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I Dare You Series–Dare to Believe

This is a sermon I preached on May 7th from Mark 5:25-34.  If you would rather listen, you can go to my YouTube channel or click on this link https://youtu.be/z1NSPuzm5VU

The content of belief is important: The famous evangelist and preacher, Jonathan Whitfield, was preaching to coal miners in England. He asked one man, “What do you believe?” “Well, I believe the same as the church.” “And what does the church believe?” “Well, they believe the same as me.” Seeing he was getting nowhere, Whitfield said, “And what is it that you both believe?” “Well, I suppose the same thing.”

Believe.  No doubt each of us here in this place, if asked, “Do you believe?”  would answer, “yes, I believe.”  But much like the coal miner, we might find ourselves in a place of not knowing just what we believe, making belief a moot point.  In our ever-changing world, what we believe is often challenged.  The theological and practical applications of our faith have undergone many changes.  A hundred years ago those who sat in the pews of this congregation would have been aghast at a woman in the pulpit.  And so it goes.  Each day our beliefs are challenged, by science, sociology, by progressive theologians, and even by the courts.  What do we believe?

I guess the greater question for us today is this:  If we know what we believe, what will we do with it?  I mean, how does our belief change us?  How does what we believe affect our actions and reactions?

Adrian Rogers tells about the man who bragged that he had cut off the tail of a man-eating lion with his pocket knife. Asked why he hadn’t cut off the lion’s head, the man replied: “Someone had already done that.”

Belief, or faith, gives us courage, the courage to step forward, the courage to make a difference, the courage to trust that God will save us.  It doesn’t mean we lack doubts or fears, but rather, that in spite of those doubts and fears, our faith pushes us forward.

“Courage is doing what you’re afraid to do. There can be no courage unless you’re scared.” Eddie Rickenbacker, Bits & Pieces, April 29, 1993, p. 12.

In our reading today is a woman at the end of her rope.  A woman pushed by her faith in God and her desire to live to do something courageous, to dare to believe that Jesus would help her, in spite of her fears.

 

Jesus was on his way with Jairus.  This man came to Jesus asking him to please come and heal his daughter who was very ill.  Jesus agreed to do so, but on the way something happened.  Someone touched him, and her life was never the same again.

We believe in many things, but our beliefs don’t always move us to action.  We believe we are citizens of the United States, but we don’t always vote or write letters to our elected officials.  We believe we are members of a church, but we don’t always move in ways that express that membership into reality.  And we believe in Jesus Christ, that God loves us and wants the best for us, but in spite of that faith, we find ourselves sitting in our chairs at home, in our pews, never daring to reach out and touch God.  Maybe it is because our problems seem to be so great, to be looming over us so largely.  Oh, we have saving faith.  We have prayed the prayer of confession and have given our lives to Christ, but yet, we wait, we sit, until something so great, so drastic comes our way that we can do nothing else but move.

“You never know how much you really believe anything until its truth or falsehood becomes a matter of life and death. It is easy to say you believe a rope to be strong as long as you are merely using it to cord a box. But suppose you had to hang by that rope over a precipice. Wouldn’t you then first discover how much you really trusted it?”   C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed.

Let’s look at this woman for a moment.  We don’t know her name, only that she has a bleeding problem.  She has lived with this malady for 12 years.  She might have been wealthy at one time because it tells us she was under the care of many doctors and had spent all she had on treatment.  And still, she kept getting worse.  Most likely she was anemic, weak, and haggard because of the continual bleeding.

Another thing we know about her, but only by inference, is that she was most likely ostracized from society and the general populace.  We know this because she was a Jewish woman, subject to the rules concerning bleeding and open wounds.  She was labeled unclean because of this problem, and anyone who touched her would be considered unclean, as well.  Most likely she lived in her own room, or in her own home, away from the family and open interaction with others.

We see a marginalized woman, set aside, without hope and devastated by all that had happened to her body, and therefore, her life.

What does it mean to be marginalized? the Random House dictionary says:  to place in a position of marginal importance, influence, or power:  Collins English Dictionary defines this verb as:  to relegate to the fringes, out of the mainstream; make seem unimportant

She was marginalized, alone, and she was hoping Jesus could be her answer.  But how to reach Him?  You see, she was unclean.  It was wrong, both socially and according to the Law, for her to be in public, even more, to be in the press of such a crowd.  But she was desperate, and she went after Jesus, in spite of the ramifications.

When she touched his garment, she knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that she was healed, but this sermon isn’t about the woman being healed from her physical malady, it really is about what came next.  You see, she was healed.  She knew it, and Jesus knew it.

30 At once Jesus realized that power had gone out from him. He turned around in the crowd and asked, “Who touched my clothes?”

Jesus could have just continued on, knowing that someone has received healing power, but he also knew there was much more that needed to be done for this daughter of God.

Imagine being marginalized, being ostracized, for 12 years because of a physical malady, or because of financial problems, or because of an addiction, or because of some other societal issue.  Twelve long years of being outside the group.  Twelve long years of being the odd man out, the anathema, the anomaly, the crazy person.  Most likely no one would believe she had been healed, and even if they did believe it, she would still always be labeled, avoided, laughed at, ignored because of her past.

Jesus stops the entire entourage.  Our woman knew she had been found out.  Her fears, although she had been healed, were realized—Jesus was going to identify her, and everyone would know that she had touched them, that she had broken the boundaries, and she would be even further rejected.

But Jesus had another plan.  The disciples objected to Jesus’ search, but He kept looking, as if He didn’t know who it was.  Was there a method to His madness?  Of course, there always is.  Have you ever heard of body dysmorphic syndrome? This is where a person has had a drastic change in their life, but they always see themselves as they were before.  For example, many people who had been grossly obese but have worked hard and lost weight, still see themselves in the mirror as obese.  Some who have had plastic surgery to correct malformations still see themselves as broken, ugly, and unlovable.  Even those who have found deliverance from life-controlling addictions and habits or who have been bullied or attacked, still bear in their psyche the wounds of those past experiences.   We see ourselves as the past, not as we are today.  Jesus knows that, and He knew that if he did not stop this woman would still be suffering, albeit not physically.  “Who touched me?”

