August 2011 Sermons:
Christ will come again! You hear these words on the first Sunday of every month, when we celebrate communion. Have you ever considered what you’ll do when Christ arrives? If Jesus returns to us during your lifetime, will you recognize Him? Will you pass Him on the street and say, “That’s Jesus!”? I’m not so sure I will.
Have you ever spotted a celebrity in public? Once I passed Steve Martin in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and whispered to John, “There’s Steve Martin!” Steve heard me and ran away. My parents sat next to Eleanor Roosevelt in a movie theater once. She was surrounded by Secret Service men and wasn’t even trying to look like a regular person. But Jesus is different. He is, in no shape or form, a regular person!
I wouldn’t want to try to pick Jesus out in a crowd at, say Musikfest, or the Allentown Fair. We have no photographs of Him, and He never appeared in a movie, as far as we know. The stained glass artists who created these windows in our sanctuary, didn’t see Jesus in the flesh. He may not be a handsome, long-haired man in a robe and sandals, with a halo, like the Jesus we picture in our minds. So, how will we know when He comes? People we think we would recognize anywhere, are tough to spot in different settings. I think it’s because we don’t expect to see that particular person in that particular place. If you run into a high school classmate at Yosemite National Park, do you instantly recognize him as the guy from your chemistry class twenty years ago? If you saw me in Barnes and Noble wearing cutoffs and a t-shirt, would you recognize me?
I would hope that it would be different with Jesus. I would hope that that you and I would be able to feel His power, just by being near Him.
The disciples see Jesus in an unexpected place in today’s Gospel story. They’ve been following Him for more than two years, and still don’t recognize Him. He’s on the Sea of Galilee alone, walking on the water—in the middle of the night. Over the past few days, the disciples have come to realize that their teacher is a unique person, in ways they can scarcely understand. Jesus has just fed five thousand people with loaves and fishes. All of a sudden the disciples see their leader as a powerful stranger.
As this story opens, Jesus is taking some “downtime” after a hard day of preaching and healing. Feeding five thousand strangers is exhausting, even for Jesus. He’s gone off by himself to pray on a mountain. Meanwhile, He’s sent the disciples in a boat to the other side of the Sea of Galilee. A fierce storm has blown up in no time at all. While Jesus is praying, the disciples are paddling. The wind is against them. The storm has driven their little fishing boat out into the middle of the sea. The disciples fight for their lives against the winds. All through the night, they’re rowing and bailing water for all they’re worth.
Suddenly, Peter and his friends see someone walking across the whitecaps. “It’s a ghost!” they shout with one voice. They don’t realize that it’s Jesus. Then Jesus speaks to them. “Take heart, it is I; don’t be afraid.” Remember that Peter is Jesus’ protégé. He wants to do everything Jesus does. So, Peter says, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” Peter’s request is often interpreted as a sign of doubt. On the contrary, I think it shows how faithful Peter is. Peter knows, all too well, that Jesus can make the impossible, possible. Peter is saying, in effect, “Jesus, if it’s you, I know that you can call on me, and I, too, will be able to walk on water.”
When Peter steps out of the boat, the going is rough for him. He walks on water—just for a minute! But then he looks down, and loses his nerve. He begins to sink. Jesus reaches out His hand and catches Peter in the nick of time. He helps Peter back into the boat. Then Jesus stills the wind and the waves and rescues His waterlogged followers. They declare Jesus to be the Son of God.
What if Peter hadn’t obeyed Jesus’ call to walk on the water? He wouldn’t have found himself in over his head. But he wouldn’t have had such a great opportunity to show his faith, either. Can’t you imagine Peter, getting out of that boat and stepping out on nothing but a prayer and a promise? Peter fails, but he does try. What about us? Are we like Peter, ready to test the waters, or like are we more like the rest of the disciples, bailing our boats to keep from sinking? Maybe we are both. We live so much of our lives, navigating against the wind and getting nowhere. This feeling of running around in circles—do you ever feel like that? You get that helpless feeling with small things, like losing a document in your computer when you’ve just finished writing it. It happens with big things, like feeling you “aced” four job interviews, but not getting an offer from any of them. Big things like trying to sell your house for two years. Big things like having an auto accident. when you’ve just made the last payment on your new car.
