Surrender to the call God has given you

Written by Joel on December 29th, 2011

December 18, 2011
Fourth Sunday of Advent
Luke 1:26-38

[The Beatles "Let It Be"]

When I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Mary comes to me

Speaking words of wisdom, let it be

And in my hour of darkness she is standing right in front of me

Speaking words of wisdom, let it be

Let it be, let it be, let it be, let it be

Whisper words of wisdom, let it be……

In case anyone did not recognize it (I’m not much of a singer) – that was The Beatles final single “Let It Be” written by Paul McCartney. Did you hear the familiar phrase in our Gospel this morning? Let it be (NIV has “May it be.”) Now, I came to learn that Paul wrote this song as he was agonizing over the impending break up of the band and he had a dream, but not of Mary the Mother of Christ. No, Paul says this was a dream of Mary, his own earthly mother who offered him words of comfort, as if to say everything will be alright. I just can’t help but notice that Mary of our Gospels offers the same phrase, but for her these are not so much words of comfort as they are words of surrender.

Mary was a young woman, probably 13 or 14 and engaged to be married. Well, not just engaged but betrothed – which was just a bit of a bigger deal. In her society the bethrotal was the legally binding part of marriage, even while she still lived with her parents. If Joseph were to die she would have been considered a widow. So the angel Gabriel comes to Mary (after he made a similar announcement to Elizabeth, Mary’s relative) and declares you will have a baby before you are married! You will be an unwed, poor mother of an outcast criminal who will be executed in his 30s. The Good News that the angel Gabriel shared with Mary is that she is about to enter a life of dishonor and shame. And she says “Let it be.” These are words of wisdom. What else is there to say when you receive a call from God?

In the weeks or months leading up to this Sunday, some of you have received a call. Now, I’m not aware of anyone here who received a call quite of the magnitude of Mary’s. But, perhaps the president or another Consistory member called you or pulled you aside and said “I have seen God at work in your life, would you consider serving this church as a deacon or elder?” You have found yourself quoting scripture saying “How can this be!?” How can this be I’m not wise enough, how can this be I’m not old enough, how can this be I’m not a good speaker, how can this be – surely there are more qualified people! Well sure, all those are valid objections – and Mary was a 14 year old, poor unwed mother. Let it be.

I don’t make this comparison to make Mary’s call any less than what it was – she bore God, Jesus the Christ! But a call to serve God’s church is still an important call from God. Current and former deacons and elders; and those newly receiving a call – have you consider how God has been at work in your lives through the prospect of this call? You other members who will confirm the call of our brothers and sisters; raising up deacons and elders – have you considered God’s work in our life as a congregation? This is not just an election to fill slots on a board. These are spiritual calls to servant-leadership, ordered ministry in our church deacon and elder! A fairly important call indeed. Let it be.

Let’s look at how many answered the call. After hearing the news from the angel Gabriel, being deeply troubled at his words, and receiving an answer about how all this was to be accomplished. Mary surrendered and simply said: “Behold the servant of the Lord. Let it be done to me according to your word.” Let’s dissect that response just a little.

I offer you a bit more of a literal translation than our NIV pew bibles provide here. “Behold the servant of the Lord. Let it be done to me according to your word.” When Mary says that she is the Lord’s servant. This is not just a simple statement of fact. She says “behold – the servant of the Lord.” It’s an interjection, perhaps she is excited. Perhaps she is a bit loss at what words to use and simply pointed to herself and stated “Behold – this is what a servant of the Lord looks like, right here, its me!” What clarity and exciting in understand her role, not as elevated but as servant of the Lord.

Then she says “let it be done to me.” She uses the same word here that is used for giving birth. That word carries meaning of becoming, something new, transformation, and just the act of being. Perhaps this is a play on words on Mary’s part. Perhaps its an understanding that the nature of her call is something that happens to her and she can either accepted it willfully or gripe about it and have it happen anyways. It is going to happen to her, but she truly does have these words of wisdom – let it be. Here in those words Mary’s will matches God’s will for her; and for the world.

And today we discern and raise up deacons and elders among us to serve this church in these spiritual capacities. Not as simply board members, but as ministers of this church – ordered for the ministry which is given us. Those of you who may be considering such a call may ask “How can this be?” But at the end of the day, if this is truly a call from God you have no words but “Let it be done to me according to your word.” Surrender to the call that God has given you.


John was not the light in the darkness (and neither are we)

Written by Joel on December 15th, 2011

December 11, 2011
Third Sunday of Advent
John 1:6-8, 19-28

Sadly there is no recording this week – there is an interesting story about that, which may be the subject of another post.

Jeff, the youth minister at my internship in California, looked exactly like Jay Leno. The resemblance was uncanny. The gray swirly hair, same build, same height, dark eyes, and long boxy chin. He’d catch tourist glancing second looks at him, who were convinced that they had their chance encounter with a celebrity. He even told me that a few years before his current job he worked some general labor gigs at NBC and people there even noticed the resemblance. He loved to tell me the story about how he was asked to stand in for Jay Leno one night – not for the tonight show, but so they could adjust the lighting on the set (its apparently a very long process). Of course if anyone were to walk up to Jeff and ask “Are you Jay Leno.” He would be quick to say “No, I am not.” He just looks like him.

Our Gospel reading today offers another look at John the Baptist. Last Sunday we read from Mark’s Gospel about how John was a prophet; how he stood at the beginning of the Good News of Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God. How John began to proclaim the Good News that God is Near, by first looking back at God’s work in history. This Sunday we are offered a slightly different image of John. This is a John whose job is witnessing, pointing to another – Jesus; and he is quite clear in his own identity. Repeatedly he declares “I am not, I am not, I am not.”

