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A Matter of Perspective

Filed under: Pastor Jeff's Sermons — Pastor Jeff at 12:11 pm on Monday, September 18, 2017

A sermon preached on September 17th, 2017 based upon Matthew 18:21 – 35.

Ryan smiling

The passage we just heard starts off taking about forgiveness with a parable that carries forth the theme, and therefore you might expect this morning’s sermon to be about forgiveness as well.  Perhaps I should be preaching a sermon about the importance of forgiving the people in your life — that it isn’t easy but keep at it, don’t give up.  Jesus wants us to keep on forgiving.  And that would be a good sermon, essential to hear.

But the thing I heard this time as I read the parable Jesus tells leads me in a different direction.   It was two details of the parable that are easy to overlook that caught my attention and I want to begin with the on that appears second.  It is the amount of money that the central character is owed by his fellow servant:  A hundred denarius.  This is not an insignificant amount of money – in those days it was the pay a day laborer would make in for a hundred days of back breaking work.  It’s essentially about a third of somebody’s annual income.

With this detail in mind, what happens if we jump into the parable midway through instead of at the beginning?  What I mean is let’s put ourselves in the shoes of the servant.  Let’s imagine you’re the guy — a contractor – a small business owner — and a while back you did a major project for this guy who wanted a sunroom built off the back of his house.  You trusted the guy when he said, “I have a little cash flow problem right now, but I can assure you that in short order I will have plenty of cash in my account, so you can trust me when I say I’ll be able to reimburse you for all the money you put out up front for construction materials, and pay you for all the work you put in, including the time you spent getting the permits.”

So you took him at his word and did a high quality piece of work for the guy – the sun room came out beautifully.  “Great,” the guy said when it was done.  “Looks wonderful.  My money is coming next week, and the first thing I’m going to do when it does is cut you a check.”

So a week passes, and then two, but no word from the guy.  You start calling on the phone but the guy never picks up, never returns the messages you leave. You go to the guy’s house a couple of times and ring the doorbell, but nobody ever comes to the door.

This is serious business.  With the money you put out for materials, not to mention all the hours you put in, you’re in danger of losing essentially one third of your annual income.  You’ve got bills to pay, a family to feed.  You trusted the guy and now it looks like you were scammed.   You’re furious and hey, rightfully so!

And then one day you see the guy walking down the street.   He tries to slip away, but you corner him.  “Give me the money you owe me!” you scream. The guy begs for mercy.  “The money is coming in next week.  There was just a little delay.  I will pay you, I promise.”

“Sure you will, pal, sure you will.”

If we still had debtor’s prison, hey, you would be quite happy to have him locked up.

I tell the story this way and we’re right there with the contractor – right with the servant in Jesus’ parable who refuses to forgive the financial debt of his fellow slave.

There are all kinds of other grievances Jesus could have put in his parable to talk about forgiveness. I think it’s significant that he chose to have it be about a financial debt.   We get pretty caught up in money. I know I do.  Jesus talked about how money can easily become our god.

So this brings me to the other easily overlooked detail of the parable, and it also involves money — the amount of money that at the outset of the parable the servant owes the king.  In today’s dollars, it’s something like a billion and a half dollars — an amount of money that makes 100 denarius seem like nothing by comparison.

The only way to make sense of the servant walking away from just having a billion and a half dollar debt suddenly forgiven by the king, only to immediately become a total hard-ass about the 100 denarius debt owed him is to conclude that somehow the servant didn’t really take in the magnitude of the gift he was just given.  If he had really taken it in, he would be in a state of such profound gratitude that it would simply be impossible for him to behave the way he does towards his fellow servant.

But somehow he’s blocked it out.  There’s some kind of major self-deception going on – a self-deception implied in the servant’s promise to the king that if the king will just be patient, the he will pay the debt back in full for sure.

He somehow thinks he’s still in control, but there’s no way he will ever pay a billion and a half dollars back.  If we insist on seeing ourselves as the masters of our fate, there’s no room for gratitude in the equation.

Week before last a police officer spoke to a bunch of people at our church about scams and things we can do to protect ourselves from getting cheated of our money.  This week there was news regarding an enormous security breech at Equifax, the result of which is that probably a majority of us in this room had our personal account data stolen – our social security number, our birth date, stuff like that.

It can be pretty anxiety producing.  We imagine somebody out there taking advantage of us akin to the way we imagined ourselves being the ripped off contractor, and so we spend a lot of time making sure we’ve done all we can to assure this doesn’t happen to us.

But here’s what most of us don’t worry much about.  Every time we get in our car and drive somewhere, there is a real possibility of something far worse happening than losing a third of our annual income.  We drive down roads going 45 miles an hour or more with drivers in cars coming back at us at the same speed, trusting that we’ll all stay on our own side of the little yellow line, when all it would take for a devastating accident to occur would be the slightest movement of the hand by ourselves or the drivers coming towards us.

But we think nothing of it.

I started reading this New Yorker article recently that was about people who had survived the experience of taking the life of another.  It began by telling the story of a woman who by coincidence was a college student about the same time as me, attending a school just 45 minutes away from where I was at college.  She described the moment everything changed.  She was driving her car in the manner that most of us drive our cars a lot of the time – sort of on auto-pilot — when suddenly there was this blur that came out of the corner of her eye as a child darted out into the road in front of her car.  The child was killed.

I stopped reading.  I simply couldn’t go on.  It was making me face the uncomfortable truth that I don’t want to face which is that it could just as easily have been me driving that car back there in college. That would be pretty devastating, to say the least. I stand in awe of people who have survived such tragedy and found a way to go forward to embrace life. The fact that I haven’t had to face such an ordeal hasn’t been because my driving ability is superior. It’s simply been my good fortune.

Understandably, we don’t want to think about these things.  But if we did, maybe we would get down on our knees and gives thanks and praise to God right there in the parking lot of Costco every time we arrive safely.

I have a friend who recently experienced a significant, permanent drop in his family’s income. If I were to experience a similar drop in income, I think I’d be freaking out, worrying about the future.  I asked him how he was handling this.  He was surprisingly calm about it.  He related it to serious health issues he has dealt with in the past, and continues to deal with, which have led him to view life differently than I do.  There were occasions in the past when he could easily have died, but he didn’t.  The health challenges are ongoing.  He has no certainty that he has a lot of time left in this world.  Maybe, maybe not.

In this larger context, my friend views his drop in income as relatively small potatoes – another version of “why sweat the small stuff?” because he’s looked the big stuff straight in the face.  And so he’s got this basic gratitude for being alive.  He’s grateful for each day he’s able to wake up and get out of bed and greet a new day.   The loss of income doesn’t touch this underlying gratitude.

It’s a matter of perspective, my friend said.

There was this Bill Moyers documentary I watched a few years back about World War II vets – pretty old guys who had survived the D-day invasion when they were just young men.  Two things struck me.  On the one hand, they had this basic awareness that there is so much we’re not in control of in life – that thy myth of self-sufficiency and self-reliance that they had bought into before going to war didn’t hold water.  Life is scary sometimes, and macho posturing is the stuff of fools.

On the other hand, in the years following the war they had found themselves much less inclined to be afraid when it came to taking non-life-threatening risks.  If they started a business and it went belly up, leading them to lose all their money – well, as they said, “at least nobody is shooting bullets at me.   I’m alive.”

It’s all a matter of perspective.

The recent hurricanes:  A man loses his home.  Understandably, he’s devastated.  But if in the course of the flood he thought that his wife or children had drowned, and then is relieved to find they hadn’t, well, the loss of the house wouldn’t seem like so much.

Perspective is the theme of the classic, “It’s a Wonderful Life.”  George Bailey is about to lose his business.  He thinks it would be better if he had never been born.  He’s about to take his own life.  Clarence the angel allows him to see what it would mean for him never to have been born, and it shakes George to the core.

The part we tend to remember from the movie is how he gets to see the positive impact he had on the town without realizing it.  But a big part of what Clarence lets him see is simply how precious and beautiful his ordinary life is – the profound blessing it is to have people who know and love him, and whom he has been allowed to know and love as well.  After seeing what he was about to lose in his wish to take his life, it doesn’t really matter that his business is going bankrupt.

So in the end, it is all a matter of perspective, and the possibility exists in each moment of awakening to that deeper perspective — to be set free from our own self-imposed prison of grudges and worries that sometimes it seems like we’re destined to inhabit eternally.

In the end, maybe forgiveness wouldn’t be so hard if we didn’t deceive ourselves by thinking we are the master of our fates when in fact the deepest truth is that we have been given a great gift when God chose to give us life.  Life can be very hard sometimes — very painful — but it is also exquisitely beautiful.  It’s a gift. We didn’t earn this gift, nor can we pay this gift off.  It is pure grace, and to grasp this is to find ourselves filled with gratitude – a gratitude that leaves no room for grudges, no room for making money our god.  It only leaves room for love.

The Spiritual Power of a Truly Reconciled Community

Filed under: Pastor Jeff's Sermons — Pastor Jeff at 2:16 pm on Monday, September 11, 2017

A sermon preached on September 10th, 2017 based upon Matthew 18:15-20.

1-1-jess and maidie

“If brother or sister in the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If they listen to you, you have regained your brother or sister. 16But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17If the brother or sister refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.18Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. 19Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. 20For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there in the midst of them.”

It is remarkable that this particular Gospel lesson was assigned to be read on this particular Sunday, because this morning our service is all about the “church” since we baptized two persons and received three new members into the church. You might be surprised to know that the word “church” occurs only four times in the four Gospels – each instance in Matthew’s Gospel – and two of the four appear in the words of Jesus we just heard Bob read, and a third appears in the verse that immediately follows this reading.

So in this passage Jesus is giving us two things – first, some practical guidance regarding how we are to live together as his Church, and second, a remarkable promise.

Let’s look at the practical guidance first.  Nearly two thousand years before psychologists came up with the term “conflict resolution” Jesus begins by giving guidance for how to resolve conflicts that arise in the Church.

