Whom Do We Serve? Thoughts on who we choose to put our faith in.

Whom Do We Serve?

Back in 1999, my son AJ was confirmed at Southminster Presbyterian Church.

This was a momentous occasion.

AJ stood up in front of the church and committed to be a disciple of Jesus.

He answered all the PCUSA Constitutional Questions for church membership and recited the Apostles’ Creed.

In anticipation of this, I wondered what I could get him for a gift.

I ultimately decided to buy him a polished spherical rock about the size of a baseball.

Six years later my daughter Julz went through the same confirmation ceremony.

This, too, was a momentous day.

Julz became a disciple of Jesus and a member of his church.

Needless to say, she received a polished spherical rock of her own.

Why rocks?

A couple of reasons.

First, the rocks were unique.

They were not the usual Christian paraphernalia that might be appreciated for a while and then get consigned to a drawer.

They were something that would look nice on an end table, a shelf, a bedside table or dresser.

A place where they would be seen, noticed and maybe stimulate a memory.

The memory of their conformations, the promises they made and the faith they proclaimed.

But there was Biblical significance as well.

Throughout the Old Testament, the people of God would stack rocks or build alters at places where something important happened.

This would be done to mark and commemorate the event.

A reminder.

As an example, in the Book of Joshua, the Israelites cross the Jordan River from the wilderness into Canaan.

A representative from each of the twelve tribes is sent back to the middle of the river to get a stone.

They stack the stones on the shores of Canaan to memorialize their passage into the Promised Land.

Joshua then tells the people that their children will see the stones and ask, “What do these stones mean?”

Then their parents can tell them the story of the Exodus.

Who they were and where they came from.

I thought that was a cool story.

I wanted my kids to have stones like that.

Stones memorializing the big event.

So, I got my kids stones for their confirmation so that when each of them would look at their stone, each would remember that their stone was more than a decoration.

They meant something.

Those stones had a story to tell.

And then I read today’s passage.

Another reference to a stone.

And I realized that the stones my kids still have might have more impact than I thought.

Joshua 24: 1-2a; 14-28

Then Joshua gathered all the tribes of Israel to Shechem, and summoned the elders, the heads, the judges, and the officers of Israel; and they presented themselves before God. 2And Joshua said to all the people …

14 ‘Now therefore revere the Lord, and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness; put away the gods that your ancestors served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord. 15Now if you are unwilling to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.’

16 Then the people answered, ‘Far be it from us that we should forsake the Lord to serve other gods; 17for it is the Lord our God who brought us and our ancestors up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, and who did those great signs in our sight. He protected us along all the way that we went, and among all the peoples through whom we passed; 18and the Lord drove out before us all the peoples, the Amorites who lived in the land. Therefore we also will serve the Lord, for he is our God.’

19 But Joshua said to the people, ‘You cannot serve the Lord, for he is a holy God. He is a jealous God; he will not forgive your transgressions or your sins. 20If you forsake the Lord and serve foreign gods, then he will turn and do you harm, and consume you, after having done you good.’ 21And the people said to Joshua, ‘No, we will serve the Lord!’ 22Then Joshua said to the people, ‘You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen the Lord, to serve him.’ And they said, ‘We are witnesses.’ 23He said, ‘Then put away the foreign gods that are among you, and incline your hearts to the Lord, the God of Israel.’ 24The people said to Joshua, ‘The Lord our God we will serve, and him we will obey.’ 25So Joshua made a covenant with the people that day, and made statutes and ordinances for them at Shechem. 26Joshua wrote these words in the book of the law of God; and he took a large stone, and set it up there under the oak in the sanctuary of the Lord. 27Joshua said to all the people, ‘See, this stone shall be a witness against us; for it has heard all the words of the Lord that he spoke to us; therefore it shall be a witness against you, if you deal falsely with your God.’ 

The first thing we need to do is put this passage in context.

Who was Joshua?

He was the successor to Moses as the leader of the people of Israel.

It was Joshua’s job to take the people into Canaan, the Promised Land, and settle the people there.

Joshua led the Israelites in a conquest of enough territory so that all the people had a place to live and flourish.

It took a long time.

Now Joshua was an old man.

His life was nearing its end.

So, he called all the people (actually their leaders) to the City of Shechem so that they could hear Joshua’s farewell address.

Our text is at the conclusion of that address.

What we don’t include in our reading is the beginning of Joshua’s speech when he recounts the history of Israel from the time of Abraham up through the Exodus led by Moses, to the conquering of Canaan.

He reminds the people that it was God – Yahweh – who made it all possible.

Yahweh had chosen Israel to be Yahweh’s people.

Now Joshua wants the people he has led for decades to choose Yahweh.

After Joshua reminds the people about what Yahweh has done for them, he tells them they must revere Yahweh and serve Yahweh in faithfulness for all Yahweh has done.

Why does Joshua say this?

Because there are other “gods” the people have been, and continue to be, exposed to.

There were the old gods of Abraham’s people, the gods of the Egyptians, and the gods of the Amorites who still surrounded the Israelites.

Joshua realized that there was a real risk that these competing gods would infiltrate the Israelite community and either replace Yahweh or make Yahweh “just another god”.

After pointing this out, Joshua utters his most famous words.

… [C]hoose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.

While these words are inspiring, in context they are actually so much more.

They are a challenge.

Let’s look closer.

Joshua tells the folks to be faithful to and serve Yahweh.

Then he says that if they can’t, or won’t, serve Yahweh, they need to choose who they will serve.

It’s not Joshua telling them to take their pick from the god buffet.

He is asking a rhetorical question.

If you’re not going to serve Yahweh, who did all these things for you, who are you going to serve?

One of those imaginary and fantastical gods?

Or the one true God who brought you out of Egypt?

Choose!

“I know where I am going to put my faith,” Joshua tells them, “The real God. Yahweh!”

Now I want you to imagine the scene with me.

We are standing in the crowd listening to Joshua’s fire and brimstone.

Joshua has just challenged us.

What do we say?

“Far be it from us to serve other gods.”

“We, too will serve Yahweh, too!”

That seems a bit tame to me.

I have this image of us pumping our fists into the air and chanting, “Yahweh! Yahweh! Yahweh!

And then Joshua quiets us down.

He tells us we don’t have what it takes.

“You can’t do it!” Joshua says.

