We Wish to See Jesus

 

Meditation on John 12:20-33

March 18, 2018

Merritt Island Presbyterian Church

    20Now among those who went up to worship at the festival (of the Passover) were some Greeks.  21They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” 22Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. 23Jesus answered them,  “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.  24Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.  25Those who love their life lose it, and  those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.  26Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.  27“Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour.  28Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven,  “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” 29The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said,“An angel has spoken to him.”30Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine.  31Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out.  32And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” 33He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die. 

***

Our cat, Melvyn, as many of you know his story, was a stray that showed up at my church in rural Minnesota one day.  When I petted him, the orange and white tabby followed me home. He was hungry and dirty. I fed him on the back steps. Then he cried at the back door all night, in the rain. In the morning, I opened the door and the wet cat came in. I fed him again and he decided to stay with us, even though my husband didn’t like cats, and worried that he might be plotting to kill us.

 

Five years and 1,200 miles later, Melvyn is still with us. He follows Jim and me all around the house. Wherever we go.  I think Melvyn is still grateful that we let him come and live with us, after living outside in Minnesota for who knows how long. I am pretty sure he never thinks about his old life anymore.  And he’s not the same scraggly, wild cat he used to be. Our love and care of him has transformed him.  

Our cat’s devotion to those who love, nourish and rescue him from harm makes me think of the devotion God deserves from us because of his love, forgiveness and astonishing gift of new, abundant and everlasting life.

***

Slide32

Our gospel reading begins with the arrival of some “Greeks,” who don’t directly approach Jesus. They go to one of his disciples, Philip of Bethsaida in Galilee.  One reason why the Greeks don’t go to Jesus may be that they are Gentiles and may fear rejection. Gentiles and Jews in ancient times do not associate with each other. They are uncircumcised, unclean. They don’t follow the food laws. They don’t speak Hebrew or live according to the Torah. They eat meat sacrificed to idols. They may worship other gods. But they may be God-fearers, Gentiles who worship the God of Abraham,  if they are in Jerusalem at the time of the great pilgrimage festival of Passover.

Slide33

Why choose Philip? Possibly because his name is Greek, named for the father of Alexander the Great.  And he speaks Greek, coming from a predominantly Greek-speaking area. But also because he is willing to speak to the strangers; he is an enthusiastic follower of Jesus who is not timid about reaching out to others.

Slide34

He is a fisherman when Jesus calls him in John 1:43–the third disciple to respond to Christ’s invitation, “Follow me.”

Slide37

Philip immediately obeys, then tells his friend, Nathanael, in John 1:45, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” And although Nathanael makes a rude remark about Nazareth, Philip invites his friend to,  “Come and see.”

Slide35

Philip doesn’t go straight to Jesus with the Greeks’ request. He consults with Andrew, who has also introduced someone to Jesus. Andrew, in 1:40-42, after answering the call, tells his brother, Simon, “We have found the Messiah.” And he brings him to Jesus,  who looks at Simon and gives him a new name–“Cephas”–Peter. It isn’t clear why Philip goes first to Andrew for advice. He may be worried about the threats to Jesus’ life after he raises Lazarus from the dead; but those are coming from within the Jewish community, not from the Gentiles. Another reason for his hesitation may be that the disciples might not understand, yet, that the Messiah has come to save the world– and not just the Jewish people.

When Philip and Andrew finally go to him, Jesus doesn’t say if he will speak to the Gentiles, only that their coming signals the arrival of his “hour.”  The cross and his glorification loom ahead. But we can assume that he does welcome the Greeks because he says that when he will be “lifted up,” he will “draw all people” to himself. With the parable of a seed that dies but bears much fruit, he speaks of his death so that others might live, but also so that his disciples would be willing to give up their lives for His sake.

The most moving part of this passage is when we encounter the humanity of Christ. With the cross drawing near, Jesus says,  “Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say,  ‘Father, save me from this hour?’” This is an echo of his prayers in Mark 14:35-36 and Matthew 26:39 that “if possible the hour might pass from him.”  36 “Abba, Father,” he says in Mark, “everything is possible for you.  Take this cup from me.” But Jesus will always respond in perfect obedience to God. “Yet not what I want, but what you want,” he says in Mark, Matthew and Luke 22:42.  “Father,” he says in John 14:28, “Glorify your name.”

Christ promises his everlasting presence to all who follow him, saying in John 12:26,  26Whoever serves me, must follow me,  and where I am, there will my servant be also.” This passage will come to mind later, in John 14, with another promise of his everlasting presence with his followers. After Jesus washes the disciples’ feet, breaks bread and shares the cup, and gives them a new commandment–to love one another, he comforts his fearful friends.  “Do not let your hearts be troubled,” he says.  “Believe in God, believe also in me.” He will prepare a place for each one of them in His Father’s house. And he will come again to take them to himself. “So that where I am,”  he says, “there you may be also.”

***

Friends, the Greeks’ wish to see Jesus and Philip and Andrew’s reluctance to bring them to him stirs me to ask if we might be    hesitant to share Jesus with people who are different from us  –in language, culture, nationality or religion? How comfortable are we speaking with those of other faiths or those with no faith at all? We know what Jesus would say about our reluctance. For he was lifted up to draw all people to himself.

Let us recommit ourselves to following the Lord ever so closely and gratefully, being open to sharing Christ with everyone. Let us reveal God’s love through encouraging words and acts of kindness and generosity.  We can trust him to transform our hearts, remove fear or prejudice from us so we may reach out to others, like Philip and Andrew, extending invitations to friends, siblings and strangers to, “Come and see.”

Slide54

Let us pray.

Heavenly Father, thank you for your transforming love for us and for your everlasting presence with us. We praise and thank you that you desire to draw all people to yourself. Guide us in your will; use us for your loving work. Remove all fear from us, Lord, for people who might be different than us. May we be perfectly obedient to you, following Christ’s example. Thank you for the ministries you have blessed us with at MIPC and for all the children and youth who participate in them. Bless them and their families, Lord! Empower us by your Spirit to reach out to our neighbors near and far, to be bold and invite friends, siblings and strangers to “come and see.” In Christ we pray. Amen.

 

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If God So Loved the World…

 

Meditation on John 3:14-21

March 11, 2018

Merritt Island Presbyterian Church

     And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness,  so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.  ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.  ‘Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.  Those who believe in him are not condemned;  but those who do not believe are condemned already,  because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgement,  that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light,  so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.’ 

