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The Sower with the Seeds of Life

Filed under: Pastor Jeff's Sermons — Pastor Jeff at 10:39 pm on Sunday, July 16, 2017

A sermon preached on July 16, 2017 based upon Matthew 13:1-9; 18-23.Jeff and Seeds

The Gospel writers tell us that when Jesus taught, he used parables: little stories taken from ordinary, commonplace happenings that invite us to climb inside to experience some kind of surprise, through which we catch a glimpse of the Kingdom of God.  The parable we heard is particularly significant in that it is the first parable told, introducing the theme of “seeds”, which will be the subject several more parables Jesus will go on to tell.

If we ask, what is the essence of a seed? The answer it would seem is that a seed represents the potential for life.  Seeds are small — easily overlooked, but within a seed there is the capacity for a great abundance of life to arise.

In John’s Gospel Jesus says straight out, “I have come that you may have life, and have it abundantly.”  In the early portions of the Gospels we hear of Jesus giving life to many.  He heals the sick, he forgives those troubled by the sins they have committed, and he feeds the hungry.   He fills people with hope who otherwise would be tempted to despair.

People are drawn to him because the life force within him is powerful and un-mistakable, and in his presence they find themselves becoming more alive.  At certain points in the Gospels we are told that Jesus taught, but not told what the words were he spoke; rather, we are simply told that the people marveled how Jesus “taught with authority and not as the scribes and Pharisees” – which is to say it was more than the particular words he spoke – it was the manner in which he spoke them.  People sensed they were listening to a man who was deeply, intimately connected to God, the source of all life.  His very presence awakened inside them a greater vitality for life.

Do you know what I mean when I say that inside all of us, there are two great competing impulses?  Speaking Biblically, the struggle is between that part of our nature that is made in the image and likeness of God, and that part which is captive to the destructive power of sin.  There is a voice inside us that recognizes life is a precious gift and like Jimmy Stewart in “It’s a Wonderful Life” would shout, “I want to live!” But there is also an opposing voice that says things like, “I’m no good – I’m a failure” or, “My life is a tedious, meaningless burden.  I might as well be dead.”

This is also the struggle between the impulse to love, to share, to recognize that we are all connected, and the impulse to harden our hearts, to treat others callously and cruelly, to look down on others, or to look at others with envy.

It is the struggle inside us between the willingness to trust, to have faith, to feel gratitude and that part of us in which fear and anxiety rule the day.

The people who responded to Jesus’ ministry were those who readily acknowledged this struggle within them — people for whom it oftentimes seemed like the “temptations of darkness” were prevailing.   They struggled with profound feelings of unworthiness, failing to keep the tenets of the Law.  They tended to be poor, weary from of the tedium of life and the struggle simply to survive.  They were tempted to give up.

And so they were pretty amazed when they encountered Jesus and in his presence they suddenly experienced their internal struggle shifting.  In his eyes they were worthy, in his presence, life felt again like a gift — that they didn’t have to be so afraid, and their desire to love and to share was strengthened.

But there were others who had the opposite reaction to Jesus.  His presence was not experienced as blessing, but rather as threat.  These were the people who in a certain sense seemed to be succeeding in saying “Yes” to their lives.  They tended to be better off financially, leading them to feel more self-sufficient, their lives seeming secure and stable.  They didn’t consciously struggle with feelings of unworthiness, and this was because they divided human beings into two basic categories, the sinners and the righteous, the good people and the bad people, and they had succeeded in convincing themselves that they were the “good people.”

In truth though, their sense of worthiness and stability was actually far more fragile than they cared to admit.  It depended to a large extent upon their capacity to look down on others, to feel superior.

So when Jesus came claiming to speak for God, comfortably keeping the company of the people they habitually looked down upon, conveying to these poor souls that they were in fact treasured by God, it threatened them, leading them to angrily lash out at Jesus.  And their hostility towards Jesus really spiraled out of control when he responded to their criticisms by calling them out for their hypocrisy – naming their self-righteousness and hardness of heart as expressions of sin at work in their lives — a more dangerous form of sin because of how easily it hides under a appearance of righteousness.

Jesus wanted to offer them a deeper, richer form of life – the kingdom of God — but in their eyes he simply threatened the hold they thought they already had on life.

The parables Jesus told were themselves like little seeds, intended to call forth life from those who could take in what they had to say.

Parables aren’t allegories, the meaning of which you can quickly grasp once and for all because all the parts of the story are easily identified as representing something else.  Twice in our passage Jesus speaks of the need to listen deeply to parables – implying that a certain willingness is required to patiently struggle with them, allowing the seeds they would plant to go deeper and deeper inside our hearts.

But we all tend to lack the patience parables require, and the Gospel writers themselves were no different.  They would sometimes try to turn a parable into an easy-to-understand allegory, which is what happens in the passage we heard after Jesus had told the parable about the seeds to anybody who was willing to truly listen.  Even though the parable is called “the parable of the Sower,” Matthew has Jesus privately give an interpretation of the parable to the disciples that completely bypasses the sower.  This interpretation focuses instead on the four types of soil, or lack thereof, into which the seeds fall, with each type representing different kinds of people.

The seeds, we are told, represent the word of God.  Some people are like the hardened ground that doesn’t allow the seeds to penetrate the soil, allowing birds to come and carry the seeds away — people who never understand what Jesus is saying.  Others people are like rocky soil – they initially have some understanding, but the understanding doesn’t penetrate deeply and so when hard times come, they forget what they heard.  The third type – the soil covered with thorns – are people who initially understand the word of God, but they lose their way, distracted by the lure of riches and the values of this world that conflict with the values of the kingdom of God.  And the fourth type, well they’re the good soil, the people who hear the word and spend the rest of their lives living out of what they have heard and understand.

Now this interpretation has some value.  It invites us to ask ourselves, have I really understood what Jesus was trying to say?  Have I forgotten what he had to say when times get rough?  Have I been distracted by the seductions of this world from trying to live a life centered in God’s kingdom?

These are good things to think about for sure.

But the thing that is unhelpful about this interpretation is that once again – just like the scribes and the Pharisees — it divides people up into distinct types:  the good soil people and then the various shades of bad soil people.  It can lead us to patting ourselves on the back – “I’m sure glad I’m one of the good soil people!” Or perhaps more likely, it can tempt us to despair.  “I’m one of the bad ones.  I know that often I just don’t get what Jesus is talking about.  When things get rough, I recognize how quickly I falter in my faith.  And when I’m honest, I recognize the many ways I’m easily seduced by the concerns of this world.   So, I guess I’m not worthy of the kingdom.  I might as well give up.”

The interpretation becomes more helpful, I think when we hear it not as different types of people, but rather as different parts of ourselves.  “Yep, all those things are true about me, but there is also a place inside me where the seed of the Gospel has been planted, even when I can’t locate that place.” This interpretation allows us to get away from a good guys/bad guys interpretation and to hear instead a “we’re all in this together” interpretation.

But the biggest problem with this interpretation is that it misses the central character of the story.  This is, after all, “the Parable of the Sower”.  And when we focus on the Sower – reflecting on what it would if the Sower is in some sense an expression of God and God’s activity in this world — well, that’s where the element of surprise comes in.

I mean, why is this sower so darn inefficient? If we were the sower, we would take more care, wouldn’t we?  We’d be more intentional about making sure the seeds land in places they could have a better chance of taking root and bringing forth a great harvest.  We wouldn’t just toss the seeds here, there and everywhere.  What a waste!  Thank God for the technological advances we have today that allow farmers to plant seeds so much more rapidly and efficiently.  Shouldn’t God be more like one of those fancy John Deere motorized seeders with computers that can precisely project seeds at the rate calculated to match the speed of the tractor so pretty much every single seed lands where it’s supposed to?

