Friday, June 1, 2018

What is Faith? (Hebrews 11:1-12,17-19) by Grant Kay



Faith is a word that we use a lot as Christians. We are part of the Christian faith. We are told that we are saved by faith in Jesus. The bible tells us that God is faithful to us. And the author of Hebrews in chapter 11 tells us that all the great heroes of the Old Testament lived and worked “by faith.” Clearly, faith is an incredibly important part of our lives. Which makes it all the more surprising, then, that we often have a very murky idea of what faith actually means!

It seems to me, based on conversations I’ve had with many people, that most Christians today assume that faith is essentially the same concept as belief. Having faith in God means believing that he exists and that what the Bible says about him his true. This is not wrong, but it is incomplete. If faith and belief are the same thing, then why not just use the word belief? James 2:19 says, “You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.” Clearly faith means more than simply believing certain things. Since we believe that it is faith alone that saves us, we had better be sure we know what faith is! Fortunately, the author of Hebrews gives us some clues as to the full meaning of faith. Faith includes three major elements: belief, trust, and loyalty.

Let’s start with the basics: First, faith does in fact include belief, which is what we most often think of when we think about faith. Hebrews 11:1 says, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Assurance and conviction are powerful words. They speak of a belief that seems close to knowing rather than believing. Yet we are also told that this is assurance of things that are hoped for, conviction of things we have not seen. Faith isn’t knowing something without any doubts. Doubt is inherently part of faith, because we are dealing with things that we have never seen and cannot see. Rather than pure conviction or knowledge, faith is believing despite the doubts, not without any doubts.

Verses 5-6 tell us, “By faith Enoch was taken so that he did not experience death; and he was not found, because God had taken him. For it was attested before he was taken away that he had pleased God. And without faith it is impossible to please God, for whoever would approach him must believe he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.” These verses tell us what living with true, faithful belief looks like. When we believe, we have hope, and we live with that hope in mind. Hope protects us from despair and defeat. When we live with believing hope, we live as if Jesus really matters, that what he said and did was true and right, and that means that the promise of eternal life is true and available to us.

So the first aspect of faith is belief, which leads to a life of hopeful living. This leads nicely to the second part of faith, which is trust. Trust is closely connected to belief. In essence, trusting someone means believing that they will do what they say. But it also includes a sense of safety. If someone is entrusted with something, it means that they are tasked with keeping it safe. So when I have faith in God, it not only means I believe in God, but that I offer God my life for safekeeping. I trust God to protect me, to care for me, and to do what he said he would do.

Let’s look again to Hebrews 11 to see what this means. The first example of faith the author gives us is Abel, in verse 4, “By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain’s. Through this he received approval as righteous, God himself giving approval to his gifts; he died, but through his faith he still speaks.” What was it that made Abel’s offering more acceptable than Cain’s? In order to understand this, we have to go back to Genesis 4 and see that Abel offered to God the best, fattest sheep from his flock; while Cain offered fruit he’d picked up off the ground after it had fallen off the trees.

Cain offered something he could do without. Those fruits probably meant very little to him. Abel, on the other hand, offered the very best he had. Not only was this a sign of respect to God, but it would be very costly to Abel. He could have sold that sheep for a great price, or used it to breed a better, stronger flock, or otherwise. But Abel trusted God to provide, even as he sacrificed the most valuable thing he had. When Hebrews tells us that Abel had faith, it is not only belief but also a deep trust in God.

Noah is another example of trust. Verse 7 tell us, “By faith Noah, warned by God about events as yet unseen, respected the warning and built an ark to save his household; by this he condemned the world and became an heir to the righteousness that is in accordance with faith.” Noah trusted that God would protect him and his family. He trusted that God would do what he said he would do. Noah endured ridicule from the people around him, and he endured the harrowing 40 days of the flood, because he entrusted his life to God.

What does a life with this trusting faith look like? It is a life without fear, a life of peace. To trust in God means that there is nothing to feat, because you are in God’s hands. We can do things that other people cannot or will not do, because if we are seeking after God then whatever happens to us is God’s will. Now, this trust is not an invitation to stop caring about our lives, or taking care of ourselves, but it is an invitation to stop worrying about the things we cannot control. And when we let go of that worry and fear, we will be able to truly love one another. It is hard to love other people when you are afraid of them. But faithful trust allows us to see every person as someone that God loves, rather than someone who might do us harm.

So far we have covered two aspects of faith. Faith is belief, which leads to a life of hope. Faith is trust, which leads to a life without fear. Finally, faith includes loyalty. When we say that someone is faithful to their husband or wife, we do not mean that they believe in their spouse, or that they trust their spouse, though those things are part of it. Instead we mean that they are loyal, that they have not cheated on them. A faithful person sticks by you, even when things are bad.

This is what the Bible means when it says that God is faithful. God sticks by his people, no matter what. Deuteronomy 31:8 says, “The Lord himself goes before you and will be with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged.” God never abandoned the people of Israel, even though they were unfaithful to God and abandoned him over and over again. God promises to be loyal to His people, and asks us to be loyal in return.

Thus the final part of our faith is loyalty to God. The story of Abraham sacrificing Isaac demonstrates loyalty to the utmost. Hebrews 11:17-19 says, “By faith Abraham, when put to the test, offered up Isaac. HE who had received the promises was ready to offer up his only son, of whom he had been told, ‘It is through Isaac that descendants shall be named for you.’ He considered the fact that God is able even to raise someone from the dead—and figuratively speaking, he did receive him back.” Abraham was willing to sacrifice the child of promise, the one that God had told him would make a great nation, in order to remain faithful to God.