It is made clear for us the reader in the first part of the reading: “He came as a witness to testify concerning the light…he himself was not the light…he came only as a witness.” And in his own words, we hear his various denials – I am not the Messiah, not Elijah, and not the prophet. How interesting to hear these phrases in John’s Gospel when all so often Jesus describes himself with the many “I am” statements. “I am the gate; I am the way; I am the good shepherd; I am the way; I am the truth; I am the light.” John is not, while Jesus declares “I am.” This is John’s role, to be the pointer, the be the testifier. To humble himself so that Christ may be known. He came so that through him all might believe; Not so that all might be saved – the salvation part is Jesus’ job; the witnessing about the savior, that is John’s job. And I wonder that it is our job as well.

We are witnesses, testifying to the light in whom we rely for our salvation. Now, I know that those words “testify” & “witness,” they have some negative connotations in the modern day, and in particular our faith tradition. We get uneasy with the idea of going door to door, or holding up signs down town, or passing out tracts at the mall. And I would say – you’re right! I’m pretty uncomfortable with this two, because folks call it witnessing, but it is not witnessing in the true sense of the word. I remember on a rather long bus ride, a stranger handed me one such tract, she didn’t speak a word to me the whole time, just hoping I would read it and not bother her. I didn’t read the tract, and I can’t tell you what it said – that’s how effective it was.

No, I think we have forgotten what it means to be a witness. Take that word literally. Have any of you been a witness – perhaps of a crime, or a joyous occasion like the witness at a wedding. I was a witness once, in a formal way. I was walking down the street one day and saw a car pulling out of the driveway ever so cautiously looking both ways, easing out easing out – and then bang! that unmistakeable sound of metal on metal, he hit someone who was flying way too fast down the road. After stoping to make sure everyone was alright, they exchanged information, and they asked for my name and number as a witness. A few days later I received a phone call from the insurance agent asking about what happened that day, and I retold the story; he asked some clarifying questions, and I tried my best to be accurate. I told the story. That is what it means to be a witness. When we talk about Christian witnessing, we are talking about sharing our faith story. Tell me about a time you experienced the presence of God. Tell me about when you were baptized (if you can remember it), or the first time you witnessed a baptism. Tell me about how you have experienced Christ in your life this week. This is what it means to be a witness – telling the story of Christ, of how he is alive and in our midst.

John the Baptist is our example. He is not in it for the followers, for the fame, or for the fortune. He is in it so that others will one day also testify to the light because they know the light of Christ. I find myself a bit hesitant of the popular saying WWJD – What Would Jesus Do, as if to reduce the savior of the world, the very son of God to some sort of wise sage that we should emulate. We will never be able to do what Jesus did – that is, die for sins; that’s already covered. We are only witnesses to that light. We are not that light. At its best, the church is a place were witnesses to the light gather together to continue to tell the story in worship – song, word, and table. Where we are recharged, where we hear the story afresh so that we can take it with us into the world; into our homes, work, and the various spears of our life to tell our faith stories of how Christ is part of our lives, so that others too may testify to that light.

We are not the light, but let us testify to the light of Christ as we await his coming.


“Good-News” Means Proclaiming That God Is Near

Written by Joel on December 8th, 2011

December 4, 2011
Second Sunday of Advent
Mark 1:1-8 “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”

“The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah.” Yes, the beginning is a very good place to start, especially in Advent, and Mark just dives right in there: “The Good News about Jesus Christ, Son of God.” But this isn’t the familiar beginning of the story we remember is it? Where are the wise men, where are the shepherds watching over their flocks by night, the angels we have heard on high, the Star of Bethlehem, The Holy Family: Mary, Joseph, and where is baby Jesus!? Mark begins his Gospel about Jesus with writings from the Prophets Malachi and Isaiah (though Isaiah is the only one named), and of the proclamation of John the Baptist.

Have you ever looked at the beginnings of the other Gospels? Each evangelist has their own way of beginning their Gospel, but there are considerable similarities too. Luke explains the purpose of his writing: Lots of people have been talking about this Jesus, and I want to tell you too. Luke begins with a birth story, John the Baptist’s birth story.

Matthew starts off with a genealogy of Jesus. You may know them as the “begats.” Abraham begat Isaac, Isaac begat Jacob, Jacob begat Judah…and so on. You may think to yourself “O! How dreadfully boring.” But there is some deep meaning when you look at it closely. Jesus being traced back to Abraham, through the royal lines of King David, each step along the begats another story; and each one pointing to the work of God even before our moment in the Bethlehem manger 2,000 years ago. And there is the Gospel of John which goes even further back, to the cosmic beginning, echoing the beginning of the book of Genesis: In *the* beginning. What does it mean to declare “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ.” And then have a look back at the prophets?; the prophets both long ago and John who is in the midst of Christ Jesus?

I believe it is an indication that God has been at work for a very long time. He has been at work in the Prophets Isaiah and Malachi, in John the Baptist, in Abraham through whom he borne his chosen people; in fact he has been at work since the very beginning of time to enact his Gospel in the world. The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah. We continue to proclaim God’s saving work in this day and age. What we read here is the beginning of the good news about Jesus Christ.

We hear that word, Good-News or Gospel and may automatically think of the four written books Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John the Gospels we call them. We hear the word Good-News and may first think that it means story. That the Good News of Jesus Christ means the stories that tell us about the life of Jesus, particularly this time of year his birth story – manger, mary, angels, shepherd, etc. But Good News is not about the story itself, it is about the proclamation. That word for Good-News shows up in the Old Testament as well. It was often associated with the news of a military victory: Good-News, we have defeated the enemy! Or some event in the royal family like the birth of an heir: Good-News the king had a son. But it is not the news itself that is the good news, it is the proclaiming of it, the act of sharing it; good news means proclamation.

