Even the Wind and the Sea Obey Him

Meditation on Mark 4:35-41

June 20, 2021

The Presbyterian Church, Coshocton, OH

Pastor Karen Crawford

    On Friday, we had the pleasure of a small gathering in our home. We shared a simple meal with one of our families from last year’s confirmation class. You remember that class, the one that started in person in January 2020, moved to Zoom by early April, and was back with masks and social distancing in the parlor in July.

     It was a confirmation class like none we’ve ever had!

     Because we didn’t get to have a final celebration, we are planning a reunion picnic/potluck at the home of the Swigerts on July 15. I hope all the students and families will be able to come so we can catch up on all that’s happened with them since then.

   Hanging out with Ashley and her mom on Friday night, we mentioned the struggles of last year—just how hot it was for the students to be wearing masks in school all day without air conditioning. And how weird everything was for all of us. But we didn’t stay in the past. We talked about taking more high school classes, her pets, and Ashley’s 4-H project of showing a dog—and her love of cats—something we have in common!

    The evening ended all too soon. But my heart was filled with joy and gratitude that these small gatherings are happening, again! Gatherings such as the ones we may be having today on Father’s Day.

   We often talk about our Christianity as a journey—a walk of faith. We are always moving forward, pressing on, without looking back.

We have peace in the present and hope in the future—for all the generations.

    Because we have Christ Jesus in the midst of our storms.

***

Christ’s original followers struggle to believe in him, at first. They are human, like us! They didn’t really know who he was! They have Jesus with them in the flesh—and I think that sometimes his humanity gets in the way of their understanding of his true nature as the Son of God, the Savior of the world! Maybe it’s because Christ can only reveal his true self to them, bit by bit, so that he doesn’t overwhelm them. Or maybe it’s all about God’s timing. It’s not time, yet, for them to know.

     But look at what he has done so far in Mark’s gospel! He has cast out demons in the synagogue in Capernaum, healed many people at Simon Peter’s house, including Simon’s mother-in-law, in bed with a fever. He has cleansed a leper and healed a man who is paralyzed, saying, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” Stirring up a controversy because who has the authority to forgive sins? Why, God alone!

    Still, the disciples don’t know who Jesus is. “In Jesus’s day, there were many miracle workers,” says William Greenway, an Austin Seminary professor. “Special power did not settle the question of identity. Jesus’ opponents do not question his power but its source, calling him an agent of Beelzebub.”

    In chapter 4, he begins teaching beside the sea in parables, ending with the Mustard Seed.

When evening comes, he says, “Let us go across to the other side.”

   That must really stir up doubts in his disciples. They are going to travel.. at night… to the other side of the Sea? This would mean taking Christ’s ministry to the Gentiles, foreshadowing the work of the apostles in Acts!

On the other side, to the east, is the “country of the Gerasenes” or “Gadarenes” where Jesus will meet a demon-possessed man who lives in the tombs. He will cast out the unclean spirits into a herd of pigs (further evidence that they are Gentiles). The swine rush down a steep bank and drown in the sea. The terrified people ask Jesus to leave.

   But here on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, everybody knows that traveling in a little boat across the waters at night is risky business. Set in the hills of Northern Israel, the “Sea” is actually 700 feet below sea level and more than 8 miles wide and 12 miles long. Around the sea are rocky hills, some that reach more than 2,500 feet in what is called the Golan Heights today or the Decapolis in Jesus’ time.

“The sea’s location makes it subject to sudden and violent storms as the wind comes over the eastern mountains and drops suddenly onto the sea. Storms are especially likely when an east wind blows cool air over the warm air that covers the sea. …. This sudden change can produce surprisingly furious storms in a short time, as it did in Jesus’ day.”—Ray Vander Laan, “That the World May Know.”

   The disciples go along with their quick exit by boat because they are trying to get away from the crowd that won’t leave Jesus alone! But other boats come along with them. No sooner do they take off, that a great windstorm arises. The waves beat into the boat—until the boat is swamped with water. And where is Jesus while all this is happening??? Asleep!

    To me, this is a sign of both his humanity and divinity. First, his humanity, because he is exhausted from ministry that goes on day and night and invades his home and family. But sleeping in a violent storm also speaks of his strong bond with His Heavenly Father and possessing a peace that goes beyond anything the world can give. This sleeping on a boat in a terrible storm conjures images of Jonah—taking a boat in the opposite direction when God calls him to preach to Ninevah. We know what happens after that, right?

     As we read this passage in Mark about the storm, we recall Genesis. When, in the beginning, God created order out of chaos, spoke the world into being out of a formless void, when darkness covered the face of the deep. God is in the wind that sweeps over the face of the waters. The Hebrew word ruach­ is the Holy Spirit or God’s own breath, gathering the waters under the sky into one place, so that the dry land would appear.

    Our passage in Mark emphasizes the weakness of human beings, even the first chosen followers of our Lord. That should encourage us! Because we are weak, too. What do they do before they wake up Jesus? With all their expertise and experience as sailors and fishermen, they try to fight the storm all by themselves. Only when they fail and are frustrated and terrified do they wake up him up.

    Notice in Mark that they don’t cry out, “Lord, save us!” They say, “Teacher, don’t you care that we are perishing?” Do you hear the hurt? “Don’t you care about us???” When trials come and we feel afraid, sometimes we want to blame God and other people for our problems, rather than just asking the Lord for His help, trusting in his love.

   So, Jesus rebukes the wind and says to the sea, “Peace! Be still.”