A couple of things to note:  First, Jesus assumes there will be conflicts in the Church, because we aren’t perfect. This should be a no-brainer given that the fourth reference to the church in the gospels is the one in which Jesus say Simon Peter is the rock upon which Jesus will build his “church,” and the one thing that comes through loud and clear about Peter was imperfections.

We will have disagreements, and even more, we will hurt one another’s feelings, offend one another — often without realizing it.   We don’t need to pretend to be perfect.  Nor do we need to pretend that we don’t have the kind of feelings conflicts can evoke: hurt feelings, angry feelings.  We don’t need to, nor should we put on a facade of perpetual niceness, because when we try to pretend that nothing is bothering us when something is in fact bothering us, what happens is that we push people away, often in subtle ways. We keep our distance, physically, emotionally, spiritually from one another, and as we will see that is precisely what Jesus doesn’t want to happen in His church.

So Jesus gives advice regarding what to do when conflicts arise.  When I have a problem with another person, I should in relatively short order go directly to the person – I should not let the thing fester.  Nor should I go looking for somebody to complain to, no matter how perversely satisfying it can be to say, “You won’t believe what so and so said to me!!”

So I’m to go directly to the person and to talk to them, and notice what the goal of my conversation is:  It’s not to win an argument, or to get them to say to me, “you’re right, I’m wrong.  I apologize.  I’ll never do that again.”

The immediate goal is simply this:  to simply get the person to listen to me — which of course, is a rarity in this world.  To take the time to try and see things through my eyes – in particular, what happened that left me feeling hurt and angry.  It doesn’t mean necessarily that the way I see things is accurate.  Hopefully a conversation will open up between us that involves give and take, with not only the other person listening to me, but me listening to them as well.

But note the larger goal: to regain a brother or sister in the church.  The conflict has created a wall, threatening the deep, familial connection that should be at the heart of the church, and the goal is to restore that connection.

And I would suggest that when you go to this person, lead with your hurt and not with your anger.  Say something like, “when you did so and so, I felt hurt.”  I think Jesus would agree with this given the theme of embracing vulnerability that is a part of his “way.” Often anger is a secondary emotion that arises after the initial feeling of being hurt, but anger keeps us from exposing our vulnerability.  But the thing about coming at another with anger in these sorts of conversations is that we can pretty well count on their defenses going up and anger coming back at us.

Now Jesus recognizes that when I try to open up such a conversation, the effort will not always be successful.  Sometimes the attempt may seem to make the conflict even worse.  So there is a second step:  a second conversation is to be initiated, this time with one or two others from the church present.

There are two reasons for this, the first of which is to hopefully bring some objectivity to the conversations.  The emotions that arise can block the capacity for either of us caught up in the conflict to clearly see what’s going on.  So the one or two others can listen to the conversation and help clarify what is going on.

The second reason is this:  when there is a conflict between two people within the church, it doesn’t just harm them – it hurts the body as a whole.  So involving others expresses this truth, as does the third step Jesus gives. If the conversation with one or two others doesn’t work, bring the conflict before the entire church. Now this may sound like publicly “shaming” the person, but there are two things to take note of in this regard.  First, in the steps Jesus has laid out pains are taken precisely not to be publicly shame the person.  First I am to talk to the person alone, then if that doesn’t work with one or two others.  It is only as a last result that the whole community is involved.

The fourth step can strike our ears like major shaming.  Jesus says that “if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”  That sounds pretty terrible, right?  Cut them off.  Shun them.  Shame thing.  And sadly there are countless stories of churches that have done just that, feeling like these words provide scriptural support for doing so. But there is an irony that is often missed.   The reference to a “Gentile and a taxcollector” should sound familiar to us if we have read the Gospels.  The Pharisees tried to shame Jesus – for what ? Keeping the company of “Gentiles and taxcollectors.” So even if a person proves to be so toxic to the community that the community needs to in some sense separate themselves from this person,  the person remains the object of the community’s love, and the door is left open for the possibility of reconciliation further down the road.

Now I know what many of you are thinking – what a part of me is thinking: all this direct conflict resolution advice sounds great in theory, but I’m not going do that.  I don’t like confrontation.  In order to avoid confrontation, I’m happy to just let a relationship have some distance in it.  If I’m angry and hurt, maybe the person will figure it out on their own by the fact that I’m avoiding them.

I get that.  But part of the reason we are inclined to resist the advice is because we haven’t experienced the kind of spiritual power that is possible in a community of grace – a community truly obedient to Jesus as Lord.  A community truly connected, without the walls, with everybody on the same page, flowing as one in the river of God’s love.

And that’s the link between the practical advice of the first part of this lesson to the promise Jesus makes in the second part.

“Truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there in the midst of them.”

I got a phone call this past Thursday from Maidie.  She was feeling worn down by the battle she’s fighting with cancer. She was worried about the toll it was taking on her beloved Jessica.  She wanted me to pray for them.

And there was another little coincidence that I pointed out to Maidie:  she quoted to me the very Scripture that we had scheduled to read this morning, that when two or more pray together, Jesus is right here with us.

So reflecting on this, I felt God calling us to pray together for Maidie, Jes and Ryan this morning in a special way.

Taking the words of Jesus seriously, let’s take a few moments to prepare our hearts to be vessels together of God’s Spirit.

If it feels right close your eyes.  I’ve asked Barb to play softly.

If you’re willing, reflect for a moment about any relationships you may have either within this church, or in your life in general where you have allowed walls to go up, allowed your heart to harden, allowed grudges to fester and to the extent that you are capable, offer these relationships up to God to heal, to reconcile.  Ask God to open the channels of grace in your heart, to let the Spirit move through you.

I’m going to place a chair here for Maidie to sit in, and have Barb play “Spirit of the Living God fall afresh on me,” that we may sing as those who feel so called come forward to gather around Maidie as we pray for her.

Maidie has been such a blessing to our Church since she came among us several years ago.  She has this unique ability to call forth love from people, to inspire us to be our best selves, to act courageously and selflessly for the sake of one another and this world.

(And here we prayed for Maidie, Jes and Ryan.)

The Burning Bushes Through Which God Calls to Us

Filed under: Pastor Jeff's Sermons — Pastor Jeff at 8:26 pm on Monday, September 4, 2017

A sermon preached on September 3rd, 2017 based upon Exodus 3:1-15.

In middle age, Moses as he goes about his routine preoccupations of his daily life, shepherding his father-in-law’s sheep, encounters in a burning bush the living God whose name is “I am who I am” or “I will be who I will be” conveys the truth that this God will not be our private possession.  Rather this God lays a claim and call upon the life of Moses, and if we too pay attention to the burning bushes that appear in our lives, will lay a claim and call upon our lives as well.

The one characteristic that is revealed about this mysterious God is compassion, that indeed this God hears the cries of the suffering of those he has given life to, and calls us to act in compassion to relieve that suffering.

Indeed, this God continues to appear to us in burning bushes of a multitude of forms if we are paying attention.

There was a burning bush that appeared this week in the midst of the suffering caused by Hurricane Harvey.  It is striking that a horrifying act of nature, as it brings forth so much destruction and suffering, at the same time calls forth the very best of people.   We have glimpsed the very image and likeness of God in all the stories of neighbors helping neighbors in Houston, acting courageously and selflessly to share what they have – and the stirring of hearts throughout the land asking, “How can I help?”

One such story — pretty small really.  Having heard that there was a single person left homeless at her local gas station in need of help, she went there and ended up bringing eleven people she had never met before as well as six dogs and a cat back to her home to live with her for a time.

Hurricane homeI am struck by the fact that it was only two weeks ago that the news with which we were consumed coming out of Charlottesville was that of division and racial hatred.  Now with the burning bush that has been the suffering wrought by Hurricane Harvey, all those divisions and bigotry seems so small, so petty.  In Houston we saw the distinctions between Black and White, between rich and poor, between Democrats and Republicans largely disappear as people had their lives stripped down to the bare essentials.  We realize that we really are all in this boat together.

Hurricane boat

Burning bushes though come in a host of other forms as well.  One such burning bush is the tragic story of Mallory Grossman, the 12 years old from just up the road in Rockaway who took her own life at the end school year last June following a year of bullying from classmates both at school and online.

Mallorgy Grossman

In the past ten years the rate of suicides in children ages 10 to 14 has nearly tripled.  In the burning bush that was Mallory’s suffering and death we are all called as a new school year begins this week to treat one another with tenderness and kindness, with a new awareness that the worst wounds are often the ones on the inside – the wounds we don’t see.

Last week in our Gospel lesson, Peter answered Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?” with the answer, “You are the messiah, the son of the Living God” – not Caesar, but Jesus of Nazareth.  In the continuance of that story Jesus proceeds to tell his disciples that as the Lord’s anointed one he must go to Jerusalem to enter fully into the suffering of this world, to the point of death on a cross, confronting the cruelty of this world.  In response Peter tells him it need not be so, to which Jesus cries out. “Get behind me, Satan!”
Jesus, hanging on the cross, dying for every single one of us, is the ultimate burning bush, calling us from the preoccupations of our daily lives that we may embody the compassion that is at the heart of God.
In a few minutes we will share again the sacrament that reminds us of the death Jesus died for us.  The bread that is his broken body, and the cup that is his blood shed for us, we God calls to us once again.
If you are like me, if you are like Peter, if you are like Moses, your first response to the call and claim that Jesus would place upon our lives is to turn away — to say it is beyond us to do the great work of compassion to which God is calling us.  But as the call comes to us, we are given the same assurance that was given to Moses, and that is that God will be with us.  We are not alone.  Don’t be afraid.

A Strange Rock Indeed

Filed under: Pastor Jeff's Sermons — Pastor Jeff at 6:15 pm on Sunday, August 27, 2017

A sermon preached on August 27th, 2017 based upon Matthew 16:13 – 20.

Maidie back

Our story this morning (Matthew 16:13-20) is a turning point in the ministry of Jesus. So far in the Gospel story he has been wandering about Galilee, with the power of God clearly present in the healings he performed, but in other ways as well. Twice he has fed thousands of people who have followed him out into the wilderness.  Two times out in a boat at night on the sea of Galilee, the disciples have witnessed him first silence a storm and second, and then walk on the water.  When Jesus talks to his disciples they often seem confused.  We pick up the story as Jesus puts a crucial question to them.

Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi

Caesarea Philippi – the location where the conversation we are about to hear takes place is very significant. Originally the city had contained a shrine to the pagan god Pan, but the Romans came along and established a military outpost there. Herod the Great — known to us from the Christmas story — named the city after Caesar Augustus as a tribute to the emperor in Rome.

Later Herod’s son extended the size of the city, renaming it Caesarea Philippi making it not only a tribute to Caesar, but also to his own lineage, for he had a son named Philip.  “We may not be the top dogs,” he seemed to be saying, “but in the great chain of command that rules this world, we are just a notch from the top.”

So the city represents the way of this world, where a person’s identity is established by their ability to Lord it over others – to have people look down on.

Once upon a time in this country the KKK was seen as a respectable organization.  White men of stature openly took part in its activities.  In the past forty years, however, it has been primarily an organization of poor white males. Having bought into the way this world whereby to feel good about yourself you have to have somebody to look down on, they have clung to the notion that, “well, at least we can look down on blacks and Jews.”

This is what Caesarea Philippi represents.

he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”

“Son of Man” was by far the most common title Jesus used for himself. There was, it seems an intentional ambiguity to the title.  On the one hand, it is an expression of humility, emphasizing the humanity Jesus has in common with all people.  He identifies himself with all of us.

But in the Book of Daniel there is a reference to the “Son of Man” as a heavenly figure who will come in the future to exercise divine judgment. The “Son of Man” is the one we are ultimately accountable to.

And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”

The disciples repeat what they’ve been hearing from the people – that they are clearly impressed by Jesus, for the names they give are all great prophets of the past – people who clearly spoke for God in this world.  In particular, they spoke “truth to power” – they called out the kings of Israel when they failed to rule with justice, abusing their power by robbing from the poor.

He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”

Ah, now the conversation suddenly gets very personal. No longer is this merely a matter of repeating the gossip the disciples have heard, or an intellectual discussion.  “Who am I,” Jesus wants to know, “for you?”

The impression you get is that for a moment there was stunned silence – the disciples avoiding eye contact, examining the backs of their hands perhaps — until Simon, the impulsive one finally breaks the silence.

Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

The claim Simon is making is bold indeed.  There are two parts.  He names Jesus as the “messiah” – a Jewish term for the “anointed one” – “Christos” in Greek — as once long ago a young David was anointed by the prophet Samuel, indicating that though in the present moment he appeared merely a humble shepherd boy, he was nonetheless the very one God had chosen to replace corrupt King Saul who had failed to rule in line with God’s will.  Jesus is, therefore, the righteous King for whom the people have been waiting for centuries.

The second expression, “the Son of the living God,” is extraordinary, because there already was one who was commonly referred to as the “son of God,” and that was the Emperor Caesar in Rome, whom the city is named after.

The assertion being made here is one if spoken openly could get a person crucified for sedition.  Simon is claiming that contrary to the appearance of this world, Jesus – not Caesar in Rome – had the real authority in this world.

And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.

On the surface, this sounds like a compliment to Simon, but the point being made here is that Simon hasn’t figured this out on his own.  That he has come up with the “right answer” does not mean Simon has special insight and wisdom – rather, he is just a very average Joe to whom God has chosen to reveal a truth missed by others far smarter than himself.

And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church…

There is a play on words here.  “Petros” is the Greek word for “rock.”  Simon is given a new name – essentially, “Rocky” – the rock upon which Jesus’ church will be built.

The irony, of course, is that from the stories we know of Simon Peter, he is anything but “solid as a rock.”  A little earlier in the story we have heard how Simon impulsively stepped out of the boat to stand on the water, only to promptly sink when fear overtook him.

Next week when the story continues, we will hear how Simon goes directly from receiving this blessing and revelation, to being called “Satan” when he shows he completely misunderstands the way of Jesus, the only individual to be so named.

And of course there is the story that later all four Gospels contain, how on the night Jesus is arrested Simon Peter will impulsively declare how he is superior to the other disciples in that he will never abandon Jesus, only to deny him three times before the night is over.

A strange rock indeed upon which to build his church.

and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.

Often “Hades” is translated “hell”, but that isn’t an accurate rendering.  Hades is simply the realm of the dead.

There is a great promise here.  The powers of death will not prevail over the church.  The church may go through hard times indeed, often losing its way.  Church buildings may close but the revelation of Jesus as Lord that is at the heart of who the church is will never be lost.

This past week, in the editorial page of the New York Times of all places, a young Chinese seminary student in Hong Kong penned a piece with the remarkable title, “I Worship Jesus, Not Xi Jinping (the supreme ruler of China.)” He spoke out in the piece of how the church in China was being oppressed and the leaders of the church were succumbing to the threats of violence imposed by the regime.

He knew that in proclaiming Jesus Lord and not Caesar, he would likely end up in prison and possibly be killed.  But he would not be silenced.  He was determined to speak the truth.  Contrary to appearances, Jesus is the one in the end before whom we will all be judged — not the Caesars of this world.

We do not have the religious oppression experienced in China in this country, but the pull of this world to get our marching orders from some source other than Jesus is nonetheless pretty powerful.

Long before apartheid was cracking in South Africa, Desmond Tutu, the little meek and mild archbishop would often speak to the defenders of apartheid. There was a constant, ringing theme of triumph in his words.  His message was this:

“We must assert, and assert confidently, that God is in charge. You are not God, you are mortals.  It is God whom we worship and God cannot be mocked.  You have already lost.  Come and join the winning side.”

Despite the threats of the powers of death and Hades, in the end, Jesus will win.

I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

There are all these jokes you hear about people meeting Peter at the gates of heaven, and not being allowed to enter until they answer some question he asks.  These jokes are all based on this verse.  Jesus gives Simon Peter the “keys of the kingdom of heaven.”

The jokes generally have very bad theology.  They miss the irony of Simon Peter as the rock upon which the church is built.  We don’t earn our place in the God’s kingdom; we are invited with the same grace Jesus extended to pathetic Simon Peter, who in the darkness of that long night denied Jesus three times.  I heard somebody suggest that when we think about Peter at the gates of heaven, we might do better to imagine the greeter at Walmart. This is not a place that is only open to the elite, to those who have proved themselves spiritually superior to others.  This is the place where there is room in the circle for all – for all us poor slobs on the bus.

Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.

He tells them not to tell people that he is, indeed, the anointed one of God, because they do not yet understand the way of this messiah, which is the way of the cross.  The disciples — and all of us who call ourselves Christians — will spend the rest of our lives trying to understand the way of this messiah, because it is so different from the direction this world pulls us in.

In the end, Jesus reveals his greatness not be lording it over others, but by offering himself as a servant, who accepts death on a cross, dying for all people, not just some people, in order to reveal the extraordinary love that is at the heart of God. As he dies on the cross, the powers of death seem for a time to prevail.  But the story doesn’t end there.

The Lord rises from the dead.

The Eulogy for Fred L. Coleman

Filed under: Eulogies — Pastor Jeff at 9:26 pm on Saturday, August 26, 2017

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Fred Leonard Coleman was born on December 4, 1933 in Philadelphia, the third child born to Fred and Hilda Coleman. Fred was preceded in birth by his sisters Thelma and Marion.  When Fred was one year old, the family moved to New York City, where five more Colemans were born:   Lolita, Stanley, Rudy, Bobby and Leon.  The family first lived in Manhattan where Fred’s father worked as a policeman, moving to the Bronx when Fred was six.  Fred remembered his life in the Bronx fondly, enjoying the companionship of his brothers and sisters, as well as the many friends he made.

Graduating from high school in 1951, Fred enlisted in the Signal Corp of the Artillery in the Army.  He was first assigned to Fort Dix, after which he received training in Personnel Administration at Fort Benjamin Harrison in Indiana.  Fred worked in Operations Intelligence with Top Secret Clearance, including six months at the North Pole which led to Fred’s life-long distaste for the cold.

After three years of service to his country, Fred was discharged in 1954. Fred married Katherine Roberts in 1951 who gave birth to Fred’s son Leonard and daughter Valerie.  Sadly, Katherine died in 1955 of cancer leaving Fred a widower and the single father of two small children.  Two years after Katherine’s death Fred married Jeri Smith in 1957, and although the marriage ended in divorce in 1960, the marriage did produce the blessing of Fred’s daughter Vicky.  Fred also adopted Jeri’s two children, Anthony and Patrice.

Fred began working for Dell Publishing in Pine Brook, NJ in 1956.  Weary of the commute from the Bronx, in the early sixties Fred looked for a place to live in Parsippany.  Because of prejudice against the color of Fred’s skin, apartments that were available when he called over the phone would mysteriously disappear when he would show up in person to view them. Thanks thought to his well known charm and humor, Fred eventually managed to break the color barrier and rent an apartment on Baldwin Road, becoming, by his account, the first Black resident of Parsippany. 20479660_2113341618682194_4725026666330988791_n Before long, Fred was one of the most popular residents in town.  Never developing an interest in cooking, Fred would get supper in local restaurants, particularly the Empire Diner.  He had a knack for getting into a conversation with whoever was at hand, invariably getting them to laugh with him. Fred’s warm-hearted kindness and his wonderful sense of humor drew friends to him like bees to honey.

For many years he belonged to a bowling league, providing another avenue for making friends.  Fred got involved in local community theater.  At some point he began working at BASF in Whippany in data processing, which opened him up to yet again a whole new field of friends.

Fred developed a life-long passion for portrait photography, and with a particular fondness for the ladies, he would invite the women he met to pose for him while he worked his craft, covering his apartment walls with the beauty of their faces.

When she was 17, Fred’s daughter Vicky moved in with him, living with him for three years.  She remembers how much fun her Daddy was.  One of her favorite memories was the time her Daddy was going on and on about how he had developed the ability to hypnotize people.  Vicky was adamant that he could not hypnotize her.  And so he proceeded to demonstrate his ability. Fooling her father, Vicky pretended that she been put sound to sleep by the sound of his soothing voice.  “All right,” said Fred said, “When I count to three and snap my fingers, you will wake up.”  Which he did, but she wouldn’t wake up.  He snapped again, and kept saying “wake up,” but still she seemed stuck in a deep, sound asleep.  At which point Freddie freaked, afraid his power to hypnotize had been too powerful.  When Vicky let him know she was just fooling, they laughed and laughed.

