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Filed under: Pastor Jeff's Sermons — Pastor Jeff at 6:26 pm on Sunday, May 28, 2017

Group hugA sermon delivered on May 28th, 2017 – Memorial Day weekend – based upon John 17:11; Acts 1:6-9; 1Peter 5:6-9.

Either explicitly or implicitly, all three of our scripture readings deal with the theme of anxiety.

In that upper room the night before Jesus died, the disciples were anxious about what would happen when Jesus is taken by death and all hell breaks loose.  In the story from Acts, Jesus is taking his leave once more, about to ascend to heaven, and the apostles want to know, “Jesus, are you going to bring your kingdom now, or do we have to continue to live in this broken violent world?”

Anxiety.  All of us struggle with anxiety, and yet there is an “Emperor’s New Clothes” quality to our experience of anxiety.  When we look at the people around us, it often doesn’t appear as though they are struggling with anxiety – they seem calm and collected. We conclude we must be the only ones feeling anxious, which makes the anxiety worse – an indication that there is something wrong with us.  So we share this charade of masking our anxiety.

So to begin, I want to be the little boy who cries, “The Emperor has no clothes!” and confess to you that anxiety is something I deal with a great deal of the time.  To a greater or lesser extent, daily, hourly.

But there is no shame in feeling anxious.  There could be some shame if we never felt anxiety, because scientists tell us the only people who don’t are sociopaths.

To be human is to feel anxiety.  It is part of what separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom, and here it is important to distinguish between fear and anxiety.  Like us, animals experience fear, which is located in the present moment.  There is that saber toothed tiger over there who wants to eat me, and my instinctual fear moves me to make an immediate decision to either flee or take up a stick and try to fight the tiger off.

But anxiety is less focused, and it’s not so much about the present as it is about the future.  It is about the threats that might be out there waiting for us in the future.

So we all struggle with anxiety, but there are good and bad ways to deal with it.

Peter is talking about the good way of dealing with anxiety when he says, “Cast all your anxiety on God.” Note that he doesn’t say, “Don’t have anxiety,” because that is impossible.  The question is how we respond to our anxiety.    And before I talk about what the good response would be, let’s talk about our most common response when anxiety arises within us.

One response is to anesthetize ourselves – the way of addiction – whether through alcohol or drugs or shopping overworking, we distract ourselves from addressing the anxiety that doesn’t going away – it simply get pushed down inside us.

But the more basic response to anxiety is to climb up on the bucking bronco of our imaginations, allowing it to take us for a wild ride.   We begin imagining all the possible scenarios of how things could go wrong in the future – running out of money, losing our job, our home – receiving a life-threatening diagnosis from the doctor – some rejection or abandonment – some harm to someone we love.  We obsess about all the worst possibilities.

There is a reason we do this, and it is the misguided notion that if we can anticipate something, then we can somehow head it off and keep it from happening.  In other words, we’re trying to gain a level of control where ultimately we aren’t in control.  Bad things will happen, and some of the worst are the ones we never imagine.   But we try to play God by letting our imagination run wild with our anxieties.  It renders us paralyzed – prisoners of our anxiety.

And two things happen:

First, we lose the present moment.  Lost in the future of “what ifs”, we don’t really live our lives, because life is really only lived in the present.

And second, we pull into ourselves.   We become self-absorbed, isolated.  Our own individual anxieties about the future seem like all we can deal with – there is no space left for others.

It is striking that our scripture lessons don’t say there is no danger out there.  Quite the contrary:  1Peter says, “Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour.”  And when Jesus prays for his disciples, he prays that the Father will “protect” them.

The scriptures are realistic about the dangers out there, but they make it clear that we miss the deeper danger.   Yes, we may lose our job, yes we will get sick and eventually die, yes, bad things will happen to people we love.  That is the way of life.   But these are not actually the worst danger.  The worst possibility is that the evil one gets a hold of us on the inside – the possibility that along the way we altogether harden our hearts and lose our capacity to love – which is what it means to lose our souls.

And connected to this is the temptation to try and go it alone.

Note, what it is Jesus specifically prayed to the Father on behalf of his disciples:  “Protect them, that they may be one, as we are one.”  He prays that the same loving connection that exists between Father, Son and Holy Spirit will exist between Jesus’ followers.  He’s praying that we won’t try and go it alone — that we stick together through thick and thin.

So let’s turn now to the advice given by Peter: “Cast all your anxiety on (God), because he cares for you.”

Casting our anxiety on God is an intentional act, which requires that we recognize when anxiety arises within us.  That may seem like a no brainer, but the fact of the matter is that usually when anxiety arises within us, our imaginations take off running, and we never stop to think to ourselves, “I’m feeling anxious.  I’m riding that wild horse again.”   We just ride it without thinking.

So Peter continues by write, “Discipline yourselves.  Keep alert.”  Keep alert so you can recognize anxiety when it occurs and name it as such. This requires discipline, which is to say it is a habit that needs to be developed over time through practice.  It means learning to say to ourselves, “I’m feeling anxious now.  How do I want to respond?”

And then comes the intentional act of giving our anxieties – our worries – to God, in prayer. Why?  “because God cares for you.”

When you get down to it, whether or not God cares for us is at the heart of our faith.  Either God exists and cares for us, or God doesn’t exist or doesn’t care for us, and if God doesn’t, we’re wasting our time here.  We gather here each week and say God does care.  But when the rubber hits the road, we are challenged to ask ourselves whether we really believe this or not.

I’m not saying this it is an easy thing to respond “yes” to this question, or that we can establish our confidence in God’s love for us once and for all, ridding ourselves forever of doubt.  What I am saying is that if we want to learn to tame the wild horse of our anxious imagination, reminding ourselves of what we profess to be true is helpful.

If God is for me, I can trust God to see me through whatever may come.

This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t plan appropriately regarding the problems we will face in the future, but it does mean we can get off that wild horse of obsessive anxiety knowing that even if we fail to plan properly, which will surely happen, God still has the capacity to see us through whatever will come.

After Peter talks about the evil one being like a roaring lion seeking to devour us, he goes on to write, “Resist him, steadfast in your faith, for you know that your brothers and sisters in all the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering.”

In other words, we’re in this inherently anxiety-producing existence together.  As the saying goes, everybody you meet is carrying a heavy burden, even when it may not look like it. So don’t try to go it alone.  Quit pretending that the Emperor’s has fine clothes on when he’s stark naked.

Part of what the story of the ascension of Jesus means is that although he has left this world in his individual, bodily form, he hasn’t abandoned it.  He remains close at hand, and one of the primary places Jesus is to be found is in the church – the body of Christ – this motley crew of you and me who gather to share our burdens, encourage one another, and strengthen one another’s faith.

This being Memorial Day weekend, I wanted to finish by talking about Vice Admiral James Stockdale who was shot down over North Vietnam, and ended up spening eight long years as the senior office in the prison camp known as the “Hanoi Hilton”.  He was tortured fifteen times and kept in solitary confinement for four years.  He endured the sort of horror that most of us can’t imagine surviving, but Stockdale and others did survive, and he wrote about it.

At the Annual Conference, the Bishop made reference to Stockdale saying there were three types of prisoners.  First, there were those who began their imprisonment with an unrealistic hope. “Our fellow soldiers know we are here, and any day now they will come rescue us.”

Second, there were those who from the outset were overcome by just how dire the situation was, and gave up hope of ever getting out of there.

These two groups didn’t survive the prison camps.  They lost the will to live.

And finally there some who were realistic about what they were up against and yet who held onto hope.  “This is a very difficult situation.  We won’t be getting out of here soon.  But we will be, eventually.  In the meantime, we have to endure — we have to discipline ourselves.”

Before the Bishop spoke of Stockdale, I had read an account where he described a basic choice that prisoners were confronted with in the prisons: whether to do all they could to stay connected to their fellow Americans, or give up trying. The choice to give up was quite understandable.  In order to break the will of the prisoners, the guards intentionally set out to isolate the prisoners from one another.

Though housed in adjoining prison cells, the prisoners were not allowed to make any attempt to speak or communicate in any way with his fellow prisoners would result in taking them out to be tortured.  Those tortured would be compelled not only to make false statements used by the Vietcong for propaganda purposes.

So to avoid the horror of torture, the choice of for isolation was understandable.

Those who made the choice to stay connected developed an elaborate tapping system – a secret language of taps by which they could communicate with one another between cells.  There were serious dangers involved in participating in the tap code communication network, because if the guards caught them engaged in the tapping, they would be taken out and tortured, forcing them to not only make the false propaganda statements, but also to betray their fellow prisoners in regards to who else was participating in the communications.

This in turn what lead to a heavy load of guilt in regard to betraying their fellow prisoners of war.

What to do?  Stockdale said that for those intent on staying connected, the answer became obvious.  There could be no secrets between them.   Once they were returned to their cells, as soon as possible they would get back on the network, and through taps, confess what they had given up under torture.  And because they each knew first hand the horror of being tortured, absolution for their betrayals was given readily.

Stockdale writes:  “Anybody who has been there knows that a neighbor in the cell block becomes the most precious thing on earth, a soul who deserves your care and cooperation not matter what the risk.”  Asked, “What kept you going?”  The answer was simple:  “The man next door.”

“Protect them,” prayed Jesus, “that they may be one as we are one.”

To walk the way of Jesus is to turn to God and to our brothers and sisters in those times when anxiety arises within us, rather than chose the path of going it alone.  It is to be vulnerable with one another, acknowledging our anxieties and our frailties.  We are the body of Christ together.

When Mothers’ Day Is Hard

Filed under: Pastor Jeff's Sermons — Pastor Jeff at 8:45 pm on Sunday, May 14, 2017

A sermon preached on May 14th — Mothers’ Day — based on John 14:1-3.


On Mothers’ Day, my usual strategy in my sermon is to make some passing reference to mothers, figuring that’s enough.  Generally I avoid devoting my whole sermon to motherhood, the reason being the subject is actually a very difficult one to address. But this morning I’m going to try to undertake the challenge.

The reason it is so difficult is that although all of us here have in common the fact that we each have a mother our relationships with our mothers vary dramatically.  We all come to Mothers’ Day from different experiences.  And therein lies the challenge.

Some of us have mothers who have been a consistent source of love and encouragement through the course of your lives, and this day what you’re feeling is gratitude for that mother, with plans for some sort of expression of that gratitude.  Some of us here today are mothers with appreciative families, so this is a day to enjoy because of some special treatment you have been — or will be given — before the day is through from children expressing their gratitude.

I could preach a sermon that simply sang the praises of motherhood, and that would probably work for those of you I’ve mentioned, but there are others of us here today who find painful feelings arising within on this day, and a sermon like that might not work for you – in fact it might leave you feeling worse than when you arrived here today.

There are various reasons for these darker feelings.

The first can simply be that for some of us — although we had mothers who loved us — they are no longer here on earth with us, and so while we feel gratitude for having had them in our lives, Mothers’ Day can be a day when our grief over their absence intensifies.

And some of you are mothers who like Mary the mother of Jesus have children who died way too early, and the day brings for you perhaps an even sharper form of grief.

I pray that this day you may hear the words Jesus spoke to his disciples as he was getting ready to leave this world, “Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.”

All mothers are imperfect – sinners saved by grace, just like the rest of us.  Sometimes, for a whole host of reasons a mother’s capacity to love her children can be seriously broken.  For some of us, Mothers’ Day may be painful because it is a reminder of wounds received because of our mothers’ woundedness.

