All the People Gathered Together

 

Meditation on Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10

Merritt Island Presbyterian Church

Jan. 24, 2016

***

“All the people gathered together into the square before the Water Gate. They told the scribe Ezra to bring the book of the law of Moses, which the Lord had given to Israel. Accordingly, the priest Ezra brought the law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could hear with understanding. This was on the first day of the seventh month. He read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive to the book of the law. And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was standing above all the people; and when he opened it, all the people stood up. Then Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God, and all the people answered, ‘Amen, Amen’, lifting up their hands. Then they bowed their heads and worshipped the Lord with their faces to the ground. So they read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading. And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, ‘This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.’ For all the people wept when they heard the words of the law. Then he said to them, ‘Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.’”

***

Ok, I never thought I would be saying this. It’s cold outside!! I looked at the temperature in my car on the way to church yesterday morning and it said 51 degrees! I said, “What???” It didn’t feel like 51! There must have been a wind chill of 32 because I was freezing! Then I got to thinking, after I got home yesterday afternoon and changed into my sweatpants, that if I’m cold, I bet the Florida natives are REALLY COLD. Am I right?

So I brought you something. I climbed deep into my closet and pulled out my Minnesota, full-length parka. And my Muk Luks! These fur-lined babies are guaranteed to keep you warm and dry!

And you know, with this cold weather — and all that snow coming down up north — – I think maybe I should help ya’ll get ready–just in case the snow decides to head our way. I received an email yesterday with some tips for shoveling snow. And there was this little blue man illustrating each of the tips. Think of this as the 10 commandments of snow shoveling.

  1. Stretch first!
  2. Push snow, and use your legs to lift when you can’t push it.
  3. Keep your back straight as you move from the squat position to the upright position.
  4. Use your shoulder muscles!
  5. Hold the shovel close to your upper body.
  6. Keep one hand close to the shovel blade for better leverage.
  7. Don’t twist your upper body as you throw snow!
  8. Keep hydrated.
  9. Rest frequently. (the blue man sitting on a chair in the snow)

And my favorite, number 10: the illustration is two blue people holding hands, side by side. One has a shovel –and the other has a snow blower. Number 10 is (in big letters) ASK FOR HELP (and small letters) “whenever possible.” After surviving 4 winters in Minnesota, I have some advice. Skip steps 1 through 9. Go straight to 10, and if no one is available to help, just wait till springtime. It’ll melt. Eventually.

But seriously, snow can really be a problem for the elderly in Minnesota, particularly in the rural areas. One of the challenges of winter in Minnesota for me as a pastor seeking to minister to ALL of my flock was that many of our most faithful attendees couldn’t make it to church when it snowed or was icy. We missed them, and they felt bad; they really wanted to be there–for the fellowship and worship and the preaching and teaching.

So I thought and thought. How could I bring the Word of God to ALL of them?

****

I am so excited that we are studying Nehemiah today! Who in here has read Nehemiah? Good for you! If you are looking for Nehemiah, it’s right after Ezra and before Esther. Ezra and Nehemiah go together, and the two books may have been one, in the beginning. Ezra may have written both books, or Ezra and Nehemiah may each have written their own. Or someone else may have written them entirely. Parts of Ezra and Nehemiah are written in the first person, like a journal. The time is at the end of the Babylonian Captivity, after King Cyrus of Persia declares that God is charging him to rebuild the temple at Jerusalem and restore the Jewish religion. The temple and the Holy City had been destroyed in 586 or 587 BCE; Israel was scattered and beaten, struggling to keep their faith without being able to gather around God’s Word in community, and without worship and sacrifice in the temple.

Ezra, from Babylon, a scribe or “secretary, versed in the law of Moses which the Lord, the God of Israel, had given,” (Ezra 7:7) came to Jerusalem in the “seventh year of King Artaxerxes” (Ezra 7:7-8)–around 458 B.C.E. Nehemiah, who had held an important position in the Persian court, arrived to be the governor 13 years later, around 445 B.C.E. Being a “secretary” was a high political office, such as someone appointed secretary of the treasury or the province. King Artaxerxes had appointed him as secretary in Judah on behalf of the religious institutions. He was also a priest, who had made a special study of the law of Moses, and so was able to interpret the law for the Jewish community. The cool thing I discovered about Ezra was that he was the founder of Jewish exegesis–the close, critical study of a text to determine the meaning and application.

Well, Ezra was brought to Jerusalem not just to reform the Jewish religion, but to restore it; to make a fresh beginning. He had to teach them how to be the people of God. Many years had passed since they were together and whole as a community. And they had been unfaithful. Ezra learns that many of the people of Israel, including the priests and the Levites (the leaders of the community), had married foreign wives. Families were practicing idol worship. Ezra 9:2 says, “When I heard this, I tore my garment and my mantle and I pulled out some of the hair of my heard and my beard. I sat down dumbfounded… At the evening sacrifice, I rose from my humbled state and with my torn garment and mantle, I went on my knees and spread out my hands to the Lord, my God.”

Ezra has his work cut out for him! But so does Nehemiah, who arrives after Ezra and finds that the small remnant of Israelites who had survived the captivity was “in great trouble and shame. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down and its gates” are burnt. (Neh. 1:3) Hearing this, Nehemiah “sat down, wept, and mourned for days.” Then he “fasted and prayed to the God of heaven.” He leads the community that is broken emotionally, spiritually and economically to repent from their sins, grow stronger, and rebuild the wall, despite opposition and ridicule from their Samaritan neighbors.

And now, many more of the exiles and their descendants return. In Nehemiah 7, the chapter that precedes today’s reading, we find a list of all who came back after the wall was rebuilt–and the people could safely live in their Holy City once again.    The whole assembly, we read in Neh. 7:66 is 42,360 people, plus 7,337 male and female slaves, 245 male and female singers, 736 horses, 245 mules, 435 camels, and 6,720 donkeys. That’s the “all” that is gathered in the square before the Water Gate” in Neh. 8:1; more than 50,000 men, women and children–slave and free, plus many animals. They demand that Ezra come and preach from the Holy Scriptures! It’s their idea, not Ezra’s! The Levites, Nehemiah and Ezra share in the teaching and worship that goes on for about 6 hours! Can you imagine this? They are outside the temple–not only are there too many to fit in the temple at the same time, they wouldn’t all have been permitted to attend. The women and children would not have been allowed to enter the holiest places. They would not have been able to hear the Word of God or begin to understand.

What we see here is worship at its most powerful, completely centered on God’s Word, and it’s not even in a building! They listen to Ezra and the other teachers–from early morning until midday, “both men and women and all who could hear with understanding.” The people stand as the Scripture is read, lifting up their hands when they pray, “Amen, Amen!” They humble themselves before God, bowing their heads as they worship the Lord “with their faces to the ground.”

The miracle of this passage is that God’s Word was completely accessible to all. Everyone was given “ears to hear” and hearts open to change. And what was the effect of God’s Word? They wept! Why did they cry? They were reminded of their sins! The law convicted them of how much they fell short, just as God’s Word continues to both convict us and inspire us to want to change.

But Nehemiah, Ezra and the Levites told the people not to grieve! They wanted them to turn away from their sins and the brokenness of their lives–and look to the God who would heal and provide. “This day,” they say, (meaning, the day that the Scriptures were opened to them) “is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.” They say, go home, eat, drink and celebrate–and share with all who don’t have enough. “Do not be grieved,” Nehemiah, Ezra, and the Levites say, “for the joy of the Lord is your strength!”

***

After my first winter in Minnesota, when I felt bad for the people who could not make it to church on snowy days, I started an ecumenical Bible study at a senior living community in the center of town. We had a core group of our members faithfully attend AND they invited their neighbors and friends. We averaged 12 to 20 people every week, which is pretty good in a town of only 1,300 people. And we truly dug deeply into the Word, a close, critical study, chapter by chapter, line by line. After 2 and ½ years of teaching on my own, I invited a Methodist colleague and friend, the Rev. Dean Nosek, to join me–and the study was better than before. We read Ruth, Acts, James, and Joshua. Pastor Dean began Genesis after I left. The group, he says, is still going strong!

The best part of the study was at the end, when people would share what they had learned and we would pray. I was always amazed at the insight of this group, most of whom were older than 85.

Friends, how can we take God’s Word to ALL our community? We have gifted Bible teachers–intelligent, creative, and educated people, blessed with the time and the passion to teach and learn. Let us look to our example in Nehemiah today, when more than 50,000 men, women and children, slave and free, plus many animals, gathered around God’s Word in the square of Jerusalem at the Water Gate.

They wept–and found strength together in the joy of the Lord!

Let us pray.

Holy One, we thank you for your Word that is so easily accessible to all of us. We have been given so much!! Thank you for your Spirit that speaks to us as we gather in your name, in this beautiful place, in this lovely community that is warm almost all year round. Help us to hear your voice, dear Lord, and humbly obey. Give us passion and excitement to reach our entire community with your Word. Raise up teachers and stir our hearts with a desire to learn, more and more, and grow closer and closer to you. Convict us of our sins and move us to tears of gratitude for what you have done for us through your Son! Strengthen us with your joy! In Christ we pray. Amen.

 

“Do Not Let Your Heart Be Troubled”

Meditation on John 14:1-7; 25-27

In Memory of Lois Sharpe

Jan. 23, 2016

Merritt Island Presbyterian Church

Rev. Karen Crawford

 

“‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may also be. And you know the way to the place where I am going.’ Thomas said to him, ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.’

