Surrounded!

Meditation on Hebrews 11:29–12:2

First Presbyterian Church of Smithtown, NY

Pastor Karen Crawford

Aug. 14, 2022

Link to worship service with the Baptism of Ella VIctoria Bunton: https://fb.watch/eW5gFUxKh3/

My granddaughters are being raised to be strong, curious women. They ask a lot of questions. Jessie is 8 and a half going on 40.

Last weekend was the first time she and her 4 and a half year old sister, Maddie, with their parents, came to visit us here on Long Island.

    Our whirlwind weekend included visits to playgrounds, a water playground, a beach, and an aquarium. We swam, had picnics, ate soft ice cream bought from an ice cream truck and enjoyed cookouts on our back deck. We watched videos of Jessie’s gymnastic competitions, listened to Maddie sing solos of songs from Encanto. And we found a shrew in our basement. We tried to catch him with a Tupperware container. He got away.

     I miss them already.

     It’s hard to be a long-distance grandparent. We worry about their physical health and happiness; we worry about their spiritual well-being.

     We wonder if we are bearing witness to our faith to them. We are keenly aware of our own weaknesses and imperfections. We know that we don’t always live faithfully.

   Our reading today in Hebrews is all about faith; it’s a piece of a much longer teaching on the subject of faith. Chapter 11 begins with a definition, “Faith is the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen.”  We are warned that without faith, it is impossible to please God.

    The faith that is modeled to us by people in the Bible isn’t a passive assent to believe. It’s not an intellectual exercise! The faithful answer the call to risk and act in ways that reveal their faith—their hope in what cannot be seen—in difficult times.

     I want you to notice that in this long list of faithful, we find no one who isn’t flawed, who doesn’t make mistakes. We find no one on this list who never messed up, never stumbled in their walk with God, never had doubts, never sinned.  And only one on this list isn’t a man. She’s not even an Israelite. She’s a Canaanite, an outsider—and yet so important to the continuing story of God’s people that she is listed in the family tree of Jesus at the beginning of Matthew’s gospel.

    I laughed as I prepared my message this week, when I realized that on the day we baptize little Ellla, the sermon about faith would lift up as our example a prostitute who ran a whorehouse on the edge of town.

     Rahab reveals an active faith that leads a person to take risks and stand up for what they believe, though it may mean that they lose their very life because of it. An interesting thing about Rahab is that she is a new convert! She is a Gentile who has come to believe in God when she hears the stories of God’s faithfulness to the Israelites in the wilderness. God has already prepared her heart to act courageously and welcome the two Israelite spies whom Joshua sends to investigate Jericho, a city of palm trees, an oasis in the dessert.

    When the king of Jericho himself goes to Rahab’s establishment—demanding that she produce the Israelite spies—the woman who is marginalized in her society because of what she does for a living tells a lie mixed with some truth. “Yes, the men came to me,” she says to the king, “I didn’t know where they came from. The gate was about to be shut at dark, and the men went out. I don’t know where the men went. Pursue them quickly,” she goes on, “because you can overtake them.” The king’s men pursue them and never find them on the road toward the Jordan River, where the Israelites will cross over into the land of the promise with the ark of the covenant.

    The one who has become a believer through hearing the stories of God’s faithfulness says to the Israelites hiding on her roof, “The Lord your God is indeed God in heaven above and on earth below. Now then, since I have dealt kindly with you, swear to me by the Lord that you in turn will deal kindly with my family.” She asks for “a sign of good faith”that the Israelites will spare her family. The men promise to deal kindly and faithfully” with her when the Lord gives them the land.”

    Then she lets them down by a rope through the window, for her house is on the outer side of the city wall, and she resides within the wall itself. 

    We know how the story ends —how the spies return safely to Joshua and the Israelites win the battle of Jericho with their warriors and priests circling the city, blowing trumpets and carrying the ark of the covenant of God.

    As we sing in that familiar hymn, “And the walls came tumbling down.”

    But that isn’t the end of the story, really. Rahab joins the family tree of Jesus in the gospel of Matthew because the new convert to the faith of Abraham marries an Israelite: Salmon, who falls in love with a strong woman who has left her past self behind. She is no longer a prostitute running a whorehouse on the edge of the town of Jericho. Together, they have a son named Boaz. No wonder he is so gracious and accepting of an outsider–because of his mother! If his name sounds familiar, it’s because he is the husband of Ruth—another outsider and new convert to the faith of Abraham. Ruth, from Moab, gives birth to Obed, who gives birth to Jesse, the father of David.

    What amazes me in our passage in Hebrews today begins at verse 39 with the word “yet.” The list of flawed individuals who are commended for their faith didn’t receive the fullness of God’s promise because we are needed for that promise to be fulfilled. They will not, apart from us, be made perfect. Hebrews is saying that we are already a part of this Great Cloud of Witnesses, connected to Christ and being made perfect or complete, together.

        We are comforted in the knowledge that we are not alone in our calling to the mission field, which includes our families. The whole Cloud of Witnesses that is with us, that surrounds and includes us, is cheering us on!

       Here’s something else the Spirit is teaching me. Running the race of faith doesn’t require actual running—or rushing around in an overscheduled, overcommitted life. More isn’t always better, my friends!

        I want to encourage Ella’s family—and every young family—that the race of faith requires patience, endurance, and time. We have to allow time and space in our busy lives for the Spirit to work. It’s hard, isn’t it? To make time for the quiet, intimate, spontaneous, Spirit-filled moments to happen. But how sweet those God moments are, when we are suddenly having conversations with our children and grandchildren that matter.

      One of those intimate God moments happened for Jessie and me in the kitchen on Saturday. Jessie, 8 and a half going on 40, doesn’t quite understand how she has 3 grandmothers, while her friends only have two. She talked about the three-grandmother problem on our visit to her home in Cambridge in 2020—and she’s still puzzled about it, two years later. Divorce and remarriage can make for complicated family relationships. To Jessie’s scientific mind—as she is the daughter of a biochemist and a pediatrician—it’s a biological impossibility to have 3 grandmothers.

