This Week at John McMillan Presbyterian Church — Advent 1!

So, Advent is here! Happy Advent! Note I did not say Merry Christmas. Why? I want to be theologically correct (“TC”?). Advent is much like Lent in that it is a season that prepares us for a Christian celebration of something really big. Lent is the forty days that get us ready for Easter. The celebration of the resurrection of Jesus and the defeat of death itself. The four weeks of Advent get us ready for Christmas. The celebration of Jesus’ birth – the incarnation of God. Yet, theologically, both Lent and Advent are separate from the great events they precede. They are a time of preparation, not yet celebration. One place we see this separation between Advent and Christmas is in the music of the season. If you look in our Glory to God hymnal, you will notice that there is a section called: Jesus Christ: Advent (Hymns #82-107). Those hymns are followed by the section called: Jesus Christ: Birth (Hymns #108-156). This latter set of hymns contains the majority of our beloved Christmas carols. If we want to be “TC” we should sing only Advent hymns until Christmas Eve, and only then should we sing Christmas carols. Not a lot of time to sing all those carols. But folks really like to sing Christmas carols and they like to sing them in church! And most importantly, they like to sing them before Christmas, because … well … after Christmas, we are kind of over it (maybe because we have been listening to them on the radio 24/7 since the Friday after Thanksgiving). I get that. I like carols, too. So, this year at JMPC, we are going to be a bit “un-TC” and sing some carols during worship on Sundays. But fear not, Pastor Jeff will be explaining the theological message of those carols so that we can truly prepare for the great celebration of Jesus birth.

This Sunday, the first Sunday of Advent, we will explore the carol, “Good Christian Friends Rejoice” (note how our hymnal invites women to rejoice as well…), and its phrase, “Christ was born for this.” For what? Come and hear Pastor Jeff preach “Born for This” based on Colossians 1: 15-20. Come and lets all prepare for a Merry Christmas!

 Time to Share: Thoughts on Stone Soup.

Before I get to the scripture, I want to tell an abbreviated version of the children’s story, Stone Soup..

Three hungry travelers came into a village and ask for some food.

But the villagers have hidden their food from such people, and claim they do not have enough.

The travelers then say that they will make stone soup for everyone.

They ask for a pot, water and stones.

They boil the stones.

They taste the soup and say, “It would be better if there were carrots”.

Someone says, “I have carrots!”

And they put them in the soup.

They taste it again and say, “It would be better if there were cabbages!”

Someone says, “I have cabbages!”

And they put them in the soup.

They taste it again and say, “It would be better if there was meat and potatoes, too!”

Someone says, “I have a chicken!”

While another says,” I have potatoes!”

And they put it all in the soup.

They taste it again and say, “It’s done but the meal would be better if there was bread!”

Someone says, “I have bread!”

And when all is said and done, there is enough soup and bread for the entire village to feast!

The food was there all the time.

All the towns people had to do was share.

When the travelers leave, the people thank them for the lesson about stone soup.

Mark 6: 34-44

34As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things. 35When it grew late, his disciples came to him and said, ‘This is a deserted place, and the hour is now very late; 36send them away so that they may go into the surrounding country and villages and buy something for themselves to eat.’ 37But he answered them, ‘You give them something to eat.’ They said to him, ‘Are we to go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread, and give it to them to eat?’ 38And he said to them, ‘How many loaves have you? Go and see.’ When they had found out, they said, ‘Five, and two fish.’ 39Then he ordered them to get all the people to sit down in groups on the green grass. 40So they sat down in groups of hundreds and of fifties. 41Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to his disciples to set before the people; and he divided the two fish among them all. 42And all ate and were filled; 43and they took up twelve baskets full of broken pieces and of the fish. 44Those who had eaten the loaves numbered five thousand men.

I have been leading a Bible study on the Gospel of Mark for the last couple of months.

In his Gospel, Mark describes Jesus’ ministry principally as teaching this message:

The Kingdom of God is Near, repent and believe the good news.

So, what exactly does that mean?

If we change our ways and do as Jesus does and says, we become Kingdom dwellers, and that is the good news we can believe in.

Just about everything Jesus says or does can be interpreted as a description of that lesson.

Today, Jesus feeds more than 5,000 people with a couple loaves and fishes.

Many people look at this as a miracle story.

But it is actually way for Jesus to teach his message to all these people.

Here is the lesson.

To become Kingdom dwellers, we need to share.

We need to share what we have with those who are in need.

When we do, we find there is enough to meet everyone’s needs.

As long as we share.

It is a simple lesson.

It is a lesson we want to teach our children, right?

But here is the problem.

