First Lesson: Psalm 63:1-8
Second Lesson: I Thessalonians 1:1-11
Children’s story: Acts 14
Sunday, June 5, 2016
So here’s the story before the story about the
church in Thessalonica. (And some of this may be
familiar – we’ve talked about this before, a
According to the story in the book of Acts, Paul
and his assistant Silas were only in
Thessalonica for about three weeks. Their normal
pattern, when they came to a new city, was to
find the synagogue in that town and worship with
the other Jews in the synagogue. It was the
custom in synagogues in those days, that out of
curtesy, the officials in the synagogue would
invite guests to say a few words, and Paul
always did. He talked about Jesus, who of course
none of them had ever heard about. And most
especially he always said that Jesus was the
Messiah whom the Jews had been waiting for for
centuries and centuries. Now you can imagine
that many of the Jews (and especially the
leaders in those synagogues) were not at all
happy to hear about this brand new Jesus whom
they had never heard of and whom this stranger
is now telling them about, and they were not at
all pleased with his guy Paul who is now causing
controversies in their happy little synagogues.
So they would make all kinds of trouble for
Paul. Those leaders stirred up riots and
reported him to the police and they charged him
with disturbing the peace and other so-called
crimes and they often put Paul and the others in
prison. Which is why he only stayed a short time
in most cities.
And that happened in Thessalonica also. Some of
the people in the synagogue, including some of
the leading women, began to believe in Jesus.
But the leaders of the synagogue made trouble.
They gathered up a bunch of no good types who
were loitering about the downtown area of the
city and they formed a mob. They called the
authorities and accused Paul and Silas of saying
there was another king – a king named Jesus -
which of course was a very serious offense. So
the brand new Christians there realized that it
was simply too dangerous for Paul and Silas to
stay in Thessalonica. Too dangerous certainly
for Paul and Silas to stay, but also too
dangerous for them to have them stay. So they
packed them off in the middle of the night for
another city, Berea. Where they immediately went
straight to the Jewish synagogue, and the same
kind of thing happened all over again.
But very soon after Pastor Paul had left
Thessalonica, in the year 50 or 51 he sat down
to write a letter to the struggling, persecuted
little church. It’s really a love letter that he
writes to them. He says to them, “I have heard
very good news about you. All the other churches
in Greece are talking about you and you’ve been
a good example to them. Timothy has reported
back to me. He reports that you are full of
faith and full of love for each other. I pray
for you constantly,” says Paul. ”And I thank God
for you. I thank God for your work of faith and
your labor of love and your steadfast hope.”
Now you know that I am no Paul, and I have been
with you for a little longer than three weeks.
But I love what Paul wrote to the church he
loved in Thessalonica and I say the same to you.
Nothing I’m going to say to you on my last
Sunday with you will be new to you. I’ve said it
all before, but I want to say it again. On my
very last Sunday with you. With deep gratitude
in my heart. I have been very proud to be your
temporary, part-time pastor and this is my love
letter to you.
I thank God for your work of faith and your
labor of love, and your steadfast hope.
Eighteen months ago now I began the process of
sitting with almost all of you and hearing about
North Kent Presbyterian Church. I heard a great
deal of pain and anger and sadness and mistrust.
I heard about deep conflict and frustration.
What probably pained me the most were the
conversations I had with younger folks here who
didn’t feel welcome in their own church. And in
these eighteen months I have sat with you and I
have silently watched you come to healing and
forgiveness. Several of you have done that very
hard work of forgiveness and I have watched you
heal from the pain of the past. I see unlikely
people having happy conversations together. I
see newer folks being well incorporated into the
life of the church. I see that younger folks are
being accepted in leadership positions and their
skills are being valued. I watch as guests come
into worship here and are welcomed warmly and
easily by long time members. I notice that some
on the edges are being cared for gently. I sit
with the men’s breakfast group and the women’s
breakfast group and the deacons and the
committees of the church and I see your quiet
out-reaching care for each other in very
practical ways and I am grateful. The session
has taken back its authority and are having good
honest discussion and coming to consensus and
following through on decisions made. There is an
atmosphere of respect and trust around the table
at session meetings. I thank God for your labor
You contribute generously and faithfully to the
work of God through this church, and you care
well for this sanctuary which you built for God
and the grounds of the church. Several of you
prepare wonderful meals and refreshments for the
rest of us, and we eat it together among happy
laughter and friendly conversations. I thank God
for your labor of love.
When I arrived here eighteen months ago I was
blown away by the Mission Outreach of this
congregation. I’m no longer blown away – I’ve
gotten used to your wonderful outpourings of
love to so many places. Now I’m just very, very
grateful. In fact now I brag about you all over
the Presbytery – about the very long list of
mission causes and activities this church
supports. And Clare Guisfredi at the North Kent
Community Center brags about you every time I
see her. And sends me lovely little notes about
you every once in a while. Sort of like that
little church in Thessalonica. And clothing and
food and money and warm winter wear keeps
pouring in from all your households to our
Fellowship Hall and goes from there to very good
places. I thank God for your labor of love.
Next Sunday you will hear from the Disciple
Bible Study group about their learnings this
past year. I am glad and grateful that this
group has had its start at North Kent Church in
recent months. It’s the group in this church
that addresses how our faith touches our hearts.
How what we know in our heads affects our lives.
How what the Bible says to us means something
for us on Monday and Tuesday and in the tough
times of our lives. And where trust develops
among the members of the group as they live
their Christian lives among each other. It’s a
place where people grow spiritually, along with
the Sunday morning discussion group and the
J.O.Y. Bible study. Sometimes I sit very quietly
at the Sunday morning discussion group and the
J.O.Y. Bible study and I listen to the comments
around the table I smile to myself at how wise
you are and how loving you are with each other.
I have watched a small, strong Sunday School
grow from nothing in a few months’ time and this
morning we have commissioned five kids for
further growth in faith at Camp Greenwood. I am
glad and grateful and I thank God for your work
And I am beginning to see hope here. This
congregation has been through some difficult
months recently. But I am also beginning to see
hope springing again, and a coming together and
sense of unity as you look forward to the coming
of your next pastor. I hear little hints of the
next almost impossible thing you’ll be doing for
God at North Kent church. There’s a positive
spirit here, and happy anticipation for Pastor
Karen’s arrival and what you may all do together
for God here.
All of that and much more I see as I look out on
this congregation. And I thank God for all of
you and for your works of faith and your labors
of love and your steadfast hope. I won’t be here
to celebrate it all with you. You know that. But
I will hold you in my heart and in my prayers.
FIRST LESSON – Psalm 23 SECOND LESSON - John 10:1-18
TIME FOR CHILDREN – Luke 15:3-7
On Memorial Day weekend I am remembering this:
Some time ago now, my father gave me a metal box of my grandfather’s mementos. In it was an assortment of postcards written mostly in about 1915, in Dutch, from his family in the Netherlands. There were several postcards of street scenes in Rotterdam, grandpa’s home town, maybe taken as remembrances when he left home. Grandpa was a pianist and organist and composer and my brother Bill has most of the music he has written, but there was a sheaf of music in that box. There were his birth certificate and his naturalization papers, and his induction notice into the First World War. There were documents for the purchase of the little green house on Havana Street – which he and grandma bought for $6,000 in 1954 – with the stipulation that they put in a bathroom. Which my father did for them, when he remodeled the rest of the house.
Then there was a stack of neatly rubber-banded packets of bills paid during the last couple years of Grandpa’s life – $4.53 to the gas company, $7.00 to the doctor, $10 to the church, $6.67 to Steketee’s department store for a pair of pants, $9.90 for a pair of shoes. And there were a stack of cancelled checks: one for $5.00 to my cousin on what would have been her thirteenth birthday and several for small amounts to my mother, to reimburse her for picking up their medications, and doing their grocery shopping. All tidily recorded, in the late 1960s – how much and to whom and for what.
I sat not long ago and looked at all that again, and relived the last months of my grandfather’s life as I looked at his cancelled checks. It touched me deeply to see his careful handwriting again, and to remember that little green house on Havana Street. I remembered going with my mother to get their groceries, and taking them to the doctor.
