My Cross to Bear

 

Meditation on Matthew 16:21-28

Sept. 3, 2017

Merritt Island Presbyterian Church

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21 From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes,

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and be killed, and on the third day be raised.

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22And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, ‘God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.’ 23But he turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling-block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’ 24 Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  25For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.  26For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life? 27 ‘For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done. 28Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.’

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***

We were leaving for an anniversary party last Sunday after church, when I got a text from a man named Don that I met last June at a funeral reception. He was a long time friend of Gail Buchanan. He invited me to go on a gator hunt.

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I had expressed interest while he was showing me photos of Gail posing next to huge reptiles dragged from Florida swamps.

I didn’t know this side of Gail, though certainly she was a risk taker as a devoted Christian. You have to be, if you want to follow Jesus!

Gail’s multi-faceted ministry included raising 3 children and nurturing them in the faith with her husband, Jimmy, and then continuing on as a single parent after he died of cancer at the age of 39.

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She loved this church! She labored on fellowship committee, served as a deacon, taught parenting classes, and gathered with a circle of friends every Monday night for prayer and spiritual encouragement for more than 3 decades. Belonging to Jesus meant worshiping with her sisters and brothers in the Lord on Sunday and taking the gospel to the community and world with acts of kindness, love and generosity. She served on the Board of the Sharing Center, as a member of the Junior League of Central and North Brevard, and President of the Friends of the Library. Being a Christian meant serving her country in the U.S. Navy, earning the rank of captain, and coordinating medical services during Desert Storm. These skills and experiences, along with her training in Occupational Therapy and Clinical Psychology, helped equip her for medical mission work in Haiti and Nicaragua.

Her greatest passion was for helping needy children and families. She was instrumental in the founding of an early intervention program, the “Lab School” at Brevard Community College, now Eastern Florida State. She fostered self-esteem, teaching children and parents “the great joy of being God’s special creation.”

Everything she did was all about sharing Jesus and helping others, using her gifts and talents to build up the Kingdom and redeem lost souls. At the reception, Don told me he respected Gail’s religion as a part of who she was– an important part–without embracing her religious beliefs. I know this saddened Gail–that her close friend didn’t have a relationship with the Lord. She wanted him to have what she had!

Reading his text, I felt that Gail must be smiling down at me from heaven–still reaching out to him, prompting him to draw ever nearer to the Lord. I didn’t tell Jim right away about the text from this man I hardly knew and Jim didn’t know at all. I could just imagine his response when I asked him if I could go on a gator hunt–for Jesus’ sake. And you have to know this about me. I have never been on any kind of hunting trip before–and never wanted to. The thought of being that close to alligators in a mosquito-infested swamp fills me with dread.

“Is this God’s will for me?” I wondered, definitely feeling out of my comfort zone. And yet, wanting to please the Lord, knowing that it isn’t easy or always “safe” to follow Jesus.

I decided to wait and talk to Jim about it on the ride home.

***

Jesus urges the disciples to take up their crosses and follow him in our reading in Matthew 16 today. The invitation comes after he rebukes Peter for not understanding what Peter himself has just declared in verse 16–that Jesus is the “Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” Peter, in Matthew, is the first to call Jesus, “Messiah” –in Greek, ho Christos (the Christ.) After Peter declares Jesus’ true identity, the narrative shifts; the shadow of the cross falls upon them, though the ministry of teaching, preaching, loving and healing continues. Matthew says in 16:21, “From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed and on the third day be raised.”

This is the first of 3 times in Matthew that Jesus will attempt to teach his disciples about the cross that is his destiny. They won’t understand what it means to be the Messiah, of which the Old Testament spoke, until after his resurrection. They don’t recognize that Jesus is the suffering servant of Isaiah 52 and 53 and Psalms 69 and 22, who will say on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” This is no triumphal earthly king or warrior that the disciples will defend or protect, the one who will put down Israel’s enemies, as Peter may believe. He infers this with his rebuke to Jesus when he speaks of his suffering death to come, “God forbid it, Lord. This shall never happen to you.” This word, “never” expresses Peter’s sentiment that to have the Messiah suffer and die is unthinkable. As Paul says in I Cor. 1:23, the message of Christ crucified is “foolishness to Greeks” (or Gentiles) and a “stumbling block to Jews,” including Peter, who loved him.

Jesus says to Peter now, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

His rebuke is especially painful because he has just promised that he will use Peter–his nickname for him that means “rock”–to be the “rock” on which he will build his church. Jesus uses similar language in chapter 4 when he rebukes the devil in the wilderness for tempting him to use his special relationship with God for his own gain.

That it is God’s will for His Son to suffer and die is probably more confusing to Peter because Jesus’ ministry is about alleviating suffering; he’s healing the sick, binding up broken hearts, feeding the hungry, casting out demons and lifting up the poor. And the idea of anyone being raised from the dead, well, it seems pretty farfetched to the disciples. But God’s own suffering through His Son, the Christ, is God’s plan for the redemption of the world. It is divinely necessary, as Jesus says in verse 21. He “must” go to Jerusalem, and suffer and die, and on the third day, be raised.

But what is all this about losing our lives, for Christ’s sake, so that we may find them? This is a difficult concept to grasp–and it was hard for the disciples, too. For human beings naturally do things out of self-preservation. We seek to avoid difficult and dangerous things; we don’t want to get hurt or feel pain–emotional or physical.

Only the Spirit helps us see things differently, and we learn to trust that God has something better for us than living simply for ourselves, being safe and comfortable. What’s challenging is to give up our own expectations that life must be for us a certain way, or else we may miss the blessings that come with total reliance on God. These blessings the Spirit offers us each day include faith and hope, love and joy, patience and a peace that surpasses human understanding. Our blessings are meant to be shared. As Jesus sends out his disciples in Matthew 10:8, he says, “Freely you have received; freely give.” It’s in the giving of who we are in Jesus Christ that we experience abundant life!

***

I did talk to Jim about gator hunting on the way home from the anniversary party on Sunday. He took it surprisingly well. He told me calmly that he would rather I didn’t go. Not because he was worried about the gators, really. He was more concerned about me being alone in the wilderness with strange men. But he left it up to me.

I have a feeling that I won’t be gator hunting this week. I’m pretty busy with ministry at MIPC. The storms heading this way may make the decision for us. If I do go, it will be to reach out with kindness to Gail’s friends and family, who are still mourning their loss. And to share Christ’s comfort and a peace that surpasses human understanding. But it won’t be because I feel that gator hunting is “my cross to bear.”

People use that phrase sometimes when they have to endure something disappointing, unpleasant, or even tragic. But that’s a misunderstanding of this passage. God may give us trials– not as a cross to bear, but to build godly character. As Paul says in Romans 5:3-5, “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” Jesus never asks us to carry his cross or force us to take another’s. He doesn’t expect us seek hardship or suffering, for hardship or suffering’s sake. Our loving Savior doesn’t desire us to be miserable! He beckons us to deny ourselves and resist the temptation to live a “safe” and comfortable life, not allowing ourselves to be vulnerable to others. He invites us to pick up our own crosses and let go of worldly ambitions, fears, self-absorption and self-protection–and live a courageous, self-giving, deeply satisfying life. He desires that we follow in his footsteps–in his loving ways, which is much more rewarding than, say, hunting alligators!