“And if you say you will and don’t, it will not go well for you with God!”

But we are really pumped.

And we scream, “No! We can do it! Yahweh! Yahweh! Yahweh! Yahweh!”

“Alright,” Joshua says, “You have made the commitment and are your own witnesses.”

“You know what you have said and are bound by it.”

“So, all those old gods?”

“Get rid of them.”

“We will,” we say.

They take all the other God paraphernalia they have been carrying around and throw it on the ground.

“Yahweh! Yahweh! Yahweh!”

And then Joshua picks up a stone.

… [H]e took a large stone, and set it up there under the oak in the sanctuary of the Lord. 27Joshua said to all the people, ‘See, this stone shall be a witness against us; for it has heard all the words of the Lord that he spoke to us; therefore it shall be a witness against you, if you deal falsely with your God.’ 

And every time we look at that stone, we remember what we said.

What we said to Yahweh.

Our words confirming our faith and service to Yahweh.

When I read this text, it reminded me of the stones I gave to my kids at their confirmation.

And then it occurred to me, maybe this gathering at Shechem was a sort of a confirmation.

The Israelites were confirming their fatih.

Just like my kids.

So, what do any of us remember about our confirmation?

There were witnesses to that, right?

Pastors.

Elders.

Mentors.

The assembled congregation.

Not stones, but real people.

And Jesus, too.

And in front of all them, we made a choice.

To be faithful servants of God.

Disciples of Jesus.

Inspired by the Holy Spirit.

When we made that choice, what did we promise to be?

Humble.

Hopeful.

Meek.

Hungry and thirsty for God’s righteousness.

Merciful.

Honest.

Peacemakers.

Steadfast in the face of opposition.

What did we promise to do?

Feed the hungry.

Clothe the naked.

Give water to the thirsty.

Welcome the strangers.

Care for the sick.

Visit the imprisoned.

But, like the Israelites, we live in a world with competing gods.

Gods that infiltrate our discipleship and to which we turn our heads.

Wealth.

Power.

Entertainment.

Fear.

Their whispers are hard to ignore.

Our triune God is hip checked aside or has become just another “god” among many.

That’s when we might want to remember our confirmation.

Like Joshua’s people and take a look at that stone.

And ask ourselves who we chose.

The imaginary gods of this world.

Or Yahweh?

Jesus?

How are we doing?

Shall we ask the witnesses?

Not too well, really.

We wander off too often.

We make bad choices.

We forget our promises.

We hate each other.

We turn our backs on God.

We have proved Joshua right.

We can’t be totally committed to Yahweh.

And like Joshua says, it’s killing us.

So, what do we do?

We confess that we can’t always do what we said we would.

We recommit.

We try to do better.

We make better choices.

And humbly know that even though we can’t always be and do what God wants and what we promised to be and do, we are forgiven.

I know that.

Because Jesus told us so.

For the last three weeks, I have been preaching on a theme of what do we do now that the election is over.

How do we remain disciples when a winner is declared, and it is not the one we want?

And how do we remain disciples when a winner is declared, and it is the one we want?

Interestingly enough, the answer is again the same to both questions.

We live the way we promised to live on the day we declared our discipleship to Jesus.

We live the words that we say we believe to be true.

Maybe the words we recited at our confirmation.

Maybe we can pick up a rock and put it in the JMPC rock garden and say words like these words from the PCUSA Brief Statement of Faith.

Words that proclaim who you choose to serve.

In life and in death we belong to God.
Through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ,
the love of God,
and the communion of the Holy Spirit,
we trust in the one triune God, the Holy One of Israel,
whom alone we worship and serve.

This Week at John McMillan Presbyterian Church – November 22, 2020

Several of the United States Presidents have given what we would call “Farewell Addresses”. Each one generally described what happened during the President’s term of office and included warnings about dangers that the country faced. The most famous farewell address was given by our first President, George Washington. Washington had a good bit of history to recount but also warned American citizens to view themselves as a cohesive unit and avoid political parties. His was so powerful and memorable that the next President to give ne was Andrew Jackson. Jackson recounted the growth of the Union and the flourishing of the country. but warned of the growing dangers of sectionalism and of a shadowy “money power,” represented by banks and corporations, that threatened the liberties of ordinary citizens. After Old Hickory, it wasn’t until Harry Truman that we saw the next one. Dwight Eisenhower gave perhaps the second most famous address where he warned of the “military industrial complex”. George W. Bush opened his farewell address by calling the election of his successor, Barack Obama, “a moment of hope and pride for our whole nation.” Farewell addresses are nothing new. There are even Biblical examples. Moses gave one. We call it the book of Deuteronomy. But perhaps the most famous Biblical farewell address (at least in the Old Testament) was given by Joshua. It, like the ones listed above, was full of history and included warnings about the future. It, like those listed above, was intended to inspire to greater things. So, what was it Joshua said? Does it speak to us today? Come and hear about it this week in the parking lot or on Facebook at John McMillan Presbyterian Church when Pastor Jeff preaches, “Whom Do We Serve?” We will look forward to seeing you (virtually) then.

Do We Bless? Thoughts on testing the health of our discipleship.

Do We Bless?

I think most of you know that I am sort of an exercise fanatic.

I work out every day.

Why do I do that?

Because I want to stay healthy and … well … look fit.

So, it was with some surprise a couple years ago that I went to my doctor for a routine physical and I got some unwelcome news.

The doctor looked at my pre-visit lab results, took my temperature, weighed me, listened to my heart, listened to my lungs, thumped my back a few times, looked in my eyes, my ears and had me open my mouth and say aaahh.

Good, good, good , good …

The last part of the exam was an EKG.

The test that looks at how your heart is working.

The nurse attached me to the machine, hit the start button, waited a few minutes, then took the printout to the doctor.

The doctor almost immediately came into the room and asked me what I thought to be a strange question.

“How are you feeling right now?”

He emphasized the words “right now”.

“Fine,” was my response.

“Yesterday?”, the doctor continued.

“Any chest pain?

Shoulder pain?

Arm pain?

Jaw pain?

Shortness of breath?”

I knew where this was going.

“What’s up, doc?”

Yeah, I really said that.

 He finally asked, “Have you ever had a heart attack?”

“Um, no, not to my knowledge,” I said.

His response was simply this:

“Your EKG suggests otherwise.”

