June 2011 Sermons:
My aunt used to have a plaque on her kitchen wall. I really loved that plaque, because I was a big worrier when I was a kid. It said, “Good morning. This is God. I will handle your problems today. I will not need your help, so have a good day. I love you!” Jesus says the same thing, in effect, to the disciples in today’s gospel lesson from John.
One difference -- Jesus speaks to His disciples in the evening, not the morning. He finds them in the Upper Room, at dusk on Easter Sunday. They had thought they would never see their teacher again. They were blinded by guilt and fear. Had they done enough to save Jesus? They were sure they hadn’t. None of them had yet gotten up the courage to leave that room and venture outside—except for Thomas. They were terrified of Pontius Pilate and his soldiers. So they sat there, waiting for Thomas to return, and then for the next shoe to drop. Have you ever felt like that?
But now Jesus was here, and they didn’t have to unlock the door to let Him in! His spiritual body slipped into the room through the locked door. He greeted them with a simple, “Peace be with you.” The resurrected Jesus didn’t say, “Here I come, to save the day!” like Mighty Mouse. He was humble and quiet. He didn’t even deliver a theological message. He had brought God’s Spirit to share with the whole world—but His friends got it first. The Spirit’s presence encouraged them to continue their ministry.
The Holy Spirit has been part of the church for two thousand years. He or she is here to help us in the same way. Sometimes I forget and talk about the Spirit as an “It”, but that’s not correct theologically. The Spirit should be referred to as “He” or “She”, not “It.” “He” or “She” is one of the three persons of the Trinity. A person has to be either a “She” or a “He.” We usually refer to God as “He”, and we know for sure that Jesus is a “He.” The Spirit is a person, too.
When we’re afraid, the Spirit slips into our lives without knocking, as if to say, “I’m here and I won’t be going away.” God sends the Spirit so that His or Her power will always be beside us, even if we forget He or She is there. Have you found the Spirit beside you at a time of need?
Natalie Gilbert had her first encounter with the Holy Spirit, in the person of a famous basketball coach she had never met before. Natalie was a seventh grader from Oregon who won a singing contest back in 2003. She was invited to sing the National Anthem for an audience of ten thousand people at the National Basketball Association playoff game between the Portland Trail Blazers and the Dallas Mavericks.
Natalie wasn’t feeling well that day. In fact, she was just getting over the flu. Have you ever tried to sing after taking cough medicine, and when you were feeling feverish and dizzy? Well, she did try. Midway through the National Anthem, her mind blanked out. She completely forgot the words. For a couple of awful minutes, Natalie stood there and cried. As she struggled for composure, the coach of the Portland team, Maurice Cheeks, walked over to help. He put his arm around her, whispered the next line of the song in her ear, and sang the line, “Whose broad stripes and bright stars,” along with her. He motioned the crowd of ten thousand spectators to join in, and they did. That incident got a lot of attention. A few days later, Natalie was interviewed on network television, and she spoke about how the coach had been her guardian angel that day. That young singer is in her early twenties now. She has sung the National Anthem at many televised games—and she’s never forgotten the words again.
Today is Pentecost Sunday. The second chapter of Acts is everyone’s favorite Pentecost story. That’s the story Janelle read, with all the names that are so hard to pronounce—and she said them very well! In that story, the Spirit comes like a roaring wind and appears like a flame on the head of each of the apostles. All the thousands of pilgrims in that crowd, from every nation, begin to understand each other. God is really pouring out the Spirit on all worshipers.
I’ve preached on that story from Acts, for the last five Pentecosts. It was about time for me to find a new story for the confirmands. Today’s gospel reading is an even more powerful “coming of the Holy Spirit” story than the one in the book of Acts, in my opinion. Why? Because the resurrected Jesus appears with the Spirit on Easter. He makes a group of frightened disciples into a community of hope. They recognize the Spirit as the power that Jesus had promised to them. They are transformed and empowered—even doubting Thomas. Our confirmands always have doubts when they start their classes. Janelle and Will finished their classes, with me and Carl, by writing strong faith statements. No longer are the disciples of Jesus timid fugitives—even Thomas. Now they can witness boldly to Jesus’ resurrection. And so can Janelle and Will. That’s why it seemed so appropriate for them to act out this story with these puppets they’ve always liked in my office.