33 Then the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came and fell at his feet and, trembling with fear, told him the whole truth.

You see, to be healed completely, to be restored fully, it was imperative that she stand up before all those around her, in spite of the danger, in spite of the possible ramifications, and admit that she was the one who touched the Lord, that she was the one who was healed, that she was the one who had received the amazing gift.  And with courage and faith, she came and answered him, confessing that she was the one.

I can imagine the wagging tongues now.  Oh, Lord!  What is she doing here?  Unclean!  Get away, you horrible person!  Why are you here in the crowd.  She will make us unclean.  Cast her out!

But Jesus knew she was not only clean, but that she had been saved, not only from her sin and from her illness, and He determined to set her free from the psychological and societal implications, as well.

34 He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering.”

Not “woman.”  Not “hey, you.”  Not “unclean person.”  But Daughter, an appellation of love and acceptance.  A term of endearment.  Daughter, your faith has healed you.  All of a sudden, being declared healed and freed by the Savior, she could stand with her head held high.  Because of the physical healing she could stand tall and strong for the first time in years, and because of Jesus’ declaration, she could stand tall and strong without fear of being rejected or cast down.

When God does a work, God does a complete work.  God is not satisfied to just save our souls, even though that is why Jesus came.  God seeks to complete the work in us, as Paul said in Philippians 1:4-6:       4 In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy . . .6 being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.

Paul believed that God would complete the work in his disciples because God had done that same work in the woman in our story today and God had done that work in Paul.  And God will complete that work in you.

You are here today because God started a work in your life.  For some it started when you were baptized as a child, brought into a fellowship of believers who promised to raise you in faith.  For others, you found Christ in the midst of your life, maybe at a time of crisis, and started on the journey of faith.  Whichever you are, you reached out to touch Jesus, desperate for salvation, for help, for redemption.  And you stood, healed spiritually, being made a son or daughter of God.  But maybe you walked away before Jesus could stop and say, “Who touched me?”  Salvation is instantaneous and ongoing.  We are saved, completely, redeemed when we confess our sins and call on the power of God in Christ.  Nothing can change that.  But, then, we begin a journey on which God repeatedly calls our name, insists that we stand up, come forward, and, like the woman, say who we are and what God has done in us.

Perhaps you are one who, like our woman, feels ostracized, rejected, alone.  Maybe you are still carrying the emotional or mental wounds of the past.  Perhaps you continue to feel outcast and “not good enough.”  I’d like us to take a moment this morning to stop in our tracks.  To stop the crowd as Jesus did and ask:  Who has touched Jesus?  Who has received power?  Who has been made new?   Will you stand this morning in testimony of the work God has begun in your life, even if that journey began many years ago?

Perhaps God is still doing a work in you.  Maybe you carry the scars of the past and need to receive the words of Jesus today.  I say to you today, God has healed you, God is healing you, God wants to heal you, to set you free.

But that is not all God is doing among us, because, you see, sometimes we are not like the woman, we are like the crowd, those who didn’t see the woman as Jesus saw her.  Those who only saw her past, her malady, her shortcomings.  Our society has been upended with social change, and wherever you stand on the issues, there is one thing that we must know.  Jesus said, John 8:35 Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever. 36 So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed. Dare to believe that God wants to bless you and to raise you up to glorify God.

Finally, I speak to you as a congregation.  With the changes in culture and religious movements, many congregations feel marginalized, left out.  We feel as if there is nothing we can do, that there is no hope.  Yet we continue to try, to see if there is someway to continue on, to make a difference, to be viable.  You were in that position and reached out to God, and then to me, hoping to move forward.  And here we stand.  God touched my heart and yours and brought us together, and now He asks, “Who Touched Me?”  You see, it wasn’t enough just to make a decision and then to thing everything would change.  We must make the difference.  We must stand and say, “I am here.  Even if no one thinks I am or should be, here I stand.”

The final dare, in this Dare to Believe message, is:  Do you dare to believe that God can do something in this congregation?  And if so, how will it change you?  A process of transformation isn’t easy.  It involves hard conversations, sometimes compromise, and facing the fears that challenge us and hold us back.  Are you ready to move forward?  I am.

I dare you to believe that you are enough—because God loves you and Jesus made you enough by His sacrifice.

I dare you to believe that you can stand free and clear, despite the world’s views or society’s catcalls.

I dare you to believe that when we come to God together, to do the work of transformation, God will move among us.

 

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What Do You Want Me to Do?

Fellow Christians (from whatever side of the debate, but especially my fellow conservatives), please consider these words. I believe that our Christianity must come before our political ideology. I struggle to support a government that wants to sideline and marginalize so many people. I have great insurance through my denomination; and I feel guilty when I talk to my friends who have “insurance” with a $6,000 annual deductible, who have to file bankruptcy because one of their children got sick and required medical care that overwhelmed them, who have to choose between paying insurance premiums and buying food or paying the rent. This isn’t a democrat/republican issue. This is a spiritual issue. I don’t have the answers, but I am sure we must be a part of the solution. I don’t know how, but I know I have to do something.
 
I was convicted by reading Rev. William Barber’s open letter to us, challenging us to be actively involved in the health care debate, and I hope you will read it, as well.
Many years ago, church people (Christian and Jewish) were instrumental in opening clinics and hospitals, in providing counseling and help for those who couldn’t afford it. Those have largely been taken over by for-profit corporations and universities, and once again, the poor, or working poor–people who work hard to make enough to get by–cannot afford regular medical care. Some of the hospitals have funds to help, but those are often not enough.  Hospitals in my community are filing lawsuits against people who are making monthly payments because they aren’t paying enough or fast enough.
 
Maybe those of us who have good insurance should take a little of our savings and create a fund for those who have poor insurance or none at all. Or maybe we can be a part of the answer by insisting ALL of our legislators and business leaders focus on the whole economy—-profit AND person.
 
