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December 24, 2017
Bible Reference(s):
Luke 2:1-20
Rev. Terri Thorn

Spoiler Alert: The scripture story for today also happens to be the Christmas Eve reading as well.  That's OK though...I mean, we don't really get too many occasions to hear this story throughout the year, so having it twice in the same day is not a bad thing.  I do, however, wonder if, because it is so familiar, we risk becoming complacent in how we hearing it.  I mean, it doesn't really change from year to year, so is it just a rote story that we all know by heart...or does it have fresh meaning each year?

I was thinking about that a lot this week.  What new thing can I say about a story that we've all heard many times?  So, as a way to try to hear the scripture with fresh ears and see it with new eyes, I decided to watch a movie about it...and no, it was not a Hallmark movie!   Actually it's a quick little17-minute movie that is the first episode of a faith- based television program called, The Chosen, which is being created by a private Christian studio.  I seriously considered showing it in worship today, but I discovered it well after the worship service was planned and didn't want to keep you all so long that you might not come back tonight.  So, instead, I will post a link on the church FB page and have Neal add it to our website.  You will want to watch it yourselves, I'm sure.

The premise of the television program is that the episodes will cover the stories of Jesus in a real and personal, first-hand way.  The tagline of the series is: Christ Through the Eyes of the Sinners Who Knew Him Best.   I'm really excited about it...watching it felt very different than any faith-based programming that I've ever seen before...and honestly, it was much higher quality acting than on the Hallmark Channel.  

So, the pilot episode is a telling of the same story we heard this morning...but, from a different slant.  The entire thing is conveyed from the perspective of one of the shepherds.  And not just any shepherd...but one who is lame and walks with a crutch.  The thing that the episode did for me is that...it drew me into the circumstances surrounding Jesus' birth. It highlighted the mundane-ness of his birth in the midst of the busyness of the census, as well as magnified the extent of fear and oppression under which the Jews lived. 

It also reminded me just how much emphasis was put on perfection and legalism in the first century.  For example, the lame shepherd was clearly an outcast...even from the other shepherds...and was publicly humiliated and shamed by the religious leaders because he was crippled.  They accused him, and people like him, (imperfect, lame, blind, deaf, physically or mentally ill) of being the reason that the Messiah had not come.  Instead of welcoming him, the leaders turned him way from the temple, deeming him unclean and calling his sacrificial animal blemished.  Of course, later he is among the shepherds who receive the good news  from the angels.   But, you will have to watch it for yourself to see how that all works out.

To be quite honest, I did not go looking for this video...it just sort of showed up...in a Holy Spirit kind of way.   And, at first, I did not believe the comment that someone had made, "This video changed how I think about Christmas."   But I have to say...it did.  It helped me appreciate just how magnificent, earth-shattering, world-changing the news of the baby's birth was for the Jews. 

I mean, I suppose some of us know these things about that region in the first century, but I think most of us, myself included, tend to forget.   For instance, I had forgotten that it had been 400 years since the last time a prophet of God had spoken to the people before the angel showed up to announce the birth plan to Zechariah and then Mary.  Did you all remember that?  

No wonder the Jews were desperate for the arrival of the Messiah.  No wonder this was such big news for the poor...and somewhat intimidating news for those in power.  Think about it, for the previous four centuries, the oppressed people had constantly heard about God's faithfulness and the ancient prophecy of the coming King...one upon whom authority would rest...one who would uphold justice and righteousness for his people.

Yet...until this moment in time...that Savior had not come. When you think about it...400 years of waiting really gives a different perspective on why the characters of this story...all the way back to Zechariah and Elizabeth, to Mary and Joseph and now the shepherds...why they were so exuberant in their faithful response...singing out and rejoicing at the various announcements the angel delivered to each of them.   They understood that the wait was over.

The prophecy was fulfilled and the Savior, the Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace...had arrived!  (And yes, for those who are curious, I just heard Handel's Messiah this weekend...so I want to sing those words...but I won't.  I will however weave in much of the scripture as I can!)

Now here's the amazing thing about this birth story...one might think that the King of Kings and Lord of Lords would have been born in some fancy royal setting...or at least maybe at the Temple...or to a "wealthy or priestly family" that would be able to raise him right.

But that's not the case at all.  Jesus, God-with-us, Emmanuel, was born to the most plain and simple couple you could imagine.  A couple that that was poor.  A couple that was faithful to God but definitely part of the lower class.  A couple that was oppressed into crippling poverty by the government...and shamed by the religious leaders...who reminded them that nothing good ever came out of Nazareth.

They were a couple with some complicating legalities around their marriage...even more reason for shame...and they were a real life couple that had real life issues and concerns just as anyone of us would have.  They were a couple who could not even find a place to stay overnight in Bethlehem. 

Definitely not your first-thought candidates for parents of the Messiah...yet, God chose to come to the world infleshed in Jesus..through these average, ordinary people.   Imagine that.

Not to mention, God also chose to come at a specific time and to a specific place as well. The census that is mentioned was probably not as drastic and broad-sweeping as Luke would have us believe, but it was a way to establish the contrast between the Empire and the Kingdom of God. 

Whatever the scope, the census was a way for the Emperor Augustus to quantify his empire...to stroke his ego...and perhaps to implement burdensome taxation on the people...but mostly it was a bully way to show the people who was in charge. Now put that image up against a pregnant teen on a donkey..or a baby wrapped in cloths lying in a manger.  Go ahead - Luke wants us to make the comparison...because the story becomes even more scandalous if we do.

You see...there was the Empire.  The Temple.  The People.  The Empire and the Temple leaders worked together to protect their position and power...at the expense of the People.   

And God decided to reveal himself right smack dab in the middle of all that.  However, not as a mighty counter-force, but as a vulnerable little baby...who would grow up into a radical, loving, compassionate truth-teller...a source of hope and healing...a giver of mercy and justice...one who would, through forgiveness and welcome and grace, remove sin and shame, replacing them with love and acceptance; making people whole and restoring them to their communities. 

In contrast to Augustus' version of peace, which was gained by exerting control over the people, God, who was revealed in Jesus, came to offer the gift of true shalom peace -- the peace that makes us whole -- to those whom he favors. And according to Jesus himself, those whom he favors would be the poor, the humble, the meek...the widow, the sick, the homeless...the captive and oppressed...the broken-hearted...you know, all those folks whom the world's standard still rejects.

Well friends, after being reminded of the desperation of the first century Jews waiting for a Messiah, all I 'gotta say is praise be to God for showing up when he did...and fulfilling the promise of salvation...especially since a whole lot of our 21st Century America is starting to look like the First Century Roman Empire.  We, too, need our Savior.  And yes, our desperation for the Messiah is increasing daily. I suppose that's why some folks are looking so intently for Jesus' return.  But isn't the point of Christmas to remind us that he is already here with us?  Born in manger that Christmas night so many centuries ago...but born in the hearts of his people, this and every day.

Friends, the good news of great joy for all the people (although perhaps not the such good  news for the Empire or the Temple-keepers) is that ours is a God who shows up...through his Son Jesus Christ...right where we are - in whatever circumstances we find ourselves.   God chooses to reveal himself to the less than perfect...and the less than powerful..and the less than holy.   He arrives right in the midst of our human experience...and understands because he also lived it.  God-who-is-with-us strengthens us as we face our fears...even if they look a lot like the Roman Empire at times.

Remember, the angels proclaimed, "Do not be afraid...the One on whom the world has waited...the One who came to save... has arrived.:  Well friends, the Christmas message to us is the same, even today...Do not be afraid, Love has arrived. 

OK, so we don't get angels and trumpets to announce it on a daily basis, but God continues to show up in the world today...not as a baby...not as a man...but as the Spirit of Love.   Wherever God is, there is Love..and wherever Love is, God shows up in the midst of it.

This week God showed up like this (pull out bags).   Due to unforeseen, and unavoidable, circumstances, a family lost their housing the week before Christmas. All of the money the parents planned to use for gifts for their children had to be put toward security deposits and other bills at a new place.  So, I posted a note about this on FB, and within an hour, someone I know through a Purdue parent group, but had never met, messaged me and said she and her friends would take care of it.  Yesterday morning at 9AM, she brought these to my house to be delivered later today.

God showed up for Amanda in the form of 200 or more people who have been praying for her mother who was found unresponsive in her home without any explanation.

God showed up as a local attorney named Ikedigbo Nnaemeka. Nnaemeka tracked down runner Andrew Peterson and offered to help fund his trip to the Boston Marathon, where Andrew will be the first Special Olympian to run in the Marathon in more than 30 years.

God showed up here at here last Wednesday night for 17 people who needed a little extra comfort during this holiday season.

God shows up as grandparents in our community raising their grandchildren because the parents are not capable right now.

God shows up as addiction counselors and recovery coaches who offer help without judgment.

God shows up on a regular basis at Boone County Jail in the form of a certain retired German teacher who is committed to helping transform lives through education.

Recently, God showed up in Zionsville as grieving adult children who not only sold their deceased mother's home to a refugee family at a fair price, but decided to leave their mother's belongings to help the family get a good start.  They even decorated the house for Christmas for before the closing.

I believe God will show up tomorrow at my friend, David’s house as he opens his table to the LGBTQ folks in his community for whom a Christmas homecoming is not possible or welcomed.

Occasionally, God shows up as a breakfast prepared and waiting for a spouse who worked the night shift.

Often, God shows up as the just right word to ease a broken spirit, or as the prayer that calms a fear, and sometimes even as the politician who does the right and just thing despite party affiliation.

And by the way, God will show up for many of us tomorrow morning as a quiet moment of gratitude before the busyness of Christmas Day sets in.

Folks, God shows up wherever God's people are and whenever we are willing to love.  The question to ask ourselves is will be found waiting, with hope, ready and expectant to receive him when he does?

As we move toward the celebration of the night that love came down to earth, let us rejoice that where love is...God is...and go forth to offer #morelove to the world.  Amen.

December 17, 2017
Bible Reference(s):
Matthew 1:18-25
Rev. Terri Thorn

All month Casey Reynolds has been trying to convince me to preach a sermon that she created for the first Sunday of Advent.  Now, you may recall that the first Sunday of Advent was the week the Madrigals were here, we started this sermon series, took communion together, and held a fellowship luncheon that included a strategic building plan presentation and two dozen deviled eggs.  All in one day.  At some point, I said to Casey, "Everything would be fine if I didn't have to write a sermon this week".  Being the kind, ever-loving person that she is, Casey said, "Here, I'll write one for you."

Well, turns out that I didn't use it that week...or the next week...but as the season gets busier, I have been more tempted to use it.  So here it is this 3rd Sunday of Advent:

God is great.  God is good.  And there's a baby on the way.   The end.

It really does pretty much sum up the meaning of Advent, right?  Not to mention, it makes my life much easier. 

However, I am still anxious about using it today because, although it is true, and meaningful, and appropriate, it just doesn't seem like enough.  I feel guilty, as if I am not doing my job, if I don't offer more than three sentences.  I guess at the heart of it all is my fear that some people would be disappointed.   Well...some folks would not be disappointed if we stopped right now because we would definitely beat the Baptists to lunch.   But, honestly, I would worry that you would be disappointed in me.  And...the last thing this, or any, recovering people-pleaser wants is to do is disappoint! 

Now, don't get me wrong, in my rational mind, I know that if I did show up here today with a three sentence sermon, there might be some ripples of shock among you all, but neither the church, nor the gospel, nor any of us would end because of it.  We would be back here next Sunday.  BUT...in my irrational mind, I worry that a sermon like that would get me fired. I am pretty sure that plenty of pastors have that reoccurring nightmare. 

Actually, I suspect that lots of people have similar experiences. We find ourselves worrying that if we screw up in any way, we will be rejected.   Now, let me just say, I have discovered that this angst is probably more true for younger people than all you more seasoned ones. Still, I am certain that most of us have some embedded anxiety or fear about being enough...wondering if we have performed well enough, said the right things, or have done enough.  And I'm not just talking in the church.  In all aspects of life people worry about this.   Is my work good enough to keep my job?  If I speak out about something will people believe me? Am I pretty enough, skinny enough, smart enough, strong enough, young enough to <you can fill in the blank>?  And of course there is my daily personal stressor, if I sing out loud will people cover their ears?  How embarrassing that would be!

I joke but the consequence is no laughing matter.  When we worry like that, eventually, an anxiety such as, "What if I apply for the job and don't get it?" becomes a fatalistic, "I'm such a failure I wouldn't get the job if I did apply for it, so why bother."   Our fear drives us to shut down and avoid taking any chances. In other words, we become so afraid of the pain of rejection or loss that we do everything we can to avoid being vulnerable in the first place.

It's just like a Hallmark movie I saw on Friday.  I knew if I watched enough movies, one of them would come in handy as a sermon illustration.  I think this one was called Home for Christmas Day, but don't quote me.  They start to run together.  

In this movie, the mom did not want her daughter to date a very nice soldier from the local military base;  but the young couple falls in love anyway.  The reason the mom is so against it is that, many years prior, she, too, had fallen in love with a soldier, married him, and became pregnant with their daughter.  Sadly, though, her husband was deployed and died on his mission.

For years, the mother's grief was so profound, she refused to allow herself to love again.  Now I don't want to be a spoiler, but let's just say that the daughter does get her heartbroken.  And, in the midst of her pain, she says to her mother something along the lines of:  You were right.  It's not worth it.  Love is not worth the pain.

Suffice to say, I cried in this one.  Not because of the girl's heartbreak...that gets resolved.  I mean it is Hallmark.  I cried because there are so many, many people who have come to believe that "it" is not worth it...love is not worth the pain...life is not worth the risk of rejection...creativity is not worth the chance of failure.  As a society, we are becoming people who are unwilling to be real with ourselves, much less others.  We are afraid of uncertainty and demand absolutes...often to an extreme.  Some folks are so afraid of failure that they struggle with the thought of attempting anything they don't already know they can do well.  They need the security of success.  Sadly, as a result of these kinds of fear, we miss out on so much of life. 

Sociologist and researcher, Brene Brown, refers to this as our "lack of tolerance for vulnerability"  and suggests that it is a dangerous growing trend in our nation.

According to Brown, vulnerability - the willingness to be known, to take risks, to be authentic, to be real, wrong, or less than perfect,  is at the core many of our painful emotions.  We are fearful, anxious and ashamed to just be who we are - in case someone deems us not enough.  However, at the same time, vulnerability is also the birthplace of positive experiences such as joy, belonging, creativity, and love.  So, as painful and risky as it is to allow ourselves to be vulnerable,  when refuse to do so, we short change ourselves of the opportunity to experience the incredible fullness that life has to offer.  We rob ourselves of our joy.

So how do we break the cycle...how do we become more tolerant of vulnerability in ourselves and in others in order to experience #morejoy?   According to Brown, the answer is to practice gratitude.  To be grateful for what we have, for what we experience, for what we learn.   In every circumstance.   Gratitude breeds trust in God and trust in God breeds joy.

Let's face it, bad things are going to happen in our lives...difficult circumstances...painful events.  We can joylessly give into them...or we can look for reasons to be grateful...and to trust that God is with us and rest joyfully in that promise.  The more grateful we are in the midst of those circumstances...the more joy can be found in them too.    It is as Chris wrote about his best friend Fritz.  Fritz was diagnosed with stage four terminal colon cancer.   As Chris walked alongside Fritz and his wife Lynn during this tragic journey, he noticed that, in the midst of even the most heart-breaking moments, there was something that could only be described as a deep abiding joy in both Chris and Lynn.  There were days of sadness...days of worry and fear..days of frustration and anger.  Nonetheless, the couple treasured each and every day.  They were grateful for every minute together regardless of what kind of day they were having.  As a result, nothing was able to erase the joy found in the love they had for each other. 

For the record, this is not from a Hallmark movie.  It is a true story about real people experiencing real joy.

Joy that is found in hope...and in grief. 

Joy that is found where there is trust and honor and dignity...and where there is pain and suffering.

Joy that is found where there is love...and where there is loss. 

You see, here's the thing about joy...it is not the same as happiness.  Happiness is an outward emotion...greatly influenced by our circumstances. In fact, it is a learned response to the moment.   Joy, however, comes from within.  It emerges from the Spirit that is within us.   It emerges from our willingness to be vulnerable and trust that God is with us. It emerges from our sense of peace.  Or as one anonymous person said:  Joy is peace dancing and peace is joy at rest.

As we learned from Mary last week, inner peace comes from knowing who we are, what our limitations are, and most importantly from remembering who God is.  Joy emerges when we confidently rest in that peace as we make ourselves vulnerable to God's love.

Which brings us to this story of Joseph's visit by an angel.   Now let me just say that despite the succinctness of Joseph's part of the birth story, I believe he experienced true joy.  That said, I can't prove Joseph experienced joy...but he was about to become husband and a father which usually evokes a strange combination of fear and joy...not to mention, he was being given a role in God's salvation plan.  Who wouldn't rejoice in that?  

However, to experience it fully...he had to first allow himself to be vulnerable before God.

It's no secret that Joseph was in an predicament when he learned of Mary's pregnancy.  And, since he wasn't there when Gabriel laid out the plan for Mary, all that Joseph had to go on was Mary's story.  I'm not saying that he didn't believe her, but we are told that he was planning to divorce her quietly.  Joseph was, at the very least, anxious about the situation.  Just imagine the thoughts that must have been running through his mind.  Processing all of this was definitely not a happy moment for Joseph.

But there was an easy way out.   He could have just outed Mary.  No one would blame him if he turned her over to the religious authorities...which I believe he was legally he obligated to do.   Joseph could have chosen this legally correct, low-risk route...to save his reputation and protect his future option to marry someone else.

But he did not.     

He chose the righteous thing instead.  The quiet divorce.

One of the first steps to experiencing joy is choosing to do the righteous thing...even when it is not the easy thing. And, it just might not be the technically correct thing either.   So how do we distinguish what is righteous?  I mean, let's face it, many folks have many definitions of what is right.   And we're not going to convince each other to think differently.  However, I believe, the take-away lesson in this story is that the righteous thing, legal or not, is the thing that is most loving and compassionate toward Mary. 

Our joy begins in the peace of righteousness - choosing that which is loving, compassionate and life-giving toward another....the thing that respects the other person's situation and gives him or her a voice...the thing that may or may not make our life easier, safer or more comfortable, but definitely ensures that the poor and meek are protected - no matter what the world (or your political donors) would have you do.  The righteous thing always looks most like the choice Christ would make - upholding the law of love.  Friends, when we choose to live the law of God's love, joy is never far behind. 

Likewise, our peace and joy is increased when we trust God enough to embrace our vulnerability wholeheartedly.   Now let me just say, we don't always believe this until we try it. It's scary and there are no guarantees when it comes to what people will say or think about us if we are vulnerable.  Still, in an abundant life, you gotta risk in order to gain.  And that's exactly what Joseph did.  After the angel's visit in his dream, he stepped into a plan over which he had no control and for which there were no assurances. 

Joseph was willing to let go of anxiety over how Mary's pregnancy might be received in the community.  He dismissed his worries about what people would say if they found out that he decided to marry her knowing full well that she was pregnant when he did.  He was masterfully vulnerable in this story...not naive, not foolish...but real and vulnerable for the sake of the baby Jesus - whom he would help raise.  By staying with Mary, Joseph took a chance...but I believe he would say that the joy he received from being in the relationship...and from the role he would play in the history of faith...was worth the risk.

Joseph's joy was made complete when the angel explained that the baby boy was to be named Jesus -  and that the people would call him Emmanuel - God with us.   His righteous Jewish upbringing would have included memorizing a number of ancient scriptures that reminded him that the source of true joy is the presence of the Lord with us.  So, this announcement of Emmanuel coming was a source of true and utter joy.  One that we share even today.

Earlier this week, there was a FB meme posted which read:

I am healthy.  I am wealthy.  I am full of joy.

Now, I know someone meant well, but my gut response was...but what about when we do not have our health or wealth?  What happens to our joy then?

The short answer is: Nothing...not if we trust in the presence  and promise of Emmanuel - God with us.

In fact, as Rev. Cathy Northrup, so eloquently stated in Presbyterian Outlook this week: 

True joy comes not in the entertainment of the season, the material possessions we gain as presents or the enjoyment of food and drink that can become gluttony.  (Thanks for the reminder Cathy).   True joy (she continues) comes in the knowledge that at Christmas God sent his son to earth to live, die and rise again for us -- sinners all in need of salvation.  This how God's hand has moved in our lives.  True joy comes, too, in the moments of life when we can see God's hand in our own lives.   She adds...perhaps during Advent we can seek to pay attention to and for these moments.  

Friends, she is right.  some of our greatest moments of true joy may very well come as #AngelsAmongUs...so look for them...be grateful for them...and seek the presence of Emmanuel ---god with us--- this and every day...for when we do, we will know #morejoy. 

Amen

Bible Reference(s):
Luke 1:26-55
Rev. Terri Thorn

Well...it really is beginning to look a lot like Christmas around here.  I suppose by now, most folks are in "preparation" mode, right? For some of you, that means you have a Clark Griswold-like house brimming with Christmas decor, others are baking cookies while blasting Christmas music, but there are some of us who are considering the possibility of drawing a tree on paper, taping it to the wall, and calling it done. 

Now, I don't mean to be a Scrooge about Christmas decor...I love looking at it as much as anyone else.  Yet, I wonder, as we journey through Advent, are we as committed to preparing our hearts for the coming of Christmas as we are our homes?  

Advent is meant to be a season of anticipation and preparation...not as mice scurrying around making a nest...but as ones who are part of this amazing story leading up to the Christmas Birth and those whose lives are transformed by it.  This is the time that we prepare our hearts to receive, and ourselves to become, messengers of hope and peace and joy and love.  That's what this Advent series, #AngelsAmongUs is all about...seeing and being messengers of the Good News of Christmas.

Last week was about #more hope...this week is #more peace.   The Advent candle of peace is a reminder for us all to seek more peace in the world.  Which, by the way, in God's incredible providence, is a message coming to us right smack dab in the middle of what is a very un-peaceful...unsettled time...in our world.  I don't have to list all of the unrest for you...suffice to say from the raging fires in California, to the troubling election in Alabama, to whatever is happening in Washington, all the way to the Middle East which is itself a different kind of raging fire...the world needs a whole lot #morepeace.

And not just peace, as in the absence of war, but peace in our spirit, peace in our heart, peace in our mind, peace in our relationships. Less stress...less angst...less worry...less anger...less hate...less division....#morepeace.  Ultimately folks, to have #morepeace means we must have less fear...because all these other things that nag us, drag us and tear us down?  They are all rooted in fear.   Releasing our fear increases our peace. 

And, you all know what they say about Peace on Earth... it really does begin with you and me.

Still I know, this is much easier said than done.  Fear is often a fall-back response for most of us...and right now it seems to be a driving force as well. Perhaps because fear keeps us quiet.   Fear keeps us from being brave.  Fear keeps us from being our true selves.  Fear keeps us from trusting in the truth of the gospel.  Fear causes us to trust in things that are tangible - which by the way gives us a sense of personal security that we mistakenly call peace. 

The peace that passes all understanding is not found in bigger bank accounts...or by gaining more  power over the meek and the mild.  The peace of Christ does not come by way of legislation, elected officials, protest marches, or displays of military might.  In fact, most of those things generate fear too.

Inner peace comes when we are no longer afraid. 

You know, they say that peace is not the absence of noise or troubles or difficult situations.  Peace is to have all those things...and maybe even more...happening around us and yet to be completely calm in our heart.

Calm...because we trust.  Calm because we believe.  Calm...because we refuse to let fear disturb our peace.

This is the calm that we hear in Mary's story.

Think about what the angel's message meant to her. Country girl. Unmarried.  Virgin.  About to become pregnant.  Not by her husband-to-be and not with just any baby, but the Son of the Most High.  Surely, Mary understood that this wasn't just some random birth announcement.   This was the fulfillment of prophecy.  Her baby would be the next King of the Jews...the Messiah of whom the ancient prophets had foretold.    

I think it is safe to say this news would have been exciting and distressing and confusing and maybe even frightening for Mary.  Especially given that she was not yet married.   She was well-aware of what happened to unmarried pregnant women in the first century and it wasn't pretty -- disavowal from her family, shunning by the community, and death if Joseph decided to exact that punishment.   

Not to mention, this was also news that no one was going to believe.  It's news that none of us would believe.  If a young woman walked in here today and told us that she was impregnated by the Holy Spirit of God, she would probably find herself in the back of an ambulance headed to a mental health institution immediately.  

So to say that this pronouncement could be disturbing to Mary's inner peace...to say that it might warrant just little bit of fear...would be an understatement.

Yet, all indications are that Mary was remarkably calm about the news. She had plenty of reasons to be afraid...plenty of reasons to be anxious...plenty of reasons to be troubled.   But instead, she was, as they say, "as cool as a cucumber".   Clearly, she was at peace.

Yes, she wanted to understand how it was all going to work, but aside from that minor detail about how she could be pregnant, she was "all in".   "Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word."

So much confidence...and courage...and inner peace.  As if she has no worries in the world.

That describes all of y'all's life...right?  Yeah right...we wish.  I can't speak for you all, but there are times when no matter how much I trust God, deep peace still eludes me.  I know it's in God's hands, but I worry about what the future holds for the next generation.  I am concerned about the direction of our nation and what passes as Christianity these days.  I am burdened by the number of people (five this past week) who contacted the office or me personally, seeking assistance in finding safe, affordable housing.  I am troubled by all those who need food, gas, clothing, diapers, assistance with prescription co-pays...you name it.   My heart breaks for the families being destroyed by addiction.  And...I know I am not alone.

Of course, then there's that whole other list of personal worries, insecurities and fears that haunt us...causing us to wonder if we will ever be enough.

You get the picture. It's not long into the day before our inner peace and calm is put to the test...and all sorts of fears take over our hearts and minds.  

So how does Mary do it?  What can we learn from her to help us be less fearful and more peace-filled?   Well, I see at least three things here that we would do well to emulate...individually and as the church. 

First.  Mary knew who she was.  The angel told her that she was the favored one...the one blessed by God.  Blessed...not because she was to be given material blessings, as some folks define blessed.  Blessed not because she had health, safety and security, which is how most people define blessed.  She was blessed because God was with her and had included her in his salvation story...a  role which she accepted wholeheartedly.

That said, there have been theological discussions for centuries about whether Mary had a choice in this matter or not.  Could she have said, "Thanks, but no thanks.  I'd rather not?"   It's an interesting thought to consider -- both for what it says about Mary and what it says about God.   Here's what I've come to believe...but it's just me.  I think Mary knew, deep in her spirit, that this was God's call on her life.  She knew she was favored, not in an arrogant way, but as in loved and chosen. She trusted that she belonged to God.  And now she knew that God had a purpose for her.  This was it.  So...yes, she may very well have had a choice; but...using a double negative here...she could not, not do it. 

This was her purpose...her reason for being.

Sometimes, folks, our lack of peace is because we forget who we are....we forget our purpose in life.

When it comes to identities, we wear a lot of hats... mother, father, teacher, preacher, nurse, neighbor...none of which are problematic in and of themselves.  But when we find our worthiness...when we seek our peace from those hats...they can, they will, they do, get in the way of living into our truest identity - beloved child of God. 

On the flip side, Mary also knew her limitations...and she was not afraid to admit them. 

She said, but wait, I'm a virgin...I'm willing to carry this child, but I am not married.   Help me understand how this is going to work 'cause I'm not seeing it.

Sometimes we are afraid to admit our limitations...much less face them.  We don't want others to know who we really are. We are afraid we will be deemed inadequate...not enough.  We succumb to pressure to be more than we are able or called to be.  And friends, when we do, it wreaks havoc on our peace of mind.

Now I have to tell you, I saw the perfect example of someone who is completely in touch with her inner peace carried out on Saturday morning.  She knows her purpose.  She knows her limitations. She joyfully accepts her purpose and refuses to be pushed beyond her limitations.   She was a barista at what has to be the busiest Starbucks in all of Louisville.  The woman was completely calm despite the line that wound around the store and out the door.  You see, her purpose...and only purpose in that moment...was making drinks for people in the store.  She didn't have to take orders...or serve the drive-thru.  She made drinks...perfectly amazing drinks...without mistakes.   And because she knew her purpose and her limitations -- which was mostly that she can only make drinks as fast as the machine would froth the milk and squeeze the espresso beans, she did not let the pressure of the line...or the hectic pace disturb her peace.  She joyfully and calmly made the drinks, one after another.

Now, I know that's a silly illustration...but I think it's so powerful.  I mean, really, think about it.  How much more peace would we experience in our lives if we stayed focused on our purpose and acknowledged our limitations...when we live to please God not others...when we bravely face the task at hand without fearing all the things that are not ours to control?  

OK...so now I'm just preaching to myself.

Finally, and most importantly, Mary's peace was rooted in her knowing God and understanding what God was doing in the world through the Christ child who would be born.  She knew the promises of scripture and understood that not only was a son being born, but God's kingdom was being birthed into the world through him.  

We hear this most poignantly in what is commonly known as the Magnifcat, verses 46-55 of Luke 1.  Mary sings out...perhaps just to herself and to Elizabeth, but I think it is for all of us.

Mary's heart is filled with peace and joy because she trusts that God is faithful, merciful, compassionate, and...that God's peaceable, just, kingdom, the one Isaiah foretold, was about to be established.  She knows that God is on her side.

Author Rachel Held-Evans describes it this way: "With the Magnificat, Mary declares that God has indeed chosen sides.  And it’s not with the powerful, but the humble.  It’s not with the rich, but with the poor. It’s not with the occupying force, but with people on the margins. It’s not with narcissistic kings, but with an un-wed, un-believed teenage girl entrusted with the holy task of birthing, nursing, and nurturing God.  This is the stunning claim of the incarnation: God has made a home among the very people the world casts aside."

Friends, this is still the reality of Christ's birth. Two thousand years ago, God incarnate in Jesus made his home among his people...and through Christ, God is still with us now.   Two thousand years ago, God's kingdom of peace was established on earth...and by Christ's presence it is still growing in the hearts of his people even now.

So...each and every time we choose to believe and live that kingdom - authentically...wholeheartedly...without fear - we are one step closer to the Peace on Earth that is coming.

Every time a heart responds with mercy rather than retribution, curiosity rather than prejudice, openness rather than harshness...peace on earth comes near.

Every time a heart chooses love over hate...peace on earth comes near.

Every time a heart embraces rather than rejects differences...peace on earth comes near.

Every time a heart encourages and empowers the meek and vulnerable...peace on earth comes near.

Every time a heart offers grace...every time a heart experiences grace...peace on earth comes near.

Every time a heart is generous, kind, welcoming, and loving...peace on earth comes near.

Every time a heart humbles itself before God - fearless and willing...peace on earth comes near.

Friends...we are Mary. Mary is the church.  God is not asking us to give birth to Jesus...that was Mary's purpose.   But we are called to bear the peace of Christ to the world.  On this Advent Sunday, as we are "messengers" of good news, it is as the familiar carol reminds us, let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me...and with you.  Amen

Bible Reference(s):
Luke 1:5-25, 57-80
Rev. Terri Thorn

It's good to be back with you all today, on this first Sunday of Advent...the Sunday of Hope.   It's also the first Sunday of our Advent Series...Angels Among Us.  Now let me just say up front..this is not a sermon series on "angelology" or the theology of angels.  We aren't here to explain how angels may or may not be at work in the world...nor are we going to try to define their appearance -- other than to say that the angels of the scriptures most likely did not resemble did the angels hanging over my shoulder.  I mean, think about it, every single time an angel shows up the first words out of his mouth are usually "Do Not Be Afraid".  There must have been something about their appearance that was frightening.  But for this series, none of that really matters.  Our focus here is on angels as messengers...usually bearing startling news.  Maybe that is another reason why angels always open with "Do Not Be Afraid"...because whatever they were about to say was going to rock someone's world.   That was certainly the case for Zechariah when the angel Gabriel shows up in the story. 

However, before we get to the actual story, there have been several of you asking what I did during my vacation...which was actually a stay-cation during which Rob and I had grand ideas about completing a number of projects around the house.  Well...let's just say that Rob finished several projects...but I, on the other hand, did not. In fact, aside from the time I spent with the kids, and a few odd and end errands, I pretty much only did one thing during my vacation. I watched Hallmark Channel's Countdown to Christmas nonstop.   And...if I was feeling particularly sentimental, I would flip over to Hallmark Movies and Mysteries and catch one of their Christmas homecoming tear-jerkers.  You might think I'm exaggerating, but you can ask Rob.  If we were not doing something specific, I was curled up watching Hallmark and dreaming of the perfect white Christmas.  

Most years, I get to take in a few of the movies, but this is the first year that I have literally binged-watched them for two weeks.  Now, before you think I've completely gone off the deep end...let me tell you why I can't seem to get enough Hallmark Channel this year.  Let me just say, it's not the storylines or the acting that keep my attention...it is the escape!  Hallmark movies are the perfect escape from the real world.  And, I don't know about the rest of you, but here lately I have felt an increasingly strong need to escape reality.

I mean think about it.  There's never threat of nuclear war with Korea in a Hallmark movie.  And all those people gathered at the town tree lighting ceremony (and there's always a tree lighting ceremony)? They aren't worried about the ramifications of a 400 page tax bill that appears to favor the wealthy being passed in the middle of the night with only two hours to read marked up copies.  No...the closest thing to political agenda in a Hallmark movie is whether the big corporation will put the local cookie-maker out of business. (Spoiler alert, they always join forces and save the town from financial ruin).   And...thanks be to God...neither Angel Falls nor The Bramble House, The Mistletoe Inn, or the town of Evergreen...have never ever faced a single opioid overdose. Those who are sick, injured, in a coma or have amnesia from falling on the ice...they all get well.  You get the picture...in Hallmark movies, things always have a happy ending.  People welcome the stranger, feed the hungry and care for the poor.  And of course, they fall madly in love...with the person they least expect.

So who wouldn't want to binge on this feast of avoidance?   

The problem with the Hallmark Channel is that as soon as the television is turned off for the day...the reality of the world in which we live pretty much hits us square in the face.  And...it can be very disturbing at times:  the violence..the poverty...the injustices...the natural disasters...and yes, the divided politics.  Now, I know...I know...no one wants to hear this kind of stuff in December...I get that.   Especially after hearing such beautiful music from the Madrigals...or seeing the Christmas decor.  Believe me, I understand.   Heck, I'm all for skipping the sermon and watching a Hallmark movie on the big screen. 

But the truth is folks, even people of faith are not immune to the pain and suffering and heaviness of heart that the brokenness of this world creates.  It's real.  It's unavoidable.  It's disheartening.  But...it does not have to suck the hope, peace, joy and love out of us.  

I think that is why Advent is such an important part of the Christian calendar. It is the annual reminder that we are not alone in this mess.  Advent not only leads up to Jesus' birth, it celebrates the truth that Christ came to earth to walk with us.  He came to reveal God's love to us...to offer us the peace of forgiveness..the joy of purpose...and...well...the hope that our lives can feel like a Hallmark movie on the inside, regardless of our circumstances.  Well...maybe not a Hallmark movie per se, but a life where the reality of the outside world does not have the power to disturb the peace of Christ that is in us.    

Advent is also intended to be a season of intentional waiting -- we are waiting for Christmas to celebrate Jesus' birth...we are waiting for the Christ child to be born anew in hearts...and on a grander scale, we are waiting for God to "create a new heaven and a new earth" and for Christ to come again to establish the full reign of God throughout all of creation.   It's an odd in-between time...waiting to remember what has already come, waiting for what comes to us now, and waiting for what is to fully come someday.

But here's the thing about that waiting.  It's not meant to be a "sit around and wait for something to happens"  kind of wait.  It's not a bury your head in Hallmark movies until it all gets better kind of waiting either. No, it's meant to be an active kind of waiting. Actually, active and participatory.  In other words, we are called to be a part of bringing about the thing upon which we are waiting.   

If we passively wait for circumstances outside ourselves to change in order to feel hope, peace, joy and love in our lives...we could be waiting in misery for a very long time.   More importantly, as Rev. Marcia McFee says when we wait passively, we rob ourselves of the chance to have those things in our lives right now. 

Folks, we really do have a choice in the matter.  We can fret about the way things are or we can fly in the face of fear and make different things happen. We can wait around for someone else to make the world a better place...or we can choose to participate in God's plan to bring about his kingdom, now, on earth as it is in heaven.

The stories we will use this year during Advent have a couple of things in common...angels bringing a message being one of them.   We will also see that the angels invite...as if there is a choice... very ordinary people like you and me to join in God's plan.  Basically, each week the angel brings a message that says, Hey...you...God is doing something and you are meant to be a part of it.  Do not let your fear or your insecurity or your shame or your vulnerability get in the way.   

Hear that church?  When the angel says, "Do Not Be Afraid" he also talking to us...laying the ground work for us to get busy doing the work that has been laid before us - bringing Christ message of hope...and peace...and joy...and love to a world that desperately needs to experience them.

This week...our Advent invitation is to bring messages of hope - not the hope that is just wishful thinking...but the hope of our faith...the God is in this so I know it will happen, kind of hope.  Advent hope. Hope similar to what we heard in the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth. The hope that two ordinary people - albeit from priestly lineage - were chosen by God to be part of the salvation story.  Hope that was exhibited when Zechariah and Elizabeth resisted fear and trusted God instead...even in the midst of uncertainty.  And of course there is the hope that comes from knowing that John's birth fulfilled prophecy which means that God has a bigger over-arching story for all his people.

Today the Advent candle reminds us that we, too, have also been given the same kind of assured hope.   A hope that rests in the birth of a savior...a hope that is found in the promise that God's justice and mercy will prevail...that God is with us - always. Our hope is found in the truth that the compassion of Christ is more powerful that any division that humankind can create.  Our hope is strengthened by knowing that where the Spirit of the Lord is, there too will be the fruits of love, peace, joy, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. And where they are not present...there is always the hope that the grace of God can transform.

Friends, rather than give in to the culture of fear, which by the way, is the fuel that generates despair...the absence of hope...rather than getting sucked into that downward spiral...rather than burying ourselves in denial of the real world...or just giving up on it altogether and waiting to get to heaven...we are called to be messengers, angels of #morehope now.

And just what does #morehope look like?  Well, first and foremost, what it does not look like is fear!  Hope is moving forward in the face of fear. Hope is not crossing our fingers and making a wish. Hope is being sure that God will be faithful and keep his promises. 

Wherever we see Christ at work...we see hope.  

There is hope in a man refusing to let his cancer diagnosis steal his joy. 

Or, a woman's voice being heard after years of harassment.

We see hope manifest in a team of basketball players wearing jerseys with positive messages on them in order to do their part to help heal the division in our nation.

 As well as in a group from right here in Lebanon that is currently working to help restore an area of Puerto Rico after the hurricane.

Hope also looks like a group of faith leaders committed to reading 2000 verses of the Bible about poverty and justice in the halls of Congress.

Or a group of 3-4 who pray together every Wednesday for a revival among Christians in Lebanon.

Or a group of churches coming together to share cheer with local first responders.

Or a perfectly timed tweet of Amos 5:24: But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

And then there's my personal favorite this week...hope looks like Phil Tyree and Todd Spennaberg and their Lebanon Chatter.  Well, not exactly Lebanon Chatter...in fact Lebanon Chatter can be very disheartening.  The hope is in a special FB page called Lebanon Chatter Community Chest.  After seeing someone criticized for asking for help online, Phil and Todd started the Community Chest page as a safe place for people to ask for assistance.  I believe they are helping change the conversation about what it means to show compassion to those in need...and that is clearly a hope-filled thing!

Folks, Advent reminds us that there are signs of hope all around us...signs of Christ's compassion...and mercy and grace being lived out...signs of people refusing to wait passively...signs that love is trumping fear...every day.  

And unlike a Hallmark movie...this hope does not go away at the end of the day.   This hope is in Christ...and that makes it eternal. 

So, as you journey through Advent...look for promises of hope...share these promises of hope with others...become an #AngelAmongUs bringing messages of hope to the world.

And while you're at it...make time for a Hallmark movie...you'll be glad you did! 

Have hope...and give all glory to God.  Amen.

November 12, 2017
Bible Reference(s):
Joshua 24:1-4
Matthew 25:1-13
Rev. Terri Thorn

Every day on my iPad I receive notifications of headlines from a variety news sources with diverse perspectives.  As each one pops up, with just a swipe of my finger across the screen, I can choose to read the article or delete it.  It's one of my favorite features.   So...a couple of weeks ago I received an odd type of notification from CNN but I didn't pay much attention to it.  Yesterday, it showed up again The little pop-up  read: "A new Star Wars trilogy. A "zombie" star that won't die. And a TV star returns.  Here is your politics-free news from the week."

I'm not sure which is more sad...that CNN has to specifically sort out politics-free news for me...or that only thing they could come up with was Star Wars and Zombies.

The truth is that we live in an unprecedented age of instant unfettered access to news feeds from all over the world.  At the same time, we also live in an unprecedented age where we cannot be sure which news sources are reliable and which are not.   Once upon a time we could turn on the evening news and be fairly confident that we would hear thoughtful, hard-hitting, and mostly unbiased reporting.  Now we must make a decision, every single day, about whom and what we will believe. 

Granted, the choice about which reporting to believe might not be a life or death decision, but it most assuredly impacts our worldview.  It shapes our thinking, our politics, and our actions.  At times, it may even influence our relationships and how we live our lives.  In fact, that which we choose to believe also says something about the God we choose to serve, so perhaps it is a more significant decision than we realize.

In today's reading from Joshua, we find the Israelites facing a significant decision of their own. 

Before we read it, let me just set the context of the passage with a refresher about who Joshua was and how he got to the point that this text picks up.   Joshua was born in Egypt and was among the slaves that God sent Moses to free from bondage.  As a young man, Joshua grew up under Moses' leadership during the 40-year wilderness period.  Although it's not clear that Joshua understood it at the time, as Moses' assistant, he was being groomed to become a formidable leader of God's people. 

And that he did.  When Moses died, God appointed Joshua as the one who would lead the Israelites across the Jordan into the Promised Land.  The book of Joshua chronicles the adventures and challenges the Israelites faced under his very competent leadership.  It tells how the nation was eventually established after the long wait in the wilderness.

Joshua was a good leader.  He was known for his deep trust in God and his leadership style still serves as a model for modern day church leaders.  I particularly like the way he interacts with the people in today's reading which takes places at the very end of the book.  By this time, various enemies have been defeated, the land has been divided up, and God's faithfulness has been proven over and over.  And we come to this...

Read Joshua 24:1-25 

In this covenant-making ceremony, Joshua gathers everyone together and from verse 3 through 13 gives them a huge history lesson.   God wants Joshua to remind the Israelites of where they had come from and to leave no doubt that it was God - the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob...the God of Moses...their God... who had led them there.   

So, after hearing all that history of God's provision and faithfulness, the question that Joshua asks seems almost rhetorical, doesn't it?  Which God will they choose to serve?   As if  that's even a question.   But, apparently it is.    Now this is where I was saying I admire how he interacts with the people.  Joshua tells them what they should do.  Revere God.  Serve God honestly and faithfully.  Put aside the gods of  the ancestors...and the ones of this new land.  BUT...he does not insist on their compliance.   He presents the case, offers his viewpoint, and then lets them decide.   He tells them what he and his household intend to do, then puts the ball in their court.    

Now of course, the people know the answer to the question.  They are fully aware that they are to choose and serve God.   It's sort of like the answer in the children's sermon is always Jesus.  The right answer for the children of God is God.  So of course they say that they choose God...and will serve him.   But that is an answer from the head...from the intellect...not from the heart.  

This is why Joshua pushes them on it several times...even telling them that they can't serve God and continue living rebelliously in sin.   He is trying to help them understand that service to God is more than lip-service.   As any of our veterans will tell us, service means sacrifice of self - even one's comfort, safety, and personal plans and ideas.  Service requires loyalty...and perseverance during difficult times.  To serve is about being a part to something greater than oneself and a willingness to give one's entire self to that thing.  There cannot be divided loyalties when you are serving your country...and there cannot be divided loyalties when you serve your God. 

The language gets fairly harsh...but Joshua is making a life or death point.   If you choose to serve God, your life will be different.   No more clinging tightly to the other gods...no more trusting in them or yourself.  Everything...your heart, your mind, your spirit....your life...must belong to God.   It's a tall...if not impossible...order to fill...but those crazy Israelites were surely going to try.   In verse 24 they say:  We will serve the Lord our God and will obey him.

Ummm....yeah...and we all know how that worked out for them, right?   The whole rest of the Old Testament recounts their roller coaster of faith:  trust God...listen to another god; faithful follower...stiff-necked people; obey God...take matters into our own hands.   You get the picture.

We get the picture because it's our story too.  We all know the answer to the question.  I mean gods of ancestors...territorial gods of specific lands...any other god but God...is never the right answer.  Yet, sometimes the answer that we profess to know is not the answer we live.  

Sometimes our words and our actions do not match.  This is particularly true in a nation like ours where there are many gods competing with the God we profess.   And to be quite honest, just like the confusing news sources make it difficult to know fake from true...the other gods sometimes cloud our judgment about what it means to choose to serve God.   In fact, the blurred line between the gods of our nation and the God of our faith makes it nearly impossible at times to be sure whom we are serving.

For example,  if we participate in a system designed increase our financial security yet endangers the well-being of others, are serving a God of mercy or is it the god of personal wealth?

 If we excuse away charges of abuse of power for the sake of political ideology, are we serving a God of justice?

Can we deny access to affordable health care coverage, addiction treatment, and mental health services and still serve a God of compassion?

Is it possible ignore the damage done to the earth's climate and distrust the science behind it and still honor the God of Creation or is some other god in charge of our heart?

If we refuse to welcome a neighbor because of race, socioeconomic status, nationality, or sexuality...are we genuinely serving the God of love or has an ancient god of social construct grabbed our loyalty?

And folks, my personal struggle this week...in a nation that continues to allow unrestricted access to weapons specifically designed to kill masses of people, how do we boldly proclaim to serve the God who gives us the breath of life when the gods of fear and constitutional freedom speak with a louder voice of fear?

So yeah, sometimes, the gods of the land are quite clever.  They offer a sense of safety and security.  They provide an illusion of freedom.  They claim to be a source of comfort.  They promise that things will be like the good ole days.  They even go as far as to make us believe that they give us power.

But folks...they will all eventually fall short.  The gods of this land are not all that different from the false gods throughout the ages.  The names and forms may change, but they serve the same purpose...to distract us, create fear, and cause us to doubt God.  They are finite things trying to fill an infinite void in our soul.  They have god-like status in our society...but they are definitely not God.

They are not the God who created us.  They are not the God who saves us.  They are not the God who gives us meaning and purpose.  They are not the God who remains faithful even when we are not.  These other gods cannot offer us forgiveness in our failures...they cannot give us a second chance.  They do not stand with us in good times and bad.  They do not care if we suffer.  They do not give us strength for the journey of life..and they most assuredly do not ever give us new life.

Only God, though his son, Jesus Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit is able to do that.  Is this not the one and only God whom we shall choose to serve?

Still, in a world of deception and many gods vying for our loyalty, how do we choose and serve only God?  More specifically, how do we choose, not just with our minds, but with our actions, to serve God?

Well, that's where I think the generation-to-generation lesson comes in.    (see note at end of sermon)

Now, let's be honest, like the Israelites, clearly as Christ-followers, our best intention is to choose and serve only God.  But also like them, we will, at times fail to remain faithful to this promise.   Thankfully, by God's amazing grace, when we confess our failure,  through Christ, we are forgiven and given another chance to choose differently next time.   

And Jesus teaches us that our choices matter.  The "oil", if you will, that we pour into the lamp that is our life, matters.  The more good oil we have flowing in  -- like love and kindness...worship, prayer, and study...acts of mercy and compassion -- the longer our lamp will burn...and...the more our lives look will like the light of Christ that is in them.   Our spiritual oil prepares us to serve God...and it is in our serving that God will find us faithful. 

So, friends, when we choose the good oil of our faith, filling and refilling from the abundance of God's love,  we will be given the light of discernment we need to choose and serve the one true, merciful and loving God.    All glory be to his name.  Amen.

 

 

Children's sermon notes: 

1) Discuss how oil candles/lamps work. What would happen if there wasn't any oil?

2) Compare to no food in our bodies - no energy to do things...no clarity etc.

3) Jesus told story about women who had oil lamps.   Summarize the story. (5 had extra, 5 ran out)

4) Jesus compares this to the Kingdom of God.  What do they think that meant?

5) Time waiting for his return could be long time (2000 years already) - need to be prepared for that.

6) Keep plenty of oil in our spiritual lamps -- spiritual lamps are live of faith.

7) Examples of good oil:  prayer, study, worship, fellowship, mission projects etc.

 

Bible Reference(s):
Revelation 7:9-17
Matthew 5:1-12
Rev. Terri Thorn

This reading from Revelation reminds me of a story about when we took our youngest child, Mark, to Purdue.  By the way, I don't usually share my family's personal stories from the pulpit. It's a promise I made to the Rob and the kids years ago...no sharing without permission...but Mark said this was OK to share. 

Now, I know it will sound like I'm bragging, but Mark has always been a very good kid.  He is smart... and kind...and considerate...trust-worthy, reliable, loyal...an all-around great guy. However, Mark is also very, very, independent...almost to a fault.  In fact, I think his first sentence was "Mark do it." 

From a very early age he was one of those kids who wanted to figure things out for himself.  By the time he was in first grade he was literally getting himself ready for school. He rarely wanted help...and usually, he did not need it.  As a result, there have been times, especially during his high school years that I felt a little disconnected from Mark.  I mean, the communication between a mother and her son is already sort of limited during the teen-age years, but there were times when I was worried that Mark would become a complete loner.  This is why when he left for Purdue, I silently prayed that being away at college would help him realize and appreciate that he is part of something much bigger than himself.  

Now, you know what they say about prayers?  Be careful what you pray for...you just might get it.

Well... fast-forward to Purdue Family Day that year.  Rob and I decide to go up and join Mark at the football game. It was a beautiful sunny day and we were sitting in Ross-Ade stadium watching the Boilermakers when Mark decides to break the news to me that he's decided to pledge a fraternity...which, having been to a few fraternity parties in my own days at Purdue...was my worst nightmare.

Trying to stay calm and not jump to conclusions, I replied, "Really?  Tell me more."   And he did..he told us which fraternity he had selected and why.  He went on to talk about the house and the brothers and some of the pledge activities.  Of course, there are always some things better left unsaid.  Anyway, just as he was finishing up and I was about to express my concerns, he says to me, "Mom, I know you're a little worried.  But the thing is...since I've joined this fraternity, I have this real sense that I am part of something much bigger than myself."

Really God?  My exact words?  Did you really have to answer my prayer with a college fraternity? 

So, what does this have to do with today's reading?  Well, first of all, rest assured that the things I imagine happening when one pledges a fraternity are equally as frightening as the metaphorical images in Revelation!  Sealed scrolls, horses, dragons...fire and hail and blood.  Oh Lord, have mercy on the mom's imagination.

The real reason, though, that this story comes to mind is that the truth is Mark's fraternity has truly served the purpose of connecting him to something greater than himself.  I saw that quite vividly as he and his brothers biked across the US this summer raising funds and awareness for disabled adults.  There is truly a brotherhood connection between him and a number of young men from all over the US.   They are united in character, effort, and purpose.

This idea of connecting to something greater than our individual selves is one of the reasons we celebrate All Saints Day in the church.  It reminds us that, through Christ, we are connected to God...and to each other.  Our unity is not just with those of us who are living and breathing on earth at this moment in history, but with all of our brothers and sisters who have gone before us...all of those who have fought the good fight of this life and who now rest eternally with God. 

I suppose that it can feel sort of pessimistic to say that folks have fought the good fight. I mean, life isn't really supposed to be a fight, is it?  Nonetheless, I think all of us would agree that it's also not a rose garden either. 

Life can be very difficult.  It has its ups and down.  Challenges are pretty much a given...eventually we all face them.  We live in a world where bad things happen to good people and where justice does not always prevail.  So, in a way, I do think it is safe to say that all who live and live well, also fight the good fight. Or, as the apostle Paul is keen to say, we persevere and run the race before us.

And isn't that what our saints have done?  They have gloriously completed the race of this life...despite the rocks, bumps and puddles...faithful and true to God through Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.   That's why we admire them so much.  They show us how a life of faith is lived.

More importantly though...the saints remind us that we do not run alone.  Saints are those who understand that they have always been part of something greater than themselves and share that with unity with us even now.  In life and in death, both saints and saints-to-be know that they are part of the Body of Christ...members of the priesthood of all believers.  They are one ecclesia...one church. 

Some of you saw an article that I posted this week on Facebook about why 80% of Americans do not want attend a worship service on a weekly basis.  Sadly that statistic is appalling but true.  The reasons listed in the article were subjective and mostly matters of a person's own bias rather than the church's failing.  However, the author did point out that one reason people have left the church is because we have forgotten what it means to be the church. Instead we have come to view the church as a either an institution which we chose to support or reject...or church is a weekly event which we choose to attend or not attend.  The author's point was that many folks have lost sight of the church being church...of being God's family together.  Sadly, the relational aspect has become optional even though the need for connection remains great.

Folks, saints past, present and future celebrate the good news that we all belong to God's family   We are necessarily woven together by Christ. Therefore, our earthly lives are meant to be very much in tune with and connected to each other.   As saints-in-training, we look to the saints who already are, and live out our faith in ways that the world can see...in the ways our saints have taught us.   This is how we honor them and join in their legacy.

More often than not, the saint-forming life to which we are called looks like a lot like the reading from Matthew. The faithful live this life of blessedness...of humility and meekness, poor in spirit, mourning the ills of the world, hungering and thirsting for righteousness, merciful, pure in heart, peacemakers...all that...not so we can become a saint but because we realize that, as members of the Body, we are already on their way to being one. 

Future saints...those of us becoming like the saints we remember, are blessed to live kingdom-like...here and now.  Trusting the gospel of Jesus Christ...even when it is not easy...even in the presence of evil...even when life persecutes...even when society would try to convince us otherwise.  In essence folks, living the kingdom life of mercy, justice, compassion and love --which Jesus proclaimed and modeled -- is the way saints are made, and the way God’s realm is made known.  It is how ordinary folks like you and me are shaped into the next generation of saints and how the church becomes the city on a hill…the light in darkness..  Kingdom living is how we become part of something greater than ourselves. It is how we be the church family together.

So, on this All Saints Day, we remember the humble, average, mistake-making people who, by God's grace, have weathered the storms of life...those who, by living a life of faith in Christ, have "come through the great ordeal" and are now in the multitude gathered before the heavenly throne.  More specifically, our minds and hearts are especially drawn toward the beloved saints in our lives who have inspired and encouraged us in our own faith journeys.  People whose lives were not perfect...but who were faithful in their prayers and witness.  Loved ones who may not have lived up to the world's self-serving standards of success and power and individualism...but who were instead, humble, compassionate, kind, merciful, and genuinely pure in heart.  

Folks, I am convinced that every picture on display here today...or life represented by a candle...or those whose names are carried in our hearts...are remembered not because of their great accomplishments...not for their fame and fortune... not for the words on their obituary.  We remember and honor them because their lives looked like Christ's and they inspired us to live the same.  The saints we celebrate today are those whom the author of Hebrews describes as the great cloud of witnesses cheering us on in our race.

Speaking of cheering each other on.  Yesterday was the Monumental Marathon in Indianapolis.   26.2 miles.   Some of you may remember Andrew Peterson, the Special Olympic gold medal winner who spoke here a couple of years ago.   He's a distance runner who was born with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, lived in and out of foster care, and was adopted along with his siblings by a single man.  Andrew has persevered and overcome many challenges in life - physical, mental and emotional.

Just as he has in previous races, Andrew ran the Monumental Marathon in an attempt to be the second ever Special Olympian -  the first one in 35 years - to qualify for the Boston Marathon.   Unfortunately, for various reasons, Andrew has always fallen just short of qualifying.  This year Andrew and his coach -- which is his dad, Craig -- decided that he it would be helpful if he had someone to run with him during the race. So, yesterday morning, a humble man whose name I don't even know, an unselfish man who put his own running strategy on the back burner and may have even sacrificed his own finishing time, chose to run alongside Andrew to help him keep pace. Of course, Andrew still had to run the 26.2 miles...but this time he was not alone.   Someone was running with him, to encourage him when he was wearing down...to guide him if he got off track...to inspire him toward his goals...to be, Andrew's "saint" if you will, for the race.

The time required to qualify for the Boston Marathon is 3 hours and 5 minutes.  I'm so pleased to say that yesterday, with his pacer running alongside, Andrew Peterson ran the Monumental with a qualifying time of 2 hours and 57 minutes!  He will run the Boston Marathon!

Friends, I am not only thrilled for what this means for Andrew and for Special Olympians...I love how this metaphor speaks to our own lives.  We do not run alone.  Ever.  No matter how challenging life gets...regardless of how frightening the world around us becomes...despite the many losses life can hand us... job,  or money, or health, or even relationships...we, members of the church, have the Holy Spirit with us.  And, we have each other...to encourage one another...to console one another...to inspire one another..and above all, to love one another.  To love each other the way Christ has loved us.

What I find particularly beautiful in this Revelation passage is the image of the multitude gathering before God.  The no-barriers multitude...coming together...not just surviving the ordeal of life...but rising above it.  All nations.  All tribes. All languages.  No division over religious doctrine.  No division over politics.  No racial divides.  No gender divides.  No division based on socio-economic status...or race....or sexual identity.  No division based on where you were born...or how you were raised...or whom you have loved or who has loved you.  To me, this is what it means to be the church....past, present and future.  

By grace, through faith, a great multitude of outsiders --and we are all outsiders -- is brought together and the church triumphant is formed.  We come together no longer as individuals who have lived and died...but as this glorious oneness...spanning all space and time and history. 

This is what it means to celebrate the All Saints Day.  This is what it means to be united in one hope, one Lord, one faith, and one baptism.  This is what it means to have all the saints who have gone before us, now alongside those of us who are…by God’s grace…becoming the saints remembered.  Friends, life and and death and resurrection of Lord and Savior Christ has made us part of something so much greater than ourselves.  Let us rejoice...let us praise...let us celebrate...let us remember.  To God’s glory. Amen.

October 22, 2017
Bible Reference(s):
Isaiah 43:1-13
Rev. Terri Thorn

Occasionally someone will ask me if I could only own just one book of the Bible, which would I choose?   Sometimes I tell them the Acts of the Apostles, because I believe it provides the framework of what it means to be a Christian faith community.  However, most of the time, I choose Isaiah...which some call the fifth gospel since Isaiah directly and frequently heralds the good news of the Messiah.  

To me, Isaiah is the pivotal and overarching book that helps us understand the whole faith story in which we find ourselves.  It connects the history of the past...the stories, the prophecies, the lessons...to the story of Christ...and reveals the fully established Kingdom to come.  It pieces it all together.  So, for me, if you dig deep into Isaiah, by default, you are forced to dig deeper into the rest of the scripture.  And most assuredly, given the number of times Isaiah is quoted or referred to in the New Testament, if we scratch the surface of any part of the New Testament writings, a connection to Isaiah is waiting to be found.

Isaiah is THE book that reveals God in all his holiness, the gospel in all its grace, and our future in all its glory.  Therefore, it is only fitting as we close our sermon series on the Five Solas of the Reformation with soli deo Gloria (to the glory of God only) that we turn to Isaiah.  

Now, let us be reminded that the Reformers did not start out with these solas as their rallying cry.  Instead, they are the five Latin phrases which emerged to summarize the chief theological concerns of the Reformers. That said, folks tend to be much more aware of the first four: salvation comes to us by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, as revealed by scripture alone. In fact, Soli Deo Gloria is often missing from the list and is sometimes referred to as the "lost" sola.  Not so much because it is not important...but that it does not directly represent a key complaint of Luther and his contemporaries. 

Certainly, Luther could point to very specific church practices which contradicted grace alone, faith alone, Christ alone and Scripture alone...however, there really wasn't a particular thing that the church was doing to call into question God's glory.  No priests were going around denying God's glory in the Middle Ages...at least not directly or intentionally.  Indirectly, however, was a different story.  

You see...Soli Deo Gloria is both the underpinning and umbrella of the other four solas. In other words, if salvation was offered by any other means than God's grace...such as an indulgence...then it is not to God's glory alone...something else factors in.  If one could obey their way into salvation...then humankind would deserve some of the glory, too.  If anything or anyone other than Christ commuted our righteousness...then that thing or person would be due some glory.  You get the picture.  So, if any of the other solas are missing from theology or practice, so is soli deo gloria...conversely, when the other four are observed, God is glorified.

So, given the significance soli deo gloria, I'm wondering...what do you suppose is meant by the term the "glory of God" or God's glory?   What does "glory" mean?  Or the term glorification? 

It sounds straight-forward and simple...after all, we toss these theological words around all the time.  We should be able to define glory of God.  Yet, when we try to put it to words...we stutter around, unsure of ourselves.   Nonetheless, we try.   When we refer to the glory of God...we tend to characterize it as an attribute of God. Glory is an aspect of who God is.   God's glory is God's majesty...God's greatness...God's supremacy over all things.   Glory captures the unmatchable, unsurpassable, unable-to-be-replicated, belongs-to-no-other facet of God that makes God, God.  It also carries a connotation of lightness and brightness and...emanating from God.   Still, it's not just part of who God is...God's glory is also the way that God makes himself - in all his majesty and greatness and supremacy - known to us.  God's glory makes it clear to us that God is God and we are not.

In the reading today, God, speaking through Isaiah, minces no words about his majesty, greatness and supremacy.   In fact, to be quite honest, if anyone other than God were to use this much "I" language to say these things about his or her own self, we'd worry that they were suffering from Narcissistic Personality Disorder.   

Of course, the "hearers" of Isaiah's words recognized this as the Almighty God's covenantal language of love...It was God promising to be their God.  Likewise, it was quite comforting to hear on the heels of the previous fiery declarations of woes and consequences for their unfaithfulness and the prediction of their impending exile by the Babylonians.  The Israelites needed reassurance that they still belonged to God and that God would be with them in their suffering...and yes, they were going to suffer.   Likewise, though, God also needed to remind them that God and only God could save them in their suffering. 

Now, there is a mention in here in verse 7, of God's glory.  Speaking of all who will be redeemed,  God says "everyone who is called by name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made".   So apparently, there is a connection between God's people...and God's glory.   One possible interpretation would be that by being the ones created for God's glory, the Israelites were God's most precious possession...proof of God's of majesty and greatness.   A second interpretation would be that they were created to be a revelation of it.  Or, perhaps, and more likely, it's a little of both.  I believe, when we apply the idea to our post-resurrection selves, it is definitely both.   Through Christ we are glorified, in other words, God's glory is made known...and we are also called to be glorifiers - those who make God's glory known.

Now, I'm going to explain that further in a moment, but let me first say a little bit more about the concept of God's glory from the Old Testament perspective.  For the ancient Israelites, glory was more than just an attribute of God, it represented God's presence among them.  In fact, the Hebrew word for "glory"  translates to a weight or heaviness...which conveys God's actual presence versus his majesty and awesomeness.   

In the Hebrew scripture, God's presence is often represented by a cloud - a cloud that somehow contained, yet veiled, God, when God was near.   Likewise, the revelation of God's glory was also a mixed blessing of sort.  On the one hand, it meant that the living God was dwelling among his people...yet, when God comes near in the Old Testament, judgment is never far away.  So, throughout the ancient story, there is a unsettledness in that God's people can't survive far from God, but God can't be near them either because of their sin.   In fact, according to Ezekiel, things got so bad that Israel, in their disobedience and apathy, eventually lost her status as holy people.  Sin rendered the nation unclean and their worship defiled the Temple.   God had no choice but to withdraw and let them suffer the natural consequence which was national destruction.  Sometimes I wonder if God ever thinks about doing that again?

Still, God loves his people and is faithful to his covenant, so God would not...could not...remain separated from his beloved.   Eventually God takes on human flesh, coming as a baby boy,  in order to be reunited with all his people...and to adopt more into his family.  So, Jesus of Nazareth, through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit, comes as God's Son and becomes God's glory incarnate - Jesus was God's presence with his beloved people.  No more "cloud" per se. 

Jesus also took care of the sin-gap that separated us from God.  By going to the Cross...a lowly place of total humility...the complete opposite of the world's definition of power and honor and majesty...Jesus not only redeemed our sin, he was exalted by God.  His ministry of compassion, healing and restoring people to community gave glimpses of God's glory, but it was through his self-sacrifice at the cross, that Jesus ultimately revealed all of God's glory.   That is why we sometimes use the phrase, the glory of the cross.  It is not the world's definition of glorious, but it is God's.

I think the official theological terminology for this the process of God revealing God's glory is "glorification"...which was fully consummated on the cross.   Now...I know this is a lot of church-y words...and I don't usually like to bog us down with those...but sometimes, a preacher's gotta do what a preacher's gotta do.  

The good news for us today is much simpler.  It is this:  because of our salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ  alone, we are part of this big glory story too.  We are participants because through his Holy Spirit, Christ is transforming us to be bearers of God's glory.  Of course, in this life, we are not perfect bearers the way Jesus was...however, individually and as his church, we are constantly being shaped by the Spirit to be revealers of God's glory to the world ...to live our lives soli deo gloria...until we are fully united with Christ in all God's glory forever and ever.

So...the real challenge for us is not in recognizing God's glory...I think we all see and feel God's presence in many ways.  We get glimpses of God's glory when prayers are answered....when trust is built...when forgiveness is offered.  We see God's glory at work when the hungry are fed, the sick are healed, the poor are cared for, and the strangers are welcomed.   God's glory is revealed in and through the church when the church is bearing the image of Christ in the world. 

Make no mistake though, glory-bearing is difficult, emotional work.   In order for God to be glorified in us, we must practice the kind of humility and denial-of-self that Jesus did in his dying on the cross.  In other words, we must become less so that God's glory can be revealed. No you all know this is 100% contrary to everything the world teaches us about who and what gets glorified.  By the world's standards, glory belongs to those who are visible...in the limelight...in the know...famous...successful.   But that's not how it works in God's kingdom.  God's glory belongs to those who are willing to bear the cross. 

Soli deo gloria...to the glory of God alone.  Soli. Deo. Gloria...SDG.  

I read a story this week about Johann Sebastian Bach.  Did you know that he signed his compositions SGD rather than JSB?  SDG was his way of reminding himself that all of these masterpieces were offered, not for his fame, but for God's glory.  SDG was a way for Bach to keep himself humble before God.  