God, with a word, caused all of creation to come into being, and likewise he sent prophets, and his only Son to declare his good news: “The kingdom of God is near.” And the proclamation made it so, the preaching of it, the sharing of it, it is in these acts that the Good-News has it’s power. It is what Jesus does – proclaim the Good-News that God has come near, that he is in our midst. The act of proclaiming it makes it so. The act of receiving that Good-News proclamation is what makes us disciples of Christ.

John the Baptist is our model: Proclaiming the one who is greater than we are; pointing not to ourselves but to Jesus the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of God.

We are both receivers of the Good News and Proclaimers of the Good News, especially in this Adventen season, which is an in between kind of time – of looking back and looking ahead. I want to encourage you, in these weeks leading up Christmas Sunday; I want to encourage you to consider the beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah in your life. How did you first receive it? Can you think of a time when you really “got it” when you really understood this Good News proclamation that God is near, and what that means for your life? And then consider how that Good News Proclamation made its way to you. It was shared with you. Perhaps by a friend, a parent, a Sunday school teacher – they proclaimed it to you: God is near! That moment when you received it, that was the beginning of the Good-News for you, but looking back at all those who carried on the story before you – God was at work there; and hearing the Christmas story of old this day we may see that God has been at work for a very long time all for the purpose of proclaiming to us the Christmas message: “I am near.”

He did so through the person of Jesus Christ, and we, his disciples continue to tell the story. We continue to tell the story here at the church on the mountain at the county line, at our dinner tables, and in our lives with those we meet.

Proclaim the Good-News, and receive the Good-News as we prepare for Christmas.


Longing for God’s Presence

Written by Joel on December 2nd, 2011

Nov 27, 2011
First Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 64:1-9 “That you would rend open the heavens”

Welcome to Advent. It is a time for us to prepare for Christmas. Here at church we have decorated our worship space with greens, the advent wreath, and a tree. We have lit the candles and we will count the days that lead up to Christmas, that glorious night which remember that God stepped down from all heavenly glory and entered this world as a baby. For the church in the modern day, this time of year is always an observance of two Advents. One, we remember long ago, in a little town of Bethlehem; and the Second, we away with hopeful anticipation for the coming of our Lord again as promised. It is this second Advent that the readings draw our attention to today. And, at least for me – I find the second advent a bit more difficult to wait for. We have been waiting a long time, and God seems so distant at times.

That is the plea of our Isaiah reading. “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!” And the writer goes on to recount the glorious works of God throughout the ages, his righteousness, and his judgement. He puzzles over the obvious absence of God. We kept your word, but you were angry. We sinned, is that why you left? But maybe we sinned because you left?

This portion of Isaiah was written after a faithful rement of Israel returned home after years in exile. They spent many years in a foreign land where other gods were worshiped, and it was difficult to maintain their Jewish identity and roots. They got through the ordeal, and folks began to come home to the holy land of milk and honey, the promised land. Only…only it was not the promised land they remembered. The city was in ruins and the temple destroyed. Yes, they were home, but it was not home. At least not as they remember it. There where familiar reminders of what home once was, but they did not serve to give comfort, but rather the pain in recognizing what was lost. Could you imagine moving away from here for 50 years, and then return to find our church on the County like in ruins?

On a smaller scale, I wonder if that is similar to what it feels like when familiar Thanksgiving Dinner traditions are lost. I remember my first Thanksgiving dinner I spent away from my childhood home. I was in my early 20s, and up until that year it was just assumed that I would be home for the holidays. It was my first year in seminary, and we didn’t have any money for a plane ticket home – not for both Thanksgiving and Christmas. So did not come home. A lovely couple from the church I worshiped with invited me into their home for the Thanksgiving Dinner. I very graciously accepted. It was a happy dinner, and everything was delicious; but at the same time those familiar foods and atmosphere were just similar enough, and yet just different enough to what I remember about Thanksgiving Dinner, that I became very aware that I was not at home. Where I sat, how dinner was served, how it tasted, what we discussed – all similar, but all so obvious that it was different. And all so obvious that my family was 3000 miles away, and though I sat down at a familiar Thanksgiving, I was feeling kinda alone. I wonder if that might be a bit what the Israelites felt as they returned home to a temple that they could see but could not worship in, homes they remembered yet were destroyed, a land of promise which lay in ruin.

Yes, this holiday season seems to be a time of joy and sadness for many. For me, this was my first Thanksgiving, and will be my first Christmas without Granddad Coles. For many this time of year serves as a reminder of those loved ones who are no longer with us to celebrate this oh so familiar season. God may seem so absent as we await for his coming in-between two Advents.

This communal cry from Isaiah seems to be an acknowledgement of something loss, and more painful than that, a recognition of the absence of God. The writer remembers those marvelous deeds which God preformed, and yet the calls goes up “That you would rip open the heavens and come down.” Implying that God is not here with us right now. Sometimes it feels like this plea from Isaiah is the plea of the church today. Yes, we find it just a bit easier to look back at the glorious acts of God in the past – his first coming as the babe Christ born in a manger, his miracles, life on earth, death or a cross, and resurrection from the grave. We remember the out-pouring of the Holy Spirit on the Church at Pentecost and how the Apostles went out with the power of the Holy Spirit and added numbers to the church each day. We look back and we remember, and sometimes it seems like we just don’t live in a world where God is active in the same way as he once was. “O, God, that you would just rip open the heavens and come down here.” That you would rip open the heavens and fix this mess of a world that we live in. That you would come down and let us know your presence again like our ancestors once did.

