A Perennial Garden: Thoughts on why we have hope, even for the church.

A Perennial Garden

My family has owned a cottage on Edinboro Lake for 94 years.

I spent most of my summers there when I was a teenager.

Those were some good days.

But the cottage was a seasonal residence.

Seasonal because in the winter Edinboro is pretty isolated, and the weather is brutal.

There is always a lot of snow, at least there was 50 years ago.

So, we never went to the lake in the winter.

When school started each fall, we would close the place up.

The boat was towed away for storage.

The dock was taken out and put in the backyard garage.

Shutters covered all the windows.

The heat was turned off.

The water was turned off.

The pipes were drained.

It was always made me sad.

But it wasn’t just the weather that changed.

It was also the people.

In the summer there are many, many vacationers.

Those vacationers included the kids I hung out with.

The lake was packed with boats.

The streets were filled with bikes and pedestrians.

There were lots of activities.

All those folks leave in the fall.

All those activities end.

Snow piles up.

The lake freezes.

Edinboro becomes dormant.

But we would anticipate opening of the cottage every spring.

Up to the lake we would go to reverse all we did in the fall.

And all those people and all those activities return.

It was like a new beginning.

Another Summer at the lake.

Like a perennial garden, Edinboro resumes.

It’s not a resurrection.

Edinboro did not die, it just went through its normal seasonal cycle.

Vibrancy and dormancy.

In my parent’s later years, they made that cottage their permanent home.

They moved there from Florida where they had lived for a while after my dad retired.

One of the reasons they moved back north was that they missed these changes of seasons.

I know that well because my mother took a picture from her chair on the front porch of our cottage of each season.

It was the exact same scene, but in the different season.

She would put them in four frames and hang them on the wall.

It seemed like she wanted to document the fact that the change of seasons … well … never changed.

I think my mother took comfort in that.

Though the seasons changed, Edinboro was still there.

Like a perennial garden.

My mom’s little example of the Kingdom of God.

Which brings me to our scripture reading.

Mark 4: 26-34

26 He also said, ‘The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, 27and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. 28The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. 29But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.’

30 He also said, ‘With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? 31It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; 32yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.’

33 With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; 34he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.

Our text today is a combination of two parables used by Jesus to help teach the disciples something important about the Kingdom of God.

But to get that message, we need to understand the illustration.

This parable follows the Parable of the Sower.

Most of us know that one.

The sower is a farmer.

The farmer plants the seeds by throwing them around the property.

The seeds land on four types of soil, only one of which is good for the seed.

This parable is a follow-up about the seed that lands on the good soil.

What happens to it?

It sprouts and grows.

First the stalk, then the head and then the full grain.

And the farmer has no idea what makes that happen.

The farmer just watches it materialize.

Once the full grain appears, it can be used for its intended purpose.

To feed the community.

Jesus says that is what the Kingdom of God is like.

Then there is the mustard seed.

Everything is the same but its purpose.

That small seed grows into a really big bush that feeds and protects and houses important wildlife.

Jesus says that is what the Kingdom of God is like, too.

That’s what we see here at JMPC in our SHIM garden.

Every year we plant vegetables, watch them grow, harvest when that are ready and feed the community.

We also have plants that house and protect important wildlife.

The pollinators which are necessary for most plants, and us for that matter, to survive.

And while we are able to help all these plants along, and know a good deal about them, we still don’t understand how these plants came to be and how they became so intertwined with our world.

Just like Jesus’ parables.

Our little example of the Kingdom of God.

But if I can be so bold, I would like to compare the Kingdom of God to a perennial garden rather than a vegetable garden or a barley field.

For those who don’t know, perennials are plants that come back year after year.

Perennials tend to have fewer flowers than annuals, because their energy is put into developing strong roots, generally called bulbs, instead of flowers and seeds.

They usually only bloom for one season each year, either spring, summer, or fall.

Most then go dormant at the end of the growing season.

They seem to die.

But when spring comes, we don’t have to replant them, they just come back.

We have them all over the place here at JMPC.

Day lilies, irises, lambs’ ear and coneflower, among others.

Take a walk around.

And what is more important, and really fascinating, is that these perennials spread!

They spread wildly!

Karen planted a few Shasta daisies in our front yard a few years ago.

They were a nice small bunch of flowers in our font yard landscaping.

They come back every year.

They spread like crazy!

Without any effort on our part.

And while I do help a bit with fertilizer and weeding and mulching, I let God do what God does.

I don’t really understand how that works.

And I don’t worry about it.

I just wait for it to happen every spring.

And I have no idea why perennials turned out different from the annual flowers that must be replanted from seeds every year.

Like my mom’s comfort with the return of every season, a perennial garden comforts me with the return of those flowers every year.

That’s why I like to think of the Kingdom of God as a perennial garden.

It only has to be planted once and it keeps on going.

Once planted, it survives.

It might go dormant from time to time, but it is always there., ready to come back to vibrant life.

Like Edinboro.

Like a perennial garden.

Like the church.

If we study the 2000-year history of the church, we see pretty clearly that it resembles our two parables.

Once planted, it grew.

And its growth is a kind of mystery.

How did a small group of disciples from a backwater area of the Roman Empire convince most of the world that the Gospel was true?

While there are many suggested explanations for this, the only certain answer is because God planted it.

Sure, the Apostles were the workers in the field, but God was the sole source of their success.

The church flourished for centuries, spreading like perennials.

In the 20th Century, our denomination, the PCUSA, flourished greatly because of its vibrancy and community.

But recently, we have seen some disturbing trends.

The most recent Gallop survey on church membership reported that for the first time in Gallop history, fewer than 50% of the respondents said they belong to a religious community.

The PCUSA can certainly attest to that.

Like other “main line” denominations, if not Christianity as a whole, we appear to be heading into a season of dormancy.

It’s hard not to get discouraged.

But this is nothing new.

God’s people have been there before.

That is one of the reasons I like the Old Testament.

It is a story of a people who rise and fall and rise again from season to season, era to era.

The New Testament is much the same.

That’s why Paul wrote many of those letters.

The churches he planted were getting a bit … well … dormant.

Dormancy to vibrancy … over and over.

Why?

Like Jesus says, we don’t know.

But we can see it happen and be comforted by it.

The kingdom of God, and the church itself is like a perennial garden.

That gives me comfort.

What does that have to do with JMPC?

We, here on this hill, are one of Jesus’ bulbs.

We’ve only been around for 55 years, but we can testify to the change of seasons.

The alternating vibrancy and dormancy of a perennial garden.

Started in a school.

A small church building built.

An education wing added.

Vibrancy.

Then there were financial problems and development stopped.

I don’t know why, but I suspect it was, in part, because of the loss of so many industrial jobs in this area back in the late 70s and early 80s.

Dormancy.

But not for long.

Soon new life.

As a suburb of Pittsburgh, Bethel Park grew.

The congregation grew.

A new sanctuary built.

New missions and ministries.

Vibrancy again!

That season of vibrancy lasted a while but inevitably, JMPC started to return to a dormancy.

Why?

Pastoral changes.

Theology.

Sports and entertainment.

Politics.

Pandemic.

Surrounded by people who think the church has nothing to offer.

The vibrancy returned over the last few years.

Finances were solid.

Our youth programs were exciting.

Missions and ministries abounded.

Then the pandemic.

It would be hard not to feel like I did when we closed the cottage in Edinboro every fall.