   There is dead calm. And Jesus says to his followers, “Why are you afraid?” Not because there isn’t anything to be afraid of. Oh, there’s plenty of things to be afraid of in this world! But we don’t have to be afraid! The Lord our God is with us, just as he was in the boat with the disciples on the Sea of Galilee.

    “Have you still no faith?” he asks, hinting at the faith that they will have. Someday. When the Spirit comes.

    But not today—even though he saves them from a violent storm.

    They are filled with awe and wonder. The miracle leads not to belief, but questions about Christ’s identity.

    “Who then is this” they ask each other, “that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

    “Mark’s audience lives in the shadow and light of the cross,” says Professor Greenway from Austin Seminary. The answer to the disciples’ question won’t come until the “one who can calm angry seas” will end up on dying on a Roman cross. “A Roman centurion, of all people, becomes the first human to say what demons have said from the beginning: ‘Truly this man was God’s Son!’ ”

**

    We are moving past one of the greatest storms we have weathered in our life together as a congregation. A worldwide pandemic. It’s fitting to remember and give thanks to the God who has been our strength when we have been weak. The Lord who has been our rock, our refuge, when we are afraid. The one who has been our comfort all along. The Lord who has welcomed cries of dismay and questions, such as, “Lord, don’t you care about what is happening to us?”

   It’s in that honest prayer that we encounter God’s love, grace, and power over everything in this world that threatens and frightens us—and not just violent storms.

   I ask you now, have you, faith, yet? James assures us that trials lead to spiritual growth: My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.” (James 1:2-3)

   I ask you now, do you have the peace of Christ in every storm of your life? If not, ask for more!

   Stop trying to do everything yourself! You can’t fix every problem in this world. And you can’t fix other people! We can only seek to help others and show love. We all want to be autonomous, do everything on our own, never needing or receiving help. Independent. That’s the American way! But it’s not Christian. We are a community of faith. Our shared mission in Christ—our calling and His yoke—are easy. Serve. Trust. Obey His Word.

    Be still and you will know… the God of wind and sea.

Let us pray.

O God of all Creation, Thank you for your gift of peace with you through belief on your Son. Thank you for urging us not to be afraid, though the storms of life are raging all around us. Help us to remember what your Son did that day when he and the disciples crossed to the other side of the Sea—to bring hope and healing to the Gentiles, people like us. Remind us that we have the Spirit living inside of us, granting us the power and authority to speak to the chaos in our world, “Peace! Be still.” Teach us to boldly speak up for justice for the oppressed, as well and risk our own safety and comfort to help others. Thank you for all that you have done for us through the cross. Slow us down, Lord. May we learn to be still and listen to your voice and know you, the God of wind and sea, more and more. In Christ we pray. Amen.

The Kingdom of God: The Greatest of All Shrubs?

Meditation on Mark 4:26–34

The Presbyterian Church, Coshocton, OH

Pastor Karen Crawford

June 13, 2021

I was sitting on a lawn chair by my backdoor, a couple of weeks ago, enjoying the sunshine when I felt something drop on my head. Looking up, I saw a little head looking down at me—a little beak poking through some grass and twigs. The birds had built a nest inside our light. Again!

Every fall, we get out a step stool and clean out the nesting material inside the light fixture. Jim tried to seal it off with duct tape and Velcro. That didn’t stop the birds from nesting!

When we moved into our house in January 2019, there was nesting material in our light fixture back then!

The bird looking down at me the other day was probably thinking, “What are YOU doing here???” Wild birds are well adapted to life around human beings, aren’t they? They build nests in all sorts of places. They are CREATIVE.  Sometimes a shoe makes a great bird house.

On the back of a plastic or ceramic goose works just fine.

How ‘bout an old, rusted lantern?

Or on a red light?

Once they are nesting in our yard, I don’t want to disturb them. There’s something wonderful about caring for Creation—and having Creation come, literally, to our back door and make their home with us.

***

The birds nesting in my lamp remind me of the birds of the air that rest in the shade of the branches of the greatest shrub of all in the parable of the mustard seed.

   Mark chapter 4 begins with Jesus teaching beside the sea of Galilee. Such a large crowd gathers, that he gets into a boat on the sea while the crowd is on the shore.

He teaches them many things about the Kingdom of God, starting with the parable of the Sower, who sows seed onto a path, rocky ground, in the hot sun, amongst thorns and finally on good soil that brings forth grain—growing up and increasing and yielding thirty and sixty and a hundredfold! “Let anyone with ears to hear listen!” he says.

He tells other stories about the Kingdom and asks provocative questions, such as, “Is a lamp brought in to be put under the bushel basket, or under the bed, and not on the lampstand? For there is nothing hidden, except to be disclosed; nor is anything secret, except to come to light. Let anyone with ears to hear listen!” he says again.

He explains his parables to his 12 disciples when they are alone with him. For they have been given the secret of the kingdom of God, he says. But to those who are not Christ’s followers, “everything comes in parables” so they may not understand!

Not everyone can handle the truth about God’s grace and the call to love without exception in the Kingdom of God. It means giving up old ways of thinking and being—having a different perspective, altogether. Just as the Apostle Paul says in 2 Corinthians: “From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!”

