Temptation in the Wilderness

Meditation on Matthew 4:1-11

First Presbyterian Church of Smithtown, NY

First Sunday in Lent

Pastor Karen Crawford

Feb. 26, 2023

Link to full service with video of message:


Audio clip of Pastor’s Message:

Title: Christ in the Wilderness
Creator: Ivan Kramskoy
Date Created: 1872

I can’t tell you how happy I am to return to my flock to lead worship on The Lord’s Day!

Thank you so much for your prayers for me—and for those who kept texting or calling Jim and me, asking, “Do you need anything?” About 4 days after I tested positive for COVID, Jim tested positive and experienced more severe symptoms.

We are taking care of each other.

I am pretty sure that my terrible cooking will be a great motivation for Jim to heal as quickly as possible. Thank God for peanut butter and crackers, grilled cheese and hot dogs—and ready to bake meals from Fresh Market.

Seriously, it was hard to go from recovering from surgery and then being hit by COVID, just when I was ready to get back to work and a normal routine!

But I am grateful. I am grateful to God that we didn’t have the severe illnesses that many people with COVID have experienced. I am grateful for the Lord, always being there for me, always, always, when I am weak and struggling just to get through the responsibilities of every day.

 I am grateful for all of you! I could feel your prayers! Thank you for all your help.

I read an article this week in Christian Century magazine called, “The Little Engine That Needed Collaborators.” It’s about clergy burnout—and not the usual pat solutions that so-called experts write. You know: get some rest. Don’t do too much. It was by a senior minister of University Church in Chicago, Julian DeShazier. He is also an Emmy-winning hip-hop artist who performs under the name J.Kwest.

First of all, the title caught my eye right away. Doesn’t everyone love that children’s book, The Little Engine That Could? We all remember the part where the Little Engine is saving the day, pulling a big train of toys for girls and boys over the mountain that other trains have simply passed by. “I think I can I think I can I think I can…”

And yes, I may have felt like I was laboring up a steep climb with a very little engine these last few months. “I think I can I think I can I think can.”

A recent Barna Group study says 42 percent of pastors have given “real, serious consideration to quitting full-time ministry,” Julian says. “The number is higher for pastors under 45 years old, and higher for women, regardless of age.

I’m going to pause here for a moment and assure you, “He’s not talking about me! I love my ministry with you!”

He goes on, “pastors burn out for the same reasons engines do: they work too hard. Frontline care providers of all kinds are working too hard these days. One myth is that better engines can sustain the load, that clergy burnout is the result of weak or unfit clergy. But while it is true that some people have no business doing public ministry, the larger truth is that small, relatively weak engines can last hundreds of thousands of miles and perform incredibly well—with the right support.” (CC, March 2023, p. 29.)

The top two reasons pastors say they are considering quitting are stress and loneliness. The question for congregations to ask, Julian says, “is not how to give their pastor a break but rather how to help them overfunction less.” (Overfunction is the new word for doing WAY too much ALL the time.)

The most radical question for the congregation and pastor to ask is, “How can we do this together?????”

“Rock stars, after all, don’t make song by themselves,” Julian says. “The album cover might not tell you that, but liner notes will.” The first album of the hip hop duo Outkast involved 36 collaborators—writers, musicians, and engineers!

 “If we see clergy as rock stars, then we are clearly only looking at the album cover,” he says. “So people treat them as the ones holding everything together….They become symbols of a congregation’s faithfulness—icons of its goodness. …Instead of working in harmony, churches let their clergy sing a cappella solos, hoping that if they’re good enough at it, things will turn out ok.”


This is when Jesus is at his weakest—right before the beginning of his ministry. He’s all alone. Far from home. No family or friends. No followers, yet. He has barely dried off from his baptism when the Spirit LEADS him into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. This language assures us that this is God’s will—this is his destiny to be tempted by the devil. This wilderness is a rocky desert. It’s windy as all getout! Hot during the day. Cold at night.

He doesn’t eat anything for 40 days—not even the locusts and wild honey that his cousin John the Baptist ate when he was living in the wilderness by the Jordan River.

The “40” days is an important number in Israelite history. Jesus experiences what the great prophets of the Hebrew Bible have experienced, revealing that he is the fulfillment of the Old Covenant and foreshadowing the New.

40 connects with Noah’s Ark and the rainbow covenant; the Israelites’ wandering in the wilderness; Elijah fleeing to Mount Horeb (or Sinai). The length of his journey? 40 days and 40 nights, as is Moses’ time on Mt. Sinai with God, writing the Ten Commandments on stone tablets.

The devil in this passage is the Greek word diabolos. Diabolos is equivalent to the Hebrew word, satan. Satan means “accuser.”  The devil knows how to push buttons. Does the devil know how to push your buttons?

He says to Jesus, before each question, “If you are the Son of God….”  In other words, he’s asking Jesus to prove his identity—putting him on the defense before his ministry has begun. He’s just Jesus, right now, to his community. He doesn’t have followers and he hasn’t done any miracles. He is The Nazarene. Son of Joseph the Carpenter.

Jesus’ response to the devil’s temptations come from Deuteronomy,.

 “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” Deut. 8:3.

 “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” Deut. 6:16.

 And the last temptation, Jesus answers, “Away with you, Satan, as it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve only him.’ “ Deut. 6:13.

Satan leaves. The test is over abruptly. And just as suddenly, angels appear to “wait on him.” They have come to feed him, like the angels did for Elijah when he was weary and broken in the wilderness. Fleeing from evil Queen Jezebel, he had reached the point of human weakness where he was DONE. He didn’t want to fulfill his prophetic calling anymore. But Elijah didn’t quit—he prayed to the Lord to take his life. And the Lord of Life sent angels to care for him so he could carry on.


The night before we celebrated Debbie Canning’s celebration of life on Friday, I had the worst headache and brain fog. I was up past midnight working on the message and the service. But the Lord and my beautiful flock was with me on the day of the funeral.

God is always here with us and for us, ready to use us.

I had so much help!!! People sprang into action to make sure our worship was pleasing to God and the family was cared for!

You know who you are! You know how your help was needed, and how you were able to do that task that was by no means SMALL.

Dear friends, the fact that the temptation began right after Jesus was baptized is significant. For it is right after we say yes to the Lord and are enthusiastic about serving God that we are vulnerable for spiritual attack. The devil doesn’t want any more Christians running around, messing up all his plans. The devil’s job is to accuse—and to make us feel badly about ourselves and stumble in our walk with God.

