Friday, November 14, 2014

The Sent Ones (John 1:35-42) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

A pastor writes:  “While I was attending seminary, our two older children, ages 9 and 7, seemed to attract every other child in our apartment complex for after-school games of hide and seek.  Our youngest daughter, Carrie, was not quite 3 and in the minds of the older siblings, was always in the way.  Whenever she played with them, in just a few minutes, she would start crying because she would get pushed aside, ignored or skin a knee.  One afternoon she walked into the house crying for mommy.  My wife, Elizabeth, gave her her two freshly baked cookies to comfort her and said to her: "Now, shhh, this is just for you, don't tell the big kids, I haven't baked enough for everybody yet.”  It took less than three seconds for Carrie to run to the screen door, fling it wide open, and yell to the big kids, "Cookies, I gots cookies!"  Good news is hard not to tell!”

This morning we celebrate our Scottish Presbyterian heritage.  I know you agree that the peaceful, quiet, and soothing sound of the bagpipes, played by piper, Laurie Scott, sets the mood.   Today, we shine the light on the disciple Andrew, the patron saint of Scotland.  Protestant churches around the world celebrate St. Andrew’s Day in November of each year.  

Andrew's life dramatically changed upon discovering that Jesus was the Son of God, the Messiah.   His heart’s desire was for persons to come to know Jesus personally. For example,  Andrew found a young boy, who had five loaves and two fish and brought him to meet Jesus.  Jesus performed a miracle that day and fed 5,000 people.  Andrew also invited some gentiles to go with him and introduced them to Jesus. 

Andrew had been a disciple of John the Baptist.  He was spiritually hungry and waiting and searching for the advent of the promised Messiah.   Jesus read Andrew's and the other disciple's hearts and asked them:  “What are you searching for?”   It is a good question for us today.  What are you searching for?  The two followed Jesus and spent the day with him,  a day that forever transformed their lives.  Overflowing with spiritual energy, Andrew set out to find his brother Simon Peter.  Andrew finds him and says: “Peter, we have found the Messiah.”  Andrew introduces Peter and Peter dedicates his life to Jesus.   Tradition says that Andrew was crucified upside down on a cross which looks like an X.   It is actually the Greek letter Chi, the first letter of the word Christ.  Andrew wanted to be crucified in this manner, because he felt unworthy to be crucified in the way Jesus was.  It is called the St. Andrew’s cross.  

Fast forward a few centuries and we meet Columba, an Irish missionary in the 6th century, who brought Christianity to Scotland.  He founded a monastery on the island of Iona which became the base camp from which monks launched their missionary travels around Scotland.  In the 8th century a Benedictine Monk brought relics or bones of Andrew to a settlement in Scotland.  A church was built and the relics were placed inside the church, and that settlement was named St. Andrews.  Andrew was canonized as the Patron Saint of Scotland. 

In the 16th century during the Scottish Reformation, Scotland broke with the Catholic Pope under the leadership of Reformer John Knox and Scotland embraced the Protestant or Presbyterian faith.   In the 18th century, the Scots and Scots-Irish immigrants brought the gospel to North America and around the world.  This Scottish church has a distinguished evangelistic legacy, of spreading the good news, because like that 3 year old girl, good news is hard not to tell.  Arguably, this small country has sent more missionaries around the world than any other nation.  

Without question, today we live in an increasingly secular, pluralistic and post-modern age, an age of relativism, with the claim that there is no absolute truth.   Worship attendance is reported at about 40% in America, but polls like Gallup claim it may be half that.   The influence of religion on Americans is wanning.  Polls also say spirituality, and the definition of  spirituality varies, is on the upswing.  One conclusion of this picture is we don't have to send missionaries to Africa, where Christianity is growing, we are living in a mission field right here at home.    

