Since I have been preaching for more than 30 years, I believe I have reached the place where “when I speak, people listen.” At least when I get in a pulpit or when I face a congregation with a prayer book in my hand, I actually command silence (well, almost).
I’ve done a lot of other public speaking, such as keynote addresses, retreats, and even some theological conversations with various people. It can be heady sometimes, but I am still constantly amazed that people really are listening to me and figure it has to be God doing that for sure!
Since publishing my memoir, Lady Father, I have felt a strong call from God to continue “speaking” to his church and so I have formed a new ministry, “Lady Father Speaks,” and am available for public speaking engagements as well as retreats (Vestry/Parish retreats, youth retreats, spiritual retreats, and a retreat that I have put together called “Journey With God.”)
My journey into priesthood and since has been a journey with God; in fact, I have learned that God IS in the journey so that, unless we recognize God’s presence in our lives, we end up doing our own thing and not very well. We also miss the incredible things God does when we let him have free rein. My retreat is designed to help retreatants to find God’s presence in their own journeys. I provide all meditations, worship, and music, as well as any personal discussions as needed.
So this page, which used to be “Rev. Susan’s Sermons,” has metamorphosed into “Lady Father Speaks.” It will contain some reflections and my current sermons. When I first added this page for sermons, felt somewhat like a “show-off,” you know those folks who are forever bragging about their achievements. Many people who do that have good reason to brag – there ARE a lot of intelligent, talented, and creative people in this world. My congregation tells me that I have a reason to brag about my sermons – they like them! So I decided to share them – not to show off my preaching talent – although I have to admit it is awesome – but to increase the audience for my ongoing effort to fulfill my ordination vows. More than 25 years ago, I promised to ” minister the Word of God and the sacraments of the New Covenant, that the reconciling love of Christ may be known and received.”
There was no caveat – nothing that said, “until you retire,” so I’m still preaching every week.” My audience now, though made up of some of the finest churchgoers in the world, is small and it occurred to me that I have the ability through this blog to minister the Word of God to way more people than those who sit in our beautiful old church on Sunday mornings. So I am beginning with current sermons on this page; maybe in the future I will try to put together an archive of some of my favorites from past years. Hope you’ll check here every week to be ministered to by the word of God according to Rev. Susan. I was taught in seminary that “Sermonettes make Christianettes” so I tend to preach long. Enjoy!!
The most recent sermons are posted first…
VETERANS’ DAY – November 11, 2012
As a seminary student, I discovered some disturbing things about my beloved Episcopal Church of which I had been a member all of my life. Thankfully, the other thing I learned was that not all of them mattered much to those in the pews. Some were really important things that did matter to everyone like the whole issue of the ordination of women and why we should never sing “Just as I am,” especially at the end of the service. Near the top of the list was what I soon learned was a rule that took me totally by surprise. I knew about the whole issue of the separation of church and state as the 1980’s was bringing about a new concern about things like prayer in the schools and the use of government property for nativity scenes or anything that even looked religious. But that concern was coming from the government as more and more non-religious and anti-religious groups were complaining about what they saw as an encroaching role of the church in the secular world. Up to then, I was not aware that this whole issue was working in the opposite direction as well.
In the church where I was raised, we had 2 huge flags always standing at attention on either side of the Altar – the flag of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the USA and “old Glory.” Our acolytes had always carried both flags in procession; I can remember how impressive they were as they approached the chancel steps and did a very solemn criss-cross in front of the Altar to deposit their flags in their holders. In fact, I’ll bet that more than 90% of the churches in those days gave the American flag the same place of honor in their sanctuaries, so it just seemed natural to me to see our country’s flag in church. Now I was discovering that not only was this a huge issue, but that the National Church was becoming more and more adamant about the role of the secular world of governments and businesses in the life of the church. Even though they mandated that flags were not appropriate in a house of worship, many congregations still displayed American flags in their sanctuaries while others chose to display the flag in social halls or to take the flag down altogether in church buildings. I suppose there is merit to both positions: on the one hand, the church is part of the real world, including the world of government, politics, and foreign policy; on the other hand, as their reasoning went, God’s love embraces the earth, rather than focusing on any nation’s cause or victory. Their evidence of this was a quote by Abraham Lincoln who once said in a time of war: we need to pray that we are on God’s side, rather than that God is on our side!” The point was that God’s care embraces the whole earth, including our nation’s “enemies.”
Well, in my mind, that explanation, which many use to exclude national flags from churches, is the very reason why I think that their presence is perfectly acceptable and even natural. The presence of this flag makes the blatant statement that this church IS on God’s side and to exclude our flag makes an equally blatant statement that this church considers itself separate from the state; in other words, this would put us squarely on the side of those that want to exclude church from every other part of our society. Our belief that Jesus was fully human and so a part of the secular world as we are means that we must take the affairs of state seriously, as Jesus did. And so, it is not only acceptable to raise our flag in this church and to talk about and honor our veterans, it is necessary. How can we claim to be a church for the whole world if we exclude one part of it from our worship?
And so, today, as Veterans’ Day falls on our day of worship, it is natural that we pause to recognize this day in the life of our country. First, a little history: Originally known as Armistice Day, it was instituted in gratitude for our victory in World War I. President Woodrow Wilson said, “To us in America, the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service and with gratitude for the victory, both because of the thing from which it has freed us and because of the opportunity it has given America to show her sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of the nations.”
While such words can be seen as platitudes, they remind us that “peace” and “justice” should be top goals of all national policies. They also remind us, in a time of growing individualism and me-first politics and economics, that national health depends on sacrifice — not just in times of war, but in our civic responsibility, human rights, and even tax paying. And so we pray every week in our worship, for our country, the wisdom of its leaders, the courage and safety of its armed forces, and the responsible citizenship of all Americans. On Veterans Day, we get specific and proclaim our gratitude to those whose service in the military has secured our freedoms through the years. Whether or not we approve of our nation’s foreign policy, it is vital that we support the everyday people — mostly working class, often minorities — who fight our nation’s wars. We need to say “thank you.” But our thanksgiving should also lead to action, both in support of the well-being of veterans, especially those who have been injured or traumatized by war, and in our own commitment to the common good.
It is easy, as the prophets and Jesus both noted, to speak of sacrifice, without making the commitment to sacrifice for the well-being of our neighbors. When Veterans Day is understood in the spirit of the biblical tradition, it reminds us that there is no such thing as rugged individualism or absolute property rights; everything is a gift from God to be used for the well-being of others as well as our own kin. Sacrifice is not just the responsibility of veterans; it is required of all who would follow the way of Jesus. And so, in the spirit of Wilson’s proclamation, justice and peace should guide our national and personal decision-making. Accordingly, remembrance of the sacrifices made by veterans challenges us to ask: Do our actions promote the overall well-being of our nation’s peoples and this good earth? Do we focus on our own welfare to the exclusion of our neighbor? What are we willing to sacrifice so that others may live abundantly? These are questions that Jesus asked the Pharisees of his day and nothing has changed even though the structures of our church and our governments have. I believe God still expects us to work and pray for peace in his world.
So it is highly appropriate that we stop on Veterans Day to be grateful and to ask God to inspire us to generosity and commitment to the well-being of our nation, most especially its most vulnerable citizens and veterans who have suffered the ravages of war. It is in this act, that our reliance on God will take us beyond nationalism or self-interest to the affirmation of our role as God’s partners in healing the earth. Let me illustrate with this story told by one veteran about another veteran and called simply:
The Old Gentleman
“As I came out of the supermarket that sunny day, pushing my cart of groceries towards my car, I saw an old man with the hood of his car up and a lady sitting inside the car with the door open. The old man was looking at the engine. I put my groceries away in my car and continued to watch the old gentleman from about twenty-five feet away. I saw a young man in his early twenties with a grocery bag in his arm, walking towards the old man. The old gentleman saw him coming too, and took a few steps towards him. I saw the old gentleman point to his open hood and say something. The young man put his grocery bag into what looked like a brand new Cadillac Escalade and then turned back and I heard him yell at the old gentleman saying, “You shouldn’t even be allowed to drive a car at your age.” And then with a wave of his hand, he got into his car and peeled rubber out of the parking lot. I saw the old gentleman pull out his handkerchief and mop his brow as he went back to his car and again looked at the engine. He then went to his wife and spoke with her and appeared to tell her it would be okay. I had seen enough and I walked over to the old man. He saw me coming and stood straight and as I got near him. I said, “Looks like you’re having a problem.” He smiled sheepishly and quietly nodded his head. I looked under the hood myself and knew that whatever the problem was, it was beyond me. Looking around, I saw a gas station up the road and told the old gentleman that I would be right back. I drove to the station and went inside and saw three attendants working on cars.
I approached one of them and related the problem the old man had with his car and offered to pay them if they could follow me back down and help him. The old man had pushed the heavy car under the shade of a tree and appeared to be comforting his wife. When he saw us, he straightened up and thanked me for my help. As the mechanics diagnosed the problem (an overheated engine), I spoke with the old gentleman. When I shook hands with him earlier, he had noticed my Marine Corps ring and now he commented about it telling me that he had been a Marine, too. I nodded and asked the usual question: “What outfit did you serve with?” He told me that he had served with the First Marine Division at Tarawa, Saipan, Iwo Jima, and Guadalcanal. He had hit all the big ones and retired from the Corps after the war was over. As we talked, we heard the car engine come to life and saw the mechanics lower the hood. They came over to us as the old man reached for his wallet, but I stopped him and said that I would just put the call on my AAA account. He still reached for the wallet and handed me a card that I assumed had his name and address on it. I stuck it in my pocket. We shook hands all around again and I said my goodbyes to his wife. I then told the two mechanics that I would follow them back to the station. Once at the station, I told them that I had interrupted their own jobs to come along with me and help the old man. I said I wanted to pay for their help, but they refused to charge me. One of them pulled out a card from his pocket that looked exactly like the card the old man had given to me. Both of the men told me then, that they were Marine Corps Reservists. Once again, we shook hands all around. As I was leaving, one of them told me I should look at the card the old man had given to me. I said I would and drove off. For some reason, I had gone about two blocks when I pulled over and took the card out of my pocket and looked at it for a long, long time. The name of the old gentleman was on the card in gold leaf and under his name, it said … “Congressional Medal of Honor Society.” I sat there motionless, looking at the card and reading it over and over. I looked up from the card and smiled to no one but myself and marveled that on this day, four Marines had all come together because one of us needed help. He was an old man, all right, but it felt good to have stood next to greatness and courage and it was an honor to have been in his presence. ”
So back to our history: Armistice Day became Veterans’ Day by an act of Congress in 1954, changing its purpose and scope. President Eisenhower called on the nation to remember the sacrifices of those who fought in all our nation’s wars, to celebrate the contributions of all veterans of military service, and to rededicate ourselves to the task of promoting an enduring peace. It is Eisenhower’s call that remains the three-fold purpose of Veterans’ Day: remembering those who fought and died, celebrating all veterans, and promoting an enduring peace.
I never served in the military, but thousands of men and women before me did and to each of them, I am forever grateful. Because of them and their willingness to lay their lives on the line for freedom, I stand here today and you sit here before God, totally free to believe what we want to and to say whatever is in our hearts and minds. I am also grateful to the military community for instilling in us the reverence for the ultimate sacrifice made by members of each of our armed forces. If you have ever watched a state funeral or the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, you know what I mean. The military has a way of honoring its members, especially its dead, that I think our society has begun to lose. If you have ever attended a funeral in a military cemetery, this is what you would have experienced. Arriving at the gate where there is a military guard you would have been greeted with at least two uniformed guards. When they were told that you were there for a service for a veteran or a veteran’s spouse, they would come out of the little kiosk, snap to attention and salute all the cars that drive by.
Driving into the cemetery, you would notice that anyone you passed would stop what they were doing and either give a military salute or remove their hats or put their hands over their hearts. Workers preparing for funerals or doing general maintenance would pause as you drove by, standing in reverent silence until you had passed. There would be a hush throughout the grounds as everyone paid their private respects and honored the grief of those who were burying their loss. I remember as a child, whenever a funeral passed by on the street, every car would pull over and stop and many drivers and passengers would even get out of their cars and stand, hats off, heads bowed, while the entire procession passed. As a pastor, I have always been very moved by those acts of reverence but, I am sad to say, during my 25 years of riding in funeral processions, I have seen an appalling decline in this sharing of the sadness of the grieving. I have seen drivers break into the funeral procession, one almost hitting the hearse, and I have seen their impatience and complete lack of anything bordering on reverence for the dead or the grieving loved ones. I have passed by many people who do not even look up, much less acknowledge the passing of a fellow human being. I have conducted funerals amid the noise of digging graves, cutting grass, and even loud and raucous laughter from some unfeeling visitors to the cemetery. I have even witnessed rude and degrading behavior from one group of workers standing by and waiting while a military widow was presented with the flag from her husband’s coffin. I shot them a look that would wither a fig tree and followed it up with a well-placed complaint to the management, but the damage was done. The moment was spoiled and the pain of that irreverence will always taint that women’s memories of her husband and his sacrifice for the freedom that allows even that kind of expression from Americans.
I believe that this new generation has lost something vital to our well-being both as a nation and as God’s children called to love each other. So many have forgotten how to say “thank you” and have even managed to either deny the need for or lose the ability to show the proper respect. But not our military. They continue to give us the timeless example of how to show our gratitude to our veterans. When kids in my parents’ generation were graduating high school, they were thinking about fighting Hitler and Naziism. When kids in my grandparents’ generation were graduating high school, they were thinking about joining the Allies in Europe. When I graduated high school, I was thinking about going to a party at Virginia Beach.
I sometimes wish that I had done more to serve my country and I always wish that I could say thank you to all who. They put everything on the line so that I could worship, speak, read, raise a family, pursue happiness, work for justice, and grow old in safety. Over the years, I have discovered that the best way to do this is by remembering what they have done, by giving thanks to God for their patriotism, their selflessness, and their courage in the face of evil and death, and by continuing to echo the plea of God and his people: “Let there be peace on earth, let this be the moment now. Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me.
PENTECOST – May 27, 2012 (Memorial Day)
When I was growing up in the Episcopal Church, the Sundays in the summer, fall, and early winter – up to Advent – were numbered as the Sundays after Trinity Sunday. I don’t know how many centuries that was true but I am fairly certain that it was for most of the years after the first Prayer Book was written in the 1600‘s. When it was changed in 1979, you would have thought someone had suggested that we change Jesus’ name to Jose’. It was HUGE! Of course, at the time, I didn’t really know what all the fuss was about but when I entered seminary two years after the new book came out, I found out. I isn’t a simple answer. The chairman of the Church committee that put together the 1979 Prayer Book was our Professor and his story was the “party line,” which goes like this: For centuries, the Church has ignored the importance of Pentecost as a major feast of the Church. While the Trinity represents a basic belief of the Christian faith, it is Pentecost that ushered in the beginning of what we know as the Church and it is fitting that the Church recognize that day as its beginning – that everything we are as God’s people in community is based in the events of a Spring day 50 days after the resurrection of Jesus.
We all bought that – it made perfect sense. But as the Church of the 1980‘s and 90‘s began to actually speak the word “Pentecost” in church every Sunday for almost 30 weeks, the use of such a non-Episcopal word began to raise questions from the people in the pews. Most Episcopalians, and therefore most Methodists, put that word in a closet with other un-Episcopal concepts, including evangelism, speaking in tongues, the Baptism of the Holy Spirit – indeed, most anything that had to do with the Holy Spirit. In a church where most people had not ever used the term “Holy Spirit” because this 3rd person of the Trinity had been called – with great honor and reverence – the Holy Ghost, there was not much need or desire to get into all that “Spirit stuff.” Of course, not many people would admit to that but as we seminarians began to learn the history of the church and what happened that day, we all began to see the real truth behind the change from the umpty-umph Sundays after Trinity to the Sundays after Pentecost. I hate to say it but I think my dear departed professor was hoodwinked.
I think it’s clear that what was really behind this change was a move by the new and fast-growing segment of the church that we called “charismatic” to shift the focus from the doctrine of the Trinity to the work of the Holy Spirit. For so long, we had heard the story of the wind and the tongues-of-flame and the dove and the crowds-hearing-the-sermon-in-their-own-languages as a promise of deliverance, as a celebration of God’s victory over evil, and as a show of strength. The signs of Pentecost, after all, are mighty – wind and fire. And what is the Holy Spirit if it is not God’s own agent – the very Spirit of the resurrected Jesus – now on earth to accompany his followers in their new mission with signs of wonder and power. What we seem to have forgotten is that it is precisely because the promised Holy Spirit is the presence of the crucified and resurrected Christ, we should never expect things to be so easy. Pentecost was not just about the universality of the Gospel – it wasn’t just about God’s ability to spread that Gospel. The real message of Pentecost is this: God’s strength comes through the suffering, God’s victory is achieved through defeat, and new life is pledged and, in fact, can only be provided through death. Just as we saw in the earthly ministry of Jesus, who turned the world upside down by his pronouncements that the meek would inherit the world and the poor would be rich. The crucified and resurrected God that we meet in Jesus is a God of paradox, and so we should look for no less in God’s Holy Spirit. So – I want to show you two paradoxes of Pentecost.
