The Wordless Place

Meditation on Luke 4:1-13

Pastor Karen Crawford, Coshocton, OH

First Sunday in Lent: March 6, 2022

Link to recording of live-streamed worship service: https://fb.watch/bAMNWMdEP5/

Bulletin:

      We had sad news on Friday. Jim and I learned that his older sister, Mary, had gone home to be with the Lord. She was 87. Her death was sudden and caught the family by surprise. We are never ready to let go of our loved ones, are we?

     Mary’s life changed quickly with the death of her husband, Chuck, of 58 years on Feb. 25, 2017. With her dementia, she couldn’t live alone. She needed others to care for her and watch over her. The house in Pelham Manor, New York, that she had lived in with Chuck since 1970 and had raised their two sons, Scott and Kenny, had to be sold. Her sons had to find a place where she could live comfortably and safely and be adequately cared for—and where they could visit her regularly with their families.

      I can’t imagine what it must have been like for Mary—to lose her husband and her home, just like that, and her with dementia, not understanding where she was or why things were the way they were. I can imagine how hard it was for her sons and daughter-in-law, worrying about her, visiting her and comforting her in her distress.

    It must have been a wilderness experience for them all, at least in the first few years of Mary getting used to living apart from Chuck—a time of testing, anxiety and uncertainty of the future, but also a time when they loved each other, showed grace for one another and learned to trust in a good and tenderhearted God.

    For he is with us in every wilderness season of our lives.

***

  Not long after Jesus begins his public ministry with his baptism by John in the Jordan River, he is led by the Spirit to go and live in the wilderness for 40 days. He is there partly to connect with the stories of God’s people, such as those who wandered in the wilderness for 40 years after fleeing captivity in Egypt. Moses says in Deut. 8:2 that the wilderness experience of wandering and testing was “to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commandments.” The wilderness for the Israelites is a “place of salvation and confirmation of Israel’s status as God’s people,” (Shively T.J. Smith.) but also a place that stirs worry and doubt.

     We hear echoes of Elijah’s story in Christ’s wilderness experience, as well. Elijah in 1 Kings 19 is weary from battle for the Lord when he fasts for 40 days in the wilderness, after being fed by an angel and before hearing the voice of God on Mount Horeb—not in the wind or the earthquake, and not in the fire, but in the stillness, in the silence.

     The primary reason Jesus has come to the wilderness is to be tested and prepared for his ministry of healing and casting out demons and preaching truth to power, peace and justice for the oppressed, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom to the poor. The wilderness for Jesus, who will be the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world, will strengthen him to be perfectly obedient to God —all the way to the cross.

     It may be difficult for those of us living in a lush, green, forested environment to envision the dry, rugged, mountain terrain of the Judean wilderness where Jesus wandered and prayed, taking shelter in caves.  

He is famished after 40 days without any food, so it isn’t a surprise that the first of the devil’s temptations is the offer of a loaf of bread.

     Adam Hamilton, in our Lenten study, The Way: Walking in the Footsteps of Jesus, says food is among our basic needs, “but the desire for it can at times be our undoing.” He takes us back to Adam and Eve, falling to the temptation to eat the apple from the one tree in the garden of which God told them not to eat. We remember Esau, who, when he was hungry, was willing to sell his birthright to his twin brother, Jacob, for a bowl of stew. And we recall the Israelites, who were willing to return to slavery if only they could eat cucumbers and leeks, rather than manna, the daily bread from heaven that kept them alive! We don’t always want what is good for us, do we?

    It helped me to connect with the wilderness experience to learn that one of the Hebrew words for wilderness may be more literally translated a “wordless place.” Pastor Jennifer Moland-Kovash writes in Christian Century, “While maybe at times in our lives we might clamor for some peace and quiet, this wordless wilderness has a frightening landscape that whispers from the shadows, ‘You’re all alone.’” (18)

    Friends, the greatest temptation of all in the wilderness for us may be the fear that we are all alone in our struggle!

     Luke is the only gospel to make it clear that Jesus was NEVER alone in this time of testing. Luke portrays Jesus as being LED by the Spirit into the wilderness, while Matthew and Mark say Jesus was DRIVEN by the Spirit into the wilderness. The difference here in Luke is that the Spirit that led him into the wilderness would also stay with him and help him through it all.

      This place of testing that is translated a “wordless place,” wasn’t actually wordless, at all. In response to each of the devil’s temptations, Jesus speaks the Word of God. To the temptation to turn a stone into a loaf of bread, Jesus says, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’”

      To the temptation to bow down to the devil so that Jesus will have authority over the kingdoms of this world, he answers: “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” To the temptation to throw himself down from the pinnacle of the temple to prove that he is the Son of God when the angels protect and rescue him, Jesus answers, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” 

    The passage ends with the devil leaving, for now. He’ll be back. He is waiting for an “opportune time.”