After his retirement from BASF, Fred began coming to our church invited by his friend Sharon Adam.  We quickly learned what a blessing Fred was with his warm heart and his delight in sharing a laugh.  It just so happened that the Sunday Fred professed his faith in the Lord and became a member of our church was Valentine’s Day of 1999, which in retrospect seems appropriate because it became a running joke that Fred had intentions of marrying pretty much every eligible woman in the Church.

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But Fred was a bit of paradox in this regard.  He was a perpetual romantic, constantly imagining his coming wedding day, while simultaneously being for the last 57 years of his life a confirmed bachelor who cherished his personal space. Recognizing Fred’s gifts with people and the time he had on his hands in retirement, I invited Fred to take the position of “office minister,” sitting in the church office three days a week to receive phone calls and visitors. The church treasurer is also named Fred, so we had White Fred and Black Fred.


White Fred is a magician as well as a clown who does balloon sculptures. This is a picture of Fred sitting at his desk covered with a multitude of balloon sculptures, conveying something of the joy Fred brought to his work.


On a pretty regular basis people would stop by the office for the specific purpose of visiting with Fred. He listened, and counseled, a great many people with their problems. He took his job very seriously, and consistently dressed better than I did, generally wearing a suit.

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I joked about how he was my pastor decoy, and that if some crazed lunatic ever got it in his head to come to the church to shoot a pastor, I was going to point to Fred when the lunatic asked which one of us was the pastor, and was pretty certain, given the fact that Fred looked more like what a pastor was supposed to look like, that the lunatic would believe me. I felt loved by Freddie, and think he probably would have taken a bullet for me if he was called upon to do so.  He was so supportive of me.  We laughed together, and I felt safe venting my occasional frustrations, knowing that Fred had my back.

He was also the person who most consistently voiced the opinion that God could be trusted in all things.  I have a story I tell of a little God moment I had.  I was in a bit of a funk, and I decided to leave my house for a walk to clear my head.  God wasn’t feeling very close to me, and I thought to myself as I began my walk that maybe I should listen to the things I’ve often said from the pulpit about what to do at such times, which is basically to pray.  So I did, asking God for some kind of sign that God was with me.  About a minute later I came to cross S. Beverwyck Road, and there coming down the road in his “Fred mobile” – you know that old Cadillac with “Fred 1” on the license plate – was none other than Fred himself, giving me a honk and a wave.

And I thought to myself, “I got my sign.”

Freddie took pride and pleasure in the Coleman extended family, and enjoyed the reunions that were held in 1991, 2004 and 2011 in the New York and Philly area.  His three children brought forth sixteen grandchildren into the world and it became difficult to keep track of all the great grand children and great, great grand children.


Here at the church we got used to Fred standing up every so often announcing in our time for sharing joys that another baby had been added to the family. The children of our church also were altogether charmed by Fred.

So it seemed appropriate that Freddie should play Father Abraham in a children’s sermon I once gave.  Abraham – the original example of trusting God – to whom God said look up at the stars and count them if you can, for your descendants will be as many as the stars. Fred’s faith was on display when in 2001 Freddie had a major stroke, leaving the right side of his body significantly weakened.

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Tom Albert got him to the hospital and visited him every day there and in the two months of rehab that followed at the Kessler Institute in Chester.  Throughout the whole ordeal, Fred’s positive, determined, keep-the-faith attitude was an inspiration to all of us, including the staff and fellow patients at the Kessler. When it came time for a graduation ceremony for those who had made it through the rigorous program of physical therapy rehab, they all selected Fred to give the graduation  speech, and it was truly an inspiration.


Before long, Fred was back at his post in the Church office.  He served in the capacity of “office minister” for over ten years, and as his health declined, it pained him to give his position up.

Fred’s family threw a wonderful surprise 80th birthday party for Fred, with our fellowship hall packed full of family and church friends. It was a great time, and Fred was truly beaming.  You made him feel so loved.


As time passed, it was becoming harder and harder for Fred to get up and own the stairs of his 2nd floor apartment on Baldwin Road, so we organized a move to Brookside Senior Center where they have an elevator, and at least twenty people from Church pitched in to help get Fred and all his many, many possessions moved across town.  He was happy there for a time.


Unfortunately though, repeated falls returned him to the hospital, and after just six months he ended up at Troy Hills Center. Fred had always made a point of telling us he expected to live to be 120, so it was very hard for Fred to accept the limitations that the decline of his body brought upon him. Not surprisingly, he was a staff and resident favorite and his sense of humor became famous. Jack Walsh from our church visited him everyday and brought him cookies. Other church friends visited often as well, as did his family.

Fred didn’t live to be 120, but he outlived all seven of his brothers and sisters, as well as his son Leonard and daughter Valerie, and they were all waiting for him on the other side when he took his last breath on August 1st,2017.  

I think you will agree that rarely have you met someone in life who evoked so much laughter.  Fred loved to laugh, and it was never at people – it was always with people.  And there is a lightness of spirit that comes from laughter – a certain freedom from self-absorption.  He invited us to laugh with him, and in doing so he loved us. And we honor him by loving one another, sharing tears and sharing laughter, until we take our last breaths and meet together with Fred and Jesus on the far shore.

Charlottesville and Jesus’ Own Cruel Racism

Filed under: Pastor Jeff's Sermons — Pastor Jeff at 9:14 pm on Sunday, August 20, 2017

A sermon preached on August 20th, 2017 based upon Matthew 15:21-28.

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It is amazing that the story we just heard is even in the Bible, because it shows Jesus’ initial response to the desperate Canaanite woman seeking a healing for her daughter is one of racist cruelty.  First, he essentially says, “your kind isn’t welcome here.” Then when that doesn’t work to send her on her way, he resorts to a racial slur:  “You are a dog – not a child of God from house of Israel.  You are undeserving of the food I have come to bring!” You might have thought that in an attempt to show Jesus in the best light, the Gospel writers would have left the story out, but Matthew, Mark and Luke all contain the story.  But there it is.

Some people feel obliged to go through some mental gymnastics to try and get Jesus off the hook for his initial reaction, suggesting he was just testing the woman, or maybe giving an object lesson to his disciples.  They point out that the word translated “dog” can also be translated “puppy”, a term of endearment.  But people didn’t have dogs as pets in those days.  Dogs were wild scavengers.  At best dogs might be used for protection, but people didn’t sit around watching cute Youtube videos of puppies.  To call somebody a dog was to declare them less than fully human.

For me, however this story has always made Jesus more accessible, emphasizing the humanity he shares with us, as opposed to his divinity.   In this moment, tired and stressed, worn out by all the requests for help, Jesus’ access to the Holy Spirit is blocked.   He falls back on the brain circuitry formed in his childhood that absorbed the prejudices of his culture.  We’ve all been there.

It was striking that this was the Gospel reading on this week in which we have all been distressed by the news coming out of Charlottesville regarding the marching of White Supremacists and Neo Nazis carrying swastikas with their rage-filled  chants against Jews.  We watched the video of them carrying torches at night that intentionally evoked memories from the past of both the Nazis and the KKK rallies and lynchings, and then the violence that followed, especially the violence that led to the murder of a beautiful young woman named Heather who came there to stand against such hatred.

The first thing to be said is to emphasize the importance of naming evil when it clearly appears, and the ideologies of White Supremacy and Nazis are evil indeed.

But there is this problem with being a Christian and that is that Jesus doesn’t let us off the hook when it comes to loving our enemies.   That who carried torches and swastikas chanting hatred have souls, and they are in danger of losing their souls to the demonic power of hate.  When we declare, that “we won’t let hate win”, what we must include in that assertion is that we won’t let our hatred of those who profess these ideologies to win either.

Part of what this morning’s Gospel story says is that to be a human being is to have this pull with us that blinds us to seeing people as individuals, but rather as merely a category, a stereotype, and to pass judgment on peoples’ souls when we have no right to do so.

Racism is a kind of demonic possession.  If you listened to the story of the young 20 year old man who was responsible for killing Heather in Charlottesville, it is hard to miss the inner woundedness that made him susceptible to the evil ideologies he had come to embrace.  His father was killed by a drunken driver when he was still in his mother’s womb, and the developing baby in a mother’s womb is damaged when their mother endures such trauma.  He grew up without a father, let alone older siblings who might fill in the gap.  His mother was disabled, confined to a wheelchair.  From early on he was clearly trapped in a place of unresolved rage that resonated with the evil ideologies of hatred of the Nazis and the White Supremacists.

So how do we love these people who are wounded in this way, and in danger of losing their souls to evil?

There is a lot of research that when it comes to trying to change the beliefs of others, arguing simply doesn’t work.   We form identities that are deeply connected to the beliefs we hold, and when somebody argues with us, threatening our beliefs, it threatens our sense of self and our instinct is to dig in our heels all the harder regarding to what we’ve come to believe is true.

Although there needs to be a clear condemnation of evil ideologies, goodness doesn’t triumph simply with condemnation.  Goodness, in the end, triumphs only through love.

So if arguing doesn’t change people, what does?  Stories change people.  Stories can speak to us in a way that arguments can’t.  That’s why Jesus told stories.  When a Pharisee wanted to argue with him over the question of “who is my neighbor for whom I have moral responsibility?” Jesus didn’t argue with the man.  He told a story about a man left beaten, half-dead at the side of the road with the only person willing to put himself out to help the man — doing so in a big way — was a Samaritan, a member of a race of people that Jesus’ listeners had grown up being taught to hate.

Not only the stories Jesus told, but the stories of what he did are powerful, describing him caring about the people others overlooked – others rejected.  And the most powerful story of all is the one of how Jesus embraced death on the cross for all people, refusing to embrace violence and hatred.