It is into this context that Christians are called to bring the gospel message of God's forgiveness in Christ.  In Romans 1:16 we read: “The gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith.”   The gospel is not an opinion.  It’s the absolute divine message of grace in the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the Son of God, which through faith, brings freedom, forgiveness, hope and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.  When you witness to your faith, you are sharing in the power of God unto salvation. 

Jesus declared: “When the Holy Spirit comes, you shall be filled with power, and you shall be my witnesses, in Jerusalem, in all of Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth or in Pacific Beach, in San Diego and California, and to the ends of the earth.” 

John 3:16 says:  “God so loved the world that he sent His only Son.”  God sent Jesus into the world to bring salvation.  Jesus sent his disciples into the world to share the gospel.  Recall the Great Commission: “Go therefore, and make disciples, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you, for I am with you always to the close of the age.”  The word apostle literally means, “one who is sent.” 

God sent Jesus into the world and Jesus sent his followers into their towns, and villages and communities.  The Sent One, Jesus Christ, sends us.  So another name for Christians is “The Sent Ones,” sent by our Lord to bring the gospel to unbelievers.  Christ summons us to connect with the community around us.  Christ summons us to love our neighborhoods.  Churches must not be isolated from their surrounding communities.  This is being disobedient and unfaithful to His calling.

Christ sends us because God loves people and desires for them to know Him.  Because God desires to bring salvation to people.  Because people matter to God.  Because God values all people and seeks to reach the lost of this world.  God desires to change people, to free us from the power of sin, and to reach those who live lives separated from God.  God desires fellowship with human beings and sent Jesus to bring humanity back into relationship with Him.  We are the sent ones under the authority and power of the Sent One.

Susan Steinmetz is a meteorologist and Christian who finds spiritual analogies in her studies of weather patterns and the natural sciences.  For example, she says that there is water vapor in the air over even the most parched land on earth, the Mohave, the Sahara, it makes no difference.  The problem is not the lack of water; the problem is how to get the water in the air to condense and fall to the earth as rain.  Water vapor condenses by wrapping itself around tiny dust particles.  She points out that humans are referred to as “dust” in the Bible and that Jesus is referred to as “living water.”  Only as we allow our lives’ to be wrapped up in Jesus, will we be able to refresh and renew a parched world.  God has chosen to make His will and His way and His truth known to the world, through particles of dust like you and me. 

How are some churches sending believers into their communities?  Churches are planting community gardens on their properties, and inviting neighbors to cultivate their own plots in these gardens.  Churches are going out and cleaning up streets, parks, beaches, rehabing old buildings, planting new churches, joining neighborhood watch groups, starting prayer and Bible groups at local schools, offering tutoring programs for students after school, feeding homeless people in parks or on the bay, setting up a Bible study where they work, or working with the courts and offering communty service opportunities for kids.  I read a story of how one minister, who has a black belt in Karate, challenges all comers to fight him.  If they win, he pays they $100.00 and if he wins, they must attend church with him.  The ideas are endless.  We at PBPC are reaching out into our community with our SNF, and our young adults handing out water bottles in the wee hours of the morning once a month, and our Friday Free Pizza and Movie night for families in our community among other activities.   Are their other things we could be doing?

Christ sends you and me out in His name. Remember we as a congregation and you as an individual are not alone.  Trust in the power of prayer, the power of the gospel and in the assurance that you are witnessing in the power and inspiration of the Holy Spirit.  Jesus says make connections, develop relationships, love the community around you, be visible in your neighborhood.   

Rev. Rick Warren writes: “God has given you a life message to share.  When you became a believer, you also became God’s messenger.  God wants to speak to the world through you.  You may feel you don’t have anything to share, but that’s the Devil trying to keep you silent.  You have a storehouse of experiences that God wants to use to bring others into His family.

We are the sent ones.  Pray daily for God to give you an opportunity to share Christ by your word and deed.   God is overjoyed when someone hears about Jesus, when someone is prayed for, when someone enters into His Kingdom, when someone joins the family of God.  May the power of Jesus Christ, the witness of St. Andrew and the awesome sound of the bagpipes motivate you.  For good news is hard not to tell.  Amen!

