Rev. Bethany Peerbolte
August 11, 2019
Genesis 18:1-16; Matthew 25:35-40
Biblical interpretation is a serious matter. Differing methods have caused churches to fracture. Learning the various methods is a first year requirement in seminary. It’s the first step your pastors take each week on the journey towards a sermon.
One of the methods I find particularly helpful is to look at what actions God cherishes and what actions God despises. I figure if I can live my life in a way that leans towards the cherished actions, I’m doing pretty good. Matthew 25 is a treasure chest of cherished behaviors. Feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, welcoming the stranger, visiting the prisoner. All these actions are so cherished by God that God says Thank you to the people who have done these things. The people are confused because they don’t remember doing these things for God but God tells them if you did them for ANYBODY you did them for me. It’s a big deal God saying thank you.
This week we are looking at welcoming the stranger. Before we get to the old testament text I want to visit a town with you. This town had it all, safety, plenty of food and water, plenty of space. It was a great place to live. One day a few friends show up in town wanting to see the greatness for themselves. They are strangers but one man welcomes them into his home. Soon the welcoming man’s neighbors hear about the strangers. They become fearful. They worry there is not enough room in the town for the strangers, They fear there is not enough food, or jobs, that the strangers may be dangerous. They worry the strangers will bring more people to their town, more strangers. Their fear grows and grows until the whole town is convinced the only solution is to rape and kill the strangers. That will send a clear message to anyone else wanting to join their community that they are not welcome. The town marches to the welcoming man’s door and demand he send the strangers out.
The man who welcomed the strangers refuses but the town insists. As their violent intent grows they miss the clouds forming over head. The name of that town…Sodom. Sodom’s sin was inhospitality. They had plenty. They could offer a welcome to these strangers but their fear lead them to a ruinous end. This story tells us that God despises inhospitality.
Hospitality is important to God because for most of their existence God’s people have depended on the kind welcome of others. They wander in wildernesses, they leave homes, flee for their lives, follow rabbis on a whim. God’s people depend on the faithfulness of God and the welcome of strangers to survive. God will always provide faithfulness but humanity does not always follow through with their welcome.
In our first lesson today we find Abraham and Sarah in the wilderness. God asked them to leave the comfortable home they cared for and cultivated for a life on the road. They have depended on the kindness of strangers to keep them alive and healthy. When Abraham sees these strangers outside his tent he is elated. Finally he is in a position to offer welcome to strangers. To give back to others what he has received. He has some extra food and water, he has room for them to rest. He doesn’t take a single moment to question the action he jumps at the opportunity to offer a stranger his welcome.
Abraham does not know who these men are. We know because scripture gives us a spoiler that the Lord was near and these are probably angels. Abraham does not know that. But not knowing everything about these men does not cause him to spiral into fear and worry. He does not worry about who they are, he does not worry if they have weapons, or if they are high or drunk. He does not question if they are there legally or if there are 100 others on the other side of the mountain who will also want food and water, Or if they will take advantage of his welcome and use the resources offered appropriately. All Abraham knows is that he has enough and can be a blessing to these strangers.
Well Abraham does know one other thing: he knows God has asked him to be a blessing to others. So when he sees people and he sees his full packs he does not hesitate to offer the welcome he knows God cherishes. He does not let the fear that Sodom had take hold in his heart. That does not mean he was completely unafraid but his faith in God gave him the strength to choose courageous hospitality over fear.
And the most amazing thing happens. The prayer that Sarah and Abraham have been praying for years, their cries to God to send a child are finally answered. These strangers say to them you will have a child. Now Sarah laughs at this because she can see how outrageous their claim is. She has been praying for a child for decades. She has offered every offering imaginable, put together every pattern of words in her pleas to God. She has tried trust, she has tried schemes, she has tried everything to get a child, but no child has been granted. And now she gives one cup of tea to these strangers from who knows where and that is going to tip the scales. Yeah Right! Well it is. This moment of welcome is the moment God chooses to announce she will be blessed with a baby. God cherishes welcoming strangers. This story reminds us that welcoming the stranger means something to God, it get’s God’s attention and warms God’s heart. Welcoming the stranger is worth choosing courage over fear.
A common ice breaker, which you may have been asked at some point, is “if your house was on fire what one thing would you rescue.” This question is designed to get at the core of our values, do we get the iphone or Grandma’s quilted blanket. Unfortunately for many in Paradise California they did not even have the luxury of grabbing one item. You may remember last year the wild fires spread so quickly, thousands were evacuated within minutes of their houses being consumed. The nearby town of Chico was spared. And in their relief and broken hearts for their neighbors Chico welcomed in nearly 20,000 people. They offered lower prices for houses, apartments, hotel rooms. They gave free food to people with Paradise addresses on their license. The town rallied around the displaced strangers with an overwhelming welcome.
One year later, fear is taking hold of the original residents and burning away their welcome. Each time their favorite restaurant is full and they can’t get a table, the fire of fear burns away a little more of their welcome. As housing prices rise, the fear takes another acre of their hospitality. Do the police and fire departments seem to be responding slower? The fire spreads farther. Have you seen how many of THEM are sleeping in the park? The fire rages on. Inch by inch their welcome is burned away by fear. Even though their officials and city planners say the town is great! The economy is up, infrastructure is being funded, housing has been approved, crime is down. Every measurable point says Chico is thriving, but the fire of fear is hard to put out. Sodom knows that very well.
Chico could be anywhere. I feel annoyed handing out yet another blessing bag on the same corner every week. The church gets calls from people in need constantly and having to pick and choose who the church can help quickly extinguishes even the most giving of spirits. I fear what will really happen to the money I give out. It is hard to choose courageous welcome in the face of these fears. And yet….it is what God cherishes.
To help us find a channel for our desire to welcome the stranger I invited Ben Ogden to join us today. Ben is the director of the Welcome Inn and has on the ground experience in welcoming strangers. What does the program do? Why is it needed and who does it serve?) How has it helped (a success or feel good story)? How can our people help?
The Rev. Dr. John Judson
August 4, 2019
2 Kings 2:19-22; Matthew 25:31-40
April 25, 2014 was an ordinary day, just like the days that had come before and days that would come after. The news was filled with stories that never seem to go away. Secretary of State Kerry was warning Russia about its incursion into and activity in Ukraine with pro-Russian separatists. The number of measles cases had hit a nineteen-year high. President Obama was pledging that the United States would support South Korea if the North developed nuclear weapons. And Israel ended Peace talks with the Palestinians. Nothing really old or new. Except there was one event that no one noticed, that did not make the headlines until years later. That was the city of Flint Michigan, at the order of their Emergency Manager, switched its water source from the Detroit Water System to water from the Flint River. The Manager knew that the water was corrosive. He ordered it anyway. He was aware that spending one-hundred dollars a day on chemicals could solve the corrosion problem. But that was not part of the order. Just switch. And that single decision would cause the water for hundreds of thousands of people to become unusable, and cause lead poisoning in thousands of children.
