Wednesday, May 29, 2013

In Memoriam (John 15:9-17) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

In an article titled Holiday Weekend Plans, there was a question in yesterday’s Union-Tribune: “What are you most interested in doing this Memorial Day weekend?”  1.  Going to the beach.  2. Having a backyard barbecue. 3. Relaxing with family and friends.  4. Honoring the nation’s war dead.   How to you think people will respond?
Listen to this story about the troops coming home: “A friend and I passed through the Dallas–Fort Worth airport. On the way to the connecting gate, we heard loud patriotic music playing and saw a group wearing colorful hats, cheering, and waving American flags. The troops were coming home, and here was their welcoming committee.  Two women encouraged us to grab flags and join in.  At first, a few soldiers just dribbled by. We whooped and waved our flags furiously. Then the pace picked up as dozens of men and women in uniform came barreling through. We kept repeating: "Welcome home! We're glad you're back! We appreciate you!" Some soldiers wiped away tears, while others displayed huge, self-conscious smiles.  We felt humbled by participating in this sweet moment of coming home. These men and women had taken oaths of faithfulness and service. They had fought courageously, lived with deprivation, danger, and disease, and took unbelievable risks, all for the good of our nation.”
Tomorrow our nation observes Memorial Day.  This day was founded on May 30, 1868 when flowers were placed on the graves of Union and Confederate soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery.  It was originally called “Decoration Day.”  Families and friends were encouraged to visit the graves of those who had fallen in battle and leave a floral tribute and to bring extra floral bouquets for the numerous graves marked “Unknown Soldier.”  
Memorial Day events locally have been scheduled at two national cemeteries – Miramar National Cemetery on Sunday and Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery on Monday.  Memorial Day remembers and honors those Americans who have died in wars and made the ultimate sacrifice in the service of our country. 
Memorial Day is a day of mixed feelings for our nation.  It is a day of sadness and loneliness and painful memories and humility, and survivor’s guilt born by some who are haunted by the death of their comrades; it’s also a day of thankfulness and pride, of appreciation and celebration by Americans and spouses and children of veterans who returned home to be with their families.    We know that some veterans are homeless, living on the streets of San Diego.  Veterans are being cared for by our Veteran’s hospitals, bearing the wounds, physical and emotional of war, and we remember in gratitude the doctors, nurses and medical teams who care for them
Memorial Day is about sacrifice and sacrifice is at the heart of our Christian faith.  It is at the center of the gospel, the sacrifice of God’s Son, Jesus on the cross, who died for the sins of the world.  That is why we take time to remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice before God in worship today. 
Our lesson from the Gospel of John speaks of love at its pinnacle, at its zenith.  “My command is this: that you love one another as I have loved you.  No one has greater love than this, to lay down’ one’s life for one’s friends.”  The word Jesus uses for love is the Greek word agape, which means self-giving, selfless, sacrificial love.   Jesus commands us as his followers to practice agape love, to love one another as He has loved us.  That’s a tall order.  We are to love others not because they are lovable, not because they are adorable, not because they deserve it or have earned it, but because Jesus commands it.  To follow Jesus, truly following Jesus, means to obey his commands.  Agape love is unconditional love, that is, love at its apex.   
You may never be faced with dying for someone else in your lifetime, but agape love can be practiced in other ways as well: making personal sacrifices for others, investing yourself in the lives of others by helping, encouraging, supporting, sharing, and giving our time or money or resources. 
This weekend we remember the courage and dedication of the men and women who have fought and died in our nation’s wars from the American Revolution until today and those who served in Afghanistan and Iraq: friends, neighbors, sons and daughters, parents, grandparents and great grandparents, who have served their nation and their God, who have sacrificed their lives for future generations to preserve democracy, freedom and peace
One of the most famous pictures from World War II is the photo of five valiant Marines raising an American flag on the island of Iwo Jima.  The young man in the center of the photo was John Bradley.  After the war, Bradley moved back to Wisconsin, married his high school sweetheart, and raised a family.  
Although John Bradley won the Navy Cross for saving a fellow soldiers’ life, he preferred not to talk about the war.  And he absolutely refused to accept the hero worship that others tried to force on him.  One of the few comments Bradley ever made about the war, he made to his young son, James.  In response to James’ remark about heroism, John Bradley replied, “The heroes of Iwo Jima are the guys who didn’t come back.”  Today we honor the memory of those who didn’t come back.
The pain and horror of war of course never leaves the minds of those veterans who return.  Next week a friend of mine is coming out for a visit from Arizona.  He served in the Army infantry in Vietnam.  We were friends growing up in San Diego, went to the same church, and we wrote to each other while he was in Vietnam.   We haven’t seen each other for over 40 years and just reconnected in the last year.  We are getting together with some other childhood friends as well.  He said he is so looking forward to the visit.  But in an email he made one request – “Please do not ask me about my experiences or memories of my time in Vietnam.  That subject is taboo.”
A few years ago I had the privilege of worshipping at Christ Church in Philadelphia. It is an Episcopal Church.  It is often referred to as the Nation’s Church or the Patriot’s Church.  It was established in 1695.  During Revolutionary War times members of the Continental Congresses, Washington’s troops, and members of the Constitutional Convention worshipped there.  On July 4,1776 Christ Church publicly banished King George’s name from worship, which was just as dangerous an act as signing the Declaration of Independence.   
While there you can’t help but remember our spiritual founders and the sacrifices they made for the future of this nation.  Some lost sons in the war and others lost their lives.  Seven signers of the Declaration, such as Benjamin Franklin, are buried in the grounds of the church.  When you see the grave markers there, like many of the churches in the East, you can’t help but be inspired and be spiritually connected to these saints who gave so much.
As individual believers and as a nation we need a day like this; we need a day to reflect upon their legacy of the fallen and to remind us of our history, our story as a nation.  Our freedom has come at a tremendous price.  Memorial Day gives meaning to our national identity, and reminds us of those who believed in our future and provided us with unexpected opportunities as a nation under God.
How do we connect agape love with Memorial Day?  By praying for our service men and women around the world.   By communicating with those serving in the military today.  By supporting wounded warriors and military families.  We as parents can explain the significance of this day to our children or take them to a cemetery - for this is a way to honor our war dead, and helps to teach our children about the sacrifice made by men and women of our armed forces to protect and preserve our nation.
I ask you to remember one of the families of our congregation, Jimmy and Engrid Whisennet, who joined our church and whose son Jimmy we baptized.  They will be returning next month.  Jimmy is in the Navy.  He has been on deployment for a year.  He has been in Bahrain, where he serves on a mine tender and seeks out and destroys mines in the Persian Gulf. 
We honor our war dead when we embody Christ’s words: “This is my commandment that you love one another as I have loved you.  No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.  You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, but I have called you friends. You did not choose me, but I chose you.  And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last.”  Yes, bearing fruit, fruit that will last, is a beautiful way we honor the memories of those who gave their lives for us.
There is a small cemetery on an island in the western Pacific where Americans and New Zealanders who died in battle during World War II are buried.  Near their graves is a simple, rustic marker with this inscription: “They shall not grow old as we who are left grow old.  Age shall not weary them nor the years condemn.  At the going down of the sun, and in the morning, we shall remember them.”    
Jesus words convey our highest calling: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”  Amen!

