“My Thoughts Are Not Your Thoughts”

 

Meditation on Isaiah 55

Feb. 28, 2016

Merritt Island Presbyterian Church

Ebenezer snow 1

 

Ebenezer snow 3

 

“Ho, everyone who thirsts,
come to the waters;
and you that have no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without price.
Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
and your labor for that which does not satisfy?
Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good,
and delight yourselves in rich food.
Incline your ear, and come to me;
listen, so that you may live.
I will make with you an everlasting covenant,
my steadfast, sure love for David.
See, I made him a witness to the peoples,
a leader and commander for the peoples.
See, you shall call nations that you do not know,
and nations that do not know you shall run to you,
because of the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel,
for he has glorified you.
Seek the Lord while he may be found,
call upon him while he is near;
let the wicked forsake their way,
and the unrighteous their thoughts;
let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them,
and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.
For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts. 

For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
and do not return there until they have watered the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.
For you shall go out in joy,
and be led back in peace;
the mountains and the hills before you
shall burst into song,
and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.
Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress;
instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle;
and it shall be to the Lord for a memorial,
for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off. 

***

 

2016-2-12 SRS birds 071 beach nwr

2016-2-12 SRS birds 053 nwr bird 3

I am enjoying winter in Florida! It’s still winter, right? No one really asks me anymore if I miss the snow. Just in case you are wondering — no, not really, though it is beautiful in rural Minnesota in winter–when you are inside looking out, the sun is shining, and it’s white all around.

I ran across one of my messages this week from Isaiah 55 that I preached to my last congregation in March 2013–and it made me smile! I don’t re-use sermons, but I do keep my old ones, just to make sure that I am not always preaching on the same scriptures and saying the same things! My message from 2013 started like this, “Jim and I are still trying to get acclimated to Minnesota winters. Exactly when does winter begin? And when does it end? The snow comes whenever it wants. It doesn’t look at the calendar and say, “Oh, today is the first day of spring. Time to go.” Jim and I, at the time, were in our second winter there. The first one turned out to be one of the mildest on record for the area. But the winter of 2013 was fierce. Even the Minnesotans were complaining about snow and ice–and yearning for spring. I was dreaming of warmer weather and summer vacations. Here’s some of what I wrote:

“The other day, I stepped out my door and the wind blowing across the fields sounded just like the ocean! I remembered going to the beach as a child. I think the memory was a gift from God. As if the Lord were saying, ‘Be patient. Winter won’t last forever.’ It lightened my burden to think about my many peaceful walks on the shore. I remembered how the ocean changes color with the light and hues of the sky. And how the Atlantic is a murky greenish-brown–not the deep blue that children use when they color a crayon sea. But the sound of the ocean is my most vivid memory. It’s a wild, natural noise. Loud, like the roar of a lion, so that if you try to shout to someone a little ways off, your voice is a whisper in the wind.

“When I stand and gaze at the ocean, I feel very small, as it seems to go on and on. But at the same time, I feel safe and secure. The ocean reminds me of our Creator–and how I am always in His presence, no matter where I go. I am comforted that He has plans, purposes and ideas that are so much bigger than you or I can dream….”

I had no idea, of course, that I would move to Merritt Island to serve the Lord and a new flock in 2015. I wasn’t looking for a new call, back then. If someone had told me that this was what my life would be, I am not sure that I would have believed it! In March 2013, it felt like winter would never end…

Now, when I see the ocean, I am amazed at how quickly my life can change. And how very important it is to look back and remember all the wonderful things that God has done. And trust Him for the things I cannot understand.

***

God’s people struggled to keep the faith when their Holy City and temple were destroyed, and they were exiled to Babylon in 586-7 B.C.E. I wonder if they believed him when Second Isaiah, author of chapters 40-66, told them in 43:19 to prepare for “a new thing” the Lord was about to do. This Isaiah, writing between 550 BCE and 515 BCE, assured the exiles that God would bring about their release from captivity and lead them home. Then it happens! In 538 B.C.E., King Cyrus allows the Jewish people to return to Jerusalem, a city in ruins, and rebuild their temple, but it takes years and many trials to overcome. Isaiah speaks to a people grown bitter from their profound loss and hardships. They believe God has abandoned them. Isaiah assures them that God still has a plan and that the hardships they have endured have made them stronger, more fit to accomplish God’s purposes. They must be surprised to learn that the Lord wants them to extend the witness of God’s reign far beyond their own borders–to the ends of the earth!