My mother grew up in Mississippi, the second of her mother’s two children.  Like all mothers, my grandmother is owed a debt of gratitude for undergoing what might be the most severe physical pain possible — that of giving birth – in order to bring my mother into this world, a pain we men, gratefully will never be called upon to endure.  As all mothers who raise their children, my mother’s mother surely expended an incredible amount of energy feeding and clothing her, caring for her when she was sick, teaching her to speak and all the other basics required for surviving in this world. And for all this, gratitude is indeed the appropriate response.

But along with these blessings there were wounds my grandmother inflicted as well.  In my mother’s eyes, her mother often seemed to radiate unhappiness. My mother’s older brother would grow up to be a doctor and in the eyes of their mother he could do no wrong.  But my mother was left constantly feeling as though she was somehow a disappointment to her mother, a cause of her unhappiness. Her mother would dress her up and curl her hair, looking for her to be charming like Shirley Temple — wanting her to “sparkle” is how my mother put it — but my mother, being shy by nature would demure and retreat, and so growing up it never seemed she could be “sparkily” enough to please her mother.

My mother’s father died suddenly while she was away at college.  My mother rushed home to find her mother completely devastated, unable to function, and though my mother was heartbroken herself, she felt she could not allow herself the luxury of grieving, feeling compelled to hold it together for the sake of her mother.

A week after her father’s death my mother returned to college, taking her mother with her.  She moved out of the dorms and rented an apartment off campus so that her grief-stricken mother could live with her and my mother could look after her.   And so for the next several years her mother leaned heavily upon her, and so when seven years after her father’s death my mother received a wedding proposal from my father, she accepted it in large part because it provided a way to distance herself from her mother. (The marriage unfortunately was never really a happy one and would last only eighteen years.)

Although now married, my grandmother continued to hover near, and when my mother gave birth to her first born – my brother – for over a week she was too sick to care for Mark, and so her mother moved in to do so.  During that time a bond formed between my grandmother and my brother that would in some ways undermine my mother’s relationship with her son for the rest of her life.  Looking back, my mother realized she allowed this to happen in part because of the ongoing need she felt to try and make her mother happy.

My mother died five years ago, and I’ve been missing her, for in spite of the wounds she bore, she loved me well, and understood me deeply.  She was a part time writer, and I spent time this week reading some of her poems.    I came across a poem she wrote that is addressed to her mother, who at the time of the writing had long since passed from this world.  It contains this poignant verse of longing:

Did your ears hear the secret song I used to sing when disappointment with me darkened up your face? ‘Oh, Mama, like me.  Say you want me.  Keep me safe.’

But the poem doesn’t end there, and before I get to how it ends, I want to consider a New Testament lesson that was assigned for this morning that I didn’t have Bob read.  It comes from the Book of Acts, and it describes the death of Stephen, the first Christian martyr.

After preaching about the death and resurrection of Jesus, the crowd rose up in anger and proceeded to stone him to death.  But before Stephen died, he gazed up into heaven and received the comfort of seeing Jesus himself and the very glory of God.  In his dying breaths — his life conformed to one for whom he has given his life — Stephen cries, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them,” referring to those who were taking his life  – words that echo words Jesus himself spoke on the cross,“Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”

One of the sayings that my wife Sarah often quotes from her mother is this:  “The first thing children need to do is forgive their parents.” Forgive them, because they really didn’t know what they were doing when they raised us.  Nobody gives you a manual to follow when you become a parent, and frankly, it is the hardest job in the world, and though we may set out to be the perfect parent (as I did) we invariably pass on some of our own wounds to our children without even realizing we’re doing it.

To return to my mother’s poem, it began with my mother talking about how when she was little she was terribly afraid of the dark, and when she would return home with her mother at night, she would cling to her mother as they walked from the carport to the house.  The fear of the dark was mixed in my mother’s mind with the fear of death.  And so even as she expressed her longing for her mother’s approval, she also pleas to her: Keep me safe.”

As the poem continues, my mother makes reference to some sort of momentary vision she received later in her life that reminded me a bit of the one given to Stephen.  She writes:

It’s almost half my lifetime since you’ve been gone.

Long since, the angels must have scrubbed that discontent clean off your face.

I glimpsed you once as you looked down on me through golden haze, approving of, delighting in that curled and costumed child who always balked and shrank and broke your heart by never being wonderful.

Since then I’m not so scared to walk in deepest dark, not since I’ve heard your ringing laughter from up there, not since I’ve seen your face shine down on me like God.

In the words Bob read for us, Jesus said to his disciples the night before his death, “Let not your hearts be troubled; neither let them be afraid.” It struck me in the words Jesus goes on to speak to his troubled and frightened disciples, he sounds rather like a mother.“In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?”

Preparing a place for someone, especially upon homecoming, is something in my experience that moms do.  Before Bobby comes home from college, Sarah spends significant time fixing up his room, making his bed just so — stuff like that.  Sometimes I say, “Why all the bother?  You know the room will just be a mess within a day.” And she will say, “I just want to make it nice for him.”

She wants him to feel welcomed home — like Jesus, preparing a place for his disciples in the household of God — that ultimate home we commonly refer to as “heaven”.

Because Christianity arose in a patriarchal society, God has traditionally been referred to as a Father.  But when Jesus spoke of God, the images he used were often ones that conveyed tender, nurturing care.   The point is simply that God is like a loving parent, and so God can just as easily be referred to as “Mother”.  Actually, Jesus spoke of calling God “Abba,” which means “Daddy,” so sometimes, when we need to – when we’re feeling afraid of the dark – if it feels right, go ahead and call God “Momma.”

When we move through the passageway that is death, all things are made new.  So we will get our Mommas back, and if our relationships with our mothers were troubled ones, know that these relationships are made new as well.  I think the glimpse given to my mother of her mother looking down on her from heaven was inspired by the Holy Spirit.  The “ringing laughter” she heard coming from what had been her often unhappy mother – the delight on the face of her mother at the sight of the daughter who had sometimes seemed to disappoint her – that was real.

In the end, love is the only thing that is eternal.  Everything else passes away.

Returning to Abundant Life — John 10:1-10

Filed under: Pastor Jeff's Sermons — Pastor Jeff at 12:17 pm on Monday, May 8, 2017

A sermon preached on May 7th, 2017 – Good Shepherd Sunday – based upon John 10:1-10.


In the original New Testament they were no numbered chapters and verses, so it is easy to overlook the context in which Jesus spoke the words we just heard.  They serve as a commentary on the long healing story that occurs immediately before it in chapter nine.  You may remember this story.  We had fun acting it out about six weeks ago in worship. It involves a man born blind — played by Liz – who gets his eyesight restored by Jesus — played by Sabitha.

The story plays with the metaphor of sight and blindness.  While the man born blind is getting his eyesight back, there are others – the Pharisees – who claim they can see but who are, in fact, spiritually blind. 

In our little play, Greg, Steve and Marissa played these people.  They are so determined to see themselves as right that they have lost the capacity to truly recognize the wonder of what has happened:  a man born blind has been given his sight back, and the natural response would be to celebrate.  But something has gone terribly wrong with these guys, but they just can’t admit it.

In commenting on this story, Jesus say, “I have come that you may have life, and have it abundantly.”

What does abundant life look like? The man who has been given back his sight is a good example. Not only has he been made whole physically, but in the course of the long story, he becomes spiritually whole as well.

He grows in strength as the story progresses, refusing to succumb to the pressure put on him by his community to deny the truth of what he has experienced — to live out their lie.  He clings to what he knows:  “I was blind, but now I see, and this guy Jesus is the one who made this happen.” And in the end Jesus comes to him, and the man bows down and worships him, standing in awe of Jesus and his great love.

So the character Liz played is an example of abundant life, but a more common place we can look to see what abundant life looks like – a place our eyes are irresistibly drawn to — is at a very young child. We can’t take our eyes off young children because there’s just so much life in them.

We were each created with abundant life – with a natural goodness – “in the image and likeness of God” is how the Bible puts it.  We come into this world with an innate sense of empathy and a capacity to connect — without prejudice, full of wonder and awe.

This is not to say we are all created exactly the same. We all have a unique self given to us by God, and that self is inherently good, and no two selves are precisely the same, but what we all do have in common is a God-given capacity for love and wonder.  We were created out of love, and at the deepest level of our being we are each of us, in our own utterly unique way an expression of God’s love.

But something happens as we grow up.  Over time we lose this “abundant life”.

To a greater or lesser extent, we lose our sense of wonder and we find ourselves often experiencing the miracle that is life as boring, tedious.  We lose our innate compassion and empathy — we take on prejudice and all manner of other things that get in the way of expressing the love that is within us.

In the symbolic story of our origins, we lose the Garden of Eden.  The power of sin and evil takes hold in our lives – the power that moves in the opposite direction of abundant life. It is this power that Jesus was referring to in today’s reading when he speaks of the thief who has come only “to steal and kill and destroy”. Instead of nurturing love, compassion, and wonder the thief promotes lies that do the very opposite.

How does this happen?  There is some mystery to this.  In part, we are given choices to make, and we choose wrongly. But like the serpent in the Garden, the “thief” is at work in this world encouraging us to make wrong choices.

We grow up in a sin-sick world that doesn’t value what God values – a world where human beings aren’t viewed as being of sacred worth, inherently worthy of love — instead placing greater value on success and money and power and status and “stuff” or the importance of being right.  When Jesus healed the man born blind, the sin sick Pharisees are so concerned with being right and morally superior that they can’t stand in awe and rejoice over the fact that this miracle of compassion and healing has occurred. Something is terribly broken inside them but they can’t admit it.

So, we grow up in a world of wounded people whose capacity for love is to some extent blocked, and we absorb their woundedness, becoming wounded ourselves.  We lose the fullness of abundant life that we once knew as little children.

The Road to Emmaus — Finding the Deeper Why

Filed under: Pastor Jeff's Sermons — Pastor Jeff at 10:36 pm on Sunday, April 30, 2017

A sermon preached on April 30th, 2017 based upon Luke 24:13 – 35

Jeff and kids

The most heart wrenching line of the story we just heard is when the two disciples walking the road to Emmaus say to the stranger who came to walk beside them, “We had hoped…”  For many people, the sense of hopelessness expressed here often characterizes how they experience life these days.  The recent presidential election turned on the hopelessness felt by poor white folks who perceive little in the way of opportunities in the rust belt, which isn’t really much different from the hopelessness felt by poor blacks – especially poor black young men — in the inner city.

But you don’t have to live in the rust belt or the impoverished inner city to feel hopelessness.  Here in the relative comfort of suburban middle class community the stunning number of people dealing with life threatening opiate addictions can be seen as “the canary in the mine” alerting us to an epidemic of despair hidden beneath the surface.  I suspect most of us have, at times, known something of that same hopelessness.  Perhaps some of us feel it now.

A psychiatrist named Viktor Frankl wrote a book in the 1950s entitled “Man’s Search for Meaning” in which he challenged the prevailing psychoanalytic theories of Freud and others who came before him that claimed our deepest drives as human beings are for pleasure or for power. No, Frankl argued, our deepest drive is for a sense of meaning to our life.   He quoted the philosopher Nietzsche, “The person who has a ‘why’ to live can bear almost any ‘how’.”  A why – a reason to live for, a purpose, a meaning.  Having a ‘why’ is directly related to having hope.  There is something I am living for that involves at least in part some hope for the future.

In the first half of our lives, the why of our life tends to revolve around ourselves.  Our purpose is to establish a place for ourselves in this world – to acquire an education, a vocation, a reputation, money, a home, a family, etc. — to acquire “happiness” in the usual sense of the word.   As time passes, we experience success or failure — or some combination of the two — in achieving our ‘why.’