 ‘I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”

***

 

I did not plan on visiting Lois the day I met her. Or, I should say, I didn’t know that I would be visiting Lois that day until shortly before seeing her. It was the day before Christmas Eve and I was actually on the way to visit her sister, Rose, who was suffering from Alzheimer’s and was receiving hospice care. I was with one of our deacons, Marilyn Smoot, visiting the sick and elderly, serving communion to those who would not be able to make it to our communion services on Christmas Eve.

If I weren’t a person of faith, I might say that it was by chance that I ended up visiting Lois that day. But of course it was God’s plan all along. The Spirit led me to call Arleigh, who is Rose’s nephew and Lois’s son, just as he was leaving Rose’s home and was on his way to visit Lois. His mother, like her sister, had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. The disease had progressed so that she, too, was receiving hospice care at a different location.

So, hearing that Arleigh was going to visit his mom, at the last minute, Marilyn and I decided to go with Arleigh.

Turned out, it was a good day for Lois. She had just had her bath and was lying in bed, her blue eyes bright and alert. She was more responsive than she had been for a while. She spoke only a few words, but she seemed to be following our conversation with interest. Later, I would learn about her strong faith, her many years as an active member of Palm Chapel, now River of Life Assembly of God. I learned that she had taught young children in Sunday school, enjoyed going to Bible studies, and sought to apply scripture to her daily life. She was involved for a number of years with in an outreach ministry to senior citizens in Brevard County called “Golden Life.”

Family was always important to Lois. She and her husband, Roy, and their two children, Arleigh and Peggy, moved from New York to Merritt Island in 1960. Lois’s sister, Rose, and her parents, James and Martha, moved with them. Lois worked as a secretary for many years at Rockwell – Kennedy Space Center, while Roy worked as a barber in Titusville. Lois did not have a college degree, but she was “forever a student,” taking continuing education classes at the community college, and nurturing the love of learning in her children. She liked crossword puzzles, crocheting, taking walks, and playing solitaire on the computer. She loved birds and had a collection of 2 or 3 dozen porcelain birds. After Roy died in 2002, Lois continued to live in the house they had bought when they first moved to Merritt Island, across from Divine Mercy Catholic Church, until her health became more fragile. She moved in first with her daughter, Peggy, then Asbury Arms (now Westminster Asbury) in Cocoa, and then, as the disease progressed, she moved to the place where Marilyn and I visited her the day before Christmas Eve, a group home on Merritt Island where she was cared for by hospice workers.

During that visit, I watched as she gazed at her son’s smiling face as he talked about how she used to play the saxophone. And how she participated in East Coast Christian Church’s 5K walk/run here on Merritt Island as recently as 5 years ago with Arleigh and his wife, Ok Sun. Arleigh finished the run, then went back and ran alongside Ok Sun, encouraging her to the end. When Ok Sun completed the run, Arleigh ran back for his mother, who was walking the race. He walked beside Lois, encouraging her to the finish line. Lois was 1 of only 3 women in her age group—75 and up—to attempt the run. She placed second.

I didn’t know that it would be the only conversation we would have together, that Lois would go home to be with the Lord three days after Christmas, four days after her sister, Rose, had gone home to be with the Lord. Because of my faith, my certainty of God’s plan and purpose for all of us, and for God alone knowing and keeping the number of our days, I am sure that it was no mere coincidence.

As I prepared to leave Lois with a prayer for healing, comfort and peace, I asked, “Can I come and visit you again?” She nodded and answered with one word, softly spoken. She may have said, “Visit” or “Come.” Arleigh assured me, “I think that’s a ‘yes.’” Joyfully, I promised that I would. Then I took her hand, she closed her eyes, and we sought the Lord in prayer.

 

***

 

We encounter an intimate conversation between Jesus and his disciples in our reading in John today. Jesus has just told the ones who left their old lives behind to follow him and learn from him that he will soon be leaving them. The time has nearly come for Jesus to go home to be with the Father. For several years, they have lived together and actively participated in Christ’s ministry. Jesus is trying to encourage his disciples to keep going, keep believing, keep up the good work, and hold fast to their faith, despite the trials, sorrows, and hardships that lay ahead.

“Let not your heart be troubled,” Jesus says, sensing their fear, feeling their distress. The word translated “hearts” in the NRSV (kardia) is singular, not plural, while the word that precedes it (your) is plural, not singular. Jesus is addressing this tight community of believers who share the same heart, same faith, same God.

He says, “Believe in God, believe also in me.” But I want you to think of the verb translated “believe” (pisteuo) as “trust.” Jesus is saying, “I know you are scared and sad, but you need to trust God and trust me.”

   Our Lord promises that they can also go where he is going — to his Father’s house (oikos), which is not just the word for a building, but a household or family. And the many dwelling places in the Father’s home are not the kind of houses with rooms we have in this world. Jesus is speaking of a spiritual dwelling place, an abiding with God–who has enough space within Himself for all people to dwell and truly desires to draw all people to Himself. This passage in John assures us of the promise that Christ will return for His Church. Jesus says, “And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may also be.”

Poor Thomas. He is kind of the Eeyore of the disciples. But he is the only one with the courage to express his doubts and fears that are very likely shared by the others–and by many who will hear God’s Word in the generations to come. When Thomas says, “We don’t know where you are going. How can we know the way?” he is really saying, “No, we don’t want you go, we aren’t ready for you to go, we are afraid to lose you. We cannot imagine life without you here with us!”

The way of Jesus Christ has nothing to do with our worldly accomplishments or even our good works or good intentions. The way of Jesus to which John refers is about being in intimate relationship with Him–and we are, because of the grace of God, who sent His Only Son so that the world may not perish, but might believe on Him and have everlasting life. “I am the way,” Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”

The way of Jesus is learning to trust in Him who is the very revelation of God. “If you know me,” Jesus says, “you will know my Father also.”

The way of Jesus Christ leads to everlasting life from the moment we first believe.

Knowing Christ IS knowing the truth–not just an intellectual knowing, but an understanding that is God’s gift to us. This is an understanding that Christ promises we will have when we need it from the Spirit that abides with us now, teaching us “everything,” as Jesus says, and reminding us of all that he has said.

Knowing Christ means seeking the Lord in prayer and allowing ourselves to be led by the Spirit, our teacher, helper, and comforter during times such as these, when even believers may struggle with fear and doubt, like the father of a boy whom Jesus healed, who cries out in Mark 9:24, “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief!”

Knowing the truth, knowing Jesus Christ, means possessing life, abiding in the One who longs to give us his peace, a peace that the world cannot give.

     Listen again to the One who has gone to prepare a place for all of us with his own death and resurrection, so all may abide in God–not just after we die, but in this world–here and now. Listen to the words of the One who promises to come again and take us to Himself, so that where he is, we may also be.

Do not let your heart be troubled. Trust in God. Trust also in me.”

 

Let us pray.

 

Loving Lord, we come to you now with all our doubts, fears, and sorrows. We seek your mercy and grace. Please heal us, Lord, and make us whole. Open our hearts and minds to receive your peace, a peace that only you can give, a peace that you desire to give to all who seek you. Teach us your loving ways and reassure us that we do know the way to eternal life–and that’s through an intimate relationship with you. Help us to trust you as we live out our faith, abiding in you, now and forever. Amen.

 

More Wine!

Meditation on John 2:1–11

January 17, 2016

Merritt Island Presbyterian Church

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

***

 

Why is it that sometimes it takes congregations to suffer a tragic loss before they rediscover their faith? And why is it that some congregations, after tragic loss or bitter conflict, give up, break down, break apart and die–while others, such as a century-old church in Allentown, Pennsylvania, rise up to become better and stronger–more united, joyful, and hopeful — than ever before?

 

Hilltop United Methodist Church lost their building to fire in August 2014. The congregation wasn’t large or wealthy. They had to raise more than a million dollars, find another place to worship for a year, and hold themselves together as a congregation, while the church was being rebuilt. It was a traditional congregation like many other churches in America these days, with more people 55 and up than 35 and down. But they didn’t just rebuild what they had before. They built something new to meet the needs and desires of the future, while honoring the beauty and meaningful ritual and symbols of the past. The new sanctuary has stained glass windows and pews; and they sing hymns accompanied by piano, organ, and a modern, electronic projection system. Everyone had something to contribute to the “rebuilding” project, including a young boy whom Pastor Sue Hutchins recognized on Nov. 23– their first service back in their rebuilt, updated sanctuary. Logan Wilson had raised $750 by growing and selling his pumpkins. Did you see his proud smile?

 

Pastor Sue, speaking of the terrible loss and their miraculous recovery, said, “We were committed to this community and knew that God had a plan and a purpose for us here… It doesn’t matter if there is a fire. It doesn’t matter if there is some kind of catastrophe. God is still here… I just knew that God would bring us through.”

 

Don’t miss this important point: the church, when they gathered for their first service back in their building, was not celebrating the success of a fundraising campaign or the building project! They were celebrating, truly, their “new life” together in Jesus Christ. And God’s faithfulness to them!