And then I started seeing things that I couldn’t explain. Checks periodically for a hundred dollars and two hundred dollars written out to the estate of a dearly loved and quite wealthy family friend named Chris. And then more checks to other people – all of them much larger than the ones for shoes and pants and groceries. All of these checks had my uncle John’s name carefully written in the left hand corner. And then there was a letter from a credit bureau to my grandfather saying that my uncle wasn’t able to pay his bills and owed many thousands of dollars. And I began to piece together a story that I had never been told as a child. I saw the evidence before me, in my own hands, in that little metal box, in the form of cancelled checks from many years ago. That grandpa and grandma had borrowed money from their generous friends to pay my uncle’s bills. And what touched me the most was the proof that they had paid it all back, even after their wealthy friend Chris had died, and grandpa had written the checks to his estate.
A kind of bottomless sadness came over me that night as I put those checks away. Sadness that alcohol could have affected my uncle’s life not only, but my grandparents’ lives as well. Sadness that two such gentle and loving people as my grandparents, who had virtually nothing themselves, should have assumed the debt of their son – paying it back, literally, until the day they died.
But there was also a sense of awe, almost, at the honor that I discovered in my family. Honor that a father would stand behind his son. Honor that a father – even a man of almost ninety – would pay back the debt his son owed. Even after the man to whom it was owed had died. That he would pay back the money to a man who had been far wealthier than he was. For honor’s sake. Because it was right. Because he was a person of integrity.
And then a sense of remembrance came over me. I sat with those cancelled checks in my lap for a very long time that day, thinking to myself that the world is very different now (most of us don’t even have cancelled checks today and that’s only the beginning of it) and how I miss that little green house on Havana street where my grandparents lived simply and with honor. Where my grandmother served us all ham buns with cheese and cherry Jello salad and where she told me beautiful stories. Where I was safe and secure and well loved. And I longed to find that place again.
I know that the 1960s were violent times in so many ways. I lived through the 1960s and I know that. But what I remembered that day was the security and serenity of the little house on Havana Street and how safe I felt there.
I long for a safe place. Maybe you long for a safe place. Where we don’t have to be afraid. Where there is no hatred or violence and where people are trustworthy and where we can all feel secure and loved and well cared for.
And in our scriptures for today we have a glimpse of that safe place. We have the picture from Psalm 125 of the strong, everlasting hills surrounding Jerusalem. They protect the city from harm as it nestles safely in the valley. Which is the way God surrounds and protects us. So hold that picture in your heart.
Now you remember how it was about sheep don’t you, and goats?
In the Old Testament days and on into the New Testament days all but the very, very poorest families kept at least one sheep or one goat. And those little animals were life-savers for the family. They provided milk, and cheese and meat, and their skins were made into warm blankets and clothing and their horns were even used as musical instruments. They were precious and valuable. And shepherds were entrusted with the care of these precious, valuable animals. Sometimes all the families in a village would hire one shepherd to care for all their lambs. They kept them safely in a pen all night long – with high walls and a sturdy gate that locked. That pen protected the sheep from the lions and wolves and bandits and thieves who roamed the hills in that wilderness area. In the morning the shepherd would lead them out into the dry dessert hills outside the village. They would wander among the sand and scrubby little trees and pricker bushes. They would climb over the rocks and into the crevices and little caves and sometimes they would stray away. The shepherd would call them back and lead them to where he knew the pools of water were and where green grass grew for them to graze.
Or sometimes the small sheep would be injured among the rocks and cracks and crevices of the path and then the shepherd would search for them and carry them back to the rest of the flock.
And at night, he would count all the sheep as they clustered and crammed back into pen and sometimes he would even lay his own body down in front of the gate at night for extra safety for the sheep.
And I am remembering the great king David. He was a rich, powerful, wise, God-loving king and under his leadership the country became well organized and wealthy and larger than ever before. He also had a lot of enemies, and you might remember that he spent a lot of time in the caves in those hills around Jerusalem. Hiding out from his enemies. And in those caves he wrote songs, maybe even the one we read this morning: Psalm 23, which Cindy also sang for us. I’m picturing that king in that cave. He’s remembering the times when he was shepherd boy in the rocky barren wilderness where there’s hardly any water and where almost nothing grows. And he remembered how he knew the places where there were pools of fresh water to drink and grass for his sheep to eat, and he led them to those sweet places. He had his heavy thick rod (like a very large baseball bat) and his strong staff and he defended his sheep from wolves and lions lurking among the hills. And maybe still in that cave, with his enemies searching through the hills for him, David had this picture in his mind: that God had set a table for him – a long table, lavishly loaded every kind of good food and delicacy and overflowing drinks. As if to show his enemies how God loves him and cares for him and provides all his needs. And in that cave David breathes deeply and in utter security. He says, “To the end of my life God’s goodness and compassion will be my constant companions and I will live in the luxury of God’s presence with me daily.”
Maybe your life is one series of challenges after another and maybe there really are people out there who want to do you harm. And maybe you are fearful and lonely and you long for a little time with God in a safe cave. Picture the ways that God feeds you lavishly and restores your soul when you are utterly depleted. Stay in that cave for a while with the God who promises and provides for you.
Maybe you go out every day among the thorns and the scrubby trees and the very dry, hot dessert and the pricker bushes. Maybe you long for cool water and green grass. Maybe you’ve fallen among the rocks and cracks and crevices. Maybe you’ve strayed away and lost your way and you can’t find your way home. Then hear Jesus calling your name in the darkness. Hear him searching for you in the bushes and finding you in the crevices. And feel him pick you up gently and carry you home safely, where you belong.
Find that safe, secure place and flourish there.
I Corinthians 3:1-15
First lesson: Psalm 1:1-3
Children’s time: I Samuel 3:1-18
May 22, 2016
Now you might remember that little church in Corinth, in Greece. We hung out in Corinth for a few weeks several months ago and we talked a bit about that church then. Pastor Paul had been in Corinth for about 18 months in about the year 50 or 52 and had started that brand new little Christian church then. They didn’t have a church building. They didn’t need a church building. It was a very small church. Small enough so that everybody could gather in one home to worship. Small enough so that everybody could eat together in a potluck meal in somebody’s home every week. After all these years, I love it that we even know the names of some of these people. There were a husband and wife team of Priscilla and Aquilla who had a leather working business (and by the way, her name is always mentioned first, so we suppose that she was really the brains behind the business.) And there was Crispus who had been the President of the Jewish synagogue in Corinth, and Titius Justus who opened his home for worship and Gaius and Stephanus and Fortunatus and there was at least one wealthy, well established, business woman named Chloe.
In that small church there was a great mix of people. Some in the church were wealthy, well established business people. They were used to making their own decisions and running their own businesses and ordering their slaves around and they were not used to cooperating with others or collaborating. Then there were the slaves and free servants of these wealthy folks who lived with them and who obeyed because they had to. A huge diversity of folks. And as you may recall, there was this squabbling going on about how some people were coming to their congregational meals hungry and not waiting for the others before they ate, and eating up everything they could. Perhaps because there was nothing to eat at home.
It was a small, diverse church and it was also an isolated church. The nearest Christian Church to Corinth was 200 miles away by ship to Ephesus in Turkey. Or 300 miles by ship to Thessalonica and 400 miles by ship to Philippi. And those churches were also very small, very new, very struggling churches. The brand new Christians in Corinth had lots of other Jews all around them in Corinth, and they could have told them how to be a Jewish synagogue. But they didn’t have any other Christian churches to tell them how to be a Christian Church or tell them anything at all about Jesus. Once Paul had left.
So they made things up. And had differences of opinion about it all and they fought.
After Pastor Paul left, Pastor Apollos came. And after he left they made things up again and had differences of opinion and fought again. And we have the impression that they argued and fought and had serious conflicts and controversies about all kinds of things. Some people quoted what Pastor Paul had said and some people quoted what Pastor Apollos had said. Some of them lined themselves up behind Paul and some lined themselves up behind Apollos. And some of them had apparently heard about Peter and they lined themselves up behind Peter. And they were fighting it out among each other. Until finally they heard that Paul was over there in Ephesus and they sent Fortunatus and Stephanus with a list of questions to ask him. To get his answers and maybe resolve some of their conflicts. And while they waited, Paul sat down and wrote out the answers to their questions.
And he said to them, “What is this I hear about all this squabbling and fighting among you? What is this I hear about some of you claiming me and quoting me and some of you claiming Apollos and quoting Apollos? And some of you claiming Peter? We are only your servants.” (He says this to people who have housefuls of slaves and servants. They know all about servants.) Paul says to them, “God gave each one of us a task. I came first and I planted the seeds of faith there in Corinth. I was the first to tell you about Jesus and how to be the followers of Jesus and how to be a Christian Church. And after I left Apollos came. And he watered the seeds I had planted. But it was God who made the seeds grow. Only God can produce a lush harvest. The planter and the waterer are only planters and waterers. The credit for a field full of ripening wheat goes to God.