If you think about it, this objection is similar to the criticism that the Pharisees and scribes made of Jesus.  “If you really are from God, you wouldn’t be wasting your time on all this riff raff.  These taxcollectors and sinners.  These prostitutes.  These pathetic, broken wretches. You would spend your time with people like us – people who spend countless hours pouring over the words God gave us in the Torah in order to be ‘good soil’ for the God’s word to be planted.,

“And why do you waste so much of your time with this motley crew of disciples you’ve called:  Fishermen, tax-collectors, political nutcases.  They clearly aren’t the ‘best and the brightest.’”

And they had a point. Time and again the disciples showed themselves to be the hardened soil that is absolutely clueless about what Jesus is trying to teach them.   “Why, oh Jesus, did you invest so much time witch such a pathetic cast of characters?”

But the sower just keeps on casting those seeds to the four winds, spending little time worrying where they land.  Ever patient, ever trusting that seeds will land where they will find receptive soil.

So in the end, this parable is about God’s amazing grace – an antidote to our temptation to despair.  God doesn’t give up on us, even if we’re tempted to give up on ourselves.  God just keeps casting all those seeds out — seeds with the potential to call forth new life in the strangest places — knowing that some will find the soil they need.  Have no fear!

And oftentimes seeds do take root in the most surprising places. Sometimes it is in the darkest hours that people discover just how strong the life force is that rises up within them, like Jimmy Stewart’s cry of “I want to live!” That when life seems threatened, it’s preciousness becomes all the clearer, and all that truly matters comes rising clearly to the surface.

Rachel Naomi Remen has a memory that dates back to when she was fourteen and living in the city of New York.  She was amazed one day walking down the sidewalk of Fifth Avenue when her eye caught the sight of two tiny blades of grass growing up through the cement, standing their gazing down upon it with people bumping into her.  It struck her as truly miraculous, this powerful life force driving a seed planted in the harshest of environments.

The image of those blades of grass rising up through the cement became an important one for her when later as a young college student she received a diagnosis of Crone’s disease.  She was told she needed to drop out of college, live her life very cautiously, and that she could not expect to live past forty.   But a determination rose up within her that refused to give up, that she would study to become a medical doctor and now in her eighties she continues to share the wisdom she has gained of the spiritual dimensions of healing and wholeness.

The Divine Sower is there in the midst of our lives continually casting those seeds of the Kingdom of God.

And know this as well:  you have the capacity to cast seeds of the Kingdom of God to the four winds as well.  To touch lives with graciousness in a way that, beyond our knowledge, can profoundly call for the life force within them as well.

Let’s Allow Jesus to deflate our worries today

Filed under: Writings of the people — Pastor Jeff at 5:47 pm on Monday, July 10, 2017

A sermon preached by Bob Keller, a certified lay servant and lay leader of our congregation, on July 9th, 2017 based upon Matthew 11:25-30.

bob keller and balloons

You might be wondering why balloons are being distributed to you.  Believe me; it does have something to do with the message for today.

In a moment I am going to read a list of stressful situations. Each time you hear a situation similar to one you’ve experienced in the past, blow a deep breath into your balloon. Don’t let any of the air out until I tell you.

Some of your balloons may pop before I am finished reading the list and that’s okay. Here’s the list.

1.Got into an argument with a family member.

2.Got an unexpected bill and worried about finances.

3.Car broke down.

4.Failed at something.

5.Broke a Commandment.

6.Felt afraid.

7. Felt hurt by someone’s actions.

8.Felt like giving up on someone or something.

9.Worried about something.

10. Worried about my children or grandchildren and what the future holds for them

11.Worried that I was worrying too much.

Okay, those of you who still have your balloon intact, hold them up and remember to not let any air out until I tell you. Look around, notice the different sizes.

These balloons represent our stress levels. We all get stress from various sources don’t we? But there is always one place we can go to find relief when we feel stressed: directly into the arms of God. Listen to what our Scripture says:

The scripture that Susan read for us says “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

Okay let you balloons go.

Worry is the number one joy stealer in life.  It’s a thief. Worry diminishes the benefits, the hopes and dreams of many people because it robs us of clear thinking and faith walking.

Maybe even now as we worship together, many of us are unable to concentrate and fully give ourselves to God this morning because our minds are drifting to the problems and worries that we have.

How can we let go of the worry in our lives and start living? How can we let go and allow it to fly away like our balloons?

First of all, I believe we must recognize that worry attacks both the strong and the weak.

Worry is a product of the human condition we call sin?  We need to realize that no matter how strong our faith is in Jesus, worry is out to get us!

Just because we believe in Jesus does not guarantee a worry free life. When sin entered the world, it did more than just separate us from God.  Sin stole our confidence. It made us question God’s relationship to us.

When things don’t go as we had hoped or planned, we ask God why. Why have you not given me a job? Why have you not restored my marriage? Why have you not rescued me from my financial distress? Why have you not taken my illness from me? Why God? Why?

Here’s how we focus our worries:  These are questions of confidence. The average person’s worry is focused  40% on things that will never happen… 30% on things about the past that can’t be changed… 12% on things relating to criticism from others, mostly untrue… 10% about health, which gets worse with stress and 8% about real problems that we will face.

Worry is the product of the human condition and everybody worries to some degree. The challenge God gives us is to come to Him, all you who are weary and burdened, and He will give us rest.

Worry also breeds in an environment of insecurity and uncertainty.

It is like the germs that are all around us. The body’s immune system is constantly trying to fight them off – so too our faith must fight and wage war on worry.

Germs require favorable conditions in order to breed and grow. Eliminate those conditions and you control the spread of germs. If we eliminate the environment of insecurity and uncertainty in our lives, then we, too, can control the spread of worry in our lives.

We may not be able to completely eliminate it, to eradicate it, but we can sure cut it down to a manageable size.

Worry is faith in the negative, trust in the unpleasant, assurance of disaster and belief in defeat. Worry is wasting today’s time to clutter up tomorrow’s opportunities with yesterday’s trouble.

Take your authority over the realm of uncertainty and remember, “Greater things you shall do in Jesus’ name because you believe!”

Worry is a lack of trust and it causes us to question our faith because we are fed a lie!

In Genesis 3 the serpent tempts Eve with a lie. Eve says in verse 3, “God has said, You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’” But the serpent responds in verse 4, “you will not surely die!”

The Scriptures are full of the promises of God’s presence for us.

When Jesus spoke to the people about worrying about various things, he wanted to prove that God was trustworthy to take care of their problems. He spoke at length of how they could trust in God rather than worry.

The greatest problem with worry and anxiety is a lack of trust in the Lord. When we worry we are essentially spending time wondering how we can fix a problem or what we can do about something, when the reality is, we are looking to the wrong place.

God needs to be the very foundation of our lives. He and He alone is the only thing that will never fail us. All around our world we see let downs and failure. God will never let us down and He will never fail us.

God promises to take care of the needs that we have. We need to understand that when we worry we are failing to trust in a dependable and a good God for our basic needs.

Sometimes we convince ourselves that we trust in the Lord with our whole heart, but when push comes to shove, we don’t really trust Him. It is easy for us to say at times, “I fully depend on God.” However, it becomes a little bit more difficult when times are tough. It becomes a little more difficult when we do not know how we’re going to pay our bills. So what do we do? We worry about it. We take it into our own hands.

There is nothing wrong with taking action and trying to be proactive about a problem that you have in life, but the question is; when money gets tight do we trust that the Lord will provide our needs? Do we trust him enough to keep on giving a portion of our incomes? It is easy for me to trust the Lord when things are going great, but what about when work isn’t going so well, or when my health begins to fail, or my children are giving me some problems, or I am involved in some conflict with someone else? What do we do? Do we trust the promises that God gives us in His Word or do we worry about it constantly to no avail?

