If you say so…

jesus-apostles-unknown-artist

Meditation on Luke 5:1-11

Feb. 10, 2019

The Presbyterian Church, Coshocton, OH

 

“5 Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat. When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” Simon answered, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; 10 and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. Then Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” 11 When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.”

 

Is it just me or does Ohio weather seem unpredictable this time of year? Cold one day. Really cold the next. Snow, off and on, for a week or more. Then warmth and rain and fog until we are longing to see the sun. Then, before you know it, the cold is back again. So what is typical for this time of year? Or is this it? This is typical, isn’t it? The PNC never told me this!

I rely on Alexa to tell me the weather before I go out each day. Do you have an Amazon Alexa in your house? I just say, “Alexa, what’s the weather?” And she tells me–get this– the weather for Melbourne, Florida. Yesterday, she said it was 70 degrees and raining in Melbourne, with a low of 66. That would have been helpful a few months ago, but now, not so much.

I think she is trying to let us know that she isn’t comfortable with this move to Ohio. Or maybe she hasn’t figured out where we are, yet. We have to say, “Alexa, what is the weather in Coshocton, Ohio?”

Even our little dog, Mabel, a Pomeranian, is having adjustment issues. On Monday, she wasn’t acting her usual perky self. We suspected something going wrong with her diabetes. So we took her to a local vet–our neighbor, Jere Butcher. He held her for a long time, and she trembled in his arms as we described her behaviors that were worrying us. He paused, looked at Jim, then at me, and Mabel, and gave his diagnosis: “She seems stressed. It’s probably the move and all.”

Mabel.JPG

Mabel in our Melbourne, FL home last year

 

Later, I got to thinking about our pets–how they had no idea what was happening and where we were going when the movers came and emptied our Florida house. We packed up 3 cars, drove for 2 days, staying on the road one night. We are still unpacking boxes and looking for stuff. Mabel the dog and Melvyn the cat are probably wondering what we are doing here, how long we are going to stay, and when we are going home.

***

I read this passage in the gospel of Luke–this call story so different than the call stories of the other gospels–and I can’t help but marvel how they leave everything and everyone to follow Jesus, wherever he is going. They don’t know! They don’t have any idea what he is talking about when he says to them, “Now you will catch people.” But there’s something so compelling about Jesus, when he has chosen you. You can’t say no.

Consider Peter’s reaction when he realizes he is in the presence of the Holy One; he is humbled and frightened, aware of his own flawed humanity. Like Isaiah, who says, “Woe is me! I am a man of unclean lips,” Peter says, falling down at the knees of Jesus in a boat overflowing with fish, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” The word he uses for “Lord” is the same word the Septuagint, an ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, uses for the sacred and unpronounceable name of God–YHWH.

But first, here’s Peter–a professional fisherman, partner with Zebedee and his sons (James and John). Jesus gets in and tells him to put out a little from the shore. This is so he may continue teaching the crowds from a sitting position in the boat, without getting crushed. When he is finished teaching, he tells Peter, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.”

By the way, the Lake of Gennesaret is another name for the Sea of Galilee or the Sea of Tiberius. The “Sea of Galilee” is a medium-sized, freshwater lake, about eight miles wide and 14 miles long. It’s fed by underground springs and the Jordan River.

Though this is a call story for the disciples, it isn’t the first time Simon Peter and Jesus meet in the gospel of Luke. Simon Peter has witnessed other miracles before the miraculous catch of chapter 5. He probably saw Jesus in the synagogue in Peter’s hometown of Capernaum, on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee, in chapter 4. There, Jesus astounds everyone with his teaching, because he speaks with authority. He casts demons out of a man with an unclean spirit in the synagogue, and the demons cry, “Let us alone! What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.”

Jesus has already been to Simon Peter’s house before the fishing scene. In 4:38, he leaves the synagogue and enters Simon’s house. Did Simon invite him? We don’t know. But Jesus has a way of just showing up or inviting himself to people’s houses for dinner. Remember Zacchaeus? “I’m going to your house today.” This could have been how he met Simon Peter, because this is the first time Peter is mentioned in Luke. Now Simon’s mother-in-law, who lives with Peter, is suffering from a high fever. Jesus rebukes the fever, and it leaves her. She gets up and begins to serve them.

As the sun goes down, crowds of sick people come to Jesus at Peter’s house. Jesus lays hands on them, cures them and casts out demons, which come out shouting, “You are the Son of God!”

So Peter knows the true identity of Jesus and that he can do miracles of healing and teaches with authority, unlike the scribes. They have a growing relationship, and Jesus has stayed in Peter’s home. But still Peter’s pride moves him to answer the Lord’s request to go out into the deep water to fish, “Master, we have worked all night and caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.”

If you say so. What do we usually mean when we say, “If you say so”? My husband and I were just talking about this a few weeks ago. Isn’t it a polite way of saying we don’t agree, but we don’t want to argue about it? Or maybe we are really saying, “You’re wrong, but I am going to go along with what you are saying because I don’t want to hurt your feelings or get you upset.” This is my take on what Peter is really saying. “Jesus, I am going to do this because you are asking me, and I like and respect you and am grateful that you healed my mother in law and all, but it isn’t going to work. It’s a big waste of time and energy.”

The fishermen are ready to be done for the day! They are tired and discouraged. Now someone who has no experience with commercial fishing or boating, for that matter–the son of a carpenter from Nazareth, perhaps 40 miles southwest of Capernaum–is telling Peter how to do his job.

But despite Peter’s lack of faith and “If you say so….” attitude, the Lord still blesses Peter for his obedience! Our attitude doesn’t change God’s plans for us. Our attitudes don’t cancel out God’s grace that covers all our sins! God wants to bless us beyond our imagination, not because we deserve it, but because God loves us and has a plan for the salvation of the world that includes us! But we have to be obedient to the leading of the Spirit or we will miss the blessing. Don’t miss the blessing!

The call is still valid for me and for you! And there’s a lot of work to do! Just look around our community. Many people don’t trust churches anymore! They don’t think the Bible is relevant or that God and God’s people are concerned about their wellbeing.

But it’s OK if we are struggling to work out what “catching people” means in our lives! What should the Church do to reach out to our community for Christ? How can we make a difference?

