21 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand toward heaven so that there may be darkness over the land of Egypt, a darkness that can be felt.” 22 So Moses stretched out his hand toward heaven, and there was dense darkness in all the land of Egypt for three days. 23 People could not see one another, and for three days they could not move from where they were; but all the Israelites had light where they lived. 24 Then Pharaoh summoned Moses, and said, “Go, worship the Lord. Only your flocks and your herds shall remain behind. Even your children may go with you.” 25 But Moses said, “You must also let us have sacrifices and burnt offerings to sacrifice to the Lord our God. 26 Our livestock also must go with us; not a hoof shall be left behind, for we must choose some of them for the worship of the Lord our God, and we will not know what to use to worship the Lord until we arrive there.” 27 But the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he was unwilling to let them go. 28 Then Pharaoh said to him, “Get away from me! Take care that you do not see my face again, for on the day you see my face you shall die.” 29 Moses said, “Just as you say! I will never see your face again.”
When I think back on this Sunday a year ago, our worries were significantly different; we were scrambling to determine who was and was not coming for thanksgiving, how large of a turkey to get, how and when to travel to/fro, frantically trying to find the beloved-but now missing-recipe for grandma’s favorite dish, excitement and/or dread of those we would see at thanksgiving, the joy of family all huddled in the kitchen on Wednesday eve for making the pies and the prep, watching the Macy’s day parade in person or on the TV, football games and post turkey coma on the couch, the Friday shopping plans or dragging out the Christmas decorations from the attic or basement, and a lovely day off from work.
Now, here we are with little of those things possible, unclear not only about Thanksgiving, Advent and Christmas but also an unclear future of when wellness and our lives will be restored.
It seems to me that we too are experiencing the darkness like the Egyptians. As Terrence Fretheim says, “[The plague] darkness was far more than ordinary darkness, but a darkness that was palpable; which could be touched and felt; where all human movement could be described as ‘groping’. Like a winter whiteout where all you can do is stay indoors for the duration of the storm. This blackout had no light whatsoever.”
Darkness in this text signifies chaos; a reversal of all light a reversal of the 1stact of creation in Genesis 1. This Egyptians must have been terrified!
The Israelites? Less so. They had light and ‘normal day/night rhythms, but just when Pharaoh gave them permission to go and worship Yahweh, it also came with conditions. They were not allowed to take their livestock, which they needed in order to make pleasing sacrifices to God. Here we are again. We too and all the faithful in every faith tradition are also unable to offer their praises, prayers and offerings in the way God intends because of the darkness we are in.
BUT…for those who have eyes to see, ears to hear and open hearts, this time of chaos and darkness can lead us to a deeper understanding of God’s activity. The liberation of Israel (and us) is the primary focus of divine activity. God’s deepest desire is: deliverance from bondage and suffering. The story of Israel doesn’t end in being prevented from worshipping, living in captivity enslaved by a tyrant. Don’t forget in the ensuing chapters Israel was drivenout of Egypt, the first Passover was instituted (because of Yahweh’s protection) and they were able to escape because God parted the waters of the Red Sea. Again, Fretheim says “the deliverance of Israel is not only for Israel, for all of creation, so that God’s name is know throughout the entire earth.”
So, what do we do while we are waiting for deliverance? How do we find our way through the dark, while being captives to all that is? Take refuge in God. The call to us in Psalm 11 is to STAND FIRM. The call is to live and act as righteous believers remembering that God is in charge. Allow God to gaze upon your hearts, your thoughts, your fears, your prayers. Psalms Scholar James Mays entitles Psalm 11 “Flight or Faith?” He writes: When the righteous are threatened by the power of the wicked [or any evil] what course will our conduct take?” Ps 11 is a song of trust that answers that question.
We have the gift of free will to decide how to conduct ourselves. In this time of darkness, we can shut down, become fearful and bitter or we can decide to be a people of Shalom(peace) and light. Darkness and light have a helpful balance, each offering blessings. It’s only in darkness that we can see the stars and the moon. It’s only in darkness that we can hear the wisdom of the owl. Only in darkness can we get good sleep, best enjoy the flames of a fire in a fireplace or candlelight. Imagine coming to our Christmas eve service during the day-the luminaries that light our sidewalks and stairs can only be glorious at night!
Psychologists have been offering up ways to help us be uplifted through this time of darkness. They suggest a variety of things including putting up your Christmas lights early and/or add extra lights and candles. Make a fire in your fireplace or pit. Get up earlier to watch the sunrise and take time to watch the sunset (as early as it is). I think these are all good ideas.
Most importantly though is to stay connected to God and one another through scripture. I want to read to you portions of Nan Merrill’s translation of Psalm 11:
‘In the Beloved do I make my retreat. How can you say to me ’flee like a bird to the mountain; [where] the unloving bend the bow, fitting their arrow to the string; they aim to destroy what s god. The Beloved dwells in the Holy Temple and within the sacred altar within our hearts. God offers the opportunity to grow and become whole…Those who walk in the ego’s illusions will live in fear and doubt; ignorance will be their guide…Those who walk in the light will behold the Beloved’s face in everyone they meet.”
May you make the effort to seek the light. May you create light for others who have lost their way. May we all trust in the light that seeks to dispel all fear and descend upon us as we begin Advent.
