Prepare the Way for Peace

John the Baptist’s message

In the fifteenth year of the rule of the emperor Tiberius—when Pontius Pilate was governor over Judea and Herod was ruler[a] over Galilee, his brother Philip was ruler[b] over Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias was ruler[c] over Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas—God’s word came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. John went throughout the region of the Jordan River, calling for people to be baptized to show that they were changing their hearts and lives and wanted God to forgive their sins. This is just as it was written in the scroll of the words of Isaiah the prophet,

A voice crying out in the wilderness:
Prepare the way for the Lord;
make his paths straight.
Every valley will be filled,
and every mountain and hill will be leveled.
The crooked will be made straight
and the rough places made smooth.
All humanity will see God’s salvation.[d]

Earlier in the service, we lit the candle of Peace. In one particular Peanuts comic strip, Charlie Brown and his little sister Sally are talking about peace, along with the uncertainty of life and all the craziness life can entail. Sally proudly proclaims that she has inner peace, but still appears to be really restless. As the comic strip continues, something sets Sally on a rant and she begins raving to her brother, “I hate everything! I hate the world!” Charlie Brown trying to calm her down, stops her. “I thought you had inner peace,” he says. To which Sally woefully responses, “I do, but I still have outer obnoxious-ness!” It is all too easy to identify with Sally, isn’t it? We have many “outer- obnoxious-ness” in our lives.  How can we prepare the way for peace this Advent season, even amidst all of our “outer-obnoxious-ness”?

In the midst of the Advent season, our text this morning cries out using Isaiah’s words to, “Prepare the way of the Lord!”  Think about the last time you prepared for something, perhaps a work or school project, a party, or a meal for guests. What did you do to prepare? Often times when we are preparing for something, we tend to want to plan ahead, to make to-do lists. When we are planning meticulously and preparing, we care enough about the tasks at hand to want to get our preparations exactly correct. Over the course of the Advent season as we prepare, let us bring the same eagerness to our anticipation of Christ’s coming.

Christian author, Handel Brown writes, “Christmas has lost its meaning for us because we have lost the spirit of expectancy. We cannot prepare for an observance. We must prepare for an experience.” Just as we take time to pull Christmas decorations out of our attics and we carefully prepare to place ornaments on our trees (and in some homes we re-hang ornaments on the tree multiple times after cats knock them off), just as we take time to make our shopping lists and to double check them twice, just as we take time to prepare holiday meals; we are called to create a space to prepare for the arrival of the Messiah.  Preparing our hearts to receive Christ is at the very heart of the Advent season.

John the Baptist was born to anticipate and prepare. John, the voice crying out in the wilderness, was charge to prepare the way before the Lord, to prepare the way for peace. While many powerful people are mentioned at the beginning of our text, it is seemingly insignificant John, the son of Zechariah, a temple priest, who has a call to proclaim and help others prepare the way for the Lord. The writer of Luke took special care to remind us that John the Baptist was called to deliver a message, a call which occurred smack in the middle of world events, at a very particular time and a very particular place. As he does in other places throughout the text, Luke, a writer with a historian mind-set, places the events of Christ’s life in historical context and provides us with a rich background to portray John as prophet who worked and spoke in the real world of human authorities.

We don’t get the words of John’s proclamation in today’s passage, stay tuned for Dan’s sermon on John’s words and counsel next Sunday. What we can infer from our passage today is John the Baptist is charged with preparing the way and anticipating the ministry of Christ; to proclaim baptism and to get people ready to see Christ’s ministry and hear Christ’s teachings.  To wait and see, to get people ready for Christ’s unique peace. A peace saving people from the darkness of their sins—bringing indescribable peace through an unlikely cross. A savior who brings peace through mercy and forgiveness and who shows us all glimpses of peace with every new day—if we are paying attention. A savior who gives us peace in knowing that salvation is offered and a savior who makes, “every mountain and hill made low.”

So what does all this mean for us as we prepare for Christ’s coming and Christ’s peace today? Advent suggest that God seems to want us to wait. Waiting for Christ in Advent is hard. God seems to expect expectation. What does this level of preparation and peace look like? Especially when we don’t have to look too far to be hit with our “outer-obnoxious-ness.” What must we do to prepare the way for the Lord?

Preparation for the coming of Christ happens not only when Tiberius was emperor but also December 9, 2018. In this second year of the presidency of Donald Trump, when Ralph Northam serves as Governor of Virginia, Pope Francis occupies the Vatican, and just a month after the shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue, as National Gun Violence Prevention Sabbath Weekend begins this Thursday, and as the Yemen food crisis continues. While war, struggle, and heartache occur in many places, we are called to be prepared and to celebrate joyfully ‘a child, a son, a Prince of Peace given to us’—not in spite of all that is horrible, dangerous, or distressing about the world around us, but precisely because of it.