We can be sure that it means cultivating loving relationships with people outside our comfortable circles of friends. Certainly, it means reaching out to people who aren’t being nurtured in the faith and knowledge of the Lord. It will mean taking risks and letting go of things that give us a false sense of security. It will mean letting go of fear.

Let us hope in the One who wants to bless us with abundant and eternal life. Join with me in serving the One who suffered and died, so that we could be made right with God and reconciled with each other. Let us help one another be obedient to the Word and Spirit, though we might be tired or discouraged, and tempted to say, “If you say so…” rather than, “Here am I. Send me!”

Let us pray.

Holy One, we are Peter, falling down in front of your son, crying out how sinful and unworthy we are of your call to discipleship. Yet you pour out abundant blessings on us and embrace us with your love and grace. Teach us what we need to know and equip us to effectively minister to one another and to our community. Help us to be a light to all who walk in darkness, to those who have been hurt by church, disappointed by God’s people, or simply feel they have been let down by everyone in their world. Open our eyes to the beauty of your present and coming kingdom all around us, and the glory of the One who died to set us free from our sinful humanity. In Christ’s name we pray. Amen.

 

Meditation for Funeral of Charles Helt

Charles Helt.jpg

(1929-2019)

The Presbyterian Church, Coshocton

The Reverend  Karen Crawford

Feb. 9, 2019

28 Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary;
his understanding is unsearchable.
29 He gives power to the faint,
and strengthens the powerless.
30 Even youths will faint and be weary,
and the young will fall exhausted;
31 but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint.–
Isaiah 40:28-31

 

Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes.jpg

 

President Wilson, in a January 1919 edition of National Geographic Magazine, declares the creation of a 1,700-square mile national monument in Alaska, which was a U.S. territory at the time. This followed five expeditions to this region to study the effects of the great Mt. Katmai/Novarupta volcanic eruption from June 6-8, 1912. This was the world’s largest volcanic eruption of the 20th and 21st centuries (so far) and one of the five largest in recorded history; in 60 hours, 17 kilometers of magma exploded out of the earth– 30 times more magma than the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens. Local residents were forced to abandon their homes, never to return to live there. To get an idea of the magnitude of this eruption, if it had happened in New York City, it would have completely destroyed it, and Philadelphia would have been buried in a foot of ash.

The area became known as the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes, so named by Prof. Robert F. Griggs of Ohio State, who, after traveling there to study in 1913, led National Geographic Expeditions there in 1915, 16, 17, and 18. The Society predicted the area would be “America’s greatest natural-wonder playground of the future.” The Society would provide a grant of $35,000 for Prof. Griggs to lead another summer expedition in 1919 for further study of “the mysterious forces at work in the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes.” The Society’s expedition of 1919 would be “more elaborately equipped in every respect than any of the previous undertakings in this region.”

Those who went with Professor Griggs on the 1919 expedition included chemists, “motion-picture photographers,” topographers, petrographers, a zoologist and about 8 “assistants,” including Richard E. Helt, Charlie Helt’s father. Richard was a 25-year-old Ag student at OSU, studying under Professor Griggs. He was one of the first generation in his family to go to college, putting himself through school.

I can understand how it came to be that Sharon Helt’s most memorable journey with her father, Charlie, would be a 2-week Alaskan trip in 2000 with her 3 siblings, Charlie, and his wife, Pauline, to trace the footsteps of Charlie’s dad, Richard, and the expedition of 1919.

Charlie was born in 1929 in Zanesville and was raised on his parent’s dairy farm outside of Dresden. Like his father, Charlie attended Ohio State Ag College and graduated in 1952. He was a passionate fan of OSU football and went to the Rose Bowl in Jan. 1950 with his buddies, when guys still wore ties and fedoras to the game! Sharon has his souvenirs from the game kept all these years–a wooden folding chair that says “made in occupied Japan” and a small wooden block–a piece of the goal post that they tore down!– carved with the date and final score of the 1950 game: OSU 17, U of C 14.

OH!     IO!

After college, Charlie couldn’t find a job right away; he enlisted in the Air Force, serving from ‘52 to ‘57. He flew B25 bombers and trained pilots who fought in the Korean War. He married Patricia O’Donnell of Hopewell, OH, in 1956; they raised 3 daughters while he worked with chemical companies in Chicago and Cleveland as a tech service man for factories, breweries and dairies. He was good at solving problems and, later in life, would love to do jigsaw puzzles. Sadly, his career ended abruptly in 1980 when he was just 53 years old after doctors removed a softball-sized brain tumor, and he developed seizures. Two years after the surgery, his first wife died suddenly at 47.

Some people would be tempted to give up hope and turn inward after the loss of his career and then his wife of 26 years. But Charlie was a man of faith, with a playful spirit and a servant’s heart. He found new purpose in his life through serving others–spending time with his children, grandchildren and friends, and becoming a zealous volunteer for community organizations and churches. He came to The Presbyterian Church in Coshocton in 1983 after he married Pauline Buckey Cox of Adams Mills. Charlie was ordained an elder in 1985 and could be relied upon to repair and maintain the church building and help anyone who might have a need that he could meet. Charlie was also a caregiver for his aging mother on the farm in Dresden and then Pauline for 7 years when she struggled with health issues.

The reading from the prophet Isaiah spoke to me as I prepared the message for today’s service to remember Charlie and give thanks for the gift of his life. Even the most faithful can grow weary through trials and tribulations, through illness, suffering, and loss. Israel, during the time that Second Isaiah wrote, was rediscovering their love for the Lord and the faith that was all but lost after their captivity and exile. Isaiah in chapter 40 preaches comfort for God’s people, reassuring them and the many generations to follow who hear and embrace God’s Word that the Lord is not only the creator of the world and all its creatures. He isn’t a faraway, standoffish God! He isn’t too busy for the cares of this world. This God of the Israelites is our God, too. This is the one who loves human beings and is intimately involved in our daily lives. Though we mortals grow tired, the everlasting God is an eternal being and “does not faint or grow weary.” The Lord’s understanding is “unsearchable”–beyond the grasp of human beings. It is only through God’s strength that we are made strong.

