Journey to the Cross, step 1: The Fall

March 9, 2014 (The First Sunday of Lent)
Service for the Lord’s Day

Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7, Matthew 4:1-11
Reverend Stephen Caine

2:15 “The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. 16 And the LORD God commanded the man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; 17 but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.”

3:1 “Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” 2 The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; 3 but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.'” 4 But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; 5 for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” 6 So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. 7 Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.” (Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7, NRSV)


Let us pray: God of wilderness and water, your Son was baptized and tempted as we are. Guide us through this season of Lent that we may not avoid struggle, but open ourselves to blessing, through the cleansing depths of repentance and the life-giving words of your Spirit. Amen.


Today is the first Sunday of the Journey of Lent.  The season of Lent is the forty day period of the Christian year that began on Wednesday (Ash Wednesday) and runs until Easter Sunday (April 20).  During these forty days we are asked to reflect on our humanity and renew our commitments to living as people who belong to God in Jesus Christ.  We enter this season with a brutal reminder of our humanness.  It is the story of the fall, the story of Adam, Eve, the Snake, Sin and God.  It is a reminder that we are more than just biologically related to Adam and Eve but we are also heirs of their sin and brokenness, even today.  We, like them are tempted by the serpent and we too are guilty of eating forbidden fruit.  So, it is my hope this Lenten Season that we will also learn that we are also heirs of Jesus and his grace.


We begin with the first step of the journey of Lent by starting at the beginning, Genesis.  It takes place in the Garden of Eden soon after God created the world.  The story – “The fall,” you see, didn’t happen just once.  It happens again and again and it still happens today, as you and I continue to repeat its vicious cycle as we stumble through life.  It is a story of disobedience and rebellion against God, it is not a story of the woman who alone was tempted.


It is a story of Adam and Eve who were not satisfied.  They were not content living with God in paradise. They were created in God’s image, with all the gifts, privileges and potential that God could give them, but they wanted more.  They wanted to be like God.  That was the temptation that the wily serpent offered them. The serpent gift wrapped the temptation, to eat of the one tree that God told them not to eat from, in a lie that they really shouldn’t trust God and that he the serpent knew better.  So he played on their sense of trust or their lack of trust and they were all in, apple, sin and the fall.


Adam and Eve believed the serpent because they wanted more.  They wanted to forge their own identities “over against,” God.  It is like a child who is desperate to break away from her parents and become her own person, with her own identity.  This story tells us so much about God, the snake (tempter), Sin and humanity.


This story tells us so much about God. God is generous and creative, loving, and genuinely interested in being in relationship with Adam and Eve, but they just couldn’t see it.  God is creative.  God makes the world and everything in it.  God is generous.  God creates Adam and gives him everything he needs; food, drink and a lush garden to live in.  God is caring – when God commands Adam, “Eat freely of all this beauty, except that one tree.”  God is relational and does not want to be alone, and thinks Adam shouldn’t be alone either.  The animals were nice but they aren’t really companions for Adam.  So God uses one of Adam’s ribs and creates Eve.


This story also tells us so much about the snake, the tempter.  First, the serpent is the craftiest creature and there is no way to outsmart him.  The serpent is a very clever and talkative animal “that the LORD God had made,” who simply asks some questions concerning God’s motivations in creation for Adam and Eve to consider.  At any point in the conversation, the humans could have told the serpent that he was full of it and to please slither off to someplace else.  Never try to outwit temptation because you end up making a “deal with the Devil” that can truly cost you your life!  Second, the serpent lies.  Jesus calls him “the father of lies.” But, the serpent tells lies we want to hear—why else would they be so tempting!  “You will not die; you will become like God, knowing good and evil.”  The serpent tells lies we want to hear and want to believe!   It is part of his diabolical plot.  Third, the temper’s lie always plays to our desire to be more than we were created to be.


This story also tells about sin.  Sin is a mysterious force that arises from within God’s “good” creation.  The serpent, the embodiment of sin, is simply one of God’s creatures.  And the yearnings and suspicions of the humans about God and his motivations are somehow already in Adam and Eve’s DNA and only needed to be teased out by the serpent to be put into action.  Sadly, as we all know all too well, this trait has been passed down throughout human history, to every one of our fore mothers and fathers of the faith.  There is no doubt that we are their off-spring because we have inherited the same wants, desires, and sin that we are not content to be with God.