Isaiah 55 begins, “Ho, everyone who thirsts!” That means everyone who needs water to live. The word translated “Ho” can convey lament, such as “woe” or “alas”–or it can be a way of hailing people, including strangers on the street. “Hey, you!” or “You, there!” The invitation to come and drink water, wine and milk without paying is much like the invitation of Lady Wisdom in Proverbs 9, who invites the “simple” to a similar banquet. “Leave your simple ways,” she says in Proverbs 9:6, “and live, and walk in the way of insight.” Beckoning the thirsty stirs memories of God’s provision for Israel in the wilderness. Water is also symbolic of the Spirit of God, as in Isaiah 44:3, “For I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground; I will pour out my Spirit on your offspring, and my blessing on your descendants.”

Isaiah urges God’s people to labor only for bread and that which “satisfies.” This makes me think of that line in The Lord’s Prayer, “Give us this day our daily bread” –a reminder that everything we have, even our food, is a gift from the Lord! This kind of labor of which Isaiah speaks–the labor that satisfies — isn’t a regular job to earn money; it’s a spiritual work–serving the Lord. Additionally, bread is symbolic of God’s Word in the Old Testament and Jesus in the New, as he says in John 6:33, For the bread of God is the bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”

The most powerful message of this passage, I believe, is just before the promise of joy and peace for God’s people –when God’s Kingdom comes to fruition and Creation is renewed. When mountains and hills burst into song and the trees of the field clap their hands. God, speaking through Isaiah, says, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” The Hebrew word translated thoughts (mahsebot) contains the idea of calculations, devices or plans. Human mahsebot–plans or schemes in the Bible are often characterized by sinful deviance, such as Gen. 6:5, when “The LORD saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time” ; or stubborn resistance to God (as in Jer. 18:12) or a misguided sense of self-sufficiency, such as in Isaiah 65:2: “All day long I have held out my hands to an obstinate people, who walk in ways not good, pursuing their own imaginations.”

Isaiah’s point is that God’s people, like all human beings, are sinful creatures, in need of God’s redeeming. Isaiah knows this all too well. How many times does he say, “listen” to a people who don’t want to hear? Three times in this one passage! “Listen carefully to me,” he says. “Incline your ear, and come to me.”   “Listen, so that you may live.”

Here is another important point. When Isaiah speaks of the wicked, he isn’t talking about the idol worshiping neighbors with which the Jewish people are living. He is talking about God’s own people who have adopted the idol-worshiping ways of their neighbors. And as I study this passage, I realize that our gracious God is talking to all of us!

Isaiah says, “Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near. Let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.”

May you remember, friends, as you leave this place how God waits and longs for us to come to him and drink deeply of His Spirit! May you be stirred to labor, hunger and thirst for the things of God, for these are what will satisfy. And I hope that when you see the ocean, as you often do, that you, too, will be amazed at how quickly your life can change, how very important it is to look back and remember all the wonderful things God has done, and to trust Him for the things you cannot understand.

 

Let us pray.

 

Holy One, we come to you now, people who thirst for your Spirit and hunger for your righteous Kingdom come to fruition, all Creation renewed. Thank you for your love and faithfulness to us, for all the wonderful things you have done. Help us, Lord, to put away the idols in our lives, the things that we love too much, and seek your abundant mercy and grace. Lead us to put you first in our lives, to humbly serve you every day, and to labor for the things that matter for all eternity, the things that will satisfy our souls. In Christ we pray. Amen.

Ebenezer snow 2

“Count the Stars, if you are able…”

 

Meditation on Genesis 15

Feb. 21, 2016

Merritt Island Presbyterian Church

 

     “After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, ‘Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.’ But Abram said, ‘O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?’ And Abram said, ‘You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.’ But the word of the Lord came to him, ‘This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir.’ He brought him outside and said, ‘Look towards heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.’ Then he said to him, ‘So shall your descendants be.’ And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.

    “Then he said to him, ‘I am the Lord who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess.’ But he said, ‘O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?’ He said to him, ‘Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtle-dove, and a young pigeon.’ He brought him all these and cut them in two, laying each half over against the other; but he did not cut the birds in two. And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away. As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him.

      “When the sun had gone down and it was dark, a smoking fire-pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, ‘To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates.”

