Friday, October 30, 2015

Joyful Hearts (II Chronicles 7:1-10; Philippians 4:4) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

There is a story about a young pastor of a strict fundamentalist church in the south,  who was preparing for Sunday morning worship.  It was a severely cold winter morning.   He discovered that an overnight snowfall had made the road to church impassable, so he decided to skate down the river to church on the ice.  He arrived just in time for the worship service, but he faced the church elders' disapproval, because he had participated in a sporting activity on the Sabbath.

After being questioned by the church leaders, the pastor was finally allowed into the pulpit.  Why?  Because the pastor had assured the elders in no uncertain terms, that though he had skated on the Sabbath, he had not enjoyed it.

When do you feel joy?  Where do you feel joy?  Is joy a part of the Christian Life?  Is there joy in following Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior?

I believe the answer is yes!  Because at the core of the Christian faith is the gospel, the good news, glad tidings.  Good news is at the heart of the Christian religion.   Jesus at the beginning of His ministry preaches:  “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near, repent and believe in the good news.”

That's why we experience joy in our faith in God.  This is glorious news.   The God of creation, the author of life, is for us and not against us.   God is not an impersonal, capricious and hostile force, but a personal being, and God's sacrificial love , enlivens and transforms .  God's salvation, God's saving love in Jesus is astonishing news.

Recall some upbeat praises from Scripture:  “Make a joyful noise all the lands, serve the Lord with gladness, come into his presence with singing.”  “This is the day which the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it.” “Sing joyfully to the Lord, you righteous; it is fitting for the upright to praise him.”  “Rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances.”  The apostle Paul was in a prison cell in Rome, when he wrote:  “Rejoice in the Lord, always, again I say Rejoice.”  Now what is that all about?  How is that even possible in prison?

In our O.T. Lesson we find ourselves at a spectacular event, the dedication of the temple built by King Solomon.   He organizes a national festival and offers sacrifices to God on behalf of the people of Israel.    And after seven days of celebration, we read:  “Solomon sent the people away to their homes, joyful and in good spirits, because of the goodness that the Lord had shown to David and to Solomon and to his people Israel.”

Yes, the people knew that the reason this temple was being dedicated, was because God had made it possible.  The Jews were filled with joy because of the goodness that the Lord has shown them.  Joy arises when we know, when we recognize, when we praise God for His goodness.

Joy is a response to God's goodness in our lives.   Are we speaking of escapist joy, a joy which pretends that there is no tragedy or suffering, no disappointment or failure in life?  Or a joy that depends upon our circumstances, that everything around us must be perfect?  No.  Mother Teresa speaks of deep joy in her ministry of mercy to the poorest of the poor on the streets of Calcutta.

Joy is the assurance that sadness, tragedy is not the last word.   Joy means that the resurrected Savior holds out his hand and offers a new beginning for every disappointment in life.   We can rejoice even in a world where there is pain as well as happiness.  The late author Lewis Smedes writes:  “Joy is the feeling that it is all-right with us, even when everything seems all-wrong.”

Joy is a gift to faith from God's Spirit.  It is an aspect, a dimension of faith, that comes from the Holy Spirit.   Joy arises when we experience Christ's promises fulfilled.  Joy is heartfelt delight, gladness in God.   Joy comes when we experience the awe-inspiring presence of God, that is, when we encounter God.  Joy is that realization in your heart that you truly belong to God, today and forever.    Joy is knowing that our salvation is God's gift of grace.  Christ has made us acceptable before God and clothed us in righteousness so we can indeed stand before the holy God.  Joy is any moment which opens our eyes and ears, hearts and minds are open to the amazing surprises of God.

Joy means we do not have to look to the future with dread, or with a tragic sense that we will never see our loved ones again, because we live with the knowledge that the future belongs to God and that the victory has already been won, the assurance of resurrection and a destiny in glory.  The joy of faith is a foretaste today, of the eternal joy to come, when Christ's welcomes us into His eternal Kingdom.

I think these are amazing words from Jesus when he says:  “I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.”   The joy we experience is the joy which enters our hearts through the Spirit at our conversion.

But there is more.   We experience spiritual joy not only from encountering God and hearing and accepting God's good news, God's word of forgiveness, love and acceptance,  but further, joy comes in generously sharing that gospel, in embodying that gospel, and reaching out with that good news, by the power and grace of God in the world.  Is that possible?

There was a front-page article in the San Francisco Chronicle about a metro-transit operator named Linda Wilson-Allen. She loves the people who ride her bus, learns their names, waits for them if they're late and makes up the time later on her route.  A woman in her eighties named Ivy had some heavy grocery bags and was struggling with them. So Linda got out of her seat to carry Ivy's grocery bags onto the bus. Now Ivy lets other buses pass her stop so she can ride on Linda's bus.

Linda saw a woman in a bus shelter. She could tell the woman was new to the area and she was lost. It was almost Thanksgiving, so Linda said: "You're out here all by yourself. You don't know anybody. Come on over for Thanksgiving and kick it with me and the kids." Now they're friends.  Linda has built a little community of blessing on that bus. They bring her potted plants and floral bouquets. When people found out she likes to wear scarves to accessorize her uniforms, they started giving them as presents to Linda.