Friday, November 7, 2014

All That the Lord Has Spoken (Exodus 19:1-9; Ruth 1:15-22) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

There is a long time rivalry in college basketball between the University of Louisville and the University of Kentucky.  A story is told that at one of the games between the two schools, an elderly woman was sitting alone in the Rupp Arena, in Lexington KY, with an empty seat next to her.  A stranger approached her and said, "Ma'am, I have rarely seen an empty seat in Rupp Arena, let alone at a game between these two teams.  Whose seat is this?"  The woman responded that she and her late husband had been season-ticket holders for 28 years, were loyal supporters of the Kentucky Wildcats, and the seat had belonged to him.  "Well, couldn't you find a friend or relative to come to the game with you?" the man asked.   "Not tonight" she replied. "They're all at my husband's funeral.”

Honoring promises and commitments, maintaining loyalties, is fundamental to what it means to being a human being, as well as to the normal functioning of a society.  Broadly speaking, we are members of a social contract between government or the state and the individual.  It is a tenuous agreement framed in the rule of law.  This social contract sets forth the rights and freedoms of the one and the many.  We individuals agree to surrender certain freedoms and to submit to the authority of government in exchange for securing economic, political and social order, preserving basic freedoms and rights, and guaranteeing protection from danger, both from within and from abroad.  This social contract is fundamental to the stability and welfare of our nation.  

I think of a classic contract, our United States Constitution and Bill of Rights – “We the people of the US in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this constitution for the United States of America.” 

The social contract or covenant between government and people, is great in theory, until we get down to debating specifics about how much power the government has, what is legitimate power and what is over-reaching power, and what individual freedoms and rights should be protected.   Our democratic system works pretty well when people voluntarily, by their moral will, are committed to and obey the laws of the land. 

But public trust in our government and in politicians is extremely low today as we know.  And if a majority of people were to violate the social contract or break the covenant, our way of life, as we know it, would vanish.   We could not hire enough cops to protect us.   I also think of the current ebola scare.  Here is an illustration of the social contract debate between the personal freedom and rights of returning health care workers vs the health and safety of the public. 

Which leads us to our biblical lessons that describe two different covenants.   In our story from the book of Exodus, Moses is leading the Israelites in their flight from slavery in Egypt, and after three months in the wilderness, they reach Mt. Sinai, in the south-central Sinai peninsula.  And there God makes a covenant with the people of Israel.  God instructs Moses: “Tell the people you have seen what I did to the Egyptians and how I bore you on eagle's wings and brought you to myself.  Now if they obey my voice and keep my covenant, they shall be my treasured possession of all the peoples of the whole earth, a holy nation.  And in response the people reply – “Everything that the Lord has spoken we will do.”  On that day, on a mountain in the wilderness, a sacred covenant between God and the people of Israel was established.

In the book of Ruth, we hear a narrative of both personal tragedy and hope in God.  We meet a young Moabite woman named Ruth and her Jewish mother-in-law Naomi.  Naomi and her husband, Elimelech depart from Bethlehem, in Judah, because of a famine in the land and make the sojourn to the country of Moab, known today as part of modern Jordan, to begin a new life.

Sadly, tragedy strikes the family.  Naomi’s husband, Elimelech dies, and then some years later, her two sons, Mahlon and Kilion, who had married Moabite women, also die.  That left Naomi and her two Moabite daughters-in-law, Ruth and Orpah.  Naomi tries to persuade her daughters-in-law to return to Moab and Orpah decides to return home.  But Ruth is determined to stay with her mother-in-law.  She loved her and was committed to her.  Ruth pledges her loyalty in the famous words from this story: “Where you go I will go and where you stay I will stay.  Your people will be my people and your God my God.  Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried.  May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if anything but death separates you and me.”   And God's purpose for the future of the people of Israel unfolds as the story of Ruth continues.