***

 

 The Rev. Jack “John” Borgal looks up reluctantly from his work–stacking and labeling boxes in a warehouse in a town on the Maryland/Pennsylvania border.  He smiles tentatively and invites me in with a gesture. He stutters and his hands flutter. He looks with wonder at the rows and rows of boxes of winter clothes–about 1,200 of them, ready for shipping to the Ukraine. It is as if he were seeing the project of his passion to help the poor in tangible ways through my eyes, the eyes of a stranger, a reporter from the York Daily Record.

And he is amazed at what God has done.

Slide18

 

Every day, John stops at the post office to pick up boxes of clothing on his way to the warehouse. UPS delivers still more boxes to the warehouse in the afternoon. Volunteers from a church in Indiana would arrive in a few days to load the boxes onto a freight container. Then the donations would begin their month-long journey across the ocean to Kiev, where missionaries would distribute the items to people in need.

From 1992 to 2005, when I covered John’s story for the paper, the ministry had shipped more than 22,000 Dole banana boxes filed with clothing, shoes, and personal care items to 22 countries.  The warehouse in rural Fawn Grove, now called the Fawn Grove Compassion Center, is the only one of its kind in the Church of the Nazarene.

The ministry started with one empty banana box in John’s church.  Inspired by his passion to serve and give, donations of clothing, shoes and personal care items poured in. At first, boxes were stored inside the church–in the basement, hallways and even the pastor’s garage. The ministry grew and the church added storage trailers to the parking lot. The first container of clothing was ready to be shipped in 1992 to Mozambique,  a country embroiled in civil war and ravaged by drought and famine. But there was one small detail John had overlooked–the $8,000 shipping cost. He despaired briefly, but didn’t give up.

He asked the churches that sent in a box of clothing to send $8 for shipping. And they did. John taped all 1,200 boxes in the first shipment by himself.

John, appointed to the unpaid position of Compassion Ministries Coordinator for the Mid-Atlantic District of the Church of the Nazarene in 1991, learned that people in churches who couldn’t afford to go on mission trips and didn’t have much money to give still wanted to help people living in poverty.

  “They wanted to do more than pray,” John said. So he began to send monthly letters to the 90 plus Nazarene churches in the district asking for donations and teams of volunteers to help with the sorting, packing and loading of banana boxes.

The ministry in Fawn Grove continued to grow until, in 2000, Nazarene Compassionate Ministries hired him full time. A year later, the Fawn Grove church  took a leap of faith and borrowed $60,000 to pay for a 45 by 105 foot warehouse to store donations until they could be shipped.

The ministry branched out to include crisis care kits after the Kosovo conflict in 2000  and to countries recovering from natural disasters. In 2004, they started shipping packages of school supplies for children whose families could not afford them. Twenty containers holding 1,230 banana boxes each shipped in 2004 for missionaries to distribute in Poland, Jamaica, Nicaragua, Panama, Liberia and other places; 5,000 banana boxes were shipped to tsunami victims in Southeast Asia , Romania  and the Ukraine. A shipment of lightweight clothing and seven small refrigerators for vaccines traveled to HIV positive orphans and their caregivers in Zambia.

People in the Fawn Grove church contacted me at the newspaper when John received a $10,000 Passion Award from the Servant Christian Community Foundation, based in Kansas City. Their letter included one detail that made his ministry even more amazing to me. His ministry came together not long after he was diagnosed with a mental illness, bipolar disorder, which led him to give up serving as full time pastor and administrator of their Christian school.

It was John’s concern for the poor of God’s world that brought him wholeness and peace as he sought to serve the Lord with what he could do, without mourning what he could no longer do.

The organization that awarded him $10,000 for his ministry called him,  “Banana Box Man.”

Slide45

 

***

John made the connection between God’s love for the world in John 3:16-17, and what God requires of us who have been saved from our sins.

The context of John 3 is that a Pharisee named Nicodemus,  a respected teacher and leader of the Jewish people, has come to Jesus at night with burning questions. He begins, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” His use of “we” hints that he is not the only secret believer in Christ.

Why at night? Some say it was because Jewish teachers studied at night, especially those who worked during the day. More likely, he comes at night to avoid being seen. As we read in John 12:42 and 43,  “Nevertheless many, even the authorities, believed in him.  But because of the Pharisees they did not confess it,  for fear that they would be put out of the synagogue…”   Coming to Jesus at night is also symbolic of him leaving the darkness of ignorance and sin and moving to the dawn of understanding in the light of Christ. Jesus, in John 12:46, speaks in terms of light and darkness again, saying,  “I have come as light into the world so that everyone  who believes in me should not remain in the darkness.”

Jesus foreshadows his death on a cross when he says that the Son of Man will be “lifted up.”  He compares his work for salvation to Moses’ in v. 14, who lifts up the serpent in the wilderness so that Israel,  who sinned against God and are dying after being bitten by snakes, would be saved.

All who believe in him, Christ says, and only those who believe in Him– will have “eternal life.”

Then Jesus talks about works and how they reveal who are believers. He isn’t saying that our works save us. He is simply saying that if we are his disciples, then we will do good deeds that will be “clearly seen” and be a witness to our faith. Others will see our deeds have been “done in God.” But some love the darkness and hate the light.  They don’t want their evil deeds exposed.

At the end of this passage, we are left wondering what Jesus thinks of Nicodemus. If he is a model for discipleship, his is very different than the model of discipleship of the Samaritan Woman with whom Jesus speaks at a well in John 4.  Though she won’t understand, at first, she will be moved during the conversation to believe in Christ and tell the world about him. Many come to the faith because of her. Is Jesus scolding Nicodemus in this conversation or encouraging him on his journey of faith? For one day in the future, Nicodemus and others will come out of the darkness to “do what is true” in the light. Nicodemus will reveal his heart for Christ  when he comes with Joseph of Arimethea to the cross in John 19:39. Together, they remove Christ’s body, then carry, anoint and bury him in an empty tomb.

We are left wondering, in this passage in John 3, about this God who sent the Son into the world, not to condemn it, but so “the world might be saved through him.” Has he left the door open a crack to the possibility that every human being might be saved?

We ask ourselves if what we do reveals the light of Christ within us. And does God desire to use us more to bring about his plan for the world’s salvation?

***

John Borgal thought his ministry years were over. He felt useless, worthless when he was diagnosed with a mental illness. But God had given him the gift of faith and a passion to help people around the world, people that God so loves.

John knew that God loved him and had a plan for him, just as we can be certain that God loves us and has a plan for us, too.

     If we believe in the God who so loves the world, the God who desires no one to perish, but all to have eternal life, then we, also, must love and serve the needy of our community and world.

“For we are God’s handiwork,” Paul says in Ephesians 2:10,  “created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”

The blessings of service and giving are that we will find, as John Borgal did, our own healing and wholeness.

