The Heart of Worship

 

 

Meditation on  Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Sept. 2, 2018

Merritt Island Presbyterian Church

Here’s the link to the video of this sermon. Just click here to watch.

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      Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them.  (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it;  and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.)  So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, ‘Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?’   He said to them, ‘Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.”   You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.’  Then he called the crowd again and said to them, ‘Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.’ For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.’  

***

I have just returned from Montreat where I took a 30-hour class called, “The Art of Transitional Ministry.”

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This was the second part of the basic course I took 2 years ago to strengthen my skills and help the church navigate the adventures that are ahead of us. One of our instructors told us, after her greeting, “All pastoral leaders are leaders of transition because we live in a time of constant transition.”

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We brainstormed a list of transitions churches are going through today.  Do any of these sound familiar to you? Some are moving from larger, multi-generational congregations to smaller, aging congregations, with fewer children, youth and young adults. Some are experiencing a decline in pledging and giving. Some are going through leadership transitions—pastors and staff, elders and deacons. Some have sessions of only 5 or 7 and are still having trouble filling openings! We talked about shrinking Sunday schools and choirs; change in regular attendance and change in attitudes about joining a church; change in activities and programs. We talked about churches struggling with divisions because of “national politics” or struggling with congregational splits, due to actions of the General Assembly to open up ministry leadership to all who possess leadership gifts, regardless of their sexual orientation.

Many of the changes and transitions are not negative; they are cause for joy and celebration! A church is re-opening a closed nursery after new families have come! Others have thriving preschools and mid-week enrichment or tutoring programs; others are enjoying new energy and purpose, looking for new ways to do hands-on ministries and welcome neighbors and strangers in the changing neighborhoods around their churches. One church is reaching out to Cameroonian refugees. Isn’t that cool? Others have growing interfaith relationships or are incorporating new technology and new music styles in worship.

We are reconsidering the language we use to talk about church. We are rethinking our definitions for “mission” and talking more about being “missional.” “Missional” churches aren’t just gathering places for the saints; we are people whom God is equipping and sending out to serve in Christ’s name! Our “mission” isn’t just telling people how they may be saved, so they will go out and tell others how they may be saved, too. There’s a kind of superiority to that—that we have all the answers and people just need to listen and do what we say! Our shared “mission” is more than coming to church on Sunday, though that is foundational to our faith. Our “mission” is to live lives of worship, learning to walk humbly in Christ’s ways, love tenderly, doing justice and showing mercy and grace, so that others will see Christ in us and want to know Him more.

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During our discussion, on that first day at Montreat, one church’s transitional experience stood out to me as profound. A pastor said her congregation is moving from being “consumers” to “disciples.” Some of us whispered, “Wow.”

That made me think of the Pharisees—and the problem they had—that human traditions got in the way of being obedient to God’s commands. And that the problem was with their hearts. And how easy it would be–for some who love the church and our Sunday worship and the music as I do—to fall into the sin of being “religious consumers” and place too much value on human traditions. We could begin to think that the sum of our human traditions is what being the Church is, rather than being the spiritual Body of Christ, formed for His loving purposes.

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How easy it could be to make worship all about us. When it’s all about Him!  At the heart of worship is loving Jesus with all our hearts.

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 The Pharisees in Mark’s gospel have come from Jerusalem and have been following him around and plotting against him since he healed a man with a withered hand in the synagogue on the Sabbath.

 

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So, they are looking for something to use against him—and the hatred they feel toward him is intense. They aren’t just wanting to embarrass or humiliate him; they want to, scripture says, “destroy him.”

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They see his disciples are eating without washing their hands. That doesn’t seem like a big deal to us, but it is. They are drawing a line in the sand and saying that Jesus and the disciples are not one of them.

 

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They are outsiders and outlaws, disobeying the “tradition of the elders” and by doing so, they and not just their hands have become defiled or unclean. They exaggerate, though, when they say, “all the Jews do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands.” Scholars can’t find biblical support for this as a universal requirement. Numbers 18:8-13 talks about this requirement only for Jewish priests and their households who eat meat sacrificed to the Lord in the temple. (William Placher, Mark, 101).

But this is key to understanding the passage;  the Pharisees are looking for something to hold against Jesus and his disciples—something that they may sincerely believe is true, when it isn’t—that if they eat without washing their hands, they will be made unclean, even if what they eat is permissible by dietary laws. They are  consumers of their religion, knowing and relishing all the rules and knowing how to use them to their favor and, they hope, to bring about the downfall of their enemies.

Jesus isn’t flustered or startled. He has a plan. He uses their attack as a teaching opportunity. They are hypocrites, he says, and he quotes Isaiah 29:13; this is the first “scriptural rebuttal” in Mark (Marcus, 449).

 “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me,” he says; “in vain, do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines”—meaning their worship, which is how they live their whole lives in submission to God’s commands—is ALL ABOUT THEM.  “You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition,” Jesus adds, meaning human tradition actually replaces and violates God’s commands.

Unfortunately, the lectionary omits an important piece of the passage, when Jesus gives an example of how the Pharisees use human traditions to break the commandment to “honor your father and mother.”

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The sons dedicate their property to the temple. If their father or mother gets into financial trouble, the sons are supposed to help them by selling some of their property and giving their parents the money. But if they have dedicated their property to God, they can say, “Sorry, I can’t help you,”  “thus making void the word of God,” Jesus says in 7:13, “through your tradition that you have handed on.” You’ve been doing this a long time and teaching it to your children!  “And you do many things like this.”

Jesus isn’t finished with his lesson, which isn’t just for the Pharisees and his disciples; it’s for everyone, including us. He calls the crowd together and tells a short parable. “Listen to me,” he says, Listen up!  “all of you, and understand: 15 there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.” With his parable, Jesus declares all foods “clean” and blasts those who hold to the dietary laws—that’s everybody in his community! Think how many people he is offending with his message, especially the religious authorities! He criticizes those who hold to the food laws, but fail to love, as he will say in Mark 12:30-31, the Lord their God with all their heart and soul and mind and strength…and their neighbor as themselves. The evil intentions that stir us to sin against God and neighbor, he says, come not from the devil! We can’t say the devil made me do it! The evil intentions come from within the human heart!

What’s interesting is how this passage seems to foreshadow what will happen with the early church in Acts. Some of you have been reading Acts in Sunday school– how the food laws are, at first, a stumbling block for the Jewish apostles to share the gospel with Gentiles. But in Acts 10, Peter has a vision of a sheet of animals that the food laws proclaim unclean coming down from heaven. Some of my Bible professors called this the “meat blanket .”  A voice commands, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.” Peter says, “Oh, no, I couldn’t do that,” because he’s never done that before. He was taught this was wrong! But the voice from heaven repeats the command—isn’t that what God does when we don’t listen the first time– and says,  “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”

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Peter eventually realizes God isn’t just talking about food; he’s talking about people.  “You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile,” he will say to a Gentile named Cornelius, who invited Peter to his home to share his message of the Risen Christ. “But God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean.”