This promise of strength for the weary was revealed in Charlie’s life. He knew and was a witness to the power that our compassionate and merciful Lord gives to “the faint” and the “powerless,” for Christ understands what we are going through. As the writer of Hebrews tells us, “For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin.”

The Apostle Paul in 2 Cor. 12:7-10 tells us that it is through our weakness that our witness is strongest. “My grace is sufficient for you,” the Lord told Paul in a vision, “for My strength is made perfect in weakness.” 

And the God we worship isn’t just the Lord of elderly people. We must preach this Word to our children and grandchildren, who may not think that all this religion stuff is relevant and necessary to our every day lives. This is the God of even the youth, who will “faint and be weary, and the young” who will “fall exhausted.” Everyone –the old and the young–need the Lord!

What is this “waiting” that we are told to do for the Lord? That means during our darkest hours, when the future seems most uncertain and even the thought of tomorrow without our loved ones beside us fills us with fear and sorrow, we can count on the Lord to guide and provide for us, moment by moment. We open our hearts, minds and souls to the power that will come to us, the power of God’s love, as we wait and pray–on our own and with other believers gathered for worship.

Isaiah saw the walk of faith made as graceful and powerful as an ancient bird of prey that soared high above his or her head. If we endure these hard days with prayer, clinging to the belief that God has a plan and a purpose for our lives, we shall be renewed in strength. What a wonderful promise! The weariness of body, mind and spirit that grief brings will be lifted!

And we shall rise up! We shall mount up with wings like eagles!

We shall run and not be weary. We shall walk and not faint.

 

Let us pray. Holy One, we thank you that the way we might feel now–our grief and weariness and perhaps even anxiety for tomorrow–will change as we wait on you and pray in faith. Grant us your power, the power of love, that is promised for us at our weakest moments, power to endure and even rise up and soar like eagles. May we be your humble servants. Stir to us to show our love and commitment to you by loving one another and serving Your Church. Help us to be pleasing to you, seeking your will, all the days of our lives. Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gracious Words

God so loved

Meditation on Luke 4:21-30

The Presbyterian Church, Coshocton, OH

Feb. 3, 2019

       21Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’ 22All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, ‘Is not this Joseph’s son?’23He said to them, ‘Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, “Doctor, cure yourself!” And you will say, “Do here also in your home town the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.” ’ 24And he said, ‘Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. 25But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up for three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; 26yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. 27There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.’ 28When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. 29They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. 30But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.

 

***

 

Yesterday was my first funeral here in Coshocton. Thank you to all who helped minister to Elva’s loved ones through so many acts of kindness. I was nervous as I was preparing for the service the day before, because I didn’t have a chance to meet Elva, who at 102 years and 8 months, was our oldest member. The more I learned about her, the more I was amazed by her– the spiritual gifts God had given her and her faithfulness to use them.

I had been studying the passage in Luke this week–you know about Jesus’s first sermon in his hometown. And how it didn’t go well. I didn’t want anything even close to being almost hurled off a cliff to happen to me!

I was worried Friday night about every word that I was going to say, fearing that I might get something wrong and somehow let Elva and her family down. Or that maybe I wouldn’t be accepted by them because I am new here and perhaps not what they were expecting or used to.

But then, yesterday morning, the Spirit came to my rescue, reminding me that it’s not about me. Whenever and wherever I preach, the words that come out are empowered and governed by the Spirit.

It doesn’t matter that I have only lived in this community for a month! I can’t be an outsider or stranger in the Body of Christ. His Spirit overcomes any social boundaries or actual walls that human beings build up to keep out people they don’t like or simply don’t want to be bothered with.

That’s how it was with Jews and Gentiles in Bible times, but that is not the way of the Lord. Ephesians 2:14 says, “For he himself (Jesus) is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace.”

Paul writes in Galatians 3:28: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.“

And though we have different gifts and talents, the ONE gift that we all have access to is the most excellent gift of all!! LOVE. As Paul tells the Corinthian church, divided into clichés and drawn into egotistical squabbles, “If I don’t have love, I am nothing!”

Elva Sauer had the gift of love.

Of all the beautiful things that were said about her, one story stood out above the others. Elva’s thank you notes! She wrote thank you notes for every act of kindness, seeing the extraordinary in the ordinary. Whenever her grandchildren or great grandchildren wrote her a thank you note for something she had given them or done for them, she would write them a thank you note for their thank you note!

Hearing that story, I am persuaded that if I had been able to meet Elva, she would have had gracious words for me. She would have encouraged me in my ministry for the Lord because she loves the Lord and she loved the Church, her church.

Friday night, when I went to sleep fretting about my first funeral at Coshocton, I asked the Lord to give me gracious words.

 

***

 

Jesus spoke gracious words in his hometown of Nazareth in Luke 4, our gospel reading today. He goes to the synagogue on the Sabbath “as was his custom;” it was the only synagogue in a town that was probably 100% Jewish. The Spirit that strengthened him to fight temptation in the wilderness leads him to proclaim the words of Isaiah have been fulfilled in their hearing! And “all spoke well of him,” says verse 22, “and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.” And they said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?”

When I read this, all I can think is Nazareth must have been a tough neighborhood that they were amazed at his “gracious words” to them. And Joseph must have been an interesting character for them to be amazed that someone who spoke with “gracious words” could be related to him. Everyone in Nazareth would know Joseph and Mary and all the kids, for Nazareth was a village of not more than 400 people and possibly more like 150. It was a remote area of perhaps 60 acres; most of it, empty space. It was far from water in a culture that took boats or walked for transportation–15 miles west of the Sea of Galilee and 20 miles east of the Mediterranean Sea.

It is significant that this is the village Jesus left to begin his ministry. And he didn’t take any friends from Nazareth with him and invite them to be his disciples. And no matter where he goes and what deeds of wonder and acts of grace happen in his ministry, he will still be called The Nazarene, which wasn’t a compliment.

As Nathaniel said when his friend Phillip wanted to introduce him to Jesus of Nazareth, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”

But being from Nazareth fulfills OT prophecy of the Messiah. Nezir is Hebrew for branch. Isaiah 11:1 says, “a branch (nezir) shall grow out of (Jesse’s) roots.”

Well, the town wasn’t ready to embrace Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah. Jesus isn’t surprised. “Truly I tell you,” he says, “no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown.”

