May/June 2012 Sermons:
"Well-Connected Christians" — May 6
My grandfather had a green thumb, but I’ve never been successful at growing plants. When Jesus compares Himself to a vine and describes us as His branches, I’m not sure how I feel about that. I admire people with initiative. What does a branch do all day? Not much. It has to wait for the sun and rain, in order to grow. The verb, “to abide,” is passive. It means “to reside”, “to accept”, “to remain steadfast”, “to suffer for”, or “to wait for.” Being compared to a sheep is bad enough. Sheep may not be smart, and they aren’t leaders, but at least they have brains.
On the other hand, growth is the part of this vegetable story that I can get excited about. But notice that, even though Jesus compares Himself a plant, and names us as His branches, He never mentions growth! The vine is supposed to bear fruit, but Jesus doesn’t tell the branches to grow. He mentions fruitfulness six times in our gospel reading. That’s six more times than He mentions growth. Bearing fruit must be different from growing.
Jesus told this parable on the night before He died. This story is part of His farewell speech to His followers. It begins with the words, "I am the vine, you are the branches …apart from me you can do nothing" (John 15:1). He’s saying that we are grafted to one another in His love and we can’t be fruitful unless we stay connected to Him and to His church. It’s a strong statement, and I suspect that some of you might have a problem with it. We all know people who don’t believe in God, who’ve still become famous and earned a lot of money. Aren’t they fruitful?
If you think about it, an entrepreneur who doesn’t believe in God might find his or her faith an obstacle to worldly success. To be a good Christian, he or she would have to follow ethical business practices and avoid getting rich at the expense of poor people. A lot depends on how you measure success, but you can be successful without God. But Jesus is telling us that the work we do, when we are separated from His love for us, means nothing.
Even in the most challenging situations, we can bear the fruit of love. A friend of mine, a nurse who is a Christian, decided not to let the increased paperwork and the understaffing of her department at the hospital get her down. She decided to spread the sunshine of Jesus’ love. She hoped to encourage her colleagues and lift the spirits of the patients. Even a grumpy doctor was touched by her kindness. One day when he yelled at her, she touched his arm and said, “I know you’re having a difficult day. If I can make your job easier, please ask me.” He said nothing, but she noticed he stopped scolding the nursing staff.
Jesus said, “Apart from me, you can do nothing.” (Jn 15:5). We need to be in a right relationship with Jesus. That’s what the Christian connection is all about. How do we do this? We make frequent contact with Him. We speak to Him, listen for answers and wait for guidance before dealing with problems in our lives. Coming here for Sunday worship helps, but we need Christ’s nourishment every day. His words must abide in us. How has He abided with you this past week, in your joys and hardships?
Find a couple of spiritual practices that keep you connected to our source of power. Stay connected by coming to Sunday worship, praying, reading the Bible, studying the Bible, meditation, talking with others about your faith, singing in the choir, keeping a journal—there are dozens of ways to keep in contact with Jesus.
If we claim to have faith in God, but don’t seek out the fellowship and support of other Christians, then we haven’t got the faith right. Don’t forget that we, as the branches, need to be connected with one another—and not just on Facebook. Nobody can be a Christian in isolation. I’m not talking about people who are ill and can’t get here, but under most normal circumstances, being a Christian means being connected with other Christians. One of the jobs of our Deacons is to maintain contact with everyone in the congregation. They send cards, make phone calls and keep in touch with folks who have a hard time getting here, or people who have moved out-of-state.
A church is like a vineyard. It exists in order to bear fruit. We have good fellowship with one another, and we care for one another in times of need. Where we still need to develop, as a congregation, is in our connectedness to the world. We’re hosting a fitness class starting in June, on Thursday nights. But connectedness means more than just inviting worthwhile groups use our building; it means becoming involved with ministries in our community. The Whitehall Food Bank is an example. We need to become more confident about sharing God’s good news with people we know--- whether that’s the good news of Jesus Christ, or the good news about our own church, for people who are searching for a congregation.
