Dr. John Judson
June 25, 2017
Isaiah 65:17-25; 1 Corinthians 13:1-13
It seemed like a good idea at the time. I was wandering down the baking isle of the grocery store doing two things at one time. First I was picking up the ingredients for my mother’s world famous chocolate chip cookies; the cookies that were envied by all my friends. Second, I was trying to figure out how I could lose some weight. I know, they are mutually exclusive. It was then that I saw the sugar substitute, not in packets but in the large plastic container. The wording on the container said that it tasted like sugar, measured out like sugar and baked like sugar. Eureka, I said to myself, here it is. I can have my cookies and lose weight too. When I got home I went immediately to work. I should have known that something wasn’t right when the initial consistency was a bit off. Then I should have known something was even less right when the dough was not melting right on the cookie sheets. Finally, I knew something was wrong when I bit into one. It was in that moment that I gave into the fact that the one necessary ingredient in my mother’s cookies was sugar, sugar, sugar.
The necessary ingredient. In virtually everything we create or everything that we do there is a necessary ingredient. It doesn’t mean that there aren’t other ingredients. What I mean is that there is almost always a single ingredient without which, whatever it is we are doing, will not finally be successful. If we are baking bread, we need yeast. If we are creating a successful corporation we need not only a visionary leader, but one who will create an ethically sustainable community, that will nurture and support its employees and customers. If we are creating a great school classroom there are lots of ingredients that can make a difference; good books, a clean environment, appropriate technology. Yet the necessary ingredient is a teacher who loves children…and has great classroom management skills. And the same is true for the church. It too has a necessary ingredient that makes it the kind of community that God desires it to be. And if we believe the Apostle Paul, that ingredient is love.
In his letter to the church at Corinth, Paul spends quite a bit of time discussing the ingredients that God mixes into the baking of the church. In churchy terms, we call these spiritual gifts, but they are, in essence, the spiritual ingredients that bake up a successful church. He names these as wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, teaching and tongues. Elsewhere he includes ingredients such as generosity, serving, compassion and encouragement. For Paul, all of these ingredients are important and contribute to the life and work of the community. Yet for Paul, love is the one necessary ingredient. Listen again to his words. “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.” Paul is not simply being poetic here, he is being prophetic, by making it clear that no Jesus’ community can be what it ought to be without the ingredient of love. And he does so, I believe, for two important reasons.
First, loves unites people as neighbor, and doesn’t divide them as enemies. Jesus’ work on this earth was not, as I have said before, to get people into heaven. It was to begin the process of creating a new heaven and a new earth, as described by the prophet Isaiah. It was to initiate the Kingdom of God in which there would be no more weeping. In which people live long, meaningful lives. In which people enjoy the work of their hands. In which all of creation will live together in peace. And in order for this reality to exist, people need to be united. They need to be a community not only in the church but across the world in which all persons are valued and nurtured. This is what love does. It does so because it is patient and kind; because it bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things and endures all things. At the same time, love is not those things that divide us. Love is not envious of what others have. It is not boastful or arrogant because of perceived status. It never insists on its own way. It doesn’t rejoice in untruth, but in the truth. Love unites, and in uniting it begins to create the new heaven and new earth. Hate, on the other hand, while it can unite, the unity it creates is that of enemies who can never create the new heaven and earth. They cannot bring forth the Kingdom of God.
Second, love is the God ingredient. What I mean by that is that love is the essence of God’s very nature. The writer of the letters of John tells us that God is love, and whenever we love, God is present. The Old Testament reminds us again and again, that God’s steadfast love endures forever and that God cares for God’s children like both a father and a mother. Thus when we love we are not only united with one another but we are united with God, in and through God’s Spirit. We are united with the source of our strength. Paul makes this clear at the end of this chapter when he tells us that as the new heaven and earth come into existence all the other ingredients will slowly wither away because they are not needed, but love will remain. He writes, “Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end…Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”
Here at Everybody’s Church I believe we do a good job of loving one another and trying our best to use love to unite the communities and world around us. Whether it is through casserole club, deacons visiting, pastoral care, serving at Alcott or Ruth Ellis, going to Mexico or Africa, we show and share love. More recently we have begun to make love more real in our congregation through a new ministry…Stephen’s Ministry. This morning we are going to be commissioning new Stephen’s ministers. Stephen Ministers are trained and supervised lay volunteers who enter one-to-one confidential relationships with people who are struggling with various life situations. They listen, support, and are true sojourners, living out the love of Christ. Within the life of our congregation then, they will be baking in the love of Christ into the lives of people who need a friend and companion on the way. The challenge for the rest of us, is to try and do the same. To let Love be that necessary ingredient in our lives and our relationships.
