Mondays with Martin

Mondays with Martin – November 19, 2012 At the Re:Confirm Adult Education class yesterday morning, we discussed the problem of evil.  If God is a good God and is all powerful, then how is it that evil exists and persists in the world?  It’s a complicated, but fundamental question for the Christian.

We discussed various thoughts and philosophies, but I liked very much what I read from the late Shirley Guthrie, great professor of theology at Columbia Seminary:

“So long as we try to figure out for ourselves whether and how God is at work among us, our faith will always be uncertain and confused.  But the Christian doctrine of providence is not based on what we can figure out for ourselves from our own experience or observation of the world, balancing evidence for and against faith in God.  It is a Christian doctrine based on what scripture tells us about the presence and work of God in the story of ancient Israel and above all in Jesus Christ.  That story, of course, is not proof that there is a God who comes to be with and for us in our suffering and triumphs over it.  It is a confession of faith.  But it is not a confession of faith based on wishful thinking of people who could not face up to the brutal facts of life as it really is and the bleak finality of suffering and death.  It is a confession based on what Israel and the first Christians remembered that God had actually done in their personal experience and in the history of their people, and what they therefore hoped that God would continue to do so in the future.”

Thanksgiving is coming this week; remember to be thankful for God has done in your life and in the life of the world!

Grace and peace, -mra

Mondays with Martin – November 12, 2012 It’s a simple story that you’ve no doubt heard before, but it bears repeating …

In a kindergarten classroom, little Jennie is feverishly working on a crayon rendering.  Her concentration draws the attention of her teacher, walking about the room observing her charges.  The teacher bends over the little girl and asks:  “What are drawing, Jennie?”

Jennie responds: “I making a picture of God!”

The teacher replies: “Oh, Jennie, don’t you know?  No one knows what God looks like, honey.”

The little girl, undaunted by this challenge, goes on with her work saying: “Well, they will when I’m done!”

Could it really be that simple?  Could the same be said for the picture we draw with our lives?  What do people see when they look at our life?  What kind of picture of God are we making with the way we live?

Be an artist for God … -mra

Mondays with Martin – November 5, 2012 Well, the long awaited and much anticipated day is upon us: Election Day!  Tomorrow the citizens of this republic will have the opportunity to exercise our constitutional duty and our freedom to cast a vote.  Though this particular election has been billed by some as the “most important” in our lifetime, every election is important.

I find it truly strangely providential, that yesterday’s lectionary Psalter reading included the following:

“Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help. When their breath departs, they return to the earth; on that very day their plans perish. Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord their God …”

Rather good advice indeed!  Though we certainly should entrust the civic leaders that we elect with a modicum of confidence, our ultimate trust must always be reserved for God and God alone.

Trust always in the Lord …  -mra

Mondays with Martin – October 29, 2012 This past week I heard an interview on NPR with a graphic design critic about the vast change that technology has made on the way people comprehend or interpret information.  With the advent of delayed reception (i.e. Netflix, DVR etc.), people are obtaining media and entertainment at a time and speed that suits them.  Her argument was that such practice leads to something she called: “narrative deprivation.”

In short, narrative deprivation occurs when a person, making use of the technology at hand, cuts through the parts of the program or media to get to the “good parts.”

This got me thinking about the Bible and the message of the Christian faith.  Our message is basically narrative: the story of God’s great work through history to redeem humankind as reveled in scripture.

Do we have the patience to hear / read the whole story of God’s marvelous work of redemption or do we seek rather to cut to the “good parts,” picking and choosing our way through the Bible and skipping whole sections?

Of course, there are appealing portions of the story and there are portions that, honestly, we sometimes pick and choose in order to support our particular views on life and faith, but the whole narrative, the grand story, at times, remains undiscovered by us.

One of the spiritual disciplines of our faith is an acquaintance with the whole story of God’s interaction with humanity.  It takes some patience, some dedication and discipline, but it is worth the effort to not be satisfied with “narrative deprivation” when it comes to the Bible!

Keep reading …-mra

Mondays with Martin – October 22, 2012 At the Adult Education course, Re:Confirm, we discussed the nature of God yesterday.  Of the many quotes provided, one sticks out in my mind.  This comes from the late Dr. Donald Bloesh, who taught at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary for many years:

“We must not think of God as having an unrestricted or arbitrary power, for this would be the sovereignty of whim or chance or caprice.  His power is not irresistibly efficacious, it is not a naked freedom and sovereignty; rather it is in the service of his love.”

In a world where power is often equated with manipulative force in obtaining one’s own goals, the witness of the Christian church is that God’s power and sovereignty is best seen in the service of his love.  Without a doubt, we see that in Jesus of Nazareth; in his life, his death and in his resurrection.

Grace and peace, -mra

Mondays with Martin – October 15, 2012 Looking ahead to next Sunday, the lectionary epistle lesson is again from Hebrews.  The pericope is actually the first ten verses of the fifth chapter and it contains the following line:

“Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; 9and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him, 10having been designated by God a high priest …”

The verse is in reference to Jesus Christ and particularly to his obedience to God even through what he suffered.

Obedience is not something that we willingly discuss in the 21st Century church.  It smacks of Puritanism and paternalistic forms of behavioral control to our post-modern, highly-educated ears.  We all tend to like our own judgment upon any issue or element of life much better than one that has been presented to us with a summons to obedience.

However, the Christian faith is a revealed truth, not something that we arrive at from our own natural intuitions and intellect.  Naturalistic theology holds that from the summoning and stirring of nature herself, we are led to contemplate God.  Elements of naturalistic thought have been injected into even the evangelical vein of Christianity, saying that it only makes “good common sense” to believe in a Creator (e.g. contemporary popular Christian literature such as Evidence that Demands a Verdict, etc.).