Worry constantly drains the energy God gives us to face daily problems and to fulfill our many responsibilities.

Worry is a waste of time and energy. It feeds the lie that makes us question ourselves and God’s greater purposes for us.

Worry also causes us to question our faith because we want a “sign.”

An empty tomb was a sign that Jesus is risen! But signs are not to be the basis of our relationship with God – faith is. We believe God because He is God – not because we need a sign.

Worry demands some kind of tangible evidence from God that He is here for us, or that we are to do this or do that. But Jesus says in John 15:4, Remain in me, and I will remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.

Worry free living is the goal – but in the meantime we need to keep moving!

I have found that worry takes up a lot of time. It’s something we all do, but it is costly of our time. Many of us stay up late at night as we lay in bed worrying about different things. I believe many of us spend more time worrying about problems than we do working to fix problems.

Worry takes up so much time that sometimes it can hinder us from doing what needs to be done. People can get so bogged down with worry that they are good for nothing. Let us not get hindered from fixing our problems or doing what needs to be done because of our worries.

There was a patient in the mental hospital, holding his ear close to the wall, listening intently. A nurse finally approaches him and says “What are you doing.” “Shhh!” he says. And he keeps listening. And finally the patient beckons the nurse over and says, “Listen.” The nurse presses her ear to the wall for a long time. And she finally says, “I can’t hear a thing,” And the patient says, “Yea, and it’s been like that all day!”

Worry is a little bit like that mental patient sitting and listening to the wall. Worry consumes a lot of our time, but accomplishes very little.

The reality is, and we understand it from our experiences, that no matter how much we worry about something, it does not change things.

One man said, “Don’t tell me that worrying does not help. The things I worry about never happen.”

Often times the things we spend time worrying about are beyond our control anyway and it does not accomplish anything good. Let us let go of worry and anxiety because. in reality, worrying does not accomplish anything.

I think that all of us worry to some degree. All of us are carrying a burden of some kind. Some of us may hide it better than others – we may pretend that we have it all under control, but nonetheless, worry is present and the burden is still there.

But the greater need is for those of us who are gripped by worry.  Those of us whose lives are lived in constant anguish and fear because we allow worry to control us and to rob us of living.

We laugh and make fun of ourselves at times because we are worriers, but in reality, we are hurting and we are in desperate need of help. We want to be released from this bondage that chains us to our fears and insecurities, to be released to enjoy life rather than fear it.

There once was a man who always worried. He worried about his children, his job, his wife, his health. One day a friend of this man noted that he was extremely calm and peaceful. “Why are you so calm?, he asked. “You always worry about every-thing. What happened?” The former worrier replied, “I just hired a man to do the worrying for me.” “Well, how much are you paying him?” His friend inquired. “A thousand dollars a week,” the man replied. “A thousand a week? You can’t afford a thousand dollars a week.” The worrier responded, “That’s his problem, let him worry about it!”

The good news today is that we do have someone to take our worries and our cares for us and we don’t have to pay Him a dime. Not only is He capable of working out the problems that we worry about, but He asks us to lay our burdens, anxieties, fears and worries upon him.

(I Peter 5:7) Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.

Let’s allow Him to deflate our worries today.

Chaos to Community

Filed under: Writings of the people — Pastor Jeff at 5:38 pm on Monday, July 10, 2017

A sermon preached by Steve Blake, a certified lay servant and a member of our congregation on Sunday, July 2nd based upon Matthew 10: 40-42.

Steve Blake

This is Declaration of Independence Weekend!

We celebrate the birth of our country, The United States of America.

Today, is the 4th Sunday after Pentecost – Pentecost is the celebration of the Christian church. And, several Sundays afterwards tell the story.

Colors for Independence Day are Red, White, and Blue or the color of my tie which is the declaration of independence.

The colors of the church calendar is Green. So, since I don’t have vestments I improvised.

The Post Pentecost period of 9 Sundays is the time frame of putting our celebration into the actual practice of our Christian Ministry. This process was traumatic and dramatic. Any, cause, belief, or country that is put into motion goes through these lives affecting and altering situations.

I am going to attempt to place a relationship of the early church and the birth of a new country. And, for a little spice throw in some thoughts on patriotism.

The post Pentecost for us Christians goes from the creation of the movement to the promises. On the way we have Birth, Weaning, Rites of Passage (TODAY!), Legacy, Freedom, Groaning, and Intercession.

So, this Sunday, we touch upon the early church going from Chaos to Community: or the rites of passage.

In the old Testament, God puts Abraham through the ringer and paces. The man is old…80 yrs. 180 yrs. old. He has a wife whom cannot have children. But, he has one through one of Sarah’s servants. But, then God comes to him and says Sarah will have a son. And, she does. Isaac! Their own son. He was too old to get married and have a son but he showed his obedience and faith in God.

One would think this is enough! But, no. God tells Abraham to go to the Mountains of Moriah (side bar) and offer his, only total, son as a burnt offering. Keep in mind there is a half son, Ishmael, from Sarah’s servant.

So, he packs up with helpers and Isaac and travels for 3 days. This no walk in the NJ countryside. But, a rugged journey like in the US southwest or the California Sierra Madres.

So, they reach their destination on top of a desolate mountain. The story continues in the Old Testament story of Genesis 22:1-14. I will pick up the story at verse 9….

After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, ‘Abraham!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’ He said, ‘Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt-offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.’ So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt-offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place far away. Then Abraham said to his young men, ‘Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.’Abraham took the wood of the burnt-offering and laid it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together. Isaac said to his father Abraham, ‘Father!’ And he said, ‘Here I am, my son.’ He said, ‘The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt-offering?’ Abraham said, ‘God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt-offering, my son.’ So the two of them walked on together.

Abraham called the mountain “The Lord Will Provide”. God will have tested his faith and obedience. God will take care of him from this time forward.

The story goes on that Isaac did not get along with his half-brother and Abraham may not have been the best father or husband. Some scholars may have said he was abused. But, Isaac never abused his wife Rebecca and was devoted to her.

God watched over Isaac as he started a farming business away from his original home.

God tested Abraham’s obedience and rewarded his son.

Now, in Paul’s letters to the Romans, we visit the Christians that were slaves to the Romans. They lived in the underground catacombs which were like living tombs. Somehow, Paul was able to reach and communicate with them. Life was horrendous and depressing. They had to commit multitude of sinful acts that I don’t want to get into. They must have felt like the Reba MacIntire song that Connie soulfully sang:

Oh, have you looked around

Have you heard the sound

Of the innocent d’yn

In these Darkest days

Paul writes to these Christian slaves to grit this out, to be strong, to not to be tempted, or succumb to the sin. Paul provides strong words of encouragement as Bob read. Paul tries to instill positive inspiration. And again, I go back to Reba’s words:

You gotta get down on your knees, believe

Fold your hands and beg and plead

You gotta cry, rain tears of pain

Pound the floor and scream his name

Cause we are still worth saving.

Paul, as cruel as it may seem, is telling the Roman Christians that though God has provided Salvation and forgiveness of sin, one is not free of the bondage of sin. They are still slaves, and they can be of sin and eventual death, spiritually and/or physically. Or, be slaves of the one you obey, which leads to the righteousness – the moral state which leads to heaven.

Paul was pleading with them that they may be slaves to the Romans but not to sin. They were trying to claim an allegiance to the teaching of Jesus Christ. These Christians were spiritually righteous.

What do we get from this? We don’t have to be burdened with sin when we are sanctified or served by the grace of God.

Again, God’s grace is there during horrifying times.

This brings us to the New Testament Scripture Reading that Bob shared with the children. Jesus is speaking to his disciples. He is concern that they will lose focus and faith when he is gone. Up to now, God has been speaking through Jesus.

So Matthew shares the this brief but powerful message spoken by Jesus. The words are simple.

