Rev. Dr. John Judson
November 23, 2014
Genesis 50:15-26, Ephesians 1:15-23
When I was in sixth grade my family moved me to a new neighborhood. I managed to make two new friends and we would regularly hang out at each other’s houses. One day when I went to visit Keith he was building model cars…funny cars I think. He asked me if I wanted to help. Sure I said, having no idea what I was doing. So he gave me all of the parts for the engine; the block, the headers, the manifold covers…all of the usual. To be honest I had never seen an engine before; even so I decided I could figure it out. But when I put the headers (the exhaust manifolds) on top of the block like a roosters crown, Keith knew that I was in trouble; that I had no idea how all of this went together. I have to say I still feel that way when I watch those of you in the auto industry actually manage to create cars that work and work well. With dozens of suppliers spread out across multiple continents trying to build exact parts designed by someone someplace else, not to mention research, marketing and finance, I am overwhelmed by how complicated this process is. Yet even with its complexity, it pales in comparison to the task that is set before the children of God.
And what is this task that is set before us? It is to help make earth more like heaven. This is part of the Lord’s Prayer which we offer up every Sunday, “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” We are to be those who make this world one in which every human being is treated as if they are a beloved child of God. We are to be those who make sure that everyone has enough; enough food to eat, enough education, enough love. We are to be those who make sure that everyone has adequate housing. We are to be those who make sure that people have clothes on their backs...both winter and summer. We are to be sure that there is justice in which all persons are treated equally before the law regardless of race, creed, status or sexual orientation. We are supposed to be God’s coworkers in this kingdom-building endeavor. But if we are honest with ourselves, it appears to be an overwhelming task. In the face of generational poverty, recession, layoffs, a struggle for medical care, disease and terrorism, we find it easier to simply enjoy what we have, which is a good thing, and ignore the problems that are not ours, a not so good thing.
As those called to be God’s co-workers, helpers if you will, we need encouragement to continue our task. And in these opening words of Ephesians we find that encouragement. We find words to the church to keep us going. First we are told that we are to be a people of hope. Paul prays that the church might know what is the “hope to which we have been called.” You and I live in what is becoming more and more a “chicken little” world. What I mean by this is that every time something goes wrong, we are supposed to be afraid and run around in a panic saying, “All is lost!” It doesn’t matter whether it is Ebola or the fact that there is no real five second rule for food that has fallen to the floor and we could die if we ate it…which is actually one of my favorites because I am here to attest that I have lived through it…we are to give up all hope. Yet Paul tells us that we need to become people of hope. We are to be people of hope not simply because the world needs it, but because we believe that the ultimate fate of creation is in God’s hands and not ours or someone else’s. And because of this we can look at the messiest future with hope and we can share that hope with others.
Secondly Paul prays that we are to learn about the riches of God’s glorious inheritance among the saints. Note, Paul is not talking about our inheritance, but God’s. This may seem a strange thing for Paul to say until we realize that in scripture, children are the inheritance of their parents. This was made clear when I was home one Christmas and went out for an early morning walk with my father and one of my brothers. We met a Jewish friend of my fathers who commented on what a great inheritance my father had with four sons. It is a great inheritance because of how we could care for our father. The riches then that children bring are what they can do for their parents. So what Paul is saying here is that we need to learn of the riches we can bring to God because we are God’s children; because we are God’s inheritance. We are to learn what we can bring to God as part of God’s world changing program.
Finally we are to learn that we do not do this on our own but that we do this with the power of God. Paul writes that we are to learn “what is the immeasurable greatness of God’s power for those of us who believe, according to the work of God’s great power.” What this means is that ultimately it is the power of God working through us that changes the world. There is an assumption out there that the world will slowly on its own become a more caring and enlightened place; that people will naturally evolve into the kind of people that make the world better. I would argue that this is not so. All we have to do is look to ISIS and the world’s continuing love affair with violence and hatred to see that this natural evolution is not so natural. The gift of God though is that God’s power is available to us, that it might be used to make the world the better place God desires it to be.
