First Lesson: Galatians 5:22-26
Children’s story – Matthew 25:1-13
We are continuing to ask the question: “Who are the spiritual Leaders of North Kent Presbyterian Church?” We are not asking who are the long time members, or who are in charge of this and that in the church, or even who are the elders and deacons at the moment. We are asking “Who are the spiritual leaders of this church?” Now we could answer that question in many different ways, and maybe we will. But for the next couple of weeks, at least, we are looking at the book of James and today we are also reading from the book of Galatians. And we’ll see what these two books have to say to us about what spiritual leaders look like.
Last week we jumped into the book of James without giving much thought to who James was, and when he wrote this letter. Now it would be very tempting to think that this James was the brother (or really half-brother) of Jesus – a son of Mary and Joseph. And some do think that. You remember him. We’ve talked about him. Right after Jesus’ death he was the head of the Christian Church – the mother church - in Jerusalem and in fact sometimes we refer to him as the First Bishop of Jerusalem. We’ve had the story of how Peter and Paul were summoned back to Jerusalem from where they’d been starting churches all over the Mediterranean region. A good many of the folks in their churches didn’t have a drop of Jewish blood in them and they didn’t know all the Jewish laws and they ate all the wrong kinds of food and they didn’t celebrate the proper Jewish holidays. Which was a real problem for the good Jews in the mother church in Jerusalem. For all kinds of reason. So Peter and Paul were summoned back to Jerusalem to answer for the actions. There was a very long and heated discussion, you remember, and finally it was James, the brother of Jesus, who helped to negotiate a compromise.
So we’d like to think that it was that James who wrote the words we are reading. But the historian Josephus tells that Jesus’ brother James was stoned to death in about the year 62. And the very smart people whom I trust about things like this tell us that this book was probably written much later that – maybe even as many as hundred years after Jesus’ death. So it probably wasn’t Jesus’ brother James who wrote this.
But there’s another possibility. In those days it was very common indeed for an unknown person to write in the name of a very well-known person. Carefully writing in the spirit of what that person would have said. Today we would be critical of that, and we would call it very dishonest. For an ordinary person to write a letter and then pass it off as written by somebody very famous. But actually, that was fairly common in the world of that day and it was even sometimes seen as a compliment to the famous person. That somebody would write in his name, maybe long after his death. So that is likely what happened with the book of James. Somebody wrote in his name, long after he had died.
But now to what this James says. In the verses that we did not read today James talks very pointedly. He is not tactful and he is not delicate in his language, and if he were a preacher I picture him pounding the pulpit. He condemns people who judge others and those who honor the rich but ignore the poor. He blasts people who say they have faith but who don’t help to cloth and feed the hungry and he has harsh words for those who can’t control their tongues. But in the words we have chosen for today his mood changes somewhat and he gives us a positive picture of what our Christian lives may be.
He talks about our good works that are done with a gentleness born of wisdom.
You know that it’s my habit to sit in front of God every morning at 5:00. I think of all of you and your names and your faces run through my mind. I think of the Women’s Wednesday morning breakfast, and I am grateful for that group of beautiful women – caring, kind, compassionate, who sit around the breakfast table every week in loving companionship. They are not gossipy. They are not judgmental. They have genuine care for each other and for the members of this church. Every once in a while I invite myself to the men’s breakfast, and I watch as they care for each other in much the same way and gently joke with each other, and support each other in subtle ways. You have heard me say more than once, how our session is learning to slog through the tough stuff, and come to consensus on tough stuff, and you’ve had an example of that this morning.
And I read what James says, “wisdom from above is first pure, then peace-loving, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without any trace of partiality and sincere.” That’s what a wise person looks like. That’s what spiritual leaders look like. That’s what many of you look like.
Spiritual leaders go out of their way to hear another’s point of view and listen to it and take it into their hearts. They listen more than they speak, and they hear with their hearts and when they speak they speak gently. They are ready to discard their own very precious ideas or opinions in favor of somebody else’s. They are willing to look honestly at themselves and see themselves as they really are rather than what they’d like to think they are. They are open to new ways of doing things when somebody else might suggest that. They genuinely want the good of the other person, sometimes above what they think is good for themselves. Some of them have the great gift of bringing together people who are at odds with each other. And being peacemakers.
