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05.20.18 Galatians 6.1-10 Christ, Spirit, and Us Sermon Summary

There are at least four answers to the question, What does it mean to live the “Christian life”?

The first is a cultural answer. To be Christian is to be American. And to be an American is to be a Christian. “What else could it mean to be Christian?” “What else could it mean to be an American?” I am reminded of a youth leader I had who pointed out to me that, “You are no more a Christina by being born in America than you are a car if you were born in a garage.”

The second is a doctrinal answer. A Christian lives according to certain statements. If you assent to various claims, “believe” certain things, then you are and will live a Christian life.

The third is a communal answer. You live a Christian lifestyle when you belong to a group, or “tribe,” or church.

And the fourth answer is a spiritual answer. The Christian life is recognized relative to the Spirit. When the Spirit is your guide and power, you live the Christian life. This sermon explores this final answer. It’s Pentecost, after all.

We begin by recognizing that the resurrected Jesus gave instructions to his disciples “through the Holy Spirit” according to Acts. We see that the Christian life according to the Spirit is not a matter of place so much. Jesus does say, “stay,” but he also says they will radiate out from  Jerusalem.”

Rather than tied to a place, the Christian life as determined by the Spirit is more a matter of activity. Jesus says, “be my witnesses.”

It is less a matter of culture—even though, “there were devout Jews from every nation”—and more a matter of message: Everyone was given the “gift of tongues” in order to hear and understand the Gospel.

And what is that Pentecost message? What is Spiritual Christianity? We gain insights from Galatians 6.

First, Spiritual Christianity is non-judgmental. Paul urges the faithful to “restore transgressors in a spirit of gentleness,” not a spirit of righteousness or condemnation.

Second, Spiritual Christianity is able to be gentle because it is humble. The faithful recognize their own vulnerability. This is why Paul says, “take care that you yourselves are not tempted.”

Third, Christianity is Spiritual when it recognizes that gentleness and humility are part of what it means to be loving. Paul says the faithful are to “bear one another’s burdens and fulfill the law of Christ.” What is that law? It is to love your neighbor as yourself.

Fourth, Spiritual Christianity is self-assessing. Paul says the faithful are to “test their own work.” Their pride is to come from the progress they make in their own spiritual life, not from comparing themselves with others.

Fifth, Spiritual Christianity is responsible. The faithful acknowledge the law of karma: We reap what we sow. Paul says if we sow to the flesh, we will reap corruption. But if we sow to the Spirit, we will reap life.

Sixth, Spiritual Christianity is patient and persevering. The faithful are not to “grow weary in doing right,” for they will reap a harvest if they do not give up.”

Seventh, Spiritual Christianity is open and opportunistic. Paul writes, “whenever we have an opportunity, work for the good of all.”

Look around, and you will find many examples of Spiritual Christianity at Faith Presbyterian Church. At the last deacon meeting, someone came to the door seeking assistance. When they learned of our limits, they became belligerent. Nonetheless, one of our deacons offered assistance and came back an urged the rest of the board to pray for this family. That’s a non-judgmental and loving Spiritual Christianity.

Recently I was driving by the “big” Presbyterian church in town. I was at the back edge of their property and it was immaculate! I thought of the challenge we have in keeping our grounds nice and I was jealous. But then I remembered that they have a full time staff person whose sole responsibility is making the place look beautiful. We don’t. We have unpaid volunteers—lots of them—who  give of their time to work on our grounds bit by bit. And that made me proud. That’s an example of Spiritual Christianity being self-assessing verses comparing with others.

We talk about membership at Faith as taking responsibility for the church. People move from being consumers of the church to stewards of the church. Members show their responsibility for the church through financial support, volunteering, and serving in the ministry. If we’re growing in the Spirit, we find that we’re all called to do this—to take responsibility for the church.

By these examples, it’s clear that Spiritual Christianity begins with the Spirit, but it continues with us. The question facing each of us is, How are YOU following the Spirit?

If you will follow the Spirit, it will lead to a spiritual church which bears witness at Pentecost—and at all times—of the Spirit’s presence in the world.