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

A Pentecostal Church (Galatians 5; Acts 2:1-11) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

I recall visiting Calvary Pentecostal Church years ago.  A rock and roll band was blasting away as you entered the sanctuary.  People were standing in the aisles waving their arms, shouting amen in loud voices, rocking and moving from side to side, dancing in the aisles, falling down on their knees in tears, speaking in tongues.  The preacher yelled for people to come forward to receive the anointing of the Holy Spirit and men and women rushed to the front of the sanctuary, where the pastor would hit their foreheads with the heal of his hand, and slain in the spirit, they would fall back into the arms of the ushers standing behind them.  Yes, it sounds like another typical Sunday morning here at PBPC?
Question - are we a Pentecostal church?  Well, my friends I certainly hope so.  Biblically, the answer is yes.  Pentecost isn’t about a particular stereotype or style of worship, but rather in a deeper sense, it is about the presence and power of the Holy Spirit in the life and the lives of the people in the church.  Pentecostal worship can be loud and spontaneous or orderly and contemplative.  Pentecost is about God’s Spirit penetrating the hearts and minds of God’s people.  Pentecost is about the Holy Spirit inspiring the worship and ministry of the people.  A Pentecostal church is a church alive in the Spirit of God.  And if the Holy Spirit isn’t present in our midst, then we may be a social club, or a non-profit organization, but we are not the church of Jesus Christ.
At Pentecost, fifty days after Easter, when the disciples were all together in one place in Jerusalem, God sent the Holy Spirit to the people.  It was like a mighty wind and tongues of fire, spiritual gifts were imparted, and they were galvanized into a unified body of believers and equipped and empowered and sent out on a mission into the world.  On the day of Pentecost, a crowd had gathered around these disciples, and a miracle occurred; the people coming from different regions in the Mediterranean world, and speaking different languages, heard the disciples speaking about God and God deeds of power in their own languages. 
A Pentecostal church is where God’s people understand their purpose.  It can answer the question – Why are we here?  Why do we exist?  It remembers Jesus’ Great Commandment:  “Love God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind and love your neighbor as yourself.”  It remembers Jesus Great Commission:  “Go forth and makes disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, son and Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you, for Lo, I am with you always to the end of the age.”
Why are Jesus’ teachings important?  They are important because the Great Commandment combined with the Great Commission makes a great church.  One Church’s mission is: “To live lives to glorify Christ, by making disciples who are growing in relationship with God in worship, with the church in fellowship, and with the world in witness.”   Another Church’s mission is: “To reach unchurched people, help them grow in Christ so we can together serve the Lord in ministry.”   Another Church’s mission is –“ Love God and bless the city.”
Our mission is rooted in our name Pacific Beach Presbyterian Church, PBPC, People Bringing People to Christ.  To be more specific, based upon our spiritual discernment and the demographics of our community, it is: “To reach young families and singles for Christ and to rekindle our congregation to feel empowered and strengthened by the Holy Spirit to reach out into our community.” 
A Pentecostal church is committed to God’s mission in its particular corner of the Kingdom.  And the church must be flexible, adaptable, malleable and be able to change in its mission as the world around it changes.   Once a man stood up at a lecture that the famous rocket scientist Dr. Werner Von Braun was giving and asked:  “Why can’t we just forget all these new-fangled ideas about going out into space and be content to stay at home and watch television like the good Lord intended?”  Is that what the good Lord intended?
God didn’t establish the church at Pentecost for the church to stay at home and watch television.  God didn’t establish the church at Pentecost to resist changing its ways while change is swirling all around it.  God has empowered us to be a Pentecostal church with the mission of loving people and reaching people in the name of Christ.  
The Day of Pentecost was an outpouring of spiritual energy and power and enthusiasm.   A Pentecostal church is a church where believer’s lives are transformed and being transformed, where energy and enthusiasm is evident, like the story in Acts.   Now must this zeal and energy be constant?  No, we do get tired at times and need to rest. Right. Do you ever get tired?  Remember Jesus words:  “Come unto me all of you who labor and are over-burdened and I will give you rest.”  Jesus recognized that there are times when we simply need stop as individuals and as a church and rest, and re-energize ourselves physically, emotionally and spiritually.  God doesn’t expect the church to go full steam ahead 24-7.
That strange day, the day of Pentecost further reveals something about the being, the nature of the God we worship.  Christian preacher and author A. W. Tozer writes:  “God is delighted with all that is good and lovingly concerned about all that is wrong.  God pursues His labors always in a fullness of holy zeal. No wonder the Spirit came at Pentecost as a sound of a rushing mighty wind and sight of tongues of fire on every forehead. ... Whatever else happened at Pentecost, one thing that cannot be missed by the most casual observer was the sudden upsurging of spiritual enthusiasm. Those first disciples burned with a steady, inward fire.”  