I want to ask a question as we close. How many of you have looked out at the world and felt discouraged? I thought so…most of you. And it is that discouragement that makes us wonder if what we do in the world makes any difference. The answer is that what we do makes a difference. When a child at this church leans that they are loved by God, the world becomes a bit more like heaven. When a youth comes to this church and discovers a place of safety in which they can truly be themselves, the world becomes a little more like heaven. When we come to worship and learn more fully how to live the Christ-like life, the world becomes a bit more like heaven. When we help to teach a child at Alcott how to read, the world becomes more like heaven. When we help foster children and families know that they are not alone, the world becomes more like heaven. When we fill up bags with food for Shop and Drop, or at Thanksgiving for hungry families, the world becomes more like heaven.
You and I are called to the task of making earth a bit more like heaven. None of us, individually or collectively, even with God’s help will be able to do this in our lifetimes. This realization, however does not give us the right to ignore our task. Instead we are called to do what we can, when we can to transform the world around us. My challenge then to all of you for this week is this, to ask, “How am I making earth a little bit more like heaven every day?”
Rev. Amy Morgan
November 16, 2014
Psalm 123, 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
He had fallen asleep in church – again. And my mother knew that Dad had fallen asleep because his snoring had drawn her attention away from the sermon.
God bless him, my dad tried to stay awake. He knew it upset and embarrassed my mom when she caught him snoozing through service. He has always been a faithful, churchgoing man. But for the last couple of years, he had struggled week after week to maintain consciousness through the hour of worship.
It wasn’t that he wasn’t getting enough sleep. In fact, he had recently retired and was sleeping quite well. It wasn’t any kind of narcolepsy unless there is a particular strain of that disease which only manifests itself in the church pew. He couldn’t really blame the worship service. He’d been worshipping in Presbyterian churches for decades and had managed to at least keep his eyes open, even when he wasn’t fully engaged. He honestly didn’t know what the problem was. And so, after one too many elbows in the ribs and exasperated looks from my mother, my dad simply stopped going to church.
Now, this was no easy decision for my dad. As I said, he is a faithful and devoted Christian. But more than that, he is extremely susceptible to guilt. And for my dad, not going to church meant you were brazenly not following the will of God, and the guilt of that disobedience weighed heavily on him.
So, for the first time in his life, in his mid-fifties, my dad went church shopping on his own. He got permission from my mother first, of course.
Mom had no intention of leaving her Presbyterian church. She served as an elder in regular rotation, ran committees, went to bible studies, cooked community dinners, and generally helped out anywhere and everywhere. I honestly wonder if the walls of that church would continue to stand were my mother to step away from it for too long. My mother never fell asleep in church.
In my memories of my dad at church, he is always playing the guitar and singing. In the church I grew up in, Dad and I led the music for the Easter sunrise service every year. Sometimes we’d sing special music for Christmas Eve. Dad even wrote a few songs just for worship. His passion is music, and when he was called upon to share his passion with the church, he came fully alive.
Through a number of leadership changes in my parents’ church, dad’s gift for music had gotten lost. There’d been a few creative clashes and some hurtful words exchanged. Dad felt underappreciated or overlooked entirely. So he had stopped offering to play and people had stopped asking.
And not too long after that, Dad started falling asleep.
As dad church shopped, he found a new non-denominational church that worshipped in the local high school auditorium. After attending worship a handful of times, he’d been invited to join the church’s worship band. And that was it. Dad was hooked.
He never fell asleep in worship because he was usually on stage. And his faith grew and deepened because he actually heard the whole sermon. He built friendships with the other musicians and worship leaders that sustained him in his faith.
The next time I came out to visit my parents, I had to choose between going to mom’s church, where she was helping to serve Communion and was even leading part of the liturgy from the table, and going to my dad’s church to see him play in the worship band. It was a tough call. But my dad was so excited about his new church that I couldn’t say no to him.
The band wasn’t that good, but my dad was great. He was fully alive and engaged. He wanted to talk about the pastor’s message after church and tell me about how the band rehearsed and chose the music. He got involved in several other areas of the church’s ministry, helping to build new facilities and get the word out in the community about the church.
