May 2015 Sermons:
"Abide" is a funny word. It sounds so strange when you read it out loud ten times. Abide, Abide, Abide, Abide, Abide, Abide, Abide, Abide, Abide, Abide. A hundred years ago, my grandmother embroidered it on a big sampler. The word is old-fashioned and belongs to another time.
Abiding has to do with perseverance, so it’s no wonder the word isn’t used much any more. Staying with someone isn’t all that common anymore. Marriage covenants are broken. Friendships eventually break up. So do treaties between nations. Business agreements don’t last. A recent survey showed that seventy percent of Whitehall residents don’t believe in God. So it seems that staying with God is pretty hard, too, but it’s necessary. We know that.
Twelve of Jesus’ friends are with Him on the night of His betrayal. In the upper room, He talks about a vine and branches: "You must go on growing in me. Make your home in me just as I do in you. In the same way that a branch can’t grow grapes by itself, but only by being joined to the vine, so you can’t produce anything unless you go on growing in me. I’m the vine itself; you’re the branches. Apart from me you can’t do anything." Jesus is right. Cut off from God, we’re helpless. The apostles will all cut off from Jesus for a time. Some, like Peter, will return and abide with Him.
In order to live in communion with God, we need to be open to Him, and to recognize that Jesus is with us. Imagine a weak man who is constantly making a mess of his life. Suppose he has a friend who is strong and smart, and that friend keeps him from destroying himself. The only way the weak man can keep himself on the right way is through contact with his friend. As long as they’re together, he will head in the right direction. Think of Jesus as that friend, for all of us. We ignore Jesus’ help and cut ourselves off from God because we secretly believe that we’re self-sufficient. Or we get so busy, we can’t hear the voice of Jesus. When we ignore communion with God and God’s people, we tend to go off in the wrong direction.
By the grace of God, we’re connected to Christ even when we aren’t thinking about it. Our lives have roots in Jesus. Maybe you’ve seen pictures of the "Christian family tree." We use it in confirmation class. The vines, the apostles, sprout from the cross branching out into denominations through the centuries. The ancestry of our faith goes back through time and space to Jesus. The memories of our ancestors become our memories. Your faith comes to you from someone, and their faith from someone, and their faith from someone, all the way back to Christ.
God has pruned us in more ways than we realize. Remember all those times when friends told you things about yourself that you didn’t want to hear? Sometimes they were just being mean, but sometimes they were right! Here in church, we hear the Word. We listen to hard truths about ourselves. We encourage and correct.
Honest treatment can help us grow. The florist cuts ruthlessly to get the most beautiful roses. Grapevines need attention to grow the best fruit. The vines are trained on trellises or allowed to creep over the ground. Vines grow quickly. A young vine isn’t allowed to bear fruit for the first three years. Each year it’s cut back to conserve its energy. When it’s mature, it’s pruned twice a year. Vines have two kinds of branches—some that bear fruit and some that don’t. The branches that don’t bear fruit are cut away so that they won’t drain the strength of the vine.
Pruning doesn’t sound like a pleasant experience for the branch. But Jesus, the vinedresser, invites us to rearrange our priorities so that we’re less drained by worthless stuff. God will lop off our excess branches-- unnecessary possessions or activities. Choosing God means we will have to choose against other things. We do well to take time we would have spent watching television and listen to a friend in pain. We would do well to take the money that we would have spent shopping for an expensive meal and donate it to the Whitehall Food Bank. We abide by receiving from others, and by giving to others.
Pruning our lives seems harsh, but pruning is also the act of repair. As church members, we learn to love people we might never have met. We grow and mature, as part of something greater than ourselves. In giving ourselves away, we find life we never expected. Good things happen, because of Jesus.
Many of us were alive in 1969 for the Apollo Space Mission. All three astronauts stayed connected to Jesus in outer space. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were the first men to walk on the moon. Aldrin was a devout Presbyterian! Michael Collins, the third member of the group, was in charge of the command module, essential for their return to Earth. It circled the moon while Armstrong and Aldrin landed there.
They chose to walk with the Lord, before their walk on the moon. Aldrin had brought a tiny communion kit, given him by his church. It had a silver chalice and wine vial about the size of the tip of his finger. During the morning he radioed, “Houston, this is Eagle. I would like to request a few moments of silence. I invite each person listening in, whoever or wherever he may be, to contemplate for a moment the events of the last few hours, and to give thanks in his own individual way.”
“I opened the little plastic packages which contained the bread and the wine,” Aldrin wrote. I poured the wine into the chalice our church had given me. In the one-sixth gravity of the moon, the wine slowly curled and gracefully came up the side of the cup. Then I read the Scripture, ‘I am the vine, you are the branches. Whosoever abides in me will bring forth much fruit.’ I ate the host and swallowed the wine. I gave thanks for the intelligence and spirit that had brought two young pilots to the Sea of Tranquility. The very first liquid ever poured on the moon and the very first food eaten there were the communion elements.”