Didn’t we all feel that way while we were in exile from our building?

A kind of sadness.

Dormont again.

But not dead.

Just not as visible.

We were a perennial waiting for spring.

Then last week we returned to the building.

And it was joyous.

We were always here, but like perennials in the winter, we were invisible.

Now it is spring, we can be seen again.

Our inevitable return to vitality.

God has planted this bulb on this hill and God will use it, and us, to accomplish God’s purpose.

Our job is to tend that garden.

A little water.

A little fertilizer.

A little patience.

And then the harvest!

A vibrant church again!

What does that look like here at JMPC today?

The water is our financial support for the ministries and missions.

The fertilizer is our missions and ministries.

The patience is to understand that we will go through these seasons of dormancy and vibrancy as long as we are here on this hill.

The seasons of winter and summer come and go, but the garden remains.

The seasons of the church come and go, but the church remains.

Now is the time for us to tend this garden and prepare for the harvest.

We are still here.

We always have been.

It’s springtime at JMPC.

Exchanging Vows: Thoughts on the sacraments and what they mean.

Exchanging Vows

On June 26, I will conduct the wedding of my niece Alyssa and her fiancé Eric.

As with every wedding, there are three principal parts.

They will first publicly declare their intentions to live together in a particular way that we call a marriage.

Next, they will exchange vows of love, loyalty and support that will bind them together as a married couple.

Finally, they will exchange rings as a visible sign of an invisible truth.

When those words, “with this ring, I thee wed” were spoken, two became one.

But the wedding is not a one-off moment in time.

It is an event that should be celebrated at least annually.

To remember our vows and the moment two became one.

Some of those celebrations are more than just flowers and a card, though flowers and a card are good.

Two weeks ago, my son’s in-laws celebrated their 40the wedding anniversary.

It wasn’t just a party; it was a reenactment of their wedding vows.

It was both reminder and celebration.

A reminder of their vows they exchanged 40 years ago and a celebration of their continued determination to keep those vows.

All this wedding stuff seems almost sacramental.

But weddings are what I call a secular sacrament.

Why secular?

Because we in the PCUSA don’t consider marriage a sacrament.

We define a sacrament as a symbolic act instituted by Jesus that he commanded his disciples to continue or observe.

These sacraments are practices of faith in what God has done for us.

They are our symbolic testimonies of our faith.

Symbols of what we believe.

And there are only have two.

Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.

Which brings us to our scripture readings.

Matthew 28: 18-20

18And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Luke 22: 14-20

14When the hour came, he took his place at the table, and the apostles with him. 15He said to them, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; 16for I tell you, I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” 17Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he said, “Take this and divide it among yourselves; 18for I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” 19Then he took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” 20And he did the same with the cup after supper, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.

Why is baptism a sacrament?

In our scripture reading this morning, Christian baptism is something Jesus defined and ordered us to perform.

 [Baptize] them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20and [teach] them to obey everything that I have commanded you.

Instituted and ordered.

So, baptism is a sacrament.

Why is the Lord’s Supper a sacrament?

In our scripture reading this morning, Jesus defined the meaning of the Last Supper and ordered us to continue.

 [Take] a loaf of bread, [give] thanks, [break] it and [share it] saying, “This is [Jesus] body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of [him].” And [then do] the same with the cup …, saying, “This cup that is poured out for [us] is the new covenant in [Jesus’] blood.

Instituted and ordered.

So, the Lord’s Supper is a sacrament.

So why did Jesus institute and command baptism and the Lord’s Supper?

How are they symbols of our faith?

Baptism first.

Listen again to the words we use in our ceremony.

Obeying the word of our Lord Jesus, and confident of his promises, we baptize those whom God has called.

In baptism God claims us and seals us to show that we belong to God.

God frees us from sin and death, uniting us with Jesus Christ in his death and resurrection.

By water and the Holy Spirit, we are made members of the church, the body of Christ and joined in Christ’s ministry of love, peace and justice.

Baptism is a gift to those whom God calls.

It unites us with a community of faith, a church, the body of Christ.

It unites us to all  the others who are baptized in the ministries and missions of Jesus.

Today God called Gracelyn Joy to be baptized at JMPC.

That we baptize babies symbolizes to us our faith that God calls us as his own before we even know it or could possibly understand it.

But even when we baptize an adult who confesses faith and asks to be baptized, the water symbolizes their willing acceptance of that same call of God.

While I do love baptizing babies, my two favorite baptisms were of adults.

On both occasions, tears were shed when the water was poured and they felt the connection to God.

Babies maybe feel that, too, but they can’t tell us about it.

Baptism is one way our faith is carried down through the generations.

We bring the next generation of disciples to the font where the water is poured and they receive God’s great gift.

And while the water dries, the invisible truth it leaves on the head is that this person is not part of the body of Christ.

It is much like the ring at a wedding.

The Lord’s Supper does much the same thing, but in a different way.

Jesus shared his last Passover with his disciples and gave them symbols of his mission.

Bread symbolizes his body.

Wine symbolizes his blood.

Both symbolize an act by Jesus creating a new covenant between God and us that we are reconciled to God forever.

And we are told to continue this symbolic act in order to make sure we remember that.

So we invite believers to the table regularly.

We recite the words Jesus used to establish the custom.

And we pray a Great Prayer of thanksgiving that includes these words:

You are holy, O God of majesty,

and blessed is Jesus Christ, your Son, our Lord.

In Jesus, born of Mary, your Word became flesh

and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.

He lived as one of us, knowing joy and sorrow.

He healed the sick,

fed the hungry,

opened blind eyes,

broke bread with outcasts and sinners,

and proclaimed the good news of your kingdom to the poor and needy.

Dying on the cross,

he gave himself for the life of the world.

Rising from the grave,

he won for us victory over death.

Seated at your right hand,

he leads us to eternal life.

In this prayer, we proclaim our faith.

In the sharing of the bread and cup, we remember what Jesus did and why he did it..

We remind ourselves of God’s great gift and how we are united with God.

It is much like a celebration of the anniversary of the new covenant.

Both sacraments are to be done publicly, so that anyone who happens to be present can see them.

Such a person might be compelled to ask, “Why do you do this?”

At which point we can tell them.

We tell them that these are our ritual celebrations of our vows of love, loyalty and support that God gives us and that we return to God.

And all of this is what Jesus instituted and commanded us to do.

We proclaim to the world in these acts what we believe to be true.

We are loved.

We are forgiven.

We are thankful.

We are obedient.

We belong to God.

Forever.

So, in a sense every time we observe or participate in these sacraments they are like anniversaries.

Celebrations of our commitments – dare I say vows? – to God.

When we baptize, we are reminded that we belong to God.

When we come to the Lord’s table, we are reminded that we are loved and forgiven.

These sacraments are acts of reverence, homage, thanks and praise.

They are our testimony that we love God and God loves us.

Thanks be to God who has given us these symbols of our faith.

And we are celebrating both today!

Which I think is appropriate for the occasion of our reentering the sanctuary after our 14 months in exile.

What better way to commemorate this day than to celebrate the sacraments?

To be reminded that God has called us to be God’s own.

To be reminded that God so loved us that God gave his only son so that we might live.

To proclaim these truths in this public space so that all here and all streaming this worship service may see or hear what we believe.

And to recommit to God our love, loyalty and support for the missions and ministries we have undertaken to know, glorify and serve God.