By telling this story in the way that he does, Matthew, the Gospel writer, is teaching us the risks and fears of the Christian life. Jesus calls us to leave the safety of our boat and step out onto the sea, just as Peter did. This way of life we have chosen is not easy. Yes, we ought to have faith in Jesus. Jesus has faith in US! When Jesu s says, “O ye of little faith!” as He does several times in Matthew, He’s challenging people whom He KNOWS have faith. He’s making a gentle wisecrack, I think. In this story, Jesus isn’t scolding Peter for falling in the water. He’s urging Peter to use the faith he knows Peter has. Peter’s doubt—the doubt that makes him start to sink—comes from his fear of the storm, not his lack of faith.
As long as we keep our eyes on Jesus, we are safe. The minute we look down into the briny deep and get scared, we start to sink. The boat in this story may represent the church. Mainline Protestant churches are in the same boat. We live in chaotic times of social and economic change. The world is changing around us at a dizzying rate. Giving has tanked and the younger generation is too busy with other things to bring their children to Sunday School. Many congregations stay in the shallow waters in order to survive. They are afraid to lose members, so they do everything the way they did it in the fifties and sixties, rather than venturing into the deep.
In July, two of our dearest older members passed away. They were living proof of the power of the Christian life. Think about how the world changed in Kathryn Fogel’s lifetime, and in the lifetime of Bill Marks, Sr.
Airplanes were invented just before Kathryn Fogel was born in 1902, and the Wright Brothers carried out the first powered airplane flight when Kathryn was a year old. She lived to see the Internet and the cell phone take over the world—although she never used these technologies herself, they affected the way she lived. Her favorite television viewing was the weather channel. What would that be without the Internet? Kathryn was able to change with her times. She went up in a hot air balloon to celebrate her ninetieth birthday, and loved it, but says she was glad it landed very slowly! I’m more like the timid disciples who stayed in the boat and kept on bailing water. My daughter and husband enjoy sky-diving, but I didn’t even want to go whitewater rafting when I was young.
Bill Marks, Sr. was born in 1916, before people had radios in their homes. Until he was four years old, women couldn’t even vote in this country. He fished in the Lehigh River, from his scooter, all the way up to age 92, and he was 94 on the last day he fished in the creek at Cedarbrook. I think Peter, the disciple, would have loved to hang out with Kathryn and with Bill! He would have enjoyed riding with Bill on a scooter on the Ironton Trail, or taken a ride in a hot air balloon with Kathryn. Peter was a person of strong faith in miracles—and so were Bill and Kathryn. People who live to a ripe old age, know more about faith than most of us younger folks do.
That’s the secret of a long and rich life—for people and for congregations. Paddling into the deeper waters once in a while is good. We need to trust that God has dominion over the whitecaps of our lives. Have you felt the presence of Christ lately when you needed it badly? Trust Him, and test your faith. Take a walk on the water with Him this week.
Gracious Lord, you call us, as your servants, to navigate rough waters. Being your church is no easy task. Often we doubt we are worthy to be your disciples. Help us to recognize you, we pray. Give us faith to go with good courage, not knowing where we go—but only that your hand is leading us and your love is supporting us. AMEN
Today’s Old Testament lesson is a “rags to riches” story. You’re familiar with Joseph, the boy with the coat of many colors. He’s Jacob’s most beloved son. This scripture reading is my favorite scene in the family saga of Jacob and Joseph.
Joseph was the next-to-youngest. As a child he had been a tattle-tale and a spoiled brat. He had last seen his brothers many years before, under terrible circumstances. They were sick and tired of his bragging and wanted to get rid of him. So they had beaten him up, thrown him into a pit, and then sold him as a slave.