This demonstrates what it means for us to have this loyal faith. Loyal faith is shown by a life of obedience to God. If we are truly loyal to God, if we are a ride-or-die part of God’s team, then we will obey what God has told us to do. This is an important part of the life of faith that I think many people misinterpret. Why do we do what God says in the Bible? Whey don’t we just live any way we want to? The answer is not because we are scared of going to hell if we disobey, or at least that should not be the answer. The Apostle Paul tells us over and over again in his letters that those who of us who have faith no longer need to worry about punishment from God! So why don’t we just live however we please?

The answer is that we do live the way we want to, because what we want is to be close to God! When we are honest even when it would be easy to lie, or when we wait until marriage for sex, or we forgive someone even though we would rather hate them, we do these things because we believe they are pleasing to God, they are what he wants for us. This is one of the biggest ways we demonstrate loyalty to God. We are called to obey God’s will, even when it contradicts the world around us, or our natural impulses. And as we grow in faith, we will grow in joy as we obey God’s commands, because what God wants will become what we want.

So many Christians silently ask themselves: how do I know I’m really saved? It seems to be one of the most common doubts we face today. Scripture tells us that we are saved by the grace of God, through faith. Now we know that faith is not simply belief: it is belief, trust, and loyalty. So if you are one of those people, silently wondering how to know if you are saved, I offer you the following suggestion. Does your life look like the life of faith I’ve just described? Do you live as though what Jesus Christ said and did were true, or do you feel unsure about the future? Do you trust God to take care of you, or do you live with a lot of fear and worry? Do you obey God with joy, or do you ignore God’s commands, or obey only out of fear of hell?

Truthfully, none of us lives this life of faith perfectly. Doubts overwhelm all of us at times. We all give in to fear and worry on occasion. Sadly, we all turn away from obedience to God sometimes in order to chase after other things. Yet a true faith is one that is growing. You might not be perfectly hopeful, peaceful, or obedient, but if you are seeking God then God will grow those qualities in you over time. Remember that even when we are unfaithful, God is faithful to us. He will not leave you or forsake you through the long journey of faith, even when you take a detour. The journey of faith may be long, but the best place to start is knowing that God’s grace allows us to believe in him, trust in him, and be loyal to him.

The Prayer of Faith (James 5:13-16) by Rev. Dr. Bryan Kile



Introduction

As James draws to the end of his letter, he speaks of one of the most important aspects of the Christian life.  Here he draws the reader’s attention to the power of prayer. / Some of you are well aware of the power that prayer has. Others may have heard of its’ power, but have never experienced it. Still others have never really seen its’ power or known anyone who has. 

Many of you have probably had a mother who prayed for you from the day of your birth or even before you were born. Some may have had mothers who were not women of faith. But for those of us whose mothers were faithful in their prayers, we can be very thankful. While some may have strayed for a time, you are here in worship now and hopefully each praying for your own children. I trust that all of us fathers here today are also praying for our children.

James says, “Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord.”  

He also reminds the people of the importance of confession; as someone has said, “confession is good for the soul.” 

So, today, I want to take a look at prayer and the power that prayer can have when prayed in real faith. Of course, there’s the frivolous prayer that is not given in faith and sometimes even in jest.  I’m reminded of the boy who was misbehaving in church and finally his exasperated father picked him up and carried him out of the worship service. Just as they got to the back door of the sanctuary, the boy called out to the congregation, “Y’all pray for me!”

James starts off talking about praying when you’re in trouble.  For some people that’s the only time they think to pray.  You know what I’m talking about, “Lord, get me out of this mess!’  “God, I can’t face this situation!”  “Jesus, if you get me out of this mess, I swear I’ll start attending church.”  That’s not what James is talking about. 

You see, we have to look at the full context of what he says in these verses.  James is talking about fervent, heartfelt prayer offered in faith that God will honor the request because He is able to do so.  There’s none of this, “God, if you can....”  “Father, I hope you’ll help me here.”

One of the things we see James attaching to prayer here is the importance of confession.  In the early church, and even before the time of Christ, it was believed that one’s sins contributed to their predicament.  Now sometimes, even today, we recognize that is true.  After all, how many times have people ended up in hot water as a result of their sinful actions or activities?  Maybe you’ve had that experience yourself, I know I have. 

Confession is an important part of healing, as well.  If we are burdened with a load of guilt, our mental state is not conducive to the healing of our mind.

So, let’s take a look at the power of prayer and what James says to do to appropriate God’s power by prayer.  I believe it would be safe to say that theologians and pastors across the globe – and across the ages – would agree that prayer is the most effective and powerful tool we have available in the church and in the lives of individual Christians. 

James says, “Are any among you suffering? They should pray.”   He’s very matter of fact about it.  It’s almost like he’s saying, “Every Christian knows this, but I just want to remind you: Prayer is the powerful tool you have at your disposal when you’ve got a problem.”  I could spend the whole morning listing all of God’s faithful servants whose lives are recorded in the Bible. Those who, when facing a difficult situation, lifted their prayers up to God and were delivered. / One in particular I want to mention is Jonah after he disobeyed God’s call.  While in the belly of the great fish, he said, “When I had lost all hope, I turned my thoughts once more to the Lord” (Jonah 2:7). Often we act the same way. When life is going well, we tend to take God for granted; but when we lose hope, we cry out to him. This kind of relationship with God can result only in an inconsistent, up-and-down spiritual life. A consistent, daily commitment to God promotes a solid relationship with him.