SDG...soli deo gloria...we all probably have something in our life that needs a little SDG stamped on it.  A reminder that all the glory belongs to God.   Perhaps it's our check book...does our spending reveal God's glory?  Or maybe our relationships...can we see God's presence in them?  Or what about our words?  Do others see SDG in how we speak to each other...or what we write on FB...what we utter about others under our breath?  Is there a part of your life where you seek recognition, accolades, or you just need to be right?  Does it bring glory to God...and does it bring God's glory to the world?

We could ask these same questions of the church and its ministries, you know.  Where do we need to put little post-it notes of SDG, reminding us that all we do is soli deo gloria?  Does our work and worship, our mission and ministries bring glory to God?  Perhaps even more important in our current context, are we revealing God's glory to the world so desperately needing to experience it? 

Just as the Israelites needed God's glory near them for both assurance and accountability, so does our world.   There is so much hurt and pain...division and hostility...deep loneliness and isolation...arrogance and self-sufficiency...so many who feel abandoned, lost, outcast....and even more whose sin overwhelms and whose choices condemn.  There seems to be so little hope and even less joy.  And practically no glory...at least not soli deo gloria.   Plenty of sources of false glory...but no awareness of God's glory. 

Friends, soli deo gloria reminds us that God is God and we are not.  As is clear in Isaiah, only God can save the world.  We, God's people, have nothing to contribute to that end.  However, we, the church, are called to live our lives soli deo gloria  so that they point the world to God's glory.   A glory which is found in and through the humility of the cross of Christ. 

As the Psalmist wrote: Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to your name give glory, for the sake of your steadfast love and your faithfulness.  All glory be to God, manifested in and through the Son, Jesus Christ, by the power and presence of the Holy Spirit.  Amen

October 15, 2017
Bible Reference(s):
2 Timothy 3:14-4:5
Rev. Terri Thorn

Earlier this week, on the advice of some of my more techie friends, I finally decided to bite the bullet and update the operating system on my iPhone.   Now, I know this might not sound "newsworthy" for some of you, but I found it really stressful to click the "Confirm Update" button.   Not because I don't trust my friends' advice, but because of the bazillion page disclosure that I was supposed to read before doing the update.  You see, clicking "confirm" was an indication that I had read and agreed with the conditions described in the document...and I knew that I had not...not in any depth nor detail.

There were just too many words...with a whole bunch of legal and technical stuff that I didn't understand...so I skipped it.  And I've been thinking about it ever since...partly because it bugs me that I don't know what I agreed to...but mostly because I realize we do that a lot as a society.   We check in at the doctor's office, and with a cursory glance, we sign a bunch of forms that they tell us to sign.  We sit at a mortgage closing while the agent puts papers in front of us saying, sign here, and here...initial here, here and here.   We sort of understand them, but not always.   Some of us drop off our tax information to a professional and sign whatever he or she gives back to us...others enter data into store-bought software that we assume, or hope, knows the tax code.   The list of things we sign-off on, without in-depth knowledge of what they mean is probably longer than we really want to admit.

So why is this happening at such an alarming rate?  Why do we neglect to be informed?  Why do we assume?  Why do we abdicate our responsibility to learn and know for ourselves and instead just take someone else's word?

Perhaps it is because we are naive...too trusting...we believe that others will tell us what we need to know.   Could it be that we tend to only dig into the things we already believe to be true, so we have no need to question?  Perhaps society has lost our ability or desire to investigate and think critically. It is possible that we are just too busy...or, quite honestly...maybe we have just become complacent and lazy.

With increasing frequency, we are just not up for the hard work of digging deeper.  Unless something is particularly vile or cosmically far-fetched, we tend to just accept whatever is laid before us and give very little effort or consideration for what it might actually mean in a bigger picture or down the road.

And, sadly, this is true for many Christians as well...especially when it comes to the hard work of studying scripture and doing theology together.   And by doing theology...I mean the art of formulating our understanding of God and how God is at work in the world at any given time.   Now I'm not saying that everyone is guilty of this, but when studies show that nearly all Christians surveyed indicate that they have multiple Bibles in their homes, yet less than 20% actually read it daily...we may have a problem.  When the majority of people who claim Christianity as their faith tradition but do not attend worship regularly...we may have a problem.  When Christians are willing to let someone else - be it a pastor, an author of a book, a television personality or a Facebook meme - tell us what to think and believe, we may have a problem.   And folks, if the only Bible-time you get in a week is what is read in worship or what the pastor says on Sunday morning, there is a problem.

Someone once said something like (and I'm paraphrasing): "If we still believe the exact same things we did as children, then one must question whether we have grown up at all."  The same is true for Christians...if we aren't constantly learning something new about God, about our faith, about our mission as Christians, then can we really say we're growing in Christ?  I don't think so.

Nonetheless, the reality is that very few people are willing to dig into the scriptures...to be challenged by them...to learn and grow from them...on a regular basis.  A whole lot of Christians would prefer to let someone else tell them what the Bible says and to interpret for them.  In a way, American Christianity has assumed the reverse position of the Reformers.   We have willingly given up the very freedom they sought in the today's tenet:  Sola Scriptura.

You see, for Christians in the Middle Ages, there was no freedom to access the scriptures, much less to give them critical thought.  For one thing, this was before the invention of the printing press and there weren't any Gideons.   Bibles were not readily available.   The few that did exist were held within the church...and interpreted by  the church leadership. 

One writer described it as the Kinko's of theology.  For those who aren't familiar with Kinko's it was a revolutionary copying service  that was big in the 90s.   You could drop off a stack of papers and come back and hour later to find 100 sets of 2-sided copies bound and tabbed for your convenience.  Kinko's did the work for you.   At the time of the Reformation, the church did the work for you.  If you had a theological question, you took it to the church where the magisterial authority would provide the answer.  There was no room for discussion or debate.  Whatever was handed back was what you believed to be truth. 

Prior to the Reformation and counter-Reformation, Christians were given a measured truth from the church.  They were not allowed to "do theology" on their own.  Now, in defense of the Catholic church, this was for good reason.  If the church controlled the truth and kept people from wrestling with scriptures on their own, then they could limit the potential for heresy.  If there was only one right doctrine interpreted from one source, then the people could not be led astray.  

So...I get that...but the outcome of this was rote faith.  People knew what they believed...based on what was dictated to them...but they had no idea why they believed it.  Church confessions, doctrines and interpretations were handed down, without question...and the people repeated them back without understanding or conviction.   The layperson could not defend their faith, even to themselves.  Nor could they be sure what was biblical truth and what was not.  

In fact, the common Christian had very little exposure to the whole of scripture. They only heard the parts that the church leaders decided to share.   And worse yet, if you didn't speak Latin, the scripture that was shared meant nothing to you since it was always read in Latin.   Leading up to the Reformation, the main source of Bible stories was artwork - paintings, murals, and windows - and even those were offered through the lens of the artist and the patron who commissioned the work.

Ironically, no one seemed to consider any of this to be a problem...until Martin Luther, who, by the way, was an Augustinian monk, not a priest.  I misspoke about that last week.  Nonetheless, Luther the monk gets his hands on a Bible and starts reading it...and wrestling with it...and asking questions...and is convicted that everyone deserves this holy experience.  He encountered God in the scriptures...and affirmed the truth that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone...a truth, which by the way, he did not see being lived out by the church.

Luther and the Reformers asserted that the scriptures were inspired by God to reveal God's self to the people of God.  Scripture was all one needed in order to know God revealed in Jesus Christ, and it offered the plumb line necessary for serving him faithfully.   The people did not need a church leader...or another doctrine...or a set of church rules in order to have a relationship with God...they just needed to know God for themselves.   

Therefore, to Luther, it was essential that the people have access to the scriptures. The confessions and doctrines and traditions and interpretations that the church offered may have been important for the orderliness of the religion, but they were not necessarily biblically sound.  Luther maintained that the people had the right to determine the truth for themselves...as it was revealed in the scriptures.

So, sola scriptura became short hand for the idea that the only authoritative source for the faith and practice of Christianity is scripture...not all these other things.  Sola scripture was the rallying cry of the Reformers...asserting that scripture alone is complete, authoritative, infallible and true.  Sola scriptura wasn't meant to say that traditions and teachings of the church weren't important...but it was definitely the Reformers' way of stating that they were only deemed true and right to the extent that they were revealed in, by, and through scripture.   Scripture was the measuring stick of all things in the church.  Sola scriptura was also meant to be an overt rejection to an individual's right to proclaim authority over interpretation.   In other words, folks, there is always the distinct possibility that we could be wrong.

In a sense, sola scriptura is about the importance for Christians to be able to claim and defend their own faith...to know the teachings of Christ...to have their own knowledge of God...all of which are revealed in the scriptures. 

More specifically, sola scriptura still challenges Christians to discern God's truth and make appropriate interpretations by struggling with scripture and doctrines and teachings  for ourselves...rather than letting someone else do it for us.  It means studying the scriptures, engaging in thought-provoking dialogue, and learning from those who have gone before...as well as those whose experiences of God are different than our own.   Not because the scriptures will give us straightforward answers to all our questions - that rarely happens.  And definitely not so others can tell us their answers.  Sola scripture assures us that in the presence of the Holy Spirit wrestling with the scriptures for ourselves will undoubtedly reveal God and God's will to us. 

This seems to be part of Paul's message to Timothy in our reading today.  As the church in Ephesus faced false teachers and heresy, Paul says to Timothy who was the appointed leader:  begin with what you know to be true from the scriptures...and how they point to salvation through faith in Christ...but also rely on the wisdom of those who have long-walked the life of faith...and learn from others who have had similar struggles. 

Now, let's be clear...the scriptures Timothy would have known were mostly what we call the Old Testament.  He would have heard the stories of the gospels...and maybe read some of Paul's letters...but he did not have a Bible per se.   Not to mention, most everything would have been orally conveyed...not in writing.   So, while it's not a direct comparison between Timothy's situation and ours today, Paul's message still seems just as pertinent now as it was back then.

You see, Timothy was encouraged to continue in what he has already learned...but also to be willing to learn more...and to inspire the church to learn as well.  Paul writes:  convince, rebuke (or perhaps better said, challenge) and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching.  In others words, Timothy has  a God-given responsibility to help the church do the hard work of discovery so that together they will be able to discern what is right and true.  

This responsibility...and privilege...of the church...has not changed.  It is still ours today.

What has changed, though, is that we are greatly advantaged over the early churches.  We've got two thousand years of church history to guide us.  We have an agreed canon of inspired scripture available to us in multiple languages, translations and interpretations...in print...on our computers...literally at our fingertips on phones.   Not to mention we have unfettered access to learning resources and tools.  And most importantly, we have each other...fellow Christians with whom we can learn and struggle and discern.  Thankfully, we live in a place where we are free to do so...no government stopping us...no distance hindering us...no real threat of persecution here.  We are free to share our experiences...thoughts...and discernment...as we seek the Holy Spirit's guidance in our wrestling with how to live the gospel in the 21st century. 

And folks, there is still plenty of wrestling for the church to do.   God has inspired the Holy Scriptures for our teaching, but God has not directly answered every life question in them.  Some call the Bible an instruction manual, but  I disagree.  An instruction manual is a step-by-step "how to".  I don't know about you, but it seems to me that there are a whole lot of things in our world that are not addressed step-by -step in the Bible.   It's not that simple and straight-forward.  

Likewise, there are many things about which church people have vastly different understandings...and others about which we vehemently disagree.   So yes, there is still much more to discover about ourselves and our relationship with God.

Still,  sola scriptura assures us that everything we need in order to know God...everything we need in order to be certain that we are saved by grace through faith...everything we need to faithfully follow Christ...in available right here...when we consider it in its entire narrative...when we read it in the presence of the Holy Spirit....when we boldly engage and study it...when we listen for God. 

Friends, Luther was willing to die for the common Christian's right to read, hear, and discern what the Bible says about God - about God's love, about God's mercy, about God's faithfulness, about God's promise of salvation...all of which are revealed though his Word...both written here and incarnate in Christ Jesus.    

Now, here we are 500 years later...with this beautiful love story between God and God's people readily available.   It is an incredible story of love and grace...justice and mercy...salvation and restoration for God's people...For his  imperfect, ill-equipped people.  For his willing servants and his stubborn sheep.   For those who are unlovable as well as those who are unloving...For his people who hurting...desperate...lost...ashamed.  For the timid, the bold, the fearful, the brave.  It is story of hope for all the ages.   Why on earth would we not want to read it...study it...and embrace it?  It is, after all, our story...ours to live and to tell.  Thanks be to God.

October 8, 2017
Bible Reference(s):
Hebrews 4:14-16 and 5:1-10
Rev. Terri Thorn

You all know who Larry Bird is, right?   A pretty well-known basketball player who grew up in Indiana, played college and professional ball...used to be involved with the management of the Pacers?   That Larry Bird.   Well, I also know who he is...now...but back in the early 80's, not so much so.  I mean, I knew the name, of course, but I am not sure I could have picked him out of a lineup.  As a matter of fact, I sort of met him once, but only because someone pointed him out to me.

It was back when Rob and I were still in college.  We had come to Indianapolis to attend an event downtown at Union Station when it was still a happening place.  Honestly, I don't recall why we were there, but I do remember that another girlfriend and I were standing around waiting for our dates to finish paying for dinner when a man neither of us knew came up and asked us if we wanted to meet Larry Bird.  

We looked at each other and I asked the guy, "Larry Bird, the basketball player?"  He said, "Yes, he is right over there."  Now, the only way I knew which one was Larry was because he towered over everyone around him.  So the guy says, "I am a friend of Larry's and he sent me over here to invite you ladies to join his private party."

Now let me just say up front, I admit I was a bit naive, but here's how much.  I enthusiastically said, "Yes, we would love to go to his party.  That would be so cool.   And my boyfriend, who loves basketball, is going to be so excited to meet THE Larry Bird." 

Well, the guy looked at me like I was from Mars and said, "Boyfriend?  Ummm, no boyfriends.   Larry's only inviting you ladies."   OK...so...I didn't understand it at the time...but turns out that Larry Bird had his own personal "gatekeeper" whose job it was to decide who gets to meet Larry, and who doesn't. 

Needless to say, my friend and I did not go meet Larry.  And neither did our dates. 

This idea of gate-keeping...controlling access...having a handler??  It's pretty common for famous people like sports stars, rock stars, and political figures.   Heck, even some pastors have gate-keepers.  

Mine is named Nancy Turner. 

OK...so you do know I'm kidding, right?  Although, during the weekdays, the access button for the locked front door is in her office.

Seriously though, the idea of controlled access...or like in Larry's case, having a go-between, was a point of contention for Martin Luther and the Reformers.  As we mentioned earlier in this Reformation sermon series, Luther was concerned that layers of clutter within the church had begun to bury the gospel of Jesus Christ.  He also felt that the ordained leadership had claimed an exclusive authority that placed an unnecessary burden on the laity.  More specifically, according to church doctrine at the time, the ordained priests held positions of power over everything in the life of the church - they were gatekeepers of the sacraments, the only ones with access to scriptures, and they only provided mass in Latin -regardless of what language the people spoke. 

This led to a troubling perception that when a priest offered absolution of sin, it was perceived to be a function of the priest himself, rather than it just being a function of the office.  In other words, it was by the priest words and actions that the sacraments were effective, not God's. The priest also had the authority to decide the penance for sins - which during the Middle Ages were typically quite severe.  So Luther, a priest himself, was furious that the curate had assumed and abused authority which was not theirs to hold in the first place.

Now, let me just say a couple of things...the fact that we are doing series on the five "solas" of the Reformation is not in any way, shape, or form meant to be anti-Roman Catholic.  All this stuff happened 500 years ago...in the Middle Ages.  A whole lot has changed since then.  In fact, the Reformation was followed by a counter-Reformation within the Catholic Church that addressed several of the sinful practices that the Reformers had originally protested.  So,  please...don't hear what I am not saying.  When I speak about the Catholic priests during this series...I am not talking about Father Tim around the corner at St. Joe's. 

Yes...the Catholic church has had its share of ugliness...as did the Reformation  movement...as has the Protestant churches as well.  We are human...we sin.

Luther understood that.  His desire was for the church to repent of it and be transformed.  And, yes, eventually the Catholic Church did just that...but not until after the great schism had already gone so far that there was no turning back.  Not until the baby had already been thrown out with the bath water.

That said, there are current signs of healing and progress between Catholics and Lutherans as this anniversary approaches.  All across the world, joint worship services are being planned to acknowledge the culpability of both sides and to seek reconciliation.  Praise be to God, both traditions have come a long way since the Reformation.

As we continue along in our sermon series, today we dig into the idea of solus Christus, Christ alone.  For Luther and Reformers, the significance of this statement was a little different than what it holds for many people now. Today, when we say Christ alone, the emphasis of the "alone" is usually in contrast to any other faith tradition in our world.  In other words, we say our salvation comes from Christ alone, not Mohammed, not Buddha, not the Dali Lama, not any other spiritual leader. 

However, back in Luther's time, there wasn't a huge awareness to other faith traditions  - they existed, but not prominently in Europe.  So, for the Reformers, Christ alone was more about God's grace being meted out to the people only through Christ as opposed to through the church or, more specifically the priests.   "Solus Christus"  was a protest to the expressed need for an ordained priest in order to receive God's forgiveness...or to administer the sacraments...or to offer prayers on the people's behalf. 

"Christ alone" was a summary statement that only through Christ has humanity been redeemed.  It was also a statement about who held power and authority in God's church.  Practically and theologically, Luther wanted to free the laity from being beholden to the priests...saying that we, the church, are beholden only to Christ.  Likewise, Luther claimed that, according to scripture, we all have been given direct access to Christ...we do not need the gate-keeper or go-between. 

We don't need others  - religious figures or patrons or various saints - to intercede on our behalf.

We have Christ's spirit available to us -- within our own selves.

Now, Luther was not saying we don't need ordained clergy. He knew that God calls certain people into ordained ministry.  His point was that being a minister is a role we fill within the church. We are called to minister to the people...bringing the Word, praying, offering sacraments.  However, clergy are never the mediators of God grace and salvation.  We proclaim the gospel of salvation and righteousness by grace through faith, but we can't save anyone or make them righteous.  Only Christ does that. 

Likewise, we can preside at sacraments like baptism and communion, but we are just presiders...the work and grace that takes place in the sacrament...the efficacy if you will, is God at work through the Holy Spirit. 

Part of Luther's argument against the priests...and remember he was one...came from reading and studying passages like this one from Hebrews.   He related to what the author of Hebrews had said to the Jewish Christians -- people whose ancestors had always had a very specific relationship with the Levite priests.  The role of the priest was to represent God to the people and the people to God.

The high priests, who were called by God, were the equivalent of Temple gatekeepers. They brought forth the gifts and sacrifices given for the forgiveness of sin.  They offered the prayers.  They held people - including kings and prophets - accountable.  Still, as anointed as they were, they were also fallible human-beings. They had their own sin, and therefore could not offer perfect righteousness. Ultimately they could not fulfill their most important purpose...to reconcile the people to God.

Only Christ could do that. 

So, it seems, that perhaps part of what this author was trying to do was to help the Jewish Christians make a radical break from their reliance on Temple priests by explaining how Jesus has fulfilled the role of the Most High Priest.  More importantly, he used the priest metaphor to explain how Jesus truly was the Messiah...the one who was chosen by God, to enter the fully human experience, remain righteous, and make the sacrifice for sin that no other human could make.

Notice, though, the author doesn't try to explain exactly how salvation happens.  He just basically says that the only source of salvation is only Jesus Christ.  He perfectly fulfills the role of Most High Priest.  He, and only he, made the perfect sacrifice that reconciles us to God.  Christ alone has done this.

The author, does however, place emphasis on the fact that Jesus, while fully and perfectly divine...was also fully and perfectly human.  He is the penultimate high priest of God's mysteries - the one who conquers sin and saves humanity once and for all.  BUT he was also the humble man who endured and experienced every weakness, every testing, every emotion that the human experience offers. (paraphrasing Rev. Susan Andrews, FOTW p 184)

As the author of Hebrews writes, while he was on earth he offered up prayers and supplications with cries and tears.  Folks this is good news...Jesus...the Most High Priest...the ruler of God's kingdom...the Son of God...our savior...the One through whom we receive grace and are made righteous before God...the one who loves us enough to die on our behalf...that One...Jesus Christ...totally gets us. 

He understands when we suffer, because he suffered.  He understands when we are tempted, because he was tempted.  He understands when we are lonely because his was a lonely ministry.  He understands when people scorn us, attack us, or try to make us feel insignificant ...because all those things happened to him. He understands grief and pain and heartache because he endured them all.

Is it not incredibly reassuring to know that the One who stands before God on our behalf, has completely lived the human experience?  He has been on his knees in prayer like us.  He has begged and pleaded, and been reduced to tears.  Yeah folks, the fully-human, fully-divine Jesus relates to us like no other god possibly can.  And isn't that what we all want?  To be understood.   

That's why things like support groups and 12-step programs are so effective.  It feels much safer to be our true selves with people who have had similar experiences as we have.  When we find out we have a terminal illness, a broken marriage, or an addicted loved one...we are encouraged by stories from those who have also walked the same path.

Being connected through shared experiences is its own form of grace.

So, friends, when we come to the throne of grace, or as some translations call it, the mercy seat...in other words we come before God in prayer...seeking grace and mercy...asking for peace and comfort in our lives...we can do so with utter confidence that the One who completely understands...totally relates...is right there with our Creator listening and advocating...whispering:  YES...you are so beloved...and then giving us the grace and mercy we need.

I'm telling you, if that isn't good news, I don't know what is.   

Especially this week...as we try to wrap our heads and hearts around the mass shooting in Las Vegas last Sunday night...while we are trying to process the scope of devastation left by hurricanes...and wild fires..and flooding and earthquakes around the world.  We're trying to comprehend the real threat of nuclear war with Korea...the real and active genocides happening around the globe...and the real possibility that millions of people are going to lose access to healthcare insurance.

Friends, our collective heart is breaking...and many of us feel helpless...maybe even hopeless...things are beyond our control.  Some of us are struggling to find the right words to pray.  I mean...what exactly are we praying for?  What do we say that doesn't sound trite?  Many of us are lamenting...like the psalmist, asking how much longer Lord?  When will enough be enough?   And a whole bunch of folks are feeling a impending sense of despair.

But let's never forget, our Most High Priest Jesus understands all of these feelings...he has experienced them...without ever being overcome by them.   Notwithstanding his own broken heart, which I'm sure, Christ also feels right now...we can rest assure that when we pray, Christ hears...and when we can't pray...Christ prays for us.  He advocates for us and offers the grace and mercy and hope and peace that we seek...even when words fail us...even when faith is weak.  The fully-human, fully-divine, resurrected Christ reminds us that in the end, good will win. 

I find great comfort in that...and I hope you do too.  In fact, for me personally, it is all I have had to cling to this week as my spirit has been greatly disturbed after the horrific tragedy in Las Vegas.  There is no shame in admitting that the onslaught of heartbreaking news for so many weeks in a row takes a toll on us.  Instead of standing strong, or taking action, deep hurt drives us to cry out...to shed tears...to fall to our knees in prayer.

My first inclination this week was to go off this sermon series to speak to event more directly.   But as I pondered how the church should respond to something like this, it occurred to me...there may be prophetic things the church needs to say or do eventually...but today, when we are still numb from it all...it seems to me that the thing we all -- the whole world -- most needs is Only Christ...and the thing we, the church, most need to do is pray.  Pray directly and fervently, with bold confidence, to God through Jesus Christ.   Because...we can.

Transition to the candles that will already be lit...

Prayer by the Rev. Dr. Laurie Ann Kraus Director, Presbyterian Disaster Assistance

God of our life, whose presence sustains us in every circumstance, As the sound of gunfire again echoes over another American city, we seek the grounding power of your love and compassion. As death rained down from above in the dark of night, We pray this day for the Sun of Righteousness to arise with healing in its wings, and rain mercy, grace and peace upon our broken people.

So many have been lost: brothers and sisters, neighbors and friends gathered in the unity of music, scattered by evil and hatred. We pray for solace for all who loved them. We pray for those who have been spared and those whose lives are changed forever that they may find healing, sustenance, and strength in the hard days to come.

We give thanks for first responders: who ran toward gunfire, rather than away who dropped everything to save the wounded and comfort survivors We pray for doctors and nurses and mental health providers who repair what has been broken who try to bring healing and hope in the face of the unchecked principalities and powers of violence. We ask for sustaining courage for those who are suffering and traumatized.

We cry, how long, O Lord? But the same words echo back, again and again as if the question comes to us from You— how long, how long, how long…

In the wake of an event that should be impossible to contemplate but which has become all too common in our experience, open our eyes, break our hearts, and turn our hands to the movements of your Spirit, that our anger and sorrow may unite in service to build a reign of peace, where the lion and the lamb may dwell together, and terror no longer holds sway over our common life. In the name of Christ, our healer and our Light, we pray. Amen.

October 1, 2017
Bible Reference(s):
Romans 3:21-31
James 2:14-26
Rev. Terri Thorn

On this second Sunday in our sermon series on the core tenets of the Reformation, we are taking a look at what was meant by Luther's statement, "sola fide"  - by faith alone.    Now, as I mentioned last week, none of these five solas which are printed on the front of your bulletin fully captures the message of the Reformation...it takes all of them - intertwined together to do that.  So, today, as we look at faith, it is, by definition, related to grace, in that we are saved by grace through faith- not of our own doing.

For Martin Luther and his reformation colleagues, this message had been lost within the church.  Salvation and righteousness through faith had given over to a works-oriented doctrine known as the practice of indulgences - which was basically the use of money or good deeds in order to purchase a higher status with God.   More specifically, in the middle ages, Christians could pay money to the church in order to buy indulgences for their deceased loved ones.  The benefit of an indulgence was that it was believed to reduce the amount of punishment one received for their sins while in Purgatory.   So, in essence, forgiveness was purchased, rather than given freely by God.  It could also be earned by doing good deeds.

I am not an expert on Catholic theology, so it's not clear to me whether these indulgences were always for someone else, or if you could store some up for yourself when you die.  Either way, the practice of purchasing indulgences ended in 1567 so you can't buy them today.  I'm not sure whether they can still be earned by good deeds though.

Needless to say, Luther was outraged by this practice.  ..particularly in light of Paul's letters.  For the Reformation movement, the heart of the gospel is this:  there is not one thing we can do to earn or lose God's forgiveness or our salvation. It is a gift from God.  Likewise, we cannot earn, work or buy our righteousness,  It, too, is a gift.  Therefore, the reformers believed it was an abuse of power and position for the church to require anything...money or deeds or for the sacraments to be carried out in a certain way in order for God's grace to be effective.   

Grace already is effective.  Mercy is. The unconditional love of God is. The salvation promised to the Jews, extended to the gentiles...is.  All of it already is.  Not by what we do, but by what God has done through Jesus Christ. 

Conditional grace, based on what we give or do or say, was one of the greatest points of contention for the Reformation...but long before that...it was Paul's was preaching against it to the first century Christians. 

Granted, the leaders at the various churches in the region were not in the practice of receiving indulgences,  but there was most certainly a similar mindset among some of the early Christians.   You see, there was a thought among some that to be Jewish and circumcised earned one favor over the Gentile Christians who were not circumcised.  There was a thought among Christians that to observe certain dietary restrictions was to be more favored than those who did not.  There was a thought among early Christians that to know and believe certain things was to be more favored by God.   

Sadly some things may never change.  I mean, even now, among Christians, we are guilty of thinking that certain beliefs, politics, or actions make us more Christian than those who do not share our beliefs and politics or those who take a different action.   If you don't believe this is true, take a look at the social media chatter after last week's NFL games.

But folks, according to Paul's understanding of the gospel, all sin and all fall short of the glory of God.  No one has it right...no one gains righteousness by their own power or doing.  No one gets to boast. Following the Torah Law, breaking the Torah Law, being complete outside the Law...none of it brings salvation or righteousness.  As one translation of this scripture passage says," For no one can ever be made right with God by doing what the law commands. The law simply shows us how sinful we are." 

This was the message Paul wanted the church to know...it's the message that Luther wanted the church to know...and it is the lesson we still need to know.  Our salvation...our righteous...our new transformed life...these do not come to us because of what we do...they are a gift to us because of what God has done in and through Jesus Christ.  God's grace saves us.  God's grace transforms us.  God's grace makes us righteous before him.   All of which has been revealed to us through Jesus Christ...through his obedient faith in God and in God's salvation covenant...the unwavering faith which led him to the cross and into death. 

This is the faith by which we receive God's grace.  Jesus' faith which revealed God grace to the world...faith which fulfilled the Law and the Prophets and sealed the covenant between God and God's people.  The faith by which the world was radically and fundamentally changed forever.  All thanks be to God.

Last week, we talked about how God's gift of grace is the transformative force that moves us from the state of sin and deadness (the once you were state) to the now you are state..one of new life, wholeness and peace?   I think we called grace the bridge between the two....well, this thing we call faith is how get across that bridge. 

So exactly what is faith?  Most people would say that it means to trust...or to believe. But, I wonder do you think that those words carry with them some level of decision on our part? Like, I choose to trust or not trust. I choose to believe or not believe.   Yet, if we say that faith is a gift from God, then do we really choose to have it or is it more about the state of our spirit?   It's a difficult theological question, to which I don't necessarily know the answer. 

However,  I do know this...we cannot force ourselves to have faith in God.  Scripture is clear that like grace, faith is a gift.   If there is something we do in order to have faith, it is that we must open ourselves up to God's Spirit at work in us...creating and growing our faith.  We must be willing to do our part.

I remember having a conversation once with a very bright young man...raised in the church...lived a life that was very kind and compassionate, accepting of others, slow-to-anger, all those wonderful virtues...but he said he did not have faith in God.  He lived this way because it felt right, but he did not consider it to be in response to God's love.  He wasn't sure that there is a God much less that God loved him personally.   When I asked him more about it, he said, "I wish I believed in God...I wish I had faith...it would be so much easier to say that I do...but I don't.  And I can't make myself have it."

This was heartbreaking to hear...but it was also very telling.  This wasn't just a rebellious young man denying God.   This was someone who was really troubled by his lack of faith at that point in his life.  His honesty made me think about others who may have at one point or another struggled with their faith.

It's not as uncommon as one might think.  Many people, when devastated by tragedy, betrayal, loss, find that their faith is shaken.  They want to have faith in Christ...to trust in his promises...but they struggle to make it so.  This is especially true when the path out of the situation is unclear...when it seems that no one understands or cares...when the pain is so deep it feels as if it will ever end.   We lose hope...and our faith is compromised. 

Perhaps some of us have been there ourselves...I know I have. 

Hebrews 11 says that faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see...but I suspect I'm not alone in saying that I've had my own moments of doubt and uncertainty.  You know, times in our lives when God feels so far away...and our faith-life, as we like to call it, is dull or non-existent.  Those of us who have experienced the reality of weak faith are ever so grateful that our salvation and righteousness do not depend on our ability to have perfect faith.  Thanks be to God, Jesus has taken care of that for us.

However, living fully into our salvation and righteousness in the here-and-now does require us to have faith in Jesus Christ...to be sure of his gospel...to hope in God's promises...to believe Jesus teachings...to trust in his power, not our own.  As I said earlier, it is faith that allows God's grace to transform us.

Likewise, as we read in the passage from James, our transformed lives will reveal our faith in Jesus Christ.  In other words, folks, we should never really ever have to say we have faith in Jesus, our lives should clearly show it.  When our faith is in Christ, our works, our actions, or deeds, whatever you want to call it...our living out...will reflect the One in whom we place our trust. 

We will display his compassion.  We will provide his ministry to the poor.  We will offer the same radical welcome he offered to those who were considered outcasts and sinners.  We will love the way Jesus loved, not so we will be loved...not so we will be saved...not so we will be deemed righteous.   We will do it because we already are.  

But what about the reality of times when our faith is weak?  What do we do then?  The short answer is that we pray...we ask God to increase it.  We ask the Holy Spirit to grow our faith and help us live out the faith we proclaim...to make it real in our lives.

But...here's the thing about that request for more faith...asking God for more faith is sort of like asking God for more patience. The only way we can know that we have patience...is to be in situations where we must demonstrate our increased patience. The same seems to be true with faith.  If we ask God to increase our faith, it's not likely that God is going to say OK...your faith is increased and leave it that.  No, God is going to allow us to continue to find ourselves in need of faith and will increase it as we need it.  And apparently folks, according to scripture, we don't need all that much faith to create amazing transformation...only the size of a mustard seed.  According to scripture, even that amount will move mountains.

So, when we are buried in the depths of doubt and uncertainty...when we are feeling alone and afraid...when we're overwhelmed and don't feel God's presence...all it takes is a tiny step toward faith...be that an ask...or a specific act of faith...and God will increase it.   

Nonetheless, for those occasional times when we can't take that first step forward, all is not lost.  There are some proven things we can do, in addition to praying, that will help renew and strengthen our faith.  For one thing, faith increases when we remember God's faithfulness...when we remember what God has done for his people...how God has provided.  Faith increases when we remember the stories...stories from scriptures and stories from the lives of others around us.  The more we remember stories about how God is kind and compassionate, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, the more we will have faith in that love for us.  The more we remember stories of God healing and welcoming and restoring people to community through Jesus...the more we will have faith that he will do the same for us.   

Likewise, witnessing someone living out their faith in God can also help bolster our own.  For example, let's say you're facing a difficult medical diagnosis and struggling to have faith that God is with you.  When you see another person with similar concerns be confident in God providence, it gives you a boost of hope...and faith in our own situation.   When we surround ourselves with those who live their faith, we are inspired toward faith. 

Our faith also seems to increase when we express gratitude.  Finding just the littlest evidence of hope and being thankful for it goes a long, long way toward increasing our faith.

Finally,  when our faith is lacking,  we might just have to, as they say, fake it 'til we make it.   Now, to be honest...I'm not sure if this is scriptural or not, but it's been my experience that sometimes when our faith is weak, we have to just rally the tiny little glimmer that we have...take the leap...and see what happens.  God will not fail to provide what we need.     He never has and he never will.

Rest assured:  For it is by grace that you have been saved through faith and this is not from yourselves.  It is the gift of God.  All glory be to God.  Amen.

September 24, 2017
Bible Reference(s):
Ephesians 2:1-10
Rev. Terri Thorn

It is probably safe to say that the significance of October 31, 2017 is not on the thought-radar for most of us. Unless...you are a die-hard church history fan...in which case you know that October 31st is more than just Halloween-on-a-Sunday this year.  It is also marks the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.

Of course, the Reformation was not a single, one-and-done incident.  Nonetheless, October 31st has been deemed the official anniversary date, mostly because it was on that date in 1517 that Martin Luther took a list of theological concerns, called the 95 Theses, and nailed them to the door of Castle Church in Wittenburg, Germany.  It came to be seen as the start of a "protest" that would eventually divide the Catholic Church and the Protestant (protestor) Church. 

Most historians agree that it was never Martin Luther's intention to create a schism in the church. He was just increasingly frustrated with the burdensome religious practices being implemented by church leadership.  Luther, a Catholic monk, came to believe that the essential gospel message of Christianity was getting buried under what one professor called "religious clutter".  The various practices, expectations, decisions and declarations by leaders fostered corruption and abuses of power within the church and created an oppressive religious environment for the common Christian.   

Luther was adamant that the church needed to be reformed, thus he challenged the leadership to debate the various matters detailed in the 95 Theses.  Now, we won't go into all those issues today, but suffice to say, Luther, and other reformation leaders, believed that the clutter and misguided practices were leading people further and further from the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ. 

Looking back, the Reformation movement was a 16th century religious, political, intellectual and cultural upheaval...some of which is might not be worthy of celebration.  Yet, at the heart of it all was a deep desire to redirect the church...to transform it...and restore the essentials of Christianity as its focus.    

For the Reformers, these essentials were captured in five bold theological affirmations known as the solas which are listed on the front of your bulletin. In Latin, sola means "only".   So, according to the Reformers,  the core message of Christianity, stripped of all the clutter, is this:  only scripture, only Christ, only grace, only faith, and only to God's glory. 

In other words,  the Bible alone is our highest authority of revelation.  Jesus Christ alone is our Lord, Savior, and King. We are saved by the grace of God alone. We are saved through faith alone in Jesus Christ. We live for the glory of God alone.

This is, in the simplest of terms, what Protestants believe it means to be a Christian.

Unfortunately, 500 years later, it seems that a whole lot of clutter has made its way back into the Christian faith.  Political, doctrinal, and theological clutter, as well as policies and declaration clutter getting in the way of the church being a living, breathing reflection of the gospel.   We have become distracted by many lesser things.

So in light of this anniversary, and as an effort to help us focus specifically on the core message of Christianity, today we begin a five-week series on the five solas, which will conclude with a service of Reformation celebration at the end of the of October.

This week, we begin with the message of "only grace".   A message that Paul lays out for us quite clearly in the letter to the Ephesians.  By grace you have been saved.  It is a gift from God.

It really is that simple.   And it really is that incredible.  And there really is no catch.  Even though we definitely tend to try to put one on there.  We want to add a qualifier to who the "you" is.  And we often put a semicolon at the end of the statement followed by a condition on the grace.

However, Paul...and the Reformers...will tell you...when it comes to God's grace, there are no qualifiers, conditions, if, ands or "buts".  By grace you have been saved and it is a gift from God. PERIOD. 

Furthermore, salvation, or being saved, is not just a matter of being earmarked for heaven...nor is it a choice we make or do...it is what God has done for us.  Salvation is a transformation from this  "before" sin state...to the "after" state of new life in Christ.

God's grace...freely and unconditionally offered out of love for us...is the bridge that moves us from the "once you were " to the "now you are".  It is the bridge from "what the world would have us believe about who we are"  to the "who God says we are".

So, let's talk a bit about this whole "once you were dead", state of existence that Paul describes.  He basically focuses on three aspects:  sin, Satan and self.   For us, Paul's language is odd, but we can still relate to the ideas conveyed.  First of all, we understand that state of deathliness called sin.  To us, sin represents all the things that humans do and think that are damaging to us...things that are killing us from the inside out, sometimes in ways we can't see, don't see or won't see.   And folks I'm not just talking about the biggie sins...like the seven deadly ones...sin is anything that deadens our spirit and keep us from being alive to Christ. 

We also get the idea of Satan who Paul refers to as the ruler of the power of the air, or the spirit at work among the disobedient.  For some folks, Satan is a specific being, whereas for others, Satan represents any and all forces of evil that are at work in the world.  Forces that try to enslave people...forces that control...forces that steal our freedom...forces like addictions, or greed (which is in itself a sort of an addiction), forces like hatred or racism or sexism.  Forces like those tapes that run through our heads telling us we are not enough...that we need to be different or better or richer or smarter or prettier or thinner or more athletic...or some other ideal that is more than what we currently are.  Satan represents the evil that enslaves us to an unholy, unhealthy lifestyle...or manipulates our thoughts and actions.  

Really, sin and Satan together encompass pretty much any and all forces  that mess with our self-esteem, create fear and anxiety, or raise self-doubt.  All the things that result in a damaged self.  A self that is void of the image of God in which it was created....the self that has been given over...beaten down..or as we often say, broken. 

The self that is so broken that there is no life in it.   

And, according to Paul, that's who we were...every single one of us.

BUT...God who loves us said no, no, no.  Not my beloved...this is not who I created them to be.  I created them for much greater things.  And these forces of sin, Satan, and damaged-self are not going to define them.

So, out of his love and mercy, God offered all people...not just some but all...his grace which comes to us through Christ and makes us alive.  Paul goes on to say that in Christ, we're not just alive but we are lifted up with him in the heavenly places.   Notice, though, he doesn't say will be lifted up...he says we already are.   

By grace.  Unearned.  Unmerited. But offered lavishly to us..as a gift...so we would become the people we were created to be.  God's grace is the agent of transformation...taking us from what we were to what we are meant to be.  Even better...it sets us free from that old life and gives us new life in Christ.

And...here's where it all gets tricky.   If we have been given grace...saved by grace...and have this new life in Christ...then why do we still mess up?  Why do we still slide back into sin...or give evil a voice in our hearts and minds?  Why do we remain broken?  

I mean, Paul makes being saved by grace seem so complete and matter-of-fact...and given the tense of his verbs, it has already happened. Grace came to us through Jesus. Once we were dead, but now we are alive.  It should be so simple and easy.   But we all know that it is not.

I remember struggling with this question when I was younger.  Of course, part of the struggle was because I believed that once we accepted Christ and were immersed in baptism our sins were washed away.  We came out of the water as a new, unbroken, non-sinning person.   In fact, I distinctly remember having a sense of hesitation about responding to the altar call because I wanted to be sure I was done with all my sinning before I went forward  to once and for all became that new person.  So, it was a weekly wrestling match every Sunday...would this be the week I could quit arguing with my brother...or sassing my parents...or getting in trouble...FOREVER? 

I guess I was just waiting to make sure I had it all out of my system.   Eventually I did respond and went forward to be baptized. 

On the Sunday I was to be baptized, I and so nervous, but excited, about getting my clean slate.  Well, when I arrived at the church that morning, the pastor, Brother Bob, told me that I was not going to be able to be baptized that day.  It turns out that a bat had flown into the baptistery and the health department required that it be drained and sanitized before it could be used again. 

Of course, in my warped thinking, that could only mean one thing. It was a sign from God that I was not allowed to be baptized yet because I was not done sinning.  

By the way, I was baptized a couple of weeks later.   And on the first Sunday after my baptism, I was contemplating whether I could go back up for another altar call.  You see, once again, I'd had gotten into some sort of trouble that week.  And you talk about a crushing blow.  I really believed I would become perfect after baptism..and was so disappointed when I did not.

Seriously though, when we look at a passage like this one from Ephesians, it could make a person wonder if, given all my continued failures maybe grace does not apply to me.  Or perhaps somehow, I never really received the new life...or is it that I'm just not capable of living into it.  

That's why it's important to understand that Paul is describing two opposite realities...dead and alive...before and after...the "worldly" realm of disobedience versus God's realm of good works...and we, God's people on earth, live in the intersection of both.

Yes, once we were all dead...and by grace we have all been made alive...transformed into a new life.  And someday, when God's perfect rule has been completely established, that new life will be our only life. 

However, until then, we are resigned to live in this sort of straddling mode...both in the earthly realm where we encounter sin and the heavenly realm where we rise above it.  Christians are forced into this odd duality of sort within ourselves.  Salvation is ours.  It is completed by grace through Christ and cannot be taken from us...but we still have to deal with those forces that try to draw us back to the old life until, as they say, our baptism is complete -- meaning until we die and are raised to be only and eternally with Christ. Or, until he comes again...which by the way, despite all wacky predictions was not yesterday.

So for now we live in the "here but not yet".  In God's kingdom here and now, but not yet fully in place. That old person that Paul describes...it is not who we truly are...not in Christ.  It might be who the world tells us we are...or tempts us to be...but God's grace says it is not.  Grace has lifted us out of it...saved us from it.  We are free of its grip, free of the sin and the evil, healed of the damaged self...but sometimes, while we are still here, we just need to be reminded.

Reminded of who we are...and who we were created to be.   Reminded that we are loved...just as we are.  Reminded that we were created for greater things.  Reminded that new life is available. 

We need reminders of God's grace.   Reminders like the waters of baptism that are poured out each week to help us remember that we belong to God.  His grace is upon us even when we do not know it. Reminders like the communion meal where we encounter the promises of life and salvation...gifts that we receive over and over every time we share the bread and the cup.  Reminders like the cross...the liturgy...the hymns...the prayers...our fellow believers...not as religious clutter but as reminders that point to God's grace. 

We also need experiences of grace in the here and now.   In fact, these glimpses of grace are probably the most powerful reminders of all.  Creating, living and sharing grace stories may be the most important good work for which we have been saved. 

Author Ann Lamott once said, I do not at all understand the mystery of grace – only that it meets us where we are but does not leave us where it found us.  These are the transformative grace stories the world longs to hear.  We don’t need to explain how grace works…we can’t.  But we can share our own stories of God’s grace.

Stories of healing - in our body, mind and spirit.   Stories of hope for a different path, a new day, a fresh start.  Stories of folks rising from the rubble of life.  Stories of baby-steps toward recovery, or forgiveness, or reconciliation.  Grace stories from our own lives...offered as gift to others. This is our work to do…and rest assured, someone is ‘dying” to hear them.

Folks, life in the here, but not yet, is neither easy nor perfect.  We are going to have hard days...failure-filled days. We're going to feel alone...excluded...unnecessary...without purpose.  We are going to face challenges and temptations.  And we are going to make mistakes.  Plenty of them. 

Still, remember this...by grace we have been saved.  Period.  And that is all we need.

Only grace.  Only faith. Only Christ.  Only Scripture. Only to the glory of God.  Amen.

Bible Reference(s):
Matthew 18:21-35
Rev. Terri Thorn

Every day as I drive north on Interstate 65 from Zionsville to Lebanon, I pass a huge billboard that reads: “Real Christians Forgive Like Jesus”.  Most days, just before I get to it, I grip my steering wheel, stare straight ahead and give a little extra pedal to the metal to get past it as quickly as possible.   I do my best to not look at it because everything about that message gets on my nerves.   I mean, really?  Who among us is capable of offering the kind of unmerited, unconditional forgiveness that Jesus offers?  Most of us can barely excuse the person who cuts us off in traffic much less forgive those who have hurt us deeply.   

In fact, I suspect that every single one of us in this room has, at some point in our life, been unable to forgive someone for a wrong we have experienced from them.   Oh, we might eventually get around to letting bygones be bygones, but you all know that I am not wrong about the hard work of forgiveness.  Nearly all of us have that one story that we carry in our heart….the one about the person who betrayed our trust.  The one who made us feel insignificant…or questioned our integrity…or treated us badly.  The one who, to this day, has never apologized for the hurt or harm they caused.  You know…the one who still has the power to get us riled up even just by thinking about them.

It is challenging to forgive those folks…and it’s pretty scary to think that if we don’t…if we don’t forgive them unconditionally like Jesus…then we are not real Christians.  If that’s the case, none of us are real Christians.  So, yeah, I don’t like that billboard…and if I ever get pulled over for speeding past it, that’s exactly what I’m going to tell the police.   

Truth be told, forgiveness is hard work.  Work that we don’t always do well.  If anything, the billboard should read, real Christians TRY to forgive like Jesus.  However, there are some things which most of us just cannot find it in our heart to forgive.  Things like terrorist attacks and mass shootings…things like crimes against children...hate crimes, racism, war...genocide.  I believe there are some things that only God has the power to forgive; we humans just aren’t capable.  It defies our sense of justice.  Not to mention, offering forgiveness is not something that can be commanded.  We cannot tell anyone, including ourselves, to just forgive another person.    Forgiveness is not something that happens in our heads on demand…forgiveness originates from the victim’s heart, tilled and prepared by God’s Spirit at work in it.

Still, we can’t ignore the fact that this parable does challenge Christians, when we have been wronged, to offer a radically different response than what the world teaches…one that looks more like God’s grace and less like revenge.  

Let me just say up front, there are a couple of things we should probably lay out on the table about this parable. First, it is most assuredly a hyperbole…a hyper parable if you will. It is a story that is exaggerated for effect. It is also from Matthew’s telling of the gospel, which means that unlearned lessons or failure to comply often contain a horrifying consequence.  Matthew is fond of scare tactic teaching…and for good reason, I suppose.  Sometimes the shock value works.  The drawback is that it can also detract from the main lesson, and as a result, people miss the point.  They comply out of fear, rather than in response to God’s love.

Let’s not let that happen today.  No fear here. Only love.

Contrary to a literal reading, this is not a story of rules and regulations, or of punishment for disobedience.  This is a story of the abundant, beyond our wildest imagination, unmerited love and mercy God has for his people.  It is a story of our response when we fully embrace God’s forgiveness and what can happen when we do not.  Even more so, it is a reminder that we are all sinners…in need of redemption that we can never attain on our own…sinners who have been set free of our sins by the presence and power of God that is in Christ Jesus, the Son.  It is a story about gratitude…about how to live the redeemed life, the life of Christ, in a world where evil still exists.

So, let’s take a look at the story, starting with Peter’s question about how many times he should forgive a member of the church.  By suggesting seven, which was a holy number that represented wholeness or perfection, his point could have been that we are to offer perfect forgiveness or total forgiveness.  However, Jesus has an even bigger expectation.  Depending on which translation we use, Jesus says that his followers are to forgive seventy or seventy-seven or seventy times seven, all of which represent not only forgiveness beyond perfection, but forgiveness beyond number or count.

Now let me just say…I sure wish I had known this growing up.  Mind you, I was raised in a congregation that leaned toward literal readings of the Bible and always the King James Version.  So for a large part of my childhood, I believed that we were allowed 490 (70x7) incidents of forgiveness.  After that, all bets were off.   Needless to say…in my sassy middle school years, I lived in utter fear that I was narrowing in on the 490 really quickly.

Thankfully, I eventually learned that what Jesus meant here was that forgiveness is not an accounting system…nor is it a score to keep…instead, for his followers, forgiveness is meant to be a way of life!  Forgiveness is the life that we are given through Christ, a life that is free from the burden of sin.  It also describes the life we are called to live in community with each other.

Of course that is easier said than done…in part because we have assigned various meanings to forgiveness that are not valid. For example, to forgive does not mean that we forget the offense ever happened; it means that we do not seek revenge for it.  Justice, yes; revenge no.  Admittedly though, it’s hard to wait on justice when we’ve been harmed.  Forgiveness does not mean that the offender is set free from accountability, only that we don’t let the wrong-doing or the wrong-doer hold us captive to our anger or resentment anymore.  It also does not mean we subject ourselves to the offense again…and again…either in reality or in our minds.  And, contrary to popular opinion, forgiveness is not a sign of weakness; it takes strength to choose a response of love for those who do not deserve it…just ask Jesus. 

Perhaps one reason Jesus tells such an absurd forgiveness story to his disciples is to shock them, and us, into remembering just how great and wide is the mercy of God!   Think about it folks… it would be unheard of for a slave to owe his master any sum of money, but the idea that he owed him ten thousand talents was unfathomable.  One talent was about equal to 15-20 years of daily wages…and this slave owed ten thousand of them?  Ridiculous…an intentionally ridiculous reminder:  do we really understand that the debt of sin is one that we can never repay on our own?  Do we fully appreciate this incredible gift of forgiveness that we have been given?

The merciful response of the king in the story was completely ludicrous as well. I mean, let’s think about this:  if a king was owed that amount of money – 15,000 years’ worth of work…and if a king did try to collect this debt…and if that king were to be so harsh that he was willing to imprison the slave and all of his family for not being able to repay the debt…what on earth would make him offer forgiveness, out of the blue, just because the guy asked for it? 

Really, what ruler, or even what god, would offer that kind of unexpected and unexplained mercy?  How about the same God who heard the cries of his people in bondage, the cries of the oppressed, the cries of the hungry, the poor and the lonely?  The faithful God of steadfast love and unending mercy, that’s which God!   Folks, this is Matthew’s point! The only God and King who would ever love and forgive like the king in this parable is the same God that loves us and forgives and welcomes us. 

Do you hear the good news here?  We have no debt…no wrong…no sin…that is too great for God to forgive.   As the saying goes, there is nothing we can do to make God love us any more, and there is nothing we can do to make God love us any less.  In a completely, inexplicable, beyond our imagination way, God has chosen to forgive…God has chosen to offer mercy and grace…God has chosen to love.

Makes you wonder then...if a slave was to receive a forgiveness of debt so amazing and generous…what on earth would make his heart so hardened that he would threaten to kill another person over a much, much smaller debt – like a week’s worth of work or less? 

Perhaps he doesn’t remember the magnitude of his own original debt?  Perhaps he thinks he has outwitted the master rather than the master has forgiven him?  Or, maybe he hasn’t truly embraced the mercy shown him, and therefore is not able to offer it to another?   

It’s a tough question to answer…but definitely worth asking.  The king says, “Should you not have mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?”   Having received forgiveness beyond measure, why do we still sometimes refuse to offer it to others? 

Why is it so hard to forgive, even if it means being handed over for torture?   By the way, I believe this torture-threat comes from Matthew taking some writer’s liberty on the parable…still the point is well-taken.  We may not be literally imprisoned or tortured, but if we carry that grudge around, unwilling to forgive, one thing is for certain…our well-being is compromised.  

Research has found that people who are unwilling to forgive wrongs committed against them tend to have more stress-related disorders, lower immune system function, worse rates of cardiovascular disease, and higher rates of divorce.  Hmmm…perhaps Jesus tells the story not so we will forgive out of fear of being tortured by God, but so that by forgiving others we are free of our self-torture!  It’s as the old saying goes, “to hold the grudge…to not forgive…it’s only hurting you…it’s like drinking rat poison and expecting the other person to die.”

We know it is good for us to release the wrongs and free ourselves from being repeatedly hurt, but…in our human frailty we struggle to do the hard work of accepting forgiveness…believing it is ours…offering it to others.  Still, when we allow the Spirit to work in our hearts…and when we approach life with an attitude of gratitude for the grace we have received from God, the hard work of forgiveness becomes a little bit easier.   Someday, when the peaceable kingdom of God is fully among us, we will do this well…in fact perfectly.  Until then, we are called to do our best to live a life of forgiveness and mercy to the best that we are able.

I believe this is the crux of the parable.  The first slave was very able to forgive the second slave’s minor debt.  Very free and very capable to offer grace and mercy…but instead, he intentionally chose to oppress the second slave.  He wasn’t asked to do something incredible or impossible…he was just asked to provide compassion and kindness to the second slave.  But he did not.  To me, this was his failure…he used his power for evil instead of good.  He neglected to do the right thing, when the right thing was available for him to do.  

Friends, we see this happening in the world around us…those to whom much grace, opportunity, power has been given are unwilling to offer the same to others.   According to Jesus, this is not the kingdom of God way…it is not the life of forgiveness and gratitude.   We, the church, are called, to the extent we are able, to choose the things that offer freedom to others…and to not oppress those who are in need.  It is our grateful response to being forgiven and freed.

Parables like this often leave more questions than they answer.  And I’m sure there are still plenty of forgiveness questions with which we could wrestle, but let there be no question about this:  the mercy offered to the first slave was undeserved and unconditional. It was beyond measure and given freely without expectations of being repaid.  There is no question that God has given us the same.   It is the good news of our Lord Jesus Christ.    As ones who believe the good news, we must answer this question before the Lord: how will we live differently because it is so?

Praise be to the God who triumphs over evil and sin…and to the Son who sets us free, forgiving beyond a seventy-times seven standard…and to the Spirit who calls us to do the same.  Amen.

Bible Reference(s):
Deuteronomy 6:1-9, 20-25
Rev. Terri Thorn

 I have something to show you this morning. [Terri holds up a pitcher] It's not really much to look at...but it does have a special meaning.  You see, this was the iced tea pitcher from my Mamaw's farmhouse.   It's nothing fancy.  It might be an antique, but I'm pretty sure it does not hold much financial value.  It doesn't represent a specific event or hold special meaning...it was always just the iced tea pitcher from Mamaw's house.  Always and only...iced tea.

The significance of this pitcher has never been the pitcher itself...or the contents...or even that it belonged to my grandmother.   It is special because it represents many wonderful years of gathering at a kitchen table...eating an ordinary meal...drinking iced tea...and telling our endless family stories.   For me, when I look at this, I don't see a pewter pitcher...I see a symbol of my family heritage being passed from generation to generation. 

I suspect that everyone in this room can think of something in your family that serves the same purpose.  Some obscure item that represents who you are and where you came from.  The item itself may not be precious but stories it holds certainly are.   We cling to these things, not for what they are, but as a simple way of remembering the stories and the people who helped create them.

Clinging and remembering through the generations is the theme of today's reading from Deuteronomy.   Moses is preparing the Israelites to cross the Jordan into the Promised Land and decides to give some last words of advice before he cuts them loose:  remember who you are and remember whose you are.   Sort of sounds like a parent sending a child to college, does it not?

You see, also like parents of college-age children, Moses understood the very real possibility that the Israelites would get to the land of milk and honey and forget all about the journey that had gotten them there...or worse yet, they would forget the God who led them there.   Moses was worried that the future generations -- those who had not lived through the Exodus or the wilderness -- would not remember the significance or the role that it played in shaping the Israelites into God's people.   So in this sermon, he insists that they must be obsessive-like in their remembering.    

His advice, if you will, takes the form of the commandment from verse 4 and 5:  Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.  

This statement is known as the Shema  and is still recited twice a day in the Jewish tradition. 

In fact, at one time,  this passage was taken so literally that when it says to bind these words on your foreheads and hands,  some ancient Jews went as far to put the Shema on their bodies.  They did not tattoo it to their forehead or arms, but there is archeological evidence that they engraved it into metal bands that they wore on their forearms.  Eventually, they switched to putting the verses inside little boxes, called phylacteries, which were tied to their heads and wrists.   Even now, orthodox Jews wear these during prayer times.   Likewise, in many Jewish households, a little metal or wooden scroll holder called a mezuzah is hung by the door with this verse inside it.  It serves as a reminder to keep this commandment at the forefront of their coming and going.     

Still, it's clear that Moses did not intend for this to just be a matter of ritualistic recitation or display.  No, the Israelites were told to talk about their love of God...all the time.   In their homes, while they are out and about...and definitely with their children.  Clearly there is a sense of urgency to pass along their faith to the next generation and the one after that and so on and so on.  

From Moses' perspective, actively sharing and passing along the faith to the next generation was essential in order to enjoy the Promised Land to the fullest.  As such, the Israelites must not only live and breathe the Shema,  they needed to tell and re-tell the story of the Exodus.   For the people of God to continue to live in prosperity,  future generations would have to claim the same faith as their ancestors.  And, the way to make that happen was to ensure they never forgot God's provision...never forgot where they came from...or how they got where they were...and most importantly they never forgot who they were --- the beloved children of God.   

To re-tell and re-tell and re-tell was the way to protect against the natural temptation to let the abundance and freedom of the Promised Land distract or cause them to forget God.   The process of internalizing the faith would ensure that the next generations claimed it as their own.

American Christians could learn a thing or two from these ancient Israelites.   Now I'm not suggesting that we need to tattoo the Shema to arms or foreheads...but it seems to me that we have neglected to pass along our salvation story to the next generations with the kind of urgency that we hear in this passage.   In the abundance of our own Promised Land, we have allowed many things to distract us and have taken our Christian faith for granted.  

For most of this nation's history, the Christian faith - in all its various forms - has held great power and influence in the United States.  Regardless of the theological flavor...pews were full, Sunday School classrooms were brimming with students, and offering plates were overflowing.  Things were comfortable and prosperous...a proverbial land of milk and honey from a religious context.  But we all know this is not the case now.

So what happened?   Well, to be honest, I think it's risky to say that any singular thing happened - many sociological and cultural factors have been at play, as well as economic and religious ones.  Still, there is one theory about a contributor to the decline of American Christianity that I find plausible.  Perhaps we became too comfortable in our faith -- and maybe even presumptuous -- assuming that since everyone went to church, everyone had deep sustaining faith.  We also practiced a rote faith...lots of memorizing and recitation...but not so much claiming it for ourselves.  There was very little sharing from our own experiences.  We were lax about telling the stories of the gospel in our lives.  In hindsight, I believe we lost our zeal for raising the next generations of Christians.  I would even go as far as to suggest that perhaps we got lazy about it.

Now, don't get me wrong, I am not talking about First Presbyterian Church.  All you have to do is look around the room and see families that are multiple generations deep rooted in their faith.  All thanks be to God! 

But overall, as Christians in America...we have lagged.   I don't know...maybe we got too busy.  Maybe we felt inadequate.  Maybe we didn't appreciate the importance.  Whatever the case, we learned to confine our faith-talk to just one hour of worship on Sunday, and we relied the so-called "professionals" - Sunday School teachers, Christian Educators, missionaries and clergy - to keep the faith alive.  As a result, there are a whole lot of people who have never heard...who do not remember...or for whom Christianity has become irrelevant.  

Sadly though, unless the church regains a sense of urgency...similar to what Moses was impressing on the Israelites...or like what Paul had for the early church...how on earth can we ever expect anything to change?  How can the Christian faith continue to be shared from generation to generation without Christians who are willing to do the hard work of sharing it?

Now, folks when I say sharing our faith from generation to generation,  I am not talking about just memorizing scripture or telling Bible stories.   I don't even mean getting people into church buildings.  No, for us to share our faith like the Israelites means we put our own salvation story...the gospel of Jesus Christ...at the forefront of our comings and goings.  We live Christ's love and compassion continually.  We talk about it with each other day and night...imprinting it on our hearts and minds.  It's front and center when we are in here...when we are sitting in Presby Park...when we are walking the neighborhood...when we are waiting in line at Walmart.

Don't worry...no one has to become a street corner evangelist...but, if we want future generations to share in our faith, then it's up to us to pass along.    First in our living...then in our telling.   

Generation-to-generation faith happens when we are  willing to share our personal stories of how God is at work in our own lives...so that others can see the same in theirs. Telling our stories...the stories of forgiveness and mercy...the stories of love...the stories of our faith journey.  Telling the stories not  only helps  pass along the Christian faith from generation to generation, it is the only way those future generations are able to claim it as their own.  

Church, how will all the children who are waiting to hear...and the children's children....make this faith their own if we do not do our part to tell our story?  It is as Moses, said...when the children ask...tell them the story.  We may not have been slaves to Pharaoh, but all believers have their own Exodus and wilderness stories to share.  Stories about our own coming to faith that others need to hear. So,  I wonder...friends...as we look to the next generation...what story from your life does God want you to share?    From generation to generation, Amen.

September 3, 2017
Bible Reference(s):
Matthew 16:21-28
Rev. Terri Thorn

Theologian Karl Barth has been credited with saying:  “Take your Bible and take your newspaper, and read both. But interpret newspapers from your Bible...not the other way around.”  From a preaching standpoint, I have always understood this to mean that the messages I bring should be rooted in the ancient scriptures but speak to what is happening in the world right now.

But I have to tell you, after a week like this one...I'm thinking Barth had no idea what it is like to preach in the 21st century.  What an crazy news week it has been!  Just when I thought there was a story that I should consider for this message, another one came along.

Still, there was one story that seemed to nag at me all week...which is usually a sign I need to pay attention.  First though, I need to say up front that I'm no fan of Joel Osteen's theology...ministry...or message. He may be a wonderful motivational speaker, but I believe he sells the gospel short.

Even so, I have to admit that I felt a little sorry for the poor guy this week.  For those who missed it, Osteen caught some serious heat from the press and took a beating all over social media because he did not open the doors of his mega-church to serve as a safe-shelter for victims of the flooding in Houston.   

As I understand it, everything started when a question was raised as to why the 17,000 person capacity church building was not quickly made available to the public.  Apparently, the initial response was that the building itself was flooded.  However, when that proved not to be true, even more questions were asked and Osteen responded that they did not open as a shelter because city officials  had not asked them to. He also assured viewers that they would open the doors once other shelters reached capacity. 

Needless to say, there was a huge uproar over his response.  To many folks, the closed doors sent a message that it was more important to protect the building than to help those facing the devastation and dangerous flood conditions.  Osteen's detractors were also quick to point out that local mosques were open to the public, implying that Osteen and his congregation were less Christian than the Muslims in the community.

Don't get me wrong, I see their point and I think they are right about what message was conveyed...but really, who are we to judge?  Day after day, individual Christians and entire congregations are guilty of the same thing...keeping our doors closed and our gates locked in order to protect the things we have accumulated.  Often we play it safe and choose to do that which we believe is in our own best interest.  So no, as much as I disagree with Joel Osteen on almost everything he says and does, I don't think he deserved the public flogging that he received. 

In fact, if Joel had consulted with me before he went on the Today Show, I would have even given him advice to help him with his case.  I would have said, "Joel...this is exactly why you don't want to be the head pastor of a mega-non-denominational church.  Serve a Presbyterian church...instead.   That way, when you face these kinds of things, you can always fall back on the standard Presbyterian response:  Well, Savannah Guthrie, I appreciate your question, but that's a Session decision and Session doesn't meet again until the third Tuesday of next month."

Seriously though, the bottom line is that Joel made a mistake that had nothing to do with whether the doors of Lakewood church were open or not.  He said something unappealing in a way that I suspect he now regrets.  Honestly, it's not all that different from what Peter did in this story.  Both men set their minds on human things and responded from a place of fear and self-preservation.  As a result, they both tarnished their image as a follower of Jesus. 

Now, I'm quite certain that Joel's public relations folks will handle his blunder, so let's turn our attention to Peter.

Seemingly in an instant, Peter went from being called the rock upon which Jesus would build his church,  to having Jesus call him a stumbling block. Last week, Jesus said Peter had received divine revelation from God...this week Jesus scolds him for having set his mind on human things.  Last week, Peter received Jesus' blessing...and this week he's being equated with Satan.

So what on earth happened from last week to this week?  Well basically verse 21:  "From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised."

In other words, from the moment Peter proclaimed Jesus as the Messiah, Jesus began to defy their expectation of what that meant.  To the disciples, the Anointed One of God was supposed to be the next King David - ruling politically and militarily.  The Messiah was supposed to FREE the Jews from oppression under the Roman Empire and the corrupt religious leaders...NOT suffer and die at their hands. 

Therefore, the more Jesus revealed about his future, the more it confounded the disciples...and the more they realized that their own lives were at risk as well.  So, no wonder Peter replied the way he did.  Jesus was telling a truth that Peter did not want to hear...so Peter was not going to have any part of it.  No way, no how. "Forbid it Lord...we can't let that happen."

When we read his response today, it is obvious that Peter was out of line...but I can't help but think if we were in his shoes, a lot of us would respond the same way. 

I mean, no one wants to intentionally invite pain and suffering and death into their life.  As a matter of fact, unless one is suffering a mental illness that feeds on pain or suffering, we tend to avoid it at all cost.  We don't want to read about it, hear about it, or participate in it.  We like things comfortable and predictable and happy.  We like feel-good stories of blessing and grace and peace and joy. It's why we rush past Good Friday to get to Easter Sunday.  It's why preachers like Osteen can pack the 17000 seat venue week after week.  And, it's why we seek out videos of kittens and babies on social media.  We want to be made to feel good.

I believe our aversion to suffering is why we become unsettled when other people are suffering.  It's why we use clichés to rush people through their grief and shine the glaring light of good cheer within hours of a tragedy.  Avoidance of pain and suffering is also why there is such a high level of substance abuse in our society.  We use drugs and alcohol to numb the hurt...physical, mental and emotional.  

So, no, we can't really blame Peter for wanting to avoid the road that was ahead. It's in our nature to want to steer clear of it too. 