This story also tells us about ourselves: it reveals that since the beginning of time we are competitive by nature, we look at the other and we want to beat them.  So when the snake comes along and tells Adam and Eve the lie that God is not who God is portraying himself to be, Adam and Eve took the bait because they wanted to be like God.  From the very beginning Adam and Eve have been given work to do and responsibilities to tend too, when God places them in the garden “to till it and to keep it.”  The Garden of Eden is no Caribbean vacation in Paradise!  From the beginning, humans are made for a regular rhythm of doing meaningful work for the good of creation.  Along with the meaningful work they are to do they are also to take regular periods of Sabbath rest and enjoyment.


Finally, this story describes the reality of what it is to be human and our mysterious human tendencies to rebel against God, to resist God’s gracious boundaries and the limitations that God has placed around us for our own good.  Our sinful nature arises from our desire to be like God rather than thankful, trusting and faithful creatures of God.


Sin is our problem, what should we do about it?  We start by owning up to it, naming it, confessing it.  That is why we confess our sin each Sunday in worship even if we did not do those things we pray.


After we acknowledge and confess our sin, that which separates us from God we don’t resolve to try harder, to do more good; instead we throw ourselves at the feet of God and beg his mercy and forgiveness.  That is our hope; God’s grace and forgiveness.  Only with God can we hope to turn our lives around.


Our hope begins with the grace of God in Jesus Christ.  Whatever or however we define sin, it begins and ends for us Christians with the grace of God in Jesus Christ.


People come to church on Sunday with disappointments in their hearts—in life itself, disappointed in government, disappointed in our health care system, disappointed in our sports teams, disappointed in our role models, disappointed in ourselves, some of us come with an acute sense of failure and inadequacy.  Some are ready to give up.  We come to church with fresh memories of wounds in our hearts, our emotions, and our spirits that each of us has experienced.  We also come aware of the wounds that we have inflicted on others.   People come—we all come—in spite of our confidence and can-do attitudes we come questioning, wondering, and unsure of our standing with God.  What we do is read this story and remind ourselves that, yes we have all sinned, we have all fallen short of the glory of God, we confess, we repent, God forgives us, God loves us, God wants to be in relationship with us, God wants us to live fully, and to leave behind the load of guilt we are all carrying. God has forgiven us! God wants us to move on and live as the faithful stewards of creation that he created us to be.


It begins not by working harder, being better or trying harder to be good – instead it starts in your heart and in mine when you and I allow ourselves to be loved and forgiven by God, washed clean, healed, refreshed and claimed by him.


Let us pray:

Lord God, our strength, as the battle of good and evil rages within and around us, and our ancient foe tempts us with his lies, deceit and empty promises.  Keep us steadfast in Your Word and, when we fall, raise us again and restore us through Your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. AMEN.


“How Not to Succeed in Life”

Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18, Matthew 5:38-48

Reverend Stephen Caine

5:38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40 and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41 and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 42 Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you. 43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?  48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:38-48, NRSV)


Let us pray: O God most holy, in Jesus Christ you laid the foundation upon which we build our lives. Help us to follow your perfect law of love, that we may fulfill it and observe it all the days of our lives. Amen.


Some biblical texts are just too difficult.  I mean what can you say about the hard sayings of scripture? This is just one of those texts that is just too difficult for us to hear much less to live.


In tribute to this weekend’s Indian Hill High School Pow-Wow, “How to Succeed in Business without even Trying,” staring some of our own church members, I want to point out how not to succeed in life.   If you want to succeed in life today then do not, I repeat do not follow Jesus commands in the Sermon on the Mount, because they will lead you to hardship by our world’s standards.  We know that to succeed in our world you must be strong because it is a dog-eat-dog world where only the strong survive.


No one who wants to succeed in life ever turns the other cheek. “Turn the other cheek.” Are you kidding?! And get treated like a doormat? “Love your enemies.” You can’t be serious!


No one who wants to succeed in life ever does not retaliate.  Someone hurts you in any way you get them back, you even the score, you get them worse than they got you.  Otherwise they might hurt you worse next time.


No one who wants to succeed in life ever loves their enemies.  Why love them, if you love them they aren’t your enemies anymore and having enemies is so much more fun.  Having enemies and competing against them is in our nature.  We all need an enemy to work against it makes us better.