Not many of us are led by the Spirit to fast and pray 40 days in a real wilderness. But all of us will go through countless wilderness journeys in our lifetime. Some of you might be in a wilderness right now. You are being tried and tested. Your soul is thirsty. You have been walking for miles in a dry and dusty land.  You have, at times, felt alone.

But the blessing of the wilderness is that is where God is!  Cry out to God. Cling to God’s Word. And God will send help!  The Lord will bring you home. First, God will gather and command the angels to come and wait on you, like they did for Jesus and Elijah.

Look around this sanctuary. Everyone in here is your brother and sister. They are your friends in the faith. They might not have wings or be dressed all in white. But they are the angels who will walk with you and help you carry your burden in your time of need.

None of us have to be the Little Engine that could—not when we have each other. When all of us are connected and pulling, we can move a heavy load up a mountain. Step by step. Inch by inch.

We might be moving so slowly at times that we don’t see the progress from day to day. But we hold onto our faith, and we are there for each other. Remember what Julian said—how small engines can last hundreds of thousands of miles and perform incredibly well, with the right support.

One day, we will look back at the steep climb we managed as collaborators, asking the radical question, “How can we do this together?”

And we’ll say, “I thought we could I thought we could I thought we could.”

Let us pray.

Holy One, thank you for your Word, a lamp to our feet, a light to our path. Your Word and Spirit guide, unite, and strengthen us. Help us to feel your presence in our time of need, when we are weak and vulnerable. Teach us, Lord, to resist the accuser and deliver us from temptation. Lead us to lean on one another and trust in your Son and the promise of eternal life. Help us to serve as collaborators, living out our call as a royal priesthood. Dear Lord, we sense angels in our midst. Use us as your hands and feet to do your loving, healing work as we travel our wilderness journeys. In Christ we pray. Amen.

My Sheep Hear My Voice

Meditation on John 10:11-16

In Memory of Debra Canning

First Presbyterian Church of Smithtown, NY

Pastor Karen Crawford

Feb. 24, 2023

Audio of Pastor Karen sharing this message:

Debra Canning always gave good advice.

And she was right, says her daughters Michelle and Janine, though they might not have wanted to hear all her advice when they were teenagers.

 But they listened to the voice of their mother. Because she knew them and listened to them with love, always wanting the best for them. They had always been close—Debbie and her twin daughters—in proximity and relationship.

M. and J. trusted their mom and felt they could talk about anything with her. And they did. They talked to her every day. One had a routine of calling Debbie on her way home from work.

M. and J. describe Debbie as being a “brilliant stay at home mother of twins.” What a wonderful tribute to their mom! She was a good cook and was involved with all their activities. She was their Girl Scout Troop Leader for many years, an active member of the Mothers of Twins Club, and our congregation, First Presbyterian Church of Smithtown, where she had attended when she was young. She went to all their school functions and their many church activities. She didn’t miss anything of their childhood!

She also had her own interests and special talents. One was that she had a gift for caring for plants, especially those that weren’t growing well under someone else’s care. People would give her their dying plants, and then they would thrive.

Being a mother of twins, she didn’t have the same expectations for each of her daughters. She was determined that their personalities and lives wouldn’t become melded into one—that they would become all that they could be. She didn’t want their being born on the same day to define them or hold them back in any way from experiencing all the adventures of life.

Debbie would make sure that each would have their own birthday cake and candles to blow—and they were different cakes! Their mom would lead the singing of The Happy Birthday song all the way through for each of them.

She was protective of her girls, especially because they were twins and people would say the darndest things about them to her in public—as if being a mother of twins was anything but a WONDERFUL thing to happen! A great blessing from God!

She made many friends, and she kept many friends from childhood. One of her friends was nervous about taking the civil service exam. She went with her and took the exam, too. Debbie’s daughters were in 6th grade, and she wasn’t looking for a job, but her high score led to her being offered a number of positions and deciding to work for many years with the Smithtown School District in a variety of roles.

But the most important thing to Debbie was her family—especially her husband, John, of 45 years. He completely devoted himself to her care after an aortic dissection surgery in January 2019 led to a blood clot, which devastated her health and mobility. While her survival from the 8-hour surgery and multiple medical interventions since then were nothing short of miraculous, the journey of these last 4 years has been long and arduous. The stroke affected one side of her body and left her unable to walk. She dealt with chronic, persistent pain.

I have been touched by the sight of John and Debbie together in the back pew box, with their daughters, since I arrived to serve as pastor last May. When so many people choose to do other things at 10 a.m. on Sunday morning, John would get Debbie ready and bring her here in her wheelchair. I would marvel at the effort it must have taken for them to attend an hourlong service, with all her serious health challenges.

 Coming to church with her family brought Debbie peace.  It was just one of the ways The Good Shepherd was watching over and caring for one of his precious sheep.

The Good Shepherd, not the hired hand, in John 10, is the one who is willing to lay down his life for his sheep. Jesus is foreshadowing for his disciples his death on a cross for our sins so that we might live eternally with him. He is willing to die even for one lost sheep! The hired hand has no investment. It’s no loss to him. Is he going to risk his well-being to save someone else’s sheep? The Good Shepherd isn’t afraid of anything. He seeks only to do God’s will. Nothing will deter the Good Shepherd from protecting all of his sheep from the wolves—what would seek to harm a soul in this world—and snatch and scatter the fold.

But there is nothing in this world that would harm a soul. There’s nothing we can do to lose our salvation, and there’s nothing anyone can do to us to separate us from God’s love.

Listen. Jesus assures us in John 10: 27, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.  I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand.”

When Michelle and Janine talked about their mother’s passing early Tuesday morning, they spoke of the look of peace on Debbie’s face. She had been hurting for a long time, they said. She had been fiercely holding onto life in this world with her family because she didn’t want them to cry and be sad, missing her.

But I always tell people that not only is it OK to cry, crying is healing! When we cry, we release our sorrow that we are holding onto and we invite others to share in our sorrow, which is really a beautiful thing. And, you know, Jesus wept at the tomb of his friend, Lazarus, whom he loved—and this was right before he called him by name and he was raised from the dead.

