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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.

05.02.2021 Building the Church Together 1 Corinthians 3.1-15 Sermon Summary

The Apostle Paul was a celebrity and he was also controversial. He had his critics. He had his competitors. So it’s no wonder some people attached their egos to him. They boasted about their relationship with him. They looked down on others.

Wrongly attached egos is a sign of immaturity. We were created to grow increasingly attached to God, not anything else. God did not call the church to immaturity, and the church at Corinth, with their wrongly attached egos, was immature. Paul’s response to this situation shows us how to build the church together.

The Corinthians were blessed with leadership; Paul and Apollos in particular. Paul appears to have planted the church. Apollos was an early pastor. Paul was the kind of leader who saw leadership potential in everyone. In dealing with the boasting around himself and Apollos he wrote, “What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each.”

Some leaders mold others in their likeness, and some people want to be molded. But for Paul, everyone has an assignment. 

Some leaders project that they can step in for anyone else, and some people believe this about leaders. For example, people say, “Call the pastor, she’ll know where the new toner cartridge is.” But for Paul, everyone has an assignment.

Some leaders seek all the credit or take all the blame for their organizations. And some people go along with this. But for Paul, everyone has an assignment.

Paul compares the church to a field. There are many with assignments in a fruitful field. Someone prepares the ground, there is a sower, someone who waters, someone who weeds. There are people who harvest and others who transport to market. There are sellers. Everyone has an assignment.

Paul also compares the church to a building. Here again, there are many assignments. Someone prospected the location for the building. Someone dug the foundation. Another laid the foundation, and others build upon it with various materials. The building is sold by someone. Everyone has an assignment.

Paul writes that, “Each person must choose how to build.” He recognizes the responsibility we all have in and for the church. He calls us to stewardship. He calls us to build the church together. How are you choosing to build?

It’s Important because “the Day” reveals our choices. Paul refers to a “Day of judgment.” He’s got in mind a “final judgment” at the end of time—a cosmic, heavenly ordeal. But that didn’t happen as soon as Paul thought, and now we look back after 2000 years and see that “the Day” is a series of ordinary, this worldly trials.

The past fourteen months has been our “Day.” And what our Day has revealed is that at Faith Presbyterian Church we have a staff of builders.

A church can have maintainers or builders. Maintainers keep us someone else’s achievements; builders bring their own achievements. Maintainers repeat what has been done in the past; builders respond to present realities. Maintainers view change with skepticism; builders look for opportunities in change. Maintainers are guided primarily by the past; builders primarily by the future. 

Maintainers dread the Day; builders prepare for the Day. Maintainers are thankful to be alive when the Day is over; builders are thankful to learn what the Day reveals and to start building again.

Our Day of pandemic has revealed that we have builders on our staff. And I’d like to introduce you to them.

Jim is our custodian. During this Day he has found things to clean, paint, repair, move, and attend to that ordinarily he’s too busy to do. He has prepared our building for another day, one when we can return it to full use and capacity. He has been helped by Lloyd, Mary, Helen, Bob and several other volunteers. 

Carol is our music director. She has found musical pieces for instrumentalists and rearranged vocal pieces for smaller choirs. And she has become an amateur record producer so we can enjoy the gift of music during remote and hybrid worship. She has been helped by Charles, Linda, and our deep pool of musicians.

Kari is our bookkeeper. She has spent the Day “journaling” which means moving money from Peter’s line in our budget to pay Paul’s expenses, because things we thought we were going to pay for we haven’t, and things we could never have predicted now require our attention. Kari was instrumental in securing our payroll protection loan, and her management of our online giving has grown exponentially. She has been helped by Tom.

Carolyn and Britton are the leaders of our ministries to families with children and youth. They each bring decades of experience from camps and congregations. We hired them during the Day of pandemic, and with faith and courage they said yes and began building online and hybrid children and youth ministry from scratch. They have been helped by Julie, Cathy, Jan, Mary, and many parents.

Liz was also hired during the Day. She is unknown to most because she accompanies our musicians on the piano from another room or at another time and is recorded. For musicians to offer their gifts in worship with no congregation present is a huge adjustment. Yet week in and week out, with little to no personal relationship with us (yet), Liz gets help from our singers and instrumentalists to bring us music.

