November 2011 Sermons:
Churches are in troubled waters. I mean that literally. Our Presbytery’s Helping Hands Care Team bailed out a couple of churches in Nashville, Tennessee, last weekend, after flooded rivers had destroyed pews, carpets, and hardwood floors. Hurricane Irene caused flooding to many churches in the Northeast. Some were even destroyed. We’ve been blessed to have comparatively little damage to our church from bad weather. There are leaks in the roof in the Sunday School wing. Some ceiling tiles need replacing, but we can afford to get the roof repaired.
Presbyterian churches are drowning, but not only in water. Operating expenses are increasing much faster than income. Forty-five percent of PC(USA) congregations are close to depleting their reserve funds. That’s what our Session’s strategic planning team heard two weeks ago, when we attended a Training Workshop sponsored by the Synod of the Northeast. Thanks to you, our congregation isn’t in that category—although we’ve had budget shortfalls this year.
The PC(U.S.A.) has dropped from its peak membership of four and a quarter million members in 1965 to about 2 million members today. A disproportionate number of declining congregations are in the economically-troubled mid-Atlantic states. The healthiest PCUSA churches are in the Sunbelt where many Presbyterian seniors have gone to retire. The average Presbyterian church in America now has a hundred members. That’s less than half the size of our own congregation—but some of you remember that we once had four hundred. This is a challenging time and place to be a church leader.
The statistics are alarming. But if you look around, there’s hopeful news. We’ve collected more than sixty boxes of brownie mix in the lobby, to donate to the Whitehall Food Bank. A few weeks ago, our Sunday School was one student short of perfect attendance. We raised thousands of dollars in our Yard Sale. We have an excellent choir and a wonderful chime choir. Our Vacation Bible School had between twenty and thirty children every night last summer. Our newsletter has pizzazz! In September, our volunteers hosted and fed a hundred people from the Presbytery. Those are signs of strength.
Had you ever heard the story of the Israelites crossing the Jordan? Nobody could say that Joshua was weak, or that his followers were risk-averse. Their grandparents and great-grandparents had spent forty years in the wilderness, after crossing the Red Sea with Egyptian chariots at their heels. All too soon, the younger generation would need to deal with the people who were already living in the Promised Land—that is, the Hittites and the Jebusites and all the others—before settling there. The timing seemed terrible. Their beloved leader, Moses, had just died without ever having the thrill of crossing over Jordan.
Joshua, their new commander, had big sandals to fill, as Moses’ successor. He stood by the raging river, watching the current sweep trees and soil from the banks. Could he pass this test of leadership? He was about to get his feet and his robe and his head soaked with muddy river water.
A miracle got that band of travelers across the raging river. God told Joshua to walk to the river’s edge and stand still. Then, God said to select one man from each of the twelve tribes of Israel. These elders were commanded to go and stand in the water. After the dozen men, who were tribal leaders, got their feet wet, the priests would follow. They would carry the Ark of the Covenant, which looked like a decorated parade float balanced on long sticks. Inside the Ark was the Law of Moses—the actual tablets on which Moses had written the Ten Commandments.
The Israelites believed that God was actually riding in that Ark. We believe that God is everywhere, but the people of ancient Israel had a concept of God that was more concrete than ours. For the Israelites, God actually lived inside that Ark. God was among them—literally!
When the priests stepped into the water, carrying the Ark, a miracle happened. The Jordan split, and a dry strip of land appeared in the river. It was wide enough for the Israelites to use as a ford for crossing. And that’s how thousands of men, women, children and animals entered Canaan for the first time.
What a test of faith! The elders, and their brand new leader, had to stand in the middle of the river, until every person and animal had crossed over. Think of how those men must have felt. Even though there was a wall of water on either side of them, they couldn’t leave their posts until all the people and the livestock were on dry land.
The early days of Protestantism were something like the early days of the Israelites in Canaan. Risky, scary, and warlike! Thousands of years after Joshua got his feet wet, a monk named Martin Luther took the plunge and started the Reformation. In 1517, he wrote a protest on the door of his church. He was angry that the church was selling indulgences. These were something like “Get out of hell free” cards! He saw hundreds of poor people, being tricked into buying their way into heaven by giving money to priests. He knew that the pope was using the life savings of German peasants, to build a papal palace in Rome. Luther was fed up with corruption in the church, and he said so in his 95 theses. There was no way that Jesus, Himself, would have cheated the poor to get rich.
