Weekly Sermons

Tempted: Psalm 25:1-10 & Mark 1:9-15; Lent 1 – February 22, 2015

Rev. Martin R. Ankrum

And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

Some of you may recall the television sit-com entitled simply: “Coach.” The long-running series featured Craig T. Nelson in the title role as the Head Coach of the Minnesota State football team: “The Screaming Eagles.” Of course, there were other characters: Shelley Fabares played the Coach’s love interest, Jerry Van Dyke was cast as a bumbling, but very loveable assistant coach.

Another of the cast was a student coach named “Dauber” Dybinski. Bill Fagerbakke convincing played this role as a hapless and often clueless, but very earnest assistant coach who hung around the team primarily in order to complete his four-year degree in an amazing eight years.

One of my favorite episodes involved Dauber’s becoming a big brother to a boy of about eight years of age with a single mother. As Dauber and the boy drew closer, the boy attempted to throw them together romantically.   The result was a mistaken and momentary kiss that threw Dauber into serious concern over his relationship with the Women’s Basketball Head Coach who happened to be his fiancée. In his great trial and tribulation of deciding whether to tell his fiancée of the momentary slip or not, he decides to ask the Coach.

Of course, it is late in the evening when Dauber arrives at Coach’s door and he is not pleased to see him. As the Coach’s girlfriend, the aforementioned Shelley Fabares, attempts to listen to Dauber with sensitivity and good sense, offering the advice that he must tell his fiancée and hope of course that she will be understanding and sympathetic, the Coach offers an alternative vision.

The Coach tells Dauber that this is the very kind of thing you wouldn’t tell your fiancée. He reasons that Dauber will not see this other woman again, so why upset the apple cart as it were with the truth? The Coach puts it rather simply and straight to the point in the best line of avoidance I have ever heard on television. He tells Dauber, rather repeatedly to: “Bury it, bury it with a shovel, and then bury the shovel.” In other words, keep this deep down within yourself and then forget you even have this within you. Bury it, bury it with a shovel, and then bury the shovel.

As funny as that scene was, it strikes right to the very heart of what we often do when we struggle with the things in life that we don’t want to own up to or even be honest about. Our lives are filled with all kinds of temptations to be less than who God has called us to be in Jesus Christ and we have the opportunity, due to the mercy and grace of Jesus Christ of either trusting in God’s forgiveness as we repent and turn and come clean, or deceive ourselves into thinking that we can bury it somehow or hide it away from our Creator.

Peter Gomes, the late-great Pastor of the Memorial Church at Harvard University wrote these words about temptations to deceive ourselves:

While the confrontation with the devil is most attractive, the confrontation with one’s self is more necessary, and that means looking at ourselves behind the elaborate social cosmetic we create in order to protect ourselves from our own vanities. The confrontation [the temptation of Christ] suggests – confrontation with our ego and ambition and fear – is the ultimate confrontation with the devil and the evil he incarnates. It would be pleasant for us to deny the reality of such inner vexation but to do that contributes to the problem rather than resolves it, and such bedevilments will not go away simply because we refuse to acknowledge their presence. If life were meant to be a process of perfection by avoidance, the monastery and the nunnery would be over-subscribed. Jesus did not avoid the devil nor did he dismiss nor underestimate him, but rather be contended with him, wrestling with him in an agony of spiritual sweat.

Gomes offers better advice than did the Coach: we must acknowledge that there is something wrong with us. In our challenges and struggles to follow Jesus Christ, to respond to the goodness and mercy of God, we are apt to falter and misstep. We do ourselves a disservice if we fail to acknowledge that we are not always up to the challenge, for we deceive only ourselves and not God in this exercise of burying it and burying the shovel.

If all of this truth-telling about ourselves and owning up to our failings in the challenges to be who God calls us to be was something that we would embark upon alone, solely by our own abilities and powers, we would be in sore shape indeed. But the witness of the scripture and the Christian church is that we do not endeavor to live as God calls us to live wholly on our own; God’s very spirit accompanies us just as surely as the Spirit was with Jesus in his time of trial as recorded in Mark.

I like very much how The Study Catechism puts this. As you know, we have been using this little catechism over the last few months to highlight the interpretation of the scriptures on Sunday mornings. This morning, we have printed on the front of the bulletin a segment of the catechism that speaks directly to this.

The 132nd question and answer comes from the portion of the catechism covering the Lord’s Prayer, but is speaks to us of what we heard this morning in scripture and what we are contemplating now:

What is meant by the final petition, “Save us from the time of trial and deliver us from evil”?

We ask God to protect us from our own worst impulses and from all external powers of destruction in the world. We ask that we might not yield to despair in the face of seemingly hopeless circumstances. We pray for the grace to remember and believe, despite our unbelief, that no matter how bleak the world may sometimes seem, there is nonetheless a depth of love which is deeper than our despair, and that this love — which delivered Israel from slavery in Egypt and raised our Lord Jesus from the dead — will finally swallow up forever all that would now seem to defeat it.

In this we are comforted and encouraged by the witness of Jesus Christ himself as he willing entered the wilderness to be tempted. He knew that he was accompanied by the Holy Spirit and that Satan had no ultimate power over him that he himself did not grant to him by abandoning the call upon his life. Christ met temptation head on trusting in the ultimate victory of God … just as God had delivered the Israelites from slavery, so too would Christ be ultimately delivered even from the tomb.

There is incredible hope for us in this story of Christ’s overcoming the subtle and less-then-subtle temptations to ignore the ways of God. We too, in whatever situation we may find, can take hope in the ultimate restoration that God is working out in this world, here and now, even in us.

Ultimately, we are better off if we don’t bury it and bury the shovel, but instead live toward God with the honesty and humility that we are called to embody, trusting in God’s grace and mercy to see us through whatever it is that is challenging us, tempting us or facing us. Ultimately, we must join Jesus in fully and completely trusting God even in the midst of temptation to do otherwise.

Sovereign Yet Near: Psalm 147:1-11, 20c & Isaiah 40:21-31; Epiphany 5 – February 8, 2015

Rev. Martin R. Ankrum

            When I was rather young, five or six, I managed to get myself lost in a department store in my hometown. This is not an uncommon occurrence in the lives of little ones growing up, but I didn’t know that of course at the time.

Once I realized that my parents had moved on with their shopping cart and my older brother, I did the only thing I could think to do … I panicked! If I had kept my head and wits about me, I would have stayed put, trusting that my parents would be back for me. But in that moment of panic, I forgot all those helpful hints that my mother had given me for just such an emergency: stay put, look for a store employee or just wait. All of that went right out the window so to speak and I took off running down the main aisle screaming my head off.

There is something about a crisis that can cause us to forget who we are and whose we are. Whether it is a difficult diagnosis from the doctor, the fear of a depleting bank account or the news of a lost job, there are more than enough crises in our lives to give us ample opportunity to just forget.

Dr. William Carl, III, president of nearby Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, writes about theological amnesia in times of crisis in our lives. When we are confronted with a major catastrophe or even a minor worry that bubbles up within us without abatement, we tend to forget what we have learned and what we have come to know about God’s providential love and care for us.

It is as if we would just apply my mother’s good advice about what to do when lost in a department store to a more theological tone, we would be better off. Maybe when the crisis arises, (whatever that crisis is, you know that for your own life better than I), we should just take a moment to stop and gather our breath and remember … maybe we need to just remember that we belong to God and that the creator of the universe cares for us and cares about our situation. Maybe we just need to take a moment …

The reading from the prophet Isaiah that we heard this morning spoke originally to the people of Israel in their exile and captivity in Babylon. If anyone had a good excuse to panic, it might well have been those exiled Israelites. They had been conquered and then enslaved in a foreign land. They had all kinds of reasons to forget the promises that the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob had made to them. They had all kinds of reasons to “lose their heads” and just dissolve into disappointment, bitterness and fear.

Yet, Isaiah dared to recall for them the sovereign power of God and also his fatherly care and love for them. Isaiah dared to tell them to just wait … to hold off the clanging noises of the stress and panic and wait for the Lord. Isaiah assures them that their situation, their plight has not been forgotten by God or gone unnoticed. Hear again what he wrote them:

27 Why do you say, O Jacob,    and speak, O Israel, ‘My way is hidden from the Lord,    and my right is disregarded by my God’? 28 Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God,    the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary;    his understanding is unsearchable. 29 He gives power to the faint,    and strengthens the powerless.

Such an assurance from the prophet requires a good deal of faith and trust in God and a great memory … recalling that God has cared for them in the past and will not leave them destitute.

Dr. Carl comments upon our theological amnesia a bit more when he writes:

The real problem is that we have forgotten who we are. There is a kind of theological identity crisis in the church today. We do not know who we are as Christians anymore. We do not remember what we believe or why we believe it. No wonder we feel lost and alone. No wonder we have no idea how to talk with the world about our faith.

The good doctor has a good point indeed.

Dr. Verity Jones of Christian Theological Seminary writes also about how we regain such memory. Or, better put, how we retain this memory actively:

And God’s understanding is not likely to be revealed to us instantaneously on a mountaintop or during a solar eclipse. Instead, we come to know how God works in the world through years of living with God and God’s people. Years of exploring, seeking, reflecting, and acting with God. Over time, through Bible study, worship, practices of faith like hospitality and forgiveness, stewardship and service, we come to a place of knowing God’s ways, even if we cannot sufficiently put it into words.

How is it that you are experiencing lostness or captivity in your life? Whatever it is that may be causing you to forget the story that we share in the face of some great crisis, remember that this God who has made you, loves you and cherishes you. Your ways and troubles, your tribulations and your own little panics are not unknown to God; indeed, God knows …

Whatever that panic is that rising within you; whatever that crisis is that puts your memory of God’s gracious care to the test, remember now the words of Isaiah to people lost in captivity and seeming hopelessness:

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.

Providential: Mark 1:21-28 & Psalm 111; Epiphany 4 – February 1, 2015

Rev. Martin R. Ankrum

            It should not come as a surprise to say that our faith, the Christian faith, is not based merely on how we feel or what we experience. And yet, though we may know this intellectually, it is often to our feelings and our experiences that we resort when contemplating our faith in God.

The Christian faith is rooted in the truth of scripture and the confession of the church over the long centuries of its existence. Our faith then must also be rooted in the truth of scripture even when our feelings and our experiences seem to be at odds with what we find in the pages of the Bible or hear from the history of the confessions of the church.

This morning, we heard the 111th Psalm. This is a beautiful work of testimony to the greatness and goodness of God. The psalm in its original Hebrew form is an acrostic poem … that is, each line begins with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet, all done in succession. In other words, from A-Z, the power, goodness and providence of God is praised in this psalm. The psalmist wants to communicate to the people of Israel the comprehensive nature of God’s providential care for them and for all creation.

Now, there are moments in our lives when we certainly have felt and experienced this providential care. For some it has been in the moment of staring at a particularly beautiful sunset, safe in the company of the one they love. For others it might have been their first glance of the Grand Canyon or the shores of the Atlantic or Pacific Ocean and wondering either aloud or silently at the might and power of God in creation. For others still it might have been at the birth of their first child or that almost magical moment of realizing that they are in love. Whatever the experience, we have all had some sense of feelings God’s provision for creation and for us.

Yet, we can contrast those moments with equally as powerful times when God has felt distant from us and we have found ourselves suffering and hurting. It may not even have had to have been a personal experience, for there is enough suffering in the world for us to be emphatic of other’s difficulties and wonder about the provision of God for those in the midst of such suffering. The truth is probably though that we have all suffered in some way during our lives.

It is in those kinds of moments that we might wonder about the ultimate goodness of God. “If God is good,” we might ask, “then why do bad things happen to us?” Of course, this is the very question that Rabbi Harold Kushner poised in his little book: When Bad Things Happen to Good People.

Kushner’s struggling with these difficult questions led him to believe that either God was not all powerful or not all loving, for if both were true, than bad things would not happen. Ultimately, Kushner’s reasoning is facile and shallow even while some of it may make some sense to us, for when we are hurting, we want comforting answers and a resolution.

This is why the Christian faith is a confessional faith not just a faith based upon our feelings or experience. We look to the scriptures and see that God has God’s own reasoning and rationality for what occurs. Within scripture, we learn that not only is God the creator of the universe, but that he is also the sustainer of all that is. It is God who is actively involved in the provision of the world.

Maybe one of the earliest forms of confession in this manner comes from a story in the first book of the Bible: Genesis. Abraham, who is old and has been promised a son for years and then, receiving one in Isaac, is asked by God to sacrifice this only son upon a mountain. On the way up the mountain, Abraham is asked by his son Isaac where the ram is for the sacrifice, not knowing what had transpired between his father and God. In trust and faith, Abraham only utters: “God will provide.”

Though to some this may look like blind faith or utter indifference to the situation that is seemingly about to befall the innocent Isaac, but instead it is the testimony of a faith that defies the feelings and the events of the current moment and draws upon the history of God’s provision in times past. Abraham has learned over his long life to place his trust in God’s ability to provide … even when faced with a truly horrendous prospect.

I very much appreciate what the great twentieth-century Presbyterian theologian, Shirley Guthrie has written of this doctrine of providence:

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 in the future. … Their memory and hope is our memory and hope too – and the basis of a Christian doctrine of providence.

The 111th Psalm reminds us that there is a God who provides for us and for all the world, no matter what we may be experiencing now or have experienced. This God deserves our full reverence and devotion for this is the God who does, ultimately, provide.

Joined: Acts 19:1-7 & Mark 1:4-11; Baptism of the Lord – January 11, 2015

Rev. Martin R. Ankrum

            There are many ways in our human family by which we either identify ourselves or by which identifications for us have been made. For example, we do not choose into which family we are born, or by which ethnic group we are identified. We do not select our gender or the place of our birth; these, for most of us, are “givens” in the sense of identifying aspects of our human condition.

Some elements of identification we select for ourselves … such as the vocation to which we apply ourselves or the person with whom we decide we wish to spent our lives with.

Both of this morning’s scripture readings speak of baptism. One is a report of the practice of baptism in the early church and the other is Mark’s rendition of the Baptism of Jesus Christ in the river Jordan by his cousin John the Baptist.

In the gospel passage, this is the introduction of Jesus Christ that Mark has selected. Most of us are aware that the Christmas narratives from which we draw many of our Christmas traditions are found in only two of the four gospels: Matthew and Luke. The Gospels of Mark and John contain no such stories of Bethlehem, the stable and the attending shepherds brought there by the call of angels. Mark and John begin their gospels differently. Mark chooses to open his with this dramatic story of Christ’s baptism.

Some have wondered about this in the long centuries since the appearance of Jesus Christ. Some in the Christian church have asserted that Mark begins with this because it is a way of explaining God’s adoption of a good man, Jesus of Nazareth, as his Son; the Messiah. This, however, is not the case. This is not a story of adoption, but rather a story of identification.

In the Baptism of Christ, we see again God’s great intention to identify himself fully and completely with his children; with humankind. Jesus, who is without sin and in no need of repentance, comes to his cousin, John the Baptist, so that he fully identifies himself with those whom God has sent him to save. He comes to the Jordan River and steps into the water so that he might fully and completely be understand as God come to humanity for the sake of humankind and the sake of love. In baptism, God in Jesus Christ is joined to humankind that demonstrates his irrevocable resolve to salvage a relationship that was intended from the very beginnings of creation.

In our baptism, we are joined surely and completely to Jesus Christ. This is not something that we have done in the act of baptism, but rather something that God’s very Spirit has done with us.

You may wish to look for a moment to the front cover of the bulletin where I have reprinted a salient point from our denomination’s Study Catechism. In answer to the question of what it means to be baptized, the following first sentence is so telling and so affirming to us: “My baptism means that I am joined to Jesus Christ forever.”

Amongst all the identifications that are afforded us in our human condition, this is the one that matters absolutely the most: In baptism, we are joined to Jesus Christ forever. This determination, this identification should hold the primary spot when we describe ourselves … it is something that is about us, yes, but it is much more a testimony of God’s love for us and for all humankind in Jesus Christ. In baptism, we are joined to Christ forever.

The final word in that sentence should strike us: forever. This is not a temporary or provisionally arrangement in baptism; it is a permanent re-ordering of things. We belong no longer to ourselves, to our race, our country or even our family: in baptism, we belong to God in Jesus Christ fully and completely. This is not a matter of God giving us a period of grace by which we can prove ourselves somehow worthy of this designation or this adoption as the children of God. No, we can never merit or win our place as children of God; it has been given to us because of the grace of and in Jesus Christ. And this grace rests upon us forever; we can do nothing to remove it or cause God to withdraw it: in baptism we are joined with Christ forever.

This should be exceedingly good news to us, for we learn that our salvation and our hope lies not in ourselves but in the One whom God has sent for us: Jesus Christ. Our hope is thus not in the identifications that we take in our existence or that are given by factors of heredity or geographical location: our hope is solely and completely in Jesus Christ.

Martin Luther, the great Reformer of the church, was so convinced of this truth that it was a watchword with him. Luther, a man thoroughly of his age and times, was one who was taken to panic in the midst of thunderstorms, inclement weather and bleak circumstances. Yet, no matter what he faced, whenever he felt this panic of human existence and the human condition rise in his chest, he would utter aloud: “I am baptized … I am baptized.”

This little saying was not some kind of magical incantation for him or talisman to hedge off the evil spirits that he may have felt surrounded him. It was a reminder to himself that he had been plucked from ultimate desperation and given a hope that resided not in his own abilities or talents or gifts, but resided surely and completely in his Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Today, I call you to remember your own baptism as we celebrate Christ’s baptism. In so doing, recall that you are not alone in this world; you are not left alone to your own devices and your own abilities, but that we are joined forever to the One who holds us all with grace and love.

Incarnated Love: Luke 1:26-38 Luke 1:46b-55; Advent 4 – December 21, 2014

Rev. Martin R. Ankrum

Though the story may be familiar to us that we hear this day, our familiarity with it should not blur the radical nature of what is being reported by the text. In the story, a young girl, betrothed to a man of some significance, is visited by the angel Gabriel with a fantastic announcement.

Now, this announcement we have all heard before. None of us are surprised by the content of the angel’s announcement. We see it emblazoned upon Christmas cards and we have heard it countless times since we were small and eager children awaiting the appointed day of Christmas. The news that we hear this day in the reading from the Gospel of Luke no longer shocks us in any way.

However, if we take a long hard look at the passage, we see the radically, world-upside-down nature of this transaction between the human and the divine.

Diana Butler-Bass relates an exchange between Phyllis Tickle, renowned Biblical scholar and a teen-aged boy about this particular passage:

After presenting a lecture in a large southern cathedral, Phyllis Tickle was asked what she thought about the Virgin Birth. The discussion grew heated, but after the question-and-answer period a young man, about seventeen years old, came up to her and said politely, ‘Ma’am, there’s something I don’t understand.’ She was prepared to delve more deeply into the complexities of the Virgin Birth with him, but then he said, ‘I don’t understand why everyone is so upset about this. I believe in the Virgin Birth. It is so beautiful that it has just got to be true – whether it happened or not.’ Phyllis felt a shift occur with the young man’s words. ‘He had moved beyond mere facts to understanding based on apprehending beauty. I felt like I was standing on holy ground.’

Maybe not just a shift based upon an apprehension of beauty, but more like an apprehending by faith. The story that we hear this day both requires and elicits faith from us. It is a faith that we don’t gin-up, as it were, to fully comply with some kind of doctrinal obedience to the orthodoxy of the Christian faith, but rather a faith that comes to us as a gift precisely because of how strange and yet beautiful this story really is!

The shocking aspects of the story are not so much the perspective of the physical possibilities of a virgin birth, but more so the scandal of God becoming human for our sakes. In the news of the angel Gabriel is the announcement that God will no longer be far off from the human condition, from the human plight and struggle, but will, forevermore, enter into the human condition and be with us fully and completely. This is the radical nature of the announcement that is both strange and beautiful all at once.

I like very much how the great theologian Karl Barth put it in one of the sermons he delivered in the mid-1950’s. Karl Barth, world-renowned theologian, living in Basel, Switzerland made it a point to preach each Sunday. He did not deliver these sermons in the great cathedral in Basel or even in a small, Reformed church in the city limits. Barth would trudge each Sunday up to the city jail and deliver his sermon to the waiting inmates. In a sermon delivered on Christmas Day of 1954, this is what the great professor said:

But we hear this news – don’t we? – thinking: ‘Why should I be concerned? This is entirely a matter between him and them.’ In contrast, the angel of the Lord points to Bethlehem, saying, ‘for to you is born this day a Savior.’ For your sake God was not content to be God but willed to become man; for you he emptied himself that you may be exalted; for you he gave himself that you may be lifted up and drawn unto him. The wondrous deed brought him no gain, fulfilled no need of his. It was accomplished only for you, for us. The Christmas story then is a story that is enacted with us and for us.

The point then is exactly this … the news that we hear from the angel Gabriel to the young virgin is not for the sake of God. This is not a need of God that he would become human like you and me; this is a direct answer to our need; a direct intervention by the holy for the sake of we who are less than holy. It is in the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ that we are gathered together and called finally and completely the people of God. This is God’s doing and not ours and yet we are the beneficiaries of it.

This is the strange and beautiful part again: that God would empty himself so that we might be filled. Mary gets this great mysterious interaction and sings beautifully to the point. Her acceptance of Gods’ work in her life bestows to us a model of how God wishes to work in our midst: this is the work of God in our lives. We do not do this work FOR God, God performs this great strange, mysterious and beautiful miracle FOR US.

The question of how all this comes about is really beside the point, I suppose. It is God’s work. I like very much how The Study Catechism of our own denomination answers the question of the incarnation. We have printed it on the front of your bulletin cover for this Sunday. Allow me to read it to you:

  1. 35. How can Jesus be truly God and yet also truly human at the same time?

The mystery of Jesus Christ’s divine-human unity passes our understanding; only faith given by the Holy Spirit enables us to affirm it. When Holy Scripture depicts Jesus as someone with divine power, status and authority, it presupposes his humanity. And when it depicts him as someone with human weakness, neediness and mortality, it presupposes his deity. We cannot understand how this should be, but we can trust that the God who made heaven and earth is free to become God incarnate and thus to be God with us in this wonderful and awe-inspiring way.

In the end it is a strange and mysterious thing that happens. It is the coming of God into this world, the welcome invasion of the divine smashing quietly into the realm of human condition and plight … it is the beguilingly beautiful act of love become incarnated into the world that the world might be saved … this is the truth.

Barbara Brown Taylor has written of this in her supposition of the choices that Mary may have had … the same kind of choices that we have to this news and announcement of the angel:

If you decide to say No you simply drop your eyes and refuse to look up until you know the angel has left the room and you are alone again. Then you smooth your hair and go back to your spinning or your reading or whatever it is that is most familiar to you and pretend that nothing has happened … Or you can set your book down and listen to a strange creature’s strange idea. You can decide to take part in a thrilling and dangerous scheme with no script and no guarantees. You can agree to smuggle God into the world inside your body.

We have all heard this story before. We see it emblazoned upon Christmas cards and banners … let us resist the urge to go back to the familiar and pretend that nothing has happened … let us welcome the One who comes to us for us and for the sake of the world.

Meditation – Moravian Lovefeast: Romans 12:9-21; Advent 3 – December 14, 2014

Rev. Martin R. Ankrum

Jonathan Edwards, the great early American preacher, is known for a sermon entitled: “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Most of us read the sermon as part of an American Literature class in High School. The sermon contains the memorable analogy of a spider being suspended by a web over a fire. It’s an image by which Rev. Edwards is known by most.

However, Edwards’s greatest sermon is not as well known. Three years before he preached the “Sinners” sermon, Edwards delivered a sermon to his congregation in Northampton entitled: “Heaven Is a World of Love.” In this beautiful homily, Edwards sets forth that in heaven, in God’s final and ultimate kingdom, hatred will be banished and all the inhabitants of the world will be marked by pure, undiluted love.

It’s a wonderful sentiment and unfortunately, that’s where the concept of love and faith often resides in our culture: sentimentality. But Edwards, preaching from Paul’s great chapter on love in his First Letter to the Corinthians, finds that love is something much greater than mere sentimentality: love is the manner by which God relates to all creation and all creatures, and love is thus, the manner by which all humanity is called to relate to one another. In Edwards’s assessment of Paul’s text, he perceives of love as a force … the very power of God to transform the world into a heavenly place.

That is an appealing notion for us in our time and in our culture today. We see demonstrations of hatred far more often than we see exhibitions of love on cultural or large scales. People have taken to the streets in protests that boil over into near-riots over the hurt they have felt at the hands a justice system that they have found unjust. Our government has recently issued a report on the “enhanced interrogation techniques” used on foreign combatants that demonstrates a reliance on torture to acquire information that seemingly would protect its citizenry. All of this leaves love well behind in the wake of cries for justice and security at the cost of violence done to others. A greater and deeper understanding of love is needed.

This morning, as we participate in a tradition that we Presbyterians did not originate, but comes to us from the Moravian denomination, we are asked to share in a lovefeast. The origins of this shared meal is traced by the innovators of the feast to the early Christian church which would gather to eat together before they would participate in the Lord’s Supper or Communion. The idea was that food was to be shared equally and lovingly with one another, as at a family feast, where all would be filled before they would approach the Lord’s Table.

The emphasis in the Lovefeast was the very act of sharing out of love for Jesus Christ and love for neighbor. The meal was simple and inelegant, nourishing to body before the soul nourishment of the Lord’s Supper was invoked. The emphasis was upon love.

What we share with the Moravians is our conviction that it is by love that God seeks to transform not only our individual lives and souls, but the life of this world. It is for the sake of love, that God has entered the world in Jesus Christ to give of himself freely and completely in order that the world might be saved. As Christians, we still believe that love is the only hope for humankind. In the action of love between one another, the presence of Jesus Christ, the very presence of God is found.

Some will say that this is all just good feeling and flowery intention, but the realities of the world demonstrate that something more forceful, something more just, something more protecting of our security is needed than love. Well, if that is the answer, then why is the world, where legitimating any action for the sake of security or justice is practiced, still so filled with hatred and distrust?

The Christian will continue to answer that love is precisely what is needed; that love is precisely how God is working; and that ultimately love will overcome all barriers and all other powers. That is the Advent hope and the Advent promise: that God’s love is stronger than hate, might, and death … and in Jesus Christ this is fulfilled. Let love be genuine!

Bearing Witness: Mark 1:1-8 & Isaiah 40:1-11; Advent 2 – December 7, 2014

Rev. Martin R. Ankrum

With whom do you agree? With whom do you see, as they say, “eye to eye?” With whom do you feel a sense of unity and accord?

That reminds me of a little joke: Do you know that the Bible specifies what kind of car the early Christians drove? Why we all know it was not a Chevrolet or a Ford or even a Land Rover, it was, of course, a Honda! How do we know this? Because the Book of Acts assures us that the “disciples were together in one accord.” Well, I told you it was a LITTLE joke, didn’t I?

Anyway, if the number of folks with which you agree or are in one accord with is shrinking, don’t be too surprised. It seems that our culture is becoming increasingly polarized and people are more willing to actually let differences remain rather than seek to reconcile them in any real or healthy fashion. I have no hard fast proof for this, rather just anecdotal evidence from observation …

For the Christian, this should not be. It’s not that we are asked to agree with each other, “24-7-365” as the saying goes, but rather that we should experience unity as brothers and sisters in Christ.

Unity is not uniformity. We are not being called to be exactly like one another, but rather, in the spirit of the One who has reconciled us to God, we are called to be reconciled one to another. We are called to love one another as Jesus has provided the ultimate model of self-sacrifice over the more prevalent values of self-determination and self-definition.

That’s why, I suppose, that phrase of description in the Isaiah passage for this day stands out in my mind so much. I’ve read it a hundred times, if I’ve read it once, but this time, for some reason, that little phrase stands like a beacon of hope:

“And all flesh shall see it together.”

The “it” in that sentence, is of course, the glorious restoration that Isaiah is prophesying that is coming to the people of Israel; the very glory of God. Those who have been in captivity and slavery are now about to receive the blessing of God: a way is being prepared in the wilderness that will, in fact, return them home. That is the hope to which Isaiah speaks … not his own word, but the very word of God.

The amazing thing about this is that this restoration, this new day, this new dawn of redemption is global in nature and not merely parochial, for, as the English Standard Version renders it, “all flesh shall see it together.”

Can you imagine that? This coming restoration is so complete and so universal that it will be unarguable, beyond debate! All people shall perceive it, shall understand and comprehend it TOGETHER! There will be no discussion over the hermeneutics of the event; no varying description that sets one observer over the other because of his or her abilities to interpret the event. No, in the coming kingdom of God, all flesh shall see the glory of the Lord, TOGETHER.

This is exactly way this text is always included in our Advent commemoration: we look for a coming kingdom where ALL peoples, ALL flesh, will see the glory of the Lord and there will be no argument or dispute; the periphery will be put away and the central truth of God’s love for humanity will shine through so brightly that all creation will be redeemed.

At least that is the Advent hope; that is our hope and yet it should not be far off from us, but rather should be anticipated and practiced in our midst.

I have learned many things from my wonderful wife; most of them useful. One of things that she instructed me in very early in our relationship was educational theory; especially about the use of “anticipatory sets” which is what Advent is all about anyway. Anticipatory sets are activities that involve the students in the meat of the lesson plan before the lesson is actually revealed or further defined.

In the same way, the Christian life is an anticipatory set for the coming kingdom of God: we are called to live our lives as if the kingdom were already here, in our midst and fully present, for indeed, in many ways, it is and remains yet to come. We are called to live lives that show forth this coming glory of the Lord, this great unity of heart and soul directed to the purposes of God. That is our calling; not to argue and divide ourselves over every little issue that comes down the pike.

About a decade ago, this congregation sponsored 17 of us to travel to Guatemala to work at the Agua Viva Children’s Home. It was a great trip and we learned a lot and accomplished some; but most of all, we lived in the presence of grace as we lived with those young children and their faithful and wonderful caretakers.

We were divided into teams of workers and given projects: some reorganized a jumbled dispensary and clothing warehouse; others painted and refurbished restrooms and living quarters; my group worked on a road gang. Really! We were charged with rebuilding the entrance road to the Children’s Home.

Every morning, my little group would dutifully and faithfully wheel wheelbarrows filled with rock, gravel and soil to fill the gigantic ruts and grooves cut into the weathered road. Every afternoon, the rains would come and wash away all the work that we had done and then, the next day, we got up and started our work TOGETHER again.

We were greatly frustrated at first; being good Americans we wanted to see progress and the work of our hands to be eternal … or at least last longer than the day. But after a few days, we got use to the rhythms of work, disaster and small success, for little by little, we won out over the rains and the road was finished.

I tell that story because it’s my only practical experience of road building or, in a Biblical sense, preparing the way. It took all of us on the team, working together, patiently accepting the small successes over our grandiose visions and thanking God for the opportunity to work TOGETHER.

I am convinced that if we had argued over every little rut and groove that we had to smooth out along the way, we would still be in Guatemala, struggling just to get up in the morning, let alone doing the work of God. No, it took all of us, putting aside our differences about just how the work should be done to actually do the work.

In that is a parable, I think about the life that we are called to lead in this middle time of living anticipatory sets that give testimony to what life can be like when all flesh sees the glory of the Lord TOGETHER.

In Advent, let us hear aright the call to prepare a way in the wilderness, by laying aside the peripheral disagreements and find, instead, at the center, the glory of the Lord which has dawned, is dawning and is yet to dawn in all of our hearts.

The Ultimate End: Restoration: Mark 13:24-37; Advent 1 – November 30, 2014

Rev. Martin R. Ankrum

We are the ultimate consumers. We live in a culture that praises our abilities to consume and actually thrives economically on conspicuous consumption. This consumerism is so ingrained in us that we question our usefulness to the society and to humankind as a whole whenever we fail to consume or if we fast from consuming. We are convinced consumers.

This is not a sermon about the rampant consumerism of the cultural celebration of Christmas; don’t get me wrong here. Though there is ample that could be said on this topic, this is not the theme of this sermon despite having just survived the latest onslaught of Black Friday advertisements and inducements to believe that somehow at the bottom of our celebration of a Christian holiday there is a need for us to buy our way to “the best Christmas ever.”

No, this is not a sermon about Christmas associated consumerism.

However, this sermon is about one of the aspects that such consumerism brings to us; a by-product, if you will, of our concentration upon the power we possess in purchasing, ordering and receiving things and goods. We begin to believe that we are ultimately in charge. There is so much consumer power available to us: at the click of a mouse or the touch of our I-phone’s screen, we can have what we want and we can have it delivered fairly quickly. With such technology driven by our consumerism, we are bound to begin to believe that we are ultimately in charge of things.

This is the counter measure that the celebration of Advent brings to us: a reminder … a significant reminder that we are not in charge here. Ultimately, it is God, Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, who is in charge of all things, including our lives and the destiny of all creation.

We need the kind of reminder that Advent brings to us, for we, like our brothers and sisters of this culture, are fairly convinced of our own power to shape our lives, provide for our sustenance and generally run things as we see fit. Our emphasis upon the strength of the individual in our society, when it is not being downplayed by some of the social forces that appear to limit opportunities or abilities, is a prime determiner of our self-definitions and personal understanding. We like to see ourselves as capable, able and above all, in charge.

Jesus warns his disciples that the world is not in the hands of human powers, but rather in the hands of Almighty God. There are signs in the events that surround his followers that appear to give this ominous warning that things are spinning out of control and only God can contain the onslaught of chaos. Yet, this brief apocalyptic scene should not be cause for concern for the people of God. Jesus affirms to his listeners that God is at work in this seemingly chaotic and challenging world. Our calling is to remain alert to the signs of the time and look for the ultimate restoration and culmination of all things in him. This can seem a daunting task and a tall order indeed!

For all the talk of the revolutionary aspects of Jesus and his ministry, he does not tell his followers to take things into their own hands and fight to bring about the Kingdom of God. Instead, he draws upon the natural processes of the world and bids his followers to be observant of such things as fig trees, which bring fruit at the appropriate time: in their season. Jesus is assuring the people of God that God is at work and at the appropriate time, in the right season, this great restoration of all things will come … in God’s time and by the very work of God.

One commentator I read is convinced that Jesus’ talk of coming in “the clouds with great power and glory” is really an allusion to the resurrection of Jesus himself. In the resurrection of Jesus Christ, the people of God are gathered to become the church; a reality that cannot fully and completely exist without the victory over death that is the resurrection of Jesus Christ. I am inclined to agree with this commentator.

In the resurrection of Jesus Christ, God is at work setting the world aright; restoring and redeeming what has been lost and returning his creation to himself. This is what is happening in the resurrection and it doesn’t come to full fruition all at once … it begins to dawn upon us just as light dawns upon us and draws us in.

The lighting of the candles on the Advent wreath is a perfect reminder of this reality. Little by little, week by week, the candles are lit so that at the end of the Advent season, the wreath appears ablaze with light. The work of God in Jesus Christ is like this. We cannot control this coming of light; we can’t buy it or consume it by our own great powers … we must learn to live in anticipation and wait for it as it stretches out to us; as it reaches us. The coming of Advent, like the final restoration of all things, is not in our hands, but rather it is fully and completely in the hands of God. Advent then defies our consumeristic need to have things on our terms and in our time. It takes time …

Thomas Long, my former homiletics professor at Princeton, brings this kind of waiting into a personal realm of restoration and redemption. He tells a wonderful story:

A minister friend of mine in Atlanta at a downtown church planned one evening to go out to eat with his wife to celebrate their anniversary. His wife met him at the church, and the two of them headed out to the parking lot to take the car to the restaurant. But when they got outside they encountered a crisis. An elderly woman, a desperate look on her face, was kneeling on the sidewalk beside a man, her husband as it turns out, who was lying on his back in pain clutching his chest. My friend’s wife ran quickly back into the church to call an ambulance, and my friend leaned over to comfort the man. “We have called for some help and they will be here soon . . . ,” he began, but the man interrupted him.

            “Charlie, forgive me,” the man said.

            “I’m not Charlie,” my friend said. “My name is Sam.” What Sam did not know until later is that Charlie was the man’s son, and years before the man had, in a rage over something, disowned Charlie, and the two had not spoken in years.

            The man looked up at Sam and reached out and touched his hand. “Charlie, please, forgive me.”

            “Just relax,” Sam said. “Somebody will be here soon to get you to the hospital.”

            But the man suddenly clutched in terrible pain, and it was now clear that he would not make it to the hospital. With his last gasping energy he pulled on Sam’s arm and begged, “Charlie, please, forgive me.”

            Sam followed his faithful instinct, reached out and put his hand on the man’s forehead as a blessing and said, “I do forgive you. I do forgive you.” Those were the last words the man ever heard in this life.

            Later, when he learned what the circumstances were, Sam wondered if he had done the right thing. “I am not his son. The relationship was still broken. What right did I have to grant forgiveness,” Sam wondered. Then it came to him that his whole ministry was about this, that the whole Christian faith is about this. We have been given in Christ a restoration and a reconciliation that is already true, already whole, and we are beckoned from God’s fullness to live into God’s future and toward what has already been given as a gift.

And the light begins to dawn, one candle at a time … until the whole of Advent is ablaze with light: God’s perfect, redeeming light for us.

An Encounter with Prayer: Matt. 25:14-30 & Psalm 123; Pentecost 23 – November 16, 2014

Rev. Martin R. Ankrum

I heard two little stories this past week that dealt with the subject of prayer and liked them so well, I thought I would pass them along:

A substitute Sunday School teacher was struggling to open a combination lock on the supply cabinet. She had been told the combination, but couldn’t quite remember it. Finally she went to the pastor’s study and asked for help. The pastor came into the room and began to turn the dial. After the first two numbers he paused and stared blankly for a moment.  Finally he looked serenely heavenward and his lips moved silently. Then he looked back at the lock, and quickly turned to the final number, and opened the lock. The teacher was amazed. “I’m in awe at your faith, pastor,” she said. “It’s really nothing,” he answered. “The number is on a piece of tape on the ceiling.”

And this one, my personal favorite …

A young boy called the pastor of a local “corner” church to ask the pastor to come by to pray for his mother who had been very ill with the flu. The pastor knew the family and was aware they had been attending another church down the road. So the pastor asked, “Shouldn’t you be asking Brother Simon down the road to come by to pray with your mom?” The young boy replied, “Yeah, but we didn’t want to take the chance that he might catch whatever this is that Mom has.”

Though these are two cute and funny little stories, prayer is a serious thing in the life of a church and in the lives of the followers of Jesus Christ. Prayer is the very life blood of the church, for there is no worship of God without prayer, without the direct communication with the Almighty that is offered when we quiet ourselves and turns our hearts and minds towards the One who is the object and subject of our worship.

The 123rd Psalm, just read as our Second Lesson, has been called “one of the loveliest prayers in all of Scripture.” Walter Brueggemann, great Old Testament scholar goes on to say that this prayer is “simple and direct, trusting and confident, spoken out of need and in much hope.”

In essence, this is exactly how our prayers should be offered to the Almighty: simply and directly, brimming with a trust and confidence born from past experiences of prayer and the hope of future encounters with the One who is indeed creator of all things and sustainer of our lives and the life of the world. The author of this psalter prayer is one who knows God as a merciful, loving and caring Almighty; One who deigns to hear what is offered and be present with us in our greatest needs and our happiest joys.

Prayer is an offering of our very selves to God. In prayer, we acknowledge that we are the children of God, that we need divine guidance, that we have a need to turn towards God in gratitude and hope for all things.

Calvin, the great Reformer, wrote much about prayer including this aspect of sharing of our selves with God:

…that there may enter our hearts no desire and no wish at all of which we should be ashamed to make [God]a witness, while we learn to set all our wishes before his eyes, and even to pour out our whole hearts.

Prayer, then, is the very work of the people of God. In this we give ourselves freely to God, casting all our cares upon the One whom we know already knows our cares and concerns, but the mere vocalization of those worries lifts the burdens of life a bit and reminds us that we are not alone in both our struggles and in our celebrations.

Prayer is the work of the people of God because it is in prayer that we acknowledge that we are not our own, but that we belong body and soul to Jesus Christ. We are not independent actors on the stage of life, but rather live and breathe and move in the very theater of God. With prayer, we admit that we are not the masters of our life or the captains of the ship; we are but the mates aboard, the servants of a loving and caring master.

And this too is worth remembering: that in prayer we are addressing the Almighty, not our buddy down the street or a co-worker in the office. In prayer, we turn to the Maker and Sustainer of all things and offer ourselves.

Neta Pringle, a Presbyterian minister, puts it well when she writes:

‘Have you talked to the man upstairs?’ So began a popular song from years ago. It implied that God is nothing more than the neighbor in the apartment above us. Wrong! The Creator and Sustainer of the universe is totally other, a God of power and might, the master of those whom God has created. This is the God who demands our attention and our commitment. Does that sound harsh? Why look for help to a God who is anything less?

I agree with Rev. Pringle. Sometimes we lose sight of exactly whom we are addressing in prayer. This is one of the advantages of making use of prayers that we have not authored or that have just popped into our heads. Over the last three years, I have enjoyed praying the prayers of others. It’s not that I don’t have the creativity to put my own thoughts into words directed towards God, but it is more that when I do just carry my thoughts to God, I tend to limit the scope of my prayers. My prayers become about me and my concerns and I miss the great witness of the church and confine my conversation to things of lesser degree than having my own concerns included in the concerns of others.

There is, of course, more to say about prayer. There is the aspect of praying by reading the scriptures and allowing the vocabulary of the Bible to shape just how we address God. There is the aspect of prayer as a discipline, praying routinely rather than we have a felt need or concern to bring to God. There is the aspect of prayer as the ongoing, continual heart-conversation with God that could be explored, but our time is limited here, so this will have to suffice for now.

Regardless, remember that prayer is your calling … it is the work that God has set before you to share yourself with the One who made you. To let all things that concern you or comforts you to be brought before him. The one thing that we can say for sure about prayer … we don’t do it enough.

A Summary of a Godly Life: Matthew 22:34-40; Commitment Sunday; October 26, 2014

Rev. Martin R. Ankrum

How much is enough? We hear this question more than we probably think. It is a ubiquitous question in our culture. From the current concerns over enough precautions in regards to a possible Ebola outbreak to the considerations of the size of our pension plans and savings accounts when contemplating retirement to even answering the very same question from our adolescents wondering about time spent studying for a test; we are plagued with the very human question: “How much is enough?”

As many of you know, I’m in the midst of working on my doctorate and I’m right at critical junction. I have one more twenty-page paper due on November 1. This is the final paper that is required before I can dive into the real heart of the degree: composing a 175 page thesis document which meets the approval of the faculty at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary and confers upon me the degree I’ve been seeking.

Well, as I have been dawdling in writing this last little paper, I have found myself asking quietly, again and again: “Does it really have be 20 pages in length?” I’ve thought it through and found myself bargaining a bit with my own conscience: “I’ve done very well with the eight papers I’ve written for the project, I’ll bet I could by with 18 pages … and if I count the bibliography and endnotes, that ought to get me to 20?”

Of course, some days are better than others and I’ve found myself thinking as the deadline looms closer and closer, now within a week: “Well, maybe 16 pages could get me to squeak by …” As you can see, even at 52 years of age, there is still something of the adolescent in some of my thinking!

Twenty pages as a minimum is what is expected and twenty pages is what I will have to render. If I don’t, I’m merely cheating myself really out of the experience and the practice of writing in formation of the coming harder task of completing the thesis. Yet, still, we often wonder: “What is enough?”

It is as if the lawyer in the passage from the Gospel of Matthew is asking Jesus the very same question in his query of what is the most important commandments to follow. The lawyer wants a distillation or at least a focusing point where he can be assured that his investment of obedience to the commandments might be the most fully rewarded. He is essentially asking: “What’s really the important stuff I need to know to be a good follower of God? How much is enough?”

Jesus’s response to the query is telling. We have sense come to call this the “summary of the law.” In these two simple statements, Jesus covers what it means to live a godly life, a life pointed squarely towards God. This is not to say that this is a mere distillation and a short-cut of some kind; this is the very heart of the call of the follower of Jesus Christ; the very heart of the kingdom of God.

First of all, Christ calls us all to love God with all our heart, soul and mind. This is a big deal. This, in a simple phraseology, conveys a deep and profound truth: God wants all of us. God does not want from us just a compartmentalized self that sees to our religious duties on a Sunday morning and forgets the life to which we have been called the rest of the week. No, God wants all of us; every bit of us. God does not want a bi-furcated soul that learns how to behave in church and then forgets all about compassion and justice when one enters the work-a-day world. No, God wants all of us; every bit of us.

A corollary to this very demanding call is the challenge that Jesus places before us in regards to our treatments of others. We are called to love our neighbors as our selves.

In an article about the text written by Patrick Gray, he comments: “Love of oneself is neither praised nor condemned but merely taken for granted. Love of God and neighbor receives the primary emphasis.”

In fact, most of the time, we tend to skip over the first part of this summary and focus upon love of neighbor as if love of God is a for-gone conclusion. It is not however and the two are tied eternally together in Christ’s answer to the lawyer. We are called to love God with all that we have and love our neighbors with the same love and care we take for ourselves.

But what does it mean to love God with our whole heart, soul and mind? What does that encompass … well, as you may have guessed already: everything. There is no part of us that God does not want … he wants us to love him with the totality of our very being. All that we are and have been and ever shall be should be directed towards loving God. There is nothing that can be left out.

There is a story that is told from the New Testament book of Acts that is telling about such giving completely. Usually, the Stewardship Committee warns me off using this story from scripture, but with all my distraction with the paper I’m writing, I just didn’t have time to ask their approval. Oh, well …

The early church was in the midst of sharing all things in common, giving of themselves completely for the care of the poor and needy and attempting to live out these very commandments from Christ. Here’s how the story goes:

But a man named Ananias, with the consent of his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property; 2with his wife’s knowledge, he kept back some of the proceeds, and brought only a part and laid it at the apostles’ feet. 3‘Ananias,’ Peter asked, ‘why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back part of the proceeds of the land? 4While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, were not the proceeds at your disposal? How is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You did not lie to us* but to God!’ 5Now when Ananias heard these words, he fell down and died. And great fear seized all who heard of it. 6The young men came and wrapped up his body,* then carried him out and buried him.

7 After an interval of about three hours his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. 8Peter said to her, ‘Tell me whether you and your husband sold the land for such and such a price.’ And she said, ‘Yes, that was the price.’ 9Then Peter said to her, ‘How is it that you have agreed together to put the Spirit of the Lord to the test? Look, the feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out.’ 10Immediately she fell down at his feet and died. When the young men came in they found her dead, so they carried her out and buried her beside her husband. 11And great fear seized the whole church and all who heard of these things.

Now this strikes me as the perfect time to remind you that today is Commitment Sunday!

All kidding aside, the message of the story is about the dangers of attempting to compartmentalize or withhold something of ourselves from God. In the final analysis, God wants our whole hearts, souls and minds, not because God is a selfish god, who wants us only thinking and acting towards him, but rather because our lives are never truly right until their oriented as they should be … with our love for God and our care for neighbors at the very center of all we are and do.

How much IS enough? It is a question that we ask about many things and especially we ask it of ourselves when it comes to Commitment Sunday. The answer is different of course for different people.

There’s another sentence that is often uttered on these Commitment Sundays as well. It’s the kind of statement that we say under our breath after having heard the pastor drone on and on about commitment, giving and the church budget … it’s the sentence we utter and I’ll just say it for you: “Enough is enough!”

So I guess, that is enough said.

Invitations Have Been Sent: Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23 & Matthew 22:1-14; October 12, 2014

Rev. Martin R. Ankrum

Not too terribly long ago, I was speaking with a friend whose husband was interviewing for a new position. This new position would make things a lot easier on the family; it was less of a commute; less of a time-consuming employment than the husband currently held. The new job would mean savings in fuel costs and time, leaving the husband more time for the family and for just the sheer enjoyment of life.

In speaking with her, she mentioned that she was in a small group at her church and that all the members of the group were praying that this new job was “in God’s will” for them. She said that she hoped that this was what God wanted for her husband and, after the interview with the new employer was finished, it was “all in the hands of God.”

Determining the will of God for the specificities of our lives can be a frustrating and thrilling thing all at once. There is a part of us that wishes, really wishes, that God would just wholly and completely direct our lives: determining everything from which college we attend to whom we will marry and when. Sometimes we hear folks talk about getting a good parking space at Wal-Mart as somehow an illustration of God’s good will for them; that God had ordained, as it were, that they would receive the spot that they did when they pulled in the lot.

Of course, that last example is one that comes as an extreme case, as it were … not too often do we consider that God wills for us those kind of everyday battles we face looking for just the right spot in the parking lot at the mall. Yet, it seems to be an element of our human condition to want to believe that it is God at work behind the scenes of every decision and every opportunity with which we are presented. I don’t think that really is the case however.

This morning’s reading from the Gospel of Matthew presents a story that Jesus tells his disciples about what the kingdom of heaven is like. In Matthew’s parlance, “the kingdom of heaven” is code language for God’s reign in our life, the very kingdom of God present in this world and at work in the lives of God’s people.

Though there are many elements to this parable, for it is an analogy after all, there is one element that rises to the top … the will of God. In the simple storyline of the parable, it is apparent that it is the king’s intention to have a large number of guests for the wedding feast that he has prepared. It is the king’s wholehearted will that this wedding feast should be filled with people and when those whom he initially invites fail to show up for a variety of reasons, he goes the extra mile to send out his servants to round up just about any one from the highways and byways to have this banquet.

Herman Bavnick, the great Dutch Reformed theologian of the early 20th century, says that all language about God must be analogical … that is, we cannot speak directly about the hidden will and mind of God, so we must come to understand God by analogy. This is exactly what Jesus is doing when he speaks to his followers in parables: he is making an analogical connection between the things that his hearers know about and the heart and mind of God. His hearers understand about kings and wedding feasts and so on, so he uses his common elements of their existence to describe the very heart and soul of God’s intentions.

Given all that, the parable speaks of God’s great intention to gather a people. In Jesus Christ, the invitations to his feast have been issued; we have been called to be a part of God’s kingdom in this world. This is the analogy that is at the heart of the parable: just as the king is determined to give a banquet filled with people, so too is God determined to include us in his kingdom.

Such a feeling of inclusion ought to be incredibly liberating for us … such an understanding that it is God who has sought us out in Jesus Christ should cause us to rejoice and to allow such an understanding to utterly transform our lives.

Andrew Purves, theology professor at nearby Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, writes of this inclusion and its transformative power:

Grace is freely given, situating us in God’s company by an act of loving election. As a consequence, we are obliged to live as God’s people, according to God’s will for our lives. To do so is to give honor to the king, to God, and to live in terms of God’s claim upon us. The failure to do so is to scorn God’s love, God’s choice of us. It is to assert our autonomy, to live in pride, which means we are found clothed with ourselves rather than with Christ.

 

That last line about choosing to clothe ourselves with our own pride rather than Christ is Purves’ reference to the final part of the parable and the man who had disregarded the king’s gracious gathering by showing up not adorned in wedding clothes, but in his own everyday work clothes, as it were.

Being included in God’s kingdom implies a willingness on our part to allow God’s great grace in Jesus Christ to transform us into the people that God would have us be. It is not about our work to make ourselves somehow righteous or acceptable in our own right, but a realization that God’s kingdom is not something far off and years away from us, but rather the operative grace of God working in our lives here and now, shaping us and molding us into the people that God wants us to be.

Of course, this understanding should cause us to see others differently as well. Since we have been grafted into God’s great work in this life, we ought to look at others as those whom God may be grafting into his kingdom even now.

This is why I included the fifty second question from The Study Catechism on the cover of the bulletin today. In answer to the question of how we should treat those who are ostensibly outside of the church, we are counseled with good and gracious advice. We are called to receive others much in the same way that we perceive the Lord has received us: with grace and love.

When I was a boy growing up on my grandparent’s farm in Iowa, the haying and harvesting seasons were marked by two daily stoppages of work: dinner and supper. On the farm, dinner was the noontime meal and supper was the evening repast; apart from these two times, work continued from sun up to sundown. When dinner time and supper time rolled around, we stopped work and came to the big farm house and ate the meal that my grandmother prepared.

Now, in the movies about farm life, oftentimes the womenfolk are portrayed as preparing a large farm meal and then going outside and ringing an equally large bell to summon in the workers from the field. We didn’t have such a bell or system to summons. In fact, no farm in our area had such a thing … it was a fiction of Hollywood. We just knew that we had better have ourselves at the kitchen table at 11:30 a.m. and 5 p.m., washed and ready to eat or we would hear about it from grandmother. So, one of the cousins with which my brother and I worked on the farm was appointed the time keeper and we made sure that we were in place at the appropriate time.

It wasn’t from fear of our shared grandmother that caused us to respond so timely to her traditions; it because we absolutely loved her. She was dear to us, all 98 pounds of her and we wouldn’t want to do anything to disappoint her or grieve her.

Not only that, but keeping with her good graces causes us to be transformed from working endless hours without stoppage, to being sensitive to the time and being sensitive to her great work on our behalf. We were, as it were, formed by her graciousness into more considerate farmers than we would have been …

In Jesus Christ, God has included us in his gracious kingdom seeking that this very grace by which we are included would transform us … bit by bit, day by day into the very people of God … but it all starts with God’s unending intention to have us as his people.

Heavens & Sky Proclaim: Matthew 21:33-46 & Psalm 19; Pentecost 17 – October 5, 2014

Rev. Martin R. Ankrum

There’s nothing like a beautiful sunrise with hues of pink and gold, blue and white mixed together in awe-inspiring ways. There’s nothing like the power and might of a thunderstorm: the whip of the wind in the trees, the steady downpour of precipitation. The wonder and might of nature herself proclaims something meaningful and deep to our very souls.

Often, I find myself taking the long way into the office on Sunday mornings. I drive up PA 819 into the country a bit, especially if it is a beautifully clear sunrise. These are moments of reflection for me before the start of another Sunday’s worship service. Sometimes, it feels as if God himself is blessing me with this beautiful sunrise … often because I’m about the only car traveling on 819 at that hour on a Sunday morning!

The beauty and might of nature has the capacity to move us to contemplation of the wonder and awe of creation. We look about our world and marvel at the great workings of the universe.

Poets and artists, of course, have long been influenced by nature. A poem, written by Ken Chafin, speaks directly to the inspiration of a dawn drive through the hills of Kentucky. The poem is entitled: “Multiple Sunrises.”

Today, I watched the sun

come up six times

between Louisville

and Lexington.

It was a ball of orange

hanging in the mist,

a picture a child

might draw with a crayon.

Each time I dipped

into a dark canyon

dug by a creek,

then topped the hill again

–another sunrise.

I wished for a camera,

had just these two eyes,

wished to be a painter,

have only my memory

Kathleen Norris, in her book Dakota, wrote of a young girl who moved from Louisiana to North Dakota and commented upon the expanse of sky she encountered: “The sky is full of blue and full of the mind of God.”

The young girl moves us closer to what we, as Christians, might experience in seeing the marvels of God’s creation: reverence: “The sky is full … of the mind of God.”

The little girl’s observations sound very much like the opening line of the 19th Psalm:

The heavens are telling the glory of God;

and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.

Indeed, the first half of this well-loved psalm is dedicated to the concept that theologians call: General Revelation. The handiwork of God’s hand in creation tells us something about God much the same way that the brush work in a Van Gogh reveals something of the artist, or the lyrics of a Springsteen tune tells us a bit about the singer / songwriter.

However, general revelation is never enough for us to fully come to know God. Just as we might be mis-lead in believing that we really know Bruce Springsteen from such songs as “The Tunnel of Love” or “Devils and Dust,” we really don’t KNOW Mr. Springsteen. We can come to appreciate his artistry and humane wisdom, but we really don’t get to know “The Boss” from just hearing his music. We are only partly informed and thus only partially formed in our opinion of the singer/songwriter.

In a similar way, with natural theology or general revelation, we only get an inkling about God; an important inkling of course, but incomplete knowledge at best. We are only partly informed and partially formed by natural theology … we need something more.

John Calvin compares it to being a “bleary-eyed old man,” who presented with a beautiful volume of literature, is completely incapable of understanding the prose and poetry found therein without the aid of his spectacles. The old man needs his glasses to read the beautiful volume just as surely as we need scripture, specific revelation as the theologians call it, to understand the God who created all that nature displays for us.

The last half of the psalm turns us towards this truth. The psalmist proclaims that it is the law of God, or the word of God, that revives our souls and instructs us in the ways of God in this world. In short, it is scripture then that has the power to form us as Christians.

So in the psalm read this morning, we find that God’s love for us is displayed in both the creation around us and in the word that we receive as scripture. We find from God, then, a witness to his presence in this universe. We see this presence in the creation that surrounds and the scripture that turns us toward God incarnate for us in Jesus Christ.

I like very much how the writers of the Study Catechism phrase this in the question and answer pairing that covers the purposes of God in creation. The question is asked: “Why then did God create the world?” And the answer that is supplied replies:

“God’s decision to create the world was an act of grace. In this decision God chose to grant existence to the world simply in order to bless it. God created the world to reveal God’s glory, to share the love and freedom at the heart of God’s triune being, and to give us eternal life in fellowship with God.”

Thanks be to God, that in the sunrise and the sunset, in the power and might of fall thunderstorm or the gentlest of a snowfall, God’s glory and love is displayed to us. In the expanse of a star-filled night or the cloudless blue of a summer morning, we are reminded to turn to this creator and give him thanks.

In the words of that little girl of Kathleen Norris’s novel: “The sky is full of blue and full of the mind of God.”

Finding the Right Key: Psalm 149 & Matthew 18:15-20; Pentecost 12 – September 7, 2014

Rev. Martin R. Ankrum

            I’ve heard many personal stories throughout my career as a pastor, but possibly one of the saddest stories that I heard was related by a man who didn’t think it was sad at all.  In fact, the man told it to me as an example of the innate wisdom he had for relationships and connections with other people.

            I was visiting with this man in his hospital room.  It was someone I didn’t know very well, having just been called to serve as the pastor of that particular church.  He began the conversation as most hospital visit chats begin, but soon he turned to explain to me why he was a member of that particular church.

            He told of other churches that he had been a member of in the area and each story ended with how something had happened to make him mad or disappointed or just downright unhappy.  He then went on, as long as he was in that vein, to speak of relationships that he had severed over the years, country clubs that he had joined and then left over some kind of perceived slight from a waitress, locker room attendant or golf pro.  By the end of our conversation, he had covered an amazing litany of disappointment, anger and just plain “walking away” from others.  I got the feeling that he felt that he really didn’t need others in his life.

            I found myself thinking that he got what he deserved, having been a difficult personality as it appeared, he had had difficult relationships with others in this life.  But then I started thinking a bit more about it.

            Though his own attitude and apparent thin-skinned approach to life had something to do with all this, also it seemed that he had no real facility for dealing with disappointments, anger or just simply being miffed at others.  He could not resolve any of the conflicts in his life so he just walked away from the relationships that he deemed unnecessary in some fashion.

            Jesus’ words from the Gospel of Matthew remind us that reconciliation and overcoming the little and great slights of life require some hard work on our part.  Jesus calls his disciples to be about the work of reconciliation between people no matter how hard it may become.  He even links those relationships to our own relationship with God, calling the church to be about actively seeking to bring together conflicted parties rather than merely just letting folks go …

            C.S. Lewis, well-known Christian writer of the last century, took very seriously these words of Jesus Christ and the relationship between people.  In a sermon entitled, “The Weight of Glory,” he cautioned his hearers to not just think of their own salvation in Jesus Christ, but to be very careful with the relationships they were given in this life.  Here’s a part of what he said:

It may be possible for each to think too much of his own potential glory hereafter; it is hardly possible for him to think too often or too deeply about that of his neighbor. The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbor’s glory should be laid daily on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken.

Maybe that is the point that my friend from the hospital, with the litany of forgotten, wasted and abandoned relationships, missed: his own pride.  Maybe it is our own pride that keeps us from telling others of the hurt they have caused us or asking forgiveness for the hurt that we have caused them.  Either way, prideful or not, Jesus calls us to a higher understanding of the keys of the kingdom, of the call that we have as followers of Jesus Christ to treat one another differently than the rest of the world does.

            William Carl, III, President of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, tells a revealing story about how just the tiniest of things in our responses to others can cause great damage or award great comfort:

In a little church in a small village, an altar boy serving the priest at Sunday Mass accidentally dropped the cruet of wine.  The village priest struck the altar boy sharply on the cheek and in a gruff voice shouted: ‘Leave the altar and don’t come back.’ That boy became Tito, the Communist leader [and ruthless dictator].  In the cathedral of a large city in another place another altar boy serving the bishop at Sunday Mass also accidentally dropped the cruet of wine.  With a warm twinkle in his eyes, the bishop gently whispered, ‘Someday you will be a priest.’  Do you know who boy was? The [future] Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen.

All this to say what we already know: how we treat one another matters … it matters greatly.

            The truth of Jesus’ talk of the keys of the kingdom and his presence being apparent when there are two or more gathered in his name, points to the importance of our relationships as members of the church and the people of God.  We need each other.  We dare not go this life alone.  We are settled into a society of folks who are not necessarily like-minded, but are necessarily bound together by Jesus Christ.

            One of the most vivid illustrations for me of this truth comes with our celebration of the Lord’s Supper.  Here we gather around the table to partake of bread and wine and experience anew the life-giving and life-sustaining presence of Jesus Christ. However, we cannot partake of this sacrament in isolation or only by ourselves.  We count upon others to pass us the elements, to share the presence of the living Christ with us. 

This is exactly why reconciliation is so important for us as Christians: we are called by God to be brothers and sisters in Christ, to help each other in our journey of faith together, to most fully exhibit the love and grace of Jesus Christ one to another and to this world.  For without others, we cannot fully participate in this communion; in this presence of Christ in the world.

In closing, hear again the words of C.S. Lewis who provides just the right tone for us as Christ’s church … as God’s people:

And our charity must be a real and costly love, with deep feeling for the sins in spite of which we love the sinner – no mere tolerance or indulgence which parodies love as flippancy parodies merriment.  Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.  If he is your Christian neighbor he is truly almost the same way, for in him also Christ … is truly hidden.

Genuine: Romans 12:9-21; Pentecost 12 – August 31, 2014

Rev. Martin R. Ankrum

            It’s Labor Day weekend again and we are confronted with the end of summer and the long weekend ostensibly dedicated to reflection upon human work and the value we derive from it.  The Epistle reading for this morning fits into a certain type of format that is readily recognizable to those who work in our culture: the memorandum.

            Paul doesn’t really write a memo to the folks in Rome; it is indeed truly a letter.  But the second half of this chapter, with its bullet-like point, delivered in rapid-fire succession appears almost memo-like to me.

            The funny thing about memorandums from the higher-ups in the office is that they are often given to self-contradictions and outlandishly impossible goals to which the author of the memo appears to be completely unawares. Take for instance this little beauty delivered by someone in authority at the Minnesota Mining Corporation about a procedure developed in this research facility:

No one will believe you solved this problem in one day! We’ve been working on it for months.  Now, go act busy for a few weeks and I’ll let you know when it’s time to tell them.

Makes you wonder at the same time what the problem was that was so quickly resolved and the motivations of the supervisor who issued the memo.

            Or, this one from the great deliverer of packages and all needful things, the United Parcel Service:

This project is so important, we can’t let things that are more important interfere with it.

Really? It’s so very important that there may be things even more important?  Memos, as we all know, don’t always make good sense.

            But by far, my favorite comes from that monster of technological prowess, Microsoft Corporation:

As of tomorrow, employees will only be able to access the building using individual security cards.  Pictures will be taken next Wednesday and employees will receive their cards in two weeks.

I get the mental image of employees showing up for two weeks in succession, standing around in the parking lot without the ability of accessing the building.  No doubt the illogic of this memo was discovered fairly quickly and the doors were opened to the waiting employees.

            Memorandums can be pretty silly and inconsistent at times.  Here’s where the relationship between memos and Paul’s words in this chapter of Romans fall about:  there is nothing silly or inconsistent in these profound statements of what composes the Christian faith from Paul.

            Paul is quite serious indeed here as he clearly details for the Christians in Rome what it means to actually live out the faith of Jesus Christ.  Topping the list of elements delineating is above all else love with sincerity.

            Paul writes that the Christian is to love others with a genuine love.  There is nothing false about real love; there is no pretense in the image that Paul creates here for his readers.  As Christians, the sincerity of our lives in the world speak something great and profound not only to the world, but to our own souls.  We are called to love others with genuine love; real sincerity; great faithfulness.

            I like very much the way that Eugene Peterson translates this passage for his translation called: The Message:

Love from the center of who you are; don’t fake it. Run for dear life from evil; hold on for dear life to good. Be good friends who love deeply; practice playing second fiddle.

That says it pretty well and in very simple language: “Love from the center of who you are!”  Let your love for others in this world come right from the very heart and soul of who you are.  Eliminate all pre-tense to love; eliminate all one-up-man-ship and live with the good of others right at the center of what you do.

            The late, great Dr. Peter Gomes of Harvard University came close in his little discussion of the image of God and love for others:

If you would see who God is, first look in the mirror; but that’s only a partial image.  Then look around: it is the totality of what you see that gives you a clue of what it is that the Creator had in mind in the first place.  Any person who rejects another person rejects a part of God; that is the basis for the moral law.  Any person who rejects any other person rejects not just that person but a part of God, and anyone who rejects God rejects the image of God to be found in brother or in sister, or even in nature.  Because we are created in God’s image as a human beings, we are able to have fellowship both with one another and with God.  Our identity stems not from what we do, or from whence we come.  Our identity is not ourselves; our identity derives from the one from whom we come, and the beginning of all that is God.

I say that Gomes comes close because there are some deficiencies in his explanation.  Looking in the mirror for an image of God is always a dangerous situation for indeed, our images of God produced by our own lives are always deficient and short-sighted at best.

            Our ability to love with sincerity and genuineness most be rooted in what we have seen and see still in Jesus Christ.  In the person of Christ, we see what genuine, self-giving love is.  It is Jesus who gives himself for the church and for the world in his sacrifice.  It is Jesus who grants to us the hope and reality of his constant, sustaining presence in life.  

In looking to love, we must always look to Jesus Christ … but always looking to Jesus Christ in relationship with others.  This is not a solo-act or a lone-ranger experience when it comes to living a Christian life.  We live in community and we live in relationship with others or we fail to fully understand the project in which God is at work in our world to bring about redemption and reconciliation.

I like very much the words of John Buchanan, retired pastor from Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago:

The thing about biblical spirituality is that it is not only a personal experience of God; it comes with a strategic plan for your life.  God comes to people in the Bible, accosts people, interrupts stable and secure lives, not just to satisfy the spiritual hunger in their hearts but to give them a job to do.  … Spirituality comes with an assignment attached, a vocation not often welcome but resisted. Why me?

            Or maybe, P.C. Enniss, Presbyterian pastor and theologian put it even better, if not more succinctly: “God is also personal, but he is never private.”

            This is the truth: our faith is tied up into the relationships of this life as well.  God wants our lives to be filled with the kinds of relationships in which our love is genuine and real, caring more about other’s needs and concerns than merely seeing to our own.  Life, as we all know, is not composed of the things that we accumulate, but rather the people who populate our living.

            It’s a thrilling prospect really: our encounter with the Living God in Jesus Christ should propel us not deeper within ourselves as if faith in Christ is like an individualized retreat of self-help psychology, but rather moves us from our self-centered desires for satisfaction to real fulfillment in being a part of what God is doing in this world.  And being a part of what God is doing in this world implies contact with others … real and meaningful contact that helps to give life and breath and hope and peace to all whom we meet.

            This is precisely what Paul is getting at this letter to Rome that sounds vaguely like a bullet-pointed memo.  If you’re serious about your walk with Jesus Christ, then you will be serious about how you interact and participate with others.  You will let your love be genuine … you will love from the center of who you are, for right at the very center of how you are is the One who has loved us and this world enough to give himself for us.  If you’re genuine about your desire to be closer to God, then you will, inevitably, get closer to others … genuinely.

           

Sent: Psalm 105:1-6, 16-22, 45b & Romans 10:5-15; Pentecost 9 – August 10, 2014

Rev. Martin R. Ankrum

            About twenty years ago, my home church was experimenting with new forms and different styles of worship on Sunday mornings.  One of the features that the pastor at the time added to the liturgy was an interview section borrowed from Robert Schuler’s “Hour of Power” television broadcast.  The pastor would have an invited guest come forward and he would interview the person as to how God was at work in his or her life.

            On one of the vacations Julie and I spent with my mother in Iowa, we were in church on such a Sunday morning.  My hometown was in a bit of an uproar about the sewage treatment plant, so after service there was scheduled a “town-hall” style meeting with the head engineer.  However, during the service, the pastor invited the poor fellow up for an interview during the service.  The pastor began with the same line he always used to introduce this “segment:” “What’s God doing in …”

            Well, you can guess, without having thought through the question, my home church’s pastor asked the somewhat bewildered city official: “So, what’s God doing … down in the sewers of Marshalltown?”

            Though somewhat comical in its approach, the question remains with me in the form of the eternal human query: “What in the world is God doing?”

            The news as of late has given any of us pause to consider just the state of this world and what God may or may not be doing.  We hear of the on again, off again nature of the truces in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.  We hear of the dire conditions in Iraq as one band of Muslims seeks to take ultimate control over their co-religionists, but yet hated enemies.  Along the borders of our country, controversy continues to brew over what should be done with the thousands of Central American children entering the country through seemingly porous borders.

            No, the news that we hear as of late should cause us all to wonder just a bit about the likelihood of some of these situations spinning wildly out of control and causing harm and destruction beyond anyone’s capacity from which to recover.

            At moments like these, I like to remember what one of my favorite theologians wrote about the state of this world and all creation.  Karl Barth, Swiss theologian of the last century, held that the world can be viewed in two ways: human confusion and providential order.

            His point was that these are not competing views, but rather overlapping realities with which we deal in life.  On the one side, human confusion appears to reign: we don’t understand the real, divine nature of human life and thus attempt to grab life for ourselves, causing all kinds of hurt and confusion in our wake.  It is an almost molecular concept of human life in which we are all little, individual molecules bouncing around and about, causing hurt and harm with every collision and believing that this is really the best that we can manage.

            The other reality is the perspective of both God and the revealed religion of Christianity: providential order.  Though the world appears to be in utter confusion and complete disorder, God is providentially in control.  God is the creator of the entire universe and all of us and ultimately, God is the terminus or the end of all reality.  In short, God is ultimately in control and has acted on behalf of humankind in the incarnation of Jesus the Christ.  It is this Jesus, God-with-us, who has been sent to be with us and for us in this world.