Driving a bus can look like a thankless job: cranky passengers, engine breakdowns, traffic jams, gum on the seats.  How does Linda have this attitude? "Her mood is set at 2:30 A.M. each morning when she gets down on her knees to pray for 30 minutes. There is a lot to talk about with the Lord,' says Linda, a member of Glad Tidings Church in Hayward. When she gets to the end of her line, she always says,That's all. I love you. Take care.’  People wonder, Where can I find the Kingdom of God? I will tell you where. You can find it on the #45 bus riding through San Francisco, behind the wheel of a metro transit vehicle.”

God in Jesus brings joy to our hearts and Christ calls us to share our Joyful Hearts, which is our stewardship theme for this coming year!   I am filled with joy as I reflect upon our ministry here at PBPC.  We honor God by sharing in the work of His Kingdom through the ministries of our congregation.   Like our mid-week Youth and Kingdom Kid’s programs, where children and youth from the preschool, community and our congregation are growing in their Christian faith, like we heard from their testimonies at the youth service this summer.  This program is led by  Robert Gerow and his dedicated volunteers.  And our wonderful Pre-school under the capable leadership of the director Brigitte together with her dedicated teachers.   Our Preschool now has an enrollment of over 50 children and babies.  It provides a healthy spiritual, intellectual and social foundation for children and builds community among the preschool families.  Some of those families have joined the church.

We rejoice in our Sunday Evening Roots worship service and ministry, reaching young adults in our community under the leadership of Grant.   Some of these young adults have joined our church.  We celebrate our music program, the Sounds of Worship and our Chancel Choir, under the talented leadership of Esther Jordan and our organist Anne Bay.   We enjoy the music of handbells from our Crusader's and Silver Bells which enhance our worship under the leadership of Esther and Tammy McEuen.

We see God at work in our prayer and healing ministries in worship with Helen Sterling and in our congregational care ministry under the compassionate leadership of Mavis Qualsett, which brings Christ’s love to members and friends.  We offer Bible study and Christian education opportunities for all ages during the week and on Sunday mornings.  We have faith-filled and committed leaders – deacons and elders, who enthusiastically serve Christ in our church.

It is a joy as a congregation to reach out in the community as we participate in events such as Pacific beachfest and Graffiti Day dedicated to cleaning up Pacific Beach.  What a joy to see young families and children enjoying Friday Pizza and Movie Night ministry, which for over 6 years has reached families in our preschool and new families in our community including military families.

God has long blessed the community through our congregation's Sunday Night Ministry, by providing means for nearly 100 homeless people each week for over two decades under the leadership of Dolores Shoemaker.  We also serve nearly 300 homeless people through our mail service, where we provide our address and a way for homeless people to receive anything from checks from the government to personal mail from families.  I often hear people say:  “God bless you, thank you for this mail service,” as people pick up their mail under the direction of our office manager Meri Murch and the office volunteers.

I know people experience the joy of the Lord through the mission projects we support as a congregation.  We provide clothing and food, volunteers and financial support for CCSA, Meals on Wheels, Voice of the Martyrs, Urban Youth Collaborative, Baja Presbyterian Ministries, Military Outreach Ministry, Intervarsity, Heifer Project, Presbyterian Urban Ministry, Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, and international missionaries like Esther Wakeman in Thailand.   We are greatly blessed by your generous giving to our Endowment Fund which annually contributes money to our ministry.

God’s Spirit is among us, guiding us and empowering us and inspiring us.  It is a joy to serve and God is bringing joy to others through our service.  I want to both personally and on behalf of the elders, thank you for your generous commitment and support this year.  God's love is generous and God calls us to give generously.  We are asking for your prayerful and generous support of your time, talents and money for this coming year, as together we reach people for Christ's Kingdom.

Jesus Christ cares deeply about your life, your growth in faith and your participation in His Kingdom.   And be confident that Christ will continue to use you for His work and glory in this church, and in our community and world.  Every pledge, every donation, every gift, every offering, God honors.  Commitment Sunday is Sunday, November 8.  Sing joyfully to the Lord, you righteous; it is fitting for the upright to praise him.  Amen!

Friday, October 23, 2015

Foundations Count (Luke 6:46-49) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

In response to the increasing number of tornadoes in the Midwest, a developer in Tulsa, Oklahoma, offered an optional steel reinforced safe room in the new homes he was selling. Nine of the first ten buyers opted to pay the extra $2,500 for the room—which can also be used as a closet, bathroom or vault when not needed for safety. The tenth couple, the developer himself and his wife, said they were 75 years old and opted for a hot tub instead.

Which brings us to our story from Luke.  This story is similar, but with some variations, to the story about the rock and sand in the Gospel of Matthew.  Jesus says foundations count, what you build upon matters, it matters a great deal.  Sound foundations are imperative.  Jesus draws this story from a natural occurrence in Israel.  In summer, many of the rivers completely dry up, leaving a sandy river bed.  A person searching for a plot of land to build a house, might see this picturesque river bed and decide to build on it.  But in winter, with the coming of the heavy rains, this person soon discovers he has constructed his home in the middle of a raging river, which sweeps the house down stream. 

A wise person searches for rock as the base, where it's more difficult to carve out a foundation, but when the torrential weather arrives, the winds blow and the rivers flood over, one’s toil is amply repaid - the house remains firm and secure.  In the final analysis it doesn't matter if your house has curb appeal, is breath-taking, exotic, palatial, a show home, if it has the Wow factor,  if its foundation is flawed.  

