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07.25.21 The Gospel in Paul’s Churches 1 Cor 1.18-2.5 Sermon Summary

Sometimes we read the Bible and we think, “There’s something going on here, but I don’t know what.” That’s when we turn to specialists trained in reading ancient texts. Specialists explore arcane details and literary devices. They compare historical references and allusions. They look for theological patterns that may help us understand a passage of scripture like Paul’s dense conversation in 1 Corinthians 1:18-2:5.

This passage has something going on. It lays out several opposites and contrasts:  Wise and foolish; strong and weak; divine and human. Paul contrasts God’s foolishness to human wisdom, and God’s weakness Paul compares to human strength. 

This isn’t by accident. It is designed. Paul is using a stylistic argument called a chiasmus. It gets its name from the Greek letter Chi which is shaped like an X. It’s the first letter in the word “Christ,” which is why we abbreviate Christmas with Xmas.

A chiasmus crisscrosses words like opposites and contrasts. It takes an idea and twists it, reversing word order, making contrasts, making it look like an X in the imaginatioin. 

For example: Winston Churchill said, “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.” We design our buildings with careful controls, but for generations afterwards, buildings control us. Think about the implications of that for a church sanctuary . . .

This passage from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians is riddled with chiasmi. You can find them if you look. Locating them helps us understand the point Paul is trying to make. I want to get to the point through the question, What was Paul’s understanding of the Gospel? In this passage we have three moves constructed as chiasmi.

First: God has made a choice. God has chosen the foolish to shame the wise, and the weak to shame the strong. Why? Because God’s foolishness is greater than human wisdom. And, Paul says, God’s weakness is greater than human strength. This is a great contrast between divine and human, between God’s values and ours.

Next, Paul says, God has revealed this choice with the crucifixion of Christ. This is the second move. The crucifixion of Christ reveals God’s choice. Some people want signs or miracles. Others want wisdom, impressive arguments, and productive results. 

So you might hear someone say, or think yourself, “This person sounds very impressive. She is articulate! He is so passionate! And they use such big words! What she’s saying must be true.”

Or, “Gosh this is a huge building. The parking lot is always full and the people are well dressed. Surely this place must be blessed!”

That’s the backstory in Corinth. Since Paul founded the church a few years earlier, the congregations have begun to criticize him for not being very impressive and his message for not being very substantive in comparison to others’.

Paul responds that instead of relying on eloquence and miracles, he simply preached “Christ crucified.” He acknowledges this is a stumbling block to sign-seekers and foolishness to wisdom-seekers. 

Paul preached that an uncredentialed Jewish Rabbi who was opposed by religious leaders and the politically powerful was nonetheless beloved of the poor and simple. He was the hope of the oppressed, the marginalized, and those in vulnerable communities. 

So maybe Jesus isn’t JUST A Rabbi, just a teacher. He is a prophet who speaks the truth. He is a priest who makes God present to us and us to God. Maybe he’s a new king, a deliverer and redeemer. And if so, maybe he could be the Messiah [“Christ”], the very embodiment of God’s promises fulfilled!

But if so, how could Paul preach “Christ crucified”?! That’s weakness, not strength. It’s foolishness, not wisdom. It’s human, not divine. But that’s what Paul preached: Christ crucified. It is the revelation of God’s choice: “God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are.” (1 Cor 1:28)

This brings us to the third move. God calls, and we respond. Jesus calls us to follow him, to follow in this way, in this counter wisdom, to trust in this counter strength. And those who respond, Paul writes, discover that God is the source of their life, and that in Christ is our redemption.

So what is the Gospel in Paul’s churches? Our salvation comes through Christ crucified. This is God’s choice. Why? So that no one can boast. It is God’s doing. In other words, it is a gift. It is grace.

Let us not hope to boast in signs and wonders, in displays of power and prestige, or in demonstrable productivity. Let us not hope to boast in intelligent and articulate arguments, or in reason and prudence. 

These would be our choices. But the Gospel is about God’s choices. And God has chosen Christ crucified, the weak to shame the strong, what is foolish to shame the wise.

And to all who believe and respond, God chooses to give divine life, power, and wisdom, to make us holy, and to redeem our lives.

If this is Paul’s Gospel in Corinth, should we not consider it our own cities?

07.18.21 What We Can and Can’t Do Mark 10.35-45 Sermon Summary

There are things we can do, and things we can’t. We can’t determine our position in heaven. James and John had a vision, to sit at Jesus’ right and left hand in the Kingdom. So they asked, “What do we have to do?”

Jesus replied, “Can you drink the cup I drink? Can you share my baptism?” “Yes,” they answered, and Jesus was impressed. I think he was actually surprised. “Indeed,” he responds, but he also reflects. 

“Where you sit in the Kingdom is not up to me. It is up to God.” In other words, we can’t impact our “place” in heaven. It is in God’s hands, and God’s hands alone.

But Jesus does indicate how we can be “great.” He reveals the secret to being “first.” It is to, “be the servant of all.” To serve, self-sacrificially. To seek the common good and not our own good.

We can’t influence our place in the afterlife. But we can pursue greatness. We can position ourselves as number one. We can pursue advancement. And the path is service, things like: Civil service, military service, social justice advocacy, community service, teaching, public utilities, politics, community organizing, and providing for and protecting vulnerable communities.

We believe that God’s Spirit gifts each member of the church with special interests, talents, and skills for the common good of the church. But just as God works beyond the church, and the Spirit moves outside the church, so we give thanks for the many ways people serve the common good through channels not related to the church. 