 

***

My friend, Lynn Miller, from Minnesota visited this week. She came to speak during our Tuesday night Lenten worship as a volunteer from the Friends of the Presbyterian Education Board of Pakistan. The group reaches out with compassion to some of the poorest families in the mostly Muslim nation. The Friends group provides scholarships and funds to build, repair and update the Presbyterian schools in Pakistan, founded by missionaries about 150 years ago. Because of the work of the Friends group and the P.E.B., poor, rural and minority children in Pakistan–many of whom are Christian–have educational opportunities not normally open to them.

During Lynn’s stay with us, we learned that she had studied French in college and had hoped to travel the world as a flight attendant, but TWA and Pan Am didn’t call; Michelin Tire did. She often wondered what would have happened if she had become a flight attendant–her dream career. Her administrative experience and people skills came in handy when she became involved with the Friends of the P.E.B. through her home church. Lynn’s job is to handle the scholarship piece, connecting donors with needy students. But she is also a donor, providing scholarships each year for two Pakistani children. She was able to meet the two children–sisters- and their parents during her visit to Pakistan in November. Their education will provide them with choices, other than getting married at a young age, living in almost certain poverty, and giving birth to many children.

Lynn asked about my story. I shared how I felt called to leave a challenging, interesting career as a religion journalist to go to seminary and how it was hard because I knew who I was when I was a journalist–and I liked who I was. I had always wanted to be a writer! When I went to seminary, my identity and my future were suddenly uncertain. I remember my own brokenness and daily struggle to fully trust the Lord, to surrender all my doubts, fears, hopes and dreams to Him.

 

***

 

Abram, in Genesis 15, is also struggling to trust the Lord, when the Lord gives him a vision. The first words, “After these things” connect us to earlier events. Abram’s story begins in Gen. 12, with the first time Abram, at age 75, hears God’s voice, telling him to leave Ur, the place of his birth, his family and his father’s house, and go to a land that God would show him. The promise is that God will make him a great nation, that God will be with him and bless him with land and children, and that he will be a blessing to all the families of the earth. The problem is that Abram and his beautiful wife, Sarai, are not young and Sarai has been unable to have children. But Abram hears God, believes God, and leaves his homeland with his wife and nephew, Lot, without question. They go to Canaan, where the Lord appears and says he will give the land to Abram’s offspring. Abram doesn’t question this gift; he builds an altar and “invokes the name of the Lord”–he prays. Then, when famine forces Abram and Sarai to move to Egypt and Abram gets scared and passes Sarai off as his sister, the Lord watches over them and prospers them, despite Abram’s fearful deception. God’s provision and protection continues and Lot and Abram become wealthy and separate when there is strife between the herders of their livestock. Lot moves to Sodom. Then, Sodom is attacked and Lot, his people and his goods are taken away, but God strengthens Abram to raise up an army and rescue Lot. Afterward, Melchizedek, the king and priest, blesses him. And Abram, grateful for what God has done, gives the Lord one-tenth of everything he has received.

But then we begin Gen. 15, and the scene is drastically changed. Where is the confident man, the brave warrior that Abram was in chapter 14? Years have passed; Sarai and Abram have grown even older, and still, no children! For the first time since he first heard God’s voice, Abram is struggling to believe in God’s promises. So the Lord speaks to Abram in a vision, assuring him that he need not be afraid, that he is his “shield”–ancient language of protection that we also find in the Psalms. God promises him a great reward–but this is a gift of grace, for certainly Abram has done nothing to deserve it! And now, also for the first time in Abram’s story, the elderly man responds to God, pouring out his doubts and fears. He says, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless? And now the heir of my house is not my own child, but Eliezer of Damascus… You have given me NO offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.”

Will God punish Abram for his questioning, for his lack of faith? No, God doesn’t punish or even scold Abram. He reassures him. His heir will be his own child–and this is my favorite part. God “brings” Abram outside. We can imagine the scene.. that he was in his tent, probably lying down, when the vision roused him from sleep, as we discover, in verse 5, that this vision is at night. For the Lord God says, “Look toward heaven and count the stars if you are able to count them.” God is saying, “Don’t look down at your own situation. You are being consumed by what you don’t have! And don’t look back at the past and your disappointment of my promises not yet fulfilled! Look up and remember who I am–that I am the Creator of the heavens and the earth–the one who made even you!” There is a pause written into the text, as we imagine Abram gazing up, in awe, at the starry night sky, and we read, “Then he said to him, ‘So shall your descendants be.’”

