Answered Prayers

The pastor didn’t really like the cat. He tolerated it as it seemed it tolerated him. He fed it and changed the litter box. He felt like he was not so much it’s owner as its’ wait staff.

On day the cat climbed a tree. It was apparently not able to get down even when he tempted it with food. There was no way he could climb the tree. So he devised a plan. Her threw a loop in a rope around a branch near the top of the tree. He tied the other end of the rope to the back of his car. His plan was to pull the car forward slowly until the tree bent low enough for him to grab the stupid cat.

The plan was working fine until the rope broke. The tree snapped upward and sent the cat sailing into the sky. The pastor felt bad and went searching for the cat. But there was no sign of it anywhere.

A week later the pastor was in the grocery store and he ran into a member of his church. He noticed cat food in her shopping cart. He knew she didn’t like cats and so he inquired about the cat food.

“Pastor, you won’t believe this. My daughter has been bugging me to get a cat for months. Finally, I said that if God gave her a cat she could keep it. Well, she went right out to the backyard and started praying for a cat. And I swear, just at that moment a cat came flying down out of the sky. God sure works in mysterious ways.”

It seems that God answered two prayers with one “miracle.”

A Short Story

AL

A SHORT STORY BY RICK SWEENEY

The number four horse was four lengths off the lead as they made the turn into the home stretch. Most people were surprised that a horse that went off at fifteen to one was running so well; but not Al. He had picked that horse, War Painter to win.

Actually, I had placed the bet. I had just allowed Al to pick the horse. This was the second leg of the Daily Double.  Al had picked the winner in the first race and that horse ran away from the field and won by nine lengths. Now if War painter won, we were in for a big pay-off.

The horse made his move at the top of the stretch. He overtook two of the horses in front of him on the outside. He was neck and neck as they neared the finish line. Then, just as Al had predicted, War Painter passed the other horse and won by a length.

“Told ya. I told ya that horse would win.” I could hardly hear him over my screams. I had been cleaning up at the track since I started taking Al to the track with me.  He was never wrong.

Al was always delighted to go to the track with me. He claimed he loved horses. “I can tell which one is going to win just by looking at them. They talk to me and I talk to them.” He never got to go much of anywhere. He lived with his mother and his aunt and they didn’t have a car. So any invitation to go out thrilled Al.

I met him at the ball field near his house. He came to watch the games. He had offered to be the bat boy for our team.  Now this was just a beer league. There was not really a need for a bat boy. And besides, Al was not a boy. I estimated his age as about the same as mine. The other guys on the team had mixed responses to Al’s participation. Some let him perform as a sort of mockery. Others saw him as a kind of a mascot.  Al had serious mental challenges.

I wasn’t quite sure why I liked Al.  It certainly wasn’t some righteous cause. I knew I hated it when the other guys called him retard. I guess I always had a soft spot for the underdog. I guess I sort of took him under my wing. I listened as he would tell me about how he loved horses.  “I watch the races on that cable station all the time.”

Since my divorce, I was always looking for a diversion. The track was one of the places I could hide from the loneliness. I always thought that if I could win some money that wouldn’t count towards my alimony, all the better. But just like the rest of the losers who hang around at the track, I was lucky if I broke even most nights.

After one game I asked Al if he would like to go to the track with me the next night. “I would love to go to see them horses run if my mom will let me go.” I got the impression that mom was understandably protective of her special son.

So I went in to meet his mom. There was no sign of a father in the house. She wanted to make sure that I was not someone who was going to hurt Al. I reassured her that I liked him and I would not let anything bad happen to him. She said, “I guess it’s OK. He loves horses.”

That first time at the track, Al asked if we could go down to where the horses walk around before they are called to the track. “I want to see them up close.” We wandered down to the paddock area as the horses paraded by. Al was doing more than just admiring them. He was studying them intently.

“Which horse to you like Al?”

“Number seven is the fastest of them all, but he will fade before the finish line. I betcha number five will win.  He’s steady Eddie.” Al laughed at his joke. I figured, “what the hell? I haven’t exactly been picking winners up till then. So I placed a modest wager on number five. He was six to one. That’s not a bad price.

“All right Al buddy, I am counting on your horse sense here. I have ten bucks on this nag.”

“Don’t worry. He will win.” Al reassured me.  The horse had trouble getting out of the gate. But he got back to within striking distance by the second turn.  It was then that I noticed that the number seven horse had opened a big lead on the rest of the field. “Coincidence” I thought.  But damned if he didn’t start to fade in the far turn. Steady Eddie slowly gained on the rest of the field and won in a close finish.

“Al, how did you know that was going to happen?”

“The horses talk to me. Not really talking, I just have a way to tell which one is really ready to run.”  

I was amazed. But I wasn’t convinced that Al had some magical power to decipher which horse was going to win. “Beginner’s luck” I thought.

I didn’t feel like running down to the paddock area and back up to the betting window for every race. So the sixty bucks I won was soon gone. Al did not seem to be enjoying the evening as much as he did at first. I thought he had gotten a taste of picking a winner and dampened his enthusiasm without picking a winner.

The final race of the night I told Al that we would once again go down and have a close look at the ponies. Once again he studied them like a mathematician searching for the solution to a difficult problem.