I wax on, but at one time, while we were in college AND working, I remember choosing not to go to the doctor because I knew I couldn’t afford the co-pay, not taking medication because I didn’t have the money to purchase it. I think about my father who wouldn’t take his Parkinson’s medication because he fell into the donut hole and couldn’t afford to pay for it. (He later got a grant from the manufacturer when I explained that was a possibility.)
 
My heart breaks for parents who don’t know how they will afford insurance and feed their children. My heart aches for adult children who don’t know how they will care for their sick parents who don’t have enough money to go to a good nursing home, and so are placed in one with substandard care. We were there, too, when we had to place my mother-in-law on Medicaid so she that, along with her pension and Social Security, she could be cared for in a decent nursing home when her Alzheimers disease made it near impossible to care for her at home.  
 
As Christians we must remember that, although we love our country, are thankful for our freedoms, and enjoy God’s blessings and the ability to live an abundant life, our true allegiance must be first to God and God’s laws.
 
We love the Old Testament, but we ignore God’s commands to care for the poor, the marginalized, and the outcasts, to advocate for justice in all its forms. We forget that in Jesus’ own ancestry were women whom our society (and many of us) would send away. Yet God welcomed them and others and instructed us to care for them.
 
Please pray about your part in this issue. I am pro-life, but I am convicted that I have to be pro-ALL-life, from beginning to end, as the God of our Bible commanded us to be. Let’s return to the church that cared for the orphans and widows and for the poor and lonely as well as for the unborn. This is my heart today and what God is speaking to me.
PS: Before you start posting about how they became poor and that they are there because they live bad lifestyles, don’t bother. I’ve made that argument with God before. Then I read Paul’s words :
 
10 As it is written:
 
“There is no one righteous, not even one;
11 there is no one who understands;
there is no one who seeks God.
12 All have turned away,
they have together become worthless;
there is no one who does good,
not even one.”
20 Therefore no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin.
 
And if you really want to be convicted, read Deuteronomy 15:7-11.
 
I’d love to have a conversation, but I’d really love for everyone reading this, instead of arguing political jargon and such, to spend time in prayer and seeking God. Measure the weight of these words. If you find them to not have much weight or value, feel free to flush them. But if God is speaking to you, as God is speaking to me, let’s work together, not as left v. right and vice versa, but as children of the God who loves all of creation. Maybe if we do, we can find a better way.
 
Blessings!

Dare You Series–Dare to Dance

Video Version:  https://youtu.be/MMot7fjggq8

At first glance it would seem that the only thing our two Scripture readings have in common is a dance—one by David who danced with joy before the Lord, and one by Herodias’ daughter who danced at her mother’s behest to manipulate Herod to go against his better judgment—which worked very well.  But when I read these two lectionary passages together, I see something a little different, I see two very similar dances:  David’s dance of faith and joy before the ark of God, and John’s dance of faith, the way he walked and talked and lived his life to bring glory to God and point to Jesus.

We often speak of the dance of life.  John Michael Montgomery, his song Life’s a Dance, says that life’s a dance and you learn as you go.  Another person said, Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass, it’s about learning to dance in the rain.

Today, as we take apart these scripture passages, I want you to consider two things:

  1. Are you dancing? Are you continuing to move through life in a way that your dance, your life, is bringing glory to God, bringing to others a picture of God’s glory?
  2. If you aren’t dancing, are you willing to learn the steps, as Jesus, David, and John demonstrated, in thanks to God for His inexpressible gift?

Let’s pray

Why is dance used as a word to describe life?  Well, to me dance is an expression of self, of deep-seated emotion.  It is putting movement to thought.  Whether the steps are a box-step or waltz, or the hokey-pokey, dancing is active, moving, changing, adjusting.  Looking back to the days of my youth, to the freedom and energy of spinning on the dance floor, I resonate with David’s dance before the ark of the Lord, his celebration of God’s presence entering into the city.

God called David, and Saul persecuted him.  With his life threatened and in danger, through it all David came to the moment when he was crowned king.  There were many moments when he could have given up dancing, changed the steps, began dancing for himself and given up moving toward the call of God and God’s plan for his life, but even though the steps were slower, maybe even mournful, he continued the dance, continued to demonstrate his faith before those who saw him.

I don’t know about you, but I love a parade, especially the drum line.  I just can’t stand still when the drums start playing.  I have to move!  Maybe you’ve seen that when we sing a rousing song!  What makes you joyful?  What helps you dance?  What could cause you to stand up and give a little jig?

Years ago in Pittsburgh, my husband was a social worker.  He had an elderly client who had experienced a nervous breakdown of some type and was separated from her family because of it.  Because of Don’s care for her she became attached to him emotionally.  In fact, she was jealous when he and I started dating!  In any case, she was so grateful to Don for his involvement in her life that she would come by the office and stand outside his window doing a little jig, bringing some joy into his busy day.

Dance is not only an expression of self, but if we are doing it right, it is also humbling.  It involves putting yourself “out there,” taking the chance that someone will disregard or dislike your dance.  It is taking a stand and demonstrating who you are beneath it all.

14 Wearing a linen ephod, David was dancing before the Lord with all his might, 15 while he and all Israel were bringing up the ark of the Lord with shouts and the sound of trumpets.

We don’t really know what it meant for David to be wearing just a linen ephod.  Some commentators say it was a light tunic that had replaced his kingly robes and such, humbling himself before the ark of God in celebration of God’s great presence.  Others say he was dancing in his underwear!  Now I’m not suggesting you dance in your underwear, not in public, at least!  In any case, David was humbling himself before God  and others.  Setting aside his power and majesty to reflect on the majesty of God.

Secondly, David’s dance showed his tremendous faith and commitment to God.  Think of it, instead of being carried before the ark, as would befit a king, David danced before it, with abandon, celebrating, rejoicing!  It didn’t matter what others thought; David danced.  It didn’t matter how he looked; David danced.  Only his love for and commitment to God mattered.  Some said David was out of control.

16 As the ark of the Lord was entering the City of David, Michal daughter of Saul watched from a window. And when she saw King David leaping and dancing before the Lord, she despised him in her heart.