In researching this sermon, I found that plants are more powerful, and less boring, than I had realized. A few years ago, scientists at Amherst College performed a simple experiment on a squash plant. They planted a squash seed. They fed and watered the plant, until it grew a squash about the size of a person's head. Then they fit a band around the squash. The band was attached to instruments that would tell them how much pressure the squash exerted as it tried to grow against the constraint of the band. They expected that the squash would exert as much as five hundred pounds of pressure. Within a month, they found they’d been right— the squash was registering five hundred pounds of pressure against the band. But it was still trying to grow. In two months, the plant was exerting 1,500 pounds of pressure. When it got to be 2,000 pounds, they had to reinforce the bands. The experiment ended with the squash pushing 5,000 pounds of pressure. But it didn't end because the squash stopped growing. At 5,000 pounds it had broken the bands that had been measuring its force. When they cut the squash open, they found that it was full of dense fibers that had grown inside it, to push against its restraints. They also discovered that the squash plant had sent out 80,000 feet of roots searching for the strength it needed, in order to grow against the band that was holding it back.
Isn’t that what we need, a life force inside us to deal with life’s challenges? That’s what Christ offers. We are grafted into Christ--the only vine that connects us to the power of God. There are no extension cords in heaven. If our strength doesn’t come directly through Jesus Christ, our power source will fail. We must plug into the only source that can handle God’s power. When we receive that power, we will bear fruit.
I John 5:1-6
Melody just read six beautiful verses about love and obedience from the First Epistle of John. Which “John” wrote them? The answer to that question is pretty complicated. The “Johns” of the New Testament may have been one person, or two different people. The letter writer was probably the gospel writer also, but we don’t know for sure. We think the “John” who wrote the book of Revelation was yet another John. “John” was a common name in Bible times. So there might have been three writers of the New Testament named John. Just like we have three elders named John in our church. It can be confusing!
Today’s New Testament lesson has such beautiful words about abiding in Christ’s love. It’s a good one for Mothers Day. Remember the great expectations our moms had for us when we were growing up? John’s saying that God, our Father, has plans for us, and he’s reminding us to follow the commandments we find in the Bible. Our moms would approve. I know mine would.
John’s words seem simple and familiar. It’s a little hard to follow his logic, though, isn’t it? My mom’s rules didn’t always make sense to me, either. She was trying to shape a good life for me, even if I didn’t realize it then. Here’s an example. When I was in kindergarten, my mother made a rule that I should buy white milk or chocolate milk every other day for lunch, alternating one with the other. I preferred chocolate, of course. I figured I got enough white milk at home. So I bought chocolate milk every day in kindergarten and didn’t tell my mother. Did I ever feel guilty! Twenty years later, I admitted I’d broken her rule and given in to temptation. She laughed and said it hadn’t really mattered to her. She had just wanted me to drink milk every day, so I’d be healthy. I didn’t always understand the rules our parents set for me, but by first grade I had learned obedience. It helped a lot that I had faith in my mom and trusted her judgment.
Parenting gets harder when kids become teenagers. By the time I got to middle school, which was called “junior high school” back then, my parents’ rules were even tougher to figure out. I’m sure I wasn’t easy for them to figure out, either. In the morning, I always left a pile of clothes on the floor that I’d decided against wearing. My mother would look at the pile, and then look at the clothes I’d put on. She’d say, “Maybe your friend gets away with wearing an outfit with a bare midriff, and her parents don’t care. But I am YOUR mother, and you can’t wear that to school.” I knew my mother had my own best interests at heart. She was teaching me a big life lesson—to focus on what I ought to do, and not on what other kids were doing. Even if all the other girls in my school wore shirts that said, “I’m with Stupid,” or had false eyelashes, it didn’t mean I had to follow suit. If you had an upbringing like I did, your mother taught you to pray, and you were expected go to church on Sunday. Prayer and faith and going to church were much more important than drinking the right kind of milk or wearing a skirt to school that covered my knees.
It’s tough to be a good Christian and to be a good teenager. Heaven help our kids who are trying to be good Christian teenagers in this world today! It’s so easy to be distracted by the advertisements for stuff the world tells us we should want—better clothes, electronic toys, a bigger house, a faster car, and social prestige. The world’s shallow values constantly work against Christ’s teachings.