This morning’s story is an unusual because in a sense the usual roles are reversed.  It involves a Gentile woman who refuses to give up on Jesus, as if to say, “I know who you are Jesus – that you come from God Almighty, creator of heaven and earth, and I refuse to believe that this racism with which you are rejecting me is the final word from you – your deepest truth.  I won’t give in to this old racist belief you were taught as a child.  I will persist until you truly listen to my story, and take into your heart my suffering – the torment of my beloved, demon-possessed daughter.”

And in the end, Jesus’ heart is changed, which is also a powerful story to tell.   We don’t have to remain stuck.  We can impact one another for good, through love.

There is this progressive Christianity website I sometimes turn to for inspiration and this week it  posted an essay entitled, “Should We Be Okay with Punching a Nazi?” The author’s conclusion was, “Yes, we should.” My reaction was:  “A few hundred wounded birds carrying swastikas and confederate flags and chanting hateful slogans is all it takes for you to abandon the way of Jesus!?” which is not to say we are to sit passively by while neo-Nazis and white supremacists go out into the public to march.  We must stand firm in our witness against the evil of their ideologies, but violence is not Jesus’ way.

So stories are powerful, and at this moment of time it is important to choose carefully the stories we will tell one another.

We need to retell the story of Martin Luther King, Jr. who put his life on the line when he followed the way of Jesus, standing up against racism and injustice and declaring:

Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. . . . Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.

The story of Nelson Mandela is another good one for us to tell now:  how he fought against Apartheid in South Africa, ending up spending 27 years in prison, living in a tiny cell under severe conditions, forced to perform back-breaking hard labor for his oppressors who routinely humiliated him.  As he suffered in prison, his fame grew as he became the symbol of the resistance to an evil regime.  When he came forth from that prison cell he did so without a spirit of vengeance but of peace and reconciliation, eventually becoming South Africa’s first black president, and leading the way to the healing of his very broken and divided nation.

“As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom,” he wrote, “I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.” He also wrote words well worth our reflection at this moment in history:  “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin or his background or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love.”

I continually come back to the power of listening to one another’s stories, and how infrequently we have the opportunity to do so.  Every time I give a eulogy, telling something of the story of the person’s life, some of us always say, “I wished I had known the story while they were still living. I would have appreciated them all the more.”

I have this conviction that if we were given the opportunity to truly listen as pretty much any other person told us their story – their real story without the veneer, that includes not only the good stuff that happened, but the struggles, the pain and sorrow they knew in the course of their journey, the wounds they received – we would find ourselves responding with love and compassion.   We would recognize the human being who longs for love, the soul that seeks redemption.

So let us seek to listen to one another’s stories, and let us tell stories that move and inspire, that together we may call forth the better angels of our nature.

No Fear

Filed under: Writings of the people — Pastor Jeff at 2:33 pm on Wednesday, August 16, 2017

A sermon preached by Bob Keller on Sunday, August 13, 2017 based upon Matthew 14: 22 – 33.

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Several years ago, Connie and I owned a boat.  We loved the boat, a 27 foot Sea Ray and, though we docked it on Lake Hopatcong, it was a manageable size to trailer elsewhere.  So we, and a group of fellow boat owners, often trailered our boats to other, larger, waters.

For one trip we trailered to the Hudson River and went down to Hell Gate into Long Island Sound and spent the night along the Connecticut coast.  There was a fog the next morning that delayed us, but it lifted by mid-morning and we continued out trip.

By mid morning the fog dropped again without a shred of notice it was coming.  You couldn’t see 50 feet in front of you!  Eight boats strung together in unfamiliar waters.  Only two of us had LORAN’s.  LORAN was the predecessor to GPS, but basically worked the same way except it used land-based triangulation instead of satellites.   Needless to say, we were afraid.  We had to have trust in the LORAN to safely guide us.  We arrived safely, eight hours behind schedule.

Another time, on the Chesapeake Bay, a storm came up suddenly, not unlike what happened to the disciples on the Sea of Galilee.  We had five or six boats along with us that time.  The water got choppy at first, then the storm intensified and the big waves, the rollers, started.  I remembered advice given to me by an old friend, a Navy veteran and a boater himself, who told me to head directly into the waves to avoid getting swamped.  The ride is rough, kind of like an unpredictable roller coaster, but you won’t get capsized.

I think you see where this is going.  Fear – we were certainly afraid.  But we called on trust in what we had learned.  We relied on the experience of others to see us safely through.  Trust can be verified.  Faith is trust in what is unseen.

The word “fear,” or “fear not,” or “be not afraid,” or some iteration of those words appears some 365 times in the Bible. The word “faith” appears 336 times in the King James Version.

Leading up to today’s scripture reading we know that Jesus was tired. His disciples were tired.

They had been grieving over John the Baptist’s murder so  they tried to get away and be alone.

They had gotten into their boat and sailed to a deserted place, but it didn’t work. The crowds followed them, we know at least 5,000 men, plus women and children followed them.

And even though Jesus was consumed with grief, He had “compassion for them and healed those who were sick.”

Then, when everyone was hungry–instead of sending the people away–Jesus blessed what the disciples had–5 loaves of bread and 2 fish and everyone was fed.

Now Jesus is really, really tired.

And we are told in verse 22, “Right then, Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go ahead to the other side of the lake while he dismissed the crowds.

Then Jesus went up a mountain by Himself to pray, regain strength, and I would imagine—to mourn. Then “Evening came and he was alone.”

Then, sometime in the wee hours of the morning, Jesus goes to “catch up” with the twelve disciples.

And the disciples are having a horrible time.  Mark tells us that Jesus saw them struggling at the oars.

A storm has whipped up, and they are being battered by the waves and the wind; they are far away from land.

And that’s when they spot someone, or some thing, walking on the water.  We are told that they were “terrified and said, ‘It’s a ghost!’”

“They were so frightened they screamed.”  Why did they think they were seeing a ghost?  Well, what would you think?

But this was Jesus coming toward them, This was Jesus as they had never seen or known or understood Him before.

What kind of a being can do such things?

To get into the mind of the disciples at that moment, we need to get into their world.  These guys were Jewish men living 2,000 years ago.

They thought about things and interpreted things according to their background and how they were taught.

That’s what we do now.  That’s what they did then.  For these guys, water represented much more than a mere “physical reality.”

According to Karl Barth, water, in Hebrew thought, was “the principle which, in its abundance and power, was absolutely opposed to God’s creation.”

“It represented all the evil powers which oppressed and resisted the salvation intended for the people of Israel.”

Throughout the Old Testament, it is God’s Lordship over the chaotic waters that continuously proved God’s victory.

Think back to the very beginning, in Genesis Chapter 1 we are told, “When God began to create the heavens and the earth–the earth was without shape or form, it was dark over the deep sea,”

But God proved God’s power over the chaotic waters.  God said, “Let there be light.’ And so light appeared.”

In Genesis Chapter 9, God made a covenant with Noah promising, “that never again will all life be cut off by floodwaters.  There will never again be a flood to destroy the earth.”

In Exodus Chapter 14, God delivered the Israelite people by “pushing back the sea.”

In Joshua Chapter 3, the Jordan river had overflowed its banks completely, but God made sure all of Israel was able to cross into the land of promise “on dry land.”

God tramples the waves in Job Chapter 9 and Habakkuk Chapter 3.

Over and over again we see that God is the only One who can triumph over the waters.

The point is that when Jesus comes walking on the water–triumphing over the sea as the disciples are battling the elements–what this means to the disciples is even more than terrifying.  Jesus is doing something that only God alone can do!

So, this story isn’t just about Jesus walking on the water, it’s also a divine revelation.  And Jesus’ words to the astonished disciples only go to reinforce this.

Jesus said to them, “Be encouraged! It’s me. Don’t be afraid.”  The words translated as “It’s me” are the same words God used to reveal Himself to Moses at the burning bush.  Jesus is saying to the disciples, “I AM is here, trampling victoriously over the waves.”

“Be encouraged. I Am the God of Israel. Don’t be afraid.”

Can you imagine the awesome vision that is unfolding before the disciple’s very eyes as Jesus says these words while standing on the choppy sea?

Jesus is God.  And Jesus, as God, says, “Be encouraged–Don’t be afraid.”

That was Jesus’ message to the disciples in the midst of the storm on the water, and this is Jesus’ message to you and to me in the midst of the storms of our lives–”Be encouraged! It’s me. Don’t be afraid.”

We live in a world that is ruled by fear.  Like the deep dark chaotic waters of the sea, fear seems to be the one thing we humans can’t overcome.

We are afraid of one another.

We are afraid of getting old.

We are afraid of getting fat.

We are afraid of being laughed at.

We are afraid of being punished.

We are afraid of being “found out.”

We are afraid of being embarrassed.

We are afraid of losing those who are close to us.

We are afraid of being alone.

We are afraid of the dark.

We are afraid of getting cancer or West Nile or Zika.

We are afraid of war, terrorism, chaos, death.

There are days when we seem to get along just fine, and then there are days that come upon us, with little warning, and we are consumed with fear.  And when this happens, it’s dark and we have no idea what to do next.

We wonder how we are going to make it through.  But be alert.  Jesus walks out to us, victoriously gliding across the things we fear most.

Jesus comes to us in our fear and Jesus speaks to us: “Be encouraged. It’s me. Don’t be afraid.”

Remember what we are told in 1 John: “God is love…There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear…”

In verse 28, Peter says to Jesus, “Lord, if it’s you, order me to come to you on the water.” Really, Peter was saying, “If you are Jesus and you are God, order me to come to you on the water.”

And Jesus says, “Come.”

And that is what Jesus says to us.  “Come.”

“Walk right out of the safety of the boat and conquer your fears.”  “Come to me. Believe.”

Come to me, and with me, into the troubled waters of the world to proclaim the love, mercy, and justice of God to a terribly lost and frightened race.

And so Peter gets out and he walks on water as he moves toward Jesus.  But the strong wind blew, and Peter was distracted.

And once he became distracted, fear got a grip on him again and he started to sink.  “Lord rescue me!” he shouted.  And you know what happened?

“Jesus immediately reached out and grabbed him.”

What is clear is that we are called by Jesus to step out of our comfort zones in faith, even in the midst of troubled waters.