And, “Abram believed the Lord,” says verse 6, “and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.” God declares Abram righteous because he believes in God’s promises to him. Then God reminds Abram what he has done for him and that this promise isn’t just about the one child that Abram and Sarai so desperately want; God has a MUCH bigger plan, involving a future nation. “I am the Lord,” God says, “who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to possess.”

But then, Abram has more questions. He believes, but he wants to know more. In verse 8, we read, “But he said, ‘O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?” Abram wants a sign!

God complies with a sign of the promise that is frankly nothing like the breathtaking, starry night sky or the beautiful rainbow that Noah sees after the flood. Abram descends into a deep sleep, a “deep and terrifying darkness” and a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch pass between” the pieces of his sacrificed animals, sealing the covenant the Lord made with Abram, saying, “To your descendants I give this land…”

 

***

I wish I could say that after the vision of chapter 15, Abram had no more doubts that God would keep his promises and that Abram was patient, waiting for God’s promises to be fulfilled. But he did. And he wasn’t. In chapter 16, when Sarai still has not born Abram any children and he is 85 years old, Sarai talks him into sleeping with her Egyptian slave, Hagar, so that Sarai may “obtain children by her.” It’s a cruel mistake that hurts everyone involved. But God doesn’t give up on Abram; his promises of not just a child but a nation, and a blessing for every family on the earth, do come to pass, beginning with a son named Isaac, and, centuries later, the birth of the Messiah for all people, Jesus Christ.

All of our stories are something like Abram’s story! Every one of us is called to listen for God’s voice, to try to figure out God’s will for our lives, and try our best to obey. We are all called to follow in Jesus’s footsteps and live humbly for Him. But it’s not easy to trust the Lord when God’s promises don’t seem to match the so-called “reality” of our situations. We may struggle daily with doubts, fears, and impatience, while all the time, God is still with us and still our “shield”–our protection and guide, as he was for Abram.

May you take from Abram’s story not his failure to believe, for Abram is remembered as the patriarch with a rock-solid faith, which God “reckoned to him as righteousness.” May you remember, instead, that God doesn’t give up on us! And that wrestling with doubts and fears, and pouring them out before God, seeking God’s mercy and grace, is what it means to walk this journey of faith!

I leave you now with the reassurance of the good future God has planned for us. Don’t be consumed by what you want–and don’t have! Don’t wallow in the disappointments of the past! Look up and remember who God is! The creator of heaven and earth–the one who lovingly made you and me! The one whose grace IS enough!

“Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them…So shall your descendants be!”

Starry Night 4

Night sky 1

Let us pray.

Heavenly Father, thank you for your Word that reassures us of your promises and our good future as your people, a people of hope! Thank you for sending your Son, Jesus Christ, when we were lost and could not find our way back to you. Forgive us when we have failed to believe and have not sought your will or your face. Humble us and help us to have a rock-solid faith, but if we struggle with doubts and fears, to bring them to you in prayer–and to seek your mercy and grace. Thank you, Lord, for never giving up on us! Thank you for your love and the promise of dwelling with you for all eternity. May we be stirred to share your loving promises to this hurting world. In Christ we pray. Amen.

 

 

 

 

In the Wilderness

Wuesthoff waiting room 11-24-15Bee Bee getting her belly rubbedBee Bee with Gordon

Meditation on Luke 4:1-13

Merritt Island Presbyterian Church

Feb. 14, 2016

“Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.’ Jesus answered him, ‘It is written, “One does not live by bread alone.” ’ Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, ‘To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.’ Jesus answered him, ‘It is written, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.” ’ Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, “He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you”, and “On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.” ’ Jesus answered him, ‘It is said, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” ’ When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.”

***

I was visiting a member who had fallen and her family at Wuesthoff hospital a few weeks ago, expecting to stay, oh, about 30 minutes or so. My schedule was tight that day and if I stayed longer than a half hour, I would be late for an 11:15 meeting. I was ready to close with a prayer for healing, when the door burst open and in came two unexpected visitors. These friendly strangers would remind me that there is nothing more powerful than the ministry of presence when someone is in need, quietly, lovingly walking beside them as they persevere through the wilderness times of their lives. And that ministry is a God thing; it is unpredictable and often happens amidst chaos and suffering.