I could spend many more hours sharing with you the experiences of many other faithful servants from across the ages and even from my own lifetime who have discovered the power of prayer.  They range from the most critical need to the most mundane. But in every instance, people of faith have lifted their needs to God and through their own faith have experienced God’s fulfillment.  Jesus prayed often and for long periods of time.  In the Garden of Gethsemane, just prior to His arrest, so-called trials and crucifixion, Jesus prayed fervently.  He knew the power of God could save Him from that terrible ordeal, but He also knew he must remain within the will of His heavenly Father.  So, He prayed that God’s will be done. / Later, when Peter was in prison for preaching the Gospel, the prayers of the others locked away in a house somewhere else in the city brought the angel to release him.  As Thomas Watson said, “The angel fetched Peter out of prison, but it was prayer that fetched the angel.” 

I ran across this story of answered prayer told by a missionary to Zaire many years ago. It shows how, even before the prayer of faith was offered, the answer was set in motion. "A mother at our mission station died after giving birth to a premature baby. We tried to improvise an incubator to keep the infant alive, but the only hot water bottle we had was beyond repair. So we asked the children to pray for the baby and for her sister. One of the girls responded. 'Dear God, please send a hot water bottle today. Tomorrow will be too late because by then the baby will be dead. And dear Lord, send a doll for the sister so she won't feel so lonely.' That afternoon a large package arrived from England. The children watched eagerly as we opened it. Much to their surprise, under some clothing was a hot water bottle! Immediately the girl who had prayed so earnestly started to dig deeper, exclaiming, 'If God sent that, I'm sure He also sent a doll!' And she was right! The heavenly Father knew in advance of that child's sincere requests, and 5 months earlier, He had led a ladies' group to include both of those specific articles."

Over the years I have read numerous similar stories where people of faith have expressed their deep and immediate needs to God in fervent prayer offered in the faith that God would answer – and He did! / Many of you know that John Knox was a Scotsman who took the Presbyterian expression of Christianity to Scotland and from there it became the beginnings of the American Presbyterian Church. Mary, Queen of Scotland once said, “I fear John Knox's prayers more than an army of ten thousand men.” 

If each of us began to pray earnestly and sincerely for the people of the community in which we live, we would be amazed at the changes that would happen at the hand of God.  I’m not talking about a little “God bless our community” prayer, or a “God turn our community to You” prayer.  I’m talking about earnest, focused, ongoing prayer. Prayer that leads you to hear God’s voice telling you what you can do to bring about change in the community or the neighborhood in which you live. Prayer that counts on God to act and expects God to use the person praying, prayer that is offered by a person who is open and ready to be used. We could ask the same for this church.  That kind of prayer will bring about a changed church!

Many years ago, five young college students were spending a Sunday in London, so they went to hear the famed C.H. Spurgeon preach. While waiting for the doors to open, the students were greeted by a man who said, "Gentlemen, let me show you around. Would you like to see the heating plant of this church?" They were not particularly interested, for it was a hot day in July. But they didn't want to offend the stranger, so they consented. The young men were taken down a stairway, a door was quietly opened, and their guide whispered, "This is our heating plant." Surprised, the students saw 700 people bowed in prayer, seeking a blessing on the service that was soon to begin in the auditorium above. Softly closing the door, the gentleman then introduced himself. It was Spurgeon. It would be my prayer that you would create a group like that praying for your worship services.  There may be a few who are praying today, right now, for you who are present. 

Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, if you have faith and do not doubt,... you can say to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and it will be done. If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.” (Matthew 21:21–22)

James also talks about prayer for healing.  He says, “Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up.”   In one church I served, a young couple whose daughter had suffered an injury which paralyzed her, did exactly that.  They asked the Session members to assemble and pray for her healing.  It was not immediately apparent that He answered that prayer, there was no instant healing that they had hoped for.  But I am confident that God brought healing to that little girl in His own good time. 

Another time in the same church, a woman was told she had breast cancer.  Her daughter flew in from out of state as soon as possible.  Then they called me and asked me to come and talk with them and provide some comfort and reassurances of God’s love.  When we finished talking, we stood in their living room and the four of us joined hands and prayed fervently for her healing.  A few days later, she went to the doctor’s for a follow up exam prior to her choosing the treatment form to deal with it. The exam showed there was no trace of the cancer. 

There is one thing to note in James’ statement that is very important: He’s not saying that healing depends on the faith of the sick person.  He says the prayer offered in faith is what brings forth the riches of God to bring healing.  He’s talking about the faith of the one doing the praying.  When Jesus was ministering to the crowds one time, “Some men came, bringing to him a paralytic, carried by four of them. Since they could not get him to Jesus because of the crowd, they made an opening in the roof above Jesus and, after digging through it, lowered the mat the paralyzed man was lying on. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.”  (Mark 2:3–5) Then Jesus healed the man. 

Prayer for healing doesn’t always mean from an illness such as cancer or heart disease or diabetes or an injury of some sort.  Prayer for healing can also be for healing from an emotional strain or a psychological problem or from some besetting sin such as addiction.  In the latter cases, especially, it is helpful for a person to seek out a trusted friend to join them in their prayers and to hold them accountable.  When we know that trusted friend is going to ask us on a regular basis about our success in overcoming the struggle, we are much more likely to do our part in overcoming the problem – because, not only do we know that God is able to help us, but we also know that other person is praying for us and trusting God to help and heal.  The one thing we must remember is that in spite of the awesome power of God to do anything, He will not help an unwilling person.  When Jesus was asked for healing by the paralytic at the Bethesda pool, the first thing He did before healing the man ,was ask him if he really wanted to be healed. (John 5:2–9)

Close

Wouldn’t it be awesome to have that kind of power? / You know something?  You have it, if you want it!  But you must have the faith that says “I know God can do anything, so I know He can do what I ask.”  But we must also remember that Jesus told us He would do it if it was the Father’s will. 

