3/10/2019 Sermon: “Instant Satisfaction”

It was around this time of year in 2011 that I joined up with a small group of 5 other people and we hiked across the West Bank of Palestine from Nazareth in the north to Bethlehem in the south. About 100 miles of walking through farmland and desert and small villages.  We stayed in people’s homes, in hotels, refugee settlements and with Bedouin shepherds.  Yes, it was safe. I never felt unsafe.  Lots of people only get the sightseeing that the tour buses show them. But we were experiencing what it was like to make this journey in the much the same way Jesus did with his people.  At least, we were seeing much of the countryside the way he saw it.  During Lent, I’ll try to describe it as best I can (and show you) whenever it helps the story you’re hearing.

Mt. of Temptation Monastery, near Jericho, Palestine. CN – 2011.
Mount of Temptation cable cars. CN – 2011.

One of the places where we stopped was the Mount of Temptation, the traditional spot where Jesus was tempted.  Like so many of the stories in scripture, there are actual places where things happened, especially around the old city of Jerusalem or the Sea of Galilee – and traditional places where these things happened.  The traditional place is where you go to think about a story in scripture because nobody really knows where it happened.  There is a traditional spot where the temptation of Jesus took place.  It’s a 1,200-foot tall mountain near Jericho in the southwest of Israel/Palestine.

Pomegranate smoothie at the Mount of Temptation Restaurant. CN – 2011.
Ice cream cooler in a passageway at the Mount of Temptation monastery. CN – 2011.

About halfway up, there is a Greek Orthodox monastery.  Since ancient times, Greek monks have built monasteries in hard-to-get-to places like mountains and cliffs to allow for contemplation and to honor scripture stories. On the Mount of Temptation, this is a long, narrow building on the side of the cliff, where the monks live in small cells.  It’s a difficult climb to get up there, along a narrow path.  Or, since 20 years ago, you can take a cable car. In this place you can contemplate the temptation of Christ with the other tourists and… have an ice cream, or maybe a large pomegranate smoothie in the Mount of Temptation restaurant.  A little ironic, right?  Or not. These days, you can be tempted on the Mount of Temptation!

When I say the word, “temptation,” what do you think of?  We use the word temptation in worship every week.  The Lord’s Prayer has us asking God not to “lead us into temptation,” (from the King James Version) but a better translation of those words is, “keep us from the day of testing.”  God, please protect us from the Day of Judgment – and Jesus is the answer to that prayer.  The things that would make us vulnerable to judgment are the things that died with Jesus on the cross.  So that prayer is being answered – and God does not lead you into temptation.  We lead ourselves into temptation perfectly well.  Have you ever said, “Mmmm that’s a temptation…”?

The dictionary defines temptation as “the act of tempting or the state of being tempted, especially to evil.”  Synonyms are: allurement, bait, come-on, decoy, enticement, inveiglement, seducement, snare, trap.”  Temptation is the open door that leads you to the place where your logical mind knows you shouldn’t go for one reason or another.  I think we know what temptation is: an invitation to become something less than what God wants you to be.  It’s different for everyone.  It could be a thing, a person, an emotion, a substance.  Something that’s a temptation for you might not be for me.  And vise-versa. It’s clear from scripture that one of the things that makes us human is that we all can be tempted and give in!  We’re all in this together!  The Apostle Paul said…

“All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23)

“I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate…. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!   (Romans 7: 15, 24-25)

Not exactly encouraging, right?  We all have a dark side.  But keep in mind that as we walk with Jesus to Jerusalem, he is walking to the cross, where this problem of sin dies with him. There’s new life on the other side of the cross, and if you’re open to it, the gospel story from Luke can give you some help as you follow Jesus through his own temptation.

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness,where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. (Luke 4:1)

Jesus has just been baptized and he is full of the Holy Spirit.  He’s on a spiritual high as he heads into the wilderness, which is not a forest; it’s more like a hilly desert wasteland.  He’s going off to live in a cave somewhere in Judea, like the Greek monks.  No people around except for a few shepherds.  He knows when he goes into this place that he won’t come out for 40 days – a symbolic number that means journey, and cleansing, and salvation.  Coincidentally, that’s about how long it takes for most people to develop new habits.  For most of 6 weeks, he’s with God, himself, and the devil, the evil one, in the middle of nowhere. Six weeks with this guy!

 He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished.  (v. 2)

There were no ice cream coolers or juice drink restaurants in this place, just in case you missed that irony.  But, you can find spring water.  So, he’s on a liquid fast and is… famished.

This is the word you should key in on.  Famished.  It’s the first ingredient of successful temptation for the evil one.  Tired, hungry.  Famished.  Have you ever been famished (root word of famine). Most people can’t think when they are famished.

The devil said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.’  (v. 3)

Breakfast in Palestine: flatbread, fried egg yokes, tune, yogurt, olive oil, hummus, zatar (herb mixture)

The devil has a logical idea.  Make bread.  I saw a baking show the other night that you said could live on just bread and water for quite a while.  Not appetizing, but you can do it.

And Jesus refuses.  It’s important to see that Jesus quotes scripture when he refuses.

Jesus answered him, ‘It is written, “One does not live by bread alone.” ’  (v. 4; quoting Deuteronomy 8:3)

But maybe you heard that the devil, the evil one, also knows scripture.  The key thing Jesus does is not to turn the rock into bread.  He simply refuses to do what the devil suggested.  It’s not about resisting the temptation to do a cheesy parlor trick, not about resisting the temptation to feed himself with his power.  It’s about refusing to allow the evil to control anything he does – even when he is physically weak, when he knows some bread could help.

The evil will come to you and try to control you when you are tired and hungry.  When you are famished.  A UCC Conference person once told me that he had seen a study of clergy misbehavior which showed that those who got into moral trouble often made their first mistake on a Monday.  Think about that.

I suspect that all of us have a vulnerable day, a vulnerable time.  I think what God is trying to communicate is: think carefully about your decisions on that day.  Might be best to save the decision for a time when you are not famished.  I wonder how many bad decisions have been made by us when we were famished.  Things said and done when we didn’t feel our best.

All Jesus did was nothing.

Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, ‘To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.’  (vv. 5-7)

Botticelli, Temptation of Christ detail – 1480-82

If you were a Jewish person in that time, standing on the Mount of Temptation, you would be looking back in the direction of slavery.  I realize it’s a symbolic thing, and maybe it’s a stretch of the imagination, but that’s what you’re looking at from up there.

All the kingdoms of the world, the glory, the authority, the things that look so great from a distance, are over there where slavery is.  And it’s a lie.  None of this stuff is the devil’s to give.  And those things are a mirage.  The evil wants to be worshiped, to have control of you.

Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here (v. 9)[and he quotes more scripture]. 

And again, Jesus refuses.  And this time, the devil makes it personal.  He goes after the spiritual core of Jesus.  On top of the Temple, the house of God – come on Jesus, show the Chosen People you can fly!  In the middle of the most holy place, among God’s people, do the least helpful thing.  Do the thing that draws attention to you for no good purpose.  Get everybody’s mind off of God and what God wants.  And Jesus responds with scripture of his own: don’t put God to the test.  Nah, Satan, I don’t think that’s what I’ll be doing.

The devil wasn’t done.   When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.  An opportune time.  So, he doesn’t just go away.

 Here’s the takeaway:  The evil will come when you are full of the Spirit – and are famished.  Plan on it.  In an instant, you will be shown the wonderful things that will turn you into a slave.  You will be challenged to make your faith life about you instead of about God and the people God loves.

There may be somebody here who would be helped by hearing the 12 steps of AA.  I believe they can be applied to any addiction, whether it’s a soft one like food or some other habit.  Maybe the way you relate to certain people.  Maybe smoking.  Or a harder addiction like alcohol, drugs, or sex.

Life is a continuous battle against the things that would lead you to places you shouldn’t be.  God promises to be with you as you walk through the valley.

  1. We admitted we were powerless over our addiction–that our lives had become unmanageable.
  2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
  3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him. (we understand him as Jesus)
  4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
  5. Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
  6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character
  7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings
  8. Made a list of persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
  9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
  10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
  11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
  12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to addicts and to practice these principles in all our affairs. 

Prayer

O God, we might think we know our hearts desire, and we set our minds on high dreams, lofty goals.  So teach us what is truly important.  Help us know how to fill our souls.

And so we pray, God, that you give us good vision and open hearts to see exactly what is happening when we hear other voices calling us to walk down paths where we should not go.

Help us help each other.  Fill us with yourself; give us strength.  In the name of the one who resisted temptation and lives inside us now through faith.  Amen.

3/3/2019 Sermon: “All About Image”

Jesus’ Image.  As I’ve already mentioned, one of the things I find myself wondering about is what Jesus looked like.  The prophecy in Isaiah says that “he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.” (Isaiah 53:2)  Then Isaiah goes on to give a kind of R-rated description of what happens to the Messiah as he is sacrificed for the sins of the people.

A few years ago some forensic facial reconstructionists ( came up with a picture of the average first century Jewish man, based on skulls they’d found in tombs.  It was intended to be a suggestion of what Jesus could have looked like.  He had a round-ish face, olive-colored skin, a short dark beard, and average-length black curly hair.  If you’re used to the Nordic Jesus with the long face, blue eyes and long brown hair, you think to yourself, “There’s no way Jesus looked like that!”

And scripture doesn’t give many clues! At least not the kind we want.  God, we’d prefer the ideal image for Jesus, you know, with…. (fill in the blank).

Self-Image.  Have you ever noticed how concerned our culture is with image, with how we look?  If you believe what you see in the media, most of us just don’t look quite right. Take hair, for instance.  It probably isn’t clean enough, so there are all sorts of ways to wash it.  If your hair isn’t the right color, you can change that (I suspect that some people in this room have altered their hair color!).  If it isn’t the right texture, you can change that. If you are losing your hair, through the mail, you have a number of options, including spray-paint hair.