The exchange of vows with God.

So let us remember our baptism!

Beloved people of God, our baptism is a sign and seal of our cleansing from sin and our being grafted into Christ.

Through the birth, death, and resurrection of Christ, the power of sin is broken, and God’s kingdom entered our world.

Through baptism we were made citizens of God’s kingdom and freed from the bondage of sin.

Let us celebrate that freedom and redemption through the renewal of the promises we made at our baptisms.

I ask you, therefore, once again to reject sin and profess your faith in Jesus Christ and to confess the faith of the church, the faith in which we were baptized.

So I ask you these questions:

Trusting in the gracious mercy of God, do you turn from the ways of sin and renounce evil and its power in the world?

I do.

Who is your Lord and Savior?

Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior.

Will you be Christ’s faithful disciple, obeying his word and showing his love?

I will, with God’s help.

Remember your baptism and be thankful and know that the Holy Spirit is at work in you.

In a few moments, we will celebrate the Lord’s Supper as well.

And we will remember.

And now join me in a prayer of thanksgiving for our church.

When I say, “We give you thanks…” please respond by saying, “We give you thanks, O God.

Eternal God, in whom we live and move and have our being, hear our prayer.

For the Church universal, and for this congregation, we give you thanks.

We give you thanks, O God.

For this place in which we gather for praise and prayer, witness and service, we give you thanks.

We give you thanks, O God.

For your presence among us whenever your word has been proclaimed, your sacramental gifts of bread and the cup shared, we give you thanks.

We give you thanks, O God.

For those who have been made your children by the waters of baptism. we give you thanks.

We give you thanks, O God.

For disciples young and old who have been nurtured here in faith, we give you thanks.

We give you thanks, O God.

For all who come here asking your blessing on their marriage and seeking to love with your love, we give you thanks.

We give you thanks, O God.

For deacons and elders and pastors who have led and loved us, and by the offering of their gifts equipped us for ministry, we give you thanks.

We give you thanks, O God.

For faithful stewards among us who have supported this church with generous tithes and offerings, we give you thanks.

We give you thanks, O God.

For all the saints who have stood among us, whose memory still enlivens our faith and emboldens our witness, we give you thanks.

We give you thanks, O God.

For the ministries of worship and mission, nurture and fellowship, and forall whose lives have been touched by them, we give you thanks.

We give you thanks, O God.

Receive our gratitude, O God, for the years through wich you have led us, and open our future to your promise.

In the years that lie ahead, grant us your encouragement in the work of ministry, your consolation in our troubles and your challenge to our complacency.

Give us such trust in your abiding Holy Spirit that we may find joy and peace in our common life, strength and courage to live in the world of your reign, and hope in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

AMEN

A Mighty Wind: Thoughts on how to let the Holy Spirit revive us.

A Mighty Wind

On Pentecost Sunday, I admit I am a bit envious of the disciples sitting in Jerusalem waiting for something to happen.

The Holy Spirit descends, lands on their heads and they begin to preach.

These basically uneducated men from rural Galilee preach to a throng of people who not only hear the words but hear the words in their own languages.

Must have been nice.

That’s not the way it works for me.

When I felt called by God to ministry, I did not think it was a call to become a church pastor.

I believed, and still do, that I was called to teach people what God was trying to tell us through the inspired words of the Bible.

In other words, I thought I was called to lead Bible studies.

I started doing that then and I have been doing it ever since.

Ultimately, I realized my call was to ordained ministry.

Then I became a church pastor, and had to start preaching sermons.

That turned out to be a whole lot different than teaching a Bible study.

Teaching a Bible study is reading the Bible, then reading a few books that explains the meaning and context of what is being studied.

Then you talk about it.

Maybe come to some conclusions about what the passage means.

A sermon is much, much more.

A sermon is what we call the prophetic moment.

Speaking a necessary truth to people who need to hear it.

It takes a good bit of work.

The work starts with prayer.

God’s guidance is requested on what passage is to be preached.

Sometimes it’s obvious.

Sometimes you have to go to the lectionary.

Today I am preaching the Old Testament text from the lectionary, where I believe God sent me.

Then you start the research.

What was the context of the passage?

How did the people of that time hear it?

What did they understand it to mean?

Then you ask God, what do these current folks need to get from this?

What truth do they need to hear in the current circumstance?

Then you ask God, how do you want it proclaimed?

What words should I use that will be true to the context?

Then you start to write.

Then you rewrite … and rewrite … and rewrite.

All the while gaining new insight into the meaning and purpose and application of the passage to the gathered community.

Then you have to preach your well-crafted sermon.

One pastor, Rev. Marcia Sebastian, once described the process of sermon writing and preaching as giving birth to her sermons every week.

When she retired, Marcia told me she was glad to be done with it.

After all that preparation and preaching, it is tempting to ask a random sample from the congregation what they got from the sermon.

What was the message they heard?

It’s best not to do that, really.

Because God often ignores all your work and gives God’s own message to each listener which might be far different from what was preached.

You hear things like when you said such and such, it really spoke to me.

But you know you never said such and such.

And this is a good thing.

Because then you know God was in charge.

What does this have to do with Ezekiel?

Let’s hear what our text has to say.

Ezekiel 37: 1-14

37The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. 2He led me all round them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. 3He said to me, ‘Mortal, can these bones live?’ I answered, ‘O Lord God, you know.’ 4Then he said to me, ‘Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. 5Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. 6I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.’

7 So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. 8I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. 9Then he said to me, ‘Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.’ 10I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.

11 Then he said to me, ‘Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.” 12Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. 13And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. 14I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act, says the Lord.’

Wow!

A sermon preached to dry bones in a pile.

A sermon so effective that the bones come back to life.

No preparation.

No research.

No manuscript.

Just God’s guidance.

But pay attention to one thing.

It did not really happen.

It was a vision.

A sermon illustration that was given to Ezekiel so he could give hope to his audience.

Here is some background on Ezekiel, both the book and the prophet.

Who was this guy?

Ezekiel was an upper-class intellectual priest in Judah who was taken away to Babylon when Judah was conquered.

He was called by God in a vision to prophecy to the exiles.

Ezekiel’s words and actions been described as both eccentric and even bizarre.

If you take the time to read the Book of Ezekiel, you will see what I mean.

The book itself is long but does have two main themes.

Ezekiel first responds to the question the Judahites had been asking God since the captivity.

Why have we lost our land, our temple and our nation?

Ezekiel bluntly tells the Judahites that their misery and captivity is entirely their fault.

They have made one bad choice after another and as a result they are suffering the consequences of those bad choices.

The Babylonian captivity, according to Ezekiel, is the judgment Judah deserves.

But then we get to our scripture reading where Ezekiel’s tune changes.

Though Ezekiel has been scolding the Judahites for over 30 chapters, he now offers them hope.

That hope is depicted by that sermon illustration from God.

Ezekiel is taken to a valley of dry bones.

The bones represent the Judahites.

Unburied, unclaimed bones.

To Ezekiel and his people, this is a vision of hell.

These bones represent the people of God.

Judah.

Now dead and gone.

Beyond redemption.

Forgotten.

But not so fast, God says.

God’s people would be revived.

Even though they did not deserve it.

God asks Ezekiel if he believes this can happen.

Ezekiel has no reason to believe so.

He seems to shrug his shoulders and give an evasive answer.

“Only you can answer that one, God.”