 

***

 

In our gospel today, we find Mary, Jesus, and the disciples at a wedding in the little village of Cana, about 9 miles north of Nazareth in the Galilean hill country. Weddings back then were communal celebrations. The wedding of a virgin was held in the bridegroom’s house on a Wednesday. Relatives and friends came from all over to witness the covenant of man and wife, the union of two families. A wedding supper would start the festivities, which would last an entire week! Note that Mary, Jesus and the disciples aren’t wedding crashers. They aren’t strangers; they are invited, as we discover in the second verse, though we don’t know the name of the couple or their relationship to Mary or Jesus.

 

Don’t be fooled by this cozy, seemingly ordinary village scene. Jesus and his disciples aren’t taking a vacation from ministry. This is where the glory of God in Jesus Christ will be revealed for the very first time in the book of John–and his disciples, including Mary, will come to believe.

 

Wine wasn’t a usual drink for common people back then. Many peasants were employed in the grape-growing and winemaking industry, but poor people could not afford wine. However, it was expected that there would not be a wedding without wine–and plenty of it– to last 7 days and nights! Families would sell their flocks and borrow from other family members, if need be, to have wine at their children’s weddings. A wedding without wine would be an unthinkable embarrassment for the community.

 

And then the wine “gives out” or “runs short” or “fails,” as some translations say. This is a crisis! Mary turns to Jesus and says, “They have no wine,” but what she really means is, “What are we going to do?!” Jesus’s answer is cryptic. He addresses his mother as, “Woman,” but this is not to be misinterpreted as rudeness. Throughout John’s gospel, Jesus always calls Mary, “Woman.” In fact, Jesus, throughout the NT, never calls his mother by her first name or the Greek equivalent of “Mom”–not even when Jesus is on the cross. We read in John 19:26-27, “Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, (and) he said to her, “Woman, here is your son. Then he said to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” From that hour, the disciple took her into his home.”

John’s gospel is full of signs and symbols, words and phrases with more than one meaning and allusions to other scripture. The use of the word “woman” for Mary takes us back to Genesis, when God created man and “woman” in his image from the dust of the earth, but already had the redemption of humanity planned out! John sees Mary as the new Eve, just as the apostle Paul calls Jesus the “new man,” the second and the last Adam. He says in 1 Cor. 15:45,“Thus it is written, ‘The first man, Adam, became a living being’; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit.”

 

Back to the wedding crisis, in John 2:4, Jesus says to Mary, “What has this concern of yours to do with me?” Literally, he says, “What to me and to you?” This is an old Hebrew expression that can mean two things. One, it could be said by the injured person believing the other person is unjustly bothering or injuring him: “What have I done to you that you should do this to me?” such as when the poor widow says to Elijah in 1 Kings 17:18, “‘What have you against me, O man of God? You have come to me to bring my sin to remembrance, and to cause the death of my son!’” Or it can mean, as I believe is the case here, “This is your business, how am I involved?” such as when Elisha says to the King of Israel in II Kings 3:13: “‘What have I to do with you? Go to your father’s prophets or to your mother’s.’” The second implies disagreement, not hostility or injury.

 

The reason Jesus supplies for his disagreement? “My hour has not come.” The ancient translation of this, however, could actually mean, “Has my hour not yet come?” The use of the expression implies the opening or revealing of Christ’s ministry–not the passion, death and resurrection that the expression will come to mean in John 12:23-24, when Jesus answers his disciples, saying, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.  Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”

 

Now, what does it mean when Mary turns to the servants and tells them to do whatever Jesus tells them? Does she expect a miracle? Is she telling Jesus what to do, and ignoring his response? Or is she just expressing her faith that Jesus will intervene in some way so that the joy of the celebration would not be stolen away and the wedding of a friend or family member ruined? Her faith is all the more impressive considering this is the FIRST miracle Jesus has done so far. Whether it is Mary’s faith or simply God’s plan all along or both, the wine is replenished and better than before. In fact, they have more wine than they probably need–more than 120 gallons!

 

What captures my attention is the old wine versus the new–and how the new wine comes from water set apart for Jewish purification rites, symbolizing the “old religion” of the law failing, falling short, running dry. When the headwaiter, having no idea what has happened, tastes the “new wine,” he calls the bridegroom and says, “Everyone serves the choice wine first; then, when the guests have been drinking awhile, the inferior wine. But you have kept the choice wine until now.”

 

Don’t you wonder why the guests don’t notice how inferior the wine is–until the “new” wine is produced? Why WAS the inferior wine OK? And then it came to me. Because that was the wine they were used to drinking. They didn’t know the joy they were missing!

 

Maybe it’s scary for some of us when we ask the Lord to remake us a church and individuals into something new– something more hopeful, faithful, loving, and joyful. Maybe it’s scary because it will mean humbly embracing change and new ideas and letting go of old, negative thoughts and behaviors. It will mean having to admit that we have been drinking inferior wine–or that we have allowed the wine to completely run out, without seeking the Lord to refresh, renew, and refill us!

 

When we seek the Lord for not just MORE, but NEW wine and accept the NEW that God wants us to do and be, we, too, like the little church in Allentown that rose up from the ashes, will celebrate our new life together in Jesus Christ. And God’s faithfulness to us!

 

Let us pray.

 

Loving, patient Lord,

Thank you for being with us, through all the struggles our church has faced in its more than 50 year history. Thank you, also, for your many blessings to us and the joy that we have experienced as we have sought to be your light to those who stumble in darkness. Fill us, Lord, with your new wine. Make us to do and be something we have never been–better than ever before. Humble us by the knowledge of your love. Lead us to be confident of our new life in Jesus Christ, which begins from this day, from this very moment on. Forgive us for negative thoughts and whispered words that have held us back from the changes you want us to make, changes we may have resisted for fear that it isn’t what we have done before. Give us courage to take risks –to dwell boldly together as your people, speaking the truth in love to one another, having grace for one another, being kind to one another, encouraging one another to use all the resources and gifts you have given us to build up your righteous kingdom. Help us to make our life of worship together truly a loving celebration, a miraculous sign for all the world of your power, hope, and glory, like the wedding of Cana long ago. In Christ we pray. Amen.

 

 

 

 

The Beloved: Created for God’s Glory

Melvyn asleep on the bedMelvyn under the Christmas treeMelvyn with Jim

Meditation on Isaiah 43:1-7

January 10, 2016

Merritt Island Presbyterian Church

 

“But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Saviour. I give Egypt as your ransom, Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you. Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you, I give people in return for you, nations in exchange for your life. Do not fear, for I am with you; I will bring your offspring from the east, and from the west I will gather you; I will say to the north, ‘Give them up’, and to the south, ‘Do not withhold; bring my sons from far away and my daughters from the end of the earth—everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.’”

***

It’s great to be back leading worship and preaching again after being gone for 2 Sundays! I missed you! We stayed home for most of my vacation–enjoying walks, movies, eating in local restaurants and going to the beach on New Year’s Day! Staying home, it seemed like a “Melvyn the cat vacation” because when we are home, he is always close by! He prefers to be in our laps or standing right in the middle of a book we are trying to read or a board game we want to play. He has been known to try to close Jim’s laptop while he is working or push it right out of his lap if he wants Jim’s attention.

Melvyn helped us decorate our Christmas tree this year. He did a great job of making sure there was cat hair on the red blanket under the tree. Melvyn’s favorite pastime, though, if he isn’t sitting in our laps or eating 4 times a day, is sleeping. Sometimes he lounges in a sliver of sunlight on the carpet, but usually, he sleeps on our bed. We always know when he is sleeping because he snores.

Life has changed for Melvyn–and Melvyn has changed, too– since we met him 2 and a half years ago. I was walking out the door of my Minnesota church and there he was in the parking lot. He approached me at a gallop, meowing and sticking his tail in the air. He was dirty. Skinny. Missing some hair. Some scars on his face. I reached down to pet him and he practically jumped into my arms. He purred loudly, certain that something wonderful was about to happen. Cats living outside in rural Minnesota have a rough existence. Especially in winter!

But it was summer, and I put some food for him on the back steps of our house next door to the church. He ate like he hadn’t eaten in a long time. He purred as he ate and paused now and then to rub his face on my leg, as if saying, “Thank you.”

I didn’t bring him inside right away because we had 2 dogs and worried he might have fleas or worse. He cried all night on the back steps. It was raining. In the morning, when Jim was walking the dogs, I opened the back door. Jim hollered from the yard, “Don’t let that thing inside!” He had never had a cat for a pet. He said cats were evil.

Melvyn came inside, and I fed him. He’s been with us ever since. He won Jim over during the first week.

It hasn’t always been a picnic with Melvyn. Although he learned to use the litter, he often made a huge mess with it. Sometimes, he still does. And he used to get upset whenever Jim and I left the house. We would hear his panicked yowling. He was terrified we wouldn’t come back! He would immediately start scrounging for food, even if we fed him right before we left. He would jump up on the counters and kitchen table and on top of the fridge. He didn’t care if the food was in a bag or a box. He ate right through plastic and cardboard.

One time we came home on a Saturday night and found that he had stolen a loaf of French bread that we had planned to use for Communion the next day. He had dragged it across the kitchen floor and ate the end off. I was mad! And he did other naughty things–marking his territory in the basement and tipping the dog food container over one day while we were out. All 3 pets had stomach- aches that night.