            Of course, Barth’s views here are heavily influenced of his reading of Paul and the Epistle to the Romans, the very book of the Bible from which we hear this morning.

            Paul writes to the Romans in order to assure them that in Jesus Christ, God is FOR them and not AGAINST them.  In Jesus Christ, God proves not only his love for the world, but his determination to save humankind from its own confusion and utter frustration.

            In the passage that we have heard this morning, Paul reminds his readers that this great work of God is not their doing, but truly God’s work.  He does so with a remarkably poetic assertion:

But the righteousness that comes from faith says, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’” (that is, to bring Christ down) “or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead).  But what does it say?

“The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart.”

Paul writes to the early Christians to explain to them that ultimately it is not their doing to bring about their salvation; it is the work of God in Jesus Christ in their lives to which they are called to respond.

            This is or can be a difficult thing for us.  We are active people; we like to make our own way in this world; we like to eat the bread that we have earned rather than receive it as a gift.  For the implicit understanding in admitting that anything is a gift is that we are thus dependent upon the giver and thus beholding to someone else.  This does not sit well with us.

            Yet, this is precisely the gospel or the good news as Paul understands it.  It is not a matter of grasping this grace, in other words, ascending into heaven to bring Christ down.  Nor is it a matter of earning or meriting this grace, in other words, descending into the abyss to rescue Christ ourselves from nothingness or the oblivion of an unnoticed and unheeded God.  NO, Paul is absolutely convinced that this is God’s doing, bringing Christ to us in God’s great mercy and grace.

            Paul puts this way:

“The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart.”

This is not something we have earned or merited, it is the very gracious gift of God in Jesus Christ.

            For us, it is a matter of responding to this grace with the very manner of our living.  Do we live in such a way that demonstrates providential order or merely a reduplication of human confusion?  Barth, the theologian I mentioned earlier, finds that it is the very task of the community of faith, Christ’s church, to proclaim this providential order right in the midst of living in human confusion.

            This means getting our hands dirty just a bit, allowing ourselves to be sent, just as Christ has been sent, into this world to proclaim the mercy and grace of God in a world that can see none of it and often will have none of it.  We are called to proclaim love and grace with our words and our lives in a world that believes that love and grace are things to be manipulated, grasped or earned.  Yet, being followers of Jesus Christ, we know that this is the free gift in Christ himself.

            Not too many months ago, I was asked by the presbytery to meet with a Session of a church in some conflict.  In one of the meetings I attended, I heard from more than a few ruling elders of the church who lamented the loss of their last pastor.  They said something like this:

“When so and so was our pastor, he created a bit of an oasis for us on Sunday mornings.  We could come here and forget all about the world and just relax.”

            As appealing as that prospect might be to us from time to time, if we take worship seriously we can never turn it into our own personal oasis where the rest of the world is forgotten.  Primarily this cannot happen as long as we encounter scripture in worship, for it is scripture itself that points us surely and completely to the calling we have to be IN and FOR this world, for God himself has demonstrated that he is FOR and WITH this world, even in the midst of our confusion, because of Jesus Christ.

            There is no oasis here in which we can with a clear conscience retreat from the world.  Instead, we are called exactly as Paul has stated, to be sent into the world.  It comes down to making a commitment to get our hands dirty, as it were.

            Jean Paul Sartre, famed existentialist, wrote a novel very early in career called: Nausea.  The book is about a young man who moves to a French seaport in order to finish his biography of some little-known 18th century French figure of history.  While in this little seaport, Roquentin, the central character, wrestles with his place in the world and comes to the existentialist realization that the only meaning in the world is constructed meaning by the individual living that meaning.

            Though Sartre is no Christian by any means, one of the early illustrations in the book can be appropriated by us.  Roquentin is walking along a beach and spies a shiny stone in the sand, encrusted with the muck and mire around it.  He wants to pick it up and contemplates doing so, but fails because it will cause him to get his hands dirty.  Sartre’s point is that without commitment to getting our hands dirty in life, living with subjectivity rather than a false objectivity, there is no meaning and no life.

            For we who are called by Jesus Christ, there is no real faithfulness if we believe that we can live without encountering the world and all its problems.  That’s why we Presbyterians are often so involved with issues in the world that some feel we shouldn’t be involved.  We are called to bring peace to those who war, help to those in need and hope to those without hope.  We are called, in essence, to be sent into this world to live the gospel that we know and “get our hands dirty.”  And this is the very thing we must do, no matter what the consequences.

Disappointment: Psalm 17:1-7, 15 & Romans 9:1-5; Pentecost 8 – August 3, 2014

Rev. Martin R. Ankrum

            One of my all-time favorite movies is “What About Bob?”  A delightful little comedy from the early ‘90’s featuring the talents of Bill Murray and Richard Dreyfuss.  Murray plays the title role as an obsessive, compulsive who discovers a new, personally helpful, psychotherapist played by Dreyfuss just as the doctor is about to go off with his family on vacation.  Murray, the nearly immobilized obsessive, compulsive, manages somehow to follow the doctor’s family to their summer home and implants himself in their family.

            On a car ride into town, Bob and the doctor’s daughter are talking about how frustrating and disappointing people can be and how they each deal with such disappointment and frustration.  I’ve always loved Bob’s answer.  He says that he just treats those folks like they were phones out of service … he just gives it time and tries the connection later.  I think that Bob has a point there; sometimes it just takes some time and space for emotions to clear and for real reconciliation to occur.

However, it is a real question for us from time to time; how do we deal with disappointment … especially when that disappointment is with others?

            In today’s passage from Paul’s Letter to the Romans, he reveals a bit of his own disappointment.  He is grievously disappointed in his people’s lack of seeing Jesus Christ as the promised Messiah.  His own people, the people of Israel, the people of God for that matter, have failed, in his estimation to accept this Jesus of Nazareth as the promised Messiah.

            Now, Paul doesn’t mention this too precisely, but Paul has had to change his mind a bit about what he expected in the way of the Messiah in order to fully accept Jesus as the Promised One.  Paul has had to have had his mind and heart changed by Christ’s very presence in his life in order to see what he so laments that his brothers and sisters of the Jewish faith cannot see.

            Paul has written throughout this letter about the church in Rome’s need to see both Jew and Gentile as loved by God and gathered into this new people of God formed by Christ.  He picks this point to vent a bit of his disappointment and grief over his own people’s failure … and then he moves on.

            What do we do when others disappoint us?  Most any of us have been disappointed at some point or another in someone else.  For many, it may be that their children have disappointed them in some way, by not turning out exactly as the parents had planned, or doing something that was so outrageous that they now find it hard to forgive them.  Maybe it is a spouse who has disappointed us grievously, breaking faith with us or just merely not being as attentive to us as they once were.  Or maybe it was some friend or a group of friends or someone at our church or the church itself.  There are many ways in which we can become disappointed with others … but what do we do when find ourselves in that place?  How do we forgive or do we?  How do we leave behind that disappointment or do we?

            Well, Paul some helpful advice along these lines and we’ll get to that shortly, but for now, allow me to tell you a story that I think of whenever I am disappointed in someone else.

            It happened on the last Sunday of my service as the pastor of the Flushing Presbyterian Church in Flushing, Michigan.  It was the last Sunday of January in 2001 and I was preparing to move out here to Greensburg and take up ministry with this congregation.

            The congregation in Flushing was somewhat grieved at my leaving.  They absolutely loved Julie and Hadley and said they would miss them.  They also, genuinely, had affection for me and I for them.  We were not together long really, only about 6 years, but many relationships formed and much pastoral work was done.

            Well, anyway, the congregation planned a big, last Sunday for us and I preached my final sermon to a very full sanctuary of folks.  After the service, we were going to gather in the Fellowship Hall for a little reception and speech-making etc.

            During that service, I spotted a face in the back pew of the church that I hadn’t seen for a while.  I tried to pull a name out of my memory for the fellow, but I knew that it was someone I hadn’t seen in a while.

            At the end of the service, the man shook hands with me and asked if he could speak with me privately for a couple of minutes.  I explained about the reception, but he said it would only take a few moments.

            So we went to my office and he sat across the desk from me.  He reminded me of his name and then said this:

About five years ago, my wife died, whom I loved dearly.  You did the funeral and then you only came once to see me.  I was very disappointed.  Obviously these folks all think you’re a great pastor, but I don’t think you’re a good minister at all.

The man then got up and walked out of the room. 

            Well, I think of that little personal experience whenever I find myself disappointed in someone else.  We are all someone who has disappointed somebody else at some time or another, and remembering that I believe, is very helpful in opening our hearts to those who have grieved us in some way.

            Paul tells his readers, in essence, that his people, his brothers and sisters, are all in God’s hands anyways.  Paul assures them that he will continue on with his work and leave the ultimate outcome of all of this in God’s hands.  There’s some wisdom there indeed … when others disappoint, don’t burn any bridges, don’t forbid others to come back to you, and put all things in the Lord’s hands.

Beautiful Assurance: Psalm 128 & Romans 8:26-39; Pentecost 7 – July 27, 2014

Rev. Martin R. Ankrum

            Yesterday, failing to come up with an appropriate and pithy introduction to this sermon on Paul’s great discussion of election, assurance and the Christian hope, I succumbed to a more recent short-cut for preachers … I “Googled” the phrase: “Jokes about predestination.”   I guess I got what I deserved.

            However, I did find a couple of things to relate … Here’s one:

Believing in predestination, a new father set out three objects on the dining room table in preparation for his son’s arrival home from school. The first object was a £100 note. “That represents high finance. If he takes this, he’s go into business.” The second object was a Bible. “If he takes this one, he’ll be a man of the cloth.” The third object was a bottle of cheap whiskey. “If he goes for this one, he’ll be a drunkard!” The father and his wife then hid where they could see their son’s approach. Soon, the son entered the room and examined each article briefly. He then checked to make sure that he was alone. Not seeing anyone, he stuffed the money in his pocket, put the Bible under his arm, and strolled out of the room draining the whiskey. The father looked at his wife and beamed, “How about that! He’s going to be a lawyer!”

            Now, with all apologies to the attorneys who are members of our congregation, I was a little surprised by that ending.  I thought the father was thinking that the young boy was going to be a Presbyterian minister.

            Anyway, people have the funniest or strangest views on the Biblical doctrine of God’s providence and election in Jesus Christ.

            Take for instance another website I found dedicated to jokes about Northerners, posted by a pretty dedicated Southerner.  Here’s his explanation of why he posted Calvinist jokes …

You may ask, why do we have Calvinist jokes on a Yankee Joke site?  Simple.  Calvinists and Yankees have a lot in common. 

First, they believe they are superior to others. They believe they are blessed and you are not.  That they are favored and you are not.  They are intelligent and you are not.

Second, they are arrogant and argumentative. They love to debate you.  They are not interested in you becoming a Christian but are instead interested in converting you to Calvinism.

Third, they love the idea that others are excluded and they are included. That is why they call themselves the Elect.  They parade their election not to save others but to flaunt their lofty status. 

Real Christians are more like southerners.  Kind, honest and humble.  Since we can’t change Calvinists, let’s at least make fun of them.

Sorry, but I can’t help but feel doubly offended here, for I am both a Northerner and a Calvinist … and maybe some of his remarks do resemble me …

            Well, as I said, a lot of folks have some strange conception of what is meant by predestination, election and God’s sufficient providence.  In fact, many people wrongly attribute predestination and election to John Calvin, when it is quite obvious to me that Paul himself understood God’s gracious action in Jesus Christ as something beyond our mere choosing, but rather God choosing us … choosing a people with which to bless them with Christ’s grace.

            In the readings from Romans this day, we can all take heart in the beautiful assurance that we have in Jesus Christ.  Paul makes it quite clear that it is God’s action in Christ that makes us Christians; it is not our action or our efforts that deliver grace.  It is the action and effort of God in Christ that does deliver grace and hope to each of us.  In Jesus Christ, we have been elected, chosen, given a place that we could never make for ourselves.

            For me, this is an essential of the Christian faith and the good news of the Gospel, that God has accomplished in Jesus Christ what we could never accomplish for ourselves.  We have not manufactured grace for ourselves nor have our efforts on behalf of God or some kind of innate goodness within us merited such grace.  This is all God’s gracious action … all of it is God’s doing in Jesus Christ.

            Now, my Southern friend has some points about who we Reformed Christians have, from time to time, appeared to be arrogant, argumentative and feeling superior to others, when we fail to fully understand God’s election in Jesus Christ.  Whenever followers of Christ feel that their election in Christ has been due to something that they have done, then they abuse the good grace of God and prefer to have faith in their own goodness than in God’s work in Jesus Christ.

            I like very much what the great Presbyterian apologist of the last century, Shirley Guthrie wrote about this in his book, Christian Doctrine:

That is what it means for us to be the chosen people of God.  We too are chosen not instead of but for the sake of the world’s outsiders.  We are chosen not to escape from a godless and godforsaken world with all its sinfulness and suffering, but to be sent into it and live for it.  We are chosen not so that we can congratulate ourselves because we live in the light while everyone else gropes in the darkness, but to be a light that shines in their darkness.  We are chosen so that those who are excluded from the benefits of God’s loving justice and just love may be included.  For we too are chosen not to be serve but to serve, to take up our crosses as we follow the Chosen One of God who was crucified because he cared for all the wrong people.

 Our inclusion in God’s kingdom is not because we are better than others, but solely because of God’s gracious love in Jesus Christ.  And this is an inclusion that carries with it a heavy responsibility to respond to God’s good grace by living in ways that further inclusion and love, grace and hope amongst others.

            In what do you find your hope, your assurance, your security?  For Paul, hope, assurance and security is found only in God’s action in Jesus Christ for him and for this world.  So, too, must our hope, our assurance in this life, our ultimate security be found in nothing less than Jesus Christ himself.

            Thanks be to God, that we can be assured that Christ finds a place for us, not because of who we are, but rather because of who God is for us and for this world.

Grace Enough: Psalm 119:105-112 & Romans 8:1-11; Pentecost 5 – July 13, 2014

Rev. Martin R. Ankrum

 “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus … For God has done what the law, weakened by flesh, could not do …”

            In this opening of the Eighth Chapter of the Letter to Romans, Paul makes an appealing argument to resolve the issues that he had laid before the Roman church in the earlier chapter.  God’s resolution of the problem of human condition in sinfulness and unrighteousness is to become incarnate in the person of Jesus of Nazareth and accomplish what the law could never do … reconciliation and redemption.

            This is a matter of grace.  It is the matter of God’s grace shed abroad to all those who are found in Christ Jesus.  This is not the work of the Christians, the Roman congregation or otherwise, this is the work of God in Christ.  This is God’s prerogative and God’s decisive action in Jesus Christ.  This is not something that we do; rather it is something that God has done on our behalf.

            In this is the heart of the Gospel of Jesus Christ; the Good News that God has acted on behalf of humankind when we were totally unable to act for ourselves.  We can be assured that for those in Christ Jesus, no more is there condemnation by the law, but rather the freedom of a gracious action by God on our behalf.

            The issue for us for the most part, is really taking seriously these claims by Paul in this part of scripture.  We want to know, naturally enough, where are the boundaries to this great grace in Jesus Christ? We want to be told where the line in the sand is drawn by God in Jesus Christ.  We are folks who want to know the boundaries so that we might not even approach those boundaries and, as it were, step over the line. Or, in a negative sense, we want to know the boundaries just to see how much we can get away with and still be recipients of mercy!

            Yet, Paul is adamant in his confession and admonishment that IN Christ Jesus there is NO condemnation; that God’s grace in Jesus is great enough to include us all.  It is as if Paul is assuredly saying to the Romans that God’s grace is enough … for indeed, it is GOD’S grace and not our own.  It is God who makes this decision about the totality of our inclusion and not us.

            There is a humility that we must then adopt as followers of the risen Christ.  A humility that allows us to say that this grace belongs to God in Christ and that we don’t control it or stand in an intermediary position offering grace to those with whom we approve and withholding it from those we do not.  This is God’s grace offered … and knowing that changes the discussion a bit!

            Karl Barth, the great 20th Century theologian, has written helpfully of this condition of humility in the Christian when faced with the vastness of God’s grace and love toward humankind.  He wrote this:

 

This much is certain, that we have no theological right to set any sort of limits to the loving-kindness of God which has appeared in Jesus Christ.  Our theological duty is to see and understand it as being still greater than we had seen before.

 

            This short pronouncement of the great theologian has been a by-word for me over the years in dealing with all kind of questions placed before us as Christians living in the 21st century asking: Just how broad is the grace of God in Jesus Christ?  I have, time and time again, come to a realization that I have an all-too-human tendency to limit God’s grace to those with whom I am familiar or comfortable.  However, I also have to admit to myself and to you that I have discovered that such limitations cannot be supported by the biblical witness.  God’s grace is just so much larger than I could ever imagine.

            The Gospel reading for the lectionary text of this day is Jesus’ wonderful Parable of the Sower.  In this brief, but well-known story, the Sower goes out to sow and spreads the seed indiscriminately … almost wastefully some might say.  He doesn’t reserve the seed for only the fertile and well-prepared ground, but rather sows upon paths, rocky ground and dry soil alike.  He sows lavishly.

            I have come to see this parable as a story about the very mercy of God and the very workings of God.  We, who want a good and decent harvest, would be tempted to sow only where we thought the greatest would be gained.  We would withhold and store up for ourselves grain that could be spread more lavishly.  The meaning then of the parable becomes apparent:  God is not like us.  God does not see the need to reserve or store up the grace he spreads … he just spreads that grace indiscriminately; lavishly and generously.

            The General Assembly of our denomination recently met in Detroit and decided upon many overtures concerning a variety of matters that face our congregations.  Of those decisions were a couple dealing with same-sex marriages or marriage equality within the Presbyterian Church.  The General Assembly removed a ban from ministers and churches of our denomination from participating in same-sex marriages.  Of course, these particular decisions have gained a lot of press coverage and discussions in local congregations. I have heard from some of you on this subject as well, with some folks gravely disappointed in the actions of the Assembly, while others have been quite pleased with the change to our understanding of marriage.  Either way, it has been an emotional issue for many.

            For me, it has appeared to be both a logical and theological progression from the stances that we have taken as a church in the past, both recent and long-standing interpretations of the biblical witness and the demands of faithful discipleship.  We have welcomed same-sexed couples into our membership here, as well as those who are not couples but have same-sex orientations.  We have ordained and installed some of these brothers and sisters into the ordered ministries of the church, allowable as of late by the action of the General Assembly and the whole of our presbyteries.  We have included gays and lesbians into the life of the church, seeing them as baptized brothers and sisters in Christ Jesus.  We have accepted those whom Christ has brought us.

            I know that for many this new alteration to the denomination’s description of marriage may be very troubling.  I ask all of us to prayerfully consider the witness of God’s great mercy and grace in scripture and in our own lives as believers and corporately as Christ’s church.  Just how great is God’s grace and mercy?  Is it wider than we had perceived before or is it limited to those whom we agree with, approve or with whom we are the most comfortable?

            Jesus said: “A sower went to out sow …” and the rest, really, is all about grace … God’s great, ridiculously lavish, grace.

The Goodness of God: II Corinthians 13:11-13 & Psalm 8;  Trinity Sunday – June 15, 2014

Rev. Martin R. Ankrum

Being a minister for over 25 years, I have become acquainted with a fair amount of people while serving in three different churches.  I can’t claim to remember them all, unfortunately, but I remember a fair amount.

One woman whom I met in my first church, which I served as an Associate Pastor just fresh out of seminary, I will never forget.  She and her husband had been life-long members of the church in a little Detroit village that grew up to be a rather prosperous and bustling large suburb.  They would talk about the “good old days” when the streets were uncluttered with traffic, the shops were all downtown and the pastors of the church were better than the present grouping.

That’s right, that’s what they said to me once.  They definitely preferred the host of different pastors that had served that church in the past to the current set of three that served it when I was there.  Of course, when they said it to me, they eased it a bit by saying, “No offense of course.”  I smiled and lied: “None taken.”

Anyway, after I had been there a couple years I was leading an adult Bible study in which that couple participated.  I can’t really remember the context of our discussion, but we got on the subject of God’s goodness and love.  The wife of the couple sat thoughtfully as others discussed the topic and then quietly offered the following, or words to their effect:

“I’ve never seen that … I’ve never really thought about the goodness of God.  To me, God has always been that holy being way up high in the clouds that is just waiting until I do something that He can get me for …”

Well, with that said, surprisingly, several heads of those saints of the Lord nodded in agreement.  It caused me to wonder what could cause these folks, many of them life-long members of churches, to feel this way …  I guess, I’m still puzzling about that even now and when I hear afresh from others.

In fact, her words on that day and others subsequently always remind me of a bit of scripture that is not included in the lectionary today or any Sunday in the three year cycle.  It comes the Book of Job and is found in the seventh chapter, which is a complaint of Job directed towards God:

Am I the Sea, or the Dragon,
that you set a guard over me?
13 When I say, “My bed will comfort me,
my couch will ease my complaint”,
14 then you scare me with dreams
and terrify me with visions,
15 so that I would choose strangling
and death rather than this body.
16 I loathe my life; I would not live for ever.
Let me alone, for my days are a breath.
17 What are human beings, that you make so much of them,
that you set your mind on them,
18 visit them every morning,
test them every moment?
19 Will you not look away from me for a while,
let me alone until I swallow my spittle?
20 If I sin, what do I do to you, you watcher of humanity?
Why have you made me your target?
Why have I become a burden to you?
21 Why do you not pardon my transgression
and take away my iniquity?
For now I shall lie in the earth;
you will seek me, but I shall not be.’

It may well be that that woman to whom I referred earlier was a student of Job’s or it could very well be that even amongst the faithful, there is a misunderstanding about the nature of God and a fear that is honestly unhealthy and actually hurtful.

That’s why the words of the Eighth Psalm are so very important for us to hear this day and understand as fully as the Spirit of God allows us to do!  There is something vitally important to our faith and our understanding of God found here in this psalm.

In the Eighth Psalm, the glory of God is described in words that still fail to fully capture the goodness of God’s existence.  The words of this psalm are indeed beautiful, poetic and moving, but even they, even Scripture, falls short of fully describing the goodness of God.  And in this, is a correlation to the good life for we human beings.  If the psalm teaches us anything, it teaches that the good life in humanity is lodged completely in the very goodness of God.  In short, God is simply good and life, the greatest gift from God, is simply that as well: good.

The beginning of all faith, of all honest and sincere response to God, is a strong conviction in the simple goodness of God.  We will never come to sincere faith unless our hearts are convicted of the truth that God is good, that God intends only good for humankind, for all creation, and consequently, for us as individual creations of God.  Without that conviction, that God is simply good, we will never join the chorus of praise to which the author of Psalm 8 invites us.  It is that important, that seminal to have our hearts convicted of the ultimate, simple goodness of God.

The problem for many of us is that we have not learned that the basis for the Christian faith is actually found in this simple goodness of God; this joy for living rather than rules, regulations, prohibitions and exhortations to moral rigidity.  A couple of Reformed authors put it very well in a little book about the great American Reformer, Jonathan Edwards when they wrote:

“The fundamental reality of the Christian life was joy in [Edwards’] eyes.  Not rigidity, not ecstasy, not sobriety, not gloominess, not emotional stasis. Because the Savior has substituted Himself for sinners, and has returned triumphant from the grave, so too may sinners return to life, and taste for all their lives ‘joy unspeakable and full of glory,’ that which is ‘a sweeter delight than any this world affords.’  This does not deny real pain and real suffering, of course.  But it reflects that the goodness of God so pervades the Christian life that nothing – not anything – can rob a Christian of the delights of the gospel. For all our lives, we eat a full table, and eat a rich feast, with Christ the head of all.  The good life is a feast.”

Some folks think that true religious affectation is found in morbidity, gloominess and a penchant for following a set of rules that are so perfect all are doomed to failure and abject depression over our shortcomings.  A lot of people attempt to say that this is Calvinism and Presbyterianism in particular at its root.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

If our hearts are convicted of the ultimate goodness of God in this world, we can be nothing less than thankful; nothing less than hope-filled; nothing less than happy within our very souls.  We can be these things because we are convinced, as was the psalmist, that God is good; simply and perfectly good.

In an article about this psalm, religious writer, Mark Ralls says the following:

Near the end of About Alice, Calvin Trillin relays an experience that his wife had while volunteering at a camp for terminally ill children. Alice befriended a young girl,”a magical child who was severely disabled,” whom she remembered simply as “L.” L was courageous and optimistic. One day while L was absorbed in a game of Duck, Duck, Goose, Alice spotted a letter that Ls parents had written her. She could not resist reading the first few lines: “If God had given us all the children in the world to choose from, L, we would only have chosen you.” Alice passed the note to a fellow counselor, whispering breathlessly, “Quick. Read this. Its the secret of life.”

The psalmist suggests that in a similar way God delights in our presence. God chooses to cherish humanity, and God never wavers in this decision. In a nutshell, I think what Psalm 8 suggests is this: Our Creator is mindful of each one of us, and we who are made in the image of God are called to be mindful of one another. If I’m right about this, then Psalm 8 may be more than a hymn of praise. It might just be the secret of life.

 

Not Just Another Institution: John 7:37-39 & Acts 2:1-21; Pentecost – June 8, 2014

Rev. Martin R. Ankrum

            In the late 1960’s, spending time on my Grandmother’s farm, I converted the hay loft of the old barn into a make-shift sanctuary.  I created a pulpit out of an old, discarded step ladder, pounded nails into two 2×4’s to manufacture a cross, took my brother’s Batman cape and my own Batman cape to fashion a robe, found my Bible and began to preach.  At least that is the family folklore about my call to the ministry.

            At the age of about seven, I constructed that little make-shift, hap-hazard preaching loft and preached to the cattle, my mother and grandmother and my very reluctant brother, who thought I ought to be investing my time to help him with the chores.

            Funny thing is that by doing that, by “playing” church as it were, I thought I had everything that I needed to be a church: a pulpit, a robe, a cross, a bible and an audience to hear the sermon.  Now, some forty-five years later, I realize what was missing (among many things) …  something deep and astonishing was missing from my plans for ecclesiastical functionality.

            If we read closely or heard well that reading from the Book of Acts, we can sense immediately the needful thing left out of my formula for producing a church: the Spirit of the living God in Jesus Christ.  The presence of God’s Spirit is what really makes for a church to exist and be of any real significance in the life of the people.

            Now, I’m not saying that God was not present with us (and the assortment of cattle) in that little barn in Iowa so long ago.  I’m not excluding the possibility of God’s presence, but I am saying that the Spirit of the living God is what makes the church of Jesus Christ different than any other institution on the face of the earth.  It is God’s gracious presence amongst us that constitutes us as a church and nothing less.

            The writer of the Book of Acts, let’s call him: Luke, specifies that the disciples had been gathered in one place and were waiting.  They were waiting as they had been told for the coming of God’s Spirit upon them.  And God’s Spirit came to them as promised and brought with him incredible signs and wonders, like the speaking in other languages or at least the ability to speak to those gathered.  Luke says that it was like “tongues of fire,” it was so dramatic and different than anything anyone had experienced before.  It was, without a doubt, a remarkable moment.

            But even more than just these remarkable signs and wonders, the Spirit of the living God, reconstituting these people as the Church, brought to them the focus to begin to live their lives fully as followers of Jesus Christ.  With the presence of the Spirit of God they had a focus for their work and an encouragement for their living as God’s people in the world.  No longer could they feel alone or abandoned by their Lord in this world. 

After the crucifixion, resurrection and ascension, they may well have questioned what would happen to them then.  Would they be able to continue in the life that they had been taught by Jesus of Nazareth?  Would they be able to do the good that he had encouraged them to do in his seeming absence?  How would they go on?

Strangely, these are among the very questions that we might sense as a church here and now.  Some of us have been around long enough to remember a time when churches were fuller, grander and made a greater impression on the cultural landscape of our nation.  We might be old enough to recall a time when it seemed that all our neighbors were in church on a Sunday morning and there wasn’t much else to do around the community until 12 noon came and we were all out of the sanctuaries and back in the yards or going about weekend busy-ness.

Well, things have changed have they not in our culture, our nation and even in our own little community of Greensburg?  Sometimes we are tempted as a congregation to fret and worry ourselves about what these cultural changes mean for the future of this particular church and our brothers and sisters of other Presbyterian congregation and other denominational stripes.  We take note of the fact that our sanctuaries are not as full as they once were.  We consider the myriad and multiplicity of other options open to folks on a Sunday mornings: tee times and soccer games, shopping at more convenient times and even just a lazy morning spent reading the paper or more likely, catching up on Facebook postings.  There are many distractions that may or may not have been present in the “Good Old Days,” but present all kinds of alternate ways to spend a Sunday morning …

We may consider those things, but we are called to be fixated or focused on something else really … Better put, we are called to re-focus ourselves on someone else really: the Spirit of the living God here in our midst, animating our lives and calling us to something different than the ordinary life of everyday work and family.  Just like my make-shift sanctuary in that barn that I thought, in my seven-old year mind, comprised a church, if we fixate on those other things, we neglect the one needful thing: our trust that the Spirit of the living God in Jesus Christ is with us even now, even here.

Pentecost is not so much the demarcation of some kind of birthday of the church as much as it is a celebration of the living presence of God in our lives.  We are not alone.  We are not just another human institution attempting to strategically maneuver ourselves into a better market-share or a greater position to garner larger crowds.  That may well be important, but we’re missing the point if we think that alone is the point!

No, the point is God’s presence in this body of people that we call the church.  We are those who have found themselves blessed with the sure faith and trust that in Jesus Christ, God has redeemed humankind and has called us to life together with him and with one another.  This is the very message that the Blessed Spirit has given us to carry to the nations, both with the words of our lips and the deeds of our lives.  We are the community of faith called to proclaim God’s gracious action in Jesus Christ and to find ourselves focused upon this calling of peace, grace and hope.

So, today is the day that we celebrate that we are not alone.  We remember that God has never abandoned us to our own ends or abilities, but rather that he has granted his Holy Spirit that we might formed and fashioned into the church of Jesus Christ … the very people of God and not just some other institution. Thanks be to God!

Early Witnesses: The Church Part I – Psalm 116:1-4, 12-19 & Acts 2:14a, 36-41

Easter 3 –  May 4, 2014      Rev. Martin R. Ankrum

            The lectionary has been parceling out, a section at a time for each successive Sunday, the sermon which Peter delivered on that first Pentecost Sunday.  It’s been fifty days since the resurrection of Jesus Christ and the original disciples have been somewhat sequestered and kept away from the general public.  Now, on this great day of Pentecost, they have received the Holy Spirit and a crowd amasses as Peter relates to the people of Jerusalem the first public, Christian sermon.

            The majority of the text we just heard is really the response of the people of Jerusalem to the words that Peter has delivered.  They are “cut to the heart” and turn towards him and the disciples imploring to know what is to be done.  Peter, in response to their enquiry, calls them to repentance and baptism … in short, Peter invites them into Christ’s church.

            Our sheer presence this morning bespeaks our answer to this call that is still issued from the Gospel.  We have come to become the church of Jesus Christ.  For many of us, this has been a life-long response to the call of Jesus Christ in our lives; for others, this may be a new realization and a new sensing of what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ.  Regardless of how we have answered the call or when, we all sense that being a part of this gathering of people is essential to our self-understanding of what it means to be Christian.  By our presence, we acknowledge the simple truth that often escapes many, that being together is being the church.

            I like the way that the late John Leith, professor at Union Theological Seminary in Virgina, phrases this reality:

To be a Christian and to be the church are one and the same existence.

In other words, one is not a Christian without the church and the church is not an entity in any kind of reality or actuality without the individual Christian.  That is not to say that the church is made of individual Christians, like a pile of sand is made up of the individual grains of sand or that a blizzard is really only a compilation of unique and individual snowflakes.  No, there is a reality that the church possesses as a gift of God to this world that is beyond merely toting up the number of individuals who unite with the church and calling it a day.  The church’s existence is both at the same time gift of God and process of inclusion of those whom God has created for just such a purpose … to be followers of Jesus Christ.

            These are important distinctions for us to make, for indeed the rest of the world, and sometimes even we Christians, are tempted to view the Church as something akin to any of the number of service industries or not-for-profit humane organizations that populate our cultural landscape.  The confusion can be understandable in some ways for those who are on the outside looking in, but such a confusion is disastrous for those who are members of the body of Christ defining their shared existence as somehow organizational in essence.

            A few years ago, the Presbytery asked me to visit a congregation that was considering leaving our denomination.  I, and others, met with the Session of the church, the body of leaders of any Presbyterian church.  I was intrigued by what one ruling elder of the church said about her joining the church five years previously.

            She mentioned that she and her husband were retired from the military and had moved from the Washington, D.C. and began looking for a church with which to unite.  They had considered the Presbyterian church there, but were at first unable to attend.  Then, as she said, she received a sign to join the church, for the time was just right.

            The pastor of the church smiled broadly and knowingly, obviously having heard this story before.  I asked, innocently enough, “Do you mean a sign from God that you ought to unite with this congregation?”

            She responded:

“You could say that indeed, pastor, for we saw a sign in the front yard of the church that read: ‘New service of worship at 8:30 a.m.  Everyone welcome.’  I knew then that this was the church for us, for we like to go to the gym on every Sunday morning at 10 a.m. and this would allow us to join and still get to the gym.  You have to have your priorities right, pastor!”

Obviously, as well-intentioned as that ruling elder may have been, her understanding of the church was that of a service industry who had better have their hours of operation and their marketing tuned precisely to her individual desires and wishes.  Underneath her warm testimony lurked the savage truth about the church in our culture: it had better be serviceable to me or I just won’t have the time for it …

            This is not what Peter and the New Testament, and dare I say it …, this is not what God in Jesus Christ intends for the church.  We are not just one of the service industries out in the community attempting to raise awareness and popular support for our favorite cause or causes.  The Church of Jesus Christ must be something much profound and deeper than all of that …

            John Leith, again, has written helpfully about this:

The church in its basic form is the congregation of people, but it is not an aggregation of individuals … It is the community that lives a shared life, a common life in the Spirit, and that shares faith, hope and commitment, as well as the various graces with which individuals have been endowed and by which they mutually enrich each other.

This, my friends, is truly a counter-cultural endeavor for us to seriously embark upon.  Our culture and those who market to us, operates upon the well-developed and well-cherished concept of individual consumerism.  All things are sold to us on the basis of need: we need to have this, we need to have that, even if it is a pharmaceutical with a long disclaimer said rather quickly and quietly at the end of the commercial.  No, our culture trains us to think first and foremost about any human activity: “What is in this for me, for my children, for my way of life?”

            Thanks be to God, that is not the case with the Church of Jesus Christ.  As the scriptures witness in this little snippet from the Book of Acts, it is the call of Jesus Christ that gathers us as the church and that constitutes us as a people.

It is not like-mindedness or personal interest, it is not appreciation for a shared cause or concern for the saving of a historic structure or even an historic way of life … it is purely and simply Jesus Christ who calls us to be his church in this place, to share in the common life of the followers of Christ, to encourage and support one another as we strive to answer the call of Christ in our own lives and in our families.  This is indeed the witness of Christ’s church … that we belong to God in Christ and thus, we belong to each other.

Early Witnesses: Peter – Psalm 16 & Acts 2:14a, 22-32; Easter 2 – April 27, 2014

Rev. Martin R. Ankrum

            In May of 1913, Richard Platz, a twenty year old resident of Berlin on holiday, through a bottle with a message in it into the Baltic Sea and walked away.  Earlier this year, the same bottle was pulled from the Baltic Sea by a fisherman retrieving his nets.

            The message on the postcard is partially legible, having been sitting on the bottom of the sea for so long, but the name of the author was legible and soon his living heir was found, still residing in Berlin. 

            It’s an amazing story of one generation reaching out to the other.  The author of the postcard had no idea that his sealed bottle and its contents would not convey any message to another human being for a hundred years.  The author had no idea that this message would reach a granddaughter, now 62 years old, that he never met.  He had no thought that this would provide her with some kind of a link to a past that she knew very little about.

            The message we read this morning from the Book of Acts has not been floating around in some bottle for the two thousand years that have intervened between its delivery and our present time.  The message that Peter delivers in this passage from Acts, being the first Christian sermon ever preached in response to the Resurrection, has been known to every generation since.  It has not been hidden in some bottle at the ocean’s floor, but rather has turned the world upside down with what it proclaims.

            Peter is one of the first witnesses to the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.  He takes the events that he has just witnessed and puts things together for his hearers.  Those who gathered around on that particular Sunday may have had some idea of the happenings of the last few weeks.  They may have had heard some vague allegations that the body of that preacher from Galilee who had been crucified had been removed.  They may have even heard that some were claiming that this event marked something spectacular in the annals of human history … but none have heard precisely this.

            From the reports we have of what happened to the disciples immediately following the resurrection, they seemed to have kept to themselves a bit.  The processing of what had happened appears to have been an internal discussion, as they met together and virtually hid away from others.  So, it may very well be that the word that we have heard this day from Peter was the first public exposition of the Christian gospel following the resurrection.  This was the first attempt to publically proclaim that Jesus of Nazareth, who had been crucified dead and buried, had been raised by God.

            The amazing thing about Peter’s sermon is his attribution of this act of resurrection not as a response from God to the wrong that was done his Son in crucifixion, but rather that this was the very plan of God in order to redeem the world.

            Peter does not envision the resurrection as God’s attempt to “undo” the death of Christ at the hands of those who tried, sentenced and executed him.  This was not an act of God in response, but rather had been a part of God’s plan for the redemption of human kind before the foundations of the world had been planted.

            This is an amazing claim from Peter and it flies in the face of much of the common misunderstandings held about Jesus’s death and resurrection and the reasons in the divine mind for such things.  Oftentimes, Jesus’s death is described as a tragic event in which God has somehow lost control of the situation.  God has delivered his son to this world and this is how the world has treated him: they have executed him and left him for dead with only God able to come along and right the situation by restoring his Son to life.

            Such a theory of the cross and the tomb implies that God is sort of playing fast and loose with these dramatic events.  It seems as if God has just decided to do this in response to what has happened this his beloved Son.  Since he has been crucified, since this is the way that the world has treated his Son, God now has to resurrect him and restore him to demonstrate that God is the one in ultimate charge.  This kind of theory of the cross and the empty tomb implies that somehow God is scrambling for a solution to this mess and the resurrection is the first thing that comes to the divine mind.

            Peter insists that nothing could be further from the truth.  In the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we see plainly the plan of God to redeem the world; the world which could never redeem itself or prove itself worthy of the love that God has for us.  No, in Jesus’s death and resurrection, Peter says, we plainly see the plan of God in action.

            Here’s how Peter put it:

…this man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law. But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it is impossible for him to be held in [death’s] power.

 

Peter asserts quite clearly that resurrection is not the reaction of God, but rather the fore-ordained purposes of God being fulfilled.  And that makes all the difference in the world.

            It makes all the difference in the world because this tells us something decisive about God and how God chooses to act in this world.  The God who we see in Jesus Christ, the God who has made the world and governs our existence, does not sit idly by and not resolve the situation of the world.  Evil does not ultimately conquer because God ordains to right the situation, to create life where there was once death and to restore that which has wandered from home.

            I like very much how John Calvin explains all this in his commentary on the passage.  Here’s some of what he wrote after commenting on Peter’s assertion that all this was governed by God’s hand:

And here is a notable place touching the providence of God, that we may know that as well our life as our death is governed by it … Therefore, it belongs to God not only to know before things to come, but of his own will to determine what he will have done.

 

            Calvin asserts that because of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, we can trust God to have our own lives in the palm of his loving hand.  If God determines to resurrect his son for the purpose of redemption of humankind, we can trust such a God to hold our lives as valuable, worth sacrificing for, dying and rising again.  We can entrust our lives to this One who was caught surprised, but rather planned to redeem and rescue from the very foundations of the earth.

            Over 100 years ago a young man threw a bottle in the Baltic Sea with a message in it.  He didn’t know where it would end up or what would be results of his actions, but he did it anyway … as a lark almost.  100 years later, it is found and it eventually lands in the hands of the young man’s granddaughter.  This was not intended, but the message from received.

            Peter’s message to us is older than that found in the bottle and implies exactly the opposite about God: God knows what will result from his actions.  He is not like the young man on the edge of the Baltic Sea, setting adrift something whose results he knows nothing about.  Instead, in Jesus Christ, God is at work determinedly to save us and redeem this world.

            Such action, such foreknowledge, such planning should assure us that God intends good for us and wills for us to be his children.  Our call is to respond … to live our lives in praise of his this holy and resurrecting love that meant it all to happen, that intended it all to happen  …

Do Not Be Afraid: Matthew 28:1-10; Easter Sunday – April 20, 2014

Rev. Martin R. Ankrum

        We gather in worship this day to hear the truth about the Christian faith and about life itself.  We gather in this place from our various other places with our various hopes and fears, troubles and joys and seek to hear again the one piece of news that changes everything or at least has the power to change everything.  We gather here to hear what is right at the heart of the faith and that is that Christ, who was dead, is risen and alive forevermore.

        If this is not what we came to hear today, then we shall be most disappointed, for this is the central affirmation of belief for the Christian.  I dare say, it is the central affirmation for all of human life, that Jesus Christ, God with us, was dead, but is risen and alive forevermore.

        Make no mistake, I stand in this pulpit not to convince you of this truth or attempt to explain it away as some kind of mass psychological trick perpetrated upon the first disciples, both male and female, gathered at a fresh tomb emptied of its contents.  This is not a case of spirit ascension or soul-migration or re-incarnation of some kind … what those first witnesses beheld and what we behold in their place is resurrection. Easter is about the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ, crucified and buried and left for dead, but now, miraculously, unfathomably ALIVE … RISEN … Victor over death.

        James Montgomery Boice, late pastor of the Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, put it succinctly:

The only resurrection that counts for anything is the resurrection of the body!

        Such news ought to change everything, for death has a way of claiming us all eternally and completely.  Yet, in this news from an empty tomb, we witness the promise of God that death does not hold the last word.  We hear God’s pronouncement that love is stronger than death and greater than eternal silence.  Jesus Christ is risen … he is risen, indeed!

        Peter Gomes, late, great chaplain of Harvard University, wrote cogently about what is really changed in this miraculous event in a sermon delivered some years ago on an Easter Sunday in the University Church:

So, what changed? That is the wrong question.  The question is, rather, Who is changed?  From what to what? The heart and the burden of the New Testament is not that the world changed, but that ordinary men and women, the most ordinary of whom were those men and women who followed Jesus, and huddled at the foot of his cross, fled at this death, and were astonished when they discovered that he was alive again – that these ordinary, bewildered, befuddled human beings, our ancestors, were changed from the ordinary to the extraordinary.  They did not change the world but they themselves were changed, and thus was their attitude toward the world and all that was in it changed. They were no longer terrified of their shadows, frightened, or fearful of death.  They were no longer in awe of people who had power and terror over them. Read about those apostles in the New Testament; read about what happens to them, about how they lived their lives, how they faced the world, how they astonished everyone who had known them before the resurrection.  Can these be the same people who never understood one of Jesus’ parables, who were always late, who were never at the right place at the right time, who denied him, who shivered at the foot of the cross, who ran into the darkness, and who didn’t even believe the good news when they first heard it?  Could it be these same people who were now turning the world upside down?

        Gomes is right … it is the people who were changed by Christ’s resurrection, not the powers of the world or the way of the world.  In Christ’s resurrection, we are changed from those who fear death and what can happen to us in this rather chaotic arrangement of life, to those who can and must boldly confess that we are completely in the hands of a God of love and grace.  Our confession, because of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, becomes that of those who know we belong to a God who has vanquished death and all the powers that conspire against the grace that life can be when lived and practiced in resurrection.  Because of Christ’s resurrection, our lives may be changed …

        Wendell Berry, great American poet, coined a phrase that is fitting and appropriate here: “practice resurrection.”  Eugene Peterson, retired Presbyterian minister, borrows Berry’s phrase when he attempts to explain this change that occurs within those who follow the risen Christ:

We live our lives in the practice of what we do not originate and cannot anticipate.  When we practice resurrection, we continuously enter into what is more than we are.  When we practice resurrection, we keep company with Jesus, alive and present, who knows where we are going better than we do …

Or maybe, for something even more to the point, we can return to Peter Gomes, who wrote about what changes within us when we actually begin to practice resurrection:

I will not be defined by my problems, I will not be defined by my neuroses, I refuse to be victimized or to be described as victim or to be classed among the victims.  My vision will not be limited by the headlines; I will both live and die by a standard that defies the standards of the world.  Where the world tells me to hate I will love, cost what it may; where the world tells me to stand pat I will move on, to wherever I am to go; where the world tells me to be prudent, fearful and cautious, I will be brave and foolish and courageous, no matter what.  Where the world tells me that my destiny is shaped and determined by the past, I will claim that God is my future and that I shall yet become what God means for me to become [because of Jesus Christ.]

        We have gathered to hear this truth this day … the truth that is at the center of all Christian affirmations and even all human propositions … The One who was crucified, dead and buried, has risen and is alive forevermore.  This changes everything … and this, this story of resurrection and the vanquishing of death, changes us, indeed.  Christ is risen [He is risen, indeed.]

On Not Wallowing In It:  Psalm 130 & Romans 8:1-11; Lent 5 – April 6, 2014

Rev. Martin R. Ankrum

        Shirley Guthrie, in his great work, Christian Doctrine, opens one chapter with the story of a little boy who goes off to a revival one evening and encounters an explanation of salvation that deeply troubles him.

        In Guthrie’s own words, here’s the story:

The preacher held up a dirty glass.  ‘See this glass? That’s you. Filthy, stained with sin, inside and outside.’

He picked up a hammer. ‘This hammer is the righteousness of God.  It is the instrument of God’s wrath against sinners.  God’s justice can be satisfied only by punishing and destroying people whose lives are filled with vileness and corruption.’

The preacher put the glass on the pulpit and slowly, deliberately drew back the hammer, took deadly aim, and with all his might let the blow fall.

But a miracle happened! At the last moment he covered the glass with a pan.  The hammer struck with a crash that echoed through the hushed church. He held up the untouched glass with one hand and the mangled pan with the other.

‘Jesus Christ died for your sins.  He took the punishment that ought to have fallen on you.  He satisfied the righteousness of God so that you might go free if you believe in him.’

When the boy went to bed that night, he could not sleep.  Meditating on what he had seen and heard, he decided that he was terribly afraid of God.  But could he love such a God. He could love Jesus, who had sacrificed himself for him.  But how could he love a God wanted to ‘get’ everyone and was only kept from doing it because Jesus got in the way?

        Well, I can’t blame the poor kid for feeling just that way about God having witnessed what he did and having heard what he had from the prominent revivalist preacher.  The explanation for what happened upon the cross that the preacher gave would give anyone pause to wonder about the mercy and love of a God who is more than willing to smash rather than to redeem without having his mind changed by someone or something.  What the preacher said and did that night would lead almost anyone to not trust such a God at all.

        The biblical truth of what has happened in Jesus Christ and his sacrifice is so far from that version told by the preacher and sold to millions and packaged and distributed with seeming great ease and belief by some that it would be laughable if it wasn’t the redemption of the humankind that is being discussed.

        Many folks are told that God would destroy the sinner unless Jesus Christ made a sacrifice that satisfies the righteousness of God.  This belief can be traced to great medieval theologian St. Anselm who, more or less, posited this exact theory of atonement: Jesus Christ’s sacrifice satisfies the righteousness of God so that Christ’s intervening offering of himself stays the wrath of God and satisfies his righteousness.

        As prevalent as this theory might be, nowhere in the New Testament is this concept put forth.  Nowhere does it say that what Jesus did was to satisfy the wrath of God and change the mind of God.

        I like very much what Shirley Guthrie said simply about all this:

[Scripture] tells us that Jesus came to express, not change, God’s mind.  It says that reconciliation is the work of God, not that it is purchased from God. What Jesus does is not done over against God; his work is God’s work, for he himself is God-with-us.  The Bible does not teach that if certain conditions are fulfilled with, by, or for us, then God will love us.

        The witness of scripture and even the Lenten season is not that Jesus must act to protect us or redeem us from the wrath of God, but rather that God in Jesus Christ acts decisively to close the gap, to bring about the redemption of that which has been lost, that God, in Jesus Christ, sacrifices himself not to satisfy justice, but rather to bring us all home …  It is decisively and surely the action of God and God’s love for us that leads Jesus to Calvary and the cross.

        John Calvin, great theologian himself, quotes another great theologian, Augustine, in his Institutes of the Christian Religion about this very thing:

For it was not after we were reconciled to him through the blood of his Son that he began to love us.  Rather, he has loved us before the world was created, that we also might be his sons along with only-begotten Son – before we became anything at all.  The fact that we were reconciled through Christ’s death must not be understood as if his Son reconciled us to him that he might now begin to love those whom he had hated.  Rather, we have already been reconciled to him who loves us, with whom we were enemies on account of sin.

        What God has done in Jesus Christ, he has done for us, not as a way to prevent God from acting in a wrathful manner, but rather to fully express the divine love for humankind, that though we have walked away from God, in Jesus Christ, he has moved toward us.  The action, on this account, is wholly and completely on the side of the divine; the one who has given himself for us not so that he might be reconciled to us, but rather that we might be brought to him in reconciliation.

        With so great a gift of God’s incredible love, it does make some sense that folks attempt to somehow explain or formulize what is a great mystery.  There are some who take great measures to assure that somehow they have become deserving of this great love and grace where others are obviously not.

        Cynthia Rigby, former seminary president, pondered just these things in a recent sermon:

What is it about us that leads us to try to moderate things when it comes to our relationship with God? To try to balance scales we know cannot possibly be balanced? To develop give-and-take formulas for how forgiveness and reconciliation and restoration work?

        She is right.  Far too often, Christians attempt to somehow justify the extraordinary mercy of God demonstrated in Jesus Christ by developing, as she said, “give-and-take formulas” that allow us to somehow claim a part in our own redemption.  We might say that God has offered us salvation in Jesus Christ, but we must grasp it; we must take it in order for it to be effective.  We seek to somehow justify ourselves in that kind of thinking, wanting to say that we are somehow helping God in our salvation.  This leads only to us eventually claiming that salvation is both the act of God and the act of the sinner turning to God that finally merits God’s grace, forgiveness and love.

        I like even better how Guthrie puts the same concept in his chapter on atonement:

But to know that we are forgiven debtors means that we do not have to circle round and round ourselves, arrogantly defending or anxiously condemning ourselves, or trying to think up excuses to make our guilt seem less than it is and easier to bear.  We have been forgiven! God forgives us. We no longer have to spend our lives with tormented consciences, desperately trying to work off our guilt, desperately trying to convince ourselves that we are not so bad after all, or desperately trying to justify ourselves by arguing that at least we are not as bad as others we could name.  To be forgiven means to be free to put behind us what we have been and done, or what we have not been and not done. It means to be free for a new beginning with God, other people, and ourselves.  If God has forgiven us, without demanding that we ‘pay up,’ then we can forgive ourselves.  We can forget what lies behind and press on to what lies ahead.

        Because of our sin and alienation from God, God has acted in Jesus Christ for us.  In Jesus Christ, we have been forgiven and invited into a new life … this is the good news of Jesus Christ … God has acted when we could not.  The very one who has been offended has become the offense for us so that we might live … that we might be reconciled to him … so that we might know that we are loved and not condemned.

        Paul said it most simply, without self-justifying formulations: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”

The Manner of Our Lives: Psalm 23 & Ephesians 5:8-14; Lent 4 – March 30, 2014

Rev. Martin R. Ankrum

          Whenever we contemplate the writings of St. Paul, it is always best to remember the context of his writings.  Rarely does Paul write to individuals; the context of the majority of his letters is a collective, a group of Christians living in a particular city at a particular time

          What we heard this morning from Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians is a good case in point: He does not pen these words to any particular person in the city of Ephesus, but rather to the faith community gathered in Ephesus.  What he advises as Christian behavior he advises to them in community rather in than in isolation.

          Paul’s expectation in this pericope of scripture is that those who read his letter are called to show forth the Christian faith with the manner of the lives lived in community.  He assumes that these individual people are living out their faith as a community, a collective, a church.  He assumes that they are working together to show forth the Christian faith in the manner of their lives.

          As you may know, I very much enjoy golf.  I like being out on the links, striking the ball, feeling some form of success when that little round object finally rolls into that little hole, no matter how many strokes it takes.

          What I particularly like about golf is that it is an individual sport played in the midst of community.  One can choose to play golf in isolation and by one’s self, but that is never as much fun or satisfying as playing the sport with others in good company. 

          The presence of others in a foursome or a couple on the course keeps things not only honest, but engaging.  When one fails on the golf course to strike the ball as well as one might want, there is always consolation offered by others.  They have been there before; they know the humiliation of thinking that they are going to drive the ball perfectly only to lose it out of bounds, splash it down in some body or water, or just dribble it off the tee.  Others have done just as you have done and there’s something tremendously comforting about the thought.  But, there are also times when real help is offered and improvements can be made.

          Now, I don’t want you to think that in every round, someone pulls aside the one who is having a bad game and offers tips for improvement.  That rarely happens really.  There is an unwritten rule about being two quick to correct another’s stance, address to the ball or swing.  It’s just not polite to be always attempting to improve someone else’s game.  But that help is always readily available if one only asks.

          Paul envisions that Christians would live out their faith together, being available to others in the community of faith as a help.  Paul envisions that the Ephesians are not about avoiding the darkness in life merely by themselves or in isolation, but would be doing so in conversation with each other … in other words, as a church.  Paul envisions that the Christian life is life lived together under the grace of God.

          Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the great German theologian who was executed by the Nazi regime for his part in a plot to kill Hitler, wrote a little book about this very thing.  The title of the book is simply: Life Together.  It is a short little piece written in 1938 as an outgrowth of his leading an underground Christian seminary in Nazi Germany.  It was published posthumously in the ‘50’s.

          Bonhoeffer shares many insights about life together, about being a Christian community, a church in this little book.  One startling statement is this one:

It is easily forgotten that the fellowship of Christian brethren is a gift of grace, a gift of the Kingdom of God that any day may be taken from us, that the time that still separates us from utter loneliness may be brief indeed.  Therefore, let him who until now has had the privilege of living a common Christian life with other Christians praise God’s grace from the bottom of his heart.  Let him thank God on his knees and declare: It is grace, nothing but grace, that we are allowed to live in community with Christian brethren.

 

Bonhoeffer writes of the grace that fills the Christian’s life, but it is a grace that must be shared to understand it and enjoy it to the fullest.  We are not truly Christian unless we live in community with other followers of Jesus Christ.  We become responsible to others when we become Christian.  We may be freed from the darkness which Paul writes of, but we are called to live as children of the light, not just individual points of light.

          Here’s another quote from the Bonhoeffer:

Therefore, the Christian needs another Christian who speaks God’s Word to him.  He needs him again and again when he becomes uncertain and discouraged, for by himself he cannot help himself without belying the truth.  He needs his brother man as a bearer and proclaimer of the divine word of salvation.  He needs his brother solely because of Jesus Christ.  The Christ in his own heart is weaker than Christ in the word of his brother, his own heart is uncertain, his brother’s is sure.

 

          Not only is the church a gift to us, but those who inhabit Christ’s church are gifts to us as we are gifts to them.

          I believe that this is what Paul intends as he writes to the Ephesians to live as children of the light.  They who were once acquainted only with the ways of darkness have been transformed into Christ’s people by Jesus Christ and are called to live in a manner reflective of that light.  Yet how can one do such a thing in isolation, without regard or recourse to others? 

          The simple answer to that question is “no.” We cannot live as Christians in isolation.  We must reflect the light of Jesus Christ in the manner of our lives in the midst of the people of God. 

          Paul writes as if we need one another to be authentically Christian; as if being only an individualist would thwart our growth from darkness to light.

          Eugene Peterson, great Presbyterian theologian of our age, writes rather forcefully about this very truth in his commentary on the Letter to Ephesus:

Individualism is the growth-stunting, maturity-inhibiting habit of understanding growth as an isolated self-project.  Individualism is self-ism with a swagger.  The individualist is the person who is convinced that he or she can serve God without dealing with God.  This is the person who is sure that he or she can love neighbors without knowing their names.  This is the person who assumes that ‘getting ahead’ involves leaving other people behind.  This is the person who, having gained competence in knowing God or people or world, uses that knowledge to take charge of God or people or world.  … For as long as individualism has free rein in our lives, we will not be capable of embracing church.  Individualism severely handicaps us in growing up to the measure of the full stature of Christ.  If unchecked it can be fatal, fating us to lifelong immaturity.

 

          Of course, as Americans, we tend toward individualism.  There is nothing wrong with being an individual; that’s not the point being made.  Peterson is attempting to convince his hearers that being the church of Jesus Christ is about being more than just a collection of individuals.  It is about actually being the church to one another.

          Bonhoeffer holds a great key to this concept and links our discussion here back to Paul’s passage that we heard this morning:

The first fellowship that one owes to others in the fellowship consists in listening to them.  Just as love to God begins with listening to His Word, so the beginning of love for brethren is learning to listen to them.  It is God’s love of us that He not only gives us His Word but also lends us His ear.  So it is His work that we do for our brother when we learn to listen to him. Christians, especially ministers, so often think they must always contribute something when they are in the company of others, that this is the one service they have to render.  They forget that listening can be a greater service than speaking.

 

          Paul, and the other witnesses mentioned this morning, all call us to be Christ’s church in relation to one another.  We are called in Jesus Christ to live as children of the light together.  We are called to lend an ear to one another, to lend our love and support, to share the grace and mercy that we have received from God to build up others and by doing so, to actually build up the church.

          Playing golf in isolation is not actually playing as the game was intended.  Attempting to be a Christian all to ourselves, without reference to the fellowship of the church, is not a promising prospect.  Paul calls us to recognize that in order to live as children of the light, we must live with the gift that God has granted us: the gift of the church.

 

 

 

 

The Response of Faith: Psalm 95 & Romans 5:1-11; Lent 3 – March 23, 2014

             Now over twenty some years ago, I spent a Sunday afternoon touring the Detroit Institute of Art with a group of young people about my same age.  I remember the feeling I’m about to describe from that afternoon like it was yesterday … it is still fresh in my mind even despite the distances of time and geography.

            I had broken away a bit from our group and was lingering in a room that contained a Van Gogh.  I loved the Dutch artist’s work at the time and thought it all very romantic how he was driven to madness and excess … such are the young.

            Anyway, I thought I was alone in that little room when all of a sudden, in the midst of my solitary thoughts and quiet observation of Van Gogh, I felt two arms coming over my back, wrapping themselves around each other on my chest and hugging me tightly.

            For a moment, for a brief moment, I tensed.  I didn’t know or comprehend exactly what was happening. In a matter of less than a second, my isolation and supposed solitary presence in that room was invaded by these arms that were roped around my neck. 

            Just as I was considering what I would do, a voice behind my left ear said quietly, in a whispered tone: “There you are Martin. We’ve all moved on and we miss you.”

            It was one of the young ladies from the group … an insurance agent or automobile engineer, I have forgotten which, who must have been sent to find the lingering Martin and return him to the rest of the group.  I don’t think it was that they missed me too much … more like some of the guys in our little group wanted to get to the pub and couldn’t if they left me behind.

            Anyway, in that split second of being hugged by an unknown, but somewhat familiar presence, I learned something about the love of God … I learned something about relaxing and learning to trust the One who has me in his grip.

            As I was being restrained briefly by those arms, I had a quick decision to make: to struggle to be free of this alien encounter or to relax and trust that the person who had me wrapped in her arms intended good for me. (By the way, I want to emphasize that this was not a romantic gesture by the young lady; she was just one of those effusive types that hugged anybody … mind you, I had hoped it was, but realized it wasn’t when I noticed that she hugged about three of the other guys in our group at various points that afternoon and evening …)  Back to the illustration …

            In that split second, I had to decide to struggle against this embrace and stay with my isolation and solitary contemplation, or just relax and trust that the one who was hugging me meant only good for me.  There wasn’t much else I could do.

            The apostle Paul writes to the Romans and assures them that God has reached out to them in a embrace of forgiveness, mercy and pardon in the person of Jesus Christ.  They did not ask for it; they did not do anything to merit this grace; it just came to them not because of who they were, but rather because of how great God’s love in Jesus Christ is.  This was more about God than about them, but it eventually included them.

            The only thing that Paul says they can do about such a revelation of God’s love in their life is to respond with faith … with trust that God’s work in Jesus Christ is enough to bridge the gulf, to complete the work, to finish the awesome task of reconciliation and restoration.

            Just as I had wandered off into that little anteroom of the museum, forgetting about others and becoming isolated and estranged in my own little world, so too has the human race become estranged from God.  In fact, this is one thing that we share with all the human race; we are estranged from God and need to be reconciled … brought home.

            When Paul asks the Romans to have faith in God’s work in Jesus Christ, he is not making their faith a requirement for God’s grace.  If we come to think somehow that it is our faith or belief that saves us, we have missed the point.  If we come to understand that it is the faith of Jesus Christ which God has placed in us that responds to God’s grace, then we are on surer footing.  It is not our faith that saves us, it is rather the trust that we have been given by God that grants us peace … it is learning to trust that what God has begun in us in Christ, he will complete in us.

            I think one of the difficulties for the Christian is this lingering feeling that we ought to be deserving of God’s love … that we ought to do things that would make God find us more acceptable.  Nothing could be further from the truth … what we do by faith is response to a grace that has already altered our lives and brought about our salvation.  The faith that we have is a derivative, responsive faith, not an initial or creative faith … we are bid to respond to God’s grace with faith.  In fact, we are called to accept it as acceptable.

            Paul Tillich, a great theologian of the 20th century, understood sin as separation from God, as estrangement from the holiness and goodness of God.  This is what he wrote about God’s saving act in Jesus Christ that Paul seeks to describe in our passage for the day:

It is an act of God which is in no way dependent on man, an act in which he accepts him who is unacceptable. … Indeed, there is nothing in man which enables God to accept him.  But man must accept just this.  He must accept that he is accepted; he must accept acceptance.

 

            What Paul Tillich describes here sounds so inviting, so comforting, so confirming that it is hard to think that we just don’t think this way.  We think, on the other hand, that we must do something to deserve God’s grace and acceptance.  We think that we must make ourselves acceptable to God in order for God to really love us and seek our salvation in Jesus Christ.

            Hear again, the wisdom of Dr. Tillich:

He who looks at himself and tries to measure his relation to God by his achievements increases his estrangement and the anxiety of guilt and despair.

 

When we do that, when we attempt to justify ourselves in our acceptance by God, we only increase our sense of estrangement and our anxiety of guilt.  We see that we can never make ourselves acceptable to God and so we begin to despair.

            However, when we live in thanksgiving for what God has done for us in Christ, we get our eyes off ourselves and our attempts to earn God’s love.  We get our eyes more focused upon the purposes of God for our lives and begin to live with a confidence that we could call hope or faith or trust, that what God has done for us can never be paid back, but is certainly deserving of our thanks and praise and our faithful response.  When we consider the truth that it is only in Christ that we are made acceptable to God, we can finally accept that and live.

            Back at that museum in Detroit, enveloped in a caring embrace over which I had no control, I was given a choice as to how I would respond: struggle against this alien intrusion into my isolation or just relax and trust that this one who held me meant me no harm.

            In Jesus Christ, we have been embraced and brought home.  Our faithful response must be to trust God that such action on his part is enough … to trust in God and then to live out that faith that such love inspires in us all.  That is what we are called to do.

Transformations: Psalm 99 & Matthew 17:1-9; Transfiguration of the Lord- March 2, 2014

Rev. Martin R. Ankrum

            Whenever I hear the strains of the beautiful “Pachelbel’s Canon in D,” I am instantly translated to a moment of great transformation and transcendence in my life.  The moment that I associate with this piece of music is when I first saw Julie enter the sanctuary dressed in white, escorted by her father, moving down the aisle to take her place in the chancel next to me.  Of course, it is our wedding day that I remember when I hear that piece of music.  I can’t hear Pachelbel’s Canon and not think of Julie, stunningly beautiful and moving towards me.

            And, I also remember what happened right in the midst of that moment.  My best man, the other Associate Pastor of the church I was serving, leaned into my eared and said, quite plainly with great gravity: “And Martin, this is a special moment!”

            He said it with all seriousness, somehow implying to me that he thought I didn’t fully understand the unique nature of this moment.  Well, I did.  I knew that it was a special moment, a moment like Julie or I would never have again; a moment for the ages as it were, at least for us.  I didn’t really need that little reminder: I knew.

            In a manner not to dissimilar, Peter, in the story of the Transfiguration rendered today by the Gospel of Matthew, feels that he needs to make sure that Jesus knows that it is a significant event they are experiencing. He said: “It is good for us to be here!”  He is, of course, stating the obvious.  Peter senses that this is a transformative moment not only for Jesus, but also for the trio of disciples accompanying him.  Peter wanted to make sure that Jesus knew this was a moment of transformation.

            And maybe, just maybe, Peter was right to make sure of it, for most of the time, in life, the transformative moments of lives are not quite as spectacular as the Transfiguration or the moments of our wedding day.  No, for the most part, the truly transformative moments of life come and go without much fanfare or notice.

            I think that this may be the very source of some people’s disappointment with the Christian faith.  After the initial thrill of realizing God’s love for us, we might be expecting all high mountain top moments.  We might believe that all true experiences with God in Jesus Christ are as brilliant and obvious as Jesus’ dazzling-white transfiguration. 

We learn though, that those marked transformative moments that we notice do not occur as frequently as we may have hoped or with any perceivable schedule.  No, for most of us, the transformation that God makes in our lives comes more gradually and is more cumulative in nature than it is explosive.

            One of the lectionary readings that we didn’t include in the service for this morning comes from Peter’s Second Letter.  Peter begins this section relaying his experience of the Transfiguration, but then adds this statement:

So we have the prophetic message more fully confirmed.  You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.

 

            It is as if Peter is telling the Christians to whom he is writing, that indeed he was witness to the Transfiguration of Jesus, but the witness of scripture is even more powerful.  The witness of God’s word to us is like a “lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises” in our hearts.

            I find great comfort in those words for their mirror my experience of the transformative power of Christ’s presence in my life.  Certainly, I have had high-mountain top experiences, when I sensed the love of Jesus Christ and the providence of God in my life in dramatic and certain ways.  Yet, for the most part, the transformative moments of my life and faith have been less dramatic and much more pedestrian.  The formative power of the faith, for me at least, has been more cumulative in nature, rather than one great big explosive moment.

            Here is the great power of Gods’ Word to us to transform us: bit by bit and day by day with each and every contact we have with scripture.  This may not be as dazzling or immediate as a moment of transfiguration, but it is as sure. 

If we take seriously what both the scripture and the early Church Fathers tell us, our contact with scripture on a regular basis is our contact with Jesus Christ himself.  He is, after all, acclaimed to be the Word of God to us, and in our reading and hearing and contemplation of scripture, I find the very Spirit of Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, nurturing us and forming us, bit by bit, into the person that God seeks us to be.

When I hear Pachelbel’s Canon in D, I still think of that moment of transformation … that beautiful and unequaled moment.  But, I have had thousands of moments since then with that bride.  All of those moments have accumulated and transformed into a husband different than that younger, less knowing man who stood in the chancel, listening to Pachelbel’s Canon.  Indeed, it has been the cumulative effect that has made the real, lasting transformation.

            Therefore, let me encourage you to seek daily contact with God’s word to you.  Pick up your Bible and read.  You may not have great moments of earth-shaking, radical transformation, but you may well find yourself, bit by bit, moment by moment, being formed by God’s word into something that you may not have been before … you find yourself transformed.

Good Intentions: Genesis 50:15-26; Epiphany 7-February 23, 2014

Rev. Martin R. Ankrum

       The choral production of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” is certainly a hard act to follow, but I’ll endeavor to do just that.

       How do we interpret this story from the Old Testament; this story that brings to a close the opening book of the Bible: Genesis?  It’s an old story that we have heard from the time that we were in Sunday school and enjoyed, in an almost comic-book serial fashion, the ups and downs of Joseph’s life.  But how do we interpret this story now and move it from narrative history to formative text for our lives?

       One could, I suppose, reduce the story to a case of self-esteem versus self-efficacy.  Educators will recognize the dichotomy.  About twenty years ago, a member of a former church explained to me that educators and parents are faced with a choice between self-esteem and self-efficacy when teaching or raising children.  When building self-esteem is the focus, children are told that they are capable and good.  When self-efficacy is the central aspect of the lesson, children learn by doing that they are capable and good.

       Jacob showers Joseph with honor and gifts and a multi-colored coat.  He is, in essence, pumping up Joseph’s self-esteem, but doing nothing for his self-efficacy.  He sets Joseph in charge of nothing, gives him leisure time and actually creates the jealousy in his brothers that leads to his departure to Egypt.  On the other hand, when in Egypt on his own, Joseph learns through struggle and difficulty, that he is actually talented and capable, eventually becoming second only to the Pharaoh.  In essence, he learns self-efficacy.

       Or, maybe if the story was put into an American context, we would have yet another Horatio Alger story: the young man pulls himself up by the bootstraps and makes something of himself.  One could, I suppose, offer the interpretation, that Joseph, who had it all back in Canaan, loses it all in Egypt and has to start from square one, rising from imprisonment to the highest heights as the Pharaoh’s right-hand-man.

       Of course, both of these interpretations are too shallow and miss the point.  There’s something else going on in this story than just sheer human effort or being trained correctly as a child.  There is something much deeper here being said about the events of life and the meaning of life itself.

       The Buddhists tell a story that might serve as an interpretation of what is happening with good old Joseph and his brothers:

There was an old farmer who had worked his crops for many years.  One day his horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit. ‘Such bad luck,’ they said to the man sympathetically.

‘Maybe,’ the farmer replied.

The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses.  ‘How wonderful,’ the neighbors exclaimed to the farmer.

‘Maybe,’ he replied.

The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown, and broke his leg.  The neighbors again came to offer their sympathy on his misfortune. ‘Such bad luck,’ they said to the farmer.

‘Maybe,’ he answered.

The day after the accident, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the son’s leg was broken, they passed him by.  The neighbors congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out. ‘What good fortune!’ they exclaimed.

‘Maybe,’ said the farmer.

       As entertaining as that story is, this too doesn’t reach the depth that the story of Joseph conveys to us.  For the Buddhist, there is no rhyme nor reason to the universe; just events that transpire and the meaningless of life itself.  However, for the Christian, we hear Joseph’s story and see the meaning behind it.

       Joseph says it best actually in that final passage read just before the production: “Even though you intended to harm to me, God intended it for good …”  No matter what life threw at Joseph, he knew, or was convinced, that God would turn it to the good.  He trusted that God would work God’s own purposes out in his living.

