Anointing at Bethany; Matthew 26:7-13

Wednesday

a woman came to him with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment, and she poured it on his head as he sat at the table. But when the disciples saw it, they were angry and said, “Why this waste? For this ointment could have been sold for a large sum, and the money given to the poor.” 10 But Jesus, aware of this, said to them, “Why do you trouble the woman? She has performed a good service for me. 11 For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me. 12 By pouring this ointment on my body she has prepared me for burial. 13 Truly I tell you, wherever this good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.”

Daily Reflection

This unnamed woman seems to have understood, in a way the disciples didn’t, something about Jesus.  She has been called “the first believer,” “the perfect disciple.”  Somehow, she sensed who Jesus was and what he was facing.  Instead of anointing him as a king, which is what most of his followers would have wanted, she anointed him for burial, for his death.  And it wasn’t just a few drops of oil—“There, that ought to be enough!”—it was a whole jar of “very costly ointment,” an extravagant gift, estimated to be worth anywhere between $250 to $500.  She was lifted out of the domain of careful calculations, into the realm of unbridled love and devotion, self-denial and self-forgetfulness—a true mark of the kingdom of God among us.

Meanwhile, the disciples just didn’t get it.  They had what might be called a “market mentality”—“Why all this waste?”—when there were so many worthy causes it could have been used for.  They didn’t understand the spontaneity of love, or its extravagance—what Paul captured so beautifully in his ode to love: Love “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.”  “Love is a spendthrift,” writes Paul Scherer, “which leaves all its calculations at home.”  And then, there’s this—GOD is love! What this woman did gives us a hint of what God is always about—loving us extravagantly, unconditionally!

Daily Prayer

Restore in us the image if your love, O God, that the longings of our hearts may be extravagant.  Restore in us the image of your love, that our passion for life may be full to overflowing. Amen.

~Sherm Skinner

Sermon 3-28-21 Palm

Sermon 3-28-21       The Rev. Jen Van Zandt

NEW TESTAMENT READING      Luke 19:29-40 

 29 When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, 30 saying, “Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. 31 If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it.’” 32 So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. 33 As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?” 34 They said, “The Lord needs it.” 35 Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. 

36 As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. 37 As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, 38 saying, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!” 39 Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” 40 He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”

Speaking on Our Behalf

Well, this is a well-known story that certainly initially doesn’t have a happy ending and many people aren’t comfortable with enduring the hard facts of the story of Jesus’ passion. As soon as Palm Sunday service is over, they scramble to get out the pastel clothes, start dying eggs, making plans for Easter dinner, even in this liminal space we’re in right now.  We are literally caught between the rocks and the hard place.  But before we get to that, I want you to take a look at the text again.  Really, right now take a look at the text again.  (Pause)

Where do you place yourself in the story?  Honestly… think who you’d be in this story. Do you imagine yourself as one of the disciples going ahead to get the colt?  And, if so, what is your conversation with each other to and fro?  Is it jovial?  Is it matter of fact?  Are you complaining about having to do this job or are you eager to get Jesus on the colt and get to honor and laud Him as He rides to Jerusalem to meet His destiny?  Are you aware and in belief that what He has foreshadowed is really going to take place?  Or maybe you’re secretly hoping that Jesus can pull some strings and outsmart the authorities and set Himself free.  Maybe you’re the colt owner, having no clue or interest in what’s happening.  You just want to go about your business and stay out of the fray.  Or maybe as the colt owner you’re curious about the purpose of the colt for this radical teacher.  Or maybe you’re one of the ones who immediately sees Jesus and you immediately throw down your cloak to honor Him and soften His ride into Jerusalem.  Or maybe you haven’t been a believer very long and you’re just… not…. quite sure… what this whole thing is about, but you’re happy to go along and see what happens… until it’s uncomfortable.  Are you one of Jesus’ closest friends and you already have a pit in your stomach, because you know this is the beginning of Jesus actually carrying out His full responsibilities as the Son of Man.  Or maybe you want to go with Jesus, but you just don’t have it in you to go the distance and you stop short at the gate of Jerusalem.  Or maybe you’re one of the Pharisees that actually wants to keep the peace and not upset the Roman government so that you get sent away to other places.  Or maybe you just don’t know, because you’re just tired.  You want your life back.  You just don’t have the energy to go any deeper than you (and all of us) have already been in the last year.  Or maybe you’re the donkey.  We’re all donkeys from time to time.  Sometimes we’re foolish; sometimes we’re carrying extra loads; sometimes we just dig our heels in and refuse to take a step further.