One of the keys to powerful prayer is to learn how to pray and to pray daily.  It’s not something that we save for the important moments, like a moment of critical need or a time of needed healing.  It needs to be a daily experience with God.  As prayer becomes a daily, even moment by moment, walk with the Lord, we grow in our relationship with Him and learn to express our faith in Him for all things.

We need to think in terms of walking with the Lord as a best friend.  Would a friend think much of our relationship with them if we only called on them, only spoke to them, when we were in deep trouble or sick?  I suspect that friend would question our commitment to the relationship.  Paul says we are to “pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” (1 Thessalonians 5:17–18)

Early African converts to Christianity were earnest and regular in private devotions. Each one reportedly had a separate spot in the thicket where he would pour out his heart to God. Over time the paths to these places became well worn. As a result, if one of those believers began to neglect prayer, it was soon apparent to the others. They would kindly remind the negligent one, saying, "Brother, the grass grows on your path."

Friends, is grass growing on your path?  Are you keeping a regular time of prayer: conversation with God?  Are your prayers built on the faith that is confident that the Lord will answer; that he is waiting to give you the very best from His storehouse?  God’s power is available to you if you have faith, even faith as tiny as a mustard seed, said Jesus.  (Matthew 17:30)

I would lay two challenges before you this morning. First, make a concerted effort to be regular and active in your prayer life, to set aside a time when you will meet with the Lord on a daily basis and pour your heart out before Him.  Spend time praising Him, thanking Him and confessing before Him.  Then in faith make your requests known to Him.

The second challenge is to include in your prayers this church and its leadership. In this time of transition, lift up the committee members who will be leading the search efforts. Pray that God might use you to bring about exciting, powerful, life changes in the members and in the communities you serve.  While you are here at church, or on the Sundays when you are away or unable to be here, spend time praying fervently for the people who are in worship.  Pray in faith that God will touch them, and you, in a mighty way.  Then, in faith, watch what the Lord will do!

Prayer

Gracious and loving God, thank You for being our friend. Thank You for inviting us to come and talk with You. Thank You for being there with us through all the seasons of life. Help us, we pray, to be regular and open and honest in our times with You. Help us grow in our faith to know that You will answer our prayers in the way that is best for us and the ones for whom we pray. Hold us close and help us sense Your presence with us in our daily times of conversation with You. In Jesus name and for His sake. Amen.

Monday, May 7, 2018

Sharing in the Gospel (Acts:1:1-8; Phil. 1:1-6,9-11) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel



A friend of mine retired a few years ago from the San Diego Sheriff’s Department after a career of over thirty years.  He retired as a commander.  I asked him how he liked being retired.  He remarked that it was strange.  He said as a commander, he had absolute authority over his deputies.  I ordered them to go here or do this and they obeyed.  Now I no longer have any authority.  I am just another civilian.”

I thought, you know, I can relate to that, I can identify with him.  Being a pastor of a congregation is like being a commander in the Sheriff’s department.  I have absolute authority over the congregation.  I tell members to do this or go there and they do it instantly.  On the other hand, maybe not.  It’s really more like herding cats.  But after 42 years, I will find out what it’s like to join the ranks of civilians.

The 19th century Christian Danish Philosopher Soren Kierkegaard wrote: “The role you play in life is like a cloak which you can put on and take off.  Your identity is deeper than your role.  At your core you are a child of God.  In retirement I am taking off my role as an installed pastor, minister, reverend.  And by grace I am privileged to have more time to put on and wear another cloak, another role, Grandpa. I can’t think of a better role in retirement.

In our lesson from the letter of Philippians, the Apostle Paul writes to a church which he personally planted: “I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now.”   He is writing this letter near the end of his ministry.  And he fondly remembers sharing in ministry with the people of the church of Philippi in Greece.  He warmly recalls their love and support and hard work.  I thank you for allowing me to share in the ministry of the gospel with you.  The gospel is the message of the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ for the salvation of the world from sin and our participation in God’s work of reconciliation today.   Out of love, God sent Jesus Christ into the world to save sinners.

Being a pastor is a privilege.  You become deeply involved in people’s lives and lead a congregation in worship and ministry.  Is it ever taxing?  Sure.  Do pastors ever feel sorry for themselves?   Do they ever whine?  Yes, I confess I sometimes do.  Like can you believe it, I had three session meetings this month, or I had meetings almost every night this week, a person called to share some problems, I taught a class, had a funeral on Saturday and still had to prepare a sermon for Sunday.  Oh, woe is me.”

And then pastors, that is, yours truly, remember II Corinthians 11.  Listen to the Apostle Paul tells of his hardships:

I have been imprisoned, I have endured countless floggings, and often been near death.  Three times I was shipwrecked for a night and day, I was adrift at sea, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own people, in danger in the wilderness, I was beaten with rods.  Once I received a stoning, often without food, in toil and hardship, through sleepless nights, hungry and thirsty, cold and naked.”   That’s when my whining stops.  I think, You lucky guy, think of what pastors have to deal with in the Middle East, you only had a few meetings this week.”

I am thankful for so many things.  I am grateful for your allowing me to share in the gospel with you and to serve alongside you as we have strived to follow Christ’s vision of people bringing people to Christ.  I have truly enjoyed sharing in worship and preaching over these past 12 years.

I am thankful for your listening to stories about our grandchildren, who by the way just happen to be here this morning.  I also know we are not the only proud grandparents in the congregation.