And then he shifts the metaphor just a bit, and says, “I laid a foundation with you there in Corinth and others are building on that foundation, but that foundation is Jesus Christ. Everything we know and do is built on Jesus Christ, that firm foundation.”
And that, my beloved congregation, is the story of North Kent Presbyterian Church. Right in front of your very eyes.
I’m so glad that Sally Luidens was our liturgist today. Her father was a very early pastor of North Kent church, and as you recall, their family arrived just as the roof was blown off this church in a great tornado. But the foundation stayed firm. Some of you remember having worship and meetings and Sunday School classes and choir rehearsals in the manse next door. You remember Rev. Luidens’ strong voice in the choir. He built on that strong foundation and you re-built the roof on that strong foundation. Then came other pastors – including Kurt Stiansen, and Walter Teeuwissen and Dwight Hillstrom and Helen Collins and Paula Vander Hoven and soon for a very short time Bert Nelson and then before long Karen Fitz La Barge will be here. We are seed planters. We are waterers. Maybe we do a little weeding. Maybe we plow the field a little. Maybe we cover up the tender seedlings when frost is predicted. Maybe we stake up the weak plants. Maybe we trim the bushes occasionally. But God is the Master Gardener and the harvest belongs to God. And none of us takes any credit along the way. Because we are servants. Slaves. We do what we have been called to do.
We love you while we’re here with you. We sit with you and hear your pain and we listen to your hard questions and your sadnesses. We are here with you when loved ones die. We sit with you and we celebrate your successes with you. We laugh a lot with you and eat good food together a lot. We live among you and we talk about Jesus constantly and what it means to be a follower of Jesus. We talk about God, and what life with God can be like and we point you to God. But we only point.
We celebrate what God has done at North Kent Church while Jack Luidens was here and Dwight Hillstrom and the others. We thank God for all that. Today especially we are thanking God for fifty years of servant ministry for Dwight Hillstrom and for Edie alongside him, and especially we are thanking God for what they meant to this church at an important moment in your history. We are remembering the large addition to this building – the conference room and classrooms and offices and a large part of our fellowship hall - that were added during his ministry here. But the foundation of this building is Jesus Christ. Dwight Hillstrom and all of you built on that foundation. It is such a pleasure to think back and remember all that happened here. I hope you will spend lots of time talking and reminiscing well together during Coffee Hour. I hope you will tell wonderful stories and enjoy each other’s company. And thank God for it all.
But this is God’s church. It’s not Jack Luidens’ church or Kurt Stiansen’s church or Walter Teeuwissen’s church, or Dwight Hillstrom’s church or Helen Collins’ church or Paula Vander Hoven’s church or Karen Fitz La Barge’s church. Sometimes I call you my beloved congregation, and I do love you. But really, this is the church of Jesus Christ. You are the beloved congregation of Jesus Christ. And he will lead you into the future that the Spirit of God will show you.
FIRST LESSON: Joel 2:23-29
SECOND LESSON: Acts 2:1-16
TIME FOR CHILDREN: Acts 10:1-48
Now you remember how that was, don’t you? Jesus’ twelve disciples had all been very active men with important jobs (at least the ones that we know about.) They were used to working hard and being responsible and doing what they had to do. Then Jesus had come along and had recruited them, and if anything they were more busy and more active with more important things to do. They were working hard day and night and facing significant obstacles and seldom taking a break and doing what Jesus called them to do. He talked a lot about his coming kingdom and they talked a lot about his coming kingdom. Which they were sure they would have some very important part in, and they had high hopes for their glorious future together. With Jesus. In Jerusalem. When he was king.
And then suddenly, that was all over. Jesus was dead and gone. They had lost all sense of direction or purpose in their lives. Their hopes for a coming kingdom had died along with Jesus. It was starting to sink in that there wasn’t going to be any brand new kingdom and there wouldn’t be any important roles for them in the inner circle of the brand new king.
They had all kinds of questions about what they had done for the past three years - knocking themselves out day and night - and for what purpose. They wondered how they could have misunderstood so badly about Jesus’ kingdom. They wondered if they could still go back to their old jobs and whether they would want to. They were in mourning and grieving for Jesus and they had lost the center and passion and purpose in their own lives. And they knew very well that their own lives were in danger from the same people who had killed Jesus.
So they hunkered down together. In hiding in secret, locked rooms. They ate together and prayed together and told Jesus stories together. They remembered every word he had ever said to them, and everything he had done in front of them for three years. They read the scriptures – they poured over every shred of the scriptures, searching for some clue to help them understand it all. They searched and searched the Old Testament for some vision for their own futures.
For fifty days they did that. The eleven male disciples that were left of the original twelve, and the women disciples, certainly, and some others as well. One hundred twenty of them.
They were demoralized and discouraged and dejected.
But suddenly it all came together. The sound of a powerful wind blew through that room and little flames of fire danced on each of their heads and it all came together. All that prayer, and all that searching through the scriptures and all that remembering Jesus and quoting Jesus to each other. It all came together. And Peter preached it.
Now you haven’t forgotten Peter, have you? He’s the guy who denied three times that he had ever known Jesus. A little nobody servant girl asked him about Jesus in the middle of the night and that big, brawny, bold fisherman (as I picture him) got scared and said he had never known him.
You haven’t forgotten Peter, have you? The last time we saw Peter, Jesus was asking him, “Peter, do you love me with all your heart and soul?” And Peter replied, “Well, I’m really quite fond of you.” Three times he answered Jesus like that. We are not likely to forget Peter.
But something came over Peter that day in that room. And the others who were with him. As they were sitting together they heard the sound of violent blowing wind. They looked around at each other and saw what looked like little flames dancing around on each of them. And then the most amazing thing of all - all those very simple people – most of whom had never been out of the country that we know of – started speaking in other languages. Speaking fluently in other languages. People came rushing from all over the city when they heard that violent noise. You remember how that was – that Jews from all over the world were home in Jerusalem to celebrate the Pentecost holiday with their family and friends and to worship in the temple. They came running to see what all the noise was about and they heard Peter and all the others speaking in the languages of all the places they had come from. And they concluded that all of them must be drunk. One hundred and twenty of them. At nine o’clock in the morning.
But they weren’t drunk. They were full of the Holy Spirit and Peter got up and preached it. Boldly. With conviction. He quoted the prophet Joel which he had just been reading. He quoted the Psalms of David which he had just been reading. And put it all together and he preached that Jesus had been sent from God and had done miracles among them. That he had been handed over to the Jewish elders and priests who had executed him on a cross. Which had been God’s plan all along. But God raised him from death and welcomed him to sit on his throne. (Not a throne in Jerusalem, but a throne in the glories of heaven.)
Now this is all very familiar to us and it doesn’t sound very special. We’ve heard this all again and again all of our lives, and we’ve said it again and again. But this was the very first time in the history of the world that those words had been said. The first time that anybody had ever said that Jesus had been sent by God, and that he died on a cross, which was God’s plan. And whom God raised back to life again. And then Peter said a very dangerous thing to all those Jews who had come running. He said “You have killed our Messiah. You have killed the one whom all the Jews have been waiting for for centuries and centuries. Jesus was that Messiah and you killed him.” Those are very dangerous words.
So here’s what happened to that big, brawny, bold fisherman who was afraid of a simple, nobody servant girl and who had said that he had never known Jesus. Here’s what happened to that man who said that all he could manage was to be very fond of Jesus. That man is gone. Way gone.
Peter has received the Holy Spirit. He is no longer hunkering down in a room afraid for what will happen to him. He’s not demoralized or discouraged or dejected. He’s going to preach a passionate, eloquent sermon and 3,000 people are going to be added to the church in one day. Brand new Christian Churches are going to be formed in all those places all over the world where those people have come from. That man Peter is going to travel all over the world preaching what he just preached so powerfully.
He’s going to hear God speaking to him in ways he can’t misunderstand. (Like in the story I told the children.) He’s going to discard a lot of what he always thought was true, and he’s going to come to some bold, new understandings of what God is asking of him. (Like in the children’s story.) And he’s going to follow God into some pretty amazing places. All because the Holy Spirt has come to him.