As the months passed, he began to settle down and be more civilized. He could always win us over, if he were naughty, by being cute and cuddly. He has this habit of curling up on our chests and putting his face right against our faces and going to sleep. Sometimes, I wake up in the middle of the night and find him staring at me–just a few inches from my face– big dark eyes–willing me to wake up. Or he’s plotting to kill me. It’s hard to tell, Jim says, with cats. Now he barely opens an eye when we leave the house. He trusts us! We always come back! We always take care of him! Being loved and KNOWING he is loved and precious to us has changed this formally uncouth, utterly selfish creature into, well, a pussycat.

***

Melvyn’s transformation demonstrates only the power of human love. In God’s Word today, we learn of the power of God’s love for His beloved children–us, though we are, if not utterly selfish and uncouth like Melvyn, still unfaithful to the Lord. But we, even in our imperfect state, are loved, blessed, cared for and guided by the Spirit to live for God’s glory–for that is our purpose in life. This is why our Creator created us, as we learn in Isaiah 43:7, “everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.”

And yet we cannot fully understand or accept God’s love. Some of us find it hard to believe that we are God’s beloved. If so, why do we suffer in this life? Also, we only know human love, which is flawed and conditional. And we don’t feel loveable, so we imagine that others–even God who loves perfectly and unconditionally–don’t really love us, when they do! I think the key to transformation of hearts and minds begins with an understanding and acceptance of God’s astounding love, revealed to us, over and over again–in the Old Testament and New. When we accept we are God’s beloved children because of God’s Beloved Son, we are released from the burden of our sins that weigh us down. The past doesn’t have to repeat itself! We are people of hope!! We are free to be the amazing people God wants us to be–fully trusting in God’s promises to us!

I truly believe that knowledge and acceptance of God’s love shown through God’s Beloved Son would completely transform our world. But God’s love is as unfathomable today as it was when the author of Isaiah 43 lived– some time between 550 BCE and 515 BCE. God’s people had been living in exile since Babylonian armies attacked and conquered Judah in 586 BCE, destroying the Temple and the Holy City. The captives and exiles dwelling along the banks of the Euphrates River were surrounded by people who worshiped false gods and idols; they were feeling beaten, ashamed, and entirely unlovable. And the prophets speaking during the exile years were saying that God allowed this cruel defeat and their suffering because of their unfaithfulness to Him.

Even Isaiah tells them how unlovable they are in the chapter that precedes today’s reading. You cannot grasp the astonishing message of God’s grace in today’s passage, 43:1-7, unless you know what comes before it. In 42:18-25, Isaiah calls them blind and deaf to God’s presence. He speaks of Israel’s relationship with God in terms of wrath and destruction. “The Lord was pleased, for the sake of his righteousness, to magnify his teaching and make it glorious. But this is a people robbed and plundered, all of them are trapped in holes and hidden in prisons; they have become a prey with no one to rescue, a spoil with no one to say, ‘Restore!’ Who among you will give heed to this, who will attend and listen for the time to come? Who gave up Jacob to the spoiler, and Israel to the robbers? Was it not the Lord, against whom we have sinned, in whose ways they would not walk, and whose law they would not obey? So he poured upon him the heat of his anger and the fury of war.”

Isaiah 43 is a soothing balm, beginning with an emphatic disjunctive, “But now…” Whatever follows these words will be in sharp contrast to what came before. And yet the two passages are not contradictory. The God of Isaiah 42 is the same just and righteous God in Isaiah 43, the same God the Lord has always been and will always be. The One who created us for His glory had a plan from the foundation of the world because God knew that human beings would be unfaithful to Him! God’s love for the world led Him to sacrifice His Beloved Son.

The words that follow, “But now” in Isaiah 43 break the silence of exile and despair. They renew the ancient covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. They would be reminded of the days of suffering and slavery, when God heard their cry and sent Moses to lead them out of captivity. And finally, with the imagery of God gathering his people from around the globe, we are reminded of Communion, when we experience a glimmer of the heavenly banquet– gathered at the table with Christ in the Kingdom of God.

Friends, God continues to speak to us through Isaiah today! For all of you who struggle to love yourselves and accept God’s astonishing love for you. For all of you who are suffering and wondering if God has abandoned you, like the exiles so long ago. Open your hearts to hear from your Beloved, whose face we will someday see.

But now, thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. …You are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you… Do not fear, for I am with you; I will bring your offspring from the east, and from the west I will gather you; I will say to the north, ‘Give them up’, and to the south, ‘Do not withhold; bring my sons from far away and my daughters from the end of the earth—everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.’”

 

Let us pray. Holy One of Israel, thank you for sending your Beloved Son to take our place at the cross–and suffer and die to take our sins away. Thank you for calling us your Beloved and forgiving us, though we are still unfaithful. Help us understand and accept your love for us and to offer that same unconditional love to our neighbors around the world. Lead us to live in obedience to Your Word and to the Glory of your name! In Christ we pray. Amen.

 

Just Do It!

 

Meditation on Luke 3:7-18

Third Sunday in Advent

Merritt Island Presbyterian Church

Dec. 13, 2015

***

John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.’ And the crowds asked him, ‘What then should we do?’ In reply he said to them, ‘Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.’ Even tax-collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, ‘Teacher, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.’ Soldiers also asked him, ‘And we, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.’ As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, ‘I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing-fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing-floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’

***

My husband, Jim, and I went out to see “Spotlight” on Friday. The movie is named for the small, investigative reporting team working for the Boston Globe in 2002 that discovers a massive scandal of child molestation and cover-up within the local Catholic Archdiocese. The film brings out how difficult it is for the reporters and editors to pursue the story, as people are afraid to criticize the Church, which has considerable power, especially in Boston. It is more important for the Church to protect its reputation than to protect the most vulnerable members of the kingdom of God–the children, many of whom came from broken homes or lived in poverty. The Church settled multiple cases of child abuse through private mediation with victims’ families, forcing them to sign confidentiality agreements, so no one would find out what the priests had done. Some of the children were abused repeatedly, over a number of years. Many did not recover psychologically from the abuse.

One frightened victim, interviewed as a young adult, said he didn’t fight back or tell anyone about the abuse as a child because in his family, the priests were God! Adult victims portrayed in the movie wanted nothing to do with any church anymore.

Particularly moving in the film is its portrayal of how the reporters were affected by these revelations–and by the obstacles the Church thrust in their path as they grew closer to the full truth. Journalists on the Spotlight team had been raised in the Catholic Church. Most described themselves as “lapsed” Catholics. Sacha, played by Rachel McAdams, sometimes accompanied her “Nana” to church. But after learning of the abuse and cover up, she couldn’t go anymore without thinking about the victims–and the offenders–and how the Church had allowed the abuse to go on. In one touching scene, Mike, played by Mark Ruffalo, is standing at the back of a church, watching and listening to a children’s choir sweetly sing, “Silent Night.” Tears stream down his face. Later he tells his colleagues, his voice breaking with emotion, that though he was a “lapsed” Catholic, he always thought that, someday, he would go back.

***

Sin and corruption amongst the people of God are nothing new. Thousands of years ago, the Spirit led John the Baptist to preach repentance to a sinful generation, seeking to prepare the hearts and minds of those who had turned away from the one True God for the coming Messiah–John’s younger cousin, Jesus Christ.

Now John the Baptist is bold. His tone is sarcastic. “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee the wrath to come?!”

I looked up “brood of vipers” and I learned that “brood” isn’t just a family group; it’s specifically the offspring! He’s saying, in today’s language, “Your mama’s a snake!” Vipers are found in most parts of the world today, including Florida! They are nocturnal; they ambush their prey–in the dark. They strike quickly. Their venom causes paralysis. Death may result from asphyxiation. I can’t think of anything worse than calling someone a snake–or a child of a snake!

Why would John use such harsh language? Bible scholars (such as Joel B. Green) say that John chooses words that “deliberately contrast with” their own self-identity. They see themselves as God’s chosen, the children of Abraham. They are comfortable with who they are, without seeing themselves as they truly are–sinful people who allow injustice, abuse, and oppression in their society to continue. They aren’t rich people, but they have more than enough and allow others to go without basic necessities, such as food and clothing. They are people, some of them, who are dishonest on their jobs and in their day-to-day lives, such as the tax collectors and soldiers who come to be baptized.

“Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ John says sternly. “For I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children of Abraham.”

The crowd listens to John, though his words are harsh and abrasive. They must know, deep down, that he is right and that he is warning them for their own good. And after all, they are afraid, “fleeing” from the judgment, “God’s wrath” to come. “What then should we do?” they ask.

It’s interesting about John’s baptism and teaching–how the people have to leave their normal lives and go into the wilderness to partake in his ministry, but he doesn’t urge them to join him in his ascetic life, living apart from the world, wearing camel’s skin, eating only locusts and honey, and forsaking alcohol, which was quite unusual in those days. John’s baptism to repentance is to empower people to return to their former lives with changed hearts and minds–so that they may behave appropriately as the children of Abraham. The first step toward this change and right living is seeing oneself as one truly is–being convicted of one’s sins.

John teaches that true repentance is shown through acts of mercy and generosity. Live your life, he says, in a way that reveals your love for God and neighbor.

“Whoever has two shirts must share with anyone who has none. And whoever has food must do likewise.” He tells the tax collectors to collect no more than the amount they are supposed to. He tells the soldiers to stop extorting money from the people with threats and false accusations. “Be satisfied with your wages.”

He says, do this:  be honest, be generous, be merciful, be content with your material wealth.

Just do it!

The turning point of this passage is verse 15, “As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah.”  Their hearts are changing! They have gone from fear of God’s wrath and the judgment to joyful “expectation” of the Messiah and wondering if he could already be there. Was he John?