We find also comfort in St. John’s vision in Revelation of what we will see when we are with the Lord, face to face.  For we WILL make our home with God and God WILL make His home with us. Revelation 21:3-4 says, “And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.”

And something else struck me as we spoke of Debbie and her daughters talking every day.

When our loved one’s die, we would give anything to hear their voice, once again. I remembered last night that after my dad passed away in 2019, I looked in vain for a long, rambling voicemail he had left for me one night that I had saved—just because I liked listening to it. I recall part of it was that he said, “Hello, Karen. This is Dad. I’m not calling for any special reason. Just to talk.” He just had such a wistful sound in his voice—like he was longing to hear mine, too. Somehow, my phone automatically deleted it after a certain amount of time.

It isn’t just the sound of their voice that we miss; it’s the love and tender care of the person who is speaking. We want to talk with them. We know because of our close relationship that what they say matters—and that whatever they say will be for our good. We trust them and their advice!

Some people wonder if our loved ones can hear us talking to them after they die. And can they speak to us in some way? I don’t know if Scripture answers this question.

In my personal experience, I do know that not knowing if Dad can hear me has never stopped me from talking to my father—and feeling a sense of peace when I do. I know he is with God—and God can hear everything I say. Couldn’t the Lord share it with him? Dad had a long battle with health issues—decades—beginning in his 50s, really. He was in a wheelchair for the last few months of his life. My mother had taken care of him through all his illnesses, surgeries, and miraculous recoveries, much like John took care of Debbie and never gave up hope.

If I listen now, in the quiet, I can still hear my father’s voice—calling my name. That hasn’t faded from my memory. His is the voice in my head telling me what to do with the plants in my yard and my home. His advice continues to guide me to this day, though my dad was a quiet, shy man.

This is my hope for Debbie Canning’s family and friends and for our church family—that you would still hear her voice for years to come. And that you will remember the practical wisdom she was so willing to share with you and you were so willing to receive because you knew she wanted the best for you—and that she was right —and that it came from a heart of love.

Let us pray.

Good Shepherd, thank you for your everlasting love for ALL your sheep and for knowing us so intimately, better than we know ourselves. Thank you for the promise that you will call us by name, and we will hear your voice and follow you. Open our ears to hear you and trust in your Word because of your love and faithfulness. Comfort those who mourn. Hold us forever, dear Lord, safely in the grasp of your hand. Amen.

Invitation to a Holy Lent

Ash Wednesday Meditation on Psalm 51

Pastor Karen Crawford

First Presbyterian Church of Smithtown, NY

Feb. 22, 2023

Audio of Pastor Karen’s Ash Wednesday message:

Pastor Karen shares her Ash Wednesday message, Invitation to a Holy Lent. Bird photo by Jim Crawford, used with permission.
Photo by Jim Crawford, used with permission

A few weeks ago, I shared how I have rediscovered my joy in backyard birdwatching.  

I find myself smiling and laughing out loud when the birds do something surprising—or if there is a new kind of bird come to visit and eat suet or seed at our feeders.

I couldn’t believe it on Monday when Jim and I saw a Northern Flicker! I had never seen one before! I kept saying, “Look at how handsome he is! Isn’t he cute?!” The “he” turned out to be a “she,” one of our birdwatching friends told us.

Northern Flickers are a large bird—12 to 14 inches tall, with a wingspan of 18 to 21 inches. They are a kind of woodpecker found throughout woodlands of North America. They have a joyful call of “wicker, wicker, wicker!”

She was perched on a shepherd’s hook for the longest time—just looking around, turning her head this way and that, posing for photos not far from our kitchen windows. She had black polka dots across her white chest and a black “collar.” She looked as if God had painted a red Y on the back of her grey and tan head with a blue beak. She had a large yellow and black tail, which is rare for Northern Flickers. The common coloring is with a red tail.

She was lovely and precious and rare—and she lifted my spirits on a day when I was still under the weather with COVID. Seeing her and her staying long enough to allow us to take her photo was truly a gift from the Lord.

The birds that visit our backyard and eat at our feeders remind me of how God watches over and cares for each and every one of them, just as God watches over and cares for each and every one of us.

“Are not two sparrows sold for a penny?” Jesus asks in Matthew 10:29-31. “And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows.”

Later on the day that we saw the Northern Flicker, the squirrels returned to raid our feeders. This is a daily frustration. A whole gang of them – 5 or 6 aggressive creatures—come to eat as if there’s no tomorrow. They frighten the birds, make a mess, and leave very little for other creatures to eat.

Which leads me to confess: Sometimes, I hate the squirrels. Well, I don’t hate them exactly. I don’t wish them harm. But I would be pleased to never see them in my yard again. I have tried just about everything to keep them out of the birdseed. I have bought squirrel resistant feeders. We have used baffles. We have greased poles. Nothing works.

Check out this photo from an article in New England Today: Living from July 2022:

Let’s face it. The squirrel has nothing to do all day except try to eat the food you are so generously offering him. He might think it’s fun figuring out your new squirrel proof feeder, like those of us who do the New York Times Wordle or Spelling Bee.

At the same time, the Spirit has been convicting me that the squirrels are one example of how I can justify having bad feelings about a creature God has made– because it goes against my purposes. I want to feed birds. The squirrels are bothering me and getting in the way of my goal. I want them gone.

This is what we do as human beings. We label people as acceptable or unacceptable, interesting or uninteresting, desirable and undesirable. We friend and unfriend on Facebook. We find ways of avoiding those who make us uncomfortable or unhappy. We see the world through our own wants and needs, rather than recognizing that human beings, as do all Creatures, belong to the same God and Creator. Psalm 24:1 and 2 says, “the earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it, for he has founded it on the seas and established it on the rivers.”

In Genesis, with the language of dominion and not domination, the Lord charges the first human beings to care for all Creatures, till the Garden and “keep it.” The Hebrew word for “keep” has the same root that Cain uses defensively when God asks him where his brother Abel is, after he has killed him.

Cains says, “I don’t know. Am I my brother’s keeper?

On this Ash Wednesday, we cry out to God with the writer of Psalm 51 for truth in our “inward being” and “a clean heart.”  We seek “purging” with God’s “hyssop.” Gardeners may recognize this evergreen herb with purple flowers in the mint family. Long ago, it was used in the ritual cleansing of lepers.

Psalm 51 begins:

Have mercy on me, O God,
    according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy,
    blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
    and cleanse me from my sin.