My dad’s experience reminded me of what Howard Thurman once said, “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”
The church in Thessalonica was a lively one. Paul writes to them with great joy, remembering their “work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.” Paul celebrates that the message of the gospel came to this church “not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction.”
Thessalonica in the first century was a bustling metropolis, the Roman capital of the region of Macedonia. It was a diverse and industrious city, but because of its diversity, religious fervor was kept to a minimum and devotion to the Roman imperial religion was strongly encouraged.
Thessalonica was Paul’s first stop on his missionary foray into modern-day Greece, and the response he found to the message of Jesus Christ was nothing short of miraculous. Some Jews and a large number of Gentiles believed in the gospel message, and they formed a community of faith, gathering in homes, eating and worshipping together, and encouraging one another through the many adversities they faced because of their beliefs.
Oddly, I think adversity may have been the key to success for the Thessalonian church. Believers were persecuted and even killed, but this kept them on their toes. They had to “encourage and build up each other,” as Paul commends them for doing, because practicing the Christian faith in that time and place was difficult and dangerous. The fledgling church needed everything anyone had to offer – a safe place to gather and seek sanctuary, teachers and students, healers and prophets, people who could think and plan, and people who could contemplate and listen. Everyone was essential to the project, and, according to Paul, everyone had been giving it their all.
Paul writes to assure the believers in Thessalonica that they are on the right path. They are children of the light and children of the day. Now, this language about day and night has at least three dimensions to it.
First, Paul is talking about what is often referred to as the “Day of the Lord,” the day when Jesus will return to complete God’s redemptive work on earth. The Thessalonians are awaiting this day with great expectation and are, perhaps, a bit disappointed that it has not yet arrived.
But Paul assures them that no matter when that day comes, their identity as children of the light and children of the day equips them for this eventuality. Now this identity is the second dimension of this day and light imagery. Paul wants them to identify themselves over and against this comfortable, secular society, as children of the day, meaning they belong to Christ, who is himself the light of the world.
Finally, Paul uses this day and light imagery to encourage the Thessalonians not to fall asleep, and to get suited up, putting on the defensive armor of faith and love and hope. They are not preparing to fight a battle, but they are getting ready to survive the night watch. The walk of faith is not an easy one. There are obstacles and challenges, and Paul know the Thessalonians need to be awake and on guard, ready to defend themselves and one another.
The Thessalonian church is lively indeed, and we can see why. Imagine excitedly awaiting the day when Jesus will return, when there will be no more death or pain or weeping, when all things will be made new and re-created in the goodness God desires. Anticipating that kind of event, preparing yourself for it and viewing the world through that lens, would certainly make you feel “fully alive.” If any day God’s final redemption could come like a thief in the night; if any day all of our petty complaints and superficial concerns could be overwhelmed by a new and wonderful reality; if any day we might see God face to face, encounter the risen Christ, live in the realm of the Holy Spirit – now that would make you feel “fully alive.”
Imagine if also, like the Thessalonian church, you knew exactly who you were and to whom you belonged. We live in a world of such fractured, or maybe composite identities. Families often live far apart, friendships are often built on personal capital rather than genuine affection. Some people can identify with a home town, and others find an identity in college or professional sports teams. We identify with our jobs, with our schools, with our achievements. We even quite often identify with name brand products. Apple…or Windows. Coke or Pepsi.
And while there are certainly many positive aspects to having these identities pieced together from different parts of our lives, what it can’t do is give us a real center that brings us fully alive. We might feel lively while we’re cheering for our favorite football team, but that doesn’t help us when we walk into work on Monday morning. We might feel fully alive in our studies or at work, but that doesn’t help us when we come home at night or on the weekends. We might feel fully alive when we get the latest and greatest piece of tech, but Siri isn’t going to be able to answer all of our questions about what our life is going to add up to.
That central, grounding identity as a follower of Jesus Christ, however, is an identity that will help us in any and every one of our other multiple identities. If you are a Christ-follower first and foremost, everything else can make sense in relationship to that. I can’t think of another single identity with that kind of power.