But then you might have to deal with your skin, and the makers of Clinique moisturizing cream say that they sell a bottle of their stuff every four seconds.  But, maybe there’s a problem with the way you dress.  Even if you look okay, you might not be the right weight, and there are plenty of ways to fix that, and all sorts of clubs you can join.

The Bible shows another way to have your appearance changed: get close to God.  Trust the living Jesus. (We’ve got a sermon series coming about trust!)  But getting close to God means that God might change more things than how we look, or how we think we look.

The scripture readings today are about getting close to God up on a mountain:

Exodus 34:29 Moses came down from Mount Sinai. As he came down from the mountain with the two tablets of the covenant in his hand, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God. 30When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, the skin of his face was shining, and they were afraid to come near him. 31But Moses called to them; and Aaron and all the leaders of the congregation returned to him, and Moses spoke with them. 32Afterwards all the Israelites came near, and he gave them in commandment all that the Lord had spoken with him on Mount Sinai. 33When Moses had finished speaking with them, he put a veil on his face; 34but whenever Moses went in before the Lordto speak with him, he would take the veil off, until he came out; and when he came out, and told the Israelites what he had been commanded,35the Israelites would see the face of Moses, that the skin of his face was shining; and Moses would put the veil on his face again, until he went in to speak with him.

Luke 9:28 Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. 29And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. 30Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. 31They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. 32Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him.33Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, ‘Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah’—not knowing what he said. 34While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. 35Then from the cloud came a voice that said, ‘This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!’ 36When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.

In the first scripture, the story from Exodus, Moses had just come down from Mt. Sinai for the second time.  The first time he saw a burning bush, talked with God, and God gave him commandments on stone tablets.  When he came down, he found the people – whom he had just helped save from the Egyptians – worshiping a golden calf.  In his anger, Moses smashed the tablets, destroyed the calf, and punished everyone who didn’t swear allegiance to God.  Then he went back up the mountain and begged for forgiveness on behalf of the people.

In the movie, “The Ten Commandments,” Charlton Heston had white roots in his hair and a kind of glazed expression on his face, and that’s a little weak.  But how do you portray somebody who has been with God?  God had “rubbed off” on Moses, and according to the story, Moses felt the need to cover himself. There was something about him that was apparently a little scary. Or could it be that he was self-conscious?  Could it be that he didn’t want to look too different from them?  But people knew – he was shining.  He knew he was just an average guy, but they knew he’d been with God.

Traditional Mount of Transfiguration near Nazareth, Palestine. (CN – 2011)

More than a thousand years later, Jesus takes three of his closest disciples up a different mountain to pray.  While they are there, Jesus takes on a different appearance (“appearance of his countenance was altered, and his raiment became dazzling white”) and talks to Elijah and Moses.  They have this ecstatic experience.

Context is really important. Right before this in the story, Jesus had been warning them repeatedly that he was about to be crucified and then rise from the dead.  They had no idea what that meant until weeks later.

So this experience on the mountaintop is a little God-instruction on who is in control, even when things turn awful.  A little prep for what’s ahead.  But they don’t get it.

The part of that story I like best is when Peter offers to make shelters for everybody, obviously not knowing what else to say or do.  Jesus doesn’t try to explain what’s going on, and the voice out of the cloud doesn’t either.  All God says is, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”  Good advice for all of us.  Peter, relax; just listen to Jesus.

A New Image.  Why does God do things like this?  What is the point of these stories?  People come close to God and God changes them.  In both stories, God comes to people who don’t know what to say, don’t know what to do; people who are confused.  You’d think that God would have the good sense to give these revelations to smart, together people.  Instead, God comes to people like us.  Rebellious people – people who might just worship a golden calf if we had the opportunity; people who might just deny Jesus when the unbelieving world we live in puts a little pressure on.  The worst can happen: we might just make that golden calf and Jesus will get crucified.  Life might take one huge turn for the worse and the place where you are on life’s journey gets impossible to walk – for you.  But not for God.

God’s going to give us a new set of tablets and Jesus is coming out of the tomb alive.  The end of our story is in God’s hands if we believe, if we’re willing to have faith.  And if we have faith, if we’re willing to trust God and be with God, God will change us.  We may even look different – and you don’t need to go to the top of a mountain!

What needs to change about you?  You’re never too old or too young for that question.  What needs to be different?  Maybe the first thought that came to your mind is what the culture tells you.  Maybe you think you need a makeover.

But what do you think God wants?  If you made yourself more open to what God wants, if you were willing to say, God, I will take a step in the direction you want me to go.  I give myself to you.  If you trusted God with your image, would you have…

More boldness or more silence?  More talking or more listening?  More enthusiasm or more patience?  Less fear and more trust?

Here’s a good question: Why did God pick mountaintops for these visions, these strange experiences?  Climbing up a mountain is hard work.  You get to the top and you’re out of breath.  If you’re not in shape, you hurt.  Climbing down isn’t so easy either.

Maybe God wants to know what we’re willing to go through in order to have a vision.  Up on the mountain you can see where you are, and you can see where you have to go.  And that’s where God is.

We all need to change. The stuff that probably needs to change the most is inside you and has more to do with tolerance and forgiveness than your grooming.

The Heavenly City.  (an old Jewish legend) There once was a poor man who grew weary of the corruption and hatred that he experienced every day.  He was tired of the constant injustice that his people experienced. Life was simply not good.  His family and friends listened as he spoke passionately of his deep desire for a city where justice was honored and peace was experienced by all.  Night after night he dreamed of a land free from conflict, a city where heaven touched earth.  He could see this place.  It was so real.

One day, he announced to everyone that he could wait no longer.  He packed some food – granola bars and a sports bottle full of water.  He kissed his family goodbye and set out for the perfect city of his dreams.  He walked all day, and just before sunset, he found a place to sleep just off the road, in a forest.  Just before he went to sleep, he placed his shoes in the center of the path, pointing in the direction he would go the next day.

That night, as he slept, a prankster walked that same path and found the traveler’s shoes.  Unable to resists a practical joke, he turned the shoes around, pointing them in the opposite direction, the direction that the man had just walked.

Early the next morning, the traveler woke up, said his prayers, ate a granola bar, and started his journey, walking in the direction that the shoes pointed.  He walked all day long, and when the sun was about to set, he saw the heavenly city off in the distance.  It wasn’t as large as he expected and it looked familiar somehow.  He turned down a street that looked so much like his own – it was eerie.  He knocked on a familiar looking door, and greeted the family that he found there. They embraced, and he lived happily ever after in the city of his dreams.

“This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”  When God looks at us, if we have faith, God sees Jesus.  Our sins died with him and you are clean.  So, if you believe in Jesus, God has a different image of you than you have of yourself.  And through your faith in Christ, through the Spirit living in you, as the saying goes, God will help you be the change you seek.

Prayer: O God, you take us out of our safe places and up the mountain.  We confess: it’s a little scary up here.  It’s just you and us.  You have things to show us about you and about ourselves.  Standing next to you, we know that we have needs only you can fill.  Show us where we are and where to go.  Remind us whom we belong to.

Off in the distance we hear cries for help.  Give us the strength to find out who is in trouble.  Through us, make the good news of Christ a clear message to that hurting world down below.  Through us, help that world know that there is good news: you have come to us through a stable, a cross, and an empty tomb.  Make our faces shine because we have been with you.  Amen.

2/10/2019 Sermon: “When Jesus Is Invited”

Wellington, Ohio. (https://www.villageofwellington.com/)

Good morning!  I’m so glad to be in Wellington this morning (First Congregational Church of Wellington UCC). 

Driving through Wellington.  I have a personal Wellington story:  It was the mid-1960’s (1966). I was in the car with my family and it was night.  We were driving from Oberlin (where my cousins lived) to our home in Medina, which means it was Thanksgiving and we were going through the middle of Wellington on Rt. 18.  I was about thirteen.  Do you remember being thirteen and what was important to you?  Where you lived?  Your friends in school?  Your room?  Your favorite food?  Your favorite music? 

Well, the Beatles were important to my brother and sister and me – and a lot of other people our age.  As we were driving through Wellington, my parents and the three of us kids, one of us must have been sitting in the front seat controlling the radio, hoping the DJ would play something from the latest Beatles album. But the DJ was talking about the Beatles.  He was quoting John Lennon, who had said “Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. I needn’t argue about that; I’m right and I’ll be proved right. We’re more popular than Jesus now…” 

What?  He didn’t really say that, did he?  Do you remember how popular the Beatles were back then?  Hard to believe now, but everybody else making popular music was somewhere below the Beatles.  For a lot of people, they were more popular than Jesus.  As we were driving through Wellington, the DJ was talking about Beatles records being burned and radio stations not playing their music because of what John Lennon said (Turns out he had made an off-the-cuff comment to a journalist months before and he apologized later).  We just sort shrugged our shoulders and when we got home we played the records we’d bought.

So, has the popularity of the Beatles lasted?  Maybe with some people who are my age; not so much with younger people (anybody under 40?). 

And how about Jesus?  Popular?  What’s ironic here is that Jesus never tried to be popular.  His words and actions spoke for themselves. People were healed, they were fed, thirsty people had something to drink, and crowds gathered.  Being around Jesus changes life.  Believing, trusting in Jesus changes lives today and crowds still gather.

They Have No Wine!  Can you picture Jesus at a wedding?  In every eastern-Mediterranean culture, there is a tradition of music and dancing at weddings. I know this.  I am the half of the big fat Greek wedding who is not Greek.  Before the wedding, I had to learn to dance.  So, did Jesus dance?  I think there was music and I think Jesus danced.  And having Jesus at a wedding feast had other benefits, right?