I was referred to a cardiologist, like right then.

Cardiac enzymes were tested.

Normal.

But still, abnormal EKG.

Then to a stress test.

No problem, but still that abnormal EKG.

Finally, to the MRI for one of the most unpleasant experiences I have ever had.

A chemical induced stress test.

Result?

Everything was fine … except the EKG which was still abnormal.

So, despite my perceived and apparent fitness, I was told I needed to change my lifestyle a bit.

I had to reduce my cholesterol and to take some medication to make sure it stays low.

I also needed to get more sleep and drink more water.

I was also told to find time to just relax to reduce my stress.

There was something about my heart that was not right.

That is what an abnormal EKG will do.

You think you are at the pinnacle of health, but in reality, maybe not.

That is why we need to get to the doctor for check -ups and then do what the doctor tells us to do.

And this is kind of what our scripture reading is about.

You might know that it is my personal favorite passage in the New Testament.

Matthew 25: 31-46

31 ‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” 37Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” 40And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” 41Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” 44Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” 45Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” 46And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.’

So, here are some things we need to know about this passage.

Jesus teaches this lesson at the end of a series of lessons and parables describing the end times.

In our text today, Jesus describes the final judgment.

It is an agricultural illustration of what awaits us when Jesus comes in glory, which, by the way, is at some unknown future time.

Maybe today.

Maybe tomorrow.

Maybe generations from now.

Sheep here.

Goats there.

Now there are many folks who look at this passage and wring their hands.

It sounds so dualistic.

People are either sheep or goat.

Good or bad.

Saved or damned.

So, here is Jesus in the Temple preaching to whoever is near.

And at the end, he leads the listeners in that well known VBS song, “I want to be a sheep”.

Don’t wanna be a goat…nope
Don’t wanna be a goat…nope
Haven’t got any hope…nope
Don’t wanna be a goat…nope

OK, but how can we be sure we are not?

Maybe have a Jesus check-up.

One way to understand this passage is that Jesus is kind of doing a spiritual exam to see if we are healthy disciples.

Doctor Jesus has some questions.

“Have you been feeding the hungry?”

“Have you been giving water to the thirsty?”

“Have you been welcoming the stranger?”

“Have you been clothing the naked?”

“Have you been caring for the sick?”

“Have you been visiting the imprisoned?”

“Have you been standing up to those who don’t think we need to do these things?”

“You have?”

“Great, you are a healthy disciple.”

“You are good to go, even if the end comes tomorrow.”

“But if it doesn’t, see you next year for another check-up.”

“But if you haven’t been doing these things, how are you feeling right now?”

“Your sheep/goat test doesn’t look so good.”

“There is something about your discipleship that is not right.”

“You might want to change your lifestyle.”

“And do it soon because you don’t know when the end will come.”

“But wait a minute”, you say to Doctor Jesus, “I thought all I needed to do to be a healthy disciple was believe in you!”

“Ah!” Jesus says, “but you really don’t seem to believe in me when you don’t follow my instructions.”

“And if you don’t follow my instructions, there is not much I can do to make you a healthy disciple.”

“That’s up to you!”

Ok, then!

Time to get to work on that.

Maybe put that list of Doctor Jesus’ instructions on the front of the refrigerator.

This is a description of what disciples do.

Last week we talked about what disciples are.

A disciple is poor in spirit.

A disciple is a mourner.

A disciple is meek.

A disciple is hungry and thirsty for righteousness.

A disciple is merciful.

A disciple is pure in heart.

A disciple is faithful despite persecution and hatred for being a disciple.

And because disciples are these things, they are blessed.

This week we find out what disciples do.

Disciples bless others.

Jesus gives us that list, too.

Feed the hungry.

Give water to the thirsty.

Welcome the stranger.

Clothe the naked.

Care for the sick.

Visit the imprisoned.

You know, love your neighbor.

This list is how we love our neighbor.

This list is how we love Jesus.

This list is the lifestyle of healthy disciples.

But let’s face it.

We don’t always live that way.

We are sometimes sheep and sometimes goat.

We go through our daily lives and are faced with folks on this list.

What do we do?

It kind of depends on the day, right?

Maybe it depends on the moment, right?

Maybe it depends on the mood.

It feels like we have the devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other, each whispering in our ears.

And we struggle because the answer is not always obvious or easy.

A couple years ago I watched an episode of “This is Us”.

In one scene, an overweight woman opens her refrigerator.

Inside there are a bunch of unhealthy desserts.

On each one there is a post-it note that tells her why she should not eat it.

So why did she buy them?

Because she is not perfect.

Sometimes she is a healthy sheep, sometimes an unhealthy goat.

What Jesus is teaching in this lesson is that we need to pay attention to what makes us healthy, and then do the best we can to do it.

It takes a bit of discernment, too.

A bit of humility.

If you think that you are always a healthy sheep, then you might not go to the doctor.

Then you are surprised when you get sick.

And worse, regretful, because you could have done something about it if you had only had a check-up periodically.

But even then, it is not too late, right?

Do what the doctor says, and you might get better.

Do what Doctor Jesus says, and you will get better.

Then there is the opposite way folks think about this passage.

They just assume they are goats because they don’t always care for the needy.

These people remind me of some of my tennis friends.

We call ourselves the “Self-Loathing Club”.

Every time we hit a bad shot, we lose a point of a game, we assume it’s our fault.

We tell ourselves, and those around us, that we are bad tennis players.

But we aren’t really bad tennis players, we are just not perfect tennis players.

If we practice and play more, maybe get a lesson from time to time, we will get better, but will never be perfect.

Self-loathers do much the same with Jesus’ list.

OMG!

I did not give that roadside beggar a dollar.

I did not stop on the Turnpike to help the folks in that disabled car.

I did not give up my seat on the bus to that old fellow.

I did not contribute to the hospital bills for that kid in school who has no health insurance.

I did not feed, give water, clothe, welcome, care, or visit anyone today.

I AM A GOAT!

There is no hope for me.

Even occasional “goatness” can make us feel imperfect, incapable of healthy discipleship.

Why even try?

It’s like the often-overwhelming task of trying to change your lifestyle to improve your health that drives you to your favorite unhealthy vice.

But that isn’t what Doctor Jesus is prescribing here.

Jesus is telling us to do a self-check-up from time to time by asking ourselves these questions.