But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. 2 When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. 3 For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. I give Egypt as your ransom, Ethiopia[a] and Seba in exchange for you. 4 Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you,
8 See, I am going to bring them from the land of the north, and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth,
among them the blind and the lame, those with child and those in labor, together; a great company, they shall return here. 9 With weeping they shall come, and with consolations[a] I will lead them back, I will let them walk by brooks of water, in a straight path in which they shall not stumble; for I have become a father to Israel,
and Ephraim is my firstborn. 10 Hear the word of the Lord, O nations, and declare it in the coastlands far away; say, “He who scattered Israel will gather him, and will keep him as a shepherd a flock.” 11 For the Lord has ransomed Jacob, and has redeemed him from hands too strong for him. 12 They shall come and sing aloud on the height of Zion, and they shall be radiant over the goodness of the Lord, over the grain, the wine, and the oil, and over the young of the flock and the herd; their life shall become like a watered garden, and they shall never languish again.
It’s wonderful to see you all here this morning, those of you who could make it. Kim and I were joking a few minutes ago… it’s a little weird to see more people in the sanctuary than just the two or three of us. But I also hope for those of you who chose to stay home, that you feel affirmed in your choice and that you are as connected here as the people who are in this sanctuary today. This is a special day, not only because it’s the first Sunday that we could re-enter the sanctuary, but it’s also the celebration of the Skinner’s who have been serving as Parish Associates for 5 years! So, for however many Sundays we will be able to be together, I’m so glad that we can worship and celebrate.
I’ve actually shaped this service based on these two joyful events and chose the hymns and the texts, which are among Sherm and Lorrie’s favorites. Interestingly, both of these texts are texts of hope; future hope, while in the midst of exile. Those of you who are at home and may not be able to return for a while, I hope these texts are helpful. I also hope these texts are helpful for all of us here, because we know that half of our congregation is unable to be here. Still, while we’re here, we have to wear these masks, we have to stay six feet apart at least, we can’t shake hands, we can’t put our hands on the back of someone in front of us, or hug, we can’t sing, we won’t be able to socialize at a coffee hour down the hall… Let’s face it, we may have to make additional sacrifices and continue to flex, and be creative; especially if things get even worse than they are now, before we are all restored in body and community.
But this text in Jeremiah paints a glorious picture of a foreshadowing of what’s to come. It says there will be a great festival where we can sing songs to the height of Zion (and at the top of Church and Birch) so that all can hear our praise. We’ll have radiance on our faces over the bounty of grain and overflowing vats of wine and oil. We’ll have healthy young flocks and herds. Life will be overflowing with stability and freedom, and well-being. It will be a restored creation, a restored community, and routed solely in God’s power.
There is one verse I decided to leave out. It’s verse 14. It says “And I will give the priests their fill of fatness”.
Looks that one is already come to pass. (I gotta get back on that covid diet one of these days). But metaphorically speaking 6 years ago when the Skinner’s first arrived, for those of us who were here then, we were in a time of challenge. Let’s just say… we were having our own exile and going through some growing pains. John Molacek who was our seminarian of three years, was actually about to leave, and while that was necessary for his growth, sharing leadership is one of the blessings of ministry and I found myself in a bit of an exile. James Newsome who talks about this text says, “exiles are those of us who live in resignation, believing no newness is possible, the kind of hopelessness that is not explained merely in modern psychology terms but rather it is a theological crisis. Yet, it is the ground for healing and newness; a healing and newness that can only come from God.”
I would say, and I am saying, that the Skinners were life savers. But not at first. Not at first… Because… when they first came here, they were church shopping, and I did not know that. But week after week they would come through the line and they’d introduce themselves. They never said who they were or what they did, they just said “we enjoyed your service so much today”, “we enjoyed your sermon”. After about the third week I said to John Molacek our seminarian, “go down to coffee hour and find out who these people are!” And John did. About 45 minutes later, John came up to my office with quite a swagger. He says “they’re both retired, Presbyterian ministers.” They were gone for a couple of weeks and then they came back and they said “Hi, we’re Sherm and Lorrie, do you remember us?” and I said, “Do I remember you? I know who you are! The secret’s out!”
With their arrival, there was a newness, a new beginning that I could see start to blossom. After I finished my respite leave, and the Skinner’s who had covering the church, they approached us and said “we’d like to become Parish Associates”. In that newness and in those new beginnings, promises were being enacted, reminding us that there is new Mission and Ministry to be had; a relief from over work and suffering, and new life began. And so it did five years ago when they became, formally, Parish Associates and an active part of the new life that has blossomed since then. And they’ve added tremendously to the life, the mission and the ministry of this church, and to me as a friend, and colleague; especially regular participation in worship and the creation of many, many worship services. But six years later, here we are together in another exile.
James Newsome goes on to say that “worship is actually an act against exile”. Whether together or independently apart, we are choosing an act against exile. The whole of chapter 31 actually addresses a community in exile (Jeremiah doesn’t name the Babylonians by name) but that’s who he’s talking about. God is inviting Jerusalem (and us) into a new reality that we don’t quite trust just yet, except that it’s rooted not in our resolve, but in God’s resolve. God is the one who interferes and intervenes always to liberate us even when it hurts, when it’s hard and when it’s long-suffering.
When new life begins, sometimes it’s not always what we expected, but always something utterly new. In a playful way, as we expect more cases to continue to surge and the heartache that the numbers are just growing exponentially, there’s also been, as you know, a tremendous shortage of yeast and flour because people are learning how to bake. Who would have thought that being forced to stay home would teach us how to bake bread and break bread with one another, which we’ve been doing now separately apart for 8 months. Yahweh is here to tell us that he is going to bring us in and through. He is going to gather us. He will lead us. He will let us walk and worship again, together.
