This week at John McMillan Presbyterian Church: February 2, 2019 “What does the Bible say about …? sermon series begins.

What does the Bible say about salvation?

There was a commercial on TV a while back in which people were singing the song Rocket Man by Elton John. The problem was that they did not really know what the words to the refrain were. The words were hard to understand because of the way Elton John sang them. People just knew what they “sounded” like. So, they just sang the song the way it sounded to them. Here are a couple of examples of what folks thought those Rocket Man lyrics were:

  • Rocket man, burning out this useless telephone.
  • Rocket man, burning all the shoes off everyone.
  • Rocket man, burning out and now my hair is gone.

And my favorite,

  • Rocket man, burning up the room with cheap cologne.

The real words?

  • Rocket man, burning out his fuse up here alone.

The reason people get it wrong all these years is because they never take the time to actually read the words to the song. This is true of many songs. If you want to know what the musician is singing, you had better take a look at the lyrics. And then try to make some sense of them. Put them in context. It has meaning. The meaning intended by the writer.

The Bible is kind of like that. We think we know what it says, but do we really? We have been told what it says, but have we really read the words? Have we put them in context? Do we understand what the writer means? Or do we just repeatedly recite what we just think is says.

As Peter Gomes, the late Preacher to Harvard once said:

“The Bible says what it means and means what it says.” This is a popular defense of the authority of scripture, and it is as dangerous and wrong as it is simple and memorable. … We can certainly say that the Bible says what it means, but that presupposes that we know what it says, and, as well, that we understand what it means when it says it.

This week we at JMPC will start a sermon series called “What does the Bible say about …?” We start off with “What does the Bible say about salvation?” Who gets saved? Do you know what the Bible says about that? Come and hear about it on Sunday February 2 at 8:30 and 11 at John McMillan Presbyterian Church. You might be surprised. We look forward to seeing you.

Who do you love? Thoughts on loving those who disagree with you on what the Bible says.

Who Do You Love?

Over the past month, Pastor Matt and I have used what we thought to be well known phrases or quotes as part of our sermon illustrations.

On January 5, mine was the simple “What would Jesus do?”

That phrase, often abbreviated to WWJD, comes from a book written in 1896 by Charles Sheldon titled, “In His Steps: What Would Jesus Do.”

The phrase became a meme in the 1990s as a reminder to live as Jesus would have us live.

On January 12, I selected Lyndon Johnson’s speech announcing his decision to forgo the leadership of his party as an illustration of what John the Baptist might have feared, that Jesus might be renouncing his divinity, when Jesus asked to be baptized.

Rather than refusing his call to lead, Jesus was actually accepting it by demonstrating that as the incarnate God he was joining the human community he came to save.

Last week Matt chose Martin Luther King’s message that ‘Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that,’ proclaiming Jesus’ lesson that the two greatest commandments are to love God and … well … everyone else, too, without exception.

This week we prepare for our “What does the Bible say about …” sermon series with a quote I have always thought insightful but also troubling and certainly challenging.

But first, our scripture.

1 Corinthians 1: 10-18

10 Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you should be in agreement and that there should be no divisions among you, but that you should be united in the same mind and the same purpose. 11For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. 12What I mean is that each of you says, ‘I belong to Paul’, or ‘I belong to Apollos’, or ‘I belong to Cephas’, or ‘I belong to Christ.’ 13Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? 14I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, 15so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name. 16(I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.) 17For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power.

18 For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

I would guess with some level of confidence that many, if not all of us, look at the news each day and see a good deal of conflict in our country.

And while that would be a reasonable observation, there have been times when things were much worse.

The American Civil War.

It was during that terrible and bloody conflict that Abraham Lincoln was re-elected as President.

On March 4, 1865 Lincoln gave his second inaugural address.

Lincoln talked about the different views of the cause, intent, and hopes that each side believed in.

And then he said this:

Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other.

That was certainly true.

Both sides believed that the Bible supported what they fought for and so believed that God was on their side.

How could that possibly be?

The north and south agreed on practically nothing at all.

And both sides were killing each other over their disagreements while believing that God was on their side.

This was not the first time the Bible was a source of support for bloody conflicts.

People have been fighting, and even going to war with each other, over Biblical interpretation since the books of the Bible were canonized in 382 AD.

Even before the Bible existed, the meanings of the teachings of Jesus were hotly debated by different communities if Christians.

These arguments threatened the very existence of the budding church.

One of those churches at risk was the church in Corinth.

In today’s text, Paul is writing to the Corinthian church, a church that he planted.

Paul is responding to reports from Chloe’s people that there are conflicts and divisions in Corinth.