“Number eight” he said with great certainty. I looked at the racing form and saw that number eight was a real long shot.  Nineteen to one was a suckers bet. But I wanted to let Al have some fun. I only made a two dollar bet. The last of the big time spenders.  You probably already know that horse that seemed destined for the glue factory won going away. So I collected my thirty-eight dollars and we headed home.

“You really seem to be able to pick em Al. Would you like to go again next week?

“You bet” Then he laughed again. “Get it? You bet?”

The next Friday I picked up Al at his house. His mom was grateful. “Al don’t have many friends. He really liked going with you last week.”

‘I’m glad to have him along” I said.

The first race Al studied the horses and told me he was sure that number two would win. I bet number two and he won.  The second race we went to check out the horses up close once again. “Number two. No doubt” It was another winner. Now I was starting to believe in whatever magic Al possessed. I was cleaning up. Al had never once asked for any of the money that we won. I started to feel a little guilty about not sharing the winnings with him. I offered but he refused. “That’s your money” he said. I was starting to think of Al as a friend, and not just a way to pick winners.

The next week was the same. I was cleaning up. Then when he picked the winners on the daily double we were talking about some serious money.  I went a little crazy. I bet more money than I had ever laid out before. Al made his selection. It was another long shot. That seemed to be his specialty.

“And they’re off.”  Our long shot was Charioteer. He lagged at the back of the pack until the home stretch. I wasn’t even worried. I was adding up how much money I would take home with that huge bet I had made on a long shot. Charioteer moved up to third, then to second. He was getting close to the leader when all of sudden the horse fell to the ground with the jockey’s leg beneath him. I stared in disbelief.

“Oh my God, O my God, that horse is hurt” Al wailed. “He’s hurt.” I thought he was going to cry. I was already near tears myself; not for the injured horse, but for the staggering financial loss I had taken.

I couldn’t be angry at Al. He had been right more times than anyone I had ever heard of.  One the way home, Al was very quiet. Don’t sweat it Al. you win some and the lose some. That’s how it is with horse racing.”  Bu Al was not consoled because he was not upset about not picking the winner. He just kept muttering, “That horse; that poor horse. I think he broke his leg. He was trying so hard because he knew was supposed to win. Then he broke his leg. Now they will shoot him. That poor horse. I jinxed him.” I ain’t picking winners no more.

When we got to his house I asked, “Next Friday?” He stared out the window and said, “No. I ain’t going no more. I can’t stand to see them get hurt.”

“Come on, Al. That doesn’t happen very often. Don’t give up on me now.”

“No. You just want me to go so you can win money. I don’t want to do it anymore. I can’t stand to see them get hurt.”

That was the last time I took Al to the track.  How strange it was to think that he had some way to connect with those horses that none of the rest of us could understand. With his mental limitations, he was able somehow to make a connection with those horses that went beyond words of explanation.  Maybe he really could hear those horses. Was it possible that he was able to communicate with them on a deeper level than anyone else? I sure as hell wasn’t smart enough to figure it out.

In the long run I had broken even as usual. But I had gained something else. There was a kind of giftedness that I would never understand. Thanks for the lesson, Al.

Not My Enemy

I have been giving a lot of thought to the caustic political environment in our country. I cannot remember a time when the divisions have been so deep and so hateful. This bothers me a great deal. I follow the teachings of a savior who would not abide hate; not even for people who considered themselves his enemies. So I am ready to make three vows when it comes to politics.

I WILL NOT HATE ANY POLITICAL FIGURE

Admittedly, this is not easy. President Trump has elicited some very strong feelings among supporters and opponents alike. I am not a supporter.  But I have found myself drifting into feelings that were pretty close to hate. I will not allow that to happen. My faith is much more important to me than anything political. My Lord says that hate is the moral equivalent of murder.  No matter how much I disagree with policies or personal behavior, I will not hate him.  Hate corrodes the container that holds it. I refuse to hate him. I will strongly disagree with him. I will act politically to oppose him. But I will not hate him. 

FRIENDS ARE NOT MY ENEMIES

Facebook is filled with venom from both sides. People indicate that if you don’t agree with their perspective on Trump, then you must be stupid or evil.  There are a number of people who are Trump supporters who happen to be people that I love. I refuse to consider them my enemies because we disagree politically. I don’t know if real dialogue is possible at this time. That’s because there is a lot of emotion involved that clouds rational thinking and makes it impossible to debate the issues.  Maybe the best we can do right now is to agree to disagree without being disagreeable.  If you are a Trump supporter, I do not hate you. I will not cast aside our friendship because of our disagreement. I can only hope that you will grant me the same tolerance.

I WILL PRAY INSTEAD OF DEMONIZING

Donald Trump is not a demon. Neither are the members of Congress.  They are flawed human beings who are part of a very imperfect system. I wonder if our nation would be healthier and more God like if we would stop hating and started praying for each other and all of our leaders.  I will not fall into despair. This is because my faith and my hope are not in human beings or human institutions. My faith and my hope are alive and well because God is ultimately in charge. Let each of  us continue to be active politically, but stomp the hate, and for the sake of our nation, PRAY!

3 reasons I am no longer a football fanatic

I have been a football fan (short for fanatic) since childhood. I remember watching a Steelers game with my grandfather.  At the time, they were the cellar-dwellers in the National Football League. S. O. S. meant the same old Steelers.  Then they became a powerhouse. They won 6 championships. That’s more than any other team.  My enthusiasm for the NFL was off the charts.  But now, not so much.