I don’t have to remind you what a long journey this has been, and we all have a short bandwidth of patience.  We’re all sick of the cold.  We’re all sick of wearing masks.  We’re sick of our spouses.  We’re sick of remote learning.  We’re sick of Zoom.  We’re sick of working at home in our laundry room or in a dark basement.  We’re sick of not being able to go out and go where and when we want to.  And we’re sure sick of not being able to worship together.  That one is still a bitter pill to swallow.  As we started to sing the hymn, I couldn’t get through it, because the tears welled up once again that we will still need to be apart for a while longer.

But this is only the beginning of the story of Hope.  Jesus already models for us that He is going to do the hard work on our behalf.  Jesus sees our humanity and our sinful ways and realizes it has to be atoned, because sometimes we just cannot help ourselves.  And Jesus knows that He’s willing to do the hard work that sometimes we just can’t do ourselves. 

The beauty about going through Palm Sunday, into Maundy Thursday, into the depths of the suffering on Good Friday, is that there is hope in the Resurrection.  And all throughout the last year, a lot of us have lost hope in a lot of things, and a lot of people, and a lot of institutions, even in our marriages and our relationships, we have had struggles in holding onto hope.  But even when we do, as the text says, “the very stones can cry out” and give us that message of hope–concrete messages of hope–that we deeply need. And we’re actually going to hear some of those messages of hope right now.

You all were invited to write a message of some sort on a rock, so that when we are silenced in our fear and our anxiety and our weaknesses, there are words on rocks to give us hope and they are displayed right here (arranged at the base of the wooden cross on the chancel).  And so I’m going to ask Martel to get up and read out some of the messages of hope that were written on these stones: (Martel walks to the cross and picks up several of the stones, reading aloud each one)

“Peace”, “Love”, “Grace”, “Trust”, “Walk by Faith not by Sight”, “I Am with You Always”

The beauty of these messages is that they are now literally painted on, or ‘etched in stone’.  These are the messages that we can hear and receive and take in, in this difficult liminal space because Palm Sunday is a bittersweet day.  It’s a celebration of our Lord Christ, who gets on an unridden colt because every king always had an unridden colt and already knew that they’d be a king even before they got into Jerusalem.  This king however, is going to do far more work for you and for me and for the world than any other king in the past, in the present, or in the future.

So, friends do not lose hope.  Let Jesus meet you in the depths of your suffering and then come out the other side being freed up by the joy of the Resurrection. Amen.

Hate Stirs Up Strife; Love Covers All; Proverbs 10:12

Hatred stirs up strife, but love covers all offenses.

Daily Reflection

We have been bombarded with “hate speech”.  Our political leaders and news media seem to think they are free to speak with vileness and vindictiveness and expect that we should all just accept what they say as factually correct.  We watch them and wonder what God must think. 

Unfortunately, what they have modeled has trickled down into the general population and has pitted us against each other.  We seem to be intolerant of someone who doesn’t think about the issues in the same way as we do, and uncaring that the words we choose might offend them.  We may struggle to remain loving when we disagree, but if we don’t remain loving and instead engage in hate and hurtful speech, we are not reflecting God’s love.  To change, we can start by honoring that another’s opinion is valid to them, and listen to them instead of shouting them down or dismissing them.  And, when we feel hurt or offended, we can forgive the other and pray for them to feel God’s love.

Hateful speech hurts both the speaker and the listener.  But God is an amazing God who designed us to benefit from demonstrating his love.  Studies have found a correlation between one’s overall well-being and showing generosity and kindness to others.  If we show love and kindness in speech toward each other, we will feel good inside.  But when we speak unkindly, we feel angst that unsettles us.  When we speak in a loving and kind way, a chemical is released in our brains that helps reduce stress and makes us feel more energetic.  That’s not how we feel when we speak in anger.

God loves us.  We need to thank him by thinking before we speak so that we spread that love.

Daily Prayer

Loving Father, we love you.  Thank you for loving us.  Remind us to always speak kindly and without hate.  Please help us bring peace to our lives and to the world.  Help us abolish hate by remembering your commandment to love one another just as you have loved us. Amen

~Evelyn Thiel

Same Mind, Love as Christ; Philippians 2:1-2

Therefore, if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, 2 then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind.

