Rev. Bethany Peerbolte
July 14, 2019
2 Samuel 12:1-14; 1 Timothy 1:12-17
Before I get to the reading from the new testament, I wanted to spend some time with David. The overriding impression David has left on history is that he is the epitome of a godly man and king. As a boy he is chosen by God to be King. When David is just a lowly shepherd God helps him to care for his flocks by blessing him with a deadly aim against bears and lions. When his older brothers go off to fight in the war David is too young and small, yet God brings him to the frontline, gives him the courage to volunteer to fight Goliath and then God flushes David’s muscles with the strength to defeat the giant enemy.
David then goes to serve the King – even though he has this call to BE king, David must first serve the king, which he does well. He is humble and helpful and stays in his lane even when he could step up and take the throne for himself. Through all the trials of getting to the throne David remains level-headed and worthy of the title God’s appointed king…until he sees Bathsheba.
When David sees her bathing he loses all level-headedness. He plots ways to meet with her, he schemes ways to kill her husband, and eventually he successfully makes her his wife. He succumbs to lustful and murderous temptations and commits outrageous sins. Yet, we still remember him as a great king of God’s own choosing. Why? Because of confession.
After David has had Bathsheba’s husband killed, a prophet named Nathan comes to the palace to report a terrible crime and sin against God. He tells David about two men: one who is rich and has everything he could ever want, and one man who is poor and only has one little lamb. Then the rich man has a friend visit, and instead of taking one of his own lambs for a feast, the rich man takes the poor man’s one possession in life, his little lamb.
David is furious to hear about this injustice happening in his nation and demands the rich man be killed for his crimes. That’s when Nathan reveals the rich man he was talking about is David. David had everything, yet stole the wife of a man who only had her. David stole from the less fortunate to fulfill his own sinful desires.
David immediately feels the shame and guilt rise in his stomach and confesses that he has indeed sinned against God. The psalms tell us exactly how David felt. In them he writes that staying silent about his sins make his bones feel brittle, that his energy was taken out of him like the sun on a hot day. Psalm 51 is David’s plea to God after hearing Nathan’s truth
1 Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions.
2 Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin.
3 For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is ever before me.
4 Against you, you alone, have I sinned,
and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you are justified in your sentence
and blameless when you pass judgment.
5 Indeed, I was born guilty,
a sinner when my mother conceived me.
6 You desire truth in the inward being;
therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
7 Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
8 Let me hear joy and gladness;
let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.
9 Hide your face from my sins,
and blot out all my iniquities.
10 Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and put a new and right spirit within me.
11 Do not cast me away from your presence,
and do not take your holy spirit from me.
12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and sustain in me a willing spirit.
This is the cry of a broken heart. Someone who is fully aware of the monster they have become. Nathan has held up a mirror and David sees a fearsome monster staring back at him. A monster with horns and claws, ready and willing to devour anyone in his path.
We have all had a moment where the person looking back at us through a mirror bears more resemblance to a monster than to ourselves. And if we haven’t seen that monster, then maybe the monster looking back is too prideful to even notice its horns and claws.
Becoming the monster happens little by little. Unconfessed sins sit in the shadows of our soul, becoming stronger and a more dominant part of our personality secretly and quietly. We let sins sit because the process of confession is distressing. Confession means lifting out of ourselves all our guilt, shame, and regret, and looking at the mess we created. It can hurt so much that sometimes we think it is easier to let the stain of sin sit where it is. It’s easier to cover it up, ignore the stiffness in our soul, and live another day without confessing.
Letting sin sit inside us allows the sin to change us. A sin left unconfessed can quickly become a part of our identity. It overrides the image of God we have been gifted and the sin can take control of our actions.
One day, when I worked in a first-grade classroom, I noticed the birthday oreos had been pillaged. At recess, a student came up to me and as they talked to me they kept wiping their mouth with their hand. After a short conversation I asked them why they kept wiping their mouth and they ran away. Later, a friend of theirs came to get me because this student was crying in the slide. I went over to see them and they slid down into my arms, their face wet with tears. Honestly, they were dripping all over because the plastic slide was so hot to be in that day, but they felt better in the sweltering slide then facing the world. The student told me they were wiping their face because they were afraid I could see the crumbs. This was hours after they had eaten the cookie. They had been to gym and lunch. There was no way the Oreo crumbs were still there. But this student had stolen Oreos at home before, and the crumbs had incriminated them then. The ghost crumbs haunted them. They thought I could see them because it was the only thing they could think of. Their actions became odd because the guilt of the stolen cookie told them everyone could see their crime and they needed to keep covering their tracks. The crumbs had become a part of their identity, until they confessed and received forgiveness.
We avoid confession because it is uncomfortable and oftentimes painful, but 1 Timothy shows us what confession feels like for someone who relies on God’s grace. 1 Timothy says, “I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has given me strength, that he considered me trustworthy, appointing me to his service. Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief. The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life. Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen.”
We should not see confession as a panicking child, but as people becoming stronger, mercy overflowing onto us, The Holy Spirit tickling each horn, and claw and turning us back into the serene image of God’s creation.
From the beginning God has given each human God’s own image to carry and present to the world. God’s image is like the shapes from the children’s book. There is a way to present them that is a welcoming happy scene. But sin twists those shapes out of order and instead of the peaceful home we get a monster. When we sin, and especially when we hold onto our sins, we can’t show God’s image to the world because we are out of order. The peaceful moon becomes a terrifying horn, and the soft trees become fearsome claws.
But once we brought attention and a tickle to each shape it went back to where it belonged. And instead of a monster we have a welcoming home. Confession is that tickle that brings attention to our sin and releases it so that our identity can return to the image and shape God has entrusted to us.
If we confess, we must trust that God’s love shown through Jesus will be strong enough to put us back into the right order. When David talks about confession he says he confesses according to God’s unfailing love, according to God’s great compassion. The size of David’s confession corresponds with the size he believes God’s love and compassion is. Because David believes God’s love is powerful he openly confesses his deepest sins and trusts grace will put him back together.
If you believe God’s love is small you will only be able to confess the small stuff. But if you believe God’s love is huge, abounding, overflowing, then bring it on! Get it out, let it go, and let God overpower your sins with love and compassion. We don’t need to be afraid of confession because we know God’s love is strong enough to handle anything. No matter what shape we have let our sins beat us into, God has the tool to make it right. It still may be painful, especially when our confession needs to be made to other people who will need time to process their own hurt feelings. But if we are afraid of hurting someone with confession, we should be more afraid of who we are letting our unconfessed sins turn us into. When we hold onto our sins will also cause harm as we slowly turn into resentful, defensive monsters. We need to trust that love and forgiveness will win every battle against sin.
Then comes a part of confession we usually forget to do. Our images of confession often look like a business transaction: I unload my sins, you give me forgiveness and we go our merry ways. But in scripture there is another step beyond the dumping of one’s sins and receiving forgiveness.