Off to the side, Jesus turns water to wine, and only a few people knew.  I’ve known some people who have had a problem with Jesus being a wine-maker and say it was really just grape juice.  But I would say that it had to be wine.  In that time, wine was more than a social drink; for thousands of years, until people began to operate big machines in factories and on roads, it was one of the safe things you could drink. 

When Mary turns to Jesus and says, “They have no wine,” she is telling him that there is a big problem in Cana.  The celebration will go on for a week (that was the tradition), they have tons of food but nothing to drink.  And there are a lot of people at this wedding.  It was the tradition to invite the entire village.  The story doesn’t say how many people that was, but it may have been as many as a few hundred.

I don’t think Mary knew what Jesus was going to do; I think it was surprise to her too.  He says, “What’s that to us?” because I think he needed a few minutes to think about it, to grasp how he could use this moment as Messiah, as Savior.

The jars are empty because all the people at the party have been washing feet and hands.  The servants re-fill the jars and Jesus turns the water into wine, and apparently, really good wine.  One minute they had empty traditional, unsanitary stone jars, then suddenly, with Jesus at the party, they had more good wine than they might have needed, at least 120 gallons.  Their cups “overflowed,” right? 

It’s a sign.  It’s a hint.  Who is this? Jesus took the tradition and made it better.  Before, all they had were clean hands and feet, now they’re satisfied on the inside.  That’s what Jesus does.  Having religious habits and traditions is good on the outside, but having faith in Jesus, believing in Jesus fills the internal spiritual void we all have.  He fills the empty place in us.

On the surface, it might seem like a magic trick, presto-chango, but Jesus changing the water to wine had a purpose.  It was a sign of who he is; he is God.  John the Baptist called him the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.  A little while later, therewas a huge hungry crowd gathered around Jesus on a hillside.  Do you remember what happened?  Suddenly, there was enough bread for everybody to eat, with leftovers, and a side order of fish!  Hmmm.  Wine at the wedding and bread on the hillside. 

Sounds like…  the Lord’s table, right?  “This is my body, given for you; this is my blood…”  We do more than eat or drink.  We internalize Jesus when we have faith, when we believe in him, when we give a deeper “yes” to that bread and cup.  Jesus satisfies people who are spiritually thirsty, satisfies people who are spiritually hungry.  It’s as simple as saying “Yes, Jesus, I believe in you.”

In scripture, from beginning to end, there is a lot of eating and drinking.  You remember Adam and Eve and what caused their problem? A bad decision about food!  And there is a fix for this disconnect between people and God. At the end of scripture, in the Book of Revelation, Jesus says, Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me.” (Rev. 3:20)

Opening that door, believing in Jesus, starts a connection with God that changes everything! 

I believe that God living in us can reach people through food, help us love neighbors, through meals, and the church is called to create relationship moments around food and drink.  One of the first stories of the early believers in Jesus goes like this: 

Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved. (Acts 2:46-47)

I believe one of the easiest ways for Christians show to God’s love, the love of Christ, is through food, through meals. It’s more than just giving food away; Meals served with open invitations. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard someone in a church say, “This church knows how to cook!” 

So many ways to think about how that can work in the church and in our homes, blessing each other with hospitality and food because of our relationship with God. No better way to express relationship with God and physically show God’s love. And I believe there is always something more we can do.  It might take some imagination and faith.

Babbette’s Feast.  There’s a story I love called “Babbette’s Feast.”

In a time long ago, Babbette is a French chef who is a refugee in Denmark.  She is escaping a war in France that killed her family, and she settles in a small seaside village where the weather always seems cold and cloudy, just like the people.  She finds a job keeping house and cooking meals for two sisters.  The food is easy because it’s always the same: boiled fish and bread.  Day after day, and it goes on for years.  Life in this house – and life in the village – never changes, and no one can imagine it being any other way.  They are obsessed with tradition.  They believe this is what God wants.

In spite of this bland life, Babbette is just glad to be alive.  She adapts, she serves, and the years roll by. She never leaves the village, but she kept a connection with people in Paris.  Every year, someone buys her a lottery ticket and sends it to her.  You guessed it; one year, she wins the lottery. 

It doesn’t take her long to decide what she will do with the winnings.  She is a chef; she will create a feast for the people of this village like they have never had before.  She will open their eyes to the joys of life through the food she makes. Babbette works for days to make the feast.  She buys only the best ingredients, the best meats, the finest wines.  Some of these things have to be shipped in from other places. She uses all her skills. 

But making the food was the easy part.  The people of the village trust Babbette, but they don’t trust this new thing she wants them to do.  If it’s different from the kind of meal they’re used to, it must be sinful.  It might be witchcraft! 

At first, they don’t want to come to the feast, but reluctantly, they come.  It’s Babbette, after all; they know her. Then, at the table, the villagers only sip and take small bites.  And one by one, they begin to taste what’s on the plates in front of them.  They begin to taste the gift.  And their eyes begin to widen and their jaws drop.  Who knew food could taste so good?

As they eat, you can see their personalities begin to change, their relationships change. They leave the house arm in arm singing together and begin to dance around the village well.  The people of the village trusted the giver and the gift worked in ways they never expected.

In the end, we learn that Babbette spent all she had; there was nothing left.  But everyone had all they needed.

Everything we need to be a force for Christ is right here.  Everything God needs to make a real, lasting difference in our homes, our community, and our world, is right here. 

God wants to know, “What’s your empty tradition?”  Jesus wants to fill it with life.  He wants to change the old stuff and fill it with himself.  The empty tradition could be any of the bad habits we have at home that are so hard to break.  It could be some of the things we do at work or at school.  It could even be the things we do at church, unless the intent is to bring us closer to Jesus.  Most of the empty traditions we change need something to fill the void, and that’s what Jesus does. 

Someone here is thinking of their favorite food and how they can offer that as a gift to somebody as an expression of their faith. And someone here needs to be fed, maybe just with conversation around a table.

Jesus is just waiting to be asked to change our water into wine.  He’s ready to give us the kind of joy we’ve always needed.  Better than happiness… an inner confidence that God has things under control, has written the end of our story, so we don’t have to worry.

Faith in Jesus doesn’t stop bad things from happening, but gives you a new ability to overcome.  Overcoming might take time, but there comes a moment when God uses you to bring joy to someone else.  Maybe through the joy of a meal.  And a group of believers full of joy is hard to resist.

Prayer

O God, thank you for feeding us.  We confess that sometimes, we feel empty, just like stone jars.  Cold and lifeless.  We follow our traditions without even thinking what they mean.  But we want to be filled with life.  We want you to make us new.  We want your kind of joy.  Send your Spirit into our lives so that when our friends and family ask us, “What’s new?” we will know that the change they see has happened through our faith in you. Amen.

10/7/2018 Sermon: “The Persistence of Job”

Niagara Falls, from the American side.  CN – September, 2018.

Just for a moment, lock into a memory that’s challenging for you personally, a time of challenge.  Sometimes you feel as if you are caught in the river, headed over the falls.  God, how will this turn out?

Maybe you’ve heard someone describe a person who has “the patience of Job.”  It’s probably better to talk about the persistence of Job, because he wasn’t exactly patient.  But in his faith, he was persistent.  With God’s help, we can also be persistent in our faith, in the long haul, we might even be more faithful because of our suffering. Stronger because of our challenges.

 JOB 1:1  There was once a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job. That man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.

2:1  One day the heavenly beings came to present themselves before the LORD, and Satan also came among them to present himself before the LORD. 2  The LORD said to Satan, “Where have you come from?” Satan answered the LORD, “From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.” 3  The LORD said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man who fears God and turns away from evil. He still persists in his integrity, although you incited me against him, to destroy him for no reason.” 4  Then Satan answered the LORD, “Skin for skin! All that people have they will give to save their lives. 5  But stretch out your hand now and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse you to your face.” 6  The LORD said to Satan, “Very well, he is in your power; only spare his life.” 7  So Satan went out from the presence of the LORD, and inflicted loathsome sores on Job from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head. 8  Job took a potsherd with which to scrape himself, and sat among the ashes. 9  Then his wife said to him, “Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse God, and die.”  10  But he said to her, “You speak as any foolish woman would speak. Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?” In all this Job did not sin with his lips.

The Suffering of Job.  Yikes. How’s that for an unpleasant image?  The bible is a story about our relationship with God, about a fight between good and evil, and about how human suffering began with people named Adam and Eve.  It ends with God stepping into our world – our history – through Jesus Christ to experience suffering first hand and to overcome the evil.  Some people think that by becoming Christians their lives are supposed to get easier.  But believers find out that in some ways, life actually gets harder.

Suffering is not easy, no matter what it is.  It’s real and it hurts.  Sometimes the pain is unbearable.  Sometimes it seems you’re alone with your suffering, but you’re not.  Sometimes, on a Sunday morning after the worship service, I realize that I’ve shaken hands with a lot of pain.  You know what I’m talking about.  Everyone in this room has suffered in some way, at some point.  You might be in the midst of it right now.  It might be why you’re here.

The story today is about suffering – something most of us know a thing or two about.  It’s about Job, whose name creates an image of suffering.  This is an ancient story, possibly the oldest book in the Bible.  It explores peoples’ motives for believing in God.  You get the gist of it by comparing the main characters.  It can mean more when you put yourself in Job’s place, which is what you are supposed to do.

Job.  Job is a wealthy tribal chieftain with a lot of children and plenty of material reasons to be thankful to God.  In the first chapter of his life, he “won the lottery.”

God.  Everybody knows who God is, but this story shows God in different setting than we might be used to. God is the CEO of a kind of heavenly board of directors who are administrating things on earth.  This board of directors includes a rebellious member who doesn’t see eye to eye with God: satan.