It has nothing to do with the plight of my favorite team.  But the enthusiasm and passion I once had are gone. There are three reasons for this decline.

MONEY

The first reason is money. The NFL has become a huge business.  It is essentially a group of millionaires playing for a group of billionaires.  Television money rules the game. The network tells teams when to have delays in the game for commercials.

The owners often times force taxpayers to pay for new stadiums with the threat of moving the team to another city.  Players demand huge salaries while the price of tickets locks many out of attending games.

Neither 

Neither the players or the owners have any real loyalty to the cities or the fans they represent.  Players have become spoiled since childhood and now feel entitled.

INJURIES

Part of the decline of the Roman Empire was the fascination with gladiatorial battles. People loved to gather to watch men fight bloody battles ending in serious injury and sometimes, even death.  Now people watch a sport that does the same thing.

I know these men have signed up to play in a game that has known, serious, life altering injuries. But they cannot understand the devastation that goes along with multiple concussions and broken backs and knees that will not work. Many former players pay a terrible price for their time in the NFL. It gets harder and harder for me to watch this human car crash dozens of times a game.

Some of the players TRY to inflict debilitating damage on the other players. But even those who stay within the rules are causing great harm to the bodies of their opponents and to themselves.

PRIORITIES

The game has become too important to too many people. It causes a strain on friendships and even disrupts family relationships. We have lost sight of the fact that it is a game. It is entertainment. 

It has taken precedence over more more important activities. One church was having a Sunday night Bible Study. When one member saw that it would be on the first Sunday in February, they expressed anger at the pastor saying, “Are you crazy? That’s the Super Bowl!”

I remember watching a game the Sunday after the massacre at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh.  Someone said, “I hope the Steelers win.” I said, It’s hard to think it matters after this week.”

It is a statistical fact that the night of the Super Bowl has a higher number of calls for domestic abuse than any other night of the year. The rage that is seen in the game carries over into unhealthy reactions for the fans. How can this be? How can some allow this entertainment to have such sway over them?

In the movie Concussion, the actor playing Cyril Wecht says, “You can’t fight the NFL. They own a day of the week. It’s the same day the church used to own.Now the NFL owns it.”  That’s not much of an exaggeration.  Pro Football now resembles our national religion. Somehow along the way, this “game” has taken a position on our priority lists that is far too high. I know a family that was struggling financially. But they bought tickets to the Super Bowl, paid an inflated price for a hotel, and flew to that city for the week-end. The rationale for this debt-inducing event was, “Hey, it’s the Super Bowl.”

I think it is time to re-evaluate our priorities. It’s time to make the decision that the NFL will not rule our lives.  To be honest, I still watch the games and cheer for the home town team.  But the passion is gone.  It has become for me, entertainment. That is what it was meant to be.

My first published book

Hey,

It’s been a long time since I have written anything on my blog. But now I am excited to announce that my first published book is now available in Kindle form and will soon be available in print. To order, go to Amazon.com and books. Then search for What Do You Know, Preacher.

This is a collection of essays on experiences over 40 years of ministry.  Let me know if  you like it. I am currently working on two more books to come in 2019.

I will also be writing more on this blog so keep checking in.

A Sermon: What Next?

WHAT’S NEXT? LUKE 24: 36-49

APRIL 15, 2018 EPC

I THREE IN ONE

A An elderly lady dies and appears at the Pearly Gates. St. Peter asks her to explain her four husbands. She says, “My first husband was a millionaire. My second was a very handsome actor. The third was a pastor and my last husband was an undertaker. I had one for the money, two for the show, three to get ready and four to go.”  I was happy to see us pastors make the list; even if it was at number three.

B. There seem to be a lot of threes here today. The Trinity is always a part of our thinking. I received a note that said I was one of the three best pastors he had ever had. I don’t know if I was win place or show. But at least I made the list.

C. And today the lectionary people, who are not very good at math call this the third Sunday after Easter even though Easter was only TWO weeks ago. And this passage is from the third gospel, Luke who unlike Mark shows us the risen Jesus. And in this appearance Jesus gives the disciples three initiatives, three things that Jesus initiates and askes his followers to

D. They are to know the real Jesus, to understand scripture as the context for Jesus and to see Jesus as the confirmation and key to understanding scripture, and to see Easter as the beginning of missions. They are all connected to one another. It’s kind of like 3 in 1 oil.  

JESUS AND US: BODY AND SPIRIT

A. The first initiative is for us to know the real Jesus. That understanding starts with the fact that the body of Jesus was raised. What if you had to prove that you were not dead? That happened to a man named Charles Hubbard, a Vietnam veteran from Austin Texas. He received a letter from the VA informing him that he was dead and he had to return thousands of dollars in benefits.  He had to make an extensive case to prove that he was alive including showing up in person at the hearing. It took the VA eight months to restore his benefits and declare that he was not dead after all.

B. When Jesus appeared to the disciples they were cowering behind a locked door. They were defeated and afraid. Jesus said, “Peace be with you” because he knew they were terrified. They thought he was a ghost. His presence and his words were not enough to convince them. He scolds them a little for still being afraid. Barbara Essex said that Jesus was frustrated with their lack of faith. “Why are you still freaking out?”