But perhaps we should bring it to more personal level—-what does anticipation and preparation for the Lord look like for me? What does it look like for you? How do we feel when we hear that it’s time to prepare? Nervous? Excited? Ecstatic? Anxious? Ponderous? Peaceful? Overwhelmed? What do the words of Advent, hope, peace, love, joy, provoke you to do in preparation? What are you looking forward to? Advent preparation is similar to the refining and redefining process. Do we feel like we are refining ourselves during Advent? Which practices prepare you the most for the coming of Christ? I’m partial to singing, it feels emotionally connected and yet mysterious. Singing also brings to light why anticipation can be so emotional as we connect with and pray the lyrics of songs. Another practice we use to prepare is the advent wreath- each candle connecting us to a specific theme as we prepare. How else can we prepare for Christ and what characteristics are needed?  Advent preparation is attentive and intentional. Advent preparation is about creating moments to be still, to pray, and experience God’s peace.  As author, Bill McKibben writes, “Advent is the time to listen for footsteps of God – you can’t hear footsteps when you’re running yourself.”  Advent preparation calls us to the challenge of striving to work alongside others to make God’s salvation and peace known to all humankind.

Preparing the way for Christ and for peace in a busy world filled with turmoil can be as hard as trying to build a sandcastle close to the spot where the waves of life crash at the water’s edge. There’s always the chance that some outer-obnoxious-ness will come along and shake things up and tear down our carefully built peace castles. Poet, Sarah Are, addresses what to do when such a shakeup happens through a beautiful poem in our “Draw Near” devotionals. Listen to her words:

“Truth is like sand-

Slipping through my fingers

Every time I turn on the news.

So day after day, I gather the dust at my feet

And build sand castles of the world I want to see-

Sand castle cities with fair housing, no walls,

Families united and a name like Love.

And when the waves threaten to tear them down,

I will rebuild.

For the truest thing I know is that

God is love,

And love is strong than fear.

So at the end of the day, if you need me,

I’ll be taking sand-soaked alternative truths

And turning them into sand castles of a better world-

A world rooted in love,

Which I will keep building

Until “love,” and “truth” and “God” all sound like

Synonyms.”

Friends, preparing the way for Christ to work and preparing space for God peace, can often be hard and messy work as we are crowded by outer-obnoxious-ness. But such preparations are important work we are all called to engage this season of Advent; to proactively, and expectantly prepare, to proclaim peace among mess, and to proclaim the salvation that the Lord gives us. Let us approach Christmas with an expectant hush, rather than a last-minute rush. As we ponder the peace of Christ and prepare, let us live in the moment that believes such promise is possible that all flesh will see the salvation of God. Wait for it. Wait for Christ’s peace. Amen.

 

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The Power of Giving

Mark 12:38-44 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

Jesus Denounces the Scribes

38 As he taught, he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, 39 and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! 40 They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”

The Widow’s Offering

41 He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. 42 A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. 43 Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. 44 For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

Sacrifice. The Veterans we recognized earlier know a thing or two about sacrifice. From missing holidays and important family events to putting themselves in harm’s way; their willingness serve was and is a sacrifice. Today, we commemorate the 100th anniversary of the ending of World War 1. Soldiers who battled in World War 1, knew about sacrifice.

The unnamed widow in today’s text knew about sacrifice. Perhaps you’ve heard her story before. Her face has haunted me all week. I wish we knew her name. I wish we knew for sure that her real-life fierceness exceeded the piety we’ve imposed on her. We know she was an impoverished widow in first century Palestine not seeking to be noticed; a woman living on the margins of her society. She had no safety net- no husband or sons to advocate for her, no pension to draw from, and no social status to hide behind. She was vulnerable and invisible in every single way that mattered in her society. She would have been a member of “the least of these” group, the ones Jesus challenges his followers to care for.

Yet she comes to the outer courts of the temple with an offering of two small copper coins, the smallest coins minted in Judea at that time which are about the equivalent of a penny. In ancient Israel, the “poor” were not necessarily required to give; they simply did so because they believed in the goodness of the institution, the goodness of its leaders, and the need for religious institution to remain. Why would the widow give the last bits she had? Perhaps she knew that once she gave her all, she would need to rely on the resources from the religious institution to provide for her. Perhaps, in the widow’s eyes, giving was an important act of faith.

Yet the scribes did religious actions for the sake of appearances. Scribes would have been very familiar with Torah writings, yet in their corruption they ignored writings such as Deuteronomy 15: 7 which instructs “If among you, one of your brothers should become poor, in any of your towns within your land that the Lord your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against your poor brother, but you shall open your hand to him and lend him sufficient for his need, whatever it may be.” As well as Deuteronomy 24:17 says “You shall not pervert the justice due to the sojourner or to the fatherless, or take a widow’s garment in pledge, but you shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you from there; therefore, I command you to do this.”

These are just a FEW examples of what God considers JUST in the Torah; the writings that the Scribes and the Pharisees were meant to teach and uphold. One of the things we must remember about these Scribes and Pharisees is that they were not just the “priests, or religious scholars” of that time. They were also the political and community leaders, the land and business owners, and the judges and lawyers. These “holy” men were supposed to use funds to care for the widows. Instead, many of them said long prayers for the sake of appearances, demanded the best seats in the synagogues and parties, and took advantage of widows like the one who gave the temple her two cents and who hoped for help from a broken institution.

In Mark’s gospel Jesus had just answered the question what is the greatest commandment, and challenged people “to love God and to love neighbor.” To care for widows would be right in step with the greatest commandments mentioned earlier; yet the scribes took advantage of widows instead. The call of Jesus is unambiguous: Do not exploit the vulnerable and care for those the world relentlessly seeks to crush. Yet the scribes were doing the exact opposite.

