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The Holy Detour

The Sixth Sunday of Easter
Acts 16:6-15
Psalm 67
John 14:23-29
The Rev. Dr. Stephen Caine

16: 6They went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. 7When they had come opposite Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them; 8 so, passing by Mysia, they went down to Troas.9 “During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” 10 When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them. 11 We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis, 12 and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city for some days. 13 On the sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there. 14 A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. 15 When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.” And she prevailed upon us.” (Acts 16:9-15, NRSV)

Let us pray: Gracious God, through a vision you sent Paul to preach the gospel and called the women to the place of prayer. Grant that we may be like Paul and Lydia, our hearts responsive to your word and open to go where you lead us. Amen.

I remember it very distinctly. It is one of those moments that adds perspective to life, to work, and to faith. It was nothing particularly earth shattering. As a matter of fact it happened in a meeting of all things. Imagine that something worth remembering happening in a church meeting!
It was a community meeting of the local clergy, civic groups and service agencies to discuss the growing need of hungry children in the County I used to live in Tennessee. No one knew the exact number, because there are never exact numbers when people are in need. This was seven years ago, in a county of roughly 30,000 people. It was reported that there were something like 50 children who were homeless. This was in addition to the staggering number of students in the city and county schools who received free and reduced lunch. There were 15 schools in the system and over 90% of the students in each school qualified for federal aid and free or reduced lunch. For many of these students these were the only meals they ate each day; the free breakfast and lunch they ate at school. So, they had nothing to eat when school was not in session.

Many of the churches partnered together and started a backpack program for the school system so these at risk children were given a backpack filled with food to take home for the weekend and over holidays.

The harsh reality of these statistics only told part of the story. A school teacher spoke in the meeting and shared how difficult it was each day to see the faces of these hungry students in her classroom. She went on to state that even the best teacher in the world cannot teach a hungry child. Later in this same meeting she made a very insightful revelation: “what was going to happen this summer when these hungry children aren’t going to be in school getting at least breakfast and lunch five days a week?” Her revelation hit us all, the magnitude of the situation and the need suddenly was overwhelming.

As silence filled the meeting room, her statement hung in the air. All of the usual suspects, educators, civic leaders, clergy, and government officials, used to talking and having answers were stunned, sitting there with our pads of paper and pens ready to plan out a strategy of how to solve this problem. But nothing! Sitting in the meeting was an African American woman, who had been quiet and then she said that feeding hungry children was on her heart. All on her own, she had been working on this problem of hunger of serval years. She applied for and received a grant, for feeding about 200 children every day all summer long for the past few years. The rest of us in the room sat in stunned silence until finally someone asked her how she did it.

“Well I just knew there were hungry kids who needed to be fed and I decided I wanted to do something about it. So I did.”

The rest of us in the room, we organized and by the book, educators, civic leaders, clergy, and government officials started trying to figure out how we could get involved. People started throwing out options and ideas only to be shot down the cynical realization on why this option or that idea wouldn’t work.
• We don’t have the money for it
• It would too hard to organize
• We have to run it by legal first
• We don’t have enough volunteers
• We can’t possibly do that

These were all very real and very legitimate concerns. And here was this get it done lady just listening. We with our pens and papers trying to calculate how many kids we thought we can realistically feed. We discussed the safety of the small kitchen and room where she fed them was, what would the Fire Marshall do if he saw it? What about safe church training and background checks on the volunteers? Someone looked at the lady as we are all planning and thinking and calculating, “So how many kids would you like to feed?”

Without skipping a beat she says simply, “Oh I’ve never thought about a number. I just want to feed every child who is hungry. However many that is.”

And that is when it happened, it hit me, this woman of faith had it right. She had a vision and passion and the faith to make it happen. I am not sure how it all came about. I don’t know if she had a dream, or a conversation with a child who was hungry, or if it was the Holy Spirit coming alive in her as she was reading her Bible, but I truly believe listening to her and watching her that the Holy Spirit was working through her to feed hungry children in that community. That is often how God works, we plan and we calculate and we prepare to go this way while the Holy Spirit works through someone such as this dear lady of faith goes that way. And she simply did it, she started to feed hungry children. She just trusted and did it.

Visions come in many forms and fashions. Visions are all over the Book of Acts. Our story today begins with a vision. Paul and his companions Silas and Timothy are at a loss for where to go next with the gospel. They stumble around the region, running into one barrier after another set up by God. Barred by the Spirit from going south and west into Asia or from going north into Bythinia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them.

Don’t you wonder why? Why didn’t they go? I don’t know. No one knows. All we know is whatever happened they attributed it to the work of the Spirit. The spirit opened the doors that needed opening and shut the doors that needed shutting. There is something comforting about such trust in the spirit. A trust so real that if we have faith the Spirit will lead us where we need to go and we will be where we need to be.

So for whatever reason, Paul and his disciples went to Macedonia instead. Because they had faith in and followed God – Christianity came to Europe and down through the ages to you and to me.

God had something greater in mind than Paul did. God can imagine things that we cannot, and God, invites us to be a part of it.

Much like the lady feeding hungry children. “I don’t know how many kids I want to feed. I see hungry children and I feed them.”

So, here we are, the Indian Hill Church two millennia later, about to receive names for a new Rector to lead our church. We will also be looking for a new church secretary to replace Karen Pauly, who is following and trusting in God in her own life. Change seems to be the one constant we have. Who will the search committee call? What kind of leader will they be? Who will be the new welcoming presence of the church now that Karen is leaving?

Then we read a story like this that call into question our attempts at control, to plan so perfectly, that we lose sight of the work of the Holy Spirit and where we are being lead to go?

This is really a hard message for a church full of planners; now please understand me; I truly believe that planning is good. We need plans and we need to be organized to keep the chaos to a minimum. But… it is often that the Spirit of God works in spite of our best laid plans, our preparation, and our meetings and deliberations. Just when we think we are supposed to go right, the Spirit in whatever ways the spirit works pushes us instead to go the left or to go up instead of down. Maybe it’s an urging or a pushing or a prodding. Maybe the Spirit is disquieting and unsettling our comfortable existence. It is the most difficult aspect of this endeavor called faith…it is trust. But if we trust that urging, that prodding, trust that the correct doors will be opened and the wrong doors will be closed, then we can trust and know that God is leading us every step of the way. To be still and know that God is God!
And how truly terrifying to is to think about trusting someone else or something else, to trust God or is it?

I will close with this quick example. I hope that each of you has had the opportunity to introduce yourself to our new youth Director, Randall Davidson. He is not exactly what we were looking for to replace Michelle as our youth leader. He is quiet and reflective, he is outdoorsy and a vegetarian, and he is bald and has a beard. He is not an Episcopalian nor a Presbyterian but he is exactly who we need even though he was not who we thought we needed. He is very engaging and has quickly made connections with the staff but most importantly with our youth.

So you see we just might find that it is actually extremely freeing to trust and to rest secure that God is in charge and we don’t have to have control over everything.

Thanks be to God for it. Amen.

Let us pray:

A Question of Extravagance

 

Isaiah 43:16-21
Psalm 126
Philippians 3:4b-14
John 12:1-8

 

12:1 “Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 2There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. 3Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. 4But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, 5“Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” 6 (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) 7 Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. 8 You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” 9 When the great crowd of the Jews learned that he was there, they came not only because of Jesus but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 10 So the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death as well, 11 since it was on account of him that many of the Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus.” (John 12:1-11, NRSV)

 

Let us pray: God of the covenant, in the glory of the cross your Son embraced the power of death and broke its hold over your people. In this time of repentance, we pray that you would draw all people to yourself, that we who confess Jesus as Lord may put aside the deeds of death and accept the life of your kingdom. Amen.

 

Smells stay with you a lifetime.   Some say it is the most powerful of all the senses.  Most of us have experienced a smell that floods our minds with overwhelming us and transporting us directly to memories of a person, place, or event.  Our Olfactory receptors share the same closely networked area of the brain’s limbic system as emotion, and memory.  So, our sense of smell closely relates to how we experience life and process significant memories.  I am sure you have had that experience of smelling something and it takes you back to a time, a place, and a person.

 

What is it about smell? There are smells that please and those that repulse? Smells that delight and those that distance?  Smells that invite and those that repel? I have had foul odors from an unseen dumpster conjure sights and sounds I experienced on a mission trip to Guatemala.  I cannot tell most perfumes apart until I’m in a crowd and someone is wearing the same fragrance my wife wears and I look for her.

 

Smells stay with you a lifetime.

 

When I have to go to parent teacher conferences for my children and I walk down the halls in their schools, I am hit with that smell, whatever it is in schools, no matter what school it is, whatever that smell is that permeates a school that seems to always be there and it takes me back.  Back to those old feelings of nervousness and anxiety of being in school as a kid.

 

Smells are deeply tied to our memories.

 

I wish I could use scents to make my point but we don’t want to get into burning incense in worship.  For example, if you want to remember home, the smell of homemade bread or the scent of a freshly baked batch chocolate chips cookies will make your taste buds water and make your stomach growl with hunger!

 

Not all smells are happy and pleasant ones.  I remember when I was working as a hospital chaplain, in our training the nurses told us about “the smell”.   The veteran nurses could simply smell when death was approaching.  Obviously they weren’t always right, but more often than not they were.  The smell of impending death.