I leave you, once more, with a challenge. What new compassionate ministry can you and I do, starting small, and asking the Lord to grow it?  What will reveal the light of Christ to those who walk in darkness?

John’s ministry started with one empty banana box–sturdy, stackable, and free from local grocery stores.  His ministry grew by steps and leaps of faith and support from his church and denomination. One banana box at a time.

It has been nearly 13 years since I met with John. I looked for him on the Web yesterday. And I found him on a 2017 Facebook post for the Fawn Grove Compassion Center.

They call him, “Banana Box Man.”

Slide20

 

Let us pray.

 

Heavenly Father, we thank you for your great love for the world that led you to send your Only Son to save us from our sins. Thank you for your desire for no one to perish, but for everyone to have everlasting life with you. Help us, Lord, that we may always walk in your light and be a witness to your mercy and grace and not be tempted to slip away to the darkness and hide our sins from you. Give us energy, compassion and creativity to help people struggling in poverty. Guide us in your will. Grant us faith and a willingness to make sacrifices for our neighbors, to give from the heart and from our abundance, Lord, because we have more than we think we do. Stir us to begin small and partner with other groups, perhaps, as John Borgal did, to serve and care for needy people in the world that you so love. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.

 

 

 

Love Me and Keep My Commandments

 

Meditation on Exodus 20:1-17

March 4, 2018

Merritt Island Presbyterian Church

Slide38

    20 Then God spoke all these words: I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery;  you shall have no other gods before[a] me.  You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.  You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me,  but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.   You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.  Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. 10 But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns.  11 For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.  12 Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.  13 You shall not murder.[c  14 You shall not commit adultery.  15 You shall not steal.  16 You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.  17 You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

*** 

The Preschool hosted a rummage sale Friday and Saturday.  They offered all sorts of things at bargain prices–glasses and wood or ceramic kitty cats; a clock that played Mozart or Vivaldi on the hour. Lamps and tables. Clothes and shoes. Toys and golf clubs and golf carts. An ice cream maker–barely used– or a waffle iron, still in its box. It was, as they say, “Everything but the kitchen sink,” only they had a kitchen sink, too, thanks to the Ritters!  So far, the sale has raised more than $400 for this important ministry to young families in our community.

Slide26

I went on Friday and marveled at the “treasures” that people choose to keep or give away. I dropped off my donations, and brought home a few more, much to my husband’s amusement. I bought a beautiful oriental carpet and a ceramic water pitcher with purple iris  that reminds me of my yard in York, PA, years ago and all the perennials, bulbs and iris that bloomed every spring.

The items are even more special to me because they belonged to friends.  I will always think of them affectionately when I see the carpet and water pitcher in my home.

I will keep them close to my heart.

***

The people of God spend 11 months at the foot of Mount Sinai  waiting for Moses to bring God’s Word to them. They arrive in the wilderness of Sinai on the “third new moon after the Israelites had gone out of the land of Egypt.” Time is marked by how long it has been since their release from captivity, just as the Lord identifies himself in our passage today by recalling what he has done for them thus far, I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of  Egypt, out of the house of slavery.”

Slide45

     This is a God who hears the cries of his people and mercifully responds. In the chapter before this one, God compares himself to an eagle in his rescue of his people. He says, “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself.” The image of God as an eagle carrying His people is later picked up by the prophet Isaiah in 40:31– “but those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles…” Now, at the foot of Mt. Sinai, God is drawing his people closer to himself, asking them to listen to his voice and keep his covenant so they may have the promise of being his “treasured possession.”

    What we call The Ten “Commandments” are literally in Hebrew, “10 Words”– ha-d’varîm. The word for “keep” appears in both the Deut. 5 and Exodus 20 accounts of the giving of the Ten Commandments. This keepshamar in Hebrew– means “to  hold onto, care for, watch, guard and protect,” such as when God places a human being in His Garden in Genesis and tells him to  “till it and keep it.” Shamar appears again when Cain kills Abel. God asks Cain where Abel is. Cain answers, “I don’t know.  Am I my brother’s keeper?”

Slide53

When the Lord calls us to love him and keep his commands or words he doesn’t mean follow them halfheartedly, as we might follow laws made by human beings. These “words” are a covenant between God and his people; this is the way of life God desires for the health and wellbeing of the community. These 10 words, Jesus says in Matthew 22:34-40, are summed up in one word –LOVE.  Love God with all your heart, soul and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.

The first commands reveal our relationship with the Lord–that he alone is the one we worship and love, most of all. Nothing in this world should ever take his place. The Sabbath figures prominently in this list, taking up what editors have divided into 3 verses. Not only are we to remember the Sabbath and keep it holy, we are told how we may not spend this day; we may not work! This places our relationship with the Lord above what we do for a living; for it is the Lord who has created all things. Everything we have has come to us from His grace. What’s more, we observe the Sabbath because God showed us the way; he rested on and “blessed” the seventh day.

The commands that follow the Sabbath reflect our relationships with others. First, our parents–honor them, with the promise of long life.  Then, our neighbors. The command not to murder means much more than that; we must do everything we can to guard and preserve our neighbor’s life.  For yes, Cain, we are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers!  The command against adultery means we should love our spouses and hold sacred the covenant of marriage.  The command against “false witness”– means that we should be honest and kind in our communications with others,  only using our words for good. The warning against wrongful use of God’s name doesn’t just mean we shouldn’t swear; it means we should always have the right attitude toward God and speak of him with reverence, gratitude and humility.

It’s interesting that stealing and coveting are two separate commandments. They seem to me to stem from the same sin of greed. Jesus warns his followers to be on guard against greed in Luke 12:15. “Take care,” he says, “For one’s life does not consist of the abundance of possessions.” The one who steals acts on the sins of greed and coveting. It is also interesting that coveting is the last command on the list–a prominent position– and that there is so much detail about what not to covet– not your neighbor’s house, wife, male or female slave, ox, donkey, or ANYTHING that belongs to your neighbor. Wouldn’t it have been enough to say not “anything that belongs to your neighbor”? Coveting must be a big problem for the ancient people of God, as is idolatry, also in a prominent position at the top.  

      God’s people still struggle to live in obedience to His commands. Let us remember that keeping them is a matter of the heart. If we love him, we show our love by our obedience, as Jesus says in John 14:15.

There are blessings for those who keep His commandments. We have the promise of God’s love to the “thousandth generation.”  And there are other blessings, says Psalm 119, when we “delight” in God’s law and “rejoice in following his statutes as one rejoices in great riches.” We are strengthened and sustained. We receive wisdom and understanding, for God’s word is “a lamp unto our feet, a light unto our path.” We are kept from sinning when we “hide” God’s words in our heart and meditate on them. “How can a young person stay on the path of purity?” the psalmist asks. “By living according to your word. I seek you with all my heart; do not let me stray from your commands.”