***.

    Jim and I, while grieving our loss of Mary, are looking forward to time with our extended family later this week. We are making a quick trip to New York for Mary’s wake and funeral on Wednesday and Thursday. It is easier to carry the burden of grief when it is shared by family and friends—and when we worship the Lord together, witness to the Resurrection, and give thanks for the gift of her life.

     Thank you for your prayers for Jim and our family, especially Mary’s sons, Scott and Kenny, daughter-in-law, Shelagh, and grandchildren, Molly and Jack.

    The account of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness that is in Matthew, Mark, and Luke is meant to encourage us! We are not alone in our struggles. We are never alone! We have nothing to fear, even if the accuser does come along and whisper in our ear at an opportune time—when we are vulnerable. Jesus Christ has already conquered sin and death when he rose from the grave!

      Remember that the wilderness has a godly purpose, though we might not understand it at the time.  This wild place of questions, fears, doubts and temptations, sorrow and pain, is part of our story. It’s part of our journey! But it’s not the end! Don’t hide your struggle from the One who is shaping and forming you for the future God has ordained. For we who were baptized in Christ are co-laborers with him in his ministry of healing, peace, and the reconciliation of the world.

  Do not be afraid. We have the same Spirit that led and stayed with Jesus in and through his wilderness. And it’s never a “wordless place.”  For we have the Word of God to strengthen and guide us. And the Lord is with us in every wilderness season of our lives!

Let us pray.  

God of our wilderness, thank you for your Son, Jesus, your Living Word, who shows us the way to walk through times of testing and tempting as he prepared for his ministry. Thank you for the power of the Spirit that led him and stayed with him to help him in the wilderness and leads us and stays with us in our times of struggle. Help us to co-labor with Christ and be a force of goodness and light in this hurting world, working for healing, peace, and reconciliation. Grow our faith, Lord. Teach us to trust in you in every wilderness season of our lives. In the name of our Triune God we pray. Amen.

Our Father Who Sees in Secret

Meditation on Matthew 6:1–6, 16–21

Pastor Karen Crawford

The Presbyterian Church, Coshocton, OH

Ash Wednesday, March 2, 2022

Link to livestreamed video of our Ash Wednesday service: https://youtu.be/_2qcnavvrss

      After hearing our gospel lesson, you might wonder how Jesus would feel about our smudging our foreheads with ash on Ash Wednesday. Is it a public practice of our piety to show off our holiness, like the hypocrites Jesus talks about? The answer is no, not if you understand the symbolism. With this smudge of ash, we are “proclaiming to the world a radical truth: we know that we are dust. Holy and beloved, but dust all the same. That’s where we are all headed together: back to dust.” (Jennifer Moland-Kovash, Christian Century) When we trace the shape of a cross in the ash on our foreheads, it is a humble confession by the children of the dust of our need for God and the salvation he offers through his Son, Jesus Christ.

     Ash Wednesday is one of my favorite services of the church year—for its intimacy and honesty. We are encouraged to come, truly, just as we are and received God’s grace. It’s when we take a pause from our ridiculously busy lives to spend time with God and one another, simply and quietly. We come to worship and remember to whom we belong—in life and in death—that we are always safe in the palm of the Master’s hand. In worship, “we confess and remember that this, too, shall pass: this day, this season of our lives, this struggle, this joy, this heartache. All of this will end, and we will return to the dust from which we were made.” (Jennifer Moland-Kovash, Christian Century).

     This year, in our gospel lesson in Matthew that we read every Ash Wednesday, the repeated phrase “your Father who sees in secret will reward you” jumps off the page at me. God is MY Father. God see ME in secret. God wants to reward ME for what I do with and for God alone. We have a personal God! What is the Father seeing us do? Two things, especially important to remember in the Lenten season.  Giving alms—money—to people in need. And prayer, alone in your room, with the door shut.

      With Jesus talking about both of these things in the same passage, we see that they are connected and indeed, one leads to the other, and they feed one another. When you give to the poor and serve people in need, you often experience God’s presence. I believe this is part of the reward the Lord is talking about—spiritual benefits, such as love, joy, peace, faith, patience, hope, etc. The spiritual benefits come with prayer in the secret place, as well. And when we pray, we receive the compassion of God and often feel stirred to serve and care for people through acts of kindness and compassion.

