Rev. Dr. John Judson
August 27, 2017
This is one of the most beloved stories in all of scripture. It is one of those happy ending stories that we so desperately look for in a world that often does not have happy endings. Most of us know the story. There was a father with two sons.
The younger son turned out to be a jerk when he essentially told his father, “You are dead to me. Now give me everything I will inherit as if you were dead.” The father does so. The son then wastes it all in (and I love how the writer puts it) in dissolute living and finds himself feeding pigs. Which was about as low as a Jew could go. Knowing that his father treated his servants well he goes home hoping to be a servant. Along the way, he practices his speech of repentance. Before the son arrives however, the father sees him. Runs to him. Throws his arms around him, places a robe and ring on him and then throws a party for him. Happy ending…except that’s not the ending of the story. In fact, this a story without an ending at all. I say that because there is a second chapter to this story and it is the one of the older brother. And where this story will leave us after we are done is not with an ending but a question. That question is, will either of the sons love their father like their father loves them?
To understand this, we need to return to the older brother incident. I know that many of you here this morning associate with the older brother; the good brother; the dutiful brother. Yet please know that the older brother is as big a jerk as the younger. He is so because of the way he treats his father. When he returns home, sure he will be a bit irked, but he should have understood the commandment to honor your father and mother. So when he is invited in to the party he ought to have gone. Instead he attacks his father in public, before God and his guests. He accuses his father of treating him like a slave. He accuses his father of not caring for him even though he has been the perfect son. He accuses his father of never having given him anything. This is behavior beyond rudeness. The people listening to the story in the time of Jesus would have been appalled with this behavior. What makes it even worse is that it is all…wait for it…fake news. It is all a lie, because the father has given him everything.
What we need to do is to make sure that we hear the story as Jesus told it. In verse 12 Jesus makes it clear that the father divides the property between his sons. In other words, not only is the younger son given his property, but the older is given his as well. The older inherits before his father is dead, just like his younger brother. We know that this is true when in verse 31, the father says, “All that is mine is yours.” And essentially this is where the story ends. We do not know if either brother ever appreciates what has been done for them. We don’t know if either brother realizes the depth of the father’s love for them. We don’t know this because we don’t hear from either of the brothers again. We don’t know if the prodigal appreciates the party. We don’t know if the older brother appreciates being given everything. We don’t know if either will love the father as the father loves them. And thus, it is a story without an ending…until we write it.
Today, we complete our series of We Make the Road by Walking. We have walked from creation to new creation. We have walked through the Old and New Testaments. We have walked with the patriarchs and with the disciples. And at every turn we have had to ask ourselves the same question that they had to ask themselves, does God love us? This story without an ending reminds us of what we have learned on our walk, that God has given us everything; life, food, community, grace and salvation; that everything God has is ours. The question this morning is, do we really believe it and act like it? Do we live in gratitude? Do we let that love enfold us and change us? Do we believe it and let it transform us from head to toe? To draw this series to a close, I want to leave you with an image … a song … a reminder to take with you as you continue to walk. So sit back and watch: Our Father is waiting - Malcolm Gordon
God is waiting for us. God is running toward us. God is loving us. God has given us everything. My challenge to you on this day is to ask yourselves this question. Am I loving God like God loves me and showing that love in a life that loves others?
August 20, 2017
Rev. Dr. John Judson
Ezekiel 47:1-12; Revelation 22:1-7
They had trashed it. That was the only way to describe what I saw when I walked into the church manse. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, the manse is the church owned home in which the pastor lived. In times gone by most churches had manses because they could not afford to pay a pastor enough to own a home. My former congregation had a manse and it was located at the edge of the church parking lot. Cindy and I lived there twice, but when we finally were able to afford a home of our own, the manse sat empty…until one of our members asked if his son, daughter-in-law and grand-children could live there. The son was leaving the navy after more than ten years and was looking for a place to stay. The session was more than happy to let them live in the house. After maybe a year or so, they told us there was a problem with the disposal, something I could fix. So I went over to the hose, walked in and was stunned. The carpets had become a place of their dogs to soil. The wood corners of the doorframes had been eaten away. The children had painted on the walls with colored glue. And it looked as if it had never been cleaned. They had trashed the house, and now we had to decide if it was worth repairing. It was a heart-breaking moment.
This past week I have wondered if this is how God felt after Charlottesville? And actually not only about Charlottesville, but after the last several thousand years. God must daily look at creation and say, “They have trashed it. They have taken my marvelous creation and trashed it.” We have trashed it with racism, nationalism, tribalism, sexism, anti-Semitism and all the other isms. We have trashed it by hating and demeaning those who are different; who have different sexual orientations, different religious affiliations, different languages and different cultures. We have trashed it by enslaving other human beings, not only in the past but today. We have trashed it by refusing to ensure that all people have access to good education, clean water and a roof over their heads. We have trashed it by polluting our air and water. We have trashed it with trash…including that floating trash pile in the pacific larger than the state of Texas. We must wonder if God is heart-broken. We must wonder if God has given up on us and on this creation. Fortunately, while the answer to the first question is, God is broken hearted, the answer to the second is that God has never given up on us. We know this because of our two scriptures this morning.
We know God has not given up on creation because the background for both stories remind us that God is ever present, acting as a general contractor on God’s creation renovation project. The background of the Ezekiel creation renovation project is that God’s glory has returned to Jerusalem. One of the great images of Ezekiel is that the glory of God, meaning the presence of God, traveled with the people into exile in Babylon. Even though the Temple was destroyed and their nation devastated because the people had trashed it, God did not leave them. God went with them and brought them back. The marvelous images of a new creation are possible because of God’s presence. In the same way, the background of the Revelation story is that Jesus has returned and brought with him a renewed heaven and earth. The story in fact makes reference to this when it speaks of throne of God and of the lamb being present in the midst of the people. We know God has not given up because God is ever present and at work in the world.
We know God has not given up because God has given us a blueprint on what this renovated creation is going to look like; a description we find in these two stories. The first part of the blueprint is that creation will be a place of peace. Each of them speak of healing. In Ezekiel it is personal healing; healing from pain, disease and death. It is a reversal of the death that had come from Adam and Eve’s disobedience in the garden. In Revelation this concept has been expanded to include the healing of the nations. This refers to universal peace, in which there is no more war or conflict. The second part of this blueprint has to do with all people having enough; enough to eat and enough to drink. Ezekiel offers us an image or clean water flowing, fishing nets full, fruit hanging from trees and marshes that produce salt for all. It is a world of abundance that is accessible to all.
We know God has not given up because God promises that the work will be completed. This is probably for many of us the most difficult aspect of these stories. It may be the most difficult because there are moments when this creation appears to be coming apart more than it is being put together. When the KKK and white supremacists once again march in our cities. When we are once again faced with the possibility of nuclear war. When we are faced once again with mass migrations of people fleeing war and starvation. When we are faced with these recurring reminders of the fallenness of creation we wonder if it will ever end. We may feel like members of my former congregation who in the middle of their home renovation had the house flooded. They wondered if it would ever be done. But both of our stories are promises that there will be an end. They are promises that God’s blueprint will become a reality. So, the question is, what does this mean for us?