In our gospel lesson today, Jesus tells more parables about seeds and the Kingdom. In the first, the Parable of the Seed Growing Secretly, the coming Kingdom of God is compared to the harvest, when the Lord comes again! But up until that time, the gardener or farmer has one job—to plant and wait. The gardener’s “life follows its ordered round of sleeping and waking, night and day, without his taking anxious thought or any active steps…Then, suddenly, the moment arrives which rewards the patient waiting. The corn is ripe, the sickle is thrust in, the joyful cry rings out, ‘the harvest has come!’ Thus it is with the Kingdom of God…” (NT Scholar Joachim Jeremias)

This brings to mind James 5:7-8—advice on how to live while waiting for the Lord’s return,“ Be patient, then, brothers and sisters, until the Lord’s coming. See how the farmer waits for the land to yield its valuable crop, patiently waiting for the autumn and spring rains. You too, be patient and stand firm, because the Lord’s coming is near.”

The Parable of the Mustard Seed begins with a wonderful question that sets the tone for the scene. I can almost see Jesus in my mind’s eye, looking around at his disciples and their surroundings, searching for a familiar image or object that will help them understand and see The Kingdom of God in their midst. The difficulty is recognizing it all around us and anticipating what it will be when God’s new creation is complete!

“With what can we compare the Kingdom of God or what parable will we use for it? It is….like a mustard seed…..”

I can imagine him pointing to the plant that grows wild around the Sea of Galilee and other places, “which when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of seeds on earth, yet when sown, grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs!”

 Then, there’s a startled look on the disciples’ faces! The greatest of all shrubs? The mustard plant???  Yes, it grows to be 8 or 10 feet, but it looks and acts like a weed— nothing like the majestic cedars of Lebanon of which the prophet, Ezekiel, speaks.

What Jesus is saying is expect to be surprised! Don’t judge the Kingdom by its seemingly small beginnings in this world, with a humble Galilean ministry of 12 disciples and an ordinary-looking man named Jesus from the backwater town of Nazareth!

This Kingdom will be resilient; it will never fail, just as a mustard plant can grow in the poorest soil conditions and is considered, in many places, an invasive species! This Kingdom will be an instrument of healing for the world, for the mustard plant, in addition to being used as a spice to add flavor to food, has medicinal properties. In Christ’s time and in some places today, it is used to treat the common cold, pneumonia, back pain, painful joints and muscles, and aching feet.

This Kingdom that is the Greatest Shrub of All will provide shelter in the shade of its branches to all the birds of heaven, meaning Jews AND Gentiles. This foreshadows the ministry to the Gentiles in Acts, when the apostles come to realize that God’s salvation has been opened to all who believe on the work of the one righteous seed of the Lord-crucified, buried, and risen from the grave!

Read in the shadow of the gospel of John, this parable is about the mystery of resurrection—how death gives birth to life, evermore. Jesus says in John 12:24, slide “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”

***

The image that remains with me at the end of our reading is how the Kingdom of God gives shelter and nurture to all the birds of heaven who nest in the shade of its branches.

    And yet so many people in this world are suffering—and don’t know where to turn. They can’t find peace and rest. They don’t know where to make their nest. They don’t look to the Bible for answers. They’ve given up on prayer. They’ve given up on God. God hasn’t given up on them! Trust in churches is at an all-time low.

    I read a Gallup poll report from March of this year about how U.S. church membership has fallen below the majority for the first time in the eight decades of the Gallup polling. Only 47% of Americans said they belonged to a church, synagogue or mosque, down from 50% in 2018 and 70% in 1999.

     I don’t believe the report’s conclusion—that more decline is “inevitable.”

     I believe their methodology is flawed. Calculating the number of people on member rolls or even the number of worshipers at church on Sunday morning isn’t the same thing as measuring the Body of Christ, the Church of every time and place, that continues to grow and grow and grow…by the power of the Spirit.

     By the will of God, who is love.

    We walk by faith and not by sight. We no longer regard anyone from a human point of view, bearing witness to the Risen Christ. We are the Redeemed of God. New Creatures! Today!  Everything old has passed away!

     The Kingdom of God is coming near! And it’s already here! For we belong to the Kingdom!

     From a tiny but mighty mustard seed to the greatest of all shrubs!

     Resilient, it will never fail! It has the power to heal the world.

Let us pray.

Holy One, Thank you for Jesus, Your Son, the righteous one, who continues to teach us through your word about the Kingdom through parables. Help us to see your Kingdom that is in our midst, and have patience and faith for its completion—when all things are made new and your Son returns for His Church. Strengthen our ministry so that we may touch more lives and share the hope of your salvation with all the birds of heaven—all the world. Lead us to reveal your Kingdom to those who are suffering and stir us to compassion to help people in need. May we be bringers of joy and makers of peace, who join with others to love and serve you and your Kingdom, the greatest shrub of all. In Christ we pray. Amen.

Be Thankful!

Message on Colossians 3:12-16

The Wedding of Ashley Albertson and Alex Lippencott

Pastor Karen Crawford

Ashley and Alex have waited for this day for a long time—to make their promises before God and all these witnesses—to love one another, as long as they both shall live.

So much has happened since 2019, when we first met to plan the wedding service and imagine the marriage. So much has happened in the world and our families, and in the lives of Ashley and Alex.

 Today, when they come to say yes to one another and we ask God for His blessing on their marriage, it is fitting for us to consider and give thanks for the people who have helped to shape them and us to be who we are today.

Some of those people are here in person, celebrating this couple whom God has brought together and nurtured the gifts, hopes, dreams, ambitions, imagination, grace and faith that Ashley and Alex possess. You have been there when they needed you. You have helped to make them who they are! You have encouraged them to be all they can be and persevere. Your presence reveals your love and support as they begin a new life together—husband and wife.

For this, Ashley and Alex are truly grateful.