It might be tempting to leave the widow’s story as merely a lesson and morale for how to give, or as a call to give everything we have…but to do so we are missing of the larger points.  Though church history uses the widow as a “model giver”, it becomes exceedingly important to note that Jesus never commends the widow nor demands that she give at all. Jesus never applauds her self- sacrifice, or invites us to follow in her footsteps. He simply notices her, and tells others to notice her too. Often times, as we communicate with one another our tone of speech is extremely telling of how we really feel. I would give anything to hear the tone of Jesus’ voice as he called attention to a nameless widow. I can only imagine his voice sounded heartbroken as he tells disciples and others to peel their eyes from rich folks and glance in her direction instead. I can only imagine his tone of sadness as he points out another injustice in the world as people fall to take care of and love their neighbors.

In her work, “The Other Ones”, pastor and poet, Rachael Keefe poetically describes the scene in Mark’s gospel. Listen to a selection from her poem, she writes:

You could see the woman, the widow, the one without means
she kept to the shadows, head down and quiet, even her steps were silent
as she approached the treasury box to add her two cents
far less than others put in

No one took notice
yet you saw her and spoke of her sacrifice and her value
You did not let her go unseen, one among many,
many so much prettier, shinier, showier
who wanted to be seen giving what they would not miss
in a way that spoke of their own significance
and drew attention away from those whose value
they overlooked with training and intention

A widow whose name has not been spoken in thousands of years
acted out Your teachings and wanted nothing for her effort
and we still fail to see

We see her two copper coins and recognize (sometimes) the beauty of her gift
yet we still make it about the money and think that You are asking more of us
than we can possibly give

More than anything else You would like us to open our eyes as Bartimaeus did
and see the way You see and stop confusing money and possessions and success and power–with value and worth and humanity and beloved-ness

Who have we failed to notice hiding out on the margins where we cover them
in shadows and shades of undesirability?
Who holds their gifts out to us like two copper coins whose value isn’t measured in
dollars and cents?

So what did Jesus notice in widow? Jesus saw what everyone else was too busy, too spiritual, too self-absorbed to see. He saw the widow’s courage as she allowed last scraps of security to slip out of her hands. In noticing her Jesus noticed her dignity- despite her being a person who was marked as expendable even in the temple she loved. He saw her tiny gift had value in God’s eyes. Jesus lamented as he watched the scribes take advantage people like her and he denounced injustice and corruption. Would we see the widow? The least of these?

            Friends, through our daily living out of our faith, we too are challenged to notice people. But what might our text tell us about giving as we approach the end of stewardship? Perhaps the point is to challenge us to look at giving through a slightly different lens. Perhaps this drives us to look at giving as a form of evangelism. How might our daily lives look if we seek to view giving our time, talents, and resources to the church as form of evangelism?  Giving can be one of the ways we as a followers of Christ work to show others another way of loving God and loving neighbor.  When we give we show the love of God to our neighbors through joining with community partners to ensure children of Winchester do not go hungry.  Through giving to events like Men on a Mission, through giving to the Helper Fund, and through giving to support all the other various missions of First Presbyterian, you are allowing the church to do its work and ministry.  You are empowering the church to notice our neighbors.
How might we all take even the smallest steps to response to the call to give our tithes and talents this week? We do not wish to take the last of what you have to live on. We don’t want you to give all that you have and be left with nothing.  We are looking for ways to excite and encourage each and every one of you to go out into this world and bare good fruit. To give whatever time, talents, and resources you can and to notice our neighbors, even those who often go unnoticed. As one of my wise pastor friends says, “Remember that whatever you give – it does not go TO the church but it goes THROUGH the church and out into the world.”  Amen.

 

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The Power of Confession

Hebrews 4:12-16 English Standard Version (ESV)

12 For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. 13 And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.

Jesus the Great High Priest

14 Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. 15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. 16 Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

Why is confession important? Church reformer, Martin Luther writes, “The Christian way essentially consists of acknowledging ourselves to be sinners and in praying for grace.” Confession is owning our mistakes and asking for God’s grace in our lives. During our worship each Sunday, we come before God and our neighbors and confess our sins together in a unison prayer of confession and then individually during a time of silence. Children have a wonderful way of helping us understand worship because they are experiencing church through lenses of questioning- they always ask “why?” when it comes to reasons we do things. While serving a previous congregation, I was teaching a children’s class on the various parts of our worship service and why we have each piece of the service. We were talking about the importance of the prayer of confession and how during the moment of silence everyone silently confesses things they are sorry about to God. A curious student asked a very good question, “Why are the pauses so long sometimes after we all pray together?” And one of the older students didn’t miss a beat and jumped in, “I wonder if it is because the preachers have a lot of sins to say they are sorry for.” A very insightful statement indeed. Truth be told, we all have a lot to tell God we are sorry for because we are all humans who continuously sin and fall short of God’s glory for our lives.