Perhaps he was exhibiting out-of-control behavior, or maybe the joy of God and the Spirit of God were in control.  Some of us think this passage belongs in the Pentecostal churches down the street, not here in a Presbyterian church.  We are never out of control!  Decent and in order.  Maybe we need a little joy, a little release, a little celebration!  When Michal complained about David’s dance, he replied,. 21. . . I will celebrate before the Lord. 22 I will become even more undignified than this, and I will be humiliated in my own eyes.

David worshiped before God’s presence as represented by the ark, testifying to everyone who saw him that God was mighty and strong and present with them.

Finally, David’s dance—his expression of faith—included sacrifice and giving, sacrifice to God and giving to the people of God.

13 When those who were carrying the ark of the Lord had taken six steps, he sacrificed a bull and a fattened calf.
17 They brought the ark of the Lord and set it in its place inside the tent that David had pitched for it, and David sacrificed burnt offerings and fellowship offerings before the Lord.

David didn’t dance to bring attention to himself, but rather to bring attention to the ark, to God’s presence and blessing on God’s people.  He incorporated sacrifice to God into his worship, into his dancing, into his life.  Then he participated in God’s blessing of the people by giving them each a loaf of bread, a cake of dates, and a cake of raisins, kind of like sending them home with a piece of the wedding cake!  His dance blessed both God and God’s people.

Let’s take the analogy a bit further by looking at the Marcan passage briefly.  You see, using dance as an analogy for life, I believe we can see a similar dance in the life of John the Baptist.  Now few, if any, writers refer to John as one who laughed and celebrated, but rather as someone who was somber and serious, who preached repentance and hellfire.  I’m not so sure about that representation.  Yes, his message was repentance.  He did demand that people change their lives by submitting to God’s hand, but he was also a discipler, a mentor, a man who sought out sinners and danced before them—living his life in abandon before God and man to bring glory to God.

Like David, John’s dance was one of humility, living in stark places, wearing uncomfortable clothing, and preaching even when others dismissed him.

Matthew 3

1In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,

“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
    make his paths straight.’”

Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey.

John’s dance of life was one that seemed to be out of control to those who didn’t recognize the dance, not doing things the way they had always been done, preaching and teaching about Jesus’ coming, telling those who would listen that the status quo was not enough, but that they needed to repent and live lives that were glorifying to God.  And also, like David, John’s dance was one that pointed to God alone.

When David danced, and when John danced, not everyone was impressed, but there were those who were, who noticed, who heard what they were saying, who heard the music.  Mark tells us that John and Herod had an ongoing relationship.  John wasn’t just out in the wilderness, but he had repeated audiences with Herod, discussing God’s plan, God’s Savior, and God’s demands on Herod’s life, even to the point of telling him not to marry his brother’s wife.

When we dance before the Lord, when we live our lives in abandon to the hand of God in our lives, we will bring others to curiosity.  They will have questions.  They will notice.  Herod noticed and wanted to protect John.  He got it.  He knew John was righteous and holy.

20 because Herod feared John and protected him, knowing him to be a righteous and holy man. When Herod heard John, he was greatly puzzled; yet he liked to listen to him.

Herod most likely didn’t understand John’s dance, but it intrigued him.  He like to listen.  Perhaps he was even being wooed by the Holy Spirit to return to God instead of the Roman Empire.  But unfortunately, his heart was tethered mightily to his reputation, to his position, which led him into Herodias’ trap and John’s untimely death.

I asked you at the beginning of this message about your dance, how you express your faith and the presence of God in your life.  Are you still learning the steps?  Still a bit clumsy with the movements?  Don’t worry!  Dancing is a process.  Living is a journey.  But God still calls us to dance, to celebrate in His presence, to be a living example of God’s Spirit working in us.  We learn, we grow, we change, and we dance on.

Once a student asked the Teacher why Jesus was so misunderstood. The religious leaders opposed him. His disciples were often confused. Some thought he was crazy, possessed by demons. The Teacher replied, “Once there was a wonderful wedding. The couple hired the finest fiddlers and banjo players and drummers, musicians of all kinds. The music was so exhilarating that everyone began to dance, young and old. The people were flinging themselves about the church in the greatest of joy.

About that time two men in a car drove by the church. They had their windows rolled up and their radio was blasting their own music. They saw the people jumping about and dancing their hearts out inside the church. They looked at each other and shook their heads. “Look at those folks flinging themselves about. The people at that church are crazy!” And they drove away.

The Teacher said to the student, “That is the conclusion people make when they cannot hear the music to which others are dancing.”

Michal, Herodias, and even Herod to some degree—they couldn’t hear the music.  They didn’t recognize the steps.  They only knew that something was different and didn’t want to join in the dance.  They didn’t want to change their lives, to learn the steps of faith and commitment to God.  And when you dance, as you learn the steps, as you move through life celebrating God, humbling yourself before God’s hand and plan, and sacrificing so that His name might be glorified, others will notice.  Some will listen.  Some will even dance with you.  But there will be those who will shake their heads and walk away.  Dance anyway!  Not sure of the steps?  Don’t worry!  The Spirit of God who lives in you will lead you, guide you, give you the strength to dance, whatever may come.

Charles Schulz once wrote, “To live is to dance, to dance is to live.”

Are you ready to dance as David danced, as John danced, as Jesus danced?  To celebrate and be awash in the tremendous presence of God, to give yourself for the gospel and in following God’s will, and in sacrificing that others might see Christ in you?  Let’s dance!

Prayer

Dare You Series–Dare to Stand

Video version:  https://youtu.be/tWZ98OVsAyY

Over 200 years ago, residents of this land stood up for something they believed in, that they wanted to live freely.  We celebrate that defiance, the courage and strength that they demonstrated, and the many lives that were lost in that conflict until our country was truly free.  Because of what they stood for we have enjoyed the freedom to believe, to discuss, to worship, the freedom to learn and to grow as people and as a society, and we are grateful.

Today, however, we are still involved in conflict, as our country continues the conversation about what it means to be free.  People from all walks of life, from all viewpoints, from many political and religious perspectives are voicing their views and lobbying for their particular viewpoints.