And there are people who are not with us in the flesh but who are with us in loving memory and spirit today who have helped shape the lives of Ashley and Alex and all our lives. They are in the Great Cloud of Witnesses cheering us on as we run the race of faith. Let’s take a moment to remember and give thanks for them.

One of these people is John Baird, Ashley’s grandfather. I had the honor to meet and preside over his celebration of life on March 28, 2020. JW, as Ashley called him, had a great influence on his youngest granddaughter. She told me that the choices she has made in life, what she has become, is because of his advice, teaching, encouragement, and example. He was the rock of the family. Tough and stubborn, but also gentle and patient. He was a calming presence in her life. And though she can no longer call him every day just to talk, like a best friend who listens with care and compassion, she senses his calming presence with her, even at this very moment.

In the same way, Ashley and Alex have impacted our lives. As they have been surrounded and supported by love and friendship, they have brought much joy, love and friendship to those who are blessed to know them. Knowing Ashley and Alex has changed us and helped to make us who we are. We are better because of knowing and loving them.

Ashley and Alex, I encourage you to bear with one another in your marriage and all your relationships. Be patient, just as you did for this special day that will forever change your lives.

And to all who gather here, forgive quickly. There will be days, months, and years that won’t go as planned. Forgive as God has forgiven us. In this is freedom! In this is love, that binds everything together, in perfect harmony.

And be thankful. When we are thankful, we open our hearts to Christ’s peace and joy and leave no opening for anger or hurt.

As they say yes to one another in a few moments for a lifetime, let us remember that God adds his yes to their yes and our yes on this special day.

Ashley and Alex, as Bonhoeffer wrote long ago, “God’s will and God’s way have brought you here… God is guiding your marriage. Marriage is more than your love for each other….In your love you see only your two selves in the world, but in marriage you are a link in the chain of the generations… In your love you see only the heaven of your own happiness, but in marriage you are placed at a post of responsibility toward the world and all (humanity).”

Together, as a married couple, guided and empowered by the Spirit, you will continue to make the world a better place.

For this and all God will do through you, we are thankful!

Amen!

Here Am I! Send Me!

Meditation on Isaiah 6:1-8

Trinity Sunday/Memorial Day Weekend

The Presbyterian Church, 142 N. 4th St., Coshocton, OH 43812

May 30, 2021

Trinity Sunday

     I talked to my friend Bob from Florida on Friday. He’s a veteran of WWII and Korea. I called to see how he was—especially since the loss of his wife, Donna, in January after a long battle with Alzheimer’s. They were separated during the pandemic when she was in a care center—and that was so very hard. He is trying to adjust to this new life without her—after more than 60 years of marriage.

     And I called because it is Memorial Day Weekend, when we remember and give thanks for our veterans and especially those who gave their lives serving their country. Bob has dedicated many years of his life looking for the remains of his relative, Jimmie Browne, who died in WWII when he was just 21. Bob’s search for him is the subject of one of his books, The Hunt for Jimmie and his latest article in Aviation History magazine, “Epitaph for a Hero.”

     

Epitaph for a Hero

Jimmie was five years older than Bob, a pilot, cousin, neighbor, role model and Bob’s “hero.”

He was“personable, good-looking, intelligent and brought joy to our families,” Bob says.

     Adopted by loving parents virtually at birth, he was “a happy boy in suburban Winnetka outside Chicago, but he was curious, restless and inclined to push the limits of his older but tolerant parents.” His parents sent him to a military academy in Gainesville, Ga., in high school where he was an average student, except in aviation.

“When he was first introduced to flying he knew he had found his calling,” Bob says. “His passion was flying—anything, anywhere—and apparently he was good at it.” Here’s his photo from the military academy.

Jim graduated in 1940 and had already received his private pilot and multiengine licenses. “The world was exploding,” Bob says, “and he felt the need to do his part.”

    He tried to enlist in the U.S. Army Air Corps flight training program, but it required at least two years of college at the time. He joined the British Air Transport Auxiliary in England, instead, “ferrying aircraft to scattered British bases… He traveled to England and flew Spitfires, Hurricanes, Blenheim bombers, trainers, amphibians—anything except four engine bombers. Here is a photo.

     He came home after 10 months and took another flying job, ferrying U.S. aircraft to Africa for Pan American Airways. But before he got started with Pan Am, the Air Corps canceled the Pan-Africa contract. As Pan Am owned 45 percent of the China National Aviation Corporation, Jim was invited to join with five other new recruits to work for CNAC. The Chinese airline had a U.S. Air Corps contract flying supplies on “underpowered, overloaded, worn-out transports over the mountains” on the Himalayan “Hump” route from India into China.

     Three of the six recruits would be lost.

     On Oct. 7, 1942, Jim started flying the route that began on the flatlands of Assam, India, and crossed three major rivers—the Yangtze, Salween and Mekong— before reaching the Himalayas

Forty-eight days later, on November 17, 1942, his parents received a telegram saying that Jim’s plane was overdue and presumed missing. The U.S. State Department certified his death 7 months later, though neither body nor wreckage were recovered.

“In those days there were no search and rescue units to look for downed pilots,” Bob says. “CNAC and AAF airmen were asked to look for wreckage as they flew their routes, but snow and high winds soon concealed lost aircraft. Jim’s C-47 joined the ranks of aircraft and crews lost on the pitiless Hump route, ranks that would tragically grow to unpredicted lengths in the coming months.”

      Jim’s mother was devastated. She destroyed his letters, photographs—all memorabilia; in her brokenness, she tried to wipe away all traces of his life.