The church continues to cry aloud this plea from Isaiah. Last week at Sunday School, as we studied the work of God in his church recorded in the Book of Acts, we became quite aware that we just don’t talk about the Holy Spirit so much at this church, and sometimes He feels so far away. We just don’t see the Spirit at work in that way today. Wouldn’t that be something! Oh that You would rip open the heavens and come down!

We seem to approach Advent and the holidays with a similar longing for God’s presence. I have heard of your fond memories of Christmases long ago, of pageants and the Christmas play put on by children and the youth choir. We look around and see few children filling up our church, fewer people in general than in years past. We look ahead at this holiday season which is oh so familiar and yet oh so obvious that something has been different in recent years, something lost. And it is okay to mourn that loss; just as the Israelites mourned the loss of the promised land when they returned.

And yet…You Lord are our Father, we are the clay, you are the potter, we are all your people. We stand between Advents; we look at the glorious Acts of God in ages past, and we look for his presence yet to come; and we wait. And we plead “Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down.” It is in this interim that we remember our God is our Father, who does not abandon us, and he will fulfill his promise to return.

This hope part is hard. But I do hope that for us in this Advent season, as we learn again the Christian discipline of waiting in the midst of consumeristic fury; I hope that we can see glimmers of God presence. New friends are discovering the joy of this place, people are reading the word of God, we are serving our community. We proclaim Hope in a day and age that reamins quite dark.

Here, at the County Line, as we discover what it means to proclaim the truth of the Incarnation at Christmas, though times have changed, though we have grown older, and though loved ones are gone; Advent continues to be for us a time we proclaim and live in Hope. And Yet; despite all that has gone wrong in this world God remains, and always will be our Father. And we his people. I pray you have a spirit-led Advent.


Christ’s Kingdom Is Where Disciples Do His Will

Written by Joel on November 24th, 2011

Nov 20, 2011
Christ the King
Matthew 25:31-46 “Parable of the Sheep and Goats.”

Christ is King! Jesus is Lord!

Today we mark the end of the liturgical year with the affirmation that Christ is King; or sometimes this Sunday is called the reign of Christ (“reign” as in the recognition that Christ is ruler over all). Since this is the end of the liturgical year, we have a Gospel parable which offers a scene of the final judgement. A scene of the end time of the end of the year. Christ upon his throne of glory. Sheep separated from goats; good from bad; righteous from unrighteous. It is how they are separated that may be surprising however. Perhaps not surprising for us the readers – of course those who fed, welcomed, and clothed Christ are the righteous ones. Those who did not were not. But both the righteous and unrighteous seemed to be surprised that they were called such.

It is always a challenge preaching this concept in the United States – Christ is King. We don’t have kings in America. We got our start as a country by declaring independence from a king. So there is some hesitancy to talk about kings and kingdoms, and ruling. Probably the closest thing we have to kings in American today might be bosses. Or if you are self-employed, you might think of your customers. No, they don’t have absolute power like kings do. But they can tell you what to do, how to do it and when. If you don’t care for those conditions you find employment elsewhere (or another customer). Some bosses can make you stay for overtime, go out of town for a trip, cut your pay, give you raises, and fire you.

It’s kinda like that CBS show, Undercover Boss. In it a CEO of a rather large company pretends to be a new hire and tires out some of the entry level positions within his or her own company. He gets to meet his employees and see for himself where his business (kingdom?) is running smoothly and where it is not running so smoothly. The CEO is almost always surprised at the hard work of his employees and how well they accomplish the tasks set before them (of course, sometimes they are appalled at their attitudes and actions). At the end of the show, the truly stand apart employees are called into corporate headquarters to meet who they thought was just a fellow employee only to discover that it was the CEO! They are rewarded for doing a good job, not because they were being watched by the CEO but because it was the right thing to do.

I love how both the sheep and the goats are surprised in this parable. These people did not act because of a reward, or because they were being watched. They clothed the naked (or not), fed the hungry (or not), welcomed (or not), and visited (or not) because it was just part of their very nature. How very surprising indeed when Christ identifies with that naked, hungry, stranger who is in jail. Surprising.

The big difference between bosses and kings though, is that you get to decide whether or not you are under the rule of a boss. If you get fed up or find a better offer you can quit and walk off the job – thus declaring that the boss is no longer yours. Generally though, it is difficult to get out of being a royal subject short of a revolution. In our parable there are folks who submit themselves to the kingdom of Christ, and there are those who don’t. The difference between being in the kingdom or not is how Christ’s followers serve the needy among them.

We hear about the end of the world all the time. Just in my life time I can think of a handful of end of the world declarations. The Hale-bop Comet, Y2K. May 21, 2011 (later revised to Oct 21, 2011). We’re still here. As Christians we do believe that Christ will come again to judge the righteous from the unrighteous and that there will be a new heaven and a new earth. But it sure does get tiring to hear all of these false prophecies. And at a point it is easy to not take the second coming seriously. This parable is an answer to those concerns. Again, remember we are at a place in Matthew’s Gospel where Jesus is facing his crucifixion and he began to preach to his disciples about the end time. Looking at the temple he declared “Not one stone here will be left on another, every one will be thrown down.” And the disciples of course ask “When will this happen?” Jesus goes into a long description about the end time, and then our set of three parables.

It is this one, the parable of the sheep and goats, that I think answers the question “when will your kingdom come.” Jesus, when will your kingdom come? Well, there are sheep and goats; and you see I was hungry and you fed me, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me…Come you are blessed, inherit the kingdom!