Bee Bee had arrived with Rochelle, her owner, one step behind. “Can we come in?” asked Rochelle, but she and her big, red, furry dog were already in–and, taken by surprise, the family and I did not know what to say. Bee Bee is a certified therapy dog with her own hospital I.D., complete with first and last name, “Bee Bee Kenyon” and photo, though the picture doesn’t do her justice, Rochelle said.

You can’t tell by her appearance that Bee Bee, once upon a time, was a rescue dog. Her owners were moving and had too many dogs; they chose to give her away. She is a purebred, golden retriever. Her full name is “My Lady Daisy Bee(double e) Bee(double e).” Everyone calls her Bee Bee. Her job isn’t complicated; she has to be her own sweet self, and bring comfort and joy to people who need lifting up. Bee Bee knows how to work a room. She approaches each person, quietly, head down, and waits for their response. People can’t help but smile when she does that. She brought joy to one and another.  Then, without hesitation, she approached the patient in the hospital bed. The patient smiled and said, “You are beautiful. Do you know that?” After Bee Bee had visited with each person in the room, and everyone was smiling, Bee Bee was looking pretty happy, too.  I think she was thinking, “Mission accomplished.” Then, she rested, for even working dogs need a rest!

While Bee Bee rested, Rochelle shared their story of a life interrupted by suffering, a life messy and chaotic. Bee Bee only goes out with Rochelle each morning between 10 and noon to work as a therapy dog at area hospitals. But Bee Bee has another full-time job at home. Rochelle’s husband, Gordon, suffers from Parkinson’s; he has been bed ridden for 4 years. Rochelle is his full-time caregiver. For 4 years, with the exception of the 2 hours each day when Bee Bee goes out visiting, Bee Bee has stayed by Gordon’s side, seeking to comfort him in his pain. Those 2 hours a day, when they are out and about–reaching out to others in need– Rochelle says, have saved her life. And those 2 hours of visitation each day have brought joy to countless strangers, some who want to take “selfies” with Bee Bee and post them on Facebook. Or just reach down and rub her soft belly.

Bee Bee’s impact on others was brought home to Rochelle when Bee Bee was diagnosed with cancer. She had a tumor removed in January. The day I met them was their first day back visiting after Bee Bee’s illness. During her convalescence, she received many cards and letters from people to whom she brought joy and comfort in their time of need. They were sent to “Bee Bee Kenyon” at Rochelle’s home address! “Get well soon, Bee Bee!” some said. “We miss you!”

Rochelle thanked me for listening to her story. People don’t often invite her to share it, she said. It was then that I realized the real reason God had wanted me to stay at the hospital beyond the half hour for which I had planned–not just to meet Bee Bee and be reminded of the important ministry of presence, but to be there to encourage Rochelle.

With her husband’s illness and her all-consuming role as his full-time caregiver, Rochelle only has one friend, she says. Bee Bee!

***

In our gospel reading today in Luke, we are with Jesus in the wilderness with the devil–diabolos in Greek. As I read this, many questions pop into my mind, such as, “Why is he talking to the devil? Why is Jesus even listening to the voice of evil when he is God’s Son???” Readers know he is God’s Son at this point in Luke because in 3:21-22, when Jesus is praying after John baptizes him in the Jordan, a voice from heaven declares, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.” Strangely absent from this passage is the voice of God. Yet we know God is with him; we learn in 4:1 that it is the Spirit of God that has led him into the wilderness, which is not a lush, tropical rainforest, as we who live in Florida might imagine–but a dry, rocky, barren desert.

If you are thinking the “40 days” may be significant, then you are correct! This passage is meant to bring to mind the experience of the Israelites, who, when they were set free from captivity in Egypt, then wandered in the wilderness for 40 years because of their lack of faith and failure to be obedient to God’s commands. This passage in Luke 4 is actually 3 different scenes depicting Jesus, the Son of God, being obedient to His Father’s will and refusing to be seduced into using his power and authority for any reason other than God’s purposes. These 3 scenes are connected by 3 quotes from Deuteronomy; each one recalls an event in which the Israelites were tested in the wilderness–and failed! Yes, Luke wants us to compare Jesus with Israel; Jesus will be tempted, but will succeed in every test that Israel failed.