It is a pilgrimage that we are on, my friends, but we will be headed home. That includes all of us who can’t worship together because it’s safer to be at home. Yahweh’s deep resolve to be a shepherd, to help us in, and through. Not only enduring Covid but all the other things we are enduring on top of Covid.
This passage describes a new life, that we can trust, because we’re not in charge of it, God is. God will overcome everything, including the power of fear and death, which will be shattered and broken so we can live together as not only a people of faith, but a people of trust. God is not asleep! God is active in our lives and we will be better for it. Thanks be to God Amen.
Matt 5: 1-12 When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2 Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying: 3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 4 Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. 5 Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. 6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. 7 Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. 8 Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. 9 Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. 10 Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11 Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
It has been a LONG, INTENSE four days… and while it appears that we have a president, I’m not entirely convinced that there won’t be more upheaval, protests, clashes and unrest, that have sadly become the marks of this country in this time/place.
It has also been a long eight months and while we’re ‘enjoying’ some new-found freedoms, we may have to give them up again, temporarily, to get this virus under control.
I don’t think I’m alone in seeking words of hope and encouragement in the midst of past, present and future challenges. In full transparency, I was initially planning on preaching this text last week but I just saw so many riches in Psalm 34 alone, so I decided to stay with that, AND…I also knew that the Beatitudes might be a helpful text to revisit after the election, AND right before we re-enter the sanctuary next Sunday.
Unfortunately, only some of us will be able to return in person (and it may be even harder on those who need to stay away), so I want to remind us all, that the Beatitudes offer words of encouragement and reassurance that, although you/we cannot all be together, right now, each of you are noticed and singled out by God. ALL of you are blessed NOW with gifts of mercy, hope and peace.
You may not see yourself in these Beatitudes, but God does. You may be the PEACEMAKER in your family, in your neighborhood or your job. You may be PURE IN HEART, seeking to see the best in everyone and staying out of the mud-slinging. You may be MOURNING a loved-one or mourning the loss of a marriage, relationship or friendship, or a child or grand-child who has lost their way. You might be doing acts of MERCY and being merciful over and above the way you are being treated. You may be working towards, or doing acts of JUSTICE for the name-less, imprisoned, addicted or lost.
If you don’t see yourself in any of the Beatitudes in Matthew, you’re not looking hard enough. I see them in you, we see them in each other. God sees these Beatitudes (at least one), in ALL of us. This is in spite of: our brokenness, frustration, impatient and egotistical ways that are all part of our humanity.
So friends, while we seek to keep our community connected, while we seek to keep and sustain our mission and ministry, while social distancing, these beatitudes are the perfect reminder on the blessings that God has bestowed on each of us. These beatitudes are the perfect reminder of the direction of God’s future blessings.
I know I am not alone in imagining the day when we can all worship and sing and praise God together, safely. I imagine all of your faces sparkling with joy as tears run down our cheeks, or secretly pump in our chests. What a day that will be! In the meanwhile, seek out these Beatitudes as marks of your faith and the marks of this community of faith-ALWAYS.
Scholar Charles Cousar speaks of the beatitudes not as “a sermon of wise advice and counsel of an ordinary prophet [like a preacher] given to assist people coping with life, but instead a sermon/description to DISCIPLES whom God cares for and how life is to be lived now and the in the coming kingdom”.
1 I will bless the Lord at all times;his praise shall continually be in my mouth. 2 My soul makes its boast in the Lord; let the humble hear and be glad. 3 O magnify the Lord with me, and let us exalt his name together.
4 I sought the Lord, and he answered me, and delivered me from all my fears. 5 Look to him, and be radiant; so your faces shall never be ashamed. 6 This poor soul cried, and was heard by the Lord, and was saved from every trouble. 7 The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear him, and delivers them. 8 O taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are those who take refuge in him. 9 O fear the Lord, you his holy ones, for those who fear him have no want. 10 The young lions suffer want and hunger, but those who seek the Lord lack no good thing.
This Psalm, which Spencer and I enjoyed sharing together, is always helpful, but especially today; one of those Sundays when we love and appreciate being together as we remember those we’ve lost in the past year…. and those we’ve lost and still miss terribly, even if they’ve been gone for many years. Additionally, we remember those saints who have gone before us, who are on the Memorial crosses who are the great cloud of witnesses to this faith community.
It’s also another Sunday when it’s hard to be apart, as again, we break bread separately together. It’s another Sunday where it would be so niceto gather after worship, head into the library for a hot cup of coffee or tea, connect with new faces and old and compare…”how many trick or treaters did you have last night?”
It could have been a Sunday where some of you might share more deeply one-to-one of your struggles; worries about your own health or someone else’s in your family or circle and just maybe even share how you saw God’s activity in your life, in the last week. Or maybe, (as the Psalmist says) you might share relief and praise for deliverance from trouble. That’s actually what the Psalm subtext is.
I’ve heard you so often share these stories with me and one another in coffee hour, in the pews before and after worship, in the hallways, before and after committee meetings, (certainly in the parking lot), and the rich devotions given by officers at Session and Deacon meetings.