We’ve all heard the saying, and perhaps you live by it:  Don’t talk about politics or religion.  While that may seem to be a great way to keep peace in the family or the community, doing so ultimately limits our influence in the community and society at large.  For the reward of peace, we pay the costs of diminishing freedom and liberty, as our rights become gobbled up by those who are willing to speak out, who are willing to put their beliefs on the line to win the day.

However you feel about current events, legislation, and court rulings, one has to admit that societal change is happening on an exponential scale, for good or for bad.  This is not the world we were born into, or even the world our kids were born into.  Now before you turn off, know that this sermon isn’t about political advocacy or political change.  It isn’t about lobbying for or against an issue.

It isn’t about Supreme Court decisions, and It isn’t about becoming a radical protestor or defender of one viewpoint or another.  Today’s message is about taking a stand, about daring to stand for one thing—The message of the gospel, whatever the result.

Prayer

First of all, God calls us to stand

Just what does it mean to take a stand?  To stand for something?  In each of today’s passages, they were confronted with God and asked to participate, to be involved, to serve.

“He said to me, ‘Son of man, stand up on your feet and I will speak to you.” Ezekiel 2:1

“Calling the twelve to him . . . “  Mark 6:7

If I were a seriously long-winded preacher, I could take quite a while quoting Scripture verses that show our God is a calling God.  From Adam and Eve, when God called to them in the garden, throughout the Old Testament and through the New, God is continually calling His creation to faith and to discipleship and witness.  In each of these situations, God called individuals to not only believe, but to show their belief by their actions, to place themselves on the line for the message that God had entrusted to them.

We are living in a post-Christian society.  What does that mean, you might ask?   One writer explains it this way.  A time when “the church no longer occupies this central place of social and cultural hegemony (or leadership) and Western civilization no longer considers itself to be formally or officially Christian.”

Whatever our early leaders wanted this country to be, the very freedom they fought for has brought us to being “post-Christian.”  This very freedom for each person to have the ability to choose how he or she would or would not believe, how they would live, or love, has effectively unseated the church and the Bible from its formerly focal point in our society.  I believe this happened because we as the church were quietly resting in our freedom, not standing for it.  But one thing has not changed.  God is still calling, in spite of our society, and maybe because of it.

Ezekiel was born into a priestly family in Jerusalem .  No doubt he was in line to serve in the Temple.  He was also born in a time of religious revival and reform under King Josiah, but that didn’t last.  Ezekiel was called to speak for God at a time of unrest and oppression by Egypt and then by Nebuchadnezzar and Babylon.

Into this situation, a time of rebellion, of serving other gods, a time when God allowed the people to bear the consequences of their rebellion and disobedience, God calls Ezekiel to bear His message to the people.

The twelve, among many others, had been following Jesus.  He had called them to follow him and to learn from Him, and in Mark 6 Jesus calls them to a specific task, to go and preach repentance and God’s deliverance to the villages.

In each case, the time had come to no longer be just a follower, but to be a DO-er, to be a disciple, to take action.  God is still calling today.  God is calling you, not just to faith, but to action, to stand, to make a difference.  Just as Ezekiel and the Twelve received the call, just as our founding fathers and mothers laid their lives on the line for what they believed, we are called to stand up and take our place for the gospel.

Second, God Gives the Strength to Stand

It would be unfair for me to stop there.  You see, nowhere does God call us to do something without providing the ability or the strength to do it.  God called Ezekiel and then,

2 As he spoke, the Spirit came into me and raised me to my feet, and I heard him speaking to me.

And when Jesus called the Twelve to go out, ”he began to send them out two by two and gave them authority over impure spirits.”

Today’s lectionary passages remind us, again, that the task is not about us.  It is not about our strength, our knowledge, our innate abilities, but about God’s strength, God’s power, and God’s equipping for the task God calls us to accomplish.  In fact, listen to Jesus’ instructions:

“Take nothing for the journey except a staff—no bread, no bag, no money in your belts. 9 Wear sandals but not an extra shirt. 10 Whenever you enter a house, stay there until you leave that town.

Talk about being homeless!  We would call them vagrants!  But Jesus was teaching them to rely on the Holy Spirit, to not depend on themselves, their fortunes or abilities, but on what God would do through them.

Now I’m not suggesting that each of you go out on the streets without money or clothing or food in order to reach those who might be out there.  I would relish the idea of our joining together to go out there to reach them, but that isn’t he point here.  I am saying that the calling God has on your life is so much greater than anything you might imagine or believe you can accomplish, but it cannot come to fruition if you are standing on your own two feet without the strength of God to bolster you.

Paul tells us in Galatians 5:  But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.   In our own natures and strength we try to love, and accept, to forbear, to show kindness, to be faithful and have self-control, but our baser nature leads us to judgmentalism, to lack of faith, to defeatism, and even to hatred.  But when we are casting our eyes on the Lord, when we are open to the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives, it is then that we find the strength to love, to accept, etc.  We find the strength to do all that is set before us because of the power of God living and working in us.

God gives the calling, and God gives the strength, but then we must

Third, We choose to stand.

You can fill a lawn mower with gasoline, or plug it into the outlet, but until you start it and push it, it will do you no good.  You can eat all of the best foods, take vitamins, etc., but until you get up and start moving, they will do you little good.  You see, as believers in Christ, we each have received a measure of the Holy Spirit, redeeming us and filling us.  But like the lawn mower, we often just sit, letting the gasoline evaporate, letting the world go by, forgetting that God is with us and strengthening us, or maybe even not caring.

In each case, it was obvious from the beginning that the task would be a hard one.

6 And you, son of man, do not be afraid of them or their words. Do not be afraid, though briers and thorns are all around you and you live among scorpions. Do not be afraid of what they say or be terrified by them, though they are a rebellious people. 7 You must speak my words to them, whether they listen or fail to listen, for they are rebellious.

And Jesus told the Twelve:  11 And if any place will not welcome you or listen to you, leave that place and shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them.”

Just because God was with them didn’t mean it would be all roses and ticker-tape.  The power of God didn’t mean that a great revival would just spring up whenever they spoke.  Ministry is hard.  And I don’t just mean standing up here.  I am referring to your ministry, to what God has called you to do and to say.  It isn’t easy to stand, to make a difference, but it is possible, with God’s help.