For I know my transgressions,
    and my sin is ever before me.
Against you, you alone, have I sinned
    and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you are justified in your sentence
    and blameless when you pass judgment.
Indeed, I was born guilty,
    a sinner when my mother conceived me.

You desire truth in the inward being;
    therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
    wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and gladness;
    let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins,
    and blot out all my iniquities.

10 Create in me a clean heart, O God,
    and put a new and right spirit within me.
11 Do not cast me away from your presence,
    and do not take your holy spirit from me.
12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
    and sustain in me a willing spirit.

I invite my flock to join with me in observing a Holy Lent this year, not only by going into your secret indoor place to pray but going out to experience the Wonder of God in nature, if you are able—alone and with friends or family. I invite you to go humbly and expectantly, with an open heart and mind, that you may be filled with the joy of God’s everlasting presence and knowledge of God’s generous grace for sinners. May the Lord slow us down and lead us out to pay attention to the amazing diversity of the world around us, the world we are called to love and keep as kin, just as Cain was called to love and keep Abel.

May we recall God’s limitless supply of hyssop that purges us from sin and heals fresh wounds and old scars. And how we are being made whiter than snow. And what is broken in us is being made whole.

May we talk and listen for the Lord as the birds sing sweetly in the trees. From the seemingly insignificant common sparrows to the rare and beautiful yellow-tailed Northern Flicker: we belong to God.

Let us pray.

Holy God, we praise you for the Wonder of your Creation! How amazing is the world that you have created and charged us with tilling and keeping. Thank you for your love. Have mercy on us. Create in us a clean heart. Forgive us for the sin of failing to love all Creatures great and small, and especially our human neighbors. Purge us with hyssop. Cleanse us from sin. Put a new and right spirit within us. Amen. 

Holy Mountain Vision

Meditation on Matthew 17:1–9

Pastor Karen Crawford

Read by Elder Dulcie McLeod

First Presbyterian Church of Smithtown

Feb. 19, 2023

Audio of Pastor Karen Sharing Her Message:

Feb. 19, 2023 audio message for Transfiguration Sunday
Art by Stushie

The disciples who go with Jesus up Mt. Tabor in Galilee are very human. I think Jesus has chosen 3 fishermen—ordinary people—on purpose. What do they know about mountain climbing? They would have been physically strong because of the demanding life of a First Century fisherman in the Sea of Galilee. For that matter, what does Jesus know about mountain climbing? But God the Father often draws him up to the hills to pray, as the psalmist does. Mountains are places of refuge and safety, and, from the time of Moses and Elijah, a place to meet and commune with God and leave the world behind.

The disciples have no idea what is going to happen on the mountain; we can tell this by their reaction to the Holy Vision. They think they are going to be with Jesus and perhaps are a little prideful. Jesus has chosen them, after all! They must feel special.

Then again, maybe they were the only ones who said, “OK, we’ll go.”

Just before this passage, Jesus urges his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Ascending the mountain is an illustration of the disciples’ willingness to follow, wherever the journey leads them.

Our gospel writers tell us just how human the disciples are; they are terrified in the presence of the divine light. Jesus no longer appears like the one they had come to know and love. This passage reveals Christ’s true identity as God’s Beloved Son, his clothing and face shining with a light brighter than this world.

He IS fully human and fully God—coming down from heaven, for us and our salvation, as we say in the Nicene Creed. This is the New Covenant of the ancient faith—a covenant of grace!

Human beings would not and could not live in love with God and neighbor. We needed help to hear God‘s voice and follow in Christ’s self-giving ways. We had trouble listening—and still have trouble listening to Christ today.

This is one of the times when I am sure the disciples are wondering why they said yes to follow—and what it all will mean for their lives. They are frightened by the disembodied voice from the cloud that engulfs and disorients them.  Can you imagine being in a cloud on a high mountain—and you can barely see your hand in front of your face?

This is no small thing.

Isn’t it funny how Peter, in his account of the Transfiguration in his letter, leaves out the part about his offering to build tabernacles for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah? The voice from the bright cloud overshadows them while Peter is still speaking!

It was the human thing to do. “I can fix this, Jesus! Let me use my gifts and talents!”

What can we say with all certainty about this mysterious passage, about which the Church has wondered for thousands of years? This scene in Scripture has long inspired artists, including iconographers. This story has been remembered by the Church and retold with awe from generation to generation. It gives us HOPE.

This passage sheds a little light on what it means to be the people of the New Covenant in Jesus Christ. We are called to be fully reliant on the Lord—to listen and follow the Son, every day. This isn’t a punitive thing! God isn’t mad at us!

When the disciples fall to the ground in fear, Jesus says with compassion, “Get up! Don’t be afraid.” The Lord welcomes all to come boldly to him, even Peter, who doesn’t always get it right. The disciples are warned not to tell anyone what they have heard and seen. Not yet. They cannot fully grasp what happened—and who Christ is. They won’t begin to understand until he is crucified and risen.

They are learning to wait on the Lord.

Jesus tells them not to tell the others—or anyone. I suspect that he wants to avoid jealousy and division. And, sometimes, we don’t have the words to express the things of God. It’s better not to reduce a divine vision to human terms.

Don’t you wonder if they are able to keep that secret from the other disciples? How do they explain where they have been? They must have stunned expressions on their faces.

As they descend the mountain, they can’t unsee what they saw. They have a Holy Mountain Vision that connects them with each other and Christ and will forever change them in ways they cannot predict. This vision strengthens those who are very human to persevere through the journey and suffering ahead.

Like the disciples long ago, we are very human. We don’t always see God’s will clearly. The Spirit reveals things to us in part, day by day, when we seek God with an open heart. God reveals what the Lord wants us to know, in God’s time. We have to accept that—that we will not always see the whole story. And that God’s grace is sufficient.

My surgery was a month ago. I have been focused on my recovery—emphasis on MY– and preparing for the Season of Lent, which begins in a just a few days. I have been pouring my heart, mind, body, and soul into ministry—maybe trying to make up for lost time.  I am sharing this with you because I have a feeling that others in my church family do the same thing.

We make plans, with good intentions. We do our best to imperfectly follow the Lord every day. We truly love the Lord and the Church. We push on, persevere, trying to be faithful and do God’s work.