***

I left the rummage sale Friday encouraged to see our congregation’s support of our preschool ministry. Thank you, friends, for your kindness and generosity! It’s not too late for folks to find a “treasure,” as Pat Smith says, to take home. The sale continues today in the fellowship hall after worship. The Ritters’ sink is still available!

Maybe you will find something that has special meaning to you. I hope that what you choose and keep close to your heart will remind you of this message about keeping God’s commands.

Let us delight in his teachings, his Words. Let us rejoice in them, hiding them in our hearts, as the psalmist did, so that we might not sin. When we obey the Lord, we show our love for Him.  He has always been faithful to us, hearing our cries, answering our prayers with mercy and grace. He has sent His Son to rescue us and reconcile us with Him. He will love us always– to the “thousandth generation!”  And when we are weary, he will lift us up on wings like eagles.  And we will soar with Him.

Let us pray.

Holy One, we confess that we are often disobedient. We don’t feel like loving all our neighbors all the time. We often struggle with discontentment, coveting what others have, wanting more. Forgive us, Lord. Thank you for your love and mercy and for using ordinary people to do your work. Thank you for the power and guidance of your Spirit and the generosity of volunteers and staff who give of themselves and their resources so that your kingdom may grow. Thank you for the children you have brought to our preschool. Please, Lord, we would welcome even more for our preschool and church! Thank you for the Scouts and the Academy with whom we share our facilities and campus. May we be a blessing to one another and dwell together in peace and unity.  In Christ we pray. Amen.

I Will Bless Her

 

Meditation on Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16

Feb. 25, 2018

Merritt Island Presbyterian Church

 

When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to Abram, and said to him, ‘I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless.  2And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous.’ 3Then Abram fell on his face; and God said to him, 4‘As for me, this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations.  5No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham ; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations.  6I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you.  7I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.15 God said to Abraham, ‘As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name.  16I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.’

 

Slide29

 

Are any of you swimmers? I used to be on a community swim team when I was young. Much to my mother’s disappointment, I don’t really swim anymore.

Something stirred me this week to remember learning how to do a back dive. Can any of you do a back dive? We were lined up at the high diving board in the deepest end of the pool. The coach taught us how to do the dive, step by step, with one of the students modeling each position. Then, one of the lifeguards climbed the ladder and demonstrated a magnificent back dive.

Slide25

And then it was our turn to climb the ladder, one by one. Each of us went out to the end of the board where one of the lifeguards waited to serve as our spotter. She or he made sure that we were in the right position before we dove to keep us from hurting ourselves. One of the lifeguards waited in the pool for us at the ladder–ready if one of us may be in trouble in the deep water.

Slide26

 

Well, my legs shook every step up that ladder. I really didn’t want to do the back dive, for one, because I am afraid of heights. Just doing a regular dive off the high dive was hard enough for me. But also because there is a moment right before and after you jump that you really can’t see what is below when you do a back dive. You don’t have the same wide vision or control of a dive going straight ahead. You really have to have a lot of confidence that everything is going to be all right before you jump off a diving board backwards.

I thought of my diving experience when I was studying our gospel lesson this week. This reminds me of Jesus’ call to follow him — to take up our crosses, as he took up his cross for all of us. He has given us our mission–to bring the hope of his salvation to the world and to obedient to his will, though it might mean taking some risks, doing some things that are not easy, things we don’t even know how to do, yet, and may not think are possible. To reject the mission is to seek only what is comfortable, safe, pleasant and personally profitable for us. To reject the calling is to allow our hearts to be seduced into loving the things of this world more than God. The temptation is always for us to be people pleasers, as Paul says in Galatians 1:10, instead of God pleasers.

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But like the lifeguard who modeled the back dive, Jesus has already gone ahead of us and shown us how to live. He has already experienced everything we will experience–and more. We can trust him to be with us now and always to guide us every moment, every step — not just at the top on the diving board– or just watching from the side of the pool.

And if we flounder in deep waters–or maybe I should say, “when we flounder,” we will not be lost. Isaiah 41:10 says, “Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.”

 

***

In our Genesis reading today, we are reminded that the God of the Old Testament hasn’t changed in his faithfulness or his expectations for his people to live in obedience to his Word. We learn that the God who requires Abram to walk “blamelessly” before him– to commit his way to the Lord–also longs to bless him.

Abram hears the voice of God and believes his promise, accepting the new identity God gives him–Abraham–the ancestor of a multitude of nations, though he is 99 years old and not yet a father. And he accepts the new name God has given Sarai, his 90-year old wife. She shall be Sarah and will give rise to nations and kings of peoples, though she has not yet been able to conceive.

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Abram believes the Lord when God says, “I will bless her and I will give you a son by her.”

He believes, in spite of the human impossibility and despite the many years of waiting he has already endured. For nothing is impossible with God!

The Lord first makes the promise of a child to Abram when he is 75, but before the blessing, he must go to a land that the Lord will show him. He leaves most of his family in his hometown of Ur, bringing only his wife and his brother’s son, Lot.

Abraham will continue to believe the Lord, though there will be more divine messages before the promise is fulfilled. Sarah finally gives birth to Isaac, a name meaning “He laughs.” “For God has brought me laughter,” she says, “everyone who hears will laugh with me.”

But God has a much bigger blessing in mind when he calls Abram and blesses him–just as God has a reason for his calling and blessings to us. God intends Abram to be a blessing to the world. This is what the Lord intends for us!

God tells Abram in Gen. 12, “I will make of you a great nation; And I will bless you; I will make your name great, And you shall be a blessing….And in you, all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

The God of the Old Covenant and New remains faithful to us, showering us with blessings to share and be empowered to serve in Christ’s name. Paul in 2 Cor. 9:8 says, “And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work.”

This is a God who longs to bless everyone. Jesus says in John 10:10, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

***

My swim team days are over. Did I ever do the dive? Yes, once or twice. That was enough for me! I was happy to find this week that my old community swimming pool in Damascus, MD, is still going strong.

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The swim team, the Damascus Dolphins, actually looks larger than when I was a kid.

     But is it my imagination, or does the world seem different today? Has it become a more dangerous, violent place for children?

The biggest thing I worried about in high school was doing my homework, passing math, and finding time to be with my friends. I never once thought a shooter would come and take the lives of classmates and teachers. But this scenario has played out, over and over, in my own children’s lives. Columbine High School in 1999.