            So there is good news and bad news within our text today. Would you like the good news or bad news first? The bad news is our text makes it crystal clear that absolutely nothing is hidden from God. So friends, that means when we were are a little too irritated behind the wheels of our car, even silently, God knows the true intentions of our hearts. Scary, right? “God discovers the desires and thoughts of our hearts.”  We can sometimes wear masks and hide our truest selves around people; but as much as we try to mask our true sinful nature from God we are unable to do so—none of our actions are hidden from God. Hebrews makes the case that human beings cannot handle being fully seen by God. God’s word will reveal intentions of the heart, and thoughts unspoken. Nothing will be hidden from the God who will judge us according not only to actions, but to mere intentions. Hence, humanity’s need for a High Priest, an intercessor, Jesus Christ to make a case on our behalf, plead for mercy, take on the punishment that should be our own.

As much as we would like to deny the fact, we all are sinners, and because we are sinners we cannot bear the weight of our sins and we all need to confess. Friends, it is never comfortable to admit we are wrong to admit that we are sorry for our shortcomings. It is never comfortable to think about all the mistakes we make and how God knows the very intentions of our hearts. Confession can make us uncomfortable for various reasonsWe wonder what people will think of us if they know our true hearts and our true sins. Confession might make us uncomfortable because it reminds us that God knows the intentions of our hearts—that’s a scary thought.

But if we confess Jesus is our Lord and Savior, we can’t just get caught up in the bad news. The very ability to approach the throne of grace with boldness through Jesus Christ and confess our sins is the good news! The fact that we are able to bring our sins before Christ who understands our sins is unique. In the ancient Greek-Roman world, empathy between humans and gods was not thought to be possible. The classical Greek and Roman gods such as Zeus and Apollo did not understand the human condition or plight.  People who worshiped these gods understood that these gods just kept their distance from humans and were unable to show empathy or sympathize with the human condition. For these gods being sympathetic to human condition was non-existent. Our God however, is quite the opposite of these apathetic gods. Today’s passage reminds us that Jesus is the sympathetic high priest.  Jesus is sympathetic to our situations and unique sins because he was tempted but He is not stuck in sin. He understands why we might make the poor decisions we did, but He did not make them. Theologian Karl Barth reminds us that, “the gospel illuminates the mercy of God and the need to confess.”—and the good news is we can confess because our God sympathizes with our weakness to sin and is full of mercy and compassion and also approachable through Christ.

Yes, God can see behind our masks we use to try to hide our sins, but in Christ- God also listens to our confessions. Jesus is able to identify with human weakness, yet Jesus’ sinless life grants the ability for confession of sins. Yes, we can hide nothing from God—but when we confess our sins through Christ, we are forgiven. This is reason not to despair but to have hope.

            There is a power in confession. The children’s resource for worship describes the power of confession simply- it says: “Confession is proof of God’s promises always to love and forgive us — even when we mess up and don’t follow God’s way, or when we do things that hurt others. Everyone makes mistakes; that is why we confess our sin together. When we confess our sin, we say that we are sorry for these things, and we ask God to forgive us and help us live new lives.” Friends, confession is powerful because it reminds us how much we rely on God’s grace.

Confessing our sins can grant us a certain level of accountability. There is a story about a child participating in Ash Wednesday service where church members anonymously wrote down their sins on sheet of paper folded it, and placed it at the cross. This 6-year-old wrote, “God, I’m sorry because I lie.” But then he signed his name, and he refused to fold it. He walked to the front and pinned it to the cross. His parents asked, “Why did you put your name on it? Don’t you want to fold it up so no one can see?” To which the child replied, “I wrote my name on it because I want everyone to see it. Because if they know it was me, maybe they can help me stop.” As we confess our sins, we acknowledge ourselves as someone who is in need of Christ’s grace and mercy and when we confess in the context of a worship setting we have built in accountability. Within Christian community we have people who are all sinners who can also hold one another accountable.

(Met-an-o-eh-o) the Greek word which normally is translated into English as repentance, quite literally translates into thinking differently afterwards, and/or changing one’s mindset. When we confess our sins, we are allowing the Holy Spirit to help us rewire our thought process to think differently afterwards…to think through how our words and actions impact those around us. We can stop carrying around our sin baggage. Confessing our sins to God allows God to hold onto our sins and slowly, day by day, help us change our frame of mind. Confession places us in a posture of being open to God’s work of changing our mindset.

Friends, we need to confess. But as we confess our shortcomings day after day, and week after week; we are always reminded of and encounter God’s immeasurable mercy, we are reminded of Jesus’ ability to sympathize with our weakness, and the knowledge that despite our infinite sins, we are met with infinite grace. There is power in confession of sins. Hear the good news, in Christ and in Christ alone, we are forgiven. Amen.

 

 

If You Can’t Say Anything Nice….

During the month of September, we have been carefully studying the book of James, a universal letter to all Christian communities. Last week our text highlighted how James instructs Christian communities to walk the talk which involves putting actions with our words. This week, James challenges Christian communities to talk the walk– to think about how our words impact others and how our words should harmonize with and walk in step with our faith. James reminds Christians to pair words with actions in ways that supersede unloving words- to be slow to speak, and quick to listen. Hear these words from James 3:1-12.

 “My friends, we should not all try to become teachers. In fact, teachers will be judged more strictly than others. All of us do many wrong things. But if you can control your tongue, you are mature and able to control your whole body.

By putting a bit into the mouth of a horse, we can turn the horse in different directions. It takes strong winds to move a large sailing ship, but the captain uses only a small rudder to make it go in any direction. Our tongues are small too, and yet they brag about big things.