      I have been thinking about prayer lately and how I might encourage adults to feel more comfortable with prayer and enjoy prayer more. Have you ever noticed that children are much better at prayer or at least more comfortable with prayer than adults? Probably because they never worry about whether they are doing it right. You ever worry you might be doing it wrong? Children instinctively know that God will receive their simple prayers with love and grace. Jesuit spiritual director James Martin writes in his book, Learning to Pray, a Guide for Everyone, that he has been praying since he was a little boy and not a particularly religious child. He called upon the name of the Lord as he walked to elementary school each day. It felt completely natural. While he explains more than a dozen ways to pray and listen for God in his guide, the first kind of prayer he prayed as a child was to ask for things. We all know that kind of prayer! He desperately wanted a dog and prayed hard for that dog, and that desire was almost satisfied. “I got as close as identifying a litter of puppies and even naming one,” he says, “but the plan was ultimately scotched because of my sister’s allergies.” He asked for other things, too. He told God what a great safety patrol he would be. “I wanted to convince God to choose me, so that I could be marked for greatness. Wanting to be special and coveting a cool badge are not the most exemplary motivations,” he says, “But it brought me into this second kind of prayer: conversation with God. I tried hard to convince God that I would make a good safety. It was something of a one-sided conversation, however.”

   God did answer that prayer—he got to be a safety patrol. But then he wanted to be a captain or lieutenant. He writes, “They wore even cooler medals etched with special colors.” He adds, “If you are motivated by pride, once you reach your goal, there will always be another goal to tempt you.”

     Martin experienced a third kind of prayer as a child, a mystical prayer without words when he experienced the presence of God in the wonder of creation. He was riding his bike through a meadow one day on the way to school and suddenly, without warning, he was caught up “in the sweet smell of flowers and grass hanging in the air, with the sun’s morning rays slanting over the field and casting long shadows from the flowers. Bees buzzed around the snapdragons, black-eyed Susans, daisies and Queen Anne’s lace.” (33) He heard the metallic sound of crickets and the snap of grasshoppers moving on blades of grass. He felt compelled to stop his bike and look all around to see so much “life—the sights, the sounds, the smells—and suddenly I had a visceral urge,” he says, “not only to be a part of it, but also to know it…I felt loved, held, understood.”

     Martin points out that we can learn from children’s prayer as they often relate to God in any way they please. This allows them to be more open to God than adults. One Christmas Eve, Martin brought his 6-year-old nephew Matthew to see the Christmas crib—Mary and Joseph and Baby Jesus in the manger in front of the altar of his parish church. Martin asked his nephew if he’d like to say something to Jesus. “I expected him to pray silently or maybe ask for another toy. Instead, he said aloud, ‘Make me a good boy, Jesus.’”

     One helpful way to think of prayer is beginning a friendship with God. Friendship flourishes when you spend time with friends, as it does with God. It flourishes when you learn more about your friends, as it does with God—and that learning may come from worship, reading Scripture, prayer, and through Christian fellowship, sharing your faith and testimony with other people who are friends with God.

      But friendship with the Lord grows best when we allow ourselves to be completely honest with God. This is the God whom the psalmist says in 139, “O Lord, you have searched me and known me.” “If you are saying what you think you should say to God,” Martin says, “rather than what you want to say, then your relationship will grow cold, distant and formal.”

     “Honesty with God means sharing everything with God, not simply gratitude and praise and not just things you think are appropriate for prayer.” People often “pray about everything except for the one burning issue in their lives—the one thing they don’t want to look at.” (104)

     We never have to hold back with God. He already knows what’s in our hearts and minds, anyway. So why not talk about it—and allow God to help you work through your feelings of anger, frustration, hurt, sorrow, disappointment, fear? These are all feelings that may be difficult to share with the Lord. But they are all things that God wants us to share with him!

     So then, we begin this journey together, my friends, with ashes smudged on our foreheads, not to boast of our holiness but to humble us and remind us of our mortality and need for the God to whom we belong, in life and in death.

     May we all grow in friendship and trust with God this season, through spending time with him in a secret place or places, wherever they may be. May we grow in spiritual friendship with one another on these Wednesday nights, sharing simple meals, and through our Lenten study. May our prayers stir us to quiet acts of kindness and compassion for people in need, those with whom Jesus identified.

     I pray that each of us will, in the seeking of God everywhere, come to know him and ourselves a little bit more. May we be blessed by an experience of the sweet embrace of God’s everlasting presence with us. May we feel loved, held, and understood.

Let us pray.

Heavenly Father, thank you for your love for us, even when we were dust, and your breathing life into us so that we may live with you forever. We praise you that we don’t have to be afraid of anything in this world, for we know that in life and in death, we belong to you. Lead us to a secret place with you, and help us to pause from our busy-ness, more and more, in this holy season. Stir us to acts of compassion and love as spiritual fruit, building our treasure in heaven. May we open our hearts, like a little child, and experience the sweet embrace of your everlasting presence. May we feel loved, held and understood. Amen.