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How we will answer Christ’s call as a church? Will we be courageous? Generous? Compassionate? Loving? Will you choose the way to abundant life? Do you hear Christ’s voice beckoning to you now?

“Take up your cross and follow me.”

 

Let us pray.

 

Holy One, we thank you for taking up your cross and being willing to suffer and die when we were perishing in our sins! Thank you for the hope of your resurrection– that we, too, will be raised to live eternally with you. Thank you for the promise of abundant life in this world as we seek to follow you and deny ourselves, resisting the temptation to choose only a safe and comfortable life, rather than taking risks, living dangerously, and being vulnerable for your sake. Help us, Lord, to be more loving, giving, compassionate, and generous. Use us to build your Church, reaching out to lost souls with your love, mercy and grace. In Christ we pray. Amen.

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Meditation on Romans 12:1-8

Aug. 27, 2017

Merritt Island Presbyterian Church

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I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.  2Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. 3 For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. 4For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, 5so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. 6We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith;  7ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; 8the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.

 

***

I missed you all last weekend! I was disappointed that I wasn’t able to join you for the preschool workday on Saturday. More than 30 volunteers, including some Scouts, gathered to weed, trim and tidy the grounds, paint, clean, and prepare for the new school year.

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Thank you so much!!

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I was studying for and taking exams for two courses–“Rules and Regulations for Childcare Centers” and “Identifying and Reporting Child Abuse.”

Millions of children suffer abuse and/or neglect each year that impact their cognitive, physical, and emotional development. The United States has the highest rate of child abuse of any industrialized country. An average of 4 to 7 children die each day from child abuse in America. As a member of the clergy, I am a mandated reporter for child abuse. But did you know that in Florida, every adult is required by law to report any suspected abuse or neglect? Failure to report suspected child abuse is a third degree felony.

Our country didn’t always have laws to protect children. The general attitude in America up through much of the 19th century was what went on in a family should be kept in the home. Children were possessions of their fathers. Child abuse and neglect were tolerated, ignored. But there were some people, such as a Christian woman named Etta Angell Wheeler, who was deeply concerned about unloved children.

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While Etta’s husband, Charles, worked long hours reporting for the New York Daily News, Etta served her community and the Lord as a missionary for St. Luke’s Mission in NYC. She visited the sick, lonely, poor and shut in, bringing meals, supplies and donations. She was assigned two routes: between West 38th Street and West 42nd Street and between 47th Street and 53rd Street. These areas of Manhattan later became known as Hell’s Kitchen. Etta extended her care to people who were not part of the church.

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The story of a little girl, cruelly treated, came to her from a quiet, reserved Scots woman, who sought her out while she was making her rounds. Etta says this in her testimony, at the American Humane Association’s website, facesofchildabuse.org. The woman had heard the cries of a girl, perhaps 5 or 6 years old, locked in an inner room of a rear tenement with windows darkened, alone, sometimes, for entire days. Etta knocked at the door of an apartment adjoining the rooms where the child and her family lived, not knowing what reason she would give for coming; she met a young German immigrant woman who was very ill. Etta sat on the side of her bed and listened as the woman poured out her story, then asked about her neighbors. The woman had heard crying and worried the child may be ill. Etta promised to visit the German woman, again, then knocked at the door of the apartment next door. “A woman’s sharp voice asked my errand,” Etta says, and she began talking about the sick and lonely woman that lived next door, until the door opened, and she was in the apartment and could see the child briefly. She was “pale, thin, barefoot” and wore a thin, scanty, tattered dress. And it was December, 1873. The weather was bitterly cold.

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Small for her 9 years, Mary Ellen McCormack stood on a low stool washing dishes “struggling with a frying pan about as heavy as herself. Across the table lay a brutal whip of twisted leather strands and the child’s meager arms and legs bore many marks of its use. But the saddest part of her story was written on her face… the face of a child unloved, of a child that had seen only the fearsome side of life… I went away determined, with the help of a kind Providence, to rescue her from her miserable life.”

But how was this to be done? Etta spoke to her pastor and was told they could not interfere. Weeks and months passed. Easter Sunday came. Etta went to church, with thoughts of the dying German woman and the child weighing heavily upon her. She brought altar flowers to the woman, and they spoke of “Christ and the Resurrection,” “of the glorious meaning of Easter Day, and … the child alone in the darkness.” They prayed for her release. At the suggestion of Etta’s niece, Etta then approached Henry Bergh, founder of the SPCA–Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals–for help. “She is a little animal, surely,” the niece said.

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Bergh agreed to pursue the case. After the well-publicized trial, the Supreme Court ruled to remove Mary Ellen from her abusive home, and sentenced her guardian to a year in jail. Then Henry Bergh and Elbridge Gerry, the prosecutor of Mary Ellen’s case and grandson to former Vice President Elbridge T. Gerry, worked to establish The New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.

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***

The first 2 verses of Romans 12 are some of the best known in the NT. This is the Christian response to the gracious gift we have in Jesus Christ. The first 11 chapters of Paul’s letter to the Roman Church lead to this point, when Paul builds on his teaching of how to live as the faithful people of God, to walk a different path, as he says in chapter 6, in “newness of life.” In Romans 12:1-2, Paul begins, “Therefore, I exhort you, brothers and sisters, through the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice.” He is intentionally using Old Testament language to contrast this new covenant in Jesus, who is, as John’s gospel proclaims in 1:29, “the lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world.” Done are the animal sacrifices for atonement. No more! This sacrifice is giving up old ways and attitudes and living in such a way that that is holy and pleasing to God, guided by the spirit, led by faith, powered by love. This new life we are called to is our “spiritual worship or service,” as this word is also translated.

Then we reach the main point of the passage. “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed.” What is going to cause this transformation that God expects? The “renewing of our minds!” We can’t think like the rest of the world, just as Etta Wheeler refused to look the other way when she learned of a child being cruelly abused during a time when it wasn’t against the law–and frankly, not many people cared what happened to other people’s children. Most didn’t want to interfere, as Etta’s pastor advised, in someone else’s family business.

If what Paul says in verse 2 is true, then it is also true that if our thinking conforms to the thinking of the world, and we are not transformed by the renewing of our minds, then we are not in the will of God. We are not doing what is “good and acceptable and perfect.”

So, here it is–how we can know that we are in the will of God: we are using the spiritual gifts the Lord gives every member of the body of Christ to love and serve others. The spiritual gifts are not given to us so that we may claim a certain status or importance in our community! The gifts should HUMBLE us and make us so grateful to the GIVER that we want to serve God even more.