I am thankful for our music program, for our Director, Esther, for our organist, Anne, for our talented and dedicated chancel choir and sounds of worship.  I appreciate the formula Esther has put together in blending traditional and praise music, in leading our handbells and in bringing guest instrumentalists to join us in worship.

I am thankful for our leaders, that is, our elders and deacons, with whom it has truly been a pleasure to serve with in ministry.  I am also thankful for having the opportunity to work with our staff.  I have been impressed with their enthusiasm, gifts and abilities as they lead us in ministry.

So many memories stand out over the past 12 years.  Like your overwhelming personal support for me when I lost my voice for about three months in 2011.  Ministry and laryngitis are just not compatible.  I honestly thought: “Well, I can’t speak, I can’t talk, they might say: Alan, we like you, it’s nothing personal, it’s just business, but standing in the pulpit staring at us each Sunday just isn’t cutting it.  Maybe its time to move on.

But you didn’t, instead, you brought in guest preachers, you allowed me to not talk so the healing process could begin, you asked me questions and then quickly said, “Oh, don’t speak, just nod yes or no.”  You supported and prayed for me and I will always remember your love and kindness and patience.  Thank you.

You likewise supported Nancy, through prayers, meals, cards, visits, stories, loaning us walkers and canes with Nancy’s recent hip replacement surgery.  We both felt your genuine care and support.  We thank you.

I remember the many good, faithful, and dedicated members and friends of our church who have died over these past 12 years.  We indeed miss their personalities, their contributions to ministry, their friendship, their participation and support, their humor, faith and witness.  God has called these dear people to his heavenly home and we truly believe, based upon the word of the Risen Lord and the promises of scripture, that we shall see them again one day.  They are just ahead of us on the journey.

I shall remember your commitment to sharing in God’s work in the world.  Just before his ascension, Jesus called together his disciples and issued this command: “But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth.    You have not only participated in ministry within these walls, but you have served God in the world.

God has called our congregation to a variety of opportunities for mission: serving homeless people through providing meals to some 100 people every Sunday night and our mail service, which provides homeless people an address where they can receive their mail, volunteering in CCSA, providing animated movies and pizza to families in the community on Friday nights for eleven years, hosting our community wide Graffiti Day aimed at cleaning up PB, participating in the annual Pacific Beachfest on the board walk and in operating our preschool which serves families over 60 children five days a week.   You heard God’s call and obeyed it.

I want to also highlight some of my themes over these years:

First, be thankful!  We read in I Thessalonians: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”  Being thankful is God’s will for us.   Thankfulness, gratitude, is the root of happiness, the key to contentedness, the path to a positive mind and attitude.  There are plenty of negative forces and powers in life that strive to supplant a grateful spirit like greed, jealousy, resentment, anger, hate, forgiveness, and entitlement.  These always pose a threat.  A thankful person is a healthy person. God’s goal in creating us is that we might become grateful people because that spirit leads us to care for and engage in other people’s lives.

The psalmist says: “Oh give thanks to the Lord, for God is good.  I give you thanks, O Lord, with my whole heart; before you I sing your praise, I bow down toward your holy temple and give thanks to your name for your steadfast love and your faithfulness.”

Second, love with Agape love!  Agape love is the love God loves the world with.   It is giving love, self-less love, sacrificial love, love with no requirements or strings.  It is undeserved love.  It is the because God first loved us kind of love.  We see it in the gospel.  Jesus Christ’s sacrifice and forgiveness on the cross was pure grace.  C.S. Lewis wrote: “Christ’s death on the cross has somehow put us right with God and given us a fresh start.”   Christ died while we were still sinners.  We couldn’t earn it and we didn’t deserve it, but out of love Jesus died to bring salvation, by grace through faith.

Today we see quid pro quo love, something for something love, a favor for a favor love.  Agape love, where we expect nothing in return, is a love we are capable of giving when we come to faith and have the power of the Holy Spirit in us.  It is the kind of love that changes lives.  Whom do you know who needs agape love from you?

Third, trust that your service in the Lord is not in vain!  It is easy to get discouraged.  In I Cor. 15: we read:  Therefore, my friends, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.”

I remember a mother at a former church.  She was estranged from her adult daughter for many years.  The daughter refused to have any communication at all.  The mother continued to pray, to write letters, to occasionally leave a brief message on the phone.  I prayed with her on many an occasion.  Finally, after over 10 years, her daughter phoned her and invited her mother out to lunch.  This mother’s faith and perseverance was not in vain.  It was a glorious day where a mother and daughter were reconciled.  Praise God.

Fourth, be an encourager!  Can you be an encourager in an imperfect world with flawed people, like you and me?  Of course.  This is the only world we have.  Jesus was an encourager to his disciples and to the crowds.  The Apostle Paul was an encourager to the churches he planted.   Barnabus, Paul’s companion in mission was called the Encouraging One.  This is the day.  Now is the time.  There is no better time than today.  Look for the possible.  Look for the good.  One word can change how someone’s feels about himself or herself or set them on a path for their future.  There is always something we can see in a person to encourage them about.

I like the story about a concert where a rather squeaky tenor had just finished his solo.  The applause was less than enthusiastic.  Someone in the audience exclaimed: “’Extraordinary!  Bravo!’ ‘Excuse me,’ said a puzzled women sitting next to him, ‘but I teach voice and I think his voice was quite inferior.’ ‘Voice?’ replied the other man, ‘I wasn’t thinking of his voice, I was praising his nerve.’”

Thank you for calling Nancy and me to PBPC in 2006.  Your call started as a temporary designated relationship and developed into an installed relationship. You brought us back to San Diego, our hometown, back to the beach from the mountains of Colorado, and to a caring and creative and faithful Christ-centered congregation.