God’s Beloved on a Mountaintop

Meditation on Luke 9:28–36

Pastor Karen Crawford

The Presbyterian Church, Coshocton, OH

Feb. 27, 2022

Link to livestreamed service: https://fb.watch/brIzQy5AHY/

Bulletin:

          Jim and I watched Chariots of Fire last night. The 1981 movie is based on an inspiring, true story of two athletes. One is a devout Christian named Eric Liddel, who runs for the glory of God, and the other, a devout Jewish man named Harold Abrahams, who runs to overcome prejudice.

     In 1919, Harold enters the University of Cambridge, where he experiences antisemitism. But soon, he gets involved with the Gilbert and Sullivan club and meets and falls in love with Sybil, a leading soprano.

Sybil, who would later marry Harold Abrahams

What Harold is really good at is running. He wins a number of national competitions.

     Eric Liddell is the son of Scottish missionaries to China. He is also passionate about running, though it upsets Jennie, his devout sister. Eric sees running as a way of glorifying God before returning to China to work as a missionary. When he accidentally misses a prayer meeting, Jennie accuses him of no longer caring about God. Eric says, “I believe that God made me for a purpose. But He also made me fast, and when I run, I feel His pleasure.”

     After years of training and racing, Eric and Harold are chosen to represent Great Britain in the 1924 Olympics in Paris. While boarding a boat headed for France, Eric discovers that he will have to run the 100-meter race on a Sunday. He refuses because of his Christian convictions, though he’s pressured by the Prince of Wales and the British Olympic Committee. A solution is found—his teammate, Andrew Lindsay, offers to give him his place in the 400-meter race on the following Thursday—so they switch events.

Eric Liddell in 1924

     Eric preaches a sermon at the Church of Scotland in Paris that Sunday and quotes from Isaiah 40, “But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.”

     Harold is badly beaten by runners from the U.S. in the 200-meter race. His last chance for a medal is the 100-meter race. He runs! He wins a gold medal!

Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell, 1924 Olympics in Paris

     

Abrahams winning a medal at the 1924 Olympics in Paris.

Before Eric’s race, the American coach dismisses him, telling his runners that Eric has little chance of doing well in the 400-meter race, since he trained for the 100-meter race. But one of the American runners, Jackson Scholz, hands Eric a note of support before the race. He quotes part of 1 Samuel 2:30, “He that honors Me I will honor.”

      Eric runs and wins a gold medal. The British team returns home triumphant. They come back on the train to London; the team excitedly spill out into Waterloo Station. All except for Harold, who waits for the crowd to disperse before he gets off slowly from the train, and meets his girlfriend, Sybil, whom he had neglected for the sake of running.

      Bible scholar N.T Wright says, “He has achieved what he set out to do. He has the long-coveted prize in his hand. He has been up the mountain and is realizing that whatever he does now, he will never stand there again. He has to come down from the giddy heights to face reality.”

    What now?

***

    And this is what happens after the Transfiguration, which is the highest point in the ministry of the three disciples whom Jesus chooses to go with him on the holy mountain to pray. Imagine how it must have felt to be in the chosen 3 to climb the mountain with him that day and see the mysteries of God. Before their drowsy eyes, they see a remarkable sight: his face and form transfigured before them, his clothes a dazzling white. He is talking with the shining, glorified figures of Moses and Elijah—representing the law and the prophets and Christ’s fulfillment of them.

    But what they are talking about is what is going to happen to Jesus in Jerusalem—his departure. Another translation of the word for departure is exodus. Both Moses and Elijah are figures of exodus—with Moses leading the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Lord and Elijah a figure of departure by ascension to the Lord, without dying. In 2 Kings 2:11, Elijah and Elisha, his assistant, are walking and talking, when “a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them, and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven.”

    Soon, Jesus will be a figure of departure—as he has been warning his disciples before this. They will have to learn to get on with Christ’s ministry, with the power of the promised Spirit to do even more amazing things than Jesus did when he was them.

     On the mountain, as Elijah and Moses begin to leave, Peter wants to linger in the awesome moment a little longer. He says to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah”—not knowing what he said. Peter was thinking that if he built houses for them, they would stay!

      Moses and Elijah leave, and immediately the disciples are overshadowed by a terrifying cloud. This also connects to the Exodus story, as God led Moses and the Israelites through the desert wilderness by appearing as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. The cloud proclaims Jesus as His beloved Son—and commands them to listen to him. Because up to now, they were hearing, but not listening with understanding. They were watching and applauding him in all his teaching, preaching, and miracles of healing, feeding, and casting out demons. They themselves were given his power and authority and sent out to proclaim the good news of the kingdom and heal—and still they thought Jesus would be there with them forever.

      Now at the Transfiguration—the seriousness of the calling and the truth of what he has been saying up to now about what would happen in Jerusalem must have been brought home to them—that Jesus, the Messiah, is preparing them for ministry without him. He is going to die.