So see what happens when the Holy Spirit comes to us, North Kent Church? See how our lives change? See how we can be transformed from being timid little, scared little, discouraged little people? See how purposeful and powerful we can become, and how we can catch a brand new vision of who we can be and how we can be? See how we can dream new dreams and have visions, and see how we can do things we never even dared to imagine?
We may be asked to let go of some old ideas that we have always held on to. We may be called to do some new and even scary things. We may have new energy and new passion and new ideas and in fact, we may become new people, in the companionship of the Holy Spirit.
Until pretty soon we won’t know ourselves any more. That’s what happens to people when the Holy Spirit gets ahold of them. That’s what happens to a whole church full of people when the Holy Spirit comes over them.
So North Kent Church: Do you see yourselves in this story of Peter at Pentecost? How do you see yourselves? A moment of silence to pray and ponder that.
FIRST LESSON II Timothy 1:1-10
TIME FOR CHILDREN Mark 4:1-19
May 1, 2016
Sometimes we have inserts in our bulletin to help us picture the scripture passage. Or help us understand it better. Today we have a living, breathing, young woman here to illustrate our passages. Renae Venman was born into this church and was confirmed here. Her grandparents, John and Diane were charter members of the church and her father has served this church as a Youth Group leader and Sunday school teacher and elder and now a deacon. She and her mother Sandy and her father Jev and her brother JD have been in worship and have been an active part of this church since the day she was born. Some of you cared for her in the church nursey, I suppose. Some of you were her Sunday School teachers. You have literally watched her grow up here. You have helped her grow in faith here. And you have loved her into the beautiful young woman she is today. From the time she has been a very young girl, you have taught her about Jesus and told her stories about Jesus. As she became a young woman you told her that God is always with her to love her and care for her. And now in the goodness and grace and love of God, you are sending her to Brazil. To share with others what you have shared with her.
A few minutes ago you all rose from your seats and laid your hands on her in a beautiful circle of love that extended far down the aisles of this church. We prayed prayers of thanks for her life and her faith and we asked God’s rich blessing on her as she does what we are sending her to do.
In this church, Renae has been attached to Jesus the way a grape branch is attached to the vine. And the way a tree limb is attached to the trunk. She has been well watered and well-tended and now she is producing fruit. Luscious grapes from those vines. The faith of her grandparents and her parents and of you, her North Kent family, is growing in her. A few weeks ago she sang for us, “Amazing Grace.” And today that is beautifully obvious.
Her name is Renae, and she’s going to Brazil in the year 2016 but she goes in the spirit of Timothy whom we have just read about. Who went to Turkey in about the year 100.
So, Renae, as you begin your ministry may I read for you these words to Timothy: “Keep alive the gift that God gave you. The Spirit that God has given us does not make us timid. Instead, God’s Spirit fills us with power, and love and self-control.” Vaya con Dios, Renae. Go with God.
A few weeks ago on Easter Sunday Lauren Brasure, another young woman of this congregation stood in this very pulpit and gave a beautiful testimony of God’s guidance and goodness in her life. These last months have been a very difficult, very painful time in her life. This congregation has prayed her through very serious surgeries and tough therapy sessions and a lot of unanswered questions. Lauren stood here and spoke of God’s goodness to her through it all and God’s guidance of her in the unknown path ahead.
And it doesn’t stop with Lauren and Renae. Now you are fulfilling your promises to Norah and Tom and Konrad and Joshua and Jaydalyn and Cassia and Morgen and Coral and Amayah. Very soon Norah and Jaydalyn and Cassia will be receiving Bibles from this church. A wonderful, committed team of teachers are teaching Sunday School and others are staffing our church nursery. And in a couple of weeks more we’ll be commissioning Tom and Norah and Morgen and Jade and Cassia to go to Camp Greenwood, on full scholarships from the loving folks in this church. Where I tell you, they will have life-changing experiences in their faith.
So see what that looks like when the branches are attached to the vine? See what that looks like when a whole church full of people who know God and love God and serve God raise their children to know God and love God and serve God? See what it looks like when a whole church full of people draw their strength and their nourishment from Jesus? Every single day.
The pleasure and the joy and the anticipation continues. A week from today we will worship with Karen Fitz La Barge, and we all anticipate that you will call her to be your next pastor. It’s a day we have been looking forward to in this church for eighteen months. A day that our Pastoral Nominating Committee has been working hard for. And you are looking forward to the future God has for you as a growing, thriving church.
Jesus reminds us how that is. He says “Remain in me and I will remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain attached to the vine. And you can’t produce any fruit unless you remain attached to me.”
Because here’s what happens to branches that aren’t attached to the vines. They don’t get the water and nutrients they need from the roots and the vines and they wither. They don’t produce grapes. Their leaves become brown and dry and ugly and they fall off. And somebody comes along and throws them on the compost pile.
So see how that works, North Kent Church? You can’t give what you don’t have. You can’t raise children to know Jesus and to love God unless you know Jesus and love God yourselves. You can’t give them that beautiful foundation in faith unless you have it yourselves. It doesn’t happen out of thin air that two beautiful young women in this church demonstrate such beautiful Christian lives. It happens because they have been taught, in this church and in others. They have become serious students of the scripture. They have learned to pray, fervently and deeply. They have felt the movement of God’s Spirit in their lives and the guidance of God’s gentle nudging. They have had serious conversations with others about faith and life and how we live our faith. It started in this place and it has continued.
In the past several months we have had several guests come to talk with us after worship. We have invited them to share with us what a growing, thriving, healthy church looks like. Folks from the Rockford United Church of Christ have been here. Folks from the Blythefield Christian Reformed Church just up the street have been here. They have talked about their transitions from larger churches that became much smaller and discouraged and back to being the larger, lively churches they now are – with lots of younger folks and kids. Rev. Dr. Todd Cioffi and a team of his students from Calvin College have been here to help us think about what younger folks are looking for in a church. Rev. Dr. Jack Stewart has been here to talk about what thriving churches have in common. (And by the way, whenever I see them they ask about you.)
And all of them said this one thing: They all said there isn’t any one magic formula or any one glitzy program or any one person or any one guaranteed recipe that will grow a church quick. They all said, pretty much in the same words, even, that it’s about getting back to the basics – to solid preaching and church wide, robust Bible study for the adults. It’s about having strong Christian Education programs for children and youth. It’s about learning how to pray and praying. It’s about recognizing the presence of God and the leading of God and then following God’s leading. It’s about patterning our lives after Jesus and making him the center of our lives. And it’s about learning hospitality. And over time, when all these things are well in place, growth happens slowly and churches begin to thrive – over time.
Younger folks are not looking for a happy little club where nice people all speak nicely to each other and enjoy each other’s company. They have all sorts of other places where they can find that. What younger folks are looking for is a place to learn about God. And learn to know God. And experience God. And discover Jesus. And grow in their faith. They are looking for a place to ask hard questions and struggle with the answers in a safe atmosphere. They long to sit with people who are experienced in faith and can read scripture with them and mentor them in our Christian lives and guide them gently without judging them. And value them even when they make mistakes and don’t know it all and don’t have all the answers. Younger folks are looking for people who will appreciate them and welcome them genuinely even when they don’t know how things are always done around here and sometimes do it wrong. They are looking for adults who will take the time to know them and learn to communicate with them and are patient and accepting of them. They are looking for a place where they can live out that faith in loving actions toward their neighbors and where they can have a view of God as sovereign in this crazy, messed up world.
It’s about having wise, seasoned, spiritually sensitive adults who are firmly attached to the vine and who then nurture younger folks.
Is that you, North Kent Church?
And it starts with this table. Where we are reminded who we are whose we are and whom we are attached to.
FIRST LESSON Matthew 16:13-20
TIME FOR CHILDREN Acts 3:1-10
April 24, 2016
So take a look at that sandal in the bulletin.
That sandal was not much protection for feet, if you think of it. It didn’t protect the toes or the tops of the feet or the ankles. It didn’t protect from the cold. Or the rain. It didn’t protect much from rocks or sharp stones on the path, or clumps of soil sticking up, or from snake bites or wagon wheels - not to mention whatever donkeys left behind them on the road. The feet in those sandals are pretty much unprotected.
Now think about the man who might have worn those sandals – Peter, for instance. And think about his feet. He may have been about fifty years old. He was a fisherman, used to walking along the rocky coastline of the lakeshore on Lake Galilee. He had walked up and down hills and through the dessert and in small villages and cities in those flimsy sandals for about seventy-five miles here and there - just in the last three years, following Jesus. Those feet were calloused and permanently stained and grimy and filthy and he had probably broken his toes and his toenails countless times. These are some ugly feet we are looking at here!
