September 30, 2018
Love, sweat, and tears is what it took of me. One week, eighteen people, and temperatures over ninety degrees everyday: my Mexico mission trip was one for the books.
The sweat emphasized how sultry it is the closer to the equator you are. With hours of work and sunshine on our strong backs, we pushed through our task of building a school. Taking a break in the shade of the partially-constructed cement school, I looked around and couldn’t help myself but smile. Even though the group of high schoolers and adults were all going through their own internal battles, we were there on the forefront of one giant one. Putting together a permanent part of an everlasting school that would educate kids for generations and generations down the line. Even with the sweat and stink radiating off our tired bodies, our hearts and souls were being replenished and renewed for our hard work. God had seen our dedication and lifted us and all the workers up.
The hot tears falling down from my tired eyes reminded me of how little I knew about the future. We were building a school -- a university no less -- for their future, but what about mine? I felt simply like a pawn in the game of life, after finding out that a I got a low score on my ACT, and that could put me in some college where I knew I wasn’t meant to be. I knew I was better than that. When my dad accidentally told me my score on the fifth day of the Mexico trip, I simply nodded and knew to move on and push it aside. I was in Mexico for three reasons: to embrace another culture completely, to help build a school so hundreds of people could get an opportunity that they only dreamed about before, and to feel God’s presence in not only myself but in everyone else. I simply couldn’t think about myself and my future; but that night I couldn’t hold it in anymore. In my beautifully handmade hammock, swinging softly to the rhythm of the fans overhead, I couldn’t help myself but feel bad. I knew for a fact that getting a heart-wrenchingly low score wouldn’t get me into the college I so desired, and because of one test, my life would be over -- I would never become the artist I knew I was meant to be. But how silly and selfish to think that. I was not alone in my moment of anxiety. Being surrounded by such awe-inspiring people, swinging around me in hammocks, sound asleep, put me at peace. I was determined. God’s light filled me up and I knew what I had to do: not only would I retake it, but I would succeed; if not for me, then for them.
Without love in my heart, I wouldn’t have made it through that week. Loving everyone is easy for me. My open heart allows me to do so, so from the adorable kids in the town we entertained nightly (I couldn’t understand the locals thanks to the language barrier and my decision to learn French instead of Spanish) to my peers, friends, and family that surrounded me that week. Juana was her name, the little girl I clicked with the quickest. Her genuine smile was utterly contagious, making my time with her unimaginably fun, my heart bubbling with life every moment; her passion for sidewalk chalk and beating me in silent games of tic-tac-toe was admirable and pushed me and my love for kids further. I saw God’s creation right in front of me and saw him shining through her. Leaving her was the hardest -- with the bond of our temporary butterfly tattoos and permanent bond of love and laughter -- but I knew with the work our church and I did that week, we would send her to a more promising future.
I knew she wasn’t the only one heading in the right direction with a future of opportunities.
Our church has been going to Leona Vicario for over 15 years, and when I went for my first time this summer, I truly saw God. God’s creation through God’s creatures, making a future so promising for my new friends in Mexico. I saw God’s work through my friends as they worked their heads off, and strongly, strongly recommend this adventure of a lifetime to anyone on the fence about this. You will learn so much about yourself and your capabilities you never knew you had, and you’d learn about God and what his true gifts to the world are, big and small...you can make a difference.
September 23, 2018
Proverbs 2:1-6; 1 Corinthians 2: 1-13
God’s wisdom verses human wisdom. That is the battle playing out in this letter from Paul to the Corinthian church. If Paul sounds defensive in the beginning of this, it’s because he is. His whole ministry Paul has been compared with the likes of Plato and Aristotle. When Paul was teaching, Greek Philosophy was all the rage. The lofty arguments and eloquent debates were what people were most interested in hearing. When Paul comes into town and speaks plainly about Christ he always hears the same complaint. “Sounds interesting and nice but it’s not as useful as Aristoteles History of Animals.” Paul gets to a point where he has had it. He studies up on the rhetoric and philosophies and heads to Athens to prove once and for all that Christ crucified can stand alongside any Greek philosophy. He fails….pretty miserably in fact.