     So, suddenly, on Saturday right before dinner, I can only say that it is the work of the Spirit when Jessie is telling me that she has come to believe that it’s a good thing that she has 3 grandmothers. It means that she gets to go to more fun places to visit them. And she has more love.

     Friends, we are not alone in our calling to a mission field that includes our families. We are already caught up with and being made complete with the Great Cloud of Witnesses as we imperfectly serve the Lord with our lives.

      We are surrounded by witnesses, cheering us on!

Let us pray.

Holy One, Source and perfector of our faith, thank you for the many models of our faith in Scripture. We give thanks for Rahab, the prostitute, who offered hospitality to the Israelite spies and risked her own life for her new-found faith in the God of Abraham. And we thank you for your Son, Jesus, the greatest example of all of humility and self-sacrifice, the author and source of our faith, who has promised to complete a good work in us at the day of his return for His Church. Give us eyes to see the Great Cloud of Witnesses that includes all of us—Christ’s followers in every time and place. Help us to hear their voices, cheering us on and be strengthened to endure the race that is set before us, keeping our eyes focused on Jesus. In His name we pray. Amen. 

Where Is Your Treasure?

Meditation on Luke 12: 13-34

First Presbyterian Church of Smithtown

Pastor Karen Crawford

July 31, 2022

Link to live-streamed video: https://fb.watch/eCz83o4Rv0/

    We hosted a funeral for a man named Michael Turrell in our sanctuary yesterday. That’s why for some of us who were here yesterday, it feels like there were 2 Sundays this weekend! Lynne. Bill. Pablo.

   He was not a member of our congregation, though his grandparents were members long ago. And I have so many people to thank in our congregation for helping with all the details.    Thank you, especially, to those who came to welcome strangers as invited guests to our church family and worship home. Because I asked for help in our newsletter, and you came!

    I met Michael’s two daughters by what I would call chance if I believed in chance. They knocked on the door to our church one Tuesday afternoon in May, when I was just setting up my office. I had to ask Dawn for a yellow pad and pen to take notes.

    They shared stories of their dad who had just passed away after a 10-year struggle with dementia. He and his wife, Anne, divorced in the 1970s. He was awarded full custody of their two adopted daughters. Desiree was 10. Linn was only 5. A logical man, not overly emotional, he had no idea how he was going to be both mother and father to them.

    The man who could fix, make, or do anything, who rebuilt a garage from the ground up and built a model of the Globe Theatre for his Malverne High School drama productions, lived by the Golden Rule. You know what that is, right? Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. He taught his daughters to work hard and to be nice. And practical things, like changing the oil in their cars.

    The man who had poured himself into raising his two daughters when he was a young man became the one who needed their tender care when he was older.

    Some unexpected things happened at the funeral.  For one, we were late starting—at least 15 minutes—or was it 20? Because many of Michael’s family got stuck in traffic or got lost on the way here. At 10 before 11, Pablo asked me if he should start playing gathering music. I said, “Sure!” Little did we know that the gathering music would stretch till quarter past the hour. I was afraid Pablo might run out of music!

   Another odd thing happened. In the third verse of the final hymn, Eternal Father, Strong to Save, our organ had a cypher—a stuck note that continued to sound loudly long after Pablo played it. It brought the song to a halt. I immediately recalled the story of one of our organ pipes falling onto the seating below. The following Sunday, guest pastor Matt Means came to preach wearing a hard hat—just in case our organ would act up again. Pablo calls it the beast!

   After the service, I gathered the family to line their cars to form a procession to the cemetery. This isn’t something I usually do, but I didn’t have help from a funeral home for this funeral. As we were preparing to leave, a man pulled into the front driveway of our parking lot, looking confused by all the cars blocking his way to the back lot. I thought, “What now?” Dressed in my black clergy garb and white stole, I went over to ask him if he were joining the funeral procession.

   He said, no. He was coming to AA! I introduced myself, shook his hand, and I never do this… But I asked how things were going on his sobriety journey! He smiled—he wasn’t offended. And he said, “Good, so far! I rely on Him every day.” He pointed up to the sky.

   I have a feeling that running into me and a funeral procession on his way to AA was a reminder to the man that God was still with him. It was a reminder to me that our opening our doors for community support groups extends our ministry to people outside our church membership.

    Friends, I can see how God is using us, sometimes in surprising ways, to build our treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys.

     We are growing rich toward God.

***

     In today’s passage in the 12th chapter of Luke, the Lord is interrupted in his teaching to the crowd with a man demanding, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” Christ will see to the root of the man’s problem, that he, being the younger brother, isn’t satisfied with what he has. He wants what his older brother has.

     The Lord warns him, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”

     This is consistent with the overall message of Luke’s gospel—that the rich and proud will be brought down and the poor and humble lifted up, such as in Mary’s Song.

    The parable he shares is about a rich landowner who decides he needs bigger barns for his abundant crop, so he won’t have to work for a long time. He imagines saying to himself, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” God in the parable—and God is not usually in parables—but God interrupts and tells the man how foolish he has been, wasting precious time. And now his life is over, and what will become of all the possessions he has hoarded?

 “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God,” he tells the man who covets his brother’s inheritance.

This is the lead in to one of the most beautiful teachings Christ shares with his disciples in every time and place. He’s no longer speaking to the man who is wanting more. He’s speaking to us. Notice how the reference to the barn connects the two passages, as we discover the word again in verse 24, “Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them.”

This is the teaching that we all need to hear today. We need only look outside at the wonder of God’s Creation when we worry how we will survive as a congregation in this time of declining Presbyterianism and a growing demographic of self-proclaimed “nones”—no religious affiliation at all.

    Don’t be discouraged by the nones, brothers and sisters. Have faith that the Lord has chosen us for this mission field. Christ is sending us out to our Long Island communities. And God is bringing to us our neighbors who need encouragement in their journeys of faith and shelter and refuge from the storms of life. That was the funeral that we hosted yesterday at the church–a family without a church that needed shelter and refuge from the storms of life-and encouragement on their faith journeys.