First, the Holy Spirit does not come to solve our problems but to create them. Think about it: without the coming of the Holy Spirit, the disciples could go back to their previous careers as fishermen. I can almost hear James and John explaining, “Sure, it was a wild and crazy three-year-ride, and that Jesus sure was a heck of a guy, but maybe we just needed to get that out of our system before we could settle down and take on Dad’s business.” Once the Spirit came, however, that return to normalcy was no longer an option. On that day, the disciples were propelled throughout the ancient world to herald the unlikely message that God has redeemed the world through an itinerant preacher from the backwaters of Palestine who was executed for treason and blasphemy. The Holy Spirit, take note, doesn’t solve the disciples’ problems, it creates them. New York Times columnist David Brooks once challenged new graduates to give up the American obsession with self-fulfillment and instead find themselves in service to others by making and keeping what he described as sacred commitments and by rising to the challenges they discover all around and outside of them. “Most successful young people,” he writes, “don’t look inside and then plan a life. They look outside and find a problem, which summons their life…. Most of them don’t form a self and then lead a life. They are called by a problem, and the self is constructed gradually by their calling.” I believe that the same is true of a community. I believe that congregations will not discover themselves until they give themselves away. No amount of time spent on developing a mission statement or devising new member campaigns can substitute for looking around one’s neighborhood and asking, “Who needs us?” and “What can we do with our resources to bear God’s love to this part of the world?”
The other paradox of Pentecost is this: The Holy Spirit doesn’t prevent failure but invites it. Or, to put it slightly differently, the Holy Spirit invites us to find fulfillment and victory in and through our setbacks and failures. As inspired as we all were by the Mission Control insistence during the crisis of Apollo 13 that “failure is not an option,” I think that kind of mindset can be more paralyzing than encouraging to the church. The reality of life, shown in spades by the death of Jesus is that failure is not only an option, it is inevitable. The problems this world – and the Church – face are too great, too complex, and too significant to imagine that we will hit upon the best solution the first time out…or maybe ever. Once we’ve identified a worthy challenge, we must experiment…and fail, innovate…and fail, invent…and fail again. A middle school English teacher once told a parent, “I don’t expect your child to be perfect; in fact, I tell my kids to make a mistake every day – just not the same mistake!” Each mistake, each set back, each false start, each failure is not to be lamented but it is God’s intention that we learn from them. Further – and living in a success-obsessed world can lead us to forget this – ultimately it’s neither about us nor up to us. God is the creator, sustainer, and redeemer of this cosmos, and only God can bring the kind of redemption we long for and need. Our job as the church is to partner with God’s work wherever we find a need for it.
If the cross teaches us nothing else, it teaches that success will not always look like success, and victory may often come disguised as defeat. The question isn’t whether we’re successful, but whether we’re faithful. Or, as Cornell West once said, “Sure it’s a failure, but was it a good failure.” This perspective grants a measure of freedom to throw ourselves into lost causes, to place ourselves on the side of those who are most vulnerable, and to take great risks and to dare great ventures. Why? Because we trust that whatever the immediate results of our efforts, both our hopes and our future are secured not by OUR abilities but by God’s good promise and the power of the Holy Spirit. Resurrection, we need to remember, only and always follows crucifixion. So, instead of calling the Church to brag about its power and glory, Pentecost was and is God’s call to brainstorm what problems the Holy Spirit is inviting us into, what failures we want to entertain, what great ventures we want to risk. The surprise of that first Pentecost continues to surprise and challenge us through the work of the always surprising and challenging Holy Spirit, which not only shocks us and even puts us off by its blatant and scary touch, but also renews and strengthens us to rise to the occasion and be the Church God is asking and expects us to be.
I still occasionally receive newsletters from seminary that contain stories of ministers who have birthed large churches out of nothing in just a few years, or who have turned dying congregations into mega churches. These are spectacular and uplifting – what I would call “wow” narratives, and I assume they are designed to make alumni feel proud of the institution that educated us, and make us want to give money to support our alma maters. Truly, there is nothing wrong with that and I am always impressed by such stories, but the Pentecost story is even more astounding. The experience of the first Christian Pentecost contain elements that are stunning, incredible, and – as much as the Church wants to ignore them – they are ecstatic.
Listen again, When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability… Those who welcomed [Peter’s] message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added.
These words can only create one honest response – Wow! 3,000 new members as the result of one sermon. Talk about ecstatic. It was an amazingly dramatic beginning. But, again, what is even more exciting is what happened after the drama subsided. The very next verse says: They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers and this last verse seems to refer to the ordering of their lives together after the Pentecost event. Not much drama here even as the Church is worshiping together, eating together, learning together. But what we know from the rest of Acts is that there would be more excitement in the form of healings, unexpected conversions, visions, even a shipwreck. There would also be other events, far more of them and far less sensational: conversations, travels, meetings, more sermons.
Our lives together are somewhat the same, a couple of thousand years later. Occasionally we hear of some remarkable situations: amazing church growth; surprising personal turnarounds or healings; breathtaking testimonials. These are the “wow” stories that make newsletters come alive. More often, though, the stories that I find truly remarkable are the ones that never get told in the seminary news (or anywhere else) because they are not stories of wild action, but of simply living life with God: Like the chaplain who has been working with Alzheimer’s patients for 10 years and whose patients never get well or thank them; the church that hasn’t been able to afford a pastor for decades but is still ministering to its neighborhood by providing hot lunches for the poor; the woman who cares for her children with humor, love, and kindness, even though her husband has left her with them to raise alone; the teenagers who start a recycling project; the young soldier who somehow finds peace in his soul after he’s lived through the war in Iraq. You see, God’s work takes place wherever God’s people are – and wherever God’s people are open to the leading of the Holy Spirit. These folks measure success, not by the number of converts or new members or programs, but by whether or not they are doing what the Spirit is urging them to do. This is a way more difficult calculation; we can easily count the number of people in the pews and how many attend the programs; but the question is, how do we measure the long-lasting and deep effect that the Church has on our community. The effect of the Holy Spirit’s work through God’s people is beyond measure and I think this makes us overlook the real power of Pentecost.
This power is community – a community that is formed with love. This can be a blood-related family – ony group of people brought together for a common purpose….
School/ College – Sorority/Fraternity
Military Work/Play Clubs
Seminary – deep and intense level – a family
Today is Memorial Day
People are remembering lost family members
Soldiers are remembering lost buddies
Not all families work – some are dysfunctional, even destructive, but family is hard…
My brother-in-law Joe is the epitome of family – the best example of family. In fact, Joe’s story is the best family love story you’ll hear. He was adopted and following some serious medical problems, he realized that he needed to find out more about his birth family so he embarked upon a search for them. Just before Christmas, he found that, although his mother and father had died some years before, he not only had one sibling but three. Joe wax ecstatic. While they had every reason to resent him – to be angry at their Mother, his new-found siblings welcomed Joe and all of his family with open arms.
Family is a group of people who give themselves in some way, on some level – but they give. Jesus formed a family – of disciples. Everywhere he went, he made people part of his family. Many followed him – many wanted to – and many wished they had. Then Jesus – with God and the Holy Spirit formed a new family – the Church – different but with the same principles:
Family = love no matter what (unconditional)
EASTER 4 – April 29, 2012
Today is the 4th Sunday in the Easter season and by a long, long tradition it is Good Shepherd Sunday – that’s because we read the part of John’s Gospel that has probably inspired more art, music, poetry, and sheep jokes than any other passage of Scripture. The words I just read, the 23rd Psalm, and the hymn we’ll sing in a moment have comforted more grief and allayed more fear than any other image of Jesus. It’s interesting that when Jesus spoke these words, he wasn’t comforting anybody – he wasn’t assuring a single soul. He was locked in another verbal battle with the Pharisees – again they had asked him “Who are you?” and again Jesus illustrated his identity with an image that everyone within earshot would grasp. He said, “I am the Good Shepherd…”
Notice that Jesus didn’t say, “I am a shepherd” and he didn’t say “I am a good shepherd.” He said very deliberately and plainly – “I am the Good Shepherd” and everyone who heard his words knew what they meant. First of all, he used the familiar phrase from the Old Testament that all Jews knew referred to God telling Moses, when he asked, “What will I tell people when they want to know who you are” and God said, “Tell them I AM sent you.” Those two words spoke volumes to those listening that day and they also sealed Jesus’ fate. To the Pharisees, those two words meant that Jesus was claiming to be God – the Great I AM. And if that wasn’t enough, after Jesus told them who he was, he proceeded to put all the people, including the Pharisees, in their place – He said, “And YOU are my sheep.”
So, here’s the situation, Jesus has horrified the Pharisees with his claim of divinity and now he has insulted them by likening them to the dumbest, dirtiest animals in the world. Everybody knew what sheep were like – they would pull up every single blade of grass by the roots, leaving a barren wasteland where there used to be grass – unless the shepherd moved them from pasture to pasture. They would drink polluted water and eat poisonous plants. They would lie down in the heat and when they couldn’t get up they would cook in their own bodies and die. The Pharisees did not appreciate being likened to the filthy, stupid animals that the common people kept in flocks and that represented many people’s only source of income.
The Pharisees also knew that when Jesus called them sheep after claiming to be the Good Shepherd, he was lumping them – the cream of society – into the same flock with the lowest forms of humanity. He was calling all of them the same thing – dirty, nasty, helpless animals that Jesus was claiming couldn’t make it without him – the Good Shepherd. And that wasn’t all – he was also saying that he – the Good Shepherd – knew his sheep and his sheep knew him. The Pharisees were livid – not only did they hate being compared to sheep, they also didn’t want anything to do with Jesus, much less did they want to be seen as piteous creatures who relied on this charlatan for anything. They weren’t sheep and they certainly had not gone astray. Imagine the nerve of this man suggesting that they – the holiest of the people of God – would need a shepherd, much less this blasphemer!
They were the spiritual leaders of the people – how dare he teach their people to think of them as helpless and stupid. Well, we don’t react too differently today when we hear Jesus referring to the people “as sheep without a shepherd.” But, I think when Jesus compared us to sheep, he described us pretty well… Like sheep, we are stubborn, some of us are near-sighted, we can’t see things beyond our noses, we are feeble creatures – and sometimes our only defense is to try to run away from our problems…which means that there are only two kinds of people in this world – those who are lost & those who are saved…
So, I think Jesus described us pretty well… we are like sheep… and like sheep, we are helpless without a shepherd…and like a shepherd, Jesus is concerned about our well-being. He wants to take care of his sheep – Jesus made that clear when he compared the good shepherd to the hired hand. His description of the hired hand wouldn’t have been a surprise to anybody with a large enough flock to need help tending the sheep. who knew anything about sheep and shepherds. The hired hands were just that – employees who had no connection with the sheep, they didn’t own the sheep… If a sheep was attacked by a wolf, the scripture says that the hired hand runs away and lets the wolf snatch the sheep & scatter them… But the shepherd wants to take care of his sheep – the shepherd loves his sheep…and he knows them – each of them, even though they look a lot alike to most people. The shepherd knows them. There’s a wonderful book called, “A Shepherd Looks at the 23rd Psalm,” by Philip Keller and in this book he says, “if you’ll look close you’ll notice that each sheep has its own peculiar traits and markings… One may walk a little sideways… one may have bowed feet… one may be missing a patch of wool on its back… or maybe one has a small black mark on its face. That’s what Jesus has done for us… He came from heaven to earth to live with his sheep… And Jesus, the Good Shepherd, knows our peculiar traits and markings… and he know us by name… The shepherd’s sheep are not just any old sheep to him; they are Limpy, Blackie, Nosie, Patch, and so on… The shepherd names his sheep and he knows them by name… and the only way a shepherd can get to know his sheep – is to live with his sheep… he has to come close to them…
Jesus modeled that – he didn’t call himself King Jesus and he didn’t set himself up as some kind of be-all, know-all that talks a good talk but doesn’t do much. Jesus called himself just what he was – a servant, a caretaker, a watchman, who provides for his sheep who depend on him for everything. And what I like most about this is the relationship between sheep and shepherd. Not only does the shepherd know the sheep well – every little tic, every blemish, every part of every sheep that make them special – the sheep also know the shepherd. They may seem clueless and unaware of anything but they know the shepherd when he calls. They know that voice…they know their shepherd. There was a man in Australia who was arrested and charged with stealing a sheep… but the man protested that he didn’t steal the sheep, it belonged to him… When the case went to court, the judge didn’t know how to decide the matter, so he asked that the sheep be brought into the courtroom…
Then he ordered the plaintiff to step outside in the hallway and call the animal… The sheep made no response… Then the judge asked the defendant to step into the hallway and call the sheep…. When the accused man began to call the sheep by name, the sheep ran towards the door… It was obvious that it recognized the voice of its master… The judge said, “He knows his sheep and his sheep know him – case dismissed…” One of reasons we celebrate Good Shepherd Sunday is to help us get in touch with ourselves and our Shepherd. And remember our job is to get to know the shepherd through devotions, prayer, and regular church attendance.
One day in a large class, two men were called on to recite the Twenty-Third Psalm… One was an orator trained in speech & drama… He repeated the psalm in a powerful way… When he finished, the audience cheered & asked for an encore…
Then the other man repeated the same words – “The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not want…” but when he finished, no cheers or sounds came from the class… Instead, people sat in a mood of deep devotion & prayer…
Then the first man stood to his feet… “I have a confession to make,” he said. “The difference in what you have just heard from my friend, and what you heard from me is this; I know the Psalm, but my friend knows the Shepherd…”
There’s one more thing about our Gospel this morning that’s even more crucial to us sheep. Here’s what Jesus said: “I put the sheep before myself, sacrificing myself if necessary.” That’s what Jesus has done for us on Calvary… He laid down His life for his sheep… He has saved us from the wolves of sin & death… So a shepherd is much more than a guide, a nurse, even more than a protector. Our Good Shepherd is also a promise and a savior. Assuring us of a new life in him, Jesus promised his followers that, like any good shepherd, he would lay down his life for the sheep. This was literal as one of the common practices of shepherds was to get all their sheep inside the fold and then lay down in the gate so that any hungry predator would have to go through him to get to the sheep.
But if the story ended here, we’d have a problem… because if a flock of sheep lose their shepherd because he was willing to lay down his life to protect them – they are now shepherdless… and even if no more wolves come – they will soon wander off and get lost… and the death of the shepherd would have been in vain…
But the story doesn’t end here with the shepherd dead and the sheep scattered… In the last verse Jesus speaks about his death… He says, “No man takes my life from me, but I lay it down on my own accord… I have the power to lay it down, and I have the power to take it up again… I have received this command from my Father…”
You see, under the Old Testament law, the sheep died for the shepherd, but now the Good Shepherd dies for the sheep! That’s the main difference between other religions & Christianity… The other religion believes that you must die for your God – that’s why it’s okay to fly a plane through a World Trade Center – that’s why it’s okay to tie a bomb around your waist and walk into a shopping market… But Christians believe that their God died for them… But not only did he die, he was raised from the tomb and lives again… which means that the love of Jesus which actually nailed him to the cross for us, is stronger and more powerful than the forces that put him there.
And so we have a good shepherd who has been scarred for us, who has laid down his life for us, and one who lives victorious… He knows each one of us us by name… As he does every day, the Good Shepherd is calling his sheep this morning… Do you know the shepherd’s voice – he’s calling you this morning… He wants you to come home…
I want to leave you with this story: There once was a shepherd that lived in the Scottish highlands. This shepherd had a daughter and he would take her with him when he went out on the moors to take care of the sheep. The thing that the little girl liked best was to hear the call of the shepherd. His voice sounded so free and beautiful as it carried across the valley. As the years passed the little girl became a beautiful young woman and went off to one of Scotland’s great cities. It was there that she was determined to build a life. On her arrival, she wrote back home to her parents every week. But as life began to take her by the hand, her letters soon dropped off in their frequency and soon there were none.
Rumors begin to filter back home to the shepherd and his wife that their daughter had started hanging out with some unsavory characters and they were having a very negative influence on her life. One day one of the boys from back home ran into her in the city streets and she acted as if she did not even know him. When the old shepherd heard this, he gathered a few things together, dressed in his rough shepherd’s clothes, and went to the city to find his daughter.
For days on end he looked for her. He looked everywhere; the slums, the rows of houses, the markets, the taverns, and everywhere in between to no avail. So after all of this searching he became very discouraged with the thought that he had lost his daughter to the evil city. As he started the long trek back home, just as he was on the outskirts of the city, he remembered that his daughter had always loved to hear the voice of the shepherd calling out to the sheep.