This is what Paul means when he says, “don’t think of yourself more highly than you ought to think.” Everyone is important and necessary. You know this. You’ve heard it many times, not just in Romans but also 1 Corinthians 12. But do you believe it? “Not all the members have the same function,” Paul says, “so we, who are many, are one body in Christ and individually members of each other.”

Our differences should not lead us to draw lines in the sand, but we do it anyway. Christians do it! We embrace some people who think like us and exclude others we decide not to like, let alone love. Our spiritual gifts and the renewing power of God’s love will lead us to overcome whatever threatens to divide us! Don’t give in to the world’s thinking!

Listen to the promise in Paul’s words: “We who are many, are one!”

***

Mary Ellen McCormack, a little girl so cruelly abused, lived a very different life after the trial of 1874.

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The New York State Supreme Court verdict didn’t completely change the way people thought about children; it didn’t end child abuse. But it stirred awareness and compassion in some for the plight of abused and neglected children. Dozens of private child protection groups sprang up in the decades to come. When hearts and minds were changed, lives were saved! Eventually, child protection legislation was passed and government agencies charged with seeing to the welfare of children.

Mary Ellen spent the rest of her childhood with Etta Wheeler’s family, living first with her mother in the country, learning to play and not be afraid. Then she moved in with Etta’s sister, Mary, when her mother died. She went to school, church and Sunday school. At 24, she married a man with 3 children; the couple had two more daughters and adopted an orphan, another girl. Their children’s joyful childhood, by all accounts, was in sharp contrast to Mary Ellen’s first 9 years. She died in 1956 at age 92.

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Like Etta Wheeler, MIPC also has a heart for children. We want to help them play, learn and grow to know Christ and His love.

We want them to feel safe and never afraid. This Tuesday night, we will have another opportunity to love children, help families, and serve the Lord with our gifts when the preschool hosts an open house and potluck. The congregation is invited! As we share food and fellowship, hearts will be transformed. Minds renewed. We will be reminded, once again, that we, who are many, are ONE!

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Let us pray. Holy one, thank you for the renewing, transforming power of your love. We are offer ourselves–our bodies and minds–as a living sacrifice to you. Thank you for the gifts you have poured into this congregation–the many human resources that we have, gathered in this place of worship, poised to love and serve God and neighbor. Stir us to acts of kindness and compassion and to advocate for the rights and protection of all children. And remove all anxiety and temptation, when it comes, to draw lines in the sand, liking and embracing only some people, excluding others. Remind us, each day, of your grace, revealed in Jesus Christ. Move us to humility and gratitude. Remind us that we who are many, belong to YOU! Make us ONE. In Christ we pray. Amen.

“Walkin’ on Water”

 

Matthew 14:22-33

Aug. 13, 2017

Merritt Island Presbyterian Church

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       22 Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. 23 And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray.

 

Slide08When evening came, he was there alone, 24  but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them.

 

Slide2125 And early in the morning   he came walking toward them on the sea. 26 But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. 27 But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” 28 Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” 29 He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus.

 

Slide1830 But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” 31 Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”

 

Slide20 32 When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. 33 And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

***

June 1, 1940. A story in the UK Guardian, begins….In the grey chill of dawn today in a south-eastern port, war correspondents watched with incredulous joy the happening of a miracle. By every canon of military science the BEF (British Expeditionary Force) has been doomed for the last four or five days. Completely out-numbered, out-gunned, out-planed, all but surrounded, it had seemed certain to be cut off from its last channel of escape. Yet for several hours this morning we saw ship after ship come into harbour and discharge thousands of British soldiers safe and sound on British soil. As the sun was turning the grey clouds to burnished copper, the first destroyer of the day slid swiftly into the harbour, its silhouette bristling with the heads of the men packed shoulder to shoulder on its decks. One watched them with a pride that became almost pain. They had passed through nights and days of hunger, weariness and fear, but nearly every man still had his rifle and a clip of ammunition; nearly all had brought their full kit with them – and what an agony its weight must have been. They were still soldiers and still in good heart. They were of all units and ranks. Some were in the position of the gunners whose battery had been shelled out of existence …, because our overworked fighter planes had had no time to deal with the German reconnaissance planes.

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     Their battery commander had told them to do the best they could for themselves, and they had walked 30 miles to Dunkirk. It is a stretch of level sand backed by dunes. The sea in front of it is shallow for some way out, so that ships cannot come close in. Many of the men have spent up to four days on this beach, hiding in hollows scratched in the sand, from the German planes which have scourged them with bomb and machine-gun. Every now and then, among the men who climb the gangplank into England, one sees stretcher-bearers carrying a still form, its face bloodless and remote. Yet [others] survive in their thousands and are able to joke and sing. In no time the ship is ready to return to Dunkirk. But before it is ready, another has drawn up alongside. British ships and French and Dutch, warships, drifters, trawlers, yachts, barges, they bring their loads across the hostile Channel and then go back undaunted into the inferno.

     Jim and I went to see Dunkirk, the movie, a couple of weeks ago. The film follows a young British soldier who is among more than 400,000 Allies in WWII, fleeing German forces and trapped for days in May 1940 on the shores of Dunkirk in Northern France. The young soldier’s enemies are all around– German ground troops are advancing and the Luftwaffe is raining bombs and bullets on them as they crouch in the sand or wait for hours in shoulder-deep water for a ship to come in. His enemy and salvation is also the furious sea, when the naval ship he boards is bombed and sinks, taking hundreds of Allied lives and threatening his own. The greatest enemy is his fear. He does everything he can to survive, without concern for others until he makes friends with a young soldier, a Frenchman, who saves his life. The British soldier’s response to this act of kindness is to return the kindness–to seek to save the Frenchman’s life.

 

 

 

Fear is also the enemy of the disciples in our passage in Matthew today. Jesus sends away the crowds that he has miraculously fed and the disciples to their little boat, telling them “go ahead to the other side” while he goes to “the mountain” to pray. A stormy sea stirs the disciples’ fear, and brings to our minds the storm that Jesus calms in Matthew 8:23-27, when he is with them in their boat. Now they are battling wind and waves at night in a tiny sailing craft, without Jesus, and the “wind is against them.” They are unexpectedly “far from land.” For fishermen, the sea is a source of sustenance, a way to eat and make a living. The sea is a common mode of travel in ancient, coastal communities. But water is not always a friend. Remember Noah and God’s power revealed in the flood in Genesis 9 that destroys life on earth. Remember Pharaoh’s soldiers in Exodus 14:21 that drown in the Red Sea after it parts for the Israelites, led by Moses, to cross on dry land.

The fearful disciples fail to recognize Jesus when he comes to them in an unexpected way –walking on water in the stormy sea. They cry out, “It’s a ghost!” Jesus seeks to calm their fears and overcome their doubts with assurance of the divine presence. He says “Take heart; it is I.” In Greek, “Eigo eimi.” This is the divine name given to Moses in Exodus 3:14–YHWH, translated, “I am.”

