Believe and Live Abundantly!

 

Meditation on John 2:1-11

Jan. 20, 2019

Coshocton Presbyterian Church

          “On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, ‘They have no wine.’ And Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.’ His mother said to the servants, ‘Do whatever he tells you.’ Now standing there were six stone water-jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to them, ‘Fill the jars with water.’ And they filled them up to the brim. He said to them, ‘Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.’ So they took it. When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom and said to him, ‘Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.’ Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.”

 

I am honored and blessed to be sharing a message from God’s Word with you today. I can’t believe we have had to cancel worship when it would be my first time leading worship at Coshocton Presbyterian Church!

But I want you to know that  I am happy to be sharing my life with you in a small town, where ministry truly means building relationships, loving God and neighbor. And, like the USA cable network slogan, where “Characters (are) welcome.” In a small town, you are accepted as you are, and honesty, simplicity, hard work, kindness and generosity are valued.

I confess that I am a character, if you haven’t noticed. (Folks at MIPC and Ebenezer, I am a character, right?!) And I have the feeling—I have had this since the first time I visited—that I belong here with you. Is anyone else here a character? Please say yes. But this doesn’t mean I am not anxious, because I am. For many things are new and different for me. I have much to learn. And I want to be a good pastor for you! With my first week of ministry under my belt, the learning has just begun.

The growth that is coming is part of a necessary transformation. And change is rarely comfortable. God is working in my heart and mind—and when our hearts and minds begin to change, so do our lives.

It sounds like a cliché, but I am relying on God’s grace for every day. I am relying on His mercies that are new every morning. Great is thy faithfulness! Great is thy faithfulness!

The good news is that God’s grace is really enough! It is sufficient for you—and for me. Grace and power flow from the Throne, the Fountain of Life—not so that our lives will be easy, predictable and pain and stress free. They flow down to us so that we might be transformed and live a new way, in and through Christ. Jesus says in John 10:10, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

I was thinking about God’s grace on Friday, while I waited at Dr. John the chiropractor’s office. (I am doing OK. The move just aggravated the same neck issue I have had for a while.) That’s when I realized I have become my mother. Has that ever happened to you—that you realize you have become one of your parents? My mom never met a stranger; everyone was and is a friend. At the grocery store, library, bank and beauty parlor in the small town in which I grew up, she would talk to everyone. And everyone talked to her!

All I did was sit down in Dr. John’s office and say something about the weather. Soon I knew the long-range forecast and the status of bread and chicken soup flying off Walmart’s shelves. I learned a recipe for chili, a recommendation of a hair stylist, and I heard a miracle story. A woman shared how she was able to stop smoking when she realized the reason she started as a teenager; she was mad at her father. Years later, her daughter urged her to repent and ask for forgiveness from the Lord and to forgive her father, too.

“Because I want God’s grace,” she said with a smile and a twinkle in her eye. “I want to be forgiven. So, I need to forgive others.”

Her openness to talk about her faith with a stranger—she didn’t know, yet, that I was a pastor—made me think that I am not in just any small town. We have come to a special place. And I am truly blessed!

As she was speaking, the medical assistant politely interrupted her to tell her that it was time for her to see the doctor.

“Not yet,” my new friend said with a laugh and a wave of her hand. “I’m not finished my story.”

Characters are welcome in this small town, a special place. Where miracles happen, and we want to talk about them. Miracles that flow with God’s grace from the Fountain of Life. Miracles that reveal the glory of the Lord, so that we, like his first disciples, will come to believe and live abundantly.

***

Studying our gospel, I am reminded that Jesus is a small-town guy. He might not have been born in a small town, like the John Mellencamp song, cause Bethlehem wasn’t teeny tiny. But he was certainly raised in a small town—Nazareth. Poor, simple folk lived there – people like Joseph, his earthly father, whose job was more of a laborer or construction worker, rather than the higher status we hold for “carpenters” today.

Remember Nathaniel’s comment about Nazareth in the first chapter of John? His friend, Philip, wanted to introduce him to “Jesus of Nazareth, the one of whom Moses and the prophets wrote.” And Nathaniel said, “Nazareth?! Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”

When Jesus meets Nathaniel after that, he compliments him on his honesty and takes no offense. “Here is truly an Israelite,” Jesus says, “in whom there is no deceit!”

Nathaniel, amazed that Jesus knows him so well when they have just met, declares, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” His declarations of belief are a perfect segue to the first of Christ’s miracles or “signs” in Nathaniel’s hometown of Cana—when Jesus turns water into wine.

      Mary’s role in the wedding at Cana is intriguing. She is a strong, compassionate leader with a servant’s heart. When she sees the crisis brewing behind the scenes, she tells Jesus, “They have no wine.” Her few words speak volumes, revealing her intimate relationship as the “mother of Jesus”—something John tells us twice in this passage, without saying her name. His response shows his close relationship with her, though he calls her “woman,” and not “mom.” “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me?” (You can say anything to your mom; she will always love you, right?) He wonders why she is worried; the bride and groom are not immediate family or else Jesus and his disciples wouldn’t have just “been invited,” as Scripture says, and Mary wouldn’t just happen to be there. Even though she doesn’t say it, Jesus knows she wants him to fix the problem. She believes he CAN and should do something. For it would be a scandal, especially for the bridegroom’s family, for it is the bridegroom’s job to provide the wine. The servants would be punished, for it is their job to serve it. And it would be a huge disappointment to the community counting on the wine flowing throughout what was, back then, a weeklong celebration. Without wine, the celebration could come to a screeching halt.

Mary ignores her son’s protests and tells the servants to do whatever Jesus says. (Again, exercising her leadership gifts.) They promptly obey.

Jesus doesn’t argue with Mary after this. I wish scripture would tell us what is going through his mind! I can think of two possibilities. One, he has come to believe that this is God’s will and God’s timing, after all. Or two, he knows all along what will happen—and what he must do—and is only testing Mary’s faith.

What’s clear is that Mary believes in Him. The angels and shepherds, Elizabeth, Simeon and Anna, and the wise men have all told Mary who Jesus would be. She has watched him grow up, pondering all these things in her heart. She is certain that now is the time for his public ministry to begin.