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06.10.18 God’s Faith and Ours Lamentations 3:17-26 Sermon Summary

The book of Lamentations is like a hymn. Each chapter we can see like a verse. Lamentations is a poem, expanding the utility of words. And when poems are set to music, the words become saturated. The setting is the aftermath of the destruction of Jerusalem. It was like 9/11 if the attacks were followed by the deportation of our prominent citizens and the occupation of our nation.

In the Hebrew Bible the title of this book is simply “How?”—the first word of the book. “How did this happen? How could this happen? How could YOU, God, let this happen?!” When religion is identified with a nation, what happens when that nation falters?

The people of Jerusalem were trying to make sense of it all. Lamentations is written as an acrostic poem, each line beginning with successive letters of the alphabet. It suggests that when all other structures fail, find a structure, something, anything, and begin rebuilding.

This summer we begin a new series: Hymns of Faith (Presbyterian Church). These are hymns chosen by you, related to the Bible, and discussed in sermon. Like no other medium, hymns encapsulate theology. Not all hymns are equal—some are better than others. This is why we are grateful for trusted hymnal editors. Today we look at one of the greatest hymns in the church’s repertoire.

“Great is Thy Faithfulness” was inspired by Lamentations 3:22-23. “The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases. God’s mercies never come to an end. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness!” These verses are part of the solution to the “how?!” question in Lamentations.

“Great is Thy Faithfulness” does not arise from such a traumatic event as that giving rise to the verses that inspire it, but it offers the same assurance. In the words of Lamentations 3, “It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the LORD.” If you cannot wait quietly, you could sing “Great is Thy Faithfulness”.

Verse one says, “Great is Thy faithfulness, O God my Father. There is not shadow of turning with Thee. Thou changest not, Thy compassions fail not. As Thou has been, Thou forever will be.” Whatever else changes, God remains constant.

Does God change? The traditional answer is no. But the yes answer has gotten some traction lately. It’s hard to imagine that God is not moved by the suffering of his children and creation, that God doesn’t somehow change in response to our plight.

But God’s movement with us is faithful; God ALWAYS moves with us. No matter where we move or where life moves us, God faithfully moves with us. This movement of God with us is what is unchanging.

Verse one reminds us to “look back” and to remember how God has faithfully delivered us in the past. Verse two tells us to “look around”: “Summer and winter and springtime and harvest, sun, moon, and stars in their courses above, join with all nature in manifold witness, to Thy great faithfulness, mercy, and love.”

All nature manifestly witnesses to God’s faithfulness, mercy, love. These characters of God affirm that God IS indeed moved by our situation. As nature changes, yet remains constant, so God changes but remains sure.

This is the foundation of lament: God loves us and is merciful. Lamentation cries out to God to remind God of this. “Do something!” lament says. Lament reveals God’s faithfulness.

After looking back, then around, verse three directs us to “look ahead.” “Pardon for sin and a peace that endureth, Thine own dear presence to cheer and to guide. Strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow—blessings all mine, and ten thousand besides!” When we look, we discover that God guides us. God gives us hope for tomorrow.

Like Lamentations, “Great is Thy Faithfulness” calls us to look back, look around, and look ahead. It’s like a river or the wind: God’s faithfulness is a constant current surrounding us. We can surrender to the flow and join it for assurance, joy, and hope, even in disaster.

Like the acrostic of Lamentations, “Great is Thy Faithfulness” also uses structure. It is written in triple time, which brings to mind immediately the Trinity. Triple time marches, or better waltzes, forward with a constancy suggesting the faithfulness of God.

Likewise, there are patterns embedded in the hymn. The structure of the hymn is ABCD; EFC’D. This is to say, it evolves line by line, but if you follow it through to the end, the familiar returns. We have to be patient through the changes of life to recognize again the assuring C’ and D.

Another structural observation has to do with the second measures. Most of the second measures break the triple beat just enough to keep the tune from becoming monotonous. Given that, notice 2nd measure of E. It breaks with the pattern and in so doing emphasizes the word “faithfulness.” It draws the attention of our ears to this word which is the center of the hymn.