He anticipates a sarcastic retort when he says, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself,’ meaning they expect him to work the miracles in his hometown (for his own kin and neighbors) that he had done in other places. But they are missing the point; the miracles are meant to reveal Jesus’ true identity as the Son of God, not the son of Joseph. Miracles won’t happen in a town that lacks faith. Jesus will tell his disciples in Matthew 10 when he sends them out on a mission, to shake the dust off their sandals and leave any home or town that refuses to welcome them and heed their words.

They become enraged when Jesus quotes Scripture that challenges everything they have always believed and are proud of –that God only loves them. Israel. Going with this false assumption, therefore Israel’s enemies must be God’s enemies. But the examples Jesus gives to open their eyes to the sin of their prejudice are the well-known miracle stories of Elijah and Elisha, whose miracles benefit the widow at Zarephath in Sidon (he raises her son from the dead) and Naaman, commander of the Syrian army (he heals him of leprosy). This reveals God’s love for all humanity, as Jesus will tell Nicodemus when he comes to him secretly at night in John 3:16-17,

“For God so LOVED the WORLD that He gave His only Son so that everyone who believes in Him would not perish, but have everlasting life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

The Nazarenes hadn’t ever heard such gracious words before–and they didn’t want to hear them ever again.

 

***

 

The Lord answered my prayer. He gave me gracious words for ministry yesterday, but it wasn’t when or where I expected. The first time I was aware of His gracious words was when I spoke at length with one of the female funeral directors during the drive to the cemetery. I felt led to encourage her. Grateful tears shone in her eyes. And the second time was at the graveside service, when I sensed the powerful presence of our loving and gracious God, who keeps his promises. “Blessed are those that mourn,” says Jesus in Matthew 5:4, “for they shall be comforted.” There, as we shivered together in the cold and damp, standing by Elva’s stone, we had the miracle of Christ’s peace. The gracious words were contained in the committal service, taken straight from the Bible, beginning with, “I am the resurrection and the life, says the Lord. Those who believe in me, though they die, will live. And everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”

As we gather around the communion table today to remember and give thanks for Christ’s work on the cross for our sakes and be re-membered as the Body of Christ, made one in Him, let us seek the greatest gift of all–LOVE, for the good of the whole Body. As you partake of the bread and cup, ask the Lord to show you if you are holding any grudges or have prejudice or dislike for anyone –so that He may forgive you and release you from the burden of sin. For this IS the gracious God that we serve. The Lord who speaks through Isaiah in 1:18, “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow…”

May the Lord grant us all gracious words to bring hope and healing to the world God so loves.

 

Let us pray.

 

Thank you, Lord, for your gracious words that bless and heal us and also awaken us to our sins and stir us to confess them. Give us the courage to be like Jesus and speak boldly to our own kin and neighbors, seeking to bring them closer to you, the one whose love and mercy far exceed the limitations and boundaries of human love and mercy. Forgive us for being too self- conscious when we seek to minister in your name, worrying about how people might perceive us and respond to us. Take away our fears and insecurities, resting in your promises to complete the good work in us that you have begun and to use us as instruments of your peace. In your Son’s name we pray. Amen.

Meditation for Funeral of Elva Margaret Sauer

 

May 29, 1916-January 21, 2019

The Presbyterian Church of Coshocton, OH

Feb. 2, 2019

 

Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may also be. And you know the way to the place where I am going.’   — John 14:1-4

 

I am honored to be sharing a message today at our service to bear witness to the resurrection and to celebrate and give thanks for the life of Elva Sauer–and all the gifts she gave to us.

I include myself as one who has received gifts from her and have been blessed by her, though we haven’t yet met. I say “yet” because our faith tells us that we will meet again in our Father’s house of many rooms, in resurrected and glorified bodies. Healed and made whole, the good work that God is doing in our hearts and minds right now will be complete.

And there will be joy! No more sorrow or sighing. Only life everlasting.

At 102 years and 8 months, Elva was our oldest living church member, with a wealth of stories to share. But she didn’t dwell in the past. She always read the paper and kept up with current events. Living through the terms of 17 U.S. presidents beginning with Woodrow Wilson, she didn’t miss an opportunity to vote!

She was a tech savvy great grandma, having a computer for more than 20 years and emailing before some of her children were emailing. And she had an IPAD, like the one I am using for worship today, and used it to connect with loved ones, visiting via Facetime with her 7 grandchildren and 13 great grands.

She had a Facebook page that went back to 2009– longer than I have been on Facebook! I couldn’t see her posts and photos last night when I checked, and it was all I could do to keep myself from sending her a friend request, half hoping that she wouldn’t be too busy in heaven to update her FB page and “friend me.” If only I had come 6 months earlier, as I am sure she and I would have been FB friends, as well as real friends. She had always been close with the pastors in Coshocton and had made every effort to get to Pastor Jon Carlisle’s retirement celebration, in spite of her health concerns. She might have read my sermons at my blog and responded with her own thoughtful and gracious comments, for that was the kind of person she was, always looking to lift up and encourage others.

She was a lifelong volunteer, serving Hospice, the Coshocton Hospital, Roscoe Village and her Church, this church, which she attended since the 1940s, save for 5 years when she and her husband, Wally, moved to Cleveland for his job and returned in 1963. She was ordained and installed to active service in our church as a deacon Dec. 14, 1971 and as an elder Jan. 15, 1978. She was a leader of the Morning Circle of Presbyterian Women, and in 1990, she was honored with Presbyterian Women’s Lifetime Membership Award.

She was creative and generous with her creations, giving away quilts and cross-stitch projects that she had made. She joined with other creative women in a sewing group that met on the second floor of our church. She had a heart of compassion and helped with dinners at funeral receptions, seeking to comfort families who had lost their loved ones. She helped with rummage sales and children’s Sunday school. She was generous with the church she loved and desired to see it continue in its ministry, giving thousands of dollars to establish a scholarship fund to help children, youth, and adults for years to come to be blessed, renewed, and refreshed through camp and conference experiences.

She was curious and adventurous, traveling with Wally on vacations around the world. After Wally went home to be with the Lord in 2002, she continued to live on her own in their house on Pleasant Valley Drive since 1964 until 4 years ago, when she moved to Windsorwood. She was driving her own car and giving rides to others who were no longer driving until she was 98.