       The apostle Paul may well have been inspired by Joseph’s story when he wrote the church in Rome these words:  “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”

       Both the witness of Joseph and Paul assure us that no matter what we deal with in life … in the midst of the deepest tragedy and the highest celebration, we stand in the hands of a loving God.  Whatever we face in life, whether great joy or hard sorrow, we face it no alone, but rather are joined by the God who holds it all in the palm of his loving hand … and that, indeed, are God’s good intentions.

What Are We Really Choosing?

Psalm 119:1-8 & Deuteronomy 30:15-20

Epiphany 6 – February 16, 2014

Rev. Martin R. Ankrum

            If we are to be thoroughly honest and possess integrity in our following of Jesus Christ, we must readily and always admit that we come to scripture from our own perspectives and influenced by our own experiences.  It is a principle that we must never over-look; none of us come to scripture void of the influence of our own perspectives and experiences … even recent experiences.

            That’s why today, or rather yesterday, as I contemplated the passage from Deuteronomy about being given some kind of choice; choosing between life and death, blessing or cursing, my mind slipped out of exegetical thoughts to consider more existential questions.  All I could think of yesterday was the blessed possibility of choosing between our beloved snowy Western Pennsylvania or sunny, warm and dry Florida.  That’s the choice that I wanted to make … do I keep my family in a climate that apparently will never relinquish its snowy and cold grip on the countryside or should I seek a warmer clime where palm trees wave, the sun shines and no one knows what a parka is?

            Now, I hope you know that I am only kidding about all of this.  I have no intentions of seeking a parish in Florida, Alabama or Hawaii … but maybe, to ensure no snow, I should consider the Caribbean and convert to Anglicanism.  All kidding aside, this is not the kind of choice that is being spoken of by Moses in the reading for this morning.

            In the narrative of the story of the text, Moses is coming to the end of a 26 chapter farewell sermon to the people of Israel. He knows that he will not inhabit the promised-land. The people of Israel, God’s people, however, are about to cross over into the land; but he knows he will not.  He has spent most of this lengthy farewell address reminding the people that things have gone better for them when they have determined to follow God and not strike out in their own ways and paths.  He encourages them to remember that it was God who brought them out of slavery and has brought them to this great moment of anticipation of freedom.  This has not been their doing, but it has been their journey WITH God.

            Then, in this great moment, he reminds them again that decisions have to be made … that the right course must be selected and travelled or all the past will have been for naught.  Moses buts it in the simplest of phrases, but the words do express something much more complex than merely choosing life over death; for truly, who would choose death?

            Now, let’s be obvious about this passage, for I believe it is often misunderstood or misused.  Moses is not setting before them a choice about being the people of God or not; it has become obvious over the past 40 years of wilderness wandering that they ARE God’s people.  God has stood by them when they have followed his law and he has chastened them when they have diverted from his paths.  But he has never forsaken them permanently.  He has not abandoned them or sent them off to eternal destruction.  Moses’ challenge here is not about accepting or rejecting salvation, as many folks would like to interpret it, but rather about living in a such a way as God’s people that God would be pleased with them.

            What Moses asks for the people of Israel is the very thing that our faith as Christians asks of us: obedience.  We are called to live our life in response to God’s great love by seeking to be obedient to God’s way in this world.  We are called to acknowledge God’s love in our lives in Jesus Christ by living as if we really believe in God’s great ability to love, resurrect, grant grace and hope to all those in need … to actually fulfill the law of God.

            Earlier in the book of Deuteronomy, the people of God are reminded of the Ten Commandments and what they represent toward God’s expectations for their behavior with him and with their fellow humanity.  It’s an ideal set of commandments indeed, especially when they are followed.  It is not enough for us to advocate that they be chiseled in stone and placed in public spaces so that others might be inspired to live better … no, it is only enough for we ourselves to accept this path of obedience.

            When I was a seminary student, I spent a year as a Seminary Assistant in a Reformed church.  It was a tiny congregation, served by a former green-grocer turned pastor.  I noticed a great difference in their liturgy of the worship service from what I was learning in my Presbyterian seminary.  Like our services, there was a corporate prayer of confession, but it was always preceded by a reading of the Ten Commandments or a summary of the law.

            I asked the pastor about this difference in the liturgy and he told me that he felt his congregation needed to be reminded how much they had sinned before they could ever confession their sin before God and their neighbors.  I thought it a good practice.

            But then, some years later, I encountered the Ten Commandments or a Summary of the Law read in response to the Assurance of Pardon.  In other words, after confessing the sin and receiving God’s forgiveness, the Ten Commandments were read.  When I inquired of that pastor why the choice of placement, I was told that the Ten Commandments should be our response to the forgiveness that we have received, that we should live in such a way that reflects a willingness to be obedient to God rather than just our own motivations and desires.  Wow, I think I get that even better than the aforementioned practice.

            This is exactly what Moses is calling the people of Israel to do … to choose life and live in obedience to voice of God’s word rather than their own singular voices of reason or self-interest.

            I greatly appreciate Dr. Carol Dempsey’s words on this matter:

Obedience is not merely doing as one is told. Obedience means ‘to listen,’ which involves more than just hearing and following.  Obedience is a discernment process that involves not only the mind and will but also, and most especially, the heart. … Obedience, then, calls the Israelites ‘to listen’ to God’s word in their inner selves, at their core, and to live out that word, which, in turn, will result in life transformed truly into God’s image, according to God’s likeness, with God’s ways made manifest through the people’s daily life together.

 

            This is what Moses placed before the people of God and this is the very thing that God places before us in Jesus Christ.  We are called to choose life; to seek God’s way of life in response to his goodness and graciousness rather than merely our own.  More accurately, we are called to make God’s ways our OWN.

            Knowing what that looks like can be tricky for some and a bit too complex for others.  One of the best definitions of this choosing of life, of responding to God’s love can be heard from Brett Younger, a New Testament professor.  He provides a list of things that illustrate to him, Christians choosing life.  Here they are in no particular order:

Learn things that you have told yourself you will never learn. Enjoy simple things. Play with children. Laugh often, long and loud.  Cry when it is time to cry.  Be patient with your own imperfections as well as the imperfections of others. Walk around the block. Turn off the television. Get together with your friends.  Invite a stranger to lunch or dinner. Clean out a drawer. Read a book of poetry.  Quit doing what is not worth your time. Do something so someone else will not have to.  Give money to a cause you care about.  Stop arguing. Apologize to someone, even if it was mostly his fault.  Forgive someone, even if she does not deserve it. Have patience. Stop having patience when it is time to tell the truth. Figure out what you hope for and live with that hope.

(And even more to the point …)

Worship with all your heart.  Pray genuinely. Love your church. Believe that God loves you. Remember the stories of Jesus. See Christ in the people around you.  Share God’s love with someone who has forgotten it. Delight in God’s good gifts. See that all of life is holy. Open your heart to the Spirit.  Search for something deeper and better than your own comfort. Live in the joy beneath it all. Let God make your life wonderful.

With that said, dear friends, brothers and sisters in Christ: choose life! And maybe think about the Caribbean!

What God Requires

Psalm 15 & Micah 6:1-8

Epiphany 4 – February 2, 2014

Rev. Martin R. Ankrum

          Last week, I opened the sermon with an old joke about someone who had been shipwrecked on a deserted island.  Since that went so well … here is yet another:

Two men were shipwrecked near an island. When they landed ashore, one of them began screaming and yelling, “We’re going to die! We’re going to die! There’s no food! No water! We’re going to die!”

The second man leaned calmly against a palm tree.

When the first man saw how calm his friend was, he went crazy and shouted, “Don’t you understand?! We’re going to die!!”Undisturbed, the second man replied, “You don’t understand, I make $100,000 a week.”

Dumbfounded, the first man looked at him and asked, “What difference does that make?!? We’re on an island with no food and no water! We’re going to DIE!!!”

The second man answered, “You just don’t get it. I make $100,000 a week and I tithe ten percent on that $100,000 a week. Wherever I am, my pastor will be sure to find me!”

          So, if you’re going on a cruise any time soon, you might just want to let me know where you are going …

          All kidding aside, the joke implies that old human misunderstanding about what God is requiring of us.  Just because the man gives $10K a week to his church is really no guarantee that he will survive his ordeal.  Just because we offer our worship to God and give sacrificially when the offering plate comes around is no sure indication of whether or not we are really being the people that God has made us to be.

          The words of Micah have become so well-known and often-used as conference themes, biblical studies and titles of books, that we run the risk of over-simplifying what is really being said in the text.  These little verses have been used by some to justify forfeiting membership in churches, saying that sacrifice is not really what God requires.  While others have used these little verses to somehow imply that the only thing that matters in the Christian faith or in relationship with God are our actions, especially towards others.

          Though there may be some truth to both, those assertions sell short the situation and the promise of this great passage of Scripture.  Micah speaks to a people who have forgotten what it means to love God and only act in ritualistic ways in order to curry the favor of God.

          Sometimes, this can be the case for us as well if we let our understanding of the Christian faith diminish to the point of what some folks call: “fire insurance.”  In other words, that we are involved in this religious life only for the sake of preserving our own skin … or soul.  There are plenty of folks that I have encountered over my ministry who have described their reasons for involvement with church as a way to guarantee God’s love for them or to obtain eternal salvation.  This is definitely not what Micah would say that the Lord requires of us … something more is asked of us then mere “fire insurance.”

          What God does seek and yearn for from us is actual involvement in God’s work of reconciliation in this world.  God calls his followers to do the things that lead to peace between others and God, between ourselves and others, between all people.  Micah reminds us that faith in God is a lived reality more than a thought-pattern or self-interested, obsequious ritualism.

          I like what Dr. Dennis Bratcher wrote about these famous verses:

Walking humbly with God is a call to do more than to come to God with offerings thinking to buy his favor, but to spend the time walking, living life, with God in ways that would work out in every aspect of life. It implies a sensitivity to the things of God, a concern, to use a familiar expression, to allow our heart to be broken by the things that break the heart of God. It is a deep desire to see the world through the eyes of God, to act in the world as God would act.

 

The real issue here is idolatrous worship and idolatrous religion in which the people have replaced worship of God in the living of life with lip service and external form. In a subtle but very real sense, by adopting this attitude the people have slipped away from the worship of God while they are supposedly worshipping. In the very process of offering the sacrifices, they have substituted the process itself for God, and have begun worshipping something other than God.

          Bratcher has it just right, I think. We are called as followers of God in Jesus Christ, to take upon ourselves the very things that are at the heart of God … his concerns for those who suffer and who are neglected; his care for those who have little or nothing while others feast and live “high off the hog.”  These should also be our concerns; these should also be right at the heart of living out the faith.

          Dr. Amy Oden of St. Paul School of Theology, adds this to the discussion:

To enact justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God, are not single acts that can be checked off the list and left behind. On an individual and social scale, in ways large and small, this is a way of life. Periodic nods to equity do not constitute a faithful life, Micah tells us. We cannot only observe racial membership quotas on committees in place of seeking racial justice. We cannot send checks for disaster relief and avoid examining the lifestyles that contribute, at least in part, to some natural disasters. We cannot do hunger walks and refuse to change our consumerist lifestyles. We cannot confess with our lips on Sunday morning and hold grudges at work on Monday.

Rather than offer God thousands of rams, Micah calls us to offer a thousand daily acts of love for each other and the world God loves. “Walking humbly with God” means knowing our bent to self-righteousness. We cannot “play church” or frame our religious life as a game where we keep God in check by performing prescribed duties. The life of faith is indeed a walk that reorients heart and life.

 

          And, finally, allow me to add some words from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, famed German theologian, who gave up his life in order to live out his faith truly with conviction:

The life or death of a Christian community is determined by whether it achieves sober wisdom on this point as soon as possible.  In other words, life together under the Word will remain sound and healthy only where it does not form itself into a movement, an order, a society, a collection of the pious, but rather where it understands itself as being part of the one, holy, catholic, Christian Church, where it shares actively and passively in the sufferings and struggles and promise of the whole Church.  Every principle of selection and every separation connected with it that is not necessitated quite objectively by common work, local conditions or family connections is of the greatest danger to a Christian community.  When the way of intellectual or spiritual selection is taken the human element always insinuates itself and robs the fellowship of it spiritual power and effectiveness for the Church, drives it into sectarianism.  The exclusion of the weak and insignificant, the seemingly useless people, for a Christian community may actually mean the exclusion of Christ; in the poor brother Christ is knocking at the door. We, must, therefore, be very careful at this point.

          And I agree, Dr. Bonhoeffer … we must be very careful indeed on this point …

Unity or Uniformity

Matthew 4:12-23 & I Corinthians 1:10-18

Epiphany 3 – January 26, 2014

Rev. Martin R. Ankrum

          They say that an old Scottish sailor became shipwrecked and was the sole survivor of the wreck.  He was washed up on a deserted island and was there for many years.  He managed to survive and build shelter and find food and after twenty years, another ship weighed anchor nearby.

          When the landing party came ashore, the old Scot rushed to meet them with great excitement.  At last, his rescue was assured.  However, before he could leave the island, he had to show his rescuers all that he had done.

          With great pride, he showed them the great house he had built for himself and the barn in which he had stored his food stuffs and the native animals he had managed to domesticate.  He showed them the pens of island pigs and sheep and the fields that he had tilled over the 20 years. 

          With even greater pride, he pointed out a grand building with a spire and a cross and told them that this was his church where he had come to pray and thank God for his deliverance.

          The captain of the landing party noticed another building a bit off in the distance and asked the old survivor: “Well, what’s that building?”

          The old Scot wrinkled up his face with disgust and said: “Oh, that’s my old church … I got mad and left that one years ago!”

          I suppose I like that story so much because it points up the propensity for Christians to create divisions and animus even when it is only our own souls we are dealing with. 

          The church to which Paul sends the letter we read a portion of this morning is in the midst of some kind of disagreement … an early church fight, if you will.  They are dividing themselves up and drawing lines in the sand as quickly as they can in order that they might differentiate themselves from one another.  They are forming into little groups, each supposing that their particular view, theology or alliance is better than the others.  It sounds way too familiar to me and I’m sure to you as well.

          Paul begs them to seek the unity of their oneness in Jesus Christ rather than highlighting their differences in opinion or baptismal origins.  He makes the very cogent point that their allegiance must be to Jesus Christ, not just to their own particular and peculiar convictions.

          What Paul advocates for them, and consequently for us as well, is a hard road for some to follow.  We cherish our own convictions and views when it comes to our faith and the religious life we share.  We are tempted sometimes to make our views the measuring stick by which we make judgments about the faith of others.  It is indeed a human trait that shows forth in Christians like many other human traits.  It certainly has been evident in my own life and living out of the faith from time to time.

          I was recently reading a commentary by Karl Barth and found what he said about the principle using our own convictions to judge others to be very helpful indeed.  Here’s one of the things he wrote:

He who is free and detached does not win his victory in the midst of clashing convictions; he wins by recognizing the common END of all convictions.

          I think that Barth has something very important for us to consider here.  With the Christian faith, it is not so much about blind uniformity of thought between believers, but rather the unity that finds its very END (or meaning) in the person of Jesus Christ.  For Barth, the END of all convictions is Christ himself and the gracious judgment of God offered in Jesus.

          Barth puts it even more succinctly with this great sentence worth memorization:

Weak is the man who allows himself to be pushed into a position from which he judges others.

          Too often, we are lead to believe that in the practice of our faith, our strength comes from dogged adherence to our own, privately held convictions.  Instead, the strength of our faith comes in realizing that all things, even our own convictions and tightly held beliefs, falls under the judgment of God in Jesus Christ.  We are not called to be the judge of others convictions; we are called to recognize the END of all convictions in the gracious love of God found in Jesus Christ.

          And finally, because it’s a quote that I can’t pass up without sharing, Barth offers this:

Others may be concerned to show how peculiar their manner of life is, but the proper ‘Pauline’ Christian takes no interest in such differentiations and has no real capacity for making himself conspicuous – Paul, it is true, did not always reach this standard himself, and we certainly do not.  The ‘Pauline’ Christian does not complain of those who hold opinions differing from his own, nor does he abuse them; rather he stands behind them sympathetically asking them questions.

          Now that is sound advice for any seeking the unity of Christ in his church rather than rigid uniformity.  That is sound advice for the Corinthian and the Presbyterian alike.  It is, after all, sound advice for us all.

A New Year: What Do We Know?

John 1:1-18 & Ephesians 1:3-14; Jan. 5, 2014

Rev. Martin R. Ankrum

“In him, we have obtained an inheritance …”

          Though this is the Second Sunday after Christmas liturgically speaking, for the calendar that we usually inhabit, this is the first Sunday of the New Year.  We have gathered here in this well-appointed and comfortable sanctuary to begin again a new year of worship and praise of our God.  It is the very thing that we do.  This is what we do as Christians, followers of the Lord Jesus Christ: we gather to worship God.

          We don’t know much about this coming year.  If we are entirely honest, we know very little about how 2014 will unfold for us both corporately and as individuals.  But then again, is this not the way it is with each New Year that we pass … the path the future will take is not available to us by any means.  It is a mystery into which we plunge with the passing of each day, each hour, each moment.  We live with this mystery.

          The passage from Ephesians reminds us that we CAN know something about our future; that we can know something about this coming year.  We can know that we face it not alone, but fully and completely in the presence of a loving God.

          The passage that I’ve just read from the opening of Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians is a beautiful piece of scripture.  In the original Greek, these thirteen verses are actually one long and complicated, but poetic sentence.  We don’t pick that up in the translation that we read, for it has been parsed into segments that are more manageable in English.  But in the Greek, it is one long and beautiful sentence, assuring the Ephesians that there is a place in the cosmos for them … a place that has everything to do with God and God’s gracious action in Jesus Christ.

          Paul opens this wondrous letter with this extended praise of God.  He begins with God and he is certainly right to do so, for his original readers are not that different from us … we may begin with God, but we are soon quick to move on to other subjects, mainly about ourselves.

          Eugene Peterson, the great Presbyterian pastor-turned-writer, writes convincingly of this:

We have short attention spans.  Having been introduced to God, we soon lose interest in God and become preoccupied with ourselves.  Self expands and soul atrophies.  Psychology trumps theology.  Our feelings and our emotions, our health and our jobs, our friends and our families muscle their way to center stage.  God, of course, is not exactly sent packing or shut in a closet or closed up in the Bible. But God is consigned to the sidelines, conveniently within calling distance to help out in emergencies and be available for consultation for the times when we have run out of answers.

Our days are busy with little leisure for frills.  We have work to do, interests to pursue, books to read, letters to write, the telephone to answer, errands to run, children to raise, investments to tend to, the lawn to mow, food to prepare and serve, the garbage to take out.  We don’t need God’s help or counsel in doing any of these things.  God is necessary for the big things, most obviously creation and salvation.  Bur for the rest we can, for the most part, take care of ourselves.

           Peterson is quite accurate in his description of us.  We are exactly the people he speaks of here … for we do these very same things.  We might begin our worship thinking about God and find ourselves drifting off a bit into considerations of our own concerns.  We think about ourselves more than we contemplate God and the goodness with which God has blessed us in this life.

          This is why precisely that worship is so very important for us.  This hour that we spend here on a Sunday morning helps to re-orient us in the same way that the long sentence that Paul wrote to the Ephesians attempts to re-orient his hearers to what is really going on in this life.

          There are many distractions that life provides for us.  Most of the distractions that we face are needful things indeed, as Peterson pointed out.  But the most needful thing we have in this life and in this New Year that we face is our need to offer our prayer and praise to the One who has blessed us all with life and salvation, with goodness and grace, with love and breath itself. 

This is the most needful thing we have as human beings: to turn to God in gratitude and praise.  This is a realization that we must come to again and again for the worries and concerns, joys and distractions of life have a way of drowning all this out if we let them.

Peterson, again, follows through with further comment on this aspect of distraction and the need we have to be more God-focused than we typically are:

That usually adds up to a workable life, at least when accompanied by a decent job and a good digestion.  But – it is not the practice of resurrection, it is not growing up in Christ, it is not living in the company of the Trinity, it is not living out of our beginnings, our begettings.  If we live too far removed from, or worse, disconnected from our origins, we will never arrive at ‘the full stature of Christ.’

          And so, we gather here again, at the start of a new calendar year and offer our worship to the God of Jesus Christ who has blessed us with all that is needed.  We gather again to start off with a willingness to maintain the connection with our beginnings in God and fight back the distractions that might lead us to disconnection from or displacement of what is really the most important relationship we have in life … our relationship with God in Jesus Christ.

          If you are taking suggestions for New Year’s resolutions, put this one at the top of the list: resolve to draw closer to God and God’s people in this coming year.  Resolve to give yourself the time that is needed for a deepening and furthering of relationship with God AND a relationship with the people of God.

          This is a new year and what do we really know? We know that we will not live this year alone or in isolation, but rather we can live this year in relationship with the One who holds not only 2014 but all the years in his loving embrace.  Happy New Year!      

Christmas Can Change Your Mind: Rom. 1:17 & Matt. 1:18-25; December 22, 2013

Rev. Martin R. Ankrum

            What does it take to change your mind?  What kind of conditions must exist for any of us to have a conversion of heart and mind over any given issue that might confront us in life?

            Probably the example of having a change of mind that I know the most about is my own story.  I have stopped counting how many times that God has literally changed my mind about something.  From my understanding of what salvation is all about to just how God works in this world, my mind has been changed more often than not; from considering just who we should or should not ordain as denomination to issues surrounding marriage, my mind has been changed over the years.  With all of it, sometimes it can be a frustrating and bewildering process.

            Most of us like to have our minds made up, as it were, on most of the issues with which we deal.  We like to be able to articulate our stances and take a certain joy or even pride in having a belief and sticking with it no matter what might contradict or counteract our thoughts. 

            Such constancy is a good thing, don’t get me wrong.  When I was in seminary, I had a theology professor who kept saying that when we reached the churches and communities in which we would serve as a minister, there would be some issues that would be “worth going to the mat for.”  In other words, there are beliefs about our faith and beliefs about how we treat one another that are indissoluble, that must be held even to the point of death … or “going to the mat.”

The problem comes when we equate ALL of our beliefs or thoughts with such single-minded devotion.  Though there are things worth going to the mat for, we remain human beings, with all kinds of issues and beliefs that are ultimately dead ends.  None of us are inerrant in our thinking and we shouldn’t pretend to be.  We are not all knowing and the passage from Matthew this morning helps us to see just that!

There are many different characters that the various Gospel writers populate the Christmas story with.  There is, of course, at the center of it all, the babe born in a manger.  There is also the adoring young mother, Mary.  There are shepherds and wise men, cattle and donkeys, waiting camels laden with gold, frankincense and myrrh. There is also a villain in the terrible King Herod, who ruthlessly slaughters the innocents in the vain hope of remaining unchallenged in dictatorial power.

Of all these, I find commonality with the little spoken of Joseph.  Here’s one who requires a visitation of an angelic dream to change his mind.  Here’s one who is fairly well convinced about what is the “right thing” to do about his young fiancée’s troubling and mysterious pregnancy.  He knows the rules of his faith; he understands without a doubt the implications of his bride’s condition: adultery. 

Joseph was a man of faith and a man of the world.  He understood what the pregnancy of a betrothed woman meant: it was either his child or another man’s.  That’s just the way the world worked and he also knew what that meant for him by the commandments of his faith.  However, he was also a compassionate man who decided to “put her away quietly.”  In other words, the marriage would be off, but he would do what he could to mitigate the embarrassment to her and to her family.

So, here’s this great faithful man confronted by a visitation of an angel with different news than he would have expected.  He had been raised in his father’s faith and he thought for sure he knew what God would have him do. And surprise!  The very thing that God would have him do was not what his faith had told him to do!  Joseph needed to change his mind about this because God was doing something new and different; something wholly unexpected and beautiful indeed.

I imagine a scene the next morning in Joseph’s kitchen.  He’s sitting down to a nice cup of coffee, puzzling over the dreams of the night, wondering about what he would do next.  On the one hand are the commandments and clear word of his faith in these matters; on the other hand is the voice of God through the nocturnal visit of the angel.  What should he do?  He stands up, removes the old yellowed magnet from his refrigerator that clearly read: “The Torah says it, I believe it, that settles it.” and replaces it with a new magnet reading: “Never place a period where God has placed a comma.”

Now, I know that that imagery is a bit fanciful: Joseph didn’t drink coffee, have a refrigerator or possessed any magnets, but the intent is the same: we need to be sensitive to the times when God is attempting to change our minds about this or that.  If we’re conscious of it, it probably happens a lot more than we really realize.

This is also the power of scripture in our lives.  When we read or hear those old familiar words with an open heart and mind, we might find God doing something radically different than we would have expected or anticipated before.

This is why Joseph and this little, isolated story from the Gospel of Matthew is so important.  Without the ability to change his mind, influenced by a divine visitation, the world would have been a different place indeed.  The story of Jesus’ birth would have been radically different if Joseph had not allowed himself to see with new eyes and think about things differently than he had in the past.

Here’s where we enter the story again … can we not put ourselves in the place of Joseph?  How many times has God changed our mind about something that we firmly believed and held to be God’s truth for us?  Do not Christmas and the scripture that we read and the Spirit that lives in our midst have the power to change our minds?  Of course they all do …

So, as this season of Advent draws to a close and the glorious celebration of Christmas and the birth of our Savior looms large in its place, it would best for us all to imitate Joseph just a bit … being sensitive to the movement of God’s spirit in our midst, the place of Jesus Christ in our hearts and minds, and willing to change our minds and see the world a new, from a different position.

Of course, maybe the most famous story of such changing of minds and angelic visitation comes not from the Bible, but from 19th century English literature.  We all know the story of Ebenezer Scrooge and Dickens’ delightful tale: A Christmas Carol.  By now, we’ve seen at least five renditions of the old story on the Hallmark Channel or TMC.  It happens that way every year.

Regardless, the ruthless and thoughtless old Scrooge becomes a new man by the end of the tale.  He shows compassion upon those he had either scourged with his wrath or merely ignored previously.  He has definitely undergone a change of mind and heart.

Christmas has the power to change our mind.  Better put, Christ has the power to change our lives.  That is the truth of the Christmas message, that God in Jesus Christ is about changing the world, reconciling the world to himself and in the course of it, making us all his children again.  This is what we believe and this, quite frankly, is worth going to the mat!

A Sign of the Coming Kingdom: Romans 5:4-13 & Matthew 3:1-12; Dec. 8, 2013

Rev. Martin R. Ankrum

“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

            The Second Sunday of Advent always includes a scripture about the ministry of John the Baptist.  To our eyes and ears he is an odd character for the Bible. Dressed in camel hair and eating the bugs and produce of the wilderness, John the Baptist is not easy on the eyes.  Preaching repentance and using hard language about the self-righteous and satisfied, he is equally not easy on the ears.  Yet, his message and Jesus’ refinement of it, is the very thing we need to hear and take to heart.

            David Bartlett, retired Biblical scholar, says that the words of this passage in Matthew and the entire Gospel of Matthew, makes it clear that “we all need to be on our toes.”  None of us are spared by this message of repentance and a turning toward the ways of God.

            The season of Advent itself is meant to turn us evermore towards God and the ways of God.  This means turning away from our own ways and seeing in them what God in Jesus Christ has seen: failed and flawed ways which cause us to consider just how far off the mark we really are.

            The season of Advent calls us to examine ourselves and realize our need for the grace of God in Jesus Christ to be operative and real in our lives.  This grace of God is not merely something upon which we count at the end of life to save us from eternal separation from God or some magical key to unlock the doors of heaven.  This is not the cheap grace that Bonhoeffer has warned about and that we so often see toted in popular-cultural expressions.  This grace which the gospel preaches to those who seek to follow Jesus Christ, is a real-world, active factor in the life of the here and now.

            John the Baptist alludes to this with his call to repentance.  He calls his hearers to repent not just to be better people or to find eternal security or fulfill some sort of righteous mandate.  John the Baptist calls his listeners to repent because the kingdom of heaven is near.  In his vocabulary, this does not mean some kind of temporal expectation that in a couple of months, years or decades, the kingdom is coming.  To John the Baptist, nearness of the kingdom of heaven is about proximity … the kingdom of heaven is already active and real in our midst, here and now.  The wild prophet is speaking about the proximity of Christ to our lives.

            So what do we make as 21st century inhabitants of this world of repentance?  Is it a sense of feeling sorry about the wrongs that we have done?  Is it about enumerating in an endless stream, the sins that we have committed against a holy God and the wrongs that we have perpetrated against our neighbors?  Is it also about throwing in a prayer for forgiveness for those sins of omission that we are not even conscious of committing, but we fear that someone up there is writing down in a great book to be tallied up and used as evidence against us?

            John Burgess, professor at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, says this about that:

Repentance is a confusing concept to many Christians today.  Does it mean feeling sorry for our mistakes? Is it a matter of trying to be a better person? Is repentance something that we even need to do, if our lives are now hidden with Christ, our Savior? … What John – and Advent – remind us is that repentance is not primarily about our standards of moral worthiness, but rather about God’s desire to realign us to accord with Christ’s life.  Repentance is not so much about our guilt feelings as about God’s power to transform us into Christ’s image.  For Matthew, John’s strange clothes and harsh sayings are necessary aspects of communicating the full meaning of the gospel.

            I think that Dr. Burgess is on to something here!  For most of us, we think of repentance just as he described as having to do with our sense of moral sufficiency.  We examine our lives and think about whether or not we live in a way that is reflective of the gospel.  We examine our lives and wonder about whether or not we meet the standards of a Christian life.  We examine our own souls and either congratulate ourselves for a deep sense of goodness or whip ourselves with guilt over the sins that loom so large in our lives.  Burgess suggests that John, Advent and Jesus Christ hold a different view of repentance.

            Repentance, in a Biblical view, is certainly about coming to grips with our sins and how far short we fall, but even more so, repentance is a realization of and a response to the great grace that God has bestowed upon us in Jesus Christ.  Advent has the power, as a season of the liturgical year, to coax us to prepare ourselves for the nearness of God’s kingdom.  Not in the sense of a timetable, but in the sense of proximity: God’s grace has come to us in Jesus Christ, not because of how good we might think of ourselves, but rather in spite of that.  The kingdom of heaven and the grace that implies has come to us because of who God is and the goodness of God witnessed in Jesus the Christ.  Repentance helps us to see that it really isn’t about us after all, it is about Jesus Christ.

            Repentance is about that AND our brokenness.  We realize, when we consider the great gift of grace in Jesus Christ, just how far short we fall from it.  We see ourselves as we have been and we begin to look for the signs of the coming kingdom within us.  These signs are the little transformations in our life by which God forms us into the image of this gracious Christ.

In repentance, we own that we are broken people who have been mended by a grace that is alien to us, outside of us and our abilities to be self-transformative.  Repentance demonstrates that who we are and who we are meant to be matters.  Repentance insists that what we do in response to this gracious action matters.

            I like very much what David Bartlett has written about this:

We all discover this Advent, not only that we are cherished for who we are, but that we are responsible for what we do.  That can be good Advent news, because if God does not care about what I do, I will begin to suspect that God does not actually care about me.  If God loves me enough to welcome me into Christ’s family, then God loves me enough to expect something from me.

            Hence, it does matter what we do.  We are under an obligation to be at work in this world for the sake of Jesus Christ.  It is not that this work will save us by any means; that is the province of God’s great love in Jesus Christ.  Rather, it is by this work that God will be able to transform us into the image of Jesus Christ.  What we do really does matter and therefore, we need repentance to understand exactly what we are about and what we need to be doing in the name of Jesus Christ.

            Bartlett’s little article on this passage quoted a story from another writer, William Muehl, about this.

One December afternoon … a group of parents stood in the lobby of a nursery school waiting to claim their children after the last pre-Christmas class session.  As the youngsters ran from their lockers, each one carried in his hands the ‘surprise,’ the brightly wrapped package on which he had been working diligently for weeks.  One small boy, trying to run, put on his coat, and wave to his parents, all at the same time, slipped and fell.  The ‘surprise’ flew from his grasp, landed on the floor and broke with an obvious ceramic crash.

The child … began to cry inconsolably.  His father, trying to minimize the incident and comfort the boy, patted his head and murmured, ‘Now, that’s all right son.  It doesn’t matter. It really doesn’t matter at all.’

But the child’s mother, somewhat wiser in such situations, swept the boy into her arms and said, ‘Oh, but it does matter.  It matters a great deal.’ And she wept with her son.

            Now, which of those two parents exhibited mercy and grace like God’s?  Indeed, you know it and know it: it was the mother, who didn’t just wave off the damage done, but acknowledged it and grieved with the boy.  She didn’t pretend it never happened nor negated the hurt that this little incident caused: she bent down, like God does in incarnation, picked up her son and grieved with him.

            It matters what we do.  The brokenness of our lives matters to us and to God.  If it didn’t John the Baptist would not call us to repent and God in Jesus Christ would not gather us all in the arms of grace and seek to resolve the hurt and the loss and the damage that we have done to our relationship with him.

            Repent, then, my friends, for the kingdom of heaven is near …

Kingdom Preparedness: Rom. 13:11-14 & Matt. 24:36-44; Advent 1 – December 1, 2013

Rev. Martin R. Ankrum

            “What have I forgotten?”  That’s the feeling we have when we’re about to leave one place to move to another: “What have I forgotten or left behind?”  It could be a drastic move, from one coast to the other across the country.  It could be a simple, everyday move, like moving from the car in the church parking lot to the sanctuary: “Did I leave my checkbook in the car?  Did I remember to lock the car?”  Wondering what we might have forgotten is a way of preparing to move from where we are to where we are about to be … in the simple things of life as well as the great.

            Advent is a time in our liturgical calendar in which we are bid to prepare for the coming kingdom of God.  The scriptures that we read and the hymns that we sing in this season point us squarely to preparation.

            In fact, in the passage for this First Sunday of Advent, Jesus speaks of the unknowable date or time when his kingdom will finally come in all its fullness.  He identifies our current wait with the wait that Noah endured, having dutifully built his ark, born all the questioning and snickering of his neighbors, scans the skies for the signs of the coming deluge.  In a like manner, Jesus tells us that we are to prepare for something which we have no idea of the day or the time of its arrival.  We are bid to just be prepared.

            Part of preparation is remembering.  We are called to remember the goodness and kindness of God in anticipation of the arrival the final judgment and the final redemption of all creation.  We are called to be prepare our hearts and minds by remembering.

            I like very much what the retired seminary professor, David Bartlett says about this:

Liturgy is the great remembering.  Surrounding the sermon are the hymns and prayers and readings that recall what God has done for God’s people and for God’s world. It is bad faith to come to Advent services as if we had no idea that God has come to us in Jesus Christ.  We wait in hope because we wait in memory.

I like that very much, especially the line: “Liturgy is the great remembering.”  It is, you know.  When we gather in this beautiful and inspiring sanctuary we gather to offer our praise and service to Almighty God, but we also gather that we might, bit by bit, Sunday by Sunday, be formed into the people that God would have us be.

            This is the importance of worship for a Christian; it is here that we join with others to not only be a witness to the goodness and graciousness that has found us in Jesus Christ, but also be transformed by the work we do here in worship to actually become God’s people.  This is the work of the Christian that we cannot forget, neglect nor leave to some other time in our lives: we are called to remember liturgically the life of God in this world and in our lives.

            John Burgess, professor of systematic theology at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, has written helpfully about this:

To live between the times is, above all, to trust and hope that God has begun, and will continue, to transform us more and more into the stature of Christ, in whom all of God’s mercy and loving-kindness becomes manifest.  Advent calls us into a continuing history of relationship with Christ who meets us whichever way we turn, whether toward the past, the present, or the future.

In worship, on each Sunday and throughout the liturgical seasons of the Christian year, we are being transformed more and more into the stature of Christ.  This, too, is part of our preparation for the coming kingdom of Christ, to be transformed by God into the image of Christ’s mercy and loving-kindness within our very hearts and minds.

            And let’s not let this moment pass without considering the place of our actual place of worship in this formulation.  The sanctuary in which we gather together to praise our God and be formed as Christians is spectacularly different than most any other type of space.  This is no warehouse or bowling alley, no office complex or prefabricated barn … this is God’s house and it looks it to our eyes.  As a congregation we stand here on holy ground as the holy people of God.  We gather here not to just make one another feel better or merely to be social in yet another form of sociability; we gather here to be changed together into the very people of God.  That makes this place very important in deed.

            By now, you’re familiar with my predilection for quoting John Calvin and maybe some of you might be even a little tire of him, but he had some rather wise insights.  Not the least of which was his view that Christ’s church was analogous both to our mother and the classroom.  Our mother in sense that within Christ’s church we are nurtured and loved by God.  And as a classroom for when we gather together as the church, we are a part of God’s school for life.  It is here, when we are together, that we learn what it means for us to be a Christian.  It is here, in short, that we are prepared and we prepare for the coming of Christ’s eternal reign.  That too, makes this place very special indeed.

            “What have I forgotten?”  We ask ourselves that whenever we are preparing to move from one spot to the next place; we ask ourselves that question whenever we are preparing to move forward into the future from our present moment. 

“What have I forgotten?” In this holy season of preparation that we call Advent, let us not forget the important things … like God’s love for us, like God’s kindness to us in the past and God’s ever present mercy and grace extended into a future that only God holds.  Yes, here in this very special place, let us not forget to prepare for a visitation of God’s very grace in Jesus Christ for us and for the world.

ALL Things Hold Together:  Luke 1:68-79 & Colossians 1:11-20; November 24, 2013

Rev. Martin R. Ankrum

The liturgical year, for most of us, presents a bit of a puzzle.  We all know about Christmas and Easter.  We think we have a pretty good grasp of what is going on those particular dates of the Christian year.  Maybe we have an understanding about Pentecost and the season of Lent.  But it is here that things get a bit murky.  Advent is oftentimes understood by folks as merely a religious equivalent of what is going on at the Mall: a run-up to Christmas. Ordinary Time is a mystery that even defies most of us in the clergy.

But Christ the King Sunday, what do we do with this particular Christian holy day?  What does Christ the King Sunday signify for us?  We give no presents or give up no bad habits in order to celebrate this Christian day.  We are not asked to wear a particular color in our clothing or purchase a wreath to celebrate and honor this season.

However, without a doubt, Christ the King Sunday is the most important day of the Christian year behind Easter and Christmas.  I am hard put to place it third, for I feel it really is more the second most important holy day in the Christian year, but I don’t want to upset the kids: Christmas is a fine holiday.

So what IS so important about this last Sunday in the liturgical calendar? Christ the King Sunday reminds us what this is all about … or better put, WHO this is all about.  All of this is about Jesus Christ.

Too much of the time, we can lull ourselves into the easy luxury of thinking that a relationship with God is really all about ourselves.  We determine the time that we will take to pray.  We determine how much of our stewardship we will expend on the church and we decide how much of our time we will lend to the preacher to hear the message.  All of these things tend to be about us rather than the One who is Christ the King.

Yet, we know that all this and all of life is really about Jesus Christ the King, or at least we should know it.  As Christians, we recognize that Christ is not one amongst many ways to salvation or peace with God; in Christ we know him to be, as he himself said, “the way, the truth and the life.”  It is not as if Jesus Christ is one of the tableau of religious teachers or other gods, on the same level of Buddha, Shiva, Muhammad, Gaia, or the next new age deity to pop up his or her head.  No, in Jesus Christ, we know, along with Paul, that ALL things hold together.  It is only Christ of whom we can speak in such a way.

Yet, this appears to be muddled for us.  We get ourselves all tripped up in civil religious expressions and the very important need for tolerance of differing views and we just leave off making the strong assertions that we should.  No doubt we don’t want to come off as intolerant of others, yet our very faith calls for us to affirm that Christ is King. We are caused to remember that this is Christ THE King Sunday, not just Christ OUR King Sunday.

Neta Pringle is a Presbyterian minister in Delaware, who strikes just the right tone about this mainline dilemma:

Have you never heard someone say, ‘All religions lead to God.  This is my path.  Someone else has another path. Both paths are equally good’? Words to that effect are common, even among the folk who sit Sunday after Sunday in the very churches that proclaim, ‘Jesus is Lord.’

The tolerance that makes this country work, and rescues us from sectarian violence, often becomes the uncritical worldview into which we then ‘fit’ Jesus. Paul, however, says it needs to be the other way around; Jesus himself must become the worldview into which we then fit all the rest.

I couldn’t agree more.  This is not just my worldview; that Christ is King … this is THE TRUTH.  It is by this view that we live and move and have our being.  This is not saying that it is my way or the highway, by any means.  Others may hold other views and do, but we must affirm that Christ is King, even King over other views and other ways.

Stanley Hauerwas, recently retired from Duke Divinity School, spoke once to a group of students from Princeton Theological Seminary and he told a story about a small church in Maine.  The priest, at this church, interrupted the worship service to include a recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, ostensibly in recognition of the presence of the vacationing George W. Bush, then President of the United States.  Dr. Hauerwas added his interpretation of the event:

When you have the President of the United States claiming that the ‘God’ of the Pledge of Allegiance is the God Christians worship, you know you have a problem. The Christian God is the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Trinity is not some further specification of the generalized god affirmed in the pledge, but the Trinity is the only God worthy of worship.  The Christian pledge is not the Pledge of Allegiance, but rather is called the Apostles’ Creed.  That a church service, that a priest in that service, would include the Pledge of Allegiance is a sure sign that Christians no longer know how to recognize idolatry.

Well, maybe now we are on dangerous ground … but then that is the very aspect of Christ the King Sunday.  It can be a dangerous thing to affirm that there is a King and that this is not a matter of election or selection, but rather a matter of God’s sovereignty.

In the blessed freedoms of this nation, we are sometimes tempted to believe that we somehow choose or elect God to be our King; that somehow this is a freedom that we should enjoy.  We slip into this mindset easier than we would care to admit or really think. Jesus Christ is King whether we or anyone else acknowledges this or not.

Here’s what that great theologian John Calvin wrote about this:

For Christ is the image of God because He makes God in a manner visible to us. … For in Christ [God] shows us His righteousness, goodness, wisdom, power, in short, His entire self.  We must, therefore, take care not to seek [God] elsewhere; for outside Christ, everything that claims to represent God will be an idol.

Does that sound too narrow to you?  Well, maybe so.  It does sound a bit narrow, but I think it’s the absolute right kind of narrow that we need to contemplate.

It may not seem broad-minded to say that outside of Christ everything else that claims the status of God is merely an idol, but I believe that it eventually is the most broad-minded statement we can make.  Because I believe that Christ is the King of all creation, I can love all creation.  Because I believe that Christ is the King of all humankind, I can and must love all humankind, even if those other members of the human race refuse to affirm Christ as King. Because I know that Christ is the King, I have the stability and confidence to reach out with tolerance and grace to others who may not be able to affirm this same belief.  I can do so without derision or criticism of the beliefs they hold, because Christ is THE King.

The problem comes when we make Christ’s Lordship some kind of competition with the other worldviews or religions.  It might sound a bit triumphalist of us to assert that Christ is Lord, but it is much more accurate and much more certain to say that rather than the claims that we often make for our own nation.  Christ’s rule and kingship is beyond nation-states and human boundaries; Christ is King.

The problem comes when we take our Saturday, college football loving mindset of saying if you’re for the other team, I can’t be for you and apply it somehow to our faith.  The temptation comes for us to take our assertion that Chris is King and place it over and against someone else’s assertion and thus find them to be an enemy if they are not in agreement with us.

Christ the King Sunday should remind us first and foremost that Christ is the King and we are the subjects. That absolutely we do not hold all the answers in our hearts and minds, yet we know the One who does and he is King. This Sunday is not about us and it never has been; it is about Christ and his loving lordship over all creation.  This Sunday is not about us and it never has been; it is about the One in whom ALL things hold together … even us and our neighbors of all stripes.

Our Own Little Apocalypses: II Thess. 3:6-13 & Luke 21:5-19; November 17, 2013

Rev. Martin R. Ankrum

Many of us have reached an age where a return to our hometown can be a questionable endeavor.  When I go home to Marshalltown I notice that much of the infrastructure has changed while other things remain the same.

Whenever I’m back home, I pass the spot where my old elementary school once was and find it has been replaced with a Senior Housing Apartment complex.  I drive along North Third Avenue and see the house where I grew up and realize that it is no longer owned by a member of my family.  I have no access to that upstairs bedroom where I spent so much time or the living room where I would flop down on the floor to watch reruns of Gilligan’s Island upon arrival from school.  It is no longer part of my current experience and can never be again.  It is lost to me.

I’m not alone in experiencing such things.  Most of us have the opportunity to go home and observe the changes to our former cities and towns.  We might lament the loss of something that was so institutional, so permanent seeming, like a school or a library.

We might consider then the impermanence of all such things.  Those once-so-important-to-us buildings and places are here for a while and then they are gone.  That seems to be the way things are; all things fall; all things come apart at some time.

Percy Shelley, great 19th Century British poet, wrote a sonnet responding to the news of a great archeological find in Egypt.  It is entitled: Ozymandias.

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Shelley captures the human arrogance of civilizations that feel destruction can never come upon them and pairs with it the solemn and startling truth that desolation eventually comes to all.

Jesus spoke to his followers about the coming times in apocalyptic terms.  It is as if he said: “Things will certainly fall apart, but don’t let that terrify or unhinge you.”  Jesus urges his followers not to put their trust and faith in the things that can and do fall apart, even things like the great Temple in Jerusalem.

The followers of Jesus Christ are called to place their trust in God and God’s great love and mercy.  Even when all things seem to be falling down around their ears, still the people of God are called to trust not in the institutions of faith, but the one who is at the heart of faith: Jesus Christ.

I have a great appreciation for a Presbyterian minister who serves a church just outside of Des Moines, Iowa.  His name is Mark Davis and he’s been at the Heartland Presbyterian Church in Clive for some time.  I’ve never met the man, but I’ve read some of this writings and his blog, which is entitled: “Left Behind and Loving It.” The byline of Davis’ little blog is the simple statement: “Living as if God’s steadfast love really does endure forever.”

The message that this little statement conveys is the same as Jesus’ conversation with his disciples.  We are called to live our lives that though apocalypses of all kinds might happen at any time, God’s steadfast love for us endures and brings us through it.

Though Jesus’ words seem to speak to THE Apocalypse, we face all kinds of “little apocalypses” in our own lives.  These are times when it feels to us as if the bottom is about to drop out.  It may be the death of a loved one, a doctor’s diagnosis that scares the life out of us, a divorce, a disappointment in business or in our friends, the loss of our job.  Whatever it is, we all face those moments when it appears that even the temple walls are coming down around our heads.  We live in certain threat of little apocalypses throughout our lives.

Our hearts and souls then should be encouraged and cheered with this: “Live as if God’s steadfast love really does endure forever.”  No matter what we encounter in life, we can and must place our trust not in the big and impressive monuments of life, but rather in the simple and profound truth that God’s love endures; that God’s love for us in Jesus Christ is steadfast.

This then is our calling: to live as if God’s steadfast love trumps all those horrendous things that do happen from time to time and may happen to us the next time around.  We are called to place our trust in God’s providential care and love for us more than even building and institutions.  All things fall down; all things eventually fail … except God’s steadfast love.  That doesn’t fall; that doesn’t fail; it preserves us.

One commentator of this passage, Danielle Shroyer, wrote the following:

You can’t help but feel that following Jesus in Luke 21 isn’t unlike being a turtle without a shell. There is no call to arms. There’s no admonition to stockpile goods or food or weapons in preparation for what’s to come. There’s no command to build a bomb shelter, or an ark. There are only these three commands:

1. Don’t be led astray.

2. Don’t be terrified.

3. Don’t prepare a defense.

I can’t help but think of a fellow I hear from time to time on the radio.  He’s a political pundit, but loves to bring his faith into the conversation, faulting much of the nation’s troubles with our apparent lack of faith in God.  He says that families and nations should have faith in God and that would fix all the problems.  Then, he goes on usually to predict an imminent apocalypse and warns his hearers to stockpile all kinds of things.  He encourages his listeners to gather canned goods and bottled water, guns and gold bar … all as some kind of hedge against the coming troubles.

How ridiculous!  No one can build an adequate defense against suffering or death.  As human beings, we do not get to skip that stuff.  We have to face the difficult times, the future of this world, the future of ourselves with a confidence not in the amount of canned goods and guns we’ve stockpiled, but rather in the enduring and steadfast love of God.  We are called to live as Jesus has taught.

So, when difficult times come to us, let us do as Jesus directs:

Don’t be led astray.

Don’t be terrified.

Don’t prepare a defense.

No matter what little or big apocalypse occurs in our lives, let us place our trust in Jesus Christ and the love that God has demonstrated in him.  Even if the temple walls fall down around our ears, God’s steadfast love still stands.

An Encouragement: Psalm 98 & II Thess. 2:13-3:5; Pentecost 25 – November 10, 2013

Rev. Martin R. Ankrum

Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself, and God our Father, who loved us and gave us eternal comfort and good hope through grace, comfort your hearts and establish them in every good work and word.

My wife is an excellent educator.  I know that I may be a bit biased here, but having observed her for nearly 25 years, I am still continually amazed by the abilities and talents that God has granted her as a teacher.  From her early days of teaching in a Kindergarten classroom to her more recent appointment to the faculty of the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown, she has clearly shown herself to be an excellent educator of young minds.

This past week, she spoke with me about her Sabbatical project of co-teaching in a First Grade classroom.  She mentioned one of the pedagogical tools that she employs that is, on its face, simple, but in practice can be a challenge to most of us.  That teaching tool that she uses so well is simply encouragement.

When a student does well on a spelling test and then turns around and tells her that it was an easy test, she always asks them way it seemed so easy to them.  They usually can’t articulate why, so she ends the student’s perplexed look by saying simply: “It seemed easy to you because you’re smart; you can do this work.”

With that, the student usually beams a broad smile and is encouraged to keep up their good work.  They take on not just a healthy self-esteem, but rather a self-awareness based upon their efficacy; upon their ability to really do the work.  They begin to see themselves as capable, able, and even smart enough.

Now, I know that this all sounds a bit too obvious.  Of course, all teachers should be encouraging to their students and should praise the student when work is done well.  In fact, I would hope to think that most, if not all, teachers do the very same thing.  Yet, does it happen enough?

The power of encouragement should not be overlooked.  Encouraging another has more far-reaching effects than we may even know.  Being an encouragement to someone else and receiving encouragement from somebody else is certainly needed in all our lives.

The passage we read this morning from II Thessalonians was meant to be an encouragement to the little church in Thessalonica. Paul writes to a church that is in the throes of great anxiety about the coming end of the world.  Someone or some people in that church is telling the congregation that the end of the world has either already started or that it is very near.  The particular teaching that they have been hearing is framed in such a way that some of them are becoming depressed, despondent or down-right angst-ridden.  Whatever it is that they are hearing is not encouraging to them in any way.

Paul reaches out to the little church and while not denying that the world will someday end, offers them encouragement based upon their faith.  He assures them that they are God’s children in Christ and that no matter what happens, they will be cared for by God.  He seeks to set them back on the path of working for God’s coming kingdom rather than sitting around, distractedly worried about the approach of the end of the world.  Their anxiety has caused them to leave off the valuable work of a congregation in which they had been formerly involved.

Here are some of the encouraging words that Paul employs:

Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself, and God our Father, who loved us and gave us eternal comfort and good hope through grace, comfort your hearts and establish them in every good work and word.

Here, he seeks to comfort them by assuring them that the God who might bring about the end of the world is the same God who has given them “eternal comfort and good hope” in Jesus Christ.  All this said so that they might be established “in every good work and word.”  It is as Paul tells them directly to find their reason for word and deed not in the approach of the end of the world, but rather in Jesus Christ and the assurance they have received in him.

All of us need encouragement from time to time.  We may now fear the end of the world, but we all have ample opportunity to be anxious about something in this life.  We may sense that “all good things come to an end,” and wonder when the next shoe will drop. We may worry about what will happen next to us. We may find ourselves focusing on things and elements in our lives that appear to have the power to threaten our comfort or security and wonder just what will we do if this or that occurs.  Just like the Thessalonians, we are tempted to focus too much on the things upon which we have no control.

This is why encouragement is such an important element of our shared, Christian faith.  We are called to encourage one another for good reason: there are lots of opportunities for folks to become anxious and such encouragements can help us all to see a bit more clearly sometimes with the eyes of faith.

This past week, I received many encouragements from the church … and this was a somewhat average week!  This congregation provides so many encouraging signs of God’s love and care that I hesitate to single any out for missing all those that I’ve somehow missed or taken for granted. Yet, here is just a sampling:

(1)        I received from the Session of the church quite a gift.  As an expression of appreciation for their pastor, the Session gave me a large, framed photo of the Third Street doors with an encouraging statement in calligraphy script arching over the photos.  It reads: “We have been blessed since you came through our doors.” Then the matting for the photo was signed by all the Session. You can imagine the feeling of encouragement I received by that action.  You can also see that gift as it hangs in my office today.  Just stop by after service.

(2)        Last weekend, I met one of the candidates for our Associate Pastor position.  I was very impressed.  This is not a way of saying that that particular candidate was my preferred choice or anything like that, but it is obvious to me that the Search Committee that you selected is doing their work very well.  I have had the pleasure of meeting five or six of the candidates via phone interviews and have been very encouraged by the quality of character and abilities that these candidates exhibited.  These too is an encouragement.

(3) The pledge cards of our recent stewardship campaign have been coming into the office on a daily basis and though the totals have not been tallied, I have been encouraged by the congregation’s commitment to support the work of the church in this place.  I know that when all is said and done and when all the cards are finally returned, we all will be encouraged as well.

(4) This past week, I had occasion to review some records of the church and noted that over just the last ten years, we have celebrated very nearly 150 baptisms, both infant and adult.  That has been an encouragement. And of course, the three this morning has been an encouragement to all of us.

(5) The worship of our congregation continues to provide encouragement to us all, especially to me.  I am always moved when the people of God come to gather to sing, pray, listen, speak and offer our praise of God in worship. The work of the choirs and the musicians are especially an encouragement to us all.  On a side note, I was encouraged this week to see that Ed Highberger, on his 70th birthday was hard at work here in the church preparing for the choir rehearsals that evening and for upcoming activities.  On his 70th birthday … are you kidding?!  On my 50th, I spent it away from the office … but not our Ed at 70.  Thanks be to God.

Of course, there are many more encouraging signs: the work of Anita Garr, Stacy Somers, Wendy Matchett, Joan McGinley, Jillian Manning and Matthew Jones to name just a few folks from the church staff.  All of them work and labor for the ministry of Jesus Christ in our midst.

I could go on and on and I usually do, but all good things must come to an end … suffice it to say, you and I have all been called to a common ministry of encouragement.  We stand in need of being encouraged and we all stand in need of answering that call for others.  This week, as you consider the shape and texture of your life, remember that your church, God’s people are here to encourage you.  Remember also, that you are called to encourage others.

Lift up your heads, for the Lord is surely in your midst.  Grace and peace to you …

Inclusion: Psalm 119:137-144 & Luke 19:1-10; Pentecost 24 – November 3, 2013

Rev. Martin R. Ankrum

Have you noticed that some of the greatest things about life have happened NOT because you planned it, but rather because they just happened?  Did you plan to fall in love with your beloved?  Did you scheme to have children at the appropriate time and everything fell into line?  Did you expect that job offering at that specific time?  Or, more typically, did you plan to be inspired by that fleeting glimpse of the sunset as you drove down the coastal highway?  Did you scheme to have your heart warmed and your eyes opened by the poetry you read, the painting you viewed or the unexpected loving gesture offered by a friend?  No, most of the times, the great things of life happen to us without our assistance or even invitation.

In my former church, Julie and I always hosted the initial new members’ class in our home on a Sunday evening.  It was always held at 6:30 p.m. on the appointed day and the invitations, sent to those interested in joining the church, were produced with the specific date and that particular time.

One new members’ class was scheduled to begin on a beautiful autumnal Sunday.  I spent the afternoon raking leaves and collapsed into my favorite chair exhausted, checking my watch to see that it was 5 p.m. and there was plenty of time to get cleaned up before our guests would arrive.  I nodded off into blissful napping sleep.

Exactly at 5:30 p.m., the doorbell rang and there stood Bob & Mary.  Consistent visitors to our church, they had come for the new members’ class; however, they were an hour early.  I didn’t want to tell them that, so Julie and I took turns sitting with them on the sofa while the other showered, dressed and did what we could to set up the refreshments in the dining room.

Oddly enough, that couple became very good friends to Julie and me; we didn’t plan it that way, neither did they. Instead, because of that uninvited, unexpected hour we spent together, they opened their hearts to us and endowed us with the graciousness of their very souls. We remained good friends and shared many meals and much of life.  That, in itself, is a great measure of grace uninvited, is it not?

I tell that story as an illustration that the grace that God bestows upon us in life is often uninvited, but instead shows up on our doorstep.  It’s not something that we can plan for, scheme to achieve or hope to manufacture; grace is something that is given and it is something to which we are called to respond to in like manner.

Jesus sees the greatest sinner in town hanging onto a sycamore tree and he invites himself over for Sunday supper.  Zacchaeus perceives that grace has touched his life; the very thing that he was seeking, had actually found him instead and he responds in a remarkable manner:  he gives half of his possessions away and pledges to no longer defraud anyone.  His life is changed because of uninvited grace.

I can’t think of the story of Zacchaeus without being reminded by something else that Jesus said in yet another gospel.  It’s a piece of scripture that I’m sure you’ve heard before, but it seems to fit right into what Jesus is doing with Zacchaeus:

Set your troubled hearts at rest. Trust in God always; trust also in me. There are Many dwelling-places in my Father’s house; if it were not so, I should have told you; for I am going there on purpose to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I shall come again and receive you to myself, so that where I am you may be also; and my way there is known to you.”

Far too many folks believe that the Christian religion is getting a place for ourselves at Christ’s table.  They speak of accepting Jesus Christ as THEIR Lord and Savior and glory in the accomplishment that they believe they have made.  They think that accepting Christ is somehow a favor to God; somehow it becomes the badge of their righteousness and the vehicle by which they can look down their noses at folks who cannot claim the same.  This is so far from what Jesus is doing with Zacchaeus (and consequently with us) that is almost comical, if wasn’t so sad.

I really like what the great Methodist Bishop, William Willimon, says about this:

Salvation is whenever Jesus intrudes into your space, whenever Jesus makes your sinful table the site of his salvation feast like he did for Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus didn’t invite Jesus to dinner.  Jesus invited himself.  Hardly anyone in scripture chooses Jesus or decides to be saved by him. The gospel is a story about Jesus’ choice and decision for the lost.  That’s way we grumbled, still do, ‘He has gone to be the guest of a sinner!’

I would add to that, that the story of Zacchaeus and the whole gospel itself is about inclusion … full inclusion at the Lord’s Table.  Remember what he said to his disciples; that he was going to make a place for them in God’s kingdom and would come again and receive them to himself.

He is going to a place where we cannot make our own way; we cannot make our own place at this table; we can’t just horn right on in and demand our rights as folks who claim that they have loved the Lord.  No, the emphasis here is on the wrong syllable, as they say: the only claim we have is the one that Christ has made for us and on us … not our own.

Thanks be to God, that in Jesus Christ we have been included … we, who are more like Zacchaeus than we would be willing to admit, have been given a place at this time.  It is our calling, responsibility and joy to move over a bit and make room for others. Otherwise, can we really say that we’re imitating Jesus?

This Little Light of Mine: Psalm 65 & Matthew 5:13-16; Pentecost 23 – October 27, 2013

Rev. Martin R. Ankrum

One of the authors that brought me back to the Christian faith during my college years was the Danish writer, Soren Kierkegaard.  Kierkegaard is primarily known as a philosopher and possibly the father of modern existentialism.  Whatever he was, he was a bit of a grump.

He had the habit of writing caustic editorials to the paper in Copenhagen, in the mid-1850’s.

In one such editorial, he takes the Christian citizenry and the clergy to task for their obvious hypocrisies.  He wrote on the occasion of a funeral service for a much-beloved Bishop, a man by the name of Mynster.  Here’s what he wrote after an opening criticism that is too lengthy to share here:

Bishop Mynster’s preaching soft-pedals, slurs over, suppresses, omits something decisively Christian, something which appears to us men inopportune, which would make our life strenuous, hinder us from enjoying life, that part of Christianity which has to do with dying from the world, by voluntary renunciation, by hating oneself, by suffering for the doctrine, etc. — to see this one does not have to be particularly sharp-sighted, if one puts the New Testament alongside of Mynster’s sermons.

Well … we could mention Kierkegaard’s poor taste in speaking ill of the dead, but that is really beside the point.

The point that Kierkegaard is making should not be missed:  there’s something about us all who wish to downplay that part of the Christian faith that makes life a bit more strenuous, a bit more sacrificing then we really want it to be.  We all have the tendency to hope that the call for self-sacrifice from the faith is never really about us but about the fellow in the pew over from us … or just down the street.

The passage we hear this morning from Matthew comes right at the end of the Beatitudes and just at the opening of the rest of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.  He begins this section with an affirmative tone, reminding his listeners that they are both salt and light to this world.  Yet then he asks what good is salt if it loses its saltiness or light if it is hid under a bushel basket.  The implication is obvious: be salty in this world; let your light shine.  This is not as easy as it sounds.

Most of the time when we think of being light in this world, we think of little children sweetly singing that beautiful anthem: “This Little Light of Mine.”  We hear those angelic voices and see the sweet little faces of the children and it warms our hearts.  We think, “Yes, this is exactly what the Christian faith is about … shining our light for God’s glory.”

We’re not far from the truth when we think that way, but there is something else here that we rarely mention in conjunction with this passage: the strenuous nature of shining our light and being salty in this old world.  It is something that is demanding of us; something of self-sacrifice right in the midst of the temptation to hid our light a bit under the bushel basket.  There’s something more here indeed.

I liked Kierkegaard’s use of the word “strenuous,” for it implies something that takes something of us.  It implies that an effort is to be made by us for something else.  We can visual the concept of strenuousness when we consider some personal discipline or rigor like exercise.  Most any of us like the results we receive in exercise: staying fit, feeling healthier, actually being healthier, even losing some weight.  We love the effects of strenuous effort, but we don’t always feel energetic enough to get up at 5 a.m. and run for 2 or 3 or 5 miles.  We like the results of going to the gym, but sometimes it is a real effort just to drag ourselves down there.

When we think of strenuous effort we think mainly about our work.  Most of us like the work with which we are engaged.  It is our chosen field, our career and we can get excited about the results: accomplishments, financial gain, even a sense of purpose for our living.  It’s hard for us to transfer this same passion and intent for our service of God and yet, that is exactly what Jesus is asking of us when bids us to “let our light so shine.”

Shining the light that Christ has given us and made us in this world is a discipline.  It takes dedicated effort and planning on our part.  Whether it is financial stewardship or stewardship of time and talent, it requires something of us; it is, in a word: strenuous.  Or at least, it should be for us.  If it isn’t, then we really need to think if we are fulfilling this call as well as we could be.

Not being strenuous about this commitment to Christ and his ways has been compared to playing with dynamite.  Some authors are convinced that Jesus means by this little passage, that we have to be all-in, fully committed or else we are merely fooling ourselves.

Annie Dillard, American author raised here in Pittsburgh and once member of the Shadyside Presbyterian Church, writes rather amusingly, but accurately about this phenomenon:

Why do people in church seem like cheerful, brainless tourists on a packaged tour of the Absolute? … Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us to where we can never return.

Wow!   Now that is a powerful imagery indeed!  Dillard hits the right note here, claiming that we typically don’t think about what we’re really dealing with as followers of Jesus Christ.  We are communing with the Creator of the universe, the One to whom we should pay honor and glory, the One who has made us and loves us enough to give his Son for us; the One who continues to keep our old world revolving around the sun and supplying us with all that we need for life, and love, and all the beautiful things that grace our living.  Yet, do we really believe it or do we just place that light of ours securely, safely and without risk, under a bushel?

Kierkegaard knew what Jesus spoke of when he called his followers to maintain their saltiness and shine their light.  He knew that Jesus was calling us to something that we might think inopportune, something that makes our life strenuous, something that requires of us, after all: commitment.

So, let us commit ourselves to let that light that Jesus has given us shine, no matter how disciplined we must become, no matter how strenuous it might be … for, after all, it is called: commitment.

     Written Upon the Heart: Psalm 119:97-104 & Jer. 31:27-34; Pentecost 22 – Oct. 20, 2013

Rev. Martin R. Ankrum

Sometimes, we are tempted to romanticize the past … at least the good times in our past.  There are moments in any of our lives when we find ourselves wondering why life isn’t like that golden time, whatever it was, from our past.  We think that it was better for us then, whenever that “then” was.

For some it may have been the home in which we grew up and the halcyon days of High School achievements and close bonds of friendships.  For others of us, it may that first apartment we had or the days of our college or undergraduate experiences; the fall football games and the long nights of studying and preparation for our life careers.  Still, some may wish to harken back to the first years of the marriage: the first home; the first job; the first few steps of our children.

We romanticize the past because it is just that: past.  It is ground that we have covered safely and even, brilliantly.  It is a path and a route that we have already taken and we know every twist and turn that we travelled; there are no longer any surprises or fears there.  We think it might have been better only because we now see it in the rearview mirror … we know where we have been. Yet, such thinking, as pleasant as it can be, is a trap for us.

Life is always where we are presently and where we are headed in the near future. We can only truly live in the “now” no matter how comforting and comfortable our past may have been. We cannot return; we can only press on with the confidence that the God who cared for us in the past, cares for us still.

This is not unlike the experience of the people of Israel when they were still living in exile.  Some of them, no doubt, wanted to return home with an expectation that that would fix everything and everything would be set to right.  Others may have perceived that their plight was a bit more complex than just a change of scenery would manufacture.

Then, right in the midst of this, we hear the reading for this day; filled with hope and expectation for something new about to happen.  God promises a new covenant that differs from the old only in that it will no longer be just a set of laws written on stone, but rather it will be embodied in his people.  He will be their God again and they will be his people again …

This is a watershed change for the people of Israel.  Prior to the exile, the people of Israel tended to locate God in geographic or static terms.  For the people traveling through the wanderings in the wilderness, God was present for them in the tabernacle which continued the Ten Commandments.  For the more settled generations, after the rise of Jerusalem, God was located within the Temple, in the Holy of Holies, protected by an isolating curtain and ponderous priests.

Now, Jeremiah informs the people that God is establishing a new covenant that is really the old covenant, but this time, written not on tablets of stone, but on their hearts.  This is a major shift of the people of Israel; God becomes, in a sense, portable.  It is God who goes with them.  It is God upon whom they can fully place their trust, rather than any bright and shining past.

The late Peter Gomes, Preacher at the Memorial Church at Harvard University spoke about another piece of scripture that really applies here as well:

“This, in case you haven’t recognized it, is a commercial for God. Put your confidence in something that works.  It is God who will keep you when all else has failed you; and it is to God to whom you will turn when you have exhausted all of the alternatives.  It is God on whom you will call when you get that fateful diagnosis; it is God on whom you will call when the bottom drops out; and it is God on whom you will call when you pass through the seasons of doubt and despair, when life itself seems not worth the living and you cannot remember the last victory; and it is God on whom you will call with your very last breath.”

The people of Israel will need to learn to live again along these very lines; trusting in God’s ultimate goodness.  The passage from Jeremiah speaks right to this great hope and promise that the people are about to receive; a return not just to the land of their ancestors, but rather to a heart-deep trust in God.

Though this is the only place in the Old Testament that mentions a new covenant, the New Testament writers would make great use of this concept in explaining what God was and is doing in Jesus Christ.  As Christians, we know that our hope is in Jesus Christ, the very fulfillment of God’s law, written upon our hearts.  In Jesus Christ, we have found humanity’s true north, as it were, and, even more, our true home.

It is in Jesus Christ that we can affirm that no matter where we find ourselves in this life, our hope remains secure in him.  Because of Christ, we can affirm, with at trust that has been written upon our hearts, that all will be made right … all things are in the hands of God.

William Willimon, a Methodist bishop who once was the Chaplain at Duke University, writes convincingly of this:

“When your child suffers from a great injustice, receives some great blow from life, what do you do?  You attempt to comfort the child.  ‘There, there,’ you say. ‘It’s all right.’ What do you mean when you do that? You don’t mean that the child’s pain is silly, for why else would you comfort the child if the child were not in real pain? You do not mean that everything is going to be all right in this moment, or that fate will be reversed and everything will work out in this particular circumstance.  You know enough about life to know that often things don’t work out all right.

“What you mean is that finally, ultimately, in the larger picture, the world is structured in such a way that things will be all right.  The pain will not last forever.  Even the worst setbacks can be integrated into life and you will be able to go on.   In other words, when you say, ‘There, there, everything will be alright,’ you are making a statement of faith about the ultimate character of the world.

“This [scripture] is a story about the character of God, the trustworthiness of God.”

In God’s embodiment of the new covenant in Jesus Christ, we have learned that indeed, God is trustworthy.  No matter what we have faced, no matter how rosy our past or how blemished our journey has been, God holds the future; God finds us a way home to him.

Anne Lamott’s little book “Traveling Mercies,” is filled with great stories about the enduring quality of faith.  It is a God-soaked book, you might say, but one of my favorite stories is about the little girl who becomes lost in her own city:

“ … [She] ran up and down the streets of the big town where they lived, but she couldn’t find a single landmark.  She was very frightened.  Finally, a policeman stopped to help her.  He put her in the passenger side of his car and they drove around until she finally saw her church.  She pointed it out to the policeman, and then she told him firmly, ‘You could leave me out now.  This is my church, and I can always find my way home from here.’”

The sight of her own church restored the girl’s hope; for she knew that she could find her way home because of it.

In Jesus Christ, the new covenant, God has given us a way home.  From our being gathering into this new covenant community, called the church, we can find our way home … Actually, in Jesus Christ and in Christ’s church, we find that God has really found us and brought us, finally home, where indeed, everything will be alright.

Embracing Exile: Psalm 66:1-12 & Jeremiah 29:1,4-7; Pentecost 21-October 13, 2013

Rev. Martin R. Ankrum

Last Sunday, we heard Psalm 137 read and we reflected on what it would be like to be exiled in this life.  This morning, we return to the topic of exile, but this time from the perspective of the Old Testament prophet most associated with the Babylonian Exile. Jeremiah writes a letter to the folks in Babylon and tells them that God has something radically counter-cultural and counterintuitive to ask of them:

“Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. 6Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. 7But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”

The advice that God gives them is to plant gardens and build houses … that doesn’t sound like the kind of answer they would want, does it? It sounds as if God is asking his people to actually embrace their exile; their deportation; their life in a strange and alien land.

