Sunday Sermon – October 25, 2020

Good morning everyone, happy Reformation week! To really get into today’s gospel text about freedom from sin, and in honor of a very well known Lutheran named Dietrich Bonhoeffer, I’m gonna tell you about Bonhoeffer, and about grace, and about potentially getting eaten by bears, and hopefully by the end of this those three things will all make sense together. Several years ago, I worked as a bible camp counselor up in Northern Wisconsin. The camp I worked for owned 2 different camps, a few miles apart from one another.  Wapo is the main site, it’s very well up-kept, has fancy air conditioned cabins, has a staff of nearly 100, and is overall really well stocked and well maintained. 

Ox Lake is the other site where I mostly worked at, and it’s really rustic compared to wapo. Ox Lake is 300 acres, of mostly just woods, with a few tarp wall cabins and dirt trails here and there, and the first summer I worked there we had 5 families of black bears living with us on our cozy little property. Meanwhile I’m in charge of a bunch of high schoolers, and have to make sure to get them home at the end of each week without being eaten. So during staff training, the Department of Natural Resources came out and did a whole session with us on bear training. And I kid you not, what the DNR came out and trained us to do was, if we came across a bear, we were supposed to puff out our chest, open up our jacket if we were wearing one to make ourselves look as big as possible, wave our arms and in a really low voice shout “Nooo bear, I am a person and you are a bear, go away bear”. The DNR also taught us to yell insults at the bear to try to hurt its confidence, because that’s really the lowest blow you can give a bear. And then usually the bear should run away because black bears are fairly timid, but if instead the bear decides to run at you, you can’t out run it, you can’t climb a tree because they can climb too, you can’t play dead because it’ll just rip you apart, so the only thing you can do is to fight the bear. So for the rest of staff training, they had us surprise tackle each other to practice getting ready to wrestle the bears. 

We ran into at least a few bears a week for most of the summer so we had to be pretty cautious, but when you’re in big groups, bears tend to run off before you get to close. The only time bears ever became a real worry was when counselors would have to go out to get firewood. First of all, most counselors had to stay with the kids, so we could only spare one or two counselors at a time, which are not enough people to scare off a bear. Second of all, we had to go off the trails to find fallen trees to chop up, and then we had to use some dull axes to actually chop it up ourselves, and haul it back. It was not an enjoyable or easy experience. Most of the times we had close encounters with bears were times when one or two of us were off on our own chopping firewood. 

But Wapo, the other campsite down the road, had several massive stock piles of wood, enough to last them the entire year, and it was already chopped, and it was nicely stored so we didn’t have to worry about it being wet like the wood we’d find in the forest at Ox Lake, and we didn’t have to worry about being stalked by a bear. So really, it was just significantly easier to take wood from wapo and bring it out to Ox Lake for our campfires. 

The only problem was that we were explicitly told by our director on a regular basis not to do that. But it was just soooooo much easier. And on rainy nights, or on weeks when the bears were feeling especially friendly, you could count on at least one counselor to quote Romans 6:1 and say ”Shall we sin all the more so that grace may abound?”, and then go ahead and steal some of wapo’s firewood when our director wasn’t watching. 

Sometimes when we’re in such a safe place, surrounded by a bunch of Lutherans who are so nice and forgiving, and when we’re living for a God who’s full of grace and mercy, it’s really easy to just go ahead and take the easy way out, and ask for forgiveness later. This is an idea that Dietrich Bonhoeffer refers to as cheap grace. Its grace without cost, trusting that forgiveness and salvation will be there, but forgetting about the sacrifice that Christ had to make in order to give us that grace so freely. Cheap grace is taking from the abundant pile of firewood, and forgetting about the other counselors at wapo who had to spend weeks before the summer started tirelessly chopping that wood so that it could be used freely by everyone else. 

Cheap grace is what happens when counselors are joking around saying “shall we sin all the more so that grace may abound”, and conveniently leave out the verse immediately after that says “of course not!” Cheap grace is what happens when a bunch of Jews are talking to Jesus in today’s gospel text and insist that their people have never been slaves to anyone, ignoring the hundreds of years of slavery their ancestors had to suffer, and the decades in the Wilderness as God worked to free them. 

When Bonhoeffer talked about grace, he talked about 2 different types of grace: cheap grace, which is the stealing firewood hoping you don’t get caught sort of grace, and costly grace, which is another thing entirely. Costly grace is grace that comes with a life of discipleship and discipline, grace that only comes into play when it has to, because the individual understands the enormous sacrifice that was made in order for that grace to be there, and so would never take advantage of it. Bonhoeffer can explain it this way:

Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, and grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.

Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock.

Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: “ye were bought at a price,” and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us”

That costly grace that is what we get from Christ who frees us. We don’t understand Christ’s word, we don’t deserve a place in the household, we consistently fall short, and we are utterly and defenselessly enslaved to sin, so what? So we try. So we live a life of discipleship, doing our best to follow God’s law, knowing that we’ll fall short, but having faith that our God is a God of Grace who frees us from the bondage of sin, and the fear that that brings. Sin is terrifying. Enslavement is terrifying. Being separated from God is terrifying. But we, Christ’s people, are freed from that fear by the costly grace that assures us that as we live our lives of discipleship, as temptation and sin sometimes slip in, we are not bound to a life that is defined by that. We are defined by the grace of Christ, and the freedom that discipleship with him brings, making us free to love and serve our God and our neighbors. 

Being a Christian comes with the promise of God’s grace and his abundance and his mercy for when we inevitably fall short, but it also comes with the expectation that we’re going to be called to do a lot of things the hard way. That might mean inviting someone to church, or sharing the gospel with people who don’t want to hear it. It might mean forgiving someone who doesn’t deserve it. It might mean resisting the temptation to sin all the more so that grace may abound. Or it might mean wrestling a bear instead of stealing firewood from the other camp. 

But however grace comes to play in your life, remember that while it’s something that shouldn’t be taken advantage of, it’s also something that you can’t avoid needing. We shouldn’t be reckless, but we also shouldn’t be so terrified of sinning and so guilty for our need of grace that we live our lives in constant fear of messing up. One of Martin Luther’s most infamous quotes is “Sin Boldly”. By sin boldly, I believe Luther meant live boldly. We’re called to go about our lives living out the gospel, and serving and loving god and his people, and in doing that, we can find peace in knowing that God is graceful and understands that we’re bound to make mistakes and sin along the way. We’re five hundred and three years into the reformation, and in those five hundred and three years, we’ve sinned more than we could possibly count. Luther did, his predecessors did, the ELCA does, this church does, all Christians do, and we each do. We are captives to that sin and cannot free ourselves, so thank God we have Christ who offers us the grace to move forward into year five hundred and four, as we ask God, what is in store for us next in this crazy, scary, wonderful life of discipleship? 

So, as we step into year 504, may you go from here with the confidence to live boldly. May you find humility in the great gifts you’ve received, because what is costly to God cannot be cheap to us. And may you remember what I taught you about how to scare off a black bear in case you’re ever lucky enough to come across one. 

Sunday Sermon – October 18, 2020

In Jesus time, politics were sometimes a malicious conversation topic, especially when mixed with religion. Our gospel text for today brings us right into the middle of one of these tense, seemingly lose-lose standoffs. It’s the kind of conversation where as soon as someone asks that question, or brings up that topic, whatever it is, you can feel everyone’s eyebrows rise and everyone’s chest tighten just a little bit as they think about how thankful they are not to be the one having to answer this. In this standoff between Jesus and the Pharisees, you can feel the room holding their breaths in anticipation of what Jesus is going to answer. 

Tell us what you think, Jesus. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not? The question asked to Jesus is not simply a political question. It’s a moral and theological one as well. Jesus knew that the question was meant to entrap him. If he were to have answered the question the way the religious and political leaders expected – with a yes or a no, he would have fallen prey to their manipulation and their plan to turn the people against him.

If Jesus would have answered “no”, saying it is not lawful to pay taxes to the emperor he would have made himself an easy target. The Romans were in charge and taxes were their way of both collecting revenue to keep funding their control, and making sure their subjects had no question about who was in charge. Answering no would have meant taking a stance against the people who killed dissidents without a second thought. It would have given the Herodians and Pharisees exactly what they wanted- any easy way to silence Jesus and his followers easily and quickly. It would have meant the immediate end of Jesus life on earth. 