My challenge is this, to ask yourselves this question, how am I baking love into my life, in such a way that it offers glimpses of God’s new heaven and earth?
Bethany Peerbolte, Director of Youth Ministries
June 18, 2017
Psalm 116; Ephesians 3:14-21
The second reading today comes from Ephesians. And while this letter is titled for the Ephesians the letter was also intended to circulate around to other churches as general advice and encouragement from Paul. So it was passed from church to church and has found its way to us in this church today. Starting at verse 14 Paul writes
14 For this reason I bow my knees before the Father,15 from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name. 16 I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, 17 and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. 18 I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19 and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.
20 Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, 21 to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.
This is a wonderful prayer for a growing church, Paul is hopeful, encouraging, even upbeat. But what we miss by not reading the previous chapter is that Paul is actually in prison. So while his tone is upbeat, his circumstances are far from ideal. He has been put in prison because of his work spreading the gospel. While in prison Paul is not able to physically be with the churches he founded. He cannot sit with them to moderate disputes, he cannot put his arm around their shoulders and teach them, he cannot be there to help them navigate every challenge that comes their way.
And the church is facing a unique challenge. Their leaders, the apostles, are beginning to die. Martyrdom has already taken James the brother of Jesus, The apostle mark has passed away, and in two short years the rock stars of the early church, Peter and Paul, will also be gone.
Leaderless the church will have to figure out how to navigate the larger culture. A culture where the roman empire is constantly at war. At this time in Syria governments are fighting for control and the innocent citizens are caught in the cross fire. Many people are fleeing for their lives into safer countries. In the kingdom of Iceni the king has decided to let his daughters inherit his throne. A progressive move on his part but when he dies the Roman army comes in and publicly rapes the princesses. The larger culture turns a blind eye on the injustice because “soldiers will be soldiers.” In Pompeii, 20,000 people in the city are packing up their lives to find a new home because they are afraid the recent earthquake will also set off the nearby volcano.
The world the early Christians are being asked to step into is far from perfect. And without their beloved teachers to lean on they are worried about their future. They are unsure they will be able to become the people they want to be. And so the church is facing a sort of graduation. They have been taught by the best teachers Jesus could find but are now being asked to make their own way in the world.
The world the class of 2017 is being asked to step into is still far from perfect. The problems of war, rape, and natural disasters are still headlines. For those of us who have worked so hard to teach and protect the graduates, we may feel like we are in that prison with Paul. Watching from afar as our loved ones face the harsh world. Forced to trust that what we have taught them was actually learned or even the right thing to teach in the first place.
And for those of us who are graduates and are starting a new chapter of life it is scary to be on our own. Maybe right now it feels pretty good but the day will come when we will feel truly alone. When we need a mentor and all our favorite teachers are miles away. A moment will come when we have to rely on what we’ve learned, make decisions for ourselves, set goals that are reasonable yet challenging. Those moments will make us wonder why we ever dreamed about leaving home and being on our own in the first place.
The struggle to be on our own, and the struggle to let a loved one move on is exactly what Paul and the church are dealing with. But Paul does not seem very worried in this letter. This isn’t a letter from a concerned parent. In fact he almost sounds excited that he is in prison and the church has to give it a go without him. Paul has confidence that the church has what it takes. He has lived among them and seen the church in action. There is no doubt in his mind the church will continue to thrive. Paul sees this as an opportunity for the church to test what they have learned and solidify who they are, not just followers of Paul but as individual independent believers.
But Paul also knows the church will have moments when they doubt themselves so he writes this prayer to be a reminder of what it takes to be strong independent people of God.
He begins by reminding the church they have an inner strength that is powered by the holy spirit. POWERED BY THE HOLY SPIRIT! The Holy Spirit does astonishing things in the Bible, and Paul is saying that power is available to every single believer. SO Paul isn’t worried about the church finding their way without him, they have the holy spirit. Nothing is going to stand against the church when they have a power that can move mountains, a power that can calm raging storms. A power that can bring the dead back to life. They will be fine as long as they remember to tap into that power.