Perhaps that is why Jesus was so intense and harsh in his response.  He wasn't upset that Peter tried to protect him from a death sentence.  I'm not even sure he was really upset with Peter at all.  I believe Jesus is so angry because he knows from first-hand experience exactly how Satan tempts us away from God...and how easily we fall prey to it.  Jesus wasn't calling out Peter for being tempted by Satan, he was calling out Satan for tempting Peter. 

You see, Jesus was well aware that the biggest lie that Satan tells us in order to separate us from God is to convince us to rely on our own understanding, our own power, our own expectations. Jesus knew that it was the Deceiver who put the fear into Peter's mind...and who continues to whisper it to his followers today:  Avoid the suffering...take a different route...you don't have to do this.  Do what is best for you personally and guarantees your safety and comfort.  Sacrificing for others is over-rated.  Let them take care of themselves. Don't give up your dignity or put your life on the line.

No wonder Jesus says, "Get behind me, Satan."  The entire salvation story that he had come to fulfill was being challenged in this moment of truth.  The Enemy was working overtime to keep Jesus from  establishing God's kingdom on earth...just as he is still trying to destroy it even now...by instilling fear and hesitation and by promoting pride and self-interest.  All he needs in order to be successful is for Jesus' followers to choose to take the easy, self-preserving, road of life...rather than do the hard work of loving God and loving others.

And quite honestly folks, there are days when it feels as if he is succeeding on a grand scale.  Sometimes it feels as if on our best days American Christians are complacent in our faith journey - taking it for granted....and on our worst, we have adopted an entitlement mentality.  We act as if we are entitled to God's kingdom...with little investment on our part.

In our haste to embrace the idea that God's love and mercy are unmerited and boundless, which is true, we forget that to receive forgiveness and live a life of love requires something from us. 

We forget that while grace is free...it is not cheap.  There was a huge cost of suffering and sacrifice by Jesus on our behalf. And as result, we are called to be willing to do the same on his behalf. 

Friends, if Satan's deceit is timeless, then so too must be the truth of Jesus' words about the conditions for following him.  Now, in the case of the early disciples, Jesus may have very well meant they would have to give up their actual flesh and blood lives...becoming martyrs on his behalf.   But that is not our context now.  This is 21st century America.  To follow Jesus in this same bold, sacrificial, suffering-servant, sort of way  is not really about being willing to die for Jesus.  The threat is not real.  As such, denying ourselves and be willing to lose our life must be about more than our physical life. Taking up our cross must mean something other than just carrying a heavy burden.  And being saved is about more than getting into heaven. 

In fact, the "saved" life that Jesus is talking about is actually one that has been set free.   One that is unencumbered to live the gospel.  A life that is free to love the way Jesus did.  A life that is unfettered to offer compassion...to show mercy..to seek justice.  This unhindered "saved" life does not come to us by clinging tightly to the promises of the world...but instead we receive it when we get ourselves out of the way and let Christ live in and through us.  It's the ultimate definition of letting go and letting God. 

The fullness of a resurrected life is ours when we refuse to believe the lies of this world and instead trust in the promise of God's love.  Even when it is difficult to do so.  Even when it is unpopular to do so.  Even when it feels as if we are the only ones to do so.  Even when it feels like we are taking up a cross and heading to Jerusalem.

To live in Christ's sacrificial love requires us to live out his sacrificial love in the world.

That is Paul's point in this passage from his letter to the Romans.   Listen to what he says. 

{READ Romans 12:9-21}

Friends, Paul makes it clear that for the people of God, loving others is not how we feel about someone, it is how we treat them. Love is an action, not an emotion.  More specifically, loving others is a selfless action...one that requires effort...and an attitude of humility...and hospitality.  In fact, Paul gives us all sorts of self-sacrificing ways the people of God are called to love and live in this world.

And the truth about every single one of the things he lists about love is that it requires some level of giving on our part...some level of denying ourselves for the sake of loving the way Jesus loves.   And isn't that what it means to be a follower of Jesus?  To love the way he loves.  Is that not what it means to lose our life so that we might save it?  To give love as a response to being loved.

Obviously, the life of a Christ-follower is not an easy life to live..it is costly and demanding.  It can be exhausting and challenging.   Nonetheless, the good news of the gospel is that this life is a meaningful one...in fact, a life of love is the only life that really matters. 

Now church,  we don't always do this well. But when we do...it is a beautiful thing.

This week we've seen just how beautiful...as we have been glued to the coverage of the flooding in Texas and Louisiana and other states.  We are not watching to see the suffering and devastation...we are looking for the love.  And, oh...there have been so many, many stories of sacrificial, holy love!  Stories of those who, like Officer Steve Perez, died trying to help others, or Collette Sulcer who gave her life while saving her daughter's.  Or stories like that of Mattress Max who set aside his concern about profit margins to open his furniture show room to evacuees...stories of rescuers coming from all over the US, including from right here in central Indiana...stories of financial generosity...and people who have used vacation days and  fishing boats to volunteer and help with evacuations. 

Folks, the amazing thing about all these stories of love is that in the midst of the suffering and tragedy, thousands of people have willingly given up themselves for the sake of what is right and good and just.  They have denied the worldly labels of race, ethnicity, political ideology, socio-economic class, education level, age, gender, and sexual orientation to put on one unifying identity...that of unconditional love in one community.

Yes...sacrificially loving like Jesus is humbling...and a challenge to our identity as independent Americans...but we have proven that we can do it. 

May it be our aim this Labor Day weekend, to consider what it means to labor in love for Jesus' sake...and may we seek to do so...in times of blessing and in times of crisis... in times of conflict and in times of celebration...in the places of suffering here and abroad.  Friends, on this and every day, may our sacrifices of love glorify the one who loves us and gives us life...Amen.

Bible Reference(s):
Matthew 16:13-20
Rev. Terri Thorn

It may come as surprise to most of us, but according to many biblical scholars, this account, which is often referred to Peter's confession of Christ is one of the most debated passages in the church, ever.   The controversy stems from the words, "on this rock I will build my church."  

Now, we could speculate about who or what the "rock" represents, but I'm pretty sure that many centuries worth of theological debate will not be resolved in one sermon.  So, I propose we all just agree that there's something important happening here between Jesus and the disciples and whatever it means, it is central to the identity and purpose of the church.

And what could be more important at this moment in our history, than to be reminded of the identity and purpose of the church.  I mean, in the midst of what is, without a doubt, a difficult time to be a Christian...or, let me rephrase that...when it is becoming increasingly difficult to recognize Christ and his beloved church in this world...this particular scripture, and the lesson it contains, might be exactly what we need to hear this week.

In some ways, it functions like Paul Harvey's "rest of the story."  This passage is a natural follow-up to last week's message.   For those who were not able to hear last week's message...there are copies available in the foyer.  In it we wrestled with the question...what if the Church is being tested to see if we will boldly proclaim the gospel at all cost?  More specifically, what if we are being tested to see if we will speak up boldly or remain safely silent in the face of exposed racism, rising division, and open hate-speech?  

Well friends, if we are facing a test, this reading seems to be saying:  Church...here is how you pass it.

Passing the test, if you will, begins with being able to do what Peter did...to confess from our innermost being...not just from our head knowledge or some rote answer we learned in Sunday School...but to boldly proclaim what God has personally revealed to us..and to do so with our entire lives.

 In other words, it's not enough for the Church to just know the story and to believe in Jesus.  We have a responsibility to be able to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ to others.  We are called out...that is actually what the Greek word "ecclesia" means.  We translate it to "church", but it carries the connotation of those who are called out for a purpose.  We, the church have been called out for the purpose of proclaiming who Jesus is...and for sharing his message of mercy and justice, for offering his compassion and forgiveness...for telling his truth about welcome and kindness...and for living as his community of wholeness and peace.   We are called out to say that this gospel...this truth about who Jesus is...is the one and only hope for our own lives...for the well-being of this nation...and for peace in God's world. 

On the one hand, this seems like such an obvious and easy proclamation to make, right?  I mean, we Christians know this about Jesus...we read it in scriptures...we sing it in songs...it rolls off our tongues like water over rocks...particularly when we are in the presence of others who think and believe like we do.   We gather on Sundays and we have no trouble saying all this and more about Jesus.

But what happens when we leave the comfort zone of our sanctuaries and Sunday school rooms?  What happens when we are not with, as they say, our tribe?    It is a lot more challenging to speak the truth about Jesus when we are surrounded by powers and forces that are operating contrary to the gospel...or when evil rather than good seems to be getting all the attention...or when confusion about truth is propagated boldly and in the name of a false Christianity.

This current day cultural challenge is what makes the context of this particular story so significant.  You see,  Caesarea Philippi was not some random, inconsequential place for this revelation about Jesus to take place.  It was the location of the Cave of Pan, also known as the place of the pagan Gate of Hades.  Not to mention, Caesarea Philippi and the Cave of Pan was also  the same place where the Greeks and Romans received revelations from the god Pan who was called a "seer" or fortune-teller and a giver of revelations.  So no wonder Jesus chose this place to asked his disciples, "Who do people say that the Son of Man is?".  In the middle of this hotbed of idolatry and false gods and unholy revelations, the answer Peter gives is an intentional slap at all those false narratives. 

Peter's profession of Jesus as the Messiah was truly an ah-ha moment of divine revelation...a revelation of truth that none of these other forces...not Pan nor any other Greek or Roman god...or any other idol could have made.  It was also a turning point for the disciples as they received a new identity.  Not yet fully established, they were deemed to be the church.  They  were no longer individual disciples, but they were a community.   A community with a purpose...a called out community given power and authority to proclaim the gospel.  ALTHOUGH, as Jesus added, not in that very moment.  They were to wait until later...when the time was right.

For the disciples, that would be sometime after Jesus completed his mission and headed into Jerusalem to do what he intended to do.  The disciples' time would come when their voice was needed to draw others into Jesus' fold.

Our time, however, is right now.  The narrative of our nation is changing...and not necessarily for the better.  The identity of Christ, his mission, his hope, and his church are all at risk of being hijacked into a political message that could not be further from the truth of Peter's declaration.

Now is time for the church to speak up and declare what we know to be true about who Jesus is.  Let me repeat that...now is time for us...the church...to declare what we know to be true about who Jesus is and who his church is called to be.  Now is the time for us to tell our stories about what a difference Jesus had made for us personally and to share the promise of hope he offers this world.

And folks even that is not as easy as it sounds.  To declare who Jesus is requires each member of the Body of Christ to use our lives -- our words, our actions, our choices, our relationships, our votes, our everything we've got at our disposal -- to let the world what it means to trust in Christ...to hope in Christ...to live his gospel and be guided by his Spirit.  

It takes our whole lives...and it takes all of our lives.  When it comes to being the church, no one gets to remain a bystander.   If you're in, you are all in.   You are either hot or you are cold. God doesn't do lukewarm.  It is as I said to the kids, everyone has a part to play in the story of salvation.    And no, it's not always the leading role or the best part.   More often than not, it requires self-sacrifice and playing nicely with others...something that does not come naturally to our independent, self-preserving, egos. 

So, I wonder, what if Jesus asked each of us that today...who do you say that I am?  How would you answer?  Would it be in a meaningful, revelatory way?  Could you answer without using church-y words?   Would others be able to discern the answer without our spoken word...you know, just by examining our lives? our priorities? our checkbooks? our politics? our Facebook and Twitter? 

Yes seriously, would those who are outside the church know about the unconditional love of God, the deep compassion and mercy of Jesus, or the power and wisdom of the Holy Spirit, just by observing the church and her members?  Would these folks see Christians living in the kingdom of heaven, even while living on earth and in light of the evil that surrounds us?  Or would they see division and little pockets of power that raise serious doubts about the purpose and significance of the church.  At times, I worry that the latter is happening at an alarming rate.

Christian churches have become divided over so many various "hot button" issues that we have created chaos and disunity, while diminishing the authority and power of the church.  Now don't hear what I'm not saying...the Body of Christ is a powerful God-created, God-ordained thing that cannot be destroyed.  But when it comes to being the church in the world, we have to admit that we have failed...in many ways.  The presence and effectiveness of Christianity has suffered a serious decline throughout the world, in part due to the way we treat each other.   It seems that in our passion for having others see our specific viewpoints and to convince them to believe what we believe doctrinally, we have lost sight of our shared baptism and one gospel of grace.  

As a result, to those who are lost in darkness...or who have no faith...or who are already jaded toward organized religion, we are, at a minimum making Christianity seem insignificant to them, and at worst, our failure to speak with one voice is turning them toward something else.

Sometimes that something else is the deep darkness of despair...sometimes it is the high of an addiction...sometimes it is the lie of self-sufficiency...and sometimes, increasingly often, that something else is a dangerous ideology of hatred and supremacy that we are seeing emerge from the shadows of this land.    

For lack of a better way of saying it...there is a network of false prophets and boatload of bad theology floating around that portrays Christianity as a self-serving faith rather than one of self-sacrifice.   Their message is one of exclusivity, accumulation, and power.  Their answer to the question of Jesus' identity is to hold up the mirror that makes him into their image.   He looks like them, thinks like them, has the same values as they do.  Jesus likes who they like and hates who they hate.  There does not seem to be any measure of accountability to anyone, or to any community, other than one's own self.

Unfortunately, this alternative version of Christianity is taking advantage of the church's divisions and distractions to promote a different answer to who Jesus is...one that is unequivocally a lie. Yet, if we, the Church universal is not telling and showing...living and proving...a different truth, if we're quiet, passive, distracted, or downright afraid to speak out, then this lie will be the only answer questioning folks will ever hear. 

Earlier this week there was an editorial published online on Time.com.  It was written by Christian pastor, Brian McLaren.  In it, he discussed his observations following the events that took place in Charlottesville a few weeks ago.   More specifically, he was trying to understand how the face, if you will, of the hate groups has changed.  The alt-right, the KKK, the neo-Nazi groups are no longer small gatherings of fringe-folks spouting off hate slogans.  They are now well-organized protesters, well-funded and growing in number.  They claim the support of certain Christians, even while chanting anti-Semitic and racist slogans; shouting homophobic, xenophobic and misogynistic slurs...AND speaking of putting Jews in ovens and driving people of color off "their" land.

Who are these people?

To try to understand, McLaren talked with a former white supremacist, Christian Piccolini who was recruited and radicalized by an extremist group.  Listen to what Piccolini said, "There are so many marginalized young people, so many disenfranchised young people today with not a lot to believe in, with not a lot of hope, so they tend to search for very simple black and white answers."  He tells McLaren that savvy extremists are ready to dispense those easy answers - usually through the internet. 

Piccolini goes on to say that the draw to these groups is, "not necessarily because of the ideology.  I think that the ideology is simply a vehicle to be violent.  I believe people become radicalized, or extremists, because they are searching for three very fundamental human needs:  identity, community and a sense of purpose."

Listen to that...identity, community, and a sense of purpose.  People join into the forces of evil because they are looking for identity, community, and a sense of purpose.

Call me crazy and naive, but is that not exactly what the church was created to do? To offer identity, community and purpose?

Folks, if we really want to be that city on a hill...to be the light shining in darkness...if we the church want to be a haven of hope and a promoter of peace...an example of good over evil...then this is where we start.  This is how we pass the test.   Whether we're talking about standing up to supremacists or speaking up for the least...we, the church are called to focus our hearts, minds and souls...direct all our mission and ministries...channel all our energy and dollars...toward helping people find their identity in Christ...drawing them into a community of forgiveness and compassion and hope...encouraging them to discover their God-given meaning, value, and purpose as a beloved child of God.

Friends the church is being tested...I believe this with all my heart.  There is work to do and it begins with each of us answering Jesus' question, Who do you say that I am?   And then going a step further past Peter's profession to express what it means to find our identity, community and purpose in Jesus Christ.    It's a story people want...need...and are desperate to hear.

Allow me to close with McLaren's last words to faith leaders around the nation:  "Aristotle was right.  Nature indeed abhors a vacuum.  If we don't provide emerging generations with genuine identity, community and purpose through robust and vibrant spiritual communities, somebody else will do so.  If good religion slumbers and stagnates, bad religion is the alternative."

Church, as we stand in the midst of our own 21st century Caesarea Philippi, facing our own version of the Gates of Hades, the world is asking us: Who do we say that Jesus is?  May our answer...revealed in both our words and our actions...as well as by our binding and loosing...be a proclamation of the good religion, giving all glory to God.  Amen.

Bible Reference(s):
Matthew 15:(10-20), 21-28
Rev. Terri Thorn

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to worship with my brother and sister-in-law at their church, Christ Missionary Baptist in Indianapolis.   I had not seen Barry and Jacky since Easter and they're always posting about the work and worship of Christ Missionary, so I wanted to see for myself what it was all about.

We planned to meet at my brother's house at 9:45AM to go to the 10:00AM worship service.   The church isn't too far from their house, but that still felt like we were cutting it close.  Turns out that was a needless concern on my part.  Apparently at Christ Missionary Baptist, the worship time is just a suggestion!  For about the first 30 minutes of the service, people just sort of moseyed their way into the sanctuary and it was at least 10:30 before things really started to roll.

At some point, before 11AM (which is when the preaching started) Pastor Melody asked all the visitors to stand up so they could welcome us.  Thank goodness they didn't make us wear special name badges...although I'm pretty sure I was the only visitor that day so I did not go unnoticed.  Instead, I received a gift bag and a genuine and personal welcome from the pulpit.

Which reminds me - they also have a time similar to the passing of the peace.  Except, rather than the polite handshake we are used to, everyone receives a hearty hug...from everyone else.  Seriously!  They stroll all over the sanctuary hugging on each other and I'm pretty certain there is an unspoken rule that all members must hug the visitor.

I have no doubt in my mind that this sounds uncomfortable to many of you.  There is, after all, a reason we are called the frozen chosen.  And I'm not suggesting we try this here at FPC.  However, I will say that I cannot remember a time I have felt more genuinely welcomed into a faith community.  It made my Sunday morning complete. 

I also believe that worshipping with Christ Missionary last month was God's providential preparation of my heart to preach this particular gospel passage today.  To preach it today...in light of the events last weekend in Charlottesville.  To preach it today...in light of the harsh reality that while our nation has come a long way since the Civil War and made notable progress since the Civil Rights Movement of Dr. King, we still have a long way to go to achieve true racial peace.  And not the artificial peace of avoidance or silence, but the true peace that comes when we are open, repentant, and justice prevails for all people.

So what does my visit to Christ Missionary Baptist have to do with the events of Charlottesville and today's message?  Well if you have not guessed, Christ Missionary Baptist is a predominately black church.   And when I say predominately, the day I was there with my brother and sister-in-law, you could count on one hand the number of white people in the room...and you would not need all your fingers:  Barry...Jacky...Terri.  But here's the amazing thing...honestly, it seemed as if I was the only person who realized that we were white! We were welcomed and included without hesitation or awkwardness.  I'm telling you we were not the token white people worshiping in the black church, we were their brother and sisters in Christ...praising Jesus together.

It felt like what I imagine God wants for all his children.  It looked the way one nation under God should look. And to me, it was a vision of the kingdom of God. 

While I could have easily been treated like the Canaanite woman in today's story, I was not.  I was welcomed from the moment I first stepped in the door.  Not one person questioned me, dismissed me, or challenged why I was there.

I think that's why this particular Bible story is so disturbing to most Christians.  Sure it gets to the happy ending, but not without facing a really difficult-to-accept picture of Jesus.  As one person said, "I don't like the story because it makes Jesus look mean."   It is troubling to hear Jesus dismiss the Canaanite woman so casually...as if he did not really even see her.  Even more so, it's an offense to our sensibilities (or at least it should be) to read that Jesus basically compares her to a dog...even if metaphorically.

Why would Jesus, who for the previous 14 chapters of Matthew has been preaching a message of compassion and love, suddenly become so rude and insensitive? 

Earlier this month when I was at the Biblical Storytellers Festival, I attended a workshop during which we discussed this particular passage. There were many interesting theories about what was really going on.  But, the limitation of the written word - in a Bible or in a text message - is that it doesn't transmit tone, mood, or intent.  The limitation of this particular written word is that we do not know for certain why Jesus interacted with the woman the way he did, and neither Jesus nor Matthew offers us an explanation.  We have no choice but to live with the unpleasant ambiguity.

However, there is one possible theory that I want to explore with you today.   What if this was a teaching moment for the disciples?  Like I said, we can't be sure, but think about it.  Jesus has just given them a bold, resistance message to the religious and cultural norms of their community.  In the previous dialogue about what defiles, he is very clear that it's not clean hands or unclean hands that defile - by the way, the clean or not clean is basically the same as saying whether they were considered pure or not pure, acceptable or not acceptable.  Jesus says that the outer things - which I believe he would say includes race, gender, nationality, as well as how we worship God...all things that would have separated a Jewish man and a Canaanite woman...these are not what makes a person unacceptable to God.  They are not the source of our sinfulness either.   No, Jesus pretty much says that the sewage of sin comes from our heart.

Whatever is in our hearts...will eventually come out our mouths (or onto our Facebook feed) and right now, there is way too much hate spewing from folks in our nation...including those who call themselves Christian. 

Now I'm not going to go too political on you...but I am going to say this...the white supremacist hate speech that is on the rise in our nation is the epitome of sewer mouth.  It is wrong.  It is evil.  It is sin.  It does not matter who you voted for in the election.  It does not matter what you think about the Confederate monuments and the  flag.  This problem we have of racism in our nation?  It is not about either.  Those are outward things. Racism...white supremacy...anti-Semitism...anti-anyone who doesn't think, look, act or believe like me...they are sin...inside sin of the heart.  And, anyone who does not condemn the supremacist ideology that attempts to place the worth and value of some of God's children above others, anyone who does not call this evil out...and uncategorically deny it...well he or she is part of the problem.  He or she cannot make room for this evil and claim to follow Jesus Christ.  It really is as simple as that. 

Now, folks, I'm not advocating for violence...but to sit by and say nothing?  Well Holocaust survivor Elie Weisel, who was at both Auschwitz and Buchenwald  concentration camps, has made it very clear what that means.  He said, "We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.  He also said, that the opposite of love is not hate, it's indifference. Finally, the quote that hangs over my desk, "There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest."

Friends, I do not have to tell you that at this moment in history, once again the church is facing a grave injustice.  Slavery was evil.  Racism is evil. Nazism and white nationalism is evil.  And, if the church doesn't (as the younger generation says) get woke real soon, that evil is going to continue to win one violent protest at a time.   

So what if this encounter with the Canaanite woman was a test to see if the disciples were woke to the gospel?? In other words, Jesus was waiting to see if they were taking in all that he had been preaching.   Even more so, were they willing to put it into practice...were they willing to break rank with cultural, political, and even religious norms, to stand up to injustice?  Were they willing to speak out for the woman who was not like them, whom they had been taught was lower than them?  Or...would they do what they had every right to do...just pass her by and keep on going?  Yeah, as uncomfortable as it makes us to consider, I wonder if Jesus was giving them a test -- one that they clearly failed.

What is even more unsettling is the possibility that the white church in America is still taking that test...and Jesus is watching to see if we pass or fail.

Folks, mothers are crying out on behalf of their children all across this nation.  Crying out for their young black sons who are targeted with suspicion for the color of their skin.  Crying out for their daughters who are sexualized at such a young age.  Crying out for their gay and questioning children who are bullied and denied rights.  Crying out for their children whom they leave behind when they, the parents, are deported. Crying out for the injustices all around the world...injustices that are made worse because of the color of their skin, the nation of their birth, the language they speak, or the religion they practice. 

Here in America, blacks and Jews and immigrants are suffering despicable acts of hatred.  They are crying out and there are...hundreds, yes hundreds, of white supremacy and neo-Nazi groups working overtime to try to silence them with intimidation.  

Folks this is not a right/left, progressive/evangelical, conservative/liberal, Republican/Democrat thing...this is a God thing.  A love thing. A heart thing. 

We cannot fool ourselves into believing that racism in our country ended in the 60s or the 70s...or in any decade as of yet.  We cannot fool ourselves into believing that somehow the first black president made us a racist nation again.  For years the evil of racism slithered underground and lurked behind complicit structures...but it was always there.  The events of this past weekend has just shined a glaring light on it and brought it out into the open.  And now, like a Canaanite woman shouting, "Have mercy on me, Lord," it is screaming for the church to respond.

And time will tell if we will we pass the test. 

Will we be like the disciples and try to silence the voices of the proclaimers, the resistors, the solidarity marchers and the justice seekers?  Will we deny the reality of racism and the evil of white-supremacy? Will we resort to the age-old excuse-making, "But that's not me. I'm not a racist."  Or, the invalidating, "Why can't we all just get along?"  Or my personal favorite, "The church should just pray and stay out of politics."  Since when did Jesus "just pray"?  Yes, he prayed but he also spoke out, vehemently, against a similar exclusionary ideology...so vocally that it got him killed.

Now, I am aware that about right now some of you are wishing that I had stayed on vacation...or that I would tell you that in the end everything is going to be alright.  You want me to jump to the happy ending, "Woman, great is your faith!  Let it be done for you as you wish."

Well sorry, but I believe it would be irresponsible of me and contrary to the gospel if I did not say what God has placed firmly in my heart today.  And I whole-hearted believe that if American Christianity does not want to fail the test at hand...we need to follow the lead of the woman in this story.  We must be as respectful, passionate, and persistent as she was.  We cannot remain silent.  We must boldly live the gospel we proclaim.  We must stand on the side of justice and equality for all of God's children.  And to say that the church has the choice to do anything less is...well...that would be a lie.

We cannot be Christian and sympathetic to any form of supremacist thinking.

We cannot be the Body of Christ if we exclude any other part for any reason.

We cannot follow Jesus and ignore the reality of racial and ethnic suffering.  To do so is the antithesis of the gospel and it cheapens the sacrifice Christ made on the cross.

So what can we do?  How can we be faithful to God and our neighbor? 

The long and short answer is...by loving both.  Love God with all our heart and soul and mind, and love our neighbor as ourselves. 

Our neighbor who is African American.

Our neighbor who is Jewish.  Our Muslim neighbor. Our immigrant neighbor.

Our LGBTQ neighbor, our rich neighbor, our poor neighbor.

You get the picture. Jesus did not put any qualifier on the end of that commandment.  Love is love is love and as difficult as it is to love others, for Christians, loving others is not meant to be optional or selective. 

So where do we start? How does the church promote healing...and justice...and peace through love?  Well, first and foremost, we begin on our knees in prayer.  Praying continually.  But, as the saying goes, "never pray a prayer unless you are willing to be part of the answer."  We, the church, have an active role to play in helping heal our nation of this ugly sin of racism - starting with removing our blinders to it.   

We cannot heal that which we cannot see.  And only when we are able to see the injustices of the world can we help end them. 

The second most powerful thing American Christians can do right now, today, to promote justice is to firmly and boldly say no.  No to racism.  No to sexism.  No to Nazism.  No to excuse-making.  No to any and all hate.  Christians must learn that No is a complete sentence.  It is not followed by a comma, a "but" or a "whatabout". It is no - period.

A third action we can take is to be intentional about building diverse relationships...really seeing and hearing each other...appreciating the gift and blessing of God's presence in each other.  After all, that is where the walls of division get torn down...in our common humanity and when we work side-by-side in service to Christ.  Just ask the folks at Christ Missionary Baptist Church-- they do it so well!

My friends, inscribed  on the wall at the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial in Washington DC is this quote:  "The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy." 

I suggest that the same can be said of the church.  

And, let's be real...we are smack dab in the middle of challenge and controversy.  It's not going away.  So just imagine if every member of every Christian congregation in America would pledge to do just these three things:  acknowledge the racism, say no  to it, unequivocally, and build relationships with others...covered in prayer of course.  The ideology of white supremacy would have no chance of survival, and one thing would be certain.  Jesus would assuredly look at the church and declare: In the face of evil...she, my church, persisted.

Friends, love is love is love and the risen Christ has proven that, in the end, it always wins.  All glory be his.  Amen.

Bible Reference(s):
Psalm 73
Rev. Terri Thorn

As I pondered how we would wrap up this sermon series on Sabbath-keeping, I was trying to figure out how to condense the insights of the last two chapters of Walter Brueggemann's book, "sabbath as resistance" into one message...and an abbreviated message at that.   Brueggemann's book has been the guide through the previous weeks of this series and I really did not want to leave out the last two chapters, one of which addresses how Sabbath helps us resist the urge to multi-task, and the other drew a connect between Sabbath-keeping and obedience to the 10th Commandment...thou shall not covet what your neighbor has.

Both are worthy of their own messages, to be sure.  However, tonight is about learning to practice Sabbath...it's about appreciating the fullness of reasons we should keep Sabbath.  We've heard that we should keep Sabbath because it is a gift from God.  We should keep Sabbath because, like the Hebrew slaves, God has saved us from the acquisitive, production mindset of Egypt, and also like the Israelites, we need to be reminded that our worth is not measured by our wealth.  We learned that we should keep Sabbath because life is not a race and God's people are not rats.  We do not need spend our days on a gerbil wheel of life.  We should keep Sabbath because God is a sabbath-keeping, sabbath-giving, sabbath-commanding God.  We should keep Sabbath because the attitude of Sabbath-keeping, which reveals the fruit of living in the Spirit of God, is how the world knows we belong to God.  We keep sabbath, because sabbath-keeping is a way of community-making.

And more...there are numerous good reasons why God's people should incorporate Sabbath into our lives.  And by that, I'm not just talking about worshipping on a specific day of the week or in a particular way.  Sabbath keeping is an ongoing way of life...a work-stoppage...priority-setting...regular worshipping way of life...but it is also a mindset - a mindset of grace and abundance...an attitude of hope and trust.  Friends, Sabbath-keeping is good for us..for our physical, spiritual and mental well-being.  God has given it to us for our benefit.  We should be grateful.

Still at the end of the day, folks, I think perhaps the most significant reason for keeping Sabbath is because it is in the quiet trust of Sabbath...in the rest, in the worship, in the God-centered mindfulness...that God meets us, assures us, and transforms us. 

I think that's what this Psalmist is trying to tell us.  Regardless of how chaotic our lives may seem...or how perverted or upsetting the world has become...despite all the deceiving messages about what is important...no matter how loud the ungodly voices of hate...in the midst of all that confusion and sense of dejectedness...when we enter the sanctuary -- or holy presence of God -- we begin to see differently.

Take a look at the Psalmist's story.  He's feeling down...defeated...surrounded by evil.  And, worse yet, he looks around and it appears as if evil is winning.  "They have no struggles," he says.  "Their bodies are healthy and strong.  They don't have problems like the rest of us.  And...they are not nice people.  In fact, they are mean and violen; they flaunt their wealth and oppress the poor.  They do not even begin to have the burdens and struggles of common people."

Heck, there's a part of me that things he was prophetically speaking of 21st Washington, DC!

Seriously...this psalmist is heavily burdened because all that he has been taught about good and evil, right and wrong, love and hate, blessing and community...everything...all of it...none of it seems to be the reality of the world as he is living in it.  And it has started to take a toll on his physical, mental and emotional health.

Now, who in this room cannot relate to that?   At some point in our lives, most of us have felt like the underdog...as if all the good we are trying to do is going unnoticed...at best it is ineffective,  at worst, it has been overcome by the presence of arrogance, greed, and mean-spiritedness.  Many of us have at one time or another felt that we were facing a mountain that was too steep to climb.   And I think that at least some of us, in a moment of overwhelming despair, have questioned whether seeking justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly even matters anymore.

In fact, unless you're completely disconnected from all news sources, there's not a one of us who probably didn't have some version of that thought this week.  I mean, as if the circus we call Congress isn't enough to disorient our sense of righteousness and fairness in the world, it sure makes one question whether the ordinary citizens even matter.  The death of Lt. Aaron Allan surely felt as if good lost the battle to evil.   Last month when the Foster family was randomly attacked by a 19 year-old kid and Max lost his life, the sense of order in our community was ripped apart. The opiate drug abuse epidemic.  The lack of funding for quality education.  The lack of safe affordable housing. The lack of employment opportunities that support a basic standard of living.  The bulging at the seams foster-care system.  The for-profit prison system. The increasing gap between social economic haves and have-nots.  The fear and division over basic human rights. The crushing of human spirit and denying of  human dignity.   The universal decline in Christian worship attendance.  The undeniable change that is on the horizon for most all models of "being church". 

The list goes on and on. And folks, really, truly, I am not trying to be a pessimist or an alarmist.  I'm just pointing out the things that make us feel like this psalmist...the things that weigh heavily on our hearts and minds...the things that I believe burden God's heart too. 

Of course, we are Easter people...we believe that God has the power to breathe life into all of these dead situations.   However, we are also human people...people straddling that chasm between the heavenly hope and the earthly reality.  And...sometimes...if we've been standing there in that gap for too long, we find ourselves slipping...the way the psalmist was slipping.  "But as for me, my feet had almost stumbled; my steps had nearly slipped." 

Until...as he says in verse 17...until I went into the sanctuary of God.   Until I paused my thinking.  Until I slowed my mind.  Until I took a Sabbath break.

Then I perceived their end.   Then I understood the bigger picture. 

In other words, then I remembered the promises of God.  Then I remembered that God is God almighty.  God is the God of goodness and righteousness. God is the God whose power is greater than any other god...even greater than death.  God is the source of strength for the faithful. God is the God who holds our hand and gets us through.

When the psalmist entered the sanctuary of God...and again, by sanctuary we do not mean a building with pews and pipe organ...we mean God's Holy Presence.  When the psalmist entered the holy presence of God...God met him there.  And the psalmist spirit was transformed.  

His situation had not changed...but his understanding of it had. And that shift always signals the beginning of healing.   In the presence of God, in the sanctuary of Sabbath, the psalmist remembered. He-centered. He was renewed.  He was transformed.  I mean, look at the change in his language...and in his perspective.  No more angst or complaining or frustration...just "But for me it is good to be near God; I have made the Lord God my refuge, to tell of all your works."

This, my friends, is the reason...the gift..the blessing...the purpose of Sabbath.  To be near God...and trust God will take care of all the rest.  Glory be to God. Amen.

Bible Reference(s):
Isaiah 56:1-8
Rev. Terri Thorn

Our scripture reading for today is coming to us from the words of the prophet Isaiah.  However, before we hear them, I'd like to take a few minutes to give some background leading up to them.  I think, unless we back up a bit, we might not fully appreciate the significance of what God is doing through Isaiah.  I also want to say up front that I relied on Old Testament scholar, Walter Brueggemann to help me understand this myself. Some of what I'm teaching today was learned directly from his book, Sabbath as Resistance, and I hope that I can offer it in a way that is helpful.   

So, let's get started. This is week four of a five-part sermon series, Why Keep Sabbath? Thus far, the series has been rooted in the story of the Exodus where Moses brings the Hebrew slaves out of Egypt - out from under Pharaoh's domination and away from the production-driven economic system of Egypt. Keep in mind that prior to the Exodus, the Hebrew slaves were really just a bunch of outcasts whom the Egyptians scorned and treated like objects...they had no notable identity.  They were, in the words of scripture, NOT a people.  That is, until Moses led them to Mt. Sinai where they encountered God, and became God's people.

You may also recall that God provided commandments and laws by which God's people would function, interact, and live in relationship to God and to each other.  These ordinances, laws, commandments - whatever we want to call them - became identity markers for the people of God.  Those who obeyed and lived by them were identified as the people of the covenant-making, Sabbath-rest-taking, one and only God.

Once this covenant identity was proclaimed, it wasn't long until Israel began the process of setting up the boundaries of membership...defining the requirements, if you will, in order to be the people of God.  More specifically, they wanted to develop membership criteria that could be passed along to future generations in order to define who was in and who was out of the community of God's people. 

Now, in the Torah, which is the Hebrew name for the first five books of the Bible, there are two main interpretative traditions which define the identity of God's people.  The first is the great Priestly tradition of holiness found in Leviticus.  This tradition calls Israel to be a holy people as summarized in Leviticus 19:2, "Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them, You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy."

For those who are willing to read through the book of Leviticus, you will find that it is packed full of holiness code and a call to religious purity.  The people of God are warned that they are to stay clear of anything and everything that is profane, worldly, or common.  The idea was that if the Israelites were exposed to this kind of thing they would become contaminated and God would leave them.  So the entire book goes into great detail to provide guidelines for every aspect of life in order to make sure the Israelites remain pure.  In a sense, this tradition provides a firm hedge of purity designed to keep the Israelites in and all others out.  Anyone who did not meet this holiness code was excluded and believed to be dangerous to the community.

The second tradition, which is found in Deuteronomy, adds a different perspective.  It places an emphasis on questions of justice...implying that the people of God are those who seek justice.  Throughout Deuteronomy, there is an ongoing preoccupation with taking care of the vulnerable who need protection in the community - the poor, the widows and orphans, and the immigrants.  In this tradition, the instruction from God sounds something like this: "You must not distort justice; you must not show partiality and you must not accept bribes, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and subverts the cause of those who are in the right.  Justice, and only justice, you shall pursue so you may live and occupy the land the Lord your God is giving you."   (Deut. 16:19-20)  Yes, there is still an element of purity code in Deuteronomy, but justice must be the concern of God's people too.

Deuteronomy also includes lists of exclusions...specific people who, due to physical attributes, inability to procreate, or from certain tribes and areas were not to be included in the membership.   In addition, Moses also gave a list of reasons for which one would be excommunicated, or as the Hebrew word translates, purged from the community.  Keep in mind that for the ancient Israelites, as well as the first century Jews, community was EVERYTHING to them.  To be banished from the community was one of the harshest punishments that could be carried out.  Therefore, it was the go-to consequence for those whose behaviors and choices were believed to be putting the community at risk. 

So all of these laws and statements became a border wall if you will...intended to protect the people from anyone or anything that might tarnish or harm the community.  For a long time, this fence held tight, with the insiders enforcing the boundaries among themselves. That is, until the Israelites were eventually invaded and dispersed into exile by the Babylonians.    

We won't go into that part of their history, but as you might imagine, when the people were separated from their community, these unique identifiers to which they had clung became more difficult to uphold and reflect.  Not to mention, over the generations, it's quite likely that in some ways the Israelites became indistinguishable from the very people into which they had been disbanded. 

OK, NOW...this is where the reading from Isaiah picks up - just as the exile is ending and the Israelites are straggling back to together. In many ways, at this point they were like their Hebrew ancestors coming out of Egypt...a mixed bag of people..some of whom had been deported during the Exile, some who had not.  Some who had cooperated with the imperial authorities and some who had not.  Some...a very few...who would remember life before the Exile,  and many who did not.  So, as they started to regroup and re-form themselves as a community of God's people, Isaiah's job was to teach them, once again, who was in and who was out.

So listen to what God says through the prophet Isaiah:   READ  Isaiah 56:1-8

A radically different criteria, huh?   Yes, justice and righteousness are still in there...but they are specifically tied to Sabbath-keeping.  In addition, God just pretty much took the fence that had been built by those exclusions in Deuteronomy and widened it to a radius beyond their wildest imagination.   In Direct contradiction to the statements from Moses, Isaiah intentionally includes the sexually compromised eunuchs and the foreigners...not just some, but any and all foreigners...in the community...just as long as they kept the Sabbath!

Folks, this is a huge deal.  The main marker of the community of God was no longer based on lineage, physical markers, ability to procreate, purity laws or nationality.  Membership in the community was based on whether the people were faithful to the Sabbath. And not just the Sabbath as a certain day of the week...but faithful to the intention of Sabbath...the intention of rest...the intention of worship...the intention of resistance to the production/commodity mindset that had ruled Egypt and continues to be prevalent in our society even today.

Yes, I am well aware that the word "resistance" carries some political baggage right now...and I know that to say God encouraged his people to be resistors could cause some folks to be uncomfortable.  But here is the thing, Sabbath-keeping by its ancient definition and intention is about resisting the ways of the world. It is about saying no to the competitive, dog-eat-dog, hierarchical, bigger is better, he who has the most wins mindset that our society and western culture portrays as the American dream.

So yes, it is a form of resistance. To keep Sabbath is a way of saying no...and, according to this passage -that very same resistance is also a marker of God's people.  It is not to say that holiness and righteousness became unimportant...but they were no longer the entire picture.   Refusing to be sucked into the worldly ways...refusing to measure worth by wealth...refusing to serve two masters...was also part of the picture.  Honoring the Sabbath intention was, and still is, an essential part of being God's people. 

Sabbath-keeping also became, and remains, an equalizer in the community. It is the only community membership condition God requires in Isaiah...and God seems to be saying that anyone and everyone can observe Sabbath if they choose.  There are no fences around it.   Eunuchs can observe Sabbath.  Foreigners can observe Sabbath.  Rich, poor...educated, uneducated...all can observe Sabbath. The working or the unemployed.  People of all races and nationalities.  People of all skin colors.  Old, young.  Straight or gay.  We all are capable of and invited to honor the Sabbath and keep it holy.  We are all called to resist the worldly priority of produce, produce, produce in order to be of value.  We can all bear the markers of the people of God without condition or exclusion.  

None of these different social attributes I just define us as God's people...nor do they exclude us either.  That was, I believe, Isaiah's point.  The identifier of the community of God's people is whether we are people of Sabbath-intent...either we are seekers of justice, bearers of compassion, people of mercy...or we are not. 

And, folks, if Isaiah's words are not enough for you...if you don't want to rely on the Old Testament prophets, then go ahead and fast-forward a few hundred years and read through Jesus' Sermon on the Mount...listen to Jesus preaching...he calls for this same kind of inclusion among his followers...read the parables of the Prodigal...the Good Samaritan...the Workers in the Vineyard.   Over and again, Jesus lifts up these same kind of identity markers...where there is righteousness...and justice...and welcome...where Sabbath-intention prevails...where there is compassion for the poor...food for the hungry...care for the sick...visits to those in prison...where the faithful follow...where the broken are healed...these are markers of God's community. 

Notice, though, what is NOT there.  There's not a single mention that the community is where the people are taken to task...or manipulated...or driven by a need to prove themselves...or excluded based on some characteristic of human sexuality.  There is no mention that the accumulation of wealth or the exertion of power will admit you to the community...and nowhere does Jesus ever, ever say that the community of God is in a rat race toward some societal definition of success.   No folks, life is not a race and the people of God are not rats.

So what is it that identifies God's people?  All the things these things that Isaiah told...all the things Jesus modeled and taught.  What it does not look like is Pharaoh's Egypt.  

One of the most important statements about how to detect God's community comes from the Apostle Paul.  In his letter to the Galatians he describes the community as those who live by the Spirit of God. He says those whose lives reveal the fruit of the Spirit, which are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control are the people of God.   When we live by the Spirit...these are the things the world will see in our lives...and these are the markers that say to the world that we belong to God.   

We are not identified as God's own because of what we eat or don't eat, not by male or female, not Jew or Gentile.  It's not a matter of ancestry, or our religious purity, or some other factor of accomplishment. We are recognized as the people of the Sabbath-keeping, Sabbath-giving, Sabbath-commanding God's just by how we live and how we love. 

 In other words folks,  the same things that marked God's people all those thousands of years ago, still define us now.  How we live and interact with each other is still the identifier of who is in and who is out of the community.  The difference though is that through Christ and by the grace of God, all have been given access to the Spirit of God to mark us and to bear all this good fruit from within us.   No walls  No conditions. No exclusions.

We aren't relying on a list of laws or any other kind of fence to say...only these kind of people, doing these kind of things belong to God.  In fact,  I believe we are limiting God's grace if we start building fences based on specific doctrines, attributes or criteria that are not related to living a spirit filled life.  No, the good news of our faith is that through Christ we have been adopted into the family of God...we are God's people...we are part of his community.   And the single marker that identifies us as such is God's Holy Spirit at work within us...shaping us and producing fruit.

So what has all this got to do with 21st century Sabbath-keeping?   Well, folks, the reality is that it's is not possible to live a spirit-filled life if we are not also Sabbath-keepers. We cannot have one without the other.  Maybe for a while, but eventually, without the rest and resistance of Sabbath, we are soon given over to the ways of the world, or as Paul calls them...the ways of the flesh, not the Spirit.   Without Sabbath, we start living in a way that looks a lot like a slave in Egypt...and there's no fruit in that.

I mean think about it.

We won't be loving or kind or compassionate if we view everyone as our competition.

We won't be generous if we believe we need to have more for ourselves.

We won't have time to be joyful or know peace if we are busy running the rat race.

We won't be patient if we're tired.

We won't be merciful if we feel that everything depends on us.

We won't be faithful if we our priorities are divided.

You get the picture.

Friends, Sabbath-keeping and Spirit-led living go hand  in hand.  Together, they not only indicate our membership in the community of God, they expand the kingdom of God and welcome others into it.  When we honor Sabbath, we steel ourselves against temptations such as anger, envy and competition that bear sour grapes and destroy community.  Sabbath allows us, instead, to embrace the good fruits - such as life and joy, praise and peace...which are the fruits of God's community...today and always.  Amen.

Let us now enter a spirit of Sabbath reflection as our own Meghan Farris offers us a special music about the community of God, With One Voice. 

Bible Reference(s):
Deuteronomy 5:1-14
Rev. Terri Thorn

Friday my daughter and I decided to visit my parents in my hometown of Madison. Usually, it is a two-hour trip along a route that I've driven more times than I can count.   However, this week, we were forced to take a detour because there is a bridge out on State Road 7.  

Since I grew up in southern Indiana, I wasn't too worried about the detour...not to mention I had my handy-dandy map app.  That is until about mid-way through the detour when it occurred to me that given the some of the remote areas we were traveling through, there was a real possibility I could lose my cell signal...which, of course, would wreak havoc on the map app.  

Well, it turns out that the neither the detour nor the cell signal were the biggest problem on this trip. The real issue for me was the GIGANTIC and I mean GI-GAN-TIC 5th wheel camper that joined us on the detour.  Did I mention they were in front of us...going well under the speed limit and blocking my view for more than 30 miles of country roads?

It was frustrating and, a bit nerve-wracking, to say the least.  As we made our way down this unfamiliar, winding road, it bothered me to not be able to see what was up ahead.  I couldn't tell if we were going to encounter a curve, a hill, a tractor or a random stop sign.   I had to just drive the speed that the camper driver set for us...and follow along...into the great unknown. By the way did  I already mention that they were going well below the speed limit?

It was a real test of patience...not to mention a challenge to my need to be in control.

OK, so it was just for 30 miles.  And, most of us can surely survive not being able to see around a slow-moving motor home for awhile...even one going well below the speed limit.  

Still, I've come to believe that this idea of not knowing what's ahead...and learning to be OK with not knowing what is ahead...may  be one of the greatest challenges of being fully human.  We would much rather know...see...and control.

Let's face it, no one enjoys the feeling of vulnerability and helplessness that we experience when we lack control in our lives.  Yet, according to contemplative priest Richard Rohr, this is where we experience spiritual transformation.   He writes:  The spiritual journey is a journey into Mystery, requiring us to enter the "cloud of unknowing" where the left brain always fears to tread.  Precisely because we're being led into Mystery, we have to let go of our need to know and our need to keep everything under control." 

It sounds lovely in theory, right?  Think how much we would grow in our spirituality if we would just surrender to the unknowing.   However, the reality is...for most of us that is not our natural tendency.  Our internal tolerance for uncertainty is pretty low and we will usually do whatever it takes to resolve and have clarity - even if it means we are choosing the security of the known over a deeper encounter with God grace.

Turns out we are much more like the Israelites that we probably care to admit. 

We've covered some of their story these past two weeks, but for anyone who has missed, here is a quick refresher. The Israelite were slaves in Egypt. God heard their cries of suffering under Pharaoh's oppression and sent Moses to lead them out of slavery.  They ended up in the wilderness and where they were forced to depend on God who was merciful and compassionate -- everything Pharaoh was not.   

And although God was faithful in provision, the Israelites repeatedly experienced collective memory lapse about life in Egypt.  Like they time accused  Moses of bringing them into the wilderness to die.  They were complaining about being hungry said they would rather go back to Egypt, because at least there they ate all the food they wanted including huge pots of meat.   Seriously...talk about selective memory.  They were slaves, folks.  They were not fed all they wanted, much less meat.   Still, for them, it was better to live in the misery they already knew than a future they did not.  I know it sounds ludicrous to our ears, but I'm telling you, a whole lot of folks still live by that philosophy, even if unintentionally.  They are just that afraid of a different future.

As for the Israelites, eventually, despite all their complaining and whining, they arrived at Mt. Sinai where God offered to be their God and have them be his people.  God spoke some clarify instructions about how to live and they promised: "Everything the Lord has said we will do."   Lots of comfort and certainty there...no cloud of unknowing.

All is well and good...until....Moses goes up on the mountain and leaves them to follow Aaron's leadership for 40 days.  Remember that part of the story?  While Moses is on the mountain with God, the people start to get agitated.  They  couldn't see Moses or hear God.  Too much uncertainty...for too many days in a row.  Anxiety sets in and they start asking among themselves, "Is he ever coming back? Are we going to be stuck here not knowing what to expect?"

The next thing you know they are collecting all their gold jewelry to melt into an idol to represent the God they could not see.   They even went as far, with Aaron's cooperation I might add, to create an altar and bring sacrifices.   The perplexing, yet so very relatable, thing about this action is that this was not a different, false god they were worshipping...at least they did not intend it to be.  The idol was their very "human" effort to take some control of an uncertain situation.

The Israelites wanted to create  something to represent the God that had brought them out of Egypt, especially since he was a god they could not see, touch or hear for themselves.  Simply put, they were uncomfortable with the ambiguity of not being able to see what was up ahead, around the bend.   So, they did what humans continue to do even today...they tried to pass on a double yellow line.  No wait, that's drivers behind motor homes.  Wrong story.  The Israelites tried to purchase certainty.

Oh, but we do that too.  We accumulate in order to try to create certainty...and ease the anxiety of not knowing. We take matters into our own hands...and we regularly revert back to the ways and teachings of the world, not those of our faith.   We prefer to settle for that which we know rather than live through that which challenges us and makes us feel vulnerable - but also brings us closer to God.  

With their golden calf, the Israelites returned to what they had always known...using visible idols to represent the divine.   In other words, they tried to resolve the mystery of God rather than embrace it. 

Of course this lack of trust upset Moses and God.  As a result Moses smashes the tablets in anger; and momentarily, God withdraws his covenant with his people. 

Thanks be to God, the story doesn't end there.  After much pleading from Moses, God shows mercy to the Israelites.  He makes yet another covenant with them and proceeds to give new instructions.  Interestingly enough, the only overlap between the first conversation that God had with Moses and the follow-up, post-tablet smashing conversation, is the commandment regarding Sabbath.   Six days you shall work, but on the seventh day you shall rest; even in plowing time and in harvest time you shall rest. (Exodus 34:21)

Once again, Sabbath-keeping takes center stage in God's instructions to his people.  God is adamant that it is an instrumental part of being his people.   In fact, at least 15 times in the book of Exodus, there is mention of Sabbath-keeping, as well as detailed regulations about how the Israelites were to honor the sacred time of rest and worship.   If you take time to read through Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy, you will see what I mean when I say that Sabbath is not just something God threw in at the last minute to round out the Commandments to an even number.  It serves a holy purpose...and from God's perspective, it is not negotiable.

Eventually, God calls Moses back up on the mountain and yet again, gives another set of the Ten Commandments.  As  a side note, guess which commandment has a new variation in it?   If you said, the fourth one...you would be right.  Here, God's reason for keeping Sabbath is not tied to the creation story but is now connected to the Exodus story. Sabbath was an occasion to remember the circumstances from which they had been freed, the journey that brought them to freedom, and the One who provided for them every step of the way.    

The rest of the book of Exodus is the process of Moses preparing the people to enter the Promised Land, which  brings us to today's reading from Deuteronomy.  In Hebrew means Deuteronomy means "these are the words"...and in ancient Greek, it translates "second law".   In short, Moses offers these words as a second reminder of what it means to be God's people - beginning with the Ten Commandments...again.

You see, Moses is fully aware that the Israelites are about to enter into the land of milk and honey...a place of abundance. The pendulum was about to swing from a completely vulnerable, utter dependence on God in the wilderness mindset...to the Promised Land...a fertile, abundant, needs are met, all this and more kind of place.  It was sort of like going from behind the motor home on a country to road to cruising the highway in Corvette.  This time, it wasn't going to be uncertainty that would cause the Israelites to doubt or forget God's expectations.  It was the abundance.  When it comes to our  ability to remember God's faithfulness - times of uncertainty and times of prosperity are just two sides of the same coin.  

You see, as scholar Walter Brueggemann says, "prosperity breeds amnesia".   The more we have the more we forget what it was like to not have...and the less we remember about how we got it.    Moses was concerned, rightly so, that it would only be a matter of time before the Israelites experienced amnesia about God, again.  He worried that they would no longer remember the circumstances of their enslavement in Egypt or how they came to be free.  They could be tempted to return to the Egyptian view that abundance is a commodity to be accumulated, rather than understanding it as a blessing from God.  And, they might even begin to believe that they had somehow accomplished this great thing on their own.

Sabbath was meant to remind them.  Sabbath is meant to remind us.

In times of prosperity it is all too tempting to forget that all that we are, all that we have, all that we will ever be is but by the grace of God.  Theologically we know this, but in reality, we cling to the idea that our accomplishments are our own.  We maintain that we are the ones who worked hard.  We obtained the financial success.  We have achieved the goals.  No one else did it for us.  And, the more secure we feel in these things, the less acknowledge God's part in them...and the more like Pharaoh we become.

 In times of prosperity it is all too tempting to forget that there was ever a time of scarcity.  We just assume that there will always be more available.  We greedily consume without regard for others.

In times of prosperity it is all too tempting to forget that we were ever broken...hurting...or in need...and as result we become less compassionate toward those who are.

In times of prosperity it is all too tempting to forget what it  means to be God's people.

Sabbath was meant to remind the Israelites.  Sabbath is meant to remind us.

Be it for a weekly worship service, an entire Sunday, or just a block of time during the week as we are able to find it - we enter into Sabbath in order to remember the exact same thing that Moses wanted the Israelites to remember - who we are and whose we are. 

We are called to remember that all we have been given...the freedom...the hope...the salvation....the welcome...the grace...the faith community...the life...all these things are ours only because of the One willing to dwell among us in order to reveal them to us.

The symbols of our worship...the font...the table...the cross...they are the sacred visual reminders of the stories of our faith.   But it is our time with God...the holy moments of praise and gratitude...the quiet prayer and reflection...the living and loving the way Jesus did...these are the Sabbath times that let our hearts remember and our lives be transformed.

Friends, Sabbath is the cure for amnesia.   It helps us remember that once we were not a people, but now we are the people of God.  Once we had not received mercy,  but now we have received mercy through Christ our Lord.

Sabbath reminds us that we are created in God's image...that we have value and purpose and unlimited potential for good.

Sabbath is for remembering that are no longer slaves to sin.  Remembering that we are forgiven and loved and treasured.

Sabbath reminds us that we that we do not need to go back to Egypt - or the modern-day version of it - ever.

It helps us remember that uncertainty is not a bad thing. 

Sabbath is about remembering that we are not alone.  God is with us, even and especially, in the unknown.

Finally, Sabbath reminds us that, despite what the world would like us to believe, God's abundance of grace and mercy is not a commodity to be accumulated and counted...but is instead a gift to be shared.

May sharing be our holy intention this and every day.  Amen.

Bible Reference(s):
Matthew 6:25-31
Rev. Terri Thorn

On this second week of the sermon series, Why Keep Sabbath, I'm wondering what does Sabbath-keeping mean to you?  For those over 40, it probably equates to a list of do's and don'ts about what is allowed on Sundays.   For most of us, honoring the Sabbath meant that you did go to church on Sunday and you did not go shopping. 

During my childhood, we called Sunday, Holy Day, and there was a specific routine we followed.  All the women, all the children, and some of the men, went to church every Sunday.   Interestingly though, not everyone went to the same church. I'm sure there's a good story behind that - all I know is that my mom and grandparents took me to the Baptist church. 

On a typical Sunday, we all gathered at my grandparents farm - even the heathen uncles who didn't go to church - for a huge Sunday afternoon meal.  Afterwards, the cousins were allowed to play together outside -- only if remembered to bring our play clothes to Mamaw's - and the grown-ups would tell stories or take naps.  As I recall there were a lot more naps than stories most Sundays!

On the weeks when we did not go to my grandparents, Sundays were still treated differently than all other days of the week.  My Papaw and uncles did not farm on Sunday...ever....no matter where they were in the season.  No one worked. No one shopped. And somebody was always visiting someone.  I have to admit, growing up, Sunday felt a bit prison-ish; however, in hindsight, those slow Sunday afternoons were a blessing.  Personally, I think our society is missing out on this gift from God.  And post-modern Christians have lost sight of the original purpose and blessing of Sabbath rest. 

But we are not the first to do so.  The ancient Jews also turned the concept of Sabbath-keeping into a list of rules and regulations...nearly all of which started with the words, "Do not!"  In fact, many times when we read that Jesus was at odds with the temple leaders, it was because he was doing something on the Sabbath...usually healing or showing compassion.  In the minds of the religious rulers, Jesus was violating the Sabbath law.  

The thing is though...according to the scriptures...there is no reason to believe that God intended Sabbath to be about rules and regulations.  God gave Sabbath as a gift...a time of joyful celebration and rest.  As one Jewish author puts it, "Shabbat is meant to be a precious gift from God, a day of great joy eagerly awaited throughout the week, a time when we can set aside all of our weekday concerns and devote ourselves to higher pursuits."

Don't you love that idea? Sabbath is about setting aside all of our everyday, ordinary, concerns to devote ourselves to higher pursuits.  It begs the question, though, what are our higher pursuits?  On our best days, I suspect that they would be those things that connect us to God and to each other.  But some days are not our best...and on those days, loving God and loving others are not our highest pursuits. 

Many things distract us...demand our energy..or truly need our time and attention.  We have jobs.  We have busy, over-extended, families.  We have things we need to do, things we want to do, and things we really should do - like 5 loads of laundry. 

Thanks be to God though, Jesus understands all of this about our earthly kingdom...and does not condemn us for it. He does, however, make it clear that those lesser-pursuit kind of things do not define our worthiness for God's love, nor do they have the right to occupy our lives 24 hours a day, seven days a week. 

Oh, what a sweet, sweet sound to our over-scheduled, noise-filled, ears! 

Likewise, it is re-assuring is to know that keeping Sabbath is not about how we spend our Sundays, nor is it just another set of standards for us to fail to live up to.  Sabbath is a God-ordained, natural part of life.  It is a grateful, non-anxious mindset.  And above all, Sabbath-keeping is an expression of our trust in the sabbath-keeping, sabbath-giving, sabbath-commanding God revealed in Scripture and incarnate in Jesus Christ. 

Last week we talked about how the fourth commandment was one thing that uniquely separated the God of the Israelites from the task-master Pharaoh.  You know, the guy who insisted that the Israelites produce unreasonable quotas...and called them lazy when they did not? 

Well, there is another side to Pharaoh we should also mention.  He was highly anxious, and totally stressed-out.  Constantly worrying.  Needing to be in control and fretting when he wasn't. 

Early in the Exodus story, we read about his reoccurring dreams of scarcity.  By the way, the strange dreams are recorded back in the 41st chapter of Genesis if you're interested in reading them.  Suffice to say, even way back then, Pharaoh was subconsciously worried about having enough. 

Ironically, it turns out this would later become a legitimate concern for him when Egypt experienced a seven-year famine.  My guess is that Pharaoh was always anxious about the food-supply, mostly because his ability to produce more wealth was directly connected to it.  However, when he learned of the impending crisis, his angst became more acute. With a famine on the horizon he worried about losing what he had accumulated...or using it all up without being able to replenish it.

Oh, I think many people can relate to Pharaoh's situation. The more we have, the more we have to lose.  The more we have to lose, the more have to worry about.

Pharaoh was not only a slave-driver, he was driven...driven and defined by his warped economic system.  Worried. Anxious. Unsettled. Honestly, if there was a such thing as ancient Egyptian Twitter, Pharaoh would have been the guy up tweeting in the middle of the night defending his value and purpose and power...all of which were measured by what he could produce and accumulate. 

Folks when we live like that, trusting only in our own ability...relying on our success rate...measuring the size of bank accounts...depending on our reputation or what we own to give us an identity...when these are the things we trust, it won't be long until we are first class passengers on the anxiety train.  Everything -- and everybody -- becomes a threat.  We spend an inordinate about of time worrying...and we have no idea who or what we can trust...other than ourselves.

If you've ever seen it -- in your own life or in someone else's -- it is not pretty. Choices become overwhelming. Walls are built. Defensiveness goes up. Anxiety goes through the roof. There is no peace...and there is definitely no rest. 

But here's the good news...we don't have to live like that.  We really don't.  Not if, according to Jesus, we refuse to serve two masters.

Jesus bids us to put our trust only in God.  He says, don't worry about your life...what you will eat or drink...or your body and what you will wear. 

Now let's be clear, Jesus isn't giving permission to be irresponsible. He isn't writing lyrics to a pop song.  And he is definitely not saying that God's people should just wing-it in life.  He is however, saying stop trying to control everything.  Stop worrying. Stop being anxious.  Stop serving two masters.  Choose, instead, to trust only God. 

Trust in the God who has provided for his people throughout all generations.

Trust in the God who is makes covenants with his people and is faithful even when they are not.

Trust in the God who cares enough to take on flesh and live among his people so they would know his unending mercy and unfailing love.

I also believe it is a call to continue to celebrate the gift of Sabbath..to trust that if God thinks withdrawing from work is important enough to make it sacred, so then should we.  And we need not worry when we do.

But church, let's be honest with each other...trusting only God is easier said than done. We still worry about making ends meet.  We fret over our children's lives.  We are concerned about the future.  We are stressed about what other people think.  Not to mention we live in a society filled with countless messages of self-reliance - I did it my way thinking. So many shiny things calling out, "let me make your life more complete".  And those deceptive little idols that try to convince us that our value - as employees, as bosses, as parents, as neighbors -- depends on them.

Yet these are also the exact same things that will eventually fail us, disappoint us, harm us, and take our peace from us. The very things that ratchet up our angst and worry and fear.

Jesus says..."Stop...this is not the life God wants for you.  Trust me...trust the One who sent me...serve only one master.  For when you do, you will not need to worry.  God will provide what you need."

Now we all know this does not mean that God will always give us what we want.  It does not mean that God will magically provide for our material needs. Scripture is clear that God intends for us to work to take care of ourselves and each other.  However, God will always provide what we need to be his people - the compassion, the mercy, the love...the wisdom...the discernment -- everything necessary to be the church.

One of the things we clearly need in order to be God's people is to rest from the stress and worries and anxieties of the world.  We need to be able to focus and be in his holy presence.  We need to quiet our hearts and minds in order to listen only to God's voice -- not Pharaoh's or any other false god of society. We need to be open and available in order to receive all that  God is offering. And we need to be rested and whole in order to be in healthy relationships and live the way God desires. 

Keeping Sabbath gives us what we need.  Whether we keep Sabbath for an hour, or a day, or spend three months on sabbatical, it allows us to step away from the culture...to take breaks from the demands of society...in order to listen...to pray...to present ourselves to God...so we can be transformed into the people and church God wants us to be.

The apostle Paul wrote about transformation in his letter to the Romans. Reading from the Message translation, I believe he captures the importance of observing Sabbath as way of life.

Paul writes:   So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.

Folks...this idea of Sabbath-keeping that we are talking about? It is how we resist the culture. It's how we place our whole life before God as an offering.  It is how we fix our attention on God.

When we step out of our hectic, wrung out pace of life and fully place our trust in God..we not only rest and receive sustenance from God, we are transformed into our best selves.  We are strengthened physically, emotionally and spiritually so we will not be dragged down...or slip backward into the proverbial Egypt. In times of Sabbath quiet, God releases our anxiety and equips us for whatever life brings our way.  And, perhaps most importantly, it is in the moments of Sabbath that we are our truest selves...most like the image of God that is within us....the image of the One who created for six days and then rested...and called that time holy and blessed. 

Friends, the challenge and blessing of Sabbath-keeping is to trust that we can step away from all the lesser-pursuits...and know that we - our joy, our purpose, our value, our lives - will not be lessened one bit when we do.  To God's glory, let us enjoy the intentions of Sabbath together.  Amen

Bible Reference(s):
Exodus 20:1-17
Rev. Terri Thorn

Earlier this week, a six foot stone monument of the Ten Commandments was placed on the grounds of the Arkansas state Capital building.  Less than twenty-four hours later, Michael Tate Reed rammed his car - a Dodge Dart, mind you - into the monument  in protest.  

Now, apparently, this is not the first time Mr. Reed has done this sort of thing.   Two years ago, he ran his vehicle into a similar, 4800 pound, monument erected in Oklahoma.   Interestingly enough, Mr. Reed is not an atheist.  In fact, he is a professing Christian.  He just takes issue with the placement of religious monuments on government properties. 

Personally, while I may share his concern, I do not approve of Mr. Reed's approach...for one thing violence and destruction is never the answer...and for another thing, a Dodge Dart against six feet of stone?  What was he thinking?  I'm just kidding...there is nothing about his destructive behavior that is appropriate. 

Sadly, the whole debate about the placement of Ten Commandment monuments on government property is spinning out of control nationwide; meanwhile, much of our country has lost sight of why they exist in the first place.  Our energy and focus is on displaying the commandments in stone, rather than living them in our lives. 

So, while this sermon series is not necessarily about The Ten Commandments, it does focus on one particular commandment that many Christians struggle to live well:  remember the Sabbath and keep it holy.   

At first glance it seems like a pretty straight-forward commandment, However, if we're honest with ourselves, we must admit that we have simplified this commandment to mostly mean "go to church on Sunday".  Perhaps we will even go as far as to add "slow down on Sunday afternoons" to the definition, but very few of us understand or practice Sabbath keeping in its deepest and most liberating sense.  We have forgotten why Sabbath keeping is so important that God included it in the original list of essentials for faithful living.  

So for the remaining Sundays in July, we're going to dig into scripture and try to answer the question, Why Keep Sabbath?  And hopefully along the way, we will also learn how to do it more faithfully.  

Now, let me just be upfront with you, I'm one of those American Christians who doesn't keep Sabbath well.  I know this about myself.  I can be very task-driven and there is a part of me that does not do "still and quiet" naturally.  There is a voice in my head, which has been there for decades, that tells me that to not be productive is to be lazy.  Where this warped belief came from is not important, but the fact it is there means it takes an intentional effort on my part to keep Sabbath - and lots of grace when I don't.  I suppose I want you to know this in order to dispel any illusion that somehow clergy are model Sabbath-keepers. Trust me, we struggle too. 