I didn’t expect to test positive for COVID yesterday! That threw an ax in MY plans—for this weekend and possibly this week. Emphasis, again, is on the MY.

I am learning from the Lord that sometimes God wants us to do NOTHING. Just wait and pray.  I have learned how I am not patient with my own limitations. And that I don’t take everything to the Lord in prayer immediately. I like to carry my own burden for a while and have trouble releasing it, rather than how we are encouraged to pray for everything in that wonderful old hymn, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.”

And, though I am good at giving advice to those who are sick, recovering from surgery or grieving the loss of a loved one, I am not always good at taking my own advice. I always tell people who ask why something is happening—whatever the trial is—that I don’t know what God is doing or preparing to do in their lives. We may never know why, and we may never understand God’s timing. 

I always encourage people that whenever I get sick, I hear the Lord reassuring me of God’s love. I hear God saying that I should slow down, quiet the noisy thoughts and activities in my life, and receive God’s unconditional love with peace and joy.

Friends, not everything about the Christian life is DOING. It is BEING in and with the ONE who sees us all as God’s beloved, through the suffering work of the Son.

As we begin the Season of Lent on Wednesday, I hope you will be stirred to be still and know God, as the psalmist cries out. Imagine yourself in the Holy Mountain Vision that now we are free to share and indeed are encouraged to tell the world so that more people will come to know who JESUS really is. God’s Son, the Savior, our Lord.

Will you pray with me? Let us pray.

Loving and Gracious God, thank you for revealing this Holy Mountain Vision to the first disciples and to us, so that we would come to see your Beloved Son as more than merely human. Help us to listen for your voice and quiet the other voices and activities in our lives, especially during this Holy Season of Lent. Lead us to be still and know you are the Lord—the Holy One of Israel, the God of our salvation. Strengthen us to be patient as we wait on your healing, trust in your unconditional love, and enjoy your everlasting presence with us. In our Triune God we pray. Amen.

We are God’s Coworkers, Working Together

Meditation on 1 Corinthians 3:1–9

First Presbyterian Church of Smithtown, NY

Pastor Karen Crawford

Feb. 12, 2023

Audio of Pastor Karen’s Message:

Goldfinch from Butterfly Garden of the Soul on FB, Barbara Almstead Images, Used with Permission https://www.facebook.com/photo?fbid=197819639270672&set=pcb.197820325937270
Goldfinch from Butterfly Garden of the Soul on FB, Barbara Almstead Images, Used with Permission https://www.facebook.com/photo?fbid=197819639270672&set=pcb.197820325937270

I enjoyed a long walk yesterday afternoon. Wasn’t the weather beautiful? Not a cloud in the blue sky.

This was my first long walk since my surgery—so the good news is that I am getting stronger.  I am healing. To take my mind off the pain and stress of surgery, I have become obsessed with backyard bird watching.  Anybody else like to watch and feed birds?

My name is Karen Crawford, and I am the pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Smithtown, NY.

It brings me such joy to watch the birds—and you know, joy is a gift from the Lord, along with hope, peace, and faith. Paul says in Romans 15:13, May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”

The psalmist is stirred by the beauty of Creation, God’s dwelling place, where all creatures, including the sparrow and swallow, are invited to make their home.

 “How lovely is your dwelling place, LORD Almighty!” the psalmist sings in 84:1-3. “My soul yearns, even faints, for the courts of the LORD; my heart and my flesh cry out for the living God. Even the sparrow has found a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may have her young— a place near your altar, LORD Almighty, my King and my God.”

The poet Emily Dickinson was inspired by watching birds to write of her faith in, “Hope Is the Thing with Feathers.”

Hope is the thing with feathers

That perches in the soul,

And sings the tune without the words,

And never stops at all,

And sweetest in the gale is heard;

And sore must be the storm

That could abash the little bird

That kept so many warm.

Did you know that Jesus was a bird watcher? He wasn’t big on feeding the birds, but that was because he knew God was taking care of them. He uses them as an object lesson for the crowd in Matthew 6, gathered on a mountain. He teaches them and us not to worry about anything, but to trust in the loving God who provides for all creatures—human, plant, and animal alike. Look at the birds of the air,” he says—and I imagine he is nodding to the birds flying overhead. “They neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” He isn’t devaluing the birds when he asks this question. He’s lifting the value of those who would follow him and trust him enough to leave behind their former lives.

My obsession with bird watching has led to me buy a variety of food and feeders to attract different kinds of birds. The finches like thistle seed; they come to visit in noisy groups. When I see them land in the shrubbery, I think of that saying, “Birds of a feather flock together.” We usually take that to mean people like to associate with people who are like them. But I have learned from watching birds that just because birds of the same species travel in flocks doesn’t mean they get along. I’ve seen some pretty nasty mid-air squabbles and how they try to knock each other off the feeders! But then, suddenly, something imperceptible to the human ear and eye will startle them, and they will fly off together to the next destination, which the Lord only knows.

Goldfinch by Barbara Almstead, Butterfly Garden of the Soul, used with Permission https://www.facebook.com/photo/?fbid=197819785937324&set=pcb.197820325937270

The picture of the squabbling flock of finches that ultimately stays together reminds me of the Corinthian congregation. In today’s passage in 1 Cor. 3, we can tell by his tone that the apostle Paul is exasperated with the church he helped to plant. He refers to his previous letter when he tells them how he couldn’t speak to them as “spiritual people” because they weren’t acting like spiritual people! They were “people of the flesh.” They were “infants in Christ” feeding on milk alone and not ready or willing to partake of “solid food.”

Because he believed that Christ was, indeed, returning for his Church within Paul’s lifetime, he wanted to make sure that the congregation for which he felt responsible was living faithfully. I think this is why he used such strong language; he felt there was no time to waste.

The issue Paul deals with in this brief passage is that they are turning the Sacrament of Baptism—and who presided over theirs—into a point of division. Paul names the problem: jealousy and quarreling. Some people are aligning themselves with Apollos, who led the church and baptized new believers after Paul had moved on. They are saying, “I belong to Apollos.” While others, who had been there since the church’s founding and were baptized by Paul, are saying, “I belong to Paul.” If we think about it in today’s church, we might encounter this as a generational divide—those who were here during Pastor Edwards’ tenure may be used to an entirely different style and focus of ministry and membership of the congregation than the church of today. It may be a case of personality or preference. In any case, they are letting their differences divide them rather than remaining centered on Jesus Christ crucified and risen, as Paul urges them to do.