Twice, the devil begins a temptation with, “If you are the Son of God…” But the devil isn’t questioning Jesus’ identity. Both the devil and Jesus know his identity and purpose; that’s why the devil has come to try to bring him down, so that God cannot use him to reconcile all humanity to Himself. The word that has been translated “if” may be better understood as, “since.” “Since you are the Son of God…”

In the first scene, Jesus is famished, and the devil says, “Since you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread.” The devil is presenting a want as a need. Jesus refers to Deut. 8:3, when he answers, “One does not live on bread alone.” Deut. 8:3 says, “He humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, with which neither you nor your ancestors were acquainted, in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” In the second scene, the devil presents lies as truth, showing Jesus, in an instant, a vision of all the kingdoms on earth. He offers to “give” Jesus power and authority over them, if Jesus bows down and worships him. But the devil doesn’t have power and authority over all the kingdoms of the earth; it is not his to give. Jesus quotes from Deut. 6:13, “The Lord your God you shall fear; him you shall serve, and by his name alone you shall swear.” For the third temptation, the devil takes Jesus to Jerusalem to the pinnacle of the temple and this time, the devil quotes scripture. He says, ‘Since you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here,” and then he quotes Psalm 91:11-12, “for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone. ’” Jesus’ reply, from Deut. 6:16, recalls when Israel complained they had no water to drink and demanded that Moses perform a miracle to prove that the Lord was still among them. “Do not put the Lord your God to the test, as you tested him at Massah.”

After this final temptation, the devil, diabolos, leaves Jesus. But the devil, who would have an important role to play in Christ’s passion and death, would be back.

Christ’s wilderness experience will help prepare him for his public ministry that immediately follows the 40 days of temptation. But what does Christ’s wilderness experience teach us? I have heard sermons on this passage that focus on how to overcome personal temptation by quoting Scripture, holding fast to the Word of God. I see other important lessons from this passage, as well, including encouragement for us during this season of Lent, when we intentionally enter into Jesus’ experience of 40 days in the wilderness, repenting and confessing our sins, putting away what has become like an idol to us, and worshiping and serving only the Lord. It is a time when we seek a closer relationship with God and to spend more time in His Word and in prayer, listening for God’s voice. It is a time to respond to God’s love by showing compassion and kindness to friends and neighbors in need. And that may mean changing our schedules and routines to make time and space for just being with people, so that special ministry moments, such as my encounter with Bee Bee and Rochelle a couple of weeks ago, can take place.

I was a little late to my 11:15 meeting the day I stayed to meet Bee Bee and Rochelle. But I was blessed with the affirmation that there is nothing better for us to give than to give of ourselves, just being who God made us to be. And by the Spirit that dwells inside of us, revealing God’s love.

 

Let us pray.

 

Holy One, thank you for your Word that teaches us how to live in this world as we await and long for your Son’s Second Coming. Thank you for your Spirit that is always with us, strengthening us and guiding us through the wilderness times of our lives. Reveal your loving presence, Lord, to those who are suffering in our congregation and community. Heal the sick, especially Rochelle’s Gordon, and comfort those who mourn the loss of loved ones. Give us more compassion, Lord, as a church and help us to open up time and space in our lives so that more ministry moments beyond our church walls may happen. Reassure us that we have all that we need to minister to the world, with your Spirit that lives inside of us–and just by being ourselves, the people you have made us to be. In Your Son’s name we pray. Amen!

 

 

 

 

 

In Memory of Anita Thress

Meditation on Philippians 4:4-9

In Memory of Anita Thress

Service to Witness to the Resurrection

Feb. 2, 2016

4 Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. 5Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. 6Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. 8 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. 9Keep 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.

***

The message came in one morning not long ago that Anita was on hospice. Would the pastor come to visit? The family didn’t know me, yet, when they reached out to the church, expecting someone other than me to respond. But they trusted this church they had known since the congregation was young- in the mid 1960s. Some years had passed since Phil and Anita had attended. The Alzheimer’s disease with which Anita was diagnosed about 5 years ago had affected her mind and body so that the woman who was so involved with MIPC in its early, formational years could no longer connect with the people, worship, and activities of the church she so loved. Their three “boys,” whose faith was nurtured in this congregation, had all grown up and moved away for lives and adventures of their own. I would be happy to discover, though, that Anita was the first secretary of MIPC; she also taught children and youth and was ordained an elder in 1977. She was worship committee chair beginning in 1979, was VP of the church corporation in 1983, and was elected commissioner to General Assembly to vote on the historic merger of the Northern and Southern branches of the Church, divided since 1861 when the issue was slavery.