First it means that we are to be a people of hope. In the face of hopelessness and despair, we are to be those who believe that God is indeed present and at work in the world. We are to be those who, both individually and collectively, do not give up even in the face of what appear to be recurring and intractable problems. We are to be in fact, a community of hope into which people can arrive in fear and leave in courage. We are, once again, to be Pollyannas who have a seemingly unreasonable optimism in the face of overwhelming odds. Second, we are to continue our work as God’s subcontractors. For whatever reason, God has chosen to do most of this restoration work through us. Just as a general contractor organizes and hires sub-contractors, God has called us to be those on the ground tearing down the old death-dealing ways of the world and installing the new life-giving ways.
Now, a word about Charlottesville. For many people, what happened there seemed to have come out of the blue. It shocked us. But it shouldn’t have. In the last six months there are have been more than one-thousand, yes one thousand incidents of racial and anti-Semitic intimidation reported in the United States. Some even at Seaholm high school. Let’s be clear this morning that racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, and intolerance have always been with us. They have not been wished or washed away. Like wood rot, fed by the slow drip, drip, drip of fear which turns to hate, they can undermine the structure of nations, churches and communities. Our task as subcontractors is to peel away their veneer of acceptability and shine on them the light of the love of God in Jesus Christ. It is to proclaim to all that every human being is a child of God; beloved as those created in the image of God. It is to proclaim that we are all one human family, one community intended to live together in this new creation in which there is peace and enough. It is to never be afraid but to courageously speak the truth of this love, because my friends, only love conquers hate. Only love conquers prejudice. Only love conquers bigotry. It is to shine this love in our homes, in our places of work, and in our neighborhoods. Love is the light that the darkness cannot overcome.
My challenge to you this morning comes from the end of a letter to the Dr. Al Timm, the Executive Presbyter of the Presbytery of Detroit ( dated August 17, 2017):
So, I challenge you and me, to do this work of being subcontractors of the love of God in Jesus Christ.
Rev. Joanne Blair
August 13, 2017
Today we read from one of Paul’s prison letters, and the church in Philippi was Paul’s first church in Europe. The city of Philippi was a Roman colony and the people were Roman citizens, although most of its inhabitants would actually have been Greek. Thus, the converts to whom Paul is writing would virtually all have been Gentiles. Just previous to where we come in today, Paul has written that some people are spreading the gospel for their own gain and to make his situation more dire; but that regardless of their motives, he still rejoices, for the gospel is being spread either way.
I read an article this week called, “21 Cliché Inspirational Quotes That Everyone Needs to Stop Using Immediately” … And, of course, I read it after I had turned in the title for my sermon! Though my title wasn’t on the list, it certainly could have been. Some quotes from the list:
And the list went on… Well, I can’t help it… I like cliché inspirational quotes!
Sometimes we need something simple and cutesy, yet at the same time rather profound, to hang our struggles upon and help keep us on course.
Life isn’t easy. And we are called as Christians to stand up against those things which contradict the gospel, and we are called to endure those things which may ultimately lead to the furthering of the kingdom… and bring us in closer unity with Christ.
Last week John talked about Pollyanna, and how Pollyanna has come to mean something that is “unreasonable or illogically optimistic.” We used to sometimes tease my mother and call her “Pollyanna”. And she didn’t like it. I would ask her, “What’s the problem, that your epitaph will say ‘She was too positive? She was too nice?’” Not a bad legacy.
This is where we are with Paul and his talk of rejoicing in the face of possible death. It seems rather “Pollyannaish”, but is actually the foundation of being rooted in Christ. As he said in a different letter to the Romans, “whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.” What matters to Paul is that no matter what happens to him, whether he lives or dies, Christ is exalted. And that is what should matter most to us.
No one looks forward to suffering. Those of us here today are fortunate that we are free to believe, and proclaim that belief, in Jesus the Christ. Not everyone has that freedom. Paul is addressing that in his letter, and encouraging those who suffer on behalf of the gospel that they are united with Christ.
Yes, we are fortunate that we here today do not have that struggle. But the world, our nation, and our individual lives are filled with suffering. I, personally, don’t enjoy suffering and I don’t enjoy seeing others suffer. And I don’t think of suffering itself as a privilege.
The privilege, is in knowing Christ. The privilege, is in trusting that Christ is present right there amid our suffering. There is joy in knowing that God is at work in the very midst of our suffering. But we often can’t realize that at the time.
I often distinguish between happiness and joy, as it is so crucial to our understanding of ourselves and our relationship with God. Happiness is a circumstantial feeling and brought about by external triggers. Joy is an internal state of being that comes from knowing who, and whose, we are. While we may not always feel happy, if we are in relationship with Christ, if we believe the good news, we will always have joy.
Paul tells the Philippians and tells us to “live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.” We are to live our lives first and foremost as citizens of the kingdom of God and we are granted the privilege of sharing in the redemptive work of Christ.
How do we do that? By loving God and loving our neighbor. Not as a cheesy greeting card saying or a cliché inspirational quote, but as a way of life, with the very essence of our being. By extending ourselves to others and by hanging on tightly to God- and each other- during our own struggles, suffering and fear. By trusting that God is always at work, for God does some of God’s best work in the worst of places and the worst of times.
Every day is an opportunity to live in the love of God and live out the gospel of Jesus Christ. And this is why Paul was able to rejoice. Though he was a Roman prisoner, he was freer than many of us. Freedom is not so much about our physical location as it is about our spiritual location. It is not so much about our circumstances as it is about our being.
There are prisons of society, of the body, of the mind… and Paul reminds us in his letter to the Philippians that we are called to freedom through a relationship with Jesus Christ. That we are called to proclaim the good news with our words, our actions, and with our very being.
We do live in very uncertain times. Tensions are high not only among nations, but within our own nation, and it just seems overwhelming. Yet we are not helpless. Every day we have the privilege of belonging to Christ, of rooting ourselves in that foundation, and of being a part of the gospel message. What could be better?
There may be suffering. There may be pain. There may be unhappiness. There may be disagreements. But there will also be rejoicing and unbridled joy. Joy in joining ourselves to the One above all others, who calls us to care, share, and love each other.
Any day we attach ourselves to Christ and strive to live out the gospel is a good day. And so we rejoice.
And today? Well, to add to the list of clichés: “It’s a good day for a good day.” Amen.