Where do we manifest that energy, enthusiasm and zeal?  In Worship and prayer we grow stronger through loving, and glorifying and praising God.  In Ministry, we grow broader through serving and loving others in the church, the community and the world.  In Evangelism, we grow larger through reaching out to unbelievers and making disciples.  In Fellowship we grow warmer through building and deepening caring relationships.  In Discipleship we grow deeper as people grow in faith and spiritual maturity through teaching, Bible study, and learning and developing skills in pastoral care and service to the glory of God. 
A Pentecostal church seeks to always be an environment which is loving and joyful and caring and faith filled and prayerful.  People support others in the midst of brokenness, hunger, loneliness, in the midst of illness and grief and death.  There is compassion kindness and empathy, support and encouragement.  People come alongside one another in times of joy and celebration and in times of crisis and tragedy.  People rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep.  Our Sunday Night Ministry which reaches out to homeless people in our community is a good example of this work of the Holy Spirit.  The free Friday Night Family movie and Pizza gatherings for families in our community is another example of the work of the Holy Spirit.
I have seen this caring spirit many times during the years that I have served as pastor – from when I first came to recent times with families who have lost loved ones.
God calls us as His people to minister in a changing world and at the same time to be open to being changed by God’s Spirit in accord to God’s purpose for the church and for our lives.  Christ calls us to a dynamic ministry in a dynamic environment and to engage in a purpose-filled, faithful, loving, vital and joyful ministry. 
A church which is serious about doing ministry today, must be willing to live with the tension of what Bruce and Marshall Shelley have identified as our “ambidextrous calling.”  On the one hand, we are obligated to remain faithful to the unchanging Word of God.  God calls the church to reach people with the good news of Jesus Christ.  We preach the unchanging gospel, God’s salvation in Jesus Christ, God’s forgiving and transforming love in Jesus Christ and the promise of life everlasting.  The gospel that says human beings are sinners and God sent Jesus to save sinners. The letter of Hebrews 13:8 says:  “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.”
On the other hand, we must minister in an ever-changing world.   Our world is constantly in flux.  Rapido.  Think of the many changes in the last twenty years - social, economic, governmental, technological, scientific, business, and religious.   Society is constantly shifting and changing so rapidly that we hardly have time to catch our breath.  Is this not true?
The message of the gospel must never change, Jesus Christ the same yesterday, today and forever, but the methods we employ to spread the gospel and reach people must be open to change.  The church’s methods and strategies must be flexible, creative, and innovative.  Our strategy for fulfilling Christ’s great command and great commission must be in sync with the particular demographics and needs in the community surrounding the church.   The church’s mission must always strive to be relevant to the community.
Consider the demographics of Pacific Beach.  I don’t have to tell you how much it has changed in the last 50 years.  The population is about 45,000.  The single’s population comprises about 68%.  The married population comprises about 32%.  Households with children comprises about 13%.  Households without children comprises about 88%.   
We as a church must seek God’s guidance and power and inspiration to live in a changing world and not retreat to either one of two extremes - the extreme of isolation from today’s culture or to the extreme of conformity and imitating the latest ideas and fads of the culture.  Jesus calls us to be contemporary, without compromising the eternal truth of the gospel.
God has called us to reach out in this part of His kingdom in this time and place.  Is it a challenge?  I don’t have to answer that.  Is it a burden?  No, as the great British theologian and missionary to India Lesslie Newbigin said: "Mission is not a burden laid upon the church; it is a gift and a promise to the church that is faithful. The command arises from the gift.  Jesus reigns and all authority has been given to him in earth and heaven.”
God so loved the world that He sent His only Son.  God personally came into this world because he loved this world and decided to save it.  And God sends us into the world to bring his love to others. 
I think of an example of our loving people in the world, our going out into the community in the name of Christ.  Last week, at 1:00 a.m. the young adults from our Sunday Night Roots went out for their bi-monthly Bottle Service.  They walk out on Garnet just as the bars are closing.  They hand out free water bottles.  They set up a sign and hand out flyers identifying our church.  They handed out 600 bottles to young people walking or jogging by on the street in just over an hour.  Why – it might just have something to do with Pentecost.  It might just have something to do with the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
What is the true test of a Spirit-filled church?  No, it’s not the style of your worship service.  No it’s not having the word Pentecostal in your church name.   Rather, I think Galatians 5:22 says it well:  “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”  If those spiritual qualities permeate your life and the life of the church, you can be assured that you are Spirit-filled.
My friends, by the grace of God we are and are becoming a Pentecostal Church, a Spirit-filled church.  Let us open our hearts and minds to God’s power and guidance and be alert to the needs around us and how best to minister to those needs in the name of Christ. 
“When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.  And suddenly from heaven, there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.  Divided tongues as of fire appeared among them and a tongues rested on each of them.  And all of them were filled with the Holy Spirit.”  Amen

