June 2015 Sermons:
II Corinthians 4:13—5:1
The Bridger Wilderness Area, in Wyoming, is one of the most beautiful sections of the Rocky Mountains. After visiting the park, hikers are asked to write comments so rangers can improve the trails. Here are some suggestions that visitors to the Bridger Wilderness wrote on their comment cards.
We all want perfect vacations. Sometimes we think we would love it if nothing went wrong, the rest of our lives. But in the real world, mountains are full of rocks. Marriages bring heartaches. Our faces wrinkle and our hair falls out when we get old. In almost every office, there are mean co-workers to deal with. Reckless drivers cause accidents. Unfortunately, there is no escalator to carry us past all our troubles.
As we look around our world, full of pain and loss, what can we conclude about God’s love for us? What do the scriptures tell us about God’s grace in relation to the pain in our lives?
We find a great deal of suffering in the Bible. In Genesis, all creatures on earth die in the Great Flood, except for the ones on Noah’s Ark. Trickster Jacob disinherits his older brother. In the gospel of Luke, the parents-to-be of John the Baptist spend most of their lives defeated by infertility. Mary and Joseph endure a whispering campaign in their town: She's pregnant, but they're not married. The Apostle Paul lives through a shipwreck, is arrested countless times, and has to walk all around the Mediterranean Sea in sandals, long after he’s past fifty. Worst of all, Jesus is beaten and whipped by Roman soldiers and crucified.
In the Psalms we find a mixture of ups and downs. We find comfort in Psalm 23: "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want." But Psalm 22 begins, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" Jesus borrowed from Psalm 23 to declare, "I am the Good Shepherd." Then He willingly went to His death on the cross, crying in anguish: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" In the Psalms, security is never far from suffering.
From a Christian perspective, there is no guarantee of happiness. "Happy" comes from the English word "hap," which means "chance." "Happiness" is a sense of well-being that comes and goes. Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians makes it clear that all Christians will face difficulties along with happiness. Paul writes that what happens isn't as important as how we respond.
Instead of explaining "Why?" the Bible is more helpful in answering our question, "What now? Where do we go from here?” God is good. Yet bad things happen. God chooses not to take our suffering away. This is where human understanding fails us. We get impatient when we endure hardship with far less information about the future than we would like. God promises that the crooked will be made straight and the rough places plain. But it takes courage to live out these words from Proverbs: "Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and don't rely on what you think you know.”
God’s grace brings blessings here and now, even when things go wrong. Paul writes in verse 15, "Everything is for your sake, so that grace, as it extends to more and more people, may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God."
So why does God let bad things happen? The Bible doesn’t tell us. If we keep on asking, “Why, why, why?” we’ll just get frustrated. Here is what the Bible does tell us: God is in charge of the universe. God permits our pain, but God is in that pain with us.
Even more important, our pain may accomplish something. Every new problem gives us a chance to strengthen our reliance on God -- or rather, to allow God to strengthen His divine grip on us. And don’t forget the future grace promised to us. Paul rejoices in verse 14 of our text, "we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus." And in verse 17 we read, "For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure."
We all need to adopt a long-term perspective on personal pain. It sounds easy but it takes courage. What word of encouragement does the Bible have for parents who wait for years for a prodigal child to come home, for a husband and wife who feel chained to a loveless marriage, or for a young person whose body is wasting away from disease? What God tells us is that for those who entrust themselves to Jesus Christ, the universe is safe -- not because bad things never happen (because they do) -- but because---- as Paul asks, in his letter to the Romans----"Who can separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus?" The answer is, no one.
There are some remarkable rescues in the Bible. The Egyptians cross the Red Sea on dry land. Joseph, the dreamer, becomes the viceroy of Egypt and saves his family. But we find no guarantee of deliverance in scripture. In Paul’s letters to the Romans and the Corinthians, we are assured that the pain of those who walk with God actually accomplishes something. The Apostle Paul boldly states that our troubles "achieve" for us an experience of future grace that will one day make our suffering worthwhile. In the passage Sally read for us, Paul writes: "For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens."