Water is the essence of life. While a person can live three weeks without food, a person can only survive three days without water. And there are two ways in which water has played a key role in scripture and in the world. The first is that without it crops will not grow and people and livestock will die. Civilizations rise and fall because of water or a lack of it. Extended drought during the depression in the great plains caused more than two-million people to flee to California. Drought was probably the cause of the end of the Mayan civilization and the great mega-drought of the 1500s forced several Native American tribes in the southwest to migrate. Drought was at the heart of our Elijah story last week because it was what forced him to leave Israel and go to Zarephath. The second way in which water plays a role is in its being unhealthy to drink. In the world today there are more than seven-hundred and eighty-million people do not have access to clean water. Their water, if they have any, is infected with bacteria and microorganisms that cause a host of diseases that claim the lives of more than eight-hundred-thousand children under the age of five every year. As we know from Flint, many people are still afraid to drink from their taps. This reality of unclean water is also at the center of our Old Testament text. The people have water but evidently it is making people and animals ill and killing crops. So where do they turn?
They turned to Elisha the prophet. They asked him to do something about their water because it was bad both for them and for the land. I have to say that this is an interesting choice as to who might deal with their water problem. Elisha was a prophet whose task it was to call the people back to faithfulness in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. He was supposed to be focused on spiritual, ethical and moral obligations. Yet Elisha healed the waters. No one is sure what he actually did, yet the memory remind that through the man of God, God made the waters wholesome. God once again made the water life-sustaining. And it is that sense that God desires all human beings to be sustained by the waters God created. That is at the heart of Jesus statement that you serve the least of these when you give a cup of life-sustaining water to one who thirsts. It is an affirmation once again that God cares not only for the souls, but for the bodies of God’s children. And so, where do people around the world turn for this cup of water; for clean and abundant water? Some of them turn to us, to the Presbytery of Detroit for help. I want to invite Tim Ngare up to tell us about how we participate in giving this cup of water.
East Africa is one of the areas most affected by a lack of available clean water. In Kenya, two of the rural areas most affected are Kwa Mukasa and Kitui. The situation in both locations is that water is scarce most of the year. The rivers and streams dry up soon after the rainy season. This forces the women in the villages to walk up to ten kilometers to obtain water. They must do this several days a week. Because the women are seeking water, it means that the children must look after each other, thus preventing them from going to school. It also means that women are not able to assist in the fields, with the livestock or with creating their own small businesses. In addition, the water that they obtain is often unclean, which causes all the people of the village to become ill. The Presbytery of Detroit decided to do something about this by creating the Thika Water Project within the village of Kwa Mukasa. They raised money from the Presbytery’s budget as well as individuals and congregations to build a well. Our First Foundation, created by gifts from members of our congregation, donated $10,000 or almost 20% of the cost of the well. The well is so expensive because to reach water, the well needs to drill as deep as 300 meters. Once water was struck, a pump house was built, a holding tank put on the roof, solar panels and an electric generator were installed, and the water began flowing. The water has improved the health of the community (as one community leader put it...our children no longer get sick), allowed for community gardens, the expansion of schooling opportunities (a new intermediate school was built, and a high school is planned) and many of the women are starting a home based businesses to bring in money for their families. Currently the Thika team has raised most of the money for the second well at Kitui, again with a $10,000 donation from First Foundation.
If you would like to assist with this project, which includes not only the well, but many ancillary projects such as piping to the schools and gardens, books for the new schools and assistance with well-upkeep, you can make a check to First Presbyterian Church and simply put Thika Water Project in the memo line. In this way you will be a partner in changing people’s lives by offering the thirsty a cup of water.
The Rev. Dr. John Judson
July 28, 2019
1 Kings 17:7-16; Matthew 25:35-40
I want to begin this morning with a poll. You can respond by simply raising your hand. First, how many of you had dinner last night? Second, how many of you had breakfast this morning? Third, how many of you still have food in your pantry. Finally, how many of you have access to a close-by grocery store? Your polling results show that you are food sufficient and so probably would have a difficult time fully relating to our morning’s story in 1 Kings.
As a reminder, this story is part of the Prophet Elijah cycle of stories. As this story begins,Elijah has been hiding to save his life. He is hiding because the King and Queen of Israel have essentially put out “Wanted Dead or Alive…Preferably Dead” posters. While he hides, a severe drought has enfolded the nation. He survived by drinking water from a wadi and getting his meals from ravens…long story. Finally, though the wadi dried up and he was forced to leave. Following God’s instructions, he headed to a local town to meet a widow who would feed him. When he arrived and asked for food, the widow told him that she had only enough meal for herself and her son, and that when that was gone, they would starve because there is no more food. What this meant, was that Elijah was at risk of starving as well. For most of us, the thought of starving to death is simply not on our radar. Yet in the ancient world, starvation was always near at hand. It was part of life. All it took to unleash hunger and starvation was a drought, a plague of locusts or a foreign army taking crops and livestock. But for us, with ready access to food, this story probably doesn’t resonate…yet it would probably resonate with more than forty-million people in the United States.
I say this because forty-million Americans struggle to have enough food to feed their families. Fifteen million are what the government calls food insecure, which means that they are not sure where their next meal is coming from. One in six children in this nation do not know where their next meal is coming from and those children have higher rates of asthma, depression, anxiety and do more poorly in school. Though there is a higher percentage of households with children that suffer from food insecurity, still one-in-ten working adults struggles with hunger. Through a combination of rising rents, higher foods costs, lack of medical coverage and low wages, food is often the last thing to be paid for. And just a note, food insecurity is not simply an inner-city problem. There are higher rates of food insecurity in rural areas than in urban areas and the suburbs are quickly catching up. What this means is that the hungry are all around us. So as followers of Jesus, what are we supposed to do?
The answer simply is to help to feed them, because this is what God does. Whether it is God sending Jacob’s family to Egypt to avoid starvation. Or God feeding the people in the wilderness. Or Jesus feeding the 5,000. God’s desire is for people to be fed. And this is the outcome of the story this morning from 1 Kings. Elijah tells the woman to have courage, and if she is willing to share then God will make sure that her meal and oil never run out, until after the drought is over. She shares, God provides and none of them starve. And I want to pause for a moment to be sure that we don’t miss one of the most important aspects of this story, and that is that the widow is a foreigner. She is not a worshipper of the God of Israel. She is a worshipper of another god, and yet our God feeds her and her son. It is these kinds of stories that form the basis for Jesus statement about feeding the least of these. For when the righteous ask the Son of Man, “When did I ever feed you?” the answer comes back that you fed me when you fed the least of these. The challenge then is for us to find a way to serve the least of these by offering food. One way to do that is through our Shop and Drop Program.