She was a woman of prayer, who knew the importance of Bible study, devotional time and the spiritual strength that is found when 2 or more gather in Christ’s name. For many years, she attended the prayer and fellowship group that meets at our church Thursdays at 10.

She was a woman of love and joy, an avid Cleveland Indians’ fan, who saw them play in all three ballparks. She was the Ping Pong champ of her family and played bridge and golf; she was a dog lover who went on vacation at least once with her husband and the dog and left the kids with the grandparents. She was the mom and grandmom who sang the children to sleep with Brahms’ Lullaby and was always a sympathetic listener to share tears and joys. She is remembered for watching her portion size and being careful about what she ate, never eating the bottom crust of a pie. She exercised every day that she could and looked equally classy and comfortable in jeans or formal wear. She is remembered for her double chocolate crisps and the chocolate cake with white icing she made from a “family recipe.” She is remembered for her pride at the college graduations of her kids and grandkids, who followed in her footsteps!

She is and always will be, says daughter Jo Ann, “my hero.”

 

***

Knowing what I know about Elva, I know she wouldn’t have wanted this service to be all about her. A faithful Presbyterian, she would have wanted this service to be a witness to God’s love and gracious work in Christ for our redemption. Elva chose all of these scriptures, long before she went home to be with the Lord.

In the scriptures she has chosen, the heart and life of the Lord shines through her. We are urged not to look back and dwell in the past, but to look to the future with hope, as Jeremiah 29:11 tells us, for God has a plan for each of us. Don’t despair or feel sad for what is no longer, for the Lord is doing a new thing, proclaims the prophet Isaiah, in our personal lives and in our church. We can’t imagine what it’s going to be! But we who belong to the Lord know that the new creation that he is making of us will be for His glory! We can trust in the one who has made this promise of life-giving water–God’s Spirit with us in all our dry deserts and wilderness journeys. The writer of Hebrews reminds us to keep on loving each other, but don’t turn inward and forget our community. Elva was a people person! She wants us to continue looking to the needs of the stranger–the friends we haven’t yet met–and by welcoming them we may be welcoming angels in our midst.

She assures us that in our life and in our death, through all trials and tribulations, our God loves us and abides with us forever. Paul in his letter to the Romans tells us nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord!

Elva doesn’t want us to be sad for her or feel sorry for ourselves. She wants us to persevere, rejoicing in the  Lord. Paul is writing to the Philippians when he is in prison and knows the end of his life is near. He tells those who are grieving him to turn their worries into prayers so that “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” The apostle assures us that we can and should control our thoughts and feelings, so that negativity, doubts and fear won’t creep in and overwhelm us. We can find our strength, instead, in dwelling on “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable” and “if there is anything of excellence and … anything worthy of praise.”

And finally, we can be comforted by Jesus’ words to his frightened and troubled disciples in John 14. He has just told them that he must suffer and die and be raised from the dead, but that this is part of God’s plan for good. We can’t have resurrection without death! He is going ahead of them and us–the first to rise from the grave, the author and finisher of our faith. He is going to prepare a place in His Father’s House for all His followers, in every time and place.

By ending the readings with Christ assuring us that we do know the place where he is going, Elva is telling us that she knew where she was going. Jesus is the way, the truth and the life, John will go on to say. And that we should all cling to the Christian hope that our Lord is coming again to take us to himself. For he longs to gather us in.

So that where he is, we may also be.

Elva chose all of the songs, except For All the Saints, which I chose, to honor and give thanks for Elva and the lives of all the saints who have gone before us, all our loved ones, who through the witness of their lives, encouraged us to KEEP THE FAITH.

The ageless hymn begins:

For all the saints who from their labors rest,
who Thee by faith before the world confessed;
Thy name, O Jesus, be forever blest.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

Thou wast their Rock, their Fortress, and their Might;
Thou, Lord, their Captain in the well-fought fight;
Thou, in the darkness drear, their one true Light.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

 O blest communion, fellowship divine!
We feebly struggle, they in glory shine;
yet all are one in Thee, for all are Thine.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

 

Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Keeping the Body Healthy

 

Meditation on 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a

The Presbyterian Church, Coshocton

Jan. 27, 2019

 

body of christ
“For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot were to say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body’, that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear were to say, ‘Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body’, that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many members, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you’, nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’ On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.

         Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers; then deeds of power, then gifts of healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership, various kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? But strive for the greater gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way.”

 

I am happy today to finally be leading worship with you, after having our service canceled due to ice and snow last Sunday! I have two weeks of ministry in Coshocton behind me, and I have met many of you! I still have many more people to meet and come to know in our community. It’s going to take time to know one another. Please keep praying for me, for there is lots to do in my first year of learning, loving and serving here. I want to know your family stories, personal histories and personalities, what makes you laugh, what brings you to tears, what makes you anxious. What are your hopes for the future for your families?

One of the most important things I want you to know is that each of you has gifts, but also that you are receiving gifts of the Spirit every day! It isn’t a one-time thing that happens at our Baptism! You may have different gifts tomorrow than today, new gifts that you never had before or didn’t know that you had. Our transformation into new creations in Christ will take a lifetime. It’s all the work of the Spirit, made evident by the fruit we bear in our lives. You are already using your gifts, though you might not be aware of all the ways. Others may see your gifts more clearly than you do. You might not know that you are making a difference, especially if you are one who serves quietly, behind the scenes. Like you, up in the balcony, handling our sound today! You are needed. You are making it possible for everyone to hear God’s Word.

Please know that your gifts are NECESSARY for the health of the Body. You are needed!

Here’s what happens when you use your gifts to build up the Church and grow God’s Kingdom: You are and will be blessed with more opportunities and gifts to serve the Lord. Jesus says in Luke 12:48b, “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.”

This scripture convicted me in 2007 that I was resisting the call to parish ministry. I liked being a journalist and was grieving the loss of my identity when I left my job to go to seminary. It was humbling to come to realize that I was struggling with my own pride and selfishness. God wanted me to serve the Church more directly. He had a plan to use the gifts he had given me in a way that took me out of my comfort zone. That plan is continually being revealed to me, day by day. And he wanted to heal what was broken in me. For we all have something broken in ourselves that God wants to heal. In my serving the Lord and His Church, I am made whole. I want this for all of you!