   We have all that we need in the God who feeds the ravens, though they neither sow nor reap. We have all that we need in the God who clothes the lilies, who neither toil nor spin.

    How much more value are we than birds and flowers to God?!

    Those who have chosen to follow Jesus in the 12th chapter of Luke are worried and afraid for their future as his disciples. They are afraid they won’t have food to eat or clothes to wear—the necessities of life. We have worries, too, but they are different worries for our future as Christ’s disciples. What will happen if we take risks in our ministry, do things for the sole reason of building “heavenly treasure” – not necessarily bringing in more members or adding more dollars to our general fund?

    What if we do things the Spirit leads us to do just to be rich toward God?

    “You of little faith,” Jesus says to them, affectionately. Our gracious and kind Savior wants to lay their fears and our fears to rest. Which of us by worrying can add a single hour to our span of life?

    God knows all our needs, dear sisters and brothers.

     These moments, when the Lord leads us to serve in surprising ways and touch the hearts and lives of people outside our circle of friends, family and our church family, I can say with all certainty that we are building our treasure in heaven—where no thief comes near and no moth destroys.

    We are growing rich toward God, saying yes to the invitation to join with the Lord in the work God is already doing in the world.

     So I ask you now, where is your treasure? 

     Do you know that our hope in Jesus is the most precious thing of all?

Let us pray.

Holy God who feeds the ravens and clothes the lilies, thank you for caring for all our needs. Thank you for the abundant material and spiritual blessings that we have as your church, filled with your Spirit. Grow us, dear Lord. Guide us in your will so that we are rich in faith, as your Son taught us. Help us build our treasure in heaven with more opportunities to offer hope and healing to the brokenhearted and testify to your goodness. Grant us your peace and confidence as we accept your call to the mission field of our Long Island communities and beyond. In the name of our Triune God we pray. Amen.

A House Eternal in the Heavens

Meditation on John 14:18-27

In Memory of Michael C. Turrell

Aug. 22, 1937-May 13, 2022

Pastor Karen Crawford   

July 30, 202 

    Michael Turrell could fix, make or do anything.

    He rebuilt the garage from the ground up. In his career, he worked as an electrical engineer for an elevator company. But his favorite place was his shop in the basement of his Hempstead home.

   For Michael, every tool had its use, and every tool had a special place on the pegboard in his shop. There was no question where the tool belonged; he painted an outline of each on the pegboard.

     You could say that he had special gifts.

    He could put back everything into the box that it came in, with every part in its niche.

    He was one of those people who loved his work so much, it wasn’t work. When he retired from the elevator company, he didn’t retire. He continued working as a consultant.

    His engineering career followed four years of service and electrical training in the U.S. Navy, not long after his high school graduation—Malverne High, Class of ‘56. He graduated with high honors in industrial education. Some will remember that he was the one who built the replica of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre for school drama productions.

     He was a logical man, not overly emotional. He planned every project carefully. He measured twice before he cut once.

     What a great challenge it must have been when he and his wife, Anne, divorced in the 1970s. Though they remained friendly over the years and spent some holidays together, he had full custody of their two young daughters—10-year-old Desiree and 5-year-old Linn. He was “flummoxed,” Linn says. “He didn’t know what to do.”

     But the good-natured, sweet man threw himself into the task of primary caregiver and provider, raising the girls with all his heart, mind and might. They learned through his example to live by the Golden Rule—to treat others as they wanted to be treated. To be nice—as his nickname was “Nicky Nice Guy.” And he taught them practical living skills, such as how to change the oil in their cars.

    “He was my hero,” Linn says.

     That made his illness, his 10-year decline with dementia until he no longer knew his loved ones—all the much harder, when the roles were reversed. Their father, who had been the strong, faithful single parent for his daughters for so many years became the one who needed their tender care.

***

   In our reading in the gospel of John, Jesus urges his disciples to not be anxious or afraid when he leaves them. He is preparing them for his death on a cross. He offers his peace to them and to us, a peace not like the world gives. The Apostle Paul picks up that theme of peace in his letter to the Romans, reminding us that we have a peace with God in Christ that cannot be taken away. It isn’t a fleeting feeling that comes and goes if we are happy or sad or overwhelmed by the troubles of this world. This is a perfect peace made by a loving and gracious God who sought us while we were yet sinners and made a way for us to come back home to him when we couldn’t make a way for ourselves.

    This is a God who seeks us still and will never stop pursuing us. A God who holds us firmly in the grasp of his hand.

     This is a God who uses hardship and pain to shape and mold our character and work his mysterious purposes. The apostle boasts in his afflictions because they will produce endurance, character, and hope in him. He reminds us of the gift of the Holy Spirit, the Comforter whom Christ promised to his disciples. The Holy Spirit dwelling in us helps us remain faithful in difficult times, but also pours love into our hearts so that we may bear witness to the One whose love is unconditional, everlasting and inclusive of all people.

      Ecclesiastes teaches us that there is a time and a purpose for everything that happens in our lives on earth. Nothing is random or left to chance.  My favorite line of this familiar passage that inspired the popular song by the Byrds in 1965 is the assurance that God has placed in each of us a sense of our past and future with Him. We have “eternity in our hearts.” This space made by God in us can only be filled by the Lord, the only One who knows our beginning and end and all the days in between.

     We spend so much of our time searching for happiness and pursuing things that don’t matter for eternity. And we know that, deep down, the writer of Ecclesiastes is correct when he says it’s all “a chasing after the wind.” But he acknowledges that in our busy lives, God wants us to find happiness in simple, ordinary things as long as we don’t pursue these things and our happiness as if these are our main purpose for existence. The source of all good gifts is our God, whom we are called to gratefully serve. The Lord has given us, says Ecclesiastes, “food, drink, and that we should take pleasure in all our toil.” This is the work we choose for our life—how we make a living—and the good works God chooses for us, such as caring for our loved ones as parents, grandparents, husbands and wives, and children of aging parents in their time of need.