It was Oscar Wilde who famously said, “There are only two tragedies in life:  one is to not getting what one wants; the other is getting it.” The point being, if we manage to get what we set out to achieve early on in life, we discover, strangely, that it isn’t enough.  Like the 1969 Peggy Lee song we ask: “Is that all there is?”  An emptiness arises — the “why” for which we had been living isn’t deep enough to hold up as time passes.

Part of this disillusionment involves our inherent vulnerability in life.  To be human is to be fragile, and stuff inevitably happens along the way that breaks our heart, or scares the living day lights out of us.  In the light of such occurrences, we ask, “What does it matter to have been a success in acquiring the things of this world if experiences like this can rock the very foundation of my very existence?”

We live in a culture that gives little support for the quest for a deeper “why” – the deeper meaning.   The why of life is assumed to be what is usually understood to be the “American dream” – to achieve a greater level of economic prosperity than that of our parents.  When the possibility or even the probability of that occurring seems to be reduced, what then?  A deeper “why” must be found.

So either way, in success or in failure, the quest for a deeper meaning to life arises as times passes, but for some it can occur very early on in life.

It is a bit of a clique to say, “Life is a journey,” but it is true.  In the course of our lives we move somewhere.  Life isn’t stationary, static.  But when we speak of life being a journey, what matters is not where we get to in a geographical sense, or in the end, how successful we are at that first stage of  fulfilling the first “why.”  The thing that matters is 1) What happens inside us along the way.  What kind of person do we become?  Do we become more capable of loving? And 2) the impact that our lives have on other people.  Do we make a positive difference?

So the story this morning lends itself to the “life is a journey” metaphor, because at the start of the story the two disciples are quite literally setting off on a journey.  They are beginning a seven mile hike to a little village known as Emmaus.  At the outset of their journey they find themselves in this place of deep despair and hopelessness.  They don’t seem to have been two of “the twelve”; one is named “Cleopas”, a name we haven’t heard before.  The other, curiously is never named.  It is almost as if Luke is inviting us to place ourselves in the story as Cleopas’ unnamed companion.

There hopelessness has to do with the fact that they thought they had found “the why” to which the rest of their lives would be devoted: to follow Jesus, who they had hoped would redeem Israel, throw off the Roman oppressors, and cast out the corrupt religious authorities.  But instead he got nailed to a cross.

So now they seem to be all about escaping.  We are experts in escapism in this country; an endless assortment of ways to distract our attention.  They want to go off on their own and get away from the place where their hearts were broken.

A stranger comes walking alongside them, and we know the stranger is actually Jesus, but they don’t recognize him.  At first he seems almost irritating:  how could he have been in Jerusalem these past few days and not know what has taken place there?  The stranger listens for a time as they pour out their disappointment to him – how they had thought Jesus was the messiah – the savior — but now it is obvious that he wasn’t. There’s some confusion too:  some of the women had come back from the tomb with a story about a vision of angels, but you know how carried away women can get with their imaginations.

At this point the stranger breaks in with a bit of a rebuke for their failure to pay attention to their Bibles, and he proceeds to teach them the scriptures they thought they knew — how it all pointed to a messiah who would suffer like this.

This part of the story always confused me, because apart from a passage in Isaiah speaking of a “suffering servant,” there isn’t much that explicitly refers to a savior who comes to suffer and die.  A great New Testament scholar named NT Wright helped me here, pointing to the freedom with which God created us.  He suggests Jesus said something like this to the two: “All through the Scriptures God allows God’s people to get into a real mess – slavery, defeat, despair, exile in Babylon in order to do new things.  Isn’t that what the prophets and the psalms were about as well?  Passage after passage in which Israel is promised that God will rescue them from slavery and sin, and sometimes even from death – but first they must go through it enough to get to the other side. Well, supposing that’s what had to happen to the messiah as well?”

Slowly over the course of their walk with this stranger the two begin to consider the possibility that there was a meaning to what has happened after all.  Later they will describe it as “their hearts began to burn within them,” which is to say that the “why” to their lives began to arise once more within them, albeit in a fragile form.    The dark cloud of hopelessness began to lift a bit.

They reach Emmaus and the house in which the two disciples intend to stay the night.  The sun is setting, but the stranger appears quite ready to just keep on heading down the road.  He will continue unless they choose to take some initiative.

Interesting:  they have been blessed by grace in the form of this grace-filled stranger who has come to walk beside them, who through his bible instruction has brought light into their darkness.  They did nothing to orchestrate this visitation of grace.   It just fell in their lap, so to speak.  A gift.  But now the question arises of what will they do in response to this gift?  There is a choice to be made, and to choose not to choose is to choose, which is to say, to let the stranger just head on down the road without considering the possibility that they could invite him in, is, in itself, a choice.

What would have happened if they hadn’t invited him to stay the night with them?  In all likelihood, the possibility arising within their hearts that there was a deeper “why” that made sense of what had happened would have gradually faded away.

Fortunately, they make the right choice – they invite him in, which is not only the right, “hospitable” thing to do but also an expression of gratitude for the grace they have received.

Then, as they sit down to the table to share supper, the guest suddenly takes over the role of host, taking bread which he blesses, breaks and offers them to eat – and the familiarity of this action suddenly opens their eyes, and they recognize Jesus, and then — he vanishes.  He’s gone!  But in that moment the possibility that had been arising within their hearts is permanently confirmed.

The why they now hold as their reason for living  is a very deep one indeed, because it is one that is undeterred by suffering — in fact, suffering is strangely connected to this “why” since the one who they now know to be alive is the very one who suffered in love for them.Recall the words quoted by Viktor Frankl.  “The one who has a why to live can endure any how.” Immediately the two do something that just a few moments earlier would have seemed a very difficult thing to do indeed.  They get up and run seven miles in the dark (where bandits often lay in wait) in order to share what they have experienced to their brothers and sisters back in Jerusalem.

In the “life is a journey” metaphor, the two have come full circle.  They end up where they started, and yet they are all together different inside, and they have made a real difference in the lives of the others to whom they have brought words of great encouragement.

Viktor Frankl’s psycho-analytic theory centered on the belief that a human’s deepest need is for meaning, and that psychotherapy that ignores this quest isn’t getting at the most important thing, would probably have gotten largely ignored, and his book never would have sold millions of copies, except for the story behind the theory.

In 1942 Frankl was a successful, respected young psychiatrist in Vienna, Austria.  He had succeeded in a very big way in the first “why of life.”   His specialty had involved working with people in despair and hopelessness – people who felt an inclination to take their own life — and it was out of this work that he developed his theory about the search for meaning as the centerpiece of psychotherapeutic healing.

And then the Nazis arrested him and his whole family – his parents, wife, and children — and took them to the concentration camp at Auschwitz.   Because he was a bright and physically strong young man he was useful to the Nazis in their brutal labor camp, but his family wasn’t.  So upon arrival at the camp Viktor was separated from his family.  He knew their fate — that they were to be taken to the gas chambers.

Frankl had managed to bring with him his thesis manuscript — the book that represented his life’s work, containing the psychotherapeutic theory he had worked to hard to develop – but now the book was taken from him and burned. — the defining work of his life destroyed.  Everything was taken from him, his family, the identity and profession he had worked so hard to build.  His head was shaved and he was given prison clothes to wear – clothes worn by a previous inmate, recently sent to the gas chamber.

He was at the point of utter despair; how could he go on?  He put his hand in the pocket of the jacket he had been given to wear, and there he found a scrap of paper.  Upon examination he saw that it was a page ripped from a Jewish prayer book, left there by the previous Jew to wear those clothes.  It contained the prayer that is at the very heart of Judaism: “Here O Israel:  The Lord Our God, the Lord Is One.”

The scrap of paper in his pocket was a kind of grace that pointed the way to God, the very source of all real meaning.  It was a gift that demanded a response from him — hat he would embrace his life in the concentration camp as an opportunity to live out the truths about which he had written.

At the core of his philosophy was this central affirmation about human freedom:  “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

It is in embracing this freedom that meaning – the why of life – is found.  He marveled at those few prisoners who, in the harshest of conditions, chose to live a life of service – encouraging his fellow prisoners, sharing their last scrap of bread. They had found a deeper why to live for.  Others, however became all the more self-absorbed.  Frankl wrote, “In the concentration camps, in that living laboratory, we saw some of our comrades behaving like pigs and others behaving like saints. Both alternatives are hidden in a person; and which will be realized depends on decisions and not on conditions”.

He goes on to write, “Our generation is a realistic generation because we have learned what a human being really is. When all is said and done, man is that same creature who invented the gas-chambers of Auschwitz; but he is also that being who walked upright into those chambers with the prayer, “Here O Israel:  The Lord Our God The Lord Is One,” on his lips.

For Frankl, the mysterious discovery of the scrap of prayer left behind from the man who had gone to the gas chambers clinging in his heart to the to what the verse of scripture pointed to, was a gift of grace.  And he chose in his freedom, to respond to that grace.

The two disciples on the road to Emmaus also were given such a grace – in the midst of the horror of what human beings are capable – the beloved Leader – nailed to the cross —  a stranger came alongside them, and in interpreting the Scriptures, gave them a new way of seeing their lives, a bit of hope.  And they said yes by inviting him into their homes, and then their hearts.

This is what I would leave you with.  Pay attention to the gifts of grace that fall unexpected in your lap.  They come in a myriad of forms, but however they come, they are a blessing.  And having taken note of this gifts of grace, consciously choose to say yes to this grace – to offer yourselves as an expression of God’s grace in this world to others.

We are about to sing the greatly popular hymn, “In the Garden.”  I have a love/hate relation to this hymn.  I love the tune – how easy it is to give yourself over to it in singing — and I enjoy the rich imagery.  But on the other hand, it has often struck me a little over the top in sentimentality.  I researched a little something about the author of the hymn.  His name is C. Austin Miles, and he was a druggist turned hymn writer from, of all places Pitman, New Jersey.  They hymn arose from a flight of imagination as he put himself back there at the garden of the tomb where Mary Magdalene came in her grief to be astonished by her risen Lord, calling her by name.  His granddaughter wrote that the song was written “in a cold, dreary and leaky basement in Pitman, New Jersey that didn’t even have a window in it let alone a view of a garden.”

For me, it is the final verse that redeems this hymn from sentimentality. “But He bids me go; through the voice of woe, His voice to me is calling.” The song acknowledges the powerful voice of woe in this world – the pervasive sense of hopelessness – and yet asserts a voice calling through the woe – the voice of Jesus calling us to follow him, to find our meaning in serving him in every person we meet.

John 20:19 – 31 Holding On with the Help of Others Until We Can See the Big Picture

Filed under: Pastor Jeff's Sermons — Pastor Jeff at 10:58 pm on Sunday, April 23, 2017

Jeff and Ryan

A sermon preached April 23rd, 2017 — the Second Sunday in Easter — based upon John 20:19 – 31.

I’ve mentioned in the past that one of my favorite authors is a wise old woman named Rachel Naomi Remen.  Rachel overcame a chronic illness — Crohn’s disease — that doctors told her would take her life by the age of  40.  She was determined to become a medical doctor, which she succeeded in becoming, but midway through her career, having become aware of what might be called the spiritual dimension of healing, she shifted her focus to counseling patients with life threatening disease, and working with doctors to recognize the mysterious dimensions of healing that aren’t given much attention in medical school.  She has written two books that are a collection of little stories with reflections that are some of my favorite books, and I want to begin this morning by telling a little story recorded in “Kitchen Table Wisdom” that was shared by a doctor she calls Tim at one of the conferences she holds for medical practitioners.