While the Jesus walking on water account appears in Matthew, Mark and John, only Matthew tells us about Peter’s experience. His first response is to doubt and demand another “sign,” more proof of his identity. “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” Notice it’s not Jesus’ idea for Peter to walk on water. But he goes along with it. “Come,” he says. Peter steps out of the boat and moves toward Jesus, but what happens? He takes his eyes off Christ and he looks around! Faith is replaced by fear. And he sinks!

But when he cries out to the Lord for help, Christ grabs him by the hand. Unlike the first story in Matthew of Jesus calming the storm, which ends with the disciples wondering, “Who is this that even the wind and the waves obey him?”, this time, the disciples worship him and say, “Truly, you ARE the Son of God.”

The message for us today is GRACE. God wants us to step out of the boat and leave our comfort zone, but when we do, like Peter, doubts and fear will come. But then we need to cry out to the Lord and remember the divine presence in our lives. Christ continually beckons us to draw closer to Him, while at the same time, he is drawing near to us, with an outstretched hand. As Hebrew 12:1-2a tells us, with the great cloud of witnesses who have gone before us, let us keep on running the race, “looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame.”

As long as we keep our eyes on Jesus, we’ll be walkin’ on water-

-with Him!

 

Not knowing the story of Dunkirk before seeing the movie, I was surprised to discover the recurring theme of grace. The young, British soldier, on a train after the evacuation reads a newspaper story of the event he has lived through. He expects to be branded a coward, with all who retreated from Dunkirk. But that’s not what happened.

 

The evacuation of more than 335,000 Allied troops is seen as a miracle inspiring hope. When British naval ships cannot make it to Dunkirk or are sunk by German aircraft on the way, more than 700 little ships–civilian owned and manned vessels–cross the English Channel to bring the troops to safety. Considering our gospel lesson alongside the miracle of Dunkirk, I can see Jesus, extending his hand by using ordinary people, to take risks and step out of their comfort zones to help others. Ordinary people walkin’ on water–with Him.

During our staff meeting Thursday, I shared the story of Jesus walking on water and stilling the storm. They shared times when they stepped out of the boat to follow Jesus, uncertain where the journey might take them, or when they felt Jesus taking them by the hand, calming and leading them through the storms of their lives.

I asked myself when had I stepped out of the boat and left my comfort zone to follow Him? And when had Jesus taken my hand during a storm of my life? The answer came quickly: Every day! Every day is a leap of faith. Every day, I need God’s grace! I need to feel the touch of Jesus’ hand, a reminder of the divine presence with me! I need to hear Christ’s reassuring voice, “Take heart! It is I! Eigo eimi.”

An image flashed before my eyes of the hands that hold me–the hands of Jesus are the hands of my staff, congregation, friends, family. They are the hands of the Body of Christ, in every time, in every place–the great cloud of witnesses, in Hebrews 12, helping us run the race that is our lives of faith!

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As I finished this message last night, I heard of the tragedy in Charlottesville–the hatred and loss of life. I know what Jesus would do — he would speak out against the hatred, bigotry and violence. If those in power, friends, are not modeling righteousness, truth and love, it’s up to us to do it! Get out of the boat and go boldly, out of your comfort zone! Speak up for the victims, the voiceless and their families. We can do this if we pray and trust Jesus, who is with us now and always during the storms of our lives. His hand is outstretched! And when you are afraid, cry out to the one perfect example of self-giving love, the one who says, “Come!” As long as we keep our eyes on Jesus, we’ll be walkin- on water–with Him!

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Let us pray. Holy One, thank you for your Word that assures us of your divine presence with us always! Thank you for inviting us to come to you, with all our burdens and fears, during the stormy times of our lives. For telling us that we belong to you, that you love us. Forgive us for our violent ways, for our anger, selfishness and divisiveness in our country. Thank you for hearing our cries of, “Lord, save us!” when we feel as if we are sinking, just as you heard Peter’s cries and grabbed him by the hand. Help us, Lord, to be that hand of Christ for others–loving people as much as you love us! Build up our faith. Give us strength and courage to follow you, believing in your miracles. Help us to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus as we seek to serve him each day. In His name we pray. Amen.

Act of Love in a Violent World

Meditation on Matthew 14:13-21

Aug. 6, 2017

Merritt Island Presbyterian Church

     13 Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns.

 14When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd;  and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. Slide0515When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said,  ‘This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.’ 16Jesus said to them, ‘They need not go away; you give them something to eat.’ 17They replied, ‘We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.’ Slide1118And he said, ‘Bring them here to me.’ 19Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds.  Slide1320And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces,  twelve baskets full. 21And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.

***

When I first visited Jim, his Shetland sheepdog, Molly, met me at the door to his home–ears pricked up, wagging her tail. She let me pet her thick coat, with colors like Lassie.

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She loved my 3 children instantly and was patient, even when Josh chased her around and around the kitchen island, teasing her. Jim said Molly wandered all over the house looking for us when we left that night. Molly was Jim’s therapy dog, a pup given to him after he had surgery. He walked her several times a day. She loved her walks. She never seemed to get tired.

After Jim and I married, she and Jim moved into my house, and she slept on the floor by my side of the bed.

She came with me to Princeton Seminary for 2 years, keeping me company and easing my homesickness. She traveled in the back seat for a 2 hour and 15 minute commute one way, every week, including one summer when I took 6 or 8 weeks of intensive Greek.

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Jim and the boys stayed in York, where Jim was a pastor and Jacob and James attended high school. Molly and I walked together every day for miles–sometimes an hour in the morning and an hour in the late afternoon.

I learned some of her likes: rawhide bones, chicken, hot, baked bread and cottage cheese. I learned her dislikes: loud noises, bicycles, skateboards, basketballs, maintenance men with power tools, and rain. She hated when I left her each day. She slept on my backpack at night–worried I might sneak out without her knowing.

When I accepted a call to ministry in Minnesota, Molly came with us and visited me at the church office, next door to our home. Here is a picture of her and I that appeared in the local newspaper.

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 I was the only “lady pastor” in town. And she may have been the only Shetland sheepdog. I know for sure, she was the most the beautiful dog in town.

She came with us to Florida in 2015. Her thick hair was too heavy for long walks in the heat of the day.

A new hairdo helped and the walks grew more frequent. She would get excited and pace the living room while I laced up my walking shoes.

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That was the only time she minded Melvyn, our cat. Molly would lunge at him, barking, if he approached me while I was getting ready for a walk, as if she were saying, “My mommy! Go away!”

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On Friday, I took Molly for a short walk around the outside of the house before supper. Her legs and hips had grown so week, she struggled with every step. I gave her a bath when we came in, wrapped her in towels. Jim laid her in her crate to dry off. She immediately fell asleep. After supper, when I went to remove the wet towels, she didn’t respond. Jim said that she was gone.