As he retreats from Athens with his tail between his legs he writes this letter to the Corinthians. You can hear in these verses the assurances he must be telling himself to feel better. Who needs lofty words or human wisdom, I have the power of God! I don’t need to know the theories of Plato or Socrates, I know Christ crucified! Paul knows he will still have to face the comparison with Greek philosophers, so he sends this message ahead of him to prime the Corinthians to hearing his words not in the shadow of Greek philosophy but in the light of God’s glory.
Paul argues that by him not using big words he is worthier of being heard. Big words distract from the message, but Paul chooses to use simple words so the message shines through the rhetoric. Paul knew the message of Christ very well. His sermons were the reason churches where taking off all over the Roman empire. The failure in Athens was just one overshadowed by many success stories. He is not the confident, eloquent, philosophical genius everyone would love him to be, but because he is not those things when people believe his message it is not because of him that that believe it is because of God working in their heart.
That is the essential difference Paul wants the Corinthians to understand. Human wisdom must be imparted eloquently and understood completely to be gained. But God’s wisdom can only be understood when we get our hearts involved in the learning. There were always two kinds of people in the crowd when Paul preached. Those who heard Paul’s sermons and walk away, and those who were moved to make drastic life changes and commitments. How does that work? How do the same words impact people differently? Human wisdom would say that’s not possible. Human wisdom would argue that if two people heard the same lesson, were equally intelligent, were similar is just about every way, they should learn the same thing, but that’s not what happens when people hear about Jesus.
There is something about God’s wisdom that, as Paul puts it, is secret and hidden. To accept God’s wisdom, we also must accept the mystery of it. Accepting mystery is not something the world trains us well to do. Learning concrete facts that one can describe, that is true for everyone, we know how to do that. It’s essentially what all schools and universities do, but that is human wisdom. Paul wants us to see the value in what we cannot possibly describe. The things no human has ever seen or heard. Human wisdom is taught through the ear and eye, but the spirit teaches through the heart.
Every one of us has experienced something we can not describe. Some may categorize it as supernatural. You saw or felt something indescribable. Maybe you made a decision based on a gut instinct. You could never describe what made you pick one option over the other, you just had a sense that it was right. Or maybe you have experienced love. You’ve loved someone or been loved despite flaws and shortcomings. Love makes no human sense! If human wisdom could figure out love, there wouldn’t be hundreds of different dating apps on the market. Sure, science can show how endorphins affect our brains and how certain faces make us release more endorphins but there is a limit to the what human wisdom can explain.
Take music for example. Science can explain how sound is made. Sound is made by vibrations. We can explain that the vibrations an object makes produces longitudinal waves that begin to vibrate the air around the object and that wave vibration travels through the air until it hits our ears. Our ears are designed to take in those vibrations and signal the brain that there is a sound. I could go on and tell you how our ears hear sound, how our brain interprets sound, that is all human wisdom and you can google it if you want more information.
After receiving those waves, sound does this thing in human brains that human wisdom does not understand. Our brains can understand music. Years of research has found that we are the only animals that can put rhythm, tambour, and pitch together. Other animals can beat out a rhythm or hear a pitch and answer to it. Only human brains can decipher music from a noisy construction site. What is even more of a mystery is how music can affect our feelings. How many of you have cried when hearing a song? Or could not help yourself but to stand up and dance to a song? Human wisdom has no clue why that is.
If Andrew plays a major scale (plays major scale) we generally feel happier than if he were to play a minor scale (plays minor scale). There are all sorts of theories out there about why major males us feel happy and minor makes us feel sad. Most of them talk about brightness and a sense of wholeness and resolution of major scales. However, major is not universally a happy sound to humans. In Indonesia, major scales sound sad and minor scales sound happy. Physically we hear sound the same but something in our heart learns to respond differently. Human wisdom can explain the physical but gets tripped up when the heart and our feelings get involved.
Paul says that’s because the heart is God’s classroom. The spirit of God teaches from the inside out. If we have taken the spirit of God to be our guide, then when human wisdom fails the spirit steps in the fill in the gap. Even though it is a mystery we are more than happy to accept the effect on our feelings as real and true. No one asks what made you get up and dance, it’s acceptable to just dance when there is music around.
