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"Jesus Gives Martha a Poke, Hey Man"

2 Corinthians 9:7-9 and Luke 10:38-42 // July 17, 2016

I got a letter a couple of days ago from Dr. Stephanie Mitsos, my own doctor, who has an office down in Byram on 206. More than a few people in our church have benefitted from Dr. Mitsos, who is a bulldog about following-up. She pays good attention to details and does not let matters drop when they need to be addressed. She is closing her private practice and going to work in a group practice. I am an example of her persistence. She got all over me after my last physical about a sudden and really high PSA test and finally after following up over the past six months – several blood tests; two MRIs; that horrible inspection urologists do and do not report to their families when they get home in the evening; a biopsy – we have discovered I am perfectly fine. No cancer. It did not look that way in February after the biopsy, when my urologist informed me to be prepared because I had a 70% chance of bad news, but, I ended up in the grateful 30%. So praise God for the normal, the everyday default, no news of any sort. I did not want to alarm anyone until the verdict was in, so excuse me for being quiet until now.

The first time I went to Doctor Mitsos 20 years ago, it was late August and I had a cold. You all know I rarely get sick, really, rarely. So I ignored this infection for about three weeks until I could stand it no longer and went to her. She asked why I waited so long; I said I was busy, had things to do, and thought it would go away. Dr. Mitsos being Dr. Mitsos, she said, You Type-A guys are all alike; learn to take care of things when they need to be taken care of. I said, Type-A? Really? You know Type-A? Someone with a medical degree and a PhD. Stephanie!

Well, the Type-A in our story from Luke is Martha. She is focused, task-driven, need oriented, timely, able to work and play on her own. You can hear her banging the pots in the kitchen from here. As she gets mad because her sister is not helping, more and more crashing of utensils and silverware ensues, muttering can be easily heard, the stomping of feet and slamming of cupboards and doors is obvious and public. Martha, Dr. Mitsos, Hugh – apparently, we are all the same.

Jesus, though, has a message and it applies to all of us, type exclusive.

As life comes to us, we have to decide how to respond, appropriately, not only with our own native skills and proclivities, but also to circumstance and urgency. Jesus always wants us to respond, not react. Reactivity is automatic and unthinking; response requires deliberate thought and well-targeted intention. If you want an example, how about Alton Sterling’s son Cameron. Sterling was the black man shot by police in Louisiana. I am going to give you my memory of what he said; it is a perfect example of responding, not reacting.Go ahead and march and protest [he said]. But do it peacefully. Being violent will only make it worse and will not solve anything. Do it right. Be peaceful. Peace is the only way things will get better.Cameron Sterling is 15.

Right now, Jesus is in Martha’s house and they are close to Jerusalem and they are even closer to what we call Holy Week. He is about to enter the Capital City for the Passover Festival and things will fall apart. We know the story and Jesus shared what he believed would happen, prior to the story taking place. He was quite insistent in sharing it, whether the disciples and crowds could or would hear it.

Martha thought, what would really be nice, to keep us going, give us the protein we need, calm us down, gather us around the table and share a meal, that would be good. Seems right. I’m unsure if Martha shared her plan with Jesus but he felt a different path was necessary at that time. Right now, it was time to listen and learn. Reflect and wonder. Pray and hope. Dinner can wait. So Mary, at the feet of the Master, in the chosen position of a disciple, usually in those days reserved for the men only – of course?! – she was doing the right thing at the right time. Go and do likewise, is our message this morning.



The NT often inserts a story within a story and I am going to do the same, in this case, a message within a message. Like what we heard about Martha and Mary, it involves being intentional and timely, responding, not reacting, doing something right, not being indifferent or even angry. [And I had to abbreviate what I wrote, because it was too long; here is the seriously edited version; the longer is printed on the table as you leave and also on the website.]



Paul also has a message for us, gathered around the feet of Jesus this morning. And he says one jarring remark, almost in passing, one we might find today to be odd and unsettling, probably something Mary would get more than Martha – "God loves a cheerful giver." The Contemporary English Version translates – "God loves people who love to give."

Basically, Paul’s argument is simple. God has freely and abundantly blessed you, so return the favor, and be generous in return. So what does he not mean?

Much of our contemporary culture is based in impulse – see a need, meet a need. And while such behavior is generous, being impulsive is no better than being impulsive. It is after all the flip side of – I want it and I want it now. We are reacting, not responding, being quick not particularly reflective. Good giving requires free choice. By us.

And it transcends simple and random opportunity. Thanks so much to all those who dumped some money in the buckets of Stanhope Fire Department volunteers standing in the middle of the road over the 4th of July holiday weekend. We made over $5000.00. It is appreciated but seriously it is too bad we have to beg. If you want to give and give well to a cause worthy of your intentions then a plan is even better. And certainly good giving is not about self-fulfillment, meant to make us feel good about me most marvelous me.

What does Paul want us to do instead? We give out of obligation, because some things are required of us. Good giving, Paul says, is regular and proportionate, not just governed by friendly impulse and opportunistic opportunity. Plan your giving, day in and day out. The best givers have goals and are consistent. And have a target – in this case, the best goal is to honor God’s glory. Jesus praised Mary, because she kept her eye on the most pressing prize at that moment. Good giving is no different.



Whether we are talking about the giving of self, like Mary’s positioning herself to be a disciple, which Jesus defines as being willing to lose one’s life to gain real life, or we are talking about our most sacred cow and that is giving of our money, being intentional is key. You do not need a smartphone or a fancy app directing you where to go. You need a heart for being a Jesus people. And it takes all kinds, each and every one of us, in our blessed and sometimes perplexing diversity. Jesus often challenged the walls dividing, especially when they were artificial and unnecessary, harming not helping people (like – the Sabbath was made [to help] people, not people [to be burdened because of] the Sabbath).

So, let’s not drag down Martha or praise Mary too much. The church needs Type-A doers and type-B listeners. The fact is, the giving of our own self and the generous and cheerful giving of financial resources require we put ourselves at the feet of Jesus and ask how we can be as selfless and giving as he was of his own life. Now there’s a lofty goal. Go and do likewise.




"Grisly Stories"

Mark 6:14-29 // fpc, stanhope // July 12, 2015

As you may know, somebody somewhere makes up a three year scheme of Sunday readings from the Bible and many churches follow it. It is called the lectionary. This week we got a set of doozies – the ark returns to Israel and along the way tragedy strikes the faithful; John the Baptist does his prophetic job and loses his head to the whims of a dancing princess.

Typically I try really hard to find some part of the reading to apply to our daily lives, in the hope God is speaking to us today and helping us live through another week with a little divine enlightenment and encouragement. So we have the stories we have. Don’t you wish right now you were me?

We could say, If you happen to be king of your castle then avoid making drunken promises you never should have offered. Herod was eventually replaced by one of the Roman emperors because he was so erratic and violent.

We could say, If you are Herodias, make sure you use every opportunity and advantage to get even. Meanness was a virtue, for her.

We could say, If you are Salome, the dancing daughter, make mommy happy, the king embarrassed, and John the Baptist dead – all while the party participants hoot and howl. And she managed to lose her adolescent moral compass without the aid of the internet or violent movies. She can by her malice naturally.

You have to admit, the kid has game. Mom says, Get me John the Baptist’s head; Salome says, Get me his head, right now, on a platter. If she were alive today, she could write for a revival episode of Breaking Bad.

We could say, If you were John the Baptist, the faithful prophet of the Lord, doing the right thing and speaking your mind does not always end in self-fulfillment. We are only kidding ourselves if we believe our faith will not get us into trouble now and then. Not everyone appreciates the good, the right and the true.

And I’ve always wondered, grisly story it is, did John’s disciples receive the head back? Did they bury him headless? What a desecration. I’m sure God was weeping in heaven, at the things people do.

I know you and I are all appalled at the beheadings by ISIS, the Islamic State. Apparently Jews did it too. King Henry the 8th did it also. The French made it an art form, during their "revolution." Thank God I’m a Calvinist. "All have fallen short of the glory of God." We are all sinners. Depraved, they say. We are never surprised or disappointed in people. We know what is in our hearts.



So here is the good news this morning. To find it, we have to make a sharp turn and go the other way. I would hope we are yearning for peacemaking, in the midst of our troubled world. And it clearly has been troubled for some time. When I take time to talk about Eve and Adam, we will see it goes back to the very first. We do not always do what is in our interest or the interest of our neighbors. Things fall apart.

In case you were wondering what Salome, Herodias and Herod were up to today, here are some facts, distressing as they are:

500 million people, one-half a billion, live in unstable and conflict-filled countries

1.3 million people are killed each and every year by violence

Over 80% of children living in urban areas have witnessed acts of violence

Up to 70% of women experience violence in their lifetime

More than 1 in 3 American women have experienced violence at the hands of an intimate partner

20.9 million people are trapped in forced labor and 25% are children.

Salome has been busy. The world is a mess. Way too many heads have ended up on platters, one way or another, one form or another. Sadly, there are a multitude of ways to suffer.

On the first Sunday in October, we receive the Peacemaking Offering, now renamed the Peace and Global Witness Offering. I like the old name better. Our Presbytery of Newton has decided to use their share of this offering to fund peacemaking efforts by congregations. They will offer a $400 grant to an inspired and responsive church, a church who has thought about our grisly world and decided to do something peaceful and healing and redeeming.

What ideas do you have?

What needs do you see?

How could we embody the redemptive message of Jesus Christ for our community?

I at first did not want to make a list – but here are some ideas. A conflict resolution center. PTSD relief, like our friend John Monteiro is doing for Vietnam War veterans who suffer from this affliction. Divorce recovery workshop sessions. Maybe they would consider our idea of a monthly community meal a matter of peacemaking. $400 there would really help. Those are my ideas. How about yours?

Four hundred dollars is seed money. Jesus promises planting leads to harvesting. Growth is essential to the Christian life. Think about it. Pray about it. Let me know what ideas you have, for peacemaking. We need to challenge the grip Salome and her ilk have over our world.


"Whose Perspective?"

Mark 8:27-9:1 // fpc, stanhope // c:\dir\ser\perspective.15

Mark told his story, about Jesus, who is the messiah and suffering savior of humankind. I’ve invited three others to re-tell the same story, as they understand it.



SATAN

God really surprised me by sending the Son. I did not expect that. I’ve dealt with prophets and priests and kings, all of whom I have had some good success in manipulating. I even got several of them killed. Yes, I am good at my work.

I’ve thrown everything I could think of at Jesus. I’ve sent cripples and demoniacs to rage against him, shouting out all sorts of inspired names – the Holy One of God; Son of the Most High God – trying to reveal Jesus’ identity on my terms and at my time. I even got King Herod all fired up, worried that John the Baptist had returned or Elijah had come back to usher in a new age, an age for which the status of King Herod would be in doubt. I stirred up his family and his pride and John the Baptist paid the price – Herod had him beheaded, based in completing a favor at a party. Jesus retreated to home territory, back to Galilee. Smart. I knew he would travel to Jerusalem again, good Jewish boy he was. Sooner or later a festival would roll around and Jesus would go his way down to the holy city of Zion. I was ready for him.

Nothing pleased me more than for Jesus to hike his way out to Caesarea Philippi. So much in the surrounding area could confuse his disciples. And I like confusion. And fear. Caesarea had a big shiny temple to the Roman Emperor there. It was a reminder to the people; they call them "subjects" for a reason. Get out of hand and the wrath of the Empire will be upon you. The Romans like order and they like placid citizens. Seeing the golden shine of the temple would give these disciples some pause. What a minute – whom are we taking on? I could keep them on human, not divine, vision.

Also in these region was a cave somewhere – I always kept the location secret (I like secrets and secrecy). The cave was dedicated to the lusty Roman god Pan. He provided all kinds of temptations, especially when the wine came out and the party rocked on. These disciples had left behind their families and work, but also, the pleasure of social interaction. Their position now was pretty lonely and isolated. I wanted to make sure they felt it.

I have to admit, I like the role and mission God has cooked up for Jesus. Go to Jerusalem, get into trouble, face ridicule from the powers-that-be, lose your life. He thinks he is coming back. Seriously? Who ever has come back? I am hoping his humanity will corrupt his divinity and that will be the end of him. I can always hope. Even Satan has hope, right? It pleases me even more to know the disciples are not buying it. They get the messiah-thing. Suffering and dying. No. Not so much. I’ll keep pushing on that angle. Yes I will. The last thing I want them to consider, and live, is self-giving and unconditional love.

PETER

Even from the first, we recognized Jesus would be the messiah, the one for whom we have hoped and hoped. You gotta have hope. Jesus gave us hope. I have felt very confused though about how he believes the messiahship will function. Everybody knows the messiah is the new David, a king who will rescue Israel from its bondage to the Romans and any other potential oppressor while also establishing once and for all a kingdom far and wide, like the one David had, years and years ago. The messiah is not going to be hurt; the messiah will put a big hurt on those who are defying God’s will for the Chosen People. And we are the chosen people. Yes, we are.

Speaking for the disciples, my brothers, I rebuked Jesus for his implausible and impossible mission to suffer and die. No way! What’s the point of that? He is giving and we are giving people new life, wholeness of body, clarity of mind, happiness and hopefulness, healing and restoration. That just shows Jesus’ power. The messiah will do miracles, is a miracle, a miracle of God. And protected by God, from harm. So we have been taught. What Jesus is describing is unbelievable. What’s the point, I ask. What is the point?



HUGH

I cannot finish this story for you, because it has no ending. Not then; not now. Just as much as the disciples seem to be rejecting Jesus’ suffering and dying messiahship, so we can feel the same today. Who wants to lose in order to gain? Who wants to give up in order to get? It sounds backwards, not what we are taught. At least, taught outside the church. Our hope, then and now, is to live a peaceful and safe life. Someone has to guarantee that possibility. It requires vigilance and resistance and even force. Not capitulation. Not suffering. Definitely, not death.

Jesus challenges us to reorder our priorities. Being ashamed of his teachings is unacceptable. He will then be ashamed of us. Like the disciples before us, we have to trust God now, in thick and thin, easy and hard, good and bad, life and yes death. Trust. The unending story means, in trust and hope, we have to pick up our cross and follow Jesus daily. Only then will we see the Son of Man returning in God’s glory with the holy angels.

"Running with the Fast Dogs"

Mark 1:9-15 // fpc, stanhope, nj; February 22, 2015

I recently connected with an old friend from high school, David Marrs, who now lives in Texas. We ran track together, long distance. Our coach was Bill Bayless, whose nickname was Bobo Bayless. We loved him and we were embarrassed by him. Sometimes he would lead cheers at the assemblies, rallying the students to join in with some high school pride. Several of us would sit in the bleachers, trying very hard not to laugh ourselves silly. So it was not very mature – we were still in high school and had some growing up to do. It’s funny how someone we thought at times was a public fool could also impart important wisdom, about running, about life.

Coach Bayless encouraged us to run with a faster, older runner. We improved, he claimed, not by running with our friends or those of like ability and speed or endurance. We improved when we pushed ourselves to run with the ‘fast dogs.’ Running down to the James River, two miles away, he would "motivate" us to keep up with stronger runners. David and I ran together but we also pushed ourselves to keep up with the leaders. Run with the fast dogs!



How do we run with the "fast dogs" spiritually? How do we build endurance and strength?



We do not do it alone. Elijah, the early great prophet of Israel, once complained to the Lord-God, "I alone am left and they are seeking my life . . ." (1 Kings 19:10b). Spiritual training needs the fellowship of the community of faith for encouragement, discipline and support. We cannot do it totally alone. After beginning his ministry of preaching, Mark tells us, Jesus immediately went out and called disciples to be his followers. He started a group – because spiritual training needs, even requires the solidarity of community. So, how do we spiritually run with the fast dogs?



Jesus says, ‘the time is right.’ Jesus means something different than measuring time. When the Kenyan Presbyterians visit in May, they might be likely to remind us – "You Americans have watches but we have time." We are propelled by the clock, to get this project done on time, to arrive here by some such hour, to reserve a particular day for a break. The unwinding, the chronological passing of the hours and days and months perplex and confound us.

The time Jesus means is really better understood as "opportune" time. It is the right moment. It is the sweet spot, for time. In any given event, there resides a moment of opportunity and grace,. "Kairos" is the Greek word. Flipped around and reversed, it is by negation when we have missed opportunities. In family life, at work or play, even at church, some opportunity might present itself and to fail to see it and act upon it is to miss out. Think about the story of Jonah. The remarkable aspect of his story was his success, in spite of his fierce resistance. He preached repentance and the pagan people of Nineveh repented. They were ready and God knew it. It was the right moment, as much as Jonah later regretted giving them an opportunity to set things right with God. Jesus likewise began and came at just the right moment. It was a new day, at just the right time.

Spiritually speaking, we have to avail ourselves of the regular, everyday opportunities God gives us for spiritual growth: regular and fervent prayer, reading and exploring the scriptures, participating in worship, partaking of the sacraments. There is opportunity -- and power -- in these actions. Growing within the spiritual disciplines will help us see and know the opportunities God has given us. Doing so will improve our spiritual speed, to run with the fast dogs.



Jesus then said, ‘the kingdom of God has drawn near.’ It is close, right at hand.

Jesus retreats into the desert for a time of testing. Actually, the Spirit propels him into the wilderness. William Least Heat-Moon, in his book blue highways, writes:There’s something about the desert that doesn’t like humanity, something that mocks our nesting instinct and makes our constructions look feeble and temporary. Yet it’s just that inhospitableness that endears the arid rockiness, the places pointy and poisonous, to those looking for its discipline. (160)

The desert is the place the Lord-God tested and trained the Israelites, before they entered the Promised Land. The desert, arid and seemingly empty, is a place of growth. Jesus was not alone in the wilderness. Satan was there, also wild beasts and angels. Are they friends or foes? Satan, understood to be demonic, once worked for the Lord-God as a kind of prosecuting attorney. Then he went bad. And the wild beasts -- are they the gentle and friendly creatures of Eden, the playmates of Adam? Or are they the restored animals of Isaiah’s vision of the peaceable kingdom? Or are they ciphers for the chaos and danger of evil? Angels waited on Jesus, just as they waited on Elisha, the vigorous prophet, years and centuries before (2 Kings 6:17). Will they succeed or fail in caring for Jesus?

If you want to run with the fast dogs, spiritually, you have to be able to endure the testing and rigor of the desert. Things are not always what they seem. People may be friends or foes. One has to rely on God to get by. Still, the kingdom of God is close, right at hand, in spite of appearances.



Jesus lastly said, ‘repent and believe.’ That’s spiritual strength, too.

The repentance Jesus means draws upon the preaching and baptism of John -- who also had been calling the people to a higher righteousness and return to the stipulations of the covenant of old. In this way, Jesus was a new prophet, like Elijah or Elisha or Amos or Hosea. Repentance is a verb and it is a noun. To repent was to turn around, to go in a new direction. To run with the fast spiritual dogs, sometimes we have to turn around and go in a new direction. Do a 180 degree change. We’re headed in the wrong direction and we can’t go on, without harming ourselves or others. Sometimes sports players will become confused and sprint the wrong way, charging toward their own goal. Their defense has to defend against their own player! Turn around! Wrong way! To repent is to head in a new, better and spiritually profitable direction.

Repentance also means restoring relationships twisted by sinful behavior. A couple of days ago, Alex Rodriguez, A-Rod, the famous baseball player, issued a handwritten apology. He was trying to restore himself before the fans, as difficult as that will be. He reversed course and admitted using performance enhancing drugs. Now he was hoping his admission and remorse would transform some of the damage he had caused. Repenting means taking responsibility for one’s actions, changing course appropriately, and making things right – as much as that is possible – with those you have harmed. Jesus wants us to believe repenting will make a difference, with each other, with God, and he is right.



It is so easy and tempting to settle for the successes you have already obtained. It is true in life, at many levels, and it is true in our spiritual life. We might say, I have it together. Jesus wants more, for us to strive and reach our best. He wants us to run – spiritually – with the fast dogs.

Watch for sacred opportunities and seize them.

Feel the nearness of the kingdom.

Repent and believe in the Good News!


"One More Mountain to Climb"

1 Kings 2:1 ff. // Mark 9:2-9February 15, 2015 c:\dir\ser\mountain.15

Remember the first time you checked out something really small, through a microscope? To the eye, what you were looking at was not remarkable, but up close and enlarged, it was fascinating. The same could be true for using a good set of binoculars. From a distance, the landscape looks like a uniform blur. Amplified, you can see all sorts of amazing and surprising detail. The microscope or field glasses transformed what you were looking at.



WHAT’S THE STORY?

If the inner circle of disciples – Peter, James and John – had any doubts about Jesus, then the transfiguration might have answered them, if they but understood. Jesus the rabbi and healer was transformed before their eyes into the Messiah. They were astonished, if not more than surprised and some terrified. What did they see? in a focus and detail they had not previously understood? Jesus was the new Moses, who had also climbed a high mountain and waited six days, his face aglow with the brightness of God’s glory, the cloud surrounding the heights with God’s presence and a heavenly voice booming out encouragement and instruction [c.f. Exodus 24 and 34]. Jesus was also the new Elijah, the first and foremost prophet. Jesus was the perfect messenger, the chosen servant and the most obedient display of God’s word. Moses and especially Elijah were associated with the coming of the Messiah. They appeared to the disciples, but in the end, they faded and only Jesus was left.

The same divine voice privately heard by Jesus at his baptism now affirmed Jesus as God’s Son. This time the disciples heard it too, but the experience rattled them, leaving Peter to babble on. Their foolishness led Jesus to admonish them to keep silent about what they had witnessed until after the resurrection. The disciples were having a hard enough time understanding the urgency of Jesus’ death, let alone a physical, bodily resurrection. They were dazed and confused. Perhaps you can identify with them. I can.

They had climbed the mountain with cheerful voices, hiking along like children on an afternoon’s adventure. They left in shocked silence. Numbed, they wondered what was next.



SNEAK PREVIEW

Sports analysts like to "preview" sporting events, trying to describe what they believe will happen. Sometimes they are right or close; sometimes, maybe even oftentimes, they are wrong and not close at all. The game is on the field, you see. These talking heads try to gather all the data and make their forecasts. They look small, at the details, in order to form the big picture. The method is good but in the end their words are no more than an educated guess. You’ll have to find out the truth later by watching the game.

In a different way, movie previews try to tell you enough about the movie to catch your interest, while also not giving the story away. And – you and I both know about movie trailers more interesting than the movie! The preview can mislead and distort. Without telling the full story and ruining the end, the previews attempt to give you a feel for the movie itself, so that you will spend your hard-earned money watching it when it is released.

Jesus takes three, not all, just three, of the disciples for a preview. A small group is easier to coach and we all know they were going to need good coaching. He is revealed in his resurrection glory. Prior to this story in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus tells them what is going to happen in Jerusalem. What he says is detailed and accurate, as it turns out – tragically for Good Friday; joyful for Easter. This teaching leaves the disciples wide-eyed, excited, doubtful and astonished. Jesus needed to put some leaven in the loaf and the transfiguration preview was the leaven. Seeing is believing. They had heard words. Now they could see. The transformation terrified them and they were left with Peter’s blathering. Nonetheless, Jesus gave them a real and true forecast of what was to come. No guessing at the game; no fabricating the story to hook an audience. They saw it, up close and personal, a preview of the resurrected Christ.



ROCKY MOUNTAIN HIGH

Most writers commenting on this passage warn us against hanging on, trying to preserve the moment, as if it were a bad effort to live in the moment and savor all of it fully. They especially rough up Peter, who tries to link their experience to the Jewish Festival of Booths. He gets accused of trying to fossilize their spiritual high, hold it in place, not let it go. I want to speak positively in favor of having spiritually elevated experiences. And celebrating them at the time. And remembering, maybe even reliving them if at all possible.

Think about the everyday "highs" you have had – being graduated from high school or finishing boot camp; gaining your first full-time job; getting married and having a baby or two; watching the Giants win the Super Bowl. Those sorts of things. We often take pictures and look at them from time to time. We might even have video and can re-live them some. I applaud these efforts, however sentimental they might be.