We can’t grasp what heaven is like. It is a world completely alien to us. To what can we compare it? Imagine a group of Polynesian islanders reading about strawberries. They see a bowl of big red, juicy berries in a picture. But that hardly qualifies as "knowing" about strawberries. But what if someone from that island were to take a trip to a strawberry field and come back with enough fresh strawberries for all the Polynesians to eat one? That is precisely what Jesus accomplished for us on Easter. He gave us a taste of resurrection. None of us can know death until we face it. But God sent His Son to go before us. Jesus came back to earth, offering a taste of what's in store for all those who trust Him.
People who suffer, ask: why is this happening to me? The answer is, we don't know. But we believe that God can be trusted to be with us and to offer saving grace. Secondly, why doesn't God do something about all our pain? The answer is, God already has. God sent Jesus. Nothing in this world can ever separate us from His love.
In her book, My Grandfather’s Blessings, physician Rachel Naomi Remen tells of the many gifts she received from her beloved grandfather, a rabbi. When she was five years old, he gave her a paper cup. She was disappointed to find that it was filled with dirt. She told him she wasn’t allowed to play with dirt. Her grandfather smiled. He took a little teapot from her room and filled it with water. “If you promise to pour a little water from this teapot into your cup every day, something surprising may happen,” he told her.
Little Rachel promised to water the dirt in the cup, even though this promise didn’t make sense to her. She was faithful in watering the cup, every day, at first. But after nothing had happened for almost two weeks, it became harder to keep her promise. She asked her grandfather if it was time to stop yet. Grandfather shook his head, “No! You MUST water the cup every single day,” he repeated.
The next week it was even harder for Rachel to do the watering every day. But her grandfather held the little girl to her promise. “Every day!” Sometimes she would forget to water the cup and go to bed. Then she would wake up in the middle of the night and water it in the dark. In the end, Rachel didn’t miss a day of watering.
One morning, three weeks later, she saw two little green leaves that had not been there the night before. Rachel was astonished. She couldn’t wait to tell her grandfather. She was sure that he would be as surprised as she was. But, of course, he wasn’t surprised at all. Her grandfather explained to her that life springs up everywhere, even in the most unlikely places.
Rachel was delighted with her discovery. She asked her grandfather, “And all it needs is water?” Gently her grandfather patted the top of her head. “No, dear Rachel. All it needs is your faithfulness.”
Jesus’ two parables in today’s gospel lesson, present a picture of the victory of the kingdom of God. Jesus wants His listeners to know that the seed Christ planted on earth will become a mighty force in the world----even if the present times are difficult and dangerous. Mark the evangelist led an early church in Rome. Live faithfully and the kingdom will come, Mark kept telling them. Trust God to do the work that is beyond us, and we can do things that seem impossible in order to grow our congregation.
Trust turns belief into faith. Rachel Naomi Remen trusted her grandfather. That’s why she kept on watering the dirt in the cup, when nothing seemed to happen. Perhaps the best word for faith is reliance. If we trust something, we rely on it. We rely on Jesus' teachings to show us the way. We do our part in seeing that God's kingdom comes on earth, all the while relying on His grace.
The Parable of the Growing Seed stresses the mysterious process of growth. The farmer sows the seed and growth begins. Seeds grow mysteriously during the night. It's like the greening of grass in the spring after a long winter of snow. There comes the day when we have eyes to see it. To our eyes, it may seem as if it happened overnight. One day the lawn was covered with snow and the next it is lush and green. Just the way our daffodils bloomed, out in front of our church, between Palm Sunday and Easter.
Our faith is like that. There are times when we may think we are losing our faith, when in actuality, we are moving to a deeper level. What appears on the surface as disorder, can actually be the mysterious process of growth pushing us to another stage on the way to a mature faith. If we had God's eye-view, we might be less concerned. Spiritual growth is never easy. A wise minister friend once told me: "Faith is like the label on a bottle of medicine: Shake well before using." The way to a deeper faith is to give up the level of faith we have. Another way to say this is "to trust the process."