On the other hand, if Jesus would have answered “yes”, saying it is lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, he would have alienated all those who were oppressed by Roman rule, namely a majority of the occupied Jewish people. The very people who were so attracted to the message and teachings of Jesus. The people whose own tax dollars were funding the crucifixions and oppression of their own people. Siding uncritically with the Roman government would have isolated Jesus from all the people he was trying to reach. 

Instead of complying with the Pharisees set up to answer their yes or no trap, Jesus offers a new possibility. After drawing attention to the face of the emperor on a Roman coin, he says, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” His answer is neither a yes or a no. Instead, Jesus calls attention to what is at stake- ultimate allegiance. Give money to Caesar because he made it and it bears his likeness. Give your life to God because he made you and we all bear his image. Jesus answers the question with an invitation to see things differently.

We are both citizens of the state and citizens of God’s kingdom. Our ultimate allegiance however is towards God because unlike the governments of Rome or today, God is eternal and perfect. We are to remember that when push comes to shove, there is a choice- we can only choose one master, one thing to center the whole of our lives around. We either choose to develop eyes towards God or eyes towards the material things.

The sort of eyes we develop makes more sense with a story.

There once was a prosperous, young investment banker who was driving his new BMW on a mountain road during a snowstorm. As he veered around one sharp turn, he lost control and began sliding off the road toward a steep cliff. At the last moment he unbuckled his seat belt, flung open his door, and leaped from the car, which then plummeted to the bottom of the ravine and burst into a ball of flames. Although he had escaped with his life, the man suffered a ghastly injury. Somehow his arm had been caught near the hinge of the door as he jumped and had been torn off at the shoulder. 

A passing trucker saw the accident in his rearview mirror, pulled his rig to a halt and ran back to see if he could help. When he arrived at the scene, he found the banker standing at the roadside, looking down at the BMW burning in the ravine below. Incredibly the banker was oblivious to his injury and moaned, “My BMW! My new BMW!” The trucker pointed at the banker’s shoulder and said, “You’ve got bigger problems than that car. We’ve got to find your arm. Maybe the surgeons can sew it back on!”` The banker looked where his arm had been, paused a moment, and groaned, “Oh no! My Rolex! My new Rolex!”

The banker in the story had eyes toward earthy things- to wealth and possessions. Since his life was centered around physical things and because those things were most important to him, that was all he could see. If the banker had instead had eyes towards life, something more important and more eternal, his situation would have been much different. The way he reacted and lived his life would have been much different. Like the truck driver, today’s text should reorient us to something bigger, something more important. It should call our attention to something right in front of us we might not be able to see. In our case, to God.

We are created in God’s image and called to live in full allegiance to God alone. If we are oriented around God and God’s kingdom, everything changes. In the kingdom of the world we must earn our righteousness. We must follow laws, pay taxes and play by the rules of “yes” or “no” questions. In the kingdom of heaven, however, we do not earn our own righteousness, we accept it and live in gracious response to it. We find ourselves in a kingdom where there are not only answers of “yes” or “no”, there is also the third way of Jesus. An alternative kind of life where we do not pay money out of debt but pay spiritually out of our commitment to the kingdom of God.

The currency of God’s kingdom is measured not in coins that bear the images of humanity but in acts of love that bear the image of God. We respond to our salvation and entry into the kingdom of God with currencies of humble service, of compassion, of understanding and of peace. When our lens is God this is what we see. We don’t get caught up with BMWs and Rolexes, but with God and God’s kingdom. We become concerned with things that bear the image of God- the world, all of creation, one another.

So give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s. Pay the taxes you have to pay, do what the law of the land requires of you, but remember that your very life belongs to the God who created you, not the human authorities you live within on earth. As consuming as the world around us can feel, there are much bigger, much more important things that define who you are. You are God’s beloved children, and no one can take that away from you, not even the Pharisees or any so called leaders who are trying to manipulate you, not even Caesar or the empire. You are God’s, first and foremost. You always have been, always will be, undeniably, unchangeably. You. Are. God’s. No questions asked. 

Please pray with me.

Dear God,

You have created us in your image

You have knit us together with love and purpose

Though we live earthly lives, let us not have eyes only for material things

Let us have kingdom eyes, and a concern for that which matters to you

Where there is competition for our allegiance, hold us firm to you

Where there is division on earth, let us see our unity in your body

Where there is choice, let us choose you.

Hold us close in your kingdom.

Be with us as we pray.

Amen.

Sunday Sermon: 10/11/2020

One of the many gifts scripture gives us is the ability to stand back, thousands of years later, and learn how countless generations have known and encountered God. Even looking at the experience of more recent generations, you can see how God has been active in different people’s lives in different ways. My faith is different from even my family’s faith. My dad was raised in a different denomination, so his faith is very black and white, very action oriented. Meanwhile my mom’s faith is more spiritual and individual than mine. I have an aunt and uncle and cousins who are very active in their big city mega churches, and I have other family who are spiritual but not religious. My great Grandfather was a Lutheran pastor from the 1910’s through the 50’s here in Texas, and his experience of God in the midst of two world wars, the great depression, the post-war church booms, was drastically different than mine. I inherited many of his theology books, and when I read in those old books about the role of women or people of color in the church, I can’t help but think about how differently we have read and interpreted the same bible. How differently we have known the same God, and the same Christian church. 

If all that can shift from person to person, generation to generation, imagine in the several thousand-year span that the bible comes to us from, how many different experiences of God must be within that. Scripture is a collection of generations of God’s people’s experiences with God – wrestling with God, praising God, encountering God, trying to understand God and pass on what they know to future generations so they may know God too. With that being said, people are going to experience God differently because of their circumstances. The Israelites enslaved in Egypt may have had very different understandings of God than those born during the rule of king David, in the golden ages of Israel. Likewise, the Jewish temple leaders during Jesus’ lifetime had very different experiences and understandings of God than the Gospel writer Matthew and his community of Christians just a few decades later. That doesn’t make any of their experiences more right or wrong than others, because their contexts are different, but it offers us a bigger picture of the God we all know through psalms and parables and stories that are passed down through generations.

One of the difficulties this presents is what to do with completely contradictory accounts of the same God. Our gospel text for today is a great example of this – a parable that portrays a king, who we generally assume is an allegory for God, whose character seems power hungry, cruel, petty, violent, and so inconsistent with the God we’ve come to know through Christ. This parable has been used at times to justify colonialism, violence against Jews and other non-Christians, tyranny of rulers and political leaders over their people. 

And yet, we cannot write off or ignore difficult texts just because we in our modern lenses view them as problematic. In ignoring texts like today’s Gospel, we disregard ways of being Christian that we do not agree with, creating we’re in and you’re out hierarchy that so much of scripture warns us against. Or perhaps worse, only accepting parts of scripture that align with our agenda of what we want God to be or not to be. In doing these things, we lose so much of the relationship we are called to be in – the relationship God has had with his people for all time – that of knowing God’s goodness and mercy and abundance, but also of wrestling and questioning and challenging things we don’t understand, all of which bring us into deeper relationship with God. Scripture invites us into that deepened relationship by letting us encounter God in the ways that those before us have, while often using familiar images to make those lessons more tangible. In the last several weeks, it has been the image of a vineyard, but this week it is a feast with an open invitation. 

Today in our lectionary texts, we encounter God through 3 different feasts. First in Isaiah, where it tells of a day when the Lord of heaven’s armies will prepare a wonderful feast for all people of the world, with choice food and drinks, where death and sorrow and animosity will be gone forever, and where all people will together praise God for his salvation. Isaiah continues on to tell about how Moab, Israel’s enemy nation, will be crushed, so even in the midst of a feast God invites all people of the world to, the presence of enemies is still acknowledged simultaneously with the hope of a future where all people can be united in rejoicing in the Lord. 

In our Psalm for today, we revisit the imagery of a banquet that the Lord has prepared for us, again in the presence of our enemies. Psalm 23 is a depiction of God’s presence among us, amid images of the rod and the staff God uses to protect us and keep us in line. Psalm 23 offers hope through God’s presence and protection even in the darkest times in life. 

