So where are the other nine?

Meditation on Luke 17:11–19 

First Presbyterian Church of Smithtown

Pastor Karen Crawford

Oct. 9, 2022

Link to the livestream of the worship, with my message: https://fb.watch/g3TPraiT-v/

Our confirmation students are, once again, gathering with me at the manse tonight, preparing to work on faith statements. This is the most challenging part of the entire confirmation program!

It just dawned on me yesterday: growing up in a Lutheran church, I never had to write an original faith statement. I had a lot of memorizing to do—the Lord’s Prayer with trespasses, the Ten Commandments, the books of the Bible, and the Apostles’ Creed. Did any of you have a lot of memorizing to do for your confirmation? I had to know all the right answers to the catechism—so that was more memorizing and making sure I used the correct language to express the church’s faith.

No one asked me what was in my heart.

I recently was asked to write a personal statement of faith for a doctor of ministry seminar. We were urged to be creative and use metaphor rather than the carefully crafted, traditional church language we have been taught.  I spent hours and hours rewriting my statement of faith. And I’m still not completely satisfied with it. So, I feel great compassion for our students, writing and sharing faith statements for the first time, at such a young age.

I pray that they will trust themselves, their church, and me with this assignment and share what’s in their hearts. Because more important than our carefully crafted words is what’s in our hearts. The God who is always near to us is always listening for our hearts. Scripture assures us that our loving and compassionate God knows what’s in our hearts—like no one else does. In 1 Samuel 7, the Lord says to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him, for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”

Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem in our reading in the gospel of Luke. He appears to be alone in this leg of the journey —a kind of a no-man’s land. He’s somewhere between Samaria, where the dreaded Samaritans live—who don’t worship and sacrifice to God at the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, but up on a mountain—and Galilee, where people of his own culture and Jewish faith dwell in their own communities.

Jews and Samaritans don’t usually live closely together. But they do in this village that Jesus enters—a place where healthy people don’t dare go; people with a skin disease live there. The Bible calls them “lepers,” but they don’t all necessarily have leprosy (Hansen’s disease). And it doesn’t matter if they do or not. They are ALL unclean because of the imperfections of their skin—it could be eczema or psoriasis or some other serious rash—but it’s ALL the same to the priests and considered contagious, no matter what it is. People with skin diseases cannot come to worship or live in the same home or community with their families. Their affliction is seen as a punishment for their sin or the sins of their parents.

How can they earn a living? You ask. They can’t. They have to remain at a distance from everyone who doesn’t have a skin disease. They are forced to beg and scrounge for food, relying on the charity of others. Many will die not from their skin disease, but from poverty, hopelessness, hunger, and loneliness.

Jesus enters this village where other people don’t dare go—because he came to seek and save the lost. He came to show God’s love and compassion to the stranger, the outsider and the outcast. He came to proclaim the Reign of God drawing near by calling all to repentance, casting out demons, and healing people of disease. Immediately, 10 lepers approach him, and they know who he is! Christ makes himself known to them. They still keep their distance, so as not to make the One who can heal and save them unclean.

They cry out, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” 

The healing doesn’t happen right away. Jesus invites the lepers to participate in their own healing by a simple show of faith—go and present yourselves to the priests. They are the ones who will declare them clean and allow them to return to their former lives, once again.

And verse 14, “As they went, they were healed!!!”

One turns back—and doesn’t follow through on doing what Jesus tells him to do, at least not yet. But the one who turns back after he is healed reveals the true state of his heart–his love and gratefulness to God. He praises his Healer with a loud voice, throwing himself at Jesus’s feet, thanking him profusely.  And this is when Luke tells us that he is a Samaritan. He is an outsider to the Jewish community. After this joyful, healing encounter with Jesus, the lover of all people, he is a believer, with no place to go. Though he could live with Jewish lepers, he wouldn’t have been welcome to live in the healthy Jewish community.

My favorite line in this whole passage is when Jesus asks the man, and I believe that he speaks gently, almost playfully, “Were not ten made clean? So where are the other nine?” This is Christ’s way of telling him that he did the right thing! He is lifting up the Samaritan as an example because of his faith and the gratitude he expresses, with all his heart.

The door of salvation through Jesus Christ opens wide to ALL who come in faith and humility, recognizing that salvation is God’s loving gift—not a work, not something that can be earned. Or lost.

Jesus is speaking to generations of believers who might be tempted to judge other people as outsiders or unworthy of God’s grace, mercy, and healing, when he asks, “Did none of them return to give glory to God except this foreigner?”

He sends the Samaritan man off with a blessing, saying to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.” The Greek word translated “Get up” is the same word used for “resurrection.” And the Greek translated “made you well” may also be translated “healed” or “saved” you.

I find myself wondering what the Samaritan will do now, after his healing, life-changing encounter with Jesus. He may be, perhaps, like the Samaritan woman at the well—who becomes a believer in Jesus when he tells her her life story and offers her living water, so she will never thirst again. The Samaritan woman in John leaves her water jar at the well and becomes Christ’s apostle, sharing her testimony in the city and bringing others to faith in Christ the Messiah.

And I can’t help but wonder what happened to the other 9, as Jesus asked, perhaps playfully. Will others recognize them and welcome them as friends and family, once again?

Will their healing encounter lead them to share their stories? Will it lead to a change of heart? In their gratefulness to God for the gift of a new and abundant life, will they seek to bring Christ’s hope and healing to their community?  What would you do?  What will you do now that you’ve heard their story? What does your heart tell you?

I wonder how you will make a difference.

Let us pray.

Holy One, Heavenly Potter, thank you for breathing life in us at Creation and your Spirit that continues to breathe life into our ministries and unite our church family. Thank you for the gift of our faith, which we feel deeply in our hearts, and the promise of our healing and wholeness through the work of your Son. Fill us with such gratitude, Lord, that we cannot help but live lives of thanksgiving, in love and faithfulness, seeking to bring hope and healing to the world. We look forward to your Son’s return, when on earth it shall be as it is in heaven and the Potter’s work of art will be made complete. We pray these things with joy and thanksgiving. In Christ’s name. Amen.