They humbly open themselves up to inspection by the Spirit of God. And if they are envious or impatient or angry or if they insist on their own way or if they are selfish, or judgmental or harsh or if they have bitter thoughts, they ask the Spirit of God to work in them. Sometimes the Spirit of God gently nudges us or tenderly takes us by the hand and leads us. Sometimes the Spirit of God comes quietly into the hard soil of our hearts and loosens it up. Or sometimes we go through hard experiences that teach us hard lessons and the result is that we are more loving or more considerate and less judgmental of others. Maybe you have experienced that.
Now there are plenty of very good people in this world. There are people who are gentle. And full of kindness. And they are very sincere. They go about doing good things in their communities and in the world, and we commend them and honor them and join with them when we can. BUT WE are peace-loving and kind and gentle because that’s what God asks of us as part of God’s family. We have spent several weeks in the desert with that motley band of former slaves whom God claimed. And we have experienced for ourselves that God has rescued us and provides for us and cares for us and leads us and we have eaten the food which the Lord has given us to eat. We have seen who God is and how God is with people and what God expects of us. We have taken a good long look at Jesus for several weeks from the book of Luke and we know God’s love for us through Jesus.
And out of gratitude that we have no words for, we practice generosity – again and again until we’ve got it right. And we learn the very hard work of forgiveness and we offer it and receive it. And we flush our hearts clean of envy and pride so that there’s room for kindness and humility. And we relax our clenched fists and jaws and the muscles in our necks and backs and we let all that anger flow out of us until we can be genuinely peaceful. Toward somebody who has hurt us deeply. We drop our heads to our chests and we take a deep sigh and we let go of the bitterness that has been festering in us, and we welcome joy. We exchange our harsh judgement of others for a little compassion. We look at other people with gentle eyes and tender hearts.
That’s what spiritual leaders look like. That’s what spiritual leaders do. That’s what we do here.
So I offer you the picture of the wise person that James shows us – pure. Peaceloving. Considerate. Willing to yield. Full of mercy. Full of good fruits. Impartial. Sincere.
And then I will stand on tiptoe and I’ll crane my neck to see what the Spirit of God is going to with a church-ful of folks who look and behave like that. In a very new time.
First Lesson: Matthew 5:1-12
Children’s story: I Kings 3:4-15
September 20, 2015
We have been camping out in the books of Genesis and Exodus for several weeks now and we have been reading the stories of God’s people as they escaped from being slaves in Egypt and as they lived in the desert. We have seen who God is and how God is with people through hearing those stories. Last week we had the story of God giving what we call the Ten Commandments.
Now we’re going to leave those stories and we’re going to be soaking ourselves in the book of James for a few weeks. But we’re going to have flashbacks of God and the instructions that God gave to the people in the desert. We’ll also be having glimpses of Jesus and his instructions to us in the Beatitudes that we read this morning from the book of Matthew.
So here’s the question. These days I am asking this question throughout the congregation. I’ve been asking it of the session and others as well: Who are the Spiritual leaders of North Kent Church?
So far I haven’t gotten many answers. You all know who are the long time members. You all know who holds the history of the church. You all know who’s in charge of this or that. You know or you can easily look up who serves on what committee and who’s an elder or a deacon. But nobody seems to be able to tell me who the spiritual leaders in the church are. We could talk about this for a very long time, and there’s no one perfect answer. But for the moment, we’ll be looking at the traits that James is pointing out to us. And we’ll see what spiritual leaders look like from his point of view. What qualities do spiritual leaders have? What do spiritual leaders look like?
Now I have been your temporary, part time pastor for almost a year now, and in that time I have come to know you and love you and appreciate you. I have come to hear some of your stories and I know some of what’s happening in your families and I know who of you are grieving. I know which of you are living with chronic illnesses and I know who are the caregivers. I know which of you love and which of you hate your jobs and I know that some of you are struggling financially. And with all of that in my head and my heart, I spend time with you.