       When they come down from the mountain, the other gospels have Jesus telling the disciples not to tell anyone about what happened—not until he has been raised from the dead. Here in Luke, we only know that they decided to keep silent “and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.” Maybe there weren’t words to describe what they heard and saw and felt. Maybe they didn’t think anyone would believe them. Would you?

     But Peter, James, and John were changed that day. They would never look at Jesus in the same way. They would always have the memory of the Transfiguration—when he was shining and his clothes were a dazzling white. They would share this memory with one another and later with the world as a testimony to their faith.

    Peter in 2 Peter 1:16-19 says, 16 For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty. 17 For he received honor and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” 18 We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain.19 So we have the prophetic message more fully confirmed. You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.”

***

Friends, we have been to the top of the holy mountain with Peter, James, John, and Jesus. We have seen through our eyes of faith in the Living Word the transfiguration of Jesus, God’s Beloved. We will never think of Jesus in quite the same way, now that we have seen his shining face and form in our imagination.

As we come down the mountain and leave this place in a little while, let us consider what this experience of hearing God’s voice and being urged to listen to Christ might mean for our ministry in his name today, tomorrow, the next day, and next year.  What will it mean for us personally, today and for the rest of our lives? For God made you for a purpose! It’s up to you to seek God’s will for your life and for the ministry of your congregation.

For if you leave this place with only the remembrance of a fantastic Bible story, then you will be missing the point of this message—which is, what, now? We have a future filled with hope, brothers and sisters! We have the power of God living within us!

The Transfiguration will guide and inform the disciples’ ministry from that day forward. I pray it will guide and inform you—and that you will, above all, listen for God’s voice and pray for your church, your community, the world. You don’t need to fear death or anything in this life—for nothing shall separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord!

You can live in freedom! You have the promise of eternity with him!

And when you grow weary or discouraged, for it will happen, I pray you will remember the words of Isaiah 40, preached by a devout Christian athlete, a future missionary to China, who ran for the glory of God—and won Olympic gold in 1924.

 “But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.”

Let us pray….

Holy One, thank you for Jesus, your Son, your Beloved, fully divine and fully human, like us, but perfect, without sin. Thank you that through your Beloved’s sacrifice on a cross our sins are forgiven, and we are your Beloved now, too. Thank you for working in our hearts and minds by your ever-flowing Holy Spirit, transforming us and teaching us what we need to know through Christ, your Living Word, as we seek to follow him every day. Help us to be bold and share our eternal hope through belief on your Son—and the abundant life and freedom from fear available to us right now. Remind us that nothing, Lord, nothing can ever separate us from your love shown in Jesus Christ. Stir us, more and more, in our prayers to talk less and listen more for your loving, calming voice, so needed in this world of chaos and disorder. We surrender our wills and desires to you, O Lord, and ask that you replace them with your will and desire for us, your church, as we minister here in Coshocton, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and seeking to heal a wounded world. In the name of our Triune God we pray. Amen.

Blessed!

 Meditation on Luke 6:17-26

The Presbyterian Church, Coshocton, OH

Pastor Karen Crawford

Feb. 20, 2022

Click here for livestreamed service: https://fb.watch/bkQDKh90hs/

   I had been invited to speak at a luncheon for retired pastors in our presbytery. This was Oct. 2019— during my first year in Coshocton. The gathering was at the First Presbyterian Church in Uhrichsville, where the presbytery office is now. Matt Skolnik, our general presbyter, had invited me to speak.

     The only problem was, the retired pastors didn’t know I was coming. One of the retired pastors told me, right after we were introduced, that they never had a speaker before. They didn’t need a speaker. I think, if she could have, she would have sent me back home to Coshocton. But I stayed, anyway, and had a nice lunch.

    I don’t remember any of the other retired pastors I met that day, except for one gentle man—who didn’t really belong there at all. He was about 90 years young—and FAR from retired. He sat next to me, welcomed me with a big smile, and spent the next hour or two trying to get to know me better. Shy would never be a word that anyone would use to describe the Rev. Don Bartow.

      Don was retired from parish ministry when he got to do what he had always longed to do. He is the founder of “The Total Living Center.” It was truly an act of faith—the whole ministry—right from the beginning. He bought an old church building in Canton to set up this new kind of helping place where people in need could get, if not all the help they needed, pretty darn close to it. It operates completely on donations. It isn’t a homeless shelter, but it is a place of refuge; the doors are open every day to people who feel tossed about in the storms of their lives. The full title of the center discloses its mission, “A Bridge of Healing and Compassion in Canton.” Here’s Don in front of TLC:   

   TLC offers free meals, free groceries, free medical care, free laundromat, free haircuts—counseling, mentoring, and friendship. The support allows families and individuals to focus on their personal growth, family health, and stability while having basic needs met on a consistent basis. TLC’s chapel offers worship, healing services, and evangelism events.  Don, I would find out in my conversation that day, wrote numerous books on healing and prayer.  He appeared on national Christian television and radio shows: the 700 Club, the PTL Club, Trinity Broadcasting Network, and 100 Huntley Street. In 1984, Don traveled to Washington D.C. to open the US Congress with prayer. In July 1991, he was designated Pastor Emeritus of Canton Westminster Presbyterian Church, after serving as pastor for 25 years.