Then notice the second measure of F. In contrast to every other second measure, it does NOT change. Undergirding the lyrics “morning by morning new mercies I see,” the rhythm does not change. It suggests that morning by morning by morning by morning God’s constancy returns over and over again and again like clockwork.

“Great is Thy Faithfulness” is one of the greatest gifts to the church. It is relatively easy to memorize. Through words and music it summarizes the foundational truths of Bible—that we can live in hope and faith because God is faithful.

Prayers for Third Graders and Graduates

Prayer for Presentation of Bibles for Third Graders

God of Love, your Word is a light for our feet as we walk upon our path. You have given us the Bible as the words which guided your people of long ago. Now we are your people of today. Guide us also by these words, and new words which you continue to speak. Help us to hear your voice in the Bible and in the community of faith. Give your Spirit to these children, we pray, and bless them as they walk by the light of your word. And guide us as a church to care for these children, for in baptism we are all one family in Christ. Amen.

 

Prayer for High School Graduates

Faithful God, through the years we have made promises to the children of this congregation. In baptism we gave you thanks and pledged our ongoing support of their discovery and journey of faith. Now as they stand on the threshold of adulthood, completing high school and preparing to embark on the next stage of their lives, we pray for your ongoing blessing upon them. Give them courage to embrace the greater responsibilities with which we will entrust them. Remind them of your love whenever they have doubts. Empower them with your Spirit to serve others in love and to participate in your redemption of the world through Christ. Protect them, we pray, from the deceptions that will surround them. Preserve them in the circles of your grace. And as they explore their own calling, more apart from this congregation than ever before, may they always know the assurance of our eager welcome and enthusiastic support. Through Christ we pray. Amen.

Eucharistic Prayer on Mothers’ Day

God our Creator, Psalm 139 says you knit us together in our mother’s wombs, and in the depths of our mother earth you intricately weaved us together. These metaphors of motherhood offer some balance to the preponderance of male-dominated images of you in the Bible. We remember Jesus’ teaching that you are neither male nor female, and so we may approach you confidently under the address Father or Mother.

Today we give thanks to you as our Mother.  Like our earthly mothers, you gave us life. You fearfully and wonderfully made us. In our absolute dependence you sustained us with milk. As we learned to walk, you called to us by name to follow you. We thank you for your enduring faithfulness to us throughout our lives, that even now, according to Proverbs, your feminine Spirit of Wisdom invites us to walk in your ways.

We thank you for Jesus’ mother Mary, who received your word and in her womb gave life to the Savior of the world. Through her ministry of mothering Jesus learned how to listen for your voice and to faithfully follow, even through public disgrace. As she did, he offered life to the world through his body, and suffered in the labor of giving birth to eternal life. But in the rebirth of his resurrection, so we all are born again, not just by water but by the Spirit.

Send your Spirit again we pray, that we may receive your Word into our bodies through the bread and cup of this sacrament. Feed us we pray, in addition to the words we have read, and those we have heard, and those we watch in the bread being broken and the cup being poured. Feed us as we receive the bread in our hands and the cup from our lips, making Jesus and your motherly grace as real to us as this heavenly food in physical form. And then send us to be Christ’s faithful disciples, bearing his life in our lives, and offering your life to the world. Amen.

05.13.18 Acts 27.20-26, 33-36 Ministry in the Rain Sermon Summary

Note: This sermon was delivered in first person as a passenger on the boat.

Let me testify to you about a life changing experience, not just for what happened, but for what I have continued to learn from it. I wanted to remember it so I wrote it down. The author of Acts picked it up and included in his book.

We’ve all heard it said that “bad weather is necessary.” That’s easy to accept when the weather is slightly bad or it doesn’t last very long. Bad weather is easier to accept when it leads to beautiful results. “April showers bring May flowers,” you say. “Into each life some rain must fall.” That’s OK until too much rain is falling in yours.

It’s even worse when it’s not just some rain, but a storm! Then it’s not slightly bad, but really bad. It’s not temporary, but apparently unending. Storms don’t lead to beautiful results but only darkness, loss, and loneliness.

And that’s when we set sail! Ours was a merchant vessel but also floating prison. We had people from all over: Merchants, sailors, prisoners, and of course guards. We had a rough beginning but it only got worse.