      But if Jimmie’s calling was flying and serving his country that way, Bob’s calling, in addition to husband, father, grandfather, banker, Presbyterian elder, friend, and more, was to make sure that Jimmie’s life and death were not forgotten. He was determined to find out what happened and bring home his remains from the mountains of Southwest China.

     Finally, in September 2011, when the U.S. and Chinese governments could not or would not help him in his quest, Clayton Kuhles of the nonprofit group, MIA Recoveries, pinpointed what he thought was the location of the crash site. He led an expedition up the treacherous slopes of Malong Peak on Cang Shan.

After three arduous ascents he found the site and identified the wreckage from the Douglas Aircraft construction number, 4681.

Against all odds, he had found CNAC no. 60, but there was no evidence of the crew.

***

      The call of Isaiah through a vision of the throne of God echoes through the centuries to inspire all who are seeking to be faithful to God’s call. To answer the Lord’s, “Whom shall I send?” “Here am I. Send me!”  

     Of course, that isn’t Isaiah’s first response. His first reaction as the seraphim sing and the “house” of God fills with smoke is to have a meltdown in the presence of the divine, “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”

     Old Testament scholar John Goldinjay compares Isaiah’s vision with Paul’s vision on the Damascus road, “which revolutionizes his self-understanding; maybe up to this minute he has not realized how polluted Judah is and how polluted he is.” It’s at the moment of self-understanding that he realizes his need for God’s purification! Holiness for Isaiah is a gift of God’s grace! The Lord makes holy Isaiah’s lips with a burning coal. Now, God may use his prophet!

     I never noticed before, but unlike Moses and Jeremiah, Isaiah volunteers for God’s service, responding to the question, “Who will go for us?” And I am intrigued that God says “us” instead of “me.” Some Christians see this as a reference to the Trinity in Hebrew Scripture. But scholars say no; when God says “us” he is referring to “his entire heavenly cabinet.” Scholars DO see the Trinity in the repetition of the singing of, “holy, holy, holy.” Just as we sing in our old, familiar hymn slide: Holy, holy, holy! Lord God almighty!…God in three persons, blessed trinity!

    With Isaiah volunteering to serve the Lord, without first hearing what God would require of him, we find a good example for all of us seeking to be obedient to the Holy Spirit’s leading in our lives. After Isaiah replies, “Send me,” the Lord tells his prophet to go and declare judgment on the people!

    Isaiah cries out in 6:11, like the psalmist, “For how long, my Lord?”  The Lord’s answer is—until the country crashes into ruins and desolation. God is speaking of the conquests of Judah in 598 and 587 BC and the captivity of the Jewish people in Babylonia.

   But there is hope in the remainder of a tenth of the land that will once again be restored for grazing, “like a terebinth tree or like an oak of which there is a stump after their felling. Its stump is the holy seed.” (Isaiah 6:13).

***

    When I talked with my friend, Bob, I hoped he would share some of his story, as well as Jimmie’s. There are not many WWII veterans still living to tell their stories! But like most veterans, he was reluctant to share.

   He did tell me that he graduated from high school at 17 and enlisted in the Army Air Corp’s new aviation cadet program on Dec. 17, 1943.

He had earned his private pilot license in high school. He went to college for 6 months, while the war was winding down, but then he and a buddy transferred to infantry, went to basic training, and he was sent to U.S. Officer Candidate school at Fort Benning, GA. The war ended in August 1944, before Bob would have been sent as an 18-year-old officer to an invasion of a Southern Japanese island scheduled for November.

     He served in the Army again in early 1951, being sent to Korea to work as a wireman, laying wire for communications. He still had one class to finish before he graduated from Knox College with a bachelor’s in economics, and he managed to do it through correspondence school. His degree was delivered to him while he was in a foxhole! At the time, he said, he would have traded it for being warm. “I was the coldest I had ever been in my life,” he says. He had to be evacuated because of frostbite.

   He later would discover that he was sent to Korea because of a clerical error. The report of his failed physical exam didn’t reach his commander until 3 months after he arrived in Korea.

   Bob is still determined to bring recognition to Jimmie for his sacrifice. He applied for an Air Medal and a Distinguished Flying Cross and was turned down because there was no eyewitness of the event. He applied for a gravestone at Arlington National Cemetery and was told Jimmie doesn’t qualify; at the time of his death, he was a civilian, but after the war the government gave veteran status to Pan Am pilots who served in combat areas and referred to them as “active-duty designees.”

     Finally, Bob’s family purchased a stone to be placed with his parents in Memorial Park Cemetery in Skokie, Ill. It is Jim’s only memorial in the U.S.

     But China has honored Jimmie’s service. A bust of him was recently placed in the Square of Chivalrous Friends of China, at the Jianchuan Museum near Chengdu.

And he is listed, twice, on the Monument to Aviation Martyrs in the War Against Japanese Aggression in Nanjing.

And he has been added to the list of those lost in a CNAC plaque in Beijing’s National Aviation Museum.

     In 2015, Bob and his son, Tom, came the closest so far to being reunited with Jimmie’s remains. The Chinese Government sent them to Dali where Jim’s crash site is located on Cang Shan Mountain. About 20 villagers surprised them with an impromptu ceremony at the cable car platform at 9,400 feet. They presented Bob with yellow flowers.

    Bob took the flowers to a corner facing the crash area and had a brief prayer.