The apostle reminds us that the quality of leadership needed for the Church is humble, servant leadership, with Christ as the model.  It doesn’t matter if the Baptism was done by Paul or Apollos. Both men are servants of the living God. He emphasizes church growth that isn’t about numbers; it’s about seeking to grow spiritually and living out our faith, with God’s help. “I planted,” Paul says. “Apollos watered, but God gives the growth.”

Dear friends, today we welcome, ordain and/or install elders and deacons, encouraging them to follow Christ in servant leadership as they minister in our congregation. They are charged with provoking us to love and good deeds and helping us use our gifts for the good of the people and for God’s glory.

We are charged to encourage and help our leaders.One way we help them is by doing things that spur our own spiritual growth. Healthy churches are full of healthy Christians who care for one another, give generously, and gather regularly for worship, education, fellowship, and mission.

Another important thing we do for our leaders is to refrain from quarreling and other divisive behaviors. I invite you to pray for our Session, Deacons and Trustees, and the congregation. Pray for your pastor. I covet your prayers! We are God’s servants. God’s coworkers, working together!  We pray with gratitude, remembering that the Church is not a human institution, and believing that GOD will provide the growth.

To our leaders, I say this: don’t lose your sense of humor! We make serious decisions in church leadership, but that doesn’t mean we can’t laugh and have fun. Don’t work too hard or neglect your family. Nurture your own relationship with the Lord. Take time for rest from your labors and to pursue JOY, truly God’s gift. I highly recommend bird watching and taking walks to experience the Wonder of God’s Creation, the Lord’s Dwelling Place. Perhaps you will be inspired to write songs and poetry about God, birds, and faith.

And finally—try to forgive all the little hurts. Quickly. Though we are being perfected and made complete in Christ, we are not perfect! I urge our leaders to assume the best intentions for everyone and see one another through the grace of our eternal God, who has forgiven us for all our sins in Jesus Christ. Paul tells the Corinthian church, a wildly diverse congregation that struggles to get along and find common ground, that in Christ, we no longer regard one another from a human point of view. In Christ, we are a new Creation. The old has passed away. Yesterday is gone! Behold, the new has come!

Let us pray.

Holy God, we thank you for your loving provision for all creatures—human, plant and animal alike. Thank you for the Spirit’s work of raising up new leaders and strengthening experienced leaders to persevere through the labor of ministry. Thank you for the birds and your gift of joy and Wonder in your Creation. Help us to be united and to pray and use the gifts, talents, and resources you have given us for your people and your glory. Bless us with spiritual growth so that we are a faithful witness–your loving, humble servants, working together in shared mission. May we today live out the promise that in Christ, we are a new Creation. Help us to forgive, let go of yesterday, and welcome the new day. Amen.

We Have the Mind of Christ

Meditation on 1 Corinthians 2:1-16

First Presbyterian Church of Smithtown

Pastor Karen Crawford

Feb. 5, 2023

Art by Stushie

      Dear friends, thank you for your prayers for me and for the beautiful cards and flowers and other thoughtful gifts. The one thing that helped me through the anxious time before my surgery and the painful time afterward was the love of God revealed through your love and faith.

     It was cold and rainy at 5:35 a.m. on Monday, Jan. 23. Jim and I pulled into the parking lot at St. Catherine’s Hospital and despite my fears that I would be late, we were early. When I called the nurse’s station to tell them I had arrived, I was asked to wait until my appointed time—5:45.

     How did I feel that morning, just before my thyroid surgery? I think I was ready to get the surgery over with, after waiting 3 months. But I was also scared. I had heard about the risks. The one that worried me most was that the surgery could affect the nerve that controls the vocal chords. I could have a raspy voice or lose my voice altogether. How would I be able to preach?

  That morning, one of the nurses was particularly sweet to me. When she found out that I was a Christian—and was feeling badly that I couldn’t keep my cross with me—she gave me her own Catholic medals to hold. Just before they wheeled me into the OR, she asked if I wanted one to keep, though I was a Protestant. That made me smile, and I said yes, and she taped one to the ID bracelet on my wrist. It was with me throughout my surgery and recovery at home.

   The apostle Paul says we should always have confidence, no matter the situations we face in this life—not matter our infirmities. We don’t lose heart, he says in 2 Corinthians. “Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day.” Paul categorizes all of life and the difficulties in this world as a “slight momentary affliction” that is “preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure.”

 Isn’t that wonderful? What a promise! “An eternal weight of glory beyond all measure.”

   In our 1 Corinthians reading today, we discover that Paul was also worried about his preaching—and was apologetic about it.  He was honest about his weakness, in general. He is intentional in pointing out his weakness, whatever it might be (some scholars think it was a physical problem or illness, but we don’t know). Paul says that his weakness reveals the power and glory of God at work in and through him. We must all remember that it is God who does the persuading and heart changing—not us. Fancy words may obscure our testimony of hope in Christ crucified and raised, which we are all called to share in the words and ways we are given. “We speak God’s wisdom, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages for our glory.”

    We can trust that God is for us and not against us. God is WITH us, always, in a Spirit that lives inside of us and guides each of us. Listen to this marvelous claim. Paul says that we have the mind of Christ! What on earth does he mean by this? We are connected to Christ, the wisdom of God, freely given to us, even without our being aware of it. This doesn’t mean that everything we do is divine or that we always make the right choices. We have no guarantee of perfection. BUT. But we can count on the help of the perfect Spirit, who never grows weary or holds our past against us! The Spirit doesn’t get mad at us when we have doubts or become discouraged. The Spirit won’t abandon us in our time of need!

    One of my favorite scriptural passages is when Paul says in Romans 8:26 and 27, Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.”

    I saw my surgeon for the follow-up visit on Wednesday. He pulled off the tape, pronounced me well and recommended an ointment for healing the scar on my neck. Later, I thought about how it would be nice if emotional healing worked that way, especially when recovering from life’s many traumas.

I know some of your stories, and how you have persevered through difficult times and scary diagnoses. Wouldn’t it be nice if there were an ointment we could dab on our necks that would take away all the painful memories?  A little ointment on the neck, and we haven’t a care in the world!

It’s hard not to look back and second guess our decisions, once the crises are over. In moments of weakness, I still wonder if I did the right thing. Was it the right procedure? Right surgeon? Right place? Right time? Will the cancer return to the other side of my thyroid? Someplace else?

