October 2009 Sermons:
Has anything like this, happened to you? You have fished and fished, and brought up your net empty, time after time. Everyone in this world needs to go fishing—in a manner of speaking—in order to survive. We fish in many ways, but not always in a boat on a lake, and not necessarily with nets or poles. Have you been fishing recently, and had no success?
You’ve been laid off. You have responded to dozens of classified ads by emailing your resume. You’ve attached personalized cover letters, but you’ve never gotten any interviews. You’re considered too old for an entry-level job. You don’t have much to do these days, and you’re tired of hanging around the public library and the Mini-Mart.
You’re a senior in high school. You have a lot of friends at school. There’s nothing wrong with the way you look. And yet, no one has asked you to the prom yet, and the big event is only a week away.
You and your wife are trying to downsize your lives. You plan to move to a senior community. You’ve advertised your home for sale at a reasonable price for nearly a year. A handful of buyers come to look at it each weekend. They admire your hardwood floors and your remodeled kitchen. But you’ve not had any offers yet.
But now, suddenly, a miracle occurs. Your fishing net has come up full. A job offer on the West Coast. A prom date, just in the nick of time. A couple expresses interest in buying your home, and they even offer to pay the original asking price in full. Your life, dreary and hopeless for so long, becomes happy once more—now that you are back in touch with God. In fact, you almost feel raised from the dead. Like Peter in this story, you want to jump into the lake, and jump out of the lake, and shout hooray! You want to rush up to Christ on the shore, and thank Him for giving you back your life.
This story of the big catch of fish, is one of my favorites in the Bible. After the resurrection, seven of Jesus’ disciples, who had lost all hope, see Him on the lakeshore. What a wonderful reunion they have with their risen Christ. (Not to mention a good breakfast!)
In the historical record of Jesus’ life, this story is important. It proved to the earliest Christians that Jesus was raised from the dead! After all, a ghost could not have prepared a meal of broiled fish over a charcoal fire, for seven eyewitnesses.
In your mind, go back two thousand years. You’re a disciple. Picture yourself getting in that fishing boat. Just a few years ago, you had given up everything—home, job and family life—to follow Jesus. You have some wonderful stories to tell your grandchildren about the miracles you’ve seen. The feeding of the five thousand. A blind man restored to sight. A leper healed. A little girl, raised from the dead.
But your life seems over now. Jesus has just been executed as a common criminal. You have seen, with your own eyes, how hatred has destroyed His ministry. You’ve been on an emotional roller coaster since Good Friday. Evil seems to have taken over the universe, for good. And your nets are empty.
But there’s more to the story! You learn that Jesus has been seen in His resurrection body. He’s appeared twice, in fact. Mary Magdalene was the first to see Him. Thomas got to put his fingers through holes in Christ’s hands and side. The risen Lord hasn’t spoken to you, yet, so you’re still not sure what’s going on. There’s a part of you that hasn’t given up the hope of seeing Him. You are practically pleading for Him, or someone, to bring you relief from the terrible things that have happened in your life.
Peter feels dead, just like you do. But he has never been able to sit still for very long. Now Peter wants to get on with his life, earn money, and catch fish. He remembers he still has a boat on the Sea of Galilee. He announces to you and your friends, "I'm going fishing." You decide to go along with Peter. The seashore has always been a safe harbor for you and your friends. So you step into Peter’s boat and look forward to a night of fishing—almost like the good old days.
But what a disappointment! That night, the fish aren’t biting at first. It’s strange, but your net is completely empty. You’ve fished most of your life. You know where shoals of fish can be found in this lake, and so does Peter. You work all night, but still no fish in your net. You are more frustrated than ever! The dawn breaks, a spectacular sunrise. You hear a voice calling from the shore. "Have you caught any fish?" At first you don’t realize Jesus is speaking to you. He’s telling you and Peter to throw your nets from the other side of the boat.
You do what He says, and, in a minute or two, your nets are full to bursting. And yet, they don’t break. Amazing! And in the miracle of such a great catch, you and John, and then Peter, recognize this man as Jesus.