In 2000 Mazda Car Company launched a new marketing campaign. It was so successful they didn’t retire it until 2015. It was based on a boy named Micah Kanters who is now a thirty-one year old lawyer. With Mazda cars flashing across the screen, Micah whispered, “Zoom, zoom.” I want to introduce you to honorably retired Presbyterian Minister “Zoom, Zoom” Susan. She is our own Micah Kanters. Susan has moved many meetings and small groups for our church and presbytery online to Zoom. She has been helped by Dave and our small group leaders.

Barb is our primary pastoral visitor for people in homes and hospitals. During the Day she has moved her care from in house to on phone. And her flock has grown as we have welcomed more people to the church resulting from online worship. When they feel safe to have her do so, Barb brings Communion to these remote saints. 

And finally there is Amy, who during the Day has turned business as usual into starting a new business. We moved from printed bulletins to worship aids and slides. She has had to balance managing online school for her child and in office presence for our congregation. She has turned from supervising building use to monitoring virus precautions. We’ve moved from Word to Docs, she works on both PC and Mac, she has begun tracking new data, and continuously tests new online meeting platforms. Amy has been helped by Cathy and Connor, Dee, Cassie, Linda, Charles, Dan, and Nathan.

These are our church staff with just some of their volunteers. As Paul described, they each have their own assignment. But they are more than merely a church staff. They are builders. Their work is surviving the Day. Faith Church is surviving the Day. Yes, some things are burning away and we grieve their loss. At the same time, new things are being built. And this is thanks to the staff, our volunteers, and all our church leaders.

Recently the Personnel Committee performed a compensation review. They discovered that most of our paid staff are at or above average salary compared to churches similar to Faith. In my opinion, they all should be significantly higher than average, for all of them are better than average.

Average is for maintainers. We have builders. Average churches have already begun to close and are not likely to survive another Day of judgment.

I give thanks to the Session for ordering this review and recognizing that our staff deserves more. And I am grateful to the Renewal Committee for urging this Staff Appreciation day upon us. 

Our staff of builders is above average, and so is our church, and to remain so it depends on them.

But it also depends on you. We can’t be more than average without exceptional volunteers. We can’t be more than average without encouragement. We can’t be more than average without financial support. We can’t be more than average without prayers of thanks. Those variables depend on you.

That for which we are not grateful, we take for granted. And what the Eucharist teaches us is that God responds to gratitude with blessing. At the Table God blesses gratitude with presence, with intimacy, and with grace. Things we take for granted? They see God withdraw. Walk in nature and take it for granted? You won’t see God revealed there.

May we be a grateful congregation, serving alongside our staff, encouraging them, financially supporting them, and giving thanks to God for them. And may God bless our building the church together, each with our own assignment, and with Christ as our foundation. Amen.

04.04.21 Start the Stone a Rollin’ Mark 16.1-8 Sermon Summary

One year ago when churches, most of which were closed, were asked what they were going to do for Easter 2020, many said, “We’ll celebrate Easter when we reopen.” Then the pandemic dragged on into the summer, then into the fall. Some tried to reopen; many did not.

A year has passed. I say we’ve been in a year-long Lent. But we are here this morning. Christos anesti! Alithos anesti! Christ has risen! He has risen, indeed! We have a renewed hope. There are vaccines approved and more coming. We have a better understanding of the virus and what we can do to avoid it.

But before we get ahead of ourselves, we all need to take the Sabbath. For many people the pandemic imposed a Sabbath with the interruption of routine. Some lost all or part of a job. Others began working at home. Some were able to increase their physical exercise. Others did pandemic projects. Many used the time to refocus their lives.

Others, however, had no Sabbath at all. Their work increased with continuous adaptions. I’m thinking of teachers, medical professionals, and many small businesses owners.

But we need to take the Sabbath. It is the blessing in disguise of this pandemic. God commanded the Sabbath so we would stop, so that we would reflect, so that we could ask some questions.

Mary Magdalene, Mary mother of James, and Salome took the Sabbath. They took time to reflect and time to ask questions. One question in particular rose to the surface: “Who will roll the stone away?”

The day before, Jesus was crucified and buried. The next day his bodily anointing needed to be refreshed. The women had prepared spices, but who would roll away the stone?

