Rev. Joanne Blair
May 28, 2017
Isaiah 40:27-31; Acts 9:1-22
Last week, Amy shared her “call story” with us. And she’s right, it isn’t a story that “rocks your socks” or will make it to an award-winning film. But it was pure and it was real, and I took the Bible passage from 1 Corinthians that she read and taped it to my own mirror.
My call story has even less dramatic appeal. For seven years, I had this feeling, more like a pull really, that I was supposed to go to seminary. There were several reasons (good ones, I might add!) why this wasn’t a good idea.
Not only was I not Biblically well-read, we had been dealing with some very serious health issues within our family for the past several years, and it did not seem that they would be resolved anytime soon.
And, I wasn’t exactly a “spring chicken”… and I still needed to hold down a job and take care of my family.
One night my husband, Roger, said to me, “You’ve been talking about seminary for 7 years now, so how much longer has it been in there? You’re not getting any younger, you know.”
The next day I applied to seminary.
Not exactly an earth-moving story.
Now Saul’s story of conversion on the road to Damascus makes for great reading. Here is a man who has gone out of his way to persecute followers of The Way.
Suddenly he is blinded by a light from heaven, hears the voice of Jesus speaking to him, is healed by a previously unknown disciple, gets baptized, and becomes the most influential voice for Christianity other than Jesus himself.
Now this, this is good stuff!
This is the stuff of Oscar winning movies: persecution, calamity, miracle, and a complete life-change.
And the drama keeps going throughout Saul’s (now known as Paul) story. He himself suffers great persecution for this personal about-face, yet goes on to proclaim the gospel and spread the word of Christ until his death.
Most scholars agree that without Paul’s influence, the religion known as Christianity would not have lasted, or be nearly as widespread, as it is today.
So… the “award goes to”… Paul.
But what about the others… those who were instrumental and dedicated to following Jesus? Those who we know little about, or don’t know at all?
Those who had supporting roles, bit parts, or just walk-on scenes?
What about Ananias? In Scripture, Ananias is mentioned a grand total of two times- -both in the book of Acts. Little is known of Ananias other than he lived in Damascus, was a Jewish disciple, and was held in high regard. Yet the Lord chose him as the instrument which led to the conversion of Saul.
Ananias trusted and followed the Lord’s instructions, even though it obviously seemed impractical and dangerous…
And so… “the award goes to”… Ananias.
What about these people chosen by God? Why them? In many ways, they are unlikely candidates.
Ananias may have been well respected, but he’s only mentioned twice in Scripture, and without many words at that. What made him so special as to be chosen by God?
And even Paul—while he obviously had a lot of zeal and was gifted with words (especially in the written form), he was not exactly the one you would pick out of a catalog. According to Titus, he was “small in size, bald-headed, bow-legged, well built, with eyebrows that met, rather long-nosed, and full of grace.”
Many Pauline scholars believe he had a stutter and/or poor eyesight, and the Journal of Neurology postulates that he had epilepsy.
Throughout Scripture we read of unlikely people whom God chooses to use in specific ways: Noah- a drunkard, Abraham- an old man, Moses- a stutterer, Rahab- a prostitute, David- an adulterer and a murderer, Jonah, Mary and Joseph, Matthew… the list goes on and on.
Sometimes God seems to choose the most unlikely of people to serve God’s purpose. We never know whom God will choose for what, or when God will call us to something specific. But know this: God calls each and every one of us.
I absolutely love to watch movies. When I am engrossed in a good movie I don’t want to give attention to anything else… and please don’t talk to me. I enter the story with the characters and I am right there. In a movie where the scenery was quite magnificent, a part-character really stood out to me, or a song stuck in my head, I watch the credits.
Oh my… often the credits seem to be as long as the movie! We are told who did make-up and hair, who drove the stars around, who catered the food, who was the assistant to the assistant to the assistant…
I admit that I find this really irritating. I just want the answers to my questions. But the more I think about it, the list of credits should be lengthy. Each person played an integral part to the success of the whole enterprise. While some may be more noteworthy than others, every individual involved contributed to the whole.
And so it is with the Body of Christ. Some of us will have starring roles and some of us will remain behind the cameras.
But in reality, we all have supporting roles, for we are each but a part of the
Body. We are designed by God to be mutually dependent. We are each called to take in and give out the message of God’s love by the very way in which we live our lives.
To give and receive. To serve, and be served. To love, and be loved.