Luther thought just a few monks would read what he had written. But he became an instant celebrity. The newly-invented printing press made it possible for the local printer to make hundreds of copies of the flyer he had written. Because he spoke out, he lost his job as a monk, and went to trial for heresy. He was excommunicated by the Catholic Church. Hundreds of miles away, in Paris, the same thing happened to a priest named John Calvin. Thankfully, both of these rebels survived. They started churches and shaped the way we worship. One big contribution Luther and Calvin made, was the start of hymn singing by the whole congregation! Before them, only priests were allowed to sing in a church service. Luther and Calvin wrote the first congregational hymns, and we’re going to sing the very first one today.
We are like Luther, and like the Israelites, in one important way. We want everything to be done yesterday. Were you stuck in traffic on Route 22 Friday night? It took me an hour and fifteen minutes to drive from Center Street in Bethlehem to Cedar Crest Boulevard. I even found myself honking my horn once—not that it made any difference. There were no miracles that night. God didn’t direct all the traffic in my lane to the next two exits so I could move faster on 22; I just had to wait. No parting of the waters for me! Crossing troubled waters, and coping with change in churches—those two risky ventures have a lot in common. We’ll need to trust in God, and be ready to get our feet wet. It would be easier to cut and run. And, believe me, many pastors do! More than fifty percent of women pastors last less than five years in ministry, after finishing seminary. The percentage is only slightly smaller for men.
Next week we’ll elect new church officers. Their jobs won’t be easy. We should be thankful for their willingness to serve. Thanks be to God, for leading us forward in faith!
Let us pray. May the God who has overcome the world give us strength and courage to face and overcome the obstacles we face, as we follow your Son, Jesus Christ. May we go out in the power of the Spirit to wade into the waters and cross over on dry land. Amen
Leslie Scanlon, Presbyterian Outlook, October 31, 2011, www.pcusa.org, retrieved Nov. 5, 2011.
If I were to make a list of Jesus’ most difficult stories, this one would be at the top of my list. I’ve never liked it. I like it even less than the parable of the laborers in the vineyard. You know the one I’m talking about. The overseer, in that parable, pays laborers who started working at four p.m. the same wage as laborers who began working eight hours earlier on the same day. It doesn’t seem fair.
In today’s gospel reading, the first two servants take risks, but the third servant plays it safe. He buries the talent his master has given him. The master punishes him for doing that, instead of investing it. One wonders: what if the other two servants had lost all their money by investing it recklessly? But that doesn’t happen. There’s a clear message here: that God blesses people who use their gifts.
I feel the third servant’s pain. As a child, I was a conservative Monopoly player. I never went broke to buy hotels on Park Place and Boardwalk. I held onto my little pile of five hundred dollar bills all through the game, so I wouldn’t lose them. That’s why I hardly ever won. That’s the kind of kid I was.
Children think they will live forever. That’s why some of them take foolish risks, Others figure they’ll play it safe when they’re young, and maybe take a few risks later. Now that I’ve taken the risks of marriage, parenthood, and career change, and now that I know I’m not immortal, I understand this story’s urgency. There’s going to be a final judgment. Jesus will want to know—did we use God’s gifts to us?
We need to know a little about the history of ancient Palestine to understand this story. This master wasn’t stingy! He had given those three servants an incredible amount of money. One silver talent was the equivalent of fifteen years of wages for a laborer in ancient Palestine. A talent was a very large coin—more like a brick. The kind of bricks that are stacked up at Fort Knox! (Only they are gold.) I also learned that it wasn’t unusual to bury money in the ground, because there were no banks. There were bankers in ancient Palestine, and they would invest your money for you, but there were no banks. The deserts of Judea are probably full of unclaimed silver bricks!
But, still, we wonder why the third servant was so harshly treated. It had a lot to do with the emphasis of Matthew, the gospel writer. Remember that Matthew was addressing his words to the first generation of Christians. They expected Jesus to return to them in a matter of days or weeks. Matthew, retelling Jesus’ parable, emphasized the laziness and the fear of the third servant. He wanted to make sure the people of his church would be prepared for the final judgment.