God stood Ezekiel up, but Ezekiel had to take the message to his people, knowing that he would not be received.  But he was called, and he chose to not only stand but to go forward in the strength of God, to preach God’s message.

Likewise, the Twelve, in Mark, went out as Jesus commanded them.  They went out in the power of God, with faith that the Spirit would lead them and help them.

The gospel reading tells us that 12 They went out and preached that people should repent. 13 They drove out many demons and anointed many sick people with oil and healed them.

Ezekiel didn’t have it as easy, but he remained faithful in the deportation to Babylon, in the destruction of Jerusalem.  He continued to preach and to declare God’s messages to the people.

Some people would call us dinosaurs because we still believe in a God who calls us to live in a way that glorifies Him.  Some of you might call me a dinosaur because of what I believe about living a holy life and how our lives reflect on our God.  It doesn’t matter.  Ezekiel had the same experience.  He was called to share the message of God’s judgment and redemption, always both—accountability and grace, even in the harshest of environments.  The disciples went from place to place, trusting God for provision and for the power to do the work to which they had been called.

Our post-Christian society, and even many of our Christian brothers and sisters, are telling us that the message is love, the entire message is love.  A few years ago people were tweeting “#lovewins, as if a worldly view of love is the only thing.  In the 60s we sang, What the world needs now is love, sweet love.  And the world does need love, but love without guidance, without responsibility, without discipleship is only an emotion that rises and falls on the whims of the human spirit.  We, in this place, have made a decision, declaring that we will follow Jesus Christ, that we will reject the sin of the world and serve God with our hearts and minds and souls and strength.  And what is the message that we stand for?  That message is love, but not the namby-pamby, colored daisies, everything is okay kind of love, but the kind of love that lays down its life for the good of the beloved.  The kind of love that gives hope and peace.  The kind of love that doesn’t fail or turn aside.  The kind of love that is tough when we have disobeyed.  The love of God.

We are called to not only do good things, but to live lives of love that will speak when we don’t have the words, and to stand strong when we are challenged, to speak when error or sinfulness seeks to win the day.  We are called to stand strong in God’s strength, listening to God’s voice, so that we can go out into the world with the message of Jesus Christ, not to judge those we find, but to share God’s message of love and redemption with them.

Earlier in the message I quoted the old adage:  Don’t talk about politics or religion.  But today I want to give you a new adage to guide your life and conversations:  Talk about politics.  Talk about religion.  But whatever you talk about, do so with wisdom from the Holy Spirit, as you spend time learning from him.  Do so from the foundation of God’s word and with God’s love for everyone to whom or about whom you talk.  And do so in the power of God whose will it is to lead you, to guide you, and to give you power to stand.

The Peace of Christmas

Romans 15:4-13; Isaiah 11:1-13
December 4, 2016
Stockton Presbyterian Church, Stockton, Missouri

One Sunday morning, the pastor noticed little Alex was staring up at the large plaque that hung in the foyer of the church. The plaque was covered with names, and small American flags were mounted on either side of it, with a title over it reading, “Rest in Peace.” The seven-year-old had been staring at the plaque for some time, so the pastor walked up, stood beside him and said quietly, “Good morning, Alex.”

“Good morning, Pastor,” replied the young man, still focused on the plaque. “Pastor, what is this?” Alex asked.

“Well, son, it’s a memorial to all the men and women who have died in the service.”

Soberly, they stood together, staring at the large plaque. Little Alex’s voice was barely audible when he finally managed to ask, “Which service, 9 or 10:30?”

Of the four traditional themes of Advent, Hope, Joy, Peace, and Love, I find peace to be the one of the most elusive personally.  It isn’t that I don’t believe God is with me—I’m good with that.  And it isn’t that I don’t believe God has a plan—I’m there.  I suppose it is because I can’t see those things.  Sometimes I can’t see God in my life without looking very closely, and sometimes I’m not quite sure that God’s plan and my journey are on the same path.  You have probably all heard that saying that “God is always on time, although he may act on the 11th hour.  I joked a few weeks ago, as I have been on this journey seeking employment, “God, I know your watching is always on time, but mine is saying it is past midnight right now!”

We approach the peace of Advent as personal peace, of a personal journey and something we hold to ourselves, for ourselves, and maybe a few good friends.  In America we practice a “personal” faith.  Me and Jesus!  And while there is some validity to that concept as we’ll discuss later, the peace of Christmas is so much more than personal peace.  I suggest to you today that while each of us can have peace within ourselves through our faith in God—The peace that is declared by the angels is peace on earth—peace with others—peace that is infectious and changes this world.

Unfortunately, the peace of Christmas, of Christianity, the peace that tells each of us that God Is with me and will take care of ME, and protect ME from THEM is only a very small portion of the promise, of the peace of Christmas.  Peace isn’t just a lack of fighting or a serene group of people who smile and meditate and never fight—outwardly.  The peace of Christmas is the presence of God around us, protecting us, sure, but the purpose of that peace is not to contain us and our worries and anxieties, but to change us and flow out from us, so the peace of God can envelop and transform those around us, like the waves emitting from the rock dropped in the pond.

