Trinity United Methodist Church
Monday, July 16, 2018
You are the LIGHT of the WORLD

Sermons

For anyone who has missed church on Sunday, following are the most recent Sermons from Pastor Jay Sterling.
 
 June 10, 2018
 

Family Ties                                           [Mark 3:21-35]                                      June 10, 2018

21 When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, "He has gone out of his mind."  22 And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, "He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons."  23 And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, "How can Satan cast out Satan?  24 If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand.  25 And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand.  26 And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come.  27 But no one can enter a strong man's house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.

28 "Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; 29 but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin"-- 30 for they had said, "He has an unclean spirit." 

31 Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him.  32 A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, "Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you."  33 And he replied, "Who are my mother and my brothers?"  34 And looking at those who sat around him, he said, "Here are my mother and my brothers!  35 Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother."

 

Alright folks!  How many of you come from perfect families?  How many of you had perfect parents—never made a mistake, never overreacted, never really got angry with you, and, maybe as they got older, never gave you cause for worry?  How many of you who are parents have kids who never gave you a moment’s worry?  How many of you have gone through life as families with no challenges, no crises, no struggles, no worries, no fears? 

Pastoral counselors, psychologists, and family therapists would all say that all of our families are dysfunctional—it’s just a matter of degrees!  Some families are more dysfunctional than others.  Some are highly functional but have some issues.  We ALL have issues!  There is something in common across that spectrum and that is that if you are in that family, much of the time you don’t SEE your dysfunction!  It’s the only family you KNOW!  You don’t get to live in someone else’s house.  You don’t get to see how other families interact in their best moments and in their worst moments.  So, the family you grow up in is the only normal you know—even if someone else might walk into the situation and say, “This is CRAZY!” 

It’s almost like if you have had the experience of walking into someone’s house and you notice a real funky smell.  The people who live there don’t even notice it because they have lived with it all this time.  They smell nothing!  But as soon as you walk into their house and take a deep breath, oh boy!

We don’t usually think of Jesus as coming from a dysfunctional family.  Did you hear the scripture?  Did you listen carefully this morning?  Now, if you are from a Roman Catholic background, you are going to have to forgive me right up front!  What I am going to be saying is probably NOT what you have heard but it is based on history and culture as opposed to theology and tradition.  You see, if we follow the scripture carefully, Jesus was the oldest of several children of Joseph and Mary.  Jesus was the first born and we know he had four brothers and some sisters—we don’t even know how many or what their names were!  The reason why we can pretty much conclude that Jesus was the oldest of them is that Mary comes looking for HIM—and she has the other family members in tow.  If they were the children of Joseph from a previous marriage and were Mary’s step-children, they probably wouldn’t have come with Mary because they wouldn’t have been responsible for her.  One or two of them might have helped her out because she was a widow but they weren’t legally or culturally responsible for her—Jesus WAS, if he were her only son! 

Because Jesus was the oldest, he was responsible for caring for his mother after Joseph passed away and for making sure that the needs of his younger brothers and sisters were cared for as well.  And when Jesus turned approximately 30, he kind of abandoned his family, went off and got baptized by John, started his preaching ministry, and gathered what I like to call his ne’er-do-well followers:  rough fishermen, tax collectors, and the like.  Here was poor Mary with Jesus’ younger siblings back in Nazareth thinking, “Who’s going to run the carpentry shop?  Who’s going to pay the bills?”  Perhaps, by this time, Jesus’ next younger brother, Jacob who we know as James, had taken over the business and was helping out—but it wasn’t HIS responsibility!  It WAS Jesus’ responsibility!

Mary finally had had enough.  The word had gotten around that maybe her Number One son has lost his mind!  As the scripture says, they come to RESTRAIN him!  This isn’t a nice, friendly visit.  Mary and Jesus’ siblings came with whatever the first century version of a strait-jacket might have been so they could bundle him up and take him home where he could be responsible as the oldest son!

I have a feeling that that might have been what caught the scribes’ attention—as well as Jesus’ having cast out a demon in the story before this morning’s scripture.  When they saw that Jesus was violating the traditions of their culture and religion by not caring for his mother and younger siblings, well, they came to the conclusion that maybe Jesus was doing all this stuff by Beelzebul, the devil.  Maybe Jesus himself has a demon that is causing him to do all these things.  Maybe Jesus is the one who is possessed instead of being the one casting out demons.  Their statement brought out the response from Jesus which Abraham Lincoln would quote on the approach of the Civil War:  “A kingdom divided against itself cannot stand.  A house dived against itself cannot stand.  If Satan casts out Satan, God has already won the battle.  But be careful when you ascribe to Satan what the Holy Spirit is doing—you might be offending the wrong person!”

When his family showed up outside, someone was sent into Jesus to tell him, “Hey, Jesus, your mother, your brothers, and your sisters are outside—and they want to talk to you!”  And Jesus looks at the crowd gathered around him and he says, “Behold, my brothers, my sisters, my mother—anyone who does the will of God is my family!”

Now, folks, as radical as that may sound to our ears, that Jesus puts his connections to the folks listening to him over and above his blood connections with his mother and siblings, magnify that by about a factor of 1000 to get the idea of how radical it sounded to Jewish folks in the first century!  You don’t break family ties!  To say that this is the new family God is creating through Jesus, that’s how important this time is we share together as brothers and sisters in the house of God.  That’s how important our connections are with each other!  They take precedence even over our connections with our parents, our spouses, our children.  That’s how tight these connections are supposed to be—and we struggle with that!

Seven years ago when I came here, it didn’t take me too long to see that I came to a house divided.  Now, the most physical evidence of that division was that we had two services.  I know there are a number of churches that have multiple services—that’s not the problem.  What was different here was that we had two services that competed with each other, that didn’t always mesh well together.  We were a house divided. 

I heard from some folks that the early service was the “spiritual” service—that was a bit exaggerated, frankly.  And the folks who came to the 11 o’clock service felt like they were the stepchildren here at Trinity.  That was exaggerated, too!  There was a division that was pulling us in different directions.  I figured I would be spending much of my time here trying to heal, trying to pull us together.

And I did that very forcefully when we went to one service.  A lot of people didn’t like it and some felt I was just insisting on my own way.  Maybe!  I won’t say that every decision I made was the best but I won’t apologize for what I thought was right.  You see, a house divided cannot stand!  We struggled with those divisions—we even had a whole group of folks who left to form their own church—a house divided!  We still have some issues we are working on:  there is the feeling that there is an A-list and a B-list here.  For the folks who are on the A-list, it’s kind of like the house with the funky smell.  They don’t notice because it’s just normal; that’s the way it is!  But for the folks on the B-list, they smell it and, oh boy!  We have to work on getting rid of the funky smell instead of ignoring it!

That was my hope, that I might be able to do that in my seven years here—so so!  Let me tell you, when we come into the fullness of God’s Kingdom and sit down at the wedding feast of the Lamb, there won’t be a table for the 8:30 folks over here and for the 11:00 folks over there.  There won’t be a table for the Lake Church folks over here and a table for the Trinity folks over there.  There won’t be a table for the B-list folks and a table for the A-list folks.  We will ALL be together!  There won’t be separate tables for the White folks and for the Black folks and for the Yellow folks and for the Red folks and for the Brown folks.  There won’t be a table for the old folks and a table for the young folks.  There won’t be a table for the rich and a table for the poor.  There won’t be separate tables for all of those divisions in our society which keep our house divided, inside the church and outside the church!  There will be ONE table of the Lord!  There won’t be a Methodist table or a Baptist table or a Presbyterian table or a Roman Catholic table or an Orthodox table or any of the million and one other denominations that exist these days—ONE table.

Why?  Because—and this is the message of hope!--our family ties we share through Jesus Christ are greater than any division or any dysfunction we might bring to the table!  Do you believe that?  If you believe that, LIVE IT; live into it; live as though you are at that table even now and for all future days until we actually take our seats at that table.  If you don’t know someone here, get to know them!  Don’t ask whether or not they are members of Trinity but treat them as a member of the family of God.  They are brothers or sisters in Christ—which makes them family through the blood of Jesus Christ.  Get to know them!  Reach across our divisions!  Break down the walls and come to the Lord’s Table together!

Seven years ago at this time, y’all didn’t know me.  All you had was a name and thought, “I wonder what HE’S going to be like?”  Seven years later—in just three weeks—I will be calling another church, actually two, home.  But you know what?  You and I sat at the Lord’s Table together before I ever came here.  You and I will sit at the Lord’s Table together long after I leave because we are family.  No change of appointments, no change of pastors, no change of churches can ever change THAT fact.  Our family ties are as strong as our faith in Jesus Christ.  I’ll put it even better than that—because our faith can waver sometimes—our family ties are as great as Jesus’ faith in us!  Try to top that!  Amen.