Matthew was a tax collector, and an expert in the world of finance. That’s not my talent at all. So I would like to take this story out of the financial context and imagine that Jesus might have spoken about God-given talents in another way. Think of the gifts and abilities God has given to children. Most of the time, they show up early in life. Let’s take the first servant and imagine him as a person who received the gift of being a good listener. As a child, he was sought out by people who needed to talk about their problems. He showed how he understood the way they felt. People would come to him for a shoulder to cry on. This child grew up to become a social worker and family counselor.
Let’s re-imagine the second servant in the parable as a girl to whom God gave aptitude for public speaking. In middle school, she was the narrator for school plays. In high school, she was on the debating team. As an adult, she became the spokesperson to the media for a large charitable organization.
How about that third servant? The one who buried his talent? Let’s re-imagine him as an artist. As a child, he loved to paint, and he was lucky enough to win a scholarship to study art at college. But as an adult, he entered one of his paintings in a national art contest. It didn’t even get an honorable mention. He felt so hurt that he never again picked up a paintbrush. Years went by. He got stuck in a boring job he hated. His artistic ability was buried deep within him for the rest of his life.
All of us have been given unique gifts by God. As young people, most of us figured out what they were. Our gifts were affirmed by teachers, parents, and pastors. We developed our talents as we grew into adulthood. Sometimes we got good grades, or awards, or applause for our gifts. Other times, we felt hurt because people didn’t notice how talented we were. For some of us, rejection was too painful. We took no more risks to use our special abilities—dancing or playing the clarinet or speaking French. We forgot how to do those things.
To risk is to make yourself vulnerable. Why put our gifts out there for the world to see? Because it’s good—to be a sensitive, caring listener, and to teach the public about worthy causes, and to produce beautiful works of art. Taking risks to use our gifts is a good thing to do. But there’s another reason to take risks with our gifts—it’s the faithful thing to do. We listen, we speak out, and we create beauty because God calls us, as people of faith, to do that. We believe in God’s good plans for the world, and we believe in the value of our special abilities. Taking risks, with the gifts we have been given, is faithful. We are called to take risks with our gifts in the name of goodness and in the name of faith. And God calls us to encourage others to use their abilities—especially young people.
Now, let’s put the parable back in the context of finances. It’s no secret that churches have budget worries. We do, and we aren’t alone. Our personal financial assets are gifts from God. They don’t belong to us alone. They belong to the whole world. Aren’t we called to use them in ways that are good and faithful?
These are hard times for our church and our denomination. What we are not called to do, is to bury God’s gifts to us because of fear. I once knew a Board of Deacons, in a New Jersey church. The officers had saved contributions from people in the church, amounting to many thousands of dollars. The Board hardly ever spent money. They were like the third servant in Jesus’ parable. They were like me, when I played Monopoly.
Then, one of the Deacons took a risk. At a meeting, she suggested that the Board spend five hundred dollars to buy Bibles for inmates at the county jail. There was a big fight after she spoke. The Moderator went on the defensive. She insisted, “If we spend that much from our treasury, we’ll have nothing left.” But, as our risk-taking Deacon pointed out, contributors had never intended their gifts to sit in a bank. The congregation was pleased when the Deacons bought Bibles for the jail. They were even happier when the Deacons gave the rest of the money to a food pantry.
I’m proud to say that our own Board of Deacons never hesitates to use its treasury to help people in need. On the last Sunday of every month, we put the Deacon offering plate in the back of the sanctuary, so you can help them pay for Thanksgiving dinners for homeless people, and give Christmas presents to poor families in Allentown, and enable the Deacons to give to worthy causes—like getting Camp Brainerd back on its feet. Last month our Deacon offering plate was buried in the Williams Room on October 29, because we were buried in snow. That’s why you see it today.
This parable is a wake-up call. God has given Americans great wealth. And, with medical advances, we’ve been given ample time to live full lives—days and weeks and months and years—a gift few of our ancestors had. I hope this parable will encourage you to take risks with your gifts, so that, in the end time, God, the master, will turn to you and say, “Well done!”
