The Kingdom of Heaven Has Come Near

 

Meditation on Matthew 3:1–12

For Second Sunday in Advent

The Presbyterian Church of Coshocton

Dec. 8, 2019

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”  3 This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’”

Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 10 Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 11 “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

Melvyn

I had a little bit of difficulty working on my message yesterday. I think you should know the obstacles I face when I am preparing to share with you the Word of the Lord. You see, my cat, Melvyn, was really annoyed with me. I wrote this just after he glared at me from behind my computer, yowled, and took a bite out of the cover of my Bible commentary!

You might be surprised that his visual impairment didn’t keep him from trying to close the lid of my laptop. Then, he unplugged it with his paw, and gave it a shove. It came off my lap desk, and almost dropped to the floor. Then, after I repositioned it and restored the plug, he climbed into my lap, and lay down on top of my open Bible, making it very hard to read or type.

He had been trying to get my attention all day. Because the day before—on Friday—even when I was home, I was distracted, working at my computer or on the phone. Beginning Saturday morning, around 6:30, he had to make up for lost attention time. He jumped on our bed, walked across my body and onto the nightstand beside me, where there are ALL sorts of things he likes to knock off. My glasses. My watch. My phone. Books. Pens. A lamp. A cup of tea. If knocking things on the floor fails to gain my response, he thumps my glass water bottle with his head or pokes the lampshade with his nose. Bang! Bang! Bang!

Yesterday, what got my attention, finally, was when he stood on top of me, got up real close to my face, purred ferociously, and started licking my eyelids and cheek.

What it comes down to is this. Melvyn isn’t happy with my lifestyle. It doesn’t suit him. He wants me to change. He’s never going to stop trying to get my attention, and demanding an audience. He’s never going to stop pestering me when he has something important for me to do. Like feed him breakfast or give him a snack.

***

John the Baptist demands our attention, today, on this Second Sunday of Advent, and every day, if our heart is open to his message of change—in ourselves, our lives, the Church of Jesus Christ, the world.

We’ve heard this passage every Advent, so many times, it’s tempting to kind of skim it or snooze through it. Camel hair. Locusts. Honey. Vipers, unquenchable fire and all that. Why, he’s like the opening act and not the group that you paid good money for tickets to see. We want to hear about the baby born in Bethlehem and sing “Joy to the World.” Open our presents, eat Christmas dinner, hang out with family and friends. Maybe watch a football game. O-H! I-O!

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In these weeks and days before Christmas, we don’t feel much like entering into a real or imagined wilderness space, where we are called to examine our hearts, the fruit of our lives, and confess our sins. Who here feels like confessing sins?

We only half listen when John cries out, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” But the word for “repent” is the Greek metanoia.  This doesn’t just mean turn away from your sin or turn back to God. It literally means take on a new mind set! Make a U-turn! Change course. John is telling his world and ours that participating in the kingdom of God is going to require more than just showing up at the Jordan. It is about being prepared to let go of what we used to be, and become someone new. Paul says to the Galatians in 2:20, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

But John says, himself, that he isn’t the important one. Not me, he says. The one coming after me. Now that’s the one to pay attention to! “I am not worthy to carry his sandals!” he says. “I baptize you with water for repentance. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and FIRE.”

John-the-Baptist-in-river

Yet, John’s cries are heard by the people of his time, as if he is a rockstar! When John baptizes, everyone in the region along the Jordan River, the big city folks of Jerusalem, and all of Judea are coming out to the wilderness. And they didn’t even have cell phones, a Jordan River Website with live streaming camera feed, Facebook, Instagram or Snapchat to let them know where and when! And the interesting thing is, to me, that he hasn’t come to reform a religious institution. He doesn’t show up in a synagogue or the temple, wearing Sabbath-best clothes. He’s outside! Far from the Holy City. Dirty and disheveled. Blunt and bold. Wearing a hairy mantle like the prophet Elijah, lifted up to a chariot of fire pulled by horses of fire in the sky.

John’s wilderness isn’t a bad place, not like the wilderness experience of the Israelites who had escaped slavery in Egypt only to be lost and wandering for 40 years. John’s wilderness is a safe space for people to leave their everyday problems, worries, fears, dangers, and distractions, and prepare their hearts to meet the Lord. But some who come to see John and be baptized, such as the wealthy, religious elites, come for an appearance of piety, and because they can’t risk ignoring him. He demands their attention, because he is a threat to their lifestyle– their wealth and power. John is drawing people away from the synagogues and institutionalized religion! And he’s telling the harsh truth about them, revealing who they really are. “You brood of vipers!” he shouts. “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”

vipers

***

On this Second Sunday of Advent, we, too, like the people of Judea, Jerusalem, and the area around the Jordan, should listen to John with open hearts, so that the Word may accomplish its work in us and equip us for service. This is the violent, unjust world to which Christ will come, first as the infant, then again as our King. So, we wait and hope in Him. Our faith leads to transformed lives—to our bearing good fruit, as John commands us. But what we anticipate, what we live for in Advent, as one New Testament scholar says, is “the fulfillment of the transformative justice of the Kingdom, when right will be vindicated as right and wrong clearly identified as wrong.” Don’t we all long for that to happen?

According to John the Baptist, the day of judgment is not far off. The Lord, he says in the third chapter of Matthew, has already placed an ax against the tree, ready to cut down any that don’t bear good fruit. The winnowing fork is already in his hand.  Similar to a pitchfork, the winnowing fork is used to lift harvested wheat up into the air. The wind blows away the lighter chaff or husk surrounding the seed and other debris, while the edible grain falls to the threshing floor. The Lord will clear his threshing floor, John says, gather the wheat—those who reveal their repentance by their good works—into the granary, the Kingdom of God. The chaff will be burned with an unquenchable fire, the power of God.

But we have no fear. Our Judge is our Redeemer. Our merciful, loving Savior has claimed us in our baptisms. We belong to Him, just as Quinn and Laila will be claimed by him in their baptisms today. We are united by the Spirit as Christ’s Body for the world. Every day, the Spirit leads us and helps us bear good fruit.

Friends, I pray that the Spirit will stir you to boldly proclaim the gospel in word and deeds, like John! May the Lord grant you courage to always tell the truth and work for peace and justice.