 
May 13, 2018

That We May Be One                            [John 17:6-19]                                       May 13, 2018

6 "I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word.  7 Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; 8 for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me.  9 I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours.  10 All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them.

11 “And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one. 12 While I was with them, I protected them in your name that you have given me. I guarded them, and not one of them was lost except the one destined to be lost, so that the scripture might be fulfilled.  13 But now I am coming to you, and I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves.

14 I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world.  15 I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one.  16 They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world.  17 Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.  18 As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.  19 And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth.

 

Most of you are going to recognize that this is part of Jesus’ prayer for his disciples at the Last Supper.  Just hours away from his own arrest and crucifixion, his last prayer with the disciples at this very special time was for unity.  Unity is tough for us because, take a look around, we are all different.  We are different as men and women.  We are different age-wise.  We have had different experiences in life.  We have different beliefs about a lot of things.  We ARE different—and when we come together, we can rub each other the wrong way!  It’s hard for us to maintain unity.

I want to talk about unity today first by saying what it ISN’T.  When we talk about unity in the church, we treat unity as a kind of ideal.  It’s a goal that maybe SOMEDAY we as Christians will be able to attain this goal.  It’s almost left to the “sweet-by-and-by” time for Christians to all come together, worship God, and love one another.  I DON’T think that is what Jesus had in mind!

One of the other mistakes we make is to mistake uniformity for unity.  Now those are two very, VERY, different things!  Uniformity can give you some measure of unity but at great cost.  If we all have to look alike, think alike, believe alike, that there is only ONE way to do everything, what do we do with the people who are different?  We are supposed to love them, too, but if we are saying that you aren’t a cookie-cutter Christian, then the message is “You just don’t fit in!”  It might bring us unity within that uniform group but what about the rest of us who aren’t in that cookie-cutter class?

When Jesus said this prayer, I want you to step back in time with me and be a fly on the wall in that Upper Room.  Think about the other folks around that table with Jesus for a moment.  They were perfect, weren’t they?  They HAD to be close to perfect to be Jesus’ disciples—especially after being with him for maybe three years by this time.  Well, one of them has already left the room to betray Jesus.  Judas is already out the door.  There are still eleven remaining.  Eleven out of twelves isn’t too bad—a pretty good percentage are still there.

Here’s what we know about them.  There’s Simon Peter, the bold, brash leader of the disciples, the one who was bold enough to step out of the boat in faith and walk on the waves—until he looked down and started to sink.  The bold, brash Peter who told Jesus he would never allow him to be crucified, that he would fight and, if necessary, die for him.  Yet that very night, he would deny Jesus three times.  Things happen with three’s with Peter.  He was also forgive three times in the last chapter of John’s Gospel.  And in Acts, God had to show Peter the vision of the cloth with all kinds of animals on it three times to prepare the way for Peter to welcome Cornelius as the first Gentile convert to Christianity.  But, you know, even after that, Peter goofed up!  Paul tells the story in Galatians of how the Jewish and Gentile Christians were sharing tables at a fellowship meal in the church at Antioch—a pretty radical thing for their day—until some of the Jewish Christians from Jerusalem showed up.  Peter, Barnabas, and most of the rest of the Jewish Christians got up from the tables and abandoned their Gentile Christian brethren because it was just TOO radical for the Jewish Christians from Jerusalem.  I happen to think THAT is the reason Paul and Barnabas went their separate ways in their mission journeys.  Read Galatians to see how Paul takes Peter to task—and I think he had the same feelings toward Barnabas.  Peter didn’t always get things right but God could still use him.

James and John, the other two of the triumvirate who were the inner circle of Jesus’ disciples, are always talked about together.  They wanted to call down fire and brimstone on a town that rejected Jesus’ ministry.  They wanted to stop someone who was ministering in Jesus’ name but was not part of their circle.  Then there is that wonderful story of how James and John—one of the gospels blames it on their mom but we won’t do that on Mothers’ Day—James and John go to Jesus and try to ace Peter out.  “Jesus, when you come into your kingdom, put one of us at your right hand and the other at your left hand”—the top two positions.  Peter, their leader, well, we will just put him down at one of the other seats at the table.

Andrew we hear about only when he is bringing people to Jesus but he we really don’t learn much about him.  Philip also is seen bringing people to Jesus but here, at the Last Supper when Jesus says “You know where I am going,” responds, “We DON’T know where you are going!”  He didn’t get it yet.  Then there’s Thomas—good ole Doubting Thomas—who, when a lot of Jesus’ followers abandoned him and Jesus asked the Twelve if they would abandon him also, responded with all faith, “Where would we go?”  And when Jesus told them he was going to Jerusalem, Thomas replied, “We might as well go die with him.”  Then there’s the famous story of Thomas missing the Easter evening resurrection appearance of Jesus in the Upper Room and demanding that, “Unless I place my fingers into the nail prints and my hand in his side, I will NOT believe!”

Great candidates to work with!  Oh, there is that other guy named Levi.  Now if his name was Levi there is at least a good chance that he was born into the Jewish tribe of Levi.  He might have been born into the priestly tribe of Israel—but he traded THAT birthright to become a tax-collector for the Romans!  Now, you want to talk about a traitor—that’s about as high as you can go.  But Jesus said to him, “Follow me!” and Levi followed him!

The others are largely just names in the Gospels.  They are hardly even mentioned except for their names—and the names are not always consistent.  Yet these are the people Jesus chose, Jesus commissioned, and Jesus sent out into the world eventually as his witnesses.  There was one event yet to come what would be the source for their unity as Jesus was praying they would be one.  That last element that was missing would come on Pentecost, which we will celebrate next week, when the Holy Spirit was poured out upon all of Jesus’ followers.

You see, they had to wait for the Holy Spirit to come upon them because this is how God fulfills his plan; how God completes his design; how God brings us together in unity.  God has an interesting design for us.  God pours out the Holy Spirit on anyone and everyone who professes faith in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord.  The Holy Spirit isn’t just for those “spiritual” people.  The Holy Spirit is given equally to all of us. 

What the Holy Spirit does in our lives is to distribute particular spiritual gifts upon us.  And here is the neat part:  in God’s economy, no one gets all the gifts we need.  God deliberately designed it so that each of us gets at least 2 to 3 dominant spiritual gifts and I’ve seen lists of up to 40 gifts.  Each of us gets a couple of dominant gifts to share within the community of faith.  We are interdependent upon each other because we need ALL those gifts!  The church doesn’t function well if we are missing some of those gifts.  God gives all the gifts out though the Holy Spirit upon the congregation.  The gifts are all here—that’s not even debatable.  The only question is who has them and who is able to use them to benefit all of us together.

The disciples NEVER would have been able to accomplish God’s call to them if they tried to do it on their own.  Where they had strengths, they had FAR more weaknesses—just like us!  Where they had strengths, they could use those strengths to cover the weaknesses of the others in that first generation church and beyond.  It is that unity of interdependence God has established through the Holy Spirit that pulls us together.  Take a look around—do YOU see any perfect people here?  Do you see anybody who has it all together, has all the gifts, all the grace that they don’t NEED anybody else to be a Christian, need anybody else’s prayers, anybody else’s encouragement, anybody else’s support, anybody else’s gifts?

God deliberately made it so that each of us has a couple of dominant spiritual gifts.  It is your responsibility to figure out your gifts—but, guess what, the people who know you best probably see your gifts far better than you yourself do!  That’s another reason for our unity, to be able to say to one another, “I see your gift of….”  We might think WE don’t have that gift but others see it in us.  All of us have 20-30 gifts that are present to some degree but we also have 2 to 3 that we DON’T have—because then we might try to be independent of each other and go it alone.

When I have taken some versions of Spiritual Gifts inventories, my strongest gifts come out as teaching, preaching, and prophecy.  The gift that always comes out at the bottom is administration.  Those of you who know me know how much I love paperwork!  “The paperwork will get to the DS when it gets there,” tends to be my attitude.  I’ve been blessed to have people in most of the churches I have served who cover for me because they DO have that gift and I encourage them to use it—that’s the way God designed his plan!

The most frustrating thing that brings great harm and disunity to churches is when people are trying to carry out a ministry in which they are not gifted—because they are afraid no one else will do it—while there are people who have those gifts but are not given the opportunity or opening to use their gifts.  Either of those are horribly frustrating.  We all want to feel important.  Guess what?  YOU ARE! 