 

***

 

In a few moments, we will gather around the Lord’s table.

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 Our Lord welcomes all to come to Him, wherever we are on our journeys of faith. We come to spiritually partake of a heavenly banquet, to feed on Christ’s body, broken for our sakes and His blood shed for the forgiveness of sins. We come as people who still struggle with sin and doubt, but also as the Redeemed. We come with sincere faith—because if we don’t have faith, it won’t mean anything to us. We come with open hearts, praying for a glimpse of God’s Reign, to experience God’s presence, and receive His grace. We come not as religious consumers but as joyful disciples, seeking to be closer to the One who loves and accepts us as we are, but loves us too much to leave us that way. We come to be transformed, united, reconciled. For there are no divisions in Christ’s Body. We are one in Him.

We come with gratitude for all that God has done, for the promise of eternal life with Him. We come to be strengthened and encouraged, equipped and sent out as Christ’s Body for the world!  As we come, we can’t help but remember that worship is not about us. It’s all about Him.

 

Let us pray.

 

Holy One, We love you and thank you for Jesus, who died so that we may be reconciled and brought into right relationship with you and one another. Thank you for your promises to us—that you will be with us always, that by your Spirit we are made one in You. That we are Your Church, so therefore we do not fear for our future, for in life and in death, we belong to you. Strengthen us through all the transitions you have planned for us. We trust in you for all the adventures that lay ahead. Make us, Lord, into your faithful, joyful disciples. May we never be merely religious consumers, seeking to have our desires fulfilled, rather than seeking to be pleasing to YOU. Draw us closer to you in worship. May it be all about you. Send us out to live as your Redeemed in gratitude to YOU. In Christ’s name we pray. Amen.

 

Blessed are Those Who Mourn

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Meditation on Matthew 5:1-12a

In Memory of Henry Grady Winston, Jr.

Aug. 25, 2018

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. 10 Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11 Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven…”                                                                                                                            

***

Henry and I met about 3 years ago, when I came to be pastor of Merritt Island Presbyterian Church. He wasn’t able to attend worship regularly because of his health and mobility issues, so I visited him in his apartment in what is now “Solaris.” He came to his church with his daughter, Peggy, when she was in town and said he always felt better after coming. He was a member of MIPC for more than 50 years. He encouraged me in my ministry, thanking me when I brought him communion and read scripture with him. We had good conversations about the church; he told stories, but didn’t gossip. He didn’t look back with rose-colored glasses or long for the past. He was honest, a truth teller, about his experiences and sometimes disappointments years ago. I appreciated his openness and loyalty to a church of imperfect people, knowing their need for a Savior and longing to be perfected by Christ.

We talked about things we had in common, for Henry, though he moved to Florida in 1967, was a northerner like me. We both had lived in Pennsylvania; he was from the borough of Conway in Beaver County, Western PA, and I had lived in York County in South Central PA for 14 years. He and I both loved cats and pickles. He loved his family most of all. And I had moved to Florida to be closer to my aging parents. We just celebrated my dad’s 84th birthday with him yesterday. Henry showed me pictures and talked about his children, grandchildren and his wife, Betty, who died of cancer 20 years ago. He talked about when his family embarked on an adventure, moving to Florida to get out of the cold winters when the two boys—Skip and Paul–were young and kept coming down with croup. They didn’t have croup after they moved to Florida, Henry said. Not once. He talked about how lucky and blessed he felt when he and Betty both got jobs with Southern Bell. He was a hard worker and had come from humble beginnings. His family, when he was young, had lived on a small farm in North Carolina, with no running water, before they moved to PA, where his dad found work on the railroad. He held onto the faith that was formed when he was a child. Among his personal belongings, Peggy discovered his certificate, from June 14, 1935, of “regular attendance and faithful work in the primary department of Vacation Church School” at the Presbyterian Church of Jackson Springs, NC.

VBS certificate

 

He served his country in the Navy in WWII from March 1944 till Feb. 1946. During his service, he was sent to the Pacific to help with the 1946 evacuation of the Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands before our country conducted its largest nuclear weapons’ test–a 15-megaton atomic bomb. Although I knew Henry had been in the Navy and had told him that both my parents were in the Navy, I didn’t know he had served in WWII. I think that, like many veterans, he loved his country and was proud to serve it, but nothing made him happier than to come home to his family.

He was a supportive father, coaching softball and driving his son, Paul, to all his sports’ practices and events, including all the way to Lincoln, NE, for wrestling matches. Those who knew him and Betty as neighbors when they lived in a home on Merritt Island near the church called him, “The mayor of Grenada.” He was outgoing, spoke with a soft voice and had keen hearing. He was a friend to many and was on the hospitality committee at Solaris, giving tours to prospective tenants and welcoming new folks into the community.

He had a joyful, playful spirit. When he was younger, he and Betty bowled in a league and played bridge. When he was at the hospital a few weeks ago, he had the nurses write on his white board, “I’m the BINGO champion.” I meant to ask him what that was all about—how do you get to be a BINGO champion? Is there a strategy with BINGO? He and a man named Al had a competition going. But soon after I got to Henry’s room, a tall woman named Ursula arrived to give him physical therapy and assured me she wanted me to stay, as I was his loved one. Henry, though weak and exhausted from his health crisis that had brought him there, threw back his head and laughed heartily. “My loved one?!” he said. “She’s my pastor!” Later, when we were alone, I told him it would have been OK with me if he hadn’t protested. “I do love you,” I said. “And I am your pastor.” But I did get from his jubilant response that he was glad I was his pastor. Henry accepted me as the first female pastor he and his church have ever had.

He tried his best to sit up, stand and walk with his walker for Ursula. We were both a little afraid of her. He never lost his sense of humor. When she asked if there was someone living with him—meaning someone to take care of him when he was discharged—he smiled and told Ursula he lived with 86 women! He was telling the truth; there are probably 86 women living at Solaris. But he didn’t tell her that he lived at Solaris. I volunteered to fill in that little detail.

***

Jesus, in his Sermon on the Mount, paints a picture of the Kingdom of God that is here now, but is also in the future, when His Kingdom comes to fruition. But His Kingdom is hard to see, no impossible to see, without the Holy Spirit illuminating it for us as we study God’s Word and pray for our eyes to be opened. For Christ’s Kingdom, as he will tell Pontius Pilate in John 18:36, “is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.”

This message is for those who seek to be nearer to God—to know Christ more and be like Him. We are the ones Jesus is talking about who are blessed—or “happy” as some translations say, though we might not always feel happy in this world of suffering.