Tradition said not to sail past September or October. Our experience was confirming that. But the guards and the sailors pressed on. One person, a prisoner named Paul tried to speak some common sense. “It’s dangerous,” he said. “It will lead to damage of property and loss of life. We should slow down.” He seemed an experienced traveler. They didn’t listen.

There are reasons people don’t listen to tradition or nature or experience or common sense. The Centurion was rushing to get the job done. The Captain believed in positive thinking. Others just listened to the majority. So we took off. It was stormy but we held out hope.

Then days went by. There was no sun or stars. It was a tempest and we abandoned hope. Many of us were praying to whatever god we thought could help us: Neptune, Jupiter, Anyone! And we had begun fasting also. Anything to get the gods’ attention!

But one person remained calm throughout: It was Paul. Even when we decided against him and he turned out to be right, he still remained calm and encouraging.

How did he remain calm? Part of it was he knew his purpose. He had a message to deliver to the emperor. When you know your purpose and really believe in it you don’t lose your cool, even in adversity or challenge. You just look for a creative way around it.

Another reason was Paul prayed differently. While we asked for deliverance, Paul knew he was already delivered. So his prayers were more like listening. And he received a message that reminded him of his purpose and assured us of salvation also.

A third reason was his perspective. Paul didn’t stress about material loss. He was candid about it. The boat would be destroyed; we would run aground. But what mattered most—our lives—God would deliver.

Being an itinerant evangelist, Paul had started many churches and come to know lots of people. He encountered different cultures and this had taught him: People and churches go through trials but God delivers them. Later I found a letter he wrote in which he said, “If the work is burned up, the builder will suffer loss; the builder will be saved, but only as through fire.” (1 Corinthians 3:15) He knew what was important and so he wasn’t anxious.

So Paul knew his purpose, and his prayers were mostly listening, and his perspective had an eternal horizon. And so he weathered the storm with faith.

This lasted another fourteen days! Two full weeks, two full cycles of prayer and fasting. Then, while it was still dark, Paul urged us to break our fast. He took bread and thanked God and broke it and began eating. It seemed a kind of ritual to him, like he was remembering a story of deliverance, like he had done it many times before.

We watched and listened to him. We saw his peace. We saw his confidence, joy, and faith as he remembered and ate. And we were encouraged also. We also broke our fast. And you know what was amazing? Everyone ate and was satisfied. There were 276 of us on board. Then the morning broke.

The ship ran aground, just as Paul said, and it disintegrated beneath us. We swam for beach. But I never saw a storm the same way—neither a literal storm nor the metaphorical ones.

You can avoid some storms by closer attention to tradition or experience or nature or common sense. But some storms spontaneously appear, like when your job or your health changes, or when you’ve been victimized, or a loved one dies.

Even then you can still listen to tradition, experience, nature, and common sense. But you can also have faith—like Paul. You can remember God has a purpose. You can pray more as listening. You can keep a longer perspective.

And like Paul, during the storm don’t forget to enjoy God’s providence, offering thanks and remembering past deliverance. In these faithful ways we can weather any storm together.

 

05.06.18 Acts 20.18-35 Making the Most Sermon Summary

Note: this sermon was delivered in first person as Paul.

I’m winding down my “Third Missionary Journey.” Mostly I’ve been evangelizing in synagogues or in their absence, sometimes at prayer circles. I’ve also spoken in market places and before authorities, especially as a prisoner.

But this is my first speech to a Christian audience, the Elders from the church at Ephesus. I founded this church three years earlier, and now that I’m on my way back to Jerusalem I called them together to give them something of a farewell speech. You may receive it also as my speech to YOUR church. I wanted to urge them to “make the most” of their lives by making the most of their ministry.

I made the most of my life by making the most of my ministry. I did not count my life of value to myself if only I could finish the ministry I had received from Christ. I also made the most of my time, from the first day I set foot in Asia (or anywhere I went!). I even made the most of times of trials and opposition. I found opportunities, or created them, like that night in prison in Philippi.