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Mother's Day (Romans 16:13-16) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

A story is told of three sons who left home, went out on their own and prospered.   Growing up, they were always competing for their mother’s love and attention, and now as adults they met once again to talk about the gifts they were giving to their elderly mother on Mother’s Day.  The first said: "I built a big beautiful house for mother.  She will be the envy of all her friends" The second said: "I bought mother a new Mercedes and I included a chauffeur." The third said: "I've got you both beat. You know how Mom loves the Bible, but she can't see very well.  I sent her a special green parrot that can recite the entire Bible. It took two monks in a monastery 12 years to teach him.  I had to pledge $100,000 to the monastery, but it was worth it.  Mom just has to name the chapter and verse, and the parrot will recite it."
The next day, their Mom sent out her letters of thanks.  She wrote to the first son: "Milton, the house you built is way too big and away from all my friends. I live in only one room, but I have to clean the whole house." She wrote to the second son: "Marvin, I don’t go out anymore.  I stay home all the time, so I never use the Mercedes... and besides that chauffer is SO rude." She wrote to the third son: "Dearest Melvin, you are the thoughtful son, you know what your mother likes... The chicken was delicious."
Yes, it’s Mother’s Day.   Today our nation sets aside a day to honor mothers, single or married, grandmothers and great grandmothers, step mothers and foster mothers and adoptive mothers.  Today we pause to remember our mothers, whether we are adults or children, whether our mothers are alive or no longer with us.  We also acknowledge that today can be a difficult day for mothers who have experienced the death of a son or daughter or for women who longed to become mothers. 
On this day we show mothers in small or large ways, that they are special, that we love and appreciate them.  Some families will take their moms out for breakfast or lunch or dinner at a restaurant.  Some children will entertain their mothers in their homes.  Still other families will visit their mothers in a nursing home, and others will go to cemeteries and lay a bouquet of flowers at the gravesite, as a way of honoring and remembering their mothers.    
The Bible looks at motherhood realistically and honestly.  It honors mothers and motherhood, as we read in the 5th commandment, but it doesn’t idealize it.   It acknowledges the joys and sorrows, the challenges and rewards, of being a mother.   The Bible tells many moving stories about mothers.  Mothers like Naomi, the mother of two sons and mother-in-law of Ruth and Orpah, and Sara, the mother of Isaac, and Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, and Mary the mother of Jesus.
The apostle Paul in the New Testament affirmed motherhood.   In the letter of Romans, Paul sends special greetings to persons whose loyalty, faith, friendship and love had made such an impact upon his life and ministry.  We read his words: “Give my greetings to Rufus, chosen in the Lord, and to his mother, who was a mother also to me.”   Paul obviously had a close relationship with her and deeply cherished and respected her. 
I think of my own mother and how loving, supportive and encouraging she was.  She was a dedicated Christian, active with my dad in our church.  She who worked full time as a school secretary, and made sure my brother and I were involved in the church.  I recall times of prayer with her and conversations about the meaning of certain stories in the Bible.  She was a Christian witness.
I also remember a woman who, like the apostle Paul was speaking about, was like a mother to me.  Her name was Doris.  She was a teacher at Hoover High School and the mother of a good friend of mine.  She was a devoted Christian and member of our church.    After I graduated from Hoover high school I got a job as a dish washer in a pancake house.  I worked Friday and Saturday nights.  It was so much fun.  After getting off work, I would go over to their home.  They would dish out my favorite ice cream.  We used to talk about all kinds of things.  Doris was interested in what I was doing.  She was kind and supportive and encouraging, a good listener and had a wonderful sense of humor.
I suspect you too can think of someone, who in addition to your own mother, acted like a mother to you, a woman who encouraged you and prayed for you and was influential in your life.  Who inspired you to persevere, who accepted and understood you, who believed in you and who helped you to believe in yourself?    Who comes to mind?  Yes, God uses both mother’s and women who act like mothers for His purpose in our lives.  