The apostle, Paul, writes in Philippians 2:2-8: “make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form,he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.”

***

In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul is again trying to encourage the Church to be one in Christ and become like Him. He uses the metaphor of a human body for the Church as he tries to bring peace and unity to a congregation in chaos, embroiled in conflicts and divisions. Pride fuels boasting and arguments about righteous eating. Legal disputes between believers land in public courts, rather than the “saints” extending God’s grace, forgiving one another and working out their problems in the church. Paul hears of members struggling with sexual immorality and other sins destructive to individuals and the community.

This image of the human body for a community, with members having different functions for the good of the whole, was familiar to people in Paul’s time.  He didn’t invent this metaphor; Aristotle, Plato, Plutarch, and Seneca also wrote about the community as a body. But Paul did change the metaphor to teach the Church to value the diversity of its membership and treat everyone as equals. This is a radical idea for his time–that the Church would welcome Jews and Greeks (which is code for Gentiles or everyone who isn’t Jewish) and not just rich or poor, but “slave or free” in a society where there are slaves; some people have no rights, no voices or value as human beings. They are merely property for their wealthy owners. Can you imagine how the slaves felt when they heard Paul’s message–that they were as valuable a member of the Church as someone who was free? Can you imagine how those who felt they were superior to slaves or Gentiles might have felt to hear Paul’s message that everyone was equally valuable to the community because of their gifts and talents?

The new thing Paul does with the metaphor is the Church is the Body, of Christ. The Church belongs to Him! Practically, this means living by His Word, seeking Him in prayer, seeking His will and to be obedient and pleasing to Him. It means loving and caring for one another as He loves and cares for us and being known by our love for one another, as he tells his disciples in John. But of Christ also means the Church embracing His mission as our own, as Jesus has claimed us in our baptisms. How did Jesus spend his days? Traveling, teaching, serving, praying and preaching, feeding, giving and forgiving, eating and drinking with sinners (I like that one), blessing children, welcoming strangers, speaking up for the voiceless, challenging the proud and powerful, fighting injustice, touching and healing, and encouraging his followers to live more faithfully.

As he tells his hometown congregation of Nazareth in Luke 4, He is the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy, the one anointed “to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

***

Today, we call on the Spirit as we ordain and install elders and deacons for active service in the Church, the Body, of Christ. Each has different gifts and talents, personalities and life experiences, hopes and dreams. They won’t be like the elders and deacons that have served the Lord and His Church before. They will be, with God’s help and our encouragement, all that God is calling them to be.

Please pray for them and lift them up, especially in the beginning. But don’t stop after a few months because they might grow weary. Your support is needed. Your words have the power to bring life to others. Use them to build up our leaders and Christ’s Church and never to tear down.  They have come, like their Savior, to serve and not to be served. They have come to help us love one another and be known by our love. They have come to pray for us and urge us to serve the Lord and His Church with all our gifts and talents. They have come to help us claim Christ’s mission as our own—as He has claimed us as His own—and to encourage us to live more faithfully.

 

Let us pray.

Holy one, we are grateful for the gifts you have given us and your loving Spirit that fills us and forgives us, setting us free from the bondage of sin, including sins of pride and selfishness. Heal us, Lord, unite us as Your Body. Make us whole. Stir us to claim Christ’s mission as our own. We praise for all our elders, deacons and trustees and for all the precious volunteers in Your Church over the ages. Empower them to bravely and wisely lead us to live more faithfully. In Christ we pray. Amen.

 

Believe and Live Abundantly!

 

Meditation on John 2:1-11

Jan. 20, 2019

Coshocton Presbyterian Church

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

 

I am honored and blessed to be sharing a message from God’s Word with you today. I can’t believe we have had to cancel worship when it would be my first time leading worship at Coshocton Presbyterian Church!

But I want you to know that  I am happy to be sharing my life with you in a small town, where ministry truly means building relationships, loving God and neighbor. And, like the USA cable network slogan, where “Characters (are) welcome.” In a small town, you are accepted as you are, and honesty, simplicity, hard work, kindness and generosity are valued.

I confess that I am a character, if you haven’t noticed. (Folks at MIPC and Ebenezer, I am a character, right?!) And I have the feeling—I have had this since the first time I visited—that I belong here with you. Is anyone else here a character? Please say yes. But this doesn’t mean I am not anxious, because I am. For many things are new and different for me. I have much to learn. And I want to be a good pastor for you! With my first week of ministry under my belt, the learning has just begun.

The growth that is coming is part of a necessary transformation. And change is rarely comfortable. God is working in my heart and mind—and when our hearts and minds begin to change, so do our lives.

It sounds like a cliché, but I am relying on God’s grace for every day. I am relying on His mercies that are new every morning. Great is thy faithfulness! Great is thy faithfulness!

The good news is that God’s grace is really enough! It is sufficient for you—and for me. Grace and power flow from the Throne, the Fountain of Life—not so that our lives will be easy, predictable and pain and stress free. They flow down to us so that we might be transformed and live a new way, in and through Christ. Jesus says in John 10:10, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

I was thinking about God’s grace on Friday, while I waited at Dr. John the chiropractor’s office. (I am doing OK. The move just aggravated the same neck issue I have had for a while.) That’s when I realized I have become my mother. Has that ever happened to you—that you realize you have become one of your parents? My mom never met a stranger; everyone was and is a friend. At the grocery store, library, bank and beauty parlor in the small town in which I grew up, she would talk to everyone. And everyone talked to her!

All I did was sit down in Dr. John’s office and say something about the weather. Soon I knew the long-range forecast and the status of bread and chicken soup flying off Walmart’s shelves. I learned a recipe for chili, a recommendation of a hair stylist, and I heard a miracle story. A woman shared how she was able to stop smoking when she realized the reason she started as a teenager; she was mad at her father. Years later, her daughter urged her to repent and ask for forgiveness from the Lord and to forgive her father, too.

“Because I want God’s grace,” she said with a smile and a twinkle in her eye. “I want to be forgiven. So, I need to forgive others.”