Speaking of prisons, I made the most of every other venue also. I helped out with chores whenever I could. I taught in public places and house to house. I also made the most of my various audiences. I spoke first to Jews then to Greeks. I even spoke to magistrates, prisoners, jailers, and women!

I made the most of my itinerary, wherever my travels happened to take me. On this trip, I was in such a hurry to get to Jerusalem I skipped Ephesus and docked in Miletus. But I called elders to meet me. It was like this for me, city by city, class by class, meeting by meeting, attending to the Spirit even when the Spirit’s news wasn’t good, like the fact I was told that imprisonments and persecutions awaited me.

But I made the most of my life by making the most of my ministry, sharing the hope of repentance, inviting people to walk by faith in Christ, and testifying of “good news of God’s grace.”

We have to make the most of our lives because we’re all judged by what we do. It’s not a moral standard against which we’re judged, but against what we’ve been given, what we’ve earned, and what we can do. God expects us to make the most of our lives. God’s judgment isn’t scary. It’s just God saying, “I gave you this; what did you do with it?”

I wanted the Ephesian church—and every church, even your church, even you—to make the most of life by making the most of ministry. My instructions for the Ephesian church and your church were two-fold.

First, I told them to be responsible overseers. Build up the church and protect it against wolves. Wolves don’t look like wolves. They come in sheep’s clothing. They distort the truth of the Gospel. They come dressed as what is popular. Or dressed in what is convenient. Or dressed in the easy, low-cost option. They come dressed in nationalism. Responsible overseers protect against such wolves.

Second, I told them to generously provide for the ministry. For example, I had outside support (my own work included) which I combined with gifts from other churches to further my ministry. This was my example for the church’s to follow: To work to supply the needs of the church and to be able to give to needs of others. It’s what Jesus taught me: “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”

So I worked and I gave. I discovered that work is holy when it leads to giving. Or to put it backwards, generosity makes any work holy. Even yours. So I worked and I gave and guess what? I was blessed. That’s how a church is blessed also.

Faith Presbyterian Church—your church—shows signs of being blessed, of making the most of its life and ministry. You have responsible overseers building up the church. You care for children from the nursery through to the youth group. You care for the lonely and the mourning. You serve one another in worship.

And your responsible overseers protect you against the wolves. They listen to God’s Word not only with their heart but also with their mind. They not only entrust the world to God in prayer, they envision God’s will for the world and put it in prayer!

Your church also generously provides for the needs of others. You serve meals and provide housing to homeless people. You support your denomination. You give away $1,000 every month to ministry partners around the city and world.

I knew I was leaving. I envisioned the church without me. I said to them, “You can make it. You can make the most if you work together, keep faith, and walk the line as disciples of Christ.” Well, the elders from Ephesus took it to heart. We knelt and prayed together, embraced, kissed, and wept together. One of them even wrote the book of Ephesians in my name!

What about you? Will you take my words to heart? Will you make the most of your life by making the most of your ministry? I offer you my prayers and this promise—straight from Jesus, through me, to you—it is more blessed to give than to receive.

 

04.29.18 Acts 17.1-9 Remembering Who’s King Sermon Summary

Note: this sermon was preached in first person as Jason, a 20-something resident of Thessalonica living in community with others.

My name is Jason. Today is my feast day in Orthodox Church! My name means “one who heals.” It’s a Greek version of the Hebrew name “Joshua.” I’m a Jew with Greek influences.

Recently I got in trouble with the authorities. I had to post a bail ensuring my cooperation, a promise that I wouldn’t cause any more trouble. You see there were these visitors to town. I had heard about them from my uncle Dzvezda in Philippi. You know him also? Rough guy.

These visitors were named Paul and Silas. They had a reputation of “turning the world upside down.” They were proponents of “the Way” which refers to people follow who the teachings of Jesus. Did they “turn the world upside down”? In some ways, maybe.

People of the Way shared things in common. None of them were in need. Those who had shared with—or sold off in order to share with—those who didn’t.

They also welcomed outsiders like my Greek friends. And women.

They cared for people others hated like lepers and tax-collectors.

That’s how they turned the world upside down: By loving each other in sacrificial ways.