The second parable about the mustard seed tells us that- the faith we have may be able to do more than we think it can. How much faith do we need? Not very much, it seems: as much (or as little) as a mustard seed. The seed Jesus is talking about is the black mustard seed. It was planted and cultivated for use as a spice. Sometimes mustard seeds were ground into a powder and the oil from them reserved for other purposes. The mustard plant could reach a height of ten feet when full grown. Huge mustard shrubs circled the Sea of Galilee. Yet the mustard seed itself was one of the smallest known to the people of ancient Judea. The point is that the size of the seed is small in comparison to the mature plant.
Jesus meant this parable as a word of encouragement. He was speaking to farmers. Their livelihoods depended on the scattering of seeds, and faith that the seeds would grow. These people understood these parables because they were able to connect the work of their hands with God’s providence. They realized that rewards came to them, not only because of their own hard work, but also with a degree of blessing from God.
It's a comfort to know that we don't need much faith. If we only have faith the size of a mustard seed, that's all we need. How much faith is enough? A little of the right kind. When you have just a little faith it's amazing what can happen. What may appear amazing to one person may just be a matter of fact for another and vice versa. The time when most of us seem to look for this is when we ask for physical healing. We pray for someone to get well and when they don't, we jump to conclusions. We feel the reason must be that we didn't have enough faith. We forget that the point in Jesus' parable is not how much faith but what kind of faith.
We also forget that not everyone is supposed to get well every time. When Jesus was on this earth, He didn’t heal every person alive. God has all the power. His grace doesn’t depend on us. We shouldn’t blame ourselves for lacking faith. The work of God’s kingdom is silent and hidden.
Sometimes God takes our little faith and works mighty miracles with it. It happens every time someone takes on a job they think they can't possibly handle, and they end up doing it faithfully. When I was in high school, I was painfully shy. I took a grade of zero in public speaking class, in order to get out of making a speech. The last thing I ever imagined, when I was sixteen years old, was that I would be able to speak in front of people—the way I do in ministry----every week!!
So I ask once more. How much faith is enough? Just a little, as long as it's genuine and it’s yours. Yes, Jesus got it right, the size of a mustard seed. One day, when you least expect it, the strength of your faith may surprise you -- like the blossom of a beautiful crocus sticking up its head after a long winter nap. That's when you will know that you, too, have eyes of faith.
I Samuel 1a, 4-11, 37-49
We love the story of David and Goliath because the underdog wins against the big bully. David may be small, but he’s smart. Before the battle starts, King Saul tries to outfit David with armor, but David understands that armor won’t work for him. He knows he has to fight in his own way. David may be just a kid, but he approaches the battle with confidence. He says, “The Lord, who saved me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear, will save me from the hand of this Philistine.”
The church is like David, standing against the huge forces of consumerism in our society. If we, as people of faith, are like David, then our first lesson from him is not to be afraid. David trusts enough in God to face the giant, Goliath. We too can overcome giants by trusting that God will give us courage to move forward. All of life’s giants can be overcome if we take small, individual steps.
Even more than the image of the shepherd defeating the warrior, I love the way David reshapes the contest. What if we learned to look at our challenges from a different viewpoint? The news is full of stories about the decline of organized religion in America, and the dwindling number of people who make time to go to church. We think there is just one answer to the problem—that is, to get more people in the pews. But what if we reframe the challenge? What if the battle for us is not about the number of people in the pews? What if we worried less about our own survival? Could it be that our challenge is about keeping the voice of faith alive in a secular society? Is our calling really to reach out with light and grace to the needy we already have all around us, in our congregation and community?
Author Malcolm Gladwell has deepened my understanding of the David and Goliath story. In his book, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, Gladwell writes that what we believe about advantages and disadvantages doesn’t tell the whole story. Getting into the best college? Gladwell demonstrates that it’s not always a good thing for a top notch student to become a small fish in a big pond. And David and Goliath? David really did enter the contest with advantages.
In his book, Gladwell explains his understanding of our favorite story from the Old Testament: “David’s slingshot is one of the most feared weapons in the ancient world. The stone that comes from it, has the stopping power equivalent to a bullet from a .45 caliber pistol. It’s a serious weapon. And second, there are many medical experts who believe that Goliath was so big because he was suffering from acromegaly. Many giants have acromegaly, but it has a side effect. It causes restrictive sight. Goliath in the biblical story does, if you look closely, sound like a guy who can’t see.” For example, he has to have another soldier lead him forward. David had more plusses in that battle than we think he did, Gladwell suggests. If David has advantages, do smaller, older churches have some advantages, too?
