Loving God, One Another, and the World
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Have We Got a Story to Tell!
A Sermon on Exodus 3:7-12, 4:10-13; Romans 10:14-15, with allusions to Mark 7:31-37
Homecoming at Morton Church
At first Moses liked what God was saying. God was saying, “My people are crying out in pain in Egypt, and I’m going to do something about it!” Even though Moses had been living in Midian for decades, he remembered well the horrible abuse the Hebrew people were experiencing at the hands of the Egyptians: unjust working conditions, physical and emotional violence and more. Doggone right something needed to be done! High time! Past time!
“I’ve seen my people’s misery in Egypt,” God was saying, “and I’m going to get them out of there and take them to a good new place.” “Wow!” Moses was thinking.
“ And so…and so,” God continued. I am sending you to Egypt to speak up for me. Tell the people that I know very well what is going on with them. I see how they are suffering. Tell them the good plans I have for them. And tell Pharaoh that I say, ‘Let my people go!’” Then you lead the people to their new home.
Moses was utterly gotten away with. “Who, me?” he exclaimed. What made God think anybody would listen to him? Nobody was going to listen to him. So Moses gave God all sorts of reasons why this was not a good idea. Moses raised a series of objections, ending with one that really was serious. “But I am slow of speech and slow of tongue,” Moses objected.
Perhaps Moses simply felt that he wasn’t particularly good at putting words together. But the original Hebrew text there uses a pretty strong word for what ailed Moses. It reads “heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue,” like there really is some physical difficulty.
Moses probably had a physical problem—perhaps a cleft palate—that meant he had to work really hard to make himself understood. And the reality is, if you have speech related difficulties, people often wonder if your intelligence is intact, and if you really have anything to say. Is it worth the effort to listen.
With substandard speech, who was Moses to be speaking publicly, and in the name of God? No! Just no!
“Lord, please send someone else!”
But when God’s got a job to be done, somebody has to go. Somebody’s got to speak up. Just like Paul said in our epistle lesson today, “How are people going to trust Jesus unless they hear about him? And how are they going to hear unless somebody tells them the good news? Somebody’s got to tell the story.”
Often people think that telling the story of Jesus is a job for someone else, and for reasons a lot like Moses’ reasons. They feel inadequate. Surely somebody else can do a much better job. What about a trained professional?
Maybe it’s partly a hearing problem, as we were talking about last Sunday. Last week we noted that you have to hear and repeat words in order to be able to speak them. Hearing and speaking go together. To speak the word of Christ’s love to others, we must first hear it—hear it deep down in our souls, and let it heal us.
Or maybe it’s that we aren’t sure we have a story to tell, not an interesting story, anyway. Not a powerful, riveting story like Paul’s story, where the light of God literally knocked him down and turned him completely around. How can we be effective witnesses unless we have something big and exciting to share? Who’s going to listen to us?
“Oh Lord,” Moses said, “Just send somebody else!”
But God was determined to work through Moses anyway. God was not going to take “no” for an answer. But this is interesting: wouldn’t it have been much simpler if God had done what Jesus did in Mark 7, and just clear away whatever was blocking Moses’ speech? Surely that would have been a much more efficient and effective way to deal with the problem than what God actually did.
For whatever reason, God thought it was wise to let the disability and struggle remain. Instead, God gave Moses two gifts. First was the assistance of Moses’ brother, Aaron. And second, and more importantly, God’s promise to accompany them personally. God said, “I will be with your mouth and Aaron’s mouth. I will put my words in your mouth and in his mouth.”
God gave him the power to speak in another way. What was the wisdom of this approach? Well, in this arrangement Moses and Aaron would humbly have to keep on seeking God’s help. And, it’s also true that in God’s economy, what seem like weaknesses can actually turn out to be assets. They might actually open more doors than they close.
Yesterday’s Rocky Mount Telegram included a magazine they publish once a year listing Telegram reader’s favorites: favorite restaurant, favorite dentist, etc. I thought to myself, “I bet I can guess which churches will be listed in the favorite church category.” I looked, and I was right: the top ones have big stories to tell, impressive stories that get picked up by the news media.
But stories don’t have to be big to be good. Some very beautiful, very powerful stories are small and simple. About the only thing big in the stories we can tell around here is God himself. God is big. Yet we do have powerful stories to tell. Why? Because we have seen God’s love in action in our lives and in this community of faith, and we have felt the movement of God’s sweet, sweet Spirit among us, and we have seen God’s wonderful power at work. We have seen God do creative and redeeming things. We have seen God’s faithfulness again and again.
And have we got stories to tell! To start with, Morton history is full of stories of God’s love poured out around here. It started in the early 1900s with a story of great love, when Dr. William D. Morton and others grew concerned about our grandparents and great-grandparents living out here in the countryside. They heard God calling them to do something. How would folks out here hear the good news of Jesus unless somebody came here to share it? Dr. Morton and his friends went out of their way to come out here and share the stories of Jesus, and they made a commitment to keep coming, even though it would have been much easier to stay home and focus on their home congregation and families in town. They didn’t have to care about us, but they did! Our ancestors must have loved Dr. Morton very much to name the congregation after him. And our history is full of this kind of story. God is faithful, and God has proved it again and again.