We try so hard. We don’t want to make any mistakes. We can become frozen in uncertainty and insecurity, unable to continue on a confident and peaceful path. This isn’t the way God wants us to live. We have been given the power to live differently. A good and gracious and generous God desires that we live new and abundant lives through the Son, Jesus Christ.

    I wasn’t sure if coming back to lead worship today would be too soon for my healing. But I missed seeing you and being with you. I wanted to show you my love and gratitude for your kindness. Most of all, I wanted to share a word of encouragement, which we ALL need.  I wanted to bless you, with the power of the Spirit living inside of me!  

    May we all be lifted today by the reminder of the Spirit’s making its home in us, interceding for us when we don’t know how to pray, helping us do God’s will when we don’t know what steps to take.

     May we experience peace and complete healing from past and present suffering, knowing that God is for us, never against us—because of what Christ has done. And that nothing can separate us from God’s love.

     May we be emboldened to share our testimonies in our own words so that others would be persuaded to come to know the Lord in a personal way.

    May we be strengthened through life’s many challenges and difficult decisions that await us in the future, knowing that we have the mind of Christ, the wisdom of God, freely given in our time of need.

Let us pray.

Loving and healing God, thank you for sending your Spirit to live within us and guide us through the many hard decisions and difficult paths that we will in the future take. Thank you for giving us one another to love and encourage, so that we would become the people of faith, peace, and gentleness you want us to be. Help us to feel your loving presence with us as we go about our daily lives and to experience the emotional and spiritual healing that only Christ can give. Amen.

Not Fishing Again!

Meditation on Matthew 4:12-23

Pastor Karen Crawford

First Presbyterian Church of Smithtown

Jan. 22, 2023

Art by Stushie

One of our members gave me an amaryllis bulb in a pot for Christmas. It touched my heart, not only because I love flowers in winter, when it is cold outside, and the beautiful red or pink blooms on my windowsill lift my spirits. But it reminded me of a wonderful couple in my former congregation in Ohio. They not only brought me a new amaryllis bulb in a pot every Christmas, but the wife took them back every spring after they were finished blooming and were dying back. Then she planted them in her own yard and nurtured them through the necessary period of rest in darkness until the next Christmas, when they were ready to bloom, once again. It was literally a gift that kept on giving and growing every year, until I had 3 different amaryllis flowers blooming in my office last January, without my needing to care for them the rest of the year.

 Of course, that couple gave us many other gifts over the years, in addition to the gift of friendship and shared meals in their home. The husband, a former pastor, preached for me when I was away. And the wife visited Jim and offered Scripture and prayer when he had his knee replacement surgery.

The couple didn’t serve on Session or the Board of Deacons or Trustees during my tenure, but they were people with strong faith whose ministry calling was not only caring for their family and church family, and the employees and their families through the local business they owned; they also cared for the pastor and her family.

The call to follow Jesus and learn to minister with him came on an ordinary day of fishing. Christ comes to their place of work, calling to them from the shoreline, “Follow me! I will make you fishers of people!”

When I see this scripture every January, I am thrilled by the stories of ministry beginnings and the call of his first disciples—often coming when we are ordaining and installing church leaders. At the same time, I say to myself, “Not fishing again!” Talk to me of birds and flowers! I can more readily identify with spiritual connections to farming and gardening than I can with fishing, which, in my experience, can be incredibly boring and monotonous. In the case of commercial fishing in the first century, it was also time consuming and hard, physical labor, casting and pulling in large nets in all kinds of weather, then having to mend the broken nets when they are bone tired. And there’s always the chance that the fishermen could work all night and not catch a single fish, as they do in the fifth chapter of Luke and the 21st chapter of John.

And yet, most of the population is relying on fish as a staple in their diet, so this is an important and worthy occupation. We can even say that it is a kind of ministry that they will leave behind—immediately, when Jesus calls to them. They are already feeding the world! Now they will be trained to provide nourishment to new, abundant and eternal life for everyone, including the Gentiles!

What strikes me in this passage is the urgency Christ feels to leave his home of Nazareth at such a time as this. Is it no longer safe for him to be there when he abruptly withdraws to Galilee, saying goodbye to his family and moving to Capernaum by the Sea? Or does he simply decide that now is the time to shine the light of truth and love in what is becoming an increasingly evil and oppressive world for those living in the Roman Empire.

For whatever reason, John the Baptist’s arrest is the signal to begin his public ministry. John has prepared the way for the Messiah. People from all over Judea have come out to the wilderness for a baptism of repentance in the Jordan. Jesus himself has been baptized there to fulfill all righteousness, with John protesting, “I need to be baptized by YOU!” Christ’s early preaching sounds much like John’s message when he calls others to repentance—”for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

I find myself wondering if the fishermen who answer the call to follow from the shoreline that day ever regret their decision. And then I think, “Of course they did. They are only human beings—just like us.” I wonder, did Jesus ever regret calling them? He certainly did feel frustrated with them, at times. Did they know what they were signing up for? Of course not. They might have just been thinking, “Finally, we don’t have to go fishing anymore!”

But I think it was more than that—that Jesus chose them because of their spiritual hunger, their willingness to commit to the work and to him and serving the people in need, and the sheer ordinariness of them—so that we would have the perfect example of those Christ calls to ministry.

In the beginning, the change from fishing for fish to fishing for people is like going from darkness to light. How joyful it must be to follow Jesus in those early days and weeks, when they go with him throughout Galilee. Christ is teaching in synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom AND curing every disease and sickness among the people. And they are right there with him! Christ’s fame will spread throughout Syria, and they, through their association with him, will become known, as well. The people will bring to Jesus and the most ordinary of ordinary disciples those who are afflicted with pain or paralyzed, have seizure disorders or are held captive to demons. AND HE CURES THEM ALL.

The disciples couldn’t possibly anticipate the difficult path ahead—leading to the persecution and violence of the cross. They can’t imagine their own self-giving lives as they seek to follow in Christ’s footsteps—ministering in his name and the Spirit’s power, when Jesus is no longer with them in the flesh.

Today, when we install elders and deacons, I want you to remember the call of the fishermen and that beginnings are always beautiful. There will be miracles for us! And we will say, “Praise God!” We will see healing! We will grow!