Not all of our sufferings are due to our fragile bodies being just temporary dwelling places for Christ’s Spirit until we are glorified with Him. We suffer because our world—all Creation–is broken and corrupted by sin. The good news is that the Spirit is working in us now; we are being transformed, re-created. The Apostle Paul says in 2 Cor. 5:17, “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!”

Listen to the promises of Jesus…The Kingdom belongs to the poor in Spirit! The pure in heart will see God!  God’s children are peacemakers! The earth belongs to the meek—those who are submissive, obedient and humble! Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness will be filled! The merciful will receive mercy! And those who mourn, as you do now, will be comforted.

Those who have been persecuted—falsely accused, ridiculed, rejected— will rejoice because our reward is great in heaven, not because of our own goodness or worldly accomplishments, but because the love, grace and mercy of God has been poured into us by the Holy Spirit, leading us to live each day with strength, courage, peace and faith.

***

Henry recognized God’s hand in his life and appreciated His blessings, even when life was really hard. The physical therapist, before she left his hospital room, told Henry that it would be best if he went to rehab before going back home.

Henry just nodded his head and looked sad. He didn’t complain, get angry or show frustration. He had his family, his faith and his friends. He knew what was important, as the Apostle Paul tells us in 1 Cor. 13:8, how “love never ends.”

He thanked me for coming to see him and for praying for him—that day and the times before. He told me to go find Peggy because she would want to see me before I left. But he was also sending me off to minister to his family, because he knew. God was preparing his heart for what was to come. He was worried about his loved ones, those who would mourn for him.

He would want me to share with you now the hope and promise of the resurrection and the glorious Kingdom that may be hard to see now because there’s so much darkness in this world. But there’s goodness, too. And love! The Kingdom is here AND it’s coming soon! He is coming again for His Church. And we will be blessed! We will rejoice! You who are peacemakers will be embraced as the children of God! You who are merciful will receive mercy! You who hunger and thirst for righteousness will be filled!  You who mourn, will be comforted! Every tear will be wiped away when you see Him face to face!

Amen.

Give me wisdom!

Meditation on 1 Kings 2:10-12; 3:3-14

Merritt Island Presbyterian Church

Aug. 19, 2018

To see the video of this sermon, click here.

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10 Then David slept with his ancestors, and was buried in the city of David. 11 The time that David reigned over Israel was forty years; he reigned seven years in Hebron, and thirty-three years in Jerusalem.  12 So Solomon sat on the throne of his father David; and his kingdom was firmly established…  Solomon loved the Lord, walking in the statutes of his father David; only, he sacrificed and offered incense at the high places.  The king went to Gibeon to sacrifice there, for that was the principal high place; Solomon used to offer a thousand burnt offerings on that altar. At Gibeon the Lord appeared to Solomon in a dream by night; and God said, “Ask what I should give you.”  And Solomon said, “You have shown great and steadfast love to your servant my father David, because he walked before you in faithfulness, in righteousness, and in uprightness of heart toward you;  and you have kept for him this great and steadfast love, and have given him a son to sit on his throne today.  And now, O Lord my God, you have made your servant king in place of my father David, although I am only a little child; I do not know how to go out or come in.   And your servant is in the midst of the people whom you have chosen, a great people, so numerous they cannot be numbered or counted. Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people?”

 10 It pleased the Lord that Solomon had asked this. 11 God said to him, “Because you have asked this,   and have not asked for yourself long life or riches, or for the life of your enemies, but have asked for yourself understanding to discern what is right, 12 I now do according to your word. Indeed I give you a wise and discerning mind; no one like you has been before you and no one like you shall arise after you.  13 I give you also what you have not asked, both riches and honor all your life; no other king shall compare with you.  14 If you will walk in my ways, keeping my statutes and my commandments, as your father David walked, then I will lengthen your life.”

***

Our children and youth performing arts ministries got off to a great start this week, with some new children joining us. We had crafts  and auditions for The Best Christmas Pageant Ever  and Wrapping All the Way.

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My most special time with Kids Klub and One Purpose Productions comes when we gather in a circle for caring and sharing. They share about bee stings and lost or wiggly teeth. Taking dance lessons and starting school. Concerns for sick friends, siblings, parents or grandparents. Older brothers and sisters going off to college. Parents on long business trips or deployed in the military. I listen carefully with an open heart, ready to respond as their pastor. Because even though most of the children and youth are not members of our church, the Lord has brought them to us so that we would minister to them!

When one young boy, his first day at Kids Klub, shared how he couldn’t sleep at night, I asked why. He said he was afraid of the dark– that aliens might come. I told him how I used to be scared of the dark when I was a kid. But then I learned that monsters and aliens aren’t real. His sister, sitting on the other side of me, was listening intently. She looked up at me and echoed,  “Not real?”  “No,” I said, shaking my head. And I felt prompted to add,  “We never have to be afraid of anything because Jesus is always with us.”

It was God’s gift of His wisdom for that moment to really listen to a child, with an open, loving heart, and be prompted to speak a word of peace.

 

Solomon’s story teaches the importance of seeking and using God’s wisdom. The Lord gives Solomon, says 1 Kings 4:29,  “very great wisdom, discernment, and breadth of understanding as vast as the sand on the seashore.”  “He was wiser than anyone else,” says 1 Kings 4:31-34, and “his fame spread throughout all the surrounding nations.” Solomon was like a rockstar in his time, composing more than a thousand songs and 3,000 proverbs. But he also had a scientific mind. He would  “speak of trees, from the cedar that is in Lebanon to the hyssop that grows in the wall; he would speak of animals, and birds, and reptiles, and fish.  People came from all the nations to hear the wisdom of Solomon…”

He wisely judged the case of two women who gave birth in the same house on the same night, but when one woman’s son died, she switched the babies while the other woman slept and tried to pass off the other woman’s son as her own. Solomon infamously said, “Bring me a sword,” and, after they did, he said, “Divide the living boy in two; give half to one and half to the other.” The mother whose son was alive begged the king, “Please, my lord, give her the living boy; certainly, do not kill him!” Her child was restored to her.

But like all the other kings of ancient Israel, including his father, David, Solomon didn’t always live in obedience to God. He isn’t a perfect model of wisdom, not like Jesus, “who has become for us wisdom from God,” says Paul in 1 Cor. 1:30, “that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption.”

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Solomon is, after all, just a human being with all the temptations of wealth and power. That’s the whole point of this book, says Dr. Walter Brueggemann,  one of the most influential Old Testament scholars of the last several decades.

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Brueggemann says though 1 Kings seems to be just a history of the kings of Israel,  it actually serves a theological purpose; it “delegitimates the kings” and shows how they “have, in fact, forfeited their authority and are not really kings.   Thus, the book should be named with a question mark of incredulity—“Kings???”

Our reading begins when Solomon is young in his reign, and we already see his weakness. He loves many “foreign women.” Solomon makes a political alliance with Egypt by marrying the Pharaoh’s daughter, bringing her to the “city of David,”  which, at this time, is Jerusalem, not “Bethlehem,” as the gospel of Luke tells us in the story of Christ’s birth.