He said that his father had been diagnosed early on with Alzheimer’s disease, by early I mean when Tim was just a young boy.

Rachel writes, “Despite the devoted care of Tim’s mother, he had slowly deteriorated until he had become a sort of walking vegetable.  He was unable to speak and was fed, clothed, and cared for as if he were a very young child.  As Tim and his brother grew older, they would stay with their father for brief periods of time while their mother took care of the needs of the household.  One Sunday, while she was out doing the shopping, the boys, then fifteen and seventeen, watched football as their father sat nearby in a chair.  Suddenly, he slumped forward and fell to the floor.  Both sons realized immediately that something was terribly wrong.  His color was gray and his breath uneven and rasping.  Frightened, Tim’s older brother told him to call 911.  Before he could respond, a voice he had not heard in years, a voice he could barely remember, interrupted.  “Don’t call 911, son.  Tell your mother that I love her.  Tell her that I am all right.”  And Tim’s father died.

Tim, a cardiologist, looked around the room at the group of doctors mesmerized by this story.  “Because he died unexpectedly at home, the law required that we have an autopsy,” he told us quietly.  “My father’s brain was almost entirely destroyed by this disease.  For many years, I have asked, ‘Who spoke?’  I have never found even the slightest help from any medical textbook.  I am no closer to knowing this now than I was then, but carrying this question with me reminds me of something important, something I do not want to forget.  Much of life can never be explained but only witnessed.”

I begin with this story because when we speak of the Resurrection, what we are speaking of is a mystery – not something that can be explained, only witnessed.

One of the peculiarities of the story we just heard is the mystery of Jesus’ resurrected body. He has a body that can be touched, and yet it is also a body that is capable, as apparently it did in this morning’s two appearances, of passing through walls.  At certain moments he is easily recognized, at others not so at first, as was the case last week in the story with Mary Magdalene.

In 1Corinthians 15 the Apostle Paul speaks of this mystery when he writes of how in this life we possess a physical body, made of dust, subject to decay, but in death, our bodies are like seeds planted in the earth, which God raises up with new, spiritual bodies that are truly whole and can not die.

For the Jews from whom we inherit our faith, there is no true life except for “bodily” life.  The Jews in Jesus’ day seemed to have believed in what are referred to as “ghosts” – disembodied “spirits”— but from their point of view, being a “ghost” was a truly pathetic form of existence.  What kind of life is that?  To be alive is to have a body — one that can experience the goodness of creation.

Even the notion we are familiar with of the “immortal soul” made no sense to the Jews.  The “immortal soul” is a notion from Greek philosophy, not the ancient Hebrew faith.  To be alive, to be a person, was to inhabit a body.

It seems to me that the mysterious story that the doctor told of his father’s death points towards this mystery of what Paul called the “spiritual body.”  The story the doctor tells suggests that as his father came to the moment of his death, he was transitioning from his physical body with it’s decaying brain cells into his spiritual body, and it was his dad who had begun to inhabit his spiritual body that spoke to him — the dad that was finally being made truly whole — expressing his love for their mother, and his assurance that in death he truly was well.

I’ve heard other stories like this – and perhaps some of you could tell similar stories – of people holding vigil at the bedside of someone they love, when suddenly, just before the loved one died, they woke up from what had appeared to be a coma, opened their eyes, and with a lucidity they had not recently possessed spoke clearly, perhaps words expressing their love for you, or words describing what they were seeing from the realm of what we call “heaven”.

If you listen carefully to how John described Jesus’ appearance to those frightened disciples huddled together behind locked doors, there seems to be a moment of stunned silence when the disciples aren’t sure what it is they are seeing as Jesus appears to them and says, “Peace be with you.”  Is this some kind of ghost?

So John adds this:  “After (Jesus) said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.” It was as if Jesus were saying, “look – see — I really do have a body.  It’s really me, not just a ghost.”

One of the striking details of the story is that the marks of the crucifixion remain on the spiritual body of Jesus.  In showing them his hands and his side, he is showing the disciples (and later Thomas) the wounds where the nails pierced his hands, and the wound where the spear pierced his side.

This might seem odd – shouldn’t the resurrection body be whole, with all the wounds taken away?

And yet, in this case, the wounds have now become something beautiful.  Not only are they the proof that this is the same Jesus that they loved before — they are also signs of his love for them – reminders of his willingness to suffer and die on their behalf.

What was once horrific, has now become something beautiful.

So, for whatever reason, the disciple Thomas wasn’t present in that upper room when Jesus first appeared Easter night to his disciples.  The other disciples tell him what they have seen, but he won’t believe them, and who can blame him?

Thomas truly loved Jesus, and he is in the midst of what we might now call post traumatic stress disorder.  The horror of the wounds of Jesus that led to his death are still emblazoned in his mind, and it is going to take more than his friends telling him he no longer needs to be so traumatized for him to move from death to life.

Just a quick observation: there is room in the circle of the disciples’ fellowship for Thomas, even though he won’t believe what they believe.  They don’t tell him, “Oh, you won’t believe what we believe?  Then get out of here!”  No, he is fully welcomed in their fellowship.  They love him exactly where he is.  They don’t require him to be where they are on their journey.

Time passes.  Eight days.  Once more the disciples are together, and this time Thomas is with them.   And mysteriously Jesus appears once more to give Thomas what he needs – to move him from his state of trauma to the peace of faith.

One of my “go to” passages in the Bible is 1Corinthians 13, where the Apostle Paul talks about love being the most important thing — the only thing that never ends.  At the end of that chapter Paul writes these words:  “For we know only in part (that is in the present moment of this journey through life) but when the complete comes (that is, when we reach the end of our life) the partial will come to an end… For now we see in a mirror, dimly…” (In those days, mirrors weren’t what they are today.  They were just a polished piece of metal.  You looked into what they called mirrors and you could see only the dimmest reflection of your face) but then (again, when we reach the end of our lives and stand before God) we will see face to face.  Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.”

It is impossible to grasp the full meaning of our lives in any given moment along the way.  We cannot see “the big picture” – how the parts all fit together, like a tapestry of seemingly ill-fitting pieces which, when woven together create something extraordinarily beautiful.

When the other disciples tell Thomas that they have seen the Lord alive again, he isn’t there yet.  He sees not the “big picture,” but only the “smaller picture”, the one that begins and ends with the torture and death of the man he has loved and devoted his life to.

But sometimes in the course of our journey we reach a moment when we look back on where we’ve come from, and see a meaning we couldn’t grasp at the time.

(Another of Rachel’s stories that often refer to is of the middle aged woman who as a teenager had suffered through an eating disorder.  Little was understood in those days regarding this illness, and she remembers thinking that she wished she could meet someone who had gone through what she was suffering and made it to the other side.

She began attending a support group of mostly young, very thin women.  She said very little in the group, only that she had once suffered the same illness.  Mostly she just listened.  She was taken aback when at the end of a meeting a young woman came up to her with tears in her eyes and thanked her for being a part of the group.  She felt embarrassed – she didn’t even know the girl’s name and couldn’t remember having an individual interaction with her.  It was only later, with a profound sense of wonder that she realized:  “I have become the person I needed to meet.”

This past week I was given a moment to grasp something more of the big picture of my life.  I had the opportunity to go back to the place where I spent my first seven years in ministry after I graduated from seminary — two little country churches out in Hunterdon County. I was invited back by the family and the present pastor of a lovely woman named Ethel who had died after 95 years of life to share in the officiating of her funeral.

There had been a part of me that over the 28 years since I had left those churches that had been reluctant to return.  My seven years there were some of the most difficult of my life – not because of my congregations – but because of my own personal inner turmoil. When I arrived I had so wanted to feel like a real grown up, like I had it all together – but I didn’t have it all together, and often I felt like I was play acting – pretending to be what I thought a pastor was supposed to look like.

I’d never lived out in the country, and I arrived there single and quite lonely, and three years into my tenure my loneliness led me to enter an ill-conceived marriage after a courtship of just six month.  The whole community had gathered to pack one of the little country churches to celebrate the wedding.  Nineteen months after the wedding I was blessed by the birth of Andrew, my beloved first-born child, but just eight months after his birth my wife moved out of the parsonage, with the separation eventually leading to a divorce.

My parents had gotten divorced, and with some arrogance I had been determined that I would never do the same.  “Love… is not arrogant,” said the Apostle Paul, and I was humbled in my time out there in the country, and being humbled isn’t fun.

When the possibility arose in my mind that my marriage would end in divorce, the thought that arose alongside was that such an outcome would mean the end of my ministry — that it would expose me as a fraud and envelop me in shame.

For quite some time as my marriage deteriorated I had been quietly withdrawing from people.  But as the separation came to pass, people like Ethel reached out to me with unconditional love, and also practical help and support as I spent a great deal of time parenting my very young son, an exhausting and consuming task in itself.  I opened up to people, and loved in my brokenness, I experienced for the first time the true meaning of grace.

This is who you got 28 years ago when I arrived here.  I was grateful to move on – to start a new chapter so to speak.  And to a large extent I had avoided returning there, because I didn’t want to be reminded of the pain I experienced there.

As the years have passed, doubts I had about my vocation to be a pastor gave way to a deep sense of confidence as I grew into  my calling.  I am no longer a child trying to play a part, but a pastor with frailties easily acknowledged trusting in the power of God’s grace revealed in the crucified and risen Christ to work through my weaknesses.  I have become the pastor I needed when I was trying to play act the role of pastor.

So I spent Tuesday, which if you recall was an exquisitely beautiful day, back in the country community where I spent those painful seven years.  As I took in the beauty of the countryside, I also came to recognize something beautiful in the wounds I had endured in my time there. I saw a bit of the bigger picture of my life – the larger view that was pretty hard to see when I was back in the thick of it.   I sensed that as hard as that time was for me, it was an essential part of my journey; a time of humbling that allowed me to discover the true nature of my calling.

Sabitha interviewed Amy Gripp and I appreciated in the write up how Amy described my ministry.  “Jeff doesn’t preach at us; rather, he walks beside us.”  I like that. I know that my ministry is not based upon my somehow achieving a place above you on some moral ladder.  I am just another sinner, just like you, saved by grace. We’re in this together.

So we all know something of the crucifixion of Jesus in the crosses we are called to bear in this life, and hopefully, if we can hang in there, put one foot in front of another, walking by faith when we can’t see the signs of God’s grace, or letting others have faith for us when our faith seems to falters, we reach a day when we realize that it is the resurrection rather than the crucifixion that is the deeper reality.

The Eulogy Sermon for Ethel Rounsaville

Filed under: Eulogies — Pastor Jeff at 11:38 pm on Thursday, April 20, 2017

The Eulogy Sermon for Ethel Rounsaville

April 18, 2017

1Corinthians 13

Ethel rounsavilleI remember when I first met Ethel.  It was June of 1982. I was 26 years old, fresh out of seminary, and newly arrived in Everittstown, sometime during the week before my first Sunday leading worship.  It was late afternoon and I must have been out on the porch of the parsonage, because Ethel saw me as she drove by and stopped, got out of her car and greeted me.  She was wearing her visiting nurse uniform, on her way home from her work caring for some sick, home bound patient.  Ethel said a few words of warm welcome, which I appreciated.  I had never lived out in the country, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to be there, fearing I would be lonely living out there surrounded by farms.