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But this doesn’t explain why Jesus does more than what is needed, and why he chooses such a surprising source for the blessing. He doesn’t just make wine appear in empty jars. He transforms ordinary water in jars used for Jewish purification rites into fine wine. This must be significant. And not just enough. He produces the equivalent of 600 to 900 bottles of fine wine! Like the miracle feeding of the multitude that will come later, there is more than enough for everyone. (I was going to say that there is plenty left over, but if it is the finest wine, perhaps not!)

The wedding could have been a disaster. Instead, it is remembered as an above-average wedding, with the bridegroom getting the credit for saving the best wine for last. Nobody does that!

The miracle happens on the “third day”—a shadow of what is to come—Christ’s resurrection, his triumph over sin and death. This first miracle serves as a sign to Mary and the disciples—and to all who hear John’s Gospel—that Jesus is God’s Son, the Beloved, and, as John testifies in chapter 1, “the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”

The miracle also foreshadows the joyous heavenly banquet, when the Bride of Christ will be gathered around the table and finally see her Bridegroom, face to face!

 

***

 

Thank you for accepting me, just as I am, and encouraging me to use my gifts here with you and beyond our church walls. I am blessed to be in a place where characters are welcome, where we seek to love everyone as God’s beloved. And where we know our need for the Lord’s help, strength and wisdom for every day.

Christ choosing to transform ordinary water into fine wine spoke a different message to me this week than it has before. Maybe we are like the ordinary water, friends, being transformed into fine wine, something wonderful that God will use for His good purposes. If you feel anxious–like I do sometimes–remember God’s grace is enough! We can count on his new mercies every morning. Great is thy faithfulness! Great is thy faithfulness!

This is a place where miracles happen, miracles of grace that flow from the Fountain of Life and reveal the glory of the Lord, so that we, like his first disciples, will come to believe. And live abundantly!

 

Let us pray.

 

Holy One, we praise you for being with us always, dwelling in our midst, leading us on this journey of faith. We surrender ourselves—all that we have, all that we are—to you, knowing that you will change us—our hearts and minds and lives. Teach us to be content, joyful, and hopeful in all circumstances and grateful for your many gifts, ready to share with a hurting world. But also move us to boldly ask you to meet our needs, trusting in your everlasting love and lavish grace that is all that we need. Give us the strength and courage of Mary so that we will truly believe and live as though we believe—abundantly. In Christ’s name we pray. Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

He is Coming in a Cloud!

 

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Meditation on Luke 21:25-36

The Presbyterian Church, Coshocton, OH

Dec. 2, 2018

            25 “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. 26 People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 27 Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. 28 Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” 29 Then he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; 30 as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. 31 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. 32 Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. 33 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

34 “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day does not catch you unexpectedly, 35 like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. 36 Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”

 

***

It’s hard to believe I am finally here, sharing God’s message of hope in Coshocton, Ohio! Thank you for your warm welcome for Jim and me. We have much to learn about our new community of faith—what matters to you.

I have never lived in Ohio or followed OSU football. Please don’t hold that against me. I assure you, and Jim will testify to this truth, that in my years in Florida, I never watched the Gators play! But I did watch the Buckeyes play the Team Up North a week ago Saturday.  “O-H!” (I-O!)

I am looking forward to meeting all of you and hearing your stories. And you will, of course, be hearing some of mine in the years to come. We are already making memories together, with this worship service. Pretty soon, people will tell stories about us!

Jesus told many stories with layers of meaning from his world as he tried to reveal His Kingdom drawing near. “My Kingdom is not of this world,” he says in John 18:36. His is a Kingdom so different than the dark world to which he came in frail, human form to save us from our sins. His Kingdom is so different than the world in which we live today. Friends, if we say that we believe in His coming Kingdom of peace, justice and love, then we must practice and pursue Christ’s peace, justice and love in our daily lives. We must be doers of the Word, as James tells us, and not just hearers only. Amen?

I can’t wait to be here with you! Why is it taking so long? Maybe you are feeling that way, too. It’s hard to be patient. But while I am happy about making my home with you, loving you and guiding you, learning and serving with you and nurturing your faith, I am also struggling with grief, for I must say goodbye to my congregation and family in Florida. It hurts so much.

Our sorrow and grief may leave us vulnerable to fear and doubt. We might begin to question whether we are, indeed, hearing from the Lord and following Him with the decisions we make and the actions we take. But just because something is hard doesn’t mean it isn’t God’s will! In fact, an argument can be made that if your life has become too easy and comfortable, you may have stopped taking risks for Christ’s sake. You may have stopped listening for God’s voice and responding to His Word. For our lives don’t belong to us—not anymore.

As the Apostle Paul says, “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me.”

What has helped me, so far, when I feel weak are studying God’s Word, reaching out to my brothers and sisters in Christ for support, and, as my Grandma always used to say, “giving it to the Lord” in prayer.  For the one who is coming in a cloud is also here with us now.  Trust in the Lord—and pray!

On this First Sunday of Advent, our reading carries us ahead, far beyond the miraculous birth of the Christ child to a pious, humble woman named Mary. We are propelled into the chaos and fear-provoking present age. This is not the Scripture we want to read on the first Sunday in December! We don’t want to think about the end of this age! We want to go shopping for Christmas presents, sing Christmas carols and decorate our homes with greens and lights. I want to make Christmas cookies—peanut butter blossoms with Hershey kisses and molasses gingerbread. And sugar cookies, rolled and cut into the shapes of angels, trees, wreathes and bells.

Let’s be honest. We feel comfortable in the here and now, even with the trials, challenges and suffering of this world. We aren’t anxious for Christ’s return. Not really. Not yet! We don’t like the idea that heaven and earth are passing away, as Jesus says. That’s pretty scary stuff to think that the world we know will soon be no more.

But this is God’s Word to us now in this present darkness, as we sometimes wrestle with doubts and fears. This is the Word of hope we need to hear and share with our community of faith and wider community today. This is the Word of hope we need to live more faithfully, according to His will.

As I study this passage, I am reminded of the old saying, “It’s always darkest before the dawn.”  Jesus is telling us to see these signs of chaos, destruction and distress in our natural and human world as part of God’s plan for salvation. God is in control! While other people are “fainting from fear” and worrying about what bad thing might happen next, we have the hope of what—or I should say who—is to come!

Luke’s gospel is in sharp contrast to what the world would have us believe. It’s only natural for us to go into the panicked fight or flight mode when we hear about bad things happening and feel we are in danger. Luke is saying that as the world grows increasingly dark, our hope should grow increasingly stronger.

“Stand up and raise your heads,” Jesus says, “because your redemption is drawing near.”