     “I will not leave you orphaned,” Jesus says with tenderness for those who have left their families and former occupations to follow him.

   “I am coming to you,” he says, speaking of his promise of return for the Church—for us.

     “In a little while the world will no longer see me,” he says, “but you will see me; because I live, you also will live.”

    This is the promise of our new, resurrected lives with him who is risen from the dead—and that new life begins right here in this world. Today!

      Though I never had the opportunity to meet Michael Turrell, in my imagination, I can see the man who could fix or make anything, the one who rebuilt his garage from the ground up and painted the outlines of his tools on a pegboard in his basement workshop.

     I can imagine him now in the joy that Christ has prepared for all of us. He is dwelling in a “house not made with human hands,” which the apostle Paul, who made his living as a tentmaker, talked about.

     In this “earthly tent” we live in, our fragile human bodies are vulnerable to sickness and disease, suffering and sorrow. But we have a house that lies beyond the everyday, busy-ness of this world. We have a house eternal in the heavens. 

     God, who has placed eternity in our hearts and has made a space for himself in each of us, has given us a deep longing, as the apostle Paul says so poetically, for what is mortal in us to be swallowed up by life.

Let us pray.

Heavenly Father, thank you for creating us in love, for love, and pouring your love into our hearts by the Holy Spirt. Bless all who are caregivers, especially those caring for aging parents. Comfort and heal us in our sorrow. Strengthen us in difficult times. Stop us when we pursue the wind instead of doing your good works that matter for all eternity. Give us a vision for what lies beyond this earthly tent we live in and the everyday busyness of this world. Grant us faith in our house not built with human hands, a house eternal in the heavens.  Amen.

Lord, Teach Us to Pray

Meditation on Luke 11-13

First Presbyterian Church of Smithtown

Pastor Karen Crawford

July 24, 2022

Link to recording of livestreamed service: https://fb.watch/exzE_CkDDf/

On Thursday, Jim and I visited the Smithtown Emergency Food Pantry. We worked alongside Marci and Alexis from our congregation and other faithful women to help neighbors struggling with food insecurity.

I was amazed at how our local food pantry, which relies completely on donations and receives no government funding, is so well organized and equipped to care for the needs of families, small and large.

 The ministry isn’t just about food for bodies. It is a ministry with a kind heart, for those who volunteer have come to know the “regular visitors.” They are welcomed and greeted by name. Volunteers and visitors chat like old friends.

On that hot day, when we drove home sweaty and dirty after serving just 3 hours at the food pantry, I dreamed of a cold shower and Carvel ice cream.

I thought about how in The Lord’s Prayer we say, “Give us this day our daily bread.”

And how that day and every day the food pantry works to help people struggling with food insecurity, we are an answer to someone’s prayer.

***

Today, in our gospel of Luke, the disciples watch and listen to Jesus as he speaks with God, and they ask him to teach them how to pray. This is a prayer for all God’s children, all Christ’s followers, to pray together in every time and every place.

Christ’s teaching on prayer in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew and in this passage in Luke reveals that there IS a right and wrong way to pray. And Jesus wants us to learn the right way.

“And whenever you pray,” he says in Matthew 6, “do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

“When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”

From the beginning, the disciples notice something different about the prayer Jesus prays because he prays in Aramaic—the common language spoken by Jewish people in their day. Jesus lives in a world where the public reading of Scripture and the offering of prayers to God are always in classical, biblical Hebrew. Jesus teaches us that while Judaism and Islam have sacred languages for their scripture (Hebrew and Arabic); Christianity does not.

Jesus inaugurates a new age when he begins his prayer with the Aramaic Abba, translated Father, but closer in meaning to our modern use of Daddy! In at least four Middle Eastern countries today, says scholar Kenneth Bailey, Abba is still the first word a child learns to say, much like our children say, Da da! Daddy!

The one line at the center of the prayer that I couldn’t get off my mind this week when I worked at the food pantry is, “Give us this day our daily bread.”

Bread is the staple food for Middle Easterners. In the Bible, bread symbolizes all that we eat.

What seems like such a simple phrase, turns out, isn’t so simple. The word translated daily appears nowhere else in the Greek language! Scholars aren’t sure what it means. Some argue the word refers to time, such as the bread of today or the bread of tomorrow. Others say the word refers to amount not time, such as just enough bread to keep us alive, and no more, or the bread that we need.

Still others say there’s a problem with the translation from the Aramaic to the Greek. Bailey says that Jesus may have been saying in Aramaic, instead of daily bread, the “lasting, never-ceasing, never-ending bread.” In other words, Jesus is teaching us to pray, “Give us today the bread that doesn’t run out.”

“One of the most basic human fears is the dread of economic privation,” Bailey says. “Will we have enough? We are managing now, but what about the future? What if I lose my job? What if the kids get sick? What if I am unable to work? How will we survive? One of the deepest and most crippling fears of the human spirit is not having enough to eat.” Jesus is teaching his disciples to be released from that fear of not having enough to eat, a fear that can destroy a sense of well-being in the present and erode hope for the future. Jesus is praying, “Deliver us, O Lord, from the fear of not having enough to eat. Give us bread for today and with it give us confidence that tomorrow, we will have enough.”

Two more treasures are offered from this one line of the Lord’s Prayer. One is that we ask for bread, not cake. “Consumerism and the kingdom of mammon have no place among those who pray this prayer. We ask for that which sustains life, not all its extras.”

And we ask for “our” not “mine.”

Mother Teresa, in her book, The Joy of Living, writes of an occasion from her life in Calcutta.

“I will never forget the night an old gentleman came to our house and said that there was a family with eight children, and they had not eaten, and could we do something for them. So I took some rice and went there. The mother took the rice from my hands, divided it into two and went out. I could see the faces of the children shining with hunger. When she came back, I asked her where she had gone. She gave me a very simple answer. “They are hungry also.” And “they” were the family next door, and she knew that they were hungry. I was not surprised that she gave, but I was surprised that she knew… I had not the courage to ask her how long her family hadn’t eaten, but I am sure it must have been a long time, and yet she knew—in her suffering… In her terrible bodily suffering, she knew that next door, they were hungry also.” (337-38).