‘Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.’ Matthew 10: 40-42

We like to be rewarded for doing good acts and deeds. This does not end there.

The real reward is not the doing for recognition but the result of just doing and giving of oneself.

Jesus is telling his disciples that whatever they do and are received, he is also receiving, and in turn God is also receiving.

This unconditional giving of love and grace to another. This is sort of God’s reward system.

I guess these guys were getting a head start.

Here are some quotes from famous people:

The reward for work well done is the opportunity to do more – Jonas Salk

Happiness is a virtue, not its reward – Baruch Spinoza Dutch philosopher

There are those who give with joy, and that joy is there rewards – Khalil Gibran

These people are not only doing to make themselves feel good. But, more importantly, giving their time and talents away for a purpose beyond themselves. As a Christian, we consider this an award blessed by the grace of God.

We have looked at 3 stories for this Pentecost Sunday. They each affect the rites of passage of the early Christian Church from Chaos to Community.

-          There is absolute faith and obedience of Abraham to God

This devotion is needed to start any movement.

-          The perseverance and moral and spiritual victory of the Roman Christians over the Romans and sin by their allegiance to God to do Good and be righteous. This was sanctified by God.

-          The unconditional love, grace, and comfort to others

These rites were all needed in the early church’s journey.

Today, July 2nd 1776 was the signing of the Declaration of Independence. July 4th was when it was approved and ratified. This was also the beginning of a Passage of Rites from the Chaos to the Community for this Nation

Though there was not any real clear reference to God, the signers must have felt they had God’s back. Even though, their parent country, England, were Believers of God.

Of the founding fathers and signers of 56, 27 had degrees from seminaries. One oversaw the printing of the Bible as Secretary of Congress in 1782; the signers of the declaration were responsible for starting 121 Bible Societies in 8 yrs.; Charles Thompson translated the Bible in America. Also known as the Thompson Bible.

These founders wrote this document to bring some structure and belief to the existing chaos that was occurring in the 13 colonies. They felt there was a need to rally and believe in something which translated into a piece of parchment.

Was God a source of inspiration or guidance? There is no evidence in the document. There are some inferences. And, based on the background on many signers, maybe God was working through them. But, then an agnostic could make a case of not.

One can consider words that may be related such as:

Laws of Nature – Nature may or may not be God? I believe it is God

Nature’s God –

Creator –

Supreme Judge – there was no supreme court at this time

Divine Providence

These were the founding fathers and original patriots of this country along with those who fought the subsequent war for Independence

Patriotism, Patriotic, Patriots

God Bless America, In God We Trust, I pledge allegiance to the flag, one nation under God, Boys Scouts God and Country Award

These founders were faithful to the premise that all men were created equal, they were endowed by their Creator (GOD?) with certain in alienable rights. Maybe like Abraham was to God? Maybe a stretch? Maybe not?

The black slaves like the Roman Christians had to believe in the spirit of the Declaration of Independence to endure. The immigrants of the past century and those of now believe in the Declaration of Independence. So, they can get through the obstacles and challenges that confront them. The people in the cities and the unfortunate rural parts of this country will celebrate their belief in this holiday and this document in their own humble way. No other country in the world can quite celebrate in the abandonment that we can.

Then there is Jesus’s words in Matthew 10: 40-42. As a Patriot and believer in this nation and God we are to love our country and fellow brothers, unconditionally.

As patriots of this Nation, what we think and how we act should be as what we are as Christians working the love and grace of god. Christ is no longer here on this earth to be a “mouth piece” or vessel for God. By his crucifixion, Jesus charged us, you and me with the carrying out the will of God.  As it is said in the Lord’s Prayer “They will be done”, not yours or mine.

You cannot distance yourself when you hear in god we trust or god bless America. So, when you say or hear someone say God Bless America, it is not God actually blessing America, but God working through you, me and anyone whom believes in God.

This is our search and journey to have righteousness with God. This is a dual citizenship – God and the United States.

So, we have shared in the thinking of two journeys. The Christian Church and that of this country, the United States of America. They both arose out of chaos and passed into a community.

Both communities are still revolving with new rites and trials of passage.

We do have and know one comforting belief, I HOPE. In time of horrifying, challenging, hopeful, and joyful times – GOD has provided and God does provide. That is part of our family legacy of the Christian Church and the United States of America.

Let us take a moment to gather in prayer.

This is a great weekend, Lord. We celebrate the joyous birth of this country. A country that arose out of the chaos of 13 different and probably dysfunctional colonies. These founders seeked a more independent life from the provincial and suffocating bondage of European Monarchy and Church sovereignty. Our forefathers recognized the strength of individual freedom along with a common goal as a nation. So, was the birth and growth of the Christian church. God, through Jesus and his disciples conveyed the individual and personal belief, faith, and commitment. Through Jesus’s crucifixion he invoked a common cause and belief of God by the formation of the Christian church. And, the passage and process continues for both the church and country today.

Be with us today and all our future days as we seek to follow YOU as good patriots of this country and above all. You.

In Jesus name, we pray AMEN.

What Growing Up In the Church Has Meant to Me

Filed under: Writings of the people — Pastor Jeff at 8:51 am on Tuesday, June 27, 2017

A sermon preached by Kayla Christofferson on June 25th, 2017 – Children and Youth Sunday – based upon Micah 6:6-8 and  1John 4:7-9; 16b; 19-21.   Three days earlier Kayla graduated from high school.Kayla preaching

Good morning everyone — for those who do not know me I am Kayla Christofferson.  About a month ago Pastor Jeff asked me if I would be willing to talk about my experience with our church and what it has meant to me.  (Obviously I said yes because I’m standing hear today!)

It was hard to put into words what church has meant to me.  To some church is simply a place where one goes to pray and to be with God.  Some say church helps them feel grounded, while others view church as just a place where they’ve been forced to go to – some kind of duty, nothing more.  The list could go on and on for everyone views church in their distinct way.

For me, the thing that stands out about our church is that it is like an extended family: each member of this congregation will laugh with you when you just need a reminder that life doesn’t have to be taken so seriously all the time; they will pray with you and be there for you in your time of need, and offer a little help when you need help getting back up when you’ve been knocked down.   After you get back up, they will recognize when you are succeeding in life and be the first ones to congratulate you.   And most of all they will always be there for you, sharing their love.   All of this is possible because we recognize together that we are all part of God’s family.

It took me, however about 7 years to figure this out.

Before 2007, if you had asked “what church means to me”, I would have told you that I have no idea.  I thought of church as a place where you have to go and be quiet the entire time and listen to people talk. That was because at the age of eight, my only experience of church was a vague memory I had of my cousin’s baptism.

But that would soon change.

One day my around Christmas of 2008 my family and I were sitting around the table talking, having a good time and sharing a meal.  At some point my brother Ryan who was maybe only six or seven at the time said to our Grandma that he liked this little girl named Aleigha.  When my Grandma asked about this girl Aleigha Ryan jokingly said he was going to marry her.  My mother said he couldn’t because Ryan and Aleigha weren’t the same religion.  Aleigha was Jewish and my mom said that Jewish people don’t usually marry outside their religion.

My grandma said that because my mom didn’t teach us about our religion, that it didn’t matter if someone we liked was of different religion. Because how could we claim to only like those of the same faith if we didn’t know what it meant to be Methodist.

That led my dad to ask me to explain Christmas.  Why do we have Christmas? Well, I answered, to get presents? But why, he asked do we celebrate Christmas? I didn’t really know.

Then he asked me to explain what Easter was all about.  I said it was about coloring eggs, finding them on Easter morning and getting candy and treats in an Easter basket.  What else? he asked.  I had no idea what he was referring to!  He told me to go look it up and then report back to him regarding what I found out about the true meaning of Easter (which I did and it was the first time I can remember really learning about my religion and who Jesus is).