Satan.  Satan means “accuser” in Hebrew, and in the book of Job, it isn’t a proper name with a capital S. This being should be called the satan, or the accuser.  When God asks the satan where he (or she) has come from, the answer is always the same: “From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.”  Let me paraphrase:

“Satan!  Whatcha doin’?”

“Nothin’.”

“Where ya goin’?”

“Nowhere.”

The satan has no specific purpose except to walk around aimlessly, doing nothing but accusing.  Accusing – assigning guilt.  You are charged with the crime of __________ (fill in the blank).  Many of us are good at that, and we think that the purpose of faith is to limit our behavior through guilt. The bible is full of legal terms and the satan is the plaintiff who brings the accusation.  In the New Testament, the Holy Spirit is called, “the Advocate, who will be with you forever.”  (John 14:16)  This is God on your side, your defender.

And the satan is the accuser.  I’m sure you’ve heard the satan’s voice at one time or another. The satan invites you to nurture your doubts, to obsess about your doubts. The satan loves it when you have a better handle on what you don’t believe than on what you do believe.  The satan is whispering, “Did God really say ‘Don’t eat that fruit’?”  (Genesis 3:1) Did God really say anything?  The satan invites you to mistrust God, to turn your back on God and walk away.  The satan says things that sound good, that may not be completely true, but make a certain amount of sense. Confusing half-truths. But don’t misunderstand, even if the satan tells truth part of the time, the satan is not on your side.  The satan wants you to fail in your faith and to give up on God.

Because God is a judge between good and evil, the satan knows that if evil can be found in human beings, God will judge them and they will be separated from God.  The satan says that Job is only good because God rewards him for being good, therefore, his goodness is only on the surface.  So God depends on Job to prove the satan wrong.  And Job depends on God to get him through the suffering.  They depend on each other.  And the strange thing is that God and Job hardly speak to each other throughout the story.  This is called faith.  God has as much faith in Job as Job has in God.

Job loses everything except his wife, and her advice is to “curse God and die.”  The satan never has to talk directly to Job because she takes the words right out of the satan’s mouth.  Meanwhile, Job has a skin disease that makes him an outcast (sitting in the ashes, which means he sits in the town dump, where people burn things).

It’s not surprising that along the way, Job gets angry, and says angry things.  He loses his temper with his wife, with his friends, and with God.  He eventually has to apologize for the things he says in anger.  But he never curses God, that is, never separates himself from God.  Believe it or not, God is okay with anger (read the Psalms!). Somehow Job knows that God is the only one he can count on – the only thing that the satan can’t take away from him.  It’s hard, but he holds on.

This story is not easy to hear because God didn’t cause Job’s suffering, but didn’t stop it either.  That is a hard thing to hear, that God makes no promises to stop suffering.

Instead, God promises to be there if you’ll hang on.  God is there even when you come undone and lose sight of God.  Even during those times when you can’t hang on.  We all have had those moments.  But God is just as real as the suffering.  Jesus came out of the tomb with scars, but alive.  God’s love through Christ is just as real as whatever illness you might have.  God’s love through Christ is just as real as your divorce.  God’s love through Christ is just as real as the job you just lost.  God’s love through Christ is just as real as that bad grade, or that friendship you just lost. In Christ, God is there.  God knows all about it.  And through Christ, even when things seem to be at the blackest, at the worst, we know that this is not the end of the story.

We ask – why does God allow suffering?  Consider the alternatives.  Not to be overly simplistic, but think about it.  If you couldn’t feel bad, how could you feel good?  And if you can’t feel, you are not alive.  None of that is much help to somebody who is suffering.

I’m convinced that in every family there is a story of suffering.  Sometimes we bring it on ourselves; sometimes it just happens.  Every one of us knows what that story is.  Maybe you were directly involved, or maybe it was a parent or a grandparent.  Something happened that changed the course of life, and brought suffering.  Hopefully you won’t stay with that thought so long you forgot that God also gave you some blessings you never expected, blessings that could not be earned or bought.

Suffering just is, and God knows it.  God suffers too.  That is what the gospel is all about. Those with faith in Christ know that life is full of good times and bad times, good and evil, and it’s not the end, because Christ invites you to say with him, “I have overcome the world.”  (John 16:33)

It’s okay to be angry with God.  Anger is part of any strong relationship – and can be healthy, as long as it’s resolved.  In the suffering, we might turn our backs on God for a time, but God will never turn away from us.  God is willing to take a chance on each one of us. Second chances, third chances, and more.

Where is God when you’re suffering?  God is right there (pointing toward the cross).  God is right there (pointing to the Bible). God is right there (pointing to the table).  God is right there (pointing toward my heart).  God is right there (pointing to the church). On behalf of God, we are called to relieve suffering wherever we can. That can mean so many things, right?

Every month, every week, every day, we remember that God knows exactly what we are going through, and has been there ahead of us.  God does not depend on us to be good as much as God depends on us to believe.  God has used – and will use – the suffering to make us stronger.

Isenheim Altarpiece. Matthias Grünewald (1512–1516)

In Germany there is a painting in a monastery chapel.  The monks at this monastery cared for people with terrible skin diseases and people with the Plague. This painting (the Isenheim Altarpiece) was done in the 16th century by Matthias Gruhnwald.  It is a painting of Jesus on the cross.  That cross is a rough piece of wood and the Jesus on that cross barely looks human, he is so beaten and maimed.  When you look at this painting, your attention is drawn to his hands.  His fingers are tense and stretched out.  He is in deep pain.

You have to imagine: around the foot of the cross, in this chapel, there is a crowd, sitting on the ground, with their backs to you.  They are sick and suffering, maybe close to the end.  When I look more closely at Jesus, I realize that he isn’t just crucified (as if that wasn’t enough suffering); he seems to have a skin disease.  Maybe he has the plague.  When I stand in front of that painting, I am one of the people in the crowd, and I remember that Jesus has carried my pain and suffering to the cross.  Jesus shares my suffering, no matter what it is.

So close the doors.  It was Friday, now it’s Sunday.  Because he live, you are free to live.  In Christ, we have overcome. God needs us to believe; God needs us to take our stories of faith and healing to our world.  God needs us to be healers.

Isenheim Altarpiece. Matthias Grünewald (1512–1516).

This is how the painting looks when it’s open – it’s a triptych, made of three parts with hinges in between – it’s only supposed to be open for one night.  Close the doors over the cross and you see Christ rising in front of the empty tomb with wounds healed, full of life, and ready to change the world.

Prayer

O God, we focus so closely on ourselves and our own suffering that we forget you suffer too.  Even in our own pain, you are right there with us.  Breathe faith into us.  Help us feel the warmth of your hand on ours, and the strength of your arm around our shoulders.  Remind us that you know the end of our story, and through Christ, you have walked this path; you’ve been there.  And through you, we have a real reason to hope.  Now send us out into the real world, where other real people suffer real pain.  Through your Spirit, fill us with the hope of your resurrection and make us missionaries of peace, bringing the presence of your son Jesus into our living rooms, our offices, our classrooms, and our hospital rooms.  In the name of Jesus we pray. Amen.

10/1/2017 Sermon: “A Great Opportunity!”

Last year, I was driving to the church along the Mount Joy road and saw the strangest thing.  I stopped the car and took this photo.  How would you like to have this guy’s job?  I guess that’s the only way to do repairs or maintenance on higher electrical wire that can’t be reached with a ladder.

I’m trying to imagine being that guy on the helicopter skid doing something technical… with electrical wires.  Think he had to have some training?  And the pilot had to be pretty good; I’m not sure whether you can put a helicopter on auto-pilot.  And there was probably somebody somewhere who had to know when to shut off the power to that line.  A bunch of people trusting each other, having faith in each other.  It isn’t just one person doing that work.  All about the trust, right?

It isn’t just one person doing this work either.  The more teamwork in the church, the more people using the gifts God gave them, the more God is able to do.  Especially these days, when there is so much to be done to bring healing and wholeness and forgiveness to a hurting world.

And all God has to work with is flawed human beings.  God knows this, and still does amazing things when we say yes. Take Paul for instance…

1 Timothy 1:12 I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service, 13even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, 14and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. 15The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost. 16But for that very reason I received mercy, so that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life.17To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen.

As an older man and a seasoned church leader (I’m about the same age as Paul when finished his ministry as a martyr). Paul writes to his young friend Timothy and says,  “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the foremost.”  (1 Timothy 1:15)

I would have loved to hear the Apostle Paul preach and expand on those words.  I think he was probably much more graphic than he let himself be in this letter to Timothy.  You see, this man who wrote about half of the material that was later collected into the New Testament, whom, of all the followers of Jesus, is probably the most responsible for us being gathered in this church, was an accomplice to the murder of a man named Stephen.  He was part of the first persecution of Christians (Acts 8).  Actually, he wasn’t just part of it, he was leading it!

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

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

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

To paraphrase, “I was and am a sinner.”  This, from the most significant church father who lived. I have sinned.  A spiritual statement.  You know, in one way or another, we say that almost every week.  Let’s say it: “God, I have sinned, and I come to you for forgiveness.”  In the context of our worship, it feels normal, doesn’t it?

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

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

If you stop and think about it, sin permeates everything we do.  We are part of a flawed human race that desperately needs a Savior.  That is why we are here this morning.  That confession opens the door to Jesus and gives God space to work.  The point of Paul’s confession is that God does his best work in the darkest places in the most unlikely people, including you and me.

Paul confessed that he was a sinner.  When somebody can say, “I have sinned,” they are also saying “God save me and change me.”   When we turn to God and say, “I have sinned,” we hear God say, “What a coincidence!  I sent Jesus to save sinners!”

Think of the awful stuff that’s happened just in the last few months: Fires, Hurricane Harvey, Hurricane Irma, never-ending wars, topped off with just a little political conflict.