No one who wants to succeed in life ever prays for those who attack them. We retaliate and crush them.


I know what Jesus is saying is what we’re supposed to do as good Christians but let’s be real.  No one who is anyone can live this way.  It is really, really hard for most of us to imagine living like this.  After all, we have to succeed on some level.  We have to pay the bills which are only getting higher and higher.  We have to pay for kids to go to college and have you seen the college costs lately?  We have to help out our grandkids.  We have to have enough to last through retirement and the only way to have enough is to succeed and have more than others.  Jesus surely does not know the demands of our modern world.


But here’s the thing: Jesus isn’t kidding and is dead serious about these commands, even for our modern ears.  Jesus is outlining his vision of God’s kingdom and issuing an invitation to those who desire to be a part of it.  Which is why we need to take them seriously.


Critics have characterized Jesus’ teaching as ludicrous. Ayn Rand, political philosopher, who wrote, “If any civilization is to survive, it is the morality of altruism that men have to reject.” And then there’s Karl Marx, father of communism, who said, “The social principles of Christianity preach cowardice, self-contempt, submissiveness and humbleness.”


We are not cowards, which is how some people interpret Jesus’ words.  But in reality this is one of the most misunderstood passages in all of the Bible.  Today’s reading about turning the other cheek and loving your enemies is actually much harder and takes more strength than the ways of our world.  This passage has generally been understood as Jesus teaching non-resistance.  Do not resist one who is evil has been taken to mean simply let them run all over you.  If they hit you on one cheek, turn the other and let them hit you there too.


But that is not what Jesus meant.  Jesus resisted evil with every fiber of His being. There is not a single instance in scripture where Jesus does not resist evil when He encounters it.


The problem begins right there with the word resist.  Resist means to “Stand against.”


So, when Jesus says, “Do not resist one who is evil,” he is pointing to something stronger than simply resist.  Do not resist with violence.  Jesus is indicating do not resist evil on its own terms.  Don’t let your opponent dictate the terms of your opposition.  Actually what Jesus is talking about is a lot harder than fighting back.  Resisting evil takes courage and strength and will and …. A whole lot of faith.  It takes realizing that life is about more than whether “I” succeed.  It takes realizing that life is about everybody else and even about our enemy.


Jesus is trying to break that spiral of violence.  Don’t resist one who is evil probably means something like, don’t turn into the very thing you hate. Don’t become what you oppose.  The earliest translation of this is probably in a version of Romans 12 where Paul says, “Do not return evil for evil.”


So how do you stand against evil?  Something to think about?  I can’t answer it for you.  You can’t answer it for me.  We have to answer if for ourselves.  Ask yourself, how do I resist evil in whatever place I live?  At work?  In my family?  At school?   In the community?   At church?   Ask yourself, “How do I live the words Jesus is telling us?”


Do you not strike back when someone strikes out at you?

Do you offer words of encouragement rather than words of ….

If someone needs help, do you give it, and even more?


To live the life that Jesus is talking about means we keep his words in our minds at all times.  Because he is always there saying, repay evil with good, turn the other cheek, don’t get even, give and give a little more, help and help a little more, pray for those who hurt you and then pray again if they hurt you again, live as Children of the living God.


Jesus calls the powers of the day into question by describing an entirely different way to relate to each other, inviting us into relationships governed not by power but by vulnerability that is grounded in love. “‘An eye for an eye’ makes all people blind,” Strength eventually fails.  Power corrupts.  And survival of the fittest leaves so many bodies on the ground.  Love alone transforms, redeems, and creates new life.  As Martin Luther King, Jr., once said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that.  Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”


Jesus simply knows that we have more to give, that we can be and do more than we have settled for, and that we can absolutely make a difference in the world if we live as children of the living God.


Will we succeed?  Maybe not always by worldly standards.  But we will succeed in being who God created us to be – kind, compassionate people, concerned about justice, taking a stand for what is right and good and faithful, hearing Jesus’ words echoing in our ears as we go about our lives.  May you live into who God created you to be today and tomorrow and the next day.


