April 24, 2016
John 14: 25-31
When I read this passage I knew I wanted to give my sermon on it because it has been so applicable to my, and I’m sure many of your, lives. There have been many instances in my life where I have experienced the Holy Spirit and the peace that Jesus promises us in this passage. However, there has also been many more times where I haven’t.
I immediately started racking my brain for the perfect story to fit this sermon, but it didn’t take me long to realize there was an obvious story to tell. It’s the kind of story that people always say “oh it's bad now but you will laugh at it in the future.” Well I’m still waiting for it to be funny. So I go to Oakland University to take the ACT. I get there with plenty of time to find the building I’m supposed to take it in, but lets just say it took a lot longer than I thought. I went around the entire campus trying to find the building and of course was stressing out. I did end up finding the building only to realize I didn’t have my ACT ticket with me. The ticket was my registration confirmation and was needed to take the test. I knew I had it with me when I was running around campus trying to find the building, so that meant I must have dropped it somewhere along the way. It could have been anywhere in the entire Oakland campus. That is when I really started freaking out. I ran, literally ran faster then i ever did in gym class, all over Oakland retracing my footsteps looking everywhere for it.The whole time I was thinking “ Its getting too late they probably already started taking the test. I need to take the this ACT or my future will be ruined.”
And just when I was about to give up and leave and cry the whole way home only what I can describe as an act of God occurred. I saw this white sheet of paper on the grass. I ran to it picked it up and lo and behold it was my soaked by still useable ticket lying in the grass. So I got the ticket and ran to the building the ACT was at, and miraculously I got there in time to take the test.
I experienced a lot of emotions that day. I was Scared I wouldn’t make it to the test in time. I was tired from running about two miles around the OU campus. And I was beyond stressed about the test and unnecessarily worried about my future. but I had no peace. I never felt the Holy spirit. But that was a part of Jesus’s promise in this passage, so why didn’t I have it? It is what Jesus says I should have.
When Jesus promises peace, he is basically saying you will be okay with God by your side. He also is saying that his peace is different than the world's definition of peace. The world’s definition of peace is the absence of troubles, but Jesus’s promise of peace is to be calm and collected in the midst of troubles. Our lives are partly defined by the struggles and troubles we face. Its a weirdly essential part of life that Jesus knows we can’t escape nor should we. As every gym teacher has said “no pain no gain.” So instead of Jesus promising that we have no struggle he promises that he will be there right next to us during all of our trouble. We just need to reach out and hold his hand. Jesus promises you that if you stick by him and focus on him you will have this peace.
This would have been good to remember while searching frantically for my ACT ticket. That all I needed was to stretch out my hand to the Holy Spirit. But Jesus doesn’t just want us to just half-heartedly believe this. He wants us to wholeheartedly believe and trust him. Just knowing a promise anyone makes isn’t enough to make the anxiety about the future disappear. We need to know how the promise will be fulfilled in order to rid us of our worry. The Holy Spirit is the how. The Spirit he sends is what will bring us peace and what will stay with us through all of our troubles. It is the means by which we will receive peace. It is the form God will take in order to be with us. Knowing the Holy Spirit will be with us helps us feel less anxious about future troubles because we know how God is going to help us. This promise helps us understand that we just need to let the Holy Spirit do its work in us and we will be okay.
The promises of peace and the Holy Spirit are of course not promises. They are another of the multiple ways God shows his loves us. These promises make us feel so loved and protected. God's love is his greatest gift that he wants us to open and embrace. Wasn’t that what Jesus was trying to do on earth? Love us. And with his love comes comes his care and promises of help. I wish I would have remembered this passage and God's promise when I was running (with burning lungs) around OUs campus. I should have reached my hand to the Holy Spirit that was running next to me the whole time. I then would have realized I would be cared for by God no matter if I found that ticket or not. If I did I wouldn’t have been worried or upset or afraid.
