God is at Work in You!

Meditation on Philippians 2:1-13

Oct. 1, 2017

World Communion Sunday

Merritt Island Presbyterian Church

      If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing (or fellowship) in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy,  2make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.  3Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. 4Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.  5Let the same mind be in you that was* in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited,  7 but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, 8   he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. 12  Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling;  13for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

***

I am at a new dentist and the hygienist, a woman in her late 20s/early 30s, maybe, had her fingers in my mouth, positioning pieces of cardboard so she could take X-rays. She makes small talk, but I can’t answer because she is putting things in my mouth… I am nervous, because I haven’t been to the dentist in 3 years, well, maybe 4, and I love candy. I’m thinking, “How long is this going to take? How much will this cost?”

She asks where I work, what I do. I manage to tell her I am a pastor, hoping that’s enough, and I can get home before dark. Then she starts sharing her personal testimony. Normally, I relish this sort of conversation. But I am feeling vulnerable–wishing I were anywhere else but in the dentist chair. Still, I listen and nod as she tells me how much she loves her new church. She attends “Elevation Church.”

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The pastor is wonderful. Young!

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He preaches messages that really speak to her, with catchy phrases that are easy to recall, such as “When it Rains, God Reigns.” She doesn’t know the denomination. She goes to the Gleason Performing Arts Center at FIT and watches the service on a big screen. She doesn’t know other people there, though greeters welcome her when she arrives and someone introduces the program. If she is tired on Sunday morning or isn’t free to attend the service in person, she watches it on the Web. There’s an Elevation Church ap for your cell phone!

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That evening, Jim and I check out Elevation Church on the Internet. They have an amazing website, with video clips of nice-looking young people, worshiping in a darkened auditorium, with professional lighting, sound, and so forth.

The mega, multi-site church is based in Charlotte, NC, and though I can’t find it at the church’s website, it’s Southern Baptist. Thirty-seven-year-old Pastor Steven Furtick founded Elevation Church in 2006.

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He has written some books, and he and his wife, Holly, live in a 16,000 square foot home that has made national news.

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The church has at least 17 locations where you can, sure enough, go and watch the service on theater-type screens–Raleigh, Roanoke, Greater Toronto, Winston-Salem and 9 in Charlotte. This doesn’t count the many Southern Baptist Churches, such as one about a mile from our home, which host an Elevation service video on a weeknight, in addition to traditional services Sunday mornings. Elevation Melbourne, where my hygienist goes, offers two “weekend worship experiences,” the website says, at 9:30 and 11 a.m. Sundays. Chad Cooper is the “campus pastor” but he doesn’t preach or lead worship.

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Jim, peering over my shoulder at Elevation’s website, shakes his head. I am drawn to click on the tab with the online store where you can shop for T-shirts, sweatshirts, baseball caps, Pastor Furtick’s books, and other stuff.

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I have mixed emotions. First, I am happy the church is effectively reaching out to young adults. I am also worried. Is this what young adults are looking for– a “worship experience”? This seems like marketing Christianity as entertainment, rather than discipleship. This doesn’t fit with Christ’s humble, self-giving example for His Church, united in Him, called to love and serve God, one another and the world. You can’t be the Church without building relationships, spending time with people, growing in love and service together. But the Church in the 21st century, I am sad to say on this World Communion Sunday, is scandalously divided. The walls between denominations and other Christian groups are a far cry from Christ’s prayer that His disciples would be one.

***

Living out your faith in Christ’s humble example, dwelling in unity, is Paul’s message to the Philippians. Unity is a recurring theme in his letters. He says, “make my joy complete, be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.” Of all his letters to churches, Philippians is the most affectionate and least critical. In 2:12, he says, “you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence.” Compare this tone to his letter to the Galatians, in 3:1, “You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?”

In his urging of the Philippians to live in unity, some think that they might have been struggling to carry on without Paul. For the church that he founded in 49 CE was enduring persecution. Paul probably wrote this letter of friendship in the early 60s CE while he was on house arrest in Rome. This was the first church founded in Europe.

The key to living in unity, says Paul, is this: imitate the humility of Christ. I’m always touched by this passage. It seems to me that if everybody lived this way, it would be the end to all conflicts. This love is divine; it does nothing from “selfish ambition or conceit” as Paul says in v. 3. This love regards others as better than ourselves. He goes on in v. 4, “Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.”

This divine love is possible through the Spirit– living in us, changing our hearts, changing our minds. At the beginning of this passage, Paul says, “If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, and sharing or fellowship in the Spirit, any compassion or sympathy…” This “if” is more like “since.” This is assurance that the Church has all these things in Jesus Christ. We have access to the “same mind” as Jesus Christ, as Paul teaches in v. 5. We can know God’s will for the situations we find ourselves in! We hold on to promises such as Philippians 2:13–that God is at work in us, even when we can’t see any progress in ourselves! God is at work in you! He will enable us to do his will–and be pleasing to him!

Now, notice how the text looks different beginning in v. 6? Paul may be quoting from a hymn that he or another person wrote. This beautiful hymn tells of our God who humbled and emptied himself to become human, like us, and died on a cross, suffering in human form for our sake. Then we see a glimpse of the heavenly realm. Christ, our King of Kings, exalted on the throne of God. Name above all names, every knee shall humbly bow, every tongue confess: “Jesus is Lord!”

***

I was tired and still had 2 meditations and s to finish when I went to “Gift From the Sea,” the Women’s Retreat yesterday at Riverside Presbyterian. I didn’t want to miss the blessings! I didn’t want to miss the joy! I knew that gathering with other Christian women would bring me comfort and strength. I knew it would help me to put aside my own worries and problems and look to the needs and interests of others. I would feel refreshed, renewed. I also wanted to be a blessing to others. Maybe I could lift up someone who felt down.

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We experienced the fellowship of the Spirit.

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We laughed at a skit about Jesus bringing peace in the storms of our lives. We played games, and made sand dollar necklaces.

 

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We heard personal testimonies, telling the story of a channeled whelk, protecting itself by withdrawing into its shell.

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We learned that it might be easier for us to wear a mask, rather than be vulnerable, taking risks by opening ourselves to new friendships. And the moonshell, a reminder to take time to just breathe, be still, draw in the love of God so that we may share it with others. I am continually reminded when I am with my sisters that the Church is all about building relationships, growing in love.

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Friends, trust in the promise that God is at work in us!

     God is at work in you!

     He will enable us to do his will–and be pleasing to him!

Let us pray.

Holy One, thank you for humbling yourself, emptying yourself of divinity and taking on a fragile human form because you love us. Thank you for suffering and dying on a cross so that we could be forgiven and be restored to a right relationship with you and one another. Lord, we pray for the Church on this day when we celebrate our unity in Christ, but also confess and repent from our divisions, our tendency to put up walls, separate ourselves from other congregations, denominations, and other church groups. Humble us, Lord. Help us to think of the interests and needs of others, rather than always our own. Let us regard others as better than ourselves. Send your Spirit to refresh and renew us, changing our hearts and minds so that we might live in obedience to Christ, so that we might all be one. In his name we pray. Amen.