Let us pray:

The Great Conundrum of the Christian Faith

Matthew 5:13-20

Reverend Stephen Caine


5:13 “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot. 14 “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. 15 No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.  17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. 19 Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:13-20, NRSV)


Let us pray: O God of light, your searching Spirit reveals and illumines your presence in creation. Shine your radiant holiness into our lives, that we may offer our hands and hearts to your work: to heal and shelter, to feed and clothe, to break every yoke and silence evil tongues. Amen.


There is a great conundrum in the Christian faith.  It is the tension between doing and being.  I am being overly simplistic, but basically there are Christians who talk a great deal about having a personal relationship with Jesus.  That relationship is the core of their faith.  There are other Christians who are much more interested in making a difference in the world.  The core of their faith is in expressing their beliefs in actions of service to others. This conundrum is further complicated and especially acute here in North America where there are Christians who have a hard time being dependent on God, letting go and letting God.  We want to do something to help ourselves.  It is very hard for doers to experience faith as being.  We like to “do” something with our faith.  We like a more active and tangible faith.  Other Christians have no problem with being still and knowing God.  We like the calm, reflective and thoughtful side of faith.  So which is better?


My reformed faith is based on the belief that we are justified by grace through faith in God.  It is what God has done for you, me and all humanity and it is not about what we do to earn God’s grace by our good works.  So, our teaching and our sermons bear witness to the work of God, God’s action and God’s activity.  This theology allows people freedom so we are not oppressed by the law, from having to dot every i and cross every t in order to be right with God.   This theology is great and wonderful and I believe it, but it is awfully hard to live.


The conundrum comes out in the day-to-day reality of the church. I have learned that people are much more interested in belonging to something they can invest in. You may know from your own life experience when you are invested in something you are far more likely to enjoy it, and your commitment to that venture or cause increases dramatically.  When you are invited to contribute to a cause or a venture and you are invested deeply in it; it means more to you, Right?    When you contribute more than just your money, when you give of yourself, your time, your talents and your energy than it becomes a part of you.


Have you ever been asked, “To do some meaningless task because someone needs to do it?”  You probably didn’t stay committed very long and the cause or the venture wasn’t that important to you for very long – but when you’re invited to use your gifts to make a difference, you feel so much more a part of the venture or the cause, don’t you?


And there is the conundrum: I have learned that people actually want to contribute, to make a difference, to share what they’ve been given as a meaningful gift, and yet I’ve spent a lot of my ministry telling people that it is not our good works that save us, that it is the work of God that saves us.  The crux of our faith is that we don’t do those good works in order to earn favor with God, to earn our salvation, to build ourselves up.  We do our “good works” in response to God  — for God has already saved us, to God already claiming us, to God becoming one of us.


Which brings us back to this week’s passage from Matthew.  Jesus and the disciples are on the mountain and he is preaching his famous “sermon on the mount.”  And he just plain tells them that that’s what they are. “You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.” Notice, that Jesus doesn’t give the disciples instructions on how to become salt and light.


Jesus does not command them to do anything but he tells them who they already are — they are salt and light.  He commissions them to be the persons they’ve been called to be.   To let their light shine so that others will see their good works and glorify God.   Jesus isn’t asking them to earn their salvation, of course, but to live out the salvation and discipleship that has been given them as a gift.


Maybe I am wrong about this conundrum but it seems that these two different views of Christianity don’t realize that both can actually be true within one person’s faith.  Our scripture readings for today seem to point to the reality that as Christians we cannot make any real impact on the world without that personal relationship with Jesus, without a vibrant, strong connection with God.  And, that no strong relationship with God is possible without an engagement with the outside world and the needs and the struggles of that world.  It is “Both/And” not “Either/Or”.


This conundrum is evident throughout the Bible.  On the one hand are those people in the Bible who define religion as adhering to the religious law.  The core of their faith is practicing the rituals, praying, fasting, and sacrificing, following the letter of the religious laws.  This religion is the way of the Temple and the priest.  But then there are others throughout the Bible who see their faith as the difference it make in the way they live their life.  Their faith leads them to care for the poor, the weak, the hurting.  The conundrum continues today but in some ways it is a tension that really doesn’t need to be a problem.  Because our faith is about both.   Both being and doing.   Both following the law and caring for others and the world.


So, I need your help with this conundrum.  I would like you to take the piece of paper that was passed out to you and follow the directions this week and notice how you are Salt and Light…


Jesus called us Salt and Light. And that’s what we are. I want to give you the chance to be Salt and Light this week so I encourage you to look for the good things that you are already doing in our church, our schools, our community and the world.