Peter acts so strangely in this scene. He puts on his clothes and then jumps into the water, only to get soaking wet. But just before he does that, he yells, “It is the Lord!” He’s right, of course. There’s an explanation for the comical way Peter behaves. The Jewish law required a man to be fully clothed before doing any kind of religious act. Peter had been fishing in just a loincloth—just the way all fishermen were dressed in those days on the Sea of Galilee. Greeting a rabbi like Jesus was, most definitely, a religious act! So Peter needed to grab sandals and a robe.
There’s a promise for us, today, in this Gospel lesson. Life can be tough and just plain monotonous. We live through long periods of not catching any fish. But, if we have faith in Him, Christ won’t let our nets come up empty for long. In His resurrection body, He will meet us!
We may fail to recognize Jesus when He comes to us in unlikely places or unlikely persons. I’m thinking of the story of Annie Sullivan, Helen Keller’s teacher. Macy began teaching Helen Keller when the child was seven years old. The little girl was both deaf and blind. She was unable to speak and almost impossible to control. The first meeting of teacher and student is shown in the film, “The Miracle Worker.” Macy had to begin teaching Helen with lessons in obedience, followed by Braille lessons. Everyone who met this teacher and her young student were amazed at Macy’s ability to communicate with Miss Keller. Her parents were astounded at how well the little girl grasped concepts. I believe God had a hand in that story—in bringing that child and that teacher together. It was not a coincidence.
There is another way the Risen Christ meets us today. It is here at this table. Just as He cooked a breakfast of grilled fish for the disciples so long ago, Christ has prepared this table for the Lord’s Supper, and He has set it before us.
For the people of the Bible, eating together was more than a meal. To eat together was to be present with one another in a special fellowship. We do this as a church today, not only in the Lord’s Supper, but in our fellowship events--like the breakfast we had here, on September 13, to welcome the children back to Sunday School, and the luncheon we shared after the very sad occasion of Paul Hodes’ burial on Thursday.
When Jesus prepares breakfast for the disciples, He is making a promise to stay with them and fill their nets. When Jesus prepares the communion table for us, He promises to be with us and fill our nets, even when we can’t fill them through our own efforts.
In the Lord's Supper, Jesus comes to walk on the shores of our personal lakes. Jesus stands beside the sea, for as long as He has to wait. He calls to us to come and share a meal with Him. And, when we do, we feel his presence among us.
In the midst of all that life sends us—good and bad--the Risen Christ visits us in spirit. He prepares a table before us in the presence of our enemies. Come to the table and eat and drink, and as we share this meal today, recognize the presence of our living Lord.
Let us pray.
Gracious God, may we always find in you a compelling vision that frees us from fear. Send your Holy Spirit, we pray, to show us everyday miracles. Until that day when we shall look you in the eye and be filled with your peace, in the name of Jesus Christ we pray. Amen.
William Barclay, The Gospel of John, Volume II (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2001), 282.
Bernice Selden, The Story of Annie Sullivan, Helen Keller's Teacher (New York: Dell, 1987), 89.
"Village Life," in Victor H. Matthews, Manners and Customs in the Bible (Peabody, MA: Henderson, 1996), 225+.
Imagine yourself, meeting Jesus in person. If you have one chance to ask Him a question, what will it be? I think I’d like to ask, “Have I been a good enough person?” In our gospel passage, a rich young man meets Jesus, and He has time to ask one question. “Teacher,” the man asks, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Can you imagine this story happening today? Here’s how I picture it. A young investment banker steps out of his Jaguar. He’s got on Gucci loafers and a gold Rolex watch. He has a Blackberry in his pocket, and he’s carrying an expensive briefcase. The man runs up to Jesus to ask a question.
This rich man is so eager, so sincere. He tells Jesus that he’s followed the straight and narrow path. He’s never broken the law in his life. He’s honored his parents and he hasn’t stolen or lied or cheated. But still, something is missing for him. That’s very clear.
Jesus invites the rich young man to follow him. It won’t be easy. He tells the man to sell what he owns, to give the money to the poor, and to look forward to treasure in heaven. The young man takes a minute or two to think it over. Then he’s honest enough to refuse the challenge. It’s too scary. Too radical.