Some of you have been like a mother to a neighbor child, to a friend of your children, to a troubled kid on the block, to tutoring a student at school, to a niece or nephew or grandchild.   Indeed, you may never be a parent, but you can be a mother, like Rufus’ mother was to Paul.  God always gives us such opportunities.  Ashley Montague wisely observed:  The next best thing to being a mother is to behave like one.”
How does a mother live a life in faithfulness to God?  Consider carefully these biblical principles. 
First, let your children see and hear your faith, that you take your faith in God seriously and joyfully.  Let them see how Jesus Christ and the church are significant in your life.  Let them see you live out your faith in prayer, reading the scripture, in serving God, in worshipping as a family.  Get them involved in Sunday School and the youth group.  Give children spiritual instruction.  Teach your child to become a disciple of Jesus.  Let your children catch the faith from you and let them look to the lord for a peace and power greater than themselves. 
Second, see your child as God’s child.   Your children are gifts from God, on loan to you for a short while, to protect, cherish, teach, love and provide for.  Don’t compare them with other children.  That is a road that tends to lead either to pride or discouragement.   Love them as if they were God’s children, for indeed, they are.
Third, value the unique individuality of each child.  God has made our children one of a kind, with different gifts and talents and strengths and weaknesses.   See the potential in them that you can help cultivate. Always look for the potential.   Keep expectations high, but also realistic.   
Fourth, don’t be reluctant to discipline your child when it is called for.  Discipline is another form of loving your child. It is an expression of parental love.   It is a way of teaching your child moral values and good behavior and respect for authority.  Over the years I have seen parents try to be best friends with their children and refuse to discipline them.  They are afraid their children won’t like them or will be angry with them.  The problem is that children will sometimes grow up not respecting you because you never held them accountable. 
Fifth, make motherhood a priority.  Spend time, quality and quantity time with your child.  There is no substitute for you, for your presence and influence, for your counsel and actions, for your values and virtues, for your hugs and smile, for your love and compassion.  Only you can bring your unique personality, your attitude and spirit, your guidance and faith and moral example, and your love and teaching to your child.  Don’t strive to be a perfect mom, but be a present mom.  Don’t compare yourself with other moms.  For once again, that path can lead to either pride or discouragement.  Learn to forgive yourself.  God doesn’t expect perfection, God expects faithfulness.
Sixth, slowly let go and grant your child more freedom and independence.  This is one of the most difficult and frightening aspects of parenting.   Protecting yes, but not overly protecting.  Allow your child to experience the freedom to make decisions appropriate to their age.  Allow them to fail and learn from their failures as well as their successes.   Allow them to accept responsibility and the consequences of their words and actions.  We cannot always shield them from setbacks and disappointments, nor should we, because such times are an essential part of character development.  Isn’t the very goal of parenting to launch our children into the world as independent, productive, faith-filled, moral and responsible human beings?   
I close with a story about Becky O'Connell.  She has been given a unique title—"The Baby Whisperer."  This 65-year-old widow is a temporary foster care worker.  According to a 2013 article in the Chicago Tribune, "She keeps baby clothes arranged by size in the guest room. The hand-knit caps are stacked on a table near the door. And the white wicker bassinet is always within reach."
Becky O'Connell is prepared because at any moment of the day or night she could receive a call from a social worker who needs to place an infant in her care.  Some of the children have been abandoned. Other children have been abused. All of them are desperate for love, for touch, and for attention.  So far Ms. O'Connell has taken in 77 infants, or about seven babies per year that stay from one night to four months.
The road to this calling wasn't easy.  In 1999 her youngest son, Ian, was killed in a car accident. "For years and years after his death, I couldn't concentrate," she says. "I looked and acted like a normal person, but you don't feel like a normal person." A few years later, she read an ad from a local adoption agency. They needed someone to be a temporary foster parent for newborns. To O'Connell, who had always loved babies, it sounded like a dream job.  If she has a secret, she says, it is simply giving each child her undivided attention. “My job is to fall in love with these babies."
“Give my greetings to Rufus, chosen in the Lord, and to his mother, who was a mother also to me.”     Amen!