Now, it’s “payback time.” Joseph is Prime Minister of Egypt and his brothers are his prisoners. They’re groveling on the floor before him, pleading for enough grain to save their families from starvation. He knows perfectly well who they are, but they don’t recognize him as their long-lost brother.
There’s no food in the land of Canaan, and Joseph’s brothers need grain from the Egyptians. Little do they know, they’ve just asked their own brother for help! Joseph is in a good position to get revenge. But, instead of punishing them, or turning them away, Joseph arranges to give them the food they need. But first, he reveals that he is their brother. Imagine their shock! These are guilty men, at last confronted with their sin. Then he shows how much he has changed from the pampered favorite he once was. He tells his brothers that it was God, not them, who had sent him to Egypt.
He says to his brothers, “And now, do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here….God sent me here before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth…So it was not you who sent me here, but God.” What a wise and generous thing to say. We ordinary human beings are less gracious than Joseph, most of the time. If someone is good to us, we’re good to them. If someone mistreats us, we tell them off or we stop speaking to them. The measure we use to judge others is often the same brutal measure that people use to judge us.
Taking revenge against our enemies is the way of the street, not the way of God. God calls us to a higher standard. God loves even the wicked, and calls us to do the same. That’s what Jesus teaches in today’s gospel reading. God holds us accountable for the choices we make. Sins like bullying, child abuse, and greed aren’t part of God’s plan. However, God isn’t limited in the ways we humans are. God is able to bring compassion and mercy out of cruelty.
People make choices. Joseph made some good ones, after his misadventures had forced him to grow up. He learned how to get along with people. He learned how to strategize. He learned to work under pressure. God didn’t protect Joseph from betrayal. And yet, he knew God was with him through all his ups and downs. Through it all, he had learned to love others, whether his love was returned or not. And through it all, God kept opening new doors for him.
Greatness doesn’t come easily. Some great things come in a manger. Some great things happen outside of empty tombs. Some amazing things happen on an old rugged cross. And yet, our popular culture advertises the quick, the easy, the painless. Just pop this pill. Just exercise for ten minutes a day. Just eat grapefruit and stay away from cholesterol. Just apply to this particular school. Just click on this website and order this product. But, the biblical view of life is that God doesn’t look for the path of least resistance. Sometimes God asks us to walk through a fiery furnace, or even to bear a cross. And instrument of shame became the way to our salvation when God raised Jesus from the dead.
On the other side of the valley of the shadow of death, we may discover that God has never left us. That’s what Joseph learned, during those difficult years in prison. We receive from God the gift of grace from our Lord Jesus Christ. Forgiveness has made Joseph a new person. But forgiveness takes time.
The scene ends with all the sons of Israel on the best of terms. Joseph gives his family land in the northeast part of the Nile Delta, where they can graze their animals. God has reunited a family—with Joseph’s help. The future of Israel’s twelve tribes is secure.
I’d like to tell you a story of forgiveness from our own time. The Reverend Dr. Tony Campolo, of Eastern College in Philadelphia, met recently with survivors of the Auschwitz concentration camp. He asked them a difficult question: "After what you went through at the hands of the Nazis during the Second World War, how do you react when you hear someone speak with a German accent?"
One of the men answered, "I was just a boy when they put me and my family into a cattle car and started us on the long journey to Auschwitz. We had no water and no food, but each night the train would stop and sit still for hours. Time and time again, German people would sneak out of the forest, come up to the sides of the cattle cars and push in between the slats of the car small containers of water and packages of food. Their generosity kept me alive. They took great risks to help me and my people. So, whenever I hear someone speaking with a German accent, I say to myself, 'Could that be the child or the grandchild of one of those who dared to help me in my time of need?' Then I smile at them, to thank them." This man didn’t hate all Germans because of what the Nazis had done. He chose to see God in every person.
The world could use more people like Joseph, and more people like the man who grew up in the concentration camp. They tried to see the Lord’s hand at work in every circumstance of their lives. Joseph was able to examine his past from the perspective of his newfound success. The man from Auschwitz looked for a hero in every German person he met for the rest of his life.