Then trying to do a bit better.

One day, one moment, at a time.

The more we try, the better we get.

Jesus knows we will never be perfect.

But he does want us to try.

And when we try, we are – SHEEP!

This passage, like last week’s Beatitudes, came to mind after our recent divisive, vitriolic election.

Many are profoundly unhappy with the result.

Many are ecstatic.

So, we ask what are we to do?

Let’s look at those questions we raised last week.

How do we remain disciples when a winner is declared, and it is not the one we want?

And how do we remain disciples when a winner is declared, and it is the one we want?

Interestingly enough, the answer is the same to both questions.

We live the way we promised to live on the day we declared our discipleship to Jesus.

We will strive to be healthy disciples.

We will love our neighbor.

We will care about our neighbor.

And we will care for our neighbor.

And we will check in with Jesus often to make sure we are blessing others, the way Jesus blessed us.

That makes us healthy disciples.

You know … sheep.

This week at John McMillan Presbyterian Church (a bit late): Do We Bless?

It was March 18, 2002. The Pirates were in Bradenton for spring training. The plan, as always, was to get the players warmed up for the regular season. But, also as always, there was the evaluation of talent to make sure the best players were on the field. One of the positions being evaluated was right field. Armando Rios, Craig Wilson and Rob Mackowiak

all good prospects were being given a hard look to start there. This did not sit well with Derek Bell, the incumbent. So, Bell made the following announcement.

“Nobody told me I was in competition. If there is competition, somebody better let me know. If there is competition, they better eliminate me out of the race and go ahead and do what they’re going to do with me. I ain’t never hit in spring training and I never will. If it ain’t settled with me out there, then they can trade me. I ain’t going out there to hurt myself in spring training battling for a job. If it is [a competition], then I’m going into ‘Operation Shutdown.’ Tell them exactly what I said. I haven’t competed for a job since 1991.”

Bell seemed to believe all he had to do was show up and he would get the rightfield job. Nothing else was required. He had a big contract so it was unthinkable that he would get beat out of the right field job. But then manager Lloyd McClendon had other ideas. Bell would have to perform. Hit. Field. Most importantly, do what he was asked to do. This was not the way Bell wanted his world to work. So, he “shutdown”. When Bell did none of what he was asked to do, he was released. He never played in the Major Leagues again.

Last week Pastor Jeff talked about how we were to be disciples in a world that is not the way we want it to be. This week Pastor Jeff will preach about how to act like disciples in a world that is not like we want it to be. Will we go all “Operation Shutdown” or will we do what disciples of Jesus are called to do? Come to the John McMillan Presbyterian Church parking lot at 10am or watch us live on Facebook. You can also watch recordings later on Facebook or YouTube.  We hope you will join us.

Are We Blessed? Thoughts on the Beatitudes as our identity.

Are We Blessed?

Way back in 1967 I stood in front of a room full of people in the fellowship hall of the Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Pleasant Hills, raised my right hand, three fingers up with my thumb and little finger folded over so that the tips touched and recited these words.

A Scout is:

Trustworthy

Loyal

Helpful

Friendly

Courteous

Kind

Obedient

Cheerful

Brave

Clean and

Reverent.

Lowering my hand, and with a shake of my Scoutmaster’s hand, I was a Boy Scout!

The words I had just recited are the Boy Scout Oath.

What is interesting about those words is that they are not a list of things Scouts are to do each day.

They describe what a Boy Scout “is”.

They are characteristics to be emulated as a way of life.

In every encounter with the world, we are not only to do these things, we are to be these things.

No matter what.

An approach to how we will conduct our lives every day.

The Boy Scout way, so to speak.

When we do, we proclaim our identity as Boy Scouts.

Which brings us to our scripture reading.

Matthew 5: 1-12

5When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

3 ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

4 ‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

5 ‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

6 ‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

7 ‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

8 ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

9 ‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

10 ‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

11 ‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

A little background here.

In Matthew, this text is the beginning of Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount”.

What we call the Beatitudes.

While there were many folks around who could hear these words, the words were directed to the disciples.

The twelve whom Jesus has called.

It is the orientation of their discipleship.

Their first lesson.

And maybe kind of an ordination charge.

Jesus seems to be saying saying something like this:

“If you want to be my disciples, you must adopt these characteristics.”

Then I have this image of the twelve standing up, raising their right hands and repeating after Jesus.

“A disciple will be poor in spirit.

A disciple will mourn.

A disciple will be meek.

A disciple will hunger and thirst for righteousness.

A disciple will be merciful.

A disciple will be pure in heart.

A disciple will be faithful despite persecution and hatred for being your disciple.”

When they are done, instead of shaking their hands, Jesus tells them they are blessed.

They are blessed because they are his disciples.

And when we decide to be disciples of Jesus, this is the oath we figuratively take, too.

These words certainly raise many questions, but the first is pretty basic.

What does it mean that disciples of Jesus are blessed?

The word “blessed” comes from the Greek word “makarios” (μακὰριος).

Like many words, it has several different meanings depending on the context.

Some translate the word as “happy”.

I disagree.

The idea expressed by makarios is that we are satisfied as the result of experiencing the fullness of something.

A meal?

An occupation?

A relationship?

A blessing can be experienced in many things.

In the context of the Beatitudes, what has filled the disciples is their relationship to Jesus.

Jesus is their blessing.

And in order to further their relationship with Jesus, they want to learn to be like him.

So, Jesus is here describing himself to them and then has them commit to following his example.

And, like the Boy Scout Oath, the Beatitudes are not a to-do list.

They are characteristics that will identify the disciples as … well … disciples.

They are attributes that guide us in our response to everything we encounter in life.

And in doing so, we will do things the Jesus way.

So, let’s take a brief look at each of them.

Number 1.

A disciple is poor in spirit.

Jesus would likely have used the Aramaic word “anah’”.

In context, when Jesus used the phrase “poor in spirit”, he was really talking about humility.

An understanding that we are not in charge.

That we are not always right.

That we will make mistakes requiring confession and repentance.

That we must rely on God for strength and purpose and guidance.

When we are humble, we are blessed.

Number 2.

A disciple is a mourner.

A mourner laments that things are not the way they should be or the way the mourner wants them to be.

That the world is broken and dangerous and filled with chaos.

That humanity is distant from God like the Jews in Babylonian captivity after Jerusalem and the Temple were destroyed.