I would hope we Stanhope Presbyterian folks would have spiritual highs also. More recently, the Sunday School Christmas plays or the Christmas cantata. We have people who are very dedicated to Ash Wednesday – those ashes on the forehead really signify a spiritual truth and spiritual high, I believe. One of our folks last week filled out a blue prayer card indicating he had experienced the joy of answered prayer. And while we want our prayers answered, we know our prayers go to God who fulfills them in God’s own way and time. The brief note on the card suggested a measure of surprise and spiritual satisfaction. How about you? What are your spiritual highs, mountain top experiences?

SAY NOTHING

Alas, Jesus puts a gag order on the three chief disciples talking about what they had seen and heard. Say nothing. Now. Later, after the Son of Man has been risen. Not until then.

My advice here, Listen to Jesus, as the heavenly voice commands. We might think we have an advantage over the disciples because we know how the story goes. And we have that narrative. That story comforts us, especially Easter Day. The disciples have no such as yet direct knowledge, but they, unlike us, do see and hear first-hand, at least, eventually.

With Lent approaching, I suggest we use those forty days to reflect upon the glory of our crucified and risen Christ. Before we too quickly and easily acknowledge the truth of our faith (and it is true), we might want to consider long and deep what it means for us as individuals, for our church, for the world.

In the meanwhile, we do have the shining glory of the transfigured Christ to give us strength, hope and peace.

Matt Kester (church Elder), December 2014

I am going to start what I have to say today with a confession.  I harbor a lot of ambivalence about Christmas.  Many of my happiest childhood memories are from Christmas.  I remember the long rides from Bergen County out to Branchville to get the Christmas tree when I was a kid.  We would spend Christmas Eve at my grandmother’s and then stayed up late for Midnight Mass.  After mass when we got home we try to see if Santa had come yet.   Even now as an adult, the time spent with my family during Christmas and the happiness I see in my kids as we go through those same Christmas traditions are sources of great joy for me. 

On the flip side though is a deep feeling of misgiving about the hyper commercialized and consumer driven phenomenon that is modern Christmas in America.  Instead of being a time of unalloyed rejoicing about the birth of our savior it turns into a time of acquisitiveness bordering on greed fueled by manipulative marketing and advertising that borders on exploitative.   The reality is that the focus all too often seems to be on things that really have little to do with Jesus or the gospels.   I don’t think that I am alone in this feeling or that it is particularly recent.  In 1957 Dr. Seuss felt that the world needed reminding that “Christmas does not come from the store, maybe Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more”.  More recently is the drive to “keep Christ in Christmas”.  People have these bumper stickers on their cars and there is even a billboard with the message a little north of here on 206.   In theory, I agree with both sentiments.   But reading the Grinch and seeing those bumper stickers does not alleviate my misgiving, it worsens it.  We never see bumper stickers that say “Keep Yahweh in Rosh Hashanah”.  We don’t because Jews need no such reminder.  Why do we?  I think the problem isn’t so much that people celebrate Christmas without Christ as much as that we, as Christians, have allowed Christmas to become a holiday which could be celebrated without Christ and a holiday that people who have no regard for Jesus as Christ would want to celebrate.

            In his book The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus, Peter Gomes, the professor of Christian Morals at the Harvard Divinity School took issue with the “WWJD” bracelets.  Remember those bracelets “What Would Jesus Do”?  Professor Gomes pointed out that it was asking the wrong question.  Since Jesus was God and we are not, we can NOT do what Jesus would do in any situation.  The better question to ask therefore is “What would Jesus have us do?” And here, for me is really the crux of the issue.  Is the way that we, both individually and societally currently celebrate Christmas (presents, lights, elves on shelves and the wholesale slaughter of Douglas fir trees) how Jesus would have us celebrate his birth, or for that matter, any aspect of his life?  When I ask myself this question, the answer I always end up with is- no.  Jesus cautions us not to cast our pearls before swine.  That which is most holy and sacred to us ought not be frivolously bandied about by those who do not consider it so.  Yet I feel like this exactly what “Christmas” sales, lights, cookies etc. are.

            So, now what? If I am not alone in this Christmas paradox where we have developed Christmas traditions that are meaningful and important to us but really have nothing to do with the birth of Christ, how do we move forward and extricate ourselves from it? The truth is your guess is as good as mine.  I wish I had some great answer for you, but really I just have a question that has bothered me for a long time.  Maybe the answer is that we don’t.  Maybe we continue on the way we always have.  I do have two thoughts though.  You may think I’m nuts, but I will throw them out there anyway.    First – gift giving.  Gift giving is the most obviously apparent component of contemporary Christmas celebration.  Gift giving of course started with God.  He gave us life and this planet.  He gave us the ability to know Him and gave us instructions on how we are to live in order to be happy and spiritually fulfilled beings in His image.  He gave us Jesus and his teachings so that we might be saved.  What do we give to God?  Jesus tells us to “Love the Lord thy God with all they soul, and all thy mind, and all thy heart” (Matt 22:37).  Do we give our whole soul, heart, and mind to God, or do we get distracted by, as Jesus says, the “cares and concerns of this world”?  Do we get distracted, especially, and most ironically, by the demands of the secular components of the Christmas celebration that we have created?  Micah tells us that what God asks of us in return for all that he has given us- “to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God” (Micah 6:8).  Do we take the time at Christmas to look back over the year past and honestly and critically look at our lives to see if those three attributes, justice, mercy and humility have been the guiding precepts or our actions?  What about gifts to people?  Do we pass on the gifts that God gave us?  Paw Patrols, and x-boxes, and iPads are really cool, but do they help people find the peace that comes only with a right relationship with God?  What gifts do we give that accomplish that?   I think that we saw two great examples of just these types of gifts at this church over the past few weeks.  The pageant put on by the Sunday School and the cantata put on by the choir inspired just such reverence and introspection.  Looking beyond the past few weeks, I have spent 5 of the last 6 years on session and am constantly amazed at the willingness of the people of this church to give of their time and talents to God’s church.  I hope that we, both as a church and as individuals in our lives outside of church can continue to give our loved ones and or communities such gifts throughout the year.

            Second- now I know that this may seem counterintuitive, and craziest of all but I am going to put it out there anyway- I propose that we start wishing people “Happy Holidays”.  I know we are the ones who correct people when they say “Happy Holidays” and tell them to say “ Merry Christmas”.  We get upset when stores call what they do starting the day after thanksgiving a “holiday” sale as opposed to a Christmas sale.  But maybe we shouldn’t.  A few years back my Aunt, who is very Catholic took Kris and the kids and I to see Disney on Ice for Christmas.  During the finale all of the characters skated around wishing everyone “Happy Holidays”.  On the ride home my Aunt expressed her disappointment that there was not a single “Merry Christmas” to be heard.  I did not say anything because I was raised in an Old World tradition where you do not argue with your elders but to be honest, I did not agree with her.  The birth of Jesus was such a momentous event that it can be very hard to pin down one thing that Christmas is “about”.  I am confident though that it is not about a giant talking mouse skating around the prudential center.   I was and still am ok that those people were not pretending that what they were doing there in Newark had anything at all to do with what happened in Bethlehem 2000 years ago just because they happened to be doing it in December.  Maybe we should recognize that on every 25th day of December two separate, distinct, holidays occur.  The first undoubtedly developed from the second but has since taken on its own independent identity.  The first is the hyper commercialized consumer driven orgy of gift giving that makes retail profitability possible. Now, I cannot deny for a second that this holiday is fun.  Cutting down Christmas trees and putting up lights, making cookies and ginger bread houses, writing letters to and getting pictures with Santa, and all of it culminating with a visit from the big man himself.  It is a blast, I love it, I loved it when I was a kid, I love watching my kids enjoy those traditions.  I look forward to it all year long. This holiday though is secular.  It can be celebrated by anyone of any faith because it really has nothing to do with the birth and life of Christ.  That holiday will be what we are talking about when we wish someone a “Happy Holiday”.  The second holiday occurring simultaneously is a celebration of the birth and life of Jesus.  This celebration is more subdued than holly-jolly.  It occurs far from the noisy, crowded, malls, or the blaring of the newest Christmas album from the latest top 40 pop star.  It is a silent night.  The newly opened toys and the rest of the secular components of the holiday are put away and out of our minds because it is a holy night.   We stop all of our worry for the cares and concerns of this world and take no care for the morrow.  As result, in our souls all is calm.  With our minds and souls in this state we are receptive to the light of God’s grace and peace- indeed, all is bright.  The spirit guides our thoughts back around yon virgin mother child.  We see that holy infant, tender and mild and are overcome by joy at his birth.  But it goes beyond that.  We are overcome by awe at who he is and the man he grows up to be; humility at what he will expect of his disciples both in 1st century Palestine and 21st century Stanhope.  Our spirits are empowered and renewed at the faith he showed in us by making the ultimate sacrifice on our behalf.   After such meditation, as our souls make peace with God, we are able to drift off to sleep in heavenly peace.  This is what we should mean when we say “Merry Christmas” and I don’t think we should say it to everyone because we know all too well that not everyone will celebrate with us.  Because the truth is that a person who does not turn his or her heart to God really does not celebrate Christmas, regardless of how many ornaments are on their “Christmas” tree, or how many “Christmas” lights are on their house.  So, to all of my friends here in this church and my friends in the faith throughout the world, I hope you had a Blessed Christmas, and to everyone, both in and out of the faith, I hope you had a very Happy Holiday.

"It Started with the Stableboy"

Mk 1:1-8; fpc, stanhope, nj; advent 2 c:\dir\ser\revere#2.14

On the afternoon of April 18, 1775, a young boy overheard two British officers talking and one said to the other how tomorrow there would be "hell to pay." The youth worked at a stableyard in Boston and he decided to go and tell exactly one specific man what he had heard. The stableboy ran with the news to the North End where he entered the shop of a silversmith, who listened carefully and gravely. He had heard these rumors and reports before. Paul Revere knew they had to act, tonight. The time was now and the time was right.

The stableboy picked the right man to tell.

Revere was a magnetic personality. Everyone knew him or knew of him. He was involved in several fraternal and social organizations around the area. After the Boston Tea Party, Revere helped link up the different revolutionary committees and communities, while also helping to keep together the varying parties of "Whigs" who sought to oust the British. Paul Revere was a connector, linking people to people, organizations to organizations.

Revere also was prepared. He had spent time and energy gathering intelligence on British troop movements and placements. Literally, Revere was a clearinghouse for information on resisting the royalist intentions. If you were going to tell anyone what you had heard, tell the man most likely to connect the dots, to see the picture, to discern the pattern.

It started with the stableboy. At ten o’clock that night, Revere was spirited out of Boston, across the Charles River, and he began his midnight ride to Lexington. He covered thirteen miles in two hours. Because of his efforts, by five in the morning the news had alerted the leadership in Andover -- forty miles to the north. Before breakfast was over for some, the news had traveled as far as Ashby, near Worcester. When the British marched into Lexington that morning, they were astonished and shocked to be met with organized and fierce resistance. The advance warning allowed for preparation and led to the British defeat at Concord. It started with a stableboy, who had news, who spoke up, who chose the right man to tell.



The Paul Revere of the NT is John the Baptist.



John was the connector for the movement leading to Jesus’ ministry. Like Revere, he was a magnetic personality. One was urban and a craftsman; the other was from the wilderness and a prophet. Everyone knew JBap -- or knew of him. Everyone in Judea streamed to John at the Jordan; all of Jerusalem poured out of the city to hike out into the wilds and see the bug-eating holy man. John offered a baptism by water, requiring confession and repentance. Baptism was not just a family event. He demanded people turn their lives around, repent, go in a new direction.

John was a connector, also, because he was preparing the way for the One who was Stronger. He baptized with water but the Stronger One would baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire. John wanted people to connect to the ‘new thing’ God was doing in "Jesus Christ, the son of God."



In this season of Advent, we hear the Good News of Jesus Christ, the son of God -- as Mk opens his Gospel. We have heard and overheard this good news. Who are you going to tell? Who most needs to hear this story? Who could seriously benefit from embracing the hope it carries?

Think how different our world might be without one stableboy who spoke up! Think how different the world might be if John had decided to take up rock climbing instead of baptizing! Think how much less the world might be if our tongues are tied and our lips are shut today. It started with a stableboy, who got up and went and found his voice. We are Jesus’ advance team, schooled in the spirit and example and power of John the Baptist. So, God wants you to find your voice. Whom are you going to tell?

"Just Another Day"

Exodus 3:1ff. and Matthew 16:21-28 // fpc, stanhope, nj // August 31, 2014

Harry Chapin has a song with this refrain:

And it was just an any old kind of day
The kind that comes and slips away
The kind that fills up easy my life's time

Even in the most ordinary of days, we have no idea what the day will bring. Moses got up one early morning, kissed his children and his wife, Zipporah, goodbye and his life was never the same. Nothing in the skies or sunshine prepared him. No sign on earth signaled how radically things would change in just a moment.

Moses had days like this one before. As an infant, while he was still blissfully unaware, Pharaoh’s daughter ‘happened’ upon him at riverside and spared his life through adoption into the royal family and court. Not that it was an accident, because it included the clever plan of mother and sister. God’s unseen hand guided the events, only later to be revealed to the Egyptians in plague.

When he was an adult, Moses – the man caught between two worlds – killed an Egyptian taskmaster for beating a Hebrew slave. It had undoubtedly started out as just another day, with rising and washing, dressing and eating, preparing for the day. It felt like any other moment. No more. No less. Looming ahead of him sooner or later was the conflict of kingdoms: on the one hand, Egypt, the imperial court and its host of exotic gods; on the other hand, the descendants of Israel, the slave labor, and the one, true God of the ancestors. The cruelty of the beating revealed the thin fissure in Moses’ torn character. He acted swiftly and brutally and his life changed remarkably. Such is the cautionary note of acting suddenly with violence. Anyway, the day had started out as a normal day, just like any other. Moses had his share of ordinary days transformed into the extraordinary.



After having killed the Egyptian, Moses fled to the Sinai, to Midian, where he had settled down with the family of Jethro, a priest, and, he had married Jethro’s daughter. He became a shepherd, tending the family flocks. He had children, a home, a livelihood. Life was once again stable and good. Each day had a flow and routine. Never really having had a typical family setting, Moses found warmth and happiness like he had never known before. He looked forward to raising his family. He profited from the religious teaching of Jethro, who as a priest, had a storehouse of provocative doctrine, different from much of the other training he had ever received. Unlike the polytheistic world he inhabited in Egypt, Jethro was a monotheist. There was only one god. God, unlike the practices of the ancient world, could not be represented by an image or idol. Moses learned the value of ritual and tradition, including the dangerous powers of the Destroyer, who punished evil and could only be warded off by the sacred markings of the blood of the lamb over the doorway. Such remarkable teachings and beliefs Moses accepted and wove into the fabric of his spiritual existence.

And so the day was like any other (or so it started off). There was a serenity about the sameness of days. He cared for his flock of sheep, dealing with the harsh necessity of finding pasture and water, as well as the panorama of desert sights and sounds and smells to excite his days. It was enough and it was good. Moses was content. It was just another day, inspired by the refreshing familiarity of the morning.

And then he blundered upon the stunning sight of the burning bush, burning but not burned up. He ‘turned aside’ to see what this sight was. He could have walked away but he did not. He could have pretended it was not there, but he did not. He could have convinced himself it was something else, but he did not. He had to look and explore, almost in spite of himself. Life was full of wonder and paradox captivated him. There was danger and promise. He had to look.

God revealed himself through the sign of the burning yet unburned bush. It was a holy spot, so sacred the divine voice commanded him to take off his shoes. His naked feet felt the sands, only the sand protecting him from this invasion of the divine and eternal into the human and mortal. Fear gripped his heart and he was speechless, averting his gaze from the terrible wonder.

"Who are you?" Moses wanted to know. Who God is and what God wants from us are major questions. He asked not just for himself. He faced the inevitable questions of Zipporah and Jethro then later on the Hebrews themselves. We will learn how they – his own people – reject and accept Moses in the same breath.

God’s dynamic name is "Yahweh," which OT theologians related to the verb, "to be." God was the source of existence, the wellspring of life-itself. God was future, in becoming, in the mystery of what was not yet. No one can capture God in the moment. Even so, the Lord-God served as the stabilizer for each point in time, the anchor of animated and vital reality. "I am" is my name, we hear. In the parched, dry desert, Moses’ head swam with the waves of God’s revelation washing over him. It had started out as any other day, not a day to explode his understanding of God and his place in the divine plan. It had been just another day. But no longer. The Lord-God had anointed him with a new understanding and purpose and mission.



Now, what is Moses going to do? Life is full of examples of those who have rejected God’s call and slipped or fallen away. Peter confesses Jesus as the Messiah only to turn around and refute his claim with the next breath. We (you and I) can be like good seed on fertile and watered soil or we can be choked out by weeds or eaten up by birds or having failed even to germinate. We can become Jesus’ disciples only to seek to save our lives, not lose them, let alone lose them for Jesus’ sake. To extend the NT metaphor, Moses could have understandably withdrew from Yahweh’s offer to climb up on the Egyptian cross.

It had started out as just another day. The phone rings, the test results arrive, the light at the intersection changes, the mail is delivered, the economy shifts, and nothing is ever the same. We can turn aside and look away or we can stare into the wonder of the moment God has provided. We puzzle at the Lord-God of Israel who disrupts and confounds, who chooses the younger over the older, who accepts one gift and looks without favor on another, who elects the slaves and punishes the masters, who offers the Sinless One as an offering for sin. This God of becoming, ‘I will be who I will be,’ leads us forward along a road of his own choosing.



Nothing Moses had ever learned in Midian or Egypt went unwasted. His experiences and adventures were full of life. Each day, even the ordinary ones, had provided a reservoir of helpful grace. The same can be true for us, even if we do not help save some innocent people from bondage to unjust oppression. (We can be agents of reconciliation and peacefulness in our own lives, though.) Today is an ordinary Sunday. It is just like any other Sunday. We are in our own sanctuary, seated in our own space, familiar and comfortable. Watch out!


"God’s Life Economy Is Booming"  2 Thessalonians 2:1-5 + 13-17 // Luke 20:27-40 // November 10, 2013

You never know what people are going to say, what they are going to tell you. I was finishing raking leaves out of the manse yard, when a service worker rolled up and needed to get into the house in order to do some preventative maintenance and equipment cleaning. His company had sent him one and a quarter hour early, so I was unprepared and had to go inside and sequester the pets. I did not want any furry escapees. I was even more unprepared when he said he wanted to talk to me so I followed downstairs where he told me he had lost his son a year ago, in an accident, an accident witnessed by his younger son. I listened and we talked for a half hour while he worked and tears welled in his eyes from time to time. The son’s death had brought with it a crisis, a crisis of faith, and a hope and a fear. He wanted to believe his son was ok, that death was not the final event, how he had returned to God and was suffering no more, not ever again, but then, we could not be sure. We need faith; we would not know ourselves until our moment comes.

Like this distraught father in my basement, people in the ancient world wondered about death. What it meant. If it was the end. If not, how things would be. What was the role of God’s eternal love in heaven. Jesus faced those questions and more, I’m sure. Paul heard them too, although for a different set of reasons. Jesus, the early Christians understood, had conquered the cross and death yet members of the Thessalonian church were dying and Jesus had not returned, as they believed he had promised. Their fears were not unfounded. Jesus himself, during his earthly ministry, had taught – "There are some standing here who will not taste death until the Son of Man returns . . . in glory." He had not returned, as it seems he promised, but the faithful were absolutely tasting death. They were anxious. That’s the "back story" to what Paul was writing and we heard.

In Jesus’ day, some believed in the resurrection and some did not. The Pharisees were a yes, the Sadducees, a no. The Sadducees took their turn at trying to trick Jesus. They wanted to divide the glad audience of Jesus, splitting them in two, along the lines of those who affirmed and those who denied resurrection. Depending upon how Jesus answered their question and resolved the problem, he was sure to alienate one sizeable group. Some people just like destructive conflict. These opponents invoked the strange custom of levirate marriage (Dt 25:5-6). It was a brother’s responsibility to marry the widow of his own brother and produce offspring with her to keep his deceased brother’s name and line alive. If that happened, the Sadducees asked Jesus, and several brothers were married to the same woman, to whom would she be married in heaven? Trick question, you see.

When we lived in South Jersey, in Pitman, one set of our neighbors were an older adult couple. We figured they had both been widowed when they kept referring to "John’s wife" or "Vi’s husband." They accepted they were widowed and remarried. Each was planning to be buried next to their first spouse. They were happily married and for real, but it was different than the first time. New rules for a new time. They would have puzzled the Sadducees, I’m sure. What they said made sense and showed respect. The Sadducees wanted to reduce Jesus’ belief in the resurrection to an absurdity and they hardly were showing their respect for the young rabbi. Some people just like destructive conflict.

Jesus says, in reply, what happens on earth and what happens in heaven are not the same. Here on earth, because of the threat of death, we marry and have children to carry on. In heaven, to gloss the passage from Revelation, there ain’t no more cryin’ or sufferin’ or dyin’. It will be different. New rules apply for a new time. God is the God of the living not the dead. The new and wonderful arrangement is like what the "angels" and the "children of God" enjoy in the bodily resurrection before God. So that’s the first part of Jesus’ answer to the Sadducees. Did you think in heaven everything would be the same as here? No; it will be different.

The "shaken and alarmed" church members at Thessalonica were worrying that the ancient expectation of the "day of the Lord" had taken place and somehow they missed it. The prophets of Israel taught how the Lord-God would burst into our affairs and straighten everything out. It was a big job. Paul assures his people, that the day had not come because not enough bad stuff had proceeded it. So do not be alarmed. Paul, like Jesus, spent a lot of time and effort trying to keep people’s heads in the right place.

The apostle taught the Corinthians, "There are both heavenly bodes and earthly bodies, but the glory of the heavenly is one thing, and that of the earthly is another" (v 40). Because, you see, "If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body" (v 44b). Paul could remind his uncertain and anxious church members, Jesus returned to the disciples after his death in bodily form. His own physical form; he was himself. The same is true for those resurrected by the power of God. I expect they were comforted by his explanation.

When Jesus argued with the Sadducees, he cited the teachings of the Old Testament. God is the God of the living, not the dead – the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, pioneers of our faith. How could God be called by their names unless they were alive again, not here on earth, but in resurrected form and with God, the God of the living. The Sadducees now had a load of explaining to do. The answer to the Thessalonians, the answer to the Sadducees, the answer to my heart stricken dad, the answer to all of us, is the same – God is the God of the living. And that is good news, really good news.



In God’s economy, there is no scarcity. Death is the ultimate famine, the driest drought, the darkest eclipse. Out of total disaster God brings new life, a miracle. The apostle Paul also writes, "But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope . . ." (1:4:13). We do have hope, Jesus is claiming. We have a God whose storehouse is always full. We have a God whose mercy and love is without end. We have hope, because in God’s generous bounty, there is no shortage of new life.

As the Psalmist says, the Lord-God is the one "who redeems your life from the Pit [of death]" because " . . . he knows how we were made; he remembers that we are dust" (103:4a, 14). Jesus says, knowing these truths, "Now he is the God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them [Abraham, Isaac, Jacob] are alive" (Lk 20:38). We have hope, the hope we receive from God who is a compassionate father. He watched with horror and sadness over a suffering and dying Christ and then brought forth new, resurrected life. In the God we know through Jesus, God’s economy is an endless storehouse of goodness and life.

"Reading Between the Lines"

Hab 2:1-4 and Luke 19:1-10 // fpc, stanhope // nov03.13 c:\dir\ser\lines.13

There’s a difference between reading between the lines and reading minds. One involves the preposterous belief you can see into somebody else’s head and the other attempts to span the gap from one event to another. Or even worse, we expect another person to figure out what we want or need without expressing anything in words. Such a communication gaffe bases itself on unrealistic expectations. I do not believe we can get into the heads of the prophet Habakkuk or Zacchaeus, but I do think it is important to realize we did not hear the whole story. I do believe there was more for it and I’m going to help us this morning read between the lines and fill in the gaps.

Habakkuk lived in a very small, two tribe country called Judah. This nation believed itself to be the Chosen People, called by God to serve as a light to the nations. And speaking of the nations, they managed to land on the Promised Land at the intersection of mighty and aggressive and hostile countries and empires to the east and north, on one side, and Egypt to the south and west. They often collided at the mid-point. And you guessed it, Judah and Israel. Israel was gone and had been gone for quite a while precisely because of one of those disasters.