A key point in our message today is to cast out fear! That will only get in the way of our becoming what God has planned for us to be, and the Spirit’s healing and transformative work in us. Don’t be distracted or discouraged by the things of this world, he says. Well, easier said than done, right? Bad news travels fast—especially if you have automatic news alerts on your cell phone. But so does the Good News. Remember, we are called to share our stories and bear witness of the hope and joy of our salvation. As I Peter 3:15 says, “But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.”

We are warned against doing what people did to make themselves feel better when they were stressed during the time of Jesus; don’t seek escape through drugs, alcohol or other excesses. When you do this, you squander the gifts, talents and resources God has given you to use for Him! And you waste precious time when you could be receiving the spiritual blessings that come when we labor for the Lord.

The one thing that stands out to me as a particular temptation for us all is at the end of his list—the most prominent position—because Christ knows this is a problem for his followers in every time and place. Do you see it? The worries of this life!  “Be on guard,” he says, “so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life and that day does not catch you unexpectedly.”

So, what can help us be on guard against the worries and fears of this life? Jesus provides his disciples with an alternative to worry in a more familiar passage, beginning at Matthew 6:25, 25 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes?… 32 For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33 But strive first for the kingdom of God[l] and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”

I know from personal experience that we can rely on our brothers and sisters in Christ for spiritual and emotional support and encouragement. As Paul says in Galatians 6:2, “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.”  Be strengthened by Christ’s Words that will never pass away! God’s Word is a lamp to our feet and light for our path, as the psalmist tells us. “…‘Man shall not live on bread alone,” Jesus says in Matthew 4:4,  “but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

I am looking forward to getting to know you and hearing your stories of faith and life in Coshocton. Stay alert! And don’t be afraid! Look around and see not just the bad things that are happening in the earthly realm; ask God to show you the good things He is doing in our midst. Anticipate the good that He will accomplish through His people. Get ready for the good things that God will do in and through you! For the one who is coming in a cloud is with us now! Trust in the Lord—and pray!

 

Let us pray. Holy One, we look forward to your return for your Church and your coming kingdom of peace, justice and love. Thank you that we can trust in Your Word that never passes away. Forgive us for our doubts and fears and for our desire for comfort and ease, rather than taking risks for your sake. Help us, Lord, to practice and pursue your peace, justice and love as a witness to our faith. Heal us, Lord, from our hurts and grief. Guide and keep us in your will. Lead us to draw nearer to one another and to love more and more as we seek to grow closer to you. In Christ we pray. Amen.

A Heart to Give

If you like to see parts of this morning’s worship service including the baptism and the sermon click here,

Meditation on Mark 10:17-31

Oct. 14, 2018

Merritt Island Presbyterian Church

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 17 As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  18 Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.  19 You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’”  20 He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.”  21 Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”  22 When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions. 23 Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!”  24 And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God!  25 It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”  26 They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?”  27 Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”  28 Peter began to say to him, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.”  29 Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news,  30 who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life.  31 But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”

 

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Today, we are blessed with the joy of baptism!  We will welcome Annika and Silas into the family of God.

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We will pray for the Spirit to come and dwell with them, shape and grow them to become what God has planned for them.

 

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When we baptize, we are urged to remember our own baptisms and be thankful. For Christ has claimed us. We belong to Him and no longer live for ourselves. Paul in Romans 6:4 says,  Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. Paul says again in Galatians 2:20,  “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

Our 2018 Book of Common Worship says, “Baptism enacts and seals what the word proclaims. God’s redeeming grace is offered to all people. Baptism is at once God’s gift of grace, God’s means of grace, and God’s call to respond to that grace.  Through baptism, Jesus calls us to repentance, faithfulness, and discipleship. Through baptism, the Holy Spirit gives the Church its identity and commissions the Church for service in the world. … When we are baptized, we are made one with Christ, with one another, and with the Church of every time and place.  In Christ, barriers of race, status, and gender are overcome; we are called to seek reconciliation in the Church and world, in Jesus’ name.” (p. 404) As Paul in Galatians 3:28 says,   ” 28 There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

In baptism, we say “yes” to following Jesus, wherever he may lead us.  And we promise to help one another be faithful to Christ’s call. We recommit ourselves to seeking the “newness of life,” made possible by the Spirit of God.

 

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If I were on a desert island and could only choose one gospel to have with me, it wouldn’t be Mark. Other people have shared my view, I discovered in my reading this week.

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American Theologian William Placher says that Mark has been the most neglected gospel for most of Christian history. Even Augustine of Hippo (354-430 A.D.)  “noticed how much of Mark can also be found in Matthew…” so why “consult a truncated copy,” asks Placher, when “the fuller original was available?”

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Mark is “an odd text—abrupt, sometimes clumsy, written in Greek totally without literary polish, yet astonishing in its complexity…. Written by an ill-educated author long ago, it has amazing similarities to the work of the some of the most sophisticated storytellers of our time.” (2)  It wasn’t until English Deist Thomas Chubb,  a man without formal education, in the early 18th century, “proposed that Mark was really the first Gospel to be written” that scholars began to study it more seriously.

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Many have come to agree with him and place Mark’s writing between 65 and 75.

Following a radical teaching on marriage, divorce and children, in which Jesus rejects his patriarchal culture that views women and children as men’s property, Mark continues teaching on wealth, discipleship and the kingdom of God in our reading today. Jesus is on a journey when a man runs up to him and kneels before him, asking what seems like a stupid question, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” But Jesus doesn’t treat it like a stupid question. He does, however, correct him in calling him, “Good teacher.” When he says, “No one is good but God alone,” he’s not saying he isn’t good; he’s saying,  “I’m not just a teacher.” From the first line of Mark’s gospel, we know that Jesus is the Son of God!

Jesus then asks the man about his obedience to the commandments. Is he trying to trick the man? I don’t think so. He is about to refute a traditional Jewish belief that wealth is a sign of divine favor. Moses warns the Israelites in Deut. 28:11-18 to remember that their prosperity comes from God as a reward for obedience to His commands.

Jesus responds to the man by looking at him and loving him. This is a God who knows us intimately! Psalm 139:23-24 says,  23 Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. 24 See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” Then, Jesus tells him he lacks one thing. The problem is his heart.

 “Go, sell what you own and give the money to the poor,” he says, “and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come and follow me.”