Three things I was and three things Jesus tells us not to be in this passage, and three things I didn’t have to be if I only let the Holy spirit do its job. So I just spent a lot of time talking about how I didn’t experience this peace that Jesus promises. But I haven’t talked about what exactly this peace feels like and any experience with it. I am not an experienced and super-wise person, but I will share with you most recent experience where Jesus fulfills this promise. It was just last night actually. I was sitting in bed practicing my sermon when I started to get incredibly nervous about giving it. I’m a little embarrassed to admit this. I was so overwhelmed I just started to cry. I then remembered what my sermon was about and how I just needed to reach out to the Holy Spirit.
So I began to pray that God grant me peace of mind, and shortly after I said Amen I stopped crying and this wave of excitement came over me. I was no longer nervous. I was looking forward to giving the Sermon. It was the weirdest and most sudden shift in mood that I ever experienced. I have been continually nervous about giving the Sermon for months and with just one prayer my nervousness was mostly gone and excitement took its place. I was texting my friend about how nervous I was and then I after I prayed I texted him saying, “I’m actually okay now. The Holy spirit is at work!” The Holy Spirit is always here to work. God is always here to love. And Jesus always follows through on his promises. So if I have one challenge for you (sorry pastor John I stole your idea to tell them a story and give them a challenge) it would be, whenever you're feeling stressed or overwhelmed or struggling just reach out to the Holy Spirit and pray. And Peace will be provided.
Rev. Amy Morgan
April 17, 2016
Psalm 23, John 10:22-30
We stopped the car when we saw the missiles. Pointed at us. Anti-aircraft artillery. And fragments of a United States Air Force U2 spy plane.
Last week, I traveled with my family and several members of this congregation to Cuba, a country that has been more or less off-limits to US visitors for more than my lifetime.
During the first few days of our journey, we had been met with nothing but hospitality and kindness. People said they welcomed Americans and hoped for an end to the embargo. They saw the conflict as a clash between governments, not people. Up to that point, I couldn’t really understand why Cuba was our enemy.
But when we pulled up to the monument to the Cuban missile crisis, when I read the history from the Cuban government’s perspective, that all changed. The chronology of the Cuban missile crisis outlined at the memorial emphasized the Soviet support of the Cubans and the position of Fidel Castro in the final accord reached between Cuba and the United States. It failed to mention that Castro did not get what he wanted, namely, an end to the embargo and the return of Guantanamo Bay to Cuban territory. We learned that the country would soon have a week-long holiday celebrating their victory at the Bay of Pigs. I saw billboards calling the embargo the largest genocide in history.
And suddenly in became inescapably real to me that we were in the presence of our enemies.
We encountered the missile display on our way to see El Cristo de la Habana, a 66 foot tall statute of Christ, dedicated just fifteen days before Fidel Castro entered Havana with the revolution that would push much of Christianity out of Cuba. We were being hosted by a Presbyterian pastor who happened to be the moderator of the Presbytery of Havana. She shared with us the hardships her people faced because of the embargo. She told me that her school and her community had raised her to believe that Americans were the enemy, but that her feelings had changed after a visit to the US where Americans came to her aid in a time of trouble.
Later that afternoon, we arrived at Pastor Izett Zama’s church in Los Palos, which literally means, “the sticks.” It was truly in “the sticks,” a small town of 8,000 people, with buildings in every state of disrepair you can imagine. Several church members were at the church door to greet us, and they ushered us into the small fellowship hall where they laid a table before us – a table filled with rice and beans, papas rellenas, chicken and fried plantains. And, of course, a heaping of flan for dessert.
In Cuba, the 23rd Psalm arose again and again. God rested us in the green pastures of Vinales, a UNESCO Biosphere national park, with breathtakingly beautiful organic farmlands. God restored our souls with the kindness of strangers and the company of friends and family. We felt the presence of the Great Shepherd’s comforting rod and staff through an unnerving car ride and all of the uncertainty that comes with new experiences, language barriers, and travel in a forbidden land.