And on the last night of Jesus’ life, after he had finished his last supper with Peter and the others, Jesus wrapped a towel around his waist. He took a basin of water and knelt in front of each of them, one by one, and washed their feet. But Peter wasn’t having any of it. He wanted to tuck his filthy, ugly feet under his long robes and hide them and he protested. Knowing Peter, he probably protested loudly. But Jesus had one last lesson for Peter – one final loving gift.
Usually, you know, it was servants or slaves who washed peoples’ feet. Anybody who was wealthy enough to have guests to dinner also had slaves, and before the guests sat down to dinner, the slaves would wash people’s feet. Which were probably hot and dirty and dusty. It was the mark of a truly gracious host.
But Peter says to Jesus, “I don’t want you being a slave to me. I won’t have it.”
And Jesus may have said something to Peter like this: “Peter, you’ve struggled and suffered alongside me for three years. You’ve been homeless and penniless with me and you’ve heard every word I said and you’ve seen everything I’ve done. You, more than any of the others, know and understand who I am. You’ve heard the people who have hated me and they are powerful people and you have stuck with me anyway. But you can’t really belong to me if you don’t let me wash your feet. There is one more, last, lesson you need to learn from me. One more loving experience between us. You need to learn to be vulnerable with me. You have been strong, and proud and very, very active with me. You have said all the right words about me, with great conviction. You have made rash, bold promises to me. Now you need to show me another side. You need let me see your ugly feet, and you need to let me wash them, callouses and all. And unless you let me do that you can’t be a part of me.”
And for us, the story is all the more poignant and powerful. Jesus knew that in this loving circle of friends he had created, two of them would fail him badly in his last hours. Judas would betray him to people hated him and Peter would deny that he ever knew him. And in that moment around the table he could have accused them, and he could have screamed at them and denounced them. But the Creator and King of Heaven and Earth quietly wraps a towel around his waist and kneels on the floor in front of them and does the chore of a servant for them.
And Jesus says to us, “Unless I wash your filthy feet you can’t be a part of me.”
So we look deep into ourselves. We recall all the good we have done in Jesus’ name. We remember all the money we have given to the One Great Hour of Sharing offering and to this church. We remember the funds that we have lovingly given to Renae Venman toward her Mission Trip to Brazil in a couple of weeks, and to the Mel Trotter Ministries. We think about all the clothing and food we have given to very good places for Jesus’ other children. And all the kindnesses we have done and all the care we have given to others.
And we look deep into ourselves again and we shamefully recall all the times we have spent our other money wastefully on all the wrong things. And all the times we have been secretly proud of ourselves for being better than the homeless people at Mel Trotter. And all the times we were so preoccupied with dressing well and looking well and presenting a good image of ourselves that we did not notice the hurts of others.
Let’s have a moment of silence to sit with our filthy feet in front of Jesus and let him see that side of us. And allow him to wash our feet.
And then Jesus says to us, “Now that I have washed your feet, you should also wash one another’s feet.” Which might even be harder still. We won’t have a pedicure first and we won’t clip our toenails first. We will simply take off our shoes and our socks and show each other our feet.
Now I have been your temporary part time pastor for about eighteen months. For me they have been beautiful, very blessed months. I have watched some of you do the very hard work of forgiveness and healing and I have been blessed to sit with you. A great deal of the anger and hurt and conflict and mistrust in this church is gone, and I watch every Sunday now how long you stay in coffee hour chatting with each other and I can’t get you into worship on time because you’re all off talking away and laughing with each other in Teeuwissen Hall. I have seen how you have eaten enormous amounts of very good food that the Membership Committee provides. I have watched how you are able to look across huge differences and work together and worship together well. I have watched the elders on the session slog through the tough stuff together and come to consensus. I have watched the deacons care for you all.
But I have not seen many of you take off your shoes and socks and show your feet to each other. Or wash each other’s feet. I think that’s happening in our Disciple Bible study. But maybe not many other places.
So maybe it will be like this: that you will sit with one or two others in a circle with a scripture passage and talk about a hard time in your life and tell how that scripture has comforted you on your very worst days. Maybe it will be like this: that you will pray with each other in a small group - not the polite little, sweet little prayers we pray in public before and after meetings with each other, but the desperate, fervent prayers of a person in great pain. Maybe it will be like this: that you will even cry with each other and hold hands together and hug each other. Maybe it will be like this: that you will see the faults in others and acknowledge them and forgive them. Maybe you will even say to another person in this church, very privately: “I know a little bit about your life and I can’t imagine how hard it must be, and how can I support you?”
Maybe you will hear Jesus say, “Now that I, your Lord, have washed your feet, you should also wash one another’s feet.”
Sit with that in silence for a moment.
FIRST LESSON Exodus 20:1-17 and Matthew 22:34-40
SECOND LESSON John 3:1-21
TIME FOR CHILDREN Luke 2:41-51
April 17, 2016
We have a guest in worship with us today and he has asked me to read the story he has written for you.
My name is Nicodemus and I am a Jew. I am a Jewish lawyer, in fact. I am a very good Jewish lawyer, in fact. I sit on the Jewish Supreme Court, in fact. We call ourselves Pharisees and you may have heard of us. You might know that we are the legal scholars. We know the laws. We know the pickiest parts of the laws. We recite the laws, and obey the laws, even the pickiest parts of the laws, and we teach other Jews the laws. And we make sure that they obey the laws. We know the proper way to wash our cups and plates and bowls and that’s how we wash them. We know precisely what we should and should not eat. We know how far we are allowed to walk on the Sabbath, and we don’t walk a single step farther. We have spelled out very properly what we are allowed to do on the Sabbath (which isn’t very much.) We know the laws that God gave to the people in the book of Exodus. And we make sure we enforce those laws. We are the ones who are preserving our pathway to God. For the entire Jewish nation.
Because here’s how it is. We are a very small nation. We are controlled by Romans and we are surrounded by other countries and we might very well be swallowed up by the Romans and our neighbors. We could very well lose our identity as a nation. Except that we know our God, and we remember the laws that God gave us, and we worship God in our temple in Jerusalem. Our God gave us our laws more than a thousand years ago at Mount Sinai in the Arabian dessert. Our great King Solomon built a beautiful shimmering shining golden temple to God a thousand years ago in Jerusalem. We know we are Jews – and we are proudly Jews – because we keep the Jewish laws. We know we’re Jews because we worship our God in our beautiful, sacred temple here in Jerusalem. We know we’re Jews because we know our God and our history and our laws and we honor them.
We have a box right near the door of our temple for our offerings and if we don’t have the right change for our offering that day we have men sitting at the door making change. Our laws tell us very clearly that we are not to associate with people who have skin diseases like leprosy and we don’t. We make lepers live outside our cities and they wear rags and if they absolutely have to come into the cities we make them shout “unclean,” “unclean” as they walk along so we won’t come near them by accident. That was the law that God gave us in the book of Leviticus a very long time ago. That has been our way. Always.
But lately this young man named Jesus has been walking and talking in our streets and he has gathered quite following. He’s associating with all kinds of people who are sick and dirty and he’s talking with prostitutes and he’s actually touching lepers. He’s telling people it doesn’t matter how we wash our cups and plates and bowls. He made a huge scene the other day at the temple and drove away our money changers. We would call him a sinner. We would call him the worst of sinners. And in fact we lawyers have confronted him and we have tried to prove him wrong. Some of my colleagues are even beginning to hatch plans for how to kill him. They think they are doing their job. They think they are getting rid of a person who is doing wrong and who is teaching others to do wrong.
BUT. BUT. He’s healing all kinds of people with all kinds of diseases and he’s bringing people back to life again who have died. And the other day at a wedding reception he turned ordinary water into wine. So he must be some sort of supernatural person – some sort of person from God. I was puzzled by him. I was intrigued by him. I was drawn to him. I wanted to hear more about him. But I knew I had to do it secretly.
So I scheduled a very private meeting with this Jesus at midnight. At first he talked in riddles and I didn’t understand a word. He talked about being born again. He talked about light and dark and how we love the dark and we hate the light because it exposes the evil things we are doing. He talked about eternal life which I certainly did not understand. I had no idea why he was talking with me like that in the middle of the night at our secret meeting.