It takes only a spark to start a forest fire! The tongue is like a spark. It is an evil power that dirties the rest of the body and sets a person’s entire life on fire with flames that come from hell itself. All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles, and sea creatures can be tamed and have been tamed. But our tongues get out of control. They are restless and evil, and always spreading deadly poison.

9-10 My dear friends, with our tongues we speak both praises and curses. We praise our Lord and Father, and we curse people who were created to be like God, and this isn’t right. 11 Can clean water and dirty water both flow from the same spring? 12 Can a fig tree produce olives or a grapevine produce figs? Does fresh water come from a well full of salt water?”

What is the purpose of words? Think about your week last week—how many words did you say? What percentage of your words were helpful? What percentage were hurtful? What would your spouse, family, friends or coworkers say your normal percentage of hurtful words versus helpful words is? The average person speaks at least 12,000 words a day and this statistic does not include words posted on social media websites. So how do we use our words?

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me!”  Who has been hurt by words? Psychologists and writers of Psychology Today look at similarities and interconnectedness of physical pain and emotional pain: They conclude, “Our language has always mirrored the connection between the two; we suffer from “broken hearts” as well as bones, and speak of “bruised feelings” along with toes. This all seems intuitively right because we recognize the common basis of the pain we experience, whether a throbbing headache or the pain of missing someone so much that you ache. Emotional pain is real.” Is there anyone out there who actually believes the line, “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me”? I somehow doubt it, but now science has researched and proven the literal harm words inflict and the high level of emotional pain words can cause. Anyone who has been at the receiving end of a bully’s wrath knows that words are as blunt as stones and as sharp a honed stick. We should know better than to repeat the old adage about sticks and stones, for words have the power to cut sharply to our hearts and latch onto our thoughts days after we heard them spoken. Words hurt, just like sticks and stones.

Friends, we can be quick to raise hands when asked have we ever been hurt by someone else’s words…but let’s be careful and remember to turn the question around, to take a hard look at ourselves in the mirror. Who has either intentionally or unintentionally hurt someone with words? Growing up with siblings who daily tested the other’s patience and loving Disney movies, my mom was often quick to remind me of Thumper, the rabbit’s words in Bambi. At one point in the movie, Thumper observes Bambi, the young deer trying to walk. As a clumsy young deer, Bambi stumbles a lot to which Thumper blurts out, “he doesn’t walk very good does he?” After his mother prompted him to remember what he has always been taught, Thumper sheepishly responded, “If you can’t say anything nice; don’t say nothing at all!” This became somewhat of a motto growing up with two siblings. An easy motto to quote but a hard motto to live by.

James challenges us to train our tongues to stop and think before we speak. However, taming our tongue is difficult! Even though tongue is small, it can drive and control the direction of the person. Controlling what is said is like skillful use of bit to control the movement of horse or the pilot’s handling of rudder to maneuver a ship through strong winds. We have to know what we are doing and know the power behind what we are trying to control. The tongue, even though it is small, can hurt others in deep ways. Through the tongue the unjustness of humans is displayed. The tongue has the capability of destroying one’s religious practices and that of one’s community through that don’t line up with Jesus’ teachings. Friends, these are heavy words to say and hear though we should feel the weight of our words. James wants our words to be in line with who we worship.

Managing the words that come out of our mouths and not to mention all the words that fill our internet presence is harder than taming a wild animal. As quickly as we can tweet about something, we can hurt many people with our words. As quickly as we can bring praises to God, we can swear and lie. How are our words portrayed to those we speak with? Once our words escape our lips, they have tremendous power and tenacity for good or evil. Our words can include or embrace, heal or humiliate, lift up or tear down. The tongue though diminutive- can lead us astray as easily as a small rudder steers a ship or a small bit controls a horse. Our tongues can ignite a raging inferno that no one can extinguish.

With the same tongue we will sing hymns and pray for our neighbor; yet also with the exact same tongue we curse our neighbors when they cut us off in traffic or when they disagree with our point of view. And in 2018 it is not just our spoken words–we will post Facebook statuses and memes about blessing and praying for others and then immediately turn around and degrade our neighbors. We may throw out hurtful poisonous words of slander and insults directed towards our brothers and sisters in Christ. Our words can build up and encourage, or our words can be demoralizing and leave others questioning if we are truly Christians who follow our Lord’s call to love God and to love neighbor. Our words can express openness and welcome in our congregations and communities, or our words can have people running away from wanting to associate with Christians. James knows the seriousness of the words Christian choose. Friends, words have power!

A wise friend recently reminded me, “our words are like toothpaste; once they come out they aren’t easily put back in.” How many times have you said something and wished you could take your words back as soon as they left your mouth? Even if we don’t think what we say matters, often times our words said in passing have an effect on people who hear them. Our scripture passage doesn’t let us off the hook. Yes, we are all human and yes we will make mistakes- we all will bless the Lord and curse others with the same tongue…maybe even in the same breath. We will make mistakes, but do we learn from our mistakes? When we misspeak, do we own our mistakes and try to reestablish broken relationship? James suggests that there is never a relationship between humans and God which is not at the very same time manifest and embodied in our relationships with our sisters and brothers. James reminds us that none of us, no matter our importance in the world, are independent, unfazed atoms. Instead, we are links in an unbreakable and connected chain. For James, there is no knowledge of God that does not force an individual to gaze into the eyes of another person and realize his or her inextricability from the links of Christian community.