God has you here and now for a reason as part of this congregation.  God wants you here; God needs you here; God has a role for you to play—and if we fail to play our role, we ALL suffer together.  There are holes in the jigsaw puzzle of the church where gifts are not being used in the right place, in the right way, and in the right time.  So we present to the world—and to each other—an incomplete picture.

As we are in this time of transition as a congregation, I would encourage you to seek out YOUR gifts.  Some of you might know them already.  Some of you may not even have a clue of what I am talking about.  But ask some of the people around you, the people who know you best, “What gifts do you see in me?  What do you think God might be calling me to do?  Where do I fit in?”  You might get some surprising answers!  Hopefully there will be an open spot for you to use your gifts.  When you put a jigsaw puzzle together, you know how the pieces are just perfectly shaped to fit their one spot.  When the puzzle is complete, not only is the picture complete but those interlocking pieces hold the puzzle together.  There is unity in the picture when ALL the pieces fit where they are supposed to.

Jesus was able to do that with his disciples and they took the church’s witness to the gospel from Jerusalem to as far east as India, as far west as Spain, as far south as sub-Saharan Africa, and as far north as France, Germany, and even into Russia—not bad for those eleven guys around that table with a prayer for unity!  Amen.

 
May 6, 2018
 

Love, Love, Love!                                             [John 15:9-17]                                       May 6, 2018

9 “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.  10 If you keep my command­ments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father's commandments and abide in his love.  11 I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.

12 "This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.  13 No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends.  14 You are my friends if you do what I command you.  15 I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.  16 You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name.  17 I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.

 

I use the quote from the Beatles for the front of the bulletin this morning:  “Love, Love, Love…Love is all you need!”  Who am I to go against the Beatles?  There is another reason why I titled this message this way:  a couple years ago at a meeting here at Trinity, I had somebody challenge my preaching by saying, “All you ever talk about is love, love, love!”  Well, I can’t think of many things better to talk about!  Love is fundamental to who we are as the Body of Christ, who we are as Christians, who we are as followers of Jesus!

The other reason “Love, Love, Love” is my title is because in this passage there are three love commands—two are assumed but I think it is a safe assumption to make.  Jesus implies here, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”  Now he’s not talking about the Ten Commandments or all the rules and laws that the Pharisees tried to obey.  He is talking about those two basic commandments he cited several times during his ministry:  to love God with all of our heart, soul, and strength and to love our neighbor as ourself. 

The first one we kind of take for granted as though it is easy to do.  Look, we are here, aren’t we?  It’s a beautiful spring day in May.  Wouldn’t it have been nice to go out for brunch?  Or to sleep in for a little bit?  But, NOOO, we got up.  We got dressed.  We came to church to worship because we LOVE God.  We came to sing God’s praises.  We came to lift up our prayers to God.  We came to hear God’s word proclaimed because we love God.  Now it is between you and God whether you love God with ALL your heart, soul, and strength.  It’s not my place to judge.  That is your work with God, your discipleship, your devotion.

The second love command gets a little bit tougher:  “love your neighbor as yourself.”  Let’s face it, not all of our neighbors are loveable!  These days we hardly even get to KNOW our neighbors to know if they are loveable or not.  People come and go quite a bit.  We box ourselves up in our homes, turn on the air conditioner, and don’t leave our nice comfortable homes very much.  The days are gone when you used to be able to walk down the street, see people sitting out on their porches, and you might stop to visit for awhile and have a glass of lemonade.  When was the last time THAT happened?  We struggle with our love for our neighbors!

As a church, we work on loving our neighbors but we have a way to go yet.  We do a lot of programs for our neighbors.  We do some great things!  We do the Community Cupboard—but we are often begging people to come help with that.  It tends to be a tiny little group of folks who do the Community Cupboard—and those are the only folks that the people who receive the bags from us ever see from our church.  We do a lot of ministry with children and youth but, when the parents come with their kids, they see only a tiny little group of us showing our love for our neighbors.  We do a lot of stuff to be visible in our community:  we have had groups walk in the Memorial Day and Pumpkin Fest parades and have helped the Lions Club with their chicken barbeque by providing desserts and serving.  We are visible and that’s good. 

We do flood buckets—and we miss Mary Loutzenhiser—Mary took on that job and did such a great job and now we do have some others ready to pitch in and continue that ministry.  It’s important ministry.  It shows our love.  But it’s kind of disconnected.  We fill up a flood bucket, take it down to the Mission Barn, but we don’t see where it goes from there.  We don’t have a direct connection with the recipient of that flood bucket.  The youth raised how much to help drill a water well in Zimbabwe?  $1,615—as more than Trinity’s share for that well!  Now, how many of you are going to go to Zimbabwe to see that well?  We are showing our love but it’s kind of disconnected from the people who are going to benefit from it.  So we have to keep working on new ways, different ways, to connect with people here in our community to show OUR love for them.

But, you know, before we can do that effectively, we have to get to that third love commandment:  “love one another as I have loved you.”  Jesus said that at the Last Supper.  The sun had already set on Thursday evening which means, in the Jewish calendar, Good Friday had already begun!  Jesus’ mind was already focused on what was going to happen in just a few hours when he would be laying down HIS life on the cross for his disciples and for us.  THAT is the measure of the love Jesus has for us and it is the measure of the love he calls us to have for each other, especially, within the church.

Our love for one another is kind of like the hitch between the tractor and the trailer.  If we think of God’s love for us and our love for God being the tractor and our love for our neighbors being the trailer, our love for one another is the hitch that connects the two.  If we aren’t loving each other, that hitch breaks.  That hitch can be very fragile.  If it breaks, the tractor moves on, the trailer is left behind, and we are left broken in between.

When I first came to Trinity seven years ago, it wasn’t too long before I started hearing from some folks that Trinity has an A-list and a B-list of members.  “What do you mean?”  Well, as I listened and watched, I began to understand.  If you are on the A-list, you probably deny that there is an A-list.  If you are on the A-list, you have probably been here for a while.  You have been actively involved and have probably held some leadership positions here.  That’s all great!  Wonderful!

It’s even better than that!  If someone from the A-list misses worship and Sunday School for a week or two, somebody else from the A-list will be calling them:  “Hey, are you alright?  Are you sick?  Have you been traveling?”  We check up on each other on the A-list.  And if there is an issue, someone from the A-list will call ME and say “Did you know…?”  And I appreciate that!  I love knowing if there is a need I can respond to.  I can act and do something.  That’s a positive thing!

The problem is that that compassion, that concern, that communication often doesn’t translate from the A-list to the B-list.  If you are on the B-list, you KNOW you are on the B-list.  You probably haven’t been asked to do anything too big in the church.  You might serve on a committee and do some ministry—not to say those ministries aren’t important—but you probably haven’t been asked to lead much.  OR, maybe you have been asked, but you have had the experience of having some ideas, even some good ideas, but you kind of got shot down.  So it is just a whole lot easier to accept being on the B-list, come to worship, and steer clear of the inner workings of the church. 

The sad thing is, because I know some examples of this, if you are a B-list person, you might go missing from our church for six weeks, six months, or six years or more and no one will contact you.  No one will call and say, “Hey, we’ve missed you?  Where have you been?  No one was sitting in your pew and we were just wondering if you are alright.”  We just don’t seem to cross that line very well.  We do great with the A-listers but the B-listers kind of get left behind in those areas.

And there is something even worse, folks:  there is a C-list.  We have has a couple of folks from our church working on a membership audit over the last couple of years.  You know, we found out that over the course of the last twenty or thirty years, we have had 30 members of our church DIE that we knew NOTHING about!  Can you imagine going to a family reunion and finding out that several members of your family had died twenty years ago and no one knew anything about it, no one had shared that information?  We have done that!  In fairness, some of those folks may have lived out of the area.  Some of those folks may not have been involved or active in the church for years.  We wouldn’t have recognized their names if and when they appeared in the obituary page of the paper.  But HOW did WE let that happen?  How did we miss those names—and the people those names were connected to?

And we have another whole list of names of people who, at one time or another, stood up here and took membership vows to Trinity United Methodist Church, who shared the Lord’s Table with us—but now ALL we have is a name!  We don’t have an address or a phone number to go with that name.  We are going to be publishing those names at Charge Conference this year—not to take them off our roll but to see if ANYBODY might know where these folks might be so we can reconnect with them, at least to find out where they are and how they are doing.