But then it dawned me. With the moon shining on us in the darkness I saw the light. This man Jesus is talking about a loving God. Not the kind of God who counts how many steps we walk or how we wash our cups and bowls. Or what we eat or don’t eat. Or if we happen to touch a leper. Jesus’ God loves people whom we have always avoided. His God could care less about all those laws we have about not associating with people who have skin diseases like leprosy. In fact, those are the very people whom Jesus’ God cares about. This God loves it when people are healed, even if it is on the Sabbath day (maybe especially if it’s on the Sabbath day.) And this man named Jesus came to show us this God. Jesus helped me to see that God doesn’t judge people who don’t keep our picky little laws. And God doesn’t condemn them or punish them. It’s not about the laws. It’s about love. It’s about a God who loves us. Who loved us all so much that that God sent a son to die in our dark and evil world.
I began to see how very radical this new idea was. And that it requires me to have a complete change of heart and mind. I understand now that I need to see newly and think newly and act newly. It’s like being a new born all over again. And walking in the light instead of the darkness.
That night I became his secret follower. I kept my seat on our Supreme Court. I continued to know the law and teach the law and counsel people about the law. But secretly, I believed this man Jesus and his talk of a loving God.
And I was there a couple of years later. My colleagues, the others on our Supreme Court, had demanded his death, and he was executed. On a cross. But my friend Joseph and I came to take his bloody, mangled body off the cross. I brought spices, and we wrapped him in a linen cloth and we tucked in sweet smelling spices around his body. And we buried him in Joseph’s grave.
And I am here today to speak to you – here in Michigan in the twenty-first century.
Learn to know the God who loves you. Learn to believe the unbelievable love that God has for you. God is not a God who picks at you and hovers around waiting for you to disobey some picky little law. And watching how you wash your cups and bowls. God loved you so lavishly that he did what nobody else has ever done for you - offered a son to die in your dark, evil, messy world. To show that goodness is stronger than evil and light is stronger than darkness and love is stronger than hate.
Remember what Jesus said to me, “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned.”
Now it’s not that the Ten Commandments are bad. Those laws help you to live as people of God. They show you who you are with God. Just as they showed us how to live as God’s people. But they are only half the story. They don’t begin to tell you the forgiveness that Jesus talked about, and the great gift that God has given you.
And then, when you have that firmly in your mind, then love each other. Don’t pick at each other. Don’t find fault. Don’t be judgmental. Don’t condemn each other. Don’t dwell on your differences. Don’t live by rules and laws. Live in love. Let the love of God soak through your resistance and seep out of you to others. Love as lavishly and as unselfishly as you are loved. Love God and love each other. Accept the grace of God in your life and offer that grace in return. Make a real effort to reach out to people you may have avoided. Replace cruelty with kindness. Pattern your life after Jesus and do what he did.
Remember what Jesus said to all of us, “I have a new commandment for you: Love one another as I have loved you. By this all will know that we are the Lord’s if we have love for one another.”
That may require some changes in your life. That may require thinking newly and acting newly and maybe it will even mean that you are born again. Born into God’s outrageous love for you. Born into the outrageous, all-sacrificing love of Jesus for you. And born again to love others as outrageously as you have been loved.
Thank you for inviting me here today.
First Lesson: John 18:15-18 and 25-27
Children: John 21:1-14
Sunday, April 10, 2016
Now I have been pretty much living with Peter for the past week or so, and I will tell you that he is a strong, complicated, dedicated, unpredictable sort of guy. He’s not easy to classify and he’s not at all consistent.
For example: the first we hear of Peter is that he and his brother Andrew are fishing up in Lake Galilee. And a man whom apparently they have never seen before walks by and says to both of them, “Follow me.” and they do. According to the story in the book of Matthew, they actually dropped their fishing nets right where they were on the beach and walked with Jesus down the lakeshore. And they walked with him and behind him for the next three years from the northern part of the country where they lived, all the way to the south.
Eventually there were ten other men who followed him, and Peter seems to have been their leader. They traveled to pretty much all the small villages and cities all over the country and they did astonishing miracles in Jesus’ name. They healed people who were sick and even brought people back to life again who had died. They traveled from place to place without an extra penny in their pockets and without an extra change of clothing and they slept and ate wherever and however they could. Peter’s the one who said to Jesus, “We have left everything to follow you.” And it was true. Peter was chosen by Jesus to witness some of the most important moments of Jesus’ life – things that the others weren’t invited into. He was there on the mountain when Moses and Elijah appeared from hundreds of years earlier and when a voice came from heaven announced “This is my Son, whom I love.” It was a frightening moment, with bright shiny lights and dark scary clouds, and mysterious things happening to Jesus. And it was Peter, you remember who had his wits about him and wanted to prolong the glory of it all. Peter was in the room when Jesus took a twelve year old dead girl by the hand and raised her up off her bed to life. There was that time when Jesus called Peter to walk on stormy water to meet him, Peter hiked up his clothes, climbed out of the boat and came walking through the waves to Jesus. And when he started to sink into the waves, he grabbed onto Jesus’ hand. Peter is strong, deeply committed to Jesus and entirely unafraid.
Of all Jesus’s disciples, Peter “got” Jesus. They had all heard him speak. They had all seen him cure people with serious mental and physical illness. They were all there when he fed fifteen or so thousand men, women and children with a little bit of bread and a few fish. They had all listened in while he had loud confrontations with the religious leaders and they had heard him talk constantly about the kingdom of God. But Peter was the only one who could say, with great conviction, “You are the Christ, the son of the living God.”
When Jesus wanted to eat his last Passover supper with his disciples he chose Peter and one other person find a place for them to do that and to prepare the meal. As they were eating around the table, Jesus announced that one of them would betray him. They were all astonished, Peter maybe more so than the others, and he declared loudly that he would never deny Jesus, even to the point of death. And few minutes later during the supper, you remember how Jesus wrapped a towel around his waist and took a basin of water. He knelt on the floor in front of all the men, one by one, and washed their feet. It was his last act of humble service to each of them, and though they didn’t know it, it was also his silent, loving farewell to them. But Peter wouldn’t have it. He couldn’t see the deep affection and the beauty of the moment and he couldn’t accept Jesus’ humble, loving service to him. He protested loudly that he didn’t want Jesus on the floor mucking about with his filthy, smelly, misshapen feet and his grimy, broken toenails. And after supper, when Jesus went to the olive grove called Gethsemane, it was Peter and two others whom Jesus chose to watch and wait nearby for hours while he prayed his passionate, end of life prayer. And it was also Peter who fell asleep while he waited – who couldn’t manage to keep his eyes open long enough at a critical moment to offer some small support. And a few minutes later, when a crowd of priests and elders with clubs and swords came for Jesus, Peter stepped in. He had a sword himself, you recall, though I don’t know where in the world he would have gotten it. He must have had some reason to expect trouble. And Peter whipped out his sword and slashed it at the closest person and chopped off his ear. In passionate defense of Jesus. Useless. But passionate. And very misplaced. And Jesus told him sternly, “Put your sword away!” And a few hours after that, when all the other male disciples had abandoned Jesus and had gone into hiding for fear of what would happen to them, Peter stayed nearby. He was there and stayed within sight of Jesus in the middle of the night when the soldiers and the priests and the elders were hauling him from court to court to court and trying him again and again. Perhaps he was hoping to catch glimpse of Jesus as he went from court to court. To say a supportive, loving word to him in the darkness. But it never happened. Peter was sitting beside the fire warming himself and that’s where he denied three times that he ever knew Jesus. .
So are you getting the picture here? Sometimes we are in awe of this man Peter and the fact that Jesus chose him to be his special companion over and over. We honor him for his deep devotion to Jesus and for the ways that understood Jesus’ mission better than the others and for the ways that he sacrificed a great deal and expressed his devotion so devotedly. And in the next second we want to say to him, “Peter, what were you thinking? Peter, how could you have? Peter, what has gotten into you?” For missing the point so completely and for saying all the wrong things and doing all the wrong things and forgetting his very firm promises and disappointing Jesus so tragically so often.
And after all that, Jesus reaches out to Peter in love.
It was a poignant moment, there on the beach. Three times Peter had vehemently denied that he even knew Jesus. And now Jesus gives him the chance to re-affirm his love. Three times.