A few years ago, this church sent a mission team to Kenya. One day we met girls, young girls. Who left their families and walked, sometimes ran, for days to escape female genital mutilation. Most of these girls were the first in their tribe to ever say no to this ancient tradition. Imagine one day becoming convinced that eating apples was wrong. You come to this conclusion even though every other person you have ever met eats apples. You believe this despite everyone around you saying it is the most healthy and safe thing you could do. In fact, it is such an honor to eat an apple they hold a party the first time you have one. But right before your party you decide you don’t want to. You get death threats; your parents say they will hold you down and force the apple on you. Your only choice is to eat the apple or run away. Running away means you are on your own, as a young child you have very little opportunities to support yourself and it most likely will be worse than just eating the apple. Despite all this something inside you tells you to go. So, you do.
Thankfully on their escape these girls heard about a rescue and are now receiving an education and growing into amazing women. When we asked them, what made them decide to leave they had no answer. How does a person come to that conclusion?
When I asked again privately for one of the girls to tell me who inspired her to run away, she simply looked up at me and said the Holy Spirit did. It was not her own courage or someone else’s words that told her to leave. The glory of her escape goes fully to God. The world may not like her answer. The world will want to explain it away in one way or another. The world will want proof of the Spirit’s influence. What more proof do you need of God’s wisdom than a changed life.
Paul says wisdom is taught to the mature. Those who are listening and open to hear. A wisdom that is beyond todays knowledge, a wisdom no human has seen or heard or can even comprehend. That makes this wisdom hard to describe and explain. These are the things the Spirit teaches us from within.
It’s uncomfortable to know something but not understand it. The world will always be suspicious of such wisdom. We will forever be asked to explain it. Why did you leave? What made you choose this over that? How could you believe that? When we can’t explain ourselves we feel silly, inadequate, even stupid for feeling so strongly about something we can’t describe. But that insecurity is what makes us the best advocates for God. It means our success, our changed life, is not because we are the smartest, or that we trained the hardest. All the credit goes to the Spirit who inspires our hearts to action.
Embrace the mystery. Do not let the fear or trembling deter you from showing the world how God’s wisdom has changed your life. When asked How or Why or What answer as simply as you can and when you can’t describe something answer like that Kenyan girl “the Holy Spirit did” AMEN
Dr. John Judson
September 16, 2018
1 Corinthians 1:10-25; Leviticus 19:33-34
The percentages are 26%, 64% and 92%; 26% in 1958, 64% in 2016, and according to another study, it has just now hit 92%. It is a trend that disturbs me but does not surprise me. It is one of the clearest demonstrations of our divided nation. I say that because these are the percentages of parents who do not want their children involved in an interparty marriage. What is an interparty marriage? It is a marriage where a person of one party, say a Democrat, marries someone from another party, say a Republican. What is fascinating about this is that people in this country overwhelmingly approve of every other type of inter-marriage. Just not this. As I said, this is one of the clearest demonstrations of how divided we are as a nation.
One might think that in this age of division, the one place that the nation could turn to for unity would be the church. After all, we are all Christians. But, as I can see your smiles and hear some low laughs, we all know that is not true either. Just as the nation has become divided, so too has the church, and it is getting worse. The Roman Catholic Church is facing a revolt against the papacy not know in modern times. The Orthodox Church is coming apart as the patriarch of the Russian Church will no longer meet with the Patriarch in Constantinople, over what is happening in Ukraine. The Southern Baptists had a major split a couple of decades ago and continue to disfellowship churches that ordain women. The bishops of the United Methodists will be meeting soon to see if there is any way to hold their denomination together; something many insiders believe is impossible. Since I was in high-school, there have been three new Presbyterian denominations formed out of our own. We are a church divided and not united. And unfortunately, this is not merely a denominational one. It is occurring on a congregational level as well. Members have abandoned their long-time congregations saying that their churches left them, long before they left the church. So, the question becomes, how, in the face of all this division, can we remain united? How can we as a church filled with Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives, progressives and traditionalists hold together? The answer my friends can be found in this book, the Bible.