Every confession of David and even these verses in 1 Timothy have a heavy helping of confessing God’s glory. Confession without affirmations can become a pity fest, “Oh Lord, I am such a sinner. I’m terrible. I’m worthless.” If we stop there it’s no wonder we hate confession. But for every sin confessed, an affirmation should take its place. I have lied, but today I told only truth.
The mirror that used to trigger negative hateful words, where we saw a monster looking back at us, we need to reclaim that mirror for God’s glory. Write words of praise on the mirror. Where you use to show hate for your crooked teeth, affirm that your smile still inspires joy. Where you used to look for flaws to cut and punish yourself, write “Grace happens here.”
The energy you used to spend covering up the crumbs you were sure everyone could see, use that energy to notice the good parts of yourself, and let them thrive in the absence of guilt and shame. When the image of God has been covered by sin we can forget who we are. So, after we unburden ourselves we need to take time to reacclimate ourselves to what that image looks like in us.
I don’t know where each of you are in the confession process. Some of us are just now becoming aware of the dull pain in our soul.
Some of us are fully aware of what we need to confess because we have been actively wiping away the crumbs so no one will learn our secret.
Some of us have been unloading for a while now and need to begin affirming the great things God is doing in us and through us.
Let us pray.
The Rev. Dr. John Judson
July 7, 2019
Genesis 12:1-5; Acts 13:1-3
It was the very first official holiday observance in the United States. It was created by the Continental Congress on December 18, 1777 as a national day set aside for “solemn Thanksgiving and praise.” Though you may think that this had something to do with celebrating the 4th of July and the signing of the Declaration of Independence, or that it had something to do with the Mayflower, it did not. Instead it had to do with a two little-remembered battles that took in late September and early October 1777. Our revolution was not going well. Washington was holed up and fighting a guerrilla war, his army at risk of being destroyed. The populace and foreign nations were still suspect of our possibilities of victory. But then at Saratoga, a small force of Continental soldiers defeated and drove back a larger British force, thus ending Britain’s ability to invade from the north and convinced France to become our ally. Why does this matter this morning? It matters to me anyway because what made that victory possible was the commitment made by young men like my then seventeen-year-old great, great, great, great grandfather Benjamin Denslow. Along with thousands of other men and women, they made a commitment to a cause they believed in and were willing to give their lives for.
Benjamin’s story came back to me this week as I thought about our two Biblical stories. In each of these stories our faith ancestors were willing to make a commitment to God for a cause they believed in and were willing to risk their lives for. Let’s begin with Abram and Sarai. As their story begins, they are happy, healthy and doing well in one of the great trading centers of Mesopotamia. They had servants, flocks and herds. Then Abram has an encounter with an unknown God who strikes a bargain with him. If Abram and Sarai will make a commitment to get up, go some place they have never been, a place that is unnamed, then God will commit to bless them and through them bless all the nations of the world. A commitment is made, and they go in order to change the world. Our second story is of Paul and Barnabas. Paul and Barnabas have a good thing going in Antioch. They have an active ministry and are well respected. But the spirit has other ideas. Paul and Barnabas are asked by the Spirit and the church to make a commitment to go to tell others about Jesus the messiah. This will not be an easy lift, yet they commit themselves to this cause in which they believed…that Jesus had come to change the world.
These are all rather dramatic stories of commitment making. And it might be hard for many of us to believe that we had or could make such a commitment. Yet, all of us who have gone through confirmation, joined a church or had our children baptized have made a commitment as dramatic as those we have talked about. We have done so because we have made a commitment to be part of God’s great cause of working to help make God’s Kingdom come here on earth as it is in heaven. I realize that this is not the way we often think about the commitments we make here at church. Often, we think about them as commitments to believe certain things in order to become a particular kind of person…a better person, which is true. Yet at the same time our commitment calls us to live as a particular kind of people not only for ourselves but for the world. As writer and artist Makoto Fujimura puts it, we are to be about creating a “culture of care” rather than a “culture of war”, and a culture of an “opened hand” and not a “clenched fist.” What can we do to create these new types of culture? We can live in imitation of the one who made a commitment to the world and kept it at the cross. We can live the Table (the communion table). Living the Table means doing three things. First, we love radically. When Jesus went to the cross, he went there for all human beings; not just those who look like or think like us. He saw all persons as worthy of God’s love. So, like Jesus we are to see and love all persons as children of God; each worthy of our care and respect. Second it means forgiving unconditionally. When Jesus was on the cross he forgave those who crucified him, without condition. He did not wait for them to figure out who he was or what he was doing. We are to do the same, being open to reconciliation even with those who hate us. Finally, it is to give lavishly. Jesus gave everything on the cross, including his life. When we give lavishly it reminds us that what we have is not ours but is God’s and is to be shared.
We are to make this commitment to this way of life because it is the way of Jesus. It is the way of the table of community. It is the way that Jesus taught his followers to live. We are not to abandon it because it is uncomfortable or inconvenient. We are not to abandon it for personal or financial gain. Instead we are to hold fast to our commitment to be people of the table. If we are honest though we will admit that holding to this commitment is as difficult for us as it was for Benjamin, or Abram, or Sarai, or Paul, or Barnabas. It is difficult because the world does not always appreciate the way of the Spirit, the way of Jesus. Yet we can do it. We can do it because we are not alone. We are not alone because we make our commitments in community…in the heart of a Spirit led people. We can do it because the Spirit has promised not to leave us or abandon us. We can fulfill our commitment.
The challenge I offer you on this day then is to ask yourselves, how am I fulfilling my commitment to the Spirit to love radically, forgive unconditionally and give lavishly that I might play my part in God’s great cause of God’s Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.
The Rev. Joanne Blair
June 23, 2019
1 Samuel 17:31-40; Acts 9:21-25
We are in week 2 of our sermon series, “The Spirit at Work,” and this week we are talking about courage. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines courage as: “mental or moral strength to venture, persevere, and withstand danger, fear, or difficulty.”
Well, the story of David’s battle with Goliath certainly demonstrates courage. Here we have this young man who has been guiding sheep now daring to face down a huge, Philistine warrior just by using a slingshot and five smooth stones. And we know how the story ends: David flung a stone to Goliath’s forehead, knocked Goliath to the ground, and then killed him. We all like to hear stories of the triumph of the unlikely hero, the underdog. The story of David and Goliath is one of the best known and most told stories in the Bible, where the seeming underdog comes out on top. But this celebrated story is also one of the most misunderstood. Many think that this is a story of personal courage in the face of insurmountable odds, that if you face down your giant with courage you will always come out victorious. But there is much more to this story. There is a reason our scripture reading today ends before the match. David’s courage is demonstrated not in killing the giant but in fighting him. David did not have great military experience; he demonstrates that courage and power have other sources, namely, Yahweh. What drove David’s courage was his confidence in God’s promises and God’s power to fulfill them. He was not so much confident in himself as he was confident in God.