Sometimes I’ll spend a few minutes with one of you. We’ll talk a little, but it doesn’t really matter what we say, because I am blessed to be in your presence. There is a blessedness about the space around you, and I linger there for a moment. It’s the steadfastness and perseverance that James talks about. It comes from living through years of pain and anguish and living through those years in the grace that God provides. James calls it the crown of life that God promises to those who love God. I call it a great blessedness.
And maybe, my beloved. Maybe. I say this very carefully. Maybe it will even be that the day will come when you will look back on those very hard times and the Spirit of God will do that thing in you that the Spirit of God does in us. And you will say that those hard times were a blessing in your life. Those hard times were a gift of God in your life. That’s not for me to say to any one of you and it’s not for you to say to me, but maybe you will say that to yourself. Some day. Looking back on it all.
You are a very favored bunch of folks at North Kent Church. You are well educated and you live well. You look well and you speak well and you behave well. The Rockford Schools are among the best in the state, and most of you have very good educations beyond high school. You have and you have had positions of leadership in your professions and you are well respected in this community. Most of you live very comfortably indeed. So let me speak to you. James tells us that all of can fade very quickly – like flowers in our gardens when they get too much sun. One day they look like healthy green flowering plants. The next day they are withered and wilted and almost dead. The financial security we may feel can disappear with a couple of dips in the stock market. Or one serious illness. The lovely homes we live in can be demolished in an instant in a flood or a forest fire. Our good reputations can be destroyed in a second by a couple of spiteful, lying people. Once we understand that, we see that there is really no room for pride in our lives. There’s really no reason to presume that we have some special influence or some special benefits or that our ideas are the best ones or that anybody should pay special attention to us. We understand that a little humility is a very beautiful thing and we live our lives with a certain gentle modesty. Jesus says, “The first shall be last, and the last shall be first.” The lowly will be exalted and those who have high opinions of themselves will be brought low. And that’s the way it is in the topsy turvey upside down kingdom of God where everything is the opposite of what we would expect. James even says that those of us who are rich should take pride in our humble position.
And then James reminds us of something we really know very well: He says, “Be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.”
So may I say this very clearly. Words hurt. Even when we do not mean them to hurt, they hurt. Even when we do our best to make our words soft and tender sometimes they are not. I’ve been hearing about the hurt in this congregation – many, many years of deep hurt here. So many stories of deep hurts. We are moving into the future now. Good things are happening. There’s a good spirit in the church, and we’re grateful for good Christian Education for our children and adults and good times around the tables in Fellowship Hall. You’ve paid off a hefty mortgage well ahead of schedule this year and we’re getting ready to elect a Pastoral Nominating Committee. A great many good things are happening. But under all that there’s still hurt. The pain of the past is still lurking there. Old words are still powerful words. Old memories are still painful memories. And I long for a time when those who have been hurt will come and sit together to listen to each other. Just listen to each other and actually hear each other. And share the pain. And offer and receive forgiveness. And move into a new future together.
Dr. Laird Stuart will be here in a few weeks to talk with us about forgiveness and healing and I hope his words will be the start of a new future for this congregation. You cannot move into the future until you have found healing for the deep hurts of the past. You cannot welcome a new pastor until you have forgiven each other for hurts piled upon hurts over many years. My beloved congregation of Jesus Christ, did you hear me?
And I am praying and pondering who will be the humble, compassionate people – people who are ready to listen long before they speak - who will lead you in the very hard work of forgiving and healing and health.
And then James talks about what you do so very well. James says, “Be doers of Word and not only hearers.” He says, once we have soaked ourselves in the ten commandments that we talked about last week. Once we have read and re-read and then read again those Beatitudes from the book of Matthew that we just heard. Once we understand that the first are last and the last are first and the poor are really rich and the rich are really poor. Once we understand that the meek, of all people, will inherit the earth. Once we’ve gotten control of our tongues. Once it soaks into our very bones that it’s the hungry and the peacemakers who are blessed. Once we know deep in our DNA whom Jesus loves best.
Then we bring school supplies for the kids in this community. Then we contribute hundreds of dollars for sheets and pillows cases for homeless people at Mel Trotter Ministries. Then we fill up the big barrels in Fellowship Hall with food for our neighbors through North Kent Community Services and one of you will bring it there. And pretty soon it’s going to be the Christmas boxes and it’s always the mission programs of our Presbytery. And it’s the women at Safe Haven. All the people whom Jesus loves best.