But when our Cuban sisters and brothers fed us, laid a table before us in the presence of our enemies, their enemies, I truly understood the heart of this Psalm, and the meaning of Jesus’ words in this passage from John. They were listening to the voice of the Great Shepherd, laying this table for us.
It is beyond remarkable that they were able to do this, to follow Jesus, to hear his voice over the propaganda of the Cuban government. In the first years after the revolution, the Cuban church struggled to survive. The government’s official position on religion was the Marxist belief that it is a drug for the masses, and most of the country’s clergy fled. Even after Fidel Castro relaxed his position on religion, many Cubans had been convinced that faith was nothing more than a comforting myth, and professing faith in God still inhibited advancement in certain fields of work. Like those gathered in the portico of Solomon, many Cubans felt that if Jesus was the Messiah, things would be different, better, for the people who followed him. It would be clear and logical to see the truth. It should be as plain and simple as communism – work hard, share everything, everyone is equal.
But the sheep hear the shepherd’s voice, and they follow him. Even a Communist revolution could not snatch the sheep out of the shepherd’s hand. Many had to flee. Some had to go underground. Most churches continued for years without pastors. But the church has not perished in Cuba. These Christians understand that “belief” is not simply a matter of logical intellectual assent. They are critical thinkers and well-educated, but they know that true belief is an experience of deep trust, as sheep trust a shepherd. They have experienced God’s grace and provision, they have experienced the comfort of the herd. They have not simply made a decision to follow Christ, to sacrifice for others, to be in community. They have listened, they have heard, and they have followed. The sheep hear the shepherd’s voice and follow him.
In the Presbyterian Church in Guiness, they follow him by sharing with the community American music – rock, folk, and jazz – and by showing movies. This may seem an odd sort of evangelism to us, but to a people who have been forbidden these entertainments for decades, it creates a strong point of connection and is bringing people into the church in great numbers.
In Los Palos, they are following the shepherd by building a community center. With the recent change allowing Cubans to buy and sell property, the church has been able to acquire a building across the street where they are putting in a library and study room, conference rooms, and places for children’s crafts and activities. They’ve started a soccer team, and they have a ministry for women experiencing domestic violence. From their meager food rations, they serve meals to 20 seniors in their community twice a month, none of whom are members of the church. They provide dance therapy for the elderly and bring in psychologists to treat depression and other mental illnesses. Their vacation bible school draws over 100 children and is run by this church of about 100 members. They are developing a cultural center for their community, putting on plays, bringing in bands, hosting poetry readings, and teaching music and painting.
At the end of our time together with our Cuban Christian family, we gathered in a circle, our group of Americans and about a dozen church members, to ask and answer one another’s questions. We asked what they loved most about their church. They told us they loved that it was a community of love, committed to caring for one another and for the larger community. They asked about the mission projects of our church, and we talked about Alcott and AAIM, our partnerships with local non-profits, and our Mexico and Kenya missions.
And then I asked them what they want the churches in America to know about the Cuban Presbyterian Church.
They said that they want us to know that they are strong. They are committed to love and justice. They want peace and an end to the conflict between our countries. They want us to know that they are our sisters and brothers in Christ, our friends and not our enemies. They want us to know that they don’t think Americans are their enemies, either. They want to partner with us in serving the people in need in their community.
At that point, my cup overflowed. Many of us dabbed tears from our eyes as we closed our gathering by pairing up to pray for and with one another and commit to continuing relationship. In most of the pairings, the partners could not understand one another’s words because of our language differences. But the meanings were clear, nonetheless. They would pray for us, our church, our ministry. And we would pray for them, their church, their ministry. We would pray for the oil of healing to be poured out on the brokenness between our two nations.
The setting of today’s passage from John, the Feast of Dedication, is known to us by the more familiar name Hanukkah. It remembers the Maccabean victory to reclaim Jerusalem. While this victory continues to be celebrated by the Jewish community, the conflict over the Holy Land continues to this day, more than two thousand years later.