Shouldn’t they fight; put up resistance in this alien and godless land?  Shouldn’t they separate themselves off from the heathen Babylonians and maintain their traditions, solidifying them into unchangeable and finally unmanageable rules and regulations for living that are unconcerned with the changing and varying situation around them?  Shouldn’t they entrench?

No, that is not God’s answer to their troubles; but those are the very things that we tend to do when we are feeling exiled, alienated as it were from our former happy existence and finding ourselves in a new land of hopelessness.  Finding ourselves exiled from the perfect scenario of life can make us bitter, disappointed and a bit ready to lash out at God for this great injustice that we believe has been done to us!

I remember one woman who came into my office in a former church to talk about her son.  He was an adolescent and the relationship she had with him was not what she had expected.  He had been such a good little boy, she said, always loving and caring and compassionate.  But now, he was sullen, withdrawn, moody, angry and without any respect for she or her husband.  She was worried about him, but she was also mourning something that she didn’t have any more: her expectations for the perfect child had been dashed and she was living in an alien land, a different place then she had expected.  What was she to do now?

The man who came in to see me was not that different really.  He had different problems, different disappointments, but essentially it was the same conversation: he was in an alien place, his temple of the perfect life had been destroyed and now what?  Why had God allowed this to happen to him and why wasn’t God with him now?

Let me remind you what Dante imagined was inscribed over the gates of the Inferno (hell): “Abandon all hope all ye who enter here.”  Hell is the very place we find ourselves when all hope is gone and we know that we are alone, alienated and without hope in this world.  It sounds a bit more dramatic than the daily struggles that we might encounter, but it’s far more similar than we are probably prepared to admit.

Martin Luther, great reformer of the Christian faith, one who was no stranger to the alienation we humans feel sometimes between the hope that we have in Christ and the realities of living is this world, said something quite remarkable about all of this. This is what he said:

“Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.”

Sounds a lot like Jeremiah, or the voice of God through the letter from Jeremiah!  That’s exactly what we are called to do in the midst of feelings of alienation, exile and hopelessness: perform ordinary acts of faithfulness, hopefulness … ordinary acts of living: plant an apple tree and live in hope of fruit bearing days.

Daniel Clendenin, founder of The Journey With Jesus Foundation, writes something very helpful to we exilic people:

Living in exile demands revised expectations. Courage to believe that God is still at work, no matter how bleak the circumstances. Learning a new language and grammar, much as the Jews settling into Babylon learned a new tongue, to articulate your lived experience. Perseverance over the long haul.

Maybe, just maybe, this is what God is calling you to do in your own life: to dig in, to begin to faithfully, hopefully perform ordinary acts of hope, ordinary acts of living that, little by little, might not change the world, but might indeed change your grasp on this world and your life.  Could it be as simple as all that?

In the latest confession of faith from the Presbyterian Church in Canada, we hear these words:

We are called to work out the meaning of our own lives

and to find our true vocation

in the love and service of God.

 

We serve and love God

by the service and love of creation

especially the care of the needy.

 

Every kind of work

that is honest and serves others

is a vocation from the Lord.

 

Calling means the necessity

to deny selfish ambition and desire

in order to minister to others.

In God’s service true freedom is to be found.

Sometimes it really is that simple … planting a tree, living a life, building a faith one act of hope, one act of love, one act of life at a time.  Are you in exile? Plant a tree, build your house and trust in the Lord.  He is there with you.

Exiles in a Postmodern World: Lam. 1:1-6 & Psalm 137; Pentecost 20 – October 6, 2013

Rev. Martin R. Ankrum

There are moments in life that bring us together; that help to draw us in towards others and provide us with a strong sense of belonging, comfort and security.  But then there are moments, periods in our life, in which we might feel more isolated than belonging, more like an exile or outcast than like a secure resident or member of the pack.  Those moments and those periods are the most frustrating, bewildering, confusing and isolating times of life.  They are disorienting to us; it is as if we can’t quite get a hold of our bearings.  What once was easy and simple, secure and comfortable becomes challenging and quixotic, angst-ridden and vulnerable.

The people of Israel are experiencing just this in the Psalm that we have heard this morning.  This well-known psalm comes from the sixth century B.C., when the people of Judah are taken captive over a period of years in three separate deportations to the foreign land of Babylon.  Bit by bit and little by little, the people of the Southern Kingdom are hauled off into bondage to become an enslaved people for the King of Babylon. It is a dispiriting and disorienting time in the life of God’s people to say the least.

The psalmist puts their feelings into words both poetic and accurate.  He imagines a scene of momentary rest in the march to Babylon, in which the people, gathered around a foreign and strange river are tormented by their captors asking them to sing their songs of praise to their God.

Their plaintive cry can easily be understood and pitied:

“How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?”

Indeed, how can they raise their voices in praise to God in the midst of the most disorienting, confusing, and isolating time of their lives?  Just what can they do? Just what can they feel, except abandonment and exile?

Though none of us are threatening with forced deportation to a foreign land, we find ourselves traveling through our own isolating and exile-like experiences in our postmodern world.

It may be that the job that we once prized now has become more drudgery and conflict-laden employment than inspiring and meaningful work.  We may find that those with whom we have been associated with in positive terms have now abandoned us so that they might go on to more promising projects and sectors of work and we are left to trudge away as best we can in a diminished capacity.

It may be that the relationship that has given us a centering in life, a warmth and welcome at the end of a long day, has grown cold and difficult.  The words of love that once came easily to our mouths now choke out before they can be offered in recognition that the couple we once were is not the couple that we are now.

Our isolation and exile may be felt in purely the aging process, in which we begin to feel that we are being sidelined just a bit, put on the shelf, no longer consulted by our grown children and feeling a bit forgotten.

No matter in what form exile takes in this postmodern world, none of us are immune to moments when we feel left out, passed over, isolated by sickness, loss, sadness or interpersonal conflict.  We, too, can know what it is to wonder about our abilities to “keep the faith” and sing the Lord’s song in a foreign and alien landscape.

Alan Kreider has written convincing about the elements of conversion and faithfulness in the early Christian church.  The professor read through many early manuscripts of the Church, especially stories of conversion, and located three elements that must be in place for the people of God to be truly faithful and to maintain their faithfulness.  Those elements are: belief, belonging & behavior.

Kreider holds that it seems elemental indeed to include belief, for at the foundation of all faithfulness is obviously, belief.  The person must believe that what they have heard from the church is true and right and that they are willing to assent to such belief.

But there is more to faithfulness than mere belief; there is also behavior.  Kreider found that those who were truly converted and maintained their faithfulness actually modified their behavior to fit with their newly held beliefs.  In fact, he found that most converts in the early church seem to have been won over, as it were, by the startlingly gracious behavior of other Christians.  The behaviors of others convinced them.

And, there is besides belief and behavior, belonging: those who maintained their faithfulness felt as if they belonged to God and his church.  They were no longer isolated or feeling exiled from their true center; from the true center of all human life … God in Jesus Christ.

Here’s where our feelings of isolation and exile that we experience can be soothed … in our recognition that we belong.  It is here, around this table, that we know that we are not alone in whatever disorienting and baffling turn life has recently taken for us.  It is here, around the Lord’s table, that we not only know, but actually experience the presence of our Risen Lord, binding us to God and to one another in such a way that the thought of singing might just come to us again.  It is here, around this table, that we have found and have been found to be at home with God.

Whatever exile you might be experiencing in your life this day, here you are home.  Whatever isolating and disorienting period of life that you might be enduring, here you are among your brothers and sisters.  Whatever bewilderment or near-despair the alien land in which you travel may seem, here you can join with the rest of us and once again, sing the Lord’s song … even in a foreign land.

     Take Hold: Psalm 91:1-6, 14-16 & I Timothy 6:6-19; Pentecost 19 – September 29, 2013

Rev. Martin R. Ankrum

I hold in my hand this morning something that I purchased some nearly twenty years ago back in Michigan: a small, silver-plated, loving cup.  Most folks tend to think of these as “trophies,” but actually the appropriate name is “loving cup.”

It is called that because with the larger models, one should be able to grab a handle on one size and your love grabs the other and you both drink from the cup.  I’ve never seen it done nor tried it, so I’ll just take Wikipedia’s word for it.

However, the loving cup has long stood as a symbol of grand achievement in life, whether presented to the winner of a golf tournament, the best finish in a race, or to the “employee of the month,” loving cups are symbolic of great achievement.  It is the very thing you want, symbolically at least, at the end of your life.  You’ve run your race, endured the course, set your pace and now, at the end, you want the just desserts: the loving cup of triumph. This is how the world or our culture perceives of taking hold of life; of grabbing for the brass ring with all gusto and purpose and earning your way.

The world and our culture have many different adages that help folks inculcate this desire to grab all you can. Some say: “Well, you’ve got to earn everything you get in this life!” Others opine: “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.”  Still others speak of “self-made men” and being the “captain of my own soul.”   And of course there’s that great 70’s beer commercial encouraging every viewer to “grab for the gusto” by purchasing their product.  All in all, the world and our culture believe that taking hold of life is about the individual grabbing the reins of life and sitting squaring in the driving seat of the buggy.

Paul’s view, as illustrated in the passage read this morning from his First Letter to Timothy, is quite different than that.  Paul encourages his friend Timothy to “take hold of the eternal life to which you were called …”

When we speak of life eternal or hear of eternal life, we tend to envision what life will be like in heaven or after our death … the afterlife as some call it.  However, this is not Paul’s conception of the eternal life which he bids his friend to take hold.  Eternal life for Paul begins here and now, in our life as it is this day, as God in Jesus Christ, in other words, finds us.

Taking hold of the eternal life is perceiving life from the “long view.” It is realizing that the eternal life does not begin with our death, but rather begins before our birth.  In Jesus Christ, God calls us into a life that goes beyond “just” life; a life that is eternally lived in the presence of God himself.

Thus, we ought to take the long view of life … the eternal view of life.  The day that we live this day matters as much as the last day we spend on this earth and as much as the first that we might recall.  All days are to be lived to the glory of God, the one who sets eternity and places us within it.

Back in the 1980’s, a band called “DePeche Mode” released a single entitled: “Everything Counts.”  I often recall a line from that song: “the grabbing hands, grab all they can; it’s all for themselves after all …” This is a great definition of the opposite of eternal life; this is the short view of life which our culture and the world bids us to accept as the defining understanding for life.  This is not at all, what Paul has in mind when he bids his friend to “take hold of the eternal life to which you were called …”

Eternal life is not about what you do when you die; it’s about how you live here and now in the present day.

There are no better witnesses in our midst this day of this taking hold of eternal life than our fifty year members whom we recognize in worship.  These eighty people have been active members of this church for fifty or more years.  They have made their “good confession,” as Paul says, and continue to do with their lives.

Over the years, these fifty year members have born witness to the presence of Jesus Christ in their lives and in the life of our world.  They have given example of the power of Christ’s love in their lives and their relationships with friends and neighbors alike.  They, indeed, have taken hold of the eternal life to which they have been called.

Another fine example of taking hold of the eternal life to which we have been called is our own Minister of Visitation, the Rev. Dr. Douglas Holben.  As you may know, Doug is retiring from a position that he has held faithfully for five years.  Prior to his service to our church, Doug has been an Executive Presbyter and a pastor for other congregations.

Doug did not want a big “to do” for his retirement, but let me at least say how very much I appreciate the work that Doug has done.  I can think of no one who could exceed Doug in the kind and loving witness to Jesus Christ that he has provided in his pastoral care of this congregation and its staff as well.  It has been an honor and a rare privilege to work alongside one such as Doug and also to be acquainted with his wife, Joyce who has given sound counsel and advice to me as well.  Indeed, they will be missed.

Indeed, the world looks to grab a loving cup as the symbol and sign of success; this is, indeed, the short view.  Paul calls us to something different: the long view … the view of life lived eternally in this moment and in all moments that God possesses for us.

 

Praying for All: Psalm 79:1-9 & I Timothy 2:1-7; Pentecost 18-September 22, 2013

Rev. Martin R. Ankrum

Probably one of the most cherished and yet misunderstood aspect of the Christian faith is prayer.  All of us pray whether we do so intentionally or almost unconsciously. So after 25 years of ministry, I’m fairly convinced that we are all in varied types of conversation with God.

Ultimately, this is what prayer is all about: conversation with God.  Whether it takes the classic forms of prayers of praise or lament, thanksgiving or petitions; all prayer is actually more about God than it is about us in many ways.

What I mean by that is the simple truth that prayer for Christians is always directed to God.  Whether we address ourselves to God the Father or the Son or the Holy Spirit, we mean the very same thing when we address God: the whole Triune being of God.

The passage from I Timothy that we just read this morning is about many things, but prayer is the central element addressed by Paul in his advice-giving to his younger associate Timothy.

Paul writes to Timothy in order to give him some fatherly advice, to mentor him in the faith and to see to his faith formation as any good pastor might do.  Paul is Timothy’s pastor, as it were, and Paul hopes that his experience in the faith will help to inform the growing Timothy as he performs pastoral duties himself.

I really appreciate what Presbyterian minister, “Matt” Matthews has written on this topic and specifically this passage.  He says it quite well:

Paul may have known that Timothy had gotten a lot of previous instruction about prayer; so he goes easy on him.  He cuts to the chase, which may give us a clue for our sermon. Pray often. Pray for everybody. Prayer is good.  Prayer pleases God.  Paul does not tell Timothy how to do it or describe its mechanics, or even show off with a polished example.  Like the athletic shoe commercial, he simply underscores the need for Timothy to just do it.[1]

So I want to take Rev. Matthews kind advice; I want to “cut to the chase” and speak about the four aspects of Paul’s understanding of prayer that Matthews identifies: “Pray often.  Pray for everybody.  Prayer is good. Prayer pleases God.”  It makes perfect sense to me.

(1) Pray Often.

Whatever you think “often” is when it comes to prayer, than pray that much.  It is bound to be more than we typically pray!

Being disciplined in prayer is not for everybody, so pray when you can, whenever you can.  If it is merely a prayer when you sense that you are in trouble, go ahead and let fly: pray.  Don’t intimidate yourself by thinking like so many:

Oh, I can’t pray about this! God knows that I only come to him when I’m in trouble.  I’ll just be good and come back to prayer sometime when it’s not about me!

Let’s admit it … that’s what we think sometimes and for strangely virtuous sounding reasons we stop ourselves from praying.

Well, I’m your pastor and if you need an authority to give you permission, then I’m telling you it is better to pray when you’re in trouble than to wait until you’re in a “better spot!”

Of course, it’s best to pray when it’s not about you as well, but if you’re given the choice of praying or “looking good in the eyes of God by not bothering him,” just go ahead and pray … there’s no right or wrong way there.

(2) Pray for Everybody.

When you get the chance, please pray for others.  Not only pray for others, but please pray for your enemies. I’m not kidding, you could never imagine how much your faith will grow when you are forced to pray for the folks that either anger you, hurt you or seek not the best for you.

None of us like to think that we have enemies but we do … think of the Taliban or Alqueda; think of folks who want to rob and steal from you; think of those who want to cheat you out of something … for most of the world, folks are given the freedom to hate those who seek to harm them.  But for the Christian, we have no such luxury … we are called to pray for those who seek to harm us or others.

It is easy for us to pray for everybody (because we think that the word, everybody, doesn’t include our enemies), but Jesus calls us to take one step further and to pray for all … including our enemies.

Besides this, praying for others takes our problems and concerns, our joys and our pleasures out of the central concern of our living and replaces that with something a little better and grander: others.

(3)  Prayer is Good.

It seems that this goes without saying, but prayer is good.  It is good for the world, good for the church, good for others and actually very good for us as well.

If you think about it, there is really nothing bad about prayer!  Even if we are the most selfish of Christians and pray only for ourselves and our friends and our concerns and our family, at least we are addressing ourselves to God.  At least, in prayer, we are opening ourselves up to the possibility of conversation with God and conversation with God can only ultimately be good …

The opportunity for conversation with God is good because in such moments God is forming us into the people that he would have us be.  It’s that simple.

You’ve heard it said, I hope: “Prayer doesn’t change God, it changes us.”  That’s something I truly believe.  I’m certainly not as disciplined as I should be with prayer, but when I am, it is not unlike a runner or athlete in training … all those little practices and exercises adds up and before you know it you’re physically fit.  In a like manner, the discipline of prayer, any kind of prayer, forms us into the people that God would have us be and before we realize it, we are a more “fit” Christian.

And finally: (4) Prayer pleases God.

God wants our life to conform to the truth and beauty of his grace.  He wants us to enjoy the life that he has given us and the only way we will every really, rightly enjoy this life is when we have been formed by God into the people who are able to enjoy him.

I love the opening lines of the Westminster Catechism, a 17th century teaching device that provides simple questions and answers by which folks can learn the faith.  The opening question and answer is this:

What is the chief end of man?

Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.

I’m convinced that the glorifying God and enjoying him begins with prayer.

So, remember when it comes to prayer: Pray often. Pray for everybody. Prayer is good. Prayer pleases God.  And, maybe the most important advice about prayer comes from the  ever-present Nike slogan: Just do it!


[1] William P. “Matt” Matthews, “Homiletical Perspective for I Timothy 2:1-7” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Volume 4, ed. David Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010) 87.

Lost & Found: Psalm 14 & Luke 15:1-10; Pentecost 17 – September 17, 2013

Rev. Martin R. Ankrum

Have you ever forgotten who you are?  I don’t mean the full-blown amnesia that some folks suffer, but rather, just losing track of who you are and what you are about.  If we’re honest, we’re bound to admit that, from time-to-time, we do forget who we are and to whom we belong.

If you’re like most of us, this kind of personal forgetfulness comes when we attempt to place ourselves in the center of all things; when we attempt to take the place of God in living.  These are moments when we forget ourselves: when we clinch our tiny little fists and say under our breath something like this … “I know that I’M RIGHT and that other person is JUST PLAIN WRONG!” or … “How dare THEY treat ME like that?”  We forget who we are when we try to make ourselves the center of all things instead of acknowledging God’s place as central in our lives and the life of the world.

Jesus related two parables to religious folk who were pretty certain that they deserved central place in the heart and mind of God.  They had done the right things and said the right things and thought the right things and deserved to be called: “The Righteous Ones.”  And Jesus’s refusal to pay them that homage, but daring to spend time with sinners and tax collectors, burned them beyond any ability that they had to cope with it all.  They were just plain angry that Jesus had chosen sinners and reprobates over them as acceptable luncheon companions.

So Jesus told them two stories about who God is and how we are in this world.  When we rightly understand it, we know that we belong not to ourselves, but to the central figure in all human history and creation: God himself!  However, we are faced with all kinds of opportunities to deny this reality and place ourselves in the central location of importance and meaning.  It is not something that we come to all at once, but rather it is precisely something that we “nibble” our way into, bit by bit, bite by bite!

Mike Yaconelli quoted a great story about just how livestock get themselves “lost” from the rest of the herd or flock:

A cow is nibbling on a tuft of grass in the middle of a field, moving from one tuft to the next. Before you know it, she ends up at some grass next to the fence.  Noticing a nice clump of green on the other side of the fence, the cow stumbles through an old tear in the fence and finds herself outside on the road.  “Cows don’t intend to get lost,” the farmer explained, “they just nibble their way to lostness.”

We don’t mean to forget ourselves, but we do.  In the stories of the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin, Jesus relates to the righteous folk who second guess his luncheon guest list, just how God really is in this world.  For Jesus, it is God who seeks us out, not the other way round.  The really righteous lot who confronted Jesus wanted to believe in their own entitlement to the things of God.  They had achieved what others had not: they had placed God in the position of debtor to them.  They seriously believed that God owed them something for all their good acts and kind deeds.

God in Jesus Christ seeks us out rather than waits for us to do the impossible and come to him … We are NOT the shepherds … We are not so righteous that God is indebted to us!  We can do nothing to merit God’s love, except to be sought out by the Good Shepherd who is willing to risk the ninety-nine for our one “measly” hide!

Sometimes, however, our self-righteousness gets the better of us and we begin to think that we are the best judges of whom God should love or not.  In fact, we get a bit jealous of the mercy and graciousness of God, and, in our smallness of character, begin to be jealous of God’s great mercy for others.  We mistakenly begin to believe that it should be reserved for us and for folks who look like us, love like us, and think like us …

There’s an old Jewish story that goes something like this … One night a man was visited by an appearance of God who granted him three wishes.  The man would receive anything for which he wished, however there was a catch: his neighbor (whom he hated) would receive twice the amount of the wish!

So the man thought really hard and made a wish that first night.  He wished for an additional 100 head of cattle to be added to his already ample herd.

In the morning, the man discovered that God was good to his word and indeed, he had an additional 100 head of cattle.  However, when he directed his gaze to his neighbor’s holdings he observed that the man had 200 more cattle than before!

The man thought all day about his next wish and when the Lord came to him in the cool of the evening, the man made his wish: An extra 100 acres of fertile land on which to graze his growing herd of cattle.

In the morning, it was exactly as God had promised: his wish was answered.  He now had an additional 100 acres of grazing land for his cattle, but this hated neighbor had 200 MORE acres!

This greatly upset the man, for why should God be so good to his hated enemy?  What was God thinking?  This just wasn’t right and the man knew that he had to do something to “fix” the situation.

That evening, when the Lord came to him for his third and final wish, the man knew exactly what his wish would be: “Lord God, please put out ONE of my eyes!”  And the Lord wept!

Why do we not treasure the grace and mercy of God for all people, but seek secretly to ferret it away only for ourselves?  Have we not learned the lessons that God seeks to teach us in the Ten Commandments and the Beatitudes and the words of the Bible?  Do we not see that in Jesus Christ we are all lost sheep who have been found; lost coins which has been recovered?  Can we not learn this one lesson from God’s mercy … that we are not the center of all things, but rather that God is?

Until we learn these things, will we not continually forget who we are and to whom we belong?

The Potter: Psalm 139:1-18 & Jeremiah 18:1-11; Pentecost 16 – September 8, 2013

Rev. Martin R. Ankrum

There are many things that happen to us in life: sometimes they are formative; sometimes they are just things.  The amazing thing about this is that we can’t tell if the events of our lives are formative until after the fact usually.  Sometimes, there are events that we know are immediately formative of us, but most of the time, it takes a little time and distance to understand just how some experience has formed us.

The high school that I attended and graduated from was the largest high school in the state of Iowa at the time.  I lived in a small city in the state and all the larger towns and cities had at least two or more high schools.  Ours had only the one.  We had three junior highs and a multiplicity of elementary schools, which all added to the population of the high school, eventually.

I attended an elementary school that strangely divided their students up at the time of graduation from sixth grade.  About a third lived in the district that went to Anson Junior High, another third went to Miller Junior High and the final third were rural kids who all went to Lenihan Junior High.  So, we had the strange occurrence of renewing lost friendships when we eventually all got to High School.  There were some kids that I saw during my three years of High School that I hadn’t seen for years.  And some I didn’t see until graduation itself!

At the rehearsal the day before graduation night, we were seated alphabetically and I found myself next to Jan Anderson, an old “love interest” from elementary school that I hadn’t really seen since then. (She was one of those who attended another junior high school.)

Anyway, we got to talking about our plans for the future and she asked what I would be doing.  I told her that I was going to college in the fall and would either end up an English teacher or an architect.

She looked surprised and said: “Really!  I felt for sure that you would be a minister!”

I said, “Why ever would you think that?”

Jan then told me a story about myself that I had long forgotten.  Apparently, during my fifth and sixth grade years I would spend some of the recess time using the top of the slide as an impromptu pulpit and preaching to any of the kids that would listen.

I told Jan that I didn’t recall that and she said, rather vehemently:  “Well, you did!  You did and your sermons were about repentance and living your life right and a whole bunch of other stuff!”

She seemed awfully sure of the story and hearing it again, I began to think that maybe I had.

Now, I didn’t go from that moment on the eve of my high school graduation and begin plans to go to seminary after completion of college.  I went on with my plans to be an English teacher or architect for a few years into college.  But, somehow that experience was formative for me.  It was somehow a predictor of the person I would become.  It is only now looking back in retrospect that I see it as a formative event.

Last week, I spoke of the story by which God forms us into the people that he would have us be.  I said that worship was an important element in that because it is here that we corporately hear that story again and again and have the opportunity to be formed by what we hear.

The scripture last Sunday came from the Prophecy of Jeremiah as does this Sunday’s passage.  But this Sunday, Jeremiah visits the potter’s workshop and observes the potter at work, forming and reforming the clay into functional and beautiful vessels.  Jeremiah makes the analogy that just as the potter works to form the pottery, so too does the God of Israel work to form the people of Israel into his people.  Jeremiah makes the point that the potter does not discard any clay vessel that is malformed, but rather re-forms it and works with it until it is just right.  So, too, is God working to re-form his people into the people that he would have be truly his children.

The people of Israel may have given up on God, Jeremiah is saying, but God has not given up on them!

We like to think of ourselves sometimes as “self-made people.”  You might remember the term, “self-made man,” which rose to prominence in our vocabularies in the 19th century.  The term is credited to Senator Henry Clay from Kentucky, who in 1832, made mention of his state being filled with men who had rose to power and influence by their own device and were now running the industries of his state.  He admired them and the phrase stuck.

As Christians, we must admit that we are not self-made people.  It is God who is at work in our lives; God who is at work in our hearts forming us into the people that he would have us be.   Maybe it was God who put me up on that slide over recess to plant in my heart and mind the idea, the spark of a notion, that I was being called to the ministry of word and sacrament.

We are formed by what we hear in worship and we are formed by what we experience; what we do.  Experience can be formative and it can just be experience.  We will leave from this place and have all kinds of experiences today out in the world and in our homes.  Some of it will be formative, and some it may not be.

But here, in this place, this experience of worship is formative always.  Here at the baptismal font and at the table around which we gather today for communion, God makes use of our experience to form us.  This meal and that bath are the experiences that form us to be Christians.

In baptism, we learn and know that we belong not to ourselves, but that we belong to Jesus Christ.  In the Eucharist or Communion, we experience belonging to Jesus Christ, we commune with Christ and are reconciled to God and one another.  There can be no more vital experiences than those two.  Certainly, other human experiences are important and can be vital to us, but those two, bath and meal, are the two experiences God certainly uses to form us all.

These two experiences are called sacrament.  They are called sacrament because in these two events and actions, we can point to them and say that here is where we all commonly experience the grace of God in our lives.  In these two experiences, Jesus Christ is forming us into the people that he would have us be.  These are the experiences of life that actually have the power to form us.

“The Church reformed, always to be reformed, according to the word of God.”  This is an old adage from the Reformation that has made its way into our denomination’s Book of Order and it is indeed an important and meaningful saying.

There is never a moment in our life that we become perfectly Christian.  We just will never reach perfection this side of death; we will always stand in need of re-formation and constant formation.  We are continually being formed and reformed.

Calvin likened the church to be both mother and a school from which we shall never graduate.  We are continually being formed and reformed within this school of God’s that we call church.  We are being formed and reformed by remembering the bath of baptism and partaking in the meal of Eucharist and in the hearing of the word, knowing the story.

There are formative moments in life; the most important ones happen here.

           God-Forgetting: Psalm 81 & Jeremiah 2:4-13; Pentecost 15 – September 1, 2013

Rev. Martin R. Ankrum

“What’s your story?”  Have you ever heard that line from someone before?  You might meet up at a business meeting or on some committee civic or church-related and the person asks: “What’s your story?”  What do you say?  Where do you start?

How we respond to that particular inquiry may just say an awful lot about us.  We can choose from any number of things to say about ourselves … place of birth, date of birth, occupation that we hold, schools from which we have graduated, the nature of our familiar relationships, number of children, number of grandchildren. Whatever we say in response, we are saying about what we believe is important about ourselves and what we want someone else to know about us.

This is why participation in worship for the Christian is vitally important.  It is here again the story that really matters in this world; the story to which we all resonate and understand ourselves as a part of the whole is told.  Here, we hear in the music, the spoken word, the prayers offered and hymns sung, that story that we dare not forget: the story of God and our story as well.

In the late 70’s, it began to be philosophically fashionable to talk about post-modernism; the period in which we find ourselves living right now.  One of the features of post-modernism is an admission that no longer is there a metanarrative for the human race or for any particular culture for that matter.  Post-modernism would say that each of us has a story to tell and a narrative to relate and in order to truly comprehend one another, we must hear each other out and learn to appreciate the differences in our stories.

Now there is a lot of good that can be said for that approach to human life indeed.  Post-modernistic thought recognizes the value of the individual and the value, as well, of the individual’s stories and perspectives and opinions.  Such sensitive listening to one another could never hurt and quite, honestly, could help a good many situations in our lives.  But there is something else to be said about this penchant for individualism demonstrated in post-modernistic thinking.

Recently, I read a little book by a Lutheran scholar about the ministerial vocation in the Reformation age and how that particular model might influence current trends in pastoral ministry for the better.  There was much in the book that was helpful, but I found this particular passage revelatory for this morning’s passage from Jeremiah:

We live in a world infected by the corporate sin of individualism, a particularly lethal form of idolatry.  This cancer has invaded the church in insidious ways. No one will submit to anyone else.  Individual congregations assert their power over clergy and curse the wider church.  Individual members of the clergy assert their power over congregational members and curse the wider church.  Individuals shop for the church that meets their needs and curse the wider church.  Professors of theology are no exceptions.  To bring the message of forgiveness and reconciliation, God instituted the office of public ministry; to maintain good order in the church and to oversee that preaching, we have bishops, exercising their God-given authority to preach the gospel through such oversight.[1]

Of course, Dr. Wengert, the author of the book, had the intention of informing his readers about the Reformation model for ministry and thus gave Bishops and ministers the responsibility for good order and preaching the gospel as a corrective to the idolatry of individualism.  I think that he is right, but I also think that there is something else going on here …

If take seriously the words of Jeremiah today, we find the importance of remembering the story of God in our lives.  This is not just our own private little testimonies of how God has helped us, come to us at our point of need, or provided some kind of answer to our prayers … this is the old fashioned and somewhat out-of-fashion sense of metanarrative.  This is the whole story for the whole people, but primarily about God.

The presenting problem in Jeremiah’s prophecy is a society about to be under attack from an alien and hostile force from Babylonia.  This is the complaint that he is hearing: “Why is this happening to us?”  Yet, Jeremiah sees very clearly past the presenting problem to the truth of the situation: the people have lost all hope precisely because they have forgotten the stories of their God.  They have practiced a certain kind of God-forgetting, that if we are honest, we are not unfamiliar with as a people and a culture.

Hear again what Jeremiah says that God is saying to the people of Israel:

“What wrong did your fathers find in me
that they went far from me,
and went after worthlessness, and became worthless?
They did not say, ‘Where is the Lord
who brought us up from the land of Egypt,
who led us in the wilderness,
in a land of deserts and pits,
in a land of drought and deep darkness,
in a land that none passes through,
where no man dwells?’
And I brought you into a plentiful land
to enjoy its fruits and its good things.
But when you came in you defiled my land,
and made my heritage an abomination.
The priests did not say, ‘Where is the Lord?’
Those who handle the law did not know me;
the rulers transgressed against me;
the prophets prophesied by Ba′al,
and went after things that do not profit.

Very plainly, the people of Israel have forgotten the story of God and that their own stories are wrapped up in this great metanarrative that is really all about God and God’s goodness and kindness to them and to their world.  This is the story that they have forgotten and substituted for their own individual stories about what makes them happy, healthy and wise.  They have forgotten God and substituted something far inferior for him and they are suffering the consequences: they have no hope because they have forgotten the God in whom there is only hope.

This is why worship is so vital for us as Christians.  We must hear this story again and again, in word and in song, in voice and in written text.  We must hear again and again if we are ever going to be formed into the people that God intends us to be in Jesus Christ.  If we neglect worship, that is corporately hearing the story and participating in its weekly re-enactment, then we fall prey to begin to substitute our own stories as the metanarrative of our lives.  In short, we run the risk of forgetting God.

I like what Sandra Brown, Professor at Princeton Theological Seminary, wrote about this passage of scripture:

Christians, too, understand who they are by telling a story of the gracious, mighty acts of God.  We know ourselves as a people delivered through grave out of darkness into light, out of bondage into freedom.  Baptism and the Table of the Lord compress that saving story into an economy of words and eloquent action.  If we cease to tell, enact, and live by that saving story, other narratives will rush in to take its place.[2]

It is here, in this wondrous sanctuary, that we are privileged to gather each Lord’s Day and hear his story, not just our own.  We are only at our best when we remember not just the details of our own individual tales of life, but rather the grander, broader story of God’s all- encompassing love for us and for the world in Jesus Christ.  Brothers and sisters in Christ, indeed, this is when we are at our best: when we remember God’s story and that Jesus has graciously found us a place in that story and then go out to live the story in our own lives and in the life of this world.  We are at our best when we remember and we dare not forget.


[1] Timothy J. Wengert, Priesthood, Pastors, Bishops: Public Ministry for the Reformation & Today, (Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 2008), 102.

[2] Sandra Brown, “Homiletical Perspective for Jeremiah 2:4-13” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Volume 4, ed. David Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010) 5.

What Really Matters: Psalm 71:1-6 & Luke 13:10-17; Pentecost 14 – August 25, 2013

Rev. Martin R. Ankrum

A few years ago, a pastor told his congregation this little story:

“There was a farmer who put a want ad in a farm journal which read, ‘Wanted: a woman in her thirties interested in marriage who owns a tractor.  Please send a picture – of the tractor.’”

Sometimes our well-disguised pursuit of selfish desires and agendas over our concern or care for others comes out in blatant fashion … especially when we want a new tractor (at least in Iowa it does.)

It’s a cute little story and it reminds me a bit of what we encounter in an opposite manner with our Lord and Savior.  In Jesus Christ, we are seen for whom we are and to whom we belong.  Jesus does not see us as a way to reach his purposes or pursue his own agenda; Jesus sees us heart and soul, completely and wholly as we would want to be seen: as a child of God.

A case in point is this story about Jesus in the synagogue, teaching and pursuing his ministry.  Imagine the scene more fully for a moment, maybe even from the perspective that we’ve learned as a culture and a people.  Here’s Jesus doing the very thing that gives meaning and purpose to his life: teaching of God to any who will listen.  He’s doing the thing that makes him the happiest; he’s at his job, as it were, contentedly being driven by a purpose, following his agenda and then enters the woman.

Here’s a woman that could easily have been ignored.  Let’s face it; there are several factors that would cause any of us to ignore her.

First of all, it’s a public setting.  There is teaching going on and the people who have assembled this day in this synagogue have come to hear the reading of the God’s Word and hear the teaching of this itinerant preacher that everyone in the Galilean district is whispering about.  Jesus is in the midst of doing what he’s supposed to be doing; acknowledging the presence of this one person in the sea of people would be a significant interruption to the congregation’s train of thought, to his teaching and to the moment.

Secondly, this person happens to be a woman.  In the culture of Christ’s time, women were second-class citizens and especially a woman who has been bent-over most of her life.  Not only is she a woman, but she suffers from something that a good many folks gathered in the synagogue would say was a punishment for some hidden sin or at the very least, not their problem and should be ignored.

Finally, but not definitively by any means, it’s the Sabbath.  It’s the day that all work ceases and the righteous ones in the community concentrate upon the Holy One of Israel.  In fact, that’s why they’ve gathered in this sacred place … to turn their attentions wholly and completely to God and heavenly things.  They are not supposed to be contemplating their fellow humanity, whether they’re diseased or healthy … their thoughts are to be with and for God.

What gets in our way of seeing others?  Are not our own agendas and our sometimes dogged pursuing of our own purposes and desires the very things that blind us to others?  What are the things that keep us from really seeing, really acknowledging the hurt in others?

The religious authorities of Jesus’ day were shocked by Christ’s seeming lack of concern for religious observance as he broke Sabbath to do the work of healing, to do the work actually of seeing another and putting that person’s needs before his own agenda or purposes for the day.  He set aside what considered holy for the sake of one in need.

I can’t remember who said this, but it’s been years ago: “The problem with the church is often that we try to outdo God in being religious.  You can’t be more religious than God.”

There’s a lot to be questioned about that statement, it’s not perfect, but it gets the point across for me: “You can’t be more religious than God.”  The point of all our religiosity and faithful following of Christ, should be bringing about the Kingdom of God, where the one bent-over by life finds healing and encouragement for living, where our agendas and purposes might be put on hold for the sake of another.

In every church I have ever served, I have had at least one member, whom I have contacted after missing for a significant time, tell me that they just couldn’t seem to fit in with the congregation.  They would say that they would attend the coffee hour, stand alone by the wall, sip coffee and watch everyone else engaged in conversation and have no one, utterly no one approach them.  This ought not to be, and yet it happens more than we are willing to acknowledge.

The problem is that we get so busy going about the business of being church that we forget to actually be the church!  We look past others.  We are afraid to speak to others for any one of the list of unnamed fears that folks have about talking to someone that they don’t know.  So, we look past them, maybe nod to them hurriedly and move on to the safety of the next coffee clutch of folks with whom we are familiar.  The bent-over woman wouldn’t have stood a chance.

I was reminded this week of something that William Barclay wrote about this passage:

“Strangely enough, the worship of systems commonly invades the Church.  There are many church people … who are more concerned with the method of church government than they are with the worship of God and service of men.  It is all too tragically true that more trouble and strife arise in Churches over legalistic details of procedure than over any other thing.  In the world and in the church we are constantly in peril of loving systems more than we love God and more than we love men.”

The truth is found in Jesus Christ; the one who sees past all the systems we set up, all the walls of legalism and “doing things decently and in order,” and reaches out to the person who is suffering.  All agendas and purposes are fulfilled when we stop what we are so busy with and really see one another, bent-over by life, in need of the love of God that we can share with others.

The Rev. Dr. Jana Childers associates this with the tenderness of the love of God in our lives.  Such tenderness, when we really see another in need and offer such to them, has healing power, just as the tenderness of God’s love has such power in our own lives.  Here’s what Childers said:

“I heard the story told recently about a little girl living in a rural community, light years from where I live. It was just a few years ago, but it was one of those towns where driving down Center Street is like driving back into the thirties. She lived in a little house and went to a two-room school. She had loving folks and, from time to time, a good teacher. But the way she was growing up was not the way you would want your little girl to grow up. She had a cleft palate and the money for the repair hadn’t been there. By the time she was seven, she knew what the world was. She had heard the phrase, “only a mother could love that” and she understood it.

“One day a special teacher visited the school and put the children through some basic speech tests. When it was her turn, the little girl went into the classroom that had been set aside for the exams. “Just stand over there by the door,” the teacher said from her desk at the far end of the room. “I want to test your hearing first. Turn your back, face the door and tell me what you hear me say.”

“Apple,” the teacher said in a low voice.
“Apple,” the little girl repeated.
“Man,” the teacher said.
“Man,” the little girl repeated.
“Banana.”
“Banana.”

“Okay,” the teacher said, “Now a sentence.” The child knew that the sentences where usually fairly easy—she wasn’t the first child to take the test, after all. She’d heard you could expect something like, “The sky is blue” or “Are your shoes brown?” Still, she listened very carefully.
So it was that standing with her face against the door, she heard the teacher’s whisper quite clearly, “I wish you were my little girl.”

“The God who saw a daughter of Abraham in a [bent-over] Woman, is the same God who sees God’s own child in you. Before, between and after you reach out in faith; before, between and if you never deserve it, that God is reaching out to you. You have a God who loves you as her own. Because you are. From the top of your head, right down to the bottom of your feet.”

Sometimes, it is just seeing the other in need that allows us to see what really matters …

Upside-Down: Psalm 80:1-2, 8-19 & Luke 12:49-56; Pentecost 13 – August 18, 2013

Rev. Martin R. Ankrum

Far too often we are tempted to misuse the scriptures rather than establishing an authentic relationship with the Bible. And we do so without really thinking about it.  A lot of times, we might go to the Bible in order that it might confirm some perspective or tightly held belief that we feel must be central not only to our faith, but to the great expression of the faith catholic.  We think about that belief or perspective and then we go to the Bible in order to find the text that supposedly supports it.  And if we can’t find that text, we go to our pastor, for certainly he or she knows the Bible through and through and he or she will find in a matter of minutes and safely confirm our belief or perspective for us.

One element of the power and beauty of the Bible is the ability of scripture to turn our conceptions and beliefs upside-down; to completely turn us around when we least expect it.  This is precisely why we must be continually coming in contact with scripture, that it might just turn our little neat world upside-down and make us actually useful and purposeful in God’s kingdom of grace and love.

Here, today, we encounter one of those passages of scripture that has the power to turn our thinking a bit upside-down.  Here, in the passage from the Gospel of Luke, we encounter a Jesus that is not like the Jesus with which we have grown to be most comfortable.  Here is a different Jesus than the one for which we usually search the scriptures!

Some of us might remember that rather famous depiction of Jesus Christ commonly called: “The Laughing Jesus.”  It’s a highly stylized drawing from the early ‘70’s that displays Jesus with long hair, beard and a mouth full of teeth.  His head is cocked back and it appears that he is letting out a mighty laugh.  It’s a gut-busting laugh actually and if I had a dollar for every time someone said to me: “That’s the way I like to imagine Jesus,” I’d be well off!  Almost every one that has ever mentioned the drawing to me has had a favorable opinion of it. It’s the way that most folks would love to see him; one who is laughing, non-confrontational, not judgmental, accessible, likable … dare I say it: A good ole’ boy!

However, in this passage from Luke, Jesus isn’t laughing.  In fact, from the looks of things described there, no one is laughing and no one else is saying much while Jesus is making his little speech.  You get the feeling that Jesus’s original hearers are listening intently with their heads down, scuffing their feet in the sand and praying that this tirade will end soon.  No one seems to be very comfortable with Christ is saying.

And if the truth were told, we are still not comfortable with this passage.  Jesus is supposed to be about peace, love and grace, not division and fire.  Jesus is supposed to gather the little children to himself, not scatter and divide families in his wake.  Jesus is supposed to bring us together, not send us off taking sides and counting casualties of faith-based argumentation.  And yet, this is what Jesus is saying … and no one is laughing.

It is as if someone at the cocktail party, in between the first and second martini, asks you loudly enough for all to hear: “Just how serious are you about God? Just how much do you believe what you hear in your Presbyterian sanctuary on Sunday mornings?”

I don’t know about you, but if that happened to me at a social gathering (and it has) I would be a bit uncomfortable.  I think that discomfort comes not from being ashamed of the gospel or being a leader of a church, but rather the compartmentalization of our lives that we slip so easily into.  We know that the best topics to avoid outside of a sanctuary are politics and religion and the former is vastly more acceptable to speak of publically now than the latter!  We are tempted to believe that we can, by this compartmentalization, keep our lives neat and tidy and sectioned off just a little bit so that we have some kind of illusion of control; so that we might determine when it is best to invoke the name of God and when it is best to just keep quite about it all.

But here stands Jesus with his scotch-on-the-rocks slowly diluting with melting ice demanding to know just how serious you are about all this God-talk and God-life … It’s a bit off-putting, one might say.

Yet, that is the feeling of this text and, I believe, the intent of Jesus’ comments.  He puts it to his disciples that God’s kingdom and his way in this world is strenuous and not for the faint of heart.  There will be things demanded of us and positions will be taken that matter enough to let family and goods go.  And then, he sums it all up with his little analogy about the similarities between predicting the weather and really knowing the heart of the divine.

Jesus makes the point that his hearers are more able to read the sky for signs of impending weather than they are able to read their own hearts and the times in which they live to find the presence of God.  Jesus’s point is that they have invested more of themselves in predicting the weather so that they might adequately plan in their agriculturally-based society than they have invested themselves of knowing of God and seeking God’s purposes in life. The same, of course, may be said of us in our generation!  And again … no one is laughing now.

Martin Bucer, a little known reformer of the church, who was teacher to the great John Calvin himself, wrote something rather similar in his little book: Concerning the True Care of Souls:

We need to decide once and for all whether we really want to be Christians.  If we want to be Christians and the Lord’s lambs, we really need to listen to his voice, deny ourselves, and commit ourselves to him, so that he lives in us and we in him …

Or, how about the great Danish philosopher, Soren Kierkegard, writing in the early 19th century about the woes of state-regulated Christianity?  Kierkegaard was known to be a bit of a gad-fly, the kind that you might consider avoiding being cornered by at the Friday night cocktail party, asking impertinent questions about your faith and belief.  He would write letters to the local newspaper in Copenhagen, criticizing the lack of seriousness about the faith that he found in his countrymen and their clergy.

Upon the death and rather lavish funeral of a highly revered Bishop of the Lutheran Church in Denmark, Kierkegaard wrote this:

Against this I must protest – and now that Bishop Mynster is dead, I can speak willingly, but in this place very briefly … If the word “preaching” suggests more particularly what is said, written, printed, the word, the sermon, then the fact that in this respect … Bishop Mynster’s preaching soft-pedals, slurs over, suppresses, omits something decisively Christian, something which appears to us men inopportune, which would make our life strenuous … to see this one does not have to be particularly sharp-sighted, if one puts the New Testament alongside Mynster’s sermons.

Kierkegaard has something here not only about his own time and locale and the complexity of being a Christian, but about our time and place and struggles as well.  There is something about us that wants to make faith easy, accommodating and convenient to our own desires.  We want to put the living out of the faith at our own discretion and when it is the easiest thing for us.  In our culture, we wonder at all why faith should be so hard at all; we rationalize and reason that if this is all about God, shouldn’t it be easy, satisfying and simple?

But it isn’t always easy, satisfying and simple, is it?  And when it isn’t we are given the choice of continuing on or just finding something simpler, easier and more satisfying with which to occupy our time.  All of a sudden golf on Sunday mornings becomes more attractive to us or rooting for our children’s soccer matches, or just lingering over that third cup of coffee and mowing the lawn seems much more satisfying than going to church.  But then … But then …

            Jesus, regaining his place at the comfortable cocktail party, begins to stir his drink with his finger and give us that look that we have come to know as loving, but quite serious indeed.  He seems like he is about to say something … something about division, fire, trouble and reading the signs of the time and seeking to know God better than the meteorologist on WTAE … he appears to be quite serious indeed about all of this and we notice that no one is laughing …

Treasure Hunting: Psalm 50:1-8, 22-23 & Luke 12:32-40; Pentecost 12-August 11, 2013

Rev. Martin R. Ankrum

I don’t know if you’ve heard, but the Lutherans are in town!  That’s right, the ELCA, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has come to Pittsburgh for their church-wide Assembly to be held this week at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center.  I’m sure that you share my hopes and prayers that their gathering this week in Southwestern Pennsylvania will be blessed by God and that they will leave here reconfirmed in their mission and ministry for Jesus Christ.  You have heard me discuss many other denominations from time to time, during sermons and offhand remarks, but you may never have heard me say anything to say about the Lutherans.  As you know, I have been known to mistreat the Methodists, bash the Baptists and even envy the Episcopalians, but you’ll never hear me utter an unkind word about the Lutherans …

Of course, I drawing a generality from a specific experience, but the Lutherans I have known in my life have been paragons of faithfulness, devoted in their care for others and kind.  And, above all, the Lutherans I have known have been incredibly sensible people!  That’s right, this may be of course a generalization, but whom of our brothers and sisters within the Christian fold are more sensible than the Lutherans?

Indeed, allow me to quote from an expert on Lutheranism who is not a Lutheran himself, but almost the entire world thinks of him as a Lutheran: Garrison Keillor.  The famous host of “A Prairie Home Companion” radio program, has made his mark telling stories predominately about Lutherans who live in the fictitious town of Lake Woebegon, Minnesota.  Yet, Keillor is not a Lutheran.  Regardless, he has a great insight on Lutherans, Christian faith and life itself.

Here’s something that Keillor related at the end of one of his episodes of the Lake Woebegon sketch:

In Lake Woebegon, you learned about being All Right.  Life is complicated, so think small.  You can’t live life in raging torrents; you have to take it one day at a time.  And if you need drama, read Dickens.  My dad said, ‘You can’t plant corn and date women at the same time. It doesn’t work.’ One thing at a time. The lust for world domination does not make for a good life.  It’s the life of the raccoon, a swashbuckling animal who goes screaming into battle one spring night, races around, wins a mate, carries on a heroic raccoon career, only to be driven from the creek bed the next spring by a young stud who leaves teeth marks in your butt and takes away your girlfriend, and you lie wounded and weeping in the ditch.  Later that night, you crawl out of the sumac and hurl yourself into the path of oncoming headlights.  Your gruesome carcass lies on the hot asphalt to be picked at by crows.  Nobody misses you much. Your babies grow up and do the same thing. Nothing is learned.  This is a life for bank robbers.  It is not a life for sensible people.

Now, doesn’t that say it just about right?  Of course it does … it is just so Lutheran … so sensible … so actually quite on point for today’s passage from the Gospel of Luke.

Jesus speaks to his disciples and seeks to impart some wisdom for life that is not well understood either by those disciples or really by the subsequent generations of us who have called ourselves Christian.  We don’t seem to quite get what Jesus is really saying to us here and I’m more than willing to admit that that certainly includes this pastor as well!

What is life all about?  It’s the question that presents itself to us more than we probably actually register or realize.  What is the substance of life?  What makes for a “good life?”  And, how must one live in order to have this good life that we all seem to want and crave?

Most of the time, most of us are lulled into believing that the quality of our life is somehow linked to the quantity of things that we possess.  Even we Christians, who after years of church attendance, sermon-hearing, and bible reading, would be appalled to admit the truth to ourselves … even we live as if what we have matters much more than whose we are.

Jesus cuts right to the heart of this kind of very common thinking about the meaning and purpose of life.  He says that we ought really divest ourselves of everything that we can possess.  Jesus wants us to not only rid ourselves of possessions, but to actually sell them so that the proceeds can be given to … now get this … those who have less possessions than we have.

This is where we start to think that Jesus isn’t really being fair or honest here.  How could he make this kind of demand of his followers or even us?  What does Jesus know about what we need to make a successful stab life in this day and in this time?  Here’s where we like to forget that Jesus was just as much human as he was divine … we like to excuse this demand of Jesus’s as so much hyperbole … stretching a point to make a point.  And that might just be the case …

In our little crisis of Gospel demands upon our lives, let us turn again to our good and sensible friends: the Lutherans.  Clint Schnekloth is the Lead Pastor of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Fayetteville, Arkansas who writes of this passage in a helpful manner:

Notice first of all that Jesus does not say, “Where your heart is, put your treasure.” He says, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” … Most people think this text says, “Your treasure will go where your heart goes.” But actually the text says exactly the opposite, “Your heart will go where your treasure goes.” So, if you really want to get your heart into something, give a lot of money to it. A lot of money. Like all of your money.

So Jesus asks of his followers a far more difficult question than I think we first thought: In what do you choose to invest yourself in this life?  What is of such ultimate value in this life that would cause us to give up everything else that we could have?

Jesus provides the answer to this penetrating question in the very first portion of the passage.  Even before Jesus asks his disciples to sell off all they have, he offers them an assurance that is, quite frankly, astounding.  Jesus tells his disciples that they have nothing to fear in this life because it is God’s good pleasure to give to them … (wait for it…) … the kingdom!  The very kingdom of God or the Kingdom of Heaven if you please, is granted to the followers of Jesus Christ.

It is as if Christ is making the point that with such a gift of what is really important in life, why should we seek to find security in things less profound than that?  If we have inherited the very kingdom of God; that is, the kingdom of mercy and grace, kindness and faithfulness, goodness and blessedness, in the midst of a chaotic and difficult world, what else could we need?  In what else should we find our security?

The question remains for us as well in our own day and time: where is our treasure … where is our heart?  In what do we place ultimate and supreme confidence: trusting in treasure or trusting in God?

Returning to Garrison Keillor, a Sanctified Brethren, who thinks like a sensible Lutheran, it might be best to hear him once again …

The lust for world domination does not make for the good life … It is not a life for sensible people … The urge to be top dog is a bad urge.  Inevitable tragedy.  A sensible person seeks to be at peace, read books, know the neighbors, take walks, enjoy his portion, live to be eighty, and wind up fat and happy, although a little wistful when the first coronary walks up and slugs him in the chest.  Nobody is meant to be a star. Charisma is pure fiction …

So, where is your treasure?  Where is your heart?

A Serious Conversation: Psalm 85 & Luke 11:1-13; Pentecost 10 – July 28, 2013

Rev. Martin R. Ankrum

 “Lord, teach us to pray …”

Who taught you to pray?  Can you remember that far back? Was it your parents, either mother or father or both? Was it some Sunday school teacher, leading a class in the art of prayer? Or it may not have been a person at all, but rather the very circumstances of life: a crisis or a moment of great joy that caused you to offer either a petition or lament or a briefly uttered thanksgiving for the beauty of love and life.

At this point, since by our mere presence in this sanctuary, it is probably safe to assume that we are all acquainted in some way with prayer.  In fact, we have had opportunities prior to this sermon during this very Sunday service to offer prayers in a variety of ways.  We are all acquainted with prayer.

Yet, the disciples ask Jesus to teach them to pray.  They were grown men, Jewish men in fact who had been traveling with Jesus for a time.  They very well would have had many opportunities to turn to prayer throughout their life.  They were devout Jews on many levels, so prayer was not a new or novel instrumentation for communication with God.  Yet they wanted something more than what they had learned before.

Some of their desire, no doubt, had been sparked by being with Jesus and observing that he had a rather active prayer life.  In their question however, they espouse a desire to be taught to pray as the followers of John the Baptist had been taught.  Were they looking for a secret link?  Were they seeking a mystical connection that others seemed to enjoy but were lacking in their own lives?

That very well may have been the case as it is for us sometimes.  I would be willing to bet that we have at some time, envied the prayer lives of others.  We hear from our friends that prayers have been answered, cancers have shrunk, lives have been redeemed from the messiness of earlier dissipations, addictions have been broken and children returned safely from journeys all seemingly in answer to someone’s fervent prayers.  We hear these reports and we wonder to ourselves: “What secret do they have that we don’t?”

I think that this may have been going on in the conversation that Jesus has with his disciples.  The disciples want to be like some other group of faithful followers whom they apparently admire.  They want to mimic John’s followers’ approach to prayer, but Jesus has something else in mind.  He wants to teach his followers to trust in God even in the midst of prayer.

So Jesus gives the disciples a pattern for prayer that we have converted into a liturgical mantra.  The prayer that we have labeled The Lord’s Prayer is a testament to great trust in God.  If we look at what Jesus offers as a pattern, we see that Jesus wants his followers to pray as those who ultimately trust in God’s goodness and graciousness to them.  There is thanksgiving and petition in this prayer for sure, but overarching all the words is a deep and abiding trust that God not only hears the petitioner but will ultimately care for them.

The same is true in the Psalter lesson for this morning.  The Psalter is really a collection of prayers and the 85th is a grand example of ultimate trust in God’s goodness and grace.  Things are not right with the people of Israel and God seems far away, redemption appears a thing of the past. Yet the psalmist approaches the Lord with confidence and trust begins a serious conversation, convinced that God’s redemption, once past, is also a part of Israel’s future.

I think that this is exactly what Jesus is attempting to teach his disciples about prayer: that it is a serious conversation between creature and creator based on trust in the goodness of God.  Jesus follows up his example prayer with a series of parabolic statements furthering his explanation.

In the story about waking a friend, Jesus admonishes his followers to be persistent in prayer.  This serious conversation with the Creator of the universe is not a “one and done” kind of a thing.  This is a conversation that is, in essence, or should be, life-long in duration; a conversation that will often feel from our perspective a bit one-sided with us doing all the talking.  But no matter; Jesus tells his disciples to keep at it … to be as persistent as a neighbor knocking on the door in order to awaken his slumbering friend.

Jesus then instructs his disciples that God is someone whom can be trusted more surely and firmly than an earthly parent.  Jesus places before them the simple analogy that if earthly parents provide what is good for their children why would we think that God, the creator and parent of all human life, would not seek to give us only good things?

Bottom line, the motivating factor for prayer should not be what we can acquire or from some form of duty-bound service to justify ourselves before the living God, but only out of a deep and abiding trust in God’s goodness for us and for, of course, all creation.

Cynthia Jarvis, well-known Presbyterian minister, recently quoted the great George Buttrick on this subject.  Here’s what Buttrick said:

If God is not, and the life of man poor, solitary, nasty, brutish and short, prayer is the veriest self-deceit.  If God is, yet is known only as vague rumor and dark coercion, prayer is whimpering folly: it were nobler to die.  But if God is in some deep and eternal sense like Jesus, friendship with Him is our first concern, worthiest art, best resource and sublimest joy.

I absolutely love that quote.  For Buttrick, the only real understanding of prayer is rooted in the trust that is lodged in God because of the witness of Jesus Christ to the kindness and mercy of this God.  Our relationship with God in Jesus Christ can become what Buttrick called “the worthiest art.”

Prayer is then an art form; not due to some flowery delicacy of language but because of the opportunity to be fully human before the One who has made us human.  In prayer, if we fully trust God to be good and even better than any human father we have experienced, we can lay our hearts bare; we can rattle off all our thoughts, comments, laments, pleas, desires and wishes.  And the confirmation of our deepest thoughts and hopes will not be found in the rate and speed with which God sees to our needs as if he were some divine vending machine or butler to our whims, but rather in the trust that we sense at the end of laying it all the table and knowing that we have been heard.

As we grow in our ability to pray, giving air to our desires and seeking to hear the will of God not only for our lives but for the life of the world, then we will reach a maturity in prayer that Matthew Skinner, professor at Luther Seminary in St. Paul demonstrates in this comment:

Christians should not pray to get what they want.  They should pray for God to bring the fullness of God’s reign to fruition.

Truly, prayer is a serious conversation that lasts a lifetime for the follower of Jesus Christ.  It is a long haul, but our maturity in this instrumentation of communication with God is found when we can acknowledge Dr. Skinner’s take on prayer and find the very sentiment that I received from one of you folks in an email this past week:  “The function of prayer is not to influence God – but to change the nature of the one who prays.”

In the end, this serious conversation will inevitably involve change … the world in which we live will be changed because, quite frankly, we will have been changed.

So … keep praying … and the world will change.

The Down Side of Busy: Psalm 52 & Luke 10:38-42; Pentecost 9 – July 21, 2013

Rev. Martin R. Ankrum

Who among us isn’t busy?  Who among us in this sanctuary on this morning isn’t half-tempted to be thinking about things other than faith, love and God’s goodness?  A good many of us may be composing lists rather than meditating upon God: planning what needs to be accomplished today, tomorrow and in this new week.  Indeed, we are a busy people.

Most of us, I would dare say, are like Martha in the story we heard this day from Luke … we are anxious and troubled about many things, while only one thing, just the one thing is needed.  At least that is what Jesus said of dear Martha and her devotion to duty and work and just keeping busy.

Golda Meir said something that might just speak right to our dilemma of burden and work, busy-ness and responsibility and the bifurcation of our very lives.  Here’s what she said:

At work, you think of the children you have left at home.  At home, you think of the work you’ve left unfinished.  Such a struggle is unleashed within yourself. Your heart is rent.

She has it right indeed; we are people divided between all the responsibilities that are placed before.  We are like the Martha of the story; anxious and troubled about many things, we miss the one thing that is really necessary … It’s that one thing that we need!

We’ve heard this story enough to be somewhat lulled to imperceptibility by it.  We think that this is a fairly straightforward story about women arguing over domestic responsibility and Jesus’s odd admonishment to be lazy and lay about rather than putting one’s hand to the plow and get cracking at the tasks.  We think that this is what this is about, but we are wrong.

The radical nature of the scene that we might miss is the very setting of the story.  We find Jesus and his disciples in the house that is owned by Mary and Martha.  This is a home that is owned by women in a culture that does not consider women human enough to possess anything of their own.  Mary and Martha are independent women in a culture where a woman’s worth was almost completely dependent upon her relationship to some male.  Without a husband, father or son, a woman in Jesus’s culture was in a difficult and often insolvent position.

Yet, here, Jesus enters a home owned by women.  This didn’t matter to Jesus; he saw them for who they were rather than to whom they were related.  This was amazingly radical and not a little dangerous counter-cultural behavior for Jesus, but then what should we expect, Jesus still seems to be involved in risky, radical and counter-cultural demonstrations of the truth.

Equally radical in Jesus’s teaching is the actual content, rather than just the setting of it.  Here Jesus speaks right to the heart of Martha’s trouble and the problem that we in the 21st century share with her … we believe that we are somehow valued because of what we do and the work that we have done rather than in our relationship with God.

That’s really the situation with Martha; she sees herself valued by what she does, the work that she gets done around the house rather than in her relationship with God.  Martha, like us, was often too busy with life to spend time with God.  Jesus is in the house and the concern that she has is attempting to get her sister to help her with the dishes.

Now here is a problem with which we can relate.  As Presbyterians, we tend to be folks like Martha; highly-motivated, fairly accomplished in what we do, we enjoy immensely the work set before us to which we turn our hand.  We take great pride in our work and our labor and the principle of always being busy.  Busy, busy, busy … we are always busy; almost too busy for God.

Let me remind you of what Golda Meir said that speaks right to our bifurcated souls:

At work, you think of the children you have left at home.  At home, you think of the work you’ve left unfinished.  Such a struggle is unleashed within yourself. Your heart is rent.

Our lives are so filled with the things that must be done or at least we believe that they must be done, that we can’t ever seem to actually enjoy the life that God has granted us.  Jesus knows that such a lifestyle, such a Martha perception of value in life is fairly well confused, muddled and completely backwards from God’s desires for us.

Henry David Thoreau, 19th century naturalist and philosopher, wrote these words about the sheer confusion of busy-ness:  “It is not enough to be busy. So are the ants.  The question is: What are we busy about?”

Again, we return to the radical nature of Jesus’s teaching.  He holds that what humanity ought to be busy with is the busy-ness of doing God’s will.  He praises Mary for having chosen the appropriate or good portion.  What Mary chose was to spend time with Jesus; to sit at his feet while he taught the disciples; to do something that the rest of her culture would have raised their eyebrows and wagged their tongues … a women, independent from any relationship with a man, got herself up and out of the kitchen and preferred studying with the men to washing the dishes.

Jesus claims that time spent with God is of greater value than working in the kitchen, the field, the classroom, the street, the trading floor, the office or wherever else.  Jesus makes the radical claim that human value is not found in what we can accomplish, in the work that we do, but rather in the relationship that we have with God.

If this is true, and I believe it is or I wouldn’t be saying it, then our lives need to be oriented in a differing way than the rest of our culture.  Our lives, as followers of Jesus Christ, must be oriented towards spending time with our God, coming in contact with his word to us, spending moments of quiet devotion in which to find the very center of our lives.

This is radically counter-cultural and you, as folks who are present on a Sunday morning when you could be off doing something else, are off to a great start.  But of course, one or two hours a week spent at church is not really enough to sustain us. In order to be formed as Christians, we must find more opportunities for daily contact with God.  It may mean setting aside a few moments for reading from scripture and offering a brief prayer.

Who of us doesn’t have five minutes or ten minutes or maybe best, a half hour, in which we might sit read scripture and offer a brief prayer?  If we believe that there is a God and that in Jesus Christ we have seen this God clearly, then why would be resistant to spend a small amount of time in contact with scripture and prayer?

Why?  Because we know that such exposure could very well change us in ways that we might not be able to control … that’s the deep dark secret for Martha, if she opens herself to the teaching of Jesus, things may no longer be in her control …

And, maybe, just maybe, that is why we prefer valuation in work rather in developing closer relationship with God … it may be … it may be…

The Neighborhood: Psalm 82 & Luke 10:25-37; Pentecost 8 – July 14, 2013

Rev. Martin R. Ankrum

As your pastor, here’s a statement, an assertion, I would like you to consider:  Whatever or whomever God loves is whatever or whomever we ought to love!  Or more plainly put … Who God loves are the very ones whom we should love.

This is a corollary, I believe to Jesus’s well known statement in answer to the lawyer’s inquiry about the requirement in order to inherit eternal life.  Jesus challenges the man a bit by asking him if he knows what is in the law and inquires about the man’s interpretation of what he has found there.  Of course, the man has read the law … he is a lawyer after all.  But Jesus holds that it is not enough to have read the law; the real question is a matter of lifestyle or behavior.  “Do you understand the law in the manner of your life?” is what Jesus appears to be saying to him.

And here’s the corollary: Love God with all your strength, heart, mind and soul and love your neighbor as yourself.  This isn’t a direct quote, but rather a paraphrase that makes it easy for us to remember.  Jesus holds these two commandments the most important: Love God and love your neighbor as yourself.

Jesus’s challenge to the lawyer is then a parable of actually doing the law.  It is a story of one man really loving his neighbor enough to do for him what the law requires … ultimate salvation.  The Good Samaritan actually saves the man’s life.  He doesn’t sacrifice his own life for the unknown neighbor, but he goes to great lengthens and expense and inconvenience to assure the man’s recovery.

That is love of neighbor; not sentimentality but sacrificial and salvific action.

Whomever God loves are the very ones that we must love!

In the late 1970’s, I was firmly convinced that I would become ultimately an architect.  I studied with a few courses before I realized that this was just not the field to which God was calling me.  However, before I left that field, I learned something in principal that I saw applied in the coming decades in home building.  I remember looking at the current designs that were being pushed forward and noticed that most had hidden front doors and large, two and three car garage doors as the majority of the frontage of most house designs.

When I asked one of my professors about this I was told that studies showed that people wanted to get home, get in the house and not be bothered anymore by folks in the neighborhood.  Gone were the days of wrap around porches and easily accessible entrances to people’s homes or yards.  Fences, garage doors and hidden front doors were the order of the day for people prized privacy over all else in their lives.

I saw this lived out in the ‘80’s and ‘90’s as such styled houses were the most common in new developments and new builds.  In the suburbs of Detroit where I went for my first call in ministry, such homes were truly the most prized and often seen.

Of course, this says much about our cultural understanding to our commitment or our responsibility for our neighbor … there isn’t any.  Our culture is starting to show some signs of reversing this trend, but for the most part, we prize privacy over our responsibility to our neighbor … even if we can’t admit that we have this responsibility.

We may not admit it, but Jesus certainly commands it.  He told the lawyer a story that illustrated not sentimentality or good feeling about one’s fellow man, but actually doing something about the plight of someone that you don’t even know.  The Good Samaritan is good not because he was a Samaritan or helped out his next-door neighbor with a paint brush … he is called Good because he love an unknown stranger to him the way that God loved that man.  He, whom God loved, is the very person that the Good Samaritan loved.

Two of our parishioners who have lived their lives in faith and now live eternally with our Lord come to mind in this regard…

First, Aaron Sekora was one whose life may have been chronologically short, but whose influence has gone beyond his 20 some years.  Aaron was one who lived out this call to refrain from judgment and just enact the love of God with all whom he met.  His witness, in this way, was certainly powerful, long-lasting and equally, missed.

Eva Andrews also comes to mind.  Many of you may have known Eva.  She was a lifetime member of our congregation and died this past week at the advanced age of 99 years.  She was truly a lovely woman whom I never once saw without a smile and gleam in her eye.  I didn’t know this about her, but learned from her daughter that Eva, a long-time resident in the apartments at Redstone Highlands, had a nightly tradition that demonstrated her care for her neighbors.  In the hour before dinner was to be served in the dining room, Eva would open her apartment door and any of her neighbors were invited in to discuss the events of the day, the cares and joys of life, or just the menu of the impending meal.  It may be a small gesture, but it speaks much of Eva’s concern for her neighbors.  She opened her very home to them.

In Jesus Christ, God calls us to open ourselves to our neighbors, our brothers and sisters in this world.  We are called to be the very hands and feet of God, moving towards those in need and giving of ourselves without reservation or hesitation.  Whom God loves is the very person that we should love as well.

The lawyer sought clarification and asked just who was his neighbor … he didn’t want to draw that circle too widely, I suppose.  Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan in response.  Calvin, the great reformer, interpreted that story and the limitations of just who our neighbors are with this statement:

But here, as I have said, the chief design [of the story of the Good Samaritan] is to show that the neighborhood, which lays us under obligation to mutual offices of kindness, is not confined to friends or relatives, but extends to the whole human race.

So how big is your neighborhood?

All In: Just Who Is Fit?: Psalm 77:1-2, 11-20 & Luke 9:51-62; Pentecost 6 – June 30, 2013

Rev. Martin R. Ankrum

There’s something about this reading from the Gospel of Luke, the words of our Lord and Savior that make us all a bit uncomfortable; a bit uneasy and maybe even undone.

These are not the comforting words that we expect from scripture.  These are not words of the Epistles of John that direct us to understand, comprehend and live the truth that “God is love.”  These words are challenging to us, threatening to that status quo of life that we hold so dear.  These words point right to the heart of Jesus’ mission and his expectations about what his followers do about it; they speak to the serious nature of the gospel.

The Savior of humanity has set his face like flint to Jerusalem and is traveling his last journey … the journey to his death upon a cross, his ultimate humiliation and the vanishing of all the vain hopes and fruitless dreams of conquest that his disciples may have for him.  Jesus knows that he is going to his death and when he is approached by those who wish to come along, he issues challenges that reverberate to us this day and this morning.

Jesus’ words to three different would-be followers lend some gravity to the passage: Jesus is on his way to his death and the prospect of following Christ at this point does not appear to be a happy one or something that one would engage in lightly.  Jesus wants his followers to be, as the poker players say: “All in!”  Jesus wants his followers’ commitment to be total and complete.

To our modern or rather post-modern ears, complete and total commitment is not something that is often asked of us and we become a bit edgy if we think that such commitment is required.  Of course, we pledge our trust and complete devotion to our spouses.  We understand that despite the stories we hear from our family and friends of those who have failed in such complete devotion or we ourselves have experienced.

We commit to this or that cause, but when the going gets too tough or too expensive or takes up too much of our time, we are often tempted to just say that we’ve done our bit for the cause and now someone else can take up the reins.

No, complete commitment and total devotion is something that, if we are honest, we find difficult for us.

Karl Barth, the great 20th century theologian, found that such a lack of commitment is really about a confusion of ourselves with God.  In his landmark commentary on Paul’s Epistle of the Romans, Barth wrote these amazingly accurate words:

 

Our relationship to God is ungodly. We suppose that we know what we are saying when we say ‘God.’ We assign to Him the highest place in our world: and in so doing we place Him fundamentally on one line with ourselves and with things.  We assume that He needs something: and so we assume that we are able to arrange our relation to Him as we arrange our other relationships.  We press ourselves into proximity with Him: and so, all unthinking, we make Him nigh unto ourselves.  We allow ourselves an ordinary communication with Him, we permit ourselves to reckon with Him as though this were not extraordinary behavior on our part.  We dare to deck ourselves out as His companions, patrons, advisers, and commissioners. We confound time with eternity.