***

We humans hide our grief, though sorrow and loss is something we all share. We have all lost loved ones, not just our pets, but close family and friends.

Scripture tells us that Jesus experienced loss and grief and all the emotions that we experience. He cried when his friend, Lazarus, died. The community sees and comments, in Luke 11:36, 36 “See how he loved him!”

In today’s gospel, we sense his grief for his friend, John the Baptist. The passage immediately follows Jesus’ disciples coming to tell him that John is dead, executed by Herod, a corrupt, client ruler of the Roman Empire. Our reading begins at Matthew 14:13, “Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself.” For this is a natural reaction to grief. We need our friends and family’s support, and we need our time alone to process our grief and rest, for grief can be exhausting! We imagine that Jesus has gone to seek God the Father in prayer– to be comforted and strengthened for the work of ministry and his own suffering ahead.

I imagine Jesus is remembering John and his baptism at the beginning of his public ministry.

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In Matthew 3:14, Jesus approaches John at the Jordan, John protests, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” John doesn’t care what people think of him; he shuns the luxuries of his day, choosing to live in the wilderness, dining on locusts and wild honey.

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 He boldly calls out to the crowds who have come to be baptized in Luke 3, telling them what they should do if they sincerely repent from this sins–share what they have with the poor. “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.”

Herod had first imprisoned John for saying Herod should not be sleeping with his brother Philip’s wife, Herodias. He would have killed him then, but he worried the people might rise up against him, for they regarded John as a prophet. But then Herod, at his birthday party, promises to give Herodias’ daughter, who danced for him, anything she wanted.

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She asks for the head of John the Baptist, for her mother has coached her. Herod is compelled to do as the girl requests–or lose face.

Afterward, Herod’s fear increases. He says to his servants, when he hears about Jesus’s deeds of power in 14:2, “This is John the Baptist; he has been raised from the dead.”

Jesus isn’t off by himself for long. The crowd finds out where he has gone in 14:13– and follow him on foot. They have no faith that Herod will help them. But they have heard about Jesus, and they have hope.

Jesus sees the crowds in 14:14, and though his heart is breaking because of what happened to John, “he has compassion for them and cured their sick.” He responds to the violence in his world–as we should respond to the violence in our world today– with an act of love. Rather than allowing the disciples to send the crowd off to buy food in the villages, Jesus says in vs. 16, “You give them something to eat.” Notice, he doesn’t say, “I will give them something to eat.” Then follows the miracle story–the only one that appears in ALL 4 gospels. The disciples reply from a position of scarcity, seeing only the present and not the future, with endless possibilities. We have that same problem. We see what we have–rather, we look around and see what we don’t have–and we think the situation cannot change and if it does, it’s only going to get worse. Though we say we profess faith in Jesus Christ, we don’t believe God’s miraculous provision is for us!

The disciples, thinking they will surely starve, do the same thing. They look at their food supply and see it for less than it is. They call it “nothing!” “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” At the same time, they don’t want to give it up, because Jesus has to say to them, “Bring them here to me.”

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Now don’t miss this point! God’s provision comes when the disciples are willing to share ALL that they have, in obedience to Christ, believing that God will provide for them and for others through them. His plan for the disciples is the same plan he has for us– to serve and give. To be Christ’s hands and feet.

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***

 

On Friday, when Jim told me Molly was gone, I took her out of her crate, wrapped her in a satin sheet and laid down on the floor beside her. I stroked her head, wishing I had taken her for more walks when she was young and never seemed to get tired. I wished I could have just a little more time with her. But then, as Jim says, she had a good home, a good life for 15 years.

The funny thing about love is that it’s like the loaves and fish miracle story in all 4 gospels–the more we give, the more we have to give, and the more we want to give. God’s love poured into our hearts never runs out. It’s like David says in Psalm 23, “Our cup overflows!”

I find myself wandering around the house, looking for Molly, maybe like when the boys were little and we came to visit her and Jim. When I go in the living room, I expect her to be curled up in front of the door, where she often slept, waiting for another walk.

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I don’t know what heaven is like for dogs. The Bible doesn’t say. But I imagine Molly is loved and cared for by the God who created her, the same God who created and loves us, too. She is running free in endless meadows–no more suffering, fear or pain. Every day is sunshine; there’s no more rain.

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She has all the rawhide and cottage cheese, and chicken–or something that tastes like it– to eat. I am certain she will be the most beautiful dog there–or at least she will seem that way to me, if ever again we shall meet.

Let us pray.

Heavenly Father, thank you for the gift of this day and every day we have in this world to love and serve you and love and serve our neighbors. Thank you for our family, friends, and our beloved pets, who bring us so much joy and reveal a glimpse of your unconditional love. Help us to be more loving and generous, Lord. Stir us to see what we have not as just a few loaves and fish, as the disciples did, but as a cup that runneth over–blessings that never end from a God whose love never ends. Lead us to give and give and give–and then want to give some more, without worrying that there will be enough for our own needs and desires, trusting you for all our tomorrows, trusting in our future filled with hope. May we learn to be unselfish, like your Son, who gave Himself up for the world–so that we might be forgiven for all our sins and have abundant and everlasting life with Him. In Christ we pray. Amen.

 

 

“All Things for Good!”

 

Meditation on Romans 8:26-39

July 30, 2017

Merritt Island Presbyterian Church

     26 “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. 27And God,  who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. 28 We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. 29For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. 30And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified. 31 What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? 32He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? 33Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies.  34Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us.  35Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 36As it is written, ‘For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.’  37No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.  38For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers,  39nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

***

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I began visiting Jane and her husband, Bailey, in their Rockledge home not quite 2 years ago. They were hungry for news from the church for they were unable to attend because of Jane’s health. Although she used a walker, then a wheelchair later on, Jane always managed to be a gracious hostess. She offered me a comfortable chair in their formal living room and less formal sitting room, when she got to know me better. She always offered refreshments. Then, she’d send Bailey off to the kitchen to fetch us cookies and cold drinks. He was her legs and her eyes, when her vision grew dim. They had been married since 1947.

Both were from Atlanta. They met in Tennessee at a Presbyterian youth conference at Maryville College when they were just 16. They shared a love for the Lord and a commitment to the Church at an early age. It wasn’t love at first sight, Jane said. They didn’t start dating till years later when they met in person again, “by chance.” God had a plan and purpose for them from the very beginning!

After high school, Jane earned a bachelor’s degree from the Florida State College for Women in Tallahassee (now FSU) and taught music in public schools in Atlanta. After she and Bailey married and moved to Knoxville, TN, Jane continued to teach music, but when she saw the low literacy levels of her students, she felt stirred to teach reading.

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Years later, after they moved to Florida and had five children of their own — Rena and Joy, twins Richard and Bill, and Betsy, the baby– Jane taught 3rd grade at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church School in Cocoa.