The community from which we received the gospel of John was in conflict with parts of the Jewish community, and that enmity is reflected throughout John’s telling of the Jesus story. Here, it is “the Jews” who are set up against Jesus, depicted as those who do not “believe,” who do not trust, who do not hear the shepherd’s voice. This, too, is a conflict that continues to this day and has led to catastrophic losses for the Jewish people and for all humanity.
Conflicts may never cease. Enmity may not come to an end. But if we keep sitting at tables set before us in the presence of our enemies, perhaps we can hear the voice of our shepherd and follow him.
Rev. Dr. John Judson
April 10, 2016
Psalm 30:1-5, John 21:15-19
I was probably about 8 or 9 years old and I was going to the medical center with my mother and a couple of my brothers. We were driving our 1962 Ford station wagon. For those of you who are too young to have known such a vehicle it was one of those cars that you docked rather than parked. It was one huge piece of steel. We were sitting in the left turn lane waiting to go when suddenly there was this loud crash and my brothers and I were knocked forward. I quickly looked behind us and there was a little MG that had rear ended us at a relatively high speed. The front end of his car was crushed and water was rushing out all over the street. My mother exited the car and all I could hear was the man screaming at my mother…not a good thing to do. Years later I asked my mom about it she said that the man had claimed that the accident was her fault; that her brake lights had gone off for an instant and so he assumed that she was going…even though the light was clearly red and there was traffic moving the other direction. As I have reflected back on that moment it is one of those powerful reminders that none of us like to hold ourselves accountable for many of the dumb things we do. They are always someone else’s fault.
Taking responsibility for our own actions; holding ourselves accountable is one of the most difficult things for human beings to do. When something bad happens our usual first course of action is to find someone else to blame. When my mother would ask if my little brothers were crying because I had been picking on them, my first response was, “No, must have been someone else.” Or, “But they started it.” Regardless it was never going to be my fault. And in a sense this is where we find ourselves with Peter. Peter was one of those guys who was never really willing to hold himself accountable for his actions. In the upper room at the last supper, Peter made the declaration that he would never abandon Jesus; that not even death itself could separate them. Yet in the end, not only did Peter not stick with Jesus but he denied him three times. Peter pretended that he had never known Jesus. And now that Jesus was resurrected Peter acted as if everything was fine…that maybe Jesus had forgotten about his betrayal. Yet Jesus hadn’t and forces Peter to be accountable for his choices.
This is what is taking place in our morning’s story where Jesus questions Peter three different times with the words, Do you love me? Each time Jesus asks the question it forces Peter to answer for the three times that he denied Jesus. The first two answers that Peter offers are perfunctory…sort of, “Sure Jesus we all know how much I love you. Can’t you see that? How can you doubt my sincerity?” Notice how he makes no effort to explain or even admit what he had done. Finally on the third time Peter is hurt and replies, “OK Jesus you know everything. Yes I love you.” That moment was Peter’s admission that he had fallen short of his own desire to follow Jesus. That he did not love Jesus as much as he said he did. In a sense he is finally holding himself accountable for the choices that he made when Jesus was being interrogated. It is at this point though that many people become a little bit irritated with Jesus. After all hadn’t Jesus forgiven Peter? Isn’t that what Jesus does? And if so why should Jesus force Peter to take responsibility for his action; to make Peter accountable? Isn’t that just pouring salt on an open wound?
The answers are yes Jesus had forgiven him. In the passages leading up to this one we see Jesus essentially forgiving not only Peter but all of the disciples. What we see here however is that Jesus understands something important about forgiveness and that is that forgiveness is only effective when the one being forgiven holds themselves accountable for that for which they are being forgiven. In a sense, forgiveness is like a key that opens a locked door; a door behind which someone is trapped in whatever sin diminishes themselves and those around them; hate, anger, abuse…or you choose one that you carry. Those sins are the baggage that they have with them in that locked room. Unless that person holds themselves accountable for what they have done, acknowledging what is in the baggage, even if they were to walk through the door unlocked by forgiveness, they would find themselves trapped in another slightly different room but with the same baggage. They would take their sins with them. Nothing would change. They would still be trapped, locked away by sin. It is only when we open our baggage, acknowledge that we packed it, and then offer those sins to God to be forgiven, that they can be left behind and our baggage become lighter. This is why Jesus held Peter accountable. Jesus had important things for Peter to do and Peter needed to lighten in his load in order to do them.