I think everything in life needs something firm, something dependable, something stable underneath it.  The foundation of our house, our business, our career, our marriage, our family, our friendships, our church, our faith, you fill in the blank.  A solid foundation is indispensable.   How secure, how stable, how sound are your foundations?

Intelligent and competent structural engineers who design buildings and bridges are always in demand.  Whether you are designing a house or a highrise you want to make sure that your engineer knows what he or she is doing.   When I'm driving across the spectacular Coronado Bridge, taking in that breathtaking view out over the middle of the San Diego bay, I don't want to hear that the engineer who designed it graduated at the bottom of his class, but he was a real nice guy or that the woman who designed it nearly flunked out, but was really a sweet heart. 

We Californians are quite familiar with earthquakes. When the Coalinga earthquake of 1983, with a magnitude of 6.4 occurred, many things were discovered.  One was that houses that were bolted to their foundation withstood that earthquake.  On the other hand, the houses that were built in a period when they did not bolt them to the foundation, and the horizontal earth movement occurred, the house moved maybe six or seven inches off its foundation.  And that's what caused the house to collapse.   This was a key discovery made at Coalinga; houses should be bolted into their foundation.   Do we do this in San Diego

Jesus' words apply to more than houses and bridges.   I'm speaking about building solid educational foundations, work experience foundations, financial foundations, emotional foundations, mental foundations, moral foundations, religious and spiritual foundations, physical exercise foundations, these are critical.  When our foundations begin to crack, crumble, they eventually collapse and it brings ruination in its wake.
We know that in general children growing up in abusive or in seriously dysfunctional homes, I say seriously because there is some dysfunction in all of our homes, have a tougher time of sorting out their lives, of forming their identity, of coping with their past, of establishing stable relationships, than children from healthy homes.  It certainly does not mean it's impossible, that they can't grow up to be healthy individuals, but its a harder road.     They like all of us need a solid spiritual foundation and this is what Jesus is speaking about. 

Jesus is saying come to Him, hear His words, build your life on Him, because Jesus brings God's saving love, merciful healing from past wounds, forgiveness, and hope for a new beginning.

If you have a solid foundation, you can weather the storms of life.   Logically, it should be layed before the storms come.  That is ideal.  You can't lay them in the middle of a terrifying storm.  You need to get your base solidified before the storm, so when the storm comes, you're not in crisis.  But life happens and that is not always possible.  We don't always prepare ourselves before the storms.  And Jesus understands this.  He is saying it is never too late, come to Him, hear His words and build your life on Him. 

We of course well know that storms and floods, figuratively and literally, are a part of life.  Sooner or later you and I will experience a storm.   Storms always disclose one thing; they reveal what kind of foundation you're on, they test your foundation.  In a storm you will discover whether you're faith rests on the truth and power of God or not.  There's often a huge gap between worshiping God when all is well and worshiping God when all is wrong, that is, when your faith has been tested and when your faith is untested.  If your foundation is sure, God's word and power will hold you steady.

Jesus warns us about building our lives on sand.  For example, we hear painful stories about the breakdown of the family in our society.  When I hear this I think about the truth of Jesus' words.  That American families are facing troubles is no secret.  Some even claim that the American family is in crisis.  Why?  I truly believe one key reason is because more and more American families are not concerned with building spiritual foundations.   Families find other things to do and other places to go on Sunday mornings, than to worship and praise God and to learn in Sunday school.   This change in our culture is evident when one drives to church on Sundays and sees schools and parks alive with soccer games and little league games.  I'm all for sports, please don't misunderstand me.  But on Sunday mornings?

I take Jesus' words literally, that when you neglect and ignore spirituality, when you turn your back on God and Christ, family foundations suffer and have a much harder time of coping with the storms of life.

So how do we know we are building our lives on the foundation of Christ?  Jesus answers this clearly.   He says:  “Why do you call me Lord Lord, and do not do what I tell you?”   Jesus presents a dichotomy between sand builders and rock builders.  Jesus says:  “I will show you what someone is like who comes to me, hears my words, and puts them into practice in contrast to the one who hears my words but does not act on them or put them into practice.”

We are not talking about a convoluted mystery in Jesus' words.  One who is building one's life on Christ shows it, exemplifies it, demonstrates it.  There is visual evidence for people to see.  People see your Christian life in action.  Others know you worship God, you serve others, perhaps in the church or the community, you share your finances, your time, your talents in Christ's name, you participate in fellowship with other believers, you witness to your faith by your words and actions, you learn and grow spiritually through prayer and bible study.   You incorporate your Christian convictions, your faith commitment, into your life-style.

One is building his or her life on the foundation of Christ who comes to Christ, hears his word, and acts on it or puts Christ's word into practice, that is, into one's everyday life.  People see that Jesus, that your faith, makes a difference in your life and is important to you.  They see that faith is a priority.

The question really is - if not Christ, then whom?   If you do not choose to trust in Christ’s
faithfulness as the starting point of your life, then what or whom do you propose to build you
life upon - money, success, hedonism?   For you and I will choose something.  That is
human nature, sooner or later we will decide to build our lives on something or someone else.  The choice is yours and mine.