May you be attentive to the voice of the one who cried out to all Judea and Jerusalem and speaks to us, still. Let go of your problems, worries, and anxieties. Resist the frantic busyness and materialism that the world says is good, especially this time of year.

Come with me, John says, to the wilderness. Come, just as you are. You don’t need to bring anything but you. It’s a place of safety and refuge. Honesty, trust and transformation. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is drawing near.”

 

Holy One, thank you for the words of the prophets, especially for John. He spoke the truth boldly, lived simply, and served you faithfully, even dying for you. Lead us, Lord, into the wilderness, where ever that place may be for each of us. Draw us into that space of safety and refuge, where we can leave all our problems, fears, and anxieties behind and learn to place our trust in you. Help us to be attentive to your voice. Give us repentant hearts that will lead to the transformation of ourselves, our lives, our church and world. Lead us to do the works that you want us to do, works in your name that will bear good fruit. Grant us patience and courage as we wait and hope for your Son’s return and the transformative justice of your Kingdom. In His name we pray. Amen.

He Is Coming Soon!

Meditation on Matthew 24:36-44

First Sunday of Advent

The Presbyterian Church of Coshocton

Dec. 1, 2019

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36 “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 37 For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 38 For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, 39 and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. 40 Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. 41 Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. 42 Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. 43 But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. 44 Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.

 

***

 

It was Taco Teepee Tuesday, and I didn’t even know it.  Mr. Gill and Mrs. Yost had invited me to spend time with their second graders at Coshocton Elementary on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, since school would be closed on Friday, my usual day to read to the students and listen as they read to me. I said yes, though it meant changing my schedule and working at the church office on Monday, my usual day off. I was looking forward to sharing a message with Mrs. Yost’s class about the first Thanksgiving, like I did for the children’s message in church, making sure to emphasize, in the midst of our delicious Thanksgiving feasts, the importance of remembering to give God thanks for all his gifts to us.

Mr. Gill had just started making taco teepees with his class—and I had just finished my time with Mrs. Yost’s class, when the fire alarm went off! From the startled expression on Mrs. Yost’s face, I was pretty sure she wasn’t expecting a fire drill.

But she knew what to do—and so did her kids. She grabbed her class list and down the stairs we went, out the back door, and down more steps to a sidewalk, then, turning left, we walked all the way to the tennis courts, where the entire second grade was gathering. They moved quickly, with only a little talking, giggling, and shhh-ing—knowing their destination. They had practiced a number of times this school year and in kindergarten and first. Their teachers had taught them what to do—and how they shouldn’t be afraid, but that they should also take it seriously and be watching and listening for new instructions. Because you never know if it is a real emergency or just a drill!

Waiting with the children at the tennis courts, I had a moment to thank God, again, for making it possible for me to be there with them, when I had never planned on coming on Tuesdays, let alone THE Taco Teepee Tuesday.

taco teepee.jpg

It was another opportunity to serve those whom Jesus had said, gathering the children to himself, as the disciples tried to shoo them away—to “such as these” the Kingdom of God belongs.

 

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As we waited for the all-clear signal, I thought to myself, what if instead of a fire alarm, it was the sound of a trumpet and Jesus had come back at that very moment—when we were with the children, talking about, of all things, prayer. That would have been a good time for Jesus to return! We were ready!

“Come, Lord Jesus,” I whispered as we walked back to our classrooms, remembering Christ’s promise in Revelation 22:20. “Surely, I am coming soon!”

 

***

 

On this first Sunday in Advent, we are reminded that we are living in the in-between times—getting ready to tell the beautiful story, once again, of our Savior’s birth and preparing our hearts for Christ’s return.

In our gospel reading in Matthew, why does Jesus emphasize our need to get ready and be alert? Because it is easy to let the things of this world distract and consume us—like they did in the time of Noah, when people were eating, drinking, marrying and giving in marriage—just living their lives, but living apart from God. They didn’t have a foundation of faith or a relationship with the Lord.

It’s not a coincidence that we read this Scripture on the first Sunday of Advent, in a season when we are SO busy. We just make it through Thanksgiving, and then it’s Black Friday, the biggest shopping day of the year. Our homes must be decorated, cookies must be baked, and the Christmas cards are waiting to be written. Is anyone else’s December calendar already full of activities and the month has barely begun? With all the good things you have planned, make sure you don’t forget your first love—the Lord—and that preparing our hearts to meet Him isn’t the same as getting ready for Christmas.

Another reason Jesus urges us to prepare our hearts for his return is to give us hope. We can become easily discouraged if we forget that this isn’t all there is!

We know Christ is coming. We just don’t know when. Jesus says not even the angels or the Son of Man himself know when he will return. Only God knows. Anyone who tries to tell you differently, Jesus says, is trying to lead you astray.  The image of his coming like a thief in the night here in Matthew is taken up by the Apostle Paul in 1 Thess. 5:2: “ For you yourselves are fully aware that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.” And in Revelation 16:15, when Jesus says, “Behold, I am coming like a thief! Blessed is the one who stays awake…”

But we can be ready for him, as I felt so keenly this past Tuesday, when I was sure that where I was, was where I needed to be, and what I was doing was what the Lord wanted. Isn’t that a wonderful feeling when that happens? I felt a longing in my heart to see the One who will “come on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory,” as Jesus says in Matthew 24:30-31. “And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.”

Are you wondering what will happen to us when Jesus comes back? Scripture says that we will be transformed. The Apostle Paul says in 1 Cor. 15:51-52, “Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.” John says in 1 John 3: “Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.”

And what of the images of two being in the field—one taken, the other left? And two women grinding meal together; again, one will be taken, another left? How should we respond to these? Should we be afraid that we might be left? No, once you have said yes to the Spirit’s invitation and accepted Christ as your Savior, the Lord isn’t going to change his mind about you. Ephesians 1:4 says, “For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight.” And Paul in Romans 10:13 says, “All who call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.” Rather than fear or insecurity, the image of one being taken and another left should stir us to compassion for those who don’t know Jesus. It reminds us that we have an important job—and that’s allowing God to use us and speak through us, sharing the good news of Jesus and his love.