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Our Gracious and Merciful God

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Meditation on Jonah 3:10-4:11

Sept. 24, 2017

Merritt Island Presbyterian Church

10 When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it. 4But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. 2He prayed to the Lord and said,  ‘O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. 3And now, O Lord, please take my life from me,  for it is better for me to die than to live.’ 4And the Lord said, ‘Is it right for you to be angry?’ 5Then Jonah went out of the city and sat down east of the city, and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, waiting to see what would become of the city.

6 The Lord God appointed a bush, and made it come up over Jonah, to give shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort; so Jonah was very happy about the bush. 7But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the bush, so that it withered. 8When the sun rose, God prepared a sultry east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint and asked that he might die. He said,  ‘It is better for me to die than to live.’ 9 But God said to Jonah, ‘Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?’ And he said, ‘Yes, angry enough to die.’ 10Then the Lord said, ‘You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. 11And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?’

***

I was born in 1965.

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My country was deeply wounded, still recovering from the assassination of President John F. Kennedy 2 years before.

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 My country was divided over civil rights issues, though it had been 9 years since the Supreme Court struck down the “separate but equal” doctrine that formed the basis for state-sanctioned discrimination.

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Two weeks after I came into the world, the federal government passed the Voting Rights Act, aimed at overcoming legal barriers states had set up to prevent African Americans from voting.

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When I was 3,

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President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law The Civil Rights Act of 1968, also known as the Fair Housing Act, during the riots that followed the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

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The “landmark…legislation provided for equal housing opportunities regardless of race, religion, or national origin.”

And for the first 10 years of my life, my country was embroiled in the Vietnam War. Every night at 6 o’clock, shocking images and news of casualties were broadcast on our living room TV while my parents silently watched and chewed their food. I often had to look away.

The disturbing images stayed in my mind sometimes, returning in my childhood dreams. I don’t recall ever talking about the war with my family. If my parents, who were Navy veterans, discussed it in front of me, it went over my head. I kept playing with my Sunshine Family dolls with pop up camper and country craft shack; my older sister, her Barbies; my older brother, GI Joe.

Jim and I have been watching Ken Burns’ and Lynn Novick’s 10-part documentary, “The Vietnam War.”

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It is, at times, painful and upsetting to watch. But I am learning a lot– not just about the American history I never learned in school, but the first hand experiences of the Vietnamese people–soldiers and civilians, many of whom were children or teenagers at the time. Slide49

Watching the third episode of the documentary on Friday, I grieved with an American family who lost their son at barely 18 years old. Hearing his mother and sister tell his story,

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 I was angry at the enemy who stole this boy’s life! I was angry at the enemy, watching an American veterans’ eyes fill with tears as he recalled his buddies dying–and how he is still afraid of the dark and needs a night light because the enemy is still out there, waiting to ambush them –in the dark.

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We also heard stories from Vietnamese people who lost sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, in the war. I couldn’t believe how many Vietnamese girls were being used for the war effort, some staying up all night, using shovels to fill in craters left by American bombs on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the main supply route for the Viet Cong from the north to the south.

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I was angry at the enemy! But by the third episode, I wasn’t sure who the enemy was. I wanted someone to hate for the atrocities that were done. I needed someone to blame. But who?

Then I remembered Jonah. And God asking him–twice–“Is it right for you to be angry?”

The first time, Jonah falls silent and just pouts, sitting down under a booth he made for shade to watch what would happen to the great city he despised. Jonah callously replies the second time, when he cares more for a bush that provides shade then the lives of human beings and animals,“Yes,” he says defiantly to the Lord, “angry enough to die.”

***

The story of Jonah is a parable for God’s people, Israel, who have been repeatedly conquered, killed or enslaved by enemies. Those who say the God of the Old Testament is a God of wrath hasn’t read the little book of the minor prophet, tucked between Obadiah and Micah– or at least, they haven’t read all the way to the end, where our lectionary passage takes us today. Jonah, an 8th century BCE prophet or “anti-prophet” hates Ninevah;

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it is the capital of the Neo-Assyrian Empire; they are pagans whose brutality was renowned. They are responsible for the annihilation of the northern kingdom (Israel) in 722 BCE (2 Kings 18:9-11).

Jonah’s story begins with God’s call to “go at once to Ninevah (in modern day Northern Iraq) “that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.”

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Jonah runs from “the presence of the Lord”–or tries to. He boards a ship and goes the other way, heading to a place called Tarshish, which he never reaches. There’s a storm.

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Frightened sailors ask Jonah who he is and what he has done. Jonah admits that he is the cause of their trouble. “I am a Hebrew,” he says.  “I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” The sailors are even more frightened, then, knowing he is running from God. They toss Jonah into the sea, at his urging. A great fish swallows him; sailors and ship are spared as the sea immediately becomes calm. In the belly of the fish for 3 days and 3 nights, Jonah prays to the Lord “his God.” “Then the Lord spoke to the fish, and spewed Jonah out upon the dry land.”

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So Jonah sets out for Ninevah, does according to God’s word, and the people believe God; they proclaim a holy fast and everyone great and small–even the animals– put on sackcloth. The king himself sits in ashes and commands that all cry out “mightily” to God. “All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. Who knows?” the king wonders aloud. “God may relent and change his mind…”

He does.

And this is what makes Jonah mad. But this time, instead of running away, he trusts God with his innermost feelings. He prays. “O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? This is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning…” For I know how you are!!! You are “a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.” Next time you hear someone say the God of the OT is a God of wrath and the God of the NT is a God of love, you can quote Jonah 4:2!

While Jonah’s example is not always one to emulate, we can learn from him. When we are mad at God, and let’s be honest, sometimes we are, we should not be afraid or hesitate to draw near to the Lord and pray.

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God wants us to trust him completely and share everything with him–our fears, sorrows, anxieties, and even our anger! But it isn’t enough to be obedient to the Lord–to go through the motions. Our hearts must be in the right place. One must love the Lord; one must love people, too.

And not just people who are like us and near us– our families, neighbors and friends. We are called to love people of other countries, cultures and religions. We are called to love those who declare themselves our enemies, threaten our way of life and our very lives. People like ancient Ninevah, whose wickedness and violence did not escape God’s notice–and was offensive to Him.

So how do we do this? How do we love our enemies, as Jesus commands us to do? And what does this mean for us today? It means we have to rely on God’s Word and Spirit to lead and teach us how to live.

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We have to trust the Lord for the transformation of our hearts that will come–as Paul assures in Philippians 1:6, “I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.”

But it means we will always struggle as the people of God, a light in this dark world,

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wrestling with difficult decisions, including decisions about going to war, all the while, pursuing Christ’s loving ways. As the apostle Paul tells us in Romans 12:18, “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.”