There was a gathering where a pastor was talking to a group of other pastors about the crisis in our churches.

He said, that the reason we seem to lack faith in our time is that we are not doing anything that requires it.

I had a different ending prepared for my message this morning, but I felt compelled to change it because we saw our share of troubled waters this past week.  The rising tension between the US and North Korea is led by two men who are afraid, as they should be due to their positions of leadership.  They have huge responsibility and huge egos that mus be kept in check to be true leaders.

And the events in Charlottesville, VA yesterday show us how easily fear can turn to hate.  If I can’t control it, I become fearful and I’ll lash out at whatever I think is making me fearful.

Our Bishop of the Greater New Jersey Conference of the United Methodist Church sent a letter yesterday.  I’d like to read it to you.

Dear Sisters and Brothers in Christ,

The recent violence in Charlottesville and the threats between the leaders of the United States and North Korea remind us that words take form and shape for healing or destruction.

John, in his Gospel, describes God’s great love, healing and salvation for us in saying the Word of God, the grace of God, became real in the person of Jesus: The Word became flesh. (John 1:14)

I read stories of white supremacists, neo- Nazis and KKK members saying that it is time to take America back. Here in Greater New Jersey this Sunday, the Word of God will be read by United Methodists in nine different languages. The Word made flesh! Greater New Jersey United Methodist Churches have more than 100 cross-racial appointments and nearly 150 multicultural congregations. The Word made flesh! Our five largest worshiping congregations are Korean. The Word made flesh! Greater New Jersey United Methodists will give witness to mission trips taken to Hatti, Honduras, Guatemala and others will take offerings to support mission work in Ghana, Nigeria, and the Congo. The Word made flesh!

This week I want you to pray for peace and an end to racism and I want you to bear witness in your communities, schools and work places that hate is the work of evil, not Christ, that nuclear arms are the work of a fallen world, not the Creator’s desire and that our words should work toward drawing people to Christ. I call for all of us to spend the week living and modeling the same Word of God that we find in Christ Jesus.

I give thanks to God for United Methodists of Greater New Jersey who speak of Christ in nine languages and pray and work for mission across the globe regardless of race, creed and faith so that people see in us the love of God.

Keep the faith!

Bishop Schol

Will Willimon, a professor at Duke Divinity School and a former Bishop of the United Methodist Church,  wrote the following: “If Peter had not ventured forth, had not obeyed the call to walk on the water, then Peter would never have had this great opportunity for recognition of Jesus and rescue by Jesus…

Getting out of the boat with Jesus is the most risky, most exciting, and most fulfilling way to live life to the fullest!  Jesus invites us to do just that.  Just remember to keep your eyes on Him.

Be not afraid.  Have faith.

Transmuting sadness and disappointment into compassion and connection

Filed under: Pastor Jeff's Sermons — Pastor Jeff at 10:50 pm on Sunday, August 6, 2017

A sermon preached on August 6th, 2017 based upon Matthew 14:13 – 21

Jesus feeds 5000

With the death of Lois on Monday, and of Fred on Tuesday I didn’t have much time until yesterday to think about this morning’s sermon.  Early in the week I glanced at the lectionary and saw the familiar story of the feeding of the 5000 people, and thought that would fit well with communion. I also took note of the fact that immediately before this Matthew tells the story of the evil that possessed King Herod’s family, which led to John the Baptist’s murder at Herod’s birthday party dinner, the news of which seems to lead Jesus to withdraw into the wilderness specifically in order to grieve.  And since we are grieving for Lois and Fred, I made a mental note that this was a place of connection to our experience as well.

Yesterday I finally got some time to focus on the Gospel passage, and one of the things I noticed was the story that immediately precedes the story of John the Baptist’s murder, and that is the story of Jesus’ trip back to his hometown of Nazareth.

It doesn’t go well.  Apparently, as surprising as this may seem, when Jesus was growing up in Nazareth, he didn’t stand out, at least in any way that would suggest, “Hey, we’ve got the future savior of the world here!” The people simply knew him as “the carpenter’s son” and as the son of Mary, and as the brother to various siblings who apparently still lived there when Jesus came for a return visit.

They took offense when Jesus began to teach – implying that he had something of great importance for them to hear – something they didn’t already know.  They thought they knew Jesus, and were upset by the notion that they didn’t really know him, and they rejected Jesus when he claimed differently.

So if you think about it, this too must have been a very painful, sorrowful thing for Jesus to experience — being rejected in his hometown.  To be a stranger to the people he’d grown up with, to have them not understand him.

This must have made the murder of John the Baptist all the more painful for Jesus, because of all the people in this world, you could make the case that John was the one person who came closest to “knowing” and understanding Jesus.

The people who should “know” him – the people he grew up with – don’t really know him at all, and the one person who understood something of the great love that had taken possession of Jesus – defining who he truly was – was no longer with him here on earth.

There is a prophesy in Isaiah that describes the coming messiah this way:  “He was despised and rejected by others, a man of sorrows…” (Isaiah 53:3a)  That’s who we have at the beginning of our story this morning when we hear that Jesus “withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself.”

The crowds hear of his retreat into the wilderness however and follow him there, and so strangely, although it can’t be said that the crowd truly “knew” him or “understood” him, without the preconceptions of the hometown folk they nonetheless seem to have perceived in him something the hometown folks couldn’t take in.

This got me thinking about Lois and her funeral.  If you were able to make the funeral, you may have noticed that there were basically two groups of people present.

The first group was made up by those of us who knew Lois through our church – her spiritual family.  The second group knew her as a member of their biological family.  It would certainly be accurate to say that this second group “loved” Lois.  They’d known her their entire lives, and because of that life-long knowing they were probably pretty confident they had a good handle on who she was.

But there was a certain limitation to how they knew Lois.  They knew her simply as the sweet aunt who was always there at Christmas and Thanksgiving, and at weddings and baptisms and graduations, but since she lived some distance from them, she was not someone involved in their week to week lives.

The one exception I think was Lois’ niece Mary Lou, but as she described when she spoke yesterday, she only came to know Lois in a deeper way in the past nineteen months when it fell to her to look after her aunt and make decisions about her care.   Mary Lou acknowledged that the role she found herself in wasn’t easy — indeed it was at times very hard — but she was quite clear that God had given her this time with Lois as a gift and that the experience had permanently changed her for the better.  We would all say the same.

You’ve probably heard me make reference during my Sunday morning prayers of thanksgiving to “people who have lived many years upon this earth, and through the many ups and downs of life have come to shine a bright light.” Lois was always one of the people I had in mind.

And it was we, her church family who were allowed to see something of that bright light, and it was her biological family who maybe only yesterday first caught a glimpse of the brightness of that light in the course of our celebration of her life.

Now if Lois is listening to me from heaven, I can imagine her rolling her eyes at me and laughing, insisting that all this praise is misplaced, which is what she did whenever we would sing her praises when she was with us here on earth.

She would tell us that she was far from perfect, acknowledging in so many words that within her were all the same dark feelings and thoughts to which the rest of us are prone.  But she was special, and what was special about her wasn’t that she was some kind of cardboard saint who never felt anything but kindness and joy.

Although she most often appeared with a smile on her face, her life included a significant amount of sorrow and disappointment.  Over time however, through her faith and her commitment to her church family, Lois had learned the secret of day by day letting God transmute her pain into compassion and connection rather than to bitterness and isolation, and this she learned in the end, from Jesus.

So in our story Jesus goes off by himself, heavy-hearted with loneliness and grief, and this great crowd of hurting people follows him out into the wilderness.   And he looks out at them, and it would have been understandable if he were to resent their presence, but he didn’t seem to, instead, he looked out at them and recognized the same pain he knew, and Matthew tells us, he had compassion on them.  He walked among them, and his presence was experienced by them as healing.

If we let it, grief opens up our hearts – making possible a connection to others that is not always there.  We recognize how precious life is, how easily we lose track of what matters and what doesn’t.

Think back to the days immediately after 9/11 – how all the impatience and irritation and resentments we routinely feel towards people, including the strangers we bump into in the course of our lives just fell away, and we felt for a time a deep connection in our common grief, our common humanity.  I think something like that took place that day with Jesus.

Out there in the wilderness, a feast of food, but more importantly of grace, was shared by all the people.  There was enough – more than enough for everybody — room for everybody.  So different from the feast that was held at Herod’s birthday party – a feast of gluttony to which only the most privileged were invited.

The party Jesus threw out there in the wilderness was the kind Lois would have loved – where all are welcome and there’s room for everybody. A party where it’s okay to cry if that’s what you need to do, but after you cry your tears out, you end up laughing, because the love at the party is just that beautiful.

It is to such a party that we are all about to be invited to come and share in, as we share together the body and blood of our savior, Jesus the Christ.

The Eulogy for Lois Jorgensen Kelshaw

Filed under: Eulogies — Pastor Jeff at 10:23 pm on Friday, August 4, 2017

Lois Jorgensen Kelshaw was born on May 26, 1926 in Morristown, NJ to Arthur and Mildred Jorgensen.  Her younger brother Charlie was born six years after Lois in 1932.

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Their Dad Arthur, the son of Danish emigrants, was a hardworking plumber, but times were hard and the family didn’t have much money.  In a time in this country in which the races were usually segregated, the Jorgensen family lived in an integrated neighborhood in Morristown and Lois and her brother had African-American friends at whose houses they would have sleepovers.  The family attended the Morristown Methodist church, where Lois started Sunday School at the age of four.  Later she would sing in the choir.   In high school Lois worked part time at Greenberger’s Department Store.

Lois graduated from Morristown High School in 1944 in the midst of World War II.  She grieved for classmates who went off to war and never came back.  Lois had considered going to nursing school, but instead went to work at Bell Labs in Berkley Heights, moving shortly afterwards to Ciba in Summit.  The father of her dear friend Jean hired Lois to work alongside Jean in the office of his company called “Swain’s Automatic.”  Sadly, Jean was diagnosed with a brain tumor.  Lois faithfully visited her daily until the day she died.

After Jean’s death Lois continued to work for Jean’s father, as well as for Mr. Hamilton who had an electric company and shared office space with Swain’s Automatic.