 

And, a little later in the same section, he offered a summation in two sentences:

 

Thinking of ourselves what can be thought only of God, we are unable to think of Him more highly than we think of ourselves.  Being to ourselves what God ought to be to us, He is no more to us than we are to ourselves.

 

Wow!  Part of our resistance to complete commitment to Jesus Chris is this strange, but very human, desire to confuse ourselves and our wishes and desires with God’s mission and purpose.  We relate to God as we would relate to any other being within the world and forget that God is the creator and we are the creation; that he is the Potter and we are clay.  We are the ones being formed and molded into the likeness of Jesus Christ and not the other way round.

So, of course, Jesus calls his followers to a certain seriousness about their call to follow.  The question comes down to who can really be fit to put their hand to plow and not look back if this is the requirement for being a disciple?  Who of us can really be “all in” as it were?

I’ll admit: there are tough questions that the voice of our Lord and Savior place before us in this text … what does it mean for us to put our hand to the plow and not look back?  Just how serious is this Jesus about this call to discipleship, to following him even unto Jerusalem and the cross and the very purposes of God?  These are tough questions, but it is the very response of our lives that give the answer.

It is not because of a disciplined life that God loves us; it is not our doing or our behaving that causes God to love us. Instead, being all in, as it were, is our response to the love of God witnessed in Jesus Christ.  When we consider the great sacrifice of Christ, the great love that God has delivered to us in creation, redemption and the sustaining of our world, how can we not respond by being “all in”?  What kind of people would we be if we weren’t?

But what does this mean for us who live not with the actual, physical Jesus traveling ahead of us on the way to Jerusalem, but we who journey with him now in this day and age?  What does it mean?

Well, simply it means that when the Spirit of the living Christ within our hearts and souls causes us to think twice about an action or practice in our lives, we do so … we consider it gravely and carefully.

Sometimes we might consider it or call it our conscience, but for the Christian, it is the very Spirit of the living Christ working within us and convicting us of not taking our hand from the plow …

This is what I mean … when we see injustice being done to another who is weaker or vulnerable or without help and we turn a blind eye and consider ourselves “uninvolved” or say nothing, we are taking our hand from the plow and violating our call in Christ.

This is what I mean … when we fail to love the so-called “unloveable” folks in our world, culture, neighborhood or sphere of influence, we are taking our hand from the plow and violating our call in Christ.

This is what I mean … when we weigh our stewardship of God’s goods gifts and our commitment to Christ’s ministry against the better boat, the possibility of a second house, the vacation to the Greek Isles or some other thing that seems so desirous at the expense of our faithful response to Jesus Christ, we are taking our hand from the plow and violating our call in Christ.
This is what I mean … when we determine that we need not be in attendance of holy worship with Christ’s church because the Steelers are playing or other demands upon our time on a Sunday morning … well, I think you know what I am going to say …

God in Jesus Christ is quite serious about reconciling the world to himself; quite serious about proving his love for his creation; quite serious about bringing life, grace and hope to all of us.  Jesus Christ seems equally serious about just what our response should be.

I like what Skip Shaffer, an associate dean at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary says about such things:

 

God’s place in our lives is neither a matter of convenience nor something that can be taken for granted or assumed.

 

I think Skip is dead on … and all in.

Counter-Cultural: Psalm 42 & Luke 8:26-39; Pentecost 5 – June 23, 2013

Rev. Martin R. Ankrum

 “What have you to do with me …”

Each one of us knows a lost cause.  I don’t mean by that some kind of business venture or personal project that never seems to get off the ground. No, I refer to “lost cause” as a person with whom we have an acquaintance which we are tempted to label as a hopeless case. Each of us, I’m sure, knows someone that would fall into that rather bleak category.

For some of us it may be a relative or, more probably, a relation by marriage.  It is a brother or sister, sister-in-law or brother-in-law who never seems quite able to “get it all together” and get on with their lives without asking for some kind of assistance from us or the rest of the family.

For others, it may be someone at work who makes our work all the more difficult.  Those “lost causes” are the ones who never seem able to make the deadline or have the right data at the meeting and are always fumbling through whatever assignment is placed before them.  We sit with our co-workers and sometimes the topic comes around to the extent of this or that workers’ state of being a “lost cause.”

Or maybe, just maybe, it is someone much closer than relative or co-worker, neighbor or old college chum … maybe the lost cause in our lives is our very selves.  We would probably be surprised to find out just how many amongst us really considers ourselves a lost cause; someone so beleaguered and besieged by the difficulties and challenges of life that we just give up on ourselves, or some aspect of our life, and plan to live out our days as quietly and unassumingly as possible.  We had our chance, we think, but now that’s all over.  We were happy in our marriage once, but really now, how can we even try to recover any of that … it’s just a lost cause.  Or, I’ve done the best in my profession that I could and it is not as far or as high or lofty place to which I thought I would aspire … but, oh well, I can hang on for another decade and a half .. it’s just a lost cause.

Indeed, we are trained in our culture and in our understanding of human life to define others and ourselves as lost causes from time.  Giving ourselves permission, as it were to give up and stop wasting our energy or love or care on folks (or even ourselves) who will never change, never improve, never get on with it … etc.

Well, thanks be to God, God in Jesus Christ does not know a lost cause or hopeless case.  The story that we hear this day from Luke affirms that Jesus does not believe that any folks are lost causes or hopeless cases.  Here, in this powerful story of an encounter with a man with legions of troubles, a herd of pigs, angry swineherds and fearful townspeople, Jesus stands up and provides a witness to the power of God to transform human life; any human life not matter how messed up and difficult.

The Gerasene demoniac is one who has is plagued and beleaguered by life; his problems are legion you might say.  He just can’t get it together to the point of living out in the cemetery in a completely naked state.  From our 21st century perspective, we would say that this person has some real issues; no doubt psychological issues indeed.  In our culture and time, we would hope, this person would be made to receive treatment of some kind so that he would not be a danger to either himself or others (or even a heard of swine grazing dangerously close to the cliffs).  No, in our culture, someone would act, would do something to help this poor fellow.

Jesus does not wait for anyone else to act; he acts out of compassion and concern for the man who is obviously a lost cause to his neighbors, friends and relatives.  It is obvious that they have considered him a lost cause; for who in good conscience could allow his brother, his cousin or former co-worker to live in a state of utter dejection in the cemetery?  The man is obviously isolated and removed from human society whether it is self-imposed or a culturally informed exile … this man is alone and hurting and Jesus sees this.

John Calvin, the great French reformer, offers this from his commentary on the text:  “What compassion then was it, to rescue from so many deaths a man who was more than a thousand times ruined!”

I love those words from Calvin for they speak right to the heart of what Jesus has done for the Gerasane demoniac … he has rescued him from a legion of fears and pressures, concerns and abject horrors that has weighed so effectively upon the man that he has been driven mad.  Jesus has reached out in compassion to one who has been overcome by the responsibilities of life, the pressures of life, the concerns of life … to a person who is really not very different than you or me.  As strange as it might sound, there is a bit of Gerasene demoniac in each of us, I suppose.

Think about the self-identification that the man makes when asked about the name of the demon that plagued him: Legion (many – a multitude).  In a like manner, what plagues us: a legion of things I suppose in our modern context and setting.  We worry about the bills, the ills and the missing thrills of our lives.  We concern ourselves over many things that will matter very little when the final assessment and judgment will be made on our lives.  We are plagued, beleaguered and nearly driven mad at times. … So, we DO know what it means to be considered a lost cause ..

And yet, thanks be to God, God in Jesus Christ sees no lost causes or hopeless cases.  With Jesus Christ, there are not ultimately lost causes or hopeless cases in and amongst any of us.  In Jesus Christ, we have been redeemed, brought forward to the throne of a loving God, given a baptismal name and made one of God’s own children.

So, in the midst of the lostness of modern life and of our own lives, we hear this story about the healing of one whose problems are legion and we wonder … we wonder … about those who appear hopeless in our lives and the moments of life that seem lost causes to us … and we wonder the very thing that the man himself said:  “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?”

The Greater Debt: Psalm 5:1-8 & Luke 7:36-8:3; Pentecost 4 – June 16, 2013

Rev. Martin R. Ankrum

47Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.

There’s an old story that is worth re-telling:

Jack, the painter, often would thin his paint so it would go further. So when the Church decided to do some deferred maintenance, Jack was able to put in the low bid, and got the job. As always, he thinned his paint way down with turpentine.

One day while he was up on the scaffolding — the job almost finished — he heard a horrendous clap of thunder, and the sky opened.

The downpour washed the thinned paint off the church and knocked Jack off his scaffold and onto the lawn among the gravestones and puddles of thinned and worthless paint.

Jack knew this was a warning from the Almighty, so he got on his knees and cried: “Oh, God! Forgive me! What should I do?”

And from the thunder, a mighty voice: “REPAINT! REPAINT! AND THIN NO MORE!”

The story from Luke’s gospel for this day provides all of us with a wonderful window into Christ’s thoughts about repentance, human relationships and the presence of God in the lives of the repentant. The story is simple: Jesus is being hosted for a meal by a rather serious, but apparently suspicious Pharisee named Simon. A woman whose sin was well known in the village comes in and makes quite a scene, bathing Jesus’ feet with her tears and silently drying them with her hair.  She also anoints his feet with ointment from an alabaster jar.

Simon, the host, doesn’t know quite what to make of this and wonders about Jesus’ apparent lack of perception.  He reasons that if this Jesus is a prophet, why doesn’t he know about this woman’s reputation and stop the whole thing then and there?  How could a true prophet of the Lord have anything to do with such a notorious sinner?

Jesus, being Jesus, senses Simon’s judgment of the woman and offers a story that details great forgiveness and equally great thankfulness for such mercy.  Jesus point is that the one who has been forgiven much has the capacity to forgive much in return.  Simon, apparently, needs to learn a lesson about forgiveness of others if he is truly to be forgiven himself.

As wonderful as this little story is, it serves an even greater purpose: it gives us all opportunity to consider the role of repentance in our lives and in the lives of our neighbors and friends.  What does it mean to repent?  What does it mean to be forgiven?  AND…  What can it mean to learn to be forgiving towards others?  These are the questions that our text presents to us this morning.

In my doctoral studies, I’ve been reading a lot of John Calvin lately and I think that the old Reformer has much good to say about this subject.  In a little book entitled, Truth for All Times, Calvin wrote this about repentance:

Repentance is that turning around by which, leaving behind the perversity of this world, we come back on to the Lord’s path.  And seeing that Christ is no minister of sin, if he cleanses us from the stains of sin and clothes us with participation in his righteousness, it is not so that we might then profane such a great grace with new offences.  It is, rather, that we might dedicate the future course of our life to the glory of the Father who has adopted us as his children.

In a commentary on this very passage, Calvin also adds:

…let every man examine himself and his life, and then we will not wonder that others are admitted along with us, for no one will dare to place himself above others.  It is hypocrisy alone that leads men to be careless about themselves and haughtily to despise others.

Here, the great Reformer comes very close to what Jesus is attempting to get across to Simon: true repentance not only alters our relationship with God, it also changes our relationships with others.  If we have learned mercy from our own experience of forgiveness, then certainly we can understand that such mercy has been experienced by others.  The pathway to this remarkable understanding however comes only through repentance: actually admitting that we are not the persons that we should be; that we are sinners who require the gracious action of God in Jesus Christ in our own lives.

Back in the story that we heard from Luke today, Simon the Pharisee is unable to see the notorious village woman as anything but just that: a notoriously sinful woman making a scene with his house guest.  He just can’t stomach this.  His sensibilities and self-righteousness are aroused by this action of a woman whom he definitely feels does not belong in his circle, much less in his home uninvited at mealtime.  Simon is insulted by her presence.

Simon lacks one quality that repentance can produce: empathy.  Having been forgiven much, the repentant sinner understands that others also are in the same boat with them.  Having been forgiven much, we have the opportunity to respond with the same measure of graciousness that we have received from God.  Or at least hopefully, we can do that.

The story from Luke today illustrates that such repentance in our lives can cause us to be more loving and caring to others.  We are not forgiven in order that we might become perfected in this life and thus, by our own newly found righteous imputed from Christ, might set ourselves up as judges of others’ behavior and relationships with God.  We are called, by Christ, in this little story, to forgive as we have been forgiven, to live with empathy towards others that might actually mark our lives for the better and promote love and harmony rather than hypocrisy and judgmental behavior.

Again, Calvin, in his commentary on this passage, hits the mark:

[By his reply to Simon] Christ shows how egregiously Simon was mistaken … Nor was it only on Simon’s account that this was done, but in order to assure every one of us, that we have no reason to fear lest any sinner be rejected by [Jesus], who not only gives them kind and friendly invitations, but is prepared with equal liberality, and – as we might say – with outstretched arms, to receive them all.

In Jesus Christ, we can be assured that God has opened his arms towards us.  We have been taken into the circle of his children and made his people.  We are not of ourselves righteous and responsible for making others live into our righteousness.  Instead, we have been forgiven much and are called upon to forgive as well.

From Death to Life:  Psalm 146 & Luke 7:11-17; Pentecost 3 – June 9, 2013

Rev. Martin R. Ankrum

“Pour out your Spirit upon us and upon this water, that this font may be your womb of new birth. May all who now pass through these waters be delivered from death to life, from bondage to freedom, from sin to righteousness. Bind them to the household of faith, guard them from all evil. Strengthen them to serve you with joy until the day you make all things new. To you be all praise, honor, and glory; through Jesus Christ our Savior, who, with you and the Holy Spirit, lives and reigns forever.”

You might recognize those words having heard them just a few moments ago.  They form the latter part of the “Thanksgiving over the Water” during Christian baptism and they speak directly to what we have witnessed in worship this morning and what we discover in the text from the Gospel of Luke.  In both baptism and the text for this day, the transformation from death to life is dramatically presented.

The passage this morning is about a resurrection of a young man who was dead, but because of Jesus’ gracious interaction, has become alive again.  In this passage, Jesus is not asked to raise the dead.  Instead, the text states that he is moved by compassion for the mother of the dead man and he intervenes.

In the passage immediately preceding our reading for the day, Jesus works another healing, but this was in answer to a request from a Roman centurion with great faith.  Jesus acted in that story, but not unilaterally or in an uninvited way.

In the passage we read today, it is Jesus who acts whether or not the woman or anyone else around him has faith.  His actions are not dependent upon the faith of those who receive his mercy and compassion; he just acts because he has been moved by compassion.  Jesus brings a man from death to life without any intercession from any other party.  Jesus just acts.

When we look closely at the text we see the motivation for Jesus’ activity: compassion.  He is moved by compassion when he sees the mother’s distress.  He brings the son back from death to life because he has been moved by the plight of the woman and her son.

In Jesus’ time, the woman not only would have grieved the loss of a son, but since the text makes it plain that she was a widow, she was without any assistance in the wake of the death of the son.  A woman in Jesus’ time was wholly and completely dependent upon male provision.  There were no old-age pensions or widows’ benefits or insurance policies.  This widow who has now lost her son would be utterly alone in the world and without anyone to care for her.  Because of compassion, Jesus acts.

In the words of the baptismal prayer, we are reminded that all of us who have been baptized in Christ have experienced the unwarranted, unsolicited provision of Jesus Christ for us.  In baptism, we have been taken from death into life, buried with Christ in our baptism and raised with him in his resurrection.  He who was once dead is now alive forever more.  This is the common experience that we share with each other and now with Jeffrey James.  We have been moved from the kingdom of death and sin to God’s gracious Kingdom of grace and new life.  This is a miracle that we, I daresay, rarely consider.

But what does it mean for us to say that we have been brought from death to life in Jesus Christ?  It is a question worth asking and it requires an answer.  In our baptism we have been claimed by the One who has claimed all creation in Jesus Christ.  We have been made sons and daughters of the living God in Jesus Christ and now we are called upon to live in a manner reflective of that grace and goodness found in Christ.

It is as simple and as complex as all that.  We who belong no longer to ourselves but to God in Jesus Christ, now are called upon to live in a manner reflective of God’s love and grace.  We are the ones called upon to be Christ’s church in this world so that the world might be formed into the very Kingdom of God.  This is our high and holy calling and it is a calling we now share with Jeffrey James and with all the baptized in this world.

Here is the unmerited and often missed miracle of what happens when we gather around that font of new life … we are made new creations in Christ and are claimed by God.  Baptism is not merely a naming ceremony or just a sweet and special intimate moment with a family within our congregation; it is the action of the living Christ as surely as the action that we read about in Luke today that restored a dead man to life.  In Jesus Christ, we have received forgiveness, new life and the grace by which we are called to live.

I love what the old Heidelberg Catechism says about all of this.  A catechism is a teaching tool by which children and adults alike can learn the faith by answering questions placed before with prescribed answers.  The Heidelberg teaches of this in the first question and answer which reads:

Q. 1. What is your only comfort, in life and in death?

A. That I belong—body and soul, in life and in death—not to myself but to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ, who at the cost of his own blood has fully paid for all my sins and has completely freed me from the dominion of the devil; that he protects me so well that without the will of

My Father in heaven not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, that everything must fit his purpose for my salvation. Therefore, by his Holy Spirit, he also assures me of eternal life, and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.

I just love those old, yet profoundly ever-current words!  Our only comfort in this life and in death is that we have been claimed by Jesus Christ.  It is not that we have claimed Christ as our Savior; no, the action has all been on his end of this.  He has claimed us; he has freed us from the dominion of the devil and has granted his protection to us so that nothing can ever separate us from the love of God that has found us in this Jesus Christ.  This is what is happening in baptism as surely as it was happening in our Luke passage this morning.

And finally, hear again the ending of that answer of the first question in the Heidelberg:

“Therefore, by his Holy Spirit, he also assures me of eternal life, and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.”

In Jesus Christ, our response is expected, but it is God’s Spirit within us that makes us willing and ready to live for Christ, not our own abilities or energies.

In our baptism in Christ, we have been transferred from death to life, from the dominion of evil to the very Kingdom of God, so that we might finally and completely live for God … just how do we do that however?

Here’s the homework for this week … will you join me in considering during your daily time of prayer and scripture reading, just how God is calling you to respond wholeheartedly as the old confession asks?  It will be a profitable venture, I assure you, to consider on a daily basis just how we are called to respond to the great news of our baptism … the great news of being brought from death to life … to a life meant to be lived for God.  Just this week … that’s the assignment.

The Gate Left OPEN: Psalm 67 & Rev. 21:22-22:5; Easter 6 – May 5, 2013

Rev. Martin R. Ankrum

The Book of Revelation and the kind of readings that it has received over the centuries has given many a good many Christian concerns for the future.  These interpretations and readings of the Book of Revelation has also fueled a lot of anxiety and, if we are honest, a good amount of gleeful expectations of final, painful revenge meted out against those who have either hurt us or challenged our view of what is right, good and decent.

I think that Annie Dillard gives a most cogent image or analogy to this dread and fear about the end of all things.  She wrote of driving with her husband in 1979 to observe a total eclipse of the sun in central Washington state. Early on the morning of the eclipse, they pulled off the highway and found a hilltop and waited for the lunar event.  Here’s what she wrote:

The deepest, and most terrifying, was this: I have said that I heard screams …. People on all the hillsides, including, I think, myself, screamed when the black body of the moon detached from the sky and rolled over the sun. But something else was happen- ing at that same instant, and it was this, I believe, which made us scream.

The second before the sun went out we saw a wall of dark shadow come speeding at us. We no sooner saw it than it was upon us, like thunder. It roared up the valley. It slammed our hill and knocked us out. It was the monstrous swift shadow cone of the moon. … It was 195 miles wide. No end was in sight—you saw only the edge. It rolled at you across the land at 1,800 miles an hour, hauling darkness like plague behind it. . . . We saw the wall of shadow coming, and screamed before it hit (Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters [New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1982] 100).

Inside each of us, as with Annie Dilliard herself, is an ancient dread and grave anxiety about the end of all things … not just creation, but our own existence.  “What will happen to us?” we think, and the anxiety rises a bit in our throat.

However, the image that we receive from God’s Word is quite different than what we fear the most.  The writer of the Book of Revelation paints what he has been privileged to see: a new heaven and a new earth.  He has seen that what is coming to us all is not ultimate vengeance and damaging darkness, but an absolute absence of darkness. John perceives that what God is doing in this world is bringing about the ultimate reconciliation and redemption of all things … the final restoration of what was meant to be in the Garden of Eden before the sinfulness of our selfish ways frustrated that which God intended for us.

I really love what a professor from Colgate Rochester Divinity School, Dr. Gail Ricciuti, said about our expectations and God’s coming reality:

The end of things will come not by cosmic catastrophe but a revealing, not from the worst that we can imagine, but from the best that we dare to hope.

I think that Ricciuti has it so well, let me repeat that again …

I wish that I had read this quote before I entitled the sermon for today, for if I had the title would have been: “The Best that We Dare to Hope.”

In a nutshell, as they say, that little phrase sums up exactly what God has planned for all humankind and all creation: the best that we dare to hope.

I think that one of the most telling allusions to this great hope in redemption can be found in an old African-American spiritual, written in the days of slavery.  In one of the lines of the song appear the words: “When you get to heaven, rub poor lil’ Judas’s head.”

The implication is obvious: in heaven, in the final restoration of all things, even Judas has been given a place.  Think about that for a minute … in terms of the biblical witness and story, what greater villain appears in the pages of the Bible than the betrayer of our Lord and Savior?

The spiritual implies that in the final restoration, in the end of all things, even Judas is not beyond Christ’s redemptive love; even Judas is not beyond God’s great inclusion in grace.

Delores S. Williams commented rather practically about this line from the spiritual, saying:

The sentence about rubbing Judas’s head suggests that in this new place people relinquish grudges and hostilities they have held for generations. So much mercy abounds that the most dastardly and cruel deeds are forgiven. Judgment is replaced by compassion. Rubbing the head suggests sympathy and blessing rather than curses.

…the line about rubbing Judas’s head takes judgment out of the range of human response. In the song, humans express only compassion for another human. Maybe the song also suggests that sin is the terrible force that shrinks the dis- tances and heights we try to put between ourselves and others. No one is without sin and error. Compassion is what we offer others in light of our own sin. (“’Rub Poor Lil’ Judas’s Head’”, Christian Century, October 24, 1990, p. 963.)

This is where our hope for a future, eternal life, runs right into an intersection with our living of our current earthly and limited life: compassion learned from the great graciousness of God bleeding over into our relationships with others here and now.  Does not the vision that John holds for the ultimate redemption of all creation demand a certain amount of compassion from us when it comes to living in the here and now?  Can we not have compassion upon others even now, in the here and now?  Of course we can …

I think that Dr. Ricciuti answers the question well:

The end of things will come not by cosmic catastrophe but a revealing, not from the worst that we can imagine, but from the best that we dare to hope.

So, if you get to heaven before me … rub lil’ Judas’s head once for me too!

A Multitude No One Can Number: Psalm 23 & Revelation 7:9-17; April 21, 2013 – Easter 4

Rev. Martin R. Ankrum

If we don’t see the need for a transformation of this world, then we haven’t been paying attention to the events of this past week.  Monday afternoon, our nation was gripped by the news of another act of terrorism perpetrated upon American soil.  We didn’t know who, we didn’t know why; but we learned the names of the dead and estimated quietly the devastation to the gravely injured and the survivors.

By the end of this week, we again were gripped as a nation to the unfolding events in and around Boston, Massachusetts.  Friday, we awoke to the news that the two suspects, identified only by photographs and video late on Thursday afternoon, had murdered a university police officer, led the police on a high speed chase and engaged in a protracted gun battle on the streets of a quiet suburb, killing one of the suspects and the other eluding capture.  The day unfolded with many of us glued to the television and finding relief later in the evening as the final suspect was captured in a backyard, hiding in a boat.

Indeed, it was a horrendous week, but it has the strange coincidence of being exactly six years to the week the anniversary of another horrendous week of tragic killings and a shocked public asking: “Why?”

That week, with Monday being April 16, 2007, began with the terrifying news of massacre at Virginia Tech.  32 students were gunned down before the student-shooter turned a gun upon himself.  On Thursday of that week, seven persons were shot on the streets of Pittsburgh, with three dying as a result of their wounds.  The work week ended that fateful week with a man taking another person hostage at NASA, shooting his hostage before taking his own life.

Yes, it is eerily similar, with only the total death count lower this week than six years ago …  If we don’t see the need for the transformation of this world, then we’re really not paying attention or we refusing to have the kind of hope and vision that is demanded of followers of Christ.

So, this week, this Sunday, more than ever this particular vision of the kingdom of heaven is appealing to us all.  It is the peaceable kingdom, where ALL creation joins in song around the throne of the Lamb.  They sing a new song … a different song than the tired, old world’s worn out and used up lament.  Indeed, it’s the song that we long to sing today, but cannot, for the world is still a dangerous and not very peaceable place by any means.  Yet, this vision remains central to who we are and who we are to be in this world as Christians.

It is an old dream, really … that of total redemption and restoration; all of creation joining in song of praise to he who seats upon the throne.  It is the vision that impels us forward actually as Christians … at least in our better moments.

I say that because I believe that a lot of time, unfortunately, we allow our thinking about faith to slip into individualized utilitarian views.  That is, we come to think that our relationship to God in Jesus Christ is FOR our benefit alone.  Our relationship to God is useful to us because God saves us from sin and death and eternal destruction; that somehow it’s really just about us.  I think that in our smallest moments that is what we can fall prey to believing.

This vision from the Revelation to John counters that by displaying that the ultimate goal or destiny of God’s creation is that ALL creatures should be in worship and praise of the one who sits upon the throne.  The ultimate objective and purpose of God is not so much that YOU experience personal salvation and thus have a wonderful and abundant life, but rather that ALL creation be redeemed and restored, including you … but not just you.

Thorwald Lorenzen, a professor of theology in Canberra, Australia, wrote this in a sermon delivered in the last century:

“The content of our faith, then does not come from our culture or our self-interest, but from Jesus Christ, the one who had no other passion than to share his life with others and especially those who had no power and no voice and no friends.”

Or, even better, this quote from the great 20th century theologian, Karl Barth:

“This much is certain, that we have no theological right to set any sort of limits to the loving-kindness of God which has appeared in Jesus Christ.  Our theological duty is to see and understand [God’s loving-kindness] as being still greater than we had seen before.”

Revelation reminds us that at the heart of our faith and our adherence to Christ’s way in this world is not self-interest or self-preservation, but instead a desire for all the world to be conformed and transformed to this image of ALL creation in worship of the lamb who was slain.  Such belief, such faith, such courage based upon the truth that the one who was slain was slain on our behalf, can produce incredible acts of saintly behavior on behalf of others.

As Christians, we know that there is a better way then what we have witnessed this week; the way of the lamb who was slain for us and for all creation.  We have this vision, this new vision of a new song that will be sung, hand-in-hand, side-by-side as all creation turns toward the one who is on the throne, the lamb who has been slain.

It is indeed this vision that John presents to us today that provides the way forward after a bloody week of horrific proof that this world is not what it should be … but thanks be to God, the lamb is on the throne and he is calling you and me and ALL creation to a better way … a different way … a new way; the way of the lamb.

A Vision of Worship: Psalm 30 & Revelation 5:1-14; Easter 3 – April 14, 2013

Rev. Martin R. Ankrum

Everybody, it seems, gets a bit anxious over the possibility of preaching on the Book of Revelation.  Martin Luther, the great reformer of the church, advocated that the Book of Revelation be completely expunged from the canon of Christian scripture.  John Calvin, one of my personal favorites, studiously wrote commentaries on 65 books of the Bible … you can imagine which of the total 66 books Calvin chose to pass over!

Well, the reading that we hear this morning from the Book of Revelation is actually the climax point of the story.  John is found present in the throne room of the heavenly city and he describes a vision of worship that includes a startling and surprising imagery for Jesus Christ: A lamb standing though appearing to have been slain.

Here’s a startling image from scripture.  Our image of God in Jesus Christ has been influenced by many factors and has included many things, but a lamb standing that appears to have been slain is not a common one for us.  Therefore, this reading of scripture should startle us just a bit!

So, the picture here is not what we had expected.  This one who can resolve the sticky problem of opening the seals and revealing the future of humankind at the throne of heaven is not some fearsome and fire-breathing vanquisher of sinners, but rather a lamb … and a lamb that is standing despite bearing all the appearance of being slaughtered.

It is obviously a resurrection scene of the greatest measure: the slain lamb standing.  This is John’s vision of celestial worship … the One who rules, the only One worthy to open the scrolls and reveal the destiny of humankind and all creation is the Lamb; the servant; the crucified and resurrected Christ.  Yet, still … a lamb?  What good is this image of a lamb?  Most of us want something different; something a bit more aggressive and powerful when it comes to imagery for the divine.

When I was very young, growing up on my grandparent’s farm in Iowa, I dreamed one day of being a minister.  In one of my fantasies played out, I took two old boards, nailed together a make-shift cross and put it up in the loft in the barn.  I found a step ladder, turned it backwards, donned two Batman capes to make a robe, laid a Bible on the little platform of the stepladder and proceeded to preach to no one in particular except the barn cats and cows.

Well, fast forward some ten years and that old cross had migrated under a tree in the front yard, propped up facing our house.  My grandmother, a devout and fierce Methodist, liked that her grandson had cobbled it together and didn’t seem to mind it when she looked out the living room window.

That summer, I was 16 and painting fence with my brother.  One afternoon, a quick storm came up on the western horizon, so Matt and I made quick work of what was left and hurried to clean up.  Without thinking (thinking was something I rarely did as an adolescent) I painted out the remaining white paint from my brush onto that old cross.  You can imagine how it looked; you might even be able to imagine how angry my grandmother was as she looked out the living room window after we got in to see how much of the fence remained to be painted!  She was livid!

She called to me and said that I should have been ashamed.  She said that I what I had done in my unthinking, adolescent manner was a sin, an outrage and blasphemy.  She then said words that have been blazed into my memory: “Don’t think that God doesn’t see, Martin!”

Barely had those words come out of my Methodist grandmother’s mouth, when lightning struck that old oak tree, traveled down the length of the trunk, and hit the cross, exploding it into splinters all over the front yard.

I tell that story because I think that so many folks really believe that this is how God operates in the world; or at least should operate.  Like the old Norse god Thor, angrily pitching lightning bolts and thunder cracks to enforce his sovereignty in the world, people prefer this vision of God’s glory and majesty to the one that is offered to us in the person of Jesus Christ and especially in John’s sight of the Lamb, standing though slain.  What kind of imagery is that for God? A Lamb … really, what we want is thunder and lightning, direct communication and revelation from God when something bad has been done or happened.  What good is a Lamb?

Let me share with you this morning some rather enlightening quotes from one of America’s greatest preachers and theologians, Jonathan Edwards.  He writes of Jesus Christ the beautiful; the one who is lovely because this love is what animates his very nature, for as another John has written: God is love.  Anyway, here’s what Edwards delivered in a sermon entitled, “Christ the Light of the World”:

“There is scarcely anything that is excellent, beautiful, pleasant, or profitable but what is used in the Scripture as an emblem of Christ.  He is called a lion for his great power, victory and glorious conquests; he is called a lamb for his great love, pity, and compassion: for the merciful, compassionate, condescending, lamblike disposition of his; for his humility, meekness, and great patience, and because he was slain like a lamb.  He was brought as a lamb to the slaughter, so he opened not his mouth.  He is called the bread of life and water of life, for the spiritual refreshment and nourishment he gives to the soul; he is called the true vine, because he communicates life to his members, and yields that comfort to the soul that refreshes it as the fruit of the vine doth the body; he is called life, for he is the life of the soul.  He is called a rose and lily, and other such similitudes, because of his transcendent beauty and fragrancy.  He is called the bright and morning star, and the sun of righteousness … the light of the world.”

These are truly beautiful words and sentiments that Edwards employed to move his hearers to a greater worship and broader vision of Jesus Christ, the Lamb and the Light of the world.  They are in keeping with John’s incredible vision of the One who is savior and Lord and yet appears to be a Lamb slain, but standing.  This is no picture of the Norse god Thor with blazing lightning and flashing judgment; this is a vulnerable God, who has assumed his position at the throne not because of conventional might and coercion, but because of sacrificial love.

The power that Jesus Christ has is that of sacrifice.  Jesus Christ, you might notice, does not appear in the clouds and demands our worship and adoration.  This is not what we know of this Christ.  This Jesus is indeed worthy of our adoration and worship, not because he demands it, but because of what he has given for the sake of the world and for our sakes.  This is the message of Revelation; that the One who will sit in judgment is the very One who has was slain for us … the One who shows mercy and grace, love and forgiveness … so much better than lightning bolts and thunder claps!

A Reason for Hope: Psalm 150 & Revelation 1:4-8; Easter 2 – April 7, 2013

Rev. Martin R. Ankrum

My favorite character from literature is a small, deformed boy with the voice of a shrill chicken-hawk named: Owen Meany. He is the title character from John Irving’s classic: “A Prayer for Owen Meany.”

Owen is tiny for his age. He has a voice that is so shrill it is unbearable to hear. And, he is constantly plaguing his friends and family and strangers alike in their little New England village with profound witticisms and truths that are indeed difficult to hear.  In short, Owen Meany is a prophet.

One of my favorite lines comes from a discourse Owen has regarding the Christian faith.  He says:

“IF YOU DON’T BELIEVE IN EASTER, DON’T KID YOURSELF – DON’T CALL YOURSELF A CHRISTIAN.”

Obviously, I agree with the sentiments that Irving places in the mouth of that deformed and troubling boy … Easter is at the very heart of our belief as Christians.

This is why Easter is much more than a mere Sunday.  In the liturgical calendar, Easter is a seven week season.  We are in the season of Easter from now until Pentecost at the end of May.  This is THE season of “Christ is risen … He is risen, indeed!” shouts and praises.  This is the season of Easter.

But, Easter, as you know, is much more than just a season as well.  As Presbyterians, we believe that each Lord’s Day is a celebration of that first Easter morning … Each Sunday of the entire year … each Sunday of our entire lives is a Resurrection celebration, or at least it should be!

John of Patmos, writer of what we have come to call the Book of Revelation, was one who believed in the veracity of the Easter story and in fact, put his life on the line for this belief.  John, whichever John it was from the Bible – scholars argue about such things – was banished to the Island of Patmos for some reason, probably for adherence to the Christian religion.  From this little, lonely island, John writes to seven churches.  He pens a little letter to seven congregations and thus the Book of Revelation is created.  He writes a letter to churches he has known.

In my ministry, I’ve been in hundreds of churches doing all kind of work, but I’ve known closely only about six of these churches, serving in some pastoral capacity while in seminary and following in professional ministry.  I’ve come to know those six churches, some better than others.  I’ve come to know the people of those churches and have found them very much the same from one church to other: good Christian folk with all the successes, failures, loves, fears and hopes that any of us gathered in this sanctuary may have this morning.  In other words, those folks are pretty much like us.

I think that probably the same was true for the seven congregations that John of Patmos addresses in this letter.  The letter that he writes he writes to real people in real churches just like us.  Of course, the people who originally received this letter were in a differing context than ours of course … it was not the 21st Century and it was not the Western portion of a state on the Eastern seaboard of the United States of America.  There were no IPods or smart phones; automobiles or even Netflix … but they were people with fears and concerns, joys and hopes, employment and family, love and laugher, tears and sorrow … just like us.

Sometimes, preachers like to make this Book of Revelation something that it definitely is not:  this book is not some kind of coded prediction about detailed future events that bring human history to a close, rescuing the faithful Christians, whisking them away to be with Jesus above the clouds, while the rest of the world that God has created burns and broils like a lamb chop on the barbeque pit.  This is NOT what this book is about in any stretch of the imagination, no matter what they tell you on the radio or on late-night prophecy television.  This is not a book about fear, but rather about a hope that does not vanish … a hope that is based in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, based in the story of a continuing Easter … a hope that never vanishes.

Too much of the public discussion of the Book of Revelation is influenced by this fear created by non-biblical understandings of this beautiful book.  Very early on in this shift of understanding of the Book of Revelation, a wondrously intelligent and capable former slave named Sojourner Truth spoke the real truth about this Revelation and rapture racket:

“You seem to be expecting to go to some parlor away up somewhere, and when the wicked have been burnt, you are coming back to walk in triumph over their ashes – this is to be your New Jerusalem!!  Now I can’t see anything so very nice in that, coming back to such a muss as that will be, a world covered with the ashes of the wicked.  Besides, if the Lord comes and burns – as you say he will – I am not going away; I am going to stay here and stand the fire, like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego!  And Jesus will walk with me through the fire, and keep me from harm.”

Now, that’s hope based, like John’s letter to the seven churches, in a resurrected Savior who loves us and cares for us.  That’s the kind of hope that never vanishes; a Christian hope not to be whisked away from the troubles, but rather to endure through them for we do not face them alone, but it is this resurrected Christ who accompanies us along the way.  That is the hope that God grants us …

John addressed seven congregations very much like the ones that we know and love and assured them that this resurrected Christ whom they celebrated and worshipped each Sunday morning was with them … that he would endure with them and that he was the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.  He was the One who was, who is and who is to come … this one that accompanies them in life’s journey, will never forsake them nor leave them.  This is the hope that does not vanish … Jesus Christ.

Finally, Sarah Dylan Breuer, biblical scholar in her own right, puts it this way:

“When human history seems like a spiral of violence from beginning to end, we can remind ourselves that Jesus is Alpha and Omega, that the Judge is the Reconciler.  When something or someone whispers to us that we’ve missed our chance individually or collectively for wholeness, we know that Jesus still invites us to join with the wounded body of Christ among the marginalized and experience the abundant, eternal and joyous life of the risen Christ.  We too are witnesses of these things.”

The words of Revelation assure us that Christ is with us; we will not be whisked out of this world in some rapturous moment of self-centered, world-forgetting orgy of escapism … no, Jesus Christ is the One whom God has sent to save this world and in Christ’s body we are here, witnessing to a hope that goes beyond this moment or the next, but is lodged in a Christ who will never vanish or disappear from this world, taking all of his loved ones with him … No, this is hope lodged in the Alpha and Omega, the one who is here, now and remains for this is his world; his creation; his love … and we are, thanks be to God, his people!

Early in the Morning: John 20:1-18; Psalm 113 & I Corinthians 15:12-20 – Easter Sunday

Rev. Martin R. Ankrum

Christ is risen! (He is risen, indeed!)

Christ is risen! (He is risen, indeed!)

Those simple words which we corporately repeat this morning at this annual festival gathering of the Christ’s Easter people, is the most concise and yet most profound sermon that any Christian of any stripe or ability will ever deliver!  Simply the statement that Jesus Christ has risen from the dead is the most earth-shattering and significant sermon that any of us can preach whether it be with words spoken or with lives lived.  Christ is risen!  (He is risen, indeed!)

If you came for a proof of this incredible news of life after death, of life resurrected from the clutches of death, you will go away sadly disappointed.  The truth is, I have absolutely no proof of Christ’s resurrection or the veracity of the claims of scripture this morning … there is no empirical proof, no “smoking gun” of evidence that demands any kind of verdict here.  No, there is no proof, only reports of the resurrection; only witnesses to a risen Lord.

If you notice from the scripture itself, proof is not offered, only reports of Jesus’ appearances to his followers.  The Bible does not any way set out to prove the resurrection of Jesus Christ … it doesn’t have to for it is written to those who already hold to the veracity of the disciples’ claims that death could not hold Jesus.

And, on top of all of that, Jesus seems completely unconcerned with proving the truth claims of resurrection … his concern is to come to his disciples, to appear before those who have loved him and lived with him and were in a state of abject grief at this death.  Jesus comes to his people not as proof, but as a comfort and a presence.

Think about that … if Jesus was really interested or keen on proving his resurrection, why would he have appeared to the disciples, a bunch of “nobodies” and discredited messianic followers?  If Jesus’ intention in his appearance was to offer some kind of proof of resurrection would he not have appeared to the powers that be; to the authorities like Pilate and the Sanhedrin and the Pharisees and scribes?

But proof has never been Christ’s intent in his appearances … no, indeed.  Jesus’ resurrection appearances to his followers have been to provide the kind of revelation that we, the church, need to go on with our lives; to actually live with resurrection hope.  This is the power and glory of Easter; Jesus Christ, the one who is victor over sin and death, comes to us!  To us of all people … so that we might get on with living the life that he grants us … new life.

Eugene Peterson tells a delightful story about new life and living the life that we have been given.  Here’s what that retired Presbyterian minister has to say:

“Some time ago, my friend Brenda flew to Chicago for a visit with her daughter’s family, and especially with her granddaughter, Charity.  Charity is five years old – a plumb, cute, highly verbal little girl.  Charity’s paternal grandmother had been visiting the previous week.  She is a devout woman who takes her spiritual grandmothering duties very seriously, and she had just left.

“The morning after Brenda’s arrival, Charity came into her grandmother’s bedroom at five o’clock, crawled into bed, and said, ‘Grandmother, let’s not have any Godtalk, okay? I believe God is everywhere. Let’s just get on with life.”

Now, don’t you think that little Charity has it just about right?! I think that little Charity has said it better than a lot of highly educated and academically decorated theologians … let’s just get on with life; the new life of resurrection hope that Christ has granted us!

This is the message of the empty tomb; not a proof or an evidence that demands a verdict, but a profound proclamation that reports only what we have seen in our life and in our living: Jesus Christ is risen; we are his witnesses; we have seen him in our midst; we have experienced him in our lives; we have a proclamation to make … BUT before we get to wrapped up in what WE have to say, let us take little Charity’s advice … let’s get on with life!

The resurrection of Jesus Christ, God’s victory of new life over old death, is a call to us to live our lives with resurrection hope.  Does our living show forth the grace and the love that goes to the grave, overcomes death and then returns to seek the lost sheep, the lost prodigal, the lost coin?  Do our lives shout forth the absolute truth that God loves you so much that he has vanquished death for you?  Do others hear and even more importantly see an Easter sermon, an resurrection witness when they look at our lives?

Indeed, Jesus Christ has risen from the grave.  I can attest to that.  I have seen it; I know it to be true … but can you tell it from the manner of my life?  Can others see this testimony, this report of new life in your life and the manner of your living? That’s the question isn’t it really?

Let’s all then get on with living this new resurrection life, bearing witness to a truth that is far greater than our abilities to say and proclaim, and yet we do: Christ is risen! (He is risen, indeed!)

An Imitation of Christ or of Mary?: Psalm 126 & John 12:1-8; Lent 5 – March 17, 2013

Rev. Martin R. Ankrum

One of the exercises that I run through each year with the 8th Grade confirmation class I learned from one of my mentors.  It in involves some trickery on my part and some higher level thinking on the kids’ part.  In short it is a deception, but a deception put in place to teach a lesson.

The lesson or point of the lesson is that God alone is the audience to our worship.  It is not the congregation seated in the pews that worship is offered for or directed to; it is God alone.

The exercise is borrowed from Soren Kierkegaard’s model of worship as a theater.  He places the whole congregation on the stage in a theater; the choir, the preacher, the ushers and acolytes, musicians and organists are all in the wings, playing the roles of prompters.  And the only one to occupy the main floor; the sole ticket holder to the play, you might say, is God Almighty, himself.

It is an important lesson I think for the confirmation class to learn because it is rarely reinforced in our common, unthinking experience.

Think about it; our church is set up just like a theater.  There are people who “perform” their tasks and service on a raised area that we call the chancel, but looks like a stage to many folks and is frankly called that very thing in some of our newer churches.  There are people who sing and offer words of solace and challenge as if a play itself was being enacted.

And then there is the congregation who line up in rows of seats that we call pews but look suspiciously like private box seats.  The congregation appears to sit mainly and watch, observe and either appreciate or pass the time until it is all over and coffee can be consumed or lunch can be ordered.

Well, that is what it looks like to the outsider and even sometimes to we insiders.  We run the danger of forgetting sometimes what this is all about one single thing: an extravagant expression of devotion; in short, worship of God alone.

In the Gospel lesson for this day, an extravagant act of worship and devotion is enacted and it creates quite a little stir.  Mary, the sister of Lazarus who was recently raised from the dead, takes some very expensive perfume and watches the feet of Jesus and then dries those feet with her own hair.

Somewhat of a shocking scene really, but then when personal acts of devotion are done in public we are sometimes a bit uncomfortable with the whole thing.  Judas was so uncomfortable that he voiced a derisive comment about wasting money that could be given to the poor.

I think that the writer of the Gospel of John no doubt embellished a bit here about Judas’ motives for nowhere else is he accused of thievery and he vocalizes a competing principle that we still hear in the church:

“Couldn’t all this money be spent for something better or in a more charitable way than we are doing?”

The church is oddly embarrassed by or resistant to extravagant gestures when it comes to our worship of God.  It may be that since we Presbyterians have our spiritual ancestry mixed with good, frugal Scottish stock, we are reticent to be extravagant about anything at all, much less our worship of God.

But yet, extravagance is what we are called to by this little story in the Gospel of John.  We are called to be about the worship of God; to be about the devotion of the holy in the midst of the ordinariness of life.

Some may say that it is an extravagance that we, as a congregation, spend so much money on this building.  This is not a cheap building to maintain; it is old and fragile, in pretty good shape, but requiring constant maintenance to stay that way.  No some may wonder about the efficacy of spending such a large part of our budget on the facilities, but it is an extravagance that serves the best of all purposes.

This building honors the presence of God in this world.  This building was built to be a witness to the presence of Jesus Christ in this world.  This is a testament and witness dedicated to the glory of God that never wearies

and never ceases to be an inspiration to our community.

I know for a fact that some folks pass this building and because of its beauty and grandeur, turn their thoughts and their contemplation towards God.  Right in the midst of the everyday ordinariness of life, trudging to the office, or driving past on the way to get groceries, thousands are confronted by the possibility of something beyond or better put, Someone to whom we owe our worship and devotion.

That’s one extravagance that we indulge in because we know that we must.  John Calvin puts it beautifully in his Institutes of the Christian Religion:

“Moreover, if all born and live for the express purpose of learning to know God, and if the knowledge of God, in so far as it fails to produce this effect, is fleeting and vain, it is clear that all those who do not direct the whole thoughts and actions of their lives to this end fail to fulfill the law of their being.”

In the eyes of the great reformer, the law of our very being is fulfilled only when our thoughts and actions are directed in devotion to God Almighty.

This is the call of worship in our lives: to direct our devotion to God.  We are not called to be entertained by worship or to gain something necessarily to worship.  Worship plainly and simply is for God and not really for us.  Yet we keep forgetting that; we keep forgetting the remarkable lesson that Mary taught us with the expensive perform and the extravagant action of devotion.

I also like what my old seminary professor, Patrick Miller, wrote about worship in an article from a few years ago:

“And here is where music finds its place. (Not its use, its place.) The sound of praise is music. Doxology and thanksgiving do not gain their full expression apart from music. The stories and psalms of the Old Testament reverberate with the sounds of instruments and singing. As the Psalter reaches its end, it becomes nothing but doxology and every instrument is called to play, every voice to sing the praise of God.”

“It is strange how much the church worries about justifying the place of music in worship and the church. Do we spend too much on it in the budget? Is it right to pay money to professional singers? Is the music too elaborate? I suppose all such questions have their place. But I am confident, too, that they reflect some reluctance to place at the center something that has no other purpose than to glorify God. ‘Sing to the Lord a new song’ is one of the most repeated lines in the Psalter. The Shorter Catechism suggests that is our reason for being. So let the music of Bach and Mozart, Heinrich Schütz and John Rutter, John and Charles Wesley, Handel and American folk songs, Haydn and Black spirituals, Ralph Vaughn Williams and Isaac Watts ring in our churches. It will accomplish nothing. All it can do is express joy and give glory to God.”

Though Patrick Miller was writing about music in worship, he could very well have been speaking about the whole concept of worship … “It will accomplish nothing. All it can do is express joy and give glory to God.”

It was a simple, but expensive act, an extravagant act which Mary performed.  It illustrated her devotion, her care, her love and her worship of her Lord.  What others may call a waste, we Christians know to be the very thing to which we are called and the very thing that we must do, no matter what the cost.

Foolish Grace: Psalm 32 & Luke 15:1-3,11b-32; Lent 4 – March 10, 2013

Rev. Martin R. Ankrum

My family must be the luckiest family in Greensburg.  Not only are we blest with health and relative prosperity, love and genuine affection, a wonderful home and enough of the stuff that makes life easy, but we also are fortunate when it comes to winning trips and vacations.  At least this is what the phone solicitors inform us on an almost weekly basis.

It never seems to fail: I answer the phone during the evening meal and often receive a taped message from somewhere that someone in my household has entered some contest and we’ve won a vacation to Orlando or some other warm destination.  We are so lucky!

Some of you are grinning.  I can tell by the looks on your faces that you’re familiar with this kind of luck … you know what it’s all about, don’t you?  You and I know that there must be a catch in the offers.  We know that this story is too good to be true; that there is a catch.  And, in this case of winning great vacations on a nearly weekly basis, we’re right … we don’t need to hear the whole recorded spiel to know that there will be a catch.

Our cynicism about “too good to be true” may just color our view (unfortunately) of the parable we’ve just heard.  We know the story of the prodigal Son and in our heart of hearts we may be tempted to suspect that there is a catch; that there is some great sword hanging over the whole scenario that is about to let loose.  It only makes sense; most stories of ultimate redemption and complete forgiveness, like the trips won over the phone, seem to have a catch.

But there is no catch in this story.  It is the story of love and forgiveness, reconciliation and generosity of heart and soul.  It is just that and so much more.  And, believe it or not, there is no catch waiting to “zap” us from behind.

If we remember our Sunday school classes or our own reading of the Bible, we will recall that this little gem of a story is set alongside two other parables of loss and recovery.  The story of the shepherd who leaves 99 other sheep to search for the one and the tale of the woman who lights a lamp with costly oil and diligently searches her home for one coin lost from the ten are the other parables found preceding the prodigal’s tale.  Jesus tells all three stories in response to the Pharisees accusation that he hangs out with the wrong crowd.

Almost any church succumbs, to some degree, to exactly what the Pharisees are pedaling: resentment.  That includes most of us who don these robes and preach in high and lofty places as well.  We’re the one’s who are “in” so to be speak.  We’re here.  We’re at church.  We’re doing what we think is right and good in the eyes of God.

However, when such self-satisfaction boils over into resentment against those who are new or more recent or are not even present then we have plainly missed the point of Jesus’ parables.  We have lost our way as surely as the young prodigal did, or more accurately, the elder brother.

Resentment, whether experienced from the church pew or around the water cooler or safely at the kitchen window that overlooks “those” folks who are new in the neighborhood, is just plain wrong.  Jesus’ parable makes it clear that our concern should be with helping folks into the kingdom rather than constructing ways of keeping them out.  The parable makes it plain that in our own lives, we should live more with grace and gratitude extended toward others than with judgmental stares and quick put downs.  But resentment towards others is a hard seed to kill …

At one point in my ministry, I was interviewing for a pastoral position with a church not too far from where I was then serving.  I had arrived in town a couple hours early from the appointed interview and did my usual reconnaissance of the town: Was there ample industry to support it?  Were the folks I met friendly and knew of the church?  Was there a bookstore nearby?  You know, all the essentials!

Right away, I noticed that there were no signs in the small downtown directing folks to the local Presbyterian Church.   The church was built on the very edge of town, along one of the main roads into town, but it was set back from the road with a large expanse of yard and a rather unimposing sign quietly whispering their presence in the community.

That evening, at the interview with the committee, the chairman was kind enough to inquire if I had any questions before they started to ask theirs of me.  Delighted with the opportunity, I asked them this one question:  “Since you have no signage downtown and you’re kind of hidden out here, how do people know that you’re here … how do they find you?”

A woman sitting near to me answered immediately, without hesitation: “We like to look at it this way: them that needs to know already know and those that don’t we don’t want!”

We may be tempted at times by our own resentments and smallness of character to want there to be a catch to Jesus’ story of the generous reception.  If those in need of us are going to find us, then it had better be a challenge to them!  Sometimes, we may be tempted to want to set the bar very high for those whom God welcomes homes in Jesus Christ.  We want to limit the congregation to those who are like us and meet with our approval.  That’s the catch that we want in the story … we want there to be some limits, some boundaries … but in the story there are none.

I don’t know about you, but for years when I heard this story, I placed myself either in the role of the prodigal or in that of the elder brother.  It was either one or the other.  Sometimes I felt like the one who had wasted his resources, gone out on his own, and needed to return to the welcoming arms of divine love.  Other times, I was certain that I was the elder son, the one who had obeyed the rules, lived in the house and now wondered about the wisdom of taking back those who had deserted the ship, so to speak.

However, both of these characters fall short of what Jesus is attempting to communicate to the Pharisees and the others listening.  I have come to believe that Christ intends for us not to emulate the younger son or the older brother, but rather to mimic the gracious father who sets up the generous reception; the one who loves mercy more than merely being right.

Truth be told, we have been either the rebellious child of God or the dutiful older brother or sister at one time or another.  We have spent time sowing our wild oats and returning to God and we have, at other times, followed through faithfully and dutifully and been obedient to ways of God in this world.  Either way, we are here and its time for us all to grow up out of those old childish categories and assume the role that God intends for us: the role of a welcoming, gracious and generous father.

In the Epistle Lesson for today, we hear these words from the Apostle Paul:

“So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.”

Can you imagine?!  The ministry of reconciliation has not been left to a committee, a statute of law, an edict of the King, but to, of all the unlikeliest of things: US!  We are the ones with which God has entrusted this great purpose in life, the seeking of the lost, the welcoming of the stranger, the making room for others in our midst.  This is the call to which we must provide our answer.

Resentments keep us apart, even in the church (sometimes, especially within the church).  In the parable of the Prodigal, Jesus calls us all to grow up finally and take on the role of the welcoming father, the one who lets go of the personal hurts and resentments and finally, with love and care, provides the generous reception.  That is our call.  That is who we must be, now and always.

A Poignant Reminder:  Luke 4:1-13 & Psalm 91; Lent 1 – February 17, 2013

Rev. Martin R. Ankrum

The room is warm; cozy even.  A fire crackles in the fireplace and you are wrapped in a blanket sipping something you like to sip and reading something you like to read.  The chair you are seated in is well appointed and is just the kind of style that inspires your soul.  Those whom you love are nearby; you can hear their quiet talk and their cheerfulness … but not to the point of a disturbance.  No, you are not disturbed at all; neither by their talk nor by the cold, brittle wintry wind blowing outside.  In fact, that cold, brittle wintry wind blowing outside poses no threat to you in your cozy surroundings, it merely adds to the coziness, lulling you into a wondrously content sleep like a lullaby.

That’s the first scene.  Remember it; I actually hope you enjoyed it.  It’s going to get a little rough from here on out …

The room is gone.  The fire is out.  The drink you like to sip and the book you like to read dissolve into the ether of a dream.  Those whom you love have been removed from you; you can no longer hear their voices or see their smiling faces.  The chair upon which you have been sitting and tightly wrapped in a blanket is gone and you are now standing … without the blanket, without the cozy house … but the wind is still there.  You are on a plain … that is a level place … PLAIN … and the wind is howling and brittle and frigid and you are naked.  You are completely exposed to the wind and the elements.  There is no one else around, so there’s no need to be bashful about your lack of clothing; however, there is the wind … blowing and blowing and you are completely exposed.  There is absolutely nowhere for you to go and nowhere to hide … you are completely isolated, completely exposed and completely alone.

There, now, that is the second scene.  I don’t think I need a show of hands regarding which image is more pleasing to us.  All of us, every last one of us, loves being sheltered and secure.  And, I would wager, every last one of us has a natural aversion or even terror of being fully exposed to the elements and without some form of shelter.

I can think of nothing more terrifying than that second image.  Being on some continuous plain, disconnected from all that we hold dear or that provides shelter, completely exposed to the elements … it is a frightening thought.

The Psalmist touches upon that human fear in the Psalter reading for this morning.  The 91st Psalm is a promise of God’s gracious shelter and refuge.  For centuries, some folks interpreted this psalm as being somehow magical … they would inscribe the verses into amulets and hang them around their neck.  Some came to believe that if one trusted God NOTHING bad could ever happen to them.  They treated this psalm as a magical incantation against plaque, pestilence, sword, arrow or even some bird snare in which they might have gotten themselves entangled.

But this is no magical incantation.  There is no magic in these words nor in the relationship with God that the psalmist is implying.  Instead, what is being conveyed is a call to trust in God rather than in our own means to find our way to God.

That brings us to Lent … exposure, remorse and sin … For me, the season of Lent could be like that second scene I painted just a moment ago.  During the season of Lent, we are bid to remember our sin and the separation it causes for us from God and from one another.  We are called to remember that it is not just we who have sinned as individuals, but that the whole “human experiment” is tainted with sin.  That there is actually no shelter for us from the truth that we have turned from God again and again and again and preferred our own ways.

It’s like standing naked on a plain, exposed to the elements and not seeing any shelter in sight.  That is the scary nature or better put, the unsettling nature of Lent; if we take the season seriously.

If we take the season of Lent seriously we will admit to ourselves and to God that we are not the people that we say that we are or that we should be.  We will admit to ourselves and more importantly to God that we have sinned and strayed.  In the deep moments of exposure, we have sought for shelter on our own terms: we have rationalized our sin and distance from God; we have arrogantly proclaimed that sin and distance from God just doesn’t matter; we have blamed someone else or even God for the sin and distance.  However, we have done it, even in our realization of the vast exposure we experienced; we have sought to find our own shelter instead of looking to the One the psalmist directs our hearts toward in his poignant reminder.

If you might have noticed, in the gospel lesson for this morning, we receive a lesson in not seeking our own shelter, but rather seeking it only from the Lord.  As the figure of Satan himself tempts Jesus to strike out on his own path, to make his life his own, rather than God’s, Jesus quietly affirms that he turns toward God and not some other cleverly devised way.  If you look at each of the temptations, it is as if Satan is challenging Jesus to find his own solutions, to find his own way in life rather than trusting in God. That is the real temptation.

And look at Jesus in that story; he is not naked and facing a brittle wind, but he is exposed and alone nonetheless.  He appears without any support system of coziness or comfort; he has only God to rely upon.  And in that is the poignant reminder and the lesson that we might learn from Lent.

In Jesus Christ, we are given shelter; it is not our doing, but rather the Lord’s doing.  There are so many ways that we seek to avoid or flee from the exposure and all those ways turn out to be dead ends, self-crafted delusions that provide no shelter at all.  There is only one shelter that can be provided and it must come from the merciful hand of God, rather than our own provision and that shelter has one name: GRACE.

In Jesus Christ, we who have been exposed by our own sin and the sin of our species, have been granted provision and shelter under the wings of the Most High.  We have received mercy even when we have refused to give mercy.  This is why it is grace; it is given to us; it is provided for us in Jesus Christ because of God’s great mercy and love … and that story; that alteration to the great plain of exposure comes later in our journey … on a day that we call Easter.

And that enables me, as your pastor, to assure you with the words of scripture:

“Once you were not a people but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy but now you have received mercy.”

May the peace of our Lord Jesus Christ shelter you all during this season of Lent!

Corporate Gifts: Psalm 36:5-10 & I Corinthians 12:1-11; Epiphany 2; January 20, 2013

Rev. Martin R. Ankrum

If you’re a fund raiser at an art museum, you may be acquainted with the term “corporate gifts.” Or, if you’re in the Funds Development Office of some institution of higher learning, you know what a corporate gift is when you see one!

However, if you’re a first century Jew whose life has been turned upside down by the firm belief that this crucified and risen Jesus of Nazareth is really God incarnate, then the term “corporate gifts” or its Greek language equivalent, takes on a whole different meaning indeed!

And that is the situation presented to us this morning: a letter is about to confront us.  This letter is about corporate gifts.  But these corporate gifts are not financial in nature.  They are spiritual.  They are in fact, the very gifts of God’s Spirit to his people.  And this letter is about all the trouble that the folks in a tiny little church in the great city of Corinth get themselves into over the very gifts of God.

The church in Corinth is a mess.  It is an absolute mess.  These folks have heard the great and glorious news of God’s love for them in Jesus Christ and they have responded.  They have started to gather together as church on Sunday mornings to celebrate Christ’s resurrection and begin to learn what it means to live as followers of the risen Lord.  They’ve come at least this far, but there are still problems … in fact a whole lot of problems.  One could say that they possessed a whole church-full of problems and one would be absolutely right.

Their problems seem to be centered on not the great and deeply troubling concerns that confront the human race: poverty, hunger, illness, greed, avarice and murderous intentions.  No, the problems that seem to plague the Corinthian church are found in the very members themselves.  They seem to be so very preoccupied with themselves and their own little spiritual journeys that they couldn’t care less about their neighbors in the pews.

You know, I have always thought about Paul’s pleas for unity in this letter in terms of great big factions or cliques within the Corinthian Church.  I thought that he wrote to encourage them not to collect or divide themselves into warring factions, when what was really going on was a more “every man for himself” approach to faith.

Hear what Paul writes in the chapter that precedes our reading this morning:

But in the following instructions I do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse. …When you come together, it is not the Lord’s supper that you eat. For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal. One goes hungry, another gets drunk. What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I commend you in this? No, I will not.

WOW!  Now that is something right there isn’t?  Listen again to that one very condemning line that could be said even today: “… each one goes ahead with his own meal.”

Here’s the great disunity in Corinth, not so much the factions and cliques that might gather around a common or oppositional cause, but rather the mere common fact that every member of the church there seems to be in it for themselves; for what they can get out of it; for what they alone can experience of God.

My rather bright Seminary Assistant, Matthew Jones, calls this behavior: God’s Deli.  Everybody comes along and takes from the line of spiritual practices or beliefs whatever makes them comfortable and calls it faith; names it God.

Well, someone who had even more credentials and weight than our young friend Matthew would certainly have been in agreement.  The great Reformer Martin Luther, no less, said:

“By the same steps people even today arrive at a spiritual and more subtle idolatry, which is now quite common, by which God is worshiped, not as he is, but as he is imagined and reckoned to be.  For ingratitude and love of vanity (that is, one’s sense of oneself and of one’s own righteousness or, as they say, one’s good intention) violently blind people, so that they are incorrigible, and unable to believe otherwise than that they are acting splendidly and pleasing God.  And in this way they form a God favorable to themselves, even though he really is not so.  And so they more truly worship their fantasy than the true God, whom they believe to be like that fantasy.”

Here’s the exact problem that Paul is seeking to confront that remains with us even to this day: What God is doing in this world, through his church, is not just about us alone.  If we view God’s grace as something that is individually appropriated to us alone and in isolation, we have absolutely missed the point of Christ’s gospel and are in danger of preferring comforting idolatry to the truth.

And yet, that is exactly the Babylonian captivity of the current church in our culture: we can become so tempted to see our relationship with God as something that can be or should be beneficial to us that we become absorbed in pursuing the things that appear expedient to us.  We trade in true and honest love for God for something cheap and less profound, something that seeks to answer our questions and provide us with easy answers rather than render ourselves as servants of the living God.

Paul tells the Corinthians that the gifts they have received from the hand of God are not just blessings for themselves; they are intended to edify or build up others.  Paul is not one of those tele-evangelists whom you see at 2:00 a.m. assuring you that the great Creator and Redeemer of humankind’s only real and ultimate concern is whether your investment of $100 is turned back one hundred fold!  Paul is convinced that the only purpose for God’s gifts in our lives is turn them into corporate gifts; sharing with others so that Christ’s church might be edified and grow.

The problem in Corinth wasn’t just factions or cliques; it was the more serious problem of selfishness and naked individualistic grasping.  I get the feeling that folks came to the Corinthian church with one thing on their mind: “What can I get out of this today?”

Paul attempted to turn those folks around and remind them that such a question is the wrong question entirely: when one comes to church it’s not about what one can get from God … no, it is more like what gift in our lives can we remember to thank God for today?  What gift have I been given that I could use for the common good, for the betterment of others?

Those are the real questions that the Corinthians needed to ask themselves … they are honestly the same questions we must ask ourselves today and every Sunday.

Baptism: Psalm 29 & Luke 3:15-22; The Baptism of the Lord; January 13, 2013

Rev. Martin R. Ankrum

I’ve probably told this story before, but it’s a good one and to the point for this morning, so here goes …

It happened when I had been at my second church for only a matter of months.  I was young and the Flushing church was my first opportunity to be “on my own” as the pastor or head of staff.  In retrospect, I probably should have consulted the Session of the church before I did it, but you know … you live and learn.

I was in the church on Saturday morning writing my sermon for the next day when it came to me: I would move the baptismal font from its usual position near the pulpit to the very entryway of the sanctuary.  I had been doing a lot of reading and thinking about the sacrament of baptism and decided that possibly the best way to teach about the sacrament was not words by rather the placement of the font itself.

Baptism is our entry into Christ’s church.  We are baptized and become a part of the people of God, so what better way to demonstrate this truth than to put the font right in the entryway of the sanctuary!

Saturday night, I went back to the church when no one else was around and moved the font.  It was a pretty heavy font, handmade and crafted specifically for that worship space.  When it was finally in its new place, right in the double doors of the entryway, I saw that no one could enter the sanctuary without encountering it!  I was so very pleased with myself.

The next day, Sunday, dawned bright and sunny.  I checked on the placement of the font when I first arrived at church and then went to my office to gather my thoughts and review my sermon.  I delayed coming to the Narthex till about the last minute and was surprised to see what I saw.

The font was gone!  It was no longer in the entryway.  I stuck my head into the sanctuary and looked about.  It was nearly filled with worshippers and I could hear the organ prelude calling the congregation to the solemn worship of God.

It was then that I saw that the font had been restored to its usual spot and Jack and Bill, our two most elderly elders coming up the sanctuary aisle straightening their ties and rubbing their hands.

Jack, the older of the two came up to me and smiled and said:

“Some darn kid must have tried to play a trick on you pastor!  The baptismal font was blocking the doorway and Peg just about knocked it over cause she wasn’t watching was she was going!  But Bill and I took care of it; we moved it back to its rightful place.  We think you ought to be a bit more careful in the future and maybe check out the sanctuary before the service to make sure those kids don’t move anything else around.  Who knows, maybe next week it’ll be the organ.  You’d better see to it.”

            I started to say something, but for once wisely said only: “Thank you; I’ll be more careful in the future!”

In retrospect, the fault was mine and not my elders or my congregation.  Communication through physical movement of the furniture of a sanctuary rarely really works; it’s like roping off the back few pews in order to get Presbyterians to move forward.  It just doesn’t work, but it seems like a good idea at the time.  Even when confronted with something significant and profound, we don’t always get it!

Speaking of being confronted with the truth, a few years ago, I received book from my wife.  It was entitled: Married to the Job: Why We Live to Work and What We Can Do About It. The opening lines of the introduction caught me immediately:

“This book is about work and the ways in which it is colonizing our emotional lives.  As we spend more time and energy at work, our jobs invade our dreams and fantasy lives, and define our identities. Paid work is increasingly where we get our emotional needs met and is surpassing neighborhood, community, and even family life, as the source of feeling alive and connected to others.”

Recognize a bit of our selves in that statement?  I don’t doubt it.  It sounds very familiar to me.

The author’s assertion was that it was in work and work alone that far too many people find their basic identification or self-definition.  We are obsessed with work, not so much for productivities sake, but for providing us with an identity, a purpose, a basic comprehension of our life and self-worth.

On the face of it, we know that our identities and self-worth shouldn’t be drawn from our work.  Certainly, what we do in this life is meaningful and the contributions we can make are important, but never should any of this be the basis for our sense of self-worth.  As Christians, our identity and self-worth is tied to something much more important than our work.

Today, we celebrate the Baptism of the Lord.  The passage from Luke contains the dramatic scene of the appearance of God’s spirit as a dove and a voice directly claiming Jesus as God’s own son, with whom He is well pleased.  This voice may or may not have been heard by the crowds standing nearby; Luke doesn’t say which is the case; but the important thing is that this identification comes from God.  It is not a self-appointed identity that Jesus is claiming.  God’s voice speaks and the question of Christ’s identity is settled: Jesus is claimed by God to be his own son.

So too are we claimed by God in baptism.  The following are the words that are read at every baptism in this place. Every time a child or an adult receives this sacrament we hear these words and are bid to remember our own baptisms; to revisit the truth that our identity and our self-worth are not tied to the company for which we work, but rather to the One to whom we belong:

“The promise is for you, for your children

and for all who are far away,

everyone whom the Lord our God calls.

“Obeying the word of our Lord Jesus, and confident of his promises, we baptize those whom God has called. In baptism God claims us, and seals us to show that we belong to God. God frees us from sin and death, uniting us with Jesus Christ in his death and resurrection.

“By water and the Holy Spirit, we are made members of the church, the body of Christ, and joined to Christ’s ministry of love, peace, and justice. Let us remember with joy our own baptism, as we celebrate this sacrament.”

Out of all the identities and places to pin our self-worth that this world offers us, the best, most secure, truest place is securely in the truth that we belong to God through Jesus Christ.  In life and in death, we belong to God.  We are the children of God, above and before all else, we, by the virtue of Christ’s love and mercy belong to God.

In short, we matter to God.  In baptism we are assured that we belong not to our parents, their legacies, our own biology or genetic make-up, our bank accounts or professional degrees, our spouses or children, or our swanky addresses … in baptism we are assured that we belong solely and completely to God.  And this, my friends, is the most significant thing we could ever learn, know or trust: we belong to God.

Christ Pointing: Philippians 1:3-11 &  Luke 3:1-6; Advent 2 – December 9, 2012

Rev. Martin R. Ankrum

If we learn anything from the scriptural passages and the seasonal references to Advent this Sunday, let us learn this: Advent is about radical forgiveness and radical hope.  The radical nature of this Advent forgiveness and hope could lead, without apology, to a revolution, if we’re not careful … a world-wide revolution worth its salt!

Rush Otey, pastor of the Selwyn Avenue Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, provides a telling story about a young child who grasped the radical nature of God’s coming kingdom:

“Once a family brought out their nativity scene in early December.  The two-year-old child was thrilled by the process of unwrapping the various pieces.  There was discussion of each one.  Here is Mary, the mother.  Here is Joseph, and here is baby Jesus.  Here are kings bringing their gifts.  Here is the one shepherd carrying the smallest lamb, and the other one playing the flute there in the corner.  Here is the donkey and there is the cow kneeling near the baby to keep him warm.  Up there is the angel, who as usual needed fresh glue to remain on high.  The scene was gloriously complete, and the parents moved on to other tasks.”

“The next day the parents noted a striking change in the nativity scene.  There on the table the child had set all the favorite figures which had been lying around the house all year.  It was as if they, too, out of season had arrived in haste – the busload of Fisher-Price people, the clown, the bears, the dinosaur, and the irascible Donald Duck.  They all were included by the child.  The circle was spread wide, wider.”