Let’s look at the situation John is writing about in his letter. It’s been fifty years since Jesus’ resurrection. John is preaching in the huge port city of Ephesus. He seems to be a father figure to this congregation, as well as a pastor. He calls his listeners, “little children,” in his letter. They are adults, of course. The people in his flock are being tempted by worldly values. John wants these folks to stay on track. He’s reminding them that they ought to obey the commandments in the Bible, especially Jesus’ rule of love.
Ephesus wasn’t a predominantly Christian city. It had a mixture of ethnic cultures and religions. Caesar was God for millions of people in the Mediterranean. Thousands in the city secretly worshipped Greek gods instead of the Roman emperor. Christians weren’t being arrested or persecuted. But they were getting more and more confused about who this man Jesus had been, and why He had come. Temptation was all around them. John knew the time was right for giving the Ephesians a refresher course in Christian values. We’re luckier than most of those early Christians were. We grew up in times when our parents taught us about Jesus, and brought us to church.
A parent’s expectations should rise above the values of the world around him or her. A good mom wants her children to be part of something that lasts. Have you ever wondered what your mother thought about when she changed your diapers? She had her hands in reality. And yet, she had her hopes in your possibilities. I don’t know how you can change diapers, day after day, night after night, unless you have hope. I don't know how, over and over and over again, you put your hands in the mess unless you believe that changing your child’s diaper is a part of shaping the future.
Did you know that Martin Luther, the reformation leader, married a former nun and that they had many children? He was a famous preacher, and worshiped with kings. And yet, he never complained about changing his children’s diapers. He changed them more often than his wife did. He said he changed those diapers “for the glory of God.” I’m sure he taught his children to pray, too. Even the little chores of parenting—like packing lunches and changing diapers—shape the future. Caring for others needs to be a way of life for us---not just something we do once in a while, but something we do day in and day out. The love we received from our parents and teachers has shaped us and the world we live in. They showed us how to live.
Jesus sent His followers out to conquer the world, to make disciples of all nations. John never forgot the Great Commission of Jesus. John was well-equipped to teach new Christians to love others, because he had been loved by Jesus Himself. We’re all one family under God. Being involved in what God is doing around the world is not an optional activity for us. Loving one another, feeding the hungry, comforting the suffering—these are evidence that God lives in us. If we love God, we have no choice but to love others. Let us love one another as we have been loved, and let us show the world how to live.
In a "Peanuts" comic strip, Snoopy and Woodstock are sitting on top of Snoopy's doghouse. Snoopy says, "What are you doing here? You're supposed to be out somewhere sitting on a branch chirping. That's your job. People expect to hear birds chirping when they wake up in the morning."
With that, Woodstock flies off to a nearby branch and belts out a single "chirp." Then he flies back to the doghouse. Snoopy says, "You chirped only once. You can't brighten someone's day with one chirp." So Woodstock flies back to the branch and belts out eight more chirps. And when the bird returns to the doghouse, Snoopy smiles and says, "There now! Didn't that give you a real feeling of satisfaction? The bad news is you're supposed to do that every morning, for the rest of your life."
Then Woodstock faints dead away off the doghouse roof. The call to serve, when it comes, can be really intimidating. Have you spent your life trying to figure out who you are and what you are called to do? Those are Charlie Brown’s kind of questions.
Finding ourselves and what God really wants us to do—that’s a luxury our forefathers never thought much about. In the 1850’s, when our church was founded, Americans didn’t worry about finding themselves. Parents hardly ever asked their children what they wanted to be when they grew up. When kids came of age, they took the same jobs their parents had. It was that simple. My paternal great-grandfather was a farmer in Maryland, like his father before him. My maternal grandfather was trained to be a carpenter, just like his father and his grandfather, and he worked as a carpenter until he died. Their wives were homemakers and mothers.
The freedom to make choices has changed the way we live, and not necessarily for the better. Middle-class Americans are encouraged to “Do our own thing.” We baby boomers grew up believing we could create ourselves. Pick a college, pick a major, pick a career, pick a city to live in. Live into your decisions and your new self will be complete!