But the path of righteousness, serving Christ and His Body, will be challenging. As Paul says, we see in a mirror, dimly, now. Not like we will one day see Christ, face to face! It won’t always be easy. There might be some days, when our elders, deacons, or trustees ask themselves, “Why did I sign up for this, again?” They might feel unappreciated and be tempted to give up. There will be times of sorrow and weariness—when the fishers of people metaphorically work all night and catch no fish. That’s when we will learn to trust, more and more, dear friends, in our callings and the God who loves us and has a wonderful plan. That’s when we will have the opportunity to encourage one another in the faith and good works, especially our deacons, elders, and trustees, much like the couple did so tenderly for Jim and me in Ohio.

You who we have been or will be ordained and installed to ministries in the church have been called by God through the voice of this congregation. You have been chosen as Jesus chose his first disciples—for your spiritual hunger, your own willingness to commit to the work and to Christ and serving the people. But you have also been chosen for your sheer ordinariness. You are the clay the Great Potter can mold for God’s purposes. This is our perfect example of those whom Christ chooses and equips. We are ALL ordinary people—loved by God and transformed in Christ’s image!

I saw the amaryllis yesterday—the one that one of our members gave me this Christmas. And though it had already bloomed gloriously, and my cat had pruned off the dried flowers and left them in pieces on the rug, I saw that it is getting ready to open a rare, second flower! Maybe a third! I am delighted.

As I pause from my sermon preparation to give the plant on my windowsill some water, I think of my flock here—SOME who serve quietly behind the scenes and OTHERS more officially, as deacons and elders. Some have just finished 6 consecutive years of service, including the last three during the trials of the pandemic. Here’s the amazing thing! They want to continue serving, unofficially. They are living into their lifelong call and ordination to the Church of Jesus Christ. Other trustees, elders, and deacons have already served three-year terms, the last three during the pandemic. They have volunteered to serve another 3 years! We will officially install some to active service in our congregation today, though they have never stopped caring for us. We will promise our prayerful support while they labor with, for, and among us.

As we install our leaders, let us remember that we are all called to be Christ’s disciples, which is a humbling thing! The first step of following Christ faithfully is to recognize our need for repentance, as Christ preached. For all of us have fallen short of the glory of God. But look, here is the good news: By grace, we have been saved, through faith! AND the kingdom of heaven has come near!

May the Spirit empower us all to put down deep roots and grow healthy green leaves in our community, centered in Christ, flourishing in the fertile soil of our shared mission and faith, watered by Word and Sacrament, and nurtured by God’s love revealed by our church family.

May we all bear good fruit and bloom like the amaryllis, not just once, but again and again.

Let us pray.

Holy Spirit, we come to you with repentant hearts, knowing that this will draw us closer to you and bring us joy. Fill us now and empower us so that we may do your will and follow Christ more faithfully. May we all be stirred to bear good fruit and bloom, again and again. Amen.

And the Word Became Flesh

Meditation on John 1:1–14

First Presbyterian Church of Smithtown

Pastor Karen Crawford

Dec. 25, 2022

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14)

Christmas has come quickly for me this year. Has it for you? I haven’t done many of the usual things I do during the Christmas season—or at least I haven’t gone back to my pre-pandemic routines and traditions.

I haven’t baked any cookies. I HAVE eaten a few!

I haven’t gone Christmas shopping.

I haven’t watched a SINGLE Christmas movie—not “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “Charlie Brown Christmas,” or “Love Actually.”

I haven’t made a dent in my personal Christmas cards.

But last night, just when I started to feel down on myself for failing to meet my expectations, the sweet memories of this Advent with my new congregation in Smithtown filled my mind and warmed my heart and soul. What a full and beautiful Advent it has been!

I recalled how Advent began with a surprising invitation to share messages for adults and children with Nanume church, the faith community that nests in our building.

And how we welcomed two brothers, Roman and Bronx, into the Body of Christ through Baptism on the Second Sunday.

On the Third Sunday, we enjoyed worship led by our Young Disciples, telling the Christmas story through song and readings and dressed as angels and shepherds, Mary and Joseph.

On the Fourth Sunday, we worshiped with the Sanctuary Choir’s wonderful Cantata, “The Promise of Light.”

And throughout this season, we have served the community through shared mission, such as writing cards and caroling to homebound members, buying Christmas presents for children who may not otherwise have received them through Adopt an Angel, and helping our neighbors with food insecurity through the Smithtown Food Pantry.

Then last night, after these weary pandemic years kept us all from comfortably gathering in person for joyful worship on Christmas Eve, we gathered for two Christmas Eve services.  Even the frigid temperatures didn’t stop the flock from coming! And we had a number of visitors, some older folks and some young families with children.

And now today, a faithful remnant has gathered once again for the BLESSING of Christmas falling on a Sunday.

Looking back over this first year with you, I can honestly say the spiritual lesson that has been brought home to us, over and over, is how the coming together in person to worship, celebrate the sacraments, and share in friendship and compassionate mission unites and heals us and strengthens us to do ministry in Christ’s name. What’s more, when we come together in person, there is JOY!

There’s nothing more powerful than when the people of God come together in Spirit and FLESH.

This makes perfect sense when we consider the kind of God we worship and to whom we belong. This is not a God who created in 6 days, rested on the 7th, and now watches from far away in the heavens and has nothing to do with us!

This is a God who saw us perishing in our sins and unable to help ourselves. God came near to us as one of us, a fragile human being, Jesus. This is what and who we celebrate today!

The miracle of Christ’s birth has brought us near to God and one another. Christ is our peace, breaking down the dividing walls of hostility between human beings.

This is the Son who has come, IS Come, and Will come again soon! This is our hope!

The Word made flesh lived and still lives among us and desires all to receive and believe in Christ’s name. And through receiving and believing, we ARE God’s children!

We have seen his glory, dear friends. Through the manger, cross, and empty tomb, we have seen the glory of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

Let us pray.

Holy Triune God, thank you for your love that brought you near to us and draws us nearer to you and one another. We praise, bless, and thank you for all you have done for us in Jesus the Son, the Messiah, gracious God with us, Emmanuel! Help us to embody through our daily living the compassion, kindness, and generosity that is the Christmas Spirit. Lead us to reveal the love that compelled you to humble yourself and become the Word made Flesh. Stir us to reveal to a world of shadows and suffering the glory of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. Amen.

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