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He goes to Gibeon, a Canaanite city about 6 km north of Jerusalem,  to offer a “thousand burnt offerings” on the altar in the high places.”

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Because this comes right before telling us how he loves the Lord, we might assume that this reveals his devotion to God, but  high places in the Old Testament were  “often associated with apostasy” Brueggemann says. Solomon will love, along with the Pharaoh’s daughter, Moabite, Ammonite, Edomite, Sidonian, and Hittite women–all nations the Lord had told Israel from which not to enter into marriage, “For they will surely incline your heart to follow their gods.” And that’s what happens. He ends up worshiping idols, along with his God.

But don’t miss that he seeks the Lord in the right way at the very beginning of his reign—and for the right reasons. He comes to the Lord humbly in a vision God gives him. After God invites him to speak, he says, “I am only a little child; I do not know how to go out or come in. Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people?” And don’t miss God’s grace and steadfast love—the same grace and love the Lord has for us! God blesses him with wisdom, prosperity and long life, despite his sin. God blesses Israel for his humble faith and spiritual request so that he may live out God’s calling to him.

Wisdom brings justice, peace, and prosperity to His reign in Jerusalem for 40 years; 480 years after Israel fled captivity in Egypt, Solomon began to build the House of the Lord, the Temple.

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Judah and Israel were “as numerous as the sand by the sea; they ate and drank and were happy.”  Solomon reigned “over all the kingdoms from the Euphrates to the land of the Philistines, even to the border of Egypt.”

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After Kids Klub this week, I began to think how wisdom may be one of the most undervalued spiritual gifts— though it isn’t the greatest, which is love, says 1 Cor. 13. I urge you to seek God for wisdom to live out your calling every day.  As Jer. 29:11 says, “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not your harm, to give you a future with hope.”

James 1:5 promises that God will not deny our request: “If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.”

 But the problem with wisdom is that we have trouble recognizing it. What the world calls “wisdom” isn’t the wisdom of God.  The wisdom of this world is deceptive and destructive, at odds with the things of God. Paul says in 1 Cor. 3:19,  “For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight. As it is written, ‘He catches the wise in their craftiness.’” Isaiah 5:21 says, “Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes and clever in their own sight.”

        God’s wisdom doesn’t depend on human situations or worldly possessions. Ecclesiastes 2:26 says, “To the person who pleases him, God gives wisdom, knowledge and happiness, but to the sinner he gives the task of gathering and storing up wealth to hand it over to the one who pleases God.” God’s wisdom is granted to those with humility and  a heart-felt, genuine faith, who love the Lord and desire to use His gifts to serve and bring goodness to the world.

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James 3:17 says, “Wisdom comes to the humble, those who love peace and are merciful. But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere.”

So let us come humbly, friends, as little children, to approach the throne of grace. Let us ask for God’s wisdom so that we may work for peace and justice and reveal God’s Reign.  As Psalm 37:30-31 says, “The mouths of the righteous utter wisdom, and their tongues speak justice. The law of their God is in their hearts; their steps do not slip.”

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We ask for wisdom so that, together, we may walk the paths the Lord wants us to take. And not fall, as Solomon did, into idolatry. Let us walk with confidence, trusting in Jesus, looking to Him who has become for us wisdom from God, righteousness, holiness and redemption.

Let us pray.

Heavenly Father, thank you for your grace, for sending Christ, when we fell into sin, to become for us your wisdom, righteousness, holiness and redemption. Lord, we all cry out to you, “Give us wisdom.” Lead us to do your loving work of peace and justice. Stir us to reach out to our community and share your grace and the hope of our salvation through your Son. Bless our ministries, especially those to children and young families. Bless our teachers—staff and volunteers. Raise up more leads among us and build Your Church. Empower us all to serve with energy intelligence, imagination and love, relying on your mercy and rejoicing in the power of the Holy Spirit as we witness to your present and coming Reign. In Jesus we pray. Amen.

 

 

Imitators of God

 

Meditation on Ephesians 4:25-5:2

Aug. 12, 2018

Merritt Island Presbyterian Church

To see the video of this sermon, click here.

          25 So then putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. 26 Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, 27 and  do not make room for the devil. 28 Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy. 29  Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need,  so that your words may give grace to those who hear. 30 And  do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. 31  Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, 32  and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love,  as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

 

Ruth Ganter was expected to join us today to talk about her Sneaker ministry, but she has been sick. She is getting better and feeling stronger every day.

Ruth will be 90 soon, but she isn’t slowing down much, not when there are people in need.  In addition to her sneaker ministry, she serves at the Hospice Thrift Shop in the Village Green Shopping Center.  She found her calling years ago, when she was an admissions clerk at a hospital in New York and met a volunteer, a “pink lady…and she was wonderful,” Ruth says.  “She inspired me to be a volunteer.”

Ruth was at the Sharing Center from its beginnings in the 1980s and worked there 17 years, doing just about everything—cook, truck driver, whatever was needed. She didn’t have a desk because she never sat down, she says. One day, someone donated a bag of shoes—all for the left foot. Instead of throwing them away, she gave them to Church Women United and invited them to each take one and have Sneaker Sunday at their churches,  asking for money so that she may buy shoes for children.

***

No part of the New Testament, says biblical scholar Ralph Martin (1), is more relevant to the modern church than Ephesians, though it was written in the first century, after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. Ephesians teaches about the universal role of Christ in creation and redemption, but also  “faces the reality of evil which still presses upon human life both personal and societal.” Christ reigns victorious over the cosmos,  but the world is still “plagued by evil powers,” which must “be resisted and overcome.”

The key point is that Christ’s followers are not what they used to be because of what Jesus has done.  The dividing wall of hostility between us has been broken down in Christ, who is our peace.  We are reconciled with Him AND one another with His blood.

Unity is a gracious gift to the Church, the Body of Christ. Unity doesn’t mean uniformity. We are all unique and supposed to be that way! And it doesn’t mean we never change, which might be the case if the church were a static object, like a building. Ephesians tells us, says Martin, that “the Church is an organism,  pulsating with life and made up of living persons who are responsible for growth of character and personal development,” (Martin, 47) according to the gifts God has given to us.  Change is a sign of health and vitality, a fruit of the Spirit.

Ephesians provides a vision for the new life that begins with our letting go of the past. We have to take off and put away the old, like heavy winter clothing in Florida. Not useful.  We need to seek His will, day by day, and walk as he leads us to do the things he wants us to do, as Ephesians 2:10 says,  “ For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.”

Ephesians 4:22-23 says, Take off the old and put away…. the sin that characterized (in 4:22):  “your former way of life,” your old self” and  “be renewed, in the spirit of your minds.”

 Put on the new… Put on Jesus Christ like a garment,  4:24 “clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.”