Fan into Flames!

Meditation on 2 Timothy 1:1–14

First Presbyterian Church of Smithtown, NY

Pastor Karen Crawford

World Communion Sunday

Oct. 2, 2022

I had the pleasure of celebrating Home Communion on Wednesday with Karl and Ethel Kraft. They are longtime members of our church—both in their 90s—who have become largely home bound because of their health and mobility struggles. Karl, who worked for IBM, now suffers from dementia; Ethel has had strokes and uses a walker.

 Joyce, one of our deacons, assisted me. She chatted with the family, brought them cookies, shared a scripture, and gave hugs. I always invite a church member to come with me to serve Home Communion as a visual reminder of a spiritual reality. Our homebound members, though unable to gather with us in person, are still connected to our church family! They are in our hearts and prayers, and they are made one with us in Christ’s Body by the gift of the Holy Spirit. 

 We were gathered around the dining room table—Joyce, Mr. and Mrs. Kraft, the home health aide, and me—where the family has shared meals for 60 years or more. I served the bread and cup of our dear Lord, and something wonderful happened. Karl had been confused and agitated when I first visited him and Ethel in July, but on Wednesday, his face registered recognition and his manner was calm and peaceful. When I invited him and the others to join me in the Lord’s Prayer—the man who struggles to connect with others through language—knew all the words that he had learned many years ago, as a child growing up nurtured in the faith of his parents and his church home in the small town of Archbald, PA.

I knew they were words learned long ago because he said, “forgive us our trespasses,” instead of our more contemporary “forgive us our debts.”

***

In our reading in Second Timothy today, Paul emphasizes the importance of the family’s nurture of Timothy’s faith when he writes to encourage his friend and fellow laborer for the Lord. Paul tells the younger man who worked with him building up churches that he gives thanks for Timothy’s faith, which didn’t originate with Paul; rather, his faith began in Timothy’s own home with his family growing up.

“I remember your genuine faith,” Paul says, “for you share the faith that first filled your grandmother Lois and your mother, Eunice. And I know that same faith continues strong in you.”

Paul speaks openly of his suffering in this letter, leading scholars to wonder if Paul was truly sick and dying in prison. He writes of how often he prays for Timothy, thanks God for him, and how he longs to see his face. He remembers the tears when they last parted, not knowing if they would ever see one another again.

Does it surprise you that Paul’s suffering doesn’t lead him to question his faith–whether God or God’s love is real? This happens to people nowadays; they suffer and experience hardship, and they question their faith and God’s existence. Paul’s faith, instead, helps him to persevere in times of suffering, and he urges Timothy to expect and even embrace suffering as part of the Christian life and witness– not something from which to seek escape.

He writes, “With the strength God gives you, be ready to suffer with me for the sake of the Good News.”

A surface faith doesn’t cut it. Just showing up for church on Sunday isn’t enough. We are called to a genuine faith, like Paul and Timothy’s, strengthened and sharpened by hardship.

I don’t mean that we can’t have doubts and still be people of faith, called by God to build up the Church and make a difference in this world. Doubts are just part of the journey to spiritual growth and maturity.

We recall the man in Mark 9, who asks Christ to heal his son from the unclean spirit that tormented him, if he can.

Christ replies, “IF you can? All things are possible to him who believes.”

The man cries out before Christ heals his son, “I do believe! Lord, help my unbelief!”

No, Timothy’s faith was genuine—though he was plagued by fear, anxiety, and sorrow from his separation from Paul, his mentor, perhaps dying in prison. Paul shares what Timothy and all of us need to hear to remain faithful and obedient to Christ’s call.

“For God has not given us a spirit of fear and timidity,” Paul says in a letter that lived long past his and Timothy’s lifetimes, “but of power, love, and self-discipline.”

We, like Timothy, need to memorize this verse and post it everywhere!

We are people of hope, claimed and filled by the Spirit in our baptisms. People who understand that suffering is just part of living and may be used by God to strengthen our faith and witness to unbelievers.

Remember what they say, “don’t pray for patience, because God will give you trials?” Perhaps it is the same with asking for faith, as the disciples do in our gospel reading today. If we ask for more faith, the Lord may lead us to trust in God not by taking away the mountains but by helping us with the climb.

***

We come to the Lord’s Table on World Communion Sunday, remembering that not only do we belong to Christ—but we are connected to every follower of Christ who ever lived and ever will live. The Great Cloud of Witnesses, dear friend, is gathered at the table in the Kingdom of God with us.

This is the time to let go of all hurts and divisions. This is the time to forgive– yourselves, family members and church family members, and to pray for the breaking down of walls that divide Christians into more denominations than we can count. Because our faith tells us that Christ’s Body is ONE. There is no place where we can go to flee from God’s Spirit—or be spiritually separated from one another.

We come to the table, confessing our doubts and fears. As we eat from the bread of life and drink from the cup of salvation, we hear God answering our prayers with love and forgiveness, comfort and peace, and the joy of the Lord which is and will forever be our strength. “God has not given us a spirit of fear and timidity,” we recall Paul saying, “but of power, love, and self-discipline.”

We come to hear Christ’s words, once again, assuring us that we don’t need any more faith than he has given us and continues to provide for us. Remember, faith the size of a mustard seed has the power to uproot a mulberry tree and plant it in the sea!

We come, whispering a prayer, “Lord, we do believe. Help our unbelief.”

God has saved us and calls us to live a holy life—and pass it on to our children and our children’s children. God did this, not because we deserve it or never have doubts or fears, but because it was the Lord’s plan from before the beginning of time—to show us God’s grace in Christ Jesus.

So, come to the table to rekindle the fire, the precious truth the Spirit has placed within you. Fan into flames your faith!

Let us pray. Holy One, breathe on us your Holy Spirit. Rekindle the fire you have placed within us. Fan into flames a genuine faith so that we might say the word and uproot a mulberry tree and plant it in the sea. Help us to forgive ourselves and one another and work for peace and unity in the Church and wider Body of Christ. Remove our fears and doubts, and lead us to live a holy life, by your Spirit, passing on the precious truth of the gospel to our children and children’s children. In the name of our Triune God we pray. Amen.