“This woman with 8 children may not have known the Lord’s Prayer, but there was only “our rice” not “my rice” even when her children were hungry. The prayer for “our bread” includes our neighbors.

“It is ‘our Father’ and ‘our bread.’”

***

I started out greeting visitors on Thursday at the food pantry, but I quickly realized my calling was serving the regular workers. I filled grocery carts with lists of items for large and small families and restocked pantry shelves. The most important part of the ministry was left to the core workers who are there, day after day, never growing weary of doing good, serving our neighbors with bread, as The Lord’s Prayer stirs us to do.  

For this is the thing about The Lord’s Prayer, my friends! We ask our Father to provide for us—and God will answer that prayer for us through others, and for others through us.

The Lord’s Prayer has the power to change the world, beginning right here-with us who are sent out to be Christ’s Body and witness through our generous giving to the coming Kingdom that Christ ushered in.

As we pray that prayer that Jesus still prays with and for us, may the Lord grant us release from the fear of not having enough of anything we need in this world, a fear that sometimes stops us from sharing what we have with others in need. For the prayer for our bread includes our neighbors.

May we pray with Jesus, “Deliver us, O Lord, from the fear of not having enough to eat. Give us bread for today and with it give us confidence that tomorrow, we will have enough.”

May we come to trust and obey the One whom Jesus called Abba! Daddy! The One who listens to all who ask, seek, and knock, persisting in prayer until the door of blessing opens wide, and thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. The Father who wants to give good gifts to all God’s children desires to give us this day the bread that doesn’t run out, the bread that is ours, not mine.

Will you pray with me as Jesus taught us?

Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil. For thine is the Kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.

Mary and Martha Host Jesus for Dinner

Meditation on Luke 10:38-42

First Presbyterian Church of Smithtown

Pastor Karen Crawford

July 17, 2022

Link to livestreamed recording: https://fb.watch/eldNUKMFvV/

Jim and I hosted our first fellowship gathering at the manse this week. We welcomed the deacons and their spouses and children on Wednesday night for a cook-out. Jim grilled and our guests brought delicious food to share. We had a feast, and it was a lovely time!

Remembering the days and weeks of preparation before the gathering, I wondered why I worried so much about the details, though I tried not to.

I think because it mattered to me so much. I just wanted it to be special for those who were coming and show my appreciation for all their service to our congregation. It was my way of saying, “Thank you for caring for our church family, for being Christ’s hands and feet.”

***

Is it a coincidence that our lectionary gospel reading this week is the story of Jesus at the home of Mary and Martha? I didn’t plan it, but God certainly has perfect timing. The heartwarming story of Mary and Martha hosting Jesus for dinner is only found in the gospel of Luke.

It’s so short—4 verses—that you can almost overlook it, tucked between the parable of the Good Samaritan and the Lord’s Prayer. And yet, it’s one of my favorite passages in Luke. Why? Because it’s so real. I can imagine it. I can identify with it. Can you?

I’ve always admired Marthas, as I picture them like Martha Stewart. They make everything from scratch, and everything tastes delicious. People are constantly asking for recipes and advice about cooking and entertaining. They set a beautiful table with floral centerpieces and napkins folded like swans.

Am I describing anyone you know?

Martha of Bethany—sister to Mary and Lazarus, the one whom Jesus will raise from the dead in John chapter 11—is struggling as the host for Jesus, despite her being the one to invite him to dinner! It could just be because she wants everything to be perfect for him. And now her sister Mary is shirking her duties, and Martha can’t do everything all by herself.

Martha may be upset that Mary doesn’t seem to know her place—that women belong in the kitchen, not sitting at the feet of the great spiritual Teacher, hanging on his every word. Martha knows her place! She is doing exactly what her society expects of a woman.

If it weren’t for Martha, there would be nothing to eat or drink! A houseful of Marys would result in people going hungry and thirsty, though they might be drinking Living Water—to never be spiritually thirsty again. Martha is probably the eldest in her family and possibly a widow. She has the gifts of leadership and hospitality. Without Martha, Jesus might never have met this faithful family in the village of Bethany on the eastern slope of the Mount of Olives near Jerusalem.

For their story in Luke begins, Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village where a woman named Martha welcomed him.”

Let’s consider for a moment the importance of women in Mary and Martha’s time and place. Have you noticed that in the stories of Jesus more women are unnamed than those who are named?

The Samaritan woman at the well. What’s her name?

The widow who gives the least valuable coin as her offering and the greatest gift in the temple treasury because she gives all she has. What’s her name?

What about the woman Jesus heals, the one who has been hemorrhaging for 12 years, when he is on the way to heal Jairus’ 12-year-old daughter? What is her name? And what is the daughter’s name?

Don’t you wish we knew?

So we can conclude this: if a woman is named in the stories of Jesus, she must be important to Christ’s ministry and to the lessons the Lord God wants us to learn for today—to apply to our lives of faith.

The first thought or concern I have to share about this passage is that I want to make sure you know that Jesus is not picking on Martha when he gently corrects her. I have listened to sermons that are sharply critical of Martha and hold Mary up on a pedestal and miss the point of this passage. Martha is not a villain. Mary is not a saint. Jesus doesn’t love one more than the other; he loves both the same!

He isn’t angry at Martha for trying to bless him and the disciples when they are guests in her home.  This is an opportunity for Jesus to teach Martha about God’s love and grace—and that his expectations for her and Mary and the rest of the female disciples are nothing like what the world expects of them in their time or what they expect of themselves.

Jesus is trying to comfort Martha in her distress and teach her a new way of life—the way of peace, rather than the path of anxiety and distraction. It isn’t Martha’s busy-ness that is her problem! It’s the anxiety that drives her to busy-ness and perfectionism. Her anxiety gets in the way of her seeing and accepting Christ’s love, for she begins her question to Jesus, “Don’t you care?” In other words, “Why don’t you love me?”