***   

    Sometimes, friends, I think we make the calling of God more complicated than it needs to be. We worry too much. We don’t have to know all of God’s plan! We just have to trust our Triune God, who has sent His Spirit to live with us today. And we have to be ready to say yes to God today. To volunteer, as Isaiah did, to love and serve the Lord however the Spirit leads us, trusting the power of love within us.

   Are you ready to say yes today to God?

   “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?”

    “Here am I! Send me!”

Let us pray.

Holy Triune God, we give you thanks and praise for our salvation through the Son. Thank you that each of us are your Children. Help us to trust, Lord, and be ready to say yes to you, to say yes to your Spirit to lead us in your will, revealing the details of the call day by day. Humble us, Lord, as you did Isaiah, so that we remember our great need for you and how your Spirit always wants to help us! Stir passion in us, Heavenly Father, as you also did for Isaiah, so that we answer your call without hesitation. Give us your patience and perseverance, such as you gave to my friend, Bob, looking for Jimmie, so that we may do your work and never give up. Comfort him in his grief as he mourns the loss of his wife, Donna. And we pray for all our troops, like Jimmie, who are Missing in Action in foreign lands, that they may be found and returned to their families. In the name of our Holy Three-In-One we pray. Amen.

Be A Flame!

Meditation on John 15:26; 16:4-13

Pentecost

May 23, 2021

Pastor Karen Crawford

Be a Flame!

                                                                                                                                                  

Be a Flame!

What a joy it is honor our graduates during worship today—on Pentecost! What better time to celebrate the Spirit’s work in the lives of our youth and young adults? 

     We have the pleasure today of hearing their voices—their dreams and stories—and encouraging them in a more formal way to keep on going the way God is showing them. To our graduates, I say, “Hold onto your dreams and listen to your heart.”

     Sometimes we are tempted to set goals that we think other people want for us—and we want to make them happy. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to please your parents and grandparents. But, ultimately, it’s between you and the Lord. Seek God! Trust Him! Trust yourself, as well! You are fearfully and wonderfully made! (Psalm 139)

    My heart goes out to each of you. This is both a wonderful and anxious time. I am sure your parents and grandparents are worried about you. The future is not going to be a repeat of the past. You are moving into something new.

   I remember how hard it was for me in my teens and 20s—trying to figure out the way I was supposed to go. My future was a mystery. Other people knew exactly what their plans were. Not me.

    Scripture and the Spirit helped me find my way. An older, wiser women in the faith showed me Proverbs 37:4, “Take delight in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart.” She explained that God would put His desires in my heart, when I take delight in him. And then, God would give me the desires of my heart. That was reassuring.

    I knew only in part then, what I have come to know a little more with the years that have passed. I needed to learn to trust this God who loves us so much that He has come to dwell in us as our Advocate, our Comforter, the Holy Spirit. He lives with us and empowers us to not only shine the light of Christ, but be a flame in the darkness of our world.

 ***

This is what the disciples need to learn to be faithful to their calling—to trust the Lord and his everlasting presence with them. The Risen Christ had commissioned them for ministry in Matthew 28: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Those who will be his apostles—sent out with the message of salvation through belief in the Risen Christ—often need encouragement on this journey—just as we do—and it comes in many forms. After the Ascension in the first chapter of Acts, they are encouraged by two angels who tell them Jesus is coming back the same way he left.

The Ascension

They return to Jerusalem and gather in an upstairs room to wait and pray for the promised Spirit. It is the Jewish holiday of Shavuot, a Hebrew word that means “weeks” or pentekostos, a Greek word meaning 50th for it is celebrated on the 50th day after Passover. Pentecost is a harvest festival for first century Jews, the day farmers offered the first sheaf of wheat from the crop to God as a sign of gratitude for God’s provision and as a prayer that the rest of the crop would be safely gathered in. Shavuot or Pentecost was also a celebration of the giving of the Torah 50 days after the Passover when the Israelites came to Mount Sinai and Moses received the law that would shape their life in community and enable them to carry out God’s purposes.

Shavuot

Our Acts passage is the fulfillment of Christ’s promise in John 15 to send One who will remain with the disciples, to be their Advocate—someone who intercedes on the disciples’ behalf and empowers them to testify, a legal term, to the truth of what they have seen and heard and know. He says, “When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf. You also are to testify because you have been with me from the beginning.”

 Now what of the languages that are being spoken by the disciples so that every person could hear the gospel in their native tongue? That’s fascinating to me! You would think that God would choose a simpler way to get the message out. Why didn’t the Lord have the disciples speak Greek, which was, at the time, spoken all around the Mediterranean world as a second language, going back to the conquests of Alexander the Great 400 years before?

Alexander the Great’s conquests

   The answer is because our loving God comes to us, descending from the heavenly places to right where we are—physically, emotionally, mentally—just as he emptied himself of his divinity to take the form of frail humanity, blank slide as Paul says in Philippians 2:5-8. The Spirit, like Jesus Christ our Emmanuel, is God with us.  The Lord shows his care of each person by speaking through Christ’s followers in the native languages of each so that everyone receives the message and fully understands! No translation necessary! God who knows us completely wants to be known.

Reading the familiar passage in Acts 2 today about the coming of the Spirit, I am taken by the diversity of the Body of Christ, which includes followers from “every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem.” The Spirit, like the Torah, gives shape and unity to the community and empowers them to carry out God’s purposes. This is a fulfillment of Christ’s prayer in John 17:20 for his disciples in every time and place. “My prayer is not for them alone,” he says. “I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”

This diverse gathering of believers in Christ foreshadows the diversity of Christ’s Body around the world today. It foreshadows the Great Banquet we glimpse every time we celebrate Communion— when Christ’s followers from every time and place come from east and west, north and south to sit at table in the Kingdom of God. When Christ comes down to us, and we recognize his presence with us in the breaking of the bread.