Fast forward to more recent times when we had some serious issues with the building. The fellowship wing had stairs. We had to go upstairs to get to the fellowship hall, and downstairs to the rooms and restroom in the basement. This was not good news for people with mobility problems. On top of that, we had a serious water leakage problem in the basement, and nothing we tried fixed the problem for more than a short while. There are those here today who used to come up here with shop vacs to vacuum up the basement flooding. Hurricane Floyd in 1999 was the worst. Before homecoming that year we were washing the walls down with bleach. How would this problem ever get worked out?
Once again, our faithful God came through and made marvelous provision. In 2005 God blessed Morton Church with an extreme makeover. God gave the money and the skills and the determination needed to gut that wing, strip it to the shell inside and out and reshape it. People worked and sweated together and got all worn out, and we ended up with the beautiful fellowship hall that has already blessed so many people and welcomes us for lunch today. It has been filled with so much love and laughter and singing and learning. On Tuesday nights it is filled with Girl Scouts.
Have we got stories to tell! The sweet, sweet Spirit of Jesus is on the move around here. We can tell of rivers and rivers of supportive prayer, and baskets and baskets of loving cards and letters, and hours and hours of caring, concrete action, seeking to bless people with all kinds of needs. Think of heart to heart talks. Think of rides to the doctor. Think of listening to the prayer needs of our friends at the homeless shelter.
What are some of the stories you can tell? Where have you caught sight of God’s love in action?
In the stories we can tell, the love of Jesus looks like this: in a room in a nursing home, a young man, still in high school, visits an older church member who is on her way to heaven, and he feeds her.
Jesus’ love looks like this: tired, sad families who have lost a loved one get wrapped in his love. They sit down together around tables and share a meal served by Morton sisters, and Morton brothers help, too.
Around here, Jesus’ love looks like this: a member of Christ’s body arrives at the emergency room to console others whose hearts are breaking, and they literally cry together. God is real, and powerfully present, right here.
There’s a sweet, sweet spirit in this place. Children are cherished and precious, and they know it. I say, “Remember, we love you,” and a little one confidently responds. “I know.” God is here!
Recently I was reminded of something our daughter Laura said when she was small. Laura said, “Mommy, when I grow up, I don’t want to go to another church. I want to go to our church.” This week I asked her to refresh my memory about what prompted that, and she said that it was because she felt safe and nurtured here. The church was her nest. “Nest” was the word she used. I don’t think she could imagine at that age that when she grew up, she might have to move away to follow her calling. Other grownup Morton children have told a similar story.
It wasn’t an exceptionally entertaining program or a sports league or exciting trips somewhere like King’s Dominion that led these children to feel so safe and loved. It was you adults who were truly interested in them, loved them, spent time with them, listened to them, read to them, sang with them, and showed them by example how to love others well in Jesus’ name. Laura’s word for these mentors is grandfriends. Thank you, grandfriends!
No, stories don’t have to be big or exciting, put in fancy words or told flawlessly with a golden tongue to be real and powerful, and full of the presence and love of God and Christ Jesus. And it’s a good thing.
Because the need is too great for any individual Christian or any congregation that has been touched by Jesus to sit on the sidelines. “I see the pain people are in,” says the Lord. “I see the loneliness and the lostness and the hopelessness. I see people young and old and in between who need to know deep in their bones how much I love them, how I want to help them and save them, and how they can trust me. And so,” says the Lord, “I am sending you.” Calling all disciples. Calling all churches. Calling this church. “I need you to speak up!” says the Lord. “I will put my word in your mouth. Tell my story with your words and with your lives.
And have we got a story to tell! Thanks be to God this Homecoming Day!
A Sermon on Mark 4:26-34 and John 12:20-26, with allusions to Ezekiel 17:22-24
The story of the mustard seed is found in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. The way Jesus tells it in Matthew and Luke, the tiny seed grows into a mighty tree. Some birds do like to nest high in a tall tree.
But other birds—especially many small ones—prefer the shelter of something smaller and more humble. They like shrubs and thickets where they might nest in the branches, and often underneath them in the shade. This is the scene Jesus is imagining when he tells the mustard seed story in Mark. The seed germinates, a shrub grows from it, puts forth branches, and birds come make nests in the shade underneath. Wonderful, blessed, sheltering shade.
Imagining the mustard bush sheltering many birds prompted me to read up on what birds find welcoming, things we can do to make our yard a more welcoming habitat. Certainly assisting with food sources and placing houses for birds that like them are helpful. We can provide sheltered spots in the landscaping itself and supply nesting materials. Birds like natural materials like pine straw, but I realized that I can also give them those little ends of yarn left from my needlework projects. I won’t throw those in the trash any more. You can even put yarn scraps and small strips of fabric inside a wire mesh bird feeder, and the birds will come and pull them out with their beaks.
The Sylvan Heights bird sanctuary in Scotland Neck has created a village of different kinds of bird habitats on a large scale. Two years ago when the Morton Salt Shakers (our daytime fellowship group) visited, we were able to go into a special area where we could feed the birds, and they would literally hop on our feet and land on our arms and hands. It was a place where the birds felt perfectly safe around us humans.