Rev. Dr. John Judson
August 6, 2017
Ezekiel 37:1-14; 1 John 3:1-3
It was a good news/bad news article. Every week I received a curated set of religious articles from Duke Divinity School. This article had both good news and bad news. The good news was that a large group of evangelical leaders had signed a letter to congress asking them to push forward with their efforts at sentencing reforms. They believed that the way men and women are sentenced today, especially for minor drug possession, does more harm than good; that it tears apart lives and families. The bad news was that a recent survey of church going Christians, meaning that they had attended church at least two times in the past month, showed that 62% of them believed that people ought to receive harsher sentences than they deserve…let me repeat that…ought to receive harsher sentences than they deserve in order to keep people from committing the same crime. I have to say I was taken aback by the second part of the article more than the first. But then I remembered the Pollyanna effect and it all made sense.
What is the Pollyanna Effect you ask? Well it is something that I made up but here is how it works. First, we need to remember the book and movie Pollyanna. They are about a young girl who has an incredibly positive outlook on life. Regardless of what happens to her she believes that there can be a positive outcome; sort of like a female Joel Osteen. In the Disney movie, she is played by a very cute Haley Mills. What I remember most about the movie is her interaction with the pastor. She is taken to church by her aunt who goes to what is obviously a Calvinist church where the only sermon topic is judgment. At one point, she asks the minister why he doesn’t preach more about love. At first, he dismisses her, but as in all good movies he comes around and talks about love. That however is not the Pollyanna Effect. The Pollyanna Effect is the manner in which the movie was received. Women and girls went to see it. Men and boys did not. Even Disney himself said it was too saccharine…too nice and perhaps he should not have made it. And so, Pollyanna has come to mean something that is “unreasonably or illogically optimistic”; meaning something such as showing leniency in sentencing rather giving people harsher sentences than they deserve or putting drug users in rehab rather than in jail. After all this is real world and not a Pollyannaish one.
If that is the case however, I think that someone should tell God because that is the way God works in the world. God believes in that unreasonably and illogically optimistic idea that human beings are redeemable through love and that all judgment ought to be redemptive. We can see this in our Ezekiel text this morning. To set the scene, Ezekiel is writing to the Jewish people who are in exile in Babylon. They are there because they had chosen to ignore God’s call to right living; to caring for widows, orphans and the poor. They are there because they believed more in military might than trusting God. In their despair, believing themselves to be dead as a people; believing that God had not only judged them but had abandoned them, Ezekiel is reminded that God’s judgment is always redemptive. The dry bones of the people will again live. God will grant them new lives and new opportunities. God did not judge them and throw away the key. God judged them to save them and through them save the world. In a sense this is the same story as this table (the communion table). God’s work in Jesus, his receiving our judgment, the world’s judgement was done to redeem us and to redeem the world. So, someone ought to tell God that this kind of redemptive love won’t work.
Someone ought to tell Tim Dunn. Who is Tim Dunn? Well I am glad you asked. Tim Dunn is an ultra-conservative oil-man in Texas who has used his wealth to try to push the Texas legislature further to the right…which I did not think was possible. But in 2004 he contacted Governor Rick Perry’s chief of staff and said, “Conservatives are wrong on crime. Scripture would not call us to build prisons and forget people.” On his personal website, he wrote that “nonviolent crimes should be recompensed in a way that gets people back into the work force and adding to communities as quickly as possible,” and that Texas should “focus on restoring victims and communities damaged by crime.” He then encouraged Perry’s staff to do something about it. Over the past 12 years, at the urging to both liberals and conservatives, Texas has expanded drug treatment availability, created drug courts, veteran’s courts, and mental health courts. They have changed the way parole violators are dealt with and in some cases, are allowing people to wipe out their conviction records. All of this, again supported by liberals and conservatives, has seen incarceration drop by 17 percent, juvenile incarceration drop by 75 percent and three prisons closed…all the while watching the crime rate drop by 27 percent. Someone ought to tell Texas that this Pollyanna approach will not work.
You and I worship the God who is about redemptive love. We follow a Jesus who would not build prisons and forget about people. The challenge for us is not to forget about those trapped in a justice system that believes redemptive justice is Pollyannaish. So, this is your annual reminder to call your senators and representatives on all levels to work for sentencing reforms. The bills I talked about last year still have not been allowed to come to the floor for debate despite their bi-partisan support and the evidence that they work to redeem lives.
My challenge to you then is this, to once again write letters, send emails and make phone calls in order that we act as Pollyannas for Jesus, believing that redemption is possible.
Rev. Dr. John Judson
July 30, 2017
Exodus 32:16, Ephesians 6:10-20
It was fascinating. Off in the distance, a mother cheetah was teaching her cub how to hunt. Their prey was a large group of antelope, who had become aware of their presence. Cindy and I were fortunate enough to have gone to a water-well dedication in Kenya several years ago, and since we were there we figured, why not go on safari. We saw lots of wonderful animals but one of the most fascinating was the hunting lesson we witnessed. The cheetahs would crouch low and slowly slink towards the antelope. One of the animals, a lookout perhaps, would get wind of them and bolt, followed quickly by the others. What was interesting though was that they would not just keep running, but would run just far enough to be safe, then stop. I think Cindy focused on the cheetahs as we watched this play out, but I was focused on the antelope because they reminded me of people at a sporting event doing the wave. All it took was one person to start it and everyone followed; without any instruction or organization. It was as if we, like the antelope, were not individuals but a single organism reacting to external stimuli over which we had no control.
Have any of you ever been part of something like that? Have any of you ever been carried away in a crowd to start cheering, booing or laughing; to do the wave or to…and this is where I am headed, to do something you knew was wrong because everyone else was doing it? If you have ever found yourself in that position, you are not alone. Scientists have told us that the answer to our mother’s question, “If everyone else jumped off a cliff, would you?” is not “Uhh, no, sorry mom”, but it is “Sure, why not.” I say this because study after study has proved that human brains are wired for the kind of antelope-like connection that cause us to instinctively do what others do in order to be part of the crowd. We are wired for connection to others and that connection brings comfort and a sense of safety and belonging. In the same way then, to be forced out of the crowd, to be shunned if you will brings us pain. Therefore we go along to belong.
The problem with this, as the Apostle Paul understands, is that we may live in societies or hang out with people that ask us to live in ways, and to treat others in ways, that are not consistent with the teachings of Jesus. This was so for Paul because in the Roman Empire there was a very clear hierarchy in which some people were not only taught that they were better than others, but they acted like they were. Chances are we have witnessed such behavior in those around us…or perhaps even within ourselves. We have stood by when people told jokes that demeaned various kinds of people or perhaps simply to lies about others. We wanted to belong so we went along. For Paul, this was not acceptable. As we discussed last week, Jesus’ followers were to radically reorient their relationships, meaning that they were to see every person as their equal; every person as one made in the image of God. And then treat them as such…regardless of what culture or community tells them to do. They were not to go along to belong. The issue becomes then how can Jesus’ followers break free of the unconscious connections that cause us to go along to belong? The answer for Paul was that people are to get dressed.
