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.

This week at John McMillan Presbyterian Church: On Facebook and YouTube — Finding Truth

When you hear the word “ritual” what comes to mind? Rarely is the connotation a positive one. If something is “ritualistic”, we tend to think it is of little substance. Words or actions that are superficial at best and meaningless at worst. That is what many folks say about church. This from sermon by a Pastor Todd Weir in 2014 in which he “quotes” what some folks think of church:

“I don’t go to church because it is just a bunch of rituals, you know, communion and baptisms and giving up stuff for Lent, saying the Lord’s Prayer over and over again. What’s the point? It does change anything or mean anything. It’s boring. … Weddings are just stupid rituals [, too]. If you love each other, why do you need a wedding?”

Another view of ritual is that it has power to change lives and the world. Tanya Marie Luhrmann is a professor of anthropology at Stanford University who wrote an op/ed piece in the New York Times a few years back called “Religion Without God”. Luhrmann’s piece describes how the use of ritual in religious life has become a universal model even for atheists. She describes “Sunday Assembly”, an atheistic organization that gathers on Sundays for fellowship, music, readings, messages and encouragement to make the world a better place. Sound familiar? Luhrmann says this.

… [R]ituals change the way we pay attention as much as — perhaps more than — they express belief. [Even if] ritual isn’t about expressing religious commitment at all, [it is] about doing something in a way that marks the moment as different from the everyday and forces you to see it as important. Their point is that performing a ritual focuses your attention on some moment and deems it worthy of respect. Ritual is the way human beings live out their faith in whatever they have faith in. Ritual is a kind of organized repeated statement of what you believe to be true. Is that what church rituals are? Maybe. But maybe they are a lot more than that. Rather than boring repetition, maybe they are a path to find truth.

What is truth? Thoughts on who and what we should believe.

What is Truth?

I remember a time when the most popular evening news program was the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite.

Cronkite was considered by many to be the most trusted news source in the United States.

In one poll he was named the most trusted man in America.

This from his 2009 obituary:

From 1962 to 1981, Mr. Cronkite was a nightly presence in American homes and always a reassuring one, guiding viewers through national triumphs and tragedies alike, from moonwalks to war, in an era when network news was central to many people’s lives.

He became something of a national institution, with an unflappable delivery, a distinctively avuncular voice and a daily benediction: “And that’s the way it is.” He was Uncle Walter to many: respected, liked and listened to.

When he said, “and that’s the way it is”, we believed it was that way!

It was the truth.

Cronkite came along at the peak of a time where the news media was doing its best to be objective.

News organizations had come a long way from the days of Hearst’s yellow journalism that had spawned rags like the National Enquirer.

In the late 1800s and the early 1900s fabricated or exaggerated stories had been published for the sole purpose of selling papers and advertising.

There was little concern for the truth.

But then the tide turned and reputable news organizations, basically newspapers in those days, tried to be accurate and objective.

Radio and television followed suit and tried to be accurate and objective.

Cronkite was the epitome of that.

We believed what he said was true.

Because he said it.

These days, it would be hard to identify any such news organization or reporter who is as accurate or objective as Cronkite.

It seems each news source has a particular point of view that it endorses and promotes.

There is precious little news offered.

Mostly opinions, the factual basis of which are hard to find.

We choose our news sources, predominantly, because of confirmation bias.

We tune in to the news we like!

The news we agree with.

What we want to hear.

And so, we believe it.

Anything that is inconsistent with what we believe, or want to believe, we call “fake news”.

And it is not new.

This form of thinking has always been used as a political tool.

It generally takes the form of negative ads.

And that goes back to the presidential campaign of 1800.

A campaign between two close friends, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.

Both were on the committee that wrote the Declaration of Independence.

Jefferson accused Adams of being a monarchist, a terrible accusation in those days.

Adams accused Jefferson of being an atheist, also a terrible accusation.

And on one occasion, Adams’ supporters claimed it was pointless to vote for Jefferson because Jefferson was dead.

None of these things were true.

And those kinds of things have a very long history.

People make things up so that they can get and keep power.

Truth is defined as what expedient.

Which is why folks say that truth is unknowable.

Or worse, irrelevant.