“Love one another as I have loved you.”  Now I know there are going to be some folks who will sit back this afternoon and feast on roast pastor because isn’t this the pastor’s job to go out and find these people?  Again, we have rotated pastors here on average every 5 to 6 years, going back 40 years or more.  Let me tell you what it is like when you are a pastor coming into a new church.  It takes 2 years at least to start figuring out who’s who in any depth.  Who are the folks who are going to come to church almost every Sunday and to any and all events at the church?  They ARE the core of the church and pastors do extra work to get to know them because we see them all the time and it is embarrassing to forget their names and not to know something of their stories.  You work hard on that group.

Then, there are the frequent attenders.  I’m not trying to knock anyone here.  There are people who will be here three times, two times, or even one time a month on average.  They ARE here on a pretty regular basis.  As a pastor, I want to put names to their faces and get to know their stories also.  You are here and you are supporting Trinity and I appreciate that.

Then, there are the people who come maybe just on Christmas or Easter or a few occasions during the year.  Well, we try to follow up with some of those folks, too.  But it takes almost two years to reach the point where, looking down the membership roll, a pastor starts to realize that there are names there that the pastor cannot put a face to.  People I have never seen since I have been here.  Then I find out that they weren’t here when Skip was here.  And they weren’t here when Bruce was here.  And they weren’t here…who knows how far back it goes?  Pastors can’t keep up with all those names on the list.

Folks, this is where the ministry of the whole congregation is so vital!  What the A-list folks do for the other A-list folks we ought to ALL be doing for everybody else.  That should be the model.  “The person who sits in front of me hasn’t been there the past two weeks.”  Instead of saying, “Pastor, you should check up on them,” make a phone call!  “How are you doing?  I missed you.  You always sit right in front of me but I didn’t see you last Sunday or the Sunday before that.  I just wanted to see if you are alright.  I am not trying to pry or gossip.  I just want to make sure you are alright.” 

THAT way we don’t lose people.  I am not talking names, I’m talking people:  people God loves, people Jesus died for, people who at one time joined our church family.  But we have let them drift away because, “It’s not MY job.  Somebody else can follow up.  Somebody else can check up on them.  I don’t have to do that.”  It is ALL of our job.

Now I know there are going to be some who will say, “Pastor, that wasn’t a very loving message when you are supposed to be preaching on love!”  Yeah, maybe, BUT—let me give you a slightly different definition of love. 

If you are driving down the road and your car’s engine starts making a clanking noise and you know it’s not the right sound for the engine, you pull into your mechanic’s garage.  The mechanic pops open the hood, takes a quick look around, slams down the hood, and says, “Oh, your engine is fine.  It’s good for another 100,000 miles!”  You start down the road and maybe get another mile or two and a piston comes shooting up through the hood and fire erupts from the engine compartment.  You pull over and bail out as fast as you can.  Did that mechanic love you?

You are feeling some chest pains and you go to see your doctor.  The doctor listens to your heart for a few moments and says, “Ah, go home, take a couple of aspirin, and lie down.”  You leave the doctor’s office still feeling the pain and more than a little anxious so you go to the emergency room.  The staff draws some blood, notices the heart enzymes are up and the doctor there sends you to the operating room for an immediate heart cath. right now—because you are having a heart attack!  Did your original doctor love you?

Sometimes pastors have to love you in tough ways.  Not because I want to put anyone down but because in my last weeks here and as a new pastor is preparing to come here, I want to see this church raise up, raise up in your love for each other!  Put EVERYbody on the A-list!  Touch base with each other!  If you see someone missing, give them a call!  “Love one another as I have loved you.”  The easy message would be, “Take another pastor.  Have a lie down.  You’ll be fine!”  Amen.

 

 
 
April 29, 2018

Abiding                                                 [John 15:1-8]                                        April 29, 2018

1 "I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower.  2 He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit.  3 You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you.  4 Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me.

5 I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.  6 Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.  7 If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.

8 My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.

 

I want you to study on the picture this morning.  It gives a pretty good idea of the structure of a grapevine.  Now, we don’t see much of the thicker part of the vine and we don’t see the trunk of the vine that comes up out of the ground.  That trunk gets pretty thick; it gets to be pretty good size!  That part of the vine has to carry all the nutrients the roots and the vine pick up from the soil plus much of the moisture to feed all the rest of the vine and the branches. 

As Jesus says here, Jesus is the vine; Jesus is the trunk; Jesus is the source that feeds us, nourishes us, and provides us with the water we need—the living water—for us to be the branches.  Off of that main trunk of the vine come the branches.  If you have been around grapevines, you know that grapevines produce these tendrils, these little curlicues, which latch onto the grape arbor—in this picture you can see the wires supporting the branches.  Those tendrils grab onto the wires, the structure, to support the weight of the branches, particularly when you have THIS much fruit growing, putting a lot of weight on the vine!  The structure is needed for the branches to hang onto.  Then, near the end of the branches, you can find these wonderful clusters of grapes.

If you have ever driven up around Lake Erie, whether you go over to Ohio or around Erie or western New York, you will see acres and acres of grape arbors.  These arbors have one purpose:  to produce grapes.  No one who owns a grape arbor is growing their vines and branches to produce more branches.  If the branches aren’t producing fruit, the owner and workers in the vineyard will come along to identify which branches are producing, which branches might be dying, and which branches might be growing but not producing.  The branches which are not producing fruit, while they are part of the vine, are actually functioning as parasites on the vine, absorbing moisture and nutrients, being well-fed, but producing NO fruit.  The workers are going to seek out those branches and snip them off because they are only taking away from the rest of the vine.

There are three critical aspects of our being branches in this imagery:  one on either end and one in the middle.  On one end, we attach into the vine—or we can say we attach into THIS branch, Trinity—which branches off from the vine along with all the other branches, all the other denominations and churches.  Where we branch off as individuals, we better have a good connection.  If we aren’t connected--not to the church, not to religion, not to morality or piety—if we aren’t connected to Jesus, we can produce NOTHING.  We can take up space.  We can sit in the congregation.  We can be visible but we can produce nothing, guaranteed!  It is only Jesus working through us that will enable us to produce any fruit at all.

The middle aspect concerns those wires of the arbor.  That is where the church as an institution comes in.  The church as an institution isn’t really part of the vine but is part of the support structure for the branches to grow.  It’s what we hang onto to help our branches grow as Christ nourishes us.  Sometimes we make the mistake of thinking that the support structure is the fruit—NOPE!  The support structure—the wires—produce no fruit.  Do you see any fruit growing from those wires?  No, they support the branches which produce the fruit.  The wires do not grow anything!  The church is the structure we cling to with our tendrils, which gives the strength to hold the weight of the fruit we are supposed to bear as we are attached to the vine.

At the other end, there had better be GRAPES!  If we are not producing fruit—and I want to be careful with my definitions here—yes, we can say that if we are growing spiritually that is some fruit.  But I don’t that is the fruit Jesus had in mind.  That’s part of the support structure, part of the nourishing, that we need to bear fruit.  Jesus didn’t tell his disciples right before he ascended, “Sit in church, learn about the Bible, and that’s good enough.”  He told them, “GO, make disciples, teach them all that I have taught you.”  THAT’s FRUIT!  When we reach out and get involved in the lives of the people around us, when we are showing compassion—especially for those who are experiencing needs and, let’s face it, there are very few of us who DON’T know someone who is going through some pretty big struggles with pretty big needs, when we reach out to them with the love of Jesus Christ, THEN we have a chance to bear fruit!

Serving on a committee or even chairing a committee is not bearing fruit—that’s part of the support structure that helps sustain the church as an institution so we can bear fruit.  In itself it is not bearing fruit.  Putting money in the offering plate—and at some point we have to get it through our heads that we don’t give money to the church; we make an offering to God—is part of supporting and sustaining the support structure of the institution.  If you are giving your money to the church, take it home until you are ready to make your offering to God!  What we put into the offering plate is not fruit itself, as much as God has blessed us.

We are going through a time of transition here—and hopefully it will be a time of positive transition.  But I will tell you right now, I’ve been pruned!  I think God took a look at what has happened at Trinity and said, “Sterling isn’t bearing enough fruit there.  So I will prune him—he has a track record from previous congregations—and transplant him elsewhere.  Maybe he will bear fruit again.”

But let me tell you, if God is pruning me, what will he do with Trinity?  Where has our fruit been these past 7 years, 17 years, 27 years, 47 YEARS?  We have changed pastors on average every 6 years.  The bishops have sent this church a number of different pastors, with different gifts and graces, with different personalities, and with different experiences and our track record is that this church hasn’t borne much fruit.  There is an old pastor’s story that says when a church changes pastors relatively frequently and can never find one pastor who seems to be the right pastor, maybe they need to identify the problem as the person who looks back at them from a mirror.