 

Smells permeate our passage for today.  We find Jesus in the home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus in Jerusalem, outside of Bethany.  Jesus loved them.  These were good friends.  Just before this passage Mary and Martha sent word to Jesus to tell him that his friend Lazarus was dead.  Jesus goes to the tomb to see for himself.  When he gets there he smells the stench of death.  This is not the smell of approaching death, this is the smell of real death.  Dead death.   Realizing that his friend is dead Jesus stands at the tomb and weeps.

 

The smell of death and the reality of death overtook him.

 

Then Jesus performs his most amazing miracle to date and raises his dear friend Lazarus from the dead.  Lazarus is alive.  Live and joy, and happiness and the smell of celebration take over the scene.  In response to Jesus raising her brother from the dead Mary and Martha throw him a celebratory dinner.  It is during this celebration that Mary anoints Jesus with costly perfume.  The smell of this expensive perfume, costing almost a year’s wages, permeating every nook and cranny of that room. It is a sharp contrast to the smell of death that we last experienced when she called Jesus to raise her brother Lazarus. Now as she anoints Jesus, he bother Lazarus is reclining on Jesus at the table.  The smell of death is met with this sweet and costly perfume to smell at the same time.

 

The smell of extravagant love.  Mary knew exactly what she was doing.  She was the only one in the room who really got it.  She honors Jesus, anointing him with extravagant perfume, she prepares him for the journey to Jerusalem.  This smell of expensive perfume, is a smell not to counteract death, or to erase death’s smell, or try to overpower its stench.   Instead it is a scent to smell at the same time – you can smell the scent of death. I wonder if this is the point. Smells don’t replace – they contrast, they tell the truth about our human existence. The simultaneous smells of life and death.  The smell of love in the face of certain betrayal.

 

The fact that this story takes place in the midst of Judas’ struggle, in the midst of the death of Lazarus and the plot to kill Jesus, is a reminder that following Jesus and loving Jesus does not take place in a vacuum but in the real world.  We are not called to be faithful in a vacuum but in the real world where people make choices that hurt others, where death and disease are a reality, where pain and suffering exist, a world where Jesus lived and died and then rose again, showing that none of these real world experiences will have the final word.

 

As you breathe in the smell of coming Spring, as you soak in the fragrances of the sweet fragrance of the daffodils trying to bloom and greening grass and trees and shrubs will be growing new buds and getting ready to flower.  I invite you to think of Mary as she commingled the smell of impending death with the smell of new life, fragrance of new life.

 

Jesus is going to start his fateful journey to Jerusalem after this meal with his friends.  It will not be a pretty.  It will be painful and sad and lonely at times.  It won’t deny real life.  But it also won’t be the end of his journey.  His journey doesn’t end on a cross or in a tomb but it will continue because life conquers death and joy defeats despair.  This is the fragrance of new life.  Take a deep breath and you might smell it.  Extravagant, sweet, beautiful new life.

 

Let us pray:

Listen to what your Mama Says

 

 

Isaiah 62:1-5
Psalm 36:5-10
John 2:1-11

 

2:1 “On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. 2 Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. 3 When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” 4 And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” 5 His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” 6 Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. 7 Jesus said to them, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. 8 He said to them, “Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.” So they took it. 9 When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom 10 and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now. 11 Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.” (John 2:1-11, NRSV)

 

Let us pray: O God of steadfast love, at the wedding in Cana your Son Jesus turned water into wine, delighting all who were there. Transform our hearts by your Spirit, that we may use our varied gifts to show forth the light of your love as one body in Christ. Amen.

 

Every wedding ceremony is special and different.  All the people involved work hard to create a joyous and a memorable moment.  Couples often spend six months to a year planning, preparing, and going through pre-marital counseling in order to get to the wedding ceremony.  When the big day finally arrives and all of those years of dreaming, months of planning, decades of saving and a lifetime of praying come together as two become one.

 

As, the congregation stands and the organ begins to play the wedding march.  The Bride starts her procession wearing her beautiful wedding dress. The groom standing tall at the front of the church, watching as his bride is escorted down the aisle looking more beautiful than he has ever seen her look.  It is a glorious moment,[1] setting the stage for today’s Gospel reading.

 

Our wedding story took place at Cana in Galilee.  Jesus, his mother and the 12 disciples were all there.   This wedding was a glorious occasion as well that is until they ran out of wine.  Running out of wine threatened to ruin the joy of the event.  To run out of wine was an act of inhospitality.  Running out of wine would reflect poorly on the family of the bride and it would cause a great deal of embarrassment for them.   So, Jesus’ mother tells him about it.   Jesus responds with a very puzzling and downright rude statement to his own mother, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me?”   Wow!  What does that mean?  Is he scolding his own mother?   Is he rejecting her?   Undeterred by his declaration, Mary turns and tells the servants to do whatever he tells them to do.

 

There were six large vessels of water at the wedding and Jesus turns those six jars of water into wine.  The wedding party was saved.  It is a great story Jesus saves a wedding party from great embarrassment.  It seems like a very superficial and unimportant thing to do, turn water into wine.   And yes, this passage is about a wedding, but it is about so much more.

 

A wedding is a fitting place for Jesus to begin his miracles.  Weddings are all about commitment, the participant’s commitment to each other and to God, the congregation’s commitment to support the new couple, and God’s commitment to be with them in their marriage.  Jesus begins his ministry by showing his commitment to humanity.  Another reason that this is a great beginning to Jesus miracles is it is an example of God’s grace upon grace.  It is a story of abundance!

 

The abundance is found in the details of this seemingly superficial miracle.   It is meant to show us what God’s grace is like.  What it looks like, what it smells like, what it tastes like, and what it feels like.  Jesus is changing 120-180 gallons of water into the best wine. This is not just a bottle or two of wine but more like 63 cases of wine.

 

So, if a standard bottle of wine is 750 milliliters (ml), and a case of wine is 12 bottles or 2.378 gallons.  At 150 gallons per ton, a ton of grapes becomes 150/2.378 gallons per case, or a little more than 63 cases of wine. With 12 bottles per case, we have 756 bottles in total.”[2]

 

And since we are talking about God, let’s round up and assume 180 gallons for the miracle at Cana.   It is close to a 1000 bottles of wine.   And how many grapes per bottle of wine?  According to Conversion Factors, a website, 2.6 pounds of grapes yields one bottle of wine.  So, yes, we really are talking about a ton of grapes – over a ton.   What difference do these details make?   When we consider the details, in ways we might understand, it is a ton of grace.  It is an overabundance of grace, it is exaggerated grace, extravagant grace, and excessive grace.

 

Six vessels, twenty to thirty gallons each, filled to the brim, with the best wine, when you least expect it.  Think about what that looks like – six tall stone vessels.  Think about what that smells like.  Stick your nose deep in that unexpected glass of a lovely wine, because it’s that first smell that anticipates that first taste.  Think about what that tastes like, what flavors you might detect, how does it finish?  Think about how that feels, that unexpected deliciousness of a well-aged, top-shelf wine, when there is no reason to anticipate such a moment.  The wine ran out – and you expect nothing but what you get, instead is the best wine.  One would assume it should be served first.

 

But this miracle is really not about the wine.  Jesus’ miracle points towards God’s abundance in our lives, God’s abundant grace, God’s abundant mercy, and God’s abundant goodness.   Jesus does not merely give just enough wine for the party to continue – he turned enough water into wine for the whole village to enjoy.  He gave abundantly.  It is always that way with Jesus.  There is enough of Jesus for everyone.  There is enough love and grace and mercy for all God’s children.  There is nothing – not our biggest mistake, not our darkest sin, not our greatest sin, nothing in all of creation that will make God love us any less.

 

And as much as we want to think this grace is only for us, this Epiphany also shows us that God’s grace is to be shared with others.  The setting of this first sign is essential – a wedding.   All the guests will get to experience this act of grace.  All will watch the steward pour wine in their glasses when they thought their cups would stay empty.   All will get that first smell and be surprised.   All will take that first sip.  All will have the opportunity to respond to Jesus’ voice and know life.  Because God’s grace is for all and it’s impossible, to restrain God’s abundance.

Grace upon grace is the tangible experience of God’s love; not something to be kept to ourselves but to go about testifying because God loves the world – which is, the real heart of Epiphany.

 

Happiness and joy are all the appropriate responses at a wedding ceremony and they are suitable responses to God’s abundant love and God’s amazing grace.   So, friends let us rejoice and know that we are God’s delight both now and always.  Amen.

 

 

[1] The Reverend Dr. M. Craig Barnes, “A Reckless Miracle,” a sermon on John 2:1-11. Shadyside Presbyterian Church. June 5, 2005.

[2] The Reverend Dr. Karoline Lewis, Embodied Epiphanies, Sunday, January 10, 2016. Conversion Factors: From Vineyard to Bottle from Cornell University. www.workingpreacher.org

 

A Different Promise for a New Year

 

Jeremiah 31:7-14
Psalm 147:12-20
John 1: (1-9), 10-18

 

1:1 “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. 6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 9 The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. 12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. 15 (John testified to him and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.'”) 16 From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.17 The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.18 No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.” (John 1:10-18, NRSV)

 

Let us pray: Gracious God, you have redeemed us through Jesus Christ, the first-born of all creation, whose birth we celebrate as the child of Bethlehem. Bless us with every spiritual blessing that we may live as your adopted children and witness to your glory with unending praise and thanksgiving. Amen.