Hear these words as you move ahead:  I Corinthians 16: “Keep alert, stand firm in your faith, be courageous, be strong.  Let all that you do be done in love.”   God has guided and empowered our church since 1888, 130 years.  Like our past, our future lies in God’s sovereign will.  In this light, I close with my favorite verses from the book of Proverbs 3:5-6: Trust in the Lord with all your heart, do not rely on your own understanding, in all your ways acknowledge God, and God will make straight your paths.”  Amen!

Friday, April 27, 2018

The Life After (I Peter 1:3-5;11 Cor. 5:1-5) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel


  
A mother writes:  While our family was leaving Disneyland, after a fun day, our sons Tyler and Cory, ages six and two were walking hand-in-hand behind my husband and me.  We overheard Tyler tell his younger brother Cory, ‘This is what heaven is like--except it's free!’

In the summer of 2004, 75 year old Fred Smith of Dallas Texas, was hospitalized in a semi-conscious condition and not expected to live.  Family members heard him repeat, "I want to go home…I want to go home."  After an emotional family conference, they concluded that they should respect his wishes and take no extraordinary measures to keep him alive.  For the next 36 hours, the family read Scripture, prayed, and said their goodbyes.   His daughter Brenda sat with him till midnight. Coughing finally broke through Fred's deep sleep and he suddenly awoke.

Brenda told him of the family's decision to follow his desire to "go home." She explained that he would gently slip into unconsciousness and then God would welcome him into his heavenly home. Suddenly, Fred's eyes opened wide and he said: Brenda, “I don't mean heaven, I mean my home, you know, my home on Parkchester Drive." Laughing through tears, we took him back home.

A question which has haunted the minds of men and women down through the ages was asked by Job in the Old Testament: “If a man dies, will he live again?  As a pastor, I have spoken to many people over the years about their attitude toward death.  People have different perspectives about it.   Age is an important factor, like whether you are young or elderly.  Having dependent children living at home is another significant factor.

The subject of death is ignored by many, welcomed by others as a blessing, because it means an end to physical or emotional suffering, and for still others death is feared.  Some don't fear death per se, they fear dying.  How am I going to die, will it be sudden and painless or prolonged and agonizing?  Some people believe death means the end, our complete extinction and others believe life continues on in some mysterious and unexplainable way.

I have personally ministered to grieving families over the years.  I have been with people in their final moments before death.  I have experienced the death of both of my parents and I can say that we are never really ready when that moment arrives.  When the last trumpet sounds it always takes us by surprise and comes as a shock.

If one dies, will one live again?    Cultures have different ideas about life and death because for some the idea of total extinction is unacceptable and unjust.   The ideas, perspectives and philosophies about death are innumerable.

Our culture offers symbolic immortality as an answer; that is, symbolic modes of living on.  For instance, there is the biological/biosocial mode, living on in our family, in people's memories, in our children, grandchildren, city, village, town, or nation.  There is also the creative mode, living on in one's accomplishments like having a school, like Kate Sessions Elementary, or a hospital, like Ellen Browning Scripps, named after you.  There is living on in your inventions, writings, movies, music, art, philanthropy, or in having built something, whether a playhouse for a child or the Freedom Tower in  New York City, the tallest skyscraper in the Western Hemisphere.  Comedian Woody Allen said:  I don’t want to achieve immortality by my work.  I want to achieve it by not dying.

Further, there is the nature mode, living on by becoming one with the natural world, the ground or the ocean, where our molecules are re-absorbed into nature.   Others find comfort in the notion of reincarnation, living on in another form of life. What do you think of symbolic immortality?  For Christians it may or may not bring comfort and assurance about the after-life.

For Jesus' followers, the basis of our hope, the ground of our confidence, our assurance about a life beyond this life is grounded in Easter, the resurrection of Jesus, stories about the appearances of Jesus following his resurrection, the testimony of eye-witnesses, and the teachings of the scriptures.  The historical event of the resurrection and the testimony of the Bible, the word of God, is the foundation of our assurance of the life to come in heaven.

Our Christian faith and the scriptures declare the truth about the after-life, eternal life, everlasting life, glory.  Here again the words from the letter of Philippians:  For as I have often told you before and now say again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their destiny is destruction, their god is their appetite, and their glory is in their shame, their mind is on earthly things.   But our citizenship is in heaven, from which also we eagerly wait for a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ; who by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.

Jesus Christ, the Son of God, our Lord and Savior, who sits at the right hand of God believed in and taught about heaven.  Jesus says:  Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven.”   Jesus’ prays: “Our Father who art in heaven” and “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”  Jesus says: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume, and where thieves break in and steal, but store up for yourselves treasurers in heaven.”

In II Corinthians we read:  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. For in this tent we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling.  He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee.”

I Peter says: “By God’s mercy, we have an inheritance waiting for us in heaven.”   Faith in Christ the resurrected Lord, gives us a divine perspective through which we can look at this life and the life to come. We have a dual citizenship.  We are citizens of the United States and citizens of heaven.

What is heaven like?   We read in I Corinthians:  Now we see in a mirror dimly, but then we shall see face to face.  Now we know in part, then we will know fully even as we are fully known.”  What will you see, what will you know?   There are so many questions:  What will heaven look like?  Will heaven be boring?  Is there an ocean in heaven?  Am I good enough to go to heaven?  Are there animals in heaven?  Do you have to diet in heaven?  Will I see family and friends in heaven?  Can you drive in heaven?