But did you notice the words we spoke this morning in our Statement of Faith? Now you know I am no great student of Greek. I learned Greek and also Hebrew in seminary about thirty-five years ago, and I’ve pretty much lost it all. But this I do know. There are different words in Greek for our word “love.” Jesus says to Peter, twice, ”Do you love me with all your heart and soul?” And twice, Peter responds, “You know that I am very fond of you.” Did you catch that? “You know I am very fond of you.” The third time Jesus asks Peter, “Are you even very fond of me, Peter?” Peter answers “I am truly very fond of you, Jesus.” Peter cannot bring himself to say that he loves Jesus with all his heart. And I cannot begin to imagine how that hurt Jesus’ heart. But even so, he says to Peter, “Well then, even if that’s the best you can do, tend my sheep. Care for the people I love. Do for them what I would do if I were here.”
And here’s the truth, my beloved. Sometimes we go through our closets and we find a lot of very nice clothing and belts and shoes and we pack them up and we bring them to church. And we are happy that we have done what Jesus would have wanted us to do for the people he loves. But here’s the other piece of truth: it is very hard for us to consider sharing our schools and our neighborhoods with refugees from other countries who may have a different way of worshipping God.
A good many of us in this congregation do a great deal of caring for our spouses and our parents and our children and our grandchildren. And sometimes – often – we do that graciously and in good spirits and with genuine love for them and concern for their needs. And Jesus is pleased that we have tended his sheep. And at other times, horrible words come out of our mouths that we have not planned and that we are immediately sorry. Sometimes we have the most selfish feelings in our hearts. And we are utterly ashamed.
Sometimes we really do get it. We really do understand that we are hands and feet and minds and voices of Jesus in this world. We understand that Jesus has no hands and feet in this world these days but ours. He has only us to tend to the needs of world as he would. And some days we really do fulfill that mission well. But the truth is that there are too many hungry people and it’s going to take a whole lot more than a few boxes of Cheerios to feed them, and a couple of Band-aids for their pain. And our political system is too complex and the forces against us are too strong and in the end, Jesus’ lambs are still going to be hungry and poor and sick and we will have failed miserably.
And I think to myself, “Paula, what were you thinking? How could you have? What has gotten into you?” And we are ashamed and sad and full of regret. Like Peter was.
But here’s the real truth. And here’s the wonder and beauty of Jesus. He knows all that. He knows who we are and how we are. He knows that even our best is sometimes not very good. He understands that we love him very imperfectly. He knows the days we shine and the days we fail miserably and he loves us anyway. And forgives us. And offers us another chance. And another and another. And he wraps us up in the warm blanket of his love.
And all we can be is grateful.
Second Lesson: John 20:19-31
First Lesson Luke 24:36-49
Children’s story John 20:10-18
Sunday, April 3, 2016
Sunday after Easter
So picture this. Eleven men are sitting in a secret room in Jerusalem with the doors locked. Maybe there are also some women in the room with them. Probably there are some women in the room with them.
They have gone into hiding in this locked room because they are afraid. Legitimately afraid. They have seen how the soldiers and the priests and the elders came for Jesus while he was praying in a garden. They watched while they hauled him away in chains. He was herded from one judge and one Governor and one priest to another in the middle of the night, and people had accused him all of all sorts of things that were not true. He was executed. These eleven men are his closest followers and they have been in hiding for three days because they were very sure that what had happened to Jesus could very well happen to them. It was pretty clear who Jesus’ followers had been – they openly walked and talked with him and did miracles in his name in all the cities and small villages throughout the country for three years. They could have rightly expected that the elders and the priests and the soldiers who came for Jesus would be coming for them soon also. And do to them what they had done to Jesus.
The men sat in that locked room remembering their lives with him and thinking about his death and thinking about their futures after his death. Three years of income gone. Three years of normal family life gone while they followed him up and down the countryside. And for what? They could have no idea what their futures will be. Will they go back to their families and back to fishing and tax collecting and whatever else they did? The women were wondering how their lives would change now that they didn’t have Jesus to care for every day. And follow him wherever he went every day. What about that glorious kingdom they were anticipating? What about all those hopes that one of them would sit on Jesus’ right side and one on his left side as he sat on his royal throne? They are thinking back to that Sunday just a week ago when they waved branches beside his donkey and sang songs to him and thought he would be their King in their capital city. In one short week their whole lives had changed and they were bewildered and in shock.
And while they are thinking all of that, here come Mary Magdalene and the other Mary and Joanna and some of the other women. They come flying into the room with the news that Jesus is alive. Out of his grave and walking around and alive. That story we had last week. And the story I just told the children. But those men didn’t believe such nonsense. How could they believe such nonsense? A man dead in his grave for three whole days and then alive again???. But then immediately here come Cleopas and his wife running all the way back from Emmaus seven miles in the dead of night and they are breathless and they are telling how Jesus has been in their very house and at their very kitchen table and eating supper with them that very night. And Peter is sitting there quietly. He’s remembering that he went to Jesus’ grave and found it empty. And Peter, who usually has the all the answers to all the questions, doesn’t know what to think.
And just as all this is happening, Jesus comes to them. Past the locked doors into that secret room where they were hunkered down. They thought he was a ghost. They doubted that it could possibly be Jesus. We do not blame them that they doubted. And we do not blame Thomas for doubting when the others told him.
Jesus speaks to them. He says, “Peace” to them.
That’s the picture.
And here’s more of the picture.
We don’t know very much about Thomas from the Scripture – only three very short stories that John tells us, but we call him Doubting Thomas because of this story. But there are other stories. Once Jesus wanted to go to Bethany near Jerusalem to be with his friends Mary and Martha after their brother had died. The other disciples told Jesus that the Jewish priests and elders would stone him to death if he went there and they tried to persuade him not to go. But Thomas said, “Let’s all go with him and die with him.” Which looks to me like a man who was deeply committed to Jesus – even to the point of death. That man is no doubter.
Another time Jesus was talking in riddles about his death and about his going back to heaven to prepare a place for them. Thomas didn’t understand, and rather than pretend that he understood those riddles, he asked Jesus a bunch of questions. Which makes me think that he wanted desperately to understand. More of a believer than a doubter, I would say.
And now this story of Thomas after Jesus’ resurrection. He refuses to believe the amazing story that Jesus has come back to life. He said, “Unless I put my fingers in the nail holes in Jesus’ hands and feet and put my hand in the hole in his side where the soldiers rammed their swords, I will not believe that Jesus is alive.” And for that we call him Doubting Thomas.
But maybe he was more of an honest questioner. Maybe he was the sort of person who doesn’t know things until he can understand them with his head. Or sees the evidence with his own eyes. And who struggles to know because it’s very important for him. Maybe he’s the sort of person who believes deeply – not lightly.
The Bible doesn’t tell us any more about Thomas or about what happened to him after Jesus went back into heaven. Tradition - and we can’t prove it though we have no real reason not to believe it – tradition tells us that he was a missionary in India and died there as a martyr. And there’s a book called the Acts of Thomas, which isn’t in our Bible, but which tells of his travels and missionary work in India. And may I tell you that it takes a man of great faith and courage to be a missionary in India and be martyred. That man was no doubter. That man is a devoted follower of Jesus.
So did you see how Jesus responded to Thomas’ questions? He held out his hands where the nail holes were barely beginning to heal. He offered the gaping wound in his side, and invited Thomas to put his hand there. And when Thomas experienced Jesus, he believed. He saw with his very own eyes and touched with his very own fingers, and he believed and he said, “My Lord and My God.”
So that’s the picture. Now can you put yourselves in that picture?
Maybe you’re like Thomas in our story for today. You have questions about our faith. Honest, legitimate questions about our faith. Maybe the stories of the Bible seem a little fanciful for you. Or maybe you live in the real world and there’s too much going on the real world that is troubling for you. Maybe there are things going on in your life that are difficult and that you don’t understand. Or you wonder what in the world God is doing in the world, or maybe God is off somewhere ignoring the whole mess? And you want to say to God, “Where are you when I need you? Where are you when this messed up world needs you?”
And you have every right to those thoughts and those feelings and you have every right to question when your mind can’t take it all in and when you can’t see a solution in front of your eyes and when you can’t find logical answers that satisfy. Just as Thomas did.
But think about this: maybe it’s not a matter of reasoning things out until we know them. Maybe it’s not a matter of being eye witnesses as Thomas was. Maybe it’s a matter of experiencing, for ourselves, the outrageous love of God for us. It’s a matter of opening ourselves up to be in the right place and in right frame of mind to hear God speaking to us, which is the only way that will happen these days. And then, in that place, we know things that our eyes cannot see and that reason cannot teach us and that our minds cannot comprehend.