Seeds sown in her heart as a child stirred Jane to love God’s Word. She studied it faithfully on her own, using a Giant print Bible in later years. She’d ask Bailey, “Did you read your Bible today?” When she and Bailey joined Merritt Island Presbyterian Church in the 1970s, she poured herself into children’s ministries. She was ordained an elder and served as Sunday school superintendent. She played piano at the Sunday school opening, songs like, This Little Light of Mine. Jesus Loves Me. I Love You, Lord. And This is the Day.

***

Meeting with the family after Jane’s death, they brought me an envelope in which she had written directions for her funeral. She didn’t want fuss or to be a burden to the church she loved so much. And she didn’t want the service to be all about her. She chose two favorite hymns–Onward Christian Soldiers and Here I Am, Lord. And what amazed me was that one of the scriptures she chose: Romans 8:38-39, I was already planning to preach on! It is part of our lectionary readings for today and comes up only every 3 years! I am sure it was all part of God’s plan. God’s Word still speaks to us a message as life giving as it was for believers thousands of years ago.

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Paul wrote his letter to the Roman church while he was on house arrest. His crime? Sharing the good news of God’s love, revealed when he “did not withhold his own Son,” as he says in Romans 8:32, but “gave him up for all of us.” He assures us that God’s Spirit lives in our hearts and helps us through our most troubling times. Can’t you just imagine how Paul feels? How discouraged, frightened, lonely and weary he is, when he speaks of the Spirit that will pray for us in our weakness, when “we don’t know how to pray as we ought” ? Paul is admitting to his own brokenness. We are comforted to know that “God searches the heart” and “knows the mind of the Spirit” that lives within us, when words escape us. When we are weak–grieving, lonely, scared, in pain–the Spirit of our gracious God who did all the work for our salvation continues to intercede for us so that we may do the will of God. We are predestined, Paul tells those who have heard Christ’s call and chosen to follow him in 8:29. We will beconformed” by the power of the Spirit–not through our own wisdom or strength — changed, into the “image of His Son.” He will make us like Jesus!

 

Because of God’s plan and power within us, “all things work together for good,” Paul declares in 8:28, “for those who love God and are called according to his purpose.” But the meaning must be teased out of an awkwardly phrased Greek sentence. Making things more difficult, ancient manuscripts were hand copied, so they often use different words as scribes made changes; some omit the word “God” entirely! Possibilities for translation and interpretation include God being the subject, as in the New American Standard Bible’s “God causes all things to work together for good.” Or the NIV: “in all things God works for the good of those who love him.” Or “things” could be the subject, as in the NRSV: “all things work together for good for those who love God.” Or the King James’: “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God…”

The key point to be gained from this verse is that God is sovereign! He is the directing force behind all the events of our lives. God is in control! It doesn’t mean that everything that happens is good! But God can use something humans intend for evil for God’s good purposes, such as in the story of Joseph, whose jealous brothers throw him into a pit and leave him to die, but Joseph rises to become a powerful man in Egypt. He forgives his brothers, saying in Genesis 50:20, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it all for good. He brought me to this position so I could save the lives of many people.”

The second problem with this verse is what does Paul mean by “all things?” Going back to verse 18, we may conclude that Paul is speaking of our sufferings. He says, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.” And then in verse 35, he lists “things” that God is working in and through for His purposes: 35Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?” And in v. 37 : 37No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.”

Then, we arrive at the end of this passage–Paul’s summation–and the scripture that Jane chose to encourage those who may be grieving the loss of their loved ones, those who may worry that this life is all there is and that death could mean separation from not just our families and friends, but from the God we love and serve. “For I am convinced,” Paul says, “that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers,  39nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

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***

When our congregation heard that Jane had passed away, people came to me with stories of how she had reached out to them, encouraged them to take risks and follow their calling. She was a good listener, a compassionate friend to many.

Mary Lou Tipton, our performing arts ministry director, said she would not be doing the ministry she is doing now with the children and youth if it hadn’t been for Jane. Just before directing her first Sunday school musical program, Mary Lou felt anxious. Jane clasped her hands and said, “You can do this, Mary Lou! And I will play piano.” Not long afterward, Kids Klub and the MIPC players were born.

Leslie Mitchell, our Praise Band Director, shared how she had begun attending MIPC with her little boys when she saw Jane playing praise songs on the piano for the Sunday school opening. Leslie asked if Jane ever needed a substitute. “Oh, yes,” Jane said, enthusiastically. Later, Jane asked her, “When are you going to join the church?” So she did.

Friends, the Spirit of God is alive in our hearts, helping us every day. Be encouraged that in our weakness, the Spirit prays for us and is working in and through us, changing us into the image of God’s Son. Be a compassionate friend. Be a good listener. Don’t be afraid to take risks as you seek to find your calling and serve others with the gifts God has given you. And remember, today and always: nothing can separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Let us pray. Holy One, thank you for not withholding your only Son and for your promise to give us everything we need as we seek to walk in your loving ways. Where there is doubt, give us confidence to take risks and to share our gifts and resources for the sake of building your Kingdom. Stir us to serve our Savior with our lives as He gave himself up for all of us. Remove all fear from us. Strengthen our faith so that when others seek to persecute or condemn us, we remember that you have had a plan for us since before we were born and that you will use ALL things for your good purposes. Thank you for your Spirit that lives in our hearts, that intercedes for us when we can’t find the words to pray, and is working in and through us, conforming us into the image of your Son. And thank you for the gift of our dear sister Jane, that her suffering and pain have ended, and she is in your presence, embraced by your everlasting love. In Christ we pray. Amen.

 

Hope That is Seen is Not Hope

 

Meditation on Romans 8:12-25

July 23, 2017

Merritt Island Presbyterian Church

        12 So then, brothers and sisters we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh— 13 for if you live according to the flesh, you will die;  but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. 14 For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. 15 For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” 16 it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17 and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.

     18 I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. 19 For the creation waits with eager longing slide for the revealing of the children of God; 20 for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it in hope 21 , that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22 We know that the whole creation  has been groaning in labor pains until now; 23 and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

***

What a week we’ve had at MIPC! We had a taste of another culture for VBS 2017: Passport to Peru.

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We learned a little Spanish–“Hola!”  And “Gracias!”

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We learned how God gives us good gifts : comfort, patience, peace, love and joy. About 50 children came over the 5 days.

We were blessed with a small army of hardworking volunteers–teens and adults. Thank you to all who helped!

I taught the Bible lessons with Miss Mary Lou and Gertrude the duck.She wore a Peruvian costume, made especially for the occasion. The duck, that is! Not Mary Lou.

On Monday, we learned about David the shepherd, who wrote Psalm 23. Tuesday, we learned about Simeon and Anna waiting patiently for the Messiah. Wednesday, we acted out Jesus calming the storm. The children squeezed into a cardboard boat before sailing on a blue tarp Sea of Galilee.

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The hardest part was getting them all inside as they yelled, “He’s smooshing me!” And then getting them out, without destroying the boat. We made our own sound effects of the wind and waves and sprayed the children with water from squirt bottles.