We are called by Christ to love our neighbors which also includes loving our neighbors through our words. Friends, we don’t always get this part of our faith right and Jesus loves us enough to call us out on this. Through Jesus’ examples of using words to enhance and build up God’s kingdom- Jesus shows us the way. To remind us that yes, as Christians, we will make mistakes and our words will hurt others, but yes, as Christians we are called to strive for our words to lift others up—to connect those who are different from us, to encourage and to share God’s love with others. What steps can you take to tame your tongue? James reminds us that before we speak, we need to pause and think to ourselves—are our words true? Are they helpful? Are they inspiring? Are they necessary? Are they kind? Are my words in line with my Christian faith?

Our challenge this week is to speak words which show others we are Christians. Will we make mistakes, yes—but as we make mistakes we must desperately strive to repair relationships and recommit ourselves to the lifelong, Holy Spirit led work of taming our tongues. How will you use your words this week? Friends, our words can build up the kingdom of God or work to dismantle God’s kingdom from the inside out by throwing sticks and stones at our brothers and sisters in Christ through our curses and hateful words. Perhaps if we can’t say anything nice, we shouldn’t say anything at all. Or perhaps Christians should strive to use our words to point others to Christ at work in our lives.  We all have a choice. We all have a challenge; and we all have work to do. Amen.power-of-words

Scattered Seeds

Mark 4:26-34 Contemporary English Version (CEV)

26 Again Jesus said:

God’s kingdom is like what happens when a farmer scatters seed in a field. 27 The farmer sleeps at night and is up and around during the day. Yet the seeds keep sprouting and growing, and he doesn’t understand how. 28 It is the ground that makes the seeds sprout and grow into plants that produce grain. 29 Then when harvest season comes and the grain is ripe, the farmer cuts it with a sickle.[a]

30 Finally, Jesus said:

What is God’s kingdom like? What story can I use to explain it? 31 It is like what happens when a mustard seed is planted in the ground. It is the smallest seed in all the world. 32 But once it is planted, it grows larger than any garden plant. It even puts out branches that are big enough for birds to nest in its shade.

33 Jesus used many other stories when he spoke to the people, and he taught them as much as they could understand. 34 He did not tell them anything without using stories. But when he was alone with his disciples, he explained everything to them.

What do hobbits, King David, and seeds have in common? To slightly paraphrase J.R.R Tolkien, “even the smallest person, (thing, or action) can change the course of the future.” Hobbits, though the smallest of beings, saved their world. The Lord makes it a point to remind Samuel not to look at outward appearances, but the heart, and it is David, the youngest and smallest of Jesse’s sons who is anointed as king. But how many of you have ever seen a mustard seed?  Seeds in and of themselves are not that big and mustard seeds are among the smallest of seeds.  Mustard seeds are about 1 to 2 millimeters in size. Can something so small change the course of the future and make an enormous and lasting difference? Can something so small take root into something large enough to not only make an impact, but also provide shelter? In today’s scripture, Jesus takes something as unexplainable and unfathomable as the Kingdom of God, and explains the grand concept in a way his followers could relate to; and throughout his ministry, Jesus told stories, giving people images of things they could see and touch.

But why would Jesus use the image of something as small as a seed to explain the kingdom of God? The kingdom of God is like seed which is sown and grows up for harvest. It’s organic and grows. It needs fed and comes to completion at set time. It has a life cycle. It grows in ways we don’t understand. It feeds others and brings life. Like a mustard seed, while it is small, it can grow into grand plant and provide a home for others. It’s mysterious and shatters expectations. It looks like it packs a small punch, but then it surprises. Mustard seeds, even though they are very small, can on average sprout ten to thirty feet tall and spread out about twenty feet. Small seeds scattered should not amount to much; but friends, we worship a God who is able to accomplish many wonderful things through even the smallest seed, person, action, or exchange of words.

For often times, even the smallest word or action from another can help us grow in our faith. As I watched Todd and so many volunteers do an amazing job decorating to prepare for Vacation Bible School’s kickoff this evening, I couldn’t help but remember growing up and attending VBS. In fact, my earliest memory of attending church involved coming to a Vacation Bible School.

When I was five years old, I was so excited because after years of being the little sister, I was finally going to be a big sister and have a little brother.  But when it finally came time for my brother to be born, it was quite hard for my five year old mind to understand all of what was happening.  You see, my brother was born with a serious heart condition called hypo-plastic left heart syndrome, which meant his left ventricle never developed correctly and was useless. During his first few years, he had three open heart surgeries to help his heart work properly.  But when it came time for summer’s VBS, my parents were focused on staying home with my little brother who was still recovering from his first open heart surgery and had a harder time coordinating rides for my sister and I. When church members realized transportation to VBS would be extra difficult for my family, several woman came together to organized a pick up and drop off schedule to make sure my sister and I could still attend VBS. Mrs. Dot was one of the women who picked us up several days and I can remember her always saying she was praying for us.  She always had a smile on her face when she came to pick us up and even checked on us during VBS activities to make sure we were doing okay. Miss Dove, another faithful VBS volunteer, who was 80 years old sat on the steps of the church and welcomed children as they arrived. She struck up a conversation with me and my sister and I remember she took an interest in who we were, what we liked to do, what games we liked to play—she told us that God not only loves us but God also loves and watches over our new baby brother. Seeds, however small, were scattered and thankfully took root.