So, a quick poll. How many of you got dressed this morning? Good, then you have some idea of what Paul wants people to do in order to resist the temptation to go along to belong. Paul tells his friends at Ephesus that they are to get dressed in the armor of God; that essentially every morning they are to reach into their first-century spiritual closets, pull out the armor of God and put it on. It is what will protect them, it is what will protect us, from the temptation to go along to belong. I suppose if you are a Game of Thrones fan or you like knights in shining armor, Paul’s image of armor may be appealing but this morning I want to give it a new twist. I want us to see our task as getting dressed as Jesus’ superheroes, meaning we are putting on the same items of clothing Paul proposes: truth, righteousness, peace and faith, but we are simply doing it in a slightly more 21st century way.
Step one in our superhero preparation is to put on truth, in this case our Jesus suit. Just like Superman always had his red and blue outfit on under his clothes, so he could step into a phone booth and change for action…and by the way for many of you a phone booth is this thing that people had to use to make phone calls when they were away from home…we are to do the same. We are to do this because Jesus is the truth. He shows us the truth about who God wants us to be. So, step one, we are to consciously put on our Jesus suit, maybe with a big “J” on the front, to remind us that we belong to Jesus above and beyond all the other groups to which we belong.
Step two in our superhero preparation is to put on righteousness, or in this case our x-ray goggles. Now, these goggles are not the usual “I can see through buildings” goggles. They are goggles that allow us to see through the color of a person’s skin, nationality, sexual-orientation, language and see that inside they are God’s children; men, women and children bearing God’s image. This is what righteousness means. It means to live in relationship with all people without prejudice or judgment. It is to see them and love them as God does.
Step three in our superhero preparation is to put on peace, or in this case our force-field…which by the way is a superpower given to all of Jesus’ followers. What I mean by this is that peace is that ability to not give in when people try to force us to go along in order to belong, by shaming us, ignoring us, criticizing and even threatening us. Peace is that deep inner strength that comes from knowing that we are loved by God such that nothing can tempt us or force us to do what God does not want us to do. It acts as a forcefield that allows us to follow Christ even in the face of the pressure to go along to belong.
The fourth and final step in our superhero preparation is to put on the extra lives of faith, salvation and Spirit. For those of you who do not play video games, one of the gifts that can often be won or earned by characters is extra lives. And I know that this is slightly straying from the superhero theme, but it works…and I’m the one up here, so….so faith, salvation and Spirit deal with the reality that even superheroes fail; that we often fail. That sometimes we go along to belong in ways that hurt others before we even are aware that it is happening and we wonder if we ought to turn in our Jesus’ superhero card. Faith can be seen then as the container in which we place our extra lives. Salvation is the source of those lives with which we fill our basket of faith. And the Spirit is the power that applies those lives to our life, reminding us that in Jesus, failure is not the end; that even when we have gone along to belong, this time, God still loves us and empowers us. God gives us extra lives to try again, and again, and again.
You and I are called to be God’s superheroes, living out our lives with radically reoriented Relationships. But in order to do so we must stand against all of the forces both internal and external that push us to go along to belong. My challenge to you then is this, to ask yourselves as you are getting dressed each day, am I putting on my Jesus outfit so that I am not going along in order to belong, but that I live into the kinds of relationships God desires me to have.
Rev. Amy Morgan
July 16, 2017
Philippians 2:1-11, Matthew 23:1-12
So this is the moment where everybody gets a little nervous. The pastor’s final sermon. What will she say? Given the opportunity to say one last thing, what hidden truth or secret grudge or honest confession will be revealed?
Set your minds at ease, friends. You’ve heard all I have to say, many times over. As the wise Teacher of Ecclesiastes said, “there is nothing new under the sun.”
But that doesn’t mean I plan to bore you all today with a re-hash of past messages or a generic Hallmark card farewell. You’ve taught me better than that.
The late Rev. Dr. Hank Borchardt used to give me a grade on each of the sermons I preached here. And I’m generally one who likes grades. I like to know where I stand in others’ esteem. I like to know what I need to work on and improve. I really like to get all A’s.
Which is why I was totally thrown when I got my son, Dean’s, first report card from school. There were no letter grades. Birmingham Public Schools had transitioned to “standards based progress reports.” In the place of A’s, B’s, and C’s, the students received numbers representing their progress toward the expected standards. In each category, a student might be “approaching expectations,” “meeting expectations,” or, my personal favorite, “exceeding expectations.”
Now, it took me a while to make heads or tails of this grading system. But eventually, I came to appreciate it. I like that it describes student progress in terms of expectation rather than achievement. This grading system rewards effort and mastery. It discourages competition for top grades and the shame associated with failing grades. The worst you can do in standards based grading is “needs improvement.” Well, who doesn’t? I can get behind a kid needing improvement more than a kid who is FAILING.
In today’s reading from the Gospel of Matthew, I’m pretty sure Jesus is saying the Pharisees “need improvement.” And he gives a detailed list of the improvements he’d like to see. Practice what you preach. Serve the people, carry their burdens, do your own work. Develop some humility.
Now, Pharisee literally means “separatists,” and the group dates back to the Maccabean Revolt. They “exceeded expectation” in living counter-culturally, practicing the faith in every aspect of daily life.
Jesus even compliments their teaching, their doctrine, and encourages people to do as they say. But there’s that common corollary: don’t do as they do.
The Pharisees will accept nothing less than straight A’s, but they don’t offer any tutoring or homework help. They shame and blame; they say one thing and do another; they make demands of their followers that they themselves shirk; and they exalt themselves wherever they go and make everyone else feel like failures.
And on the one hand, I can see their logic. They felt the best way to uphold standards was to raise them, even if they could not be met by everyone. In seminary, our professors told us they were going to assign more reading than they actually thought we could do, and that they were going to hold us responsible for knowing all the material in that reading. This was frustrating, yes, but it pushed us beyond our own expectations.
But Jesus says, don’t give into the shame and blame, the competition and self-aggrandizement. As Danny Beale used to say, “Don’t be that guy.”
Instead, be humble, be teachable. There’s a different standard, a different expectation, for Jesus followers.
School may be out for the summer, but we’ve still got a lot to learn. There are no letter grades – A’s and B’s and F’s. But there is an expectation, set forth by our one teacher, Jesus the Christ. To meet this expectation, the Apostle Paul writes a beautiful curriculum for us to follow in that hymn from his letter to the church in Philippi.
“Be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.” Now, you all have some major decisions ahead of you. Staffing, programs, budget, vision. All these things are going to come up in the next few months. And it’s going to be difficult to get 869 people to be in full accord and of one mind about any of them.
But the expectation is that love will unify and strengthen you. I can tell you from ten years of ministry here that when you all choose to let love guide and direct your thoughts, words, and actions, there’s nothing you can’t do to the glory of God. Try to exceed expectations in loving one another, and you will find unity and harmony in your decisions.