So he turned around and on this quest motivated by his sorrow and his love, he began to stalk the streets again. His voice rang out the shepherd’s call. The citizens of the city all looked at him as if he had lost his wits. He was oblivious to them and he continued to walk the streets of the degraded neighborhoods until finally, inside of one of those houses, his daughter sitting among the vermin who had led her astray, heard his voice. Astonished and unbelieving, she heard that call of the shepherd, the voice of her father calling out to her. She leaped up and rushed out to the street and ran into the arms of that old shepherd, her father. It was then that he took her back to the highlands of Scotland and brought her home and back to God.
So, no matter where we are – no matter how far away we stray from the flock – if we listen, we will hear the voice of the Good Shepherd calling us home too. It’s a voice of forgiveness – it’s a voice of longing – and it’s a voice of love. It say’s “I am the Good Shepherd and you are my sheep. I know you – you know me, and I have laid down my life for you so that you can always turn and come home.”
EASTER DAY – April 8, 2012
Okay – anybody know what this is? EGG
Do you know where an egg like this comes from? CHICKEN
Questions about eggs and chickens, like:
Which came first, the chicken or the egg?
Why did the chicken cross the road?
Which end of an egg do you crack?
Anybody know the answers? … Yeah but we don’t REALLY know so we WONDER.
Anybody know what WONDER means? THINK…ASK QUESTIONS – best word = HUH?
When we wonder, we think and maybe ask more questions. Most of the time when we hear Bible stories we wonder what it means – we wonder why Jesus said or did something.
But the word wonder can have another meaning–when we are filled with wonder, it means we are full of joy and excitement. Best word – WOW! The story we heard just now does both. Anybody remember the story…
Well, first of all, let’s catch up to the story…Jesus had died on the cross and now it was 3 days later, Mary and some friends went to the cemetery to finish the funeral service for Jesus. But when they got to the tomb where Jesus’s body had been placed it was open and it was empty. Mary and the others were confused. Then they got mad thinking someone had stolen his body. But mostly they were sad.
Then what happened? Anybody remember? … Mary saw a man that she thought was the gardener of the cemetery…but guess who it was – he was Jesus. His body was not in the tomb because Jesus was risen from the dead. He was no longer dead. He was alive. He was there with them. Now, don’t you know that Mary and the disciples were filled with wonder to see the Risen Lord! And don’t you think they wondered how it had happened and what was going to happen next?
Now, let’s get back to the eggs – this is a real egg but you guys have looked around the church and found some other eggs. Let’s look at them.
What???? And what’s on them? Letters – figure out what they spell…
Now let’s look inside and see what you got. WHAT??? There’s nothing in this one? Open the rest…NOTHING! Don’t you wonder what’s going on here? What kind of a pastor would give out empty eggs for Easter? What did you think would be in them? Did you wonder? So why do you think they are empty?
Somebody asked me the other day – what do eggs have to do with Easter? Not something made up by the candy companies to make money…
At the Last Supper – Jesus had an egg on his plate. Called “beitzah” – symbol of sadness.
Thousands of years ago people believed that the world began as an enormous egg that brought life to the planet…
The first mention of Easter Eggs in a book was some 500 years ago. Thought to bring good luck, kings & queens made Easter Eggs of gold and precious jewels and we’ve been coloring eggs and drawing on them for many years. Many years after Jesus, the Church decided that Easter should always be celebrated in the Spring – because Spring is a season of new life, when the earth comes back to life after a long, cold winter. Since eggs are a natural part of God’s miracle of birth many people today hang empty eggs on trees and bushes while there are still no leaves on them – to remind them that new life is on the way. Look at this picture – this is a man in Germany who has 10,000 Easter Eggs on his tree – he’s been working on since 1965 and finally hit the 10,000 mark. He says he’ll have to stop now because he doesn’t have room to store anymore. (Don’t know why he doesn’t just leave them on the tree – how long do you think it takes to hang up 10,000 eggs?)
So if this egg stands for life, and this empty egg stands for the empty tomb of Jesus, there must have been life in the empty tomb huh? No Pastor, there was nothing in the tomb – he wasn’t there remember? And you’re right – he wasn’t there because he was alive and alive people don’t belong in tombs, do they? So, this empty egg not only means that Jesus wasn’t there – it means that he was alive – and it was a new life for him because his old one had been killed right? So, this is why we use Easter eggs to remind us that Jesus brought new life into the world and it happened at Spring time when the whole world is coming back to a new life after being dead all winter.
I want to show you one more thing about the Easter Egg and this one I’m going to show you is just a picture of one but look what’s written on it – GOD’S LOVE. Now why do you think I wrote God’s Love on this Easter Egg – because the tomb was empty because of God’s love. God loved us so much that he asked Jesus to die for us and then he loved Jesus and the world so much that he raised him from the tomb so that all of us could someday rise from our tombs to spend eternity in heaven with God. So Easter is about empty tombs which are all about God’s love.
Before I tell you more about this, let’s have a little test – Look what I have – Smarties – how many do I have – let’s count them…Now if I give two to you and one to you, now many do I have left? Right – two. So when I give away my Smarties, I have less Smarties right? And if I give some of them to you, you have more Smarties – right? And if you give one of yours to him … then you have less Smarties but he has more – right? That’s usually how giving works doesn’t it but let’s look at this special egg.
You can see that this picture of the God’s Love egg has four corners – doesn’t it. Well now, here’s a strange thing. Suppose I give you one of my corners of God’s Love. (Take a pair of scissors from your pocket, cut of one of the corners, and give it to a child.) How many corners do I have left – Three? Are you SURE? Let’s count them. One, two, three, four, FIVE! How about that! I started with four corners of God’s Love, I gave one away, and now I’ve got FIVE! Let’s see what happens if I give away another one. (Cut and give) NOW how many have I got? One, two, three, four, five, six. It seems as if I end up with MORE corners of God’s Love every time I give one away. I started with FOUR, and I gave one to you… I did give you ONE, didn’t I? Are you sure? Just hold up the corner of God’s Love that I gave you and let’s have a look at it. (Child holds up her triangle.) LOOK! Count the corners. One, two, THREE. And have YOU got three as well? Yes! We started off with FOUR corners of God’s Love, and now we’ve got… how many? TWELVE! How did that happen? It must be that the more of God’s Love you give away, the bigger it gets…”
PS: – keep on going and you get a circle – God’s love encircling us!
So I brought some pictures you can color on while I tell a few more stories…This one shows us God’s power that brings life to the world…
Once, there was a woman who lived in a cute, little house on the edge of town. Let’s call her Jane. Jane took good care of her home, and her happiest hours were spent working in her garden. Jane grew beautiful flowers and delicious vegetables like tomatoes and green peppers every summer. There was a pretty good-sized patch of ground next to the garage where she planted dozens of daffodil bulbs. Daffodils are wonderful to plant because the bulbs multiply under ground on their own, and each year more and more flowers come up and bloom. Here, I have a daffodil to show you. (Show flower or photo.) See how the flower is shaped like a trumpet? Jane’s daffodil bed was a spectacular display of cheerful, yellow trumpets every spring. In the summer, when it gets really hot, daffodil plants die down and nothing shows above ground until the next spring, when the leaves poke through the ground once again.
Like I said, Jane loved her home, but the time came when she needed to move to a new town. She found another house with space for a garden that she really liked. She sold her house to a young family and moved to her new home.
The Ruiz family moved into the house in July. School was out, and the children loved playing in the yard. Mr. Ruiz owned a small fishing boat, and he needed a place to park it. He saw what looked like a barren patch of ground next to the garage. “Perfect!” he thought. “I can store my boat and trailer there when I’m not fishing.” So, Mr. Ruiz had a parking pad built in that spot. It was made out of black asphalt–like a street. The boat and trailer fit just right and all was well.
Summer ended. School started. The Ruiz family enjoyed Thanksgiving and Christmas and the rest of the winter in their new home. Then one day, just before Easter, Mrs. Ruiz went to the garage for something and glanced over at the boat. The asphalt parking pad looked odd. It didn’t seem quite as flat as it did when it was first built. She shrugged and then forgot about it. About a week later, Eddie Ruiz came into the kitchen from playing in the yard, shouting, “Mom! Dad! Come see!” The whole family followed Eddie outside. He took them to the parking pad. He pointed under the boat trailer and said, “Look!” The whole square of asphalt was lumpy and breaking apart into pieces. In several places, a little bit of green leaf was peeking out from below the heavy black asphalt. Without knowing it, Mr. Ruiz had paved over Jane’s daffodil bed, and guess what…the daffodils won! The life in those bulbs was too strong and powerful to remain buried, even under asphalt.
Easter celebrates such a powerful New Life! Jesus was dead and buried, but the love of God is stronger and more powerful than even death. God brought Jesus back to life and took him to heaven to live with God forever. This is what we call resurrection. This is what Easter is all about.
LENT 2 – March 4, 2012
At the end of the sermon, we will sing one of my favorite hymns – #399 – “Take My Life and Let it Be.” We sing it in three verses, but the original words to this hymn were written in shorter verses by a young woman named Frances Havergal. The daughter of the Rev. W.H. Havergal, she was born at Astley, Worcestershire, England on Dec. 14th, 1836. At the age of 15, she says, “I committed my soul to the Savior, and earth and heaven seemed brighter from that moment.” Her education was extensive, especially for a woman in the mid-19th century. She mastered several modern languages, as well as Greek and Hebrew, and became a poet with a distinctive style all her own. Simply and sweetly, she sang the love of God and his gift of salvation in poems that were sprinkled with the fragrance of her passionate love of Jesus. Her religious views and theological bias are distinctly set forth in her poems – a free and full salvation, through the Redeemer’s merits, for every sinner who will receive it, and her life was devoted to the proclamation of this truth. She tells this story about how she came to write the verses of this beloved hymn. She said, “I went for a little visit of five days to Areley House in London. There were ten persons in the house, some unconverted and long prayed for, some converted, but not rejoicing Christians. God gave me this prayer to pray, ‘Lord, give me all in this house!’ I prayed and God just did. Before I left the house every one had gotten a blessing. The last night of my visit after I had retired, the governess asked me to go to the two daughters of the house. They were crying so I spoke quietly with them about the love of Jesus; then and there both of them trusted and rejoiced. It was nearly midnight but I was too happy to sleep, and passed most of the night in praise and renewal of my own consecration. As I prayed, these little couplets formed themselves, and chimed in my heart one after another till they finished with the words ‘Ever, Only, ALL for Thee!’”
This morning I want to open some windows for you – windows into the deep meaning behind these verses and the passionate beliefs of their author. Each window tells the story of one who took seriously the words of our Lord from this morning’s Gospel.
In Window #1 you will meet Gladys Aylward, born in 1902 whose life is a perfect picture of those Jesus called in this verse from today’s Gospel: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” Listen also to the words of Frances Havergal:
Take my life, and let it be
Consecrated, Lord, to thee;
Take my hands, and let them move,
At the impulse of thy love.
As a teenager, Gladys Aylward read a magazine article about China that totally changed her life. From that moment, she kept thinking about the millions of people in that distant land who had not yet heard of God’s love and she knew she had to tell them. To do this, she was told, she would have to go to Missionary Training School. After finishing the course, she was informed that she was not qualified as a missionary because she had failed her exams. This setback did not derail her passion and she worked at jobs and saved her money, certain that God would present her with the right opportunity; she just had to be ready to take it. Then she heard of a 73-year-old missionary, Mrs. Jeannie Lawson, who was looking for a younger woman to carry on her work. Gladys wrote to Mrs. Lawson and was accepted if she could get to China.
On Saturday, October 15, 1932, at age 30 Gladys Aylward left Liverpool, England bound for China. Upon her arrival in Yangchen she took up Ms. Lawson’s work and began learning the Chinese language, something the training school said she could never accomplish. She began sharing the Gospel in surrounding villages. She began to take in orphans and before long she had 20 young children under her care – not to mention the 30-40 wounded soldiers she tended. Her ministry eventually grew to over 100 children. She adopted China as her homeland and became a citizen in 1936. This was not motivated by politics or ideology but by her unflagging love for Jesus because it afforded her a more effective venue to proclaim Jesus Christ. When the war was reaching its pinnacle in 1938 she smuggled her children out of China – it took 27 days. When they arrived in a safe country the doctors were amazed. The children were healthy but Gladys was suffering from pneumonia, Typhus, malnutrition, and exhaustion, eventually recovering only by God’s grace.
At the end of her life Gladys wrote the following about herself: My heart is full of praise that one so insignificant, uneducated, and ordinary in every way could be used to his glory for the blessing of his people in poor and persecuted China. When the Communists took over China Gladys was forced to leave her beloved country but she did not stop. God had called her to work among the Chinese and she never disobeyed. Rather, she established refugee centers in Hong Kong and Taipei. Gladys Aylward is a sterling example of taking Jesus at his word when he said: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”
In Window #2 we see Johann Sebastian Bach, world-renowned musical composer whose faith was strong and based on Jesus’ words: “For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the Gospel will save it.” Listen first to the next piece of Havergal’s poetry:
Take my feet, and let them be
Swift and beautiful for thee.
Take my voice, and let me sing
Always, only, for my king.
Johann Sebastian Bach was born into the musical family of Bach’s in 1685. By the age of ten, both of his parents were dead and young Johann, whose life became filled with sorrow and unrest, determined that he would write music … music for the glory of God … and this he did. Most of Bach’s works are explicitly Biblical. Albert Schweitzer referred to him as the fifth evangelist, thus comparing him to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. At age 17 Bach became the organist at his local church; soon thereafter he was given charge of the entire music ministry.
During his ministry in Weimar, Germany he wrote a new cantata every month and during one three-year period he wrote, conducted, orchestrated, and performed (with his choir and orchestra) a new cantata every week! No one had any idea what a mark Bach would leave but 300 years later, his legacy lives on throughout the world. At the beginning of every authentic manuscript one will find the letters “J.J.” This stands for Jesu Java (Jesus help me). At the end of each original manuscript you will find the letters “S.D.G.” This stands for Soli Deo Gloria (to the glory of God). Bach is a reminder that one who gives his life to Jesus and serves him does not count it a loss.
When I was finally approved for ordination in early 1985, my Bishop opened his calendar to find an open date for my ordination and I can still see the twinkle in his eye as he said, “Oh here’s a perfect date in the Church Calendar – the Feast of Polycarp.” He loved to test his clergy just coming out of seminary on the more obscure saints of the church and he was sure that I had no idea who Polycarp was – and he was right! Of course, I was so blown away by the fact that this Bishop who had sworn that he would never ordain a woman was standing in front of me, scheduling my ordination, and smiling!! No – he was actually laughing at the pained look on my face as I pictured the huge framed ordination certificate I would receive on which the Bishop would write the date in calligraphy – I could just see it – in brilliant red letters – …ordained on February 23rd, 1985, the Feast of Polycarp…”
Window #3 reveals Polycarp Bishop of Smyrna in present-day Turkey in the 2nd Century who lived and died according to these words of Jesus from our Gospel: “What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul?”
Listen to Havergal’s words:
Take my lips, and let them be
Filled with messages from thee.
Take my silver and my gold
Not a mite would I withhold.
Can you imagine what it was like for the church in Smyrna as the people watched their beloved and aged pastor burn at the stake? Yes, Polycarp was his real name and he was a disciple of Jesus’ disciple, the Apostle John. He was tender and compassionate and a strong leader of the local Christians. During these years of the early Church, serious persecution broke out all over the Roman Empire and in Smyrna, as in Rome and other cities, many Christians were fed to the wild beasts in the local arena. The godless and bloodthirsty crowds reveled in the gory entertainment and on one particular day in the city of Smyrna, they began to call for the leader of these troublemakers – the Pastor, Polycarp.
The authorities sent a search party to find him but it was days before they returned with him. He had been taken into hiding by some Christians but the Romans tortured two young believers until they finally disclosed his location. The soldiers moved quickly but when their arrival was announced there was still time to whisk Polycarp away but he refused to go saying, “God’s will be done.” In one of the most touching instances of Christian grace imaginable, Polycarp welcomed his captors as if they were friends. He talked with them and insisted they eat a meal. He made only one request before being taken away – he asked for one hour to pray. The Roman soldiers listened to his prayer, their hearts melted, and they gave him 2 hours to pray. They even had second thoughts and were overheard asking each other why they had been sent to arrest this gentle and loving man? But they obeyed their orders and, as they approached him to make the arrest, they were moved at his peaceful surrender and willingness to go with them.
Other authorities also experienced a warmed heart at Polycarp’s quiet acceptance of his fate. The Proconsul was so impressed that he tried to find a way to release him. “Curse God and I will let you go!” he pleaded. Polycarp’s reply was: “For eighty-six years I have served him. He has never done me wrong. How then can I blaspheme my King who has saved me?”
The Proconsul again looked for a way out. “Then do this old man, just swear by the spirit of the emperor and that will be sufficient.’