The Spirit is sometimes pictured as a pretty white dove, but I find the dove symbol too “wishy-washy” for my taste. I imagine the Spirit differently. I think of Him or Her as a violent wind, or a blazing fire—after all, the Spirit has the power of God, which is the greatest power in the world. That’s why red is the color of Pentecost. And yet, Pentecost isn’t one of our major holidays like Easter or Christmas. Can you imagine sending hundreds of Pentecost cards, singing in a Pentecost cantata, or going to a Pentecost clearance sale? Can you imagine reading a book to your grandchild, called How the Grinch Stole Pentecost? Or watching, “A Charlie Brown Pentecost” on television? And yet, Pentecost is a much older Christian holiday. It was celebrated in the church five hundred years before Christmas or Easter.
So why does the church need another holiday? Pentecost is the traditional day when Presbyterian confirmands join the church. Pentecost completes Easter. Without the coming of the Spirit, Jesus’ followers would be left alone in the world. Without Pentecost, Easter would give us a risen Christ, but His return to heaven would leave the church to face the world, holding onto nothing but its fond memories of life when Jesus was here. With Pentecost, Christ brings the Spirit to comfort us. Pentecost celebrations are important because they invite us to participate in Christ’s resurrection, just fifty days after we celebrate it on Easter. On Pentecost, the risen Christ says hello, not good-bye, to the church.
Today we say “hello” to our two newest members. Janelle and Will have been preparing for this day for months. Since the day of their baptisms this is the moment they've been waiting for. Along the way, a great deal has happened. They've learned that the things that are really important, whether going to Sunday School, studying the Bible, or being confirmed, have a price tag. They are now followers of Jesus—just like Thomas and the other disciples in that upper room. They’ve given this church time, talent and treasure over the years, and today they will promise to continue that commitment they started as children in our Sunday School.
Janelle and Will have learned, this year, about saving up for something eternal. They've decided to follow Jesus. They have spent this year building a strong spiritual life. Confirmation marks them as full members of the church. The perks they will get include voting in congregational meetings and serving as leaders, but most of all they will belong to a community of people who have chosen to be Christ’s disciples. Being a full-fledged Presbyterian means spending your life in service to others. It means being the person God created you to be. The Holy Spirit makes that happen. And what happens after confirmation makes all the difference. Abundant life, blessed by God the Creator, loved by His Son Jesus Christ, and empowered by the Holy Spirit, is a priceless gift. That’s the gift we all wish for Janelle and Will today.
Let us pray. Lord, as we receive Janelle and Will into the congregation this morning, we ask that their professions of faith will be living testimonies of their lives. Let us reaffirm our faith during this time of confirmation. We give thanks for the Sunday School teachers who have educated them over the years, and for the faithfulness of their parents who committed them to the ministry of the Word in our church. Amen.
I love the religious art of the Far East, especially statues of Buddha. I don’t know much about Buddhism—I just like the way He looks. If you are a worrier by nature, I have a suggestion. Try sitting in front of a statue of Buddha for twenty minutes. Nothing will calm you down more. There’s an enormous Buddha at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It’s pinkish-gray and shiny, and Buddha couldn’t look more serene than He does. He’s sitting on a lotus blossom, with his eyes closed and his hands resting on his knees. He has just the suggestion of a smile on his face. But there’s one thing that puzzles me. I have never seen a picture or statue of the Buddha walking, or even standing up.
Paintings and sculpture of Jesus are very different from Buddhist statues. In Western art, Jesus is always off and running. John and I saw hundreds of paintings of Jesus in museums earlier this month. We didn’t see a single painting or statue of Jesus meditating with his legs crossed, or sitting in a lotus position. Artists have always portrayed Him as a man on the move—which He, in fact, was—all His life. In Renaissance paintings, even the BABY Jesus seems about to jump out of Mary’s arms.
The Bible gives a good historical record of Jesus’ life. All four of the gospel writers either knew Jesus personally, or knew people who knew Him. During His three-year ministry, Jesus was a powerhouse—just like his paintings and statues. He was constantly on the move, forgiving sins, healing and teaching and preaching. Think of all the gospel stories you know. Jesus walks on water, rides a donkey through the streets of Jerusalem, calms a storm on the sea, shuts down the money changers in the temple, feeds five thousand people, walks to Emmaus and breaks bread with strangers, and travels to Bethany to raise Lazarus. He heads for Galilee immediately after He rises from the tomb. It’s all the disciples can do to keep up with Him!
Let’s take a look at today’s reading from Matthew, the story of “The Great Commission.” Jesus’ is saying a final farewell to His eleven remaining disciples before He goes to heaven. It’s not a comforting good-bye. He gives them a tough assignment. Do you notice the first word Jesus says to them? That word is “Go!” He says, “Go and make disciples of all nations! Baptize them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Listen to the active verbs Jesus uses! These men are charged with carrying on God’s redeeming work and making Jesus’ name known all over the world.