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Virginia Tech in 2007.

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Sandy Hook Elementary in Dec. 2012.

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A community college in Roseburg, Oregon in 2015.

A high school in Parkland, FL on Ash Wednesday.

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In dark days like these, the Church needs to remember Christ’s call to take up our crosses and follow Him. What is the cost of discipleship? That means risking our very lives to do what Christ would have us do. Is our thinking and what we value so firmly rooted in the things of this world that we can no longer hear the voice of God, crying out for us to change? We have to take responsibility for who we have become, and stop looking for someone to blame. We are a society who would rather fight than reconcile. We embrace divisiveness. Brokenness has become our normal. We would rather “solve” our conflicts by ending the relationship instead of listening, learning from each other, and forgiving one other.

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     Listen to the words of Paul to the Philippians in 2:3, “Then make my joy complete by being of one mind, having the same love, being united in spirit and purpose. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or empty pride, but in humility consider others more important than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.…”

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Psalm 127:3 says every child is a gift, a blessing from the Lord! May we never take life for granted! One child–Isaac, a name that means “He laughs”–made Abram Abraham, the father of many nations. One little boy made Sarai Sarah and gave rise to nations.

Our God who raised Jesus from the dead can do much more than what we know is possible! God LONGS to bless us, as he did Abraham and Sarah, with new identities. In Christ, we are a new creation. He offers each one of us new lives by his transforming grace. May God grant the Church the strength, wisdom and courage to truly be the blessing God has called her to be– for all the families of the earth, an instrument of reconciliation, healing, and peace.

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Let us pray. Holy one, we have become an angry, violent people, embracing conflict and brokenness. Forgive us, for this isn’t your will for us. It isn’t the way of the cross. Give us humble hearts, seeing others as more important than ourselves. Teach us how to listen and learn from one another, how to love and forgive. Heal what is broken in our homes, schools, churches, and communities, especially in the wake of another tragic shooting. We thank you for your love for us and your longing to bless us and make something beautiful of our lives, new creations in Jesus Christ. Lead us to be a blessing, as Abram and Sarai were, for all the families of the earth. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.

Angels in the Wilderness

Meditation on Mark 1:9-

Feb. 18, 2018

First Sunday in Lent

Merritt Island Presbyterian Church

 

9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.  10And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.11And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, ‘the Beloved;  ‘with you I am well pleased.’ 12 And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.  ‘13He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him. 14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15and saying, ‘ ‘The time is fulfilled, ‘and the kingdom of God has come near;  ‘repent, and believe in the good news.’ 

 

***

They sang about two birds on a hill. One named Jack. One named Jill. Fly away Jack. Fly away Jill. Come back, Jack. Come back, Jill! Then they were teapots. “Tip me over and pour me out!”

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Our Tuesday morning chapel with the 3, 4 and 5 year olds was the highpoint of my week. We finished our month-long study of Joseph with motion songs and prayer.

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Then teachers, other staff and volunteers from the church joined with me to lead the children to make “Joseph coat” crafts with grocery bags, paper plates, and color by number sheets.

We even made Joseph puppets on tongue depressor sticks. I was so blessed on Tuesday with the children and all those who wanted to teach them about God’s love and faithfulness. It felt as if angels were all around!

The children learned through drama, storytelling and crafts how Joseph suffered many challenges and dark days–his own brothers’ stealing the special coat that was a symbol of his father’s love. They throw him in a pit and leave him for dead. Then Joseph is sold into slavery and taken to Egypt. While there, though he serves his master faithfully, he is falsely accused of a crime and thrown into jail where he languishes for years in another kind of wilderness. But it is all part of God’s plan to move him into a position where he can interpret Pharaoh’s dreams, with his God-given gift. He warns of years of great famine to come. He saves the lives of thousands, including his own brothers, who come to Egypt for help. And Joseph, with God’s gift of mercy and grace, is able to forgive his brothers, saying in Genesis 50:20,

20 Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve the lives of many people, as he is doing today.”

***

The wilderness is a place of suffering and testing for Joseph–and for Jesus in our gospel in the first chapter in Mark today. Jesus goes to the wilderness to be baptized in the Jordan by John. Like the account in Luke and unlike the baptism in Matthew and John, the voice that speaks, speaks directly to Jesus, assuring Jesus of his relationship to God the Father, who says, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

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Christ’s identity as the Son is declared from the opening first verse of the book of Mark, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” His identity is proclaimed at his Transfiguration on the mountaintop, and finally, at the cross, when a centurion watches him die, and says, “Surely this man was the Son of God!”

What follows the baptism is the Greek word for “immediately” —euthys— the first occurrence of one of Mark’s favorite words. He uses euthys 41 times, while the word is only found 10 other times in the entire New Testament. You won’t be able to count the 41 uses of euthys ­in the English text of Mark because translators have used other synonyms or phrases to avoid Mark’s constant repetition of the same word.

But this actually takes away from that sense of speed, urgency and movement that Mark is trying to convey. Jesus is immediately driven by the Spirit into the wilderness. The strong verb for driven will be used again when Jesus drives or casts out evil spirits from the possessed. Jesus is already in the wilderness for the baptism, but now he is in the wilderness, deeper still.

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He is separated from all human beings. This is no refreshing retreat, no sweet time with God. It is the opposite–a time when he feels far from God as he is “tempted” by Satan. This is usually when temptation comes–when we feel separated from the Lord. These 40 days are a test to prepare him for his ministry and to show us how to withstand temptation and trials. Hebrew 4:15 tells us, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.”

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These 40 days take us back to Noah’s ark in Genesis, when water covered the earth. The frightening, wilderness experience leads to God’s covenant with every living creature, and the sign of God’s promise never to destroy all flesh on earth again–a rainbow.

The 40 days take us back to the story of Elijah in 1 Kings 19:8, who was fed with bread from heaven, but then journeyed through the wilderness without any food for 40 days to the mountain of God.

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Christ’s 40 days of testing take us back to the Israelites’ exodus from captivity in Egypt to wander in the wilderness for 40 years.

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The wilderness is a dangerous place for the Israelites and Jesus, who are with “wild beasts.” Deut. 8:15 says, “He led you through the vast and dreadful wilderness, that thirsty and waterless land, with its venomous snakes and scorpions.” Christ’s testing moves us forward to “a new Exodus, a new way of salvation,” a gracious gift from the same loving God who never leaves the Israelites, though they feel abandoned. In Exodus 17:7, they ask Moses, “Is the Lord among us–or not?” After experiencing the parting of the Red Sea and God feeding them with manna and quail, they still complain bitterly to Moses in Exodus 17:3, “ Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” God responds with gracious provision in 17:6-7, causing water to come from a rock so that all may drink.