Polycarp’s reply was: “If you imagine for a moment that I would do that, then I think you pretend that you don’t know who I am. Hear it plainly. I am a Christian.” There were more entreaties by the Proconsul – some 25 times, the Proconsul offered him a chance to save himself and every time Polycarp stood firm. Finally the proconsul threatened him with the wild beasts waiting to devour him in the arena. Polycarp’s reply was: “Bring them forth. I would change my mind if it meant going from worst to best, but not to change from right to wrong.” The Proconsul threatened one last time, “Then I will burn you alive!” Polycarp’s reply was: “You threaten with fire that burns for an hour and is over but the judgment on the ungodly and the flames of hell are forever.” As the fires engulfed him, the witnesses noticed his faith and joy. Finally one of the guards who had shared Polycarp’s last meal could no longer stand his screams of agony and Polycarp was mercifully finished off with a dagger. He was buried for the cause of Christ on February 22, 155 A.D.
It was as much a day of victory as it was a day of tragedy in Smyrna as Polycarp illustrated the power of knowing Jesus intimately enough to follow him into the flames. As Jesus said, “What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul?”
In Window #4 let me introduce John Hus, a Pastor in Prague in the early 15th century. His nonstop, determined witness to his Christian faith is a shining example of a martyr for Jesus who taught him, “If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.” Listen to verse 4 of Havergal’s hymn.
Take my will, and make it thine,
It shall be no longer mine;
Take my heart, it is thine own,
It shall be thy royal throne.
You’ve all heard the phrase “My goose is cooked.” It actually began as a reference to John Hus, whose last name means “goose” in the Czech language. The townspeople shouted “We’ll cook his goose!” as he held fast to his faith. John was the pastor of the Bethlehem church in Prague where 3,000 people came weekly to hear him proclaim the Gospel and to read the works of the great martyr John Wycliffe who stressed the role and absolute authority of the Bible and emphasized personal piety and purity of life. Hus lifted Biblical preaching to new heights as he proclaimed Scripture to be the Word of God and Wycliffe as a faithful and accurate translator. As the church became more and more disturbed by Wycliffe’s claims of Biblical authority, the Archbishop of Prague told John to stop preaching and had the works of John Wycliffe burned. Hus refused. The Archbishop condemned him and removed him from his pastorate so that no pulpit was made available to him and he was forced into the open air to preach. The common people heard him gladly and still flocked to hear him in droves.
John claimed that Jesus and Jesus alone could save someone from the judgment of sin and that the church was not the
saving agent. He also said that Jesus and Jesus alone was the head of the church – not the pope. In 1415 John Hus was arrested and condemned to die for heresy. They placed him in a damp prison cell for an extended period of time hoping to break his will, get him to recant, and then use him as an example to others. John would not budge. He said, “I would not, for a chapel full of gold, recede from the truth.”
On July 16, 1415 John Hus was taken away to be burned and as he was carried past the onlookers, he was heard to say “God is my witness that the evidence against me is false, I have never thought or preached except with one intention of winning men, if possible from their sins.” The fire was lit. The flames engulfed him and Hus began to sing a Latin Christian chant, “Christ, thou Son of the Living God, have mercy on me.” John Hus is a clear example that the Words of God and the person of Jesus are worthy of any price. He lived his life, preached his faith, and died as Jesus did – proudly proclaiming the truth of the Father in heaven.
These glimpses of God’s chosen are clear evidence of the power of the Word of God – both the written Word in Scripture and the living Word, which is Jesus, his Son. Listen now to the final words of the poet and song writer:
Take my love, my Lord, I pour
At thy feet its treasure store;
Take myself, and I will be,
Ever, only, all for thee.
These windows into the soul of God are not about “Super Christians” – they are stories of everyday people who found the love and grace available in a relationship with Jesus Christ. Nor are they merely stories of yesteryear; at this very moment, around the world, in over 40 countries, our brothers and sisters daily face persecution and even death for their faith in Jesus Christ.
Past, present, and future, these are stories of those who had grasped Jesus’ words from today’s Gospel. These saints of God were faithful followers of Jesus at a time in history when being a follower of Jesus was fraught with danger from those who found the words of our Lord too much to accept. In our day and in our free country, we have the luxury of being able to follow Jesus in relative safety. There are no irate kings, judges, or archbishops demanding us to recant our faith or be burned alive. There are no lions and tigers and bears awaiting us in an arena filled with cheering people calling for our blood. We do not come to this place every Sunday with fear because we could walk outside to a waiting mob calling for our deaths as the people of Jerusalem called for Jesus to be crucified. We are truly free in this country from those kinds of threats because of what we believe and profess. However, the threats that are as real for us as they were for the followers who first heard them are those that Jesus uttered in today’s Gospel – those who are ashamed of me, deny me, or refuse to follow me in faith are doomed to a life without me and my love; but those who profess and praise me, those who accept and believe in me, and follow me openly will live with me now and throughout eternity – in the words of Ms. Havergal – “earth and heaven will seem brighter from that moment.”
THE FEAST OF THE EPIPHANY
(Traditionally the day we celebrate the visit by the Wise Men)
EPIPHANY – January 2, 2011 (I seem to have lost this year’s Epiphany Sermon)
I have a question for you this morning. How many of you make New Year’s Resolutions? How many have ever made New Year’s Resolutions? How many of you have ever kept a New Year’s Resolutions? Of course, that doesn’t mean “kept” like “kept in a file folder” – it means “kept” like you actually did what you resolved to do.
Probably most of us have made resolutions in the past but if you’re like me, you don’t even make them anymore because when we don’t keep them, we feel guilty and who needs that? So maybe we should make resolutions we can actually keep. For example, gain at least 30 pounds. Or stop exercising. Or read less. After all, it just makes you think. And watch more television. Then you won’t have to think at all. Or procrastinate more . . . starting tomorrow. These are resolutions we can all keep.
Over the years, there have a lot of jokes about resolutions – like these resolutions made by the late Erma Bombeck:
1. I will go to no doctor whose office plants have died.
2. I’m going to follow my husband’s suggestion to put a little excitement into my life by living within our budget.
3. I’m going to apply for a hardship scholarship to Weight Watchers.
4. I will never loan my car to anyone I have given birth to.
One joke writer says “Don’t worry about keeping those 2011 News Year’s resolutions,” he says. “You only have to deal with them until the end of February and then you can give them up for Lent.” Resolutions are good, especially if there are changes we need to make in our lives. I heard about one poor guy who dialed his girlfriend and got the following recording: “I am not available right now, but thank you for caring enough to call. I am making some changes in my life. Please leave a message after the beep. If I do not return your call, you are one of the changes.”
It’s good to make changes, for the most part. As we are often reminded by our critics, our spouses or our children, none of us is perfect. In fact, some of us might have some deep regrets about the way we’ve lived our lives.
Dr. Les Parrott tells about a guy in Fredericksburg, Virginia named Cliff Satterthwaite who helps people get rid of their regrets. Each New Year’s Eve Mr. Satterthwaite sets up a booth there in Fredericksburg where those celebrating New Year’s Eve can come for a moment of sober reflection. Put the emphasis on “sober” reflection. Those who come write their regrets on a scrap of paper, then they set a match to them and turn them to ashes in an adjacent canister. Literally, their regrets go up in smoke. At least, that’s the general idea.
We could do that. We could write our regrets on a piece of paper and bring them to the altar and watch them go up in smoke. That might be very therapeutic for some of us as we begin a new year. But our text for the day from the prologue to the Gospel of John puts the emphasis not on our past, but on our future. Not on our regrets, but on our possibilities.
But what if, instead of a resolution, we were to experience a revolution? Suppose we turned completely around with a new set of attitudes, a new set of motivations, a new set of feelings about life and about others?
Living by the Calendar Instead of the Clock (New Year’s)
“Leisure,” from the Latin, means “to be free.” Leisure is anything that restores you to peace while you are doing it. So, gardening, golf, reading, puzzles, and many other things can restore us to peace as we do them. Another cousin of leisure is the word “paragon.” This little-used word means “the second thing that we do in life that keeps the first thing in tune.” Hence, our work may draw energy from us, and we have then a “paragon,” a leisure thing we do in order to restore us.
Most often, to build toward leisure demands that we disassemble something else. In Thomas Moore’s book Meditations, he tells of a pilgrim walking along a road. The pilgrim sees some men working on a stone building.
“You look like a monk,” the pilgrim said.
“I am that,” said the monk.
“Who is that working on the abbey?”
“My monks. I’m the abbot.”
“It’s good to see a monastery going up,” said the pilgrim.
“They’re tearing it down,” said the abbot.
“Whatever for?” asked the pilgrim.
“So we can see the sun rise at dawn,” said the abbot.
I like a list of resolutions prepared by the Rev. Walter Schoedel. He calls them ‘7-UPS for the New Year.’ No, this has nothing to do with the soft drink. These 7-UPS fall under the heading of attitudes and actions.
Let Us Work
There are many churches today that are “out to lunch” when it comes to reaching out to change the world. But fortunately, there are many other churches–and many church members–who are seeking the best they are able, to make a difference in the world. Let me give you one example of a follower of Christ who gives us a reason to believe in the future.
His name is Burl Cain and he is the warden at The Louisiana State Penitentiary, commonly known as Angola. This institution used to be one of the nation’s bloodiest and most brutal prisons. Then, in the early ’80s, Burl Cain became the new warden at Angola. Cain is a devout Christian; he put his beliefs into action in reforming the prison. He established literacy classes throughout the prison, even on Death Row. He increased the number of prison chaplains. He also allowed a local seminary to teach Bible studies at Angola. He also insisted that the guards treat inmates with respect. Consequently, incidents of violence have plummeted, and more prisoners are enrolling in education courses.
Warden Cain was particularly instrumental in the life of one inmate, Antonio James. James was a convicted killer who spent about sixteen years on Death Row. The night before his execution, Antonio James asked Cain to eat his last meal with him. Cain had counseled James in the past and introduced him to Christ. Now James wanted to know what it would be like to die. Cain assured him that angels would come to take him to heaven. As Antonio James prepared for his lethal injection, Burl Cain held his hand and spoke to him about God. James’ last words to Cain were, “Bless you.”
As long as there are disciples of Christ like Burl Cain, there is hope for the world. The question you and I need to ask ourselves is, are we doing our part? This is a crazy world, but it is also a God-invaded world. “The Word has become flesh and dwelt among us . . .” Christ has redeemed us that we might work in his behalf to redeem the world.
CHRISTMAS DAY – December 25, 2011
Good morning and Merry Christmas!!
I wanted to start by saying Merry Christmas because it’s kind of been a theme for me this year to keep the main thing the main thing. Christmas is not a holiday – it is a holy day. It’s actually one of the holiest days of our Church year and should be the holiest day of the year for the entire world. But alas, not everybody is on that bandwagon. In fact, even in the Christian world, there have been people – serious people – who have tried to get rid of Christmas. Now, I’m not just talking about the Scrooges – you know those people – the Bah Humbugs of the world. Listen to this little gem from Church history. The Puritans were what history calls “Super Christians” and that’s not a complimentary title. They were just what their name suggested – Pure – i – tans. Their main focus was on making sure that the rules were kept so that no paganism or un-Christian beliefs and behaviors could creep in and pollute their Puritan mindset. At one point, the Puritans decided that the world was ruining Christmas with all the pagan rituals. They especially objected to the fact that the holiday usually came on a week day, therefore distracting people, they thought, from the Lord’s Day of Sunday. But they did more than annually complain about it as we do. They took action and got rid of Christmas altogether. Yep! You heard right. In Puritan settlements across 17th century America a law was passed outlawing the celebration of Christmas. The market place was ordered to stay open for business as though it was no special occasion and all violators were prosecuted. It was against the law to make plum pudding on December 25th. The celebration was not referred to as Yuletide but as fooltide.
Today we also want to reform Christmas and clean it up. We want to get rid of the pagan commercialism and the anti-Christmas movement that wants to move it from a holy day to a holiday. We think that the best way is to go back to the good old days when all the stores were closed on Christmas – when people who were traveling on Christmas Day got their gas and their last presents on Christmas Eve, at the latest, and when they took off the next day, parking lots were empty, stores were dark, and the world was basically focused on one thing – the Baby Jesus. Or was it? I grew up in those good old days when we stayed home on Christmas morning and opened presents and if we didn’t have enough butter for the coffee cake, we borrowed it from across the street or we had scrambled eggs. I grew up when we spent the afternoon visiting friends – most of our relatives lived in far away places and we only got together at Christmas once in a blue moon so we went from house to house – my Dad’s god-daughter’s family, my Mother’s best friends, and anybody who was having a hard time that year. We certainly didn’t have such a commercial Christmas as the world does now, but we didn’t sit around and talk about Jesus either. We did what Jesus commanded – we loved each other – but we had fun and we rode in cars and we even went to parties on Christmas Eve before Church – all things that the Puritans would have outlawed. So, we need to be careful when we talk about getting rid of any part or parcel of the Christmas experience. The Puritans thought if they got rid of it all together, then they would be saved from such sinful ways as spending $40 billion annually on presents. Well, I’m one of the all-time critics of Christmas commercialism but can you think of a better way of spending all that money than on gifts of love? And so what if all the lights and tinsel does create a fairy tale setting that soon disappears as does the so called Christmas spirit. At least it lets us know, if only for a brief time, what life can be like if we only try.
So I want to let the message ring out this Christmas that we can never destroy this holy day. We may want to take it back from its present almost-pagan holiday status, but if we lose some of the time-honored traditions of the season like gift-giving and visiting friends and decorating our world in honor of the one we celebrate, then we are literally throwing out the baby with the bath water. It has occurred to me for the first time, when I was complaining the day after Halloween that the stores were already starting to put out Christmas stuff, that this is not a bad thing. I know, we rant and rave every year that the stores are trying to milk Christmas for a little longer but think about this. The longer the decorations are up and the advertising is blaring about Christmas, the more opportunity there is for people to hear that one word that can bring peace to this world – Christmas. So, instead of bad-mouthing Target and Wal-Mart and the malls for their “way-too-early” Christmas season, maybe we should get on the bandwagon. Instead of laboring along in the season after Pentecost during the gorgeous days of Fall, waiting for the dreary days of early winter to start talking about the coming Christ child, we should be telling the world – look who’s coming – get ready for this – we should be singing every week, Come and worship, come let us adore him, and Joy to the World. We should be plastering this verse on football stadiums instead of John 3:16 – “Behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which shall be for all generations. For unto you is born this day, in the city of David, a savior who is Christ the Lord.” As I wrote these words yesterday, I couldn’t help but shake my head at my own failure to grasp this for so many years.
When I went to Israel back in 1994, I bought a gorgeous olive wood nativity set in Bethlehem. It was mega-expensive and it cost almost as much to ship it home as it did to purchase it. But you weren’t allowed to bring things like that out of the country – you had to ship them – hmmm – wonder who made out on that ruling?? Anyway, our trip was in late January so it was almost March before I received my precious package from Bethlehem. I couldn’t wait to get it open and then I realized – it’s March – I have to wait until December to put this out. I was so disappointed but I dusted it off, stored it away and the week before Christmas that year I finally got to place my precious creche out for the world to see. That was the year that I discovered that the hymn Joy to the World is NOT a Christmas hymn. It isn’t even anywhere near the Christmas section in the Episcopal hymnal – it was writtenby English hymn writer Isaac Watts, and was based on Psalm 98 which we read this morning. Watts wrote the words of “Joy to the World” as a two-part hymn glorifying Christ’s triumphant return at the end of the age, rather than a Christmas song celebrating his first coming as a babe born in a stable. It is the second half of Watts’ lyrics that we sing today.
In January, when I put away all my Christmas decorations, I started to pack up my nativity scene and then I thought, “Wait a minute! Jesus didn’t just come for Christmas – he came for the whole year! I don’t have to put this away – the message is still the same today as it was on December 25th and as it will be on July 4th.” So, I left it out and it’s been in plain view in my home ever since. Since Jesus never rests or sleeps, I figure my celebration, or at least my recognition, of his birth shouldn’t either.
Now, all that being said, I want to look at that gift that is firmly ensconced on a table in my living room as not only something to be thought about, talked about, sung about, and celebrated every day but it is also something that is so miraculous, so unheard of, so incomprehensible, that it is, as the Apostle Paul called it, indescribable. He said this in his 2nd letter to the Corinthians where he was writing about human gifts. The church in Corinth was taking up offerings to give to the poor Christians in Jerusalem. Paul commended them for their eagerness to help, & reminds them that those who sow sparingly will also reap sparingly, but that those who sow generously will reap generously. Then he shifts his attention from human gifts to God’s gift of sending Jesus to earth for us. And he cannot find words to describe that so he simply says, “Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift.”