Maybe you have someone in your life who has influenced your faith. Did they do so in grand actions? Or were seeds scattered throughout your life to help your faith grow? I vaguely remember the songs and Bible stories from VBS that year, but I will always remember how adults helped my Mom and Dad transport my sister and I to and from VBS and I will always remember the love they showed us during a time of crisis.

As followers of Christ, we are called and challenged to scatter seeds.  What are some ways you are challenged when it comes to scattering seeds and helping to grow the Kingdom of God? Today’s passage reminds us that the seed grows by itself while the one who scattered the seeds does not even know growth is happening. Many of my friends who have children often say a child grows up in a blink of an eye.  Perhaps you have witnessed this with your own children or children you know.  Before we even realize it, the once newborns mature, outgrow their sneakers and baby clothes, begin school, get a driver’s license, and graduate and all the while parents look upon them and wonder, “how did this growing up thing even happen?”  There is a hiddenness to growth, isn’t there? Growth is necessary and important but we don’t always know how it happens, just as the person in Jesus’ parable did not know how the seed sprouted.  But hiddenness and secrecy of growth doesn’t absolve us from taking action. We need to scatter. In the text there is someone scattering seeds, even if someone does not understand how the seeds sprout and grow while they are asleep. We are challenged to share God’s love and grace with all we come into contact with.  One commentator writes, “this means our job is to keep on persevering in the planting and tending the gospel seeds of mercy, kindness, and love. And we keep planting seeds even when we do not see results first hand.”  Mrs. Dot and Miss Dove may never fully understand and results of the seeds they planted in my faith and the faith of other children at VBS.  The challenge for us is to continue to operate based on faith- faith that scatters seeds even we cannot see the immediate outcome- at least initially. Living in the kingdom of God requires us to accept levels of ambiguity, accept that we are not always in control; and then step off the ledge of mystery in faith.

But how do we even begin to take action and scatter seeds for God’s kingdom? The truth is people can meet Christ in small moments- small things, small tasks, and just tiny seeds planted day by day. What small actions can we all do this week to help scatter seeds? Perhaps this means helping a group of children have a blast and learn more about God during Vacation Bible School this week. Perhaps it means bringing food to a friend and comforting them after they have surgery or a loss in their family.  Perhaps this means volunteering at food pantry or Jubilee kitchen.  Perhaps this means sharing Bible stories with children at bedtime.  Perhaps this means smiling at a stranger in the grocery store line who looks like they are having a bad day. Perhaps this means showing kindness and mercy to someone you disagree with.  Whatever this may look like for you, remember even the smallest of things and tinniest seeds are the work of Christ. It’s the little things that help God’s kingdom take root and it is the little things that make a difference- little things like a smile, a word of kindness, and the faith that God works with the smallest gifts we have.

Like it or not, we don’t control the growth of seeds we plant. It doesn’t work that way. We hardly are privy to ways the small seeds we plant affect the lives of others, but that is the beautiful thing about faith. These seeds may grow into wonderful things and even though we may not know and fully understand how, God is always working through the seeds we scatter. We can only be faithful, scattering what we have received, hoping to share and shelter what comes our way.  We can only trust that one day our scattered seeds will take root and grow into something significant with God’s help. Friends, we can only keep faithfully scattering seeds. Amen.

“Real Strength”

Over the past few Sundays, we have been looking closely at Ephesians. Today, we hear how Paul sums up his letter’s message. Hear these words from Ephesians 6: 10-20:

10 Finally, let the mighty strength of the Lord make you strong. 11 Put on all the armor that God gives, so you can defend yourself against the devil’s tricks. 12 We are not fighting against humans. We are fighting against forces and authorities and against rulers of darkness and powers in the spiritual world. 13 So put on all the armor that God gives. Then when that evil day[a] comes, you will be able to defend yourself. And when the battle is over, you will still be standing firm.

14 Be ready! Let the truth be like a belt around your waist, and let God’s justice protect you like armor. 15 Your desire to tell the good news about peace should be like shoes on your feet. 16 Let your faith be like a shield, and you will be able to stop all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17 Let God’s saving power be like a helmet, and for a sword use God’s message that comes from the Spirit.

18 Never stop praying, especially for others. Always pray by the power of the Spirit. Stay alert and keep praying for God’s people. 19 Pray that I will be given the message to speak and that I may fearlessly explain the mystery about the good news. 20 I was sent to do this work, and that’s the reason I am in jail. So pray that I will be brave and will speak as I should.

 

“Finally, be strong in the Lord.” Paul begins the conclusion of his letter with a charge to be strong in the Lord.  So what does strength look like? Think of someone who is physically strong. Now, when I think of people who are strong physically I tend think of athletes and I’ll proudly confess they are normally of the Pittsburgh teams- for better or for worse.  But think about what does it takes to be physically strong? It may take hours of intense training to build strong muscles, a good diet, hours of practicing special skills, and getting into the mindset of I can do this through my own strength–no matter what. Some might say athletes are even trained to be unaware of their weakness.  Retired pro basketball player, Michael Jordan once said, “My attitude is that if you push me towards something that you think is a weakness, then I will turn that perceived weakness into a strength.” But even athletes need protective helmets and equipment to keep them safe. We might also think of soldiers, brave men and women on dangerous front lines—people who require some type of armor or protection. The Christians in Ephesus, would be all too familiar with armor. As citizens walked through the marketplace purchasing ingredients to provide meals for their families, they would encounter soldiers dressed in uniforms designed to protect their bodies from harm. The Ephesians knew how someone looked when they were physically strong and they knew armor was designed to protect whoever wore it. Is this what strength looks like?