Since I received word of Ethel’s death at the age of 95 I’ve been thinking a lot about that memory.  I’ve now lived significantly more years of my life since that moment in time than I had lived up to that moment.  I did the math, and Ethel was at the time of our meeting a few months younger that I am now.  And so it’s made me pretty conscious of the passage of time, and in true Ethel fashion, a verse from a hymn came to mind, that of Isaac Watt’s, “O God Our Help in Ages Past”:

Time, like an ever-rolling stream,
Bears all its sons away;
They fly, forgotten, as a dream
Dies at the op’ning day.

“They fly, forgotten, as a dream…”  Time rushes by, but one of the expressions of the love that lived in Ethel’s heart was that she didn’t forget — she held me and so many others in her heart with the loveliness of her memory.   Though I only rarely saw her in the 28 years since I left Everittstown, Ethel would remember me with cards at Christmas and on my birthday.  She would let me know that she was still holding me in her heart, recalling the details of my life — not only the details of the seven years I spent there in Everittstown — but also the details of the years since – the family I formed in my post-Everittstown years.  Even as her health failed, the cards continued, the last as I recall dictated by her and written by the hand of her beloved home health aide.

Hearing of Ethel’s passing during Holy Week, she was on my mind as I once again experienced the story of Good Friday.  I thought of Ethel when I heard the words exchanged by the thief on the cross with Jesus in Luke’s Gospel.  The thief cries out, “Lord, when you come into your kingdom, remember me.” And Jesus replies, “This day you will be with me in Paradise.” We long to be remembered, and Ethel did just that.  And now she is in paradise with Jesus, and she remembers us still.

The second to last time I saw Ethel was a couple of years ago.  My wife Sarah was recovering from a virus that had kept her housebound for several days, and it was a lovely Spring day so we decided to take a drive out into the country through Everittstown and beyond – to see where my mother — who had recently died –had once lived across the river in Pennsylvania.  We meant to travel incognito – but I stopped in the grocery store in Frenchtown to get some throat lozenges for my wife – and as I did, both Sarah and I had this feeling that I would run into somebody I knew, and sure enough I did.  There was Bruce coming out as I came in, greeting me warmly and encouraging me to stop by the house to see his mom.  Our meeting seemed mysteriously planned by God, and so in the late afternoon on our way back home we did stop, and while Sarah — concerned with the germs she might be carrying stayed outside talking with Bruce — I went in to the house to visit with Ethel.  She greeted me with such delight, and we reminisced, and the visit is the memory that stands out from that day.  Ethel remembered my mother well from her occasional visits to Everittstown all those years ago.  She understood what my mother had meant to me, and the grief I was feeling.

Because of his love for soccer, Sarah and I sent our youngest son Bobby to a Catholic Prep school in Newark run by Benedictine monks.  I learned that Benedictines have a vow they take that distinguishes them from other orders which they call a “vow of stability to place.”  They make a vow to stay settled in one place for their entire lives.   This is a passage I came across describing the vow:

We vow to remain all our life with our local community. We live together, pray together, work together, relax together. We give up the temptation to move from place to place in search of an ideal situation. Ultimately there is no escape from oneself, and the idea that things would be better someplace else is usually an illusion. And when interpersonal conflicts arise, we have a great incentive to work things out and restore peace. This means learning the practices of love and forgiving.

Ethel intuitively grasped the meaning of a “vow to stability of place”, staying planted on the same beautiful patch of farm land, in that same small farm house for nearly 75 years – the home she had raised her four greatly loved children:  Dave, Carol, Bruce and Tim.  She rarely strayed far from that home or the community of Everittstown and Frenchtown, staying put to love the family and neighbors God had given her to love, and at times grieving deeply, as she did when her heart broke for her son Tim when he was taken too soon.

Ethel cultivated friendships.  I remember in particular her friendship with Margaret Bush, her next door neighbor and for a long stretch of time the director of the choir Ethel sang in all those years in Everittstown – two good talkers who treasured each other, sharing a love of music, especially music sung unto the Lord.  I remember how heartily they laughed together.  “My sweet little Ethel,” is how Margaret used to refer to her dear friend.

The last time I saw Ethel was when I visited her in the hospital six weeks ago in Morristown.  I marveled once again at all the hymns she knew by heart – how in the solitude that life often imposed upon this innately sociable woman — especially as her health deteriorated in later years — she would have her hymns to turn to – songs through which she poured forth to God all that was within her heart.  She recalled the anthem – not just the title, but the words themselves – that was sung on my first Sunday leading worship in Everittstown, appropriately titled, “Love Grows Here.”

When I arrived in Everittstown thirty-five years ago, I longed to feel like a grown up — like somebody strong and wise who had his life pretty much all together.  In truth, I was anything but – I was in fact a pretty broken person — a child trying to put on the clothes of a grown up.

My seven years in Everittstown were not easy ones for me — not but because of the congregation — but because of my own personal inner turmoil. I arrived as I said quite lonely, and three years into my tenure my loneliness led me to enter an ill-conceived marriage after a courtship of just six months.  The whole community gathered to pack the Everittstown Church to celebrate the wedding.  The marriage led, nineteen months after the wedding to the blessing of the birth of Andrew, my beloved first born child, but just eight months after his birth my wife and I separated, eventually divorcing.

My parents had gotten divorced, and with some arrogance I had been determined that I would never do the same.  “Love… is not arrogant,” said the Apostle Paul, and I was humbled in my time in Everittstown.

When the possibility arose in my mind that my marriage would end in divorce, the thought that arose alongside that possibility was that such an outcome would mean the end of my ministry — that it would expose me as a fraud and envelop me in shame.

For quite some time as my marriage deteriorated I had been quietly withdrawing from people.  But as the separation came to pass, people like Ethel reached out to me with unconditional love, and also practical help and support as I spent a great deal of time parenting my very young son.  Loved in my brokenness, the connection I felt with folks grew very deep. Although by then I had been an ordained minister for several years, it was during this time that I first experienced the true meaning of grace.

As the years have passed, my clarity that I do, in fact have a calling to be a pastor has deepened.  I have grown into this vocation.  I am no longer a child trying to play a part, but a pastor with frailties easily acknowledged relying upon Christ’s power made perfect in weakness.  It might not have been so.  I very well could have left the ministry, if not for the grace experienced through folks like Ethel.

Love, the Apostle Paul reminds us, is the one thing that that doesn’t end.  Everything else passes away.  And love is all that really matters.  That is why God put us here on earth: to learn to love.  We all have blockages in our heart that impedes the flow of God’s love through us, but hopefully as we embrace this journey of following Jesus, through the grace of God these blockages begin to give way.

John Wesley believed in the possibility of being perfected in love in this life, though he did not claim to have reached such full “sanctification” for himself.  He believed that for the vast majority of us the moment when this perfection of love occurs is in the moment of our deaths.  Jesus stands before us in a blaze of light and love inviting us to come and enter his kingdom.  The only requirement is that we leave behind all those things to which we have clung in the course of our lives that has blocked the flow of God’s love.

In my imagination, when Ethel breathed her last breath and came to that glorious moment of invitation into the kingdom, after 95 years of faithfully practicing the ways of love there wasn’t much left for her to leave behind.  She stepped freely, joyfully into the embrace of the Lord.

I thought of Ethel on Good Friday when I sang the old hymn, “What Wondrous Love Is This.”  The final verse in particular struck me.

And when from death I’m free, I’ll sing on, I’ll sing on,  and when from death I’m free, I’ll sing on; and when from death I’m free, I’ll sing and joyful be, and through eternity, I’ll sing on, I’ll sing on, and through eternity I’ll sing on.

Sing on, Ethel.  Sing with Tim, and Orville, and Margaret and all the saints.  Sing on and joyful be.  And one day we hope to join you in that song.

Ethel’s Obituary

Ethel L. Rounsaville ALEXANDRIA TOWNSHIP, NJ Ethel L. Rounsaville, 95, of Alexandria Township, NJ, passed away on Wednesday, April 12, 2017, at her home. Ethel was born in Philadelphia, PA, on Sept. 14, 1921. She was the only child of Otto and Mae (Weldon) Hubenthal. Ethel’s early years were spent in Philadelphia as her father was a police officer. Upon her father’s retirement, the family moved to North Wales, PA, before settling in Alexandria Township, NJ, in the 1930s. Ethel graduated from Frenchtown High School. She was a member of the National Honor Society in 1940, the first year the honor society was instituted at Frenchtown High School. She worked as a telephone exchange operator in Frenchtown. Ethel was married in 1942 to Orville Rounsaville and they resided in their home on Route 513. Together they raised four children, David, Carol, Bruce, and Timothy. To help her husband offset the cost of running a dairy farm and a barbershop, Ethel became a home health aide for the Hunterdon Medical Center Visiting Nurses for 23 years. Ethel was an active member of the Everittstown United Methodist Church for over 70 years. She taught Sunday school, sang in the choir, and was a member of the Women’s Society. Ethel was also a Girl Scout and Brownie leader and the secretary to the now disbanded Frenchtown Senior Citizens. In recent years, Ethel was a member of the Frenchtown Library Book Club, as she was an avid reader. Fellow members were amazed by her total recall of poems from days gone by. Ethel is survived by her children, David Rounsaville and his wife, Terri, Carol Higgins and her husband, Ron, and Bruce Rounsaville and his wife, Amy; her grandchildren and great-grandchildren. She was preceded by her beloved husband, Orville F. Rounsaville, in 1990 and her son, Timothy Rounsaville. Ethel was a friend to all who knew her. Funeral services will be held on Tuesday, April 18, 2017, at 11 a.m. at the Johnson-Walton Funeral Home, 24 Church Road, Holland Township, NJ. Interment will follow at the Mt. Pleasant Cemetery in Alexandria Township, NJ.

John 20:1-19 It is in the Deep Darkness that Resurrection Occurs

Filed under: Pastor Jeff's Sermons — Pastor Jeff at 10:15 pm on Sunday, April 16, 2017

Jeff and Good NewsA sermon preached on April 16, 2017 – Easter Sunday – based upon John 20:1-19.

In the account of the first Easter that you just heard from John’s Gospel, there are three disciples who come to the tomb in the morning.  Mary Magdalene (and yes, Mary Magdalene was a disciple), Peter, and an unnamed third disciple, quote, “the one whom Jesus loved.”

I must admit, I find “the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved,” a little irritating. Didn’t Jesus love all his disciples?  Of course he did.

John’s Gospel is a truly profound witness to the good news, but even so, there is this favoritism that crops up from time to time regarding the so-called “beloved disciple”.  The reason — which the Gospel writer won’t come right out and say — is that the beloved disciple is John, and this Gospel arose out of the church associated with the Apostle John.  So there is a little PR work mixed in here, as in “we got the best Apostle around!”

This disciple can’t seem to do anything wrong.  He is there at the cross comforting Jesus’ mom when all the other male disciples have fled. In the story you just heard, this disciple comes running with Peter to check out the report of Mary – that the tomb is empty and Jesus’ body is gone — and of course we hear that this guy is a faster runner than Peter, so he gets to the tomb first.   Apparently he is younger than Peter and, out of respect for his elder – even his manners are impeccable! – he doesn’t enter, waiting instead for the older Peter to have the honor of being the first to enter.

Peter goes inside and John tells us what he saw.  Jesus’ body isn’t there, but the grave clothes in which Jesus had been wrapped are, and the cloth that had covered his head is rolled up nicely and placed apart from the rest of the grave clothes.  Peter sees all this but it doesn’t seem to mean anything to him.