(the following comes from an interview with Anne Barauskas who heads our
Shop and Drop Program)
Shop and Drop is a program started by Elizabeth Gumbis about three years ago. The program is intended to assist food-insecure families at Alcott Elementary School in Pontiac with enough food to cover their weekend needs. We focus on weekends because the children can receive free breakfast and lunch at school during the school year, but there is often little or no food for the weekends. Those participating in Shop and Drop are asked to buy enough food for ten families, spending a total of $100, or $10 per family. The shoppers then either drop the food at Alcott on Thursdays of find someone to drop it for them. The Social Worker at the school, identifies families in need and then distributes the food accordingly. Shop and Droppers can then turn in their receipts and be reimbursed for their expenditure by the church. All one has to do is to bring the receipts to Jan or Martha at the church. In the 2018-2019 school year, this food made a difference in the lives of 104 children. We know that it matters to the families because the children are always excited to get the food and the parents are always appreciative. You can help by signing up to shop and drop, to shop or drop (partnering with someone else) or by making donations to help keep the program running.
My hope is that each of us will take the time to find out about Shop and Drop or another program that feeds those in need.
The Rev. Dr. John Judson
July 21, 2019
2 Samuel 15:13-23; Acts 28:11-15
He was unbelievably lonely. He felt isolated and forgotten. His loneliness was taking a toll. But then, unexpectedly he made a friend. It was if his friend just appeared in his life. Suddenly life was worth living again. He and his friend ate together. They had long, if sometimes, one-sided conversations. They walked together. Soon they were inseparable. Days, weeks and months flew by, yet they never grew tired of each other. But then the unthinkable happened. They were out in the surf when his friend was swept away. He called to this friend over and over but to no avail. Wilson was gone. They would never meet again. If you are not familiar with this story, it is the outline of Tom Hanks movie, Castaway, in which Hanks plays a Fed-Ex systems engineer who is on his way to Malaysia to resolve an issue, when his plane crashes in the Pacific and he manages to float to a deserted Pacific island. Desperate for company he finds some packages, one of which has a volleyball inside…made by, you guessed it, Wilson. Hanks paints a face on a volleyball, names it Wilson and they become best friends. While to some people this might seem a silly plot line, I find it plausible because I believe that we human beings are genetically wired for community, for companionship and so we will go to almost any length not to be isolated and lonely.
When I say that we humans are hardwired for companionship, for being in community, I say that first because humans have always gathered into clans, tribes and communities. In fact, this past year there was a discovery of a highly organized nine-thousand-year-old Neolithic community. I say this second because study after study shows the deleterious effects of loneliness. What loneliness does is that it causes the body to produce stress hormones such as cortisol. And over a long period of time those hormones do damage to the body. It leads to high blood pressure, increased inflammation and a weakened immune system. One study showed that it has the same effects as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. In addition, without a support system people slip into bad habits, depression and become more politically polarized because, as Senator Ben Sasse wrote, when we are isolated from one another all we can do is shriek at each other. And my friends this matters because we are in a loneliness epidemic. This was first pointed out in Putnam’s book Bowling Alone in which he described the slow but steady erosion or social capital and networks. Other studies showed that from 1985 to 2009, the average American’s social network shrunk by more than one third. Some people argue that social media helps connect us, but the top consumers of social media in the age group of 19-25 feel lonelier than their peers. With all that having been said I need to note two things. First loneliness is not new. It is at the heart of both of our stories this morning. Second, while both of our stories offer us a look at loneliness, they also offer us a possible way out.
First, the story of David. By the time of our tale, David has grown old and is losing his popularity and his hold on the Kingdom. Sensing this, David’s eldest son, Absalom, plots a takeover of the Kingdom, a palace coup if you will. It is only by God’s grace that David learns of this plot and escapes. His escape is not a hurried exodus from Jerusalem, but it is almost a farewell tour, as if he expects to be caught and killed. The only people who go with him are this loyalists. His loneliness can be seen in the moment when Ittai the Gittite, and his six-hundred men try to go with David. The king essentially says, no you stay, I will be fine, just let me get caught. David is surrounded by his friends, yet he feels so all alone that he rejects the offer from Ittai. Second the story of Paul. Our story comes from the end of the book of Acts. Paul has arrived in Rome accompanied by, we assume, a few close friends. But he arrives in Rome, not because he was on vacation, but because he was under arrest. Along the way he had been shipwrecked, threatened with death, bitten by a poisonous snake, and otherwise inconvenienced. I’m not sure we can imagine as well how small he feels when he arrives in pagan grandeur of Rome. It must have made him feel small and insignificant. We can surmise this because we are told in verse 15 that he takes courage, meaning he had lost his. Both famous figures felt lonely, yet at the same time they discovered a way out of their loneliness…and that was to remember that they had companions along the way.
I realize that what I am about to say is one of those “duh” statements, but I will say it anyway. Loneliness can be helped by realizing that we are not really alone…that we do have companions on our journey’s. David believed himself to be alone, even with his royal household all around him. But suddenly in his response to Ittai’s offer, I think that he realized he was not alone. When he said to Ittai, “you also are an exile from your home”, it began to trigger something in David. It made him realize that he an Ittai shared a common journey. They were both exiles searching for companionship. And so when Ittai signs on to go with David, the king relents and finds a Wilson to go with him; a Wilson to be his companion along the way. This same process happens with Paul. He has arrived in Rome feeling low and alone. But then people come from as far as the “Forum of Appius and Three Taverns” to meet him, it dawns on him that the Spirit has not left him alone. The Spirit has given him companions on this dangerous and difficult journey. In that realization, then he takes courage. He has been given a bunch of Wilsons.
Loneliness can and often does come to us all. And when it does, it can create its own self-reinforcing cycle. It is only when something happens to remind us that we are not alone, that the cycle can be broken. This morning then I want to offer everyone here an opportunity to be reminded that they are not alone. That we are surrounded by Wilsons. We are surrounded by companions along the way. What you are invited to do is to come forward to renew your baptism; to be marked again with the waters of the font as a reminder that the Spirit has made us all to be part of a single, world-wide family. And as you come forward, or remain where you are, to look around you at all who come to the font and know that they are your companions, they are your family.
Rev. Bethany Peerbolte
July 14, 2019
2 Samuel 12:1-14; 1 Timothy 1:12-17
Before I get to the reading from the new testament, I wanted to spend some time with David. The overriding impression David has left on history is that he is the epitome of a godly man and king. As a boy he is chosen by God to be King. When David is just a lowly shepherd God helps him to care for his flocks by blessing him with a deadly aim against bears and lions. When his older brothers go off to fight in the war David is too young and small, yet God brings him to the frontline, gives him the courage to volunteer to fight Goliath and then God flushes David’s muscles with the strength to defeat the giant enemy.