The Christian faith does not make “good common sense.”  We do not arrive at God’s call and claim on human life by reasoned logic or observation of nature.  The Christian faith is a revealed religion; it is a delivered truth to us; it is not something that we have achieved or arrived at ourselves.

The truth is demonstrated and revealed in Jesus Christ, the one who was obedient “even to the point of death, death on a cross.”  Simply put: we are called to be followers of Jesus Christ and as followers we are called to place ourselves in obedience to God’s will in this world, not merely our own.

Sometimes the hardest lessons to learn are the most valuable … -mra

Mondays with Martin – October 8, 2012 In preparation for yesterday’s communion sermon, I did a little “reading up” on the Reformed understanding of the Lord’s Supper.  My primary source was a great little book entitled: Reformed Worship, authored by Howard Rice and Jim Huffstutler.

The following quote is from Rice & Huffstutler:

“Because we share in the one body [the body of Christ], we are made one with all who join us in the sharing.  The Lord’s Supper is thus the ground for Christian community … To be bound together with Christ is to be bound together with all those who share in Christ.”

Groupings of people almost always have some commonality as a foundation; ethnicity, common experiences, family ties, political beliefs and more seem to bind some folks together.  Yet, at the heart of the unity of Christ’s church are not necessary shared beliefs, common perceptions of how the world works, or class: it is, instead, simply and marvelously, the sacrament of communion.

This is a wondrous truth that we dare not pass over too quickly: we are bound together by our inclusion in Jesus Christ and the greatest demonstration of that inclusion is witnessed in our sharing in the Lord’s Supper.  For me, this is dramatically shown in our passing the elements one to another.  If we did not have the assistance of our neighbors in the pews, we could not commune.  In effect, to truly be Christ’s church, we need one another.

Simple, but profoundly true, our unity is based not in our commonalities or our differences, but rather in Jesus Christ himself.
Thanks be to God! -mra

Mondays with Martin – September 24, 2012 Today, I bring you a “reprint” from yesterday morning’s Adult Education offering: Re:Confirm.  This is a class meeting at 9 a.m. in which we discuss the same topics as our 8th Grade Confirmation class.

The topic was anthropological theology: how we understand humanity through the lens of theology.  What does scripture say about what it means to be a human being?  How can theology help us to better understand not just God, but ourselves as well?

Shirley C. Guthrie, Jr., in his great text, Christian Doctrine, wrote:

“What we learn from Jesus, then, is that to be truly human in the image of God is not to possess some intellectual, moral, or spiritual capacity within ourselves; it is realized only in relatedness, community, or fellowship with others outside ourselves.  We cannot be human by ourselves in independent, self-sufficient loneliness.  Only as we discover the meaning of our very existence in relatedness to God and fellow human beings can we be truly human.  And just then we discover that this means not the sacrifice but the realization of true human selfhood.”

We learn from scripture that if we want to know the nature of God, we should look to the person of Jesus of Nazareth.  If we want to understand human nature, we must be instructed by Christ’s life as well.  Guthrie looks at the life of our Savior and sees an instruction to live in community in order to be fully human.  “We cannot be human by ourselves in independent, self-sufficient loneliness.”

Being a Christian means living in relationship with God and in relationship with others. Jesus did not retreat to a mountain top and remain there in contemplative isolation.  Jesus interacted with his fellow human beings, demonstrating the love of God by his very incarnation; his very act of becoming human.

As followers of Christ, we are offered the opportunity and duty to “mix” with our fellow human beings, preaching the good news of Jesus Christ, working for justice, seeking to offer to the world the sign and demonstration of the coming kingdom of peace.  But it is something that we can’t do by ourselves; we need the presence of God and the presence of others.

Grace and peace,-mra

Mondays with Martin – September 17, 2012 Yesterday’s sermon text was from the Epistle of James.  The passage for the morning involved James’ admonition that the Christian ought to be careful how they speak, for what we say can heal or hurt.  In short, what we say matters.

Reading a sermon of St. Augustine yesterday, I found that the great Church Father thought that what we do matters as well.  This appears to be an obvious statement, one which James himself would agree.  But Augustine put a little different touch on the subject, linking two governing elements of human life to following Jesus Christ effectively.

“As far as we are concerned, our consciences are all that matters; as far as you are concerned, our reputation among you ought not to be tarnished, but influential for the good.  Mark what I’ve said, and make the distinction.  There are two things, conscience and reputation; conscience for yourself, reputation for your neighbor. Those who, being clear in their consciences, neglect their reputations, are being cruel; especially if they find themselves in this position, a position about which the apostle says, when he writes to his disciple, Showing yourself to all around you as an example of good works (Titus 2:7).”

The great Church Father has a good point: even if our conscience is clear about a matter, we owe our neighbors a good reputation that an example might be given.  How many times have we caught ourselves thinking: “Oh well, my conscience is clear on this matter, I’m not accountable for others think.”  Maybe that is the case; but then again, maybe it isn’t!  If we take Augustine seriously, we are called to consider just how our decisions and actions might appear to others.

A clear conscience is not the end … only the beginning!-mra

Mondays with Martin – September 10, 2012 After a summer off, it is time to bring back this weekly e-message.  I have enjoyed having a little more time to get caught up on the work required for my doctorate.  However, I have found a wealth of great material from the Early Church Fathers.

I want to share an illustration that I came across in a sermon delivered by Augustine in 425.  He was then the Bishop of Hippo and he admonished the congregation to which he preached to “lighten his burden” as the bishop by leading good lives.  If his congregation led good lives, then there would be fewer crises that would keep him running here and there.