But because of the many troubles we are facing into, and have been enduring, those stories, those “sharings”, have dried up a bit. Our worries, our fears, our complaints, (genuine and otherwise), have dwarfed the hopefulness, trust, calm and peace, that are the marks of people of faith. Further, we have likely fallen out of the habit of praising God because of our struggles. As the voice in verse 10 poetically says: “ the young lions suffer want and hunger”. I don’t want that to be me, but am afraid I do ‘resemble that remark’. I’m not by any means dismissing the amount of struggle, grief and concern about the future because all of that is real. But as Psalms scholar Pat Miller, who also went to the heavenly banquet this year, says, “the righteous, (meaning believers), while not exempt from trouble, know God’s nearness and God’s salvation.” He doesn’t say the righteous wonderabout God’s nearness and salvation, or forgetabout God’s nearness and salvation, or even not really trustGod’s nearness and salvation. NO-the righteous KNOW God’s nearness and salvation. Just let that sink in.
Perhaps it can sink in enough to just to dwarf our fears and concerns, even for a moment. But maybe on some days, that’s just too high a bar. So, I want to go back to verses 1 & 2 of the psalm: 1 I will bless the Lord at all times; his praise shall continually be in my mouth. 2 My soul makes its boast in the Lord;let the humble hear and be glad. Here again, Pat Miller says that these two verses tell of “the Psalmist practice of praising God.” WOW! The practice of praising God! You know that old adage, “how do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, Practice, Practice”.
Many of us may have learned in Sunday School along the way, the form of prayer called the ACTS prayer. A stands for Adoration, C for Confession, T for Thanksgiving, S for Supplication. Of all four of those, the easiest ones are the confession, the thanksgiving and the supplication, (which means “God, please supply this for me”). But most everyone in every age category has a really hard timewith the adoration part. But here it is again, because we need practice: 1 I will bless the Lord at all times; his praise shall continually be in my mouth. 2 My soul makes its boast in the Lord; let the humble hear and be glad.
Recently I was with some very dear friends who have a 17-month-old grandson. And they thought it was time to get him a bike. He might be a little young for that, but I thought Okay, I’ll go along.
Many of you who are grandparents may already know this, they don’t make entry level bikes with pedals. It’s just the seat, the handlebars with two wheels. They’re called striders. The idea is the kids learn how to balance on a bike first and then incorporate pedaling. (That probably would have saved a lot of skinned knees in our generation had we had the strider back then). So, we bring out the strider and put him on and it fits perfectly. His hands were on the handle bars and his bum was on the seat and he was trying to figure out how to do it, but once I let go of him, he got off the seat, and moved forward so his hands could be on the handlebars and still drive/push the bike. I tried to move back to the seat/handlebar position. No luck. I said to his grandfather “why is this not working?”, He said, you know when he sits on the seat, he ‘can’t quite reach the handlebars’.
Friends, sometimes, praising God, using these verses may feel like too much of a reach for us, but the only way this little boy is going to learn how to use the strider is both practice and growth and trust. And so it is for us as well.
This text could not be more truly important (and it is the lectionary text for all saints day), but we are also about to face into the election, and the results, which will likely be more contentious and ugly than the campaigns leading up to it. If we go back to verse 10, and I didn’t read the whole verse initially, there’s an important reminder10 The young lions suffer want and hunger,but those who seek the Lord, lack no good thing.
12 Moses said to the Lord, “See, you have said to me, ‘Bring up this people’; but you have not let me know whom you will send with me. Yet you have said, ‘I know you by name, and you have also found favor in my sight.’ 13 Now if I have found favor in your sight, show me your ways, so that I may know you and find favor in your sight. Consider too that this nation is your people.” 14 He said, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” 15 And he said to him, “If your presence will not go, do not carry us up from here. 16 For how shall it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people, unless you go with us? In this way, we shall be distinct, I and your people, from every people on the face of the earth.”
17 The Lord said to Moses, “I will do the very thing that you have asked; for you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name.” 18 Moses said, “Show me your glory, I pray.” 19 And he said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you the name, ‘The Lord’;[a] and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. 20 But,” he said, “you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.” 21 And the Lordcontinued, “See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; 22 and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; 23 then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.”
The book of Exodus is full of drama and suspense. The people are captive in Egypt; will they escape? Moses escapes Pharaoh’s wrath but questions his own ability to respond to God’s call to be a leader; the Lord appears in a burning bush and then promises freedom; Pharaoh is caught short by the plagues; the first Passover is instituted; and finally the Red Sea is crossed and the long journey in the wilderness begins. Will they make it to the promise land? We know they do but not without much struggle and hardship. Guidance is provided in the Ten Commandments but impatience and uncertainty rule the day making it necessary for Moses to go to the Lord, over and over again for help. While he is away on Mt. Sinai receiving the covenant — 2 tablets of stone as the scripture tells us, “written with the finger of God”, chaos erupts as the people rebel, angry at Moses’ absence, frustrated with a perceived lack of direction and leadership, fearful of what the future holds, grumbling and complaining to Aaron who wasn’t up to the task of reassuring them. He succumbed to their wishes. This is the famous story of the Golden Calf, a substitute for the Lord to whom they had promised not to worship false gods. Aaron, in his attempt to restore the status quo gave them what they wanted. When Moses returned he was angry. He smashed the stone tablets and destroyed the golden calf… but, too late. Things were already out of control and the result was the death of 3 thousand people. And God is so angry that God tells Moses to go ahead and lead but now God will not go with them.
And that brings us to the passage we read earlier. Princeton Seminary professor Dennis Olson says that God’s yearning to be “with” Israel and in their midst is the reason why the people’s rebellion in worshipping the golden calf in Exodus 32 is such a devastating event. Israel’s worship of the golden calf violated the first and important commandment about worshiping God alone. This covenant-breaking act endangered God’s whole project of deliverance, God’s intent to stay with the people of Israel, dwelling in their midst.