The last time I preached on Jesus and the rich young man, it was the fall of 2006. Those were better economic times. So many people have lost their jobs and their homes in the past year. Nowadays, middle-class Americans don’t feel quite as friendly toward people who drive Jaguars and wear Rolex watches and can afford to spend a thousand dollars on a briefcase.
This is a rough gospel lesson to be teaching in a recession economy. It doesn’t seem fair to ask people to give up more than they have already given up. Isn’t it all right for nice folks, who support the church and give to United Way and are reasonably kind to others, to have material things?
Compared to ninety percent of the people in this world, we Americans are wealthy. We have homes and cars and enough to eat. Too often, we forget that the source of all treasures is God.
Mark tells us that, when Jesus looks at the man, He loves him. This is the only time in the gospel of Mark when Jesus comes right out, and directly tells someone that he loves that person. He gives the man a difficult challenge, but He frames it in kindness. Try to think of this as a healing story. The rich young man is blind. Jesus is trying to heal him. All those possessions are keeping him from trusting in the grace of God, so they have to go. Jesus hopes the young man will feel secure enough in God’s grace to sacrifice all his material comforts. But he refuses to give up the Rolex or the Jaguar. He just can’t do it. Could you?
This story is more complicated than it seems. It’s not just about having too many possessions. We need to curb our addiction to our stuff, there’s no question about it. That’s why professional clutter counselors and closet makeover businesses are doing so well.
But there’s a deeper meaning here. You need not abandon all your earthly treasure. Just what it means to you! Put Jesus in charge of your life. Seek the well-being of others as your top priority. It’s not only what you have to DO, but what you must BECOME when you answer Jesus’ call to discipleship. Everybody tends to watch out for number one. If we follow Jesus, we need to love our neighbors with greater intensity than we love our stuff.
At some point, most Christians realize that seeking happiness in money and status is like running on a treadmill. We have to run faster and faster. Even though we build up our speed, we never quite reach the goal. Power and money don’t make us happy. Rather than freeing us, they trap us. Wealthy people often describe themselves as having DONE WELL. But let’s be realistic. My cell phone and my car’s consumption of fuel may be taking resources away from poorer people somewhere in the world.
Because the Nobel Peace Prize is in the news this week, I’d like to tell you about the life of Alfred Nobel. He is the man who invented dynamite. Nobel decided to establish the Nobel Prize in 1901, after reading his own obituary. It had been printed in the newspaper by mistake. Rumors of his death had been greatly exaggerated!
Nobel had spent his life earning a fortune from the sale of explosives and munitions. The obituary called him “the dynamite king.” Nobel was shocked. The dynamite king! He suddenly realized that he was responsible for thousands of violent deaths! So Nobel decided to live the rest of his life a different way, so he wouldn’t just go down in history as the man who knew how to blow things, and people, up. He established monetary prizes, one of which rewards peacemaking, and three American presidents have won it.
Jesus tells us how to store up treasure in heaven. He asks us to let go of certain kinds of security, so we can live more faithfully. His teaching is about trust. It’s not easy for us to step into the future. But that’s what we do when we baptize a little child like Logan Kutz Rusnock. In the end, God makes all things possible.
Let us pray.
Lord, help us to love you with all of our heart and soul and mind and strength. Help us to show that all we have is yours. Transform us from self-seekers to gracious givers. Help us to have as much faith in ourselves, as disciples, as you have in us. In Jesus’ name, AMEN
William Phillippe, A Stewardship Scrapbook (Nashville: Geneva Press, 1999), 32.
William Barclay, The Gospel of Mark (Philadelphia:Westminster, 1975), 248.
Michael Lindvall, Sermon, “Threading Needles with Camels,” October 26, 2003, www.thebrickchurch.org.
When you were a child, how did you picture God? I thought God looked like my granddad. He was everywhere at the same time — like Santa Claus on Christmas Eve. God gave children gifts every day, not just at Christmas. I had a happy picture of life in the universe. I hadn’t known tragedy then.
Has your picture of God changed over the years? Mine has. Fifty years later, Santa Claus is a lot less important in my life. But I still find God everywhere I go. I’ve had a few sad things happen to me, but I’m still here. Now, I see God as a spirit, rather than a human being, and I’m a little bit closer to understanding the difference between God and me.