This is a question of accepting reality. It is a question of grief. It is a question of taking a step forward. The Sabbath allows us time to accept reality, to grieve, and to envision a next step. This is one of the great gifts of the Sabbath, and why God commanded us to take the Sabbath: To accept reality, to grieve, and to envision a next step.

The women had envisioned the next step, a next step toward a new normal. They had Jesus’ teaching. They had Jesus’ community. But they did not have Jesus—not anymore. They would remember him at Passover every year as the new Lamb of God. 

But the next step today was anointing his body, and before that could happen, the question had to be answered: “Who will roll away the stone?

This was the first of many unresolved questions. Where should we go? Should we stay in Jerusalem? Should we go back to Galilee? Should we retrace the master’s steps?

And there were other questions about leadership. Should we turn to Peter, James, or John? Maybe one of Jesus’ brothers? What about Mary Magdalene?

Well, they set out for the tomb with the first question unresolved. But they arrived at the tomb and discover the first question had been answered. “Who will roll away the stone?” Jesus had rolled it away! For Jesus had been resurrected from the dead!

All other questions now had to be re-asked. All other questions now had to be re-answered. Because Jesus was not gone; Jesus was alive! Now the next question was, Where shall we go? 

And the answer they learned: Galilee! Back to the beginning. Back to former life. But it would be different.

Let me ask you something: Don’t you want to go back to Galilee? Don’t you want to go back to church, back to school, back to shopping? Aren’t you looking forward to going back to dining out, traveling, visiting friends, throwing parties, handshakes, and hugs? 

Don’t we want to go back to the NEW new normal—because the old new normal is gone—Jesus has risen. The NEW, new normal awaits; a new normal with Jesus in it.

Many of us can’t go back. Many of us have experienced an irreversible loss—a loss of life, loss of health, loss of relationship, or loss of opportunity. We’ve experienced losses that don’t allow for a return or even some sort of resemblance.

Yet even in these situations the Risen Christ is present, returning to lead us into a new life. Even here, there is hope.

The return to our Galilee awaits. We’re not there yet. It will be different. And it will be OK. The Resurrected Christ will meet us there.

We’ve spent the last year in Holy Saturday, in that Sabbath between Friday and Sunday. Let’s take time to ask the questions, to think about the new normal—not the one without Jesus, but the one with Jesus. 

The first question of the women, “Who will roll away the stone?” had its answer: The Resurrected Christ had rolled the stone away. So now with these women, who are going back to Galilee, let us say– 

We are looking forward to a new normal of a different kind of potluck. We don’t yet know exactly how, but start the stone a rollin’!  We are looking forward to a new normal of a different kind of fellowship. We don’t yet know exactly how, but start the stone a rollin’!  We are looking forward to a new normal of different ways of learning. We don’t yet know exactly how, but start the stone a rollin’!

We are looking forward to a new normal of different ways of worshiping together. We don’t yet know exactly how, but start the stone a rollin’! We are looking forward to a new normal of different ways of serving our neighbors. We don’t yet know exactly how, but start the stone a rollin’! We are looking forward to a new normal of different ways of praying to God. We don’t yet know exactly how, but start the stone a rollin’! We are looking forward to a new normal of a different way of being church. We don’t yet know exactly how, but start the stone a rollin’!

Yes, Lord! Start that stone a rollin’! ‘Cause we have questions, and we wanna go back to Galilee, and Jesus is alive. We know you can do it. We know you will meet us there. We know it will be a new normal. We know it will be different. 

We don’t yet know exactly how, Lord, but start the stone a rollin’! Cause we are ready! Alleluia! Amen!

3.28.21 Abide with Me Mark 14.32-42 Sermon Summary

Throughout worship this season of Lent we have focused on one event for each day of Holy Week.  We started on Sunday with Jesus’ Triumphal Entry. We heard from Saul the animal rental associate. From his perspective, Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem served as publicity for the Kingdom of God and as protest against the Kingdom of Rome.

On Monday we witnessed Jesus turning the tables of money changers and animal dealers. We heard from Daniel who was convicted of living a non-religious life when not in religious activities.