 

Words. Words. Words. Our lives are full of words. There are written words, there are spoken words. We are bombarded by words. Some of these words are good and positive and helpful while others are not. While I was enjoying the multitude of bowl games over the last few days there were the endless beer commercials, numerous credit card and debit relief ads and the plethora of weight loss ads. By Saturday evening I was numb by all the words. In our world of words we have learned that when we speak we must be careful with our words, especially in our politically correct culture. What may seem like innocent words to one person can be hurtful and damaging to others. Words make a big difference. Words. Words. Words.

 

Words are important. This is the idea that John begins his Gospel and his daring theological claim that Jesus was “in the beginning” with God, that Jesus was “the Word of God” and “That all things came into being” through him. John begins with God who is the Word.

 

“In the beginning was the Word; the Word became flesh.”  The Greek word for Word is “logos” from which we get our word, logic.  “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God” is then translated:  “In the beginning was the logic and the logic was with God and the logic was God.”

 

Before there was anything, before there was matter, before there was light and life, there was a plan.  In the beginning was the logic and the logic was with God and the logic was God.  The brilliance was God.  What John is saying is before something was created, there had to be a plan behind it; and from this logic, all light and life was created.

Words.

Words.

Words. Some words mean more than other words do…

 

John states that Jesus whom we know as Savior was the Word God uttered when God said, “Let there be light.” Jesus was the Word that came down the mountain when God spoke to Moses.  Jesus was the Word the prophets spoke when they said, “Thus says the Lord…”  Jesus was and is the Word. Words. Words. Words.  Some Words are more meaningful than others.

 

Jesus is not just the messenger from God; Jesus is the message.  Jesus does not simply teach us how to live; Jesus is life.  Jesus does not simply point to the Light; Jesus is the Light. Words. Words. Words.

 

The Bible, the Holy Word of God is full of wonderful and powerful words. But even those life-changing words are not enough.  Take music for example, music is so much more than notes on a page…when it is played with passion it can bring out our emotions, it can move us to tears, it can change our hearts and touch our deepest feelings.  Love is more than telling your spouse you love them; it is living it out each and every day of your relationship. The Son of God, Jesus Christ, the magnificent Word of God is more than just words written in this Holy book.

 

The Word of God is not simply good words to live by and rules to guide our lives. It is God Himself.  The Word become flesh.  The Word, which was in the beginning with God, the Word, which created all that is, the Word, which is light, and life, became flesh born of Mary in a manger in Bethlehem.

 

We in the church use Words each and every week to profess our faith.  We say we believe in Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior.  We say the Apostle’s Creed, or the Nicene Creed, we affirm our belief in God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Yes, that is what we say when we combine those Words and say the Creed.  But are those just words for us?  Do we say them because the bulletin or the prayer book says that is what comes next?  Do we say them because we have memorized the Creed and it is rote to us, it just rolls off our tongues each week?  Words. Words. Words.

 

Do we really believe the Words we say?  Do we really believe that God in Christ is the Savior of the world? Do we really believe that God can make a difference? A difference in our lives, our families, our jobs, our financial situations, our broken hearts, your failing health, and our violent city?   Do we really believe that God cares about our community, our city, our state, our nation, our world, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Israel, Palestine or any other nation?  Or are they just Words we say each Sunday?  Do we know what we say when we say these words? Do we really believe that God will forgive all our sins and save us from the relentless guilt that is part of our lives?  Do we really believe that can do all of that?  That is what it means to be a Savior.

Words.

Words.

Words.

Do we mean what we say when we say them?

Or are they just Words for us?

 

Years ago, when our children were much younger, bedtime was a challenge in our house.  Every night one of our three children had an issue with going to bed. Most every night one of them would plead for mama or daddy to lay with him or her because they were afraid. “Daddy I hear noises…” I responded by saying, “It is okay Mama and I are downstairs and you will be okay.” A few moments later and then we would hear that same voice pleading again, “Mama, I am scared please come and lay down with me…” Monnie would respond, “Don’t be afraid it is nothing, just go back to bed and close your eyes.” After a while the voice, even more sacred this time would return, “Mama, I can’t sleep, can I sleep in your bed?”  We would finally give in and say, yes.   The next morning we would ask the child what they were afraid of.  Our children would talk about the noises and sounds they heard.  We lived in a really old house that was on a busy street so it made sense.  But I realized that the words of comfort that Monnie and I offered to them were just that words.  What our children wanted was our presence with them, our flesh, and our warmth, something tangible to calm them and calm their fears and help them sleep.

 

That is the promise of God in these Words from John, the word became flesh and blood and lived among us.  Words. Words. Words.  Sometimes Words can give life and calm troubled hearts.  Words. Words. Words.  May Jesus the Word become flesh and live in your heart and in mine now and forever.

 

Let us pray:

What Kind of King?

 

2 Samuel 23:1-7
Psalm 132:1-12
Revelation 1:4b-8
John 18:33-37

 

1:4b “Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, 5 and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, 6 and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen. 7 Look! He is coming with the clouds; every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; and on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail. So it is to be. Amen. 8 “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty. (Revelation 1:4b-8, NRSV)

 

18:33 “Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” 34 Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” 35 Pilate replied, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?” 36 Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” 37 Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”  (John 18:33-37, NRSV)

 

Let us pray: Most High God, majestic and almighty, our beginning and our end: We pray that you will rule in our hearts and guide us to be faithful in our daily actions, worshiping the one who comes as Savior and Sovereign, and who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.

 

It seems like an election year already in the United States. We have had multiple debates that have been heated and vicious. Both Democrats and Republicans have gone off the rails by attacking each other, their backgrounds, their college applications, their religious affiliation and even their fantasy football league records.  And we have almost a full year to go.  All of this has me thinking about leadership and what it takes to be a ruler, president, a king.  Today is Christ the King Sunday (or Reign of Christ).  It is the end of our liturgical year. We are on the threshold of Advent, the season of hope for Christ’s coming again at the end of time. But before we start the journey to Jesus’ birth, we end this year with Jesus as king, exalted to rule over the whole universe.

 

So, we can just imagine Pilate’s frustration as he is trying to understand that Jesus is a different kind of king.  Pilate, a governor of a remote Palestinian outpost of the Roman Empire, was a long way from Rome, so he worked very hard to placate Caesar. So, he certainly knew what it was like to deal with a king.  But this Jesus, this “King of the Jews,” was different.  No earthly king would dare to stand in front of a governor in chains with any measure of defiance, nor would an earthly king ever be willing to face the fate Jesus knew was coming.

 

It started out as any other Friday evening begins in the city of light.  But this Friday evening would be anything but ordinary.  This was Friday the 13th of November.  Beginning at 9:20 PM in Paris, there were three separate suicide bombings outside of a stadium, followed by four mass shootings in central Paris, and then four separate suicide bombings at four different locations. The deadliest of those attacks took place at a theatre, where a large crowd was gathered for a concert.

 

According to news reports, over 130 innocent victims were killed and a further 415 were admitted to hospital with injuries sustained in the attacks, including 80 people described as being seriously injured.  In addition to the victims, seven of the extremists’ attackers died.

 

Fear abounds all across the world and I am tired of the violence that is carried out in the name of God or Allah, or Yahweh! I am tired of trying to understand extremists who give a religion a bad name.  Where is a leader to take decisive action and put an end to this terror and violence?   I am tired of waiting for an all-powerful king to come.  There is a part of me that really wants that king to come now and seek vengeance on those who go against his will.  I am ready for a powerful and vengeful God to redeem his name.

 

But that is not how God works.

All of this has me thinking about leadership and what it takes to be a ruler, president, a king.  So, I wonder what we would do if we were in charge of the world today?  If we were faced with making some of the difficult decisions our world faces in these days.

 

Here is Pilate, who knew all about difficult decisions.  It is up to him to choose whether Jesus lives or dies.  You almost get the feeling that Pilate really liked and respected Jesus.  He kind of, sort of, thought he might be the King of the Jews and he apparently couldn’t quite understand why the crowds wanted to kill Jesus.  The crowds just want him dead.  You get a sense that Pilate, this governor, this man of power with the mighty empire of Rome backing him, is anxious and agitated as he wonders what to do with Jesus.

 

So, he takes Jesus into his inner chamber to try to understand him. Just for a moment at least it appears that Pilate has a conscience and is confused about what to do.  You get the sense his heart was telling him one thing but then there were those crowds, the noises from outside, the pressure to be what people expected him to be.

 

A professor I had in seminary describes Pilate’s behavior as “typical of a person or institution who is confronted with a critical decision who has instincts in one direction but is pressured by the circumstances or a crowd to move reluctantly in the opposite direction.”  (Charles Cousar as quoted by Kate Huey on internet sermon).

 

What strikes me about Pilate is that he knew that Jesus really didn’t deserve to die, but he didn’t have the guts to say it and to stand up for what he believed.  The crowds would have been furious.  But even still, Pilate knew and he didn’t have the guts to live it.

 

We see politicians do it all the time—base their decisions not on their conscience but instead on what will get them the most votes.

 

We see kids do it all the time—follow the crowd who is doing something they know they shouldn’t be doing because it is so much easier to just go along and fit in rather than buck the crowd and say no.