The answer to how we stay unified begins in the scriptures when we listen to the Torah. To clarify for a moment, the Torah is the first five books of the Old Testament. They are for Judaism, and were for Jesus, critical to understanding what it meant to be a follower of God. They contain not only the Laws, as we think of them, things like the Ten Commandments, but they also contain stories that give guidance to faithful living. One of the key understandings from the Torah were the two verses we read out of Leviticus, including, “The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself…” In other words, all are welcome, and all are loved and treated with respect. There are no boundaries that make some people greater or lesser than others. There are no boundaries that say, I am in and you are out. Notice it does not say that the alien or the stranger in the community must become like everyone else. Instead it says that once upon a time, the Israelites were strangers and knowing what it is like, they ought to welcome all into their midst. So where do we find our unity? We find it in welcoming all, without any pre-conditions, without any prejudice. We are unified in that once upon a time we were all aliens, strangers to God, as Paul would later say. We are unified in our diversity and thus we become Everybody’s Church.
The answer to how we stay unified continues when we listen to the Apostle Paul. Paul was no stranger to division, especially in the church in Corinth. This church was divided by class, slave versus free; by income, rich versus poor; by the manner of their spiritual gifts, those who spoke in tongues against everyone else; and by who baptized them, Paul, Apollos or Peter. And these divisions were not superficial. They were causing the church members to argue over who was more important and who had more power. They were tearing the church apart. It is into that situation that Paul immediately moves in his letter. He makes it clear that none of those things matter. That while they may be interesting, they are not important. The only thing that matters is Jesus. He writes that he proclaims Christ crucified and nothing more. That Christ is the power of God that changes lives and is transforming the world. Paul admits that that may seem foolish, after all how can a crucified Jew save the world? But for Paul, the unity of the church is found in this risen, reigning Christ. And this is the second place where we find our unity. We find it in Jesus. Jesus is the center of who we are and who we are becoming. Even when we may disagree about other things, we are united around being those who are committed to serving Christ.
The answer to how we stay unified is finally fleshed out when we listen to this entire story (the Bible). I say that because there are themes that are woven into this story that are intended to shape our lives both as individuals and as communities. And one of those great themes is that we are to be a community of blessing. I realize that blessing is a rather churchy word. A simple way to understand it is to see it as being a good neighbor. To be a good neighbor, in every sense of the word is to be a blessing. Last year Cindy and I went away on a trip and I forgot how much my lawn was going to grow. I was afraid on returning home that I would have a notice from the city about my long grass. But when we got back my lawn was mowed. I have no idea who did it. All I know is that I had a good neighbor. This is what it means to be a community of blessing; to reach out and do for others what they might not be able to do for themselves. To show kindness and compassion. To care when no one else will. Those all binds us together as we cultivate mission, inclusion and community. For each of those is a demonstration of being a community of blessing; blessing to those inside this place, and blessing to those in our community and in the world. So even as we disagree about other things, we are united around being those who cultivate, mission, inclusion and community.
What unifies us together is a Biblically based vision, that as Everybody’s Church we commit ourselves to serving Christ by cultivating mission, inclusion and community. And by allowing this vision to unify us, we become a gift to one another. We are a gift because a church that only believes one way, can often be wrong and miss the balance that the other side gives. We are a gift to the world. We are a gift because we show the world that a church in which people do not always agree can be a unified church. You are a gift to me. You are a gift to me because you do not always agree with me, which means I am forced to think more deeply about what I believe and what I proclaim. This makes me a better person.
My challenge to you this morning then is this, to ask yourselves how am I helping this church become, more and more, Everybody’s Church, which is committed to serve Christ by cultivating mission, inclusion and community?
Dr. John Judson
September 9, 2018
Deuteronomy 6:1-9; 1 Corinthians 1:1-9
The date was April 15, 1952. It was early in the morning when the Navy corpsman strode down the hallway at the Naval hospital in Oceanside, California. Cradled in one arm was a new born, crying for his life. In his other arm were clean sheets. Somewhere in one of the many wards of the hospital, the corpsman stopped at the bedside of a first-time mother. “Mrs. Judson,” he said, “Here is your new son. And here are sheets. Please get up as soon as you can and change the linen on your bed.” With that he strode away leaving my mother in tears. She was far from home. My dad was getting ready to ship out to the Korean conflict. A couple of days later, when my parents and my older brother David arrive at their temporary residence, they had no idea what to do with this baby that would not stop crying. Finally, in exasperation and exhaustion, my mother turned to my dad and asked, “What do I do with this child?” Have any of you ever asked this question…even when you children, nephews, nieces, students were teens or adults? So, what do we do with this child, these children?