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

The Great Banquet (Luke 14:15-24) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

Like most couples preparing for a wedding, Dave and his fiancĂ©e Michele were a little worried about whether all the guests would show up for the ceremony on July 6, 2008.  They didn't need to worry about their friend Jim Barclay, though.   When Dave wrote his best friend Jim, telling him about the July 6 wedding in Wales, Barclay thought he was talking about 2007.  So Barclay bought a plane ticket from Toronto for $1,000.  Once he arrived in Wales, he called Dave to get the details about the location for the ceremony.  It was only then that he discovered he was ahead of schedule, like a whole year.  "At least, he said, as the best man, it gave me a great story when I toasted the groom."
Do you like parties?  Isn’t it a joy, an honor, to be invited to someone’s house for a party?  It’s fun to get together with people, friends and strangers, for a social occasion.  Whatever the occasion, a birthday celebration, a backyard barbeque, an anniversary, a graduation, a wedding reception, a baby shower, or simply having a few friends over, it is one of the joys of life.
Jesus was at a Pharisee's house for dinner on the Sabbath.  At some point in the evening, Jesus tells a story.  What seems to have prompted it is a comment by one of the guests:  “Blessed is he who shall eat bread in the Kingdom of God.”  These words look to the future, to the Great Messianic banquet in God’s Kingdom.  The parable is about a man who throws a party.
The custom in Jesus’ day was to send out two invitations. The first invitation said: “I am having a party and you’re invited.”  All the guests sent back their RSVPS saying they were honored to be invited and to count on them to come.  When the preparations were ready, the host sent out a servant to bring the second invitation – “Come, everything is ready now.”
So what happens?  One by one all the guests start making excuses.  Now that hurts.  Has that ever happened to you?  All the food and drink and preparations are ready, but no one is coming. 
Now you need to know a little more about the custom of the day.  Today when people RSVP and then don’t show or call at the last minute with an excuse, we are a little hurt or disappointed, but it’s a fairly small deal.  In Jesus’ day it was different.  To decline after accepting an invitation, was a terrible insult, a serious social offense, and literally some tribes or families went to war over such things.    Turning down an invitation could have major consequences.
The first guest says: “I know I said I would come, but I’m too busy.  I just bought a piece of land and I have to go out and see it.”  Sounds a little lame to me. Why? How many of you would purchase a piece of property without first seeing it?  And couldn’t you go out to check out the property the next day?   
The second guest says: “I know I said I would come, but I’m too busy, I just bought five oxen and I need to try them out.”  I’ve got to ask how many of you would buy an ox without first checking it out?  Or to translate to our day - How many of you would buy a car without first test-driving it?   It sounds pretty flimsy.  A similar excuse might be, “Sorry, I can’t come, I just bought a dog and have to give him a bath.”
The third guest tells the servant: “Sorry, I thought I could come, but I can’t because I just got married.  Now this sounds like a good reason.    However, you again must look at the custom of the day.  Jewish engagements were planned well in advance.   A Jewish wedding was a long anticipated community event, it lasted about a week and the whole village or town was invited. The groom would have long known that the party would conflict with the wedding plans.  
When the servant returns and tells his master the news, the host becomes angry.  He had made all the preparations, everything was ready for a grand party, and now everyone had backed out.  These invited guests had insulted and dishonored him.  That’s what it was all about in Jesus’ day, honor.  It was the equivalent to a backhand to the face or a spit in the eye.  You might as well have said: “Ah, I’ve changed my mind, you throw lousy parties anyway.”  I'm sure the others at the Pharisee’s home were shaking their heads in disgust at the impertinence of these invited guests.  
How did the host respond to the bad news?  In a way that would have shocked the Pharisees.  He sends his servant out into the streets and alleys to tell the poor, the beggars, the crippled, the blind and the lame to come to his party.
The master wanted a full house and when the servant returns and says there is still room, the host sent him out into the country along the roads and country lanes to invite others to come.  Here we see clearly see the generosity and magnanimity of the host.  The guests didn’t come off as well.  Each of the original guests had put something else ahead of the party - business, material possessions, relationships. 
In this parable, we see a glimpse of the future, the future Messianic banquet in the Kingdom of God.  What is the story saying?  It’s saying that God’s invitation is inclusive, rather than exclusive.  God’s invitation to come to the table is broad and wide, rather than narrow and selective.  It is extended to all persons regardless of their race, sex, social status or education or economic class.  It’s saying we’re going to be surprised when we sit at the Lord’s heavenly table.  We will be dining with people we perhaps never dreamed would be there.   And likewise, they may be just as surprised to see us.  The guest list in God’s Kingdom is different from the one most of us would have made. 
It’s saying that God is a host who throws parties.  God throws parties whenever someone enters the Kingdom of God.   How do I know this?   The stories in Luke chapter 15 are metaphors for God.  A shepherd finds a lost sheep and throws a party, a woman finds a lost coin and throws a party, a prodigal son returns home and his father throws a party, Jesus turns water into wine at a party.  God desires all people to come to his banquet.  God invites people from all walks of life.   It is saying that God gives us the freedom to respond, to either accept or reject the invitation to the table, to His Messianic Banquet in the Kingdom of God. 
God has invited us, you and me, to a party in His Kingdom.   What is evangelism?  It’s an invitation to God’s banquet.  Through the church’s evangelistic message, through our sharing our faith with others, the invitations are being sent out. 
Our conversion, our faith, our believing in God in Christ, our worshipping God, our trusting and following Him is accepting God’s gracious invitation. 
The story reminds us that God is both the gracious host and the holy Judge.  The King of the banquet extends an invitation, but gives the guests the freedom to respond.  He is the Lord of Lords.  The first guests declined the host’s invitation and were not allowed to enter the banquet hall and join in the feast. 
The parable concludes with words that would have hit everyone at the dinner like a bombshell.   Jesus would have stunned everyone when he said: “I tell you not one of those who were invited will taste my banquet.”   “My banquet.”   Jesus dares to claim that he is the host of the future Messianic banquet.   This would have shocked and offended everyone in the house.
The glorious news is that there is an invitation to God’s banquet with your name on it.  No one of us deserves the invitation.  No one can earn a place at the banquet table.  It is our gracious God who sends out the invitations.  The only thing that keeps us out of the party is our refusal to accept the invitation that’s been extended to us.
Have you put off Jesus’ invitation until it’s more convenient for your schedule?   As one writer put it: “Everything else can wait, because God is waiting for you."
Accepting the invitation means entering by faith into Christ’s ministry and confessing and worshipping and serving and witnessing to the Lord.  One Christian author wrote: “Jesus didn't intend His church merely to provide bigger and better amusement for bigger and more upscale audiences.  His vision was of a church that would inject His Light and Life and love into a lost, dark and dying world.” 
The Kingdom of God has come in Christ, though not completely and we await its final coming.  The one who throws this banquet is the loving, gracious and generous Lord.   “Come, for everything is now ready.”   Take a seat at his table that he has saved for you.   Our supper this morning is a foretaste of the Great banquet to come.   Amen