 

And we do it in our own lives.  Don’t you sometimes get that knot in the pit of your stomach when you see that something is clearly wrong but you just can’t quite bring yourself to take a stand, stand up and say something?  It’s easier to just keep quiet and not disrupt the status quo and go with the flow. All of this has me thinking about leadership and what it takes to be a ruler, president, a king

 

So here are these two men, Pilate and Jesus.  One a ruler and the other a king. One filled with the power of this world, caught up with success and maintaining order and gaining power and pleasing Caesar.   And the other, calmly, quietly, knowing what is coming, standing there speaking of a different kind of kingdom.  In a strange twist they are now both on trial.  What will Pilate do with the information he has?   What will Pilate do with what his heart and his conscience tell him?  What will he do with what his heart tells him?  Will he listen to his heart or to the crowds?

 

God does things differently. Our God does the unexpected — sends his son, Jesus born to an unwed virgin, in a manger, raised by a carpenter.  Lead people to believe and follow him. He taught that servanthood and love and justice are much more important than riches, power and strength.  He is the kind of king who comes riding in on the back of a donkey, who befriended prostitutes and sinners, who cares about the least, the last, the lost.   Not exactly the kind of leadership, president or king we are looking for today. Can you imagine how Jesus would do in a political debate?

 

So here we are on Christ the King Sunday, looking for a leader, a Savior, a King…Come, Lord Jesus.  We just can’t wait.  Christ is King, but not the king we expect.  The King with a crown of thorns.  The King with non-violent followers.  The King of gifts of love.     May we have the strength and the courage and the faith to put all of our lives subject to this King of Kinds and Lord of Lords.  All of this has me thinking about leadership and what it takes to be a ruler, president, a king

 

We pray, Come Lord Jesus, Come.  Amen.

 

Let us pray:

More than Enough

2 Samuel 11:1–15
Psalm 14
John 6:1–21

 

6:1 “After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias. 2 A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. 3 Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples. 4 Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near. 5 When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” 6 He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. 7 Philip answered him, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” 8 One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, 9 “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?” 10 Jesus said, “Make the people sit down.” Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all. 11 Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. 12 When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” 13 So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. 14 When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.” 15 When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself. 16 When evening came, his disciples went down to the sea, 17 got into a boat, and started across the sea to Capernaum. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. 18 The sea became rough because a strong wind was blowing. 19 When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the sea and coming near the boat, and they were terrified. 20 But he said to them, “It is I; do not be afraid.” 21 Then they wanted to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the land toward which they were going.” (John 6:1-21, NRSV)

 

Let us pray: O God, you are the sustainer of the hungry, like a mother you long to feed your children until each is satisfied. So, we pray that you would turn our eyes and our hearts to you alone, that, aware of our own deepest longings, we will reach out with Christ to feed others with the miracle of your love. Amen.

 

I have always heard it said that you had better be careful what you try to teach or what you say to your children because it may come back to haunt you.

 

Monnie and I decided when we had children that we did not want to raise spoiled kids and give them everything that they want.  We really did!  So, we frequently say to them when they beg for something, “Now you know you don’t really need that, you have enough toys or shoes or sports gear.  I am not going to buy that for you.”  Well, as in most cases this too came back to haunt us.

 

One story in particular that I remember from a few years ago.  Monnie was in a shoe store and they were having a great sale, not just a good sale but a great sale.  So, naturally she bought a pair of shoes for herself, just a basic pair of flip flops and as she told me they were cheap and it was a deal.   Did I mention it was a fabulous deal?  She went on to say that the whole way home, all she heard from the kids was “You did not really need those.  Look at all the shoes in your closet.  Did you really need another pair of flip flops?”  To which she answered, “Yes I did.”

 

So, this week as I am reading this text the question keeps haunting me, “How much is enough?”

 

Some people say that “enough is enough.”  When you have enough of anything it means you have an adequate amount.  You have enough money to pay your bills, you have enough food to eat, and you have enough clothes to wear.   But knowing what is enough gets really tricky, for we all know in our world today that there are plenty of people, me included, who have and enjoy much more than enough.   In many ways it is what brought on our current economic divide in our country.   Some people who have plenty don’t think they have enough, so they kept acquiring more and more.  People began amassing great fortunes and stock piling goods and things and worrying that it is not enough.  Others began to live beyond their means and if there isn’t enough money to pay the bills they just get another credit card and add on more debt.  Buy now, pay later.  Most all of us are caught in the endless cycle of thinking we never have enough and we are always in need of more, we live as if we don’t have enough.

 

Even so, what is enough is relative.  In many third world countries it would take a family 40 years to earn the equivalent of the United States poverty level income.  Pretty sobering thought.

 

So whether we are talking about a trivial thing of buying a cheap pair of unnecessary flip flops or much more important matters of basic food, water, clothing and a roof over your head, how much is enough?

 

Where and when did we start to think that we always need more?  Living this way is living with a mindset of “scarcity,” thinking there is not enough to go around. It is right here in our Gospel reading.

 

The familiar story of the feeding of the five thousand is the only miracle that makes it into all four Gospels.  So obviously all four Gospel writers knew this to be a significant story in Jesus’ ministry.

 

Five thousand people show up to hear Jesus and it is time to eat and there is not enough food.  End of story.  You can’t feed people with what you don’t have.  When the cupboard is empty you simply don’t eat.  When the bank account is at zero there is no more money.

 

All these people had been following Jesus, frantically wanting him to heal them.  When their stomachs start to grumble. Jesus asks Philip a pretty straightforward question.  “How are we going to feed all these people?”  It is almost like Jesus is testing Philip.   And Philip responds, “There is no way.  Half a year’s wages wouldn’t be enough to feed all these people.”  Then Andrew, another disciple points out that there is a boy with a snack but what difference could that possibly make.  How could five loaves and two fish satisfy this hungry crowd?   Philip and Andrew are operating under that mindset of scarcity, unable to see the possibility of God’s great abundance.

 

But Jesus is operating under a whole other mindset, a mindset that has been present since the very beginning of John’s Gospel.  The theme that runs throughout this fourth Gospel is a theme of abundance.  It is a constant refrain.  We see it in the story of the wedding at Cana when Jesus turns water into wine, wine in abundance for all the guests, plenty for everyone.  We also see it in the passage we often read at funerals when Jesus says “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.”  There are not just a few, there is in abundance, lots of space to accommodate all who are held in God’s grace.

 

And here today we see this theme of abundance from the story.  Of course there is enough, everyone is fed and in fact there are leftovers. There is more than enough.

 

Now, I am not trying to diminish this miraculous story to saying that Jesus will provide, all we have to do if ask.  I am not saying that when we are hungry we simply hold out our hand and Jesus will drop of loaf of bread in it.  That is much too pious for my belief.  I know full well that there are starving people in the world, there are hungry people in the United States, there are struggling people in our Cincinnati, and there are desperate people who do not have enough to meet their daily needs right down the hill from us.  And many of these people are Christians who have prayed and prayed and haven’t seen any manna dropping from heaven or food showing up on their doorstep.  I know that.  But there is still enough.  The problem is that so many of us have taken so much, worried that there won’t be enough to go around.  We have all heard that in the United States we have enough resources so that no one needs to go hungry.   We do have the resources and the gifts and the talents so that no one need go thirsty.   We have the ability to care for the sick and the dying and homeless.  We have a great abundance of everything in our nation – the difficulty is how to meet the ever growing needs.  The solution is much more difficult and it is way over my head, but I know there is enough for everyone.

 

That is the essence of this story, God provides enough to go around.  God even provides a surplus, but that does not let us off the hook.  In fact, it calls us to step forward and do our part.  We can’t just sit back and wait for God to drop food from the sky, we have to share out of our own abundance.  We have to look at what we have and offer it to others.  Remember that there is no such thing as “my” bread or “your” bread but “our” bread”.  After all every week we say “Give us this day OUR daily bread.”  There is enough.  We just need to start living like there is.

 

And of course the story is about far more than bread.  It is about God and God’s abundance. It is about a view of everything, money, food, water, resources and grace.  Abundance not scarcity. It effects everything from how we treat others to how we give to the church.

 

It seems to me that our church has been living with a mindset of scarcity and I believe that we need to open ourselves to the abundance that is all around us.  It is shocking to admit that we good people of the Indian Hill Church have been operating under the mindset of scarcity.  Our budget has gone down, down, down over the past few years and yet we struggle to meet it.  We should have no trouble meeting our budget even exceeding our budget, we should have a great surplus to meet our own expenses and then be able to give to those in need around us.  We should never have to cut out budget for outreach to our community, because ewe have more than enough. We have all been so richly blessed.

 

It is right here in John’s Gospel Jesus shows there is plenty, more than enough to go around.  God’s grace is abundant.  God’s blessing is extravagant and over flowing.  It is not meant to be hoarded and saved and stashed away.  It is meant to be used and shared and spread around.  Just as we are called to break off a piece of bread and share it with others, once grace has been poured out on us, we don’t just hold on tight to it.  We share it.  We tell others about it.  We want others to experience this abundant grace just like we have.  Because there is so much to go around.  It will never run out, it will never be scarce.  There is more and more and more.

 

Because God is present always among us, there is plenty of grace, plenty for all the crowds.  Grace upon grace.  Amen.

 

Let us pray:

 

What’s love got to do with it?