And here we are in Manheim, PA.  In one way or another, the stuff that goes on in the world affects us here.  We think it doesn’t, but it does.  I have tried to persuade us to find the needs of our town and do something about them. Then do something to meet needs in places that are not Manheim because we don’t live in a vacuum.  Because it’s our calling.  To be fulfilled as Christ’s people, we need to think about more people than just us.  The church is not just about us getting our spiritual needs met.

If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill’, and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.  (James 2:15-17).

Some people think that our country and the world are “going to hell in a hand-basket.”  I actually think the opposite.  I think, in my lifetime, there has never been a greater opportunity for faith, and we need to be part of that.  God is reaching people; God is working and people are seeing the good works done by this church. Our God is bigger than the problems we read about or see on TV. We have a mission to be an outpost for Christ and there have never been greater opportunities for people to open themselves to God, and to know what it means to find healing in Jesus Christ.

It’s not just us; sin is everywhere.  We have all sinned.  It does not take a theological rocket scientist to figure this out.  We live in a big mess of humanity and a flawed world.  We live in an imperfect country, with state and town governments that are less than perfect.  We have churches that are less than perfect.  Families that are less than perfect.

When we have faith together, God gives us the ability through the Spirit in us to make the good stronger than the evil.  God gives us a vision of what we can do to make a difference in this mess and then shows us how to be a team, how to make even more of a difference when we work together.

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

Prayer

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

God, I know I need you.

I have always needed you.

And so, today, I give myself to you,

Knowing that you will always be with me,

Directing my life, and giving me peace.

In Jesus’ name.  Amen.

9/24/2017 Sermon: “Flip this Life!”

A while ago, I was looking over some new ideas for a series of sermons.  Sometimes I look at what other churches are doing and this title kind of jumped out at me: “You Make Me Crazy!”  The series was about relationships that stress us out.

Have you ever thought or said those words?  Now who would be saying words like that?  And to whom?  Normally, we’re too polite, true?

There’s an old saying that goes, “Familiarity breeds contempt.” Notwithstanding what’s going on in politics (and global relationships) right now, the people that generally make us craziest are the people closest to us – in our families and even in the church, where relationships are supposed to be great.  We get frustrated when they’re not great, or not what we think they should be.

Jesus comes to bring reconciliation with God and a new level of relationship with each other.  But it’s work.  Hard work sometimes.  These days, I think we make it too easy to give up instead of work things out.

This morning, we’re going to look at some words of Jesus that reach us where we live: our ability to tolerate and forgive other people, especially Christians, especially people we know in the church.  What was it Jesus said?  “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”  (John 13:35)

We just learned that our next-door neighbors, who only bought their house a few months ago, are selling it.  They fixed up a few things and they are “flipping” the house to sell it for a profit.  God would like to “flip” our lives, change them for the better,  through the power of forgiveness.

Matthew 18:21-35.   Then Peter came and said to him, ‘Lord, if another member of the church* sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’22Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven* times.

23 ‘For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves.24When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents* was brought to him;25and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made.26So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.”27And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt.

28But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow-slaves who owed him a hundred denarii;* and seizing him by the throat, he said, “Pay what you owe.”29Then his fellow-slave fell down and pleaded with him, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you.”30But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he should pay the debt.31When his fellow-slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place.32Then his lord summoned him and said to him, “You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me.33Should you not have had mercy on your fellow-slave, as I had mercy on you?”34And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he should pay his entire debt.35So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister* from your heart.’

Then Peter came and said to him, ‘Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’ (Matthew 18:21)

You know this guy Peter, right?  He shows up a lot in the Gospels and in the rest of the New Testament.  One of that small group of people God used to create the Church, the community of believers.

Remember his occupation?  Peter was a fisherman, one of the least likely people to be a spiritual leader.  Among those first followers of Jesus, Peter was the “Alpha dog,” the one with something to say, the natural leader.  Quick to take charge.  Not easy to be around for some people.  And in those two verses, you get a little picture of another little piece of Peter’s personality.

It’s a scene from one of the Jesus movies (Jesus of Nazareth), and it’s not hard to imagine. Jesus is invited to the house of Matthew, who is a tax collector.  Maybe Peter has had a bad experience with Matthew, or maybe he just doesn’t like tax collectors, which is easy to understand in that time and place. Jesus should know that Peter doesn’t want to be anywhere near Matthew.  So Peter refuses to come in and he’s angry with Jesus for putting him in this spot.

Right before Jesus goes inside to the party, they have this conversation outside the door:  “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?”’22

 Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.” (Matthew 18:22)

How much of our lives do we spend working out the tension of relationships!  The party is going on, people are laughing, maybe Jesus has turned a little water into wine, maybe a nice Cabernet, and everybody is having a good time.  But Peter is on a slow burn outside the door.  And he’s talked a couple of other disciples into staying outside with him.  “You going in there?  I’m not going in there.”

Jesus positions himself near the doorway and motions for the party crowd to be quiet – he wants to tell a story.  And so he tells his parable about forgiveness and the consequences of unforgiveness– loudly enough so that Peter can hear it from the other side of the doorway.

There might have been a few at the party who understood Jesus to say that even they can be forgiven.  They think, “Wow, even me.  I thought I was untouchable.” There are a lot of people who think they can’t be forgiven.  But Peter heard something else.  He knew at that moment, that his grudge was a burden.  His grudge was an illness.  His grudge was keeping him from being complete.  He needed to be with Jesus.

He realizes: “If I’m going to be with Jesus at that party, I have to learn to live a different way.”   The moment of his release comes when he lays the burden down, steps inside the house, and embraces Matthew.  Who’s writing this story?  Matthew.  And the way Matthew remembers it, it was the presence of Jesus that made this miracle happen.  Oil and water, but Jesus in the lives of these two people made a relationship  happen.

So, let’s think about forgiveness.  Think about the last time you offered forgiveness to someone.  A time when you were able to let it go, whatever it was. Was that hard to do?

Think about the last time you needed forgiveness – and received it.  Doesn’t forgiveness feel good?

Life is too short to hold grudges, and this is one of the common-sense things that God would love for us to know.  Forgiveness, reconciliation, grace, and mercy are key teachings in the Bible, and important for all of us to know.  Important for all of us to experience.  An attitude of forgiveness reflects the image of God; it is key for God’s people.  Somehow, I think you know that.  Forgiveness is an important key to living a healthy life, period.

Forgiveness is actually the subject of scientific study.  University researchers have been studying not just the psychological effects of forgiveness, but the physiological effects as well.  You’ll find the health effects of forgiveness listed on the website of the Mayo Clinic.  Achieving forgiveness isn’t just God’s will for us; it’s actually proven to be part of a healthy lifestyle, like exercise and not smoking!

Picture this:  a young volunteer steps into a lab, sits in a chair, and puts on electrodes that measure heart rate, etc.  In a moment, she thinks about a hurt that has been done to her and dwell on it for 16 seconds.  At the sound of a tone, she escalates her thoughts to nursing a grudge and making the offender feel horrible.  Another beep, and she shifts gears to empathize with the offender.  Then finally, she imagines ways to wish that person well.  She may not know it, but she’s taking the advice of Jesus to “love her enemy.”

The study shows that we are drawn toward holding grudges because it makes us feel like we are in control, and many times, we stop there.  But there is greater control and better health all around when we actually grant forgiveness, when we let it go.

These are the keys to forgiveness; it starts with a test.

Empathy for the Offender.  What was it like for that person as he or she was growing up?  How do you think they learned to interact with people?

Did the offender come from a home where there was conflict or abuse?

What was happening in the person’s life at the time he or she hurt you?

Can you see the person as having worth simply by being a member of the community?  (or the church?)

Having thought these questions through, you choose to apply forgiveness.

Applying Forgiveness.  And while doing so, it is important to remember…

Forgiveness is not a legal pardon.

Forgiveness does not assume the other person will change.

Forgiveness is not reconciliation.  It only takes one person to forgive; it takes two to reconcile.

Forgiveness is a process.  Forgiveness is not often simple, linear, fast, or even complete.  Anger can often remain after forgiveness.

Forgiveness acknowledges pain.  You will never truly forgive if you haven’t honestly acknowledged how wrong the person was to hurt you.

Let’s not be naïve here; this is actually a very difficult thing to do.  There are very difficult things to forgive.  There are many stories of amazing wrongs that human beings have done to each other. You know some of them from reading the newspaper.  You know some of them from reading history.  You know some of them from reading the Bible.  You know some of these stories because you have lived them personally.  But through faith, God does what seems to be impossible.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if there was such a thing as a “grudge-ectomy?”  You come to the doctor, who diagnoses your problem.  Holds up the film and says, “There it is, you can see it right there.”  Points out this black little spot.  Schedules you for surgery the next morning.  Afterwards, you wake up, feel a little sore, but better somehow.  Your grudge is gone.

It’s not exactly the same, but God does do a kind of spiritual surgery.

God diagnoses the problem:  [Slide 14]  “…all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God…” (Romans 3:23)  We all are capable of offending God and others.

God sends the medicine in the form of Christ, who says, among other things, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”  (Luke 23:34)  Now, Jesus was being crucified when he said this.  God is in the business of forgiveness and has had experience in forgiving personal pain.  Jesus was speaking truth beyond that moment: we often don’t know what we are doing and are always capable of acting in a way that hurts other people.

And then to the church, God says through the apostle Paul, “Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.”  (Colossians 3:13)

Forgiveness is freedom.  God call us to a lifestyle of forgiveness.  Unload the burden.  Give it to God.  Let God in.  Let God forgive through you.  Feel the grace of God flow.

Prayer

O God, you are so loving and forgiving, and these are muscles we just don’t use as much as we should.  We don’t exercise our ability to forgive enough.  You give us the command to confront behavior we don’t like; that’s hard, but we do it.  Give us also the capacity to forgive.  It’s harder to forgive, Lord.