Power is a tricky thing. Power is the reason wars are fought. Power can lead people astray, but Paul is still not worried the church will lose its path. He reminds the church they have also been taught how to use this power because they are rooted and grounded in love. A love that is wider and higher and longer and deeper than they could ever comprehend. Paul is not worried that this power will be miss handled because he has seen the church show astonishing love, to one another and to outsiders. As long as they stay rooted and grounded in love they will never be off the path.
After reminding the church of the power they have access to and their grounding in love Paul sets up a challenge for them. He tells them to remember that God will do far more with their lives than they can even imagine, if they only work to give God the glory.
Paul knows about accomplishing more with God. This is a man whose plan was to be your basic run of the mill roman citizen. His plan was to follow along, kill Christians and end the Jesus movement. Instead God interrupts his plan and sets him up to be an evangelical rock star. God makes Paul a spokesperson for Jesus like the world had never seen! It involved some struggle, Paul was blind for a stint, was thrown in prison a few times, but he has inspired generations to follow Jesus. His words have lasted nearly 2000 years and he is still talked about today. Not many basic run of the mill roman citizens being talked about still today. Astonishing!
And the Bible is filled with people who accomplish more when they keep God close. Moses’ plan was to be a simple shepherd until a bush starts burning in front of him. Joseph, the one with the amazing coat, wanted to continue the family business until his brothers sold him into slavery. Mary just wanted to be married to a nice guy until an angel told her she was pregnant. None of their plans were extravagant until God gets involved. The simple shepherd Moses ends up freeing a group of slaves and founding a new nation. Astonishing! Joseph doesn’t end up running the family business but he does end up running Egypt. Astonishing! Mary gets the guy plus she raises a son who saves the world from sin. Astonishing! Their lives end up astonishingly better once God is involved. Easier? Maybe not. But defiantly a better plan in the long run.
Graduates you will hear all sorts of advice in the coming weeks, but Pauls’ advice has lasted nearly 2000 years. Trust the power of the Holy Spirit to strengthen you, root yourself in love, and do all things with God because God will help to live an astonishing life.
I certainly will be taking the advice as a fellow graduate. And being reminded that I have the power of the Holy Spirit it seems ridiculous now that I spent so many nights worrying if I was going to get through a class, especially Hebrew and Greek. But remembering our inner strength in the moment is hard. We won’t always feel that inner strength, it is hard to see anything else other than our current struggle. But if we acknowledge the spirit, in retrospect, if we take the time now to look back and see “oh that’s how I got through that tough time.” Then the next time we find ourselves worrying at 3 am we can remember that the spirit got us through the last struggle and is working to get us through this one.
I’ll be honest, this next piece of advice seems like a waste of time to tell these graduates. Stay rooted and grounded in love? I know you’ve got this one figured out. Two weeks ago I asked the underclassmen in youth group to talk a little about the graduates. What would they miss, what would they remember. What legacy would the class of 2017 leave on our church. The overwhelming response was their love. The youth recalled times they were welcomed into the group by one of the graduates. They told me about being on the Mexico mission trip and not knowing many people, but feeling supported by the graduates. They said they see them more like older siblings than just someone who goes to the same church. As they shared stories it was obvious these graduates have set down their roots. Deeply imbedded in love. SO just like Paul is sure the early church is ready to face the world, we too can be sure these graduates are ready for whatever is coming next.
And what is coming next is a bit of a mystery, for the most part. We can plan, planning is a big
deal, graduates if you haven’t already heard you need to constantly know where you will be in 1 year, 5 years, and 10 years. You must have a plan in place! If you can’t figure that out your doomed to fail. At least that is the sentiment you will face in the world. Plans aren’t bad, people who don’t plan often end up binge watching an entire show on Netflix. I fully admit to being a procrastinator and have had to learn how to plan so I don’t have to pull as many all nighters.
Plans help us clearly lay out what our hopes and dreams are. Which should never be ignored because God has a way of pulling on our hearts and minds through our hopes and dreams. They are the reigns God uses to keep up on our path. SO plan! Make a 1 year plan, a 5 year plan, a 10 year plan, but also be open to God interrupting that plan, because the 1 year, 5 year, 80 year plan that God has for you is astonishing!
This past fall First Theater Guild presented the musical “Little Women” which two of our graduates were in. In this musical the character Jo sings a song called “Astonishing” and in it she celebrates the great adventure of going off and finding out who she is. She knows that she may even find herself in unexpected places.