So we find Moses interceding for this “stiff-necked” nation of people. He is persistent. The Message translates it this way: “If your presence will not go, do not carry us up from here. For how shall it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people, unless you go with us?” If we are looking for a lesson in how to pray, here it is. Here is prayer that is not afraid to hold God to God’s promises, prayer that is not afraid to appeal to God’s love for God’s people, even over and against God’s anger. Moses, through this audacious prayer, succeeds in securing God’s promise that God will indeed abide with the Israelites throughout their long wilderness wandering.
The Biblical witness makes it clear: Through it all we are made aware of God’s own yearning, a consistent yearning to become Immanuel — God With Us. In Exodus 33, we hear a powerful echo to a future witness to the unfolding character and name of God: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory … full of grace and truth (John 1:14).” (Olson)
Thus it is the church that embodies the way of Moses, that provides the kind of leadership he models for us, the efforts he puts into searching for and struggling with a relationship with God, his determination to hold up his people before God, his ability to persist and finally change God’s mind, his pleading with God to be shown God’s glory. It is the church who brings hope in the midst of despair.
Two months from today we will celebrate Christmas. That’s when the church brings us into focus is on Immanuel, the coming of God into the world to live among us and to show us the way. That’s how much God yearns, longs to be with humanity. The church, grounded in that certainty of Immanuel, God with us, a life-giving God in Jesus Christ, keeps the Covenant with God made so many centuries ago, held firmly in God’s promises of hope, and of presence, to be with us no matter what.
Sermon 10-18-20 The Rev. Sherm Skinner Matthew 5:43-48
I want to share two verses of Scripture with you. The first is from the Good News Bible, where Jesus said, “No pupil is greater than his teacher, but every pupil, when he has completed his training, will be like his teacher.” So, we who follow Jesus Christ, who are his disciples, his pupils, have, as a goal, to be more like him, to be more Christ-like.
And then, from the passage we just read, from the Sermon on the Mount, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Someone has pointed out that to be perfect, in this sense, is to be perfectly human, just as a tree is perfectly a tree, and God is perfectly God. It means to be fully what you are, fully human, to be fully like our teacher, Jesus Christ.
Professor William Hamilton once wrote, “Jesus is a figure of sufficient clarity. . . to be for us the center for Christian faith and life. . . .Jesus is the one. . .before whom I stand, the one whose way with others is also to be my way.
And David Woodyard comments: “I find here a clue to the shaping and styling of an authentically human life. . .I struggle with being a Christian in joy and humility, because, in the event of Jesus Christ, I find the depth and breadth of what it means to be a human being. And I find it nowhere else with the same clarity and contagion.” He goes on: “Jesus provides me with an image of what my life is called to be. . . .By standing over against me in all my imperfections, he stands for the person I could become.”
And then he has a passage of such stirring beauty that I have used it, on occasion, in worship, as a Litany of Confession and Faith: “Jesus Christ keeps me from being a lesser self, from falling short of the very humanness I could achieve. He stands against my impulse to hate another who has offended me, and challenges me to accept in another the defects I tolerate in myself. He stands again my indifference to the plight of others, and challenges me to confirm their goodness and sustain their dignity. He stands against my desire to possess everything for myself, and challenges me to share my abundance with others. He stands against my unruly love of self, and challenges me to love my neighbor with the same fervor. He is forever calling forth a depth and breadth of humanness, in a way no one else can. And from time to time in his claim upon my life, I recognize more than the action of a human being. I must confess to seeing “The glory of God in the face of Christ.”
That’s the kind of teacher we have on our hands and in our midst – this Christ, who stands over against those things that warp and limit human life and make us less than human, and who challenges us and frees us to live fully human, and loving, lives.
October 11, 2020 Sermon, Rev Jen Van Zandt – Philippians 4:4-7
“Rejoice, and again I say, Rejoice!” With all the things that we are contending with now, that certainly seems like a tall order. I’ll tell you what…let’s come back to that.
“Let your gentleness be known to everyone.” Gee that seems like a hard one too, these days. Perhaps you are gentle. Perhaps you are gentle to your spouse or you are gentle to your spouse and your children, or you are gentle to your spouse, your children, and to your neighbors. But maybe you are NOTgentle to yourself.
Paul also writes “Do not worry about anything.” Huh…How many of us are sleeping like a baby right now? How many of us are just gliding through life without a care in the world? And how about thanks- true thanks-givingin our prayer life? Supplication… (things we ask God to supply for us) … Yeah, we are good at that. But a true, glad-hearted thanksgiving in our prayer life…well…maybe not so much.
The exhortations in Paul’s letter here keep coming… “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just… pure… pleasing… commendable…excellent…worthy of praise…”
My friends, I don’t think I have to tell you what a long, deep and challenging list that is, and then he says,”Keep on doing these things (as if we are alreadydoing them) and the God of peace will be with you”? I feel like I haven’t even started and I definitely need that peace of God.
We wantto be all these things. We seekto be all these things. But right now, it just seems like it’s awfully hard to be anyof these things with the worries on our minds and hearts. How is Paul writing all of this, upbeat, inspiring and confident, while he himself is in prison? I don’t know about you, but I kind of feel like I am in prison right now with all of the things that are hanging heavy on my heart and all of the places and the people I can’t see, including all of you who are not here today except for Kim, who is thankfully sitting in front of me so I am not preaching to a truly empty sanctuary.