Being prepared for Christ’s return means having a firm foundation, having studied, worshiped, prayed and practiced our faith so well that we respond to the Lord as the children did to the fire drill—with confidence and without fear, being sure of our destination, always listening for the Spirit’s direction, looking for opportunities to serve, care for others and give of ourselves. We won’t know how many lives we have touched; how many people we have helped draw nearer to Him. But we HAVE touched lives. We ARE making a difference.

It is my prayer that when the Lord comes back, he will find us faithful—doing only the things he wants us to do and not wasting a single moment harboring hurt or holding onto the past, not when there are good works in Christ’s name to do.

For every time we give and care for someone in need, we are preparing our hearts to meet the Lord.

Friends, He is coming soon!

 

***

As I was leaving the elementary school last week, one of the ladies in the office asked, “Hey, do you have a minute?” I had an appointment to get to, but I stopped to listen, sensing it was important.

She wanted me to know about a gift from the women of our church, more than a year ago, of about $250. She used the money recently to buy sweat pants of all sizes—47 pairs—for children who fall down, tear their pants, or get dirty or wet at the bus stop, on the playground, or in school. The new pants are given to the children; they never ask for them back.

The lady who told me this story had tears in her eyes. “Will you tell the women that I said thank you?” she said.

I said that I would—and that I would encourage our church to help again whenever the children have needs.

For when we give and care for others, we are preparing our hearts for the Lord’s return. When he comes on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory, may he find us faithful.

Friends, He is coming soon!

 

Let us pray.

Holy One, thank you for the promise of our everlasting life with you and for your return for your beloved Church. Thank you for the plans you have for us, the works you have already ordained for us to do in your name, giving to others, caring for people in need, sharing the good news of your grace and love. Help us to keep you at the center of all our activities and celebrations this month. Lead us in your will so that we don’t try to do too much. Prepare our hearts, Lord, for your return. Stir us to remain ever watchful and ever faithful, not wasting time on things that don’t bring joy or build up your Church. Come, Lord Jesus. Come soon! In your name we pray. Amen.

 

 

 

 

Give Thanks

 

Meditation on Philippians 4:1-9

Nov. 17, 2019

The Presbyterian Church of Coshocton, OH

Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved. I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion, help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life. Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.  5 Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.

***

It was a different world in November 1956 when Margaret Towner was the first woman to be ordained in the northern branch of our denomination. “It was a watershed moment for women’s equality,” says Presbyterian Outlook in its Oct 7 issue, “for dismantling gender power structures within the church and for ordained ministry in the Presbyterian Church.” Thirty-six years had passed since the first overture to ordain women as elders and as ministers went before the General Assembly in 1920, the same year women were granted the right to vote in the United States.

Margaret’s ordination to serve God through First Presbyterian Church of Allentown was not, alas, a call to preach. That would come later, when she served other churches. Her first call was to be a minister of Christian education, overseeing the work of 60 teachers, with 910 students. The charge at her ordination has never been forgotten. “Be the shepherd of the flock and not their pet lamb.”

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Margaret’s ordination was covered by Life Magazine with a 5-page spread. The article, “A First Lady Minister in Robes of a New Role,” contains photos that play up her femininity. One features 31-year-old Margaret standing with arms outstretched in a borrowed black clergy robe as two ladies hem and shorten her sleeves to fit her 5-foot-2-inch frame. Another shows her kneeling before 7 men of the presbytery, clad in long black robes and white clerical ties with preaching bands. Another shows her smiling as she sticks her head in the door of a nursery, a small child peering back. Still another depicts Margaret laughing and the caption explaining that an old friend from college, where she had studied pre-med, reminded her that she had once said, “The one thing I will never do is go into church work.”

To the objection that the ordination of women “will be just another excuse for men to get out of the church,” Margaret told Life Magazine, “In my mind there is no ground for men’s fears that women will move in and take over their jobs. There is too much work to be done to allow any jealousy.” Her main worry is not being kept out of the pulpit, she says, for her ministry is with the children and teachers. What bothers her is that the church has a baseball team, “and it’s all men and they won’t let me play,” she says. “But they will call on me when they are in a tough spot in the league!”

Margaret would later choose not to marry, “acknowledging that her temperament wouldn’t allow her to serve both the church and a family.” I suspect that she realized she wouldn’t be able to do it all in an era in which women were expected –not only by men, but by other women—to do everything at home for her husband and children.

While church leadership has been open to women in the Presbyterian Church for more than 6 decades, gender discrimination persists, says the Oct. 7 issue of Presbyterian Outlook. Female ministers have encountered sexism in a variety of forms, including snide remarks and inappropriate evaluations of their bodies, their hair, and the pitch of their voices. It’s no secret that women have a more difficult time finding jobs in ministry and more often work in part time or temporary positions. The gender pay gap among ministers is wider than the national average for all jobs. It wasn’t until Margaret’s last call –decades after she was ordained—that she would receive equal pay with her male counterparts.

Margaret, now 94, in last month’s Presbyterian Outlook, recalls opposition from both men and women in the church. She did receive letters from minister’s wives who worried that women would take jobs away from their husbands and would be willing to be paid less. She also received letters from men who called her to repent and be saved. She chose not to answer those letters or “get into a dialogue with others about their opinions,” she says. “I felt that an example of women in ministry would help break down barriers rather than debate.” When things got tough, she says, her supporters “had her back. Successes and affirmations kept her going.”

“And I felt called,” she says. “Ordained ministry was my life’s work.”

***

In our Philippians reading today, we note that the apostle Paul is supportive of women in ministry. And, in spite of his situation of being imprisoned for the gospel, he says in 4:4, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again, I will say, Rejoice.” Later in chapter 4, he will go on to tell how he has heard of their concern for him and assure them that, “In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”

Paul is concerned for unity and peace in the Philippian church. He does something that is unusual for him, in Philippians 4:2-3, and that is to name two women, leaders in the church, whom he has heard are not in agreement. This stirs him to urge Euodia (a Greek name meaning Success) and Syntyche (Greek for Lucky), “to be of the same mind in the Lord.” He doesn’t condemn any specific actions. And he doesn’t take sides! And, also unusual for Paul, he expresses a desire for a loyal companion of his—possibly Luke—to help them be reconciled. He claims them as colleagues in ministry who “struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers,” he says, and that their “names are in the book of life.” This is the only time Paul mentions the heavenly “book of life,” in his letters, though it is a common belief from his Jewish heritage and will be mentioned numerous times in the NT book of Revelation. These two women, in Paul’s view, haven’t ceased to be among God’s faithful.