The Life That Really Is Life

Meditation on 1 Timothy 6:6-19

Pastor Karen Crawford

First Presbyterian Church of Smithtown

Sept. 25, 2022

These last few weeks have been hectic. Volunteers and staff have been working hard, preparing for the installation and reception this afternoon. I hope you all are coming! Thank you to those who joined in with this labor of love with body, mind and soul—our trustees, elders, deacons, and others! Thank you to Pablo and all our musicians, children and adults laboring through numerous rehearsals to add the joy and beauty of choral and instrumental music to our worship. God bless you for your kindness!

Our granddaughter, Madeline, turned 5 on Sunday. In this extraordinarily busy season of our lives, Jim and I were blessed to be with her and the family for her birthday celebration—for the first time ever—on Monday night in her Cambridge home. We sang Happy Birthday, and she blew out the candles on her ice cream cake. Her mother asked if she had made a wish. If not, it wasn’t too late, she said. The little girl paused, nodded.

My wish had already come true. We were able to share, finally, in some of the important moments of our granddaughters’ lives.

Before the party, we watched Maddie and Jessie in their gymnastics programs. We had never done that before, either. Jessie, at 8 and a half, works out at the gym 2 to 3 hours a night and five hours on Saturdays. She travels for competitions!

 A Ukrainian woman named Masha leads her class. Jessie is the smallest and youngest, but she keeps up, with encouragement from the group. Masha wears a microphone and a leotard and barks out commands over the music as she models the correct movements– up on their toes like ballerinas one moment, pulling their feet above their heads, doing gracious bends and sweeps with their arms, then leaping and doing scissor kicks, handstands, and spins.

Masha watches and calls each one individually to work on skills, while the others watch. That would be intimidating to some. But not Jessie and the other girls. Their long relationship with Masha has built trust. They know she is helping each person and thus the group to be the best they can be. They respect her teaching methods—though they seem a little scary to me—because she has helped them learn to do far more than they ever expected to do.

They watch and listen carefully because they want to be good gymnasts, like Masha!

***

     Timothy was young when Paul met him on his second missionary journey.

When Paul and Barnabas first visited Lystra on their first missionary journey, Paul healed a person born with a severe handicapping condition. The healing leads many of those living in Lystra to become Christians. When he returns a few years later with Silas, he meets Timothy, who has become a respected member of the Christian congregation. In 2 Timothy 1:5, Paul lifts up Timothy’s Jewish grandmother and mother (Lois and Eunice) as models of faith and godliness. He speaks of Timothy as being acquainted with all the Scriptures since childhood.

    Paul mentors him, whose own father is a Greek, a Gentile, and not religious. The young man becomes his companion, with Silas. They travel to plant, encourage, and correct churches embroiled in conflict and led astray by false doctrines and teachers. Timothy, because of their close relationship, trusts Paul enough to submit to circumcision to be accepted when he shares the gospel in Jewish communities.

   Timothy’s personality is a sharp contrast to Paul’s sometimes brash, blunt, outspoken manner.  He is reserved and shy and possibly prone to anxiety and insecurity, at least in the beginning of his ministry. Paul writes to the Corinthian church, with its conflict and divisions, “If Timothy comes, see that he has nothing to fear among you, for he is doing the work of the Lord just as I am.” (1 Cor. 16:10)

    He addresses Timothy’s youthfulness in I Tim. 4:12—how it might have already been a problem for him. “Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young,” Paul says, “but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity.”

     Here in this closing chapter, we find Paul’s final charge to his friend and fellow laborer to be who God has made him to be and the man Paul has taught and shown him to be. Don’t look around and join in with people in the church with sinful behaviors and wrong attitudes, he says. Live a simple life, Paul says. Be generous. Be like me. Be like Jesus.

     “Whoever teaches otherwise and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ,” he says, “and the teaching that is in accordance with godliness is conceited, understanding nothing, and has a morbid craving for controversy and for disputes about words. From these come envy, dissension, slander, base suspicions, and wrangling among those who are depraved in mind and bereft of the truth, imagining that godliness is a means of gain.”

   This is where our reading begins today—with Paul shifting gears and saying in verse 6, Of course, there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment.” He quotes the familiar saying in verse 7, “For we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it.” And finally, the verse that is sometimes misquoted, “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.”

     What does Paul mean by “fight the good fight?” The fight is not with other people! It is a fight within ourselves—fighting the temptation to be anything less than our best selves, pursuing righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness.

    The reward of the good fight is that we remain focused and faithful to the One perfect model we have, the one through whom we have eternal life. The good fight leads us to seek to change the one person we can change—ourselves. We learn to trust in the One who provides everything we need and more—for our enjoyment.

    This is how we take hold of the life that really is life!

***

     I have invited our Confirmation class to my installation this afternoon. I told them how this is an historic moment for the church—and for them. At 15, they are too young to have attended an installation for a called pastor before. The last installation was with my predecessor, Reverend James Hulsey, who began ministry here in July 2002. He followed the long tenure of Reverend William Edwards, arriving in time to help the church prepare for its celebration of 300 years of ministry in 1975.

    Reverend Edwards writes in Surrounded By So Great A Cloud Of Witnesses, his Tercentennial message in July of that year, “We are celebrating during a troublesome time for our nation and our world. The old foundations shake and the future seems uncertain. The pressing question is this: Is there in our heritage a fountain of hope and energy for our troublesome time? From the beginning, the churches have offered a vision to carry us toward the future; what vision do we have now?”

   He speaks of religious movements in his time that impacted the church’s message and mission—of supporting minority groups, women, and the poor and working for the rights of individual conscience, saying that there has been some progress. But “to have something to say to the times in which we live,” he writes, “we must hold both together: social awareness and a deep personal faith.

   “So we celebrate our beginnings not as past accomplishments,” he goes on, “but as unfinished business. We are sustained by a faith our forebears shared, which we have made our own.”