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Absent from Mark’s account of Jesus’ testing is his fasting and the dialogue with Satan we remember from Matthew and Luke, beginning when Satan says, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.”

Jesus answers Satan’s tests with God’s Word, as we should. “Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’ Jesus says. And, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” And, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.”

What touches my heart in this brief, swiftly moving passage that starts with baptism and ends with Christ’s proclamation that the Kingdom of God has come near, is when Satan leaves and a weary Jesus is waited on– by the angels. You may not imagine angels as anything more than God’s messengers. Eternal beings, yet created by God, they were present when God created the world. In Job 38, the Lord answers Job out of a storm, saying, “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? … while the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy?” While only 3 angels are named in the Bible — Gabriel, Michael and Satan, the fallen angel, angels are too numerous to count. Hebrews 12:22 speaks of “thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly” in the heavenly Jerusalem of Mount Zion. Angels, in obedience to God, protect us from harm. Psalm 91:11-12 says, “He will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways.”

What is meant by the angels “waiting on” Jesus in our Mark passage? The Greek word is diakonein; from which comes our word “deacon.” Bible scholar Joel Marcus says diakonein describes “the waiter’s task of supplying someone with food and drink,” though the word comes to mean ‘to serve’ more generally.

It makes me feel good to know that Jesus, whom God made a little lower than the angels when he emptied himself and took on our fragile human form, needed help from heavenly beings in the wilderness. And the angels were all around.

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***
Friends, we have begun our 40 days of Lent, a season when we seek to know God more and grow in love and grace.

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We scrutinize our overly busy routines and start carving away what we don’t really need to do. Come on, you know you are doing too much! As Jesus says to his friend, Martha, who demanded that Mary help her in the kitchen when Jesus came over for dinner, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one.” Let us carve out times of quiet devotion, delightful moments with the Lord and His people.

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Let us also add on time to bless and serve–to minister like the angels that were with Jesus in the wilderness. And the angels that are always with me, especially during our preschool chapel. I am sure there are things you have wanted to do for the Lord, but you say that you don’t have time or energy to do them. Why not?

We live in a wilderness, now. The time between the resurrection and the fullness of God’s Reign. A time of joy and abundance, resting in God’s promises and steadfast love. But also a time of testing, hardship, and suffering. The good news is that the wilderness, as Israel discovered long ago, is where God is. For all our needs, for everything, we can trust Him. And his angels all around.

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Let us pray.

Holy One, we thank you for sending your Son, who experienced all the temptations and suffering that human beings can possibly experience, and yet did not sin. Come to us now in our wilderness journeys. Heal us body, mind and soul. For those who feel as if you are far from them, make your presence known. For those who feel you with them, reassure them of your love. Thank you for your angels all around us, protecting us from harm, at your command. Draw near to us, Lord, as we seek to draw closer to you throughout this Holy Season of Lent and beyond. Show us how we might change our routines so that we do only the things that you want us to do. Help us carve away the excess busy tasks and carve out more sweet, peaceful, healing time with you. Nourish us with your Word and Spirit. Stir us to bless and serve one another and reach out with your love and grace to children of all ages. Let us wait on them as if we are the angels who restored Jesus when he was weary in the wilderness. In Christ we pray.

The Power of the Beloved

Meditation on Mark 9:2-9

Feb. 11, 2018

Merritt Island Presbyterian Church

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2 Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them,  3and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them.  4And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. 5Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ 6He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. 7Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved;  listen to him!’ 8Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus. As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.

***

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Martin Luther King, Jr., loved to sing! His mother, Alberta, was the organist and choir director of Ebenezer Baptist Church, in Atlanta where her husband, Martin’s father, preached.

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The church was a short walk from their home at 501 Auburn Ave.  

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Alberta would take him to sing in other churches beginning when he was very young, receiving praise for, “I Want to Be More and More Like Jesus.”

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In 1939, he sang with his church choir at the Atlanta premiere of Gone With the Wind.

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When he was little, Martin befriended a neighbor boy who was white. When they started school at 6 years old, Martin had to go to a school for African Americans; his friend went to a “whites-only” school. Martin lost his friend soon afterward when the child’s father no longer wanted the boys to play together.

Martin suffered from depression much of his life. He struggled with his faith. His father was a harsh man who whipped him regularly. When he was 13, he told his Sunday school teacher that he didn’t believe in the bodily resurrection. After that, “doubts began to spring forth unrelentingly,” he said. Years later, he would say that the Bible has “many profound truths which one cannot escape.” Martin attended Morehouse College at 15, skipping 2 grades in high school. He earned a bachelor’s in sociology in 1947 when he was 18.

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He decided to pursue the ministry to “answer an inner urge to serve humanity.” He attended Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, PA. While there, he fell in love with the daughter of a German immigrant woman. His friends talked him out of marrying her, saying, “an interracial marriage would provoke animosity from both blacks and whites” and would damage “his chances of ever pastoring a church in the South.” He broke off the relationship.

He married Coretta Scott on June 18, 1953, in Heiberger, Alabama.

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They had 4 children.

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At 25, he was called as pastor of the Dexter Ave. Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama.

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He pursued graduate studies in systematic theology at Boston University, earning a doctorate in 1955.

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In December of that year, the Rev. Dr. King would lead the Montgomery bus boycott after Rosa Parks, a young African American woman, refused to sit in the back of a city bus.

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The boycott lasts 385 days, ending when a U.S. District Court rules against segregation on all Montgomery public buses. Following the boycott came years of speeches and traveling, organizing and participating in protests and marches, working for Civil Rights for African Americans, including the right to vote and attend school with whites.

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He was arrested and jailed 29 times and stabbed in the chest by a letter opener in 1958 when signing his book, Stride Toward Freedom.

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His sermons criticized racial injustice and emphasized “man’s need for God’s love.” But more than his sermons, his speeches, filled with allusions to Scripture, will be long remembered. In his “I Have A Dream” speech, delivered in Washington, D.C., in 1963, he imagines a world where “justice is a reality for all God’s children.”

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“I have a dream that my four little children,” he says, “will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” This bears echoes of Hebrews 4:12, The Word of God “judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart,” and 1st Samuel 16:7, “For man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord sees the heart.” Martin also quotes Amos 5:24, “We will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” He alludes to Isaiah 40:4-5, imagining a future when “every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain made low. The rough places will be made plain and the crooked places made straight. And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.”