These decisions will always be hard for us–and they should be–for we belong to God and we must trust Him for what we don’t understand, and humbly walk with Him, day by day. We trust God’s eyes of eternity for the future God has planned. As the prophet Jeremiah prays in 10:23, “LORD, I know that people’s lives are not their own; it is not for them to direct their steps.”

We will always strain our ears to hear God’s voice in the noise, busy-ness, chaos and temptations of this world, temptations such as the desire to be angry, hate, and blame. But with the Spirit’s help, we will become more like the God of the OT who is the same God of the New–Our Gracious and Merciful God that Jonah knew intimately. Our God who is slow to anger Slide06and abounding in steadfast love.

Let us pray. Heavenly Father, thank you for your grace and mercy that you have made a way for sinful human beings to come to you–cleansed from sin–through belief in your Son, Jesus Christ, and his work on the cross. Thank you for your steadfast love –the way you delight in us and want us to come closer to you–to love and worship only you. Help us to put you first in our life, Lord, and to learn to love people — all cultures, religions, and nations– as your children, the world you so love, though they may consider us enemies and seek us harm. Give us wisdom to discern right from wrong and courage to always walk the right path, following in the footsteps of Jesus Christ. In Him we pray. Amen.

Love From a Neighbor

Meditation on Romans 13:8-14

Sept. 17, 2017

Merritt Island Presbyterian Church 

     8 Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. 9The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet’; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’  10Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law. 11 Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; 12the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light;  13let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. 14Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires. 

***

       These last 2 weeks have been kind of a blur for me. Have they been that way for you? I remember just before the storm, visiting my dad in a hospital in Orange City, with blood filling his lungs. We are hoping that he will be healed enough to be discharged tomorrow!

I remember our office staff and volunteers preparing the church for Hurricane Irma. We were bagging our computers, phones and other electronics, taking things off the floor, covering the copier with plastic, all the while not knowing if what we were doing was going to help in the event of a catastrophic storm!

We talked about whether we were staying in our homes or leaving the area. We struggled with that question. Did you have those conversations, too?   Did anyone prepare to evacuate, pack up and drive somewhere, only to discover that you may have put yourself right into the path of the storm? Did any of you turn around and come back to your boarded up homes, deciding that staying was the best choice for you and your family?

 

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Did any of you leave town–go to family or friends– after the storm when you lost power and had no water? Did any of you stay in a hotel–nice or not so nice– just to get out of the heat and be able to flush a toilet without using water from your pool or from a bathtub filled before the storm?

I don’t think it was easier for native Floridians to make the decision about leaving than it was for relative newcomers like Jim and me. For a storm of Irma’s size is rare, even in this part of the country, where we have a time of year that we actually call “hurricane season.”

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While living in Minnesota, I learned about packing cold weather kits for our cars, but here in Florida, I have learned that we need a hurricane kit that includes flashlights or lanterns and batteries , enough bottled water and nonperishable food for at least 4 days.Slide37But you also need hammers and nails and boards to cover windows and doors, towels and rags for soaking up water in the house, and plastic bags and duct tape, just because.

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What we didn’t know was that we should have hurricane recovery kits of rakes and brooms, a wheelbarrow, and a man or woman with a chainsaw , preferably with a pick up truck or trailer to haul yard debris away.

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He hasn’t abandoned us! He isn’t punishing us! He strengthens and guides us through all the troubling events and storms of life.

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But it also helped that everyone in our congregation was preparing for the storm, too. I didn’t feel alone. I had the Lord, I had my family, and I had God’s people–someone to call for help, if we needed it. That encouraged me a lot. Staying connected through prayer, email, Facebook and text messages was helpful, too. I had to laugh at the Facebook photos of “hurricane snacks.” I never thought of that! Jim did! He bought us mint Milano cookies and peanut M&M’s!! But I kept craving brown sugar cinnamon pop tarts, after seeing the Neihouse’s stash! Do you have any left?

Did neighbors, friends, or family invite you to come and stay with them, when Merritt Island was ordered to evacuate? Did you feel loved? I hope so! Did any of you welcome into your home extended family, friends, neighbors? Other people’s pets? I know you did!  Were you blessed by surprising acts of kindness? I was! A young man who lives across Cone Road from the church showed up on Wednesday while Cheryl and Fred Mahan were raking leaves and dragging branches to the road! He worked for a long time with Cheryl, Bev Larsen, Leslie Mitchell and me in the sweltering heat, bringing his own wagon and rake. He continued to work after the rest of us gave up for the day.

His kindness encouraged us and stirred us to visit him and surprise him with an act of kindness on Thursday. Leslie and I brought him brownies, a Heavenly Handmade crocheted angel, and a card thanking him for being our angel on Wednesday. He hugged us, wolfed the brownies without sitting down, and returned my plate while his roommate, John, a Marine Corps veteran, spoke candidly about the ups and downs of his Christian walk. His ministry includes playing rugby with a Marine Corps group to raise money for families of veterans in need. We encouraged him to keep on walking his journey of faith. Later, I thanked God not only for Desmond’s kindness, but for the opportunity to share God’s love.

***

Did you notice that Paul, in his letter to the Romans, echoes Jesus’s teachings on love? Jesus answers a question about the “greatest commandment” in Matthew 22:37-40, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the greatest and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

Paul lists 4 of the Ten Commandments in 13:9, summing them up as “Love your neighbor as yourself.” They are: thou shall not commit adultery, murder, steal and covet. Then Paul does something that reminded me of John Calvin when he discusses the Ten Commandments in his Institutes of the Christian Religion in 1559. Paul says, “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law”–“law” meaning, we suppose, the whole of the Ten Commandments, but perhaps every OT law, including those in Leviticus.

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Calvin says this about the 6th Commandment–“Thou shalt not kill.”“The purport of this commandment is that since the Lord has bound the whole human race by a kind of unity, the safety of all ought to be considered as entrusted to each. In general, therefore, all violence and injustice and every kind of harm from which our neighbor’s body suffers, is prohibited. Accordingly, we are required faithfully to do what in us lies to defend the life of our neighbor, to promote whatever tends to his tranquility, to be vigilant in warding off harm, and, when danger comes, to assist in removing it.”

In Romans 13:13, Paul lists behaviors that violate the love command. The works of darkness followers are urged to “lay aside,” with the help of the Spirit, putting on the “armor of light,” “putting on Jesus Christ,” are “reveling and drunkenness, debauchery and licentiousness, quarrelling and jealousy.” He emphasizes the last two–quarreling and jealousy– by their position at the end of the sentence!

This also reminds me of Calvin, as he continues his discussion of “Thou shalt not kill,” which we may mistakenly believe is limited to the actual act of taking a life. Calvin says, “this commandment, therefore, prohibits the murder of the heart, and requires a sincere desire to preserve our brother’s life. The hand, indeed, commits the murder, but the mind, under the influence of wrath and hatred, conceives it. How can you be angry with your brother, without passionately longing to do him harm?”

     What may be confusing for us about this passage in Romans is that it follows Paul urging us to live in freedom from the bondage of the law of sin and death. So, do we have to follow the OT laws– or not?