So how does this dramatic story correlate with our second reading of the day, that of Paul being lowered in a basket to escape capture and death? For Paul, himself, writes in his letter to the church in Corinth that being lowered in a basket at night was humiliating. Yet Paul exhibits courage before, during, and after his escape. Paul, one of the greatest role-reversals in the Bible. Other than Jesus, no person influenced the history of the Christian community more than Paul. No wonder the people were confused! This man had always fought for the importance of the law and would punish anyone who disagreed, even unto death – especially followers of Jesus. Yet after his conversion, this Pharisee of Pharisees immediately went out to proclaim Jesus as the Son of God. Those who conspired to kill Jesus, those who conspired to kill Stephen, and those under King Aretas are now after Paul. Paul, the persecutor, is now the persecuted. While he may consider being lowered in a basket humiliating and an act of weakness, it was an act of courage to proclaim the good news and an act of courage to face the dangerous unknown by traveling about and continuing to do so.
As his opposition increased their attack, Saul became more powerful. The Greek word used here for “powerful” denotes “strength from the work of the Holy Spirit (Eph 6:20, Phil 4:13, 2 Tim 4:17).” We call this strength: courage.
There is a great difference between courage and bravado and we sometimes confuse the two. Bravado is daring, audacious, uninspired boldness. Many of you know that I used to skydive. And yes, it took daring boldness to do so. But there was nothing inspired about it. I just really wanted to do it. It was an act of bravado, (though my parents probably used a different word!) Courage, on the other hand, is not autonomous. It is not a self-produced virtue. Courage is produced by faith, faith in God or something else.
I want to turn again to the definition of courage: “mental or moral strength to venture, persevere, and withstand danger, fear, or difficulty.” We usually think of danger as a threat to our physical safety and we often think of courage in the most dramatic of situations – soldiers in action on the battlefield, firefighters, first responders. These are people of extreme courage and I know we are all very grateful for the gifts of their service. Most of us, gratefully, will not face these types of challenges. But we are put in situations where our spiritual strength, our physical health, our moral fiber, and our choices are challenged. And courage, by very definition, acknowledges fear and difficulty. Yet we are to persevere and withstand it.
In the King James version of the Bible, people who count such things have noted that the words “fear not” appear 365 times (one for each day of the year☺). This, in itself, demonstrates that although God does not wish us to be afraid, we humans experience fear. And, the words “courage” or “courageous” appear 26 times, stressing its importance.
So where does courage, real courage (not bravado), come from? It is the work of the Holy Spirit. Courage comes from trust in the ultimate goodness and presence of God. In this trust we allow ourselves to be vulnerable. Real courage recognizes that we cannot persevere in our challenges alone. We need God, who is right here with us. The call for God’s people to be courageous is always based upon the confidence in God to be with us.
Courage does not mean that things will always turn out the way we hope. Courage is facing the challenge even when we aren’t assured of the outcome. Every act of courage takes place in the life of an ordinary person. Courage is needed to fight life’s everyday battles: addiction, cancer, resentment, greed. Each of us has many battles to be fought in our life. We need courage, and we need each other, to do so.
Last week Pastor John spoke of being called to community, by God, for the purpose of blessing the world. That takes courage and we can – and should – be God’s instruments to encourage one another. Being in community helps strengthen our faith, build our courage, and allow the Holy Spirit to do her work even better.
Having courage doesn’t always have to do with fighting a giant or being persecuted. But it always has to do with trusting God. Whatever battle we are fighting, the Holy Spirit will give us the courage – if we but trust.
And so our challenge this week is to ask ourselves:
The Rev. Dr. John Judson
June 16, 2019
I loved baseball. As a kid I loved to play baseball, read about baseball and dream about baseball. What that meant was the one of the most exciting times of the year was when the season would arrive, my mom would sign me up and I would go to tryouts. I have no idea if getting into Little League is the same today as it was then, but there would be a date set for all of those who wanted to play to come to try out. We would run the bases. We would bat. We would field. And the whole time the coaches and assistant coaches would be taking notes and chatting. Among the coaches were those who were major league coaches and those who were minor league coaches. Then there would be the wait. I would then begin the process of listening for the phone to ring with a coach on the other end calling to tell my mom which team had chosen me. Let me clear that I had accepted early on that I was a minor leaguer. But that didn’t matter. All that mattered was that call saying, its time to get your uniform and come play. Any of you ever waited for that kind of a call; a call saying you have been selected? A call saying you have gotten the college acceptance; have gotten the job? It is exciting isn’t it? What I hope for this morning is that before we are done, you will be just as excited for a different kind of call as you were for those. But in order to understand how this works, we need to remember three words, “to”, “by” and “for”. Yes we are to remember two-by-four
First is the word “to”. We are called to a community; to a family. When God calls us, it is never intended to be me and Jesus. As someone once said, there are no Lone Ranger Christians. When God calls us desiring a relationship, it is also God’s desire for people to be in relationship with one another. This is so because we were not made to be alone. We were created for community. This is why when we baptize an adult or an infant, we say that they are now part of God’s worldwide family. Again, we can see this is our story this morning. Jesus has called Paul (known by his Jewish name, Saul) but does not tell him everything he needs to know. Instead the Spirit then calls to a man named Ananias and tells him to go and welcome Saul. Ananias is not happy about this considering Paul had been on the way to put Ananias and his friends in prison. But Ananias goes and does two things. First, he calls Paul brother, meaning if Jesus had called Saul then Saul was Ananias’s brother. Second, he baptizes Saul and by so doing brings him into the family. This is one of those wonderful things about God’s call that it calls us to a community that will love us, support us, guide us and sometimes correct us. What that means for us here this morning is that not only has God called us to be in relationship with God, but God desires that we be in relationship with each other. God calls us “to” a family.
Second is the word “by”, meaning we are called by God. When I say God, I mean it can be God, it can be Jesus, or it can be the Spirit. Regardless of which does the calling, it is God who calls us into relationship with God. This is one of the great themes of the Bible that God desire us not only to be in family but to be in relationship with God’s own self. And because God desires to be in relationship with us, then God is always calling us, drawing us, silently working within us. We can see how this works in story after story in the Bible. In the Garden of Eden God can’t find Adam and Eve and so calls to them. God calls Abram and Sarah. God calls Moses out of a burning bush. The Spirit calls to Jesus after his baptism and sends him to the wilderness. Jesus calls disciples as he begins his ministry. And in our story this morning Ananias makes it clear that it is Jesus who called Saul and Jesus who asked him, Ananias, to be the agent of the call. As an aside, I realize that often when we think about being called, we think of dramatic stories, but what we need to understand is that this is not the way God usually calls us. God can call us through a deep felt need that perhaps something is missing in our lives. God can call us through the stories in the Bible. God can call us through family, friends, or perhaps even a sermon. Regardless, of where we sense the call, scripture, friend, an inner need, it is God who initiates the relationship.