Generous God, you have placed your gifts in our hands. Some, we keep wrapped up tight. Others, we admit, we would bury in the ground if we could. Then there are those gifts that, slowly, hesitantly, we take out and begin to use. Help us to remember how much it pleases you when we risk using our abilities in a faithful way. Give us the courage to risk boldly, to fulfill your purpose in the world. AMEN
When I was growing up, every Thanksgiving we got to eat apple, mince, and pumpkin pies. Notice I said, “AND,” not “OR.” My grandmother baked them herself, and there were enough pies for everyone to eat at least one slice of apple, mince and pumpkin. To me, Thanksgiving meant pie! Later, when I came home from college, my mother used Grandmom’s recipes, on three by five cards, to bake the same three Thanksgiving pies. My dad insisted that our pies be just like the ones he ate as a boy—no graham cracker crusts or Cool-Whip for us! We had to have flaky crust and real whipped cream.
I’m sorry to say I don’t have time to bake for the holidays anymore. But our family cherishes that tradition. Food, lovingly prepared, symbolizes the grace of God for so many of us. I’ll always remember those Thanksgiving pies. They symbolize the presence of my mother, and grandmother, and my mother in law, at our table, and in our lives.
The tradition of Thanksgiving food is huge in our family. Our daughter couldn’t afford to fly home for Thanksgiving, when she was living in California five years ago. She could find fast food and tacos on every street corner, and she could buy a tall pumpkin or gingerbread latte at Starbuck’s. But where in Southern California could she get pumpkin or mince or apple pie? A member of a U.C.C. church in San Diego invited her to their congregation’s Thanksgiving dinner, and she went, and loved it. That’s the way to win the heart of a young person far from home.
American Thanksgiving is more of a civic than a religious holiday. It celebrates the Native American tribes’ generosity to the first settlers in Massachusetts. Family feasts will include pumpkin pie, turkey and cranberries tomorrow, because those foods were introduced to the Plymouth Colony in 1620. Isn’t it hard to believe that turkey was a strange foreign food—like sushi is for some of us today? The Pilgrims were happy to eat just about anything. They had just come through many months of hunger and privation. Gratitude to God swelled their hearts. They were glad to be alive.
The Bible is full of wonderful Thanksgiving readings—including almost half the Psalms. Moses delivers a sermon about Thanksgiving in tonight’s Old Testament reading from Deuteronomy. The Israelites are strangers in a strange land—not at Plymouth, or in Southern California, but at the edge of the Promised Land. As the people get ready to cross the Jordan, the leader of the Israelites calls his people to remember the “great and terrible wilderness.” You might remember how crabby these people are when they begin walking across the Sinai Peninsula. They complain about everything from the long walks to the food. Moses calls them, “a stiff-necked people.” And yet, God has quenched their thirst with water from rock, and they have feasted on manna from heaven.
Human beings have tremendous flexibility, both physically and emotionally. Our bodies gradually adjust to cold water in a swimming pool, hot water in bathtubs, and so on. We usually can forget painful events from the past, over time. Our ability to adjust to new things is called sensory adaptation, and it helps us to survive hardship. Moses has seen the Israelites adapt to a stressful, nomadic lifestyle. But he wants the people to remember how they struggled as slaves. He makes sure they know the story of the Red Sea crossing. Moses is a very old man. He’s speaking to the children and the grandchildren of the people who had escaped from Egypt. The original Israelites had been a desperate, destitute people. They’d had nothing but the clothes on their backs. But, poor as they were, these people had always had a gift of infinite value—God’s promise to carry them into the land of milk and honey.
Tonight we give thanks to God for His gifts in the past and celebrate God’s bountiful gifts in the present. As Christians, we celebrate the greatest gift of all—the salvation we have received in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
We celebrate our personal blessings, as well— each of us has survived “great and terrible wildernesses” in our lives. This congregation has been a blessing to many of you. Remember people who prayed when you were looking for a job, and when you had frightening medical tests. Remember times of loss and grief, when you found comfort here. Remember financial crises and gifts that came through at the last minute to balance the budget. God has been our help in ages past, and God will help us now.