Women have been in leadership in the Philippian church in Macedonia from its beginnings, when Paul shared about Christ with some Gentile women–God-fearers—who met by the river on the Jewish Sabbath for prayer. In Acts 16, the Lord opens the heart of one of the God-fearers named Lydia, a dealer in purple, to listen eagerly as Paul shares about the Risen Christ. She and her household are baptized, and Paul, Silas and Timothy accept her hospitality and stay in her home a while.

The command to rejoice in the Lord follows Paul’s urging Euodia and Syntyche to have the same mind. In chapter 2, he had urged the church to be careful of their witness and “do all things without murmuring or arguing, so that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, in which you shine like stars in the world.” Here in chapter 4, he encourages the church again to remember to live so that they reveal their faith and to whom they belong. “Let your gentleness be known to everyone,” he says. “The Lord is near.”

Paul urges us all, then, to turn our worries into prayer and, with thanksgiving, bring our requests to God. We remain in the mind of Christ when we reject negative thoughts and think on what is true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, excellent, commendable—anything worthy of praise.

And the promise for those who keep on doing what we have learned, received and heard and seen? “The God of peace will be with you.”

***

We rejoice as we welcome five new members in The Presbyterian Church of Coshocton today. We give God thanks and praise for you! We embrace you as you are. We hope that you feel God’s love here.

I am grateful for Margaret Towner and all the women in ministry, going back to Biblical times, whose stories inspire us to be open to the Spirit bringing change to our church and society. While it hasn’t been as much as Margaret, I have experienced some opposition to my ministry over the years. None of that is worth talking or even thinking about, as Paul says; it’s not honorable, excellent, pure, or praiseworthy. I, too, haven’t felt that entering into debate about women in ministry is helpful—not when there’s work to be done! The best thing is to be who we are meant to be and not be ashamed of who we are. I, too, have been strengthened by the support of family and friends, and the certainty that God has called me to this work.

I would add to Margaret’s list of things that keep her going a sense of gratitude to God for this call. Gratitude is a powerful thing! I give thanks to God for what he has done in my life and is doing in our church. One more thing I would add to the list is joy. The joy of the Lord is OUR strength. No one can take our joy away!

Let us make our requests known to the God who loves us and has a plan for us. And remember that in Christ’s Body, we are made one, in spite of our differences. Remember that your gentleness is part of your witness to the world.

Now, keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen. Give thanks! And may the God of peace be with you!

Let us pray.

Thank you, Lord, for your love for us and for sending your Son to give His life for our sins—making a way to be reconciled with you and one another when there was no way. We were lost! Thank you for calling us all now by name to love and serve you and your people and for giving us joy for this journey, YOUR joy that no one can ever take away. Thank you for all the godly men and women, like Margaret Towner, who have heard your voice and accepted the call to serve as ministers, despite the opposition she faced. Grant us the mind of Christ so that we may all live in peace with one another, forgiving each other as we seek to do the work of your Church and reach out with your love to our community. Help us to think on things that are honorable, excellent, pure, and praiseworthy and to be a faithful witness through kindness and gentleness, shining like stars in a dark world. Amen.

 

 

 

Our Father in Heaven, God of the Living

 

Meditation on Luke 20:27-38

The Presbyterian Church of Coshocton

Nov. 10, 2019

 

27 Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to him 28 and asked him a question, “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. 29 Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; 30 then the second 31 and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. 32 Finally the woman also died. 33 In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.”

34 Jesus said to them, “Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; 35 but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. 36 Indeed they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection. 37 And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. 38 Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.”

 

     I was already thinking that I was too busy. As our Mary and Martha study group would well understand, I was thinking I may have too many rocks in my wagon–and that maybe some of the rocks in my wagon weren’t rocks that the Lord had given me to carry for him. So when Tina texted me that the funeral home wanted me to do a memorial service for someone who wasn’t a member of our faith community, I called the funeral home with every intention of saying no.

You know what’s coming, right? The funeral director, a hardworking young lady with a gentle heart, told me that after meeting with the family, she thought that I would be a good fit for them. Something in her voice stirred me to say that I would talk with the family and see what I could do. As I waited for the phone to ring, I prayed, “Lord, if this is your will for me, show me how I can do this. Give me your compassion and joy.” Immediately, I remembered how my father didn’t have a church, either, or a pastor, when he died. And how we didn’t want just anyone to do his service.

When Linda called and told me about her mother, Joyce Selders, I knew this was, indeed, God’s plan. Especially when she said how she wanted her family to know that Joyce wasn’t suffering anymore–and that she was in a better place. What I heard in her plea was that she wanted me to bear witness to the resurrection, to comfort them with the hope that we have in Jesus Christ, who says to Martha after her brother Lazarus dies in John 11:25-26, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?

Joyce, who had lived at Windsorwood for the past 5 years or so, died on Halloween at the age of 89. A widow since 2001, she had lived independently at her home on Adams Street until she was seriously injured while planting a rose bush in her yard. She suffered a massive stroke six months later.

She was born in Dresden in 1930, and while she had grown up in the Depression years, she would tell stories of a happy childhood, making do and learning to appreciate what they had. Money was scarce. They had stamps for sugar and flour. New shoes and clothes were luxury items. And the new shoes usually went to her younger brother, Bunk, first, and when he got new shoes, Joyce said, he would try them out by kicking her with his new shoes. For fun, their sister, Reva, would stop at the gas station and ask for “50 cents’ worth of Ethel” to drive them around town.

Joyce borrowed a dress to marry Dale Selders of Coshocton in early 1946, when she wasn’t quite 16. The young man had served in the U.S. Army in WWII. He borrowed a car, and they set out on an adventure that lasted 55 years together.

“I always knew that I was loved,” Linda says. She never questioned her mother’s love, for it revealed itself in acts of kindness and sacrifice, with all the little things that she did and the extra effort to make things special. Whether it was cooking noodles from scratch or making filled raisin cookies that was an all day process, her motto was, “If it is worth doing, then it’s worth doing right.”