Here’s the illustration:

“Do you want to have a country cottage?  I refuse to believe you want a bad one.  You want to get a wife, but only a good one, a home, but only a good one.  Why should I run through everything one by one?  You don’t want to have a bad shoe, and you want to have a bad life? As though a bad shoe can do you more harm than a bad life?  When a bad, ill-fitting shoe starts hurting you, you sit down, take it off, throw it away or put it right or change it, in order not to damage a toe.  A bad life, which can lose you your soul, you don’t care to put right.”

Wow!  I guess that about says it in regards to our human nature.  Even in 425, people were still pretty much the people we know now (and know as ourselves!).

Glad to be back, -mra

Mondays with Martin – April 30, 2012 This past Saturday, I met with the Eighth Grade Confirmation in their final retreat at Pine Springs before they meet with the Session and are received into the church as members on Sunday, May 13.  As I always do, I went over Soren Kierkegaard’s illustration of “Worship as Theater.”  You can imagine their excitement in having a fifty year old preacher explain to them the imagery of worship as theater as proposed by a 19th century Danish philosopher … it took awhile to restore order.

Anyway, the mentors (adult leaders of the church assigned to a confirmation student) were also present, so I ran them through the whole presentation.  One of them remarked: “Well, now you tell us this!  It might have been helpful to know this before!”  The mentor has a good point; I often assume that others are on the same page …

So, I thought I would share this with you in an abbreviated form: Kierkegaard, angered by the lack of sincerity in the Danish Lutheran (State) Church of the time, railed against the prevailing belief that worship was actually entertainment for the congregation.  He likened the sanctuary to a theater in which the ministers, choirs and others “on stage” were actors merely putting on a divine play for the audience: the congregation.

His point was that this was actually the opposite of what true worship should be … the audience for worship is NEVER the congregation, but always the living God.  It is to God that we ALL bring our worship!  Therefore, the congregation, gathered in the pews, participating in the worship service are actually the real ACTORS!  The ministers, choirs, ushers and others are more like “prompters” off stage helping the actors (the congregation) with their lines.  This, in Kierkegaard’s mind (and in mine) is the real activity of worship.

So, remember when you step into the sanctuary on Sunday morning, you are the actor, performing the role of your lifetime … offering your love and worship to the one audience that really matters: the living God!

Grace and peace, -mra

Mondays with Martin – April 23, 2012 Snow in April?  Well, I didn’t “half-believe” the forecast yesterday, but they were certainly right!  Still, it is a surprise.  The weather is a changeable feature of human life.

In the midst of all things that are indeed changeable about life, it is both comforting and challenging to consider that Jesus Christ is not a changeable or malleable aspect of our life.  The Epistles to the Hebrews affirms that “Jesus Christ is the same, yesterday, today and tomorrow.”  That is a strong affirmation indeed in a life and world that is changing all around us.

As part of this coming Sunday’s lectionary, the passage from the Book of Acts includes Peter’s defense of the Gospel to the elders and scribes of the Temple.  Peter takes an ancient piece of scripture (from the Psalms) and applies it to his understanding and proclamation of Jesus as the Christ.  Here’s what Peter said:

‘Rulers of the people and elders, 9if we are questioned today because of a good deed done to someone who was sick and are asked how this man has been healed, 10let it be known to all of you, and to all the people of Israel, that this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead. 11This Jesus is
“the stone that was rejected by you, the builders;
it has become the cornerstone.”
12There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.’

The resurrection of Jesus Christ secured in the mind and heart of Peter, the place of Christ at the very center of God’s ongoing work of salvation in the world.  Peter has come to understand that apart from Jesus Christ, there is no salvation, no healing for the human race.

Nearly two thousand years later, this is still our proclamation: that God is at work in Jesus of Nazareth, to bring about the salvation and redemption of the human race.

The weather may change; the means of communication may improve or increase, but the message remains the same …

Grace and peace, -mra

Mondays with Martin – April 16, 2012 I was just reading an article this morning that reminded me about what used to be!  Those kinds of articles can always be a bit dangerous in casting our view in a nostalgic way toward the past, we are required to remove our gaze from the present and the future.  However, I don’t think that I am any worse for the wear ….

Anyway, the article mentioned that we used to refer to the liturgical seasons following Easter and Christmas as Eastertide and Christmastide respectively.  Though the writer of the article took his comments off into a different direction, my mind took to me to this thought …

Those old liturgical assignations might be useful to us today to think about the meaning of the liturgical year and our calendar life.  The terms, Eastertide and Christmastide, bespeak more than just one day of celebration and remembrance … they indicate a “ripple effect” that carries on in our lives beyond the final benediction and postlude.  A tide can carry us along for quite a way and the ripple that appears upon the smooth surface of a body of water is felt throughout the pond or lake.  That ripple or tide encompasses everything in its path.

So too should Eastertide be for us … on Easter we recalled that powerless love defeats loveless power; that’s God’s love for humankind cannot stay dead and buried.  Hopefully, such news produces a ripple effect in our lives, as we “live into” the realities of Christ’s resurrection, sharing love and grace with those with whom we share life.

Maybe it’s not always nostalgia after all … -mra

Mondays with Martin – March 12, 2012 Late last month, I mentioned about serving in a Reformed Church that had the liturgical habit of reading the Ten Commandments before proceeding to the corporate Prayer of Confession.  I remarked about the usefulness of being confronted by the Law before realizing our great need of Grace.

Yesterday, I was reading in Karl Barth’s voluminous Church Dogmatics, and found the following:

“That God is gracious does not mean that He surrenders Himself to the one to whom He is gracious.  He neither compromises with His resistance, nor ignores it, still less calls it good.  But as the gracious God He affirms Himself over against the one to whom He is gracious by opposing and breaking down his resistance, and in some way causing His own good will to exert its effect upon him.  Therefore the one to whom He is gracious comes to experience God’s opposition to him.”