Mighty trees make good and beautiful bird habitats, but so do humble shrubs. To create a welcoming habitat, all it takes is one seed that falls on or into the ground, breaks open and dies to its old form, so new life can come out. That one seed can bless many birds.
This is what the kingdom of God is like, Jesus said. It is like a tiny mustard seed sown on the soil. It germinates and grows up into a great shrub, and puts forth its branches. The birds of the air come and nest in the shade. Welcome, welcome shade.
Who finds shelter in the kingdom of God? In the scriptures, birds are sometimes used as a metaphor or symbol for outsiders, for Gentiles—people that aren’t Jewish. It is clear from the gospels that outsiders of many different kinds—Gentiles and more—found a welcome in Jesus. They felt safe with the king of the kingdom.
The poor and the sick flocked to Jesus. And so did tax collectors and other outcasts. The weak and powerless were attracted to him, and that included women and children. These folks had no power in that society, but Jesus treated them all like royalty in the kingdom.
Jesus was approachable, and as we will see just in the next chapter of Mark alone, a man terrorized by many demons came to Jesus, and Jesus didn’t recoil from him. Jesus helped him. A distraught synagogue official fell at Jesus’ feet and begged Jesus to save his desperately ill little daughter. Jesus helped that family, too. A woman who had been hemorrhaging for many years and as a result was considered permanently unclean, unfit to go into God’s house, dared to come near Jesus. She felt safe enough to reach out and touch the edge of Jesus’ coat. Jesus approved, and he addressed her as “daughter.”
In the other gospel lesson I read today, when two Greeks wanted to see Jesus, he took the opportunity to explain his ministry in terms of a seed. Unless a grain, a seed, falls and dies, he said, there can be no new life. It remains just a single grain. But if it dies, it bears much fruit. Jesus himself was about to be sown into the ground in death, and then rise to new life for the sake of the whole world.
The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, but so is the king of the kingdom, Jesus. He came into this world in tiny infant form, grew up, and put forth his arms to touch and to heal and to draw people to himself. Jesus, who put forth his arms on the cross and transformed it into the place of safety and salvation for all who will come under it. People can rest in the shade of the cross. The king invites his followers to live in this same way, to let him sow us as seed, to die, to bring forth fruit, to be the place where people can rest in the blessed shade.
The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed that is sown, breaks open, grows, and puts forth its branches, and the birds of the air can find a nesting place in the shade. All this, from one small seed.
Where the kingdom of God is, where Jesus is king, there is a place for everyone in the blessed shade, from every people and tribe and nation. All are welcome. No one is a stranger. Everyone is safe. People of all kinds and condition are cherished and precious. The sick and sinful are safe—and saved. There’s room for everyone in the blessed sheltering love of Jesus.
Those who claim Jesus as king, those who want to take part in his kingdom, must give Jesus our hearts. We let Jesus create this welcoming habitat in our hearts. Communities of his followers allow him to shape our life together into a welcoming habitat, a place that points to the kingdom of God. A place where people can participate in the reign of God.
Imagine a safe place where all kinds of people, young, old, and in between have a purpose bigger than each of our individual lives. Imagine a place where a little child who has already been through so much can feel welcomed and know in his heart that he is loved. A place where no one need fear being put out to pasture due to illness or disability or age. Where the energy and insights of the young are welcomed and encouraged. Where those of us in pain do not have to hide our tears, and the fearful do not have to hide our fears. Where people wrestling with doubts are met with understanding, not frowns. Imagine a such a safe place, where people can rest.
Imagine a safe place where no one is cold or hungry or lonely. Imagine a place where people of different sexes and colors and ethnic groups and nationalities regard each other as equals. As family. Where hardened hearts are a thing of the past, just as having people at the door to keep certain people out is a thing of the past. Imagine a safe place where people whose viewpoints differ can find common ground in our shared humanity.
Imagine a place where we all find unity in Jesus himself. Where it’s safe to be who we really are. Where those of us who are LGBT and our family and friends need never fear that we might be treated with anything other than love and respect. Imagine a safe place where there is no judgmental talk, either within earshot or outside of it, a place where we all humbly bow before Jesus, and where we all count on his strong arms alone to hold us safely always.
The kingdom of God is like a tiny mustard seed, Jesus said, that is sown, grows into a shrub, puts forth its branches, and the birds of the air can make nests in the blessed shade.
All it takes is one seed. One small seed falls and dies to its old life, so new life can begin, and many can find shelter. One follower of Jesus, one small community of followers willing to fall, break open, and die to the old life, so new life can begin, and many can find shelter.
The birds of the air can rest in the wonderful, sheltering, blessed shade. And people can rest in the wonderful, sheltering, blessed arms of Jesus. AMEN.
A Sermon on 1 Corinthians 13:1-14:1 and Matthew 22:34-40
The Bible that Jesus knew was what we call the Old Testament. It had three parts: the law also called Torah—what we know as the first five books of the Bible—the prophets, such as Isaiah, and the writings, such as the Psalms. When they spoke of the Bible, they often called it the law and the prophets. Nobody knew the Bible better than the scribes and Pharisees. They liked nothing better than a vigorous discussion of the scriptures and especially of the sacred law. They loved to pose questions and debate interpretations.