Christ makes his presence known to us in the breaking of the bread.

It has been a long journey since my 20s—when I struggled to know God’s will for my life. I didn’t know that I would end up going to seminary to pursue ordination in the PC(USA). This is my dad and me at my graduation 11 years ago from Princeton Theological Seminary.

My Dad and me at my graduation from Princeton Theological Seminary in 2010

It seems like a lifetime ago! Of course, it’s hard to not feel emotional when I see this photo, since my dad passed away two years ago August. Dad, even though he was Jewish, was one of my biggest encouragers when I told him that I thought God was calling me to be a pastor.

I have had many encouragers on my journey—and I am so grateful for them! The Spirit has used each one of them to help me on my way. Who are the people who have encouraged you on your journey with the Advocate? Will you take a moment and hold them in your hearts? Maybe you want to whisper their names?

    The Spirit of truth, sent to empower the Church on Pentecost, is still very much alive and well with us today, strengthening us to do ministry in ways we never thought we could or would.

    Remember to keep on praying for our graduates—our youth and young adults—as they are led by the Spirit to do great things. Remind them that the Spirit that came like a mighty, rushing wind with tongues of fire will always be with them, wherever they go.

    May they be faithful to testify to Christ and bear his light. May we all be a FLAME in the darkness of this world.

Let us pray.

Holy Father, thank you for sending your Spirit, the Advocate, on Pentecost to empower the Church to testify to the truth of Jesus Christ at the risk of their very lives. Thank you that your Spirit dwells in and among us now and that wherever we go—your Spirit is with us. Make us one, Lord, though we are a diverse group of people in this community of faith. Make us one in You, in spite of our differences. Thank you for all you have done for us, especially the work of our salvation in Christ when we couldn’t rescue ourselves from our sins and be reconciled with you! Help us to be faithful to our unique callings as we seek your will each day. Place the desires of your heart in our hearts as we delight in you. Watch over our graduates and keep them in your tender care as they come and go. Accomplish your purposes through them and us. In Christ we pray. Amen.

 \

Lord, Is This the Time?

Meditation on Acts: 1-11

Pastor Karen Crawford

The Presbyterian Church, 142 N. 4th St., Coshocton, OH 43812

May 16, 2021

I don’t usually do this. But I looked back at one of my messages that I preached a year ago—on Ascension Sunday. Just because it was last year and 2020 was SUCH a struggle. I had a feeling that if I looked back a year ago at what we were experiencing, I would find encouragement for today.

The same feelings of sadness, dismay and frustration washed over me as I read my message. I remembered how I felt when the reality of the pandemic and what it would mean for our ministry sunk in! It was like staring into an abyss.

I had come back to the church to record my message to encourage you, I said, and help me to feel closer to you. I was missing you! “This was one of the hardest weeks for me since we first started sheltering in place,” I said.  “This building is a reminder of the happy days we have had together, worshiping and loving one another in this place—and the happy days that we will have, once again, in the future, when we are together face to face.”

The most troubling thing that happened that week, bringing the crisis closer to home, was the loss of one of our members to COVID-19—Bill Timmons. His wife, Mary, had tested positive for the virus and was struggling with her breathing.  “We are holding her and the family in our prayers,” I said.

      Then on the same day, another one of our members, the husband of one of our staff, went home to be with the Lord. She and her husband had endured long separations during his illness, when he was hospitalized and staying in nursing care centers during coronavirus restrictions. On Thursday of that difficult week last May, I joined with more than 50 pastors and elders, our general presbyter and synod executive, for a video conference to discuss what it will mean for churches when we try to re-open our buildings and restart in-person ministries. Our presbytery was developing a manual of guidelines for churches.

    Some things that were talked about were limiting the size of gatherings, sitting 6 feet apart, requiring masks and providing them for those who didn’t have them. Taking attendance for contact tracing—things that have become our “new normal” since we began re-gathering for worship some last fall and then, after we closed again, in mid-February 2021.

     Other things would change. No sharing of food and drinks indoors, no fellowship meals or funeral receptions. Baptisms and weddings would be indefinitely postponed.

    “One of the most upsetting things to me that we have learned is that singing is dangerous,” I said, “both choral and congregational, even while wearing masks. And we are a church that SINGS!!”

    I was worried about our emotional and spiritual health. “The stress of isolation and the generalized anxiety and tensions of life with the virus is truly taking its toll,” I said. “People are more fragile than they have been, more vulnerable to depression and overwhelming sadness and feelings of hopelessness.  I have heard people say, ‘I can’t handle this.’

      “Yes, it’s true. None of us alone, in ourselves, can handle this,” I said. “But we aren’t going to handle this alone. We have one another. And we have the Lord. As Jesus says in John 15:5,  “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.”

       “His Word is truly a lamp for our feet that will guide us on the right path. He will, when we seek him faithfully in prayer, enlighten the eyes of our heart—give us understanding and clarity when we feel uncertain, fearful, or simply exhausted from dealing with it all.”

    These feelings of dismay, discouragement, sorrow and perhaps frustration are experienced by Christ’s first disciples on the day of the Ascension of our Lord.