The new way of life doesn’t just happen. We choose to live, says 4:2-3,  “with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”  Mutual love means accepting all our sisters and brothers in the faith as they are, without judgment, and helping to bear one another’s burdens, as Jesus does for us.  28 “Come to me,” He says in Matthew 11:28-29, “all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”

Ephesians 4:25… Take off, put away—falsehood. Speak the truth to your brothers and sisters. We are members of one another. When a person lies to one person, everyone in the Body is hurt! Ephesians 4:26 says, Be angry, if you must, but make sure it is about the right things and isn’t just your pride. Be angry about lies, cruelty, injustice, oppression, poverty, hunger, prejudice, racism—but don’t hold onto your anger and become bitter. It will destroy you and hurt all the members of the Body.

Take off, put away…thieves, give up stealing  (4:28) “rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy.” This characterizes the old life that was all about us, what we want or think we deserve or have earned, without consideration for our neighbor in need.

Take off, put away…evil talk.  4:29. Evil talk happened in 1st century churches and it happens today! We can’t take back what we shouldn’t have said! Being a Christian doesn’t mean you don’t sin anymore; it means you feel convicted when you do!  The Spirit moves us to turn back to the Lord to confess as God’s beloved children. Jesus, in 1 John 1:9, says,  “If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

Speak words that build up (4:29); there was a need for that in the 1st century and a great need for it today! Sometimes, the only kind word someone hears in a day may come from you! Think how good you feel when someone says something kind to you!

When we show grace to others who have hurt us, we are truly imitators of God, whose love lasts forever. Our kindness is our witness to our present and future hope in Jesus Christ, who is coming again on the day of redemption, to gather us to himself and take us to live forever with Him. Only then will our transformation be complete.

As we sing in Hymn of Promise,  In our end is our beginning; in our time, infinity; In our doubt there is believing; in our life, eternity, In our death, a resurrection; at the last, a victory, Unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see.”

In baptism, Christ has claimed us for His own! The Holy Spirit lives in us. We have the power to overcome!

 

***

Our church is full of kind people, whose grace bears witness to the Savior’s love.  The air conditioner broke down in the fellowship hall just before a recent Faith Formation Ministries workday. The volunteers still worked for hours in the heat to get the stage ready for our children and youth performing arts programs that begin this week.

 

Their spirit reminds me of Ruth Ganter, nearly 90 years young. People ask her, “How many pairs of shoes do you buy every year?” And, “How much money do you need?” She doesn’t worry about numbers. She spends a lot of her own money to make sure that every child has sneakers for school-so they can run and play exercise.  “Every penny I get,” she says, “is on a child’s foot…I buy shoes till I run out of money.”

She doesn’t judge others. She doesn’t take note of skin color or the size of people’s bodies or ask questions. She tells the schools to not just give the children the shoes, but to put them on their feet!

The thing that matters with giving and serving is your heart. Being motivated by love for God and love for neighbor.

Live as God’s beloved children! Forgive, for the Lord has forgiven you!

The Church is a living organism, not a static object. Change is a sign of health and vitality, a fruit of the Spirit!

Put on …… kindness…..

Put on……. love….

 Be imitators of God!

 

Let us pray. Heavenly Father, thank you for calling us your beloved children—and for sending your Spirit to live inside of us and transform us into your likeness. Forgive us for our sins.  Help us, Lord, to take off the old self and put away the past and our former lives to make room for the new. Stir us to believe in the Church that is not a building, but a living organism, united as your Body, with Christ as our head. Let us hear your voice and respond with gratitude and joy. Teach us to love and serve you and our neighbors, sharing from the abundance you have given us. Grant us an authentic faith that stirs us to pray without ceasing, to bravely follow you into paths of righteousness and truth, and to be gracious and kind as we seek to imitate you. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.

 

Bread from Heaven

Meditation on Exodus 16: 2-4, 9-15

Merritt Island Presbyterian Church

Aug. 5, 2018

      The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”

       4 Then the Lord said to Moses, “I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day. In that way I will test them, whether they will follow my instruction or not….

        9 Then Moses said to Aaron, “Say to the whole congregation of the Israelites, ‘Draw near to the Lord, for he has heard your complaining.’” 10 And as Aaron spoke to the whole congregation of the Israelites, they looked toward the wilderness, and the glory of the Lord appeared in the cloud. 11 The Lord spoke to Moses and said, 12 “I have heard the complaining of the Israelites; say to them, ‘At twilight you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall have your fill of bread; then you shall know that I am the Lord your God.’”

         13 In the evening quails came up and covered the camp; and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. 14 When the layer of dew lifted, there on the surface of the wilderness was a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground. 15 When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another, “What is it?” For they did not know what it was. Moses said to them, “It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat.”

 

One of our members brought her two-week-old baby and her 7-year-old daughter to visit me at the church this week. I was blessed to be at the hospital with her, her husband, and family when the baby was born. On Thursday, she shared her surprise that she was able to function on so little sleep. But how happy she is! She is in love with her baby, she says, and always wants to be close to him.

I held the little guy, being careful to support his head and neck and keep him securely cradled in my arms, marveling—as you can’t help but do this—at the vulnerability, helplessness and adaptability of human beings in our first weeks of life. So much for this child is altogether new! What a different life he has now than when he lived within the secure confines of his mother’s womb. What a different life his family has now, focused on meeting the needs of their youngest member—truly a blessing from the Lord, who is filling their home with more love and joy.

One of the hardest things for new parents is that babies cannot express their needs or desires with words. They can only cry if they are hungry or tired, hurting or lonely, too cold, too wet, too warm. Sometimes it is difficult to figure out what they want—or really need.

This little guy wants to eat all the time, his mother says, but doesn’t know when he has had enough. He eats till he overflows through the mouth and nose. The good news is that he is growing in every way, learning to adapt to this new life and world, learning to trust in those who love and care for him.

Annika and Silas

***

In the 16th chapter of Exodus, it’s been a month and a half since Israel fled from their captivity in Egypt. God’s people behave, in some ways, like a newborn, says biblical scholar Dean McDonald, and God is like the young parents, trying to work out a feeding schedule that will meet the child’s desires and needs. But this passage is not just about food for God’s people in a situation of scarcity. It is about God’s desire to live in relationship with us—and for us to live by faith. It is also encouragement for those who struggle in their walk with the Lord. Our God who never turns his back on his children, no matter how unfaithful. Isaiah 49:15 says,  “Never! Can a mother forget her nursing child? Can she feel no love for the child she has borne?  But even if that were possible, I would not forget you!”

While the wilderness life is a new beginning, full of possibilities, it is strange, frightening, and disorienting for the Israelites to leave the place in which they have lived all their lives, in spite of the cruelty they have endured.  Israel has been in Egypt for generations, since their ancestor Joseph was second in command to one of the pharaohs and brought his family there to live during a great famine. Now the city dwellers are refugees, taking on a nomadic existence with thousands of other refugees. They are just 6 weeks into their relationship with 83-year-old Moses,  who hears the voice of God but needs his younger brother, 81-year-old Aaron, to speak for him.