Choosing to build your life on Christ is not a once in a lifetime decision.  At least that's not how I see it.  I see it as an ongoing decision.  A continual decision.  A daily decision.
It is a decision of faith.  For we know there are daily temptations which tempt us to follow another way or to commit ourselves to something or someone else.

And don't miss this point in our story; Jesus our Lord, whom we worship, is not just a fair weather Lord.   You can count on Jesus when all is not well.   The New Testament is filled with stories about Jesus being with his disciples in the midst of storms.  

I don't know what storms and floods you have faced or will face.  I do know this, Jesus is a rock, a solid foundation.  Jesus is your foundation and He is mine.  God, the father, son and Holy Spirit is the first word and  the eternal word and storms will never have the last word.

I believe this with all my heart; building your life upon Jesus enables your faith to weather the storms of life.  I believe and we affirm as Christians, that Christ is the sure Foundation.  Jesus says:  “Everyone who hears these words of mine and does them...shall be like a wise man who built his house upon a rock; the rain fell, the floods came, the winds blew and beat upon that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock.”    Amen!

Friday, October 16, 2015

Lamp to My Feet (II Tim.3:14-17; Psalm119:103-105) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

I read a story about an elderly man who was facing terminal cancer.  The man told a story about his grandfather who was a Christian.  At his wedding, many years prior, his grandfather gave him and his bride a wedding present, an expensive leather bound Bible with their names printed in gold lettering.  The man left it in the box and never opened it.  For years afterward, his grandfather kept asking if he liked the Bible.  He simply said “yes” it was fine.  Meanwhile, the box continued to collect dust.

Finally, after many years, the man grew curious enough to open the Bible.  "The joke was on me," he said.  Now I know why granddad kept asking me if I liked the Bible.  I found that he had placed a twenty-dollar bill at the beginning of the Book of Genesis and at the beginning of every book in the Bible … over thirteen hundred dollars in all.  He knew I'd never find it."  What's the moral of the story – you never know what surprises await you in the Bible.

The B-I-B-L-E - yes that’s the book for me, I stand up high with the word of God, the B-I-B-L-E.”  Have you ever heard that song?    What about: “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”  
Time for a pop quiz:  What does the word Bible mean?  Who wrote the Bible?  How many books are there in the Bible?  How long did it take to write the Bible?   What languages was it written in?  How is the Bible relevant to our lives?   What is the oldest book in the Bible?  Of course there are fun questions like: Who is the shortest man in the Bible?  Where is baseball mentioned in the Bible?   Who was the greatest comedian in the Bible?  How many of each species of animal did Moses take on the arc?  See me later for the answers.   

The Bible is truly an amazing book.  It’s the world’s most read book.  Nearly 5 billion copies of the Bible have been printed since Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press in the 15th century.    No other book, not even The Lord of the Rings or The Harry Potter series, comes close to the Bible’s influence in people’s lives.  The Bible or some books of it have been translated into 2,800 languages.  Do you read the Bible?

We all know that words have power and the Bible has power because it’s God's Word.  It has the power to change lives.  The power is not that it's a magical book, but the power is in the Holy Spirit who inspired and inspires it.   God's Holy Spirit acts in and through the Bible to influence the minds and hearts of people.   If this were not true, if people were not afraid of its influence and power, if people did not think it was a dangerous book, why is the Bible banned or severly limited in countries like Afghanistan, North Korea, Saudia Arabia, Iran, Libya and numerous others today?

The Bible is a sacred record of God’s revelation in history, of God's actions, words, deeds and at the same time it’s God’s personal letter or message to you.  God has reached people over the centuries and God wants to reach you and me in the Bible.  It’s a book through which God has spoken in surprising and profound ways: inspired, comforted, encouraged and changed lives down through history.  

Is the Bible simple to understand? No.  Questions arise when you study it.  I’ve studied it for many years and still have questions.  Do believers always agree when they read and interpret the meaning of passages in the Bible?  No.  But believers do agree on the over-arching themes and truths of scripture.   Believers do agree the Bible is essential reading for the Christian life.

The Bible is a fascinating challenge and that's why churches have Bible studies.  We at PBPC have Bible studies weekly and monthly.  We come together to hear the truth of the scripture and in our times of discussion and sharing, the words of scripture become the word of God.  Must you always agree with the pastor when reading the Bible?  Is the pastor always right in interpreting a verse or passage?  Let me think about that for a moment.  That's a tough one.  Actually, the answer is no.  We hear and discern God's word together. 

I try to read the Bible from a contextual perspective, by looking at the verse or verses in relation to the whole book or to the whole Bible as a way to understand what the Bible is saying. Yes, reading the Bible takes time, effort, thought, and discipline.  But ask people who regularly read and study it and they will tell you it’s worth it.  It is well worth the energy and effort to hear God’s word.  Many Christians will readily tell you studying the Bible is central to their faith, people like Kurt Warner, Deborah Norville, Tim Teebow, Mary Lou Retton, Dave Robinson, Justin Bateman, Lee Strobel, George Foreman and the list goes on.

The Bible is still a public book.  Presidents are sworn into office and oaths in court are taken on the Bible.  Politicians and presidential candidates quote from the Bible in speeches.  Christians have struggled against secular attacks upon prayer and the Bible around the world.   Yet, the Bible continues to be a force in our culture and around the world and the Church continues its important work of translating it into new languages and distributing it to people across the globe.  