They mourned deeply, but also believed that God would redeem them and return them to Jerusalem and to the Temple thus putting an end to their mourning.

So, mourners have hope.

They believe that there is some distance between them and God, but that God will come near.

Jesus is that hope.

So, when we mourn, we are blessed.

Number 3.

A disciple is meek.

In the world of 2020, meekness is considered a derogatory term.

A term that implies cowardly submission.

But that is not what is meant here.

Meekness in this context is sort of a stubbornly patient faith that God will do what God has promised to do.

Jesus seems to be relying on Psalm 37 where it is said:

But the meek shall inherit the land,
   and delight in abundant prosperity.

But who are these meek people?

According to the Psalmist they are those who:

Trust in the Lord, and do good;

Take delight in the Lord,

Commit their ways to the Lord;

Are still before the Lord, and wait patiently for him;

Refrain from anger and forsake wrath.

Wait for the Lord.

Disciples do all these things with a stubbornly patient faith.

When we are meek, we are blessed.

Number 4.

A disciple is hungry and thirsty for righteousness.

This is not just a desire to be provided with righteousness.

This is an active search for it.

An obsessive pursuit of God’s righteousness.

What is God’s righteousness?

Well, it’s what God approves of.

Who God is and What God does and so what we are to try to be and do.

It includes such things as integrity and virtue and curiosity and persistence.

It asks this question constantly.

“What does God want us to do in this time and place?”

It is the desire for this, the hunger and thirst for this, that is rewarded.

When we are hungry and thirsty for righteousness, we are blessed.

Number 5.

A disciple is merciful.

Mercy is an attribute of God.

God is merciful so if we want to be disciples, people of faith, we, too, must be merciful.

So, what does it mean to be merciful?

Here is my favorite definition.

It comes from theologian James Keenan.

Mercy is “the willingness to enter into the chaos of another.”

That is how we know God is merciful.

God has entered into our chaos!

Mercy is the attempt to bring compassion, order, peace, calm, fellowship, empathy and sympathy to those around us, even those not like us.

This is what God has done for us and what God expects from us.

When we are merciful, we are blessed.

Number 6.

A disciple is pure in heart.

This one is a bit harder to define.

Many define it as integrity.

Matching our internal beliefs with our external actions.

Practicing what we preach.

Jesus spent a good deal of time scolding religious folks who preached one thing and then did another thing.

Hypocrites, he called them.

Intentional dishonesty.

A lack of integrity.

Jesus is here telling his disciples that they are to be honest and forthright.

Let their yes be yeas and their no be no.

To be trustworthy.

When we are pure in heart, we are blessed.

Number 7.

A disciple is a peacemaker.

As Matt likes to say, we are not called to be peacekeepers, we are called to be peacemakers.

Peacekeeping might lead us to avoid some conflict just so an argument does not break out.

But that is not peacemaking.

Peacemaking is reaching out into the conflict and seeking to repair the relationships.

Peacemaking is trying to find out why there is conflict and trying to fix it.

Peacemaking in scripture is all about human relationships, not necessarily social or political conflict.

Those social or political conflicts can be navigated better if we make peace by repairing relationships with each other.

It’s kind of that love your neighbor thing.

When we are peacemakers, we are blessed.

Number 8.

This one is a bit troubling.

A disciple is faithful in the face of persecution and loathing.

Why would people persecute and loath disciples of Jesus?

Because they don’t want to be disciples of Jesus.

They don’t want to be those things that make disciples … well … disciples.

So, they look at disciples with disdain.

I remember on those “Boy Scout” days at school when we were supposed to wear our uniforms.

We got a lot of sneers from folks who did not want to be Boy Scouts or stand for what we stood for.

It was annoying, but to be clear, it was not persecution.

When we talk about persecution, we are not talking about sneers and rejection.

Persecution is physical or verbal violence.

In Matthew’s day, people were dying because they were disciples of Jesus.

And they were faithful even then.

When we are faithful in the face of persecution and loathing, we are blessed.

Now these short comments on each of the Beatitudes do not fully explain what Jesus meant when he spoke them, that will be a sermon series for a later day.

And there is a lot of content to what I said today.

But I do want you to take something with you that is easy to remember.

A particular characteristic of discipleship.

What we commit to when we raise our hands and say we are disciples.

It is right in the middle where a good Jewish Rabbi like Jesus would put it.

A disciple hungers and thirsts for righteousness.

God’s righteousness.

It is to be our way of life.

And it kind of includes all the others.

So, why this message on the Sunday after election day?

We have just been through what felt like an endless divisive political campaign season.

As I write this, I still don’t know the outcome.

But what we need to focus on now are these questions.

How do we remain disciples when a winner is declared, and it is not the one we want?

And, how do we remain disciples when a winner is declared, and it is the one we want?

Interestingly enough, the answer is the same to both questions.

We live the way we promised to live on the day we declared our discipleship to Jesus.

The day we figuratively raised our hand and said:

I will be poor in spirit.

I will mourn.

I will be meek.

I will hunger and thirst for righteousness.

I will be merciful.

I will be pure in heart.

I will be a peacemaker.

I will withstand persecution.

And because I will live with these characteristics and attitudes, I will be blessed.

This Week at John McMillan Presbyterian Church; November 8, 2020 – Are We Blessed?

The Pittsburgh Steelers have had a pretty good run so far this NFL season. They are undefeated. Seven wins, no losses. The last three wins were particularly remarkable. They beat their rival Cleveland Browns, the highly touted Tennessee Titans and last year’s division champion Baltimore Ravens. Each of these teams presented different challenges because their game plans were unique, as were their players. How do the Steelers manage to be so successful against such dissimilar teams? One thing they do is watch films of the other team to see who they are and how they approach each game and each situation in each game. Then the Steelers watch films of themselves! They already know who they are. They are Steelers! But they watch films of themselves to see how they can best react to their next opponent using the characteristics and attitudes instilled into them by the coaches and managers of the team. It’s the Steeler way. The Steeler way is an identity that hungers and thirsts for success. Believe it or not, committing to be a disciple of Jesus is somewhat the same. It’s about identity and commitment despite any approaching or current opposition. It is the Jesus way. What to hear more about this? Come to the John McMillan Presbyterian Church parking lot this Sunday or stream us on Facebook Live at 10am or check us out later on YouTube when Pastor Jeff preaches “Are We Blessed?” We hope you will join us.