Over the course of the letter, Paul offers advice on how to resolve the conflicts.

How did these conflicts develop?

After Paul left Corinth, others came and taught people their vision of what it meant to follow Jesus.

Not surprisingly, there were a few variances.

The community was dividing into factions that supported what their favorite leader taught.

Or worse, the one who baptized them.

I like the way N. T. Wright describes the situation:

There was plenty of noise, … plenty of squeaking and whistling, and it all meant the same thing: this is my vision of what Christianity is, and you don’t belong here!

Paul’s response to this is clear.

If the community of disciples represents the body of Christ, Christ must not be divided.

There must be unity in the church.

The church must be unified on the one thing that is universal.

The cross.

We are all saved by the power of God through Christ crucified.

That is the Gospel.

It is the Gospel that unites us as Christ’s body.

Citizens of the Kingdom of God.

The communion of saints.

No human belief can take the cross away from anyone else.

But does that also mean we must agree on everything?

Is there no room for diversity?

If you read 1 Corinthians in its entirety, you will see that Paul says we don’t need to agree on everything.

Paul accepts diversity.

He accepts that people approach what it means to follow Jesus from differing cultural, philosophical, economic and personal points of view.

If we don’t honor these variances, even when we disagree with them, we dishonor Jesus self-sacrificial act on the cross.

How do we honor these variances?

To answer that I offer another quote.

In essentials unity; in non-essentials liberty; in all things charity.

These words were written by Rupertus Meldenius as a plea to bring to an end the Thirty Years War, a religious war between Catholics and Protestants in Europe.

That war was one of the bloodiest in European history and was started over different interpretations of what the Bible said.

Meldenius hoped these words would allow the two different Christian dogmas to co-exist as different interpretations of what living the Jesus way looks like.

And I think this is exactly what Paul is saying in today’s text.

What does Paul say is essential?

The Gospel.

The belief that the power of the cross has saved us and given us life.

What about all that other stuff we all argue about?

If you read the entire letter, you could conclude that other than the Gospel, all our differing interpretations are non-essentials.

We can disagree.

We can argue.

But we cannot say:

This is the only true vision of what Christianity is, and because you don’t agree, you are not part of the body of Christ!

And here is why we should be very careful on such things.

Later on in in this letter, Paul says this:

1 Corinthians 13

13If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

4 Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant 5or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. 7It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

8 Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. 9For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; 10but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. 11When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. 12For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. 13And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

What Paul is saying is that as human beings we don’t really know what we think we know.

All of our theories and theologies and philosophies are incomplete and not completely informed.

Only when we are in the presence of God will we understand God completely.

So, the best we can do until then is to have faith, hope and love, and the most important is to love.

Love is what unites us.

Love like Jesus’ love for us demonstrated on the cross that saved the world.

Love we give to those who disagree with us on how we live the Jesus way.

But this is really hard.

Most of what we believe is part of who we are.

We truly believe we are right, which means everyone else is wrong.

And we really, really want to be right.

When someone disagrees with us, we take it as a personal attack by someone who is wrong.

Our initial response is to fight or flee.

But Paul says there is a better way.

A middle ground.

A more humble ground.

Recognize that we see in the mirror dimly.

That we really don’t fully know or understand.

Then do the best we can to understand what God calls us to do in scripture.

This is how we do it in the PCUSA.

I, personally, believe it to be a beautiful system.

We in the Presbyterian Church follow a doctrine called the priesthood of all believers.

That means we are all capable of reading the Bible and interpreting what it means.

But if there are 1.3 million Presbyterians, there might be 1.3 million different interpretations of a particular passage.

All of them cannot be right.

And it is more likely that all are wrong.

So how do we decide what that passage is telling us?

We gather together in councils.

We pray and invite God to inspire us.

We argue.

We pray again.

Then we VOTE!

That’s right – vote!

The majority interpretation is then considered the correct interpretation for the denomination – for now.

Because here is the thing.

We are never sure we are right.

Remember what Paul said?

We know only in part.

So, we often revisit the matter we just voted on.

And we pray, argue and vote again.

And again and again and again, until we see no reason to continue.

That is what we did with the issue of the ordination of women in the church.

For 25 General Assemblies, the Presbyterian Church said ‘no’ to women ministers and had plenty of Biblical support for it.

But think about that.

We kept on voting on it for 25 more years.

Then on the 26th vote, women were suddenly ordainable.

What about all that scriptural support for prohibition?

Maybe God inspired us to understand it was a non-essential.

Were we right?

Well this church has been blessed by at least 2 women who were certainly called by God to be pastors.