Being connected with Christ was that important for astronauts Aldrin and Armstrong and Collins. When we accept what God has given us--- as they did on that day forty-five years ago--- our lives become holy. "Abide in me as I abide in you," said Jesus. "Apart from me you can do nothing." With Him, and with each other, we can do everything.
We honor our moms today. Mother's Day isn't a religious holiday, but it's hugely important in American culter. We always know what holiday is coming up next, from the Lowry billboard at Cedar Crest. This week, the man on the billboard has been wearing a t-shirt that says, "I 'heart' you, Mom" and holding a huge pink bouquet. "Mother's Day' appears on the office calendars at Staples, but Pentecost and Epiphany don't show up on any of them.
What's the connection between parents and God? It's obvious. Many of us learned, as children, to pray to our Heavenly Father. Some choose to pray to their Heavenly Mother. Our relationships with our parents influence the ways we relate to God.
If God feels like a parent to you, how do you picture Him? Or, if you're a feminist, "Her?" You've probably heard the expression, "helicopter parenting." The stereotyped helicopter mom or dad is always buzzing around, controlling and interfering. Teachers, coaches and other adults who teach kids, don't appreciate "helicopter parents." I had a few run-ins with Type-A parents as a children's librarian. They would get a little too intense about everything. And yet, "helicopter parents" can be wonderful in certain situations. Helicopter moms and dads love their kids more than anyone else in the world. My dad was one of them. In the late sixties he had three children, plus my mother, in college at once. He was there to stand up for us, when we really needed it.
How do we want God to parent us? Do we want the Almighty to hover over us? Do you think of God as your helicopter parent? Or do you think differently about God? Rabbi David Wolpe of Los Angeles' Sinai Temple writes about a different kind of parenting style: that of a "helium parent." In the Rabbi's words: "We should hold on to our children as a child holds a balloon. Let them rise, float on their own, but keep a grasp on the string so that they do not float away to unknown parts. The time will come when we need to release the balloon. In the meantime, instead of hovering from above, we should be holding lightly from below. Think of it as parental string theory." Do you have, or did you have, a "hand-on-the-string" parent? I think we have a "hand-on-the-string" God!
Rabbi Wolpe continues: "So often we forget that we are not trying to create 'the most outstanding children,' but competent, kind adults. Self-reliance is the fruit of patience. It is nurtured by failure, and it is encouraged by appropriate risk. Coddle a kid and you get a coddled kid. Let them soar and you get an adult." I would like to think of God as a helium mom, holding gently to the end of a string as we dance on the wind-currents.
In my perception of God, He doesn't seem interested in micromanaging our lives. To the contrary, the Lord seems content to leave us alone for long periods, with only the lightest of tugs on the balloon string. Sometimes that touch is imperceptible, barely there. At episodes of temptation, in particular, we may suddenly feel a strong pull on the line. At the worst times, God calls us back into closer relationship. In today's gospel text from John, Jesus talks about God as a parent. What does the gospel lesson tell us about God's love?
It's a love that is specific to you. "You did not choose me but I chose you," Jesus said. We love it when mom or dad chooses us, and singles us out for love and praise. Jesus says that we, too, were chosen by Him, even as God chose Jesus.
God's love gives us a job to do. We loved it when mom gave us a job, didn't we? We felt special when she asked us to work side by side with her -- whether it was helping to decorate cookies, or to put our finger in the string when she was tying a knot on a package, didn't matter. We weren't crazy about doing chores, but we did them because we knew we should, and mom would approve! God loves us this way, too. Jesus calls us to "bear fruit -- fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask Him in my name." Then Jesus said, "I am giving you these commandments so you will love one another."
It's a love in which we remain. "Now remain in my love," today's gospel text says. Jesus says we remain in His love when we obey His commands. In that sense, God's love is conditional. Mom loved us this way, too. We remained in her love as long as we didn't do anything bad. She knew when we disobeyed, no matter how hard we tried to conceal it. We felt bad when we knew that she knew!
But, on the other hand, there's a sense in which we can never be outside of God's love, even as we were never outside of mom's love. Yes, she sometimes got annoyed with us. Yes, she puts us in "timeout." But she always loved us. And, we are always in the love of God. Nothing can separate us from God's love.
It's a love that asks us to "play nice" and share. "This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you." At the end of the reading, Jesus says it again: "This is my commandment: love each other." Can't you hear mom asking us to play nice? "Be nice to your brother!" "Take your sister with you." God loves us this way, too. It's a love that is sacrificial. "No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life." Think about what your mom and grandmother did for you. Is God's love any less? Did not God in Jesus Christ lay down His life for us?