James says to us, “true religion is to visit the orphans and the widows.” And Jesus says to us, “Because you did it to them, you’ve done it to me. Come into the kingdom that’s prepared for you.”
First Lesson Psalm 119:1-8
Children’s story – Exodus 19:9-25
Sunday, September 13, 2014
So there were God’s people, camping out deep in what we call the Sinai Peninsula. (We’ve had maps about that for the past several weeks.) They were God’s people but they didn’t know their God very well and they were having a hard time claiming that and trusting God. They had been slaves in Egypt for more than four hundred years, and once they had escaped their slave masters they weren’t quite sure who they were. Or what they were doing in that vast, unfriendly desert or where they were going. Or what their future would be. And they didn’t know quite how to behave. They’d been told what to do all their lives and they hadn’t had any practice in making decisions or governing themselves, or living peaceably with each other. If they’d had any gods at all they were Egyptian gods and they didn’t know how to relate to this brand new God.
So God came to them and said, “Remember how desperate you were all those years when you were slaves in Egypt? Remember how hard your lives were there and how you longed to be free? Remember that chaotic night there in Egypt when your slave masters ran into your homes and loaded you down with gold and silver and jewelry and forced you to leave the country? You grabbed your children and your bundles and you picked up your walking sticks and your bread that hadn’t had time to rise and you got out of the country as fast as you could go. Remember that? Remember how scared you were when you saw the king Pharaoh and his entire Egyptian army coming after you by the Red Sea and you were sure you were all going to be captured and taken back into slavery? Remember how you crossed that sea on dry land with a wall of water on one side and a wall of water on the other side – into freedom? Remember how hungry you were and how you complained that you didn’t have any meat to eat in that barren dessert? And how I sent birds flying low and covering the ground for you to eat? Remember that sweet fluffy white stuff that shows up on the ground every morning that you’ve been eating all these months? Remember how you were thirsty and I gave you water to drink from a rock? Remember how scared and confused you have been during this entire episode and remember how you couldn’t possibly know where to go in this wild desert and remember that I have been leading you through the dessert in a bright white cloud in the day time and fiery cloud in the night time? I’m the God who has been doing all that for you.” Said God.
“You’re beginning to know me and maybe you’re beginning to trust me, sometimes. Now let me tell you how you can behave as my people. Let me teach you how you can respond to my love and power in your lives. That’s what I have done for you. Now here’s how you need to behave in return. You’ve been slaves all your lives and you haven’t had much chance to make decisions for yourselves and you don’t know how to live peaceably as free people. So let me tell you how to behave as my family. And let me give you the guidelines for how you will live your lives in freedom and gratitude to me. From here on, here’s how I want to you live as my people.” Said God.
And then God laid out what we call the Ten Commandments. First of all, said God, “I am your only God. I don’t ever want to look down again and see that you have made idols like that gold cow you were worshipping a few weeks ago. If you remember the gods of the Egyptians, forget them. If you have any statues of those gods, get rid of them. When you get to the place where I am leading you, you may encounter other gods. They are not your God. Remember that. I am your God. Your only God. I want you to honor me and remember me and worship and serve only me and I want you to set aside one whole day of the week to do that – in which you do nothing else at all except remember me. I am the center of your life. I am the focus of your life. I am the giver and lover and rescuer of your life.” Said God.
And then God said, Here’s how I want you to treat each other in this family of God that we are creating this day. Respect your parents and care for them. Don’t kill each other. Don’t sleep around in the wrong beds. Don’t steal from each other. Don’t lie. Don’t envy what somebody else has.” And God’s people heard it all from Moses’ voice and they stood at the bottom of the smoking mountain and they nodded their heads, and vowed that they would do as God had asked them to do.
Now we are Presbyterians and we love this story. We love the notion that we live our lives in gratitude for what God has done for us and given to us. We don’t keep the Ten Commandments because we are afraid that God will punish us. Or that we’ll go to hell if we don’t. For one thing, we live in the New Testament era, about 4,000 years after that day in the desert and we know what Jesus has done for us.