Debbie Evanovich

Louise Rodgers

These women are certainly evidence that our 1956 vote was the right thing to do.

We might not be absolutely sure until we see God face to face, but we glorify God in the continued effort to get it right.

This process is one way we seek to remain unified.

That is why it is our polity.

As I said, I think it is a beautiful thing.

Two years ago, I was invited to South East Asia to teach a group of pastors about Presbyterian polity.

I took them through the history of the reformation and the development of our system of church government.

We talked about the priesthood of all believers and how we can properly and respectfully interpret scripture.

I described the PCUSA GA system to them and then had a mock GA.

I told them that the question presented to them was this:

What does the Bible say about baptism of human clones?

I then divided the group up into thirds.

One group was assigned the answer “no”.

Another the answer “yes”.

The third the answer “we don’t know”.

I then gave them an hour to find scriptural support for their answer (with the uncommitted free to go either way).

Then we had an hour for argument.

Then we prayed.

Then we voted.

We decided that clones could be baptized.

Good news for Baba Phet.

After we were done, I had them all share the peace of Christ.

In sharing Christ’s peace, we all affirmed that even in our disagreements, we were still united as part of the body of Christ.

As we embark on our journey to discuss what the Bible says about salvation, guns, military service and homosexuality, let us have open minds, and even if we still disagree, we can still share Christ’s peace and remember that we all stand in the shadow of the power of the cross.

February at John McMillan Presbyterian Church: Sermon series — “What does the Bible say about …”

“What does the Bible say about …” sermon series: In response to a congregational survey on topics for this sermon series we will offer the following sermons in February:

  • February 2 “What does the Bible say about salvation?” Matthew 25: 31-46
  • February 9 “What does the Bible say about military service?” Matthew 8: 5-13
  • February 16 “What does the Bible say about guns?” Luke 22: 36-38
  • February 23 “What does the Bible say about homosexuality and gay marriage, Part 1?” Acts 8: 26-38

There were many more requests and we will continue to address the rest over time, but these were by far the most requested. Come with an open mind.

Touched by the Water: Thoughts on accepting God’s call to lead God’s church.

Touched by the Water

Today is Baptism of the Lord Sunday.

It is also the Sunday when we remember the baptisms we have celebrated over the past year.

The names of those we have baptized this past year are in the bulletin and we have already prayed for each while restating our commitment to help raise them in the faith.

But, what did we do when we baptized those babies?

We performed a ceremony that metaphorically depicted God’s adoption of the child as God’s own.

A sign that each one of them now belongs to and is loved by God.

It is a truly powerful moment.

I read a story this week about a homeless man who carried two documents with him at all times.

One was his birth certificate which proved where he came from and when.

The second document was his baptismal certificate which proved that he was adopted by and belonged to God.

These two pieces of paper, to him, provided his essential identity.

But it was the baptismal certificate that gave him hope.

It represented who he was, whose he was and where he was going.

That is why our metaphorical adoption ceremony is the essence of the Gospel.

It is a ritual that proclaims God’s love, even for those who don’t yet know it.

That is grace.

But … that is not what Jesus baptism was about.

And that is not what we celebrate today.

What we celebrate today is the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.

Jesus gets baptized by John and walks out of the Jordan River to start his journey to the cross, teaching, healing and feeding along the way.

All four Gospels describe this event.

To Mark, it is the first thing.

Matthew describes it this way.

Matthew 3: 1-6; 13-17

3In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, 2‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ 3This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,
‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
   make his paths straight.” ’
4Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. 5Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, 6and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. 14John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’ 15But Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness.’ Then he consented. 16And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’

On March 31, 1968, President Lyndon Johnson gave a nationally televised speech.

At the end of that speech he said these words:

”I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President.”

He said these words at a time when the most recent political polls showed him beating all his potential opponents in the next general election quite handily.

The nation was stunned.

Perhaps not as stunned as Hubert Humphrey, the vice-president, who Johnson let read the speech beforehand.

Humphrey’s reaction to the speech was described this way by Johnson’s Chief of Staff, James Jones.

Mr. Humphrey’s facial expression was pathetic at that moment. Shoulders hunched, he said softly, ”There’s no way I can beat the Kennedys.” 

This was a big surprise to the Democrats.

Their incumbent, the one who was going to lead the country to the Democrat promised land, no longer wanted the job.

Worse, the next in line did not think he could win the nomination, let alone the general election.

I can’t imagine how crestfallen the Democrat leadership must have felt.

All the plans for the future, plans that started with President Kennedy and for the most part continued with President Johnson looked like they might crash and burn. 