I visited Anita and her family for several days after that initial request for support. These were Anita’s last days and her family truly did surround her with love, taking turns sitting by her bedside at a healthcare facility on Merritt Island. I felt honored and privileged to be used by God to carry the peace and hope of Christ to them–and encourage them that God was with them and loved them still. I didn’t expect that the family would welcome me — a stranger — with such warmth and affection. But they did. And I didn’t expect that I would immediately feel that I was “at home” when I was with them. But I did. Knowing what I know about her now, I believe Anita would have been very proud of the hospitality her family showed me.

At the first visit, we talked about the Alzheimer’s–and the falls that led to Anita’s move to a memory care facility and then, finally, to the hospice facility. Most of the time, though, we didn’t talk about the painful times, the deep sadness they felt and their worries for her comfort and peace. We spent our time together sharing happy memories. We were filled with a spirit of joy–a gracious gift from God. They would tell stories–and we would all laugh. I found myself staying longer than I planned to stay. They brought in photos one afternoon. The time would just pass–and then I would remember that supper was cooking and it was time to go home to my own family. I learned later, from talking to longtime church members, that Anita, like Phil and the boys, was a storyteller, too, with a keen sense of humor, so you weren’t always sure if the story were real or something concocted in her imagination.

I heard how and when Anita and Phil met; she was 17, and he was 19. They lived in rural East Tennessee. He was a country boy with a goofy grin and no job; she was a smart, sophisticated, college-bound town girl who loved to read. She had her own ideas and wasn’t afraid to express them, though others didn’t agree. This would serve her well years later when she and Phil moved to Merritt Island with their three little boys, and she worked as the church secretary. One day, she asked the session for a new fangled electric typewriter because the old manual Smith Corona was not doing a quality job. She demonstrated the old manual, with its problems, to the all-male board that didn’t want to spend the money. ‘Course, most men didn’t type back then, either. Her demonstration convinced board member Pete McCalman that she needed a new one; if the session would not buy it for her, he would!

Though Phil and Anita were very different in personality, they both shared a spirit of adventure. With the passion and impulsivity of youth, they snuck off and got married without telling their parents. Weeks went by, I’m told, until Phil worked up the courage to inform his in-laws by slipping their marriage license under their door. I heard about their honeymoon, camping in the Smoky Mountains–and how a bear stole all their food while they were in the tent. Truth or exaggeration, I didn’t know. But it was a good story, and it made me laugh! Then, sure enough, I heard the story again from Phil’s sister, Betty. I asked her, “Did you know they were getting married?” “Some of us new,” she said, mysteriously, smiling. “Do you know about their honeymoon?” she asked. “The bear?” I asked. She nodded. It’s all true. Or at least Phil and Anita had everyone convinced. Probably the bear gets bigger and hungrier every time the story is told!

Anita, an extrovert, loved to play bridge. A number of people in this room played bridge with her. She did it several days a week with different groups. She convinced Phil, an introvert, that he should play, too, though he always fretted about it and needed 3 “dread days” before every game, she said. She was known for her wicked one-liners, delivered in her “mountain twang” that she never lost, despite the fact that she and Phil moved to Merritt Island when she was only 30. She got tired of people always asking her where she was from. She started telling people, “I’m from Boston.”

Most of the stories I heard involved their 3 boys, all of whom were born in Tennessee. Russ, the oldest, was 6 when the family moved to the same house on Merritt Island that Phil lives in now. Quite a few of the stories had to do with big messes. The Thress boys drank a lot of milk. T.G. Lee came out with a handy dandy 2½ gallon container with a slide-out spout. Anita told her middle son, Brad, “Don’t spill the milk.” Brad retorted, “I’m not gonna spill the milk!” Guess what happened? Milk everywhere. And then there was the story that begins with Phil buying Anita a new can opener, “a really good” can opener (but not electric) and installing it about 5 feet off the floor. She was opening a can of tomato sauce when the boys’ arguing distracted her. The can dropped 5 feet to the floor. “It was an explosion of tomato sauce,” Russ says. “There was tomato sauce on the ceiling.” But it wasn’t only the children who caused the messes and got into trouble. Anita got home early once to discover that Phil was using her blender to stir paint. She arrived just in time to catch him in the act. “What ARE you doing??” She asked. Phil answered, with that same goofy grin, “I needed to mix some paint.”