So, God says, “Do what I say and watch what happens.”

God orders Ezekiel to speak to these dry bones and to call them back to life.

He does and they do.

The dead people of God are raised, sort of.

When raised, they are – well – zombie like.

They aren’t really alive because they are not breathing.

Then God tells Ezekiel to speak to the wind.

He does and a mighty wind sweeps over the raised people and they begin to breath.

Now they are alive again.

They are restored.

By God.

Not because they deserve it, because they don’t.

God does this to demonstrate God’s power.

God has the power to restore Israel, and intend to do so.

Revival!

So, what might this have to do with Pentecost?

Let’s set the stage for that.

The disciples have been with Jesus from the beginning.

John’s baptism, the healing and teaching, the passion, the resurrection, the commission and the ascension.

Now they are alone.

Their leader and messiah, Jesus, is gone.

They are idle in Jerusalem.

The disciples were similar to the zombie-like revived bones of Ezekiel’s vision.

Directionless and basically spiritually lifeless.

Maybe holding their breath.

Then the Holy Spirit showed up like the mighty wind that had brought the zombie Judahites back to life.

The Holy Spirit descended on the disciples and they became ecstatic – speaking in tongues and preaching to the masses.

These men who were lifeless became life filled.

Their illustration was not from a vision.

It was resting on their heads.

It was in the way their words were heard.

In the mighty wind.

3,000 people joined them.

And the church of Jesus Christ was born.

In 300 years that church would become world wide – well at least European wide.

The dry bones of the world brought back to life.

Revived.

None of this was because anyone deserved it.

No one does.

It happened because God had the power to do it and chose to do it.

And how did this revived people respond?

According to Acts, “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.”

And their lifestyle spoke to the world.

The dry bones of humanity were given new life.

Not because we deserved it, but because God wants it and has the power to do it.

So, what does that have to do with us here at JMPC?

It might have seemed to many that during the last 14 months, we were becoming a pile of dry bones.

A community of people who had ceased to be a community.

A scattering of people who needed to be revived and restored to that community.

How do we get our communal life back?

With the easing of recommended restrictions and the seeming control of the virus through vaccination, we can start the process of revival.

But we don’t want to be zombie-like without direction or breath.

We want to be Spirit filled.

We need to do what the early church did.

They were devoted to the apostles’ teaching, to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.

Here is what that might look like for us.

  1. Devoting ourselves to the apostles’ teaching is pretty easy.

It simply means listening to the sermons offered every Sunday either in person or watch them streamed online at your convenience.

  • Devoting ourselves to the fellowship is pretty easy as well.

Fellowship can be gathering together here at the church on Sundays or in smaller groups for food or drink or games or mission and ministry work.

Fellowship can also be financial support to the community, its mission and ministry much the way we are doing it today with the planting of fruit trees and breaking bread (or pulling pork) as a community.

  • Devoting ourselves to the breaking of bread includes participating in the Lord’s Supper as a reminder of the one who died so we could live.

Celebrating the sacraments together so we can remember and understand all that God has done for us.

  • Devoting ourselves to prayer is easy when the prayers of the people, Lord’s Prayer and Prayer of Confession is offered in worship.

This might be the most important of our devotions.

But it is something that many struggle with on their own.

Here is one place the Holy Spirit works with us.

While we are not preaching, we are praying and we are told that the Holy Spirit does for us what the Holy Spirit did for Ezekiel and the disciples.

The Holy Spirit give us the right words.

That is what Paul talks about in Romans:

Romans 8: 26-27

26 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. 27And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

We might not know what to pray, but the Holy Spirit understands our groans and translates them into prayers that the will of God answers.

And when we do these things, we will be God’s people.

People inspired by the Holy Spirit.

People with life.

Revived.

Because God wants it, has the power to do it, and has done it.

Now I don’t know what it is you actually heard, but I hope it is life giving and spirit filled.

And for whatever it was, thanks be to God.

This week at John McMillan Presbyterian Church – Pentecost Sunday!

I like to play golf. I am not a good golfer, but that does not diminish my desire to hit the links whenever I can. There are many movies about golfers but one of them I always enjoy. “The Legend of Bagger Vance”.  The movie is about a young man, Rannulph Junah, who was a golf prodigy until he went to war in WWI. He returned emotionally damaged and stopped playing. Today we would say he had PTSD. He is recruited to play in a fundraising event against Bobby Jones and Walter Hagan.  The plot focuses on the resurrection of Junah and through his return to golf with the guidance of the Supernatural appearance of his caddy, Bagger Vance.  There is one scene I love. Hagan has hooked his drive well off the course and onto a beach. Everyone assumes he is out of the hole.  But he takes his shoes off, rolls up his pants and tells his caddy to have someone on the green tend the pin.  Hagan takes a puff on his cigarette, flings it into the sea and hits the ball. Which lands in the middle of the green. A n impossible shot. The narrator describes the shot as Hagan coming back from the dead.  What does any of this have to do with Pentecost? Junah and Hagan are “dead”. Both are revived. Both are miraculously. And the revival is urged on by the supernatural presence of Bagger Vance. This revival is much like the “revival of the disciples by a supernatural mighty wind that whipped through their lives on Pentecost. Join us and hear about it this Sunday – Pentecost Sunday – at John McMillan Presbyterian Church where we will worship in the parking lot or on Facebook Live where the service will be streamed. We will look forward to your presence!

Returning: Thoughts on the post pandemic church.

Returning

I grew up in Pleasant Hills.

Pleasant Hills is a suburb of Pittsburgh in the norther part of the Mon Valley steel making center.

I was baptized and confirmed at Pleasant Hills Community Presbyterian Church.

Pleasant Hills is part of the West Jefferson Hills School District that includes Pleasant Hills, West Elizabeth and recently renamed Jefferson Hills.

I attended Pleasant Hills Elementary School, Pleasant Hills Middle School and Thomas Jefferson High School, graduating in 1974.

From time to time, I drive around my old neighborhood just to reminisce and see what’s new.

Here are some things I have noticed.

The two houses I lived in look different.

They both have had substantial upgrades.

They are more modern and updated.

My elementary school was replaced by a community elementary school a few miles away.

The new school is way nicer and has a the first school swimming pool ever in the district.

TJ now has a swim team.

The old school was bought by my old church, Pleasant Hills Community Church, torn down and replaced by a gymnasium used by the church for activities and worship.

A significant benefit to the church and community.

Out at the high school they built a new stadium.

That required the construction of what folks there still refer to as “the wall”, a giant retaining wall that allowed the stadium to be expanded.

With that expansion of the stadium, new sports and recreation opportunities became available to the students and community.

And now the high school building is vacant, replaced by a brand-new facility just a mile or so down the road.

The new high school is an eye-popper with more educational amenities than I could ever have imagined.

The educational opportunities for the TJ students have substantially increased.

I could give you an endless list of other changes I notice over there.

Some make me sad.

Some make me smile.

Many are surprising.

Times have changed.

My old neighborhood has changed.

My old school has changed.

And to my view, all for the better.

And the people seem to have prospered.

Our scripture reading today has something to say about how communities adapt and thrive as times change.