What fruit have we been bearing for the Kingdom of God?  That’s why we are here!  Yes, we are here to worship—and worship is important—but worship is only part of the structure that sustains the vine!  Worship is not the end.  Worship is not the goal.  We will have all of eternity to worship when the Kingdom comes in its fullness.  What we have right now, in this time, in this space, in this community, is the commission by God through Jesus Christ to bear fruit for the Kingdom.  If we are failing in that mission, Jesus himself says, the vinegrower, God himself, will start pruning, will start cutting off the unproductive branches and trim the vine until it DOES produce fruit again.

Folks, we are in that time.  Now you can choose not to believe me.  That’s fine.  I am just sharing the word God has given me to speak.  When I look at where we are at as a church, when I look at a community that is in desperate need to hear the gospel, I know we have a lot of wonderful programs but we are NOT connecting with the people around us, right here in our community, very well.  Programs, by themselves, are NOT fruit.  They are part of the mechanism that help the branches bear fruit.  The fruit is people, not programs. 

The fruit is lives changed and transformed.  The fruit is God’s Kingdom becoming more visible in our midst and in our community.  If we are not accomplishing that mission, pruning time is coming!  I asked last week how many people read their Bible one-half hour a day and I saw two hands.  I asked how many are praying one-half hour a day, not in intercession for others but praying for God’s mission, God’s purpose, God’s vision for your life and our life together as a congregation, praying where we listen for God’s voice to speak instead of our doing all the talking, and I barely saw a hand.

If we are going to bear fruit for God’s Kingdom that means ABIDING in the vine.  That means attaching ourselves strongly to Jesus Christ, clearing away all the obstacles between Christ and us so we can be nourished and fed, strengthened and prepared to bear fruit.  Anything less, ANYTHING less, means pruning time—serious pruning time!  Amen.

 
April 22, 2018
 
The Shepherd’s Voice                                             [John 10:11-18]                                   
11 "I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away--and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. 13 The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep.
14 I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. 16 I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. 17 For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. 18 No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father."
 
Voices, voices, voices…we hear a lot of voices these days! At times it can seem as though we are the directors of a cantata where everyone is singing a different song because of all the different voices singing out to us. There are the political voices, the politicians who want to be our shepherds. The Democrats say, “Follow ME, THIS way! The grass is greener over HERE!” And the Republicans say, “No, no, no…Follow me over HERE! The grass is greener HERE!” We listen, puzzled over the conflicting voices. 
Try to watch the news media these days. If you watch MSNBC, they will tell you the news from THEIR perspective, which is radically different than if you watch FOXNews. Which voice is right? Which voice is giving us the truth? Which voice is speaking honestly? How are you to tell?
There are voices from the advertisers, whether you watch TV, listen to the radio, or read the newspaper or magazines. The advertisements are all there telling us that if we use their products, we will be happier, more satisfied, will look younger, prettier, and sexier! Voices, voices, voices….
Even in the church there are voices: this denomination, that denomination, this church, that church, all telling us that they have a firmer lock, a firmer grasp on THE TRUTH than anyone else does! Fundamentalists, charismatics, Pentecostals, conservative, traditional, contemporary, progressive, liberal…all using the same Bible but giving us vastly different understandings in LOUD voices! Sometimes even within a denomination or even within a local church there can be a cacophony of different voices, each claiming to have the truth, claiming to be hearing God more clearly than the others, claiming to be shepherds.
Well, folks, I am here to tell you today from one dumb sheep to other dumb sheep that that’s exactly what we are! Just because I went to seminary that doesn’t mean I was transformed from a dumb sheep into a shepherd. Just because I was ordained and appointed by a bishop doesn’t mean I was transformed from a dumb sheep into a shepherd. That’s what Jesus is talking about in this passage! Just because you have been attending a church for decades doesn’t change you from being a sheep into a shepherd. We are ALL sheep! All those voices we hear are the voices of sheep, whether they are political voices, media voices, advertising voices, or church voices. They are all the bleating of sheep. Within all that noise it can be difficult to pick out that ONE voice, the only voice that is qualified to be the Good Shepherd, because he is the ONLY one who has laid down his life for us dumb sheep!
We are going through a time of transition here. I am going to be leaving soon and I’ll be honest with you, I am probably happier to be leaving than some of you are happy to see me go. I’ve done all I can do to the best of my ability here at Trinity. But before we welcome a new pastor, I have a few questions for you. And I want some honest answers because this is about listening for the voice of the Good Shepherd.
How many of you—and I want to see a show of hands—read your Bible for at least one-half hour a day? {Two hands} I know a lot of you have your daily devotions but I am going beyond that. If you pick up the Upper Room and read it, that takes 10 minutes at most. The Upper Room usually only has one or two verses and the Daily Bread and most other devotionals are pretty much the same way. So we do our daily devotions and we are done. But in that process, are we listening for the voice of the Good Shepherd? It takes a little more than that daily devotional reading to hear Jesus’ voice over and beyond all those other voices that are always bleating in our ears. I would suggest that you shake the dust off your Bibles in preparation for the new pastor’s arrival and read through the Gospels. Spend at least a half-hour a day. I know that’s a lot of time for us. If you come across a passage which raises questions, make a note, write it down. We have some folks here who can probably answer some of those questions and we would be more than happy to be asked! But as you are reading, don’t just read the words on the page, LISTEN for the voice of the Good Shepherd talking through those words! That’s what devotional time is really about—not just getting through the devotion but allowing the time for God to speak to you, Jesus to speak to you in his clear and distinct voice. Maybe it’s a word for you personally. Maybe it’s a word for your family. Maybe it’s a word for all of us as a church! But if we are not taking the time to listen, how will we ever hear?
Next question: How many of you spend at least a half-hour a day in prayer? {Few hands} Now I am going to put some restrictions on this. I am not talking about intercessory prayer here, prayer where we are praying for someone for health concerns or going through grief. I am not saying those prayers aren’t important—they ARE! But the prayers we need to be praying are prayers where we aren’t doing the talking. Prayers in which we are listening for Jesus’ voice a little more clearly. Maybe to meditate on one of the verses we have just read. “Gee, Lord, I’m not sure what this means. I am wrestling with this. Can you help me understand?” And the listen—imagine that! God may speak to us in those moments. But if we are in a hurry to get through OUR prayers, to do OUR talking, to lay out OUR concerns—I like to use the imagery that it’s almost like when we say “Amen!” we hang up the phone! “I’m DONE! I’ve said MY prayers! Talk to you later, God!” And God says, “Wait a minute! I haven’t even gotten into the conversation yet!” But we have moved on.
How many of you are involved in a regular—and I mean weekly—Bible study group and/or a Sunday School Class? There—at least I see more hands! Those times are also incredibly valuable for hearing the voice of the Good Shepherd. Often times, Jesus will speak to us through someone who knows us best. When we get involved in a study group or Sunday School class, we get to know each other on a more personal basis. We never know when God may pick out someone in that group to give you a word you need to hear, you WANT to hear, a message that just brings home to you God’s love, God’s grace, or maybe even God’s CALL! You never know.
You didn’t see too many hands raised to those questions, did you? In preparation for Rev. Hixson’s coming—we have about two months—I encourage you to get out your Bibles and start reading, especially in the Gospels. Listen to what Jesus says. Watch how Jesus ministers to people, how he demonstrates God’s love, God’s grace, how Jesus reaches out to others and shows compassion especially to those who were considered outcasts in his day. Pray over those messages. Where is God leading YOU? Where is God leading Trinity? Where is the voice of the Good Shepherd calling us to pull together and reach out? Think of it as spiritual inhaling and exhaling. We breathe in to draw ourselves together and share with each other what we hear from the voice of the Good Shepherd. We breathe out to take that call and reach out to the community around us. 
No pastor can do it alone because we are all dumb sheep, too! We have to be listening for the voice of the Good Shepherd and sometimes that voice comes through the congregation. Sometimes it doesn’t! Sometimes it’s a word that challenges the congregation. Sometimes it’s a word the congregation doesn’t want to hear. But if we dumb sheep are going to be faithful to the Good Shepherd, we have to share that word, whatever it may be! Hopefully, we will hear—and LISTEN—to the voice of the Good Shepherd no matter which dumb sheep it comes through. Again, there is only ONE Good Shepherds who has laid down his life for his sheep.
No pastor will do that. We might give a lot. We try really hard. But, at best, we are like the hired hand Jesus talked about. We have to be careful because, sometimes, among the flock are wolves in sheep’s clothing. Just because someone says something, it doesn’t mean it is coming from the Good Shepherd. That’s why we have to know our Bible that much more—so we can tell what may be coming from Jesus and what may be coming from someone else’s will or desire. That’s our responsibility. No one can do that for us. 
Jesus hasn’t stopped talking. Sometimes we have stopped listening. We haven’t given him the time or the space. You know, even if you come to church on a regular basis and listen to the preacher’s sermon—whoever the preacher may be—even if you are here every week, that adds up to 0.2% of your time in an average week. So, how much can any preacher get across in only 0.2% of your time? That’s why it is so important to be listening for the Good Shepherd in reading your Bibles, in opening yourselves in prayer, in reaching out to each other. It doesn’t work any other way. Amen.
 