Just telling kids to share doesn’t always work.

Shel Silverstein understood that.

He wrote a poem about it.

Sharing

I’ll share your toys, I’ll share your money,
I’ll share your toast, I’ll share your honey,
I’ll share your milk and your cookies too-
The hard part’s sharing mine with you.

There are dozens of children’s books about sharing.

But just reading them to our kids does not work all that well.

To really get kids to understand the benefits of sharing, a teacher must get the kids to participate in the lesson.

That is what this book I read is all about.

Learn to share, and everyone benefits.

That is what Jesus does in our passage today, right?

Jesus is teaching the people, how to act like they are Kingdom dwellers.

Don’t hoard.

Share.

Everyone gets enough.

It’s all good.

Telling them is not enough, though.

The people have to do it to learn by doing it.

That is what the soldiers in Stone Soup did.

And the people thanked them for the lesson.

That’s what Jesus does in today’s scripture.

Jesus has been teaching all day.

But it is getting late.

And the disciples are afraid.

It’s dinner time.

Are the people expecting to be fed?

The disciples don’t want the people to get “hangry”.

So, the disciples ask Jesus to send the people away.

Jesus says, “No!”

“Don’t send them away.”

“You feed them.”

That is not what the disciples wanted to hear.

They said to him, ‘Are we to go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread, and give it to them to eat?’ 

Translation?

“What?!!!”

“There are too many people.”

“It would cost too much.”

“It can’t be done!”

“Just send them away so we don’t have to deal with it or think about it.”

And we are … sympathetic with the disciples, right?

We read the paper and see all the people in need.

Just in the last six months we have seen floods.

Hurricanes.

Fires.

Refugees.

Our initial reaction is to say what the disciples said.

What can we do?

We don’t have enough resources to help all these people.

They are going to get mad!

We just want all these needy people to just go away.

It’s not because we are bad people.

We are just normal people.

We are just normal disciples.

We are afraid.

Afraid that there won’t be enough for everyone and so if we try to help, there won’t be enough for us.

Theologian Henri Nouwen explains:

“As fearful people, we are inclined to develop a mind-set that makes us say: “There’s not enough food for everyone, so I better be sure I save enough for myself in case of emergency,” … This is a scarcity mentality.  It involves hoarding whatever we have, fearful that we won’t have enough to survive. The tragedy, however, is that what you cling to ends up rotting in your hands.

Jesus rejects this.

He wants us to learn to live like Kingdom dwellers.

Jesus wants us to help.

“Don’t tell me what you can’t do,” Jesus says to his disciples, “tell me what you can do”.

He asks his disciples, “Well, what have we got?”

“How many folks are there to feed – right here?”

The disciples look at what they have.

Five loaves of bread and two salted and smoked fish.

They look at all the people.

“Not enough, Jesus.”

“Please just send them away.”

Now Jesus teaches.

He takes what the disciples have, thanks God for it, and tells the mass of people:

“This is all we have, folks.”

“But we will share it with you.”

That is what Kingdom dwellers do.”

Suddenly there is enough.

More than enough.

So, what just happened?

A miracle?

I don’t think Jesus transformed the loaves and fishes into a Market District hot food buffet.

I think the people followed Jesus’ lead, and shared what they brought with them.

Everyone had enough.

And so they all learned to share.

By sharing.

It also allowed the people to experience what it felt like to be Kingdom dwellers.

In the Kingdom, everyone shares.

Because we know there is enough.

Nouwen describes Jesus’ lesson this way:

The opposite of a scarcity mentality is an abundance mentality. With an abundance mentality, we say:  “There is enough for everyone, more than enough:  food, knowledge, love … everything.”  With this mind-set we give away whatever we have, to whomever we meet. When we see hungry people, we give them food. When we meet ignorant people, we share our knowledge; when we encounter people in need of love, we offer them friendship and affection and hospitality and introduce them to our family and friends. When we live with this mind-set, we will see the miracle that what we give away multiplies: food, knowledge, love…everything. There will even be many leftovers.”

But notice this.

Jesus was not asking the disciples and the people to feed every hungry person in the world.

Nor even every hungry person in the crowd.

Jesus was telling the disciples and the people to feed the ones right there next to them.

The one’s you can.

Pick someone and share from what you have.

That is life in the Kingdom.

That is the Jesus way.

We share to do to the work God has called us to.

Some of us share much, because we have much.

Some of us share a little, because we don’t have much.

But we all share something.

And when we share, there is enough.

Just like the villagers in Stone Soup.

Just like the disciples and the 5,000.

They learned that:

The Kingdom of God is near, repent, believe in the good news.