Then we come to our Gospel text from Matthew 22, which takes a much stranger approach to the idea of invitation to the banquet. This time, it is a banquet no one seems to want to come to, where the one throwing the banquet has more at stake than the ones invited. This parable uses the familiar imagery of a wedding banquet to reveal more about the kingdom of God, which those to whom this parable was first being told must have needed to hear, even if it makes less sense to us today. So this parable is not at all peaceful like the table by the green grass and nice still waters of Psalm 23, or triumphant like the grand, heavenly banquet with the heavenly host and all the people of the world in Isaiah. But it uses that same familiar experience we can all relate to, to portray a different experience of God we may need to hear and could not have understood otherwise.

Throughout scripture, both old testament and new, feasts are one of the primary metaphors of God’s love. God’s love comes through even when it is side by side with images of fear. In Isaiah, God’s love is what defeats death and tears, in Psalm 23, God’s love protects and comforts in the valley of the shadow of death. In Matthew 22, the king’s love comes through his open invitation to all people, regardless of worthiness, to take part in the abundance of the kingdom. In all three of our readings, the details are different, but the image and the message are the same. That message remains the same from generation to generation. From ancient Israel, to the temple leaders of Jerusalem, to my great grandfather, my parents, myself, and all of you. God has prepared a great feast for us all, offering his love, his abundance, his joyful triumph, his protection from our enemies, and so much more. There’s room at the table for all of us. God has made sure of it. 

Sunday Sermon

October 4, 2020

Vineyards aren’t something that I can very easily picture or relate to. My mind automatically jumps to old black and white movies where Italian grandmas in floral aprons are stomping barefoot on grapes in giant wooden barrels. But for the people of Israel, especially in Jesus time, vineyards and the grapes they produced were what allowed them to produce wine, which because of the way it was made, could be considered safer to drink and easier to store than water was. So a vineyard was a source of life, safety, security, both for the vineyard owner and for those who benefited from what the grapes produced.

When I think of a place where I’m safe, secure, protected from potential harm, that gives me an opportunity to acquire food I may need to live, I don’t think of vineyards, I think about canoes. Being born and raised in Hawaii, the ocean was our source of safe and reliable food, and boats were how you obtained it. You had to care for your boat and maintain it well so that you didn’t end up in danger out at sea.

As a child, my church even used to use boats for Sunday school. Church members who had extra kayaks and canoes would store them at the church, so that every week the children could use them. We would meet early every Sunday morning, take our individual boats out in small clusters with our Sunday school teachers, paddle out, anchor, and pull our bibles out of zip lock bags to do our lesson for that week. Our lessons would often relate back to the ocean, the reefs, the fish, and our responsibility to be good stewards of it all. On the way back, we would learn to identify invasive species, and would pick them up along with any floating trash we could find. We’d get back to shore and would each have to hose off our boat, lay them in the sun to dry, and later come back to gently carry the boats back to the church basement one by one. We were taught from the time we were little to take good care of what was entrusted to us – the borrowed boats, the ocean, the reefs. We understood these things as gifts of God that had been entrusted to us, and it was our responsibility to learn how to properly care for them.

The priests and the pharisees in today’s text didn’t seem to get that lesson. They were the highest-ranking religious authority figures in all of Israel, they oversaw the Temple, and the wellbeing of all the Jewish people in the land. And they are not doing any of that particularly well. They see the temple as their own, not as God’s, not even as the people’s, and that completely disregards both the gift that it is, and the stewardship that it places on them. On top of it all, they disregarded all the prophets, and Christ himself who had come to try to teach them to know better. And that’s what leads them into even deeper trouble.

As I said before, from the time I was young, I learned to be out on the ocean – I had wonderful teachers who instilled in me those lessons about stewardship and responsibility. When I was old enough, I eventually became a competitive outrigger canoe paddler, since canoeing in Hawaii is a high school sport. So, I would go out with my crew of 6 teammates, paddling together in these 400-pound, 40-foot giant outrigger canoes. If you have ever seen Moana or Lilo and Stitch, you can get a fairly good idea of what I mean. At paddling practice, our coach would send us out, through the channels, around the maze of reefs, in between sets of breaking waves. We’d head to open ocean, a few miles off shore, where the waves were a little calmer, the water was a lot bluer and much much deeper, and there was no one around for miles.

One day at practice, we got out to sea and paddled for several miles before pausing to take a break. 3 of our 4 boats from our team caught up to each other within a few minutes, but our last boat, the JV boys’ boat, was nowhere to be seen, and never caught up. We turned around, tried to retrace our path, which in an ocean is incredibly difficult, and my canoe finally spotted them. Miles behind us, their boat had flipped over, because they ignored the coach’s warnings about where to point your boat to prevent waves from capsizing you. We quickly realized that not a single one of those Freshman boys had paid attention the day we all learned how to flip a boat back over, or the day we learned what to do in open water, or the day we learned what to do if you’re stranded. They had attempted to flip the boat incorrectly so many times that they had cracked the nose of the boat, and that beautiful, handmade, several thousand-dollar boat was starting to sink. Them holding onto the boat was only making it sink faster. Their paddles had floated off in every direction, these boys had already been treading water for almost half an hour, they were miles offshore, with no life jackets, a sinking boat. The waves were pummeling them because they’d ignored our lesson to always keep their boat pointed into the waves, so they’d drifted so far that by the time we found them, they were in deep, choppy grey waters which is where sharks tend to be lurking, and the jagged reefs were getting closer and closer and closer.

They had so many coaches before this day teach them what they were supposed to do, trying to instill what a huge responsibility they were taking on. Even as my varsity crew reached them and were explaining to them again exactly what to do, they still kept going back to the same things they were doing before. The second varsity boat catches up, and tries to help and to organize them, and still, there is no change. They were too proud, and too shocked to change their ways, no matter how wrong they knew they were. The boat kept slowly sinking, and paddles kept floating farther and farther away. When I picture our pharisees and temple leaders from today’s parable, standing in front of Jesus, and realizing how wrong they were to ignore those lessons, I see all those 14 year old boys, panicking in the middle of the ocean, boat sinking, and still not listening to those who’d come along to help them.

At this point in the text, Jesus has tried several times in a row to show them – you’re doing this all wrong! And yet they still just do not seem to get it. So, Jesus launches into the parable of the evil tenants, and finally the temple leaders connect the dots that they are the evil tenants. Ding ding ding! They are the ones who are taking advantage of the role God has given them and are making it worse by continually rejecting those God sends to make things right with them. They finally understand what is going on, and yet their response does not change. Christ’s teachings are meant to change us, and to save us from ourselves. They are not just food for thought or forgettable old folk tales. They’re lessons that help us to recognize our own sin, so that we can change our ways and be in better relationships with God and our neighbors, as we care for all that God has entrusted us with.

Change isn’t easy, especially in the midst of pride and old habits. The temple leaders have always done it this way, why change now? Besides this, they’re feeling threatened by Jesus, as they realize their own fault, so their shame and fear of consequence is outweighing their common sense, just like freshmen boys trending water with a sinking canoe worrying what’s going to happen when the coach shows up. The temple leader’s response to all this is to go on wanting to arrest Jesus. Completely disregarding the parable they just heard about the wicked tenants doing the same to the landowners son, completely disregarding the full awareness that they are the wicked tenants in God’s house, who have already cast out and killed many of the prophets God sent before, and who are about to finish the final evil the parable tells of. If they had done this in a boat, out in the ocean, ignoring all the lessons they’d been taught, disregarding the warning signs, doing exactly what they’d been told not to do, they’d could have been killed.

We are not called to death. We are called to life in Christ. These parables help us to recognize all the ways in which our actions are leading us away from that life, they call us to recognize and to change. You better believe those freshmen boys recognized and changed. As bad as things had gotten, they learned from it all, and gained a much deeper respect for the boats they were entrusted and the ocean they were paddling on. I wish I could say the same for the temple leaders, but unfortunately, I can’t.

So, let us hear this gospel lesson and learn what they could not. Let us recognize what God is teaching us throughout our entire lives – to love one another, to care for all that God has entrusted to us, to honor the Lord our God who has given us grace upon grace. Let us listen to the teachers God sends us along the way, calling us back to God. Let us have the humility to learn from ourselves and from those before us, that Christ may come to us, and not be rejected but become the cornerstone of our lives. Amen.

Worship Announcement

WE ARE OPENING THE BUILDING AGAIN FOR SERVICE THIS SUNDAY!