Lord, we need the change of heart that comes through faith in you.  We trust that through your Spirit, you will be able to help us become the people we should be.  Help us show Jesus to each other and families, our neighbors, our world, and especially to each other in your church. Amen.

9/17/2017 Sermon: “Leaps of Faith”

Walking the Abrahamic Trail between Nazareth and Jerusalem. CN – 2011.

If I were to ask you to make a list of significant moments in your life, I’m sure you could do that.  Maybe you could think of each of those moments as the beginning and ending of a chapter.  Before and after.  Maybe you could think of them on a timeline, and if you saw your life laid out like that, maybe you could see how God was with you in those times when things changed, how God held you, God was with you, and you were only able to realize that later.

Try to imagine doing that for our church – lots of churches so this timeline exercise every now and then. It’s a good way to handle on who you are.  No church gets to where they are without a past, without a history.  What were the events of the last 5 years, 10 years, 30 years, 60 years that steered us to where we are now?  If you have a grasp of where you’ve been, you’re better able to understand how you’ll face the future, even if it’s just how you tend to deal with obstacles and opportunities.  Do you trust and jump in, or play it safe?

The scripture today is some encouragement from God to have faith – not just faith in God, but faith in the future God has for us, for you and me, especially when times seem unstable.  This scripture is for people who are feeling nervous about where they are and where to go, what to do next.

Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-11.  Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. 2Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. 3By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.

8 By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. 9By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. 10For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God. 11By faith he received power of procreation, even though he was too old—and Sarah herself was barren—because he considered him faithful who had promised. 12Therefore from one person, and this one as good as dead, descendants were born, ‘as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore.’

Faith starts with that first moment of trust: believing that hard-to believe story that Jesus really did die for our sin and rise from the dead?  How real is God?  Are you willing to believe, to trust in what you don’t see?  The hardest step might be making the decision that God can be trusted and giving yourself to God.  There are a million excuses not to step out spiritually, not to make that trip.  “I don’t want to think about it today.  I’m just not prepared; maybe I need to visit more churches, maybe even explore other religions, think about it more.  What if God asks me to do something I just don’t want to do?

God says, “Take that first step.  Trust me.”

“But there are so many other things to do first, before I get serious about God.  Being a Christian is something you do when you’re ready to settle down, settle yourself, and think deep things.  I should read my Bible a little more.  I really need to get my theology and philosophy of life figured out before I can make a commitment.”

God says, “Take that first step.  Trust me.”

These words are for people who need to get up and move.  They’ve been in one place for too long.  God needs them to go to a new place.  They can’t stay where they are.  They may think where they are is great, they’re settled, and life is good.  Things are the way they should be.  But God doesn’t think so.

Hiking on the “Abrahamic Trail.” Palestine, CN – 2011.

By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. Hebrews 11:8

Maybe you remember that story from Genesis – Abraham’s not young anymore, he’s done well for himself, and he’s just retired.  The best years, the good times, are past and there’s not a whole lot to look forward to.  Basically, he’s a rich guy with not much life left and no good reason to take chances or have faith in anything.  Just the sort of situation God loves.  God loves to take the most impossible circumstances, the most unlikely person, and do a miracle.

But how about moving – relocating, loading the UHaul truck – with no particular place to go?  Not too many people have that kind of faith.  But sometimes that’s what Christians are called to do: sell out, step out, and move to a new place spiritually.  Go to the place you’ve never been to.  Trust God completely.

The punch-line of this story is not that God helped Abraham go from point A to point B.  God didn’t say, “Abraham, you and your family need to go to the address I give you.”  Abraham never even knew where he was going.  Simple trust.

Faith was what God wanted from Abraham – trust.  Faith that when he packed up everything he could carry and left home for good, he would be in a better place simply for doing what God wanted him to do.

God says, “Take that first step.  Trust me.  If I could do this with Abraham, think of what I could do with you, if you only said ‘yes.'”

You can substitute yourself in this story…

By faith, you headed back to school.

By faith, you changed your job.

By faith, you dealt with that habit.

By faith, you stepped out to fix that relationship.

By faith, you organized yourself to make a positive difference in someone else’s life.

By faith you got to know somebody who was a complete stranger not long ago. Then you made time for them.

By faith, you brought that group together so that they could know each other and express the love of Christ for each other.

You trusted God and took that step.  God put you in a place where you made a difference.  But maybe, just maybe, it’s time to move on.

Think for a moment.  What is the purpose of your faith?  Does it involve a list of things you hope for?  A wish list? Having faith does not mean making exchanges with God so that we get what we want; having faith means simply saying yes to God, believing that Jesus is who he says he is.  It means taking a deep breath, stepping out and trusting.  “God, I believe.”  And then going in the direction God sends you.

This is not easy.  It’s one of those things that’s so simple it’s hard.  Some believe that faith is the belief/hope that God will change circumstances.  But faith is allowing the Spirit of God to change you.

Hiking on the “Abrahamic Trail.” Palestine, CN – 2011.

Abraham had to decide for himself whether God could be trusted.  But once he took that step of faith, that leap, he found a friend who never left him, and this is still true for anybody who has faith.   And we don’t just have God with us on this trip; faith is something we do together.  That first step is between God and you.  Then God uses all of us, together.  Personal faith may be a private decision, but there is no such thing as a strong solitary Christian.  We need each other, and together, we are a force.  Faith is all about and changes the world.

The challenge I would have for us goes like this.  If we had to start over, if we were starting from scratch and all we had was God and our faith in Christ together, what would we do?  What we do to witness to the gospel and make a difference for Christ?  How would we care for others and communicate good news? Let’s do those things.  It’s the way forward.

Prayer

O God, we believe; help our unbelief.  For the things you’ve taught us on the journey, we thank you. All along, we know that the ups and downs, the good times and bad times along the road, all these things have been leading us to you.  You are the destination; you are the one we have been looking for.  Within ourselves, we know you hold the key to the peace and fulfillment we know we need and only you can give.  Forgive our lack of courage in turning to you.  Forgive us for ignoring you when you call.

But now we open the door of our lives to you.  With faith in your son Jesus, we each give ourselves to you, and trust in your leading.  Transform us through your Spirit into the kind of people, the kind of church, known for their faith in a loving God.  Amen.

9/10/2017 Sermon: “Sharing Your Faith”

Prayer before lunch in Zimbabwe. CN – 2009.

For some weeks now, and for much of the summer, we’ve been watching how Jesus shows up in different places, changing people’s lives and giving them a better way to live.  You find him on a mountain and by the shore.  He’s healing folks and teaching them to pray.  Jesus is amazingly adaptable to both places and people.  You don’t find him stuck in any one place or with one type of person.  And over time, he has spread himself all over the world.  He’s here. The Holy Spirit of God makes the presence of Jesus accessible to anyone, no matter who they are.

Many people participate in churches because it’s their ethnic/cultural tradition.  Maybe it goes back many generations.  Faith isn’t necessarily the driving force.  But in our particular style of church, I suspect that you would not be here if someone had not shared their experience of Christ with you.  You believed and Jesus became real in ways you never expected.  Maybe it was a long time ago, or not so long ago.  At some point in your Christian life, you may have thought to yourself, “What would have become of me if Christ were not with me?”  and “How are other people coping without Christ in their lives?”  Both are good questions, really important questions.

This is not just a theological, religious exercise, like a process God uses to turn us into good people who believe right things.  It’s about salvation.

This morning, we’re going to think about sharing our experience of Christ with other people.

A great place to start is with our scripture for the day and we’ll move from what you believe, to how faith works, to giving faith away.

Romans 10:5-15.  5 Moses writes concerning the righteousness that comes from the law, that ‘the person who does these things will live by them.’ 6But the righteousness that comes from faith says, ‘Do not say in your heart, “Who will ascend into heaven?” ’ (that is, to bring Christ down) 7‘or “Who will descend into the abyss?” ’ (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead).8But what does it say?
‘The word is near you,
on your lips and in your heart’
(that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); 
9because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved.11The scripture says, ‘No one who believes in him will be put to shame.’12For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. 13For, ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’

14 But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? 15And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!’

Let’s unpack what Paul just said.

But the righteousness that comes from faith says, ‘Do not say in your heart, “Who will ascend into heaven?” ’ (that is, to bring Christ down) ‘or “Who will descend into the abyss?” ’ (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead).  Romans 10:6-7

Paul has heard the Romans ask: Who is the skilled, gifted religious person who will go get Jesus for us?  Nobody has to work at making Jesus present.  I’ve talked to a number of wonderful people desperately trying to reach out to God, doing all the right things, really working at being good people, who were astonished to find out that God was already trying to reach them. In Jesus, God comes to us.

But what does it say?  ‘The word is near you,
on your lips and in your heart’
(that is, the word of faith that we proclaim)…
(Romans 10:9)

People!  You are so close!  The word is near you!

In the gospel of John, Jesus says,

“If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”  (John 8:31-32)

This is one of the most misquoted verses in Scripture. Jesus was talking about more than just truth-facts when he said that.  Usually, we only hear the last part of that sentence: the truth will make you (or set you) free.

And that works; it’s true.  But the particular truth he was talking about is more than just facts that happen to be true.  The truth of the gospel is that he is the Messiah, the Son of God, who dies and lives again.  This is the truth you can know that makes you free.  We continue in this word.  It is not fake news.