If you’re like me, you made huge life decisions around the age of 21, and your parents and grandparents did, too. An okay life was good enough for my grandparents, but my generation wants more than “ok.” We live longer. We believe our lives will be better if we change jobs or spouses or homes or churches. Many of us end up feeling rootless from all the changes. I think the reason Facebook is popular with baby boomers—even with those of us who aren’t making dating connections—is that we meet our online friends and get back in touch with the past. I never see my high school friends except online.
During World War II, my entire family lived in Washington, D.C. Now my generation is scattered from Tennessee to South Carolina to Pennsylvania to Washington State to Georgia to Michigan, and it’s not easy for us to meet anywhere but the Internet. We work hard to give our children a sense of their heritage. This is one of the great gifts that churches offer to families. A church is a non-geographic community! Can you think of any other organization that works so hard to keep in touch with its members? You’ve done a good job of staying in touch with out-of town members of our family, like Peg Hodes and Dan Kramlich and Titus Ruch. A good newsletter, phone calls and the cards our Deacons send, really matter.
In our scripture reading from Romans, Paul reminds us that didn’t create ourselves. God did. Life is a gift from God that we should receive with gratitude. Our dependence on Him isn’t a weakness. It’s a strength. We need the personal presence of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Our identity doesn’t come from the school we went to, or the car we drive, or the neighborhood we live in. We’re sisters and brothers of Jesus Christ and God’s children. That’s an identity to be proud of.
Sue read us a few verses from the eighth chapter of Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Paul writes in this passage about adoption into God’s family. Paul was a Roman citizen, and he was writing to Roman citizens he’d never met. He knew that adoption was a common practice in the Roman Empire. Roman fathers formally adopted their sons, even if they were the biological parents of those same sons. Formalities were a big deal in the Roman culture. A son, adopted from outside the family, was given all the rights that belonged to children born into it. God has adopted all of us. Christian men and women have the same standing as Jesus has with God. That’s what Paul is saying. That’s amazing. The same standing as Jesus!
But here’s the bad news. Along with the privileges of adoption, Christians have to share the cross with Christ. This means we won’t have an “ok” life all the time. Paul didn’t, after he became a Christian. He was imprisoned, shipwrecked, stoned, rejected by church leaders and eventually run out of Jerusalem. As Paul writes, “We suffer with the Son so that we may also be glorified with Him.” To be the heirs of God, and the joint heirs with Christ, means to suffer. And Paul was a courageous heir of Christ. I learned about the hardships Paul faced, when John and I visited sites of his churches in Ephesus and Smyrna and Corinth. All the little things we worry about as church leaders seem very small compared to the worries Paul had all the time. He spent most of the second half of his life as a hunted man, hated by both the Pharisees and the Romans. He was old and chronically ill, probably epileptic, but he walked for thousands of miles. What an incredible evangelist, and what a tough leader. What a role model for every pastor!
By grace the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have adopted you. God didn’t choose you because you earned it. You weren’t even chosen because of our gifts for ministry. You were chosen because the Spirit anointed the Son to find you and bring you home to God. And that’s the good news. You belong to God. You don’t have to create yourself.
The embrace of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit—what’s that like? We don’t understand the Trinity very well, but I think of it as something like good parenting. The presence of God inside of us tends to weed out our unhelpful personality traits. We learn how to say “No” to those habits. Just like my Mom used to say when I tried out a four-letter word at home, “We don’t say those words in this house!”
In the Presbyterian Church, we believe that the Spirit meets us at the Communion table. By communing with the Triune God, we learn how to live good lives—something like the way our parents taught us manners at the dinner table. No boarding house reaches for the butter, don’t hog the mashed potatoes, don’t interrupt, listen to what other people are saying. When we meet Jesus at this table to share the sacrament, we are transformed into the people God created us to be. We all try to be something other than who we are in Christ, from time to time. In my generation it was the feminist movement that made women want to “have it all.” So we distorted our lives with compulsive busy-ness.
When I come to the Communion table, I think about the bad habits I have picked up. Not fastening my seat belt. Not getting exercise. I think about the things I have said and done that hurt others. And I can hear the Holy Spirit, saying to me, in a voice a lot like my mother’s voice, “No, no, we don’t do that here.” Then I recall who I am in Christ. God has high standards for me.