In Deuteronomy, Moses tells the people that they are heading into a good land, “a land with flowing streams, with springs…welling up in valleys and hills….a land where you may eat bread without scarcity, where you will lack nothing.” These words could describe the United States of America. Our country is rich in natural resources. We have clothing, food and shelter. We can buy Thanksgiving pies at the Giant, or we can make reservations at Morgan’s, or we can entertain our families in our homes. So many choices!
It’s not enough to thank God just once a year. God calls us to a life of “thanks-living.” For me, the difference between thanksgiving and “thanks-living” is between celebrating a civic holiday, and living our thanks to God, every day. A friend of mine, the Reverend Dennis Zimmerman, has been writing a different blessing he is thankful for, on Facebook every day since Labor Day. He’s invited others to do the same.
When we live to give thanks, we are being countercultural, like Moses himself was. Society encourages us to congratulate ourselves for our blessings. I constantly hear people say things like this: “My own strength and ability have gotten me this far in my life." We feel entitled. We see the same sense of entitlement in children. They like to open presents, but they expect to get them. They quickly move on to something else! That’s what Moses’ people did too, and most of them weren’t children. But it took them a while to become spiritual grown-ups. You can read the story of their journey toward spiritual maturity in Exodus and Numbers.
Are we so different from children, and from the Israelites? Many adults I know have GPS and the new color version of Amazon Kindle and dozens of games on their telephones. This Friday, people will be lining up in front of Best Buy, starting at 3 a.m., to buy electronic gifts. Do we really need to be connected to the Internet, in the car and in our homes and in the doctor’s office, all the time? What about staying connected to God?
We begin to "live thanks" when we worship God above all other things. If we are deliberate in our praise, our perspective changes. Petty irritations seem smaller. We appreciate little things we’ve been taking for granted—like the candles and matches we found in our house when the power went out, the cars that carry us everywhere and hardly ever break down, the appliances that work, and the home that welcomes us every night. We open up more to the people we love.
“Remember the Lord your God,” Moses tells the Israelites. As we celebrate tomorrow, let’s remember our calling as the people of God: to be joyful always, to pray continually, and to give thanks in all circumstances.
Let us pray. Great Lord, our God, we acknowledge that love began with you, and that you have filled our cup to overflowing. Surrounded as we are by the abundant wealth of this great land, give us the grace to be properly thankful. Help us fill the lives of others with love. We ask these things in the name of Jesus, our Lord. AMEN
1 Corinthians 1:3-9
When Advent comes around, we never feel ready. Doesn’t it seem strange to sing, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” when it’s only the end of November? Advent sneaks up on us. If you’re like me, you haven’t even thought about Christmas cards, and I bet your family is still eating turkey leftovers. But didn’t those huge Morning Calls get us moving? I’m speaking of the ones that came on Thursday and Saturday, eight inches thick with advertising. Who can resist all those coupons? Advent is here! There’s one sign of the season that we can all enjoy today—the beautiful decorations the Deacons have put in our sanctuary.
No, the Christian calendar isn’t off by a month. It’s one of many calendars that doesn’t run from January through December. Today is New Year’s Day for Christians. Did you know that churches have a different timetable from the rest of the world? So do synagogues. The Jewish calendar begins with Rosh Hashanah in September. If you work for a school system, your year begins in August and ends with graduation in June. There are plenty of other calendars that operate under the surface. For example, the end of the year for accountants is April 15. Businesses have fiscal calendars that run from July to June. And the Halloween decorations that we see in stores, beginning in August, add to our confusion.
So what does your calendar tell you, other than that today is the fourth Sunday in November, the Sunday after Thanksgiving, and the first Sunday of Advent? If nothing else, it should tell you that it’s getting darker. The beginning of the Christian year begins in the dark. We’re getting closer to the days of least sunlight. It’s getting dark at five p.m., and every day the darkness comes earlier and earlier... until we reach December 21. That’s the shortest day of the year, when we see the LEAST amount of light. The season of Advent will see each day get increasingly darker. That’s the reason why we light one more Advent candle every week until Christmas Eve. As the days get darker earlier, we’re providing more light for the world, as we wait for the Advent of God in the person of Jesus Christ.