Finally, imagine how lively your faith would have to be to survive in a hostile environment such as first-century Thessalonica. If you were in actual, physical danger because of your Christian faith, you would have to be nothing less than a fully-devoted follower to even bother with it. And you would need other fully devoted, fully alive followers to support and encourage you. This is not the kind of faith you take on alone.
This is the kind of faith that needs people who have come alive.
My dad thought his faith, his God, his church, needed him to sit in the pew every Sunday. Or at least most Sundays. And for a season anyway, that led him to think there was “peace and security,” as Paul says. He asked what the church needed, and he heard, “we need people to serve on committees” and “we need people to teach Sunday school and lead youth group and serve community meals.” All good and necessary activities of the church. And some of these things are the things that make my mom come alive. But my dad, well, he fell asleep. These were not the things that make him come alive. And what he discovered in his search is that the church, like the world, needs people who have come alive, people who are fully awake, people who are children of the day and children of the light.
And so my invitation to you today is this: What makes you come alive? What keeps you awake in church? I invite you to stop asking what the church needs and to start asking what makes you come alive. Because what the church needs are people who have come alive.
I want to close with a word of reassurance. Staying awake can be exhausting. We need our rest. We need to sleep. We need to regenerate. We have seasons of excitement and whole-hearted devotion, and we have season where we fall asleep, even in church.
But the segment of Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians concludes with the assurance that “God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him.”
Lest we think that our salvation rests upon our own ability to stay awake – waiting for the Day of the Lord, living into our Christ-following identity, bringing our whole selves to our faith walk – let us remember that it is by the grace of God, and only by that grace, that we experience the kingdom of God now and life eternal with God in the future.
As the Psalm we heard this morning depicts a dependence on God that reflects our need for mercy. We cannot stay awake all the time, and God knows that. That is why God didn’t leave our salvation up to us. God knows that we are in constant need of re-awakening. That is why the Holy Spirit continues to work among us.
Hopefully none of you out there are asleep yet. Hopefully you’ve managed to stay awake through my sermon. But if you are asleep, know that God loves you and has sent Christ into the world to save you all the same. And if you are asleep, or falling asleep, or peaceful and secure in your faith life, I encourage you to ask what makes you come alive, and go and do it. Because what the church needs are people who have come alive.
Rev. Dr. John Judson
November 9, 2014
I Timothy 6:17-19
She was at the top of her game. She was the actress that people loved to watch. Her comedic skills and timing were uncanny. She was married to one of Hollywood’s sexiest men. In other words she had it all. Then on January 16, 1942 the plane in which she was riding slammed into a mountain side killing her, Carol Lombard, and everyone else on board. She had been promoting war bonds when she died, leaving behind a grieving husband, Clark Gable, and a grieving public. Yet there was another group of people that mourned her as much or more than anyone else. These were the ordinary people who worked on her movies. The best boys, the grips, the makeup artists…everyone who ever worked with her mourned her because she was their friend. Lombard had no private dressing room. She had no personal assistant to keep people away. She hung out with the cast and crew, treating them like family. She was one of them. Even in a world in which Hollywood starlets were royalty, she was just Carol. She had balance in her life and knew what mattered. The question for us becomes then how do we do the same? How do we maintain our balance life?
The obvious answer to that question is that we don’t become movie stars, or star athletes or people who appear on magazine covers. Granted that makes it easier, but only by a little. I say that because we human beings have an amazing way of turning a little success into very large egos. It doesn’t matter if we are simply big-man or big-woman on campus, part of a winning team, running a successful company, accumulating a Bill Gates-like fortune or we are simply a better employee than those around us, we still find it difficult to maintain our balance. In fact how many of you have ever known someone who thinks far more of themselves than they ought to; far more of themselves than any of their achievements warrant? The temptation to lose our balance becomes even more pronounced when we are given accolades, promotions or atta-boys. It becomes easy for our pride to take over and cause us to become different, to begin to think that we are somehow better than those people around us. We lose our balance.