Paul’s answer: yes, we are obligated to follow the law of love as we follow our Savior. Our passage begins, “Owe no one anything, except to love one another, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.” This is a segue from his earlier teaching in chapter 13 on Christ’s followers being good citizens, paying taxes and honoring their debts. In 13:8, Paul returns to the subject begun in chapter 12– how to live a Spirit-transformed, mind-renewed life, revealing Christ to our fallen world by our “genuine love” and “mutual affection” for one another (Romans 12:9-10). He sounds like Jesus, again, doesn’t he, when the Lord gives us a new commandment, which really isn’t new, if you consider the sum of the law and the Ten Commandments is “love.” Jesus says in John 13:34-35, “This is my commandment–that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.  35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

***

Friends, it is definitely our love for one another that is helping me through Irma’s aftermath. Is it helping you, too?

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We aren’t alone! Others are struggling, impatient and frustrated, too, but also feeling blessed by God–because our losses could have been so much greater! We have each other–and we have the Church. Even if the building were lost to us, we would still BE the Church! We are Christ’s Body, empowered and united by His Spirit to minister with all our different gifts and talents. Do you need help now? Do you know of others who need help? Please let me, an elder, or a deacon know.

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Have you been blessed by acts of love from a neighbor? I look forward to hearing your stories of grace.

Let us pray.

Heavenly Father, we thank you for caring for us throughout the storms of our lives, strengthening and guiding us to endure frightening times. Thank you for your love and your Spirit that unites our congregation and the Body of Christ! Help us to love one another and reveal Christ’s love to the world. Thank you for giving us this place to gather for worship and ministry in your name. Thank you for the many acts of kindness and love from neighbors during and after Hurricanes Irma and Harvey. Bless the rescue workers and volunteers who continue to help people in need. Please, Lord, help those with great losses recover and heal. May we all be moved to love you and our neighbors around the world through acts of kindness, more and more. In Christ we pray. Amen.

 

 

 

 

My Cross to Bear

 

Meditation on Matthew 16:21-28

Sept. 3, 2017

Merritt Island Presbyterian Church

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21 From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes,

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and be killed, and on the third day be raised.

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22And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, ‘God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.’ 23But he turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling-block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’ 24 Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  25For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.  26For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life? 27 ‘For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done. 28Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.’

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***

We were leaving for an anniversary party last Sunday after church, when I got a text from a man named Don that I met last June at a funeral reception. He was a long time friend of Gail Buchanan. He invited me to go on a gator hunt.

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I had expressed interest while he was showing me photos of Gail posing next to huge reptiles dragged from Florida swamps.

I didn’t know this side of Gail, though certainly she was a risk taker as a devoted Christian. You have to be, if you want to follow Jesus!

Gail’s multi-faceted ministry included raising 3 children and nurturing them in the faith with her husband, Jimmy, and then continuing on as a single parent after he died of cancer at the age of 39.

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She loved this church! She labored on fellowship committee, served as a deacon, taught parenting classes, and gathered with a circle of friends every Monday night for prayer and spiritual encouragement for more than 3 decades. Belonging to Jesus meant worshiping with her sisters and brothers in the Lord on Sunday and taking the gospel to the community and world with acts of kindness, love and generosity. She served on the Board of the Sharing Center, as a member of the Junior League of Central and North Brevard, and President of the Friends of the Library. Being a Christian meant serving her country in the U.S. Navy, earning the rank of captain, and coordinating medical services during Desert Storm. These skills and experiences, along with her training in Occupational Therapy and Clinical Psychology, helped equip her for medical mission work in Haiti and Nicaragua.

Her greatest passion was for helping needy children and families. She was instrumental in the founding of an early intervention program, the “Lab School” at Brevard Community College, now Eastern Florida State. She fostered self-esteem, teaching children and parents “the great joy of being God’s special creation.”

Everything she did was all about sharing Jesus and helping others, using her gifts and talents to build up the Kingdom and redeem lost souls. At the reception, Don told me he respected Gail’s religion as a part of who she was– an important part–without embracing her religious beliefs. I know this saddened Gail–that her close friend didn’t have a relationship with the Lord. She wanted him to have what she had!

Reading his text, I felt that Gail must be smiling down at me from heaven–still reaching out to him, prompting him to draw ever nearer to the Lord. I didn’t tell Jim right away about the text from this man I hardly knew and Jim didn’t know at all. I could just imagine his response when I asked him if I could go on a gator hunt–for Jesus’ sake. And you have to know this about me. I have never been on any kind of hunting trip before–and never wanted to. The thought of being that close to alligators in a mosquito-infested swamp fills me with dread.

“Is this God’s will for me?” I wondered, definitely feeling out of my comfort zone. And yet, wanting to please the Lord, knowing that it isn’t easy or always “safe” to follow Jesus.

I decided to wait and talk to Jim about it on the ride home.

***

Jesus urges the disciples to take up their crosses and follow him in our reading in Matthew 16 today. The invitation comes after he rebukes Peter for not understanding what Peter himself has just declared in verse 16–that Jesus is the “Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” Peter, in Matthew, is the first to call Jesus, “Messiah” –in Greek, ho Christos (the Christ.) After Peter declares Jesus’ true identity, the narrative shifts; the shadow of the cross falls upon them, though the ministry of teaching, preaching, loving and healing continues. Matthew says in 16:21, “From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed and on the third day be raised.”

This is the first of 3 times in Matthew that Jesus will attempt to teach his disciples about the cross that is his destiny. They won’t understand what it means to be the Messiah, of which the Old Testament spoke, until after his resurrection. They don’t recognize that Jesus is the suffering servant of Isaiah 52 and 53 and Psalms 69 and 22, who will say on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” This is no triumphal earthly king or warrior that the disciples will defend or protect, the one who will put down Israel’s enemies, as Peter may believe. He infers this with his rebuke to Jesus when he speaks of his suffering death to come, “God forbid it, Lord. This shall never happen to you.” This word, “never” expresses Peter’s sentiment that to have the Messiah suffer and die is unthinkable. As Paul says in I Cor. 1:23, the message of Christ crucified is “foolishness to Greeks” (or Gentiles) and a “stumbling block to Jews,” including Peter, who loved him.

Jesus says to Peter now, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

His rebuke is especially painful because he has just promised that he will use Peter–his nickname for him that means “rock”–to be the “rock” on which he will build his church. Jesus uses similar language in chapter 4 when he rebukes the devil in the wilderness for tempting him to use his special relationship with God for his own gain.

That it is God’s will for His Son to suffer and die is probably more confusing to Peter because Jesus’ ministry is about alleviating suffering; he’s healing the sick, binding up broken hearts, feeding the hungry, casting out demons and lifting up the poor. And the idea of anyone being raised from the dead, well, it seems pretty farfetched to the disciples. But God’s own suffering through His Son, the Christ, is God’s plan for the redemption of the world. It is divinely necessary, as Jesus says in verse 21. He “must” go to Jerusalem, and suffer and die, and on the third day, be raised.