Often, it is in receiving the gifts of others, that we recognize gifts within ourselves. If we do not leave ourselves open to the fact that each of us is created in God’s image, and that each of us has the breath of God within us, we may miss those transforming moments that come our way.
Sometimes we have an earth-shaking experience that is Oscar worthy and points us in a whole new direction.
Sometimes there is the slightest breeze that no one else notices, that just changes our course a little or causes us to see things in a slightly different way.
Sometimes we don’t even know what led to a transformation until later in time.
We must allow ourselves to be vulnerable to God and each other if we don’t want to miss out on the moments of conversion and transformation that come our way.
And we must remain open, for we never know when, where, or how those moments will come… or who may be a conduit.
Today is Disability Inclusion Sunday in the Presbyterian Church. I lift that up to you as a reminder that each of us is given unique gifts that we are called to share with each other in honor, praise, and service to God.
Each and every one of us is called to a life of faith… being open to God’s call… and trusting God enough to follow that call. We may not all be shiny gold vessels, but we are all instruments to the glory of God.
Our stories may not all be Oscar-worthy, but that doesn’t matter in the least.
For in the end, “the award goes to”… God.
Rev. Amy Morgan
May 21, 2017
Jeremiah 1:4-10; 1 Corinthians 13:1-13
We all have our excuses.
Mine was that I wasn’t nice enough. Believe it or not, that was my excuse for avoiding my call to ministry. All the pastors I knew were really nice. They cared about people, and it showed. And that just wasn’t me. At least, that’s what I told myself.
And yet, my friends were always coming to me with their problems. They asked me for advice. They found me to be helpful and, I suppose, nice enough.
So then I decided I didn’t know enough. The pastors I knew, they knew everything about the Bible. They could talk about God like they were old buddies. I’d gone to Sunday school and listened to some sermons, but I didn’t know God that well. Not like a pastor is supposed to know God.
And yet, friends would come to me with their theological questions and quandaries. They’d come looking for help in seeing God’s activity in the world and seeking God’s guidance in their lives. I seemed to be the religious phone-a-friend in my community.
And so one day, I dusted off the Bible my grandmother had given me when I went to college. I opened the front cover, and inside she’d written 1 Corinthians 13:12. I couldn’t recollect this passage, and it seemed as good a place as any to start reading. So I went to the Bible’s index (because I hadn’t done Bible drills in a while) to look up 1 Corinthians, and I found the passage, and I read “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.”
And at that moment, it hit me full force like a blow to the head that I was going to seminary. No more excuses. I didn’t need to mull it over or meditate on this passage or talk to friends and mentors. I knew what this passage was saying to me, and I could no more avoid it or talk my way out of it than Jeremiah could shirk his duty as a prophet with his “I don’t know how to speak – I’m just a boy” excuse.
Up to this point, I hadn’t been seeing clearly. My excuses were formed out of a dim reflection of who I was. I couldn’t see myself in ministry, but that was because I couldn’t really see myself at all. I didn’t know everything I needed to know, but that was okay. It was appropriate, in fact. We “know only in part.” Somewhere down the line, I might know fully, but that was no excuse to sit around and wait for that day to come. Someone knew me fully, and that Someone was calling me to go to seminary.
Now, this is no proper exegetical, theological, or even pastoral interpretation of this passage. To some degree, I can’t really tell you why this snippet of scripture affected me so powerfully and changed the course of my life. It was a moment of deep spiritual knowing that is difficult to put into words.
And yet, I have tried to tell this story, again and again. On my seminary application. Through the ordination process. And to all the people who ask, with great curiosity, “how did you go from being an actress to being a minister?”
It’s not a great story. There’s not a lot of drama. No major life events or exciting action. The main character isn’t particularly interesting. But it’s all I’ve got. Excuses, pushed aside by the mysterious movement of the Spirit.
And while my story may not be terribly exciting, it echoes the stories we hear in scripture. The story of Jeremiah, his excuses pushed aside by the Word of God. The story of the Corinthian church, embroiled in conflict and division, filled with excuses. “We feel foolish talking about this Jesus stuff.” “We need a sign.” “We can’t agree on who to follow.” “We’re having trouble telling right from wrong in this new faith.” “We’re arguing over which spiritual gifts are the best.”
And Paul pushes aside their excuses with love. Love, patiently and kindly working through disagreements. Love, standing in stark contrast to all their childish behavior, their envy and boasting and arrogance and rudeness. Love, bearing all things, believing all things, hoping all things, enduring all things.