C. So he showed them his wounds.” Go ahead, touch my scars.” They are still not sure. So he asks them if there is anything to eat. Jesus comes back from the grave and he doesn’t talk to them about advanced theology or cosmology or life and death. He asks if there is anything in the fridge.   Then he ate a fish taco. Ghosts don’t have flesh and blood wounds and they don’t have a digestive tract.

D. The first thing that a disciple has to do is to believe in the real Jesus. This has changed my understanding of heaven. I used to think we would be bodyless spirits floating around in some other reality. But now I think we will have bodies; not these bodies, thank God; but resurrection bodies like Jesus had. How do we know all of this? The Bible tells us so.

E. Next we have to show others the real Jesus. Sometimes words will do it. But most of the time we have to show them our scars that say we have been through some hard times, but God has seen us through them all. That’s what the Psalmist was saying in the first reading today. Maybe we have to eat with them. There is great power in sharing a meal. In the ancient Middle East, to eat with someone created a bond of friendship which we not to be broken. Don’t underestimate the power of breaking bread together. In other words we have to develop a relationship with them that will allow us to share the reality of Jesus with them. See, we are only on the first initiative and we have already touched on the other two.

II. JESUS:SCRIPTURE’S CONTEXT AND CONFIRMATION

A. The second initiative that Jesus offers is to understand scripture. Once they have been convinced that he is real, he reminds them of what the scriptures wrote about him. The whole Old Testament was pointing to him.  From Abraham to Moses through the writings and the prophets, it was all about what would happen on Easter Sunday.

B. The scriptures were the context to explain Jesus. But if that were all, we would still be in the dark about what it all means. Jesus is not just the ultimate message of the Bible. Jesus is also the key to us understanding the scriptures. Luke tells us that he opened their minds to understand the scriptures. This was their ah ha  Luke uses that word dianathyen to open a number of times. It’s the same word he used when the disciples at Emmaus had their eyes opened when he broke the bread. Unless Jesus opens our minds, we have no chance of understanding what is written.

C. I have known some very intelligent people who know a lot ABOUT the scriptures. But they have missed the truth that comes only when the Spirit opens our minds to what it all means. One man in the Middle East said, “So many Americans come here. They take the Bible literally. But they do not take it seriously.”

 D. The Bible is a sacred gift. It is where we learn about the real Jesus. And it is Jesus who makes it possible for us to understand it, to feel it, to take it seriously. That is why it is such a sin to let the Bible and the faith that it proclaims be hijacked by a political party or a government. Its truth is much bigger than partisan politics. That’s what the Declaration of Barmen from our Book of Confessions says. It was written in Germany in the middle thirties. It said that the faith stands over and above any human power.

 E. So what do we do with the Bible? Well one thing we must avoid is using it as a weapon to attack one group of people or another. The ultimate message of the Bible is grace through faith. Leave judgment to God.  We are not qualified and it’s above our pay grade. Just spread the truth of Jesus from scripture. The church is about love and patience and peace. Oops, there I go again talking about the other two initiatives. The scripture confirms the reality of Jesus. Jesus opens the meaning of scripture for us. He then sends us on our way to proclaim that truth in word and deed.

IV. EASTER IS OVER WHAT’S NEXT?

 A. Jesus Christ is risen today, Alleluia. The alleluias have faded. There is a little more room in the pews. The wow factor of the holiday is past. The question for us is, “NOW WHAT?”  That was the third initiative in the text this morning.  Jesus didn’t leave them or us without marching orders. Once they grasped the reality of Jesus and once they understood the scriptures, he commanded them to proclaim the necessary changes and the grace that they had experienced to the whole world; to the ethna, to all ethnic groups.  And that proclamation is not just about getting them saved to go to heaven. It’s not just about their spirits. It’s about their bodies.  God formed the human from dust and called it very good.  Humanity matters. Flesh and blood matters to God The physical needs of humans matter to God.

B. Our mission then must go beyond a Noah’s Ark model. We are doing more than just getting as many on board as we can before the flood. We are charged with caring for the whole person. ALL persons; not just the ones who are like us; not just the ones who can pay us back; not just the ones we like and not just the ones we approve of.

C. There is no more I went to Honduras a few years ago on a mission trip. I was moved by the incredible poverty there. Especially the children. One little boy died of a tape worm. He was too far from a hospital where he could have been cured. But his family had no way to get him there. So they watched him die. Many were sick from drinking contaminated water. Many had no education. Many suffered with diseases that could easily be cured with access to medication. In a debriefing with the pastors there I said I felt so bad for them. He corrected me.  “Feel so bad for US. Those children are US, not THEM. They are YOUR children.” I stood corrected.

D. The problems are so many and so big. Sometimes we feel like we can’t do anything. But that is not true. There is a couple in the Garfield section of Pittsburgh who started a farm. They hire local kids to work there. They sell cheap or give away produce to local families. They are making a huge difference in that neighborhood in the name of Christ. You provide blankets to people who are cold and without shelter. Who are these people receiving blankets? What race are they? What color are they? What are their politics? It doesn’t matter. They are us and they are cold and wet. The Presbyterian Church is partnering with the infant church in Honduras and other third world counties to alleviate hunger and poverty and ignorance in many needy parts of the world. That’s us. WE are part of that proclamation of change and love and grace. Any place in the world where women are abused or children are suffering needlessly or groups of people are killed with Serin gas or refugees have no place to live, or people are jailed unjustly or where people cannot afford basic health care that is where we are called to proclaim the love and grace of the risen Jesus Christ.