The other disciple who is not only Jesus’ favorite and a better runner than Peter (and probably better looking too) apparently is also a better Sherlock Holmes.  He takes one glance at the supposed crime scene and recognizes something odd.  If someone stole the body, why would they go to the trouble of leaving behind the grave clothes?  And why would they bother to roll the head cover up so nicely?

John tells us that this is all it takes for the “other” disciple to “believe.” We aren’t told exactly what he believes, but the impression we’re left with is that the first flowers of faith have begun popping up in the fertile soil of his heart.

Apparently he’s not just Jesus’ favorite – younger, faster, and smarter — but faith comes more easily to him as well.  It’s like he’s the teacher’s pet or something.  He can do no wrong.

There are some of you here today for whom faith comes easily.  You’ve never really been plagued by doubts.  In life, you naturally see the cup half full.  You wake up each morning sensing the presence of God.  You manage to keep on the sunny-side, always on the sunny-side of life, even when it’s cloudy out.

Who knows, you might even be a fast runner.

We are very blessed to have you, because you make this church a lot brighter.

So maybe John is the guy you identify with in the story.

But I am personally grateful that the Gospel writer ultimately takes a lot more time with the other two characters, in large part because faith doesn’t come so easily for them.

There’s old Peter. Frankly, I identify more with Peter.   His frailty is familiar to me. (Earlier this week I had to do a little running in the first Old Guy Softball Game of the season and my legs hurt for three days afterwards.)

Peter’s far from perfect.  He’s so determined that he won’t desert Jesus, but he ends up doing so anyway, denying him three times when fear floods his heart.  (When Jesus got arrested, the “disciple who Jesus loved” fled just like all the rest of the male disciples, but we don’t get fair and balanced reporting on this particular fact.)

Peter has regrets. He knows the voice of self-condemnation.   Unlike, “the beloved disciple,” faith doesn’t seem to come so easily for Peter. We find him later that day in the very same upper room where Jesus had told him he would in fact deny him three times before that terrible night was through.  He’s huddled together with other male disciples, linked together not by a common faith but by mutual fear and self-condemnation, hiding behind locked doors.

We’ll return to Peter and the others in a little while, but first let’s consider the third character, Mary Magdalene.  She’s really the central character in this morning’s story (well, other than Jesus of course.) The Gospel takes some time and care in telling her Easter morning story.

The story begins, “Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb.” The other Gospels that tell the story have it begin as the first daylight breaks, but here the story begins in darkness, both literally and symbolically.

The other Gospels have Mary accompanied by other women; here, though she is all alone – again both literally and symbolically.  So alone – in such deep darkness.

And unlike the other Gospels where the women have come to the tomb with a job to do – to anoint the body of Jesus – here Mary seems to be just wandering around in the darkness, just trying to get close to Jesus’ lifeless body.

So Mary somehow arrives at the tomb and all she can really see in the dark is that the big stone that had sealed the tomb shut has been rolled away.  You and I know that this is in fact the first sign of the good news – but for Mary the conclusion she quickly draws is that this even more bad news.  Somebody has stolen Jesus’ body! – just another sign of the cruelty and callousness of this world.

Mary runs to tell the male disciples, which brings Peter and John running, with Mary in a daze, trailing behind.  The sun is up by the time they reach the tomb.  Peter and John go inside to investigate, after which they depart.

Mary is left there outside the tomb, lost, alone, crying — like an abandoned pup sticking close to the last place she saw her master.

For the first time Mary bends down to look inside.  And what does she see?  Two angels sitting there, where once Jesus’ body lay.  You might think that seeing angels would trigger a spark of wonder, at least some tiny bit of hope.

But the sight doesn’t penetrate the darkness at all.

To Mary, it’s like she’s arrived too late to the hospital room of her loved one, and her beloved, having already died — has been taken away — down into the bowels of the hospital, to a morgue somewhere, and the angels are to her nothing more than a couple of hospital orderlies changing the bed sheets.  She is fixated on the hard truth she thinks she knows, and in response to their question of why she is crying, she answers, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.”

She turns around.  There’s a man standing there.   Again you and I know it’s Jesus.  Shouldn’t this be the moment that the light breaks into the darkness?  He’s standing right there in front of her.

But Mary can’t recognize him, and her weeping does not abate.  She thinks he must be the gardener.  Jesus speaks to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?”

Mary knows the sound of Jesus’ voice – she’s heard it many, many times before — shouldn’t this be enough to awaken her from the horrible nightmare she’s living?  No, it isn’t.  The dark abyss is just too deep.

Mary wants this stranger to give her directions to the morgue: “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”

This is crazy talk.  Even if she could manage to locate the lifeless body of her Lord, does she think she is going to carry him away, all by herself?  And to where, exactly?

John has conjured up a seriously deep darkness — one Mary on her own is helpless to penetrate.

Finally the one word is spoken that breaks through the darkness.  Jesus calls her by name, “Mary!” and in hearing her name spoken by the one who loves her more than any other, Mary steps from death to life.  “Rabbouni!” she cries, claiming her identity as a disciple of the Lord.

Jesus says to her, ‘Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” ’ And so Mary runs off the proclaim the glad tidings, ‘I have seen the Lord!”

Mary, of all people, the one who had dwelt in such deep darkness becomes the first witness to the light of the resurrection – the first to testify the Good News – that Jesus and his love are more powerful that the powers of death and destruction.

It is with Mary that some of us here this morning will most readily identify with in the story.   You have known the deep darkness.  You’ve been there, maybe you’re there now.  This story is for you.

Curiously, it is when darkness returns later that evening, “on the first day of the week”, when Peter and other terrified disciples are huddled behind locked doors in darkness, that Jesus once more appears.  The locked doors can’t hold him out.  Suddenly he stands in the midst of them, saying, “Peace be with you.”

If we find ourselves at times walled in helplessly by a fear and despair we can’t escape, this story is for us.  It speaks of the power of God’s love to come to us in those places we feel powerless to escape.

Unlike our human love, God’s love can get to places we sometimes can’t reach — through locked doors and closed hearts, breathing peace and new life into frightened, paralyzed persons.

But here in the bright light of day – this beautiful Easter morning – let me say a good word about darkness.

We often overlook the fact that in all the Gospel accounts, the actual event is never described, by which I mean the resurrection itself.  We aren’t told of that moment when miraculously, Jesus’ dead body suddenly was filled once more with life – a life that cannot die.  It happens, unseen in the darkness of that tomb.

Consider some other places of darkness where mysteries of creation take place:

*the chrysalis, where the caterpillar retreats into darkness to be transformed into the beauty of a butterfly.

*a seed buried in the earth — one of Jesus’ favorite images – unseen in the darkness, where mysteriously it breaks open to sprout with the beginnings of a great harvest.

*the darkness of a womb – the place where each of us here today slowly grew towards that moment of our birth.

And consider the very first sentence of the Bible describing the first day of the week of creation itself – a sentence the Gospel writer intends to call to mind with his story of resurrection:

“In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep.”

The first Creation came forth from darkness, and so does the new creation that is Easter morning.

So if you happen to find yourself in a time of darkness — take heart.  Christ has risen!  God is with you.  Darkness is where God gives birth to new life.

Maundy Thursday: We are Peter, We are Judas, We are Loved.

Filed under: Pastor Jeff's Sermons — Pastor Jeff at 12:56 am on Saturday, April 15, 2017

A sermon given on Maundy Thursday, April 13, 2017 based upon Matthew 26 and 27.

Re-reading the old, old story we will again hear tonight, certain things caught my attention.

The first thing I took notice of was of what directly precedes the words of the passion of Jesus:  his words regarding the dividing of the sheep and the goats — how the sheep are those who have served him in the least of his brothers and sisters – those whose lives are mangled by pain –  the lonely, the hungry, the thirsty the imprisoned.  Jesus meets us in every hurting human being.

The second was the absolute clarity Jesus had of how things will turn out in Jerusalem.  He has spoken of it clearly – at least three times in advance.   He will go to Jerusalem and suffer and die and rise on the third day at the hands of the religious authorities.  Challenge the powers in charge and you will pay a price.

That evil is very real, and we will hear again of evil planned in darkness, behind closed doors by respected upstanding citizens intent on holding on to the status quo.  That is the way of the world.

The world is held captive to evil forces, and yet, this world isn’t irredeemable, but redemption comes with a steep price.  Evil is not overcome with evil, but only with a love that is willing to suffer and die if necessary.  That is why Jesus comes to Jerusalem.

There is horror in this story — the extreme cruelty of those who conspire to have beaten, humiliated and Jesus nailed to the cross.

But the third thing that struck me is how disturbing is the behavior of the disciples in this story.  They who have been blessed to have had Jesus call them to be his disciples, who have had the benefit of two years of his personal tutelage – watching the life he lived, hearing the things he said, being loved by him – will show so clearly they have yet to understand “his way.”  This is so even though he has spoken clearly of the difficulty of his way right from the outset – in the sermon on the mount – when he spells it out.  “Love your enemies,” said Jesus, “and pray for those who persecute you,” because God is love and God loves everybody – the righteous and unrighteous alike.

Two years of tutelage, and they still don’t give it.  Just before arriving in Jerusalem, they’re jockeying for position to have the highest seats in his kingdom.  They’re reaching upwards – Jesus is emptying himself, taking the form of a servant, even unto death on a cross.

They are in denial that Jesus really is going to die – tone deaf in the story we will hear of the open-hearted woman they lash out for being impractical – this woman who unlike themselves recognizes what is about to happen and is determined to anoint Jesus for his burial with expensive perfume.

Jesus knew them far better than they knew themselves, and he knows us too.  He announces at the end of the last supper that they will all desert him, and Peter takes this as an opportunity for a perverse kind of boast:  though these other fall desert, I will not desert you. But Jesus knows the frailty of Peter.  He knows our frailty too.

Shortly afterwards he asks them simply to stay awake – to keep him company in the hour of his great torment in the Garden of Gethsemane.  But even this they can’t to.  They fall asleep.    Perhaps we can remember similar times when we have failed to be there for a loved on in their hour of great darkness.

When the arrest comes, one of the disciples takes out a sword and cuts the ear off of some poor underling, the High Priest’s slave.   “Put away the sword,” he demands. “All who take the sword will perish by the sword”  He’s been saying this sort of thing all along, but it was as if they refused to take it in.

And of course there are Peter’s three denials that he ever knew Jesus.  Fear is a powerful thing.  It can make the best of us deny our ideals.  We are Peter.  We are the disciples who have been tutored by Jesus –many of us for years and years – but still his way seems strange to us.

And the fourth thing that struck me was the figure of Judas.  Why did he betray Jesus? We do not know.  He became enraged for some reason – a seething, quiet anger — and who among us has not had anger eclipse our love?   In the moment following our anger seemed so crucially important.  But the anger passes, and the recognition of the love returns, and with it, a deep regret for what we did in anger.

Jesus knows Judas has betrayed him – will betray him — and yet he doesn’t stop loving him.  He doesn’t kick Judas out of the fellowship of the communion table.  He serves Judas the bread that is his broken body — the wine that is his she blood – all for the sake of forgiveness.

Jesus predicts that that the time will come for Judas when it will seem better that he never was born, and sure enough, when Judas realizes what he has done, that he has set things in motion a series of events that will lead to Jesus’ torture and death, he remembers the love he has for the man, and is filled with deep despair – surely in agreement now that it would have been better if he had never been born.  And so utterly alone, filled with self-contempt, Judas takes his own life.

We have known something of such feelings, such darkness, such despair.  We are Judas.