Finally, the word “for”. We are called “for” a purpose. This is where many of us grind to a halt in our examination of being called. We stop here because we have been taught that being called for a purpose means being called to a particular religious position, such as pastor, or maybe even elder…though many elders would not think so. But the fact is that being called to a religious position is simply a subset of the purpose to which we are called, because the purpose to which we are called is to bless the world. Let me say that again. Our purpose in being called by God to a community is to bless the world. This means that each of us has been called to this purpose…and we can express this purpose in hundreds of ways. We can bless the world at school or at work by how we treat others. We can bless the world in our homes through how we rear our children and how we pray for others. We can bless the world through our giving, our forgiveness, our compassion and our understanding. And the ways we bless can and do change over the course of our lives. How we bless as children is different from how we bless as youth, then adults and onward. God calls us to a family for a purpose.
My challenge to you for this week is simple…enjoy your call. Enjoy knowing you are part of a family. Enjoy knowing you are known by God. Enjoy knowing that you have a purpose in life. Then as you get ready each morning for the coming day, simply say, “God, thank you for calling me with your to-by-four” and then let that reality shape your day.
Dr. John Judson
June 9, 2019
Joel 2:23-29; Acts 2:2-13
It was his graduation day. It should have been an exciting day to be getting his BA after six years of effort. Even so, he began to cry. And the tears were not tears of joy but of worry; worry, because he knew how much debt he and his family had taken on; two-hundred thousand dollars. He had no idea how they would ever pay it back. As he sat at graduation though, something happened. The speaker made this young man and his classmates a promise and in that promise, he found hope. The promise? His debt would be paid, in full. The speaker, Robert Smith, the wealthiest African American in the United States, as he was delivering the commencement address at Morehouse College, promised that he would pay off all the outstanding loans of the graduating class. At first the students did not know what to say or do. However, it did not take them long to express their delight and gratitude. Mr. Smith and the school are now working out all the arrangements so that the promise will be kept and a group of young adults will begin their lives with encouragement to make a difference not only for themselves but for others.
The people in the time of Joel were looking for encouragement as well. Joel was preaching and making promises about four-hundred years before the birth of Christ. The people were needing hope because they were in the midst of a horrible famine and they were a subject people of the Persian Empire. And so they turned to the two promises of Joel in which to find hope. The first was that the famine, worse than any in the memory of his audience, would come to an end; that God would act and once again make the land fruitful. The second promise was that one-day God’s Spirit would appear and transform humanity; that not just men would prophecy, but that men and women, young and old, free and slave, Jew and Gentile would all be filled with the presence of God and they would be able to declare what God has done, is doing and will do in the future. This was a radical promise that probably seemed more like a campaign slogan than a real promise of God. The outcome of these promises? The first was fulfilled in a season or two. They second…well it faded into memory as years, decades and centuries passed. While the famine ended, the Spirit never came...at least until the day of Pentecost.
The story of Pentecost is one of those exciting yet frightening stories that fill the Bible. It is exciting. It is exciting because we watch a bunch of frightened, confused Galileans, in hiding out in an upper room, unsure of what to do, be suddenly turned into a cadre of fearless Good News tellers. Luke describes it as a moment in which the Spirit, appearing like a powerful wind and tongues of fire, swept over all the disciples, men and women, young and old giving them the power they needed to overcome their anxious hearts and then shooting them out into the street to tell people about Jesus and the coming Kingdom of God. It is also frightening because we watch a bunch of frightened, confused Galileans, in hiding out in an upper room, unsure of what to do, be suddenly turned into a cadre of fearless Good News tellers because the Spirit, appearing like tongues of fire, flickering over all the disciples, men and women, young and old gave them the power they needed to overcome their anxious hearts and then shot them out into the street to tell people about Jesus and the coming Kingdom of God.
While we may want to stop the story of Pentecost with that exciting and frightening moment, we ought not to do so. We shouldn’t do so because it was only the beginning of what the Spirit was going to do. Just like the wind of God that brought order out of chaos in the first creation, here the breath of God was bringing chaos out of order for a new creation. This chaos was that all flesh, all people were now elements of a new creation. Men, women, slave, free, rich and poor were given spiritual gifts; gifts that the Spirit gives to everyone who believes. These gifts include preaching, teaching, caring, loving, giving, encouraging, hosting and even healing and speaking in tongues. All people were given the fruit of the Spirit, transforming them into new people. Fruits included love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, kindness and self-control. And it is these gifts and fruits that created a radical new religious community. It becomes this wonderful amalgam of Jews and Gentiles, free people and slaves, men and women, rich and poor, citizen and foreigner all drawn together and empowered by the Spirit to love, serve and share. And this is why there is still hope and encouragement in this place…in this community…because the Promise is still real…that the Spirit is still pouring itself out in power.
This year marks the 185th anniversary of the founding of this church. And in each of those years the Spirit has been here making this a place of hope and encouragement. The Spirit has seen this congregation through the Civil War, two World Wars, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, the Civil Rights Movement, integration, and the movement toward the full inclusion of persons of all races, genders and sexual-orientations into the life of the church. The Spirit led us to be one of the first churches to ordain women and members of the LGBTQ community as elders and deacons. The Spirit led us to actively worked for low income housing in Birmingham. The Spirit led us to create one of the only full inclusion programs in our denomination for persons with disabilities. The Spirit continues to push us to work with partners in Detroit, Pontiac, Mexico and Kenya touching the lives of men, women and children. The Spirit continues to pour itself out on our children and on every generation from the Greatest, to Boomers, Busters, Millennials, Gen X and beyond. The Spirit gifts us for the building of the body of Christ. The Spirit gives us the fruits of the Spirit to make life richer and fuller. The Promise is being fulfilled in us. And what I perceive is that the Spirit is pushing us out of the doors of this place to do something great for Jesus Christ. That we are set to tell in word and in deed about God’s all-embracing Kingdom and change the world for the better; that a new transformation is upon us. This is the hope, this is the encouragement.
My challenge then is for each of us to ask ourselves, “What is it that the Spirit is empowering me to do for Christ and the world”, then to go and do it.
Rev. Bethany Peerbolte
June 2, 2019
Joshua 24:14-25; Luke 5: 17-20
“As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” These are the words Joshua tells Israel in his farewell address. This isn’t a new revelation for Joshua. He has spent his whole life serving God. Joshua’s leadership has taken Israel from a wandering covenant community to an established nation state. Toward the end of his life he gathers the people of Israel and announces that he is rededicating himself and his household to serve God, affirming that all the work has been worth the struggle and he would do it again if God asked.
His example and leadership over the years has been so reliable that the crowd instinctively shouts back that they too will serve God. But Joshua tells them to slow down and think about this. Joshua wants them to read the user agreement. He has seen what serving God requires. He worked alongside Moses, a man who was a prince in Egypt and in service to God. Moses was asked to leave his comfortable, convenient life in the palace for the life of a fugitive in the desert. Joshua knows from personal experience serving God will require sacrifices, that empty commitments will come with consequences. Before anyone can dedicate their lives to serving God they must acknowledge that service will be inconvenient. The people reply that they are ready to serve God, come what may.