But when some of the Pharisees questioned Jesus, it was anything but a friendly debate. It was not a search for greater light. It was religious combat. They were convinced that Jesus was wrong, and they were out to prove it. Jesus was leading people astray, and he needed to be stopped. They tried to discredit him in the eyes of the people. And soon they would use a cross to stop him.
These Bible experts watched Jesus carefully, trying to catch him making a mistake. They set traps for him, like the one in our gospel lesson today. One with special expertise in the law asked Jesus a question to test him. Note that the Greek word there for test is the same word used when the devil tested Jesus in the wilderness. No, this wasn’t a friendly inquiry.
“Teacher,” the expert asked, “Which commandment in the law is the greatest?” It was a trick question. Whatever Jesus answered, the legal expert could pounce. There were 613 commandments in the Torah, and whichever one Jesus cited this man could shoot back, “But what about this other commandment? Or, aren’t you forgetting something? Or, how can you call yourself a man of God if you don’t take this commandment seriously?”
Jesus gave one answer in two parts. “’You shall love the Lord you God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’” This came from the book of Deuteronomy, chapter 6, something every Jewish person recited every day. “This is the greatest and first commandment,” Jesus continued. “And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” This came from the book of Leviticus, chapter 19. “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
Incidentally, in Luke’s telling of this story, this is where the questioner tries to limit who is included in that love by asking, “And just who is my neighbor?” which launches Jesus into the story of the Good Samaritan who rescues a wounded man on the road.
But here in Matthew, the two greatest commandments simply hang in the air. They ring like a bell. Love is the point of all the law and all the prophets. Love God, and love neighbor. These two are inseparable. They are a single idea in two directions. We can’t love God without also loving our neighbors. This is the heart of Christian faith. Love. This is the heart of religion. Love. This is the point. Love.
Being right is not the point. Being beyond criticism and perfectly pure is not the point. Having our heads on straight and believing the correct beliefs is not the point. Love is the point. Love comes first.
But for many of these biblical legalists, love did not come first. Being right and being pure came first. Pointing out other people’s sins and shortcomings was a favorite pastime. There was the time, for example, when Jesus’ disciples were hungry one Sabbath day, the day when it was unlawful to work, and they plucked grain in a field and ate it. Some Pharisees were watching and complained, “They broke the law! They worked on the Sabbath.” Jesus replied, “The Sabbath was made for human beings, not human beings for the Sabbath. Don’t condemn the guiltless.”
Then there was that time when Jesus healed the woman with the crooked spine in the synagogue on the Sabbath. The leader of the synagogue shamed the woman in front of everybody. “There are six days when work can be done,” he insisted . “Come on one of those days for healing. Don’t break the Sabbath.” Jesus replied, “Every one of you unties your animals on the Sabbath and lead them to get something to drink. Shouldn’t this woman, this daughter of Abraham, also be set free on the Sabbath?”
These experts also didn’t like how freely Jesus gave the gift of forgiveness. “How can he claim to forgive sins?” they complained. They didn’t like the way he touched unclean people and outcasts, and even shared meals with them. Jesus scandalized them. They called him a sinner because he was friendly and accepting of sinners. Love came first for Jesus, but love did not come first for those who criticized him.
Love often doesn’t come first for Christians now. With judgmental, combative spirits, they are determined to be right and to prove others wrong. They are quick to complain, poised to correct, or ready to attack when they think someone’s beliefs aren’t correct, and especially when they think someone is being soft on sin. They enjoy railing against other people’s sins. They point the finger and pronounce: “The Bible says.” It’s clear to them who is right and who is wrong, who is in and who is out, who is going to heaven, and who isn’t. Love doesn’t come first. For them, being right comes first.
Church historian Diana Butler Bass used to be a member of that group. In her book Strength for the Journey, she describes her pilgrimage from focusing on being right to focusing on loving God and neighbor. God transformed her spirit from a combative one into a humble one.
Diana shares some of the experiences that God used to get her attention. Here’s an example. Diana is Episcopalian, and back in the mid 1980s, the Episcopal Church was still deeply divided over whether women could be ordained. Some, like Diana and especially her then husband, thought the Bible was crystal clear on the subject: No, the Bible does not permit women to be ordained and lead the church, and they had the scripture verses to prove it. Others weren’t so sure, and they pointed to other scriptures. Diana’s husband was so adamant that women should not be in ministry that when they moved to another state and were looking for another church, he refused to go to any church that had a woman pastor.
Diana’s local church in Massachusetts was mostly against ordaining women, although there were a few people, including the current pastor, who supported it. Many people in that church thought the Bible was absolutely clear on that and on a lot of issues. They were adamant about it, and they were suspicious of anyone who didn’t share their certainty. When the diocese elected a new bishop, many in Diana’s church were suspicious of him. Was he really orthodox? Was he even a real Christian?
The Bishop was scheduled to make a visit to the parish, and as the visit drew near, Diana heard many people expressing these concerns. By this time, she was beginning to question whether everything was as black and white as she had once thought it was. And she knew that when the bishop came, people were going to be waiting and seeking to trip him up just as the Pharisees waited for Jesus, ready to ambush him. She feared it might get ugly, and it did.