Come on, it sounds like a history lesson but actually it is an existential crisis. Have you ever felt yourself to be in the cross hairs? Have you ever found yourself caught between two heavyweights? seeking to crush each other? leaving you trapped in the middle? and when they cannot be satisfied with their own conflicts, they are happy to pummel you as a hapless proxy? I know you know. I know you’ve been there.

In many ways, the very same tragedy happened to Jesus, who became the scape goat for the anxious and bloody relationship between the Romans and Jews. He got caught in the middle.

Maybe you have had one of those moments at work, trapped between warring supervisors. Maybe you have had one of those moments in your family life, refusing to buy into unhealthy factions but nonetheless suffering from the sniping. Maybe you have had one of those moments in your health, where no easy choice exists.

And what does Habakkuk tell us? Wait; be patient. Catch the vision. Write it down and make it plain. While others might trust in their power or wealth or self-importance, "the righteous live by faith." Trusting in God to deliver and save is his encouragement to us, even if. Even if we live at the intersection of disaster and catastrophe. The righteous live by faith – patience is key; trust is essential.

And if you think you have problems, just get into the head of Habakkuk when he looks over one shoulder and sees the Babylonians bearing down on him and then casts a panicked glance over the other shoulder and sees the Egyptians rushing forward. Even so, the righteous will live by faith.

And you have to wonder what was going on with Zacchaeus. He was rushing around trying so hard to see Jesus but you have to wonder why. Why. Why should he care? Jesus called people to a higher level of living and being and acting. It is hard to believe Zacchaeus felt he measured up. And maybe that is exactly the point. He knew he did not measure up. But then, as Jesus said over and over, the Son of Man came to cure the sick and save the lost. Zacchaeus was both and he knew it. Jesus had what he needed. He had to see him.

I think Zacchaeus was ready. He was ripe. If only he could see Jesus he would acquire the courage he needed to make some constructive changes. He was unsure what he needed to do but he knew Jesus would help him.

And imagine how surprised he was to have Jesus stop and call him out and request to be a guest at his house. His house. So down he came while the crowd grumbled and murmured. Zacchaeus just stood there, Luke says, but I think a lot more happened than we heard. Reading between the lines here, I believe Jesus had a word or two with Mr. Zacchaeus. The Son of Man absolutely came to save the lost but he also stood up for those who needed his saving touch. Like those Zacchaeus had leaned on, leaned on real hard. Z got an earful from J. He stood there because he was listening and I doubt he was the only one who heard. It was a life changing moment for Zacchaeus. And we have to be proud he was up to it. His proclamation for restitution was excessively generous but also more than an admission of guilt.

The fact is, each and every one of us could unload an honest admission or two and promise to go in a new and better direction.

I do not have to read between the lines to figure that much out.

"TY"  Jeremiah 29:1 ff and Luke 17:11-19 // fpc stanhope // Oct 10, 2013

You know I was never big on texting. Now I appreciate it as a tool to get work done and a pathway to communicate with people younger than me. If I want to reach out to a twenty-something, I definitely text though. Always. They are not the only ones, though. Most people with whom I text are my age. We are getting into it. I have not been good with using abbreviations and clever arrangements of letters and symbols. Those in the know distribute those characters in just the right way producing hearts and smiles and happy images. One of my texting buddies my age signed off with "TY" in caps. Using caps in mostly taboo, because it is considered rude, shouting, being too aggressive. This texter is a sweet and gentle folk, so I wondered and wondered what she meant.

I asked. TY is short for "thank-you." I could have figured it out if I had taken time but it is just too easy to ask, "What is ‘TY’?" Seconds later you get your answer. Such is the electronic age. Why bother to think it through for yourself?

Luke and Luke alone among the four Gospels tells this story of Jesus and the ten lepers. If you read through the Bible, you might get the impression leprosy was rampant in ancient Israel and Judah but it was not so. Leprosy itself did exist and it was a medical disaster then as much as now but like now it was rare. Anyone with some visible skin disorder fell under the umbrella term, "leprosy." Somehow they had figured out how these dermatological diseases were contagious and so the Old Testament required people to be quarantined, a self-exile to the outer edges of society, barely visible but far enough away. That’s why they kept their distance from Jesus, as the law required, and as people expected. Today people seem to be obsessed with zombies, weird looking and menacing. "Lepers" were not zombies, but socially speaking, even if they were family, they were mostly dead. You were not dead, physically so. Yet, you could not have any proximate interaction with anyone other than people who were suffering as you were. It was a horror.

If you got better you had to go to the priest who could certify the cure and then and only then could you return to a normal life of everyday interaction without restriction.

When the Samaritan discovered he was healed, he was ecstatic, even more than a Giant’s fan when the Giants finally win a game. If they win a game. (Ouch.) This Samaritan got his life back. I cannot even imagine his joy and relief. He was the guy who threw himself at Jesus’ feet and expressed his gratitude. Jesus is not surprised he was thankful because he knew the impact and significance of the healing. He was surprised because the other nine showed no gratitude. He wondered why, while he sent the Samaritan home with approval, "Your faith as made you well."

So I am going to give you TY and no TY this morning.

We start with No TY. Not surprisingly, we hear about thanklessness from Jeremiah. He had a tough life, as a prophet with a big mouth and even more importantly a prophet who told the truth. From Socrates to Freud to AA to the Congressional Budget Office, we can learn how people do not want to know the truth. We are often in denial. There are plenty of times when we do not see and do not want to see.

During Jeremiah’s day, the Babylonians had appeared, knocked some heads, and dragged off many Judeans to their capital city of Babylon. They were not happy campers. They longed to go home. They were mad at God for letting them down, maybe deceiving them about protecting the Holy City of Jerusalem. They had not listened to Jeremiah then and they probably were not going to listen to him now. He said, in effect, Make the best of it. Live your normal life under these abnormal circumstances. They were not thankful to hear his words and they were not thankful to God for having had their lives spared, a blessing when big and tough and ruthless imperial powers came calling.

I could call it, the Paul Beckman effect. Beckman was a guy on our track team in Springfield, Missouri, at Glendale HS. He gained a nickname, "In California." Beckman had migrated to southwest MO from California and while he was not exactly depressed or even unhappy he had the annoying habit of comparing anything and everything to where he used to be. He started every other sentence, we felt, by saying, "In California . . ." and then some rant about how Missouri just did not measure up. We got it, Beckman, so shut up already. He didn’t. He was not grateful for his new home. He was not going to settle in. The Judeans just wanted out of Babylon and immediately. Get us home, they would say to themselves, adding, "In Judah . . . we would not have to put up with these pagans and their unholy rituals . . ." The Beckman effect. They were not grateful.

And then there is the Harry Young effect. Along with Sarge (Barb Depew’s husband), one of the several pictures I have in my office who are not family is Harry. When we lived in rural Indiana, Jack got sick from the intense agricultural activity and we really needed to get out of there. Some weird stuff was happening in town but it was a weird place we had come to decide and so we also were not grateful for God having sent us to the middle of hell. So to speak. Harry Young visited from Glassboro, NJ, where we first lived and he and Doris (his wife) encouraged us to, well, Make The Best of It. He told me about his life in the service, going to school at night, trying to pay for kids, getting stuck in a lousy job in Philly. Those tough and trying times come, he reminded us. They feel like exile and you pray for them to end. Do not stop living today, Harry counseled us, just because. Just because a better day needs to be found. Just because you have come to loathe what is happening around you. Take it day by day. Live in the moment. Appreciate whatever you see God doing around you and for you, which you will miss if you are not looking. Find what is good, so that you can feel some appreciation for each day, not just dissatisfaction and impatience and horror. Your life is not on hold and if you live it that way you are wasting God’s precious gift. Harry was our Jeremiah. His advice and encouragement did not sink in immediately but I came to appreciate it. I went from the NoTY to TY. It was not easy. 

So now we have come to TY, "thank-you."

Jewish folk like Jesus and Christians alike believe we came from somewhere. We are not the product of mathematical randomness and chaos finally contained. How God made the world and the plan God used may be something of a mystery, but the theological fact remains, God did it and so Life Is A Gift. I did nothing to get here and to the best of my knowledge did not ask for it or deserve it. We could say, then, everyday is a holy miracle and divinely special.

The problem is, sometimes in the freedom of the world you get deported to Babylon and exile or you end up stuck in a hopeless mess or you bring some suffering on yourself because of bad choices and ugly actions. And we find ourselves on the margin, wondering, How did I get here and how do I get back? I grew up under Depression era, WW II surviving, Midwestern, traditional and conservative, Presbyterian parents who tolerated no whining. Like Jonathan Edwards, we were sinners in the grasp of an angry God and well it could be worse. Or hot. Really hot. I have come to ease away from the idea of a retributive God, you know, God is going to get you. I retain the notion of divine justice and a moral universe, so accountability is important. Most of the time, I carry with me a deep sense of wonder. Wonder at the miracle itself, even if times are really difficult or heavy or taxing. The miracle of life is amazing. And so we could say, We are thankful.

I did mention last spring how I was a P.O.W, premie of the world. Having arrived much too early and living on the edge of survival even at the first, and even though I have no conscious and detailed awareness of those iffy days and weeks, I feel the truths about how life is fragile and tenuous from beginning to end and all the way through the middle. I am happy to be here, TY. How about you?

The Samaritan with the skin disorder felt the same.

Like Jesus, I wonder what happened to the other nine. I doubt they were not grateful. Maybe they felt they deserved it, unlike the Samaritan, whose cure came from a Jew and in that sense a rival. Adversity makes for partnerships, as we know and know well. The problem for me with the "other nine" is not their thanklessness but their sense of entitlement, which blinded them to a deeper and better truth about the gift of life.

When you work or volunteer in the fire service, you may learn about gratitude in a strange way. While I am a regular fire fighter, I often get the job of communicating with the homeowners at the fire scene. The chief will say, Go over and explain what is happening and make nice. Making nice is tough when somebody’s house is burning but the chief seems to have confidence in me. Cutting a vent in somebody’s roof, a standard fire attack practice we practiced Thursday night, while smoke and maybe flames burst through visibly is also a tough sell. We are doing our best and the right procedures, I will say. I seem to be good at it, in spite of how it all looks, but then, I live a life trying to convince people about the presence and goodness of God, who as John’s Gospel reminds us, is Spirit and not visible. So that theological treasure is also a tough sell.

People will often ask if anybody got hurt, because they are worried about the fire fighters and emergency personnel. They often say, "I can replace the house and its contents and we are grateful no one got hurt or killed. We are grateful for that much." TY, you see. Gratitude is generous and I believe it is also contagious, but in a good way. TY brings people together and together we need. 

And so this morning, I send you on your way seeking wholeness and goodness and I invite you to peer beyond the everyday and normal and see how God is working to bring happiness and mercy and forgiveness and salvation and love. And so we can say in response to those amazing gifts, TY.


“Get a Job”

            Job 19:1-7 et al / Lk 13:1-5 // fpc, Stanhope, nj // Sept15.13   

            Job is the righteous sufferer.  From the very first, we hear about his sincere piety and high ethical standards and the cautious spirituality he has which he hopes will protect his many children from unknown and unavoided but innocent error.  Even though he is good, in fact very good, his children all die and he loses all his possessions and he gets really sick and when it gets really bad, so much so he is scraping off oozing sores from his skin using a random piece of pottery, his wife says to him, “Come on – where has all your good works and religious duty got you?  No where.  Tell God to go to hell and then you die.  What could get worse?”

          We realize his story is extreme and sometimes extreme stories provide some contrast unavailable to us in the ordinary.  If Solomon was super-wise and Samson super-strong and Mary the mother of Jesus super-loyal then Job was super-good.  He was good.  What he did was good.  He was all around good.  This story is not about a goodie-two-shoes, whom we might want to hate.  Job is not irritatingly good; he is just good.  He has his high principles and standards and he consistently and deliberately lives by them.  I know such people seem really rare but it is a story and if Job had a bundle of hidden flaws somewhere the story would go flat.  Job was a good guy.

          So, why did he suffer these terrible tragedies?  People traveling with Jesus asked the same questions about people who had died because some building fell on them, hardly their fault, or the Roman authorities who killed worshipers while they were performing their religious duties in the Jerusalem Temple.  They may have been no more guilty than just being in the wrong place at the wrong time.  So why did they suffer and die?  Why?  Jesus has his own answer, which we talked about at another time on a Sunday morning.  He suggests we learn from people’s tragedies and be motivated to live the good life of repentance and forgiveness and mercy and salvation.  Sticking to philosophical questions only about the “why” would be to waste your time, Jesus seems to be suggesting.  Repent!  So – do the right thing and go on.

          This morning then we are going to waste our time.  We are going to ask “why.”

          Job is no whiner.  His problems are real, terribly real.  I’m reading right now a book about the Middle Ages in England and now and then the author addresses the impact of the Black Plague in the 1300s (it fell on Europe twice).  About one-third of the population died, in a very short period.  People can lose their entire family.  Intellectuals, liberals, gypsies, homosexuals, Poles and Jews all lost huge numbers of people from their families – during WW II.  It can happen.  It has happened and it may happen again.  God forbid.  We pray every Sunday for people whose health is deteriorating and those who economic vitality has been depleted.  You can lose your family; you can lose your livelihood; you can end up covered with sores or mumps or diabetes or heart disease.  It can happen.  It happened to Job.

          He has two complaints.  First, he is unhappy with his friends who come to visit and console and end up arguing and criticizing and blaming.  It happens.  Attack the victim.  Job pleads with his friends to stop the attack – “How long will you torment me and break me into pieces with words?” (19:2)  We have to remember we can use our words to comfort and we can use our words to destroy.  And in his defense, he tells his three friends, “And even if it is true that I have erred, my error remains with me” (19:4).  He takes what responsibility for what he can but he is also strongly suggesting, Where am I going to dump these sins?  Who will take them away?  And worse yet, no one is listening to him, even the friends.  “Even when I cry out, ‘Violence!’ (Job says), I am not answered.  I call aloud but there is no justice” (19:7).

          The friends do not deliver justice but they are not alone.  He shakes his fist at God and asserts his complete innocence.  He has been falsely charged and wrongly convicted and he does not deserve the punishment he has received.  His own cry of dereliction is painful to hear – “I am blameless; I do not know myself; I loathe my life.”  And then, he goes after God, the protector of justice, we would think.  “It is all one.  Therefore I say, [God] destroys both the blameless and the wicked” (9:21-22).  What difference does it make, Job is saying.  Everybody gets the same justice. 

          His argument with God collides with standard biblical teaching and common sense.  Hear Ps 145:20 – it sounds right, to us.  “The Lord watches over all who love him but all the wicked he will destroy.”  Job is saying, You have to be kidding.  I am the living contradiction to that theological claim of God’s caring justice.  Ps five even goes so far as to say God protects by covering the “righteous” with a shield of divine favor.  No harm will come.  Again, Job would say, You have to be kidding.  It does not work that way.

          Job’s friends were silent for a week but then they started talking.  What they say cannot be dismissed as mean-spirited or stupid.  They are very sharp and plenty of times we would have to be saying to ourselves, Well, I do believe that much too.  We have forty chapters we could cite, so I am going to give you just a sample from Eliphaz, early on.  When Job’s wife incites him to “curse God and die” he says in response, “Shall we receive the good at the hand of God and not receive the bad?” (2:10b).  Eliphaz says the same, echoing Job’s earlier thoughts – he chides Job:  “But now [disaster and suffering have] come to you and you are impatient.  It touches you and you are dismayed.” (4:5).  Sadly, we have to admit Eliphaz is on to something.  Lots and lots of junky things happen to people and we try real hard to ignore it and avoid feeling their pain until it strikes us and then we are “dismayed.”  We are not being self-righteous or shockingly indifferent.  We find it nearly impossible to sustain a continuous outrage at the world’s bad stuff.  Eliphaz reminds Job, in spite of his suffering, he has his ‘respect’ for God and his own internal “integrity” and each of these bring “confidence” and “hope.”  At least they did.  And he cuts deeply when he challenges Job, saying, “Think now, who that was innocent ever perished?” (4:7).  I’ll bet you once upon a time to some child even once, you said, “You got what you deserved.”  If you wonder what Eliphaz looked like, look into the mirror.

          The only One who waits to talk and actually is pretty brief, is God.  I think people feel guilty holding a grudge against God or railing away at God’s divine foolishness.  Read all 42 chapters of Job and you will be exonerated.  You will feel better.  Join forces with Job and rant away.  God is big enough to take it.

          And really that is the answer.  In one short verse, God gives Job (and the friends; and us) a big chunk of his answer.  God says, and I am using Leong Seow’s translation here (he was a classmate of mine and is now a full professor of OT at Princeton Seminary) – God says, in defense of Job’s charges:  “Will you indeed dismiss my jurisdiction?  Will you condemn me that you may be right?” (40:8)  [And I am thankful for Leong’s awesome insights, as I have composed this sermon and drawn upon his wisdom.]

          What does God mean?

          First, God is God and we are people not God.  God, unlike the friends, is not dismissing or attacking Job.  He is asking two questions, which initiates a dialogue and implies God wants to listen and will respond.  What does not change, and cannot change, is how God is God and we are not.  From God’s point of standing and God’s vision for the world, for the universe, what is considered just and right and good may not be obvious to us.  Much remains hidden or obscure or impossible to understand.  So it goes when we admit, We are not God.  God’s “jurisdiction” and our place in life and the world are not the same.  They are very different.  Hardship follows this hard truth but it is true nonetheless, no matter how uncomfortable or frustratingly impossible.

          Second, God is consoling Job, by parsing his logic.  He is saying, Maybe you are right; you have your good points; I can see where you are coming from.  But, just because you are right does not mean I have to be wrong.  God freely acts as God desires and chooses and puts into place.  We have limited freedom, as human beings, created not Creator.  God has no limits.  God affirms Job’s suffering and complaints but denies (correctly) those push God into a corner.  They are, in some mind-bending way, both right.

          The psalmist at one point tells us to count our days, which are not unlimited and therefore valuable beyond measure each and every day.  Looking down and to my left, I am also counting my words, which are many and so I am going to stop.  I hope you noticed how the sermon’s title could be a pun – get a Job (job)?  Next Sunday, I’ll pick up there and finish a story I want to tell you, a story of suffering and redemption, a story not from the past but from today.  And if you were puzzled today, I will smash my contemporary story against Luke’s story at the beginning of chapter 16.  So you have homework.  I’ve given you a job.

“Stroked Out”

            Luke 11:1-8 // fpc, stanhope // August 11, 2013

          Imagine this scene:   being home late at night, indeed, very late.  All have been in bed a good, long while.  It’s as late as midnight.  The family is asleep – father, mother and children.

          They live in a one-room household, as most did in ancient Galilee.  Barely a third of the space is reserved for human habitation, this small area being raised off the floor level.  The other two-thirds of the house has the family animals huddled together, also asleep.  Who knows how many?  Maybe a sheep, two goats, chickens, even the neighbor’s gigantic ox.

          The animals sleep closely together for warmth against the chill of the night-time high-altitude air.  The family does the same, staying near to the gently burning brazier, bundled up together against the chill.

          The house has only one window, which is open.  The night is dark, with no moon visible on a cloudy night.  Without cars and streetlights and neon business signs there is no light pollution.  It is very dark.  Without horns and sirens and internal combustion engine sounds, there is no noise pollution.  It is very quiet.

          The father of the family had carefully and deliberately latched the door shut for the night.  During the day it remained open, always open, as a sign (and invitation) of the family’s hospitality.  At night, they lock up the house.  Once shut, the door stays shut.  Once locked, it stays locked.

          Suddenly and without warning, a great commotion outside erupts as one of the neighbors begins to pound on the door and shout, as loudly as he can, trying to awaken the father inside.  This neighbor had received unexpectedly a guest traveling from one place to another, with an intermediate stop at the neighbor’s house in-between.  Travelers often made their journeys in the late afternoon and evening in order to avoid the hot, midday sun.

          Hospitality demanded shelter and lots of food, including and especially the staple of their diet, bread.  The neighbor with the just-arrived-guest did not have any bread, which was prepared and baked daily or at most every other day.  You could run out.  Being low on supplies and without adequate provisions, the neighbor had to reply on neighbors and friends in order to be neighborly.

          The only recourse the host had was to rush next door and beg his neighbor to get up and help provide a good meal.  The father of the one-room house awoke from a sound sleep.  Imagine his frame of mind at this point, his mood.  The father worried about his sleeping children and his exhausted wife, weary from all her day’s hard manual work.  If he got up, he would have to waken virtually all in the house, to light a lamp, gather the foodstuffs and crash around the small house over sleeping people and animals.  Soon the household would be in an uproar.  Such is the scene Jesus describes concerning, of all things, prayer.  If you heard this parable in isolation, without narration, I doubt any of us would say, Hey, I just learned something about prayer!

          Let me give you some thoughts about this middle part of Jesus’ teaching about prayer, as Luke tells the story.

          Jesus suggests we ought to be persistent in our prayers.  Oddly, in spite of the emphasis on neighborly obligations and deep friendship and interdependence, the father and neighbor comply with the request because of the persistence of the requesting.  One neighbor raises a ruckus and continues until he gets what he (legitimately) needs.  Human need is human need and Jesus in word and deed always recommends we meet human need, without reservation, without judgment.

          I have to say, the example Jesus uses about persistence is not what we would probably use for illustration.  We have a tendency to think of big examples of persistence, like getting through the Depression, winning the Cold War and watching the Germans tear down the Wall in Berlin, eliminating childhood diseases because of comprehensive application of vaccines.  Big stuff.  Huge scope.

          Not Jesus.  He talks about persistence and relates it to an everyday experience, one people could see and understand and even may have endured themselves.  If we look to our own experience, when might you have seen persistence at work (or lacking persistence, failure)?  Human memory is funny, isn’t it?  I cannot remember too many swimming races I won when I was a competitive swimmer as a child and teenager, but I can remember one 50 yard breaststroke race I lost, one summer at Southern Hills pool.  When I turned I realized I was ahead and with 10 to 15 yards to go I could not see my competition in my sideways vision.  While you have to continue pushing, persistence, you also have to relax some as well so that you do not tighten up and lose speed and endurance.  It is an odd balance.  I relaxed too much and got stroked out at the end and like Michael Phelps’ butterfly race at the Olympics, the swimmer ahead did not win because it is all about who gets to the wall first and sometimes you are unlucky in the position of your stroke when you arrive at the end.  Who knows; it was a long time ago.  I learned a hard lesson about persistence – keep at it; do not be overly confident; push on.

          Jesus says the same about prayer.  Be persistent, which requires discipline and practice.  What he does not mean is also important.  Arthur Boers writes in a sermon, Some conclude . . . we ought to pray long and hard, closeting ourselves for hours and haranguing God with long [rants]” (CC, 03/91, pg 26).  Bugging God, annoying God, wearing God down is not the point.  Persistence is the key.  Focus is the skill.  Having a clear purpose is the leverage.  The driven human need provides the power and energy.

          Well, we could also translate the ancient Greek word “persistence” as meaning “shameless.”  Shamelessness does not mean what you think, like the obnoxious sign at Smiles on the Ledgewood Circle:  “cold beer, warm food, hot women.”  Yes, that is shameless, definitely.  Jesus means something else.  In his day and culture, being without food for a guest was a violation of the sacred code of hospitality and as such it was shameful.  Shame leads to shame, however, because the host is willing to awaken his neighbor and even the neighborhood, a noise riot even the guest could hear and appreciate, in order to get the bread and do his duty.  The host was shameless in his request – shameless in amplifying his lack of provision and deficit in his hospitality duty; shameless in causing a noise plague and disturbing his neighbor and friend.  All was shameless.  He set aside his own personal ego and worked the higher good, even if it meant the entire town was talking about what happened, the next day.  Sometimes it is not about us.  Sometimes something more important is involved.  Jesus teaches elsewhere, Whoever wants to save their life will lose it and whoever is willing to lose their life for my sake and the gospel will gain it.  Putting aside yourself is a spiritual discipline worthy of our efforts.  Not everything is about us, about me.

          So if the neighbor and friend relents and fulfills his neighbor’s request, so also can we expect God to hear and respond to our requests as well.  We pick up right there next Sunday, when we hear the rest of the passage Luke provides about prayer.  In the meanwhile, be persistent in your prayers; be shameless in your prayers.  God your divine neighbor will met your need.