Being irrelevant to most people in our culture gives us a kind of freedom to do whatever we think is right. Being small means we can create deeper bonds between people. Not having money forces us to rely more deeply on God. The church can learn from David’s story -- not just that the smaller person can win, but how not to be afraid, and how to use the strengths we have.
Clayton Christensen, a professor of business at Harvard, has applied a similar theory to businesses. In his book, The Innovator’s Dilemma, Christensen describes how most companies end up developing products that are larger, more sophisticated, or more expensive than their customers need. Here’s an example—someone in my family just got a flip phone—not even a “smart phone”—that has a 120-page instruction manual. Why is it so complicated? And Microsoft Word gets more complex every month, with upgrades that people will never use, but we’re stuck with, nonetheless.
Meanwhile, smaller companies develop products that fit a niche of unserved customers. The big company thinks the niche is too small to bother with. Eventually the upstart company unsettles the giant. This is called “disruptive innovation.” Examples include personal computers replacing mainframe computers and cellphones replacing landlines. As one innovation website describes it, “Disruptive innovations will often have characteristics that traditional customer segments may not want. Such innovations will appear as cheaper, simpler, and even with inferior quality if compared to existing products, but some new segment will value it.”
Small churches could think of ourselves as disruptive innovators, going where giants don’t want to go and serving people unserved by the secular culture. Our biggest asset is the family feeling our congregation offers to visitors. These days, families are geographically distant from each other. Everyone needs to be part of a community that provides support, comfort and personal contact. Churches of our size fill that need.
As Gladwell says in his book, “The very thing that gave the giant his size was also the source of his greatest weakness.... The powerful… are not always what they seem.” At the beginning of the story, David says to Saul: “Let no one’s heart fail... your servant will go and fight.” As we go and fight God’s fight with the surprising strengths that we have, may our hearts not fail.
We think we have to be Supermen, or Wonder Women, but we don’t. We’ll never be a corporate-size program congregation. We can’t afford to sponsor annual youth choir tours or international mission trips. But David, a humble shepherd boy, defeated Goliath by being himself and trusting God. His particular talent made a difference. The only way to tackle giants is to take small steps of faith—steps that give us confidence to continue.
When I hear the story of David and Goliath, I think of my dad. When he was 78, Dad happened to go in the men’s room at Port Authority in Manhattan—not the safest place for an old man with crippling arthritis. A stranger walked up to my dad when he was washing his hands, and picked his pocket. My dad happened to have a 700-page architecture book in his shopping bag. My dad swung the bag with his right arm and hit the pickpocket squarely on the head with the huge book. The pickpocket dropped my dad’s wallet and ran out to the main concourse.
My dad was a gentle, church-going man, not a violent person. But, all his life, he performed well under pressure. He used what he had. My mom was on the trip to New York with Dad, but he never mentioned the incident on the trip home. In fact,- he didn’t tell her about it until a year later!
What’s your favorite story about your dad? Brag a little. Celebrate his life by telling that story. Thank God for underdogs who fought for us—Dads, Moms, Grandmoms, Grandads, teachers and friends. Pay tribute to the people who shaped your faith in God. Share that faith today with someone who needs it.
Let us pray: Loving God, you know all about us. Help us learn what our strengths are. And give us courage to use them in service to you. We ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Isaiah 43: 1-7
June has been a time of strong emotion for our congregation. Not only has this been an important month in national news, but here in our church we have lost three beloved members since the end of May. In addition, David Dougherty died suddenly last winter. In 2014, by contrast to this year, there were no funerals here and we had a net gain of thirteen members. Clearly, we’re in a time of change. Change is hard, but life must go on.
Today God has brought us a celebration. And we appreciate it all the more because of the sadness of May and June. Thanks be to God, we have a joy we can all share today—the baptism of Noah.