The old Jewish religion was focused on meeting God in a certain place – the Temple.  But when you believe, you become the Temple and the word is near you.  You take the word with you and the amazing good news about Jesus spreads.  In order for the gospel to spread, it can’t be tied to a place, unless the place is your heart and my heart.  We take the Word home, to work, to school.  We have a portable place of worship.  We give the Word away.  It’s life; it’s hope.  It spreads because we use our lips; we speak.  People need to know that Jesus died for them and is living right now.  We aren’t just sharing a concept

…if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved.  Romans 10:9-10

What do you confess with your lips?  (Jesus is Lord).  What do you believe in your heart?  (God raised him from the dead).

One believes with the heart and is justified – forgiven and cleansed from sin.  That’s God at work on the inside.  When we confess with the mouth, we confirm what God does in our hearts.

It seems like a formula, right?  Confess with your lips, believe in your heart.  But it’s gut-level stuff that comes from your own personal encounter with God.  Sitting in your car, laying awake in bed, maybe in a church pew, in that moment when you know you’ve got nothing left to lose, you can’t do life on your own anymore, and you need to take a step of faith toward Christ.

This would be a great place to share a story of salvation.  But there are so many.  You have your own.  We want people to experience Christ; we want them to experience salvation, because knowing Jesus unlocks the best things of life.  And God depends on us to share Christ.  Paul said How will they know if we don’t speak?  and, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”  I want beautiful feet!  Sharing faith is one of the most fulfilling things a Christian can do.

So how do we share faith?  Don’t forget, salvation is God’s work; do the things that build your own faith, then get ready to be used.  I’m not a fan of bumper-stickers or t-shirts, although for some people, I know they have their place.  First, be yourself, don’t put on a Christian persona.  Don’t speak Christian-eze (e.g., using King James Bible words as “normal” language).  Be real.  Listen more than talk.  Sharing faith usually starts with asking somebody else how they are.  Don’t have an agenda.  This may take weeks, months, maybe years.  Pray for the people you’re talking to.  Allow the door to open.  Wait for the question…   “You seem to be a believer.  How does that work?”

A few more ideas that might create an opportunity to share…

Be ready; have something to say.  Your own story works, and God can use it.  You don’t have to quote scripture (usually best if you don’t!) Your faith may be a personal thing that you work out with God in your own way, but it is not a private thing.

Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an account of the hope that is in you…   1 Peter 3:15

If you’ve never done it, write out your faith story.  It helps when you need to remember.  You may never be asked to share in front of a group of people, but if you have that opportunity, it won’t freak you out!  When he wanted to share Christ, the Apostle Paul used his own story more than scripture.  Like him, your words may be rejected; that doesn’t mean you haven’t been heard.

Respond to a need.  Be the city on a hill.  There are needs in our town and huge needs right now in our country (or maybe you don’t watch the news!).

…let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.  Matthew 5:14-16.

 Maybe it’s a project with a group of people or something you do on your own – someone who was the target of your good work will say, “You helped me; you didn’t have to, but you helped me.  Thank you.  Why did you do that?”  Or somebody else watching will ask, “Why did you do that?”  Then you get to tell your story.

God has a thousand ways of opening doors, and they may not open right away.  Often, usually I think, you are just one piece of a big puzzle that God’s putting together.

I remember a girl named Stacy who was a high school student in one of my art classes, years ago, before I went into the ministry.  After high school, she went to college near where we lived.  We took her to church once, and I remember telling her my faith story (new at the time).  We lost touch with each other.  But she reached out a few years later to say that there was a time that she became suicidal and remembered something I said about God at a critical moment.  In that moment, she came to faith.  Frankly, I don’t remember doing much, or exactly what I said, but clearly, God was at work.

It might be most important to remember that reaching out to others is God’s work.  We just make ourselves available.  This is where it becomes real.  God can use us to change someone’s story.

Prayer

Lord, there are such needs on our streets right now, and on the streets of our country.  People are in trouble.  Some of us are in trouble.   And in Jesus, you give us the way to go, and you give us a mission to use our words to point to you. You give us hands and feet to serve you and lead others to you.  In these times of trouble, we must be followers of your Christ. Only with the guidance of your Holy Spirit, O God, can we possibly be the people You want us to be in this hour. Send your Holy Spirit! Make of us a model of Your vision, a sign of Your hope, a beacon of a different future. Use us. In the name of Jesus Christ and for the sake of the world, we pray, Amen.

 

9/3/2017 Sermon: “Jesus at Work”

It’s Labor Day weekend, and this morning, we’re going to think about Jesus and work for a few minutes – at his work and how he is with us at our work.  Before he started his ministry around the age of 30, you know what he did to make a living, right?

There’s not a lot of description, but people called Jesus a carpenter (Mark 6:3 – “is this not the carpenter?”), and he was also known as a carpenter’s son (Matthew 13:55). Neither reference is especially positive.  The Greek word used for “carpenter” (tekton) could also be translated more as “artisan,” “contractor,” or “handyman.” So, it’s possible that Jesus and Joseph were the sort of people you call when something needs to be fixed— whether it was made of wood, stone, or something else. Can you picture Jesus doing that?  I can see him visiting somebody’s house, seeing a broken chair and saying, “Give me a few minutes; I can take care of that.”  I’ll bet it was hard for him to stop being a carpenter, and maybe he didn’t totally stop.

“Morning, Going Out to Work” by Vincent van Gogh (1890).

What are the vocations represented in the room today?  Nurses, teachers, bankers…  I wonder if you could tell the congregation what you do (or what you did).  Was there a job you did that people would be surprised to know about?  If you’re retired, put your mind back into working for a few minutes!

Every time I have a conversation with a member of our church about their job, I come away thinking, I am really glad you are doing what you do.  We get so focused on training and wages and such that we forget that your job is how you contribute to community.  You may not think of it as ministry, but I see it that way.  Somebody has got to be able to do what you do and I’m glad you’re doing it.  I know that you might be thinking about your work as occasionally depressing, or oppressive, inconvenient, maybe even boring.  Maybe you had a job situation that really made you grow in your faith.  I’ve had jobs like that!

Blacksmith. CN – 2010.

And I ask, what if you weren’t doing what you do, or did?  You say, “Well, somebody else would do it.”  That’s beside the point I want to make.  Somewhere along your life journey you found a niche – a thing you could do, that you enjoy doing or at least don’t mind doing.  And I’ll bet you even help other people when you do it.  If you are a believer in Christ, it’s not a stretch at all for you to believe and understand that what you do is a ministry.

God called you to do it.  Even when it’s not fun.  How does that affect the way you think about your work?

Hera are a few thoughts on work from the Apostle Paul:

2 Thessalonians 3.  6 Now we command you, beloved, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to keep away from believers who are living in idleness and not according to the tradition that they received from us. 7For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us; we were not idle when we were with you, 8and we did not eat anyone’s bread without paying for it; but with toil and labor we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you.9This was not because we do not have that right, but in order to give you an example to imitate. 10For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: Anyone unwilling to work should not eat. 11For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work. 12Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living. 13Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.

14 Take note of those who do not obey what we say in this letter; have nothing to do with them, so that they may be ashamed. 15Do not regard them as enemies, but warn them as believers.

Amish farmer. CN – 2014.

It seems that some people in this church in northern Greece believed that since Jesus was coming back any day to bring judgement and change life as we know it, why bother working?  So, they went for early retirement.

Because the early church was a community of people who depended upon each other for basic needs, Paul tells them to hold back food from anyone refusing to work (tough love!).  To give them an example, Paul worked for his food, probably as a tentmaker, and then most likely shared the profits with the church.  He did this for two reasons:  First, to show them that Christians do not just sit around waiting for Christ to come back, and secondly, to show them what they could accomplish if they worked together to survive, if they pooled their skills and resources.

Spiritual growth happens in the church when we share resources that start with the relationships the Holy Spirit creates among us when we believe.

Does the Christian life have a retirement age?  No, but retirement from work has become an expectation in our culture; something to fight for.  It’s a cultural right.

Retirement, as we know it, didn’t exist in our culture until just over a century ago, partly because so few people lived to old age (you know, over 40).  So, to understand what Paul is saying to the Thessalonians, you have to imagine a place where you don’t stop working just because you reach certain age.  That wouldn’t have made sense to anybody in that time and place.  Good thing we’ve evolved, right?  (a little sarcasm!)

Just a few thoughts on working…

There is no perfect job.  As much as you may not enjoy, it, there is someone who wishes they had your job.  Every job has parts that are enjoyable and parts that are not.  You learn how you balance the two and eventually, you may actually enjoy doing the things you once hated.  Your faith can help you adjust. 

You don’t have to stay in your job.  My father worked for the same bank for 35 years.  Most people don’t do anything close to that today (3-5 years?).  It’s okay to admit that in whatever job you’re doing, you’ve done what you can do and it might be time for a fresh start.  Your faith can help you step out into uncertain places with confidence.

The working world has changed and will keep changing – fast.  There are very few jobs today that are being done exactly the were they were done 10 years ago.  I remember reading that many college freshmen will end up in a job – after graduation – that didn’t exist when they started college.  Your faith can give you flexibility when changes come.

Your work is not your life.  Letting your job own you takes a toll.  Early in my ministry career, I knew 3 senior ministers who used to brag that they were workaholics.  Their families suffered and within a few years, they were all divorced.  But at the time, being a workaholic was a badge of honor.  I came to a point myself when I realized I had to set limits.  Your faith can help you stay balanced and set limits that allow you to be healthy.

Does thinking about work stress you out?  It’s ironic that volunteer work in the church can burn you out. You know, Jesus once said, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you [a lot more work to do].” (Matthew 11:28)

The church may translate the last word of that verse as “work,” but Jesus didn’t.

He said “rest.”  When you have faith in Christ, Jesus gives you a place to stop, a place where you can find rest.  No matter where we work or what our job is…. It doesn’t matter what car you drive or what sort of clothes you wear.  It doesn’t matter how good your grades are or whether you’re popular at school.  We all have the same basic fears  — the fear of the future; the fear of growing old; the fear of losing control of life and health; the fear of being left alone; the fear of dying; the fear of loneliness, rejection, and emptiness.  However beautiful the surface of things, there can be an ocean of fear and pain down below.  In the midst of all this pressure to cope with all of those stresses and show up for work, you need to remember that Jesus gives rest.

Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right. (2 Thess. 3:13)

For all of us, no matter what our work situation is, or even if we’re retired, there is some right thing waiting to be done.

Maybe it’s just me, but I think working is risky these days, at least riskier than it used to be.  Being the church is risky too.  This means taking the risk of relationships, the risk of giving, the risk of stepping out, the risk of change, the risk of moving toward a vision, the risk of making a difference in Manheim (or wherever you are), and the risk of changing our world for the sake of Christ.  What risk do you think God might be asking you to take?

Prayer

God, forgive us for those times when we think we can be the church without you.  You know that we are only human more than we know it ourselves.  In our weakness we turn to you.  With faith in the resurrection of your Son, we pray for a filling of your Spirit, so that we might face the future and face the world as strong Christians, known as people with great strength.  And the strength will be yours – you are the foundation on which we stand.  When you return, we pray that you find us taking care of your business, following through on the commitments we made to you.  For now, change us individually and as a church into the people you want us to be.  Amen.

8/27/2017 Sermon: “Jesus at Prayer”

Over the summer, we’ve traveled with Jesus to different places and found him in different situations.  Especially in his relationships with people, he was not one-dimensional.  He went to the shore – that was where he called his first disciples and began teaching them how to fish (for people!).  He went to parties and we learned that whenever he is around, water might turn to wine – he makes life fulfilling.  He took a trip to the mountains, to show us who he is (God), and not to be afraid of the cross – he will overcome and we will overcome the worst things of life with him. All along the way, wherever he goes, Jesus heals – making us whole, and giving us a ministry of healing.  Something else that Jesus does, wherever he goes, is pray.  All the time.  He finds a private place and spends time with God, his father.

If Jesus were to come into the room before the service this morning and choose to sit next to you, what would you say to him?  Really, what would you want to say?  Can you make a mental list?

It’s not such a silly question; if you can’t see God as a person, which is one of the reasons Jesus came, then your relationship with God isn’t nearly as close as it could be.

One of the most important things that you can do with your life is prayer.  Very simply – prayer is relationship with God, and this morning, Jesus will help us know how to think about that relationship.  He’s about to give us a prayer tutorial.

Luke 11:1-4.  He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.”

2  He said to them, “When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come.

3  Give us each day our daily bread.

4  And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.”

Sound familiar?  That’s Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer.  Just a little simpler, right?  (compared to Matthew 6:9-13)

Now Jesus has some more to say about this relationship God wants with us…  (listen closely!)

9 ‘So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. 10For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. 11Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? 12Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? 13If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!’

I want you to see, one more time, a key part of what Jesus just said:

“So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.  For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.

Wow.  In prayer, we can ask for anything?  Sure.  It doesn’t mean that God will give or do whatever we want.  The prayer Jesus is talking about leads to relationship.  That’s why Jesus goes on to say,

how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!’

The Holy Spirit is God living in us, living in you and me.  Can’t get much closer than that.  That is God’s deepest desire, to be living in us. The most integrated relationship two people could have. That is what God is hoping we ask for.

Let’s think for a minute about what prayer is not:

1. Prayer is not magic. God is not a genie, standing by to grant wishes.  God is always paying attention to the circumstances of our lives and either does – or allows – what’s best for us.  Prayer does not change other people, although God may choose to get their attention somehow.  It’s more likely that God the Spirit will change your own attitude to make you more forgiving and tolerant.

2. Prayer does not make demands. Of course, God wants to know our requests, but it’s important to remember that God is the Creator of the universe and does not take orders from us.

3. Prayer is not a guarantee against suffering. Jesus actually said, “In this world you will have trouble” (John 16:33); and ” do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed” (1 Peter 4:12-13).

4. Prayer is not an opportunity for us to show off. Jesus said, “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men” (Matthew 6:5). God is not counting the words.  Sometimes it’s best to keep it simple.

[Based on http://www.focusonthefamily.com/faith/faith-in-life/prayer/prayer]

When I say, “Our Father…”  Your mind starts to make your mouth finish a prayer.  You may not know it, but you’re quoting scripture – five verses from the gospel of Matthew (6:9-13).  In worship from week to week, we’re quoting the King James version of the Lord’s Prayer.  So, Luke’s version might have sounded a little odd.  Maybe it should be called “The Disciples’ Prayer,” because the disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray.  Jesus responds not just by telling them what to say, he teaches them an attitude toward God – and toward each other – through prayer.  The attitude is what’s important.

Father, hallowed be your name.  Your kingdom come.  Jesus starts by telling them to say “Father…”  – a name for God nobody had heard before.  This is someone we have an intimate relationship with, not just Almighty God somewhere on the other side of the clouds or locked away in the Temple (or in church).  Formal religious ritual has it’s place, but this God the Father reaches out for an embrace.  You don’t have to be in church to connect with God the Father. This is someone who knows us, who knows where all our scars are, who knows what our talents are and what we’re good at in school.  Someone who accepts us as we are, “warts” and all.  Someone who knows what we need and wants to help us get it.  Someone who doesn’t expect some sort of flowery, articulate oration when we pray.  To make this point, Tony Campolo used to say…

Imagine that you’re sixteen or seventeen and you need the car.  You find your dad in the recliner in the living room and you say, “O great owner of the house and the wheels in yon driveway, O great giver of the very breath with which I speak:  Surely, you have given me good and wonderful things all the days of my life, especially that computer last Christmas, and for these things I will be thankful forever and ever.  I humbly come to you in this time of need asking, nay, beseeching thee for the keys to the Volvo.”

I think God is happy when we pray, but how would your dad feel if you talked to him like this all the time?  The most effective prayers come from the depths of our souls when words don’t come easily.  “…the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express.”  (Romans 8:26)  These prayers are not scripted.

The very first word is a breakthrough, straight from Jesus.  Abba.  Jews never call God by name.  God’s name is too holy to speak.  But Jesus teaches his people to name God by relationship.  Abba, Father.  Personal, but with the authority of a good parent.  They had never heard you could be personal with God, and a lot of us might have that impression too.  Some people have trouble with the “Father” word, for different reasons, that often miss the point of God’s deep wish to be close and personal: relationship of love and care and forgiveness.  If that does not describe the relationship you had with your earthly father, don’t let it keep you from this Father we’re praying to.

This Father has great power.  Abba, your name is hallowed, or holy.  The name of God has power.  That’s why we don’t use it carelessly.  That’s why the commandment says, “do not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.”

This Father has the power to bring a kingdom, or bring us into a kingdom.

Jesus talks about the kingdom more than anything else, and in Luke’s gospel, the kingdom is the circle of relationships made up of God and all the believers.  The kingdom is inside and outside these believers.  Because of their relationship with God, these are people who see the world in a different way, and the world is changing because of them.  The kingdom has come and the kingdom is coming, and every week we keep praying for it to come.  God’s kingdom is always coming and growing around us.  God needs us to be a partner in growing the kingdom.

Each of us, and all of us, have prayed countless times for God’s kingdom to come.  And I believe God answers prayer.  So let’s stop and think about whether that’s happened. Has God’s kingdom come – for you, for us?  Has faith increased for you, has your relationship with other believers grown?  Because we pray this, God is changing you and me, and changing our world.

Think about the ancient meaning of kingdom.  The purpose of a kingdom was power, but for the common person, it was also protection.  If Christ is your Lord, your king, you have the ultimate protector.  You have a safe place to be when trouble comes.

Give us each day our daily bread.  (Luke 11:3)  God wants to give us a kingdom, and Jesus expects us to pray for it, but God also wants us to be thankful for something as simple as “daily bread.”

Literally a gut instinct; you eat, you pray.  The more thankful you are, the more praying is as natural as eating.  I think that’s the attitude God wants us to have about “our daily bread.”  But most of us have such a surplus of food (and other things), so there is a natural diminishing of being thankful to God that we have something to eat.

And it’s more than just being thankful about the food that happens to be in front of us at any particular time.

It’s a trust thing.  It’s understanding that life is fragile, and that at every moment we are breathing, and even if we are not breathing, our lives are in God’s hands.  God will take care of us.  God, we trust you to give us daily bread.  Not something we think about until bread is hard to find.  And if we have enough bread, I believe that God needs us to find those who are praying for daily bread, and be and answer to this prayer for them.

And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.  (Luke 11:4)  The last part of the prayer is about relationship and about reconciliation.  We are less than perfect, and we live in an imperfect world.  We wish we could be better people, better husbands and wives, better children, better parents, better friends.  But we fall short of God’s standards and short of our own standards.  So we have something to say to God and to each other: “…forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us.”

Let that sink in for a moment.  The least we can do is accept that everyone around us is imperfect too, and struggling with the same sin we are.

And do not bring us to the time of trial.   (Luke 11:4)  It could also be called a time of testing – God’s judgment day.  You might be used to saying, “Lead us not into temptation,” but the original words are the same.  We are praying, “Help us live in a way that doesn’t call us into your judgment.”  It’s no coincidence that this part of the prayer comes right after the prayers for forgiveness.  If we expect God to forgive us, then we need to forgive and accept others.  God expects this from us.

This prayer was just four sentences long, and it’s an invitation to have an honest, open, trusting relationship with God, a lifestyle of sharing and forgiveness, and a new way to live.

 Prayer

Father, we love you and trust you.  We know you are with us, taking care of us even when we’re not thinking about it.  You are with all of us.  We know we’re not everything we should be, we accept that about ourselves and others.  Help us live in ways that change our world – for your glory.  We pray in the name of Jesus.  Amen.