Not me, says John. Just wait!

“I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals,” he says. “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”

 

***

As the movie “Spotlight,” nears its conclusion, we learn the most startling revelation of all–that the editor of the investigative team, “Robby” played by Michael Keaton–had been one of those who had by his own silence had covered up the abuses and allowed them to continue. An attorney representing the Church had sent Robby, when he was working as a metro reporter in the early 1990s, information on 20 clergy sexual offenders. Robby wrote one article, buried on the inside pages, but then dropped the story– failed to do any follow up on the victims, the offenders, or the Church.

Robby, who attended a Catholic school across the street from the Globe, had known about the allegations for years, and he hadn’t done a thing. He doesn’t remember writing the story at all until Sacha finds his article in the files– and gives him the clipping.

There’s a close up of Robby’s face as realization dawns, then sorrow and shame. He is determined not to fail again to do the right thing. He’s just going to do it–no matter what it costs him personally. Not even if it means losing longtime friends by pursuing the truth. The whole truth!

Brothers and sisters, I don’t want you to leave worship today talking about the horrible abuses in the Catholic church–and the cover up by Church leaders. Go out into the world determined to be the Church that God wants us to be–to hear the words of John the Baptist, and obey. Go in joyful expectation that the Messiah is coming! He’s coming soon! Now is the time to live the way God wants us to live.

Repent! Turn back to the Lord. Be honest. Be merciful. Be compassionate. Be content with your material wealth. Be generous. Share with your neighbors in need.

Just do it!

Don’t stumble into sin by judging others. Protestant churches, like Catholic, are not always places of health, healing, comfort and refuge, though they should be. Many of those who are hurt in a church end up not going to church at all–like the Boston Globe journalists. Do you know someone who was hurt by the church? What can you do to reach out to them?  What can we do? Let’s do it.

I can’t stop seeing Mike, standing at the back of a church as children sweetly sing, “Silent Night.” Tears are streaming down his face. He is a lapsed Catholic, he later tells his colleagues, his voice choking with emotion.

But he always thought that he would go back.

 

Let us pray.

 

Holy One, forgive us for being comfortable with our lives and not working very hard to correct the injustices in our society, in our world. Forgive us for not praying enough for our neighbors in need and not sharing what we have, though we certainly have more than we need.  Thank you for your generosity and mercy for us–just sinners, too often taking for granted your wonderful grace, that covers all our sins! Turn our hearts toward you in joyful expectation of our Messiah’s coming! Give us wisdom and compassion to reach out to people who have been hurt by churches, hurt by Christians, and no longer go to any church, anymore. Stir us to true repentance for our sins, demonstrating our change of heart through our words and acts of kindness, generosity, mercy, and love. Help us to do whatever it takes to draw others nearer to You, to bring stray sheep back into your fold. In Christ we pray. Amen.

 

 

Yellow for Alice

 

Meditation on Luke 1:68-79

Dec. 6, 2015

Second Sunday in Advent

Merritt Island Presbyterian Church

 

“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.
69 He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David, 70 as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
71     that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us. 72 Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors,
and has remembered his holy covenant, 73 the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham, to grant us 74 that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve him without fear, 75 in holiness and righteousness before him all our days. 76 And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, 77 to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins. 78 By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, 79 to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

 

***

 

I watched and listened in horror with the world on Wednesday as the latest act of terrorism was reported on CNN. A husband and wife opened fire on a social service center in San Bernardino, California, killing 14 people. The act of terror in California came on the heels of a shooting at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado last week, which followed the terrorist attacks on Paris Nov. 13, when 130 people were killed and hundreds were injured.

On Wednesday, as CNN cameras rolled and Jim and I watched the horrible events unfold, my silent prayer was, “Come, Lord Jesus, Come.”

If you need any evidence, my friends, that we are living in a world that walks in darkness, a world in desperate need of a Savior, you only have to turn on the TV or read the newspaper.

Sometimes, it feels like the bad people are winning, doesn’t it? But it’s only an illusion. Christ has already defeated sin and death! We are the children of the new covenant, people of hope as Paul in 1 Thessalonians 4:13 reminds a frightened church of the first century, “Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope.” We trust not in the things of this world but in the grace of God. By faith we can see our Emmanuel, our God with us, in the hearts of our brothers and sisters in Christ– and when we see their gentle acts of mercy and grace. People like my friend, Alice.    Alice was one of the first members of my last congregation that I met. As we pulled up in the driveway of the parish house to move in, she was there, holding a container of still warm, homemade chocolate chip cookies. She was one of many “Barnabases” the Lord has sent to encourage me and remind me of God’s love. And I am only one of many people that she encourages. When someone in the community is in need–sick, lonely or grieving– she is there with kind words, smiles, hugs, small gifts, cards and “thinking of you” phone calls.

Alice often wears yellow, especially in winter–when the world outside her in rural Minnesota is mostly white or brown. Yellow reminds her of summer, her favorite season. Yellow reminds me of peace, promised to us in today’s gospel reading–as we pursue it, led by the Spirit. By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

I received a card from Alice a few days ago. It was yellow, with two lit candles, an open Bible and Psalm 92:1, “it is good to give thanks to the Lord.” What particularly touched my heart was her sprawling handwriting assuring me of her prayers for us and how she and her husband will always miss us because we are so dear to them. She reminded me about the small gift I gave to her as we said goodbye. “The little lamb,” she wrote, “rides in the car, and we think of you.”   Inside the card, Alice slipped a poem, “This is the Day,” by Patience Allison Hartbauer. “This is the day that the Lord has made–I will rejoice and be glad in it. I will start out this day with a song in my heart to face any trial and to win it…For I know that I walk with His hand in mind, He will guide every step of my way. If I fail or I fall, He will lift me up, the Lord is my strength every day. This is the day that I will be glad–I can smile, I can win and achieve. For I’ve given my heart to my God this day and I trust in His word–I believe.” And then this next line, she underlined. “I believe that He has a plan for me.”   “That my life will be changed for the best. He has washed all my sins, He has made me whole. I’m at peace, I am calm–I am blessed. This is the day that I overcome all the burdens that weighed on my heart. My spirit will soar and I will succeed, for I’m given a fresh new start. I will walk with pride with my head held high, and fear cannot enter my sphere. For this is the day that the Lord has made–All is well, all is good…God is near…”   On Wednesday night, after watching the report of yet another terrorist attack, I began to crochet a scarf for my dear friend, one of many Barnabases in my life, to remind her that winter won’t last forever. Yellow–for Alice. Yellow–for peace.

***

The passage in Luke that I read today is actually a song written by a man named Zechariah. When you look at this passage in your Bible, you’ll see that it is indented like the stanzas in a poem or verses in a song–like the Psalms. It wasn’t written that way in the original Greek, but it is, indeed, a song or “canticle,” one of several woven into the narrative of Luke, much like the Magnificat, the song Mary sings in Luke 1:46-56, just before the account of the birth of John the Baptist begins in verse 57.   John’s father, Zechariah, is so important to the telling of Christ’s story that Luke first mentions Zechariah and his wife in chapter 1, verse 5, immediately following Luke’s introduction, dedicated to Theophilus. Luke writes, “In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly order of Abijah. His wife was a descendant of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord. But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren and both were getting on in years.”

Their story has echoes of the Abraham and Sarah story, but also Hannah’s story in 1 Samuel, which we studied a few weeks ago. Zechariah is serving in the holy sanctuary of the Lord one day, offering incense on behalf of the people, while the people are praying outside, when an angel of the Lord appears to him. Zechariah is “terrified; and fear overwhelm(s) him.” (v. 12) Zechariah is alone because only the priests can enter into the holy sanctuary. The angel tells him not to be afraid– for his prayer has been heard. Your wife, Elizabeth, will “bear a son and you will name him John. You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord… he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”

Unlike Hannah and Mary, Zechariah responds with disbelief. He asks, “How will I know this is so? For I am an old man and my wife is getting on in years.” The angel replies, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.”      I kind of feel sorry for Zechariah; I don’t think he was trying to be rude. He wants a son more than anything. The priesthood was, back then, only open to one ancestral line and the job was passed down from father to son. It wasn’t a position the general public could pursue by going to school; you had to be born into the tribe of Levi. And Zechariah, a name that means, “God remembered,” had waited so long for a child that, sadly, he had finally given up hope.

God punishes Zechariah for his unbelief, but then blesses him with a miracle–the longed-for son who would play an important role in God’s plan by preparing the way for Jesus Christ. And God, in his tender mercy, uses the “punishment” of becoming mute as a sign for the community–not of God’s wrath, but of His faithfulness to visit them with His grace; it was “proof” of Zechariah’s encounter with an angel.

The song that we read together today–Zechariah’s canticle– is the priest’s first utterance after the angel’s prophecy had come to pass; he has been mute for Elizabeth’s entire pregnancy! It isn’t until the baby’s circumcision, 8 days after his birth, when he is named “John,” that Zechariah regains his ability to speak. “John” is a name derived from a Hebrew word meaning, “God is gracious.” And while Zechariah’s overwhelming fear had turned to overflowing joy, “fear came over all their neighbors, and all these things were talked about throughout the entire hill country of Judea. All who heard them, pondered them and said, ‘What, then, will this child become? For, indeed, the hand of the Lord was with him.’”   Zechariah’s song answers that question — who, indeed, would this child become? He would be filled with the Holy Spirit. And turn the hearts of many of the people of Israel back to the Lord their God. And “make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”

Let us pray.