Jesus assures her, “Martha, Martha’—he says her name twice, so you know right away that he DOES care!—“you are worried and distracted by many things, but few things are needed—indeed only one– Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

What is that one thing, dear friends? The better part?  Knowing the Lord and accepting Christ’s love, a love that can never be taken away from us.

***

Time just flew by at the deacon gathering Wednesday night. People arrived around 7, and suddenly, it was dark and 9:30; people were getting ready to go home. I was wishing I had more time with them. I was sad to see them leave.

I wondered afterward, “Did I let go of the concern for all the details soon enough to just enjoy being in the presence of Christ’s humble servants? Did I let go of the concern for all the details soon enough to enjoy being in the presence of Christ himself, who is with us in all our gatherings in His name?”

I honestly think I stopped worrying as soon as the first people arrived and asked how they could help. They all asked how they could help!! The deacons, with their gifts of humble service, made me feel welcome, comfortable, and cared for—what I hoped to make them feel. There was so much delicious food, smiles and laughter, and the sharing of stories. Kindness reigned. One young man and his mom, during the party, restacked our woodpile that had fallen over in a storm. Many of the deacons stayed to clear and wipe tables, wash dishes, and put away the food.

I will have another opportunity to serve this Tuesday night, when our Session and their families come for a picnic at the manse instead of our regular Session meeting. It will be a chance for me to get to know them more and to say to our servant leaders, “Thank you for everything you do for the Lord and our congregation.”

I can’t promise that I won’t worry about all the details before the gathering. Because it’s in my nature to worry—as it was probably in Martha’s nature to worry and to want to give her very best for the Lord.

Our Savior is waiting for all of us to come to him, like Martha did, and ask for help with the problems of today and tomorrow. There will always be struggles—and new lessons to be learned on our journeys of faith. The Lord welcomes us just as we are—and loves us too much to leave us that way. Jesus is still using moments like these, as we gather around the Word, illumined by the Spirit, to teach us what we need to know to be his disciples, to follow him more faithfully.

Following Christ means challenging societal expectations, like Mary, sitting at the Teacher’s feet, learning spiritual truths with the other male disciples of her day. Following Christ starts with a decision, as we sing in that familiar song, “I Have Decided to Follow Jesus,” no turning back, no turning back. That one decision will lead to many more as we seek to grow the Church and please the Lord.

Friends, we live in anxious times. The story of Mary and Martha shows us the truth about ourselves—how we always want a quick fix and others to change and be what we want them to be. But this isn’t the way of Christ, who revealed God’s love in humility, giving his life for the world. Our Redeemer shows us the way to peace is through a loving relationship with Him who suffers with us, and our own heart’s change toward other people, and not with the Lord making all our trials and difficulties disappear.

We sing,

The world behind me, the cross before me,
the world behind me, the cross before me,
the world behind me, the cross before me –
no turning back, no turning back.

Are you willing to trust the Lord in your distress? Jesus cared for Martha and Mary. The Lord cares for you and me!

Will you accept the comfort of God’s love, the one thing that can never be taken away?

Let us pray.

Holy One, thank you for your example of welcome and service in Martha and hunger for spiritual teaching and to know you more in Mary. Thank you for your love and grace for us who struggle sometimes with anxiety, when we know the way of peace is through intimate relationship with Your Son and a change of our own hearts toward others. In our world of chaos, help us to be still, and find time to sit at the feet of your Son, defying society’s expectations, and our own expectations of busy-ness, for the sake of busy-ness. Let us feel your peaceful presence with us and hear you speaking our names to comfort us in our distress, as your Son did with Martha in the village of Bethany that long ago day. In His name we pray. Amen.

Who Is My Neighbor?

Meditation on Luke 10:25–37

First Presbyterian Church of Smithtown, NY

Pastor Karen Crawford

July 10, 2022

Link to live-streamed video: https://fb.watch/edw3JlGZJ8/

Long Islanders like our white picket fences and stone walls!

That’s my conclusion from talking walks in our St. James neighborhood. Decorative rocks line the streets on both sides, where the grass ends and pavement begins. I follow the rocks as I walk, noticing when one is missing, raised, or turned the wrong way.

At the end of my street a tall, wrought iron fence surrounds a large house. Wrought iron gates block the entrance and exit to the circular driveway.

I wonder, as I walk by, if the iron walls are for keeping people out or for keeping someone or something in? This reminds me of Robert Frost’s poem, “Mending Wall,” with that wonderful, memorable line, “Good fences make good neighbors.”

 “Mending Wall” begins,

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,

That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,

And spills the upper boulders in the sun;

And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.

The work of hunters is another thing:

I have come after them and made repair

Where they have left not one stone on a stone,

But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,

To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,

No one has seen them made or heard them made,

But at spring mending-time we find them there.

I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;

And on a day we meet to walk the line

And set the wall between us once again.

We keep the wall between us as we go.

To each the boulders that have fallen to each.

And some are loaves and some so nearly balls

We have to use a spell to make them balance:

‘Stay where you are until our backs are turned!’

We wear our fingers rough with handling them.

Oh, just another kind of out-door game,

One on a side. It comes to little more:

There where it is we do not need the wall:

He is all pine and I am apple orchard.

My apple trees will never get across

And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.

He only says, ‘Good fences make good neighbors.’

Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder

If I could put a notion in his head:

‘Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it

Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.

Before I built a wall I’d ask to know

What I was walling in or walling out,

And to whom I was like to give offense.”

We learn from Luke’s gospel today that there are all sorts of fences and walls in Jesus’ times. The kind Frost was talking about and the kind that divide people, born of prejudice, fear, and hatred. The two groups who are enemies in this passage are Jews and Samaritans, who are actually cousins, descendants, both of them, of the 12 tribes of Israel.

The set up for the Parable of the “Good” Samaritan is Jesus talking with an expert in religious law who wants to test him and trap him into saying something that will get him in trouble with the authorities.