And that is what happened with the election of Richard Nixon.

This story came to mind when I read the story of Jesus baptism.

Here is why.

John the Baptist is out in the wilderness looking and acting like a prophet.

Camel’s hair clothing with a leather belt and eating locusts and honey.

What was his prophetic message?

The Kingdom of Heaven is near.

And here is what you need to do.

Prepare the way of the Lord.

And here is how you do that.

Repent of your sinful life and get baptized.

Then when the Kingdom comes, you will be ready.

What was this “baptism” John proclaimed and encouraged?

First of all, any Jew wandering by the Jordan River who saw John at work might have said, “I wonder what that is all about?”

It would have been foreign to them.

Certainly the Hebrew scriptures talked about baptism in several contexts.

But the common theme was that one had to be clean to be in God’s presence.

To be permitted to stand in the presence of God one had to undergo ritual baptism.

The Essenes, one of whom was John, believed that in order to pronounce the name of God in prayer, one had to be pure, so each one of them underwent baptism every morning.

Cleaning oneself up before conversing with God.

Baptismal pools were common around the Temple so that people could immerse themselves before performing a sacrifice.

They were even in found people’s homes where bathing in the baptismal waters assured that one was free of ritual impurity.

It was used as a sign of obedience to God.

But what John was doing did not fit into any of these known rituals.

In fact, people have been debating where this came form since the Gospels were written.

This was new.

Prophetic.

People were confessing that they had not lived a Godly life.

Then they were immersed in the Jordan.

They were changed.

John also said that there was another who was to follow him and who would be greater and more powerful. 

He knew who that was.

Jesus.

And look, here he comes.

John knows Jesus because they are cousins.

I have always assumed that Elizabeth and Mary told John and Jesus respectively a bit about their births and what was expected of them.

I am not sure what John thought as Jesus approached, but it was not that Jesus would want to be baptized.

One of the great mysteries of the Gospels is why Jesus wanted to be baptized.

And why baptized by John?

John’s baptism was all about repentance and purification.

Jesus needed none of that, right?

Jesus was sinless.

Jesus was the incarnate God.

What did Jesus have to confess to, repent from and be cleansed of?

Nothing.

That is why John was puzzled.

Confused.

John knows he is second fiddle and is waiting for Jesus to show up and take the lead.

Then Jesus shows up and asks John to baptize him.

Why do I need to baptize you, Jesus?

You are the child conceived by the Holy Spirit, right?

You are the one who has come to change everything.

You are the one who brings the Kingdom of God.

Heck, you are the Kingdom of God.

Wait … are you saying that you are not?

That you are just a guy?

That you aren’t going to lead us to the Kingdom of God?

Are you saying I have to do that?

I have an image of John with a sort of Hubert Humphrey look on his face.

Pathetic.

Slumped shoulders.

I can’t do this.

Jesus responds.

Relax, John.

I am not here for repentance of sins.

I have none.

I am here to join the community of those who need forgiveness.

The people I have come to serve and save.

I am emptying myself out and becoming fully human.

To do that, I need to be changed.

I am no longer the carpenter from Nazareth.

I am now the Messiah.

My baptism will be my anointing.

My ordination.

My installation.

My acceptance of God’s call.

This is where my work begins, John.

John, greatly relieved, baptizes Jesus and at that moment, Heaven opens, a dove descends, and God blesses Jesus.

Jesus has accepted the call and has been blessed by God.

All this happened when Jesus was touched by the water.

OK, so the political illustration is strained, but I think you see the point.

The people needed someone to lead them to the Kingdom of God.

To be the Kingdom of God.

Jesus was that guy.

He was born for it.

But he still had to agree to it.

Presenting himself for baptism was the way he accepted God’s assignment.

And God was pleased.

And then Jesus was off on his mission.

OK, that’s a good lesson on Jesus’ baptism.

But then I realized we were ordaining and installing our church officers on Baptism of the Lord Sunday.

When I read the Matthew passage with that in mind, it occurred to me that we need to reflect on the act of faith that each of our now ordained and installed officers took today when they said “I do” and “I will” and so accepted the responsibilities of their respected offices.

Each of them, and everyone here who has ever been ordained to church office, have accepted a call of God.

When ordained you were appointed, consecrated, commissioned to do the work of God in this place.

For those serving as elders, your responsibility is this:

To provide that the Word of God may be truly preached and heard.

To provide that the Sacraments may be rightly administered and received.

To nurture the covenant community of disciples of Christ.

To guide the congregation to be the witness of God’s sovereign activity in the world so that the congregation is and becomes a community of faith, hope, love and witness.