Tuesday we watched Jesus answer the question of paying taxes to Rome. Amram a disciple of the Pharisees discovered that all things belong to God—even Amram’s own life. He wondered whether he could he spend his life following Jesus?

Come Wednesday evening an unnamed woman anointed Jesus’ head. Later we listened as Meshulam a chief priest and co-conspirator to assassinate Jesus reflected on Jesus’ teaching that God’s Kingdom is “doing what you can do.” He wondered if there’s room in Jesus’ Kingdom for him.

Thursday evening Jesus washed the disciples’ feet. Eliezer one of the disciples was there. He was challenged to learn that calling Jesus “Rabbi and Master,” “Teacher and Lord” did not a disciple make. Instead Jesus is mostly interested in love and service.

Now we arrive at Friday, a day of betrayal, estrangement, and isolation

Through reading the various gospel accounts of Holy Week, we have seen that there are differences in the Gospels. There are four Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. They were named in the century following Jesus. They share some material and each contains unique material. 

They are not eye-witness accounts of historical events though there is something historical behind their stories. Rather they are testimonies of faith intended to evoke faith, challenge faith, and strengthen faith.

One reason they differ is because different communities experience Jesus differently. We experience Jesus differently in liturgical churches vs. revivalist churches, in Black churches vs. Latin American churches, for example. And Pentecostals certainly experience Jesus differently than Presbyterians.

If one experiences Jesus differently, one will speak about Jesus differently. This has been the case since Gospel times. Mark’s Jesus, for example, is a demon-casting teacher, always on the move, and desperate to be delivered by God. On the other hand, John’s Jesus is a slow-talking theosophist so close to God as to be hardly distinguishable.

Holy Week (Jesus’ Passion Narrative) accentuates the differences among the Gospels. We see different perspectives, watch different experiences, and hear different testimonies. Whereas John’s Jesus presents God to us, Mark’s Jesus presents us to God. 

In first person as Jacob, stealthily

It’s me Jacob. You know me as James the brother of John. I’m one of the “big three” along with Peter. It’s the middle of the night, which for us Jews is the beginning of the day. You see we recognize God was at work in the world five days before creating us on the sixth day. God is still working before we wake up, so our day starts in the evening. God works secretly before we work publicly. 

But it’s hard to know how God is working in the middle of this night. It’s dark—really dark. I’ve never seen such darkness . . . or felt it either. And we’re so tired. Adonai, are we tired! What a week!

Passover is full of feasting and festivities. This year it also has a lot of flag-waving. Would Jesus lead a revolt? It seemed like it on Sunday when we had the protest march into Jerusalem. Then on Monday Jesus called us to repentance. Tuesday he said “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s but give to God what is God’s.”

But Wednesday a woman interrupted our dinner with an anointing of Jesus’ head. He talked of death and dying. And earlier tonight Jesus washed our feet like a slave would do! It reminds me of his interpretation around breaking bread and pouring the cup as presenting his own death out of love.

Then he led us to Gethsemane and told us to watch and pray. This was a theme in Jesus’ ministry, this vigilance in prayer. He said without it you miss little glimpses of God and of the Kingdom. If you miss those glimpses you may get discouraged. You can’t join God’s mission. You may even lose faith.

Nothing really new, going to Gethsemane. Jesus took me, John, and Peter a little further. That wasn’t really new either. We were the three with Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration. And then he went even further—and again this was not really new. Jesus often withdrew by himself to pray.

We asked him once how to pray. He taught us to pray for the Kingdom and for God’s will, to give thanks for daily sustenance, to shed the burden of sin through forgiveness, and to ask for deliverance through trials and temptations. He did this kind of meditative prayer often, so tonight really wasn’t so different.

But we were so tired! The week’s activities, the past months of itinerant preaching, our own ministries of teaching and healing, all this uncertainty about death had all taken a toll. It is like a virus engulfing the world, not knowing if it would happen, when it would happen, or what the result would be.

John and I are concerned for our dad Zebedee. I know parents are concerned for their children. There’s instability in our nation, fighting among our fellow Israelites, and divided leadership between the Pharisees and Sadducees, the Zealots and Herodians. Jesus wanted to unite us all—even the Samaritans! So much partisanship. So much anxiety. So much fear. Exhausting!