Paul also says, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” All of us have suffered at times from the judgement culture that is so prevalent in this community. We judge those who travel too much for work and those who don’t get promotions and those who don’t work enough or don’t work at all. We judge homes that are too big and ostentations and homes that aren’t maintained to our standards. We judge parents who hover and parents who don’t. We all do it. It is just in the water here.
But the expectation for us Jesus-followers is that we will be humble and kind and compassionate and generous. We will accept and value the way others choose to live, and work, and parent, even if it doesn’t meet our standards. We will help our neighbors before they can help themselves. We will admit when we need help ourselves.
Perhaps if we judge the world around us by God’s standards instead of our own we will see how all those people and places and situations we viewed as deficient are actually exceeding expectations when it comes to the progressing toward the kingdom of heaven.
Finally, Paul says, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death-- even death on a cross.”
This is an expectation of radical equality. If one who is divine can put himself on level with humanity, who are we to say we’re better than anyone or anything in creation?
This is also an expectation of profound comfort. God chose to self-limit, to empty out, in order to stand alongside humanity, in all our suffering and distress. God in Jesus Christ took on the form of a slave – someone with no rights, no power, no identity. God stands in solidarity with the voiceless, the invisible, the marginalized, and the oppressed. And we are expected to do likewise.
And finally, this is an expectation of obedience and self-sacrifice. We all like to imagine Jesus is the Great Therapist, helping us work through our problems and function better in the world. Or a Fairy Godfather, granting our wishes for health, wealth and happiness. But let’s not forget that the One we follow leads us to a cross. Sure, there’s resurrection on the other side. But first there’s a cross. And we’re expected to follow him there.
Jesus told his followers they have one teacher: the Messiah, Jesus. Well, we are the Body of Christ here in Birmingham, MI, and I am grateful that you have taught me so much and so well. I’m grateful to Hank, and many others in this congregation, who gave me feedback, even grades, that have helped me to learn and grow over the last ten years.
But I have not been in ministry alone here. We have been in ministry together all this time. I am, to a certain degree, the pastor you have helped mold and equip me to be. And so I want to take this final opportunity to offer a report card, a standards based progress report, on our ten years of ministry together.
I’ll begin by saying that, in every way, this call has exceeded my expectations.
First of all, the challenges of this call have exceeded my expectations. This has been so much harder than I ever could have imagined. It started out rough in an interim period with a sanctuary renovation and economic recession thrown in for fun. I’ve grieved the loss of people we loved. I’ve gotten frustrated and angry and possibly threw a Bible across the room once. I’ve stayed up all night playing laser tag, which sounds like fun until you hit a wall at four a.m. and one kid is punching people and another one is puking.
But the hardest thing I’ve ever done in ministry is this. I could not have imagined how difficult it would be to leave this place. Yes, the challenges of this call have exceeded my expectations.
But the blessings of this call have also exceeded my expectations. Through those challenging situations, I have learned and grown so much. I’ve grieved because I’ve loved you all. I’ve gotten frustrated and angry because we have wrestled about things that really matter.
You’ve celebrated all my accomplishments and shown grace in the face of all my faults. We have innovated and experimented and created marvelous things together.
You have encouraged me to be not only the best pastor I can be, but also the best mother and wife and friend. We’ve swapped parenting advice, mulled over difficult life decisions, and just had fun being together.
There are simply not enough words, and there is not enough time, to express all the ways the blessings of this call have exceeded my expectations.
Yes, you have exceeded my expectations – and now I encourage you to go and exceed your own. Love more deeply and daringly than you can imagine. Serve more joyfully and authentically than you think possible. Pour yourselves out until you think you’ve hit empty, and then keep going until you are completely drained and all that is left is a glorious emptiness, a space filled with God.
You are Everybody’s church. And I am grateful that you have been my church. Thank you. To God be all glory forever. Amen.
Rev. Dr. John Judson
July 9, 2017
Proverbs 8:1-11, Ephesians 4:1-16
I woke up in pain. I was probably in my early double digit years, when in the middle of the night I awakened in pains all through my legs. It was intense and unlike anything I had ever felt before, as if everything else was cramping up. I must have cried out because my mother came into the room. When I described it to her, her only response was to smile and say, “You are about to hit a growth spurt.” Though I wanted to be taller than I was then, I wasn’t sure that the pain was worth it. But at least I learned that growing pains were natural.
What’s interesting about growing pains is that they are not limited to us human beings. We share them with most of the systems around us. Businesses have growing pains. When they begin to expand from a small mom and pop shop to something larger, there are the growing pains of having to learn new management skills, finding capital, keeping financial records on a computer and not in a shoe-box. Cities have growing pains. The great mage-cities of the world, such as Manila, Lagos and Mexico City among them, experience growing pains, when they suddenly find themselves unable to deal with the influx of millions of people which strains their water system, their electrical grids and their roadways. Families experience growing pains when a child is born, then a second and perhaps a third and fourth. Each one brings new and different challenges. Christians and churches experience growing pains as well.
I know that this may sound a bit odd that we as Jesus’ followers and as a community of Christ experience growing pains. After all, we may wonder, isn’t being a Jesus follower believing certain things and a church about getting together to learn about those things what we are supposed to believe? In a sense, that is true so let me explain: first the growing part. The Apostle Paul points out, being a Jesus follower is about “…growing up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part if working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.” In other words, the image that Paul uses is that you and I have a goal that we are trying to reach, and that is to live fully into the image of God in which we were created; to become, in other words, like Christ.
The second part is the painful part. The reason that this growth is painful is that once upon a time, each of us, perhaps in our early teen years, or even before, locked onto a particular view of faith, the universe and everything. Those views become an integral part of who we are. In essence, they become as much a part of us, as our heart or lungs, as a leg or an arm. And when we are forced to acknowledge that growing in Christ requires us to change them, it is as painful as losing a physical part of ourselves; sort of like amputating a part of our identity. The struggle then is to be open enough to change and growth that we are willing to endure the pain that comes with the process. Fortunately for us, the Apostle Paul offers us, in verses two and three, a five-step program for growth…that hopefully will carry us through the pain.
Step one is humility, meaning that willingness to live with the notion that we could be wrong. This virtue is extraordinarily difficult because it demands a constant willingness to expose our own fallibility. While that may not sound like such a big deal considering that we offer a prayer of confession every week, it can be seen as dangerous in a world that demands certainty; in a world in which we are supposed to have all of the answers. I once had a minister friend tell me that I could never admit to my congregation that I did not have all of the answers because then they would doubt me and then doubt what I was teaching...and you get the point. But if we are to grow, we need to admit that we don’t know everything about who God is and what God wants of us. We should, therefore, live with a deep humility that allows us to change.