David then goes to serve the King – even though he has this call to BE king, David must first serve the king, which he does well. He is humble and helpful and stays in his lane even when he could step up and take the throne for himself. Through all the trials of getting to the throne David remains level-headed and worthy of the title God’s appointed king…until he sees Bathsheba.
When David sees her bathing he loses all level-headedness. He plots ways to meet with her, he schemes ways to kill her husband, and eventually he successfully makes her his wife. He succumbs to lustful and murderous temptations and commits outrageous sins. Yet, we still remember him as a great king of God’s own choosing. Why? Because of confession.
After David has had Bathsheba’s husband killed, a prophet named Nathan comes to the palace to report a terrible crime and sin against God. He tells David about two men: one who is rich and has everything he could ever want, and one man who is poor and only has one little lamb. Then the rich man has a friend visit, and instead of taking one of his own lambs for a feast, the rich man takes the poor man’s one possession in life, his little lamb.
David is furious to hear about this injustice happening in his nation and demands the rich man be killed for his crimes. That’s when Nathan reveals the rich man he was talking about is David. David had everything, yet stole the wife of a man who only had her. David stole from the less fortunate to fulfill his own sinful desires.
David immediately feels the shame and guilt rise in his stomach and confesses that he has indeed sinned against God. The psalms tell us exactly how David felt. In them he writes that staying silent about his sins make his bones feel brittle, that his energy was taken out of him like the sun on a hot day. Psalm 51 is David’s plea to God after hearing Nathan’s truth
1 Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions.
2 Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin.
3 For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is ever before me.
4 Against you, you alone, have I sinned,
and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you are justified in your sentence
and blameless when you pass judgment.
5 Indeed, I was born guilty,
a sinner when my mother conceived me.
6 You desire truth in the inward being;
therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
7 Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
8 Let me hear joy and gladness;
let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.
9 Hide your face from my sins,
and blot out all my iniquities.
10 Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and put a new and right spirit within me.
11 Do not cast me away from your presence,
and do not take your holy spirit from me.
12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and sustain in me a willing spirit.
This is the cry of a broken heart. Someone who is fully aware of the monster they have become. Nathan has held up a mirror and David sees a fearsome monster staring back at him. A monster with horns and claws, ready and willing to devour anyone in his path.
We have all had a moment where the person looking back at us through a mirror bears more resemblance to a monster than to ourselves. And if we haven’t seen that monster, then maybe the monster looking back is too prideful to even notice its horns and claws.
Becoming the monster happens little by little. Unconfessed sins sit in the shadows of our soul, becoming stronger and a more dominant part of our personality secretly and quietly. We let sins sit because the process of confession is distressing. Confession means lifting out of ourselves all our guilt, shame, and regret, and looking at the mess we created. It can hurt so much that sometimes we think it is easier to let the stain of sin sit where it is. It’s easier to cover it up, ignore the stiffness in our soul, and live another day without confessing.
Letting sin sit inside us allows the sin to change us. A sin left unconfessed can quickly become a part of our identity. It overrides the image of God we have been gifted and the sin can take control of our actions.
One day, when I worked in a first-grade classroom, I noticed the birthday oreos had been pillaged. At recess, a student came up to me and as they talked to me they kept wiping their mouth with their hand. After a short conversation I asked them why they kept wiping their mouth and they ran away. Later, a friend of theirs came to get me because this student was crying in the slide. I went over to see them and they slid down into my arms, their face wet with tears. Honestly, they were dripping all over because the plastic slide was so hot to be in that day, but they felt better in the sweltering slide then facing the world. The student told me they were wiping their face because they were afraid I could see the crumbs. This was hours after they had eaten the cookie. They had been to gym and lunch. There was no way the Oreo crumbs were still there. But this student had stolen Oreos at home before, and the crumbs had incriminated them then. The ghost crumbs haunted them. They thought I could see them because it was the only thing they could think of. Their actions became odd because the guilt of the stolen cookie told them everyone could see their crime and they needed to keep covering their tracks. The crumbs had become a part of their identity, until they confessed and received forgiveness.
We avoid confession because it is uncomfortable and oftentimes painful, but 1 Timothy shows us what confession feels like for someone who relies on God’s grace. 1 Timothy says, “I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has given me strength, that he considered me trustworthy, appointing me to his service. Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief. The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life. Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen.”
We should not see confession as a panicking child, but as people becoming stronger, mercy overflowing onto us, The Holy Spirit tickling each horn, and claw and turning us back into the serene image of God’s creation.
From the beginning God has given each human God’s own image to carry and present to the world. God’s image is like the shapes from the children’s book. There is a way to present them that is a welcoming happy scene. But sin twists those shapes out of order and instead of the peaceful home we get a monster. When we sin, and especially when we hold onto our sins, we can’t show God’s image to the world because we are out of order. The peaceful moon becomes a terrifying horn, and the soft trees become fearsome claws.
But once we brought attention and a tickle to each shape it went back to where it belonged. And instead of a monster we have a welcoming home. Confession is that tickle that brings attention to our sin and releases it so that our identity can return to the image and shape God has entrusted to us.
If we confess, we must trust that God’s love shown through Jesus will be strong enough to put us back into the right order. When David talks about confession he says he confesses according to God’s unfailing love, according to God’s great compassion. The size of David’s confession corresponds with the size he believes God’s love and compassion is. Because David believes God’s love is powerful he openly confesses his deepest sins and trusts grace will put him back together.
If you believe God’s love is small you will only be able to confess the small stuff. But if you believe God’s love is huge, abounding, overflowing, then bring it on! Get it out, let it go, and let God overpower your sins with love and compassion. We don’t need to be afraid of confession because we know God’s love is strong enough to handle anything. No matter what shape we have let our sins beat us into, God has the tool to make it right. It still may be painful, especially when our confession needs to be made to other people who will need time to process their own hurt feelings. But if we are afraid of hurting someone with confession, we should be more afraid of who we are letting our unconfessed sins turn us into. When we hold onto our sins will also cause harm as we slowly turn into resentful, defensive monsters. We need to trust that love and forgiveness will win every battle against sin.
Then comes a part of confession we usually forget to do. Our images of confession often look like a business transaction: I unload my sins, you give me forgiveness and we go our merry ways. But in scripture there is another step beyond the dumping of one’s sins and receiving forgiveness.
Every confession of David and even these verses in 1 Timothy have a heavy helping of confessing God’s glory. Confession without affirmations can become a pity fest, “Oh Lord, I am such a sinner. I’m terrible. I’m worthless.” If we stop there it’s no wonder we hate confession. But for every sin confessed, an affirmation should take its place. I have lied, but today I told only truth.