For most of human history the answer has been to make them work. They worked because survival depended upon it. Children were actually a drain on a family until they could contribute to planting, harvesting or caring for animals. This continued through the Industrial Revolution where children worked long hours and on dangerous jobs because they could do things that adults could not. Even today, in some places such as in northern Kenya, our missionary, Faith Kasoni, works with families trying to convince them to send their daughters to school rather than just having them tend cattle and goats. As societies developed, the decision was made to teach them. The questions then became, what do we teach them? How large are the classes? What is the curriculum? Do we use public, private or parochial schools? Then there is the question of how to keep children safe. Do we wrap them in bubble wrap, or let them wander freely? Then there are all the other questions of when they get their first phone, how much screen time ought they to have, how may sports can they play at once, and on and on. Again then, what do I, we, do with this child?
I will tell you what my mother did. She depended on two things to help her answer the question. She trusted in Spock and the saints. I realize that this sounds like a Star Trek pop group, but it isn’t. The Spock in this case was Dr. Benjamin Spock. She bought his Baby and Childcare book, and according to her, it saved her sanity and our lives. The saints will take a bit more explaining. Growing up, the word “saint” meant the guys that were in the pictures on the Sunday school hallways. They were the people around Jesus who had these strange glowing things over their heads, which I later learned were halos. I always wondered what they did with them when they took a bath, or if they went out at night…yes, I was a strange child. But as my good Southern Baptist, become Presbyterian mother taught me, the saints were not those perfect people, but were the folks who surrounded my brothers and me in church. This role is made clear by the Apostle Paul in the opening of 1 Corinthians. He sends this letter to the saints, meaning to those men and women, set apart by God to be a particular kind of person, living in a particular kind of community, that does particular things. And all of that could be summed up in the Shema, the passage we read from Deuteronomy, that the saints were to be people who loved God with all their heart, soul and strength and helped their children do the same. These were the saints to which my parents turned to help them raise their four sons; the saints of St. Paul Presbyterian Church who worked hard to love us, teach us and show us what it meant to be saints. With that in mind I would like us to take a few minutes and reflect on what this call to be saints means for us, the saints of First Presbyterian Church.
First, being the saints means that we are to help our children in this church learn what it means to love God with all their heart, soul and might. We are to help them to understand not only that they are loved by God, but that God desires to be loved in return. For many of us, this might seem like a stretch because we have seen the Laws of God, as rigid, no fun rules. But this part of God’s Law reminds us that we are commanded to love God because God loves us. And teaching this to our children is what we promise to do every time we baptize a child. We promise to pray for them, support them, teach them and work with their parents to help them grow into the full stature of Christ. And speaking of baptism, one of the things I am often asked by families preparing to baptize their children, is can they have god-parents? Have any of you ever been god-parents (a few raised their hands)? Wrong, all of you have been god-parents because of what you pledged in baptism. So, the first part of being a saint-tified people is to be those who teach our children, youth and yes, even adults, what it means to love God with all of heart, soul and strength because God first loved them.
Second, being the saints means that we are to care for all children, youth and adults, regardless of who they are and where they live. I realize that this seems to be an overwhelming task since there are more than seven-billion people on earth today, with a quarter of those being children. It would be easy for us to sequester ourselves within these church walls and only be the saints to our own children. Yet Jesus will not let us. When asked about the greatest commandment, he not only quotes the Shema, but he adds to it the command to love our neighbor as ourselves. To illustrate this, he tells the story of the Good Samaritan, intimating that all people, even if they are very different from us, are our neighbors. So how do we live out this second half of being a saint-tified people? There are multiple ways to do this. There are Boys and Girls Clubs, the Faith Community Coalition on Foster Care, Project Hope, just to name a few. But there is one in particular to which I believe this church has been called. I believe that God has called us out to love the children at Alcott Elementary school by partnering with their parents, teachers and administrators, so that those children can reach their full, God given potential and by our presence let them know that they matter; that they are valuable.
This is what it means to be a saint-tified church. It means helping not only our children, but all children come to know that they are loved by God and that they can love God in return. It also means that for you parents, regardless of the age of your children, that you are not alone. You are surrounded in this place by the saints who are here to partner with you as you rear your children and go through all of the struggles that entails. My challenge to you this morning then is twofold. First it is, to ask yourselves, how am I living as one of the saints, helping children here in this church, and around the world, to know what it means to love God with all their heart, soul and strength, and to love their neighbors as themselves? Second, it is, to ask yourselves, how I am to allow this saint-tified community to help me held my children to know the same.