Acts 10:44-48
Psalm 98
John 15:9-17

15: 9 “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. 10 If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. 11 I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. 12 “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13 No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15 I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. 16 You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. 17 I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.” (John 15:9-17, NRSV)

Let us pray: Faithful God, make our hearts bold with love for one another. Pour out your Spirit upon all people, that we may live in your peace and walk in your ways. Amen.

 

Love is such a difficult word, emotion, sense to understand. I mean I love Monnie and I love my children, but I also love chocolate chip cookies and ice cream. I love sports and summer vacations so when Jesus talks about love and loving him it seems somehow to be different.

 

My mom told me she loved me and my dad often did so without actually using the words; my brothers and I did not say it to each other while we were growing up but we knew it and now we end each conversation and or visit with I love you. Growing up in the church, adults and others shared with me about their love of Jesus.  I really did not know what that was all about loving Jesus…how could I do that when I didn’t really understand love?

 

As a teenager I didn’t date a whole lot and I certainly didn’t have many girlfriends but when I did I was certain that she was the one and I was in love with her and it was going to last forever because that is what love means isn’t it?  My heart skipped a beat when I saw her, I was sure that this was love. Boy, did I have a lot to learn about girls, dating, attraction and love, but that is for another sermon. I never had those sort of feelings towards Jesus. Sure, I invited him into my heart and gave him my life and asked him to be my Lord and Savior but I did not have the same feelings towards him as I did my first crushes and girlfriends. And when you are a teenager, those first brushes with love and romance are not only intoxicating, all-consuming but they are also very confusing.

 

As Church goers we hear about Jesus and love all the time. One of the gifts my parents gave me was to raise me and my brothers in the faith where the truth of the gospel that God so loved the whole world and even you and me was taught. But love was not a word that was easily understood in the world that I grew up in not this kind of love. We believed in Jesus; we tried to live according to God’s Word; we learned the difference between right and wrong, we took great comfort and strength in the promises of Scripture and Jesus to us and for all the world, but love him? I am not sure I knew what that really meant.

 

You see, I don’t remember too many people saying out loud how much they loved their husbands, wives, significant others, their parents or even their children. It seems that that kind of love was far too personal, much too intimate to be talked about in public. Today maybe a bit different with social media where you can tell the whole wide world just how much you love him or her or pizza or the Reds or anything for that matter.

 

So, I began to wonder why people didn’t have such emotions and feelings for Jesus like we do for our boyfriends, wives, or children.  Did I miss something because I didn’t feel all tingly or obsessed about Jesus?  Could it be that I was taking Jesus for granted?

 

Sure I remember being taught that there are three different types of love in the New Testament. The first is agape, which is a verb. It is the highest of the three types of love in the Bible. Jesus showed this kind of selfless, sacrificial, unconditional love to all humanity. The second type of love is Phileo, which is also a verb. It is the friendship kind of love and affection for others. The final type is Eros, which is a noun. It refers to sexual, erotic love or desire. Obviously, Jesus is talking about a different kind of love than the hot and bothered teenage kind of love but what is he talking about.

 

In the scripture passage we read; Jesus is sharing his last meal with his disciples in the upper room. They are worried.  They are worried about being left behind. So, Jesus takes this last opportunity to prepare them for his departure. He tries to calm their fears and ease their anxieties by telling them how to carry on, to live in his absence so he says to them “if you love me, keep my commandments…The love he is talking about here is not a sentimental passion, or a romantic infatuation or obsession, or even an attraction or lust. The love Jesus is talking about is behavior, it is an action not a noun.  Jesus is telling his disciples not simply to say the word but to live it out. Don’t just talk about love, show me love! It is not about feelings, it is behavior, and it is defined by what we do, more than what we say!

This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.

 

Think about what this means, how in the world do we “show” Jesus we love him?

  1. When we love our neighbor
  2. When we show compassion
  3. When we do justice, love kindness, show mercy and walk humbly with God…

 

In my pervious church there was a guy named Clint. He had grown up in the church and he was there every time the church doors were open. In fact, he had his own key so he was there even when the doors weren’t open. He was known to sit in a chair next to the secretary’s desk for hours on end, he also walked down the center aisle with the family at a funeral procession when he wasn’t even a member of the family.

 

He was a bit off. He was an alcoholic. His life was in shambles. He was a good hearted person but he was very hard to love.  It was hard to love him because he was difficult, he often did not bathe, he was not appropriate…he was tough but one day a group of the men in the church showed they loved him.

They went to his apartment and found him dirty, sick and very much alone. They cleaned out all of the liquor bottles, empty beer cans and trash in his filthy living space. They cleaned out the shower and then gave him one. The scrubbed him head to toe and then they took him to the doctor for a check-up. The next day they went with him and checked him into an alcohol rehab center. I know that they never said the words, “Clint, we love you but they certainly showed him just how much they loved him.”

 

I read in the Enquirer this week the tragic story of the young man, Travis Livers-Gowdy, the Cooper High School student who was tragically killed in a car accident last week in Northern Kentucky. A classmate told a story about him. She was new to the school and she was often teased and bullied. She described the first day that Travis Livers-Gowdy came and sat next to her at lunch. “Last year, I was the girl no one liked. I was sitting by myself at lunch every day,” “This popular upper-classman (Livers-Gowdy) came and sat next to me, and he sat there with me every day… To know that I was a nobody. For him to make me know that it (wasn’t) OK to be bullied because someone like him who was known and popular and loved could help someone like me.”[1] He kept doing it every day.

I don’t imagine Travis Livers-Gowdy ever uttered the words, “I love you,” to her but he showed it. Not romantic love, not ever-lasting love, but the deep and abiding love for another child of God.

 

I don’t know if Travis was a Christian or not but he sure seems like it not because of anything he ever said but by his love.  Jesus asks, “Do you love me? Then he commands us to love one another as he first loved us. This is the call and command of the Risen Christ to all of us, so let us all show him. Not merely by our words but more so by our actions.

 

Let us pray:

[1] Henry Molski and Patrick Brennan, pbrennan@enquirer.com, School mourns loss of 18-year-old crash victim May 8, 2015 Check out this story on cincinnati.com: http://cin.ci/1Rhahm0

 

The Good Shepherd

Psalm 23
1 John 3:16–24
John 10:11–18

 

10:11“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. 13The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. 14 I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. 16 I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. 17 For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. 18 No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.” (John 10:11–18, NRSV)

 

Let us pray: Shepherd of all, by laying down your life for your flock you reveal your love for all. Lead us from the place of death to the place of abundant life, that guided by your care for us, we may offer our lives in love for you and our neighbors. Amen.

 

I have a good friend who is a pastor of a Presbyterian Church in small town in Middle Tennessee.  He grew up on a farm.  What makes his story interesting is not that he grew up on a farm but that his father was a shepherd.  On the farm they grew crops, they had a few cattle but mostly they raised sheep.  My friend tells stories all the time about his life growing up on his family’s farm but he doesn’t talk very much about his father being a shepherd.  He loves to talk about the sheep, how needy they are, how stupid they are and how much work they are. But I have only heard him talk about shepherds once.

 

He says that he can’t think of a single good reason for anyone to ever be around sheep. He says, Shepherds have a lot of bad days—bad weeks, months, even years. Odds are, Shepherds can have more bad days with sheep than good ones. At least it would be close, he says.

 

He states, if your sheep don’t tie you down, sheep at least tie you to them. There is rarely a moment a Shepherd isn’t aware of what is going on with the flock and each member of it.

 

Sheep get sick very easily — and mysteriously.  Sheep don’t like other animals like dogs or horses. Foxes, Coyotes, even buzzards, are predators of sheep.

 

Sheep are extremely susceptible to parasites, especially intestinal worms. They also can pick up foot rot in the blink of an eye.

 

Sheep are also prone to death during lambing, both mother ewe and lamb. They also have a mysterious disease called lambing paralysis that is as fatal as it is mysterious. There is a whole host of diseases that affect sheep. That is why veterinarians are rarely much help. One would have to specialize in sheep—and who would do that, if just having sheep is so much trouble.

 

My friend tells that he and his father sawed off a lot of horns that were in danger of growing into a sheep’s eye or head.

 

He told of many bad times with sheep but one in particular stands out.  There was a time when virtually every sheep in his father’s flock developed a strange eye problem, and they treated them with medicine from the local vet, the whole flock went completely blind.

 

My friend says that as a Shepherd you’re up and down with sheep all night long.  You sleep with your ears awake as you can keep them.   On top of that, even at their best, a sheep’s life is less than 10 years, probably a lot less.   It’s a lot of work for not much return, or fun or satisfaction.   And when you get right down to it, there is no money in sheep either.   Wool or meat, either way.  And he adds, you can’t even give sheep rides, either.

 

So, why would anyone want sheep? Apparently, people would come by the farm to ask about sheep.  They are so cute and soft and they look they would make a great pet. Not so much.

 

My friend’s father met with every person who came by the farm and he even had a little speech to people who thought they would like to get a few sheep the way someone gets a few chickens or a few cows or a few pear trees. My friend realized that there were two levels to his father’s speech.

 

The first level of his father’s speech was looking out for the poor misguided souls who wanted to try their hand at becoming a shepherd so his father was always up front and honest about the difficulties of being a shepherd recalling the many times he was called to “come and get these things” within a few weeks—or days. Even hours.