How can we banish our bitterness? How can we reframe our hurts into blessings? Pray for people who have wronged you. Sooner or later, your feelings will change. You’ll know you’ve forgiven your enemies when you find yourself asking God to forgive them.
Forgiveness is important for faithful Christian leaders. Abraham Lincoln, our President during the American Civil War, was urged to punish the South after the war ended. He responded, “Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?”
There are times in life when we realize we’ve come full circle. We’re all like Joseph. We’ve had our ups and downs. We’ve been led on a long journey back to the place where we started. What is the place we’ve come back to? The loving care of God! We’ve changed…but God has not.
Almighty God, we are too often frustrated by our failures and mistakes. We are too often angry at others. Send your Holy Spirit to increase our faith, that our lives will demonstrate your grace. Help us to be merciful. We ask this with confidence, knowing that we are your beloved children. In Jesus’ name, AMEN
Tony Campolo, Red-Letter Christians blog for February 12, 2011, http: www. redletterchristians.org/leaving-auschwitz-with-love. Retrieved February 16, 2011.
Philip Yancey, What’s So Amazing About Grace? (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1997), 130.
Do we really know who Jesus is? We talk about Him. We see Him in our sanctuary windows. We sing about Him, watch movies about Him, and teach our children about Him. We offer prayers in His name every Sunday, and we pray the way He taught us to pray.
In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus asks His disciples a couple of difficult questions. They have followed Him for miles, seen Him heal, and heard Him preach. Now, Jesus is asking for some honest feedback. First, He asks the men a warm-up question. He wants to know who the crowds think He is. So the disciples tell Jesus what different people have been saying. Some, they say, think Jesus is John the Baptist, come back to life. Others think He’s Elijah. In the Old Testament, it says that Elijah, the miracle-working prophet would return to earth just before the Messiah finally came.
Jesus listens, and then He asks His followers, "Do you have any other ideas about who I really am?" This is a much tougher question. Only one of the disciples can answer it. Simon, son of Jonah, jumps up and says to Jesus, "I know who you are. You are the Messiah. You are the Son of the Living God.” That’s the answer Jesus has been looking for. At that moment, the other disciples realize that Simon has become the standout leader of the group. You can imagine how these competitive men react. We are all like kids when we want to please the boss. James probably kicks the dust with his sandal and mutters, “I was going to say that!” Thomas might insist, “I had my hand up first, but you didn’t call on me!” And John might whisper to the others, “Simon is the teacher’s pet! It’s not fair.”
As the reward for giving the right answer, Jesus says, "You, Simon, are Peter, and on this rock, I will build my church." That statement is a play on words. In Greek, The word for "rock" is "petra." To the ancient people of Palestine, “petra” was an inanimate object, like a stone or a boat. Nowadays, we know a lot of people named Peter, but “Peter” or “Petros” wasn’t a name you’d give to a person. You wouldn’t name anyone, “boat” or “tree.” It sounded ridiculous for a human to be a rock. But Jesus named Simon, “Petros.” Probably the closest equivalent to “Petros” as a name in English would be “Rocky.”
This passage means different things to a Roman Catholic from what it means to a Protestant. Roman Catholics take Jesus’ statement to mean that Peter himself is the foundation of the church. For them, the pope is the successor to Peter and the leader of the church. We Protestants believe that what Jesus is praising isn’t just Peter himself, but his faith, too. We believe that Peter’s faith is the true foundation of the Christian community—specifically, Peter's faith that Jesus is both human and divine. Jesus builds the church, but Peter’s faith is the first rock in its foundation. His faith is a blessing from God, not an achievement.
In the Gospels Jesus asks deep questions, and some of them make people feel uncomfortable. We come to church to get answers to our own questions. But Jesus doesn’t make answers easy for His followers to figure out.