Today’s Old Testament reading is one of the oldest stories in Hebrew Bible. Job is a familiar character to us—a farmer who has lived righteously all his life. He’s had a happy picture of life in the universe. Then, suddenly, he is living a tragedy. Job loses his land and home and livestock, his health, and, worst of all, his family! It was an accepted belief of the ancient Jews that the righteous were rewarded and the wicked were punished. Job can’t make any sense of it. He’s never been wicked. He’s angry at God; wouldn’t you be? Desperately, Job asks God, “What have I done, that you have punished me so much?”
There’s been a lot going on around him, that Job doesn’t know about. In fact, he will never know about it. God has made a wager with the devil. The devil wants to pick on Job because he has led such a righteous life. Here’s the deal: the devil agrees to ruin Job’s life. God promises not to interfere. If Job stays faithful, God wins the wager and rewards Job. If Job rejects God, the devil wins.
Even as he cries out to God, “It’s not fair!” Job shows the strength of his own faith. In the Old Testament lesson Carole read for us, God answers Job’s complaints. God is not warm or friendly in this passage. God tells Job to get over it, and reminds him that he is not the center of the universe.
Did you notice, in this passage of beautiful poetry, that God asks questions, instead of giving answers? “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” God asks Job. “Who has the wisdom to number the clouds?”
In the Old Testament, if God asked a person questions, it was a test of character and intelligence. God is deliberately testing Job’s faith. Sometimes the hardest questions put to us, come in the middle of life’s storms. God comes to meet Job out of the storm. When Job cries out his questions to God, he discovers he’s not alone. We don’t find a “touchy-feely” God in this passage. But we do meet a God we can trust!
God’s questions put Job in the place where he needs to be. "Don't question me! I'm the one who questions you." Sounds like a conversation between a powerful boss and his or her employee, doesn't it? Have you ever been set straight like that by your teacher, or by your supervisor, or by your parents? How did it feel? Did it make you angry enough to quit your job? Or, did it humble you and set you straight? Or maybe both? Sometimes, when we are feeling self-pity, we need a reality check from the Almighty.
What do can we learn from this story? First, our spiritual hardships aren’t just about us. We humans have a tendency to be selfish when we suffer. Jesus taught us to reach out and care for others in their suffering. You’ll recall that, in the gospel of Luke, Jesus reaches out to one of the thieves dying next to Him on the cross and says, “Tomorrow, you will be with me in paradise.”
Here’s how to help yourself, and help your friends, when tragedy strikes. Affirm and support suffering people in their anguish. Then think about how faith might change their question, “Why?” — which no pastor I have ever met can answer — to “what.” You can’t change what has already happened. But you can ask yourself, “What is God doing to me and through me?”
I want to tell you a powerful story of hope. Twenty years ago, I met a family that had plenty of reasons to question God. In 1990, a six-year-old girl named Amanda was murdered by her teenage neighbor, a block away from the library where I worked. Her sisters, both in elementary school, witnessed the tragedy. The girls spent several years in therapy, so they could recover from the shock of what they had seen. Therapists treated the girls by giving them assignments in drawing and painting, and talking with them about their creations.
The girl’s parents wanted something good to come of this terrible event. They founded a ministry called “Amanda’s Easel.” To make this new venture possible, the girls’ mother went on a speaking tour and talked about the night their daughter had died. There was newspaper publicity about the murder trial for more than two years, and she made positive use of it. She managed to get public, church and private funding, so children who had been victims of violent crimes, could get counseling to overcome their fears. “Amanda’s Easel” has helped thousands of children in New Jersey since then.
A second thing we can learn from our difficulties in life, is that Job’s God is also our God. God is the Creator and we are His creatures. Only God is wise enough to govern the world. We need to remember that we are humble humans. When we expect life to be sunny all the time, we forget the wide and wild diversity of God’s creation.
Third, we should be careful in what we say to God in prayer. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t question. But our understanding of the Almighty is limited. We should ask God questions in the manner of “not my will, but your will, be done.” That’s the way Jesus questioned God. Even God’s own son didn’t approach God as a “know-it-all.”