While the “I Have A Dream” speech is the most famous of his speeches, his “Mountaintop” speech has strong connections with the Transfiguration account in Mark. Martin has received a “mountaintop-like” vision that has strengthened him to trust in the Lord for whatever may come. He makes this speech in Memphis, TN, in 1968, the night before his assassination.

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“We’ve got some difficult days ahead,” Martin says to those gathered in the Mason Temple, headquarters of the Church of God in Christ. He has just told them about the bomb threat on his plane that delayed his flight. “But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. So I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord…”

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***

The disciples in our gospel today, have already seen Christ’s miracles- – the deaf can hear, the blind can see, the paralyzed begin walk. He casts out demons, feeds a hungry crowd with a couple of loaves and fish. Walks on water. Calms a storm. But still, his disciples don’t understand who he is and why he has come. The divine encounter follows Peter declaring that Jesus is the Messiah, but then rebuking Jesus when he foretells his own death and resurrection. The point of the vision is not to strike terror in the disciples’ hearts, though it does make them very afraid, but to reveal Christ’s identity and power as God’s Beloved Son.

Mountains are a biblical symbol for a holy place. Moses receives the 10 Commandments on a mountain. Elijah, in 1 Kings 19:17, in a time of despair, goes back to the mountain, and after wind, earthquake and fire, he encounters God in “a sound of sheer silence.” On the mountain with Peter, James, and John, Jesus’ clothes become a “dazzling white,” as he speaks with Moses and Elijah, reminding us of the radiance of Moses’ face in Exodus 34:29-35, when he had been talking with God– so bright that he has to cover it with a veil when he speaks to the Israelites.

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Peter, frightened and confused, doesn’t know what to say–but neither do the others. He is the only one with the courage to speak. And when he does, he asks what he can do to serve the Lord, Moses and Elijah with his gifts and talents. He offers to build 3 “dwellings” or “tabernacles” — holy places where each may be worshiped. That’s when the cloud overshadows them and things get even scarier.

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Clouds are symbols of life and hope in semi-desert regions. The Lord appears in a pillar of cloud in Exodus, leading the Israelites through the desert. Now in Mark, a voice comes from the cloud telling the disciples that Christ is “God’s Son, the Beloved.” This reminds us of his baptism, when Jesus comes up out of the river, the “heavens are torn apart,” the Spirit descends “like a dove,” and a voice declares, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

 

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But now the voice coming from the cloud commands the disciples to “listen to him.” Because they haven’t been listening, not in the full sense that it is meant. They haven’t believed what Jesus has said about what is to come. They haven’t always trusted him enough to do what he has said. Remember how Peter sinks in the water when he attempts to walk to Jesus?

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Jesus scolds them frequently for having so little faith. They will need help, even after this divine vision on the mountaintop, to trust and obey. They will have it when the Power of the Beloved comes to them at Pentecost like a mighty, rushing wind, with tongues of fire.

***

We pray for the Power of the Beloved as we ordain and install deacons and elders today, charging them with the work of loving and serving the Lord by loving and serving people. Your leadership isn’t like that of those elected to serve on boards of non-profits and businesses. Your job is to strive to be the greatest servant of all, imitating Christ.

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It’s a big responsibility. People will look up to you as an example. It will be a humbling experience, sometimes a thankless job. You will pour your whole self into it, investing all your heart, and you will get tired sometimes. Listen for God’s voice every day, study His Word, and pray you will learn to trust and obey the Lord.

You are not alone. Though you may still feel fearful and confused at times, like Peter, James and John on the mountaintop, The Power of the Beloved–our Savior– will strengthen and guide you as you seek to walk in His ways. Allow yourself to be transformed by Him. You will also have the power of the Beloved–all of us–who will surround you with our love and prayers. We are in this together.

Don’t try to make the church into a human institution. That’s always a temptation. Don’t measure its health or vitality with human measuring sticks, such as dollars in the bank. We are the Body of Christ; we belong to Him. Like Martin Luther King, Jr., our work goes beyond the walls of a church building. We sow seeds; we work for peace, justice, equality and reconciliation in our world. We are the voice for the voiceless, stewards of the gospel of grace.

***

Martin Luther King, Jr., loved to sing.

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His last words before he was shot on his hotel balcony on April 4, 1968, were spoken to his musician, Ben Branch, scheduled to perform that night at an event King planned to attend.

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“Ben, make sure you play “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” in the meeting tonight,” Martin said. “Play it pretty.”

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Let us pray.

God of the mountaintop, Lord of the valleys, sea and sky, we praise you and thank you for Your Son, The Beloved, who has taken our sins away with his death on a cross. Thank you for the new and abundant life you offer to all who trust in Him. Thank you for your power that lives in and among us and guides and strengthens us to do your will. Help us, Lord, to listen, really listen to you, and be all that you desire us to be as a church and as individuals. Forgive us for living each day, not always in faith, but in fear and trembling, like the 3 disciples on the mountaintop with Jesus. Lead us to be your servants, stewards of your gospel of grace, working to right wrongs in the community, country and world– correct injustices, fight bigotry, oppression and discrimination, labor for human rights, and speaking up as the voice for the voiceless. In Christ we pray. Amen.

 

Listen to Your Children Praying

Meditation on Mark 1:29-39

Feb. 4, 2018

Merritt Island Presbyterian Church

***

As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them. That evening, at sunset, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door. And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.

      In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. And Simon and his companions hunted for him. When they found him, they said to him, ‘Everyone is searching for you.’ He answered, ‘Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.’ And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.

***

Kent Whitaker lay in his hospital bed fantasizing about vengeance on the man who had broken into his home, shot him in the chest, and shot and killed his 51-year-old wife, Tricia, and 19-year-old son, Kevin. He kept replaying the event in his mind, seeing the vague, ski-mask-wearing figure inside his darkened home.

       “All I could feel for this man was an incredibly deep and powerful hatred,” the 69-year-old Houston man says in a Feb. 2 story in The Washington Post. But he was a Christian and he knew the Lord wanted him to forgive.

Bible verses pushed into his thoughts, but brought little comfort. “We know that in all things God works for the good of those that love him,” he remembers. And, “Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord.”

So he prayed.

“All I could do was ask God for help,” he says in a Jan. 12 story in American-Statesman. “When I did, the strangest thing that ever happened in my life occurred. I felt a warm glow flow over me. It lasted only a couple of seconds, but when it left, all the desire for revenge, all the hatred disappeared.”

Police initially believed that the Dec. 10, 2003 shooting was the work of a burglar interrupted during a break-in. But it was Kent’s older son, Bart, shot in the arm to divert suspicion, who had orchestrated the shooting with two friends. One was the getaway driver and the other pulled the trigger.