The mirror that used to trigger negative hateful words, where we saw a monster looking back at us, we need to reclaim that mirror for God’s glory. Write words of praise on the mirror. Where you use to show hate for your crooked teeth, affirm that your smile still inspires joy. Where you used to look for flaws to cut and punish yourself, write “Grace happens here.”
The energy you used to spend covering up the crumbs you were sure everyone could see, use that energy to notice the good parts of yourself, and let them thrive in the absence of guilt and shame. When the image of God has been covered by sin we can forget who we are. So, after we unburden ourselves we need to take time to reacclimate ourselves to what that image looks like in us.
I don’t know where each of you are in the confession process. Some of us are just now becoming aware of the dull pain in our soul.
Some of us are fully aware of what we need to confess because we have been actively wiping away the crumbs so no one will learn our secret.
Some of us have been unloading for a while now and need to begin affirming the great things God is doing in us and through us.
Let us pray.
The Rev. Dr. John Judson
July 7, 2019
Genesis 12:1-5; Acts 13:1-3
It was the very first official holiday observance in the United States. It was created by the Continental Congress on December 18, 1777 as a national day set aside for “solemn Thanksgiving and praise.” Though you may think that this had something to do with celebrating the 4th of July and the signing of the Declaration of Independence, or that it had something to do with the Mayflower, it did not. Instead it had to do with a two little-remembered battles that took in late September and early October 1777. Our revolution was not going well. Washington was holed up and fighting a guerrilla war, his army at risk of being destroyed. The populace and foreign nations were still suspect of our possibilities of victory. But then at Saratoga, a small force of Continental soldiers defeated and drove back a larger British force, thus ending Britain’s ability to invade from the north and convinced France to become our ally. Why does this matter this morning? It matters to me anyway because what made that victory possible was the commitment made by young men like my then seventeen-year-old great, great, great, great grandfather Benjamin Denslow. Along with thousands of other men and women, they made a commitment to a cause they believed in and were willing to give their lives for.
Benjamin’s story came back to me this week as I thought about our two Biblical stories. In each of these stories our faith ancestors were willing to make a commitment to God for a cause they believed in and were willing to risk their lives for. Let’s begin with Abram and Sarai. As their story begins, they are happy, healthy and doing well in one of the great trading centers of Mesopotamia. They had servants, flocks and herds. Then Abram has an encounter with an unknown God who strikes a bargain with him. If Abram and Sarai will make a commitment to get up, go some place they have never been, a place that is unnamed, then God will commit to bless them and through them bless all the nations of the world. A commitment is made, and they go in order to change the world. Our second story is of Paul and Barnabas. Paul and Barnabas have a good thing going in Antioch. They have an active ministry and are well respected. But the spirit has other ideas. Paul and Barnabas are asked by the Spirit and the church to make a commitment to go to tell others about Jesus the messiah. This will not be an easy lift, yet they commit themselves to this cause in which they believed…that Jesus had come to change the world.
These are all rather dramatic stories of commitment making. And it might be hard for many of us to believe that we had or could make such a commitment. Yet, all of us who have gone through confirmation, joined a church or had our children baptized have made a commitment as dramatic as those we have talked about. We have done so because we have made a commitment to be part of God’s great cause of working to help make God’s Kingdom come here on earth as it is in heaven. I realize that this is not the way we often think about the commitments we make here at church. Often, we think about them as commitments to believe certain things in order to become a particular kind of person…a better person, which is true. Yet at the same time our commitment calls us to live as a particular kind of people not only for ourselves but for the world. As writer and artist Makoto Fujimura puts it, we are to be about creating a “culture of care” rather than a “culture of war”, and a culture of an “opened hand” and not a “clenched fist.” What can we do to create these new types of culture? We can live in imitation of the one who made a commitment to the world and kept it at the cross. We can live the Table (the communion table). Living the Table means doing three things. First, we love radically. When Jesus went to the cross, he went there for all human beings; not just those who look like or think like us. He saw all persons as worthy of God’s love. So, like Jesus we are to see and love all persons as children of God; each worthy of our care and respect. Second it means forgiving unconditionally. When Jesus was on the cross he forgave those who crucified him, without condition. He did not wait for them to figure out who he was or what he was doing. We are to do the same, being open to reconciliation even with those who hate us. Finally, it is to give lavishly. Jesus gave everything on the cross, including his life. When we give lavishly it reminds us that what we have is not ours but is God’s and is to be shared.
We are to make this commitment to this way of life because it is the way of Jesus. It is the way of the table of community. It is the way that Jesus taught his followers to live. We are not to abandon it because it is uncomfortable or inconvenient. We are not to abandon it for personal or financial gain. Instead we are to hold fast to our commitment to be people of the table. If we are honest though we will admit that holding to this commitment is as difficult for us as it was for Benjamin, or Abram, or Sarai, or Paul, or Barnabas. It is difficult because the world does not always appreciate the way of the Spirit, the way of Jesus. Yet we can do it. We can do it because we are not alone. We are not alone because we make our commitments in community…in the heart of a Spirit led people. We can do it because the Spirit has promised not to leave us or abandon us. We can fulfill our commitment.
The challenge I offer you on this day then is to ask yourselves, how am I fulfilling my commitment to the Spirit to love radically, forgive unconditionally and give lavishly that I might play my part in God’s great cause of God’s Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.
The Rev. Joanne Blair
June 23, 2019
1 Samuel 17:31-40; Acts 9:21-25
We are in week 2 of our sermon series, “The Spirit at Work,” and this week we are talking about courage. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines courage as: “mental or moral strength to venture, persevere, and withstand danger, fear, or difficulty.”
Well, the story of David’s battle with Goliath certainly demonstrates courage. Here we have this young man who has been guiding sheep now daring to face down a huge, Philistine warrior just by using a slingshot and five smooth stones. And we know how the story ends: David flung a stone to Goliath’s forehead, knocked Goliath to the ground, and then killed him. We all like to hear stories of the triumph of the unlikely hero, the underdog. The story of David and Goliath is one of the best known and most told stories in the Bible, where the seeming underdog comes out on top. But this celebrated story is also one of the most misunderstood. Many think that this is a story of personal courage in the face of insurmountable odds, that if you face down your giant with courage you will always come out victorious. But there is much more to this story. There is a reason our scripture reading today ends before the match. David’s courage is demonstrated not in killing the giant but in fighting him. David did not have great military experience; he demonstrates that courage and power have other sources, namely, Yahweh. What drove David’s courage was his confidence in God’s promises and God’s power to fulfill them. He was not so much confident in himself as he was confident in God.