For those serving as deacons, your responsibility is this:

To be a compassionate witness and servant to our congregation, sharing in the redeeming love of Jesus Christ for the poor, the hungry, the sick, the lost, the friendless, the oppressed those burdened by unjust policies and structures and anyone in distress.

And like baptism, once you have been ordained, you are always ordained.

Your call does not end with the expiration of your term of office.

It continues all your life.

But such an understanding of what you have undertaken might feel a bit overwhelming, but be at peace, because Jesus give us two promises.

First, that he will be with us, to the end of the age.

So at least to the end of your term.

He also promises to send the Spirit to guide you.

So, you will not be alone.

And you also have this congregation.

This community of faith that has agreed to be led by you, pray for you and support you while you do the things that will push us to better know, glorify and serve God.

So, I am going to ask that every elder and deacon who is currently serving, even those ordained and installed today, to come forward and touch this water that has touched you.

When you do this, know that you are blessed by God.

Feel his presence.

Know that you are not alone.

And then get on with your ministry.

Benediction.

This water is still here.

If you have been ordained, maybe you could take a moment before leaving to come up and touch this water that has touched you.

And remember your call.

 And everyone else can come up and touch the water and remember that this is the baptismal water that touched you.

And remember your baptism.

This week at John McMillan Presbyterian Church (January 12, 2020)

The last thing that happens at a national political party convention is the introduction of the selected candidate. After several minutes of cheers, the nominee steps to the podium and says, “Ladies and gentlemen, I accept your nomination for President of the United States.” And then there are many more minutes of cheers before the candidate launches into the acceptance speech. It is political drama at its best, though for most of my life, it has mostly been staged because the nominee was known long before the convention started. If there is support for someone who does not want to be the candidate, that person can simply say these words. “If nominated, I will not run. If elected I will not serve.” Those words are rarely heard because most folks who are supported for the nomination want to be the nominee. But still, it is a choice. This week, we celebrate the baptism of Jesus. We hear the story of Jesus coming to the Jordan River where his cousin John the Baptist is baptizing folks for the repentance of sins. This might raise two questions for you. First, why does Jesus need to be baptized and what does this have to do with politics? Well … come and hear about this on Sunday at John McMillan Presbyterian Church for either the 8:30 or 11:00 worship when Pastor Jeff preaches, “Touched by the Water” based on Matthew 3: 1-6; 13-17. We will look forward to seeing you.

True North: Thoughts on Standards to Live By

True North

Today is Epiphany Sunday.

What is an epiphany?

A sudden manifestation or perception, perhaps through an experience of the divine, that reveals the essential nature or meaning of something.

It is what we might call the “AH-HA” moment.

Our usual scripture reading is the story of the Three Magi.

Three gentiles who come to see what the new star signified.

And they found the incarnate God.

Emanuel – God with us.

Not just Israel.

All of us.

That was the epiphany of the Magi.

That is epiphany we celebrate.

But my choice for our scripture lesson today is from Luke’s Sermon on the Plain, which parallels Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount.

Jesus is teaching his disciples what it means to live the Jesus way.

This is also an epiphany.

A sudden manifestation or perception through an experience of the divine that revealed the essential nature or meaning of something.

What was the something whose essential meaning or nature is revealed?

Life.

It is a long lesson.

Jesus describes what makes people happy, what makes them suffer.

Jesus describes the “Golden Rule” and the love of neighbors, even when they are enemies.

Jesus tells his disciples that they are not to judge and condemn but to forgive and be merciful.

He tells them not t be deceived by their own perceived understanding or righteousness, but to seek out a good teacher.

Jesus points out that good people produce good, so that is one measure of how the disciples will be perceived.

Good lessons, all.

Do these things and you will live the life of a disciple of Jesus.

A life cared for by Jesus.

And then Jesus says this:

Luke 6: 46-49

46 ‘Why do you call me “Lord, Lord”, and do not do what I tell you? 47I will show you what someone is like who comes to me, hears my words, and acts on them. 48That one is like a man building a house, who dug deeply and laid the foundation on rock; when a flood arose, the river burst against that house but could not shake it, because it had been well built. 49But the one who hears and does not act is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. When the river burst against it, immediately it fell, and great was the ruin of that house.’

Every morning I take my two dogs, Lucy and Roxy for a run.

I take them to a small cemetery near my house and let them go off leash.

And they love it.

They are free.

They run.

All flapping ears and wagging tails and what appears to be sheer joy.

But before they were allowed to do this, they had to learn one basic rule.

It was their epiphany.

Come when you are called.

Come when you are called keeps you from chasing deer into traffic, which can get you hurt.