In The Great Commission, Jesus commands these men to be on the move for the rest of their lives. The will of God can’t go forward, unless they’re willing to go out and fish for people. Jesus makes it pretty clear that they will have to be His hands and feet and arms and legs and hearts and heads after He’s gone.
But Jesus is also issuing them a warning. If His followers stay in Galilee, and if they decide to spend the rest of their lives fishing for fish instead of men and women, they won’t see Him again. They can’t tap into God’s power and call themselves evangelists unless they live the Christian life, modeled by Jesus. Prayer and meditation won’t be enough. They will have to stay on the move, proclaiming the gospel and baptizing in the name of the Triune God.
The church began as a teaching community. It isn’t easy to teach the Christian faith. Can we all be teachers? We don’t need to know theology and we don’t even need to be professional teachers. But Jesus expects us to act like Him. In business lingo, we might call this “motivation by example” or “discipleship by walking around.” We are to be reconciled with our brothers and sisters, take marriage seriously, love our enemies, do good deeds without looking for recognition, and not worry about tomorrow. It’s all summarized in Jesus’ last phrase, “obey everything that I have commanded you.”
How will we recognize success? If we don’t attract a lot of people to Sunday worship, are we failing? We need to have a larger perspective than that. The late Reverend Richard Halverson, the former chaplain of the United States Senate, wrote some good advice for us. In a sermon, he offered a fresh take on the Great Commission. Digging into the original Greek words, he discovered that what Jesus was really saying in this verse was, “As you go, make learners everywhere.” The Great Commission isn’t necessarily about recruitment to our own congregation. Discipleship is showing the power of Christ in our own lives, Monday through Friday. We are called to tell of Jesus, and help others to learn about faith. If we can do that, they’ll find their way to a church somewhere—maybe here, and maybe somewhere else.
I thought the volunteer crew who worked our yard sale last Saturday did a great job of exemplifying Christian love to the community. They were always on the move—cooking hot dogs, creating displays, moving tables, and welcoming friends and strangers to our church, on a very hot day. They set up the whole thing the week before—a very hot week, when the ceiling fans in the Sunday School room didn’t quite do the trick, they still worked for hours. Customers visiting our church for the first time last Saturday morning, saw the Spirit on the move, in the work of these volunteers.
I would like us to view our church is a Christian school for all ages—a foretaste of the heavenly kingdom. At Sunday worship, we practice being disciples—a fellowship of unique individuals who feel differently about things sometimes, but who love each other just the same. This week, our volunteers at Vacation Bible School will teach children about Jesus’ childhood home and His growing years in Nazareth.
Our families are Christian schools for our children. I was fortunate in the parents I had, and the one I still have. My dad was a good example of a parent as teacher. He traveled a lot, but when he was home he shared his beliefs with his children. Every year we cleaned out our closets for the church rummage sale. Once my dad took a look at the broken dolls and button-less shirts and uncompleted model airplanes we were getting ready to donate to the church. He gave us kids some gentle advice—“We give to our church the things we DO want, not the things we don’t want.” He was interpreting the Great Commission, telling us to give the church our best energy, talent and treasure—not just the leftovers gathering dust in our closets.
We hear the call of Jesus in our lives today, and we wonder how we can possibly handle this job God is calling us to do. Remember Jesus’ promise: “I am with you always, to the end of the age.” That’s all the disciples needed to change the world. I believe it’s all we will need, too.
Let us pray. Dear Jesus, help us to keep up with you. Give us determination to follow you, no matter where you go. We sometimes worry about where you mean to take us. We can’t see clearly the final destination. We wonder if we’re going to make it. Keep close to us, Jesus, we pray, so we can keep close to you. AMEN
If you’re expecting this sermon to be about children, you’re right. It is about kids. But it’s about discipleship, too. What does Jesus mean by “the little ones?” Children, right? The answer to that question isn’t as obvious as you might think. Many groups in the Bible are called “little ones.” Rabbis called their disciples, “little ones.” The Jews of Jesus’ time spoke of poor people as “little ones.” In prophetic books of the Old Testament, “little ones,” are simply the people of God. When John’s gospel talks about “little ones,” it means new Christians. Jesus, in the Gospel of Matthew, is talking about two different groups – disciples and children, when He talks about “little ones.” So Jesus is making a connection between disciples and children. What is it?