 
 
April 15, 2018

You Are Witnesses                                                    [Luke 24:36-48] 
          36 While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, "Peace be with you." 37 They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost.
38 He said to them, "Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? 39 Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have." 40 And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet.
41 While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, "Have you anything here to eat?" 42 They gave him a piece of broiled fish, 43 and he took it and ate in their presence. 44 Then he said to them, "These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you--that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled."
45 Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, 46 and he said to them, "Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, 47 and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things.”

Luke was writing to a predominantly Gentile audience and Luke himself was probably the only Gentile author in the Bible. For his Gentile audience, resurrection was not exactly believable. Not because they believed it was impossible for a body to come back to life but because the idea was ridiculous and made no sense.

If Luke was writing for a fairly educated audience, the common teaching of that time was that there were two worlds—and this all came from the philosopher Plato: there was a perfect world in the universe of ideas off in the heavens someplace, a perfect world ruled by a perfect god; and then there was a material world, an imperfect world, THIS world. This world was created by a being they called the demiurge, a semi-divine being that was slightly less than god and less perfect than god. This being created this imperfect world which was an imperfect image of the perfect, ideal world.

Just to give an example, we have a number of pews here in our sanctuary. In Plato’s thought, in the perfect world, the spiritual world, there was a perfect idea of a pew—THE perfect pew. Maybe the angle of the seat-back was just right or it was all comfortably padded or maybe it even reclined and had a footrest that popped up! It was PERFECT pew! But all the pews in this imperfect world, no matter where you might go, whatever church you might attend, all these pews were only imperfect copies of the PERFECT pew—and that’s all we will ever have, no matter how hard we might try to imitate the perfect pew. This was Greek philosophy from Plato.

Now where it breaks down a little bit is when we get to human beings. Everything else in this world is an imperfect copy of the ideals from the perfect world. As human beings, we have a divine spark in us, our immortal soul, but that soul is TRAPPED in a physical, material body. You know what bodies are like: bodies grow old, bodies have infirmities, bodies suffer illnesses, and bodies DIE! But in Plato’s thought, death was a GOOD thing because once the body died, the immortal soul was set free to follow the guidance of the divine spark to go from this imperfect material world to the perfect, perfect world in the heavens to be with god. You can see how that kind of thought eventually crept into the church on little Greek bishops’ feet in the early years of the church! But it isn’t biblical!

The problem the Gentiles had with resurrection was—now think about this because it actually makes some sense—if your immortal soul has been set free from the prison of a mortal body in this imperfect world to go up to the perfect world, who in their right mind would come back here? Who would want to have their immortal soul come back into a material body and return to this imperfect world? It was ridiculous. It made no sense! This was one of the hurdles the early Christians had in preaching the gospel of Jesus’ resurrection to Gentiles, particularly educated Gentiles. This is why Paul often talks about Jesus’ death and resurrection as being a scandal to the Jews and foolishness to the Greeks! It WAS a foolish thought: once you have escaped, you don’t come back! Someone who escapes from prison doesn’t come walking back through the main gates!

Now the Gentiles could understand the idea of a great moral, theological, or philosophical teacher dying for his beliefs. Plato’s own teacher Socrates, if you know the story, was accused and found guilty of treason by an Athenian court and was forced to drink poison Hemlock and died. There is nowhere in Plato’s writing, nowhere in Greek philosophical thought, that three days later Socrates coughed up the poison and strolled out of his tomb! It doesn’t happen! So this idea of resurrection made no sense to some of the readers of Luke’s Gospel.

Luke couches his story we read this morning very carefully for his Gentile audience. All those little details of the story are there for their ears to hear. Ghosts were not uncommon in folklore, both Jewish and Gentile folklore. The idea of a ghost appearing—how many times in the gospels do we have the disciples thinking when Jesus appeared, like walking on the water, “It is a GHOST!”—was a common thought in that day. Gentiles could have understood a ghost, an immortal soul that kind of lost its way, was lacking a GPS system to get it to the perfect world and got stuck here for a little while. But then Jesus does something that ghosts don’t do: he eats a piece of fish. No, this is Jesus alive in the FLESH, in a body again.

Greek mythology allowed for the gods to take on human form temporarily for certain events and instances. So maybe Jesus is God or a god who took on human form only temporarily but really wasn’t fully in the flesh. But Luke says that Jesus showed them his hands and his feet with the nail prints still there and fresh. Gods don’t have SCARS when they take on human form. Gods, when they take on human form, usually take on perfect human form, not a form that has been brutally executed!

Luke had to make perfectly clear to his readers that this good news is good news of resurrection and what it means for our whole world and all of creation. You see, folks, so much of that Greek philosophy has crept into even what the church teaches that we tend to think that this life is only temporary and that when this mortal life ends, our immortal souls fly off someplace. It sounds good! If you are rich, powerful, and successful, it has that nice little reminder not to get too proud of yourself, to keep humble, because you can’t take it with you and life is temporary. Likewise, if you were born to misfortune and are poor, struggling, or suffering, don’t worry about it, life is short and when it is over, you fly off to the perfect world. That is not exactly biblical—but it’s good Platonic philosophy!

God’s goal, God’s purpose, is not to rescue a few souls for heaven. What resurrection is all about—don’t miss this—why God sent Jesus Christ, sent him to the cross, and raised him from the dead, is to redeem THIS world, THIS imperfect world, THIS material world. All those things that the Greek philosophers said are wrong with this world, God says, “I’m going to fix,” and it begins with Jesus’ resurrection—in the flesh, in a body, in a body like ours with scars that eats fish! God’s Kingdom has been inaugurated in that moment of resurrection.

When Jesus called his disciples to be witnesses to these things, he was giving them and us an incredible, powerful, world-shaking, world-changing story to tell. It’s NOT just a story of God rescuing some immortal souls so we can go to heaven when we die! Now, there is some comfort in that idea but think of heaven as God’s waiting room. We go there and read some old magazines until the day that Jesus returns in bodily form to bring in the fullness of God’s Kingdom and heaven and earth are reunited, when all the brokenness of this world is healed, when all the dead are raised up again into new and eternal BODIES—resurrected, alive, and living life the way God always intended God’s creation to be.

THAT’s how radical the message of the Gospel is! That’s why as witnesses we challenge the brokenness in THIS world. We are NOT to escape it but to work together on FIXING it! We are to work on witnessing the reality of God’s Kingdom against the brokenness of this world. That’s why Jesus calls us to love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength and to love our neighbors—and there a ABSOLUTELY, CATEGORICALLY NO RESTRICTION ON WHAT NEIGHBOR MEANS! It means that if you are a Democrat, you have to love Republicans! If you are a Republican, you have to love Democrats! There is no choice here, if you are a Christian! If you are an American, you have to love the Russians and the North Koreans! You have to love your enemies as much as your friends as much as your family.

That’s the witness we offer the world because of Christ’s resurrection! Anything less than that and we are turning great good news into: eh, alright news; eh, a religion; eh, just go to church and continue life the way it is—no big deal—and when your heart stops beating, you go off to read some old magazines! God has SO MUCH more for us than that! So much more purpose for our lives; so much more for our church in witness to our community and our world. So much more than just sitting around twiddling our thumbs until God calls us home.

 

Believe in Jesus’ resurrection but—even more importantly—LIVE the meaning of Jesus’ resurrection. Live the witness of what that means in your life, among your family, here in this church, and especially in this community. YOU ARE HIS WITNESSES! Amen.

 
April 1, 2018
 

A New World                                        [Mark 16: 1-8]                                       April 1, 2018

1 When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him.  2 And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb.  3 They had been saying to one another, "Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?"  4 When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back.  5 As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed.  6 But he said to them, "Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him.  7 But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you."  8 So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to any one, for they were afraid.