It also keeps you from chasing rabbits into the woods, which can get you lost.

Come when you are called means that you will have life.

A life cared for by me.

Overt time I started to notice something about both Lucy and Roxy on their runs.

As they ran around, they would periodically stop for a moment and look at me with their ears up.

They seem to ask:

Are you still there?

Is this OK?

Am I safe?

Can I keep going?

Or do you want me to come to you?

They only have one rule, but they needed to check in to make sure they were following it.

I would say either “come” if I thought they needed to go in a different direction.

“Go” if I thought they were OK.

And that is what they do.

Come or go.

Here or there.

Now Roxy is deaf.

Yet she still stops and looks for me on her runs.

She can’t hear my voice, but she still can see me.

It’s her habit.

I am her true north.

She sees me and knows what she is supposed to do.

Then she does it, most times.

I thought of this when I was reading today’s scripture.

It was kind of what Jesus was doing.

He was training his disciples.

He was telling them that they needed to come to him, listen to him and learn from him.

He was giving them instructions for a lifestyle that would help them through a life of discipleship.

But they had to follow the instructions.

They had to do what he told them they needed to do.

Doing what they were instructed gave them a firm foundation that would withstand the flood waters of the world that would from time to time seek to destroy them.

If they did not do these things, they might get washed away.

It’s the doing, not just the knowing, that is important.

And how do you know what to do?

Listen and learn and refer to the instructions Jesus gives when you are unsure.

Then do your best to follow them.

These instructions are your standard.

Your benchmark.

Your true north.

It has been quite a few years since I graduated from high school.  

But I remember it was an exciting time.

I was 18.

I was an adult.

I was ready to take on the world.

I went off to college and for the first time in my life I was free of my parents’ rules and regulations that had managed and controlled my life for 18 years.

I was free alright, but free to be anything from a tremendous success to a horrific failure.

Suddenly I had to make choices that had previously been made by Mom & Dad.

What would I study?

Who were my friends going to be?

What kinds of activities would I get involved in?

What kind of relationships would I get involved in?

And at 18, ten years from the age of reason, I couldn’t predict all the potential consequences of the many choices I had to make.

Some of these choices involved meaningless things.

Others were life changing.

Some could be life threatening.

And I realized quickly that I did not know how to make some of those decisions.

So, when I needed to get some outside assistance, I called Mom and Dad.

The resource where I knew I would get good guidance.

The standard.

The benchmark.

My true north.

In the Sermon on the Plain, Jesus is encouraging his disciples to do the same thing.

“Here are some instructions for life in God’s Kingdom.

If you need to, refer to them.

If you follow them, good things will result.

If good things are not happening, maybe it’s because you forgot the instructions.

Look to them.

Reorient yourself.

Find your true north.

Get back on track.”

The divine “stop and look”.

It’s a good plan.

Kind of summed up in that old meme, “What would Jesus do?”

But we can’t make it superficial.

Some years back I watched “Freaky Friday” with my daughter.

There is a scene where Jamie Leigh Curtis is dropping off Lindsay Lohan at school.

She leans out the window and yells “Make good choices!”

Lohan rolls her eyes and sighs.

We have always thought that line was pretty funny in my house.

It is a pretty superficial instruction in a complex world.

How do we make good choices?

There are two options.

One is by thinking about the consequences of poor choices.

That does not always work, does it?

Drinking and driving is a no brainier right?

But people still do it.

Taking drugs seems obviously to be a bad thing.

But the rehabs are full.

Promiscuity can ruin lives.

But you would never know that if you watch TV.

A better way would be to listen and learn from Jesus.

Make Jesus your true north.

Make Jesus a benchmark in our heads.

The instruction manual for the life of a disciple.

For life itself.

Have an epiphany!

And when you feel or lost, stop and look.

If you are a football fan, when you hear the word “Omaha” what comes to mind?”

Peyton Manning calling an audible.

He looks over the opposition and sees trouble.

He tells his team to check with him.

He gives them another play.

And they change what they are going to do.

That is what we need to do when we aren’t sure what to do.

We need an Omaha moment.

With someone we trust.

With Jesus.

“Hey Jesus, what do you think?”

And the answer might be:

Change the play.

Do this instead and you will avoid a problem.

Live my way.

Love God.

Love yourself.

Love everyone.

Do what I would do.

Choose the thing that produces good.

My words are the strong foundation that will withstand the flood waters of life.

Now go and do it!

That is the one thing that is critical.

Doing.

Doing what Jesus wants us to do.

Jesus admonishes us.

Don’t call me Lord and then do whatever you want.