Jesus calls the church to follow him on the path of service, of care for the neighbor, of love for our enemy. In our own individual lives, this call finds infinite unique expressions, as we each consider the cares of our neighbors, as we protect the interest of the weak, as we desire to be the best version of ourselves according to God’s vision upon our lives. 

Jesus said, “You are the light of the world and the salt of the earth. Let your light so shine before others that they may receive the blessing of your service and give thanks to God.” Amen.

07.11.21 Seeing Through Jesus’ Eyes Matthew 19.1-12 Sermon Summary

OPENING INTENTION

The Bible says that at the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth, and everything in between. God created the light and the darkness, which includes the dusk and the dawn. God created the sea and the dry land, which includes beaches and coral reefs. God created flying birds and swimming fish, which includes swimming penguins and leaping dolphins. 

The Bible says that at the beginning, God created humankind in God’s image, male and female God created them. 

Today we celebrate the diversity of God’s creation, and give thanks for God’s abundant love. Let us come and worship this God of the Bible, who welcomes young and old and everyone in between. Who welcomes human and insect and all that is in between. Who welcomes believer and doubter and all who are in between. Who welcomes male and female and all who are in between. 

You, whoever you are, have a place here. For we are God’s people, the sheep of God’s pasture. 

SERMON: Seeing Through Jesus’ Eyes

Here are two characteristics about humanity in general: (1) We prefer easier to more difficult; (2) We don’t like fear or confusion. These two characteristics cause our brains to wire in a specific way early in our lives. Jesus calls us to rewire. 

Later in life most people learn to choose difficulty over ease and to challenge fear or confusion. But early on, in order to facilitate our survival, our brain wires itself to see opposite pairs. This makes decision-making easier. Two alternatives are easier to manage than three or more.

This is why we make lists: Pros and cons, dos and don’ts, wrongs and rights. It’s why we see things as my way vs. your way, our interests vs. their interests, and that one person’s loss is another one’s gain. Neuroscientists call this “binary thinking.” It is natural, it develops early on, and it is necessary for survival.

But God wants us to do more than survive. God wants us to thrive. Jesus doesn’t just lead us to life. He leads us to abundant life. Jesus calls us beyond binary thinking. He does so because that’s where he resides.

Jesus resides beyond the binaries. Here is a Jew who is inclusive of Gentiles. Here is a Rabbi who teaches women. Here is a human who bears the divine image. If we see only believer or non-believer, knowledgeable or ignorant, man or God, we won’t see Jesus. 

Jesus challenged the binary thinking of the woman at the well, saying, “God is not worshipped on this mountain or that mountain, but in Spirit.” And of the tradition about Law: “Law isn’t about acting this way or that way but about loving God and neighbor.” And of the Pharisees who asked him about marriage and divorce, when he makes his comments about eunuchs.

The Pharisees have asked him about the application of a specific law. Jesus redirected their attention to love. It is more difficult to love. It is easier to walk away. In response to the Pharisees question about marriage and divorce, Jesus urges the hard work of love. 

He lifts up eunuchs as examples. Extraordinary! Here’s how the Bible defines “eunuchs”: “No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the LORD.” (Deuteronomy 23:1) In other words, anyone whose sexual identifiers are ambiguous is left out.

The biblical authors didn’t know about gender or sexual orientation or the concept of self-identification. Thus the Bible is largely binary, beginning with the very first chapter where Creation occurs by separating opposites: Morning and evening, light and darkness, water and dry land. And later chapters and books oppose the righteous and the unjust, the wise and the foolish, and Israel and the nations. 

Running throughout the Bible is a fundamental binary of male and female. If you are ambiguous, if you don’t fit in the binary, you are excluded from the community.

This fundamental binary is obvious to the biblical writers, but Jesus sees more. How does he see more? Jesus looks at the eunuch who is supposed to be a male but yet not a male, and he sees a person, a being capable of loving God.

Jesus looks past the fundamental binary and sees something even more fundamental. He sees past the ambiguity to the person made in God’s image.

Why does Jesus see this where others do not? It is because he brings the messianic age envisioned by Isaiah.

“Thus says the LORD: Maintain justice, and do what is right, for soon my salvation will come, and my deliverance be revealed. Do not let the foreigner joined to the LORD say, ‘The LORD will surely separate me from his people.’ And do not let the eunuch say, ‘I am just a dry tree.” For thus says the LORD: to the eunuchs who choose the things that please me and hold fast to my covenant, I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than the sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.” (Isaiah 56:1-6)

Remember how we prefer easier to more difficult, and don’t like fear and confusion? Life would be a lot easier, and would require less courage, if the world were truly binary. If ostriches could fly like other birds. If rain only watered the earth without flooding it. If fire just warmed us and cooked our food without consuming our houses. But then we wouldn’t see the world as Isaiah envisioned it: A household of God expansive enough to welcome and include foreigners and eunuchs.

Life would be a lot easier, and would require less courage, if reality was truly binary. If obedience to the Law determined justice. If the absence of war was the definition of peace. If God was transcendent and wholly other. But then we wouldn’t see God as Jesus does. It’s only after Jesus that we had to create the concept and invent the word “Trinity.”

Life would be a lot easier, and would require less courage, if life was truly binary. If male and female was all there was. If marriage was a matter of like and dislike, or determined by the presence or absence of a certificate. If Eunuchs didn’t exist.