E. The WHAT NEXT of Easter is joy instead of fear. No longer will we hide behind locked doors with only a wispy, powerless, dead Jesus. We acknowledge that missions involve risk. But we will proclaim Christ in word and deed   The WHAT NEXT of Easter is that we will seek the wisdom of scripture to guide us in every aspect of our lives; these lives, here and now. That in itself is a witness to the reality of the risen Christ. The WHAT NEXT of Easter is to commit ourselves to missions both near and far. It’s three in one.  They are inseparable.  It isn’t biblical, but I thought it was an interesting touch that one of the made for TV movies about the death and resurrection have the high priest go to the tomb and he sees it is empty and he says, “Now it begins.” Making those initiatives a reality is the reason that Easter isn’t the ending. It is the beginning. Jesus tells them to wait until God has empowered them to get to work. But we live on the other side of Pentecost. I think, for us, the time is right now.

 

Easter Sermon

IT AIN’T OVER ‘TILL IT’S OVER

MARK 16: 1-8
EASTER 4-1-18
ELDERTON

FOOLISHNESS

 A. A man was driving early on Easter morning. He was motoring along when he suddenly saw a rabbit in the middle of the road. He tried to stop but it was too late. He ran over the rabbit. He got out of his car distraught and looked at the poor rabbit. It was dead. Then he noticed that there were Easter eggs and chocolate bunnies strewn over the road and a big basket lying near the dead bunny. “Oh no. I’ve killed the Easter bunny.” Just then a woman stopped to see what was going on. “It’s terrible. I’ve killed the Easter bunny.” She said, “Don’t worry.” She went back to her car and came up to the rabbit and sprayed something on him and the rabbit jumped up alive and well and began to hop away. Every ten yards he would stop and wave back at them. Ten more yards and another wave until he was out of sight.  The man was shocked. He had to see what she had sprayed on the rabbit. He looked at the label and it said, “Hare restorer. Brings dead hare back to life. Adds permanent wave.” Hey, there is no groaning on Easter!

B.  NO, you are right. That was just ridiculous. Foolishness. Did you know that foolishness is the way some people think of the resurrection?  They say, “Maybe he wasn’t really dead.” No he was really clinically completely dead.  “Well in that case this story about him walking out of the tomb is totally ridiculous. It is no more based in reality than the Easter Bunny.  It’s just foolishness. It’s not rational”, the skeptics say.

C. And Paul says they are right. The cross and the empty tomb ARE foolishness to idolaters without faith. But to us; to the ones who are being saved it is the power of God. He says if the resurrection is not true then our faith is in vain and we are pitiful losers.

D. Because you see, this is not just about believing that Jesus walked out of the tomb alive. It is about our own resurrection to eternal life. We as believers have staked out lives on this truth that is beyond rationality

 

II. VARIETY OF IDOLS

A. I feel sorry for those who have missed having faith. Their world is limited to what they can see and explain. They still put on their Easter bonnet and finery. But they are all dressed up and no place to go; just like when they die. In a way they already dead. You know, a vale of tears, a few short years, life is hard and then you die, that sort of thing.

B. But let’s be careful in our judgment of them. Even if they are dead in sin, they can still be brought back to life. Jesus didn’t die just for the saints. He died and rose again for EVERY HUMAN BEING.  He dies for sinners and idolaters like us too.

C. What do you mean Idolaters? I’ve never bowed down and prayed to a statue. Well there is quite a variety of idols. In the gospel stories, Peter’s idol was Judas had an obvious idol called money. The Romans worshipped power and political expedience. The Jewish leaders saw tradition as the thing to be worshipped. The crowd wanted to worship a winner. And rationality was the idol of skeptics. Those idols are still around today. Maybe you have dabbled in some of them. An idol is anything, even some good things, that comes before God on your priority list.

D. And rationality is one of the most significant idols of our time. We need proof to really believe something. And of course what you can see and explain requires no faith at all. Human wisdom says, “Resurrection can’t be true. I’ve never seen him.” That’s like the ending of Mark’s gospel. WE don’t see the Risen Jesus. We can get all caught up in thinking that truth is just what we can observe and understand. But Paul says that human wisdom is dumber than God’s foolishness.

E. And what happens when we limit ourselves to just the senses and the mind? We begin to live empty lives. (Macbeth: Act 5 Scene 5) If we live only in the security of rationality, then the shadow of death looms over every day of life. And we miss the most essential truths; God’s truth which has the power of life with meaning and life eternal.

 

III. YOU WILL SEE HIM IN GALILEE

 A.  There is a branch of Christian study that is called apologetics. It seeks to rationalize the stories of the Bible.  I think it might be helpful to some. But we must decide ultimately to have a faith that goes beyond what we can explain. If you were hoping that I would explain the resurrection; dissect it; rationalize it, sorry I can’t.  I can tell you that I believe it. I believe that it really happened. It was not just a parable about Jesus always being with us. We look for rational reasons to believe. One of the greatest to me is that 10 of the apostles died as martyrs for the Risen Christ. Can we really conclude that they all died horrible deaths for a lie or an illusion?  But ultimately we believe without seeing.

B. Which brings us to this strange ending of Mark’s gospel. Once every three years we are directed by the lectionary to take a look at Mark on Easter. Here is how he ends his gospel. The women see that the stone has been rolled away. They look inside and Jesus isn’t there. The young man or messenger tells them that he has been raised. He doesn’t try to prove the resurrection. He just tells them not to be afraid. “Go and tell the others that they will see him in Galilee, just as he told you.” And the women run away in terror and tell no one. THE END!  