What comes is just as Joshua warned – inconvenient. Women giving birth late in life, men leaving their trades to follow Jesus, children giving up their lunch so that the 5000 adults who forgot to pack a lunch could eat. Serving God is inconvenient.
The story of the four friends and the paralyzed man is filled with inconveniences. The person who owned the house was inconvenienced. Not only had they prepped all week for Jesus’ arrival, the crowd that shows is larger than they anticipated. With so many in their home they were probably worried about things getting broken or stolen. And then the roof is busted through! Some of the people in the crowd were Pharisees. Their inconvenience was a challenge to their world view. Jesus’ message went against fundamentals they had built their lives around and listening to him teach was disturbing and uncomfortable. It was inconvenient.When we read the story of the paralyzed man and his four friends we take for granted that these four men were happy to help. The more likely scenario is that they had other plans for the day. Appointments to make, deadlines to reach, chores to finish, commitments to keep, debts to pay, quality family time to have. But Jesus was in town today.
For some reason they decide to forget everything else that could have gotten done that day, and they lug this full-grown man across town. When they arrive, they find that the crowd is so large they can’t even get to Jesus. It would have been easier to turn around and go home, to come back when Jesus was available. Going home is the convenient option, but instead, they decide to go up onto the roof, dig through the thatching and tiles, and lower their friend down to Jesus. For some reason, this task of getting their friend to Jesus was more important than their excuses not to.
It’s possible the man on the bed was just a great guy, the kind of friend to inspire outrageous acts of loyalty. Or maybe, these four men were repaying a favor. Maybe someone had been sick and the others helped him, or maybe one fell on hard times and was supported by the others. Maybe they had inconvenienced others and were simply repaying the time and effort others had spent on them.
Or, maybe they had heard the gospel. They had sat in a crowd listening to Jesus’ message of grace and forgiveness. They had met Jesus’ followers and seen how they loved one another, and the message rang true for them. They had felt that switch flip inside them as they realized God loves them and wants good things for them and for their friend who is paralyzed. This would have been a very different kind of message than anything they had heard before.
This message of abounding love stood against the prevailing theology that God rationed out love to those who were righteous. Jesus rejected the idea that if you were down and out, if you were sick or disabled, it meant God had turned away from you. Jesus said the sick and poor were blessed, they had worth, they were loved.
Inspired by this message, these men carried their friend in his bed. This detail stopped me as I studied the verses this week. He is in his bed. No where in these verses does is say this man is poor; we sometimes assume he is. Its just as possible he has money. Jesus does send him back to “his home” after he is healed. If he has a bed he is doing better than some. Maybe his paralysis is a recent development that has thrown him into a downward spiral, and now his friends can’t even get him into a chair. Now he spends his days in bed, depressed by his circumstances.
Who can blame him, The world tells him his sins caused these circumstances, that God has abandoned him, that he is unloved. The theology of the day shackled him to that bed. The friends knew Jesus’ message was the only way they were going to rescue their friend. They had probably tried to teach him the gospel, to tell him God had not turned away and that in fact God loved him but they could not get through to him. So the only thing left to do was to pick up the bed themselves and walk him to Jesus so he could experience the message of the gospel first hand.
The crowd prevented their friend from hearing Jesus – they were still too far away – so they go up to the roof. But the house was so well built they couldn’t hear from the roof and they had to break it down. Their friend had to hear the gospel from Jesus. Nowhere does it say this trip was about getting their friend to walk again. I think they simply wanted him to hear Jesus say, “You are Loved.”
It was inconvenient for them, it was back breaking work, it probably cost them a pretty penny to fix the roof, it wasn’t exactly the right weekend to make it all happen, but it was worth it for their friend to know he was loved by them and by God.
This month is Pride Month. There will be endless images of colorful exuberant parties and parades on social media. For me the ones that bring the most joy are the ones of Christians giving free hugs to the participants. A hug is so simple but it means so much. It means, “I am not just willing to be in the same space as you: I want to embrace you, heart to heart.” A hug is a physical expression of acceptance. It acknowledges worth and expresses love, and it’s just a hug.
The images won’t show us the inconveniences someone had to go through to get there, the traffic jams, the declined lunch dates. but it does show that for that person, being present was the most valuable and productive thing they could do with their day. It does show that that person has made a commitment to making another human feel loved. That that person has said, “I will serve the Lord.”
When we think of service we think of building, cooking, visiting. The physical actions we do with our bodies. In some ways that is correct; serving is about the physical movement of our bodies, but it is less about “the job” we are doing and more about where our bodies are. When we show up for someone we are casting a vote for them. Our physical presence says to the world I stand with them and against the forces hurting them. We can say children deserve a good education or the homeless need a place to go in the winter, but placing our bodies, the most valuable and fragile thing we have, into the issue is next level. This guy’s friends climbed to the top of a house and broke through the roof! They used their bodies to physically cast a vote that said you have worth, you are loved. The single most powerful thing you can do for someone who is in need is to move toward them, sit with them, physically be there for them.
Service is not about “being able to do a job;” it is about being physically present for someone else – no matter the inconveniences.Not all service is going to be inconvenient. A large part of my job and the work of our Outreach Ministries Committee is to make service as convenient as we can for you. Some service will come naturally and you will be happy to be present for the people who need you in that time. But eventually God will call you to do something inconvenient in service of the gospel. You will have to give up the one free night you have. You will be asked to make another meal for another family in the church who has had a baby. You will have to visit someone for the 5th week in a row. When those inconvenient calls come, a voice in your head will run through all the reasons you can’t possibly help. It will try to convince you that you don’t have to BE there, you could just …
When that voice starts its list of inconveniences it is time to stop and decide if we want to rededicate ourselves to serving the Lord, if we are willing to put our bodies into the issues we say we care about. Every time we step out in service we rededicate our lives to the love God has shown us. We ensure the message of the gospel survives by physically bringing the love it inspires to those who need it. When we offer our time, our hands, our shoulder we affirm that the gospel is worth the inconveniences and cast a vote that tells the world God’s love is here.
The Rev. Dr. John Judson
May 26, 2019
Ecclesiastes 4:9-12; Luke 19:1-10
It was early evening and they were walking along the dunes on one of the barrier islands off of the Georgia coast. Ed was looking for petrified sharks’ teeth and Barbara was looking out for sand burrs in order not to step on them. Then as Barbara Brown-Taylor tells the story, they were surprised as they stumbled over a large loggerhead turtle. It was barely alive. Its shell still hot from the days sun. The turtle was half buried in the sand. Barely alive. They both realized in an instant what had happened. The turtle had come ashore to lay its eggs, then searched the horizon for the light that would lead it back to water. But as the sun set and the city lights came on, the turtle mistook the bright city lights for the lights of the moon and the stars reflecting off the ocean. So, the turtle went the wrong way. It moved away from the water rather than towards it. Buried deeper and deeper into the sand, its strength wore out. It was lost and had no energy to continue.