    I drove home feeling encouraged in my ministry that day, because of Don.

    Within a week, a package arrived for me in the mail. Don had sent me information about the Total Living Center—and a hard copy of his novel called, “The Gospel According to Mary, Mother of Jesus.”   The book is written in the form of a letter from Mary, when she is old, writing to her son, Joses, telling the story of her life as Jesus’ mother.

    I felt blessed to have Don as a friend and co-laborer for the Kingdom.

    The Sermon on the Plain, the Beatitudes of Luke, is our gospel reading today.   This passage in Luke, read in conversation with the Psalm and Jeremiah reading, is about putting our trust in God and having faith and courage to live out the vision of the Kingdom of God that Jesus reveals to his disciples long ago—and to us now, living in the 21st century.

     The word that stands out to me in our gospel reading is the word translated:  BLESSED. This doesn’t mean Jesus is invoking a blessing on those he is describing. And it doesn’t mean some kind of future wish list—when the poor, hungry, grieving, and persecuted followers of Jesus are rewarded for certain faithful behaviors. It’s easy to misread these familiar verses to mean blessed are the people who do X because they will receive Y.

      The word Blessed refers to a quality of spirituality that is already present, even if the Kingdom of God can only be glimpsed by faith. The word translated “Blessed” (makarios) may be better understood as “happy.”   Happy are you who are poor, now! (Jesus is saying.) For yours is the kingdom of God. The kingdom belongs to you!  Happy are you who are hungry now, because you know you will be filled. Happy are you who weep now, because you will laugh. Happy are you who are persecuted for my sake, because you TRUST in the Lord!

     Amy Zeitlow, pastor of Holy Cross Lutheran Church in Illinois, offers this interpretation.  “The Sermon on the Plain invites us into the tension of living the cross-shaped life. As Jesus comes down the mountain to the plain, the disciples gather to receive instruction for their new role as apostles  and the crowds clamor around Jesus to see his power reflected back into their lives. Jesus sees in them all a people in need of both blessing and challenge.” 

      We find comfort in the Beatitudes when we are the ones struggling with poverty, hunger, grief, and persecution. Yet, if we are honest with ourselves, we would admit the woes are for us, too. We are in both categories—we who are both saints and sinners—as Martin Luther used to say.  “We cannot avoid the woes, those places we’d like to ignore or imagine don’t exist,” Amy says.

     While the cross is still a distance away in Luke 6, Amy says,  “Jesus’ preaching already invites listeners into the rhythms of death and resurrection. Conviction and awareness of sin and death are balanced with Jesus’ promise of new life, blessing, and hope. Ultimately, a cross-shaped life leads to love.”

      Love of God and neighbor.   

      It was a God thing—my going to that luncheon on Oct. 2019.

      It was about encouragement. And stirring up a passion in me for compassionate ministry that I would share with you today. I wish that I could have known him longer. For Don went home to be with the Lord on Feb. 8, or, as his obituary says: Don “received his eternal reward.” He was 93.

      I dug out Don’s book yesterday, after he was mentioned briefly in our presbytery meeting. His Celebration of Life service was yesterday at 2 in the chapel of the Total Living Center in Canton.

     I opened the inside cover of his book to find a note from the author.

   “Hi Karen, Blessings to you and yours. I am sending my book with the hope that you will send me a copy of yours when it is published. O.K.  Don Bartow—Oct. 29, 2019.”  My eyes filled with tears because I had forgotten what he had said to me that day—when I did give my little speech, typed on my IPAD. He told me I was a good writer and that I needed to write a book.

     Because I wish all of you could have known Don, I will share a little more of his story. I pray that his life of service will inspire us to do more acts of kindness and love.

    Don knew poverty as a child but didn’t know he was poor. He always felt loved. He was the son of a coal miner, growing up near Shawnee, Ohio, with 10 siblings.

    “He found the Lord at 10-years old when a church opened near his home. It was then he felt a calling from the Lord to be a pastor. He is survived by his wife of 72-years, Mary, his daughter, Beckie Cisler, his son, Dennis, 5 grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren.

     “He was the first member of his family to attend college. When he got to college, he found out he had bad eye-sight and obtained his first pair of eyeglasses.

     “Although small in stature (he often said that he had to be kind to everyone because of his size), he was a giant for Christ. He “would light up every room he entered. Countless individuals and families, whether at his office, or in their homes, or in the hospital or at a funeral home, or in day-to-day encounters with people, were deeply consoled by his presence and words of comfort, and most of all, his prayers.”