I have heard that lawyers are trained to only ask questions in court that they already know the answers to. Is that true? The expert in religious law in Christ’s day thinks he already knows the answer to his question. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 

Jesus answers with a question of his own. This is how he teaches. He points to Scripture—debating what an expert in religious law would already know. “What is written in the law?” Jesus asks. “What do you read there?”

The lawyer’s confident answer combines two verses in different parts of the law.  Love God is from Deut. 6:5; love neighbor is from Leviticus 18:19. The order is important, and they are connected. First, we love God, and through our relationship with the Lord, we are empowered to love those whom God loves—our neighbors. All our neighbors. Everywhere.

Therefore, if we don’t love God, we don’t have the power to love others—especially the neighbors we may have been taught since childhood cannot be our friends.

The lawyer comes up with the correct answer, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind and your neighbor as yourself.”

Then Jesus answers the man’s question, “Do this,” he says, meaning, love the Lord your God and your neighbor as yourself, “and you will live.”

The lawyer isn’t ready to give up. “Wanting to justify himself” and his lack of love for certain people, he asks, “Who is my neighbor?” He expects Jesus to interpret Leviticus 19:18 to mean only “the sons and daughters of your own people.” When we keep reading to the end of the chapter, we discover that our neighbor isn’t just people from our own religion, country, culture, and extended family. Lev. 19:34 says, “The stranger who sojourns with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.”

***

Studying this parable this week, I began to see Christ in his work of mercy in the Good Samaritan. Was he talking about himself? Was he foreshadowing what is to come? He would be hated and rejected by his own—God who humbled himself and became human, like us, when we were lost and perishing in our sins. The Samaritan, like the Lord, is filled with compassion, binding up the wounds of the stranger, left for dead. He brings healing and wholeness through ordinary elements made holy in their divine use—the oil of anointing and wine of Communion.

The One born in a lowly stable because there was no room at the inn brings the wounded stranger on his own animal to a room in a Jewish inn, a place of safety, refuge, and comfort, prepared for him.

Bible scholar Kenneth Bailey points out that the Good Samaritan, by bringing the man to a Jewish inn, was risking his life to do so. “Putting the story into an American context around 1850,” he says, “suppose a Native American found a cowboy with two arrows in his back, placed the cowboy on his horse and rode into Dodge City. After checking into a room over the saloon, the man spent the night taking care of the cowboy. How would the people of Dodge City react to the Native American the following morning when he emerged from the saloon? Most Americans know that they would probably kill him, even though he had helped a cowboy. After the Samaritan paid his bill, he had yet to escape the town. Was there a crowd awaiting him outside the inn? Was he beaten or killed? We do not know…(why the Samaritan exposed himself to potential violence.)” (Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, 296).

The wounded man has done nothing to help himself. He is powerless to save himself; he has nothing of value—no clothing, possessions, money. He hasn’t spoken—doesn’t ask for help. Doesn’t thank the Good Samaritan. He has done nothing to deserve mercy or generosity—and yet, it is offered to him, as the Lord’s grace is lavishly offered to all.

The Samaritan— Jesus—gives a large deposit and pledges to pay the full price for his room and care when he returns. Do you wonder why he leaves the wounded stranger after a day? And why is it the innkeeper’s job to care for the injured man?  

Could it be that we the Church are the innkeeper? The Lord invites us into the work of repair for our wounded world. God chooses to be co-creators with us because of the Lord’s desire to be in relationship with us. Our Creator and Redeemer uses wounded healers like us who trust in the One who is Love. The healing, transforming work begun by Christ will be finished in us on the day he comes again! In the meantime, in this in-between time, it is our work to be done, with the Spirit’s help.

In binding wounds, showing mercy, and the generous giving of ourselves, we are strengthened to hold the things of this world more loosely. The injured man had and needed no possessions in order to possess everything–life everlasting with the Lord. In Christ, he had all that he needed.

In responding to our call to care for the world, we become more eternally minded. We start to care less about the accumulation of things. We can’t take it with us, can we? Sometimes, having too much stuff is a burden. If we have a bigger house and yard, we will only have to erect taller fences with iron gates that wall in and wall out to protect what we own.

In our loving of God and neighboring, we come to see the Other, the Stranger, as God’s beloved child. Friends, in doing this, we will live.

Good fences don’t make good neighbors, though every spring, we mend the wall together.

One day, we will see our Lord face to face. Love will wipe our tears away.

“Well done, good and faithful servants,” the Savior will say. “Enter into the joy I have prepared.”

Let us pray.

Holy One, we learn so much from the teachings of Your Son. Thank you for the example of the Good Samaritan, and the lesson that your costly love has no walls or boundaries. Give us eyes to see every stranger without judgement or fear, your beloved child, like us. Thank you for your love for us and desire to be in relationship with us, and your great patience with us when we fail to love. Thank you for the gracious gift of eternal life in Christ, something we don’t deserve and can’t earn, but is offered to us, nevertheless. Empower us to co-create with you, dear Creator, to be agents of change as we ourselves are changed by you. Stir us to love you with all our heart, soul, mind and might and our neighbors as ourselves. Amen.

Go, Wash in the Jordan

Meditation on 2 Kings 5:1-14

First Presbyterian Church of Smithtown

Pastor Karen Crawford

July 3, 2022

Link to Live-stream video: https://fb.watch/e2EfoOpaXW/

When I first heard the call to parish ministry, I wasn’t working in a parish. I was serving as a campground chaplain for Codorus State Park in Pennsylvania leading ecumenical worship in an outdoor amphitheater.

I had never planned on working in a campground before I had a surprise call in January 2007 to come and interview for the position with a committee from the Church of the Brethren.

I had never been camping before.

When they chose me for the position, I asked my youngest son, James, to help me.

James was in middle school at the time and NOT interested in religion. He said, “OK,” when I offered to pay him 20 bucks a weekend. He came with me when I did children’s messages on Saturdays, and he helped to set up and take down for the outdoor worship services on Sundays and operated the sound system.