I also want to reassure you that this sermon series is not designed make anyone experience even more guilt about working hard...nor is it to make us feel inadequate in our spirituality.  And, folks, by all means, this is not about making Sabbath another thing on your to-do list.  "Doing" is never at the heart of Sabbath.  In fact, at the heart of Sabbath is freedom...freedom to not do and still be loved by God.

According to the scripture reading today, keeping Sabbath is a way to follow God's example of taking time away from creating and producing in order to rest. It also includes relinquishing the day-to-day routines of life for the sacred moments of gratitude and praise in worship of God. There's something very holy about slowing down and quieting ourselves in order to be open to God.  Not to mention, until we learn to honor the Sabbath - not as a day of the week, but as a way of life - we may never be able to keep the other commandments very well either.

Honoring the Sabbath and keeping it holy is about uncluttering our lives -  of things, schedules, noise, expectations, whatever gets in the way -  in order to bring clarity about the nature of God, to experience the depth and fullness of God's love, and to live the life God intends for us as we love God and others.

To really appreciate Sabbath as a gift, rather than a must-do, we need to understand the context into which God proclaimed it as holy.  I mean, why do you suppose God put that commandment in the middle of the list?  We might come up with all sorts of reasons, but I think the short answer is so the Israelites would always take time to appreciate the story of their freedom. Sabbath rest was meant to be a reminder of what happened in the Exodus. 

I mean, notice how when God starts to list the commandments, the Exodus is the first thing he mentions.   I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.  Clearly, there is a connection between God being their God and the Israelites being set free from slavery.   And, as we will see in a moment, the Sabbath was made sacred as way to capture the holy and exclusive relationship between God and his people.

First though, let's think back to the life of the Israelites before they were brought out of the land of Egypt. Remember how they were enslaved to the Egyptian rulers...and more specifically they were   forced into brick-making under Pharaoh?  They were part of a work system in which the demand to produce more, bigger, and better was insatiable.  Even now, as we look at some of the amazing structures in the region -- at least those that have not been destroyed - we see evidence of this mindset.  Production and amassed wealth was a measure of one's favor with the various Egyptian gods, who were, as Walter Brueggeman calls them, confiscatory gods, always demanding and taking more.

Now keep in mind that these were the gods that Pharaoh, who held the Israelites as slaves, worshipped. As such they were the kind of gods reflected in his own leadership and self- understanding.  In other words,  in order to appease the gods' demands, Pharaoh became like them - demanding.  A horrendous, hard-nosed, task-master for whom production schedules were inexhaustible and mercy was non-existent.

In fact, listen to some of Pharaoh's response when Moses and Aaron, ask him to let the Israelites observe a religious holiday. 

·         Moses and Aaron, why are you taking the people away from their work?

·         You want them to stop working! 

·         No longer give the people straw to make bricks; let them go and gather straw for themselves. But you shall require of them the same quantity of bricks as they have made previously; do not diminish it, for they are lazy; that is why they cry, ‘Let us go and offer sacrifice to our God.

·         Let heavier work be laid on them; then they will labor at it and pay no attention to deceptive words.

To the people he says...

·         I will not give you straw. Go and get straw yourselves, wherever you can find it; but your work will not be lessened in the least.

·         Complete your work, the same daily assignment as when you were given straw.

·         Why did you not finish the required quantity of bricks yesterday and today, as you did before?

·         You are lazy, lazy; that is why you say, ‘Let us go and sacrifice to the Lord.’

You get the picture...for Pharaoh, there are no fair labor laws, no living wages, no paid-time-off...no empathy, no grace, no mercy and certainly no concern for the people and their well being.  And as for the people under Pharaoh, there is no rest, no hope, no life...only the incessant demand for work, work and more work.

Ok, so most of haven't actually worked for Pharaoh, still, many of us have, at times, been caught up in a similar mindset, and not just in our jobs per se.  Maybe we have worked for a Pharaoh-like boss, but more often than not, we are our own worst task-master.  We live our lives to please others...we place unreasonable demands on ourselves.  Many of us regularly stress about having enough, being enough, knowing enough.  And after awhile, we can become as beaten down as a brick-making slave.

Thanks be to God, though, brick-making is not the end of the story. With God's guidance and provision Moses was, eventually, successful in getting God's people out of Egypt.  He led them to freedom...and into an whole new reality. 

You see, freedom for the Israelites was not just about being free from enslavement.

Freedom was not just about being free from Pharaoh or free from the demands he made upon their lives.

No, the freedom God gave the Israelites was freedom from the entire system and mindset of Egypt.  They were free of the need to produce in order to please some king, or god. Free from the wealth-driven hierarchy of value.  Free from the attitude of disregard for human dignity and lack of concern for the community's well-being.

The Israelites were no longer Pharaoh's slaves...instead they belonged to the God who brought them out of Egypt... the same God who created for six days and rested on the seventh. And this God wasn't asking for ego-driven production quotas of bricks or anything else...he only wanted their faithfulness.   This God gave and provided rather than consumed and demanded.  He offered them new life rather than working them to death.  This very different kind of God promised to be their God...and wanted them to be his people.  

The reason there is to be no other god for the Israelites isn't because God was insecure and needs to win a popularity contest...it is because there is no other god like God.  The God of the Israelites is revealed as a God of mercy, steadfast love, and faithfulness, who is committed to covenantal relationships. (Brueggeman, p 6) This God is interested in building relationships and community, not making bricks and monuments. 

And you know what, based on these commandments, this God insists that keeping Sabbath...resting...letting go of the production-mentality...leaving the work-work-work pace...is part of what makes relationships and community possible.  This is the gift of Sabbath and why it's an essential part of being the people of God.  It helps us stand strong against the other gods that tempt us even now, and it is conditions us for healthy relationships.

Friends, the biggest threat to the God of Christianity is not atheism or Islam or any other religion.  The biggest threat is that, despite the freedom Christ has offered us, we continually return to Egypt.  We are pressured and tempted, every single day, to believe in the message of the production quota, wealth gives meaning, keep up with the demands of others, bigger is better and more is best, kind of gods.  We buy their lies.

Now, please, don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that work and accountability are not important to God.  Quite the opposite.  God expects us to work and  to produce and to create.  But God also expects us to rest and be grateful.  He makes it clear that no amount of production or work will ever define us...only God.

What I am saying though is this...when we neglect the Sabbath, when worship becomes a check-list - show up, sing the songs, listen to the message, give the offering and get to lunch, when our minds are making to-do lists rather than open to the Spirit...when there is not time in our week to rest...or to reflect...or to receive the gifts God offers...when there is no time to connect with those we love or to visit with our neighbors..when this describes our life, then whatever we are doing with our time is akin to brick-making - sometimes without straw.

Friends, when we do not keep Sabbath, we are not only wasting God's good gift to us, we are dishonor the God who gives it.  When we are too busy to rest with God, we are, by default, making something, or someone, maybe even ourselves, god.

Like I said, this isn't to make anyone feel guilty or to add something else to your plate.  It is about receiving the gift of Sabbath.  It's about learning to live a life that is free, which includes keeping Sabbath, despite what all the false gods of today want us to believe.  The ones that tell us we are not good enough...the ones that tell us that we need to have more money in the bank...or the latest gadget in our pocket....the ones that tell us that to play is to squander and to rest is to be lazy...and even the one that tells us we really need to check our watch, our phone, the news or Facebook right now.  All the gods that keep us so, so busy. 

Friends, those gods are not ours...and we are not theirs.   

Like the Israelites, we belong to God...the one and only sabbath-keeping, sabbath-giving, sabbath-commanding God there is.   To keep Sabbath is to trust in the gracious, merciful love of our God revealed in our Lord Jesus Christ.  So, together, let us continuing practicing, even now.    Amen.

June 18, 2017
Bible Reference(s):
Exodus 19:2-8a
Matthew 9:35-10:8
Rev. Terri Thorn

The first rule of Preaching 101 says that the preacher should limit the amount of personal stories used in sermons so that they don't become the focus of the message.  The second rule is that preachers should not talk about their families -- particularly their children -- so that everyone doesn't know their business.  Well...today I'm about to break the rules and do both! 

This past week my husband and I took a vacation to California to see both our children.  Julia, as most of you know, is still living in Los Angeles, finishing up her year as a Young Adult Volunteer with the Presbyterian Church. Mark is spending the summer participating in a cross-country bicycle trip that started in San Francisco last Sunday and ends in Washington DC on August 12th.  So last weekend, we flew into LA, picked up Julia, and drove north on the Pacific Coast Highway to San Francisco to be a part of the big send-off.

I've posted plenty of vacation pictures on Facebook if you want to see them, but today I want to share more about Mark's trip.  The ride, which is officially called, Journey of Hope, is comprised of 100 young men who were selected from all over the United States through an interview process.  The riders were divided into three departure points, the North, which is Mark's route, began in San Francisco and headed north to Nevada and points beyond.  The Trans-America started in Seattle, Washington and cuts across the US. And the South, which just started out of Long Beach, CA runs along the hot, humid southern states.  As I said, they will all converge in DC on August 12th.

The purpose of the ride is to help raise awareness and acceptance of folks with intellectual and physical disabilities.  Each stop of their trip includes Friendship Visits with local organizations such as the Special Olympics teams, local ARC  chapters, special needs camps and the like.  The visits are designed to promote interaction and relationship-building between the riders and their new friends.  In addition, each rider in the Journey of Hope was required to raise at least $5,500, with a target of $7000,  which is then divided up among the various recipient organizations to help fund their program needs.

Throughout the 60 day journey, the riders will make nearly 50 of these Friendship Visit stops, after riding anywhere from 50-100 miles on their bikes that morning.   As  you might imagine, it is an honor for the young men who are chosen for the Journey, but it is also hard work...physically and mentally demanding.  They had to go through orientation and training on safety - which, as a mom, makes me super happy - as well as workshops on disabilities and inclusion.  There are crew  members who do not ride, but instead bookend the bikers...some going ahead to scout road conditions and set up rest stations, and others bringing up the rear to help with any stragglers.  The crew is in constant contact to make sure that the riders are safe and to help with any accidents or break-downs.

The investment of the entire team - riders and crew - is significant...and so are the responsibilities.  Still at the end of the day, every one of those young men consider this to be a privilege...and if the past participants' experiences are any indication, each one of the riders and crew members will, as the CEO said at the send off...be different men when they arrive in DC.  He told the parents that the sons we were sending off were great young men, no doubt about it, but when we pick them up in DC, they will be different...transformed into even greater men who will become leaders in their schools, careers and communities. 

Obviously, the Journey of Hope is on my mind this week since my son is riding in it...but it also seems like a microcosmic example of the message depicted in today's readings from Exodus and Matthew.  It's a different context, of course, but being the people of God...being the church...is about being chosen and blessed by God for a purpose...for a relationship and for responsibilities.   

In the case of the Israelites, the unique responsibilities were laid out pretty clearly...obey God's voice, keep the covenant, and be God's treasured possession.  But, let's back up a just bit and set the context for today's reading. 

This promise from God comes just a few months after Moses has led the Israelite slaves out of Egypt.  They've experienced God's pillar of fire leading them.  They've witnessed God's power parting the sea for their safe passage.  They've been fed and provided for with water and quail and manna in the wilderness...and they've been protected from enemy nations.  Every step of their "journey" has been taken care of by God's equivalent of a crew van.   At this point in the journey...they have reached Mt. Sinai where God instructed Moses to take them.   Soon Moses will go up the mountain and receive the commandments from God...but not yet.  

No, not yet...no laws...no rules...no nothing.  Just God's presence and Moses' leadership.  That's the setting for this reading...the very moment in time when the Israelites are given a new identity.  God makes it clear to them that they are his people.  To set the stage, God reminds them of all that he has done to get them to this point, then in two short verses God tells them who they are.  He establishes a holy relationship with the Israelites...calling them his treasured possession out of all the people.  Out of all the earth that God has created, these ones here in the wilderness are chosen to become God's priestly kingdom...to be a holy nation.  

I'm not sure we can even begin to fathom how that would have sounded to people who had spent generations enslaved to the Egyptians. They would have had no recollection of how to be a nation, much less a holy one.  Yet, not only were they now literally free from the Egyptians, they were free from their past life.  By naming them as his treasure, the Israelites were being called into a new, transformed life of blessing and abundance.  This was the covenant God was offering -  I will be your God and you will be my people.

To which the people respond...yes...yes...we will do everything that God has spoken.  

And, of course they will...that is...until they don't.   Which, by the way, happens soon after they make the promise.  The Israelites will go on to break their end of the covenant with God...more than once...many times, in fact.  But God will continue to remain faithful to his promise.  God does not abandon his people...not back then thousands of years ago...and not now.   We might do our share of wandering away from God, but God remains near to us always.

In fact, God is so determined to hold on to his treasured people that he sends Jesus to reiterate the covenant of love...to become it...to reveal it...and to extend it...beyond the complicated legalities of the law...outside the bounds of the religious hierarchy...and most importantly, to extend it to sinners and Gentiles like you and me.

Usually we refer to this as "receiving God's grace"...knowing and experiencing God's ever present love and mercy and forgiveness...deep within our soul in a way that mere words and mortals cannot offer.  Some call it salvation, others describe it as discovering the peace that passes all understanding.   Whatever theological name we give it...it comes to us though Jesus and not the law.   Nonetheless,  as Paul makes clear in his writings, living in God's grace doesn't mean we are free to ignore God's law...however, it does mean that we are never justified by it. Obedience to the law doesn't make us right with God...only Christ does that.  Obedience is more like the natural outcome of one being right with God.  It is our response to being God's beloved, and according to Jesus, covenant keeping on our end is about how we love God, love others, and love ourselves.   Ultimately, when we live in God's grace, we will love graciously.

So, just as the Israelites were chosen by God and blessed by God...just as they were offered a relationship with God and just as they were given a responsibility to live as God's people...we too have been given all of these things through Christ.  We, too, are his treasured possessions and with that identity comes responsibility.

Now, let's be clear...there are different theological understandings about what it means to receive God's grace.  For some it's an intentional choice or action, for others it is a response to God's action. There are different theological positions on what it means to be God's people...and there are a whole bunch of different theological interpretations on a whole lot of doctrines within the church.  Still, there is one thing that we all have in common:  we believe that through Christ, God has called us to be his people. 

I suppose, likening back to the Journey of Hope, the church and our differing beliefs is like the bikers who have different brands of bikes, different training routines, and different strategies for biking through the mountains...but at the end of the day, they share the same purpose...to carry out the responsibilities that come with having been invited to the ride. 

I mean...isn't that the role of the church, folks...to carry out the responsibilities that come with our relationship with God? To do the things Jesus modeled?   It's as the Apostle Peter said of the church: you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a people belonging to God.  Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.  He goes on to say that basically, it is the responsibility of God's people to live good lives such that others may see God in our good deeds.  I think the urban slang for it is, represent...as in Christians, we gotta represent...and words are not always necessary.

We...the church...are meant to be the spiritual version of the Journey of Hope for the world.  It's our call to raise awareness of God's amazing grace...to develop relationships with others...to allow diversity to enrich our lives...to work for reconciliation...to become better people...and to depend on God's provision as it comes - sometimes in the most unexpected ways. 

The church is on this ride for the long haul and some days are going to be better than others.  Still, through grace and mercy, Christ has called us onto this great journey with him...not because we are ready for it...not because of who we are or what we've done...not because of what kind of resources we can bring to it.  Christ calls, equips, and empowers the church to be the church because we are God's beloved treasures and with relationship comes responsibility.  It really is as simple as that. 

Friends, God loves us as much and as faithfully as he loved the Israelites...and as patiently and mercifully when we repeat their mistakes.  God also blesses us just as he blessed the Israelites so that we can have abundant life and be a blessing to others.

Which, by the way, brings up another thing the church has in common with the Journey of Hope.  You see, there are more than 1600 alumni of the ride, and they will all tell you the same thing:  they were blessed to be a part of the Journey of Hope and for as much as they entered those Friendship Visits to bless others, they were the ones more richly blessed.   And really, is that not exactly how God's Journey of Hope has always worked.  Israelites...disciples...the church today?  We are blessed to be a blessing...and when we are willing to bless others, we are more abundantly blessed.

We have seen this proven true at First Presbyterian Church many times...especially in these past few years as we have been intentional about our divine purpose here at 128 E Main Street, Lebanon, Indiana.   When we are generous about offering back from the abundant blessings God has granted us, when we are intentional about blessing others...through our missions and our ministries...as well as in our individual lives...this faith community is richly blessed by God.  It never fails. 

So, I want to close with this important truth...First Presbyterian Church is God's treasured possession.  We are his imperfect beloved made perfect in Christ.   In response  to this amazing love, we are committed to learning continually, loving abundantly, and living faithfully so that all may know the love of God.   And you know what?  We don't always get it right...and we definitely do not do things perfectly...in fact, sometimes we may not even be faithful in our attempts.   However with God's help, when we respond with all the grace and love we have received from God then rest assured, those who don't know God, but know us...will come to know God because they know us.   

And that is what it means to Journey together in Hope...that is what means to labor together in God's harvest...that is what it means to uphold our end of God's amazing covenant of love, in Christ our Lord.  Amen.

Bible Reference(s):
Acts 2:1-21
Rev. Terri Thorn

(Note: Mel Kenyon Classic Go-Kart Race Community Worship Service)

Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, go-kart racing was part of my childhood.  WhiIe I never competed in anything as serious as the Mel Kenyon Classic, on Sunday afternoons I ruled the streets of the trailer park where my dad lived!  This weekend, the sights, sounds and smells here in the Heart of Lebanon, immediately take me back to my childhood.  Speaking of sounds, I would like for you listen to a brief clip of a sound and see if you know what it is:

(play racing audio clip of end of Indy 500).

You all know what that is, right?  As much as it sounds like what I think the original Pentecost might have sounded like...it's actually the last lap of the Indy 500 broadcasted in three different languages.  It starts in French, switched to Portuguese, and wrapped up in Japanese.   And while probably less than 5 people in this Park could actually translate the foreign broadcasters...even folks who didn't watch the race (which is also probably less than 5 people in the Park) understood what was going on.  We instinctively knew that it was the finish of the race.   It turns out that that in racing there is a common language...and it's not necessarily English! 

That's why even though there were eleven different nations represented in the 11 rows of the Indy 500, the drivers and crews are able to communicate with each other despite the language barriers.  Now of course, some of that communication comes in gestures that we probably should not demonstrate on a Sunday morning...but it is safe to say that every single driver, owners, and crew member completely understood what that blood-curdling scream from Takuma Soto meant. 

Now, this isn't exactly what happened on Pentecost...but something equally as powerful and unifying took place when the Holy Spirit arrived and enabled all these uneducated country-folk Galileans to speak in different languages such that everyone could hear and understand in their own language what was being said about God's deeds of power.   In fact, like the most spectacular event in racing, this moment in the church's faith history...which some call the birthday of the church...was so incredible it drew the attention of crowds from all over the region.   All those nations I listed that were gathered and living in Jerusalem...were drawn to the apostles to see for themselves what was going on.  Some were amazed, and others not so impressed.

The point of this Pentecost moment, though, was never to impress or convince the people...it was to transform the disciples from followers to leaders...from those who witness to those who proclaim and do.  Just as Jesus had promised, even though he was no longer with them physically, the apostles would be given God's Spirit to continue the work of healing and redemption and peace that he had started.   In racing-talk, it was the checkered flag for Jesus and the "Ladies and Gentlemen start your engines" for his church.

In fact, I think this Pentecost story makes it clear that it is the Holy Spirit that empowers the church to do and be who we are. It is our engine, if you will.  And some days, the Spirit of God is like a Chevy engine...a peaceful presence...comforting, steadying, leading us through life. Albeit not necessarily moving at break-neck speed...but very reliable.  Yet other times -- actually I'd say more of than not -- the Spirit functions more like a Honda...moving fast and furious, yet unpredictable.  You never know what she is going to do...or ask us to do.  Now, let me be clear though, I know this is not a perfect analogy.  You see, although the Holy Spirit definitely challenges and frustrates us at times, the Holy Spirit never stalls out on you 179 laps into the race of life like the Honda did on Fernando Alonso last Sunday.

No, the Holy Spirit is an engine that never fails...which if 500 championships are any indication, that would be the Offenhauser, which still holds the record for most Indy 500 victories, although it has not qualified there since 1983.  

I know, I'm just a wealth of racing facts today...but it seems appropriate!

Seriously, though, regardless of what engine is your favorite...I personally drive a Chevy...but that's more for the gas mileage than the power...trust me...it's a Chevy Cruze...enough said...for Christians, the Holy Spirit of God in each of us...and work within the church...is our source of power in the world.  It gives us the power to do incredible things in the name of Christ.

More specifically, the Holy Spirit gives us the power to communicate with the world.  Now, not in every different language like the apostles did - that phenomenon was clearly a unique Holy Spirit moment in the history of Christianity - but by using a universal language that everyone can understand. 

The Holy Spirit gives God's people the power to speak the language of love. Through it, we are able to communicate welcome and kindness...compassion and mercy and justice to the world...often...without ever saying a word.

When it comes to speaking God's love into the world, we do not have to be fluent in the same language...have the same accent...observe the same holidays...or live in the same social context in order to know kindness and goodness when we see it.  We do not need to be of the same race, same nationality, same religion, or same political belief to comprehend  acts of compassion when they are carried out.  

And...rest assured....regardless of  whether we have a good job, a great job or no job...whether our bank account is secure, or sad, or empty,  no matter how much education, how many mistakes, how big or small our family, or even whom we love...we all share the universal need for mercy, and we all are free to experience grace when it is offered. The Holy Spirit makes it possible...both by empowering us to offer love and opening us to receive it. 

Yes, friends, the Holy Spirit has that kind of power.  Power to welcome...power to heal...power to reconcile...power to unite.

Always. The power of the Holy Spirit to unite is always greater than the power of evil to divide.  By the Holy Spirit --all of us gathered here today -- race fans, not race fans, regular church goers, occasional attendees, and those just curious about what's holding up the race -- we are all united in God's love.

And, in the same way, the Holy Spirit also has the power to send us - with all our differences -- into a world that is even more diverse to share that which we have been given. 

Now folks, again, sometimes the Spirit gently sends us, like a steady Chevy, and sometimes he shoves us like an edgy Honda...and sometimes the Spirit leads us like a pace car...but the purpose  of our sending is always the same...to share  the grace and mercy and peace of  Christ - in a way that the world can hear and receive.  We are sent to speak the language of love so that others will know God amazing, endless, boundless grace. As one person put it...the Holy Spirit has the power to give the "gathered community the courage and gifts to be the scattered community" so that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.

Church, neighbors, racing community, friends -old and new - may this Pentecost celebration remind us that when it comes to living out the gospel of Jesus Christ, every day is race day.  So, in the infamous and slightly adapted words of the Hullman-George family -- Church...start your engines...it's time to race.

May 28, 2017
Bible Reference(s):
Acts 1:1-11
Rev. Terri Thorn

For the rest of the world, Friday was the start of a long Memorial Day weekend, but for a lot of students in Boone County, including those in PPM, it was the last day of the school year. There were lots of smiling faces in last-day of school pictures, as well as graduation photos of seniors and their proud parents.

I don't have to tell you that Friday was also a day of celebration for teachers too...after all, school is out for the summer. But for a few retiring teachers it was bittersweet. As much as they are ready to move on to the next phase of life,  leaving their classroom that one last time is very difficult.   And then there are those like my friend Teresa who teaches preschool in a different community.  Teresa has a pre-K class and says that she becomes so attached to her students every year that she cries on the last day when she has to say good-bye to them.

I can completely relate to Teresa.  Watching the preschoolers of PPM and the youth of the church grow up is a huge blessing, but releasing them as they do is not so easy.  Yes, I am aware that they are blossoming and the transition should be a time of joy...and somewhere deep down inside, I know that it is...but it still makes me sad to see them move on to their next big thing.

I used to think I felt this way because their growing up reminded me that I'm getting old, but I've come to realize it's more than that for me. Truth is I am not good at "endings".  I don't do them well.   When kids grow up, when friends move away, when jobs change, when vacation is over, when programs end, when hopes and dreams die. The emotionality of saying "good-bye" is usually too much for me...so mostly I don't. 

In fact, I've noticed the pattern over the years...like when summer church camp came to an end...when I graduated from high school, college and seminary....each time we moved...when the kids left for college...when they travel...even just last week when my time at the CREDO conference ended.   I tend to not make a big deal out of the good-byes. In fact, some might even say that I avoid them...or that my endings are abrupt and cold. 

Now I'm sure that there is a therapist somewhere who has a list of reasons from my childhood why this is the case; but I think the real reason is pretty straight-forward and simple. I just don't ever believe any ending is, well, an ending.  I mean, there's always Facebook.  I have Facebook friends that I haven't seen in more than 30 years, actually I have a few I've never ever met, but I can tell you where they went on vacation last year, their dog's name, and what they had for lunch yesterday.  Endings aren't really endings if you can do that, right?

Seriously...I think I don't do endings well because they are painful...the grief is real.  Every transition in life...whether it is a time of joy or sadness or confusion or hope...has one important thing in common.  A transition from one thing to another presents a stark reality:  once that moment of transition, the ending, good-bye...or whatever you want to call it...once it is over...life will be different.  Things...situations...our lives...will never be entirely and exactly what they were before.   It's not really about whether that is a good thing or a bad thing...it's just a thing and it is different. 

All you parents who have graduating seniors, you know what I mean, right?  Graduation is one of these pivotal moments...one with sadness and grief...as well as celebration, joy and hopefulness...one from which there is no "going back".   So you gather yourselves together and look forward toward the unknown...with trust and confidence that this, too, is not the end.

Graduation is the obvious happy example, but there are many others - and not all so joy-filled.  We've all experienced those transitional crossroads of life...graduations, marriages, jobs, divorces, distance moves, devastating illnesses and, god-forbid, major traumatic experiences.   They are part of what it means to be human.  They are inevitable...both in our individual lives as well as in the groups in which we participate...including churches.

We all have had, and will continue to have, those awful, wonderful, no turning back moments when we become acutely aware that the past as we knew it is over and we now face a new future. Good, bad, chosen or inflicted...each time, the challenge before us is the same:  How do we move forward into that future...trusting what we do not know and where we cannot see?  How do we simultaneously respect the grief of what once was and embrace the hope of what is yet to be?

That's where this story of the Ascension serves us well.  

I mean, we can all agree that those early followers were living in a time of transition...life-altering...no turning back...transition, right?  First Jesus is alive, then he is crucified, dead and buried.  Three days later he is no longer in the tomb...resurrected to new life.  Then Jesus appears and disappears at will...although not always recognizable even by his closest friends.

Safe to say they were starting to understand the truth of all transformation:  what was will no longer be.  For the disciples, this was the case in many aspects of their lives: in their understanding of God and their relationship to God...in their sense of where they belonged or didn't belong in the community...in their understanding of God's kingdom, in what it meant to be blessed. All this and more had begun to change for them. 

So yes, this was a pivotal moment in their lives...in their faith story...and as it turns out...in all of human existence.   But of course, in that very moment...all they could know was what Jesus revealed to them by his presence and when he spoke...when he addressed their fears with words of comfort, mercy, compassion and love. When he speaks peace to them...when he reminds them of God's promises...when he blesses them. 

This had to be enough.

Now, let me just offer a quick observation about the relationship between the version of this Ascension story and the one in Luke's gospel.  They contain very different details...but that doesn't mean one is right and other not. Instead, as Luke explains in his opening salutation to Theophilus, the book of Acts serves a different purpose than his gospel  It is not about recording what Jesus did and taught, but instead it is an account of how the disciples responded to what they learned. 

Acts of the Apostles, as it is officially known, is the story of the formation of the church. It's an account of how the earliest Jesus-followers went from being frightened disciples living in the chaos, confusion, and aftermath of all that happened in those last days in Jerusalem....to ones who were blessed and filled with joy, ready to be witnesses in Jerusalem, in all of Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. The book of Acts is the "what's next" after the resurrection...but more importantly, it's the "what's next" when the followers of Jesus acknowledged the grief of saying good-bye to his physical presence, received the Holy Spirit, and moved forward into the unknown future. 

As far as Luke is concerned...the Ascension is the hinge-pin event that facilitates the transition, which is probably why he uniquely records it in both writings. It's also why the story speaks so powerfully to us today.

The post-resurrection disciples were on this extended, emotional roller coaster...grief, joy, confusion...up and down..trying to make meaning of all that was happening around them...not at all unlike many of us feel as we experience life today.  But they were also blessed with forty additional in-person days with the resurrected Christ...a 40 day stretch of transition if you will.  It was the period during which they would begin to be transformed from followers to leaders...from individual believers to the Body of Christ.

We're told it was a time when Jesus appeared to them...presented convincing proofs (evidence, if you will)...and taught them.  In the gospel version of the story Luke says that Jesus opened their minds to understand the scripture - which we can presume means to understand the old testament scriptures differently, as those would be the only ones they had at their disposal.  The point is that Jesus spends this in-between time preparing them, once again, for another ending...this time his ascension...which would force them into a new future.

Of course, the disciples are quick to ask for more details about this future...which by the way, is not necessarily a sign that they were clueless.   As a matter of fact, it was the natural "next question" about the Messiah's work given the prophecy they had learned.  It's not a question of stupidity...it's a question of trusting the storyline...but wanting to know more about the timing.

And, boy, oh boy, is that not the story of our lives?  Sure, we trust that God is in control...we trust that love will win over fear and hate...we trust that there is hope for peace...but we are quite anxious about what the heck is taking so long! 

Still, Jesus' answer to them, and to us, is the same frustrating, yet ever-so loving, God is God and you are not answer.  Essentially he says..."it is not for you to know. You don't need to know".   "However," he adds, "the Father will give you what you do need."   He promises that they will receive the Spirit's power to continue on...into whatever the future holds...and that will be enough for now.

Enough for now.   Enough then.  Enough now.

The Spirit at work in our lives is enough for now...not because it is all we have but because it is all we need.  It is God's very presence with us...it is Christ at work in us...in a way we don't understand...but it is enough.

Seriously folks, we don't need to know when or how God's kingdom will be fully established.  We don't need to know when or how or where Christ will return.  We don't need to know a whole lot of details about heaven or be given absolute answers about life. We just need to know that while we are here...we are not alone.   We, the church, Christ's body, are blessed with the Spirit just as those first disciples were...and that is enough.

Now let's be clear about something...this blessing of the Spirit...the presence of God the Father and Christ the son...all that Trinitarian stuff that we also don't have to understand...there is a truth that we must admit.  The Holy Spirit within us is enough for now...but it does not guarantee a future free of difficult times, chaotic times, stressful times...nor does it mean that we will have one steady emotion of peace.   I mean, gee whiz...think about all that the disciples faced in the early church...the persecution...the hatefulness directed at them...the martyrdom...the evil.   That all still happened...the Spirit doesn't protect them...or us from pain and challenge. But you know what else happened during that same time?  

The Church happened. Literally it came into being despite all that tried to rise against it. 

The Holy Spirit showed up, words came out and more belief happened.  Ministry happened. Community happened. Restored life happened. Healing happened. Mercy happened. Justice happened. Love happened.

And, thanks be to God, it's still happening.  In, through, and by, the work of Christ's church, the Spirit of God is alive and at work...and that is enough for now.

Many worldly powers would rather us not believe God's Spirit is enough. They prefer we lean into fear rather than love.  Life's busyness and our erratic pursuit of some elusive ideal works hard to convince us that it is not enough...or worse yet that we are not enough. Headlines about terrorist bombings...and the execution of Christians...scream it is not enough.  Carefully crafted Congressional Budget Office reports, counterpoint analyses, and dozens of talking head legislators on both sides of the proverbial aisle want us to believe that it is not enough.  Sadly even some Christians are convinced that unless the Spirit is at work according to their understanding, it is not enough.

Yet... as Jesus ascended into heaven...he reassured his followers that God will give his people what they need...and it will be enough.  In the gospel account, Luke says after Jesus ascended the disciples returned to Jerusalem with joy.  Here in Acts he says that they needed some urging from the angels. Either way, the promise of the coming Spirit was enough to ease their fears and motivate them to return to the work Jesus had started. 

The same is true for us, even now.  With God's Spirit present within us...we need not fear.  We have what we need.  It is enough.  And by God's grace and his Spirit at work within us, we the Body, become enough as well.

God's grace, Christ's compassion, and the Spirit's guidance...it is enough...enough for all our pivot points...all our transition times...all the difficult and challenging days...as well all the joyful forward-looking into a faith-filled future occasions.   

Whether in our personal lives, our collective community, or the history of the cosmos, the Ascension story reminds us that Christ is now with God...fully aware of our needs. It assures us that we have the Holy Spirit alive and present with us. It offers the promise that Jesus will return in the same merciful, redemptive love as he came.  Folks, this is definitely enough...for now. for always.

On this Memorial Day weekend, as our nation remembers those who have died in service to our country...we, the church, remember too...not just the soldiers...but all the saints of our lives. Those who have served Christ by loving others...those who have done great things for the world....and those whose small things became great things in our lives.  We remember and we trust the resurrection promise:  their deaths were not the end...only a pivot point in life...a transition time until the future.  And that, too, gives us peace and hope...which is also enough for now. 

To God's glory...amen.

May 14, 2017
Bible Reference(s):
Acts 7:55-60
Rev. Terri Thorn

"When he had said this, he died."  

Well, now there's a lovely way to start a sermon.  It certainly has the power to rattle a preacher's perspective on Sunday morning.  What if I say the wrong thing and they decide to kill me?  

To be honest, this thought has never actually crossed my mind.  I figure that by the time we're finished up with worship, y'all are hungry and ready to get to lunch.  If you're going to get to Bob Evans before the Baptists, there isn't time to  actually kill the pastor and hide her body. 

Seriously, though, what has crossed my mind...especially when I first started preaching 15 or so years ago...is what if I say the wrong thing in a sermon?  Or, more so, what if I say the very right thing, but in the wrong way?  What if I'm insensitive to the way it might be heard.  What if I offend someone in the process?  

Through the years, I reached a "mostly peace-filled" state of mind about sermon-crafting.   I trusted that my prayer, study, and reflection was Spirit-led and that the words that came out were my faithful, albeit imperfect, attempt to proclaim the gospel.  That is, until recently, when our nation's political machine hijacked the Christian faith and turned it into a form of election-clout. Ever since then, it is a regular struggle to determine how to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ without sounding as if I'm taking a political position.

During these highly-charged and highly-divisive times, one of the most difficult aspects of sermon preparation is to prayerfully consider all the different ways the message could be heard...and then be quiet and listen for God's Spirit to help me hone in on the good news of God's kingdom of grace, mercy and love that I've been called to proclaim.

This not just a concern of clergy.   When it comes to sharing the gospel, many Christians who never stand in the pulpit struggle with what to say.  We all want to be brave witnesses for Christ - testifying to his forgiveness and compassion and welcome...offering grace, love and kindness.  Yet,  we're hesitant to take the verbal stoning that could very well follow if what we say or do is contrary to prevailing political rhetoric. 

So...at first glance...a story such as this one about Stephen being killed for speaking out doesn't give us much confidence to speak up.  On the other hand, a closer look shows that it models everything we need to know in order to do so faithfully and without fear. 

It's somewhat unfortunate that the lectionary reading doesn't include the actual sermon that Stephen preached.  Well...it's really more of a speech/rebuttal to those who had arrested him under false charges, still it's quite passionate.  Luke tells us that he was filled with grace and power and spoke with the wisdom of the Holy Spirit.  Stephen responds to the allegations and persecution by recounting the faith story of the very people who had captured him, and today's reading tells us the end of his story.

Stephen the martyr was killed, in part I'm sure, because he called the Jews stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as their ancestors used to do.  But it appears that the real spark for their mob-like anger was that he bravely and boldly makes the claim that he has seen Jesus standing at the right hand of God.

You see, the vision was disturbing to the leaders because if it was true, it would confirm their guilt in the death of the Messiah...the Son of God. The fact that Jesus was standing at God's side would be proof that they had been wrong all along.  It meant that their ears had been closed to Jesus' gospel; their eyes were blind to his revelation of God's mercy and unconditional love.  So, yes, for the religious leaders, facing this reality was more than they could bear...therefore, they killed the messenger.

Stephen spoke a truth to the establishment that they were not able to hear. 

There's a term for this. I'm not sure where it originated, but it's popular among resistance movements and liberation causes. It is referred to as speaking truth to power...and usually it entails speaking a difficult truth that those in power do not want to hear...usually because the truth calls into question the morals and values by which the power operates or was gained.  It shines light on injustice and oppression and calls for a reversal and freedom that is viewed as a threat to those in power.

Regrettably, this idea of speaking truth to power has also become a political hot button phrase as well.  Nonetheless, it most certainly describes what Stephen did in this speech-like sermon...and it is what Jesus did with his entire life.  In both cases, doing so got them killed. Still, both were convicted by their sense of God's calling...convinced of the truth of God's faithfulness...God's goodness...God's mercy, grace and love.  They were so empowered by the Spirit and unafraid of the consequences, that they could choose no other path than to speak the truth of the gospel no matter how the religious establishment heard it.

Speaking truth to power is not easy...but it is at times necessary.   There are times when there is no other path available to followers of Christ...no other path than to stand up like Stephen, and call for accountability to God's eternal truth of love.  Sometimes we have no choice but to look power right in the eye and say, you are wrong.   What you have done...what you are doing...it is not right.  It is not life-giving.  It is not love.

Alright folks...now is the time that the squirming starts. In fact, some of you might be digging in your pockets to see if you have any stones.  But wait...don't throw them yet.   The spirit of uneasiness SHOULD be moving among us right now.  We should be unsettled by a message on speaking truth to power...not because this is a political message...but because it is a challenging one to hear. 

It immediately raises questions...like...who gets to decide what is truth?   I mean...aren't we taught that God is the judge, not us? Won't it feel as if I'm judging if I speak up?  As Christians, we are called to be welcoming, hospitable, and peaceful people, won't speaking truth be disruptive...couldn't it cause conflict?  Might someone get hurt?   Well, yes, yes, and yes.

Still, sometimes the only way to be a brave witness to the gospel is to speak the truth that no one wants to hear.  This is where Stephen's example becomes so important to our faith journey.  His story shows us how to be brave witnesses for Jesus Christ.  And, not just in the sense of whether we are willing to die for our faith...although that might be a part of it.  Instead, his is a model for how to STAND for the gospel of Christ...a truth worthy of our hearts, minds and, yes, our lives...even when it is unpopular and disruptive to the current norms of society.

While it is unlikely that as American Christians we will ever be forced into the kind of martyrdom of the first century, nor do we face the same persecutions as Christians elsewhere in the world, when the message of God's love is challenged, we are expected to faithfully stand for the truth as Christ has revealed it to us.

This raises a very important principle of speaking truth to power.  First and foremost...it is Spirit-led.  Multiple times, Luke, the author of Acts, describes Stephen as Spirit-filled.  He is in tune with God's empowering Spirit.  He is compelled to speak, not because he wants to share his opinions or thoughts, but because God has called him.  He knows it is what he has to do, whether he wants to or not. 

It reminds me of the way Baptist minister Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. felt compelled, almost destined, by God to stand up for civil rights in the United States.  Dr. King called it an inner urge to serve humanity. Eventually, speaking truth about God's design for racial equality and community wholeness became the only thing Dr. King could do with his life...even though he seemed to know that it would eventually cost him his life. 

Now, we may not be called to be brave witnesses to the extent that Dr. King was, still when we are led speak up, we will know it is of the Spirit not only by what we feel in our soul, but also by the truth we are bound tell.  The truth is only of the Spirit when it is rooted in the gospel of love and mercy and forgiveness...when it is a life-giving truth of wholeness and peace. Anything less is not truth worth dying for.

Which brings up another principle of speaking truth to power...it's never about our individual thoughts...or our opinions. It's not about our worldviews, political persuasions or even our scriptural interpretations and religious doctrines.  It is about speaking that which we know, beyond all doubt, to be true about God...not because of something we read online...not because some preacher, or teacher, or family member told us it was so. The truth we are called to tell, is that which God has chosen to reveal to us in the whole of scripture, and which God has allowed us to experience for ourselves. 

Notice, too, how Stephen doesn't try to convince the listeners that he is right and they are wrong.  He doesn't argue with them about various doctrines or teachings of the church -- which by the way, he can't possibly do anyway. At this point the Christian church doesn't exist.  Remember...Paul is still Saul at this time...still persecuting Christians...none of his letters, or any of the New Testament, has been written.  With Stephen there is no proof-texting...no debating.    No, "my beliefs are better than your beliefs".  He also does not fall into the abusive pattern of trying to force others to see the truth his way. 

Speaking truth to power does not need to be violent or rude.  Sometimes it's even non-verbal.  We all know that truth was spoken to power when Rosa Parks took her seat on the bus all those years ago...even if we have no idea what words she said. 

Stephen's peaceful approach is to say what he seen and experienced then leave the rest to God.  That's really what speaking truth to power is all about. Telling, showing, trusting.

The truth is that Stephen is not entirely peaceful in his approach. He is nonviolent, but he does do some name calling at the end of his speech.  Still, for the most part he just tells it like he sees it.  Literally.  "I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God."  Period.  Basically, this is saying to the leaders that, despite all their attempts to silence Jesus, he is alive...present with God. 

Therefore everything Jesus has said about God...about God's love...about God's peace...about life in God's kingdom...about God's sense of justice and mercy....everything that Jesus taught about welcoming the stranger, caring for the poor, providing for the least....everything that he demonstrated about healing and restoration and community...is all proclaimed as truth to the powers that had tried to deny it.

Now, friends, not very many of us will ever have ever the experience of glimpsing into the heavenly realm the way Stephen did.  Yet, we have all had our own experiences of God's presence. We've encountered Christ in this world and in our lives.  We have stories of Christ's light shining in the dark places.  We've witnessed reconciliation of the conflicted and healing of brokenness.  We've experienced hope in the midst of despair.  We have known first hand that love trumps hate; we've seen the power of goodness prevail over the power of evil; and  we believe, with all our heart, soul and mind, that in the end, even in death, life wins.

These are our experiences of God...these are our truths...and there are certainly powers to which they need to be spoken. 

Powers that seek to oppress the poor.

Powers that define worth by race, gender, socio-economic class or sexual preference.

Powers that lack compassion.

Powers that deny human dignity.

Powers that oppose the Spirit of life-giving hope.

Powers that divide and destroy community.

Powers that control with fear.

Powers that ignore truth.

It's not for me to say whether God is calling any one of you individually to speak truth to power...that's between you and God.  But, I personally believe with all my heart, that God's Spirit is most assuredly compelling the church to do so...right now...at this very moment in history.  The truth we have to tell about God's love...and mercy...and justice...may not be popular or politically correct...the accountability for Christians to live kingdom lives might be an uncomfortable, demanding truth. In fact, speaking truth to power right now will undoubtedly come with a cost...perhaps we will lose the admiration of others...maybe even end some relationships.  We might risk security, jobs, or power. Still, to speak truth is what it means to be a brave witness for Christ.  It is what it means to be the church.

It the spirit of my favorite sermon-prep song, Brave, by Sara Bareilles, it's time for the church to show God how big our brave is.

All glory to God.  Amen.

Bible Reference(s):
Galatians 6:7-10
Rev. Terri Thorn

Recently in a conversation with a local police officer about some of the struggles in our community, I heard myself say words I swore would never come out of mouth.  I said something along the lines of: "the young people these days have no idea what it means to..."  In that moment, I realized that I was not only channeling my parents, I had become OLD! 

Seriously though, the officer and I were comparing stories about having grown up on our family farms.  We both agreed that the life lessons we learned on the farm were invaluable and shaped us into the people we are today. (I suppose, in a way, farm-life was our version of preschool.) 

We lamented that many young people have been deprived of the opportunity to learn the lessons of farming first-hand.  Things such as...the power of bailing twine and grease to fix just about anything...the health benefits of going to bed with cows and getting up with the chickens...or, my personal favorite, to know the real purpose of lard.

Growing up on a farm instead of in the city has advantages and disadvantages...still I believe there's something unique about having participated in raising and growing your own food rather than getting it at a grocery store or in a restaurant.  I'm not saying it's better or worse, just different. 

Either way, the fact is that fewer and fewer people have the experience of raising crops first hand...much less being utterly dependent on the land for one's livelihood.  Now, I know that there are many of you who plant gardens...and maybe even raise chickens, of course not in the city limits.  Thank goodness you do and thank goodness you share your bounty with those of us who do not! Still, we must admit that the days of a predominately agrarian way of life seem to be over.    

Personally, as one who spent most of her formative years on a farm, I believe that society has lost touch with some of the important life lessons that can only be learned there.  Thankfully though, some farming lessons are so universal, and applicable in nearly every context of life, that they will never die.  Lessons like the one from today's children's book.  Lessons like the one here in the writings of the apostle Paul to the Galatians.

It makes one wonder if the scriptures are filled agricultural images because they originated from an agrarian society, or because the natural order that God has fashioned for the world looks a lot like what happens on the farm. 

This is definitely the case when it comes to the principle of sowing and reaping.  There are "truths" about sowing and reaping that are part of God's order in every context of life.  We cannot escape them.   In fact, that seems to be what Paul meant in verse 7 when he says, "God cannot be mocked."   In other words, we cannot deny this truth...we will reap what we sow.   In fact, I believe nearly every world religion adheres to this as a universal reality...that which we put out comes back to us, eventually. 

The intent of Paul's letter was to show that the gospel empowers people to love and obey God by the power of the Holy Spirit in a way that the law could never do.  Basically, he is saying that as Christians we wrestle with that difficult balance between living from our own desires which are not necessarily godly and do not bring us peace and the Spirit-led life, which does.  He acknowledges that the "flesh" as he calls our desire is tempting, but the Spirit is the life of blessing.   Paul basically says our lives will reap that which we sow.  If we sow from our own selfish desire, we will reap misery.  If we sow from God's Spirit, we will reap the very desireable fruits of the Spirit which he lists in chapter 5:  love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.  

Now, of course the presence of the Holy Spirit influences what we harvest.  The Spirit brings out the fruit in our lives, but it's also an undeniable principle that our planting choices impact what we reap as well.  In fact, according to this law of sowing and reaping, we can ONLY reap the crop that we sow.  

I mean, just ask any gardener or farmer. You can't plant corn and expect to harvest beans.  It's like the rabbits in the story...if you plant cabbage, carrots and tomatoes, you will get cabbage, carrots and tomatoes...unless of course, you live in Indiana in May...then you might have to replant them after the rains end.  

The point is, you can't expect to get watermelon, strawberries and cucumbers if you plant cabbage, carrots and tomatoes.   Conversely, if you want watermelon, strawberries and cucumbers, you don't plant cabbage, carrot and tomato seeds.  

The same is true in our lives.  If we want lives of balance, integrity and peace, we can't be planting chaos, warped priorities, and self-deceit.   If we want grace and mercy, we can't sow hatred and unforgiveness.  If we want change, we can't keep doing the same old thing.  And folks if one wants a life of God's blessing, you can't put seeds of disobedience in the ground of your life.  You get the picture.   It's like one person said, you can't sow wild oats all week long and on Sunday pray for crop failure. 

A second truth about reaping and sowing is that we will reap more than we sow.  Boy did I ever learn this lesson once when I planted a flower called gooseneck loosestrife in my flower bed.  Now, let me just say that when God was handing out gifts, singing and flower gardening were not on my list.  When it comes to singing, I know better than to mock God...I know where the line is drawn.  However, when it came to flower gardening, I thought since I grew up on a farm, maybe I'd  give it a try.  In hindsight, I should have thought twice when I read the little tag in the container that said it was an "aggressive grower".  The first year I planted an area about 1 x 3 and two years later the stuff had completely taken over the entire south side of our house...and was headed to the neighbors.

I definitely learned my lesson.  Unless a weather extreme like flooding or drought occurs or the plant is gooseneck - which is impervious to any disaster - we -- and those around us --will reap more than we sow.  One little seed produces a plant full of fruit.  

Now, in life, this is a great thing if we are sowing positive seed...like forgiveness, blessings, and ministry.  The return on these seeds will always be in abundance.   Often beyond our imagination.  But the same principle is true if we're sowing seeds of hurt and harm.  It returns in abundance too -- to us and to those we love.  Scripture tells us this truth in many different places...but one of my personal favorites is from the prophet Hosea, who says of those causing conflict: They sow the wind and reap the whirlwind.   

Another related truth about sowing and reaping is that we often don't reap until long after the seeds are sown.  The farmers who will hopefully be planting or re-planting in the next couple of weeks are well aware that they will not reap anything until months from now.  However, they also know that once those seeds are sown, they can't come back and change their minds. It's as the saying goes:  that ship has sailed.  If beans are in the ground in May, beans, not corn, will be in the bins in November.  

It seems so obvious in farming, but it can be painful to consider in our lives.  I mean, the fact that we will later reap the seeds we've sown is not problematic when we have been sowing the right things...the good things...the Spirit things. In fact, it is the promise of a future harvest that inspires us to plant now.  However, it's frightening to consider this principle when we have not always sewn good seeds.  You see, the truth that we will reap in a different season that we which have sewn also emphasizes the hard truth about the consequences of our choices.   We, or those whom we love, will eventually experience the harvest.

It's a harsh reality folks.  God will not be mocked.  We don't get to live outside the natural law of sowing and reaping.   What we do have though, is the hope and promise of the resurrection which reminds us that with Christ, it's never too late to choose to sow a different crop.  To choose different seeds and reap a different life.   Through Christ, God has offered us grace and mercy and forgiveness for the seeds that we wish we had never sown...as well as for those we will regret sowing in the future.  

The hope of Christ's resurrection means that as Easter people, we have been given a new field...a second chance ship that has not sailed.

Friends, every spring, the season of new beginnings, farmers get to choose what they will plant.   As followers of Jesus, every season is the season of new beginning....every day we get to choose what we will plant.   And as the children's story taught us, if we plant seeds of kindness...and goodness...and mercy...and justice...all the seeds that Jesus planted, we will reap the fruits of the spirit...and they are very, very sweet.

On this PPM Sunday, I believe we are witness to the best possible aspects of sowing and reaping.  For one thing we are celebrating the thirtieth anniversary of our existence...recognizing that three decades ago, two women, Linda Ayres and Lynna Shaw, chose to plant the good seeds of this ministry.   

Now, honestly, correct me if I'm wrong Lynna, but neither of you really had any idea about what blessings would be reaped in that first year, much less thirty years later.  The founders, Linda and Lynna, as well as the others who supported their vision, just knew that a Mother's Day Out ministry at First Presbyterian Church was the right thing to do...at the right time...and for the right reasons. 

And with that, they planted.  One day a week...just a few children for a few hours.   Who knew that each year after that the harvest would multiply like gooseneck strife?  Literally expanding into new classrooms, new areas of the building and now...across the alley into the new playground. I think someone forgot to put the aggressive grower tag on the ministry.

But really folks, given God's promises of sowing and reaping...as well as God's faithfulness to the faithful...should we have ever expected anything less?

Throughout the thirty years, the Presbyterian Preschool Ministry has planted seeds of its own...seeds of care and compassion, kindness and love, seeds of education, character and community.   Seeds sown by loving staff into the hearts of hundreds of children who have been nurtured and taught here, as well as into the lives of the numerous families we have served.   The reaping, if you will, is on-going...in the schools that commend us for our program, in the community that benefits from the quality of the ministry, in the lives of the children who are confident and eager to learn, and sometimes right here in our classrooms when the children come back as high school graduates...or as parents of our newest students.

And church, fellow FPCer's, never forget that you all have sown many seeds of hope and light and love into this community through your faithful support of the preschool ministry.

Friends and family, days like today remind us that through the PPM, First Presbyterian Church is reaping what we sow in the best sense...in abundance and into the future...and it continues to be a very, very sweet blessing.

Speaking of sweet blessings...let us reflect on the seeds that have been sown this year as the PPM students come back up and offer us a glimpse of the future harvest.

Amen

 

Note:  Children's Story was a reading of If You Plant a Seed, by Kadir Nelson

April 23, 2017
Bible Reference(s):
John 20:19-31
Rev. Terri Thorn

In her weekly blog, my friend Rev. Rachel Hackenberg wrote a little post-Easter exercise that I would I would like to share with you this morning.  You don't have to write down your answers...although you are welcome to...and you don't have to answer verbally either.  Also, don't over-think or over-analyze...just take the first thoughts that come to your mind.  The quiz, if you will, has only three questions.  Here is the first one:

What do you know to be true? Remember...first thought.  What do you know without question to be true?

Next question: What do you know to be true about yourself? Again, take the very first thought that comes to your mind. What do you understand to be inherently true for you about yourself?

Now: How do those two truths show up for you? Where do you experience affirmation of these truths? What evidence do you witness that affirms what you believe?

You see, when we know something to be true, we also notice how it shows up in our lives. Conversely, when we repeatedly notice something in our lives, it is likely that we will begin to believe it to be truth. For example, if we believe that in general people are evil, we will naturally notice all the absolutely awful things that people in this world do.   However, if we repeatedly witness the healing impact of a caring community supporting and encouraging one another, we will begin to believe the truth that love is powerfully redemptive.

I'm not sure if this phenomenon is "objective truth" or not, but it has been my experience.  We see that which we believe to be true...and, at the same time,  our beliefs are shaped by what we see.  As I was digging into this theory earlier this week I discovered I'm not the only one who believes it.  Lawyer, turned minister, turned comedian (now there's a career path for you), the Reverend Susan Sparks tells of how she experienced it on a trip she made with her family to Graceland.  As they were waiting in line to start the guided tour, she casually asked the tour guide “how long did Elvis live here before he died?”

There was an audible gasp from the crowd standing around her, she recalls, and the tour guide looked at her with shock and whispered “We don’t use the past tense here.” The tour guide then pointed to her t-shirt, which read, “Graceland, where Elvis LIVES.”

Pastor Sparks writes: “It didn't matter that she had never actually seen Elvis or that technically Elvis stopped walking the earth over thirty-five years ago. It didn't matter. She didn't care. Elvis fans don't care. Without any proof, they believe he lives! Elvis lives, baby! The King lives! Given that kind of reverence, I believe that we as Jesus fans, have a lot to learn from Elvis fans. Especially in terms of faith....”

Susan is on to something.  It will be 40 years this August since Elvis "supposedly" died, but Elvis fans know that their idol lives, and they see him everywhere. A quick Google search on Elvis sightings will yield more than a quarter of a million hits of videos and websites.  One day he might be shopping at a Wal-Mart in Myrtle Beach and the next day he is eating at a Burger King in Kalamazoo.  Some have seen him preaching the gospel, and January 15, 2017 brought a flood of reports that he was videotaped on the grounds of Graceland.  Now you and I might be skeptical, but here's the thing...Elvis fans see Elvis...because they are always looking for Elvis.   

In a way, Elvis fans present an interesting contrast to what’s going on in our gospel reading today...a story in which is seems as if no one was looking. 

You see, for months prior to arriving in Jerusalem, Jesus had been making statements about what was about to happen once they got there.  He had talked of his own death and his resurrection - granted sometimes cryptically.  Yet, more than a week after his horrific death, none of the disciples seem to be looking for him.  Actually, it's been a week since the women reported their own "Christ-sighting" to the disciples, and still no one is looking for him. 

Why do you suppose that is? Why weren't they looking for him?

Did they not believe Mary? Was hers simply too wild a story for them to believe? Or,  after hearing her story about encountering him in the garden, did they believe that Jesus was nowhere to be found…that he had already ascended to heaven? Even if they believed that might be a possibility, wouldn’t they have at least checked to see if he was still hanging around? Why were they not looking for him?

Well, according to John's version of the story, they weren't looking because they were locked up in fear...hiding in the house to avoid the Jewish leaders that had called for Jesus' death.  Although, there is little evidence that the Jewish leaders were worried about anyone other than Jesus.

Besides, Peter and John had already left the house to go investigate the tomb…and if there was anywhere in Jerusalem that they might have expected to run into the Jewish leaders or Roman soldiers, it would have been outside Jesus’ tomb. When Peter and John went to the tomb that morning, it was because they thought there had been a grave robbery. They ran immediately at that prospect, but when Mary returns and tells them that Jesus has been resurrected, they went into hiding. I wonder why they were not out looking for him?

Honestly, I don't think it was it that they did not believe he was alive...but more so that, in the moment, they could not believe it...not without seeing it first-hand.

I mean...could it be that…having witnessed the brutality of Jesus’ death…that the disciples are unable to believe in the promises of a loving God? Could it be that the sheer pain and ugliness of having witnessed the death of Jesus has made them doubt that there is any power of good that can conquer the death and evil that was on display on Good Friday?  Is that why they were not out looking for the resurrected Christ?  Haven't many of us experienced that same double-mindedness...wanting to believe in God's power, but not immediately, in the moment, able to feel it?   Surely I'm not the only flawed, weak believer, who has at one point or another - if only for a fleeting moment - doubted that which I say I believe?  Seriously, just call me Thomas...cause I've been there!

But really, Thomas doesn't deserve the a bad rap we give him for doubting.  In all honesty, his need for proof was not any different than the other disciples.  He just had to ask for it.

In fact, when you think about it, I'm wondering, what does it say about Thomas that he was NOT in the house when the Risen Christ appeared?  Has anyone ever considered the possibility that maybe HE was out looking for Jesus?  Perhaps Thomas had heard the women's story about seeing Jesus alive and decided that he was going to go see for himself.  

We have no idea where Thomas was or what he was doing at the time of the first visit, do we?   John never explains.  In fact, we can only be certain of two things...the others were in the house hiding...and Thomas was not.   So, his statement about not believing the story that the others told him until he saw Jesus with his own eyes, and touched him with his own hands?  Well, to me we should not be quick to criticize.  He really wasn't asking for anything that the others had not already received.  Maybe this request wasn't as much about real doubt, as it was about Thomas's faith and wanting his own encounter with the Jesus he loved.

Whatever was going on in the room - on the first visit and the second - Jesus knew that the disciples had lost sight of the truth about him and about the God who sent him. He understood they were fearful...and remorseful...and grieving.   He was aware that they all needed to be reminded of the truth he had revealed to them over and over throughout their time in ministry together.  They needed to re-hear the truth that is repeated throughout the scriptures...the truth that is at the heart of our faith story...the truth revealed in Jesus Christ...the truth of the gospel. 

In the moment of crisis, the disciples were like the little critters in the story I read earlier.  They may have needed to be reminded of many things...but mostly they needed to know that God's steadfast love endures forever...which Jesus communicates to them with these simple, but powerful words:  Peace be with you.  

Peace be with you.  The fear...the worry...the angst...the belief...the disbelief... the trauma of the past weeks...and all those raging, unsettling feelings in the room?  Peace be with you.

To the one with great shame for denying Jesus. Peace be with you.

For those who hid...who went silent...who did not believe the women's witness. Peace be with you.

To those who were dual-minded and conflicted...wanting to believe, yet not quite able to believe...Peace be with you.

To those who were looking for him and those who were not.  Peace be with you.

 To the one who needs to see for himself.  Peace be with you.

The first thing Jesus wants the disciples to KNOW...to know to the core of their being...is that God's merciful, abundant, forgiving, gracious, empowering, redeeming love...the unconditional love that brings peace...is still and always, theirs.  

No turmoil...no crisis...no hierarchy...no religious hierarchy...no sinister plan...no betrayal...no powers or principalities...no evil...not even death on a cross...is able to keep God's love from his people.

Peace be with you.  It was the reassuring truth that the disciples needed then...and it captures the reassuring truth we still need to know, now. 

The truth that through Christ and in our baptism, we belong to God.

The truth that God's Holy Spirit is with us always...in the midst of trial and tribulations...in our joys and our sorrows...comforting, guiding, empowering...even to the ends of the earth.

The truth that God is a life-giving God...death, and death-dealing ways, have no place in his kingdom.

The truth that the power of love is greater than the power of evil.

Jesus' appearance and his words, "peace be with you", reveals the truth of the story I read to the children this morning...the truth in the baptisms of Emmett and Sophia...the truth that God's love never fails us...never abandons us...never lets us go. 

Friends...when disciples believe these truths about God, then we naturally witness proof, evidence, of them being lived out in our lives and in the world.   And the more we witness, the stronger we abide in the truth of God's love.

So,  if we say that we believe in the resurrection, then we must also notice and celebrate occasion of  new and renewing life -- not only on Easter Sunday but every day.   And...when we make a habit of recognizing this creating & recreating of life all around us...our faith in Easter's good news is strengthened.

We can't profess to believe the Easter story, and then live as though the world is completely devoid of resurrection. We can't say that Easter is true if we don't also see Easter in the world around us.  We must become witnesses.  Like good Elvis fans, we must always be on the lookout for proof that Christ is among us.

And you know what happens to witnesses?  They are eventually called to the witness stand...in order to help others come to believe.   We are called to see God's resurrecting love at work...AND to be a source of God's love so others can see it as well.   Because, like the skeptics who watch the countless videos of Elvis sightings, eventually if people see God's loving goodness and kindness at work in their lives...they will come to believe it as truth.

Church...we are witness (as in the verb) to the kindness and goodness...to the wideness of God's mercy and the depth of his love.  We see it when hurting hearts are healed...when empty lives are transformed and filled with purpose.  We see it in the restoration of broken relationships.  We see it when the poor are cared for, the hungry are fed, and when the stranger is welcomed.  We see it when justice is served, diversity is celebrated, and community is built.   We see it...because we believe it is true.

We are also the witness (as in the noun) for others.  We are witnesses when we work to heal the hurting, when we offer purpose to the lost.  We are witnesses for others when we seek reconciliation...when we welcome others...feed the hungry...care for the poor.  We are witnesses when we share the truth we know...with our living, our serving and our telling.

So, folks, let me close with this final observation.  Comedian Adam Sandler once asked if Jesus and Elvis might be the same person.  His argument is this:

Jesus said: "Love your neighbor." and Elvis said: "Don't be cruel."

Jesus is part of the Trinity; Elvis' first band was a trio.

Jesus is the good shepherd; and Elvis dated Cybil Sheppard.

I will just say this...I watched several of those Elvis sighting videos...and I'm not sure whether Elvis is alive or not...but one look out at all your beautiful lives...one glimpse at the work this church does in the world...one drop of the waters of baptism on Emmett and Sophia, and this I know...we may not be able to touch his wounds, but friends, Jesus is alive and in this place.

Peace be with you.

Bible Reference(s):
Matthew 26:1-10
Rev. Terri Thorn

So, I'm thinking that after seeing that video, there really isn't much else that needs to be said, is there?  We've sung our traditional Easter hymns; we've practiced the timeless Christian response, Christ is risen...he is risen indeed.  And now we've heard the resurrection story told in a unique way.   What more could we want?

Not to mention, the title of today's message is:  Courage To Tell The Story.  Well, folks, trust me, participating in that video took courage...and whole lot of technical expertise from Neal Crouse.   I mean, to be videotaped on the spot and know that some snippet of what you said would be used to create a video over which you have no control?  That's way too much  vulnerability for some of us.  Still, these faithful folks courageously participated in spite of any apprehension they may have had.   And, I think we will all would agree, it was worth their labor of love.   

Rather than have just one person telling the Easter story, it's good to have the whole church tell it.  After all...it is our story to share, right?  The resurrection is our story of hope...our story of new beginnings, and new life.  The empty tomb is our story of promise...the promise that we do not have to remain in our own dead places.  Yes church, this is our story to claim...our story to believe...our story to live...and our story to share.

That said, Matthew's version of the Easter story is a little difficult for us to wrap our minds around.  The shaking and rattling like an earthquake, flashes of lightening, stones rolling, and something that looks like snow?  Well that sounds more like an spring weather forecast in Indiana than our own personal encounters with the holy. 

The powerful visual that Matthew creates in this scene is beyond what most of us have ever experienced.  It has a cosmic, other-worldliness feel that does not relate to our everyday life.  No matter how great our Resurrection fanfare this morning, none of us will ever encounter what Mary Magdalene and the other Mary did on that Easter morning.  Most likely we will never see a spunky angel sitting on a stone, nor have we had many occurrences of grabbing the feet of the Risen Christ.  Not to mention, if we did, we would probably be afraid to tell anyone about it for fear they would think we were crazy.

Still, the fact that we were not there first-hand does not mean we cannot relate in very real ways to Mary Magdalene and the other Mary.  For one thing, many of us have experienced the intense grief that these two women felt as they approached the tomb that morning.   Although we may not have endured the trauma they did - according to Matthew they were witnesses to the trial, the beating, the crucifixion and the death of Jesus - many of us know what it feels like to lose a loved one.  Sometimes quite tragically.

We have endured the pain of having our hearts deeply broken.  And we also know what it is like to try to go on in spite of that brokenness.  In fact, the faithfulness of these women in the midst of their heartbreak is truly inspiring.   

Now, if we are honest with ourselves, many of us also relate to the women in this story in another way as well.  We, too, know what it feels like to live in fear and doubt...to wonder if we can really trust God's plans in the midst of our pain.

You see, even though the women knew Jesus had said that the grave could not contain him...and even though they had heard him speak of being raised again...and even though they had even seen Lazarus restored to life...they still came to the grave looking to find Jesus' dead body there.  I believe the women were living that all too familiar struggle...looking for a glimmer of light in the midst of a very dark place...trying to trust in the power of goodness when it seems as if evil is clearly in charge.  The head knows, but the heart is not quite there yet. 

I doubt that I'm alone in saying, I've been that Mary.   A lot of us are that Mary. We want to believe that death does not win...but there are tragic days when it sure feels as if it does.

When we see images of children gasping to breathe after having been poisoned with sarin gas...it feels as if evil has won.

When we hear of Congo schools that were so hard-earned being closed due to rebel fighting, it feels as if death is winning.

When the number of overdose deaths continues to rise in nearly every county of our state, it feels as if death has won.

When the need to fight for equality and basic human rights keeps rearing its ugly head, evil seems to be in charge.

The list goes on and on.   This may not be the worst times the world has ever seen, but there are days, when the news headlines make us feel as if it is.   We know that love wins...we trust that justice and mercy will prevail...yet somewhere in a corner of our heart, is a seed of doubt and we're not sure it's safe to believe.

Now, I'm not saying the women were unfaithful or had doubts about Jesus.  I just think that after all they had witnessed, it must have been nearly impossible to be optimistic or hopeful about the situation at hand.

As such, we can appreciate the shock to the women's sensibilities when the angel says, "I know why you're here...you're looking for Jesus who was crucified.  He is not here."   