So how do we get all of these things to be the first thingson our mind: when we wake up, and during the day when things go badly, and then before bed? Well, Saints, the secret is actually hidden in the text itself. In verse 7, Paul writes, “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” I am going to read that again, and I am going to invite you to close your eyes and see if you can’t get that deeper into your soul.. “And the peace of God, which surpasses ALL understanding, will guard your hearts and your mindsin Christ Jesus.”
Now when Paul writes this, the Greek translation literally means stand sentry watch. Guarding your hearts literally means stand sentry watch. Because God stands guard, we not only canaccomplish this long list, but we canrejoice. Fred Craddock, who unfortunately is no longer with us but was a beloved scholar and pastor who did not carry the ego that sometimes comes with scholars, says it like this…“Because God’s peace is on duty, we do not have to be anxiously scanning the horizon for new threats. Alert? yes, but anxious, NO.”
BOOM – That’s a mic drop!
Friends if God is guarding our hearts and standing watch for us, then indeed we do not have to be anxious,
we don’t have to be fearful, we don’t have to worry. We CAN, but it certainly eats up a lot of our time, and for some of us it is a chronic habit. But if God’s peace is “on duty”, then we CAN sleep through the night; we CAN stop worrying about our future because it’s with God, no matter what! We can also rejoice in small things that somehow we swat away because we’re still worried about the future and certainly there is still plenty on our minds.
A few weeks ago I was looking for some peace,and I sat on my deck which faces the woods and I was trying to find peace–sometimes that is a good exercise for us. Spiritual directors will say if you are really struggling to hear God’s voice,get back into nature. And so I was sitting there and I was) ignoring all of the squirrels that were running around my deck), but then, these two little boys ran around my deck and around the entire building. They startled me. When I moved to that condo 7 years ago, there were no children in the neighborhood. Now it seems that there are more children than adults. I don’t see how that is possible but it is. And then…the quiet. Ahhh.
Then a little girl, who had on a headpiece of some sort and some sort of cape, came running around the corner and said to me “Which way did Zotor go?” and I said “He went THAT way!” and she said “Thank you so much!” And with the deep intensity of a 4-year-old trying to capture the ‘evil’ person, (who is probably her older brother) …I am getting chills just thinking about the purity and intensity in her eyes. All she wanted to do was capture that person, with her cape on, and her headpiece and restore peace to the neighborhood!
Friends, God’s peace is on duty. It doesn’t mean that everything’s going to be happy clappy, but it does mean that we can rest, we can trust, and we can shed the worries and help others do the same, because that is our calling as Christians. Now more than ever, the world needs our faith and the modeling of rejoicing, even in the midst of difficulty.
As our separation continues and our need for both peace and connection grows, I thought this Psalm (see Psalm 26 Nan Merrill) might be of help. This particular version is from “Psalms for Praying” by Nan Merrill. A number of lines speak to me in this psalm every time I read/pray it but now more than ever before, the verse “I love the company of faith-filled people, count myself among those who make your Word their own” is of great value. I do love the company of all of you and enjoy being with you as we seek to make God’s word the first and the last in daily lives.
I got a bit of a rise out of the notes in my study bible about Ps 26. “Such a prayer may be that of one who has come before God seeking vindication in the face of false accusations… or one who seeks entrance into the sanctuary…”
While we await stage 2 re-entry plans to be fleshed and approved which I hope will be accomplished by the end of October, I really do also pray that more of you will join the company of faith-filled people on the Wisdom Wednesday Zoom call.
The conversations are rich and varied based on the weekly content and attendees. While I get that, for some of you, your job creates Zoom fatigue, this is a gathering that doesn’t drain further but fills back up, the well that gets depleted during the day.
I genuinely pray that you will take time to read and pray with this Psalm in whatever version serves you best, and that just once, you will take an hour and join the company of the faith-filled (and faith-seeking) people in order to gain wisdom for the journey ahead.
Guest Speakers – Elders Ken Nickel and Denise Nickel
Musician – Sarah Berta
Prelude: Here I Am Lord -arr. John Carter
Introduction to the Worship Service
Call to Worship:
One-We come to this place to see what God has done.
All – We are here for burning bushes and holy ground.
One-Here in worship, we will find God on special days of celebration and ordinary days.
All – We seek the God of our ancestors knowing we may be called to new places.
One-Listen now for God’s call and know you do not go alone.
All – We are ready to worship and see God in this place.
Opening Hymn: Morning Has Broken (Blue 469)
Morning has broken like the first morning,
Blackbird has spoken like the first bird.
Praise for the singing! Praise for the morning!
Praise for them, springing fresh from the Word!
Sweet the rain’s new fall sunlit from heaven,
Like the first dewfall on the first grass.
Praise for the sweetness of the wet garden,
Sprung in completeness where God’s feet pass.
Lord, we have gathered here today to hear your word for us. We marvel at the witness of Moses who received your call to liberate your enslaved people. We long for Your call to set us free from our bondage of mind and spirit. We seek to be released from our fears and struggles. Be with us this day, guiding our spirits and opening our hearts to hear your forgiveness and call to us. In Jesus’ Name, we pray. AMEN.
Call for Confession:
God calls us, but we don’t listen. God recruits us into service but we say we are not worthy. God asks us to serve and love others but we often turn our backs. We deceive no one but ourselves. Let us confess our shortcomings and ask God for forgiveness and guidance.