At its core the Bible is a story.  It’s the story of God’s revelation in history over some 2000 years.  It’s God’s story of creating the world and humanity and calling out and forming a people, Israel and decisively intervening in their life.  It‘s God’s story of entering our world personally in His Son Jesus Christ and bringing salvation and hope to the world.  It’s God’s story of establishing the church at Pentecost and the expansion of the church’s mission.   It is the story of God’s sovereign rule over history, over all nations, and God’s plan to bring a new heaven and earth.  It's a story about God's plan of salvation for humankind.  It’s a story of lives that were dramatically and radically changed when they encountered God.

Is the Bible great literature and poetry?  Yes.  Is it fascinating history?  Yes.  But it is far more.  It is a lens through which we see God, ourselves, the world and the future.  It is the book which inspires and strengthens faith    It is the book which we read and which reads us as we discover that we are persons created in God’s image and loved and valued, forgiven and transformed through the power of the Holy Spirit.  It’s the book which guides us in the new spiritual life God calls us to live.  It’s a book which declares our hope and assurance for life after death. 

In the Bible we meet the living God and the living God meets us, we encounter God and God encounters us.  We hear God’s commands:  “Love God with your heart, soul, strength and mind and love your neighbor as yourself.”   “Do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with your God.”   We hear God’s promises: “If God is for us, who can be against us.”  “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you.”  “Cast all your anxiety upon him, for He cares about you.”  “Nothing, not yesterday, today or tomorrow, not even death itself, can separate us from the love of God.”   Those promises have lifted my soul and the soul of millions over the years.

I remember at a very low time in my life when I read and meditated upon a verse in I Timothy:  “Fight the good fight of the faith; take hold of the eternal life to which you were called.”  It truly lifted my spirit and instilled hope.  I remember when I felt confused about where I was heading, I didn't know which path to follow and I read: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, do not rely on your own understanding, in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.”  And God did fulfill his promise and made straight my paths.

In reading, you may feel convicted to repent and turn away from some sin or destructive habit.  Or you may hear a forgiving and reassuring word like:  “Lo, I am with you always,”    “Come unto me, all you who labor and are over-burdened and I will give you rest,” and “The Lord is my shepherd, He leads me beside still waters, He restores my soul.”  I have felt my soul restored from reading scripture.  How about you?

The Bible tells us its purpose.  In II Timothy we read:  “The sacred writings are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus!”  The Gospel of John says: “But these words were written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing, you may have life in his name.”    In Romans we read:  “All scripture is inspired by God, and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.”

The Greek word translated “inspired” literally means “God-breathed.”  The Bible is on the one hand a human book, written by human beings in a cultural context, in the Jewish, Greek and Roman cultures.  But at the same time it’s a divinely inspired book, the story-tellers, poets and writers were inspired by God.

Scripture is useful for teaching, teaching truth about God, faith and salvation, Israel and the church, human nature, sin, morality, values, justice, good and evil, Jesus, the future and life’s meaning and purpose.

It’s useful for reproof, for convincing you or me of the error of our ways and for pointing us to the right way.

It’s useful for correction, for testing other beliefs, ideas, teachings, precepts, and philosophies against the teaching of the Bible.   Many competing and conflicting voices vie for your and my loyalty and allegiance today.  The Bible has power to bring clarity amidst the cultural confusion.

It’s useful for training in righteousness, that is, for shaping our minds and hearts, our thinking and feeling, actions and behavior, for forming us morally, that we might become loving, compassionate, caring, good, faithful people.

You must read the Bible in a spirit of faith and prayer, and when you do, God’s Holy Spirit inspires you today as well.  The purpose of the Bible is to bring us to faith in Christ, inspire and empower us to mature in Christ, and guide our lives as Christ's witnesses along our spiritual journey.  We study the Bible to make ourselves useful to God.

There are many other devotional books out there that can be helpful to our spiritual life.  But they should never be become substitutes for the Bible itself.  Amy Carmichael wrote: “Never let good books about the Bible, take the place of the Bible.  Drink from the Well, not from the streams that flow from the Well.”

Our Christian faith says: “The Bible is the unique and authoritative witness to Jesus Christ and God’s word to you.  No other sacred writing, according to our Christian faith, has the authority and power as does the Bible.

I urge you, I challenge you, to read the Bible if you are not doing so.  I invite and encourage you to join one of our Bible studies.   You may feel a little intimidated about joining a Bible study.  I assure you that you will not be embarrassed.  You will be welcomed and you will learn and grow in your faith. I close with the words of the psalmist:  God’s word is: “A lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path.   Amen!

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Blessed are the Peacemakers (Matthew 5:9) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

In a baseball game, when tempers flare and a fight breaks out, it's an American tradition that players and coaches clear the benches and rally to support their teammates. You do not want to be seen sitting alone on the bench with all your teammates out fighting on the field.  That would surely bring an early end to your career.  

One Christian who played for the Seattle Mariners explained how he dealt with such bench-clearing brawls.  He writes:  “When a fight was imminent, I would scan the opponents' bench for a friend or a former teammate. When the fight erupted, I would bolt from the dugout and race toward my selected friend, grabbing him by the jersey and saying, ‘If you don't hurt me, I won't hurt you.’  We would clench, fall to the ground and do our best acting job of fighting.  In the end, we would appear manly, supported our team members and avoided getting hurt or hurting anyone.” Smart idea, but I'm not sure this is exactly what Jesus had in mind when he said, "Blessed are the peacemakers."