But then, worst of all, we wouldn’t see what Jesus sees: A fellow human as a child of God, as sibling, as a partner, as a friend. Seeing the Eunuch through Jesus’ eyes isn’t the easier way. It can be fearful and confusing. It takes hard work and courage. But that’s where Jesus is, where Jesus reveals God. It’s where Isaiah saw it all going. It’s where Jesus wants us to follow him.

And so as Jesus said, “Let anyone accept this who can.”

Psalm 95

Come worship

God as God

as our God

Listen

Rest

06.27.21 One Thing Unites 1 Cor. 1.10-17 Sermon Summary

There is paradox in the nature of God’s grace. On one hand, it is a gift unconditionally offered and freely received. However, once received, it claims our allegiance. 

Last week we looked at how the paradox of grace applies to holiness. “Sanctification,” as the theologians call it, is God’s gift to us. But it is also our response to God. Holiness a foundation of the church. This week we consider another foundation and another paradox of grace: Unity.

The churches in Corinth were a gifted group. They were a diverse church and had exalted expectations. This made them a challenging church to lead. Paul wrote 1 Corinthians to guide the challenging church, and we are looking to Paul to teach us how to face our own challenges as the church today.

Paul continues laying the foundations of his letter with these words. “I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose.”

My congregation is similar to the church in Corinth. As in Corinth, my congregation has an abundance of strong leadership. Corinth had Paul, Apollos, and Peter (Paul calls him Cephas). We have such leaders as I’ve outlined in earlier sermons (here and here).

As in Corinth, part of the leadership in my congregation consists of outspoken women. In Corinth, for example, Chloe may have been a house sponsor, that is, a pastor. 

As in Corinth, my congregation has talented worship leaders exercising a variety of spiritual gifts. And we both share a robust celebration of the sacraments. 

And as in Corinth, in my congregation all this abundance has led to a steady stream of visitors. 

In writing to Corinth, Paul offers thanks but also a warning: Abundance easily distracts. We can become beholden to our abundance, become proud. And so abundance also easily divides as we think to ourselves, “Our way is better than others.” And this has the potential to create “cliques” within a church, according to biblical scholar Preben Vang.

Many churches go through difficulties caused by cliquish behavior. Whether these are caused by forceful personalities, political conviction, musical tastes, preference for certain church programs, theological catchphrases, or something else, they will eventually undermine the power of the gospel. If Christ, who came to break down the wall that separates (Eph. 2:14), cannot even remove cliques in his own body, the cross has lost its power (1 Cor. 1:17) and the church is left without a testimony. (Vang, Preben. 1 Corinthians p. 26. Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.)

Distraction and division can be avoided, however, and the cross can again be powerful. The church can maintain a testimony if we remember our unity in Christ.

Some in my congregation say, “But we don’t have unity. There are too many differences: Political. Theological. Practical. We don’t have unity.”

But we do. The Confession of Belhar was written in 1986 in South Africa during Apartheid, the white minority rule over the black and colored majorities. In 2016 my denomination included Belhar in its Book of Confessions, our primary traditional guidance in interpreting the Bible. The confession’s themes are unity, reconciliation, and justice. About unity, it states:

“We believe that unity is both a gift and an obligation for the church of Jesus Christ; that through the working of God’s Spirit it is a binding force, yet simultaneously a reality which must be earnestly pursued and sought: one which the people of God must continually be built up to attain.”

Some things to note: Unity is a “gift.” It is already given. It is achieved by Christ. It is sustained by the Spirit. Yet it is also an “obligation.” The church is to pursue and seek it. We have to be trained how to do this.

This theology finds expression my denomination’s polity through the Book of Order, Foundations 1.0302: “Because in Christ the Church is one, it strives to be one.” This is a paradox of grace. Like holiness last week, unity is a gift we strive to make real. 

How do we do this? Belhar goes on to enumerate a number of ways. It begins with love for one another. It includes actively pursuing community with one another. We are to give of ourselves to the benefit of each other. We should share experiences and burdens with one another. 

The Corinthians were facing challenges. They were distracted and divided, taking power from the Cross and losing their testimony. This is real today. Just ask the “nones,” those surveyed who check “none of the above” with regards to their religious affiliation. Their numbers are growing every year.

When we in the church say, “We don’t have unity,” then cite all the examples and argue that our way is better than others, it’s easy for people to dismiss the church. Instead of lamenting diversity, Belhar says we need to celebrate it.

“We believe that the variety of spiritual gifts, opportunities, backgrounds, convictions, as well as the various languages and cultures, are by virtue of the reconciliation in Christ, opportunities for mutual service and enrichment within the one visible people of God.”

From this perspective, “variety” creates opportunities for service and enrichment. It does so because of our unity in Christ, already secured. 

Does the church face challenges? According to Paul, it needs to focus on the mind of Christ and his purpose. Jesus never forgot the lost sheep. They were continuously in his mind. Instead he always went looking for them. He still does. To face our challenges we need to remember our unity, celebrate our diversity, and follow our Lord: Make the lost a priority.

“The Church seeks to include all people and is never content to enjoy the benefits of Christian community for itself alone.” (Book of Order, Foundations 1.0302) If we don’t “seek to include all people,” if we are “content to enjoy the benefits of Christian community for ourselves alone,” we will be distracted and divided, the cross will lose its power, and we will lose our testimony.

“I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose.”

Let us be united in the mind and purpose of Christ. Amen.

06.20.21 Paul’s Assumptions about Church 1 Corinthians 1.1-9 Sermon Summary

We’re going to listen to 1 Corinthians for a while because we need guidance. The Apostle Paul was dealing with a challenging church, and today we are dealing with challenging times.