Thursday, May 2, 2013

In Times of Grieving (Matthew 5:4; II Corinthians 1:3-7) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

Tony Dungy, the head coach of the Indianapolis Colts, lost his 18-year-old son to suicide in 2005.  At the funeral service at Idlewood Baptist Church, Dungy offered a heartbreaking appeal to fathers:  "God can provide joy even in the midst of a sad occasion," he said. "And the challenge is to find that joy.”
Listen to the advice of a seasoned Christian counselor who was asked what she advises people who are dealing with grief.  "I tell them to feel their feelings.  I also urge people to reduce radically the pace of their lives, to review their loss, talk about it openly, think about it thoroughly, write about it reflectively, and pray through it.  It's my experience that people want to run from their pain.  They want to replace pain with another feeling as soon as they can. To recover from pain, you have to face it.  You must stand in it and process it before it will dissipate.  That's God's way.  You see, I didn't do that when my husband died.  I replaced that pain real fast.  I think I missed only four days of work.   And I just replaced the feeling of loss and disappointment with a frenzied schedule.  I ran from it. That was a bad move for me and for other people around me. I wonder how many of us do that?”
Jesus says blessed are those who mourn.  We grieve when we have lost something, something meaningful and significant and precious, something integral to our identity.  Grief is our human response to loss.  It’s the face of a common human experience that affects both young and old.   The Greek word for mourning which Jesus uses is penthountes.  It is the strongest word for mourning in the Greek language.  It’s a word used for mourning the death of a loved one.   It is the poignant grief we see portrayed in the Bible when Mary and Martha learned that their brother Lazarus had died.
Grief is many things, but one thing it’s not, simple.  There is no question that people share much in common when grieving like shock, disbelief, anger, confusion, emptiness, depression, loneliness, fear, and yet everyone mourns in their own way.   Grief in terms of its intensity and duration and impact varies widely and is both common to everyone and unique to the one mourning.  You never want to judge someone for not grieving in the right way or the way you grieved. 
Grief is normal.  It is a natural human experience, though it feels like anything but normal when you’re going through it.  It’s like riding on a wild roller coaster, with its ups and downs, its sudden and unexpected turns and twists.  Sometimes you feel you are hanging on for dear life.   I recall unexpected waves of grief pounding against my heart and mind after my parent’s deaths – particularly about tender childhood memories.  I tried but couldn’t stop these waves of grief.  I simply began to learn to cope with them and ride them out when they occurred.
Grief occurs not only in times of death, but whenever we have lost someone or something significant that was a part of us and we were a part of it.  Known by different names, mourning, grief or bereavement, it affects our entire being, our body, our mind, our heart, our soul.   Grief is physical, psychological, emotional, and spiritual.  Our whole being gets caught up in a force, a process, a current, in something we can’t seem to manage.  As I tell people, grief has a mind of its own.  It’s in charge; you can’t control or direct it.  It happened to me and many people have said to me, “Pastor, why is it that I always cry in those uncomfortable moments when I don’t want to and can’t seem to cry when I want to.”
Grief is a serious wound, and like any serious physical wound, it takes time to heal, and that time can be lonely and painful and empty.  The book of Ecclesiastes describes it as a season: a time for every matter under heaven, a time to mourn, and a time to dance. 
Another way to describe grief is that it is a process of separation, separating ourselves, detaching ourselves, disengaging ourselves from someone or something we highly value.  We are breaking away, we are severing the bond, psychologically, spiritually, and emotionally from someone or something we love.   For instance divorce, the loss of a job, breaking-up with a boyfriend or girlfriend, the death of a beloved pet, and children leaving home and the new experience of becoming an empty nester.  Nancy remembers how I got choked up for weeks at the drop of a hat when our second son Eric left for college, but not when our first son left.  Why, I don’t know.  I knew I would miss him, I had no idea I would start sobbing anytime someone mentioned his name.  Grief is always full of surprises.
Grief is of course also a social phenomenon, reaching beyond the individual to touch the family, the neighborhood, the community, the church, the workplace, schools, cities like Boston and New York and Washington D.C.  the nation in terms of the horrors of war.