After the bishop finished addressing the group, he opened the floor for questions. The members of Diana’s church were ready to pounce. They peppered him with questions about theology, and about women’s ordination and about other controversial issues. They clearly didn’t like the answers he was giving. One woman said, “The church must be clear on these issues. What about the Ten Commandments? Are we to teach our children that they are merely suggestions, guidelines? You can’t do that. You have to teach children the rules” (Strength for the Journey,p. 83). On and on it went like this. The ambush was painful to witness.
Then Diana’s husband asked a question. “Bishop, it says in the book of Timothy that the bishop is to guard the gospel. Sir, listening to you, I cannot discern what you are guarding. Can you tell us, please, exactly what you think the gospel is?” Sounds so much like the Pharisee’s question in today’s reading, “Tell us which commandment is the greatest.”
The bishop looked slowly around the room. He unfolded his arms from across his chest, and stretched them out so widely that to Diana he almost looked like Jesus on the cross. Slowly, deliberately, the bishop answered, “God. God loves everybody.”
Her husband started to protest, “Well, yes, but…”
“God loves everybody,” the bishop replied. “That’s it.”
“God loves everybody,” the bishop repeated.
It summed up Jesus’ message and the whole of scripture. All of scripture hangs on that, but it sounded too sentimental and liberal and mushy to that room full of people who wanted things to be black and white. God loves everybody. Did that really include everybody?
Diana writes, “Suddenly, and quite unexpectedly, I knew that that squishy liberal bishop was right and I was wrong. God really did love everybody—including all the people I thought were excluded from the reach of the gospel. I had limited the gospel…but the bishop said no. No limits. God loves everybody. God’s love is as vast as the universe and as difficult to comprehend as eternity itself. God’s only boundary is love” (Strength for the Journey, p. 85).
On another occasion the very scripture we read this morning hit Diana between the eyes. Love is the point! Writing about that, she said, “The point was not scaring someone into heaven or saving them from hellfire. The point was love. Loving God and loving my neighbor” (Strength for the Journey, pp. 136-137).
Love is the point. Not being right. Not winning some argument. Not being good. Not being pure. Love is the point. Love comes first.
Paul makes the same point in a powerful way in 1 Corinthians 13. In the church in Corinth there were certain people who prided themselves on knowing better than others in the church, understanding scripture better, and being more gifted spiritually than others. They thought, therefore, that they deserved more authority in the church. Paul’s whole letter is a reply to this.
In chapter 13 Paul wrote, “I can have all knowledge. I can know the Bible backwards and forwards. I can have spectacular gifts like speaking in tongues. I can be a wonderful speaker. I can have the ability to prophesy. I can be right. But without love, I am still dead wrong. Why? Because love comes first. These three abide: faith, hope, and love. And the greatest is love.
What is the greatest commandment? What is the heart of the matter? What’s faith all about? Jesus didn’t say get your beliefs straight. Jesus said, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.” Love comes first. The law, the prophets, and everything else hangs on this. Love comes first.
And love comes first here at Morton Church. Loving God and neighbor is our mission. Can we put it any more simply than that? Love is the centerpiece of our ministry. Love is why God has called us together here. Love is the whole point.
Daily we receive the wondrous, limitless, unconditional love of God through Jesus and the Holy Spirit. Every single day God pours out God’s love, forgiveness and acceptance for us, freely, graciously. How can we keep that love to ourselves? How can we keep from living it out, from embodying it in our lives, and from passing it on to our neighbors? And so many of our neighbors are lying wounded on the road, wounded in body, mind, or spirit, needing us to go to them where they are and do something—not to point our fingers. Not to rail against sin, but to literally be Jesus’ loving eyes, heart, hands, feet, voice, and everything else. How else will people know that Jesus is real? How else? Jesus loves us, this we know. And he loves you, too. That’s the message we must take beyond these walls.
Love comes first. We will love God with all our heart and soul and mind. And to do that, we will love our neighbors—ALL our neighbors.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
Living is Christ
A Sermon on Philippians 1
Given everything that Paul had gone through, it’s understandable that he recognized that death would bring welcome relief. No, he wasn’t suicidal. But life was often a struggle, and ministry was often an uphill battle. Paul had been through so much: hunger, cold, illness, opposition, sometimes violent opposition, imprisonment. Something he called a thorn in the flesh caused him pain that was never completely relieved. And here Paul was in prison again, dependent on the goodwill of others even to have something to eat. This might be his last imprisonment. Execution was a very real possibility.
Friends in the church at Philippi had sent Paul support and encouragement, and now he was writing to return the same to them. They weren’t having an easy time of it, either. They were bearing up under opposition from somewhere, perhaps outright persecution like what the church in Iraq is experiencing now. But even the mildest forms of opposition are no fun, as when the community looks down its nose at you, or maybe even worse, just doesn’t care, has no regard for you at all. The church at Philippi was experiencing pain from without, and there was internal stress as well. Later in the letter Paul alludes to the stress that occurs when church members don’t see eye to eye on something.
Paul and his Philippian friends had a history of bearing one another’s burdens. He shares some of his own distress in his letter, but he mostly wants to help them in their distress.