And then this most amazing thing:  in the end, Jesus willingly  enters into the same space that Judas found himself in – utter isolation and abandonment, crying out on the cross, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me.”

He dies for Judas, he dies for Peter, he dies for the authorities conspiring his death, for the soldiers mocking him, beating him, banging the nails into his hands.  He died for you and me, deeply flawed followers though we are. He considers us worthy to die for.

The world is full of evil and suffering, but the world is redeemable, and he invites us to pick ourselves back and try again to follow in his way for the redemption of this world God loves so.

The Second Lenten Talk: The four Gospels, the Ministry of Jesus, Jesus’ Prayer life and What He Taught About Prayer. (Outline)

Filed under: An Overview of Christianity in Five Sessions -- Lent 2017 — Pastor Jeff at 11:54 pm on Friday, April 14, 2017

Second Lenten Talk: The four Gospels.  The Ministry of Jesus.  Jesus’ prayer life and what he taught about prayer.

1) We have four Gospels (“Good News”) – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John — which tell the story of Jesus ministry, death and resurrection.

A) There are some other surviving “Gospels” though they are believed to have been written significantly later. The two most famous are the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Mary Magdalene.  They have interesting and mysterious things to say – sayings inviting reflection.

1) Never reached the stature that the other four did in large part because they were associated with what was called the “Gnostic” movement. “Gnosis” is a Greek word for knowledge, and they portray Jesus as the teacher of a special divine knowledge found deep within.  Gnosticism attempted to move the church away from its Jewish roots.  The material world – believed to have been made by a lesser god — was seen as something to be escaped from.  Gnosticism tended to be elitist – only the elite few were privy to this special knowledge — whereas the four Gospels in our Bible make it clear that the first disciples were no sense “elite”; they were ordinary fishermen and such.

2) The Gospel of Mary Magdalene presents her as having had a much more significant relationship to Jesus and important role in the early church than the Gospels in our Bible portray, which may have in fact between true.  Perhaps the other Gospel writers edited her out because of the patriarchal assumptions of the culture. But we really don’t know for sure.

B) The first of the four Gospels to be written down was Mark, which scholars think took place around 70 AD — 35 years or more after the death and resurrection of Jesus.  Why so long?  Most people couldn’t read, and the stories were passed along orally.  The earliest Christians believed they were living at the end of human history — that Jesus would return any day – so there didn’t seem to be a need for written documents.

1) Mark might have been inspired to write his Gospel in response to interpret an event that rocked the Jewish world in 70 AD:   an uprising against Rome led to the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple.  To grasp the significance of that event imagine 9/11 and multiply it by a factor of ten.   The world as Jews and Jewish Christians had known it was coming unhinged, and Jesus is portrayed in the Gospel as having predicting it.

2) Mark is the shortest of the four Gospels, establishing an outline that Luke and Matthew would basically follow.

a) It starts with the ministry of John the Baptist (no Christmas story) and moves very rapidly.  After his baptism by John and his temptation in the wilderness, Jesus leaves Judea in the southern region of Palestine – the region where Jerusalem, the capital city is located, and returns to the region of Galilee in the north where he had grown up.  There he begins his ministry, proclaiming that “the time has come.  The kingdom of God is at hand.  Repent and believe in the good news.”

b) Jesus stations himself in the town of Capernaum, (where the story of the paralyzed man lowered from roof takes place) but wanders from town to town teaching and amazing people with his power to heal, drawing large crowds.  We are not told much regarding what he taught.

c) Early on Jesus calls disciples to follow him, but throughout the Gospel they aren’t portrayed well.  Jesus often berates them for their lack of faith, and they struggle to understand him at every turn.  For instance they turn the children away, unable to grasp how in the kingdom of God notions of who matters are reversed from world’s way of viewing life. (The struggle of the disciples reminds us that our journey to make God the first love of their hearts – the journey towards true freedom and the ability to love others – isn’t easy.)

d) When Jesus returns to his hometown of Nazareth, it doesn’t go well.  The people seem to see him as being too big for his britches.  We are told that Jesus could do very few miracles there, and that Jesus was amazed by their lack of faith.

e) Elsewhere, however Jesus is a portrayed as a man of action with extraordinary power.

1) He silences a storm when they are in a boat at night, and walks on water.

2) He heals all the physical afflictions of people brought to him, and has authority over the “unclean spirits” that are understood to be the source of peoples’ mental afflictions.  For instance, encounters the “Gerasene Demoniac”, a lonely, agitated man tormented by a great many violent, self-destructive impulses – a legion of demons – and casts out the demons, which leads to the man sitting calmly, serenely at the feet of Jesus, restored to his true self.

a) Curiously, the unclean spirits recognize that Jesus is the messiah – the anointed one of God — before human being do.

f) Early on, Jesus comes in conflict with the local religious authorities, the Pharisees and scribes, because he seems to play fast and loose with Holiness Laws by healing on the Sabbath, and keeping the company of publicly identifiable sinners, and that he claims to have the authority to God to forgive sin. The common folk marvel that he speaks “with authority and not as the scribes and Pharisees.”

g) Midway through the Gospel Jesus asks, “who do you say that I am?” and Peter becomes the first person who answers publicly that he is the messiah.

1) Here and elsewhere Jesus tells people not to talk about the fact he is the Messiah because he will not be the messiah they expect.

2) Right after Peter makes his confession, Jesus proceeds to tell the disciples that he must go to Jerusalem where he will suffer and die at the hands of the religious authorities.  And if they are going to be his followers they must be willing to deny themselves, take up their crosses and follow; none of which the disciples understand and are afraid to ask him about. They are portrayed as reluctantly following as he makes his way towards Jerusalem.

h) Things slow down in Mark’s Gospel once they arrive in Jerusalem; the last third of Mark’s Gospel is devoted to describing the last week of his life with particular detail given to what happens the last 24 hours of Jesus’ life.

C) Luke and Matthew were written perhaps 15 years later.  They both use Mark as their central source and follow his basic outline, but they add material, much of it teaching material, some of which they share in common, and some unique to themselves.

1) A simple example:  The temptation story in Mark is very simple; in Matthew and Luke the three temptations of the devil are added. Matthew and Luke switch the order of the last two temptations..

2) Both Gospels have stories about the birth of Jesus, but they are different.

D) Luke tells the story from the point of view of Jesus’ mother Mary, and Jesus is born in a barn when the holy family is homeless in Bethlehem.  Word of his birth first comes to poor, outcaste shepherds.

1) Throughout the Gospel Luke will give more attention to women than Mark or Matthew, reminding us on several occasions that there were women among those who followed him, and in fact, supported his ministry financially.

2) Throughout the Gospel the needs of the poor are emphasized and the dangers of wealth.

3) In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus visit to his hometown of Nazareth is one of the first things to happen.  Invited to read scripture in the synagogue,  Jesus selects a passage from the prophet Isaiah, “The spirit of the Lord is upon me… to preach good news to the poor…”  The passage references the “Jubilee year”, where every fifty years land was returned to the original owners, breaking the cycle of the rich getting rich, and the poor poorer.  The hometown folk don’t respond well, and then Jesus points out that there were times in the past when God passed over Jews and blessed Gentiles   In Luke’s version they come very close to killing Jesus.

4) Parables:  In Mark’s Gospel Jesus’ teaching in parables is limited to a few stories about seeds. Matthew and Luke have far more parables, with Luke telling some of the best known parables:   The Prodigal Son and Elder Brother, and the Good Samaritan, in which Jesus has a despised outsider be the hero of neighborliness.

5) Luke makes it all the more clearly that this isn’t a solo act.  Where as Mark and Matthew have Jesus sending out the twelve disciples two by two out to proclaim the kingdom, Luke has Jesus send and additional 72 such followers.

6) Luke pays more attention to Jesus’ prayer life, which will turn to later.

E) Matthew’s Gospel is the most self-consciously Jewish.  For instance Matthew’s Jesus speaks of the Kingdom of “Heaven” rather “God” because of the Jewish reluctance to speak the name of God.

1) Jesus is portrayed as a new Moses.

a) Matthew’s birth story has the wise men from the east alerting King Herod to the birth of the new King, which leads to the slaughter of all the boys under two, reminding us of Pharaoh’s slaughter of the Hebrew children.   The birth story is told from the point of view of Joseph, who is led by God to take his family to Egypt, where later they will return home from – a quick replay of the history of the Jewish people.

b) Early in his adult ministry, Jesus goes up on a mountain like Moses who delivered the ten commandments.  Jesus gives the Sermon on the Mount, saying he hasn’t come to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it.  He pushes us to further, challenging us to examine our hearts for anger, lust and greed.

2) In ch. 25 there is the famous teaching of the Sheep and the Goats, indicating that Jesus is served whenever we welcome the stranger, care for the hungry and those in prisons.

3) Matthew’s Jesus concludes that teaching, and many others, with threats of harsh judgment: being cast out into the darkness to gnash teeth eternally.  This language is rarely found in the other Gospels.

F) The first three Gospels are unanimous that at the center of Jesus’ message was the Kingdom of God, which, Jesus says, is at hand.  His ministry is revealing this kingdom, and he is blazing a path for others to follow. Although Jesus has a crucial role, he himself is not at the center of the message.  In all three Gospels when Jesus is asked what is the greatest commandment, he responds by giving two:  loving God with heart, soul and mind, and loving our neighbor.

G) John’s Gospel is believed to have been written last, perhaps 100 AD.  In this Gospel, we enter a distinctly different world from that of the other three Gospels.

1) There are frequent references to the “Beloved disciple” who can do no wrong and who isn’t named but is assumed to be John, and the Gospel is associated with a separate Christian community that identified itself with the Apostle John.  This Gospel is farthest removed from the Jewish roots — in fact – at times it has an anti-semitic tone when the “Jews” are lumped together as the bad guys, rather than just the religious authorities.

2) Whereas the 1st three Gospels have many stories in common, the only story from the ministry of Jesus (as opposed to the story of his last week) that is clearly found in all four is the feeding of the 5000.

3)  At the outset, the language and thought world of Greek philosophy is embraced.  Jesus is the Word – the “logos” – the underlying rational structure out of which the universe was created – made flesh.   In a certain sense it uses the style of the Gnostics, ultimately rebuking them by saying “God became flesh.”

4) The Kingdom of God is rarely mentioned:  rather we hear about “eternal life” – a quality of life that can be entered into now rather than simply at the end of this life.

5) John’s Jesus doesn’t tell parables, but he does use these big metaphors in speaking directly about himself: the “I am” statements:  “I am the bread of life, the light of the world, the door of the sheep, the good shepherd, the resurrection and the life, the true vine.”

6) Repeatedly there is confusion, almost comic, as Jesus speaks on one level with a metaphor, and his listeners take him literally on a lower level.

a) Samaritan woman at the well – living water.

b) Nicodemus — birth.  “Born again.”

7) Jesus’ miracles are called signs, revealing God’s glory, and water into wine is the first.

8) Jesus often seems to float above everybody else, but then we are reminding of his humanity, as in the story of the raising of Lazarus where we hear that, “Jesus wept.” With the woman at the well, Jesus is described as tired and thirsty after walking under the heat of the sun.

9) If John’s Gospel is the furthest removed from the “historical Jesus”, what are we to make of it?  Is this deception on the author’s part?  Is it less authoritative?

a) John’s community believed that the Holy Spirit was present with them, and as Jesus declares, ‘I have said these things to you while I am still with you. 26But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. (John 14:25 – 26)

b) They believed the Holy Spirit was guiding what amounts to a profound theological reflection on the meaning of Jesus.