    Friends, I regret, now, that I never visited The Total Living Center and that I never talked about it with you before—and that I didn’t offer my support, in some way, for this wonderful, local ministry. I am wondering if our congregation or individuals here might also like to support this ministry in some way?

    Don would have been pleased to know his conversation with me in October 2019 would result in our offering our support and prayers for what had been his passion and dream, but only realized in his “retirement”  when he bought a church and the Total Living Center was born.

   If Don could speak with us today in person, I know he would smile and encourage us all to be faithful—and do God’s will. The Bible verse that was his compass and comfort throughout his life was 1 John 2:17, “And the world passeth away, and the lust thereof: but he that doeth the will of God abideth forever.” 

    He would have said of his long, wonderful life, knowing Jesus and doing ministry in his name,

“I trusted the Lord. I was blessed.”

Let us pray. Holy One, thank you for the words of Christ your Son teaching us how we should live in this in-between time—as we wait for His return and seek to glimpse and reveal the Kingdom of God through our own love and service. And Lord, we pray that you would continue to bless and provide for the ministry of The Total Living Center—so that more people will come to know your help and healing, your love and forgiveness, and experience health for their spirit, body, and soul. Help us to be truly grateful for our salvation and your promise to use us to build your kingdom. Teach us how to live out our faith in the present—to know your will and obey courageously. Stir our hearts now to creative, compassionate ministry so that someday, like the Rev. Don Bartow, we can look back on our wonderful lives, knowing Jesus and doing ministry for his sake. So we can say, “I trusted the Lord. I was blessed.” Amen.

Put Out in the Deep Water

Meditation on Luke 5:1–11

The Presbyterian Church, Coshocton, OH

Pastor Karen Crawford

Feb. 13, 2022

Link to a recording of the livestreamed service, with the message: https://fb.watch/b90lH9iqM2/

Bulletin:

    I was sorry that we had to cancel worship last Sunday because of the ice. It was really dangerous! But honestly, wasn’t it a relief that we weren’t canceling because of the pandemic? It feels like we are getting back to ministry as usual—in winter, in Ohio.

    Today is the Super Bowl. Got any Super Bowl fans here? Who’s rooting for the Cincinnati Bengals? How about the Los Angeles Rams?   Well, I am in Ohio now, so I am rooting for the Bengals. Even people who don’t care about football were talking about their comeback from a 21-3 deficit to unseat the Kansas City Chiefs at the AFC Championship on Jan. 30. That was quite a game!

   I read this week about the Bengals quarterback—Joe Burrow and his family’s passion for sports.  

 Joe was born in Ames, Iowa, when his father, Jim, was on the staff for the Iowa State Cyclones. Jim was a football player and coach, whose career lasted more than 40 years. Joe’s grandmother in the 1940s set a Mississippi state high school record with an 82-point game in basketball.

His paternal grandfather played basketball at Mississippi State; his uncle, John Burrow, played football at Ole Miss; and two older brothers also played football at Nebraska. 

    Little Joe Burrow attended the 2002 Rose Bowl at age 5, when his father was an assistant coach for Nebraska. Not long after, he began playing in youth football, starting out as a quarterback, because his first youth team had no one else who could play the position. Joe ended up in Athens, Ohio, when his father accepted the defensive coordinator position at Ohio University in Athens. Joe played football at Athens High, leading the school to three straight playoff appearances and the school’s first seven playoff victories in school history. He won awards and the school board decided in 2019 to name the school’s football stadium in his honor.  

Joe played college football for Ohio State,

then LSU.  

He won the Heisman Trophy and the 2020 College Football Playoff National Championship as a senior.

  You could say that Joe’s entire life, up to this moment, was taking him on a certain path to become the professional football player he is today.

  Today in our worship, we recognize a different kind of greatness—a greatness of service to God. We welcome and pray for our new team of leaders as we ordain and install elders and deacons. As we seek God’s blessing upon everyone who has said yes to the call of Jesus Christ, we honor and give thanks for the Great Cloud of Witnesses, those who have given us the example of faithful service to the Lord and His Church.

We look to the future and keep moving forward, with our eyes fixed on Jesus, praying for healing, peace, and reconciliation after two difficult years of a pandemic.  We say yes to serving because we love and trust the Lord and our brothers and sisters in Christ. We believe in this ministry. We are not just a human organization—not some kind of Christian club. We are an Incarnational ministry, serving as Christ’s hands and feet, mind and heart.

    We remember the call of the first disciples in our gospel reading today to encourage and enlighten us as we say yes, once again, to our own call to live as Christ’s disciples and make disciples of all the generations.  Our reading in Luke marks a significant moment in Christ’s ministry, but it’s NOT the beginning of the story. His disciples aren’t strangers to him when he calls them.  An interesting detail in Luke—not found in other gospels—is in 3:23: “Jesus was about 30 years old when he began his work.” The first 30 years of his life was all preparation for what God planned for him to do!