Fourth, the experience of Job teaches us that we should continue to live faithfully, no matter what. When we lose our bearings — emotionally and spiritually — we make decisions we later regret, with lasting consequences. At times like that, we should let go, and not try to fix it. We have to let go, and let God!
Finally, sometimes we have to wrestle with God to understand God. As we get older, we gain perspective—although we may never understand why God “taketh away” as often as God “giveth.” Over the years, we faithful Christians who struggle with tragedy, often find that our spiritual lives get stronger. That is the power of the cross. Jesus meets us where we are and walks with us. He promises us new life after tragedy. The promise of the resurrection is God’s answer to Job’s questions. It is always yes!
Let us pray.
When we open our ears, O God, we can hear your voice. Through the confusion of life, we can see you face to face. Remind us, O God, of the care you exercise over all your works. Remind us that we are not the center of the universe, but that you love us nonetheless. May we never stop marveling at all you have done, and all that you continue to do for all the world. In Jesus’ name we pray. AMEN
Roy L. Smith, Know Your Bible, Vol. 7 (Nashville: Abingdon, 1970), 19.
Judges 14:10-20, I Kings 10:1.
I make snap judgments, and so do you. It’s human nature! Most of you have supervised people. Did you ever have an employee who didn’t catch on in the first week on the job? When you were ready to write that employee off as a loser, did he accomplish something remarkable, and get your company a lot of business? If you’re a teacher, did you have a shy student who ended up being the most successful person ever to graduate from your school?
Some people make a bad first impression. After a while, they become almost invisible. In today’s gospel story, the people of Jericho haven’t treated the beggar Bartimaeus, like a human being for years. There are so many blind or crippled beggars in Palestine, and they tend to get in the way. Especially at parades. Now there are hundreds of people on the road to Jerusalem for Passover. One or two men toss him coins. But most travelers either step over Bartimaeus or ignore him completely.
Jesus and His disciples are entering Jericho in a procession. Bartimaeus waits by the side of the road. The blind man keeps on crying out for Jesus to heal him. His cries for help get louder. The crowd tries to silence him. He’s interrupting the parade. Jesus stops by the side of the road. He doesn’t see a blind beggar; he sees a man of strong faith. He heals Bartimaeus and gives him sight, telling him, “Your faith has made you well.”
I love stories about famous people who started as losers. Maybe that’s because I was a late bloomer, myself. Did you know that, when Katie Couric first anchored a local news show, the producer shouted, “I never want to see this woman on television again!”? Quite a few famous Americans started out at the bottom of the competitive heap. Albert Einstein was unable to speak until he was four years old. Goldie Hawn was in the slowest reading group at her school in first and second grade. Thomas Edison’s fourth grade teacher told him he was too stupid to learn anything. In his first job as a newspaper reporter, Walt Disney was fired by the editor. His boss believed that Disney “had no ideas and lacked imagination.” Michael Jordan didn’t make his high school basketball team. The author of Gone With the Wind, Margaret Mitchell, was blackballed from the Atlanta Junior League. Bruce Springsteen flunked homeroom in high school because he played his guitar in the hallway, instead of going to class. The two 1953 graduates of the New York Academy of Dramatic Arts who were voted least likely to succeed, were Paul Newman and Dustin Hoffman.
What did these people have in common? Even when they were put on the sidelines, they kept up their determination. When most of their bosses and teachers and relatives punished or ignored them, one or two people helped them. The way Jesus stopped and healed Bartimaeus.
Jesus sees a talent for discipleship in the blind man. It works both ways. Bartimaeus realizes, right away, that Jesus is the Son of God. He sees this more clearly than Peter or James or John. Do you see the symbolism Mark is using here? The blind man sees Jesus, but the disciples are still blind to the values their leader stands for. The disciples’ eyes will stay closed to Him, until after His resurrection.
Today is Reformation Heritage Sunday. Martin Luther and John Calvin led the Protestant movement in Europe. They weren’t poor or disabled, but they had some things in common with Bartimaeus. Luther and Calvin spoke truth to power. They took risks for what they believed. It’s interesting to me that both men had strong, domineering fathers against whom they rebelled!
Luther and Calvin had advantages a blind beggar would never have. These giants of the Reformation preached strong sermons and knew how to use the new technology of the time--the printing press. They had professional training in ministry and law, and used their learning to transform Christian worship.