Children remember grieve in their own way.   This is very important to realize.  They sometimes appear not to care.   They might come off as selfish, callous or indifferent.  Their behavior often regresses.  They are processing the hurt and pain in their own way.  And we must be patient and sensitive, and alert in terms of helping them through the situation.    We need to help shield them and help them go through the pain of the situation.  They often need to continually be near someone, like asking to sleep in a parent’s bed or following you around during the day.  They sometimes have difficulty completing tasks well within their ability level.   Their emotions can explode. They act out, reflecting their internal feelings of anger, fear, frustration and helplessness.   Acting out is a way to try to control a situation for which they have no control.  They ask the same questions over and over again. 
People have said to me, “Pastor: “I’m so lost, I feel like I’m going crazy, I feel so guilty, I’m so lonely, I’m so angry, I’m so afraid, I can’t concentrate on anything, I can’t make a decision, I just don’t know how I can go on, where do begin, what will I do.”
There are three general stages in times of grieving.  First, numbness.   You are in a state of shock, denial.  You struggle between fantasy and reality, between what is real and what is unreal.  I believe God initially shields us from the pain of our loss by wrapping us in an emotional blanket.  It can last from 2 weeks to 2 months or more.   
The second stage is dis-organization.  You begin to recall and must deal with painful feelings and memories.  You may feel like you are beginning to unravel.  Emotions erupt and take on a life of their own – anguish, guilt, anger, depression, loneliness, fear, sorrow; sometimes we question God or have a faith crisis.  You often experience physical manifestations like anxiety attacks fatigue, a lack of energy or sleeplessness, and a loss of appetite.  You have trouble focusing or concentrating on anything.  You tend to withdraw, retreat, to pull away from people and life.   This stage can last from 6 months to 1 & ½ years or longer. 
The third stage is re-organization.  You find your feelings and memories are less intense.  The searing pain of memory is not quite as acute.  Memories actually begin to bring comfort and consolation.  We find a renewed desire to re-enter life and to re-connect with people.  We experience occasional times of peace.   We begin to come to terms with our loss.  At times we even begin to feel normal.  This stage can last from 18 months to 2 years or longer.  
What are some guidelines in times of grief?   First, acknowledge your feelings.  Accept them.  Allow painful memories to resurface.  Don’t bury them. They are painful, but ironically, memories are God’s channels for bringing healing, consolation and comfort.  Express your emotions.  Crying is a gift and leads toward healing.  Be honest with yourself, others and God. 
Second, realize that you are entering into an emotional valley, expect to feel lost and at times out of control.  Third, reach out to others, talk to trusted friends.  Select those friends carefully.  Not everyone feels comfortable or has the patience to talk about your feelings regarding your loss.  A trusted friend should also be one who can keep things in confidence.  Seek professional help.  See your doctor especially if you are having concerns about your health.  Participate in a grief support group.   Visit some special places which meant a lot to you and your loved one.  Stay connected with people.  See a counselor.  Don’t go it alone.
What is God’s goal in terms of the grief process?  It’s two-fold: First, God’s will is to accompany us through the journey of grief and help us complete our emotional relationship with the person whom we’ve lost.   Though as any of you who have grieved know, as I know, our grief is never fully resolved or complete and stays a part of you the rest of your life.  
Second, God’s will is that you begin to re-direct your energies and hopes and goals toward the future, rather than concentrating on the past.   God desires for us to re-connect with others and renew attachments.  Jesus says in effect: “Grieve my friends, yes, but do not become a slave to your loss, do not become a prisoner of your grief.”   

On Friday morning, Arbor Day, I went to Balboa Park, where the friends of Balboa planted 18 trees in honor or memory of someone. Bobbi and Leon and families members were there, to witness the planting of a tree in Jennifer Adams-Brooks memory.   What a wonderful way to help grieve, to plant a tree, a living thing, in someone’s memory. 
Jesus’ affirmation of blessedness is followed by a promise – “For they shall be comforted.”  Jesus’ promises that one day you will again experience comfort, peace, joy, the brightness of the morning, the beauty of creation, the joys of life.  You will again laugh, and feel, and find a renewed purpose and direction.    II Cor. Says:  “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ the Father of mercies and the God of all consolation, who consoles us in all our affliction so that we may be able to console those who are in any affliction with the consolation with which we ourselves are consoled by God”
Biblically speaking, mourning is a journey toward healing and wholeness which God calls us to walk.  To walk not alone, but with Christ and others.   So pray to God for help and strength.  Read the scriptures.  Be alert for surprises of God’s grace along the journey.  God is with us in our season of grief.  Jesus Christ walks beside us through the valley of the shadow of death.
Gradually, you will realize that though you have suffered a traumatic loss - as painful as it is, you haven’t lost everything.  You will begin to feel gratitude for the love that you once had and for the support of others around you.  You will begin to discover spiritual and emotional power and energy, gifts from God, which help you to pick up the broken pieces and transform them into hope for the future.  You will re-discover your basic belief and confidence that life is good, that your life is good, that it’s a divine gift, which God wants you to cherish that you might glorify Him.     
I close with a scene from Disney's animated movie Toy Story.  Woody (a toy cowboy) confronts Buzz Lightyear (a toy astronaut) with the fact that he is only an action figure and not a real space hero.  Woody shouts, "You're not a space ranger! You're an action figure—a child's plaything."
Grief-stricken and disillusioned, Buzz hangs his head in resignation declaring, "I'm just a stupid, little, insignificant toy."  Woody comforts his friend by pointing out the love of the boy who owns them both. "Buzz, you must not be thinking clearly.  Look, over in that house, there's a kid who thinks you're the greatest, and it's not because you're a space ranger; it's because you're his."
As Buzz lifts his foot, he sees a label affixed to the bottom of his little shoe. There in black permanent ink is the name of the little boy to whom he belongs.  Buzz breaks into a smile and takes on a new determination.   Likewise, let us remember that we too are His, that nothing can separate from God’s love, that Christ’s love is deep, merciful and strong, that in times of grieving, and in all times, in life and death, you belong to the Lord.  Amen!