 

The deeper and more profound level his father was looking out for the sheep themselves. He might hate to see someone taken in by the cute and cuddly look of the sheep and end up having all of those problems.  But mostly, he didn’t want to put his sheep – or any other sheep – in the hands of a bad shepherd because as you can tell being a good shepherd is not accidental. It’s true that it is not rocket science. It’s probably a lot more frustrating than that.

 

So, hearing his story of growing up on a farm with a shepherd as a father it is not hard to imagine why Jesus’ says that the hired hand ran off when he saw the wolf coming.  We don’t know if the hired hand ran off because of the wolf or of being left with all of those sheep.  Maybe the wolf offered the perfect opportunity to leave all his troubles behind.

 

But why then in the world would Jesus ever compare himself to a shepherd? Not only that he calls himself the Good Shepherd. The Good rancher, maybe. The Good manager?   I can see that. But the Good Shepherd?  It is right up there with the Good Dairy-farmer, or the Good ER doctor.

 

So, why would Jesus ever want to take all of us?

 

There are days, as we are all so well aware, when we can barely stand ourselves.  There are days we can barely stand some of the people closest to us. There are days when we can barely stand people in our own families.  There are times it “flies all over us” just to see someone’s face or to hear their voice.  There are people we never want to see or hear ever again.

 

Yet, Jesus takes on the role of being the Good Shepherd.  It makes no sense. Why anyone would lay his or her life down for a bunch or sheep?  Or for a group of people?  Or for us?

 

Just like my friend’s story about his father the Shepherd.  It’s not the sheep.  And it’s not the people.  It’s the heart of the shepherd.

 

What is in the heart of a shepherd that causes one, not simply to put up with sheep but to give one’s heart and one’s life to them?  What is in the heart of the Good Shepherd that causes him to lay down his life for us?

 

Jesus says, “I know my sheep…”

 

Apparently, if we were to look at a flock of sheep, we would probably see a sea of identical faces.  But not so with a good shepherd.  My friend said that if you were to walk out in the field with his father, you could point to any sheep in the flock and he could tell you the number, their mother and father and probably what day they were born.

 

It was simply because his father knew his sheep—and he knew they counted on him.  Occasionally his father actually managed to make some money on sheep, enough to break even at least.  But the real reason he hung in there with his sheep for 60 plus years was because he came to love them.  He knew them, and he knew that they depended on him.  Sheep live and die by the trust they place in their shepherd— and the quality of their shepherd.

 

Why Jesus should love us in all of our needs and all of our heartaches, I can’t possible explain. But the Good News is that Jesus takes it upon himself to be the Good Shepherd to us all. The truth that makes that even better “Good News” is that he is the only one who can be.  Jesus is willing and able to do what we all need but what none of us can do: he can love us and guide our lives into life that leads into eternal life.  He can lead us to be a flock bound together by love and following in the ways of love, compassion and justice.  We can really live – because the Good Shepherd has laid down his life for us so that we might live the life for which we were created.

 

I can’t tell you why shepherds are willing to be with their sheep.  I certainly can’t tell you why God the creator of the universe is willing to take on the likes of us human beings.  But I can tell you it is the best Good News any sheep can ever hear that they are in the hands of the Good Shepherd.  There is One who loves us, and always will.

 

Let us pray:

An Idle Tale or Everlasting Truth?

Isaiah 25:6-9
Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24
John 20:1-18

 

20:1“Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. 2So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” 3Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. 4The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. 6Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, 7and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. 8Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; 9for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. 10Then the disciples returned to their homes. 11But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; 12and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. 13They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” 14When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” 16Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). 17Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” 18Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.” (John 20:1-18, NRSV)

 

Let us pray: Living God, on the first day of the week you brought to birth a new creation through the glorious resurrection of Jesus Christ. Fill us with the hope and joy of new beginnings, so that we may share the good news of your liberating, life-giving power with all the world. Grant that we, being dead to sin and alive to you in Jesus Christ, may reign with him in glory, who with you and the Holy Spirit is alive, one God, now and forever. Amen.

 

If I went around the sanctuary and asked some of you to tell the story of Easter we all might tell it a little differently.  Some of us would tell of Mary Magdalene and others of the disciples running back and forth.  Some of us might remark of how the stone had been rolled away or that the gardener appeared and called Mary’s name.  We would all have our way of telling the Easter story.

 

The Gospel writers did as well.  There are basically four different accounts of the resurrection, all with their own nuances and details and focus.  Matthew says there was an earthquake.  Mark ends so abruptly that we have to fill in the details and provide our own ending.  Luke has a group of women that see the angels in dazzling clothes.  John has the gardener who ends up being Jesus.  Some accounts have Mary alone, some with other women.  Some have one angel, some two. It gets a bit confusing with all the discrepancies.

 

But if you think about it, isn’t that confusion all part of the Easter story, all part of our faith.  There are lots of differences, there is skepticism, there is doubt, and there is faith.

 

Then it hit me that is how belief or faith is.  Sometimes our belief or our faith is so strong that our hearts are beating furiously and we can almost see the hand of God.  Other times our belief or our faith is small and faint and we must rely on others to do the believing for us.  Sometimes we run to the tomb and are certain that Jesus is not there.  Other times we meander slowly there and aren’t so sure all this resurrection stuff is not some fairy tale.  Sometimes we shout loudly “I believe”.  Other times we whisper quietly, “I believe, but Lord help my unbelief.”

 

So, with all those mixed up feelings and thoughts and wonderings, we come to worship this Easter Sunday.  We come longing for this resurrection story to be true, to be far more than a fairy tale.  We come wanting to believe, wanting to be transformed, wanting for this Easter to mean something, to change our lives, to bring joy and hope and faith to the forefront of our living.

 

In many ways we are just like Mary on that first Easter morning.  Mary knew all about death, she knew that death was the end.  She knew that Jesus was gone and life would never be the same.  With his death on the cross, her hope died too.  Mary had to face reality and reality told her:

Death is final

Some situations are truly hopeless

And now her hope is gone.

 

Likewise, with us there is all kind of evidence that we are wrong to believe in the Resurrection:  There are school shootings and drunk drivers killing innocent people, there is war and more war, there are divorces and depression and hopelessness.  There is all the evidence in the world that death is final, that some situations are hopeless and that we are all alone.

 

We all know that death is never pretty. But what we learn on this Resurrection morning, what we learn from traveling to the empty tomb is that Easter is not about death – it is about life. Yes, Jesus died but today he is risen and that changed everything.

 

We so easily use the statement, “This changes everything,” to describe so many events in our lives. Things that change us like: Marriage changes things in our lives. Having children — or not having children — changes things in our lives.  Divorce changes things. Cancer changes things. The death of loved ones changes things. September 11th, 2001 changed things. However, none of these really changes everything for all of us. There is really only one thing that truly changes everything. It is the reason that we have gathered here today… Resurrection.

 

We stake our lives on the resurrection and that is enough to send us out into the world to live each days with hope, a hope that we don’t completely understand, but a hope that we can trust, that we know that God is working, that life even comes out of death.

 

William Slone Coffin, chaplain, social activist, preacher and prophet died several years ago.  He wrote a book before his death entitled “Credo” and the last chapter is “The End of Life.”  Reflecting on his own impending death he wrote:

“As Job said, the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away.  That does not mean that God is responsible for every death.  What that means is that before every birth and after every death there is still God.  The abyss of God’s love is deeper that the abyss of death.  Paul insists that neither death nor life can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.  Even if we don’t know what is beyond the grave, we know who is beyond the grave.”  (Credo, p.167-171)

 

We all know the reality of this world.  Reality of pain and death and grief.  But Easter, the empty tomb, and the Risen Lord there is another reality.  There is reality that says death is not the final word.

 

That is the great mystery of faith, Christ has died, Christ is risen, and a new reality that says you just never know what may happen or what the future may hold.

We are people of life.

We are people of faith.

We are people of hope.

We are people of resurrection.

 

It is enough to send us out from here to tell others that He is risen.  He is risen indeed. That is the truth of Easter.

 

Thank be to God for it.

Amen.

 

Let us pray:

 

The Most Extraordinary Request

Jeremiah 31:31-34
Psalm 51:1-12
John 12:20-33

 

12:20 “Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. 21 They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” 22 Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. 23 Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24 Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. 25 Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26 Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor. 27 “Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—”Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. 28 Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” 29 The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” 30 Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. 31 Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. 32 And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” 33 He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.” (John 12:20-33, NRSV)

 

Let us pray: God of suffering and glory, in Jesus Christ you reveal the way of life through the path of obedience. Inscribe your law in our hearts, that in life we may not stray from you, but may be your people. Amen.

 

We wish to see Jesus.

Pretty basic.

Pretty simple.

Sir, we wish to see Jesus.

 

In many ways that is the basis of why we come to church, it is what we do and who we are. In the modern age where we are all about goals and mission statements.  Having this request as a goal just might be the best we could do. We wish to see Jesus.

Isn’t that why we come to church?

Come and See…see what?

See Jesus.

 

Some Greeks come up to the disciples and request to see Jesus.

What does that mean?

Well, Jesus tells us.