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The people are continually anxious, even after their miraculous crossing of the Red Sea on dry land  and the drowning of the Egyptian armies behind them.

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But who wouldn’t feel traumatized after just narrowly escaping genocide, after years of fear and abuse? And it isn’t just their own wellbeing they are worried about. Their families are with them.

We know their relationship with Moses and Aaron is in deep trouble when our reading begins with,  “the whole congregation of the Israelites” complaining against them in the wilderness. Does that word “congregation” jump off the page at you? It does for me. This is a worshiping community, united by their faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, their ancestor who wrestled with an angel and was given a new name, “Israel.” Have they have forgotten God’s merciful rescue and kindly provision in the past? Or maybe they just think it can’t happen again.  They create a false, hopeless narrative that spreads to every person– thousands of people– in this congregation. Bad news travels quickly, even when it doesn’t make any sense. Why would Moses be attempting to kill them when he risked his own life to intercede on their behalf with the Pharaoh and remains faithful to God’s call to help His people, despite the dangers? The whole congregation sinks into despair.  “If only we had died,” they say, “by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread.”

The story doesn’t end there because our God is loving and merciful. He never stops reaching out to His children, though they often turn away and choose fear and despair rather than looking for God’s blessings and evidence of His tender care for human beings.  Because when you believe God wants to bless you, you will see His blessings and loving hand in your life.

True to His promise to His people who cry out for meat and bread, God sends quails in the evening to “cover the camp;” and in the morning, when the dew lifts, a fine, flaky substance—like frost on the ground–appears. The people ask one another, “What is it?” They don’t ask Moses, which is more evidence of their distrust. The Hebrew word for “What is it?”  is manna! Moses overhears them and says,  “It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat.” Israel decides to call it manna—“What is it?” rather than “Bread from heaven.”  They have to gather it each morning, 6 days a week and twice as much the day before the Sabbath, to keep and eat on the Lord’s Day and not work.  Baked, boiled or raw, they eat their fill of this food (Exodus 16:31) that is  “like coriander seed,” in shape and size, but it’s white and tastes like  “wafers made with honey.” Does that sound like cookies to you? It does to me!

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Moses doesn’t want Israel to forget God’s amazing provision, so he tells Aaron to put some in a jar and  “place it before the Lord, to be kept throughout your generations.” Remarkably, the manna never breeds worms or becomes foul like the manna some Israelites attempt to hoard, not trusting that God will provide enough for everyone, every day. The Israelites eat manna for 40 years says Exodus 16:35,  “until they came to a habitable land; they ate manna, until they came to the border of the land of Canaan.”

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I wish I could say that manna was enough for the Israelites to have faith. Spiritually, they remained like newborn infants, continuing to cry out for God to feed them, instead of trusting in His love. And they soon tired of manna and wanted the food they remembered from Egypt, in the good old days, when they lived as slaves.

***

In John’s gospel, Jesus puts himself into the Exodus story. He has just fed a multitude with a few loaves and fish –and everyone is filled! But then the crowd follows him everywhere because they want more material blessings.

Jesus has something better in mind. He invites those who want to follow him to do the work of God! What is that work?  To believe in the one whom God has sent!

Jesus says to all of us, “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.”

Trust in the one who is with you always.  Do you feel you are on a wilderness journey? Are you worried that you may have lost your way? Well, the wilderness isn’t a bad place to be. If you lose yourself,  let go of your own expectations for yourself, past disappointments and broken dreams, then, it is much easier for the Spirit to do its work in you—so you can become all that God wants you to be.

In the wilderness, the glory of God is revealed  and you have no choice but to trust in his loving provision—his spiritual manna for every day. Human beings, we like to think we are independent. We don’t want to need anyone for anything. But that’s not Christian. For we all need Jesus. And we need each other to grow up in every way in Him. To no longer be spiritual infants who are more interested in having our desires met, rather than having loving relationships with the Lord and in the Body of Christ.

In a few moments, we will celebrate communion at the Lord’s Table. Jesus invites us all to come to Him for the food that endures–that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world. I hope you will all come in faith to the one who is “the bread of life.”  By faith, our hearts and minds will be transformed.

By faith, we will work for the food that endures for eternal life, the food that cannot be earned but is a GIFT to those who believe in the Son of God.

“Whoever comes to me will never be hungry,” Jesus says. “And whoever believes in me, will never be thirsty.”

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Let us pray.

Holy One, Come to us now in our wilderness. Encourage anyone who feels lost that they are in a good place, that they are right where the Lord wants them, right where His Spirit can do his healing, transforming work. Thank you for the gift of eternal life through believing in Your Son and His suffering work on the cross so that we may be forgiven for all our sins. Feed our souls with spiritual food that we will no longer behave as infants, crying out for our needs and desires to be met. Help us to grow up in every way, and especially to grow in loving relationship with you and one another. In Christ we pray. Amen.

 

Hope and Faith of a Child

 

Meditation on John 6:1-21

Merritt Island Presbyterian Church

July 29, 2018

Slide46

         After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias. A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples.  Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near. When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip,  “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. Philip answered him,  “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him,  “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?”  10 Jesus said,  “Make the people sit down.” Now there was a great deal of grass in the place;  so they sat down, about five thousand in all. 

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11 Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated;  so also the fish, as much as they wanted. 12 When they were satisfied, he told his disciples,  “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” 13 So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. 14 When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say,  “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.”

            15 When Jesus  realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.

       16 When evening came, his disciples went down to the sea, 17 got into a boat,  and started across the sea to Capernaum. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. 18 The sea became rough because a strong wind was blowing.  19 When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the sea and coming near the boat, and they were terrified.  20 But he said to them,  “It is I; do not be afraid.”   21 Then they wanted to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the land toward which they were going.

Slide20

***

 

Slide24

It was a sweltering 95-degree day last month in Birmingham, Alabama. Austin was handing out chicken sandwiches to homeless men. The red satin cape he wears, the 4-year-old says, makes him go faster.  “It blows in the wind,” he says with a smile, in a June 2018 article at CNN online.

Slide31

He is met with high-fives and pats on the shoulder at the homeless shelter. He has become a familiar face to the homeless men and women gathered on the sidewalk outside the Firehouse Ministries’ red brick building. His dad, TJ, helps him drop off meals every week.  It all started when Austin and his dad were watching an animal show on TV. A mother panda left her cubs and Austin was worried what would happen to them. TJ said the cubs would be homeless.  Austin hadn’t heard that word before. He learned more about “homeless” when his dad took him downtown to the city shelter after that.