This love is the beginning and ending of all our stories of faith. It shapes the narrative we teach in Sunday school here, the narrative that forms the foundation of our Confirmation curriculum. It’s the story of how God loves the world. How the world wandered far from God. How Jesus is the way to God. How the Spirit leads us to God. And how we follow the way of God’s love.
Through this story, our Confirmands have learned to tell their own stories. Each of them composed statements of faith that wove elements of our larger story of faith into their own experiences.
While many of our Confirmands’ stories expressed a deep sense of commitment to following the way of God’s love, to following the call of God on their lives, many of them also included excuses. Teenagers, after all, are professionals when it comes to making excuses. I remember I once told my mom I couldn’t go to school one day because I’d left my makeup at a friend’s house and couldn’t possibly show my face to the entire middle school without it.
Our Confirmands, in their faith stories, expressed a variety of excuses. “I need more facts, more evidence.” “I don’t feel God’s presence in my life.” “I don’t understand why God lets bad things happen in the world.” “I have too many questions and doubts.” “I’m selfish or judgmental.” “Sometimes I’m mean.”
Honestly and authentically, they shared their excuses, their struggles to follow the call of God on their lives.
But this was only one part of their stories. Overwhelmingly, they expressed this understanding that they are only seeing in a mirror dimly. They realize that they know only in part. They trust that someone knows them fully. They trust that God believes in them even when they’re not sure they believe in God.
In their stories, the Confirmands talked about trusting in Love, even if they weren’t sure they could call that Love by the name God. They talked about God calling Jeremiah and giving him the words to share God’s love, even when he was unsure of himself. They shared how they are following the way of God’s love, and how they intend to keep following – serving those in need, participating in the ministry of this church, opening their hearts and minds to continue to grow in faith.
In other words, they aren’t letting their excuses get in the way. Despite their doubts, their questions, their excuses, they are committing themselves to sharing the hope that is in them, to following the path God has set for them, and to loving as God has loved them. As they profess their faith and are welcomed in to adult membership in the church, they are putting an end to their childish ways, their teenage excuses, to accept the responsibility to love and serve and follow God with a faith that is still young and fresh and vulnerable.
So if these 17 teenagers can do this, the rest of us really have no excuse. I said earlier that teenagers are experts in making excuses. But I’m not entirely sure that’s true. We really learn to hone this skill as adults. “Busy” is our favorite excuse. It covers everything and is irrefutable. Another excuse we love is “you know, that’s just not my gift.” This excuse is as old as Moses. Literally. We tell ourselves that someone else will take care of it, that it’s not my place to get involved, that things will work out eventually. We have lots of great excuses.
But for those of us who were privileged to hear our Confirmands share their faith statements on Wednesday night, all those excuses were pushed aside. The love they expressed in their stories – love for family, for strangers in need, for this church, and for God – that love brought us face to face with God’s call on our lives once again. That call to share the hope of Christ that is within us, that call to journey with each other in faith, that call to teach and learn and grow, and most of all, that call to love.
One Confirmand shared that she’s not certain about her belief in God. But she is sure that she believes in love. And for now, that might be enough. As she, and the other Confirmands, continue in membership here, they may learn to connect that love to the name of God. But for now, believing in love is enough.
Our challenge as a congregation is to keep walking alongside these young people, wondering and searching, longing and striving, serving and caring. No “I’m too busy right now,” or “working with teens is not my gift.” We are called by God, and we are promising today, to support, guide and nurture, pray for and encourage our Confirmands. Most of all, we are committing to loving them. With patience, kindness, humility and honesty. We will love them. No excuses. Amen.
Rev. Dr. John Judson
May 14, 2017
Isaiah 42:5-9; Acts 16:11-15
They were excited. It was their first trip to Europe and they wanted it to be a success. They had done well in Asia but it was time to expand the ministry. So, off to Europe they went; Paul, Silas and their posse. Their first stop was Philippi. They knew that this would not be an easy city in which to work. First, they were not from “around here” and were Jewish outsiders. Second, it was not going to be easy because it was a city designed and built for retired Roman soldiers; the same kind of Roman soldiers who had crucified Jesus. Finally, it was filled with Romans, for whom the whole concept of resurrection was a non-starter. It was not going to be easy, but all they had to do was to find the local synagogue or a place where Jews gathered, tell them about Jesus and they would have the beachhead they needed to create a church and make converts. Unfortunately for them, what they quickly discovered was that there was no synagogue and no male Jews meeting at a place of prayer; which meant that there weren’t even ten Jewish men in the entire city. We can only imagine what they must have been thinking when they realized they had no ready-made friends in Philippi. It was over, before it had even begun. But then, in that discouraging moment, God did what God always does, God sent the right woman, to the right place, at the right time.