Indescribable is one of those plain words that have taken on a deeper meaning through history. Remember when the Peter Paul Candy Company came out with the Mounds’ candy bar, which is by the way, the finest clump of sugar on the market – there is just nothing better than their combination of sweet dark chocolate and creamy coconut. Sorry, I get carried away. If you’re old enough, you may remember that the original slogan of the Mounds candy bar was, “What a bar of candy for 5 cents!” This was in the 1920’s and Mounds and Almond Joy both enjoyed a long reign as the king of nickel candy bars. Then, after the war, when all candy prices had to be raised due to the out-of-control prices of the raw materials needed to make candy, the 5 cents slogan had to be changed, because it now cost 10 cents. So they began using the phrase “Indescribably Delicious.” There are many things we find indescribable in this life – one of them is “how does our luggage get lost on a simple flight from Albany to Raleigh NC?” This happened to us when my Dad died and none of us could figure out what happened. Here’s what I think happens – it doesn’t really matter what time of the year it is but it can be especially bad at Christmas when the airport has turned a tacky red and green with loudspeakers blaring elevator renditions of cherished Christmas carols. At this time of the year, if you go back into the holding area where all the luggage was separated into piles, you will see hanging mistletoe. Not real mistletoe, but very cheap plastic with red paint on some of the rounder parts and green paint on some of the flatter and “pointier” parts, that could be taken for mistletoe only in a very Picasso sort of way. One traveler, looking for some errant luggage, saw it and with a considerable degree of irritation and nowhere else to vent it, he said to the lady attendant, “Even if I were not married, I would not want to kiss you under such a ghastly mockery of mistletoe.”
She said, “Sir, look more closely at where the mistletoe is.” “Ok, I see that it’s above the luggage scale, which makes that the place you’d have to step forward for a kiss.” She smirked and said, “That’s not why it’s there.” “Ok, I give up. Why is it there?” “It’s there so you can kiss your luggage goodbye.” Finally an indescribable event has been unmasked.
So, let me ask you, “Have you ever received an indescribably delicious gift?” I thought about that for a while. What kind of gift would it have to be to be called “indescribable?” Would it be a gift that you open & look at & say, “This is just beautiful” or “This is something that I’ve wanted all my life – what is it?” Or maybe it is a gift that carries a lot of emotional feelings with it. It was given to you by someone very special, & it was a complete surprise when it was given. You’ll treasure it always because of the memories. Would that make it an indescribable gift? Or maybe it would be a gift that you cared so little about that you wouldn’t even bother to find words to try to describe it.
Some years ago, on “Good Morning, America,” Joan Lunden featured some gift ideas that might be called indescribable. They were extraordinary gifts that some of you might want to include on your Christmas gift list. One of them was a Jaguar automobile, the Jaguar 220. If you care to order one of these, go to your Jaguar dealer & put down your $80,000 deposit. Then when the automobile is delivered, you will be expected to pay the balance of $507,000. Joan Lunden also mentioned a $300,000 gold & silver toilet seat inlaid with precious stones. Of course, there were cheaper gifts for those who have everything: an $18,000 Frisbee, a $10,000 yoyo, a $12,000 mousetrap, & even a $27,000 pair of sunglasses. And for the proud grandparent who is wondering what to buy the new grandbaby, how about a $28,000 pacifier?
Such gifts stagger our imagination, don’t they? But they are not indescribable. Even though we may not be able to find words to describe what it would feel like to own them, I assure you the manufacturers can and have spent lots of money describing them in TV & newspaper ads. They have advertising companies that have no trouble finding words to desribe them in such appealing ways as to entice you into believing that you simply can’t live the rest of your life without them. You see, every human gift is describable by someone.
But this is the time of the year when we do our best to depict the wonderfulness of God’s gift of Jesus to us. Musicians have composed some of their greatest music on this theme: Handel’s “Messiah,” Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio,” & the beautiful hymns, “Silent Night,” “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” & my favorite, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” Some of the greatest music our ears will ever hear were written about God’s indescribable gift. Poets & painters & sculptors have taken up the tools of their trade for more than 20 centuries to try and pay tribute to Jesus, the gift of God’s love. But Paul seemed to think this was impossible to do.” Why does Paul call Jesus “indescribable?” I think that there are at least four reasons.
First of all, I believe that Paul calls Jesus “indescribable” because of his nature. How do you describe Jesus? What words would you choose? How can do you describe a baby born of a virgin? How could you describe God in our flesh, walking upon our earth? Isaiah said he would be called Emmanuel, “God with us.” A good try but how does one describe God, much less God in the presence of mere humans? How do we describe that which is spirit when all we have ever known is that which is either physical or material? How do we describe God who has all knowledge when all we have is limited knowledge? How do we describe God who is all powerful? How do we describe the eternal? How do we describe the indescribable?
Well, Paul says that we can’t. Words aren’t adequate. But many of the wisest men in the world have tried to describe Jesus. Listen to the words published by the Council of Chalcedon in 451 A.D. The greatest theological minds of the time came together & tried to describe Jesus. Here is their description: “Perfect in Godhead & also perfect in manhood. Truly man of a reasonable, rational soul & body. Consubstantial, co-essential with the Father according to the manhood. In all things like unto us but without sin. Begotten before all ages of the Father according to the Godhead. And in these latter times for us & for our salvation, born of the Virgin Mary, the mother of God. According to the manhood – one & the same Christ, Son, Lord, only begotten to be acknowledged in two natures. Inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably & the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved.”
Did you understand that? Neither did I. That’s a human’s attempt to describe the indescribable. Even when we bring together our greatest human minds & our most extensive vocabularies, we cannot adequately describe Jesus.
Secondly, I think Paul called Jesus indescribable because of his purpose in coming to earth. The angels announced to the shepherds, “Unto you is born this day in the City of David, a Savior who is Christ the Lord.” This is what we celebrate at Christmas. We celebrate the fact that Jesus came into our world to save us. God saw that mankind needed saving because he saw our rampant inhumanity to our own kind and he saw that it wasn’t changing by our efforts. Just look at our world today. The hopes of world peace brought about by the break-up of the Soviet Union have been shattered by civil wars that have since broken out all over Europe. We may have peace treaties between the great powers, but these treaties will never ensure peace because the nature of humanity has not changed.
Even 2000 years ago, when God looked at our world he knew that our greatest need was not and never would be for more wealth, or better schools, not even for a better welfare system. Our greatest need was, and still is, for a Savior. But a Savior can only offer the world the opportunity of peace and salvation. The truth is that there will never be peace on earth until humanity has been lifted out of sin, until hearts have been changed, and our way of thinking has been changed, because the Savior has come into our lives. Our greatest need is not to be saved from the very flames of hell but from ourselves and our sin which, without God’s intervention, will lead us there.
How do you describe that? How do you put into words what God accomplished when he sent his only begotten Son into the world? We try with the immortal words of John 3:16 but basically, God’s gift is indescribable because of his godly nature, because of his godly purpose in coming to earth, and thirdly, because of the grace by which Jesus is given.
Let’s think for a minute about the gifts we give at Christmas. We’d all like to think that we give gifts because of the love we have for the other person and I believe that is true for most of us but that human part does slip in there at times like when Aunt Bessie suddenly decides to give iPods to your children and suddenly, Aunt Bessie is added to your Christmas gift list. That is what makes our gifts so human and it is the flip side of that that makes God’s gift so special. God does not owe us anything. Indeed, we are in constant rebellion against him & his will for our lives and if we get right down to it, we owe God everything. With that in mind, the Apostle Paul said something remarkable in the 5th chapter of Romans. He said, “While we were yet in our sin, while we were yet the enemies of God, Christ died on the cross for us.” So there it is. God gives us a gift, not because he feels obligated to give to us but because his love is so overwhelming, he can do nothing else but give. And so, God’s gift to us is a gift of grace – it is an indescrible gift of an indescribable grace. We call it unconditional and free, but in our human understanding those words are indescribable as well. So when we stop here at this Altar this morning and see the Christ child in his manger, we must remember that he is a gift of grace – a free gift of a love that is so deep and so endless that it is as indescribable as the gift itself. And so, it seems that Paul was right – there are no words adequate enough to describe God’s grace towards us in Jesus.
Part of that may also have to do with the sheer magnitude of the whole idea of the God of the universe giving us a gift of – himself? First, can you imagine what went through God’s mind when he looked at our confused world nearly 2,000 years ago; when he saw Roman soldiers marching in the streets; when he saw people looking for peace & meaning & depth in life and he wanted so urgently to communicate his love. Can you imagine God saying, “But how? How shall I communicate my love? If I appear in person,” he must have thought, “If I stand before the people in all my glory, they’ll be frightened, they’ll be scared away. They will never feel that they can come to me & talk with me. They’ll be much like Moses who stood on the mountain & took off his shoes because he was on holy ground.”
“If I speak, if they hear the thunder of my voice, they may never grasp the words of my love. If I send down legions of angels perhaps they will not know how to respond. Maybe they will never be able to experience my love. How can I possibly make them know something so indescribable?” And then God said, “I know. I will send a baby. Babies don’t frighten people. Babies are so tender & soft & helpless. Maybe they will hold the baby in their arms. Maybe they will touch the soft skin. Maybe they will hear the gentle sighs. Maybe they will experience my love if I send a baby.”
So in the fullness of time God sent his only begotten Son, as a baby and to the world it was stilll indescribable! But the good news is that God does not require that we can describe him. No one has ever had to be able to describe God to be loved by him, or to accept him. We only have to believe that God loved us enough to send a savior that would warm our hearts and change our souls with his love and then we must accept his indescribable gift.
This Sermon was preached on PENTECOST 12 – September 4, 2011
in answer to a question from a parishioner: Where did the practice of clasping one’s hands in front to pray come from? Why isn’t this taught in the church now? (The picture is Albrecht Dürer’s famous painting “The Apostle’s Hands” which is found all over the internet. This is one of the many images I found.)
Please look at the picture on the front of your bulletin. It is the most often reproduced and widely known work of the German artist Albrecht Dürer. It’s entitled the “Hands of the Apostle,” but generally it’s known throughout the world as “The Praying Hands.” The picture is actually a preliminary sketch for an altarpiece Durer painted; unfortunately the entire piece was destroyed by fire in 1729. Thankfully, the preliminary sketches that Dürer had prepared for the final painting of The Apostle’s Hands survived. The painting has a rather amazing story that has grown up around it – many historians say it is a legend but those who love the painting tend to discount those who say that the story isn’t true. Whether it is or not, it’s a great story with a great message. Here it is.Durer grew up near Nuremburg, Germany in the late 15th century, the third oldest son of a couple with eighteen children. In order merely to keep food on the table, the father, a goldsmith by profession, worked almost eighteen hours a day at his trade and any other paying chore he could find in the neighborhood. Despite their poverty, two of his sons had a dream. They both wanted to pursue their talent for art but they knew full well that their father would never be financially able to send either of them to study at the Academy.After many long discussions at night in their crowded bed, the two boys finally worked out a pact. They would toss a coin. The loser would go down into the nearby mines and, with his earnings, support his brother while he attended the academy. In four years, when the brother who won the toss completed his studies, he would support the other brother at the academy, either with sales of his artwork or, if necessary, also by laboring in the mines. When they were old enough, they tossed a coin on a Sunday morning after church. Albrecht Dürer won the toss and went off to Nuremberg. His brother Albert went down into the dangerous mines and, for the next four years, financed his brother, whose work at the academy was far better than those of most of his professors, and by the time he graduated, he was beginning to earn considerable fees for his commissioned works of art. When the already successful young artist returned to his village, the Durer family held a festive dinner on their lawn to celebrate Albrecht’s triumphant homecoming. After a long and memorable meal, Albrecht rose from his honored position at the head of the table to drink a toast to his beloved brother Albert. My brother now it is your turn. Now you can go to Nuremberg to pursue your dream, and I will take care of you.”Instead of smiling, Albert was sitting with his head down, tears running down his cheeks. He stood up, holding his hands close to his right cheek, and said softly, “No, brother. I cannot go to Nuremberg. It is too late for me. The bones in every finger have been smashed at least once, and the arthritis in my right hand is so bad that I cannot even hold a glass to return your toast, much less make delicate lines on parchment or canvas with a pen or a brush. No, brother … for me it is too late.” More than 450 years have passed. By now, Albrecht Dürer’s hundreds of masterful portraits, pen and silver-point sketches, watercolors, charcoals, woodcuts, and copper engravings hang in every great museum in the world, but the odds are that you, like most people, are familiar with just this one. As the legend continues, to pay homage to Albert for all that he had sacrificed, Albrecht Dürer painstakingly drew his brother’s abused hands with palms together and thin fingers stretched skyward. He called his powerful drawing simply “Hands,” but the entire world almost immediately opened their hearts to his great masterpiece and renamed his tribute of love “The Praying Hands.”
Our question this morning is from Donna who says she was taught as a child to pray with her hands clasped in front of her. She wants to know where that custom originated and why it’s not taught like it was in her day. So I went looking for information about hands, particularly clasped hands and prayer and was surprised at what I found. First I was surprised that I found anything, but the first information I came across was the story of the Praying Hands. Then I found a whole conversation that very well could have included Donna. Here are some of the comments I read in answer to the question: What happens when we pray or meditate with clasped or folded hands?I find that I am able to focus more on God and concentrate better when I pray using the praying hands gesture. It’s as if folding or clasping or drawing my hands together sends a signal to my mind to calm down. It is much the same when I kneel to pray. I see it as a time when I am in God’s presence so I do it to show my reverence to my Creator.On woman remembered, “When I was a child I was told that we could whisper our deepest thoughts into our empty hands and they would follow to where our fingers were pointed – straight up to heaven.” Another said, “My understanding is that this began as a symbolic gesture of warriors and knights to show restraint of the sword hand.” And another, “I have no real clue, but here’s a guess. As with much prayer practice I think it comes from the monastic life, when religious were taught custody of the eyes, the hand, and the tongue as discipline and as means of resisting temptation. This is why we tell school children to fold their hands on the desk – to avoid making mischief, making noise, disturbing others etc. That’s why altar servers are usually trained to clasp their hands at their waist when they are not actually doing anything. I think this is for the same reason. When we pay attention and deliberately hold the hands still, they cannot get into mischief.” One woman said, “I try to keep my hands folded when I pray at Mass, since this is what I was taught when young and in Catholic school years ago. But, it seems as if not many Catholics in the pew do much of anything with their hands, even when the priest says “Let us pray” and demonstrates the folded hands position to everyone before opening his own hands to lead the prayer to God.” She continued, “Catholic signs, symbols, and gestures are important to me. I love directing my prayer to God along with everyone else. “ One of my favorites is this honest comment, “I always taught my own children to keep their hands folded at Mass, but I must admit my motive was two-fold — to keep their attention focused on God and to keep their hands OFF one another. “ Then there was this interesting take on the subject, “I find that when I’m focusing on my hands and my prayer posture, I am spending less time actually focused on prayer. Sometimes when I’m actively praying, I realize – Oops! I didn’t have my hands folded. So, I wouldn’t worry about it. I can pray while driving, even with my eyes open, or when lying down in my bed on my back, just as good as sitting straight up with hands together pointed up. Many people fold their hands to pray to keep their hands from distracting their minds from the things of God. I fidget when I pray, and I know that if my hands were not folded or holding another’s hands, I would be moving them. That may not be distractive to me, but it might distract someone sitting next to me.” Most of what I found was from Christians, Roman Catholics to be specific but, Nathan Ausubel, in his “Book of Jewish Knowledge” said, “It has also been commonly assumed that folding the hands in prayer is exclusively a Christian custom. This is not the historical fact at all. As early 500 years before Christ, when Jews prayed, they folded their hands, and they observed this custom for several centuries after it had been adopted by Christians.” So, it may be that Jesus, being a Jew, also prayed with clasped hands. We’ve all seen pictures or images of him in the Garden of Gethsemane kneeling in front of a rock with his hands clasped in desperate prayer. We don’t know that he actually did this, but given the fact that it was a common practice for Jews when they prayed, it is highly probable. One thing we do know about the ancient Jews, they didn’t do anything without good reason and for a purpose. If you read through the Old Testament, you can see the significance of the hands. People weren’t just given an object; it was put into their hands. Armies didn’t just defeat each other; the enemy was delivered into the hands of the victorious. One of the most significant signs of the importance of hands is the law of ritual cleanliness by which everyone was required to wash their hands after just about any activity and certainly before touching anything considered holy. I think this is because hands are important. Hands are used to do everything; to work, prepare food, eat, but most importantly, hands are used in service to others. Jesus used his hands to heal, help, instruct, comfort, and bless. Ultimately, his hands were nailed to the cross for our sins. And so we, as Christians, follow the ancient Jewish practice and fold our hands to pray – mostly out of respect for God but also out of respect for the sacrifice made by his son. So, for us the hands clasped or folded together before the heart as we pray is a symbol of obedience, submission, sincerity and repentance. This is meaningful for many people, but for many others, the ancient practice of raising one’s hands toward heaven and God while praying has become just as meaningful. Again, if you read through the Bible, you will see many instances of the people, like King David, spreading their hands before God and raising their hands to heaven as they pray. So I think the clasped hands have survived all these years because there is something inherently holy about the posture and for most, it’s more comfortable. Sometimes, we can learn about these human things from other religions. The Hindus and Buddhists draw their palms together at the heart as a sign of veneration and respect but it is also a form of greeting. This is known as the “anjali mudra” which means offering (anjali) and seal (mudra). The people of India when doing this would say the word “Namaste” which is some kind of a sacred hello that means “I bow to the divinity within you from the divinity within me.” How beautiful is that – and doesn’t it illustrate just how sacred our hands can be? I discovered one more historical fact. During feudal times, the custom of placing one’s joined hands into the hands of one’s ruling lord was a sign of fidelity, loyalty, and trust. So, when we fold our hands in prayer, we are symbolically pledging to God our fidelity and loyalty while also placing our hands in his for safekeeping. I also found a video that offered this: A great spiritual master once asked his students, “Tell me how you pray.” And they all did this. And he nodded and asked, “Why? Why do you pray like that? Why don’t you pray like this (hands on top and bottom of head) or like this (hands on sides of head)? Why do you pray like this (hands in front)?” People said, that’s the way I learned to pray – he said, “Look, there’s a science to things. Everything we do, whether we remember why or not, everything we do has a science behind it. And it’s true with how we pray. Our body has a polarity – a left side and a right side – when you put them together – (bring hands together) – positive and negative come together and you get neutral. This is the principle behind the yoga position to calm the body. But this guy goes further. He told his students to put their hands together right here – try it – bring your hands together and put them here. There is a node on your breastbone which is the reflex point for the vagus nerve, the only nerve that goes up the front of the body – it goes to the glands in your brain. So when you put your hands there and rest your knuckles on that point, it sends messages that create a resonance in your brain which then moves into a more meditative state. That’s why people pray this way – because it actually makes them feel prayerful and because, as it is centered over the heart, they find that their prayer comes from the heart and, no matter what religion we practice, we all know that the only prayer that works is the prayer that comes from the heart. So there is a technology behind this that we don’t even think about. Most likely, the Jews didn’t know all that either – they just knew that it worked. Of course, the bottom line about how we pray really doesn’t have as much to do with us as it does with God because the real truth is that God doesn’t care how we pray — just that we pray. He doesn’t care if we are standing, sitting, lying down, or kneeling. The method we use and the posture we have is not important to God. The most important thing we can do every day is to pray — talk to God, tell Him our troubles, and share our gratitude. If clasping your hands in front of you helps you to pray – then do it. If raising your hands to heaven helps you to pray – then do that. If sitting on your hands while you pray is helpful – well, you can start something new. What matters in prayer is not how we do it – it’s not even what words we use – all God wants from us is our attention – he wants to hear our joys, our pains, our needs, our wants, even our questions – God only wants what is on our minds – how we get it to God is only important if it helps us to do it. I remember when I was in seminary, one of our professors suggested that we meditate by staring at a lit candle. He said, “Just look at the candle and shut everything else out – just focus on the candle.” Well, I discovered that focus is good, but every time I looked at the candle flame, it made my eyes water and when the flame jumped, it distracted me. So, while many of my classmates loved it and said it was a great way to focus for prayer, it wasn’t for me. It wasn’t long after that that my knees became so painful from arthritis that I couldn’t kneel without being distracted by the pain. So, I stopped kneeling except for the confession and for communion. But, 2 knee replacements later, I stopped kneeling altogether. It was weird for a while, especially since I was raised in the Episcopal Church where we stood to sing, sat to listen, and knelt to pray. But this was when I learned that prayer is a very personal enterprise – what we say, how we say it, what we do with our hands, our feet, our eyes, even how we sit or kneel or lay down or walk in circles – all of those are only personal habits that help us concentrate, focus, and pay attention to God as we pray.