The Apostle Paul invites us to rejoice in our adoption. If he could rejoice in the frightening, terrifying life he led as God’s adopted child, we can do it, too. We each have a place at God’s table, for we are God’s beloved children.
II Corinthians 4:13 - 5:1
I once read a story about a young disciple and his teacher. “Where shall I find God?,” the disciple asked the old man. “Right here,” the teacher answered. “Then, why can’t I see God?” “You can’t see God because you aren’t looking!” “But what should I look for?” the disciple continued. “Nothing, just look!” the teacher replied. “But at what?” “Anything your eyes light upon,” the teacher answered. “But must I look in a special way?” “No, the ordinary way will do.” “But don’t I always look in the ordinary way?” “No, you don’t,” the teacher said. “Why not, what’s wrong with the way I look?,” the student pressed the old man. The teacher replied, “In order to look, you must be here. You’re mostly someplace else.”
Paul was persecuted by Jews and Romans. He was ridiculed by civic leaders. He was old and exhausted. And yet, Paul refused to lose heart. He never focused on his physical problems. He was never afraid to say what he thought. He kept on preaching Christ crucified—even when he was in prison. In today’s epistle reading, Paul writes about not losing heart, if you have Jesus in your heart.
The churches Paul had started, in Greece and Turkey, were in decline. His followers were attracted to false leaders in $50,000 suits. Those leaders were young and glitzy and energetic. Think Joel Osteen! Especially in Corinth, the seaport of sin, the Christian church seemed to be turning away from him as their leader. They were tired of waiting for Jesus to return. The new spiritual leaders in town were pagans, but they were smooth and persuasive. Paul didn’t blame the Corinthian Christians for feeling discouraged; he was impatient, too. He urged that congregation not to lose heart. John just read a few verses of Paul’s comforting words to the Corinthians.
If we were psychologists, we’d label Paul a resilient personality. The worse his life became, the more he bounced back. Personal challenge makes strong people stronger, it’s said, and we all know people like Paul. Research shows that the majority of soldiers who are exposed to combat and wartime trauma don’t develop mental health problems, according to an article that appeared several years ago in The Washington Post. One study of Vietnam War prisoners of war found that sixty-one percent of American POWs in North Vietnam believed the experience of imprisonment strengthened them. That study didn’t measure the faith of those POW’s. But I feel sure that the ones who felt strengthened by their ordeal, were the ones who had faith in God.
What does it take to make Americans lose heart nowadays? Not a lot. A broken air conditioner on a hot day can do it. An economy that never gets better, can depress a nation over time. Being unable to drive to work in Whitehall during the construction projects is pretty discouraging, too. Computers frustrate me. I lost this entire sermon in my computer on Friday.
These are small potatoes, compared to Paul’s daily traumas. Few of us ever face the kind of persecution he experienced. But we have hard lives, too. Fear has taken over in America. It can be scary to drive in Allentown, where so many of you enjoyed shopping at Hess’ in the old days. Fear has taken over the transportation industry. You have to get to the airport three hours early for an international flight, and wait in line after line before boarding to do all kinds of security rigamarole. John and I were asked to show our passports seven times, in one major airport. Do we look scary?
Many of us don’t feel safe—and for good reason. By the way, that’s not true everywhere in America. On our trip, I met a pastor from Oklahoma. She lives in a town where people leave their pick-up trucks in their driveways, unlocked, with keys in the ignition. Neighbors borrow each other’s cars without asking. They get returned right away, she says.
If our lives aren’t as safe or as comfortable as we would like, have we failed? Paul would say no. Instead he would say, “ I have Christ in my heart. Bring on the challenges!” When he counsels fellow Christians in this letter, he tells them not to see him as a failure. His faith in Christ has turned his sufferings to praise. He writes about his body as his earthly tent. His outer nature has been wasting away, he admits—but his inner nature is renewed every day, through prayer. The most common way we lose heart, Paul writes, is by focusing on the “outer nature” of our lives. If Paul had placed all his trust in being popular or having a lot of money, he would lose heart. But wealth and fame meant nothing to him. Paul saw the trouble of this world as a kind of conditioning center. All the beatings and arrests, all his failures in the eyes of the world, didn’t really matter, because Christ was alive in his heart.