Taylor’s story as she tells it in her book Learning to Walk in the Dark is for me the perfect metaphor for our struggle to walk in the way of Jesus, in the way of God. We know, that just as that turtle’s calling was to go on shore, lay her eggs and return to the sea, to keep her species alive, we know our calling. It is to live lives of loving God, neighbor and caring for creation. It is to live in imitation of Jesus, showing forgiveness, compassion and care for not just for friends but those on the margins of society. And like the turtle, we move forward, doing our best trying to follow Jesus, who as the Gospel of John declares, is the light of the world; the one whose life shines such that the darkness cannot overcome it. Yet in the opposite direction, there are other lights. There are the bright lights of appearance, accumulation, achievement and adoration. We see those lights and our lives turn toward them, believing that they are where we will find our life’s meaning and purpose; that they are where we will find real life. And the more we move toward those lights, the more we bog down. The more tired we become because they cannot give us life. They can only leave us tired and empty and lost.
If you want to see how this works, all you need do is look to the story of Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus was a Jew who lived in Jericho. Jericho was a center of wealth and trade. Josephus described it as a “divine region” and the “fattest” in Palestine. It held legendary date palm groves and balsam wood used for perfume. It was also a crossroads of trade because of its location and its springs which still flow today. What this meant was that it was the perfect location for a tax collector to make his fortune. I would offer that Zacchaeus understood clearly what it meant to follow in the way of God. He knew what the Torah required. He could see the light. But there were brighter lights; wealth, power, acceptance by the ruling elites. That was the path he had chosen. Yet, it bogged him down. Like the sand around the turtle, all the taxes he collected and the cut he took, only moved him further and further away from his calling as a child of God. Luke describes his distance from God by telling us that Zacchaeus was such an outsider that he could only see Jesus by climbing a tree because no one would let him through the crowd. He was on the outside looking in. He was lost. But that all changed with a simple invitation; an invitation from Jesus.
Granted it was a strange invitation in several ways. First it was strange because Jesus invited himself to Zacchaeus’ house. Jesus said, “Zacchaeus, hurry, I must stay at your house today.” Second it was a strange invitation because Zacchaeus was the most hated man in town. He was a thief and a traitor. Which is why the people grumbled about Jesus eating with a sinner. Finally, it was strange because of what happened at that dinner. Jesus says nothing and yet Zacchaeus is transformed. Notice, that as Luke tells the story, Jesus does not condemn him. Jesus does not lecture him on the Torah. Jesus does not tell him how he must change. Jesus says nothing, and yet suddenly Zacchaeus turns away from the bright lights of money and power and turns toward the light in Jesus; the light in the beloved community. We know he does because he declares that he will give half of his goods to the poor, when the Law only requires him to give ten-percent. We know he does because he promises to repay anyone he defrauded four times what he owes, when the Law only requires two times. Zacchaeus is suddenly no longer lost, but he is found. By being in the presence of Jesus, in the presence of the true light of the world, he rediscovers his bearings and finds life.
This transformative power of being in the presence of Jesus is why what we do here in this place, in this community, matters so much. I say that because we are more than the church, we are the living body of Christ. And as the living body of Christ, we encounter the true light whenever we come together. We encounter it in scripture, preaching, sacraments and music. We encounter it in service and community. We encounter it in friendships and inclusive welcomes. We also encounter it at home when we pray together and love one another. We encounter it with our friends when we care and forgive. We encounter it out in the world when we show the love of Jesus Christ. But, we are only able to encounter it because once upon a time, we were invited into the community. It is when we were invited in to experience the light and when we were invited in to be encouraged and to have our lives redirected. Some of us like Eve (who was baptized this morning), were invited in by our parents. Others of us were invited in by friends or strangers. Others of us were invited in by the Holy Spirit. But ultimately it was an invitation that allowed us to turn toward the light of Christ that offers us life and purpose and meaning.
What I would ask you to do for a moment is to close your eyes to do two things. First think about who invited you in. Then take a moment and give thanks for that person. Second, slowly think about your friends and family. Ask yourself who is looking for the light. Who is looking for some meaning in life. Who is seeking encouragement. Whose life might be changed by an invitation to come to the beloved community. Then pray that God might open a way for you to invite them; to invite them to encounter the life changing light of Christ that is here in our midst. Now open your eyes.
Before we close I want to be sure that we know what happened to the turtle. Ed left Barbara with the turtle while he went and sought help. Soon Ed and a park ranger returned and the three of them flipped the turtle on its back, carefully attached a chain to the turtle and ranger’s truck and dragged the turtle back to the water. Then as the waves slowly washed over the loggerhead it regained its life and swam away. Second, I want to be clear that this is where our story diverges from Barbara’s story. It diverges because we are not to forcefully drag people to church; or guilt them; or lecture them. Jesus did none of these things. Jesus simply invited. He left it up to Zacchaeus whether to accept. Whether to respond. That is our task. It is not to keep the encouragement of the light of God in Christ only for ourselves, but to invite others to share in it. So that they too can discover the joy and life that comes from following the way of Jesus.
My challenge to you then is this, to prayerfully ask God to give you an opportunity to invite one other person into the body of Christ so that they might find encouragement for living in he way of Jesus, the way of life.
Rev. Bethany Peerbolte
May 19, 2019
Genesis 2:15-23; John 15:12-17
Making friends is a basic life skill. We begin practicing before we can walk. But If I were to ask you “how does a person make a friend?” we would all have a hard time coming up with a solid answer. On my first day of kindergarten I was nervous about making friends. I don’t know how I had made the friends I already had but I was pretty sure my mom would remember and tell me how friending works. She told me all I had to do was walk up to someone and ask them to be my friend. Simple enough; at five I was unaware what rejection was and trusted my mom wouldn’t give me bad advice. Her advice actually served me well. I am still very close to two people I met that day.
But then 13 years later when I walked onto Michigan State University’s campus I panicked again. I had no idea how to make friends. Then it happened again when I walked off campus a few years later years later. If you put me in a new community today I would probably have the same panic attack. How have I gotten this far in life, with a lot of friends and friending experience, without a solid strategy on how to make friends?
There seems to be no wrong way to make a friend, thankfully. I have made friends during times of joy and times of grief. I have made friends because I was locked in buildings with them, aka school. Being an extrovert, I admit I have imposed my friendship on unsuspecting introverts. With so many different ways it is hard to give a straight answer to how to make a friend.
Carnegie tried to teach friend-making strategy in his book “How To Win friends and Influence People.” It did well in its time but today most people recognize his strategy as disingenuous at best and manipulative at worst.