She taught herself to do many things. She loved gardening, cooking, baking, sewing, quilting, ceramics, music and dancing. And she took time to play with her children, teaching Linda to roller skate and ice skate and joining in when the kids competed to see who could eat corn on the cob the fastest.

Linda used to wonder why her mother paid so much attention to the laundry, always ironing, cleaning house, and making sure dinner was ready every day at 5:30. Later, she understood that her mother had been on a mission her whole life to please her family in every way she could.

Linda’s stories of her mother reminded me of our Good Shepherd in John 10, who knows his sheep intimately and calls us each by name. “My sheep hear my voice,” Jesus says, “and they follow me.” In the greatest act of love, our Good Shepherd lay down his life for the sheep. We never have to question our Good Shepherd’s love.

***

Studying this scripture in the gospel of Luke this week, after celebrating the life of an amazing woman and bearing witness to the resurrection, I couldn’t help but be disturbed by the Sadducees’ question. So what about the childless woman who dies after becoming a widow 7 times, marrying the brothers of her first husband? This is according to the practice of Levirate marriage in Deuteronomy 25:5-6. A childless widow would have been poor, marginalized, and vulnerable, if there were no male relative to protect, provide and care for her. I found myself wishing that we knew more about this woman, if she did, indeed exist. What a sad thing to lose so many loved ones and to remain childless in a time when a woman’s value was tied to her children.

The question of the Sadducees is not innocent. They are determined to make a fool of this country rabbi called Jesus, who is a threat to them, though he lacks a formal education, money, prestige and political power. As Jesus is teaching in the temple in Luke 19:47-48, some people are “spellbound by what they heard”; others want to kill him. Others, in Luke 20:20, come asking questions to “trap him by what he said.”

The Sadducees, who may have taken their name from Israel’s high priest, Zadok, during the reigns of David and Solomon, control the temple, which is the center of religious and community life. They oversee formal affairs of the state; participate in Israel’s court called the Sanhedrin; they collect taxes; equip and lead the army; regulate relations with the Romans; and mediate domestic disputes. Not only do they not believe in the resurrection, they reject the notion of spirits or angels or an afterlife of any kind.

With their question, the Sadducees imagine that the resurrection of which Christ speaks must be merely an extension of the life we have today. But we know that’s not true! It will be a completely new existence, and we will be changed. Marriage, family, children–these characterize life in our age. We will be “like angels,” “children of God,”  “children of the resurrection,” says Christ about the future that we can hardly imagine, but one day will see.

The Sadducees profess belief in the 5 books of Moses–the first 5 books in the Bible, but not the remainder of the Scriptures. This is why Jesus, when he answers the Sadducees’ ridiculous question, mentions the story of the burning bush. This is God’s first encounter with Moses, when the Lord reveals himself to be the “God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.”

“Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living,” Christ declares, “for to him, all of them are alive.”

***

I am grateful that I was given the opportunity to share about the hope of the resurrection with the family of Joyce Selders–and to be inspired by her story. The Spirit of the Living God interrupts our plans and redirects us, continually, as we seek to be faithful to obey God’s will and have the Lord prepare us, more and more, for the Kingdom of Heaven. This is what I realized as we said the traditional Lord’s Prayer at the memorial service–that this is our welcoming our Father in Heaven to reign in our hearts and over our lives now and always–for “thine,” we say, or “yours” “is the Kingdom, the power and the glory forever. Amen.”

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We can trust the Lord to be in every future we can imagine, with the help of the NT. “For if we have been united with him in a death like his,” says Romans 6:5, “we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” “For God so loved the world,” says John 3:16,  “that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” “We will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet, when the dead will be raised,” says Paul in 1 Cor. 15:51-52. And when “he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is,” says 1 John 3:2.

Friends, we don’t have to wait till we die to live resurrected lives in Him. Today is the day Christ will make all things new. We will have a glimpse of the Kingdom as God’s people gather in faith to experience Christ’s presence and partake of the bread and cup. And the Holy Spirit will do its work, uniting us in Christ’s Body with all the saints, in every time and place. We who are broken and feel empty, will be strengthened, filled, and made whole. We who remember Christ’s body given and blood shed for the forgiveness of sins will be re-membered and sent out for the world, to comfort and share the hope we have in Jesus, who says to us in His Word, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”

 

Let us pray.

 

Holy One, we believe in you! Thank you for our faith. Help us when we struggle with unbelief. We trust that even though we will die someday, we will live forever with you. We know that you live in our hearts now and will never abandon us. We seek your help that we may be strengthened, filled and made whole. Comfort those grieving the loss of loved ones. Give us the hope of your resurrection and remind us, every day, of the promise of our resurrection with you. Give us patience and grace as your Spirit interrupts our plans and you provide ministry opportunities. Lead us to be faithful to share our stories with our community and to live new, resurrected lives, as we seek to be in your will. For thine is the Kingdom, the power and the glory forever. Amen.

 

 

I Lay Down My Life for the Sheep

Meditation on John 10:7-15

In Memory of Joyce (Bice) Selders

Nov. 4, 2019

Given-Dawson-Paisley Funeral Home,

Coshocton, OH

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So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.  The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.

      “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. 

 

***

When Linda shared with me about her mom, the day after Joyce had gone home to be with the Lord at the age of 89, she told me how she always felt loved. And I thought to myself, what a wonderful way to be remembered—by our love! I can’t think of a nicer thing to say about a parent. She never questioned her mother’s love. In a day and age when so many homes are filled with strife, her family’s home was brimming with love. She knew her mother loved her not just because of what she said, but how she lived her life.

Linda saw love in the things her mother did—all the extra effort she would put into making things for friends and family. As Linda talked, I could almost smell the filled raisin cookies that her mother made that took her all day to make. I imagined her mixing the batter, rolling out the dough, cutting out circles, and then alternating circles of dough, with cooked raisin filling, before baking in the oven till golden brown. Nowadays, when drive-through fast food and carry out pizzas are all too frequent fare for today’s busy families, her mother prepared hot meals that her family ate gathered around the table at home. In addition to gardening, baking, and cooking, her mother enjoyed sewing and quilting, walking and line dancing, music, and making ceramics.