Daily Reflection

Today’s first word, therefore, is connected to the chapter before our reading. It’s a conclusion to a discussion and it ties our verses today to those that come earlier in Philippians. Paul is commiserating with the church at Philippi over the persecution they’ve received for their faith. 

We aren’t persecuted for our faith, but we have jointly suffered. This pandemic has affected us all to some degree, some more than others. Whether its separation, isolation, depression, fear, or the illness itself – none of us have been unscathed. 

First, whatever “encouragement…comfort…tenderness [and] compassion” we enjoy in Christ should be shared with others. Paul is calling for us to be “like-minded…being one in spirit and of one mind.” Christ’s love for us means we are incomparably blessed and reassured. Therefore, let us offer the encouragement and comfort we have experienced to others. 

The temptation for us, especially when we are struggling, is to retreat into God as our refuge instead of urging others to do the same. Understanding that God provides peace amid turmoil as we seek him in prayer is a reality both to take hold for yourself and proclaim to others. What we have and know in Christ is a treasure to be shared not hoarded.

The verse after our devotion makes this point even stronger.  Don’t wait until we’re comfortable, don’t wait until we’re fully secure; share the comfort, tenderness and compassion – in other words the love of Christ – with others now. Let Christ’s peace settle on all you meet.

Daily Prayer

Christ, let your Peace settle upon me and bring me comfort.  And let your Spirit guide me to be compassionate to any in need.  Amen.

~Dan Keoppel

Feeding Our Neighbor at Midnight; Luke 11:5-10

And he said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’ And he answers from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs. “So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. 10 For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.

Daily Reflection

This passage reminds me of the many caring and neighborly acts that this congregation lovingly performs on a regular basis. We cook and deliver meals to those recovering from injury or loss and we offer our time to cook and feed our neighbors at the St John’s luncheons and by our support for the Dover Soup Kitchen. And our greatest gift to our neighbors is through our founding and support for the Loaves and Fishes food pantry.

But this passage is about more than just caring for others, it’s also a directive to us to seek out our God through Scripture, Prayer and service. We must ask ourselves, are we doing enough? Can we stretch and help even more?

Are we open to every act of service that God puts in our path? Let us strive to be attentive to God’s call and be ready to answer the knock on the door when it comes, even at the midnight hour.

Daily Prayer

Heavenly Father, through your Son we have the model of a life lived perfectly for the service of all humanity and the ultimate act of giving through his sacrifice for us. Help us to be ready when you call us to service, even at the midnight hour.

~John Crozier

Perfect Love Casts Out all Fear; John 4:18

18 There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.

Daily Reflection

Meme On Social Media:  “Where fear exists, love cannot”.

I saw that meme so much in 2020, that I was drawn to this verse. It must be a sign from God that I must hunker down and reflect!  And then I read the verse. I mean, I really, really read it, and, yikes! 

‘There is no fear in love.’ I had to sit quietly with this. So many people I have loved have brought fear for a variety of reasons – fear of rejection, fear of abandonment, fear of judgment, just to name a few. Does that mean that love didn’t exist? Or when fear is there, love can’t also be there, in the same space?  Is it like sneezing with your eyes open, it can’t physically happen?   Then I contemplated ‘perfect love driving out fear’. I imagine that we’ve all fantasized about perfect love and what it looks like, feels like, smells like. It seems like such a far-fetched dream, this perfect love, never mind perfect love that drives out fear like a superhero.  And then ‘one who fears is not made perfect in love’. Well, this just made me feel angry and ashamed – because I have plenty of fears, spoken and unspoken (those who know me, know it is mostly spoken).  So, what can this really mean?  I had to do some research.

The main theme of this Chapter is love. I read it explained like this – a person who follows Christ should always act ‘Christ like’. You know, Love Thy Neighbor. If we follow Christ’s guidance, we should have no fear of His judgment. We will have eternal life.  Therefore, perfect love can exist because as we grow in Christ’s embrace, our fears grow dimmer and dimmer, and love shines brighter and brighter.

It’s not easy to follow in Christ’s footsteps and love and accept everybody.  If we’ve learned anything this past year, it’s likely that. But wouldn’t this world be a better place if we could reach for that goal? Wouldn’t our hearts be fuller? Wouldn’t our load be lighter?