This all inspired my mom to make it her mission to teach us about religion, church and most importantly God, and with that the hunt for a church began.

One Sunday my mom announced that we were going to church and so we had breakfast, got dressed and headed out the door.  We came here to this church, quietly making our way inside, trying to get a feel for whether this church would be a good fit or not.  If not, we would try another church, but low and behold we liked it here and this became the church we would spend the next eight years being a part of.  (This probably had to do with the fact that this church gave us such a warm welcome, acknowledging the fact that we were here instead of just looking past us.  We enjoyed the passing of the peace, and coffee hour wasn’t bad either.)

Now I’m not going to lie:   although the children’s circle with Pastor Jeff and Sunday school was a lot of fun and I was, in fact learning a lot about my religion, establishing the habit of attending church wasn’t an easy thing for an eight year old when you’re used to having Sunday mornings to play rather than learn things.

I think what really got me into church was when Pastor Jeff approached us about being in the Christmas play. At first I was hesitant about saying “yes” because I was a pretty shy kid and I thought I might mess up there on the stage, but I’m glad I did because it became the thing that made me feel really connected not only to my religion, but also to my church family.

After that anything that I was able to do for the church I did with enthusiasm: I continued doing the plays which I will never forget.  I was given interesting and quite different characters each time I got up on the stage.   I joined our youth group which was so much fun because I got to know people my own age who were willing to talk with me about their thoughts and feelings about life and our faith.   I appreciated the opportunity to volunteer with Interfaith Furnishings, moving furniture into peoples’ homes who couldn’t otherwise afford to buy furniture.  Incidentally, this is an experience I would recommend for anyone who has the time.  For me it was a real eye opener regarding what some people are going through.   It was so great to see the way the little bit we did lifted their spirits so.

And one of the greatest memories I have was of the whole process of being confirmed.   The confirmation class was so much fun and rewarding.  Our talks in the beginning helped me through a very stressful time in my life with high school getting really crazy.   During the prayer time we drew strength from each other.  Pastor Jeff taught us everything we needed to know so that, with Greg’s help we could put on an amazing confirmation musical based on Bible stories that spoke to us where we are in life.  It was so great to all work together to make the show come off.

And then the Sunday in worship when we officially were confirmed as full members of this church. I realized that day that there had been a long process leading up to that moment:  All I had learned and experienced being a part of the children’s circle,  Sunday School, the Confirmation class, and most importantly from my interactions with all of you — the people of our church.  I have learned that we are all broken – that we all have our difficulties — but that as we come together to be the church we are able to feel complete and whole through the love of God we share here.

Together we find an assurance that we have a place where we can always come and feel accepted as sisters and brothers in Christ, no matter what challenges we are experiencing in life.   To quote 1John 4:9, “This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him.” As we live through Jesus we learned that love is the key to a happy and truly meaningful life.   Jesus loves every one of us, and as we walk together with him, he shows us how “to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God.” (Micah 6:8)

His life has made such a difference in so many lives throughout the world, and as we follow him, we, too can make a difference in the lives of the people we meet, knowing that God is with us and we have been given the honor of representing him in the world, and the joy of being a part of his family.

And that’s what church has meant to me.

On the Desire to Protect Our Children

Filed under: Pastor Jeff's Sermons — Pastor Jeff at 10:26 pm on Sunday, June 18, 2017

A sermon preached on June 18th, 2017 — Father’s Day — based upon Romans 5:1-5

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Fatherhood.  Traditionally throughout history the focus of a father’s role has been as the provider and protector of his children, and although in recent decades the role has expanded, I want to focus for a moment on the theme of protecting our kids, which of course, is a concern also shared as by mothers.   Instinctively we want to protect our children from depravation and harm — from all the possible ways this world could injure them.

In recent years an expression has entered our lexicon – the “helicopter parent” – referring to particular parents who “hover” over their children, trying as much as possible to manage every aspect of their child’s life.

But it seems to me that because of the ways over time our culture has shifted, in comparison to the parents of a couple of generations past, most of us parents today are to some extent “helicopter parents.”  In part this has to do with the perception that the threats out there — whether real or imagined, and I think there are some of both – are greater now than they were when I was a kid.

Those of us of my generation remember a time when if we didn’t have school and the weather was decent our parents would likely encourage us to get out of the house – to meet up with other neighborhood kids to find ways to entertain ourselves, altogether unsupervised by adults.  “Just be home in time for supper!” our mother would say.

That doesn’t happen much these days.

There was a day when if a child was going to become an accomplished athlete it would be because the child went out every chance the child got to find likeminded children to play ball with. These days, as I know from personal experience, if a kid is going to become skilled in a certain sport it will only happen if the parent is able and willing to spend countless hours chauffeuring the child to supervised practices and games, where the parent often has little choice but to wait till their kid is done, inevitably spending the time watching the child from afar.

The culture has changed, and the result is we are more aware of our kid’s day to day struggles, and with this awareness, the instinct to protect kicks in.

So to greater or lesser extent we all hover over our children – I know I have — and we do this because we want to protect our children, with this protection extending beyond the dangers of abductions and the like.   We naturally want to protect our children from threats of other kinds as well.

I’ve been thinking about what would happen if we were given super powers allowing us to be the ultimate helicopter parent – allowing us to pull invisible strings that determined the outcome of all our child’s experiences.

It goes without saying that we would protect our children from having to face starvation, homelessness, and violence as well as from getting sick or injured, or suffering some kind of disability.

But our invisible string pulling wouldn’t end there – we’d arrange it so that our children never got rejected, or teased, or bullied on the school playground.  We’d make sure they never got lonely – that they’d always have plenty of good-natured friends.  We’d have them always experience success in their studies. When they played sports, we’d make sure they never sat on the bench, or got chewed out by a hot-headed coach — that they’d win most of the time, and at least once have the experience of winning a championship.

As they grew older, we certainly wouldn’t allow them to get into a car accident, or abuse drugs or alcohol, let alone become addicted.  When they began to date, we’d want to make sure they never got their hearts broken.  We’d arrange to have them accepted into any colleges or graduate programs they choose, where they’d succeed, and upon graduation get the jobs they want in their chosen careers, where they would experience success and advance nicely in their careers.

Of course if we were really going to succeed at smoothing the road ahead for our children, we’d need the power to go back before the moment of conception and pick their DNA so they would be innately smart, good looking, athletic, not pre-disposed to depression or any other serious illness — all of which as we speak is actually becoming a real possibility in the future with the technology presently being developed for genetic engineering.

You probably see where I’m heading with this.

Loving our kids, our instinct is to protect them from pain, and a good part of this has to do with the fact that it causes us pain to watch them suffer, but if we were to succeed on the level I’m describing we would likely end up with offspring that were extraordinarily shallow, self-centered and lacking in the capacity to feel compassion for others.

And if somewhere along the way we were to lose our superpowers to protect them and our children found themselves encountering for the first time failure, rejection, loneliness, heartbreak, or sickness, well, in all likelihood, they simply wouldn’t be able to cope with it.  They would never have had the opportunity to develop what psychologists call “grit.”

The Apostle Paul was getting at the same point when he invites us to

boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.”

It’s a truth we resist, but without some measure of pain and suffering in our life, qualities like perseverance, character and a hope that endures – will never grow within us.

The greatest people among us are always those who have overcome some kind of serious adversity in their lives – people who have experienced the truth of the hymn we will later sing, in which our heavenly Parent with a wisdom infinitely greater than our own declares:

“When through fiery trials thy pathways shall lie, my grace, all sufficient shall be thy supply; the flame shall not hurt thee, I only design  thy dross to consume, and thy gold to refine.”

If you ask most parents, “what is it you want for your child?” most of us, myself included, would instinctively reply, “I simply want them to be happy.”