So how does this dramatic story correlate with our second reading of the day, that of Paul being lowered in a basket to escape capture and death? For Paul, himself, writes in his letter to the church in Corinth that being lowered in a basket at night was humiliating. Yet Paul exhibits courage before, during, and after his escape. Paul, one of the greatest role-reversals in the Bible. Other than Jesus, no person influenced the history of the Christian community more than Paul. No wonder the people were confused! This man had always fought for the importance of the law and would punish anyone who disagreed, even unto death – especially followers of Jesus. Yet after his conversion, this Pharisee of Pharisees immediately went out to proclaim Jesus as the Son of God. Those who conspired to kill Jesus, those who conspired to kill Stephen, and those under King Aretas are now after Paul. Paul, the persecutor, is now the persecuted. While he may consider being lowered in a basket humiliating and an act of weakness, it was an act of courage to proclaim the good news and an act of courage to face the dangerous unknown by traveling about and continuing to do so.
As his opposition increased their attack, Saul became more powerful. The Greek word used here for “powerful” denotes “strength from the work of the Holy Spirit (Eph 6:20, Phil 4:13, 2 Tim 4:17).” We call this strength: courage.
There is a great difference between courage and bravado and we sometimes confuse the two. Bravado is daring, audacious, uninspired boldness. Many of you know that I used to skydive. And yes, it took daring boldness to do so. But there was nothing inspired about it. I just really wanted to do it. It was an act of bravado, (though my parents probably used a different word!) Courage, on the other hand, is not autonomous. It is not a self-produced virtue. Courage is produced by faith, faith in God or something else.
I want to turn again to the definition of courage: “mental or moral strength to venture, persevere, and withstand danger, fear, or difficulty.” We usually think of danger as a threat to our physical safety and we often think of courage in the most dramatic of situations – soldiers in action on the battlefield, firefighters, first responders. These are people of extreme courage and I know we are all very grateful for the gifts of their service. Most of us, gratefully, will not face these types of challenges. But we are put in situations where our spiritual strength, our physical health, our moral fiber, and our choices are challenged. And courage, by very definition, acknowledges fear and difficulty. Yet we are to persevere and withstand it.
In the King James version of the Bible, people who count such things have noted that the words “fear not” appear 365 times (one for each day of the year☺). This, in itself, demonstrates that although God does not wish us to be afraid, we humans experience fear. And, the words “courage” or “courageous” appear 26 times, stressing its importance.
So where does courage, real courage (not bravado), come from? It is the work of the Holy Spirit. Courage comes from trust in the ultimate goodness and presence of God. In this trust we allow ourselves to be vulnerable. Real courage recognizes that we cannot persevere in our challenges alone. We need God, who is right here with us. The call for God’s people to be courageous is always based upon the confidence in God to be with us.
Courage does not mean that things will always turn out the way we hope. Courage is facing the challenge even when we aren’t assured of the outcome. Every act of courage takes place in the life of an ordinary person. Courage is needed to fight life’s everyday battles: addiction, cancer, resentment, greed. Each of us has many battles to be fought in our life. We need courage, and we need each other, to do so.
Last week Pastor John spoke of being called to community, by God, for the purpose of blessing the world. That takes courage and we can – and should – be God’s instruments to encourage one another. Being in community helps strengthen our faith, build our courage, and allow the Holy Spirit to do her work even better.
Having courage doesn’t always have to do with fighting a giant or being persecuted. But it always has to do with trusting God. Whatever battle we are fighting, the Holy Spirit will give us the courage – if we but trust.
And so our challenge this week is to ask ourselves:
The Rev. Dr. John Judson
June 16, 2019
I loved baseball. As a kid I loved to play baseball, read about baseball and dream about baseball. What that meant was the one of the most exciting times of the year was when the season would arrive, my mom would sign me up and I would go to tryouts. I have no idea if getting into Little League is the same today as it was then, but there would be a date set for all of those who wanted to play to come to try out. We would run the bases. We would bat. We would field. And the whole time the coaches and assistant coaches would be taking notes and chatting. Among the coaches were those who were major league coaches and those who were minor league coaches. Then there would be the wait. I would then begin the process of listening for the phone to ring with a coach on the other end calling to tell my mom which team had chosen me. Let me clear that I had accepted early on that I was a minor leaguer. But that didn’t matter. All that mattered was that call saying, its time to get your uniform and come play. Any of you ever waited for that kind of a call; a call saying you have been selected? A call saying you have gotten the college acceptance; have gotten the job? It is exciting isn’t it? What I hope for this morning is that before we are done, you will be just as excited for a different kind of call as you were for those. But in order to understand how this works, we need to remember three words, “to”, “by” and “for”. Yes we are to remember two-by-four
First is the word “to”. We are called to a community; to a family. When God calls us, it is never intended to be me and Jesus. As someone once said, there are no Lone Ranger Christians. When God calls us desiring a relationship, it is also God’s desire for people to be in relationship with one another. This is so because we were not made to be alone. We were created for community. This is why when we baptize an adult or an infant, we say that they are now part of God’s worldwide family. Again, we can see this is our story this morning. Jesus has called Paul (known by his Jewish name, Saul) but does not tell him everything he needs to know. Instead the Spirit then calls to a man named Ananias and tells him to go and welcome Saul. Ananias is not happy about this considering Paul had been on the way to put Ananias and his friends in prison. But Ananias goes and does two things. First, he calls Paul brother, meaning if Jesus had called Saul then Saul was Ananias’s brother. Second, he baptizes Saul and by so doing brings him into the family. This is one of those wonderful things about God’s call that it calls us to a community that will love us, support us, guide us and sometimes correct us. What that means for us here this morning is that not only has God called us to be in relationship with God, but God desires that we be in relationship with each other. God calls us “to” a family.
Second is the word “by”, meaning we are called by God. When I say God, I mean it can be God, it can be Jesus, or it can be the Spirit. Regardless of which does the calling, it is God who calls us into relationship with God. This is one of the great themes of the Bible that God desire us not only to be in family but to be in relationship with God’s own self. And because God desires to be in relationship with us, then God is always calling us, drawing us, silently working within us. We can see how this works in story after story in the Bible. In the Garden of Eden God can’t find Adam and Eve and so calls to them. God calls Abram and Sarah. God calls Moses out of a burning bush. The Spirit calls to Jesus after his baptism and sends him to the wilderness. Jesus calls disciples as he begins his ministry. And in our story this morning Ananias makes it clear that it is Jesus who called Saul and Jesus who asked him, Ananias, to be the agent of the call. As an aside, I realize that often when we think about being called, we think of dramatic stories, but what we need to understand is that this is not the way God usually calls us. God can call us through a deep felt need that perhaps something is missing in our lives. God can call us through the stories in the Bible. God can call us through family, friends, or perhaps even a sermon. Regardless, of where we sense the call, scripture, friend, an inner need, it is God who initiates the relationship.