Spend a little time “being,” thinking, reflecting, praying and then express the ways you live out your faith, use your gifts.


The question we have to ask ourselves is in what ways do we know and do others experience that we have a real, vibrant, close relationship with God?  How do our actions and the way we live illustrate our relationship to God?


The promise of the Gospel, the truth of Jesus Christ, is that when we live like this, when we are salt and light for the world, the world actually becomes just a little bit better, a little gentler, kinder, more compassionate, and more Christ-like.  So go and be salt and let your light shine.

Jesus Makes it Look so Easy

Isaiah 9:1-4,
Matthew 4:12-23

Reverend Stephen Caine


4:12 “Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. 13 He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, 14 so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: 15 “Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles 16 the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.” 17 From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” 18 As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea for they were fishermen. 19 And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” 20 Immediately they left their nets and followed him. 21 As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. 22 Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him. 23 Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.” (Matthew 4:12-23, NRSV)


Let us pray: O God, you spoke your word and revealed your good news in Jesus, the Christ. Fill all creation with that word again, so that by proclaiming your joyful promises to all nations and singing of your glorious hope to all peoples, we may become one living body, your incarnate presence on the earth. Amen.


Jesus makes it look so easy.  He walks by two fishermen, calls them, and they follow.   He walks by two more, he calls them and they follow.   Just like that! Jesus walks by, calls, and four fisherman become his disciples.  Wow!


Jesus begins his ministry by offering this simple invitation, “Come, follow me.”  This simple invitation is the beginning of God’s connection with the world through his Son.  It is an invitation to a relationship with the living God.


Well, that was then, this is now.  Because, nobody simply walks by someone and says, “Come and follow me,” and it works, anymore.  We have become too jaded, too cynical, too doubting to simply drop everything and follow someone.  And when it comes to church most of us can’t imagine inviting someone to come to church with us.  It is just not part of our comfort zone.  Not only is it hard to talk about our faith, it is even harder to talk about our faith with other people,  and it is next to impossible to invite someone to come to church with us.  Besides, we are not the kind of people who do that sort of thing, “evangelize.


We have put our own spin on what the word evangelize means but it comes from the Greek word “euagelion” which transliterated means “evangel” or “good news,” and that is where we get our word evangelism.   This “good news,” is news is from God that comes to us and it is not ginned up by us.  It is good news because it is something that God does. The Gospel comes to us rather than from within us. The Apostle Paul says, “Faith comes from hearing, and hearing comes from the (preaching) work of Christ” (Romans10:17).


The Good News that Jesus offered those fishermen was a relationship with him, connection with a community of people in relationship with him and the opportunity to be part of something that is bigger than themselves. Jesus good news was to a better life, a more meaningful life…a connected life.  This is good news that only God can bring.  Faith comes from the outside, by hearing something we would not have known if the church had not told us.


This is difficult for us.  Presbyterians and Episcopalians, us mainline folks because we are so respectful of other cultures and faith traditions that we don’t want to offend anyone, and rightly so.  But the very nature of the Good News will come in conflict with every culture, even our own.  We know what this message got Jesus — a cross!


We also think of our faith as something we do.  We go to church to get our assignment for the week – work on your kindness, love God better this next week, read the bible more often, say your prayers each night, serve those in need. We often boil down church to a dose of moralism and a spiritual assignment for our lives.  But if we think about it and we are honest where is the good news in that?


On the other hand, there is Good News in Jesus invitation to follow him, to be in relationship with him.


One of the challenges in this passage is how difficult it is for most of us to imagine getting up and leaving everyone and everything to follow Jesus.  And just like we are uncomfortable inviting people to church we are even more threatened by the idea that God might use us to tell others about a relationship with Him.  So we put the disciples on a pedestal and think of them as extraordinary, super heroes of the faith to admire but not to identify with.  God can’t use me, well this story tells us that Jesus called ordinary people right in the middle of their ordinary lives to do extraordinary things … and he still does.


I recently read a survey of a cross section of American adults who were asked where they found their greatest sense of fulfillment, meaning, and purpose in life.  The number one response was: Relationships.  Even for those adults who claimed that their work was the number one source of meaning and fulfillment in their lives; it was their relationships at work that they were most happy about.