And although this answer comes from a place of love I think it’s actually a mistaken goal, because what we call “happiness” is very elusive — dependent upon so many things that aren’t under a person’s control.

What we should hope for our children is that they come to have a deep sense of meaning and purpose to their lives – that they would come to know that mystery Paul calls “faith” which trusts that through all of life’s twists and turns, God is with us, loving us, and that God has a purpose for our lives, and sometimes the experience of failure and suffering is a part of the journey we must make to receive this gift.

If happiness is our goal, then the inevitable pain and suffering that is a part of every life – and some lives far more than others – will be seen as nothing but a road block – a reason to become embittered and maybe to give up.  But if we can hold on to the belief that God is at work in our lives, and that God wants to give us not merely happiness, but something much deeper – to shape our souls so that we can be a vessel of God’s love – then as Paul says elsewhere in Romans,

“all things work for good for those who love God.”

I keep coming back to Jesus’ famous parable of the Father with the two sons – a good story to ponder for Father’s Day.  At the beginning of the story, the younger son hurts his Dad terribly, asking for his share of the inheritance.  Normally, this wouldn’t come to him until his Father’s death, so implicitly the son is saying, “Dad, I wish you were dead.” The older son – the “good son” – would never do such a thing.

The amazing thing about parables is that after forty years I can still hear new things in them – and in this case, as I consider this parable from the lens of our instinctive desire to protect our children, it seems likely that since this Father truly loved his son, that in spite of the hurt his son had caused him — his instinct to want to protect him would surely have remained.

And in this regard, the Father must have felt so helpless.  His son is an adult, so he’s free to choose to do what he wants.  The son is intent on going out into the world, thinking he knows everything when in fact he is clueless about the ways of the world, but he’s got that arrogance common to youth that isn’t interested in listening to the knowledge and wisdom the father has acquired over the course of his life.  So the Father knows the son is going to end up getting hurt, and hurt badly.

I wonder if at this point the father experienced some self-doubt.

“Where did I go wrong with my boy?  Was I too hard on him?  Or maybe too soft on him?”

Perhaps the Father derived some comfort when he looked at his elder son:  “At least he’s grown up to be a responsible adult.”

But maybe that consolation was undercut by the messages conveyed – either directly or indirectly – by the elder son that, “Dad, you were always too soft on the little brat.  You spoiled him.”

If he had the expression in those days, maybe the elder son would have accused his father of having been a “helicopter parent” with his younger brother.

So the elder son stays safely home, and the younger son goes off to the far city, and sure enough, he makes a royal mess of his life.  He ends up penniless, hungry, homeless.  A modern day version would have him becoming a drug addict.

But that’s not where the story ends.  In the deepest point of his suffering, the younger son “comes to his senses,” and slowly begins to make his way home, hoping to live merely as a slave in his father’s household, where at least there will be a roof over his head and three square meals a day.

And to his astonishment, he discovers that his Father has never stopped loving him – that he welcomes him home as a son, not a slave – not only that, he throws a big party to celebrate his homecoming.

The impression we are left with is that the suffering of the younger son — through the process of this great humbling and the astonishing love he has encountered it led to — has ended up in an extraordinary place, experiencing what Paul referred to in the first part of our reading — the gift of faith –

“peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand.”

But strikingly, the parable doesn’t end with the younger son discovering grace.  The story proceeds to tell us about the elder son, the one who had appeared to be the Father’s example of “successful parenting”– the one he had succeeded in protecting from undergoing the suffering that the younger boy was forced to endure.

This son refuses to come into the party.  He pouts in bitter self-righteousness.  Though he has grown up to be responsible and dutiful, he has no humility, no compassion for his younger brother, no sense of

“there but for the grace of God go I?”

So I am left reflecting on the fact that the full significance of our parenting in particular — and our lives in general — can’t really be known in the short term.  What we think we are doing right we may be doing wrong, and what we think we are doing right, we may be doing wrong.

Life is a marathon, not a sprint, and what seems like failings or defeats in the present moment – what seems like “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” to quote Hamlet, may in the big picture of life take on a meaning we never could know in the present moment.

God’s Spirit is at work in our lives, and in the lives of our children, even when we can’t see what the Spirit is doing.  So let us put one step in front of another, even when the darkness is deepest, and let us cling to that conviction that lies deep in our souls – deeper than all our anxiety — that the one great certainty in life is that God truly cherishes us, and will never forsake us.

The Experience of Wonder

Filed under: Pastor Jeff's Sermons — Pastor Jeff at 1:56 pm on Monday, June 12, 2017

A sermon preached on June 11th, 2017 – “Trinity Sunday” – based upon Genesis 1:1 – 2:4a and Psalm 8.

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We often agonize over all that divides our nation, and although it is true there we are a highly divided nation, those of us who are old enough to remember recall that in 1968 our country was in even greater distress.  The war in Vietnam was raging, and here on the campuses and streets of our nations there were protests against the war.  The Civil Rights movement had been making progress, but then Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, and our cities erupted with violence.  Robert Kennedy who had seemed like a beacon of hope to many was also cut down with an assassin’s bullet.

As the year drew to a close, some relief from the conflict and despair came with the launch of the Apollo 8 space mission on December 21st.  On Christmas Eve the spacecraft reached the orbit of the moon, and for the first time ever human eyes were able to see the far side of the moon.  A live TV broadcast from the capsule captivated the largest crowd ever of television viewers from across our nation and throughout the world.  Bill Anders, one of the three astronauts brought the broadcast to a close with these words:  “We are now approaching lunar sunrise, and for all the people; back on earth, the crew of Apollo 8 has a message we would like to send to you.” The astronauts proceeded to take turns reading from the King James Version of Genesis 1 which tells the story of the first three days of creation, culminating with the creation of the earth, with the repeated refrain in which God sees what God creates and declares that it is “good.” With the reading finished, Anders spoke these words to the whole world: “And from the crew of the Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a merry Christmas – and God bless all of you, all of you on the good Earth.”

As hard-nosed scientists, these astronauts read from the Genesis account of creation not because they believed it gave an accurate historical accounting of how the universe came into being, but rather because they recognized it to be the best known scriptural passage that expresses the sense of wonder they were experiencing as they contemplated the grandeur of the universe.  It answers the most basic question of all:  “Why is there everything, and not nothing?” with a resounding affirmation of the great mystery we call “God,” the source of all that is.  They read Genesis because they saw clearly at that moment that if we human beings could only get outside of our habitual tunnel vision and contemplate the majesty of creation, we would see what we so often miss, and that is that creation, and life itself, is good, indeed, very good, in spite of all the evil we human beings commit against one another.

A divided nation plagued by great hostility collectively caught a glimpse that Christmas Eve of God’s healing and reconciling grace.

Six months later Neil Armstrong would be the first human being to walk on the moon.  Two years after that, Edgar Mitchell would become the sixth.  Mitchell would later write about how although he was raised in a church going home, in his adult years he became a disciple of a strictly scientific view of the world, leaving behind religious belief as the primitive world view of a pre-scientific mind.  His experience on that mission turned his world view upside down, but the pivotal moment for him didn’t occur when he walked on the moon, but rather later, on the return trip home. After several days of intensely working to do his part to complete the most difficult part of the mission, like God in the creation story, he finally had the opportunity to sit back and rest, and revel in what together they had accomplished.

He gazed out the window of the capsule that slowly rotated every hour.  He saw the earth and was able to make out the continents.  He saw southeast Asia and thought of his younger brother, serving in the Air Force flying missions in the Vietnam war.  He saw Korea, remembering the missions he had flown a few years earlier in the war we fought there.  He found himself contemplating the extreme violence committed by humanity.

As the capsule rotated, he now gazed into the immensity that is space with the seeming infinity of stars.