 
You might ask yourself, who will be leading the service? Well this Sunday, we will have an abbreviated version of worship by your church council, band members, and audio-visual technician. Come out donning your mask and hear what is in store for Joyful Life in the next couple of months! The council met last Sunday and created a plan to open the building as we transition to redevelopment. This plan will be shared this Sunday morning with a peak at who will be leading our services beginning September 13. Hope to see you in person this Sunday!

Aloha!

Gerald Evans – Council President

Holy Ground

Exodus 3:1-12; Matthew 16:21-28 – August 30, 2020

INTRODUCTION TO EXODUS 3:1-12

There arose a “Pharaoh who knew not Joseph.” He oppressed the Hebrews and asked them to make bricks without straw. This new Pharaoh was threatened by the sheer numbers of the Hebrew slaves and issued an edict that all the Hebrew baby boys to be killed when they were born.  Two of the Hebrew midwives named Shipra and Puah defied those orders and baby boys continued to be born. (It was a midwife crisis!) Because the Hebrews continued to increase the Pharaoh issued another order that all the baby boys to be killed, but one boy was put in the river and rescued and adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter.  The royal princess named that baby Moses. That baby boy grew up as a prince of Egypt. One day saw an Egyptian mistreating a Hebrew slave and in anger he rose up and killed the Egyptian and buried him in the sand.  Moses fled and went to the land of Midian where he went through a midlife crisis and changed his career from a prince to a shepherd.  One day, while Moses was minding his own business Moses heard God’s call. Hear the word of God from Exodus 3:1-10

INTRODUCTION TO MATTHEW 16:21-28

Centuries later in another deserted place Jesus is with his disciples.  Peter has just made the most brilliant statement of his time with Jesus.  Peter said about Jesus, “You are the Christ the Son of the Living God!”  Jesus congratulates Peter on receiving this revelation directly from God.

But as we continue reading in chapter 16, we see Peter, the Rock, who got it right just moments before, now gets it wrong.  What he says moments after getting it right, is so contrary to what Jesus’ mission is that Jesus accuses Peter of being in league with the ultimate enemy – Satan.

***

I once read about Queen Isabella of Spain who finally agreed to let Columbus try a fourth time to find a route to the Indies.  She said that she had only bathed twice in her life when she was born and the day she was married. (eww).

Moses had not bathed in a long time.  He was dirty and sweaty.  He arrives at this place on the barren north forty where he has taken the flock to graze. There is nothing holy about that place. There is no shrine, no temple. Moses is minding his own business, tending sheep, when he stumbles his way into this unlikeliest of places to encounter God… on a mountain.  Suddenly this bush flames up. In West Texas we know about burning bushes.  a piece of glass reflecting light can light a fire that will burn acres of bushes. California knows about burning forests.

This burning bush fires Moses curiosity. It is burning …but it is not.  It is burning but it is not being consumed.  It is not enough that a bush burns but does not burn mysteriously, but then the BUSH STARTS TALKING!

On Animal Planet the other night I saw a dog that could say “I Rove you.”  (in a Scooby Doo accent) But at least a dog has vocal chords.   A bush does not.

This unburning talking shrubbery not only talks, it calls Moses by name!  twice!  “Moses. Moses.”

There is something about somebody calling our names that makes us pay attention. It could mean life or death, particularly if we are crossing the street at the time.  When my daughter was in the 7th grade, she was crossing the street from her Jr. High in the crosswalk and someone called her name and she stopped, and a car hit her.  It was a glancing blow.  It hit her arm and her arm knocked the side mirror off the door of the car.  The woman who hit her wanted us to pay for the damage to her car because Abbey stopped in the crosswalk. She was in the cross walk in a school zone!   We did not pay.

Moses hears his name and he is drawn closer. Next comes an invitation to make contact, physical contact. The voice from the bush says, “Moses, take off your shoes.” Too often, I think, we interpret this to mean, “Take off your shoes so you don’t defile God.” If that were the case, though, we would leave our shoes on, because our smelly feet would be even more offensive than our sandals, wouldn’t they? (Remember Queen Isabella?)  Consider instead that this was an invitation to make contact.  Moses cannot touch the bush, but his feet can come in contact with the ground with which the bush is in contact.

God, who centuries later would come among us as Jesus, is not worried about remaining antiseptically remote from us. God wants to come and be with us, to make contact, not to avoid it.

God says to Moses, “Take off your shoes.  I know, Moses, that you are a murderer and a fugitive. I know all about you. I am God — the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. I created the heavens and the earth in the beginning. I created you.  Come on, take off your shoes, Moses, and spend some time with me.”. Take off your shoes and come into direct contact with me. Touch me. Experience me. Moses. It has been a long, hard road for you, Moses. Relax. And do not worry. Take off your shoes.”

Holiness does not depend on the condition of the place nor the condition of the person. Holiness depends on the presence of God.  What makes this deserted place on top of a mountain holy is the presence of God.  God is present wherever you are watching this service. It is a holy place. It is holy ground.  I wonder… would you join me in a little experiment?   I want to invite you to take off your shoes.  This is your mountain this morning. The Lord is present even on the other end of a screen.  Your feet are on holy ground.  Get ready for God’s call to you.

After a while, Moses is asked by this voice from the bush, “Do something for me, will you, Moses?  My people in Egypt are suffering from heat, overwork, exhaustion, dehydration, loss of liberty — and I feel for them. Go and help them, will you, Moses? Tell them I sent you. I will be with you. You will not see me, and that is the tough part, Moses. You will not see me any more than you see me now, but I will be with you. I promise.”

Moses answers God something like this. “God, I’ll look like a fool — saying you sent me, especially if you’re not visible. They’ll say, ‘We don’t see him. What’ll I do to prove it was you who sent me?”

God answers, “You can try a few miracles, but in the end you can only say, ‘God sent me.”

Then Moses falls back on his disability. “I can’t speak very well, God.” (Even though he grew up speaking Egyptian).  He is basically saying, “Here I am, send Aaron.”  To that, God replies, “I know that Moses.  But you are the one I want.  You can take your brother Aaron along. He would love to try public speaking. He enjoys getting up in front of crowds. I’ll be with both of you.”

When God calls your name, especially when he says it twice, we better take it seriously.  When God calls your name, whether it’s to serve as an elder or a deacon or to sing the choir, to teach a class or to take a call to be an interim pastor for Joyful Life Lutheran in Magnolia, or to take a person to lunch or to share your faith with a friend or…a stranger.  …take it seriously.  as Moses took it seriously when he answered God’s call.

In our gospel lesson Peter has just answered Jesus’ question about who people say that he is. In verse 21 we read, From this moment on. From what moment on?  From the moment Peter made his insightful comment, “You are the Christ the Son of the Living God.”  From that moment on Jesus began explaining to his disciples what was ahead for him for God’s call on his life.  From that moment on Jesus began to speak about the cross.   

Perhaps you already know this, but it is the key to understanding this scripture. Peter, the disciples, the crowds, the Jewish leaders, all of them, the whole nation saw the coming Messiah as a military man who would unite the country to overthrow the Romans.  They were oppressed.  They expected their savior to deliver them from their oppression just at Moses delivered their ancestors from slavery in Egypt. 

But from the moment that Peter confessed that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the Living God Jesus began to tell his disciples of his defeat and death on a cross.

But Peter will have no part of it. “Never, Lord! This shall never happen to you.”

Let us suppose for a moment that it never did happen.  Let us assume what it would have been like for Jesus to not go to the cross. Where would that leave us?  

The Christian faith without the cross is a sect without a savior. It would leave us with a man from Nazareth who proclaimed great truths but who never demonstrated that he was any more than an innovative inspiring teacher. It would leave us with a common Jew who some labeled as Messiah but who did not establish a Kingdom of Heaven nor a kingdom on earth. It would leave us with a poor Palestinian peasant who got the attention of Rome but who never occupied a seat of power. It would leave us with a self-styled prophet who warned of the end times but whose time came to an end.  Without the cross we are left without a savior. Christianity without a cross is a creed without a cause. 

Jesus had some news for the disciples. If they were going to follow Him on into Jerusalem it would mean not only his death but a certain kind of death for them as well. We call it by many names: Self-denial, sacrificial behavior, servant hood, following the golden rule. Jesus explained it this way: If you want to become my follower you must deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me.