Our knowledge is limited, but we do have some answers.  You will see Jesus, face to face.  You will see God face to face.  You will worship in heaven.  There will be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying, nor pain.  You will be evaluated by Jesus for how you lived out your Christian life on earth.  You will be recognized for your treasures or rewards, that is, those kindnesses, good deeds, and loving acts you performed during your life time.  You will be reunited with loved ones.   I can say this to you with confidence, in the life to come, you will see and you will know.

I remember when my mother died in 1988 at the age of 73.  She died from the effects of Parkinson’s disease and pneumonia.  I was overwhelmed with grief.  A month or so after she died, I saw her in a dream.  Her faced was radiant.  Her body was whole, healthy and graceful.  She was walking in a sunlit meadow, she smiled and said:  Alan, I am OK, I’m fine.  Get on with your life.”  A wish-dream?  Some would say so.  I don’t believe it was.  I believe I saw my mother in heaven.  I believe this dream was an expression of God’s grace during my time of mourning.

Hear those moving words of Jesus’ promise – “Believe in me.  In my father's house are many rooms, I am going there to prepare a place for you, I would not tell you this if it weren't not so, and after I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.

What an inspiring promise.  Heaven is a gathering of the faith community, the communion of saints.  Just as Jesus appeared to his followers following his resurrection, and they recognized him  and interacted with him and ate with him, so heaven means for his followers that it will be a time of reunion with Jesus, friends and loved ones.   Heaven is a realm where you will be forever released from pain and suffering, from fear and death.

The Bible teaches that in heaven we will receive a new body.  Think about that.  Does that get your attention?   We will not at death be reabsorbed into the universe, like a drop in the ocean.  Our individual identity, created by God, will continue.  I Corinthians says:  Some ask, with what kind of body will I come to heaven?  We read in I Corinthians:  What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable, what is sown is mortal, what is raised is immortal, what is sown is physical, what is raised is spiritual.  What is sown in dishonor is raised in glory.  What is sown in weakness is  raised in power.  If it is sown a physical body, it is raised a glorious body.   We will be clothed with a heavenly dwelling.

Hear Jesus’ marvelous promise: “Because I live, you shall live also.” “I am the resurrection and the life, those who believe in me, even though they die, shall live, and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.

Death, even acknowledging the grief that accompanies it, should not be feared or dreaded.  It should rather be seen as God's final gift of grace, because beyond death lies a glorious heavenly homecoming when we shall be with the Lord and others, where we shall dwell in the house of the lord forever, and where we shall live as citizens.

I close with a quote from the great evangelist Rev. Billy Graham:  When I arrive at heaven’s Gate, God will not be impressed by the many crusades I have conducted.  God will not be impressed that I spoke to more people than anyone in the history of the Christian Faith.  I come to the Gates of Heaven like anyone else—in Jesus Christ and His all sufficient, sacrificial, substitutionary death on the Cross for my sins.  We will be in heaven by the stripes on the back of Jesus Christ, not by any stripes, badges, medals or honors that we have been awarded.” Why?  Because heaven is the ultimate expression of the grace of God.  Amen!

Friday, April 20, 2018

Preaching for the Birds (Matthew 10:7-10) by Grant Kay


 

On March 13, 2013, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was named Pope of the Roman Catholic Church. Bergoglio was a surprising choice to a lot of people, due to his age, his nationality, his religious order, and more. But the thing that stood out about Cardinal Bergoglio was that his whole career had been spent in service and care for the poor. He was known for his dedication to living a simple, humble life with few possessions, and his willingness to live and work with the poor, sick, and needy. When it came time for Bergoglio to be introduced to the world as the new pope, it was revealed that he had chosen a name that no pope had ever taken: Pope Francis. The name choice was in honor of St. Francis of Assisi, who dedicated his life to following God by serving the poor, and who, in doing so, awoke an entire generation of devout Christians.

The man we call St. Francis was born Giovanni di Pietro di Bernardone in either 1181 or 1182 AD, in the town of Assisi, in northern Italy. His father was Italian and his mother was French, and hew as not very tall as a child, and so was given the nickname Francesco, which means “little Frenchman,” from which we get Francis today. Francis’ early life is actually quite similar to the life of Augustine that we learned about last week, though not entirely. Francis was somewhat spoiled and indulged as a child, and was quite self-centered as a result. His father was a wealthy cloth merchant, and Francis loved fine clothes, good food, and expensive parties. Though he was a Christian, he was one in name only. His life did not bear any marks of real faith at the time.

In 1202, at about 20 years old, Francis went off to war. While in the army, he was captured, and spent the next year in captivity and illness. During this time his spiritual conversion began. When he was finally able to return home, he began to avoid the parties and games of his carefree days. He spent a great deal of time praying in a run-down old chapel in San Damiano, just outside of Assisi. While he prayed at San Damiano, he experienced the same vision three times, in which the Christ on the cross of the chapel spoke to him and said, “Francis, Francis, go and repair My House which, as you can see, is falling into ruins.” Francis assumed that this vision was about the chapel he was in, which was in great disrepair. So he sold some of his father’s golden cloth and used the money to rebuild the chapel.

When his father heard about this, he was furious. His son had stolen valuable merchandise and then spent it all! Francis’ father dragged him before the bishop and began legal proceedings against him. At that moment, Francis made the decision that he would change his life: He decided to renounce his whole life, give up his inheritance and family business, and leave. In order to owe nothing to his father, Francis even took off the clothes he was wearing at that moment, gave them to his father, and then walked out of the court naked and went straight into the woods.