 

C.  What? We don’t even get to see the Risen Jesus? What kind of ending is that? It feels like dead hare back to life foolishness. The other gospel writers have Jesus talk to them and invite them to touch his wounds. He eats breakfast with them. He appears to many believers. Then they see him ascend into heaven. What’s wrong with you Mark? Is it April fools

?D.  Again the rationalists try to explain it. They say the last page was lost or he ran out of parchment. Maybe he was interrupted before he could finish. Through the ages people have added extra endings to Mark’s gospel to make it more pleasing; to let us see Jesus again.

 

IV. WHAT HAPPENED THEN, MARK?

A.But I think this is exactly the ending Mark intended.  He didn’t end the story because the story isn’t over.  The messenger tells them that they will see Jesus in Galilee. That is, we will see Jesus in the everyday lives that we lead. Even in failure, like what was undoubtedly the temporary failure of the women to carry out their assigned mission.

B. One church where I was pastor had three Easter services. The first one was sunrise and there were not many who came. Then there was the late service which was also not all that well attended. It was the middle service that was packed to over flowing. We had the fool choir and brass and a big processional in which the same woman insisted on carrying the cross into the sanctuary. She said that neither of the other services did much for her. It was in the pomp and excitement of that middle service that mattered to her. She would say “NOW it’s Easter!” That never fit well with Mark.

C.  But Easter is most significantly experienced in the every- day Galilees of life; in the down times and the routine times and the times and laundry day and the day you have to wait for the cable guy and when the roof leaks and the rent is due. It’s not just in the grandeur of Easter Sunday. Avery and Marsh wrote a song called “every morning is Easter morning from now on.” That’s pretty close to the meaning of Mark’s ending.

D. When we ask, “What happens next, Mark”, he tells us that the conclusion to the story is up to us. It’s about resurrection faith that sustains us and gives us new life right where we live. Only our being able to believe without seeing or explaining combined with the faithfulness of the God who raised Jesus can complete the story.  The second shoe hasn’t dropped Mark ends the gospel in mid -sentence. The last word is GAR. It means for or because.  The story goes on in your life and in my life and it…..

A Palm Sunday Sermon. Crown him,Kill Him, Follow Him

CROWN HIM, KILL HIM, FOLLOW HIM

PHILIPPIANS 2: 1-11 MARCH 25, 2018

  1. SAD PARADE

A Do you prefer good news or bad news? That’s a silly question. Everyone prefers good news.  I found a list of good news bad news items that apply to us preachers. The Women’s Association voted to send you a get well card. The bad news is that the vote was 31-30. 2. Your women’s softball team finally won a game. The bad news is that they beat your men’s softball team. 3. Church attendance rose dramatically the last three weeks. The bad news is that you were vacation. 4.  The Session voted to send you to the Holy Land. The bad news is it’s a one way ticket

.B. When you begin to work on a sermon for this week, the books all ask you if you are seeing this as Palm Sunday or Passion Sunday. Some place the emphasis on the triumphant entry into Jerusalem. Others see this as the beginning of the week of crucifixion. Some want to emphasize the good news. Others think of it as the beginning of bad news. I think it is both.

C. This is the Sunday when there is a strange mix of conflicting emotions. It is the collision of good news and bad news.  If you had never heard the story, you would probably conclude that this parade into Jerusalem is the happy ending to a wonderful story about Jesus being proclaimed as the Davidic King, come to set his people free. But we already know about Friday. We already know that things turn ugly for Jesus in just five days.

D. And so we read the story of this procession with a sense of foreboding. It’s hard to celebrate an execution. Parades are usually about joy. Super bowl champions have a ticker tape parade down Main Street. The President parades down Pennsylvania Ave. at his Inauguration. But this parade, when seen through the eyes that already know about Friday, looks more like the parade in Washington D.C. in November of 1963 with a caisson and a casket and a rider less horse.

E. The triumphant entry into the city was not the final triumph. And even amidst the Hosannas and praise, there is that underlying, haunting sense of foreboding and pending bad news.  All glory laud and honor to thee redeemer king, to whom the lips of children their sweet hosannas bring.  To thee before thy passion….  Oh, you had to bring that up.  I wonder if Jesus glanced up at the hill of skulls as he rode into town.  My guess is that he already knew how fickle people could be.

II. DOWNARDLY MOBILE SAVIOR

 

A. Mark tells us about the colt and the leafy branches and Jesus is coming through that gate to the cheers of the adoring crowd which is shouting, HOSANNA! A rough translation of that word is SAVE US RIGHT NOW!  It sounds more like a demand than an exclamation of praise.  In Stephanie Jaegar’s blog, she included a picture of a piece of graffiti on a wall in Jerusalem. It read, WE NEED PEACE.  It struck her as a modern day equivalent to Hosanna. The people of that region are desperate for peace. While governments and terrorist groups maintain a steady stream of bad news, the people long for the chance to live their lives in harmony and security and peace. The man who is responsible for opening and closing the Church of the Holy Sepulture in Jerusalem is a Muslim. He says he does this out of respect for the Christians. He said, “All I want, all any of us want is to live in peace and mutual respect.”  Can you demand peace?   It seems like that what hundreds of thousands of young people were doing yesterday. God does. Through the prophets God says “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem.” It’ an

B. I think that is what Jesus was hearing on Palm Sunday. They were desperate for some good news. They were ready to exalt and glorify this one who came in the name of the Lord; even this silly looking donkey riding They didn’t understand. Maybe we still don’t. Jesus came as more than a conqueror. He came with no army. He came to change the world with love. He was already a downwardly mobile messiah.  His poll numbers would drop rapidly that week. Paul tells us that he was one with God and willingly gave that up to become a human being with all of humanities limitations to die an excruciatingly painful death alone and in disgrace.