For All the Saints: Thoughts on the Afterlife

For all the Saints

This is for all you fans of Jeopardy.

You are a contestant.

You are on a roll.

You have the next choice.

“Theology for $1,000, Alex.”

The panel reads:

“The resurrection of the dead and the life everlasting.”

What is the question?

“What do Christians believe happens after they die?”

The last line of the Apostles Creed.

You’re still up.

“Theology for $2,000, Alex.”

The panel reads:

“I have no idea!”

The question?

“What exactly does that mean?”

Because it’s all very vague and mysterious.

Which brings us to our scripture reading.

2 Corinthians 4:7-5:1

7 But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. 8We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; 9persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; 10always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. 11For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh. 12So death is at work in us, but life in you.

13 But just as we have the same spirit of faith that is in accordance with scripture—‘I believed, and so I spoke’—we also believe, and so we speak, 14because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus, and will bring us with you into his presence. 15Yes, everything is for your sake, so that grace, as it extends to more and more people, may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.

16 So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. 17For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, 18because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.

5For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.

If someone would ask you what you expected to happen after you died, you would likely not say “the resurrection of the body and the live everlasting”

You would say, “I will go to heaven!”

Where we want to be but…

We are – in no hurry.

We sound a lot like Augustine who confessed that as a young man, he prayed:

“Lord, make me chaste—but not yet.”

And so we tend to pray, “Lord take me to heaven – but not yet.”

Why would we pray that?

Two reasons really.

First, we like it here.

Regardless of the trials and tribulations of our lives, there is much about life we like!

The experiences of our five senses allow us much joy.

We always look forward to the next experience.

There is always hope that something good is on the way, even when times are bad.

That is what keeps us – alive.

Hugh Poland, described that attitude in his article “Kids of the Kingdom”:

My 5-year-old daughter, Kayse, grew more and more excited about her first day of kindergarten, and her 3-year-old sister, Jayme, watched her with great fascination. On the Sunday before the first day of school, Kayse fell and skinned her knee.

Tears began to flow, and Jayme, seeing the blood on her big sister’s knee, tried to comfort her by saying: “Don’t worry, Kayse, if you die, you’ll go to heaven.”

Buy Kayse wailed even more. “I don’t want to go to heaven,” she said. “I want to go to kindergarten!”

We hear that story and we think it’s funny because it’s kind of the way we all think.

So what does happen when we die?

The resurrection of the body and the live everlasting!

What exactly is resurrection?

The definition of resurrection has a long history and has generated tremendous debate over the centuries.

But for our purposes this morning, resurrection is what happened to Jesus.

He was dead and became alive again in a body that had his scars, was recognizable (when he wanted to be), had physicality, and ate food.

Yet he could also pass through locked doors and appear and disappear at will.

So it was Jesus but in somewhat of a different way.

Such a resurrection body would not wear out and that would live forever in the presence of God.

The resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.

There are many who believe in an afterlife, yet when they get to that line in the Creed sort of mumble over it.

It’s just a bit hard to conceive.

Taking and reassembling our dead remains into our bodies …

Many can’t go there.

One of my old seminary professors, Dale Allison, a New Testament scholar, wrote a book called “Night Comes; Death, Imagination and the Last Things”.

He couldn’t go there and wrote this:

[R]esurrection language must be a way of suggesting … a future that can only be [described] through sacred metaphor and sanctified imagination. In other words, resurrection, like the parables of Jesus, characterizes God’s future for us via an analogy, in recognition of the fact that we can’t do any better. We see dimly.

We can’t conceive what resurrection is like.

So we rely on metaphor.

That is what Paul is doing in our scripture reading.

He is using metaphor to describe the promise that Jesus makes about our eternal life.

… the one who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus, and will bring us with you into his presence

… an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure

… a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens

That promise is the Good News.

In many ways, this kind of metaphor supports an easier view of our eternal lives.

The view most of us have of what heaven is like.

A spirit floating free of its earthly prison – forever.

In something we call heaven.

But heaven is also profoundly mysterious.

What is it like?

There are many descriptions offered both in scripture and outside scripture.

There was even a Time magazine cover story called “Rethinking Heaven” a while back.

It is a good article that describes the different understandings of what happens when we die from mostly a Christian perspective.

The next month there was this letter commenting on the Time Magazine article.

Marc Herbert from Walnut Creek, California, wrote:

Your story [about heaven] says that 85 percent of Americans believe in heaven. That’s incredible. They think of heaven as quiet and peaceful, with no need to do anything. [That] sounds pretty dull to me. What do you do with all of that free time? And it goes on forever and ever!

That’s our concern, right?

Allison addresses this, too.

In his book, he says this about the afterlife:

Some have urged that, if you are … astute, you’ll conclude that heaven, by its very nature, entails unbroken monotony. The argument is this: Given an infinite amount of time, everything would repeat itself again and again, with the inevitable result that a world without end would be tedium without end.

Doesn’t sound all that good.

But that is not what the Bible describes.

Jesus preached and Paul taught resurrection.

The resurrection of the dead and the life everlasting.

When?

At Jesus’ return.

And until then?

What happens to us when we die?

This, too, has been the subject of great debate.

I am not going into those.

I can tell you that I think scripture is very clear on this point.

At the moment of death, we are in paradise!

That is what Jesus told the repentant thief on the cross next to him.

“Today you will be with me in paradise.”

Today.

That’s what Paul means when he says, “to be gone from the body is to be in the presence of God.”

Immediately.

And that certainly is Good News.

In paradise and in the presence of God is a good place to be.

Today we celebrate All Saints’ Sunday.

We commemorate those of the faith that have gone on to that house not made with hands, often referred to as the church triumphant.

That is where our departed saints are right now.

What does that look like?

There are many books written and stories told by people who have what we call near death experiences.

Allison had one.

He describes it this way.

…I saws a blue sky filled with what I can only call – words fail me – “bird souls”. They were slowly gliding through the air and singing what I dubbed, when I soon thereafter wrote it all up, “the song of creation”. This was a place of beauty and bliss beyond comprehension, and I could stand the unsurpassed joy for no more than a few seconds, after which I willingly withdrew.

But that is still not the resurrection.