On this World Communion Sunday, we celebrate our membership in the One Holy Catholic Church, the world-wide Christian family, with over 2 billion other Christian believers.  We affirm our unity with our Christian brothers and sisters around the globe.  Yes, we Protestants acknowledge some theological and organizational differences with other members of the Christian family, but we also respect and listen to and pray for Pope Francis, the 266th Pope, the Holy See of the Roman Catholic Church.  We trust that God will use him with all of his spiritual influence over millions of believers to further the work of God's Kingdom on earth.

Today Christians focus on our common faith: our faith in one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and one Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, and one Church, the body of Christ, and one baptism, the sign of forgiveness and admission into the church, and one Lord's Supper, the sign of Christ's atoning sacrifice and continued power and presence and in one mission to love our neighbors and reach unbelievers for the gospel of Jesus Christ.

A central theme of World Communion Sunday is Jesus’ call to his followers to be peacemakers.  Jesus declares: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.”  It is a high calling, a holy calling, a sacred calling, a noble calling.

What is a peacemaker?  A person, group, or government that strives to make peace by reconciling parties who disagree, quarrel or fight.  It's one thing to know how to define it.  It's quite another thing to roll up one's sleeves and enter into the messy work of peacemaking.  Today we ask: Is it my calling?  Is it your calling?

Without question, peacemaking is complicated and difficult.  Its a risky and sometimes dangerous calling.   Although you can always count on one thing, there's no shortage of opportunities to be a peacemaker.  There are lots of job openings.  Have you noticed?

Why?  Conflict, division, dissension, discord appears to be ubiquitous.  In our cities and towns, in government, in politics between Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals, who blame each other for the economy's ills, or violence in our communities, or global terrorism, or immigration, or failed foreign relations.  We see tragic violence in schools, like last week's tragic shooting in a community college in Roseburg, Oregon or we point to workplace violence.   We see conflict in families and even in the courts.

For example, recently a brawl broke out in a Florida courtroom.  No, not between the defendant and a bailiff, as you might expect, but between a judge and a public defender. Video footage shows the judge, John Murphy, instigating the fight with public defender Andrew Weinstock. The pair started arguing in front of the entire court.  The Judge said, "You know, if I had a rock, I would throw it at you right now. Just sit down." Weinstock responded, "You know I'm the public defender. I have a right to be here and stand and represent my client." On the video, the judge then appears to ask Weinstock to come to the back hallway, an area where there are no cameras, which is where the fight broke out.  There were no images of the fight, but the video does capture sounds of scuffling and several loud thuds. Two deputies broke it up and the attorney was immediately reassigned to another court. Judge Murphy agreed to take a leave of absence, so he could undergo anger management counseling. What a grand example of professionalism in our halls of justice.

At its core, the Gospel is a story about peacemaking.  God sent His Son Jesus into the world to make peace with humanity, to save humanity, to reconcile humanity, to bring humanity back into a relationship with the creator.  The church continues to engage in God's holy work of peacemaking: to bring sinners and saved, unbelievers and believers, men and women, all races and ethnic groups, rich and poor, slave and free into the one church, the body of Christ.   

Making peace doesn't mean peace at any price, Jesus showed us this.  Peacemaking doesn't mean making everybody happy because they all get what they want.  It doesn't mean allowing unjust or evil behavior to continue in order to keep the peace.  It is striving to find common ground and common agreement.  It means speaking out for what is right, rather than being silent.  It means holding true to your principles.  Peace and justice, justice and peace are bound together in the business of peacemaking.

I am inspired by the many individuals and organizations in the world who risk their lives everyday as peacemakers in war-torn countries.  For example, the Carter Center, founded by former president Jimmy Carter, and its work in Syria and the middle east, Christian Peacemaker Teams in Iraqui Kurdistan, Women Peacemakers in Iraq in the US Institute of Peace, the Afghan Peacemaker Association, and the Peacemaking Unit in Africa just to name a few.  God is at work in these groups and others toward reaching God's end of bringing about peace in the world.  Their stories are exciting and they are making progress.

One must also acknowledge that as a peacemaker, there are situations where you need to be honest with yourself.  Where no matter what you do or how hard you try or how many hours you invest, trying to reconcile with someone or finding a peaceful and equitable solution may not work.  Despite our prayers, despite our attempts, and the time and energy we invest, there are situations that are beyond our power and ability.  And we must let go, trust in God and turn it over to God.  No, that is never easy.

God may not be calling you to be a peacemaker in international conflicts, between the Jews and Palestinians, or the Christians and Muslims, or Russia and the US.  But that doesn't let you or me off the hook.  God may be calling you to be a peacemaker in your circle: in your family, in a friendship that has soured, in your neighborhood, as a teacher in your school, in your community, in your church, or in your job.  I truly believe God calls us all to be peacemakers at one time or another, but not in every situation.  We are not qualified for some situations. 

But there are contexts in which you are qualified.  God only calls us to situations where He has imparted to us the mind, gifts, abilities, talents and temperament, and competence to be effective.  God desires success, not failure.  Can you think of an example when you acted in the role of peacemaker?  How did you do?