I’m even tired of praying. So tonight when Jesus went off to pray, we caught a few ZZZs. We woke up to Jesus shaking his head over us. “Could you not stay awake one hour?” Had it been an hour already?! That happened two more times. Three hours Jesus spent praying!

No, we couldn’t stay awake. We couldn’t watch and pray. We missed the glimpses of God and of God’s Kingdom tonight. Because none of what happened next seemed related to the Kingdom; it just seemed so dark.

Jesus abruptly ended when Judas showed up—where had he been, anyway? And he wasn’t alone. He kissed Jesus which set off a chain of events. There was shouting and scuffling and accusations. Was the revolt beginning? Or something else?

As they started to remove Jesus some women started screaming and some men fought back. And there was talk: “Well, he must have done something otherwise the authorities wouldn’t be doing this.”

We looked around at the lanterns and torches, at the swords and clubs, at the religious officers and Roman military contingent and got really afraid. “This thing is going sideways,” we said and we didn’t know what to do. 

Should we stay and get arrested? Wait for God to do something? Retreat and regroup? Or should we run for our lives?

It was the middle of the night! Darkness was all around. Injustice was winning. And we were powerless. So we fled. We totally took off in every direction—each man for himself, and the women, too. What else could we do? It was so dark. And we were so tired. 

So here we are, huddled in small bands. Peter was here but he took off towards the palace of the High Priest. Earlier Jesus told Peter, “Before the dawn is announced you will deny knowing me.” Dawn is about to break. I can hear the roosters crowing. 

Supposedly God has been working already in this day, in the darkness while we slept. Now our work is supposed to begin. I cannot predict what this Friday holds. But Jesus saw it coming, and even though the trial ahead appears like it’s going to be a hard one, he seemed to be at peace with it. Must be all that prayer.Strange—the dawn is breaking but it still feels pretty dark and I’m still so tired. But we disciples have work to do. Each sunrise calls us to a new day.

03.21.21 The Forgotten Lesson of Jesus’ Last Meal John 13.2b-5, 12-17, 20 Sermon Summary

Jesus’ last night in the Gospel According to John’s is quite different from the other Gospel accounts. First, it does not occur with the Passover meal but the night before. Second, the teaching and prayers of Jesus span five entire chapters in John. But the most unique aspect of John’s Gospel was omitted by the other Gospels and is still largely neglected by the church today. It is the forgotten lesson of Jesus’ last meal.

NB: This sermon is delivered in first person.

Hello my name is Eliezer which means “my God is help.” I’m a disciple of Jesus. No, my name doesn’t appear in the lists, but I was there with many others at Jesus’ last meal.

It was Passover week and lots of pilgrims had come to Jerusalem to commemorate our feast of freedom. Some came to celebrate, others to reconnect with religion. Some came with a knife to grind with Rome.

We came with Jesus the rural Rabbi from Nazareth in Galilee. He inspired us with his teaching, some of which was new and some was just new spins. He gave us hope with his healing, some of which was physical and much of which was spiritual.

We were excited to go to Jerusalem and to share Jesus with more people. Some of us have big plans for this Jesus-movement. We need to grow in our numbers. We need to increase disciples if we are to succeed. And things looked pretty good early on. We had a political demonstration march to start the week, then we staged a protest in the Temple. Jesus taught, healed, and disputed with the religious authorities. The crowds were loving it.

To us disciples Jesus had also been talking a lot about other things. He taught that giving up life was the key to finding it. He said the Kingdom of God belonged to children. And earlier a woman anointed Jesus which he said was for his own death. He even said that her actions would be remembered in the tales of the Kingdom.

And Jesus often said things like, “the greatest among you will be the servant of all.” We jockeyed for greatness all the time. James and John asked for the thrones to the right and left of Jesus in the Kingdom. They also wanted to rain fire on the Samaritans who didn’t show us hospitality.

None of us want to be servants. We don’t want to be slaves—especially to “all.” We debated whom Jesus meant by “all.” “All his followers,” said some. “All Israel,” said others. “All men,” some said.

Interpretations aside, Jesus in his own ministry eventually included Romans—even soldiers and politicians, children, and women like that anointing woman and the women at the meal tonight. Which brings me to my story.