This combination of forgiveness and accountability is one of the great themes of scripture. It is at the heart of the scriptures from the beginning to the end. God holds Adam and Eve accountable. God wants Cain to hold himself accountable for the murder of his brother Abel. The people in the wilderness are taught about holding themselves accountable as they move toward the Land of Promise. The prophets’ main message is that if God’s people want to live into the fullness of life that God offers them then they need to hold themselves accountable for how they treat the poor, the widow, the orphan and the stranger. In other words, God’s forgiveness is always there as a key to unlock whatever doors bind us…but in order to be free we have to deal with the baggage…we have to hold ourselves accountable and move forward. Jesus came into the world to forgive sins; to set people free. Jesus came to help all of humanity discover the joy of being fully human; of loving God and neighbor. But Jesus can only go so far. Jesus can love us, forgive us, change the orientation of our hearts, but ultimately we are the ones who have to step up to the plate and choose to be different; choose to do something with what he has done for us.
Last week I told the story of Shaka, a young man who grew up here in Detroit and through a traumatic event turned to a life of crime on the streets. That life eventually led him to murder someone. He was convicted and sent to prison for 20 years. I also told you about the power of forgiveness, that one of the relatives of his victim forgave him for his crime and that forgiveness was a key that began to unlock the doors of his life. But as he tells his story, that was only a beginning. His next step was to hold himself accountable for his crime; that it was his choice to get to the gun and to pull the trigger. He said this lesson was taught to him by the “lifers’, those who would never see the outside of a prison again. But they had learned this great truth and shared it with him. Forgiveness unlocked the door and accountability allowed him to leave the baggage of blaming others behind. Shaka chose to open his bags and to begin to change his life….which he did and is now changed and works very actively to share the power of his transformation with others, especially those who may be vulnerable to making mistakes like he made.
You and I are the beneficiaries of God’s gracious love. God in Jesus Christ forgives all of our sins without us having to do anything. Yet if we desire to be new people; changed people, then we need to hold ourselves accountable. We need to examine our baggage, acknowledge that we packed it, and then offer its contents to God, that we might leave them behind. My challenge to you then this morning is this, to ask yourselves how am I holding myself accountable for my sins, that I might leave them behind and become the new person God would have me to be?
Rev. Dr. John Judson
April 3, 2016
(No Service Recording this week)
Psalm 118:19-25, John 20:19-23
It was absurd. That is really the only word you can use to describe it; absurd. It was absurd that Jesus gives his disciples the power and responsibility to forgive or not to forgive sins. To quote Jesus, “If you forgive the sins of any they are forgiven. If you retain the sins of any they are retained.” Seriously! Seriously Jesus is going to give his disciples this much power; the power to forgive or retain sins? These are the guys and gals who had just deserted him; pretended that they did not know him; doubted that he had been raised from the dead; had pretty much forgotten everything they had been taught by him. And now he is going to give them this unbelievable power? Well the answer is yes he is. In a sense what Jesus does is deputize the disciples. Just as in old westerns, where the sheriff deputizes people, giving them the same authority he has, Jesus does the same. The disciples have been deputized to forgive or not to forgive sins. My guess is that the disciples must have thought this was above their pay grade because, after all, only God could forgive; well, and maybe Jesus. Even so, whether those folks liked it, wanted it, or felt up to it, Jesus put it in their job description…giving and withholding forgiveness was now their call…and it is our call as well.