The connection of this survey to Jesus invitation is that it is still all about relationships; “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of people.”  Jesus is calling these first disciples not into work but into relationship.


Jesus called these first disciples into relationship – with himself, with each other, and with all the various people they will meet over the next few years and for the rest of their lives.


Jesus invites us to the same – to be in genuine and real relationships with the people around us, and to be in those relationships the way Jesus was and is in relationship with his disciples and with us: bearing each other’s burdens, caring for each other and especially the vulnerable, holding onto each other through thick and thin, always with the hope and promise of God’s abundant grace.  It will always involves people – not simply a mission or a ministry or a movement, but actual, flesh-and-blood people. Think back to your own faith, and why you still come to church, I imagine it was because someone you had a relationship with invited you or taught you or lived out their faith in such a way that you wanted to come and see for yourself.


When I think about the people I have known who embody faith, who I consider are the most faithful, it is not the ones who know the most Bible, or quote the most verses or talk the talk.  It is the people who live their faith in how they relate and treat others.  Their faith affects their relationships—all of them, their spouse, their child, their parents but even more so the clerk at the DMV or the checkout girl at Kroger, of the guy who is clearing the snow from your street.


Jesus called ordinary people right in the middle of their ordinary lives to be in relationship with the ordinary people all around them and through that did extraordinary things … and he still does.


Ok, so let’s try something a little different for us Presbyterians and Episcopalians. An exercise: Think of one person you have a relationship with. It might be someone you are close to like a spouse or a friend. Or it could be someone you hardly even know.  Just think of that person for a moment. And now take another moment and in silence offer a prayer for her or him to hear God’s invitation.  Also pray how you may help him or her to hear the Good News of God’s love.


You see, Jesus did not just call disciples way back when – he is calling you and me today – and in fact using you – to care for those God loves so much that he gave us his son.



What’s in a Name?

Isaiah 42:1-9,
Matthew 3:13-17

Reverend Stephen Caine


3:13 “Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. 14 John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 15 But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. 16 And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:13-17, NRSV)


Let us pray: Creator God, our soul’s delight, your voice thunders over the waters, liberating the future from the past. In the Spirit’s power and the waters of rebirth, Jesus was declared your blessed and beloved Son; may we recall our baptism, and be disciples of the Anointed One. Amen.


What is in a name? When our first child was about to be born we were living in a small town in South Carolina, where I was the pastor of the Presbyterian Church.  People began to ask what we were going to name him or her.   We did not want to know if we were having a boy or a girl so we did not tell anyone what names we had picked out.  When the big day arrived and he was born, we named him Winston.  As I went around town, people would ask me what we named him and I told them Winston.  It was interesting to see the puzzled looks on their faces…Oh so you named him for Cigarettes.  I responded, No, no we didn’t.  Others would say, oh so you named him for the NASCAR Winston Cup Series? Again, I responded, No, no we didn’t. Thankfully, some people, asked, did you name him for Winston Churchill? Again, I responded, No, no we didn’t. For the record, we named him for my father, his grandfather.


Names can give us identity.  Names can give us place and purpose and power.  Names are important. Some names are given to us when we are born. Other names we earn, like doctor or reverend, or lawyer or professor or judge. And still others we take when we are married. Then there are nicknames, big daddy, slim, slick, dabeast, and so on… And then there are the names that we are called. Names can bring pride or shame. Names can lift us up: others tear us down. Whatever the case, names have power.


Some of the more difficult names you may have been called during your life those names, no matter how long ago you were called them, they are stuck in your memory, haunting you, consuming your memories and affecting your self-image. Names like “Stupid” or “Geek,” “Fatso or “Ugly.”  Names like “Loser” or “Wuss” “Know-it-all” or “Wimp.”  As painful as some of these names are for you I want you to let them go for a moment so that you can hear what God has to say to you. Because, that is not your name!  God says, “You are my beloved child, and with you I am well pleased!”


Fred Craddock, a wonderful story teller and preacher, tells the story of going to visit the Smokey Mountains in East Tennessee one summer.  He was on a short vacation with his wife, when they stopped into a little restaurant. It was one of those places where the owner was also the waiter, the cashier, and the greeter.

“Where you folks from?” the owner asked.