Our Old Testament passage, the first one that Melody read, is a comfort to all of us. Although Isaiah pre-dates Christ by more than five hundred years, he speaks of God’s love for His chosen people. Through the word of the Lord, the prophet Isaiah reminds the Hebrews that they weren’t valued because of what they had accomplished, but because they were God’s own. And the same thing is true today. People of faith are not made precious to God by what other people say or think about them. People of faith are precious because God has chosen them.
Times of loss in the church are stressful and sad, but there is hope in the scriptures. In looking for Bible verses about baptism, I came to Isaiah 43, and read about passing through the waters. My eyes filled with tears, as I read this passage over and over again. I can’t seem to get enough of it. It speaks not only to us as individuals, but also to us as communities of faith, about God’s love for us.
Listen again to the words of the prophet Isaiah: "Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you…I give people in return for you, nations in exchange for your life...because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you."
"I have called you by name; you are mine." What a wonderful declaration of love from God, through the words of the prophet! This Bible passage is full of the promises God has kept for His people, and continues to keep. Most of our baptisms took place in the distant past. If we were Noah’s age when we were baptized, we don’t remember that day. I definitely don’t remember December 26, 1947, and on that day I was older than Noah is now. However, God’s promises that were made for us at baptism, will continue, for Noah, and for us, all our lives.
Martin Luther, the first great leader of the Protestant Reformation, had a demanding, verbally abusive father. Luther was plagued at times by a sense of unworthiness. In fact, he hated the sound of his own name, as he was growing up. To drive back the demons from his mind, he kept an inscription over his desk that said, in German, “Remember, you have been baptized.” Often he would touch his forehead and remind himself, “Martin, you have been baptized.”
Before I wrote this sermon, I had read Luther’s story several times, but I had never touched my own forehead in the way Luther did. I had never reminded myself, in a physical way, that I, too, am sealed by the Holy Spirit through baptism. I recommend that later today, you take a moment, touch your own forehead, and remind yourself that you are a child of God--baptized or not.
Our grief sometimes makes us wonder whether God has abandoned us. We may never doubt that God exists, but it does feel sometimes like God isn’t paying enough attention to all the pain we are going through. We need to be reminded, constantly, that when we pass through deep waters, God is with us. God isn’t up above in some divine lifeguard chair somewhere, waiting to see if we’ll make it, not even standing off on the shore shouting encouragement. God is right here, in the water, with us.
When we fear for our loved ones, and when we dread the bereavements that we know will come, we need to hear God’s voice loud and clear: When you walk through fire, you will not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. When you allow yourself to imagine that time when you cross from this life to the next one, and you wonder what God will be saying to you, these words should echo: “You are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.”
What difference does it make to be a baptized Christian? Quite a lot! From our baptism onward, we live inside the promise that we have strength that comes from heaven. The Holy Spirit empowers us to work for God’s good pleasure. If you belong to God, He will help you overcome whatever may come your way. He will never let you go!
Have you noticed that sometimes we don't appreciate God’s providence until we face serious problems? Let God know how much you appreciate His gifts to you -- not just today, but every day of the week!
When you are touched by the waters of baptism, you become a part of the life and death and resurrection of Jesus. Remember that Jesus even overcame a cross for you! He took our sin upon Himself. He stands with us and intercedes for us.
Remember the gospel story of the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist? You may remember the voice of the dove from heaven, saying, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased." It seemed that God was commenting to the crowd about Jesus, “Look here, pay attention to this one.”
God has promised support to each one of us, in our baptism. You are my child, my beloved; with you I am well pleased. You are precious in my sight. You are honored. I love you.
Imagine that God is calling you by name. I love the thought of God, sitting on a star in the heavens, saying about me, “Do you see my girl down there? She’s far from perfect, but she’s mine. I am proud of her. She has overcome much, with my help!” Children of God, today is a good day to celebrate your own baptism, as you participate in Noah’s baptism today. If you have never been baptized, it’s not too late to claim your inheritance of God’s kingdom. Just let me know.
Let us pray. For our baptism, when we were made one with Him and one with each other, we praise you, O God. Help us to remember that we belong to you, so that we might glorify and enjoy you forever. Amen.
First Presbyterian Church of Hokendauqua
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