I especially appreciated that last sentence regarding the truth that in our experience of God, we also experience God’s opposition to the resistance that is human sin.  In experiencing God’s great graciousness in the action of Jesus Christ, we also acknowledge the resistance that we, as part of the human family, have given to the purposes of God when we have wandered from God’s ways and law.

Just one more thing to consider during Lent, I suppose … -mra

Mondays with Martin – March 5, 2012 I’ve been reading a Lenten devotional composed of quotes from C.S. Lewis, the great British classicist who also happened to be a pretty sharp theologian.  The following is an extensive quote from his commentary on Psalm 51:

“We all want progress. But progress means getting nearer to the place where you want to be.  And if you have taken a wrong turning, then to go forward does not get you any nearer.  If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; and in that case the man who turns back sooner is the most progressive man  … There is nothing progressive about being pig-headed and refusing to admit a mistake.  And I think if you look at the present state of the world, it is pretty plain that humanity has been making some big mistakes.  We are on the wrong road.  And if that is so, we must go back.  Going back is the quickest way on.”

I think that Mr. Lewis has it just right … turning around may be the quickest way to our goal!

Grace and peace, -mra

Mondays with Martin – February 27, 2012 The seventh verse of the nineteenth Psalm reads like this: “The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul; the decrees of the Lord are sure, making wise the simple.”

Back when I was in seminary, I spent a year as a Seminary Assistant in a Reformed Church in the tiny little village of Griggstown, New Jersey.  It was an old congregation, having had a witness and presence on the Raritan Canal for centuries.  Part of the worship liturgy in the Reformed Church in America, the denomination of the church, was a reading of the Ten Commandments or a Summary of the Law, each Sunday morning immediately prior to the Prayer of Confession.

At first I found this an odd practice, but with time, I became rather fond of it.  Its placement prior to the confessional prayer of the congregation served as a reminder both of what we have transgressed and the simple beauty of God’s moral law.  In the same instant, the congregation was convicted of the sin that plagues each human life and revived by the sheer perfection of God’s law.

That is why, those of you who were in attendance at the Ash Wednesday service, encountered the reading of the Law at the opening of the service.  It is an old Reformed tradition that needs to be revived in our hearts and our spiritual practice from time to time.

Grace and peace, -mra

Mondays with Martin – February 20, 2012  As a congregation, First Presbyterian Church is blessed with witnesses to the life and movement of God in Jesus Christ in this world.  I hear you folks speak of it all the time, maybe even when you don’t realize that you’re giving such a powerful witness.  Such moments can be “transfiguring,” to use a word so recently on our lips in worship and so mysterious and seemingly alien to our experience.

Well, recently I was directed to take a look at our congregation’s Young Adult Volunteer’s blog.  As you may recall, Jillian Manning, a graduate of Bethany College and member of our congregation, is taking this year to work in New Orleans with our denominational ministries there.

I read Jillian’s recent posting and was deeply moved.  Here is the testimony of a follower of Jesus who is coming to grips with the reality of her witness in this world and the meaning of it for others, for herself, and for God.  She concludes her entry with these words:

“so i choose to feel confident that god is using others’ gifts to get through to me..to let me know he still cares for me..loves me more than i can ever comprehend..and he does the same through me and my gifts..that’s why it’s so important for us to be aware of them and use them genuinely since they can easily alter someones day..week..and even life..  we have the choice to build or destroy

If you would like to read the context of this words (and I suggest you do), please visit Jillian’s blog at: http://littlepostcardsfromnola.blogspot.com/

Sometimes the most transfiguring thing to happen to us is to realize how God in Christ might be using our lives in transforming the lives of others …-mra

Mondays with Martin – February 13, 2012  I once preached a sermon based on the following verses from Isaiah 40:

30 Even youths will faint and be weary,
and the young will fall exhausted;
31 but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint.

The older I grow, the more I find myself contemplating what it may mean to wait upon the Lord in order to renew our strength.  I don’t think this is the kind of passive activity that we think of when it comes to waiting, but then again, it may just be good that we take time from time to time and do nothing about the issue, the problem, the struggle with which we are engaged.

In the sermon I preached, I made use of an illustration from the life of that great Pennsylvanian, Milton Hershey.  We all know of Mr. Hershey’s products and the great company that he built in his hometown of Lancaster but how many of us realize that he was more of a failure than a success earlier in his career?  Mr. Hershey founded a “sweet shop” in Philadelphia and failed; he founded a “sweet shop” in Denver and failed and then in Chicago and then on to New York City and it all ended the same: failure.

I don’t know if Mr. Hershey had any knowledge of the passage from Isaiah that I quoted above, but it makes sense to me from his example that success and victory can come even after successive failures and defeats.  Sometimes, we might just need to wait a bit, be patience and seek strength from a Source outside of our self.

Grace and peace,-mra

Mondays with Martin – February 6, 2012 God chooses to dispense grace to humankind through the person of Jesus Christ.  It is in the very incarnation of God in the wholly human, wholly divine Jesus that the world is met with a grace large enough and potent enough to envelope all of us.

This coming Sunday, one of the lectionary texts for preaching is the thirtieth chapter of the Book of Psalms.  The opening lines of this great little psalm read as follows:

1 I will extol you, O LORD, for you have drawn me up
and have not let my foes rejoice over me.
2 O LORD my God, I cried to you for help,
and you have healed me.
3 O LORD, you have brought up my soul from Sheol;
you restored me to life from among those who go down to the pit.

It is the gracious choice of God that has provided for the presence of Jesus Christ in our lives.  This is at the very heart of the proclamation of the church.  We should never become confused, however, over just who is the source of this great grace.  It is not the church or the sacraments that we celebrate or even the deeds of love and justice that we are compelled to enact by Christ’s presence, but rather God and only God.

Donald Bloesch, the late Reformed theologian, wrote in his seven-volume systematic theology, Christian Foundations:“The church does not dispense grace, but proclaims grace.”