God’s plan may lead us through strange territory, the path may be a bit more zig zagged than we want, God’s timing will probably be slower than we think we can stand, but God has a plan. A plan that will do more with your life than you could ever believe possible. So if you find yourself in a place you never expected to be, like freeing people from slavery, or running a government, or raising an extraordinarily talented child, or preaching in a pulpit, embrace the unexpected and know that you are astonishing!
Rev. Dr. John Judson
June 11, 2017
Genesis 1:26:31; Colossians 3:1-17
It was one of those nights, when in the wasteland we call cable television there was nothing to watch. In desperation Cindy and I turned to one of our online streaming services seeking something worthwhile to watch. Our only criteria was that it got almost five out of five stars as reviews. I quickly noticed one with a rather funny name, “Downtown Abbey”. After a brief discussion, we began streaming it, upon which Cindy said, “John, it is Downton Abbey. Not Downtown Abbey.” Needless to say, we were hooked. We binged watched all of season one in a week or so, and like addicts looked for more. There were many things to like about the show: its characters and actors, its plot lines, its cinematography and its costumes. For me, the costumes were wonderful, not only because they were so wonderfully made and period appropriate, but because they allowed us to know immediately who was who in the power-structure of the house. The aristocracy dressed one way, the butlers another, the maids another and the cooks another. It was this powerful reminder of how societies over the centuries used clothing to mark off social status.
This use of clothing to mark social status was nothing new in the time-period of Downton Abbey. It had been used by societies and cultures for millennia. One of the great examples is that of the Roman Empire. In the Roman Empire, one could walk down the street, and by the nature of an individual’s clothing tell not only what social class they belonged to, but what place in that social cast. Slaves and ordinary workers wore tunics of dark brown, rough wool. Patricians, wore white tunics made of better wool. The magistrates had slightly different white tunics and the senatorial class had broad stripes on their tunics. And togas? Togas could only be worn by free-born Roman citizens, though people seldom wore them because they were hot and a real pain to wear. Now, many of you are probably wondering where I am going with all this discussion about status and clothing. Where I am going is to offer you the background necessary for understanding Paul’s comments to the Christians in Colossae, where Paul uses clothing as his metaphor for how the Colossians ought to live as restored followers of Jesus.
Paul begins by reminding his readers that once-upon-a-time they had first dressed like Romans. They were dressed in “fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire and greed.” All of which were hallmarks of Roman culture. This had been their ethical clothing. At the same time, they were also dressed in the ethical clothing of fallen human nature: “anger, wrath, malice, slander and abusive language” (sound familiar?). By being clothed in these garments would have allowed them to blend in with society and be seen as typical Romans. Their clothing would have identified them. With that having been said, Paul also reminds them that in their baptisms, by becoming followers of Jesus Christ, they had removed these garments and been clothed with a new self; a self that is being renewed. Even so, the image Paul offers in that moment is of the Colossians looking in their closet to choose what to wear in order that they be identified as followers of Jesus. At their feet is a pile of their old clothes. In the closet are the new Jesus’ clothes. Which would they wear?
Paul encourages them to dress for success, not as Romans or as fallen human’s but as Christians. He writes, “As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.” As we listen to this ethical wardrobe that Jesus’ followers are supposed to wear, we might think to ourselves that there is nothing new here. How could those items of clothing mark the Colossians off as being different; as being Christians. The answer is that these items of clothing were not appreciated or worn by Romans. These clothes were in fact seen as being inappropriate. They showed weakness. They showed a disdain for the rigid class structure of Roman society, because rich and poor, citizen and non-citizen, men and women, slave and free could wear the same clothing. These clothes were in fact a direct challenge to everything for which the Empire stood. To wear these Jesus clothes would truly get someone noticed.
The question for us this morning then is, what are we wearing? I ask that because we are living in a moment in our nation’s history when it appears to be acceptable to take off the clothes that Christ has called us to wear and put on our old clothes; the clothes of anger, wrath, malice, slander and abusive language. And let me be clear here, I am not pointing fingers at any person, political party or political position. It is all around us. It is easy to do. There is in fact something alluring about our old clothes; they fit us, they feel comfortable, they are familiar, and they slip on effortlessly. But what happens when we slip back into our old clothes; we reinforce the stereotype that millions of Americans have about how Christians dress. We are those who dress in intolerance, anger and hatred. Our challenge then is to consciously wear the clothing of Christ. Let me clear here though that wearing the clothing of Christ is not easy. It takes work to reach into our inner closets and pull out compassion, kindness, meekness, patience and love, when the world around us sees those as demonstrating weakness and not strength. It takes work and effort to wear those clothes in the face of fear, partisanship and finger pointing. It takes work and effort to continually clothe ourselves in Christ rather than in criticism of others. Yet this is what we are called to do; to do the difficult and not the easy.