Jesus said:  “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.”   My friends, hear this, Jesus promises to bless us as peacemakers.  Jesus honors your work. God uses your efforts for His glory and purpose.  God will grant you a gift of grace now or in the future, because you are engaged in this work.  Children of God means because you are involved in the business of peacemaking, you are doing a God-like work, a holy work.  You are engaged in the very work which the God of peace is doing in this world.  

Peacemaking also applies to the spiritual realm.  It is about making peace with God in one's own soul and heart. “God I am sorry, forgive me.”   Forgiving another person or accepting their apology is a form of peacemaking.   Peacemaking requires courage and heart and perseverance. Peacemaking requires faith and trust in God.   And peacemaking requires being realistic; peacemaking is rarely if ever peaceful.  It is doing the work of God and finding through struggle and set-backs and disappointment a way to peace.

Scripture says, “If you are in worship and you remember that someone has something against you, go and be reconciled.” Leave worship, go to the person and seek reconciliation.   Then come back to worship and present your offering.  Come to terms quickly with your accuser.  Strive to resolve your differences before they become intractable.

Peacemaking is God's work and as Jesus' followers, it is your work and mine.  Is there someone you are striving to make peace with?   Is there some task that God is calling you to step in to as a peacemaker?

I close with the Prayer of Saint Francis of Assisi, founder of the 12th century Franciscan order of monks:   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; and 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!

Friday, October 2, 2015

Commands toward Others II (Exodus 20:15-21) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

Today we conclude our three weeks series on the Ten Commandments, which are also called, the decalogue. The late American filmmaker Cecil B. DeMille said: “Humanity has made 32,600,000 laws, but hasn’t yet succeeded in improving on the 10 Commandments.”

In the late 1990's, the Tennessee Senate approved a resolution encouraging homes, businesses, houses of worship, places of work, and schools to post and observe the Ten Commandments.  The resolution cited the declining moral standards in our nation as the reason.   It wasn't a law, it was merely a resolution to “encourage” Tennessee citizens to heed and post the Ten Commandments.  Tennesseen's were completely free to follow or ignore the resolution.

What do you think of such a resolution?   Personally I agree with it.  The 10 commandments are God's moral compass.  They provide God's direction for people who are spiritually and morally lost.  They are God's word for people who have not heard the word of God.  In my view there has been a decline in our nations’ moral standards.   I would like to see California citizens post the Ten Commandments, this classic summary of our Judeo/Christian moral and spiritual values.   Is there a chance it could happen?  Realistically, no.  But people are free to post them in their homes.

Is this a new idea?  No, it is actually an old Jewish tradition.  You may have heard of the mezuzah.   Mezuzah is a Hebrew word which literally means “doorpost.”  It's a small wooden, metal or glass case, about three inches in length, which is placed on the doorpost of a Jewish home.   Inside the case is a tiny parchment, on which is inscribed the Ten commandments. 
It's aim is to instill God’s law in people's minds and hearts at home and away from home.   They are a constant reminder of God’s presence and God’s command for us to lead faithful, righteous, good and moral lives.  We now turn to the last three commandments.  

The Eighth Commandment is: You Shall not steal.  This command is so basic.  Author Robert Fulghum's book, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, said it well: Lesson number six - “Don't take things that aren't yours.”

God knew that His covenant with Israel could not be sustained and that the covenant and Israelite society itself would collapse, if theft, at all levels, became rampant.  God is saying one has the right to own property and one’s rights of ownership should be respected.  

The prohibition against stealing is necessary for the stability and well-being of society.  Honesty and economic justice are core values of any society.  The very future of society is in peril, wherever theft occurs: in the medical community, in government, in the military, in business, in education, in churches or in our homes.    We are bombarded with warnings about identity theft today.

The perception of theft in our communities today is overwhelming.  We read that one in four Americans will be a victim of crime each year and the majority of those crimes will be thefts.  There is some light in the picture.   The number of property crimes in the United States from January to June of 2014 decreased 7.5 percent when compared with the same time period in 2013.  Property crimes include burglary, larceny-theft, and motor vehicle theft.

I was particularly acute to the possibility of car theft after we lived for many years in Los Angeles.   I recall in 1995 when I received a call to a church in Colorado.  We moved from Santa Monica to Monument, Colorado, a small town just north of Colorado Springs.  Nancy and I were on guard and made sure the car was locked.  So in addition to our car alarm we would also attach a club locking device on our steering wheel. The only thing we didn’t have was a large Rotweiller sitting in the front seat with a sign in his mouth saying:  “Make my Day.”  We both remembered getting strange looks from people when we would park the car and go through the steps to lock it up.  It turned out car theft was almost unheard of in Monument.  No one locked their car.  Crime was almost non-existent.  It took awhile to change our habits.

This commandment forbidding stealing is broad.  It prohibits stealing another human being, kidnapping.  Then, as today around the world, human beings are kidnapped for various nefarious purposes, including selling them into slavery and for ransom.  God has created human beings with a sacred right, the right to life, to liberty, the right to live in freedom.  Secondly, it forbids the stealing of another's property.  God declares that people have a right to own and protect private property.  The third meaning concerns stealing the many non-material things an individual owns – your reputation, your good name, your dignity, your sense of trust and personal safety.