"Short and Sweet"

Luke 11:1-4(13) // fpc, stanhope // July 28, 2013 // c:/dir/ser/lordspr.13 

The Lord=s Prayer is short and sweet.  One of the first teachings of Jesus we learn and memorize is probably the LP.  I like to listen for the children=s voices when they say it during worship.  We know it; we all have it with us always.  Because we have learned it by heart, we can say it reflexively, almost without knowing and remembering what we have said.  And so there is a hidden danger here B speaking without total awareness and concentration of the words and especially the meaning.  Rote recitation does not necessarily edify.  Automatic pilot praying does not make for a good spiritual flight.

The disciples asked Jesus for a prayer, one they could learn easily enough, one they could call their own, one rich in meaning and power.  Jesus fulfilled their request.  He provided a provocative and moving daily prayer.  The value of having a short and sweet prayer ready to say at a moment=s notice outweighs the several thoughtless times we have repeated it carelessly.

I have seen this prayer in action, even under very difficult circumstances.  When I called upon a member of a previous church B her name was Barbara, who was in ICU and had just hours to live, she was aware of her imminent death, was in great pain and was drifting in and out of consciousness.  Her breathing was labored, difficult.  Even though her mouth was covered with an oxygen mask, when I started the LP she joined in.  We said it together, slowly, deliberately.  The whole prayer.  Every word.  Barbara had not been to church in quite a while, by her own testimony, a truth I had observed Sunday after Sunday.  Even under great distress, she remembered the prayer, Jesus= prayer, the LP.  I=ll never forget this experience.

The Lord=s prayer is short and sweet, even bittersweet.

And it is like Pooh Bear=s walking stick, very useful, always handy and available.  Rev. Kathi Heath will be preaching here on Sunday, September 1st, and grew up in our church and is Frank Schomp=s daughter.  She was the first youth in our congregation to serve on the session.  It was a great experience, she has told me.  When I was in college I also did the same.  Our pastor, Rev. Mercer, liked to call upon elders to close the meeting with a prayer.  We did not have a list or a rotation, so it was extemporaneous.  Elders in Kenya B by the way, including elders  at our sibling congregation, the Zimmerman Church, often lead public and private prayer.  I know how difficult and intimidating it is to pray with others listening, hearing your heartfelt words.  Called upon suddenly, then, at the session meeting, the prayer had to be spontaneous and unrehearsed.  Elders ought to be up to this task; each of us ought to be ready with a prayer, at least, a private and personal prayer.  We can be good at it, even.  And when we are unsure or caught off guard or not prepared, we can always ask others to recite the LP with us.  It is our prayer.  It is always available.  It is always good.  Jesus gave it to us, to use and use well.  Amen to that.

 
Let=s have a handful of people tell us, very briefly, when they have used the LP memorably (like what I told you about visiting Barbara in the hospital).

 

When we hear this passage in Matthew=s gospel, we find it within the Sermon on the Mount and there Jesus also advises us to be brief in our prayers:

Do not heap up empty words like the Gentiles do, because they believe that by their many words, they will be heard.

Our goal is not to annoy God into action with a barrage of words and demands and complaints, although God listens to everything.  It is acceptable to be brief, to the point.  Kate=s great-uncle was a Baptist minister, and very articulate, but once when going on and on in a prayer, someone in the family blurted out loud in the service, AAmen, Uncle John, amen.@  Enough is enough.  Short and sweet is fine.  Employ the LP as Jesus has taught us and taught us to say together and taught us to say on our own.  Amen and amen.

"What are you doing Elijah?" (June 2013)

You might be able to figure out how far ahead I work, when it comes to sermons, based in the simple fact three weeks ago I had no idea the lectionary would be recommending we read the story of the ancient prophet Elijah and his experience on the mountain, exposed to the elements, standing at the mouth of a cave, wondering what was going to happen next. Really, none of us know for sure and precisely what is going to happen next, but for Elijah, it was even more pressing. He was being chased by King Ahab, who was being pressured by his non-Israelite wife and queen, Jezebel. They were royals without scruples and principles. Heaven forbid you get in their way. When Ahab coveted his neighbor Naboth’s vineyard, and wanted to buy it but Naboth refused, Jezebel crafted a scheme to have Naboth murdered and he was murdered and Ahab skipped over to the vineyard to seize it – you know, eminent domain and all that. Elijah had reason to be worried, since he was being pursued by a homocidal maniac with few limits on his power and authority.

Maybe, just maybe, like Elijah you and I know what it is like now and then to feel pursued, isolated, lonely and fearful, stressed out, confused. And so we retreat to the cave, for some quiet and comfort, but even then, the storms of life do not disappear rather they follow and make themselves known nonetheless. I know you all know what I mean. We do not have to watch the weather channel to see the gathering clouds or feel the winds or duck our heads because of the rain. Let me say very clearly, however, God is not in the storm.

God is in the silence.

If you want peace in this life, and in this world, one strong and powerful way you will find it is in the silence. We live in a world valuing fury and noise, but I am pretty sure such qualities mask and conceal God. The ‘still, small voice’ of God is found in silence, which is not a commodity to be bought and sold, but a spiritual discipline to exercise and a hope to be fulfilled.

What are we doing here?

In the story we heard from Luke, as much as anything else, Jesus restored the wild man’s ability to hear and enjoy silence. He had raged and raged and raged, throughout the day and night, for many years, so much so he frightened everyone and maybe even himself. His life was shown to be radically changed when the people, baffled, saw him sitting quietly and calmly, enjoying the silence from the noisy internal voices of despair and madness. Silence was more than golden. Silence was God’s gift, God’s healing touch, a sign of a life now worth living. Silence was a foretaste of eternal salvation and a simple pleasure now to be enjoyed.

What are you and I doing here?

Now and then, we will find ourselves having rushed off to the cave for self-protection and maybe even what feels like survival, yet eventually we will have to emerge to the opening of the cave and release all those Furies – noise and stress and fatigue and worry, and then, listen carefully and intently to the silence. You will find God, I promise. And God will find you – I do not care what anybody else says.

What are you doing here? Like Elijah your life will require you to stand up for the good, the right and the truthful. Doing so is not easy and often unpopular. What are you doing here? Elijah felt very alone and isolated, because so many of his friends and supporters and colleagues had been eliminated and were gone. Living the righteous life can also bring some very painful silences of their own. Not every day in the course of your life will be the same. Some days the sun will be shining, the sky luminous blue, the gentle wind warming our faces. I know some other days the air will roil and churn around us, the heavens will burst open with sheets and buckets of rain, and it may very well be freezing cold. We know those days. And still – you and I are not going to find God in the sunshine or the mist, because our Divine Companion through life and all of its joys and hopes and terrors is searched for and found not in the noise and fury but in the silence.
So here is our question this morning, "What am I doing here?" We really need to figure it out, each one of us, all of us, pretty soon not later.

c:\dir\ser\whatelijah.13 // June 23, 2013



Well, like I said, three weeks ago I did not realize this passage was coming up and I actually read it at Danny and Jackie Wallace’s wedding. Strange, I know. I’ll wager you have never heard this passage at a wedding and if not yet then you probably never will. So there. They could not stop me, because preachers have the floor and hence no restraint on their imperial powers and authority, at least verbally, and for a short while. I justified my hubris by saying, Just try to stop me, especially when you consider the old saying – I would rather face one hundred armed men than one Calvinist doing the will of God. I saw no armed men in the wedding party, except for six or seven silly men the Wallaces conned into wearing skirts they pretend to call kilts, just like the Wallaces pretend they are just off the boat from Scotland and not really from Basking Ridge. I see no armed men this morning either, so I feel safe in my foolishness about having Elijah’s story read. I say foolish, or even unpopular, because I mentioned the bad guys in the story were the king and queen, and I can’t but turn on the TV or go to the grocery store and not see glowering pictures of two self-important young adults named William and Kate. Come on people. We live in the United States! We are independent, as a republic. Independent we are, because wise leaders of ours wanted to get rid of people named and acting like William and Kate. Good riddance, I say – we are close to the fourth of July and also even closer to the Bible, which has very little good to say about monarchy. If I were going to praise anyone for having a baby, I would cite and celebrate Matt and Derenda, who for crying out loud had two at once. Or even so, Lisa and Brian, who waited a while into adulthood to get married and then a little longer to have a child, but so – it is their business and we trust them, excellent people they are. Seriously, we may be in church, but you do not need to make biblical comparisons like (I don’t know) Abraham and Sarah. Who cares about age? The child to be born to Brian and Lisa will be lucky, very lucky, to be able to outrun his mother in a 5-K race by age 18.

So, you see, I am the Calvinist doing God’s will. 100 armed men cannot slow me down.

And I am the preacher who is stalling, because the wedding sermon I wrote was pretty short and I am filling time so that you do not feel cheated this morning.

The reason I read the Elijah passage is because it references storms and wind and climate turbulence. Danny and Jackie looked puzzled for a while when I started, but then, as we came to the parts about the weather, they both laughed and smiled. You see, I married Jackie and Danny before – no, it was done correctly – on the Saturday after Super Storm Sandy so that we could be very sure Jackie’s Dad, Jimmy, could attend and participate. So it was very cold, no electrical power, and an outdoor wedding, post-Sandy – we froze our butts off but then Jimmy got to see his daughter be married and for the rest of my life I will remember seeing tears in this man’s eyes the whole time. He died six days later. Life is full of storms, some worse than others, some from which you can clean up even if it takes a long while and some storms leave permanent damage from which there is no return. And so I read to them about Elijah, suffering from the ravages of the storm, a bittersweet reference to a bittersweet time of kindness and determination and resolve in the face of life-storms.

"Idol Hands"

Acts 17:16-17, 22-31 and John 19:25b-27

fpc, stanhope // May 12, 2013

I recently found myself in Manhattan because of an appointment there and I had time to go to Central Park near Columbus Circle. Friends, this part of New York City is nothing like Stanhope, in case you were wondering. I walked past many street vendors selling foods of various kinds, as well as vendors selling ‘name-brand’ articles at cut-rate prices (I am positive they are authentic goods – don’t you agree?). The parking lots are legion, because finding a place to park is difficult on the street. In the City, precious space is not horizontal but vertical. Buildings go up and up, because there is room toward the sky. Space is also available down, under the buildings, where you find the subway and parking lots. The Park is beautiful and well-kept. To go the two or three blocks I walked, you passed really nice and expensive restaurants, fancy hotels, a huge hospital and medical offices (on street parking, by the way, was limited to doctors who have special license plates on their cars), and three or four floors of an inside and vertical "mall" housing special and exclusive stores. Private vehicles are outnumbered by the yellow taxis. Do not get in their way! What a strange and wonderful place, so unlike where we live and so different from the experiences we have day-to-day. I felt out of place.

Paul felt the same in Athens. While he was from Tarsus, a city in and of itself, Athens was Athens. No place in the ancient world matched Athens. The Acropolis, high above the city, with its exquisite buildings and architecture. The marketplace, where vendors gathered to sell their wares and people gathered to share their views on the nature of the world and our place within it. Athens, the city of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. The womb of Western thought, with its emphasis on logical argument and persuasive speech. All over the city, wherever Paul went, he discovered some shrine to some Greek deity, some statue of wood or stone representing some "divine" character from Olympus. And he was disturbed by what he saw, as you and I would be disturbed also. And so he went right to the heart of the problem, to the Aeropagus where he could engage in fevered conversation with all the leading thinkers of Athens and challenge them to consider and adopt the Good News of Jesus, our crucified and risen Lord.



So what did Paul have to say and what can we learn from his teaching, this morning?

While Paul was out and about doing his surveillance of Athens, he happened upon a sacred site dedicated to "an unknown god." The Athenians wanted to cover their bases, spiritually. Sure, we worship Zeus and Hera, but, just in case, we will make sure we have included all divinity by providing a shrine for the ‘to whom it may concern’ god. Well, there were all kinds of gods, the Greeks believed, including Athena and Apollo and Artemis and more who rounded out the special Olympian 12. Just in case, just in case, they did not want to forget any gods, and make them mad, so they honored the ‘unknown god,’ (. . . !).

We ought to sympathize. We also want to make sure we are good with God. We have plenty of anxiety about our faith. John Calvin, who started Presbyterianism over 500 years ago, said the human mind manufactures all kinds of idols, fake gods, just in case I forgot gods. Sure we honor the one and true God of heaven and earth. We also honor other lesser concerns we give more than they are due. Walking just a few blocks in the city I could see them displayed, based in the shrines I saw. Our own hands are busy, producing idols unworthy of our worship but we worship them nonetheless. Money. Prestige. Good health at any cost. Rapid transportation from one spot to almost anywhere. I did not recognize any Presbyterians in the crowds, people whom I could identify as Presbyterians, but I saw Yankee and Met fans, executives in expensive suits, punks in cool and trendy clothes, runners in stylish running gear, doctors who pretended to having forgotten they still had their stethoscope hanging around their necks, uniforms of all kinds making sure we knew who was who and what was most important to them. Idols all, some not so important. Some not so dangerous or bad. Some more worthy than others. None of these signs and symbols of our identity and success showed our love of God, whom we serve ultimately.

What do we show? about how we live our lives? quietly affirming our faith? seeking to avoid promoting lesser non-gods (idols) as God?

Paul did claim people naturally seek God, which is also true today. We may not have people breaking down the doors every Sunday, but trust me, many, many people have a multitude of religious questions and have put some time and energy into religious quests. Paul left the synagogue, his sacred space and comfort zone and entered the ‘belly of the beast’ to find the Athenian seekers. The Athenians craved hearing about some new idea or innovation, some concept they could play around with, in their minds. We do the same today. Heaven forbid we like our own cultural inheritance and pay respect for the basis of our own faith traditions. Better yet to go downtown, yes – I mean downtown Stanhope – and pay lots of money to pretend to being Hindu for 60 to 90 minutes. Well it is a new and novel practice, at least for us. Never mind in India yoga is boring and traditional and nothing special, just what we do, the Indians would say. Paul called this desperate exercise of non-faith ‘groping’ around for God. We are like spiritual seekers blindfolded and trying to strike the spiritual pinata. Swing and miss. Swing and hit a glancing but ineffective blow. Swing away. Grope around for God.

Paul says to the Athenians, Those days are over. Such is also true for us. Jesus, who is the Christ, the crucified and risen One, shows us who God really is and what God is really like and what God really wants us to be and do. No more groping necessary. This truth comes at a price. It is not cheap or easy, especially for Jesus himself. Unlike the Epicureans and Stoics mentioned by Luke in the Acts of the Apostles, from the passage we heard read, the world is not headed for extinction or absorption but judgment. We are accountable for what we do, accountable to God. If you are an Athenian, you would find it easy to practice a responsible faith if you believed in the antics of Zeus and Hera because they set the bar of accountability so low it is no challenge, no hardship at all. If you want to be a drunken fool, fine. Who needs AA? Or being sober and responsible. You can model your life after Dionysius and join in the divine drama of drunken revelry.

What lesser gods are you and I serving? I ask again, which ones? And when we abandon the God of heaven and earth, are we not also saying we have no particular interest in being challenged to live as Jesus himself lived? Paul told the Athenian scholars and shoppers and political figures – stop groping around for God and put Jesus the Risen Christ above all. Doing so was clearly hard for them. It is difficult for us. Following our own Christian principles sets us apart and who wants that isolation. Better yet to manufacture with our hands and hearts lesser gods who do not demand too much and let us alone to do what we want.



The Christian faith is different, as you could hear from the story John told about Jesus, in his death agony, on the cross. Unlike criminal monsters like Jodi Arias, or Ariel Castro or Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, Jesus accepts his pointless punishment in spite of his innocence. He has to follow God’s plan, as murky and strange as it is, to the end. Even from the cross, in his intense pain and suffering, he focuses his attention on his mother, Mary, who has followed her son even to the place of execution and death. She was there when he was born and she was there when he died. She is a real mom, a model mom, tenaciously loyal and courageous. Jesus makes sure she is supported and protected, in his soon to be absence. The beloved disciple will fulfill that role. This story is the story the Athenians reject. This story is the story people today reject. You do not find people embracing this story in Central Park West, everywhere in Stanhope, or anywhere else we might search.



Paul was asking the Athenians to go home and assess what they really believed and whether or not it was worthy of the human quest for God. At this very moment, as we ourselves consider God our Mother, God our crucified and risen Son, God our Spirit giving life and breath and hope – we ought also to do the same assessment and see where we have constructed idols unworthy of our service and worship and when and where we have followed Jesus as a chosen disciple today and every day.

"Watershed, the Story Without an Ending"  Luke 24:1 ff. // Easter Sunday, March 31, 2013 //

When the rains come, they gently water the plains and hydrate the plants and trees of Judea. The same waters falling from heaven into the highlands and mountains of Samaria and Galilee and Judea rain down from on high, striking the earth, pooling and swirling, following the pull of gravity down the side of steep precipices, cascading from flowing streams and waterfalls, to the valleys below. Some water flows west to the Sea; some flows east to the River Jordan. Up high, among the ridges, is a line, a watershed, dividing the course of the water as it returns to the earth below.

People have flowed out of the Promised Land also. Sometimes by choice; sometimes by demand, under the coercion of the Assyrians or Babylonians. People have streamed out of the hills and valleys to go someplace else. The watershed was the moment to go on a new adventure, or, the moment of being forced into a new way of life fraught with conflict and tension.



Years before, my family left Israel to live in Cyrene, on the northern coast of Africa, in Libya. Many of us Jews live there. We follow the old ways. As scripture requires, we return to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover – if funds can be found and health allows. We travel together, a cohort of the joyful faithful, returning to the land of our ancestors. The trip is long. The journey renews the faith, sharpens our convictions, inspires others to persevere in keeping the promises of the Lord-God of heaven and earth.

We stream along, over waters and highways, flowing our way to Jerusalem. More pilgrims collect from other locations and we travel together, the group growing and swelling, in number and spirit. We lift our eyes and see the Holy City, Zion, and our hearts are full. We get close. We cannot wait.

As we arrive finally, we saw a commotion. The Galilean rabbi Jesus was entering the city at the same time. His own disciples and other followers and curious passers-by welcomed his humble but dignified entrance. He came like a king, on a donkey, people spreading their cloaks before him in adoration and service. We had heard some reports about him. Even at our distance, we had heard about him. The news had momentum and it had flowed its way to us. What was he trying to say and mean, as he entered, as people sang messianic songs – "hosanna," they sang, "blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord." I wondered what would happen here in Jerusalem, during the Passover, under the watchful eyes of our Roman occupiers.

For Jesus and his followers, the coming to Jerusalem was clearly a moment, a watershed of sorts. No longer were they stationed in Galilee, out of the direct reach of the authorities. Now they had to submit to the scrutiny of the Jewish and Roman authorities. I felt the dense and moist fog of unease.



Much later in the week, we were walking through Jerusalem in the late afternoon when we noticed a man carrying a water jar through the streets, which seemed strange. Youth were assigned this job, early in the morning, not late when daylight was fading fast. He caught our attention. You might say we shadowed him, keeping our eyes on him, never too far away. Strange and stranger still, two young men joined our trek, about halfway between us. They were not aware of us. What a strange little convoy we made. The Water Jar Man walked right up to a house with two floors, and just before colliding with the wall he suddenly turned and veered off to the right.

The two young men knocked on the door and seemed to be making some business arrangements with the man who answered the door – the owner, I guess. They went upstairs. A few moments later they came downstairs while the owner returned to his residence and the two young men headed out toward the market, where vendors sold their wares. We had important spiritual matters to address but temptation flooded over us. We followed along – um, again. In the market, they picked up the same supplies we were needing for the Passover meal, tonight. We had to have the exact right foods and wine. They were the advance party for a larger group. We finished buying our provisions and allowed the young men to leave without being followed. As they rushed right by us, in haste, I realized they were two disciples of that young rabbi, Jesus of Nazareth. What they were doing?

I had to find out. Making some lame excuse I returned to the house to watch and see. Once it was dark, quietly, a group of ten or so men walked by, deliberately, purposefully. I picked Jesus out of the stealthy parade. I pretended not to notice, not act like spy. Jesus turned his head and his eyes met my eyes and I felt as if he had looked deeply into my darkest recess, way down. I panicked at first. Then I felt another wave of feeling wash over me, of acceptance, and deep peace. Pulling my eyes away and pivoting quickly, I felt my heart pounding. As my head circled around, I glanced one more brief moment and saw a lone disciple, a straggler, his face looking to the ground. Even in profile, I could detect a blank expression, devoid of feeling. Strange. Joy and dread poured out of me, like water rushing down both sides of a mountain after a heavy thunderstorm.

I wondered what would happen next.



When the high holy days were almost drawing to a close, early the next morning as we made our way toward the Temple, we collided with another commotion. I watched in horror as the Roman soldiers pushed along someone who was condemned. They had apparently worked in the night, to finish their unholy business before Friday evening came and the Sabbath officially started. The soft and restrained murmurs of the small crowd were hushed and in horror I realized they had taken Jesus to be executed. I watched him stumble and fall, attempting to carry the heavy and rough beam of the cross. I took one step forward, as if to help, even before I knew what I was doing. Sensing my movement, a Roman soldier seized me by my robe and forced me into this sick parade, to carry the cross-beam of Jesus. "Simon," my friends shouted. "Simon." They feared to intervene and chose to follow along the route to Golgotha. What a terrible, long walk. I was exhausted and humiliated. The soldiers roughed me up some, just for fun, and removed the beam from my bruised back. One last time, Jesus’ eyes and my eyes met. His were filled with sorrow. Not for himself. For me.



Too many parades. One in hope and joy. Another strange and wonderful. Yet one more, in fear and terror. I had enough of parades. I sensed a moment had come, but was not gone, and I wondered where all these watery tears would flow, what direction they would stream, irrigating the earth with their grief and sadness. What did God have in mind today? What good could come out of this repugnant spectacle? I thought of the scripture from the prophet Isaiah, not yet fulfilled, but filled with impossible hope – speaking of Zion, he wrote, "They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the Lord."



We stayed until Sunday morning, as I was nursed back to health enough to travel, and so we eagerly left very early in the morning, hoping against hope to be the earliest risers, to be alone on our journey out of Jerusalem, to get away, far away. Our spirits rose because we saw no one, just the gloom of early morning before the sun rose and light revealed all. We were so relieved. So happy. What stories we had to tell!

Loudly and suddenly a boisterous group of women invaded our peacefulness as they streamed toward us like a bad dream. They were not downcast, like we were. They were giddy and wide-eyed and foolishly unconcerned with their surroundings. As they approached us, they saw us. We became their first audience – you could tell. They were bursting with conversation. Startled and stunned, weary and leery, we heard shocking news. Wait, these women were the women who followed Jesus up the hill, to Golgotha. They were his followers, his disciples. He is alive they shouted, almost in unison. Who? we asked. Jesus! they replied.

And then they were gone.

Let’s follow them, one of my companions advanced. No way! No! Way! we shouted, almost in unison. And then we were gone, down the road, on our way home. We could not resist the temptation to stop at the burial grounds. We scanned the area and observed no one. Let’s go in, one of my companions advanced. No way! I’m going in, I said. I followed the tracks of the women, their feet and sandals having made impressions in the earth and in the moist dew. The tomb was open. I looked in. My companions peered in, over my shoulder. Let’s go in, I said. No way! they shouted, almost in unison.

I could not believe it. The tomb was empty. No body. No nasty smell. No Jesus, just the burial cloths, lying on the ground, still in their folds, as if Jesus had just evaporated into the air. "Why are you looking for the living among the dead," two men in all white robes said, as if announcing the arrival of a dignitary. And then I was gone. What happened? my friends asked, almost in unison.

No one is ever going to believe this story, I replied. No one is ever going to remember me, my name, Simon, what happened to us this week. Jesus will be remembered. Something amazing has happened in God’s world and it will never be the same. We will never be the same, even if no one believes us. Believes you, you mean, they said, almost in unison. I do not care, I said. I’ve been to the mountaintop and the rest of the journey is downhill.