This Week at John McMillan Presbyterian Church

I feel the need to acknowledge the death and honor the life of Stan Lee of Marvel Comics fame. It was Stan who gave us Spiderman. It was Stan who encouraged the budding superhero with these words:

“With great power comes great responsibility.”

But with all deference to Stan, the quote actually comes from Jesus, who said this:

“From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required …”

And I think, whether Stan knew it or not, he had it right. If you have the ability to do something, you are required to use that ability to do good things. The fictional Spidey had great power. So, did the real-life Jesus. Both knew that with their power came great responsibility. They had to help others. And we are to do likewise. But Jeff, you say, I don’t have any superpowers! Yes, you do! We all do. As disciples of Jesus pour superpowers are kindness, generosity and love. And with those great powers, we have great responsibility. To be kind, generous and loving to those who need our help. To those around us who are hurting. To those who are suffering. To those around us who are in need.

There are many ways to be kind, generous and loving. We see them often in the “random acts of kindness” feature in the Post-Gazette. We see it when people speak up for the oppressed. We see it when people share. Using their superpowers to help others.

But we also see it when people just show up and offer words of comfort. That is what we experienced at the Tree of Life Synagogue in the past three weeks. People just showing up, placing flowers, lighting candles, placing stones, giving our free hugs. But there was one act that profoundly moved me.

A group of Hebrew School elementary students from New York (I believe) sent several three ring binders containing pictures they drew and one-line prayers on each page. These children could not “show up” personally, but their kindness, generosity and love did show up in the form of a simple prayer book. They used their superpower prayers to help others.

They shared what they had. They were superheroes. This week, Pastor Jeff will preach “Time to Share” based on Mark 6: 34-44. Come and hear. We will look forward to seeing you.

About Those Who Have Died: Thoughts on what happens when we die on All-Saints Sunday.

1 Thessalonians 4: 13-18

13 But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. 14For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died. 15For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. 16For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord for ever. 18Therefore encourage one another with these words.

Last June I went to my Allegheny College 40th reunion.

At Allegheny, students are required to do a senior research project in order to graduate.

At the reunion, several recent graduates gave presentations on their research projects.

One of the students was a religion major.

Her study was on the ancient Mesopotamian “Epic of Gilgamesh”.

This is the oldest known work of literature.

Her presentation was fascinating.

About half of the poem is about the quest of Gilgamesh to answer this question:

What happens after we die?

This student studied the way people have sought answers to that question over the millennia and concluded that those folks got the same answer that Gilgamesh did.

It’s a mystery.

So, what do we Christians think?

What do we think happens when we die?

We go to heaven, right?

But what does that mean?

If you go to the bookstore, you will find several books about folks who have had what we call near death experiences.

I have read most of them.

All very descriptive and hopeful.

We find these books comforting because they give us a bit of certainty, right?

“That is what is going to happen to me when I die.”

But what does scripture say?

This much is certain.

Scripture says that something happens.

We do not end in oblivion.

There is more to come.

But beyond that, frankly, scripture is kind of unclear.

The problem is that there are no real descriptions of “heaven” in scripture.

I know that Revelation has something to offer, but Revelation is metaphorical and is not particularly helpful, in my view.

So, at the risk of oversimplification, scripture sets forth two primary views of what happens when we die.

  1. We will go straight to “heaven”, much like what is described in those near-death experiences, or
  2. We will sleep until Jesus comes for us and takes us to “heaven”.

There are other views, but these two seem to me to be the ones supported by Jesus and Paul.

I will put off the topic of resurrection for another time, though in my view, nothing I say today is inconsistent with it.

Let’s look at the straight to heaven approach.

Paul at one point says that to be gone from the body, to be dead, is to be in the presence of God.

Jesus calls the presence of God, paradise!

So, scripture says the people we remember today are in paradise.

Right now.

What does that mean?

Paradise is the word used to describe the Garden of Eden.

A place where humanity lives with God.

What is life there like?

It’s … well … pastoral.

I have read that paradise is basically an eternal sabbath.

Our Eden.

Our eternal life.

Our resting in peace.

But then there is Paul’s description to the Thessalonians that the dead must wait for Jesus to come and get them, and that that will happen sometime down the road.

Paul seems to say that there is some intermediate period where we “sleep”.

Some call this “soul sleep”.

Sort of a temporary oblivion.

So, which is it?

Well, in the end, Paul basically admits, it’s a mystery.

We heard this in his first letter to the Corinthians.

For here and now, we know only in part, and here and now, we can describe only in part; but when the complete comes, then and there, the partial will come to an end. … For now, here, we see in a mirror dimly, but then, there, we will see face to face. Now, here, we know only in part; then, there, we will know fully, even as we have been fully known.