I’ve heard a story like that before; haven’t you?  Oh yes, here it is:

“Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” ’

Just like Donald Duck gathered into a traditional nativity scene, the radical nature of God’s forgiveness and the hope that it conveys to anyone willing and courageous enough to listen, is found included in those verses that Luke adapts from the prophet Isaiah.

What’s all this talk about the crooked shall be made straight and rough ways made smooth?  Or how about all that verbiage about every valley filled and all mountains and hills made low; what’s that supposed to mean?

Into this world, with all the unevenness that we experience of sin and degradation, evil and suffering, mockeries of human kindness and shortages of human compassion … into this very real world comes the power of forgiveness and hope that only God can give.  This is the message of Advent; the coming of a kingdom that is so radical, it will surely and with certainty unseat the status quo and the powers that be.

This is why Luke begins this passage with the six-fold listing of the powers that be in the world of John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth.  Luke opens the chapter with this little list as if to remind the readers that those who appear in power and authority now are not really the source of human forgiveness and hope … no, that is located only in the Word, which confronts John the Baptist in the wilderness.  It is this promise of God’s word, that the coming kingdom of God, which John is seeking to prepare the way for, is ultimately the truth behind all existence and all life.

John’s message to the people of the time is still the Advent message; live in such a way that your lives prepares the way for the coming of this grand and glorious and very real kingdom.  This is not fairy tale, myth, legend nor wishful thinking … this is the radical nature of love coming into the world in Jesus Christ, born as a babe in a manger, but also as the returning King of kings and Lord of lords.

Here’s how Walter Brueggemann, great Old Testament scholar, describes this radical message of Advent:

“Forgiveness, a word so tired and clichéd among us, is a hint of another way to order society.  Repentance means to allow release to happen, to entertain it as serious historical and social reality.  Forgiveness has to do with rehabilitation of the unworthy back into the community. … Jesus had the power to turn outcasts into incasts, people fully restored to fellowship, dignity, power, and worth.  While he dealt with persons, this was clearly perceived as a threat to the institutional foundations of the day.  Jesus was not crucified for being gentle and gracious but for dismantling the public institutions, which were graceless and denied forgiveness as a way of public order.”

Now that is truly radical!  What if we lived as if forgiveness and the hope that it brings was the way of public order?  What if we lived this message of Advent in our own lives and relationships?

If we did, we would find all kinds of place for all the irascible Donald Ducks of our lives at the nativity scene. If we truly lived this radical way of public order that Jesus names as forgiveness and hope for the human family, then we would be more about inclusion and a whole lot  less about exclusion … wouldn’t we?  We would cease from our moral ticket-taking at the nativity of our Lord and open the gates of God’s love and goodness to all.

I think I’ve heard that story before as well:  How did that go?

“Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” ’

Did you hear that late, great, last and best hope of the Advent message:  ALL flesh shall see the salvation of God!  That’s the hope that Jesus Christ brings us: that we will finally lay down those old ways of excluding those who trouble us, who disagree with us, who live differently than we think they ought, and just help them find a place at the nativity scene and let Jesus Christ work the rest out.  This is what John means by preparing the way of the Lord!

Here too is the message of Advent that is a condemning message to much that we do as human beings!  Brueggemann again clarifies it well:

“No wonder [Jesus] evoked hostility.  No wonder we prefer to remain unbaptized.  We are lovers of old power arrangements because such release is too heady and such freedom more than we can imagine.  It is a time for joy but also loss of much of our leverage over others.”

And, Brueggemann, develops even further or maybe, closer to home, in saying:

“The world is an exiled, unforgiven world.  Tiberius and his counterparts have made it so and keep it so.  This strange wilderness word is that forgiveness might reconstitute the world.  Sadly many of us are terrified by forgiveness, either for ourselves or our brothers and sisters.  Or our stake is too high in keeping the brother or sister unforgiven … it is Jesus’ power to forgive more than anything that shocks people.”

There’s the issue, isn’t it?  The Advent message in all of its radical nature first insinuates and then proclaims loudly that we might just be the problem.  Could it be that we are the rough places that need to be made smooth?  Could it be that our way of attempting to gain leverage over another or refusing to forgive another until they come around to our way of thinking may just the be valley that needs to be filled so that the Kingdom of our Lord might come in its completion?

Yes, this too is part of the Advent proclamation: authentic and honest repentance! Where do we find ourselves filling the shoes of Tiberius and his ilk, failing to see forgiveness as the only authentic way to order our lives?  Where do we, in our own lives, pass over the bears, the dinosaurs and the irascible Donald Ducks when it comes to choosing who is in and who is out at that little stable in Bethlehem?  Who is it that we are seeking to exclude from that great and wonderful promise of our God, ALL flesh shall see the salvation of God, merely because we find ourselves somehow threatened?

Yes, the message of Advent is radical … so radical it might just start a revolution that could reconstitute the world into the very kingdom of God!  But, before it can do that, before it can change our world, it has to cause a little revolution right here … right inside our own hearts and souls … and then, with that taking place, then there is hope … hope for me … hope for you … hope even for Donald Duck!

God Draws Near:  I Thessalonians 3:9-13 & Luke 21:25-36; Advent 1 – December 2, 2012

Rev. Martin R. Ankrum

At the close of the First World War, William Butler Yeats penned a poem that opens with these lines:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Yeats sought to set to meter and rhyme the dark days through which the world had just past and the rather dismal prospect for the improvement of the human condition or the situation of the nations.

“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold …” the words are now about a century old, but they still tell the story of human history and the overwhelming feeling that things are always just about to come apart … It seems as if the “ceremony of innocence” is always just about to be drowned in the onrush of reality and the turns of the tides of history.

Of course, we don’t just feel this kind of Vonnegut-inspired world view with just world events: we sense it in our own lives as well.

Think of the times in your own life when it felt like the center just wasn’t holding … when life was coming apart at the seams.  It could have been a difficult medical diagnosis you or someone you love received.  It might have been a serious financial or employment setback, when you were given the opportunity to wonder if everything was just about to come tumbling down around your ears.     Or, it might have been something that happened to your children or your parents that you were completely unable to prevent or mend.  You were helpless; there was nothing that you could do …

That’s the moment of the centering no longer holding, when you realize that this disaster, whatever it is looming before you, cannot be controlled by you.  There’s nothing that you can do to prevent the onslaught, to stave off the destruction, the loss, the grief.  That’s when Yeats’ words come ringing back into your ears:

“Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world …”

The words of Jesus recorded in the Gospel of Luke describe such a coming situation for the whole world.  It is an apocalyptic vision of destruction and death; the center will not hold … anarchy appears to be destined to reign in place of ordered and orderly society.  The end appears to draw near.

Jesus’ words speak to our own worlds falling apart and the feeling captured so well by the poet Yeats.  In the travail of our own concerns, we begin to look for signs in the sun and the moon that Jesus mentions.  It is as if we’re looking for signs of relief from our travail and concern; we want to know when will the treatments work, or the next job comes along, or when that kid will finally shape up and quit causing us all those problems.  We too look for signs in the sky or signs in the news or signs in the lives of our loved ones that foretell our salvation; our relief; our redemption. And still, we find ourselves living with Yeats’ and Vonnegut’s world of apocalyptic visions …

What is truly telling and amazing in the passage from Luke is Jesus’ admonition to his followers and consequentially to us.  After depicting the world falling apart, Jesus says:

“Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

Quite simply, Jesus tells us to look toward our redemption, towards God, when we are confronted with the truth that things seem to be falling apart, that our center does not seem to be holding.  We are not called to panic or despair, but rather to look up to our redemption, for God is drawing near … always God, in Jesus Christ, is drawing near to us.

One of my favorite Bible stories about just such things comes from the Book of Acts.  Paul, the apostle, and some of his friends are thrown into a jail for preaching the gospel.  During the night, a terrific earthquake shakes a part the jail and the prisoners are all set free.  Paul and his companions stay put and calls out to the jailer in the darkness: “Do yourself no harm, we are still here!”  You see, the jailer, certain that he will be punished for their escape is contemplating suicide.  It is the assurance of Paul’s voice that holds his hand from ultimate despair.

In Jesus Christ, we have been assured that we are not to despair when the world seems to be falling a part; whether it be the world that we all share or just our little corner of it.  In Jesus Christ, we are assured that when such things happen in our life, we are called to look up, to cast our hearts up toward the One who brings redemption and peace to a world always seeming ready to fall all to pieces.

James Kay, former professor at Princeton Theological Seminary, helpfully has written:

“…God is faithful to this promise of Jesus Christ.  If the future were not the promise of Jesus Christ but the predictable outcome of present trends, despair would overwhelm us.  No trend points to the permanence of what we call heaven and earth. If trends predict anything, it is that death and dissolution bring an end to every human heart and hope.

But the message of Advent is that we can never take our own projections more seriously than God’s promises. When we least expect it, and when there is no evidence for it, God’s power comes into this godless world in ways the world itself could never predict or foresee.”

Sure, the center does not appear to hold … sure, it always appears that things are just about to fly all apart … but then, I’m reminded.  Then in the midst of the darkness and silence of a sanctuary, a family stands, speaks a word of scripture … a little one lights a candle and our world, our lives are set ablaze again with HOPE.  Advent hope … hope that does not disappoint; for it is HOPE in the One who is the Christ, the light of the world.  Have a blessed Advent.

“Alpha AND Omega”: John 18:33-37 & Rev. 1:4b-8; Christ the King – November 25, 2012

Rev. Martin R. Ankrum

            A good friend of mine told of a children’s sermon he delivered once in a church in Ohio.  He had the children gather in the front of the sanctuary, on the chancel steps as always.  He began his children’s sermon with a question to the kids, again as he always did.  The children knew that those questions almost always had something to do with God, the church and their burgeoning faith in Christ.

            As the kids settled down, he asked them: “Could you tell me the name of that little creature that you might see in your backyard?  It has a bushy tail, loves to climb trees and can often be seen digging for acorns or nuts, storing them up for winter.  What is the name of that little creature?”

            One shy little soul, raised his hand, stood up and answered thusly: “Well, it sure sounds like a squirrel to me, but I think you want us to say: Jesus!”

            In our current cultural and religious climate, there is probably no character more malleable to individual desire or wish than that of Jesus of Nazareth.  The image and depiction of Jesus the Christ gets stretched and shaped to cover a great multitude of attitudes and perspectives; more so than any other character from the cultural consciousness.

            We’ve all probably heard Jesus described as our best buddy, our good friend, or our fellow traveling companion. There’s more: He’s the one who procures great parking spaces for us at the super market and he blesses our bank accounts when we give rightly and from the heart.  For some, Jesus is imagined carrying an American flag and an open King James translation of the Bible at equal height as he scampers into battle against the combined demonic powers of secularizing government, culture and Hollywood.  For others, Jesus is perceived in their mind’s eye as the one who liberates the oppressed of race, culture, gender, social-economic status; the great organizer of human civil rights parades who blesses all our openness and acceptances regardless of whether it is based upon scripture or the current culture.  For still more, Jesus is merely a benign figure who blesses all that we do only because Jesus is a nice guy who really wouldn’t cause a fuss about the manner of our lives; he’s just too polite for that.

            Yet it matters deeply just what our image of Jesus is.  If our understanding of Jesus is malleable to our wants and desires, then is he really Jesus after all?  A case in point is a story from years about just such things:

“In 1942, Clarence and Florence Jordan began a project in communal living known as Koinonia Farms.  Here they wished to live out the radical lifestyle they believe the Bible called them to.  Long before the civil rights movement took off, Clarence and Florence were practicing equality, overcoming racial barriers, offering opportunities to minorities.  This made them relatively unpopular and even brought them into dangerous conflict in the highly segregated Georgia of the 1940’s.  One time when Koinonia Farms was in danger, Clarence appealed for help from his brother who was a powerful attorney with political aspirations.  His brother knew that helping Clarence and Florence would cost him votes among the people of his district.  So he refused to provide legal help.  Clarence reminded him they both had walked the aisle to commit their lives to Christ but felt his brother was willing to follow only up to the cross. ‘I guess that’s right,’ the brother reportedly said. ‘Then you are not a Christian,’ Clarence said, ‘You should resign your place as deacon and tell the church you are an admirer, not a follower of Christ.’  ‘But if I did that,’ the brother said, ‘others would also have to.  We would not have a church.’  Clarence’s reply was the central and telling question: ‘But do you have a church now?’

            As the antidote to all of this, we celebrate Christ the King Sunday today!  This day we acknowledge, as we should each Lord’s Day, that the one who comes to us as a babe born in the manger, the one who grew in wisdom and insight in the presence of his family and neighbors, the one who taught in the streets and the temple of a dusty backwater servile state of the Roman Empire, the one who died as a common criminal on a cross and was raised by God is actually the King of kings, and Lord of lords; the one in whom all things in heaven and earth hold together.  In spite of whatever imagery with which we have placated ourselves regarding the person of Christ, he is the King of kings, the Lord of lords.  He is God-for-us in a manner entirely and completely exclusive to himself.  He is Lord.  He is not ever merely a mental projection of our greatest wish, desire or political, social, or personal ambition.  He is Lord.

            Some ten years ago, the Office of Theology & Worship released a statement about the Lordship of Jesus Christ that included these words:

“God is known to us only through self-disclosure in words and acts of grace, love and communion.  While complete knowledge of God remains beyond human capacity, and human attempts to imagine the divine nature easily become reflections of our own desires and fears, God has revealed the truth to us in the One who is the Truth.  God is most fully known to us through God’s free presence with us in Jesus Christ. … Thus we join with the church throughout the centuries to affirm that God was in Christ.  God is not a mysterious unknown who remains veiled in remote transcendence.  God has come among us in terms we can understand, in the human one, Jesus of Nazareth.”

            It is imperative for us as good, faithful and thoughtful Christians to realize that our image of Christ, our comprehension of God’s love and mercy demonstrated in this historical figure of central importance, can become merely a projection of our own perspectives and desires.  We must approach our personal images of the Christ with all humility and hope.  We can never fully grasp or account for the mystery of the incarnation, the mystery of God-for-us in flesh and blood.  Our shortsighted and often ill-timed explanations may do more to limit the grace of God than actually extending it to those in need.  Christ the King Sunday reflects to us our need of humility and honesty in picturing Jesus of Nazareth rather than our own selfish imaginations that always fall far short of God’s great mercy.

“Great Achievements”: I Samuel 2:1-10 & Mark 13:1-8; Pentecost 25 – November 18, 2012

Rev. Martin R. Ankrum

Have heard the news?  Predictions based upon an old Mayan calendar are calling for the end of the world on Friday, December 21, 2012!  The Internet is full of references and dire forecasts that all that we know and all whom we love will be gone before Christmas.  Some are taking the predictions as an excuse not to do Christmas shopping … I guess any way that some folks can get out of that they will.

If it is not the Mayans who are right, then the other signs of our current period of time might lend themselves to some pretty dark thinking.  The economic situation of our nation appears to be heading for what is being called “a financial cliff” for some time in late January of the next year.  According to some, unless the President and the US Congress work out some kind of middle way, our economic structure will come crashing down around our ears very soon.  If the Mayans don’t get us, the monetary system will!

Enter into this little anxious scenario the passage we read today from the Gospel of Mark.  The whole 13th chapter of this gospel has been called: “The Little Apocalypse.”  In the pericope which our lectionary prescribes for this Sunday, we have Jesus confidently telling four of his disciples that the great Temple in Jerusalem will one day no longer stand.

The scene is quite dramatic and homely all at once: these disciples from the Galilee are like Iowa tourists in New York City. They’ve never seen such impressive structures and humanly constructed great achievements; not even in Des Moines!  They are standing there awe-struck by the great and magnificent structure of the Temple and Jesus says to them, quietly I believe:

“Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down!”

It’s like hearing someone say: “Don’t make any plans after December 21st!” or “You’d better start stockpiling foodstuffs because after we go over that financial cliff … well, you just don’t know!”

Of course, Jesus’ intentions are not the same as those doomsayers that we hear so much in the news and read on the Internet now-a-days!  He is not trying to hype or stir up folks; he’s not trying to whip anyone into a frenzy for selfish motivations or just to have company in fear and anxiety over the future.  Jesus’ intention is to shift the disciples’ admiration and trust from the great achievements of humankind to an enduring trust in the One who holds the world in his hands.  Jesus wants to communicate to his disciples that their trust should not be upon the great achievements of human life, not upon what has been in the world, but rather what is coming into the world: the Kingdom of God.

Of course, anxiety about the present or the future was not new to the folks to whom Jesus addressed himself.  It is not foreign to us either.  The past we know.  We’re comfortable, to some degree, with the past.  The past can’t really hurt us … it is done and gone.  It’s the present and the future that can capture our anxieties and our worries.

The prospect of tumbling temples may not be a concern to us at the moment, but all of us can identify with the idea of “little apocalypses” possibly populating our lives: aging parents may cause us to worry about just what we will do when they can no longer care for themselves and become more dependent upon us.  A cancer diagnosis certainly takes on an apocalyptic shock in anybody’s life.  The approach and onslaught of adolescence is a little apocalypse in the life of the young person as much as in the lives of his or her parents.  The prospect of the loss of employment, illness, financial difficulties, loss of a spouse or a difficult marital relationship; all of these are little apocalypses in their own right.

The situation begs the question: “What are we to do when our little worlds are falling down all around us; when the walls of our safe little, self-made temples come tumbling down? What are we to do?!”

The disciples ask these kinds of questions to Jesus in the latter part of the passage for today.  The answer they receive may not necessarily be the most comforting.  Jesus says, more or less, that this is the ordinary course of things:

“When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come.  For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines.  This is but the beginning of birth pangs.”

I read one commentator (Mary S. Hulst) who phrased such talk from Jesus this way:

“…Jesus knows that these horrors – while normally signifying that things are very wrong – will actually be reminders to his followers that in truth, everything is very right … this is not all there is.  If these words of Jesus are true, the words about wars and rumors of wars, the words about councils and beatings, the words about fright and flight – if these words are true, then so are the words that promise his return.”

At the end of every funeral service I conduct, I leave the family and friends with the following words from our Lord:

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you; not as the world give do I give to you.  Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.”

We do a disservice to Jesus Christ and the entirety of the gospel message if we think of these words as mere platitudes and wishful thinking.  There is something mysteriously substantial about the peace of Jesus Christ.  It is not something that we control or manipulate; it is something, however that we have all received and felt at one time or another in our lives.  The task for us is to remember that peace when we are in the depths of our own little apocalypses of life; to know that Christ’s peace is really with us!  The task for us is to draw upon the well of having this peace passed to us countless times by countless Christians during worship over and over again.

There is no denying it: there are small and great apocalypses out there in our lives and in the life of the world.  Equally, there is no denying this: we have not been left to ourselves and our own great achievements to manage these little apocalypses of life.  We are not left alone.  The One who gave himself for us and for the world, goes with us … no matter what we face.

Whether the Mayans are right or the monetary system fails or the neighbor’s grass fire becomes our backyard problem, the truth remains as Jesus has said it:

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you; not as the world give do I give to you.  Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.”

Thanks be to God!

Once for All: Psalm 127 & Hebrews 9:24-28; Pentecost 24 – November 11, 2012

Rev. Martin R. Ankrum

John Cheever wrote a short story entitled: “Goodbye, My Brother,” about a family that enjoyed their summer vacations at their cottage on one of the islands of Massachusetts in the Atlantic Ocean.  The story was written after the Second World War, but its beauty and profound meaning still has something to say to us today.

The family is multi-generational and the now nearing middle-aged brothers and a sister gather annually with their mother at Laud’s Head, the historic name of their little piece of the island.  They all look forward to this summer excursion; it provides needed rest from the work-a-day world and gives them ample time to reconnect as a family.  They all enjoy it, save one of them: the youngest brother, Lawrence.

Lawrence was a sullen child who grew to be a sullen man.  He was educated to be an attorney and he invested himself fully in his profession, moving from firm to firm around the East.  Because of his moves and his natural sullen nature, his family of wife and young children are strangers to the rest of the family that gather annually at Laud’s Head.

The summer that is the subject of Cheever’s little story produces the return of Lawrence and his family.  It is a return and it is a farewell as well, for he is moving once again and will be further removed from his mothers, brothers and sister than ever before.  But before his family takes this significant move, they come to visit his mother and siblings.

You would think it a pleasant reunion; a time of joy an merriment, invested with energy that would build good memories in anticipation of a coming, extended absence.  But it is not.  It is a story about the morose nature of Lawrence and how that plays out and wreaks havoc in the network of siblings and parent.  It is a sad story indeed.

Lawrence spends the entirety of the story picking out all the infirmities and shortcomings in others and predicts the ultimate destruction of their sea wall and the probable fall into the ocean of their beloved little cottage.  All of it displayed as symptomatic of something far deeper and far graver in the personality of this younger brother.

Though Cheever sets Lawrence as an individual character, the characteristics that he endows the morose Larry with can be found, at times, in all of us.

Lawrence might be that small part of us that believes somehow that life really isn’t as beautiful or as good as it has been billed as.  Somewhere, deep within each of us, is an anxiety that keeps at bay all the bright sunshine and warmth that life can and is at times.  We hold and harbor within us, an unnamed guilt or uneasy feeling that can, at times, cloud our very perception of the goodness of life.

This universal anxiety is claimed by the Existentialist philosophers to be the very condition of human life: we realize our finitude and frailty as human beings and thus decide that life is actually futile and frustrating.

Thomas Long, a preaching professor from Atlanta, tells a story of when he was a young pastor in his first call, a woman came to him with a great burden.  She was a good, church-going woman, who was actually on the call committee that had brought him to that church.  She wasted no time in telling him, in the privacy of his study, that she had a difficult time believing that God had or could forgive her.  She didn’t list any particular terrible or hidden sin, just that she was anxious all the time about her eternal disposition: how could or would God ever forgive her?

No matter what the young Rev. Long told her, she just couldn’t get over this feeling.  He spoke of God’s love and Christ’s sacrifice, even using the words from Hebrews that we have read today, but to no effect.  She remarked after his attempts to be reassuring:

“I know what you’re saying is true, but I just can’t overcome the feeling that God cannot forgive me.”

Knowing that God loves you and has acted in Jesus Christ to fully and completely reclaim you as a shepherd would a lost sheep, is one of the elements of our faith that can be very difficult for us.  There is something within us that might, in our quietest moments and our deepest place, say: “Well, I believe that for others, but surely that is not the case with me!”

This is precisely why these words from the Epistle to the Hebrews are essential to us.  The writer of this epistle is more of a preacher than scholar here, for he is delivering this sermon to a congregation of somewhat dispirited Christians.  They have been members of the faith for some time, waiting patiently or impatiently for the return of Christ and some of them are beginning to give up a bit on this tremendous good news.  They say within their heart of hearts, some of the same things that we have said: “Is this really true for someone like me?”

The preacher of Hebrews gives to them something more solid and true than their individual feelings or moods: he speaks to them of faith in Jesus Christ’s action for them.  In the end, it is far better to trust that God, in God’s ultimate goodness, has acted in Jesus Christ on our behalf than it is to trust in how we feel about it.

E. David Willis, a retired professor from Princeton Theological Seminary, tells a story about his early ministry in order to illustrate the point that the writer of Hebrews makes in this passage.  It happened when he was a pastor in a little town and one of his elders received a call late in the evening.  It seemed that a group of young men from the town had gotten a bit rowdy and ended up in jail.  One of the young men remembered his church elder and called him, asking him to come down and bail him out.  The elder arrived at the jail, took a good look at the boys in the cell and asked: “How many of you all are baptized?” They all sheepishly raised their hands, expecting a stern church-style lecture.  The elder instead, turned to the police officer, and said: “I’ll take them all.” And he did!

In Jesus Christ, God has taken us all, regardless of our sin or even our feelings about our sin.  In Jesus Christ, God has granted us new life and hope for life to come regardless of our anxiety or even our willingness to accept the truth of his divine love.  In Jesus Christ, we have been saved and can know and trust that God really does love us.

“Happy Are Those …”: Hebrews 9:11-14 & Psalm 146; Pentecost 23 – November 4, 2012

Rev. Martin R. Ankrum

The Out of Towners, a movie from the late 1960’s starring Jack Lemon and Sandy Dennis has always been a personal favorite.  Lemon plays a middle management executive from Ohio that is being interviewed for a Vice-President position with the home office in New York City.  They are flown into the city, all expenses paid, for what they anticipate to be a wonderful weekend in the Big Apple.  Well, one thing leads to another and it is a complete and utter debacle.  Their plane gets rerouted to Boston due to fog, they catch a train to New York, but the dining car is closed.  They arrive at their hotel only to find that their room has been given away when they neglected to confirm the reservation.  A garbage strike is on, and all public transportation is out.  They spend a ridiculous night sleeping under the trees of Central Park where Lemon manages to get mugged while still asleep.

It’s truly a comedy of errors.  You get the distinct feeling that over-anxious approach of the character played by Jack Lemon contributes greatly to their dilemma.  If he would just stop for a moment, compose himself and not allow his apprehension to elevate to panic, they could have figured their way out of their difficulties fairly easily.  Unease and dread, however certainly holds great power over us.

When folks are anxious, they do foolish things.  Have you ever noticed?  Sometimes it bubbles up in one of those arguments with your spouse that half way through the recriminations and hurt, you realize that you’ve forgotten what started it all.  Other times it manifests in merely kicking the poor dog for doing what the dumb dog has had a habit of doing all his life and finally, cleaning up after him is just the last straw.  Or it comes out in folks dumping their investments too quickly; nervously playing at a game that requires stouter nerves and a vision for the long haul.  Anxiety does strange things to us.

Paul Tillich, great theologian & philosopher of the last century, wrote the following definition of anxiety in his landmark little book, The Courage to Be:

“The first assertion of the nature of anxiety is this: anxiety is the existential awareness of nonbeing … Anxiety is finitude, experienced as one’s own finitude.”

Anxiety, for Tillich and for us, comes with the realization that we are finite beings; we have a beginning and an end in this place.  We become then, as it were, anxious about our future, our ultimate future, really.

We become anxious in the face of our current experiences.  We want to place our trust in things and others that are truly penultimate; that is not the final place for trust, but something or someone just short of the ultimate recipient of our trust.

The psalmist reminds us of something very important about human life and God’s involvement in our lives:

“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 …”

The psalmist is right in finding the Lord God as the authentically ultimate place for our trust.  We are called to trust in God more than the political powers, our financial situations, the weather, our family and friends and even ourselves.  Our trust should be placed solely and completely in God.

Paul Tillich can help us with this as well.  At the very end of his book, The Courage to Be, the very last line, printed in italics reads:

“The courage to be is rooted in the God who appears when God has disappeared in the anxiety of doubt.”

Anxiety can be a refining fire for us; burning away those idols that are actually penultimate stopping places for our trust, not the final or appropriate recipient of our trust.

An even more poignant portrayal of moving through and beyond anxiety to final trust can be found at the end of Fredrick Buechner’s little book: The Eyes of the Heart.  Buechner is an ordained Presbyterian minister and retired from his life-long position as chaplain and teacher at the Exeter Academy in Vermont.  He writes:

“I was flying somewhere one day when all of a sudden the plane ran into such a patch of turbulence that it started to heave and buck like a wild horse.  As an uneasy flyer under even the best of circumstances, I was terrified that my hour had come, and then suddenly I wasn’t.  Two things, I remember, passed through my mind.  One of them was the line from Deuteronomy ‘underneath are the everlasting arms,’ and for a few minutes I not only understood what it meant, but felt in my nethermost depths that without a shadow of a doubt it was true, that underneath, undergirding, transcending any disaster that could possibly happen, those arms would be there to save us if my worst fears were realized.  And the other thing was a Buddhist metaphor that came back to me from somewhere.  We are all of us like clay jars is the way I remembered it, and as time goes by, each jar gets cracked and broken and eventually crumbles away until there is not a single thing left of it except for the most important thing of all, the only thing about it that is ultimately so real that nothing on earth or heaven has the power even to touch it, let alone to destroy it, and that is the emptiness that the jar contained, which is one with the emptiness of all the other jars and with Emptiness itself.  Nor is that Emptiness ever to be confused with nothingness, but is rather whatever of its many names we call it by – nirvana, satori, eternal life, the peace of God.  Suddenly then, in that pitching plane some thirty thousand crazy feet up in the sky, I found myself not only not afraid of what was going on, but enormously enjoying it, half drunk on the knowledge that yes, it was true.  There was nothing to worry about.  There was no reason to fear.  It was all of it, all of it, and forever and always, good.”

Or, as the psalmist so wisely wrote:

“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 …”

As Each Has Received:  Psalm 46 & I Peter 4:1-11; Pentecost 22 – October 28, 2012

Rev. Martin R. Ankrum

She was a quiet woman and she came to church every Sunday decked out like she was about to meet the Queen of England.  I was a first-year seminarian and pretty sure I understood the suburban Philadelphian mentality:  she was always dressed to the nines as a way of impressing her neighbors and other church goers.  She was a show-off, a clothes-horse; one who cared only about the outside appearance.

I knew all of this of course because I was a first-year seminary student.  I knew all I needed to know.  My mind had been made up.  And you’ve already guessed such thinking can only lead to trouble and embarrassment.

When I asked the two pastors who served that church about the well-dressed lady and expressed my feelings about it, they said that maybe I should ask her why she was always so dressed up, with pill-box hat, small hand bag and her gloves every Sunday.  They had been pastors far longer than I had been a seminary student.  Still, I figured I knew!

Well, one Sunday, actually my last with that church before the end of the term, I summoned the courage to ask her … so I said:

“You’re always so well dressed each Sunday.  It appears that you put a lot of thought into the selection of your wardrobe.  Why is that you dress so well on a Sunday?”

Her answer was short, to the point and put me in my place, rightfully so:

“My mother taught me that when you’ve been invited to a party, the way you dress reflects your feelings about the host.  I love and respect God so much that I always want to dress my very best for worship, for as you know by now, my boy, God is the host of the greatest party to which we will ever be invited.  You should always bring your best.”

If I ever knew that woman’s name, I’ve forgotten it.  However, she taught me something very significant about my relationship with Jesus Christ:  I ought to always bring my best to God.

It’s not a matter of dressing to the nines really; it’s the attitude with which we approach God.  Are we willing to bring our very best to God or is it a matter of calculating in our hearts what is the least with which we can get by?

Of course, there are other considerations when it comes to determining just what we pledge for the coming year in our work for Jesus Christ.  There is more at work here than just looking at our annual income and tallying up all the things that we need to provide to make sure that all ends meet.  There is much more than mere calculation when it comes to offering ourselves to God; and this is precisely where the text from I Peter speaks to us well.

Peter writes to his church and seeks to prepare them for the coming judgment of God.  In this coming judgment, he is convinced that how we make use of the gifts we have received matters greatly.  It is not just a matter of using our talents and gifts well for our own advancement in life; it is a matter of how we share with others and for the sake of others that is honored by God.

Yesterday was Saturday morning and I arrived at the office a bit later than is my usual custom.  It was still early, before 9 a.m., but I found here, hard at work in the garden in the backyard, two members of our congregation.  One was a Ruling Elder, no longer on the Session, but still actively serving others with her dedication to the garden and what it can mean for others.  The other was a very active member of the congregation, actually a member of our Stewardship Committee.  Both took part of their Saturday morning to turn over the soil of the garden and plant winter rye to provide nutrients to the soil for next year’s crops.  This simple commitment on a Saturday morning speaks loudly to me about the extent of their concern for others.

Of course, I could site numerous other examples of ways in which you folks, members of this congregation, care for others.  Not a week goes by in this church that there isn’t some kind of activity or mission that is at its essence, a measure of providing for others.  We are just that kind of congregation.  We are a congregation of God’s people who know that at the root of our stewardship is the holy effort to fulfill God’s call upon our lives to share with others.

This must be the motivating factor in our decision about our financial stewardship as well.  It is never a matter of “paying our way” or “paying our dues” in order to preserve our place in the church or God’s Kingdom.  It must always be a matter of considering how we have been blessed and sharing that blessing with others.  That is just how it works … that is just the depth of our call.

Shirley Guthrie was once a professor at Columbia Theological Seminary.  He wrote a great book about Christian doctrine, detailing the essential dogma of the Christian faith.  In that book, he wrote the following:

“There is no such thing as a personal relationship with God without a personal relationship with our fellow human beings.  But our fellow human beings are not themselves God.  In, with, and through these relationships God comes to us – judging, forgiving, renewing, doing among us and for us what we can never do for ourselves or for one another.”

Guthrie’s point echoes Peter’s statement to his church that we hear today in the text: we are called to care for one another, for our relationship with God can never be authentic until we are authentically related to others in caring and sharing with them.  This is why our commitment to the work of the church is so very vital … we are called to make a difference for the sake of Jesus Christ in the lives of others and this is one way that we do just that.

The difference that our caring and providing for others is seen on many levels; both corporate and personal.  I remember reading a sermon a few years ago that was delivered by the Rev. Dr. Robert Emrich of First Presbyterian Church in Saginaw, Michigan.  Many of you will remember Bob as your Associate Pastor from about 1970 to 1985.  Bob was also and remains a personal friend of mine.

In Bob’s sermon to his Saginaw church, he spoke about this congregation and his mentor, the Rev. John Walter Purnell, head of staff here from about 1960 to 1986. The story starts out funny, but ends as a heartwarming testimony to the power of providing for others in a personal way:

In seminary my friends and I enjoyed going to a local tavern or gathering at one of our apartments on a Friday night and having a few beers. I was concerned about this enjoyment and how John and members of the congregation might view it. So I bravely asked: “John how would it be viewed if I were seen by you or some member of the congregation carrying a case of Budweiser into my apartment?”  Without hesitation [John] with a serious look and tone in his voice said: “Oh they wouldn’t like that and neither would I.” My heart sank a bit and I asked why hoping to get some acceptable explanation. John said: “We wouldn’t like that because we drink Iron City Beer up here not Budweiser.”  We laughed and I knew that I had found a place to learn to become a minister. For 15 years John was my mentor and friend. He taught me more about being a minister than anyone I know. He taught me about the faith as well. He taught me by the way he spoke, the stands he took on various issues. I listened to him preach the gospel and loved to hear what he had to say. He was a brilliant writer and a caring and thoughtful man. There is not a day that goes by that I don’t think about something he did or said that doesn’t resonate with something I am doing or attempting to do.  … It is good to be encouraged most especially by those who love and care about you.

Our good stewardship of the gifts we have received is meant for the encouragement of others.  I Peter calls us to consider the gifts that we have received and willingly share them with others.  This is how the work of God is carried out in this place and around the church in the world.  This is what really is at the basis of any Commitment Sunday; not just a way to pay the bills, heat the sanctuary, or meet a payroll, but rather to instill within us the very need, for the sake of Jesus Christ, to care for others.

There are lots of lines and spaces on a blank pledge card, each begging for information like a question.  But the one real question that any pledge card asks of us is: “For the sake of Jesus Christ and his church, how much do I really care for others?”

The Exact Imprint: Psalm 26 & Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12; Pentecost 19-October 7, 2012

Rev. Martin R. Ankrum

The writer of Hebrews makes a very important claim in the text that we read this morning.  Hebrews is more a sermon than it is an epistle or letter and its author sounds very much like a preacher in claiming that Jesus Christ is the “exact imprint” of God himself.  The author goes on to say, more or less, that in Jesus Christ, all things hold together … all things are subjected to Christ, who sits on the right hand of God the Father.

A few years ago, I came off the 15th green of a local golf course and stumbled across a discarded golf ball that one of the lawn mowers had sheared in half.  It was an interesting find: the ball was completely halved, exposing the inner workings of the ball beautifully and perfectly.  I took it home to my daughter, who was always curious about how things work and what is at the center of everything.

It’s fairly natural for us as human beings to be curious about just what is at the heart of something.  Who amongst us hasn’t taken something apart in order to see just how it all works.  We’ve dissembled radios and mixers, tinkered with lawn mower engines, or ripped apart bright shiny paper to reveal the birthday present behind the wrapping.  It’s fairly natural for us to be curious about what is at the heart of things.

The writer of Hebrews makes it very clear that Jesus of Nazareth, God incarnate, God with us, is at the center of it all.  At the heart of all creation, time and space, past and present and a future yet to come, is the One who has given himself for us and the world.  In short, for the writer of Hebrews, Jesus Christ is what holds all things together.

I like what the Rev. Dr. John Rogers, former pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, NC says about this:

Jesus Christ, and he alone, is God as God elects to be, and to be made known, in and for the world … Jesus Christ does not merely announce or offer God’s love; he is the love of God concretely, irrevocably, and effectively given. Jesus Christ is not merely the herald of God’s power and the teacher of God’s wisdom; he is “the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor 1: 24, RSV). Jesus Christ is not merely a secondary or derivative light that points to God; he is the Light that no darkness can overcome and in whose face we behold God’s own glory. Jesus Christ does not merely proclaim the grace and truth of God; he is the fullness of grace and truth who embodies God’s will and accomplishes God’s purpose. Jesus Christ does not merely remind us of the providence of God of which he is an observer; he is the providence of God, “upholding the universe by his word of power” (Heb 1:3, RSV).

If you want to know what God is like, look to Jesus Christ.  In him, and in him alone, is the center of everything.  He is very God, creator, redeemer and sustainer; he is the center of everything.

That’s why this morning is so very important; for it is a communion Sunday … in fact, World Communion Sunday.  Today we celebrate a sacrament that has been given to us; this is not something that we have invented or pioneered … this is what Jesus himself gave to his disciples and the church that has carried on in the intervening centuries.

This is not mere ritual or ceremony, for as Reformed Christians, we believe that in the Lord’s Supper God provides us with what is needed to be in communion with our Lord and Savior and to be reconciled with our neighbors as well.

Sometimes, Presbyterians can become a bit confused about the significance and even the mechanics of the Eucharist.  Other brothers and sisters of the Christian faith emphasize the reality of the presence of Christ in the elements, saying that the bread is literally the flesh of Jesus and the cup, literally the blood of Christ.  Other brothers and sisters within the Christian faith, emphasize instead a spiritual presence of Jesus, holding that this meal is just a memorial exercise of the body of Christ, in which we remember the sacrifice of Christ and the love of God.

Reformed Christians, of which we Presbyterians are a part, take our cue from John Calvin’s explanation, in which he affirms the real presence of Christ in the given nature of the meal.  In Jesus Christ, God has given himself to the world and in this meal we revisit that given nature of things: God gives himself to us and to the world in this sacrament.

Calvin found this to be the “middle-way” between the other two competing understandings of the sacrament, but he did not think he firmly held the key to
complete comprehension.  In fact, Calvin calls it a mystery really, saying:

“…to speak more plainly, I rather experience it than understand it.  Therefore, I here embrace without controversy the truth of God in which I may safely rest.  He declares his flesh the food of my soul, his blood its drink.  I offer my soul to him to be fed with such bread.”

Even the great Reformer admits that what happens in this meal is beyond his ability to fully explain; instead he rests safely in the knowledge that God wishes to communicate himself to his children.

We don’t have to know the inner workings of the golf ball to enjoy its attributes on the course.  We might be curious about it, but it is not necessary for us to fully comprehend its inner core to enjoy its benefits: to hit a 250 yard drive or sink a four-foot putt.  In a like manner, we can, in faith, participate in this sacred meal and know that the One who is the center of everything, the One who holds all things together, is giving himself to us so that we might be nourished and drawn into his presence.

And sometimes, that kind of knowledge, though not mechanical, but rather experiential, is enough …

The Lord be with you …

Prescription to Worship: Psalm 124 & James 5:13-20; Pentecost 18 – September 30, 2012

Rev. Martin R. Ankrum

One of the most memorable spiritual experiences of my life involves hearing a certain portion of Handel’s Messiah.  I was just an adolescent, forced to attend the annual Christmas concert at the local Methodist Church in my hometown.  Bored out of my mind, I wondered quietly just how long such a trial of being patient and quiet and polite could go on when all of sudden, a soloist stood to sing and I heard:

I Know That My Redeemer Liveth
I know that my Redeemer liveth
And that He shall stand
At the latter day
Upon the earth …

The moving music and voice went on into the very depths of the piece, but I was transfixed by the opening lines.  At the time, I didn’t know that Handel was merely quoting biblical lines, so I attributed their wonder and beauty to him.  Regardless of who wrote the lines, I felt, in that moment that they were unquestionably true … indeed, at that moment, within my heart and soul, I knew that Jesus Christ, once dead, was now alive and with me … even in the midst of being bored out of my mind in the cavernous, yet populated sanctuary of the First Methodist Church of Marshalltown.

I can’t really explain, nor should I, I suppose, but from that moment a confidence about God’s love and mercy for me and this world has been with me …

How has it been for you?  Or, rather, as John Wesley put it: “How is it with your soul?”

The final passage of the Letter of James ends with both similar questions to the Wesleyan inquiry and the same confidence that the Handel solo can inspire.  James inquires about the state of the souls and bodies of his parishioners and turns them, with confidence, definitively towards God.

“Are you suffering?” he asks.  Then turn towards God in prayer.  “Are you cheerful?” then offer your praise to God.
“Are you sick?” then find the leaders of the church and have them pray over you.

Regardless of the condition of his members, James encourages them to turn to God and the church. No matter what situation in which his members find themselves, James is completely confident in the healing presence of God in their lives.  It is almost as if he was humming Handel’s tune to “I Know that My Redeemer Liveth” as he was writing the closing lines of this letter.

Kathy Dawson, a professor of Christian Education at Columbia Theological Seminary, tells an astonishing story from her own experience about confidence in both the effectiveness of prayer and of God’s healing love:

“A beloved organist is suffering from a heart condition that is expected to be fatal.  The clergy gather and so do church leaders, but many church members come in twos of fours or fives.  They pray, talk, and sing.  One group of Indonesian members, who work in health care, bathes the woman’s body and freshens her with sweet-smelling perfume.  A group of church members led by clergy hold an impromptu healing service in the waiting room.  The woman, unconscious through most of these visits, suddenly awakens, recovers, and is able to go home.  While not all prayers of the community have such immediate and visible answers, those forty or more who came at one time or another to this bedside are reminded once again that prayer changes lives and has saving potential.”

Can you imagine the confidence that those members most have had not in the efficacy of their prayers or their actions, but in God’s love and mercy?  Their actions bespeak their confidence indeed.

Or this story that I heard only yesterday on the National Public Radio weekend show, “This American Life.”  Sonari Glinton, a journalist for NPR, shared a story from his Southside Chicago upbringing.  He was raised in a Catholic church in a neighborhood changing from predominantly white to black.  The church was his universe growing up; attending Mass, going to school there, playing basketball in the gym and more.  He was a black kid in a changing neighborhood and a changing parochial school.

The school’s principal was a little Irish nun who looked nothing like the atypical nun.  She was small, but mighty and she loved all her children and faculty.  She was, in turn, loved by them.  She was the heart and soul of the little school.

One day, in the early 1980’s, when Sonari was in 4th grade, the principal came into their classroom and moved to directly below the crucifix hanging at the front of the classroom.  No one said a word.  Without explanation, the little nun pulled over a chair, stood on it and on her tiptoes, took the crucifix down.  Without any ceremony, she pulled a new crucifix from a box and standing on tip toe again, she hung it on the nail that had held the old one.

This, however, was not a crucifix like any the kids had seen before.  The Jesus who hung on this cross was not lily white like the previous one, but was instead decidedly African, with dark pigmentation, curly black hair and a broad nose.  However, this Jesus had the same posture of his predecessor; nailed to a cross, head bent in the act of his giving his life for the world.

The little Irish nun started, without a word, for the door when one of the children asked her what she thought she was doing.  She replied: “Whatever color Jesus was, he probably looked more like you than me.”  Then she was off to do the same with the rest of the crucifixes in all the classrooms.

Sonari said that this one action made a great difference in his life.  He says that he knows that it doesn’t really matter what color Jesus was, but rather who he is for us here and now.  He said that it made all the difference for a black, 4th grader, smaller and less knowledgeable than just about anyone else in the world to know that Jesus was like him.

One little Irish nun’s very public witness gave confidence in God’s mercy and grace to at least one 4th grader.

In the final assessment of life and of James’ Letter, maybe that really is what this is all about: confidence that our Redeemer liveth and that this Redeemer, this Jesus Christ, has given us mercy and grace no matter what our condition in life is … sick, suffering, cheerful, sinful, confused or joyous.  No matter what situation in which we find ourselves, this confidence in Christ’s love for us can cause us all to heal … to be reclaimed … finally to be redeemed.

May God’s grace and peace in Jesus Christ ALWAYS be with you! Amen.

The Unworldly Virtue of Humility: James 3:13-4:3,7-8a; Pentecost 17- Sept. 23, 2012

Rev. Martin R. Ankrum

In the years immediately preceding the fall of the city of Hippo, along the North African coast, Augustine preached a sermon to his people in the cathedral.  In that sermon by which he marked his anniversary of ordination, he offered the following 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 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!”

Whoa! I wonder how that went over with the folks in Hippo! How would you feel if I stood in the pulpit and insinuated that you were living badly?

Augustine cleverly takes examples from the lives of his parishioners, examples that we can still relate to now in the 21st century, and turns them around in order to cause them to think about what a good life really is.

Is a good life just having a pleasant country cottage, or a good wife or husband, or a good-fitting pair of shoes?  I think that Augustine would not define a good life in terms of material things, but rather in a right relationship with God and one’s neighbors.

James would hold to this same kind of definition.  He writes to a church in the first century and seeks to describe what wise living, a good life as it were, really is.

Though not always the most accurate translation, I like how Eugene Peterson translates all this in The Message:

“Do you want to be counted wise, to build a reputation for wisdom? Here’s what you do: Live well, live wisely, live humbly. It’s the way you live, not the way you talk, that counts. Mean-spirited ambition isn’t wisdom. Boasting that you are wise isn’t wisdom. Twisting the truth to make yourselves sound wise isn’t wisdom. It’s the furthest thing from wisdom—it’s animal cunning, devilish conniving. Whenever you’re trying to look better than others or get the better of others, things fall apart and everyone ends up at the others’ throats.”

Wisdom is not about what we think, but rather about what we do with what we have learned.  That is the essence of wisdom: carefully considering what we do and how we live!

Barbara Brown Taylor, commenting on this passage from James’ epistle, wrote:

“…wisdom is not in the head, but in the behavior.  It is a way of life, not a way of thinking or believing.”

Taylor is right … it is not a way of thinking or believing, wisdom is a way of living.

All that is well and good of course, but just how does one come to be wise?  That’s the real question isn’t it; just how does one achieve such wisdom that one might actually live in a wise manner?  This is a question that has been with us from the ages.  It may be the impetus of much of philosophy and other arts which seek to penetrate the human soul: How does a person gain wisdom in order to live well?

Let’s return to Peterson’s translation of our text for today:

“Real wisdom, God’s wisdom, begins with a holy life and is characterized by getting along with others. It is gentle and reasonable, overflowing with mercy and blessings, not hot one day and cold the next, not two-faced. You can develop a healthy, robust community that lives right with God and enjoy its results only if you do the hard work of getting along with each other, treating each other with dignity and honor.”

 

Wow!  Now that is a whole different take on the acquisition of wisdom than I have ever heard before!

When we think about wisdom and its acquisition, I would wager that most of us think about a solitary pursuit.  Most of us would consider the gaining of wisdom as kind of a solo act; something that one does alone, in a quiet study with nothing but books, articles, and notes piled around them.

James says that it is completely different than this.  He places the acquisition of wisdom in life right in the midst of living in community, in living with and for others.  Wisdom, he says, comes from building together with others a life that is holy and reflective of God’s presence in the midst of it.

Now that is a wholly different definition of wisdom from what we may have learned out in the world.  Out in the world, we are told that if we are wise we will grab all we can for ourselves in this life.  Out in the world, we are given the impression that we ought to “look out for number One” for who else will look out for us if we don’t ourselves?

That kind of thinking, that kind of grabbing is the world’s wisdom and James warns his readers against pursuing such warped view of real wisdom.  Again, Peterson’s translation:

“Where do you think all these appalling wars and quarrels come from? Do you think they just happen? Think again. They come about because you want your own way, and fight for it deep inside yourselves. You lust for what you don’t have and are willing to kill to get it. You want what isn’t yours and will risk violence to get your hands on it.

“You wouldn’t think of just asking God for it, would you? And why not? Because you know you’d be asking for what you have no right to. You’re spoiled children, each wanting your own way.”

Well, there we have it, don’t we?  James offers an incredibly accurate depiction of what the world’s wisdom is all about: me.  It is simply always about me. (When I say me, I mean the individual person, not just me in particular!)  The world’s wisdom is always about me, what I want and what I can get and what I deserve and what I need and what I dream … Heavenly wisdom, or the life that is holy as James describes, wants what God wants for life; wants to see to the need of others and the needs of the community of faith and the desires of the heart of love.  These are the things that compose real wisdom … at least in the mind and witness of James.

As long as we’ve started down this path, let’s hear the final words of this passage from Peterson’s translation:

“You’re cheating on God. If all you want is your own way, flirting with the world every chance you get, you end up enemies of God and his way. And do you suppose God doesn’t care? The proverb has it that ‘he’s a fiercely jealous lover.’ And what he gives in love is far better than anything else you’ll find. It’s common knowledge that ‘God goes against the willful proud; God gives grace to the willing humble.’”

Do you suppose it is as simple as all that? If all you want is your own way, you end up an enemy of God … in other words: you’re not really living wisely.  Could it really be that simple?

In the final assessment this really is the secret to wise living: humility; not always seeking your own way in the world, but rather making room for others, taking thought of others, helping others, living your life in reflection of the love that God has bestowed in your life.  That really is wise living.

As James says: “What God gives in love is far better than anything else you’ll find.”  Do you believe that or rather live that?  Well, then I guess you’re wise.

Speaking Well: Psalm 19 & James 3:1-12; Pentecost 16 – September 16, 2012

Rev. Martin R. Ankrum

This week we have all received a rather dramatic and truly tragic illustration of the truth that what we say matters.  The unrest in the Middle East that lead to attacks upon several American embassies and to the killing of four Americans, including a sitting ambassador, has been attributed to anger over a low-budget, You-Tube-type, film which denigrated the founder of Islam.

I have not viewed the film in question, but whatever was said about Mohammad enflamed the peoples of Libya, Egypt, Tunisia, India and even Australia.  There is no rationale to support what those protestors and demonstrators did, but the power of words is surely demonstrated rather dramatically and tragically in these incidents.

The passage today from James is well known and oft-quoted: “the tongue is a fire!”  James writes of the power and dangers of human speech – it can be used for good or evil.  It thus can be powerfully dangerous or, equally, a powerful good.

He starts by admonishing his hearers not to seek too quickly to be teachers of the faith for they are held to a higher standard than the rest of the congregation.  The possibility of missteps and mistakes for the teacher in the area of speech abound.

We certainly can grasp what James is saying fairly quickly, for all of us have made such missteps with our conversations, haven’t we?  Who among us has not said something to someone and then immediately wanted to force those words right back into our mouths?  We wish we had never said that and given the same opportunity again, we’re convinced we wouldn’t do it again.

Mary Hinkle Shore, a Lutheran seminary professor, writing about this passage from James, links it to the two previous chapters in the epistle.  She says that James is concerned with congruity in action and speech. The previous chapters encouraged the original readers to link their faith with their actions; to not be hypocritical in regards to speaking and doing.  How can one say they have faith in the living God and ignore widows and orphans in need?  When Christians show favoritism to the wealthy and well-heeled and neglect and denigrate the poor, are they really living out the things that they say about their faith?

Shore writes about this chapter from James:

“It is also hypocrisy when speech and speech are not in sync, and this is the problem James addresses.  If we bless the Creator God and then curse someone created in the image of God, we not only say something unfavorable about another human being.  We also say something untrue about God – namely that God makes junk.  We are professing a theology of creation opposed to the testimony that ‘God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.’ One element of our speech gives the lie to the other, and in the end we are not just lying; we are lying about God.”

We shouldn’t miss Shore’s point here: when we speak badly about another person, when we denigrate someone else’s character or nature, we are really denigrating the creation of God.  As she says: “We’re not just lying; we’re lying about God.”

That little paragraph gave me pause to think.  How many times have I done this very thing?  How many times have I spoken without thought or care about just what the results may be?  How many times have I caused hurt or injury and never even realized it? Or, even more damning, how many times have I known what I was saying was hurtful, but barged right ahead anyway?

Though the paragraph gave me pause to think about my own failures to live as James calls us, I don’t think that I’m alone.  I think that this kind of realization might come to any one of us.

No doubt, this kind of behavior was the impetus for James’ writing on the subject.  Someone or maybe a whole group of “someones” in his congregation have been saying things that are causing hurt and injury.  They have been not controlling or bridling their tongues, but just saying whatever pleased them to say, regardless of the consequences of human hurt and ripping of the social fabric of the congregation.

James seeks to resolve this problem by establishing a “rule,” as it were, to govern the speech of the congregation.  It is a simple rule: “Don’t do it!”  He says: “This ought not to be so!”

Bonhoeffer, the great German theologian, martyred by the Nazis for his opposition, formed an underground seminary of Reformed Christians resisting the Third Reich.  He had one rule of life for this little community of faith:

“If you are speaking about another student, he had better be in the room with you.  If you break this first rule, then it is up to you to go tell that student you spoke of him outside of his presence.”

Not a bad rule at all, but still I don’t think that this really covers what James is getting at in the passage we read today.

James is not just issuing a prohibition that covers “bad” or hurtful speech; he is calling us to be considerate of what we say.  We are called by James to “speak well.”

When I say “speak well,” I don’t just mean with polished or colorful and dynamic language.  I believe that James is calling Christians to take a grace-filled approach towards what we say to others. In fact, given the example of Jesus Christ and Paul the apostle, I believe that we are called to speak words that really matter to one another; words of grace and life, peace and hope … words that can change the lives of others bit by bit.

In thinking about my own past, I remember mostly the kind things that have been said to me.  I recall most immediately the words of grace and love that have been offered to me much more readily than the times when I have been recipient of unkind remarks.  I don’t think that this is just a positive attitude on my part; I’m convinced that my childhood and early life was infused with loving words from my parents, my grandmother and others who were close to me.  (Maybe even my brother, but those memories are a bit fuzzy on the kind words … you know how brothers are.)

Barbara Brown Taylor, another seminary professor and author of good books, says that “the act of speech is a Christian practice.”  Let me say that again: “The act of speech is a Christian practice.”

I really like that.  When we think about the spiritual disciplines of the Christian faith, we think of things like prayer, worship, stewardship, acts of caring and kindness to those in need, reading scripture and so forth.  How many times have we thought about our common, every-day speaking as a Christian practice or a spiritual discipline?  I think that it is worth the time to consider it: practicing the discipline of speaking well as a faithful expression of our following Jesus Christ.

About 15 years ago, I was called to address my former presbytery to mark the moving of one of our pastors to a new call in a different presbytery.  It was the practice of that presbytery to appoint someone to mark such changes with a brief statement that would later be entered in the minutes.  I spoke glowingly about my friend who was going to the Presbytery of Chicago and later was thanked by him.  It made me think later about the whole thing.  Why had I waited for this moment of his leave-taking to tell him (and the presbytery for that matter) how much he had meant to me and to others?  Why hadn’t I taken the time to do that in less formal ways and more frequently?

Maybe that is a question we should all be asking ourselves … if words have such power in the lives of others, what are we waiting for?  Couldn’t we practice the spiritual discipline of speaking well to others, offering words of grace and truth, hope and peace and granting others what we have received ourselves?  Who knows, maybe, just maybe, this is one of the ways in which God is seeking to transform not only our lives, but the life of the world!

The Twin Loves: Psalm 125 & James 2:1-13; Pentecost 15 – September 9, 2012

Rev. Martin R. Ankrum

Sometimes folks are disappointed when they read scripture.  Sometimes folks come to the Bible and think that if they read something, just some passage or verse or chapter, they will find the answer to the burning question in the pit of their stomach … whatever that question may be.  They quietly sit down, open up the old holy book that their grandmother has passed down to them and begin to read.

When the answer does not magically or almost instantaneously appear, they give up and chalk it up to just one more experience of disappointment with religion.  They put away the old, musty volume and begin to seek their answers somewhere else.

If we treat the scriptures in the same manner, believing that they are just a compendium of right answers, solutions to the mysteries of human life or an operating manual for the human life, we too will find that disappointment.

The Bible certainly contains answers for the mysteries of human life, but these answers do not usually just spring from the page … usually it takes some understanding, setting things into context and dedicated reading.  This is the kind of dedicated, daily contact with scripture that could produce results in our spiritual life.  An occasional dip in the “scriptural pool” will never transform our lives.

However, after saying all that, the Letter of James comes very close to offering the Christian a manual for Christian life.  Though there is good doctrine present in the writing, the delivery from the author is done in a very practical manner.  James offers his readers good solid advice about how to actually live the Christian faith.  He is not attempting to convince the original recipients of this letters of the truthfulness of the claims about Jesus as the Christ or the intricacies of the doctrine of the Trinity.  No, James offers advice about some very real situations that the church to which he writes has found itself involved and some very general, but practical advice on how to live as a follower of Jesus Christ.

The presenting problem that James tackles in our passage today concerns favoritism.  Apparently, the members of the little church he addresses are treating the wealthy with deference and the poor with neglect or even contempt.  James assures them that this just ought not to be the way of Christ’s church in this world.  He admonishes them to alter their way of being the church and reminds them of what he calls “the royal law:” “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

St. Augustine, nearly three centuries later, would admonish his hearers to adopt what he called the “twin loves,” as the rubric by which they acted, lived and even understood scripture:

“So, if it seems to you that you have understood the divine scriptures, or any part of them, in such a way that by this understanding you do not build up this twin love of God and neighbor, then you have not yet understood them.”

Augustine’s point is obvious: if we think that we have comprehended the scriptures and their call upon our lives, but have failed to build up both love of God and love of neighbor in our own hearts, then we have failed to truly “get it.”  We have, as it were, missed the point entirely.

James’ point, echoed I believe by Augustine, is that how we treat our neighbor is a direct indicator of the maturity of faith or of even the actuality of our faith.  If we show favoritism to others for outward things and neglect others by the same measure, than have we really understood one of the deepest values of the Christian faith; the corollary of twin loves: love of God AND love of neighbor?

Emerson Powery, a professor of New Testament, makes this point clearly:

“This type of behavior really is the heart of the matter.  The treatment of the neighbor says more about one’s theological commitments than any ecclesial confession.  Indeed, how one defines the neighbor – that is, how one determines who is one’s neighbor – reveals the kind of God in whom one believes.”

That’s a fairly dramatic statement to make, but one that we dare not gloss over: how we treat others says far more about us than a mere theological confession of faith.  Or, even more so, who we understand to be our neighbor, says a lot about who we believe God to really be!

On top of all of this, or maybe hidden within it, is the revolutionary reassessment of relationships that James is advocating.  Though such favoritism sounds strange and foreign to us as citizens of a democratic republic, such judgments about folks was commonplace in the world that James and the early church inhabited.  People were born into certain strata of society and were honored or demeaned accordingly.  This was culture in which the early church lived and had its being and the followers of Jesus Christ were just as tempted to follow their cultural inheritances as we are today.  Many just couldn’t get past the way that they had been raised; they couldn’t get their heads around the new way that Jesus had called them to live.

In the culture of the time of James’ writing, more affluence netted greater power in the society and people expected to be treated according to the power they held.  Now, honestly, that doesn’t sound that different from our own time, does it?  Power still holds sway in how we view others: how much power do they have?  What kind of power do they wield in our society?  We best be careful how we treat people in power!  These are just some of considerations that enter any of our minds when we look at society and how it all really works.

However, James saw something different because of his relationship with Jesus Christ.  He saw a society governed not by power, but by love.  That society was not the Roman government or the society of the synagogue; the society he envisioned in this way was the church; God’s people.

Dr. Powery adds to our understanding when he wrote:

“Christian relationships, according to these passages, depend on love, not power.  Any neighbor, or alien [foreigner] for that matter, who is viewed through the lens of power (i.e. economic status, citizenship, skills … language) will be treated differently than the one viewed through the lens of love.  The latter lens seeks the humanization of any neighbor despite what it might cost. … This is not the time to re-institute the Decalogue into contemporary society, as if posting the ‘ten words’ in front lawns and public buildings would be itself create a more moral community.  But it may be time to reclaim the ‘royal law’ of loving the neighbor …”

If you seek practical advice for the Christian life from the scriptures, here it is: “Love God AND love your neighbor as yourself.”  Show no partiality, except the partiality of love … make room for others, the ones smothered in jewelry and the ones who have not two pennies to rub together. Do this, James says, and you will be saved. In other words, you will live in a manner differently than the culture around you.  Do this, James says, and you will be followers of Jesus Christ.

    

Pure Religion: Psalm 45:1-2, 6-9 & James 1:16-27; Pentecost 14 – September 2, 2012

Rev. Martin R. Ankrum

This weekend, we find ourselves in an unusual position; one that we visit only every four years: We are between political conventions.

This past week, the Republican Party held its national convention in Tampa Bay and the Democratic Party will hold theirs this coming week in Charlotte.  Conventions are a time designed for parties to accomplish many things.  Among these items of business are:

(1) Establishing a platform, detailing the political beliefs or objectives for the party.

(2) Nominating candidates for national office.

(3) Energizing the base of the party to go out and get their candidates elected and their platform enacted.

There has been much talk about the effectiveness and necessity of such conventions this year.  Some of the pundits have pondered whether these big gatherings really even matter anymore or not.

In an admittedly old way, the passage from the Epistle of James reminds me a bit of all of this.  The writer attempts to energize the Christians to whom he writes.  He wants them to actually live their faith; to, in effect, enact the planks of the Christian platform for living.  As well, the writer of James points out that contrary to what some of the Christians may be feeling, what they do really DOES matter.  He is careful to instruct his readers in ways in which the beliefs that they hold as followers of Jesus Christ can make a real difference in this world when they actually live their religion.

James makes the point that pure doctrine and belief may matter, but what really makes for pure religion is the living out of the mandates of their faith.  He instructs them to live together with patience and toleration for one another, thinking before they speak and being careful not to become so angered in their human relationships that damage or harm is done to those relationships.

Further, he informs them that real religion, real faith is about caring for others: for the orphan and the widows amongst them.  In short, James holds that true practice of the Christian faith is more than mere words, it is about our behavior and how we care for those in the greatest need.

Gregory the Great, a Pope of the Roman Catholic Church at the end of the 6th century and the beginning of the 7th, wrote to inspire the pastors under his care.  In his Pastoral Rule, he mentioned the need for preachers to rebuke sinners, but not to forget to care for their needs:

“And certainly their preaching is for the most part despised; because while, they find fault with the deeds of sinners, but nevertheless afford them not the necessaries of the present life, they are not at all willingly listened to. For the word of doctrine penetrates not the mind of one that is in need, if the hand of compassion comments it not to his heart.”

In other words, Gregory shares with the writer of the Epistle of James a belief that real religion is about the behavior of the follower of Christ. The words of preaching or evangelism will not be heard if the needs of the listeners remain unattended.  The Gospel will not be communicated authentically unless room is made for others!

I think that at the heart of living out our faith in Jesus Christ is a great need for personal humility.  The message of Jesus Christ involves making room for others in our lives and at the table of life.  He told stories about invitations to banquets that were quite unexpected.  He related parables about the most unexpected person caring for another in need and praised this example.  When asked by one who wanted to justify himself about what was needed for eternal life, Jesus responded with his revolutionary summary of the Ten Commandments: “Love God and Love your neighbor as yourself.”  This has become such a common understanding in our belief structure as Christians that we are sometimes guilty of overlooking its meaning and importance in our journey with the living God.

James seeks to remind us of this call upon our lives to make room for others; to not assume too much space and energy for ourselves, but to share with others.  This he calls “pure religion.”

Archie Smith, Jr., a professor of psychology at the Pacific School or Religion, has recently commented on this passage:

“What we do matters, and what comes out of our mouths can make a difference, for good and for ill.  But our actions speak louder than our words.  Words may touch our emotional life and help us anticipate what is going to happen.  But our actions establish the structures of meaning that build our worlds.  Through faithful activity we create and re-create ourselves in trustworthy ways and help build worlds of trust.  Actions add value to our words and give them life.  In this way, morality has the practical aim of creating relevance, meaning, and integrity in the world.”

I couldn’t agree more with Dr. Smith: what we believe and what we say does matter, but what we do provides the structure by which we ourselves understand the calling of Jesus Christ in this life.

Our faithful action also touches the real life of the others, neighbors and strangers alike, with the gifts we have received from the One who is the giver of all good gifts. We can talk about God’s love and grace shown in the person of Jesus Christ all we want; no one will listen unless we live as those who have had our hearts captured by God’s call upon our lives to live graciously, generously and carefully.

I like very much what Peter Rhea Jones attributed to a great 20th century preacher:

“Harry Emerson Fosdick once observed that in his experience those who reflect upon their lives and conclude that they have received far less than they deserve tend to be among those from whom no great living comes. Others evaluate their lives, think they have broken about even, and conclude that they got about what they earned.  Rarely do you see any exceptional living from them either.  However, those who readily reckon they have received far more than they deserve are among those who do indulge in great living.”

Where are we on the spectrum of life that Fosdick illustrated so poignantly?  Are we those who think that we have received far less than we deserved?  Are we among those who hold that life is pretty much a “zero sum” game and we’re lucky to get what we get from living?  Or are we those who recognize what James is essentially saying; that we have received much from the living God, the giver of every good and perfect gift, and thus we must live in such a way that the blessings of our life are used to bless others?

If we find ourselves in that final category, then we know what James was writing about: pure religion is caring for others; for the neediest in our midst, for the one that we see on the street corner begging and for the one that we meet each day at work, the one who is broken inside and hurting deeply.

Deep within the human heart is a question about relevance and meaning in life: “Does what we do really much matter?” God in Jesus Christ has answered that question fully and completely: what we do matters greatly … it matters to God, to others and hopefully to ourselves.

Archie Smith, Jr., the professor I quoted earlier, ends his article with a fine point on the call to living a life of humility and care for others:

“Such living, when joined by the faithfulness of many others, can become a strong current that helps to transform the world.”

You see, it really does matter, for God is calling us to do just as James as suggested: transform the world.

Even the Sparrow …: Ephesians 6:10-20 & Psalm 84; Pentecost 13 – August 26, 2012

Rev. Martin R. Ankrum

Recently, I had the privilege of hearing a sermon delivered by my good friend and Seminary classmate, the Rev. Dr. Gary Hansen.  Gary is a professor of Church History in a Presbyterian seminary and delivered a sermon on Jesus’ call for the little children to come to him.

He opened this sermon with a rather telling tale of the place of children in worship in some of the churches in this country.

Gary related that the incident occurred in a large and prominent Presbyterian church which he was visiting in worship on a Sunday morning.  He related that all was so smooth, so professional and so helpful in assisting the congregation to draw near to our Lord.  But then, all of a sudden, from the upper reaches of the balcony, came a voice … a high-pitched, infant wail. Everyone in the congregation heard it … it was inescapable.  Gary said that the mother, holding the little fellow, must have been as aware as anyone else of her child’s cry.  She was no doubt trying to assuage his concern and stop the loud cry.

Then, the pastor, delivering his sermon to the gathered mass of somewhere between 500 and 1,000 worshippers, perceived what he must have believed to have been a “teachable moment,” and reminded all in the congregation that “there is a nursery downstairs that takes care of little children so that their parents can worship God!”

Gary then added: “The mother and child took that moment to make their exit from worship … when do you suppose they came back?”

Gary’s implication is, of course, that that young mother and her child probably never entered worship there again … or at the very least, she got the message and never again brought her child with her to worship.

But what a message that is for the church to bestow upon a young mother or a young family or any aged congregant member of the church:

“Your children are welcome here, but only in designated places and times; certainly not with you in the worship of our Lord and God.”

Gary’s experience is not unique.  Many of you may recall the story that I’ve related to you about a pastor of a large, suburban Philadelphia church I served while in seminary and his experience with children in worship.

It happened on a Sunday morning when that pastor in question was a bit frustrated with the associate pastor and me, as the Seminary Assistant.  He consulted us before the service and found out that neither of us had planned a children’s sermon.  I had been there long enough to now that either myself or the associate did the children’s sermon; the senior minister never did those.

With great frustration, he said: “Very well, I’ll do it!” and we found our places in the chancel.  When the time for the children’s sermon rolled around, he stood in the pulpit and called all the kids up.

It was a large church and there were lots of children present that morning.  He stood in pulpit, which was a different approach than the associate and I took on a weekly basis, and he asked the young kids to close their eyes and think of God.

He said: “Think of how wondrous God is!  Think of how loving and good God is to you and to us all!”

I peeked, I admit it, and saw that not only were the children complying to the request to close their eyes and ponder the goodness of our God, but so were most, if not all, of the rest of the congregation.

Then, just as everyone was peacefully meditating upon the goodness of God, the pastor quickly moved his bulletin close to the microphone and ripped it to shreds!  You can imagine the racket this created in the nearly silent sanctuary!

The children sat up straight and some even cried out in fear; murmurs began in the pews of parents and others, when the pastor, raised himself to full height in the pulpit, pointed his finger at the children and said sternly:

“There, that’s exactly what we all feel when you children come into our worship of God and disturb us with all your noise … now, off to Sunday school!”

Wow!  What would the writer of today’s psalm say about that?  In this beautiful and eloquent psalm, we hear these words:

“Even the sparrow finds a home,

and the swallow a nest for herself,

where she may lay her young,

at your altars, O Lord of hosts …”

Or something from last Sunday’s Psalter passage as well:

“One generation shall commend your works to another,

and shall declare your mighty acts.”

There it is: a clear call for us to commend the works of the living God to the next generation.  One way in which we do that is including as many of our children as possible in our worship of God.

Even if that is not enough for us, what about that passage from the Gospel of Matthew that my friend Gary preached upon in his sermon: “Suffer the little children to come unto me …”  In a culture that did not come close to perceiving children of any value at all, Jesus chides his disciples from keeping the children from me and instead, gathers them to himself, gently touching his hand upon their heads.

It is a touching scene, bordering on sentimental in many ways, but we dare not reject it.  We must find as many ways as possible to include our children in worship as often as we are possible.

If God, in Jesus Christ, has created a home for us, just as the sparrow has found a home, so too should we seek to provide a place in the worshipping congregation for our children.  They will only learn to worship if they see us, as their parents worshipping AND if we include them in our worship of God.

Some of you are old enough to remember an American Heart Association service ad from the 1960’s, entitle “Like Father, Like Son.”  It’s a warm and memorable ad in which a handsome father and his cute son are seen doing a variety of things together: washing a car, skipping stones, walking in the woods …  Each action that his father takes is imitated by the adoring son.  At the end of the one minute commercial, the father sits by a tree and pulls out his smokes.  Lighting one cigarette, he carelessly lays the pack between himself and his boy.  As the father is deep in the thought, the camera pans to the boy reaching for the pack and we hear the ominous voice of the narrator: “Like father, like son?”