Holy One, we thank you for the gift of your Son, Jesus Christ, our mighty Savior and loving Lord who will guide our feet into the way of peace. Lord, we long to live in a world where there is no more evil–no more violence, sickness and sadness, no more loss, no more pain. Prepare our hearts so that we are truly ready for your return. Help us to be more faithful to your calling on our lives and less distracted by the things of this world. Forgive us for our anxieties and fears and for our failure to mend the broken relationships in our lives. Help us to love and forgive! We pray that your Spirit would grant us wisdom to know your will and courage to live in obedience to your Word–without fear and doubt. And we ask that you be with all who lost loved ones in the recent wave of terrorist attacks. Please bring them comfort and wholeness, despite their terrible loss. Empower us to be brave peacemakers, bearers of hope, Barnabases to all who need encouragement and reminders of God’s love, tender mercies, and grace. We pray in the name of our Emmanuel–God with us and coming again. Amen.

“Teach me your paths”

Meditation on Psalm 25

First Sunday in Advent

Nov. 29, 2015

To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul.
O my God, in you I trust;
do not let me be put to shame;
do not let my enemies exult over me.
Do not let those who wait for you be put to shame;
let them be ashamed who are wantonly treacherous.
Make me to know your ways, O Lord;
teach me your paths.
Lead me in your truth, and teach me,
for you are the God of my salvation;
for you I wait all day long.
Be mindful of your mercy, O Lord, and of your steadfast love,
for they have been from of old.
Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions;
according to your steadfast love remember me,
for your goodness’ sake, O Lord!
Good and upright is the Lord;
therefore he instructs sinners in the way.
He leads the humble in what is right,
and teaches the humble his way.
All the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness,
for those who keep his covenant and his decrees.
For your name’s sake, O Lord,
pardon my guilt, for it is great.
Who are they that fear the Lord?
He will teach them the way that they should choose.
They will abide in prosperity,
and their children shall possess the land.
The friendship of the Lord is for those who fear him,
and he makes his covenant known to them.
My eyes are ever towards the Lord,
for he will pluck my feet out of the net.
Turn to me and be gracious to me,
for I am lonely and afflicted.
Relieve the troubles of my heart,
and bring me out of my distress.
Consider my affliction and my trouble,
and forgive all my sins.
Consider how many are my foes,
and with what violent hatred they hate me.
O guard my life, and deliver me;
do not let me be put to shame, for I take refuge in you.
May integrity and uprightness preserve me,
for I wait for you.
Redeem Israel, O God, out of all its troubles.

***

I knew the breakfast was going to be good from the moment I saw Mike Smith pouring a bag of thawing blueberries onto a large griddle. Steam rose up and the berries and purple juice sizzled and danced on the hot surface. Mike expertly slid the berries and juice back and forth with his spatula, staring down at them, as if daring them to try and escape their destiny–to be the blueberries in our blueberry pancakes at our annual Thanksgiving breakfast.

“You’ve done this before,” I said to Mike. “Every year,” he answered, smiling, without looking up. And I thought to myself, “Those blueberries don’t stand a chance!!”

Thursday’s breakfast was a fundraiser for our youth and youth leaders to go to the Montreat Youth Conference next summer. Perhaps 60 or 70 people came to the breakfast. We had a good number of volunteers, too! By 9 o’clock, the room was filling up with MIPC families, some with extended family members visiting for Thanksgiving. Some came from as far away as Norway. Former youth–now young adults– came with friends and families, and it became something of a Youth Group/Kids Klub reunion. One young man, now living in Texas, nodded to the fellowship hall stage and told me with a smile that coming to the breakfast brought back memories of “Daniel and the Lion’s Den.” How he got talked into being Daniel, he said, he’ll never know.

This was my first Thanksgiving breakfast at our church, so it was a learning experience for me. I had no idea what I would be doing, but I wanted to help with whatever was needed. Right before the breakfast, though, Cindy told me there were plenty of people cooking, serving, and waiting on tables. I was free to do the “pastor thing.” My job was to meet and greet–which was good for me since I like to talk, and I am not crazy about cooking! And it was probably good for everyone else, because no sooner would I be talking to one group of people that I would receive a tap on my shoulder and be invited to meet and talk to another group of people. If I had taken any orders, those tables might still be waiting for their food!

I enjoyed meeting new people and listening to their stories, finding out how they were related to other people in the church. I liked watching the expressions on some of their faces change as they learned my identity. One person said that she had never seen a pastor wear pink tennis shoes to a “church dinner.”

I speak of the Thanksgiving breakfast today because I want to express my gratitude for everyone who came to support the youth, but also to encourage you, as a church, that the most important thing about the breakfast wasn’t the food we enjoyed, the money we raised, or even the number of people who attended. The breakfast was a medium for God’s love to be shared, Christ’s joy and peace to be experienced, and our relationships to blossom and grow! And as we seek to make new friends and people get to know us as we really are, pink tennis shoes and all– they are also getting to know and befriending our Redeemer and Lord, Emmanuel.

***

On this First Sunday in Advent, let us turn to the Psalms, ancient Israel’s hymns and prayers of praise and thanksgiving to the Lord, as well as cries for help in times of distress. The Psalms, thousands of years old, convey foundational beliefs in down to earth, accessible, even beautiful language. They were and still are ways of sharing the faith and passing it on to our children. In ancient times, people did not have written copies of the Psalms or any other Scripture in their homes. Most people did not know how to read. A leader would sing a verse and those assembled would repeat until the Psalm was learned by heart. As an aid to memorization, Psalm 25, like some of the other psalms, is an alphabetical acrostic. The first letter of the first word in each line corresponds to the 22 successive letters of the Hebrew alphabet. For example, verse 1 begins with the letter aleph or the “a” of the Hebrew ABC’s.

The prayer opens with a raising of the “soul” toward God. This is a declaration of trust. The word translated “soul” (nepes) is more concrete than we think of “soul.” It refers to “the throat area, the center of the body where vital signs such as breathing, moisture and heartbeat are palpable.” Nepes means “life, self and soul.” To lift up one’s soul involves risk and trust; it is to leave oneself completely vulnerable. This is why the psalmist follows with a request not to be “put to shame” or to lose face. The psalmist speaks of his “enemies,” so we sense he is in danger; real or metaphorical, we aren’t sure. The Psalm, attributed to David, may have been composed in battle or simply in a time of great uncertainty and fear.

The message that stands out in this prayer for me is the psalmist asking the Lord to teach him God’s paths, “Make me to know your ways, O Lord.” “Teach me, Lord,” is a recurring theme throughout the Psalms. God is the good teacher, who alone possesses the wisdom and knowledge that are needed for every day, but especially during times of urgent need, as it is for the psalmist. But the psalmist isn’t speaking just of head “knowledge” when he asks to know God’s ways. The Psalmist is concerned for being in right relationship with the Lord, the “God of my salvation.” He wants God’s love and forgiveness! But he is having trouble forgiving himself for what he has done; he needs reassurance of God’s grace. He says in verse 11, “For your name’s sake, O Lord, pardon my guilt, for it is great.” He doesn’t try to bargain with God or earn His forgiveness through good works. He assures the Lord of his fear, his desire to be pleasing and obedient to Him, and his willingness to wait on the Lord. To be patient with God’s timing. He is never presumptive or arrogant. He knows that the Lord will teach only the “humble in what is right.” God’s ways and paths–the teachings of the Lord–are “steadfast love and faithfulness.”

God’s ways are the way to “prosperity,” which doesn’t mean an abundance of possessions, but shalom–peace and wholeness– with echoes of the Exodus story with, “their children shall possess the land.” What the Psalmist greatly desires–did you catch this?– is the promise of everlasting “friendship” with the Lord.

This is not a God who cannot be known intimately! This is a God who cares that the Psalmist is “lonely and afflicted”–hurting, emotionally. “Relieve the troubles of my heart,” he says, “and bring me out of my distress.”

And finally, the cry for not just the Psalmist, but for all Israel to be saved. “Redeem, Israel, O God, of all its troubles.”

 

***

Friends, when we are tempted to be busier than ever this Advent, let us consider our activities in the light of what Christ has called us to do–to make disciples, sharing the love and light of Emmanuel in a world walking in darkness.   Do the things we do support relationship-building–with God and other people? Do they fill us with joy — or leave us feeling lonely and empty inside?

Remember our own need for forgiveness–even after we accept Jesus as our Lord and Savior! We all struggle, at times, like the psalmist, to forgive ourselves; for our guilt is great! Just because we are Christians doesn’t mean we ever stop being sinners! We need God’s reassurance. We need reminders of His loving presence with us. Let us humble ourselves before the Lord, for God’s wisdom is given only to the humble, to those who seek God’s paths and seek to walk in God’s ways. For those who are willing to patiently wait!

Let us pray.

Holy One, you are our teacher, our lover, our friend. Thank you for Jesus Christ, your only Son, who has made possible what was previously impossible–our salvation through belief in Him, in His work for us on a cross. Forgive us for our many sins, sins that we continue to commit, though our heart’s desire is to be pleasing and obedient to you. Help us to walk your paths of steadfast love and faithfulness and to learn to wait on you — to be patient, as the psalmist teaches us. We are not always good at being patient! Teach us to choose activities that build up our faith and our relationships with you and one another. Empower us to make disciples this Advent season by reaching out with the love and light of Christ, our Emmanuel. Amen.