The kingdom of God has come. It is not a place, there are no palaces, and you cannot see it. The kingdom of God is where Christ’s people do his will. And the king dwells with those in need.


Faith Over Fear

Written by Joel on November 14th, 2011

Nov 13, 2011
Proper 28
Matthew 25:14-30 “Parable of the Talents.”

The traditional understanding of this parable is: Take what God gives you, according to your ability, and make more. Often we hear that word “Talent” which is a transliteration from the Greek (that means, it was a Greek word that is left untranslated and simply written using English letters) and we hear our English word talent which refers to a skill we may have; such as speaking, serving, counseling, teaching, evangelizing…So we understand the parable to mean that we should take these kind of talents, work really hard at them to expand God’s kingdom. Or sometimes, this text is used on stewardship Sundays to talk about the importance of giving to the church, and how the church needs to wisely manage it’s reasources. Yes, God wants us to use the gifts he has given us for the good of his kindgom – to multiply them; yes it is important to be good stewards of both our personal and church resources. But, I don’t think that this parable is mostly about money or self-help improvement of your own God-given talents. This is a parable for a church facing the end times and facing persecution. This is a parable about how to live by faith and not by fear until Christ returns.

This parable comes right in between two other parables, which certainly shed some light on the Parable of the Talents. This whole section of the Gospel is at a part when Jesus is talking about the end times, and the coming of Lord. Begining with chapter 24 of Matthew, Jesus begins to talk about signs of the end times. The day and the hour are unknown! And then our three parables. The parable of the Sheep and Goats, which follows our reading this morning (and will be next week’s Gospel reading) is about the separating out of true Christians from false Christians based on their actions through life. Those who cared for their neighbor are sheeps and those who did not are goats.

Immediately before the Parable of the Talents we have the parable of the 10 madiens. The kingdom of heaven will be like 10 madiens who were told to keep watch for the bridge groom. The wise ones brought extra oil, the foolish ones did not. By the time the bridegroom arrived, the lamps were out of oil. The foolish ones had to go into town and buy more and they missed the party. But the wise madeins who had extra oil were there to greet the bridegroom. Keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour!

I think, that in light of this context, the parable of the Talents is not simple financial advice or self help guidance for how to live a better life. This parable is about how Christians, the church, ought to live our faith inbetween the time Jesus went to heaven, and when he will come back. again. Keep watch – be ready. Expand what God entrusts to us. And serve your neighbor. Its a way of living the faith in spite of fear which wants to twart faith.

Scripture remains silent on the motivations of the first two servants who were successful in doubling their master’s investment. But we are given a glimpse of what is going on in the mind of that third servant. So maybe we may want to avoid those same movitivations? This third servant knew his master to be a harsh man; he was afraid so he hid his talent. Basically, he wanted to absolve himself of the responsibility of managing his master’s resources. So he put it somewhere safe and forgot about it. When the master returned he said “Here, take what is yours.”

He was afraid. Afraid of what? Perhaps he was not confident in his business savy to do well in the market place. He was afraid of losing what was given to him. He was afraid to risk. Afraid to lose. Now, its not the fear that got the servant in trouble, it was when he let that fear win. He chose to hide that talent in a hole; that is when he was called “wicked and lazy.” He acted in fear and put an end to the master’s will. Fear over faith.

Does the church ever get afraid? You better believe it!

Do you all remember in April when we had our two fish fry dinners? I think that was a parable of the talents, faith over fear moment for us. Remember we had two dinners? The first dinner was small “scale” (remember that joke?). We only invited members and friends. And then I suggested why don’t we do another one? In three weeks and we’ll advertise and invite everyone, we’ll serve the community, it will be great! And most everyone said “ehhhh, maybe we shouldn’t…” I think we were afraid. “We’re too old,” “We’re too tired,” “It’s too much work.” “There’s no money in it.” “What if no one comes and we lose all the money we’ll spend?” “What if too many people come and we run out of food?” “What if we make someone sick?” “What if the health department shuts us down?” “What if them young people don’t know how to pull off a church dinner?” Those were lots of really good reasons not to have the dinner. In that case we did not let fear get the best of us. We went out in faith, bought $500 worth of fish and put out a ya’all come. We served over 100 people (members, friends, and complete strangers). We turned that $500 into a $500 profit. Good and faithful servants. Sure it was scary, but there we let faith win.

Its not just about multipling money or resources. It can be scary to share the faith God has given us (even though it didn’t cost a thing it is quite valuable, worth many many Talents). Fear of what others may think, fear of rejection, fear that we don’t know the faith ourselves, fear that we don’t have the right words. Its scary to go out there and share our faith.

You folks who went to the orchard with me, where you afraid to go? I’ll admit to being afraid. It is scary to go somewhere that no-one knows who you are and what you’re doing there. When I went last Sunday, Grace Covenant wasn’t there. I went alone, and my Spanish is still pretty weak. I was really quite nervous. I could have took my faith and dug it in a hole – kept it to myself, be satisfied that I personally know the Lord. I share this with you not to tell you how great I am, but how great God is. I did not let fear win, I let faith win and I went. Nearly the instant I got out of my truck a man saw me in my collar and ran up to me, I believe he said “I want to talk to God.” I tried my best at a prayer, and caught myself repeating a few times “Dios te ama, Cristo te ama.” God loves you, Christ loves you. He showed me into the kitchen. I brought a Spanish Bible with me, and not knowing what else to do I opened it to the third chapter of John and asked him to read. And the man proclaimed the scripture as he read: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten son that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life.” Before I left he asked for a prayer for his wife at home far away. Certainly, I was awfuly limited in how effective I was (mostly because of our language barrier), maybe I would have been the servant in the parable who only earned interest on the Talent God gave me. But, I’ll tell you one thing- it sure was a greater result than if I keep my faith to myself.