   Friends, we have reached a milestone in our ministry with the service of worship and installation this afternoon. Today, on the 11th anniversary of my ordination to the ministry of Word and Sacrament, we will mark and celebrate the beginning of the 34th called and installed pastor’s tenure. According to our history books, we have had a number of Bills, Jameses, Johns, Richards, Nathaniels, and Henrys, even an Ebenezer and an Ithamar serve as pastors—but never a Karen, and never a grandmother!

    We don’t look back with pride at all our church has accomplished in its long history. Rather, we remember with joy and gratitude, and some sorrow and tears at the hard times that our congregation endured and overcame as recent as the last two years of pandemic. We marvel at all that God has done in, with and through this flock still in pursuit of righteousness and godliness, seeking to be faithful in worship, witness, and compassionate service.

    There is in our heritage a fountain of hope and energy. And we cling to our vision of our Savior’s promised return to gather his Church and to make all things new. May we be found faithful when he comes again.

    Our faith still sustains us when the very foundations shake and the future seems uncertain.  We will always have challenges and temptations. We are never alone, so we need not be afraid. God’s eye is always on the sparrow, as we sing in that beautiful hymn. With God’s help, the Spirit’s teaching, and Christ’s peace, and surrounded by the Great Cloud of Witnesses, we will do far more than we ever expected to do.

   We look ahead, determined to attend to the unfinished business of loving one another, being gentle and patient, learning contentment, showing mercy and sharing our faith, like our forebears did for us, praying the next generations will embrace it and make it their own.

    Together, we will take hold of the life that really is life!

Let us pray.

Gracious and generous God, thank for your encouragement today in your Word to live a simple life and not fret about all the details or worry about money. For you will supply all our needs and more for our enjoyment. Teach us, Lord, to be gentle, patient, gracious, and merciful, like you. Give us strength to endure and persevere in this joyful ministry of worship, witness, and compassionate service for at least another 200 years. Sustain us with your vision of our Savior’s promised return for the Church and all things made new.  Help us, Lord, to be found faithful when our Redeemer comes again. Until then, lead us to take hold of the life that really is life. In the name of Jesus we pray. Amen.

“When she and her household were baptized”

Meditation on Acts 16:9-15

First Presbyterian Church of Smithtown, NY

Pastor Karen Crawford

Sept. 18, 2022

Link to livestreamed service: https://fb.watch/fDhUJBtRPO/

The first child I baptized was an infant. His name was Sam. I came to church a day or two before the service to set up what I needed and practice the baptism, without anyone but my husband watching. I used a folded-up blanket as my prop for the baby.

I was serving my first congregation in rural Renville,  Minnesota, with corn, soybean, and sugar beet fields surrounding the church and manse. I don’t remember the details of that baptism at Ebenezer Presbyterian Church on June 14, 2012 —except that he didn’t cry. And I was so happy to carry him around the sanctuary and introduce him to the congregation, saying, “Let us welcome our newest member.” It was their tradition to give out handkerchiefs embroidered with the child’s name and dates of birth and baptism.

I will post a photo of Sam’s baptism at my blog:

I have lost count of how many people I have baptized since then. I have been blessed! I never forget them or the sweet expressions on their family’s faces as we baptize. I follow on Facebook some of the children I have baptized. It’s fun to watch them grow. Seeing them always reminds me of that important day in the life of the child and the Church.

 Sam celebrated his 10th birthday on March 20.

Baptism is about beginnings: the beginning of our life in Christ, our welcome and initiation into the congregation and the Body of Christ. We need only one baptism for the washing away of our sins, forever. In baptism, we participate with our crucified and risen Lord in his death and resurrection. We become a new Creation, united with Christ, something even more beautiful, powered by his Spirit.

Baptism is a sign of God’s Covenant and the present and coming Kingdom of God and of the life of the world to come. It anticipates the day when every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.

Baptism is a gift from God and our faithful response to God’s gift. It is always administered in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

No one has asked me, yet, why we baptize children before they are old enough to fully understand or express their faith. If they did, I would say because of the love and grace of God. The Second Helvetic Confession in our Book of Confessions says that we baptize infants of the faithful “for according to evangelical teaching, of such is the Kingdom of God, and they are in the covenant of God. Why, then, should the sign of God’s covenant not be given to them? Why should those who belong to God and are in His Church not be initiated by holy baptism?” (5.192)

***

Today, we move away from the scheduled lectionary scriptures to be encouraged by the conversion of Lydia, who is baptized immediately after she hears the gospel preached by Paul and embraces it as truth.

Why does she do this? Why does she believe? Because the Spirit opens her heart, and she listens eagerly. Her conversion is part of God’s plan for the Church.

Paul has embarked on his second missionary journey with Silas and Timothy, stirred by a dream he has had after his group is blocked from missionary work in Asia and Bithynia, in present day Turkey. Paul credits the Spirit for putting up roadblocks that prevent them from going to these places.

This is a lesson for us. When we encounter obstacles or challenges in our ministry, we are quick to be discouraged—when it may simply be the process of the Holy Spirit revealing God’s will to us. God’s way is revealed AS we travel the journey by faith. Sometimes the answer to our prayers is “No” or “Not yet” or “Wait, and I will show you a better way.”

Paul’s dream is of a man from Macedonia, standing and appealing to him, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” This is a good reminder to us that Paul’s ministry isn’t merely about offering people intellectual answers to life’s questions or a new system of beliefs. His missionary work is stirred by compassion to share the life-giving gospel to help others! This serves to inspire us to do the same.

They sail to Macedonia, to Philippi, a Roman colony, to plant Paul’s first church in Europe. It is Paul’s practice, when he enters a new city, to attend the local Jewish synagogue and look for an opportunity to share his message. There doesn’t seem to be a synagogue in Philippi, possibly because there weren’t enough Jewish men; women could not be counted in the 10 people required to hold synagogue services.