This Sermon was preached on PENTECOST 10 – August 21, 2011 – as a tribute to a dear friend of Jermain UMC – Ted Weselak, who was the beloved husband of Rosalyn Perry Weselak. Ted died on July 3, 2011 and is sorely missed by all his family and friends. Two men attended seminary together. They were best friends, studying together, helping each other financially when one or the other got in a pinch. They were the true kind of friends – they stuck by each other through thick and thin. When they graduated from seminary both coincidentally received a church call within the same state: Louisiana. Bob got a church in the northern part of the state and Bill got a church in southern Louisiana. Life was great. Every Wednesday they would meet somewhere in the middle of the state where they would fish, hunt for gators, or just go shooting. They did this for many years and as they were nearing retirement, Pastor Bill said to Pastor Bob, “I can’t think of anyone else I would like to do my funeral but you.” Pastor Bob said to Pastor Bill, “I feel the same way, I can’t think of anyone better than you to do my funeral.” So they agreed that whoever should go first, the other would do the funeral. It came to pass that Pastor Bob passed away first and so Pastor Bill came up to do the funeral. Upon his arrival, he was met by one of the church ladies, Evelyn. Evelyn needed desperately to meet with Pastor Bill. It seems Evelyn was at Pastor Bob’s bedside and his dying wish, in his last gasping breaths, was to have a final song sung at the end of the graveside committal – Jingle Bells. Pastor Bill was understandably skeptical. “Jungle Bells?– that’s crazy, Bob would have never said that and I’m not singing Jingle Bells at a graveside committal.” But after some thought, Bill decided he had to sing Jingle Bells at the graveside committal, for it was after all, as crazy as it sounded, it was Bob’s dying request. The day of the funeral came and the church was packed, the funeral service went well; so well that everyone came to the graveside committal, which also went very well. Pastor Bill ended by saying, “Now, let’s all join in together and sing the song that was Pastor Bob’s dying request: Jingle Bells.” He began to sing, “Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way….” No one else joined in except Evelyn, the church lady. At the wake, Pastor Bill sat alone with his buffet lunch. Most people were keeping their distance, wondering what had come over him to sing “Jingle Bells” at a funeral. Finally, Evelyn, the church lady sat down beside him. “That was such a nice funeral, Pastor…but you know, now that I think of it, I think Pastor Bob may have said, ‘please sing the song, ‘The Bell Tolls for Thee.’” I’m not sure what song Ted would have wanted us to sing for him today but Rosie wrote this about her husband, Ted, a week after his death. “I think the following scripture best describes how I feel about Ted’s life. It’s in the Gospel of John, chapter 12, verse 24: The truth is, a kernel of wheat must be planted in the soil. Unless it dies, it will be alone, a single seed. But its death will produce many new kernels…A plentiful harvest of new lives.” Of course, he was speaking of the necessity of his own impending death, but it is also a basic truth of God’s creation – there is a time to be born and a time to die and we all must do both. So, I think Ted would like this new song I’ve learned lately – it’s called Hymn of Promise and I’d like to sing it for Ted and for you. Hymn of Promise And so, God’s promise to us is that there is never an end because in every ending, in every finale, in every death, there is a beginning, a new verse, a new life. Ted’s real name was Thaddeus – a very appropriate name for him because it means Lover of God and he was surely that. But he not only loved God, he trusted God. Even in his darkest hour, Ted trusted God. Even in the midst of what is surely everybody’s worse nightmare Ted hung on the promise that Jesus made to his disciples and to us. Listen again to the words of Jesus. “I will not leave you comfortless. I will come to you. I go before you to prepare a place for you.” Ted clung to this promise and to the words of Psalm 27 – “Wait patiently for the Lord, be brave and courageous, yes, wait patiently for the Lord.” Rosie says that there were times during his illness that Ted never knew what was around the corner and that this was very difficult for him. He managed to get through those times with God’s grace & mercy & this scripture. Trust – it’s a tough thing to trust. It’s hard enough to trust the people around us and we can see them and when they sometimes let us down, we can find out why and figure out if we’re going to be able to trust them again. But it’s really hard to trust someone we cannot see, cannot touch, and don’t really know for sure how the promises will be carried out. It’s especially hard when the promises seem to be just a bunch of words – when we don’t know what’s coming next and don’t know where this someone is. Does anyone remember the old game show, “Who Do You Trust?” Of course, the grammar is all wrong – it should be “Whom Do You Trust?” but Hollywood couldn’t be bothered with a silly little thing like correct grammar. Anyway, it was Johnny Carson’s first and only foray into daytime game show hosting and it was where he and Ed McMahon hooked up for their long-term run as host and sidekick. The program featured 3 couples or later on in its history, 3 pairs of not necessarily married men and women. There were 3 rounds and in each round, the male half of the pair was asked a question and he had to first decide whether to answer the question or to trust his partner to answer it. So, who or whom do you trust? It could be a family member, a close friend, a teacher. It could be the government – but probably not these days – the military (we do trust them to protect us and our country’s freedom) but have you ever thought about the people we trust indirectly? For instance, think about a bridge or a tunnel – they are all designed by engineers who have gone to school for years to learn how to build bridges and tunnels so that they are safe and so they last a long, long time. Every time I go through the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, I think about those people – I wonder what grades they got in whatever subject they took to learn how to keep the bridge part from falling down or the tunnel part from springing a leak or just floating out to sea. Most of us have flown in planes. Does anybody know how those things stay up in the air? I don’t – but I climb on board and sit back with my audiobook while the pilot and co-pilot get a huge aircraft which weighs tons to get off the ground, to climb through the clouds to some 30,000 feet, stay up there for hours, and finally come back down at a reasonable rate of speed, and land with a little bit of a jolt but with all its bolts and screws still in their proper places. Of course, we all know that all of those things that I have just mentioned have failed at one time or another. We have all felt the disastrous results of failed trust within our families and by our friends. Confidences are shattered, tears are shed, feelings are hurt, trust is damaged and bitterness often grows. We have witnessed the devastating results of national security failures. Planes got hijacked and used like missiles, thousands of innocent lives were lost, our nation was shaken and stunned, and our insecurity and fear grew. In times like this, who do we trust? Quite frankly, God wants us to trust him. Listen again to what Jesus said, “Do not let your hearts be troubled; trust in God, trust also in me.” So, he was encouraging his disciples to focus – to focus on him and on his Father in heaven. Jesus knew how much we needed him and how hard it is for us humans to keep our eyes on the one who can keep us safe, even as we are sinking. Remember Peter? He wanted so badly to walk on the water with Jesus – he just knew that if he believed hard enough, he could follow Jesus onto the Sea of Galilee. But what happened? He lost his focus. He was doing fine until he took his eyes off of Jesus and looked at the turbulent waves swirling at his feet and threatening to pull him under. The same is true of us today. God can get us through the most impossible situations but we must keep our focus on him – we must continue to trust him even when it seems impossible for him to save us. This trust can only be found in our unswerving belief that the God of Heaven will indeed work on our behalf to accomplish His perfect will for our lives. Do you ever feel like God is not working very hard? Sometimes I even feel like he’s not in the room – not even on the same planet and that is how Jesus knew the disciples were going to feel after his death. So he was telling them to trust even when they did not understand because God was still at work We too must stand firm in our trust in God, even as it seems like we’re sinking way too fast for anyone to save us – even God. That’s hard but it’s not only those circumstances that make it hard for us to trust God. It’s just against our human nature to believe in and trust that which we cannot see and do not understand – and you know why? Because then we would have to admit that we are not in control of our lives and we are just arrogant enough to think that we can do a better job than God. Well, I am suggesting this morning that if we are willing to cross a bridge when we don’t know the engineer who designed it or whether or not he passed bridge design, then we should have no problem trusting in God. If we are willing to get on an airplane when we don’t have a clue how it gets off the ground, much less stays in the air, then we should have no problem trusting in God. Of course, the human race is not going to suddenly start trusting God for everything just because I say so. We are not made to trust blindly. We are made to ask questions and to check and re-check the safety harness, to lock our doors at night, and to ask to see the ID of a person at our front door in the middle of the night who’s claiming to be a police officer. We are made this way for a reason – not so we wouldn’t be able to trust when it’s OK and right to trust but so we can protect ourselves from those in our world who don’t care about us and our well-being. Like the song goes, “trust in God, but lock your door,” because there are those who would defy even God’s protection and do us grievous harm. The truth is that life is sometimes beyond us. Disasters strike and tragedies happen in our lives. Innocent people get killed by evil or careless people, good people get cancer even after a life of a good diet and clean living. Life can indeed be hard. Life can be uncertain. Life is beyond our control and in times like this, life is beyond our understanding. We are left with raw emotions and tough questions. Answers are beyond us as we grapple with the question of why. In times like these, who do you trust? Well, here’s another truth – nothing and I mean nothing that we go through in life is beyond God. We can and we must rely on God in every situation in life. When things just don’t make any sense in human terms; we have to trust in the only power in the universe that not only can make sense out of our dilemmas, but can even bring us help to deal with it all. In fact, the more senseless life becomes the greater our need to trust in God. And when it seems like there’s no hope and there’s no help forthcoming from anywhere, even God, that’s when we must trust even more. Why? Because God wants our full and complete trust. God wants us to trust him with all of our heart. We must hold nothing back and surrender to him all that we are, all that we have, all that we may become because without the presence and guidance of God we will go nowhere. We will just sit in the middle of whatever difficulty has befallen us and let it defeat us. If we do not place our trust in God, there is no access to his power, his mercy, or his love. When trials arise and we go through difficulty; it is then that we must place our trust in God for without trust in God there is no comfort, no peace, no strength and no relief. So, God has made a promise that he will never forsake those who seek him. The promise that God made so long ago is still valid today because God has never broken a promise yet. He is true and faithful to His people. This gift is a treasure – a love so complete and so unconditional that we can trust the God who created love. This treasure is God’s free gift to us – the gifts of grace and peace from the God who brings comfort, security, protection, and his unfailing presence in our lives. Like all of us who know and love God, Ted had this treasure in his life and in his death. Unlike those who still rant and rave at the unfairness of life and the inattention of God when things just don’t seem to be under any kind of control, much less God’s, Ted knew that this gift of trust was what God had given to him to see him through his illness, his suffering, and his death. Ted knew that the cycle of life which includes birth, life, and death was in God’s hands and that, without death, there could be no new life – no eternity with God – no salvation and no room in heaven with his name on the door. The real truth is that we will all face the same uncertainties and fears that Ted faced – they will just bear different names and faces. Some of us will face much more suffering or some will not suffer at all – be we will all surely come to that moment when there is no one else to trust but God. No matter how much our families and friends love us, God is the only one who can ultimately meet us wherever we are and bring us to wherever he is. There is no other power in heaven or on earth that can give us what we need at that moment. Ted knew and Ted had the wisdom to know that the only thing he could do was “Wait patiently for the Lord, be brave and courageous, yes, wait patiently for the Lord.”
THE HOLY TRINITY – A “User Friendly” God – June 19, 2011
Today is Trinity Sunday. I remember as a child sitting in church and looking up at the hymn board with all the numbers on it and the name of the Sunday across the top. Some of the time, there were familiar words up there, like Christmas and Easter, and occasionally there were something that looked like gibberish, like Septuagesima, which I still do not know what it is. But for almost half the year, there was one word up there – Trinity. I must admit I didn’t know what that meant any more than I knew what Septuagesima meant, but I loved it because it was easier to pronounce and it gave me some kind of weird security to look up there for so many weeks and see the same word – the 10th Sunday after Trinity, the 20thSunday after Trinity – all summer and almost until Christmas.Most people will admit to not knowing any more than I did about the Trinity and what it means. There are even clergy like me who are more than willing to put this right up there on the list of “God things” – things God knows and we don’t but we can’t wait to ask him about when we get to heaven. But I do try – I actually love this Sunday in the year – the only one on which we celebrate a belief of the church and not an event. One reason I love is it is the hymns are great! I’ve been singing that first hymn we sang for so many years, I believe I could sing the whole thing without looking at the book. It’s in my blood, and regardless of whether I totally comprehend what it’s saying about God, it’s comforting to me because it is somehow fitting that a totally incomprehensible mystery is the very foundation of our faith, which is an even bigger mystery to many people who, regardless of how much they don’t completely understand, still continue to believe it and celebrate it every week.We are not alone in our misunderstandings – even giants of our faith, like Augustine puzzled over the doctrine of the Trinity. Keep in mind that he was a Bishop in the Church of God and a masterful theologian. He had written books about God and still the idea of the Trinity just wouldn’t fit into his orderly view of God and the universe. He was walking along the beach one day when he observed a young boy with a bucket, running back and forth to pour water into a little hole in the sand. Augustine asked, “What are you doing?” The boy replied, “I’m trying to put the ocean into this hole.” At that moment, the great theologian realized that he had been trying to put an infinite God into his finite mind.This is why we have a difficult time comprehending the Trinity – because Trinity is a God thing. You’ve heard me speak of those before. A God thing is something that God knows and we can’t know because we aren’t God. We can know about a God thing and we can learn things about a God thing, but we cannot KNOW a God thing completely. There is even the great possibility that we only think we know some things but when we join God in heaven and ask the burning questions, we will find out that we were totally off base.That being said, it is still vital that we try to comprehend the God things. We have to do our best to know God as intimately as we can because it is only in that relationship that we can truly feel the love and the strength and the comfort that God brings. If we hold God at bay because we can’t grasp all the intricacies of God, we will totally miss out on the presence of God in our lives.So, let’s try once again to make some sense out of the Holy Trinity. There are many today, from the people in the pew to Bishops, who do not accept the doctrine of the trinity, some for the simplest of reasons: “The bible doesn’t use the word trinity.” That’s true, the word trinity is not mentioned anywhere in Holy Scripture. There are many others who reject it just because it is so profoundly difficult to understand. Whatever the reason, it’s still a rejection of the worst kind, because it is in essence a rejection of the deity of Christ and of God’s ability to use him to bring us salvation.Then there are those who do accept the doctrine of the Trinity but who take it upon themselves to come up with their own take on what it really means. One of these popular beliefs actually divides the work of God between the three Persons, giving a specific job to each: creation to the Father, redemption to the Son, and regeneration to the Holy Spirit. This is partly true but not wholly so, because as the true God who drilled it into the heads of his children that he was one God, it is completely ludicrous to think that God would then divide himself up so that one Person would be working while another is inactive. In the Scriptures we always find the three Persons as we call them for lack of a better word, shown to act in harmonious unity in all the mighty works that are wrought throughout the universe. In order to even begin thinking about what this doctrine means, we have to first look closely at the word itself. Trinity has its origin in the Latin and Greek languages and is actually made of two word forms:
- Tri which means three; and
- Unity, which means oneness.