Step two is gentleness, meaning that in our humility, when we are confronted by those who disagree with us, that we do not react by attacking them, but open ourselves to new insights. This virtue is hard because it opens us to being “attacked.” When I say attacked, notice I use air-quotes because we often view someone challenging our deeply held views of God, the universe and everything as an attack on our very selves; on our tightly held sense of identity. Our response then is to be defensive, or to attack back. But when we do we shut ourselves off to the possibility that they may know something about faith that we do not; that they may have an insight from God that we need to hear. We should live with gentleness if we are to grow.
Step three is patience, meaning we are willing to listen to those same voices, the voices of those who disagree with us, for an extended period of time. This takes the concept of gentleness and multiplies it. It is one thing to have a onetime conversation with someone who holds a different view than our own, but it is an entirely different thing to be engaged in a long-term relationship with someone who holds views that are entirely different than our own. As human beings we naturally gravitate toward those who see the world as we do. We seek out the companionship of those who reinforce our views of God, the universe and everything. And we have little patience for those who see the world differently. Patience calls us to long term engagement…even if we hold to our views, because it might be that it is the other who needs to learn from us. We should live with patience if we are to grow.
Step four is bearing with one another in love. This extends humility, gentleness and patience, by calling us to live sacrificially for those whose views are different from our own. If we are to grow into the very stature of Christ, then what we are called to do is to love those whose views and attitudes are very different from our own. We are to see them through the eyes of Jesus Christ and even when we do not agree with them we are to offer ourselves in sacrificial ways in order to nurture them as followers of Christ. Loving in this way can be extremely painful because it may never be appreciated or reciprocated, because the other views us as being in the wrong. Yet by stepping out in love, we begin to grow. So, we should live with love if we are to grow.
Step five is making every effort to maintain the unity in the bond of the Spirit. Not only are we to be humble, gentle, patient and loving, we are to hang in there as a single community. This is something that Christians have often found difficult to do. Just as we want to hang with likeminded people in our everyday lives, we want to do so in our Sunday lives as well. We want to be sure that everyone around us believes, acts and lives like we do. There is great pressure then for people to either conform, or to leave. Unfortunately, when this happens, growth ends, because there is no one to challenge us to see faith, the universe and everything differently. So, we should live in unity if we are to grow.
If we want to see what growth looks like, all we have to do is to look back to this July 4th. On the 4th, NPR tweeted out the Declaration of Independence. Many people did not recognize the Declaration and assumed that NPR was calling for revolution against our current administration. When they were informed about the actual content of the tweet, there were two responses. The first, and most common, was to blame NPR and still accuse of it of liberal bias. The second came in this tweet from D.G. Davies. “I took NPR out of context and had a stupid moment. Never underestimate one’s capacity to learn. Sometimes it’s painful. But it’s valuable above pride.”
This is our task as Jesus’ followers, to be open to change even when it is painful, in order that we might grow into the full stature of Christ. My challenge to you then is this, to ask yourself, how am I insuring that I am open to the change the Spirit might bring, that I might be more and more mature in Christ?
Rev. Dr. John Judson
July 2, 2017
This past week I started scanning slides that Cindy and I had come across when we moved her mother to Florida this past May. There were several boxes of them and I was enjoying pictures of my bride when she was a child. As I went through them though there was one that brought back some memories for me. It was Cindy on a teeter-totter. The memories for me were of going to the park close to my grandmother to swim in the pool and play … often on the teeter-totter. Looking back, all I can say is that the teeter-totter had to be one of the world’s greatest low-tech ways to keep children busy. “John, take your brother and go play on the teeter-totter.” “Sure mom” Then up-down, up-down, up-down. Times were simpler. As I grew a bit older the up-down lost its allure, until I reached a certain age. Then the teeter-totter took on a new and challenging role. That was to stand in the middle, with one foot on either side of the pivot point and see if I could balance the totter; to see if I could keep both sides in the air at the same time.
As I look back, that has become one of the ways in which I look at life...as trying to find the balance. And I know that I am not alone in this. Throughout my ministry people have queried me about how to find the balance. How to find the balance between work and family. How to find the balance between spending time with friends and with family. How to find the balance between being at church and being at other events. How to find the balance between golf…oh, actually no one has ever asked me how to find the balance between golf and anything else. But the one place where people have strived to find balance is between loving self and loving neighbor. In other words, how do I know that I am spending the right amount of my time, talent and treasure on neighbor while spending the right amount of time, talent and treasure on self. It would have been nice when Jesus, told people that the second greatest commandment was to love neighbor as self (the first being to love God with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength), if he had laid down some clear metrics, or given us an easy to follow formula. But he didn’t. The gift this morning then, of this passage from Ecclesiastes is that we are offered an image, that I think might help us find that balance.
We will start with loving self, perhaps because this one comes a bit more naturally. Though Christianity has always been accused of being a faith in which we are supposed to not love, or care for self, this is not the heart of our faith. Ecclesiastes reminds us that there is nothing better than for someone to eat and drink and find enjoyment in their work. The Gospel of John reminds us that we are loved by and beloved of God, so if God loves us, we should love ourselves. The problem comes when that love of self, shifts the balance too far. So how do we keep that from happening. Again, Ecclesiastes offers us an image. When we are finding the balance, the writer says, God will offer us joy. In other words, when we find deep and wonderful joy, in how we use our time, talent and treasure for ourselves, then we acting appropriately. The flip side, is that when we have gone too far, we end up, as the writer puts it, gathering and heaping. Can you see the image? Gathering is a sort of greedy, I want it all for myself, and heaping is spending more time, talent and treasure on ourselves than we can possibly enjoy. Gathering and heaping are signs of self-centeredness and selfishness. They tell us that we are out of balance.
We now turn to loving neighbor. Loving neighbor, is at the heart of the scriptures from Genesis to Revelation. It can be as simple as not stealing from our neighbors, to as James puts it, “If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food”, we do not simply say to them, I will pray for you, have a nice day. We supply their bodily needs. Loving neighbor, in other words means taking concrete actions to try to alleviate the suffering and need of those around us. The simple, but perhaps not overly helpful way in which we could talk about loving neighbor would be to recall Jesus’ words to the rich man, that he is to sell everything and follow Jesus. Meaning, that loving neighbor requires us to divest ourselves of everything and live as itinerant disciples…yet, remember, we are called to balance love of self and love of neighbor. To simply sell all would be to strike an imbalance; it would be gathering and heaping up, our time, talent and treasure for others, rather than for self, thus creating an imbalanced life. It is saying that you, as a beloved child of God, are not worthy of God’s love and gifts. Again then, perhaps the way to find that balance is to find the joy in loving neighbor. In other words, when we find a deep joy in meeting the physical, emotional and relational needs of others, then we are finding balance. We are keeping the self-end of the totter in balance.