One minister in the Reformed Church in America found comfort in reading and re-reading Paul’s letters in the year before he died of colon cancer at age 58. Reverend Arie Brouwer wrote these words a month before he passed away: "These days I hold out very little hope for my cancer to be cured. I haven't given up, but the statistics steadily weigh in ever heavier against it. I find my feelings of hope undiminished! How do I explain that even within the household of faith, to say nothing of a skeptical world? How do I keep people from feeling, as they read this, that I am deceiving myself, using hope as a form of escapism from the harsh reality of terminal illness? How do I communicate that in truth we do not sorrow as those who have no hope? I believe that death is not the end, not the last word. Having believed all of this for many years, my feelings of hope are strong. I am not filled with dismay or anger or bitterness. This is true in spite of the aching disappointment I feel related to the people I want to be with and the things I would like to do in this life." I think his words are remarkable. They remind me of Paul.
We forget that Christ is at work in each of us. A person of faith can accomplish anything, with God’s help. Paul never forgot that. The late Reverend Brouwer didn’t, either. When the world tells us it is time to give up and throw in the towel -- the spirit of Christ within us takes hold and takes heart. Thanks be to God.
Have you ever seen a mustard seed necklace? I was eight years old when I got one as a birthday present. I was puzzled by the speck inside the glass ball. Was I supposed to break the ball and plant it? Now I know more about mustard seeds and I’m starting to understand the second parable from our gospel lesson. But God’s mysteries still puzzle me. Kathryn Fogel’s family gave me her mustard seed necklace after she died last July. I felt honored to receive it. Now Kathryn is in a place where she understands God’s mysteries.
The mustard seed stands for persistence. Jesus knew that His church would grow in the same way a mustard seed grows—into a bush as tall as this pulpit. And it did, of course. Eleven frightened fishermen carried on after He died. Some gave their lives for Him. Christianity was nearly wiped out. Then the Apostle Paul preached all over the world. He was ignored more often than he was honored. But three hundred years after Paul’s execution, the tide turned. Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. It picked up thousands of members. Cardinals and bishops were ordained. A pope was elected. The Roman Emperor, Constantine, named himself the head of the church. Would Jesus have been surprised? Probably not.
Plants have a way of growing up through cement. You can have one small crack in the sidewalk, and a seed will take advantage of that crack. It’ll grow into a stem, then a flower or even a tree. Jesus says that’s what the kingdom of God is like. We live in the cement belt. Does your life feel like a cement sidewalk, mostly flat and boring? Is it broken in a lot of places? When we want our lives to be perfectly level, and all we see around us is gray, lopsided pavement, we lose hope. But we mustn’t give up because God's kingdom pops through the cracks in our lives. In fact, the cracked places on our sidewalks, so to speak, might open us to the ways God wants us to grow. We do what we can do, and then God acts. The kingdom comes, steadily and almost secretly.
It reminds me of the story of Myrtle, a library worker I once knew. She was in charge of the check-out desk in a public library—the same one John and I worked in. Every morning, a half hour before the library opened, a heavyset man in a hunting jacket would come to the door. Myrtle would say "Good morning" and let him in. The front door was supposed to stay locked until nine, but she made an exception for this man. She, herself, had to come in each day to set up the desk, so she let him read the newspaper in the lobby. The man in the hunting jacket was always the first to see the library copy of The New York Times. Each weekday he would check the financial section and then leave by nine thirty. After several years of this routine, the man stopped coming. Myrtle didn’t see or hear from him again. She retired a few months later.
Six years after her retirement, Myrtle got a letter from a law firm. A man, whose name she didn’t recognize, had died and left her $750,000.00. She was stunned. She didn’t know any wealthy people. Who was her benefactor? You guessed it-- the man in the hunting jacket. A couple of years before he died, he had made an excellent investment, based on financial information he’d gotten from the Times on one of those mornings at the library. He had remembered Myrtle in his will.