“He said,  ‘Can we feed them?'” TJ says.  “I didn’t expect to feed homeless people that day. But when a 4-year-old asks you, what can you say?”

Slide33

They went to Burger King and bought chicken sandwiches. Austin agreed to use his allowance to buy food for homeless people instead of a weekly toy. Austin, who has an older brother with autism, has learned sensitivity, acceptance and compassion for people, though they may be different in appearance or behavior.

 

He soon became a local celebrity. His passion to help people in need—and possibly all the media attention—stirred Burger King to give him a $1,000 monthly allowance for a year so he could fulfill his mission. The mayor calls him  “the city’s ambassador.”  In a time when we often hear criticism of young people for being too “materialistic” or lacking people skills— here’s evidence that some young folks do “get it”—maybe more than adults! Austin, the mayor says, understands the importance of helping others—not just with material assistance, but by showing love.

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Love has the power to transform–especially when the source and acts of kindness are unexpected—through a small child, wearing a superhero costume, emblazoned, “# Show Love.”

Slide27

 

***

 

Austin reminds me of the child in our gospel reading today—the boy who gave his lunch to Jesus and a multitude ate until they were full.  This is an amazing thing to happen in a time and place when the average person never had enough food to eat, let alone feel full. Though we don’t know much about the boy—not even his name—he has the typical food of a poor person—five barley loaves and a couple of dried fish—neither of which were as large as we might imagine them to be. Wheat bread was more commonly eaten; barley loaves were cheaper and only eaten by the poor.

Today’s reading begins with a problem that isn’t really a problem, but an opportunity to reveal God’s power in Jesus Christ—and care for people in need. Jesus has crossed the sea to get away from the crowd, but is still being followed by them. People have seen the  “signs that he was doing for the sick.” They want to see some more!

Jesus doesn’t evade them long.  Actually, I think he is purposefully leading them up the mountain so that he can do another sign—and test his own disciples’ faith. For this passage isn’t really about what Jesus will do for the crowd. It’s encouragement for his true followers, the ones who have heard and answered his call, to let go of all doubt and fear–and learn to trust in him for everything!

Now this is different from the Matthew 14 account of the feeding of the multitude, when the disciples bring up the subject of eating first. They are exhausted after a day of ministering to the sick. They tell Jesus,  “This is a remote place, and it’s already getting late.  Send the crowds away, so they can go to the villages and buy themselves some food.”

But in John 6, Jesus is the first to mention the people’s need for food, revealing more of his divine character. The one who heals is eager to provide for His children, knowing their needs before they ask!  As the crowd approaches, Jesus turns to Philip.  “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” Philip seems surprised by his question. Though he was quick to respond to follow Jesus at his invitation in John 1:43, he is also a down to earth, numbers guy. Where to buy bread, indeed! The real problem is they don’t have enough money!

“Six months’ wages,”  he says in the NRSV translation,would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” What he really says is  “200 denarii would not be enough for each to have a mouthful.”  One denarius is a day’s wage in Matt. 20:2.

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Andrew interrupts then to point out the boy offering his lunch.  “But what good is that for so many?” Andrew says. He is asking the question every church asks, at one time or another. How can we possibly meet such a tremendous need around us with such a small offering? With an aging membership? With so few people? With so many needs of our own?  How can what we have be enough to do the acts of love that Christ urges us to do?

Andrew’s question immediately precedes another “sign.” Jesus tells everybody, then, not “sit down,” but “recline”—the usual position for eating a meal. After giving thanks to God,  Jesus himself and not the disciples in John’s account serves the people, passing first the bread and then the fish to 5,000 men—plus women and children!

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After studying this passage, I’m left puzzling over 2 questions.  First, was the boy really the only one with food in the crowd?  Or was the real miracle not one of Christ’s provision, but His love unleashed in the crowd that stirs them to acts of generosity and kindness?  Did they have more than enough food for a feast all along, but fear that there wouldn’t be enough held them back from sharing what they had with others? Through the boy’s tiny but significant gift, a multitude is fed, with 12 baskets of bread left over!

And the second question is,  who are we in the story? Are we in the multitude, trying to follow Jesus wherever he goes, but only for personal reasons– looking for our own wants and needs to be met? Are we wrestling with fear and doubt, like those closest to him on a mountain, wanting to help people and do compassionate ministry in Christ’s name, but thinking it’s not possible with our resources? Have we embraced a gospel of abundance—or not? Have we forgotten, like his 12 disciples, that  Jesus is the source of everything we will ever need?

Are we like those same disciples, gathered in a boat, tossed about by storms, seeing Jesus, but in our fear, not recognizing the one who has the power to walk on water and calm every storm in our lives?  The one whose love is unconditional and never ends?

May we all be more like the child of hope and faith.

 

***

 About 5,000 men, women and children will pass through the doors of the shelter in Birmingham this year. Many will be touched by Austin and TJ’s acts of kindness and generosity, bringing hope and faith that lives can change!

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People CAN change!  God’s love transforms our hearts!

One homeless man tells Austin on that sweltering June day—95 degrees in Birmingham,   “It’s because of you that I want to be a better person.  You’re showing love, everywhere you go, right?”

“I am,” says Austin,  handing him a paper-wrapped sandwich and a cold drink, superhero cape fluttering in the breeze.

He explains to the adults who might not “get it”– like he does.

He says,  “Show love means you care about someone no matter what they look like.”

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Let us pray.

 

Holy One, we want to be more like you—always thinking about the needs and cares of others, before we worry about our own. Forgive us, Lord, as we struggle with fear and doubt, thinking we never have enough resources to do all that we are called to do—showing your love through acts of compassion, kindness, and generosity. Give us the faith and hope of a child who, though he was poor in material possessions, was willing to give up all that he had to eat—some barley bread and a few dried fish—so that a multitude could be fed! Thank you, Lord, for your unconditional love, for washing away our sins with your work on the cross, and for being the source of everything we will ever need! Amen.

Chosen for Love

 

Meditation on Ephesians 1:3-14

Merritt Island Presbyterian Church

July 15, 2018

 

I was preparing to leave my office on Thursday to visit my parents after my Dad had a fall, when a man walked into the reception area. No one else recognized him, but I knew it was Phil, and it wasn’t just the telltale car keys clipped to his front shirt pocket. I had been praying for him and had left him a phone message that hadn’t yet been returned. Now here he was—bringing his offering to support the church. His church.

I had presided over his wife, Anita’s funeral in February 2016.  Phil and Anita, though they hadn’t attended church in recent years, were members since the 1960s, when the Rev. Bill Lee led worship in what is now our fellowship hall. Phil and Anita raised their 3 boys –Russ, Brad and Clay– in our church. Anita was the first church secretary.

Russ called the church seeking pastoral care about a week before his mother died. She had suffered from Alzheimer’s for many years. They welcomed me, though I was a stranger. And I enjoyed spending hours with them, at Anita’s bedside, as they swapped family stories. I became closest to Russ, who helped me plan the funeral and provided photos and art for the bulletin cover.  