Born in Dresden in 1930 and growing up with three sisters and two brothers, Joyce married young. She and Dale Selders of Coshocton, a WWII veteran, tied the knot on Feb. 28, 1946. He was creative, too, and enjoyed hobbies, such as working on old cars, even rebuilding a 1930 Model T Ford. He learned how to lay brick, and together they built five homes. He retired from GE after working 39 years.

Family always came first for Joyce—caring for her husband; daughter, Linda; and son, Allen; though she did work for Pretty Products in Coshocton for a time. She continued to live independently at their home on Adams Street after Dale died in 2001, until about five years ago. A serious injury while gardening and a stroke six months later led her to move to the assisted living community Windsorwood Place.  Though her gardening and baking days were over, she continued to enjoy her friends and neighbors and, most of all, family gatherings, especially when they involved spending time with grandchildren and great grandchildren. I suspect, like Linda, all the rest of the family didn’t question Joyce’s love.

It is that way with Jesus, our Savior. We never have to question his love. He proves his love to us not just by words, but by acts of kindness and self-sacrifice. In the 10th chapter of the gospel of John, we learn that he isn’t just our Shepherd; he is the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd would stay to defend and protect the sheep from wolves, while the hired hand would run if he saw the wolves coming and leave the sheep to be snatched and scattered. “The hired hand,” Jesus says, “runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep.” The Good Shepherd calls us each by name; he claims us in our baptism; we belong to Him. And listen to this promise in John 10:27-28. “My sheep hear my voice,” he says. “and I know them, and they follow me: And I give them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall anyone pluck them out of my hand.” Not only will the Good Shepherd stay with us, defend and protect us, he offers us abundant life through the sacrifice of his own.  “I lay down my life,” he says, “for the sheep.”

And when we love, like Joyce loved, then we bear witness to the love of our Good Shepherd, poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit. When we love one another, we reveal to whom we belong, the one who claims us in baptism. He is the one who knows us better than we know ourselves as he knew us before we were born. He wants to give us life—so that we live abundantly. It is His voice that we hear and know. He calls us by name. He draws us nearer to Him, even now, gently whispering, “Come. Follow me.”

Let us pray. Heavenly Father, thank you for your Son, Jesus Christ, our Good Shepherd, who claims us in baptism. Thank you for your Spirit that has poured your love in our hearts and offers strength and comfort to us every day. Lead us, Lord, to bear witness to you by living abundantly, revealing to whom we belong by our love for one another. In Christ we pray. Amen.

 

For All the Saints

Meditation on Luke 19:1-10

The Presbyterian Church of Coshocton, OH

Nov. 3, 2019

All Saints’ Sunday

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He entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”

 

It was a beautiful day. I was traveling to First Presbyterian Church in Cambridge on Wednesday for a special gathering of pastors in our presbytery, when I remembered the words of my husband, Jim. He said, “Don’t use the GPS.” And I said, “I won’t.” And then I did, anyway. I didn’t trust myself to find my way to Cambridge, a place I had never been before. Pretty soon, I realized that I was being led to take Route 541 all the way to I-77 South. And, in the famous words of Yogi Berra, it was “déjà vu all over again.” This was the same narrow, windy, hilly route the GPS had led us when Jim and I and Jacob, our cat Melvyn and dog Mabel, exhausted from 2 days of driving and weeks of packing and saying goodbyes, arrived in a 3-car caravan in the dark of night, cold of winter, deer peering at us from both sides of the road. But it wasn’t night, this time. Wasn’t cold. And I wasn’t tired or feeling rushed.

And I thought to myself, “If people in my church can drive this road all the time, I can learn to drive this road, too.” Of course, I didn’t meet but a couple of vehicles the entire way. One was a slow-moving tractor that I cautiously passed. Another was a large pickup truck that passed me going about 80 in a 45. Funny thing was that Elton John’s “Rocket Man!” was playing on the radio. God has a sense of humor! Amen?

As I drove this windy, hilly way, instead of the better road that Jim would have me take—and that I would choose on my way home, I thought of other journeys taken by saints who lived and loved among us. And I gave thanks to God for all the saints, the cloud of witnesses that surrounds us, still, and whose stories continue to inspire us to keep on running the race of faith.

I thought of Ivy Catrow, whose life we celebrated in October. She was a former Land Girl in England who labored to grow food to feed her country during WWII. She left home and all that was familiar and traveled on the ocean liner RMS Queen Elizabeth in November 1946. In New York City, she was directed to a train that took her to Pittsburgh. That’s where her fiance, George Catrow, who hadn’t laid eyes on her in a year, but had written love letters to her every other day, picked her up in his car and brought her to Coshocton. The Reverend Kiskaddon married them 10 days later in the parsonage. And she lived 73 more years of adventures and joy, loving the Lord, her family and her church, persevering in times of suffering. Then, four days after her 96th birthday, she traveled yet another journey, entering into the joy that Christ has prepared, hearing the words she longed to hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant. Well done!”

I got to thinking, what if she hadn’t risked leaving kin and country? Her life would have been different. We would be different, too! We are better because of all the saints—all of you!—who continue to gather to worship and grow in faith and friendship, welcoming one another, loving one another, demonstrating the hospitality of our Lord.

I thought of Ivy and all the saints—the Body of Christ in every age, living courageously, led and fed by the Spirit, choosing to follow Christ on the narrow, less traveled path of humble servanthood, laboring with love and compassion, kindness and generosity, building relationships rather than accumulating wealth and things on the wider, more traveled path of this world.

As I drove on, taking my very own fall foliage tour, I remembered Robert Frost’s poem, “The Road Not Taken.”

 

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Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood

And looked down one as far as I could

To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,

And having perhaps the better claim,

Because it was grassy and wanted wear;

Though as for that the passing there

Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay

In leaves no step had trodden black.

Oh, I kept the first for another day!