I think the gospel reading describes a helium God. His hand is on the string of our balloon. We always know God's hand is there. The relationship we have (or had) with our moms is complicated and powerful. This is no less true of our relationship with God. Both relationships are based on amazing grace. It's so good to know that God's firm, gentle, hand is on our strings.
We experience our spiritual relationship with God in similar ways. At times we feel God hovering like a helicopter, but at other times He gently lets us rise.
On Mother's Day, we give thanks for the women -- moms, grandmoms, teachers, friends -- who held on to us for dear life, when we needed it. We didn't choose them, but look how God blessed us through them! We give thanks to God for those who let us float too high for our own good. Mistakes forces us to grow. Failures helped us understand others. Today, we remember the generations of faithful Christians who sacrificed so we might thrive. And in our worship today, above all, let us remember God, who gave His only Son. Remember Jesus who made the greatest of sacrifices, and rose to heaven, so that we may rise to be with Him.
Acts 1:15-17, 21-26
Think of all the decisions you make every day: What shall I wear? Should I take a different route to work because of construction? Do I need to pay my bills today or can they wait until tomorrow? Do I have enough energy to run this afternoon, or should I ride my bike instead? Should I walk to the Mini-Mart for milk, or drive all the way to the Giant? Should I pick up the phone or let the machine get it?
A few decisions are harder to make, because they have a bigger impact. Should we get a second car? New or used? Should we build a closed-in garage or save the money for a cruise to the Bahamas? Do I really want to join this church? Should Grandpa come to live with us, or should he go to a retirement home? Should I be buried or cremated? Without guidance, decisions like these can paralyze us. It's tough to discern God's will. Do we even see God making these choices -- or just us? The Bible doesn't always guide us in a clear way. If we don't know the scriptures well, we may try to cut corners with the Word, or skip it entirely.
In the first chapter of Acts, we read about the first business meeting of the early church. Peter is the dominant figure in the first half of the book of Acts. He and the disciples are choosing a new member of the apostolic team. The way these church leaders carry out this task, seems like just a throw of the dice, but they are putting God in charge.
The risen Christ had promised His friends that He wouldn't leave them alone when He went to heaven. He promised to guide the church into the future. Soon after Jesus had returned to heaven, before He sent the Holy Spirit, the apostles had an important choice to make. Who would they pick to replace Judas Iscariot, who was dead?
Two names were put forward. The first was Joseph Barsabbas, and the other was Matthias. We don't know much about either of these men. One had to be chosen above the other. How would the choice be made? Casting lots was seen as one of the ways in which God revealed the Divine will. How did casting lots work, in the ancient world? According to what we know from history, the names of the candidates were written on stones, and then the stones were placed in a vessel and the vessel was shaken, like dice, until one fell out.
You can imagine Peter handling this important piece of business. "Who will it be? Matthias on my right. Barsabbas on my left. Shake. Shake. Shake. Oh, there it goes. Who is it? When it stops rolling we will know. It's Matthias! Congratulations, brother!"
Don't you wish your own decisions were that easy? Dad comes to live with us. We buy a new car. Oops. I don't like the answers from that throw of the dice. I'll try again.
For Peter and the other apostles this wasn't just a casual roll of the dice. They knew that God controlled it. God chose Matthias -- no questions asked. No recounts needed. It wasn't luck or chance. It's not like the lottery when you pick a few numbers at random. And the choice wasn't voted upon, so it wasn't based on human wisdom. The dice were in God's hand and they knew it!
We don't need to cast lots about church leadership. God gives us more guidance than Peter got. Why? Because we receive the Holy Spirit to guide us. Start with the Bible. Peter did that. Before this choosing process began, Peter stood up and quoted Scripture. He read the Bible to remind his friends that what had happened to Judas had been foretold. Christians need to know their Bibles, so they can discern God's will with confidence. God uses the Bible to guide us. He also chooses to use circumstances to fulfill His plan. Some refer to this "closed and open doors." As in, "When a door closes, another door opens." Remember, when God closes a door in your life, be sure to look for another door that may be opening.
How can we be sure that the wisdom we receive is really from God? Sometimes God shows His will through the wisdom of other Christians. Ask your friends in this congregation for their opinions. Maybe they'll remember a biblical principle to follow. But be sure your friends are honest people who won't just tell you what you want to hear. And finally, God often gives clues, as we seek Him. God wants His children to know His will! In prayer, you may receive an answer.
God knows your heart! And this can be good or bad depending on what's in your heart. You can't hide your real motive and you can't bamboozle God. You have to be honest. And that's good, especially when we really are stumped, and forced to act anyway. You can't go wrong if your heart is right. God sometimes transforms a less-than-perfect decision, if you have sought Him before making it.