Jesus speaks a similar message to his disciples in Luke 12:33-34:  “Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

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Today’s passage in Mark is a call story, much like when Jesus calls to Simon and Andrew, casting a net into the sea in Mark 1:16.

 

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Except this call story doesn’t end the same way. He is “shocked” and goes away “grieving.” Only then do we learn that the would-be disciple “had many possessions.” Jesus’ disciples would also be shocked by the revelation that wealth isn’t a reward from God.  “Look, we have left everything and followed you,” Peter begins to say, sounding defensive.  Jesus says, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” and then, “Children,” he repeats for emphasis, “how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God!  It is easier for a camel to go through an eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” With his talk of camels  and needles, he uses everyday objects—the largest animal and smallest opening–to make his point; it’s not about a camel going through a small gate in Jerusalem, a story that originated in the 9th century.

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 “Then who can be saved?” his disciples say to one another, confused and perplexed, perhaps afraid of how Jesus might answer if they ask him directly.

Jesus looks at them, like he did at the man with too many possessions, and he says,  “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God, for God all things are possible.”

So, how do we respond to today’s gospel? The church over the years has interpreted this scripture in a variety of ways. Union Presbyterian Seminary Professor Lamar Williamson, Jr. says one way is a literal reading,  popular in the Early Church, which anticipated Jesus returning at any day to meet them in Galilee. The church in Acts 4:32-35, didn’t sell all their possessions, but they held all things in common, sharing so that no one had a need. The second way is “an ascetic or restrictive” reading, with some Christian groups being led to a life of “radical renunciation of possessions and total dependence on the providence of God.” The third is a “symbolic” or “generalized” reading, common with Protestants. Maybe you have heard this interpretation. Jesus’s command to sell and give everything away was only for that one man, because “his love of and dependence on wealth was his particular impediment to discipleship. For all disciples, however, its spiritual meaning is that we must root out of our lives whatever may hinder our following Jesus…”

I agree that we do need to ask God to remove anything in the way of our wholehearted response to Christ’s call. But the symbolic interpretation doesn’t ring true. For Jesus turns to his disciples and says, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God.” The wealth—and not just love of wealth or money—is a problem because it is not shared with the poor! It is a question of justice and being obedient to God’s command to love our neighbors as ourselves. Williamson goes on,  “After we have done our best to make this text say something less upsetting to our system of values, Jesus looks intently at us and continues to quietly affirm that life is to be had not by accumulating things, but by disencumbering ourselves. … This text proclaims the good news that the way to be really rich is to die to wealth. If we are not shocked, appalled, grieved, or amazed, we have either not yet heard it or heard it so often that we do not really hear it anymore.” (188)

Jesus is looking at us now with love. What is not possible for mortals is possible for God!  He who has claimed us in baptism knows us better than we know ourselves! Is there one thing lacking in us? Do we have hearts to give?  How will you respond to Christ’s call?

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Let us pray. Holy One, we thank you for claiming us in our baptisms—that we belong to you! Help us, Lord, to understand how we must live according to your Word. Forgive us for never really being content, for always wanting more and coveting what others have. Teach us how to live in this materialistic, selfish-centered culture, and not be like the man with too many possessions who walked away from you, grieved. Empower us by your Spirit to be faithful to your call. Stir us to hold on loosely to our wealth and possessions, realizing that having too much can be a hindrance to walking with you, fearlessly going and doing whatever you lead us to do. Give us hearts to give generously to our needy neighbors, showing our faith and your love. In Christ we pray. Amen.

Not Ashamed!

To see this morning’s sermon just click here:

Meditation on Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12

Oct. 7, 2018

World Communion Sunday

Merritt Island Presbyterian Church

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      Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds.  He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high,  having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs. Now God did not subject the coming world, about which we are speaking, to angels.  But someone has testified somewhere, “What are human beings that you are mindful of them, or mortals, that you care for them? You have made them for a little while lower than the angels; you have crowned them with glory and honor,    subjecting all things under their feet.” Now in subjecting all things to them, God left nothing outside their control. As it is, we do not yet see everything in subjection to them,  but we do see Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.   10 It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings.  11 For the one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father. For this reason Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters,  12 saying, “I will proclaim your name to my brothers and sisters, in the midst of the congregation I will praise you.”

***

Nearly 40 women from 4 congregations participated in our annual women’s retreat at Riverside a week ago Saturday. It was a time of relationship-building, encouragement and laughter, learning and fellowship, arts and crafts (that’s what the ironing was all about), prayer and worship, singing, and liturgical dance. The theme was, “Flourish”—growing in Christ. Four women shared formal presentations with the group, telling how God is working in their hearts and lives, leading and strengthening them to be whom God calling is them to be. Several talked about recognizing their own need to take risks and embrace the changes God wanted them to make so they could grow in Him.

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One lesson that I always take away from our women’s retreats is that nurturing our spiritual health and growth should be a priority for every Christian—even more important than the responsibilities of the church, our work in the world, our families and friends, and personal needs and desires.  But spiritual growth doesn’t just happen! It requires intentionality—carving out the space and time in our life for spiritual pursuits “to be still and know,” as Psalm 46:10 says, “that I am God.”

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If your life is too scheduled, your life is too full so that you are exhausted and don’t have enough time for prayer, worship,  studying God’s word and showing God’s kindness to people in need, then you won’t experience much spiritual growth. You won’t deepen your relationship with the Lord.  And you will struggle in your relationships with your brothers and sisters in Christ.

 

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What the Lord has done for us and our relationships with Him and one another are of utmost importance to the author of Hebrews. Though it is called “The Letter to the Hebrews,” it’s not written in the form of a letter; it bears the marks of an early Christian sermon. We don’t know who the preacher was, says the Rev. Dr. Thomas Long, a well-known preacher and teacher of preachers in our denomination. He seems to be a well-educated Jewish Christian for  “the Greek of Hebrews has often been called the best in the New Testament.”

The preacher addresses “a real and urgent pastoral problem, one that seems astonishingly contemporary,” Long says.  “His congregation is exhausted. They are tired-tired of serving the world, tired of worship, tired of Christian education, tired of being peculiar and whispered about in society, tired of the spiritual struggle, tired of trying to keep their prayer life going, tired even of Jesus.  Their hands droop and their knees are weak says 12:2, attendance is down at church (10:25) and they are losing confidence.”  “Tired of walking the walk,” Long says, “many of them are considering taking a walk, leaving the community and falling away from the faith.”

