ark?  The commandments God gave Moses, a pot of manna, and the rod of Aaron – all reminders of slavery and the promise of God to bring the Hebrew people out of slavery.  The proper term for the commandments is covenant, a holy agreement between God and the people.  A kind of treaty.  God says, “I will be your God, I will be with you and protect you, if you will follow these rules.”

The proper name for this box is the Ark of the Covenant.  Most of the time, the ark spends its time in the tabernacle, which is a tent, a portable building where the Hebrew people worship as they travel. When they left Egypt, they were a disorganized mob; all they had to lead them was Moses and Aaron and God’s pillar of smoke and fire.  Now they have Joshua and an organized group of priests.  The first thing the people see as they head into the Promised Land is this box with the covenant in it, being held by the priests.

God was trying to wean them from obvious things God had been doing, like pillars of fire and smoke.  They had to learn that God would be with them through their faith and their obedience to the covenant, even if they couldn’t see God in some obvious way.   Back at the Red Sea, when they were being chased by the Egyptians, all Moses had to do was lift up his hand and God made a path through the water.  At this river, they had to get their feet wet first.  The priests had to step into it.  They had to express faith in a public way.  They had to make a physical commitment to entering the Promised Land.  They couldn’t just stand on the river bank and say to themselves, “Look at that water.  This is a problem.  How are we going to get over there?”

DSC_8984
Stream near the Sea of Galilee. CN – 2011.

For most of the year, the Jordan isn’t much of a river.  It runs from the Sea of Galilee in the north to the Dead Sea in the south, maybe 100 miles, and for much of that distance it isn’t much more than a creek.  With a running start, you can jump across.  But in the late spring, it can turn into a raging flood – at some points more than a mile wide.  And to get the Promised Land, the people have to get across.

This is a kind of bookend experience:  God made a path through the Red Sea to get them out of Egypt and out of slavery (I know you remember the movie).  Now they need God to get them into the Promised Land and into safety and security.  This is the part many people miss in the salvation story:  We don’t just need God to get us out of sin, out of trouble, out of slavery.  We need God to get us into a safe place.  Getting out of the bad spot is only half the trip.  Salvation isn’t complete until we are in the place God wants us to be, and for Christians, this place is faith in Christ and a growing relationship with Christ.

Each of us has a river to cross.  Each of us has to go from point A to point B.  The church has places to go, people to see, things to do.  We get to point B if everybody is acting on faith.  The leaders go first.  They need to trust God and step into the river.  When the leaders trust God, when they step out in faith, God makes a path through the river.  And when the people of God move into the neighborhood, things will be different, not because of them, but because of God.

Each one of us is a leader for someone else, even if it’s in the most passive way.  In some way, each of us is presented with some faith decision to go from point A to point B.  Our children watch to see what we do, watching us stand by the edge of the water looking at the Promised Land.  Maybe it’s a younger brother or sister.  Does this person have faith in the unseen God?  Or is this God just a rumor?

And there’s always someone else saying, “Ah, Promised Land, shmomised land.  Just stay on this side of the river and build a condo.  Have I got a deal for you!  Why do what God wants you to do?  What do you know about this Promised Land place anyway?  Which is true.  You don’t know what God has in store for you until you step in and get your feet wet.

You have some challenge in from of you that takes faith, and God says. Go.  Stop waiting.  At St. Paul’s United Church of Christ, things are changing.  We are going places.  As we go from point A to point B in these next few years, we need to see, up in front of us, the covenant we have with God, and remember that our purpose is to worship God, follow Christ, and make disciples for Christ.  Whether they be new ideas or old ones, all decisions we make need to be geared around this relationship we have with God and things that will help this relationship grow.

Here’s some more rules for the road that somebody wrote for the Church:

Road Rule #1: You Can’t Steer a Parked Car – The result of an overactive attention to control and security is stagnation.  Only by risking, by opening ourselves to the outside, by trusting, by beginning to move, only by moving do we allow God to create the new thing among us. Depending on how we’ve parked, we might be in someone else’s way.  We might be in God’s way.

Road Rule #2:  You Can’t Pass in the Slow Lane – We must make good use of our time, to make a difference in our world.  Slow and easy might win the race, but those who go slowly also get left behind.  We move more efficiently if we have the next destination on the journey marked out on a map.

Road Rule #3:  You Can’t Repair the Car While It’s Still in Motion – Movement is not an end in itself.  When we are exhausted and in need of repair, the worst thing to do is step on the gas.  We play together, we rest, we do the repair and maintenance which give us the energy and creativity to move forward.  Some of us have gifts for service that simply aren’t being used.  Some do too much.  There is no retirement age in the church.

Road Rule #4:  You Can’t Run on Empty – Everyone has to have fuel.  The fuel we choose determines our staying power.  Our fuel is free; it’s energy of faith in Jesus Christ.  It’s the energy of that faith that gets us across the river.  Whatever that river might be, we cross together.

 Prayer

Lord Jesus, we give you control.  We want your Spirit to be the One who runs things here. We give you all of our rights.  Whenever we are tempted to take back control, please point that out to us and help us have the courage and strength to resist the temptation or desire to take control again of our lives, and our life together.

Show us how to live on top of our circumstances and not under them. Help us keep our eyes on you, instead of on our problems.  Give us the eyes to see you, as the One who can and will meet every need. Give us the faith to step boldly into the future because we trust in you.

Help us walk into our Promised Land under your Spirit’s control. Remind us every day, especially when our faith is weak, that we are not walking alone. Amen.