Corinth was a large city. It was primarily Gentile, wealthy, and diverse. This created friction in the churches. As trade center, the Corinthians had cultivated exalted expectations. This was a problem for Paul who apparently was not an eloquent speaker.

First Corinthians appears as the second of Paul’s letters in the New Testament. That’s because it’s his second longest. In terms of chronology, 1 Corinthians is, among the letters that have survived, probably Paul’s third after 1 Thessalonians and Galatians.

First Corinthians was written about 53-55. Paul had founded the church in 50. It is an “occasional” letter, which means Paul was addressing particular matters as he wrote. But reading behind the text and between the lines we can discern a coherent theology; Paul’s theology.

Very quickly the wider church discerned God spoke to us through Paul’s writings and so we continue listen for God’s Word in Paul’s letters. In the opening verses of 1 Corinthians we discover a couple of assumptions Paul makes about the church in general. 

“To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours.”

Our first observation is that church people are “sanctified.” Paul never writes about joining a church or being a member of a church. Instead he uses language of joining the Body of Christ, being a member of the Body of Christ. One of his favorite ways to refer to this is to be “in Christ.”

If someone is “in Christ” it means he or she will be “in church.” For Paul, if you were “in church” you were also “in Christ.” This is because in Paul’s day, people chose Christ over many options; over other deities, over other lords and kings presented as deities, and over the typical distractions of status, wealth, and leisure.

To choose Christ, to be in church, was counter-cultural, anti-government, and unpatriotic. It led to persecution and could cost you your life. This made it hard to be Christian. You needed support. You needed others. You needed a community. You needed the church. 

Many have observed that we are returning to that reality today, where being in church is counter-cultural. When Christians stand for peace, justice, equality, and love, we may be called unpatriotic. For many of us this is not a bad thing. It suggests a purifying of the church and of Christianity.

All this is why Paul writes that church people are “sanctified.” This a word that simply means “made holy.” You might think “holy-fied” when you hear “sanctified.”

Something is holy only as it belongs to God, because God alone is purely holy. Kingdoms of the world are not holy. The Kingdom that belongs to God is holy. Those who belong to the Kingdom of God are holy. They are “sanctified.”

While we are already sanctified, Paul yet calls us to be saints. We are already holy, and we are called to be increasingly holy. We already belong to God, and we are called to belong to God more and more

Our Presbyterian Brief Statement of Faith expresses what we’ve said thus far: 

“In life and in death we belong to God. . . [T]he Spirit gives us courage to pray without ceasing, to witness among all peoples to Christ as Lord and Savior, to unmask idolatries in Church and culture, to hear the voices of peoples long silenced, and to work with others for justice, freedom, and peace. In gratitude to God, empowered by the Spirit, we strive to serve Christ in our daily tasks and to live holy and joyful lives.” 

Notice how in the famous first line is the assertion that “we belong to God.” In the final section about the role of the Spirit in our lives, the confession calls us to increasingly exhaustive holiness (and joy!) in our lives.

We are “holy-fied” and called to be holy. And we are not alone. We are church, “together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours,” Paul asserts.

My second and much shorter observation is that our sanctification, our holy-fication, is a gift from God. This is what Paul means by “grace.” Notice Paul’s emphasis on the passive voice, which means the action is happing to us. We are not doing it ourselves.

Paul is an apostle “by the will of God.” The church is comprised of those who “are sanctified” and “are called” to holiness. The “grace of God has been given to you,” Paul writes, and the Corinthians “have been enriched in Christ.” Paul’s testimony “has been strengthened” among them and God will also “strengthen them to the end.” By God they “were called into the fellowship of Christ.”

This is Paul’s understanding of “grace;” it is something that is given. It cannot be achieved. It is to be received.

The Corinthian churches were challenging churches, and we are in challenging times. But before dealing with the challenges of his day, Paul lays the foundation in these opening verses. The church is sanctified. And it is sanctified by God.

What does the future of the church look like post pandemic and after online ministry?

What does the future of the church look like now that we are waking up white?

What does the future of the church look like now that we are taking responsibility for the environment?

What does the future of the church look like now that we realize “boy” and “girl” don’t fully describe all people?

What does the future of the church look like now that we understand brain chemistry and the overwhelming effects of trauma?

What does the future of the church look like now that we’re taking Jesus’ command to love our neighbors, and to love our enemies, and to love ourselves, and to love God with everything—and he means everything?

I don’t know what it looks like and it scares me. It makes me nostalgic for simpler times. It makes me defensive. It makes me closed-minded. And so I look to Paul and he tells me, “You are already holy. You are to pursue holiness. The church is already holy. It is to pursue holiness.

“God has given you what you are, and God will give you what you will be. You have only to believe. You have only to receive.”

“Do not worry,” Jesus said. “Desire first God’s Kingdom, and all these things will be given to you as well.”

“Do not be anxious about anything,” Paul wrote in another letter, “but in all things, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God, and the peace of God, which transcends understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

Spirit, give us to desire first God’s kingdom. Then add to us what you will, not what we will. We thank you for calling us to be in Christ, to be members of his Body, to be your church in the world today. We present our requests: Lead us. Guide us. Give us vision. Ease our anxieties. Calm our fears. Increase our faith. Grant us wisdom, grant us courage, for the facing of this hour. For we are a challenged church, and we are a challenging church. And we need to remember that by your grace, and your grace alone, we are holy, and we may be holy. In Christ’s name we pray. Amen.