        After his birth, baptism, and temptation, Jesus traveled, preached, healed, and cast out demons. Reports of his miracles spread around the region. Then one day, after he preaches in the synagogue in Capernaum, Jesus goes to Simon’s house and heals Simon’s mother-in-law.  

As the sun sets, Jesus heals more sick people and casts out demons. The demons proclaim what human beings had not yet said,“You are the Son of God!” At daybreak, Jesus tries to get away from the crowd; he goes to a deserted place.  Maybe he went away to pray, or maybe he just needed a rest before the work ahead.

    When the crowds cling to him on his return and ask for more miracles, he says: “I must proclaim the good news of the Kingdom of God to the other cities, also; for I was sent for this purpose.” He goes and preaches in synagogues all over Judea.

    Then we come to today’s passage, at chapter 5. Jesus is standing on the shore on the Lake of Gennesaret, also known as the Sea of Tiberius or Sea of Galilee. The crowd is pressing in. Jesus needs a pulpit, so he asks Simon to take him out in his boat, a little way from the shore.  

When he finishes his sermon, he asks Simon to take the boat out into the deep water—and let down his nets for a catch. Simon’s tired. His body is aching from the physical labor of fishing in the First Century. And he’s even more tired because they were unsuccessful. It was a big waste of time and energy.

      I wonder, is he saying yes to Christ’s request more out of obligation—because Jesus healed his mother-in-law?” His address as, “Master,” reveals his respect for him, but then the next part says the opposite—that Jesus doesn’t know a thing about fishing—or else he wouldn’t ask Simon to go back out.   “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing,” Simon says. “Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.”

      Immediately, they catch so many fish, their nets are breaking!  Simon signals his partners, James and John, to come and help them!

This is the biggest catch they’ve ever had. But their technology fails them. The boats begin to sink. Simon realizes that Christ has done this miracle to reveal his power—and help with his unbelief. “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man,” cries Simon Peter, convicted and ashamed, falling at Jesus’ knees. “Do not be afraid,” Christ answers, an echo of the Lord reassuring Isaiah at his calling, when he confesses to be “a man of unclean lips.”

     The best part of the story for me comes after the miraculous catch.  They bring their boats back to shore. And they leave everything behind to follow him! Simon isn’t a youngster at the time he makes this lifechanging decision. He has a wife and extended family living with him—and a house. He has a good, steady job. His own fishing boat! He has a life, a predictable routine—until he meets Jesus.

     It’s not really a question, this invitation. It’s not like in Isaiah, when God asks, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?”   It’s a statement: “Do not be afraid,” Jesus says to Simon, James and John. “From now on, you will be catching people.”

   Friends, those who take Christ’s service seriously, realizing that it is a life-changing thing like it was for Simon Peter, come to this moment with fear and trembling. Our leadership example is Jesus Christ, who came not to be served, but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many.

      There’s something important I want you to remember. The leaders we are seeking to bless today with our love and prayerful support aren’t meant to be the Church of Jesus Christ for us! They are meant to help US be the Church God wants us to be. And your call, my friends, is not a one-time thing, although this particular day in the life of Simon Peter will be remembered and retold for centuries after the crucifixion, resurrection, and empty tomb.  Recalling this joyful story serves to empower the grieving disciples when they have to figure out how to go on with Christ’s ministry when he is no longer with them in the flesh. This joyful story is necessary for all of us, for everyone who answers the call, but then grows weary—or frightened—when the call gets hard. Because it does. It gets hard sometimes.

      Jesus invites us now to trust and obey him, no matter how weary, or how long we worked the day or night before, without seeing the fruits of our labor.  Jesus urges us to persevere, with his help, for his sake.  “Do not be afraid,” he says to all of us. “Put out into the deep water. Let down your nets for a catch.”

Let us pray. Holy One, thank you for your Word, for the stories of the calls of Simon Peter and Isaiah. Your Word continues to encourage us and illumine our call to be your disciples and to make disciples, right here in our own community of faith and beyond our church walls. Lord, we say yes to your invitation with fear and trembling. We know that serving you will take all of ourselves—who we are now and who we will become as your Spirit works in us and in our midst. We grow weary sometimes, Lord. We feel frustrated or discouraged when we don’t see immediate fruits of our labor. Help us to trust in you and obey, each day, following in Christ, step by step. And bless our congregation, especially our newly ordained and installed, who seek to serve you with their lives. Teach us how to support, encourage, and join with them in loving service to one another and the world. May we become in all that we say and do your hands and feet, heart and mind. In Christ’s name we pray. Amen.

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