After Anita died, I prayed for Phil and continued to reach out to him with occasional calls, cards, and a visit near Christmas last year.

I prayed that Christ would draw him back into the fold.

For when we are called to be his disciples, we can’t just walk away from that call. The Lord keeps seeking us out. God is like a nursing mother, says Isaiah 49:15, who will not withhold compassion for the child of her womb.  “Even these may forget,” says the Lord, “yet I will not forget you.”

No matter how old we are, no matter how we might think we have done enough and it’s time for other people to do the work of the church, your call is still valid. It doesn’t depend on our health or emotions or any circumstance in this world. The Lord wants us to shower us with spiritual blessings as we serve Him through His Church.

The Book of Order describes the responsibilities of our callings (G-2.0504) in the Church of Jesus Christ.  Ministers of word and sacrament, along with choosing scriptures and music, preaching and worship leadership, moderating session and other responsibilities, are called to offer pastoral care to the poor, troubled, sick and dying, to pray for and with the congregation, encourage others to worship and serve the Lord, and enable and equip members for their tasks and roles in the ministry, helping the church to reach out “in concern and service to the life of the human community as a whole.”

The Book of Order says that the ministry of membership (G-1.0304) is “a joy and a privilege” and “a commitment to participate in Christ’s mission. A faithful member bears witness to God’s love and grace and promises to be involved responsibly in the ministry of Christ’s Church. Such involvement includes: proclaiming the good news in word and deed, taking part in the common life and worship of a congregation, lifting one another up in prayer, mutual concern, and active support, studying Scripture and the issues of Christian faith and life, supporting the ministry of the church through the giving of money, time, and talents, demonstrating a new quality of life within and through the church, responding to God’s activity in the world through service to others, living responsibly in the personal, family, vocational, political, cultural, and social relationships of life, working in the world for peace, justice, freedom, and human fulfillment, caring for God’s creation, and participating in the governing responsibilities of the church.” Members  are urged to review and evaluate the integrity of one’s membership and  consider ways in which one’s “participation in the worship and service of the church  may be increased and made more meaningful.”

The most important things to know about our callings are  that we were chosen by God. And we were chosen for love.

 

***

Our reading in the first chapter of Ephesians is Paul’s blessing to the church.  It is one really long sentence in Greek that translators have separated by punctuation to help us grasp the meaning. His blessing is similar to traditional Jewish blessings that remind God’s people what the Lord has done for them and their identity and purpose for being. But unlike traditional Jewish blessings, we are blessed and chosen  in Christ. He is the instrument by which God pours in us  “spiritual blessing from the heavenly places.”

Outside Judaism, the word “to bless” in ancient Greek literature means,  “to speak well of, to praise, to thank, glorify, and to confess.” In the Septuagint, the earliest Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, the blessing is what   God promises to give to Abraham and  the praise human beings offer to God. But it also means to consecrate or set aside for God’s purposes. Paul says, in verse 4, that this is what has happened to us.  We have been chosen by God in Christ  “to be (made) holy and blameless before him, in love.”

Then we read from the foundation of the world.….God has always had a plan for all of us. He knew that human beings would fall into sin, but it was  “for his own good pleasure” that we have been redeemed.

He didn’t wait for us to choose Him. God revealed his love for us, when he  “sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him,” says 1 John 4:9-10.  “In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and  sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.”

With talk of “adoption” Paul employs legal language for those who receive a spiritual inheritance formerly thought to be only for Abraham’s descendants.  He assures Gentiles and Jews that Gentiles are included in this new covenant, sealed with Christ’s blood.

The blessing comes from Paul’s heart of gratitude to God for his inexplicable grace. As he exclaims in 2 Cor. 9:15,  “Thanks be to God for this gift too wonderful for words!

 

***

 

On Thursday, Phil’s visit to the church was an answer to prayer, confirmation that the Lord never forgets His children,  those who are called to serve Him with their lives. Phil hadn’t lost his gentle sense of humor or storytelling gifts. But he was sadder and quieter than I have ever seen him. He told me about Russ, how after working for NASA in Huntsville, Alabama, he moved back to Tennessee, where he had been born, and took a job working for the little town of Athens. He served as county planner and architect for McMinn County Government for 15 years. His most recent project was the highly regarded design and renovation of the McMinn County Courthouse Annex.  Russ, who possessed the quick wit, humor, and storytelling gifts of his dad, made many friends in his community through his work, though he was “a liberal,” the mayor said, “working with a predominantly conservative government entity.”

Russ usually called Phil a couple of nights a week. The calls came more frequently in April, when he suddenly seemed to be struggling to find the words he wanted to say. Alarmed, Phil called his son, Clay, and asked him to see if Russ was OK. Clay drove to Athens, and brought him back to his home near Atlanta where he could see specialists at Emory University. Doctors diagnosed him with a rare neurological disease. Phil traveled to Georgia, staying with his sons for a month.

Russ passed away May 29. The community poured out their grief and at the McMinn County Facebook page. What they said convinced me that Russ was living out his calling, devoted to the wellbeing of the people of this small town. The mayor said he saved the community about $100,000 in design fees. People said they would miss his smile and laughter. He was a “wonderful public servant”– kind and considerate, with a “brilliant mind.” Others said, a “true friend.” They celebrated his life at a service in a Lutheran church. The pastor was one of Russ’s friends.

Phil stood up in my office and made to go. I reached for his hand.

 “One of these days,” he said, “You’ll see me in church.”

On the way to my parents’ house, Russ’ last words spoken to me came to mind. At the funeral reception, he asked if I would reach out and visit his dad after the family had gone home. He said his dad was really good at saying no.  “Don’t ask,” he said. “Just go.”

I promised that I would.

A few weeks after the funeral, Russ sent me a lovely thank you card, saying that his time with the church had brought back happy memories of his youth at MIPC and his childhood on Merritt Island.

The Spirit is at work in our community of faith,  lavishing his grace upon us, pouring out spiritual blessings from the heavenly places. Today is a new day for the children of God.

The Lord wants to use those whom he has called before the foundation of the world.

You are one of them! You have been redeemed. Your sins have been washed away. In Christ, you stand holy and blameless before God.

You  have been chosen for love!

 

Let us pray.

Heavenly Father, thank you for your gift that is too wonderful for words–your grace that has redeemed us when we were perishing in our sins. Thank you for choosing us, calling us before the foundation of the world, to be your adopted children, with spiritual blessings poured on us through your Son, Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you in the heavenly places. Forgive us if we have ever drifted away, when we have been unfaithful to your call and selfish, looking to our own pleasures, rather than seeking to be pleasing to you. Use us now and forever, Lord, for your holy purposes. Build up your church and draw us nearer to you. In Christ we pray. Amen.