 

Here we are in the fifth week of Lent.  One more Sunday, Palm Sunday, before we celebrate Easter and the resurrection.  We have this pivotal story in Jesus life as described in the Gospel of John.  The entire Gospel of John has been pointing to this climatic moment.  Three times already in the Gospel of John Jesus says “My hour has not yet come.”  He said it in chapter 2 before he turned water into wine when his mother suggests that he do something before the wine runs out.  Jesus turns to her and says, “My hour has not yet come.”  Then he says it twice in chapter 7 to his brothers and then to the authorities who were trying to arrest him.  “My hour has not yet come.”

 

Now, suddenly these Greeks come and ask to see him and he responds “O.k. now is the time.  My hour has come. It is time for me to die.” I don’t really know why now, why is this the hour for Jesus?  I can imagine a few things.  He recently raised Lazarus from the dead, a miracle that angered and shocked the authorities.  The authorities realized that with miracles like this, raising someone from the dead, Jesus would get too popular, would challenge their power and authority.  Scripture goes so far to tell us, “From that day on they planned to put Jesus to death.”  So Jesus surely knew how he had angered them and knew that his time was coming.

 

And when the Greeks come and wish to see him, it only reinforces that their fears are coming to fruition.  These Greeks represent the broader world and indicate that Jesus’ ministry was starting to take off, his popularity is growing.  In a strange convergence, Jesus’ hour has come because both his supporters and his opposition wanting to see him meant that more and more people were following him.  His popularity and his hatred only leads to more eyes on him so his hour has come. Jesus knows that everything is not as it seems and that his followers don’t really understand what it means to follow him.

 

It is still that way today.  Garry Wills wrote a book in 2007 entitled “What Jesus Meant” which talks about the vast difference between the popular Jesus that the world thinks about and the Jesus of the Bible.  Wills says about the Jesus of the Bible.

 

“He preferred the company of the lonely and despised. . . . He crossed lines of ritual impurity to deal with the unclean, the lepers, the possessed, the insane, the prostitutes and adulterers, and collaborators. . . . He was called a bastard. . . . He had a lower-class upbringing . . . chose his followers from the lower class. . . . Jesus not only favored the homeless, he was himself homeless. . . . He was in constant danger of being arrested and assassinated. . . was called an agent of the devil . . . consorter with loose women, a glutton and a drunkard. . . . The puzzled disciples trotted behind, trying to make sense of what seemed to them inexplicable, squabbling among themselves about what he was up to. It would never have occurred to them to wear a WWJD bracelet.” (“Foreword: Christ Not a Christian”)

 

Jesus challenged everybody and everything in his life.  He even challenged his own religion, and every step he took in his life was a step closer to the cross.  Instead of teaching about how to get ahead in life and how to have a lot of fans, he said things like, “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain, but if it dies it bears much fruit.”  Instead of teaching how to be successful, he said things like, “Those who love their life, lose it.”  And then he laid down his life, even though he didn’t have to.  (Idea from John Buchanan sermon, 4-2-06)  He could have gotten out of it- he was the son of God after all.  But he knew what he came for and he was willing to suffer for it.

 

He was willing to die, because he knew as he told us that “When I am lifted up, I will draw all people to myself.”  People will look up at the cross and see why I came.

 

The message and meaning of the cross is what Jesus told us that the way to gain your life, the way to live your life fully, is to give it away, in love, for his sake.  The message of the cross is the message of the Christian life, which is always about giving.  The Christian life is not so much about conquering, converting, and growing as it is about giving, serving, and loving. (John Buchanan, 4-2-06)

 

Why did Jesus have to die?  To show us how to live.  Yes, he died to save us, so that we might have eternal life.  But he also died so that we might live, so that we might have abundant life.  And how do we do that?  We lose our life, when we give it away for others.

 

I saw something in this text this week that I have never noticed before.  When Jesus says that unless a grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies it is just a single grain, what he is basically saying is that unless a grain dies for others it ends up alone.  I take that to mean that unless you live your life for others you will end up alone, just you and your little life.  To be alone, really alone, uninvolved, isolated, is really to bear no fruit.  There is nothing to bear, no fruit, no productivity.  Loving our life so much in this world, loving ourselves more than others, not giving and caring and loving leads to a fate worse than death.  It leads to a life of loneliness, disconnection and unfruitfulness.

 

Jesus died, because he refused to compromise, he refused to give in to the ways of power and authority, he refused to give up what he knew was the way to life.  Jesus died because he believed that the way to real life, the way to eternal life, is to live for others.  He died to show us that in living for others we become who God created us to be.

 

He died to show us that there is nothing in all of life or death to be afraid of, for when he died and was lifted up he drew all people to himself.

 

Sir we wish to see Jesus. And what does seeing Jesus mean? It means we see the cross. It means you we see how to live and how to die— for others.

 

Let us pray:

 

Promises for a New Year

January 4, 2015 (The Second Sunday of Christmas)

 

1:1 “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. 6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 9 The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. 12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. 15 (John testified to him and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.'”) 16 From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.17 The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.18 No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.” (John 1:10-18, NRSV)

 

Let us pray: Gracious God, you have redeemed us through Jesus Christ, whose birth we celebrate as the child of Bethlehem. We thank you for the grace that we may live as your children and witness to your glory. In Jesus Name we pray. Amen.

 

Here we are once again at the beginning of a new year. We are beginning 2015 and saying goodbye to 2014.

Normally at this time of the year only four days in to the New Year I am already upset because the best laid plans I have made to follow through on that New Year’s resolution are all for naught.  But not this year!  This year is different because I decided not to make any resolutions for 2015.  Well except for one; I am not making any.  I have promised myself that I will not live with the guilt of failing to keep it this year. Why put so much pressure on myself to be a better person, to lose weight, to get in shape?  No resolutions this year! Besides if I keep them then I think of myself as a great success and if I don’t then I think of myself as a huge failure. And there you have it is all about me!  If I think it is all about me then I am in for a rude awakening. After all it is not all about me or us!  At the beginning of the year or the end of the year or anytime in the year. It is so much bigger than that!

 

Our Gospel lesson for today sheds some light on who it is all really about and who is ultimately in charge. The Gospel of John begins like the other three gospels with an account of Jesus’ back ground. The Gospel of Mark introduces Jesus to us as an adult, telling us that Jesus was “a man from Nazareth.” The Gospels of Matthew and Luke begin with Jesus’ birth narratives and Jesus’ miraculous conception and virgin birth. But John, goes back even farther.  John goes back to the beginning of time itself.  Before anything else had been created, Jesus was. John is making a huge theological statement about Jesus stressing that Jesus/God was the creator of all that is, that is why John begins with the Word.

 

Words. Words. Words. Our lives are full of words. There are written words, there are spoken words.  We are bombarded daily by both written and spoken words.  Some of these words are good and helpful and others are not.  While I was watching the multitude of bowl games this past week there were the endless beer commercials, numerous credit and debt relief ads and the multitude of weight loss and make – your – life better claims that are forced on us.  Midway through the week I was numb from watching.  Words. Words. Words.

 

Some words mean more than others do…

 

This is the idea that John begins his Gospel and his daring claim that Jesus was “in the beginning” with God, that Jesus was “the Word of God” and “that all things came into being” through him.  John begins with God who is the Word.

 

John states that Jesus whom we know as our Savior was the Word God uttered when God said “Let there be light.”  Jesus was the Word that came down the mountain when God spoke to Moses.  Jesus was the word the prophets spoke when they said, “Thus says the Lord…”  Jesus was and is the Word. Words. Words. Words.  Some are more meaningful than others.

 

Jesus is not just a messenger from God; Jesus is the message.  Jesus does not simply teach us how to live; Jesus is life.  Jesus does not simply point to the Light; Jesus is the Light.  Words. Words. Words.[i]

 

The Bible, the Holy Word of God is full of wonderful and powerful words.  But even those life-changing words are not enough.  Take music for example, music is so much more than the notes on a page…when it is played with passion and emotion it can move us to tears and it can change our hearts and move our deepest emotions. Love is more than telling your spouse you love him or her; it is living it out each and every day of your marriage.  The Son of God, Jesus Christ, the magnificent Word of God is more than just words written in this Holy book.

 

The Word of God is not simply good words to live by and rules to guide our lives. It is God himself. The Word became flesh. The Word, which was in the beginning with God, the Word, which created all that is, the Word, which is light, and life, became flesh born of Mary in a manger in Bethlehem.

 

We in the church use Words each and every week to profess our faith. We say we believe in Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior.  We say the Apostle’s Creed and the Nicene Creed.  We affirm our belief in God, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Yes, that is what we say when we say it.  But are those just words for us?   Do we just say them because the bulletin says that is what comes next, do we say them because we have memorized the creed and it is rote to us, just rolls off our tongues each week? Words. Words. Words.[ii]

 

Do we really believe that God is the Savior of the world? Do we really believe that God is the Savior of our families, our children, our lives and our souls? Do we really believe that God is the savior of our loneliness, our broken hearts, our jobs, our financial situations, our faltering economy, our failing health?  Do we really believe that God can save our community, our nation, our world, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Africa or Israel, Palestine, hunger, homelessness, addiction and brokenness?  Or are they just words.   Do we know that is what you will say when you use those Words later in our service.   Do we really believe God will forgive all our sins and save us from the relentless guilt that is a part of all of our lives?  Do we really believe that God really can do all of that?  That is what it means to be a Savior. Words. Words. Words.  Do we mean what we say when we say them?[iii]

 

Because if we mean them they are far more than Words. They are an acknowledgment that life is about so much more than “me”. It is a confession that God really can heal and forgive and provide. It is a testament that God was present in the beginning, even before the beginning and God will be present beyond the end, bringing about new beginnings.