How else do we fear in the living of our faith at the county line? In our personal lives? For as long as we wait for Jesus to come back, do not let fear hide your faith!

Churches and Christians may bury their Talent (many do), hide their faith and keep it to themselves. This happens when churches opperate from fear rather than faith. Being The Church is going to be scary until Jesus comes back. But we can not let that fear put out our faith.

Well done, good and faithful servant. Faith is the opposite of fear.


God Calls Us Saints

Written by Joel on November 8th, 2011

Nov 6, 2011
All Saints
1 John 3:1-3

The New Orleans Saints are 45 years old this week. On November 1, 1966 the NFL awarded a franchise to New Orleans to start a professional football team. The name came naturally since the franchise was awarded on All Saints Day, but was officially the result of a fan’s choice contest in the city newspaper. What else would you expect from the city of jazz who brought us “When the Saints Go Marching In.” The team went to the archbishop of New Orleans to ask if it would be sacrilegious to name a football team The Saints. Archbishop Hannan answered no, of course not. The Saints is a great name, he said, but I must warn you that most saints were martyrs.

The All Saints holiday is an opportunity for us to remember all the saints known and unknown. Commemoration of saints, especially martyrs, comes from a time when the church was under great persecution. The church would remember the anniversary of a church member who died because he or she confessed the faith. That church would gather, pray, and fast on the anniversary of a martyr’s death. Each of the churches would share the saint’s story with neighboring churches who would share in the commemoration of one another’s martyrs As time went on, and persecution grew, there became more martyrs than the church could possibly remember throughout the year. And so we got the tradition of All Saints which goes back to the 4th century, observed on the first of November, but often moved to the following Sunday because it is just so important for us to remember those Christian brothers and sisters who have kept the faith before us.

In popular culture we get the name for this day: Halloween, from “All Hallows Eve” which points to the tradition of celebrating important holidays the night before just like we would for Christmas eve. All the ghouls, goblins, witches, vampires and other creatures that folks dress up as for Halloween certainly emphasizes the death aspect of All Saints Day (slash) Halloween. And the archbishop’s comments that most Saints are martyrs (or those who have died for the faith) caused me to pause and wonder: Who are the saints? What do you have to do to become one? Do you have to be dead to be a saint?

At least for me, when I think of saints, I automatically think of those who have died, of those who are in heaven right now as we speak. The really good super-hero Christians who went on before us. Like Saint Luke who wrote a Gospel and the Book of Acts. However, it astounds me time and time again when I read the words of Saint Paul to the various church’s he wrote to. For example in the address section of Romans he writes “To all in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints…” Paul is writing to Christians who were alive, here on earth. You could walk up to them and have a conversation. And perhaps must puzzling of all….you could see their sins and their flaws. Reading on in the letter to the Romans certainly points out that the Christians in Rome were by no means perfect.

The phrase there is literally “Those who God has called holy.” To be a saint is to be called holy. What do you think of when you hear “Holy?” Holy, set apart, marked for a special purpose, belonging to God, something that was ordinary now made holy. Like in our communion service today we have ordinary bread and drink which are called holy because they are used in God’s holy work. And so Paul declares to the Romans, you are God’s holy people. I think that offers a lot of hope for us as Christians today. If it were up to use to be super-hero Christians, I think heaven would be pretty empty. But we are saints because God calls us so.

Saint Augustine reflects on his life and recalls a time when he was given into evil. Here is an excerpt from his Confessions:

“Yet I had a desire to commit robbery, and did so, compelled to it by neither hunger nor poverty, but through a contempt for well-doing and a strong impulse to iniquity. For I pilfered something which I already had in sufficient measure, and of much better quality. I did not desire to enjoy what I stole, but only the theft and the sin itself.

“There was a pear tree close to our own vineyard, heavily laden with fruit, which was not tempting either for its color or for its flavor. Late one night — having prolonged our games in the streets until then, as our bad habit was — a group of young scoundrels, and I among them, went to shake and rob this tree. We carried off a huge load of pears, not to eat ourselves, but to dump out to the hogs, after barely tasting some of them ourselves. Doing this pleased us all the more because it was forbidden. Such was my heart, O God, such was my heart — which thou didst pity even in that bottomless pit. Behold, now let my heart confess to thee what it was seeking there, when I was being gratuitously wanton, having no inducement to evil but the evil itself. It was foul, and I loved it. I loved my own undoing. I loved my error — not that for which I erred but the error itself. A depraved soul, falling away from security in thee to destruction in itself, seeking nothing from the shameful deed but shame itself.” Book 2, Chapter 4 Confessions of Saint Augustine. These are the words and the action of a man who became a saint. He became a saint because he was called holy by God. He committed evil just for the sake of committing evil, and yet through God’s power, just his word, this man would become called a saint, a holy one of God.

From our second reading: See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God, and that is what we are! He called us saints, his holy people, his set apart ones, his people for a special purpose; his children. It all begins with God’s call, and God has it for us, those who are gathered here today because we believers. Our role is to live into what we are called – to know God more and more each day. To become more wholly-completely his. Holiness and sainthood is a continual work in progress, and one of the reasons God gave us the church; because it sure is hard to be holy alone.

How do you become a saint? God calls you. Who are the saints? I look around and I see the saints before me now. Be the children of God, that is what you are, that is what you’re called.


What is a Phylactery?