But even more than that, we obey the Ten Commandments because we have seen, over and over again what God has done for us and how God has provided for us and we have experienced over and over that God loves us outrageously. Maybe you have been doing that little assignment I gave you and you have discovered that for yourselves. Maybe you have been charting the story of your life and you have discovered the ways that God has been with you, caring for you and loving you whether you knew it or not at the time. Maybe you have been discovering the ways that God has been leading you through your own desert and providing you with food and water also. And so we do what God asks to us to out of deep, deep gratitude.
You may have noticed that our Sunday School curriculum is called “Grace and Gratitude.” That’s so Presbyterian! We teach our children the stories of God’s goodness to us and we show them how to live in ways that will please God. We are all pleased and grateful for the children of our congregation and for the adults who have committed to providing a Christian Education program for them.
And we teach adults that same way of living. Our Adult Discussion group started this morning for the fall. They talk about how our Christian faith impacts our lives and they discuss current issues in the light of our faith. Next month our Joy Bible Study will begin again - with excellent leadership – men who study and research and know the Bible really, really well. For the first time we are offering Disciple Bible Study for adults and I do so sincerely hope that many of you will sign up for that as a way of deepening your spiritual lives.
But the truth is that we are not doing so very well at living together peaceably either. And we are not doing so very well at making our own decisions about our lives together. So
there’s another reason we love these instructions that God gave us. They ground us when everything else in our lives is whirling so wildly that we can’t keep up. Our politicians are spinning the truth, or covering up the truth or downright lying to us. Well known people are having extra marital affairs and the media loves to tell us about it all as if that’s some form of entertainment and all the rest of us should do it too. We live in a world where people try to tell us that we can’t afford to support our seniors and provide good medical care for them. We hear all the time about people who are “creative” in their use of funds (they wouldn’t call it stealing, exactly) and they are often influential people whom we are supposed to respect. And we are always being told in TV ads that we “deserve” something wildly expensive that we can’t begin to afford. They tell us that we can’t possibly have a good life unless we spend money we don’t have buying what they want to sell us - that we don’t really need. Respectable people with advanced degrees go home from their well-paying jobs and abuse their spouses – physically or emotionally or sexually and nobody seems to care. They haven’t committed murder, exactly but they have destroyed another’s spirit. Americans dash around on Sunday getting everything done that they didn’t have time to do the rest of the week and then they throw themselves into Monday without a bit of rest and without a thought for God. Except maybe a quick frantic prayer when they’re in trouble.
That’s the moral chaos we live in. Those are the values of our society. And in that chaos we need to be grounded. We need to hear again that God invites us to a simple life that centers on our love for God and our respect for other people. As Jesus put it, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and love your neighbor as yourself.”
We get to know the God who loves us and rescues us and leads us and provides for us. And we live our lives gratefully and graciously in companionship with that God and with those around us.
First Lesson: Psalm 105:37-45
Children: Numbers 20:1-
You may recall that several weeks ago now Dr. Jack Stewart was with us to talk about thriving congregations and what it looks like when a congregation is thriving. And he said, and I’ve been quoting him often “The main thing is to make sure the main thing is the main thing.” The main thing for us is God, and who God is and who we are with God, and the main thing is Jesus and who Jesus was and who we are with Jesus. Right after Christmas we camped out in the book of Luke for several weeks and we had a very clear picture of Jesus and who he was and what he did. Now we are camping out in the books of Genesis and Exodus and we are getting a picture of who our God is through those stories. And who we are with God.
If you have sailed easily through your life from year to year, or if you have never worried or been afraid, you can go get a cup of coffee now because you don’t need to hear what comes next.
If you have never questioned God, or wondered where God was when bad things happened to you, or if you have never been angry with God, you can take a nap now because you don’t need to hear what comes next.
The last time we saw God’s people they had just crossed over what we all the Red Sea. They had crossed through the sea on dry ground with a wall of water on one side and wall of water on the other side. Safely through to the other side. King Pharaoh and the entire Egyptian army had threatened to capture them and take them all back into slavery in Egypt. But the last they had seen of that king and his entire army was their dead bodies on the sea shore. They sang and danced and thanked their God for their miraculous escape. They were just beginning to know their God and it was another demonstration of the love and power of their God on their behalf.