That’s right my friends, you and I are those who have been deputized as well. We have been given the job of forgiving or retaining sins. Some of you may appreciate this and are thinking of all the people whose sins you might want to retain…yeah that guy is never going to get forgiveness. Others of you however may have the same reaction as some of the disciples might have had, why are you picking on me? I say this because just like the disciples, we are less than perfect people. We are people who sin, who make mistakes, who say things we regret, who do things that hurt others and who never fully understand why people do what they do…so why should we be saddled with this task. It is above our pay grade. It is out of our wheelhouse. It is…you get the point. Why would God entrust us with such an overwhelming task? The answer, if you want to know, is that that I have no idea why Jesus would do so. What I do know though is that we have been called by and given the power of Jesus to forgive sins. The only question is what will we do with it?
I ask that question because there are two ways that we can use this power that we have been given. The first way is that we can use it to control others, which is how the church has often used this power. What I mean by this is that the church essentially says we will only offer you forgiveness when you do what we want you to do. As long as you don’t break any of our rules you are forgiven. If you break them you are not. As long as you believe what you are supposed to believe we will forgive you. If you don’t we won’t. As long as you recognize that we alone have the power to forgive or to withhold forgiveness then we will forgive you. Otherwise we won’t and you will be lost. My guess is that most of us have used forgiveness in this way. We forgive those who apologize. We forgive those who ask for forgiveness…and otherwise we withhold it because this seems fair.
The second way in which this gift and power can be used is to give it away to all who need it in order to set them free, without any preconditions. This is the difficult way, in fact a way that for many of us makes little sense, yet it is the way that Jesus offered forgiveness. I say this because this is the way that Jesus gave it away on the cross. Jesus didn’t say to the Romans who crucified him, “Hey guys. I will forgive you if you apologize.” No he simply forgave them. Jesus forgave the woman caught in adultery without her ever having expressed any regret. It is only after he forgives her that he tells her to not do it again. Jesus gave it away without condition, so perhaps this is the way we ought to give it away believing that forgiveness has a power to set people free. Oh, and the second half of Jesus’ statement that if you retain the sins of any they are retained? All that is, is a reminder of what happens when we fail to give forgiveness away; people end up trapped in their pasts rather than being set free by the grace of God.
Shaka was a smart kid. He was on the honor roll. He had dreams of going to medical school. Then one day, standing on a street corner here in Detroit, he was shot three times. He was rushed to the hospital and survived. As he tells his story that event profoundly changed him. He decided that it was better to be the shooter than the shootee. He became involved in selling drugs and carrying a gun. Then at the age of nineteen he killed a man. Convicted of second-degree murder he was sent to prison for twenty years. When Shaka arrived in prison he was angry. This was all someone else’s fault. Once inside he dealt in smuggled drugs, and contraband. For his continuing efforts he then spent seven years in solitary confinement. While he was there several factors changed his life…the first and in some ways one of the most important was a letter he received from a relative of the man he killed. In it, the relative said that she forgave him. It was in that moment, he said, that for the first time, he even considered that he might be forgivable and that his worst deeds would not define him forever. Today Shaka, after spending almost twenty years in prison, teaches and speaks around the country, helping youth and adults to make better choices in life. He is also working with a national bipartisan initiative that hopes to cut the prison population in half by 2025. Someone forgave his sins, they were forgiven and a new life was born. This is part of what he wrote in his latest book, “We can never know the power that a word of kindness and or an act of forgiveness will have on the person who needs it the most.”
Forgiveness is never easy. It is difficult. And it is more difficult when the one who needs forgiving refuses to acknowledge that they have done wrong, or when they continue a pattern of hurtful and harmful behavior. Even so you and I are called upon to forgive; to forgive like the relative of the man Shaka killed, to forgive like Jesus forgave, believing that the gift of forgiveness is one that can change lives for the good.
My challenge to you then is this, to ask yourselves, who in my life do I need to forgive, and then go and do it. Send them a note, an email, call them on the phone, meet with them in person and forgive. They might not think they need it, or want it, yet in so doing you are practicing forgiving as we have been called to do.