   He had come back! They had had the Risen Christ for 40 days, with them in the flesh, presenting himself “alive to them with many convincing proofs.” Eating bread and fish. Revealing his scars to those who doubted. Sharing his peace. Telling them not to be afraid. Teaching them how what had happened—his death and resurrection—was for a purpose to be revealed—like his ascension is part of God’s plan for salvation. Teaching them how to find him in the Holy Scriptures—the Hebrew Bible—when he is gone. Speaking about the Kingdom of God. And preparing them for the baptism of the Spirit “not many days from now,” he says.

      What’s interesting to me is how, when the disciples come together, they reveal their misunderstanding of why the Risen Christ had come. They ask a political question, wanting Christ to be an earthly king, with themselves in positions of power, says one theologian.   

    “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom of Israel?” they ask.

    Jesus gently corrects them, as he has done so many times before.  “It’s not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority.”

    The ascension does have a political aspect.  It points to Christ’s rule over every power and authority.  But at the moment, when the disciples are gaping at the sky—their beloved Jesus passing from their sight—they can only feel the pain, sorrow, and confusion. They can only think,  “What now?” They are wondering, “What else is going to happen to us?”

     Aren’t you glad that God sends his angels at the precise moment they are needed to guide God’s people? They say, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”

 Words of comfort, encouragement, promise. But also words to shake them from their inactivity and wallowing in misery and stir them to faithful action. They return to Jerusalem to pray and wait, together, on the Lord—for the baptism of the Holy Spirit AND Christ’s return as he promised—by the same way that he left.

    We had some good news from the CDC and our governor this week for people who are vaccinated. The CDC said that we don’t have to wear masks or remain physically distanced from each other, except when required by law. Governor DeWine announced this week that on June 2 the COVID-19 health orders, including the mask mandate, would be removed. Our Session is meeting Wednesday night to discuss how this will impact our congregation’s worship, fellowship, and ministry to the world. I’ll let you know what Session decides!

     It has been a long journey, hasn’t it?  As we move toward a return to a more normal existence, I urge you not to hold onto the painful memories. I have said this often, but this is a time for grace—for yourselves and others. Don’t get stuck as the disciples were tempted as they gazed at the sky as the Lord Jesus disappeared from their sight.  The angels were there to correct them—and remind them of their hope—and our hope—that Jesus is coming again, soon, the same way that he left!

     There are many things, mysteries in this world, that we leave to the Lord’s understanding. Amen? God’s thoughts are not our thoughts; his ways not our ways!  As Jesus told his disciples when they misunderstood the Risen Christ’s mission—preparing them for their mission when he is gone. And they ask a political question, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom of Israel?” The Lord welcomes all our questions but won’t always answer the way we want Him to. This is how it was when he tells the disciples, “It’s not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority.”

    There may be times that we feel, as the disciples did at the Ascension, as if we are separated from the Lord— that He is a long, long way from us.Maybe you have felt that during the pandemic, when your trials seemed so unfair or your suffering or the suffering of a loved one too much to bear. Or perhaps it seemed like God was silent and you longed to hear God’s voice—booming like He did at Christ’s baptism and transfiguration, “This is my Son, the beloved. Listen to him!”

     Or maybe you who felt a long way from the Lord before the pandemic are now experiencing a rekindling of your faith. You have seen evidence of the hand of God in your life! The Spirit is opening your heart to new ways of being and believing.  Possibilities and opportunities for ministry await you!

    The Ascension reveals that Christ’s separation from his flock is only temporary and with good reason. One theologian says that the author of Luke-Acts seems to be telling us that the very same Jesus whom the disciples experienced bodily (as a human being) is still very much with them. (Lance B. Pape).”   In fact… Jesus must leave them in order to truly be with them.” Ascending to the Father leads to a new and more powerful presence with the followers—the Holy Spirit! With the Spirit guiding us in the Father’s will as we seek Him, Christ’s followers are able to fulfill our gospel mission to the world.

     While I remember the struggles and divisions that brought hurt during the last year, I also remember many times when I sensed the love and grace of God surrounding me. Do you recall times when you sensed God with you? Praise the Lord. And here’s an answered prayer from a year ago. Mary Timmons, who was struggling to breathe when she and her husband had COVID, is doing well today. Thank you, God!

       This building is still a reminder of the happy days we have had together, worshiping and loving one another—and the happy days that we will have in the future, in here and out ministering as Christ’s Body for the world. I look forward to the day when we are no longer wearing masks, seeing the expressions on every face! Giving hugs. Shaking hands. It’s coming, friends! The one who has been with us and has helped us thus far is with us now and will be faithful to build, rebuild, and strengthen His Church. For we belong to Him!

     Because of his love and grace, we are forgiven and empowered to forgive.

     The one who loves unconditionally and desires to bless us is coming again soon—the same way that he left!

   Let us pray. Heavenly Father, we long for your Son’s return in glory! Prepare our hearts and minds so we are ready when he comes again—soon—the same way that he left. Lord, thank you for the Ascension of your Son, whom you raised up in the heavenly places to be seated at your right hand and praised and exalted by all Creation. Thank you that you have a plan for our salvation and the Ascension is part of it, coming before the arrival of the Holy Spirit that gave birth to your Church! Lord thank you for sending your angels when the disciples were gazing too long and mourning their loss. Send angels to guide us, Lord, if we lose our way or get stuck in our journeys of faith. Help us to hear your voice, see your works of grace in our lives, and be an instrument of your grace and peace to others. Open opportunities to share your gospel with people whose hearts you have already prepared to receive the good news, but don’t yet know you Jesus as their Lord and Savior. Give us energy, creativity and joy for your gospel mission to the world! Amen.

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