Lois got married, but the marriage was a miserable one and lasted only four years.   Divorced at a time when divorce was not so common, Lois felt quite alone and unhappy, and angry at God and she stopped attending church.

A young man by the name of Jack Kelshaw would call the office where Lois worked and say, “Hello, Chickadee!” They would chat, but they never met in person until Lois was surprised to discover that Jack was the best man in a wedding party in which she was a bridesmaid.  Soon afterwards they began dating.  Jack lived in Mt. Tabor with his parents.  They dated for four years before marrying.  They might have married earlier, but Jack was adamant that they had to find a church they could belong to — one in which Lois would feel comfortable.

So Jack and Lois visited many churches before ending up at the “little white church on the hill” — the Parsippany Methodist Church.  Lois was deeply touched by the warm welcome she and Jack received there.  They were finally married in Lois’ parents’ house on August 16, 1958 by Rev. Walton who personally embroidered their wedding license.  Rev. Walton and his wife took a special affection towards Lois and Jack, “adopting” them as their own children.

And so it was through God’s grace, manifest first through Jack, and then through the good folks at the Parsippany Methodist Church, that Lois once more drew close to God.  A month after their wedding, during worship on September 21st, 1958 Lois and Jack professed their faith in the Lord, becoming members of the church.

Though this might be surprising to most of us, by her own accounting as a young person Lois had been rather shy, but Jack — who was quite the warm-hearted extrovert — drew Lois out of her shell.  With Jack’s example and the warm embrace of the extended family Lois found in the church, Lois learned how to be the outgoing and kind-hearted woman we all would come to know and love – the person who never failed to be the first person to greet every newcomer who ever walked into our church.

It is striking how, if we allow God, the Holy Spirit will work through our suffering and disappointment.  The heartbreak of Lois’ first, short-lived marriage was certainly not how Lois would ever have chosen to begin her adult life, and it led her into a time of darkness for sure.  But it seems to me that it led to two beautiful things about Lois:  first, her deep gratitude for the life and love she found with Jack.  So often in life we don’t appreciate the blessings we have been given without having some kind of experience of going without the blessing.  Lois had a very grateful heart.

The second thing going through that time of darkness did for Lois was to give her a profound sensitivity to what it feels like to be alone in this world – to be the outsider – which in turn made it possible for her to be such a sincerely warm and welcoming presence to the strangers in our midst.  She knew how it felt to be alone and left out of the circle.

Following their wedding, Lois and Jack moved into the house on Lake Shore Drive in Lake Parsippany that they would call “home” for essentially the rest of their lives.  Lois took a job working for Dr. Marias, a dentist nearby as his bookkeeper and receptionist.

Lois and Jack had wanted to have children, but it wasn’t to be.

But Lois and Jack took this disappointment and their desire to serve the Lord transformed it into something beautiful – the love they showered on so many others.

Jack took a job working as a custodian in the Parsippany School System, working in several different schools where through the years hundreds of school children would come to know him fondly as “Uncle Jack.” At Halloween hundreds of children would go out of their way to pay a visit to the home of Uncle Jack and Aunt Lois.

Lois and Jack became particularly appreciative of their nieces and nephews:  of Mary Lou, Tim and Jane Marie – the three children of Lois’ brother Charlie and his wife Marion, and later their children and grandchildren as well:  Jane, Greg, Caroline, Matthew, Anna, Christine, and Mary Kate, as well as to Jack’s nephew Alvie and niece Nancy, and Nancy’s grandchildren Franklin, Amy, Justin and Christal.

And of course, here at the church there were so many of us who found in Lois a second mother or grandmother, particularly those of us who had lost our mothers and grandmothers.

Lois and Jack adopted a puppy from a litter Lois’ brother Charlie had, and named her Daisy Mae.  At some point Jack brought a stray cat home from school which they named Pumpkin.  Daisy Mae and Pumpkin lived happily in the Kelshaw household for about thirteen years.

Doris and Tom Bradley and their daughter Barbara joined the church in 1966 and soon became the best of friends with Lois and Jack.  Barbara was particularly fond of Daisy Mae.  Lois, Doris, Jack, Tom and Barb were all innately joyful people, and together they shared many a good time with much laughter.

Sadly, Tom died suddenly of a heart attack in 1979, and it was Lois and Jack who went to break the news to Doris and Barb and to hold them in their time of grief.

Later, when Lois’s father died of emphysema, Lois’ mother asked if Jack and Lois would come live with her in her home in Morris Plains, and Jack said “absolutely.” So they rented out the house on Lake Shore Drive moved in with Lois’ mom so Lois and Jack could look after her mother.

It was there in 1989 that Jack suddenly died from a heart attack.  Lois was moved by how many parents came with their school children to the funeral home to pay their respects to “Uncle Jack.”

Lois continued living in Morris Plains to care for her mother, who gradually required more and more attention.  Over the course of thirteen years Lois would take her mother to the Presbyterian Church in Morris Plains where her mother was a member. During this time Lois missed seeing her church family, finding her mother’s church cold by comparison.

Throughout these years Doris and her mother Lee would come over and play Uno with Lois and her mother, and they had a lot of fun together.

Lois was also very close to Ken and Madeline Ormsbee and their children, Barry and Denise (White).   She would go to their house each year for Easter dinner.

Lois lovingly nursed her mother when she got sick with cancer.  When she died in 2002, Lois returned to the house in Lake Parsippany.  When Jack had died, the companionship of her mother and the care she needed to some degree distracted Lois from her grief. Now she found herself feeling all alone.  One Sunday morning, Lois sensed God saying to her:  “Put on your clothes and go to back to your church home!” Lois was overjoyed by the reception she received upon her return. “Lois is back!” everybody cheered.

Over the course of 59 years of membership Lois’ involvements including pretty much everything. She sang in the choir and was active in the United Methodist Women.  She taught Sunday school and took trips with the PUMAs.  She helped out at fund raisers – Lois and Doris were always in charge of the dessert table at dinners.  She played in the bell choir.

Lois was always up for fun – for instance, dressing up as Eve with Doris McDermott as Adam for a talent show, playing Sarah to Fred Coleman’s Abraham for a children’s sermon, dancing and lip synching as the “Cumberland Girls” with Doris, Marion Steen and Joy Frandsen.

I even got Lois to act in one of my big Christmas plays just 3 ½ years ago at the age of 87.  She stole the show essentially playing herself.

Lois attended Bible studies where some of us fondly remember her repeated exasperation with how the Bible can be so confusing and how people lose track of the basic message that God loves us and we should love one another – love everybody – like Jesus told us to do.

When people become members of our church, they are invited to choose a sponsoring member to stand with them at the altar on the day they are received. I would estimate that over the years there have been at least twenty people who have requested Lois to stand with them. Nobody else comes close to that number.  They wanted Lois because she was the first one to greet them and make them feel at home here in the circle of God’s love.

She would invite church members with no place to call home to come and live for a time in the upstairs apartment of her house.

Lois was a composer of clever poems, and the writer of countless thoughtful cards remembering birthdays and giving encouragement in times of need.  She was a good and faithful friend.

Having experienced herself the pain of losing a husband, Lois would always be there for other women when they found themselves widowed.  Betty Polen recalls how the morning after Ray died, Lois didn’t ask — she just left a message saying, “I’m on my way” — and then how comforting Lois’ presence was throughout Betty’s first day without her husband.

Hank and Myra Heitschel were also long time close friends of Lois going back fifty years.  Like Lois and Jack, Hank and Myra had no children of their own, and felt a special bond with our church family. In her latter years, Myra suffered from severe diabetes which led to the amputation of her lower legs.  Hank was so tenderly devoted to Myra, and she loved him so.

In 2001 a sudden, severe case of pancreatitis put Hank in the hospital. Lois went over to the house to stay with Myra and look after her.  In the middle of his third night in the hospital the heartbreaking news arrived that Hank had died.

I will always remember what Lois did.  She climbed in bed with Myra and cradled her in her arms as Myra quietly wept till the sun rose.

Afterwards with Doris’ help, Lois learned to drive Hank’s big van with the lift to take Myra to her doctor’s appointments.  Myra only lasted three months without her beloved Hank, and throughout that time, Lois was continually there for Myra.

Lois’ heart was broken when her niece June Marie died in 2011, and then a year later June’s father — Lois’ little brother Charlie — also departed this world.

Her spirit stayed strong, but a couple of years back Lois’ body began to give out – hips broke that put her in the hospital, followed by stays at rehab centers.  I remember Lois’ first stay in Troy Hills Center.  It was like she was the nursing home’s volunteer chaplain, spending all her free time when she was doing physical therapy giving encouragement to the other residents and staff.

She had a roommate who had suffered a stroke, which in turn brought on depression.  The woman was a beloved member of an Episcopal church up in Sparta, and would received visits from her priest.  The priest was so moved by the tenderness with which Lois treated her parishioner that she sent Lois this beautiful letter marveling at how God had so lovingly used her to comfort and encourage her roommate.

It was a tough final year of Lois’ life when the reality sank in that her body wasn’t up to leaving the nursing home, and her body slowly got weaker and weaker.

Through it all, whenever I’d visit Lois was always so interested to hear about my family and about the church family, and she would remember details in our lives easily forgotten. And this I remember from the end of all our visits: I would grasp Lois’ hands and pray for her, and when I was done praying, she wouldn’t let go, instead she would begin to pray so sweetly, so thoughtfully for me.

I want to publicly express my appreciation for Lois’ niece Mary Lou for being so faithful to Lois in this last difficult stretch of her life.  You were always there for your aunt.  It wasn’t easy, but you were Lois’ rock.

Lois embodied the love of God that was revealed so wondrously when God drew near to us in Jesus. I don’t know that you could come up with a better image for the tender love of God than that of Lois in the middle of the night climbing into bed with broken-hearted Myra, cradling her in her arms until the sun rose.

And so Lois’ sufferings are over – she has passed through the dark night to the sunrise of a new day.  In the bright shining light of heaven she was met by her mother and her father, by Jack, and her brother Charlie, and her niece June Marie.  Tom Bradley was there too, and Ken and Madeline, and Myra and Hank, and Ray, and Helen and Al and so many others.