But what is all this about losing our lives, for Christ’s sake, so that we may find them? This is a difficult concept to grasp–and it was hard for the disciples, too. For human beings naturally do things out of self-preservation. We seek to avoid difficult and dangerous things; we don’t want to get hurt or feel pain–emotional or physical.

Only the Spirit helps us see things differently, and we learn to trust that God has something better for us than living simply for ourselves, being safe and comfortable. What’s challenging is to give up our own expectations that life must be for us a certain way, or else we may miss the blessings that come with total reliance on God. These blessings the Spirit offers us each day include faith and hope, love and joy, patience and a peace that surpasses human understanding. Our blessings are meant to be shared. As Jesus sends out his disciples in Matthew 10:8, he says, “Freely you have received; freely give.” It’s in the giving of who we are in Jesus Christ that we experience abundant life!

***

I did talk to Jim about gator hunting on the way home from the anniversary party on Sunday. He took it surprisingly well. He told me calmly that he would rather I didn’t go. Not because he was worried about the gators, really. He was more concerned about me being alone in the wilderness with strange men. But he left it up to me.

I have a feeling that I won’t be gator hunting this week. I’m pretty busy with ministry at MIPC. The storms heading this way may make the decision for us. If I do go, it will be to reach out with kindness to Gail’s friends and family, who are still mourning their loss. And to share Christ’s comfort and a peace that surpasses human understanding. But it won’t be because I feel that gator hunting is “my cross to bear.”

People use that phrase sometimes when they have to endure something disappointing, unpleasant, or even tragic. But that’s a misunderstanding of this passage. God may give us trials– not as a cross to bear, but to build godly character. As Paul says in Romans 5:3-5, “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” Jesus never asks us to carry his cross or force us to take another’s. He doesn’t expect us seek hardship or suffering, for hardship or suffering’s sake. Our loving Savior doesn’t desire us to be miserable! He beckons us to deny ourselves and resist the temptation to live a “safe” and comfortable life, not allowing ourselves to be vulnerable to others. He invites us to pick up our own crosses and let go of worldly ambitions, fears, self-absorption and self-protection–and live a courageous, self-giving, deeply satisfying life. He desires that we follow in his footsteps–in his loving ways, which is much more rewarding than, say, hunting alligators!

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How we will answer Christ’s call as a church? Will we be courageous? Generous? Compassionate? Loving? Will you choose the way to abundant life? Do you hear Christ’s voice beckoning to you now?

“Take up your cross and follow me.”

 

Let us pray.

 

Holy One, we thank you for taking up your cross and being willing to suffer and die when we were perishing in our sins! Thank you for the hope of your resurrection– that we, too, will be raised to live eternally with you. Thank you for the promise of abundant life in this world as we seek to follow you and deny ourselves, resisting the temptation to choose only a safe and comfortable life, rather than taking risks, living dangerously, and being vulnerable for your sake. Help us, Lord, to be more loving, giving, compassionate, and generous. Use us to build your Church, reaching out to lost souls with your love, mercy and grace. In Christ we pray. Amen.

Renewable Resource

 

Meditation on Romans 12:1-8

Aug. 27, 2017

Merritt Island Presbyterian Church

 Slide18

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.  2Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. 3 For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. 4For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, 5so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. 6We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith;  7ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; 8the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.

 

***

I missed you all last weekend! I was disappointed that I wasn’t able to join you for the preschool workday on Saturday. More than 30 volunteers, including some Scouts, gathered to weed, trim and tidy the grounds, paint, clean, and prepare for the new school year.

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Thank you so much!!

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I was studying for and taking exams for two courses–“Rules and Regulations for Childcare Centers” and “Identifying and Reporting Child Abuse.”

Millions of children suffer abuse and/or neglect each year that impact their cognitive, physical, and emotional development. The United States has the highest rate of child abuse of any industrialized country. An average of 4 to 7 children die each day from child abuse in America. As a member of the clergy, I am a mandated reporter for child abuse. But did you know that in Florida, every adult is required by law to report any suspected abuse or neglect? Failure to report suspected child abuse is a third degree felony.

Our country didn’t always have laws to protect children. The general attitude in America up through much of the 19th century was what went on in a family should be kept in the home. Children were possessions of their fathers. Child abuse and neglect were tolerated, ignored. But there were some people, such as a Christian woman named Etta Angell Wheeler, who was deeply concerned about unloved children.

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While Etta’s husband, Charles, worked long hours reporting for the New York Daily News, Etta served her community and the Lord as a missionary for St. Luke’s Mission in NYC. She visited the sick, lonely, poor and shut in, bringing meals, supplies and donations. She was assigned two routes: between West 38th Street and West 42nd Street and between 47th Street and 53rd Street. These areas of Manhattan later became known as Hell’s Kitchen. Etta extended her care to people who were not part of the church.

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The story of a little girl, cruelly treated, came to her from a quiet, reserved Scots woman, who sought her out while she was making her rounds. Etta says this in her testimony, at the American Humane Association’s website, facesofchildabuse.org. The woman had heard the cries of a girl, perhaps 5 or 6 years old, locked in an inner room of a rear tenement with windows darkened, alone, sometimes, for entire days. Etta knocked at the door of an apartment adjoining the rooms where the child and her family lived, not knowing what reason she would give for coming; she met a young German immigrant woman who was very ill. Etta sat on the side of her bed and listened as the woman poured out her story, then asked about her neighbors. The woman had heard crying and worried the child may be ill. Etta promised to visit the German woman, again, then knocked at the door of the apartment next door. “A woman’s sharp voice asked my errand,” Etta says, and she began talking about the sick and lonely woman that lived next door, until the door opened, and she was in the apartment and could see the child briefly. She was “pale, thin, barefoot” and wore a thin, scanty, tattered dress. And it was December, 1873. The weather was bitterly cold.

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Small for her 9 years, Mary Ellen McCormack stood on a low stool washing dishes “struggling with a frying pan about as heavy as herself. Across the table lay a brutal whip of twisted leather strands and the child’s meager arms and legs bore many marks of its use. But the saddest part of her story was written on her face… the face of a child unloved, of a child that had seen only the fearsome side of life… I went away determined, with the help of a kind Providence, to rescue her from her miserable life.”

But how was this to be done? Etta spoke to her pastor and was told they could not interfere. Weeks and months passed. Easter Sunday came. Etta went to church, with thoughts of the dying German woman and the child weighing heavily upon her. She brought altar flowers to the woman, and they spoke of “Christ and the Resurrection,” “of the glorious meaning of Easter Day, and … the child alone in the darkness.” They prayed for her release. At the suggestion of Etta’s niece, Etta then approached Henry Bergh, founder of the SPCA–Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals–for help. “She is a little animal, surely,” the niece said.