Because God did not create us to live that way.

We were intended to experience the universe with bodies.

With our senses.

We like to touch, taste, smell, see and hear the world around us.

To experience it.

That is what God intended.

For that we need bodies!

And these bodies need souls!

Listen to Genesis 2: 7:

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.

Life requires body and soul.

If we are to have eternal life, we need both soul and body.

Which is why God promises a resurrection, and why we want one.

We are promised a rejoining of body and spirit.

A living being that will allow us to experience a new creation the way we were meant to.

That is what Paul is talking about when he says:

For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.

And that is the Good News!

But Jeff, you say, we still have the problem of the eternal tedium!

What about that?

Allison cites Gregory of Nyssa, one of the ancient church fathers when he writes:

Gregory of Nyssa believed eternal life will mean always moving from new beginning to the next, so that one will never arrive at any limit of perfection: fresh possibilities will always come into view. If God is truly an infinite mystery, how could such a mystery ever be exhausted?

This reminds me of how C.S. Lewis described the resurrection at the end of the last Narnia book, The Last Battle.

The characters have all died and time has come to an end.

They are seeing the New Narnia for the first time.

The difference between the old Narnia and the new Narnia was … that …[t]he new one was a deeper country: every rock and flower and blade of grass looked as if it meant more. I can’t describe it any better than that: if ever you get there you will know what I mean. It was the Unicorn who summed up what everyone was feeling. He stamped his right fore-hoof on the ground and neighed, and then he cried: “I have come home at last! This is my real country! I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now. The reason why we loved the old Narnia is that is sometimes looked a little like this. “

And that is what we will say.

“I have come home at last! This is my real home! I belong here. This is the place I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now. The reason why I loved the old Earth is that is sometimes looked a little like this. “

That is the promise.

That is the Good News.

Our eternal home with God is a great mystery.

But it is as Allison put it:

 If God is truly an infinite mystery, how could such a mystery ever be exhausted?

As Paul put it:

… an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure

… a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens

That’s good enough for me.

The resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.

AMEN

This Week at John McMillan Presbyterian Church; November 1, 2020 – All Saints Sunday

When my father died, I conducted the funeral. As I was picking the hymns we were going to sing, I decided on “I’ll Fly Away” by Albert E. Brumley. Here is the chorus:

I’ll fly away, oh glory
I’ll fly away in the morning
When I die, Hallelujah by and by
I’ll fly away

I also picked the contemporary song “That Where I Am There You May Also Be”, by Rich Mullins. Some of the words:

In my Father’s house there are many, many rooms
In my Father’s house there are many, many rooms
And I’m going up there now to prepare a place for you
That where I am, there you may also be

Good upbeat music for a service celebrating not the life of my Dad, but my Dad’s eternal life. Is that what happens? Do we fly away from our life here and go to the place Jesus has prepared for us in his Father’s house? Paul puts it this way in 2 Corinthians 5:1:

For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.

So what are we to make of this? In the Apostles’ Creed we affirm that we believe in the “resurrection of the body and the life everlasting”. But what does that mean? Is that heaven? People have been trying to imagine what the afterlife is like since the dawn of time. The Sadducees asked Jesus whose wife the woman who had been widowed by seven brothers would be at the resurrection. Christians have been debating what “heaven” is like since the early church. There are many people who claim to have been there and come back with pretty remarkable descriptions. So what can we as Christians know about our eternal life in the presence of God? Find out what to make of all this when Pastor Jeff preaches “For All the Saints” on All Saints Sunday, November 1 at 10am in the John McMillan Presbyterian Church parking lot and on Facebook Live.

Finding Truth: Thoughts on Ritual

Finding Truth

Does anyone here have a morning ritual?

A ritual has been defined as a sequence of activities involving gestures, words, actions, or objects, performed in a sequestered place and according to a set sequence.

Here is mine.

Neither rain nor sleet nor snow nor dark of night keeps me, Lucy and Roxy from this morning custom.

Monday through Friday, I get up around 6:30, get my dogs and drive over to the St. John the Baptist Byzantine Catholic Cemetery.

There is a paved path that is a half mile long loop in the cemetery.

I drive to the far end of the cemetery and park.

I let the dogs out of the car off leash and we start on the path.

We go clockwise.

We take two laps.

The dogs follow me because I have treats that they get by the cemetery chapel.

When it’s dark, they wear lighted collars so I can see where they are.

When the second lap is over, the dogs go to the car.

They just do.

I put them in, give them their final treats and we head home.

Why do I do this?

It starts our day with an outdoor walk.

It’s good for me.

It’s good for the dogs.

By 7:15, we have accomplished something.

When that ritual is disrupted, though, we get a bit off kilter.

One time I got to the cemetery and there was a truck carrying a burial vault blocking the path.

I had to park at the near side of the cemetery.

Nothing else was different.

Off we went.

But soon I noticed that Roxy was not with us.

I looked for her everywhere.

I even asked the truck driver if he saw her.

I looked into the newly dug grave where the vault was going to be placed.

I called and called and called her name.

No Roxy.

Finally, I called Karen.

Julz was home so she and Karen came over.

More searching.

More calling.

No Roxy.

Finally, Karen called our vet, hoping that Roxy’s rabies tag would have the vet’s name and maybe someone would find Roxy and call.

When Karen told the vet we lost our mini wiener Roxy, the vet asked what collar Roxy had on.

Karen said it was a black collar with little skulls and cross bones.

The vet said, “She was just here!”

A woman had found Roxy walking on Connor Road, which was well off our ritual path, stopped, got her and took Roxy to the vet to report her as a lost dog.

We immediately connected with that woman and went and got Roxy.

That is what can happen when our rituals are disrupted.

To me, rituals are like a map.

If you want to find your way to a particular place, rituals show you how to get there.

If you go there often enough, you don’t need the map, you just repeat the ritual.

But when the ritual is disrupted, like a truck blocking your way, it is easy to get lost.

Just ask Roxy.

Religious rituals are the same.

They are like maps that lead us into God’s presence.

If we want to find God in our lives, sometimes we need a map, a ritual.

If we make that journey often enough, we have the way memorized.

It’s the ritual.

Here is an example of ritual here at JMPC.

Sunday worship.

Since 1965, people have been gathering at JMPC on Sunday mornings to follow a worship ritual that offers a way into God’s presence.