Peter is in denial.  But he is not denying himself.  He is denying what Jesus has said.  Before it is all over, he will deny even knowing Jesus 3 times despite his denial that he would never deny Jesus.

 Peter supposes he knows more than his teacher and for that he is rebuked. His response that Jesus should not go to the cross is answered with a harsh rebuke: “Get behind me Satan,” says Jesus.

Scholars throughout history have tried to understand this. Was Satan really using Peter or was this just Jesus disciplining a disciple?  We will never know for sure. But it certainly means that Peter is being told to resume his proper role as a disciple. He is to learn from the master, not to try and teach him.  Jesus says, “You’re out of line.  Get back behind me and follow me.”
Peter got back in line.  Peter picked up his cross and followed Jesus. How about you?  Are you full of excuses like Moses saying, “I can’t speak well,” or “They can’t see you, or can we take this bush on the road?”  Are you confused and in denial or coming up with wrong ideas like Peter saying, “Jesus, you can’t go to Jerusalem?” 

Forget the excuses.  Jesus can use you.  If God can use a murderer and a fugitive to deliver Israel from Egypt, God can use you.  If God can use a guy who gets it right one minute and then gets it wrong a few minutes later to preach the first sermon of the church that nets 3,000 folks for the kingdom, God can use you.  If God can use me.  God can use you. 

When Charles Swindoll was a young boy, he was greatly influenced by this remark from an old Texan: “The problem with the Christian life is that it’s so daily.”

It is true. Following Jesus is a lifestyle that builds on past lessons and decisions, but it also depends on our dedication day by day. We cannot live off yesterday’s successes, last week’s prayers, or the Bible stories we heard when we were kids.

Each new day is both a challenge and an opportunity. Our faith will be challenged, and we can use that challenge as an opportunity to grow in our relationship with God. Jesus Himself said that those who wanted to be His disciples were expected to be in a continual attitude of self-denial and obedience to Him.  “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me”.

As each day unfolds, we must pause and remind ourselves that this is a day dedicated to God, that it is to be used for His glory, and that it is best lived with a continual recollection of what Jesus did for us on the cross. Starting today, let us look at life that way. It is a daily commitment. Start each day with this question, “Lord how do you want to use me today?  Who will you bring into my path that you want me to love?  What do you want me to witness that will bring me closer to you, that will give me a clearer understanding of your Call on my life?”

Keith Miller puts it this way:  “It has never ceased to amaze me that we Christians have developed a kind of selective vision which allows us to be deeply and sincerely involved in worship and church activities and yet almost totally pagan in the day in, day out guts of our business lives and never realize it.

Jesus did not say “Take up your cross and follow me to church on Sunday morning, then you can do whatever you like the rest of the week.” Cross-bearing is a day-to-day activity for those who would follow Jesus”.

Would you please stand?  Where you are standing this morning is holy ground.  It is not holy because of the place it is… The ground is not holy because of the people standing on it. –we’re sinners like Moses and Peter… This is holy ground because of the presence of God where you are. 

The ground at the foot of the bush from which Moses received his call was holy ground. The ground at the foot of the cross from which Jesus fulfilled his call was holy ground.  The ground underneath the roof above you is holy ground.  For those who choose, for those who decide to take up their cross  DAILY and follow Jesus, the Lord is with them and wherever their feet take them, whether they have their shoes on or not, is holy ground.  Holy ground is underfoot wherever people listen and hear and obey God’s call. 

Let us pray. (Singing) We are standing on holy ground.  And I know that there are angels all around.  Let us praise Jesus now.  we are standing in his presence on holy ground.

Thank you, Lord, that you are in this place and that we, like Moses and Peter, stand on holy ground.  You are on the move.  You are not limited by time and space or to one place.  Thank you that you sought out Moses and called him and used him in a mighty way.  Thank you that you called Peter and used him in a mighty way.  Thank you that you have called us or even at this moment are calling some of us to say, “Yes, I will follow.”  We know you have mighty things in store for us. May our lives be filled with joy and may the abundant LIFE that Jesus came to give be ours because we have come into contact with You and have had a holy ground experience and have responded to God’s call.

  1. Our Daily Bread, February 12, 1997

Rocks

Isaiah 51:1-6; Matthew 16:13-20; Romans 12:1-8 – August 23, 2020

INTRODUCTION TO MATTHEW 16:13-20

If our greatest need had been information, God would have sent us an educator; If our greatest need had been technology, God would have sent us a scientist; If our greatest need had been money, God would have sent us an economist; If our greatest need had been pleasure, God would have sent us an entertainer; But our greatest need was forgiveness, so God sent us a Savior. Hear the word of God from Matthew 16:13-20 

Let us pray. Dear Lord, thank you for opening our eyes and, the eyes of our hearts even, to see what Peter said—that you are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.  Thank you that you are much more than a prophet, that you are the one the prophets predicted.  As we mediate on what that means for us, as we ponder our answer to your question of who WE say you are, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord our ROCK and our Redeemer.

***

There is a college in North Carolina called Belmont Abbey College.  The monks who started the college were wandering along a road and came upon a crossroad. There was an interesting huge granite flat rock. They were very intrigued by it.

 As they talked to neighbors in town about it, they were told that the rock was a major selling place for slaves in that sad time in our history. Men, women, and children would stand on that rock and be sold into slavery. So, the monks decided to have it moved to their new monastery, and they dug out a well in its center, and they made that their baptismal font. On it reads, “Upon this rock, people once were sold into slavery. Now upon this rock, through the waters of baptism, people become free children of God.”. (1)   

Now that Rock Rocks!

This morning we read about Jesus nearing the end of his ministry.  It was time for him to get alone with his disciples far from the watchful eyes of the religious authorities and assess the last three years of ministry.  Actually, Jesus left his “working vacation,” that we looked at last Sunday.  This morning we see him on his session retreat in into the District of Caesarea Philippi, an area about 25 miles northeast of the Sea of Galilee.  It is the area we know today as Syria.  Jesus went to Syria to get away. He is doing this on foot.

The region had tremendous religious implications. The countryside was cluttered with the temples of the Syrian gods. Here also was the elaborate marble temple that had been erected by Herod the Great, father of the then ruling Herod Antipas. Here also was the influence of the Greek gods. Here also the worship of Caesar as a God himself.  In fact, the town was named after Caesar! –Caesarea! 

It was with this scene in the background that Jesus chose to ask the most crucial questions of his ministry.

Jesus wanted to find out if his disciples understood who he was.  It was a critical moment and critical moments call for critical questions:  Question number one was, “Who do men say that I am?”                             

The disciples begin sharing with Jesus the results of the latest polls.  Survey said!  (ding) “Some say that you are Elijah; others say John the Baptist, still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” J   

All these descriptions tell us one thing. The people thought Jesus was a great prophet.  The number one answer came first—Elijah, the greatest of all the prophets who did not die but was taken up to the heavens in a chariot of fire.

Elijah was the prophet they expected to return. If fact, today at every Passover Jews set a place setting for Elijah at their celebration of the Seder meal hoping for his return. 

The number 2 answer was John the Baptist, Jesus’ cousin who was beheaded to please the daughter of the wife of Herod.  The problem with this answer is that s.  John the Baptist and Jesus were alive at the same time.  For Jesus to be John the Baptist reincarnated Jesus would have to die and be born again as John come back and grow to a 30-year-old man in a matter of days. Yet, that is what some people thought…J  .

Coming in third was Jeremiah, the weeping prophet.  But Jesus had too much fun to be Jeremiah—walking on water— (skiing without a boat), Casting demons into swine (making deviled ham) and changing water into wine.  He was not a whiner he was a wine-r a wine maker!   

Jesus’ first question was an important question, but it was just the icebreaker.  NOW Jesus turns to his disciples and he asks his most personal friends, his inner circle, his trusted students the second critical question:  OK so that’s what other people say, Who do YOU say that I am?

The world has turned on the heels of the answer to that question. By answering Elijah, John the Baptist and Jeremiah, the people paid Jesus compliments of the highest order. They were going as high as they could imagine.  But it was the wrong answer.

Jesus says, “Is that YOUR final answer?”  He gives them another chance. He says, “Who do YOU say I am?”   Peter responded to the question with, “You are the Christ the Son of the living God.”