They didn’t really do anything to hurt Caesar. Caesar still had his armies; they just refused to serve in them since they followed the Way of the Peacemaker. Caesar still had his self-worshiping rituals; they just didn’t participate. They worshiped the God of Jesus.

But nothing Christians did took away from Caesar. They simply had Jesus as their king and kept a higher allegiance to him above anyone else.

But some other Jews didn’t follow the Way. Paul used to be one of them. He wanted to exterminate the Way and its followers.

When I heard it said that followers of Jesus were “turning the world upside down,” I remembered Jesus’ trial before Pilate, the Roman governor of his day. There were the same kind of accusations back then—that Jesus taught we need not pay taxes to Caesar or that Jesus was setting up an alternative kingdom in which he was king. (see Luke 23:2)

Pilate questioned Jesus about these things, and Jesus refused to answer. And Pilate couldn’t force him to answer. It was like Jesus had a freedom Pilate couldn’t take away. When you have the security of the Kingdom of God you don’t have to answer. You just live.

Pilate marveled at this, and he was going to let Jesus go (after a beating). (see Luke 23:16) But the Chief Priests of Jesus’ day couldn’t allow that. They wanted Jesus dead. They didn’t want to follow Jesus and they didn’t want anyone else to either. They even pledged allegiance to Caesar! (John 19:15)

Some people can be tolerant like Pilate basically was. They don’t agree, but they don’t feel particularly threatened so they go one with their lives. But some people can’t accept that there may be another king or lord for other people. And that was the fear the Jews in Thessalonica were playing on, that Caesar might get mad and do something.

I find it interesting they framed Jesus against Caesar and not against Yahweh, our God. We are Jews after all. You’d think they would say, “There is no other King but Yahweh. Jesus is no king!” But instead they said, “There is no other king but Caesar. You politicians should do something about these people turning the world upside down.”

You know what really troubled them? It wasn’t just that they didn’t want others following Jesus or that they were afraid of Caesar. It was Paul’s reinterpretation of “Messiah.” Jesus’ death was a scandal. Here was a Jewish Rabbi who taught heresy and acted in blasphemous ways. This is what Paul used to believe until he met the resurrected Christ.

Then he realized Jesus was the Messiah. Paul began to read scripture differently. He concluded that, “it was necessary for the Messiah to suffer and to rise from the dead. Jesus is this Messiah!” That was Paul’s message.

In Jesus’ resurrection God showed that the hope we Jews had for the Messiah applied to all people. It applies to the whole cosmos, in fact. Messianic hope wasn’t just for national peace and prosperity or for political freedom. Messianic hope is for freedom from sin and death.

This is what Paul taught. “Impossible!” said the traditionalists and those with power and prestige to loose. That’s why they wanted Paul out of the picture. He preached an upside down world by preaching a world that was redeemed and transformed, where sinful systems like religious hierarchies and political oppression and economic exploitation gave way to love.

Some of us were convinced or at least intrigued. So we welcomed Paul and Silas into my house. After a few weeks the critics came looking for them, and instead they found me and my roommates. They accused me of entertaining Jesus—like “aiding and abetting traitorous people.” Now I was party to “turning the world upside down.” I got kind of nervous.

Then I remembered the people Jesus entertained. One time he was at home of Simon the Pharisee, one of those righteous religious folks. And during dinner this sinful woman came and anointed him. With disapproval, Simon noted the company Jesus kept.

Jesus told a parable about two debtors, one who owed a great amount, and one a small amount. Both were forgiven, and Jesus asked Simon which debtor would have greater love for the one who forgave them. The point was, Who loved Jesus more? Simon the host who put on the dinner? Simon the religious one? Or the guest who came with Jesus—the sinful woman?

I thought about that when they accused me of entertaining Paul and Silas. I wish I had said, “Yeah, I welcomed them! And regardless of what happens to me now, it was the right thing!” But instead, I posted bail and promised there would be no more trouble from me or my house. I guess I’m somewhere between Simon and the sinful woman. I love Jesus, but not as much as she did.

What would you have done? Would you welcome the world-changing way of Christ? Or would you compromise to keep the peace? I guess it’s a matter of remembering who’s king—is it Caesar or Jesus?—and then standing with your answer.