Written by Joel on October 30th, 2011

Brooklyn Museum

Oct 30, 2011
Proper 26
Matthew 23:1-12

External signs of faith are meant to glorify God, not ourselves.

I was at the Woodstock Wendy’s one day just at noon. I sat in a window seat and outside I saw a small group of young men, about my age, about 5 of them out in the grass. They had small rugs spread out on the ground and they were all facing the same direction and then they got down on their knees, and then brought their faces to the ground. They rose a few times, and knelt a few times, their lips moved, I could tell they were saying something. This went on for just under 10 minutes. They rolled up their rugs and then came in for lunch. I assumed they were Muslims, conducting noon time prayers, one of the 5 obligated times of prayer in a day. I thought to myself – I bet that takes quite a bit of courage to pray like that out in public; Seeing their external signs of faith did draw my mind to God and it called me to consider my own prayer life. What a humbling prayer form, bowed with their faces to the ground – how humbling!

But the Pharisees seemed not to realize that they were attempting to exalt themselves in their showy practice of religion. You know the saying “Do as I say, not as I do?” They seemed to be saying “Do as I say, and look how good I am at it!”

I want to spend some time exploring the middle section of today’s Gospel reading, verses 5 thru 7. “Everything they do is done for people to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogue; they love to be greeted with respect in the marketplace and to have people call them ‘Rabbi.’” How do these externals of religious piety serve to exalt the pharisees? How would Jesus have us practice our religion?

What in the world is a phylactery? I’ve seen them once. There was a rabbi in my class at chaplain school. And he invited us to join him one day for morning prayer. Before he began with the words of prayer, he prepared himself for prayer. He ritually washed his hands, he put on a stole with tassels, and then he took out these square leather boxes with straps on them. He put one on his left hand and wrapped it up. The other he tied to his forehead, right between his eyes. Those two boxes are the phylacteries.

It is a Jewish practice that finds it’s roots in the law of Moses; in four scriptures to be exact. One of those scriptures is Deuteronomy chapter 6, verse 8; How interesting that this practice which Jesus questions the Pharisees on comes just after Jesus’ answer to the Greatest Commandment: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and strength” Deut 6:5, Now Deut 6:8 referring to God’s commands “Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads.” They took this word of scripture literally. Literally putting bits of paper with scripture on it, in these boxes called phylacteries, and tying them to their hands and foreheads.

Phylacteries have deep meaning and symbolism attached to them. The head phylactery has four compartments which holds the four scriptures which speak to the practice, each box is attached to the straps by 12 stitches, representing the 12 tribes of Israel. The boxes have an Hebrew letter on the outside of them which represents the four scriptures. Archeologists have discovered that other peoples would tattoo the name of a deity on their arm and forehead. Perhaps this Jewish custom was in response to that, a way to mark themselves out as belonging to the one true God and not to the foreign gods. And the phylacteries were used to remind the wearer about the word of God, a reminder to pray, and to put the commands on their hearts.

All of that sounds pretty good to me. Sure, I would understand the Deuteronomy scripture to be figurative; tie the commands of God to your forehead – that means always think about it, always pray, always be aware of God, let it be part of your life. But at the same time, isn’t it interesting how the literal, how the tangible help us to put into practice the figurative Its the difference between just having loving feelings in your heart for someone, versus expressing that love in a tangible way – a hug, a kiss, flowers, a card.

Christianity has plenty of its own phylacteries, externals. Jesus fish bumper stickers, bible verse t-shirts, cross necklaces. I get all dressed up in a robe, stole, and collar. On Ash Wednesday we run around with dark splotches on our foreheads. All these are externals, and when used for the wrong reason may draw attention to ourselves, rather than drawing our attention to God. It can go both ways. And Jesus’ anger at the Pharisees here is because they had let the things that were meant to remind them of the holy, instead become fashion statements.

The Greek for “phylactery” sounds like a safeguard, a charm, or an amulet. What was once something that set God’s people apart and served as a reminder of him, became nothing more than an amulet. They made their phylacteries boxes more broad – but failed to become more aware of the Word of God they contained. That risk exists today. You can find rather impressive gold crosses to wear around your neck. But donning that symbol of Christ’s death, resurrection, and the world’s salvation; wearing it around your neck – symbolizing that you too have taken on the yoke, the burden of the mark of what it means to be a Christian – wow; that should be awfully humbling. Or is it just a fashion statement, an amulet? Did you find a really clever Christian t-shirt to show off how trendy and hip it is to be a Christian – or do you bear words from scripture across your chest as a reminder for you in this day that you too are marked by God’s word? Do you feel uncomfortable wearing ashes on your forehead out in public – You are probably on the right track.

I don’t think there is anything wrong with these kind of external signs of our faith. In fact, in many ways they can serve as reminders of God’s love for us. We are human beings existing in time and place and we do need the tangibles to remind us of the intangible. It is a wonderful and good thing that when someone sees you live the Christian faith in someway that they too glorify God. Like praying at a restaurant for your meal, doing so may cause others to give God thanks themselves; but bowing that head and making a big show of it to show how much better you are than those heathen non-restaurant pray-ers, well that’s how a Pharisee prays.

It comes down to who is exalted in the practice of our religion. We are not to be exalted, but in the way we live our faith we are to give God the glory.