Evidently the only people down by the river, and Paul and his posse had gone to the river because Jews needed water for ritual bathing before worship, was a woman and her family. The woman was Lydia and Lydia was a God-fearer. What this means is that she worshipped the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob even though she was not Jewish. In other words, she was open to hearing about what this amazing God had done in and through Jesus of Nazareth. She was open to hearing about his death and resurrection. She was open to knowing more about what it meant to follow him. Granted, even with all of that having been said, she did not appear to be a likely convert. After all she was wealthy and well connected. She was a small business owner with a boutique business selling purple fabric to the elites of the city and the empire. Surely Paul, as a good Jewish Christian, he would not spend time with her. Yet he does. And not only does Lydia come to believe in Jesus, she and her household are baptized and she convinces the Apostle Paul and his friends to come and stay at her home. Lydia was the right woman, in the right place, at the right time.
This concept of the God putting the right woman, in the right place, at the right time should not surprise us. This is, in some ways, the entire story of the New Testament. First there is Mary. God desired that God’s only son be born fully human. What this meant was that God needed a woman who was willing to risk everything; her family, her friends and her reputation to be the messiah’s mother. Mary agreed. She was the right woman, in the right place, at the right time, who stuck by Jesus from birth, to death and beyond. Then, during Jesus’ ministry, he was financially supported by women. Women, such as Mary Magdalene, Joanna and Susanna who had been touched by his love and power, became not only his disciples, but they were the financial backers of his ministry. Without them the disciples would have had to have begged for alms to keep going. Instead God provided the right women, in the right place, at the right time. This trend continued at the end of Jesus’ ministry. When he was arrested, tried and crucified, it was the women who were there at the cross. It was the women who attested to his death. And then it was the women who come to the tomb. The men were afraid, hiding out, but the women went to anoint his body. On hearing the news of his resurrection, they rushed to tell the disciples, who didn’t believe them. It was women who were the first witnesses to his resurrection; the first Apostles to tell others about it; the first to believe. This trend continued for Paul. If we read his letters carefully we will discover that there were women deacons, church leaders and Apostles. God put the right women, in the right place, at the right time.
I suppose it would be easy to assume that this work of God ended with the closing of the New Testament, but that it not how God works. I say that because when things needed to be done, God calls upon women to do them. In the late 1800s, the Northern Presbyterian Church was not engaged in either local or global missions. It was, if you will, a foreign concept. Yet there were women who believed that there were needs both locally and globally. Thus in 1875, Sarah Foster Hanna, “a missionary enthusiast” became the first woman to speak at a General Assembly. She recommended that Women’s Missionary Societies be formed. Within a year seventy societies were created. Within ten years the women were raising enough funds for national organizers and fifty-six women missionaries. In 1912, women in the Southern Presbyterian church, joined them…which is remarkable because the two denominations would not come together until 1983. It was the women who paved the way. God put the right women, in the right place, at the right time.
The same has been true for First Presbyterian Church of Birmingham. In 1906, God called women in this church to begin raising money to support missions. They initiated the rummage sale. In the beginning the financial results were not spectacular, but they were significant. And in a time when women were not allowed in leadership in any way in the denomination, they took charge and expanded the mission of the church. When one pastor would not allow them to hold their rummage sales at the church, they found empty store fronts, as far away as Highland Park, from which they would operate. And as Diane Bert reminded them, they were noted in the papers, for fitting men’s suits. Over the years this tradition of raising money for missions has continued. And this past week, we celebrated this great tradition with the last of the sales…as we know all good things must come to an end. But along the way the Presbyterian Women, and their male assistants (guys you know who you are) have raised more than $2.2 million for missions.