He is not here.  Talk about increasing anxiety levels.  I'm sure it was almost too much for them to comprehend. However, as the reality begins to register with them...a glimmer of hope emerges.   Hope that their beloved Jesus  - the Messiah, the Son of God - had defeated death just as promised.  Four little words, "He is not here",  offered the possibility that there was much, much more to this story!

He is not here...he has been raised...the tomb is empty.  A matter of fact message for two faithful women that would eventually become a message of hope for the whole world.  Like the dawn of morning, it was a message of light piercing into the darkness, a message that out of every chaos and tragedy, a new order will eventually rise, a message that sin and death are powerless to power of God's love and mercy.  It was a message that love always wins over evil, despite appearances to the contrary.

It reminds me of a story from the funeral service for Winston Churchill, which he had planned himself.  A single trumpeter stood at the west end of St. Paul's Abby and sounded "Taps" the song that signals dusk...the end of the day...and is often played at military funerals.  But after the moment of silence that followed the last note of the song, another trumpeter stood at the east end of St. Paul's, the end that faced the rising sun, and played Reveille, the song of morning and the call to a new day.  As Rev. David Lose said of this story, Churchill perceived that Christ's resurrection signals above and beyond all else that our God is a God of new life and never-ending possibility.   (workingpreacher.org)

So imagine the possibility that the women heard when the angel said:  "He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead,  and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’"

Actually, I'm not convinced that they would have understood the full significance of the message when they first heard it.  They just knew that they had been given an instruction to go tell the story to the others.  So they did.  Despite the danger of unaccompanied women traveling alone...regardless of the likelihood that no one would believe the word of women...notwithstanding their own their own fear and doubt, they bravely responded to the angel's instruction to go and tell. 

Now, to me, that is the definition of courage...the ability to move forward in the face of uncertainty and fear.  Or as John Wayne once put it, courage is being scared to death but saddling up anyway.

Mary Magdalene and the other Mary saddled up anyway and responded to Jesus' death with courage...they responded to news of the resurrection with courage...and they responded to the angel's instruction to go...with courage.  And by the way, in doing so, they encountered the Risen Christ.

Is this not a message for us today?  When we go with courage...into our fears and our joys...we will encounter the resurrected Christ.  When we go with courage to our own Galilee...into places of ministry...when we have courage tell others our stories about Jesus, he will meet us there...in those stories.

Do not be afraid, do not be afraid, do not be afraid.

The good news of Christ's resurrection is not that we are exempt from fears, but that those fears do not have the power to cripple us.  We will have challenges, but they do not overcome us.  We have moments of anxiety, but they do not define us.  We grieve, but not without hope.  We live with unknowns, but they do not silence our hope for the future.

Now don't get me wrong, though.  Easter people are not freakishly naive.  We see the potential for death and destruction in the world.  Bad things still happen around us and to us, to our friends and to those we love.  We just refuse to let those things be the end of the story.  They do not get the last word. 

He is not here...the tomb is empty...do not be afraid.  It gives us courage to face whatever comes our way...anchored in the promise that God will have the last word, and that word is one of light and life and grace and mercy.

The empty tomb tells the story of God having the last word. It is a story of hope for our lives and for God's world.  Moreover, it is a story that, like the women, we are compelled to share with courage and love.

And folks...if you don't think the world is desperate to hear the stories we have to tell, then think about this for a minute.  What does it say that 1.2 million people watched a live broadcast of a giraffe having a baby yesterday?  No wait, what does it say that more than 5 million people have been checking the live feed over the past two months...some of whom have formed an online community...checking in daily, sharing prayer requests, and exchanging stories of their lives?  Seriously, read the live feed comments if you want to see for yourself.

Well, I will tell you what I think it means...I think that people are desperate...desperate to hear or see something that is life-giving and up-lifting.  Folks are hungering for a sense of community...to feel connected...to have purpose...to be a part of something bigger than themselves.  They are seeking to hear real stories that offer hope.

So, friends, just as the others were huddled waiting for "the next thing"...waiting for someone to give them the "all clear"... or to tell them something hopeful...to reconnect with Jesus...well, I'm telling you, the world is waiting too.   Waiting for the church to tell them good news...from this Easter story...and from our own lives.  The want to hear that good does win...to know that they have purpose...that they are loved...that others understand their pain...and that the situations of death and darkness in their lives can be resurrected into life-giving ones, filled with light and love.

A few years ago I shared an Easter prayer from author and theologian Brian McClaren. I believe it is worthy of repeating, especially so this year.

For death is not the last word.

Violence is not the last word.

Hate is not the last word.

Money is not the last word.

Intimidation is not the last word.

Political power is not the last word.

Condemnation is not the last word.

Betrayal and failure are not the last word.

No, each of them are like rags in a tomb.

And from that tomb,

Arises Christ.

Alive.

Beloved Easter people, this is the story the world is desperate to hear.  Beloved Church, together, let us have courage to tell it...with our words, our actions and our lives. 

Amen

Bible Reference(s):
Matthew 20:1-11
Matthew 26:14-27 and Matthew 27:15-26
Rev. Terri Thorn

So,  I'm not the only one who was ready for a little Glory, Laud and Honor this morning, right? It is the perfect song for Palm Sunday, as we rejoice with the crowds who lined the path while Jesus made his way into Jerusalem.

However, unlike the crowd, which had no idea of what the week ahead would bring, those of us on this side of the resurrection already know how it gets played out.  We have the blessing, and the curse, of knowing that Easter is coming, next Sunday morning. 

It a blessing because, as with any story, knowing that there is a happy ending makes the challenging parts of the story more bearable.  Being confident that Easter is coming somehow softens the assault that the Passion story makes on our eyes, ears, hearts and minds.

Sadly, this is also the curse of knowing that Easter is coming.  The happy ending makes the Passion story a less disturbing...less convicting story...if you will.  Which, to be quite honest, also makes the Passion story altogether easier to gloss over.

In fact, many congregations have moved farther and farther away from observing a true Holy Week...you know the kind where there are multiple well-attended services throughout the entire week leading up to the Good Friday. As a result, it has become very easy to skip over everything that happened between the time Jesus arrived into Jerusalem and when he was crucified, dead, and buried less than a week later.  Instead we tend to give just a brief nod of acknowledgement to the unsettling events of Holy Week...and then turn our minds to Easter baskets and what we're serving for dinner Sunday afternoon.

So yes, it is a blessing to know the ending of the story, but it is also a curse that we tend to sell the story short.

Every year Palm/Passion Sunday creates a dilemma for preachers.  Do we preach one aspect over the other...or do we try to create some condensed version of both? And every year we have to figure out how capture the shift from "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord" to "Crucify him, crucify him"...in roughly 60 - 70 minutes. How do we get from the joy of Scott's story, to the sinister one that I told, to the ugly truth of the one George offered. 

The fact of the matter is that a whole lot happened that last week.  More than we can possible address today.  However, on Maundy Thursday we will use art, music, prayers and stories to try to convey the progression of events.   I do hope you will all make it a priority to come that night to hear the powerful truth of Holy Week. 

Today, though, is about the mood shift in Jerusalem.  What caused the hearts and minds of the people to shift so drastically from joy to anger, in less than a week? 

I contend that the children's sermon this morning revealed the answer.  The people began to show their true colors.  There was, in essence, a failure of faithfulness...a lack of loyalty - actually conflicted loyalties might be a better description.  Basically, as the week passed, the Jews who had gathered for the Passover Festival were forced to choose between Jesus' more difficult path of love and sacrifice, or the easier path of self-preservation and fear.   

Still, let's not be too quick to judge though.  The choice was not always deliberate...nor was it clearly laid out like a fork in the road.  In fact, with the exception of the Temple Leaders, who had been apprehensive about Jesus from early on, many folks gathered around Jesus with the best of intentions.  They cheered his arrival and willingly followed him into town.  After all they had seen the miracle feedings...the healings...the driving out of demons.  They knew the prophecy about the Messiah...and by all accounts it seemed as if Jesus fulfilled it.  So yes, absolutely they were waving their palms...with anticipation and hope...that Jesus was their new King...the one chosen by God to bring the salvation and restoration to the people of God.   

Those who gathered around him were hopeful.  They were the oppressed  looking for their liberator....the poor looking for their help....the outcast looking to be restored...the broken looking for a redeemer...the silenced ones looking for their voice...the downtrodden looking for a hero. 

In a way, it reminds me of the Purdue football fans at the Spring game yesterday.  Now let me just say, there's not a better way to describe Boilermaker football of these past years than "downtrodden" and in desperate need of a hero.  So yesterday, several fans were there...checking out the new coach, Jeff Brohm...hoping that somehow he can save the program.  They are looking to him to get some wins on the board and restore some element of dignity to the program.  We want him to be THE one.  And to be quite honest...there's energy and hopefulness in the air right now...granted, it's probably a bit over inflated hopefulness.  Still, like those first century Jews looking for Jesus to be the answer, we really hope that when it comes to Boilermaker football and post-season play, Brohm is our answer.

But...here's the thing...realistically...it's probably not going to happen.  Not in a coach's first year.  He has to build his program.  And we, the fans, need to do our part by showing up, buying the tickets and supporting the team.  However...what's more likely to happen is that if Coach Brohm doesn't get some early wins this season, the fans will turn on a dime.  The chants will become boos and the fans will slowly drift away...heaven forbid, they might even shift their loyalty to another team.  Now IU fans, don't get your hopes up...no matter how bad it gets, true Boilermakers can never become Hoosiers.

Yet, in Jerusalem this is exactly how it went down.  You see, expectations had been placed on Jesus...expectations that he was going to be a military king, like King David.  That he was going overthrow the occupiers and oppressors to put political power back into the hands of the common Jews.  And when that didn't happen, the grumbling started - even though Jesus had never intended to bring about a political kingdom. His was always a spiritual one...one of compassion and justice, one of mercy and forgiveness, one of grace and peace. 

Still, when people, including his own disciples, began to realize that this arrival was more along the lines of a protest march rather than the big military coup they expected, doubt and disloyalty began to creep in.  Some folks became vocal about their disgruntlement.  Others quietly faded to the background...disenchanted that Jesus was not giving them what they had hoped...even though he would offer what they needed.

Many abandoned Jesus.  They were no longer loyal.  They called for his death.  One in particular, Judas, went so far as to trade himself to the other team.  He sold out his loyalty for money.

At the same time, the temple leaders became increasingly threatened by Jesus' presence in Jerusalem.  For one thing, he openly accused them of selling out to the Empire...he challenged their legalistic interpretation of the law, particularly when it meant they missed the mark of God's intent...or when it was held up as the means of righteousness.  Jesus' message of forgiveness was a threat to their both their power and their authority. 

Likewise the presence of an edgy crowd created another worry for the Temple Leaders.  You see, it was their job to keep Jews in line. If there is one thing that Empire did not like, it was chaos and unrest in their cities.  Rome counted on the Temple leadership to quiet any disturbances.  So the restlessness that Jesus stirred among the people became the responsibility of the priests and rulers to settle. 

That said, it is likely that there was a large contingent of crowd-control Roman soldiers sent to Jerusalem for the Passover.  Still, when it came to the struggle between the Temple leaders and Jesus, the Romans had no skin in the game.  They saw it as an internal conflict that the Jews needed to work out among themselves.  Of course, if they could not settle things, Empire would settle it for them and that would not be pretty. 

Given all this tension and diverse loyalties, the question really isn't how did things go downhill so quickly for Jesus. The question is, "how could it not?"  In 21st century slang...Jerusalem was a hot mess!

As Jesus rode that donkey into the city, I believe he knew that Jerusalem was about to become a tinderbox of emotion and conflict, and every wave of a branch was a metaphorical fanning of the embers that would eventually become the flame of Holy Week.   

Yes, Jesus knew what was ahead.   Did he know it would take one week? I'm not sure...but he certainly knew that his days were numbered.   After all, his was a radical voice of dissention that challenged prejudices, hierarchies, and priorities.  He spoke truth to power, and it's only a matter of time before power seeks to silence unpleasant truth.

From the instant Jesus sent the disciples to go get the donkey, he knew that the final plan was set in motion. It's hard to be sure if he had every detail worked out, but he knew that there was no turning back.  Jesus also knew that the faithful would fail him.  He knew that loyalties would be challenged; loyalties would be divided; loyalties would be changed. 

He was aware that while many traveled into Jerusalem with him, few, very few, would follow him to the cross.  Yet, he went anyway...for the sake of the gospel...for the sake of a message of God's welcome and grace...for the sake of message of justice and mercy and compassion...for the sake of the truth that God's power is greater than any power including death.  

Friends, Jesus went into Jerusalem for you and for me...knowing full well that we would be the first in line to wave our palms and shout hosanna...and that we would also be among those shouting crucify him, crucify him.  

Maybe not in word...but often in action and deed.  I know, it's uncomfortable to think we would ever deny Christ, much less crucify him.  But let's be honest...our loyalties are often divided...divided between faith and self-reliance...between generosity and financial security...between loving others and avoiding risk...between talking the talk and walking the walk.   

Still, we can't imagine ourselves turning on Jesus the way the crowds did.  We can't fathom participating in his death.  Nonetheless, when we refuse to hear the cries of the hungry, the oppressed, the poor, we not only ignore them, we ignore Jesus.   Folks, Jesus went up against the oppressive ruling powers on behalf of those who were the least, the lonely, the outcast...in order to bring salvation to them.  When we refuse to see or hear these neighbors, we are as guilty as the Temple Rulers or the Roman Empire.  We crucify Jesus by denying his gospel.

Anytime we are deaf to the voice of justice, the voice of mercy, or the voice of love...our ears are deaf to Jesus.  When we are prejudiced against people...for any reason...race, gender, nationality, immigration status, socio-economics, or sexual preference...we are prejudiced against Jesus.  We are, in essence, mocking him the way the soldiers did.  <<pause>>

It's not something we really want to think about, is it?  Our fears and failures are never easy to face...especially when it means we have disappointed Jesus.  We'd much rather see ourselves with palms in our hands rather than Christ's blood on them...yet what is Easter to us unless we profess both?

So as difficult as it may be, this is why we all need to experience Holy Week.  It forces us, as followers of Jesus, to own up to our true colors.  We don't get a "hall pass" to skip the difficult truths of who we are, why Jesus died, and who we are called to be.   As much as we would prefer to celebrate Palm Sunday and then skip to Easter, Holy Week takes us on Jesus' journey to the cross and makes it ours.   

Hopefully, at some point along the way the question of our heart stops being, "What does Jesus give me?"  After all, we know the answer --  he offers salvation and peace.  Instead may we find ourselves asking, "What am I willing to give for him?"   The first is an expression of our selfish needs, the second expresses sacrificial love.

All glory, laud and honor is his.  Amen.

Bible Reference(s):
John 11:1-45
Rev. Terri Thorn

A thirty-four year old man named Michael Sharp is dead.  He entered into his own version of a cave of death several times during his short life, and each time he returned home alive.  Until now.  This time he did not come back. In early March, Michael made his way into the rebel-held jungles of the Congo, just as he has been doing for years -- first as a Mennonite mission worker, and when the funding ran out, as a UN Security Council Expert on peace-making.  However, Sharp and his Swedish colleague, Zaita Catalan, along with their interpreter and motor bike drivers, went missing as they were investigating a relatively new rebellion in the Kasai region.   As feared, on Monday it was announced that the bodies of Michael and Zaita had been found in a shallow grave.  The others are still missing.

As you might imagine, Michael's family and friends here in the United States are devastated by this news. They are crushed by the thought that such a kind, compassionate, godly, peace-loving man - one who was described as courageous but not reckless - would be so callously killed.  It feels unfair to his family, I'm sure. It might even raise questions about where God's protection was when Michael needed it. 

I suspect that his family in rural Kansas can relate to the emotional cries of Martha and Mary in the story that Diane so powerfully told to us today.  Yet unlike Mary and Martha, who receive the miracle of Jesus raising their brother from the dead, Michael's father, John, and other loved ones, must accept that no amount of prayer, pleading or begging will bring him back.

No, Michael Sharp is dead in this realm.

To be quite honest with you, I'm not sure why his death hit me so hard this week.  I did not know Michael Sharp personally.  However, much of his work took place under the same umbrella of the Congolese Protestant Church as does our Congo Mission Network.  Somehow, it feels as if he is one of ours.  Or, it could be that the news came on the same day that we also learned that our beloved Congo Mission partner, Dr. Mulumba, lost his battle with multiple myeloma. It could be any number of things stirring within me...but I think the reason Michael Sharp's story impacted me so deeply is because it reminds me of this week's story about the death and raising of Lazarus.  While so very different in context and outcome, both lives seem to have served similar purposes. 

You see, even though Michael Sharp was working for the United Nations, those who knew him insist that it was his faith in God that drove him to seek peace.  It was the reason he was willing to make trip after trip into the jungle to speak to the rebels.  He wanted to offer them a different way of living...to persuade them to see things from another perspective.  And above all, I think he wanted to provide a reason for them to believe in God's truth of grace and peace through Christ.

To me, Sharp went into the jungle for the same reasons that John wrote this gospel... the same reason that Jesus raised Lazarus...the same reason the church exists...so people will come to believe that Jesus is the incarnation of God in this world...the giver of life and resurrection to us all.

When Michael Sharp went into the jungle, he knew he was risking his life. Yet, he was also living the gospel he professed.  He felt he had a message of peace that needed to be shared.   That said, Sharp used a unique way to reach the rebels - although not all that unlike Jesus' approach, which, by the way, also got him killed

Sharp was willing to meet the rebels where they were...in their jungle...among their culture.  He went to them.  More importantly though, in order to create a relationship with the rebels, Michael engaged them in story-telling!  Yes, story-telling....but not just any random stories, and definitely not horrific war-stories.  Instead it turns out that, just like the rest of us, the rebels liked to talk about the good old days.  So, to build rapport, Michael encouraged them to share stories and reminisce about their past.

In doing so, he discovered that the memory held by most of the rebels was a classic narrative of exile.  Just like the Israelites, the "past" that the rebels remembered never really existed in the way they remembered it. Still, creating the myth in their mind was a way of creating hope.  So yes, the rebels dreamed of returning to homes they never really owned...regaining power they had never truly had...and controlling their enemy.  Actually they are rebels...they wanted to destroy their enemy.

Clearly, Sharp wasn't going to encourage them in that fantasy...however he heard and validated their stories.  Then as a strategy for peace, he would  tap into the emotion behind the stories...a deep, deep sense of homesickness.  Loneliness.  Longing for a place to call home...a place to belong.  Quite skillfully, Sharp used the rebels' own desire for power to create a new understanding of what power could look like...and in doing so, he led them away from violence toward peace.

According to an NPR article, Sharp would say to the older rebels, "You're over 50, it's too late for you to take over Rwanda.  But your children are growing up uneducated in the bush.  Don't you see that your children, who are the future of Rwanda, when they go back, they'll be slaves of those who are there!  Because they are illiterate!"  He used the word slave deliberately because for those who dream of ethnic domination, there could be no greater terror.  If he could convince the rebels to put down weapons for the sake of their children's education, it would be a step toward peace.  If those children ended up in Christian schools in the Congo, even better.

Admittedly, it might not be the most conventional way to lead people to Christ...but it did get some rebels to consider a new, less violent, way of living.  Of course, Sharp knew that using this strategy of "getting to yes" (as NPR called it) would not resolve the 20-year conflict in the Congo; but he also believed that without these personal encounters and conversations, the war would never end.  In his own curious way, Michael Sharp brought light into the darkness of the jungle...he showed them a way to peace instead of war...and he offered the rebels and their children life instead of death. 

Current estimates are that more than 1600 rebels followed Michael Sharp out of the cave of death, to be "raised" if you will to experience new life.  Because of Michael's faith...because of his gospel-revealing work...because God was working through him...because of a story about the Israelites in exile...because of the Spirit of God present in this thing called storytelling...all these rebels came to believe in a better way.

Friends, the theme of this Lenten season has been:  The Story is Enough.  On Sundays we've been telling the stories of Jesus through word, song and art.  On Wednesday nights, at the Lenten Soup and Story Suppers we've been telling stories of our own lives as they relate to the scripture passages.  The idea is that the stories of scripture really are enough...and when they are shared with others and woven into our own lives, they create belief.

In fact, all of the stories we've shared during this Lenten season have served that same purpose.  The story of Nicodemus coming to Jesus at night.  The Woman at the Well.  The Healing of the Blind Man.  And this, the story of the Raising of Lazarus.  John offers all of them to his readers...and to all of us today...so  that we, too, will come to believe that Jesus is the revelation of God on earth and that the God he reveals is a God of compassion, mercy, and love...a giver and restorer of life to all. 

In fact, Jesus himself tells us that the reason Lazarus was allowed to die was so that those around him would come to believe...believe that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God...believe that he was the One sent by God, not to judge the world but to save it.  This whole story of Lazarus was about the disciples' belief.  Did they really believe that Jesus was who he said he was and that the healing, restoring, live-giving power of God was within him?  To Jesus, it was imperative that the disciples believe because the journey they were about to take with him toward humiliation and death on a cross would certainly raise doubt.  

I wonder if that is why there is an initial sense of confusion in this story.  When news came of Lazarus' demise, Jesus interacted and spoke with the disciples in a mysterious way.  I think it was a trust thing. It could be the reason we are sometimes left hanging with unanswered questions about why things are the way they are.  Jesus is teaching us that, even when things don't make sense, disciples believe God has a plan.

There's disappointment in this story too.  Martha is clearly disappointed that Jesus delayed his arrival.  She genuinely believed her brother would not have died if Jesus had been there.  Yet, by the time he does get to Bethany, Lazarus has been dead four days.  Sure, Martha knows he will be resurrected in the end, but she wants him alive now.  So, yes, she was frustrated. It may have even felt as if God was not listening.  I know many of us have experienced that in our own lives, even if we are afraid to admit it.  We have been disappointed or frustrated with God. Even so, Jesus demonstrates, for our belief, that God is eternally good and faithful, even in our momentary despair.

There's also deep grief in this story.  Mary and Martha loved their brother.  They depended on their brother.  They missed him and needed him to be alive.  Of course they were grieving his death.  In fact, Jesus himself grieved - we're told he was deeply disturbed.  He wept with sadness.  Clearly, Jesus understood their pain and grief.   He also understands ours and by his own life’s work, calls us to believe God is merciful and compassionate.

Friends, this story...and all these other stories that make up the gospel...have been given to us so that no matter what life throws at us...no matter what we are feeling...no matter who we are...or what lies the world tells us...that we will believe in the life-giving power of God incarnate in Jesus Christ, anyway.  

Now, truth is, unless you believe in the Zombie Apocalypse...it is highly unlikely that anyone who has been dead and buried for four days will suddenly come out of the grave and walk again.   Still, it doesn't mean we can't relate to this story of Lazarus.  God may not breathe life into dead bodies...but God regularly breathes life into dead spirits.  We need only be as bold as Mary and Martha...we need only to ask.

Friends, the power and authority of God that was in Jesus there at Bethany and raised Lazarus is the same power and authority of the same God who is with us now through Jesus Christ.  This story is our story.

It is ours to know...to share...to live...and to believe.

Likewise...it is our work...the church's job...to tell the stories.  Tell the gospel story...tell this particular story...tell our own stories...so folks around us may come to believe that ours is a God...

Who loves us to the point of sharing our pain and grief.

Embraces us just as we are...stranger...sinner...lost or afraid.

Who holds us close even in our anger, frustration or doubt.

And will enter the dead, stench-filled, ugly places of our lives, not to condemn us for them but to free us from them.

Who releases us from all that binds us; heals our brokenness; restores our relationship; and casts light into all darkness.

And who always, always, always, breathes life rather than death.

John wrote in his gospel:  "Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book.  But these are written that all may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name."

It's our turn now. Go tell and believe. To God's glory, Amen

March 26, 2017
Bible Reference(s):
John 9
Rev. Terri Thorn

The cat's in the cradle and the silver spoon, little boy blue and the man in the moon. When you coming home, Dad?  I don't know when, but we'll get together then.  You know will have a good time then.

You all have no idea how hard it is to just say those words as opposed to sing them.  Even as I said them, I suspect most of us were hearing the tune in our head.  What makes this Harry Chapin song timeless is that it contains a truth about life that we can't seem to grasp while we are living it. In the first verse of the song, the singer tells us his child is born and learns to walk while he was away working.  When the boy turns 10, he asks his dad to teach him how to play ball.  The dad has too much to do and tells him they will have to do it later.  Each time that the dad isn't able to be there, the son reassures him it's OK.  He says he just wants to grow up and be like his Dad. 

It is a wonderful compliment, until the dad discovers what that truth really means.  The painful reality becomes more clear as the son comes home from college and is too busy with his friends to visit with Dad.  Eventually, Dad retires, son gets married and has a family of his own.  Toward the end of the song, Dad calls the son to ask about a visit, but the son is too busy.  He reassures Dad that he would love to see him, but he just but doesn't know when he will find the time.  He promises, using the same words he had heard growing up, I don't know when but you know we'll have a good time then. The song ends with the chilling line: "As I hung up the phone it occurred to me that he had grown up just like me. My boy was just like me." Chapin describes a common pattern of family life in America to which we seem blind.  One that we don't see until it's too late to change it.  Admittedly, it could be my age and stage in life, but the heartbreaking truth captured in this song is particularly close to home for me personally - both as the parent and as the child.  I suspect I'm not alone in this. Sometimes even when our eyes are literally wide-open, and we have sight, we still do not see. Not seeing was certainly the case for the Pharisees in the story George Piper so powerfully told this morning. Unlike the man who was blind since birth, the Pharisees had the ability to see with their eyes; yet they were blind to the work and presence of God right before them.  They were so preoccupied with their interpretation of God's law, that they misinterpreted God's law of love being laid out before them in the form of a miraculous healing. Still, we should not be too hard on these Pharisees; after all, they were just doing their job.  They were the men tasked with enforcing the Torah Law.  It was their responsibility to be sure that righteousness was being upheld in the community. The Pharisees had a concrete solid notion of how things were supposed to be in the temple, in the community, and in the world.  One might even say that they were the first model of Presbyterianism; they liked things to be carried out decently and in order.  So when they encountered something that seemed to be radically contrary to their understanding of truth, they felt compelled to deny or dismiss it. The Pharisees could not see this healing for what it truly was, because in that very moment, they were blind to God's bigger picture. Despite their objections, Jesus provided a good and right thing to this man.  With just a mud spit ball in his eyes and the man's obedience of rinsing it off in a specific watering hole, Jesus healed the man's physical blindness.  Later in the story, we learn that Jesus also heals the man of his spiritual blindness as well. The blind man comes to believe that Jesus is the Son of Man, sent by God, to be the Light of the world and to heal us of all blindness.   

Clearly God is at work in and through Jesus...in and through the healing...in and through the miracle.  It is all of God.  Nonetheless, the only thing the Pharisees could see is that once again, this man called Jesus was meddling in places he should not...and once again he has broken the law concerning the Sabbath. Truth be told, the Pharisees could not fathom that Jesus had actually healed the blind man. From their perspective, there was no way that the story could be true. It did not fit the mold of what their religious teaching said about healing…especially healing of the blind. "Healing Of The Blind" was an act of God! No one could heal the blind without God's authority and no sinner who violates the Sabbath could possibly have God's authority. This is why the Pharisees were intent to find another explanation...to discover the real story...to come up with something that would be consistent with their beliefs about God. They were blind to any other possible understanding about the healing; blind to any other truth about Jesus; and blind to a different definition of power and authority. Obviously, the Pharisee's response to the miracle was not a case of the age-old adage, "I will believe it when I see it."  They saw the blind man was healed...but they did not believe it.   Instead, it was another example of the troubling, yet all too common blinder that seems to be present in our own lives.  We only see what we believe.  Think about the difference for a minute.  We claim that that we will believe something if it is revealed to us...proven to us...if we can see it with our own eyes.  Yet, that's not how it usually happens in real life.  More often than not, we can only see what we already believe to be true. This has become particularly evident in the United States as our nation has become more polarized in our thinking, beliefs, and world views.  Regardless of the situation, event, or policy, it will be interpreted in the news media, and on social media, into two divergent extremes.  The versions, if you will, are not based on what is actually seen, said, or written, but on what the interpreter already believes to be true about it. There is little room for genuine curiosity and inquiry, much less a willingness to remove blinders and consider new and different possibilities.  No, like the Pharisees, we are guilty of force-fitting things to match our own beliefs. And it's not just our politics.  In our lives, our relationships, our religion...we tend to only see what we already believe to be true. Take for example, a situation that occurred recently in a room filled with about 60 law enforcement chaplains.  We were in a training session called, "Interacting with the Muslim Community".  The course stems from the principle that law enforcement chaplains of all faiths need to be able to minster to people of all faiths...and in order to do this graciously and compassionately, awareness of different religions is essential. 

Much to our surprise, our instructor for this course was Dr. G. A. Shareef - an 82 year-old accounting professor who had immigrated to the US from India many years ago.  Dr. Shareef provided a simple one-page handout from which he reviewed the basic tenets of what he called "true Islam".   Most in the class were not well informed about Islam and were eager to hear what he had to say.  During the question and answer session, one chaplain spoke up and said he was moved to tears to discover that, although his beliefs were very different from Islam, the core tenets of goodness, compassion, and kindness were not.  He added that he realized he had more in common with his Muslim friend than he would have ever thought.  That chaplain's eyes were opened. Unfortunately, the eyes of the Pharisee-chaplains in the room were not.  Instead, they did exactly what the Pharisees in this story did.  They went into inquisition mode...interrogating the elderly gentleman...trying to "catch him" in an untruth or trip him up.  They grumped, not quite under their breath, "The God this man is talking about is not our God."  In fact, one man was clearly intent on exposing Dr. Shariff and his faith as false.   He posed a hypothetical question about a Christian chaplain praying for a Muslim victim - hoping that Dr. Shariff would say that Christians can't pray for Muslims or that we should not pray for them in Jesus' name.  Instead, Dr. Shariff said, "Yes, yes, pray, please pray, everyone should pray at a time like that."  Others in the room heard this as affirmation, but that one chaplain could not.  He was blind to the possibility there could be common ground.  He could only see or hear what he believed to be true about Islam, even when he was proven wrong. I can't tell you if it was Dr Shariff's age, his maturity, or his faith, but he was quite gracious to the Pharisees.  He just answered the questions honestly, without any attempt to persuade or convince.   In a way, he was like the blind man in this story.   When the real Pharisees demanded explanations, multiple times, the man just gave a simple, truthful statement of the facts about what happened - Jesus made mud, put it in my eyes and said go to Siloam and wash.   It is only two verses in the entire passage...yet it led to 30 more verses of questions, accusations, and demands for proof by the religious leaders. 

Still the newly "sighted" man was unwavering in his story.  He was matter-of-fact and honest in his responses.  Not the slightest bit defensive.   At one point he says of Jesus, "I do not know if he is a sinner, but I do know that I was blind and now I see."  Later he begins to push back on the Pharisees...which I contend is a result of his gaining spiritual sight as well. 

Unlike his passive parents or the uncertain people in the community, this no-longer-blind man...this willing and obedient man...challenged the Pharisee mindset.  In a straight-forward, questioning way, he confronted the Pharisees with their own truth ...that unless Jesus was from God he would not have been able to heal him.

But here's the thing you got to know about  Pharisees...then and now...they don't like to be challenged in their beliefs, their understanding, or their thinking.   So, instead of opening their eyes to see, they threw the man out of the community.  All that hope and promise of family and friends that had been restored with the healing, was once again ripped away when he was cast out of the community.  However, his new life of faith and the spiritual sight that he received through this encounter with Jesus was not. 

The Pharisees' desperate attack on the blind man, on his parents, on Jesus...it is all rooted in their belief that they were the ones who were able to "see" the truth, when in fact, they were blind to the gospel truth.  They were blinded by their preconceived notions...by their prejudices... by their fear.  They were blinded by a perceived threat to law and order...and as such, the Pharisees could not see the miracle. They could not see the good thing that had happened for this previously blind man.  They could not see God's presence and authority standing right before them. They might not have been literally blind but they definitely did not see.

Friends, as we walk our Lenten journey of discipline, it's a good time to ask ourselves, what blind spots do we have in of our own lives?   What blinders are keeping us from seeing...from seeing God at work in our life, in our relationships, in the church, in our community, or in the world?

Perhaps we are like the Dad in the Harry Chapin's song...letting our busyness blind us to the opportunities to encounter God's love in our families and friends.  They say that idle hands are the devil's workshop...if so, busyness must be his playground.  Busyness and all the lies told about significance, often blind us to the truth of what is really important in life.

Stress is a close second.    When we are stressed and worried, we are relying on our limited sight rather than allowing ourselves to open our eyes and see God present with us in unfamiliar ways.

While we are on that matter...sometimes when are blinded by busyness or stress...I think God makes a spitball of aches and pains and throws it at us to slow us down.  Nothing seems to open one's eyes to the blinders of stress than to be forced to be still.  Trust me on this.

For some, our broken family dynamics and unpleasant childhood experiences  blind us to what it means to be a child of God. 

The blinders of politics and religion often prevent us from seeing God's Spirit present in people who believe differently than we do.

Same is true for our biases and prejudices...even the ones we don't think we have.   Every time we are tempted to refer to someone as "those people" or we differentiate ourselves from others by some standard such as race, nationality, sexuality, life choices, economics, citizenship status...we might as well be putting on dark glasses because we are not going to be able to see the light of Christ in people if we can't even see them...or if we treat them as something "other than" ourselves.

Sometimes wealth blinds us to the abundance of God's love...and sometimes it blinds us to our need for God's mercy...nd sometimes it blinds us to God's call...or God's plan for our life.

Grudges held, unforgiven hurts...they blind us to the peace that God offers us through forgiveness and unconditional love.

Fear blinds us...fear of change...fear of being wrong...fear of being accountable...fear of the unknown.

The list of things that keep us blind is long...yet there is only one thing that heals.  Jesus.

Jesus is the one who gives us sight like the blind man...not necessarily with spit and mud...but by sending us to go rinse at Siloam - which means sent. In other words, it is our willingness to be sent...to go wherever God calls us to go that enables us to see.  Sent to form new relationships.  Sent to tell our faith stories. Sent to say, I'm really sorry.  Sent to study scripture.  Sent to learn about a different religion...or a different political perspective.  Sent to be the one on the other side of the table. Sent to rest and be still. 

Wherever God is sending us...when we obediently go, we may rest assured, there we will encounter God.  There we will be healed.  There we will proclaim, Lord, I see.  Lord, I believe. 

Amen.

Bible Reference(s):
John 4:5-42
Rev. Terri Thorn

During this Lenten season, we have committed ourselves to telling the stories of scripture in a number of different ways including telling them by heart, using dramatic readings, incorporating visual arts, and singing them in song.  After all, we can never hear the stories of Jesus' life too often; and the stories...in and of themselves...are enough.  They are all we need, in order to be the church.  

This week's story, is...shall we say...almost, more than enough?  There is so much in this story that it is a challenge to know where to begin.  For one thing, it's really long...just ask Ben and Bailie...they will tell you...37 verses long!  It also covers so much theological ground that we could probably come up with a month's worth of sermons on it.  However, I promise to not try to preach them all in one Sunday!  Instead, for today, let's just focus is on the what happens at the well - the place where the Samaritan woman receives much more than she ever expected.

According to John, this encounter between Jesus and the woman at the well happens shortly after his meeting with a Pharisee named Nicodemus - which was the story we heard last week.  And while the message Jesus offered to both the woman and Nicodemus was similar, the two situations could not be more different.  In the Nicodemus story, we see Jesus interacting with a well-known person of power and influence, one prominently situated within the religious structure.  Nicodemus is a man whose name we know, and who could be called an extreme insider among the Jews.  His was the story a law-abiding man who came to see Jesus under the cover of darkness. 

Yet, here in this story, Jesus interacts with someone who is the polar opposite on nearly every level.  First, she is a she, not he...and not just any she.  This woman is unaccompanied and unwed.   It goes without saying that she is of no consequence and has no power in the community.  We are not told her name, which just emphasizes the fact that she sits on the lowest rung of society.  And, she was a Samaritan, who at best, were considered by the Jews to be impure religious half-breeds.   For as much as Nicodemus was an extreme insider, this woman is the poster-child for an extreme outsider.  So it's very interesting that unlike Nicodemus, she encounters Jesus in the middle of the brightest light of day.

Together these stories are like bookends showing the extreme wideness of God's mercy.   Jesus was willing to offer the truth of God's abundant grace to anyone he encountered....far beyond the borders and limitations imposed by the religious establishment:  From those who believed they had already earned God's favor by their own righteous behaviors, to those who believe they could never be righteous enough, Jesus regularly stretched the corners of the tent of God's love to cover those sitting on the fringe...the outsiders....the outcast...the least expected...those who were labeled sinners, and even those of different racial, political and religious backgrounds...as was the case with the Samaritan woman.  

On the surface we really don't know a lot about this woman and John certainly doesn't give us much to work with.   The fact that she was at the well in the hottest part of the day, rather than in the morning or evening when most women would fetch water, might mean that she was shunned by her community...or ashamed to be seen in public.   And then there's the whole multiple marriage thing.   Many folks interpret this to mean she was a woman of ill-repute, but given the culture and divorce laws of the time, it could very well mean that she was a widow or had been abandoned by multiple men because she was barren.  We don't know...we can only speculate.  Nonetheless, the idea of Jesus talking to her would certainly raise a lot of eyebrows.

Yet, despite all the reasons for which he could have rightly chosen to ignore her, he did not.  Instead of treating her with the contempt that most Jews would show toward Samaritans, or the scorn and loathing that first-century middle-eastern men would express toward unaccompanied, unmarried women, Jesus intentionally chose to notice the woman...to see her...to engage her in conversation...and to do so kindly - without judgment or reprimand.    And, more importantly, he generously offers her the living water of God's grace...even though clearly, she did not quite understand what he meant. 

Initially, the woman thought Jesus was offering a special kind of water with the power to quench her thirst and alleviate the need to keep coming to the well.   However, it didn't take long for her to realize that this encounter was about so much more than her physical needs.   It turns out that by speaking the truth about her life situation, Jesus met a much greater need in her..one that we all have whether we necessarily recognize it or not.   You see, by the mere fact that God created us to be in relationships, it is both our greatest need...and our biggest fear...to be truly known by another.  

It's a basic human desire to want people to see us and know us for who we really are.  To no longer pretend or need to wear a mask...but to just be ourselves.  More importantly, we want to be accepted and loved just as, or maybe in spite of, who we really are.  

In fact, most of us are more like the woman at the well than we care to admit.  Oh, we may not have had multiple spouses the way she did; but there is no doubt that we've all got things in our life that bring us shame.   Whether it is something we've done, or said, or maybe just an aspect of our personality that we wish we could erase...we all have them.  And, while we would give anything to not be judged for them, we often allow ourselves to be defined by them.  We desperately wish we could just acknowledge our truth, and be done with it, mostly so we don't have to carry the burden inside us anymore.  

Our soul longs to be open and transparent...for a life where we would never need to hide our situation, our beliefs, or our mistakes...ever again.  To be known and loved, just as we are.  It is the deepest desire of our heart - to gather at the well of God's grace - to find the unexpected healing and wholeness Jesus offers.   And folks, the greater our shame, the greater our need.

Listen to how Libby Citaldi wrote about this in her blog earlier this week.   Libby is the mother of a recovering heroin addict, Jeff.  These are her words:

Jeff and I talked about what helps people stay in recovery and he said, Getting sober is just the beginning; learning to live in abstinence is the goal. As human beings, we have a hunger to be seen and to feel connected with those around us. And when we don't, so often we use drugs to cover the feelings of loneliness - but drugs only isolate us even more. In time, we move further into addiction and further away from the people we love. In groups like AA, we find connections, people who know our walk and won’t judge us. They ‘see’ us, they celebrate our victories and they know how imperative fellowship is. These connections prove to us that we are not alone.   My reflection: Family groups like AA and Al-Anon work. Not only do recovering addicts find a safe space to grow strong within a community of understanding peers, but we, parents, can find a similar environment in Al-Anon. The loving members of Al-Anon saved my sanity when my son’s addiction took me to my knees. There I found people who knew my pain.   Today’s Promise to consider: The family groups of AA and Al-Anon prove to us that we are not alone. When we feel raw and wounded, it takes courage to reach out and allow ourselves to been ‘seen.’ Today, I will pray and hold out my hand in faith and vulnerability.  –Libby

Friends, this is the work of the church.  It is our job to gather with people at the well of God's grace.  Now do not hear what I'm not saying.  I'm not criticizing the work of twelve programs. I'm not saying they are infringing on the church's role.  In fact, remarkable things happen at twelve step meetings.  Repentance and redemption happen there.  Encounters of love and mercy happen there.  Hope and accountability happen there.   Twelve step programs gather people at the well and in their own way, offer living water. So no, I'm not being critical...quite the contrary.  In their own way, the borderless hospitality and unconditional acceptance found in twelve step programs is just another story of Christ at work. 

Whether it is by intention or divine providence, these ministries bring people... people of all ethnicities, socio-economic statuses, races, religions genders, sexual preferences...people with varied levels of education...various professions...differing politics...people who are broken, suffering, lonely, desperate...people in need. They draw them to the well...where they are seen and heard...where they realize they are not alone...where they will find the love and mercy they seek. 

If that's not the work of the church, then what is?

When Jesus came into Samaria, he was tired and needed rest.  It would have been much easier for him to just avoid the woman, to give into the urge to take care of himself, to not get involved.  It would have been convenient  to succumb to the social norms that said, "Do not converse with her."  She was used to being ignored. This time would be no different.  Yet, something about her was different.  Maybe it was the sadness in her eyes, the weight on her shoulders, or the loneliness that enveloped her - something caused him to speak up and ask her for a drink of water...to start the conversation that he knew would lead to the discussion of living water.  This encounter at the well would become a chance for Jesus to share the good news of God's mercy and love...and to reveal himself as the Messiah. 

I wonder, how many times do we, his church, have opportunities like this?  I wonder how many have we missed? 

Friends, an amazing story was written at that well.  A story to which we can relate.  A story that connects to our own lives.  And yet, there are still many other similar stories waiting to be told.  That's where the church must get to work.  Christ calls his disciples to gather with others...all types of folks...at the well of his grace.   We never know what transformation God has planned for us when we cross the boundaries of division and the norms of security, when we set aside our fears and preconceived notions, to open ourselves to untold stories of sharing and receiving the living water of grace. 

This morning we have a sister in Christ, Allyson Willhoite, of Safe Families for Children, with us to share another story of gathering at the well of God's grace.  Her visit is part of our commitment to learning continually about how we can serve Christ in the community.   Allyson represents a Christian ministry which has at its heart the desire to create opportunities for Christians in our community to be bearers of grace...bringing the love and mercy and compassion of Christ to families in need.  As you will see, Safe Families for Children is, truly, the church at work.  

VIDEO and Allyson Willhoite

Now, sharing your home may not be something you, specifically, are ready to do right now.  However the spirit of this ministry...the community coming together in Christ's name to help those in need should always be at the forefront of our lives.  Using Mr. Norton's words...it is love, Jesus style.  As he also said, there are no boundaries for hurting people...and there are no boundaries for loving hearts. This is the church doing what it is designed to do...gathering at the well of grace to changes lives.  And like the original woman at the well...it is our calling to take the good news of Christ to our community.   Safe Families is one story...what others need to be told?

March 12, 2017
Bible Reference(s):
John 3:1-17
Rev. Terri Thorn

Earlier this week I ran across this inspirational quote:  Curiosity is the compass that leads us to our passions.  Follow it and you won't be disappointed.  The future belongs to the curious.  I'm not sure that I agree with the part of the quote that you won't be disappointed if you follow your curiosity, but I do think this anonymous author was on to something.  It is true...the future does belong to the curious.  The curious, not the comfortable, are the ones willing to let go of the here and now in order to move toward the future.  They are not content to just let the future happen…or allow someone else to hand it to them.  Instead, the curious are asking the questions, testing the theories, discovering new ideas, and stepping forward to help shape the future.  

This is why being around children can be such a blessing; they remind us of what it means to have a sense of curiosity.  They are inquisitive.  They are eager to ask questions - sometimes all day long.  Most kids are curious about the sciences and willing to explore the arts.  They want to know how things work...and why things are the way they are...and what will happen if. 

Curiosity is a gift that comes naturally to children, but as we grow older many of us lose that gift.  We are hesitant to ask...or to explore...or to try.  Sometimes we are afraid of what others will think if we do.  Other times, we don't feel the need to be curious because we are comfortable with the answers we already have and don't want them challenged.   More often though, I think we are just complacent.  We are sea salt caramel people.  We like to know exactly what we are getting.   Now, as I said to the children, it's not wrong to be sea salt caramel people. It is fine to know what you like and stick with it.  However, there is always a price to pay for remaining comfortable and quiet. 

This is especially true when it comes to matters of faith.  When we settle into a routine and prefer to just "stick with what we know"...when we neglect to be curious…we will most assuredly miss out on opportunities - opportunities to learn something new...opportunities for our faith to become greater...and opportunities to experience God's love in amazing ways.   Likewise, we will also miss chances to share the gospel and help grow God's kingdom.

Truth is, it is all a big balancing act: how curious are we willing to be...and at what price will be curious.  You see, just as there is a price for not being inquisitive...there is also a cost to curiosity.   In fact, it takes a great deal of courage to be curious.    When we are curious, we have to be able and willing to give up control of the outcome.  We must release our preconceived notions.  We must have enough courage to step out of the safety of the way things are...off the beaten path of the way we think they should be...and away from the easy road of relying on our own knowledge…in order to take the road less traveled.  

Now, let me be clear about something.  Curiosity does take courage...but not all curiosity is worthy of our boldness.  You see, curiosity can also be dangerous.  I mean it is what killed the cat, right?  Although, I am beginning to think nothing will ever kill our cat...he has definitely used up more than 9 lives. 

Seriously though, curiosity can definitely lead one to dangerous places, evil thoughts, and devastating ways.  Curiosity about the wrong things or for the wrong reasons may become the impetus for infidelity, recklessness, and addictive behaviors...just to name a few.  

This type of curiosity, however, is not the God-ordained, Holy Spirit-led curiosity that I'm talking about.  It is harmful, self-centered exploration.   The challenge for God's people is how do we know the difference? How do we know when the nudge we are feeling is of God and worthy of our courage...and when it is from an unholy place and needs to be shut down? 

Well, to be quite honest, we could have an entire series of sermons on that very question. It is certainly the reason we need to work out our faith in community...helping each other discern God's work in our lives.  It's also why we need to know the stories of scriptures...the teaching of what God desires of and for his people.   But the short answer is if our curiosity leads us to a place where we are not bearing the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control...then it's probably not God's Spirit that is leading us. 

Spirit-led curiosity grows our faith...challenges our fears...and opens us to encounter God. It un-sticks us and invites us into new understandings, new experiences and new people, who may very well be unique and interesting, although different from ourselves.  It also leads us into blessed relationships that we could never have imagined.

It takes courage to follow the Spirit wherever it blows...but as the famous philosopher Forrest Gump told us, "Mama always said, life is like a box of chocolates; you never know what you're gonna get."  So, when we bite into that spirit-led curiosity, we may get our favorite...that which makes us comfortable and happy.  We could even get one that we would rather just slyly put back in the box.   But, sometimes we might just discover something we never even knew existed.

This was the case for Nicodemus.  He was courageous enough to be curious about Jesus...seeking to know more about him...to understand who Jesus was and what connection he had to God.  In his willingness to ask, Nicodemus received much more than he was looking for.  In fact, he doesn't even really get a question asked before Jesus begins to answer him with a series of teachings..."very truly I tell you".

In doing so, Jesus rocked Nicodemus' religious world...challenging his beliefs about the kingdom of God...about what it means to be born again..or being born from above -depending on your translation...about baptism...and about the work of the Spirit. The single act of curiosity led to a new understanding and awareness that Nicodemus did not see coming.  Jesus conveyed to Nicodemus, and all who were listening, why God had sent him.

Now, here's the thing about Nicodemus' courageous curiosity...it wasn't that he had to overcome his fear of Jesus to approach him.  Instead, Nicodemus had to be willing to risk the potential fall out that this secret meeting could cause.   Keep in mind, Nicodemus is a Pharisee…a leader, in fact…probably a member of the Sanhedrin - the rulers of the temple and religious life.  If he was caught inquiring...or if he was perceived to be sympathizing with Jesus...he could lose everything - possibly even his life.  More likely, though, his curiosity would just cost him his authority...and the respect of others (which for a first century Jew may as well have been his life.)  By approaching Jesus, Nicodemus was risking his security...his status in the community...his identity. 

 In a way he was like Abram - who risked all these same things in order to follow God's instruction to uproot go to the unnamed land.  However, unlike Abram, Nicodemus was not willing to put it all on the table.  That is why he chose to visit Jesus at night.  There was a lot less risk of getting caught.  Nicodemus was deliberately cautious in how he inquired about this new teacher in town.  He was curious but not bold.

Historically, this hesitation to be bold has been considered to be a flaw in Nicodemus.  In fact, his name came to be synonymous with those who were willing to remain unnoticed, who lacked the courage to speak up and be bold. For example, in the book of Revelation, John of Patmos warns to beware of the Nicolatians - who were the Christians willing to worship pagan and Roman gods in order to avoid persecution.   Likewise, John Calvin called those who were sympathetic to the reformation movement in the 16th century, but were also unwilling to be publically identified, Nicodemites.  And in the midst of National Socialism, the German Christians were considered Nicodemus' heirs because they were willing to accommodate the gospel to the racism and anti-Semitism of the Nazi ideology.   Even this morning, there are some Nicodemites and Nicolatians sitting in church pews struggling to be faithful Christians in this great nation.

As I said to Leanne earlier this week, Nicodemus was like a Democrat in Boone County - choosing to be quiet and go unnoticed because they are never sure that it is safe to speak up. Can you portray him that way?  I was joking, of course, but I also empathize.  It's not always easy to speak up when you know you are the minority voice...it's also frightening to admit that you're curious about something or someone that others around you are not.   

Although Nicodemus was in a position of power, his clandestine curiosity represents many of the powerless in our  society - hopeful, curious, but afraid to be bold.  Sadly, they hesitate to approach Christ, or his church: because of their sexuality...because of their addictions...because of their immigration status...because of their political leanings.

So maybe we should not be so hard on him.   Because you know, at the end of the day, even this slightly courageous, slightly cowardly, inquiry eventually changed Nicodemus' life.  He was curious about Jesus.  He didn't entirely buy the story that the rest of the religious establishment was selling.  His nighttime visit was less than brave, but all it took was that little bit of curiosity and Nicodemus encountered God...in the flesh of Jesus.  His life was transformed.  He believed what Jesus was teaching...and came to love Jesus in his heart.  We know this fact because later in the story we are told that he intercedes on Jesus' behalf when the leaders wanted to arrest him.  Then, on Good Friday he shows up to help Joseph of Arimathea bury Jesus.  Nicodemus became increasingly bold in his witness...and it all started with this encounter.

Usually, that is all it takes – if we have just a bit of courage to be curious about Christ, God’s Spirit takes care of the rest.

Like Abram, Nicodemus was blessed by God.  Through Jesus, he was invited to live differently guided by the Holy Spirit.  Jesus assured him that God's blessing is not about preserving personal identity, or religious hierarchy, or status quo.  It is about receiving the grace of salvation that Jesus offers and living the kingdom life God desires.

In fact, both of these stories...that of Abram's courage and of Nicodemus' curiosity...offer us a truth about the courage to be curious. 

Spirit-led, Spirit-blessed curiosity need not be feared.  Spirit-led, Spirit-blessed curiosity need not be on a grand scale.  Spirit-led, Spirit-blessed curiosity may be risky...and may come with a significant price.  But praise be to God, Spirit-led, Spirit-blessed curiosity leads to blessing...every single time.

So, I wonder, as we're making our way on our Lenten journey, in what way might God wish the church would be more curious?  How might God be asking Christians to step away from our comfort and security of "Christianity as we know it" in order to explore...to seek...to ask?  In order to be blessed even more than we are now?

Or maybe God is calling you specifically to be more curious about something or someone...to set aside what you think you know in order to discover that which you have yet to know?

Are you courageous enough to try something new? To explore a long over-due reconciliation? How about intentionally befriending a stranger?  After all, one of the most powerful results of being genuinely curious about another human being is not the relationship that is formed, it is the blessing that the relationship will become. 

Is anyone among us curious enough and courageous enough to commit to studying an issue such as immigration reform or interfaith dialogue, or discuss a particular doctrine or position of the church – approaching with a completely open mind - expecting to have our current beliefs challenged and blessed? 

Is there something nagging at you...something for which now is the right time for you to step up and be curious?  For me, it has been drug addiction awareness.  Too many families in our community...good hard working families...rich families...poor families...faithful families...and never-set-foot-in-a-church families...are suffering deeply due to addicted loved ones.  I have become curious and courageous to learn about the patterns of addiction...the causes...the treatments...the shame...in order to be a better pastor to those affected by it. It has been a blessing to meet with and learn from people who desperately want to help raise awareness. 

Your curiosity may not be a social issue...or a religious question...maybe you just want to know what is happening on Wednesday nights at the Lenten Soup and Story Suppers.  If so, I hope you will find the courage to come see what it is all about...even if you just want to eat the soup.   Either way...6:00PM Wednesday...all are welcome, always.

Folks, the courage to be curious will lead to blessing.  You will be blessed.  You will be changed by the blessing. And you will become a blessing to others.  That's not my promise...it is God's.

And now, more than ever, it is time for the church to be curious... to have courage...to be bold...for the sake of the gospel of Jesus Christ.  I’d like to close with a poem a friend of mine, Rev.Brian Shivers at Second Presbyterian in Indianapolis wrote.  I believe it captures God’s call to the church to have the courage to be curious.

Our Common Humanity  (a poem by Rev. Brian Shivers) 

 I will not cover  my eyes pretending not to  see so I may remain  comfortable.  

 I will not stop  my ears pretending not to  hear so I may remain  disengaged.  

 I will not close  my mind pretending not to  know  so I may remain  ignorant.  

 I will not harden  my heart pretending not to  feel so I may remain  distant.  

 I will not shut  my mouth pretending not to  care so I may remain  silent. 

 It is in our seeing, hearing, knowing, feeling, caring that we discover our common humanity.

March 5, 2017
Bible Reference(s):
Matthew 4:1-11
Rev. Terri Thorn

In January, when you see the little girls of the neighborhood approaching your door with their form in hand, you know what they are selling, right?  They are selling cookies. Girl Scout cookies  Little boxes of temptation.

And in the fall, when the Boy Scouts are camped out with their card tables at the entrance to Kroger, we know what they are selling too. right?.  Overpriced, but very delicious flavors of popcorn.

Mid-summer...at the entrance to Walmart...when you see Lebanon High School football players lurking around, it's pretty likely they are selling their football discount cards.

Most of the time, we know what people are selling...so it should come as no surprise that when the devil, Satan, the tempter ...whatever you title you prefer to call him...when he shows up in scripture, we know what he's selling too.  He's trying to convince humans that we can have it all.  Whatever "it" might be.  That we can have it without restriction or limitation.   We can have all the power...fame...fortune.  That we can have the freedom to be selfish without regard for others or fear of consequences.  

The personification of evil that we often call the devil...you know, the devil made me do it guy...we can be pretty sure that when he shows up he trying to convince us to buy a story for our lives different than the one God has written.  He works really hard to sell us on the idea that we can take matters in our own hands and have the same power...the same knowledge and insight...the same everything as God.  He wants us to believe we can move beyond your limited humanness so we can be like God.

That's exactly what he was selling in the story of Adam and Eve that I shared with the children this morning.   Now, let me just say one thing...to make it clear...Adam was right there with Eve when the serpent slyly twisted words like a salesman to convince Eve to take a bite of the forbidden fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.   Yes...Adam was there...Eve does not deserve to take the whole rap for the fall of humankind.   In fact, if we examine Genesis closely we would discover that God issued the limitation on the tree at the center of the garden BEFORE Eve even existed.  He told it to Adam before he create Eve.  We assume then, that it was Adam who conveyed the restriction to Eve.  So, although the sneaky dialogue is with Eve...like many wives, it's clear that she was speaking for both of them.  And Adam did not try to stop her from eating the fruit.  So, really, he needs to take some responsibility too.   He had the chance to say no...but he didn't.

Neither of them did.   Apparently part of being human includes an innate desire to not be!  We don't like being limited.   We're like the toddlers in Ms. Rose's classroom.  Earlier this week I was in the lunch area when the toddlers were having lunch.  The stream of conversation from Ms. Rose was something like this - with the names changed, of course.  Bobby, you need to sit in your own chair.  Billy is sitting in that one.   Susie...that is Sally's lunch...you need to eat the food on your plate.  Johnny...the noodles go in your mouth, not Tommy's hair.  And my personal favorite...no, Jack, we don't dip our food in our friend's jelly.

Well....yes, true...most of us have much better table manners than the toddlers...but that inner desire to test the limits hasn't changed much.  We just test them in different ways.   Still we are tempted to have more than we have...to be more than we are...to control more than we can...to know more...to do more...more, more, more. 

The voice that speaks to us and tries to get us to believe that all of this (and more) is possible...the one that says we can be like God...isn't necessarily a snake or a devil with little horns...in fact, it's not really visible, is it?  But it's no less real than if we could see and touch it.  It's real, but it's just in our heads...it's the voice that tells us that who we are is not enough.  That we need more.  We deserve better.  We are being stifled by our limitations.   The evil one wants us...you...me...the church... to believe we are not enough.  And quite honestly, while the voice is in our heads, it is there for good reason.

The world keeps putting it there.   

And we keep believing it.  Oh, maybe not up here in the front and center...but back here...nagging at us...until we start to act upon that belief.  Eventually friends, if we believe we are not enough, we will choose unwisely.

We will choose to act in ways that hurt ourselves.  We choose ways that hurt others.  We choose things that are destructive and dangerous.  We choose to gain for ourselves...to protect ourselves...to give ourselves whatever we want...to meet our desires...and we end up creating a whole lot of pain in the process. 

That seems to be the point of the story of Adam and Eve...when we are tempted to go beyond our own limitedness, to be like God...somebody (or in their case a whole lot of somebodies...like all of humanity) ends up suffering.

When we internalize the message that "who" we are is not enough an emptiness is created in us...when we internalize the message that we, and not God, must fill that void...we develop an insatiable appetite for the cake that the devil is selling.  We crave the sweetness of having it all -- abundance, power and control -- in order to try to feed the emptiness within us.  Limited humans try to fill the void of self-doubt by testing the limits of wholeness and peace that God has given us.  We want to become limitless.  It's the forbidden fruit that tempted Adam and Eve...and it is the fruit that still tempts us today.

In fact, it seems to be the only true temptation that the devil has in his toolbox...can he create an emptiness in us in order to get us to trust in our own ability to fill it. Can he tempt us to go beyond the limits God has placed on us?  In a sense that's exactly what he was doing here with Jesus, too.  Could he convince Jesus to act beyond the limits that God had placed on him. 

Now here's the thing...we all know that the Son of God is not limited.  His knowledge or his authority or his power...all of those things will later prove to be unlimited.  No, the limitation or boundary that Satan is trying to get Jesus to cross is with his identity. 

Keep in mind that this wilderness experience occurs right after Jesus has just been baptized and God has anointed him saying...this is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased. Listen to him.  Jesus' identity..and authority has been made quite clear.   So, trust me, this devil-tempter knows very good and well who Jesus is...without a doubt.  He is however, trying to get Jesus to doubt it. 

The devil can't really tap into the emptiness in Jesus like he can humans.  I mean, Jesus is God's son, there is no void there.  Instead, Satan capitalizes on Jesus' hunger and weakness and exhaustion from the 40 days and 40 nights in the wilderness.  He's hoping for a void that Jesus will fill by proving his identity...again, there's that proving thing again...but not just proving he is the Son of God...but by misusing that identity for his own selfish gain. 

It's the same pattern as with Adam and Eve.  Jesus is being tempted to take matters into his own hands and make his situation better...even if it means making unwise, unholy, not trusting God kind of choices.  

The devil sets Jesus up three times...trying to get him to respond selfishly...to break the limits of God natural order...to seek abundance and power for himself...to operate outside the will and desire of God. 

Sounds familiar? 

It should...because you know what...when it comes to cooking up temptation, evil is pretty much limited to that one recipe. 

The good news for us today is that we know the recipe...and we have a Lord and Savior who knows it too.  We follow Jesus the Christ who faced temptation and stared it down without giving in.    We are not always as capable...but the closer we are to God...as Jesus was...the stronger we will be.

As we sit here at the beginning of our Lenten journey...this is an inspiring story.   We are reassured that by relying on God we can overcome the temptation to eat the dessert or drink the beverage that we gave up for Lent.  With God's help, we can resist the urge to go lax on our Lenten discipline of quiet time, or Bible study, or no political posting on FaceBook for 40 days.

But to what end?

The season of Lent is about a lot more than fasting and spiritual disciplines.  It's about facing the reality that we are limited...that we fail...that we are dust and to dust we will return...that we are not God.   At the same time, it's being at peace with this reality because God is God...and we know that we belong to him...that his love and mercy for us is unlimited.  Lent is a time of walking a dark and difficult road...toward a cross of sacrifice...with the light of hope and the promise that we are not alone.

The temptation of Adam and Eve in the Garden...that's the story of who we are.  We are flawed...we fail...we are guilty of disobeying God...of testing all the good limits.

The temptation of Jesus in the wilderness is the story of he is.  Obedient...trusting...willing to suffer for righteousness...never greedy or self-serving...unwilling to test God or the limits of God's plans.  He is the beloved Son of God, unlimited in power and authority, who would limit both in human flesh so that we would know that in him "who we are" is enough...that "whose" we are is God's.   

Both stories reveal that we belong to a God who is always with us when we are tempted...who loves us - even when fail...who is faithful to us just as we are...and whose grace makes us "enough".

If we can learn to believe that...we, too, will send temptation packing:  Away with you Satan...for it is written:  "Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him." 

Bible Reference(s):
Matthew 17:1-9
Exodus 24:12-18
Rev. Terri Thorn

Every year, this final Sunday before Lent is designated as the Transfiguration of the Lord Sunday.  Every year the lectionary gives us some version of the same stories to use in worship:   Moses on the mountain, Jesus being transfigured on the mountain, and an epistle reading related to the acknowledgment of Jesus as the Messiah.  And every year, preachers are puzzled by how to interpret this very strange story. 

Each year it is fraught with more questions than answers.  Take for example, the appearance of Moses and Elijah?  Is it symbolic of Law and Prophecy coming together in Jesus – is it God’s way of saying Jesus fulfills both of these?  Or, is it that Moses and Elijah are there to coach and encourage Jesus for the road ahead?  After all, they know first-hand how difficult it is going to be.  Could it be that they represent the "living and the dead" all under the care of the Lord...in that Elijah represented life, because he was taken up to heaven but never actually died and Moses did die?  Does their presence at the transfiguration represent a foretelling of eternal life?    

How do we know the correct answer?  Is there just one?  Could it mean something altogether different?  Actually all of these are theologically-sound interpretations. Still, at the end of the proverbial day, they are still just that - interpretations.

That’s the challenge of this whole story…we cannot be certain about what was going on and why.  We weren't there...and Jesus doesn't explain it.  He only says, "Tell no one."

So, I suppose we could take the easy way out.   Since Jesus said that the disciples shouldn't say anything about it, then maybe neither should we.  How about we all admit we don't know what transfiguration means and go home? As my friend Rev. Buschkill said, “the congregation might like it if they all got to go to lunch early.”

Well...as tempting as that is...and it is tempting...I'm wondering what if having more questions than answers is actually part of the purpose of the story?   Perhaps the reason we observe Transfiguration Sunday is to preserve the mysteries of our faith...to remind us that there is so much that we don't know...and that it is really OK that we don't.  What if instead of interpreting and assigning meaning to the story, and trying to explain what happened and why, we just accept the story as is...at face value?  What, then, does this story teach us?

I believe to take the story as it is written teaches us that God is present in our knowing and our unknowing...in our moments of complete  clarity and in our moments of total confusion and uncertainty.  God is with us in the holy moments of worship and the mundane walk of life and work.

You see, regardless of what the transfigured glowing Jesus actually looked like or why the other folks were there...without interpreting any of that...we know that this story is about encountering God’s presence.   That part is clear.  It happens on a mountain - the very place where people went to meet God. It is where God speaks.  It is a baptism-like moment, when God claims Jesus as his own.  And, it is an epiphany moment -- when Jesus' identity as the Messiah is revealed by God.  We all agree that God is definitely present in this story.

Interestingly enough, liturgically, it is also the last epiphany story before we enter the Lenten season.  That makes it a pivotal point between the season of celebration and light...and the season of repentance and self-denial.  In Matthew's telling of the gospel, it marks the last thing before Jesus and the disciples begin their journey toward Jerusalem and the cross.  It seems to be that "one last chance" for the disciples to experience the ultimate "ah-ha" moment of reassurance about who Jesus is before they travel with him on that gut-wrenching, dangerous, self-sacrificing road that lies ahead.

No wonder Peter wanted to stay there. 

It's safe to say that mountaintop experiences like this one, or that of Moses, are extremely rare.  In fact, most of us would be hesitant to admit if we did have one.  Still, we need those glorious moments when we know that God is present and at work in a situation, don't we? It is that inexplicable sense of awareness, confidence or trust in God that gives us hope and keeps us going.  Sometimes the mountaintop is a very emotional or exhilarating experience…such as a special celebration or worship service.  Sometimes it is a quiet, peace...a contemplative moment...and we want to linger there because it feels so right and good.

Either way, it doesn’t last.  Like the disciples, eventually we wake up, and realize that we’re back to the day-to-day experiences of life.  And to be quite honest, it’s never quite as exciting in the valley as when we have scaled to the mountaintop.  On the mountain we get a glimpse of the whole big holy picture…but in the valley, not so much so.  Of course it doesn't mean we don't encounter God there...after all, Jesus came down off the mountain with the disciples. It does mean, though, that we may have to look a little deeper to find him. 

Instead of a glowing or booming presence of light...we discover God in the woman who says to the young mom, "Let me hold that baby while you rest."  We discover God in the man who shares a meal with the homeless, not to just offer food, but to be the ears that will listen and hear their stories.  We encounter God in the hard work of reconciliation and justice....and in the church that give voice to the voiceless and stands with the oppressed.  It may not feel sparkling and dazzling, but for all who have served others, we know that God is always with us in Christ's ministries of compassion and forgiveness.