A few library employees had let Myrtle know they thought she was reckless to do what she did. Why did she let him in early, when she was alone at the desk? It was against library policy. And what if thirty other people came in before the library opened? There was no security guard. It was unsafe. Myrtle didn’t care. Maybe she was naïve, but she had trusted God enough to share one small blessing at her workplace. The Library Director, surprisingly, had backed her up when other staff members complained. Myrtle bought a condo in Florida with her inheritance. Not every good person is as fortunate as Myrtle. But her kindness, as a public servant, was rewarded.
In His mustard seed parable, Jesus tells us to prepare to be surprised. Plants pop up in unexpected places. Seeds take time to grow. That's the lesson of the other parable we heard today, the one about a man who planted some seed and had to wait patiently. I’m not a patient person. I seem to take one step forward and two or three steps backward. It's like some people who go on diets. They eat cottage cheese and celery for a week and use a treadmill for a few minutes every day. During that week they lose just one pound. And they say, “What’s the use? I’m not ready to appear in public in a swimsuit yet! Back to Burger King for a Double Whopper and fries.” But losing weight is a slow process.
Sometimes it’s the little blessings that keep us going. We persist, without really knowing why, and it pays off. I put a notice on Facebook last night about our Vacation Bible School. For three years I’ve been posting comments on Facebook. I’ve learned lot about my friends and gotten comic relief when I needed it. But is Facebook really a waste of time? I’d say no. It can be a way to scatter the seeds of faith, so God can reap the harvest. Right away after I announced our VBS dates, I heard from several moms who wanted to enroll their children. That’s a blessing for our ministry.
God's kingdom takes more time than we want it to take. Sometimes we say: "Well, yesterday I prayed but nothing has happened yet." Jesus’ parables remind us that God’s time is different from our time.
One more thing about seeds is that they spread. No matter how hard you try to keep your lawn free of weeds, if your neighbor lets dandelions grow in his yard, then you can be sure dandelions will find a way to spread over into your yard. Seeds may grow into flowers of love and justice or the weeds of hatred and violence. Two thousand years of Christian faith, and from what the media tells us, the world has gotten worse instead of better. I’m reading a book about the capture of Adolf Eichmann in 1960. Justice was done, after he was caught, but his work in the Nazi Secret Service can never be undone. We live in a world where good guys don't seem to win. If by our fruits the world shall know us, why is Presbyterian ministry bearing so few fruits? What good can we do, if nobody pays attention?
Faith grows in slow but powerful ways. The mustard seed is a tiny brown speck but it contains enough chemical energy to create a tree. God gives each of us a seed packet of gifts and abilities and opportunities to plant them.
Katarina and Shania will touch hundreds of lives. They’ll have chances to plant seeds of love, justice and forgiveness. They are the future of our church. Let’s encourage them to use their gifts.
I Samuel 17:1a, 4-11, 19-23, 32-49
Do the giants in your life make you feel helpless? Words like abuse, dementia, termination, and tumors—those are names of giants. Giants never fight fair. They seem to appear at the worst times, when we already have too heavy a load to carry.
Machines are evil giants for me. I dread certain kinds of paper jams in the copier. It took me a year to master my laptop computer. And I have never learned to love voice mail. Think back ten years. Do you remember the first time you called a business on the phone and heard a menu? You heard something like this, if you stayed on the line: “If you know the extension of the party you wish to reach, you may dial it at any time.” You had no idea what extension to dial, in order to talk to the human being you wanted. So you hung up in frustration. Now we’re used to those messages, but that doesn’t mean we like them.
That’s why we love Bible stories about a small person who overpowers big, bad guys. Today’s Old Testament reading is the wonderful underdog story of David facing down the giant, Goliath. Go back to a thousand years before Christ was born. The small nation of Israel was losing their war with the army of the Philistines. Goliath was ten feet tall, fierce, and strong. He wore an armor of steel. David was just a shepherd boy. He wasn’t even old enough to serve in the army yet--- let alone wear armor. David killed Goliath by striking him in the forehead. One small stone, and the power of God, brought down the Philistine giant. The people of Israel rejoiced, and made David their king.