I believe that this is why the scriptures have a love-hate relationship with success and wealth. On the one hand success is lifted up and seen as a blessing from God. Abraham is one of the scriptural examples. He starts out a fairly well off man, meaning he has slaves and animals, but then ends up being a very wealthy man with considerable power. There is no hint in scripture that his kind of success is not something we might want to achieve. Hard work, prudence and a little Godly intervention are given the Biblical stamp of approval. On the other hand though we have Jesus reminding his hearers that it will be harder for a wealthy man to get into heaven than it will be for a camel to go through the eye of a needle. He tells his followers that they are not to lord it over one another and are to continually exhibit humility, be last and not first and be willing to sacrifice everything for God. So the question again for us is, how do we find the balance? How do we find the balance between these two Biblical positions? The answer is by exercising three spiritual practices, each found in our morning’s lessons.
The first spiritual practice is gratitude. Gratitude is found at the heart of both of our lessons. The people of God were to never forget that they were the beneficiaries of God’s amazing acts. It was God who saved them. It was God who fed them. The people were to be obedient to God, and follow God’s ways not out of fear, but out of gratitude. And what gratitude does for us is that it reminds us that we are not lone wolves making our way by ourselves in the world. Instead we are reminded that our success is shared success. It is shared by those who reared us, taught us, encouraged us, prayed for us and prepared the world around us in such a way that we can be successful. This takes nothing away from our own hard work and dedication to our lives, it simply puts our success in perspective…it helps us to maintain our balance.
The second spiritual practice is enjoyment. I realize that this one may come as a surprise. As the inheritors of the great Puritan tradition many of you may have been expecting me to say just the opposite. However again, at the heart of these texts is enjoyment. In Deuteronomy the people are told that they are to celebrate with all the bounty that God has given them. Paul tells us that God provides everything we have for our enjoyment. This is actually one of the great themes in scripture. In Ecclesiastes we read that there is nothing better than that people eat, drink and enjoy the fruits of their toil. Jesus turns water into wine at a wedding. What his spiritual practice does is remind us that the end goal of success is not success; it is the enjoyment of God’s creation. It is the enjoyment of our families, of our friends, of God’s creation and of God’s love for us. Enjoyment helps us find balance by remembering why we strive to be successful in the first place.
The third spiritual practice is generosity. Again, generosity is woven into the fabric of these stories. In the Old Testament text we find it in the fact that everyone participates in the great celebration. “Then you together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you shall celebrate…” In other words no one is left out. Those who have will share with those who do not have. This example ties in with our texts from last week which also incorporated those in the margins such as widows and orphans. In Paul we read that the rich are to be “rich in good works, generous and ready to share.” Generosity reminds us that what we have been given is not ours to keep but a trust to be shared. This theme also runs deep in the scriptures. In fact it is at the heart of God’s restorative work in the world that Abraham was not only to be blessed, but to be a blessing to the world. You and I, as Abraham’s spiritual offspring, are to see generosity as one of those ways in which we too bless the world. Generosity helps us to maintain our balance by reminding us that our success is to be shared.
The challenge before us is to practice these spiritual disciplines. It is to be intentional about putting them before us every day. For I believe that when we do, we will find the spiritual and life balance for which I believe we all long. And so this morning when those of you who are making a financial commitment to the life of the church bring forward your pledge cards, I encourage you to see this act as a spiritual one; as an act of gratitude for what God has done for you; as an act of enjoyment because you find joy in being in the midst of this community; and as an act of generosity in that you are willingly sharing a portion of what you have been given. And in so doing, find spiritual balance for your life. And then for all of us my challenge is that you will engage in gratitude, enjoyment and generosity such that you can find a spiritual and life balance which will bring deeper meaning to all areas of your lives.