Yet knowing how way leads on to way,

I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

 

***

 

Zaccheaus has choices to make the day that Jesus is passing through Jericho on his way to Jerusalem. The rich tax collector, described as short in stature, in Luke 19 decides to risk making a spectacle of himself by running and climbing a tree because he wants to see Jesus. Scholars say that his stature may have more to do with his profession than his actual height. The crowd may have shunned or barricaded him because of what he did for a living. Jesus could have chosen anyone that day to single out and bless with his presence in their home. He chose no one in the crowd of decent, religious people. He chooses, instead, the one who is marginalized and despised by the crowd of decent, religious people. The tax collector is, like the one in the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector in Luke 18:9-14, the example of faith and humility—having the right attitude before God. Zacchaeus’ wealth doesn’t prevent him from pursuing Jesus and entering the kingdom of God. He has a change of heart and obeys the Lord. Compare this to the account of the rich ruler in Luke 18:18-25, who is moved to sadness but doesn’t obey when Jesus tells him the way to inherit eternal life is to sell all that he has and give the money to the poor, building his treasure in heaven. Then, “Come,” he says. “Follow me.”

Jesus doesn’t wait for an invitation from Zacchaeus, for he knows his heart’s desire is to be with him. The Lord knows our hearts, too! And he calls us by name to leave our places of comfort and privacy to profess and demonstrate our faith. “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.”

The tax collector immediately obeys and bears spiritual fruit; he welcomes Christ eagerly, ready to give up a life of wealth and accumulation. He is filled with joy, “happy” to give half of his possessions to the poor—not the tithe of 10 percent of the increase. He is anxious to right the wrongs that he has done. “If I have defrauded anyone of anything,” he vows, “I will pay back four times as much.”

Salvation has come to the house of one who lives as a son of Abraham and doesn’t just claim God’s favor because of his family tree.

 

***

Has salvation visited your home? Have you allowed Christ to stay, dwell in your heart, and change your life? Today is the day to choose the narrow, less traveled path. A road you may not have taken before. We won’t find peace in the pursuit of wealth, accumulation and self-gratification. Only knowing Christ and laboring with him in ministries of compassion will satisfy the longing in our hearts and relieve us from the heavy burdens we try to carry on our own. Our Lord offers hope and healing for the wounded and brokenhearted, order and calm amidst your chaos, help and strength in times of sorrow, sickness, loneliness, and loss.

Don’t be tempted to follow the crowd of seemingly religious people, who want to exclude, rather than embrace, all people as God’s beloved children.  That’s what the crowd did to Zacchaeus that day our Lord passed through Jericho on his way to Jerusalem. May we all be freed to show the radical hospitality of Christ to all people. Let us join with the Son of Man in His labor of love—to seek and save the lost. May we faithfully serve the one whose choice of friends stirred the crowd to grumble, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.”

Some of you are wondering how you will live without your loved one. Your grief is fresh. Some of you have been grieving a long time, feeling broken and longing to be healed and made whole. God knows your pain! God loves you! Christ is with you in your suffering. I am missing my dad, wondering how we will get through our first Thanksgiving and Christmas without him. It will be hard.

But Christ tells us not to worry about tomorrow! And he’s not just talking about material blessings; he is talking about provision for heart, mind, body, and soul. The Lord offers new mercies every morning, daily manna in our wilderness, nourishment to eternal life. Christ has promised, in His Word, to come again and take us to Himself so that where He is, we will be also. He is preparing a place for us in our heavenly home—with all the saints! One day, when we finish the good works that God has ordained, labors of love in this age, Christ will say to us, “Well done, good and faithful servants. Well done.”

 

Let us pray.

Heavenly Father, thank you for all the saints, all of our loved ones—those with us now and those we mourn as they are no longer with us. Thank you for calling us each by name. Reassure us, Lord, of your love for all your children and your good plans for us. Lead us to acts of radical hospitality, walking in Christ’s loving ways. Thank you for the promise of salvation by faith in Christ’s work on the cross and for Your Son’s preparing a place for each one us, with all the saints. Help us to feel you with us now and always; grant us strength and courage, help and healing, as we seek to obey your will and serve with you in labors of love. In Christ we pray. Amen.

 

 

You Know the Truth That Makes You Free

 

Meditation on John 8:31-36

Reformation Sunday

The Presbyterian Church of Coshocton

Oct. 27, 2019

 

He said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; 32 and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” 33 They answered him, “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free’?” 34 Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. 35 The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. 36 So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.                                                                                                     

***

We had a great time at our church picnic last Sunday! It was my first experience with a corn maze. For that matter, it was my whole family’s first experience with a corn maze. I was surprised they wanted to come with me when Courtney Snyder told us that we better bring cookies if we do the maze. It takes at least 2 hours, she said, and we would get lost. “I always do,” she said. So, we grabbed some cookies, and started the maze after watching the instructional video. Did any of you watch that? In the video, we were asked to repeat after the guide in reciting all the rules. The ones I recall went something like this: I will not run in the maze. I will not smoke. I will not damage the maze. I will stay on the path and not break through the ribbons. Jim, Jacob and I dutifully echoed all the rules. Mom, however, remained silent.

We split into pairs once we started the maze. Jacob and I had the map, with the questions and clues that I tried to fill in. Jim and my mom, who weren’t interested in completing the worksheet, went the shortest way they could possibly find. Pretty soon, we realized Courtney was right. It was going to take a while, and we were going to get lost. Several times. Good thing we ate cookies, first!

My mom pointed to where a ribbon was broken and an illegal path had been made. She was going to take a short cut. She was tired and had had enough of the maze.

And I said, “No. We can’t do that. We promised we wouldn’t break the rules.”

She said, “I didn’t promise.”

I said, “If we don’t follow the maze, they will throw us out.”

“Why didn’t you say so sooner?” she said. “I would have done it a long time ago.”

Have you ever noticed that rules only seem to work sometimes when there are unpleasant consequences, even when rules are made for the good of the people? There’s always someone who questions the rules and wants to do things a different way. But have you also noticed how hard it is to change the rules, even when people agree that they are unjust and need to be changed?

Sometimes, there’s a shortage of courage.

 

***

Today, we remember and honor those with the courage to study God’s Word and listen for God’s voice still speaking to Christ’s followers in every age. We give thanks for those who fearlessly walked by faith and were led by the Spirit to work to transform the Church and make it more faithful to Christ’s call.

On Reformation Sunday, Presbyterians are used to hearing about Calvin, Luther and maybe Knox or Zwingli. As my history professors at Princeton Seminary would say—dead white men. But in so doing, we leave out many important reformers—women who were faithful to work for reform in the Church long before John Calvin fled to Switzerland and wrote his Institutes of the Christian Religion in 1536.