As difficult as making friends can be it is essential to our happiness. A study from my alma matter found that friendships are more important than family relationships when it comes to our mental health. Psychologists think this is because we tend to do more leisurely activities with friends while family time can be more monotonous. The study does recognize that people do have deep friendships with family members so their conclusion was that the more support a person has the stronger their mental health tends to be.
The idea that humans need other humans is not a new revelation. It’s Biblical, a Genesis 2 fundamental. The first problem ever to exist in the world is not sin: it’s isolation. Adam is in the garden alone. God sends every animal to Adam to be named but God also hopes Adam will pick one to become a friend. Not even the dog wins the part. God has to go back to the drawing board and come up with a better creature than anything already made. At this point, God has a lot of creating experience, and the woman does not disappoint. Adam finally has a friend. He no longer has to be alone.
Isolation is a major problem in God’s eye. We are not meant to be separated, we are meant to be in relationships, we are meant to be in friendships.
Jesus knew the importance of friendship. His first ministry act was to gather his support network and calls the disciples. In the Gospel of John, as Jesus prepares for the cross he talks to the disciples about friendship. He knows they are about to launch into a new chapter of life and he does not want them to panic about making friends after he is gone. He tells them to look for three markers of a good friend: imitation, information, and initiative.
Imitation is the first marker. Jesus says “You are my friends if you do what I command.” That’s some strong language, I wouldn’t say I command any of my friends although maybe my introverted friends would say that. Command does not feel right in the context of friendship. But what Jesus wants us to understand is that friends want to imitate one another. They have seen the value in another person’s thoughts and needs and want similar things. Jesus is commanding that the disciples love one another. No one in the room is protesting. No one is throwing their arms up and saying, “Ugh! Jesus, you ask too much.” No, because they are friends they all understand the context of the command and agree it’s a worthy thing to put into action.
Friending requires imitation. Body language specialists say if you are wondering if someone likes you watch their body posture. If you lean back and they lean back, or you cross your arms and then they do, it means they like you and want to appear similar enough to be your friend. When we are someone’s friend, we see something in them that we admire. They inspire us to be the best we can be and by obeying their commands we can become better people.
Of course, there are limits. Boundaries are important to friendships too. “NO” is a command we can use and obey.
Jesus also helps us find our boundaries with the next friend marker, information. Jesus explains that in a master-slave relationship a master makes commands on a slave and withholds information. One half of the relationship knows why a command is being made while the other is supposed to follow without question. If there is a question from the slave they won’t get an answer. This relationship is not a friendship.
Friends keep friends informed. If a command is made and someone asks why, the friend explains why. If someone is uncomfortable with the command, they are free to explain their feelings. Friendships have a free flow of information so that everyone in the relationship can set good boundaries and react autonomously.
The third marker is initiative. Remember the advice my mom gave me in kindergarten? “Ask someone to be your friend” is exactly what Jesus means. But as I read John’s Gospel this week it dawned on me that I have misunderstood when a friendship starts.
I have always thought friendship started when the other person gave their “yes” answer, but in truth, friending begins even before I ask the question. It begins when I decide to be a friend to someone else. It begins when I make the initiative.
In calling the disciples his friends Jesus says “You did not choose me but I chose you.” I chose you is enough, which means that “no” is not a bad thing. The effort made to be friendly is still worth making if we get a “no” response. Jesus simply wants people to be friendly and bear the fruit of love into the world. If we are so crippled by our fear of rejection, love doesn’t stand a chance. This holy work of friending is valuable no matter the other person’s response.
Friending is so important to faith! My personal ministry philosophy is centered on this spiritual practice. It’s controversial but my main goal in the youth group is to create a community. If a youth walks out of here knowing nothing about Jesus but has a friend, knows that these types of buildings are a place where you can make friends, I’m thrilled. Of course, I want them to learn about Jesus and grow in faith, but for some, high school will not be the time period for that kind of growth. Having friends ensures there is always a voice through which God can speak.
Each friend we make holds the potential to bring God’s love to us when we really need it. That’s why initiative is so important in a friendship. If we see a friend in need we should feel empowered to help. The only way we know what they need is by sharing openly about our feelings and needs. When we share that information it helps us put ourselves in someone else’s shoes and imitate their best qualities back to them, until they remember who they are and how much they are loved.
No one is perfect at friending, but the process of being a good friend is a spiritual practice just as much as praying or reading scripture. There will be times when it comes easy, and times when it seems impossible. But just like any other spiritual discipline, we need to keep pushing ourselves to become better friends.
May we be people worth imitating and surround ourselves with people who inspire us to be better. May we be open and honest with the people in our lives. May we find ways to take initiative to make a friend and bear the fruit of love into the world.
Rev. Joanne Blair
May 12, 2019
Luke 6: 12-16
Last week, Pastor John gave us the assignment of reading the book of Luke. For those of us who did, or those of us who are already familiar with the book, we may have thought today’s scripture seemed like an odd placement for Jesus to be forming his team. By now, he has been teaching, preaching, healing, and even challenging the authorities. And he already has quite a collection of disciples. So, before we move into our topic for today (that of prayer), I think it behooves us to unpack this a little bit.
Luke is making a distinction between disciples and apostles. A disciple is someone who is a follower or student, of a teacher or master. And what distinguishes a disciple from a typical student, is that a disciple completely redirects their life to the doctrine of the master. An apostle, on the other hand, is one who is sent or commissioned by someone else to represent them… to be their witness.
Later in chapter 10, Jesus says to his apostles, “whoever listens to you listens to me; whoever rejects you rejects me.” The twelve apostles will be called to particular missions, and will need to stand up to particular challenges. But what is crucial in the calling of the twelve, is our first verse: “Now during those days he went out to the mountain to pray; and he spent the night in prayer to God.” The twelve will play a crucial role in history, and so before Jesus chooses them, he withdraws to the mountain to pray.
Jesus’ life is filled with prayer. And he prays before every pivotal decision he makes. Even though he is God the Son, he humbles himself before God the Father, staying in tune with the Father’s will. Jesus didn’t make his choice first and then ask God’s blessing. Rather… he spent the night in prayer and then made his choice. Jesus is, indeed, the perfect model of prayer.
Jesus practiced prayer constantly and urged his followers to do the same. But what is prayer? Prayer is a conversation. It is an exchange of wishes or ideas. It is a conscious seeking to experience God’s presence, love, direction, and grace.
Last week, John mentioned that the Bible is the most purchased book … and the least read. Well, in our life of faith, prayer is the most talked about activity … and the least practiced. Yet prayer is a conduit of communication between God and God’s people. If Jesus felt the need to pray, surely we should.
Yet many of us are uncomfortable with prayer. We often say to each other: “I’ll pray for you” or “You’re in my prayers” … and then send a quick ‘arrow prayer’ to God. Our intentions are good, and while all prayers do matter … I repeat - all prayers do matter … prayer is so much more than quick arrow prayers. Prayer builds relationship. Prayer can design the framework of our lives. And prayer can encourage us along the way.