Rev. Dr. John Judson
November 2, 2014
You could hear the growing desperation in each of the letters. The year was 1904 and E.J. and Bessie were watching their father lose the family fortune. Their Grandfather Joseph Phelon had been one of the great early entrepreneurs of rural New York in the early 19th century. He had first made money selling clothing to the Army during the War of 1812. He then joined a partnership to bring the first throstle, or automated, multi spindle, wool and cotton spinning machine, to that part of the United States. From there he went on to breed cattle and delved into improved agricultural methods. He amassed a fortune. Unfortunately, as our family history puts it, his son Edward was not of the same mind. Instead of seeing all that his father had bequeathed him as a legacy, he saw it as his own private fortune to be spent anyway he wanted; race horses, playing the stock market and the like. It was not long before the only thing that remained of the legacy he had been given was the house, Willow Hill, and a couple of hundred acres; which only remained because his daughter Bessie was as industrious as her grandfather. For better or for worse, this is often the way of the world. Studies have shown that of family fortunes, 70% are gone after the first generation and 90% after the second. A legacy then is only a legacy when future generations work to maintain it.
This was in a sense the heart of both of our lessons this morning. In Deuteronomy, which is considered Moses’ last sermon to the people of Israel before they moved from the wilderness to the land of promise, he reminds them of the legacy they had been given. The legacy they had been given was multifaceted. God had brought them out of slavery in Egypt where they had been for four-hundred years. God had led them through the “great and terrible wilderness,” an arid wasteland with poisonous snakes and scorpions. God fed them with manna, provided water to drink and quail to feast upon. God is also telling them that when they get to the land of promise things will go well. Their received legacy will also include fine houses, flocks and herds galore and financial success. When this happens God says, they are not to say to themselves, as did Edward Phelon, “the power and might of my own hand has gotten me this wealth” and forget that it is God who has given you this, because then, comes the implication, you will lose it. The legacy was theirs to keep or lose.
Jesus’ story is focused in the same direction. As he tells it, a man went on a journey and, in preparation, entrusted his fortune to his slaves. Each was given a different amount of money. In a sense they were each given part of the legacy of the owner; with no instructions as to what to do with the funds they had been given. The first two appear to understand that what they had received was not theirs to merely watch over, but was a legacy they were to invest and grow. This they did. Each worked hard and made a 100% return on the legacy they had been given (don’t we wish). For this they were celebrated by their master who gave them greater responsibility as part of their reward. The third however made an assumption about his master, that it would be a safer bet to simply maintain the principle he had been given, than to risk it in chancy endeavors. Needless to say the master was not pleased. He was not pleased because in the end it was not the amount of the return that mattered, but the fact that the legacy he had given them was to be risked for a greater reward.
What do these stories have to do with us? What they have to do with us is that they remind us that we are inheritors of a great legacy. Our legacy stretches back more than three-thousand years to the giving of God’s Law and the Prophets who upheld it. Our legacy stretches back more than two-thousand years to the beginning of the Church and to all of those saints, martyrs, theologians and early Christians who kept it alive. Our legacy stretches back five-hundred years to the Reformation when men and women risked their lives to form a new kind of church. Our legacy stretches back one-hundred-eighty years in this church when people living on the frontier decided that Birmingham needed a Presbyterian presence. Over all of those years, ordinary men and women, understood what they had been given was a legacy; that it was not theirs to use as they pleased but as God called them to so do. Thus they worshipped, taught, served and sacrificed so that generations to come would hear the Good News of God in Jesus Christ, and that lives would be changed for the better through what they had done.
Now, it is up to us. We have been given this great legacy and the question is what will we do with it? My hope and prayer is that we will not simply maintain it, but that we will build upon it; that we will join with that great cloud of witnesses whose names you heard read in the necrology (the reading of the names of church members who had died in the past year) this morning and work to make Everybody’s Church a place where all people can come, be engulfed in God’s love and grace and have their lives changed for the better. I encourage you then to prayerfully consider what you would give to the life and work of this church next week when together we dedicate our pledges for 2015. For this is our opportunity to take what God has given us and continue to make it live for generations to come.
My challenge then to you is to ask, “What will I give to grow the legacy of First Presbyterian Church that not only I, but generations unborn might be changed by what goes on in this place?”