We want to grow our numbers but Jesus seems to want to reduce them. Here’s what happened tonight. Jesus often uses props in his teaching. While we were all reclining at table enjoying our meal—talking, listening, and some laughing—Jesus quietly got up, put on a costume of a slave, filled a basin with water, and started washing our feet.

Talk about awkward! None of us had thought about that. There wasn’t a slave in the house to do it so we just didn’t do it. Peter, a climber like James and John, refused at first until Jesus said he couldn’t share in the Kingdom with Jesus without the washing. Then he demanded a whole bath!

Well, eventually Jesus finishes, puts his Rabbi clothes back on, and starts teaching. “You call me Rabbi and Master,” he said, “Teacher and Lord, and I don’t doubt you. That’s what I am. You listen to my instruction. You sometimes serve me.” That sometimes stung a bit . . . “So if I, your Teacher and Lord, become your slave and wash your feet, so you should do the same for one another.”

I thought about our earlier debates, the ones about “all.” Now I wondered about this “one another.” It makes sense to serve one another among the followers of Jesus, to help out other followers of Jesus.

But then I remembered the meal at Simon the Pharisee’s house and the Roman centurion’s slave Jesus healed. I remembered the Royal family’s son, also healed, and the son of the widow at Nain, raised. I thought about the daughter of the Canaanite woman Jesus healed and all those in the crowds Jesus fed without qualification.

I was remembering these things when Jesus said, “The world will know you are my disciples by the love you have for one another.” I realized, “one another” doesn’t mean us; it means the world. This is why we followed Jesus to begin with. Jesus came to us, to those of us who felt so worldly, like such failures, like hypocrites. Jesus came to us and he served us.

I didn’t really get it until this week. I listen to the Teacher’s words; I confess the Master as Lord. But that is not enough. Jesus isn’t just our Rabbi and Lord. He loves us. And in a grand display of that love he washed our feet. He served us. He became our slave. “Call me Teacher and Lord,” he says. “But above everything else, love me and love others as I love them.”

You know we’re called “disciples” but are we really? Do we really shape our lives around his teaching? We’re called “fools” but do we act foolishly like the anointing woman? We are called “messengers” but do we proclaim God’s Kingdom in this world? We are called “servants” but do we serve others as slaves?

Jesus also calls us “friends” but are we really? Do we really love him? Because if we did we would serve him. We would serve one another. And we would serve the world.

Jesus said whoever receives the slave receives him. And whoever receives Jesus receives God. If we want people to know God and to receive Jesus, then we have to serve them. The thing that counts most is faith working through love. (see Galatians 5:6)

Well, it was an amazing meal. We had lots of meals with Jesus. People remember different things about them. This one we’d rather forget. Who wants to be told their relationship with Jesus as “teacher and lord” is incomplete? Who wants to be told we’re supposed to be slaves to all?

This is not Jesus’ most popular message. Like I said, it seems he was trying to reduce our numbers, ‘cause it makes me wonder about myself. Can I make the move from disciple of Jesus to slave to all?

With the faith of Jesus growing inside me I believe I can. My name is Eliezer, after all, “God is my help.” I believe, Lord. Help my unbelief.

03.14.21 Disciple who Believed Mark 14.1-11 Sermon Summary

NB: This sermon is presented in first person

Earlier tonight, we caught a break. For four days tensions have been mounting. The rural rabbi Jesus came to Jerusalem during Passover Week. It is no surprise. There are pilgrims from all over. Some are here to party. Others to pray. Still others to politicize.

Jesus did all three. On Sunday he mocked the procession of the Roman proconsul Pilate into the city. Monday he demonstrated extremist views on prayer. Yesterday and today he spoke through parables, teachings, and debates with the Pharisees, Sadducees, scribes, Herodians, and us Chief Priests.

My name is Meshulam. It has two meanings. One of them is “friend.” During this week we have gone from concerned to offended to fearful. And now we just wish  Jesus was dead.

But the crowds love him. They love him more and more as the festival nears. So we couldn’t get him. Here in Jerusalem Jesus is surrounded by crowds. At night he goes to Bethany. Tonight he was at Simon the Leper’s house—we weren’t going near that place!