06.13.2021 Benefits of a Servant’s Heart 1 Peter 4.11-17 Sermon Summary

There is a Chinese Proverb: “If you want happiness for an hour, take a nap. If you want happiness for a day, go fishing. If you want happiness for a year, inherit a fortune. If you want happiness for a lifetime, help somebody.”

God has created us for such happiness.

I’d like to offer three points related to the passage for today from 1 Peter 4:11-17. First, service brings glory to God, and thus lasts forever. Second, service as it relates to our prayers. Finally, service as a personal sacrament.

The passage says, “whoever serves must do so with the strength that God supplies, so that God may be glorified in all things through Jesus Christ. To him belong the glory and the power forever and ever.” Jesus came to glorify God by saving creatures. And he said he came, “not to be served, but to serve.”

When John the Baptist was asked about Jesus, he responded, “Jesus must increase, and I must decrease.” When we serve others, our actions direct glory to God because our ego is relativized. We are less in the way and God shines through.

Someone may ask us, “Why are you doing this?” And we could respond, “Because I follow Jesus.” In John 15 Jesus said, “God is glorified by your fruit; bear fruit that will last.” He’s referring to serving others in love, “so that,” he continues, “God will give you whatever you ask in my name.” (John 15:8, 16-17)

So we turn to the relationship between service and prayer. We know to pray for ourselves and others in challenging situations. The passage says, “be serious and discipline yourselves for the sake of your prayers,” and it is followed by practical—that is, serving—instructions.

Prayer is always the right place to start. But it often not the right place to stop. This passage calls us to pray, then to serve. By doing so, we become party to the answer to our prayer. We become a participant in the Spirit’s work.

Psychologists refer to the “activism cure” in dealing with mild depression. Just taking a proactive step, no matter how small, against the depressing situation helps to dispel mild depression.

The same can be applied to a lagging faith. Do your prayers not seem to be doing much? Then do something yourself, 1 Peter says. Serve someone. Not only are you party to the answers to your own prayers, you are party to the answer to someone else’s prayer. They have prayed, and you show up. This participation in answered prayer is sacramental.

Service is a personal sacrament. The passage says, “like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received.” In serving others, through our unique and varied gifts, God’s grace becomes real. It becomes physical. That’s the role of the sacraments.

Sacraments create and increase faith, hope, and love. So does service. Jesus is present in sacraments. And Jesus is present when we serve. He’s present within us as one who serves. And he’s present in the one being served, as he promises in Matthew 25: “As often as you serve the least of these my brothers and sisters, you serve me.”

In the sacraments we see a miracle revealed. Service also reveals miracles as lives are transformed. Sacraments create a sense of belonging; they establish community to counter isolation and loneliness. Service does the same thing. We become one with others who serve, and with those who are served.

Sacraments call us to “remember.” They help us put things in perspective. They create gratitude and contentment. Service has the same effect. As we help others, we become aware of the blessings and opportunities in our own lives.

Finally, sacraments remind us that we all have gifts. First Peter along with the writings of Paul assume that each of us have been given gifts by God’s Spirit for service to the common good in the church and the world. As we serve others, we become aware of these gifts.

There’s one more comment I want to make. It comes from the article Volunteering — 7 Big Reasons Why Serving Others Serves Us

Dr. Michael Poulin, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Buffalo in New York says, “Helping appears to only be good for you if you really care about those you’re helping.” In other words, feeling resentment or obligation will erase the benefits that we might otherwise receive in both our emotions and our physiology. If you feel exploited in any way, it is better not to take the action than stress yourself out doing something for the wrong reason.

Besides the emotional and physiological benefits of serving others, something we haven’t even considered, there is a similar effect on the theology of serving others. The benefits of a servant’s heart are maximized if we really care.

With that said, let us pray: Lord Jesus Christ, God so loved the world that he sent you to be our servant and savior. Help us to love those whom God loves, that we may serve them with the same joy, acceptance, patience, care, strength, and grace with which you served us, and continue to serve the world.

Lord, we pray that you will guide each of us, as members of your Body, that we may use the gifts of your Spirit which each one of us has, to serve not only the church but the world at large. Give us discipline to say “no” to distractions, that we may say “yes” to your calling us in service to the church and the world. For we believe that salvation is real for us in this life as we follow you in service to others.

Renew our minds, we pray, and may our actions follow as a living sacrifice which, by your Spirit, is our physical worship throughout the week. Unite us with Christ in his ministry, no less in our service than as you do in the sacraments. Indeed, make of us the Body of Christ, that we may be a sacramental presence to all whom we serve in his name. Amen.

06.06.2021 A New Day is Dawning Acts 1.1-11 Sermon Summary

This passage recounts the “Ascension of Jesus.” It occurs forty days after the Resurrection. “Forty Days” is a common time reference.

  • In Noah’s story, it rained forty days and forty nights
  • Moses spent three forty-day periods on Mount Sinai
  • The spies he sent into Canaan remained there forty days
  • Elijah walked forty days to Mount Horeb
  • Goliath challenged the Israelites forty days until David silenced him
  • Jesus was tempted in the Wilderness forty days

Clearly we’re dealing with a symbol. Forty days represents the completion of a full time. I have chosen this passage for this morning’s sermon because today marks a new start of our ministry together. A full time is ending. I have been at Faith Presbyterian Church thirteen years this Sunday. A new day is dawning—year fourteen.