One Sunday, the service was delayed when James opened the wooden box to plug in my microphone and found a large snake coiled inside. When the ranger came to gently remove the snake, she said it was a “good snake.” We went ahead with the service as if nothing had happened, but after that, we were all a little nervous whenever James opened the wooden box.

The hardest part about the ministry wasn’t the worship service, though I thought it would be, since I had no experience preaching and had never taken a preaching class. It was when I had to go from campsite to campsite on Friday nights as campers arrived, introduce myself, and invite people to church. It’s a lot easier to share your faith in church with people who come expecting you to share your faith. It’s not so easy going out to labor for the harvest when there’s a good chance you will be rejected. I wasn’t welcomed at every campsite.

Fewer than 50 people came to worship, but it was a different congregation every week. I started from scratch with invitations every weekend. But the people who came brought us so much joy. I remember the little girls who showed up in pajamas and bare feet to help me greet and give out bulletins. I remember the live music from local churches that included banjo, fiddle, guitar, and sometimes autoharp. I remember Mark who taught James how to twist balloons into animals and swords to give to the children. They would line up for his creations! And Georgia who made the delicious peach sauce when we had the ice cream social at the end of the season—and 200 people came! My wrist was tired from scooping vanilla ice cream.

As the summer went on, James had a change of heart. He started to look forward to the church services, though he didn’t want me to know that. He talked with the people for a long time after worship when we had donut holes and lemonade. He began to see the power of ministry, how God was using us to help people find healing, joy, and peace.

He even let me play Christian music on the 45-minute drive to the camp.

***

We encounter the prophet Elisha again today in our Old Testament lesson. His gifts are sought by a powerful enemy of Israel. The king of Aram in what is part of Syria today is requesting a miracle for his army commander who had led the Aramean troops to victories. The request is brought with riches of this world beyond what the people of their day could imagine to entice the Israelites to cooperate: 10 talents of silver weighing about 750 pounds; 6,000 shekels of gold weighing another 150 pounds! Says my Hebrew professor, Matt Schlimm, “It is more money than hundreds of people would make in a year.” Not to mention the 10 sets of garments—more clothes than any regular person would ever be able to afford.

The Israelite king responds with fear, believing the king of Aram is looking for an excuse to go to war. But Elisha says, “Send him to me, that he may learn that there is a prophet in Israel.” Naaman comes to Elisha’s front door with his troops and ancient machines of war—horses and chariots.

And…. Elisha doesn’t come to the door. He sends a messenger who tells the great commander how to find healing. His skin disease isn’t leprosy or Hansen’s Disease as we know it today. But it turns his skin white, and those who suffered from it were often forced to live alone—the great man an outcast from his community.

The messenger says, “Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored, and you shall be made clean.”

Naaman goes away fuming at the disrespect of the prophet, giving him no attention, making no effort to help him, and insinuating that the Israelite river would have healing properties that the rivers of Damascus in his land of Aram would not.

Who could blame Elisha for his not wanting to come to his door? Naaman and his army had committed horrific acts against Israel. We know from the beginning of the passage that he had in his household a young, Israelite slave girl seized on one of his army’s raids.

The surprise in this passage is that the healing and blessing of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is bestowed on a fierce enemy of Israel. And this is the God of mercy whom we love and serve! We worship a Risen Savior who gave his life for the world God so loves, teaching us that it’s not enough to love our families and friends—people like us, who love us back; we are called to love everyone, including those who seem different from us and speak and act as enemies.

Another surprise in this passage is the gracious attitude and strong voice of those in their society who had NO voice—the Israelite slave who tells her master he will find healing with the prophet of Israel and the servants who persuade the proud Naaman to change his mind and do as the Israelite prophet has said.

He washes in the Jordan 7 times, and his flesh is restored, like the flesh of a young boy. He is made clean!

***

One Friday evening, that first summer of my campground chaplaincy, I was making my rounds to campsites inviting people to church. Campfires glowed and people were settling in for the night. I was tired and ready to go home. So when I saw a large group of Harley Davidson bikers dressed in spiked helmets, bandanas and black fringed jackets and boots, I thought maybe we could cut short the campground visitation.

James said, “But Mom, they need Jesus, too!”

At that moment, I was longing for the kid who wasn’t interested in religion.

I reached out to them and introduced myself, invited them to church. I left my flyer, and I walked away, never expecting to see them, again.

On Sunday morning, some of them came to worship! One brought his guitar and asked what I wanted him to play. More would have been there, he said with a smile, but they had their own service at their campsite. They were members of the Christian Motorcyclists Association.

My fear of rejection almost caused me to miss a beautiful blessing—and see a glimpse of just how big the Kingdom of God is growing!

On this weekend, when we celebrate our country in all its wonderful diversity and the many freedoms we enjoy, including the freedom to worship as we desire and be who God wants us to be, we are reminded to whom we belong. That our lives are not our own.

We are humbled by the knowledge that the many blessings we enjoy are entrusted to us to be faithful stewards of the gospel of Jesus Christ. To grow the Church. To build up the Kingdom of God drawing ever nearer.

God’s healing love is for the world—the proud and the lowly. The rich and those who are struggling to get by. Those with a voice and those whose voices have been silenced or ignored.

It’s up to us—we who have experienced the healing waters of baptism, our cleansing and redemption from sin, to share and live out Christ’s life-giving message of peace and reconciliation. The Lord is sending us out now to our mission fields—our homes, families, and communities–with the power and unity of the Spirit.

Lambs of the Good Shepherd, we go out in the midst of wolves to love and serve God and neighbor. Because the harvest is plentiful, and the laborers are few.

Let us pray.

Lord of the Harvest, thank you for the many blessings that we enjoy and for entrusting us to be stewards of your gospel, of the good news of eternal life. Help us to faithfully labor as your humble servants for healing and peace in our divided nation and broken world. Open our ears to the voices of the lowly and empower us by your Spirit to work for freedom and justice for all until darkness, oppression, and fear are no more. In Christ we pray. Amen.

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