C. This hymn in Philippians is called the kenosis, the emptying of Christ. He humbled himself for the sake of all of us; even to death on a cross. He was the stone that the builders were rejecting. He knew that the crowd could not really exalt him. It was only God who could do that. And God would do that, so that we have the audacity to call Friday, good.  God has this amazing way of turning death into life and bad news into good news.

III. OUR KENOSIS VICTORY

A. Defeat becomes the ultimate victory.  Jesus knew that this parade into the city was not the ultimate victory. That would come a week later. But there was no shortcut to the empty tomb. It was by way of the cross. And when Jesus totally empties himself in death, God highly exalts him. So that his is the name that is above every name. Something like I AM!  They crown him; they kill him: will we follow him?

B.Jesus 8is Lord and Savior. That’s what this passage asks us to believe. But as my late New Testament professor used to ask “What does this passage ask us to DO?” Paul sums up the ethical expectation in this line. “Have the same mind in you that was in Christ Jesus.” In other words, have the same attitude that we have seen modeled in Jesus. That would tell us that Palm Sunday’s triumph is short lived as is any exaltation that comes from people. We have lots of examples of self -inflicted decline.  As they say, It’s a short trip from the penthouse to the outhouse. Remember John Edwards, Gary Hart, Richard Nixon and now Bill Cosby. But Jesus was not like them. Jesus is less.  And He tells us that our call is to be self-emptying. So we take on characteristics like humility, and compassion. We start to put the interest of others before self-interest naturally.

C. Famous jazz trumpeter Miles Davis was asked to write the score for a movie where there is a major plot twist near the end. Davis said, “Well it got a wrinkle in it don’t it?” So this happy parade into Jerusalem turns deadly. It definitely has a wrinkle it.

D. Jesus didn’t pull punches. He said, “If anyone wants to follow me, let him take up his cross and follow me.” WOW!  Jesus, you aren’t making this Christianity thing an easy sell. It might have been if Palm Sunday were the happy ending of the story. But now, there is a cross involved.  And the final exaltation is not by humanity, but just as with Jesus, it is God who ultimately wins the victory for all who are willing to empty themselves of self. And that is indeed good news.

IV. DEEP-SPIRITED FRIENDS

A. And while the rhetoric may sound easy, living it is hard.  We take up crosses many times without deciding to do so.  A child dies. There is no greater agony than that.  You are “down sized” at 55. The doctor says, “It’s malignant.”  Your husband leaves you with 2 kids and an uncertain future.  Your best friend commits suicide. And we ask ourselves are we strong enough to cope? And the answer is   And then God comes alongside us and holds us and weeps with us and reminds us that this is not the end of the story. And when hope is renewed God helps us see beyond the easy good news of our Palm Sunday victories through the pain of our crosses and to the bright light of a real victory that only God can offer.

 

 B. So often it is defeat and loss that make room for grace. An ancient Rabbi wrote that “the Word of God is laid upon the heart of a man. But it cannot penetrate until that heart is broken.” God allows us to see the rainbow through the rain and feel the promise is not vain that morn shall tearless be. And here is even better good news; you don’t have to go through it alone. Somebody you know right now has a broken heart; maybe it’s you. But it is is always all of us. When one weeps we all taste salt.

C. When Paul writes Have the same mind in YOU that was in Christ Jesus, it is the plural you. A friend of mine named Eileen was from Texas. She kept saying YALL to me. I asked her what the plural for YALL was. She told me that the singular was YALL and the plural was ALL YALL!  This word from Paul is ALL YALL.  God wants us to be in this together when we face the pain and when we experience the victories.  We are made to face it all as a community of believers, supporting one another as Peterson’s translation says, “As deep-spirited friends.” When Jesus went out to Gethsemane to pray he only took his closet friends with him to the garden of anguish. We all need garden friends. That should be our goal as a church. It should be a place to bring your deepest pain and our greatest victory to share. You are here for me, and I am here for you and that is really good news.  I close with a song by K. Blanchard. (Play the song)

 

 

 

 

A Sermon: The Unilateral Promise

THE UNILATERAL PROMISE

GENESIS 15: 7-21 EPC 3-11-18

  1. WHAT IN THE WORLD IS GOING ON HERE?

A. I have not preached in nine months.  Let’s see if I remember. Am I doing it right so far? What a treat to be back home.  In case the passage of time was not apparent, there are children graduating from High school this year who were not born when I left Elderton. And today we baptized the children of parents who were in kid’s club when I was the pastor here. Once a bulletin announcement on a baptism Sunday was a little confusing.  It said, “Thanks to the Jones family for the new baptismal font which will be placed in the narthex at the church entrance. From now on babies will be baptized at both ends.”  You can see the jokes have not gotten any better.