At the end of each day of VBS, I was tired! All of the volunteers and staff worked really hard for Vacation Bible School–because it matters SO much! We want to share our hope, a hope that saves us, a hope in something that we cannot see and yet we believe! Our hope is in the Lord.

***

This is the message of Paul to the Romans–that we are saved, forgiven, in Jesus Christ. “There is, therefore, no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus,” says Romans 8:1. This life is different than the life we had before knowing Jesus–when we lived for ourselves. But this spiritual transformation isn’t a once and done thing. It is a process that we actually participate in with God. This is what Paul means when he talks about the desires of the flesh. This is a daily battle, an inner struggle, between the Spirit living in us and our flesh–what we feel like doing. Sometimes, the flesh wins! As Paul says in 7:19,  “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” This is the “groaning inwardly” of creation and ourselves, in Romans 8:22-23, while we “wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.”

In Romans 8, Paul urges us to live intentionally, relying on the Spirit within us. “Set your minds” on the “things of the Spirit.” Don’t dwell on the things of this world–your worries or fears, for to do so “is death. But setting our minds on the Spirit is slide “life and peace” (Romans 8:5-6).” Those who do this are called “children of God.”

OK, I know what you are thinking.  Hey, but we are saved by grace! Yes, the apostle assures us this in Ephesians 2:8-9! But then in Romans 8:12, Paul calls Christians “debtors,” and you might say, “What???” He doesn’t mean what you might think he means. This is a good kind of debt owed to the one who has done something wonderful for you that you cannot do for yourself! This makes me think of that old hymn by Elvina Hall: “Jesus paid it all. All to him I owe. Sin had left a crimson stain. He washed it white as snow.” This is the debt we all owe of humble, grateful service, understanding that we are all sinners and fall short of the glory of God, as Paul says in Romans 3:23. We can’t take credit for the good we do or the blessings we have. They are gifts from the God who loves us, unconditionally–even though we struggle to be faithful. God calls us his children, anyway!

This is the God who knows us intimately, but doesn’t remember our sins, as Hebrews 8:12 assures us, let alone hold them against us. This is the God we call “Abba!” or “Daddy” as Paul says in Romans 8:15, the same God to whom Jesus cries in Mark 14:36 as he prays in the Garden of Gethsemane. This is the God who wants us to live without fear. The God who has given us a hope that the world cannot take away, a hope we cannot see, but we wait for patiently. Our hope is in the Lord.

***

Thursday was the most challenging Bible lesson for me at VBS. It was a tough message! So I brought in my bedspread for the kids to sit on and invited them to take off their shoes. The adults asked, “Do I have to?” The children asked, “Can we take off our socks, too?” As one group settled in, a child wrinkled up her nose. “Peeeeuuuuu!” she said.

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What’s that smell?” It was feet! “Maybe we should keep the socks on,”  I said.

On Thursday, I had to tell the story of Jesus’ betrayal, arrest, death, and resurrection to reveal God’s love and the promise of eternal life. I had 20 minutes! I used slides, being careful not to use images that were too graphic. I didn’t want to frighten them or give them nightmares! Some of the younger kids demanded, “Where’s the blood?” One girl insisted, “My mommy says I can see the blood!” That lesson stirred all sorts of thoughtful questions.  “Why did they hate Jesus?!” “Were they bad guys?” “How did he stay on the cross?” “How did he die?” “Who took the rock away from the tomb?” “How did he rise from the dead?”

 

On Friday, the children wanted to take their shoes off again. “No,” I said, remembering the smell. I told them they were apostles now–sent out to share the good news that Jesus is alive! He is risen from the dead! I told them that it was dangerous to be a Christian in the early days. Christians could get beaten–or worse. Gertrude, wearing her hat upside down like a helmet, met the children at the door to my darkened office.  “Are you Christians?” she asked sternly.

Most of the children smiled and said yes. Then Gertrude sent them to “jail”–my comforter draped over my table and chairs, like a tent.

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But my last group–the little ones who demanded to see the blood –were scared when I told them of the dangers of being a Christian. When Gertrude asked if they were Christians, they shook their heads. “NO! I’m not a Christian!” said one little girl, trembling and taking my hand. I told her everything was going to be OK. Then I led her and the group into the “jail” to tell them all about Paul and Silas, whose joy in the Lord was their strength during their times of suffering. The kids were squealing so loud, I had to say in my most indignant voice, “You are having WAY too much fun in jail!”

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The children learned about Paul and Silas’ hope that they could not see, a hope that endured, though they were beaten and thrown in jail. They sang hymns as they waited on God, who would send an earthquake that would set them free from their shackles. The guard and his family would come to know Jesus through their witness.

Our hope is in the Spirit, friends, still working in us, helping us to live as children of God. Set your mind on the things of the Spirit! Don’t dwell on the things of this world. Let go of worry, fear and sadness. May God lead you to new life in His Son. May God grant you His peace.

Someday, our patient wait will be over. And our hope will no longer be hidden. We will see him face to face.

Let us pray.

Holy One, we thank you for loving us, and calling us your children, forgiving and redeeming us, though we still struggle with sin. Thank you for encouraging us to draw nearer to you and call you “Abba! Daddy!” Help us to be patient, Lord. Build up our faith as we wait and hope in You. Transform us, more and more, so that we are more like your Son, led by His Spirit that lives in us. Grant us new life. Give us your peace. And thank you for this wonderful week of VBS–for all the volunteers, for all the children, for their families who love you and want their children to hope in You, too. Bless them, watch over them and keep them in your tender care today and always. In Christ we pray. Amen.

Rocks, Thorns and Hungry Birds

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Meditation on Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

July 16, 2017

Merritt Island Presbyterian Church

 

 

     13 That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea.

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Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground,  where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!”…

18 “Hear then the parable of the sower. 19 When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path. 20 As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; 21 yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word,  that person immediately falls away. 22 As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing. 23 But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”

***

I was a journalist covering the election of a new synod bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) when I met Carol Hendrix. Slide29 Carol was elected on June 9, 2001 to the office of bishop of the Lower Susquehanna Synod of the largest group of Lutherans in North America. She was the first female bishop for a synod that was in the top 5 largest of the 65 ELCA synods; it covered nine PA counties, the cities of York, Harrisburg, and Lancaster and the borough of Gettysburg; 134,381 members attended 271 Lutheran congregations.

Though I was quite content being a journalist back then and not thinking about becoming a minister, her accomplishment and her gracious attitude toward me had an effect on me. She had done it–this 60-year-old who didn’t start seminary until after her two children graduated high school!  She was ordained in 1984, a year after she graduated from Gettysburg Seminary. She served 3 small churches–a dual parish in Heidlersburg, PA,  and Hampton, PA,  and St. John Lutheran Church in Fairfield, PA. She earned a master of sacred theology degree in 1991, and ministered as assistant to the bishop before being chosen from 113 nominees at the synod’s assembly at Gettysburg College.