After reassuring his friends of his ongoing love and prayers for them, Paul shares the vision that is keeping him going, hoping it will help them keep going, too. He sums it up succinctly like this: to me, living is Christ, and dying is gain. What did he mean by that? For Paul, dying meant gain because it meant being eternally with and in Christ. Living here is Christ, and dying is also Christ, being together with Christ in eternity.
Paul felt safe in Jesus Christ, no matter how things turned out. In other letters he puts it this way: “In life and in death we belong to Christ,” and “if we die with Christ we will rise with Christ.” Paul could even see how God could redeem the painful things he was experiencing and make them serve the purposes of the gospel. The example he gives here is that the whole imperial guard has now heard of Jesus Christ.
Paul did look forward to being with Christ forever, but he also believed that God still had fruitful labor for him on this side of death. Jesus would use him to bless others, including his friends at Philippi. Paul just wanted Christ Jesus to be lifted up no matter what happened, in his life and even in his death.
Paul really, really hoped to visit his Philippian friends in person again. But meanwhile, whether or not that ever happened, he urged his friends to do what he was doing: keep their eyes on Christ. Live as citizens of Christ’s kingdom now. Let their lives point to Christ. He urged them to stand together and proclaim the good news of Christ. For the Philippians too, living is Christ.
Christ was Paul’s focus and meaning and purpose and strength, and Christ was also their focus and meaning and purpose and strength.
You followers of Christ here today get that. I get it. I am so grateful that very early in life, my family and my church family introduced me to Jesus, to the amazing, outrageous, comprehensive, unconditional love of Christ. I came to consciousness in Jesus’ arms. I knew Jesus loved me. I stood on that foundation before I went into the larger world and was deeply wounded. Through it all, his love, his kindness and compassion and strength have been with me. Living was Christ. And ever since, living for me is Christ. To live is to share Christ. I want others to know his love. I want you to know his love.
Living is Christ. We can testify to that. Living is Christ. In Christ we have found strength from beyond ourselves. He wipes away our tears, and helps us do the same for others. He helps us face and survive pain, struggle, and heartbreak. He is the strength when we have no strength. He lets us glimpse the big picture, that our lives are part of God’s mighty act of love for the world. Christ can use us, yes us, to bless others, and he is doing that. We can dare greatly in his name, we can be bold, because in life and in death, we belong to Christ. We are safe in him.
Jesus Christ is not an add-on to life. He is not just one of other important helpers in our lives—doctor, lawyer, insurance agent, whatever. Jesus Christ is life.
There’s a singer named Fernando Ortega who has made at least two beautiful recordings of a spiritual called “Give Me Jesus.” That song could be Paul’s song:
In the morning when I rise…give me Jesus.
And when I am alone…give me Jesus.
And when I come to die…give me Jesus.
Give me Jesus, give me Jesus. You can have all this world. You can have all this world. You can have all this world, but give me Jesus.
This can be our song.
This week I looked at a number of video meditations on this song, and in one, when it got to the part that says “you can have all this world,” it showed images of smiling people with money piled up in front of them, images of things that seem so important in a world where people dream of bigger houses and bigger cars and more vacation time. But none of that stuff can touch the deepest needs of the soul. None of it can love you back the way Jesus can. None of that stuff can transcend time and hold you into eternity.
Life is Jesus. Living is Christ. Just give us Jesus, so that we might embody his love and his life in ours, and lay our life down for others as he did for us.
Paul’s heart overflows with prayer as he writes to his friends at Philippi, and later in the letter he calls them to prayer. This scripture invites us to prayer. This collection of friends gathered here today can do what Paul and his friends did: recommit ourselves to prayer:
Prayer for children and youth, in the morning of life, needing the assurance of Jesus’ love as they step into the world for the first time. Prayer for young adults, for those just finding their way, just finding their place in what God is doing in this world, and making important decisions about priorities and work and marriage and family, that Jesus might be at the heart of it all. Because living is Christ.
Prayer for all who struggle, that they might find the strength that is Jesus in the midst of it all. Because living is Christ.
Prayer for folks at midlife, many carrying heavy burdens, caring for others in need, often the very old and the very young, that they might know the strength and peace of Christ. Prayer for folks who are seeking to give away as much love as they can in Christ’s name for as long as they can. Because living is Christ.
Prayer for those who are nearing the time when they will step across to the church eternal, to join all the saints there. Living is Christ, and living will be Christ then, too.
Prayer for Christ’s church everywhere, and prayer for Christ’s church here in this neighborhood, where pain and sorrow and all kinds of need are so near at hand, literally down the street from this building. Prayer for Morton Church, that we might dare greatly, with our eyes on Christ, ready to do whatever it takes to share his life and his love with this neighborhood in need, knowing that in life and in death, we are safe with him. To be his church is to be his body and to live his life and to love his love. Because living is Christ.
Friends, like Paul, we thank God every time we remember you, and we pray for you. Thank you for sharing in living out the good news of Jesus, wherever he has placed you. It is so good to see you today. His peace and encouragement be with you.
Because living is Christ: ever, only, always Christ.
What is An Elder?
In Christ’s family, Presbyterians are known for the ministry of elders. They are elected by the congregation, and they watch over the flock alongside the pastor, who is known as a “teaching elder.” Another word for elder is “presbyter,” which comes from the Greek word “presbyteros.” That’s where our name, Presbyterian, comes from.