How can the decision about closing up the garage or the patio, or getting a used car, be directly related to sharing our faith and bringing others to Christ? Think about it. Will do-it-yourself construction projects give you more opportunities to witness to your neighbors? Will there contractors involved who will see Jesus in the way you live your life? Will you be able to witness your faith with the used car dealer? Will granddad be safe and happy living in your home? Are you willing to share your faith in Jesus with your dinner companions on the cruise ship? Here are a couple of questions to ask yourself as you make a big decision: Will this choice help me, and other people, lead a life of Christian love?
There's one big factor Peter and other eleven didn't know about, YET: the Holy Spirit. Pentecost, the official birthday of the church, hadn't happened. Christian casting of lots ended when the Holy Spirit came.
Should we pray about everything? Sometimes we paralyze ourselves by waiting for God's answer when common sense tells us, "We have to do this!" The faithful things we are called to do, aren't always fun. We can't use prayer as an excuse to put them off.
Setting our minds on spiritual things, at regular times every day, can help us to know how God is leading us. I believe God forgives us when we repent after making bad choices. Good consequences often come out of mistakes. But we have to put our house in order before we embark on our journey to the next life.
This story from the first chapter of Acts isn't a popular one for preaching. There isn't any healing miracle in it. There are no comforting words from Jesus in it. I think there's a good reason why the early church preserved this story. We can learn about discernment. We see Peter becoming a leader, and less of a bumbler, as he learns how to discern the will of God. We see him growing in confidence that everything is possible in the Lord. And that's the way we need to live, as disciples.
Of all the stories pastors hear, the saddest are about losses. So many people around us are grieving for the future happiness they had once counted on—suddenly taken away from them. A young couple ends their marriage. A man, just nearing retirement, looking forward to relaxing in his new Florida condo, learns he will have only six months to live. An older person loses the home in which she lived for 40 years and raised her children. A 25-year-old enlisted man loses both legs and an arm in combat.
Sarah came to see me after she’d had a miscarriage. (This happened at another church where I served.) She and her husband had tried to have children for many years. Their first pregnancy, when Sarah was 39, had felt like a miracle, and when she miscarried five months into the pregnancy, Sarah was devastated. She and Matthew had counted on the birth of this baby. They’d had a baby shower with family and friends and had furnished the nursery. Now, Sarah and Matthew held no hope of ever having children.
Alex had worked hard to prepare for a career in investments, and, after a couple of false starts, he’d found a job that he loved. He worked in an investment company where his skills and hard work were valued. Alex found himself moving up in the company structure. Then the financial world fell apart in 2007, and his company went under. Not only did Alex lose his dream of a place of leadership in the world of finance, but he couldn’t find another job that fit his skills and experience. He ended up as the manager of a dollar store, a job which he hated.
Robert lost both his hearing and eyesight within two years. He had to stop driving , and lost his lifelong independence, as well as the strong self-image that he had thought he would carry further into his seventies. In each of these cases the future which these people had counted on, seemed to vanish, and with it, all faith and hope. The threads binding their past, present and future, had been suddenly broken.
Andy Lester is a pastor who wrote an important book about “future stories.” The title of the book is Hope in Pastoral Care and Counseling. Reverend Lester writes in this book that people live their lives in three time frames—past, present, and future. Each time frame makes the other two, meaningful. The past, the present and the future are the stories with which we define ourselves, our purpose in living, and our hope. Counselors usually focus on either the present or the past. Lester suggests that the most important focus in a time of suffering is on the person’s future story.
Our future stories, unfortunately, are fragile and will fall apart. Think of the man who lost his sight and hearing, the wife who miscarried, and the young soldier who suddenly found himself with no legs and only one arm. We reach goals we have set and not looked beyond; we lose loved ones; we retire from careers; we lose our health. Consequently, our future stories have to be grounded in something more. Ultimately, our hope must rest in a future with God.
The passage from the eighth chapter of Paul’s Letter to the Romans, which John read today, speaks to the future story of the early church. Paul’s letter was written before any of the gospels. He was writing to believers whose future story had been painfully disrupted by the crucifixion of Jesus. The people had hoped Jesus was their Messiah, but instead He had been crucified. His followers had lost all direction and all hope when that happened. And they were disappointed again. When they pinned their hopes on Jesus’ return, and that return didn’t happen right away, the tiny Christian community again began to lose hope and purpose.
Paul is working carefully in the book of Romans to help Christians develop a new future story in which they can find their meaning, identity, purpose, and hope. That story is the one told in this passage. God is faithful. In His gift of Jesus Christ, we have known the "first fruits" of God’s remarkable harvest. Although Christians are suffering and fearful, and so many around us in our world are suffering today, the Holy Spirit offers prayer and comfort, as our future with God unfolds.
In our congregation, when we come together to worship, we feel the presence of the Holy Spirit among us.
First Presbyterian Church of Hokendauqua
3005 S. Front Street, Whitehall, PA 18052 | 610-264-9693 | firstname.lastname@example.org
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