Friends, strength can also look a little different.  Strength can be possessed by a man who only consistently weighed 143 lbs. throughout his lifetime.  A man dressed in a casual sweater and comfortable sneakers, who captured the imagination and hearts of children in neighborhoods around the country.  A man who for many years quietly shared the gospel of loving God and loving and welcoming neighbor with children and adults alike through the words of King Friday the 13th and of Daniel the tiger. The late and great Rev. Fred Rogers spoke of strength and where he believed strength came from with these words, “Most of us, I believe, admire strength. It’s something we tend to respect in others, desire for ourselves, and wish for our children. Sometimes, though, I wonder if we confuse strength with other words—like ‘aggression’ and even ‘violence’. Real strength is neither male nor female; but it is, quite simply, one of the finest characteristics that a human being can possess.”

So think with me for a moment—what is real strength? Earlier this week, I posed this question and took a bit of an informal Facebook poll challenging my friends to come up with a short definition of “real strength.” Here are some responses- real strength is…Contagious, kindness, patience, forgiveness, being kind to others, keeping the faith when you don’t understand the whys of life, doing what you feel is right even though it might go against popular opinion and your own best interests, the result of combining courage with action, faith in Christ, knowing and owning your weaknesses, a gift from God, knowing who you are and learning to overcome the obstacles that come your way, living day to day holding your head up in times of trouble and relying on God and not the world, knowing you are weak but choosing to overcome obstacles with whatever it takes, trusting God to help you be strong and guide you in the right direction, real strength comes from within and inner strength comes from faith.

I think a lot of my friends were right on target in their descriptions. Real strength is a single parent who works day in and day out but still has time to read a child a bedtime story at the end of a long day. Real strength is standing up to bullies. Real strength is showing up to do the right thing even when we don’t feel like doing the right thing. Real strength is helping those whose voices are not heard bubble to the surface and become heard. Real strength can be found in those who are emotionally strong, those who carry the concerns of others—nurses and caregivers, teachers, and friends. Different people possess different types of strengths.

So where then, does this strength come from? Friends, real strength only comes from God. According to the words of our scripture passage today, strength is choosing to be strong in the Lord and in the strength of God’s power. We don’t have to rely on our own power and friends that is good news! I don’t know many people who like to talk about their weaknesses, we tend to want others to think we have it all together and our culture isn’t one to allow us to show weakness.  Yet, unlike athletes who try to hide their weakness from opponents, we can own our weaknesses and rest in the knowledge that God works in us despite our weaknesses, because God is strong and able. God can take what we perceive as weakness and uses that weaknesses for something amazing, something one of a kind, something extraordinary.  Friends that is real strength.

God’s strength and power protects us, therefore we are challenged to put on the whole armor of God—the whole armor and not just the pieces that we like or not just the pieces which will help us gain popularity or influence-but put on the whole armor of God. Why would we protect our head without protecting our heart? Why would a football player wear a helmet and not knee pads? A solider would never consider going into a battlefield with just a shield to protect them. We need every piece of God’s armor because we live in a world where we will have to stand against many different types of evils. As followers of God, we are constantly going to be faced with struggle and we do not have to look far to find the devils of this world.  We need God’s strength and armor to stand tall against all the evil of the world and to protect us.

We need to wear the belt of truth in world of lies and with God’s help speak the truth to our neighbors in love. We need the breastplate of righteousness in unjust world where evil is more and more prevalent. We need to put on peace shoes to run with urgency from place to place and proclaim God’s message of peace in a world which is anything but peaceful–but which desperately needs to hear a message of peace. We need God to protect us with the shield of faith and grant us the helmet of salvation.  And we need the sword of the Spirit. The Spirit is so important because the Spirit guides us and empowers us to rest in God’s strength despite our own weakness.  And we can’t neglect or forget prayer!!! With all the armor on we can’t forget that God is our true source of real strength. Therefore we need to take time in prayer to be connected to the source of our strength.

Real strength is a call to stand, to stand up, to stand against, and to stand tall. To trust God day in and day out. To put on the armor of God and to surround ourselves with God’s strength day in and day out…over and over again. Friends, relying on God’s strength every day can be a hard road to walk. It is hard to stand against evil in a world where evil is so present. But the good news is, through it all we are not alone—we follow a God who does not call us to follow without equipping us with the armor we need.  We serve a God who exhibits real strength in and through the ministry and person of Jesus Christ—through being among the people, sitting with outcast, being present in people’s lives, teaching creatively, and befriending the lonely. Music has a wonderful way of teaching us more and more about our faith.  I think the words of one of my favorite children’s camp songs says it the best, “My God is so BIG and so STRONG, and so MIGHTY, there’s NOTHING my God cannot do!” Let us rest in God’s real strength. Amen.