 

I Have Lent Him to the Lord

Meditation on 1 Samuel 1: 1 – 2:11 (selected verses)

Bible Translation by Hans Wilhelm Hertzberg & J.S. Bowden

Merritt Island Presbyterian Church

Nov. 15, 2015

1:1 There was a certain man of Ramathaim, of the Zuphites, of the hill country of Ephraim, whose name was Elkanah the son of Jeroham, son of Elihu, son of Tohu, son of Zuph, an Ephrathite. 2 He had two wives; the name of the one was Hannah, and the name of the other Peninnah. And Penninah had children, but Hannah had no children.

3 Now this man used to go up year by year from his city to worship and to sacrifice to the Lord of hosts at Shiloh, where the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phineas, were priests of the Lord. 4 Now there was a day when Elkanah sacrificed. And he used to give portions to Penninah his wife and to all her sons and daughters, 5 but he would give Hannah one portion, the portion of the face, for he loved Hannah, although the Lord had closed her womb. 6 And her rival used to provoke her sorely, to humiliate here, because the Lord had closed her womb. 7 So it went on year by year; as often as she went up to the house of the Lord, she used to provoke her. Therefore Hannah wept and would not eat. 8 And Elkanah, her husband, said to her, ‘Hannah, who do you weep? And why do you not eat? And why is your heart sad? Am I not more to you than 10 sons?” 9 But Hannah rose, after they had eaten the boiled meat and had drunk, and went before the Lord. Now Eli the priest was sitting on his seat beside the doorpost of the temple of the Lord. 10 She was deeply distressed and prayed to the Lord, and wept bitterly. 11 And she vowed a vow and said, ‘O Lord of hosts, if thou wilt indeed look on the affliction of the maidservant, and remember me, and not forget thy maidservant, but wilt give to thy maidservant a son, then I will give him to the Lord all the days of his life and no razor shall touch his head.’ 12 As she continued praying before the Lord, Eli observed her mouth. 13 Hannah was speaking in her heart; only her lips moved, and her voice was not heard; therefore Eli took her to be a drunken woman. 14 And Eli said to her, ‘How long will you be drunken? Put away your wine from you. 15 But Hannah answered, ‘No, my Lord, I am only a woman sorely troubled; I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the Lord. 16 Do not regard your maidservant as a base woman, for all along I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation. 17 Then Eli answered, ‘Go in peace, and the God of Israel grant your petition which you have made of him.’ 18 And she said, ‘Let your maidservant find favor in your eyes.’

     Then the woman went her way and ate with her husband and drank, and her countenance was no longer sad. 19 They rose early in the morning and worshiped before the Lord, then they went back to their house at Ramah. And Elkhanah knew Hannah his wife, and the Lord remembered her; and Hannah conceived, and in due time bore a son, and she called his name Samuel, for she said, ‘I have asked him of the Lord.’ 21 And the man Elkhanah and all his house went up (again) to offer to the Lord the yearly sacrifice, and to pay his vow. 22 But Hannak did not go up, for she said to her husband, (I will remain here) until the child is weaned; then I will bring him to see the face of the Lord and abide there for ever…

     24 And when she had weaned him, she took him up with her, along with a 3-year-old bull, an ephah of flour, and a skin of wine; and she brought him to the house of the Lord at Shiloh, although the child was still young. Then they slew the bull, and they brought the child to Eli. 26 And she said, Oh, my Lord! As you live, my lord, I am the woman who was standing here in your presence, praying to the Lord. 27 For this child I prayed; and the Lord has granted me my petition which I made to him. 28 Therefore I have lent him to the Lord; as long as he lives, he is lent to the Lord. And they worshiped the Lord there…

    2:11 And they left him there before the Lord and went home to Ramah.

***

I enjoyed a lovely walk in my neighborhood yesterday morning before I began work on my sermon. The walk was soothing for me, a healing balm. I was hurting from an argument I had had with my mother the day before. I was having trouble letting the hurt go. I needed God’s help.

I listened for His voice in the breeze that whispered through the palms. I felt God’s love in the warmth of the sun on my back. I remembered what God has done for me, giving me hope and the promise of new and abundant life, as I trust Him each day. And as I submit to Him. I remembered my gratitude–the foundation of our faith — and the grace that God has shown me. I gave Him my thanks and praise.

I thought about Hannah in 1 Samuel and how she persevered through years of hurt and disappointment. She continued to seek God’s presence and trust in Him. Then one day, after she shared the longings of her heart, “pouring out her soul to the Lord,” she experienced a dramatic transformation.

Her sadness was turned to joy.

***

We who have struggled with conflict and hurt in our families are inspired by the example of Hannah, “sorely provoked” and “humiliated” by Penninah, her husband, Elkanah’s, other wife. Yes, it was common for a man to have more than one wife in Biblical times. This was a way the community looked after its members.  Widows were given in marriage to brothers or other kin of the deceased. When there were no other offers of marriage to an “old maid,” she was sometimes given in marriage to her sister’s husband, such as when Laban gave his daughter, Rachel, and her less attractive, nearsighted, older sister, Leah, to be Jacob’s wives. Having more than one wife helped to ensure the survival of the family, for children often died young; mothers frequently died in childbirth. Rachel died giving birth to her second son, Benjamin, Joseph’s younger brother, while journeying to Ephrath, later known as Bethlehem.

Maybe we feel a little sympathy for Penninah when we find out that Hannah was the one Elkanah loved. We read nothing about his feelings for Peninnah, who gave him sonsand daughters, while Hannah gave him none. We find no conversation between Elkanah and Penninah recorded. We do find, however, loving dialog between Elkanah and Hannah, revealing his patience and compassion while she was depressed, withdrawn, refusing to eat. He doesn’t hold her barrenness against her, for it was the Lord that “closed her womb.” Still, a woman’s identity and self-worth was found in giving birth and providing her husband with sons to carry on the family name and religion, and to keep his memory alive after his death.

Can you hear the comfort Elkanah offers his favored wife? He asks, “Hannah, why do you weep? And why do you not eat? Any why is your heart sad? Am I not more to you than 10 sons?” He also gave her preferential treatment over Peninnah and her children.The climax of the pilgrimage is a sacrificial meal at which the pilgrims rejoice before Yahweh with eating and drinking. The head of the household divides the portions. Elkanah gave Hannah the “portion of the face,” perhaps a portion of honor, presumably much larger than the portion he gives to Penninah and her sons and daughters. But the fact that the women and children were present with him at the table, sharing the feast together, reveals an unusual kindness in Elkanah. Women and children usually remained in the background during the feast and waited to eat after mealtime was over.

How do you feel about the priest’s reaction to Hannah’s praying–accusing her of being drunk? It may be one of those moments of rare comic relief that we find in Scripture. But notice a pattern in God’s Word–that often the most “religious” people, the people we expect to have all the answers, are the ones who don’t understand what is happening in the spiritual realm. They don’t have eyes to “see”! God uses ordinary people to accomplish His work! The Lord is already using you and me!

Does it seem like the writer uses more words than necessary to describe Hannah’s silent prayer? In verse 13, we read Hannah “speaking in her heart;” “with only her lips moving”, “without making any sound.” Well, people didn’t pray silently back then–or at least it wasn’t common. Silent prayer is a spiritual practice that became more popular–but was still not universally accepted– after a 16th century Carmelite nun named Teresa of Avila, Spain, wrote books about something called “mental prayer.”

What I don’t want you to miss is the turning point for Hannah in this passage. She endures many years of disappointment, shame and humiliation, worsened by Penninah’s provocation. She gives the Lord the longings of her heart every year that she and Elkanah make the pilgrimage to Shiloh. She never gives up. She always hopes in the Lord. She is always gracious–even to Eli the priest. She says respectfully, “No, my lord, I am only a woman sorely troubled; I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the Lord.”

Eli responds with a common “formula” blessing that doesn’t reveal whether he believes that God will give Hannah what she desires–or not. I don’t think he knows she has asked for a son when he says, “Go in peace, and (may) God grant your petition which you have made to him.” Hannah hears a promise, though, and responds in humility, submitting to God’s will for her life. There is NO trace of any of the “vexation”–(anger) — or “great anxiety” that she had shared in her silent prayer, when she “poured out her soul before the Lord.” She reminds us of the Virgin Mary after the angel tells her that she will conceive by the Holy Spirit and give birth to Jesus, who will be Son of the Most High. Mary says, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Hannah says essentially the same thing. “Let your maidservant find favor in your eyes.”

She is no longer sad; her grief is gone! Now she eats and drinks with her husband, celebrating the promise of God granting her the longing of her heart.

She soon gives birth to Samuel, a name that means, “He over whom the name of God has been said.”  What is lost in translation is the wordplay on the root “sa al.” When Eli uses “sa al” two times as he speaks to Hannah, the word means simply “to ask.” When Samuel anoints Israel’s first king “Saul,” the name means, “he who is asked.” When Hannah keeps her promise to the Lord and gratefully brings Samuel to be raised by the priest in the temple, she uses the same root word, “sa al,” which now becomes, “he who is lent.” When something is “lent,” if you think about it, it is usually “given” for a time, with the expectation of return.