Nehemiah 2: 1-6; 17-20

2In the month of Nisan, in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes, when wine was served to him, I carried the wine and gave it to the king. Now, I had never been sad in his presence before. 2So the king said to me, ‘Why is your face sad, since you are not sick? This can only be sadness of the heart.’ Then I was very much afraid. 3I said to the king, ‘May the king live for ever! Why should my face not be sad, when the city, the place of my ancestors’ graves, lies waste, and its gates have been destroyed by fire?’ 4Then the king said to me, ‘What do you request?’ So I prayed to the God of heaven. 5Then I said to the king, ‘If it pleases the king, and if your servant has found favour with you, I ask that you send me to Judah, to the city of my ancestors’ graves, so that I may rebuild it.’ 6The king said to me (the queen also was sitting beside him), ‘How long will you be gone, and when will you return?’ So it pleased the king to send me, and I set him a date.

17 Then I said to them, ‘You see the trouble we are in, how Jerusalem lies in ruins with its gates burnt. Come, let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem, so that we may no longer suffer disgrace.’ 18I told them that the hand of my God had been gracious upon me, and also the words that the king had spoken to me. Then they said, ‘Let us start building!’ So they committed themselves to the common good. 19But when Sanballat the Horonite and Tobiah the Ammonite official, and Geshem the Arab heard of it, they mocked and ridiculed us, saying, ‘What is this that you are doing? Are you rebelling against the king?’ 20Then I replied to them, ‘The God of heaven is the one who will give us success, and we his servants are going to start building; but you have no share or claim or historic right in Jerusalem.’

A little background here.

Nehemiah was a Jew who and a member of the Judahite community that was taken into Babylonian captivity sometime between 597 BCE and 581 BCE.

His job was to be the cup bearer for Artaxerxes I, the ruler of the Persian Empire that had conquered Babylon in 539 BCE [JT1]  when Cyrus the Great was the Persian king.

Cyrus had immediately decreed that all captive peoples in Babylon were to be allowed to return to their ancestral home, rebuild their communities and worship their communal deities.

The Book or Ezra describes this early return of the Judahites in around 537 BCE.

The expectations of what the returning exiles would find on their return to Judah and Jerusalem is unknown,

Their parents had likely regaled them with what it was like in Jerusalem before the exile.

Some might have even remembered it themselves.

A great city with high walls.

A marvelous temple for the worship or the one true God.

The center of Jewish culture and identity.

But here is the problem.

When they got back, that was not what they found.

The walls were rubble.

The city was in ruins.

The temple was … well … gone.

Jerusalem was a small, insignificant and poor town with a non-descript religious shrine where the great temple had once been.

The residents were mostly pagan.

The capital of the province had been moved north many years before.

Kind of disheartening.

Ezra’s job was to rebuild the temple.

He did.

The new temple was nothing like the magnificent old one.

But it was functional.

And it began what we call the Second Temple Period that lasted 600 years.

The next problem was that Jerusalem had no walls and so was always threatened by the surrounding tribes who were irritated that Cyrus had taken what they thought was their land given it to the returning exiles.

That was reported back to the folks back in Babylon and apparently came to the attention of Nehemiah, who had the cup, and the ear, of Artaxerxes, Cyrus’ successor.

Nehemiah asked the king to let him go to Jerusalem to manage the rebuilding of the walls to protect the growing Jewish community in Jerusalem.

Having gotten permission to go, Nehemiah went and took over the project.

As the work went on the walls began, the neighboring tribes made fun of the Jews and threatened them.

“You will fail,” they said.

“Your community is weak.”

“Your people are no more.”

Nehemiah was undeterred and simply said:

‘The God of heaven is the one who will give us success, and we his servants are going to start building …’

Not only did they start building, but they finished.

People returned.

The Jerusalem population grew.

Judah, while still a province of Persia, was self-governing, following its own laws and somewhat independent.

It prospered.

And, while there were many Jews still in exile, Jerusalem was again the center of the Judaism.

Even those who did not or could not return, would look in the direction of Jerusalem in prayer.

What does this have to do with us at JMPC?

While the pandemic has only been with us for 13 months, not the 60 or so years the Judahites were gone, doesn’t it feel like we have been exiled from our community for a very long time?

And, like the Judahites, while we have done our best to maintain our faith and identity as part of the Body of Christ, our inability to gather as a church community has been difficult.

Don’t we feel a bit disconnected?

A bit lost?

Spiritually distant?

We want to return to our building.

And now we will.

We are returning.

June 1.

Our first worship service in the sanctuary will be June 6.

That is good news, no doubt, but what will we find on our returning?

Some interior clean-up will be required but the building is basically the same, though.

But we cannot just walk in and go back the pre-pandemic routine.

We will be returning Judahites, and like them, there will be challenges for us to face.

And opportunities, too.

I read a book that was recommended to me called The Post Quarantine Church, by Thom Ranier.

I recommend it for the entire congregation.

The book lays out 6 challenges and opportunities when we return.

  1. We must gather differently and better.
  2. We must seize the opportunity to reach the digital world.
  3. We must reconnect with the community near JMPC.
  4. We need to take prayer to a new and powerful level.
  5. We need to rethink our facilities for emerging opportunities.
  6. We need to make lasting changes that will make a difference.

Some of these things we are already doing.

  1. We have been and will worship a bit differently.

We will have screens in the sanctuary that will enhance our worship with visuals, announcements, hymn lyrics and visible presentations of our mission and ministry activities.

  • We have been and will be reaching out into the digital community.

Like the exiles of Nehemiah’s time, many will not be returning to Sunday morning worship.

They work or have activities that prevent that.

Distance prevents some, too.

But these people will still be able to look to JMPC as their spiritual home and faith community by streaming our services online, seeing and hearing everything we offer in the sanctuary.

And they can join us in person when they can.

We also have two new staff members whose responsibility is to increase our social media footprint, manage our website and enhance our online worship.

  • Our prayer team has been and will be strong for us.

And we can take that to a new level as well.

When we read the book of Acts, we learn that the early church spent its time doing two things more than anything else.

They listened to the apostles teach and they prayed.

What did they pray for?

That God’s will be done.

Look at how they thrived.

We can do that, too.

  • We have been and will continue to have community connections.

We do that with our SHIM garden and sometime in the future with the orchard.

We have our wildly successful pre-school.

We have all the missions and ministries we have developed over the years.

And we need to reach out into the community more.

What else does the community need?

How can we help provide it?

But what else can we do here in Bethel, Peters, South Park and McMurray?

  • We need to rethink the use of our facilities.

We sure do have a lot of people who use our church for their meetings and activities.

We will invite them back and offer our building for anyone else who needs a space for their groups.

We want our church to be full of people, a community center, not just empty for the majority of the week.

  • Lastly, we will make lasting changes that make a difference for the future.

We need to do what is necessary for us to have a faith community we can pass on to our next generation just like the Judahites did with their rebuilt Jerusalem and temple.

This will be no different than what the returning Judahite exiles experienced.

What did they have to do?

They rebuilt the Temple.

They rebuilt the walls.

They rededicated themselves to their faith.

And that allowed them to prosper for the next 600 years.

We can do all those things, too.

To do that we need people.

People willing to rededicate themselves to our community of faith.

New people willing to join us in our work.

All the while listening to God and praying.

Together, whatever that means in 2021.

When we do these things, we will succeed.

And while some might scoff and say that our efforts won’t work, we will respond the way Nehemiah did.

‘The God of heaven is the one who will give us success, and we his servants are going to start building …’

We really don’t need to do much rebuilding.

We will build on the foundation we already have.