Since forty days is symbolic, one wonders if there are other symbols in Acts chapter one. The book is addressed to “Theophilus” which means “One Loved of God”. This is probably not an actual person, but a reference to all of us who read Acts. We are the ones loved of God. Later in the chapter, upon Judas’ demise, the remaining eleven disciples seek to replace him with another twelfth. This, too, is a symbol. There were twelve tribes of Israel, and in this “new Israel” there must be twelve disciples.

The symbolic world is important because it is the realm of meaning. It points to meaning beyond history and beyond reality. Take music, for example. It also exists in the symbolic world. The most meaningful songs aren’t to be taken literally. Consider “Amazing Grace”: “When we’ve been there ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun, we’ve no less days to sing God’s praise than when we’ve first begun.”

Time-keeping in God’s realm is utterly meaningless. Second Peter 3:8 says, “With the Lord a day is like 1000 years, and 1000 years are like a day.” The meaning of Amazing Grace is that our praise of God never ends. God’s deserving of our praise is inexhaustible. Ten thousand years doesn’t even count.

Imagine if we were to argue about the ten thousand years. If we were to take it literally. If we were to restrict our conversation to history and to reality. We would risk losing the meaning of the lyrical symbol.

On the other hand, if we keep only the meaning of symbols, we miss the importance of history and of reality. Grace is effective now in this life, according to Amazing Grace, and not just in those symbolic ten thousand years.

Try this with other meaningful songs to you—love songs, songs of mourning, inspirational instrumental songs. They are meaningful as symbols; of meaning grounded in history and reality. Force them to be literal, and they risk losing the meaning.

The symbolic world looks past the past. It looks past history and looks past reality. It looks past the past to see meaning.

So we return to the symbolic world of Acts chapter one. There are “forty days,” it is addressed to “Theophilus,” Jesus speaks of the, “baptism of John in water and the baptism in the Holy Spirit.” We are told Jesus is, “lifted up and disappears in clouds.” And then there are “the two men dressed in white.”

The setting of this story is “forty days” after the Resurrection. Jesus promises the Holy Spirit and gives his disciples a mission: To be witnesses. And “while they are watching” Jesus is “lifted up and disappears in clouds.” “Two men dressed in white” appear and begin speaking. They are obviously angels by their sudden entrance and their dazzling appearance.

Angels are messengers of God. They proclaim the divine perspective. They tell us how to look at things. “Why do you stand here looking into the heavens?” they ask. “This Jesus will return the same way you saw him depart.”

THIS Jesus. The Resurrected Jesus. The New Jesus. The Different Jesus. The Living Jesus. Things are very different. The Day of Resurrection has occurred. A new day has dawned. Everything is changed.

Things are different now: “Why do you stand here looking into the heavens?” Things are very different. The worldwide human community is obvious to us now; a virus in China creates a pandemic in two months. A container ship grounded in the Suez Canal disrupts the global economy for two weeks. School classes, meetings, worship, and family reunions all occur online.

Things are very different; but something remains the same. Jesus who was resurrected will return. And not just once, but over and over. Here’s a symbolic meaning of this passage for us today.

Notice when the angels say Jesus will appear. I make three observations. It is: “As they were watching”; “While they were waiting”; and “As they received the mission.” Let’s take these in reverse order.

“As they receive the mission.” The mission is to bear witness. They are to witness beyond history and reality; beyond Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria; even to the ends of the earth. And of what are they witnesses? “To the resurrection of Christ,” according to Acts 1:22. They bear witness to the new day that has dawned.

“While they were waiting.” The disciples asked, “Are you going to restore the Kingdom at this time?” Jesus responds, “It is not for you to know the times set by God, but to wait for the Holy Spirit.” In ten more days—another symbolic number of fullness—the Spirit came to them. And the Spirit brought along with her the Resurrected Christ.

“As they were watching.” Jesus departs and returns to those who watch, those who look, those who seek. They alone are the ones who see.

As they were watching, while they were waiting for the Holy Spirit, and as they received the mission. The angels are saying, “Look past the past. Live in the present. Proceed toward the future. All the while Christ appears, disappears, and appears again as things continually change.”

Things are very different now. And they will continue to change. But together we witness to the Resurrection of Christ. As we wait. As we watch, seek, and look. For the Resurrected Christ is STILL reconciling the world, and now we have this ministry, this ministry of reconciliation.

We are to bring those near who are far away, to restore to victims what was stolen by privilege, to reunite responsibility with freedom, so that, in the words of Psalm eighty-five, faithfulness meets steadfast love, and peace and righteousness kiss, that the glory of the Kingdom of God may dwell even in our land.

This we may do together. Bearing witness to Christ’s Resurrection, to his reconciling ministry which he has placed in our hands. This we may do together by waiting upon the Spirit, by watching for his appearing. This we may do together, looking past the past, as pastor and church, so that the new day of resurrection can dawn again and again and again upon us and the world.

And our history, and our reality, can have meaning and a future in the Kingdom of God.

Let anyone who has an ear, listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches. Amen.

05.16.21 Normal. Not Going Back, but Going Beyond l John 21.1-19 Sermon Summary

So many people want to return to normal, and I say “yes!” if normal has been interrupted by pandemic. But what about when normal has been interrupted by resurrection? Nonetheless, things were returning to normal for Jesus’ disciples according to one story in the Gospel according to John

The disciples were together, but not all of them. Some of them were named and others just mentioned. This is important to note, because it invites us into the story. We often feel like disciples that aren’t name-worthy.

They appear to have ceased expecting Jesus and so Peter says, “I’m going fishing” and the others join him. They have no luck all night. Then at daybreak—the beginning of a new day—the long night comes to an end. Here is an allusion to Resurrection, and Jesus appears, though he is unrecognized. After all, they weren’t expecting him.