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Bergh agreed to pursue the case. After the well-publicized trial, the Supreme Court ruled to remove Mary Ellen from her abusive home, and sentenced her guardian to a year in jail. Then Henry Bergh and Elbridge Gerry, the prosecutor of Mary Ellen’s case and grandson to former Vice President Elbridge T. Gerry, worked to establish The New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.

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***

The first 2 verses of Romans 12 are some of the best known in the NT. This is the Christian response to the gracious gift we have in Jesus Christ. The first 11 chapters of Paul’s letter to the Roman Church lead to this point, when Paul builds on his teaching of how to live as the faithful people of God, to walk a different path, as he says in chapter 6, in “newness of life.” In Romans 12:1-2, Paul begins, “Therefore, I exhort you, brothers and sisters, through the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice.” He is intentionally using Old Testament language to contrast this new covenant in Jesus, who is, as John’s gospel proclaims in 1:29, “the lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world.” Done are the animal sacrifices for atonement. No more! This sacrifice is giving up old ways and attitudes and living in such a way that that is holy and pleasing to God, guided by the spirit, led by faith, powered by love. This new life we are called to is our “spiritual worship or service,” as this word is also translated.

Then we reach the main point of the passage. “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed.” What is going to cause this transformation that God expects? The “renewing of our minds!” We can’t think like the rest of the world, just as Etta Wheeler refused to look the other way when she learned of a child being cruelly abused during a time when it wasn’t against the law–and frankly, not many people cared what happened to other people’s children. Most didn’t want to interfere, as Etta’s pastor advised, in someone else’s family business.

If what Paul says in verse 2 is true, then it is also true that if our thinking conforms to the thinking of the world, and we are not transformed by the renewing of our minds, then we are not in the will of God. We are not doing what is “good and acceptable and perfect.”

So, here it is–how we can know that we are in the will of God: we are using the spiritual gifts the Lord gives every member of the body of Christ to love and serve others. The spiritual gifts are not given to us so that we may claim a certain status or importance in our community! The gifts should HUMBLE us and make us so grateful to the GIVER that we want to serve God even more.

This is what Paul means when he says, “don’t think of yourself more highly than you ought to think.” Everyone is important and necessary. You know this. You’ve heard it many times, not just in Romans but also 1 Corinthians 12. But do you believe it? “Not all the members have the same function,” Paul says, “so we, who are many, are one body in Christ and individually members of each other.”

Our differences should not lead us to draw lines in the sand, but we do it anyway. Christians do it! We embrace some people who think like us and exclude others we decide not to like, let alone love. Our spiritual gifts and the renewing power of God’s love will lead us to overcome whatever threatens to divide us! Don’t give in to the world’s thinking!

Listen to the promise in Paul’s words: “We who are many, are one!”

***

Mary Ellen McCormack, a little girl so cruelly abused, lived a very different life after the trial of 1874.

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The New York State Supreme Court verdict didn’t completely change the way people thought about children; it didn’t end child abuse. But it stirred awareness and compassion in some for the plight of abused and neglected children. Dozens of private child protection groups sprang up in the decades to come. When hearts and minds were changed, lives were saved! Eventually, child protection legislation was passed and government agencies charged with seeing to the welfare of children.

Mary Ellen spent the rest of her childhood with Etta Wheeler’s family, living first with her mother in the country, learning to play and not be afraid. Then she moved in with Etta’s sister, Mary, when her mother died. She went to school, church and Sunday school. At 24, she married a man with 3 children; the couple had two more daughters and adopted an orphan, another girl. Their children’s joyful childhood, by all accounts, was in sharp contrast to Mary Ellen’s first 9 years. She died in 1956 at age 92.

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Like Etta Wheeler, MIPC also has a heart for children. We want to help them play, learn and grow to know Christ and His love.

We want them to feel safe and never afraid. This Tuesday night, we will have another opportunity to love children, help families, and serve the Lord with our gifts when the preschool hosts an open house and potluck. The congregation is invited! As we share food and fellowship, hearts will be transformed. Minds renewed. We will be reminded, once again, that we, who are many, are ONE!

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Let us pray. Holy one, thank you for the renewing, transforming power of your love. We are offer ourselves–our bodies and minds–as a living sacrifice to you. Thank you for the gifts you have poured into this congregation–the many human resources that we have, gathered in this place of worship, poised to love and serve God and neighbor. Stir us to acts of kindness and compassion and to advocate for the rights and protection of all children. And remove all anxiety and temptation, when it comes, to draw lines in the sand, liking and embracing only some people, excluding others. Remind us, each day, of your grace, revealed in Jesus Christ. Move us to humility and gratitude. Remind us that we who are many, belong to YOU! Make us ONE. In Christ we pray. Amen.

“Walkin’ on Water”

 

Matthew 14:22-33

Aug. 13, 2017

Merritt Island Presbyterian Church

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       22 Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. 23 And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray.

 

Slide08When evening came, he was there alone, 24  but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them.

 

Slide2125 And early in the morning   he came walking toward them on the sea. 26 But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. 27 But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” 28 Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” 29 He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus.

 

Slide1830 But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” 31 Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”

 

Slide20 32 When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. 33 And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

***

June 1, 1940. A story in the UK Guardian, begins….In the grey chill of dawn today in a south-eastern port, war correspondents watched with incredulous joy the happening of a miracle. By every canon of military science the BEF (British Expeditionary Force) has been doomed for the last four or five days. Completely out-numbered, out-gunned, out-planed, all but surrounded, it had seemed certain to be cut off from its last channel of escape. Yet for several hours this morning we saw ship after ship come into harbour and discharge thousands of British soldiers safe and sound on British soil. As the sun was turning the grey clouds to burnished copper, the first destroyer of the day slid swiftly into the harbour, its silhouette bristling with the heads of the men packed shoulder to shoulder on its decks. One watched them with a pride that became almost pain. They had passed through nights and days of hunger, weariness and fear, but nearly every man still had his rifle and a clip of ammunition; nearly all had brought their full kit with them – and what an agony its weight must have been. They were still soldiers and still in good heart. They were of all units and ranks. Some were in the position of the gunners whose battery had been shelled out of existence …, because our overworked fighter planes had had no time to deal with the German reconnaissance planes.

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     Their battery commander had told them to do the best they could for themselves, and they had walked 30 miles to Dunkirk. It is a stretch of level sand backed by dunes. The sea in front of it is shallow for some way out, so that ships cannot come close in. Many of the men have spent up to four days on this beach, hiding in hollows scratched in the sand, from the German planes which have scourged them with bomb and machine-gun. Every now and then, among the men who climb the gangplank into England, one sees stretcher-bearers carrying a still form, its face bloodless and remote. Yet [others] survive in their thousands and are able to joke and sing. In no time the ship is ready to return to Dunkirk. But before it is ready, another has drawn up alongside. British ships and French and Dutch, warships, drifters, trawlers, yachts, barges, they bring their loads across the hostile Channel and then go back undaunted into the inferno.