"The Plan"

"Do I look like a guy who has a plan?" the Joker asks Batman in the movie, The Dark Knight. Yes and no is the answer. His goals may not be too clear, or perhaps, too frightening to consider. Planning, however, seems to be what he does very well, as the opening bank robbing scene shows. Meticulous planning. What the Joker does is no joke. Or accident. He is very deliberate. He ends up exactly where he wanted to go.

According to Matthew, God has a plan. Over and over we get the point. The gospel opens with a genealogy – three sets of generations, fourteen each. The movement of biology, family and history is all very deliberate, starting with Adam and ending with Jesus. Joseph, Jesus’ father, on his own wants to release Mary because of her pregnancy. An angel appears in a dream and informs him of the plan, a very old plan, going back to the prophets, like Isaiah – the baby to be born is the long-promised Emmanuel, God who is with us. Back on track, he and Mary have a baby whom he names Jesus, just as he was instructed. Jesus, the one who would save us from our sins. Keep to the plan, Matthew teaches.

The wise men, Magi, ancient mystics and scientists, look to the sky to discern God’s plan. The heavens are very old. Very, very old. When you gaze into the sky, tracking the stars by night, you can see the handiwork of God – so they believed. The plan was revealed. If you had the trained eye. The clever mind. The wisdom of the stars. Follow the plan. Keep to the plan. The plan of God.

Herod has plans of his own. He wants to consolidate as much kingly power as possible, according to the testimony of ancient sources like Josephus. Having a rival, like a newborn "king" would be a problem and a roadblock. He had to have plan, to find the rival and eliminate him – just as he would later remove that pesky prophet John the Baptist. Pretending to respect the infant, he sends the wise men on their way to find Jesus and then report his whereabouts. Herod wanted to go and pay a visit. He wanted to go real bad. The plan – his plan – was now in motion.

God’s plan trumped Herod’s though. Again using dreams as a conduit for delivering divine information, the wise men did not rat out Jesus’ location. They followed another plan. Sadly their obedience did not stop Herod completely and he still tried to find a way to terminate the life of his royal rival. He kept to his own plan, dark and terrible, directed widely and violently against helpless children. Keep to the plan, no matter what, Herod thought. I wonder what he thinks now.

We can search out God’s plan, like the wise men or Joseph or Isaiah or countless others. We can resist and reject and rebel against God’s plan. Conforming to God’s holy and sacred will is a good plan.

God wants us to grow in faith. God wants us to tell the good news. God wants us to help our neighbor. God wants us to live a life of salvation and goodness and mercy and love. God wants us to celebrate our successes, like 175 years of continuous ministry and worship and mission as a community of faith. God wants us to live in loyal faith, hoping for the future, sure of the fulfillment of God’s promises. God wants us to follow the plan.



I am not joking when I say, we gotta have a good plan. I am not kidding around when I acknowledge we need a way and ways to make the plan happen. So what are we going to be doing this year? It is up to you, of course. It is up to God, certainly. What are your plans for the life of faith? Here are several goals I recommend we adopt and do, this year.



One. I would like for us to attract and keep eight to ten brand new members. When I started serving as a pastor in congregations, you could count on a steady stream of new people wandering into your services. Not so much anymore. God wants growth. I want us to work hard to find ten new disciples to join our church.

Two. I want us to increase our worship attendance by five, over the course of the year. We can be more frequent. We can encourage each other. We can welcome the newcomer, the seeker, the stranger, the angel disguised. We can grow in participation on Sunday morning.

Three. I would like to see us recruit and keep one or two new singers for the choir. If I can sing in the choir, you can sing in the choir. Let Bette know of your interest. We will encourage and welcome you.

Four. Let’s start at least one new worship experience. A new time and day. For new people, who are not now attending. Or those who need to be re-activated because we have provided a new and exciting opportunity. And we can go out and find people. Open your hearts in prayer, for the Spirit to reveal to you an opportunity, a plan, like a house church service or an off-campus service.

Five. I want to continue to work on our youth and their participation.

Six. We need to do more creative and intentional publicity, advertising and web-presence. Did you see the Christmas Eve banner? Getting out the word helps.

Seven. Be mission oriented. Be really good at keeping our current mission efforts fresh – the food pantry; Manna House; did you know we loan out or give away medical equipment? Working with Noah’s Ark was ingenious. How about making up health kits to give to Church World Service for disaster relief efforts? What could we do in town? How about working with the Stanhope-Netcong Ambulance Squad? They are in the healing ministries also . . . What ideas do you have? What needs do you see? We had eight people go and help out with Hurricane Sandy recovery work, on a Saturday morning in December. Who would like to take charge to keep that work alive?

Eight. I would like to see more of us become more biblically literate. I love attending Bible studies. I love having people participate. I learn so much for all of you and I know you learn so much from each other. Please listen to the Spirit to open your heart and refresh your mind spiritually and make room in your busy schedule to learn more about God’s written Word. And I have some crazy ideas about how we might be able to do more . . . More on more later.



Having a plan and directing our hearts and minds to worthwhile goals is a spiritual discipline. Do I look like a guy who has a plan? Absolutely. I am just following God’s lead.

Isaiah 60:1-3 and Matthew 2:1-12 // fpc, stanhope // Jan06.13

c:\dir\ser\joker.13

"Ok – So, Why?"   c:\dir\ser\why.febr.2013Why?



Jesus himself talks about two different calamities, prompted by the news reports from fellow pilgrims traveling to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover.

On the one hand, some Jews were apparently killed in the Temple by Roman troops who desecrated it by their armed and unholy presence and polluted its sacred space by spilling innocent blood, making the sanctuary ritually unclean. Pilate, the Roman governor, arranged these violent deaths. Such is human evil, the agency we exercise in harming one another. We should not be surprised how imperial rule over occupied territory will lead to extended conflict and wanton bloodshed.

On the other hand, 18 people died when the Tower of Siloam collapsed upon them, undoubtedly, an accident. Gravity, a natural force without desire or thought, worked its destructive magic.

Why do these things happen?



Jesus, for his part, sidesteps the question altogether and reframes the issue. He skips the "why" and asks us to consider the imperative to live under God’s merciful grace right now, in spite of whatever may befall us, good or bad.



The discussion starts previously with Jesus’ words to the disciples about God’s coming judgment:I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized and what stress I am under until it is completed. Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but division! (Lk 12:49-51).

We shy away from hearing about God’s judgment. Being accountable here and now is enough. Eternal review is more than we can bear.

Paul, the apostle, does not share our reticence. While we might wish to admire the courageous, freedom-loving Hebrew slaves who escaped from Egypt and were "baptized" into Moses’ leadership by cloud and sea, still Paul warns us how God was not entirely pleased with them because of their disobedience and they fell under numerous judgments and punishments. His conclusion includes us, when he writes, "Now these things occurred as examples for us, so that we might not desire evil as they did" (1 Cor 10:6).

We live in times when we avoid holding ourselves accountable. Psychologically, we blame our upbringing or society for twisting us; biologically, we talk as if we are hapless and helpless before the demands of our genetic make-up; historically, we are swept along by movements and forces greater than we can control or even understand. We do face limitations in our remarkable humanity, but the biblical God nonetheless wants us to live in goodness and righteousness, nevertheless. God’s ways may puzzle us, Isaiah reminds us, writing how God admits "for my thoughts are not your thoughts nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord" (55:8). Still, Isaiah counsels us to "seek the Lord while he may be found [and] call upon him while he is near" (v 6). Judgment is real. Our immediate and faithful commitments to God’s rule can be real, also.



Then, Jesus renounces the association people had then and still have today been sin and suffering, between calamity and evil. People wrongly believed suffering people had brought their troubles on themselves. When we choose poorly and act out so as to bring grief on ourselves, the linkage is true. It is not always so. You know how we are, people. If someone has cancer, we want to know if they smoked. If someone was in a car wreck, did they wear their seat belt? Knowing who to blame brings its own sinister comfort. We would like to agree with Eliaphaz, one of Job’s friends and ‘comforters’, who asked a very pointed question:"‘Think now, who that was innocent ever perished?’" (4:7).The conventional wisdom rules, then as much as now. The good prosper and the wicked perish



But Jesus does not stop there. He wants to relieve us of the responsibility of figuring out God's will and judgment and concentrate instead upon what we can and ought to do. His words conclude with, " . . . unless you repent, you will all perish as they did"

Jesus would have none of that. As Richard Hayes has commented:"We need no pronouncement from the Son of God to fuel our righteous indignation; we have an ample supply of that already"

Rather, Jesus is asking in effect, in these events you have the opportunity to reflect on your own goodness and the direction of your own life. Thursday afternoon I rushed over to Locust Hill Cemetery to provide a graveside burial for Seth Ridner’s niece, who died suddenly at age 22 from an overdose. What are you going to do next?, I asked them. What has happened has happened and it is tragic. If anything good is to come of it, in spite of the tragedy, we must learn from the lesson. What are you going to do next?

Hayes goes on to write about this passage:"It is cheap and easy to decry the injustice of others, but desperately costly to confront our own"

Tragedies such as the ones Jesus described are simply opportunities to remind us to clean up our own act. Time may be short for anyone of us. It is urgent we repent and do the right thing, now, while there is still time.



Jesus provides, again, some direction for all of us. In telling the story of the as-yet unfruitful fig tree, he is saying the life of faith is fertile, prolific and constructive. Just as the fig tree produces figs, so we kingdom people produce spiritual and discernable fruit.

We are not alone in the tilling of our own gardens or the pruning of our own trees of faith. The God who made and redeemed us cares for us, nurturing us in goodness and truth. In one oracle, the prophet Hosea informs us:"Like grapes in the wilderness, I found Israel. Like the first fruit on the fig tree, in its first season, I saw your ancestors"

God cares for each one of us just as the farmer cares for the fruit of vine and field.

Ezekiel fuels our imagination by envisioning God tenderly planting a cedar twig in the ground in order to grow a new tree."On the mountain height of Israel I will plant it, in order that it may produce boughs and bear fruit, and become a noble cedar. Under it every kind of bird will live; in the shade of its branches will nest winged creatures of every kind"

In Jesus' parable, the unproductive fig tree is given time to offer back fruit for its existence and nurture. There is one last chance and more time to bear fruit. Perhaps Abraham Lincoln said it best: "Die when I may, I want it said of me that I plucked a weed and planted a flower wherever I thought a flower would grow." Go figure! Repent or perish! Bear good fruit! (see Ps 1). Job counters by saying, "Those who withhold kindness from a friend forsake the fear of the Almighty" (6:14). The suffering need our sympathy and support, not hostile, self-serving criticism as well as speculation about their hidden sins, if any.(13:3b, 5b). Really, would we not have expected Jesus to chastise the gross injustice of Pilate? Or, wouldn't we have wanted Jesus to explore the possibility the Tower fell not because of gravity alone -- a natural and impersonal force -- but because some building inspector didn't do the job right, the contractor used shoddy materials, or even, sabotage was at work?(CC, p. 218).(ibid.).(9:10).(17:23).

Genesis 18:16 ff. / (1 Corinthians 10:1-6) / Luke 13:1-9

"Thanksgiving Even So"

1 Samuel 1:1-20 // Mark 13:1-8 fpc, stanhope, nj // Nov 18, 2012

In the beginning, scripture teaches us, God created the heavens and the earth – everything. Voicing the creative word, light and waters and earth come into existence and all is good, in fact, very good. The Spirit of God worked deliberately, brooding over the swirling forces of chaos, forming structure and order and function and beauty. The Hebrew of the narrative poem from Genesis tells us even more. Until God acted, there was tohu va-bohu or a "formless void."

Worried about our human disobedient bent, our destructive toys, our resistance to honoring God – one of my colleagues once remarked, And maybe that ‘formless void’ is how we return creation back to God. I hope he is not right.

Beginning Monday night, October 29th, when Hurricane Sandy arrived, we might have felt we were being reduced to a formless void. In the signs of the times Jesus mentions in the first part of the 13th chapter of Mark, he lists extreme acts of destruction producing worry and suffering, some because of what people do, like wars, and some because of what nature does, like earthquakes and famine. We might have wondered if the world was ending or Jesus was returning, Monday night, in late October. And then we waited, for clean-up to begin and help to arrive and power to return. Jesus, the divine Son of Man, did not appear in the sky to take us home, but high speed micro-bursts of wind uprooted trees and falling trees caused all sorts of problems. But the end was not yet and the recovery is just begun.

Even if Sandy was a surprise, the superstorm did not lack an explanation. Cold air descended from the arctic region and stalled over Greenland, blocking Sandy from turning harmlessly out to the east, into the Atlantic Ocean. Instead Sandy turned west on us, poking us in the nose, and boy what a punch. So much arctic ice has disappeared, the size of its loss is equal to the size of the continental USA. Less ice and more warm water produce new patterns of climate change. We know the results.

The sources of climate change may be controversial among some politicians and some media sources and some who make their living writing papers for hire, but among the scientific community it is not. We have contributed to this development by how we live our lives and how we generate energy to power our houses and cars and tools. Christians belong to no particular political party, just like our Master, Jesus of Nazareth, who faced here at this point in his short adult life the scorn of scribes, Pharisees, Sadducees, Herodians, members of the council. Some were red and some were blue, some were traditional and some wanted to apply the scriptures to their version of the modern world. Just like today. Jesus could find points of agreement with many and also points of contention with each and all. No particular view corresponded to his own, under God’s guidance. Serving the one Lord-God of heaven and earth is the first of the commandments and Jesus made sure not to dilute this imperative by joining cause with any school or party or leader or viewpoint.

Christians can play an important role in this issue, aptly described by National Geographic recently on its cover – "What’s Up with the Weather?" While 98% of scientists (according to Discover magazine) believe climate change is real, and human beings have played a not so helpful role in the changes, and we are undergoing more than a normal or typical cycling of global temperatures, we as the church are not cheerleaders for the scientific community. And we are neither supporters nor detractors. We are the church. We are those people of faith who say, The earth belongs to God; all of it belongs to God; we are the temporary stewards. What we do with our stewardship is on us. God will hold us accountable. Any church, even our church, can find its voice to insist we protect our environments of air and water and earth, because they belong to God, practically and ultimately. A formless void is where God started, not the destination to which we want to take the family. We live in troubled and tattered times, but, the church can rise above the fray and remind all of us about God’s higher purposes for creation.



Perhaps we do not feel so very thankful today, because what has happened has tried our patience and tested our resolve. We have drawn together and pooled our limited resources and received the graces of family and friends and neighbors. We may also have watched people take swings at each other, standing in line for gas to fill a container in order to run a generator. We have gotten by and in the end are grateful it is over. At least, returning to a household with electrical power – that much is over. But of course the recovery is more because people have lost time and work and money. Fellow New Jersey citizens at the shore have lost much, maybe everything. Thankfulness may not be our first feeling each morning.

But then, as I have heard time and again, ‘it could have been worse’ and ‘there are people who were harder hit than me’ and ‘if the tree had fallen three feet to the left our house would have been seriously damaged’ and many other stories. I do sense some thankfulness, even so, in the midst of hardship and suffering.

Jesus tells us even the end-times will include some hardship and suffering. A day will come when hardship and suffering will end, but it is not yet. We’ve been waiting a long time, and it would seem, we have a long time to go. What we do know is, What happens next is in the hands of God. We, like the disciples, fuss over signs and wonders but the fact is, wars happen all the time and weather events happen all the time, and so Jesus could return at any moment. Maybe this moment. In the meanwhile, our job as disciples is to maintain the course, proclaim the good news, and be faithful even when it is hard and we do not feel like it or feel it is worth it. Staying true and being loyal even under pressure has a special value, does it not, but we only know that value if we do it.

Jesus is asking his followers to keep the faith – running the course all the way to the end, through the finish line, because you do not receive the prize for having bailed out before the race was over.



Jesus asks us to find our faith, even when. Sometimes we will be tempted to listen to a voice other than our crucified and risen Lord. Sometimes we will be tempted to let go and drop out. Sometimes we may be intimidated and grow strangely silent. Sometimes we are overwhelmed and shut down or lash out.

If you listen to Jesus’ words in this chapter from Mark, you will see he wants to move us from trying to figure it out to following certain things we ought to do – staying calm while not being alarmed; being careful in assessing what is and what is not the truth; not worrying too much; staying alert and awake. We cannot find any law against any of these actions. Jesus asks us to do them and we can do them.

Hannah and Elimelech stayed the course and in due time, in spite of their suffering and distress, they received their most cherished desire. Whether or not we succeed as much as they did, staying the course with Jesus is the Christian way. And in the end, we will find our gratitude.

Sunday -- July 1st

"The Vision God Has for Us"

2 Corinthians 8:15 / Mark 10:35-45 // fpc, stanhope, nj

c:\dir\ser\opensociety.12We will be celebrating our country’s founding on Wednesday and I got to thinking about the vision God has for us in the Bible about the kind of society and nation Israel was meant to be. On Sundays this year we will be reading through Mark’s Gospel and he reports this fascinating dispute between James and John, two disciples and twin brothers, who secretly want Jesus to make them his first rung disciples on the ladder of success. Power corrupts, as the saying goes, and these boys want power and they want power for themselves. James and John do not have the greater good in mind and they do not understand Jesus’ way of serving all of God’s people.

In order for them to learn, Jesus reminds the disciples about the political patterns and principles of Near Eastern dictators. These imperial kings "lord it over" their subjects and serve as "tyrants over them" (v 42). We will not imitate their example, Jesus tells those assembled, but rather we will adopt a servant attitude and behavior – the servant who serves is greater than the king who dictates (v 43). Again, the first will be last and the last will be first. Becoming great means letting go of pure ambition and power grasping – servanthood rules, just as the prophet Isaiah taught so many years ago (52:13 ff.).

In fact, the kings of ancient Israel and Judah were understood to be servant-oriented also. The prophet Ezekiel calls Judah’s leaders ‘shepherds’ and shepherds serve the flock, even at risk to their own well-being (34:1 ff.). If Jesus does not like the despotic practices of the rulers of the Near East, in nearby Mesopotamia or Egypt, then what vision of national organization and social action does he gather from scripture?

The primary leader for ancient Israel and Judah was the king, although other models of leadership had been employed also, like the judges such as Deborah or Gideon. What duties and responsibilities did the king have, according to the Bible?

First and foremost, the king provided for the nation’s security, especially enemies who challenged Israel’s territory and sought to monopolize or eliminate their own internal political authority and independence. This struggle was unending, because Judah and Israel were small and also located in a strategic area for trade and transportation. The ancient Near East experienced plenty of movement and migration and empire expansion and contraction so times were often volatile. The king, as a central political power, was meant to help the covenant people protect themselves and the way of life God intended for them. So they were willing to use state violence, in the form of military action, but you have to understand they believed such events could only be fought if absolutely necessary and only with the belief they did not achieve victory on their own but ultimately by the hand of God. Ancient Israel, like any other nation, had its share of ‘hawks’ and nationalists but as the psalmist summarizes neatly, For not in my bow do I trust nor can my sword save me (44:6). The ultimate protector of Israel was the Lord.

Secondly, the king cared for the most vulnerable members of society, often referenced by those closest to the most precarious margin, namely, the ‘widows and orphans.’ The king follows the most important concerns the Lord-God has for the nation’s citizens, as again we can hear in the psalms – The Lord sets prisoners free and heals blind eyes. He gives a helping hand to everyone who falls. The Lord loves good people and looks after strangers. He defends the rights of orphans and widows but destroys the wicked (146:7b-9 / CEV; see also Isaiah 1:17 and Jeremiah 7:6 – who includes the "alien" in his list, which means of course, the ‘undocumented’ among them). The king, then, is doing his job if he is looking out for the best interest of those least likely to be able to help themselves. The king, who is understood in a poetic sense to be God’s son (Ps 2:7b), seeks to implement God’s holy will for the nation. In Deuteronomy, Moses exhorts the people to fear the Lord, walk in God’s ways, loving and serving all of God’s commandments and invoking the whole self to do so (Dt 10:12). So what exactly does Moses believe God has in mind, for the king to administer, for the citizens to practice? He makes a list – being impartial and receiving no bribes; executing justice for the helpless; loving strangers, even providing food and clothing – remembering how you, Israel, were once strangers and aliens and helpless in Egypt (vv 18 ff.).

The psalmist, at one point, provides the most simple and basic job description for the king, beginning with a prayerful request for the king to receive God’s most precious and potent virtues – Give the king your justice, O God, and your righteousness to a king’s son (72:1). What is the content of that justice and righteousness? The psalmist tells us – May he judge your people with righteousness and your poor with justice. May the mountains yield prosperity for the people and the hills in righteousness. May he [the king] defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy and crush the oppressor (72:2-4). God’s agenda is the king’s agenda. God’s values are the nation’s values – or they should be.

The king also had spiritual duties, to uphold the covenant of God before the people. Especially, as we hear time and again in the two books of Kings in the OT, kings succeeded or failed based primarily in their attitudes toward right worship. If they slacked off and allowed idolatrous practices, they were bad kings. If they stuck to the straight and narrow about idolatry, they were good kings. I wonder, for us today, what temptations and practices of idolatry the prophets of old would recognize among us?

The king was also responsible for bringing a more open and good society than those closed and limited societies of the Near East. We might be surprised to hear what those terms were and how even today they would be a challenge to us.

The biblical vision for prosperity, according to Moses in Deuteronomy, recognizes the bounty not scarcity of God’s economy – There will . . . be no one in need among you, because the Lord is sure to bless you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a possession to occupy (15:4). No one in need. Imagine that. Paul, in writing to the Corinthian church he served as pastor, describes a distributive justice and fair economy he believes comes directly from the mind of God. "‘The one who had much did not have too much and the one who had little did not have too little’" (2 Cor 8:15). The good and open society, represented here by the behavior of the church in being generous to the poor, made sure there was balance between want and need on the one hand and wealth and excess on the other. Both are to be avoided. Paul uses the vision of Exodus here, when and where the Israelites are wandering in the desert and worried over their basic food needs. God provides manna and quail for bread and meat – not too much and not too little (Ex 16:18). Just right. Being greedy and gathering more led to disaster, by the way. Excess is not a biblical virtue. No one will be in need, in God’s vision for the just society.

Bankers do not charge interest either, because the new and open community being established by the Lord-God realizes the deficit of crushing debt. People are to live in simplicity, not seeking to gain more than they can afford. Built right into the book of covenant, following the Ten Commandments, we hear this commandment – If you lend money to my people, to the poor among you, you shall not deal with them as a creditor. You shall not exact interest from them (22:25). Taking economic advantage of the economically vulnerable was outlawed in ancient Israel. It was regulated, by divine law. It was not left to the invisible hand of the marketplace.

And Leviticus, a favorite book for some I hear, describes the establishment of the Jubilee Year – chapter 25 (vv 8 and following). Every fifty years, property reverts back to its original owners. In those days, of course, property (and livestock) was the most fundamental resource for wealth. By redirecting property back to its original owners, who had of course received them as a gift from God and not by purchase and property contract and right, power did not corrupt the society from the inside out; nor did it produce oppressive and harsh economic circumstances; and economic advantage then did not accumulate into the hands of the few. In the biblical vision, the ultimate capitalist is God, not the wealthy.



Jesus has a vision of the kingdom of God, based in these biblical principles, following the lead of God’s Spirit for the people who sought to live in righteousness and justice. He believed in and practiced a leadership of serving, rather than being served. His vision then of an open and prosperous society is based in God’s goodness and bounty, from the earth and its resources, practicing a common austerity and sharing and mutual care. Like the kings of old, his primary interest in life’s mission was to serve all of God’s people and to teach all of God’s people to rely on God’s graciousness and providence, not just the work of their own hands, but recognizing the sacred gifts of the earth and all its creatures and the rule of love holding all together as one. As Christian people, we can conform to the dictates of secular society and its partisan and selfish values, a temptation for us all, or we can advocate and seek to implement a higher and better vision – God’s vision.

"Who Done It?"

1 Samuel 16:1-13 and Mark 4:26-34

June 17, 2012 / fpc, stanhope, nj

In a really good mystery novel, the author gives you all the facts needed to solve the crime, but you have to read carefully, pay attention and sort out all the information. So Jesus says about his parables. Following what we heard about the seed growing secretly and the mustard seed growing large, Mark tells us:With many such parables [Jesus] spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it. He did not speak to them except in parables but he explained everything in private to his disciples (vv 33-34).