And like my old stomping grounds in Pleasant Hills, what we build will be new, and it will be better.

Because the God of heaven will give us success.


 [JT1]

This week at John McMillan Presbyterian Church; May 9, 2021 – “Returning”

When I was working in downtown Pittsburgh several years back, there was a proposal made by a developer for the removal of basically all the buildings between Smithfield Street and Market Square in what was called the Forbes and Fifth corridor. Most of those buildings were occupied only on the street level. These street level businesses, as I recall, were mostly run down and outdated retail businesses. The buildings were run down and with virtually no real value.  The proposal imagined modern buildings with new office space, restaurants and retail stores that would invite people from the suburbs downtown to shop, eat and work. It was thought that such an endeavor would be like a new renaissance for the downtown. That plan was, surprisingly to me, opposed by folks who thought that the removal of those buildings would destroy “historic properties”. My take on that at the time was that some of the buildings were not as old as I was. How could they be historic? To me they were ugly eyesores. I think that the opposition wanted folks to just move bake into the buildings and be “the way they were in the good old days”. But times had changed. If you walk down to Market Square now, you will see that after many years some changes were made and more people did come downtown for work, entertainment and dining, if not for shopping. We shall see what changes will happen now that occupancy of commercial real estate downtown is at severe risk from the discovery of how easy it is for folks to work remotely. Times do change. What does that have to do with church, mission and ministry? Much. As we emerge from the effects of the pandemic, things will not be like they were before. They will be different. And they will be better. Join us at John McMillan Presbyterian Church at 10am on Sunday, May 9, either in the parking lot or on Facebook Live when we hear about “Returning”. We hope you will join us.

Creation Day: Thoughts on our God given responsibility to care for creation.

Creation Day

When I was a boy, Pittsburgh was called the Smokey City.

I remember seeing pictures of the streetlights on downtown at noon because of the darkness caused by the industrial smog.

Then in the late 1960s a series of environmental catastrophes focused the nation’s attention on the need to control pollution.

Two are particularly noteworthy because they were so extraordinary.

First was the remarkable 1969 Cuyahoga River fire near Cleveland, Ohio.

You heard that right.

The Cuyahoga River caught on fire.

The river was so full of industrial waste that it actually burned.

The fire reached heights of over five stories.

While the fire went out in less than an hour, that did not diminish the impact of a river on fire.

Then there was the 1969 blowout of an oil well off the coast of Santa Barbara, California.

A thick layer of oil sludge covered many miles of beaches and basically wiped out the local coastal ecosystem.

The nation was horrified.

Kathy Morales was a high-school student who witnessed the destruction.

Morales was approached by a reporter as Morales, with tears in her eyes looked at a convulsing loon stuck in the oily sludge.

“This is my life—out here,” Morales cried.

“I can’t think of coming down here for a stroll again.

I can’t think of someday bringing my children here to watch and to play.”

Richard Nixon, newly inaugurated president, was also horrified.

Three months later Nixon inspected the beaches and made some comments and some promises.

“What is involved is something much bigger than Santa Barbara. … What is involved is the use of our resources of the sea and the land in a more effective way, and with more concern for preserving the beauty and the natural resources that are so important to any kind of society that we want for the future. I don’t think we have paid enough attention to this. … We are going to do a better job than we have done in the past.”

And that happened.

On April 22, 1970 there was a “national teach-in on the environment” organized by Democratic Senator Gaylord Nelson and Republican Congressman Pete McCloskey.

That was the first Earth Day.

Then, over the next 4 years came the National Environmental Policy Act; an Executive Order creating the Environmental Protection Agency; The Clean Air Act; The Clean Water Act; and the Endangered Species Act.

Over the next eight years a significant number of other environmental laws and regulations were enacted to clean up our country and the world.

And they worked!

Smokey cities and burning rivers were cleaned up.

When Ronald Regan became president in 1981, his administration’s environmental protection approach was less enthusiastic.

James Watt became his Secretary of the Interior.

Watt was opposed to much of the environmental protections that were then on the books.

Yet when asked in a Congressional hearing if he thought it was important to preserve the environment for future generations, fundamentalist Christian Watt said this:

“I do not know how many future generations we can count on before the Lord returns, whatever it is we have to manage with a skill to leave the resources needed for future generations.”

He also said this.

“The Bible commands conservation — that we as Christians be careful stewards of the land and resources entrusted to us by the Creator.”

Why would Watt say these things?

Because the Bible says these things.

And while I certainly disagree with just about all Watt’s views on how to be good stewards of God’s creation, he and I agree that God calls us to do it.

Why do Watt and I think that?

Let’s look at our scripture reading.

Genesis 2: 4-9; 15

4b In the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens, 5when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up—for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no one to till the ground; 6but a stream would rise from the earth, and water the whole face of the ground— 7then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being. 8And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed. 9Out of the ground the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

15 The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.

We spend a lot of time in church talking about our relationship with God.

Bottom line?

God loves us.

We love God.

But it’s a bit more complex than that.

First, how do we know God loves us?

Look around.

Everything you see has been created and given to us by God.

From the deepest parts of the seas to the highest peaks on the planet, God’s love for us is demonstrated.

Really, take some time with the docuseries Planet Earth.

Take a tour through the national parks.

Look around your neighborhood.

Then there are your friends, the community that you live in, the people you rely on and even the people you argue with.

They are God’s creation, too.

And finally, there is the water we drink and food we eat.

Enough for everyone if we distribute it right.

Yeah, God loves us.

Loving God back is a bit more complicated that you think, too.

It’s not just coming to church on Sunday.

To love God, you have to love what God created.

We do that by taking care of what God created.

You, know.

The planet.

Each other.

But most of the time when we talk about our relationship with God, it’s … well … a bit narcissistic.

It’s like the only thing God cares much about is us!

I don’t think that is theologically correct, though.

God cares about a great many things and while we might be at the top of the list, we are not the only item on that list.

It’s a bit like parenthood.

I love my kids and care about them more than anything.

But I care about other things, too.

I care about my wife.

I care about my home.

I care about this church and all of you.

And I care about the world.

I care about those generations of folks who are coming after us.

Our relatives we will never know or see.

I care about what we will leave behind for them.

But God doesn’t want us to just care about God’s creation, go wants us to care for creation.

Which is why we were created.

According to Genesis 1:26:

26 … God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’

God gives us creation to subdue and have dominion over.

What does that mean?

That humanity is to rule over creation, not as a dictator, but a benevolent caretaker.

We are to walk in and have a relationship with creation so that creation can thrive.

And us with it.

That is our first mandate.

God created us and basically said, “Take care of my stuff, and it will take care of you.”

Look at our text today.

It says that the principal reason God created us was to care for all the other things God created.

God wanted to create plant life, but needed something else first.

What was missing?

A gardener.

That was us.

God created humanity and placed us in the midst of creation to tend and keep it.

We are not here to consume it.

We are not here to abuse it.

We are here to take care of it.

Like Richard Nixon said.

Like James Watt said.

To preserve creation for future generations.

This is our origin story.

This is our original purpose.

We are caretakers of God’s creation.

And it makes me wonder why we don’t have a church holiday for this big event?

We have Christmas to celebrate the incarnation.

We have Lent and Easter to celebrate our reconciliation with God.

We have Pentecost to celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit.

Why don’t we have a “Creation Day” to celebrate the beginning of it all?