We needed a secret opportunity. We needed a betrayer. Thank Adonai for Judas! Earlier tonight he came to us saying he wanted to betray Jesus. We were overjoyed. He didn’t say exactly why, but he told this story about one of Jesus’ disciples.

There was this woman at Simon’s house who interrupted the meal. She broke an alabaster jar of fine nard and anointed Jesus’ head. Something like that, it was probably worth 300 denarii. That amount could feed a household for a whole year! It was ridiculous! It was extravagant!

I know there are times to give such gifts. Thanksgiving for deliverance, for example, or to offer a share in a great harvest or fortune. Perhaps to provide for people in need, or to provide for the Levites who didn’t get their own land to farm. We give such gifts to remind God of the covenant or as an offering for sin.

As an aside, lately Jesus has been referring to his life as a “ransom for the liberation of people from sin.” That would certainly change the priesthood! What would we do with no more offerings?!

Well, this woman made her offering and it wasn’t for sin or thanksgiving. It certainly wasn’t providing for the poor. Jesus said it was a preparation, an anointing of his body for death. He said the poor you can always help, but he wouldn’t be around forever. (Hopefully not after this week!)

There’s something else Jesus taught: When you do give to the poor you give to him. This woman gave to Jesus now. She’ll probably give to poor later. She apparently has a heart for giving. Plus she didn’t care what others thought. She entered Simon’s home, interrupted the meal, and weathered the judgment.

And for what?! To show up everyone? Out of some obligation or debt? Jesus said it was for his death. It turns out she was the only one who understood. Three times Jesus predicted his death. He knew we would reach a breaking point. He knew we were going to win.

Eventually, despite the crowds, we were going to get him. He predicted this and she believed him. So Jesus commended her for “doing what she could do.” You can’t eliminate power like ours. But you can do what you can do. That’s why Jesus said what he said: In the whole world, wherever his message is proclaimed, what she did will be told in remembrance of her.

It’s like he was saying, “The Kingdom of God is doing what you can do even if you know you’re going to lose.” She did what she could do. She believed Jesus. She was the first disciple to do so. And then so did Judas.

He came to us earlier tonight ready to betray Jesus. He told us this story. “What is her name?” I asked. “Meshulam, I don’t know,” Judas said. “Nobody knows.” She remains anonymous. She could be anyone. ANYONE can do what they can do. Even you. Even me.

Well, the disciples were so concerned about money and extravagant gifts, we promised to pay Judas. After all, that’s the second meaning of my name “Meshulam.” It means “friend,” but it also means “paid for.”

Judas and I are new friends: It only seems right to pay him. Now all we have to do is wait. But I have this nagging feeling: This anonymous woman’s actions and Jesus’ words about her—“She did what she could do”—got me thinking: What can I do?

Does Jesus deserve more of my attention? Should I invest more in Jesus? Does the Kingdom he proclaims warrant gifts from me? What if God really is with him? What if God really is with the poor?

This woman understood Jesus. I’m afraid I may be beginning to understand also. I may be paying too much for my friends. Maybe I should be more like this anonymous woman. It’s something to think about while there’s still time.

03.07.21 Giving to God Matthew 22.11-20 Sermon Summary

Tuesday of Jesus’ last week is the one filled with the most conflict and controversy. Following the grand entrance of Sunday and the “cleansing” of the Temple on Monday, Tuesday sees questions regarding Jesus’ authority, arguments over fine points about the Law, parables, and prophecies.

Jesus’ inquisitors include Sadducees, Law scribes, priests, Herodians, and Pharisees. Today we hear from one of the disciples of the Pharisees, a man named Amram.

N.B. The rest of this message is presented in first person. 

We thought we had him; and we needed to get him—after that spectacle on Sunday and the display yesterday! I say “we” but I’m just a disciple of the Pharisees. My name is Amram which means “exalted nation.” 

I follow the Pharisees because they want a holy nation. They’re for practicing the rites of the Temple at home. They want to please God and bring a blessing upon our nation.

Recently we’ve found ourselves allied with the Herodians. We normally oppose the Herodians because we want a Davidic king. Herodians are content to continue Herod’s dynasty. Herod is a vassal of Rome, installed as the “King of the Jews” but really only nominally so. He is building us a huge Temple, though.