What is surprising, perhaps, is the preacher’s response to spiritual weariness. He doesn’t “appeal to improved group dynamics, conflict management techniques, reorganization of the mission structures or snappy worship services,” Long says. The answer is knowing Jesus Christ and understanding what God has done for us in Him. This understanding leads us to shape our lives in grateful, faithful response. Knowing that the preacher is dealing with spiritual weariness gives a whole new meaning to the familiar passage, beginning at 12:1,   “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely,  and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us,  looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross,  disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.”

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At the beginning of our reading today, the preacher declares that the God of the Old Testament who spoke through the prophets is STILL speaking in these “last days” by a Son, not just with actual words, but through His mighty and gracious acts. The “last days” is this age that Jesus ushered in, the time of the “new covenant sealed in His blood,” as we say in our communion liturgy. The author of Hebrews declares the humanity and divinity of Jesus Christ. The atonement or “purification” as the preacher says, came about through one who was without sin, the “reflection of God’s glory and exact imprint of God’s very being.”

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All living creatures are dependent on God, Hebrews tells us, for he “sustains all things by his powerful word,” just as Jesus answers Satan in the wilderness in Matthew 4:4 with, “…‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

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The lectionary skips to 2:5, then, from Christ’s superiority to angels to quoting the beautiful question in Psalm 8:4, “What are human beings that you are mindful of them, or mortals that you care for them?” This is another important message we always hear at our women’s retreats! We are reminded of how precious each one of us is to the Lord—how much God loves us!  God loves you! Have you accepted God’s love for you? Not understanding and accepting God’s love and the promise we have in His Son can lead to our spiritual weariness. This is a lack of faith! The preacher of Hebrews urges hearers to hold onto their faith, which he defines in 11:1 as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

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We can’t see everything clearly now, he says. We can’t understand everything.  But we do “see Jesus,” he says in 2:9. He makes himself known to us, especially in the breaking of the bread! His suffering death opened a new way of life to us. Now we’re living for His glory! We’re living for His pleasure! We’re living for His service.  “Consider him who endured such hostility against himself from sinners,” says Hebrews 12:3, “so that you may not grow weary or lose heart.” We, too, are being perfected through suffering and are enduring trials, says Hebrews 12:7, “for the sake of discipline.” Our Heavenly Father disciplines the ones he loves—His children. This is part of our sanctification, God shaping us into the people he wants us to be.  “The one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father,” says Hebrews 2:11.

 Jesus is not ashamed to call us his sisters and brothers!  

 Jesus is not ashamed of us!

***

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In a few moments, we will celebrate our oneness with Christ and our brothers and sisters around the globe when we gather at the table.  World Communion Sunday started with Shadyside Presbyterian church in Pittsburgh, PA, in 1933, where Dr. Hugh Thompson Kerr served as pastor. Presbyterian Outlook says that Dr. Kerr came up with the idea when he was moderator of the General Assembly in 1930. His younger son, the Rev. Dr. Donald Craig Kerr, pastor emeritus of Roland Park Presbyterian Church in Baltimore, was sixteen in 1933. Donald Kerr says that World Communion Sunday “grew out of the Division of Stewardship at Shadyside. It was their attempt to bring churches together in a service of Christian unity—in which everyone might receive both inspiration and information, and above all, to know how important the Church of Jesus Christ is, and how each congregation is interconnected one with another. The concept spread… slowly at the start. People did not give it a whole lot of thought. It was during the Second World War that the spirit caught hold…. World Wide Communion symbolized the effort to hold things together, in a spiritual sense. It emphasized that we are one in the Spirit and the Gospel of Jesus Christ… (The) celebration of World Wide Communion Sunday was adopted as a denominational practice in the Presbyterian Church (US) in 1936.”  In 1940, when a predecessor body of the National Council of Churches promoted the celebration, the practice became widespread. Today, World Communion Sunday still carries a strong stewardship message, as it demonstrates, Rev. Dr. Kerr says, “that the church founded on Jesus Christ peacefully shares God-given goods in a world increasingly destabilized by globalization and global market economies based on greed.”

 We are all welcomed at the Lord’s table—all of us sinners who long to know and serve Christ more. We come to the table to remember what God has done for us, and share the gifts he has given to us, when he spoke His love, mercy and grace, first through the prophets, and now, in the last days, by a Son.

Accept God’s love for you. Accept that God, as Psalm 103:2 says, has removed your sins as far as the east is from the west! Today, you are a new creation in Jesus Christ! So, live, from this moment on, as a forgiven people! Forgive as you have been so graciously forgiven. Give as you have so generously been given! Love as you have been so lavishly loved! Show mercy as you have been shown mercy! Walk, as Jesus walked, in the ways of peace and justice. May God’s will be done on earth, in His Church, in our homes and schools and places of work, as it is in heaven.

As we partake of the bread and cup in faith, we are strengthened, fed, encouraged, and united by the Spirit–renewed, refreshed and reconciled in Him.

Jesus is not ashamed to call us his brothers and sisters! He is not ashamed of us!

 

Let us pray.

 

Holy One, Majesty on High, thank you for speaking to us of your love, mercy and grace, first through the prophets and now by your Son. Thank you for taking away our shame! Unite and grow us by your Spirit that we may truly be Christ’s Body for the world—heart, hands and feet. Revive the weary. Heal the sick and grieving. Bring joy to those needing encouragement. Give peace to those struggling with anxiety. Help us to accept and experience your love and forgiveness and to show your love and forgiveness to others. Lead us to make space in our minds and lives for spiritual pursuits—for prayer, worship, Bible study, and for serving others through compassionate and generous acts. Teach us to say no to things that are not good for us and yes to the things you want for us and the wisdom to know the difference. In Your Son’s name we pray. Amen.