Finally, the word “for”. We are called “for” a purpose. This is where many of us grind to a halt in our examination of being called. We stop here because we have been taught that being called for a purpose means being called to a particular religious position, such as pastor, or maybe even elder…though many elders would not think so. But the fact is that being called to a religious position is simply a subset of the purpose to which we are called, because the purpose to which we are called is to bless the world. Let me say that again. Our purpose in being called by God to a community is to bless the world. This means that each of us has been called to this purpose…and we can express this purpose in hundreds of ways. We can bless the world at school or at work by how we treat others. We can bless the world in our homes through how we rear our children and how we pray for others. We can bless the world through our giving, our forgiveness, our compassion and our understanding. And the ways we bless can and do change over the course of our lives. How we bless as children is different from how we bless as youth, then adults and onward. God calls us to a family for a purpose.
My challenge to you for this week is simple…enjoy your call. Enjoy knowing you are part of a family. Enjoy knowing you are known by God. Enjoy knowing that you have a purpose in life. Then as you get ready each morning for the coming day, simply say, “God, thank you for calling me with your to-by-four” and then let that reality shape your day.
Dr. John Judson
June 9, 2019
Joel 2:23-29; Acts 2:2-13
It was his graduation day. It should have been an exciting day to be getting his BA after six years of effort. Even so, he began to cry. And the tears were not tears of joy but of worry; worry, because he knew how much debt he and his family had taken on; two-hundred thousand dollars. He had no idea how they would ever pay it back. As he sat at graduation though, something happened. The speaker made this young man and his classmates a promise and in that promise, he found hope. The promise? His debt would be paid, in full. The speaker, Robert Smith, the wealthiest African American in the United States, as he was delivering the commencement address at Morehouse College, promised that he would pay off all the outstanding loans of the graduating class. At first the students did not know what to say or do. However, it did not take them long to express their delight and gratitude. Mr. Smith and the school are now working out all the arrangements so that the promise will be kept and a group of young adults will begin their lives with encouragement to make a difference not only for themselves but for others.
The people in the time of Joel were looking for encouragement as well. Joel was preaching and making promises about four-hundred years before the birth of Christ. The people were needing hope because they were in the midst of a horrible famine and they were a subject people of the Persian Empire. And so they turned to the two promises of Joel in which to find hope. The first was that the famine, worse than any in the memory of his audience, would come to an end; that God would act and once again make the land fruitful. The second promise was that one-day God’s Spirit would appear and transform humanity; that not just men would prophecy, but that men and women, young and old, free and slave, Jew and Gentile would all be filled with the presence of God and they would be able to declare what God has done, is doing and will do in the future. This was a radical promise that probably seemed more like a campaign slogan than a real promise of God. The outcome of these promises? The first was fulfilled in a season or two. They second…well it faded into memory as years, decades and centuries passed. While the famine ended, the Spirit never came...at least until the day of Pentecost.
The story of Pentecost is one of those exciting yet frightening stories that fill the Bible. It is exciting. It is exciting because we watch a bunch of frightened, confused Galileans, in hiding out in an upper room, unsure of what to do, be suddenly turned into a cadre of fearless Good News tellers. Luke describes it as a moment in which the Spirit, appearing like a powerful wind and tongues of fire, swept over all the disciples, men and women, young and old giving them the power they needed to overcome their anxious hearts and then shooting them out into the street to tell people about Jesus and the coming Kingdom of God. It is also frightening because we watch a bunch of frightened, confused Galileans, in hiding out in an upper room, unsure of what to do, be suddenly turned into a cadre of fearless Good News tellers because the Spirit, appearing like tongues of fire, flickering over all the disciples, men and women, young and old gave them the power they needed to overcome their anxious hearts and then shot them out into the street to tell people about Jesus and the coming Kingdom of God.
While we may want to stop the story of Pentecost with that exciting and frightening moment, we ought not to do so. We shouldn’t do so because it was only the beginning of what the Spirit was going to do. Just like the wind of God that brought order out of chaos in the first creation, here the breath of God was bringing chaos out of order for a new creation. This chaos was that all flesh, all people were now elements of a new creation. Men, women, slave, free, rich and poor were given spiritual gifts; gifts that the Spirit gives to everyone who believes. These gifts include preaching, teaching, caring, loving, giving, encouraging, hosting and even healing and speaking in tongues. All people were given the fruit of the Spirit, transforming them into new people. Fruits included love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, kindness and self-control. And it is these gifts and fruits that created a radical new religious community. It becomes this wonderful amalgam of Jews and Gentiles, free people and slaves, men and women, rich and poor, citizen and foreigner all drawn together and empowered by the Spirit to love, serve and share. And this is why there is still hope and encouragement in this place…in this community…because the Promise is still real…that the Spirit is still pouring itself out in power.
This year marks the 185th anniversary of the founding of this church. And in each of those years the Spirit has been here making this a place of hope and encouragement. The Spirit has seen this congregation through the Civil War, two World Wars, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, the Civil Rights Movement, integration, and the movement toward the full inclusion of persons of all races, genders and sexual-orientations into the life of the church. The Spirit led us to be one of the first churches to ordain women and members of the LGBTQ community as elders and deacons. The Spirit led us to actively worked for low income housing in Birmingham. The Spirit led us to create one of the only full inclusion programs in our denomination for persons with disabilities. The Spirit continues to push us to work with partners in Detroit, Pontiac, Mexico and Kenya touching the lives of men, women and children. The Spirit continues to pour itself out on our children and on every generation from the Greatest, to Boomers, Busters, Millennials, Gen X and beyond. The Spirit gifts us for the building of the body of Christ. The Spirit gives us the fruits of the Spirit to make life richer and fuller. The Promise is being fulfilled in us. And what I perceive is that the Spirit is pushing us out of the doors of this place to do something great for Jesus Christ. That we are set to tell in word and in deed about God’s all-embracing Kingdom and change the world for the better; that a new transformation is upon us. This is the hope, this is the encouragement.
My challenge then is for each of us to ask ourselves, “What is it that the Spirit is empowering me to do for Christ and the world”, then to go and do it.
Rev. Bethany Peerbolte
June 2, 2019
Joshua 24:14-25; Luke 5: 17-20
“As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” These are the words Joshua tells Israel in his farewell address. This isn’t a new revelation for Joshua. He has spent his whole life serving God. Joshua’s leadership has taken Israel from a wandering covenant community to an established nation state. Toward the end of his life he gathers the people of Israel and announces that he is rededicating himself and his household to serve God, affirming that all the work has been worth the struggle and he would do it again if God asked.