Her openness to talk about her faith with a stranger—she didn’t know, yet, that I was a pastor—made me think that I am not in just any small town. We have come to a special place. And I am truly blessed!

As she was speaking, the medical assistant politely interrupted her to tell her that it was time for her to see the doctor.

“Not yet,” my new friend said with a laugh and a wave of her hand. “I’m not finished my story.”

Characters are welcome in this small town, a special place. Where miracles happen, and we want to talk about them. Miracles that flow with God’s grace from the Fountain of Life. Miracles that reveal the glory of the Lord, so that we, like his first disciples, will come to believe and live abundantly.

***

Studying our gospel, I am reminded that Jesus is a small-town guy. He might not have been born in a small town, like the John Mellencamp song, cause Bethlehem wasn’t teeny tiny. But he was certainly raised in a small town—Nazareth. Poor, simple folk lived there – people like Joseph, his earthly father, whose job was more of a laborer or construction worker, rather than the higher status we hold for “carpenters” today.

Remember Nathaniel’s comment about Nazareth in the first chapter of John? His friend, Philip, wanted to introduce him to “Jesus of Nazareth, the one of whom Moses and the prophets wrote.” And Nathaniel said, “Nazareth?! Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”

When Jesus meets Nathaniel after that, he compliments him on his honesty and takes no offense. “Here is truly an Israelite,” Jesus says, “in whom there is no deceit!”

Nathaniel, amazed that Jesus knows him so well when they have just met, declares, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” His declarations of belief are a perfect segue to the first of Christ’s miracles or “signs” in Nathaniel’s hometown of Cana—when Jesus turns water into wine.

      Mary’s role in the wedding at Cana is intriguing. She is a strong, compassionate leader with a servant’s heart. When she sees the crisis brewing behind the scenes, she tells Jesus, “They have no wine.” Her few words speak volumes, revealing her intimate relationship as the “mother of Jesus”—something John tells us twice in this passage, without saying her name. His response shows his close relationship with her, though he calls her “woman,” and not “mom.” “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me?” (You can say anything to your mom; she will always love you, right?) He wonders why she is worried; the bride and groom are not immediate family or else Jesus and his disciples wouldn’t have just “been invited,” as Scripture says, and Mary wouldn’t just happen to be there. Even though she doesn’t say it, Jesus knows she wants him to fix the problem. She believes he CAN and should do something. For it would be a scandal, especially for the bridegroom’s family, for it is the bridegroom’s job to provide the wine. The servants would be punished, for it is their job to serve it. And it would be a huge disappointment to the community counting on the wine flowing throughout what was, back then, a weeklong celebration. Without wine, the celebration could come to a screeching halt.

Mary ignores her son’s protests and tells the servants to do whatever Jesus says. (Again, exercising her leadership gifts.) They promptly obey.

Jesus doesn’t argue with Mary after this. I wish scripture would tell us what is going through his mind! I can think of two possibilities. One, he has come to believe that this is God’s will and God’s timing, after all. Or two, he knows all along what will happen—and what he must do—and is only testing Mary’s faith.

What’s clear is that Mary believes in Him. The angels and shepherds, Elizabeth, Simeon and Anna, and the wise men have all told Mary who Jesus would be. She has watched him grow up, pondering all these things in her heart. She is certain that now is the time for his public ministry to begin.

wise-men.jpg

But this doesn’t explain why Jesus does more than what is needed, and why he chooses such a surprising source for the blessing. He doesn’t just make wine appear in empty jars. He transforms ordinary water in jars used for Jewish purification rites into fine wine. This must be significant. And not just enough. He produces the equivalent of 600 to 900 bottles of fine wine! Like the miracle feeding of the multitude that will come later, there is more than enough for everyone. (I was going to say that there is plenty left over, but if it is the finest wine, perhaps not!)

The wedding could have been a disaster. Instead, it is remembered as an above-average wedding, with the bridegroom getting the credit for saving the best wine for last. Nobody does that!

The miracle happens on the “third day”—a shadow of what is to come—Christ’s resurrection, his triumph over sin and death. This first miracle serves as a sign to Mary and the disciples—and to all who hear John’s Gospel—that Jesus is God’s Son, the Beloved, and, as John testifies in chapter 1, “the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”

The miracle also foreshadows the joyous heavenly banquet, when the Bride of Christ will be gathered around the table and finally see her Bridegroom, face to face!

 

***

 

Thank you for accepting me, just as I am, and encouraging me to use my gifts here with you and beyond our church walls. I am blessed to be in a place where characters are welcome, where we seek to love everyone as God’s beloved. And where we know our need for the Lord’s help, strength and wisdom for every day.

Christ choosing to transform ordinary water into fine wine spoke a different message to me this week than it has before. Maybe we are like the ordinary water, friends, being transformed into fine wine, something wonderful that God will use for His good purposes. If you feel anxious–like I do sometimes–remember God’s grace is enough! We can count on his new mercies every morning. Great is thy faithfulness! Great is thy faithfulness!

This is a place where miracles happen, miracles of grace that flow from the Fountain of Life and reveal the glory of the Lord, so that we, like his first disciples, will come to believe. And live abundantly!

 

Let us pray.

 

Holy One, we praise you for being with us always, dwelling in our midst, leading us on this journey of faith. We surrender ourselves—all that we have, all that we are—to you, knowing that you will change us—our hearts and minds and lives. Teach us to be content, joyful, and hopeful in all circumstances and grateful for your many gifts, ready to share with a hurting world. But also move us to boldly ask you to meet our needs, trusting in your everlasting love and lavish grace that is all that we need. Give us the strength and courage of Mary so that we will truly believe and live as though we believe—abundantly. In Christ’s name we pray. Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

He is Coming in a Cloud!

 

jesus-in-the-clouds.jpg

Meditation on Luke 21:25-36

The Presbyterian Church, Coshocton, OH

Dec. 2, 2018

            25 “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. 26 People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 27 Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. 28 Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” 29 Then he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; 30 as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. 31 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. 32 Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. 33 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

34 “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day does not catch you unexpectedly, 35 like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. 36 Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”

 

***

It’s hard to believe I am finally here, sharing God’s message of hope in Coshocton, Ohio! Thank you for your warm welcome for Jim and me. We have much to learn about our new community of faith—what matters to you.