When you read a mystery novel, you might get surprised or shocked and feel foolish not to have anticipated the solution. Not everyone, Mark tells us on Jesus’ behalf, is going to get and understand the parables, either. Hidden inside the plot and details of the mystery novel is the secret identity of who pulled off the crime. Hidden inside the parable is some secret of the kingdom of God.



For his part, Samuel the powerful and charismatic prophet heard the still and quiet voice of God in the midst of the fury and confusion of his own day and age. What was going to be was yet to be revealed.

Waiting patiently and carefully for the revealing of God’s word includes ritual actions, like Samuel was going to do in Bethlehem. He told the city elders he was coming to offer sacrifice, a religious effort, a sign of devotion and faith. They approved but whenever the big boss shows up, anxiety increases. In the background to their uneasiness is a crisis. King Saul had been rejected by the Lord-God because of his pious disobedience. Saul had tried to do the right thing, but didn’t follow the directions exactly and instead substituted his own plans for God’s intentions. It did not work. Samuel had to pronounce judgment on Saul and his kingship. That story ended with one of the most poignant scenes in the Bible. Having received his notice of termination, in desperation and despair, King Saul grasped for Samuel’s cloak. He tore a piece of cloth off of the cloak and stood there, looking and feeling ridiculous, material in his hand, shame in his reddened face. ‘So the Lord-God has torn the kingdom from your hand’ Samuel told Saul. The prophet had anointed Saul as king, years before, by God’s command. Samuel had wanted him to succeed. He carried great affection (and even hope) for Saul’s efforts as the first king of Israel and Judah. Samuel now felt a deep dread, because he feared the king’s wild anger and lust for revenge.

In times of transition and crisis, we human beings become uneasy. At the national level, you may very well sense elevated emotions about the upcoming national elections. People worry about the economy and the media and elected officials, especially those running for office, may either be amplifying or dampening our feelings. Changes and proposed changes in running public school systems have made for tension also. Employed members of our church report edgy conflict with co-workers sometimes. Those who are underemployed, unemployed or without benefits have tough circumstances and face difficult challenges. Crisis seems all around us, hemming us in, and our eyes scan the horizon, hoping to see a peaceful sign and a friendly face.

Times were no less troubling in ancient Israel, for Saul, for Samuel, for the people. What was going to happen next? The hidden hand of God was at work, whether people saw it or not.

Under the ruse of a public sacrifice, Samuel invites Jesse and his sons to attend, even taking the necessary step of "sanctifying" them for the ritual. Then in rapid order, from first to almost last, Samuel has each son of Jesse pass before him while the sacred Urin and Thummin (tools of random chance) reject one brother after another. Only later is the eighth son, David, fetched from the fields and through the ritual action God chooses this youngest son. Samuel has been puzzled by the rejection of the others, but he is counseled to wait patiently for the correct and best choice –Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature . . . for the Lord does not see as [people] see. They look on the outward appearnce, but the Lord looks on the heart" (v 7).

Judging people based in how they look seems like as much a fault then as now. We look to the external, while God sees inside, what is hidden, but also what is essential and necessary and we hope good. Too often, especially with the push and pull of cultural forces, we evaluate people based in their appearance and go no further. We all know how destructive these judgments are, especially for young women, who face terrible pressure to conform to artificial standards and receive silly praise for what is mostly the result of genetics and not any free action we can do out of the command of our character.

God chooses wisely, because David is young and impressionable but also full of wisdom and skill. Samuel anoints him and "the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward" (v 13b). He was open to the leading of the Lord, the most essential element needed spiritually. How he trimmed his beard was irrelevant.

What was going to happen next? David was going to happen next. And we would all be the better for it. The climax of the mystery held until the very end.



In his Corinthian correspondence, the apostle Paul writes:I planted, Apollos watered but God gave the growth (1 Cor 3:6).

Jesus as well as Paul affirm the importance of planting and attending. Paul carefully worked on the garden known as the young Corinthian church – planting the seeds of the gospel, nurturing their growth in the hearts of vulnerable young believers, weeding and pruning. His associate Apollos followed up with sweet care, watering to achieve growth and yield. What was missing? Only the mysterious hand of God, who made and controls the rules to nature’s secrets, and in the end, provided the bountiful harvest. No matter how well you tend the garden, how would you succeed without the Author of All Life?

Parents, fathers and mothers, know the value of good care of children. They require a great deal of nurture and protection, guidance and love. We plant and we water and we pray God will give our children the growth of faith. Just as there is always the eternal tension between works and grace, so growth requires effort and providence. We plant, spiritually speaking, others water and we anticipate a harvest only God can provide eventually. God is the one who does it.

God is our heavenly Father and we are his children. Summertime is an excellent time to renew our spiritual disciplines, whatever we have chosen – whether prayer or Bible reading or Christian fellowship or attending worship or being a good neighbor or volunteering for a mission project. So much opportunity for growth presents itself, if only we are open to receiving the seeds of possibility and hope.

Like David, God’s Spirit falls upon us to give us clarity of direction and fruitful utility in God’s work. Our anointing into God’s purposes has taken place. Let us step out in faith, trusting in the adventure God has prepared!



"Twelfth Man"

Turbulent and troubled days followed Jesus’ death. Jesus’ resurrection brought a series of exciting but disturbing punctuated epiphanies, as he showed himself to his followers, here and there, now and then. Then Jesus returned to heaven and his glory. Left behind was a crisis the disciples had to resolve before the promised Spirit rested upon each of them. Judas had left their fellowship, choosing to flee and disappear over attempting to reconcile with his spiritual colleagues. His actions and his absence had left a rupture they could not endure and so a replacement suitable to the appointment was made. The broken circle of 12 disciples had to be repaired. After narrowing the candidates to two, each of whom had participated in the ministry for a long while, they cast lots – a ancient tool of chance – and Matthias was chosen and enrolled.

Acts 1:15ff / May 20, 2012 / fpc, stanhope, nj / c:\dir\ser\judas.12



I am fascinated by what the disciples did not do, as far as Judas goes. I am equally fascinated with how the NT treats Judas. He is held accountable for his actions but he is not written off and vilified. His appalling deed set in motion a chain of inactions and betrayals leading to Jesus’ tragic death. Few were exempt from their cowardly non-participation. Enough sins existed to cover them all.

How easy it would have been to cast Judas as the only bad guy. Without Judas, they could have claimed, everything would have been fine. He and he alone was responsible for rending the fabric of our closely knit community of disciples. We blame Judas. And we should have known better. We know what his kind are like.

We do not hear these claims made about Judas, but they have a shape to them, a theological description. According to Leviticus, deep in the OT, when the people sinned very deeply and wanted to make atonement, one goat sacrifice was consigned to the desert, released to wander alone and unprotected, as a sacrifice to "Azazel" (Lv 16:10). This animal has come to be called the ‘scapegoat’ who bears the sins of the group. Being driven into the wilds banishes our sins, as much as the goat itself disappears into certain oblivion. So we have a live action agricultural morality lesson – the goat gets our guilt and we are restored by its carrying away our errors and the responsibility we would otherwise have to assume.

The whole sacrificial system of ancient Israel baffles us all, I’m sure. Our Presbyterian rejection is so complete we call this table up front the "communion table" and not an altar, because Jesus’ sacrifice is once for all and never again. We do not need an altar. We certainly do not need scapegoats, even if we have a crisis now and then, much like the drama the disciples had to close the circle of 12.



I wonder, though, if we have really rejected scapegoating – in the church and in its mission and teachings.

George Barna, an evangelical Christian and pollster, asked non-Christians to describe in a word or phrase what they most associated with Christianity and they said, 91% of them, "anti-homosexual". 80% of young church-goes said the same. The next most common responses were "judgmental, hypocritical and too involved in politics".

Wow. Amazing. Troubling. Sad. Perplexing.

On any given Sunday, eight out of ten people do not go to church or any house of worship. I wonder what they believe they would hear if they were to go. You and I have no question about what Jesus valued, because we have the Gospels reporting Jesus’ most essential teachings and practices. I wonder how many people who think the church is obsessed with homosexuality would be able to name what Jesus did say about homosexuality. In the NT. He said nothing, nothing at all. So why do so many Christians make it sound as if the very center of Jesus’ teaching and our identity as Christian people today centers on our outright and vigorous condemnation of homosexuality?

You might be surprised to know how discussions about homosexuality raged in the classical world. It was as much a ‘hot button’ issue then as now. Prominent Greek and Roman thinkers opposed wealthy and powerful men engaging in same-sex activity with social unequals. They sensed the power imbalance and judged it oppressive. Equally unjust was the arrogant use of boys as sex toys, under the guise of bringing them to manhood. Today we would say the same. Our own judgment would be no different. Any reasonable and caring individual, straight or gay, religious or not, would say those practices were very wrong.

You might be surprised to know how people in the classical world typically accepted homosexuality otherwise, depending upon the partner – if there was a class distinction, it was wrong; if it was an adult with a child, it was wrong. Ancient Greeks and Romans had a pretty fluid view about sexual attraction and they believed more in sexual acts rather than sexual orientation, a view very widely accepted today by many social scientists.

I can remember being in my first history course with Dr. Curtis P. Lawrence, my classics mentor, who also taught us ancient Greek. Dr. Lawrence knew we were sheltered – a polite way of saying ignorant – and naive – a polite way of saying very prudish. Going to St. Louis was a big deal. He told us about the Spartans and how they had saved Greece from 150,000 Persian storm-troopers. King Leonidas led 300 men into battle and held the line for three days until being betrayed by a Greek version of Judas. The Spartans arguably were the greatest fighting force of all time. And how did they prepare for battle, Dr. Lawrence asked us, innocents all. They sat together and combed their long black hair, in full view of the enemy, watching. Then they cemented their devotion and love for each other in physical acts of affection. They got their gay on. The Spartans. It was very quiet in the classroom.

These stories are new to you, I’m sure, but do you really think they were unknown to Jesus? Or especially the apostle Paul, from Tarsus, a Greek-speaking and Greek-cultured city in Asia Minor. Reading the Bible, and trying to understand what God is telling us from such a great historical and geographical and cultural distance, requires some careful knowledge and precise interpretative skill. Pretending the Bible is like today’s newspaper makes it easy for people to distort the very real issues and lives of biblical characters.

Ignoring the days from which Jesus came is to deny the incarnation and pretend the world in which he lived was not real. The Gospels do not report Jesus’ teachings about homosexuality, if he had any, because they were not essential to what he was trying to accomplish. Jesus knew, and certainly Paul knew, about the most hotly debated issues of their time. And Jesus said nothing, nothing at all.

I believe the shrill and hostile discussions about homosexuality by our Christian sisters and brothers is an act of scapegoating. Rather than dealing with our own sins, our own anxiety about marriage and family and children and divorce and abuse, we dump our own sins on a minority and push them out into the public arena for self-cleansing. We do not have to take responsibility for ourselves, what we do, because we have a convenient target on which we can pin the sins of our own hands, the limitations of our own lives.

We are fascinated with sex and sexuality, but not the Jesus of the NT. To my knowledge, the only event for which Jesus offers testimony concerning sexuality occurs when a woman caught in "adultery" is brought forward to be stoned, as prescribed also in Leviticus (like scapegoating is described in Leviticus and the only references to homosexuality in the entire OT, all negative by the way, are from Leviticus). Friends, how do you commit adultery alone? Leviticus says both people, the man and the woman, were to be stoned to death. Where is the man? Jesus goes even deeper than this clear injustice of men exercising their oppressive and arbitrary authority over a woman. He asks them to pick up their rocks and fire away if they themselves have no sins to their own credit. Slowly, the woman is safe from their malice. Like the apostle Paul writes, All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23).

Social groups practicing gender bias pile on rules and norms about sex and sexuality. Church traditions limiting power and authority to men only have a long list of do and do not – no birth control, no going to the doctor and making your own health decisions, no sexual act unless you are willing to become a mommy right now, no gays and no lesbians, you get the idea. Making the rules about sex keeps the powers-that-be in power. It is all social control. Go home and read the gospels and see how Jesus was interested in helping people get their own spiritual power, by relying and trusting in God to provide in every way no matter what.

Unlike way too many of our Christian brothers and sisters, who want to define themselves and our holy faith by whom we can hate, and self-righteously feel contempt, and exalt ourselves because – like the publican Luke describes in his gospel – we are not like those people. I refuse to practice scapegoating, in any form, in any way. I hope you realize how well it worked for Jesus’ opponents, who heaped their anxiety and fears and hostilities on him. And look where that ended up.

The disciples had a crisis, not a really big crisis but a crisis nonetheless. We can learn from their resolution of the Judas problem. Judas did some bad stuff, no doubt. Responsibility for abandoning Jesus covered most all of them. In humility, they welcomed Matthias, the twelfth man. He had been with Jesus from the first, like the rest of them. And like the rest of them, Judas and everybody else, when Jesus needed him, he had run away. He did not even try to blame anyone but himself.

"Tangled Up in You"

Jn 15:1-5 // fpc, stanhope, nj // April 29, 2012 c:\dir\ser\tangled.12

Kate and I attended a gathering recently where one middle adult family member gave a young adult niece a box of jewelry, including scores of necklaces, all different kinds of necklaces, every one of which ended up being tangled into a difficult mess. Several of us spent some time unraveling them, distinguishing one necklace from another, pulling out the knots, freeing one piece from another. Jewelry lacks willpower and motion, so you have to wonder how it could all get so knotted up. We are not puzzled, however, about vines and how their growth gets out of hand, curls around everything, and leaves a tangled mess.

The way to avoid this problem is to prune, cutting away the excess before it becomes too much. Pruning seems destructive and harsh. Vines are cut back or limbs are trimmed. Part of the living tree or bush or plant goes into the compost heap. Not pruning, however, brings problems as I described. In the end, the plant is healthier and more attractive from being cut back (especially if pruned correctly).

In John’s Gospel, Jesus uses this image and action to describe how God cares for us. Left totally on our own, we often end up like the vines growing out of control and in every which direction, causing all kinds of chaos and harm. Jesus suggests we submit to the pruning of the gardener, God, who will cut away the excess and leave us stronger and better. We might fear this process, though, much as the family dog hates to have her doggie nails cut back (um – pruned). Submitting to the pruning requires our trust. The gardener knows what the gardener is doing. If we want to bear good fruit, then we will make ourselves available to the pruning God provides.

I wanted to use our church’s mission statement in order to reflect upon this passage from Jn. We are an inviting and welcoming community of believes, dedicated to the worship of God. The key here is the verb, inviting.

At the very first of his ministry, Jesus goes out and forms a community, inviting people into the position of disciple. "Come and see" he tells one candidate after another. Then at the end of his earthly and physical life, from what we heard from Jn, Jesus has invited the disciples to listen to his final teaching and instructions and to consider how they are going to operate in the world after he has been "glorified" and returned to God. The teachings we heard began with an invitation.

When we adopt an inviting spirit, we seek to bring others into the community of faith. Like Jesus, we accept whatever spiritual point they occupy at the moment of our invitation. Jesus never argued with a candidate. Nor did he give them an entrance test. He said, Come and see.

What happens when we invite others? A few days ago, Owen Newson invited me and Kate to help out with clearing out along the trails by the canal and pond, a project near to his heart. Do you get help without invitation? Unlikely. Inviting leads to enlarging the circle of work, gaining more volunteers to do the job. You have to be willing to offer the invitation, even if you have no idea how the other will respond. Jesus was bold and did not hang his own self-esteem on the reactions of others. He invited and left them to decide what to do.

When Kate and I were at Julie Foberg’s wedding reception, I told people at our table about the Fund4Joey – because the next day, Sunday, was the series of bands playing at the Stanhope House to raise money for Joey’s health care. I actually did not issue an invitation, at least directly (to my knowledge), but just talking about our involvement in this worthy project served as a form of invitation, I guess. One of the guests disappeared for a while and came back, much to my surprise, with several twenties he wanted to give. Telling the story matters and serves as a kind of invitation. Jn wrote down his story of Jesus’ life as a form of invitation, saying, But these are written down so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name (20:31).

In a form of service evangelism, Janet and I now place a sheet of our church’s worship services and activities and groups within each bag of groceries we give people from our food closet. (We are trying to be more intentional about developing relationships with those who come by the office, who are not formally part of the church.) We are inviting them to join up with the cause, to be a part of our Christian community. Not just passively either. In addition to the documents, including one of the Morgan Funeral Home calendars of which we have so many and has lots of information pertinent to the church, we verbally ask them to consider attending. Come and see, Janet or Hugh says.

As branches connected to the divine vine, Jesus, we abide with him and invite others to abide as well. Come and see. Try it yourself – be inviting.

We all strive to grow in spiritual knowledge, and in the wise and generous use of the gifts – the second sentence of our mission statement.

We had a provocative topic in our Lenten Bible study, and it is clear we all came with a variety of questions and attitudes about Islam and its relationship to our Christian faith. One of our participants wrote me a note, listing a number of insights. Attending the study deepened her faith. Taking the time and working through the materials helped gain some clarity about our own tradition. We often hear what we hear in worship, but do not directly and intensely focus on each and every affirmation. How could we? Going through the study, however, gave this individual the opportunity to reflect upon our teachings and gain some valuable perspective on what we are doing as Christian people, in our daily life, in worship, as citizens, having a faith not quite like the faith of someone else. Engaging a learning process brought growth.

I recommend you and I continue to secure opportunities to learn and become better disciples. In the learning, we do not grow wildly and the process can produce some pruning, unlearning stuff we do not need, while flowering into a better understanding and more deliberate Christian walk.

We seek to reach out and serve our neighbors, as Christ commands.

Our neighbors may be near by and they may be far away. They are our neighbors, regardless.

Since I just attended a deacon’s meeting Wednesday night, how about seeing how well we do in engaging our faith with the community through their work? They along with PW asked for a new list of shut-ins and several visits have been made to them. We are sending goodies to college students, both those away and those at home. 18 bags of food were given out so far in April – along with 18 ShopRite gift cards. The deacons purchased $300 worth of new cards. Keri Cassimore from the deacons and Matt Hansen from the session are working together to provide a neighborhood witness for our church in early June (tag sale day and Stanhope Day). You may read about these efforts in the newsletter and we will explain more as we go along. The Van Auken family needs some help in early June, because they are having two memorial services for family members, all on the same Saturday morning. They will share lunch upstairs in Fellowship Hall, where I am sure the deacons and Presbyterian Women may be called upon to assist them (the family of Denise Stevens and Colleen Ashley, two of our saints who way too early in life returned to our Lord). Engaging our neighbors is to adopt the witness of Christ, who engaged people where they were and offered God’s blessings in all kinds of circumstances and needs. If we wish to abide with him, so may we do the same.

Jesus is asking us deliberately and faithfully to tangle up our lives in the life and power and goodness of the Spirit. If we seek to go it alone, then we will be alone. If we offer our spiritual vine to the divine gardener, and abide in the sturdy and life-giving Branch of our Christ, then we will live, live abundantly, and live eternally.

"Everyday is Earth Day"

Nationally April 22nd is Earth Day but for Christians everyday is earth day. Every single one. We started our service by saying the opening of Psalm 24, a remarkable and spiritually foundational claim:The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it. For [God] has founded it on the seas and established it on the rivers.

What belongs to God? Everything. Are there exceptions? No. Behind and underneath and within and over all things is God. Physical objects find their source in God. All life comes from God. Everything belongs to God.

The Bible itself opens with a beautiful narrative poem about God’s potent creative power and artistic skill. Lights, waters and earth follow from God’s spoken command – effortlessly, elegantly, energetically. Just as the poem of Genesis 1 has a parallel structure of days one, two and three matched to days four, five and six, so the orders and patterns and objects of creation themselves have a beautiful arrangement of goodness – for light, water and earth. Israel’s neighbors worshiped many gods, including the sun and moon, the earth, the waters. For us, these heavenly bodies and natural resources are not divinities, but created entities of a loving and bountiful Lord-God of heaven and earth.

The earth and air and water do not deserve our worship, but they do require our respect and care. Created with God’s image within us and through us, we must maintain God’s "good" creation as God intended from the beginning. We are to serve as good stewards of the resources the earth provides for our benefit, and the benefit of all life. The second chapter of Genesis tells us this delegated role from God to us requires our hard but productive work and the third chapter exposes our lack of wisdom in fulfilling our responsibilities one to another and to the earth. We lose our place in Eden, because of our own foolishness, especially our desire to take the place of God.

The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof. So we say; so we believe; so we need to practice. Everyday is earth day.

We cannot afford to make the mistake of believing Good Friday and Easter Day only apply to ourselves, as human beings. Life, abundant life and resurrection life are promises to all creation, not just people. Our biblical faith respects the teachings from Genesis and the psalms about God’s creative speech. We also hear in Revelation the vision John of Patmos has for the creation itself – he writes: "Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, [because] the first heaven and the first earth had passed away and the sea was no more" (21:1). Because of Jesus and his unselfish life and death, even the heavens are transformed and renewed. We might wonder why such a radical ‘make-over’ was necessary. When Adam and Eve practiced their disobedience in the Garden, where up to that time all was well and good, even the earth and the environment suffered from our transgressions. (The same happens today, time and again, as we know because of human actions.) Life became more difficult for the first couple, Adam and Eve, whose relationship also suffered. Not only them, but the world suffered as well: "cursed is the ground [earth] because of you" the Lord-God tells them. Before the Garden was beautiful and fertile and prosperous. Now, after the Fall, "thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you" we hear (Gn 3:17-18). We suffer because of our foolishness but the world suffers with us, because of us – so the Bible teaches.

The apostle Paul writes in Romans about the connection between our sinfulness and the harm we impose upon the world. He writes: "For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God . . . [not in futility but] in the hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory" God has given to us in Christ (Romans 8:19 ff.).

Everyday is earth day for Christians but when we harm the environment because of our excesses we bring Good Friday upon the world and ourselves. If you believe I am being overly-dramatic, or pushing the argument too far, then I recommend we all listen carefully and prayerfully and humbly to the apostle Paul again, this time, in Colossians, where he writes about the divine Son, the heavenly Christ, and his role in the formation of heaven and earth:[Christ] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible . . . All things have been created through him and for him (1:15-16).

When we harm the earth, we attack Christ, who is the ‘firstborn of all creation’. To compromise the beauty and well-being of the earth is to re-place Christ upon the cross and to bring Good Friday to the world. Paul concludes his argument about how important Christ is to the world’s salvation by writing:God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross (Col 1:20).

Easter Day has come for all things and all beings, not just us. When we think about the earth, and how we are to use it according to the stewardship God has given us, then we need to ask first and foremost whether we are believing and practicing the faith of Easter Day or imposing the violence and terror of Good Friday.

Everyday is earth day for Christians.

If we were to take time to assess our own attitudes about the earth and the environment we probably would have to admit very little of our views on this subject are informed by the Bible, Christian teaching or the life of Christ. More likely, we have easily and unwittingly adopted modern views proposed by the likes of Francis Bacon, the father of modern science, who wanted us "to regain [our] mastery over the natural world" (Simon Critchley, The Book of Dead Philosophers, 116). Rather than seeing the world as a gift from God, our Western attitude is one of opposition and estrangement – nature is our enemy or foe, who must be subdued and forced to release her treasures. Too often, when I hear voices talking about God’s good and elegant creation, I hear discussions about how economic advancement can only take place at the risk of damage and corruption to the air and water and soil. I do not hear, the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.

There are exceptions. Former governor of NJ Thomas Kean, later also the president of Drew University and co-chair of the 9-11 Commission, told the Star-Ledger (in dialogues he has there with former governor Byrne) he believed clean air, clean water and clean soil are basic for our prosperity and could not be compromised. He himself, he noted pointedly, did not believe the doctrine some have that prosperity can only come through some degree of negative harm to the environment. A green creation brings economic growth and a basis for the good life shared with all our citizens.

Everyday is earth day for Christians. So I believe is the biblical tradition we value and seek to practice. Christians have a faith and a life to proclaim to humanity, following the teachings and example of Jesus of Nazareth. He lived simply and humbly, suggesting we do likewise, not worrying over possessions or even from where our next meal or change of clothing will come. Jesus taught us to honor God, with our whole exercise of being, and to love neighbor as ourselves. He valued the lives and work of the ordinary person and worker – cultivating a field, fishing in the sea, seeking justice from the local magistrate, asking to borrow bread when a guest has arrived unexpectedly, making sure you had plenty of fuel for your wedding lamp. Nature itself, like the tiny mustard seed or the lowly sparrow, could provide a lesson for the bounty and goodness of God.