The Christian establishment, in the sixteenth century, called Luther and Calvin heretics. And yet these men recreated the church in Europe. Their followers left the Old World to settle the American wilderness. As Protestants of the Lehigh Valley, we owe these courageous men, and their followers, a great deal.
Because this year marks the five hundredth anniversary of John Calvin’s birth, let’s take a look at Calvin’s life. He grew up in the Renaissance, when people in Western Europe were excited about new ideas in science and philosophy. In the Middle Ages, the scriptures could be read only by monks. The Bible had been translated from Latin, into the languages that middle-class Europeans spoke in their daily lives. For the first time, people outside the church could read scripture.
When John Calvin read the entire Bible in French for the first time, he was very excited. He saw Jesus with new eyes. Calvin loved to study scripture, and he believed that most passages could be understood in more than one way. He felt strongly that people of faith could discuss scripture without theological training. Calvin promoted the "Protestant work ethic" in his Geneva churches. Any occupation could be a calling from God and it was worth your best effort. According to Calvin’s thinking, the accomplishments of people of faith, put together, form a moral society.
Calvin had an image problem. He was a fiery character, and sometimes his anger got the better of him. Calvin didn’t think religious leaders should be cloistered in monasteries. He got mad when people were required to pay for forgiveness of their sins. Calvin lived at a dangerous time when religious wars were raging all over Europe. In 1533 he had to flee his home town, Paris. In the following year twenty-four heretics were burned at the stake in that city. Calvin barely escaped being executed! For three years, he roamed France, Italy, and Switzerland. During that time, Calvin was excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church.
In May 1536 Calvin settled in Geneva and pushed his ideas for reforming the church. At his urging, monasteries were closed and a democratic form of church government was established in the city. Worship was simplified. Congregations met in plain, whitewashed sanctuaries with no decoration. Hymns were sung by congregations, not only by monks.
John Calvin still has an image problem today. If people have heard of Calvin at all, they think of him as closed-minded and petty. They associate him with predestination. That’s the idea that God has planned your entire life before you’re born. Sixteenth and seventeenth century Calvinists believed this. Now Presbyterians still believe God has chosen us for salvation, but we also believe Christians have the freedom to make decisions. But I find it such a comfort and a relief that God has picked me out. When we feel we have nothing to worry about, it’s natural to want to thank God by serving Him.
We Presbyterians believe God is in charge and is all-powerful. We believe that God is always working in the world for good. We believe that the risen Christ is alive, and that the Holy Spirit makes all things new. One of our slogans calls us to be reformed and always reforming.
Jesus called John Calvin, and today he calls us, to walk in His way. Walking with Jesus goes a lot further than just believing. Do you remember the story of the rich young man who believed Jesus was the Son of God, but wouldn’t give up his possessions to follow Him? Bartimaeus gives up everything he has. He throws off his warm coat—the only thing he owns--and follows Jesus without hesitation.
What does the faith of a good disciple look like? We have looked at Bartimaeus and we have looked at John Calvin. Here’s what they share in common. Faith is hopeful. Faith is pushy sometimes. Faith persists and takes risks. Faith is highly emotional and very personal. Faith is about God doing for us what we cannot do for ourselves. Faith expects great things from Jesus, and from the people around us.
Can we learn from the faith of Bartimaeus? And from the faith of Calvin? Can we be inspired by their courage to live it out?
Let us pray.
Gracious God, you make all things new. As you reform your church, help us to entrust ourselves to your renewal of us. Take us, we pray, to the places you want us to go, as people and as a church. In Jesus’ name, AMEN.
Several of these stories can be found in Tracey Hartman, “Reflections,” The Abingdon Women’s Preaching Annual ed. Beverly Zink-Sawyer (Nashville: Abingdon, 2002), 136. I collected the other “underachiever” stories during my years as a reference librarian.
David Van Biema, “The New Calvinism,” Time, March 23, 2009, 50.
“Sermon Seeds,” The Clergy Journal, May/June 2009, 61.
Christopher Elwood, “The Real John Calvin,” Presbyterians Today, July/August 2009, 12-15.
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