A Sermon on John 21:15-17 and 1 Peter 5:1-5,
As Peter prepared to write to the elders of the churches, he thought back to that unforgettable morning when Jesus recommissioned him to be an elder. Jesus’ words echoed in Peter’s mind: “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Three times the question came. Three times Peter answered, “Yes, Lord, you know I love you!” Three times the commission came: “Feed my lambs. Tend my sheep. Feed my sheep.”
It had been a solemn scene, and yet so filled with Christ’s grace and peace and love. Yes, Peter had failed in the past. So anxious to protect himself, he had denied Jesus three times on the night before Jesus’ death. But here the risen Lord Jesus was calling Peter again, and commissioning him to service all over again.
Peter wrote: To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder and a witness of Christ’s sufferings who also will share in the glory to be revealed: Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away. (New International Version)
This picture of elders as shepherds tending the flock under Jesus the Chief Shepherd is a cherished one for Presbyterian Christians. If we talk with our Baptist, Methodist, Catholic and other Christian friends, we find that they do not have elders serving as shepherds in the way we do. They may have boards of leaders, but they function more as advisors and administrators. They are not spiritual shepherds in the same way our elders are. Elders are so important in the way Presbyterians organize our community of faith that we carry the word “elder” in our very name. The word “presbyter” means elder. It comes from the Greek word “presbuteros,” the word Peter uses here. We have shepherds called presbyters, and so we are Presbyterian.
In the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), our denomination in the Presbyterian family of denominations, I am called a teaching elder, and the other elders in our church are called ruling elders. They are called ruling elders not because they lord it over the church, but because it’s their job to measure how well we are doing what God wants us to do as a congregation. Teaching elders and ruling elders serve side by side to nurture the church.
As Peter says, it is the elders’ call and responsibility to tend the flock of God willingly and humbly. Our Book of Order describes what tending means this way: The elders nurture the church to be a community of faith, hope, love and witness. Elders lead the church in seeking and doing God’s will. They look to see what God is doing in the church and in the world and guide the flock to get in step with God. They lead the congregation to be more faithful participants in the mission of Jesus Christ. Prayerful reflection on the scriptures is part of what elders do. The elders together constantly and prayerfully ask, “Are we living out God’s agenda here in this church?”
Peter also reminds elders that they lead the flock by example. Our Book of Order also points that out. Skills are needed, but they are not enough. It says that people called to this ministry should be “persons of strong faith, dedicated discipleship and love of Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. Their manner of life should be a demonstration of the Christian gospel in the church and in the world.” It adds that elders “should be persons of wisdom and maturity of faith, having demonstrated skills in leadership and being compassionate in spirit.”
Along the way the elders certainly do serve the community by taking care of nuts and bolts business like stewarding the congregation’s building and resources. But the elders on the session are much more than managers. They are not board members as on a club board, business board, or government board. They are spiritual shepherds seeking to keep growing as disciples of Jesus themselves, and seeking what will help the rest of the flock to keep growing.
So this is what meetings of the Morton session look like: prayerful reflection on scripture is central. We ground ourselves in the word and take time to pray for you and all the flock. We answer practical questions like how are we going to keep the grass cut, and what should we do next to maintain the facilities?
One practical matter that required a great deal of prayer and searching was when the elders discerned what God would have us do about the problem of the fellowship wing of the building. God didn’t hand us the answer on a printout. The session worked hard. Aided by the building committee and others, the elders had to do a lot of searching before God led us to the big renovation and the beautiful fellowship hall we enjoy now.
The session is in the midst of prayerful discernment now. In the past year, the session has been engaged in study and in soul-searching discussions about what being a disciple of Jesus Christ and a member of the church really means, and how it’s about more than just being a nice person and showing up at church every now and again. Your session is deep into prayerful discussion about how God would have Morton Church grow in faithfulness, mission and witness, and we hope, eventually in numbers as well. We just want to do God’s will. We’re not getting that handed to us on a printout. We must rely on the Holy Spirit.
Peter notes that elders are to be respected, but they also need your prayers. Pray for your elders and session to hear what the Holy Spirit is saying to us.
What is an elder? As Peter said, elders are shepherds called to watch over the flock of Jesus Christ entrusted to their care. The call to the two elders as they are recommissioned to active service on the session, and the call to all the elders is this: feed the lambs. Tend the flock. Feed the sheep, in the name of the Great Good Shepherd of the Sheep. In the name of the Lord, your Shepherd.
We have two sacraments in the Presbyterian Church, baptism and holy communion. Here is a sermon that highlights what we believe about baptism.
A Sermon on Acts 8:26-40
Baptism of Jesus Sunday
A high-ranking Ethiopian official was heading home by the desert road that runs from Jerusalem to Gaza. He was so thirsty for God that he had made the long journey from Africa to Jerusalem in order to worship God at the Temple.
His dedication was remarkable, not just because he had made such a long, hard trip, but also because he was not permitted to go into the inner courts of the Temple and could only worship at the margins. There was something that prevented him from becoming a full- fledged member of the community of faith that called the Temple home.
In the eyes of the purity laws like those in Deuteronomy chapter 23, this man was seen as defective, less than a full-fledged man and ceremonially unclean. Why? Because he had undergone an operation that left him unable to father children. He was a eunuch. There were a number of conditions that could render a person unclean and turn him or her into an outsider, or at least not quite an insider, not fully belonging.