But Paul and his companions find Lydia and this group of Gentile, God-fearing women gathered for Jewish prayer on the Sabbath on the riverbank.  “Lydia” might not really be her name. She is known as “the Lydian woman” from Thyatira in the ancient kingdom of Lydia in western Asia Minor, again in present day Turkey. The people of that area are known for their skill in the manufacture of purple dye extracted from the juice of the madder root. This will still be used for carpet dying at the end of the 19th century.

Lydia came to Philippi as a trader of dye—and became Paul’s first convert in Europe.

She and her entire household are baptized—and her household is probably large, with children and servants. Although she is possibly a widow since no husband is mentioned, she is a woman of considerable wealth. For after she is baptized, she urges Paul, Timothy, and Silas to come and stay in her home, so there must be plenty of room and food for guests.

She prevails upon them. She doesn’t take no for an answer!

***

The story of the Lydian woman being baptized with her household reminds us of God’s promise to include our children in this New Covenant of grace in Jesus Christ. For “of such is the Kingdom of God.”

To have Debbie’s parents, Karl and Ethel Kraft, longtime members of our congregation, here in worship to witness the baptisms of two great grandsons makes this sacred occasion even more special and memorable.

Diego Medina, Jr. and his parents, Diego and Nikki Medina.

 While the majority of those I have baptized have been babies like Diego Jr. and Grayson, I have had the blessing of baptizing teens and older adults, as well.

Grayson Nocito

I baptized a lady in her 90s before I left Ohio. She wasn’t sure if she had been baptized, though she had been a faithful believer since she was a girl. She served the church by crocheting prayer shawls for people who were sick or grieving. She wanted to make she was baptized before she went home to be with the Lord. And she wanted me to do it.

Her name was Betty.

 I recall with joy the baptism of a 16-year-old boy in Florida. We came to know one another through a children’s performing arts program hosted at our church, led by his grandmother Mary Lou. He asked to be baptized as a sign of his new-found faith.

When I was baptizing him—he and I wiped away tears.

His name was Jason.

I wonder if this happened for Lydia on the day that she was baptized? Did she wipe away tears as she came up out of the water?

Did she weep with joy when her household was baptized in the river with her?

Would Paul always remember this woman of Macedonia, his first convert in Europe, who eagerly embraced the truth of the gospel that he shared?

Paul and his companions did accept the Lydian woman’s invitation to stay with her after they were released from jail for casting an evil spirit out of a slave girl.  By this time, Lydia had a small church gathered in her home. When Paul and his friends visit her at the end of chapter 16, we read how they “encouraged the brothers and sisters there.”

Baptism is about beginnings—and Lydia was just beginning her new life in Christ, seeking to live out the gospel, open her home and her heart, and share her faith and hospitality with the world.

For the woman who traded in purple dye had prevailed upon them to stay with her and her household after they were baptized.

She wouldn’t take no for an answer.

Holy One, thank you for your Spirit that stirs us to baptize generation after generation in our congregation. Stir us to compassion for those who need the help of the gospel, a treasure that you have given us that we share through our lives. Encourage us when we struggle and have trouble seeing our own spiritual progress. Give us your vision, dear Lord, as you did for Paul, and strengthen us for this journey with your gentleness and patience. Open our hearts, like you did for Lydia, to hear your word eagerly, as if for the first time. May your word take root in us and bear fruit so that others may see and want to know our hope for all eternity. Lead us to walk more faithfully with you and accept your answers to prayer—yes, no, and wait and let me show you a better way. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit we pray. Amen.

Lost and Found

Meditation on Luke 15:1-10

First Presbyterian Church of Smithtown, NY

Pastor Karen Crawford

Sept. 11, 2022

Link to livestreamed video from worship: https://fb.watch/fu580OT4l6/

I had a funny beginning planned for my message today. I was all set—and then late last night, I started over. Because it’s Rally Day—and this is so important, our ministry for the children and youth. 

I was swapping stories with one of our members last Sunday after worship. We were talking about what it was like going to church as a young person. We all have stories to share—and some of them are painful.

The pastor leading our youth program at my Lutheran church growing up in Damascus, Maryland, was a former Catholic priest who married a nun and became a Lutheran minister. I didn’t understand at the time that what he told our class wasn’t what all Lutherans believed. They were just his own personal beliefs. But I looked up to him and respected him as an expert, the authority for our church and our Christian faith.

We were discussing a passage in Genesis that talked about how old people were when they died. And he told us that people didn’t really live that long, even in Bible times. This was just the way ancient writers could say that people were OLD. They used exaggeration, like folk tales. We couldn’t believe everything the Bible said, he went on. And we couldn’t expect to understand the Bible because it was too complicated for youth.

I went home that night and put my Bible on a shelf. I didn’t open it again for a long time! The saddest thing is, I had been someone who as a child had prayed and read the Bible—a white leather, King James Version, with gold trimmed pages and the words of Jesus in red.

Because what was the point? I wouldn’t be able to understand it, anyway. This brought me much suffering. If only I could look back and reassure my teenage self that my faith was real. If only I could look back and reassure my teenage self that I could trust the Bible to be true. Because it is true! And that the Spirit of God would teach me and help me all the days of my life.

I was lost.

***

Our reading today in the gospel of Luke chapter 15 includes the first two of three stories about people looking for things that are valuable, things that are lost and then found after a great deal of searching and effort.

Each story ends with the community rejoicing. Faith is nurtured in community; it is the work and responsibility of the community, which isn’t complete or whole if even one member is missing or lost.

Jesus tells these three parables after the Pharisees and scribes see all the tax collectors and sinners” coming near to him and listening to him. They start grumbling, saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

The wonderful thing about the complaint of the religious authorities is that they are right. This is exactly what Jesus is doing! He wants them to see him welcoming the outcasts and marginalized and eating with them. He wants everyone to see this. He wants us to see this! Here is his opportunity to say why he is doing this in a compelling, meaningful way, through these 3 stories—the lost sheep, lost coin, and lost son.