And when truth becomes irrelevant, the world enters into a dense fog of uncertainty.

There is no direction for our lives.

No true north that guides us.

There is just expediency.

Which brings us to Jesus and Pilate.

John 18: 28-38

28 Then they took Jesus from Caiaphas to Pilate’s headquarters. It was early in the morning. They themselves did not enter the headquarters, so as to avoid ritual defilement and to be able to eat the Passover. 29So Pilate went out to them and said, ‘What accusation do you bring against this man?’ 30They answered, ‘If this man were not a criminal, we would not have handed him over to you.’ 31Pilate said to them, ‘Take him yourselves and judge him according to your law.’ The Jews replied, ‘We are not permitted to put anyone to death.’ 32(This was to fulfil what Jesus had said when he indicated the kind of death he was to die.)

33 Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ 34Jesus answered, ‘Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?’ 35Pilate replied, ‘I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?’ 36Jesus answered, ‘My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.’ 37Pilate asked him, ‘So you are a king?’ Jesus answered, ‘You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.’ 38Pilate asked him, ‘What is truth?’

After he had said this, he went out to the Jews again and told them, ‘I find no case against him.

So, if you think Presidential politics is rough, think again.

It does not get any rougher than Jerusalem when Jesus came to town.

What was happening?

Quick review.

Jesus and his followers have come to Jerusalem and entered the city in a way we would likely call a protest march.

Jesus has come to take on the powers that be.

Criticizing and demanding change and justice for the people of God from the religious authorities.

The Temple authorities, the High Priest and the Sanhedrin have been given the civil authority over all Jews in Judea by Rome.

Nice Job.

Lots of power.

Pretty lucrative.

Now they have a problem.

Jesus has been teaching in the Temple for several days and basically telling people that the Temple authorities are hypocrites.

He is challenging their power.

He is proclaiming the Kingdom of God and seeking people to follow him into that Kingdom.

And Jesus putting all that political power and position of the religious authorities at risk.

So, they need to do something to stop Jesus.

What better way for that risk to be eliminated than to accuse Jesus of sedition and having him executed as a common criminal?

So, they have him arrested and sent off to Pilate who has the authority to have Jesus killed.

But they had to make something up that would be grounds for death.

Something expedient.

A bit of fake news.

Hey!

How about this?

Jesus claims to be king of the Jews.

That is a direct challenge to Caesar!

Who cares if it’s not true?

Pilate will eat it up!

And they know their audience.

Pilate!

A vicious and cruel man who has been appointed Prefect of Judea.

The next best thing to being a king!

Nice Job.

Lots of power.

Pretty lucrative.

Pilate had the power and the authority to order a death sentence.

And he did it a lot.

His most important responsibility was to maintain law and order.

There had always been conflict and trouble in Judea.

His job, if he wanted to keep it, required that trouble be dealt with immediately and harshly.

Death was not a deterrent.

It was a solution.

And here come these troublesome Jews raising a fuss over this Jesus.

Now Pilate has a political problem.

There was also conflict between Pilate and the Temple Sanhedrin.

They wanted Jesus dead.

What could Pilate do that would give him a bit more power over these people?

Pilate needed to make it seem like he was doing them a favor that they might someday have to return.

Kind of like “The Godfather”.

If you ask for a favor from the Godfather, you might be called on to return a favor down the road.

And you couldn’t refuse, right?

So, Pilate looked for a way to do just that.

And found one.

Jesus did not claim to be king of the Jews.

He made no claim that challenged Caesar.

He claimed only to have come to testify to the truth.

To which Pilate responded with his most famous question:

What is truth?

A rhetorical question.

Pilate knew what truth was.

Truth was the story that got you what you wanted.

And Pilate wanted to show he was in charge, not the Temple people.

Pilate then went out to give the Jews his news.

No enemy of Caesar here!

No evidence whatsoever.

But if that is what you want, I’ll do it for you.

Off to the cross.

Now you owe me!

Here we have Jesus sandwiched between people to whom truth was – irrelevant.

The religious authorities didn’t care about the truth.

They wanted to maintain their power.

That meant Jesus had to die.

Pilate didn’t care about the truth.

He wanted to preserve his position.

That meant Jesus had to die.