That won’t work.

You can come.

You can listen.

But if you don’t do, a fall is coming.

If you do what I teach, you can stand up to anything the world throws at you.

Rely on God in difficult times.

Make peace with your enemies.

Be tolerant.

Forgive.

Be kind and care for others.

These are the things Jesus calls us to do.

Our standard.

Our benchmark.

Our foundation.

Our true north.

But the world is a complicated place.

And we don’t want to use superficial memes to support difficult decisions.

We need to pray.

We need to read scripture.

We need to talk.

We need to listen.

We need to learn.

And we need to pray.

We are in one of those moments today.

We are on the brink of war.

The issues surrounding this are complex and difficult.

But we need to seek our true north.

Did you notice that I said we need to pray twice?

At the beginning and at the end.

Let’s start our consideration of the current state of the world with this prayer based on a prayer written by Jill Duffield, editor of Presbyterian Outlook.

Lord,

The sabers rattle and voices are raised vowing an eye for an eye and threatening to blind the whole world. Fear mounts, rhetoric grows intense and pride threatens to destroy and kill. As our anxiety grows and we worry more and more about what might happen next, we ask that you speak again your word of beyond-understanding-peace.

Help us to hear and heed the words of our Risen Lord, “Peace I give to you. My peace I leave with you.” Remind us relentlessly that you bless the peacemakers and prod us to be among those peacemakers who are blessed.

God of power and might, as we wonder when wars will cease, infuse us with the Holy Spirit so that we will speak the words you give us, become the ambassadors of reconciliation you require of us, and passionately love the world in which you have placed us.

God of grace and God of glory, pour out your power on us, your people, so that we will have the courage to disrupt the narrative of violence by proclaiming in word and deed the life-giving story of sacrificial love made know to us through Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace.

Call us to you.

Make us listen to you.

Help us to learn from you.

Guide is to live the Jesus way.

The way to peace.

Be our true north.

Amen.

This week at John McMillan Presbyterian Church (January 5, 2020)

In Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”, Alice journeys into a foreign world that is entirely unfamiliar to her. During her travels Alice meets a character called the Cheshire Cat who is sitting in a tree next to an intersection on the path upon which Alice is walking. Alice, unfamiliar with the area, asks the cat which way she should go. This is the conversation:

Alice: Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?
The Cheshire Cat: That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.
Alice: I don’t much care where.
The Cheshire Cat: Then it doesn’t much matter which way you go.
Alice: …So long as I get somewhere.
The Cheshire Cat: Oh, you’re sure to do that, if only you walk long enough.

I love this little conversation. It is Carroll’s take on life generally. Every day we are confronted by unfamiliar circumstances that require is to make choices. Some of these choices are mundane. Some are life changing. Some might be life threatening. Regardless of the magnitude, we need a standard to use as a basis for our decision-making. That standard gives us direction. But we need to have a destination. The place we want to end up. If we don’t know where, or if we just don’t care, our choices don’t matter. We stumble along until we get … somewhere. So, where do you want to be? And do you know how to get there? If we are not sure, and we are often not sure, we need some direction. If we ask, “Which way do I go from here”, who is a good person to ask? I’ll give you a hint. We just celebrated his birth. Come and hear about it this Sunday, January 5 at 8:30 and 11 at John McMillan Presbyterian Church when Pastor Jeff preaches, “True North” based on Luke 6: 46-49. Come start the new year with us.

Christmas Meditation 2019

Christmas Meditation 2019

When I was driving here this evening, in the dark with a fog, I was reminded of a trip I took with my son.

Back in 2003, I took AJ on a college visit.

We were going to Poughkeepsie, New York.

When we got to Poughkeepsie and got off the highway, we were plunged into a world where the only lights were the headlights of the cars.

It was the night the power went out all over the northeast United States.

It was really dark.

No street signs.

No business signs.

Just dark.

And we were looking for our hotel.

We could not see anything off the side of the road.

We drove aimlessly for a long time and only by the power of young eyes did we finally glimpse the sign.

And we still had trouble finding the driveway.

That is what the darkness is like.

It is driving aimlessly and without any direction or hope of seeing any markers.

It is terrifying.

When you walk in the darkness that is what your life is like.

No landmarks.

No points of orientation.

Just dark.

To find our way we need directions.

We need landmarks.

We need light.

One of the things we do each Christmas is to ponder the incarnation through lessons and carols.

One of the things we read is this from Isaiah:

2The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness— on them light has shined.

Our lessons and carols are the story of that light.

Our lessons tonight started with Genesis and the fall from grace in the garden and the promise that one would come to restore us to God’s grace.