Fulfilling God’s Law of Love

Written by Joel on October 25th, 2011

Oct 23, 2011
Proper 25
Matthew 22:34-46 – The Greatest Commandment

Before Homecoming we had been working through Matthew’s Gospel at the time when Jesus entered Jerusalem and he was being tested by the religious leaders before his trial and crucifixion. We heard a series of parables in which Jesus challenges the religious authorities, and in particular used parables as a way to show them a mirror. Now, the tables have turned, and the religious leaders are presenting to Jesus a series of testing questions, loaded questions. The kind of questions that are designed to have no right answer, the kind where whether you answer yes or no you are still wrong no matter what. Kinda like asking your parents “Who is your favorite kid?” Unless it’s an only child, that parent better be a bit clever in how they answer. Today’s Gospel reading is the third of such attempted trapping questions.

The first was whether the faithful should pay taxes – if Jesus answered “yes” then he would have been condoning the Roman Occupation and oppression of the Jewish people; but if he answered “no” he could have been accused of inciting an uprising against the government. So we have that famous answer: “Give to Caesar what is due Caesar, and to God what is due God.” The 2nd question was on the resurrection and marriage in heaven. And the third, our reading this morning is on the law: Which of the laws are the greatest?

At first glance the question may seem innocent enough, but there is a risk in the way Jesus may chose to answer this question. If he just picks one (say, one of the 10 commandments) it may imply that all the other commandments are unimportant. Though, this is a common question that is going around Rabbis in those days – people who were attempting to get at the essence of the law. Which law is the greatest?

And so Jesus answers with scripture: “You shall love the Lord your God, with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” That’s Deuteronomy 6:5; and just for good measure Jesus offers a second “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Now, this second one is also a quotation from scripture, from the Old Testament. Love your neighbor is actually not a new idea introduced by Jesus, but rather he is restating it here from Leviticus 19:18. Both quotations come from a section of the Bible called the Pentateuch or Five books, or also called the law of Moses. How is it that such love can be summed up in law? Law and love.

Law. There are 248 affirmative laws found in the Torah; that is 248 things you should do. 365 negative laws, things you should not do. All together this makes 613 laws, which is the same number of words found in the 10 commandments. We still understand law in this day and age. There are things you must do and things you must not do or you will get in trouble. My car registration came in the mail last week and I know that I better put that sticker on my car or else I’m going to get pulled over – affirmative law, something I should do. When I drive I ought not go faster than 70 mph on the free-way (well, around here I guess you wont get in trouble until at least 85mph) – negative law, something I ought not do. But now just how odd is it that Jesus quotes laws of love! Love God, love neighbor; like the two halves of the 10 commandments, all the law can be summed up in these two directions of love. They are both affirmative laws, things you ought to do, but how can we legislate love?

It’s not like people haven’t tried. I think I’ve told you about the clever mother who, when catching her two kids fighting, forced them to hold hands, walk around the house 3 times and say “I love you” to each other until it became true. But the kind of love we are talking about here is not about warm feelings. It is an action kind of love. Its a love that goes upward and outward – to God and neighbor; not asking “what’s in it for me?” but rather “how can I love?”

I have a friend who prefers to drive US11 up and down the valley instead of I-81. Not because he is afraid of the interstate traffic, but because this route provides him a better opportunity to fulfill the law of love. He tells me that you are much more likely to see people walking US11 and that gives him the opportunity to offer them ride. One hitchhiker he picked up was going to work at Bowman Apples in Mount Jackson but didn’t own a car. Another was heading to the court house in Woodstock to clear his drivers license so he didn’t have to drive his moped (which broke down on that rainy day), and another was on his way to South Carolina to see his son who was home from the Army.

Now, we ordinarily associate warm feelings with the concept of love. We think that love is something that happens to us – romantic love, chemistry, it just happens. Just think of every romantic comedy ever made. But the love your God, love your neighbor, law of love is not this warm and fuzzy nice kind of love; its an action kind of love. Do you think my friend who picks up hitchhikers has any warm feelings for any of those neighbors on US11? Of course not! How could he? He never knows any of these people for that kind of love to take place. Instead it is that kind of love that is constantly seeking for how to fulfill such a thing as love. How can what I do this day show love for my neighbor? Not because you are particularly fond of them (you could really dislike someone and still love them!), not because of warm feelings, not because of what happens to you. Fulfilling this law starts with love; it’s not the result of love.

God calls us to fulfill the law of love. It is the summary of the law and the prophets. We love because God first loved us. It is something that we do, not something that we feel. Let us continually seek how we might fulfill the law of love. Love God, love others.


Why Use Psalms in Sunday Worship

Written by Joel on October 18th, 2011

This Sunday, County Line church will try out (for the first time in anyone’s memory, I believe) using Psalms in our worship service. Here is an informational handout I prepared for our bulletin which explains the experiment:

For the next several weeks we will endeavor to incorporate the Psalms in our worship of God. We will have an opportunity to reflect on this practice at the December Consistory meeting.

At County Line Church we are used to having three readings from the Bible. However, we read from every section of the Bible except for the Psalms in our Sunday worship service. Adding a Psalm is not a fourth reading however, but rather a prayer which we have received and which we offer as our own. The Book of Psalms is the original hymnal and prayer book of the church. It spans every human emotion, and when Jesus went to synagogue he would have prayed the Psalms. We believe that the Bible is the inspired word of God. How appropriate then to offer back to God in our worship the words he already gave us!

Using Psalms are quite popular in Reformed traditions such as the E&R. Many hymns in our Favorite Hymns of Praise and The Hymnal are actually paraphrases of Psalms. Our E&R hymnal includes a section on how to chant (sing) the psalms.

We will experience the Psalms in a variety of ways. We may simply pray a psalm aloud, read responsively, or sing. Listen for the word of God in the Psalms, and pray the word of God thru the Psalms over these coming weeks. As we worship today make these 2,500 year-old prayers of the church your own.