Normally Herodians and Pharisees are opposed to each other but a common enemy has made us friends. That common enemy is Jesus. 

Pharisees oppose Jesus because he preaches a righteousness distinct from one’s actions. It is a righteousness apart from the time we spend doing righteous acts. His approach allows more common people to be righteous—people who don’t really have the kind of time Pharisees do to observe all the rituals. 

Herodians oppose Jesus because he preaches a Kingdom of God that is distinct from the Kingdom of Rome. This means he preaches a Kingdom distinct from the Kingdom of Herod.

Anyway, the Pharisees sent me, a disciple, and some Herodians to trap Jesus. And we thought we had him. If we could get Jesus sideways with Rome, especially during Passover when the Roman proconsul Pilate was also in town, we knew that Rome would take care of him.

And few things express our problem with Rome better than taxes. Most people oppose taxes. They may disagree with the military even though they enjoy the protections the military ensures. They may have a problem with the politics but they enjoy the religious benefits politicians offer—like our huge Temple.

And most people don’t think about the roads, the clean water, or the trade taxes make possible. So questions about taxes get people mad, and we asked Jesus: “Jesus, you teach truth. You’re impartial. People look to you for religious leadership. Is it right to pay taxes to the emperor or not?”

Now Jesus often used parables to teach or illustrate and so it was no surprise when he asked for a tax-coin. I thought he was just buying time. See, if he said yes it is right to pay taxes to the emperor, we would accuse him of being unfaithful to our religion. But if he said no it’s not right, then he could be seen as unpatriotic to the empire.

I wanted to impress everyone so I reached into my bag and pulled out a handful of coins. Some had no image at all. These are the Temple coins. I picked this one up yesterday after Jesus turned over the tables of the money changers. But the tax-coin, called a denarius, is imprinted with symbols of Roman importance—just like all national coins are. I handed the tax-coin to Jesus and put the rest back in my bag. 

“Whose image and inscription is this?” he asked. “The emperor’s,” someone answered. “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s,” he continued, “and give to God the things that are God’s.” Then he flipped the denarius back to me. 

There was silence as we thought about this. Then some murmurs. Then some gasps. Then some chuckles. And finally there was some small applause. I noticed the oldest among us simply nodded then quietly and slowly walked away. 

I looked around like the last guy to get a joke. And then I got it. Jesus sprung the trap we set, but he wasn’t in it. I was in it. The joke was on me. 

“Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s.” Of course the coin belonged to the emperor. I didn’t make it; Rome did. It only has value because Rome says it has value. I live in a Roman territory so I use Roman coins.

“Give to God the things that are God’s.” That was easy—Sabbath, study, worship, and prayer—God deserves all these. The Pharisees also want this. But then I remembered Moses standing before Pharaoh after the plague of hail. Pharaoh pleaded and Moses responded, “I will call upon God and the hail will stop so that you know the earth is the Lord’s.” (Exodus 9:29) And I remembered the Psalm of David which begins, “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it; the world and all those who live in it.” (Psalm 24) 

“Give to God the things that are God’s,” Jesus said. There’s nothing that doesn’t belong to God! Everything belongs to God! The Temple coin AND the Roman coin. The Sabbath day AND the work days. My words in prayer AND my words in conversation with others. ALL belongs to God. Give it ALL to God. 

And there I was, an aspiring Pharisee concerned about holiness, holding a Roman coin. I was caught holding the bag. I was amazed. People looked at me and some laughed under their breath. I dropped the coin and walked away.

I began to think: Everyone is a disciple of some philosophy, a disciple of some way of thinking. We’re all disciples of some way of acting. I was a disciple of the Pharisees. But Jesus also has disciples. I wondered: Maybe they have room for one more?

But then I thought, Since our whole lives belong to God, how far will Jesus take his teaching? How far will his disciples? Will they give their lives to God? I don’t know if I could do that. 

But if we did as Jesus taught, if we gave to God what belongs to God, if we gave God everything, that would change our religion. It would certainly change Rome. It would lead to what my name means, Amram, the exalted nation, a nation exalted because it is truly blessed. It might even lead to the Kingdom of God.

So I ask myself, Whose disciple will I be? Whose will you be?