 

Remembering Chuck Adams (1933-2018)

Words spoken during worship Sept. 23, 2018 at Merritt Island Presbyterian Church:
Today, we honor and give thanks for the life of a beloved member, Chuck Adams, who went home to be with the Lord Aug. 29.
Chuck was born in Kansas on Aug. 23,1933. He served in the Air Force for 4 years. He earned a bachelor’s in engineering from Kansas State and would later earn a master’s degree in Space Systems from Florida Institute of Technology. He worked at the Space Center at Vandenberg AFB in California before coming to Merritt Island to work at Lockheed at the Kennedy Space Center.
You could say that Chuck and Trudy met under the stars. Trudy was working evenings at the ticket booth at the Planetarium at Eastern Florida State. Chuck was a volunteer, working on the telescopes.
They got married on May 24, 1996, at a little chapel church on Courtenay Parkway. Chuck had 2 sons and a daughter with his first wife, now deceased, and 2 stepsons and 2 stepdaughters with Trudy. They have 9 grandchildren and 2 great grandchildren.
“Chuck was a practical romantic,” Trudy says. “I’ll never forget my first Christmas present from him was car parts and labor…”
With Chuck, “everything got fixed,” even things that you and I might have just thrown away. When a broomstick broke, he replaced the wood handle with a PVC pipe. Not pretty to look at, but it worked! Trudy called it a “Kansas broom.” They used that broom for many years.
In addition to star gazing, they enjoyed taking walks on the beach together early in the morning, finding shells. Chuck loved to travel. “We went all over the country in our little RV,” Trudy says. “Thanks to wide open spaces, we survived.”
Chuck joined MIPC with Trudy on Oct. 6, 2005. He was ordained a deacon in Jan. 2009 and served 3 years.
He was “a good man” and loved being with everyone at MIPC, especially the Bible study class.

Pray!

 

Click here to see the video of this sermon from September 23, 2018

Mediation on James 5:13-20

Sept. 23, 2018

Merritt Island Presbyterian Church

 13 Are any among you suffering? They should pray.  Are any cheerful?  They should sing songs of praise.  14 Are any among you sick?  They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. 15 The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven.  16 Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.  17 Elijah was a human being like us, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. 18 Then he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain and the earth yielded its harvest.  19 My brothers and sisters, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and is brought back by another, 20 you should know that whoever brings back a sinner from wandering will save the sinner’s soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.

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We have many reasons to be cheerful today after the wonderful outreach event we hosted at the church on Friday night!  The Silent Auction and Spaghetti Dinner were an example of how staff and volunteers at the church and preschool are working together for a powerful ministry to our community.

     We have many reasons to sing songs of praise to the Lord for His faithfulness!   God blesses those who labor to touch hearts and lives, drawing others closer to Him. We are motivated to do the good works God leads us to do, as James teaches us in the second chapter of his letter, so that our faith may be shown and Christ may be known by our works!

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 The Lord is preparing all our hearts and minds so he can use us even more.  An image came to mind yesterday, thinking and praying about the church. I remembered when I wove a reed basket in elementary school. I imagined God as the weaver. Have you ever woven a basket with reeds? You can’t use fresh cut reeds. You have to first dry them out completely in bunches —that takes time—3 to 7 days, depending on local humidity. In Florida, probably more than a week! Once they are dried out and you are ready to weave, you have to rehydrate the reeds, putting a couple at a time in warm (not hot) water and letting them soak about 10 minutes until they are pliable but not soggy. When you weave, you use only one reed at a time.  It can be a slow process, especially for the beginner.

I imagined we are that basket that God is weaving together—the church, with all its ministries, including the preschool; we are not only a work of art, we are becoming a strong, useful vessel God can use more and more! In His time.

We all have the same job to do while our weaver works. Just wait! Be patient! And pray, in faith! Pray God will heal us and make us whole.

***

Prayer and healing of the community are the main topics of our reading in James. But it might seem random if you only read this piece of the 5th and final chapter and nothing more. The letter was meant to be read its entirety, all at once. Knowing what came before is important to our understanding this text. So, here’s a quick recap: James has already told the church to be joyful during times of trial and suffering for God is building our faith. He says we reveal our faith by caring for people in need and other good works. Ask the Lord for wisdom, for he generously gives wisdom to all who ask. Don’t be greedy; stop doubting, coveting, and favoring the rich. Stop evil talk, for the “tongue is a fire.”  Stop your “conflicts and disputes,” because it’s really about pride and satisfying your own cravings and desires. Don’t judge one another. Don’t boast of what you will do tomorrow, for tomorrow belongs to the Lord.  Don’t oppress the poor who labor in your fields.

Then, just before today’s reading, James says, “Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord.” Everything that James wrote before this in the letter is leading to this teaching. Instead of doubting, evil talk, and becoming embroiled in conflict and disputes, the Church needs to start living like it believes in the promise of Christ’s return for His beloved—and the hope of everlasting life with him. “Strengthen your hearts,” he says in v. 8, “For the coming of the Lord is near.” Job is our example, he says in 5:11, of one who suffered, but “showed endurance,” ultimately revealing “the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful.”

On the other hand, suffering in the Body of Christ should not be ignored. Remember, this is the writer who says, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to care for widows and orphans in their distress…” What does James mean by “suffering?” NT scholar Scot McKnight says the word James uses for suffering, kakopatheo, appears in 2 Timothy (2:9 and 4:5) and may “describe physical persecution” (McKnight, 432), “hardship in war,” or “ordinary hardships in life.” It could mean depression or it could mean the same thing as the word translated “sick” in James 5:14. In any case, if you are suffering, you should pray.

Next, James contrasts those who are suffering with those who are “cheerful.” If you are cheerful, euthymeo, you are not necessarily the “life is good” happy, smiley person all the time. The word Euthymeo “evokes enthusiasm, courage, and a confident faith…often in the context of stress.” These are the encouragers of the community. Those who are cheerful should “sing songs of praise to God,” thanking the Lord and giving God the credit for His gift of “enthusiasm, courage and confident faith” (McKnight, 435). We have many encouragers in our flock, whose enthusiasm lifts others up.

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Then James moves to a new theme —sickness, sin and healing. The word he uses for sickness can mean “physical, spiritual (or) mental weakness…or on the verge of death” (McKnight, 434). If one member is seriously ill, the whole community is affected. James puts the responsibility for calling for the elders to come and “pray over them” on the one who is sick. The one who is sick—did you notice?— must also have faith in the healing power of prayer and confession.

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I love that he brings in a reference to Elijah, the beloved prophet of Israel, near the end, when he urges the church to believe in the power of their prayers. For he was “a human being like us,” James says, and yet when he prayed “fervently” that it might not rain, “for three years and six months, it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain and the earth yielded its harvest.”