Again, without understanding what the transfigured glowing Jesus actually looked like, or why Moses and Elijah were there, or what they said to Jesus...or what Peter was thinking...without knowing or interpreting any of these things, the story still teaches us that, through Jesus, God was with them.  God was with them even as they headed back down to meet the crowds. 

Folks, whereas mountaintops represent the Revelation of God's Presence, valleys are the Revelation of God’s kingdom.  The work in the valley is where God's Kingdom is lived out by God’s people.  It is good news for us to know that in Christ, God joins us there.

But what about the cloud?  If the mountain represents where we find God's Presence and the valley is where we live in God's Kingdom, what about the cloud?   What is God's purpose there?

Well, to me, the cloud represents a place for discovering God's truth.  I mean, think about these stories.  Whether it was God giving commandments to Moses, or God pronouncing Jesus as his beloved son, or God instructing the disciples to listen…it always seem to happened under the cover of a cloud.  Clouds represented the place for Revelation of God's Truth.

And metaphorically, isn't this also the case with the stories of our own lives?   Think about a time when you've discovered or become confidently aware of an answer or a particular truth about God.  How often was it that there was some element of uncertainty or chaos in your life that really kind of forced you to seek God's guidance in the first place. 

Remember how the foggy mornings of this past week slowed down our driving?  Well, the cloudiness of life also makes us slow down, maybe even stop, to look and listen for God's truth to be revealed to us.  And, maybe more importantly, to trust that the answer will eventually come.

So rather than try to figure out why the cloud in these stories…or even what truth we’re supposed to take away from the cloud, what if part of being able to live life with the transfigured Christ in our heart is based on our willingness to enter into the clouds of life without fear or hesitation?

Moses was willing to go into the cloud…fully trusting that God wanted him there...even though he was unsure of what was going to happen there.

Elijah had multiple encounters with clouds in his life, including being taken up into one at the end of it. Each time it is safe to say he had no idea of what to expect but he went there expectantly.

In this story, Jesus and his disciples are enveloped in a cloud...surrounded by uncertainty about what was happening in the moment, much less about what would come next.   Notice too, that the first expression of the disciples' fear is when this cloud covers them.  Not when Jesus starts glowing and his clothes turn dazzling white.  Not when Moses and Elijah, both whom are long since dead, show up on the mountain.  No, the fear happens when the cloud comes over them.

It makes sense though, right?  Fear always seems to be greatest when the world around us is clouded with uncertainty... 

When our finances are cloudy and we don't know how we will make ends meet.  

When the path of our health is fogged over with concern and unanswered questions.

When our relationships are clouded with resentment, disappointment and conflict.

When we are not clear about what is right, what is next, what is helpful, what is true.

The reality is that much of life is cloud-covered at times.  Certainty often eludes us.  We can't always see what we need to do.  And we definitely do not have all the answers.   Nonetheless, the gospel tells us that God does not want us to live our lives in fear.   He sent Jesus so we would live with grace, love and peace in our lives instead.

God does not promise that life will always be a mountaintop experience, nor does God guarantee that our valleys will be easy to navigate either.  God not assure us a cloudless life, in fact, he seems to send them at times.  Still God does give us an assurance that, in the person of Jesus, his beloved Son, the promised Messiah, God is with us always.  

The Transfiguration story also teaches us that in the midst of the cloud, the disciple's job, our job, is to listen.  Listen for God's voice speaking truth to us.   Listen to what Jesus teaches us -- with his words, his actions, his ministries and his life.  Listen for the Spirit's leading.  The truth we hear will be all we need to lead us to the mountain, guide us in the valleys, and sustain us in the clouds.

Friends, American Christianity seems to be enveloped in a cloud right now.  So many different issues for which the church is struggling to see truth. Even more so, we are wrestling to separate that which is of human effort and decision-making, from that which of God.  Our responses to issues such as current immigration and deportation strategies, vetting and receiving refugees, equal rights and religious freedom, interfaith interactions...are clouded by our dual citizenship in America and in the Kingdom of God. 

To say that we're in a fog is an understatement. 

And it seems that more and more people are resorting the tactics of hate to express their fear and anxiety.   But this story...this Transfiguration story...tells us that even if we don't understand it all..even if the answers are not explicable at this time...even if there's stuff we cannot comprehend...even if we have our own personal experiences and perspectives that are different than others...we are in this cloud together.  Together with each other...and with God.  And that is all we need to know.

Life will have mountains.  Life will have alleys. Life will always have plenty of clouds.

God is in all of them.   Do not fear.  Just listen.

February 19, 2017
Bible Reference(s):
Matthew 5:38-48
Leviticus 18:1-2, 9-18
Rev. Terri Thorn

You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy. 

Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Personally, as soon as I hear the words “be holy” or “be perfect”, I am drawn back toward a time in my life that I've tried really hard to put behind me.  A time when being perfect meant fear of not being good enough...a fear of making mistakes. It takes me to a time of relationship-damaging driven-ness aimed toward what I know was an impossible goal.  Still, I thought that's what it meant to be a good Christian. 

So when I hear God say, you shall be holy...or be perfect...I want to just say, "Really, God?  Do we really have to go down this road again?"

This week the answer came to me loud and clear..."Why yes, Terri, we do.  I meant it then, and I mean it now...you shall be holy. My beloved church shall be holy."

Still, it is intimidating to preach on the holiness code from Leviticus.  For one thing, God's design for holiness is often misused and abused in preaching…inflicting deep hurt. Not to mention, the minute someone starts talking about holiness or being holy, one of two responses usually emerges.  People either posture themselves defensively waiting for the "holier than thou" attitude that they think is coming, or they drop their eyes in shame thinking that they can never be holy. Not with their life.  Not with their story.

But here's the thing folks...this is the exact reason we need to hear these words of scripture.  Our brokenness is the reason we gather to hear the good news of God's love proclaimed.  This passage, which is often referred to as holiness code, is actually good news for everyone.  You see, God wasn't just issuing orders with an imperative statement here.  He wasn't your mom saying, "You will do this because I said so."  It might be tricky to detect the difference without the original Hebrew text, but I believe God speaks this as a declaration.  He declared his people as holy.  In other words, he was telling the Israelites, whom Moses had just brought out of slavery, that they were being made into holy people. As ones now belonging to God, who is holy, so were they.

Keep in mind though that the definition of holy is not that God's people are completely pure or perfect without blemish.  Trust me, we don't have to read much of the Old Testament to know that the Israelites would prove to have plenty of impurity and blemishes.  And we don't have to look beyond ourselves to know that, in many ways, humanity hasn't really changed much through the generations.  We, God's people, still have our fair share of moral flaws and ethical failures.  Few of us are Mary Poppins...we are not practically perfect in every way.  

We are, however, still holy.  Through Christ and our baptism, we are his church. And that makes us holy.  You see, by definition, to be holy is to be chosen...to be set apart...separate from the base and the worldly.  And although God spoke his words to Moses at a specific time and place, they are timeless for all his people.   God's covenant still holds true for all who will enter it.  God's people are set apart because God chooses to set us apart.   And our "perfection" is that we have been chosen by a perfect God to fulfill his perfect purpose.  In other words, for God's people, life is about living God's perfect life, rather than about living life perfectly!

That truth alone is the good news most of us need to hear!

Friends, God set apart the Israelites by the work and ministry of Moses and the prophets.  Later, God set apart his church through the work and ministry of his son Jesus Christ.  It is why these two passages of "law" (if you will) are so easily intertwined.  They both serve the same purpose.  They show God's people how to be the people of God.

These statements are not meant to be a list of what you must do or not do in order to be set part as holy; nor is it a checklist by which we earn holiness either.  All of this holiness code describes our way of living because we are holy.  The things that Moses told the Israelites that they shall do were markers, or evidence, of their having been chosen for holiness.  In other words, this are characteristics of how God's people shall live.  And how others will know that these people belong to God.

The same is true for what Jesus conveyed to the disciples in the Sermon on the Mount.  God's people...Christ followers...are called to be different. They will be known for living beyond the letter and into to the intent of the law of love.  They will live the way Jesus describes and modeled, not to earn his mercy, but because they have it.  Not to receive grace, but as way to show the grace they have received. 

So, make no mistake...God, not any of our own doing, makes us into his holy people.  Just as the Israelites wandered for 40 years before they were delivered into the Promised Land, it's a safe bet to say that God is continually shaping us into his people, even now.  And, as we  continually being made holy, this is how we shall live:

God's people will be generous...not selfish or stingy.  They will care for the poor and the alien.  They will be known for their integrity...their honesty...and their hospitality to the stranger.  God's people, Christ-followers, will be recognized for their sense of justice, their expressions of kindness and compassion, and for their patience and peace. God's people will know their neighbor, be good to their neighbor, and be a good neighbor. They will not seek revenge but will instead do their part to reconcile.  As the familiar camp song says, Christians...the church...will be known by our love...for how we love God...and how we love others.  The way we choose to love demonstrates that we are God's holy, set apart, people!  Turns out that maybe you can judge a book by its cover…or a life by its fruit.

At the same time, and ever so humbling, is the additional truth that God...God's presence...God's holiness...God's perfection...is revealed to the world by how his "set apart" people live their lives…by how we choose to be holy, individually and communally.   Which also means, by the way, that how we love others says a lot about the God in whom we believe and trust.   Let that sink in a moment.

Now, at times, the "you shall" and "I say to you" statements feel very personal...focused on the individual rather than the community.  However, it's important to keep in mind that the ancient Israelites to whom Moses spoke had no concept of individualism. Yes, they were individuals, and yes they were each accountable to God, but at the same time, their existence and meaning was conveyed by their participation in the community.  They were the People (the whole community) of God.   The same was true for the first century Christ-followers...yes they were individually accountable for their actions...but, again, their purpose and identity were always in the context of community. 

Sadly, American Christians, by the nature of our national identity of individualism, do not resonate with this concept of communal identity very easily.  It's difficult for us to balance our desire for a personal relationship with God with the need for a communal one as well.  We take the statements to heart personally, but we are not as quick to hear them as a message about the community of faith.  Yet, in both the Greek and the Hebrew, more often than not, the "you" in the statements of these readings is second person plural.  Also known to the southerners in the room as, "y'all".

So when Jesus teaches us from the Sermon on the Mount, or we hear God telling Moses to speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel, our 21st century ears should hear:  Church...collectively...you all shall be holy.  What you do together in the community...how the congregation lives out God's mission and our ministries...will be a reflection of God in the world.

So, church, be holy.  Be generous and compassionate and gracious. Feed the hungry.  Welcome stranger in your community.  Stretch beyond yourselves to make sure that those on the outside feel welcomed and loved too.  Demand and uphold truth.  Seek justice.  Be fair.  Be reconciled.  Be at peace with one another.

In other words, God is saying to the church...do what you do in such a way that those who don't know that I, the Lord your God am holy, when they have encountered the church and her ministries at work in the world...will see my holiness...in you and in themselves.

Now, I may be partial...but I believe that First Presbyterian Church is listening to God on this whole "be holy" thing.  We are holy.not because we have accomplished spectacular moral or ethical work in the world...not because we are exclusively righteous...but because we have proven to ourselves and to this community that First Presbyterian Church belongs to God...and not to the world.  We have revealed, and are continuing to make known, what it looks like to be God's holy church at work, being a good neighbor in the heart of Lebanon.

In a few minutes, during our annual meeting, we will have a chance to celebrate some of the ways we, the whole congregation, have lived the law of Christ's love in this faith family, in our community and in God's world.  We have not done things perfectly, but the provision of God during this past year would indicate that have attempted to do the right and perfect things for his glory. 

Some things have gone remarkably well...and others need some fine-tuning.  The good news of God's grace is what the choir sang for us this morning.  The Lord our God is not only holy, the Lord our God is the God of second chances.  Thank God for another year to discern his perfect work for FPC and to live as his holy people.

Pause

Just over a year ago, through prayerful discernment and the work of God's Holy Spirit, we established Guiding Vision for First Presbyterian Church.  It is, for us, a statement of what it means to be Christ's church, God's holy people, here and now.  We believe we have been called to learn continually, to love abundantly and to live faithfully, so all may know the perfect love of God.  Days like today remind us that we are doing this well.

So Church...whole congregation...y'all...we are holy, because the Lord our God is holy.  All praise be to God.  Amen.

Bible Reference(s):
Matthew 5:21-37
Rev. Terri Thorn

It is good to be back in worship with my tribe today, but I do have to thank you for the time away.  Gathering with nearly 60 other female clergy from all over the world for a week of learning and fellowship is always good for my soul; and having an opportunity to spend the week with Rev. Carol McDonald, who sends her love to all of you, was also a tremendous blessing.   However, the most surprising and best thing about the conference was the keynote speaker, Rev. Casey Fitzgerald who led us in a series of workshops on Biblical Storytelling. 

During our time together, we were challenged to embrace the stories of scripture...to take them into our hearts...and to tell them to a world that seems to have lost touch with them.  We learned techniques for internalizing the scripture and for communicating them to others.  I can't begin to describe how inspiring this was, but suffice to say that I have personally deemed this year with a theme:  The Story is Enough.   These stories of the Bible...the nice ones, the tough ones, the shocking ones, the ones we've heard and the ones we always skim over...they truly are enough.  They are the revelation of our God who is, by all means, enough.

One exercise we did during the workshops was to read a specific passage multiple times, incorporating different emotions. In each reading, we would have a single emotion that increased as we read.  So, for instance, we read the story from Mark's gospel where Jesus rebukes the wind and calms the seas with the emotion of increasing fear.  Then we read it with the emotion of incremental anger.  Then we read it with the emotion of growing amusement.  The goal, I believe, was to help us appreciate how the storyteller interprets and communicates theology even by which emotions they decide to express.  

Of course sometimes the emotions were completely incongruent with the text, but there was still  something to be learned in that as well.   Usually, the thing that struck all of us novice storytellers was how difficult it is to put emotions to Jesus' words.   To try to put ourselves in the role of Jesus.   Yet...that's what makes it so powerful to tell the stories verbally rather than to read them from a page.  Now, I so wish I had given myself time to learn this passage today so I could have told it to you by heart...but alas, that's what happens the first week back after being out of the office...there's not enough time to get everything done.  Still, I wonder, what emotion do you think was present when Jesus said these words to the disciples:  you have heard it said...but I say to you...

Was he being didactic?  Like a teacher just giving instruction?  Was there a hint of arrogance or maybe there was just an abundance of confidence...dismissing the old law and giving the newer and better law?

Was he annoyed?  Perhaps he chose these laws because he was frustrated at how they were being carried out?

I think it would be interesting to consider how this might sound if we read it as if Jesus was preaching fire and brimstone to the disciples...and you know, the stuff in there about gouging out your eyes or cutting off your hand could definitely sound threatening.

However,  given that all of this legal-speak is in the middle of a sermon...we may want to hear them as words of affirmation and assurance...much like the Beatitudes earlier in the message.  Jesus spoke those blessing statements not as a checklist of things you have to do to receive God's blessing, but as an assurance that God has a special blessing for those who are outcast, poor, and meek.  

In the sermon he also reminds his followers about their role in the world.  Be salt...be light...don't hide under a basket.  Definitely assurance and encouragement there.  As well as a bit of  a challenge.  So it seems plausible that these legal statements would carry the same tone. 

Encouragement.  Assurance.  And challenge.

You have heard it said...but I say to you...

Jesus is gently pushing his followers toward a re-interpretation of the law...not one that eliminates or contradicts the original law...but one that expands it as a way to reclaim its intent.  He re-directs them from a checklist of do's and don't(s) to a way of being and interacting with each other.  Jesus moves the followers from a fear-based code of segregation that separated people from each other toward a grace-based law of relationship that sought to reconcile, heal and restore dignity and community. 

Keep in mind when God handed down the original law to Moses, it was to help the Israelites - who had known nothing but slavery - to learn how to become a people...more specifically to become God's people.  The commandments, as well as the Levitical code, were put in place in order to facilitate the health and well-being of the whole community.  The purpose of the law was not to distinguish good guys and bad guys...but instead to create a holiness that would not only set apart God's people, but would bless their relationships with God and with each other..  

However, throughout the centuries the use of the Law became perverted...with layer upon burdensome layer added in such a way to further divide those who were "in" and those who were "out".  Not only did the laws grow in number and complexity from when God initially set them out, they wbecame increasingly impossible to fulfill too.  The focus shifted from that which unites and protects the community to that which creates insiders and outsiders...clean and unclean...worthy and unworthy.  They were manipulated to create a holy hierarchy which heaped humiliation and shame on any and all who were not standing on the higher rungs of wealth, power and position. 

The good news of Jesus' gospel is that he came to reset that perversion.  He says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.  In other words...Jesus was telling those who would hear that he has fulfilled the purpose of the Law...he is the one who reconciles, heals and makes us whole.  Not the law.   

Make no mistake, Jesus doesn't let the disciples off the hook.  He doesn't just throw out the law.  Not at all. Instead he goes beyond the letter to lay out a higher standard and holier intent.  He restores the law back to God's purpose - keeping right and loving relationships with God and each other.    

You see...Jesus' law is the law of love. Everything Jesus says and does is interpreted by what he calls the greatest commandments:  Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind and strength...and love your neighbor as yourself.  To love is to obey God.   Love is what makes us his people. Following the example Jesus sets -- seeking justice and showing mercy and offering compassion that extends far beyond the letter of the law -- is how we love God and love each other.   As a wise person once said to me, and as I shared with the children this morning, the most loving choice is always the right choice and vice versa.  In retrospect, it's just a paraphrase of God's words to the Israelites:  I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live

Choosing Christ is choosing life and love.  Following Christ means we seek the type of relationships with each other that he offers to us...those of radical reconciliation, complete restoration, and unconditional love.  It doesn't mean we ignore right and wrong, it means that we choose to obey the much more difficult law of love and relationships.  And it is almost always more difficult to choose love than to settle for technical obedience.

I mean, think about it.  It's pretty easy to not murder...but it's really difficult to not be angry with someone...or to not insult them...and it's even way more challenging to be the one who takes the initiative to seek reconciliation.

This challenge, though, is what Jesus is really getting at with all these statements. His followers are called to live beyond the letter and into this holy intent.  To seek reconciliation.  To treat people with respect.  To protect one's dignity. To value honesty, integrity and truth.  To be a people of our word.  To live the life-giving law of love...which is truly the law of relationships.

All of these legal statements that Jesus offers are about treasuring our relationships.  To value them more than we value our need to be right or to prove another wrong.  To find life and joy and prosperity in our loving and relating to one another.

Over and again, Jesus pushes his followers -- then and now -- to set aside an individualistic and self-focused righteousness for one that is communal and relational.  Just obeying the law is not enough.  He calls us to love others the way he loves us...with humility...with a desire for reconciliation...and with a thirst for integrity and truth.

And folks, right now, in this truly frightening time of division in our nation...it's even more challenging for American Christians to choose to live within the law of love and relationship.  Yet, it has probably never been more critical that we do.

There is too much hate...too much separation…too much shame...too much brokenness...too many ways of death and destruction.  It's up to us, his church, to choose life.  To choose love.  To choose reconciliation and to treasure our relationships.   We cannot rely on the elected officials to choose it on our behalf.  We cannot depend on the media to do it for us either.  It's up to us...Christ-followers...to stretch ourselves beyond ourselves...to reach out to each other...across the proverbial aisles...across ideologies...across differences...cultures...and lifestyles...in order to discover that remarkable healing place of God's grace...it's up to us to choose to follow Jesus' instruction of seeking reconciliation with those whom we have conflict...to work to restore human dignity...and to demand integrity and truth from each other.  It is up to us to be sure that our yes is yes and our no is no.

Now here's the thing...Jesus lists a bunch of consequences for various failures of the law...most of which seem to be hyperbole - such as being liable to hell of fire or to cut out eyes or chop off our hands to keep from doing wrong.  There is one, though, where he's so specific that he basically says don't come back to this place of worship until you have reconciled with those whom you have wronged.  Don't bring offerings.  Don't go through the motions of worship.   To me, if there is an emotion that seems fitting for his statement, I believe Jesus is pleading...begging like a parent who wants what's best for his child:  first, be reconciled to your brother and sister, then come offer your gift.  

Apparently, according to author Howard Dorgan, there is a tradition in some mountain churches called the flower service that takes this to heart.    It goes like this.   On Flower Service Sunday, everyone in the church brings a bouquet of flowers and places them on the a table in front of the sanctuary.   The preacher always preaches on this specific passage from Matthew.  After the sermon, a truly amazing passing of the peace takes place in which everyone comes forward and takes back their flower offering.  Then they all walk around the church approaching each other to apologize for any hurt feelings, harsh words or misunderstandings.  Once the apologies and words of forgiveness have been spoken and heard, they exchange flowers, as a way of "sealing" the restoration of their relationship.  All ages participate and it goes on for as long as it takes for all hurt and harm to be cleared.  (see Howard Dorgan, "Giving Glory to God in Appalachia: Worship Practices of Six Baptist Subdenominations" University of Tennessee Press 1987, p 147.)

So, I have this big bouquet here...  PAUSE

Don't worry...it's only symbolic.  Although...it does seem fitting given that Valentine's Day is this week...it's all about love and flowers.  What better time to partake in your own version of a Flower Service of reconciliation this week.   Just think about it.

In the meantime...imagine what would that look like if all God's people...here...in our nation's capital...all around the world , chose to have a flower service...if we chose to reconcile with each other in love.  You know, I think it would look like choosing life...like choosing kingdom life...and all glory would surely be to God. 

Friends, let me leave you this quote from author and researcher LR Knost:  Do not be dismayed by the brokenness of the world. All things can be mended.  Not with time, as they say, but with intention. So go.  Love intentionally, extravagantly, unconditionally.  The broken world waits in darkness for the light that is you.  Amen.

January 29, 2017
Bible Reference(s):
Matthew 5:1-12
Rev. Terri Thorn

As we are now nine days into the new administration of United States government I think we can all agree - no matter what your political views - we are living in a new reality.  A reality that many folks, both here and abroad, are still trying to figure out.  Sure, there will always some level of uncertainty when a new regime of leadership comes on the scene; however, the rapid upheaval of the last week has been a bit unnerving for people all around the world.   It has left a whole lot of Americans wondering what is life going to look like under this new leadership?  

I wonder if the disciples felt a similar sense of concern when they answered the call to join Jesus in his mission?  Not that Jesus was an elected official, but clearly, having given up everything to follow him meant that their lives were radically changed. They were uprooted from homes, their families, and their livelihood, in order to be a part of something that they could not even begin to imagine.  We are told that right away the disciples found themselves as witness to miraculous healing of people throughout Syria - the sick, those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics -- all being healed by Jesus.  It had to have been somewhat perplexing to see Jesus reaching out to, and interacting with, people who would have ordinarily been ignored, pushed aside, and denied entry to the temple.

Seems to me that they would have been a bit uncertain about it all.  The things they were hearing and seeing were much different than what they had heard and witnessed in their own environment in the past. Now don't get me wrong...Jesus wasn't teaching anything that was contrary to the original Law and Prophets.  He was, however, posing a challenge to how it was interpreted and being lived out.  Jesus revealed the same God of the Torah...with the same promises...bringing about the same kingdom of God the prophets foretold...but not necessarily in the same way that the religious leaders had led folks to believe it would be. 

This reading from Matthew occurs relatively early in Jesus' ministry, but the signs were already there that his was not going to be a kingdom of military might.  His sights were not set on taking out the Roman Empire. Jesus declared that the kingdom of God was near but not as a way to establish boundaries and borders...nor was there an exclusive membership card to enter it.   Jesus' words and his actions introduced...or maybe reintroduced and clarified...the blessed way of life that God intends for his people. 

So, here in this Sermon on the Mount...which is considered to be foundational to his gospel...Jesus begins to lay the groundwork of his mission on earth.  He offers these blessing statements, also known as the Beatitudes, as a word picture for the disciples...as well as the crowds who were listening...of what God's kingdom looks like. It was a way to say to all who would hear: in the Kingdom of God, this is who we are and this is how we operate. 

Let's be clear though...this list of Beatitudes wasn't a check list of how to get into the Kingdom.  Instead, I liken it to how we form a families and raise children.  For example, when Rob and I raised our children, we didn't say to them, "Here are the rules you have to live by in order to be a Thorn."  No, we said, "You, Julia and Mark, are part of the Thorn family...and this is how the Thorn family interacts with others."  

I'm sure you've seen those wall hangings that begin with, "In this family we....and then there is a list of expectations for how the family members will love and treat each other. Well, these Beatitudes are sort of the same thing...it describes life in the family of God. In this sermon, Jesus tells us who is important to God (blessed are they)...and how God expects his family to see, hear, and treat each other.  

So for a minute, let's put ourselves in the shoes of these disciples.  What Jesus is saying is a whole new way of thinking about blessedness. In fact, it is a radically different understanding. 

In the first century, one would consider themselves blessed if they were free from the domineering rulers, oppressive tax collectors, and capricious soldiers. Respect earned from savvy negotiating skills in the marketplace, the ability to provide for one's household, or having health and prosperity were all things that might constitute blessedness. (FOTG, Matthew, p74)

Really, it's not all that different from what the world today says is blessedness. Although we might also add the accumulation of wealth and property as well as influence and power as signs of the blessed.  Certainly having individual freedoms is considered to be a blessing. 

I'm sure there are many other things we would add, but it's pretty unlikely that we would say that being poor, or poor in spirit, or having others think we are meek, or to be in a state of grief and  mourning or to be in the need of mercy...those are not states that our world would consider to be blessedness. 

Likewise, neither would those who first heard these words.  They might have seen themselves in these statements, but they would not have thought of themselves as blessed...and this would be especially true for those to whom Jesus was ministering.  In fact, by both religious and worldly standards they were cursed.  In own their minds, they were outside the scope of God's blessedness.  It had been made clear to them that they weren't rich enough, powerful enough, smart enough, righteous enough...they did not belong.

So to hear Jesus say that this other way of life is the way that God prefers and blesses must have been, as the choir so beautifully reminded us in their anthem, a canticle of turning to their ears. By these blessing statements, Jesus spoke truth about God's kingdom and turned the prevailing worldview upside down.  

Now we could go through each of the eight Beatitudes and dissect them to try to understand  what it means to be poor in spirit, to mourn, to need mercy etc., but it seems to me that Jesus intended us to hear them as a whole, in the context of his sermon. In fact, they sort of build on one another.  If we isolate each one we run the risk of proof texting, or creating an unintended ethical code, or heading down a path of trying to figure out how we can do or be each of these things in order to please God. To do that would be a bit like reverting to works and deeds righteousness - if I am this, then God will bless me - rather than seeing it for what it is: a statement that this way of life is one that tugs at God's heart.  

So up on this mountain, symbolic for the place of God's revelation, Jesus takes the teaching posture...sitting among his listeners...and offers a leadership training session for those first disciples (as well as the crowds who were listening, too).   He reminds his inner circle that while they are uniquely called to journey with him, those all around  -- the sick, the poor, the oppressed, the lonely, the outcasts...the meek, the hungry, the ones without power or voice...are also blessed in God's kingdom.  They are the ones he and his disciples are called to serve.

You see, in God's kingdom, blessedness has nothing to do with the amount of power and might one can wield...nor does it hinge on what world defines as successful.  In God's kingdom, blessedness is not unique to a specific nation on earth, nor is it about attending the right schools, having big retirement accounts, or living in fancy houses.  In God's kingdom, the white-Anglo American does not get a greater blessing than the Latino immigrant or the dark-skinned refugee.  The corporate executive is not more blessed by God than the struggling single mom or the recovering drug addict.    

Thankfully though, the things that we tend to think of as blessings -- health, wealth, and freedom - are not bad things. They do not bar us from the kingdom of heaven; however contrary to the popular message of the prosperity gospel, they are not indications that we are more blessed by God either.   

Only our living can reveal God's blessing.  Only when our hearts and our minds and our life look like Christ's is the kingdom of heaven among us.   Only when we are willing to live in the spirit of these beatitudes...to become one of those whom the world might say are neither blessed nor powerful...are we truly blessed. 

So what does it mean to live in the spirit of the Beatitudes?  Pastor Charles Cook suggests we can summarize it with three life principles:  Blessed are they whose lives are lived with simplicity, hopefulness, and compassion. 

Now by simplicity, Cook doesn't mean being a simpleton, or even living an uncluttered life.  To him, simplicity is about how we hear Jesus' words..as if they were spoken directly to us.  So when Jesus says, "You are blessed in this life when you demonstrate humility, bring a peaceful presence, open your heart to others, and show mercy on those who cry for it" he is talking to you and me. Blessedness, or living in the kingdom of heaven, means simply believing that Jesus  is still speaking these words to us, right here..right now.  That's empowering no matter what the world is telling us.

Blessed are they who simply live the gospel. 

Likewise, blessed are they who live with hopefulness.   Now, to be quite honest that's a little more difficult for some of us...especially as the world becomes more and more cynical, divided and angry.  I will admit that it has been very difficult to speak hopefulness recently.  And I know I'm not alone.  There's a lot of scary stuff happening in the world around us.  Yet when we refuse to allow fear to dampen our spirit of hope, we are able to stand firm in the promise that the day is coming when mercy, humility, peace and love will prevail...they will describe what it means to live blessed.  And it strengthens us to continue to pursue these things despite any efforts of society to squelch our hope.

Finally, blessed are they whose lives are filled with compassion.  Actually, personally, I believe this is the most important of all the principles for blessedness that Rev. Cook suggests.   Compassion is the way of Christ.  Compassion permeates the Kingdom of God. Offering compassion blesses and it creates blessedness.

The priest and writer Henri Nowen described a life of compassion like this:  compassion grows with the inner recognition that your neighbor shares your humanity with you. This partnership cuts through all walls which might have kept you separate. Across all barriers of land and language, wealth and poverty, knowledge and ignorance, we are one, created from the same dust, subject to the same laws, destined to the same end. (With Open Hands (New York: Ballantine, 1972) p86)

Blessed are they who live out this kind of compassion.

Friends, right now, the truth of these Beatitudes...the call for simplicity, hopefulness and compassion...may resonate loud and clear within the safety of our sanctuary, but I assure you that it is not being well-received elsewhere.  Many clergy, myself included, have taken a lot of heat lately for preaching this message of the gospel.  We are being told it's too political.  We're accused of attacking the President and not giving him a chance.  We're pushing an agenda.  We are sowing seeds of disunity rather than offering hope.

I want to assure you that is not my intent, today or any day.  Still, I cannot deny that Jesus himself was political.  In fact, it was his dissidence that eventually got him killed.  He spoke truth to power and they killed him...but they did not end him or his message.

Friends, I believe these challenging words of the Beatitudes still stand.  It is my call and desire to proclaim hope when the world screams fear.  And, I believe with all my heart, that without compassion the world is lost.  Compassion is what connects us to each other...it is what reminds us that we are all created in God's image...that we belong to one another as part of God's family. Compassion is an act of love...it is how the Christ in us is revealed to the world.   

If it feels political...all I can say is that these "blessed are" statements are, quite simply, the words of Jesus Christ.  Within the kingdom of God, these beatitudes are messages of hope to those who will hear.  They are the foundation of the gospel of compassion, and as a minister of the gospel, I can do nothing less than proclaim them to you and to the world...and challenge you to proclaim them too.

So, how do we live the spirit of the Beatitudes?  In the same way that Jesus taught his disciples to live them.  We go back down the mountain and get to work living with faithful simplicity, incredulous hopefulness and radical compassion.  All glory be to God.  Amen.

Note: Children's sermon focus on this day was about starting something new (new teacher, new team, new club) and  the challenge of learning the new environment, ways of thinking, etc to be included in that new setting. It was connected to the idea that the Kingdom of God being near meant that the disciples and followers were called to a new way.  I asked the kids what that way might look like.

January 22, 2017
Bible Reference(s):
I Corinthians 1:10-18
Rev. Terri Thorn

Let me just say that I have been thinking about this message all week but decided to wait until after Friday's inaugural events before I wrote anything.  You see, given the all the tension surrounding the election, I was afraid something would go horribly wrong...from a security standpoint...on Friday.  I was concerned I might need to re-think the message if it did.  Thankfully though, things in DC went pretty much as planned on Friday...and the history-making women's marches across the US and the world were all quite peaceful.  For both of these things, I think we all need to say, thanks be to God.

The question being asked in churches this morning, though, is: "what now"?  What are we, American Christians, supposed to do next?   How do we respond to the recurring call for national unity while upholding the godly values of justice and mercy, as well as welcome and compassion?  How can we be agents of unity in the midst of what is clearly broad, wide, deep division?  How do we reflect the oneness of Christ's church in a nation that is clearly not one?

Now, it's God's providence, not my choosing, that this part of Paul's letter to the church at Corinth is our reading today. Of course, Paul's concern was not about a nation's unity...but about what was happening in the church.  "There is to be no division among you!"  he says.  "Be united in one mind and one purpose."

It's very inspiring, but a stroll down the lane of ancient church history indicates that Christians have never been very good at this.  Paul was always addressing conflict of some sort in the original congregations of the church.   Over the first few hundred years, the early church fathers and theologians regularly argued over various doctrines and understandings.  Eventually, around 700AD  the Greek Orthodox church split with the Roman Catholic church to form two very separate churches.  Both of whom, by the way, to this day still consider themselves to be the one true church.   

About 700 years after that came the Reformation.  The protestors..also known as Protestants...broke away from the Roman Catholic church in protest of certain theology and doctrinal practices...and formed national churches under different leaders in various countries.   Eventually, as America was settled and independent folks began to experience freedom from the national Church of England, even more variations of the church emerged.  Today, it's hard to even quantify how many different flavors of church exist.  There are numerous independent churches that fall into no particular denominational structure...and several denominations, including our own, which have more than one official "order" within. 

The point is that, while there is still only one Body of Christ, and one true church, it's almost impossible to read these words of Paul, "there is to be no division" among the church with a straight face. Our entire history seems to be made up of nothing but division.

So what is it that we mean when we talk about Christian Unity? 

I don't know about you, but I can feel my guard go up when I hear people start talking about being unified - especially in the religious and political context.   It's been my experience that more often than not it feels as if what unity really mean to some people is that I'm supposed to give up my thoughts, my ideas, and my beliefs to embrace theirs.  And that scares me.

In fact, it reminds me of the most frightening movie I've ever seen - a 1972 thriller called, "The Stepford Wives". 

The plotline of the movie is about a community in which all the women are models of perfection...the absolute ideal wife, parent, and neighbor.  They cook, clean, care for their family, keep a lovely home and submit to their husbands always.  They never worry, never frown, never contradict or challenge anyone.   

Well, it turns out that the women of the town of Stepford are so nice and compliant because they are robots.  The men in the community have all replaced their wives with robots.  Except for one.  There is one human wife who figures out what is happening and tries to escape.  Now, for me, the tension of whether she would figure it out in time and whether she would escape or not wasn't the scariest part.  The evil of the husbands who did away with their human wives wasn't the scariest part either.  To me, personally, the most horrifying thing was the thought that there could be a place where everyone was forced to be exactly the same...to think the same things...to believe the same things...to do the same things. 

So I must admit, I grew up with some personal resistance to Paul's words about no division among us and about being of one mind and one purpose.  Was he advocating for some Stepford version of Christianity...where we have to agree on everything...or at least pretend that we do?  I have also wondered....doesn't it feel as if Paul was asking the church to do the impossible? No division, ever?  The thought is about as incredulous as  the response of the disciples in the gospel reading.  No division?  Drop everything and just follow?   How are these things possible?

In the disciples case...it's difficult for most of us to imagine being willing to do what they did.  Putting down their fishing nets represents letting go of everything they hold dear...their identity, their security, their purpose, their family business...all to follow Jesus...to go where he went...to learn from him...to do whatever he asked.  Now, yes, most of us want to be like these disciples...to put everything down and do whatever Jesus asks. But, realistically, we are not always able to do so.  We can't always bring ourselves to offer the forgiveness he asks us to offer...or show the mercy...or welcome the stranger...or see someone else's perspective.  We aren't always so eager to be a prophetic voice, brave the criticism, or challenge the establishment in the name of Christ.  

Sometimes, the humility and submission required of us in order to follow Christ is more than we can fathom.  Yet, like the disciples, in those moments that we actually take ourselves out of the way and allow God's Spirit to work we find a power that we also never fathomed.  An inexplicable power, an inner strength, a peace that passes understanding.  Like the first disciples, in the meek moment of humility, we are given confidence to do as Jesus asks, even in the face of all uncertainty. 

Humility is difficult...but it's not impossible.

I think that is actually Paul's point to the church at Corinth.  Humility, which is at the heart of unity, is difficult...but it's not impossible.  One scholar describes the context of the letter like this: the Corinthian church is a diverse, lively community, seemingly with social tensions around matters of wealth and need, perhaps also concerning education.  There are strong feelings and a corresponding assertiveness and folk are being drawn into groups, possibly to gain a stronger sense of shared identity, or special belonging.  Some are gravitating to certain leaders. (FOTW, year A, volume 1)

Clearly things were becoming divisive in the church at Corinth.  Some were in, some were out.  Some claimed Paul's authority, others claimed Peter's, and still others got behind someone named Apollos.  Then, there were also those who asserted that when it came to following Christ, they had the corner on the market. They believed they were more righteous than others in the church.  Later in the letter, we learn there were conflicts over a number of doctrinal issues including circumcision and eating meat.  So, maybe the issues of the church have changed a little...but the potential for division in the church over them remains the same.   

That said, Paul's concern about division was not just about whether people disagreed or not. His call for unity was not a call for everyone to think and do the same things.  It wasn't about Stepford church at all.  I mean, how many times does he talk about the Body of Christ and point that some are hands, some are feet, some are ears? Or gifts?  He regularly reminds the church that different people have different spiritual gifts.  Clearly Paul appreciates the diversity of the church and the uniqueness of all the members. Likewise, when it came to the meat-eating issue, he said, "those who eat meat, eat it.  Those who don't eat meat, don't eat it.  But those who do eat it, don't try to make those who don't eat it start eating it."  Respect the different understandings seems to be his message.  

I believe Paul's deep grievance with division is that he knew that it is always a power issue.  Division creates insider and outsiders...but it can also create a hierarchy of worthiness based on completely contrived criteria. You see, division is not only rooted in dissention and self-interest, it tends to result in some groups being perceived as more valuable than others.  Not to mention, the more one becomes invested in the division, the more committed they are to maintaining division.  Once the wall of division is built...pride keeps it standing firm. 

Paul understood that Christ's church could and would withstand disagreements and differences, but he also knew that division was the disease powerful enough to kill the church's mission.  This passionate call for unity is his heart begging the church to avoid death-dealing division.  

Be united in one mind and purpose.  For Paul, this was a very simple call to the church...one that would be as difficult to achieve as drop your nets and follow.   You see, to be united in one mind and purpose means being humble enough to drop our defensive postures, to loosen our grip on our opinions thoughts, and beliefs, to admit we can never be 100% certain, in order to reveal the one mind and purpose of Christ  - which is to reconcile and bring peace.   

And that's just not easy to do.  We're too afraid that to let go would mean giving up all we hold dear...our identity, our security, our purpose, our point, our argument, our position.   In the worldview of scarcity, to let go is to lose...to become less than.

Yet that is exactly what Christ calls us to do. To become less than so Christ is revealed greater, in and through us.  Isn't that what happened on the cross?  Jesus could have done any number of things to avoid being crucified, but he did not.  He spoke out.  He challenged.  He made a name for himself...then he set it all aside and chose to bear the humility of the cross in order to reveal God's kingdom to the world. 

As Paul points out, this posture of cross-bearing humility looks foolish to those who don't get it...it looks like you are powerless...as if you have lost.  Yet, those who have experienced the grace of God through Christ know that it is anything but.  The willingness to empty ourselves the way Christ did, in order to be filled with God’s love and his peace...well, it gives us a completely different kind of power...one that those who are unwilling to be humbled may never truly understand. 

So, folks this unity thing that Paul advocates?  It begins with humility...and 2000+ years later the church is still trying to get it right.  We still dig in our heels on issues and positions. Good, faithful, Christian people often stand on opposing sides of things; we believe different things; and, we often interpret scripture differently.  Yet, the good news of God's grace in the church is that none of those things need be divisive.  They may differentiate us...they may even distance us from each other...but none have to lead to the kind of separation that Paul feared.   None have the power to divide when we unite in one mind and one purpose of Christ's love.

So, I don't have to tell you that there's a lot of public talk right now about the need for unity in our nation.  It resounds even louder after this weekend.  Likewise, I don't have to tell you that there are a lot of different definitions of what that unity looks like.  Some fear that it's a another word for "agree with me or else".  And, when it comes to the political world...that just might be the case.  Mostly because no one wants to take the first step toward humility.

Let us remember, however, that we, the Church, are not called to conform to the political definition of unity...we are called to reveal Christ's definition of unity to the world.  To live in oneness with him and with each other.   So what does that look like? 

For me, the orchestra metaphor comes to mind.   Every musician plays his or her own instrument.  Every musician plays the notes written on his or her own music.  Each creates his or her own sound.   Every musician has a unique time to play and a time to stop playing...and there may even be times when a musician is playing alone...but it is only a symphony when they all come together with one mind and one purpose -- to create something beautiful.  

To many, it looks much like the beautiful hope that emerged when millions of people, of diverse backgrounds, opinions, and causes, were able to gather across seven different continents and walk as one…in peace.

Unity in the church means we come together to reflect the one mind and purpose of Jesus Christ...to help build his beautiful realm of abundant life - filled with grace and peace.

Unity in the church means we lead with compassion and mercy and forgiveness.

Unity in the church means we express love in and through all things...including our disagreements.

Unity may mean Christians think twice about that our FB posts and consider how they might affect another. It might mean a lot of scrolling or type, consider, delete.

Unity in the church calls us to put the need for our relationship with one another above the need to convince each other of our point of view.   Surely we have our differences, but we never let them create the kind of division that leads to death and destruction in the community of faith.  

Unity emerges when we seek the presence of Christ in each other...when we approach each other with same humility with which we approach Christ - emptied of ourselves..putting down our nets...opening ourselves to receiving his blessing, mercy and grace from one another.

So, Church in America, listen to Paul.  There shall be no division among us.  We have the opportunity to show the world what unity looks like...because I mean really, take a look around.  No government, no politician, no special interest...no worldly entity has the power of humility that is in the Christian church.  Praise be to God, it is entirely up to us.

It will be difficult...but with Christ, nothing is impossible! Amen? Amen.

January 15, 2017
Bible Reference(s):
Isaiah 49:1-7
Rev. Terri Thorn

On Monday, we will celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in the United States. That holiday, of course, honors Dr. King -  the undisputed leader of the Civil Rights Movement in the US in the 1960s. Dr. King is remembered for a variety of things…his soaring rhetorical style, his commitment to non-violent protesting, and his refusal to be intimidated by opponents who threatened his life, bombed his family home, and wiretapped his phone conversations.  Tomorrow on television, there will undoubtedly be replays of his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech from 1963, as well as his passionate "I Have Been to the Mountaintop" address which was given in Memphis on the night before he was killed. 

Let's be clear, King was not without flaw.  He had his own personal demons (as we all do), and over his short lifetime he experienced his shares of both personal and professional failures. But those facts do not make him less of a national hero…instead, they make what he accomplished even more inspiring.  Inspiring because, just like you and me, he wasn’t perfect…he didn’t have it all together…and yet, by channeling the spirit of God within him, he was able to become an agent of change.  Most will agree that he was the very definition of a modern day prophet.

And King—who was a pastor—loved the Old Testament prophets. He studied their techniques, he commiserated with their failures, and he exalted with their successes. We can find numerous examples in his speeches and sermons where he extorts the prophets’ message in order to inspire ordinary people to do extraordinary things. 

King resonated with the prophetic texts of the Old Testament.  Like the ancient prophets, he cast visions of what could be...he called out what should not be...and he most certainly made himself vulnerable to those in power for the sake of righteousness.   If you spend any time watching video or reading his writings, it's evident that the “suffering servant passages” from Isaiah were certainly among those which influenced both his theology and his social action.  So, it is fitting, and perhaps divine, that one of those passages appears in today’s lectionary.  

Now, let me clarify what we mean by "suffering servant" passages.  You see, there are four distinct places in the book of Isaiah where he makes reference to "The Servant" in a way that would imply it was a specific person or entity.  Quite often, the servant is described as suffering for the work of God.  That said, Biblical scholars are not in agreement about who the servant is.  Is it Isaiah, himself? Is it a prophecy of the future of the nation of Israel? Is it some historical figure whose name has been lost to the ages? Is it a prophecy of the coming messiah?

All of these are plausible answers, as all have suffered for the sake of God's work.  However, I believe the powerful thing about the words of the servant is that they speak boldly to us, even if we don't know the servant's identity.  In fact, maybe what draws us  to these texts - and what drew Dr. King to them - is the fact that, as people of faith, we could even see ourselves as the servant.

Now, at first, that might seem like an egotistical thing to do. Seeing ourselves on the same level of power and suffering and relationship with God as the great prophet Isaiah. But I think—and I suspect King recognized this, too—that only by doing so are we able to receive the full power of the spirit that is at work in these ancient texts.

So let’s take a closer look at what the servant says that we need to hear.  More importantly, how will we relate to it now, several millennia later?   Of course, as with any scripture, to answer that question, we must consider the purpose and context of the text...why Isaiah included it and what it was intended to do. 

Keep in mind that as these words are spoken, Israel is still in exile in Babylon. They are slaves. Their homeland has been left in ruins. They are living in a strange land with strange traditions and cultures.  The longer the Israelites remained in Babylon, the less connection they had with their home…the promised land.  There were enormous pressures to assimilate into Babylonian culture.  Lots of pressure to just go along with the status quo for the sake of pacification. The prophet’s job was to remind the Israelites that they belonged to God, not the Babylonians. 

Clearly, God called the Servant to some very difficult prophetic work - to be a sharp sword, a polished arrow, to be used at God's own bidding in order to inspire hope for restoration and cast a vision of future redemption and peace for God's people.

Now, the language and imagery of this text might be sound odd or be a little strong for our 21st century sensibilities, still the point behind it is just powerful today as it was then.  Think about it for a moment.  God has called all his servants -- including his servant, the church-- to be powerful tools of mercy and justice and redemption.  Yes, as ordinary as we are, we have been created and equipped to do the extraordinary, albeit challenging, work of God’s Kingdom.    

That said, it might be the Servant's response rather than his call to which we can more fully relate.  Take a look.  God has just given this beautiful pronouncement and blessing to the servant, and what is the first word of response? “But!”  "But, God...I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity…” In other words, "God, I've already tried that...preached that sermon, offered that forgiveness, tried that approach...and nothing has changed.  I have failed.  Your servant has failed."

Let's face it, this is not an uncommon response.  When it comes to doing God's work, frustration and doubt are easy temptations for our minds.  Many folks can relate to the feeling of stepping out of your comfort zone doing what you think God wants you to do, only to seem to get zero results? Worse yet, some have stepped out and become a target for others to shoot down.  When that happens, we feel lost, hopeless and maybe even afraid.  We can see how it would be tempting to just shut up, sit down, and blend in with the Babylonians. 

But clearly, God has something else in mind for his Servant.  When the Servant points out his own challenges and failures, rather than coddling him, God raises the stakes.  Seriously.  He says, "It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob  and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth."  In other words, "Servant, not only will you be a prophetic voice to my people, you will be a light to all the world on my behalf."    

Now, when I first heard the words, "it is too light a thing to raise up the tribes of Jacob," my inclination was to interpret this as saying it's not enough to just take care of our own...and I think there's real truth to that perspective. It is not enough to just be concerned about our own congregation, our own denomination, or own nation.  It is not enough to limit our interest to what is right or best for ourselves.  And, we don't get to remain quiet about the good news of salvation that has been given to us.  No, Christians are called to be God's light to all nations...to get beyond ourselves and outside the walls of our high steeple churches to interact with the world for God's glory. 

Yet, as I've pondered the phrase this week, I've also come to see it from a different angle.   To say that something is too light a thing may be an admonition against selling God's purposes short.  We are often guilty of minimizing the power of God's Spirit at work in and through our weaknesses - relying instead on our own abilities rather than trusting in God's strength.  We are sometimes short-sighted about what it means to be a Christian - focusing on one particular aspect of faith.  Perhaps something is too light a thing when it limits the possibility of what God can do through his servants.  So maybe God says "it is too light a thing" as a reminder that the work to which his servants are called is always part of a bigger picture...code for "Folks, you ain't seen nothin' yet!"

When God says it is too light a thing, I think he is saying that our call is to a much bigger picture than what we see...far beyond ourselves, bigger than our abilities, with a purpose greater than our personal preferences.

When it came to the civil rights movement, I think Dr. King understood that it was too light a thing to just focus on a specific outcome.  He was aware that he might not live to see the vision of racial equality recognized, but he genuinely and wholehearted believed that God had called him to do his part to bring it to fruition.  He understood that his work was part of a bigger picture of social justice in our nation and in God's world. 

So, when we speak out against racism and bigotry today, it is part of a bigger picture...a picture of life in God's Kingdom.  When we demand justice, uphold truth, and protest oppressive systems, it is part of the bigger "Kingdom" picture.  When we plant seeds of mercy, when we cultivate compassion, when give voice to the voiceless, it is part of the bigger picture to which we are called.  Every time we choose the way of Christ...welcoming the stranger, caring for the sick, providing food for the hungry, clothing for the naked, shelter for the poor...every time we do these things...we are working in a bigger picture...the picture that Jesus painted with his life...a picture of God's Light and Love filling the world to bring peace.

Make no mistake, though, the servant's work is not easy. 

The servant's words are not always popular. 

And at times, the servant will suffer.

Even the "too light of a thing"  may feel very burdensome, scary, or challenging.  Especially when we cannot fully see the bigger picture. Going beyond it may seem impossible. 

Yet Christ, who was the epitome of the suffering servant, had to choose to do the more difficult thing...the thing way, way beyond the lighter thing.  He chose to suffer on the cross for the sake of a much bigger picture of salvation for the world. 

And the good news of the gospel is that the same empowering spirit that was within in him is within us as well, beckoning us to be a part of God's bigger picture...to do those things, whatever they may be, that increase the presence of God's love in the world.

Friends...one look at the brokenness around us...the fear, the worry, the shadows of death...and there is no doubt that God is calling his church to be like Isaiah's Suffering Servant, to choose to do what God asks of us. Not just the too light a thing, but the more challenging thing...the uncomfortable things...the speaking out and speaking up things.    And we choose to do it...not because we are afraid God won't love is if we don't...we do it because the Lord, who is faithful, the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen us to...and that is the only reason we need.  Amen.

 

For the time of reflection

Earlier this week I was watching some video from Dr. King's most famous speeches and I was particularly struck by his last speech...given in Memphis...the night before he died.  It was very eerie to watch...because in retrospect...it sounds as if almost knew he might die soon.  Still, he did not seem to fear that or worry about it...he was convinced, to the core of his being, that he was doing what God had asked him to do.  If you haven't seen the speech it's worth watching...to hear him speak about going up to the mountaintop to see the Promised Land of racial justice will give you chills.

Today, during our time of reflection, we're going to listen to a song written and performed by Patty Griffen to honor Dr. King...it was based on his Memphis speech.  I invite you to use this time to ponder what it is that God is asking of you, of us and of his church.  And friends...at the risk of my words being unpopular, I have to say... given the state of division in our nation and the level of injustice in the world, if God is not calling you to greater work, it is only because you are not listening. 

Bible Reference(s):
Isaiah 60:1-6
Rev. Terri Thorn

According to the Christian calendar, today is either the Sunday we celebrate the Epiphany of the Lord, or the day we observe the Baptism of the Lord.  I suppose there are some who would just as soon have us accelerate forward thirty years in Jesus' life and focus on the baptism.  You all know who you are...the Christmas decorations are long since down, packed and stored away and you have started the countdown to Easter. Others, however, are not so quick to move forward.   These are the folks who are more than willing to sing some carols today, linger over the Christmas story one more week, bring in the Magi one more time, and make this morning an Epiphany Sunday. 

Based on the service thus far, you know which one I prefer, right? 

But to be quite honest with you, I was not raised in a church that observed Epiphany.  Like many folks, our family brought all of the birth narrative versions together into one Christmas nativity scene.  We sang The Twelve Days of Christmas as a countdown to Christmas, rather than as the twelve days between December 25th and January 6th, from Christmas Day to Epiphany,  which is the liturgically correct 12 days of Christmas.

I'm sure I am not alone.  Most of us grew up in churches that placed a greater emphasis on Christmas -- the day Jesus was born...than on Epiphany -- the day God was revealed in the baby boy.  That's just how things were for us.

In recent decades though,  the modern  church has become more intentional about including Epiphany in our worship.  Typically we read the story Amy shared with the kids today.   The visit of Magi, or Wise Men, or Sages or Kings...it all depends on which translation you prefer...has come to represent the moment that God was revealed to the world in the Christ child.   And the  star that appears in the sky becomes the focal point of the revelation...it is the light that reveals the location of the baby...the light that leads these most uncharacteristic travelers to come to worship him.  It is the light that fulfills prophecy of long-ago...the light that indicated to the world that God was among his people. 

Today's scripture lesson is another option for an Epiphany reading.   It's not about a star in the sky, but offers a similar message of a rising light - the light of God that rises in the darkness...the light of God shining on his people.  

Read Isaiah 60:1-6. 

The image of light that Isaiah uses as a metaphor for God's presence is powerful.  I mean, even those of us who are not early risers can envision that special moment of daybreak...the intersection in time when night ends and day begins...the moon is fading and the sun is about to rise.  If you've ever seen it then you know it begins not so much with light as with a radiating glow. 

It may not be so profound in the days of streetlights and dense populations, but in the wide open plains or the desert or unpopulated regions, especially on the eastern seaboard, there's nothing quite like the instant in time when the first glimmer of light emerges...and you KNOW that daylight is coming.  You KNOW that the darkness of night is about to be gone and light is on its way. 

It is a moment of true hope.  You can't yet see the daylight, in fact it could be awhile before you do, but there is no longer any doubt it has come.

This was Isaiah's message to the people of Israel.   Arise, your light has dawned...your hope is here.  Keep in mind though, he is speaking to people whose lives are in shambles.  They are returning to Jerusalem after having suffered under the Babylonians.  Yet, Jerusalem as they knew it was no longer there.  The former glory of both the city and the temple was destroyed.   They were coming back to nothing...yet, Isaiah's message is still one of hope. 

Now we tend to see this a Messianic prophecy...especially the part about the gold and frankincense.  And I won't say it's not.  But I will say that it doesn't have to be.  Isaiah's words were meant to encourage a downtrodden, dispirited people at a specific time and in a particular context.  He offered hope that God was with the returning exiles...even when it didn't feel like it.  In the moment, the darkness was still there, but so was the glow of the coming morning light.

Actually, Isaiah doesn't leave any room for doubt about what their future held. Arise. Shine. Lift up your eyes.  Look about.  These are imperatives - instructions for how they were to live in the light of God's salvation right then and there.  As if it God had already redeemed and restored Jerusalem to her glory among all nations.  This was Isaiah's prophetic word to the Israelites back then...and they are epiphany words to the church today.  God's light is already upon us...in us and shining through us.  Jesus Christ has made sure of that.

The light of God's salvation is not just about something to happen in some future millennium...nor is it just for the afterlife.  If the incarnation of Christ teaches us anything, it is that God is with us here and now.  Arise, shine; for your light has dawned...it's as true for God's people today as it was true for God's people any time in all of history.  God's love is here.    Morning has broken. The light of Christ is rising within us. And we are called to shine. 

But let's face it...

Sometimes the night seems excessively long...like it will never end.

Sometimes clouds hide the light of sunshine for days.

Sometimes the light of day reveals the dead brown grass, the muddy slush of plowed snow.  And sometimes, the bright sunshine fools us into believing that it's much warmer outside than it really is.

And so it can be with God's light in our life as well. 

Even in the light of God's love, we will have some long dark nights of our soul that may seem as if they will never end.

Sometimes we can't see the light of God's love because clouds of our sadness, grief or anxiety get in the way.

Sometimes we don't really want to see what God's light might reveal.

Folks, the light of God's presence in our life doesn't always change the reality of our circumstances...but it does give us hope and encourages us as we make our way through them...

Into the darkness of our despair

Into the darkness of difficult diagnoses

Into the darkness of broken relationships.

Into the darkness of addiction

Into the darkness of loneliness

Into the darkness of evil...of all the world's  -isms

Whatever darkness we might experience - personally or as a community of faith - into the darkness, the light of Epiphany promises us that God is there...shining grace and mercy and love...giving us hope and peace. And every time we choose to walk in his light, every time we choose hope over despair...we bring a glimmer of God's glory to the world.

So church...Christmastide is over...it's time.  Arise, shine; for your light has come and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you! (NRSV)

Last year at FPC, we began a new Epiphany tradition.  We received Star Words...words that, like the star which led the wise men to Jesus, can serve as a beacon to draw us closer to Christ throughout the year. Many folks kept their star words in their heart and took note of the ways it showed up in their spiritual life throughout the year.

In a few minutes, as an act of spiritual discipline we will receive our 2017 Star Words.  The words aren't magic...but you might just get one that God's Spiri has chosen for you.  In 2017 this word may play a role in deepening your relationship with Christ...or it may be the epiphany light that inspires you to arise and shine for God this year.  What you do with the word is between you and God.  How it guides you...how often you remember it...or if you toss it in the recycle on the way out the door...none of those things are matters of your salvation or even a measure of your faith.  It's just a way, if you so choose, to be a little more intentional about your own spiritual growth.

Before we do that though, we've set aside some time for folks to share their stories from 2016 Star Words.  After all, ours is a god of lots of stories. Jesus told stories to teach and challenge and grow his disciples.  Telling our Star Words stories are a matter of bragging about what we've done this year, but what God has done in and through us.  Sharing the stories is how we all learn and grow.

I'll briefly share mine as well as one other.  

My star word for 2016 was faith.  It was the perfect word for me this year as a number of things happened in my ministry and in my personal life that forced me to have faith - to acknowledge that I was not the one in control and to trust that God was.  Of course one big moment of faith was when we put our daughter on a plane that would eventually take her to New York then LA.  But there was a call for faith in the little things too...like when we needed a Youth Director and I prayed God would send one.  He did.  When I was worried how we would get through Advent without a music director, God sent an answer.  When I wondered if we were doing the right thing with the midweek dinners this summer and over 100 people showed up for 5 of the 6 dinners, I knew that God was honoring our faith.  The most transformative experience of the word faith this year has been in the way I create sermons.  I used to worry about them...every day...stressed out about getting them done on time.  I would not schedule anything on Saturday ever so I had a back up day, just in case.  This past year I have learned to have faith that God is working on the sermon with me by giving me various experiences throughout the week...and to trust that after six years without a single Sunday where the wasn't a sermon ready, I'm probably always going be able to bring something.  My faith in the creative process has increased and the result is more trust in God's plan, less stress and greater peace

Bible Reference(s):
Luke 2:1-20
Rev. Terri Thorn

Each year as I begin to prepare the Christmas Eve service, I ask myself, "What will you say that hasn't already been said? What message could you possibly offer that might begin to capture the significance of this night? Not to mention, there are no words that could ever have as powerful of an impact as the music and the scripture does, nor would any capture attention the way the NORAD Santa tracker does!"

And every year I come to the same conclusion...perhaps this night is mostly about keeping our traditions intact. After all, there is tremendous comfort in tradition. We all have those things in our life that we say, Christmas isn't Christmas without them. For some folks Christmas isn't Christmas without a trip around the county to look at the lights, or until you've attended the Christmas Cantata, or when you've finally signed, sealed and mailed your annual Christmas letter. And, for many people, in my family it tends to be the men, Christmas isn't Christmas until you've last minute shopped on Christmas Eve morning. Whatever they may be, we all have those traditions that make Christmas, Christmas. Remaining faithful to these things is one of the ways we might say we keep Christmas well.

The idea of keeping Christmas well is actually lifted from the final lines of the classic, A Christmas Carol, which has been the parallel story for our worship these past four weeks of Advent. Referring to the newly redeemed Scrooge, Dickens wrote: and it was always said of him that he knew how to keep Christmas well. In other words, Scrooge went from being one who viewed Christmas as an inconvenient disruption to his work schedule to one who understood it to have significant transformative implications for his life. In one night, he experienced the miracle of Christmas and was forever changed by it.

Now I'm going to assume that most of you know the story of Ebenezer Scrooge. Miserable miser. Lonely. Heartless. No compassion. Only purpose and meaning in life is the accumulation wealth. No time for relationships. Remember that guy? Then, along comes these ghostly visits...first from his dead business partner Jacob Marley, followed by the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Come...each offering a truth that Scrooge could accept or reject.

First, Jacob Marley showed Scrooge the chains of his own life...the heavy burdens that Marley's choices and priorities had created when he was alive and that he was now forced to carry forever into the afterlife. Marley warned Scrooge that there would be no peace unless he changed his ways and avoided making the same mistakes.

The Ghost of the Past revealed to Scrooge a different perspective on his own past - forcing him to look at the memories he had stifled, the hurts he had suffered, and the losses he had experienced. The Ghost helped Scrooge see how they had contributed to his misery, and more importantly, his visit gave Scrooge a glimmer of hope that grace could heal his wounds.

The Ghost of the Present led Scrooge on a journey to acknowledge how his own choices and lack of compassion contributed to the pain and suffering of others. At the same time Scrooge witnessed how, in the presence of love, suffering did not rob people of their Christmas joy.

Finally, the Ghost of Yet to Come, helped him see the ugly consequences of staying on the same dark and lonely path he was currently on. There would be no joy in his living and no grieving at his dying if he continued along his selfish journey.

When you think about it...these ghosts showed Scrooge truths not all unlike those Jesus came to reveal to the world.

Thankfully, as the story goes, in the light of Christmas morning, we learn that Scrooge willingly responded to these lessons of mercy and grace...through them he was transformed into a different man. He rejoiced at his second chance. His heart was filled with love and compassion. He was eager to reconcile and connect with his broken relationships....to celebrate and share the good news with everyone. Scrooge lived differently because Christmas made him different. Ever after, it is how he kept Christmas well.

Interestingly, in the Dickens manuscript, there is a follow-up sentence to the statement that Scrooge knew how to keep Christmas well...it reads: May that be truly said of us, and all of us!

"May it be said of all of us" gives us reason to pause on this Christmas Eve night and wonder what does it mean for us to keep Christmas well? Will we live differently tomorrow because Christmas has made us different tonight?

Folks, the Dickens' classic is fantastic, story-with-a-moral...but at the end of the day, it is just a story. A really good story made up to make a really good point. A valid point...a life lesson worth learning. In essence, Dickens reveals a glimpse of God's truth in a work of fiction.

But this story, the Christmas story that Mary Piper read for us and that we've been singing about, is a true story...and it is much more than a moral, or a valid point, or a good lesson. It is a miracle story in which the past, the present, and the future converge...not as ghosts to be reckoned with...but as a tiny baby boy born into poverty, fear and oppression, yet born to be the Savior of the world. This is the story that brings the fulfillment of past prophecy into a real and present incarnation of God to give the world hope for God's peaceable future. All of this...to us...and for us.

But it's not even the whole story. As one unknown source put it, "Jesus is not part of the Christmas story...Christmas is part of Jesus' story." Without the whole of Jesus' story...the faith stories from the Old Testament...the prophecy...the birth...Mary, Joseph...the shepherds....the angels...Jesus' life, death, and resurrection...well without it all, tonight is just a sentimental birth story. That's why, as strange as it may seem, we have this communion meal and the manger both before us on Christmas Eve...because only when we weave them together - the birth and the death - do we begin to capture the significance of the miracle we celebrate tonight.

Still, Christmas Eve is mostly about the birth...the baby boy...the Incarnate Word of God, through whom unconditional love came into the world. Light entered the darkness. Even now, Christmas reminds us that the light of God's love is among us, despite all the darkness in our lives...despite all the troubles and the suffering of the world...despite all that would lead us to become our own version of Scrooge.

And not that I want to be Scrooge...but there's a lot of darkness..and fear...and suffering...and pain...in our world. We don't have to look beyond the pews of this church to see it, to know it, to feel it. Yet, for this one night, we gather to wrap ourselves in the safety and comfort of our traditions...where we feel God's holy presence...and we experience all that the light of these Advent candles represent.

We have hope in the moment; we experience the peace of God's mercy upon us; we can feel the love that surrounds us. We rejoice in the promise. Right now, along with millions of Christians around the world, we gather in worship and at the table, to keep Christmas well.

The question, though, before we leave here tonight is this, how will we keep it well tomorrow...and the next day...and the next? How will we be light in the darkness that awaits..literally and figuratively...right outside these doors? How will we take the light of these Advent candles, and all that they represent, into the world that so desperately needs it?

In his book, The Redemption of Scrooge, Matthew Rawles answers the question this way: Christmas is an invitation into a relationship with God, through Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit. Christ is born so that God might have ears to hear our wants, eyes to see our needs, hands to outstretch on the cross in order to clothe us in his resurrection, and lips to speak the story of good news, that we might share it with the world.

Friends, keeping Christmas well is a matter of carrying the good news of great joy...the birth of Emmanuel, God with us, the news that we celebrate tonight...taking that out into the world...not just tonight...not just in song...not just in Christmas traditions...but by living our transformed lives...tonight, tomorrow and ever after.

Keeping Christmas well means we choose the redemptive hope of Christ, even when the world spews anxiety and tempts us to fear.

Keeping Christmas well means we choose the peace of forgiveness for ourselves and offer it to others.

Keeping Christmas well means we choose to love, even and especially those who seem unlovable, unwelcome, or undesirable...including ourselves and those with whom we disagree.

Keeping Christmas well means we choose to rest in the joy of God's promises, even when it seems foolish to do so.

Keeping Christmas well means that the birth we celebrate tonight transforms how we live all our tomorrows.

I would like to close with a writing by theologian and civil rights leader, Howard Thurman. He calls it the Work of Christmas...I call it Keeping Christmas Well.

When the song of the angels is stilled, when the star in the sky is gone, when the kings and princes are home, when the shepherds are back with their flocks, the work of Christmas begins: to find the lost, to heal the broken, to feed the hungry, to release the prisoner, to rebuild the nations, to bring peace among the people, to make music in the heart.

May this be the year the world learns to Keep Christmas Well. Amen.

Bible Reference(s):
Luke 4:18-19
Rev. Terri Thorn

The dramatic reading for today should have come with a spoiler alert - it gave away the happy ending to the sermon series! Then again, we had a pretty good idea what would happen when Scrooge woke up on Christmas morning, right? We knew he would be a changed man - with new priorities and a different perspective. After visits from his dead business partner, Jacob Marley, as well as the Christmas Ghosts of Past, Present and Yet to Come, we know his life of utter misery will be transformed to one of abundant joy. Scrooge will not miss Christmas - not the day, nor the meaning, nor the opportunity to rejoice and share in the joy. Right?