It has worked pretty well.

But then our ritual got sidetracked by a pandemic and we feared we would get lost, like Roxy.

But here is the thing, if we still follow our map, our ritual, we will get to where we want to be.

Which brings us to our scripture reading.

.

John 4: 19-26

19The woman said to him, ‘Sir, I see that you are a prophet. 20Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.’ 21Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. 24God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.’ 25The woman said to him, ‘I know that Messiah is coming’ (who is called Christ). ‘When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.’ 26Jesus said to her, ‘I am he, the one who is speaking to you.’

Today’s scripture is a part of the story of a Samaritan woman at a well with Jesus.

This is a remarkable story packed with lessons about Jesus, faith and finding God in strange ways and strange places.

Jesus is in Samaria, speaking to a Samaritan woman, a second-class citizen, who has been marginalized by her community.

The conversation between the two makes the woman believe Jesus is a prophet.

So, she asks him a theological question.

Jews and Samaritans both believed that the place of worship was critical. 

The first rule of worship was that people had to gather in community at a place where they could imagine God to be present.

This rule was followed since the Exodus.

In Moses’ time it was the tabernacle.

Sort of a portable church.

Later, Samaritans believed God was to be worshiped on Mt. Gerizim, while the Jews believed God was to be worshiped in Jerusalem at the Temple.

In Jesus time, there were also synagogues for folks who were lived too far away from the temple.

A synagogue was where Jesus worshiped most of his life.

Worship wasn’t worship unless it was in the right place.

“Which is it, Jesus? Mt. Gerizim or Jerusalem?”, the woman asks.

In response, Jesus makes an interesting statement about worship.

… [T]rue worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.

Where we worship is not important.

How we worship is important.

We need to worship in spirit and in truth.

What does that mean?

How do we do that?

The first thing we need to remember is that Jesus was accustomed to a particular manner of worship that allowed the worshiper to imagine that the worshiper has entered into the presence of God.

Maps to God.

You, know, rituals.

Each phase of the worship represented a particular part of that entry into God’s presence.

Start here, go there, make a turn, pull in thee, and you will find God.

It lookde like this:

There was a call to worship of some kind.

The people acknowledged they were not worthy of being too close to God and sought God’s forgiveness for their sins.

Scripture was read and interpreted.

Offerings were made.

The people prayed.

And the finally, before they left, the people were reminded that they were a holy nation, chosen by God to be God’s representatives in the world.

The map.

The ritual.

Entry into, communing with and exiting from the presence of God.

That was worship in spirit and in truth, regardless of its location.

It’s kind of a ritual.

If all this sounds familiar, it should.

These are the elements of Christian worship.

We divide worship into five parts.

  • The approach or gathering around the word.
    • Here at JMPC this includes the call to worship, an opening hymn, the prayer of confession, the assurance of forgiveness and the Doxology.
  • The proclaiming of the word.
    • This is the reading of scripture and the sermon.
  • The response to the word.
    • This is the Prayers of the People and the Offering.
  • The sealing of the word in the sacraments.
    • This is Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
  • The sending of the word into the world.
    • This is the Benediction.

Entry into, communing in and exiting from the presence of God.

Knowing, Glorifying and Serving God.

That is worship in spirit and in truth, regardless of its location.

That’s the map.

That’s the way.

That’s the ritual.

But lot of people don’t go to church just because they don’t think all the ritual does anything for them.

They complain that church is repetitive, meaningless and, well, boring.

No spirit.

No truth.

But here’s the thing.

Ritual does have meaning.

It does inspire.

It helps us find truth.

If understood and considered, the ritual allows us to experience the divine.

That’s where truth is.

And that is what ritual is in the church.

We approach the divine, we confess, we receive grace, we read holy words, we interpret those words, we ask God to intervene in our lives, we give back a bit of what we have received for the benefit of others, we leave with a benedictory charge to live better lives, and then we keep coming back.

These are the rituals of our church.

But the pandemic has knocked us off our ritual.

We can’t gather for worship in our sanctuary.

We are afraid that we are getting lost.

It is the truck in Roxy’s path.

But Jesus words tell us that we need not be afraid.

We are not lost.

Because even when we can’t be in our own sacred space, we can still worship in spirit and truth.

We can still find our way into God’s presence by following the ritual that needs no time or place.

And we have here at JMPC.

More importantly, many more have joined us on that journey!

Don’t believe that?

Here is the evidence.

Our last worship service in the sanctuary was March 15.

Since that time, we have been worshiping online using Facebook Live as our “sanctuary”.

Since September 13, we have also invited people to come to the parking lot for worship and streaming that service on Facebook Live.

When we were worshiping with our two services in the sanctuary, our average weekly attendance was around 135 people.

That’s a bit over 1/3 of our membership.

Statistically, that is about what most churches get on Sunday mornings.

If you get to 50%, you are really doing well.

But once we went online, the number of people who “attended” exploded.

The “views” of the online service are in the neighborhood of 270.

Once in the parking lot, we are heading toward 300, if you add those here and online together.

Now, before you start asking why all these online folks don’t show up in the sanctuary on Sundays, let me suggest that this is really a good thing.

Regardless of the reason faithful folks don’t come to church on Sundays, and there are many faithful folks who have valid reasons not to show up on Sundays, a whole bunch are showing up online.

If not live at 10, later in the day.

Just look at the views and you will see that they grow in number as the day goes on.

And then take a look at the YouTube viewer numbers.

Even more folks worshiping.

And we are not alone.

This phenomenon has been reported by lots of churches, small and large.

This is a good thing, make no mistake.

The pandemic has changed our worship location, but not our rituals.

Well what would Jesus say?

If performing these rituals focuses our attention on a moment in the presence of the divine it is spirit and truth filled.

These rituals exist to remind us of who and whose we are.

The rituals we follow in the Reformed Church have been around for over 500 years.

Over time they have changed.

They are changing now.

We no longer have Sunday morning as a particular sacred time for our sacred rituals.

But for the 300 people who watch our Sunday services, the time they spend doing so is sacred.

It is spirit filled.

And it leads us to the truth.

The presence of God.

And we do it with the rituals.

We gather.

We confess.

We read and interpret scripture.

We pray.

We make offerings.

We are sent into the world as people of God.

And in all this, we find Jesus.

We find God.

We find truth.