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***

Friends, this Tuesday is the anniversary of my ordination to the ministry of word and sacrament—Sept. 25, 2011.  This is a very special time for me, remembering when I first heard that call and answered, with all my heart, “Here I am. Send me.” On that day, I was asked the constitutional questions in our Directory for Worship—and you who are ordained as elders and deacons will recognize these, for your answered these, too, and made the same promises:

Do you accept the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be, by the Holy Spirit, the unique and authoritative witness to Jesus Christ in the Church universal, and God’s Word to you?

Do you sincerely receive and adopt the essential tenets of the Reformed faith as expressed in the confessions of our church as authentic and reliable expositions of what Scripture leads us to believe and do, and will you be instructed and led by those confessions as you lead the people of God?

Will you fulfill your ministry in obedience to Jesus Christ, under the authority of Scripture, and be continually guided by our confessions?

Will you be governed by our church’s polity, and will you abide by its discipline?

Will you be a friend among your colleagues in ministry, working with them, subject to the ordering of God’s Word and Spirit?

Will you in your own life seek to follow the Lord Jesus Christ, love your neighbors, and work for the reconciliation of the world?

Do you promise to further the peace, unity, and purity of the church?

Will you pray for and seek to serve the people with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love?

I said yes, with God’s help.

And then, I was asked the questions that only ministers are asked: Will you be a faithful minister of the Word and Sacrament, proclaiming the good news in Word and Sacrament, teaching faith and caring for people? Will you be active in government and discipline, serving in the councils of the church; and in your ministry will you try to show the love and justice of Jesus Christ?

I said yes.

And then, a ruling elder asked you these questions:

Do we, the members of the church, accept Karen as our pastor, chosen by God through the voice of this congregation to guide us in the way of Jesus Christ?

Do we agree to pray for her, to encourage her, to respect her decisions, and to follow as she guides us, serving Jesus Christ, who alone is Head of the Church?

Do we promise to pay her fairly and provide for her welfare as she works among us; to stand by her in trouble and share her joys?

Will we listen to the Word she preaches, welcome her pastoral care, and honor her authority as she seeks to honor and obey Jesus Christ our Lord?

And you said yes.

And then you, the Church, laid your hands on me and prayed for me —and promised to continue praying for me.

I have felt the strength of your prayers and encouragement.

And I have prayed for you and will continue to encourage you to do the powerful ministry that God has called us to do. I will serve with you, with all my heart.

 You were a strong witness for the Lord on Friday night, reaching out to bless others, giving generously of your time, talents and resources. I was so inspired by you! The preschool is the kind of incarnational ministry that I want to do, when we embody the gospel and reveal Christ through our relationships, our words and deeds, by being who God has called us to be. You have chosen to fully invest yourselves in this fruitful ministry to our community, because you love the Lord and you love His Church.

We are like a reed basket that God our maker is weaving together. In His time, our church will grow stronger, a beautiful vessel that God will use even more for His purposes. If we listen to and obey James’ teachings on how to live in beloved community, we will live looking to the future—not worrying about tomorrow—but living in joyful anticipation of the Lord, who is with us now and whose time of coming is drawing near!

 Let us be patient, then, and encourage each other.  Trust in the God of Elijah, who held back the rain when he fervently prayed and gave rain when he prayed again, so the earth could yield its harvest. Our prayers are as powerful as Elijah’s, when we pray in faith. Pray for one another. Pray for your church.

Pray God will heal us and make us whole.

 

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Let us pray.

Heavenly Father, we thank you for hearing our prayers and for your love and grace that we have done nothing to earn. We lift our voices to sing praises to your Holy name! We pray for healing for all who are sick or grieving in our church family. Help us to be patient, wait and pray during times of suffering. Give us the gift of cheerfulness and stir us to encourage one another. We thank you for equipping us to do compassionate ministry for your sake. Thank you for our church and all its ministries, including the preschool, and for our director, teachers and volunteers. Thank you, most of all, for the children. Draw them closer to you and open up more opportunities for us to nurture their faith. Bless them and their families, Lord, watch over them, and keep them in your tender care. In Christ we pray. Amen.

A Good Listener September 16, 2018

Here’s the video link to this morning’s sermon, “The Good Listener,” based on James 1:17-27.  Just click here to watch the video: September 16, 2018

 

Meditation on James 1:17-27

Sept. 16, 2018

Merritt Island Presbyterian Church

 

         17 Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.  18 In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.  19 You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger;  20 for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. 21 Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness,  and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.  22 But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. 23 For if any are hearers of the word and not doers,  they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; 24 for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like.  25 But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing.   26 If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. 27 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this:  to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.

//www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=James+1%3A17-27&version=NRSV

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 While Jim and I were away in Montreat in August, our denomination announced the passing of a very special person who served the Church all her life. Katie Geneva Cannon was the first black woman ordained in the United Presbyterian Church, a predecessor to the PC (USA). She was the first African American woman to receive a Ph.D. from Union Theological Seminary in New York. She was the Annie Scales Rogers Professor of Christian Ethics at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond when she went home to be with the Lord August 8 after battling leukemia. She was 68.

She had recently said, “Teaching is my ministry. I love to teach. To empower. To equip. To set people free… to live into the graces and gifts they have been given.” Speaking at Princeton Seminary last fall, she said, “The call to teach is like fire shut up in my bones.”

For many students, she was their first encounter with a seminary professor who was an African American woman.  She sought to “instill an embodied, mediated knowledge,” (Aug. 12, Christian Century)“opening the students’ eyes and hearts to the world as it truly is. She lifted the veil of racism, sexism, and classism while affirming who her students were and making them feel valued.”

Katie was the pioneer of womanist theology, a branch of inquiry that didn’t exist before Katie’s writings. For the term “womanist,” Katie credits her friend Alice Walker, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Color Purple. Womanist theology is an “interpretive approach that seeks to empower the neglected voices of African American women and the entire African Diaspora.” (Aug. 12, Christian Century). The approach “seeks to inspire, equip, connect and support black women to be change-makers in their communities…. She saw that in the academy and the church… the voices of African American women had been too often mocked or seen as insignificant.”

Born in 1950, she grew up in the highly segregated town of Kannapolis, North Carolina.  “It was against the law for Katie to go the library, play in public parks or swim in the local pool. She could not even enter the Kannapolis spelling bee.” But she had a genuine faith, accepting Jesus Christ at an early age and attending Covenant United Presbyterian Church in Kannapolis with her family.  Her parents were both ruling elders. Her view of the Church was shaped, however, in the context of the segregated Catawba Synod. The only school open to black children in her community was part of a local Lutheran church—and that’s where Katie went. By 5, she could recite the Lord’s Prayer, the Beatitudes, Psalm 23, the Ten Commandments and answers to catechetical questions, such as  “Who is God?” and “Why did God make us?”