My challenge to you this week is this, that each morning as you look at yourself in the mirror, ask this question, what am I wearing today? Have I put on Christ so that in me people will see Christ in their midst?
Rev. Dr. John Judson
June 4, 2017
Ezekiel 36:26-32; Acts 2:1-13
I want to begin this morning with a test your memory quiz about birthdays. I will ask a series of questions and raise your hand if you know the answer. First, how many of you know your own birthday? Good! How many of you know the birthday of at least one of your parents? Good. How many of you know the birthday of a spouse, significant other or a good friend? How many of you, if you have children, nieces or nephews, know at least one of their birthdays? Great. Now we will get a little Biblical. How many of you know Jesus’ birthday? Excellent! Now how many of you know the birthday of the church? Pentecost? Sorry, that’s wrong. OK, so I know that most of us in the church have been programmed that Pentecost is the church’s birthday. In fact if you go online you will see lots of churches celebrating today with birthday cakes, balloons and celebrations. But if we are to believe John Calvin, who for those of you who are not life-long Presbyterians, is the founder of Presbyterianism, the church has been around since Abraham. It has been around that long because the church is nothing more, and nothing less, than the called out and gathered people of God. The church then was around in Egypt, in the wilderness, in the Promised Land, and in the exile. So what then is Pentecost?
Some people claim that it is the first arrival of the Spirit. Yet again, as we saw in our call to worship moment, the Spirit has been around since creation. It has been around for the prophets. It was around for Jesus. What then is Pentecost all about? The answer I would offer is that Pentecost is about restoration. To understand this, we need only to look to the Woodward Dream Cruise. Any of you ever been? Right, so there are two basic kinds of cars that come to the Dream Cruise. First there are modified cars. These are the hotrods and others who have gleaming new engines, wheels and the like that would never have been imagined by those who designed them…well maybe just a little. Then there are the restored cars; cars that look like they just rolled off the factory floor and had never been driven. What Pentecost celebrates is God’s action of sending the Spirit to begin the process of fully restoring humanity; of bringing us back to the original condition in which we, in Genesis, rolled off God’s assembly line.
We can see this in the passage from the prophet Ezekiel. Ezekiel is writing to a people who had lost all hope; who were being sent to the junk yard of history. My image of them is that of the crushed cars that Cindy and I saw on a trailer heading to be recycled rather than to be restored. Ezekiel tells the people in exile however, that God has other plans; that there will come a time when God will give them a new heart, a heart of flesh to replace their heart of stone. That God will give them a heart that allows them to follow God’s rules for right living. That will save them from the kind of lives that bring death rather than life. And that will allow them to be the kind of people who enjoy the richness of God’s creation. In other words, that they will be completely restored. What Pentecost is then, is the moment when God sends the Spirit to begin this restoration work. When God begins to restore God’s people and through God’s people the whole creation. The Spirit does not come to start something called the church. The Spirit comes to begin this promised work of restoration in order that all of humanity and creation become what God intended it to be.
This gift of God is that this restoring Spirit is not limited to one day, or to one people, or to one denomination. We see this in that the Spirit causes the disciples to first go out in order to tell people that the restoration has begun. Second to go out and speak in all languages in order to remind the people in Jerusalem that this restoration is for all nations. What this means for us is that God’s restorative Spirit is still with us. This Spirit is alive in each of us, taking our brokenness, our fear and our hurt and restoring us to be like those original models that lives in right relationship with God, others and creation; who find joy in living; who show the love of God to all that we meet; who offer the compassion and care of Christ in every moment of our lives. It also means that the Spirit is at work in our community; in Everybody’s Church as we welcome all people into the community of restoration, so that all people can discover this love and grace of God in Jesus Christ, in our midst; so they can experience the restoration as well.
This morning, then my challenge to you is this, to ask yourselves, where am I allowing the Spirit’s restoring work to change me that I might be an agent of restoration in the world? I ask this because we can either resist or embrace this restoring work. So once more, here is my challenge. Ask yourselves this question, where am I allowing the Spirit’s restoring work to change me so that I might be an agent of restoration in the world?