When I think about the world God has given to us, I am thankful. The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof. For the blessings we would have upon our children and grandchildren, I would wish to practice an Easter faith for all creation.

Psalm 24:1 // fpc, stanhope, nj // Easter III // April 22, 2012 // c:\dir\ser\everyday.12


And a preview . . .  for Easter Day!

"If I’ve Told You Once, I’ve Told You Thirty Times . . ."

Isaiah 25:6-9 // (1 Corinthians 15:1-11) // Mark 16:1-8

fpc, stanhope / Easter Day 2012 .

I recently had to do some business at the DMV in Peekskill, NY. The employee was singing along to the old Abba song, "Dancing Queen". She was really enjoying the song, although I would guess she heard first it off her I-tunes. I heard the song when it first came out, I told her ruefully. Now I guess it is just an oldie. My music are all oldies. When I played songs on the radio, years ago, I thought how absurd it was to play "oldies" because who cared about those old songs? New stuff was good. Old stuff was, well, OLD.

I’ve been preaching on Easter Day for thirty years now. I admit to feeling the sting of the wise king, Solomon, in his somber and perplexing writing, Ecclesiastes, where he says, There is nothing new under the sun. I began to wonder about Easter Day sermons, What did I say before? Maybe I could offer the golden oldies, what I had said in sermons – not old sermons – pearls of great price from previous days. Not I-tunes; Hugh-tunes. Where we have been and where we would like to go will give us some perspective and hope.

Well, that’s a crazy plan. But then, the story, the Easter story about Jesus rising from the dead, is a crazy story. Crazy idea; crazy story . . .


"Stuck in the Middle with You"

Jeremiah 31:31-34 / Hebrews 4:14-5:10

fpc, stanhope, nj // March 25, 2012 // Lent V

c:\dir\ser\middle.2012Anyone who has ever owned a cat knows better than interfering when they are having a fight, especially if you have two pets. Cats have claws and sharp teeth and they know how to use them. When a conflict erupts and hostility leads to violence, I know it is unwise to try to separate the warring parties with your bare hands. Mediating will not work. Negotiation has passed its mark of effectiveness. Intervention is risky. Sadly, getting in the middle will result in three-way harm.

Nobody likes to be in the middle, at least, nobody who wants to have a healthy and balanced life and set of relationships. When we are feeling out of control or angry, we might seek out an ally to bolster our defenses against a foe. In an unholy way, we have demonstrated the truth of Solomon’s claim, Two are better than one (Eccl 4:9). And so we make the mistake of trying to find someone to get in the middle, to be in our corner, and to gang up on someone else.

By contrast – we have plenty of times when working with a third party is a good idea. Therapists can help us, we hope, when we are having relationship issues and problems. They serve neutrally to help us gain self-understanding. Referees keep the game going – they are not on one team or the other; they are just there to apply the rules and enforce penalties for infractions. Sometimes a third party is a good idea. Jesus, in his teachings for us, how we are to live together peacefully, suggests we talk things out directly first, but, if this step fails, bringing in a third party can help with listening and acting. They are not part of a gang, to outnumber and overwhelm. The role is to hold accountable those having the conversation.

We end up in the middle, however, when unhealthy triangles form and we start acting like middle school children. Mean girls who form hostile alliances, oftentimes covertly. Bully boys who travel in angry packs, like hungry and menacing wolves. Do not stick your bare hands into the middle of those groups. Do not do it. Keeping out of these attempts to work against someone else is practically good and ethically required, according to Christian norms.



The Bible understands our predicament. Jeremiah, sometimes called the ‘weeping’ prophet because of his suffering on account of his relentless honesty to the people of Israel, was stuck in the middle between God and his fellow Judeans. Jesus, our Master and Teacher, ended up stuck in all kinds of middles – between the Romans and Jews, between politics and religion, between city and country people, between the working poor and the urban elite and rich, between conservatives and liberals, between those holding one theological position or another (like whether or not there was an afterlife; or how you should run the Temple sacrificial system).

Do you ever find yourself in the middle of this or that?

We might be unfamiliar with Jeremiah’s prophetic writings, which is too bad because he is wonderfully and poetically eloquent. Listen to one short oracle Jeremiah offers,Everyone is greedy and dishonest, whether poor or rich. Even the priests and prophets cannot be trusted. All they ever offer to my deeply wounded people are empty hopes for peace (6:13-14).

Strong words can sting, especially if they are strong and oh so true.

Maybe Jeremiah lived a long time ago, 2600 years at least, but he worries over the spiritual health of his friends. Religious activity had become easy and duty-bound. Say the right prayers. Give the required gift / sacrifice. Mouth the right words. The people had been followers of the faith for so long they were on automatic pilot. They no longer knew the scriptures and they barely heard the voice of God in their lives. But – they were rule-driven. They did what they believed they were supposed to do.

I know what you are thinking. Church never becomes like that.

Jeremiah wanted a revolution but it was all internal. People felt they were observing the old Sinai covenant with God, mediated by Moses, but Jeremiah was there to tell them they had failed while God had done his part. They had paid their dues, at it were, but their society lacked justice and their faith was cold not warm.

So, here comes a new covenant but different. Written not on cold, stone tablets. Written on the human heart. Before – we learned about the commandments in synagogue school or felt the pressure of their enforcement. Now knowing God will be intimate and direct. Jeremiah assured the people, speaking in God’s voice, "I will be their God and they shall be my people" (v 33).

At the last Presbytery meeting, we were asked to find a partner and tell one story, a story of how we felt God’s presence with us recently. I would love to have us do that exercise this morning, but instead, I am going to give you a private and quiet moment to consider just that question, When did you feel the presence of God in your daily and ordinary life this past week? Jeremiah’s new covenant with God means God is close not far and taking up holy space at the center of our lives. What did you experience? Think about it for a minute. The middle is gone. Just you and God. [Pause]

If we believe Jeremiah is right, and talking to us today, then we want to form this covenant ourselves with God, right at the very center of our existence and being, and recognize when God is working within us. Let’s make this reflection a daily spiritual exercise.



Unlike the other heroes of the ancient faith, people like Joshua or Moses or David or Aaron, Jesus ultimately comes from heaven and God and hence serves as a "high priest" unlike no other. The high priests of the Jerusalem Temple ritually positioned themselves between the people and God. They served to bring forgiveness and renewal, spiritually and practically. All needed to be right with God and neighbor. The high priest alone could go into the Holy of Holies in the Temple once a year and offer sacrifice but they often tied a rope to his leg, showing their respect for the holiness of the Lord-God. If it got too hot in there, religiously speaking, they could pull him out of trouble, using the rope in this spiritual emergency.

The high priest, first of all, had to eliminate the sins he himself carried. Otherwise, he would be polluted and corrupt himself and his actions would not help the people. He was in the middle, but he was of course much closer to us than God.

Jesus is close to us, save one important difference. He did not sin, like you and me. He felt the beckoning power of sin, alluring and complicit. He did not give in, though. So he is "able to sympathize with our weakness" but also able to avoid the sting of sin and its destructive power. His suffering at the hands of ruthless people, and his willingness to follow God’s lead, makes him the perfect example and source of our "eternal salvation" (v 9). Jesus may be in the middle, but his position works unlike any other efforts we might try on our own and his position brings goodness and hope to us.

So here is some more homework for us, some potent spiritual direction. Lent is always a good time for reflection. We Christian people ought to do our best job trying to understand how Jesus is fully human and fully divine, the incarnation, and also how Jesus fits into our trinitarian view of God – Father, Son, Holy Spirit. These descriptions are abstractions, though, however useful and true. Because of our beliefs, I would argue, we can say we are close to Jesus but he is also close to us, yet at the same time, giving us some space to be ourselves while challenging us to be our best. My old track coach said, over and over, Run with the fast dogs. Jesus is on our team, he is, but he is the fastest dog in the race. How do you feel close to him? By becoming one with us, except for the human problem of being bad now and then, God got close. The middle is gone. Christ is right here. Can you feel his leading? Today?


"He Did Not Want to be Far"

Exodus 20:1-17 and John 15:10-17 // fpc, stanhope, nj // March 11, 2012

c:\dir\ser\closenotfar.12Close is better than far, at least most of the time. If far though, how do we get close enough to satisfy our desire to be close and to be helpful if help is good and necessary? I was reading about "Farmers Helping Farmers" in the March issue of Presbyterians Today, our denominational magazine (19). "A series of famines in Malawi from 2002 to 2005 left the country devastated" I learned. Malawi is in southeast Africa, below Tanzania and directly west of the island nation of Madagascar. People were becoming chronically malnourished because of the climate and weather and also because they had become dependent upon one and only one crop, corn. ‘Corn is king’ they say in our own Midwest but even still biodiversity is important and good. Presbyterian Disaster Assistance worked to "enlist farmers and churches in the United States . . . help farmers and communities around the world" so that several crops could be planted and harvested, increasing the economic value of their farming while also providing a more stable and nutritious diet. Some US farmers even dedicated part of the yield of their fields to help produce more sustainable agriculture in hard-hit places like Malawi.

Geographically Malawi is far away; reaching out brings us closer. Close is better than far.

What do you do, then, when someone close to you ends up being far? Hollywood made a recent hit movie, titled The Vow, to describe the "romantic drama" of Kim and Krickitt Carpenter. After a serious car accident, she was unable to recognize her own husband and remember their marriage and history together. Once close, they were now far. Sadly far. What do you do? According to news reports in the religious press, Kim and Krickitt rebuilt their marriage and relied upon their faith to help make it through the ordeal – they attend the First United Methodist Church in Farmington, New Mexico. Kim, the husband, said some people counseled him to divorce his wife and even suggested that action would help with medical costs. He carefully and deliberately worked from "caretaker to coach to, eventually, an again accepted mate" (CC; March 7, 2012; 14). Close became far and then close again. Work and grace combined to make it happen. Close is better.



What about our relationship to God? Which is better, close or far?

We have been discussing this issue in our Bible and theology course on Islam and Christianity. The Moslem doctrine of God, Allah, is strongly and strictly monotheistic – Allah is one and there is only one. We agree, Christians and Muslims, about God being one. Our Islamic theological cousins also proclaim Allah as being awesome and righteous and very powerful. Listen to some scripture –He is God, one God, the Everlasting Refuge . . . and equal to Him is not anyone"andSurely your Lord is God, who created the heavens and the earth in six days – then sat Himself upon the Throne (Koran 112 and 7:54).

Or how about this scripture?O Lord my God, you are very great. You are clothed with honor and majesty . . . You stretch out the heavens like a tent . . . You set the earth on its foundations . . . May the glory of the Lord endure forever . . . (Ps 104:selected vv).

The last verses I read were from Psalm 104 and the previous few verses of poetry were from the Koran. Their understanding of God is not all that different than ours. Like Muslims, we believe God is not like us – God is God and people are people. Especially for those of the Islamic faith, God is distant and to be respected above all, obeyed in every sense, submitting to Allah’s holy will.

And we Christians ought to remember how important it is to keep our holy God not too close. Too, too close is not good either. God is not our buddy and peer. Pretending God is not God is a theological error and the Ten Commandments counsel against foolishly letting our thoughts get away from us. God is worthy of our worship and setting aside time and energy to pursue a righteous relationship with God is part of our human purpose. The giving of the Law, like the commandments, is meant to bridge the huge gulf between our holy God who has made us and our human circumstances.



Jesus does not feel God’s efforts have failed, however. He respects God’s holiness also and frequently makes time and secures place to pray and recharge spiritually by relying upon the Father’s power and grace.

In John’s Gospel, we see how God the Father wants to be close, to keep contact with us without harming us. The scriptures sometimes describe God as a raging fire – fire consumes God’s enemies, lightning flashes and the earth trembles, even the mountains melt before God’s holy power (Ps 97). We resist such images of God because we believe them to be "Old Testamental" but you need to remember Jesus felt they were valid. Scripture is scripture for Jesus and he values what we call the OT, all of it. Some legitimate distance is good in human life, including how we relate to God. Too far is too far, at times, and too close is too close. Balance is necessary and good.

And so, the Father wants to be appropriately close. Jesus and the Father were one, he tries to tell the disciples and crowds. Just as Jesus has kept the Father’s commandments, so he wants us to keep his commandments. And in the end, those commandments can be distilled to one, "love one another as I have loved you" (Jn 15:12b). When we observe this sacred commandment, we move from being in a master / servant relationship to one of "friend" to "friend." Friend is closer than servant (or slave).

What does Jesus mean about being our friend? About loving one another? I think Jesus wants us to love each other as God loves us, unconditionally and without reservation or discrimination. Jesus proclaimed and practiced the same forgiveness of the Father. Even from the cross, Jesus forgave his persecutors and killers (which is different by the way than saying what they did was ok). He wants us to practice the forgiveness evident in the loving father in the parable of the prodigal son. He welcomed back his wayward son, even before he knew he was going to make his confession and restitution. And the love Jesus wants us to practice pushes us to accept not reject whatever is unlovely and inelegant in others and in our own lives. God loves us even when we are unworthy, so the apostle Paul writes, and Jesus here wants us to practice such a big love, a huge love, a warm and close and daring love. Close is better than far. We do not want to cut ourselves off from Christ, because then we can do "nothing", but then also distancing ourselves from others can be destructive as well. Jesus practiced a close love, of proximity, in true friendship. Real friends know and accept each other. We know the ups and downs of our friends. They do not have to be perfect. Honesty is good, absolutely. We increase our intimacy through our respect and trust. So Jesus wants from us with our Christian sisters and brothers. So Jesus wants from us with God. Stay close not far. God will not abandon us, anymore than the Father abandoned the Son, and we should not abandon God.

One of my favorite hymns says it best:He did not want to be far, nearness he intended. Therefore into what we are Christ the Lord descended. Everywhere he’s at our side, human amongst the human. Nowhere is he recognized, no one sees the New Man. God of God and Light of Light, Keeper of creation: He assumed the human plight, joined our generation. Therefore that the world may know, Christ became our brother. No one anything we owe, but to love each other.


"Crowded Around the Door"

Isaiah 40:21-31 / 1 Corinthians 9:15-23 / Mark 1:29-39fpc, stanhope // February 5, 2012 c:\dir\ser\door.febr2012

 One summer term when I was in college, I was secretly pleased to see Dan Simpson on campus apparently taking classes at my alma mater, Missouri State University. Dan and I and four hundred others were graduated from Glendale High School a year before but he was back. If Dan was not first in the class then he was close to it and I was only ninth. I do not believe anybody cared that much about class ranking then, except to get your name listed in the program. Most of us went to college, if we went at all, to the local state university, open enrollment, and very inexpensive because Missouri had committed to making higher education available to all. Dan was the exception, having gone off to Vanderbilt. I only saw Dan on campus from a distance and did not talk to him, anymore than we had talked in the course of four years of public high school.

We are always surprised and shocked when we hear about cultures somewhere else where people, usually the young, get in trouble for interacting across forbidden lines of contact and conduct. These infractions can lead to horrific penalties but before we get too smug, we might want to admit we have similar rules (not the same consequences I realize). Dan’s family lived in an exclusive neighborhood, the big house, nice new and expensive cars, Daddy was a doctor, and his interaction with other students at Glendale was reserved for those like him. At least, I remember it being so.

To have Dan then back in Springfield attending Missouri State was an expression of character-building, I thought. Mr. Fancy Pants had flunked out of Vandy and now was learning how to live among the ordinary. I went there because my parents were about to have three of us in college but I’m sure the Simpsons had no such cash flow problems.

Years later, after I had lost sight of Dan Simpson, I read about him in our anniversary booklet. He had been graduated from Vanderbilt and then NYU medical school and now was an ER doctor in South Boston, where he also worked in a Southie clinic specializing in treating people infected with HIV. Dan today has a particular interest in medicine for Latinos and those inflicted with diabetes. He had followed the family business but hardly little more. Maybe we all thought he was on his own way to the exclusive lifestyle of the upwardly mobile. Unknown to me, and maybe many others, Dan had a mission to use his considerable intellect and skills to help some of the most desperately ill, including people on the edges of society, even those some might consider pariahs. How about that.



Jesus warns us in the Sermon on the Mount about casting judgment, so lesson learned.

In the ancient world, like public high school, the rules about who could associate with whom and who could talk to whom were very structured and rigid. The healing ministry Jesus provided exploded those norms. The residents of Capernaum waited until the sabbath had formally ended at sundown and then ‘everybody’ showed up around Jesus’ doorstep, bringing those who would need care and probably were desperate beyond desperation. Peter’s house, where Jesus was staying, became an informal ER and anyone who needed help was welcome. Jesus, as we know from the gospel stories, allowed no restrictions to encounter him. Truly everybody was there.

And yet he had a mission beyond Capernaum, whether people realized it or not. The disciples searched for him the next morning because I’m sure a new crowd had formed and they were embarrassed to say, We have no idea where Jesus is. Search parties were formed and Jesus was located but he revealed a mission larger than one limited to the town and deeper than healings and exorcisms, as important as those were. Jesus had a plan to proclaim his message throughout Galilee – time is short; the kingdom is right here; get it together and get it right; believe there is in fact good news. Who knew it? Jesus had a larger and greater vision, in spite of the expectations others had for him.



Some thoughts about a couple of features of our readings, especially in Mark.

When Jesus healed people, he not only made them physically well, he restored them to a regular and ordinary but pleasing life different than the isolation they suffered when they were sick. Peter’s mother-in-law had a fever, no biggie for us, but a huge problem then when they had to antibiotics or other remedies. People died from fevers. And she could not function as she was expected but also wanted, I’m sure. To our modern and progressive ears, getting well and then serving the men a meal sounds pretty sketchy. It seems wrong. Remember, though, how she would have been the matriarch in the family and household and her power came from being the Master of the Kitchen. For those of us who are not master of the kitchen we are grateful for those who are. Being sick isolated her from her own work and routine. She could not exercise the power she legitimately had nor the honor she deserved for her work.

Ronald Heifetz, in his book Leadership without Easy Answers, suggests true authority comes from service (not just some role or position). Jesus said, the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve. The kitchen master here knew the power and truth of service and when feeling better resumed her role but also reclaimed her power.

We all know how much illness and dysfunction can isolate us, limit our power, bring us to depressing states of mind. Jesus in his healing ministry treats every aspect of our lives and character and position. We become whole at his word and touch.



If you have ever had a problem with finding good health care under extreme need and because of perplexing circumstances, you can feel for the crowd gathering around the door and filling the open spaces outside. The Dr. Simpsons of the world who teach at Boston University and practice at their university hospital but also operate clinics in densely populated and disadvantaged neighborhoods will find crowds waiting outside their doors at opening time, just as we find many people waiting in the morning at the Presbyterian sponsored health clinic in Kasasule, Kenya. The needs are great. Like others, we have found health care limited because of doctors and providers who refuse to take any insurance. Health care, at times, feels good for many but not all of us while great if you have the money, lots of money. Jesus, for his part, does not take appointments, has no office hours, does not require insurance and is willing to rub elbows with any and all. In the end, he is a preacher of the super-close territory of God, a powerful prophet who exposes us to God’s holy and terrifying power, and brings wholeness and transformation – with just a spoken word. Our healing ministries ought to provide the same benefits, spiritually speaking.



One more thought, before finishing up.

I have to wonder how fair it was for Jesus to set up shop in Capernaum and then seemingly abandon it for other areas and peoples. It seems unfair, almost wrong. The people of Capernaum are not the first or last to have suffered from injustice or for that matter the eclipse of God, as it were. Jesus takes his show on the road and only now and then returns to Capernaum.

I could offer a more complicated and lengthy response to my own observation here, but I want to tie my complaint to a claim the apostle Paul makes in his Corinthian letters. He says, I have become all things to all people so that Christ may save some (1 Cor 9:23). Paul also had a mission, to extend the good news to those throughout the world. In order to do so, he needed to get past being so particularly and exclusively Jewish and realize he needed to reach out in ways making sense to people who did not share his background. I’m sure he was willing to speak Aramaic to his Jewish friends in Galilee and Jerusalem while he spoke Greek to those he served at congregations he had founded in Asia Minor and Greece. All things to all people. He pushed past limits of language and culture, who could and should speak to whom (yes, we are back to that).

Jesus took his show on the road but he did not abandon Capernaum nor anywhere else. Along the way, as he preached and healed, he taught the disciples how to do his ministry. After his tragic death and after his exalted resurrection and after his release from this earthly life – the disciples remained. They were trained and ready to do his ministry. Capernaum was waiting. Stanhope is waiting. Nairobi has been waiting. People are crowded around the door, seeking hope and salvation and wholeness. Dan Simpson has found his mission in life, helping those who are sick to be well, using his expensive and exclusive education and extraordinary skills to help others, to serve rather than be served. Jesus friends and followers are called to be all things to all people. Not one of us has to do everything. Each of us is called to do something amazing and special, as God has given us the ability.

So how about you? What is your mission under the guidance and power of Jesus, our Master and teacher, as we seek to extend the sacred geography of God?


January 22, 2012

"Not a Children’s Story"Jonah 3:1ff and Mark 1:14-20 // fpc, stanhope, nj // January 22, 2012 c:\dir\ser\jonah01.12

I once did a funeral when I read from the "prophet" Jonah. I do not know if I surprised anyone to have read from Jonah under those circumstances, but I had my reasons. On the one hand, the woman whose husband had died told me the story of his life and remarkably he had served in World War II in the submarine service. Survival and life were precarious for soldiers in the air or under the water, in WWII. We were glad he survived the carnage. On the other hand, she told me she had experienced a difficult conversation once when she was told the book of Jonah was a parable or even a fable and not an historical event. She as devastated. I just listened and did not argue with her, because at this moment in her life, with the death of her husband after decades of marriage, she clearly did not want a debate about how to interpret the Bible. So I read from Jonah at her husband’s funeral and when I finished reading from an earlier chapter, I simply said, Jonah was the first submariner in the Bible. And I am right; he was. I believe reading from Jonah and tying the prophet’s experience to that of her deceased husband healed two sources of anxiety at once.

I can tell you now what I did not tell her directly then – Jonah is no children’s story. We like to work the story, to tell the story, especially for children, because it is a good story. More recently, as I described a couple of Sundays back, Bible readers began to feel the pressure of modern science and historical study such that we began to be less focused on how the story of the prophet Jonah might be powerful teaching and instead we distracted ourselves by trying to prove it could have happened. I realize folks here and there might be inclined to say, I believe it just as it was written but I want to tell you this morning right here in the sanctuary, I do not believe that claim is the most important one we can make. In fact, not even close. I invite you this good Sunday morning to try to go even deeper and see and hear the power of the prophet’s experience under God’s holy and provocative leadership.



A few weeks ago, I had one of those conversations about deathbed conversions. What if, someone asked (not in or from the church – people like to propose these theological puzzles with me present to see how I react), what if some really bad guy suddenly but sincerely accepted the love of Jesus and then died a moment later. Would he go to heaven? I was asked. Think about how you would answer, before I tell you more about what I said.

I am unsure talking about some rare and unlikely event is the most important aspect of considering the promise and miracle of salvation. No one in this room is Hitler or Idi Amin or Jeffrey Dahmer or the Unibomber. How we ought to live our lives under God’s direction is a lot more down to earth and maybe even boring. The best question is what God wants from us regular and garden variety sinners, not the infamous crazies of history. Jonah was just a regular guy. No one special. Jesus called disciples to serve as his most important followers and they were nobody special. Regular guys. Peter and Andrew, James and John. The women who followed Jesus were everyday folk – like Martha and Mary. When Jonah heard the call to serve God even in this most remarkable task of confronting the Assyrians in their own capital city of Nineveh, he ran away. I’m guessing most of us would too. Think about Moses. God said, Go back to Egypt where you are wanted for capital murder and confront the king, Pharoah. No way, Moses said. Jonah took it one further. He went in the opposite direction. Maybe he is our patron saint. When we also know what God wants from us, which direction do we choose? Forward or backward? We are regular people also. Special to those who know us. Beyond that, well, hardly famous. Will God welcome and honor our sincere desire to serve Christ as a disciple? Accepting the call of Christ is our opportunity and responsibility, as our reading from Mark shows, not fussing about how God is going to deal with Osama bin Laden.