Let's turn to The Ninth Commandment: “You shall not bear false witness against another” or “give false testimony against your neighbor.”  

The original context of this commandment was people lying in Israel's courts of law.  God is deeply concerned about fairness in the legal justice system.  God knew that Israel could not survive if its system of justice was corruptible.  Obviously that is true today.  A corrupt legal system, unscrupulous judges and lawyers can threaten a nation's survival.  God commands us to be honest in our private dealings and in our pubic dealings.

We give false testimony by intentionally leaving something out of a story, telling a half-truth, twisting the facts, or making false accusations, unfounded allegations, groundless claims, boldface lies about others.   God warns us against such deceit.  A society cannot endure when it holds contempt for truth whether inside or outside the courtroom.  Even though lying and making false accusations is a way of life for some, God's people must never give into it.  God calls upon his followers, you and me, to speak the truth, to tell the truth. 

A false accusation can of course ruin a person’s reputation.  It can convict someone unfairly, send an innocent person to prison, lead them to being unjustly fined, or result in a guiltless person’s execution for a crime.

True, truth-telling as a witness can be complicated.  To truthfully tell what you saw, what you heard, what you know, is not always simple given the various circumstances of an incident, from a crime to a traffic accident.  Perception is always involved.  We hear stories today of false claims about rape, racism, assault, child abuse, workplace intimidation, school yard bullying.  It is a daunting task for law enforcement and the court system to investigate and ascertain the truth of a reported crime against a person or persons. 

When you strive to live truthfully, you acknowledge God's authority over your life, you show respect for God, you honor and obey God.  By truthful living you treat others with dignity.  God has created us for truthful living and by his grace, God has endowed us with the courage and wisdom to tell the truth. 

Searching for truth and being truthful to one another, is one of the greatest hallmarks of what it means to be created in God's image, to being a human being, to being a follower of Jesus.

Poet Beth Day wrote:  “Make it pass, before you speak, three gates of gold:  These narrow gates:  First,  “Is it true?” Then, “Is it needful?”  And the next is last and narrowest,  “Is it kind?”  And if to reach your lips at last, it passes through these gates three, then you may tell the tale, nor fear, what the result of speech may be.” 

God’s final imperative in the decalogue is an urgent word:  You shall not Covet!  Coveting, really.  Coveting doesn't hurt anyone, why a commandment? 

Author Dennis Prager writes:  “This is the only one of the Ten Commandments that legislates thought.  All the other commands legislate behavior.  Coveting is what leads to violating the other commandments, coveting so often leads to evil.” 

The Hebrew word for covet is “lachmod.”  The word is not about a passing fancy - “Oh, I wouldn’t mind having that” or “That is nice, I like that,” or about admiring someone else's possessions.  The Hebrew word used here is a strong one.  It refers to a chronic personal attitude of dissatisfaction, discontentment, an obsession with something or someone, hyper-jealousy, an intense wanting or preoccupation toward something or someone else.  It deeply resents that someone has something you don't have.  It is an all-consuming envy which can pollute one's mind and distort one’s perception.  It’s a destructive emotion, a lusting after, a drive or fixation to possess what others have.  

Covet in Hebrew further includes planning and scheming to acquire what someone else has.  It can range from another's material possessions, to their success, their position, their spouse, their children, their name.  The modern day stalker is a frightening example of one who violates this commandment.  The stalker is relentless in his or her drive to possess some person. 

The source of coveting is of course human sin. The sin of pride, idolatry, insecurity, a deep seated unhappiness within ourselves. God in this commandment links our inward desires with our outward actions.   God knows it all begins in the heart, with our inner thoughts, the seed of an evil thought which grows into murder, adultery, lying, stealing. 

In the Bible, King David coveted Bathsheba, and had her husband, Uriah the Hittite killed in battle in order to possess her.  King Ahab and Jezebel coveted Naboth’s vineyard, and had him killed in order to acquire it.

Covetousness is the enemy of serenity, tranquility, inner peace.  Can we have inner-peace if our hearts are eaten up with a powerful desire for things that are not ours?  Covetousness is the enemy of peace in the family.  I have personally witnessed families battling over wills and property and inheritance issues.  Covetousness is the enemy of peace in the church.  Covetousness is the enemy of peace in the workplace, the community, the nation and in the world. 

If you are struggling with coveting, turn to the Lord and pray: “I seek your help God.  Change my heart.  Free me from this obsession.  I have sinned.  Forgive.  Make me whole. I seek your blessing.”  And be assured that there is power in God's word of mercy, forgiveness, and blessing.  Through repentance and confession, the Holy Spirit begins a new work within us.

An inner transformation begins to occur and we begin to enjoy and value our lives and not  resent what others have that we lack.  We begin to celebrate the success of others instead of being jealous and resentful.  We discover true blessing in giving to others, rather than getting from others what we desire.  God will transform the envy that can burn within into a genuine sense of inner-peace and contentment.

As we study the commandments, they drive us toward God whom we encounter both as holy judge and merciful savior.  And by the inward working of God’s Spirit, they gradually change from being external rules, to becoming God's word written on our hearts.  We see them as they are: signs of God’s steadfast love commanding us to lead good and righteous lives which love, worship and honor God and treat others with respect and justice.

For God’s plan for creation is where people are more concerned with their neighbors’ good, than with their neighbor’s goods.  Amen!