We all know that this is how the Dickens' classic ends. Still, we never get tired of hearing it. It is a timeless story that speaks to us...probably because it teaches us some important lessons about our own lives.

After all, there is a little bit of Scrooge in all of us. We all have our selfish moments. Our priorities get sidetracked. As the church, we forget our holy purpose...we forget what it means to be God's people. We sometimes allow fear to be the driving force in our decision-making or to shape our responses toward others. Not to mention, at this time of the year, a number of us get way, way too busy and lose sight of what is really important in life. We become scrooge-like in our attempts to make Christmas celebrations perfect...or to avoid them at all costs.

It's safe to say that we've all been in that place where we know that something in our life needs to change. And, if truth be told, that "something" is usually our own thinking. We reach the point where we long to leave the rat race and seek meaning and purpose instead. We yearn to exchange our misery and fear for joy and peace. We desire relationships to be right and real.

We wish things could be different - better -- in our lives and in the world. In other words, most of us have reached the point (perhaps more than once) when we admit that we need someone to keep us from the inevitable train-wreck that we are setting up with our own de-railed lives.

After the visits of the first two Christmas Ghosts Scrooge starts to acknowledge this about his own life. The light of truth, if you will, was starting to shine. Scrooge slowly realizes that his miserly obsession with accumulating wealth...and his lack of compassion for others...did not bring him any joy. He was on a path he no longer wanted to travel.

In fact, he even says to the faceless and silent Ghost of the Future, "I fear you more than any specter I have seen. But as I know your purpose is to do me good, and as I hope to live to be another man from what I was, I am prepared to bear you company, and do it with a thankful heart."

It's interesting, don't you think, that Scrooge is both fearful of the ghost of the future, yet acknowledges that the spirit's purpose is to his good? It's as if he knows that he's not necessarily going to enjoy this trip...yet he also understands that it's essential for the transformation he seeks. Sort of how one feels when forced to look in the mirror of life - gotta see it in order to change it.

Of course, at this point, Scrooge has no idea what the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come is going to reveal...only that he must peer into the darkness and face the truth that he discovers. Scrooge must journey into the darkness with the Ghost of Yet to Come, not so that he might be scared into changing his life, but so he can see the emptiness of where his love of money will lead. (Rawles, p. 115).

The real tragedy that Scrooge discovers is not that he will die, but how others have experienced him as he lived. He learns that he has no true friends...no meaningful relationships. He has only money that he cannot take with him...and things that will be pawned for scrap. He will die alone...cold and empty-hearted. There will be no eulogy of his life, no grieving family members, and no legacy for his company or his name.

The complete meaninglessness of his life scares him much more than the reality of his future death.

I would imagine that is true for most of us. Living with a sense of purpose and community seems to be one of the most powerful desires of humanity. We want our lives to have mattered...to someone. The possibility we might someday learn that we missed the mark...that it was all for naught...is quite frightening. As is the thought that it might be too late to change who we are and how we live...that we're too far down the tracks to alter our course.

In fact, this is the fear that seems to preoccupy Scrooge the most. He wrestles with it as he dialogues with himself. Is there any chance for a different tomorrow? I say Scrooge "dialogues" with himself because, we're told that the Ghost of Yet to Come is silent throughout his entire visit. Never once does he speak to Scrooge. Yet so much is revealed in the silence. Scrooge reasons and rationalizes and pleads...with the silence...searching for a glimmer of hope that there could be different outcome in his life.

"Before I draw nearer to that stone to which you point," said Scrooge, "answer me one question. Are these the shadows of the things that WILL be, or are they the shadows of things that May be, only?"

Silence.

"Men's courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead," said Scrooge. But if the courses be departed from, the ends will change. Say it is thus with what you show me."

Silence.

"Why show me this if I am past all hope?"

Silence.

Good Spirit, Your nature intercedes for me, and pities me. Assure me that I yet may change these shadows you have shown me, by an altered life."

More silence.

"I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all year. I will live in the Past, the Present and the Future. The Spirits of all three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach. Oh, tell me that I may sponge away the writing on this stone!"

Deafening silence.

Scrooge longed for the Spirit to speak to him and reassure him. It would have been easier that way. Not to mention, there is comfort in having someone tell us what we want to hear. But there's also something very powerful about the silence of our lives that speaks louder than any voice. Silence is uncomfortable. Silence can make us restless. In fact, if I were to ask for a minute of silence right now, I'm confident that within 30 seconds someone would be looking at their watch to see if it was almost over. Imagine if we were silent for 5-10-15 minutes. Many of us don't get that much in a given week, much less a single day. There are just too many sounds in the background. Yet, holy silence makes room for us to hear God.

Silence can also be quite frightening..maybe because we're afraid of being alone with our own thoughts...or perhaps we're afraid of being alone with God. Silence forces us to do both. Absent of the world's noise...without competing voices...including our own...holy silence is the place into which the small still voice of God speaks. Silence allows us to set aside our anxious thoughts and allow ourselves to reflect on the Past, Present and Future from a perspective of hope. To resist judgment -- of ourselves and others. To evaluate our priorities. To consider needs for compassion. To breathe in peace. To rest in the assurance of love.

It was in the silence that Scrooge was able to hear the desire of his own heart. He admitted that he desperately wanted to reverse the course upon which he was headed. He longed for a second chance...a better way...a new life.

And in the light of Christmas morning, Scrooge wakes up to find that he has been given all this and more. Light has overcome the darkness of his long night. He wakes with hope for his future. His wretched life has been redeemed. Showing love and compassion become his purpose in life. And in doing so, his soul finds peace.

Folks, the joy of Scrooge's Christmas morning is not unique to this classic tale...in fact, it reflects the joy of a greater story...our faith story...the Christmas story that unfolds before us every year. Dickens' Christmas Carol captures the eternal promise of Christmas -- it is never, ever too late for a different tomorrow. Nothing, on all the earth, is ever beyond the redemptive power of God's grace revealed in Jesus Christ.

So, as we head into this last week before Christmas...this crazy busy season of checklists and last minute details, try taking of a few minutes of silence every day. Experience the peace and joy of Christmas...ponder the story we already know.

Let the joy of silence fill you as you consider the miracle of Christmas...on that night in Bethlehem, a baby was born...the Word of God incarnate in flesh...a coming together of Past, Present and Future...to bring the light of hope into every corner of darkness...to offer love unconditionally...to instill peace in our hearts...and to fill the world with the joy even in all our brokenness.

This week, quietly look for the promise that wherever the light of Christ is, the poor will receive good news, captives are released, the blind see, and the oppressed are set free. Rejoice in the miracle that in the light Christ's love, the past loses its power to bind us...that by Christ's compassion for us, our appreciation for common humanity increases in the here and now. Rejoice the miracle that in the presence of Christ's mercy, the yet-to-come future is a source of joy, not fear.

Friends, this week, let the joy of silence fill you as you receive the miracle of Christmas in your own heart...knowing that when Christ enters, redemption happens...in Scrooge...in you...in me...in all of us. God bless us, everyone.

Bible Reference(s):
Matthew 2:1-18
Rev. Terri Thorn

Thank goodness for the beauty of this morning's music because the scripture reading from Matthew's gospel sure doesn't do much to instill a sense of Christmas joy, does it? Don't get me wrong...the wise men following the star to worship the baby Jesus is an integral and lovely part of the Christmas story. We would never want to skip it. But the massive slaughter of innocent babies is one of those things we'd rather not mention.

Unfortunately though, when we bypass the slaughter of the innocents we ignore the raw, ugly reality of evil surrounding Jesus' birth. We neglect to appreciate what a troubled and troubling world was waiting for him. We forget that Jesus born into abject poverty and oppression. Not just poor, but barely surviving poor. Not just financial oppression, but "I can order you killed if I feel like it" oppression. Mary and Joseph and their community were not just a meek people, they were a silenced people. Without power. Without voice.

Not at all unlike the people surrounding Scrooge...people to whom he was oblivious.. .people who were poor and powerless, people who, according to Scrooge, were a drain on society. People whose jobs and wages were so meager they could not provide for their basic needs...people who were homeless....people (young children) who were enslaved to sweatshops...people who did not have access to medical care...people who worked in dangerous, substandard working condition. People Scrooge did not see...lives of which we was not aware. People who, despite all the technology available to connect us to each other, are still unseen in the world today. People, suffering in silence.

Folks, when we refuse to mention Herod 's evil nature we deny the presence of intimidation and fear which defined the context of Jesus' birth. We lose sight of the fact that the Mary and Joseph were in Bethlehem because their government insisted they be rounded up and counted. We forget that while the people of Jerusalem may have had some basic freedoms, they were beholden to both Herod and the Empire he served. They were a people who struggled to survive, who suffered greatly under oppression, and who lived mostly in fear. And you know, given Herod's heartless order to have all babies under the age of two killed, the people of Jerusalem had very good reason to be afraid.

It's like the old saying goes: power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely. Well, perhaps we should add a third stanza: absolute power, when challenged, turns absolutely evil. This was certainly the case in the first century, and the current state of affairs in the world suggests that it still holds true today.

So, as much as the ugliness of this story rains on the parade of Christmas celebrations and the excitement of Advent worship...it also sheds light on the significance of Jesus' birth. Ultimately, it gives us even more reason to be joyful in Advent...in worship...and in life. This story reminds us that ours is a God who chooses to come dwell right smack-dab in the middle of it all that suffering. It tells us that there is something about the power of God's love that scares the heck out of evil. It reminds us that God could have chosen to dwell among his people in any way, , or form God wanted. God could have come as a powerful person...as a mighty lion...as vortex of supernatural force. But God chose to come as a powerless, utterly dependent infant, because that's where God's heart resides.

Scripture is clear that God has a preference for the poor...for those whose lives are lived at the margins of society...the oppressed and those in need. So, pure love came down on that first Christmas to be one of the poor...one of the oppressed...one of the overlooked...so that we, his people, will learn to seek God there. It is as an early, church father once said, "If you cannot find Christ in the beggar at the church door, you will not find him in the chalice." In other words, we can give a person money for a cup of coffee and it will meet their immediate need. There's nothing wrong with that. But when actually sit down to see and hear another while we drink the coffee together, we offer them love. The first is giving from our position of power and wealth...the other is giving from a place of mutual poverty...from our common humanity...and our shared need for connection and love. The first is about what we are doing, the second is about what God is doing. When we see each other, and hear each other, and respect each other, and love each other...we encounter God in the truest and most holy form. It is where we find true joy and experience God's deep peace...even in the midst of our suffering and pain.

It seems that the Ghost of Christmas Present came to teach this lesson to Scrooge. To help him see that the people he dismissed because they were poor...whom he considered to be a nuisance...were, in fact, those who embodied the meaning of Christmas...who were joyful and trusting God despite their circumstances...no bitterness or blaming...people who were actually more blessed than Scrooge...not with finances, but with love. The ghost shows Scrooge scene after scene of impoverished people, like Bob Cratchet ,who were surprisingly happy with their life...and suffering people, like Tiny Tim, who offered blessing and joy to others.

But the Ghost also shows Scrooge the harsh reality of inequity and injustice that plagued his world. He showed him the "collateral damage" if you will of greed and unholy power. In fact, the Spirit goes as far as to imply that the blood of the poor and powerless were on Scrooge's hands, along with those who used their position of power to neglect the cries of those in need or to refuse compassion toward them.

In the original story, Dickens puts it this way: "Will you decide what men shall live, what men shall die? It may be, that in the sight of Heaven, you are more worthless and less fit to live than millions like this poor man's child."

In Herod's case...FEAR drove his response to decide who would live and who would die. The fear of being challenged...the fear of being forced to reckon with the voice of the people (which is what a new king would be)...the overwhelming fear of losing power...fears that drove him to a response filled with evil toward humankind. He launched a pre-emptive strike, if you will, of killing all possible threats, real or imagined.

Scrooge's response, however, was different...with a hint of humility and an increasing awareness of those around him. He did not want Tiny Tim to die. As the Ghost shows Scrooge the festivities in homes of his neighbors and more specifically, within his own extended family, he begin to take notice of their lives...of the joy that is present...but also of the hardships they face. Slowly we are witness to transformation in Scrooge. As he sees the loving kindness and genuine goodness in the hearts of those he had previously ignored, we see glimpses of thawing in his own frozen heart.

During the visit of Christmas Present, for the first time in a long time, or perhaps the first time ever, Scrooge sees, the meaning of Christmas. Scrooge sees what love looks like when it shows up in the midst of suffering and pain. Dickens doesn't say it outright, but it seems Scrooge finally receives Christ's love.

Friends, Jesus was born to bring love into our suffering. To be the one that counters pain with compassion and establishes a very different understanding of what it means to be blessed. He stood with those living on the margins, but he also chose to take on the "powers and principalities" of injustice and oppression that kept them there. He did not respond with physical assault or malicious attack. Instead, he chose the cross of compassion over a sword of revenge. Jesus stood with and among those held captive in fear...to love them, welcome them, sacrifice for them and bring them peace. Even in the midst of the evil...even in the chaos...even in the suffering and pain.

Jesus responded to evil with awareness and assurance.

He was aware and assured of his call and purpose...aware and assured that his was a message of grace and mercy...aware and assured that the love of God that was in him was greater than any earthy power.

Aware and assured, Jesus countered fear with love.

Defensiveness and preemptive strikes? Get to them before they get to us? Those are actions and attitudes associated with fear. Scrooge's version of this response was to isolate and accumulate...and the heck with everyone else...their problems were not of his concern.

As we approach another Christmas, the One whose birth we are about to celebrate calls us to leave these types of fear responses behind. Instead, Christmas invites us to respond from an awareness of our common humanity and the assurance that God's love always wins.

Now, I don't think I'm being too political to say that fear seems be the predominate emotion of the 21st century. And there is a lot about how we are responding to it that looks like Herod and Scrooge. But if the birth of Christ our Savior is to be of any significance beyond a Bible story, we must choose a different way of interacting with each other...the way of love and forgiveness...the way of compassion and mercy...the way of God revealed to us in Jesus Christ.

Folks, whether we're talking first century or twenty-first century...be it in a particular situation or a hardened heart like Scrooge's, when Christ enters, transformative love comes crashing in. And, much like the labored birth of a baby, it's not always an easy thing. It turns our world upside down and challenges us to see with a new and different perspective.

When love comes among us...we begin to see ourselves, each other, and the world through God's eyes of love.

When love comes among us...our understanding of powerlessness as something to be avoided, is re-shaped to an awareness that it is only in our personal powerlessness that we are able to experience God's power.

When love comes among us...our definition of blessing is redefined and we open our eyes to see that it is only God's grace, not our things or wealth or even health, that is our true source of joy.

When love comes among us...we realize that our worth is not defined by our mistakes or the world's definition or righteousness.

When love comes among us...we are aware that love...not some religious doctrine or political statement...is the force that connects us to God and to each other.

When love comes among us...fear goes away...and peace enters in.

When love comes among us...the powerful are threatened and the righteous redeemed.

When love comes among us...we are not only loved by God, we become an expression of God's love to a desperate, hurting world.

So as much as I am trying to keep the political environment of our nation out of our Advent worship, stories like this one from Matthew remind me that we cannot....at least not if we intend to be faithful to the God of love who originally authored it and is still authoring it in our lives.

We live in a world where there is wide-spread suffering. We live in a world where minority voices are unheard, where the poor are considered a burden on society, where basic human needs are unmet. We live with political leaders around the world whose responses look like Herod's..and whose hearts are as self-serving as Scrooge's was before he met Christmas Present.

We live in a fearful time and we are becoming a fearful people.

Yet we are also Christmas people. We know that the only thing that will ever transform the world from the uglinessness of evil is the beautiful presence of love. And folks, if there's ever a time we need love to come down, it is now...this Christmas Present.

Stephanie Mott of Kansas wrote a piece earlier this week that I feel captures this beautifully. Let me share it in closing.

We live in a world that is struggling to remember the value of unconditional love.

The end of our struggles cannot be achieved by adding fuel to the fire.

Our hope is to display the value of unconditional love with such brightness it will shine for all to see.

There are many who believe that now is the time to stand up courageously, and it is.

The call, far-too-often, is for responding to anger with anger.

But you can be angry, yet not do anger.

You can be angry, and do love.

What could be more courageous than love in the face of anger and hate?

Love is not weak.

Love is not silent.

Love is not passive.

Love is not afraid.

Choose love.

God bless us everyone.

Bible Reference(s):
Isaiah 9:1,6
Luke 2:8-14
Rev. Terri Thorn

Today, the second Sunday in our Advent series, Mr. Scrooge gets a visit from the Ghost of Christmas Past. Now I suppose, if one has to be visited by a ghost of some sort, the ghost of Christmas Past is probably the way to go. I mean if we are forced to look into the past, Christmas time seems to be safe enough. It usually consists of mostly fond memories..as long as we don't go too deep below the surface. Most of us are comfortable with some general reminiscing of our favorite stories, but that's about it. Otherwise, we tend to say that the past is the past and we don't want to spend too much time there.

I wonder if that's because too much time in the past, or too far down below the surface, and the stories become less Hallmark-ish. In fact they may even be painful to remember. Or perhaps we just prefer to leave things the way we remember them, whether or not it is the way the really were. To look any closer might upset the picture we've settled in our mind.

And let's be honest, we all have mental images of what we think the past was like...and usually no two people remember it the same. The things we remember and the way we remember them is always from our own very limited perspective and life experiences. More importantly...as Scrooge discovers in the ghostly visit...over a lifetime, the things we remember...or those we refuse to allow ourselves to remember...can have a significant impact on who we are and how we live in the here and now. Regardless of how recent or ancient they are, or how accurately we remember them, the memories we carry in our heart influences how we see ourselves, each other, and the world.

In Scrooge's case, it was the memories he repressed - the one's he refused to face - that had the greatest bearing on who he became -- a miserable, ruthless, lonely old. Yet, as I mentioned last week, Ebenezer Scrooge wasn't always a scrooge. He became "scrooge" if you will as a result of choices made at various crossroads in life...decisions which were mostly based on his limited perspective of how things really were.

The purpose of the visit of the Ghost of Christmas Past was to help Scrooge see this about himself. It was an opportunity to broaden his perspective and encourage him to realize that another version of his own story was possible. It was meant to be an experience of hope - even if just a glimpse. The Ghost of Christmas Past was there to cast light into Scrooge's story...to illuminate the painful past he had repressed...not to prove it false...not to make it better...but to release him from the grip it held over him and his life.

Truth be told, no one is ever eager to look at the ugly side of life. Rarely does one willingly CHOOSE to take a walk down the painful path or to explore the dark corners. Scrooge definitely did not want to face the pain of his childhood loneliness...or to re-experience the cold rejection of his parents that he felt when he was sent off to boarding school. He had no desire to pick the scab off the wound he suffered when he chose wealth over love and happiness.

Yet Christmas Past insisted that Scrooge allow himself to remember all of this and more. Why do you suppose that is? Why would is it necessary to subject ourselves to the things that break or harden our hearts. Some folks will say that it has therapeutic value. Facing our pain -- past or present --helps reframe how we respond to it. Addressing pain head-on moves us through it. It gives us hope to move forward and we often find ourselves in a new place of compassion and peace when we do.

Many people have said that the most painful experiences of life have also been times of greatest emotional and spiritual growth for them. Even though they would rather not experience pain and hurt, they also believe the challenging times made them realize just how strong they could be. This is particularly true for people of faith. Crisis...hitting rock bottom...feeling utterly helpless and alone...this is when we become more acutely aware of our need for God. It moves us to reach out for something greater than ourselves.

Another reason we must be willing to face the good, the bad and the ugly of our life is that we can only fully experience the joy of redemption if we are free of guilt and shame and resentment. If we avoid, hide or bury the past...it will continue to shape our future. However, if we view it through the light of Christ...through the light of mercy and grace...it loses its power over us and we gain a new, more loving and forgiving perspective about ourselves, about others, and about God.

Casting light into the dark corners of our life is how healing comes to us and makes us whole. In the language of our faith, we say that God's grace is upon us whether we know it or not. However, we will only experience God's grace...when we acknowledge we need it. In other words, forgiveness and salvation is always there for us...but we will only receive it when we have confessed our fears and failures...our sins and transgressions...when we have faced our deepest darkest pain.

It's really scary to consider looking into the darkness, but as soon as we do...the light is there for us...casting out the fear, softening the heart...preparing us to receive the grace of Christ and be transformed from the scrooge we sometimes are into the likeness of Christ that we are created to bear. Of course, the change doesn't happen immediately, but a glimpse of compassion usually does. It frees us to become gentler and kinder toward ourselves and others.

The best metaphor I've ever experienced for this was when our family visited Marengo Cave. The farther into the inner rooms of the cave we went, farther from the safety of the entrance, the more unsettled I felt. And when the guide extinguished all sources of light, it was literally terrifying. I could not even recognize my own hand in front of my face. The darkness overtook us, disoriented us, and made us fearful of every sound and movement around. I still remember how my heart raced, and even though I knew in my rational mind I was safe and sound with a tour guide and there would be another tour group coming along in a minute...during that darkness I felt completely alone and afraid. And then the guide struck a match and lit a single candle. The tiniest light, which grew brighter and brighter...until I realized my eyes were seeing more light even though it was still just a single candle...and my perspective, if you will...was adjusting and responding to the light.

To me that's what it is like when Christ's light enters into the darkness of hearts and the painful moments of our lives. The darkness is dispelled even though we are still in the cave, and while the pain remains, our experience of it becomes different. We take on a new perspective about it. One that is more hopeful and hope-filled. More trusting and unafraid.

In the plot of the Christmas Carol, the Ghost of Christmas Past came to Scrooge in order to illuminate the past as a way of instilling hope for a different future. His glowing light of hope helped nudge Scrooge to consider that the destructive path of the past, the one filled with pain and resentment...could still become different in the future. It provided a hope and a light...whether he understood it at the moment or not...for redemption..for reconciliation with others, for a new life with a different meaning.

And folks, isn't that what it means to be redeemed in Christ? To repent...to turn away from the all the isolated, walled-off, selfish, dark, scooge-like paths of our life in order to walk the new path of light and love...the way of mercy, compassion, and grace with each other?

Isn't that what it means for the people who walked in darkness to see a great light? Isn't that why God embodied himself in human flesh and dwelled among us? The great light that Isaiah mentions came to earth to illumine the darkness...and to free us from it. He came to walk with us in our pain and guide us in the difficulties. Jesus was born to give us hope so we can move toward the light of his love...to be transformed by his compassion...and to experience the joy of mercy and forgiveness...to know the peace of salvation...even when everything else around us feels very burdensome, heavy and dark.

Friends, these familiar words of Isaiah, given to the Israelites, offered the same thing that the Ghost of Christmas Past offered Scrooge. To a people whose past had been filled with darkness and whose lives were still quite miserable, this prophecy gave hope for a different, better future...a future filled with justice, mercy and peace. This is the same "hope for a different future" that the shepherds celebrated that night in the fields. It is the same hope that came to us as the baby born in Bethlehem. It is the light we seek every Advent season, and it is the light of hope the world so desperately needs now.

There was a glimpse and glimmer of the miracle of this hope in Scrooge as he visited his past. His own memories of pain moved him to consider how he could bring compassion to those in need and be a source of healing for the broken world. It was a small shift...but it was the first step toward a different future for him and for all those around him. As we continue on our Advent journey, even during this year which seems particularly painful for so many, may the presence of Christ's light and hope move us to compassion and mercy and love toward each other so we, too, can change the world around us. And, may the light of our lives burn brightly as the miracle of Christmas has begun in each of us. God bless us everyone.

November 27, 2016
Bible Reference(s):
Isaiah 9:6-7
Luke 1:46-47 and 52-55
Rev. Terri Thorn

During the Monday morning Bible study there are three things that are almost always guaranteed to happen. There will be fresh coffee available, people will typically sit in or near the same seat each week...and usually as we are reading the assigned psalm, someone will remark, "Hey, these words are from a song we sang in choir."

It is one of the beautiful things about many of the hymns and anthems sung in worship...they are basically scripture set to music. In fact, I'm confident that many of you were probably humming a little Handel's Messiah as I read the passage from Isaiah this morning. In case you're wondering, I was definitely singing it in my head...I mean, it's almost impossible to read those verses without punctuating them like a grand choral performance.

And...for as much as music helps us remember...stories help us understand. This time of the year we get many of both...songs and stories that remind us of the Reason for the Season. Of course, some do a much better job than others -- but I think most people would agree that the Dickens' classic, A Christmas Carol, or as some of us call it, the Scrooge story, is one of the best to cause us to consider the true meaning of Christmas. It challenges us to examine our own lives...and priorities...in order to open ourselves to the peace, hope, love and joy that came to earth as tiny baby who was and is God with us.

Now, let me just say, if you haven't read the Scrooge story in awhile, the text is available several places online. We've linked one source to our new website under "worship resources". Or if you prefer the movie version, you're also in luck because some good folks in church family are planning a Movie Night in December where everyone is invited to come and watch the Disney version.

In the meantime, for those who may need a little refresher, the main character of the story is Ebenezer Scrooge - a sad, lonely old man, who is cold, stingy, inflexible and insensitive toward everyone. He is even more grumpy and bitter at Christmastime each year. Mr. Scrooge's only priority in life is his business...work, eat, sleep, repeat...with a single objective - to accumulate more wealth.

One Christmas eve Ebenezer is visited by three spirits...the spirit of Christmas past, the spirit of Christmas present, and the spirit of Christmas future...an experience that eventually changes his life. Before all this happens though, Scrooge has an encounter with the ghost of his dead business partner, Jacob Marley. Mr. Marley shows up, laden with chains he that we was forced to carry around for eternity...chains representing the things he had thought were most important throughout his life...heavy, burdensome chains that he admits he created and placed upon himself.

The intention of his visit to tell Scrooge that they had gotten it all wrong. He wanted to warn Scrooge about the error of his ways. You see, in the afterlife, Marley had come to realize that both he and Scrooge had mistakenly bought into the world's economy rather than God's. They believed that the only measure of success and purpose was the accumulation of one's wealth. In their zero-sum accounting world, everything was quantifiable, and since more for you meant less for me, greed and miserly stinginess ruled their transactions. And everything in life -- even relationships - were merely transactions for Scrooge and Marley.

Marley, however, was dead. His fate was sealed. He suffered the eternal consequence of having lived his entire life by these false truths...yet he knew it wasn't too late for things to be different for Scrooge. Marley would never experience joy or peace but there was still a chance for Scrooge. Marley understood that his business partner, who was only dead in spirit, could have life again. He could experience the meaning of Christmas year-round...if he would open himself to a new understanding of what is really important in life.

That's why one of the most powerful lines in the entire story is when Marley replies to Scrooge's comment that he, Jacob, had always been a good man of business. He answers, "Business! Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business."

In a sense, Marley reveals the same earth-shattering message that Mary proclaims in her song. The welfare of humankind is God's business and therefore should be ours. Mary declares that the world's truth is not God's truth. In fact, God's truth, which was about to be revealed in the baby Mary was carrying, is not only NOT compatible with the world's truth...it is a truth that disrupts the status quo, inverts prevailing power structures, and turns the world on its end.

Now, by truth we don't necessarily mean a single factual item, a rule, or a specific doctrine. When we speak of God's truth, it means God's way...the life God desires for his people. The way things are supposed to be in God's kingdom...if you will. God's truth is that which Jesus embodies, demonstrates and offers.

God's truth is loving...and welcoming...and forgiving...and gracious. God's truth is that people matter more than possessions. And, powerless people, whom Mary calls lowly, have a particular importance to God. God's truth is one of faithfulness, justice, and compassion - especially for those whose voice is not heard...those who are outcast...those who oppressed...the poor, the hungry, the stranger...those who do not rank on the world's economic scale....those who are broken and have no community. God's truth of salvation instills hope, calls for love, offers joy, and brings peace to all who seek it.

Marley knew that the only way to experience true peace in this realm...or the next...is to reorder our lives to live by God's economy...in God's kingdom...with God's priorities...and not the world's.

What an important message at this time of the year...when nearly everything about the season draws us into the false truths of the world...destroying our inner peace in the process. Things like this whole Black Friday experience...somebody, somewhere trying to convince us that stampede shopping is a necessary part of the holiday season. Or the false belief that a measure of our love for someone is somehow contained in the cost of the wrapped gift we give them on Christmas Day. Or the worldly belief that the house drawing the highest wattage in Christmas lighting decor is somehow a better expression of Christmas spirit than the one with the simple wreath on the door. Not to mention the stress of finding the just right gifts, baking the just right cookies, and decorating the just right tree. The pressure to attend holiday functions and parties and school events.

You get the idea. It doesn't take long until we're feeling a bit like Scrooge ourselves. The joy of Christmas gets lost in our busyness and stress robs us of our peace.

Priorities always seem to get jumbled up at Christmastime. We know that in the big scheme of life these things aren't of great importance...yet in the moment they sure feel significant.

However, it is a reality that isn't unique to the Christmas season. We might experience the angst more acutely this time of the year, but our peace is disturbed anytime we buy into a definition of truth that is not God's.

Theologian Paul Tillich describes this imbalance in terms of ultimate concern. He says whatever is our ultimate concern becomes our god...thus displacing the true God. Jesus said something similar to his disciples: For where your treasure is, there will you heart be also.

Scrooge's ultimate concern was money. In fact, so much so that his life is a caricature of what Jesus meant when he said one cannot have two masters, we cannot serve both God and mammon. In other words, God will not be our ultimate concern while wealth and possessions are, and as a result, our lives will eventually look like Scrooge's...devoid of love and compassion...cold and heartless...lacking happiness or contentment.

Now quite honestly, it is unlikely that any of us are true Scrooges. For one thing, we wouldn't be in church if we were. However, we all have things in our lives that have the potential to make us miserable. Ironically, these things are not always bad things...in fact many of them are good and well-intending. In fact, Scrooge's wealth wasn't a bad thing...wealth in and of itself is not inherently bad...however, when it became his ultimate concern, it took the place of God in his life. So yes, many good things can become an ultimate concern at one time or another...good things like our children's happiness...or helping family member...being the church...growing the church...even seeking justice in the world. All good things...all godly things...but when the outcome of our effort becomes more important than the God who calls us to them, our experience of peace will diminish and our lives are prone to the same kind of bitterness and resentment that we see in Scrooge. Likewise when we are focused on less holy things...such as gaining earthly power, being in control, needing to be right or to feel esteemed and validated by others..we run the same risk of misery - usually more painfully and deeply because it spills over onto the people we love.

The more something, anything, other than God becomes our priority, the heavier the links in the chain that holds us to it. The more power something other than God's truth has over our heart and mind, the more life it sucks out of us and the less of God's peace we will ever know. It doesn't take long until we become jaded and Scrooge-like in our interactions with others...and the less we are able to truly rejoice and praise God.

Now, before we start to let guilt become our collective ultimate concern, let me just say this...we all fail at this ultimate concern thing...frequently. None of us has yet mastered the discipline of making God our one and only concern...to always and in all ways give God top billing. Still the more we seek God's truth for our lives...the more we seek his presence and trust his promise of mercy and grace...the better we get at it. Nonetheless...we will never get it completely right. Not on this side of heaven. We will have glimpses of the peace that passes all understanding, but we will have our days of unrest and angst as well. The goal of our faith journey is for the glimpses to grow into moments and for the moments to become extended periods of deep peace.

This is how salvation - the healing of our brokenness - seems to work. It is both a completed deal - by God's grace through our faith in Christ we are saved - but it is also an ongoing process of reordering our priorities and detaching ourselves from worldly ways..in order to become more like the image of Christ in us...to more fully experience his mercy, grace and peace.

Folks, Scrooge wasn't always hard-hearted. He wasn't always bitter. Making money wasn't always his ultimate concern. It was the result of choices he made at various cross-roads of life. We will learn more about that in the weeks ahead. Suffice to say that decisions made during difficult days drew Scrooge deeper into his own darkness...until he reached the point that he could not, or would not, see the light and love of Christ around him. There was no joy. There was no peace. There was no life.

When the bell tolled and the spirits of Christmas visited, Scrooge was given a second chance. Christmas past, present and future exposed the false truths that he held and the consequences of becoming chained to them. In that one night of ah-ha awareness Scrooge understood that life could be different.

In essence, in the coming together of past, present and future, Scrooge experienced his own kind of Advent. It is, after all, the season that messes with our time and space continuum - where past, present and future intersect...culminating on Christmas morning. Advent brings God's people together in the present to remember the past as a way of finding hope for the future. In doing so, open ourselves to the possibility that life can be different and to receive the gifts of Christmas that Jesus offers -- hope, love, joy and peace.

Friends the hope of Advent never changes...we trust that the kingdom of God will be as Mary described...as the prophets proclaimed...free of pain, free of suffering, free of violence, and war, and fear…and we eagerly look forward to the day that becomes the reality on earth. In the meantime, we also recognize that the world in which we live is broken, full of things that stand in total opposition to the love and grace of God. The challenge of a life of faith is to live in the world, but not of it. To choose kingdom living even when the kingdom is not yet fully here. It means we express hope despite the messages of hopelessness. We believe that light is shining even when things seem dark. We trust that healing has come to this broken world...and that the power inversion that Mary proclaims is already happening...one life...one decision...one choice...at a time. More importantly, we refuse to attach ourselves to anything less than God's grace...and to the Advent promise that God is coming and that God already is with us...still.

Friends, this is the promise that allows us to unlink ourselves for the many things that vie for top billing as our ultimate concern...both those that we place there and those that other people place on us. Grace is the promise that empowers us to break free of the chains of the tempting false truths the world offers, to unleash ourselves from expectations - ours and others. It is the promise that transforms us into the people we are created to be...people who have hope, who receive and share God's love, joyful people who, even in the midst of the world's troubles, experience God's peace. God's amazing grace among us is the miracle of Christmas...may it be in each of us for the sake of the world. God bless us Every One.

November 13, 2016
Bible Reference(s):
Isaiah 65:17-25
Terri Thorn

A couple of months ago, when we decided to have this service in Fellowship Hall, we planned to honor the progress we have made toward our Guiding Vision, which was unveiled at about this same time last year.  Harvest season seemed to be a fitting time to talk about the ministries that have been planted this past year and to inspire generosity for more seed-sowing next year.  Those were the original intentions for today, and we will still get to it in just a bit.

First, however, could we take a minute to be real with each other about the mounting post-election tension in our nation? I understand that many of you come to church to get away from that kind of stuff for an hour or two, so I don't want to dwell on it too long.  Yet, given how this week has unfolded, I feel I would be unfaithful to my pastoral duties if I did not bring it up.  It's one of the weeks where the words of Karl Barth ring so loud in my head...preach with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. 

I'm sure that most are aware, there are election protests happening in the streets of many cities, including Indianapolis last night.  And, while some of those protests are a peaceful exercise of a constitutional right that our founding fathers held dear, others are engaging in unacceptable criminal activities that need to be stopped, even if law enforcement must use force to do it.  At the same time, we are learning of personalized actions of bigotry and hate, at least 200 or more since Tuesday, being perpetrated against innocent people.  For example, children being openly bullied in schools because they are Latino; LGBTQ folks and their supporters being chased and beaten; people of color who are afraid to drive through certain counties right now.  There is a KKK parade being planned to celebrate the election results and some of my progressive-leaning clergy colleagues have had their jobs threatened and reputations maligned because they have spoken out about the injustices.  Unfortunately, much of this is happening in the name of our new President.

Now before anyone gets upset and leaves, please hear me out…I am not here to blame Donald Trump or question the election results.  We all know that no single elected official on either party has caused all the problems we face, nor will  any one leader be able to heal this nation.  The hatred that has reared its ugly head this week, at its core, is the result of a nation that has turned away from God...and of a Church that has placed its hope and trust in the wrong things...relying on what Washington tells us is right rather than what God has called us to be and do. 

All that said, my reason for bringing this up today isn't to engage in the political debate...or even to rebuke American Christianity.  It is to say that we...Americans yes...but more importantly, we the church...have a huge problem on our hands.  It's not a political problem. It's not a societal problem either.  Some say it's sin problem.  That's part of it. It's also a lack of compassion problem...a void of empathy problem...a denial of our common humanity problem.  Americans seem to be losing our ability to see the presence of God in each other.  As a result we've distanced and separated from one another to the point that we now have these huge chasms of division before us...chasms that seem  to be getting deeper and wider by the day.   We are growing farther apart politically, socio-economically, theologically, racially and linguistically.  Yes, linguistically.  We cannot even agree on the definition of justice or truth. 

We can, however, agree that emotions are running high and rampant in our nation right now.  My concern is that the what's happening out there is also happening in here as well.  I've heard stories of real grief and sadness over the election results, as well as those of relief and vindication that Donald Trump will be President.  There are some folks in the room who believe that things are about to get better for them personally, while others are genuinely concerned for the safety of their friends who are not white or straight. 

The reality of all of these diverse, and sometimes opposite, emotions and reaction is what makes this worship service so significant.  You see, even though it was planned months ago that we would be in this casual setting today, I believe that it is by God's divine providence and grace that we are at tables with each other today.  Thank God we are not in the pews where we could politely avoid eye contact with those we suspect might not share our post-election feelings.   No, it is a true blessing that we are here...in close quarters...at mostly round tables (except for a few at the back)...face-to-face with each other to worship God and break bread together.

It really is an important big deal.  I mean, think about it.  I'm tempted to ask for a show of hands, but I won't.  However, I'm 100% certain that there are people in this room who voted for Donald Trump and there are people who voted for Hillary Clinton.  There may even be some who voted for Gary Johnson, or a write-in, or no one at all.  There are people in this room who are at peace with the results of the election...people who are disturbed by them...and people who were surprised, people who predicted it, and people who really don't care all that much one way or another. 

So, the reality is that the Church in America does mirror our nation with our significant differences. However, unlike the worldly way of creating division over the differences, we are called to the godly way of coming together as one in Christ. We are called to choose the better way.   Now, I'm not talking about a false sense of unity or a denial of individual beliefs, emotions and feelings...but, as the church, we've been taught to respect and love each other despite our differences...to trust that each person has the best and holiest of intentions...even when we disagree. 

As followers of Jesus, we gather and affirm that Christ is present in each of us - and how one votes in an election does not change that.  We affirm that in Christ we are united as one body and one Spirit, called to the one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.  We share the one table...the one bread of life and one cup of salvation. And today, we gather as one faith family to worship God and share in a meal. 

We also gather joyfully around this one vision of God's ultimate desire for his people.  And that is enough.  We don't need the media to tell us what the vision of greatness is or is not...nor do we need the politicians or the rest of the world to define hope for us.  This passage from Isaiah describes God's future peaceable kingdom and Jesus shows us how to live as his subjects here and now!

The passage also reminds us that God, not humankind, is the source and the creator of the vision.  Notice, that according to this description, the new heaven and the new earth are not your typical streets of gold and pearly gates kind of place that we think might be found in the next realm.  Not at all.  Instead he says it is a new place... a very practical kind of new community.  It's grounded in the worldly things  we know -houses, gardens, jobs - yet at the same time, all the negative norms and painful experiences of life in a fallen world are overturned.  Actually, God not only alleviates them...he wipes them out...as if they never existed. 

No more weeping.  No more distress.  No more grief.  No more infants dying too early.  No more elderly whose vitality is cut short.   God's vision is a community of justice...where people will have sufficient housing...no shady landlords, unfair taxation or demeaning labor. There will be labor, but in this vision of accountability, work will be purposeful and rewarding.   And finally, God say says this kind of world is a vision of unity, inclusion and peace.

Is it a literal vision?  I'm not so sure.  What we do know is that it is the vision the returning exiles needed in the midst of their trauma and despair. A vision that inspired them to imagine a new and better day...to hold out hope for a life beyond the real and present destruction that had taken place in their homeland.   A vision that called them to a promise of transformation...even when they didn't feel like it...even when they did not comprehend how it could be.

I should point out another divine thing about this day.  This passage is often used for sermons to offer hope when things look bleak. Given the national news one might think I chose it this week to make a point.  Or that it was selected because we're talking about our Guiding Vision.  Neither is the case.  Believe it or not...this happens to be the lectionary for this Sunday.  Yet again, God's providence knew exactly what we needed to hear today.  So, while it is a redemptive vision for a specific people in a specific place at a specific time...it is also speaks to us when the world is in chaos..when peace and unity seem far beyond reach.  It is a vision of what is possible for the people of God.

Granted, Isaiah's vision has not fully come to fruition as it is written...but it has been fully revealed to the world in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

In the incarnate Word of God,  the vision is became real and not just some far away future ideal. This lion and lamb vision is the peaceful kingdom that came among us when Jesus was born and is possible by the work of the Holy Spirit here and now.   Like all "visions" Isaiah's description here is not just something we wish would happen, or that are we waiting for it to happen...a vision is meant to be an inspiration for our living as we make it happen.  It is a promise into which we are invited and a reality we seek to bring about. 

Yes...us...the church.  We help bring this vision to fruition.  Remember, Jesus did not look to the Empire to be the change agent for seeking justice, or caring for the poor, freeing the oppressed, or restoring the community to wholeness..so, honestly, neither should we.   Yes, we most assuredly seek to elect righteous, god-fearing, honest, respectful, compassionate leaders at all levels of government...those we believe will best serve God's vision revealed in Christ.   However, in the end, the only power that can bring new life...a new heaven and a new earth...is God's power.  The good news of the gospel is that the same resurrecting power that raised Jesus from the dead is at work in and through us, as his people - equipping and empowering us to help achieve his vision in our lives, in our communities, and in the world.

Sadly, life in today's world doesn't look like much like the picture Isaiah painted.  Yet, that doesn't stop God's people from boldly moving toward it.  As the Body of Christ, it is our heart's desire...our common bond...our rallying cry to unity...to live the vision revealed in Jesus Christ.

When we offer the forgiveness and mercy and grace that has been given to us, we live the vision.  When we choose to listen to each other, and see each other, and validate each other, we live the vision.  When we seek to identify our common bonds, heal relationships, and welcome each other into community, we live the vision.  When we stand up to forces of injustice and stand with those on the margin, we live the vision.  When we choose love over hate...when we choose love over fear..we live the vision.

Step by step, choice by choice, each of us...this faith family...when we come together, in all our differences, not in some forced agreement, but in a commitment to be people of grace, hope and love...we live the vision of God's peaceable kingdom...until it is so.

It may seem unnatural by the world's standard...but in God's eyes, it is what it means to be his church.  Praise be to God for entrusting his Vision into our hands.  Amen!

Bible Reference(s):
Haggai 1:15b-2:9
Terri Thorn

Unless you've been hiding under a rock this week then you already know that on Wednesday, November 2nd,  the Chicago Cubs won the Major League Baseball World Series for the first time in 108 years.  Now, I'm not even going to claim to be one of those life-long Cubs fans, who has stuck with them season after season, never giving up hope, optimistically claiming, "there's always next year."  In fact, I'm not even going to pretend to be a baseball fan.  I grew up listening to the Cincinnati Reds, but I couldn't name a Reds player today if my life depended on it.  And yes, when Rob and I lived in the Chicago-area we attend a couple of Cubs and White Sox games, but I assure you those were all about the social, not the sport.   I still enjoy an evening at the ballpark and a good rousing 7th inning stretch, but I have no loyalty to the sport or to any team. 

However, with the Cubs and the Indians - the two longest championship drought teams ever-- playing each other in the World Series, I knew that I had to watch. No matter who won, history would be made.  Suffice to say, on Wednesday night  in game seven, history happened many times over.

And the instant the ball left Chris Bryant's hand and landed in Anthony Rizzo's glove for the third out in the bottom of the tenth...every sports fan, everywhere (maybe even in Cleveland) became a Cubs fan.  If not for the fact that they won the World Series, definitely for the many inspiring stories that emerged in the days following the victory.  Only a heart of stone would not be touched by the stories of long-waiting generations of Cubs families watching the game together, or the especially moving story of an Indiana man who listened to the game at the graveside of his father who had loved the Cubs.  Or that of 85-year old, Darel Sterner, who held out, literally on his deathbed, to hear the final out of game seven.  He died three hours later and will be buried in his Cubs World Series Champion T-shirt tomorrow.  

I don't know what it is about the Cubs or their fans who, by the way, no longer have rights to their nickname, the loyal losers.  Not sure what makes Wrigley Field, flying the W, or Go, Cubs, Go so magical...but I think Hazel Nilson embodies whatever it is.  You see, Hazel is 108 years old.  She was born in 1908, the same year the Cubs last won the world series.  Hazel has waited patiently through two world wars, the Great Depression, the evolution of the automobile, the moon landing, more technological advancements that we can count, and  numerous historical events...a lifetime of waiting for her beloved Cubs to claim the championship title again.   On Wednesday, from the comfort of her assisted living facility she finally witnessed a night of glory for the Cubs.  She saw them win the World Series.  Hazel rejoiced in the victory, but she also said, "I never lost faith in the Cubs.  Win or lose, I love them."  Talk about a loyal and devoted fan! 

Something tells me that the prophet Haggai would love Cubs fans...especially Hazel.  In a way, she is preaching Haggai's sermon.  You see, when it came to waiting for their place of honor and dignity to be restored, Haggai's listeners, the people of Israel, were as long-suffering as Cubs fans.   They had  been waiting for more than a generation, in Babylonian exile...waiting for things to get better...waiting to return to their homeland, to their freedom and to their life.  It turns out, though, they were not as die-hard and faithful to the vision as those millions of Cub fans have been to this championship!

Keep in mind that Haggai is speaking to the Israelites after they have returned home...although definitely not to their former glory.  In fact, for the very few in the community who had lived through the terror and destruction of the exile, home looked nothing like they remembered.  Everything was in ruins -- homes, land, lives ---all gone.  The most heart-wrenching loss was the beloved Temple.  It, too, was gone.

Now, for the older generation, the memories were faint and fading, but they still recalled a Temple that was glorious.  Not only had Solomon's Temple been a sight to behold visually, it was central to their identity as a faith community. It represented their relationship with God, as the people of God, and it was gone...completely gone.  What an overwhelming sense of despair those few elders must have felt.

But, quite honestly, most of the exiles were like the millions of Cub fans who aren't Hazel.  They were born in exile and had never even been to their homeland.  The Temple was something they had never seen.  They had no memories of their own to draw upon.  They only knew the stories.  The stories that had been passed down through the years...stories of what the Temple had been...back in the day.  However, as with most glory day stories, if you weren't there when it happened, it is difficult to really to appreciate it, much less wait for it to return again!

This is why I think Haggai would have loved the Cubs fans.  They were not only willing to wait for the Cubs to have their new day of glory, they did their part to make it happen.  They didn't just rest on the glory days of 1908.  Instead, for more than a hundred years,  they have faithfully supported the team, bought the tickets, wore the logo, and cheered  --winning or losing --right up til the last out of every game the Cubs have played.

Unfortunately, that was not the case with these Israelites. They seemed to have just let the hope and possibility die.  Some were living with memories of the glory days...some had just heard the stories of the glory days...but none were actually working toward a revelation of God's glory by rebuilding the Temple. 

Instead, upon their return to Judah, they became consumed with trying to rebuild their own lives...worrying about their survival...planting gardens, earning wages, building homes.  The Temple site-plans went by the wayside...no energy, effort, or vision for rebuilding it.   The exiles were so busy re-establishing themselves as a people in the land, they neglected to established themselves as a land of God's people.  

That is until God spoke through Haggai, commanding the post-exile Israelites to refocus their priorities from self to God. God even went as far as to say that the reason the Israelites were struggling to settle and prosper was because they had been so busy working on their own houses that they neglected God's house.  So busy making a life, they neglected to worship the Source of life. Sounds familiar?  And that's where this passage picks up...and once again, Haggai implores them to shift their time, energy and focus toward re-building the Temple. 

Now, through our 21st century eyes, this may sound like God calling the people to a serious building campaign...but this command to rebuild the Temple is about so much more than bricks and mortar, or the silver and gold that would go into it.  Rebuilding the Temple is about re-forming their identity as the people of God.  You see, the previous Temple, in all its splendor, had been the center around which Jews oriented their lives.   It represented the relationship between God and his people.  It was God's presence among the people, and worshipping there signified that they were God's people.   Without the Temple, where was God among them?  Without the Temple what made them a community? Without the Temple, they would have memories of the glory days, but the revelation of God's glory would never come again.  

So no wonder Haggai pushed them to make it priority. 

The Israelites were stuck...and Haggai's job was to unstick them.  It's possible that they were  stuck in the memories of the past.  Perhaps they were stuck in fear.  Fear that they could not replicate and rebuild what was there before.  Selfish fear of what would happen to their own houses if they were busy with God's.  Or it could be that they were just stuck in a three hour committee meeting to determine the color of the carpet in the new Temple! 

Although, I wonder if it could be that they were paralyzed by the same thing that has been gripping  American Christians in recent months - an overwhelming sense of grief...fear that all has been lost...feeling that things are not OK...realizing that the past is unrecoverable, the future is unclear, and the present is as scary as heck.   

Now, don't get me wrong, Western Christians have been experiencing anxiety for decades as the glory days of the church have faded.  More recently though, these same Christians have experienced a loss of influence in the world - especially here in the United States. Not just a decline numerically;  it feels as if the church is becoming ineffective, unconnected, and powerless.  And many Christians are quick to blame government interference for the situation. 

However, a more honest assessment could be that we've made our bed, and God is letting us lie in it. Now, at the risk of sounding like an Old Testament prophet, American Christianity did not decline overnight...and no political party has done us in.  We've been distracted by many things - while an entire generation slipped away from the church.  We've been apathetic about Temple building.  And by that, I don't mean actual buildings and structure -- quite the opposite.  Those we have always done well.   Temple-building, however, is a different matter.  Remember, the Temple represented the holy relationship between God and the people...and the people coming together as a community.   Many churches in America have let the relationship and community building aspect of being the church slide.   And, truth be told, most have rested on the laurels of the church's glory days, hesitant to reveal God's glory in new and creative ways.  We've blurred the line between self and community...as well as the one between living Christian values and living American values...which, let's face it, are not always one and the same. 

In fact, I suspect this double-mindedness is part of what is making Tuesday's election so difficult for many Christians.   There isn't a single candidate who wholly reflects both values.  I hesitate to bring politics into this sacred space, but folks, I know that many of you are worried about the outcome of Tuesday's election.  I think we all are to some extent - for many reasons.  So, let me just offer this encouragement:  the person who is elected on Tuesday will be the President of the United States. That is all.  He or she will not be the Spiritual Leader of the United States, nor will he or she be the Head of the Church.  That job belongs to Jesus Christ...and only Jesus Christ.   Let that promise be your source of peace.

The results of this election are not going to destroy the American church, nor will they save it.  God has entrusted the future of the church, to the church.  He has called us to that awesome responsibility.  We can choose to build up or tear down.  We can fret and worry, or we can ask for mercy and move forward in faith.  We can look back at the glory days, or look forward to the day of God glory.

Just as God's call for the remnant people to rebuild the Temple was as much as about their identity as it was about the building itself, the work to be done in Christianity isn't about the structures, the programs, or the politics.  It's about relationships.  It's about believing in the kingdom vision and doing our part to bring it about.  To build the Temple was to create a place where the community would be united and where God's glory would be revealed.  Today the church is that Temple.  We are the Body of Christ, a community united.  We are called to be the revelation of the glory of God...to reflect God's presence in the world...just as the Temple represented God's presence to all who came near it.   

This is what we are called to build, to do and to be in the world.  All of us together.  We have the answer the world needs...we are the proclaimers of the gospel of grace...and we are the means by which the church grows.  We are the modern-day Temple and Temple-builders.  We do that.  Not Donald Trump.  Not Hillary Clinton.  Not the Supreme Court.   

My friends, do not fear.  Do not fear.  The past is still unrecoverable, the future remains unclear, and the present is even scarier today than yesterday.   But as the Body of Christ, we can be totally OK with that.  In fact, living with uncertainty is a part of life and not having all the answers is a key element of our Christian faith.  In his life, death and resurrection, Jesus teaches his followers to step forward in trust and hope and faith. 

So, whether the Church finds itself in the midst of turmoil that we bring upon ourselves, or responding to outside forces of culture, or trying to survive the Presidential term of someone who does not reflect our Christian values, we have no reason to fear.   We stand on the same promises that God offered through Haggai and we receive the same encouragement that Haggai shares on God's behalf.  Be strong, he says.  Be strong and work.  Don't fear.  I am with you.  I have been with you since the day I brought you out of Egypt.  My Spirit is among you.  Don't fear.  If you will step forward and build, I will provide all you need to get it done. 

In other words, the future of the Christian church is in God's hands and dependent on our obedience and commitment.  It requires us to move forward into a future we cannot see...to be willing to generously build the church we have yet to imagine...inspired by the promise that God is with us always.  To paraphrase the wise, 108-year old, Cub fan,  "Jesus has never lost faith in the Church.  Win or lose, he love us."  Amen.

October 23, 2016
Bible Reference(s):
Luke 18:9-14
Terri Thorn

Note: Max Lucado’s children’s book You Are Special used during Children's Sermon

Is it any wonder that more than once Jesus encouraged, “Let the little children come to me?"  Sometimes the biggest lessons in life are found in simple, child-like words.   It’s pretty easy to picture the Wimmicks walking around putting stars and spots on each other isn’t it?  Creating separation based on someone's established set of parameters or personal bias.    Not all that different from  the first century Pharisee. 

After all, Pharisees were perceived to be THE most righteous of all Jews. The holiest...most faithful.   They were the kind of folks you would want in your church. They prayed, they fasted, they tithed.  They were most assuredly deserving of stars.  In fact, their name meant “the separated ones”, implying that they were unique in their pious observation of the law.  However, it also came to be interpreted that Pharisees separated themselves and put themselves in a position where they looked down on everyone else, especially those whom they deemed to be sinners.

Still, we need to acknowledge that the Pharisees were very sincere in their desire to follow the Law in order to seek God's righteousness.  They were doing what they believed to be the right things.  Much like most religious folks today.  The problem was that, over time, the Pharisees had taken God's beneficial law that had been given to Moses and the prophets, and expanded it into a hierarchy of rules and regulations that most folks could never keep up with or follow. 

The law had become a mechanism to separate and divide..just like stars and dots.  The Pharisees  truly believed that the hundreds of laws they created were pleasing to God and that to follow these laws to the letter, or beyond, was the path to earning God’s favor.  The more obedient a person was, the more justified, or made right with God, he was.   And of course, the more stars he would earn.

This particular Pharisee seems to have taken the whole thing to an extreme.  He had stars all over himself – lots of stars - stars that he had put there himself...and he was proud of it.  So, here he is up in the front of the temple, where everyone could see him...offering this prayer.    

Now, it's quite possible he is doing this on purpose so that others around would be impressed and give him even more stars.   When he thanks God that he is not like other people, he's really saying thank you, God, for all the dots I don't have on me.  Talk about lack of humility!  Talk about creating division.   And if that's not enough, then he basically said and while you're giving me stars, be certain to put some gray dots on all these other kind of people – robbers, evildoers, adulterers – big gray dots and lots of them.  And the tax collector, well, cover him with dots.

The Pharisee also makes his case to earn a bunch more stars.   He reminds God  that he fasted twice a week.  Now, keep in mind, he didn’t have to fast that often.  The law said Jews were to fast once a year minimum, on the Day of Atonement.  But no…this Pharisee fasted twice a week...and if it happened to be on  Monday and Thursday, even better.  You see, those were the days that people came to the marketplace so the fasting Pharisees were sure to be seen and admired.   In fact, to make certain that everyone noticed, the Pharisees would walk around the market with oversized clothing and white ash brushed on their faces to make them look more emaciated.  Got to hand it to those guys, they sure know how to earn the stars. They  were also very good at handing out gray dots of disapproval to anyone who didn’t do the same.  They made sure there was a distinct separation between themselves and others.

The same thing when the Pharisee reminded God that he gave s a tenth of all his income. Again, he didn’t have to do this, according to the law, only a tenth of his production of the fields was required, but he gave a tenth of everything he had.  Stars, stars, stars…

But the tax collector stood at a distance. 

Covered in gray dots.  We don’t know that this was a dishonest or particularly evil tax collector, but he very well could have been.  Tax collectors worked for the Romans to collect taxes from the people.  Rome would tell the tax collectors how much they were required to collect, but the tax collector could decide how much he actually took from the Jews.  He could extort much more than what was required if he wanted and keep the rest for himself.  The Romans didn’t care, and the Jews didn’t have any choice but to pay, as he was a Roman official.  So, it’s safe to say that he was covered in gray dots, just because of his job, regardless of his integrity. 

The fact that the tax collector even came to the temple to pray seems to say to me that he at least cared somewhat about his righteousness with God- otherwise, why would he be there?  Although, Jesus tells us that the tax collector would not even look up to heaven, perhaps he was like Punchinello, and ashamed of his dots,  

“God have mercy on me, a sinner!” Do you hear the desperation in his cry to God?   In fact, a more accurate translation of the Greek is, “God have mercy on me, the sinner.”  This is a man who is so covered in gray dots, so weighed down with the burden of his sins, that he sees himself as the sinner, the only or the worst sinner of all.

And Jesus said, that this desperate man is the man who would go home justified before God.  Not the one with all the stars...but the one with the dots.  The one who humbled himself before God...the one who admitted his sin...the one who begged for mercy...the one who acknowledging that God is God and he is not.   The one who was right with God was the one who understood his need for God's grace.

The Pharisee, on the other hand, does not think he needs to receive mercy...he just wants to get credit.   His entire focus was his stars...in his world, the person with the most stars wins. Following all the religious rules to the letter, even exceeding them, would earn him the respect of the people and the approval of God.   His justification...was about adherence to the law...and maybe a little bit about having people commend him for it!   Of course, in typical Jesus fashion, he pretty much sets that mindset up on its end with this parable.

So, does this mean that God doesn’t care if we’re obedient to his law?   No, of course not.  In fact, we are called to live lives modeled on Christ's obedience, living out the law of love. 

However, what is being taught here, is that obedience to any laws, God’s or man’s, is not what will make us right with God!  We are made right with God because of his mercy…his grace given to us through his Son Jesus Christ.  In other words, we can never earn enough stars to earn God’s grace.  That doesn't mean we don't need to do "good things"...or that we are free to sin against God and our neighbor.  It just means that we can't count on our Pharisee-like goodness to earn God's favor, or our tax-collector sinfulness to keep us from it.

Perhaps even more troubling, this Pharisee believes that since he has so many stars, he gets to play the role of God - in that he can pass judgment on others.  Remember his words, “Thank you God that I am not like other men.”  That is about as judgmental as it gets, and very much the normal prayer for most Pharisees, not to mention some Christians, but we’ll get to that in a minute.  This attitude of contempt toward others is what caused Jesus to call out the  Pharisees on a regular basis;  and it's safe to say he does not want to discover it in us either.  When we think that our goodness or righteousness make us better than someone else, we are as guilty as the Pharisee.

But truth be told, there’s a little Pharisee in all of us.   It is revealed the moment we read this parable and say to ourselves, "Thank God, I'm not like the Pharisee".   Because right then, we are.  While we try our best to be obedient to Christ as an expression of our faithfulness,  we are, at times, some of the worst at giving stars and passing out little gray dots.   For example, we tend to give a lot of stars to people who are like us – if you dress like us, think like us, work like us – then you’re full of stars. We have something in common.  But if your life is different, let’s say you have body piercings and tattoos, or you’re homeless, or you’re unable to keep a steady, regular job – well, there just might be some gray dots for you.  Do you come to church, read your Bible, and pray?  Star, star, star.  Do you have an addiction, a felony or are you guilty of sexual sin?  Dot, dot, dot, extra dot. 

We also give dots to anyone whom we think is not a believer. Unfortunately,  “not a believer” is a title we often give to anyone who believes differently than we do!   Christians are also guilty of putting dots on other Christians.  Protestants, Catholics,  Fundamentalists, Orthodox, Evangelicals and  Progressives - dots and stars everywhere depending on your theology.   Some Christians give stars to the churches that sing old hymns and dots to contemporary services, and others do the reverse.  Some believe it is wrong to have women in their pulpit.  Others do not.  Some believe it's wrong to ordain homosexuals, others do not.  Consequently, we give stars to those with whom we agree, with whom we share certain values.  Those with whom we disagree get dots.   

But let me just say, Christians do not have the corner on the market on this star and dot stuff.  In fact, the world is filled with Wimmicks...separating and dividing people based on the stars and dots of opinion and personal bias.    

To me, there is nowhere this seems more obvious for Americans right now than in this 2016 national election cycle.  Talk about stars and dots.  Our entire nation seems to have turned into a hotbed of Pharisees --- segregated, separated, divided...pointing at each other "Thank God, I'm not like that party...or that candidate."  Now  I'm not saying that any candidate is as boastful and arrogant as a Pharisee or  that anyone is as dishonest as a tax collector.  It is, however, safe to say that none are as pious as the Pharisee in his godliness nor are any as humble as the tax collector in their confession.  However, we...the people...the voters...have become quite prolific in sticking stars and dots on each other.   Social media and internet blogs have made this nearly instantaneous...and pervasive.   And, maybe it's just my age, but it sure seems to be the worst, ugliest, most divisive partisanship I can remember in my lifetime.   I mean, many of us are afraid to express our thoughts, for fear we will end up slammed personally and covered with ugly, ugly dots.   So, instead, we huddle with those who share our views and talk about our disdain for those who do not.

My fear is that we are becoming so much like the Pharisees and the Wimmicks that we will forget what Jesus taught.   We will forget that all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.   We will forget that God is God and we are not.

Friends, we cannot count on politicians to reconcile our divisions...we can't count on media to heal our brokenness..and we cannot vote our way into God's righteousness  We cannot count on the rest of the world to humble themselves before God ...but we, the church, most certainly can.

We can be the ones who humble ourselves and forgive those who have wronged us.

We can humble ourselves to admit our sin of pride, as well as seek forgiveness for the ways we have caused hurt and harm.

We can humble ourselves to serve others.

We can humble ourselves to offer compassion and mercy and benevolence, even and especially, to those who are so very different than we are.

We can humble ourselves to turn the other cheek, to love our enemies, and to put our relationships above our need to be right.

We can humble ourselves to love our neighbor as ourselves.

And, perhaps the most important thing we can do as Christians is to completely humble ourselves and cry out to God, "Be merciful to us, the sinners."

Beloved of God...grace is our only hope...our only salvation.  Grace is the only thing that makes us right with God, and the only balm that can heal our division.  Friends, grace is our common ground.  We all stand equally in need...we are all equally unmerited to receive it....yet grace is abundant ours to receive and to share.  Grace is what brings us together in Christ.  Grace is why stars and dots do not matter to God.  As Eli said to Punchinello, “It doesn’t matter what other Wimmicks think, it matters what I think, because I made you.”   

The reality of the story of the Wimmicks, and the reality of this parable is that we are all guilty.  We either putting stars and dots on people in judgment; or we’re seeking to have all the stars put on us; or we’re placing our hope in the stars rather than Jesus for our righteousness.  We’re guilty, yes, but in Christ Jesus, we are forgiven.  By amazing grace, through faith. This is our common ground...no more separation from God or from each other.  Amen.

October 16, 2016
Bible Reference(s):
Jeremiah 31:27-34
Luke 18:1-8
Terri Thorn

Most of us probably remember radio personality Paul Harvey, but for those who do not, he was notorious for a regular segment called, "The Rest of the Story."  As I recall, The Rest of the Story consisted of stories presented as little-known or forgotten facts on a variety of subjects with some key element of the story (usually the name of some well-known person) held back until the end. The broadcasts always concluded with a variation on the tag line "And now you know the rest of the story."  (quoted from wikipedia)

Well, today, our reading from Jeremiah serves a similar purpose. He gives the exiled Israelites the rest of their story...by revealing a new thing about God.

As a brief recap, last week we heard Jeremiah show some "tough love" to the Israelites who were about to enter into exile.  False prophets had been telling them that they would only be captive for a little while, but Jeremiah's message was that they really needed to start thinking in terms of the long haul.   He instructed them: "Settle in, build houses, plant gardens, have families while in exile...because you're going to be there awhile."  Whether they wanted to or not, whether they felt like it or not, when it came to living as the people of God in the midst of this strange, challenging, unexpected place, they were called "do it anyway."

Now, I'm sure Jeremiah's words were intended to offer encouragement, but as you might imagine, they did not necessarily create a sustained hope for the people as the days of exile turned into months and the months turned into years.  At some point, the Israelites had to be wondering if they would ever be allowed to go back home.

The temptation to give up must have been great at times - particularly since God had made it clear that they were in exile because of their own choices and actions.  According to the prophetic writings, the invasion of the Babylonians and this subsequent exile were the result of the Israelite's failure to be faithful to the covenant God had made with them.  

Now, some might say that God allowed these bad things to happen as a way to punish their unfaithfulness and disobedience...and I suppose that case could be made from the scriptures...but it is also equally as valid to believe that a loving God allows consequences to be lived out...and this wasn't as much as about punishment as it was about what happens when a nation takes it eyes off of God. 

So, as much as the Israelites wanted to hold out for a different future, as the time passed, we can presume that their spirits became downtrodden and the light of hope, dimmer and dimmer.  After all, when we are faced with the consequences of our sin, and our lives are made miserable because of our own choices, it's tempting to give up hope that anything can get better.  Ask anyone who has been imprisoned by their foolish actions. I think they will tell you, when you're sitting there in the jail cell (literally or figuratively), it's not easy to believe that life will ever be different, much less that you can become a different person.

In fact, even if we are repentant and confess our sins and we are inwardly transformed, our outward circumstances may or may not change.  As time passes, it can be a real challenge to trust that God has truly heard us.  Instead, we try to take control of our situation ourselves, or become resigned that we have forever screwed up and ruined our chances for anything to be different.   Throw in an authority figure like Jeremiah reminding you that you are going to spend a long time in exile, and it wouldn't take long for despair to set in and for hopelessness to take over.  Grief and misery.  Despondence and depression.  Maybe even defensiveness or denial.  All sorts of emotions arise when guilt fills the heart and mind. 

So, don't you think the temptation for the Israelites to just give up would grow greater by the year?  Captive and dispersed into foreign lands, with foreign gods, might they eventually forget or stop trusting in the promises God had made to them -- especially as things kept getting worse instead of better?  They may build those houses and plant those fields, but don't you think there would come a point when they lose hope that they are ever going back home...or that righteousness is ever going to be restored? 