Daily Prayer

Dear Heavenly Father – please shine brightly in our lives so that we may act as You have taught us to act. To love as You’ve taught us to love. To be kind and accepting as You taught us to be kind and accepting. Help us to grow in and through You as we reach for perfect love. In Jesus’ name, we pray.  Amen.

~Kim Robbins

Bless Those Who Persecute You; Romans 12:14-16

14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16 Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are.

Daily Reflection

I’ve been a counseling professor at Montclair State University since 2004.  One of the central tenets we teach our students is the importance of being genuine with clients, because if counselors aren’t genuine, folks have an uncanny way of seeing through it (and not returning to counseling!). 

As I read today’s scripture, I found myself drawn to this idea of genuineness, and just how hard it is to genuinely bless people who treat you badly, and how easily God can see the true feelings we hold in our hearts.  In counseling, it has been shown that genuine communication fosters a deeper connection between counselor and client, and I’m reminded that the same is true of our relationship with God.  Sharing with God our genuine struggles to bless, forgive, and love those who have wronged us is a path to a deeper connection with God, and that connection goes both ways, leading us to act in His image…genuinely.

Daily Prayer

Dear Lord, thank you for the gift of your genuine love and unconditional forgiveness.  Help us as we strive to genuinely embody that same love to bless those who may not love us.  We ask this in your name, Amen.

~Matt Shurts

Following God’s Ways; Psalm 139:23-24

23 Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. 24 See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.

Daily Reflection

As you see in yesterday’s devotion and from a number of previous devotions, it takes great faithfulness and courage to come before God and be honest in the all the ways we are unkind, unloving, selfish and even hostile. It may not be overt, but the thoughts we have, run contrary to the Psalmist and God’s desire. Many people don’t even have the courage to say the 2 most meaningful and difficult sentences in all relationships: “I was wrong.”, and “I am sorry”.

Perhaps you don’t have the full temerity to say these things out loud in your relationships or to God.  But after all, it is Lent, which is a time of penitence which feeds all of our relationships, including and especially with God. It also propels our faith and give us the courage to Love Thy Neighbor.

Today you are invited to write your own prayer to God, asking to be seen and cleansed from all thoughts, words and actions that are contrary to loving God and our neighbors.

______________________________________________________________________

______________________________________________________________________

______________________________________________________________________

______________________________________________________________________

______________________________________________________________________

______________________________________________________________________

______________________________________________________________________

______________________________________________________________________

______________________________________________________________________

______________________________________________________________________

____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Sermon 3-21-21

“The Choices We Make” The Rev. Jen Van Zandt

So, friends, the story of the Good Samaritan, which we’ll be reading in a moment, is a wonderful way to deepen, and even change, the way we understand the Love of Neighbor in our Lenten time. But, if we listen even more closely with courage, we will hear and identify with more than one of those characters in this story. So, try to listen with new ears and a new heart.

NEW TESTAMENT LESSON Luke 10: 25-37

25 Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 26 He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” 27 He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” 28 And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” 29 But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” 30 Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32 So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ 36 Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” 37 He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

It’s only natural, I think, to want to identify with the Good Samaritan and, in many ways, with the fine mission that we do here, I think that’s certainly appropriate. But this parable goes even deeper than even that. This Samaritan was not just a non-Jew living on the outskirts of Jerusalem. Samaritans were despised people—to the priests and to the Levites, including the lawyer. Samaritans were perceived as enemies. They aided Syria in their war against the Jews and refused to help restore the temple in Jerusalem after the fall of Judah and their deportation to Babylon. The Jews, in turn destroyed the Samaritan temple in Mount Gerizim. So, suffice to say, these were not friendly neighbors, but something quite a bit worse than the Hatfields and the McCoys!

The lawyer, who seemingly wants to get his future affairs in order (meaning eternal life) is a bit like a student who is brown-nosing a teacher to ensure the best college recommendation, as well as, to show the rest of his own classmates how ‘special’, how ‘brilliant’, and how ‘talented’ he is. As much as we don’t like to admit it, we do that, too. But Jesus is more than just a teacher, He is the embodiment of God. He’s eager to ensure that we understand that knowing what we do and doing it with humility, are two very different things. Again, if we’re honest with ourselves, (and we should be because it is Lent after all), when we care for our neighbors, secretly, we are so proud of ourselves.

The priests and the Levites? they’re even worse. They are blinded by their own status. They are literally born into families with lineage that give them front row seats and keys, literally to the temple. In short, they are, people of tremendous privilege. Touching, let alone caring for an unclean, non-Jew is literally beneath them. Their only perceived neighbors are those of the same faith, same ilk, same levels of blessings–those who dwell together and embrace the covenant with Yahweh.