Maybe Jesus comes to you when you are wretchedly sad like he did to Mary Magdalene and says your name and gives you his love. Maybe he comes to you when you have a great many questions like he did to Thomas and shows you who he is – in unmistakable ways - and offers you peace.
And this morning Jesus offers us this bread and juice. His beaten, bruised body. His blood running from the holes in his hands and his feet and his side. We come to this table and we eat bread and drink juice and in a way that I can never understand or put into words, we experience the death of Jesus. And then we say, with Thomas. “My Lord and My God.” And we hear Jesus say to us: “Peace be with you.”
First Lesson: Acts 10:34-43
Children’s story: Luke 24:13-35
Easter Sunday, March 27, 2016
We’ve talked about this before, I think: How much would it cost, do you suppose, to feed thirteen homeless, unemployed men for one day? If you figure four dollars for breakfast each day and five dollars for lunch and seven dollars for supper it adds up to about $16 per day, times thirteen is over $200 per day to feed thirteen unemployed, homeless men. And over a three year period of time that’s well over $200,000. To feed Jesus and his twelve male disciples for three years. Then add in money for new sandals to replace the ones they wore out walking all up and down the country side and money to give to all the people they met begging in the streets. And blankets when they slept out at night in open fields even in a warm climate. Now granted they often were invited into other peoples’ homes to eat and sometimes even to sleep. But we’re talking a hefty amount of money here - to support Jesus and his disciples as they walked all up and down the country side for three years. And who do you suppose paid for all those meals and all those sandals and all those blankets?
A group of women disciples. Perhaps at least twelve of them. We don’t know much about them, but when we piece together the pieces we discover that some of them were married to wealthy men and some of them must have been wealthy in their own right. They followed Jesus right along with the men, all the way from Galilee up in the north as he began his ministry - all the way to Jerusalem about seventy-five miles south. And along the way in all those places, they provided for his needs – out of love and gratitude.
They cared for him in his death as well. Several of them stood faithfully right in his line of vision below his cross for the hours that it took him to die, and watched him breathe his last breaths. They stood there with his mother Mary and his aunt, consoling them and comforting each other and supporting him and standing with him in his death as they had been in his life. They had served him faithfully in his life and they stood faithfully and loyally beside him in the last agony of his death. And when it was all over, and when he had breathed his last breath and said his last loving words to them, they watched while a friend, Joseph, took him gently off the cross. Joseph buried his body and the women marked in their minds where the grave was, intending to come back with sweet smelling spices the way we would bring flowers.
For three years they had offered him sandwiches and sandals and in his death they prepared to bring sweet smelling spices to show their love and gratitude. It was their last quiet, loving act for him.
We know a little bit about these women. Mary Magdalene was apparently their leader. She lived in the town of Magdala, right up there near the Sea of Galilee in the northern part of the country. You may have heard that Mary was a prostitute. That is a very nasty rumor that has been circulating in the Christian church ever since about the year 600, but there is not a bit of truth to it. She was not a prostitute. Mary had apparently been suffering from a very serious mental illness, and in the days long before there were medications to control it, she would have suffered deeply. But Jesus healed her. And ever thereafter she followed him gratefully and loyally and generously.
Jesus had also healed Joanna though we don’t know those details. We do know that Joanna was the wife of a man named Chuza. And Chuza was the financial manager for the Roman Governor Herod. You may remember him from last week – the man who executed Jesus’ cousin John.
So here we have Joanna, the wife of the manager of Governor Herod’s finances and she is supporting Jesus. And walking with him and caring for him, and making sure that he eats properly and has what he needs for his ministry. On the one hand, Joanna lived a very public and very privileged life as a member of Herod’s inner circle. And on the other hand, she supported Jesus as he walked and talked among the poorest of the poor. And she comes, also, on Easter Sunday morning with spices for Jesus’ grave.
So now. I am looking at the congregation I love. I am remembering to myself how many sandwiches and sandals you have brought for Jesus’ other children. Just since Christmas. We have brought Christmas boxes for children in places all over the world – ways we can show our support of Jesus’ other children whom we will never know. And TWICE the Christmas tree in our narthex was loaded down with warm sox and underwear and coats and scarves and mittens and pajamas for children and adults. And I mean loaded down. The big barrels of food in the Fellowship Hall are forever full and overflowing with boxes of cereals and canned food and mysteriously it all ends up at the North Kent Community Services for folks in our community. And believe me, it is well appreciated! We gave money for blankets and sheets at Mel Trotter Ministries and we brought our pennies for their work with homeless people in inner city Grand Rapids. Last week we bought cupcakes and brownies made by our Hunger Fast Kids and sent our love and our money for the care of children and adults in great need all over the world through World Vision. We’ve supported the Christmas Joy Offering which supplies help to retired pastors on limited incomes. May I tell you that I have known some of the pastors who have received that help, and I thank you, and so do they.
We have certainly provided sandwiches and sandals for the people whom Jesus loves. Just like those women did who loved Jesus dearly. And Jesus is so very pleased!
And today we are coming with our spices the way they did. We’re about to receive the One Great Hour of Sharing Offering – so that suffering people in other places may be well cared for. And in these days of Lent we’ve been sorting through our closets for good used clothing to give to men and women who are looking for work. Not to mention your regular, very generous contributions to the on-going ministry of this church through our regular offerings. We are bringing our spices for Jesus today.
But there’s something more. Our story for today tells us that Mary Magdalene and Joanna and another Mary and some other women came to Jesus’ grave and saw that his body was not there. An angel reminded them of the words he had spoken earlier – predicting that this very thing would happen. That he would undergo great suffering and that the elders and the priests and the chief priests would reject him and he would be given over into the hands of sinners and would be crucified. (We had that story last Sunday and on Maundy Thursday and on Good Friday.) BUT that he would be raised to life on the third day. (Luke 9:21 and 22) Mary Magdalene and the other Mary and Joanna and the other women with them remembered those words, and believed those words, and ran off to the place where the men were hiding to tell them that Jesus was alive.
But the men found it hard to believe and thought the women were talking nonsense. Of course they found it hard to believe. They may very well have thought it was nonsense. Because who would believe, after all, that life could be stronger than death. And that love could be stronger than hate. Or that goodness could be stronger than evil. They had too much evidence to the contrary to believe such nonsense. They had seen what happened to a good man. They had seen with their own eyes for three years what Jesus had done. How he had cured people of their illnesses and fed those who were hungry and engaged prostitutes in conversations and paid loving attention to beggars in the streets. He had worn out himself being loving and good. They had witnessed what their elders and priests had done to him. And they had watched how the elders and the priests and the Roman soldiers – a whole mob of them - come into that peaceful garden where he was praying. And hauled him away in chains. And the bitter end of all that was that he was in his grave, dead. Put there by hateful men who had the upper hand, again and again. So of course they didn’t believe that Jesus was alive.
So, my beloved. We have just spent another week of our lives hearing yet again about terrorist attacks - this time in Belgium. But there have been too many to keep track of recently all over the world, and too many killings in our own country to count. And there is too much hateful talk and far too much bullying, and far too much anger and far too many people doing far too much evil. We see it every single day if we dare. . And it does seem that evil is stronger than goodness. And it certainly does seem that hate is stronger than love. And that darkness is stronger than light. And the only ones who seem to have having any victory are those who are dark and evil and full of hate. It certainly does seem that way.
Now you know by now that I am not going to give you some simple answer for very hard questions.
But will you see this? Will you see the empty grave of Easter? Will you see the proof in front of your very eyes that in the power of God, life IS stronger than death. Will you stand there with the Marys and Joanna and the other women and hear what the angels said to them. Will you look into that empty grave and see with your own eyes that death is not the winner? Will you run to the grave with Peter, and will stand there with him, seeing for himself that Jesus was not there. And will you ponder that with Peter?
And if you don’t believe it with the women and with Peter then will you believe it when Archbishop Desmond Tutu sings it? The man who has experienced about as much evil and hatred as anybody else on earth? We’re going to sing his song in a moment.
And maybe you will need to watch for it. Watch for the goodness and the love and life and light to shine through the evil and the hate and death and the darkness all around us. And celebrate every time you see it. And maybe you’ll be a part of making sure that it happens – that the goodness and the love and the life and the light DO triumph over the evil in some of the places where we live. And where our generous gifts extend. You are so very good at that. And maybe you’ll begin to celebrate some very small victories. Or some very big ones.