Yet prayer can be challenging. In the busyness of our lives, it’s hard to settle ourselves down enough to gather our thoughts and feelings … let alone express them. And it’s even harder to settle ourselves down and open ourselves up enough to listen to what God might be saying. Some of us already have a strong and consistent prayer life. Many of us don’t.
Since today is “Everybody’s Worship” I thought it would be meaningful if we all committed to praying for 10 minutes each day this week … practicing the same prayer style. In Crosswalks (our Sunday School for K-5th grade), the children have been doing a unit on prayer using finger prayers. While there are many styles of finger prayers, this week I encourage all of us to follow the pattern the children are using. How special, to realize during the coming week that this entire community of faith is praying together … yet each with their own unique offerings.
The Finger Prayer
Ten minutes can seem like a very long time. A few years ago, I realized that I felt sluggish most of the time, and I acknowledged that it was because I wasn’t moving my body enough. I made a very small commitment that I would walk on a treadmill for 15 minutes. Truth be told, it took me longer to get to the gym and put my things in the locker than it took me to walk for 15 minutes. But I kept doing it… and I limited myself to 15 minutes. Before I knew it, I just wasn’t ready to stop and needed to extend the time.
As the days and weeks went by… my walking time increased and increased, and it became a regular part of my life. I not only felt better … I was more connected to my body and my mind. Prayer connects us to God.
They say it takes 30 days to form a new habit. Any discipline needs to be practiced before it becomes a part of our natural routine. And so it is with prayer. What first seems like a forced, stilted activity soon becomes not only a part of our daily life … but something we miss when it’s not there. And if we pray often enough… through all the phases of our day… our conversation with God becomes natural and we better learn to listen and understand where, when, how, and through whom God has responded.
As we build a stronger relationship with God… as our communication skills with God become more practiced… as we learn to enter into conversation with God… then we will come to better understand God’s answers. For often, God answers in ways we never dreamed, expected, or asked for.
F. B. Meyer wrote in his book The Secret of Guidance, “The great tragedy of life is not unanswered prayer, but unoffered prayer.” What could be greater than being in genuine conversation with God? As much as we speak … we must learn to listen. God continues to call people of faith together through whom God can bless all the peoples of the earth.
The more we remain in conversation with God and allow that conversation to direct our lives … the more our lives can become a living prayer.
May it be so.
May 5, 2019
Dr. John Judson
Deuteronomy 4:1-8; Luke 4:16-21
It began with a few verses. Then it became a few chapters. Then it was most of the Old Testament. Then it was most of the New Testament. They cut them all out. In a slow and systematic manner, they examined the entirety of this book and took out all the passages that they considered to be inappropriate. When they were done they had a rather slim volume, but it would suit their purposes. Then, in 1808 slave owners in the British West Indies published the Parts of the Holy Bible, selected for the use of the Negro Slaves. It quickly became known as the Slave’s Bible and was widely distributed. What the editors had eliminated was any reference to freedom. What the editors had kept were any references to slavery being an appropriate human experience. They didn’t want slaves reading about Jesus saying that he had been sent to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives and that the oppressed should go free. If slaves read that they might revolt like the slaves on Haiti who won their independence. Even so, we might wonder why the slave owners were so afraid of the Bible?
I say this because the Bible has been an effective tool for the suppression and elimination of tens of millions of people. It has been used to justify the oppression and deaths of Jews, Muslims and other Christians…yes other Christians in which people slaughtered each other over Biblical interpretation and doctrine. It has been used to oppress women, the poor, people of color, the disabled and members of the LGBTQ community. It has been used to argue against teaching evolution in schools and for the recognition of marriage equality. It was the justification for segregation and Jim Crow laws. If you want to see this at work today, all you have to do is listen to Franklin Graham declare that the Bible makes it clear that there is no such thing as a gay Christian and go online to white nationalist web-sites where scripture is used to defend their beliefs and actions. With this sort of historic usage of scripture unedited, why then would the slave owners be afraid of it? The answer, I believe, is that they understood scripture better than most; that scripture was a story of love and liberation. It was a story of God’s love for and liberation of all people, and that that story might encourage slaves to desire to be free people.
One of the fascinating things about the Bible is that it is the most widely published and yet least read books in history. Let me ask, how many of you have a Bible you received at confirmation or some other time, and has barely been opened? If you do, you are not alone. Most of us, if we decide to read the Bible, get through Genesis and part of Exodus before we get bogged down in the minutia of that Law and give up. Or if we read the New Testament, we get a little lost in John, get mad at Paul and give up there as well. This is not criticism, it is a reality I faced when I first began trying to read the Bible. What is important this morning though, is that those slave owners understood the scriptures correctly. The scriptures were a story of God’s infinite love for all persons and God’s desire for all persons to be free. It is in these two realities that we ought to find encouragement. First we ought to find encouragement in the reality that scripture tells us that we are unconditionally loved. Regardless of our age, race, gender, language, income or sexual orientation, we are God’s children, created in God’s imaged and cherished by our creator.
Second, we ought to find encouragement in God’s liberating power. I want to pause here to challenge us to examine what this liberation means for those of us who are solidly middle-class people. What does it mean for those of us who are not oppressed? What does it mean for those of us who live privileged lives. And by privileged lives I mean we have been given the gift of education, advancement, homes to live in, food on our tables, clean water to drink, teachers and mentors to guide and direct us and a societal structure that rewarded all of that. What does liberation mean for us then? I believe it means removing our middle-class blinders so that we can see the world as Jesus did. What are middle-class blinders? They are those blinders that keep us from seeing and responding to the deep needs of the world around us. They only allow us to see the middle-class world in which we live, rather than the world on the margins. They are what lead us to say things like this, which is a quote from a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. “Nobody [in America] goes to sleep at night wondering if they’ll be able to feed their families.” It is what led me to assume that all the children I work with at Alcott school have someone at home to read with them. These blinders prevent us seeing those who live on the margins and from working to make a difference in their lives. What scripture will do, if we let it, is to remove those blinders so that we can see the world as it is; in need of our blessing. It will allow us to be agents of liberation for the oppressed, the hungry and the poor. I realize that this may not seem like an encouraging word…but it is. It is encouraging because Jesus lived a blinder free life. He ate with rich and poor, taught men, women and children, cared for Jews and Gentiles. In other words, there were no blinders, only love for those he encountered.
My challenge for you this morning then is this, to read the Gospel of Luke over this coming week, and then asking yourself these two questions: which was my favorite story and which story encouraged me the most? Then with those two questions answered, to practice lowering your blinders and asking, how I am seeing the world differently as I try to follow in the way of Jesus, a blinder free way?
Pastors and Associate Pastors: Dr. John Judson, Rev. Joanne Blair, Dr. Kate Thoresen, Rev. Ted Thode