And then, he said, something suddenly happened. He realizing intuitively that his scientific, materialistic worldview was on some fundamental level grossly wrong.  That science which moves in the direction of breaking creation down into smaller and smaller distinct parts, while providing the useful information that had made his flight to the moon possible, was missing the inherent connectedness of creation.  He would come to refer to his experience as the “ecstasy of unity,” and he would go in and out of it through the remaining days of the trip.  He spent the second half of his life trying to make sense of the truth he had grasped, reading broadly in religion, philosophy and science.

Although Edgar Mitchell’s experience in outer space was the most intense, it turns out that pretty much every astronaut who had the privilege of seeing what Mitchell saw – in particular, the sigh of this tiny, bluish-green sphere floating in the seeming infinity of space – have described the experience as transformative.  In a way that went beyond intellect to their heart, they became conscious of the fact that the human race is in fact absolutely connected in spite of the illusory divisions we create.  It’s been called the “overview effect”, which to me suggests they caught a glimpse of the earth with the eyes of God.    It left them feeling that if somehow you could get all the world’s politicians up there in space to see the earth as they were allowed to see it – there would be peace on earth.

You do not, of course need to fly to outer space to have an experience of wonder and awe like that of the astronauts.  It is the experience behind the words of Psalm 8.

“When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established, what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?”

You can imagine the psalmist out under a clear night sky with no moon and of course no electric lights awestruck with the immensity of the heavens. He experiences paradoxical emotions.  On the one hand he is humbled in the awareness of how small we human beings are in the great vastness of creation; on the other, he senses that we human beings have a special role to play in this creation – that God has made us “little lower than the angels”—or as Genesis puts it, in the image and likeness of God.

The psalmist references the sounds of praise arising “out of the mouths of babes and infants,” and holding his new born child and experiencing a similar sort of wonder. Those of us who are parents likely know this sense of wonder – gazing at our child and sensing a miracle beyond anything we have done, while at the same time, recognizing the powerful claim placed upon our child to nurture this miracle.

In both the Genesis 1 and Psalm 8 human beings are described as having dominion over all other beings that live upon on the face of the earth. Unfortunately this has often been interpreted as authorizing us to rape and pillage the earth for our own pleasure, but our “dominion” comes with great responsibility – a great claim upon us to be good stewards of creation, a responsibility we have too often failed to meet.

John Muir was working on mechanics – taking machines apart into their smallest pieces in order gain greater understanding – when at age 29 an accident left him blinded for a month in one eye.  Grateful for the restoration of his sight, he decided to follow a call he had felt to gaze upon the beauty of wilderness, travelling across the country travelling the wildest stretches of land.  The wonder he experienced led him to appreciate wilderness not as merely a potential utilitarian resource for human beings, but something that is created good by God in and of itself.  This sense of wonder led him to his vocation as the father of the conservation movement, founding the Sierra Club. Referencing the goodness and beauty he experienced in nature, Muir said, “Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play and pray in where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul alike.”

So this experience of wonder that I’ve been talking about is connected to our deepest nature as human beings.  Where have you experienced it?

Perhaps walking in the woods, and marveling at a great oak tree rising up from its roots in the earth to embrace the sky?

Maybe encountering a bird in flight or in song?

Did you have such an experience contemplating a sunset, or looking up into the night sky?

Maybe it happened as you listened to music that stirred something deep within your heart.

Was it holding a newborn baby, or perhaps being present to someone in the moment of his or her death awestruck by the mystery of their soul departing their body?

Perhaps there have been moments of wonder in your life in which in the midst of deep and revealing conversation with another person, where you were allowed to truly hear their story and marvel at their perseverance in the face of adversity, or when another listened to you in such a way that deep truths about your life were revealed to you for the first time.

In all of these experiences of wonder there is simultaneously the humbling sense of being a part of something far greater than yourself, the mystery of God, and a sense of a call and claim being placed upon your life – a sense of a holy calling to fulfill.

In the midst of the strife of our present times, the experience of wonder is precisely what we need.  But the unfortunate truth is that we live in a society in which opportunities for such an experience have become harder and harder to come by. There are multiple reasons for this.  One is the frantic and anxious pace of our lives that leads us to neglect the ancient wisdom in the story of God resting after working, leading to our failure to set aside times for simple rest and stillness where let go of our compulsion to “fix” things and simply contemplate the goodness that is.

Another is the continuously declining direct contact we have in so-called “civilized” societies with nature.  We stay within environments made by human hands, and avoid venturing into wilderness where we have to leave behind our sense of being “in control.”  Somebody coined the term “nature attention deficit” to describe a condition that most children grow up with these days that contributes to hyperactivity and a loss of inner calm.

The seductive pull of our digital devices is another reason for our lack of opportunity for wonder.

David Turner called my attention to a “20 20” segment on digital addiction. It featured a man so addicted to the video games he would watch in his basement that he totally neglected his wife and three children.  There was a fifteen year old girl addicted to social media staying up late into the night in order to induce the illusory sense of “being connected” that her smart phone provided her.

Most dramatic for me was a fourteen year old boy addicted to his violent video games, cutting school and staying up late, and erupting violently whenever his parents attempted to force him to get off line.   An intervention was made in which the boy was taken to the wilderness of Nevada to participate in a forty day supervised program with other similarly addicted teenage boys during which they lived without electricity, and learned skills for living off the land.  It took time, but gradually the boy’s soul was healed in the manner of which John Muir spoke.  His compulsive longing for the distraction of video games subsided and he came to experience the great affirmation of Genesis 1, that beyond all our addictions and distractions, there is a great goodness that awaits us.  Life is, in fact a good gift — one in which we are all connected at the deepest level.

Today in the liturgical calendar is the only Sunday devoted to a “doctrine” — in this case, the “Trinity”.  When I was in college, the study of theology could evoke in me a bit of wonder, but over time I realized there was only so far such study will take you.  “Doctrines” can seem at times like the anti-thesis of wonder – an attempt to nail down the mystery that is beyond the capacity of our intellect to grasp.  And that is often how I have viewed the Trinity.

Recently though I’ve come to see the idea of the Trinity as an expression of a great mystery – one that I think Edgar Mitchell and John Muir grasped in their experiences of wonder – that at the heart of reality – in the heart of God — there is interconnection – there is relationship.  We are made in the image and likeness of the God who is three persons – “Father”, “Son”, and “Holy Spirit” — eternally loving one another.  That is something to stand in wonder about.

The Gift of the Holy Spirit — Healing the Shame Within

Filed under: Pastor Jeff's Sermons — Pastor Jeff at 10:51 pm on Sunday, June 4, 2017

A sermon preached on June 4th, 2017 – Pentecost Sunday – based upon John 20:19 – 23.

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John tells a quite different story from the one Luke tells about how the Holy Spirit was given to the first followers of Jesus.  John’s version lacks Luke’s pyrotechnics, the unmistakable display of power to transform lives that was witnessed by masses of people, overcoming the boundaries that keep people separated from one another.  John’s version is much more subdued and intimate.

It begins with the disciples still in a state of profound brokenness, a fact that makes the point that rather than the calm and ordered times in our lives, it is sometimes when our lives are broken open with pain that we may be most open to leading of the Holy Spirit.

They are gathered behind locked doors.  They have heard the testimony of Mary Magdalene that she had met Jesus alive, but whether they gave it any credibility is unclear — what is clear is that it hasn’t penetrated very deeply into their hearts and minds.  Their hearts are full of fear.

What goes unnamed in the story is another emotion closely related to fear, and that is shame. The last we heard of these disciples was when they abandoned Jesus when he needed their support, running for cover when the soldiers came to arrest him.  As Jesus was being interrogated inside the house of the High Priest, Peter tried to stay close by, sitting beside a charcoal fire out in the courtyard, but when questioned himself, Peter denied three times ever knowing Jesus.