 

That is the promise of God in these Words that God who is the Word became flesh and blood and lived among us. Words. Words. Words. Sometimes words can give life, and hope and a fresh start… It is not all about us. It is about Jesus, the Word made flesh.

 

Today the first Sunday of a new year, 2015 and we embark on the next journey of life…will the Word become more than just Words, Words, Words, may the Word, Jesus, become flesh become flesh and live in your heart and mine now and forever.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[i] The Reverend Dr. George Sinclair, Government Street Presbyterian Church, Mobile, AL.

[ii] The Reverend Dr. Craig Barnes, Shadyside Presbyterian Church, Pittsburg, PA

[iii] The Reverend Dr. Craig Barnes, Shadyside Presbyterian Church, Pittsburg, PA

Remember to Give Thanks

April 27, 2014 (Easter 2)

Deuteronomy 8:6-18

John 20:19-31

 

8: 6 “Therefore keep the commandments of the Lord your God, by walking in his ways and by fearing him. 7For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with flowing streams, with springs and underground waters welling up in valleys and hills, 8a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, 9a land where you may eat bread without scarcity, where you will lack nothing, a land whose stones are iron and from whose hills you may mine copper. 10You shall eat your fill and bless the Lord your God for the good land that he has given you. 11 Take care that you do not forget the Lord your God, by failing to keep his commandments, his ordinances, and his statutes, which I am commanding you today. 12 When you have eaten your fill and have built fine houses and live in them, 13 and when your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold is multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied, 14 then do not exalt yourself, forgetting the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, 15 who led you through the great and terrible wilderness, an arid wasteland with poisonous snakes and scorpions. He made water flow for you from flint rock, 16 and fed you in the wilderness with manna that your ancestors did not know, to humble you and to test you, and in the end to do you good. 17 Do not say to yourself, “My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth.” 18 But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth, so that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your ancestors, as he is doing today.” (Deuteronomy 8:6-18, NRSV)

 

Let us pray: Almighty and everlasting God, increase our faith, hope, and charity; that we may obtain that which you promise, and help us to love your command; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.

 

Picture a dad, a mom, a grandparent; whoever it might be giving instructions to a high school graduate who is preparing to head off to college.

 

“Now son, remember who you are and where you came from.  Remember all the things we have taught you.  Remember what is right and what is wrong.  When you head off to college, you are going into a new world.  You will have freedom you never imagined.  You can stay up as late as you want.  You can sleep through your classes because no one is there to wake you up.  You can eat what you want. It is freedom unlike any other time in your life.  You will have the freedom to do all these things, but remember who you are and whose you are.”

 

That is the nature I imagine for the speech that Moses gives to the Israelites.  Their journey in the wilderness is finally over.  They have been wandering around for 40 years and now they have arrived.  In those 40 years they relied solely on God.  God provided them manna each morning to eat and water to drink.  But they grumbled loudly and often.  They were tired of manna and they hankered for more.  This is the backdrop for Moses as he is speaking to them.  The Israelites are staring across to the land that God promised to them.  A land flowing with milk and honey.  When Moses offers them some advice.

 

I imagine Moses, their leader, a father figure, standing before them and saying; “Before you head off, remember who you are. You will have choices you never imagined.  Instead of simply manna, you can choose from an array of wheat and barley.  Instead of being thirsty, there is a stream constantly flowing with pure, cold, clean water.  No more will you hunger and thirst.  But before you cross over, before you take that step, remember who you are and whose you are.  Remember God and how God has cared for you all these years.”

 

Just try to picture this large mass of Israelites craving to cross over into this land that had been promised long ago and Moses holding them back.  Moses, there wise leader, treats them like adolescents heading off into freedom.  Like a parent, Moses reminds them that once they enter this land of milk and honey, it will become much harder for them to obey and honor God.  He knows that once they inherit the Promised Land they will be able to eat their fill, they will live in fine houses, they will shepherd large herds and get silver and gold.  They will become wealthy.  But that wealth will come at a cost, because with wealth comes forgetfulness, and there is the danger that they will forget God altogether.

 

Instead of remembering that God provided for their every need, they will say to themselves, “my power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth.”  Moses tells them, remember who you are and whose you are.

 

I have been serving with you for just over three months now, and I am learning about the history, tradition and commitment of the Indian Hill Church and while it may not look or feel that we are standing on the edge of the Promised Land, I want to offer some encouragement that we really are.

 

In some ways we are always one step away from the land God has promised.  We are looking into the future God has given us.  With God’s blessing there are great things on the horizon, here at the Indian Hill Church.

 

What greater gift could you give than the gift of your time, even if it is only one hour?  This year we are asking everyone to volunteer and to volunteer for one new activity.  This is a great way to make new friends and to build our relationship with one another and the community in which we serve.

 

Ministries outside our church

  • With God’s blessing, and your giving of your time and resources men in the Hamilton County Jail are visited and given bibles, youth in the Hamilton County Youth Center are visited and have someone to talk to through the 20/20 program.

 

  • With God’s blessing, and your giving of your time and talents inner city residents are receiving paid on the job training and help to overcome obstacles to pursuing and maintaining stable employment through Venice on Vine.

 

  • With God’s blessing, and your giving of your time and talents, Inter Parrish Ministry provides food and services for needy residents in Claremont County.

 

  • With God’s blessing, and your giving of your time and talents we host homeless families in our church through Interfaith Hospitality Network.

 

  • With God’s blessing, and your giving of your time and talents MEAC Madisonville Education and Assistance Center provides nutritious dinners for needy families in the Madisonville area on Monday evenings throughout the year.

 

  • With God’s blessing, and your giving of your time and talents, we are helping Matthew 25: Ministries to provide nutritional food to the hungry, clean water to the thirsty, clothes to the naked, affordable housing to the homeless, medical care to the ill and humanitarian supplies to the poorest of the poor.

 

  • With God’s blessing, and your giving 2 youth from our congregation Avondale Ecumenical Consortium Summer Program provide enrichment in basic skills of writing, math, reading, computer, and recreational activities with children from the inner city children in grades 3-5.

 

 

Ministries inside our church

  • With God’s blessing, and your giving of your time and talents there is a joyful noise from our choir, hand bells and organ in care of our talented Music Director Brenda Waugh and the music ministry of our church.

 

  • With God’s blessing, and your giving of your time and talents, we have acolytes, LEM’s, readers and a beautifully appointed sanctuary in which to worship God each week.

 

  • With God’s blessing, and your giving of your time and talents, our children our learning the faith through Jennifer Taylor’s leadership you are teaching, acting and making the bible stories exciting for our children.

 

  • With God’s blessing, and your giving, of your time and talents, our youth are deepening their faith through Michelle VanOudenallen’s leadership and the work of our adult advisors and youth mentors are being confirmed.

 

  • With God’s blessing, and your giving, of your time and talents, the hard work of Karen Pauly and Barb Huffman and church members like you committees are making the church go, improving the buildings and grounds and providing help for those in need in our midst.

 

  • With God’s blessing and your giving, the word of God is proclaimed and the love of Jesus Christ is shared.

 

This is our community of faith that has faithfully proclaimed the love of Jesus Christ in this village since Thanksgiving Morning 1957.   But, just like the Israelites, we did not start the journey of this congregation, many dear saints laid the foundation of this church and faithfully responded to God’s blessings.

 

They responded, they remembered, and they gave.

They gave,

Their money,

Time,

Talents

And thanks for all that God did for them.

 

Just like the Israelites, we are about to enter a new land full of many blessings that are not of our own making.  They are gifts of God, blessings from God, provisions from God.

 

Take this as our reminder to remember all that God has done for us and to give thanks.

 

It is our job is to give back.

 

To say thanks.

 

To say we remember who we are and whose we are.

When you and I know and acknowledge that it is God who blesses us, then life is far different than when we think we earned it all on our own.  When you and I acknowledge that God is the owner and we are stewards then we can worship God and enjoy life.  If we think it all belongs to us, then we spend much of our life rationalizing, arguing, hoarding and trying to hold on to what we think is ours.  Life is not enjoyed.

 

So, you see that volunteering is really about God and what God has done for us, and our response is to give back.

 

Today, we have the opportunity to faithfully response with our commitment of our time, our talent and our commitment to the Lord.

 

Your giving will meet the needs of our neighbors, your giving will teach the faith to our children, your giving will help to maintain this gorgeous sanctuary, your giving will keep the choir singing and the organ playing, and the hand bells ringing, your giving will enable the sick, the homebound, the lonely to be visited, the Word of God to be proclaimed and the good news of Jesus Christ to reach the least, the last and the lost. Your act of volunteering and your great generosity of your time is a tangible sign of thankfulness to God.

 

I invite you to come, share your gifts and your talents and your time to make a difference in the name of Jesus Christ.  And remember God and always give thanks.

 

Let us pray:Living God, long ago, faithful women proclaimed the good news of Jesus’ resurrection, and the world was changed forever. Teach us to keep faith with them, that our witness may be as bold, our love as deep, and our faith as true. Amen.