But Hannah knows that Samuel, asked for in faith and given by God–in His time, belongs to the Lord–forever. She gratefully returns to the Lord what is most precious to her, saying, “I have lent him to the Lord; as long as he lives, he is lent to the Lord.”

***

Friends, do you know that you are a precious gift from God? That we and all of our family members belong to Him? We are, as Hannah says, “lent to the Lord,” as long as we live.

Are you feeling anxious or angry–like Hannah, who was sorely provoked by Penninah for many years? Seek the Lord. Trust Him with the longings of your heart. Pour out your soul before Him! Be patient! Hold onto your faith as you persevere through your trials. Hannah waited for many years on the Lord, without giving up hope. In fact, I think her years of suffering made her cling to Him even more.

And one day, her sadness turned to joy.

Let us pray.

Holy One, thank you for your love, a love that led you to give up your Son for our sakes! Thank you for listening to our prayers, for beckoning us to come to you and pour out our souls before you. Give us the longings of your heart, Lord. Help us to trust in your will, your plan for our lives, and your timing for all things. Move us to gratitude for what you have done for us so that we will be content no matter what happens in our lives. Help us to have grace for one another. In your Son’s name we pray. Amen.

“What Will You Give?”

Grumpy CatMeditation on Mark 12: 38-44

Merritt Island Presbyterian Church

Nov. 8, 2015

      “As he taught, Jesus said, ‘Beware of the scribes who like to walk around in long robes and to be greeted with respect in the market-places and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.’  He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.’”

***

Friends, I am happy to see that folks are turning in their time and talents sheets, along with their pledge cards. So far, 43 people have responded. I am hoping more of you will fill out this volunteer sheet that invites us to give not only from our material resources, but to offer ourselves– all that we are– to the Lord and His Church! I had to smile when I saw some people’s names are listed under a variety of volunteer positions. Some are elderly with health problems and no longer driving, but they cheerfully give of themselves to do whatever the church needs–to serve the Lord.

But then I began to look more closely at our need areas, and I grew worried, especially as we consider our desire to have more young families and children in our midst. We only have 2 people volunteering to sub or assist in Sunday school and the nursery. Only one kind soul has offered to provide dinner for the youth group. If we really care about our young people and reaching out to the youth of our community for Christ, we have to do more than talk about it! We have to be willing to serve!

Another concern I have is the relatively short list of people willing to volunteer as ushers and greeters. How come? These are some of the most important jobs in a church, especially a congregation longing to grow. The greeters and the ushers are those who extend the first welcome, reaching out to new people and long time members alike with the love of Jesus. Usually, the greeter’s job is to help hold open the door for someone who needs help, smile, shake hands, and say, “Hello!” or “Good morning! We’re glad you are here!”  Greeters point people in the direction of the sanctuary, coffee and refreshments, the nursery, Sunday school, and restrooms. They introduce new people to other members and answer general questions.

At my last church, every person served as a greeter at least once a year; some more often than that, filling in for others who could not make it at the last minute or were away on vacation. Those who would have trouble standing for any length of time would be seated in a chair by the door.  We sometimes scheduled the greeters by couples or families. All of the children participated!

Friends, every Christian is called to reach out with Christ’s love to a hurting world. Greeters are making disciples of all the nations–one smile at a time. I can’t imagine what might keep people from wanting to be greeters; I can only think that maybe some people are uncomfortable welcoming strangers. Maybe they are worried they won’t know what to say. Or perhaps they are uncomfortable welcoming some of their own brothers and sisters in the Lord? Is that possible? Do we have some relationships that need mending?

Speaking as someone who has often been an outsider as a religion journalist, it isn’t just the pastor who needs to be friendly, welcoming and approachable. We ALL need to be that way!  Studies show that someone visiting a church often makes a decision in the first 10 minutes whether or not they will come again. What happens in the first 10 minutes at our church? Do visitors receive a warm greeting from everyone they pass by? Do people take the time to introduce themselves? Do people invite visitors to sit beside them during worship? Do people ever sit in a different seat just to welcome someone they don’t know and strike up a conversation?

And here’s one more question that I wonder about. Do new people see us smiling at one another? Are we smiling? Or do we appear to be a congregation of Grumpy Cats… you know, that cat on the Internet that went viral, the one who is always saying, “No!” in a thousand different poses. We laugh when we see him because he’s so cute and loveable, even though he is making that bad face. And maybe we laugh because we know, deep down, there’s a little Grumpy Cat in all of us.

We don’t always want to be what God wants us to be, not if it means we might have to change our routine or habits. We don’t want to give and give of ourselves–our time, talents, and money–as the Lord urges us to do, like the widow does in today’s gospel reading. We come up with excuses why we can’t volunteer or take on new jobs in the church. We allow the same group of people to do most of the work of our ministry, though they are overburdened and sometimes exhausted. We don’t always want to be servants and help others; we come to church wanting our own needs met and sometimes being overly critical because something isn’t to our liking. Something isn’t like it used to be or how we want it to be.

I hate to say it, but we are Grumpy Cats!

***

During Jesus’ ministry on earth, our Lord encountered a few Grumpy Cats, too. But they weren’t cute or loveable. In our gospel reading today, Jesus warns the disciples about the scribes, the teachers of the law. But there’s a problem with the comma after the word, “scribes” in verse 38 that may lead to a misunderstanding. The original Greek had no punctuation. Editors and translators, hundreds of years later, added punctuation making it easier for people speaking modern languages, such as English, to read. But Jesus wasn’t labeling a whole group of people as “bad.” He was pointing to the bad behavior and arrogance ofsome of the religious leaders–the so-called pious examples of the day– and contrasting it with the generous, faithful behavior of the poor widow, a woman who probably went unnoticed by most people. I think Jesus does this because he means for all religious people to be warned against the arrogance, superficiality, and hypocrisy that we can all slide into, if we are not careful.

I am going to read verse 38 with and without that first comma, so you can listen for the difference in meaning. “Beware of the scribes, (comma), who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets!” Now, I will read verse 38 without the comma: “Beware of the scribes who like to walk around in long robes and be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets.”

It’s significant that in this passage that denounces arrogance, false piety and self-righteousness, we encounter a lesson about giving and generosity. The economics of Jesus’ time were in some ways not that different than the economics of today’s world in that the rich were getting richer and the poor were getting poorer. The Temple levied taxes, a mandatory assessment for every Jewish family, in addition to what was required for the regular 10 percent tithe and offerings. The system favored the wealthy that could easily afford the taxes and the tithe. And the system was corrupt; the wealthy and powerful were not paying their fair share. This was what Jesus likely meant when he denounced the religious leaders who “devour(ed) widows’ houses,” presumably by requiring them to pay high taxes after they no longer had a close male relative to provide for them. Women, in those days, had few options for earning a living. The Greek verb translated “devour” in verse 40 is a graphic term commonly used to describe the ravenous eating of wild animals.

But in this instance, the woman isn’t a victim of poverty being forced by a cruel system to give all her money away. The money she gives is an offering, freely given, in addition to the Temple tax and tithe. Jesus watches her from the outer court–the part of the Temple that was accessible to women– where people could give money by placing it into one of 13 receptacles shaped like a trumpet. In verse 42, she gives 2lepta (“copper coins” in the NRSV), which Mark tells us are the equivalent of one kodrantes (a “penny” in the NRSV). The lepton is the smallest Greek (and Jewish) coin of the time, while the kodrantes is the smallest Roman coin. The kodrantes was a small fraction of a denarius,which was a day’s pay for a soldier or laborer. (The denarius was the coin Jesus asked to see earlier in this chapter when the Pharisees and Herodians try to trick him by asking him about paying taxes to Caesar.) Jesus says the widow’s gift of just 2 lepta worth only a penny is “morethan ALL those who are contributing to the treasury.”

Why is it “more”? Jesus says in verse 44 in the NRSV that she gave “all she had to live on.” Translating the Greek word for word, we read, “she gave her whole life.” Think about it! She had 2 coins left. And she gave both of them! What courage! What faith! To have trusted the Lord enough to freely give all of herself to God and God’s people, without worrying about her future.

The poor widow’s story sums up what Jesus had been teaching from the beginning of Mark’s gospel about discipleship. In this widow’s sacrificial gift of “her whole life,” we hear echoes of Mark 1:16-20, when the 4 disciples leave their nets–their sole means of making a living–to follow Jesus. And we hear echoes of Mark 8:34, when Jesus says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me.”

Do we have the courage and faith of the poor widow, who faced the future without fear– and gave without holding back? Do we trust the Lord to provide for us and guide us as we offer all of ourselves, for His sake? Friends, what will you give to the One who gave His Son so the world might have new and abundant life? What will you give?

Let us pray.

Holy One, we thank you for all that you have given us–our families, friends, our church, our talents and gifts, our jobs and homes and all the material wealth we enjoy. We thank you especially for our salvation through belief on your Son, Jesus Christ. We ask that you help us to be more faithful in giving and serving you with all that we have and all that we are. Empower us to be more welcoming and joyful as a church so that others would see your beautiful light shine through us and want to know you, and receive your love and grace. Forgive us for being self-centered at times, looking to have our own needs and desires met instead of seeking to meet the needs of others. Stir us to forgive one another and let go of any past hurts that may be holding us back from growing our congregation and reaching the community for Christ. Mold and shape us into the image of your self-giving Son. In His name we pray. Amen.

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