Anita was the one who brought order to situations. The efficient organizer. She was what we would call nowadays a “multi-tasker.” Everything she did seemed effortless. She was the teacher. She taught the boys how to clean house, do dishes and do their own laundry. And each one had to cook at least 1 meal. I asked Russ, “How did your mom get you to do all those chores?” He said, “There was no doubt that we would do it.”

Phil came to visit me at the church early one morning, some time after Anita had gone home to be with the Lord. He had other stories–and the joy of knowing and loving Anita– to share; we laughed together, once more, so much so that the women working in the church wondered what we were giggling about in my office. He told me how Anita grew frustrated that Phil would not get up in the middle of the night when their sons were babies. He’d say they weren’t calling him; they were saying, “Momma.” Then he’d roll over and go back to sleep. So Anita didn’t teach the third son to call her “Momma.” She taught him to say, “Daddy.” Clay, thinking he was calling for Anita in the middle of the night, was crying, “Daddy!”

Phil, knowing he had been outsmarted by a superior mind, got out of bed.

***

As I considered the scripture to share with you today for this day when we celebrate Anita’s life in a service of witness to the Resurrection, I remembered the joy that we miraculously experienced in what were undeniably some of the hardest days of this family’s life–waiting by Anita’s side in those last days.

Paul was facing death on house arrest in Rome when he wrote the letter to the Philippians, a church that had become to him so much more than a congregation he had planted. They were his friends. Paul often boasted that he had never taken help from any man or church–that he was able to work as a tentmaker and pay his own way. He DID accept gracious gifts for himself, though, from the Philippians, including a servant named Epaphroditus, who was sent to care for Paul during his imprisonment. But Epapthroditus falls ill and Paul sends him home with this letter. Paul worries that the Philippians will think Epaphroditus is a quitter, so he goes out of his way to give him a testimonial. “Receive him with all joy,” Paul says in 2:29-30, “and honor such men, for he nearly died for the work of Christ.” There is something so moving as we imagine Paul, himself awaiting execution, seeking to make things better for the servant sent to care for him–and to lift up the church–his friends–in their grief over his circumstances.

Paul writes that the secret to joy and peace during the most painful times of our lives is to receive and express the joy of the Lord. “Rejoice in the Lord always,” Paul says, “Again, I say rejoice.” He says, “Let your gentleness be known to everyone.” That word gentleness has been translated many different ways; it’s that difficult to translate from the Greek. Translations use moderation, patience, softness, modesty and forbearance. Eugene Peterson, in his paraphrase, The Message, says, “Make it as clear as you can to all you meet that you’re on their side, working with them and not against them.” William Barclay, famed Scottish New Testament interpreter and author, writes that epieikeia is “the quality of the man who knows that regulations are not the last word and knows when not to apply the letter of the law.” Consider the example of the woman caught in adultery. Found guilty, according to the Law, she should have been stoned. But what did Jesus say? “You who are without sin, cast the first stone.” Her accusers walked away. This word, “gentleness,” does not simply mean speaking with a soft voice and not getting angry; it means having grace for one another, accepting one another and helping one another be the best we can be, with God’s help, not judging or being harsh with one another. For God has shown such grace for us! Now let’s look at the full sentence–let your gentleness be known to everyone. Notice that he doesn’t say let your gentleness be known to your family, friends and church. He says, “everyone.” That means that people in the community and beyond should be talking about the grace and kindness of those Christians on Merritt Island–or wherever you live and go to church. We should be different than the rest of the world–because of our grace, the grace God has given to us in Jesus Christ.

And then Paul says, “Do not worry about anything.” He says this because he knows the Philippians ARE worrying about him. But they don’t have to! The cure is prayer. Take everything that worries you to the Lord in prayer. 7And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.  And “Finally, beloved,” Paul says, don’t think about all the bad things that might happen to me. Don’t think about how you may not see me again or that the same persecution may happen to you.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.” And keep doing the things –the acts of love and grace–that I have taught you to do.

The Lord is saying to us today to keep on telling the stories of our loved ones we have lost. Let us keep on telling the stories that make us smile, that remind us of the joy, not just the joy of knowing them, but that remind us of the joy and peace that is a gift from the Lord to strengthen us through difficult times. Keep on telling the stories–and keep on lifting all our worries up to the Lord in prayer. Pray for everything! And may the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.Anita Thress photo 2