Paul says our understanding of life and death is incomplete.

God’s ways are beyond our understanding.

To us here on this side of death, it is a mystery.

Paul is not alone.

The author of 1 John 3: 2 says this:

2Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed.

In other words, we will not know for certain what happens to us when we die until we are in the presence of God.

I like this quote I read in Dr. Dale Allison’s book, Night Comes.

As … theologian [Charles Brown] put it, “I believe that personal consciousness survives the shock of that physical episode we call death. As to the conditions or employments of that future life, I have no conception whatever.”

Which brings me to the question – “Does it make any difference?

If we sleep until time ends, I’m ok with that.

As one of my seminary professors said, I can use the rest.

I go to sleep and wake up in God’s presence.

And if we go immediately, all the better, right?

But I like how Rev. Dr. Thomas G. Long explains it in his book “They Accompanied Them with Singing”.

From God’s perspective, we are all already there.

In the presence of God, there is no time.

When Jesus told the thief today, they would be in paradise, Jesus meant the eternal “today”.

We all go into God’s presence at once, in God’s eternity.

And it happened when Jesus rose from the dead.

Right then.

We all rose with him.

So, when we ask where our loved ones are, and what happens to us, we can take comfort that we all are in eternity with God.

That is our faith.

The substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.

Because Jesus lives, our loved ones live, and so will I.

Yet, when a loved one dies, we mourn and grieve.

As we come forward to light a candle of remembrance, some come with tears in their eyes.

Why?

If we believe in this paradise thing, why do we grieve?

We grieve because from our perspective in time, they are there, and we are still here.

The grief we feel today is because we miss them.

Part of our lives is gone.

And it hurts.

And this is an appropriate response.

While our faith says we are to have hope, it does not say we don’t grieve.

It does not say we don’t mourn.

Jesus wept and Lazarus’ tomb.

So, our sadness is not a sign of a lack of faith.

It demonstrates the depth of our love for the one who died.

But what we don’t do is mourn like ones with no hope.

They wail and howl because they believe that the one who died has gone into oblivion.

Not us.

We have hope.

We believe there is more to come.

And that allows us to both mourn and celebrate.

Mourn an end and celebrate a beginning.

I like the words of Dr. Allison:

Our tradition has been at its’ best when it’s … conceded how little we know. In this connection I recall some words of Luther … : “We know no more about heaven than a child in its mother’s womb knows of the world into which it is about to be born.” … Here death is birth, or as in the catacomb inscriptions, the day of one’s death is dies natalis, one’s birthday.

And like that illustration.

An end and a beginning.

The early Christian community had a different illustration.

They believed that the function of a funeral was to accompany the loved one, not down the birth canal, but to a door that led into the presence of God.

And while they accompanied their loved one, they sang.

They sang praises to God, thanking God for the earthly life that was over and the eternal life that was beginning.

That is what we do today.

We sing.

We sing for those whose candles we light today.

We sing because while it seems that night comes, we remember the words of the Psalmist in Psalm 139:

11 If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light around me become night’,
12 even the darkness is not dark to [God];
the night is as bright as the day,
for darkness is as light to [God]. …

I come to the end, I am still with [God].

This Week at John McMillan Presbyterian Church

I was reminded this week of a Peanuts cartoon from long ago. Lucy and Linus are looking out a window. It is raining hard. It has been raining for a while. Lucy turns to Linus and says: “Boy, look at it rain … what if it floods the whole world”. Linus responds as only Linus can: “It will never do that. In the ninth chapter of Genesis, God promised Noah that would never happen again, and the sign of that promise is the rainbow.” Lucy is relieved. “You’ve taken a great load off my mind,” she says. Linus replies, “Sound theology has a way of doing that.” This week we celebrate All Saints Sunday. It is the Sunday that we celebrate and remember the lives of our loved ones who have died. We will sing and light candles, hear scripture and words of comfort. And we will also ask a question. What has happened to our departed loved ones? And in turn, what will happen to us when we die? We want the kind of relief Lucy got from Linus. We want sound theology. We want an answer to that question. Does sound theology give us an answer? Does it take a great load off our collective minds? Well … come and hear about it when Pastor Jeff preaches “About Those Who Have Died” based on 1 Thessalonians 4: 13-18 at 8:30 and 11. The 11 o’clock service will be a service of lessons and songs commemorating the faith in the promise of God that we will spend eternity with God, and that our death is not the end. Come and Join us at John McMillan Presbyterian Church. We will look forward to seeing you.