Children learn from what they observe.  Let us, as God’s people here, make a place for our children to join us in worship; to teach the next generation to love this God who has given us all grace and truth; to show them the ways in which we not only celebrate God’s life in our life, but also dedicate ourselves to Christ’s service.

For the truth is, if we don’t teach them this, who will?  Grace and peace to you and your children in Jesus Christ!

In Simple Praise of God: Psalm 145; Pentecost 12 – August 19, 2012

Rev. Martin R. Ankrum

Saturday morning is one of my favorite times of the week.  For some, it signifies the opening of a restful weekend; time to be away from the pressures of work and enjoy relaxation with family and friends.  For me, it signals that Sunday is just a day away; that Sunday, the Lord’s Day, is within my sight.

I love Saturday because I have the awesome opportunity to come to a nearly empty church building, sit in my office with coffee and scripture and contemplate the vast mercy and grace of the divine.  On Saturday mornings, I am given the chance to spend time in God’s Word, to consider what scripture has to reveal to us all about the love and being of the divine.  There is of course, the pressure to produce a sermon from all this Biblical musing and contemplation, but that pressure is overwhelmed by the sheer pleasure of setting time aside and quietly approaching God’s Word.

The feeling I get from my typical Saturday morning is summed up in the one word: gratitude.  Indeed, I am deeply grateful to have the time and space to do just what I do on Saturday morning.  I am grateful to the congregation for allowing me this rare and special privilege, this unique position.  I realize that it is the support of the congregation that affords me this time and space; it is your support and kindness that allows me to be your pastor and the one who delivers the Word to you on a weekly basis.  I cannot adequately frame the words to express my gratitude to you for this continual and continuing opportunity.

Just as I am grateful to you for this chance, I am even more thankful to God for the richness of such simple blessings in life.  Here, we are not much different at all from one another.  We, as God’s people, all experience this feeling of gratitude to the Almighty for the rich blessings of life itself.

This is at the very heart of the experience of the Christian, the faithful follower of Jesus Christ: praise and thanks to God.  And there is no place where this is more felt than in the experience of corporate worship of God.

Certainly, the individual believer can offer his or her praise of God at any time and in any place, but there is no place like the church gathered on the Lord’s Day to bring to God our connected and collective praise.  If we left this sacrifice of praise to our own individual and differentiated schedules, let’s be honest, it wouldn’t occur as frequently or on such a refined level as it does when we are together.  It is here, in worship together on the Lord’s Day, that we most adequately and accurately offer our praise to the Almighty.

When we gather together to offer our praise and thanks to God, we are lifted beyond our mere individual experience.  We are called out of the depths of our solo hearts and souls and find ourselves buoyed along, as it were, with the presence of others.  In worship, we are encouraged by the witness of others to the greatness of God and thus are enabled to encourage others in their worship.  For this reason of collective encouragement, it may be that Christ told his disciples that where two or more gather, there he is in their midst.  He didn’t say, “I’ll occupy your individual heart so that wherever you go, I’ll be carried along.” No, Christ called his disciples to gather together to actually experience his indwelling presence.  This is not something we should pass over too lightly: corporate worship of God is the most adequate means of thanksgiving and praise for God.  We can’t adequately do that alone.

Fundamentally then, worship is about praise of God.  God must always then be at the center of our worship.  If God is not at the center, then worship can slip into the more common experience of entertainment.  There are indeed elements of worship that can be entertaining to us as human beings, but if being entertained for an hour on a Sunday morning is the goal of a church service, than it has failed to truly be worship.

The issue becomes accommodation.  When the central focus of worship is entertainment, then we are seeking to accommodate the self.  We are attempting to please people if our focus is taken from God.  This is precisely why true corporate worship of God is counter-cultural.  Our culture is about such things as self-accommodation: we seek to accommodate ourselves and our schedules for life in many and various ways.  However, the worship of God is about accommodating the Almighty first and foremost.  Corporate worship is about placing ourselves in a position that is not about pleasing ourselves and family and friends, but rather pleasing God.  That is what real and authentic gratitude is all about really and it takes some real discipline on our part to do that successfully.

I am reminded of the comments of a Presbyterian minister named Paul Hooker, who wrote in an essay the following:

Preaching is most faithful when it reaches beyond comfortable accommodation to the culture and imagines the hoped-for new reality God is creating. Its task is to depict that new reality in clear and compelling terms, and to invite its hearers to enter it, to have their lives shaped by its norms and values.

Though Dr. Hooker’s comments were directed at the task of preaching, I don’t think it too-far-a-field to suggest that they apply equally well to the practice of corporate worship.  Here, when we worship together and are faithful about it, we are called “beyond comfortable accommodation to the culture” and we begin to envision the kind of new life to which Christ calls us all.  When we gather together in worship, not seeking to be accommodated, but seeking to accommodate the Almighty in praise and thanksgiving, we begin to have our lives shaped by the norms and values which God holds as integral to an authentic human life of love and faithfulness to God and love for neighbor.  These things are shaped within us when we gather together in praise and thanks of God.

Accommodation of God over self is never an easy thing, nor should it ever be.  It requires something deep and personal from us; in short, it requires commitment and discipline.  I recall an experience I had visiting another congregation on behalf of the presbytery one time.  I was there to meet with the Session of the church to discuss some matter and in taking the time to introduce ourselves, one of the elders shared a very telling tale about her view of worship.

She mentioned that she and her husband had moved to the community some years prior and could not find a church that would meet their expectations.  She said that they had prayed for a sign from God and one Friday afternoon received the answer to their prayers.

After smiling at the pastor and receiving a knowing grin and nod from him, she went on to describe the divine sign she received.  It happened that the church had just started an 8:30 morning service and advertised it on a placard on the church lawn.  This was the answer; this was the divine sign, for you see, she and her husband always went to the gym at 9:45 a.m. like clock-work and no church in town provided an accommodating worship schedule to their all-mighty need of a 9:45 a.m. workout.  To her satisfaction, this church accommodated her needs nicely.

I’m sure that she is a fine person and an able elder for that church, yet I question how much she and her husband are truly willing to accommodate God, if everything revolves around their exercise schedule and not absolute commitment to the worship of God.

Today, the psalmist reminds us that praise of God, accommodation to his purposes and desires for us as human beings, is right at the heart of worship.  Worship is the expression of our gratitude to God – it is our opportunity to gather together and realize the presence of Jesus Christ in our lives and in the lives of others.

Indeed, I am grateful for my Saturday morning routine for it assures and reminds me that Sunday is just around the corner.  On Sunday another, far more important routine will soon envelope me and set me on my way for another week lived out in God’s grace.  I know the same is true for you.

Reconciliation: Psalm 23 & Ephesians 2:11-22; Pentecost 8 – July 22, 2012

Rev. Martin R. Ankrum

The following is a story from Joseph Harvard, the pastor of a Presbyterian church in North Carolina:

The First Presbyterian Church of Durham established a memorial garden in 1984 as a sacred space to place the ashes of church members.  The names of the saints ‘who from their labor rest’ are displayed on plaques that hang on the wall in the garden.  One day a devoted member and a lay leader of the congregation, Gran Uzzle, who owned a successful automobile dealership, asked me to join him in the memorial garden.

As we stood beneath the wall of names, he pointed to two plaques.  One was a plaque for George Watts Hill, a lifelong member and part of a highly respected North Carolina family, a prominent business and civic leader, and a philanthropist.  The other was a plaque for Richard Vereen.  Richard was an African American who grew up in Andrews, South Carolina, until he was drafted and served in the U.S. Army in Vietnam. During his tour of duty, he became addicted to drugs.  In his mid-thirties, upon his release from service in the Army, he settled in Durham.  As he struggled valiantly to overcome his debilitating illness, Richard joined our congregation and was an active member.  When a seizure took his life, the congregation, who had become his family, held his memorial service.

When Gran Uzzle pointed to these two plaques, he said, ‘Every time I come into this garden and see these two plaques near each other, I know I am in church.’

Where else but the church could such reconciliation be found?  It’s not that there was anything personally between the two members of that church; nothing other than the barriers that society might have constructed that would have kept these two men a part in life.  However, through their involvement in Christ’s church, they have been brought together … even if only in death.

The apostle Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians, makes the bold statement that in Jesus Christ; we have received reconciliation, not only with God, but with others as well.  The boundary walls that exist in human society are demolished in Jesus Christ … or least can be dismantled.  Paul reports that the mechanism of this reconciliation is Jesus Christ himself.  “He is our peace …”

One doesn’t have to live very long in human society to realize that all kinds of barriers exist between people.  We are divided by our political allegiances, by our socio-economic status, by our geography, by our prejudices and our bigotries as well.  We find our self-identities wrapped up in these boundaries that are created and when those identities are challenged, we can become very defensive.

It may well be that we are most comfortable with walls and barriers and boundaries in our life.  We don’t want to be exposed, as it were, by the vast plains of human connections.  We wall ourselves up in like-minded categories and designations so that we might protect ourselves and keep ourselves either untouched by “those others.”  Or it just may be that we, in our sinful state of the human condition, believe that we are somehow better than those who inhabit other designations or identities.

However that may, that very common element of self-protection by keeping up the boundaries and barriers that separate is what the Bible calls sin.  It is sinful to believe that we are somehow better than other classes of people.  It is sinful to maintain barriers and boundaries that Christ himself has brought to an end in his death and resurrection.  Paul saw this kind of sin somehow endangering the Ephesian community and called them to something greater; something better.

Barbara Wheeler, former seminary president, wrote rather eloquently on the biblical perspective on all this:

God hates walls and divisions and intends to save the world by breaking them down.  If we want to stay close to God, we need to participate in this barrier-breaking project, not frustrate it.  Churches, for all their awful mistakes, have a unique power to do that … The community of God has no barriers to membership, not even sin.  Christ died for us while we were yet sinners.  He didn’t wait until we got over it … When the church lives up to its charter, nothing divides its members … People who wouldn’t come together for any other reason, who don’t share nationality, race, opinions, who don’t even like each other, can draw close to each other here, because God chose all of them.

This then is our calling as Christ’s church: to be the people of reconciliation in a world so seemingly bound and determined to divide and balkanize the human family.  In a world so very apt at defining one’s self and others with barriers, partitions and differences, Christ calls us to reach across old boundaries, old prejudices and old bigotries and find something completely new, something completely different: reconciliation.

This is our calling and we endanger the witness of the church when we ignore it and refuse to participate in what God is doing right here and now in our midst.  We frustrate the purposes of God and find ourselves on the outside of the grace of God rather than inside as his workers, his servants, his peace-bearers, his children.

The call in Ephesians should give us all pause to consider just where those boundaries and barrier walls exist in our own lives and in our own witness to Jesus Christ.  Whom have we “walled off” from ourselves?  What old injuries and hurts that we have experienced and refused to forget continue to keep us hard at the work of barrier-maintenance?  Where can we allow Jesus to bring down a fence or two in our lives with others in this world?

These are important questions because our witness to Jesus Christ is endangered whenever we continue the old ways of keeping up the fences, the boundaries and barriers that Christ himself has defeated.

Again, Joseph Harvard, the pastor of that Presbyterian Church in Durham, writes about this well:

The church is the demonstration plot for the new humanity brought about by God’s reconciling work in Jesus Christ.  To be the church is to be a people who respond to God’s work with joy and praise, who display something of what God intends for all humanity in their common life. The church is called to provide an alternative to the cultures of enmity at work in the world.  It is to be a community that resists efforts to build up again those walls of division and enmity that Christ has broken down.  It is to be a place of hospitality to the stranger, a place of peaceable difference.  It is to demonstrate the new human community that Christ has made.  It is to put God’s work and cause on display.  God knows the world desperately needs to see it.  Ephesians calls us in the church to reclaim our identity as peacemakers in the spirit of Christ, who is our peace, and to be about the business of breaking down the dividing walls.

Can the walls come down?  I’m convinced of it … because, in the final assessment, “… he is our peace …”

An Election that Matters: Psalm 24 & Ephesians 1:3-14; Pentecost 7 – July 15, 2012

Rev. Martin R. Ankrum

Peter Gomes, late-great Minister of the Memorial Church at Harvard University, said this in a sermon once:

“That is what hell is.  Not fire and brimstone and eternal torment, as the medievalists loved to paint it for us, but rather hell is being defined by your circumstances, and believing that definition.”

Gomes was commenting about the text that we heard today from Ephesians and the way in which life has a way of defining us in less-than-helpful ways.

Before the above quote was spoken, Gomes had said this:

“You see the circumstances surrounding your life, the things by which others define you, and in which seemingly you have little to say.  You are a pregnant, unwed teenager in Chicago, a corporate executive about to be fired from a stock brokerage firm on Wall Street, a senior dreading graduation, an unemployed intellectual, a professor trapped in a passionless job or a hopeless marriage; you are fearful of too much work or of too little work.  All of you, all of us, if we are defined by our circumstances alone, by those things so easily described and measured good, bad, or indifferent, then we are indeed trapped and there is no way out.  We are who that person is, described by those horrid, dreadful, unavoidable circumstances.”

Maybe we didn’t find ourselves in the examples that Gomes listed, but we can find ourselves in our own quicksand of some definitions and circumstances that are placed upon us.  We are, from time to time, tempted to do just as Gomes has delineated: define ourselves solely and completely by our circumstances.  And sometimes, such definitions and such circumstances can be grim.

We turn around in our lives and find ourselves seemingly hopelessly muddled in the midst of the barriers and difficulties of life.  We find ourselves to be more and more the troubles we have rather than the people that we really are.  This is the kind of feeling that many of us do experience from time to time, but there is good news this morning; the Letter to the Ephesians provides not just a glimmer of hope, but a wondrous pyrotechnical display of eternal and true hope!

Paul writes to the Ephesians and delivers to them the good and glorious news that they are not victims of their circumstance.  They are not defined merely by the barriers and troubles that they face.  Instead, they are, without a doubt, the adopted children of the living God!

It is here, in these short few verses, just at the start of the great Letter to Ephesians, that we learn that we have been predestined in Jesus Christ, from before the beginnings of creation itself, to be the children of God.

The doctrine of predestination is so misunderstood by most of us that we believe it to be an awful leftover of our Puritanical and religiously-oppressive past.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  When understood rightly, in the biblical fashion, the doctrine of predestination is THE good news about God in Jesus Christ.

Paul makes it very clear that we are not the product of our circumstances, but are the product of divine love and grace, exhibited in the providential election in Jesus Christ.  Here’s what Paul wrote:

In love 5 he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, 6 to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. 7 In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, 8 which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight 9 making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ 10 as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.

Here, then are our real circumstances … we are the adopted children of the living God.  There are circumstances of life that can rob us of such a definition, such a designation as this.

The doctrine of predestination teaches us that the election that really matters in this life; the definition of human life that really matters is that we have been chosen and elected by God to share in Jesus Christ.  It is Christ, the first-born, the Elected One, who shares his election with us … it is in Jesus Christ and in Christ alone that we find the grace and peace to live out, in joyous hope, the life that we have been given.

This is at great contrast with what we see in our world and with what, from time to time, we convince ourselves are our true self-definitions or self-identities.  There are moments when we can feel worthless, uprooted, desensitized, crippled, emotionally barren, in short, not what we would want to be.  Sometimes, life and others in our lives have a way of beating us down and causing us to think of ourselves as fairly meaningless and fairly insignificant.

It is this doctrine of predestination that assures us that in reality, we have been elected to a great hope.  This hope is not to found in us or as by product of our life somehow, but only and surely in Jesus Christ and in Christ alone.

In fact, much is expected from us as the elect of God.  We have been elected to God’s grace for a purpose: that we might live doxologically.  That’s right, doxologically; that is, living with thanksgiving and praise to the One who has predestined that we might be adopted as his children.  We are called to live with thanksgiving and gratitude, imitating Jesus Christ himself by doing what is good and right.

Markus Barth, a professor of New Testament and the son of the famous Karl Barth, wrote this about the doctrine of predestination and election:

“Awareness of election is neither a church steeple from which to view the human landscape or a pillow to sleep on.  But is a stronghold in times of temptation and trials.”

How are you defined in this world; by your troubles or external labels … or are you defined by the one thing that really matters … our election in Jesus Christ to be God’s children?  This is the lasting identification that we are called to remember always: we are God’s children.

The Paucity of Suffering: Psalm 48 & II Cor. 12:2-20; Pentecost 6 – July 8, 2012

Rev. Martin R. Ankrum

To all of you, like me, who want to flee from suffering and pain, I say, hold on.  To those who seek to hide themselves as best they can from any affliction or distress, I say, listen to what Paul has to say.

Now I know that such advice from your pastor does not seem natural or even like a good idea.  Our culture and our own experience may teach us to avoid pain, struggle, suffering or distress of any kind.  And on the whole, I would be in agreement … but then, I was confronted by the very words that you have just heard from Paul.

It is obvious that Paul has suffered greatly and yet has found not emptiness or a paucity of meaning in the experience, but through his suffering, he has been filled with something beyond just the moment or the pain at hand.

In an article dedicated to this passage, Daniel Akins, a professor from Criswell College in Texas, set forth quite a few things that could be learned from Paul.

First of all, hear what Dr. Akins presents as the first item that can be learned from Paul’s experience as related in the passage from II Corinthians:

“We should learn something of the very nature of Christian leadership.  Little is more important in our day when promoting self under the guise of promoting Christ has become both commonplace and indeed an advocated practice.”

What Akins alludes to here is our tendency for the leaders of Christian communities or churches to place promotion of their own desires or even themselves over the promotion of Christ’s kingdom.  I am in agreement with Akins’ criticism of our current situation in the light of what we can learn from II Corinthians.

By way of context, let me say that Paul was responding to a great issue within the Corinthian church by which leadership seemed to be based upon the spectacular nature of the leader’s experience of God.  If one had a greater or more thrilling story of their faith journey with God, one was more likely to become a leader in the church.

Paul’s point should be heard by us in this sanctuary this morning and by the Church Officer Nominating Committee, working to discern the will of God in terms of the leadership of our church.  Paul advocates humility in the leadership of Christ’s church, seeking that the purposes of God be promoted more than the individual leaders of the church.  Of course, not only should Church Officer Nominating Committees hear these words, so should all the pastors of the churches as well, this pastor included.

Akins goes on with his analysis:

“We should seek to emulate the model of Christian maturity Paul exemplifies.  Service, humility, conviction, and spiritual depth are the characteristics that should be our priorities, our goals.”

Here’s one of the things that suffering can grant to us: maturity or as others have said, gravitas.  It is through sometimes through suffering that maturity is gained.

Christian maturity is marked by those things that are mentioned by Dr. Akins above, but also by a willingness to understand that participation in Christ’s church is first and foremost, about Jesus Christ and not us!  In a culture that judges the worth of things based upon how convenient they are for us, as mature Christians, we should learn to mark our decisions based not upon what we want, but what best serves the purposes of God and his church in this world!

Daniel Harrell, another pastor, said about all this, very simply:

“To be serious about following Christ means suffering for Christ.”

That, my beloved, is maturity in Christ, knowing that it is not about us, but really always all about Jesus.

Finally, Akin states the following:

“We should be reminded that Christians individually and corporately are responsible for the styles of leadership they follow and honor.  The reality that Christian leaders are responsible before the Lord for their conduct and teaching is equally balanced by the truth that the members of the Christian community are responsible before Christ for choosing what and whom they will follow.”

Whether we articulate it or not, we, as Christians, select our mentors and it is Akins advice, based upon his reading of Paul, that we carefully select those mentors.  I stand in agreement.

We need to select our mentors wisely.  It’s not about their claim to be “super-apostles” as Paul calls them; folks who say that their experience of God’s love or grace or wisdom or peace, is so impressive.  It is a matter of selecting mentors who maturely live the Christian life with the humility and dignity that only Christ can grant.

Of course, the prime mentor, the greatest teacher from which we can learn is Jesus Christ himself.  It was God in Christ who suffered for us upon a cross and taking that suffering into himself, he triumphed over sin and death, resurrected by the power of God to triumph over any suffering to create new life.

If this is what we learn from suffering, no matter to what degree we suffer, then we have learned what Paul and the Holy Scriptures have to teach.

Family Reunion: II Cor. 6:1-13 & I Sam. 17:32-49; Pentecost 4 – June 24, 2012

Rev. Martin R. Ankrum

We have spoken frankly to you Corinthians; our heart is wide open to you. There is no restriction in our affections, but only in yours. In return—I speak as to children—open wide your hearts also.

This coming week will mark the convening of the 220th General Assembly of our denomination in nearby Pittsburgh.  Some are holding their breath for fear of what will arise from this forthcoming body of deliberation, while others are greeting this coming gathering as a landmark new beginning for our church.  Some perceive the biennial gathering of our denomination like a family reunion, replete with all the renewals of friendship and possibility for squabbles that any of our families face when they come together.

In my own experience, the two sides of my family always provided stark contrasts when it came to our gatherings.  My mother’s family, the Murphys, meet as a family often and at least annually.  They all seemed ancient to me at the age of8 or 9, but many of them were well into their nineties.  It was always a civil affair: fried chicken, lemonade and a lot of discussion about how close each had come to death’s door since the last reunion.  They all seemed to live forever, but they were a sickly lot.  Each Murphy reunion would end with hugs, well-wishes and “see you next year” shouted back and forth.  Indeed, a pleasant and cheering end that encouraged greater frequency of meeting.

My father’s family was a different story: The Ankrums gathered about every five years of so … long enough time to elapse for the folks to forget what had transpired at the last meeting.  The Ankrums were a livelier bunch, but they didn’t seem to live as long as the Murphys … and the menu differed slightly: instead of lemonade there was usually a keg of beer centrally located.  Though the Ankrums always, absolutely always, had a good time, the reunions tended to end in either fights or the arrival of the local police at the request of the neighbors.  Somehow, I think the keg always seemed to quicken the ending.

Every family has their own traditions and there’s nothing like a fight in a family to create both hard feelings and incredible opportunity for deep and abiding reconciliation.  When you live in a family and you really care about that family, you learn to tolerate and respect the differences of others.  My brother puts up with me and I return the favor … that’s the way it is in families.  That’s the way it should be in the family of God, but it’s not always the case.

As our own denominational “family reunion” quickly approaches, I can’t help but think of the passage read today from Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians.  The great Apostle pleads for the people of God to get along; to be reconciled with each other and with God.  Paul lists peace and reconciliation as the hallmarks of the people of God; the very thing needed within the household of faith. It’s a lesson that the Corinthians needed to learn just as much as we 21st Century Christians need to learn as well.

Paul writes to the disorganized and argument-prone Corinthians, who are fighting each other tooth and nail, tearing each other and their church apart.  At the end of a lengthy defense of his ministry with them, he writes these wonderful words:

We have spoken frankly to you Corinthians; our heart is wide open to you. There is no restriction in our affections, but only in yours. In return—I speak as to children—open wide your hearts also.

More than doctrinal correctness and more than complete and absolute lock-step agreement on any one issue, the great Apostle finds that what can truly bring the people of God together and unify them in peace is an open and sincere honesty and love … “an open heart,” as Paul calls it.  This open heart is imitative of One who loved us enough to give himself selflessly on a cross; the very epitome of a wide open heart.

Is this the witness that our churches are able to present to the world?  A wide-open heart?  Or is there a different witness we are offering to our neighbors, one which is rife with argumentation and bitter in-fighting all over issues that appear to me not to be central to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, instead these issues seem to be about one particular view of who is in and who should be out in terms of God’s kingdom. The arguments that the Presbyterian Church seems to be involving herself in now are about just who God loves and who God can’t possibly love.  It’s all about the limits or generosity of God’s grace, and if you ask me it’s really nothing new in the history of our church.

Back in the year that my father was born, 1922, Harry Emerson Fosdick, pastor at the time of First Presbyterian Church in New York City, preached a sermon that gained great attention and notoriety.

The sermon was entitled: “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” and Fosdick admirably laid out the case against an exclusionary form of the Christian religion that was gaining ground on the more orthodox views held by Presbyterians and other preservers of the Reformation faith.  Fosdick typified this new alteration to Christianity as intolerant of others who disagreed with them; intolerance at such a level that people were being kicked out of their church over disagreement regarding the inspiration of the Bible.

Here’s a particularly insightful assertion offered by Fosdick in his landmark sermon:

“This is a free country and anybody has a right to hold these opinions or any others if he is sincerely convinced of them. The question is — Has anybody a right to deny the Christian name to those who differ with him on such points and to shut against them the doors of the Christian fellowship? The Fundamentalists say that this must be done. In this country and on the foreign field they are trying to do it. They have actually endeavored to put on the statute books of a whole state binding laws against teaching modern biology. If they had their way, within the church, they would set up in Protestantism a doctrinal tribunal more rigid than the pope’s.”

Paul’s focus in his argumentation with the original recipients of his letter is that whatever the doctrinal differences might be, reconciliation with God and others is just as important as all other claims on the Body of Christ.  In Christ’s church, we should, above all, seek the peace and unity of the church as much as we would seek her purity.  There is nothing more sacred or right, as the psalmist assures us, than God’s people living together in peace.  And living together in peace requires great amounts of tolerance amongst brothers and sisters; the very thing that seems in short supply for our denomination just now.

Rupertus Meldenius, a 17th century theologian, said it best:

“In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity!”

Amen, brother Rupertus, amen!

The Unexpected Choice: II Cor. 5:6-17 & I Sam. 15:34-16:13 – Pentecost 3, June 17, 2012

Rev. Martin R. Ankrum

7But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”

Some days in which we live, we realize the significance of the moment … days of graduations, weddings, the beginning day of employment with a new firm, births, deaths and the like.  On those days, we know without much studied perception, the significance of the moment.

However, most of the days that fill our lives are not like that.  We don’t see the significance of a particular date on the calendar of life except possibly when hindsight is gained.  It is then that we can look back and say to ourselves: “That was the day when …”

Rolf Jacobson, a Lutheran professor of Biblical studies commented helpfully about the text from I Samuel:

“God’s guidance is usually not as discernable in the moment as it is in hindsight. We may not sense what God is doing in our midst or how God is leading us. Even the great prophet Samuel did not know what God was doing. This story, with so much of the Old Testament, affirms that God’s ‘providence’ operates beyond the spectrum in which our sight operates, but even so we remain within God’s view.”

Dr. Jacobson might have been commenting on the text for this morning, but the truth that he relates reaches far beyond the boundaries of today’s pericope from I Samuel.  What the good doctor says speaks right to our lives here and now, for the truth should be apparent to us: we do not always (and sometimes never) perceive the workings of God in our lives until some modicum of hindsight is achieved.  We don’t fully understand the movements of God in our lives until we can gain a little space in time and look back and say: “That was the day when …”

Maybe this is one of the reasons that church histories hold such an attraction to me: the hindsight of events that the author or the church has discovered with the passage of time is what makes up most of these histories.  Time has provided a perspective for the authors that allow perception of the activity of God in the life of the congregation.

What those histories provide is testimony to this quality of hindsight when it comes to the things of God that the passage from I Samuel points up quite well.

The story is not unknown to us: God wanted to replace Saul as the King of Israel and he appointed Samuel to find that replacement.  The Lord admonished Samuel with these words:

“Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”

Here’s a literary cue to the reader that tells us to expect the unexpected.  The Lord informs Samuel that his man for the job will not necessarily be the obvious choice; the Lord echoes the sentiments of that well-known saying: “The Lord works in mysterious ways.”  In short, God’s choice will be the unexpected one; a choice whose quality is not comprehended until hindsight is gained.

This is not unlike our situation when it comes to the things of faith and being the church.  Not many of us would say that God’s ways in this world and that God’s reasoning are immediately accessible to us.  There is a bit of a shielding cloud when it comes to God; as Moses experienced on the mountaintop.  We do not look directly into the mind of God by any means.

Because of this mystery feature of just how God is at work in our lives and in the life of the world, we have questions in our heart of hearts about just how all this works.  Despite what others may claim, the Bible is not an Owner’s Manual for life, for the scriptures themselves tend to add to and deepen this mystery just a bit as well as providing clarity and illumination in other ways.

Karl Barth, great theologian of the last century, put it very well when he said that all the people have only one thing on their minds when they hear the church bells calling the faithful to worship.  That one thing, he said, was the simple, but profound question: “Is it true?”  His point was that those who come to church on Sunday mornings are all pretty much wondering the same vital thing: “Is it true?”

If we are honest, we would admit the same.  We come here with that gnawing, but profoundly important question, in the back of our usually over-filled and over-taxed mind:

“Is it true what we will hear today that there is a God and that this God, found in Jesus Christ, seeks to be involved in my life?”

The story from I Samuel does not necessarily put an end to that question by any means, but it gives us some insight into how we might begin and keep answering that question to some satisfaction: God’s ways are not our ways.  Or, in the words of Rolf Jacobson:

“God’s guidance is usually not as discernable in the moment as it is in hindsight. We may not sense what God is doing in our midst or how God is leading us. Even the great prophet Samuel did not know what God was doing. This story, with so much of the Old Testament, affirms that God’s ‘providence’ operates beyond the spectrum in which our sight operates, but even so we remain within God’s view.”

It’s that last phrase of the last sentence of Dr. Jacobson’s words that catches my attention and kindles my faith: “…but even so we remain within God’s view.”

We may not know completely the workings of God in this world.  We may need to be patient with life and wait a bit before hindsight into the activity of God in our life is gained, but we can trust that we are never outside of the sight of God. We are always in the view of God even when our view of God is as misty and mysterious as a thick, covering cloud.

Fredrick Buechner, a Presbyterian minister and novelist, was invited to preach on the occasion of the 200th anniversary of a Congregational Church in his home of Rupert, Vermont; his sermon, published with others in a collection, is a remarkable testimony to the unseen God.

In the middle of the sermon, he said this”

“Since 1786 people have been coming here the way you and I came here today.  Men who fought in the American Revolution and the widows of men who never got back from it.  Civil War veterans. Two centuries’ worth of farmers, dairymen, mill workers, an occasional traveler.  Old men and old women with most of their lives behind them, and young men and young women with most of their lives ahead of them.  People who made a go of it and are remembered still, and people who somehow never left their mark in any way the world noticed and aren’t remembered anymore by anybody.  Despite the enormous differences between them, all these men and women entered this building just the way you and I entered it a few minutes ago because of the one thing they had in common.”

“What they had in common was that, like us, they believed (or sometimes believed and sometimes didn’t believe; or wanted to believe; or like to think that they believed) that the universe, that everything there is, didn’t come about by chance, but was created by God.  Like us, they believed, on their best days anyway, that, all appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, this God was a God like Jesus, which is to say a God of love.  That, I think, is the crux of the matter.  In 1786 and 1886 and 1986 and all the years between, that is at the heart of what has made this place a church. That is what all the whooping has been about. In the beginning it was not some vast cosmic explosion that mad the heavens and the earth.  It was a loving God who did.  That is our faith and the faith of all the ones who came before us.”

And that is the same for us here as well.  Dr. Buechner could have very well been describing this congregation as much as the one in Vermont.  The truth has been perceived (maybe only in hindsight) by the likes of Samuel and David, the congregation in Rupert and by us, hopefully, as well: that we might not fully understand the activity of God in our lives, that it may be concealed a bit in mist and mystery, but God has us in full view … that we can trust that we are never outside of his loving gaze and guiding care.  And, friends, is what we all call faith.

What They Want: II Cor. 4:13-5:1 & I Sam. 8:4-22; Pentecost 2-June 10, 1012

Rev. Martin R. Ankrum

It’s an old story that is still as wise as it is funny.  I was recently reminded of it by the Rev. Dr. William Carl III, president of nearby Pittsburgh Theological Seminary:

[A young monk entered] a monastery where everyone had to take a vow of silence. The abbot told the young monk that he would only get to say two words every five years. The young monk knew this would be a challenge but agreed grudgingly. At the end of the first five years the abbot asked him, “What are your two words?” The young monk replied, “Bed hard.” At the end of the second five years, the abbot asked him what his two words were this time. The young monk replied, “Food bad.” At the end of the third five years when the abbot asked him what his two words were, the young monk replied, “Want out!” And the abbot said, “I’m not surprised; you’ve done nothing but gripe and complain from the moment you got here.”

I guess one of the morals of the story would be that leading a disciplined life can be a difficult task. Discipline to an exterior rule tends, obviously, to limit our self-expression and our fulfillment of what we want.  When one is disciplined in being faithful, one is asked to put one’s own personal desires and wishes in a second position rather than in the prime position in finding one’s way in life.  That is indeed, the challenging element!  It is foreign to us in our individualized culture and we are, quite honestly, resistant to it!

In short, we could say: “We want what we want and when anyone or anything gets in our way of fulfilling that want, look out!”

The story from I Samuel is a demonstration of that sentiment.  The people of Israel, sensing that Samuel, the prophet, is growing old and his sons worthless, want instead a king!

The people of God had been living under the direction of the prophets … Samuel in particular, so this demand is something new for them!  Israel was more a theocracy than any other type of government up till then: God was perceived as the ruler of the people.

But this was not the way that the other nations that surrounded Israel did business … not at all.  The other nations all had monarchies: kings ruled these other nations. The people of Israel began to see such a system as a reasonable and attractive alternative to what God had given them up to this point.  And it is here that the problem begins: the people of God want what they want!  They are not about to take “no” for an answer.

A friend in ministry recently reported a story that caught my attention.  He had received a call from a couple in his community who were not members of the church but wanted to have their child baptized during worship the following Sunday.  He explained the stipulations that our Book of Order, as Presbyterians, placed upon all those who seek to receive the sacrament for their children: that at least one of them had to be a member of the church in order to receive such a sacrament.  In short, my friend said “No” to the couple.

The father of the young child in question was incensed.  He said to my friend: “What do you mean, no!  I’ve never heard of a church saying ‘no’ to anyone!”

The truth is, that we want what we want and sometimes we are not the best judges over whether what we want is really right, reasonable or helpful to us.  I stand firm with my colleague in ministry in his decision, there are times when the church needs to say “no” in order that God’s great “Yes” in Jesus Christ is heard rightly and understood properly.

This is the challenging part of being a disciple of Jesus Christ: we must subjugate our own desires and wants to the call upon our lives to be faithful and obedient to God in this life.

The people of Israel wanted a king, and even though the story reports that God reluctantly honored their request, the implication from the story was that it would have been better for the people to have just been obedient and faithful to God’s vision for them rather than their own desires and wishes to be “like other nations.”

P. Kyle McCarter, Jr., professor of Biblical studies at Johns Hopkins University, has commented upon this passage:

“The people demand a king of Samuel because they want to be like the other nations; but this is precisely what they are not supposed to be.  As our narrator sees it, they are a special community, divinely provided for and uniquely privileged.  Now they seek a new status that in their impetuosity they regard as more glorious; but in the seeking they repudiate their own glory.”

In short, the people have failed to comprehend that their peculiarity from the other nations is precisely the point: they are not to be like other people, they are God’s people and thus stand in witness to the power, the glory and the love of God by the very form of their community.  Because they have wanted what they want, they have failed to be faithful to the very heart of who God has called them to be.

This kind of behavior is not limited of course to the Bible or to a history that is long past.  In the last century, the German Church gave up their witness to the love and grace of Jesus Christ in order that they might conform to the pressures of the National Socialist movement of their day: Hitler’s party.

In reaction to this gross disobedience and lack of faithfulness to the purposes of God, a group of German Christians, dubbing themselves, “The Confessing Church,” struck out to say a courageous and thunderous “No” to Hitler and his cruel regime, writing a confession that we, as a church, uphold and affirm to this day: The Barmen Declaration.

Part of this fascinating confession reads thusly:

“The Christian Church is the congregation of the brethren in which Jesus Christ acts presently as the Lord in Word and sacrament through the Holy Spirit. As the Church of pardoned sinners, it has to testify in the midst of a sinful world, with its faith as with its obedience, with its message as with its order, that it is solely his property, and that it lives and wants to live solely from his comfort and from his direction in the expectation of his appearance.

“We reject the false doctrine, as though the Church were permitted to abandon the form of its message and order to its own pleasure or to changes in prevailing ideological and political convictions.”

Being Christ’s church in this world is never about what we want, but rather what God wants for us and for this world.  This is a seminal understanding that if we forsake, we endanger the life of Christ’s church.  This is right at the heart of the matter, not just for the ancient people of Israel or for those resistant to Hitler’s demonic rule, but for us in our age and time as well!

God does not call us to be necessarily clever or intelligent, poetic or inspiring, even effective or efficient in our management of God’s purposes in this world: God calls us instead to be obedient and faithful to God’s vision for a world of peace and grace and ultimately love … regardless of what we want.

The Wisdom of God: Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31 & John 16:12-15; Trinity Sunday-June 3, 2012

Rev. Martin R. Ankrum

We live in an incredibly complex world.  The complication of the world and its various parts and wholes seem to increase rather than decrease.  Consider your own lifetime here on this bountiful and beautifully constructed planet; has not life become seemingly more involved, more complicated with each passing year?  It has for me, so I assume that that might just be the case for you as well.

As much complexity as I encounter in the world nothing is more mysterious and beyond my reasoning than the internal combustion engine.  That’s right, that’s what I said: it’s the internal combustion engine that remains a mystery to me even after I have read manual upon manual and definition upon definition, the simple internal combustion engine remains a bit of a mystery to me, a bit of the proof of the complexity of human life.

I don’t think I’m alone in this either, for one of the most popular National Public Radio programs features the engine and all-things automotive as it’s topic. “Car Talk” is hosted by two brothers who happen to be wise-cracking, hilariously funny mechanics.  I enjoy listening to them as do many others.

During an episode from a few years ago, the complexity of all-things automotive came into sharp focus when the solution to the weekly featured “Puzzler” segment was announced.  Each week, an automotive puzzle is presented and the listening audience is encouraged to send in their answers.  That week’s was a particularly poignant example.

The puzzle centered around the 710 cap on a teenager’s car.  The story involves a new driver coming to a part’s desk in some Napa store and asking the grizzled clerk for a 710 cap.  The experienced clerk asked the young man what a 710 cap was and found that the teenager had no idea except that that cap was always on the engine securely every other time he had driven it.  He said that his father had trained him to always open the hood, check over the engine and make sure that everything looked as it had the last time he had driven the car.  Not a bad practice, I suppose, but this time, the young man noticed that the 710 cap was missing and he badly needed a replacement.

The clerk had never heard of such a part of an engine so he asked the inexperienced driver to describe it.  The young man made a circle with his finger that depicted about a three inch, round cap.  Still not quite getting it, the clerk handed the teenager a piece of paper and a pencil and said: “Draw it.”

The boy did as he was told and produced a sketch of a round cap with the numbers 710 embossed on the top.  The well-experience purveyor of parts looked over the drawing, scratched his head in bewilderment until he turned the paper 180 degrees to see what the boy had never seen.  It wasn’t 710 that the embossing denoted but rather the simple word: OIL.  It was something as a simple as an oil cap that was missing from the teenager’s car.

Sometimes, if we take a step back, if we consider the puzzle from a different angle, the complexity of it all melts away and we see it for what it really is; something very simple and elemental indeed.

I think that our passage from the Book of Proverbs does just that for us this Sunday: the complexities of life melt away and the simplicity of God’s good creation comes shining through significantly and importantly enough for us to respond in the way we have been designed, with praise and thanksgiving!

The words from this famous chapter of Proverbs draw from our hearts the very praise and thanksgiving that God enjoins upon us by the act of creation.  Wisdom encourages us to look at this wondrously complex and complicated world with eyes that simply see the breath-taking wonder and beauty of the gift of God that it is to us.

Wisdom asks of us some analogical imagination in our relationship with God and with one another.  God’s wisdom is presented as that which has been with God since before the beginning, that which has been associated intimately with the formation of the world and the way in which this old world works.  This portion of scripture is at once poetic and beautiful and enticing and inviting.  It summons our attention in a way that invites us to play, to dream, to imagine the world that God hopes to bring about in our presence.

Hear again those opening lines from the Eighth Chapter of Proverbs:

Does not wisdom call,
and does not understanding raise her voice?
2On the heights, beside the way,
at the crossroads she takes her stand;
3beside the gates in front of the town,
at the entrance of the portals she cries out:
4“To you, O people, I call,
and my cry is to all that live.

William Brown, a Presbyterian scholar at Columbia Theological Seminary, presents an appealing view of this world to which Wisdom calls us:

“Wisdom requires a world that is richly manifold and thoroughly engaging, as well as a world made safe and secure. Wisdom recounts God at work in carving, anchoring, stabilizing, establishing, circumscribing, securing, and setting boundaries. The mountains serve as weight-bearing pillars that hold up the heavens and thereby prevent cosmic collapse. God sets the cosmic infrastructures and boundaries firmly in place, all to maintain the world’s stability. The universe is a cosmic construction zone in which God builds an inviolably secure place.”

Do we not feel the same things when we contemplate the very simple beauty of this rather complex world?  Of course we do; this is expressly why our world has been designed as it has … to illicit our simple, but deep, profound praise of God; to compel us to seek after God, the Creator and Founder of all that was, is and ever shall be.  This is why we need such imagination and wonder … to express as adequately as we can our praise and thanksgiving.

It is this wise imagination that calls us to a particular openness to God and life.  God’s wisdom allows us to take the long view; to see with eyes not focused wholly upon the immediate or the expedient, but upon the beauty and grandeur of God’s gracious gift of grace and life.

In a strange, but maybe related aspect, I was privy to a private conversation some years past.  It occurred below my study window here in the church.  Two elderly women were passing underneath and though I am not one to eavesdrop, I must admit I couldn’t help overhearing them.

One of the women turned to the other, obviously in mid-conversation and said: “I will never, ever talk to them again.”  The other woman offered her own affirmation of this solution to whatever was the conflict: she agreed that freezing out whoever the “they” was in the sentence was the best, most effective approach.

Now, I don’t intend to judge.  I don’t know the circumstances; I don’t know the human brutality or insensitivity that caused this older woman to respond so definitely in freezing out of her life with whomever she was so angry. But I do know that the world in which we have been birthed and live is one that is open, that it is unfinished like so many of us.  In such a world, it is wise, I think, to keep ourselves open always to the movement of God’s Spirit in our lives, bringing both praise and thanksgiving to our lips and, most importantly, hope for reconciliations when the complexities of human life turn brutal, shameful, or hurtful.  I’m sure that the older woman in the alley had her justifications for wanting to end and sever all relationship with the “they” that had hurt her so, but I know that God in Jesus Christ, in this beautiful world in which we live, is working to bring about reconciliation of all parties.  That, ultimately, is also the wisdom of God.

The apostle Paul wrote of such things in a passage that was included in our lectionary, but not read this morning in worship.  He wrote to the Christians in Rome:

“Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. 3And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”

In the midst of the complexities of life, God’s wisdom calls us to slow down, give pause, contemplate the beauty and meaning of creation and then give thanks.  God’s wisdom calls us, every one of us, to seek reconciliation with this vision of a harmony that Wisdom has established and seeks to maintain; to seek reconciliation and harmony not only with God, but with our fellow creatures as well.  God’s wisdom calls us to be simply and profoundly, God’s children.  Take some time this weekend to be truly wise.

An Appropriate Guide: Psalm 22:25-31 & Acts 8:26-40; Easter 5 – May 6, 2012

Rev. Martin R. Ankrum

So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’He replied, ‘How can I, unless someone guides me?’ And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him

About 25 years ago, I met two teenagers in a youth group I led that were siblings.  This brother and sister were very close and very caring towards one another. Though it might not have been than unusual among siblings who are weathering the ending of adolescence, it was marked enough for me to comment upon it to them.

They both, separately, told a story about when they were young, about kindergarten and first grade-aged children.  They said that their favorite game back then was something they called: “Can I help you, Buddy?”

The game was simple, they took turns playing the parts; one would ride their big wheel and purposely crash it off the sidewalk and turn it over and then lay on the ground.  The other would come along on their big wheel, stop and ask: “Can I help you, Buddy?”  Then the one on the ground would say: “Yes, I need your help,” and together they would right the over-turned big wheel and start the game over with roles reversed.

Those two older teenagers both pointed to this as somehow seminal in explaining why they had always been very close and concerned about each other since.  They had learned that they needed to take care of each other and did even during the more contentious period of adolescence and beyond.

I tell this story because it is the imagery that the passage from Acts 8 always conjures in my mind whenever I have read it since meeting those two amazing young people.  It is obvious from the story that the Ethiopian eunuch seeks and receives help and guidance from Philip.  This is an important factor in this wonderful tale of the early Church.

Philip, led by the Spirit, encounters this Ethiopian eunuch, one who is sort of one the boundaries of society, and is convinced that he can be of help to the man.

The eunuch, for his part, is reading scripture and in attempting to understand what he is reading, he realizes that he is need of some guidance, some assistance in order that he might understand.  In fact, the exchange between the two went like this:

So Philip ran up to [the chariot] and heard [the Ethiopian eunuch] reading the prophet Isaiah. [Philip] asked, ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’He replied, ‘How can I, unless someone guides me?’And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him.

Luke, the writer of the Book of Acts, appears to be suggesting something very important here about scripture, God’s Word to us, and our need for guidance along the way: in order to fully understand and comprehend God’s Word, we need each other.  It appears that simple to me; though we certainly should and do read the Bible for ourselves, we should never think that our comprehension in total isolation from others is an appropriate interpretation.  In order to more fully comprehend the grace of God and the purpose that God has for us, we need each other as guides and helpers along the way.  In short, to better understand what we are called to in following Jesus Christ, we need Christ’s church.

William Brosend, an American Baptist pastor, wrote about this in an article I read.  Here’s what he said:

“Somewhere along the way … we became convinced that the Bible should be as easy to understand as it is to buy.  It has been translated, paraphrased, life-amplified, annotated and illustrated.  That does not make it easily accessible.  An ongoing challenge for church and clergy is to sufficiently establish the significance of scriptures in the hearts and minds of believers so that they will attempt the hard work, the life’s work, of seeking to understand the Word made Book.  The Ethiopian knew this, for he was motivated to acquire an Isaiah scroll.  He was seeking faith and understanding, and Philip was privileged to be his guide – literally to show him the way.”

Brosend continues a little later in the article:

“There is something here for church and clergy – the use of the word ‘guide’ in translation. The Ethiopian did not ask for a teacher, he asked for a guide.  There is a big difference.  Teachers point and say, ‘Go there, do that.’ Guides reach out and say, ‘This is the road I traveled. You might want to try it, but whatever road you choose, I’d like to walk it with you.’”

This certainly is one of the reasons we need to be the church; so that we can help one another to better understand and comprehend the great grace that God in Jesus Christ is drawing us into.  This is why we need each other: to be guides to one another along the road of God’s way in this world.

Participation in the life to which God calls us in never, ever an isolating or private event; instead, it is the very thing that takes us from our sin-soaked isolation and throws us into a midst of a merry band of followers of the Christ.  We learn to be such a follower by allowing ourselves to be guided by God’s Word shared in community; shared and studied in the midst of God’s people.

This is illustrated and lived out in a most profound manner here when we share in the Lord’s Supper.  It is God in Jesus Christ who calls us and draws us to this table.  It is the Lord’s Supper that we share.  It is the Lord’s Table from which we are fed, but such nourishment, such revelation of God’s love and mercy in Jesus Christ is not appropriated by us without the help or assistance of others.

Think of the symbolism and imagery born out in practice, when we celebrate communion here in this way.  The minister may preside and offer the Words of the Institution of the supper, but there are other hands involved here.  Each time we take the plate and pass the cup, we are offering the presence of Jesus Christ to our neighbors in the pews.  We do not partake of this sacrament in isolation or only contemplative singleness … no, because we are called to care whether or not our neighbor in the pew receives the sacrament, our contemplation is interrupted by the duty and responsibility to pass the bread and the cup.

This is not an onerous or distracting interruption; no I believe it to be a “grounding interruption,” for when we do pass the bread and the cup, we remember that we are not alone here … this walk with Jesus is not just about some kind of “me and Jesus” thing … this is about the presence of Christ in the midst of his people … all of us TOGETHER.  We are therefore “grounded” in the presence of Christ in the midst of the congregation; both are needed to be fully attuned, fully engaged and fully nourished.

The truth of the situation came from an unusual place; from the words of an Ethiopian eunuch, struggling with scripture and wanting to be called from the boundaries of life and humiliation to the center of living in the light of God’s grace.  When asked if he understood, he said the honest, truthful and most profound thing:

“How can I, unless someone guides me?”

The Ethiopian eunuch speaks the truth for all of us as well.

Cornerstone: Psalm 23 & Acts 4:5-12; Easter 4 – April 29, 2012

Rev. Martin R. Ankrum

This Jesus is “the stone that was rejected by you, the builders; it has become the cornerstone.” There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.

It really does matter what we believe.  I don’t think that I need to tell you that, but we all have need of being reminded of that from time to time.  In our culture, so filled with alternative ways of doing things, thinking things and believing things, it really does matter what we believe.

In the early 1990’s, a phrase arose out of one of the General Assemblies of our denomination that is profound in its simplicity: Theology matters!  This phrase was bandied about during the debate over some rather thorny issues before the assembly, and I have always been grateful for both its simplicity and its profundity.  Indeed, theology really does matter!

Take for instance a particular minor event that happened in my own ministry that bears out this terrific point about theology.  I was acting in my role with a presbytery to which I belonged, having been appointed as a representative of the presbytery to meet with the Session of a church that was greatly troubled and angered by the actions of the General Assembly some years past.

As the Session of that church discussed their concerns about just how the denomination was moving in a direction that was not to their liking, we began to enter into a discussion about theological beliefs.  I will never forget the look on one of the members of that Session as she said the following:

“I think that we’ve gotten away from the God of wrath.  I really like that god! Anyone can love Jesus; his love seems to be so mamby-pamby and offered to just about anyone … it’s that God of wrath that I love; He makes me feel like I’ve really accomplished something when I’m good!”

Wow!  What an incredible distortion of orthodox Christianity!  In this woman’s mind, the God of the Old Testament is the wrathful Father of Jesus Christ.  It is to him, this wrathful, hating God, that this woman was convinced that we should turn and offer our obedience, not this Jesus who, as she said, anyone could love; implying that there was no real effort in loving Jesus, just in loving a wrathful God.

I can’t begin to tell you what a corruption of the Christian gospel that woman’s beliefs were, but her theology really did matter.  Because of her theology, she found no place for grace in life; no place for love for another; only condemnation of sin and great and dire fear of God that led her not to really love God, but rather to live in abject horror of meeting the living God.  My friends, theology matters … what we believe really does matter for how we are called to live.

In the passage from the Book of Acts, Peter and his cohorts have been flung into prison for the night and then called upon by the authorities to answer for their preaching and healing ministries.  Peter’s response makes all the difference in the world … or at least should for us.

Peter, emboldened by the resurrection of Jesus Christ, makes it quite clear that Jesus is the only way to salvation.  In a culture, not unlike our own, pluralistic and somewhat secular, such affirmations were not necessarily readily accepted or understood.  This fact, however, did not sway Peter: he makes his confession as boldly and complete as had been his earlier denial of the Christ on the night before Jesus’ crucifixion.  Here, Peter is finally and fully rehabilitated!

But what an amazingly bold thing to say:

There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.

That is a truly breath-taking assertion … it is singular in its commitment to the truth that Jesus is not only the Christ, he is THE Christ … the ONLY Christ … there is no salvation in any other name.

Now, I trust that this does not come as a surprise to you!  Sometimes we need to take our own spiritual inventory or own theological “gut check.”  Can we too, join with Peter, in making such a bald, affirmative statement that Jesus Christ IS the ONLY way to God?

I think that our answer must be, that is if theology really does matter for how we live, with an unequivocal and equally as empathetic: YES!  Yes, we believe that Jesus Christ is the ONLY way to God.

However, in our attempts to be truly clear, truly passionate and thoroughly convinced, we still must be careful about all the implications for how we live.

The Christian Church has much to answer for in just how we have lived out this statement, this affirmation.  We have not always offered this realization to the world with love and care for our neighbors in our hearts.  Sometimes, we have sought to lord this over others; attempting to force them to believe something that I am convinced only God can reveal to us.

I like what Walter Wink, former professor at Auburn Theological Seminary said about all this:

“That concluding triumphal statement has caused havoc in human history.  Christians armed with the certainty that they alone possessed God’s truth tore about the globe destroying religions and spiritualities … Let us apologize to the countless victims slaughtered by Christian conquistadors for refusing to convert; let us beg for mercy from God and humanity for the arrogance of Christianity in its scorched-earth-and-take-no-captives missionary juggernaut.”

I think that Dr. Wink has a point here that we should all consider: Should our belief that Jesus Christ is the only way to salvation be an excuse to reject others or to treat followers of other religions with contempt and disregard?  Of course, we should not!  We should have all learned from our somewhat-checkered Christian past and come to full conviction that though we believe that Christ is the only way to salvation, this world is larger than ourselves and it all belongs to God.

For me, the claims that in no other name than Jesus Christ is salvation is something that liberates me not to condemn my neighbors who do not agree with me or follow some other path, but rather to adopt, as best as I can, the gentle attitude of love that our Savior exhibited, both in his life and even from the cross.  It was Jesus who would not allow the children to be kept from him or would turn away the sinner or the Samaritan, but rather sought to gather all into his kingdom of love.

Ultimately, for me, this affirmation that Jesus is the only way is a conviction that God’s love, mercy and grace IS the only way. And this way is not to be lorded over another or forced upon yet another, but rather lived out to its fullest and greatest implications.

I am firmly convinced that God does not call me to convert others to the truth that Jesus Christ is the only way to salvation, but rather to live this truth. Conversion is the work of God’s spirit upon our neighbors and upon us; it is not our work.

Still, what we believe matters … it matters to how we live to know that Jesus is the Christ and that we can trust in him and no longer need to look for another.  It matters to know that God’s tremendous love and grace has been demonstrated in this Jesus of Nazareth and that God’s way of love and grace in Jesus is the way to be authentically and truly human, truly a child of God.  It matters … it matters indeed.

I really like what the late Donald Bloesch, a theology professor from Dubuque Theological Seminary wrote about this:

“In its witness the church should not press for a return to a monolithic society in which church and state work together to ensure a Christian civilization, for such an undertaking would only draw the church away from its redemptive message and blur the lines between church and world.  Neither should the church withdraw from society and cultivate little bastions of righteousness that strive to preserve the ethical and religious values handed down from the past.  Instead, the church should witness to the truth of the gospel in the very midst of society in the hope and expectation that this truth will work as the leaven that turns society toward a higher degree of justice and freedom.  The church cannot build the kingdom of righteousness, but it can serve this kingdom by reminding the world that there is a transcendent order that stands in judgment over every worldly achievement and that the proper attitude of leaders of nations is one of humility before a holy God and caring concern for the disinherited and the oppressed.”

And all this, because we believe and trust that Peter’s words are as true now as they were then:

This Jesus is “the stone that was rejected by you, the builders; it has become the cornerstone.”
There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals
by which we must be saved.

Community over Convenience – Psalm 133 & Acts 4:32-35; Easter 2-April 15, 2012

Rev. Martin R. Ankrum

All I really ever needed to know I learned here, from you.  Now, I know that sounds suspiciously like the title of a little book published in the last century that sought to simplify the more complex aspects of life, but I really mean it when I say that the most beautiful, profound and loveliest things about life I learned here, from you.

When I say that I learned these things here, I don’t necessarily mean in this one, singular location … in this one, singular and unique congregation.  I mean that I learned these things of great value and worth from the churches in which I have been a member.

And when I say that I have learned them from you, I don’t mean necessarily only from those of you gathered here in this place, in this lovely sanctuary this morning.  Of course, I mean that I have learned these valuable things about life from a long line of witnesses to the truth, people like you and, in fact, including you, but not inclusive of you.  What I mean simply is that the most important things about human life I learned from Christ’s church: way back in Marshalltown, Iowa; from churches in Central New Jersey and Southwestern Michigan and, of course, here in Greensburg.  It is from Christ’s church that I have learned the most important lessons about life!

I’m not the only one or the first to say such things … not by a long short.  One of the great witnesses to the truth, John Calvin, wrote of this in his voluminous Institutes of the Christian Religion.  He’s what he felt about the church:

“But as it is now our purpose to discourse of the visible Church, let us learn, from her single title of Mother, how useful, nay, how necessary the knowledge of her is, since there is no other means of entering into life unless she conceive us in the womb and give us birth, unless she nourish us at her breasts, and, in short, keep us under her charge and government, until, divested of mortal flesh, we become like the angels. For our weakness does not permit us to leave the school until we have spent our whole lives as scholars…”

The great reformer, John Calvin, was convinced that all things necessary to know was taught to him (and to all believers for that matter) by the church, to which he ascribed the ancient title of “Mother.”

Of course, Calvin was not the first to comment upon the need all of us have of the greater community of God’s faithful that the Bible calls the Church.  The New Testament is filled with admonitions to the gathering of Christ’s people to actually become the church; to, in essence, grow up out of the culture of individuality and individual pursuits and desires and become a collective for the sake of Jesus Christ and Christ’s mission in this world.

One of the most beautiful descriptions of what it can and does mean to be the church in this world, comes from Paul in his Letter to the Church at Ephesus:

19So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, 20built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. *21In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; 22in whom you also are built together spiritually* into a dwelling-place for God.”

Here is the beautiful and meaningful truth about Christ’s church: here, we who have been strangers and aliens both to God and to one another, have been brought together not by our merit or even by our good sense, but by the action of Jesus Christ in this world and in our lives.

The story we heard this morning from the Book of Acts, is a small snippet about the early Church.  Luke makes it clear that one of the early signs of the church was their collective life; that they shared life together.  Somehow, this was unique, different than the rest of the culture.  It was so startling that it brought Christ’s church both early converts, wanting the kind of life that they saw in others and it also brought persecution and notice of the authorities.  They just didn’t know what to make of these boisterous radicals who kept speaking and living like their leader, this Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified, was actually alive, having been resurrected by the power of God.  The authorities of both temple and statehouse just didn’t know what to make of it.

And yet, this brave band of Christians were drawn together to share life in the light of God’s love for them in Jesus Christ.

The same, hopefully, can be said for us.  Though we are 2,000 years removed from the experience of the early Church, we still experience the love of God and the grace of Jesus Christ in a collective way here.  It is in the presence of Christ’s church that we have all learned what is good, right, beautiful and wondrous about human life.  It is here also that we have learned about the tragedy that life can be and the difficulties that rise when people really do commit themselves to being together rather than being separate in this world.

The older I have grown, the more I have experienced with Christ’s church in ministry and in practice of faith, the more I am convinced that it is not always convenient to be in community with others.  How about you?  Have you experienced that?

Of course, there are beautiful and lovely moments that we spend together as Christ’s church, but there are also moments of difficulty, tension and stress.  There are times when it just isn’t convenient to us to be a part of this community and we are faced with a decision: do we prefer our personal convenience over the life of community as God’s people?

If we have learned anything about the Christian life from our involvement with the church, it should at least be that God’s mercy in Jesus Christ, his grace spread abroad to this world, his mission of peace and love is not just about us!  This message that we have received from God through scripture and the witness of others should have taught us first and foremost, that this is really not just about us.

I like what Eugene Peterson, retired Presbyterian minister, says about this:

“The Christian life is too often treated in our culture as an extra, something we get involved in after we have the basic survival needs established and then realize that things aren’t yet quite complete. So we become a Christian. That is all well and good, but there is no B.C. in our lives, no “Before Christ.” Neither is there any B.C. in anyone else who is not a confessed Christ.  Christ is always present, for all of us.  Just because we have no awareness of the presence and action of God previous to our knowledge of it does not mean that God was absent. We must not naively assume that the Christian life begins with us. As long as we think in those terms, we are apt to judge everything and everyone else by our experience and circumstances.  That kind of thinking is understandable in adolescents. But we are called to grow up.”

Though what Peterson says is true, quite true, we will never learn this in isolation.  We can sit at home all we want with the Bible in our laps and read through the profound and meaningful witness of God’s word to us, but if we never encounter that Word embodied in community, embodied in the individual and collective lives of others, we will never really grow up, as both Paul and Peterson encourages us all to do.  No, we are all, always in need of the church, in need of one another, in need of putting community over our own convenience and personal agendas.

This brings me to the point of our great experiment with community and convenience.  Of course, it appears more convenient to have two worship services and contemporaneous Sunday school programs.  This schedule, that we have utilized, with variations, for over forty years, has had many advantages to us.  The early service has made it easy for us to bring our children for Sunday school and “take care” of our worship all within the same hour.  The later service has provided for a more traditional and time-proven rhythm of Sunday morning devotion that gives us time for a quiet Sunday morning, with reading of the paper and no rushing around before going off to worship and then out to lunch.  Of course, we have all enjoyed these rhythms and patterns to our life and to say that they aren’t important would be an outright deception.  Of course, our patterns and rhythms are important … precisely because they are, well, “ours.”

However, in some ways, the traditional system that we have enjoyed have left some things undone … adult education opportunities have not always been very well subscribed and the opportunities for our children to learn to worship have been slim at best.  It is for these very reasons and others that our Session determined to give this single, combined service, with a separate time for Sunday school for all ages, a try.  And this is exactly what this is … a try; a six-week experiment that will be evaluated by the leadership on a variety of points, but not the least of which will be the sense of community.  Are we building community by coming together in this way? Are we achieving a greater understanding of ourselves not just as individual followers of Jesus Christ, but as God’s great collective and community of hope that is the Church?

These are the things that we will be pondering over the next six weeks and I invite you to consider them as well.  What is convenient about the Christian life and where does our demand for convenience get in the way of the community that God is seeking to build in our lives?  What is the power and the purpose of such a community and where are we called to be take part in such a community?

We need to consider these things and think upon them as we seek to answer God’s call to be Christ’s church in this place.

Finally, let me leave with one of my favorite things that Eugene Peterson has written.  These little sentences help to keep me settled, centered and aware of the life of the church and what it means to me … I hope it means the same for you:

“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.”

Risen: Psalm 118 & John 20:1-18; Easter Sunday – April 8, 2012

Rev. Martin R. Ankrum

Christ is risen! (He is risen, indeed!)

In churches across this country and around the world, this call and response is being heard and bearing witness to the truth that Christ is alive!  This is more than mere opening words to a church service or rote and ritual; it is proclamation of God’s great work in Jesus Christ.  It is a beautiful and significant thing that we dare not pass over too quickly this morning, for this is our Easter affirmation as well.  We believe; we know; we have experienced that Christ has risen from the grave and that what appears to be “powerless love has vanquished loveless power,” to quote one of my favorite preachers.  This is our witness for it is the witness of Christ’s church … Jesus Christ is not to be found among the dead, but rather among the living – among us today!

We have heard the story of Easter morning once again.  We have heard it from the witness of St. John’s gospel; we have heard it ably and powerfully read by our brother and dear friend Doug Holben; we have heard it again and we will hear throughout this service. But, let us hear what one of the earliest witnesses to the resurrection has offered to this world as both comfort and challenge.

These words are the words of St. Paul, in fact, the earliest recorded resurrection claim, who wrote to the church in Corinth and had the audacity, fueled by faith in Christ, to say:

17If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. 18Then those also who have died* in Christ have perished. 19If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.”

That is what some have called, putting all your Easter eggs in one basket, is it not?  It takes some real faith, confidence, courage or chutzpah maybe to affirm that so baldly, but that is exactly what we are doing when we add our voices to the witness of Christ’s church that Jesus, who was crucified was dead, but is now risen!  That is the testimony today … as it should be every day.

Let us dwell upon Paul’s word for just a moment more … he puts everything about the Christian faith into the one basket of Easter morning — this morning.  We kid ourselves if we think that we can realistically prove the resurrection; others have tried and I think that they have failed.  This is not so much about concrete proof as much as it is about convinced faith in God’s work in Jesus Christ.

William Sloan Coffin, the late-great preacher from the Riverside Church in New York City, has written this about that:

“But if the resurrection cannot be proved, it can be known, experienced, and it can be trusted.  Faith anyhow is not believing without proof; it’s trusting without reservation. The resurrection faith is a willingness on the basis of all that we have heard, all that we have observed, all that we have thought deeply about, and experienced on a level far deeper than the mind ever comprehends – faith is a willingness to risk our lives on the conviction that while we human beings kill God’s love we can never keep it dead and buried.  Jesus Christ is risen, today, tomorrow, every day.”

To that I say, “Amen, Brother Bill, amen!” Resurrection is never about proof, it is solely and completely about conviction … we have become convinced that Jesus Christ rose from the dead.  If that was not the case, if Christ did not rise from the grave, then good old St. Paul was right: we are people above all to be pitied, for we have merely fooled ourselves, deceived ourselves and sought to deceive others, knowingly or otherwise, with a lie.

But you and I know, beyond any need for proof, that God’s love cannot stay buried and dead.  We know this because we have seen it, because we have learned it, because, quite frankly, we have experienced it.  We know about resurrection.

The challenge comes when we leave this pleasant and joyous sanctuary and go back out into that world and find that we are definitely in the minority.  The world is much more comfortable with a Good Friday world than an Easter morning world!  The world operates on the principle that loveless power is always greater than powerless love; that death wrings everything out of life; that the human spirit and soul can easily be bought with a promise and a wink of the eye and that real and lasting change, real and lasting resurrection and reconciliation is only pie-in-the-sky wishful thinking and fluffy cotton-tailed bunnies and brightly colored eggs hiding under the nearest bush.  Indeed, we live in a world that hasn’t come very far in the nearly 2,000 years that separate our current existence from that first glorious Easter morning.

It reminds me of a story that I heard recently from a preacher I greatly admire:

“Two old codgers go moose hunting up in the north woods of Maine and are flown into their remote camp on a small, little plane. As the pilot of the tiny seaplane let them off on the shore of the lake he reminded them, ‘Like I said, I’ll be back in three days. But remember, this is a small plane; there’s room for the two of you and ONE moose.’

“Three days later, the pilot returned and taxied up to the shoreline only to see the two old guys standing there grinning from ear-to-ear with two huge moose between them. The pilot was greatly agitated and irritated and jumped out of the plane and waded up to the shore.

“’Hey, I told you guys that I could take you two and only ONE moose back with me.  We’ll never make it with both moose in the plane!’

“The two old-timers looked at each other surprised and answered, ‘Funny that is exactly what the fellah last year said!’

“The fear of competition with another pilot getting the best of the man, the pilot of little sea craft relented.  He helped to load up the guys and their two moose and started out to the middle of the lake.  It took forever for them to gain enough speed for takeoff and when they finally left the water, there were just yards from the far shore.  They barely cleared the trees and then about a quarter of a mile out, they clipped a tall fir tree and crashed, sending pieces of plane and moose antlers in all directions.  Finally, one of the old codgers came to, pulled his head out of the moss, spied his companion a short way off and asked, ‘Where are we?’

“His companion replied, ‘Oh, about a hundred yards farther than last year.’”

Oh, we never learn do we?  The world has not learned since that first Easter morning! Our world is like those two old codgers, doing the same old Good Friday things and coming up all tangled and bruised in the crash that human life can become when we refuse to see the resurrection truth of God’s love vanquishing hate; the world of God’s in breaking grace through the veil of Good Friday’s death and silence.  Our old world is more comfortable with the thought that God is dead and out of our way rather than witnessing to the truth that God’s love can never stay buried.

No, the truth of Christ’s resurrection has implications for your life and my life.  It is not a matter of proving it or providing evidence that demands a verdict; it is the matter of actually living it; living like it matters that powerless love can defeat and does defeat loveless power.

So, how does the Easter world that we know to be the most true and perfect description of what life is and should be get communicated to a world that sees only Good Friday finality and defeat?  Only with your very lives … only with our commitment and witness of God’s resurrecting love and grace; only through our living a life that is more about Easter than Good Friday will they ever avoid the seemingly inevitable moose-laden crash of human life and defeat.

Or maybe it is better put in the words that William Sloan Coffin once used himself in an Easter sermon:

“Easter is a demand not for sympathy with the crucified Christ, but a demand for loyalty to the resurrected one.”

Christ is risen! (He is risen, indeed!)

Power, Palms and the Populace: Phil. 2:5-11 & Mark 11:1-11; Palm Sunday- April 1, 2012

Rev. Martin R. Ankrum

“‘Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!10 Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!Hosanna in the highest heaven!’”

“Let the same mind be in you that was* in Christ Jesus…”

The great preacher and activist William Sloane Coffin, pastor of the Riverside Church in New York City, opened more than a couple Palm Sunday sermons with talk about his favorite Western serial: “The Lone Ranger.”

Admittedly, this is a strange topic with which to begin a Palm Sunday sermon, but the great preacher makes some good sense.  He says that the American populace loves a good Western predominately because the genre portrays good and evil in fairly simplistic and straightforward imagery.  The bad guys wear the black hats; the good guys often don white ones.  The bad guys are always thoroughly bad and the good guys are equally as easily defined through and through: they’re always just plain good.

The epitome of this principle is found in Coffin’s favorite television Western: “The Lone Ranger.”  Coffin describes it thusly:

“…[Westerns] nourish the great American myth of rugged individuality, suggesting as they do that society is but a figment of the socialist imagination.  I’m not joking, because in the average Western the structures of society fail: the telegraph lines snap, the sheriff gets drunk, the cavalry rides off in the wrong direction.  Then up speaks the Lone Ranger: ‘We’ll head ‘em off at Eagle Pass.’ The ‘we’ never includes more than a monosyllabic Indian, and sure enough, against overwhelming odds, they save the day.  It’s all very satisfactory.”

Indeed, Coffin has struck right to the heart of our own self-delusions as a people: we want a significantly simple solution to the great problems and challenges that face us.  We don’t like, really, too complex of a dialogue from our heroes and we don’t tolerate, hardly ever, heroes who demonstrate themselves to be, all in all, self-emptying slaves who care not one wit for power, glory or the accoutrements of sovereignty.  No, we don’t tolerate the foolish or the ironic in our heroes …

This could be what bothers us on a Palm Sunday when we really take the time to consider the text that is always a part of this morning of palm-waving, festivity and the promise of the dawning of the end of our Lenten sacrifices.  The image that we receive of Jesus Christ is not the Lone Ranger upon his mighty steed, Silver, but rather the more-than-prophetic holy man astride the humble, put peace-signifying ass.  It can be a hard image for we Americans, so drunk with power, opportunity, hero-worship, and good old fashioned rugged individualism to get our heads and hearts around.

But then, in these texts and on this day, we are confronted with this image of the self-emptying, power eschewing Christ.  In this, we are forced to consider a different view and approach to power.  We are called to consider a different answer to the question that Coffin infers: “What makes for a satisfactory solution?” Today, we must consider openly and honestly, the witness of Jesus Christ riding a donkey into the city of Jerusalem.