     Jim and I went to see Dunkirk, the movie, a couple of weeks ago. The film follows a young British soldier who is among more than 400,000 Allies in WWII, fleeing German forces and trapped for days in May 1940 on the shores of Dunkirk in Northern France. The young soldier’s enemies are all around– German ground troops are advancing and the Luftwaffe is raining bombs and bullets on them as they crouch in the sand or wait for hours in shoulder-deep water for a ship to come in. His enemy and salvation is also the furious sea, when the naval ship he boards is bombed and sinks, taking hundreds of Allied lives and threatening his own. The greatest enemy is his fear. He does everything he can to survive, without concern for others until he makes friends with a young soldier, a Frenchman, who saves his life. The British soldier’s response to this act of kindness is to return the kindness–to seek to save the Frenchman’s life.

 

 

 

Fear is also the enemy of the disciples in our passage in Matthew today. Jesus sends away the crowds that he has miraculously fed and the disciples to their little boat, telling them “go ahead to the other side” while he goes to “the mountain” to pray. A stormy sea stirs the disciples’ fear, and brings to our minds the storm that Jesus calms in Matthew 8:23-27, when he is with them in their boat. Now they are battling wind and waves at night in a tiny sailing craft, without Jesus, and the “wind is against them.” They are unexpectedly “far from land.” For fishermen, the sea is a source of sustenance, a way to eat and make a living. The sea is a common mode of travel in ancient, coastal communities. But water is not always a friend. Remember Noah and God’s power revealed in the flood in Genesis 9 that destroys life on earth. Remember Pharaoh’s soldiers in Exodus 14:21 that drown in the Red Sea after it parts for the Israelites, led by Moses, to cross on dry land.

The fearful disciples fail to recognize Jesus when he comes to them in an unexpected way –walking on water in the stormy sea. They cry out, “It’s a ghost!” Jesus seeks to calm their fears and overcome their doubts with assurance of the divine presence. He says “Take heart; it is I.” In Greek, “Eigo eimi.” This is the divine name given to Moses in Exodus 3:14–YHWH, translated, “I am.”

While the Jesus walking on water account appears in Matthew, Mark and John, only Matthew tells us about Peter’s experience. His first response is to doubt and demand another “sign,” more proof of his identity. “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” Notice it’s not Jesus’ idea for Peter to walk on water. But he goes along with it. “Come,” he says. Peter steps out of the boat and moves toward Jesus, but what happens? He takes his eyes off Christ and he looks around! Faith is replaced by fear. And he sinks!

But when he cries out to the Lord for help, Christ grabs him by the hand. Unlike the first story in Matthew of Jesus calming the storm, which ends with the disciples wondering, “Who is this that even the wind and the waves obey him?”, this time, the disciples worship him and say, “Truly, you ARE the Son of God.”

The message for us today is GRACE. God wants us to step out of the boat and leave our comfort zone, but when we do, like Peter, doubts and fear will come. But then we need to cry out to the Lord and remember the divine presence in our lives. Christ continually beckons us to draw closer to Him, while at the same time, he is drawing near to us, with an outstretched hand. As Hebrew 12:1-2a tells us, with the great cloud of witnesses who have gone before us, let us keep on running the race, “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.”

As long as we keep our eyes on Jesus, we’ll be walkin’ on water-

-with Him!

 

Not knowing the story of Dunkirk before seeing the movie, I was surprised to discover the recurring theme of grace. The young, British soldier, on a train after the evacuation reads a newspaper story of the event he has lived through. He expects to be branded a coward, with all who retreated from Dunkirk. But that’s not what happened.

 

The evacuation of more than 335,000 Allied troops is seen as a miracle inspiring hope. When British naval ships cannot make it to Dunkirk or are sunk by German aircraft on the way, more than 700 little ships–civilian owned and manned vessels–cross the English Channel to bring the troops to safety. Considering our gospel lesson alongside the miracle of Dunkirk, I can see Jesus, extending his hand by using ordinary people, to take risks and step out of their comfort zones to help others. Ordinary people walkin’ on water–with Him.

During our staff meeting Thursday, I shared the story of Jesus walking on water and stilling the storm. They shared times when they stepped out of the boat to follow Jesus, uncertain where the journey might take them, or when they felt Jesus taking them by the hand, calming and leading them through the storms of their lives.

I asked myself when had I stepped out of the boat and left my comfort zone to follow Him? And when had Jesus taken my hand during a storm of my life? The answer came quickly: Every day! Every day is a leap of faith. Every day, I need God’s grace! I need to feel the touch of Jesus’ hand, a reminder of the divine presence with me! I need to hear Christ’s reassuring voice, “Take heart! It is I! Eigo eimi.”

An image flashed before my eyes of the hands that hold me–the hands of Jesus are the hands of my staff, congregation, friends, family. They are the hands of the Body of Christ, in every time, in every place–the great cloud of witnesses, in Hebrews 12, helping us run the race that is our lives of faith!

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As I finished this message last night, I heard of the tragedy in Charlottesville–the hatred and loss of life. I know what Jesus would do — he would speak out against the hatred, bigotry and violence. If those in power, friends, are not modeling righteousness, truth and love, it’s up to us to do it! Get out of the boat and go boldly, out of your comfort zone! Speak up for the victims, the voiceless and their families. We can do this if we pray and trust Jesus, who is with us now and always during the storms of our lives. His hand is outstretched! And when you are afraid, cry out to the one perfect example of self-giving love, the one who says, “Come!” As long as we keep our eyes on Jesus, we’ll be walkin- on water–with Him!

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Let us pray. Holy One, thank you for your Word that assures us of your divine presence with us always! Thank you for inviting us to come to you, with all our burdens and fears, during the stormy times of our lives. For telling us that we belong to you, that you love us. Forgive us for our violent ways, for our anger, selfishness and divisiveness in our country. Thank you for hearing our cries of, “Lord, save us!” when we feel as if we are sinking, just as you heard Peter’s cries and grabbed him by the hand. Help us, Lord, to be that hand of Christ for others–loving people as much as you love us! Build up our faith. Give us strength and courage to follow you, believing in your miracles. Help us to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus as we seek to serve him each day. In His name we pray. Amen.

Act of Love in a Violent World

Meditation on Matthew 14:13-21

Aug. 6, 2017

Merritt Island Presbyterian Church

     13 Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns.

 14When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd;  and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. Slide0515When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said,  ‘This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.’ 16Jesus said to them, ‘They need not go away; you give them something to eat.’ 17They replied, ‘We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.’ Slide1118And he said, ‘Bring them here to me.’ 19Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds.  Slide1320And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces,  twelve baskets full. 21And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.

***

When I first visited Jim, his Shetland sheepdog, Molly, met me at the door to his home–ears pricked up, wagging her tail. She let me pet her thick coat, with colors like Lassie.

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She loved my 3 children instantly and was patient, even when Josh chased her around and around the kitchen island, teasing her. Jim said Molly wandered all over the house looking for us when we left that night. Molly was Jim’s therapy dog, a pup given to him after he had surgery. He walked her several times a day. She loved her walks. She never seemed to get tired.