On the way home the Ethiopian official was puzzling over scripture. He furrowed his brow as he read from Isaiah 53 in Greek about a man who was led like sheep to the slaughter, silent before the shearers, the humiliated victim of injustice.
Meanwhile, God moved deacon Philip into place to reach out to this man. “Go to the Gaza road,” God instructed through an angel. Then when he saw the Ethiopian official traveling along in his carriage, the Holy Spirit told Philip to go join him. He struck up a conversation, and the Ethiopian official invited Philip to sit beside him in the carriage to talk about that scripture passage.
Starting with that passage, Philip explained how Isaiah pointed to Jesus, the one who was led like a lamb to the slaughter, died and then rose again so we can live. The scripture says they started with that passage. If they stayed in Isaiah, I’ll bet they read on through Isaiah 55 in which God invites all the thirsty and hungry to come to him and receive life. And then I’ll bet they moved on to Isaiah 56 which proclaims good news to foreigners and to eunuchs, people in the same condition as he.
Philip shared the good news of Jesus, and what he said touched the man from Ethiopia deeply. Philip held out the promise of salvation and new, everlasting life in Christ. Philip held out the promise that this man could be fully included in the people of God through Jesus Christ. He could belong. He didn’t have to look on from the margins.
“Look!” the man exclaimed when they came to a stream. “Here is water! What is there to prevent me from being baptized?” He wanted to know whether there was anything standing in the way, rules perhaps like the one that had kept him on the outer fringes of the Temple. Was anything standing in the way?
No, there was not. No worldly or bodily condition could keep him out of the body of Christ. If this man was touched by Jesus’ presence through the Holy Spirit, and if he trusted Jesus, and if he wanted Jesus to be his Savior, and if he wanted to follow Jesus and be Jesus’ disciple, there was nothing to stand in the way.
He ordered the carriage to stop, and he and Philip went down into the water together, and there Philip baptized him. They came up out of the water together, and the Lord took Philip away in another direction while the Ethiopian man continued his journey home to Africa. Each went on to share Jesus somewhere else.
God has given us the sacraments, baptism and communion as signs to point to what God is doing in our lives. In these physical signs, we can see, feel, and taste God’s love. They reassure us that God is with us and working to do us good. They give us a way to picture what God does for us in a way that we can see. They make the invisible visible.
In the case of baptism, baptism proclaims the wonderful reality of God’s grace and love poured out for us. It is an outpouring of blessing, a shower of blessing full of good news:
• That Jesus washes our sins away, as in a bath or shower.
• That he pours out his Holy Spirit on us, and it is like a powerful fountain that never stops running through our lives—a shower of blessing.
• Baptism shows how we die to the old life and rise to new life with Jesus.
• Baptism shows how God names us and claims us. He calls us by name and says, “You belong to me. You belong to my people. You are my beloved.”
In the Presbyterian Church we usually use the shower method of baptism. Some people call it sprinkling, but it’s more than that. We pour the water so the person can feel it and see it drip. This points to the outpouring of God’s Spirit.
We can also make arrangements to baptize people by immersion. Going completely down into the water and coming back up is a powerful picture of dying and rising with Jesus Christ.
In the Presbyterian Church, we baptize people of all ages. We baptize babies and children, and sometimes parents and children are baptized together in families. We see this in the book of Acts when whole households are baptized together.
Why do we baptize infants and children? The number one reason is that we are all helpless infants in Jesus’ arms. We are totally dependent on him. We can’t do anything to save ourselves, and we had better not forget that. Salvation is pure grace, and we can’t do anything to deserve or earn it. God gives salvation to us, free. And in the final analysis, we can’t understand or explain it fully. At best all we can do is make a stab at an explanation for the wonders of God’s love.
Presbyterians also believe that children of parents who trust and follow Jesus—children of covenant people are children of the covenant. The covenant promises belong to them, too. We believe that God loves them and is active in their lives before they become aware of it. When we baptize children, we promise to bring them up knowing and following Jesus, until they can speak up for themselves, confirm their faith and follow Jesus on their own.
If you want to be a Christian, if you recognize Jesus working in your life, and you trust him, and you want to follow him as your Savior and Lord, what can stand in the way of baptism?
We don’t have to be like people who clean up their house before their housecleaner comes, just come on to Jesus as we are, sins and struggles and all. He’s the one who does the washing. We don’t have to earn it. We just receive it and give thanks.
If you haven’t received the gift of baptism yet, what is holding you back? If you have been baptized, what is holding you back from remembering, confirming, and reaffirming your faith? What is standing in the way of rededicating your life to Christ?
“Look! Here is water! Why can’t I be baptized?” exclaimed the man from Ethiopia when he saw how good the good news of Jesus is. Of course he could be baptized. Of course he could belong fully to the people of God. After Philip baptized him, he went on his way home rejoicing, and the good news spread to Africa. This man ended up with many children in the faith.
Look! Here is water! (Pastor pours the water into the font.) We gather as God’s family around this water, and then we go on our way rejoicing together.
Thanks be to God!
Photograph by Lindsey Williams