Children were “little” in Jesus’ time, in more ways than their size. In the status-conscious Roman Empire, babies and young people had no legal rights. Socially and politically, they were second-class citizens, even though they worked as hard as their parents, harvesting and shepherding and fishing. In times of famine, children got fed last of all. More than half the children in ancient Palestine didn’t live to grow up.
Men of the upper classes in the Greco-Roman world were encouraged to claw their way to the top of the hierarchy. Badges and rank and power mattered. The best and brightest person on earth, in their eyes, was the Roman emperor, whom they worshipped as God.
In that pagan society, Jesus’ teachings were revolutionary. Obviously, He wasn’t competitive like the Roman men. But the disciples took a long time to catch on to that. They annoyed Him with arguments about which disciple would be the greatest. When they bickered about status, Jesus was not pleased with them. He answered that the Kingdom of God welcomes “little people” first, and big shots last. Wealth and power can’t win you a place in the kingdom of heaven, He said. On the other hand if you offer hospitality to one of the “little ones” in this world, you show love to me. And in loving me, you give glory to God.
After describing the hardships that lay ahead of them, Jesus gives the disciples good news. Although most people will treat you badly, Jesus predicts, a few faithful folks will understand and accept your teachings. By offering you hospitality, they will welcome me and the Father who sent me.
Today, in our church, we’ll obey Jesus’ command and extend the hospitality of God’s kingdom to a “little one.” Infant baptism is the sign and seal of God’s promise in Christ. God calls a little child, through the Holy Spirit, by speaking to her parents, before she is even aware of it. The sacrament will draw Sophie into the family of God, in the same way all of us have been drawn into God’s grace.
In a few minutes, Sophie’s parents, Julee and Derek, will promise to teach her about Jesus, and we will promise to nurture her as her congregation. God loved Sophie even before she was baptized. Baptism is a way to express that love to her and to each other, out loud, together. The whole family of God, those living and those who have gone on to their reward, are here to witness Sophie’s baptism. Her great grandfather, George Boldissar, passed away recently. He sat here in this church for his granddaughter Julee’s baptism a few years ago, and I believe he is here with us now.
In baptism we use water as a symbol of the Holy Spirit, to welcome Sophie as a member of the Christian family. People ask me if the water in the pitcher is special. There’s nothing magical about it. It’s not from the Jordan River. It’s just clean tap water. We want this to be a happy time for Sophie, so we keep the water at a medium temperature so it won’t be too hot or cold as it drips on her head. In the winter, we “nuke” the water in the microwave before it goes into the pitcher. In summer, water at room temperature is fine for baptism.
The living water I’ll sprinkle on Sophie’s head today, represents life in Christ. Jesus is the one who gives, and blesses, the water. Why is water such an important symbol in the Bible? We take our tap water for granted, but the people of the ancient Middle East never knew for sure where their next cup of water would come from. Because Palestine is so hot and dry, nobody can survive without drinking water every few hours. In Jesus’ time, a cup of water was the minimal refreshment you’d offer a traveler who stopped by your house. It would enable that person to endure the heat for a little while longer. That’s why, for the earliest Christians, the ritual sharing of water was so satisfying, and a dip in the Jordan was even better. Now, the Jordan River is so dirty, I’m not sure that’s true anymore.
It’s a joyful time when we offer God’s hospitality in the sacrament of baptism. Our annual Vacation Bible School program is a joyful time, too. God blessed us, every night last week, with twenty-five children and their parents, for “Hometown Nazareth.” Each evening of the program, we got to know each other a little better—the kids, the teachers and the volunteers. We had lively music and games and stories and macaroni and cheese and pudding pops—all provided by creative people of our church! Quite a few families who participated in the program this year aren’t members of this congregation, but we’d like to think we brought them closer to Jesus and to our church.
Today’s gospel passage has the word, “welcome,” six times. Did you notice the four “welcomes,” just in the first sentence? Visitors, we welcome you in the name of Jesus, on this hot summer day. We open our hearts to you.
Let us pray. Gracious God, we thank you for the children and families who have come today. Help Sophie Joyce to learn the walk of faithful obedience and the meaning of her baptism, as she grows. We thank you for the Vacation Bible School children and their teachers, and for their pep and their songs and their caring. Help us all to walk in your way, as your followers and your little ones. Together, bring us to that splendid day when we all will be united around your throne forever. Amen.
First Presbyterian Church of Hokendauqua
3005 S. Front Street, Whitehall, PA 18052 | 610-264-9693 | firstname.lastname@example.org
Sunday Worship Service 10:00 a.m. | Sunday School 9:00-9:45 a.m.
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