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John Calvin

 

And more than 100 years before Martin Luther hammered his 95 Theses to the door of The Wittenberg Church on October 31, 1517.

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Martin Luther

I would like to share with you about a theologian and author from the 14th century who was first an inspiration to me when I was in seminary in 2008. She is called “Julian of Norwich,” though we don’t know her real name. You see, she was an anchoress, a devout woman whose long life was lived in a small room attached to the church of St. Julian in Norwich, England.

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Because she was a woman, she would not have been permitted to speak her views in church, but she was able to share them with folks who came to her window for godly counsel and prayer each day.

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And she did the unthinkable. She wrote down what God had showed her through a series of visions on May 13, 1373 of Christ on the cross, when she was “30 and a half years old” and was so ill that a priest was brought to administer last rites. About 15 years later, she wrote a longer version of the book—86 chapters! Unlike Luther, it isn’t an academic treatise written in Latin for scholars and theologians to debate. Julian writes in English; her Showings or Revelation of Divine Love, is written “for all men,” she says, meaning all people. What a radical thing for a woman of the Middle Ages to say!

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Her work is thought to have been the first book written in the English language. The teachings God has shown her are meant to be a comfort to all her fellow Christians or “even Christians,” as she says. She lives in a dark time and had witnessed great suffering as a child of 6 when the Black Death swept through England in 1349 and all of Europe, taking the lives of 20 million people–more than 1/3 of Europe’s population.

When you think about the time in which she writes—when the Church was wealthy, powerful and corrupt–you can appreciate her courage. She wrote in English before reformer John Wycliff and his followers translated the Bible from Latin into Middle English in 1382, two years before he died of a stroke. Wycliff, an Oxford professor and priest who attacked the wealth of the Church, the selling of indulgences, prayers to saints, and the teachings on purgatory, believed that the Bible was the only reliable guide to the truth about God. He would be declared a heretic and his bones dug up, burned and scattered in the River Swift in 1428.

While Julian insists repeatedly that she agrees with all the teachings of “Holy Church,” the reality is that her beliefs are in sharp contrast to Roman Catholic beliefs and practices of her day. The Church taught that a close relationship with the Lord wasn’t possible for an ordinary believer. The Church threatened the wrath of God and eternal punishment for those who disobeyed the Church’s teachings.

Julian disagrees. The Lord shows her that God is all love and wants to be intimate with us, for we are his “bliss.” The woman who lives during the Hundred Years’ War between England and France says that the wrath is all on the side of human beings. It is through the Trinity and the perfect humanity of Christ and not the Church that she reaches God. “Julian sees man as a sinner,” writes one Medieval scholar. “Sin is an historical reality, a personal and a collective as well as a universal phenomenon, embracing everyone. Yet this sinner is forgiven and saved because God shared in his human condition – in his pain and in his joy.”

Julian isn’t shy about questioning the Lord. She wonders, in chapter 27, in the great wisdom of God that “the beginning of sin was not prevented. For then it seemed to me,” she says, “that all would be well.” Jesus answers, saying, “Sin is necessary, but all will be well, and all will be well, and every kind of thing will be well…. These words were revealed most tenderly,” she goes on, “showing no kind of blame to me or to anyone who will be saved. So it would be most unkind of me to blame God or marvel at him on account of my sins, since he does not blame me for sin. And in these same words, I saw hidden in God an exalted and wonderful mystery, which he will make plain and we shall know in heaven. In this knowledge, we shall truly see the cause why he allowed sin to come, and in this sight, we shall rejoice forever.”

Julian longs for greater intimacy with the Lord and calls God, at times, “Mother,” in the tradition of Christianity in the Middle Ages. “For God gave her life, his life, in his Incarnation and in his death,” explains a Medieval historian. “(She believes that) he nourishes us through the preaching of the Church; he makes us grow through his grace, adapting himself to each of us in his infinite love.”

In her 86 years of life, Julian never sees her book published. I am sure that she never imagines it would be! It isn’t until 1670 that her book would be published, but not widely read by Julian’s fellow “even Christians” until modern English versions are published beginning in the mid to late 20th century. I think she would be most pleased that the ordinary people for whom she originally wrote in the 14th century would finally have the opportunity to read her writings and find comfort in the assurance of God’s love.

Today, many Presbyterians may meet Julian of Norwich through a hymn attributed to her. “Mothering God, Who Gave Me Birth,” has been published in 13 hymnals, including our 1990 blue Presbyterian hymnal and the most recent Presbyterian Hymnal, Glory to God. (Listen to a beautiful version of this song at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UFac46KYThc)

Sisters and brothers, because the reformers courageously fought against the abuses of the Church of the Middle Ages, we have the freedom to organize, worship and live out our faith according to our convictions. We can read the Bible in our own language and hear the truth that makes us free! But we in the Reformed tradition believe that the Reformation isn’t over! The Spirit continues to change us, as we draw nearer to God and God draws nearer to us. Let us embrace the Spirit’s transforming work in our lives and our Church!

We know that it’s not through any righteousness of our own or any human works that we are saved, but by accepting God’s love and grace shown by His Son, our Lord and Savior, and pursuing an intimate relationship with him.

I urge you now to live courageously, as a forgiven people, walking by faith, desiring God and seeking God’s face, offering love and comfort to our fellow Christians, as Julian of Norwich did, and to those who don’t yet know the hope we have in Him.

Let your life shine for all to see… the truth that makes us free!

 

Let us pray.

 

Holy God, we thank you for your Spirit that illumines your Word for us and allows us to understand what you have done for us through the sacrifice of your Son on a cross. Thank you for the reformers, the men and women of every generation, who have worked to transform the Church, so that we would become, more and more, the people you desire us to be. Thank you that your Spirit continues to do its work of transformation in us. Forgive us, Lord, when we are reluctant to change because it is uncomfortable or we are afraid that others may be unhappy or it feels like too much work to try new things. Open our eyes, Lord, to what we cannot see—how the Church may be turning a blind eye to our neediest members and our neighbors in need and not doing enough to change the unjust structures in our society. Stir a longing in us for you, Lord, to be closer to you and dig more deeply into your Word. Empower us to share with others today and every day the truth that makes us free—salvation is a gift from God, received by faith. In Christ we pray. Amen.