Dr. John Judson
September 2, 2018
Psalm 23; Matthew 5:1-10
It was right there. It was right there in front of me. I could not believe it. Each time I went to the hospital to visit someone I would stop by the gift shop, wondering if it might be there. But it never was. This time it was. Shining like a beacon in the night; like the Holy Grail. It was Peace Bear Beanie Baby for which I had been searching. Let me pause for a moment. I was not a Beanie Baby collector, but my pre-adolescent daughter loved them. And so my job as her dad was to find the rarest ones I could find to add to her collection. This Peace Bear was rare and greatly coveted. It would make the perfect Christmas present and give her a sense of fulfillment, that she had a bear few others possessed. Shortly after this, Christmas came, she opened the box and was thrilled, until she opened her other gifts and Peace Bear took his place on the floor of her bedroom. Eventually Peace Bear and all the others got bagged up and forgotten about. So much for making my hopes and dreams of what that might mean.
We human beings are funny creatures. Unlike animals that simply need to eat, sleep and mate, we are seldom satisfied with what we have, but we are always scanning the horizon for something to give our lives meaning. That will complete us. That will make us whole. That will cause us to cease seeking and be content. The things we scan the horizon for believing that they will complete us are almost limitless. So here is a partial list. See if yours is on here: a certain phone, a certain car, a certain job, a certain salary, a certain person, a certain house, a certain experience, a certain trip, a certain camera, a certain grade, a certain boss, a certain employee, a certain company, a certain body shape, a certain hair color, a certain pet, a certain…and I guess you get my drift. We are always looking out there for that next thing that will accomplish within us what we thought all these things could do but didn’t; to satisfy our inner longing. But what if I told you this morning that there is something that could satisfy that inner longing…and that something is not out there…but back there? That it is not ahead of us, but behind us?
To understand this, we first need to return to the 23rd Psalm and realize that the writer believes that it is possible to find this peace and fulfillment. This is what he means when he writes, “And I shall dwell in the House of the Lord Forever.” This is a dual reference. First it is to the Tent of Meeting. The tent of meeting was the tent that held the Ark of the Covenant and the Altar. It was the place where God came and met God’s people. Thus, to live in God’s house forever was to remind people that they and God could dwell together in complete unity…thus bringing completeness. The second reference was to the Garden of Eden. In the Garden, which was God’s creation and residence, human beings were able to live in intimate and complete relationship with God. Thus again, living in God’s house forever was to be like living in Eden in close proximity to the living God. This meant for them, and for us, that it is possible to live with God in such a way that we find the peace we so desperately seek.
Secondly the Psalmist tells us that he can find his way to the house of God. He does so by slowing down and letting God catch him. I say this because the writer tells us that God is pursuing him, desiring to give him what he needs to enter God’s presence. We can see this in the phrase, “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.” We can see it there because “follow” does not mean follow, in the sense we usually use it; as in my dog is following me. It means instead to pursue; as a hunter pursues its prey. In other words, God is pursuing the Psalmist, desiring to give him the blessings and the mercy that will make possible an intimate relationship with God; that will let him live in the house of the lord forever; that will make him whole. God is pursuing him with an invitation to live in God’s presence and be filled with God’s love and grace. The same is true for us; that what fills and completes us is not out there, but is seeking us, and all we must do is to slow down and let God catch us.
In many ways these last few verses draw together the entire Psalm. They remind us that whether we are sheep or shepherds, God cares and provides for us. They remind us that God’s desire is that we be made whole and complete; be made into the human beings as God leads us beside still waters and green pasture. These verses remind us that God desires to live with us; that God does not want to farm us out to other shepherds. Finally, they remind us that we are valued and valuable enough for God to chase after us that we might be made whole. With all of that in mind I want to offer you a cumulative challenge. I challenge you to take your bulletin home, cut out the 23rd Psalm and then at least once a week, spend half an hour with it; spend half an hour, without television, or phone or children…which I know is hard, and read and contemplate the love that is here. Then be still and allow God’s love to catch you, bless you and enfold you, as you live in the house of the Lord forever.