Commitments and promises!  People make commitments to the constitution and to this nation when they join the military.   We make commitments to our family, to our spouse, to our children and grandchildren, to friendships, to our jobs, to the community in which we live, to creation, to care for the environment, in which God has placed us.   We make a commitment as citizens on election day coming up on Tuesday November 4.

Think of someone who made a promise to you and kept it?  How did that impact you?  Think of someone who broke a promise to you?  How did that affect you?   Think of a promise you have kept.  Do you recall a promise you have broken? 

Scripture is clear that making and honoring our commitments builds character, the character God desires for each one of us.  And despite our instant gratification culture, character takes time to build.  And because of the choices we make, it takes more time for some than for others.  Honoring commitments builds endurance and discipline and trust and patience and faithfulness.  Honoring commitments speaks volumes about our values and about our faith. 

Yes, you have broken commitments and promises in your life.  And so have I.  That's when we fall to our knees, confess to God and to the person our contrition, ask for forgiveness and pray for God's help to make it right.  Now that's character.   And we turn to God because God is merciful and His mercy can change our lives. 

According to the Bible, honoring promises is the secret to a joyful, fulfilling, and meaningful life.  It is not necessarily the easiest path, but it is the right path.   It is the difference between depth and shallowness in a person.  It is a key spiritual value.    Yes, some people today are afraid of making promises.  Is our society becoming commitment adverse.  I sometimes wonder.   

Like Octavio Guillen and Adriana Martinez who came to America from Mexico.  Octavio popped the question and Adriana said yes. That was in 1902 when they were both 15-years-old. But one of them couldn't quite decide, so they kept putting off the wedding day. They finally got married in 1969 when they were both 82.  It took Octavio and Adriana 67 years to decide to get married.  Now that is a long engagement.

God wants His people, God wants you and me, to be people who make and honor commitments and promises.   Romans 6:13 says: “Give yourselves completely to God, every part of you.  You want to be tools in the hands of God to be used for His good purposes.

God has made an everlasting covenant with us, with you and to me.  John 3:16 says:  “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life.  God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”  

And as believers, we, in response, make a promise to Christ.  For instance, when you join the church, you make a promise to Jesus Christ and to your spiritual brothers and sisters in the congregation.  You answer four questions – Is Jesus Christ your Lord and Savior?  Do you trust in Him?

Do you intend to be his disciple, to obey his word and show his love? Will you be a faithful member of this church, worshipping regularly, giving of your time, talents and money in Christ’s ministry, seeking the fellowship of the church wherever you may be?  It is a covenant between you, God and the people of God to witness to Christ in your daily life.

Why be committed to God? Because God knows what’s best for our lives, because God has shaped us  for His purpose, because commitment expresses our gratitude to God for our salvation, because our character is forged and formed by the promises and commitments we keep, and because God promises to reward commitment.  Yes, God will bring us blessings and benefits, when we put God first and seek his will in our lives.

Marie Florian, a Stephen Minister from Eaton Rapids, MI makes this promise to those to whom she ministers.   It is truly a beautiful covenant.  “I’ll do my best to listen, should you want to bare your soul, while you sort through facts and feelings; Yes, I’ll gladly play this role.  I’ll be a friend to count on and I’ll try to understand.  You are a sacred trust to me, while you’re placed within my hand.  And should you need reminding, just to set your heart at ease, your words are very safe with me; you can say whatev’er you please.  Don’t feel you are a burden, for I want to share your load, and together in the valley we’ll seek for a better road.  I give my solemn promise that I’ll hold you up in prayer; I’ll lift you to the throne of God, my friend, I truly care.”

Today is our Day of Commitment to God, our congregation and the community for 2015.   Jesus asks us to commit not only a portion of our money, but beyond that, our hearts and minds, our bodies and souls, our abilities and talents and our prayers and faith.  May we, like the Israelites on Mr. Sinai, declare these words - “Everything that the Lord has spoken we shall do.”  Amen!