“I never been there but I hear it is a splendid state. What do you do for a living?”

“I teach preaching in a seminary.”


“Oh, so you teach preachers. Well, I’ve got a story for you.” And with that he started, “See that mountain over there?” He pointed out the restaurant window. “There once was a boy born to an unwed mother.  He had a hard time growing up because every place he went, he was always the only child without a father. Whether he was at school, in the grocery store or drug store, he felt that everyone was judging him and wondering: “Who’s your daddy?”  So, He would hide at recess and lunch time from other students. He would avoid going into stores because he was so ashamed.  Even when he went to church, he would always go in late and slip out early to avoid being asked who his father was.


One particular Sunday when he was about 12 years old, a new preacher came to his church. On this Sunday the new preacher used a different benediction and he was caught off guard and he had to walk out with the crowd.  Just about the time he got to the back door, the new preacher, not knowing anything about him, put his hand on his shoulder and asked him, ‘Son, who’s your daddy?’ The people around him got quiet.  He could feel their eyes looking at him.  Now everyone would finally know the answer to the question, ‘Who’s your daddy?’ Before he could answer; the new preacher said:  ‘Wait a minute! I know who you are.  I see the family resemblance now.  You are a child of God.’  With that, he patted the boy on his shoulder and said, ‘Boy, you’ve got a great inheritance – go and claim it.’ 


With that, the boy smiled for the first time in a long time and walked out the door a changed person.  He was never the same again.  Whenever anybody asked him, ‘Who’s your daddy?’ he’d just tell them, ‘I’m a child of God.’  The distinguished gentleman got up from the table and said, “Isn’t that a great story?” Fred Craddock, said that it really was.  As the man turned to leave, he said, “You know, if that new preacher hadn’t told me that I was one of God’s children, I probably would never have amounted to anything!” And he walked away.  Fred and his wife were stunned.  He called the waitress over and asked, “Do you know that man who was just sitting at our table?” The waitress grinned and said, “Of course. Everybody here knows him. That’s Ben Hooper. He’s the former governor of Tennessee!”


The power of a name.  The power of being a child of God.  Claimed, loved and cared for by the living God, creator of heaven and earth.  That is what it means to be a child of God.


It is the most important identity of all.  In the Baptism of Jesus it is the moment where the Kingdom of God breaks into human life.  It is the moment when Jesus ministry begins – he begins to live as a child of God and to take on the power and responsibility of that name. In baptism you and I have been “clothed with Christ.”  What does that mean?  It means that when God looks at you and me, God sees his Son, the Beloved, the one with whom God is well pleased. In baptism we are clothed with Christ, so when God looks at us God sees Christ in us, even when you and I cannot see Christ either in ourselves or in one another.


Our faith gives us an important identity and affirmation.  At baptism we accept, or we accept on a child’s behalf, God claiming that Child as “His own”. In baptism we accept our identity as God’s child, as God’s beloved. In seeking to respond to the gift of grace showered upon us at baptism we seek to live out this baptismal identity and this affirmation. It is as if the heavens have opened for each one of us and as if God has said, “YOU are my child and I am pleased with you.”


The great Protestant reformer Martin Luther, struggled with bouts of depression and he struggled with a sense that he was unworthy, awful and he was stricken with despair.  One thing that he did to help himself with these demons is he kept an inscription over his desk that read, “Remember, you have been baptized.”  Often, he would touch his forehead and remind himself, “Martin, you have been baptized.” 


No matter what you do or don’t do you are still a child of God…


When you’re wandering around lost and lonely, feeling afraid and isolated you are still a child of God…


As a child of God, you look at the world differently: you are filled with a strong sense of servant hood, and heart for mission will open your eyes.


Jesus the Word became flesh so that all who receive him may be given power to become children of the living God. We learn that we, like Jesus, discover who we are by hearing once again whose we are, God’s own beloved child. We may be living at a time when the question of identity has never been more important, for there are so many sources that influence our identities.  But so few of those names are life-giving, and none of them is redemptive.  It is no wonder this gift of identity and affirmation is one of the most powerful themes of the Gospel, and it sends us forth from the sanctuary armed with our new name – Child of Godthat we may face the challenges and opportunities before us knowing that we are God’s own beloved children.


You are God’s beloved child – God is pleased with you.


Now go and claim it!


Live into this powerful name.