Prayer

  1. Peace gives us endurance
    1. Anyone who lived through this past election season can testify that there was no peace anywhere, and that condition threatens to continue indefinitely. Democrats were afraid of the Republican candidate, Republicans were afraid of the Democrat candidate, and the Libertarians, well, they just didn’t like either of them.
      Beyond the election, civil unrest occurred, causing cars to be overturned and burned, people shot, buildings looted and destroyed, citizens attacked and hurt.
    2. 4—everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through the endurance taught in the scriptures and the encouragement they provide we might have hope.
    3. Many of my friends wanted to just give up in October and into November. They felt they couldn’t endure—what with the commercials, the news broadcasts, the phone calls!  Oh yes, the phone calls!  They were just sick of the whole mess and wanted it to go away.  No peace, no desire to endure.
    4. Yet Paul tells us that the writings, the Bible, teach us endurance and give us hope. There is no peace without hope.  There is no peace on earth without hope for peace.  So what is Paul trying to tell us here?  Is it enough to carry my big Bible to church and read along with the pastor once a week?  Will that give us enough hope so we can experience peace through the week?  Hopefully!  But no, Paul’s intent in this passage is that we learn from the Scriptures, from “what was written,” that we be “transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:2).  Sure, this can happen without the Bible to read.  Testimonies all over the world tell how the Spirit and even visions of Christ have brought people to faith and to change.  But they did not have the Bible.  We do.  Don’t pray to God for peace if you aren’t spending time in the Word of God, if you aren’t allowing time for God’s Spirit to speak to you and bring you hope.  It is that transformation to hope that will bring you to peace and to be a peacemaker.
  2. Peace helps us accept one another
    1. 5 May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude of mind toward each other that Christ Jesus had, 6 so that with one mind and one voice you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
    2. Peace in myself, without love for one another, isn’t God’s peace. You see, these four themes of Advent, hope, peace, joy, and love, are integral to one another.  It isn’t a pick-and-choose kind of shopping event, but a cohesive way of life.
    3. The same attitude of mind toward each other that Christ Jesus had: John 3:16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.  Jesus’ words.  WHOEVER believes, not whoever thinks like me, acts like me, looks like me.  The heart of God reaches out to everyone.  There is a farm on 96 west of Springfield.  On their mailbox is nailed a sign—“God is angry with the wicked”  An OT passage used to say “we are different, and you need to be like us.  Our Dad is bigger than your dad, and our Dad doesn’t like you.”  No, God sent His Son for everyone. God may be mad at their actions, what they do, but God extends divine love to all.
    4. That you may glorify the God and Father. You see, our faith, our relationship with God isn’t just for us, it is for God, it is for the purpose of glorifying God.  It isn’t to make us comfortable and happy, but to challenge us to grow and reflect God even when we’re uncomfortable, even when it’s storming, even when things don’t go our way.  God’s peace, the peace of Christmas, is an outflowing transformation that chases away darkness by its infectious light, helping us to be a servant, as Christ served, despite pain, hardship, persecution, and hatred.
  3. The Peace of Christmas belongs to everyone.
    1. 7 Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God. 8 For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the Jews[a] on behalf of God’s truth, so that the promises made to the patriarchs might be confirmed 9 and, moreover, that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy.
    2. If I have peace, God’s peace, I cannot continue hating my neighbor, the immigrant (illegal or otherwise), the atheist, the Buddhist, the Muslim. The peace of Christmas teaches us to accept one another, not for their good alone, but to bring praise to God.  It doesn’t teach us to simply accept each other’s actions or beliefs or attitudes, but their souls, the creation God made so they can glorify God for his mercy.  Do our worship, our fellowship, our lives reflect God’s grace and mercy to others, especially to those who are different?
    3. Isaiah 15:12 “The Root of Jesse will spring up, one who will arise to rule over the nations;  in him the Gentiles will hope.”
    4. When we choose to live in real peace, God’s peace, we find ourselves able to love one another, even the “gentiles” in our lives. The drug addicted.  The thieves.  The homeless.  The arrogant.  The hateful.
    5. There is a teaching in psychology, in systems theory, that when I change, it changes the system in which I live and function. God’s love in us, as it transforms us, also transforms those around us, which eventually has the possibility of transforming the world.  That small band of believers after Jesus’ resurrection changed their world.  How can we?

God sent Jesus Christ, not to make us feel good about ourselves, even though that happens.  God did not send Jesus just to help us feel secure and protected, even though that happens when we follow God.  God did not send the Babe of Bethlehem to make us better than anyone else, but to make us like Jesus.

As we share from the Table today, I ask you to meditate on the peace of Christmas.  Are you fearful or experiencing anxiety?  God is with you and will make a way.  Are you struggling?  God will carry you through.  Are you finding it hard to love your neighbor, family member, those who are different?  God will transform you so that the peace in your heart will allow you to love and accept others.  But this only happens through relationship, through time spent in prayer, in meditation, in reading and learning from the Word of God.  Will you make a further commitment today to spend a few more minutes this week—in spite of the hurriedness of the season—in the presence of God, letting God’s Spirit soak down into your spirit?  Take a few moments, while we prepare for the Lord’s Table, to make a mental list of those with whom you do not have peace, those whom you do not accept, asking God to fill you with hope, peace, joy, and encouragement, so that you can glorify God in your life, and so they will glorify God for His mercy toward them.

Benediction

13 May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.  Romans 15:13

Being Light in the Midst of Turmoil

High school was an amazing time.  We lived in a row house in a blue-collar neighborhood (steel town) in the early 70s, with a tremendously varied population, mostly Eastern European Catholics and a growing African-American population.  The parochial schools I attended through sixth grade were small and pretty narrowly filled.  One was a Slovak congregation, and the other Lithuanian.  Imagine my awe and fright when in 7th grade I entered South High School, 7-12.  To me it was huge and amazing and scary all at the same time.  Thankfully I had my older cousin and her friends to help me make the transition, as well as my closest friend and cousin, the same age, to walk the journey together.

As the years passed, I did what I am still known for doing–I worked hard to get the top grades, joined organizations and tried to create new ones, and I made friends, lots of them, from all over the population of the school.  There were kids from Catholic school, the high achievers, the “I’m here, but don’t ask too much more” group, and the “yeah, so I’ll show up from time to time” group.  It was interesting keeping the balance between all of these and keeping up my grades, but a few things hurt me during that time.

All teenagers want to “fit in.”  My parents understood that, but they were very protective, and they kept pretty good tabs on where I was going and who I would be with.  Helpful.  On the other hand, to fit in with my rarely there or sometimes there friends at school, I started skipping classes from time to time.  We never did anything to get in trouble outside of the building, just hung out at the park or the candy store or pizza shop.  And I worked twice as hard to be sure I finished all my school work and kept my grades up.  Not really helpful.  During my senior year, while still carrying all As for my work, two of my teachers decided to make an example of my absences and dropped my grades to the bottom of the range.  It wasn’t fair, I cried.  My parents considered making me quit my after school job at McDonalds.  I really wasn’t allowed out with friends anymore.  And I lost my bid for valedictorian.  For the next semester I worked extra hard to bring those grades back up, and by the time I graduated they were As once again.