The Samaritan, on the other hand, has no connection to the temple in Jerusalem or in Judaism, as a whole. The Samaritan is in the lonely and lowly position of being a merchant. He’s literally a travelling salesman. He is despised. He’s an outsider with no privilege. He, is actually the one that calls us all out. Without education and understanding with the Torah, how could he possibly know what to do? How could he have the courage to touch and bind up a beaten, left-for-dead man in a ditch, put him on his animal, and take him all the way into an inn for recovery, getting him out of harm’s way and then even leaving money for lodging and care for a perfect stranger?

See, the Samaritan didn’t have a limited view of who his neighbor was. He didn’t judge him by his skin tone or his language, his education or his clothing or anything that might determine his stature. The Samaritan wasn’t just good, he actually was compassionate. The text literally says that the Samaritan was “moved to pity”. And in the Greek, it actually means deep, deep compassion and care. I mean I’m sure the priests and Levites felt bad, but they kept on walking, hiding behind their pedigree and their privilege.

My friends, this text is calling us all to recognize our privilege—our white privilege—and to open our eyes to all of who our neighbors are. Jesus uses the despised, but compassionate Samaritan to help us see our near-sighted views of our neighbor, and, as the daily headlines remind us, racial injustice is a failure to stop and look and listen and attend to the wounds and the scars that are on the inside of all of the outsiders.

A number of years ago I used an illustration about a photo I had seen in black and white. It was powerful and it was a picture of an emergency room with all black medical workers working on a white man on a gurney, still in his KKK uniform. I have since learned that that photo was, in fact, staged as part of an ad for a magazine in Australia. Part of the campaign tagline was “People that think bigger than they are.”

There was an article in USA Today debunking all of this and fact-checking it. And the quote was: “This was an optimistic comment on how we can rise as one human race and come together despite divisive histories, horrific abuses, evil ideology, economic hardship and physical impairment, i.e., if we are bigger than our thoughts and aren’t constricted by hatred or prejudice, we can actually achieve huge things like saving lives, feeding the poor, love, and maybe even end war itself.” That was written by Jay Furby, the man who was the Creative Art Director behind this staged photograph.

I think that’s what Jesus is getting at in this text. And, yet still, eventually, he got on a donkey just a week later, knowing He would die for all those sins and our all of sins. And He did it all in the name of Love. Friends, it is our turn to carry on the legacy of loving all neighbors, near and far. May it be so. Amen.

Search me God and Know My Heart; Psalm 139:23-24

23 Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. 24 See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.

Daily Reflection

It is scary to ask God to “search me and know my heart.”  For I know that what will be found is not a completely open heart full of love and understanding. In fact, there is likely remnants of resentment, jealousy, mistrust, and harsh judgment; in other words, a sinful heart.  Even under the best circumstances I fear God will be disappointed in what lies recessed in my heart. And, given this past year with all its challenges, I am driven to my knees and praying for mercy.

The Psalmist then asks God to “test me and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked way in me.” Frankly, I’ve probably had more sinful thoughts in this last year than maybe ever. Sometimes, it’s been really hard to love my neighbor. I have been challenged to understand others. I’ve been tested in ways I never imagined. And yet, I keep trying. I ask questions to see the other person’s view. I continue to be kind. And I work at bridging the space between. Why?

I think it’s because the last line of this Psalm resonates deep within: “And lead me in the way everlasting.” When I realize that the goodness and mercy of God lies in the power of Love and that no matter how dark my heart may seem—I am given the chance time and again to be led in the way everlasting. So how then, can I to be stuck with a heart full of wickedness when God grants me, in fact leads me, to the way of mercy and grace?

The way lets me release my own fear and invites God to search me, to know me and to weed out the wickedness. The everlasting way is indeed the good news because it leads us to hope, it leads us on a path to reconciliation and down a road to a place where we can love our neighbors no matter how different we seem and no matter how challenging the times.

Daily Prayer – from Nan Merrill’s version of this text in her book “Psalms for Praying”

Dear gracious and loving God, “Search me, O my Beloved, and know my heart! Try me and discern my thoughts! Help me to face the darkness within me; Enlighten me, that I might radiate your Love and Light!” Amen

~Connie Kelly