One last thought about finding balance. The balance point on which we stand, is the love and grace of God; the love of God for the world and the grace of God offered to us. The balance point is the communion table because this table reminds us of how much we are loved, and how much we are to love others. This table reminds us that Jesus offered his life to make us whole and calls upon us to do the same for others. The challenge I want to offer you this morning is this, to ask yourselves, “How is my balance? How am I to find balance in my life, such that I love both self and neighbor in ways that bring me joy?”
Dr. John Judson
June 25, 2017
Isaiah 65:17-25; 1 Corinthians 13:1-13
It seemed like a good idea at the time. I was wandering down the baking isle of the grocery store doing two things at one time. First I was picking up the ingredients for my mother’s world famous chocolate chip cookies; the cookies that were envied by all my friends. Second, I was trying to figure out how I could lose some weight. I know, they are mutually exclusive. It was then that I saw the sugar substitute, not in packets but in the large plastic container. The wording on the container said that it tasted like sugar, measured out like sugar and baked like sugar. Eureka, I said to myself, here it is. I can have my cookies and lose weight too. When I got home I went immediately to work. I should have known that something wasn’t right when the initial consistency was a bit off. Then I should have known something was even less right when the dough was not melting right on the cookie sheets. Finally, I knew something was wrong when I bit into one. It was in that moment that I gave into the fact that the one necessary ingredient in my mother’s cookies was sugar, sugar, sugar.
The necessary ingredient. In virtually everything we create or everything that we do there is a necessary ingredient. It doesn’t mean that there aren’t other ingredients. What I mean is that there is almost always a single ingredient without which, whatever it is we are doing, will not finally be successful. If we are baking bread, we need yeast. If we are creating a successful corporation we need not only a visionary leader, but one who will create an ethically sustainable community, that will nurture and support its employees and customers. If we are creating a great school classroom there are lots of ingredients that can make a difference; good books, a clean environment, appropriate technology. Yet the necessary ingredient is a teacher who loves children…and has great classroom management skills. And the same is true for the church. It too has a necessary ingredient that makes it the kind of community that God desires it to be. And if we believe the Apostle Paul, that ingredient is love.
In his letter to the church at Corinth, Paul spends quite a bit of time discussing the ingredients that God mixes into the baking of the church. In churchy terms, we call these spiritual gifts, but they are, in essence, the spiritual ingredients that bake up a successful church. He names these as wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, teaching and tongues. Elsewhere he includes ingredients such as generosity, serving, compassion and encouragement. For Paul, all of these ingredients are important and contribute to the life and work of the community. Yet for Paul, love is the one necessary ingredient. Listen again to his words. “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.” Paul is not simply being poetic here, he is being prophetic, by making it clear that no Jesus’ community can be what it ought to be without the ingredient of love. And he does so, I believe, for two important reasons.
First, loves unites people as neighbor, and doesn’t divide them as enemies. Jesus’ work on this earth was not, as I have said before, to get people into heaven. It was to begin the process of creating a new heaven and a new earth, as described by the prophet Isaiah. It was to initiate the Kingdom of God in which there would be no more weeping. In which people live long, meaningful lives. In which people enjoy the work of their hands. In which all of creation will live together in peace. And in order for this reality to exist, people need to be united. They need to be a community not only in the church but across the world in which all persons are valued and nurtured. This is what love does. It does so because it is patient and kind; because it bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things and endures all things. At the same time, love is not those things that divide us. Love is not envious of what others have. It is not boastful or arrogant because of perceived status. It never insists on its own way. It doesn’t rejoice in untruth, but in the truth. Love unites, and in uniting it begins to create the new heaven and new earth. Hate, on the other hand, while it can unite, the unity it creates is that of enemies who can never create the new heaven and earth. They cannot bring forth the Kingdom of God.
Second, love is the God ingredient. What I mean by that is that love is the essence of God’s very nature. The writer of the letters of John tells us that God is love, and whenever we love, God is present. The Old Testament reminds us again and again, that God’s steadfast love endures forever and that God cares for God’s children like both a father and a mother. Thus when we love we are not only united with one another but we are united with God, in and through God’s Spirit. We are united with the source of our strength. Paul makes this clear at the end of this chapter when he tells us that as the new heaven and earth come into existence all the other ingredients will slowly wither away because they are not needed, but love will remain. He writes, “Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end…Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”
Here at Everybody’s Church I believe we do a good job of loving one another and trying our best to use love to unite the communities and world around us. Whether it is through casserole club, deacons visiting, pastoral care, serving at Alcott or Ruth Ellis, going to Mexico or Africa, we show and share love. More recently we have begun to make love more real in our congregation through a new ministry…Stephen’s Ministry. This morning we are going to be commissioning new Stephen’s ministers. Stephen Ministers are trained and supervised lay volunteers who enter one-to-one confidential relationships with people who are struggling with various life situations. They listen, support, and are true sojourners, living out the love of Christ. Within the life of our congregation then, they will be baking in the love of Christ into the lives of people who need a friend and companion on the way. The challenge for the rest of us, is to try and do the same. To let Love be that necessary ingredient in our lives and our relationships.
My challenge is this, to ask yourselves this question, how am I baking love into my life, in such a way that it offers glimpses of God’s new heaven and earth?
Bethany Peerbolte, Director of Youth Ministries
June 18, 2017
Psalm 116; Ephesians 3:14-21
The second reading today comes from Ephesians. And while this letter is titled for the Ephesians the letter was also intended to circulate around to other churches as general advice and encouragement from Paul. So it was passed from church to church and has found its way to us in this church today. Starting at verse 14 Paul writes
14 For this reason I bow my knees before the Father,15 from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name. 16 I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, 17 and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. 18 I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19 and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.
20 Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, 21 to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.
This is a wonderful prayer for a growing church, Paul is hopeful, encouraging, even upbeat. But what we miss by not reading the previous chapter is that Paul is actually in prison. So while his tone is upbeat, his circumstances are far from ideal. He has been put in prison because of his work spreading the gospel. While in prison Paul is not able to physically be with the churches he founded. He cannot sit with them to moderate disputes, he cannot put his arm around their shoulders and teach them, he cannot be there to help them navigate every challenge that comes their way.
And the church is facing a unique challenge. Their leaders, the apostles, are beginning to die. Martyrdom has already taken James the brother of Jesus, The apostle mark has passed away, and in two short years the rock stars of the early church, Peter and Paul, will also be gone.
Leaderless the church will have to figure out how to navigate the larger culture. A culture where the roman empire is constantly at war. At this time in Syria governments are fighting for control and the innocent citizens are caught in the cross fire. Many people are fleeing for their lives into safer countries. In the kingdom of Iceni the king has decided to let his daughters inherit his throne. A progressive move on his part but when he dies the Roman army comes in and publicly rapes the princesses. The larger culture turns a blind eye on the injustice because “soldiers will be soldiers.” In Pompeii, 20,000 people in the city are packing up their lives to find a new home because they are afraid the recent earthquake will also set off the nearby volcano.