The secular world does.

Earth Day.

April 22.

Commemorating the beginning of our desire for environmental protection.

You know … creation care.

You might say that all those environmental laws codified what is in our text today.

So let’s get back to today’s text.

What was our first assignment?

Tend the garden.

Care for the plants.

Plants that are “pleasant to the sight and good for food”.

Two things.

Pleasant to the sight and good for food.

But let’s start with pleasant to the sight.

What does tending the plants that are pleasant to the sight look like?

Before the pandemic, I visited the Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens.

It was pretty awesome!

The place smelled of fertile soil and flowery fragrances.

The diversity was incredible as I walked through the different “ecosystems”.

It was beautiful.

It was inspiring.

It was peaceful.

It was pleasant to the sight.

But we don’t need to go to Phipps to see beautiful arrangements of foliage.

Many of us here plant flowers and trees and bushes at home or in public places that add beauty to the community.

When we do these things, we are doing the work God assigned to us.

Tilling and tending God’s garden that is pleasant to the sight.

Then there is the other type of gardening.

The cultivating of plants that are “good for food”.

If you want to see that, head down to Trax or Simmons farms.

Row after row of trees, bushes and plants, all bearing fruit and vegetables.

It is spectacular!

Gardens and orchards that are good for food.

But you don’t have to own a huge farm to grow fruit and vegetables.

Many of us have small vegetable gardens at home that are good for food.

When we till and tend these gardens, we are doing God’s work.

Tending the garden.

Why do so many of us do this?

We like to watch things grow.

We like beautiful flowers.

We like fresh vegetables.

We like to give the world beauty and sustenance.

Things “pleasant to the sight and good for food.”

Doing the work God has created us to do.

It is part of who we are.

It is our purpose.

That is what our text tells us.

But there is more to it than beauty and food.

There is also the preservation of the balance of nature.

God created a garden.

God created gardeners.

Each needs the other.

That is a just a small part of the extraordinarily complex interconnectedness of plants and animals, that God gave us to preserve.

The problem today is that the gardeners, us, are not doing a good job.

We are depleting the natural resources, polluting the land, air and water, and heating up the planet.

The climate changes.

Creation goes out of balance.

It cannot continue to support us.

To be clear, this is sin.

It is failing to do what God calls us to do.

But as gardeners, caretakers, and stewards, we can help to creation to regain the balance.

It is not just a good idea.

It’s our God given responsibility!

How do we do it?

Solar power?

Wind power?

I am no expert on any of this, but I do know that we can do little things.

Plant trees.

Plant gardens.

When we do these things, we do what God has called us to do.

Make the world more beautiful.

Make the world more productive.

Make the world sustainable.

That is what we have been doing for several years now with the SHIM garden.

That is what we have started with our fruit trees.

The food we cultivate and ultimately harvest will be used to feed those who could otherwise not be able to afford fresh fruit and vegetables.

We not only plant a garden and orchard that are pleasant for the sight and good for food, we help the ecosystem we call Bethel Park, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the United States and the whole world.

Even if it is just a little bit.

When we get our hands dirty with gardening we go back to our origins.

The ones we first read about in Genesis.

Developing a community garden and orchard on JMPC property is part of that story.

It is loving God and loving neighbor.

It is living the Jesus way.

For JMPC, today is “Creation Day”!

Let’s celebrate!

This week at John McMillan Presbyterian Church: Creation Day!

I am my father’s son, so, like him, I enjoy a beer or two from time to time. My current brand of choice is called “Burning River Pale Ale” brewed at Great Lakes Brewing in Cleveland, Ohio. The first time I was handed a bottle, I laughed because the label is a picture of a river on fire. The name and label come from a famous event on the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland. In 1969, the Cuyahoga River caught fire. It was a “burning river”. This was not the first time, either. This from the Ohio History Connection website:

The Cuyahoga River was once one of the most polluted rivers in the United States as represented by the multitude of times it has caught fire [.] [A] recorded number of thirteen starting in 1868.  The most potent blaze occurred in 1952 which caused over $1.3 million in damages[.] [H]owever, the most fatal fire happened in 1912 with a documented five deaths.  The 1969 fire, which did not incur maximum damages or fatally wound any citizen, was the most covered incident occurring on the river.  This was in part because of the developing [concern] over industrial actions[.] [T]he United States was becoming more eco-aware.  Also, due to the shift from industry to technology, waste dumping to recycling Time Magazine produced an article about the incident. 

A burning river … What does that have to do with our worship of the living God? Join us Sunday, April 23, 2021 when we celebrate “Creation Day” at John McMillan Presbyterian Church. We are on Facebook Live and in the church parking lot at 10am. See you then.

So Shall My Word: Thoughts on the impact, certainty and hope of God’s word.

So Shall My Word

Some years ago, I decided to take up fishing.

I went out and bought an ultra-light rod, some spider wire fishing line, metal head hooks and rubber slugs with wavy tails.

I got a license to fish and off to the dock I went.

I was fishing for pan fish, particularly crappy bass.

Later, I got some sturdier tackle and even bought a small boat so I could fish for largemouth bass in amongst the weed bed at the head of Edinboro Lake.

For me, fishing was pretty relaxing and peaceful.

The reason it was so relaxing and peaceful was that I rarely caught any fish.

And when I did I just threw them back.

In the middle of my foray into “fishermanhood”, I was asked to go out on Lake Erie to fish for walleye with my friend Bob.

Cap’n Bob, as we all called him, always recited the same mantra.

“We are not going fishing; we are going to catch fish.”

He was pretty sure we would, too, because his boat had sonar and outriggers that basically allowed him to put the lure, coated with stuff fish think smells like dinner, right in front of the nose of the fish.

When the fish grabbed it, the outrigger snapped up, setting the hook, and all we had to do was reel it in.

It was rare that Cap,n Bob would send out a line that did not bring back a fish.

Which brings us to our scripture reading.

Isaiah 55: 6-13

6 Seek the Lord while he may be found,
   call upon him while he is near;
7 let the wicked forsake their way,
   and the unrighteous their thoughts;
let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them,
   and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.
8 For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
   nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.
9 For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
   so are my ways higher than your ways
   and my thoughts than your thoughts.
10 For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
   and do not return there until they have watered the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
   giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
11 so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
   it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
   and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.
12 For you shall go out in joy,
   and be led back in peace;
the mountains and the hills before you
   shall burst into song,
   and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.
13 Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress;
   instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle;
and it shall be to the Lord for a memorial,
   for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.

Now what does Cap’n Bob have to do with Isaiah?

Listen again:

So shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.

When Cap’n Bob sent out his line, it almost always caught a fish.

When God sends out God’s word, it always accomplished God’s purpose.

Cap’n Bob’s line rarely came back empty.

God’s word never comes back empty.

It accomplishes its purpose.

What is that purpose?

Isaiah gives us a startling response to that question.

God’s purpose is beyond our complete understanding.

God’s word does what God wants it to do.

And we don’t know what that is.

God’s word creates and sustains.

It is the natural order.

It ties all things together.

It is cosmic and universal, intertwined with history and the natural world.

It is the DNA of all things.

It comes down from God with purpose.

We see it in the rain.

The rain that comes down from above.

The rain waters the earth and brings forth food that feeds God’s people.

It ends the dormancy of winter and causes the earth to be reborn.

God’s word comes down from above and nurtures God’s creation, which includes us.