So the best way to completely define the word trinity is “Three in unity” or “Three in one.” For centuries this term has been used to describe the nature of the Godhead, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.There are many Christians who really don’t see the big deal about the trinity. They think it’s something they can either take or leave – that it’s not essential to our relationship with God. But listen to this anonymous quote by one wise pastor. He said, “If you try to understand the doctrine of the trinity, you may lose your mind, and if you deny it you will lose your soul.” If he’s right, and I think he is, ignoring the doctrine of the Trinity and writing it off as fluff is perilous to our belief system. Besides, where does it say that we are only supposed to believe the things that God made very clear – things like loving our neighbor and not killing or stealing? Just because there is no specific word in the pages of the Bible doesn’t mean that God didn’t mean it. I don’t believe that God said specifically anywhere in Scripture that we must keep breathing to stay alive, but there’s no doubt that it’s true – it’s the way God made our bodies. Nowhere does God specifically say that if we don’t drink enough water, we will die, but it is certainly true. Without sufficient water, we will die just as surely as I’m standing here. Again, God made us that way, but he didn’t leave us those specific instructions.Trinity is something like that. It isn’t a word that is used specifically but its meaning is expressed by analogy in several key places. In the Old Testament, the triune God is described from the opening words of the creation story – God created the world, the Spirit moved upon the waters, and in most of this story, the name used for God by the Hebrews was Elohiym. This was a plural noun that is best defined as Divine Ones – in our 1st reading, we read, “And God said, Let US make man in OUR image, after OUR likeness.” Pretty clear that those folks thought of God, not as 3 Gods, but as one God with 3 images. Let’s look at the New Testament. The first words of the Gospel of John make it very clear: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God.” The “Word” was the one we know as Jesus and so John was telling us that the plurality of God has eternally existed from before the creation of time.So I wonder why people reject this concept. There are many explanations of the doctrine of the Trinity that actually make some sense. Here’s one: “The members of the Trinity work together in complete unity, totally dependent and yet totally interdependent of each other. God the Father is the sovereign ruler of the entire universe, everything operates to fulfill his eternal plan. God the Son takes this plan out of eternity and brings it into real time, administering the various aspects of the plan. God the Holy Spirit makes this eternal plan, the will of God, real to humanity.Of course, Jesus was clear about the Trinity, even though he didn’t use that word either. In our reading this morning, at his Ascension, he said: “Go therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” Paul used this formula freely – we heard it in our Epistle reading today: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit, be with you all. Amen.”Peter got into the act as well. He said, “Elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through sanctification of the Spirit, unto obedience and sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ.”All three aspects of the Godhead are clearly seen in these three passages of scripture. There was no one word used to describe this but this wasn’t because it wasn’t true – it was because they didn’t have a word to describe it. But clearly, to the major rocks of the early church, it is true AND they seemed to understand that not one aspect is more important than the other. They are all equal; they are each distinctive; and all are unified into one God. That brings up one more thing: nowhere did anyone say that this meant that there were 3 Gods. There was one God; God made it clear in the 10 commandments and Jesus reaffirmed it: “The first of all the commandments is, ‘Hear, O Israel; The Lord our God is one Lord:’”See the key to the truth of the Trinity is the fact that Jesus and his Father were one – not the same exact person but that they were both divine – they were both of the essence of God. Jesus used the same name for himself that God used when he told Moses to tell the Egyptians that I AM sent you. God used the words I AM as a name for himself and in the 8thChapter of John, Jesus told the disciples, “Verily, verily, I say unto you, Before Abraham was, I AM.”All through the New Testament Jesus is spoken of quite clearly as being equal and united to the Father but Jesus also knows who his father is and is definitely submissive to him. This can get confusing and so we need to be clear about the biggest, hugest question: “Is Jesus really God?” As I said, this is a God thing, so I can’t be absolutely certain, but I do know what it would mean if Jesus WASN’T God:If Jesus wasn’t God in the flesh then
- Jesus’ death on the cross didn’t atone for sin
- The penalty of sin is still on us awaiting judgment
- Mankind is doomed to hell
and we know that because the scripture rightly states, that “no one besides God can forgive sin.”So we have God, the initiating and very active member of the Trinity who made everything and did it with lots of noise. He spoke to his people through a booming voice, in whirlwinds, and with fire and brimstone at times. Jesus was also part of the creating and he became a part of the creation like we did. He spoke too but with gentleness and love, except when he saw God being abused like with the moneychangers in the Temple. Now we come to the silent member of the Trinity – the Holy Spirit. We’ve talked a lot about the Spirit of God in recent weeks and Scripture talks a lot about it too. From the first page of Genesis to the last verses of the Book of Revelation, God is revealed to us as Spirit – not just an ethereal ghostly presence, but God himself. There are many who call the Holy Spirit a spiritual force and it certainly is that but Scripture also reveals the Holy Spirit as a divine being with a personality.Peter spoke of tempting the Holy Spirit; Paul said that it was possible to grieve the Holy Spirit of God; this third person of the Holy Trinity was way more than what I used to think of when I heard the minister proclaim blessings in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost.So, this is what we know of the Holy Trinity. Of all the deep things of God, this is the most mysterious and the most elusive. For many Christians and non-Christians, this is unacceptable; they need more than that – they need to understand it. But not only is it not necessary to fully understand the things of God in order to be a believer; I believe that God keeps us from that knowledge so that we will accept by faith those things we cannot explain or understand. A wise theologian once said, “The Trinity is a mystery, which my faith embraces as revealed in the Word, but my reason cannot fathom.” I don’t think that’s because human reason is deficient; I believe it is because God doesn’t want us fathoming him. God doesn’t want us knowing him by reason or by proof. God wants us to know him through our faith. God wants us to know him through his presence in the world and through the deep yearnings of our hearts to believe that this world we live in is not “all there is.” So, do we HAVE to believe in the Holy Trinity? Well, I suppose we don’t really HAVE to believe anything. But to accept God as our creator, to accept Jesus as our Savior, and to accept the Holy Spirit as the presence of God in us and in the world around us, then we do HAVE to believe something and the something about God that Scripture confirms as truth is that God is one God – God is three persons united in one divine being – a God who made us, saved us, and blesses us continually. This is what we must believe and we can only believe it through our faith. Let me leave you with this:It’s a testimony by a man who says that as a young boy he could never seem to get to the dinner table on time. He always seemed to find something better to do just when his mother called him and so he was consistently late for dinner. One particular day, after his parents had talked seriously to him about how rude it was to keep people waiting and had warned him to be on time or there would be consequences, he arrived even later than ever. He said, “I found my parents already seated at the table, about to start eating. Quickly I slipped into his place, hoping they wouldn’t notice but then I noticed what was set before me–a slice of bread and a glass of water. I sat staring at my plate in silence, feeling guilty but also crushed at this punishment. Suddenly I saw my father’s hand reach over, pick up my plate and remove it from in front of me. Then my dad put his own full plate in front of me, smiling warmly as he made the exchange. All my life I’ve known what God was like by what my father did that night.”This may be the only way we can ever know God the Father, or God the Son, or God the Holy Spirit but it’s enough.Preached in Jermain UMC on June 19, 2011
PENTECOST – “GETTING” THE HOLY SPIRIT – June 12, 2011
Today is the Day of Pentecost. It is also called the Birthday of the Church, the Holy Spirit Day, and for us here at Jermain, it is the 2nd Sunday of what I’m calling my “Answer Sermons.” If you remember, I invited all of you to ask those questions you’ve had for years about the Bible, about God, about anything you don’t know or don’t understand or don’t like or do like or whatever you just want to know that has to do with God, the Church, our Faith, or the Bible. Before we get into today’s question, let’s quickly look at the Day of Pentecost. It is 50 days after Easter in the Christian calendar – 10 days after the Ascension, but before we started marking Christian feast days, Pentecost was a Jewish feast day. So the people gathered in the upper room were Jews and, even though they were in hiding, they were still celebrating the feast day of their church. They were also waiting. They had seen Jesus after his resurrection and as of this moment, everything Jesus had told them had come true. They had been told, “Wait in the city until you receive power from on high.” So, whether they really understood what that meant, they knew something was coming. And it did – on this day the Holy Spirit of God was poured out on those faithful followers of Jesus and so it was on this day that the new Church based on the new Covenant was born in a blaze of glory. Later, a new promise was made – the Promise of Pentecost – this time by Peter who was now discovering what Jesus had meant when he changed Simon’s name to Peter, a Greek name which meant “rock,” and declared “on this rock I will build my church.” This promise was clear and it echoed every promise Jesus had ever made to them. He said, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off – for all whom the Lord our God will call.” This brings me to my promise to answer your questions in this summer’s sermons. The question this week is directly related to our celebration of Pentecost and it came out of our Bible Study of the Book of Acts. We have been learning all about the early Church and about the Holy Spirit and last week, Jim asked this question – HOW do we “get” the Holy Spirit. Another way to say that is to be “filled with the Holy Spirit.” First, let’s define the words so we’re all talking the same language. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of God – it is what makes God God – it is the essence of God, also what we call the 3rd person of the Holy Trinity. It brooded over the water at creation, it spoke to the prophets and gave them messages from God to be given to the world, it caused the Son of God to become the fully divine and fully human son of Mary, it descended upon Jesus as he was baptized with water, and it was poured out by God on his new church. Without the Holy Spirit, God would only be an idea – a good one – but only a thought with no other reality except in our minds. Next, “get the Holy Spirit” refers to what John the Baptist told the world before he baptized Jesus. Denying that he, John, was the promised Messiah, he said, “but one is coming who will baptize you with fire.” It’s what Peter meant when he said, “Repent and be baptized and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” Well, what that means is that we are ALL not only baptized with water. We are all also baptized with the Holy Spirit; in other words, we are all filled with the Spirit of God. So, all baptized Christians can rightfully claim to be filled with the Holy Spirit. However, what happened in that upper room was more than just an indwelling. The Holy Spirit descended on them with the express purpose of changing their lives by filling them with God’s power to spread the good news that the Messiah had come into the world. So, the term “filled with the Holy Spirit” usually has to do with a time period during which a person becomes aware of this presence. It can be a moment or it can be a lifetime but it is rarely unnoticed. It has been said that the average Christian and the average Christian church are all bogged down somewhere between Calvary and Pentecost – between being forgiven and being empowered. Here’s a good way to get this straight in our minds: Bethlehem means God With Us. Calvary means God For Us. But Pentecost means God In Us. Most of us average Christians are like the Ephesian believers who, when asked by Paul, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” replied that they didn’t even know that there WAS a Holy Spirit. Many Christians do not understand the role of the Holy Spirit and so they have not appropriated the power of the Holy Spirit in their own personal lives. To be fair, through the years we’ve seen so much abuse and misuse of spiritual gifts and God’s power that many of us in the mainline denominations have become wary of this experience of being filled with the Holy Spirit. We have seen so many excesses and extremes that we tend to discount and even reject those who say “I have been filled with the Holy Spirit” and then proceed to act like they have instead been touched by some kind of insanity or even a spirit that isn’t holy at all. Folks who openly claim the “baptism with the Holy Spirit” are usually thought of as Pentecostals, but there are also some who are what we can call “Pentecost Substitutes.” Lacking the real power and fire from God these folks try to produce their own fireworks. These Pentecostal substitutes are what give the Holy Spirit a bad name. They are the ones who make us cringe when we hear someone say, “I’ve been baptized with the Holy Spirit.” They are the ones who make it seem like this outpouring of God’s Spirit is a special blessing for a special few when in reality it is for all of God’s children who believe that Jesus is the Son of God who died for our sins. In some kind of natural rejection of this exclusive “club” mentality, many Christians just tell themselves that the gift of the Holy Spirit was only for the Apostles, just to get the Church started, or, just for the Early Church, to help them win pagans and heathens to Christ. Well, guess what, there are more lost people, pagans, and heathens in the world today than there ever was. We need the power of God today as much as ever!!! The promise of the Holy Spirit is for every child of God in every age of the Church’s history. Peter said that the promise of Pentecost is to all who were hearing his voice, and to their children, the next generation, to all that are afar off – that didn’t just mean by miles but by ages, even unto the 21st Century – to you and to me. If we think this isn’t for us, it isn’t because God has not provided it for each of us. Rather, it is because we have not recognized what God has provided for us and we have not grabbed hold of it or let it grab hold of us. So, I like to think of this experience of being “filled with the Spirit” as a moment or a time period during which we become aware of or grab hold of the gift we have been given or when we draw on the power that has been living within us from Baptism. So, how do we do that is Jim’s question. First of all, if we have the Holy Spirit living in us, we have already “gotten” the Holy Spirit and so we do not need any other type of power, and we do not need to ask God to give us his spirit again and again. Recharging is good but we have everything we need for insight, comfort, power, courage, and wisdom. But being “filled with the Holy Spirit” is different from the indwelling of the Holy Spirit that takes place at our Baptism. In Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, this is how he describes it, “Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit.” What we have here are 2 commands. The 1st is a negative and the 2nd a positive. The 1st command we are given tells us NOT to give ourselves over to something that takes over control of how we act, speak, and function like the effects that alcohol can have on a person. Many people who drink too much cease to function “normally” and so someone who is shy, suddenly becomes outgoing. A person who generally has good sense, is suddenly acting in ways that put them in physical danger. What has happened is that the person no longer is in control of their actions. The alcohol has taken over. Now the reference here is specific towards getting drunk, but I like to think of this command as applying to anything that would cause us to act against our normal behavior – anything that causes us to do and say things we normally would not. The second command Paul gives us is a positive one – to “be filled with the Spirit.” The Greek words he used for “be filled” are “en pleroo” (en play-ro’-o). The word “en” means position in place and time – basically, it means right here, where you are at this moment. Pleroo, means to “cram, make full, fulfill, perfect, complete.” In essence, it means to be completely filled right where you are at this moment. This is not a suggestion and it is not a casual statement. It is a command! And it is a command that is given to all of us, not to just this person or that person, or the people in the early church. Paul’s greeting in the beginning of his letter is directed to “the saints” – period. That means all of us as well as those living in the days of the early church. Also, notice that the command “be filled” is in the passive voice. That means that this is not something we can do to ourselves. I’ve thought and thought about how I can explain this to you and decided that the best way is through personal experience. I have been baptized with the Holy Spirit. It’s true, I “got” the Holy Spirit. Let me describe for you how it happened. I was out of seminary, working as the Chaplain at a girls’ home in Virginia and working hard at whatever the powers that be had decided was in the way of my ordination. I had come to the point where I could acknowledge that there WAS something in the way or, more accurately, something missing. I had learned that God was there for me, that he would never leave me, and I had become convinced that God would make all things work to his glory. I knew intellectually that I had the power of God’s Spirit within me but I just didn’t seem to have all the pistons firing. I didn’t have all the gears engaged. I prayed to God for guidance and help but somehow, I knew something wasn’t quite right – I couldn’t seem to connect in a deep way with the Spirit that I knew lived in me. So, I had been longing for this experience I had heard many of my friends speak about. They were NOT like the out-of-control drunks Paul had described. They just exuded the presence of the Spirit in what Paul called “the gift of the Spirt,” which manifested itself in love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. In short, I wanted the Holy Spirit to grab hold – I wanted to grab hold but, like Jim, I didn’t know how. Here’s what happened on the first day of the new year, 1984. I had gone to a New Year’s Eve party in Colonial Heights with some of my friends from the church Scott and I attended before going to seminary. After the party, we went back to their home, had a little eggnog, re-visited the party and some of my seminary experiences and retired for the night. At 5 minutes to 8 I sat straight up in bed – wide awake and feeling the covers because I knew they had to be wet. I had had a dream that was so vivid I really thought it had happened. When my dream began, I was in a stairwell which looked like it belonged in a prison – you know, concrete steps and walls, and large metal pipe railings. There were people standing above me who would not let me get to the door out of the stairs and I was very anxious because I knew there were people who needed my help and they were preventing me from getting to them. Suddenly the scene shifted to a bathroom where there was a bathtub with the curtain open and the shower running. I was standing beside the tub, fully clothed, and talking to God, who seemed to be in the shower. I called him Grundy and I was telling him that I didn’t want to get in the shower because I had my clothes on. I continued to argue with God who continued to invite me to get in the shower. Finally, I stupidly said, “Well, I’m not getting in there with my clothes on and as long as I’m out here and you’re in there, you can’t get me wet.” Instantly, the showerhead turned right toward me I was instantly drenched. I woke up, as I said, certain that I and the bed were soaked. Once I realized that this was way more than a dream, I began to look closely at what was going on and what I learned was that being “baptized with the Holy Spirit” or being “filled with the Spirit” was not something that I did – it was something that God did and it was not something that God did to make me DO certain things. The Baptism of the Holy Spirit does not force us to act or to DO, it is an empowerment to BE. When Jesus was ascending into heaven, he told the Apostles that they were witnesses to what had happened. The Holy Spirit was given to them 10 days later NOT to make them go out and witness but to make them BE witnesses. When we allow the Holy Spirit to wake us up and become aware of the very presence of God in us, we find that we have the power to BE kind, to BE loving, joyful, peaceful, patient, kind, good, faithful, and gentle. The other important thing I learned is that we cannot MAKE this happen. We must wait. The power of the Holy Spirit is a promise from God for every single one of us but we cannot manufacture it or make it do anything on our timetable. We can, however, wait actively – we can pray and actually seek the Holy Spirit in ourselves and in the world around us. The disciples waited by joining together in prayer with the other followers of Jesus – Mary the mother of Jesus, the other women, and with his brothers. That’s what they were doing when the Holy Spirit came down. I knew there was something missing or that there was something I was missing and so I did pray that God would show me. In essence, what I was doing was seeking the Holy Spirit. I had re-learned what being baptized in the Holy Spirit really meant and I wanted it. I wanted the peace I had heard about and the excitement of being touched by this Holy Spirit I knew was inside of me but I had never really met. I couldn’t really express that in words at the time but I did know that it was of God and not of me. A preacher once told about a scene he witnessed in a fast-food restaurant between a boy and his mother. The boy was pouting and gazing at the menu printed above the counter and it was obvious that they had been at this for some time because there was a long line behind them. “Well, what do you want?” the young frustrated mother impatiently asked her little boy. “We’ve been standing here for five minutes and I’ve told you everything on the menu. What do you want?” He winced and for the first time seemed embarrassed by the growing bunch of people waiting behind them. “Mommy? I know that I DON’T want a ‘cheesyburg and fwies.’ I know I don’t want a ‘shicken sandwich.’ And, I know I don’t want something with ‘fishes’ in it. I can tell you what I don’t want and I know I want something, Mommy. I just can’t tell you what!” It was obvious that the boy was hungry – he really wanted something to eat – but he was anxious too because those hunger signals just didn’t seem to be connecting with what he was hearing. He knew all those things his mother had named were good but his brain seemed to be telling him that what his stomach wanted wasn’t on that list. He knew he wanted something specific but it was a feeling that he just couldn’t seem to put into the right words. Finally, after a few more tense moments at the front of the line, the frazzled mother told the clerk, “Just give him a hamburger with everything on it.” She paid the clerk and dragged her little guy along behind, cup in hand, over to the drinks dispenser. The little boy took one last, yearning look at the menus above the counter and shrugged. He still knew there was something he wanted but he just couldn’t put his finger on it. I had a feeling that I just couldn’t seem to put into words – it was a longing for something that I couldn’t pinpoint exactly. That’s the way it is with the “God stuff.” We know what we don’t want – we don’t want the emptiness of not knowing God but we don’t want some kind of overwhelming force that makes us be something we’re not. We know that we want more than the world has to offer and more than we can manage on our own. We want to be filled with that special “something” that we just can’t quite put our finger on but we know we want it really bad. It’s a love, as Martin Luther put it, “caught up high above all things in the invisible God who surpasses all feelings and understandings.” It is a hard thing to put into words but one thing we do know it’s a longing that can’t be filled by any old “shicken sandich.” What happened to me was that the Holy Spirit had been seeking me all along too – pushing me to be open to the power in me – AND to let go of my agenda for ordination. By becoming so acutely aware of God’s presence and control over my life, I was finally able to allow the Holy Spirit to actively influence to finally BE what God had called me to be and when those same powers that be saw the evidence of my new spirit, they also knew that I now had what was necessary to fulfill my calling to be a priest. Jim, I hope I have answered your question but let me offer you one last image of being filled with the Holy Spirit. These glasses of water represent us – they are both alike. This Alka-Seltzer represents the Holy Spirit. (Glasses of water on pulpit – 2 Alka-Seltzers – unwrap one and drop it in the first glass – put the other, with the wrapper on, into the 2nd glass.) Both glasses have the Alka-Seltzer, just as all Christians have the Holy Spirit. But notice how you can have the Holy Spirit and not his power. You can drink the 2nd one and only be filled with plain water. When we drink the 1st one, we can feel the presence and power of the Holy Spirit within us because it has been unwrapped, unleashed in us. So, here is the good news for us this morning. The gift of the Father to all of us is the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Can you fathom this? The God of the universe, who holds all things together by the word of his power, who fills all things and is bigger than the universe; bigger than time, literally lives in you and calls you his dwelling place. This is not because God has nowhere to go – it is because each of us is a magnificent creation whom God loves so much that he has given us the high and wonderful privilege to house his Holy Spirit. We only have to welcome this full-time resident, give him his own key and full run of the house. The Holy Spirit is already within your walls, so being filled with the Spirit is an inside job. If we insist on only allowing the Spirit to paint the outside – to only spruce up the yard, we will never get to know the person and the power that God has given to dwell in us and to make us alive in him. Preached in Jermain UMC – June 12, 2011
CHRISTMAS – THE WORD BECAME FLESH – December 25, 2010
I wonder what Christmas means to a mother who has lost her husband, who must take care of 3 or 4 children, working every day, never quite getting everything done, never quite making ends meet. I wonder what Christmas means to her. I wonder what Christmas means to the little man in Zimbabwe, 80 years old, living in a hut, who knows nothing of shopping malls or Christmas trees. I wonder what Christmas means to him. I wonder what Christmas means to missionaries who are half a world away from families & friends, who are sacrificing so much to take the precious gospel message to those who have never heard it. I wonder what Christmas means to them. We have two dear ones in hospitals, one recuperating from a broken hip and one who is deathly ill. I wonder what Christmas means to them. There’s no doubt that Christmas means different things to different people. To merchants it is the busiest time of the year. Stores stay open longer & hire extra people to accommodate all the shoppers. It means more profit, hopefully enough profit to see them through lean times ahead. For some employees it means a Christmas bonus, a little more money in their pockets to do things that they want to do. For many teen-agers & adults it is a time of fun & parties. For children it is a time of impatience, with time seeming to pass so slowly, as they wait for Christmas morning. But sometimes I get the feeling that we are like the folks who decided to throw a party to honor a very special friend. They sent out invitations, decorated the hall, & had the food catered. All the people came together at the designated time, but to their surprise, the guest of honor was not there. Finally, they made the embarrassing discovery that no one had even invited the guest of honor. I wonder if that happens at Christmas time? Do we go through all the decorating, & buying presents, & preparing elaborate meals, but somehow forget whose birthday it really is? One family tried to overcome that by putting an extra place at their Christmas table for Jesus, & calling Christmas dinner, “His birthday party.” It seems to have worked. When one of their daughters was asked if she got everything she wanted for Christmas, she answered by saying, “No, but then it’s not my birthday.” It isn’t our birthday, is it? It’s the Lord’s birthday & it’s a time to remember His birth & what it is supposed to mean to us. If we look closely at the story of the first Christmas, we get a glimpse of the real meaning of Christmas. Let’s look at who it was that God chose to hear the first announcement of the birth of his son – it wasn’t King Herod – it wasn’t the Pharisees at the Temple – it wasn’t even the mayor of Bethlehem. It was a bunch of scraggly, smelly shepherds. We hear a lot about shepherds in the Bible – we even hear Jesus being called a shepherd – so it’s difficult to grasp just how unacceptable shepherds were in those days. They were actually at the complete opposite end of the social strata from King Herod & the Pharisees and all the other influential people of the day. They lived in the fields with animals. They weren’t respected. They had no power or prestige. Yet, God’s angel came to them & said, “Unto you is born this day in the city of David, a Savior who is Christ, the Lord.” Unto shepherds a Savior was born. Now, that still may not sound like much but with that one simple announcement God made known some very important truths. First, he let the shepherds know that they weren’t at the bottom of God’s important people list and what that says to us is, “No matter how insignificant you may think you are, God knows you, & you are important to Him.” This happened throughout scripture – so many times we read of God honoring & using people & things that the world often overlooks or ignores and Paul told us why in his first letter to the Corinthians: “God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose weak things of the world to shame the strong.” So, when God decided to select a mother for his Son, he went past the fashion salons & beauty parlors. He went past the furs & diamonds & gold, & went to an insignificant village called Nazareth. He found a peasant girl. She was simple – she did not dress in designer clothes. She did not have a sophisticated education. But she was pure, & God selected her to be the mother of His only begotten Son. So when the Christ came, he was not born in Mt. Sinai Hospital in Jerusalem, surrounded by gynecologists, nurses & assistants. But rather, he was born in a stable. He was wrapped in swaddling clothes & laid in a plain old feed trough. Now the world looks down its nose & says, “That’s foolishness.” But Paul says, “The foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, & the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.” So, when God made his announcement, it was delivered to lowly shepherds. It is like Jesus would later say in the Sermon on the Mount, “If God cares about sparrows & lilies, then how much more does he care about you?” If God cares about shepherds, He cares about you! We all need to hear that, don’t we? Children 12 & 13 years old need to hear that in orphanages when they see younger children being adopted & realize that they probably never will be chosen. They need to hear that. Mothers of children without a husband to help need to hear that. Lost souls on skid row who drink away their fears need to hear that. People who are lonely need to hear that. Husbands who have lost their wives in death need to hear that. Church people who feel useless & empty need to hear that. We all need to hear that. All of us have known feelings of rejection. All of us have known feelings of being left out. Then, Christmas comes. The light shines, & God says, “No! You’re wrong. I made the announcement to shepherds & I make it to you. Unto you a Savior is born.” So here’s the second thing this passage teaches us – it is not just that you matter to God. It is that your very life matters – not only you, but your life counts with God. How many nights do you think those shepherds must have sat around the campfire & wondered if life was really worthwhile or not. “What difference does it make if we watch the sheep or not?” Have you ever asked that question? Have you ever wondered, “What difference does it make if I get up every morning or not? Do you ever feel as if your life is an endless cycle of things that just really don’t mean much? Do you ever wonder if life is worth living at all?” We’ve all been there but sometimes we forget that the answer to that question is yes. When God came & made his announcement to a bunch of grungy shepherds, he was also saying to his children throughout the centuries, “Your life is worthwhile. Your life is my gift to you. Therefore you must live every golden moment of it, because your life does matter to m.” You see, every life matters. It’s impossible to live, even for a few moments on this earth, & not influence somebody in one way or another. We are always influencing someone, either for good or for bad. Do you remember Bubba Smith? He was a professional football player. After he retired from playing football, Bubba Smith started making beer commercials. He was the guy who tore the top off of beer cans, & engaged in the argument about whether it is less filling or tastes great. Remember him? Well listen to what he learned about his life. In a magazine article, Bubba Smith said that he never, ever drank beer. Drinking any kind of alcoholic beverage just wasn’t a part of his life. But he still advertised it & he felt good about his job. It was an easy job. It was an enjoyable job, & it paid a good salary. Until one day when he went back to Michigan State, his alma mater, as the Grand Marshal of the Homecoming Parade. As he was riding in the limousine at the head of the parade, he heard the throngs of people on both sides of the parade route shouting. And what were they shouting? “Hail to Michigan State?” No! One side was shouting, “Tastes great!” & the other side was shouting, “Less filling!” Bubba Smith suddenly realized that he & the beer commercials that he made had had a tremendous impact on the students at Michigan State. But the message that they had gotten was that “It is all right to drink light beer.” Later, Bubba was in Ft. Lauderdale during Spring Break, & he saw drunken college kids up & down the beaches, shouting “Tastes great! Less filling!” And when it came time to renew his contract, he refused to sign because he said that he didn’t want his life to count for something like that. He said that there was a still, small voice in his mind that kept saying, “Stop, Bubba. Stop.” You see, everybody’s life counts for something with other people and with God. Some years ago, a cartoon appeared in newspapers all across the country. It pictured two farmers in Kentucky, standing in a field as snow fell softly. One turned to the other & asked, “Anything exciting happen today?” “Nah, nothing exciting,” said the other farmer. “Oh, there was a baby born over at Tom Lincoln’s, but that’s nothing – nothing exciting ever happens around here.” But that baby born in the home of Tom Lincoln one day became the President of the United States. He changed the course of history & liberated the slaves. One life can make a difference! I wonder if there were people in Bethlehem on that night so long ago, asking, “Anything exciting happen today?” Maybe they were told, “No, nothing much. Oh, I hear some woman gave birth to a baby in a stable, but nothing exciting ever happens around here.” Except that a baby was born, a baby that changed the world. Life counts. Life matters. Your life & mine. Lives of shepherds & lives of kings, all are important to God. The other thing that we learn from this simple announcement to a bunch of simple shepherds is that our faith matters, too. Regardless of their social standing, shepherds were men of faith. They probably had more faith than some of the scribes & Pharisees who went to the synagogue every day. They believed in a Messiah. All of God’s chosen people believed in a Messiah but when things got especially hard, during times of poverty & enslavement & exile, people like the shepherds would think about the Messiah & God’s promise that one day the Messiah would come. They prayed over & over again, “Let the Messiah come. Let Him come today!” They prayed that prayer for hundreds of years, & they must have wondered, “Is our faith worth anything? Does God hear our prayers? Does God keep His promises? Will the Messiah ever come?” There must have been many who quit praying, & quit having faith. But when the announcement came to shepherds, God was saying, “Your faith matters, & it is not in vain. I am a God who hears & who keeps His promises. Now the Messiah has come, & I have kept my promise.” Well, how about us? Sometimes we become weary. There may be times when we wonder if it is worthwhile going to church. There are times when we wonder if it is worth sacrificing for God or if it’s worth even believing in God. There have been times when I have wondered if it is worth it to be a preacher. When it seemed no one was listening I thought that maybe I ought to do something else. Why bother with all this if no one is paying attention? I can’t tell you how many times I’ve prayed, “Lord, why don’t you come today? Why don’t you come & take us all home, and put us out of our misery & pain & hardships?” And even though we are people of faith, we wonder if God hears those prayers – we wonder why God doesn’t do something – why he doesn’t make people believe. These are natural doubts and questions – when life doesn’t seem to matter much, it’s hard to keep back the “Why don’t you’s” and “Where are you’s?”. But the story we have read today – the story we all hold so dear we can repeat it word for word – this story tells us that not only does my life or your life or your life matter – not only do the lives of simple people like the lowly shepherds on a hill outside Bethlehem matter, but God loved them and God loves us so much that he came to earth as a tiny baby, grew up to be a healer, a teacher, and ultimately a savior. And this great story that began on that long ago night in a shepherd’s field also brings a promise. A promise that one day God will come again – he will come for all of us – shepherds and kings, wise men and peasants, innkeepers and fortune 500 CEO’s. He will come for all of His people and he’ll make us understand that he loves us all – from the lowliest to the richest. No matter who we are or where we live or what we do or where we go, God will dry every tear & take away every pain. There will be no more death, no more good-byes – there will only be love. And at that moment, if anyone asks God, “Was he worth it? Was she worth it?” God will say, “remember the night I gave the shepherds the biggest news in the universe and everyone wondered why because they weren’t really worth much?” “Well, that news was and is worth more than all the words spoken by all the people since creation and I entrusted it to those who mattered most to me – they are the ones who need me the most.” Well, that puts us up there at the top of God’s list doesn’t it? I don’t know about you but I surely need God so I know that I must matter to God – I also know that all of this happened because I matter to God and you matter to God and all of creation matters to God. So, now that you know all that – what does Christmas mean to you? Is it just presents and decorations and parties and family celebrations? Is it a birthday party for someone we forget to invite or is it what God intended it to be for all those who mattered to him? The greatest story ever told of the greatest moment in the universe when God decided that each and every person in this world was worth saving and so God – the Word – became flesh and dwelt among us – full of grace and truth. Photo: “Merry Christmas to Us” – nuttakit Photo: Farmers – http://us.fotolia.com/id/10006224 and http://us.fotolia.com/id/10006228