The Apostle Paul, in writing to the church in Corinth, speaks to a people who are waiting. As he puts it, they are waiting "for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.” They’re getting uneasy about the promise Jesus had made to the disciples, that He would come again. They don’t know when, exactly, He’s going to return. Some have started to lose hope. Others have picked up their old, sinful ways, figuring He’s not worth waiting for, anymore. Many of the letters Paul wrote to his churches, were responses to the anxiety of these shaky Christians.
Imagine you are Paul, the former pastor of this church and the leader of these people, despite the fact that you are now many miles away for Corinth. These folks aren’t doing a very good job of witnessing to their faith, and Paul knows it. The problems in their church run so deep it seems like it might take a miracle for them to be made right. But that doesn’t keep Paul from writing a letter that tells them, and I quote, that Christ will "strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ."
The people in Corinth are hardly blameless. Paul knows this because he spent eighteen months leading their congregation. Weaker, less wealthy members feel intimidated by those who feel they are spiritually superior to everyone else in the congregation. Some are nervous about where they stand, in terms of their relationship to Christ, and others are downright smug about their chances for salvation. Still others have just plain given up. They’re angry at life. They think Jesus has let them down. When it comes to waiting "for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ," they’re doing a terrible job of showing patience.
Well, even if the Corinthian Christians aren’t faithful, God is faithful, Paul writes, and one mustn’t lose hope, despite the fact that nothing good seems to be happening yet. Amid the frustrations of our world, we still wait with hope, knowing the King of Kings will return. We wait actively, seeking to live lives that will please God. Waiting and hoping go together.
The hardest challenge in waiting, I think, is waiting for God. We pray, but no answer comes. We wait and wait, and then we finally give up on religion, just like the Corinthians did. A cartoonist pictures the challenge of Christian hope in this way. A man prays, “God, I know that you see things differently from us humans. I know that a thousand years are like a minute to you. For you, God, a million dollars is like a penny. I was wondering: could you please give me one of your pennies?” The next frame of the cartoon shows booming words coming from heaven: “SURE! JUST WAIT A MINUTE!”
What are you waiting for this year? What are you hoping for? We spend so much time waiting. To make our waiting even harder, every Christmas season seems more difficult than the one before. The pressures of our secular culture don’t make it easier. Christmas is more about ensuring that retailers will make enough money to keep our economy going, than it is about announcing the birth of Jesus. And that’s the least of it. The worst is that two dozen people suffered violence while shopping for Christmas gifts in WalMart stores over Thanksgiving weekend. One of my friends who’s currently in seminary, wrote a comment on Facebook at 3 a.m. yesterday from a line outside a big box-store in Louisville, KY: “Here I am, standing in retail hell; I’m only waiting here, at this crazy hour, because every penny counts.”
I could paint a very bleak picture of our world situation. But then I think of Paul, and consider the way his own life is going, while he’s writing this letter. He’s in prison. He gets reports that the people in the church at Corinth are misbehaving. He could certainly write an angry letter. He could ignore the Corinthians and wallow in his own misery. And yet, what does he say to them? "I give thanks to my God always for you... God will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ." Blameless? You’ve got to be kidding!
But Paul isn’t talking about the Corinthians, as much as he’s talking about Jesus. He mentions Jesus ten times in ten verses. If the Apostle Paul were writing to us today, to help us with our New Year’s resolutions, I believe these would be his top three suggestions: “Please be a Christ-centered church this year, and open your hearts to the grace of God, and don’t lose hope that Jesus will come again!” We, ourselves, have seen enough of God’s faithfulness, through Christmas past. We know that Jesus will come and make things right once again for us. Let’s remember Paul’s advice to his congregation, as we get ready for Christmas. Don’t obsess about everything that’s wrong with the world, despite the fact that there is plenty wrong. Jesus will come and dwell with us forevermore. That’s worth hoping for. Don’t you agree?
Lord, we wait for your coming to us... to strengthen us to the very end, so that on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ we too will be blameless. So come, Lord Jesus, come... into our hearts today. Amen.
I Corinthians 1:7.
I Corinthians 1:8.
Wayne Brouwer, Humming Til the Music Returns: Second Lesson Sermons for Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany (Lima, OH: CSS, 1999), 12.
First Presbyterian Church of Hokendauqua
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