David’s slingshot wasn’t like a modern kind, with rubber bands. An ancient shepherd’s sling was a long cord fastened to a piece of material that held the stone, connected to another length of cord. Shepherds and warriors got to be experts at whipping a slingshot around and releasing the stone. David had fought lions and bears every day, to protect the sheep. He knew how to use a slingshot.
Sometimes we exaggerate the power of our giants. We let our fear of losing, consume us. Other times, giants are serious threats to us, and we need to call upon the power of God to help. A talent, like David’s ability with a slingshot, can be a weapon. When you know what your special talent is, you have a little smidgen of God’s power at your disposal.
ABC News anchorman Hugh Downs was only eighteen years old when he started working with WLOK Radio in Lima, Ohio in the early fifties. WLOK was a 100-watt, small-town radio station, but Downs was determined to make it to the big time. He tried to learn how to speak into the microphone with pear-shaped tones. Downs wanted to be a sophisticated announcer. But all his attempts at finding the coolest way to talk into the microphone, failed. He wasn’t smooth. He was just a Midwestern kid. Finally, his program director took him aside and said, "Forget about changing your voice! Just remember who you are, a nice fellow from a small town in Ohio." That was what Hugh Downs needed to launch his career. David didn’t need armor and Hugh Downs didn’t need to invent a new voice. We don’t need to be anyone other than the person God intended us to be.
Could you keep on believing in the power of God, if you were sentenced to prison for twenty years? Nelson Mandela, the leader of the African National Congress, had worked to eliminate apartheid from his native country of South Africa. Because of his protests against racial discrimination, he was jailed for two decades. And yet, he never lost his faith.
Mandela developed a talent while he was in prison. He learned how to garden. He ordered books and studied up on the subject. He got permission from the warden to start a vegetable garden in the courtyard. So he cut out a narrow patch of not-very-fertile ground near the prison wall. To get plants to grow, he had to remove hundreds of rocks. The authorities supplied him with seeds. His harvests were very poor at first, but over the years, they improved. Mandela often gave the warden and other prison guards his best tomatoes and onions. He learned how to use different soils and fertilizers. He found out which plants grew in what conditions.
What Mandela learned through that experience was that a leader, just like a gardener, must take responsibility for what he or she cultivates. The leader tends to his or her work, trying to overcome the bad soil and the pests—in other words, the giants. Mandela was nearly as powerless as a person could be when he was in prison. But by planting a garden, he dedicated a little patch of earth to God—and was empowered to survive.
David won his battle with Goliath by being himself. Hugh Downs discovered that the speaking voice God had given him was just fine. Mandela grew living things in a deadly place, and God kept his spirit alive. The only way to tackle the evil giants is to take baby steps of faith. Our successes give us the courage and confidence to continue. We don’t have to use force or might to succeed. In the seventeenth chapter of the gospel of Matthew, verse 20, Jesus said, "If you have faith as a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘move, hence to yonder place’ and it will move and nothing will be impossible for you."
The smallest person here today is Jack Hartman Brown (except for Rylee Lynn Keller.). He’s not taking any baby steps just yet, but he will, very soon. In His grace, God has chosen Jack for salvation. A child receives the grace of God long before he or she has faith; that’s why Presbyterian congregations baptize babies, as well as older folks. Jack’s family has received God’s grace, and so has our church family.
A small congregation that is vital and active, loves getting to know its children as they grow. Once I belonged to a 500-member church that baptized a whole class of parents and children every three months, and it just wasn’t the same. The church still does that, and parents rarely get the baptism dates they request. It’s efficient use of church staff, but not the most family-friendly way to operate. Some cynical people in the congregation call this procedure a “baptism factory.” Here at Hokey, each child is very special to all of us. A small church can give a child individual attention.
As Jack grows and learns to put his trust in God, amazing things will happen for him and for the people around him. He will find out what his God given talents are. He will learn that nothing is impossible with God. For the “power of small” is the power of God.
First Presbyterian Church of Hokendauqua
3005 S. Front Street, Whitehall, PA 18052 | 610-264-9693 | email@example.com
Sunday Worship Service 10:00 a.m. | Sunday School 9:00-9:45 a.m.
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