Jesus immediately responds with a blessing.  You got that right!  BLESSED are you Simon son of Jonah.” But then Jesus explains that Simon could not have come up with this on his own.  Simon you’re just not that bright!” J 

The people’s polls at best revealed that Jesus was a prophet.  But Jesus’ heavenly Father put the words in Simon’s mouth to confess that Jesus was more than a prophet. He was the one the prophets spoke ABOUT! He was the one they predicted would come. He WAS the Christ, THE Anointed one, THE Son of the living God!

In his book Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis addressed the inclination to say nice things about Jesus but stop short of calling him God.  In essence he wrote that we do not have the option of thinking of Jesus as a prophet. He accepted Peter’s claim that he was the Christ, the Son of Living God.  If he agreed to that and he was not, he was either a Liar, or a Lunatic.  If he said he was and he was and is, then he is Lord.

“I am here trying to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: “I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God.” That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things that Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic—on a level with a man who says he is a poached egg—or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon; or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God. But let us not come with any of that patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. Nor did he intend to.” (2)

After Simon received Jesus’ blessing for what God had revealed to him about Jesus, Simon gets a new name.  No longer will he be called Simon, which means sand.  From that point on he would be called Peter, which means rock.  Jesus changes his name from Sandy to Rocky.  He changes his name from one that is shifting sand upon which nothing can be built, to one whose testimony is solid rock upon which Jesus could build His church. 

One of the most intriguing things I discovered about this passage is that Matthew uses the masculine form of the Greek word for rock, Petros, for Peter’s name — obviously because Peter is a man — but he uses the feminine form, Petra, when he says, “Upon this rock I will build my church.”  The man who declared that Jesus was the Christ was given the name Petros. But the rock on which the church was given the name Petra.   Peter is a Rock, but what he confessed is the Bedrock of the church that will sprout and grow from his confession.

The use of the word rock for Peter’s name and for the foundation of the church indicates that Peter is, indeed, a “rock” IN the foundation of the church.  This flesh-and-blood person, this fisherman from Galilee who had a wife and a mother-in-law, a house and a boat will be an integral part of the foundation upon which Jesus will build HIS church.

The variation in gender when Jesus says that on this rock, he will build his church says that that rock is something more than the man Peter.  It is built on the FAITH of the man, on the WORDS of the man on the CONFESSION of the man, but not ON the man.  In English, the closest we could get would be to say, “Your name will now be Rocky, and on this Rockette I will build my church.”

The church cannot be built on one man.  Everyone is expendable.  People come and go.  Pastors come and go. I have come and now I am going.  I am going and someone else is coming.!  Amen?

The church cannot be built on any One man, or on any One woman.  It must be built only on faith IN one man, in the one man who was more than a man, more than a man among men, more than a prophet.  It must be built on Jesus who was and is the Christ, the Son of the Living God!

Peter came and went.  The day came when Peter died.  We have a very strong and reliable tradition that he died a martyr, crucified upside down because he didn’t’ feel worthy to be executed in the same manner that Jesus was executed. 

Rocky died.  However, the Rockette on which the foundation of the church that Jesus has been building for the last 2,000 years has never died.  That Rockette is something that death cannot defeat or diminish. THAT is something that not even the gates of hell can stand up against.  

Douglas Hare writes about this passage, “There is general agreement that the phrase “the gates of Hades” is poetic language for the power of death (see Isa. 38:10). What is meant is that the congregation of the new covenant will persist into the age to come despite all the efforts of the powers of darkness to destroy it. “The gates of Hades” may here represent a defensive posture: death will strive to hold in its prison house all who have entered its gates, but the Messiah’s congregation will triumphantly storm the gates and rescue those destined for the life of the age to come”. (3)

Gates are defensive.  In Jesus’ statement to Peter that He, Jesus would be the builder of the church, Jesus also says that the church is to be on the offensive.  He predicts that the church he will build will storm those gates and those gates will not be able to withstand OUR offense.  A friend of mine once said, “In the history of armed conflict no one has ever been reported as attacking with their gates.  “Look out!  Here come those gates again. Run away.’

Some of the great cathedrals may now have more people visit them as tourists to admire the architecture than to offer praises to God, but Jesus is still building his church.      

Our plan is to lift our Builder, Jesus Christ so that he will draw folks to himself through this church who will get excited about expanding and reaching more and more folks. You know why?  Because the kingdom of God is not yet full.  Say that with me please.  “The kingdom of God is not yet full.”

Gregory Elder writes, “Growing up on the Atlantic Coast, I spent long hours working on intricate sandcastles; whole cities would appear beneath my hands. One year, for several days in a row, I was accosted by bullies who smashed my creations. Finally, I tried an experiment: I placed cinder blocks, rocks, and chunks of concrete in the base of my castles. Then I built the sand kingdoms on top of the rocks. When the local toughs appeared (and I disappeared), their bare feet suddenly met their match. Many people see the church in grave peril from a variety of dangers: secularism, politics, heresies, or plain old sin. They forget that the church is built upon a Rock.

The Wise Man builds his house upon the Rock.  

Who do people say that YOU are? Are you one of God’s Rocks?  One of God’s Rocks may be sitting on the throne of Peter in the Vatican.  One of God’s Rocks may also be sitting in a rocking CHAIR in a nursery singing “Jesus Loves Me” One of God’s Rocks is the people who hang in there through thick and thin.  One of God’s Rocks is the ones who have been a source of strength and courage and inspiration to others. Many of God’s Rocks are sitting at kitchen tables and maybe even in recliners as you watch this service.

We are God’s Rocks!  Like Peter we are not perfect.  Remember, Peter was the guy who was always pushing himself forward trying to be first.  Peter was the bigmouth who said he would die for Jesus and three hours later denied even knowing him…3 times!

Peter was a flawed human being like you and me.  But Peter is the one who recognized Jesus for who he was.  And on his recognition, on his confession, on his answer Jesus started and has continued building his church. 

Who do people say that YOU are? You are part of the church that Jesus is building. You are one of God’s Rockettes. You are one of God’s Rocks.    

Dear Lord, we are frail and faulted, confused and challenged.  Yet from the beginning you have called people, faults, and all, to be your children and to do marvelous deeds.  We are humbled that you have called us and will be calling even more to join us in sharing the gospel with the world. Guide us O Lord. Give us wisdom and insight, strength and courage, energy and enthusiasm, passion, and compassion. 

This we pray in the name above every name, the name at which every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Peter confessed that day in answer to Jesus’ question, the name of Jesus who is the Christ the Son of the living God.

  1. ChristianGlobe Illustrations, by Greg Rickel
  2. C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, MacMillan, 1943, p. 55-56, with thanks to Paul Janke Here’s C.S. Lewis’ quote, 
  • Douglas R. A. Hare, John Knox Press, Interpretation: Matthew

Faith Lift: ‘Till We Meet Again

Following your vote to enter into becoming a redevelopment congregation the Synod will begin considering the qualities necessary for your next pastor.  I want to share what a friend of mine sent me an email that describes the typical Church staff.

THE CHURCH STAFF:

Pastor:  Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. More powerful than a locomotive; Faster than a speeding bullet; Walks on water, gives policies to God.

Music Director:  Clears a Kid’s playhouse with a running start. Loses train of thought; Can fire a speeding bullet; Swims well, Occasionally hears God.

Council President: Runs into small buildings; Recognizes locomotive two out of three times; Used squirt gun in college; Knows how to use water fountain; Mumbles to himself.

Church Secretary: Lets you know when you can USE the building; Makes trains run on time;  Prints speeding bulletins;  Freezes water with a single glance so pastor CAN walk on it; When God speaks she says, “May I ask who’s calling?”

Obviously you know that the Synod will not be able to find a pastor for you like the one described above.   I certainly was not that kind of pastor.  But I trust that the person God is calling to respond to your need is on the way.

Obviously our time together was not what any of us anticipated.  Instead of spending time together and working together to prepare for new leadership we wound up spending time apart, wondering what would happen next.  I spent time in the scriptures preparing messages and recording and sending them out into youtubeiverse.  You spent time watching and listening and observing the sacrament of communion in your house slippers.