What if we were to take a survey of people and ask them: "What do people say that the church is?" Many people would say it’s a building. Some would say that the church is a place where you can go to sit with your friends. But you can sit with your friends at a football game or at a party. Others would say that the church is a place to sing songs and to get a good feeling. But you can go to a movie to get a good feeling, and you can sing any songs you want in the shower.
What does the church have to offer that you can't find anywhere else? The answer is that the church isn’t dealing just with earthly matters, but also with divine matters. The church is the place where the realms of the earthly and the divine come together. We have been given the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Christ has promised to build the church on people like us, despite the forces of death all around us. The church has its ups and downs, but ultimately, the church is indestructible.
What does Christ’s promise mean for us? Let’s look at one of our greatest fears—our fear of death. We come to church with a big question: “What will eternity be like, and what is my place in it?” To people who don’t believe in afterlife, death looks like the end of the line. But in the church, where the heavenly comes into contact with the earthly, we learn that death is not the end. That's the point that Jesus makes when he says, "I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it." That word "Hades" doesn't refer to hell. It refers to death. What Jesus is saying is that He is going to build his church, and even death will not defeat it.
It is estimated that about one out of every two hundred Christians worldwide will one day be put to death because of their commitment to Jesus. But again, in the church, because of Jesus, we believe that there is a joining together of the earthly and the heavenly. Death appears to be the end of life— but only if you look at it from an earthly point of view. To people who are truly willing to die for their beliefs, death is almost nothing at all. The job of a Christian congregation is to tell the world that the day is coming when death and darkness will come to an end.
There's a story about Robert Louis Stevenson, the author of Treasure Island. He grew up in the early nineteenth century, and spent a lot more time indoors than most children did, because he was frequently sick. He spent hours in bed, looking out of windows. The boy was looking out his bedroom window one evening, watching a man walk up and down the street, lighting the gas street lamps along the sidewalks. When his nurse came in to check on young Stevenson, she asked him what he was doing. He said, "I'm watching a man poke holes in the darkness."
That's what Christians are called to do: to poke holes in the darkness. We can do it because our church is a gift from God. It’s more than a gathering place for nice people. Between our faith and our actions, we build the church, together. We’re doing that today. Sunday worship is the time where the earthly and the heavenly meet.
The authority that Christ gave to Peter is ours now. God chose us to show the world that the light of Jesus shines upon us. He’s given us great power. With Him we can make the darkness disappear.
Every decision we make is a response to that question Jesus asks His disciples: “Who do you say that I am?’ We teach the world how to be Christians by the things we do. That’s what it means to hold the keys to the kingdom. So many things---our love for our family and friends, our commitment to high moral standards, our gestures of forgiveness, and our acts of kindness—declare our faith in Jesus Christ as our Redeemer.
Let us pray. Lord, you are the answer to so many questions. Thank you for choosing us to lead your church through the darkness. May we proclaim our faith in every decision that confronts us, and in every relationship with which we are blessed. AMEN
William Barclay, The Gospel of Matthew, Vol. 2 (Louisville: Westminster Press, 1975), 136.
Carlos Wilton, Lectionary Preaching Workbook: Year A (Lima, OH:CSS, 2010, 291.)
Craig S. Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1993), 90.
M. Eugene Boring and Fred B. Craddock, The People’s New Testament Commentary (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 69.
Kenneth Carter, “Poking Holes in the Darkness,” a sermon found on January 3, 2011, on www.ministrymatters.com
What were you doing last Tuesday at one-fifty p.m.? Did your kitchen table vibrate? Did pictures fall off your living room wall? The earthquake wasn’t a big deal for us—just a little scary. Did you call your loved ones after you found out what had happened? Last Tuesday was a defining moment for families in the Lehigh Valley—even though its effects turned out to be underwhelming. This weekend, Hurricane Irene has been making time stand still for people on the East Coast.