In our story for today they have traveled about another hundred and fifty miles. All 2 million of them, men, women and children, making their way through the shifting sands of the dessert. With God leading them in a bright shiny cloud in the day time and a fiery cloud in the nighttime. For about six weeks they traveled like that. They camped for a while at an oasis named Elim. It must have been a great relief for them to be in a green shady spot where there was plenty of water for all of them and plenty to eat. And then they moved on to our story for today – to a place deep in the desert where nothing grew and there was no food or water.
And they complained. They were angry with Moses and his brother Aaron. It was the same old story all over again. Once again they shouted at Moses and Aaron: “We sat around pots of meat in Egypt all the time and we ate all the food we wanted. But here you have brought us out to this desert to die - every last one of us.” But Moses knew, and Aaron knew, and God knew, that they were really angry at God.
Now I do have to say this: they were slaves in Egypt, after all. I can’t believe that they ate all that well in Egypt. They may have sat around pots of meat but it was meat they were preparing for their slave masters. And I can’t believe that their lives were really all that good in Egypt. But they were afraid for what they would feed their children and what they would eat themselves and unsure of their future. They were in a brand new very strange place and they hadn’t had lot of experience, you might recall, in being in brand new very strange places. For all those years they had been slaves in Egypt. They were far from the homes they had known in Egypt and they were very far from the land that God was giving them that they had never even heard of. So I suppose it’s no wonder they were afraid and angry.
But God responded to them: “I hear your complaining and I hear your anger. And I will rescue you, again. In the evening birds are going to appear for you to eat. Quails are going to come out of nowhere in this desert and they’re going to fly very low and cover the ground all over your camp. And in the morning you’ll wake up and see little bits of sweet white fluffy stuff on the ground. You’ll gather it up and bake it and boil it and eat it every day for the next forty years. That’s what I’ll do for you when you’re hungry and angry and scared and lost in the desert. So that you will know who I am,” Said God. And that’s what God did.
But God doesn’t come to us with food in the desert and water from a rock exactly like that. So how do we know God?
Some of you have told me that you experience God best when you’re out on the river pretending to be fishing - with the beauties of nature all around you. Or some of you feel close to God when you’re reading a Psalm which seems to be written especially for you. Even though it was written 3000 years ago thousands of miles from here. Some of us experience the love and presence of God through the caring of a friend at a very difficult time. When a friend has been the hands and feet and voice of God to us. Sometimes music speaks to us powerfully. We may have songs which bring us great comfort and lift us to spiritual heights. Sometimes we feel close to God in this sanctuary where some of you have memories of weddings and baptisms and funerals and professions of faith. Where there have been moments when you have been touched by the presence of God in this building you have built for God.
And this: Maybe it also true that we feel God’s presence best when we are angry with God. That may be when God comes to us the most clearly and when we feel the presence of God most dearly. When we are wailing at God. And pounding on God, and we say to God, “I am sick and tired of this and I demand that you pay some attention over here and do something about this.” When we holler at God and fight with God and grab on to God in the middle of the night. Or maybe we have used up all our words and we have only our feelings left. Or maybe we are too weary and too confused to do much hollering at God, and we just sit in front of God and cry. It’s then that little bits of bread appear on the ground in front of us. And we eat that sweet white fluffy stuff and it satisfies us. And God feels especially near to us. I know what I am talking about here.
Or when we are frightened for ourselves and for those we love. And we cry out to God and we say, “Why have you put me in this place? Why is this happening to one I love? Where are you? Why don’t you do something?” That’s when water comes gushing out of rocks for us.
Or when we call out to God in anguish and we tell God that we are sick and tired of having so much stress in our lives and living with so much uncertainty and unhappiness. That’s when we see birds on the ground – quail - all around us and we cook them and eat them. We are still in the desert. We are still far from home. We still have many questions and we still don’t know the future. But little bits of bread will feed us every day. And a gulp of water will revive us. And our souls are comforted in the presence of God with us.