One of the objectives of an interim pastor is to “clear the palate.”  It is to expose the congregation to a different style of leadership, and bring a different perspective to your ministry.  Even though we haven’t been able to spend time together in person we have still spent time.  It has been almost a year since Pastor Scott, your pastor of over 15 years retired.  You have had two different pastors since that time, Pastor Bob Bryan and me.   And now you are ready to welcome a new pastor.

There is a song that asks a question.  The question is, “Will the circle be unbroken?”  It also answers the question with “There’s a better home a waitin’ in the sky Lord, in the sky.”

As I begin another new chapter as an interim pastor at Woodforest Presbyterian Church in the Channelview area of East Houston, I don’t think I will have much opportunity to come to Magnolia.  But we have a promise from Jesus that he has gone to prepare a place for us so that where he is we shall be also. (John 14.1-3).  In that sense I will close my last Faith Lift with a blessing from another song that I have been using during this time of separation- “God be with you….till we meet again.”

Pastor Gill

“God be with you … till we meet again”

God’s Table

Psalm 67; Genesis 45:1-15; Matthew 15:22-31; Romans 11:1-2, 29-32 – August 16, 2020

INTRODUCTION TO GENESIS 45

Joseph was a dreamer.  Unfortunately, he did not keep his dreams to himself.  When he shared with his brothers a dream about them bowing down to him, they sold him into slavery and told his father he was dead.  After years of imprisonment for something he did not do Joseph wound up interpreting dreams for the Pharaoh. That led to Joseph becoming the second in command of the whole of Egypt and in the perfect place to not only save Egypt from a coming drought but to be able to save his own brothers and father and nation from that same drought.  In this morning’s reading from Genesis Joseph confronts his brothers and reveals who he really is to them.  Hear the word of the Lord from Genesis 45.

INTRODUCTION TO MATTHEW 15:21-28

The setting for this morning’s gospel lesson is about Jesus needing a vacation.   Ever since Jesus heard that John the Baptist had been beheaded Jesus has been trying to get away for some quiet time to regroup and recuperate from the drain of the crowds. For the first time in his ministry Jesus decides to go beyond the borders of Palestine.  Since he could not find this privacy in Jewish territory, maybe he could find some in Gentile territory. Maybe at least the Jewish leaders who were opposing him would not dare follow. But as we will see, not even there can Jesus escape the pressing needs of others. Hear the gospel of our Lord from Matthew 15:21-28.

Let us pray.  Lord, thank you for the example of this woman’s faith.  May we so grow in our faith.  May we find the courage to approach, to ask, to believe and to not give up until we see the fruit of our faith come to be.  Open our minds, our hearts, and our souls to receive your word this morning. This we ask in Jesus’ name.

The gospel lesson this morning is about a woman who wanted her daughter to BE delivered.  She wanted her daughter to be delivered from a demon. Even though she was not Jewish, even though she was from what we now call Lebanon and a race of people who had been at war with Israel she did not let that stop her.  She came shouting, Have Mercy on me lord, Son of David!”

Randal O’Brian is the Superintendent of GCCISD.  I sat beside him at a basketball game at Lee College in Baytown and we got to talking.  It turns out that when Randal was playing Power Forward for the East Texas Baptist College in Marshall Texas, they were slated for a warmup game against Louisiana Tech.  Randal shared that when they arrived at the stadium, he saw a Black Pontiac Trans Am parked in the lot that had the license plate, Mailman.  Karl Malone somehow was able to drive a Trans Am when he was only an amateur college student and was able to afford his own vanity plate. Karl Malone’s nick name was the Mailman because he always delivered.  Randal, who is 6 foot 4 had to guard Karl Malone. The NBA All Star who played for the Utah Jazz for almost his entire career

Karl went on to NBA fame and fortune.  But fortunately for Baytown, Randal left a life of pipe welding to become the Superintendent of GCCISD, which was rated 10th among all the other 50 independent School districts in the Greater Houston Area. Are you amazed as I was to learn that we live in a part of the world where we have 50 Independent School Districts?  I call Randall the Mailman 2.0 for Baytown and the Goose Creek Consolidated Independent School District he has … delivered. (His team did lose to Karl’s Team) GCCISD is blessed because Randall was willing to cross barriers from being a pipe welder to becoming an educator.

The FIRST thing we can say about this woman in our gospel lesson is that she was willing to cross barriers. This woman was well aware of this great gulf between her people and Israel. Undoubtedly, she had heard of the great powers of Jesus and she was willing to cross racial lines, put down her pride and cry out for help. 

The SECOND thing we can say about this woman is that she refused to be put off. There were at least three intimidating factors that could have made her give up.

FIRST there was the silence of Jesus. The scriptures tell us that to her cry of help Jesus replied not a word. There is no reaction harder to bear than silence.  A flat “No” at least acknowledges your presence and tells you where you stand. But when there is silence you do not know what the person is thinking or even if they have acknowledged you.  Surprisingly, this did not intimidate her. She perceived what very few people have the faith to perceive–that the silence of God does not mean the indifference of God.

Second, she was not intimidated by the not-so-silent rejection of Jesus’ disciples. They regarded her pleas for help as merely a nuisance. They were on vacation.  The disciples, sadly like some in our country and even in some churches today, became fatigued under the constant pressure of the demands made upon them. Part of this woman’s faith, however, was that she would not be put off by the silence or even direct opposition of others.

When Jesus finally did break his silence he said to her, “I have been sent to the House of Israel and to them alone.”  Surprisingly, not even that put her off.  In spite of what Jesus said she fell at his feet and cried out, “Sir, help me.”

In response to this woman’s persistent plea for help Jesus makes another statement that we have difficulty in understanding. He said to her: It is not right to take children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” However, the actual word that Jesus used was not dog but puppy. He was referring not to the kind of wild dogs that roamed the streets at that time.  He was referring to a household pet, a baby one at that.  “It’s not right to take children’s bread and give it to “da widuwl puppies.” J

Like a puppy who never gives up she came back with “It is true sir. I admit it.  I am a widdle puppy. I realize that I have no claim upon you but Sir, even the puppy dogs get the scraps from the master’s table.” She was saying in effect: Sir, I admit that I have no claim upon you, but there must be some extra grace that you have that I would be deserving of.  Crumbs would be enough. 

Jesus was surprised by her answer.  Jesus said to her something he never said to his own disciples.  He said, “Woman, great is your faith! On no occasion that we know of that Jesus ever said of Peter, James, and John, “Great is your faith.” More often the words he spoke to them were, “O ye of little faith.”  In fact, on only one other occasion did Jesus praise a person for great faith, and that was another border crosser, a Gentile, a Roman soldier stationed in Capernaum who said that he believed that Jesus could just say the word and his servant would be healed.

We can learn a lot from this woman.  We need to be about crossing barriers, erasing divisions, blazing trails, not being discouraged by silence or even opposition.  We need to be willing to try something different, to get something new started, even IF we are on vacation or AFTER vacation to get something started again. 

To succeed we will need to be persistent like this mother who came to Jesus for the sake of her daughter. We need to come to Jesus for the sake of our daughters, our sons and their generations and our grandchildren’s generations that need to know the joy of knowing Jesus.  I believe that they can come to know him through what we do here.  However, continuing to do ONLY what we have been always done will continue to get what we have always got …and maybe even less.  You may have heard that Einstein once said that his definition of Insanity is “to continue to do what you’ve always done and expect different results.”

 Wes Seliger is an unconventional Episcopal clergyman who loves motorcycles. He tells about being in a motorcycle shop one day, drooling over a huge Honda 750 and wishing that he could buy it. A salesman came over and began to talk about his product. He talked about speed, acceleration, excitement, the attention-getting growl of the pipes, racing, risk. He talked about how the good-looking girls would be attracted to anyone riding on such a cycle.

Then he discovered that Wes was a minister. Busted.  Immediately the salesman changed his language and even the tone of his voice. He spoke quietly and talked about good mileage and visibility. It was indeed a “practical” vehicle.
Wes observed: “Lawn mower salespersons are not surprised to find pastors looking at their merchandise; motorcycle salespersons are. Why? Does this tell us something about pastors and about the church? Lawn mowers are slow, safe, sane, practical, and middle-class. Motorcycles are fast, dangerous, wild, thrilling.” Then Wes asks a question: “Is being a Christian more like mowing a lawn or like riding a motorcycle? Is the Christian life safe and sound or dangerous and exciting?” He concludes, “The common image of the church is pure lawn mower slow, deliberate, plodding. Our task is to take the church out on the open road, give it the gas, and see what the old baby will do!” 1

To grow beyond where we are now will require us to blaze some new trails, to pioneer some additional avenues of ministry to break through barriers, to be persistent, and to not give up in the face of silence, or in the face of outright rejection, or even in the face of challenges to see if we’re really serious about seeking answers to our questions and our quests.