After Jim and I married, she and Jim moved into my house, and she slept on the floor by my side of the bed.

She came with me to Princeton Seminary for 2 years, keeping me company and easing my homesickness. She traveled in the back seat for a 2 hour and 15 minute commute one way, every week, including one summer when I took 6 or 8 weeks of intensive Greek.

Slide19

Jim and the boys stayed in York, where Jim was a pastor and Jacob and James attended high school. Molly and I walked together every day for miles–sometimes an hour in the morning and an hour in the late afternoon.

I learned some of her likes: rawhide bones, chicken, hot, baked bread and cottage cheese. I learned her dislikes: loud noises, bicycles, skateboards, basketballs, maintenance men with power tools, and rain. She hated when I left her each day. She slept on my backpack at night–worried I might sneak out without her knowing.

When I accepted a call to ministry in Minnesota, Molly came with us and visited me at the church office, next door to our home. Here is a picture of her and I that appeared in the local newspaper.

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 I was the only “lady pastor” in town. And she may have been the only Shetland sheepdog. I know for sure, she was the most the beautiful dog in town.

She came with us to Florida in 2015. Her thick hair was too heavy for long walks in the heat of the day.

A new hairdo helped and the walks grew more frequent. She would get excited and pace the living room while I laced up my walking shoes.

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That was the only time she minded Melvyn, our cat. Molly would lunge at him, barking, if he approached me while I was getting ready for a walk, as if she were saying, “My mommy! Go away!”

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On Friday, I took Molly for a short walk around the outside of the house before supper. Her legs and hips had grown so week, she struggled with every step. I gave her a bath when we came in, wrapped her in towels. Jim laid her in her crate to dry off. She immediately fell asleep. After supper, when I went to remove the wet towels, she didn’t respond. Jim said that she was gone.

***

We humans hide our grief, though sorrow and loss is something we all share. We have all lost loved ones, not just our pets, but close family and friends.

Scripture tells us that Jesus experienced loss and grief and all the emotions that we experience. He cried when his friend, Lazarus, died. The community sees and comments, in Luke 11:36, 36 “See how he loved him!”

In today’s gospel, we sense his grief for his friend, John the Baptist. The passage immediately follows Jesus’ disciples coming to tell him that John is dead, executed by Herod, a corrupt, client ruler of the Roman Empire. Our reading begins at Matthew 14:13, “Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself.” For this is a natural reaction to grief. We need our friends and family’s support, and we need our time alone to process our grief and rest, for grief can be exhausting! We imagine that Jesus has gone to seek God the Father in prayer– to be comforted and strengthened for the work of ministry and his own suffering ahead.

I imagine Jesus is remembering John and his baptism at the beginning of his public ministry.

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In Matthew 3:14, Jesus approaches John at the Jordan, John protests, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” John doesn’t care what people think of him; he shuns the luxuries of his day, choosing to live in the wilderness, dining on locusts and wild honey.

Slide35

 He boldly calls out to the crowds who have come to be baptized in Luke 3, telling them what they should do if they sincerely repent from this sins–share what they have with the poor. “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.”

Herod had first imprisoned John for saying Herod should not be sleeping with his brother Philip’s wife, Herodias. He would have killed him then, but he worried the people might rise up against him, for they regarded John as a prophet. But then Herod, at his birthday party, promises to give Herodias’ daughter, who danced for him, anything she wanted.

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She asks for the head of John the Baptist, for her mother has coached her. Herod is compelled to do as the girl requests–or lose face.

Afterward, Herod’s fear increases. He says to his servants, when he hears about Jesus’s deeds of power in 14:2, “This is John the Baptist; he has been raised from the dead.”

Jesus isn’t off by himself for long. The crowd finds out where he has gone in 14:13– and follow him on foot. They have no faith that Herod will help them. But they have heard about Jesus, and they have hope.

Jesus sees the crowds in 14:14, and though his heart is breaking because of what happened to John, “he has compassion for them and cured their sick.” He responds to the violence in his world–as we should respond to the violence in our world today– with an act of love. Rather than allowing the disciples to send the crowd off to buy food in the villages, Jesus says in vs. 16, “You give them something to eat.” Notice, he doesn’t say, “I will give them something to eat.” Then follows the miracle story–the only one that appears in ALL 4 gospels. The disciples reply from a position of scarcity, seeing only the present and not the future, with endless possibilities. We have that same problem. We see what we have–rather, we look around and see what we don’t have–and we think the situation cannot change and if it does, it’s only going to get worse. Though we say we profess faith in Jesus Christ, we don’t believe God’s miraculous provision is for us!

The disciples, thinking they will surely starve, do the same thing. They look at their food supply and see it for less than it is. They call it “nothing!” “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” At the same time, they don’t want to give it up, because Jesus has to say to them, “Bring them here to me.”

Slide15

Now don’t miss this point! God’s provision comes when the disciples are willing to share ALL that they have, in obedience to Christ, believing that God will provide for them and for others through them. His plan for the disciples is the same plan he has for us– to serve and give. To be Christ’s hands and feet.

Slide46

 

***

 

On Friday, when Jim told me Molly was gone, I took her out of her crate, wrapped her in a satin sheet and laid down on the floor beside her. I stroked her head, wishing I had taken her for more walks when she was young and never seemed to get tired. I wished I could have just a little more time with her. But then, as Jim says, she had a good home, a good life for 15 years.

The funny thing about love is that it’s like the loaves and fish miracle story in all 4 gospels–the more we give, the more we have to give, and the more we want to give. God’s love poured into our hearts never runs out. It’s like David says in Psalm 23, “Our cup overflows!”

I find myself wandering around the house, looking for Molly, maybe like when the boys were little and we came to visit her and Jim. When I go in the living room, I expect her to be curled up in front of the door, where she often slept, waiting for another walk.

Slide48

I don’t know what heaven is like for dogs. The Bible doesn’t say. But I imagine Molly is loved and cared for by the God who created her, the same God who created and loves us, too. She is running free in endless meadows–no more suffering, fear or pain. Every day is sunshine; there’s no more rain.

Slide49

She has all the rawhide and cottage cheese, and chicken–or something that tastes like it– to eat. I am certain she will be the most beautiful dog there–or at least she will seem that way to me, if ever again we shall meet.

Let us pray.

Heavenly Father, thank you for the gift of this day and every day we have in this world to love and serve you and love and serve our neighbors. Thank you for our family, friends, and our beloved pets, who bring us so much joy and reveal a glimpse of your unconditional love. Help us to be more loving and generous, Lord. Stir us to see what we have not as just a few loaves and fish, as the disciples did, but as a cup that runneth over–blessings that never end from a God whose love never ends. Lead us to give and give and give–and then want to give some more, without worrying that there will be enough for our own needs and desires, trusting you for all our tomorrows, trusting in our future filled with hope. May we learn to be unselfish, like your Son, who gave Himself up for the world–so that we might be forgiven for all our sins and have abundant and everlasting life with Him. In Christ we pray. Amen.