That is simply the truth: God, in God’s great mercy, has chosen to dispense grace to us in Jesus Christ; our calling is to proclaim this truth in all its wonder, beauty and salvific detail.

Grace and peace,-mra

Mondays with Martin – January 30, 2012 Recently, I was accepted in the Doctor of Ministry degree program at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary.  A D.Min. degree presupposes that the candidate is actively involved in a congregational ministry and is willing to let his or her practice of ministry be influenced by what is learned in the process.  Hopefully, the congregation benefits as well as the minister.

So, from time to time, I will be keepin you informed about both the process and what I’m learning in this course of study.  I’m very excited to be embarking upon this three-year journey both for my own personal / professional growth and what it might mean for us as a congregation as well.

The particular program to which I have been accepted involves taking the experience of the early Christian church and laying it alongside our current experience as the church.  In the centuries before Constantine, the culture and the empire was not Christian by any means.  And, in a similar manner, we know live in a culture and society in which Christianity is not the norm any longer, but a past history and heritage.  I think that such comparisons will be fruitful for us.

I’ve started on the rather long reading list and will keep you posted.

Grace and peace,-mra

Mondays with Martin – January 23, 2012 Instead of sermon “leftovers,” how about an advance peek at what may possibly be a part of the sermon this coming Sunday?  Of course, this is no substitute for being present at our special, single combined 10 a.m. service and Annual Meeting following, but it might serve as a “teaser!”

The gospel text comes from the first chapter of Mark depicts Jesus teaching in the synagogue and a healing story of man with an “unclean spirit.”  In a worship setting, healing is received and the presence of Jesus Christ is realized, as the gospel writer relates, “with authority.”

Eugene Peterson, retired Presbyterian minister, says this in his book, Practice Resurrection:

“Christ and church, church and Christ.  When we are dealing with church we are dealing with Christ.  When we are dealing with Christ we are dealing with church. We cannot have one without the other – no Christ without church, no church without Christ.”

In the contemporary American Christian scene, there is often a great emphasis upon a personal relationship with Jesus Christ which seems almost exclusive of the church.  I agree with Dr. Peterson, there is no authentic relationship with Christ that does not involve a relationship with Christ’s church … and conversely, there is no authentic relationship with a church that does not presuppose a relationship with Jesus Christ.

Well, I guess we can talk about the rest of this on Sunday …-mra

Mondays with Martin – January 16, 2012 I’ve taken a bit of a hiatus from producing these weekly little messages, but I’m back at it now, well rested and ready to go …

Not too long ago, I re-read Jesus’ words to his disciples: “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”  There’s a wonderful little “nugget” of scripture that we often pass over entirely too quickly.  The affirmation that we receive here should not be missed.  Jesus assures us that the church has no need to fear; it is God’s good pleasure to bestow upon us the very kingdom itself.

Sometimes, one can get a little despondent about the shape of Christ’s church.  Let’s face it; we can be a strange and cantankerous bunch of folks (myself included, certainly!).   We hold our own particular perspectives on issues as somehow sacrosanct and are slow to allow the value and worth of others’ views.  We think highly of ourselves and judge with strict standards the actions of others.  We speak before we think; act before we have reflected fully; decide while the jury is still out.  We can be an odd bunch.

The Rev. Charles F. Goss, once Pastor of Avondale Presbyterian Church in the old Cincinnati Presbytery, was known to refer to one of his former churches as one “filled with persons of every nationality, every strange creed, and cranks of every kind.”  I’ve always loved that kind of honesty about the church, for such does not just apply to Rev. Goss’ experience, but to all of our involvement with Christ’s people.  For truly, we can be, at times, “cranks of every kind.”

And yet, to folks like us, Christ assures us that it is God’s good pleasure to entrust God’s own kingdom.  Obviously, God sees things about us that even we ourselves miss from time to time.  How such knowledge should broaden our generosity of spirit towards one another and even towards ourselves!  Despite our quirks, our shortcomings, our inadequacies, God has given us the kingdom!  To us, even us, God has come and chosen to reside with us, that the world might be changed and that we, as God’s people, might be transformed.  That is grace and that is … wonderfully good news!

Remember who you are … to God. -mra

Mondays with Martin – December 19, 2011 From today’s entry in “God’s Light in Our World: Advent Devotional 2011”:

Read:  II Peter 1:19-21

Notice the pronoun used in that first verse of our passage for today.  It’s a plural pronoun.  It’s not the “royal we” that refers in an elevated sense to the singular author; it is truly a reference to those who witnessed and relayed the event of the Transfiguration.

Peter gives in this passage some keys to interpreting and understanding scripture.  Here, he makes it plain that interpretation of the scripture is not an isolated or lonely thing.  Instead it is something that is done in community.  Together we should reflect upon scripture as a church, a household of faith.  Doing this together places us in an atmosphere much more conducive for the Spirit to influence our hearts and minds.

Fred Craddock, renowned preacher, has said this about that:

“Do not misunderstand; the availability of scripture to every family and person was and is a blessing beyond measuring.  However, when I can sit alone with my Bible on my lap, I can easily be seduced into becoming my own church, and I might even cease to join the assembly that provided the scripture and that continually seeks to hear aright the Word of God.”

Another translation relates the beginning of our passage like this: “The prophetic Word was confirmed to us.  You’ll do well to keep focusing on it.”  Called by Christ to be a part of his church, Peter reminds us this day that we need each other to comprehend as best we are able, the height and depth and breadth of what has been given to this world and to us in Jesus Christ.