So there they are, ashamed of themselves, staying put in that upper room, quite literally not wanting to be seen in public.   If Jesus has been raised from the dead, it isn’t altogether clear that this would be good news to these broken disciples, for they fear his condemnation.  In spite of having taught them that he hadn’t come to condemn the world, but because “God so loved the world”, the teachings they had absorbed in the course of a life time of a wrathful God set on punishing sinners is hard to let go of.   So perhaps the doors are locked not only to keep the religious authorities out, but Jesus as well, for should he appear, they imagine him piercing their hearts with a bitter, “Where were you when I needed you?”

Shame and guilt are not the same thing, though we often confuse them.  Guilt is the painful feeling that says, “I have done something that was bad.”  Shame runs deeper.  It says, “I myself am bad.  I am unworthy, unlovable.”  If it weren’t for the presence of shame, we would likely find the courage to confess our guilt where appropriate, for it wouldn’t strike at the core of our being.  But when we are ridden with shame, guilt becomes intolerable, for it opens up that deeper wound from which self-condemnation arises.

To some extent, all of us have a place within our hearts where shame dwells.  It is part of what it means to be human – a descendent of Adam and Eve.

Shame goes hand in hand with fear, creating the kind of paralysis expressed in this story where the disciples quite literally can’t think outside the box.  Shame leads to a constriction of our imagination, because the thought of trying something new and failing is intolerable for the further condemnation it would evoke.

So there they stay, trapped in that locked room.

But with his sudden appearance behind those locked doors Jesus immediately makes it clear that he has not come for condemnation.  The first thing he says is, “Peace be with you.”  He shows them his wounds to confirm that yes, it really is him.  And perhaps because it didn’t sink in the first time he said it, he says it again, “Peace be with you.” You may feel unworthy of peace, but I declare to you that you are.

He goes on to say, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”  In other words, “it isn’t locked up behind closed doors where you are meant to be.  You belong out in this world which the Father and I so love, as a witness to my love.”

It is then that Jesus breathes on them the Holy Spirit, hearkening back to that story at the beginning of the Bible where God scooped up some dust from the ground and formed the shape of a human being, but it wasn’t a living being until God breathed into the nostrils of the human-shaped-pile-of-dust the breath of life.  Now Jesus breathes the Spirit into his walking dead disciples, making an altogether new creation.

Jesus’ wounds were there on his body for all to see.  He showed them freely, with no shame, even though the Jewish authorities believed that to die on the cross was indeed shameful. Our wounds, however tend to be unseen, hidden deep within us.

It is only the Holy Spirit that can heal the psychic wounds we carry on the inside.

Last week I spoke of the Emperor’s New Clothes in relation to our experience of anxiety.  We all feel anxious routinely, but we are loathe to admit it.  It’s the same with shame.  There are dark places in our hearts that if seen clearly we believe they would render us unlovable, so we strive to keep hidden from others – in fact, hidden from ourselves.

In our story, Jesus proceeds to give the apostles a singular task – to go into the world and release people from their burden of shame and guilt.  “If you forgive the sins of any,” he says, “they are forgiven.”  Forgiveness is at the heart of what we should be about – proclaiming to the world that deep down inside we are not unlovable as we suspect – that we are, in fact God’s beloved and treasured children.

The words Jesus went on to say can seem curious: “If you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”  What does that mean?

It seems clear that a bunch of men who have just received the mercy and grace of Jesus’ sudden appearance among them would not be quick to withhold forgiveness to others.

It is true that in order to receive healing of the guilt and shame that is buried within us – if we have harmed others or ourselves and pushed God away – we must be willing to acknowledge the truth of our sin.  Otherwise the sins are retained – we continue to carry their burden around with us.

But maybe Jesus was pointing to how easy it is for us to fall back into a spirit of condemnation rather than grace.  If you ask a bunch of young people under the age of thirty what word comes to mind when they hear the word “Christian” the answer most often given is “judgmental.” How did this come to happen?

It is said that the best defense is a good offence, and in order to avoid looking at our own inner darkness and sin, the church has often chosen to point a finger at the darkness and sin of others.   But the compulsion to point the finger of condemnation at others isn’t necessary if we have experienced the grace of the Holy Spirit ministering to our own inner wounds.

As John proceeds to tell the story it is clear that although the apostles have received the Holy Spirit — having it breathed into them by Jesus — the inner healing of our shame is not a once and done deal, but rather an ongoing process.  You may remember how Thomas wasn’t with them that first Easter night, but where do we find Thomas and the other apostles the very next Sunday?  Still in that upper room.  Jesus sent them into the world to proclaim the forgiveness of sin, but here they remain behind locked doors.  In other words, it takes time for the Holy Spirit to do its work within us.

If you read to the end of the 20th chapter it is clear that John intends his Gospel to end there.  But apparently he found the need to go back and add another story, which became his 21st chapter.  We are told that “sometime later” the apostles were together and Peter says an peculiar thing:  “I’m going fishing,” and the others say, “We’ll go too.”  It’s odd because Jesus had specifically called them from their nets to go into the world to fish for people.  So Peter and the others seem stuck, expressed by a failure of imagination.  What do we do now?  Afraid to try something new for fear of failing, they fall back on what is most familiar to them, what they feel confident they won’t fail at.  They go fishing.

This isn’t what Jesus called them to do – it’s not where the Holy Spirit is leading – and so it doesn’t go well. Through the night of casting their nets into the sea, they catch nothing.

When we are following the guidance of the Holy Spirit there is a tendency to find doors opening to us; when we aren’t, the doors don’t open.

Jesus appears on the shore at daybreak, but they don’t recognize them.  He calls to them tenderly, “Children, have you caught any fish.”  No, they admit, we haven’t. He instructs them to cast their nets on the opposite side of their boat, and now their nets are filled to bursting with 153 fish.

Their eyes are opened, and the rush to shore where they find Jesus has breakfast cooking for them over a charcoal fire.

Now there is only one other reference to a charcoal fire in the Gospel, and that is in the one beside which Peter’s greatest stumbling took place, denying that he knew Jesus three times.

So now following breakfast, Jesus revisits that moment with Peter, which is clearly painful for Peter.  Why does Jesus do this?  He does it because he recognizes that Peter is still paralyzed by his shame, and although it is painful, the guilt has to be brought to the surface if the shame is to be healed.   Jesus gives Peter three opportunities to re-affirm his love for Jesus, and with each affirmation of his love the Holy Spirit penetrates more deeply with its wondrous love into his deep inner pool of unworthiness.  And as one who has first-hand experience of God’s saving grace, Jesus commissions Peter to be an instrument of God’s grace for others:  “Feed my lambs.  Tend my sheep.”

The “mainline church” has been in steady decline over the past fifty years.  It has become clear that if we keep doing what we have always done, at some point within the next century the mainline church as we know it will become extinct.  We can’t just continue to do what worked back in the fifties.  We have to open up our imaginations and take risks that might involve failure, trusting the Spirit to be with us to find new ways to be the Church in this world God loves so.

I believe the Holy Spirit has been giving me a vision lately, and I will be talking about it more in the weeks ahead.  It involves returning to the roots of Methodism – forming small groups that will experiment with meeting for four weeks with intentional confidentiality, creating a safe space where participants can “get real” about the burdens we carry – finding the courage to speak the truth of our lives.  They will be opportunities to care for one another as Jesus commissioned Peter to care for his sheep, and to intentionally engage the ongoing process of being healed of our shame, seeking together the guidance of the Holy Spirit to direct our lives.  When the opportunity comes, I hope you will accept the invitation to participate in one of these small groups.

It’s time to go forth from those locked upper rooms.

Anxiety

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.

Mom

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.

Christopher

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.

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