Prayer of Confession:
Lord, perhaps your voice issuing forth from a burning bush is what we need to shake us from our complacency. We have a hard time comprehending your call to us because we feel so inadequate to respond in faithful service. So we look to others to do the work. We are happy to support their efforts with our funds and our limited interest. Now, Lord, we need to take the next step into actual service to you. Forgive our slowness of action and heart, O Lord. Quicken our spirits to accept the call you have for us. Give us courage and strength to do your will and help others in need. We ask these things in the name of Jesus our Lord. AMEN.
Assurance of Grace:
In the power of the burning bush, in the quiet stillness, in the everyday noises of living, God is calling to each one of us, telling us to trust in the gifts with which God has bestowed on us. You are beloved and blessed by God to be a blessing to others. Rejoice!
Message for the Children and the Young at Heart
Moses and the Burning Bush
Invocation: (Sung in Unison)
Open my ears that I may hear voices of truth thou sendest clear; and while the wave notes fall on my ear, everything false will disappear. Silently now I wait for thee, ready my God Thy will to see. Open my ears, illumine me, Spirit Divine.
Old Testament Reading– Exodus 3:1-12 (Contemporary English Version)
One day, Moses was taking care of the sheep and goats of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian, and Moses decided to lead them across the desert to Sinai, the holy mountain. 2 There an angel of the Lord appeared to him from a burning bush. Moses saw that the bush was on fire, but it was not burning up. 3 “This is strange!” he said to himself. “I’ll go over and see why the bush isn’t burning up.”
4 When the Lord saw Moses coming near the bush, he called him by name, and Moses answered, “Here I am.”
5 God replied, “Don’t come any closer. Take off your sandals—the ground where you are standing is holy. 6 I am the God who was worshiped by your ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” Moses was afraid to look at God, and so he hid his face.
7 The Lord said: I have seen how my people are suffering as slaves in Egypt, and I have heard them beg for my help because of the way they are being mistreated. I feel sorry for them, 8 and I have come down to rescue them from the Egyptians.
I will bring my people out of Egypt into a country where there is good land, rich with milk and honey. I will give them the land where the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites now live. 9 My people have begged for my help, and I have seen how cruel the Egyptians are to them. 10 Now go to the king! I am sending you to lead my people out of his country.
11 But Moses said, “Who am I to go to the king and lead your people out of Egypt?”
12 God replied, “I will be with you. And you will know that I am the one who sent you, when you worship me on this mountain after you have led my people out of Egypt.”
Sermon – Doesn’t He Care? – Guest Preacher – Ken Nickel
If you caught my service a few weeks ago, I took you on a trip back two thousand years ago to the Sea of Galilee when the faith of the twelve disciples was tested by the storm. “Don’t you care that we’re about to die?” they asked of Jesus. And he responded, “Have you still no faith?” Today we’re not going back quite as far. I’ll invite you to go back to your very first day of school; maybe last year, or twenty-five years ago or maybe, like me, much longer than that. Remember sitting at your desk with your hands clasped in front of you. Your teacher stands in the front of the classroom with a clipboard or computer printout or laptop. On it are the names of all of the students in class in alphabetical order. Before the first lesson is taught, before the first student falls asleep in class, the teacher embarks on that time-honored ritual of taking attendance – reading all the names so that every student, upon hearing their name, can answer back with the one-word response: Here. It was your way of saying you were in the room, you were present, and you were ready to learn.
Well it strikes me, as I read today’s passage, that Moses does much the same thing. It’s just the he’s a class of one, about to be schooled by none other than God himself. But this was certainly not an ordinary day nor an ordinary time. Moses had been minding his own business, caring for his sheep to keep them safe, when he saw the burning bush; burning, but not burning. I’m sure Moses had no intentions of ever returning to Egypt, let alone to Pharaoh. In order to do what God would request of him, Moses would have to go back to the place from which he had fled, a place where he was raised to rule over the Israelites and then he later found out that he actually was an Israelite, the place where he then killed an Egyptian, and the place where he chose to give up his royal status and flee into obscurity.
Yet here he is. Like us in school on that first day; it’s not like Moses needed to tell God where he was, God of course already knew that, since God was the one who came to him. Yet God spoke his name “Moses, Moses”…
And Moses says…”Here I am”.
I believe that connecting with God is something that lies at the very heart of what it means to be human; to be in touch with that which is outside our own selves, that which is bigger than we ever will be. Do you think Moses could’ve ever have imagined the God who came to him on that mountain? The God who took on the form of a burning bush that did not burn up? The God who called Moses to call Pharaoh out? The God who, when asked for a name, offered up, “I Am Who I Am?” or maybe more correctly “I will be who I will be.” This God with the name too holy to even be spoken; this God that movies of the Charlton Heston variety, depict with a deep, booming, resonating voice; this God who tells Moses to remove his sandals, for the place where he is standing is holy ground?
And yet we wonder, how do you possibly connect with a God like that? As a child, I waited patiently for God to finally speak to me, like some spirit parent. After all, he spoke to Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham and a slew of others in the bible. Yet it’s been said that “God lives wherever we imagine.” Remember the reality Moses was living in long before he went up that mountain – a reality where he was a Hebrew raised in Pharaoh’s palace, where his own people had rejected him, where in many ways he was a man without a home. And yet here on this mountain, he is invited by the Almighty to take off his sandals. Moses, the man without a home, finds himself in the presence of God – who, in asking him to remove sandals, more or less is saying to him, Moses, make yourself at home. Take a load off your feet.
When you look at it that way, do you think that this is a God we can connect with? Not the booming voice from classic movies, but a God who calls us by name, who makes us feel at home, who creates intimacy in the midst of our vulnerability; a God who shares with us God’s very name – an act of vulnerability in and of itself.