Even as a child, she recognized that there was a “profound disconnect between the egalitarian spirit of the gospel and her oppressive, racist context.” She asked herself, “What did we do as black people that was so bad? A good God would not do this.”  Her struggle with these questions would stir her as a student and professor to focus on “Christian ethics and the culpability of human beings in perpetuating systemic injustice.”

Katie’s was not always a voice that the Church, her community and world wanted to hear.

The NT epistle of James has also not always been a welcome voice to everyone in the Church, though it is one of the “catholic” or universal letters and not addressed to one particular worshiping community. Luther hated it, calling it a  “letter of straw” in the preface to James in his 1522 NT translation

http://www.ctsfw.net/media/pdfs/lutherandthescripturesjames.pdf

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Zwingli had a more favorable view, arguing, “the letter is misunderstood when read in the papist fashion” (Zwingli, Defense of the Faith)  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Huldrych_Zwingli

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Calvin, not naming any names but you know he’s talking about Luther says, “There are also some at this day who do not think it entitled to authority. I, on the other hand, am inclined to receive it without controversy.” (Luke Timothy Johnson, James, 142)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Luke_Timothy_Johnson

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https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Calvin

Luther thought it contradicted Paul’s teaching on grace, works and faith. Calvin held that Paul and James are “not in disagreement” (Johnson, 143). Other theologians have complained that there’s not enough about Jesus, for his name only comes up twice—at the greeting and in 2:1, where I imagine he speaks from a place of emotion,  “My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Jesus Christ?!!!!!” (Exclamation points added.) In modern lingo, “How can call yourself Christians and behave this way??????”

James would be dismayed to learn that certain passages of his letter have been used to argue over hot button issues and sometimes divide the Church. For example, in the 17th and 18th centuries, James 5:14-16 was cited during heated debates about the anointing of the sick.

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=+James+5%3A14-16&version=NRSV;NIV

But the Spirit stirs us to open our hearts to hear something new from James that will strengthen our witness and help us serve as the Body of Christ for the world today. If we were using a womanist approach of interpretation that Katie Cannon pioneered, we would listen for the voices that were not being heard in the text—the voices of women, children, poor and oppressed–and then listen and speak for the voices that are not being heard now. But the truth is, we aren’t really good listeners as a society. We all want to speak and have our voices heard, and we get upset when we think others aren’t listening to us! I think that’s why blogs and FB posts  have become so popular. They don’t require having an actual conversation– listening and responding to someone else.  For listening is an act of love and obedience in Scripture.

The Lord always listens to us, ready to respond in love. First Peter 5:7 says,  “Cast all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.” Hebrews 4:16 says, “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” Matthew 7:7 says, “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.”  So, with the Spirit’s help, we study the epistle of James with open hearts, ready to listen for the voices of the poor and oppressed and for God’s voice speaking to us today.

James tells us everything we have has come from a gracious, good and generous God, who longs to give us every perfect gift from above. Every generous act of giving, he says in 1:17, comes from God! When we are stirred to give, it’s because God’s love compels us. James reminds us of our purpose and identity as the Beloved of a God who will never change. And we are, James says in 1:18, becoming a kind of “first fruits” of his creatures. What does this mean? Here’s a mini-stewardship sermon. In the OT, the acceptable offering to God is the “first fruits.” We don’t give what’s left over to God. We give to Him from our increase FIRST, and we give our best. But James is saying we are the first fruits.  Our lives are an offering to the Lord!

After he talks about God’s gifts to us and reminds us who we are—the Beloved of God, first fruits of God’s creatures, James tells the Church how they have lost their way. They have stopped listening to each other.  Good listeners aren’t always talking. Actually, if you are talking, you aren’t listening, you’re talking! Good listeners are “slow to speak.” Good listeners don’t get angry, for once we are angry, it is even painful to be with that person, let alone speak to them. Once we are angry, the conversation is over and the relationship has suffered. Good listeners are  “slow to anger, for anger doesn’t produce God’s righteousness.” The Church in James time–which was all the churches since this is a letter not just to one congregation–has ceased to bear the fruits of righteousness; they have become people who consider themselves “religious,” and are judgmental of others. They are caught up in political battles over what to believe, how to do church, and even who to accept into the fold. They have become people who hear scripture read in Church, but it doesn’t penetrate their hearts! The evidence is that they have neglected the poorest members of their community. They have forgotten how to love God and neighbor!

And then we have come to the voices that we have been listening for—the ones who were not heard during James’ lifetime and the ones for which we must speak today. James says, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”

In honor of Katie Cannon and to continue her legacy of encouraging and building up women so they may use their gifts for the Church and be change-makers in their communities, the PC (USA) has founded a scholarship called, “The Women’s Ministry Fund.”   https://www.presbyterianmission.org/story/presbyterian-mission-agency-announces-scholarship-fund-in-memory-of-katie-geneva-cannon/

I hope her story inspires you to want to be a good listener, listening for voices in Scripture and in our society that others might not want to hear, voices of women, children and the poor and oppressed and seek to correct systemic injustice. May we all learn to be good listeners, for the Lord always listens to us, and responds with love and mercy.

These last few lines from Katie’s obituary seem to sum up a life faithfully lived, despite the pain of her childhood, growing up with segregation.

“With all her works and accolades, Katie Cannon was an approachable and kindhearted person. She was generous in sharing her time, talents, and resources. She lived the words of the song, “If I Can Help Somebody As I Travel On Then My Living Shall Not Be In Vain.”

 

 

Let us pray. Lord God, we thank you for all the faithful saints of the Church, people like Katie Cannon. Thank you for her service for so many years, for sharing her gifts of teaching and her prophetic voice, urging us to hear the voices that the Church had long ignored, believing they were not significant, and speak for those whose voices have been silenced. Thank you that for Katie pain has ended and she has entered into your loving embrace. May we all live as doers of your Word, Lord, bearing the fruits of righteousness by the power of your Spirit. Teach us to listen, really listen, to one another with open hearts and minds. May we never allow anger or pride hurt the Body of Christ. Help us to hear your voice every day as we seek to walk with you and live for you. In Jesus name. Amen.