 

This particular gospel account in Mark’s gospel is the shortest of the resurrection stories.  It is curious in that there is a missing character in this story:  Jesus never appears in Mark’s account.  I know there are additional verses to Mark 16 but most biblical scholars believe that this is how Mark ended his gospel—with these 8 verses of chapter 16.  It sounds like an incomplete story.  The women got up early, early, early on Sunday morning and they gathered together the spices to finish the burial preparations for Jesus’ body.   Jesus had to be buried quickly on Friday as the sun was setting and the Sabbath, the Passover Sabbath, was about to begin so the women were not about to complete the preparations for Jesus burial.  Of course, they couldn’t do anything on Saturday because that was the Sabbath.  They weren’t allowed to do anything that passed for work on the Sabbath, including preparing a body for burial.  So here they were, bright and early on Sunday morning just as dawn was breaking, making their journey out to the tomb. 

You can imagine the sorrow which was weighing upon them as they made that journey.  As they came near to the tomb, they began to wonder how they would access the tomb as the mouth of the tomb was covered and sealed with a big round stone.  But as they arrived, they saw that the stone had already been rolled away.  The tomb was open—which didn’t exactly give them a whole lot of reassurance!  But when they looked into the tomb, they saw this person in a white robe, sitting where Jesus’ body had been.  This angel gave them a message:  “Do not be afraid!  You are looking for Jesus who was buried here.  He is risen!  God has raised him from the dead!  Go and tell his disciples that Jesus will meet them again in Galilee.”

Now, I don’t know how you might react to a message like that.  Imagine going out to a cemetery to visit the grave of a loved one and instead meet up with an angel who tells you, “Hey, everything is alright!  It’s good!  God is in charge!  God is raising the dead to new and eternal life!  And it begins with Jesus!”

The story ends with these women, leaving the tomb, still terrified, afraid to say anything to anybody—and Mark ends the story there!  An empty tomb, an angelic message, and the witness of the women—who aren’t spreading the word to anybody.  Why would Mark end his story there?  I think there is an answer!

Mark’s gospel was almost certainly the first one of the four to be written.  According to most of the biblical scholars, it was probably written between 65 and 70 AD—about 40 years after the events it describes.  I would like to date it more specifically to 69 AD.  I have no basis for this dating—other than the argument I am about to make here.

Mark was in Rome and writing for the Christians in Rome, many of whom had come out of Judaism and were now Jewish Christians.  And he was writing in very turbulent times!  Mark had been Peter’s co-worker and was probably telling Peter’s story in his gospel.

Back in Palestine, as Mark was writing his gospel account of Jesus, the Jewish people had rebelled against Rome.  They had launched the revolt believing God would intervene; God would bring in his kingdom; and God would finally get rid of the Romans from Palestine.  All of Palestine was in an uproar but the situation was getting worse.  Already, a Roman army under the command of a great general named Vespasian had reconquered Galilee and most of Judea.  They were now besieging Jerusalem itself.  The faithful still believed God would intervene in the midst of all of this turmoil, war, and unrest.  Word had gotten back to the Christians, particularly the Jewish Christians, in Rome about what was happening in Palestine.

If that isn’t enough turbulence for you, let me add something else:  in the mid-60s in Rome there had been a little fire!  Maybe you heard about this in the history books.  Much of Rome had burned to the ground, possibly at the initiation of Nero the emperor who wanted to rebuild the city in his image so he practiced his own form of “urban renewal” using fire instead of bulldozers.  As Nero began rebuilding the city, he blamed the fire on the Christians.  This wasn’t an empire-wide persecution.  It was limited to the Christians in the city of Rome itself.  There are some horrible stories of how Nero dunked Christians in pitch and lit them on fire to light his garden at night.  This was part of the experience Mark had witnessed in Rome!  During that time, also, Peter and Paul were executed by Rome in Rome.  Two of the great leaders of the early church were put to death 4 to 5 years before Mark wrote his gospel.

Is that enough turbulence for you?  I have something else!  In this same time frame, 68 and 69 AD, the Roman aristocrats finally got fed up with Nero and decided they would overthrow him as emperor.  Nero caught wind of their plot and tried to escape.  He got out of the city and toward the coast when the posse from the aristocrats caught up with him.  To keep from being taken alive, he asked one of his servants to kill him.  So Nero died.  One of the aristocrats proclaimed himself emperor—and a short time later was assassinated.  Another aristocrat proclaimed HIMself emperor but the other aristocrats didn’t care for him either.  They sent word to Vespasian besieging Jerusalem, asking him to come back to Rome and take the throne as emperor.  Vespasian left his army under the command of his son, Titus, and returned to Rome to be crowned emperor.  That’s four emperors in ONE year!  It’s called the Year of the Four Emperors in history. 

Can you imagine if our country went through four presidents in one year, what that would do to our confidence and undermine our faith in our government?  That’s what Rome was experiencing and Mark was writing his gospel right in the middle of it all!

The next year Titus would succeed in capturing Jerusalem.  One of the first things he did was to ransack the Temple and take all of the religious items treasured by the Jewish people.  He claimed them as spoils of war and there is an arch in Rome that has a carving of Titus and his troops returning to Rome in triumph carrying these items.  It’s called the Arch of Titus and I’ve seen it!  The Temple would be destroyed completely and it hasn’t been rebuilt since.  Jerusalem was leveled at the same time.

Mark was writing his gospel when the world he knew was coming apart at its seams.  Palestine and Jerusalem were on the verge of complete destruction.  The Jewish people would be dispersed and reduced to slavery.  Rome was in the midst of the Year of the Four Emperors with assassinations and killings.  The church was under some threat of persecution having lost two of its great leaders.  ALL of this was going on while Mark was writing his gospel and if you read his gospel carefully, he’s not talking about turbulence.  He’s writing about the coming of God’s Kingdom into the midst of this unsettled world! 

Mark writes the story of how God’s Kingdom power was at work through Jesus to heal the sick, to cast out demons, to raise the dead, to still the storms, and to feed the multitudes with food only heaven could have provided.  Little by little, step by step, not in one big sudden mass, God’s Kingdom was being infused into the world, slowly and gradually by Jesus.

When we get to his story of the resurrection, Mark leaves it open-ended because, certainly in Mark’s mind, he expected Jesus to return soon to complete the job, to bring in God’s Kingdom in its fullness.  I’m sure he never expected us to be here almost 2,000 years later talking about what he had written, talking with our hopes still fixed on the Jesus who died to bring healing to this broken world, the Jesus who has been raised to restore life in the face of death.  But this is Mark’s story:  to leave it open-ended because in the midst of the turbulence and confusion of our lives, Jesus IS RISEN!  Jesus IS ALIVE!  And Jesus IS WITH US!

In the face of all the deaths we suffer, whether it’s the physical deaths of our loved ones, or the deaths and griefs we experience as our lives take a sudden and unexpected change in course; the deaths we experience when our families may not quite work out the way we had hoped.  JESUS IS RISEN!  Jesus is alive!  Jesus is with us!

When we look at the turbulence in our society and in our world, when people just can’t seem to get along anymore, when we get so locked up in our own opinions and thoughts that we can’t even have a civil conversation with someone else who is so locked up in his or her own opinions and thoughts, when we are divided politically, racially, by class, by division, division, division, JESUS IS RISEN!  Jesus is alive!  Jesus is here with us to raise us up, to heal us, to make us whole!

Yeah, that’s a scary message to share these days—not because the world needs to hear it but because we are afraid that the world WON’T hear it, will reject it, and reject us.  Mark may not record it but we know that those women DID eventually that day go and tell the disciples.  We know that soon after, they all saw Jesus for themselves, risen, alive, and with them.

So, folks, I can stand here with all confidence and tell you that whatever challenges life may be dealing you, whatever fears, whatever concerns, whatever brokenness you may be dealing with in your life.  THIS resurrection is for you!  Jesus is alive for YOU!  Jesus is risen today for YOU!  And Jesus will be with you always.  He will never desert you.

That’s the rest of Mark’s story.  That’s our story.  That is what Resurrection Sunday is all about!  We are welcomed into a whole new world!  The old world is dead and buried.  The new world of God’s Kingdom is even now growing amongst us, throughout our world, slowly, steadily, and surely because Jesus IS here!  Amen.

 

March 25, 2018
 

Nothing                                                 [Mark 11:1-11]                                      March 25, 2018

1 When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples 2 and said to them, "Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it.  3 If anyone says to you, 'Why are you doing this?' just say this, 'The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.'"

4 They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, 5 some of the bystanders said to them, "What are you doing, untying the colt?"  6 They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it.

7 Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it.  8 Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields.  9 Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting, "Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!  10 Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!"

11 Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.