So how does this discussion help us about the citizens of Nineveh?

As it turns out, they belonged to an empire more like Nazi Germany than neutral Switzerland. When the Assyrians came calling, they brought along soldiers captured in other campaigns who probably served under threat. ‘If you do not perform to our expectations, we have the rest of your family under custody.’ They relentlessly pushed militarily past the geographical edges of their empire. They used ruthless tactics to obtain new territory and left fortified cities behind to protect their acquisitions. They were patient. They assaulted one Palestinian city for five years before they were able to capture it. Continuously. Five years. They often forced the sociological trick of imposed and scattered re-location. So they practiced cultural genocide. If your people revolted or resisted and they eventually lost out to the bloody Assyrian campaigning, then this bunch would be sent here and that bunch there and the next thing you know the resisters got absorbed into the new majority culture and so much for rebellions and attempts at freedom.

So, now. How much do you like the people of Nineveh? How much do you think Jonah liked them? Like the Danish sailor I met randomly one time back in the 80s, he said every European family hated the Germans because someone is every family had been killed by the Germans. No one wasted any love for the Assyrians. No one. Not Jonah. Not you or me, I would wager.

Well, we might want to believe we are cut from a better cloth than Jonah. Down south in Philadelphia, a couple of men dressed in NY Ranger jerseys were trying to order a cheese steak at a South Philly shop and got beat up by a handful of crazies wearing Flyer jackets. Seriously. It is a hockey game. If a sports event can fuel that much hostility and tribal conflict, how about something more serious? Like a belligerent Iran. Or an unstable North Korea. How about a crazy and wild neighbor or a malicious co-worker? A destructive family member? If God said to you, Go to one of those destructive malcontents and say, Repent!, would you do it? Would you? Jonah did not. He went the other direction.

I was amused and puzzled by a crowd response during one of the Republican presidential candidate debates in South Carolina. (I am not making an endorsement – just raising a provocative issue.) Ron Paul suggested we ought to adopt the Golden Rule as the principle governing our foreign policy. You know, Do to others as you would have them do to you. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus (you’ve heard of him, right) says the Golden Rule is the center of his teaching, the heart of the law and prophets. If you do not want to be bombed, then do not bomb anyone else. If you do not want to be invaded, do not invade anyone else. The boos burst out. Nice Christian folk down there in SC. Booing Jesus, I guess. Maybe like Jonah they believe God’s love is just for the good guys, just for those who are like you and me.

We probably do not see the world the way God sees it. Where Jonah saw only a blob of bad people in a bad and warlike country and city, God saw people. Where Jonah saw people who would never listen or change, God saw possibility, the hope of repentance and new life. God was prepared for their refusal, too, because people do that, resist God.

Maybe we need to remember whose world we live in, what kind of possibility and hope there is for any and all of us, the universal inclination we all have to resist God’s leading, how easy it is to demonize our neighbors and enemies, and the real and powerful hope we have to lead new and transformed life under God’s amazing and awesome Spirit.


January 8, 2012

"Fresh Beginning"  // Genesis 1:1-5 and Mark 1:4-11 // fpc, stanhope // January 8, 2012

I’ve noticed a pattern I’ve experienced for many years. We human beings are unique and special, each of us having very personal and individual markers of our identity, like fingerprints or DNA. We also behave in some predictable patterns, ways people try to resolve problems, and these patterns transcend our singular identity as children of God. I do run into folks who are having problems, issues stressing their lives, and these difficulties may be very intense and immediate. When the issue is hot to the touch, as it were, and impossible to ignore, I notice how we are open to seeing the reality as it probably is, even if we have to admit we are part of the problem itself. We are willing to say change is necessary and may even have ideas about what direction would be helpful. I am always prayerfully aware of those opportune times, but here is the pattern, and within the pattern is a caution and warning. Those moments pass. They do. And then, perhaps with some small adjustments, or maybe no change at all, the crisis lessens and things go on.

John the Baptizer realized a moment of opportunity was upon the people of Israel. Was it going to be fulfilled or was it going to pass? For many people, the problem was no more than kicking the hated Romans out of the country. No one likes being occupied and having to serve the will of the empire. No one. Well, mostly no one. Sometimes groups emerge within who eventually benefit as collaborators (like the Sadducees and Herod and his family). The yearning for freedom is deep within the human heart, as we see in Syria right now – the resistance is fierce in the face of equally fierce counter-resistance from the established authorities.

As it turns out, Jesus was not a revolutionary in the traditional sense, much to the disappointment of some, perhaps, like Judas Iscariot.

Jesus was going to be the Stronger One, as John proclaimed. He was going to baptize people with the Spirit. If the world was going to be different and better, it was going to start with each individual claiming their vocation from God and working together as brothers and sisters in the faith, a movement going beyond traditional politics and authority, a people’s movement, based in the holy will of God. Like our Master himself, we may see the Spirit rest upon our shoulder and hear the Heavenly Voice encourage us in our own ministry and life purpose.

As Mark reports, all kinds and numbers of people streamed out to John in order to be baptized. Whatever motivated them to come, they came. Maybe John reminded them of the prophets of old. Maybe they liked the day trip into the "wilderness." Maybe they wanted to re-create – symbolically – Israel’s escape from bondage in Egypt, out of the desert / wilderness, and into freedom. Who knows. They came. They seized the opportunity, while it was hot and intense.



How about us?



As Christian people, we share our baptism. It is the mark holding us together. We are so different in so many ways. Those particularities can be divisive and corrosive. Only if. Only if we forget our baptism. As the apostle Paul would say, We are one in Jesus the Christ. Baptism provides a visible and distinct sign of our spiritual unity.

And John’s baptism was more than water sprinkling or dipping. He demanded confession and repentance. No denial for John. Let it out. Tell the truth. Find a new way. God will guide you. Be good, very good.

With our new year’s resolutions, we are implying we have changes we want to make. Ought to make. Each of us can know what needs to be confessed and what needs to change. That reflection needs to begin inside. It requires uncomfortable honesty and clear vision. Today, seize the opportunity for recognizing where problems are and new direction is needed. We have our homework for this week. What is God asking us to change about us?



And the same is true for our church, for our congregation.

When I reflected upon our Advent and Christmas experiences, I had to say to myself, We do so many things well. So many. And I am grateful.

The session (elders) is working on clarifying our congregational identity and writing a mission statement. ‘Open doors, open hearts, open minds.’ We did not come up with those phrases ourselves, not directly, but if we adopt them we will have to make them our own, apply them in a way making sense to us.

When I think about who we are and what we are to do, I could start with the passage this morning from Genesis. God makes all things and makes all things well. They are good. At least at first. We have a strong and vital ecological push in our theology, going back to the very first in scripture. And I believe we have seized that teaching well, like in our installation and use of solar energy. But have we really fulfilled our own commitment? Recently the town sent out a letter indicating residents need to be careful about trash and recycling and the need to keep them separate. No paper or bottles and cans in the trash. I guess they are literally going to inspect people’s garbage to make sure we are conforming. That job would be interesting, walking the streets early in the morning, feeling the plastic bags for evidence of recycling. I realize we need to do so, because the cost of hauling off trash is so high. And recycling is a good.

For us, though, we have not really made a strong and visible and comprehensive effort to be completely green, beyond the solar panel installation and energy generation. I still see lots of paper bulletins in our trash, which we have to stop doing, but we do not really have enough recycling stations about the church facility. So there is my confession. Our confession. We need a better strategic plan to guide our intentions and then follow through on its implementation.

I think God has baptized us into leadership about being green, serving as a good example and teaching witness. Who is going to help us fulfill this mission? Will it be you? Is God’s Spirit descending like a dove and a-lighting on your shoulder?



Being a Christian today is not easy. It is hard. Like anytime in human history, we have to do the introspection necessary to recognize and affirm our own inadequacies and deficiencies. (The Bible calls it sin!) So today let’s do the inward reflection God is asking us to perform to assess what is worth keeping and what is going to need to go. And then let the Spirit help us find new and better direction for our individual lives. We can set the pace spiritually, you see, in a culture widely indifferent to spiritual matters.

Being the church today is not easy. It is hard. It may require we set the pace for matters others see as being purely economical or have distorted into being a false controversy. For us, being green is to confess the "goodness" of creation, the baseline God established with the first creative word. And that creation has been baptized in God’s own heavenly waters – light was the first element, followed by waters and then solid earth. All, everything and everybody, washes through God’s cleansing Spirit. That is our theological heritage.

Let’s find a way to be the people of God the Spirit is challenging us to be. It’s January. It is the baptism of the Lord. It’s a fresh start, a new beginning.



December 11, 2011

"Figure It Out"c:\dir\ser\figureitout.11If you have a Kindle, you will know how much fun and ease it is to be able to take a book anywhere and read – even for that matter, a handful of books but practically speaking are not a handful. I figured out you could order books for free, at least a few of them, but they are particularly old and not very popular. I downloaded Thomas Hobbes’ long discourse on how to organize society under God’s holy rule. He titled it Leviathan, after the biblical sea monster described in the book of Job. One night, while reading, I realized Hobbes had been dead and gone for almost 400 years and it was a sobering thought. Someday I will be gone for 400 years also. I doubt anyone would pay to read my thoughts, certainly not know and even more so later.

And when we think about Jesus, he has been gone from this earthly life for two millennia, two thousand years, such a long, long time. We have his words, also, through the memories and gatherings of his friends like John, who wrote a gospel to preserve Jesus’ teaching and influence.

When I think about a long range of time, four hundred years, a thousand years, so many, many years, I have to wonder what lasts? What endures? What matters? In the grind of history and the grand scheme of the world, what gives life meaning and purpose and satisfaction?

I want us to affirm this morning Nathanael, seated under a fig tree, trying to figure it out, wondering about life and the world, hoping for the messiah. Let’s praise Nathanael, who took the time and energy and focus to address the big questions, to try to figure it out. And I’m going to suggest we ought to follow his example, to plop ourselves down under the fig tree and do the same, wonder and hope and think and feel and wonder, and also recognize how others around us are doing the very same thing. We all take a time under the fig tree.



In our own moment under the fig tree this morning, I have a number of questions I want to try to answer before we return to Nathanael again, at the end.

John’s Gospel begins with a poetic description of Jesus as the light, the luminous Son of God who comes into the world and darkness to bring warmth and flame. We Christian people accept this description of who Jesus is. We commit ourselves to its truth. We have had two thousand years of friends before us, who like John the Baptist, have prepared our way and carried witness to its goodness. When Jesus started out, it was not so clear, though.

I’m reading through a book right now called What’s the Least I Can Believe and Be a Christian by Martin Thielen. At first I was put off by the title, but with more reflection I can see it is where many people today are. The central question of the NT and the Christian faith is, Thielen reminds us, is the one Jesus himself raises – who do you say I am?



 

The key question then, for Nathanael, for us, is understanding who Jesus is. The thing is, though, it was not so clear for him or Jesus’ friends – in real time. Philip affirms Jesus as the promised one but also adds some biographical data beyond dispute – he was Joseph’s son and he came from Nazareth. He was a regular guy and plenty of folks then and now and since would say the same. Jesus was a great teacher, a charismatic individual, he had some seriously scary healing powers and he inspired people throughout the ages. But then, no more than that. He was special but special for people. No less but also no more.

So which is it? Jesus, the "Son of God" Nathanael later confesses or the everyday and ordinary ‘son of Joe’ who in the end is like everyone else. Time will tell, we are encouraged to consider, because Philip invites Nathanael to "come and see". Advent is in the beginning of that journey of figuring it out, who Jesus is.



Nathanael, we hear from Jesus’ amazing insight into people’s hearts and lives, spent some time under the fig tree where he clearly was trying to understand life and the world, whatever spiritual comfort the faith provided and if he would be blessed with seeing the Messiah in his life-time. Jesus’ capability to see his wondering under the fig tree leads him to believe. It is the evidence he has been seeking. Jesus is special and unlike anyone else. "Rabbi," he says, "you are the Son of God!"

How about us? Have we spent some time under the fig tree, trying to figure it out? Hoping for the Messiah? Making sense of our lives, special and unique as they are?

The fig tree can be a place of trial and difficulty for us, too. In this season of light and hope, we might be inclined to forget real life does not take a vacation. People still get sick. People still struggle with missing family and friends who are missing this holiday time. People still lose their jobs – Merry Christmas! The fig tree is a tough place. We have our hopes and prayers also for Stanhope Police Officer Joe Johnson and his wife, Michele, and their son, Joey, who is very ill and needs rigorous treatment. They have a young daughter, Madeline, who is four months. You have to say, Why them? Why any of us? Being under the fig tree is tough. It is taxing. It tests our sense of self and resolve and hope.

We can recognize others may be under the fig tree and while we are not Jesus having the powers of omniscience and seeing beyond ordinary sight we can listen and care enough to support our brothers and sisters in the faith who are spending some time under the fig tree themselves. How can we help and hope? Listen and care. Be a servant of Christ.



Jesus and his new friends invite us on this spiritual walk and journey. "Come and see" they say and mean. We can do the same. We do not need a theological degree to say to those around us, who also may be spending time under the fig tree, Come and See. Inviting folks to worship and learn within our fellowship gives the Spirit the opportunity to do its work. Philip probably knew Nathanael was a pious seeker and inviting him along to learn from Jesus was a caring and generous offer. Tending to our own spiritual needs and concerns, as we find ourselves collapsed under the fig tree, is important and worth our most focused attention and energy. Watching out for our sisters and brothers who are struggling is to be aware of these moments of trial and test, under the fig tree. So what do we do? We can do our part by inviting and trusting – come and see.

Isaiah 61:1-4 and John 1:43 ff // fpc, stanhope, nj // advent 3


For November 20th (13th below)

"On the Incline"Matthew 25:31-46 // fpc, stanhope // nov20.11 c:\dir\ser\incline.11

Last year I got on a jag for a while in which I asked you to watch out for "God sightings." Just like our instructions to the children and youth for Vacation Bible School, we were going to look out for glimpses of the divine in our everyday lives. I never asked you to report to me or each other and no one challenged me to tell my stories. I hope you fulfilled your assignment. In fact, I hope you continue to be on the lookout for God and God’s work in the world.

I wish I had good stories to tell, but no, only failure.

Last winter while I was visiting Ellyn up on Amherst, Massachusetts, I arrived to find out she was sick and needed some cough medicine from the CVS on the Main Street just a very short walk away. Being the good Dad, I hoofed it on over immediately even though it was late, probably 10:00 pm or even later. Amherst is Princeton in miniature. Very much the college town. Very much the college town of elite colleges and universities. Very much the expensive and exclusive place to live. The main drag is filled with shops and restaurants and a brewery / tavern and two bakeries. Yes, two. Great place. Amherst, even though it is way up north and very cold in the winter, has a huge collection of street people and panhandlers. Wherever you drive or walk somebody has their hand out. It is unnerving and sad, but it also de-sensitizes you after a while. Well, there is another one, asking for money.

I was on a mission to help Ellyn feel better and when I approached the CVS just outside the entrance a young woman of college age stepped forward and asked for a dollar, in order to ride the area bus. One dollar. She had let a couple of small groups of students go in without asking them, and so I had not anticipated her request, but she asked me. I was zoned in. Ellyn needed my help. She was not feeling well and had school work to do. I am the Dad. I had driven four hours, through Connecticut, a beautiful state populated by psychopaths in cars. I waved her off.

Now, really. Seriously. Would it have been so difficult to re-focus and say, What’s going on? You ok? Where do you need to go? Are you a student here at one of the schools? Can I get you anything you might need from this store or is the buck enough?

Her dad was not present, not her mother or family or friends or anyone. Nobody. When I came out of the store, having reflected further on the dilemma, she was gone. And today, when I think about it, I can think about it by comparing my actions (in-action) with what Jesus wanted us to do. Simple things. A meal. A drink of water. A welcoming smile. Clothing. Medical care. A visit. A dollar to ride the bus. I may be right-handed but I am a goat, at least, from time to time. Jesus seemed to be saying the goats on the left side were a pretty big group. I am not the only one, but the crowd of goats is no defense, no honor and we have no one but ourselves to blame.



What is Jesus asking us to do?

He wants us to provide help in the simple and everyday things. Jesus is not asking us to dig the Chunnel, between England and France. We are not asked to repay the national debt by the end of the week (within a decade would be great). Without calculation and with an open and generous spirit, Jesus is asking us to look out for our neighbors and provide for their basic needs when such needs are lacking.

A couple of Sundays ago, the power went out in the sanctuary while we were singing the anthem at the second service and I have to admit my stomach dropped and my spirits hit bottom. Not again! We had power next door, though, in the CE Building. The solar panels were still functioning, in spite of the loss of power in the electrical grid. If the blackout is big and widespread enough, according to our solar panel’s manual, they will shut off to avoid what is called "islanding". I can only guess such a circumstance is harmful to the equipment. Just like the warnings you have not to plug in too much stuff into your portable generator, so I guess the panels can supply our church facility but not the whole neighborhood. So the panels turned off during the blackout.

Following the snow storm and power loss, we did find out how important the basics are. We miss them when they are gone. People who had power shared with those who did not, including such simple but wonderful gifts like a hot shower or a warm room or a cooked meal and so much more.

I wonder if we have a mission opportunity here to figure out how to keep the panels active – without harming them – while also providing a haven for our neighborhood (at least during the daytime). Think about what a great gift it would be to have light, and heat, and running water, and a place to sit down and relax – maybe even wifi for the computer and a TV with a dvd player. We could perhaps do that. The front page of Friday’s Star-Ledger had a long and extensive article on climate change and quite frankly rough and extreme weather is not going to be a freak occurrence but the norm. We may be in a position to help in a way others cannot.



The odd fact about this story from Jesus is how both the sheep and goats were unaware of the consequences of their actions. The goats were not trying to ignore human need and the sheep were not trying to win their way into heaven. Innocence may be a virtue, at least in one direction. When we help others through the Food Pantry or Thanksgiving Baskets or Christmas presents we are not trying to win God’s favor for us. We are helping our neighbor, plain and simple.



Amazingly, when we reach out and help our neighbor, we are meeting Christ. It is Jesus we are serving. The servant messiah becomes the object of our own humble and quiet and noble service. We recommend so many ways to get close to God – prayer, reading scripture, being in worship, serving the church with your gifts and talents. All those. Add to the list, helping your neighbor, especially those in extreme need. And as Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount, do so without fanfare or public notice or thought of reward. Just do it.



Recently I was at a two hour session sponsored by our presbytery’s Redevelopment Committee. Ann Philbrick came and spoke; I knew her from seminary. She talked about the difference between where congregations are and she employed three descriptions to show differences; those on the incline, recline or decline. I like to run up the hill on 183 in the morning with Rufus, our dog, but it is hard work (and he is much younger than me). The incline is a challenge and tiring but also exciting and rewarding. Jesus wants us to be running up the incline and the most notable feature of churches who are not stalled or slipping is their outreach into the community. In other words, their humble service to those in need.

Let’s commit ourselves to the incline. Come along for the run, as it were. Get up out of those seats later and look around, see the landscape of where we live and ask yourselves, What needs do we need to be meeting, by the love and power of Christ?

The Rev. Hugh Matlack, Pastor

"Trading Up" Matthew 25:14 ff.// fpc, stanhope, nj // 11/13/11

I don’t want you to get lost but not found because of the master and slave language you hear in this parable. Those days are long gone for us and we have to understand how the ancient world had an organizational pattern unlike our own. No excuses, just the way it was. In this case, the "slaves" were entrusted with a huge amount of resources and responsibility. Each coin, called a "talent", was worth fifteen years of wages. Fifteen years. In today’s terms, it would be at least $650,000. Each. These "slaves" were really household administrative officials and it may be they were involuntary held, perhaps indentured servants, perhaps educated individuals who suffered the misfortune of being captured and carried off. It happened. The Romans built their society and its educational structure off capturing Greek intellectuals and carting them off to Rome to educate the elite’s children. Teaching at Blair Academy I’m sure is an honor and opportunity but imagine if you had to do it. Life can be hard.

You might be surprised to learn Jesus rarely is recorded as talking about sex. You would think from what we hear from politicians and pundits and (some) preachers Jesus only talked about homosexuality and abortion but in fact he said nothing about either of these although they were heatedly discussed in his day (especially in the Greek and Roman authors). He did like to talk about money, or at least, was not shy about it. No aspect of our lives is beyond God’s review or control. Taking care of your financial resources shows your character, Jesus claims time and again. "Where your treasure is, there is your heart also" he says in Matthew, the Sermon on the Mount. Here Jesus uses the actions of commerce to describe people’s relationship to the gifts God has given them. Sometimes we use them well and trade it up. Sometimes we do just fine. Sometimes we bury our gifts in the ground. So it goes.

Last Sunday, when we had our rescheduled "Time to Remember" several folks came in support of others who had lost a family member quite recently. Here I would say we as a congregation used our "talents" well for the building up of the kingdom. I know they also wanted to go out to lunch together . . . but the spiritual solidarity was impressive and I’m sure welcome.

Bette VP indicated her appreciation for the support she and Allen received from when they lost their grandson. Allen read a poem he wrote about Christopher, who died suddenly and violently. No one would want to experience this disaster in their family. What a tragedy. The Van Pattens appreciate your support. Again, we are investing our spiritual coinage well.

Let’s think about what Jesus is doing right now, though. He is not at home. He is in Jerusalem. He is not hanging out in the synagogue waiting for somebody to show up. He has taken his ministry on the road and he has ended up in the Holy City where he was not afraid or shy to place himself in the center of the public eye. How about us?

Jesus has gone out to where the people are, not where he would hope they would come.

Last week while many of us where in the dark, we had a two hour seminar from one of my seminary classmates from years ago and she challenged us to be active congregations. Get out of the building. Find ways to be of service in the community. Bring worship and mission to the people, where they are. Follow Jesus’ example, who had no where to lay his head and rest his weary bones but he was among the people, not surrounded only by walls.

You know, I was dismayed when the solar panels shut off when the power grid went down. You would hope they would stay on, but the operating manual says the solar system shuts down out of self-defense. We cannot be the only power source for the entire neighborhood, without damaging the system apparently. Think about it for a minute, though. If we could sustain the system during a blackout, we could provide at least a daytime shelter with light and heat and water and a place to hang out. I think the wild weather is going to happen again and may have become chronic. I would like to see us provide a service to the community, especially when it matters most. The walls then would not be walls but rather gracious investment in the well-being of the community.

If you were to think about the different and varied and comprehensive skills we have in our congregation to trade up with the community, what would they be? As much as anything else, the admiration Jesus wants us to have is for the characters with five and two "talents" who energetically and enthusiastically find creative ways to make more out of some. Go and do likewise.



The same is true for individuals, each of us, who like Jesus says in the parable, we each have abilities we can apply for the goodness of the Kingdom.

How about Tom and Adriene bringing Riley for baptism. I was talking with Rev. Kinter about his experiences and we agreed we rarely have phone calls anymore about baptisms. I would guess I used to receive twelve to fifteen a year and now this year exactly one. For whatever reasons, few are seeking so basic a spiritual discipline and commitment. For many young adults, seeking a beginning point to exercise the spiritual development of their children is not a priority.

But it is for the Nolans and I want to commend them – God has given you some amazing responsibility and opportunity in the form of your child. The same is true for each of us who have presented a child for baptism. The same is true for us as a congregation to make sure we welcome and embrace those who have decided to work with us on children’s spiritual development.

And just so you know, Adriene and Tom live just up the street on Linden Avenue. PW has already asked us to remember the Christmas cookie sale and I can tell you Adriene makes some wickedly good cookies she shared with me when I visited them at their home. Presbyterians can bake and cook and eat and we know soul mates when they present themselves. And while we do not want to be limited – always – by the walls surrounding us this morning, we do need to use the facilities we do have for the good and glory of God. Maybe somebody other than me ought to ask hardworking Mr. Nolan what he does in NYC for work during the week. Any skill comes from God, as the apostle Paul taught, and can be used in the service of the church.



We can be the worthless and lazy and fearful servant who squandered his gifts, rather choosing to bury them in the ground. Or, we can trade up. Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel is man of action. What we do matters. What we do with our "talents" matter most. Dig a hole and throw your talent away. Or trade up. You decide.