B. Baptism is an ancient ritual. But I think sometimes we have lost the significance of its meaning. I fear that some people approach it as a nice, cute, sweet little ceremony. But there is something much more important than just a photo op for grandma going on here. What in the world IS going on here? And why would the preacher choose such a gross passage of scripture for a baptism sermon?

C. We have this story of Abram needing a promise from God that the Divine will always be with him. And so God gives him instructions about cutting these animals in half and leaving a path between the parts. As my granddaughter Ainsley, an avowed vegetarian would say, “Oooh gross!” She showed me a picture of cow and said, “How could you eat one of these?” I said, “On a sesame seed bun with cheese and Heinz 57.” So why this gory story from Genesis?

D.  I hope everyone keeps the promises they make today. But if they don’t, God will still keep God’s promise to be with you always.In another church two sets of parents had their babies baptized the same day. I told them that they were making sacred promises to raise their children in the church. They were promising to get them to Sunday school and to teach them Christian and Biblical values at home. One couple was in church every Sunday and the child was in Sunday school. They were clearly keeping their promise. We never saw the other family again. Guess which child God loves? Both of course.

 

 

 

 II. NOT QUID PRO QUO

A. Because there is a big clue as to what in the world is going on in baptism.  What Abram does is probably an ancient ritual that Middle Eastern people had used for centuries as a way of cutting a deal.  That’s where the term cutting a check originates. There were no contracts or lawyers. So two parties who wanted to enter into a contract would enact this messy ritual. Then both parties would walk between the halved animals as a sign that they would each uphold their end of the bargain. They were saying in ritual, “If I don’t live up to my end of the contract, then what happened to these animals should happen to me.”  Whew! ‘Talk about a binding contract.

B.  So we come to church and we make promises about the ones who are baptized. The parents make promises. The congregation makes promises. And God makes promises. But it is not a contract. In a contract I promise to do something if you promise to do something else. I agree to pay for a ticket to see the Pirates play and Nutting promises to put a major league team on the field. In a contract if one party does not do what they promised then the first party does not need to keep their promises either. It is Quid Pro Quo.

 

C. No, baptism is not a contract. It’s a Both parties make promises, but if we don’t keep our promises, God still keeps God’s promises.  I want you to notice a key part of this story. Abram does the butchering and chases the birds and flies away. But he is never asked to walk between the animals. Only God takes this walk of promise in the form of a flaming torch.  God is saying “If I don’t keep my promise then I invoke death upon myself. God says, “I swear to ME!”

 

 

 III. BE A BLESSING

A.  Baptism is something that God does. We just make the arrangements. Fortunately filling the font with water is a lot less messy than chopping us animals. We set the stage, but God is the actor. God has promised that He will always be with these adults and children. They will know the unconditional love of God no matter what.

B. Baptism is something God does. Once in a while in my ministry someone would come to me and ask to be re-baptized.  They usually say that they don’t remember their baptism and it would be so much more meaningful now. I try to explain that we don’t re-baptize because it is an act of God and God got it right the first time.

C.  So are we just passive recipients of this sacrament? God says in many places in scripture what our response is to be. God tells Abram to be a blessing to humanity and to God. The prophet Micah says, “This is what the Lord requires of you. Do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God.” Jesus says, “Love God and love your neighbor.” And Paul says, “Live a life worthy of your calling.” Our response is loving gratitude which leads to keeping our promises.

D. And if we faIl?  When we fail? If we find that we are having difficulty keeping our promises, then God sends the Spirit to help us and remind us that we are forgiven; no matter what. That is called grace. And that is the foundation of our faith.

IV. TRUST

A. Faith wavers but God does not. I have to confess that I had some faith wavering times in this last year. I found that I was angry and afraid much of the time. It seemed to me that our nation had made a wrong turn. People seemed to be filled with hatred and anger and fear of anyone who was not like us. It felt at times like the gospel message had been washed away in a spirit of meanness. Blaise Pascal wrote about the overwhelming feeling of the absence of God. I’ve felt it.

B. But I was sitting in church the first Sunday of Lent. The preacher was acknowledging that my negative outlook was wide spread. Then he called me  (US?) back to what me faith had always taught me. I thought about giving something up for Lent. I thought about Brussel sprouts, but would not be much of a sacrifice. It was then that I decided that I was going to give up fear and anger for Lent.

 

C, It was then that I realized that I don’t trust Donald Trump. I don’t trust the Congress. I don’t trust the Democrats or the Republicans. I don’t trust human nature. I don’t trust government at all. My trust is only in the God who created me and redeemed me at the cross, and walked through the animal parts to promise me that God has not abandoned us. God is with us in the anguish of school shootings and Washington lies and an assault on the truth and rampant infidelity and systemic greed and bitter division. After all, this is the God of Golgotha as well as the empty tomb. It was as if God shouted in my ear,  Don’t you remember? “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge God and He will direct your paths.”Oh Yea.

D. It is God who does the baptizing. It is God who makes the unilateral It is God who is our hope. It is in God we trust, no matter how bleak things might seem. Ann Lamott wrote, “If the ending is not happy then perhaps it is not really the end.” I wonder if Abram woke from his sleep like trance and wondered if it was all a dream. Cutting cows in half all day could disrupt your sleep. He might have thought that God didn’t really make a life and death promise. God did not really walk through the animals. Then he walked over to the animals and noticed that the grass between them had been scorched.