I have never lived in Ohio or followed OSU football. Please don’t hold that against me. I assure you, and Jim will testify to this truth, that in my years in Florida, I never watched the Gators play! But I did watch the Buckeyes play the Team Up North a week ago Saturday.  “O-H!” (I-O!)

I am looking forward to meeting all of you and hearing your stories. And you will, of course, be hearing some of mine in the years to come. We are already making memories together, with this worship service. Pretty soon, people will tell stories about us!

Jesus told many stories with layers of meaning from his world as he tried to reveal His Kingdom drawing near. “My Kingdom is not of this world,” he says in John 18:36. His is a Kingdom so different than the dark world to which he came in frail, human form to save us from our sins. His Kingdom is so different than the world in which we live today. Friends, if we say that we believe in His coming Kingdom of peace, justice and love, then we must practice and pursue Christ’s peace, justice and love in our daily lives. We must be doers of the Word, as James tells us, and not just hearers only. Amen?

I can’t wait to be here with you! Why is it taking so long? Maybe you are feeling that way, too. It’s hard to be patient. But while I am happy about making my home with you, loving you and guiding you, learning and serving with you and nurturing your faith, I am also struggling with grief, for I must say goodbye to my congregation and family in Florida. It hurts so much.

Our sorrow and grief may leave us vulnerable to fear and doubt. We might begin to question whether we are, indeed, hearing from the Lord and following Him with the decisions we make and the actions we take. But just because something is hard doesn’t mean it isn’t God’s will! In fact, an argument can be made that if your life has become too easy and comfortable, you may have stopped taking risks for Christ’s sake. You may have stopped listening for God’s voice and responding to His Word. For our lives don’t belong to us—not anymore.

As the Apostle Paul says, “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me.”

What has helped me, so far, when I feel weak are studying God’s Word, reaching out to my brothers and sisters in Christ for support, and, as my Grandma always used to say, “giving it to the Lord” in prayer.  For the one who is coming in a cloud is also here with us now.  Trust in the Lord—and pray!

On this First Sunday of Advent, our reading carries us ahead, far beyond the miraculous birth of the Christ child to a pious, humble woman named Mary. We are propelled into the chaos and fear-provoking present age. This is not the Scripture we want to read on the first Sunday in December! We don’t want to think about the end of this age! We want to go shopping for Christmas presents, sing Christmas carols and decorate our homes with greens and lights. I want to make Christmas cookies—peanut butter blossoms with Hershey kisses and molasses gingerbread. And sugar cookies, rolled and cut into the shapes of angels, trees, wreathes and bells.

Let’s be honest. We feel comfortable in the here and now, even with the trials, challenges and suffering of this world. We aren’t anxious for Christ’s return. Not really. Not yet! We don’t like the idea that heaven and earth are passing away, as Jesus says. That’s pretty scary stuff to think that the world we know will soon be no more.

But this is God’s Word to us now in this present darkness, as we sometimes wrestle with doubts and fears. This is the Word of hope we need to hear and share with our community of faith and wider community today. This is the Word of hope we need to live more faithfully, according to His will.

As I study this passage, I am reminded of the old saying, “It’s always darkest before the dawn.”  Jesus is telling us to see these signs of chaos, destruction and distress in our natural and human world as part of God’s plan for salvation. God is in control! While other people are “fainting from fear” and worrying about what bad thing might happen next, we have the hope of what—or I should say who—is to come!

Luke’s gospel is in sharp contrast to what the world would have us believe. It’s only natural for us to go into the panicked fight or flight mode when we hear about bad things happening and feel we are in danger. Luke is saying that as the world grows increasingly dark, our hope should grow increasingly stronger.

“Stand up and raise your heads,” Jesus says, “because your redemption is drawing near.”

A key point in our message today is to cast out fear! That will only get in the way of our becoming what God has planned for us to be, and the Spirit’s healing and transformative work in us. Don’t be distracted or discouraged by the things of this world, he says. Well, easier said than done, right? Bad news travels fast—especially if you have automatic news alerts on your cell phone. But so does the Good News. Remember, we are called to share our stories and bear witness of the hope and joy of our salvation. As I Peter 3:15 says, “But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.”

We are warned against doing what people did to make themselves feel better when they were stressed during the time of Jesus; don’t seek escape through drugs, alcohol or other excesses. When you do this, you squander the gifts, talents and resources God has given you to use for Him! And you waste precious time when you could be receiving the spiritual blessings that come when we labor for the Lord.

The one thing that stands out to me as a particular temptation for us all is at the end of his list—the most prominent position—because Christ knows this is a problem for his followers in every time and place. Do you see it? The worries of this life!  “Be on guard,” he says, “so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life and that day does not catch you unexpectedly.”

So, what can help us be on guard against the worries and fears of this life? Jesus provides his disciples with an alternative to worry in a more familiar passage, beginning at Matthew 6:25, 25 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes?… 32 For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33 But strive first for the kingdom of God[l] and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”

I know from personal experience that we can rely on our brothers and sisters in Christ for spiritual and emotional support and encouragement. As Paul says in Galatians 6:2, “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.”  Be strengthened by Christ’s Words that will never pass away! God’s Word is a lamp to our feet and light for our path, as the psalmist tells us. “…‘Man shall not live on bread alone,” Jesus says in Matthew 4:4,  “but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

I am looking forward to getting to know you and hearing your stories of faith and life in Coshocton. Stay alert! And don’t be afraid! Look around and see not just the bad things that are happening in the earthly realm; ask God to show you the good things He is doing in our midst. Anticipate the good that He will accomplish through His people. Get ready for the good things that God will do in and through you! For the one who is coming in a cloud is with us now! Trust in the Lord—and pray!

 

Let us pray. Holy One, we look forward to your return for your Church and your coming kingdom of peace, justice and love. Thank you that we can trust in Your Word that never passes away. Forgive us for our doubts and fears and for our desire for comfort and ease, rather than taking risks for your sake. Help us, Lord, to practice and pursue your peace, justice and love as a witness to our faith. Heal us, Lord, from our hurts and grief. Guide and keep us in your will. Lead us to draw nearer to one another and to love more and more as we seek to grow closer to you. In Christ we pray. Amen.