From that time on, Francis lived the life of a poor wanderer. One day when he stopped in a church, he heard these words from Matthew 10 from our scripture reading. Francis took this message to heart and chose to live as simply as possible, in imitation of Jesus. He also began to see that Jesus chose to identify with the poor, and so he took a vow of poverty. He lived only by begging for food, and he also taught others as he travelled. He also begged for money to give to the poor, and spent much of his time helping those who lived in abject poverty. He had no possessions, and spent a great deal of time in nature.

Even later in life, when he had founded a monastic order and lived with others, it was said that Francis would spend up to half of each year in the natural world, away from people and cities, praying and communing with God. Francis loved God’s creation, and never ceased to worship God for the things he made. The famous hymn, “All Creatures of Our God and King” was written by St. Francis. That hymn represents Francis’ love of nature, and his desire that the whole earth, not just humanity, should give praise to God.

There is a famous story about St. Francis that he was trying to decide whether to retreat into nature, or go back into the cities to teach. In a fit of inspiration, he ran up to a flock of birds and began to preach to them about Jesus. The story has it that none of the birds flew away until he had finished preaching and made the sign of the cross over them! As wild as that story sounds, it reveals Francis’ deep connection to the natural world, and his love of God’s creation. The story says that when he came back to his friends after preaching to the birds, he accused himself of negligence because he had never preached to the birds before then!

Despite Francis’ love for nature, he could not remain entirely out of human society. By 1209, he had about a dozen friends and followers who had begun to imitate his lifestyle and travel with him. So Francis decided to found a monastic order, which meant that the Catholic Church would officially support his ministry and would allow others to follow his path. In order to found a monastic order, you had to have permission from the Pope. Otherwise, you could be declared a heretic for practicing something that was against the church. There was just one problem: Francis wasn’t just out there living like a hermit, caring for the poor, and preaching to animals, he was also challenging the structure of the Catholic Church.

When Francis chose to take a vow of poverty, and people started to follow him, it began to raise questions about the hierarchy of the Catholic Church. You see, many bishops, cardinals, and popes over the centuries had amassed incredible wealth through their church offices. It probably comes as no surprise to any of us today that powerful people were abusing their power to obtain incredible wealth. The bishops and cardinals of Italy were perfectly content to oversee the church and live comfortable lives of wealth, until along came this voice in the wilderness of Assisi, living in poverty and caring for the poor.

You can see why it might have been a bit daunting for Francis to go to Rome and seek approval for his monastic order. For the pope to approve of Francis and his followers would be to acknowledge that the riches of the Catholic Church were un-Christ-like. Yet Francis believed that his life and his group of followers were ordained by God and living in a way that was pleasing to Him. The pope at the time was Pope Innocent III, who had inherited great wealth from his predecessors. Innocent was somewhat uneasy with the idea of a wealthy church, but he was not about to change the status quo.

When Francis came to him for permission to start his monastic order, he came in his beggar’s clothes. When Pope Innocent saw Francis, he said that he looked and smelled like a pig, and he should go wallow among the pigs Francis, instead of taking the insult and leaving, went to a pig sty, rolled around, and returned to the Pope saying, “Father, I have done as you ordered; now, will you do as I request?” Pope Innocent was impressed with this display of humility and obedience, and allowed Francis to officially form his monastic order.

With official approval, the Franciscan order quickly grew. A woman named Clare founded a sister organization that soon became known as the Second Order of Franciscans, but was also known as the Poor Clares. After that, there were many who wanted to live in imitation of Jesus and follow the Franciscan Rule, but felt it necessary to remain in their jobs, families, and so on. These people were also formed into communities and became the Third Order of Franciscans. Thus, the Franciscan movement began to spread in all facets of Christianity: men and women were joining the movement, whether it was the first, second, or third order.

Francis also tried to spread the message of the gospel around the world. He made a trip to Egypt in an attempt to convert the Muslim Sultan to Christianity. This shows the boldness of Francis, in that he travelled deep into territory controlled by Muslims, at a time when Muslims and Christians were constantly at war, just to try and win people for Jesus. Supposedly, Francis was able to gain an audience with the Egyptian Sultan, but wasn’t able to convince him to convert. However, the sultan was so impressed by Francis that he granted him safe passage back to Italy.

Francis spent many years leading his monastic brothers and sister, teaching them and trying to keep them humble. Thanks to the rapid growth of the movement, there was always the temptation to give up humility or poverty in exchange for the glory and wealth of the world, just as the bishops and cardinals had done before them. So Francis worked hard to make sure that his followers would not give in to these temptations. He spent the final years of his life continuing to live in poverty, teaching about the life of Jesus to all who would listen, and growing his Franciscan order to become the largest monastic order of the time.

For a church that had become increasingly wealthy and hierarchical, Francis was nothing short of revolutionary. Francis called people out of their comfortable lives and into service, poverty, and humility. He challenged the dominant power of his day, not through revolution or fighting but through the example of his life. Francis’ vision from his youth, of Jesus telling him to “repair my house” had become about so much more than a small chapel. He had begun to repair the whole Church from its ruin of excessive wealth and comfort.

The life of St. Francis has many lessons for us. First, follow the calling of God in your life. If Francis had not obeyed the small call of rebuilding that chapel in San Damiano, who knows if he ever would have embarked on the path of his life. Francis shows us that God cares not only about humans, but about the world that he created: the animals, plants, birds, and the rest. Finally, Francis shows us the power of following the example of Jesus in our life. Francis’ commitment to living like Christ was revolutionary enough to change the whole church.

I would like to close with a prayer written by St. Francis that has remained a powerful and popular prayer down to this day. Let us pray,

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace;
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.

O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
Amen.