Grace and peace, -mra

Mondays with Martin – December 12, 2011  From today’s entry in “God’s Light in Our World: Advent Devotional 2011”:

Read:  Psalm 72:11-12

Sometimes the Christian Church has deflected some of the more political aims of God’s Kingdom.  In an attempt to be good Americans, we have understood separation of church and state to mean a compartmentalization of the demands of faith from the rest of our lives.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  The coming Kingdom of God has obvious political ramifications; it is God’s kingdom after all!

One of those ramifications is the collective concern for the poor and the needy. This is a mandate from scripture, present both in the Old and New Testament. A witness to God’s expectation that we be concerned about the poor and needy is found throughout scripture.

The words of the Psalmist selected for today’s reading points this up sharply:

“May all kings fall down before him,

All nations give him service.

For he delivers the needy when they call,

The poor and those who have no helper.”

Here is what Henri Nouwen has written about this verse:

“We must develop a global spirituality in which the demands of the Gospel guide not only the behavior of individuals but of nations as well.  Many will consider this naïve.  They are glad to accept the teachings of Jesus for their personal and family lives, but when it comes to international affairs they consider these same teachings unrealistic and utopian … [However], the life of discipleship goes far beyond individual piety or communal loyalty.”

This too is part of the Advent hope … that one day the world would actually care about those who have little and would then share what it had until all had enough … this too is Advent.

Grace and peace, -mra

Mondays with Martin – December 5, 2011 From today’s entry in “God’s Light in Our World: Advent Devotional 2011”:

Read:  Isaiah 35:1-10

Read those words from Isaiah again … it is worth it.  Catch a glimpse in the sentences that seem to pour out of the scripture like water on a parched and dried former riverbed.  Soak up the images that beckon the hearer forward, forward into a future that is divinely held and not humanly manipulated.  This is a description of the new heavens and new earth that Peter wrote of in our last installment.

Here’s what C.S. Lewis has written about this great Advent text:

“For God is not merely mending, not simply restoring a status quo.  Redeemed humanity is to be something more glorious than unfallen humanity would have been, more glorious than any unfallen race now is.”

The eyes of the blind will be opened … the ears of the deaf unstopped … the lame will leap.  Yet this is more than restoration; this is the newness of God’s eternal kingdom … this is new creation.

It is hard to conceive what God is planning for the ultimate reconciliation of all things.  The writers of scriptures take their turns envisioning, but the final result, the final display is what we all await, not with anxious hearts, but with the confidence of those who trust in the One who will make all things new.

This is the hope of Advent; the hope of God’s Light shining forth in our world.

Grace and peace, -mra

Mondays with Martin – November 28, 2011 From today’s entry in “God’s Light in Our World: Advent Devotional 2011”:

Read:  Isaiah 40:9

The prophet Isaiah wrote to the people of Israel in the midst of their Babylonian captivity. Possibly, this 40th chapter is most well-known or at least well-loved.  It starts with those wondrous words:

“Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.  Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.”

Even in their captivity in a foreign land, the people of Israel were not alone; God was with them.

In our Advent waiting, so too it is not completely dark in this world; the Light of God’s presence continually breaks through to us.  In the faces of our family, friends, church members, acquaintances and more, the Light of God comes shining forth, promising an even greater and grander in-breaking of the Lord’s holiness.

So take time today, in your Advent waiting, to bask in the Light of God that is breaking forth upon our world; the light in the faces of those all around you, those who are waiting with you.

Grace and peace, -mra

Mondays with Martin – November 21, 2011  –  Recently, I came across an old quote that I absolutely love:

“But doubt is not the opposite of faith; it is an element of faith. Therefore, there is no faith without risk.”

 The quote comes from the great theologian, Paul Tillich’s Systematic Theology and it speaks to the heart of faith … risk taking.  And it calls to my mind another quote from our former Book of Order:

 “The Church is called to undertake [its] mission even at the risk of losing its life, trusting in God alone as the author and giver of life, sharing the gospel, and doing those deeds in the world that point beyond themselves to the new reality in Christ.”

 I guess I’m thinking more in corporate or institutional terms than merely personal or individual.  We are called by Christ to follow in Christ’s path; we are called to be the Church.  Such a calling requires faith, not absolute adherence to doctrinal purity, but rather a living faith best described in Tillich’s terms.  Therefore, the mission that we have been called to by Christ is mixed with both strong faith and considerable, human doubt.

Further, the Book of Order inspires us to realize that this is all risky business: the Church is called to be about the mission of Christ even at the cost of losing its own institutional life.  The Church must be open to change and alteration in its faithful journey through life; all conventions, constructions and developments of church practice take second place to our ultimate calling of faithfully following Christ.  All of that puts our institution of church into risk … even the risk of losing its own life.  The same book reminds us that we must be about the business of being reformed and always being reformed by the living presence of Christ, even at the cost of change to the Church we love …

Grace and peace … -mra

Mondays with Martin – November 14, 2011  Fred Craddock, great preacher from the South, has famously related a story about a pastor who attended the Indianapolis 500 and was soon lulled into hoping for something to happen other than cars whizzing around a track in the same direction lap after lap after lap.  At one point, a car burst into flame and because it was a distraction, he caught himself nearly leaping to his feet and shouting.

Odd what boredom can do to us, isn’t it?  It has been observed that a good many folks at races are there for the crashes; the unusual occurrence rather than the counted-upon, expected performance: cars circling a track and someone being proclaimed the winner …  anything to break the monotony of the everyday.

Boredom is something that we all face, but maybe it can be turned toward spiritual good.  Next time you’re bored try this: turn off the TV, unplug your ears from the Ipod, get off the Internet, put down the paper and just start talking to God.  Maybe boredom is a way of God speaking to us and reminding us that we not meant for continual, 24-hour-a-day stimulation and consciousness.  Maybe, just maybe, boredom is a signal to our bodies and souls that we are being called to a deeper moment of quiet and reflection.  Maybe, just maybe, God might make us of such moments in our lives and lead us into even more profound understandings about ourselves, the human condition and best of all, the mercy of God.