H) What do we mean when we say the Bible is divinely inspired?

1)   The authors were inspired by the Holy Spirit, but they were still sinful, imperfect people writing in particular contexts, with particular concerns, occasional biases.      When do we take words literally, and when do we take them metaphorically?

2)   As the reader, this can be hard.  What do we take literally, and what metaphorically.  Lois used to say, “This is why I don’t read the Bible; it just confuses me!”

3) There is a distinction between putting our faith in “the Bible” vs. in God/Jesus.  If our faith is hinged on the “inerrancy” of Scripture, our faith will be threatened by the contradictions, etc.

4) The four Gospels are all we have in regard to knowing about Jesus, who Christians believe reveals the heart of God.  The Scriptures are the one common thread that has tied the Christians together for 2000 years. We are under an obligation to grapple with the Bible, including the passages we don’t at first glance care for.

5) Obviously, different people interpret the Bible in quite different ways.  Though some are slow to acknowledge it, everybody who reads and interprets the Bible chooses certain passages to give more authority than others, with these passage becoming the key by which we interpret the rest of the Bible.

a) If you elevate those passages in Matthew’s Gospel where Jesus is presented as talking about severe punishment, gnashing of teeth you get a pretty punitive Jesus/God. But why is that not also in Mark and Luke?
I)  If we believe that Jesus reveals the heart of God, what themes can we identify consistently throughout the four Gospels regarding the ministry of Jesus?

1) Jesus’ compassion for the outcast — those personsothers might find unlovable. The woman who crashed the Pharisee’s dinner.  The Samaritan woman at the well.

2) Love.  Loving enemies.   Forgiveness.  Luke’s Good Samaritan.  Matthew’s the care of the least.  In John’s Gospel, Jesus says, “love one another as I have loved you.  This is how people will know you are my disciples, that you love one another.”

3)      The kingdom of God implies the need for, and the care of community.  Though John’s Gospel doesn’t often mention the Kingdom of God, Jesus is often picturing praying for our unity – “that we would be one.”

4)      The danger of pride, and the importance of humility.  The last will be first and the first will be last.  In John the religious authorities think they see, when in fact they are actually blind.

5)      Embracing vulnerability.  Jesus sending out his disciples without protection.  The story of the feeding of the five thousand. In John’s Gospel, Jesus makes himself vulnerable to the woman at the well, and praises the vulnerability of Mary who pours her heart out with the alabaster jar of expensive ointment she uses to anoint Jesus, and getting criticized by Judas.  Jesus weeps.

6)      Servanthood, and the reversal of the power/status order of this world.  John’s Gospel Jesus gets down on his knees and bathes his disciples feet.

7)      That at the heart of the faith is joy.  Jesus’ love of parties.  John’s Jesus:  “I have come that you may have joy.”  Luke’s Angel speaks to the poor shepherds of “good news of great joy.”

8)      Grace and mercy.  Love not earned, but bestowed.

9)      That faith showing up in unexpected places.  The Gentile Woman seeking healing for daughter.

J) Jesus and prayer.

1) Although we know Jesus spent a lot of time alone in prayer, we don’t actually know how he spent that time.

a) Mark 1:35a   “In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.” When the disciples find him, Jesus seems to have reached clarity that what he needs to do isn’t what people think he should do.

b) Luke in particular portrays Jesus praying several moments.

1) After baptism, when Holy Spirit descends.

2) In the desert for forty days.

3) He spends a night in prayer before calling his twelve disciples.

4) It is after praying alone that Jesus asks his disciples about who they say he is, and then

first speaks about his intention to go to Jerusalem.

5)  He prays on the mountain of transfiguration.

6) He is described as having finished praying alone when the disciples ask him to teach

them to pray as John taught his disciples.

7) At the Last Supper, Jesus mentions specifically praying for Simon Peter because the

devil was after him.

8) In the Garden of Gethsemene.  “If possible, let this cup pass from me… But not my

will, but thy will be done.”

2)  Teachings on prayer.

1) Don’t use a lot of words: “When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words.”  Matthew 6:7

2) He gave us a simple model for prayer – The Lord’s Prayer.

a) Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.

1) Center on God and give God glory.

b) Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

2) God’s will is love, and it is already done fully in heaven; we pray for that love to

be lived out on earth, and that we would conform our lives to that will.

c) Give us this day our daily bread.

1) We are encouraged to ask for our needs – but it assumes a process of
distinguishing what are our true needs as opposed to what we might desire.

2) This also a focus on the present moment.  “This day.”

d) And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.

1) The hard places in our hearts soften in prayer.  (Pray for your enemies.)  In prayer we find freedom from the bondage of resentment and inner rage.

e) And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one.

1) We embrace humility; acknowledge our frailty. I may feel strong in the present, but

it wouldn’t take much for my world to fall apart, and me to be tempted to despair

or hatred.

2) That evil is real… And one can succumb to it.

3) Cultivating a childlike trust of God, letting go of fear.  God as Abba…

a)  Go ahead and ask, but prayer is a process, and persistence is important, and in the

course of prayer we are changed, and in the end, what Jesus promises is the gift of

the Holy Spirit – God’s self.

4) John’s Gospel

a) Jesus says to Nicodemus:  “The wind blows where it wills.” Prayer as paying attention to

where the Spirit is moving, and where it isn’t, and acting accordingly.

b) “Abiding in Jesus.”  Hanging out with the one we love.  (You can pray to Jesus or to God,

whichever you feel more comfortable.)

1) Eventually more listening

5) Mary and Martha and my new thought.  There are two types of persons, and in Luke’s story Martha comes off badly here, but perhaps if Mary had complained about the noise Martha was making in her serving because it was keeping her from praying/listening to Jesus, Jesus would have rebuked her.

6) In prayer, we seek to becoming a free, open vessel of God’s love.

First Lenten Talk: The Human Condition (Outline)

Filed under: An Overview of Christianity in Five Sessions -- Lent 2017 — Pastor Jeff at 11:51 pm on Friday, April 14, 2017

Session One Outline:  What is the Human Condition?

1) Jesus was a Jew.  The Old Testament is our Jewish inheritance – our Jewish roots.

2) Stories of the creation of the universe are in first 3 chapters of OT in Genesis.

a) Two stories.  Although both attribute creation to God, they contradict each other in the order of creation.

b) Stories evolved, passed along orally over generations because people recognized truth about life in the stories — not “historical scientific.”

c) Eventually some ancient editor wove them together.

d) Contradictions challenge the notion of the “inerrancy of Scripture.”

3) 1st Creation story: Chap. 1  Six days.  Some get hung up on conflict with “evolution.”

a) Creation is very, very good.  Not all religions affirm this.

b) Our Jewish  roots.  Jesus truly enjoyed life in this world.

4) Interesting harmonies with what Science has concluded.
a) There was a “beginning” to creation – the “Big Bang.”

b) Human beings are the last act of creation (so far we appear to be the most highly evolved creatures.)

c) Curious fact noted by astro-physicists that 13.5 billion years ago the physical laws governing universe were precisely calibrated in such a way to make it possible for intelligent life to eventually exist.  Creation has an intention writ into it?

d) Human Beings:  Made in the image of God.  What does that mean?

1) Capacity to stand in awe, to create.

2) Some degree of freedom to choose.  In contrast to rest of animal kingdom, we have the capacity to act not merely out of instinct.  To choose.  We are capable of a profounder kind of love that mirrors God’s love.

e) 7th Day God rests:  4th Commandment:  Keep Sabbath holy.

1) The rhythm of work and rest… Modern world’s compulsive quality.

2) “Human beings” rather “human doings.”

3) Brief experiment in sitting in silence in hope of experiencing Sabbath rest.  1) Use of mantra – repeated phrase, to quiet the mind.

4) Talk about experience.

5) 2nd story of creation, 2:4 Before other creatures, human made out dust & breath of God.

a) 2:15  “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it

and take care of it.”  (corrective to misinterpretation of “have dominion” in 1:26)

b) Not good to be alone; created as social beings, need relationship.

c) Beautiful garden, harmony. No Shame.   Just one rule: Don’t eat of tree at the center of the garden — tree of the knowledge of good & evil…

d) Serpent mysteriously appears: evil in otherwise good creation. Mystery — not explained.  Yet, when a creature evolves to the point of “free will,” for the choice for good to have meaning another possible choice has to be present.  And it has to have some appeal.  The fruit looks good to eat.

a) They eat.  What happens? Self-consciousness.  Shame.  A failure to take responsibility.  Blaming others.

b) Not a literal story, but

1) Acted out in every human life, from innocence of infancy on up.

2) Also the evolution of human beings; there had to have been a point at which a certain level of consciousness emerged.

e) In Christian theology this is traditionally called:  The “Fall” or “original sin”.

a) Distinction between committing “sins” and “Sin as a state of being.”

b) Seeming sinlessness of Pharisees.

f) The different ways in Bible/tradition to talk about sin.

a) Augustine: “life turned in on itself.”

b) Pride – a self-centeredness that we are helpless to overcome.

c) Hardened heart.

d) Sin as separation: from God/neighbor/true self

1) False self –

2) Broken – not whole

e) Language of Addiction/Idolatry: Attachments to things other than God.

g) 4th century/Catholic 7 deadly sins:  Pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath, sloth (Sloth identifies sin in an opposite direction from pride – being less than what you could be.)

h) What does sin feel like for you?  What words resonate with you?  Discuss

6) Paradox. Two seemingly contradictory truths held together in tension.  We are paradoxical creatures.

a) Made in image of God and fallen creatures overtaken by power of sin.

b) Dust/divine breath.

c) What happens when one side of paradox is overemphasized?

1) Sinner: Pathetic wretches.  Not much hope, particularly apart from Christ/Church.  Finger pointing.

2) Image of God:  Idealism about human reason, and potential for progress.  The shock of WW1 and Hitler.  The Germans were among the most scholarly, educated, “cultured” people. The darkness of the Holocaust

7) Underneath all this is question of “What is freedom?”

a) Most common answer freedom from bondage like the Hebrew slaves.

b) But what happens in wilderness? “murmuring.”

c) Freedom is not just external; it is internal.

d) Discussion Questions:  What is free will?  To what extent do we have it?

1) Example of a developing addiction:   Free choice at beginning. But over time, freedom to choose gets lost. The freedom that remains is the to choose to reach out for help.  (1st two steps of AA)

2) Paul in Romans 7 talking about how the power of sin has taken away his freedom to choose the good he would.   (Was he describing before or after conversion?)

3) Our difficulty controlling our thoughts when we want to be still.

4) Jesus’ command: Love and forgive your enemies.

a) But we say, “I can’t!”

b) Other people determine how I will relate to them

8) True freedom isn’t just freedom from, but freedom for… Love.

a) Jesus’ two great commandments of Torah:  Love God/Love neighbor.

b) Jesus in the wilderness – demonstrating freedom

c) Jesus’ rejection of Devil’s temptations represents value placed on freedom:  He refuses to compel people to follow.

d) Fyodor Dostoyevsky    “The Grand Inquisitor”  Jesus told by head of church that they have “corrected” the mistake he made when he turned down the Devil.

9) A big piece of the “Fall” is shame – hiding out.  Shame is a prison.

a) Jesus with woman at Pharisee’s party – healing her shame.

1. AA:  “Only as sick as our secrets.”

2. Church as a place where Jesus’ presence allows us to find healing from our shame.

10) Jesus:  “Come follow me.”    A journey into true freedom.

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