There are a few moments in our lives that are a big deal. People who don’t pray too often, suddenly remember to say the Lord’s Prayer at those times. People even mumble that the world might be coming to an end. We’ll never forget September 11, 2001, and the day President Kennedy was assassinated, and the attack on Pearl Harbor. You can remember where you were, and who you were with, at those moments—if you were more than two or three years old then. Sudden deaths in the family are defining moments for us—times when we need God’s loving care.
We have unforgettable moments of joy, too. Do you remember the first time a newborn baby was placed in your arms? That moment defined you as mother or father. A big defining day for me was a Saturday morning in March, forty-two years ago, when John and I became husband and wife. My baptism day was the moment that sealed me as Christ’s own. I don’t remember that day at all but I still have a church bulletin from it.
A birth, a graduation, a wedding—all of those are moments when time stands still. We felt connected to our ancestors and to future generations, and to our Savior, Jesus Christ, at those times.
The church keeps records of defining moments in your life. Your children’s children, and your nephews and nieces, will be able to look in our record books, and see if you were a Deacon or Elder, or both, and what years you were ordained or installed. We have the dates when you were baptized and confirmed—if those defining moments happened here. We can see who the pastor and witnesses were, if you were married here. Our Session takes time to vote on each addition or deletion of a name from the church rolls. The joyful times in Christian lives are that important to us. Even after churches in the PCUSA close, their record books are sent to the Presbyterian Historical Society Library in Philadelphia.
Finding out who we are and who God calls us to be –those discoveries are part of a process of transformation. You aren’t really a mother or father until you have a parental relationship with your children: until you’ve changed a lot of diapers, gone to parent teacher conferences, paid tuition bills and waited up for your teenager to get home at three a.m. You aren’t really a husband or wife until you’ve lived through trying times together. You aren’t a true member of our choir unless you’ve sight-read a piece of difficult sheet music with us. You’re not a true member of the Property Committee until you’ve cleaned the bugs out of the fluorescent lights in the Sunday School wing. And you aren’t a real Christian unless you’ve formed a personal relationship with Jesus and learned to love others as He loves you. What will others understand about Christianity, from the way you live your life?
In today’s New Testament reading, Paul writes to the Romans: “Let love be genuine; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit. Serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
The Letter to the Romans is Paul’s statement of faith. He was writing to a big congregation in the largest city on earth—a city he’d never visited. He’d heard that Christians in Rome were struggling in a hostile society where people took revenge against each other and were always in competition to get richer. Just like ours! He writes about love in this passage—love, as it should be lived out by Christians in defining moments of their lives.
Paul had a lot of defining moments in his life. He went blind on the road to Damascus. He got arrested and was in shipwrecks. Paul’s not talking, here, about feelings of love that people keep inside. He’s describing the spiritual life of the ideal Christian congregation. For Paul, love is expressed in doing, not just feeling. Is he setting an impossible standard?
How can we live Christ-like lives today? How can we love one another? How can we care for suffering people in need? How can we overcome evil with good?
As I ponder these questions, I’m at a loss. I realize I don’t have perfect answers. I feel powerless a lot of the time. But I do know this…what I can do, I will do. And so for the time being, I’ll pray. I’ll be patient and try to listen well when people need to talk. I won’t blame others when they cause suffering. I’ll welcome the stranger. And I’ll continue to weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice. I will serve my Lord. My love will be real.
The defining moments in our lives are not always easy. My baptism was probably easy, but the milestones that came later in my life were more challenging! I’m sure yours were, too. Defining moments can be joyful or life-shattering. I know the ultimate defining moment for me will be when I stand before my God and Maker. I’m pretty sure He won’t ask me if I watched the hungry and saw the homeless. I am quite sure He won’t ask me if I noticed the thirsty or thought about the poor. His questions to me will be direct:
God of the Universe, we thank you for all that you have made. We thank you for being with us always. Help us to live in harmony in a changing world. Help us in our defining moments by sending your Holy Spirit. Help us to recognize Christ in the faces of our neighbors, so that we may learn to speak your language of love in all the joys and sorrows, through Jesus Christ, our Lord. AMEN
First Presbyterian Church of Hokendauqua
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