His example and leadership over the years has been so reliable that the crowd instinctively shouts back that they too will serve God. But Joshua tells them to slow down and think about this. Joshua wants them to read the user agreement. He has seen what serving God requires. He worked alongside Moses, a man who was a prince in Egypt and in service to God. Moses was asked to leave his comfortable, convenient life in the palace for the life of a fugitive in the desert. Joshua knows from personal experience serving God will require sacrifices, that empty commitments will come with consequences. Before anyone can dedicate their lives to serving God they must acknowledge that service will be inconvenient. The people reply that they are ready to serve God, come what may.
What comes is just as Joshua warned – inconvenient. Women giving birth late in life, men leaving their trades to follow Jesus, children giving up their lunch so that the 5000 adults who forgot to pack a lunch could eat. Serving God is inconvenient.
The story of the four friends and the paralyzed man is filled with inconveniences. The person who owned the house was inconvenienced. Not only had they prepped all week for Jesus’ arrival, the crowd that shows is larger than they anticipated. With so many in their home they were probably worried about things getting broken or stolen. And then the roof is busted through! Some of the people in the crowd were Pharisees. Their inconvenience was a challenge to their world view. Jesus’ message went against fundamentals they had built their lives around and listening to him teach was disturbing and uncomfortable. It was inconvenient.When we read the story of the paralyzed man and his four friends we take for granted that these four men were happy to help. The more likely scenario is that they had other plans for the day. Appointments to make, deadlines to reach, chores to finish, commitments to keep, debts to pay, quality family time to have. But Jesus was in town today.
For some reason they decide to forget everything else that could have gotten done that day, and they lug this full-grown man across town. When they arrive, they find that the crowd is so large they can’t even get to Jesus. It would have been easier to turn around and go home, to come back when Jesus was available. Going home is the convenient option, but instead, they decide to go up onto the roof, dig through the thatching and tiles, and lower their friend down to Jesus. For some reason, this task of getting their friend to Jesus was more important than their excuses not to.
It’s possible the man on the bed was just a great guy, the kind of friend to inspire outrageous acts of loyalty. Or maybe, these four men were repaying a favor. Maybe someone had been sick and the others helped him, or maybe one fell on hard times and was supported by the others. Maybe they had inconvenienced others and were simply repaying the time and effort others had spent on them.
Or, maybe they had heard the gospel. They had sat in a crowd listening to Jesus’ message of grace and forgiveness. They had met Jesus’ followers and seen how they loved one another, and the message rang true for them. They had felt that switch flip inside them as they realized God loves them and wants good things for them and for their friend who is paralyzed. This would have been a very different kind of message than anything they had heard before.
This message of abounding love stood against the prevailing theology that God rationed out love to those who were righteous. Jesus rejected the idea that if you were down and out, if you were sick or disabled, it meant God had turned away from you. Jesus said the sick and poor were blessed, they had worth, they were loved.
Inspired by this message, these men carried their friend in his bed. This detail stopped me as I studied the verses this week. He is in his bed. No where in these verses does is say this man is poor; we sometimes assume he is. Its just as possible he has money. Jesus does send him back to “his home” after he is healed. If he has a bed he is doing better than some. Maybe his paralysis is a recent development that has thrown him into a downward spiral, and now his friends can’t even get him into a chair. Now he spends his days in bed, depressed by his circumstances.
Who can blame him, The world tells him his sins caused these circumstances, that God has abandoned him, that he is unloved. The theology of the day shackled him to that bed. The friends knew Jesus’ message was the only way they were going to rescue their friend. They had probably tried to teach him the gospel, to tell him God had not turned away and that in fact God loved him but they could not get through to him. So the only thing left to do was to pick up the bed themselves and walk him to Jesus so he could experience the message of the gospel first hand.
The crowd prevented their friend from hearing Jesus – they were still too far away – so they go up to the roof. But the house was so well built they couldn’t hear from the roof and they had to break it down. Their friend had to hear the gospel from Jesus. Nowhere does it say this trip was about getting their friend to walk again. I think they simply wanted him to hear Jesus say, “You are Loved.”
It was inconvenient for them, it was back breaking work, it probably cost them a pretty penny to fix the roof, it wasn’t exactly the right weekend to make it all happen, but it was worth it for their friend to know he was loved by them and by God.
This month is Pride Month. There will be endless images of colorful exuberant parties and parades on social media. For me the ones that bring the most joy are the ones of Christians giving free hugs to the participants. A hug is so simple but it means so much. It means, “I am not just willing to be in the same space as you: I want to embrace you, heart to heart.” A hug is a physical expression of acceptance. It acknowledges worth and expresses love, and it’s just a hug.
The images won’t show us the inconveniences someone had to go through to get there, the traffic jams, the declined lunch dates. but it does show that for that person, being present was the most valuable and productive thing they could do with their day. It does show that that person has made a commitment to making another human feel loved. That that person has said, “I will serve the Lord.”
When we think of service we think of building, cooking, visiting. The physical actions we do with our bodies. In some ways that is correct; serving is about the physical movement of our bodies, but it is less about “the job” we are doing and more about where our bodies are. When we show up for someone we are casting a vote for them. Our physical presence says to the world I stand with them and against the forces hurting them. We can say children deserve a good education or the homeless need a place to go in the winter, but placing our bodies, the most valuable and fragile thing we have, into the issue is next level. This guy’s friends climbed to the top of a house and broke through the roof! They used their bodies to physically cast a vote that said you have worth, you are loved. The single most powerful thing you can do for someone who is in need is to move toward them, sit with them, physically be there for them.
Service is not about “being able to do a job;” it is about being physically present for someone else – no matter the inconveniences.Not all service is going to be inconvenient. A large part of my job and the work of our Outreach Ministries Committee is to make service as convenient as we can for you. Some service will come naturally and you will be happy to be present for the people who need you in that time. But eventually God will call you to do something inconvenient in service of the gospel. You will have to give up the one free night you have. You will be asked to make another meal for another family in the church who has had a baby. You will have to visit someone for the 5th week in a row. When those inconvenient calls come, a voice in your head will run through all the reasons you can’t possibly help. It will try to convince you that you don’t have to BE there, you could just …
When that voice starts its list of inconveniences it is time to stop and decide if we want to rededicate ourselves to serving the Lord, if we are willing to put our bodies into the issues we say we care about. Every time we step out in service we rededicate our lives to the love God has shown us. We ensure the message of the gospel survives by physically bringing the love it inspires to those who need it. When we offer our time, our hands, our shoulder we affirm that the gospel is worth the inconveniences and cast a vote that tells the world God’s love is here.
Pastors and Associate Pastors: Dr. John Judson, Rev. Joanne Blair, Dr. Kate Thoresen, Rev. Ted Thode