She had broken the proverbial “stained glass ceiling”

Slide35

 

 that prevented most female clergy from being chosen to lead “tall steeple” congregations and surely not synods or entire denominations! Or at least, that was how it used to be.

What was amazing to me was that she had grown up in the Lutheran Church with no female role models in ordained ministry!

Slide36

 

Lutheran women were not permitted to be ministers in North America until the Lutheran Church in America ordained the Rev. Elizabeth Platz in 1970.

What I wanted to know was how did Carol get to this point–that she would become a bishop? What led her to decide to become a minister?

She had an answer.

She said it was going to Lutheran camp every summer when she was a child and teen. She got to see pastors in a different light. At camp, they wore shorts and T-shirts; played ball and Frisbee and other games; sang; laughed; made crafts; and ate camp food with the kids. She didn’t mention Bible lessons learned; they faded from memory long ago. But she recalled how they were real people.

Seeds were sown! Slide39

Oh, there were plenty of other seeds sown in Carol before she knew God was calling her to be a pastor. She grew up in a Christian household and attended church, Sunday school, and youth group. She had read her Bible and been taught to pray. Family and friends all helped to nourish her faith from childhood.

But that’s not what she talked about with me. It was what happened one week every summer– her camping experiences with other Christian children and adults, who might never know how they affected the course of Carol’s life.

I thought of Carol as I anxiously prepared for Vacation Bible School this week.

Slide41

It starts tomorrow! I am not ready, yet! I have worried about this for several busy weeks. But studying our gospel this week, I keep thinking of the opportunities for sowing seeds that we will have these next 5 days, when the kids will come expecting something really special –and the Spirit will meet us all here.

God will be faithful, whether we feel ready or not!

The boys and girls will get to see us in a different light; not in our Sunday best. They will meet us as we truly are– ordinary, imperfect people, trying to follow Christ with our lives. They will see us in T-shirts and shorts or jeans and probably sweating a lot! They will see their pastor, who cares about them so much and also happens to be a woman. Sharing Bible stories with Mary Lou and her puppet, Gertrude. Learning about Jesus the Messiah–how he lived and died and rose again so that all who would believe on him would live forever with him.

We’re gonna sow seeds of hope and faith. And ask the Sower for more hope and faith to fill our minds and hearts.

***

Receiving, understanding and embracing a faith that endures is what our lesson in Matthew is about. It is about how we respond–what we do with the faith that has been given to us by the Sower who lovingly gives to all, regardless of their response. What is our level of commitment to the Lord? Yes, this passage is about stewardship!

In this familiar, “Parable of the Sower,” it’s less about the Sower and more about where the seeds end up–the 4 types of ground. Slide43 Three of the conditions fail to result in a strong, enduring faith and fruitful life. The obstacles to following Christ are the rocks, thorns and hungry birds. The sower is probably using his hand to scatter wheat or barley, the two main crops of Palestine at the time. But the disciples struggle to understand the meaning of the parable, so Jesus explains to them privately, when they have left the crowd.

The seed that falls on the beaten path and is gobbled up by birds– this is anyone who “hears the word of the kingdom, but doesn’t understand it. The evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart.” What is sown on rocky ground is those who hear the word and receive it with joy, but it endures only for a little while, for their faith has no root. When trouble or persecution comes, the person falls away.

What is sown among thorns

is when “the cares of this world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing.” What are the cares that threaten to choke the word in our lives today? So many things can be discouraging for us!

“The lure of wealth” is a sin we might not recognize in us, but it is a temptation for the rich and poor and in between. Worrying about money is so commonplace in our culture, whether we have a lot or a little! We never think we have enough and worry we might lose what we have. This is a powerful obstacle to discipleship.

What is left is the seed sown on good soil–vs. 23–Slide47 “the one who hears the word and understands it.” This is not merely an intellectual understanding! The seeds of faith are sown into our hearts, as he says in verse 19! But how can we know the seeds of faith have found good soil in us?

In verse 23, we read another condition for good soil–hearing the word, understanding it and bearing fruit that yields “a 100-fold, 60 and 30.” What is Jesus talking about?

Scholars don’t agree on what the numbers mean; 30 fold could mean 30 bushels harvested for every bushel sown. Some say this is a good crop but not a huge one; others argue that even a four or fivefold yield would be more usual in Roman Palestine. But 100 fold is much more than a farmer could hope for. In fact, when Isaac, in Genesis 26:12, reaps a 100-fold, it is because the Lord has blessed him.

Jesus is not promising material prosperity. BUT He is challenging us to believe in God’s abundance as we seek to be faithful to Christ’s call. We will bear fruit “a hundredfold” as we share God’s word with others, as we share seeds of hope and faith, though we might not see the fruit right away.

***

I can’t say that after meeting Bishop Hendrix that I decided, then and there, to become a pastor. It took a few more years–and a whole lot more seeds sown on me. But I think I will write her a letter of thanks and encouragement–scatter some seeds her way–tell her how she inspired me and helped me become who I am today!

This is my prayer for you–that you will keep your heart open to receive the seeds of hope and faith God has for you. They will come from your brothers and sisters in the faith. So keep on loving them. Scatter seeds of hope and faith on them, too. And don’t forget the children in Vacation Bible School!

     Since Carol’s election to synod bishop, a bigger story broke when Elizabeth Eaton was elected the first female presiding bishop of the 3.7 million-member ELCA in 2013.

Slide48

At an ELCA celebration of 45 years of ordaining women in 2015, Elizabeth said, “I give thanks for my sisters who were the first women pastors. I give thanks for all women in ministry.” The Rev. Jessica Crist, bishop of the ELCA Montana Synod, preached, “We are here today because somebody somewhere scattered a bunch of seeds. They didn’t all grow; they didn’t all survive, but some did. That’s why we are here. Look around. Look at some of the plants that have grown out of that random seed scattering. Look at these people. Look at the congregations they come from. Look at the ministries they represent. What a wild and wonderful community garden that has grown up from those scattered seeds.”

“We are called to be sowers… Scatterers of seeds…And we have the promise of the harvest to top all harvests. We may be out there seeing no hope of return. It doesn’t matter. We may get our hopes up again and again, only to be disappointed. It doesn’t matter….What matters is that we sow together.”

 

Let us pray. Thank you, God, for loving us so much that you you’re your son to live among us, minister to us, and show us the way back to you when we were lost in sin. Thank you for sowing the seeds of hope and faith into our hearts and for stirring us to want to hear your word and follow you! Thank you for the promise of abundant life through faith in Christ. Help us to keep on seeking you in these next five days to fill us with more hope and faith that we might share with the children and families of Vacation Bible School. Open the hearts of the children so that they might receive the seeds of hope and faith and cause them to grow to maturity so that someday, they may all be sowers, too. Bless the VBS volunteers with joy and energy, creativity and love as we all seek to be a blessing to others and to bear good fruit. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.