Though the official Presbyterian Women’s’ Organization will cease to be at the end of this month, the role of women in this church will certainly not. We can see this in that God put the right women, Kathy Nyberg and Stephanie Kummer, in the right place at the right time to create our Alcott ministry. We can see this in that God put the right woman, Rev. Kate Thoresen, in the right place at the right time to create the Faith Community Coalition on Foster Care Ministry. We can see this in that God put the right women, Cindy Merten and the Rev. Joanne Blair, in the right place at the right time to create one of the nation’s best Inclusion programs. We can see this in that God put the right woman in the right place when Elizabeth Gumbis started the Shop and Drop program to feed Alcott families on weekends. This list could go on and on, with our female pastors, elders, deacons, mission leaders, singers, ushers, teachers, prayers, listeners, givers and everything else that is needed to accomplish the work of God’s Kingdom here on earth.
I want to ask, how many of you had the right woman, in the right place, at the right time make an impact in your life as a mother, a teacher, a mentor or a friend? Good, so here is my challenge to you this morning. I challenge you to make it a point to thank that woman, or women during this week. And if that woman is no longer with us, to give thanks to God for placing that woman in your life. Let us pray….
Rev. Dr. John Judson
May 7, 2017
Micah 6:6-8; 1 Corinthians 11:17-34
She hit me. That is the only way to describe what happened. She hit me. Cindy and I were in San Antonio, the final Christmas break before I graduated from seminary. We decided to attend First Presbyterian Church there and hear one of my classmates preach. We arrived early only to discover two things. First he was preaching in the chapel, which was not much larger than our own. Second, he was a very popular preacher and the place was packed. Cindy and I scanned the pews and realized that the only one left open was the very last pew. Feeling relieved that we had found a place to sit, we began to slip in. It was then that I got hit. Actually, it was more like a “thwack”. I turned to see who had hit me and it was the usher. She glared at me, and hitting me once again with her stack of bulletins said, “That’s my seat. That’s my pew and you can’t sit there.” A bit stunned, I tried to explain why we were there, but again, “thwack”, “It’s my pew.” I must say, that as I read this week’s story, it occurred to me that that usher would have fit right in at the church in Corinth.
She would fit right in because the church at Corinth was one hot mess. It was a hot mess because people argued over whose baptism was the best. It was a hot mess because they argued over whose spiritual gifts were the best…many thought that speaking in tongues topped them all. They argued over the place of Jews within the community. And on top of all those arguments they were selfish. This selfishness is at the center of our text this morning. To understand this, let me set the scene. In the early church, people met in homes. They had no church buildings. When they met in homes, people would bring their own picnic lunches and bottles of wine. Unfortunately, what was happening was that some of the Christians who were arriving early were those with means and they would chow down on their lunches and get drunk on their wine. So when the late comers, who were probably the servants and slaves arrived, there was not only nothing left to eat or drink, but when they asked for food or drink that others brought, we might imagine that they got “thwacked” and were told, “Hey, hands off, that is mine.”
It would be easy for us to pass off these actions as people being rude and deciding that they need to go back to kindergarten and learn some manners. But for Paul, these actions are not about rudeness. They are about God’s people not walking their worship. Let me explain. Worship within the Jewish tradition, while containing certain rites and rituals such as sacrifices and the reading of the law, is at its core about how people live. It is about people walking the road of right relationships and right living that God laid out for them in the Torah. We hear this clearly in the words of the prophet Micah. ““With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” In other words, worship is what we do and how we live. This means that worship is not contained within this building but is a lived experience every day of our lives and in every place where we live, learn and work.
This is why the Apostle Paul reminds them of the content of the Lord’s Supper. He doesn’t do so because they are using the wrong words, or because their liturgy is incorrect, but because their lives are not walking the worship that is at the heart of the supper. He reminds them that Jesus allowed his body to be broken for them. He reminds them that Jesus allowed his blood to be shed for them. He reminds them that this sacrificial action is supposed to be the road that they are walking. He reminds them that every time they eat and drink at the table they are pledging themselves to walk the walk of love, compassion sacrifice and sharing. And he warns them that when they fail to walk their worship, they will find themselves living lives that lead not to the strength that God offers, but to lives that lead to the weakness that the world offers. Therefore, they are to carefully examine their lives before coming to the table. They are to ask themselves if they are indeed walking their worship; if their lives are examples of Christ’s compassion and sacrifice.
You and I are to ask ourselves the same things. We are to ask ourselves if we are walking our worship; if we are living our lives of service, compassion, sharing and sacrifice. So, that is my challenge to all of us on this communion Sunday, to examine our walk as we wait for the elements to be passed. To ask ourselves this question, am I walking my worship in such a way that I reflect the sacrificial life shown to me at this table?