Bored yet? I hope so … -mra

Mondays with Martin – November 7, 2011 Some of you have asked for a reprint of the illustration that I ended my sermon with yesterday.  The following comes from Rev. Dr. William Willimon:

            I remember preaching a series of sermons in which I talked about death and eternal life. One Monday morning I got the call. “Fred has collapsed. Mary says that she thinks he has died. She has called the ambulance.” I put down the phone and raced out to their farmhouse. I got there just as the ambulance was arriving.

            Mary met me at the door and asked me, “Tell me again what you said in your sermon last Sunday about eternal life? I want to be sure I got it right.”

            Though she didn’t know it, when she was listening to my sermon she was preparing herself, she was obtaining oil for her lamp, getting ready for night. She would be able to go into that dark with her lamp shining.

It might help with context for those of you who were unable to be with us yesterday, to go to the church’s website and find the sermon in its entirety.  You can access that at: fpcgreensburg.com/the-pastors-desk/weekly-sermons

Grace and peace, -mra

Mondays with Martin – October 31, 2011 Tomorrow is All Saints Day.  Today, as you may know, is All Hallow’s Eve (the night before All Saints Day).  Halloween has come to mean something a bit different than that in our culture: a time for children and adults to indulge in “tricks or treats” or to have their heartbeat raised a bit by tableaus of ghoulish and scary scenes in neighborhood front yards.

Though I dutifully dole out candy to those who venture up the hill to our neighborhood, I prefer to concentrate upon the significance of this evening in relationship to tomorrow.  I begin to contemplate those saints of the Lord who have gone before me.  Though Halloween has become in our culture a bit of “a night of the living dead,” I’m reminded that the dead in Christ still live. Ghoulish and scary tableaus of zombies aside, I recall on this evening the affirmation that those who have died in Jesus Christ now live with him.

Take time this evening or tomorrow in your prayers to recount those who have gone before you in the faith and offer your thanksgiving for their lives, now “hid” in Christ awaiting the great day of Resurrection (again, this is not about zombies!).

Grace and peace, -mra

Mondays with Martin – October 24, 2011 First of all, thank you for the many kind compliments about yesterday’s sermon.  It warms a preacher’s heart to know that at least he has been heard. So, thanks for all the kind words.

Some asked about the quote from Charles Hodge, 19th century professor at Princeton Theological Seminary.  Here’s what I relayed to the congregation from Hodge’s commentary on the text for Sunday:

“The real test of the genuineness of any inward affection is not so much the character of the feeling as it reveals itself in our consciousness, as the course of action to which it leads.  Many persons, if they judged themselves by their feelings, would regard themselves as truly compassionate; but a judgment founded on the acts would lead to the opposite conclusion.  So many suppose they really love God because they are conscious of feelings which they dignify with that name; yet they do not obey him.  It is thereby by the fruits of feeling we must judge its genuineness both in ourselves and others.”

Hodge of course makes a sound point: it’s not so much our feelings about a challenge that has been set before us as it is the fruits of those feelings … do we really act earnestly in accordance to our eagerness?  It’s a good question that all followers of the Lord must answer to their own satisfaction.

To see how all this fits into the context of yesterday morning, go to the sermon page at this website.

Grace and Peace, -mra

Mondays with Martin – October 17, 2011 I thoroughly enjoyed the leadership of our youth in worship yesterday during the 9:30 hour.  They did an absolutely wonderful job of leading in worship and participating fully in the service.  Indeed, we are blessed at First Church with youth who “get it” when it comes to being followers of Jesus Christ.

One of those “kids” whom we all watch grow and mature as a Christian has become a Young Adult Volunteer with the PC(USA).  Jillian Manning, as most of you know, is serving in New Orleans this year with our denomination.  I found the following on her blog, littlepostcardsfromnola.blogspot.com and wanted to share it with you:

“i think it’s easy to get absorbed with the amount of despair that surrounds us..it’s an energizing feeling to have that urge to ‘save the world’..but equally discouraging when you realize you are in fact only one individual capable of only doing so much..it can be overwhelming..it’s easy to lose hope in humanity when you realize how much there is still to do in the world and even around the corner you’re strolling on..

“but i try to remind myself maybe i am in the best possible position to change a little bit of that..even if i am only one person..maybe i could make a difference with another individual…”

Written, I believe, like a true disciple of Jesus Christ … the attention to changing the world by the manner of one’s own life, one’s own influence as an individual upon other individuals … strikes me to be right at the heart of Christ’s call.

I hope you’re as inspired by the young people of our church as I am … -mra

Mondays with Martin – October 10, 2011:  Sometimes, work is just work.  Other times, work is a blessing to the soul.  Such was the case this past week.

One quiet moment, while I was sitting in my study working on the sermon, I looked up and saw something on the open door to my study that I hadn’t noticed in a while.  It was a simple sign that bears only one word: PASTOR.

I didn’t put that sign on the door.  That sign was there before I arrived here.  It’s probably been there for a succession of inhabitants of this office.  I was grateful to see it there and take notice of it again.  It reminded me of something pretty important.

The term PASTOR is something bestowed upon a person, not awarded, not won, not grasped … bestowed.  It implies a relationship of trust, respect and mutuality.  You have bestowed this title upon me and it’s not one that is portable.  That is, PASTOR is not a term I can take with me.  I am YOUR pastor; I am not pastor to the people of First Presbyterian Church, Northville, Michigan or Flushing Presbyterian Church, Flushing, Michigan.  I once had those relationships; I do not any longer.  I am YOUR pastor.  Thank you for the honor and for the trust implied in bestowing this role and title to me.  It’s been over ten years now that I’ve been with you on your journey as a congregation of God’s grateful people and it’s been the kind of work that is really a blessing.