Our lectionary reading only includes the first two stories—the lost sheep and lost coin—but all three are connected and have essentially the same message. The point of Jesus repeating himself is to make sure that his audience understands. He wants everyone who hears these stories to find themselves in one or more of these stories, in one or more of the characters. He wants everyone to hear God’s love, mercy, and grace for sinners—and the joyous welcome from God and the heavenly beings for all who turn back, repent, and come home to the Lord.

Say, you are a shepherd, and you lose one, Jesus says in the first story. Are you going to shrug your shoulders and say, “Oh, well. I have 99 more?” Nope. Shepherds and their sheep had a strong bond. Shepherds were with their sheep 24 hours a day, leading them to pasture, watering and feeding them, protecting them from wolves, thieves, other dangers, caring for them when they were sick.

Jesus compares that strong bond and close relationship for shepherd with their sheep with his disciples when he says in John 10 that he is the Good Shepherd and, “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.”

When the shepherd in Christ’s story finds the lost sheep, he lays it on his shoulders to carry it back to the flock. When he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my lost sheep.”  

Jesus explains the meaning of the story to his audience of so-called experts. Jesus explains the meaning to them. He tells them that like the joy of those who celebrate the recovery of one lost sheep, there will be even more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.

This leads us to wonder who he is talking about. Who are the 99 who need no repentance? Who is the one sinner? Is there anyone, anywhere who isn’t a sinner and needs no repentance?

Paul tells us straight out in Romans 3:23, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”

Jesus rolls into the second story. Remember this—when the message is important, it will be repeated. It’s like when you tell your children something 50 times, 50 different ways, hoping they might finally get what you are trying to teach them. This matters to Jesus—that we get what he is trying to say. We all need to hear this.

The second parable is the story of a woman who has 10 silver coins. That’s a lot of money for a woman, living alone, probably a widow. One day, she discovers she only has 9. She doesn’t just say, “Oh, well. I didn’t really need 10 silver coins. Nine is plenty.” She lights a lamp, pulls out her broom, and sweeps the house carefully until she finds it. And when she does, she doesn’t celebrate alone. She calls together her friends and neighbors to rejoice with her—for what was lost is found! The community of faith has done its work! It everyone’s responsibility when one is lost—and it’s everyone’s joy when all are found! The community is whole and complete.

Finally, the third parable that we didn’t read today is the story of the prodigal son. He demands his inheritance while his father still lives, leaves, and squanders it all. He eventually hits rock bottom and, starving, he returns home to ask for mercy and be treated as servant and not a son.

While he is still far off, his father sees him and runs toward him. He welcomes him into his embrace and dresses him in a fine robe. He calls for a feast to be prepared and for all the community to celebrate. When his older son protests his father’s great mercy for the younger, rebellious son, the father says, But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.

Today, my friends, is a time of celebration and renewal for our congregation. We call this Rally Day or “Homecoming.” This is our opportunity to start again after a summer of traveling and busy-ness and a dry, weary 2 plus years of pandemic. Today, especially, we celebrate the One Spirit that holds us together—and keeps us strong—and the promise of the Spirit’s transforming, empowering work in each of us.

God isn’t finished with us, yet! We’ve only just begun. This is the day when we ask God to bless and guide us in our ministries in Christ’s name for the sake of God’s children of all ages—and especially our children and youth.

I shared my story with you today to help you understand why I feel called to make a difference in the lives of our children, youth, and young adults—and help them avoid the pain and suffering that I experienced when a few careless words were taken to heart and perhaps misunderstood.

If it weren’t for the young women and men in InterVarsity Christian Fellowship reaching out to me while I was in college, I would still be lost. The Bible would still be closed on my shelf.

I would not be here today.

They knocked on my door and invited me to an ice cream social before the first day of school. They also asked if I might want to read the Bible with them in a small group. I hadn’t read the Bible in years. But I had brought it to college with me—the white leather, gold trimmed pages of the Bible that my grandmother had given me when I was a little girl. King James Version. Words of Jesus in red.

I went to the ice cream social. And I went to the Friday night worship services led by students and young adults, and the student-led Bible studies. I learned how to study the Bible for myself, with some basic study guides—and to pray and ask God to help me understand the Scripture. That’s what we do when we pray the prayer for illumination before our Scripture reading every Sunday—so that everyone will be able to understand God’s will for their life.

Looking back, I can say with all honesty, I was like the lamb that wandered away and fell in a hole—that the Good Shepherd pursued and rescued, carrying me back home to the fold.

Can you hear the heavenly beings rejoicing over my repentance and return to God?

Can you hear the heavenly beings rejoicing?

Who can say this with me as their own testimony?

“I once was lost, but now am found, was blind but now I see.”

My heart is for everyone to know about our God’s love and mercy for sinners—for all imperfect people in this world—and the joyous welcome from God and the heavenly beings for all who turn back, repent, and come home to God. For all who are lost and found.

Let us pray.

Amazing Lord, thank you for your amazing grace—for sending your Son to lead us back to you when we like sheep had gone astray. Help us to put the past behind us and heal, and not be judgmental and cruel and grumble like the so-called experts of Jesus’ day. Teach us to hold onto what is good—and all that You will continue to teach us through Your Word and Spirit and the perfect example of our Savior. Strengthen us to go forward, walking by faith, pursuing the things of God. Lead us to serve others, to be kind and tell the world about your love for all and joyous welcome for those who turn back to you in repentance and come home. In the name of Christ we pray. Amen.

“I appeal to you on the basis of love”

Meditation on Philemon 1- 22

First Presbyterian Church of Smithtown, NY

Pastor Karen Crawford

Sept. 4, 2022

Link to live-streamed recording: https://fb.watch/fn9TUkalfk/

It’s Labor Day weekend! Any of you have family picnics or barbecues planned?

Jim and I have something special planned for our first Labor Day weekend with you. We have been invited to a barbecue with the PNC and their spouses. We are looking forward to this gathering—not just because I am sure we will enjoy delicious food and great conversation, but because in the whole discernment process with this committee charged to nominate Smithtown’s next called pastor, we grew close. We came to know and care for one another like a family.