God’s word, and its impact, is reliable, trustworthy and certain.

God is always in action.

And so, we can have hope.

Isaiah is telling us about that.

How do we know that?

Well, let me offer a bit of a history lesson that illustrates Isaiah’s message.

Who was Isaiah and who was he talking to?

The Isaiah of chapter 55 was a prophet in the time when Judah, the remnant of David’s Kingdom, was in exile in Babylon.

Judah had been captured and the people of Jerusalem were removed and scattered among the Babylonians.

Removing conquered people from their homes was a common practice in those days.

Its purpose was to make sure there was little chance of revolt among the conquered people.

Taking conquered people into captivity took away their identity as a people and assimilated them into the conquering culture.

Isaiah was speaking to the Judahite exiles in Babylon who didn’t want that to happen to them.

They didn’t want to become Babylonians.

They didn’t want to forget who and whose they were.

They didn’t want to be imprisoned in a foreign land.

Spiritually starving.

With no way out.

Then along comes Isaiah with a word from God.

It was actually a word from God about God’s word.

Isaiah said that God’s word could restore God’s people.

God’s word, like spring rain, could bring life back to a dormant community.

God’s word was going to take the exiles home.

That was God’s word for these people and it would not return empty.

Now that did not mean that everyone would return, some wanted to remain in Babylon and be Babylonians.

But God’s purpose was that there would be a return.

The community would be reborn.

God’s word would not return empty.

Isaiah’s message is one of hope and certainty.

Does Isaiah’s message resonate with us?

It should.

It is applicable to our current situation.

We are in the same circumstance as the Judahite exiles in Babylon.

We have not been conquered and taken from our homes to a far-off place, but we are certainly under siege by the Babylonians of our secular culture squeezing the life out of us and the church.

Not to mention a pandemic that has exiled us from our sanctuary.

We are afraid that we are beginning to forget who and whose we are.

We begin to turn to “foreign gods” that promise a false security.

A promise that is never kept.

A promise that leads to … well … meaninglessness.

This is nothing new.

Our faith stories tell us that.

God’s people periodically forget God.

God sends out God’s word to lead God’s people back.

Look at Moses.

The Israelites had loved in Egypt for 400 years.

They forgot God and became enslaved.

God sent Moses to lead them back to God.

God gave the people meaning and purpose and community.

But it did not last.

Read Exodus.

Read Joshua.

Better yet, read the book of Judges.

Judge after judge after judge rescued the tribes of Israel when they “did what was evil in the sight of the Lord”, only to have it happen again and again and again.

And that kind of thing has never really stopped.

That’s why the prophets came.

That’s why Isaiah came.

That’s why Jesus came.

It is happening again today.

According to a report form NPR:

Fewer than half of U.S. adults say they belong to a church, synagogue or mosque, according to a new Gallup survey that highlights a dramatic trend away from religious affiliation in recent years among all age groups.

The new Gallop Poll, published Monday, indicates that religious membership in the U.S. has fallen to just 47% among those surveyed — representing less than half of the adult population for the first time since Gallup began asking the question more than 80 years ago. …

In conclusion, Gallup states that though the “U.S. remains a religious nation … far fewer, now less than half, have a formal membership with a specific house of worship.”

Then there is the more recent Barna research that found one third of Christians have stopped participating in church during the pandemic, including 50% of millennials.

That is the case even though most churches have streamed worship online.

Here we go again, right?

People seeming to turn their backs on God.

They are in spiritual danger.

Where is God’s word?

Right where it always is.

Right here.

When Barna did its research, the data also suggested that people who remained connected to their faith communities, whether in person or online, managed the challenges of the pandemic much better than those that dropped out.

God’s word does not return empty.

Will all those people who have walked away come back?

No.

They like their false gods.

But those that do come back are most welcome.

That is what Isaiah said was the impact of God’s word.

It reconciles and restores.

And Jesus, the incarnate word, is the final manifestation of that promise.

Jesus Christ, the incarnate word, came to liberate us from our perceived meaninglessness.

Jesus came to teach us a way to live and thrive.

And we can have confidence and trust that it will happen!

Our job, as disciples of Jesus, is to reach out to those exiles with what we do and what we say and what we stand for

We must live as best we can consistent with the Jesus way.

If we do that, we, too, are proclaiming God’s word and it will not return empty.

Isaiah told the exiles, and tells us today, that in a broken world where sorrowful things happen, God will always be a part of our future, a future filled with hope and purpose.

But this is not always easy.

We are still living among the Babylonians.

Sometimes we cannot see the return on God’s word.

Maybe you have some friend or relative for whom you have prayed for a long time.

They live as secular people, as if there is no God.

You talk and pray, seemingly to no avail.

Your heart is broken.

At times it seems like a hopeless cause.

Nothing seems to change.

The object of your affection, a son, a daughter, a wife or husband, a father or mother, dear friend just seems lost.

Here in today’s word, there is hope.

God tells us: “My Word goes forth … it shall not return to me empty.”

So have your say with them.

Have your prayer for them.

Know that even one word from God will have its impact.

And they can be changed.

They can be different, even if you cannot see it.

According to Isaiah, there are few things in life which you can count on, but you can count on these two: the Word of God goes forth, and the Word of God does not return empty.

God speaks.

His words cause action.

His words have results.

And for those who look for them and are led by them, the world is a different place.

The Kingdom of God.

Isaiah describes that scene:

We shall go out in joy,
and be led back in peace;
the mountains and the hills before us
shall burst into song,
and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.

Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress;
instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle;

And it shall be to the Lord for a memorial,
for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.

All creation will rejoice at the event.

We will be joyful.

All will be at peace.

The mountains will sing, and the trees applaud at the work of the word.

The dangerous conditions of the world from which we are saved will become the cool shade of the cypress and the soft green groundcover of the myrtle.

The natural order will be returned to its intended serenity.

And it will all be a monument to the word, proclaiming that it will be eternal and undefeated.

That was good news to the exiled Jews.

It is good news for us today.

It is our hope and our certainty because it is the promise of God.

The hook is set.

We are bound to the lifeline.

Transported into the Kingdom of God.

So says Isaiah.

So says God.

Amen!

This Week at John McMillan Presbyterian Church

In 1994 The Lion King premiered. It is one of the great Disney animated movies of all time. It opens with the anointing of lion cub Simba, the heir of Musafa the Lion King of Pride Rock. Simba will succeed Mufasa, his father. This scene is intensified by the movie’s most memorable song, The Circle of Life. Here are the English lyrics,

From the day we arrive on the planet
And, blinking, step into the sun
There’s more to see than can ever be seen
More to do than can ever be done
There’s far too much to take in here
More to find than can ever be found
But the sun rolling high
Through the sapphire sky
Keeps great and small on the endless round

It’s the circle of life
And it moves us all
Through despair and hope
Through faith and love
‘Til we find our place
On the path unwinding
In the circle of life.

The circle of life is the way of things. It makes existence predictable, though the events that take place in the circle are often hard to understand and difficult, the circle continues. Creation will continue, on and on and on. This idea is not new. Isaiah speaks of it in terms of both creation and our personal connection with God. It is a message of hope, faith and, yes, comfort.

Join us at John McMillan Presbyterian Church on Sunday, April 18 when Pastor Jeff preaches “So Shall My Word” based on Isaiah 55: 6-13. A message of hope.