A God who cares;
A God of promise;
A God who is less interested in looking back and more interested in what’s to come;
A God not just on the mountain but longing to be in relationship off of the mountain, down with us, in all that life in the valley can bring.
Do you see? God is inviting us into something more than a one-time event, more than a mountaintop experience. God wants to connect with each and every one of us in an intimate and lasting way that compels us to want to do the same, long after the mountaintop. As one commentator put it: “Faith is a participation sport,” she says. “You have to get up off the couch and get in the game, take a risk, reach for something you thought unachievable, step out onto the winding road the end of which you cannot see from your doorstep.” She says, “To know God, you have to go with God.”
Many People don’t seem to understand the fullness of faith. Some people would even say it’s overrated. But in Hebrews 11, God tells us that faith is a crucial part of our relationship with Him. See without faith, there is no trust because trust and faith go hand in hand. Faith is believing in the things not seen, faith is the hinge that holds the Christian to a personal relationship with God. In John, we hear Jesus say to a formerly skeptical Thomas ““Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” God is there and God cares. No matter where you are, no matter what you are facing, God sees your affliction. He knows what you are going through!
Moses finally agrees to accept his new role, of course. Not without a little pushback, not without some attempts at bargaining and negotiating. Eight attempts, to be exact. Eight times, Moses tries to talk God out of it. But God would have none of that. I’ve invited you in, God seems to say. I’ve made you feel at home. Your bare feet have mingled with my sacred soil. You and me, we are bound to one another. You will go down the mountain. And I will go with you.
And the real beauty of it all, the true joy of this, is that we get to do the same. We, too, get to connect with a God who meets us where we are, who surprises us in wonder and awe, who calls us by name, and who says to us, in the midst of our crazy, hectic, worry-filled world, this: How about you take off your shoes and take a load off your feet. For the place where you are standing is not just holy ground: It is home.
In the name of God our Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
Affirmation of Faith– Here I am Lord Vs.1 (Sung in Unison)
I, the Lord of sea and sky, I have heard My people cry. All who dwell in dark and sin, My hand will save.
I who made the stars of night, I will make their darkness bright. Who will bear My light to them Whom shall I send
Here I am Lord, Is it I Lord I have heard You calling in the night. I will go Lord, if You lead me. I will hold Your people in my heart.
Lord, we love the drama of the burning bush. Here is the quaking Moses, telling God that God has made a mistake. Moses does not believe that he can perform the task to which God has called him. But God knows better. God will provide the support structure for this awesome task. In our times of greatest distress, we are just like Moses. We tell God that God has made a mistake; we are not able or worthy to undertake the task of hope, healing and peace for this world. We mumble about responsibilities and commitments, but God chides us to be in service by helping others. God will give us the strength, the tools, the support that we need. What do we need to fear? We feel powerless to bring the healing words of hope, and so we offer these situations to God for God’s compassionate mercy. Our trust in God is rightly placed. For God hears our prayers and will respond. We can count on God to be present with us and with all those in need. Now it is our turn to respond to God’s call with a fervent yes, trusting in God’s presence and guidance. Let us go forth to serve joyfully and confidently in God’s world.
And now, let us boldly pray the prayer that Jesus taught to his disciples: Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come; Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our sins, as we forgive our sinners. And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil. For Thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. AMEN.
Our Offerings to God
Closing Hymn: We Will Glorify (Sung in Unison)
We will glorify the King of kings; we will glorify the Lamb;
We will glorify the Lord of lords, who is the great I Am.
God Almighty reigns in majesty, we will bow before the throne;
We will worship God in righteousness, we will worship God alone.
Hallelujah to the King of kings, hallelujah to the Lamb;
Hallelujah to the Lord of lords, who is the great I Am.
Charge and Benediction
God promised to be with Moses, and we are here to witness to the fulfillment of that promise. From generation to generation, the God of Israel is also the God of (your community’s name). The God of the burning bush is waiting even now to encounter you, call you, challenge you, and change you. Go out to be sustained and surprised by the love of God. Amen.
“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Mt 11:28-30)
I was rereading this scripture the other day and it caused me to wonder just how do we find rest for our souls? Since the early days of the pandemic, increasing stress and anxiety have gradually worn some of us away as we experienced extended solitude, isolation, and loneliness. This has been true especially for those who live alone. Work and social routines have been interrupted, have become virtual or remote, and physical connections limited to what can happen sitting or standing six feet apart. Masks, hand sanitizers, and disinfecting wipes are the new necessities, at the top of every shopping list.
How do we experience solitude, isolation and loneliness? For some it is a ‘me’ time, a time to recharge our batteries, of renewing our inner being. Not so for some for whom it increases fear and anxiety, a sense of helplessness and struggle. For all of us it can be a time of grace and challenge. I think solitude differs from loneliness. When we are lonely, we become acutely aware of our own separation from others. But solitude can be one of the most precious things in the human spirit. Trappist monk and theologian Thomas Merton discovered for himself that “when solitude was a problem, I had no solitude. When it ceased to be a problem I found I already possessed it and could have possessed it all along. In its deep peace we find God.”
Yes some would see solitude as an encounter with the divine, a place within where there is a stillness and a sanctuary to which we can retreat at any time. We cannot always seek outside ourselves for that which we can only find within and there are some gifts which we can only give to ourselves. Perhaps God has circled a place on a map for us and it is where we are right now. Finding rest for our souls is to recognize that we are where we’re supposed to be and it’s holy ground.