I remember saying to Timmi last January, when she called me to arrange for my first travel to Smithtown, that I already felt comfortable with the committee after only one Zoom interview. I felt like I was talking with good friends, sharing our beliefs and experiences and our hopes for future ministry.

We all love the Lord. We all love the people who are Christ’s Church.

 We want to know and be obedient to God’s will. We want to be faithful.

We want to bring peace and healing to what is broken in the world.

We share the same heart.

***

The apostle Paul uses similar language of shared hope and heart for the Lord and the church, all the saints, in his letter to Philemon, a man Paul brought to the faith.

Philemon is a man of considerable wealth who owns slaves and now hosts a church in his home in Colossae, an ancient city in Asia Minor, in what is now Turkey. This letter, though it bears some similarities to Colossians, is different from all Paul’s letters to the Corinthians, Romans, Galatians, Philippians, and others that address problems or situations that are common to many congregations of his time. This letter, though it is addressed to several people in a specific church, is mainly concerned with a personal problem between Philemon, Paul, and a slave.

Onesimus, whose name means “useful” in Greek, has run away from his master, Philemon, and possibly stolen money from him. Though the issue is a serious one, the apostle uses a light tone—banters with Philemon, at times, using playful puns.  “Formerly he was useless to you,” Paul says, “but now he is indeed useful to you and to me. I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you.”

The slave has been serving Paul and has become a strong Christian, while the apostle, an old man now, is in prison for his faith. Prisons in Paul’s time aren’t anything like modern correctional facilities. Prisoners aren’t guaranteed a fair or speedy trial or lawyers if they can’t afford them. They aren’t guaranteed food or clothing or clean, drinking water or a warm bed. Inmates without money and friends and family to care for them when they are sick, bring them food, and carry messages to and from the outside world, have a much greater chance of dying forgotten in prison.

So Onesimus, the runaway slave named “Useful,” in caring for Paul, may have saved his life—and his own. Paul, in sending Onesimus home to his master Philemon in a gracious act of peace and reconciliation is taking a risk that the slave may never be permitted to return to care for Paul and join him in ministry.

Paul appeals on the basis of love, asking rather than insisting on the man’s release because of Paul’s welfare and continuing in ministry depending on his help. Onesimus is simply doing what Philemon would be doing for Paul if he were with him. He says, “I wanted to keep him with me so that he might minister to me in your place during my imprisonment for the gospel, but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced.”

Paul trusts in their shared love for the Church, which includes Onesimus. He will say in his letter to the Galatians that we are all one in Christ Jesus. There’s no more worldly divisions; no more Jew or Greek. No more male or female. No more slave or free.

 “So if you consider me your partner,” he says to Philemon, “welcome him as you would welcome me.” 

Paul alludes to a possible benefit from Onesimus’s disobedience from his master.  “Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back for the long term,” he says, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother—especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.”

The apostle offers to pay anything that is owed Philemon—stirring us to wonder if Onesimus might have taken money from his master when he left.

We don’t know what happened to Onesimus. Did Philemon forgive him? Were they reconciled? Did he ever make it back to Paul? Did he receive his freedom?

Paul seems to think that Philemon will respond favorably to his request.

“Confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I ask,” he says.

Paul ends his letter with a benediction and affectionate greetings from mutual friends and a promise to come back and stay in Philemon’s “guest room”—when the Church’s powerful prayers have restored him to them.

The fact that this beautiful letter has been kept and shared with the Church for thousands of years is a good sign that it led to peace and reconciliation. With its inclusion in the New Testament, it serves to inspire us to acts of kindness, peace, and reconciliation, as well.

Philemon reminds us of how our faith leads us to consider and reconsider our way of life and priorities, examining our hearts and fidelity to the call. We are held to a higher law–the commandment to love God and neighbor and hold onto the things of this world loosely. With God’s help, we are enabled to see the value of every human being, as children of a merciful and gracious God.

 Every day, the Spirit illumines our way, and we choose the path we take.

We are continually called to listen for God’s voice and be obedient—no matter what it might mean for our possessions and wealth, as it did for Philemon. Becoming a believer led the man of wealth to host a church in his home and accept the call to love, encourage and “refresh the hearts of the saints.” Then, as revealed by this letter, his faith and relationship with the apostle very likely led to him giving freedom to his slave, Onesimus, for Paul’s sake and the advancement of the gospel.

Sisters and brothers in the Lord, we all love the Lord and Christ’s Church. We want to be faithful. We share the same heart.

In a few moments, we will celebrate our Communion at the Lord’s Table—where all are welcome, and there are no worldly divisions. No rich or poor. No younger or older. No male or female. Slave or free.

We will remember Christ’s sacrifice on a cross for our sakes—and be restored, refreshed, transformed, and re-membered by Him.

United by the Spirit, we will once again be strengthened and sent out as Christ’s Body— hope and healing for a broken world.

Let us pray.

Holy One, thank you for this letter in holy scripture that inspires us to take risks and do acts of kindness, working for peace, justice, and reconciliation in our families, church, and world. Strengthen us to obey and abide by a higher law, to love God and neighbors. Stir us to ask the right questions, listen to the voices of the oppressed, and speak the truth with gentleness and humor, as Paul did with Philemon. Help us to care for others as citizens of heaven—seeking first the kingdom of God and its righteousness, trusting in your grace and love. In the Triune God we pray. Amen.

Do not neglect to do good

Meditation on Hebrews 13:1–8, 15–16

First Presbyterian Church of Smithtown, NY

Pastor Karen Crawford

Aug. 28, 2022

Link to livestreamed recording of the service: https://fb.watch/fbviulFegf/

     Summer is nearly over. How did that happen? I hope it has been a good summer for you.

We have had the joy of visits from family members who live out of state. Our son, Danny, and his wife, Hiu-fai and daughters, Maddie and Jessie, were here at the beginning of the month for a whirlwind weekend.

     Then, a week ago Saturday, our youngest son, James, and his girlfriend, Andrea, arrived from Minnesota. We hadn’t seen them in more than a year. They came to worship last Sunday—and fell in love with the church.