Thank you for the blessing … -mra

Mondays with Martin – October 3, 2011

In sermon preparation, I ran across the following quote, worth passing along:

“The One who judges us most finally will be the One who loves us most fully.”

Fred Buechner offered this aphorism in response to a discussion about the ultimate judgment of God and the infinite mercy of God as well.  It is a truth worth reflecting upon today.

Grace and peace,

-mra

 

Mondays with Martin – August 1, 2011

The following passage is from the Epistle to the Hebrews:

“Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. 24And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, 25not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”

Even in the early church, there was concern that the members of Christ’s body were not gathering together enough so that they might be encouraged by the fellowship of others.  It has been a concern of church leadership ever since, throughout the centuries.

Our Membership & Evangelism Committee has been at work this summer, promoting fellowship gatherings so that we might find the time to be together outside of the walls of the sanctuary.  In June, we attended a delightful play at St. Vincent’s.  There were over 20 in attendance.

In July, we went to the ballpark and had a wonderful evening fellowshipping around the diamond with the Washington Wildthings.  This event was very well attended, with over 20 there as well … of course, the park was filled with others of course.

Now, in August, the M&E Committee is presenting our final summer installment: an evening at St. Clair Park for the SummerSounds concert.  On Friday, August 12, we’ll gather at St. Clair Park (we’ll reserve a space up around the path over by the train tracks, straight up from the stage) at any time after 6:30 p.m.  The concert will start at 7 p.m. and is sponsored by our good friends at Redstone Highlands.

Remember to join us next Friday evening so that we might be encouraged by the fellowship of Christ’s church.

Grace and peace,

-mra

 

Mondays with Martin – July 18, 2011

Today’s message is fairly simple, short and to the point.  Sometimes, that is the best kind of message that can be given!

Jesus said: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”

Spend some time this day, meditating upon the simple commandment that we all have received!

Grace and peace AND love,

-mra

 

 

Mondays with Martin – July 11, 2011

Usually, it’s sermon leftovers, but never previews that you find here.  Well, this week, this is a bit of a preview.

This coming Sunday, the Old Testament lectionary text is the familiar story of Jacob and his ladder found in Genesis 28:10-22.  Actually, it’s not his ladder as the old spiritual implies, but rather it is God’s stairway which provides egress and regress for his ministering angels between heaven and earth.  However, that doesn’t fit into a children’s Sunday school song as well as the ladder …

Regardless, it is one of the great, but undervalued stories of the Bible.  Give it a read this week in preparation for Sunday’s worship.

Below is a wonderful little piece of verse from Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poem: “Aurora Leigh,” that might give you a hint of the direction of the sermonizing to come …

“Earth’s crammed with heaven,

And every common bush afire with God:

But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,

The rest sit around and pluck blackberries …”

See you in Church …

-mra

 

Mondays with Martin – July 5, 2011 (Tuesday)

“Daddy, tell me a story!”  How often I heard that when my daughter was younger and I was tucking her in for the evening.  I know that in this experience.  In fact, I can recall begging my father or mother for a story before I closed my eyes and drifted off to sleep.  Story, narrative, tale and saga are all part of one of the most essential ways we understand life and our place in it.

This is certainly true about the Bible.  It is not revolutionary or novel to say that God’s word to us in the form of the biblical witness is consumed by story.  There are stories of all kinds within the page of God’s holy writ.  These stories range in scope from universal events (i.e. the story of creation) to the particular and the peculiar, like the tale of Ananias and Sapphria (found in the fifth chapter of the Book of Acts).  Regardless, the Spirit of the living God seeks to instruct us in the faith by the use of story.

With this realization, I invite you to participate in a unique Adult Education event to be held over the next four Sundays.  We will gather in the Memorial Chapel of the building at 9 a.m. on Sundays, July 10, 17, 24 & 31 to discuss the four major stories (themes) of the biblical witness and how those themes and stories speak to us still to this day.

This Sunday, we will be discussing the stories about creation and re-creation found in Genesis, the Gospel of John and the Book of Revelation.  Come join us this Sunday!

Grace and peace,

-mra

 

Mondays with Martin – June 27, 2011

In my ministry, I’ve lead a fair number of funerals and memorial services.  At the beginning of my ministry, this was not an easy task for me.  I realized that I had to come to grips with my own sense of morality, the hope that is witnessed in the resurrection of Jesus Christ and the overall witness of his church to folks in times of their greatest need, including me.  It all took some time to grow more comfortable with this role that is a part of every pastor’s life.

One of the things that I have found that helps folks in a great time of grief was discovered right here at First Church Greensburg.  I inherited this from one of my predecessors and it appears included in almost every bulletin we print for a funeral or memorial service.  I pass it along in case you’ve never seen it:

What We Believe About Death

The very center of the gospel focuses upon the victory over death by God in Jesus Christ.  As his followers, we are convinced that we share in that victory over the grave.  We affirm that at death the believer goes to the presence of God who is an eternal home.  Nothing, not even death, can separate us from the love of God in Christ.  So death is not the end, rather it is the beginning of fuller service which will be completed in the resurrection of the body.  This hope is never based upon a person’s worth, but only upon the graciousness of God.

Therefore, in the Presbyterian tradition, a funeral is a Worship Service.  Certainly it is therapy for our sense of loss and grief, but primarily it is a service of worship to God wherein we as God’s people witness to our belief in the communion of saints, the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting, in which also the assurance of God’s salvation and life in Christ are especially comforting to the bereaved.  We gather here not so much to mourn our dead as to confess our faith in a living Savior, not so much to exhibit our grief, but to recall our profound gladness and solemn joy in Christ our living Lord.  So let us worship God.

I have found comfort in those words; I know that others have as well.  I hope it does the same for you.

Grace and peace,

-mra