Jesus’ death was of no significance.

And so, Jesus was irrelevant.

Sounds like hard core politics.

That kind of thinking makes me pretty anxious.

Truth can’t be irrelevant, can it?

What is truth?

Emilie Townes, Associate Dean at Yale Divinity School describes truth this way.

There are two kinds of truth.

Intellectual truth which is the empirical kind.

Facts.

Something we can learn from the scientific method or factual investigation.

We need some facts in our faith, right?

In order to understand our faith and how we are to live the Jesus way, we need to know some facts.

And to get those facts, we need to do some reading.

The Bible.

Do some historical research on language, culture and context.

Consult experts.

Find out what we can know and what makes our faith reasonable.

As Cronkite would say:

In seeking truth, you have to get both sides of a story.

Very Presbyterian!

The second kind of truth is revealed truth.

Truth revealed by God.

John McArthur describes revealed truth this way:

Truth is that which is consistent with the mind, will, character, glory, and being of God. … Truth is the self-expression of God.

That is Jesus.

The mind, will, character, glory, and being of God.

The self-expression of God.

The truth revealed.

In both cases, fake news can gain influence when there is blind acceptance without insight or investigation.

But truth, the testimony of Jesus, the mind, will, character, glory and being of God, survives such influence.

Truth is knowable

And it can never be considered irrelevant.

The way to analyze empirical truth is to fact check … that is the term of the day.

The way to analyze revealed truth is to live it.

Townes says this about the distinction between them:

Though important in helping establish and maintain social norms, intellectual truth does not fill all of our needs. We are compelled to go beyond merely understanding and making sense and order in our world. We must seek to know God and live as active witnesses on this journey into God. Jesus life and mission is a model of this for us. In Jesus, we learn that truth is a stimulant for faithful living and witness, rather than contemplation. It is something we do.

Revealed truth is something we do …

We do it by living the Jesus way.

How do we live like that?

Eugene Peterson says this:

To follow Jesus implies that we enter into a way of life that is given character and shape and direction by the one who calls us. To follow Jesus means … ways doing things … derivative FROM Jesus, formed by the influence of Jesus. … The way we talk, the way we use our influence, the way we treat one another, the way we raise our children, the way we read, the way we worship, the way we vote, the way we garden, the way we ski, the way we feel, the way we eat.  … And on and on, endlessly, the various and accumulated “ways and means” that characterize our way of life.

In anxious times, we can find peace in that.

We hold on to Jesus and live his truth.There will always be politics.

And there will always be fake news.

But Jesus came to testify to the truth.

What was Jesus’ testimony?

The Kingdom of God has come near.

It’s two greatest commandments are love God and love each other.

Do these two things and you will live.

It’s called the Gospel.

It’s called the “Way”.

The Jesus way.

Truth is that.

And that’s the way it is.

This Week at John McMillan Presbyterian Church: October 4, 2020

One of my favorite movies is “Jeremiah Johnson”. Released in 1972 and staring Robert Redford, it tells the tale of a young man who goes to live in the Rocky Mountains as a “mountain man”. Johnson is unequipped to survive in the hostile environment but is fortunate to come across a seasoned mountain man by the name of Bear Claw Chris Lapp who is willing to teach Johnson how to survive. One of the interesting underlying themes of the movie is why would someone want to be a “mountain man”. The life is one of almost complete isolation from the “civilized” world. Bear Claw’s explanation for his decision is a brief one liner, easy to miss. When he meets Johnson, Bear Claw notices that Johnson is wearing pants form an army uniform. He says this: “Must have missed another war down there.” It seems Bear Claw left “down there” because of the wars. He needed to get away. And it worked for him. It sometimes seems we are in a situation that pushes us to “get away”, doesn’t it? We want to escape. Now the vast majority of us don’t want to go to the mountains and live a life of isolation, but we do want to find a place to get away to when we want to “miss the wars down there”. Believe it or not, God knew we needed that. And God made it one of the commandments. It’s called Sabbath. Come and hear about it Sunday, October 4, 2020 in the parking lot (rain or shine) at John McMillan Presbyterian Church or online at the John McMillan Facebook page at 10am when Pastor Jeff preaches, “A Mental Health day”. Join us!