Suddenly the disciples have a miraculous catch of fish and return to shore to discover that Jesus has prepared breakfast with fish he already had. Jesus invites the disciples to bring some of their fish also. The story ends with Jesus feeding them, though now in the meal they recognize him.

There is a coda to the story having to do with Jesus and Peter. Three times Jesus tells Peter to feed his sheep. Peter seems concerned about the others, but Jesus assures him, “If you love me over these, feed my sheep.”

Peter has been selected, like the original Deacons in Acts 6, to feed the people of God. But why is Peter selected?

One reason is because Jesus enjoys including us. Like the disciples’ fish during breakfast, Jesus invites us to participate. He doesn’t save us apart from us. He doesn’t redeem the world apart from the church’s ministry. And he doesn’t feed his sheep without selecting some to assist. 

Another reason is because Peter loves Jesus. In his love, he is committed to putting the will of Jesus over the desires of his peers. 

A third reason Peter is selected is because Peter will follow. Jesus tells him that even when it gets hard, even when he is led where he doesn’t want to go, Peter will follow.

Today we give thanks for ordered ministries Class of 2021, for our Ruling Elders and Deacons who are rotating off their boards at Pentecost next week. This class’ ordinary terms began in 2018, and our thanks for this class must begin with gratitude for the Nominating Committees of 2018 and 2020. 

Ruling Elders serve on the Session. Since 2018 members of the class of 2021 had the experienced the following leadership challenges. They were the ones who finalized sabbatical planning with me, and on top of that they planned our congregational renewal. This is the class that created the Renewal Commission. These achievements occurred in the first year of Tom K and Cathy W’s term.

Then the Session led the church through the Sabbatical and Congregational Renewal they had planned. They managed staff turnover in children and youth ministries and conducted the post-sabbatical follow up. Shortly after this the pandemic began and we had staff turnover again. 

We had to make decisions about building and its use for worship, education, and fellowship. The Ruling Elder Ordination Question is: “Will you be a faithful ruling elder, watching over the people, providing for their worship, nurture, and service? Will you share in government and discipline, serving in governing bodies of the church, and in your ministry will you try to show the love and justice of Jesus Christ?” The pandemic challenged Sessions all around the nation with how to do this faithfully.

Isabella W joined the Session in 2020. We had to confront financial challenges, including getting the Paycheck Protection Program Loan. The Session created the Revision Committee to assist with building and technology planning, faced more money issues, and deliberated when to reopen the building.

Some of this work is ongoing, and the incoming class of 2024 will take it up. But this Session and the class of 2021 leave a solid foundation.

My personal quote from class of ’21 member Tom K is, “Well, we’ve managed once again to stretch forty-five minutes of material into two hours of meeting.” (Often it was three hours.) Cathy W is a professional librarian. She provided literature review and other research for the Session. She first served as a youth elder many years ago, and I had the opportunity to serve with her for that year. Now she represents a generational bridge and offers valuable nuanced perspectives whenever asked. (One often has to ask and never regrets doing so.)

You’ve heard the phrase, “Baptism by fire”. That was the experience of youth elder Isabella W. Shouldn’t it really be, “Baptism by White Water Rapids”? Isabella was ordained and installed during the pandemic and she contributed to extraordinarily consequential decisions for our congregation.

Our Clerk Marilyn S, who is the longest person serving Session except for me, remarked recently, “I can’t remember a Session having accomplished so much.” I agree. Let us give thanks to God for the Session class of 2021!

The Deacons class of ’21 also started in 2018. The Deacons have the additional challenge of rotating board leadership every year. Recently they have had the benefit of Commissioned Pastor Barb G as a consultant, and honorary class of ’21 volunteer the Honorably Retired Rev. Susan H. 

The Deacons carried additional responsibilities through the Clergy Sabbatical and Congregational Renewal by maintaining close contact with you and offering you extraordinary pastoral care. 

Because of the pandemic, they moved their meetings online which is hard for people-people like Deacons. They came up with creative ways of caring since there would no longer be incidental social contact during worship.

It was the Deacons who delivered the resources for worship to you during Advent and Lent. They have fielded additional requests for financial assistance, and had to make ministry adjustments related to IHN and GAMAM.

From the class of 2021 I am grateful for the minutes of Kathy K. Since I can’t make every Deacon meeting, her minutes kept me current. You might want to reach out to the Ks. I predict Tom and Kathy may suffer from some depression given the vacuum their leaving the Session and Deacons will create in their lives. Or maybe we should ask one then other out, since they may need a break from one another now that they’re not meeting all the time.

As a Deacon, Pat W has managed her Faith family while also managing her large extended biological family, oftentimes simultaneously. (I know something about this.) Still, she has rendered faithful, creative service. (I pray the same may be said also of me.)

Mary M. is concluding her second term as a deacon during my pastorate. Both times she was the moderator. I’ll always admire Mary as the moderator wo moves business along! She is immediately responsive. Don’t run a mere idea by Mary because if you change your mind you’ll discover she’s already begun to run with it.

The Ordination Question for Deacons is: “Will you be a faithful deacon, teaching charity, urging concern, and directing the people’s help to the friendless and those in need? In your ministry will you try to show the love and justice of Jesus Christ?” This class of 2021 with all the Deacons have earned our thanks many times over for answering this question so faithfully.