     You welcomed them. Thank you for that!

     Those who had family visiting with you recently, what are you doing the entire time they are with you? Anticipating their every need. Do you let them go hungry? No, we eat more than we usually do. If they need or want to go somewhere, we get them there.

We are hoping that they will enjoy their time and be happy. We all want our families to be happy.

      Sometimes, we put aside the things we like to do and maybe do some things we aren’t crazy about when they are visiting. Our routine is gone. We put their needs and desires before ours.

    We share what we have. We give without expecting anything in return.

    We don’t neglect to do good.

    Our scripture in Hebrews, once again, stirs us to think about family relationships—and what it means to love and practice hospitality in a church. Love takes work—but it’s a good work that we are all called to do—a sacrifice that is pleasing to God. Right from the beginning of this passage, the writer of Hebrews makes clear what is needed for a healthy community of faith: “mutual love.” The Greek word translated “mutual love” is philadelphia. Just like the city. Anyone here from Phillie? Anyone here just love Phillie? William Penn envisioned the capital city of his colony to be a place where people could practice their faith the way they wanted and live without fear of persecution. Philadelphia is the city of brotherly love.

     Mutual love or sibling love—philadelphia—is the love practiced within the faith community. Mutual love doesn’t exclude anyone. It doesn’t discriminate by gender, age, ethnicity, wealth, culture, language, marital status. It doesn’t matter who you are. If you abide in the faith community and seek to please the Lord, you have the same work to do: mutual love. Philadelphia!

      But the writer of Hebrews doesn’t stop at mutual love, philadelphia. This comes from my Austin Seminary professor, Paul Hooker, in a commentary called Connections. The second focus of the 13th chapter “requires the same practice of love (philia) toward those beyond the community.” Mutual love is paired with hospitality. This is the surprising part. The Greek word translated “hospitality” is philoxenia, which means “love of strangers.”

       The Church is called not just to love its own members. We have to love strangers, too.

Now, it could be that the strangers the writer of Hebrews is talking about are Christians visiting from distant places. This is what Paul talks about in Rom. 12:13, “Contribute to the needs of the saints; pursue hospitality to strangers.” And this is what Peter is talking about In 1 Peter 4:9, when he says, “Be hospitable to one another without complaining.” He means show love to strangers within the Body of Christ. This is a sacrifice that is pleasing to God—when we do not neglect to do good and share what we have.

      This word “hospitality” philoxenia or love of strangers captures the attention of the writer of Hebrews, Professor Hooker says, with this mention of the possibility of entertaining angels, without knowing it. That’s my favorite part of this passage. Do you think you have entertained angels before when you have shown hospitality—love to strangers?     

       We don’t know, but it’s possible we have angels in our midst right now—and we don’t recognize them.

       The reference to angels may be a connection to Genesis 18:1-15. Abraham and Sarah are waiting for the promise of a son to be fulfilled; 3 “visitors” show up at the oaks of Mamre. They welcome them and prepare a large meal. Abraham waits on them as they eat; he doesn’t even eat with them! The angels bless him for his hospitality, confirming the promise God made to Abraham years before—that Sarah would give birth, finally, to a child and Abraham would become as he is named, “Father of many nations.”

       The writer of Hebrews goes on to tell us two things that get in the way of these two kinds of love—philadelphia and philoxenia (hospitality or love of strangers). He names two things that destroy loving relationships within the family and the church. One is adultery. This creates all kinds of brokenness—with God and one another! The other is greed. The writer of Hebrews says, “keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have.” Greed and always wanting more than we have—and thinking that we need more to be happy—destroys family relationships. And the love of money—greed—destroys relationships in a congregation, as well.

       Christ doesn’t want his followers to argue about money—and let that ruin the love and unity in the community. We are called to show our love with our welcome and generosity—and seek the source of all love, the one who is the same, yesterday, today and forever—for all eternity. The writer quotes Deuteronomy 31:6 and Psalm 118:6, a hymn to God’s steadfast goodness to Israel.

      “For he has said, ‘I will never leave you or forsake you.’ So we can say with confidence, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can anyone do to me?’

***

     Summer is coming to an end. School starts this week, doesn’t it? Our visits with our family members from far away have come to an end, too.

    It was even harder to say goodbye to James and Andrea than our granddaughters and their parents. At least with Danny and Hiu-fai and the girls, we could say, “See you sometime in the fall.” They live in Cambridge, Mass.—a car ride and a ferry ride away. Minnesota is a long way away.

     As I waited with James and Andrea at the train station in St. James on Friday, I kept thinking how quickly the visit went. Too quickly!

       Their train pulled up noisily on the tracks. We had to raise our voices to be heard. Before they could wheel away their suitcases on the platform, I grabbed them and gave them one last hug and a kiss.

     I told them I loved them, thanked them for coming.

      And then I turned away and started to cry as I walked back to my car. I looked back to wave at them and they were gone. I kept thinking that I won’t see them for more than a year.

      But I will think of them every day. Just as you do with your loved ones who are far away.

      We will hold them in our hearts and prayers.

       And to honor Jesus, to walk in the newness of resurrected lives by faith, we will do our best not to neglect to do good—loving people within and outside the church community, giving generously to keep ourselves free from the love of money.

     Showing love to strangers. And perhaps, just perhaps, entertaining angels, without knowing it. Learning to be content. Trusting in the One who is the same, yesterday, today, and for all eternity.

      “For he has said, ‘I will never leave you or forsake you.’ So we can say with confidence, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can anyone do to me?’

Let us pray.  

Holy One, we thank you for the promise of new, resurrected lives when we walk each day with your Son, seeking to learn how to love. Build up the faith, welcome, generosity, and hospitality of your people, dear Lord, so that strangers and angels will come and join with us. Help us to keep free of the love of money. Bless and strengthen our marriages and families, especially those who may be struggling right now. Teach us to live in peace and contentment, without fear, knowing our Lord who is always the same will always be with us. Lead us to do the good works you have planned and be pleasing to you. In the Triune God we pray. Amen.

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