Most Saturday afternoons I make time to listen to the Moth Radio Hour on KUHF.  One of the stories that really struck me was the story of Lisa Jackson.  Like the Lebanese woman who came to Jesus, Lisa had a mother who advocated for her. Lisa was the first of her family to go to college. She was good at math and science, so her mother challenged her to study to become a doctor.  

When Lisa was in High School, she went to a summer program at Tulane because they were giving away a free HP programmable calculator.  That summer was when the Love Canal crisis in Buffalo, New York happened.  The Canal had been started by Alfred Love, but he could not finish it and so it was filled in with chemical waste and covered over. Eventually the pressure caused the waste to begin to seep into people’s basements. That summer Lisa figured that if chemical engineers can make the waste that leaked, a chemical engineer would be the one to fix it.  So, she decided she wanted to study to be NOT a doctor, but an engineer.

When she told her mother, she wanted to be an engineer her grandmother asked, “Why do you want to work on a train?”  

Lisa was the valedictorian of her High School in New Orleans and she went on to finish her undergraduate degree at Tulane.  From there she went to Princeton for graduate school.  After graduation she began working for the Environmental Protection Agency in New Jersey. 

Lisa went home on Aug 27, 2005 for her mom’s birthday just in time for Hurricane Katrina.  She managed to get her immediate family out but not so for some of her relatives and friends.  She said that the hurricane caused more devastation than it should have because of the neglected levees that weren’t able to hold and the absence of wetlands that were cut for oil and gas lines that had unintended consequences.  Finally, her mother understood that for her daughter, being and engineer was better than being a doctor. In 2008, Lisa Jackson became the first African American to serve as the head of Environmental Protection Agency for the Obama Administration, a post that she held until 2013.  

Shortly after her appointment Lisa took her mom to the nation’s capital.  The President wanted to meet her mom. So, Lisa took her mom and her mother’s grandkids to meet him in the Oval Office.  A woman who grew up in segregation got to meet the first African American president of the United States.

After that meeting Lisa took her mom to her building four blocks away to show off her office.  Her office was in the building that used to be the building of the Postmaster General of the United States.

Lisa reflected “Sometimes you have an opportunity to think of all the things that influenced you and worked together to make you who you are.  Lisa said she did not think it was an accident that her office was in the building of the Postmaster General because when her father returned from serving in the Navy in World War II the only jobs available to black men were that of Pullman Porter or Mailman.  Lisa’s father chose Mailman. 2

Randal O’Brian was a 20-year-old welder who left it to play basketball for East Texas Baptist College.  He did not win in his matchup against Karl ‘The Mailman” Malone, but Randal is delivering in his dedication to public service to the children of Baytown through their public schools.   

Lisa’s father’s example delivered so much more than mail.  His dedication to public service in the only one of two jobs available to him after having served his country motivated his daughter to become an engineer, not just any engineer, the Director of the Environmental Protection Agency.   She chose to dedicate her life to public service in making air and water and ground cleaner for all.

Lisa surprised her mother.  She was initially surprised by her daughter’s desire to not be a doctor.  But when she understood her daughter’s calling, she would not let her do anything else.  

Joseph surprised his brothers. They sold him into slavery but he broke through racial and religious barriers to not only save an African nation from years of drought, but to save his own family and nation so that there could come from his line a Jesus, the savior of the world.

I want to surprise Jesus. My prayer and hope is that we will surprise Jesus and cause him to marvel at us and give us the same kudo that he gave that woman from Lebanon, “Great is your faith, FAITH.”  I want to work to grow God’s family beyond the human limitations that some want to impose.  I want to open the man-made borders, the lines that exist only on maps. I want to build bridges. I want to “take the church out on the open road, give it the gas and see what the old baby will do!”

I want to work to see people of all colors and creeds, even if it is no creed to come together to work for peace and strive for love and not hate. I do not want to give up in the face of silence or even vocal opposition, or even challenging questions.  I may start out asking for table scraps, but I believe I can be pleasantly surprise myself to find I not only have a place at the table… but by dedicating my life to public service like Randal and Lisa and Wes I can be erasing barriers and making room for many more places at …God’s Table.  

Let us pray. Thank you, Jesus.  We thank you for this precious example of faith in this woman who cared more for her daughter’s healing than she did about the barriers that could have kept her away.  We pray that we will not put up barriers between us and those you call us to touch through us.  

Grow our faith to believe what we cannot see yet.  Grow our lives to make room for new things and new friends.  Grow our hope to know that you love us and are in this ministry with us and will take us where you want us to go.

We pray for those who need to know…. for those who need to know they are loved…who need to know they have hope…. who need to know they have hope in you…who need to know you.  May we be channels through which their need to know can be met.

We pray for those who need your healing presence.,

1 ChristianGlobe Networks, Inc., ChristianGlobe Illustrations, by King Duncan

2. Lisa Jackson The Moth Radio Hour “Environmental Engineering” August 19, 2017

Faith Lift: Small Steps

Fifty-one years ago, this last July 20, when Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon it was a seminal moment. The world was watching. We did not have 24-hour news stations, but the news stations we had were tuned in. We have come a long way since we heard words coming from the man ON the moon, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

Those of us, who are old enough to remember, remember where we were when we heard those words. We remember where we were when we heard the news that President Kennedy was killed, that Martin Luther King Jr. was killed, that Bobby Kennedy was killed, that John Lennon was killed, that President Reagan was shot, that the Twin Towers fell, and when we heard the news of what happened at Columbine and Sandy Hook, and Newtown and Parkland and …. Santa Fe …and El Paso Walmart and this week’s explosion in Beirut, Lebanon and over 160,000 deaths in our country due to Covid 19. We remember, but we must forget.

I’m sure you’ve heard the quote, “Those who do not study the past are doomed to repeat it. “That’s why we study and remember the past.

In his letter to the Philippians the apostle Paul wrote this.
“… one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”

The word for forgetting is a word that means more like “don’t be held back” than it means to “not remember.” We remember, but we must forget. We remember the past, we honor the past, and we memorialize the past…but we must not let the past hold us back from pressing on into the future.

We cannot let our past failures hold us back from trying again. 

We cannot be held back by past failures—Thomas Edison tried 10,000 times before he found a filament thin enough to succeed in making a light bulb. He was quoted as saying he discovered 10,000 ways NOT to invent a light bulb.

We can let our past successes tempt us to rest on what worked then but is not working now.

We cannot be held back by past successes—Neil Armstrong succeeded in being the first man to set foot on the moon. But he came back. He did not stay on the moon. He went on to other things. He remembered that step, but he forgot it also. 

As Joyful Life moves forward after there will be remembering and forgetting. With your vote to be a redevelopment congregation you will be moving forward in a new direction.  You will have many things that to remember and many things to forget.

I remember the places I have served, including Joyful Life. It has been a privilege to serve as your Interim Pastor.  I have to say it was not what I anticipated.  I remember the Fish Fry’s fondly.   I remember the stirring music.  I remember your smiling faces.  But I must not let that hold me back. You must not let that hold you back. 

Now that you have voted to become a redevelopment congregation and the Synod will be providing you with assistance and selecting a specifically trained redevelopment pastor I will be moving on.   My extension of my contract with you will end on August 20th. I will be able to serve as your supply pastor through two Sunday’s, August 23rd, and August 30th.

I have accepted a call to become the Interim Pastor at Woodforest Presbyterian Church starting August 30th.   I will remember my time with you.  I learned to be a televangelist.  I learned to post a song a day since March 27th.  Today was Covid-eo song #137.  I learned to ask God to forgive my trespasses instead of my debts.  (I guess I still owe God a lot). I wish for you God’s best as I move on ….and as you move on.

I will remember you, but I also will forget what lies behind and press on to what is ahead. I press on toward the goal for the prize…of the upward call of God in Jesus Christ.

as I take many more … small steps.

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