I imagine that a sense of resignation eeked its way into the spirit of the exiled people of Israel in the same way that I think it can creep into the spirit of Christians today.  In fact, the rise of people who claim no affiliation with the church might not be as much of an indicator that people don't believe in God, but that they've stopped trusting in his promises. They've given up, or lost patience while waiting. They no longer believe God intervenes or makes a difference. 

Let's face it, there are days when we, too, are tempted to throw in the towel. Like the psalmist who cries out, "How long, O Lord?" we are impatient with how long it is taking for God's righteousness to be restored. Frankly, I know that some days as I've been praying through the #pray31 atlas, I've had moments of sarcasm and doubt.  This week as I tried to follow the guide and write a prayer for Congress, I really wanted to say, "Dear God.  Not my monkeys.  Not my zoo.   Amen." 

Thankfully, that feeling was temporary...and I eventually prayed appropriately, I promise! Not because I am a pastor and I have to...but because, like you, I know the rest of the story.  I believe Jeremiah's proclamation that the days are surely coming!  

For the exiled Israelites, the rest of the story begins with "The days are surely coming..."  The days are surely coming when God will restore them...when the time for tearing down and destroying will be over and the time for growing and building will be ushered in.  The days are surely coming when God will make a new covenant with the Israelites....one that was different from the one made with their ancestors.  The days are surely coming when they will have a relationship with God that is not based on the laws written in tablets but on a relationship and righteousness in their heart.  The days are surely coming when they will never have to rely on someone else to give them knowledge of God...there will be no hierarchy, no more insiders and outsiders...no more religious leaders who decided on their behalf.  Jeremiah tells them that the days are surely coming when God's spirit will be within and they will know God for themselves. The days are surely coming when they will experience God's mercy and love...when their sins will be forgiven, directly, without intervention or sacrifice on their part, and when, God will completely forget their wrongs forever!  The day is surely coming when they would be a transformed people forgiven and free to joyfully walk in his way and gladly serve him as their Lord.

Now folks, Jeremiah's words of comfort and hope were to a specific people at a particular time in history...but they also serve as the hinge point of the entire story of God.   They provide the rest of the story...looking to the future...foretelling the covenant that we believe was revealed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. 

The rest of the story for the Israelites...and for all who come after...is that the days are surely coming for the covenant of new life God initiated with a tiny baby born in a manger... the covenant of transformation and forgiveness that is sealed with his blood... the new covenant that we celebrate and participate in when we share the Lord's supper.  The days are surely coming when that covenant will be completed; and by the grace of God, and through faith in Christ, we have been included in it as well.

You see, as Christians, we believe this prophecy was fulfilled by Christ Jesus...is still being fulfilled in his church...but we also know that it is not yet complete.  One quick look around the world proves that truth.  Still, we know that the days which were surely coming have come to us in Christ, and they are still coming.  So, as Mr. Harvey would say...and now you have...the rest of the story.  God's kingdom is most assuredly coming on earth as it is in heaven.

God's justice.  God's mercy.  God's grace.  God's forgiveness.  God's light. God's freedom.  God's love. God's peace. They are here and they are coming.  This, my friends, is the rest of the faith story that gives us hope and increases our faith.

It is the promise that we cling to when our own lives are messed up and we struggle to find light in the darkness.  It is the promise that brings us peace when the world around us is chaotic and out of control.  It is the promise that allows us to forgive and love each other...even when we disagree.  It is the promise that transforms us into new people and compels us to trust that better days are surely coming...and it is the promise instills patience while we wait.

It's also the covenant in which we, the church, by the grace of God and power of the Holy Spirit, are privileged to participate.  We are called and equipped to help bring this vision and promise to fruition.  And, according to this parable of Jesus from Luke, we are also called to be persistent in our asking, and our acting, while we wait. 

You see, just as we know the days are surely coming, the widow in the story knew she had justice on her side...and she was willing to wait for it to be exacted.  However, as the story goes, she wasn't about to sit around just fretting about it or complaining to her neighbors.  She was willing to do her part to make it happen...really, against all odds given the power differential between her and the judge. Remember, as a widow, she represented one of the lowest most oppressed groups in the first century, second only to children and classified sinners.  She had no business taking on that judge...much less going back time and time again.  In fact, were this an actual account rather than a parable, we can be pretty sure she'd never get a chance to take that second trip back.   But this is a parable about perseverance, about prayer, and most importantly about faith. It's about sticking with God's promises for the long haul. 

So when Jesus asks that final question, "When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?”  He's basically asking whether God's people will be found faithfully living in this covenant no matter what the circumstances of their world.  Will the church be persistent in the face of challenge?  Will the church be confident in the rest of the story?

Friends, this simple little question packs a huge punch.  Jesus wants to know what will the church do if pundits and media prophets are preaching doom and gloom?  How will he find the church when political leaders are generating fear and doubt, or courting religious endorsement?  What if the nations of the world are living with the devastating consequences of unjust actions, unfaithful choices, and selfish priorities...what will the church be doing in the meanwhile?

As we've been making our way through the 31 days of prayer for our nation, I've been wondering, if the Son of Man were to return today, how will he find the church in America?

Will he find God's people relentlessly pursuing God's -- or will he conclude we have given up?

Will the church be found persistently standing for justice, freeing the oppressed, caring for the poor -- or will he think we've gone silent?

Will the churches be found to be lighthouses of truth, havens of hope, and centers of love for all people?

Will the church be found forgiving sin, healing brokenness, and restoring community?

Will the church be found tirelessly praying, worshiping, and sharing sacraments of grace? Will we be serving God and faithfully witnessing to the gospel of Jesus Christ?

The days are surely coming when the whole church -- denominations, theology and doctrine aside -- will have to answer if we are living in the covenant of forgiveness and hope, and are we trusting that no matter how unjust the world is...no matter how long it takes...God is transforming the world redeemed life at time.   

So, friends -- sisters and brothers in Christ -- as for this house, let us love and serve the Lord...and continue to follow the widow's example..persistently seeking, beseeching, and praying for God's kingdom come, until it is so. Amen.

October 9, 2016
Bible Reference(s):
Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7
Terri Thorn

There is a saying that has been attributed to Mother Teresa, which supposedly hung on the wall of the orphanage where she did much of her work. Now, it may come as surprise to learn that these words are not original to the beloved saint.  In fact, they were adapted from the writings of man named Kent Keith who called the collection of sayings, the paradoxical commandments.  Nevertheless, it speak volumes about Mother Teresa's understanding of her vow to God.  Let me share it with you now.

People are often unreasonable and self-centered.  Forgive them anyway.

If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives.  Be kind anyway.

If you are honest and sincere people may deceive you.  Be honest and sincere anyway.

If you find serenity and happiness, some may be jealous.  Be happy anyway.

The good you do today, will often be forgotten.  Do good anyway.

Give the best you have, and it will never be enough.  Give your best anyway.

In the final analysis, it is between you and God.  It was never between you and them anyway.

It's no wonder that some sources also refer to this reading as, "Do It Anyway."  Even in the face of uncertainty, difficulty, and popular opinion, no matter how much people said her life and commitment made no sense, Mother Teresa knew she was called to a ministry of compassion and love...anyway. 

This also seems to be what Jeremiah is saying to the Israelites in today's reading. Even if you're living in exile and you would rather not be there, live as God's people anyway.  

On the surface, the passage reads like another inspirational quote for Jeremiah to hang on his office wall.  You know, right between the one that says, "For I know the plans I have for you,” and "When life hands you lemons, make lemonade." 

Ok, so Jeremiah didn't really say that one about lemons...but it is encouraging right?  Still, Jeremiah wasn't in the inspiration quote writing business.  He didn't dream this stuff up just to give the Israelites something to cross-stitch on banners or emboss on a key chain.  No, his words are meant to be a prophetic, no-holds-barred reality check to the people of Israel.  Jeremiah saw what the people could not, or would not, see...and it was his job to tell them the truth even if they refused to hear it.

Now, please don't you hear what I'm not saying.  Finding encouragement and hope from these, or any words of scripture, is not wrong.  Having them posted on our walls is not problematic. Truth be told, I have the Jeremiah 29:11 on my wall and on my key chain.  What I am saying is this...to fully appreciate the significance of Jeremiah's message for the Israelites we have to take a quick look at the back-story...the bigger picture. 

It's not only important for us to know that Jeremiah is speaking to the first wave of exiles who were to be deported from Judah to Babylon in 597BCE, but to also understand the ambiguity of the situation.  You see, Jeremiah is thinking about the long-term future consequences of living in a foreign land; while others, including many of the exiled themselves, considered this to be a temporary situation. In fact, there were a number of prophets who predicted that this was just a short-term displacement that should only last a couple of years.  These prognosticators, whom history proved were not God's prophets, claimed an imminent doom for Babylon which would allow the Israelites to return to Judah sooner rather than later. 

Now, obviously, this is the prophecy they preferred to hear...they wanted to think they would be going home soon. It would make the exile situation more bearable if they could just reassure themselves, "a little while longer and all will be well." It also lends itself to a mindset of, "let's not get too settled in here in Babylon...we will just stick with our own kind, do the bare minimum of interaction, and engage with the Babylonians only when necessary.  If we do, it won't be long until things will turn to our favor." 

They were right. God had promised to remain their God.  God also promised they would be redeemed and returned to their land...but...God never said it would only be a couple of years.  In fact, this was probably the hardest part of Jeremiah's job...trying to help the people comprehend that this exile thing was for real, and things were going to be this way for a long, long while.  Like generations-long while. 

He was also rather blunt with them...reminding them that their exile was, at least in part if not entirely, the consequence of their own disobedient choices and actions.  Mind you, this isn't Jeremiah's judgment or opinion; this is straight from God when he referred to the Israelites as "the exiles whom I have sent into exile."   Furthermore, as God's prophet, Jeremiah refuses to join into the "prosperity prophecy" of the others prophets on the block.  He can't just tell them it's all going to fine...take the lemons and make lemonade.  No, he has to tell the truth...even if it hurts.

Jeremiah knows that it's going to be difficult to live in exile.  He knows that the Israelites are going to be strangers in a foreign land...that they will not understand the people or speak the language. The customs will be unfamiliar and the many pagan deities will be overwhelming.  I suspect the exiles were a people who would constantly be looking over their shoulder in fear, waiting for the proverbial "other shoe" to drop.  Many would be separated from their families...and to be sure, life as they had known it was now over!  Even more so, Jeremiah knew that this was going to be a devastating reality far beyond what the people ever anticipated.

Likewise, he understood that while in exile, the Israelites would be tempted to resort to some unhealthy, unholy behaviors. Like...withdrawal. Unwillingness to settle or engage. Emotional barricades. Anxiety. Fear. Suspicion. Depression.  Despair. Not to mention a mounting resentment and anger toward their captors.  But, who can blame them? 

The thought of being uprooted from all one has ever known and thrust into the middle of a complete unknown is one of the most gut-wrenching feelings ever.  Many of us have been there.   For some it may have been the anxiety and fear that came when the economic security of employment was ripped out from under you.   Others have been on the receiving end of a devastating diagnosis, made worse by conflicting medical advice.  Perhaps it was the grief of an unexpected divorce that no one saw coming...or the sudden loss of a loved one.  We may not suffer to the extent that the Israelites did, still many of us know that feeling of personal exile - finding ourselves in place beyond our control...a place we really did not want to be.

Today, we can't help but think that pretty much the entire nation of Haiti woke up relating to the Israelites.  Likewise hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees every day...placed into an unfathomable state of exile..with no foreseeable end in sight.  Yet, unlike the Syrian refugees, the Israelites were at least allowed to settle into the other nations where they were exiled.  

It's a subtle point, this idea that they do actually have a place to call home if they will, but it is a key aspect of Jeremiah's message to them.  He's basically saying, "I get that you don't want to be in this land.  I understand how alone and scared and downtrodden you feel.  I hear you...you don't belong here.  But here you are...and here you will be.  So, get over it.  Settle in, live life, and make this place your home.

Don't give into the whining and pining about what used to be.  Don't cower in fear.  Stop it with the "if only-s".  Just be the chosen of people of God that you are.  No situation...no crisis...no hostile enemy can take that away from you...ever."  Ok, so that's a paraphrase of Jeremiah...but, I believe it is what he means when he tells the Israelites to build homes and plant gardens in the foreign land. 

Actually he tells them to build homes and live in them.  To plant gardens and eat the harvest.   Do you know why?  Because that's what free people do!  Enslaved people build homes inhabited by others and they plant gardens to put food on other people's tables.  But free people, build and plant their own.   So, part of what Jeremiah is making clear to them, and us, is this...you may be in exile...you may find yourself where you would rather not be ...but you are not slaves to your situation...you are always free to be God's people.  

In other words, Jeremiah compels the Israelites to keep on being God's people no matter what their circumstances.  An ancient version of, "Do it anyway!"  This is not just a "make lemonade" message...it's a plant lemon trees while you are there kind of message.  Even more so, it is a God is not confined to a geographical location, God isn't limited to a specific place of worship, and God has claimed you to be his people, so live like it,  kind of message!

Jeremiah isn't implying it is going to be easy.  He isn't telling them that the garden will be a bed of roses.  And he isn't promising that if they just do these things, release will come sooner.  He is, however, revealing the path to peace in every circumstance.  No matter how disturbing or  foreign life gets, be the person God has called you to be...live the life that God has called you to live...and that will be enough.

What an empowering message...to the exiles back then, and to us, the church, now!

Peace comes not because the circumstances are predictable or settled. Peace comes when we live as God's people in the midst of the unpredictable and the unsettled.  Peace comes when we resist the urge to conform to the anxiety and pressure of what could be, should be, or might be, and instead, choose to be God's people in the middle of whatever is.

So, what do you suppose it looks like to be God's people in the 21st century?  Personally...I don't think it's about building houses or planting gardens or having babies.  Well, I suppose it could be, but I think instead, it's about choosing the way of Christ, choosing his justice, his mercy, his righteousness -- no matter what our circumstance...and regardless of how much we would rather choose differently.

Being God's people looks like offering the grace we've been given, anyway.

There will always be people who do not deserve our forgiveness. Still, the people of God choose to forgive anyway.

We may fear or even disapprove those whose lives or cultures are different than ours, but as the people of God, we welcome them and offer them dignity anyway.

We are tempted to hold onto our blessings rather than share them with others...worried there won't be enough. But...what do the people of God do?  We share anyway.

And the list goes on and on.  

Being the people of God in every circumstance is to remain true to the gospel of compassion and mercy and love...even when we would rather not...or when others would rather we not.  Being the people of God in every circumstance means, in trust and obedience, we do it anyway.

Friends, the greatest sense of exile that we might all be experiencing right now, is how to be the church in this very unsettling and highly divisive political environment.  True, we're not technically in exile, but I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that many Americans, particularly Christians, feel as if we're living in a very unfamiliar and quite strange land.  Life as we have always known it, at least in terms of our nation's political life, definitely seems to be over.  We've never seen anything like this election and our response is starting to look more and more like people of exile.  Anxious, bewildered, fearful, suspicious and unwilling to engage.

Not to mention, I'm pretty sure that irrespective of who is elected as President in November, there are going to be a whole lot of people feeling as if they are living in captivity. We can only hope it won't last as long as it did for the Israelites.

Seriously though...what is a Christian to do in a situation like this...where we feel lost and confused and quite honestly we'd rather not be here?  Well, let me just say this upfront, your vote is your business. Pastors don't tell congregations who to vote for..so, just vote your conscious. 

But if we are to follow Jeremiah's words, then no matter how ugly the campaign gets, or who is elected to what office, first and foremost, as the church, we remain true to the call Christ  has placed on our lives.  We do the hard work of loving others - regardless of how much we disagree.  We build community when walls of separation would be much easier.  We champion truth and dispel falsehood, even though rumors are much more sensational.  We trust that God's redemptive power at work in our nation is greater than the outcome of any election, and then we vote for the candidate whose values we feel most align with the gospel of Jesus Christ. 

And, finally, my friends, we pray.  We not only pray for our situation but also for welfare of those around us - including our political system.  For, as Jeremiah so eloquently states, the welfare of the city is also our own. 

Trust me, I know it's not easy to set aside news headlines, social media flurry, and our person disdain in order to pray for politicians.  It is not easy to earnestly pray for people we don't like, don't respect, or don't trust.  It's not easy to pray with integrity, without imposing our own political views, or asking God to see things our way.  It's not easy to pray for transformation and trust God with the outcome.   Still, friends, we are his church.  If peace is our desire, then we do it anyway.  All glory be to God.  Amen

October 2, 2016
Bible Reference(s):
2 Timothy 1:1-14
Terri Thorn

Many of you have probably heard folks talk about going to their happy place.  I, on the other hand, happen to have a happy box.  Actually several of them.  You see, years ago, early in my ministry, I got into the habit of saving little things and eventually storing them in boxes like these.  Oh, but only the good things...only things that bring me joy and happiness.  I have a special circular file for all the other things. 

Seriously, these boxes are filled with a variety of items that are important to me. There are notes and pictures that the children of the church and the preschool have made for me. Cards and letters of encouragement that I've received from some of you; clippings, articles and newspapers from when our congregation has been commended for something significant.  Photos and other little knick-knacks with special meaning.

The items I keep may have deep significance for me, or they may also just be little things that make me smile...things that evoke memories that bring me joy.  On the walls, taped to my credenza, or just scattered around the room are various things that encourage me in ministry...which is the true purpose behind my happy boxes.  They are not meant to be a prideful measurement of the year's accomplishments.  Instead, my happy box is meant to be source of encouragement - especially during those times when it feels as if nothing is being accomplished.

And, who doesn't need some encouragement now and then?  I mean, nearly all of us have gone through a difficult period at some point or another.  A period when nothing seems to be going right...times of self-doubt...spiritually dry times...challenging times...dark, can't see the light at the end of the tunnel, times.  Times when we need an extra boost of support to keep us going.  Of course, as Christians, we know to rely on God, not things...and to pray, not fret...but there are periods in our life, when no matter how much we know in our head, our heart still aches for assurance...for someone to tell us we're going to be alright...a friend to remind us of who we are and whose we are...when we, ourselves, reach the point that we no longer know, or we are not able to believe.

This letter from Paul to Timothy seems to be written for that very purpose...to be an encouragement to Timothy and a reminder that he has been called and equipped to lead the church at Ephesus in Paul's absence.  In the same way, it was also a word to the church...a reminder of their resurrection hope and salvation, found only in Jesus Christ.  It came at a time when they desperately needed to hear it, as there were a number of heresies and contrary teachings emerging in and around the region. 

So when Paul says things like: I am reminded of your sincere faith...or, rekindle the gift of God that is within you...do not be afraid...rely on God's power...hold to the standard of sound teaching I taught you...guard the good treasure (the gospel)...they are statements addressed to his beloved protégé, Timothy, but they were also as much for the church as they were for its leader.

I think, too, the letter may have also served as a "happy place" for Paul as well.  Keep in mind, in his missionary journeys, Paul had established many of the early churches...gathered them, taught them, trained the leaders, helped them find financing...you name it.  Paul was either directly involved with church inner-workings or guiding those he left in charge.   Not to mention, Paul had taken Timothy under his wing.  He recognized that there was something special about the young man and brought him into his ministry, like a son.  They travelled together...faced challenges together...and I'm sure developed a significant emotional bond...evidenced by Timothy's tears at their parting.  Paul loved and trusted Timothy with all his heart, which is why he was willing to leave him to lead the church at Ephesus.

But...at the time that Paul wrote this letter, he is imprisoned. Not just under house arrest, which was the case before...this time he was very likely chained in a jail cell under the rule of Nero - a known persecutor of Christians.  My heart says that writing this letter to Timothy helped take Paul to his happy place in the midst of his persecution and suffering.  The memories of his beloved friend, as well as writing about why he is willing to suffer for the good news of Christ, served as encouragement, inspiration and hope for him during a time when the light of his life was growing more dim.  Paul's days were numbered.  He, as much as Timothy and the church, needed something to keep all of them going and this letter was meant to do just that. 

Encourage. Encourage. Encourage.

Friends, we are all in this thing called life together. Difficulties are a given.  It's also a given that our world is going to appear chaotic and frightening at times. It's a given that there will be message of fear...people who hate...there will violence...and the presence of evil.  It's a given because it has been going on since the beginning of our faith story.  And, yes, it's still going on today.  Turbulence and troubles, violence and crime are not new.   There's a reason the Bible tells us that there is nothing new under the sun.  History repeats itself.  That is, unless we learn from it.  So the turmoil we feel in our world today...not the first time and it won't be the last.

Therefore, it only makes sense that if we want to learn from history, we must look to scriptures for guidance...all of the scriptures...to see ourselves and our world in them.  And we pray.  We pray a lot.  In fact, our congregation is making that a specific priority this month.  We also gather in worship as a "happy place".  Together we encourage each other as we wait on the Lord.  And sometimes, we carry each other's faith.  Seriously, we may have to do the praying and trusting on someone else's behalf when they are too broken to do it themselves.  Part of being the church is to help each other have faith in God's promises.  

One of my personal favorite Bible stories about encouragement comes from the prophet Habakkuk. The entire book is a dialogue between God and Habakkuk. Back and forth, Habakkuk laments the condition of the nation and begs God to intervene...and then God tells Habakkuk, the same thing God often tells us, just wait...trust and wait.  However during one of their exchanges, God say something to the effect of...but while you're waiting, write out the vision on the wall large enough that even a runner passing by can read it.  Sort of an ancient version of, "Post it on Facebook as a reminder to everyone!    In other words, while you wait...cling to those beautiful visions that give you hope.

Writing visions of hope is what Paul is doing for Timothy and the church...but especially for Timothy.  With words rather than actual pictures, Paul creates visual reminders in Timothy's mind...remember the faith of your grandmother and mother...remember our time together.  In the midst of the trials, the conflict, the persecution...remember all the different people, stories, and things that grow your faith and give you hope in Christ.

Friends, I don't have to tell you that our nation is living in the midst of some very challenging times.  In every realm of life...from political, to social, to economic, to religious...many of our hearts and minds are troubled.  There is anxiousness in the air.  And I don't think I am alone when I say that we need God's amazing grace poured out upon us.  On our knees in prayer individually and as a church, we, like Habakkuk, beg for God's mercy, for his justice, his righteousness and his peace to prevail.  Also like Habakkuk, we wait...together. 

While we wait on God's realm to be fully established on earth as it is in heaven...our faith sustains us.  Our faith which is built on Christ's promises and sustained by glimpses of his compassion, justice and peace.  Our faith which is shaped by, and carried in, big beautiful visions of what God peaceable kingdom can be.  Now, some of those visions come from the stories we learn from scripture. Stories in which God has proven faithful to his people.  Some visions are created by the sacred stories of our lives where God has shown up in the most unexpected ways. Sometimes the holy vision we need to keep us going is symbolized by things in our homes, on our shelves, in our worship space or in our happy boxes.

The thing is, folks, the way we write the vision on the wall...the way we encourage each other's faith...is to share our God-stories with each other.  Sharing our stories is what gives them power to become a vision that shapes, sustains and encourages our faith.  Sharing is how we unite as a community...and bring light into each other's darkness.  Sharing the vision --whether through the scriptures, or our stories, or symbols or all of the above -- is how God transforms the world. 

Unfortunately, we don't get a lot of opportunities to tell each other the faith stories of our lives.  For one thing, personal sharing, sometimes called testimony, has not always been a key element in the Presbyterian worship tradition.  Likewise, our hectic lives keep us too busy to share random stories about our faith. Sometimes we struggle to distinguish our stories from "this is what I believe".  For some people, insecurity keeps us from sharing...or maybe it's fear...or pride. Still, God calls us to be witnesses to the gospel, and sometimes the witness must speak.  God calls us to write the vision, and sometimes to write a vision, we must first tell a story.

Today, on this World Communion Sunday, I'm going to tell you the story of my vision of a different communion table. Now, as I am sure is the case for most of you, it's just one memory of many...but it has impacted my ministry in a significant way.  It is my hope that by sharing, you will be reminded of your own stories, and maybe even be encouraged to share them with others.

So...like Timothy, my faith also began with my grandmother, fondly known as Mamaw.  An important part of my childhood included regular family dinners at my Mamaw and Papaw's house...especially at every holiday.  One of the most remarkable things about those dinners was the fact that no matter how many people were coming to the table...everyone would find at least one favorite food item when they sat down. 

You see, that was Mamaw's way of loving others.  She made sure that every guest had a personal favorite food at dinner.  I even remember one time when she went to extent to call me and ask me for the favorite food my new boyfriend, who was coming to Thanksgiving dinner for the first time.  Mamaw wanted to prepare these foods..not as an exercise in people-pleasing but as a way to show hospitality. It was the way Mamaw ensured that everyone felt welcome and beloved in her home.

Looking back, Mamaw's Dinner Table has shaped my own theology about grace. To me, God's grace is all about radical welcome.  And, as result, this has also shaped my ministry to be one of making sure people feel welcomed...that there is no barrier...no outsiders...no bar you have to cross in order to experience love and acceptance.  So when I start to question myself...or what I am doing in ministry...or where God is leading me to lead this congregation...a vision of Mamaw's Dinner Table pops into my mind.  First and foremost, it reminds me that I am loved...and it challenges me to love like Mamaw...to do all I am able to make sure others know that they, too, are welcome and loved. 

So...my friends, what are your stories?  What visions, stories, or symbols, have impacted your faith.  What serves as light in your dark tunnel and sustains you as you wait for God?  More importantly, are you willing to share it with others...to help write the vision on the wall for the world to see?

Transition to communion...

For me, Mamaw's dinner table reflected this table...a table of unconditional welcome and love...a table where everyone who comes will find exactly what they need...not a favorite food per se...but here we receive grace...the bread of life and the cup of salvation, which is truly all we ever need. Here, at the table, we are united with Christ and each other.  Here we are not the rich or the poor, not the republican or the democrat, not the straight or the gay, not the black or the white, the sophisticated or the simple.  No, my friends, here we are just...the beloved people of God.

Today, around the world, the communion table is simultaneously symbol, story, and vision of the peaceable kingdom where all are welcome, always. 

Be Thou My Vision

September 25, 2016
Bible Reference(s):
Luke 16:19-31
Terri Thorn

I'm pretty sure that if I could read some of your minds right now, you are thinking:  "Oh no! Surely she is not going to talk about money today.  I really don't like it when the preacher talks about money. What I do with my money is a personal matter between me and God." 

Well, let me just say, I totally get where you are coming from. I was raised to believe that there are three things we should never discuss in a public forum...religion, politics and money.  The problem is...apparently someone forgot to mention that rule to Jesus.  He seems to talk about all three subjects,  all the time, especially in public.   In fact, in his era, religion and politics were pretty much one and the same... and money drove both.

So, as much as I would rather not talk about money today...and as much as you would rather I not talk about money ...both Jesus and Paul are forcing me to talk about money.  And, before I'm finished, it may even sound like politics.  But keep in mind, the passages that we just read are their words...not mine.   And they are some very blunt words about money...especially Paul's.  I mean, Jesus uses a made-up story to make his point; whereas, Paul, in typical Paul "letter-to-the-church, preacher-ly fashion", tackles it head on! 

In fact, Paul basically says, "Listen up church!  This is not the way of Christ.  Accumulation of things is not the priority of Jesus followers...godliness combined with contentment is."  And then he calls the rich to the carpet of accountability.  "Don't be haughty, or set your hopes on the uncertainty of riches. Instead, do good, be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share.   This leads to the life that really is life."  Period.  End of story.  From Paul's perspective, that is the whole sermon.

So...I suppose I could just end right now.  However, there's still the matter of this parable that Jesus tells in the Luke reading.  And, as we have seen with any number of Jesus' parables, there is the story and then there is the moral of the story.  The teaching...and the lesson.   

Now, on the surface, the story that Jesus tells is pretty straight-forward.  Rich man. Lazarus.  Both die.  One goes with the angels...one goes to the torment of Hades.  And...since it is a Jesus parable, we don't have to guess who goes where, right?  As someone said earlier this week, "It's another story where Jesus picks on the rich guy."  

It does seem that way.  This is especially true in Luke's gospel.  Rich men in parables are the proverbial bad guys...not necessarily because they are rich, but because God regularly shows a soft-spot for the poor.

Still, even so, I'm not convinced that the lesson in this story has as much to do with the rich man's wealth as with his attitude.   After all, folks, being rich, in and of itself is not sinful.   However, the way one gets rich sure can be.  That was Paul's point all along.

Likewise, so can our motives for gathering wealth.  Was it hoarded to compensate for a lack of trust?  Did we seek to be financially wealthy so we could take care of ourselves and others in the long-haul, or was it about elevating ourselves from others...so we can run with an elitist crowd.  Again, I don't think God's greatest concern is the wealth, but the how and why of the wealth.  

And the what...the what are we doing with our wealth?   It seems from this parable that people of faith might have to answer this question before God.  In fact, it may be the most important of the three, how did you get it, why do you have it, and what are you doing with it?  Keep in mind though, that the answers you give will not get you into the kingdom of heaven..nor will they keep you out.  No, these are questions about what kind of kingdom work we, his people, are doing here and now. 

So yes, what Christians do with our money matters...a lot. 

But here's the thing....as I said, I'm not convinced that this parable is about how the rich man got rich...or why he was rich...or even about what he did with his money while he was alive.   I believe that Jesus' problem with the rich man is that he let his wealth blind him to what was happening all around him.   Clearly, the rich man lacked Christ-like compassion...but he also lacked awareness of any needs but his own.

The rich man was so wrapped up in his wealth -- his purple robes...his extravagant and privileged lifestyle -- that he either didn't notice Lazarus begging for scraps, or he ignored him.  Neither of which pleases God.  Now, I realize we don't get a lot of details about the rich man, but Jesus certainly implies that he was in the position to do something... to see Lazarus - poor, neglected, covered in sores...to hear his cries of pain and hunger...and to help lessen his suffering.  Yet, he does not.  As someone in Bible study this week said, it was as if Lazarus was just another dog at his door.  A mongrel unworthy of scraps. 

However, according to the story, once the two men were dead, the fortunes are reversed. Lazarus is comforted and the rich man is tormented.  Lazarus is cared for and the rich man is in need. To the crowds around Jesus who identified with Lazarus, this is all good news.  God has righted the wrong.

The parable reassures that God hears the cries of the powerless and the marginalized.  God hears and God redeems.  But, the parable also warns that God judges those who stand by and choose to do nothing in the meantime. 

So, as tempting as it is to make this solely about the afterlife...I do think Jesus makes it clear, we displease God, here and now, when we selfishly misuse our blessings, our wealth, our position, and our power without regard for the suffering of others.  Somehow, our experience of eternal peace is tied to our willingness to be attentive to the cries of oppression and injustice in this lifetime.  And, as Abraham infers, to deny those voices is to defy scripture and deny Christ.

It seems significant that the name Lazarus roughly translates to:  the one whom God assists.  Another source says it means: God helps.  Yet, the rich man has no name.  In the world he is important, but in the kingdom of God, he is insignificant.  He had wealth and power...yet he lacked attentiveness to those around him.  And in the end, he had no peace.

It makes me wonder...who are the Lazarus' of today?  To whom are we not attentive?   Perhaps we are too self-absorbed to notice.  Or just too afraid to get involved.  Or maybe we are truly unwilling to see...we would just prefer not to acknowledge?  It doesn't directly impact me..there's nothing I can do...I can't fix it. Or a personal favorite:  Not my monkeys, not my zoo.

There are all sorts of excuses we can conjure to explain away our inaction.  But here's the problem with our complacency.  God isn't asking us to solve all the problems. God isn't calling us to throw all our money at situations to try to make them better...God is just asking us to be aware.  Be aware.  There is so much grace to be found in awareness...in paying attention...in listening and being with people...in seeing the image of God in another human being. 

Personally, I believe that this was the rich man's biggest sin.  It wasn't about not feeding Lazarus...it was about not seeing him...not hearing him...not acknowledging the common bond they shared.

But, I mean, isn't that one of our deepest human needs and desires?  To be seen...to be known...to be heard...just as we are. To not have to conform to someone else's expectations or definition? 

This is what I mean by the grace in awareness...the grace that comes when we choose to be aware and attentive to those whom we otherwise would not see.  Grace in awareness looks like love and I believe God meets us there.

As I've agonized over the news headlines of this week...I can't help but wonder how many times I have failed to extend the grace of awareness to people of color?  Hear me out please.  I don't think of myself as a racist, but I'm becoming more aware of my embedded racism -  stuff I learned as a child in a predominately white town that was literally border town between the North and the South during the Civil War. 

I am also beginning to face the biases and prejudices that I didn't even realize I had....as well as the privilege I bear.  Now I know that's a trigger word, privilege, but I'm OK with it.  I know I have advantages because I'm white.  Let's face it, most societal norms in America have been generated by white people...therefore I don't have to work too hard to fit in.  I can shop for clothing, hair products, and food that mesh with my culture without ever needing to go to a specialty shop.  I can find a capable hairdresser...dozens of them...who know how to cut my hair texture.  This isn't true for black women.  And I do not have to tell my  6'2" white son to take off his hoodie every time he walks out the door for fear it will draw negative attention.  So yes, I have privilege that my black friends do not...and it has nothing to do with money!

So, right now, when our nation is in the midst of racial unrest that harkens back to the 60's Civil Rights movements, I think we all have to ask...especially those of us in predominately white churches...how many times have we been like the rich man when it comes to seeing and hearing the suffering of our brothers and sisters of color? 

How many times have we ignored their stories...dismissed their experiences...or denied their truths because they don't match our own?

How many times have we watched the news and thanked God "that racial protest stuff" doesn't happen here in our community so we don't have to deal with it?

How many times have we explained away how it's not really racism...and we are not really privileged?

How many times have we armchair quarterbacked the problems of minorities, any minority,  giving opinions of what they should do and how they should respond, rather than just listening and loving and learning from them, instead? 

How many times have we not seen the image of God in another because the other doesn't look like us, dress us, talk like us, or live like us?

How many times have we failed to see the Lazarus' of the world? 

How many times have we failed to offer the grace of awareness in places it is needed most?

Lord have mercy  - we don't really want to think about it, do we? Yet, the minute we choose to ignore our own failures is when we fail again.  We do not want to hear this about ourselves or our churches, much less believe it about our nation, but it doesn't make it any less true. 

The good news is that, praise be to God, we're not dead yet.  Unlike the rich man in the story, it's not too late for us to choose differently.  Ours is a God who sees the suffering...hears the cries...and acts with compassion.  And friends, as his beloved church, so can we.  

It's called the hard work of loving.   Loving God and loving others.   Granted, it's not always easy to love...but there's really no other way to find hope, joy and peace.

And, while we might not be able to end the racial unrest in our nation, we can do our part to bring about reconciliation, justice, and peace. 

I believe that's all that God asks of us.  To claim the grace of  awareness for ourselves.  To intentionally check our own biases and preconceived notions as well as our tendency to see life according our own experiences and perspectives, at the door...and LISTEN...really listen to what people of color have to say. Listen and learn.  And not just from your typical sources.  Seek out new ones.   Allow yourself to be led rather than take the lead...to stand with rather than in judgment of the suffering.  Abandon absolutes and appreciate the blessing of diversity.  For when we do these things, we do the hard work of love.

When a suburban non-denominational church partners with a black Baptist church in the inner city Indianapolis every Saturday morning to work side-by-side to clear out abandoned lots and improve neighborhoods...they do the hard work of love. 

When a local pastor in my hometown of Madison and the students of  Hanover College organized a peaceful protest to stand against a KKK rally which held there yesterday...yes, they are still around....well, let me say those faithful, peaceful Christians did and continue to do the hard work of love.

When a black church in Connersville was tagged with racist graffiti, and members of the community (all of whom were white) showed up and painted over the evil...and then provided a security system for the church, even though it has been closed due to lack of finances...and when the previous members find renewed hope in the midst of all this...they are all doing the hard work of love.

When a white teacher in a mostly black school in Tulsa, OK sits with her students while they grieve the widely-televised and highly-controversial shooting of Terence Crutcher, the father of one of their classmates...and when that teacher must listen to the student's growing concerns about being disliked for the color of their skin, she is doing the hard work of love.

And, when an all-white church, in a mostly white community, in a mostly white county, still chooses to actively address racial injustice, we, too, will be doing the hard work of love.

Friends, I thought long and hard about whether I was going to bring this sermon today...some of you know how much I wrestled...but here's the thing.  After prayerful consideration, it occurred to me that to do anything else with this lectionary passage on this tumultuous week in our nation would be to ignore Lazarus.  And that was a risk I wasn't willing to take.

September 18, 2016
Bible Reference(s):
Luke 16:1-13
Terri Thorn

I am a member of a group of female clergy from all over the world who connect via the internet to share ideas, blogs, concerns and prayers.  Each weekend one of the leaders begins a blog called "Eleventh Hour Preacher Party".  As you might guess from the name, this is a space where preachers who are pulling together sermons at the last minute can connect electronically to inspire each other, bounce ideas, and share the stress of a looming deadline for Sunday morning worship.  

Some weeks, I check-in to see what my colleagues are saying about the lectionary texts...other weeks, I won't even take a peek for fear I might start to second guess myself.   Well...this week...given this incredibly perplexing parable in Luke...I definitely clicked on the link when it arrived in my email.   As a result, I have good news for you.  It turns out that we are in good company today.  All around the world this Lord's Day, preachers have been stepping into the pulpit and saying the exact same thing.  "We have no idea how to interpret this parable."  PAUSE

Seriously, by parable interpretation guidelines, the rich guy in the story is almost always the "negative" image and the underling, or in this case the manager, is typically the one who garners our empathy...the one we find most relatable.  However, in this parable, that norm gets turned upside down.   In fact, you almost feel sorry for the rich guy.  It seems as if he is getting cheated twice.  First, the manager is accused of squandering his money...and then after getting caught, he goes out and starts reducing the rich man's accounts receivables with an authority that is really not his own. 

So yeah, it almost doesn't seem fair to the rich guy.  But folks, this is a Jesus-parable, and rarely does Jesus sympathize with the rich man in any story. So, no...it's best we not feel too sorry for the rich man...but what are we to think of the manager?  

He was, after all, accused of squandering his boss' money and then he concocts this plan to create a quid pro quo relationship with the rich man's debtors.  Now, if this was any other story, we would most assuredly say this guy was dishonest, unethical, and self-serving...definitely not the best role model for the Jesus-followers.   But clearly...this is  not just any other story.

And as if these unexpected character roles are not enough to confound us, we learn that the rich man is impressed by the dishonest manager's actions!  So much so that he commends the manager for his shrewdness.   Yes, he commends the guy who was accused of misappropriating funds.  He commends the guy who, instead of providing an accounting of his work, desperately took matters into his own hands.  He commends the guy who just cost him a boatload of wealth!!

Folks, this makes no sense.  Now, don't get me wrong, all of Jesus' parables have multi-level, sometimes highly-nuanced meanings...but they also usually have a presenting story that makes good sense too.  This one does not.  Think about it.  Who in their right mind would commend the shrewdness of a guy who cheated you out of your wealth...not just once but twice...as is the case in this story.   Yet, it seems as if the shrewd response is part of the lesson we are supposed to learn from the story.   

Let me just say that there are plenty of lessons that we can take away from the last four verses of this reading.  In fact, verses 10, 11, 12 and 13 could each be their own sermon about the complex relationship we have with wealth.  Great stuff here, but only minimally connected to the original parable or each other.  In fact, it feels as if Luke just randomly adds various Jesus quotes as a way to try to help himself make sense of the story.

Nonetheless,  scholars, and pastors in every generation have been working with this puzzling parable for centuries.  And we have come up with a number of sound theories about what might have been going on in the story.  Yet, nearly everything offered requires that we either read something into the story, or that we ignore parts altogether -   neither of which is entirely helpful, but both of which might be necessary for us to interpret in a meaningful way.

One thing that seems to improve our understanding of scripture in general is to consider the context into which it was originally spoken.  And by context, we mean both the socio-cultural context in which it occurred, as well as the literary context in which the author placed the story. 

For example, if we consider the business relationship between the rich man and his manager in the first century cultural context, it could be that the debt-reduction was a matter of the manager forgoing his own commission in order to ingratiate himself with the debtors and his boss.  To do so would most definitely meet the definition of shrewd, while demonstrating the manager's desire to build community with the debtors.  So, in that case, we might hear this is as a story about being willing to sacrifice from our own selves in order to develop welcoming relationships.   And, that would preach.

Likewise, in the first century economic structure, the rich typically got rich off the backs of the poor.  Therefore, some scholars suggest that the debt reduction was actually just a removal of the inflated interest unjustly charged to the debtors in the first place.  Thus, this could be lesson about the church's passion for social justice and righting wrongs...which would also preach - quite well in the 21st century, I might add.

Honestly, I am not sure that there is a single interpretation for the story.  And I for one, am extremely grateful for a faith community which encourages members to question and explore rather than to have the meaning dictated to us.  I cherish the freedom to wrestle.

And, as we do, it is helpful to ask ourselves:  "Where in the narrative of the Bible does this particular story fall?"  What else contributes to its meaning?   What is the literary context?

Turns out this parable follows three stories Jesus told about being lost and being found.   We spoke of these parables last week -- the shepherd who leaves 99 to go after the one lost sheep, the woman who sweeps her house looking for her lost coin, and the father who welcomes home his prodigal son.  All are images of God's radical grace and unrelenting mercy, as well as the welcome and hospitality of his kingdom...which we are told he extends to all...even those who are as undeserving as the prodigal, as insignificant as the coin, or have strayed as far as the sheep! 

So, I think it's safe to say that this parable probably has something to do with grace...and hospitality.   

At the same time, it precedes several teachings about how God's people are called to use our financial resources, including the four verses I mentioned before.  So it also seems safe to say that this parable probably has something to do with how we steward the resources and gifts we have been given.

Finally, according to the parable itself, it appears that both of those things...relationship building and resource allocation...are to be carried out with shrewdness.  

Now, for some, the idea of faith communities being shrewd seems counter-intuitive.  Shrewdness isn't a characteristic of the Holy that typically comes to our mind.  Compassion, kindness, justice, mercy...all those and more...but shrewdness never seems to make the cut.  Yet, when we consider that by definition, to be shrewd is to be good at judging people or situations...and to usually be correct in the assessment...it certainly describes Jesus to a T, doesn't it?

In fact, I've been wondering if perhaps this parable isn't a story about Jesus himself.  I can't prove or disprove my theory, but I am going to ask about it when I get to heaven.  In the meantime, what if the dishonest manager represents Jesus' ministry and is, therefore, a model for the church today? 

Now before you hang me for heresy, hear me out.

We know that Jesus regularly told his parables for two audiences, right?  Those who were gathered around him to listen and learn,  and those who were gathered around watching and waiting for reasons to condemn him.   He spoke to both instruct the disciples and followers...and to challenge the Pharisees and scribes. 

So...let's think about this...who are the rich men around Jesus?   The Pharisees and scribes.  And whom did they regularly accuse of breaking the law?  Jesus.  Healing on the Sabbath.  Eating with sinners.  Talking to women.  Preaching good news to the poor.  While not necessarily dishonest, definitely illegal in their book. So what if Jesus is referring to the "dishonest" manager with just a bit of self-sarcasm, given what the leaders were saying about him.   And what if firing the manager was a metaphorical representation of the reality that Jesus was to not only going to be "dismissed" from their religious order...but he would eventually be killed - kind of the ultimate firing, wouldn't you say?

And what about the actions the manager in the parable takes?  He literally forgives debts - without the rich man's approval or authority.  Is that not exactly what Jesus did?  He forgave.  Not financial debts per se...but the debt of sin.  In fact, this was the thing the religious leaders despised most about Jesus.  He forgave sin when they clearly did not believe he had the right or power to do so.

OK, I know, I might be stretching this parable beyond its intent, but I've been caught up in this possibility all week. 

Keep in mind...the manager in this story was so intent on establishing a livelihood after he is fired that he used everything within his influence and power to make sure that it happened.  Without ever seeking permission from the rich man, by the way.   So, what if the livelihood the manager desperately sought represents true, new,  life in Christ. What if it is the community of believers living together in unity and peace in the kingdom of God that Jesus so passionately wanted to establish on earth.  When you think about it, didn't he basically do the same thing as the manager?  Did Jesus not use every aspect of his position and power (a power which came from God, not the Pharisees) in order to bring about the kingdom of God? 

Like I said, this comparison is all just a big what-if...but really aren't all the different parable scenarios a version of what-if?  So, what if, for today, we allow ourselves to ask...what if?  What if we hear this parable as Jesus talking about himself and his future church.  And if we do, what does it mean, then, for us to learn to be shrewd the way he was? 

Here's one possibility to consider.  To be shrewd the way the manager was shrewd means we need to learn to be much more sophisticated in how we use our resources or our situation to build relationships...not just any relationships but those that draw people into the kingdom of God. The days of the church thriving just because it is the church are behind us.  We are entering a time when an entire generation is emerging for whom faith life was not necessarily a priority. To to be shrewd means rather that moan about the change, we play the cards we are dealt. To be shrewd is to be wiser and more astute about how we go about advancing God kingdom...and maybe even learn a thing or two from the clever worldly folks on how to do it.

Folks, I'm not talking about a schmoose and gimmick kind of faith.  And, this isn't about "come to church and win an iPad" kingdom growth.  No, bringing our brains and our emotions to the work of the church.  I mean, what if the church operated like the big name success stories of the world - the Bill Gateses, the Mark Zuckerbergs, the Oprah Winfreys - powerhouses who use whatever they have and whomever they know in order to gain the influence and success they have today?  Now, keep in mind, for the church, this is not for the sake of making billions...although wouldn't that be nice?   Our work is about growing God's kingdom...connecting with people so they will come to know the good news of the gospel of Christ.  However, what if we were more shrewd in our approach…balancing head and heart while using our resources, situations and influence in order to make it happen? Of course,  always loving people and using things rather than other way around.

I do believe there is a caveat though...a shrewd faith begins with meeting needs.  The manager in this story was definitely shrewd about meeting needs -- that of the debtors as well as his own.  Likewise, when Jesus forgive sin, heals the broken, comforts the lost, befriends the lonely...it is all about meeting our greatest need.  The need to believe we are forgiven.  The need to experience mercy and grace.  The need to be loved and to walk in his light.  The need to know peace.

So, you know what?  Living a shrewd faith might mean using your position as a church in the downtown community to welcome strangers and who them they are loved.  It might mean handing a stack of free diapers to young parents every week in order to meet a significant need and to open a conversation about parenting in order to build a relationship in which there is an abundance of mercy and grace.  In the Congo Presbyterian Church, it means calling on the US Ambassador to join church leaders in a meeting with the Ministry of Education to insist that the church schools be funded so thousands of lost children can receive a Christ-centered education and be certain they are welcomed by God.   A shrewd faith wisely and creatively meets another's deepest needs in order to forge a relationship that brings the hope, peace and justice of Christ to the world.

What if this parable teaches us that at the heart and core of shrewd faith is offering radical forgiveness to another...for the sake of redeeming and sustaining the relationship.  In fact, I have to wonder, could it be that when Jesus says, "make friends by means of dishonest wealth" he is talking about showing grace to others in order to be in relationship with them?  What is dishonest wealth?  I'm not sure, but the idea that it might be grace, seems plausible.  After all, if there's one thing we did not come by on our own...one thing that does not belong to us,  it God's grace. It is not our  blessing to squander...it is, however, ours to offer others.  So what if a shrewd faith is one that that intentionally, thoughtfully, and generously extends forgiveness as a means of building gracious relationships for the sake kingdom living?   What if that is what it is?  How shrewd will you be?

September 11, 2016
Bible Reference(s):
Luke 15:1-10
Terri Thorn

In an article leading up to this fifteenth anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack on our nation, one writer noted that the students entering high school this year were not alive when the event took place.  They are part of the generation that will never know the United States of "before"...before terrorism crossed the oceans in full force, before TSA screenings dictated what you could carry onto an airplane, and before anyone even knew places like Afghanistan existed. However, this is also the generation that has never known a society without access to information on the internet...never known a society without global connections through social media and never known a world in which cell phone video was not immediately available to record, view and share on Youtube.

So on the one-hand these children, and their friends who were too young to remember, will only know about the events of 9/11 based on what other people tell them...yet they will also have unprecedented access to vivid video and commentary that will make it seem as if they themselves were there.  

I often wonder if this is a good thing or not.   Certainly, it's good and important that we remember the events of history, and we must never forget all those who lost their lives that day, but I sometimes wonder if we really need to remember the details so vividly.  Still, I'm certain that all of us have specific images that come to mind on this anniversary date.  For some, it is the image of the planes crashing into the building that you can't shake.  For others it was the sight of people running through the streets of New York, scrambling to get across the bridges.  Many folks remember the sounds of the sirens or the anxiety in the voices of newscasters who were usually as cool as a cucumber.  

Today, in light of the scripture readings, the image that comes to my mind is that of the first responders at Ground Zero.

I'm remembering the images of firefighters and police officers moving toward the destruction while others were trying to run away.  More vividly, I remember the photos and clips of them fervently digging through rubble of concrete and steel as they sought to rescue and save lives...as they worked to find those whose lives were on the verge of being lost.  Like the shepherd who leaves the 99 in order to seek out the one, these men and women left their stations and posts to do what they were trained to do...to rescue...one precious life at a time. 

The first responders in New York City, as well as at the Pentagon and in Pennsylvania, resembled the shepherd.  They courageously sought to save any and all that they could - without hesitation and without regard to race, gender, religion, socio-economic status or lifestyle.   They impulsively left everything else behind.  And the thing is...they weren't just risking their lives in the moment, they were jeopardizing their entire future too.  You see, not only did the terrorist kill  2,996 people, including 23 NYPD officers and 47 Port Authority officers. Thousands more were wounded.  And, even now, fifteen years later, the toll continues to mount. 

According to the FDNY union statistics, to date, roughly two-thirds of all FDNY first responders have at least one Ground Zero-related health condition — that’s more than 10,000 firefighters. Battalion Chief James Lemonda said over 1,300 members have come down with a form of cancer, nearly 3,800 have gastrointestinal conditions, roughly 5,000 have lower airway ailments and about 5,000 have upper airway illnesses.

But here is the remarkable thing...in a recent interview, Lemonda, who worked at Ground Zero after 9/11, also said, "There’s not one member of our union, of this department, that we have reached out to that ever said they regretted responding down there. Even though they have these terrible illnesses, they all said the same thing: They would do it all over again.” 

So yes, these heroes, and they are most assuredly heroes...exhibited and continue to demonstrate the same radical, sacrificial, encompassing kind of love that Jesus proclaimed to the Pharisees when he told these remarkable parables that we read today.

You see, these stories, as well as the third one in the series -- the Prodigal Son -- were intended for the ears of the Pharisees and scribes who were critical of Jesus.  They did not approve of Jesus' willingness to be with those whom they considered to be the unworthy...the sinners...the lost...so Jesus tells these parables as incredulous illustrations of God's love for the very people they disdained.  All three are shocking stories because they were meant to shock the Pharisees.

Now, honestly, we can't be too harsh on the Pharisees and scribes.  They were well-intended church folks.  They were just trying to do the right things...preserving the religious order and orthodox teachings.  Keeping the laws to the letter and making sure the code of righteousness was preserved.

So of course they were disturbed that Jesus was fraternizing with the tax collectors and sinners.  Who wouldn't be upset by it? These were the unclean...the non-persons...the untrustworthy, undeserving, unlovable outsiders.  It was a genuine assault to their sensibilities that any God-fearing Jew, particularly a teacher or a prophet, would be near sinners, much less have a dinner party with them.  And make no mistake, when we hear that Jesus was eating with sinners...it wasn't like they were just some folks in the same buffet line.  No, eating together meant that they were spending time together - forming relationships and getting to know each other in a real and personal way. 

So clearly, Jesus' actions went against everything the Pharisees and scribes expected or believed to be appropriate.  And so does the God revealed in these parables...against all sense and sensibilities. I mean think about it.  What self-respecting shepherd is going to leave his entire livelihood...his source of security if you will...and put it all at risk to go after the one lost sheep?  Surely everyone who heard this parable knew that even the thought was completely ludicrous.  By all practical sheep-herding standards, any rational shepherd would just cut his losses, be glad for the 99 he had, and let the lost one go. He would never ever leave the others alone.   It would be reckless and foolish.  

So, the possibility that God's love is so radical and persistent that God would do the unexpected to make it known...or that God would pursue the rebellious...or that God would be so worried about the lost that he or she would deliberately "sweep" (or look fervently for) those whose perceived importance was a small as a lost coin...that was unimaginable.   The idea that God would not only welcome back those who, like the prodigal, had wandered way, but that God would be waiting for their return, ready to run out and greet them...well that was inconceivable.  

The Pharisees and scribes expected a God who would behave in a certain way...one that would uphold the righteous and condemn the sinners.  They expected a God who would rule the way they did...one that would exclude the same people they would exclude...one that would dismiss wayward sheep, lost coins and prodigal sons.  The Pharisees, like so many 21st century Christians, expected a God who matched their own image...yet the God revealed by Jesus was anything but. 

The God-figure in each of these parables is one who goes relentlessly searching for the lost.  They reveal a God who is steadfast in the quest and passionate in his approach; a God who cares so deeply about each and every sheep that he is nearly reckless in his desire to restore them to the fold; a God who wants all his sheep...or coins...or children...restored to the place they belong...in the fold, or the purse, or the community.

At the Congo Mission Network Conference that Kendra Whipkey and I attended this week, one of the speakers called God, a boundary-crossing God. He wasn't just referring to geographical boundaries, although clearly God will never be confined by a border wall or fence.  No, friends, the point of this statement was that a God who is willing to cross from the bounds of heaven to dwell among us is a God who will cross over every expectation and border that we erect to confine his love or to exclude and segregate others from it. 

This truth about God's love was so clearly evidenced in the things we learned about the work of the Presbyterian Church of the Congo and PC(USA) mission partners. Kendra and I plan to share more with you in the weeks ahead, but suffice to say we heard story after story, 20+ hours of stories in fact, all of which demonstrated the church's willingness to cross cultural, ethnic, social, political and language boundaries in order to ensure that the vulnerable people of the Congo, and especially the children of the Congo, know that they are loved by God through Jesus Christ.  Perhaps the most beautiful expression of God's boundary crossing love was the way the people of the mission network partnership -- American and Congolese -- worked passionately, diligently, cooperatively and fervently toward action plans for furthering God's kingdom on earth...particularly in the desperately poor Kasai region of the Congo.

One specific and pressing situation arose just this past week, as the group learned of snags with the accreditation and government teacher funding process for some of the Presbyterian church schools.  It's a complicated story but it boils down to the economic crisis in the Eastern Kasai which has delayed school funding...resulting in unpaid teachers walking off the job and therefore forcing five schools to close.  It's was troubling news, throwing everyone for a loop, but Kendra and I are here to vouch that there were mission bulldogs in the room who were like the woman in the parable, unwilling to let any corner be unswept as they searched for ways to rectify this situation.  And honestly, some of the ideas they came up with seemed incredulous to us newcomers...sort of like the shepherd leaving his 99 in search of the one.  Nonetheless, it was evident that the Congo mission partnership takes the idea of a boundary crossing God literally...and is committed to faithfully living as a boundary crossing church in response.  They will not stop until every child has access to education...but more importantly, until each knows that he or she is dearly loved...that they matter to God..and until all rest in the hope and promise of being made whole through Christ. 

And, really, when it comes right down to it, isn't that what it means to go from lost to found?   To go from not knowing God's love and mercy and grace..to being confident and certain of it...to no longer be lost from God because we have been found by God.

Friends, this is the good news of God's grace revealed in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ.  The grace of a faithful God finds us...no matter where we are.  It is worthy of our rejoicing to know that we serve an unconfined, relentless God who will go to all lengths and risks - even to death on a cross -- for his children to know that we are beloved; and who will not rest until all have been truly found, secure in his love.  Ours is a God who will not give up on the lost...no matter how lost we are...until we KNOW that we are found.

Let's face it, we all get lost now and then...some more regularly than others   Sometimes we are the sheep that innocently strays...sometimes we are the coin that doesn't even know we are lost...and sometimes we're the prodigal son, determined to do things our own way.  I would add, too, that sometimes we are lost like the misguided righteous, lost in our own understanding and image of God.  But most of the time, we are merely humans lost in this experience we call life.

Sometimes we lose our direction...sometimes we lose our faith...sometimes we lose our hope...and sometimes we lose our love.

Being human also means we share a basic human need to be found.

The amazing news of the gospel is that the same relentless, border-crossing, merciful God revealed in Jesus is looking for each one of us.  Even if doesn't make sense.  Even if it seems foolish to do so.  Even though we are undeserving...stubborn...and sometimes just outright wrong.   God is still seeking us and, if you pardon my language, God is hell-bent on finding us.

Friends, everyone is lost at some point.  Some of us are lost as we sit here this morning.  Rejoice in this truth...our one and only hope of being found, whole and loved, is that we have a faithful God who will never stop looking until we are!  Amen. 

September 4, 2016
Bible Reference(s):
Luke 14:25-33
Terri Thorn

Wouldn't it be great if decision-making was as straight-forward and easy as what God lays out before the Israelites in this passage from Deuteronomy?  Choose blessing...or choose curse.  Choose life...or choose death.  Door #1...or Door #2.   Basically God says, Ok, people, I am giving you two choices.  Pick one.  And...the answer seems so obvious, right?  

Oh, if life was really that easy.  A or B.  Nothing in-between.

Unfortunately, though, not everything we face is fits into this kind of either/or, black or white, thinking.  No, for a multitude of reasons, we encounter a lot of gray in our world.  In fact, I'd venture to say that for most of us, life is a series of stressful, complicated, decisions and choices.  Numerous doors lined up in a row...waiting for us to pick one. Only to find that picking one just leads to another decision.  Every time we turn around,  we are being forced to make a decision about something...and the "right" door isn't always clearly marked before us.

According to one survey, it is estimated that the average American makes as many as 35,000 decisions a day.  Furthermore, the study showed that the more decisions we make throughout the course of the day, the less consistent we are in our decision-making at the end of the day.  Likewise, the more choices before us...the more doors, if you will...the less likely we are to open any at all.  It's why we will change our mind four times between the time we get the menu and the time the server takes our order...and then just end up ordering the Daily Special....because it's easier.

Turns out that this mental condition has a name.   Decision-fatigue: being overtaxed with too many decisions.   No kidding, it is a real and unhealthy condition that appears to be on the rise in society.  Decision-fatigue can eventually lead to a reduced ability to compromise or to find common-ground.  We may find ourselves withdrawing in order to avoid decision-making altogether, or becoming impulsive when we are forced to choose.  Sadly, decision fatigue has the potential to do serious harm to our personal well-being.  It can wear us out, wear us down, and make us vulnerable to poor and destructive choices.

So yes, the simplicity of God's words to the Israelites is appealing.  We would like very much to only have one choice before us...life or death.  Pick one.  Seems fairly easy, huh?  I mean, who would pick anything but life...right?

Well...then again...have you read much about these Israelites?  If so, then you know they were pros at choosing death and adversity...over and over again.  And to be quite honest, if we take one look at the media headlines, it seems clear that so are we. 

Yes, even the well-meaning people of God choose a whole lot of death and adversity, sometimes without giving it much thought.  It could be that we are decision-fatigued and it's easier to just go along with what everyone else chooses, or maybe we're like the Israelites...seeking the security of false gods, determined to do and see things our own way...even if it's not life-giving for the others.  Or perhaps we have grown accustomed to choosing those things that mean life and prosperity to one group at the expense of another.

It's not a pretty history, but it is ours.  As a nation we have consistently chosen corporate progress and patriarchal prosperity while delivering death to our environment, to our farmers, to minorities, the poor and minimum wage workers, just to name a few.  So yeah, we are guilty of choosing life and prosperity for some, while dealing death and adversity to others.

But...then again...as the wisdom literature and history books agree, there is nothing new under the sun. Death-dealing choices have been happening throughout the history of civilization...despite God's desire and his every attempt to get people to choose otherwise.  I suppose it is the curse and blessing of free will.  God expects  us to choose life and blessing, but God will not force that choice upon us.  We are compelled to choose it for ourselves.  

Even more so, it seems that no matter how many decisions we face throughout the days of our lives, there is one over-arching question that is always in front of God's people. How will we choose to live the life God offers?  What will we do with the grace we've been given?  The way we answer, the decisions we make, really are life and death.  They may or may not result in physical death, but they certainly can lead to emotional death or death to one's dignity.  Every choice we make has the potential for life...or to suck the life right out of us.

Now in this Deuteronomy story, God lays out this either-or question before the Israelites just as they are getting ready to leave the wilderness and enter the Promised Land - where they will be free to make their own choices...choices that have the power to be life-giving to the people of God...as well as the potential to bring about their death and destruction depending on their priorities and decisions when they are there. In other words, the Promised Land will be what they make of it.  

Let that sink in for moment...God's promise will be what we make of it.  God's promise of grace.  God's promise of mercy and justice.  God's promise of abundance and welcome.  The promise will be what we make of it.  It's an amazing possibility to consider.

In the case of these Israelites, up until this point God has been faithful to them despite all their whining and complaining in the wilderness, despite all their unfaithfulness and doubt.  God has promised to be their God...and to make them into his people...and to give them freedom and an identity.   Now, here at the cusp of crossing over the Jordan,  God is also about to make good on the promise of a new and blessed life. 

You see, the Israelites were on the verge of a great release into freedom (sort of what our young people experience when they leave home and head down the road of independence).  God basically says:  beloved children, when you get there to the Promised land of abundance, you will be free, completely free, to choose how you will live!   The real question set before the Israelites was not all that different than what we ask of our own children when we set them free.  Basically:  Will you remember who you are?  God asks:  Will you choose my ways? Will you choose love?  Will you choose life?  Will you keep your hearts and minds turned toward me...or will you choose otherwise?

It's interesting to note that elsewhere in this passage God makes it clear that the people also have everything they need in order to choose well.  They've been instructed and taught.  They've been shaped and molded and prepared to be his chosen people.  They know the difference between life-giving and death-causing choices.  So when  God says, "I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses.  Choose life!"   It's all about what they will do next. God is pushing them to  "Choose to be his chosen."

I love that!  Choose to be chosen.  Choose to be the people God has created and chosen us to be.  

Notice that God didn't say, "if you choose to be the people I've chosen you to be, then I will deliver you into the Promised Land."  No, the Israelites were going into that Promised Land...that was a given.   And God didn't say, "You choose me first and then I'll decide if I will bless you."  No God chose first..he chose them and had already decided to bless them before they ever knew who God was.  

All that said, God is setting an expectation for how they will choose to live within that abundant blessing. He's challenging them to respond to being the blessed, by choosing only that which furthers the blessing...to the all their descendants and for generations to come.  Surely, God has a desired response in mind, but in loving freedom God has placed the decision and choice with the people.

Recently, when talking about the idea of free will, someone asked me, "But don't you think God already knew they would fail?"  Honestly, I'm not sure how to respond to that. God gave the Israelites what they needed to choose well, but clearly they did not.  Was it a matter that they could not, or that they would not?  Were they not able...or were they not willing? 

Talk about nothing new under the sun. God's people are still struggling with that same question:  When it comes to choosing to be the chosen, are we not able...or are we not willing?   Perhaps the answer is both...we are certainly not capable by our own power...but sometime we just aren't willing to do what it takes.

That seems to be what Jesus was saying to the crowds in the Luke reading as well.  All are welcome to follow Jesus.  All are invited into his mercy, his grace, and his peace.  But not all will be willing to make the choice to remain there. 

It sounds a bit harsh, but Jesus is just being real here...letting his followers know that when it comes to the life of a disciple there is a cost to be counted.  A price to be paid.  God's grace is freely given to us through Christ (who paid a price with his life), but that grace is not meant to be cheap.  It is offered with an expectation that we will, in turn, choose to live graciously toward others...that we will be willing to make the complicated and difficult choices that bring about the same life and blessing...the same wholeness, redemption and peace...that has been given to us. 

Folks, life with Christ really does boil down to the single choice God laid before the Israelites...what will we do with this beautiful promise of grace that we've been given?

For a minute let's be just as real with each other as Jesus was with the disciples.  Let's admit that gracious, life-giving choices are not always easy to make.  And sometimes we make the wrong choice - we choose selfishly...or fearfully...or defensively.   I mean, really, one of the reasons Presbyterians say a prayer of confession each week in worship and Disciples of Christ folks come to the table every week is because we admit that we don't always choose well! 

Thankfully, though, the good news for all of us is that God offers to us the same response that he had for the Israelites every time they failed to choose life.  He allows the natural consequence to emerge; yet through Christ he also gives us more grace...more faithfulness...and more opportunities to get it right the next time.

Jesus knew his followers would always struggle with the life of discipleship. He knew that we would not be able to follow him because we would not be willing to make some of the really difficult choices.  Jesus knew that things would get in the way...families, traditions, comforts of life, safety nets, wealth, social norms, politics, even patriotism...all kinds of things that will keep us from choosing the life God intends...and from experiencing the peace and joy that it brings.

Jesus knew all of this...but chose to love us anyway.  This is the promise and gift of God's grace.  It is completely dependent on the choice God made for us through Christ. However, what we do with that promise is dependent on the choices we make for Christ.  Will we choose the grace-filled, life-giving, blessed, ways of Jesus...even when it is not easy...even when the world around us does not? 

Maybe not every time...but if we do not make every attempt to try, then what difference does being a follower of Jesus Christ make in our lives? 

If living out the compassion, love, mercy, and justice of Jesus is not our one and only priority, then what we are doing with the grace that we've been given?

"I have set before you life and death, blessing and curses.  Choose life so that you and your descendants shall live."    Simple? Yes, but not always easy.   However in faith, and by the power of God's Spirit, we try anyway.

When we forgive even those who hurt us deeply, and even when we don't feel like it...we have chosen blessing. 

When we seek justice, with courage to stand against the status quo or speak against power structures that privilege a few...even if we are one of the few.  We have chosen life.

When we order our lives in such a way to ensure that others have the necessities of theirs. That is live-giving.

When we show hospitality and help maintain dignity for others -- regardless of their race, nationality, socio-economic status, religion, or lifestyle.  We choose the way of life and blessing.

And, when we show mercy and compassion to the stranger, even at the risk of our security and comfort.  We have chosen the way of Christ.

Beloved people of God, hear this good news. God has also set this table before us.  It reminds us that every time we choose Christ...we have chosen life.  The bread of life and the cup of salvation.  Choosing Life. Grace. Blessing. One bite and one sip at a time. 

Together, let us enter the promise of grace and choose life so all may live.   Amen.