 

My message this morning is about expectations that come to nothing.  I want to begin by telling a little story.  It’s a story that happened 39 years ago around this time, give or take a week or two.  I was a junior at the University of Pennsylvania.  That year the University of Pennsylvania’s basketball team made the NCAA tournament.  The campus was a little excited about the upcoming games—but not too much because the Ivy League champion has a guaranteed seed but is usually out in the first round.  Our teams just weren’t that good by comparison.

That year, Penn played Iona University in the first round—and won!  This was the old format where, instead of 64 teams, there were only 48 teams in the tournament.  Each region had 12 teams and the top 4 teams had a first-round bye so there weren’t any big upsets in the first round like there are in today’s tournament.

Penn had won their first-round game so that meant they got to play the top seeded University of North Carolina Tar Heels, with Dean Smith as their legendary coach.  And the game was going to be played in Charlotte, North Carolina!  Talk about home field advantage.  Sunday afternoon rolled around and Penn was playing the first game against North Carolina.  The second game in Charlotte featured another relative small school, St. John’s University, and they got to play Duke.  We all believed that the seedings had been set up in that region to guarantee a final game between Duke and North Carolina to see who got to go to the Final Four.

On this particular Sunday afternoon Penn played North Carolina.  They played their hearts out.  And when the game was over, Penn had DEFEATED the mighty North Carolina Tar Heels.  You can imagine that the campus got a little more focused on the Penn basketball team!  Following that upset, you would think that the Duke players, warming up, would be aware to guard against their own possible upset.  St. John’s beat Duke.  In North Carolina, they still call that day “Black Sunday.”

We had almost a week to prepare for the next round, the Sweet Sixteen.  Penn had another tough challenge to face.  They were playing the Syracuse University Orangemen and they had a 7-foot tall center named Roosevelt Bouie—and Penn did not have anyone that tall!  We kept our excitement under some control because we had already had our big upset so we were hedging our bets against Syracuse.  We would be alright if we lost.

Penn beat Syracuse!  Not only that but St. John’s won their Sweet Sixteen game also.  So to play for the Final Four Penn played St. John’s and WON!  Penn was going to the Final Four!  The mighty Penn QUAKERS?—there’s a name that really intimidated the opposition!  We had a whole week to prepare for that next big game.  There were pep rallies on campus.  Everyone was excited and wearing our red and blue school colors.  B.F. Goodrich tire company even made up red and blue striped ties for the basketball team.  On the blue stripes was written in small white letters, “We’re the other guys.”  People were still mistaking Penn for Penn State.  Penn State has never been to the Final Four.  Penn has!

We were all excited!  The campus was all agog with the idea that Penn could actually WIN this this thing!  And we were all stocking up with chips, dips, and beverages ready to watch 40 minutes of exciting basketball!

Now I need to tell you about the other three teams in the Final Four that year.  One was from DePaul University, from near Chicago, and they had a great player named Mark Aguirre who played in the NBA for several years.  Penn didn’t get to play DePaul.  One of the other teams was a team that rarely got much attention for their basketball program.  They were from Indiana—but not the great Indiana University coached by the legendary Bobby Knight—but Indiana STATE University.  They had this blonde-haired kid from French Lick, Indiana who had caught the media’s attention because he could shoot the lights out.  You might have heard of him:  his name was Larry Bird.  We didn’t get to play Indiana State either.  The last team in the Final Four were the Michigan State Spartans—Big 10!  And they had a guy on their team you might have heard of:  his name was Earvin Johnson.  Even then he had the nickname “Magic” because of what he could do with a basketball! 

The tip off between Penn and Michigan State came—and five minutes later the game was as good as over.  All that happened during that game was:  Magic Johnson tosses the ball to Greg Kelser—another outstanding Michigan State player—who slam-dunks!  Magic Johnson brings the ball down, takes the shot, and SWISH!  Magic Johnson steals the ball from one of the Penn players, goes down the court, and lays it in!  In five minutes the game was over.  The score was running up fast for Michigan State while Penn was hardly scoring anything.  To top it all off, Penn’s best player, Tony Price, had 3 fouls on him before the first-half was half over and spent the rest of the half on the bench.  At the start of the second half, he quickly picked up his fourth foul.  So our best player spent much of the game watching it instead of playing.  When the game was actually over—and some of us stuck it out and watched the whole 40 minutes of the disaster—Penn had lost by 40 points.  Michigan State scored over 100 and Penn just over 60.

If you want to talk about expectations that came to nothing, that’s what happened to us as we watched that game in March of 1979.  We had built up our hopes, our dreams, our expectations SO HIGH that we believed upset could lead to upset all the way to an NCAA championship.  But instead, Penn lost one of the most lop-sided Final Four games in the history of the tournament.  That’s the way life is sometimes.

That’s also why I like this passage from Mark’s gospel describing Palm Sunday.  The other gospels don’t approach the story the same way but I believe Mark has it right.  Imagine you are one of those people in Jerusalem on that day.  For generations, your people have been waiting for Messiah to come, hoping that, on that day, Messiah will call down God’s angels and set your people free from foreign oppressive rule—in this case the Romans.  Here on this great day, leading into one of the holiest weeks in Judaism, Passover, here comes Jesus riding into the city surrounded by his followers.  They are shouting, “Hosanna!  Hosanna!  Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!  Hosanna to the kingdom of our father David!  Hosanna to the Son of David!”  Now, Son of David was about as messianic as you could get in terms of titles.

The crowd began to gather from among the people of Jerusalem.  THIS is IT!  The BIG day!  They came out and lined the road leading into the city; they lined the road leading up to the Temple; they started throwing down their outer garments to cushion the ride for Jesus on the donkey; they threw down palm branches and waved palm branches as the excitement continued to build and build and build! 

Surely, when Jesus arrived at the Temple, he would climb the steps and there proclaim, “The Kingdom of God has come!”  And everything would break loose!  The Romans would be run out of the city and run out of Palestine.  God’s people would be restored to their rightful place.  The Temple would be the center of the world as the nations came to worship God there while Messiah Jesus ruled over all!

Imagine what it must have felt like to be among that crowd, watching this all take place, even joining your voice to the cheers of Jesus’ disciples and followers!   Jesus went to the Temple, went up the stairs, and, as Mark puts it, “eh, he looked around and, as it was getting late, turned to his disciples and said, ‘Let’s go, guys, back out to Bethany.’” 

WHAT?!  REALLY!  NOTHING else?  Where is the Kingdom?  Why are we still stuck with the Romans?  What has gone WRONG?  That’s what Palm Sunday is all about!  Those expectations of the people coming to NOTHING because God had a bigger and better plan that the people could not understand!

Folks, it’s no different for us.  It’s so easy for us to get caught up in our expectations.  Sometimes they are expectations we have imported from the world.  We EXPECT to be powerful people in control of our lives.  We EXPECT to be—well, maybe not rich but—comfortable!  We EXPECT to be respected for our piety, our faithfulness.

But God has a different set of expectations.  You see, for God, power is NOT measured by how many votes you can get or by how many missiles or nuclear warheads you have.  Power is not measured by the size of the army, the size of the nation, or the size of the population.  Power is measured by the amount of LOVE we have for God and for each other and for all of our neighbors.  That’s God’s expectation for us.

Success and wealth are not measured by how much we have but by how much we are willing to give away.  To give where we see others in need as a show of our love.  To give as volunteers wherever we can help somebody else out.  To give out of our talents, our abilities, our spiritual gifts to expand the message of Jesus’ Kingdom.

And piety isn’t the measure of our faith.  Our faith is measured by our willingness to seek out, to love, and to win the hearts of the lost.

One of the dangerous expectations that has taken over much of the church in this country is what I like to call the “Field of Dreams” expectation.  If you know the movie, this is the “If you build it, they will come.”  We have built so many church buildings in this country.  We have churches everywhere; churches on almost every street corner; big mega churches out in the fields around our cities.  Churches, churches, churches!  All so the lost can come!  But if they are lost, how will they ever find their way?

God’s expectation is for us to partner with Jesus to FIND the lost.  Not to wait for the lost to come to US but to go out and find the lost where THEY are, in whatever situation they find themselves, so we can show the power of love and the wealth of what God has given us to help them and lead them homeward—to grow God’s Kingdom according to God’s plan and not according to the expectations of the crowd on Palm Sunday.

If your expectations are shaped by the world, I will guarantee you they will come to nothing because “you can’t take it with you.”  If your expectations are shaped by just keeping the church operating as an institution, frankly, the world doesn’t need us.  But if your expectations are focused on growing the Kingdom of God with the love and compassion of Jesus Christ, WELCOME TO HOLY WEEK!  Amen.