The world the early Christians are being asked to step into is far from perfect. And without their beloved teachers to lean on they are worried about their future. They are unsure they will be able to become the people they want to be. And so the church is facing a sort of graduation. They have been taught by the best teachers Jesus could find but are now being asked to make their own way in the world.
The world the class of 2017 is being asked to step into is still far from perfect. The problems of war, rape, and natural disasters are still headlines. For those of us who have worked so hard to teach and protect the graduates, we may feel like we are in that prison with Paul. Watching from afar as our loved ones face the harsh world. Forced to trust that what we have taught them was actually learned or even the right thing to teach in the first place.
And for those of us who are graduates and are starting a new chapter of life it is scary to be on our own. Maybe right now it feels pretty good but the day will come when we will feel truly alone. When we need a mentor and all our favorite teachers are miles away. A moment will come when we have to rely on what we’ve learned, make decisions for ourselves, set goals that are reasonable yet challenging. Those moments will make us wonder why we ever dreamed about leaving home and being on our own in the first place.
The struggle to be on our own, and the struggle to let a loved one move on is exactly what Paul and the church are dealing with. But Paul does not seem very worried in this letter. This isn’t a letter from a concerned parent. In fact he almost sounds excited that he is in prison and the church has to give it a go without him. Paul has confidence that the church has what it takes. He has lived among them and seen the church in action. There is no doubt in his mind the church will continue to thrive. Paul sees this as an opportunity for the church to test what they have learned and solidify who they are, not just followers of Paul but as individual independent believers.
But Paul also knows the church will have moments when they doubt themselves so he writes this prayer to be a reminder of what it takes to be strong independent people of God.
He begins by reminding the church they have an inner strength that is powered by the holy spirit. POWERED BY THE HOLY SPIRIT! The Holy Spirit does astonishing things in the Bible, and Paul is saying that power is available to every single believer. SO Paul isn’t worried about the church finding their way without him, they have the holy spirit. Nothing is going to stand against the church when they have a power that can move mountains, a power that can calm raging storms. A power that can bring the dead back to life. They will be fine as long as they remember to tap into that power.
Power is a tricky thing. Power is the reason wars are fought. Power can lead people astray, but Paul is still not worried the church will lose its path. He reminds the church they have also been taught how to use this power because they are rooted and grounded in love. A love that is wider and higher and longer and deeper than they could ever comprehend. Paul is not worried that this power will be miss handled because he has seen the church show astonishing love, to one another and to outsiders. As long as they stay rooted and grounded in love they will never be off the path.
After reminding the church of the power they have access to and their grounding in love Paul sets up a challenge for them. He tells them to remember that God will do far more with their lives than they can even imagine, if they only work to give God the glory.
Paul knows about accomplishing more with God. This is a man whose plan was to be your basic run of the mill roman citizen. His plan was to follow along, kill Christians and end the Jesus movement. Instead God interrupts his plan and sets him up to be an evangelical rock star. God makes Paul a spokesperson for Jesus like the world had never seen! It involved some struggle, Paul was blind for a stint, was thrown in prison a few times, but he has inspired generations to follow Jesus. His words have lasted nearly 2000 years and he is still talked about today. Not many basic run of the mill roman citizens being talked about still today. Astonishing!
And the Bible is filled with people who accomplish more when they keep God close. Moses’ plan was to be a simple shepherd until a bush starts burning in front of him. Joseph, the one with the amazing coat, wanted to continue the family business until his brothers sold him into slavery. Mary just wanted to be married to a nice guy until an angel told her she was pregnant. None of their plans were extravagant until God gets involved. The simple shepherd Moses ends up freeing a group of slaves and founding a new nation. Astonishing! Joseph doesn’t end up running the family business but he does end up running Egypt. Astonishing! Mary gets the guy plus she raises a son who saves the world from sin. Astonishing! Their lives end up astonishingly better once God is involved. Easier? Maybe not. But defiantly a better plan in the long run.
Graduates you will hear all sorts of advice in the coming weeks, but Pauls’ advice has lasted nearly 2000 years. Trust the power of the Holy Spirit to strengthen you, root yourself in love, and do all things with God because God will help to live an astonishing life.
I certainly will be taking the advice as a fellow graduate. And being reminded that I have the power of the Holy Spirit it seems ridiculous now that I spent so many nights worrying if I was going to get through a class, especially Hebrew and Greek. But remembering our inner strength in the moment is hard. We won’t always feel that inner strength, it is hard to see anything else other than our current struggle. But if we acknowledge the spirit, in retrospect, if we take the time now to look back and see “oh that’s how I got through that tough time.” Then the next time we find ourselves worrying at 3 am we can remember that the spirit got us through the last struggle and is working to get us through this one.
I’ll be honest, this next piece of advice seems like a waste of time to tell these graduates. Stay rooted and grounded in love? I know you’ve got this one figured out. Two weeks ago I asked the underclassmen in youth group to talk a little about the graduates. What would they miss, what would they remember. What legacy would the class of 2017 leave on our church. The overwhelming response was their love. The youth recalled times they were welcomed into the group by one of the graduates. They told me about being on the Mexico mission trip and not knowing many people, but feeling supported by the graduates. They said they see them more like older siblings than just someone who goes to the same church. As they shared stories it was obvious these graduates have set down their roots. Deeply imbedded in love. SO just like Paul is sure the early church is ready to face the world, we too can be sure these graduates are ready for whatever is coming next.
And what is coming next is a bit of a mystery, for the most part. We can plan, planning is a big
deal, graduates if you haven’t already heard you need to constantly know where you will be in 1 year, 5 years, and 10 years. You must have a plan in place! If you can’t figure that out your doomed to fail. At least that is the sentiment you will face in the world. Plans aren’t bad, people who don’t plan often end up binge watching an entire show on Netflix. I fully admit to being a procrastinator and have had to learn how to plan so I don’t have to pull as many all nighters.
Plans help us clearly lay out what our hopes and dreams are. Which should never be ignored because God has a way of pulling on our hearts and minds through our hopes and dreams. They are the reigns God uses to keep up on our path. SO plan! Make a 1 year plan, a 5 year plan, a 10 year plan, but also be open to God interrupting that plan, because the 1 year, 5 year, 80 year plan that God has for you is astonishing!
This past fall First Theater Guild presented the musical “Little Women” which two of our graduates were in. In this musical the character Jo sings a song called “Astonishing” and in it she celebrates the great adventure of going off and finding out who she is. She knows that she may even find herself in unexpected places.
God’s plan may lead us through strange territory, the path may be a bit more zig zagged than we want, God’s timing will probably be slower than we think we can stand, but God has a plan. A plan that will do more with your life than you could ever believe possible. So if you find yourself in a place you never expected to be, like freeing people from slavery, or running a government, or raising an extraordinarily talented child, or preaching in a pulpit, embrace the unexpected and know that you are astonishing!