Why do I share this all now?  Because I’m still that person.  I’m still a high achiever, wanting to do the best I can in most things I do (sans housekeeping and yard work!).  I’m still a creative thinker and problem solver.  And I still have lots of friends from many areas of life, by whom I am blessed constantly.  There are my friends and colleagues from all over the religious and political gamut, nationality list, and racial spectrum; lower-, middle-, and upper-class, and every age you can think of.  These contacts, friends, co-workers, and acquaintances, fill my life with information, energy, laughter, sometimes tears and frustration, and challenge, and help God form me into the person God has planned for me to become.

But just as in high school, navigating this stew of organizations, individuals, backgrounds, and ideologies can take its toll.  While they stretch and challenge me, there are times when I find myself drawn into ideas and movements because of energy without taking time to think them through. I have realized that before I take a step, speak out, I need to find my center, my balance, the place where I am faithful not to my network, but to where God is leading me.

If you take a look at my Facebook feed, you’ll see evidence of that stew I talked about earlier–all over the spectrum.  It used to be even more so.  At first I was hesitant about blocking people or posts.  I didn’t want to offend anyone.  I wanted to stay friends so my faith and life might affect others as they affected me.  It didn’t take long to realize that wasn’t working, and I found ways to block certain posts that contained hateful or sexual or just not helpful items.  Then my “friends” started arguing with one another about posts I made or shared, you know, the right and the left and the in-between.  Yikes!  What to do?

I like living in this place of mixture, of blending, of movement, bringing the neighborhood together, starting conversations, looking at all sides of the argument.  Even so, I’ve been reminded about foundations, starting points, presuppositions.  I’ve examined myself and decided that these are mine.

  • I am a believer in Jesus Christ and in the Bible.  I find guidance and strength in the words on those pages and through the voice of the Spirit of God leading and guiding me.
  • My thoughts are not God’s thoughts, and I find it necessary to step back and compare mine to what God has expressed.  “‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,’ declares the Lord.  “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts'” (Isaiah 55:8-9, NIV).
  • My way is not the only way to live, although I am steadfast in my faith beliefs. There are other lifestyles, faiths, and approaches to life that I might not find helpful to me or choose for myself, but which I must respect and seek to understand.
  • The Bible teaches that every person has value and significance.  Black or white or yellow or anything in between, rich or poor or just doing good, highly moral, addicted, criminal, or profane, etc., no person is more or less valuable in society or to God.
  • Hatred, for any reason, is not a fruit of the Spirit or an acceptable approach to any person or group, regardless of their beliefs, political stance, or actions.   This political season is evidence of that.  Matthew 5:43-45 (NIV):  “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.”
  • Anger might be an honest response, but acting out on anger without reasoned thought (see above) or injuring persons, groups, or communities verbally, physically, or economically because of my anger cannot stand.
  • I cannot give dignity back to one person/group by taking another’s.  The only way to equality is to bring everyone up, not tear others down.  While there may be a struggle to get there, movement must be forward, with the goal of helping all, not hurting some.
  • Fear is not a place to live, especially in community.  Are there things to fear?  Definitely.  Is there danger?  Sometimes, yes.  However, living in fear of others not only hurts me, it entraps me into non-reasoning, reactionary thinking.  Fear is not my ally but only an invitation to think through a problem and find a step forward.  1 John 4:18, in The Message, says, “There is no room in love for fear. Well-formed love banishes fear. Since fear is crippling, a fearful life—fear of death, fear of judgment—is one not yet fully formed in love.”
  • By my example and my words, I will not spread fear, but hope, even when it seems there is none to be found.  In the face of devastation and unfairness, I will hope in the work of God in individual hearts to turn to love, to peace, in spite of what I see.
  • Answers will never be instant.  All journeys take many steps, ups and downs, turns right and left, and even back for a season.  I will try to stay calm, to listen and think, then act.  I want to look at all sides, gather all the information, and even then take my time in moving to be sure that my steps will not cause harm.
  • I am not the Savior.  Period.  The world and its ills do not rest on my shoulders alone. I am only a piece of the awkwardly shaped, strangely designed puzzle, albeit an important piece, as is every other person and every other thought.  I don’t know everything, and again, my perspective isn’t the end-all.
  • First and foremost, I will use my voice to share the message of faith and hope, but in that message, I must speak for all that the Bible calls for:  love of God’s creation, care for my neighbor, freedom from fear and hopelessness, and dignity of the person.
  • While I may be used as a voice for others, I will remember that I cannot be an effective voice for others if I have not heard from them, if I am taking their pain as my own and reacting in frustration and anger, if I make it about me and not about the other, and if I segregate those who disagree.
  • Finally, I will choose to live in hope and faith that each day will bring another step toward God’s kingdom, toward peace.  Though each step may be small, I will not despise small beginnings or steps, but strive to live in faith instead of dread, hope instead of fear, love instead of hate. “Does anyone dare despise this day of small beginnings? They’ll change their tune when they see Zerubbabel setting the last stone in place!” (Zechariah 4:10, The Message).

I suppose if I boiled all of these down to one thought, it would be my feeble and often-failing commitment to love, not just my spouse, my family, my friends–however varied they may be, but to love my neighbors, nearby and across the world.  Love like that isn’t mine, but something God is working in me, day by day, moment by moment, decision by decision.

I’m thankful for all of my friends, and I hope you all will stick in there with me, continuing the conversation, seeking out ways to make the world better for everyone, not just our side or group.  You see, in the end, it isn’t our politics that will make things better, though it might help.  It isn’t just our protests or votes that will make the difference, although they are important.  We can keep our own beliefs and ideologies while accepting others and treating them with respect, consideration, forgiveness, and partnership to find a better way, even if they treat us badly. This country, this world will only change when we love one another with the love that God has shown to each of us.  “You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh [thoughts, feelings, ideologies, backgrounds, emotions]; rather, serve one another humbly in love” (Galatians 5:18, NIV, expansion mine).