It is special people like Lois who remind us that in the end we were put here on earth to love.  Everything else really doesn’t matter, we are here to express God’s love.  Love is the only thing that never ends; everything else passes away.

Lois loves us still, and one day we will meet together again on the far shore.  Until that day, let us honor Lois’ life by trying as we can to love one another as she loved us – to share together the laughter and the tears that come our way – keeping our hearts open, and our spirits willing.

A very long and dramatic story is coming to a climax

Filed under: Pastor Jeff's Sermons — Pastor Jeff at 9:56 pm on Sunday, July 30, 2017

A sermon preached on July 30th 2017 based upon Romans 8:26 – 39.


The verse that caught my attention in our reading was this one:

“For those whom (God) foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family.” (8:29)

It includes that word “predestined,” as in “predestination” – a doctrine that is troubling for most of us.  Predestination is the notion that from the beginning of time God pre-destined certain persons to be redeemed – to be the “elect” who would enter into the kingdom of God – with the corollary being that all other people were “pre-destined” by God from the beginning of time to be damned.

The important thing to note here is that Paul is writing to a particular group of Christians who are in need of some serious encouragement, because lately life has been a mighty struggle for them. Paul is not at this moment addressing himself to anybody else. He doesn’t say specifically that there are people pre-destined for damnation, which is a good thing, because the God expressed in such a doctrine is a cruel god indeed – not the God that Jesus came to reveal.

So, if you didn’t already know, you will be relieved to learn that John Wesley – the father of the Methodist movement — rejected the doctrine of predestination, declaring that it is God’s desire that all people would be redeemed through Christ.   The only thing that stands in the way of that happening is the fact that God made us with some measure of free will, leaving it to us to decide whether to accept or reject the grace freely offered in Jesus.

But this morning I don’t want to talk about the doctrine of predestination – what I want to focus on is the idea expressed in this verse which is that from the beginning of time there has been a purpose written into creation — a “destination” if you will towards which the creation has been moving – a moment in time in which a creature would evolve with the capacity for a conscious, unbroken, freely chosen loving relationship with the Creator.

And that with the coming of Christ the fulfillment of this purpose has begun to emerge – that Jesus was the “first born” of what God intends will be a very “large family.”  And that the ultimate purpose written into our lives is to “conform our lives to His image”— to reach our destination of becoming “Christ-like,” embracing our place in the family of God.

A similar thought is expressed a few verses before this morning’s reading where Paul says,

“For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God.” (8:20)

That all of creation has been eagerly waiting, indeed longing for the appearance of Jesus Christ and the family he would birth through the Holy Spirit.

Now God gave us a certain capacity to reason, and intended us to put it to use, and part of what I think that means is that we are obliged to respect the findings of science about the nature of creation.  For instance, we can’t just reject the theory of evolution simply because the story of creation found in Genesis doesn’t specifically portray life “evolving.”

The research of biologists has shown that it is reasonable to believe in evolution, but that doesn’t mean God couldn’t be the one who designed this operating system we call “evolution.” It is a marvelous thing that, though trial and error is a part of it, there is this operating system underlying all of life that perpetually leads to ever-more-complex forms of life, bringing us over time to this moment in history in which we human beings walk upon the earth.

Reason alone can neither prove nor disprove the existence of God, but every so often science stumbles upon something that makes scientists themselves stop and wonder.  There was such a moment in the 20th century when a consensus was reached among physicists and astronomers that the universe did in fact have a specific beginning – the so-called “big bang which took place approximately 15 billion years ago, with life first appearing 3.5 billion years ago.

Now it wasn’t simply the fact that there was a beginning to the universe when previously it was assumed there wasn’t, nor was it the mystery of what caused that first “big bang.” The thing that captured the attention of astronomers and physicists, filling them with wonder was the undeniable fact that from that very beginning, the universe seemed to have been “designed” – indeed, “fine tuned” in a particular way that was required to make it possible over what from our perspective was very long time for not only life, but the awe-inspiring complexity of human life to come into being.

Here is how one writer I came across put it:

“As early as the 1980s, physicist Paul Davies concluded that the physical evidence for design of the universe and of Earth for human life could rightly be described as overwhelming. Today no physicist or astronomer who has researched the question denies that the universe, the Milky Way galaxy, and the solar system possess compelling hallmarks of intentional design for human life.  Many researchers have commented over the past twenty years that it seems the universe ‘knew’ humans were coming.”

Now this is not to say that there aren’t plenty of physicists who adamantly resist the conclusion that there is a God behind everything, but these discoveries presented them with challenges to their conviction that there is no God – that everything in the end is utterly random.   (One of the ways they have sought to get around the apparent design of our universe was to theorize that there are actually an infinite number of universes – each structured differently – with the idea being that we just happen to have the good luck of finding ourselves on the one randomly structured in such a way that human life could become a possibility.)

Nonetheless, it is striking that the notion suggested by certain astronomers that“the universe ‘knew’ humans were coming” echoes the words of the Apostle Paul who, without the benefit of the insights of science, declared that “the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God.”

Paul wrote the words we heard Bob read by way of encouraging certain Christians who were undergoing a time of great suffering.  And here is the thing: when we are going through intense suffering — and we all have such times — it makes all the difference in the world whether we  view our lives as being inherently meaningful or altogether devoid of meaning. As Victor Frankl who survived the horror of a Nazi concentration camp put it, “He who has a ‘why’ to live (that is, a purpose) can bear with almost any ‘how’” (that is, any trial or tribulation.)

I think the great blight on our time – of our affluent, technologically advanced culture — is that there is this haunting sense of meaninglessness that underlies our culture.  We are rich in things but poor in spirit.  We can choose between a hundred different kinds of tooth paste and a million different websites to visit, but what difference does it really make if life itself has no higher meaning?  The sense of the sacred gets lost in our consumer driven culture.

But stop and consider the implications of the idea that for 15 billion years the whole creation has been moving towards this particular moment in time when conscious creatures with free will — you and me, and every other human being – would finally make our appearance on earth.  The thing is, though — merely finding ourselves here doesn’t in itself fulfill the great destiny towards which creation has been moving over all these years.  The 15 billion dollar question is, “What will each of us do with this opportunity given to us as conscious, free creatures?”

Will we open ourselves up to the Spirit of Christ?  Will we seek “to be conformed,” as Paul puts it, “to the image of God’s son,” embracing our place in the family of God?

Or will we drop the ball so to speak.

I recently went to the movies for the first time in a long time, and was struck how in the darkness of a movie theater it is possible to get absolutely caught up in the story line of the central character of the movie.  More often than not the main character is someone we readily can identify with because like ourselves, they possess a mixture of strengths and weaknesses; they get discouraged at times, feel like a loser, maybe consider giving up.

The movie draws us in because we find ourselves caring about what happens to the main protagonist, so we sit there on the edge of our seats waiting to see what will happen as the drama builds to the climactic final scenes, which inevitably revolves around some choice the main character must make.   Will the story end up a tragedy, or will it be a story that inspires?  It all comes down to the choices the character makes, and the help the character opens him or herself up to along the way.

Curiously, the movie I went to see was “The War of the Planet of the Apes” in which the intriguing plot twist involves the fact that it is the super-intelligent apes – specifically the main character, their leader named “Caesar” who, in the end, steps up to the plate to act in a Christ-like manner, while the human beings drop the ball.

So, what I’m getting at is that contrary to what our consumer conveys to us, our lives actually resemble a totally engrossing movie with a storyline that began 15 billion years ago.   More often than not, however we miss the great drama behind our lives and the sense that the story is, in fact, heading to a climax. We lose the big picture, and get lost in the routine, our lives often seeming to us meaningless and insignificant when in fact, as Paul tells us the entire creation has been waiting with eager longing to see if we will reveal ourselves to be the children of the Creator.

So, as I said before, Paul was writing to encourage some early Christians who were in dire need of encouragement.  The discouragement they were dealing with was coming from both within themselves and from outside themselves.

In chapter 7, Paul makes himself remarkably vulnerable, acknowledging the discouragement that arises from within in his attempts to follow Christ. “I can will what is right,” he says, “but I cannot do it.  For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.”(7:15,19)  Paul wants to live a life of love, but lo and behold, he finds this other stuff rising up inside him – the enduring power of sin in his life – leading him at times to feel like a failure.

We know how he feels.  We aspire to be a loving, faithful presence in this world, but often instead we find these parts of ourselves that just refuse to get with the program:  feelings of fear and resentment, envy and anger.  We start thinking that we’re frauds, failures — like just giving up.

And then in chapter 8 Paul focuses on the things that happen to us, from the outside. He mentions “troubles, hard times, people hating us, ending up homeless, getting bullied, stabbed in the back” (– these are the words Eugene Peterson uses to paraphrase Paul’s words in 8:35.)

He talks about how throughout all of this there is this realization that comes to us that we should be praying, but we feel absolutely clueless regarding how to pray, or what to pray about — just overwhelmed and confused.

And these voices of condemnation arise, some from outside of ourselves, but the worst ones come from the inside, telling us, “You’re no good.”  “You’re worthless.”  “You should just give up now.”

And in the face of all this, Paul declares the Gospel, the good news of Jesus. “If God is for us, who is against us?” “Who is in a position to condemn?”  Only one person, and that is Jesus, but Jesus does not condemn us — he loves us so much he gave his life for us.

So we don’t have to be afraid of those voices, either from outside or inside, because the only voice that matters is Jesus’ voice, and he has declared us worthy of dying for.  And so we can acknowledge our failings, our stumblings without shame – we can simply get back up and try again — because nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

And in our times of confusion, when we don’t even know what to pray for – not to worry says Paul, the Spirit prays for us, with sighs too deep for words.

We are more than conquerors through him who loved us.

Jesus has won the victory for us.

(We concluded by singing “Victory in Jesus” which was Jack Kelshaw’s favorite hymn, and therefore also a favorite of Lois Kelshaw who will soon be crossing over to the far side to join Jack who departed this world 28 years ago.)

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