It seems we are close to returning to normal. Praise and thanks be to God. But let’s go beyond normal! May Jesus surprise us on the other side. Let us continue to feed his sheep, following him, and following the example set by the Ruling Elder and Deacon classes of 2021.

A Post Mask Mandate Parable

A Post Mask Mandate Parable

Tom Trinidad, May 15, 2021

I wrote this parable to help me appreciate the various situations people have now that the mask mandate has been rescinded.

As Carlton entered the lecture hall he was relieved to finally be free of his facemask in public. He never wanted to wear one; the whole virus thing was overblown, in his opinion. More people would agree with him if they would take out the politics and read the right sources. But with the mandate no longer in place for vaccinated people, he could move around according to the freedoms afforded him by the constitution and his own common sense. No one would know he wasn’t vaccinated.

He sat near Janine and Spencer, a twenty-something couple who were obviously in the prime of their lives. Their lifestyle had taken a major hit during the pandemic. They used to eat out several times a week, workout every day at the gym, and take long weekends flying to other big cities. That was all put on hold the past fifteen months. Given everything else they were forced to give up, they wore masks without much complaining, but they never even considered getting the vaccine. Hardly anyone their age got very sick, and the chance of dying was miniscule.  

In the lecture hall there was a screen listing the names of people who were attending online. Janine wondered what the story was with “Leonard H”. Had they been able to talk, Leonard would have shared that he was home-bound. The pandemic hadn’t curtailed much of his going out—he hadn’t seen a restaurant or an airport in years. But it did isolate him in his home. People from his church visited briefly when they dropped groceries on his porch. His social lifeline was online meetings like this lecture. He didn’t even own a mask, though he would need one later this week. His church deacon was going to take him to get the vaccine.

Spencer looked across the hall to a single dad named Ja’Quan. Jac, as he was called, really didn’t want to miss this lecture. For shorter outings he felt comfortable letting his fifteen-year-old take care of his nine-year-old at home. In situations like this, he would often leave them with his elderly neighbors. They were like grandparents to the kids. But the lecture was at night and the neighbors go to bed early.

Jac was a little concerned about bringing the kids tonight. His older child isn’t fully vaccinated yet, and he had some reservations about vaccinating his younger child, even should that be approved soon. What might be the long-term effects? He doesn’t know. He also didn’t know for sure whether his neighbors have been vaccinated. He heard children can have the virus and never show it, but still transfer it to others. Maybe he will quarantine the kids from the neighbors for the next couple of weeks. He would have been more comfortable if the mandate was still in place.

Cheryl nearly didn’t come tonight. She was fully vaccinated early on since she is in the at-risk population, being older and having some co-morbidities. Still, for reasons she couldn’t explain, she is anxious in crowds. She knew this was irrational, but uncertainties don’t always yield to reason easily. She was wearing her mask. It helped ease her anxiety. She was relieved to see that there were still places she could sit with social distancing, though that wasn’t required anymore, either.

Tonight’s presenter came out briefly to adjust the microphone. She looked out over the small crowd. Seeing all the faces—noses and mouths and all!—was somewhat bizarre. Well, not all the faces. There was one woman with a mask on in the back corner. “Must not be fully vaccinated,” she thought. “How great that everyone else is doing what they can so we all can get back to normal. . .”

It did make her question the decision not to include singers in her lecture. The topic is the role of music during pandemics in history. It is an arcane subject that was the topic of her dissertation two years ago. She never dreamed it would be published or put her on the speakers’ circuit, but here she is. Her crowds were getting smaller since the vaccine rollout. This is the smallest crowd yet, probably because the mask mandate had been lifted and people were celebrating.

Which brought her back to thinking about the singers she didn’t include. She had developed and delivered this lecture with recordings only. Using live singers would make it much more interesting. Maybe something to consider if she continued these presentations.

Reflection Topics

  • Carlton appears to everyone to be vaccinated and thus deemed safe without a mask. In reality he may pose a risk to others who are not vaccinated, like Ja’Quan’s children and through them, possibly Jac’s neighbors.
  • Leonard’s life would be more secure and social if he had gotten the vaccine earlier, but he didn’t have the means. Things might really change for him thanks to his church deacon helping him get the vaccine.
  • Jac has one child that could be vaccinated, and one for whom the vaccine has not yet been approved. Even though the risks to them are minimal given their age, they still pose a risk to his neighbors if his neighbors are not vaccinated. To alleviate Jac’s concerns, he could be like Leonard’s deacon and ensure his neighbors are vaccinated if they want to be.
  • Carlton, Janine, and Spencer have chosen not to be vaccinated. Whatever their individual reasons, they are part of this small community and most responsibly should consider the situations of others in the community.
  • Cheryl knows she suffers from anxiety and is dealing with it by taking extra precautions. It wouldn’t be fair for her to expect everyone to be so cautious, but without the opportunity to wear her mask and sit with social distancing, she might have left the lecture.
  • The presenter is concerned that the crowds will continue to dwindle and her opportunities to share her passion will decrease with them. She has ideas how to revitalize her presentation, but she also wants to be sensitive to the needs of her audience.
  • Everyone in this parable has made choices, and has choices yet to make. To be together in the most communal way, each one’s choices best take into consideration everyone else’s. And that is the first choice each one will have to make.

Implications for Church Gatherings

In the interest of everyone who may want to worship and meet together at the church, we will require masks for the next eight weeks. This will give everyone who wants to time to get vaccinated. It also allows time to determine the vaccination status of others who may be exposed through them (like Jac’s neighbors). We urge everyone to make decisions that respect his or her own convictions as well as the complexities created by being in community.