We heard the prophecy of Isaiah that the promise would come in the form of a child who would be born for us.

And that the child would be “Wonderful counselor! Mighty God! Everlasting Father! Prince of Peace!”

We were told of Gabriel’s announcement to Mary that she would be the mother of that child and her acceptance.

We were reminded of the journey to Bethlehem and the birth of that child who was named Jesus.

We heard of the angels’ announcement and the shepherds visit.

And then we are taught what it all meant by John.

Light was coming into the world.

The light was Jesus.

Jesus was God.

God came here.

The incarnation.

God – Jesus – Light.

But this was not the first time the light came.

To really understand this, we need to go back to the very beginning.

In the beginning when God created* the heavens and the earth, 2the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God* swept over the face of the waters. 3Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light. 4And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. 5God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

The first thing God did was to shine light into the formless void.

The light was good and separated what it illuminated from the darkness.

Humanity lived in the light and walked with God.

But humanity chose to step out of the light.

Into the shadows.

And humanity was diminished.

The darkness overcame us.

We were lost.

What does our darkness look like?

It looks like many things.

Jesus lists some.

Hunger.

Poverty.

Thirst.

Homelessness.

Sickness.

Oppression.

There are others.

Idolatry.

Faithlessness.

Murder.

Thievery.

Deception.

Greed.

Envy.

Everywhere we look people are fighting over land, wealth, power.

So many trying to be God.

This is the darkness.

We cannot see a way out.

And we are afraid.

So, our fear makes things darker.

It has been cycling this way since Eden.

But there can also be a personal darkness.

Illness.

Loneliness.

Grief.

Depression.

Anxiety.

We all have some of that.

What we want is a bit of light.

For the world.

For us.

And as we learned in our lessons this evening, God gave it to us.

Light.

Again.

God started over, in a way.

In the form of a child.

A child with the power to drive the darkness away.

This child.

The one Luke tells us about.

6For a child has been born for us, a son given to us … He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore.

This child.

The one John was talking about.

1In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. … What has come into being 4in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.

5The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

Jesus was that light.

The same light that illuminated creation at the beginning.

And illuminated us again in Jesus.

The incarnate God.

God – Jesus – Light.

It is the Christmas gift.

A light that we can rely on to shine into our shadows and show us a better way to live.

The Jesus way.

Feeding the hungry.

Giving water to the thirsty.

Clothing the naked.

Comforting the sick.

Visiting the prisoners.

Welcoming the strangers.

Loving God.

Loving each other.

And that light, the Jesus light, the light we let into our lives to encourage us to live the Jesus way cannot be overcome by the darkness.

Once there it remains there.

Encouraging us and empowering us and restoring us to God’s grace.

Jesus is the true light.

The light for all people.

The light that enlightens all people.

And all people been invited to live in that light, in the presence of the living God.

Which is why many of us are here.

We are here looking for a better way to live in a dark world.

And it is this child we gather around tonight seeking refuge.

This sanctuary is now the stable.

We are the shepherds and townspeople and kings who surround the child.

We plead to the child.

“Help us find our way!”

“We want the peace that being in your light offers.”

And it is good that we are all here.

Because it is this child who will lead us out of this present darkness and into the light of the Kingdom of God and his salvation.

This child was born to say:

I am the light.

I am shining in the world as an example of what is good and true.

Out there?

That is the darkness.

That is where there is no truth and there is no goodness.

Over there in the darkness there is death.

But here in the light there is life.

The choice is yours.

 This is the way out.

Those who want to find a better way, follow me.

 Follow me and live.

I have come to give you sanctuary in the Kingdom of God.

Where you will be reconciled to God.

Where you will have peace.

I have come to take you there.

And here we are.

Gathering around.

Gazing at the child.

Looking at our salvation.

God is with us.

But we still have a question for him.

“Why would you do such a thing?”

His answer?

‘For God so loved the world that he [sent me] his only Son, so that everyone who believes in [me] may not perish but may have eternal life.”

‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.

The birth of this child gives us this.

We experience forgiveness and grace through this child.

We are taught how to live by this child.

We are reconciled to God through this child.

We are taken into God’s presence with this child.

And this child of hope comes to us every time we need him most.

So take a moment.

Consider the Creator who shined the light at creation.

Consider the baby who brought the light back to us.

Consider the light that pushes the darkness away.

It is the basis of hope.

It is the source of peace.

It is the springboard of joy.

It is the illumination of love.

That light is shining.

Right here.

Right now.

Come and live in the light with the baby.

Jesus Christ our Lord.

Merry Christmas!

Amen.