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On the night of the shooting, Bart invited his family to go out to dinner with him to celebrate his upcoming college graduation. But he wasn’t attending college. He wasn’t even enrolled—something he had hidden from his parents. It was a ruse to get them out of the house so that his friends could enter the house and lie in wait for their return.

For seven months after the shooting, Bart lived at home with his father, despite the police telling Kent that his son was a suspect and that his life may be in danger. Bart continued to deny involvement in the shooting and Kent didn’t know what to believe, at first. He told the police, “If I see something, I am going to tell you. But I am not going to abandon my son. I am going to stand with him through all of this even if he’s responsible.”

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Bart was convicted of 2 counts of first-degree murder and sentenced to death. His motive, the prosecution maintained, was a million dollar inheritance. His two friends were also convicted. The shooter was sentenced to life in prison. The getaway driver got 15 years.

Before the shooting, Kent had a good relationship with Bart, he says. They enjoyed long-distance bicycling– sometimes going on 100-mile hauls together. “Tricia and I were active parents,” he says. “We didn’t ignore things.”

Bart has struggled to explain why he did what he did. Untreated mental illness is the most likely explanation.  “I wanted revenge for being alive,” he told 20/20 in 2009. “And I blamed them for that. I blamed them for who I was instead of blaming me.” He went on.  “In order for me to be the person that my parents would love or that they did claim to love, I had to be better than I was…There was an idealized version of me and then there was me… So every time I failed at reaching that goal of mine, I felt like a failure.”

The plot with his friends was like a game of chicken, he said. He was waiting to see “who would back out before the final act.” No one did.

Slide23

Bart, now 38 years old, has been a model prisoner on death row. He earned a bachelor’s degree in English literature by mail, his father says, and is close to finishing his master’s degree with Cal State. But his thesis is in committee and probably won’t be cleared before he dies. The school has promised to award his degree, even posthumously.

His execution is scheduled for Feb. 22.

Slide29

Kent and members of his wife’s family are urging prosecutors to choose a life sentence instead of the death penalty. But time is running out. He says he can’t imagine “the last living part” of his family executed by the state. He says that his wife and other son would not have wanted Bart to be executed.

Kent says, “I have seen too much killing already.”

 

Slide13

***

 

Hearing Kent’s story brought tears to my eyes. It confirms what we know to be true—that mental illness even strikes good, Christian families, with parents who love their children. 

Slide31

Mental illness, in its many forms, is often a chronic disease that those who suffer with it –and those who love them—will have to deal with for the rest of their lives. Mental illness may have a genetic component and can run in families. While medical research has greatly improved diagnosis and treatment over the years, there’s still so much the medical community doesn’t know. But this we know for sure—left untreated, mental illness may devastate people’s lives.

Still, Kent’s story brings me hope that families torn apart by violence and wounded by mental illness can find healing, wholeness and purpose for every day through their faith and by serving the Lord.

Slide32

Simon Peter’s mother-in-law, living in his household, is suffering from a fever and bedridden in the first chapter of the gospel of Mark. What we would call a “shut-in” today, she misses Jesus’ teaching in the synagogue, when the people are amazed at his authority, unlike the scribes, and his power to cast the demon out of a man. In Peter’s day, people believed that fevers were caused by demons. This is why we hear how the fever “left her” when she experiences healing with the touch of the Master’s hand.

Slide33

No words are uttered in this healing scene, though we know that Simon and Andrew speak to Jesus about Simon’s mother-in-law as soon as they enter the home. This is a sign of their hope and faith that Jesus, indeed, can heal the sick and cast out demons, as they witnessed in the synagogue and will see many times as they follow Christ.

Her response to her healing is that she is compelled to serve the Lord, not because he tells her so, but because she is happy and believes that Jesus has made her well! Scholars say she becomes the first “deacon”—waiting on the Lord and his followers. If only the Bible would tell us her name!

Slide34

After Jesus casts the demon out of the man in the synagogue and heals the women with a fever, word gets out. The next thing we know, “the whole city” comes to Simon Peter’s home. Jesus casts out demons and heals many more.

Slide36

What follows is the most important thing–what I want you to remember from this message—the importance of prayer for God’s children. For God listens when we pray and he desires that we pray. Jesus rises early, while it is still dark, and without telling anyone where he is going, he walks to a deserted place to be alone with God. Even the Son of God needs the power of God for wisdom, healing, love, mercy and grace.

Slide37

 

Only after prayer alone, in a deserted place, is Jesus empowered to obey God’s will. As he teaches on the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5:5-7 that when we pray, it shouldn’t be as the hypocrites do—all show and fancy words to impress people. “But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”

Jesus says to Simon and the others when they find him, “Let’s go to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.’” Everywhere he goes, Jesus transforms lives—preaching, healing and casting out demons.

Slide45

 

***

Christ’s Spirit continues to transform hearts and lives today. We learn from Christ’s example that to make time to be alone with God in prayer is to be empowered to love, heal and proclaim the message of hope we are called to do. From Kent Whitaker’s testimony, we know that God can grant us the power to do what we cannot do in ourselves, including the power to forgive someone who has taken the lives of our loved ones.

Slide46

The bedrock of the clemency petition filed for Bart Whitaker is Kent’s forgiveness that came as a gift when Kent prayed. The petition argues that Bart has “changed his life” on death row. It includes multiple letters from death row inmates arguing on his behalf. One inmate says Bart has a “special affinity for helping guys with mental illness.” Another says Bart has an “uncanny ability to calm others on death row” and has inspired him and others to better themselves. Another says, “He is one of the best liked inmates on this farm by the guards and other inmates, and he has worked the hardest to rehabilitate himself. Killing him would be a crime because the system needs men like him out on the farms keeping everyone calm and looking forward.”

Kent says he is proud of the man his son has become in prison. If the Feb. 22 execution date is not lifted, Kent promises to be there, behind the glass partition at the Huntsville death chamber.

 “As he goes to sleep, I want him to be able to look at me, “ Kent says of his son, “and see that I love him. I really want him to know that I forgive him.”

 

Let us pray.

 

Loving Lord, we thank you for your mercy and grace–for forgiving us for all our sins, when we have done nothing to deserve your forgiveness. We confess that we have judged others as more sinful than ourselves and refused to forgive others when they have hurt us. Thank you for listening to your children when we pray and for your desire for us to come to you so that we may be empowered with your gifts and able to do your will. We lift up those in prison now–inmates and guards. We ask that you draw them closer to yourself and that your Spirit would do its transforming work. And we pray for Kent Whitaker and his family, that they would be comforted and healed, your justice would be done, and that your love would reign in every heart. In Christ we pray. Amen.