Contrast this Biblical event of entrance to a great city with a somewhat recent occurrence in our collective memory: the fall of Baghdad now some nine years ago.  You remember that rather significant day as well as any of the rest of us: the CNN cameras relaying the powerful push of Coalition troops into the heart of the city, the toppling of the statue of Saddam Hussein and that very memorable figure of the middle-aged Iraqi man, removing his shoe and beating the head of the statue with great ferocity and apparent relief.  To him and maybe to the rest of us watching, we all thought: “It’s over!”  “It’s done!” “We’re the victors and Hussein and his evil cronies are the losers!”

Indeed, that is exactly the way we like to conceive of victory and heroics: simple, quick and with no real trailing details or mopping up actions that cost lives and resources and appear to be more a trip down a rabbit hole rather than a victory parade.  No, we like our victories obvious, powerful and all-encompassing.  This is exactly what satisfies us! But, we are not called to self-satisfaction; we called by the texts and the day to ponder what satisfies Jesus … what is the solution that he seeks?

Look again at the witness of the Gospel of Mark: Jesus is not taking Jerusalem by storm.  He is not riding in on a mighty war horse, as military leaders of his time did to signify either great victories or the subjugation of the conquered city’s populace.  No, Jesus comes riding in on another symbol for the people of his time … Jesus comes riding in on an ass.

In Jesus’ time, this symbolism would not have been lost on the populace, on the crowds surrounding the gates to Jerusalem that sunny, beautiful morning.  They knew that when the prince or the general came to them on a donkey, this was the sign of peaceful intentions.  The one riding was not a conquering hero, but one who sought peace between his forces and the people of the city.  The crowd would have known this and were either elated by the prospect or personally disappointed.

Such disappointment amongst the people of the time turned to mockery later in the week, as the crowds would demand that this Jesus, welcomed by palms and sweet singing of little children, would be crucified.  Things turned quickly for the One who had come in peace for the purposes of peace with God and with one another.  We all know how this Holy Week draws to its dark conclusion; almost as if all creation was mocking the things that make for peace in our world.

That mockery of the people carried over past the resurrection and the establishment of Christ’s church in this world.  One of the first depictions of the crucifixion, found on the wall of some cave or home of the early first century, is the image of a man with the head of a donkey nailed upon the cross.  Scholars universally agree that this is a very early comment upon the faith of Jesus Christ; that someone, sometime early in that first century, already had made up his mind about the foolishness of Jesus Christ and the folly of believing that God would be crucified for anyone, let alone for the sake of the world.

Yet, this is at the very heart of our faith.  The apostle Paul quotes an early Christian hymn when he writes of Jesus Christ, the one crucified for you and for me:

“Let the same mind be in you that was* in Christ Jesus,
6 who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
7 but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8 he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.”

This is no heraldic poem with sweeping verses of grandeur and mythic accomplishments of the victor.  This is no victory song sung while pummeling the head of the statue of your foe with your right shoe in hand.  This is no jingoistic slogan of espousing one nation’s might over another … No, this is a simple, profound hymn of praise to the One who emptied himself on our behalf.  This is a poetic exposition of just who our King of Kings and Lord of Lords really is …

Likewise, this is not a defeatist dirge, but rather a proclamation of belief in the power of God to bring true and lasting victory from apparent and sordid defeat.  This is an opus to the One who gave his life so that we could live as God had intended all humankind to live.

Again, Coffin, I think said it very well in one of his Palm Sunday sermons:

“And listen to these words spoken in Jerusalem just before [Christ’s] death: ‘Father, the hour has come; glorify thy Son that the Son may glorify Thee, since thou has given him power over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom thou has given him.  And this is eternal life, that they know Thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou has sent.”

“There it is — the whole goal of life: to know God as the only true God, and to know Him through Jesus Christ, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, riding into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey.”

So this is really the victory that has been won for us all and for the world; not that Jesus has taken Jerusalem by storm, but rather that we have been won to God by peace.  The victory of Jesus this day is that we might be drawn into relationship with the living God; that we might know God to be the only real or true God in the myriad of lesser gods that populate human life; and, I might add, learn to love God and the ways of God in this world more than our own flesh, more than our own ways.

This is not the kind of victory that the Lone Ranger brings to us; it does not seem immediately as satisfying as that.  This is not the kind of victory that we witnessed in the fall of Baghdad; it does not seem as total as that did at first.  This is the kind of victory that asks something deeper and more profound of us, for this victory that we are about to encounter is more a calling than a triumphal march into conquered and vanquished lands … this is the simple, but humble and perfect call … to pick up our cross and follow … to pick up our cross and to follow … to follow the one who has emptied himself for us and for the sake of the world.  It is the call that we are called to follow throughout this dark week … at least as far as we are able.

Re:Lent & Repent: John 12:20-33 & Psalm 51:1-12; Lent 5 – March 25, 2012

Rev. Martin R. Ankrum

Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit.

So, how has Lent been for you?  Or as our beloved Mike Pacelli often says to me when he sits in the chair opposite my desk for our morning coffee: “How is it with your soul?”

Seriously, how has this Lenten journey been with your soul?  Have you contemplated this path that is lead by the living Christ from death to life?  Have you considered the momentous sacrifice and gracious gift seen in Jesus Christ and his life, death and resurrection?

Well, after all, I am your pastor and I have a certain ecclesiastical right to ask such a highly personal and hopefully penetrating question: “How is it with your soul?”

But let’s start with an easier one: What has happened to your little Lenten token that you picked up out of the offering plate on either Ash Wednesday evening or the first two Sundays in the Lenten Season?  What has become of that little reminder of the journey from death to life?

For me, I’m on about my sixth one!  I’ve lost a couple and given away about four to my memory to folks I’ve either known or just met.  That little token has served its big purpose with me: I’ve had ample cause to consider and think about this Lenten journey each time I’ve picked it up off my nightstand and put it in my pocket at the opening of the day or fished it out of my pocket instead of change at the grocer’s.  Every time that I’ve touched that token, I’ve tried to remember … I’ve tried to recall Lent and repentance and, of course, God in my life.

Just this past week, I had a rather strange use for that little token.  I was playing golf with another Presbyterian pastor and a representative of our denomination when, on about the fifth hole, I realized I had lost my ball marker, used to mark your ball when you’re on the green so that you can get out another person’s way to the hole.  So, I quickly marked my ball with my Lenten token and it immediately drew the attention of my partners.

“What’s that,” they both said … I told them and for a brief moment, watching their faces, I knew that we were no longer thinking about scores, sliced drives or the slope of the green … we were all thinking about the very thing we are called to remember during Lent.

The 51st Psalm started our Lenten journey on Ash Wednesday and we hear it again as Lent is drawing to a close.  The words of the psalmist reminds us that we are called to be honest before God; to open our hearts and admit the truth that seems so difficult for the rest of the world to admit: We are not God, but we are the children of God.  We are not God, but we belong to God, even when we have messed up, sinned and decided in our own hearts that we really should be God; the god of ourselves.

This wondrous psalm calls us to remember that we are still not the people that we should be and that God is always exactly who God claims to be … that we should turn from our own frustrated attempts to justify ourselves and appear righteous and turn to the hope that comes only from God.

Brian Erickson, a college chaplain, tells an illuminating story about the power of this psalm, repentance and new life:

“A young woman came up to me following a Bible study on the campus where I pastor. She introduced herself, told me a little about her relatively new Christian faith, and then thanked me for leading the Ash Wednesday service.  It was the middle of October at the time, and I assumed she had her novice liturgical wires crossed.  But sure enough, she was talking about Ash Wednesday, almost seven months after the fact.  Explaining herself, she said, ‘A friend made me go – I had never been to an Ash Wednesday service before.  My church back home never did anything like that, with the ashes and all, and at first I was pretty freaked out about it.  I was surprised at how ashamed and embarrassed those ashes made me feel.  I found myself avoiding public places – I almost did not go to class the rest of the day.

“‘But that whole day was so powerful for me, walking around with that big black mark on my forehead.  The more I thought about it, and still think about it, I began to feel so … hopeful.  I know that sounds strange, but that service felt so honest.  I am not the person I want to be, and deep down I know that, but most church services just feel like strung-out apologies.  But since that day, I just feel like God can change me.  That God wants to change me. And that feels hopeful.”

 

That young woman gets it, you might say.  The message of Ash Wednesday, repentance and the power of God to actually transform us into the people that he would have us be lasted beyond the service that day, beyond even the season of Lent to become a fixture in that young woman’s life.  In essence, she gets it; she understands the power and the meaning of repentance and the hope that comes from knowing that this journey of life is actually a journey from death to life.  She understands that now.

The question for us is do we?  Do we get it?  Does Ash Wednesday, the Lenten season, this reading of the 51st Psalm, the little Lenten tokens that we have carried in our pockets and purses over the past week, help us to better comprehend the power of repentance and transformation at the hands of a loving God?  I hope so, I sincerely do hope so …

And, I believe that you do.  I sincerely believe that you do, as they say, get it!  I see it in your lives and in your work around this building, this church, this community of faith.  Your witness to the power of God’s love and transforming action in our lives is meaningful whenever it is honest and open.

You see, that is yet another thing that we can find in the wondrous psalm that was read earlier: we are called to be honest and open before God.  We cannot have a transformed life with God without actually calling upon God in our sin and corrupted path of life.  We have to get to the root of the problem … and not just once, but again and again and again.

An Episcopalian rector known to me, once wrote about this need for actual honesty and repentance:

“In addressing penitence, it may be useful to recall the story of discovering that your dog and your cat have recently finished eating the beef tenderloin that you had let stand on the kitchen counter for ten minutes.  When you discover the sin of your pets, you will be presented with dog repentance in the form of Fido approaching you with tail wagging, pleading, ‘Love me, love me, love me.”  Socks, on the other hand, will keep licking her paws and looking up occasionally as if to say, ‘Do we have a problem here?’ Neither dog nor cat really repents.  And humans emulate them on a regular basis.  Both dog and cat are attempting to restore good feelings to a relationship without addressing the real brokenness that has occurred.”

 

Do you remember what the young woman said about that college campus Ash Wednesday service? “I know that it sounds strange, but that service felt so honest …”  That is the attractiveness of repentance; we can actually be honest about ourselves and our distance from God. It is like a weight being lifted off heart and shoulder; a getting at the real brokenness rather than evasion or delusion.  We can only be that honest and open when we fully and completely trust the Lord to be merciful, gracious and loving.  But it doesn’t stop there, all of that is supposed to bubble up and over and leak out into our other relationships as well, or had you not noticed?

In Jesus Christ, we are called not just to individual repentance and personal relationship-making with God without consideration for the other relationships in this life.  In fact, in Jesus Christ, we are called to come out of our isolated sin and be born anew into a community of repentance, hope and grace. Of course, that community is called the church and it is here that we must always be open and honest … with God and with one another. For, hopefully, we have learned the lessons of repentance and trust, love and grace; the very lessons of Lent.  Hopefully, we have learned those lessons of life with God and applied them to life with others!

I’ve often wondered what folks think when they pass our magnificent collegiate gothic structure on the corners of Main and Third, here in downtown Greensburg.  Do they think about what this building represents: that God is here and present in the life of world; that God has come to us in Jesus Christ and given himself for our sakes and for the sake of the world; that they too can be called from death into life at any moment of their being? What do they think when they drive by?  It is if this building has the opportunity to be a giant Lenten token to call to remembrance our community and all who pass this way that God has sacrificed and journeyed from death to life on their behalf.

Well, you have the greatest opportunity to influence their contemplation, for you and I know that this is just a building and we are the actual church.  Your life in the midst of the lives of others is the greatest witness to this hope that we have labeled from death to life.  Your openness and honesty with others, your willingness to come to those you have offended and hurt and offer your repentance. In a like manner, your willingness to offer mercy to those who have offended you.  And all of this, are actual living Lenten tokens of life itself; lives transformed and changed by the workings of grace becoming, as it were, signs and wonders and witnesses in this world of God’s great love in Jesus Christ.

So, keep that Lenten token with you … remember even beyond Lent that you have been bought with a price, that your alienation with God is at an end, and that you are in the midst of traveling from death into life.  Keep that Lenten token with you and ask yourself that question that my good friend Mike Pacelli always asks me: “How is it with your soul?”

Cleansing Sacred Space: Psalm 19 & John 2:13-25; Lent 3-March 11, 2012

Rev. Martin R. Ankrum

The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money-changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, ‘Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a market-place!’ His disciples remembered that it was written,‘Zeal for your house will consume me.’

Once upon a time, there was a young pastor, flush with excitement and zeal having been called to a new position as the solo pastor of a medium-sized church with a very active congregation.  The young pastor had all kinds of ideas about the systems of the church and how the people of God should treat one another and the world around them.

This young pastor observed that at every funeral luncheon the Funeral Luncheon Committee hosted, there was one woman there whose only purpose it appeared was to count the plates before and after the serving of the luncheon.

The congregation was known for being, let us say, a bit “tight” or cheap when it came to things around the church, so the young pastor naturally assumed that all this counting had to do with making sure that all the precious serving pieces and plates used by funeral luncheon, filled as they were with folks who were not members of the church, had to do with making sure that none of the church property walked out the door at the end of the day.

The young pastor was so convinced of his analysis of the situation, that he took the rather prophetic step, he thought, of bringing it to the attention of the Funeral Luncheon Committee.  He planned his approach well and laid it before the committee.

He explained to the gathered ladies of the committee that they ought to have a more charitable view of their neighbors and fellow children of God.  Plates could always be replaced, but their reputation for being less-than-trusting would tarnish the ministry of Jesus Christ and cause a scandal to the gospel of grace.

They listened intently, patiently with absolutely no rolling of their eyes.  After the young minister finished his diatribe, one of the more elderly of the committee spoke up and said:

“Martin, Mabel counts those plates at the luncheon only so that we have a count of how many people ate at any particular meal!”

Well, I learned a definite lesson that day: the systems by which the church does her work can be a bit mysterious and bewildering, but one ought to be a bit more reserved when offering criticism of something one does not fully understand.  I just didn’t understand it and drew my own conclusions before taking the time to fully comprehend the situation.

The passage from Mark, however, is not one of confusion or misunderstanding.  Jesus comprehends exactly what is going on in the temple and the great misuse of the systems that had been developed by the people of Israel in order to offer adequate worship of God.  Jesus knew exactly what was going on and spoke out and even acted out against it.

Some have taken this passage and pointed to it as evidence that Jesus of Nazareth was a revolutionary; entering the Temple in Jerusalem and turning over the tables of the money changers and chasing out the sacrificial livestock as some kind of radical statement in service of a revolutionary cause.  I have come to believe that this is not the case at all: Jesus was more of a reformer than a revolutionary!

Jesus’ actions in the Temple that day spoke to his desire to reform the life and worship of the people of Israel.  The systems that had been put in place for the sake of sacred worship of God had become corrupted over time by the people’s desire for convenience and ease.

The selling of livestock for sacrifices and changing of money into the appropriate Temple currency had once been held away from the Temple, across the Kidron Valley in Jerusalem.  Over time, probably for reason of convenience and ease of access to the worshippers, this practice had moved from outside the Temple to the Court of Gentiles in the Temple grounds.

This should cause us to contemplate just what we do in ways of short-cuts or convenience when it comes to our worship and service of God and God’s church in this world. What are the systems that we employ as a congregation that make things easier on us and less strenuous when it comes to offering our worship to God?  What are the bargains that we strike when we seek to make our Christian faith easier, but lose the better part of meaning and purpose in the exchange?

Hulitt Goler, a professor at Truett Theological Seminary, comments on this truism of the church:

“The ways of the world invade the church gradually, subtly, never intentionally, always in service of the church and its mission.  Soon the church is full of cattle and sheep and turtledoves and moneychangers.”

I’m sure that the priests at the Temple thought they were doing something good, convenient and helpful when they cleared out the Court of the Gentiles to make room for the livestock and the moneychangers.  Jesus, of course, had a different view about that and acted to reform the practice.  You can imagine how happy that made the Temple officials, moneychangers and sellers of livestock!

When we make things convenient for us, we often make things more inconvenient for others.  This is exactly the case in point in John’s Gospel today.  Another reason for Jesus’ anger might very well have been who the Temple officials displaced in their placement of the moneychangers and livestock in the Temple.  This practice had been moved from outside the Temple to the Court of the Gentiles; this was the one place where the Gentiles could come to pray in the Temple grounds.  The actions of the Temple authorities were exclusive in the very place that had been maintained in order to be more inclusive.  This Court of the Gentiles had been established as a place to include the greater human family beyond the community of Israel; this was a place of outreach that had been subsumed for the convenience of the insiders …

This should cause all of us to consider the ways in which we exclude others for our own convenience when it comes to being the church.  What are the practices and the local customs of our church that tend to exclude rather than include?  Such consideration is a part of our call as God’s people and as Christ’s church in this world: how can we suffer a bit of inconvenience for the sake of others and for their possible inclusion in our community of faith?

Once when I was working with a presbytery committee in one of my former presbyteries, I was taken on a tour of a new Fellowship Hall of a rural, farming community congregation.  The elder of that church was so proud that the congregation had raised the funds to build this new building right next to their historic church building in order to provide greater access to the community.

The church held a blueberry festival for years in the basement of their original church building.  It was always over-subscribed and the basement had no handicap-accessible facilities, so they built the new building for that purpose.

The elder described the building and marveled over the fact that the dimensions of the new building were exactly the same dimensions of the old basement Fellowship Hall next door.

Puzzled over this, I asked if one of their concerns was the fact that the festivals were always over-subscribed, causing their neighbors and the community to stand in long lines outside the building, then why not build a larger structure?

The elder scratched his head, looked equally as puzzled and said:

“Well, we knew exactly how to fit the tables and chairs in that old basement … if we had a larger building we would need to buy more tables and chairs … it just wouldn’t have been convenient.”

Whenever we truly follow Jesus, we are going to be confronted with the same kinds of puzzles: how do we reach out to those we have formerly forgotten or neglected? What do we lose in the bargain of attempting to make our faith and life easier, more convenient?  How will we make room for others even if it inconveniences us?  Jesus sought to reform the Temple to allow for others, to make room for the broadening reach of God’s love; let us do the same in this great sanctuary AND in the sacred spaces of heart and soul!

Uncomfortable Things: Psalm 22:23-31 & Mark 8:31-38; Lent 2-March 4, 2012

Rev. Martin R. Ankrum

‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?

It was late afternoon on a Sunday in the mid-80’s and I was very tired of driving.  I was returning to Princeton after a visit home to Iowa and was traveling east on Interstate 80 somewhere past State College.  I was very tired of driving and was just wishing that I knew a quicker way to central New Jersey, when low and behold a sign appeared.

The sign was not one from heaven complete with angels and trumpets, but it appeared to me as an answer to prayer.  The large green highway sign read: Exit to Jersey Shore in 2 miles.

Wow!  That’s just what I was looking for: a shortcut to New Jersey!  Knowing that the Jersey Shore was right on the Atlantic and that Princeton lay somewhere between where I was and the ocean, I surmised that this was the shortcut I needed.  Certainly, this route, on its way to the Jersey Shore would get me to Princeton!  Surely, I would pass something that looked like the New Jersey border just over the Delaware!

With great excitement and renewed energy, thinking that I would cut at least two hours off the trip, I turned at the exit and started making my way home … or so I thought.

Now, no one told me that Jersey Shore is actually a village on the banks of the Susquehanna!  Oh, it’s a nice little town, but it’s no shortcut to Princeton, I can tell you!  I was looking for a timesaving shortcut and wound up spending more time on the road, diverted as it were through Jersey Shore.

Shortcuts; we all want to find one to cut down on driving time or energy expended.  Sometimes, it’s not the geographical variety of expediency that we seek, but a shortcut in our business, or in our relationships are just as appealing.  Sometimes, what we want is an easy way through or around something; we’re avoiding something difficult or arduous; something uncomfortable and strenuous; we’re trying to be expedient.  We think that it’s helping us out to be expedient, to take the shortcut, but that just isn’t always the case.

Peter is trying to be helpful, I think, in this text from the Gospel of Mark; he’s looking for a way around something arduous and difficult; he really doesn’t want to face the uncomfortable realities about his association with Jesus.  He thinks that he knows better than Jesus how to be the Messiah.  He knows what is expected of the Messiah … he thinks he knows that is.  Death and suffering is not a part of Peter’s vision for what Jesus should be about and he has no problem telling Jesus just what he thinks.

Jesus response is quick and to the point: “Get thee behind me, Satan.”  In other words: “Peter, you’re not being helpful at all; your shortcut is nothing but a dead-end.”

Mary E. Hinkle, a New Testament professor at Luther Seminary, is illuminating about this when she writes:

“Maybe this is why Jesus becomes so angry with Peter. When Peter rejects Jesus’ teaching that the Messiah must be crucified, Peter is beginning to fashion a lie about God. Surely, Peter is suggesting, there must be an easier way.”

What Peter wants are easy victories and coronation programs and this, quite frankly, just isn’t the truth about God.  What Jesus knows is that the way to save a life is to lose it and that is the truth about life with God.  It doesn’t make sense to Peter and probably not to many of us … but it’s the very thing that Jesus is called to do and it’s the very thing he is calling us to do: to take up our cross and follow him, to be honest and open and obedient to the life of God within us.

There are no shortcuts here.  There is no way around this. This is the uncomfortable thing about being a follower of Jesus Christ; actually being a follower!  A follower is one who lays down his or her own preconceived notions of what the church should be about, of how God should act in this world, of what is the best or expedient thing to do and actually follows Jesus, not just his or her plans laid upon the Christ.

Most of the time, we want to be the trailblazers.  There’s nothing like independence and ego: we love it when we’re the ones that find that here-to-fore undiscovered shortcut or expediency in life.  We love it when we come in first rather than second, third or twenty-third.  We love to win; to blaze our own trail; to join in with old blue eyes and sing: “I did it my way!”  We love that.

Jesus tells us to divest ourselves of that thinking and pick up our cross and follow him.

I like what the good Rev. John Coleman, Lutheran pastor, says about it all:

“Gospel logic is the operating principle of the life of discipleship.  If I am to be a disciple, I have to accept that almost nothing is as I would expect it to be.  The way I think just doesn’t jibe with the way God operates, so either I’m off kilter or God is.  After trying to live life on my own terms and failing repeatedly, I’ve decided that God’s on kilter, and I’m off.  The standards by which I used to measure contentment and meaning make a lot of sense, but they’re actually nasty, gluttonous illusions.”

There is no shortcut for Jesus Christ and there is no expedient way to learn of him except to deny one’s self, pick up a cross and start following.  It may be an uncomfortable thing for us – but there it is.  We must learn to deny ourselves and pick up our cross and follow.

How that works out in your life and in my life might be as different as each one of us.  However, William Willimon tells a grand story about how these uncomfortable realities were met by a couple in one of his first congregations.

They were a couple who were waiting with Willimon in a hospital room to hear some results of testing on their just newly born infant.  It had been an easy birth, but not all was right with the baby.

The doctor told them that the baby had been afflicted with Down’s Syndrome.  He stated this compassionately, yet matter-of-factly, as if he knew what the parents would say.

The asked only if the child was healthy.  The doctor said that he was except that he suffered from a slight, common respiratory ailment, forcing the staff to put the baby on a respirator.  He advised the parents to allow him to take the baby off the respirator and, as he said “That might solve things for you … at least it’s a possibility.”

Willimon continues the story:

“’It’s not a possibility for us,’ they said together.

‘I know how you feel,’ responded the doctor. ‘But you need to think about what you’re doing.  You already have two beautiful kids.  Statistics show that people who keep these babies risk a higher incidence of marital stress and family problems.  Is it fair to do this to the children you already have? Is it right to bring this suffering into your family?’

At the mention of ‘suffering’ I saw her face brighten, as if the doctor were finally making sense.

‘Suffering?’ she said quietly. ‘We appreciate your concern, but we’re Christians. God suffered for us, and we will try to suffer for the baby, if we must.’

Being a Christian means following Jesus even when it is uncomfortable for us; even when it means suffering for us. Peter thought that there should be an easier way, but there just isn’t. The doctor thought he knew what was best and most expedient for that young family; he was wrong. There are not short-cuts with God. This is the way of life with God in this world and Jesus puts it quite well in three, short commands: Deny yourself. Take up your cross. Follow me.

*No Sermon for February 26 – Hymn & Anthem Festival in Worship*

Ash Wednesday Meditation: II Cor. 5:20b-6:10 & I Peter 1:13-2:3 – February 22, 2012

Rev. Martin R. Ankrum

“…we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.”

“…but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written,

‘You shall be holy, for I am holy.’”

You have heard it famously said: “Love means never having to say you’re sorry!”  You’ve heard that said, but do you remember from whence that quote came?

After doing a little research, I found that the quote came from the novel and movie of the same name: “Love Story.”  The line appears once in the book, but twice in the famous movie starring Ali MacGraw and Ryan O’Neal, including the final and concluding words uttered in the film.

Regardless from whence this particular line originates, we can all respond to its sentiments, I think, with the same remark that my dear wife made when I said it to her just the other day: “Baloney!”

Julie is actually quite an adept theologian and observer of human life and behavior.  She had the same immediate response that I think most of would have to such sentiments for we knew that real, enduring love requires of us a good deal of admission of failure, confession of our own inadequacies and a seeking of forgiveness from our beloved.  We experience in all kinds of human relationships; certainly we should experience in our relationship with God.

Ash Wednesday is precisely about having to say we are sorry.  It is about repentance and coming to grips with the truth that we are not the people that we should be and that God is exactly as God should be and is.

The text from I Peter, borrowing from an Old Testament statement, indicates that God calls his followers to be holy, as holy as he is.  It is a tall order indeed and it is a calling with which, if we are honest, we struggle.  The more closely we grow to Jesus, the more willing we must be to perceive and see that we are not always who we should be or rather, whom God is calling us to be.

Of course, this continued call to repentance is not new to us as Christians or to our practice as members of the great Reformation practices of the faith.  Each Lord’s day when we gather in worship, one of the first features of the worship service is a call to confession and an actual corporate prayer of confession.  This is so ingrained in us that we risk ritualistically stumbling past this great admission that even though we have been saved by the grace of God in Jesus Christ, we still sin and fall short of the glory that we have inherited in Christ.

This is one of the reasons that Reformed Christianity in general and Presbyterianism specifically speaks to me and to my faith.  Here is an admission that though we are beneficiaries of the grace of Jesus Christ, we cannot maintain our relationship with God purely and simply by our effort and faith … we fail time and time again.  We are akin to Peter who, confident of his faith in Jesus of Nazareth, declares that he will never desert him only to hear the cock crow three times and realize that his desertion has been complete and total.

It is this very attitude that should be ours as we approach both Ash Wednesday and entire season of Lent: that we, like Peter, always stand in need of repentance and the assurance of pardon that we receive in Jesus Christ and not in our efforts or our abilities.

The Bible is filled with stories of great pioneers of the faith who, like us, had clay feet and stood in need of repentance.  Sometimes they realized this need and sometimes they completely ignored it.

That brings me to a point about repentance and evenings such as this and our great need for both.  Confident of God’s love for us in Jesus Christ, we can, from time to time, slip into believing that somehow we are no longer in need of repentance.  We might think that we have already done this; repented of our sins and received the gracious mercy of God and now walk freely and independently with our Savior.  There is much to be said for that, but like our communal response to that syrupy line from “The Love Story,” we sense that that is “baloney!”  If we consider sin seriously and look at our own lives honestly, we know we always stand in need of repentance.

One of those stories from the Bible that I mentioned is the rather infamous story of David and Bathsheba and Nathan … The first part of the story most Sunday school-trained Christians remember: King David, much beloved of the Lord and the most powerful king in the history of Israel, casts his gaze upon the beautiful Bathsheba sun-bathing on the roof of an adjoining building.  The King, in his lust and sharply honed self-esteem, decides that he must have her. The only thing he thinks that stands in his way is the fact that she is the wife of one of his generals!  After a rather complicated strategy that would make a writer of soap operas blush, David succeeds in eliminating his rival and taking Bathsheba as his own.

In his arrogance, David believes that nothing is out of bounds; that nothing is beyond his grasp.  He knows himself to be beloved of God, the apple of God’s eye, so to speak and it never registers on his mind that what he is doing is grievously and seriously wrong and hurtful to every party involved. He is just blinded by his perception of his rightness and I dare say righteousness!  It never enters his mind that he has something for which to repent and from which to turn.

Now, does that not sound familiar to us?!  Of course, it does!  We may not be the king and our sin may not be of the same texture or content of David’s lust for Bathsheba, but our sin is the same when we, like David, believe we have no need to repent; that we are somehow exempt from responding to God’s graciousness with a holy life and following a holy way.  Whenever we take the rightness of our course or the righteousness of our nature so seriously that we can hurt others and grieve the heart of God, then we need to think twice about what we are doing.

Sometimes it takes an external push to get us to repentance as it did with David.  If you remember, I said this was the story of David and Bathsheba AND Nathan!  Nathan is included here as the catalyst for the repentance of David.  The great prophet, having heard of David’s rather public sin, comes to him with a parable about a rich man taking advantage over a poor man.  David is greatly angered by the story and perceives that the rich man is in the wrong.  When he begins to offer solutions of how the rich man should be made to set things right, Nathan jumps in with those famous words: “Thou art the man!”

David is convicted immediately within his heart of his error and he repents.  It took an outside catalyst to get the great King, the one beloved of God, to see his own very real sin and repent.  The same is true for us.  Sometimes such catalysts include others in our life that tell us the truth, or a particular scripture reading that convicts our heart, or, as in this case, a whole season and a contemplation of ashes on a Wednesday evening.

It has been famously said: “Love means never having to say you’re sorry,” but, if we are wise, we see that statement for what it is … false and without merit.  If we are serious about our relationship with God in Jesus Christ, we might do better to take the surprising advice of the late, well-known critic of religion and famous celebrity, John Lennon, who countered that statement with the much wiser slogan: “Love means having to say you’re sorry every five minutes.”  And I think that just about says it all!

What Can We Say?: Psalm 50:1-6 & Mark 9:2-9; Transfiguration – February 19, 2012

Rev. Martin R. Ankrum

“As they were coming down the mountain, [Jesus] ordered them to tell no one about what they

had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.”

There are times when I am disturbed by the seeming ease with which faith in Jesus Christ and a relationship with God is described in our culture.  Some describe relationship with Jesus Christ as something as simple as following a recipe or executing a chemical formula: “Read this, pray that, say that Jesus is Lord and you’re in; you have faith!”

It reminds me of those bumper stickers that you see on the cars of well-meaning, well-intentioned Christians that read: “The Bible said it; I believe; that settles it!”

Oh, if were really that easy indeed … if a relationship with Jesus Christ, faith and trust in our good God were that easy.  But, I’m convinced it is not.

There is much about faith in Christ that is, well, a mystery.  Not the kind of mystery that one reads about in detective stories or watches on “NCIS” or “Law and Order,” but something deeper and more profound.  Faith is something more in the way of awe-inspired wonder and response; something that touches upon the very core of human existence and, of course, divine presence, rather than mere detective story.

This passage on Transfiguration Sunday from the Gospel of Mark is case in point: Jesus and a select few of his disciples are on a mountaintop and are confronted with a spectacular vision of holiness and revelation.  In fact, it is on this mountaintop that Jesus is revealed to his disciples for just who he is or, maybe better put, who he will be.

It is a dazzling spectacle that leaves the closest disciple, Peter, sputtering all kinds of suggestions that just don’t seem to fit the event.  He wants to stay there, build shelters and remain.  He doesn’t quite grasp what is going on; it is a mystery to him, but he keeps trying … a good follower of Jesus Christ, he keeps trying to comprehend, to appropriate what he is experiencing of God to his life.

Rodney Hunter, a former theology professor at Emory University, commented on this in helpful way:

“Today noisy evangelical movements – and the mainline churches as well – often make claims for Jesus’ divinity as if it were a public truth that anyone might see and grasp.  However, the knowledge of Jesus as the divine Son is a matter of revelation that comes in God’s own way and time – as a gift.  It is not a possession on the basis of which we can claim spiritual status and institutional or personal power, as if to make little gods of ourselves by ruling the world in his name as many have sought to do.”

But getting back to mystery, I also think that the late Peter Gome’s comment upon it is most fitting as we attempt to say something about this mysterious event that Mark lays before us this Transfiguration Sunday:

“Mystery is not an argument for the existence of God; mystery is an experience of the existence of God.”

He further heightens this intensity by quoting Diogenes Allen, a former professor at Princeton Theological Seminary:

“Mysteries to be known must be entered into … For we do not solve mysteries; we enter into them. The deeper we enter into them, the more illumination we get. Still greater depths are revealed the further we go.”

This mysterious revelation we encounter in this morning’s gospel text is one of those moments in which the Gospel is inviting us into the mystery of life with God.  We cannot explain exactly what happened on that mountaintop to Jesus nor should we attempt to do so; for what can we say?  Even more, can we hope to explain the effects of the Transfiguration upon the select few disciples who were witnesses to the event?  No, we must admit that there is mystery in life and especially life with God!  Yet, we can see the results of the Transfiguration in both the life of Jesus and in the lives of the disciples.

I remind you that we are just on the cusp of Lent.  What comes next in the Christian calendar is Ash Wednesday; the start of our journey with Jesus to his cross.  Something about this moment recorded in Mark supplies Jesus and his disciples with enough faith, trust, hope, love and whatever else to walk that way to the cross.  The disciples follow at a safe distance, mind you, but Jesus sets his face like flint to Jerusalem and determinedly follows that way of God all the way to the cross.

The Gospel witness also provides the story of the disciples’ attempts to follow Jesus on his way to the cross.  They all try, but ultimately they all fall away.  Yet, something has propelled them down Jesus’ path at least as far as they were able to go; they too have been transfigured by the event.

One of the temptations we might face in comprehending the Transfiguration is our desire to place the event on a pedestal as it were and contemplate it from a safe, objective distance.  We tell ourselves that this happened to Jesus and thus is worthy of our study and contemplation, but we inwardly warn ourselves not to expect such events for our own lives; this is, after all, we think, only about Jesus.  If we do that we forget that his followers were there and were witnesses; they too were transfigured in this event.

These moments of transfiguration, where the divine graciously touches our profane lives and alters us, are all around us.  At least, I am convinced of that.  It is a matter of being aware, taking stock, being observant of this great mystery encountering us and enveloping us, here in worship and IN the midst of our lives.

Two brief stories tell the tale of such transfigurations for me.  Both involve worship and both involve a change, one dramatic and one much more commonplace, but transforming presences of God all the same.

The first comes from Tom Long, a former preaching professor of mine who tells of a lonely, small Episcopalian parish in Vermont:

In his memoir A Dresser of Sycamore Trees, lay Episcopal minister Garret Keizer describes a Holy Saturday vigil held in his tiny Vermont parish. When Keizer arrived at the church, he found that only two other people, a husband and wife, had come for the service. As the three of them huddled together in the old church, Keizer lit the Paschal candle and extinguished the other lights, a symbol of hearing God’s great promise of hope “in darkness, longing to hear it in the light of day.”

Together they prayed: “Grant that in this Paschal feast we may so burn with heavenly desires, that with pure minds we may attain to the festival of everlasting light.”

The Paschal candle sputtered in the dimness. As they prayed, the worshipers could hear cars passing by outside, travelers in a secular age oblivious to the ancient hopes being spoken in the little chapel. “There we are,” Keizer wrote, “three people and a flickering light.” This act of worship was, he said, “so ambiguous because its terms are so extreme: the Lord is with us, or we are pathetic fools.”

And from the oft-quoted William Willimon, United Methodist Bishop, this story of change and transfiguration:

“I once had a church member who was faced with the horribly difficult task of forgiving a person who had deeply, most unjustly wronged her.  He was her ex-husband.  She did not want to forgive him, resented and hated him with all her being, but her hatred for him and for what he had done to her and her family was ruining her life.

“I met with her and counseled her.  I prayed with her for the power to forgive and to go on with her life, but she just couldn’t. I had great sympathy for her because I knew that if I were her, I probably couldn’t bring myself to forgive either.

“The one Sunday she emerged from church just beaming. I could see on her face that she had just had wonderful experience of worship.

“She said to me, as I stood at the church door, ‘I can do it!  That last hymn has given me everything I needed to do what God wants me to do.’

“A hymn enables someone to forgive her worst enemy? I think in that moment an epiphany enabled someone to take up her cross and follow Jesus into Lent.”

Life with God is not a formula or a recipe; it is a living relationship that transforms the moments of life that otherwise appears mundane and ordinary into something sacred and truly extraordinary.  The call upon our lives is to keep alert, do as the voice at the Transfiguration commands: “Listen to him,” and watch for the transforming power of grace and hope in our own lives.

The Lord’s Choice: Psalm 30 & Mark 1:40-45; Epiphany 6 – February 12, 2012

Rev. Martin R. Ankrum

A leper came to Jesus begging him, and kneeling he said to him, ‘If you choose, you can make me clean.’ 41Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, ‘I do choose. Be made clean!’ 42Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean.

Sometimes there are moments in life when a choice must be made and we are completely aware of it!  It is a clear demarcation in our vision of life that we realize with great clarity.  For instance, we approach our wedding day and we realize, after this coming Saturday, we will no longer be single; we will be a married man or woman.  Or, we have been offered a position at a higher pay scale and great benefits, but it requires a move across country.  We are faced with a decision then: do we stay in our current comfortable surroundings or do we move to a new place, where we know no one, but our family will be more secure financially?

But then there are the small choices in life that are not as clear cut or are as obvious to us in the moment of the choosing.  These are moments where we are usually confronted with the right thing to do in our mind in a minor decision, but realize that there are consequences that will be drawn or realized from that choice.  Those little, day-to-day choices are the ones that really mark us and define our characters as people and, honestly, as the children of God.

Today, Jesus is faced with just such a choice: should he do what is the right and compassionate thing and risk losing his ability to fulfill his call or should he ignore this one person’s plea and continue on, unfettered and unimpeded with his vision for ministry to the people of the Galilean villages?  That is the choice that Jesus faces in this text, this great little story from the Gospel of Mark.  What will be the Lord’s choice?  What will he do?!

For us, the hearers of this pericope from Mark, the choice is obvious: Jesus can either heal this man with leprosy or ignore him and move on.  That sounds like an incredibly obvious choice … of course, Jesus should heal the man, isn’t that what is Jesus is here for after all?  Hasn’t he healed others?  Won’t we stumbled across other examples of such healings as we press further in the gospels found in those opening pages of the New Testament?  “Of course,” we say to ourselves, “Jesus should heal this guy … he just wouldn’t be Jesus if he didn’t.”

The choice is obvious, but the risk is hidden or at least implied in this text today.  We don’t see the risk, but the disciples, the crowds, the people and the priests of Jesus’ time would understand and comprehend the risk immediately: If Jesus deems to touch this man, this man who the righteous and upright have identified as an “unclean” individual because of his disease, then Jesus himself will become unclean, ritually impure and unable to proceed into any body of people, any crowd in any village or city, and preach the good news.  If Jesus heals this unclean man, he gives up his calling to preach and heal others … the religion and society of the time would just put a stop to it.

Don’t just take my word for this; here is what other, more authoritative commentators on scripture have written about it!  George Telford, Presbyterian minister and articulate preacher, says this:

“The leper confronts Jesus with a challenge: ‘If you will, you can make me clean.’ If you will. But if he accepts the challenge and is drawn into this farthest outpost of the profane, if he touches this untouchable, then he will, at least for a while, be disqualified for preaching in those towns where it is known what he has done. And perhaps not just for a while, for more is at stake here than becoming ceremonially unclean. For Jesus … touching and healing a sinner, [is] breaking a major taboo …”

In answering the question of just why Jesus might have been angered or frustrated with this choice, as some of the manuscripts and translations of this passage indicate, Dr. Ortega of the Evangelical Theological Seminary, posits this:

“Because [the crowds] look for him too much? Because he wants to visit the people? No! Because he has become himself impure.  He has touched the leper. [Jesus] is polluted, he is an unclean man, according to the sacral vision of priests and scribes.  There has been a reversal of religious conditions: the leper is clean; Jesus is unclean.”

Maybe that helps us to put this story and the choice that Jesus made into a little sharper contrast for us.  If he touches and heals the leper, he gives up his opportunity to go into the villages, to be a part of the culture and society to which God has so obviously called him.  If however, he ignores the pleas of this diseased and hopeless man, he can continue, unstained and righteous in the eyes of his people, in the eyes of his culture, in the eyes of his religious tradition and continue.  This is an awesome and serious choice set before him!

Now, do you perceive the risk?  Do you perceive rightly the choice that is so obviously set before our loving Lord?  AND do we, (here’s the real question!), do we perceive what this means for us as followers of Jesus Christ?  Should we be expected to do something different than what Christ has done and still attempt to call ourselves “Christians”?

Being a follower of this healer, this gracious man/God, Jesus is a risky business.  The choices we are called to make are fraught with just as much risk and trepidation as this one placed before our Lord this day.  It is risky business in which we are engaged as the church; as the called gathering of the Body of Christ.

One of the strongest statements or admissions of this could be found in our own Presbyterian Book of Order for many years:

“The Church is called to undertake this 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 cannot find anywhere else, a more courageous statement issued by an institution … we freely admit that the claim of the gospel and the mission, to which we have been graciously set by Jesus Christ, is greater than the institutional drive for self-preservation.  In short, if fail to undertake this mission, this risky business with which Jesus involves himself, we fail to be the church anymore.  It really is as plain and simple as all that.

What is not plain and simple is locating the leper in our midst and in our lives.  This is a more personal question; a more intimate inquiry.  Who is it that we are automatically excluding from our lives because of what our culture or our drive to appear righteous rather than to be actually gracious, is telling us to ignore, to pass by and pass over, those whom we are told we should have nothing with which to do?

I’ll leave you to answer that question to your own satisfaction for I am convinced those answers are different for each one of us.  The question we must answer however is what will we do?  We know the Lord’s choice; what will be our choice?

Wonderfully, these are the same questions that a favorite hymn that Mr. Highberger often includes in our worship asks of us.  The hymn is called simply; The Summons and the questions asked are directed from our Savior to us:

“Will you come and follow me if I but call your name?

Will go where you don’t know and never the same? …

“Will you leave yourself behind if I but call your name?

Will you care for cruel and kind and never be the same?

Will you risk the hostile stare, should your life attract or scare?

Will you let me answer prayer in you and you in me?

AND finally, a most appropriate refrain:

“Will you kiss the leper clean, and do such as this unseen

And admit to what I mean in you and you in me?”

This day, in the gospel of Mark, a serious choice is laid before our Lord.  We know the choice he has made; the risk he has willingly accepted.  The question remains for us about all the lepers and outcasts in our own lives: what will we choose?  What will we do?

Widening the Scope: Psalm 147:1-11,20c & Mark 1:29-39, Epiphany 5-February 5, 2012

Rev. Martin R. Ankrum

In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. And Simon and his companions hunted for him. When they found him, they said to him, ‘Everyone is searching for you.’ He answered, ‘Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.’ And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.

I have noticed that it is a natural human temptation to narrow our scope of friends and acquaintances as we grow older.  One would think that just the opposite would be true: the older we grow, the more people we will have met and included in our “inner circle” of friends, neighbors and the natural support systems that develop merely in living.  But, I have found that the case is actually different than that: we have a tendency to narrow our scope and winnow away at our list of “Facebook” friends.

Back in seminary, during my Middler year, I was required for a class to write a brief paragraph describing my perspective of the Kingdom of Heaven using a contemporary analogy.  I think it was a class on the parables of Jesus for that is precisely what Jesus describes in his then-contemporaneous vision of what the Kingdom of Heaven could mean.

Anyway, my description went something like this:

“It’s Friday afternoon and I’m on a wide veranda of a house in the middle of a neighborhood.  In one corner of the porch sits a keg of beer, on ice, with enough plastic cups for a party of some size.  People stream out of the street up onto the porch all afternoon, coming and going, taking a cup of beer, chatting and laughing and spending time with one another.”

My professor was not as impressed as I thought he might have been.

That vision, though we might get distracted by the mention of beer, is really focused upon the wideness of the event: in my vision, people were coming and going and ALL were invited.  That was at least how I viewed the Kingdom of Heaven in contemporary terms then.  I wanted to have a Friday afternoon where friends and neighbors, strangers and family alike would drop by my porch and fill the fading day with friendship and the presence of one another.

It is a shame and a scandal in some ways that I never enacted that vision.  Nowadays, I find myself contemplating how to keep people and visitors off my porch!  I find myself sometimes tempted to consider elaborate ways that I might avoid the interruption of the presence of others in my life … and that my friends, that feeling of just wanting to be left alone … is the real affront and scandal to the gospel claims upon my life!  The presence of the Kingdom of Heaven (the presence of Jesus Christ) in my life, should lead me towards others and not away from them!

This short little passage from the Gospel of Mark relates something so important, so vital about life with God and life in Christ’s church that we risk much if we fail to hear it or overlook it wedged in the midst of everything else that is happening in the pericope.

This vital element, this fundamental understanding appears at the very end of the passage, after the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law and after the mass gathering of those ill and demon-possessed seeking attention from Jesus.  This all-important element occurs right at the end of the passage:

In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. And Simon and his companions hunted for him. When they found him, they said to him, ‘Everyone is searching for you.’ He answered, ‘Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.’ And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.

Here’s the scene: Jesus has been busy the day before with all the healing and teaching and early on the next morning, he is out in a secluded spot in prayer.  The disciples, led by Simon Peter are desperately searching for him; like the handlers of some political candidate who want their man to keep on schedule and not delay the buses, the disciples are desperate to find him.

Once Jesus is found, his response to their entreaties is to rise off his knees and remind them of his purpose.  He tells them that they won’t be staying here anymore, but will widen the scope of the message he brings to the surrounding villages and the hillsides of the Galilee.  In the midst of Jesus’ isolation and seclusion, the world comes crashing in and he determines to go out to meet it, doing the very thing to which he has been called by God.

Sometimes, we are tempted as a church and as a people, to seek and desire seclusion and quiet meditation over the call of God to be with and for this world in meaningful and purposeful ways.  It is a great and common temptation for the church to do just that: satisfy our own spiritual needs and neglect the call that is upon our lives to live out the Gospel of Jesus Christ in a world so badly in need of the healing touch of the living Christ.

Not too many years ago, I visited with a church in our presbytery that sought to leave our denomination.  I listened, along with other colleagues sent for the purpose of listening, to all their woes and tales of how the denomination had deserted them and had neglected the real Gospel of Jesus Christ.  They related that the PC(USA) had done this and had done that which had caused them scandal and offense and now they wanted only to break ties from this heretical organization and be left alone to pursue being a church in their community, unfettered with ties to the outside world.

Though I understood their complaints, I came to realize that there was something else that was at the heart of their concern: their anger with the Presbyterian Church was only the presenting problem, as counselors are trained to say.  It was only the surface issue and not the real heart of the matter.  This church that I visited on behalf of our presbytery wanted to retreat fully and completely into an enclave of like-minded individuals who always agreed with one another and agreed with each other about what the church should be and do.  They just didn’t want to get mixed up with “external concerns,” as one of their own elders named it.

Yet, this passage, with its honest representation of Jesus Christ’s desire to widen the scope of the gospel and reach out to the world in which he lived should be our by word, as it were, when we consider to what we are being called as a church and as a people of God.  If the Gospel of Jesus Christ does not propel you out into the wider world of your fellow humanity, then it is not the gospel of Christ that you are hearing … or at least you do not understand it. Of that, I am convinced.

The temptation for the American church is to become exactly what that little church I visited became: an enclave of like-minded people, intent upon seeing to each other’s needs or their own spiritual desires rather than widening their scope to reach out to the world.  This is possibly the most dangerous and fruitless temptation that we all face as a church in this culture: to wall ourselves up into something that makes us comfortable, while the rest of the world goes on without the gracious and loving influence of Christ’s church.

I really like what John Buchanan, pastor of the great Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago says about this:

“I have thought like this.  I have to be convinced that thinking like this, understandable and logical as it is, is in fact part of what is wrong with us. We are not called to simply exist.  We are not called to just survive. We are not even called to be successful.  We are called, as churches, to be faithful to Jesus Christ and to serve the world as he served it, to love the world as he loved it, to give our lives away to the world as he gave his life away.  The resources to live, to exist, and to survive are given to us by God, not so much as we become more efficient, more economical, more astute at raising funds and conserving our resources (as important as that is), but precisely as we discover that the reason for the church’s being is simply mission.”

As well, here are the words of one of our denomination’s statements of faith, the Confession of 1967, which reads:

“The life, death, resurrection, and promised coming of Jesus Christ has set the pattern for the church’s mission.  His life as man involves the church in the common life of men. His service to men commits the church to work for every form of human well-being.”

In this passage from Mark, we see clearly that the model for discipleship that we receive from Jesus Christ is one that embraces God’s call to reach out to this world, not to form an closed enclave of like-minded individuals, but to follow our Lord out into this world and offer the grace and love that we have received in Christ to a world badly in need of this healing message.

So, let us rise from our knees and our prayerful devotion to God and follow the living Christ out into a world that he has already embraced in his life, death and resurrection; let us widen our scope just as he did in Galilee and beyond those borders and boundaries.  Let us do so for the sake of Jesus Christ and for the sake of love … and maybe, just maybe, if your porch is large enough and strong enough, you ought to think about buying a keg of beer this coming Friday afternoon!

The Transforming Word:  Psalm 111 & Mark 1:21-28; Epiphany 4-January 29, 2012

Rev. Martin R. Ankrum

“They went to Capernaum; and when the Sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. … They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, ‘What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.’”

When I was a seminarian, I worked briefly in a homeless shelter in the city of Trenton, New Jersey.  Gathered there were the folks who had nowhere else to go; most had been turned out of the local mental institution due to the federal budget cuts of the mid-1980’s.  They all seemed to show up at our little, store-front, Presbyterian-funded and inspired, make-shift shelter.

One particular Sunday morning, the minister in charge of the shelter, Neil, was leading worship and celebrating communion with me assisting him.  Into the back of the worship space, near the end of the service, shuffled one of the regulars; let’s call him “Ted.”

Ted had many issues, mainly an overwhelming sense of paranoia that led him to question everything anyone ever tried to do for him or with him.  He would consistently feel threatened by just about anything that the minister or I offered him and he was constantly in some form of disagreement with all the other residents of the shelter.  To say it succinctly: Ted was a handful!

Ted entered the worship space and I could see on his face that he was greatly troubled.  The communion was finishing and Neil was about to begin the prayer following communion, when Ted cried out in a loud and plaintive voice:

“Oh my God, I missed the blood of Christ!  I ain’t got the blood! You passed over me; you forgot me!  I ain’t got the blood!”

With that, Ted dissolved into a heap on one of the old folding chairs set up in the last row and began to sob in the most heart-wrenching manner you can imagine.

I was stunned, shocked, paralyzed and began to avoid the gaze of Neil for I knew … I just knew … that he would want me to do something as he continued with the service!  And sure enough, he pantomimed for me to take a small piece of bread and the table chalice of grape juice to Ted.

Now, with great shame, I can tell you that I probably rolled me eyes and let out a quiet: “Oh geez…” but I went to the back with the elements and offered them to the sobbing Ted.

I tapped him on the shoulder and he looked up with eyes wet from his own tears and his great fear.  He grabbed the crumb of bread off the small plate and took the entire cup and drank down its contents, with the grape juice pouring down his cheeks and chin onto the tiled floor.

Ted then became … well, transformed: he thanked me quietly and sat up in his chair and listened intently and sat calmly for the remaining five minutes of the service.

In the world of the miraculous, I know that this may seem like “small potatoes,” but in Ted’s world, this changed everything … at least for that moment.  In Ted’s world, the presence of Jesus Christ had transformed him once again into the person that he had been at some point before the demons of his own fears and paranoia consumed him.  And that, my friends, is miraculous enough for me.

I am convinced that it is the presence of God’s transforming word in Jesus Christ that makes our worship meaningful and matter in this world.  It is here, that we are met and confronted by the truth of God’s love for us in Jesus Christ and by God’s great desire for us to be who God has intended us to be.  It is in worship, just as surely as Mark displays it in today’s gospel reading, that real transformation of heart and soul, life and work can overtake us and remake us into the people that God has intended us to be.  That is why worship is so vital, so important to us or at least should be.

William Willimon speaks of this truth when he writes:

“True worship of a true and living God only begins when Jesus appears.  And when he appears among us, his presence can be disruptive.  We come to worship on Sunday not simply for peace, consolation, strength to go on, or any other human good.  We come first and foremost to be with the living God, no matter what … There are those within this congregation this morning who could tell the world the truth: church is not where we come to get what we want out of God.  Church is where God gets what God wants out of us.”

Maybe that is why Ted came to worship: underneath that paranoia and fear that plagued his life, he knew that church, that confrontation with the living God, was really not about him, but was about God … it was and is about what God wants out of us, rather than what we want to get somehow from God!  And for a moment, for a blessed moment, Ted was rid of that paranoia and sat calmly before God in prayer and contemplation; he was the Ted God had intended him to be.

Finally, in closing, and only because I couldn’t resist it: another quote from Willimon … a good and true story that sets the importance of worship in the incredibly real context of our lives:

“[Willimon] asked a group of suburban pastors what was their most formidable competitor for getting their people to Sunday morning worship.

‘Soccer,’ they answered.

‘Do you mean to tell me that the trinity is losing out to a black and white ball?’ [Willimon] asked.

‘Our people,’ one pastor said, ‘would rather raise children who can gain power and prestige in this society by knowing how to play [a game] than to raise children who know how to find the Gospel of Mark in the Bible.’

Luther says that whatever you’d sacrifice your daughter to, that’s your God.”

It is really that important.  Grace and peace to you as you listen for the transforming word in your own life and as we listen together as the people of God.

Lawful Things?: Ps. 139:1-6,13-18 & I Cor. 6:12-20 – Epiphany 2 -January 15, 2012

Rev. Martin R. Ankrum

“All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are beneficial. “All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be dominated by anything

On a sunny Saturday winter morning some years back, I was sitting at my desk in the office of one of my former churches.  I was trying desperately to write a sermon for the next day and clearly experiencing a form of “writer’s block.”  So, I looked out my window …

That office happened to be on the ground floor of the church and looked out over a beautiful little courtyard of green grass, brick walls and a few small trees.  I noticed an incredible amount of tiny birds perched on the trees and flying about the courtyard.  It was a scene of both constant motion and dreamy rest … as some birds were in flight, flying little patterns around the courtyard; others were perched in a resting position on the limbs of the little trees.  As some would land on the limbs others would take off and fill in the patterns of flight.

I watched the birds for some time, locked in an interest beyond the natural desire to be distracted from an unusually difficult task. There was something appealing about the manner with which those birds engaged each other and linked themselves together in some kind of swirling, moving and then resting, community of like-feathered creatures.  Each one looked like a variation on the other.  I don’t know what species or breed of bird they were, but they appeared all to be of the same family; they all seemed to be connected to one another.

The birds moved with collective purpose.  As I said, some rested while others flew; they were involved in a collective aerial ballet that I alone witnessed that day.  Though each bird was an individual demonstration of the whole, none of them seemed isolated or detached completely from the complicated dance or from the others.  It was apparent that they all belonged together.

For me, that real-life, naturalistic experience became a metaphor for the church.  Indeed, we are all individuals, called by Jesus Christ to follow him; to fulfill our calling from God to live as witnesses to Jesus Christ, but we do not perform this great ballet of relatedness in Christ alone … we are certainly called to be the church of Jesus Christ together … we need each other.

What we just heard from I Corinthians, speaks to this very issue.  The great Apostle Paul wrote to the Church in Corinth in the midst of a crisis.  That church, in a great diverse city, was beginning to come apart due to the great divisions within its membership.  Paul’s intention was to call them back to an elemental and foundational understanding that God had called them to live together as the church and to just get over their differences.  God’s call was for them to concentrate upon the things that united them in Christ rather those things that separated them.

This is still a struggle for us in the church even today.  Here, in this great community of faith in which God has planted us, we find diverse and different viewpoints.  Sometimes we wonder, like the people of Corinth, what is “lawful” for us and what is “beneficial”, as Paul put it to the Corinthians with this letter.  Sometimes we find ourselves tempted to demand that others in the church act and think exactly as we do.  We sometimes concentrate upon what we perceive others are doing rather than subjecting ourselves to consider how we might better be of service to others rather than stand in judgment of them.  That is as true for us as it is for just about any other church.

I look back over my twenty-five years of ordained ministry and find all kinds of things that have divided the people of God; some of them considerable issues, while others seem a bit fringe to me.  I’ve had folks in my various churches where I have served threaten to leave or actually leave over all kinds of things:

One fellow, a funeral director who was a deacon of the church, felt that there was too many funeral homes in the town where I served previously and left the church because I had actually lead a funeral service at his competitor’s!

Another left a large church I served because the Senior Pastor commandeered the Presbyterian Women’s Lounge for his temporary office while his new office was being prepared; apparently the Presbyterian Women were not as appreciative of his need for new digs as he thought they should have been!

Some have left because the church stopped using the old china and bought new, stopped using the old hymnal and bought new, stopped handing out communion tokens, started reaching out to folks who didn’t wear ties on Sundays or on Mondays for that matter … the stories abound of how it is that we separate ourselves from one another and from Christ’s church for crazy reasons.

I can’t help but think about those birds again … individually beautiful and different in their own ways, they seemed to be bound together by something beyond them … there appeared no particular “lead bird,” but they all seemed to know their own part of the aerial ballet they performed.  Some rested while others flew, seamlessly taking the others place when the right time came, flying and resting, flying and resting and bearing a testimony to an unseen Creator to whose tune they seemed mighty obedient.

William Willimon, a great Methodist bishop that I quote a lot, once wrote:

“Christians are those who, in obedience to Christ, bend our lives toward the needs and limitations of others.  For us, to be moral not only means to live righteously ourselves but also to live in a way that the lives of others might be blessed by our living.”

As followers of the One who gave his life for the many, we freely limit ourselves so that others might be blessed.

Is any of this making sense?  It might not, actually! The culture in which we live does not necessarily promote this self-limitation for the sake of others.  In fact, Willimon has something to say about that:

“Our whole society seems to be built on the promise that the purpose of our country is to give you the maximum amount of freedom to get whatever you want, as long as you don’t bump into me while I’m getting what I want.”

Well said!  Thanks be to God that Paul does not promote what our culture values … instead Paul would advocate, most simply, profoundly and beautifully, that we make room for others in our lives and in our life as Christ’s body in this world.

I can’t emphasize this enough for this is certainly one of those core values of being a Christian … making room for others, even those with whom we disagree.

Paul seems to be telling the Corinthians just that when he wrote:

“All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are beneficial. “All things are lawful for me,”

but I will not be dominated by anything

Later on in his letter, Paul will make an impassioned plea for the Corinthians to limit themselves for the sake of others.  He will intimate strongly to them that part of their witness as Christians is living in community and not in isolation from others.  He will encourage them, for the sake of Christ and for the sake of the witness of God’s love and grace, to figure out a way that they can live together in the peace and community of God’s grace.  It is still good advice for any church, anywhere.

Clyde Fant, a retired professor from Stetson University echoes this in an article about our passage:

“Individualism in the Western world has created liberty and opportunity.  But individualism has been raised to the level of divinity in this country, along with nationalism and the wallet.  College students are deeply committed to a laissez-faire life: it may not be your way, but it is my way. Yet is that not also the mantra of the modern church? Are we willing to stand beneath the word of God, to bow down in humility at the feet of the Christ? Are we willing to obey anything beyond our own whims — particularly if something important is involved? Or do we not believe it has nothing to do with our faith and is nobody’s business but ours — least of all, the church’s?”

Fant is right … the church is more about collectivism than it is about individualists.  Jesus is no individualist; he calls us to be together as his Church.  Christ calls us to express the freedom and liberty we have found in God’s grace by willing binding ourselves together in mutual obedience to him.  In short, Christ calls us to serve one another and this world; to make room for others as some of us rest on the branch while others fly, and then take off in flight while others find opportunity to rest.

There was something about those birds on that snowy wintry day … something beautiful about just how they all, as individuals, worked together to be a flock … it is a lesson that the church would do well to never forget.

The Heart of the Lord: John 1:6-8, 19-28 & Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; Advent 3-December 11, 2011

Rev. Martin R. Ankrum

I’ve heard countless television evangelists target this or that as what is at the very heart of the Lord.  Sometimes it the material success of the believer that the evangelist isolates, such as in the purveyors of what is called the “prosperity gospel.”  Sometimes it is more political in nature, such as one Texas evangelist who is convinced that the only thing that lies at the heart of the God of the universe is the ultimate preservation of the American way and the United States as the only God-fearing nation … the new Israel, he calls it.

Whatever it is that they say is at the heart of the Lord, I would advise them and all of us here present this day to examine most closely the words from the 61st chapter of Isaiah.  Here is a strong statement of what is at the very heart of the Lord; the very desire and hope of the Almighty … that justice might be done; that liberty might be proclaimed to the captives; the brokenhearted will be made glad …

The passage from Isaiah comes from the third and final portion of the great prophecy, the portion that is concerned with the returning children of Israel from their captivity in Babylon.  In Palestine, they find devastation and disaster all around them; downtrodden and brokenhearted refugees from their own captivity are welcomed home to find their once beautiful city, Jerusalem and the surrounding countryside, in utter ruin.  And yet, this is the vision that they receive … the hope in God’s work of restoration right in their midst … the vision of what can and will happen in their lives.

At the heart of the Lord is a vision that we name the Advent hope: that which is broken and devastated about our world and our lives will be put to right and will be set to restoration.  What appears as the parched and dry land of our hearts will be replenished with the fertile soil of a great, divine garden, where, as Isaiah puts it, “the Lord God will cause righteousness and praised to spring up …”

Sometimes it is only the vision of that for which we hope that keeps us going.  We have an idea, a goal, a vision of what life can be or has been or will be again and that seems to lend a hand in our getting through this recent or long-lasting personal desert we face.

William Willimon, once the chaplain at Duke University, tells a story about a college student he knows that keeps such a vision before her.  He wrote this:

“She had a miserable time the second semester of her sophomore year.  She had unwisely signed up for a couple of killer courses.  She was flunking both them, in way over her head.  Then, her mother had a heart attack and was reduced to being an invalid.  To top it all off, her boyfriend of three years unceremoniously dumped her.

‘How on earth do you keep going,’ [Willimon] asked her.

‘I think of May 14, 2012,’ she responded.

‘May 14, 2012? What’s that?’ [He] asked.

‘It’s the day of my graduation.  Sometimes I picture myself in my cap and gown.  I can hear the music of the orchestra.  In my mind’s eye I can see myself processing down that long row of graduates, see myself receiving my diploma from the hands of the President. That dream, that vision of the future, keeps me going.’”

The value of visions of restoration and redemption should never be discounted.  They are important not only to our lives, but to the very life of God; that kind of vision of restoration and redemption for all creation, all humankind, is what is right at the heart of God.  Therefore, it should be right at the heart not only of our Advent celebrations, but at our very actions and work as Christians and as a congregation of followers of Jesus Christ.

The call both of the Advent season and the witness of Isaiah is for our full participation in the acts that might bring justice, righteousness and kindness to this earth.  Saying that, I realize, it is nothing revolutionary or radical or new for you folks; however, as well as we know this about our Christian faith and the call from the very heart of God, it is good for us to be reminded of it from time to time.  This is the duty of the text and of those who interpret the text on a weekly basis in the setting of worship: to remind us all of the call upon our lives.

As some of you know, I’m an avid golfer … Now; I said “avid” not necessarily good! I love to play the game and I love to watch others play it.  It is a grand game, developed, of course, by wise Scots who would come to perfect Calvinism into something we call Presbyterianism.  Those Scots knew something about the hard lessons of golf and life; about the way that both playing the game and living life can teach a good dose of humility to each of us.

I was watching a few holes of a recent professional match on television and was taken by the contrast between the reactions of some of the pros as they made exceptionally good shots.  Some of the pros, after hitting a particularly great putt or a clutch sand shot, pumped their fists, shouted short, loud acclamations and nearly thumped their chests.  Others, had more restrained responses, which I like.

One, in particular, a slight, Irish youth, hit a clutch chip around the green, out of thick rough, over a bunker, down the slope of the putting surface and nearly holed it.  He was in danger of slipping out of the frontrunners if he muffed the chip.  Instead of chest thumping or fist pumping, he merely ducked his head and one hand pulled at the brim of his cap, as if to say: “Ah shucks, anyone could have done that.”  Or maybe, more likely, he thought as most of us do when we hit a good shot: “That could have gone a lot worse!”

Golfers are told by the experts that not only is it really a mental game, it is a game where you best remember or envision your good shots rather than the ones of which you made a major mess and pulled a double or triple bogey, or in my case, much worse. The golfer is often exhorted to envision the ball landing on the green or going in the hole long before the approach shot is struck or the putt aligned.  The golfer is encouraged to remember the good shots and shake off the bad.

I think that this is excellent advice for living out what is at the heart of the Lord.  It would be best for the Christian to remember the times when we have really got it; when we have really done well by others, reaching out our hearts and hands and offering ourselves as part of the solution.  We have had more than enough experiences of not doing what is right; we all know that if we are honest.  And sometimes, the remembrance of those times and acts threaten to bury us in either massive guilt or anxious inactivity, afraid we will repeat the bad rather than pioneer in the good.

The season of Advent and the call of Isaiah should convince us that God’s redemption is coming and we all have a part to play.  We don’t all have to be Joan of Arcs, Albert Schweitzers, Mother Teresas or Rory McIlroys. We can all be ourselves, the selves that God has made, the selves that do, from time to time, summon up enough passion, courage and conviction to actual do the good, work for justice, righteousness and wholeness in this world, and actually follow the very heart of the Lord.

William Willimon reminds us all that we are not alone at this work; that the golf course is not empty aside from us and our slight abilities to hit the ball:

“…to believe in God is to believe that your actions are not the only actions that are occurring.  In the present moment, there is a story working itself out beyond the present.  Your circumstances, as bleak as they may be at the moment, are not the only circumstance.  It is not all left up to us. We do not have the whole world in our hands. There is a good, gracious presence moving behind the circumstances of life.”

Anyone who has stood on the tee and watched your ball land squarely in the fairway knows that there is more going on there than you can muster on your own … anyone of us who have actually done the good, sought justice, promoted righteousness, knows that there is One who really deserves the credit.

Build It Where You Are: Mark 1:1-8(9-15) & Isaiah 40:1-11- Advent 2: December 4, 2011

Rev. Martin R. Ankrum

9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’ The Temptation of Jesus 12 And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him. The Beginning of the Galilean Ministry 14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’

Those are the words that follow immediately after the First Lesson for this day.  It was not a part of the lectionary pericope, but, as you can tell, it needs to be read along with it … at least I think it does.

For it is here that the intersection of our Advent texts for today actually takes place: The opening to the second part of Isaiah and the opening to the Gospel (good news) of Jesus Christ as related by Mark.

The author of Mark takes his readers back before he propels them forward … he takes us back to the Old Testament promises and hopes before he spends the rest of the gospel demonstrating just how those promises and hopes have been fulfilled in Jesus of Nazareth.  No elongated birth narrative or genealogical survey opens the Gospel of Mark … just this whiplash between what we have hoped for and the beginning of our hope’s fulfillment in Jesus Christ.

In short, the words from Isaiah and John the Baptist remind us that this world and our lives are not what they should be, but in the coming of Jesus Christ, a light has dawned and that fulfillment is coming … not yet here, but yet is coming.

The Rev. William Goettler, a Presbyterian pastor in New Haven, Connecticut, tells a story about a sometimes-homeless man in New Haven named Danny.  He has known Danny for years and provided him with all kinds of assistance when asked by the man.  Whenever Rev. Goettler sees Danny on the streets of New Haven, the conversation always ends with Danny asking: “Reverend is this the way it is supposed to be?”

Of course, it really isn’t a question for which Danny is expecting an answer in response.  It is more of a statement, or a mini-sermon as Rev. Goettler calls it. However, it is the very thing that John the Baptist and the Second Isaiah is crying out in the wilderness … it is a way of preparing the way of the Lord right in the midst of life.  It is a modern-day proclamation of the very thing that has been in the hearts of the ancients and in our hearts as well: “This is not the way the world should be …”

This is the message of Advent: God is coming to us not to say how wonderful and perfect we are, but coming to us in judgment of how the world is and how our own little individual worlds are.  God is coming in the King of kings and Lord of lords in mercy and grace AND in judgment.

Yet, sometimes we see visions … we get glimpses of what could be and that is a judgment on how things are in this world and our little worlds.  In this rather extended illustration, allow me to share what that great Presbyterian author and minister, Frederick Buechner saw once:

“It was a couple of springs ago.  I was driving into New York City from New Jersey on one of those crowded, fast-moving turnpikes you enter it by.  It was very warm.  There was brilliant sunshine, and the cars glittered in it as they went tearing by.  The sky was cloudless and blue. Around Newark a huge silver plane traveling in the same direction as I was made its descent in a slow diagonal and touched down soft as a bird on the airstrip just a few hundred yards away from me as I was driving by.  I had music on the radio, but I didn’t need it.  The day made its own music – the hot spring sun and the hum of the road, the roar of the great trucks passing and of my own engine, the hum of my own thoughts.  When I came out of the Lincoln Tunnel, the city was snarled and seething with traffic as usual; but at the same time there was something about it that was not usual.

“It was gorgeous traffic, it was beautiful traffic – that’s what was not usual.  It was a beauty to see, to hear, to smell, even to be part of.  It was so dazzlingly alive it all but took my breath away.  It rattled and honked and chattered with life – the people, the colors of their clothes, the marvelous hodgepodge of their faces, all of it; the taxis, the shops, the blinding sidewalks.  The spring day made everybody a celebrity – blacks, whites, Hispanics, every last one of them.  It made even the litter and clamor and turmoil of it a kind of miracle.

“There was construction going on as I inched my way east along Fifty-Fourth Street, and some wino, some bum, was stretched out on his back in the sun on a pile of lumber as if it was an alpine meadow he was stretched out on and he was made of money.  From the garage where I left the car, I continued my way on foot.  In the high-ceilinged public atrium on the ground floor of a large office building there were people on benches eating their sandwiches.  Some of them dressed to kill. Some of them were in jeans and sneakers.  There were young ones and old ones. Daylight was flooding in on them, and there were green plants growing and a sense of deep peace as they at their lunches mostly in silence. A big man in a clown costume and whiteface took out a tubular yellow balloon big around as a noodle, blew it up, and twisted it squeakily into a dove of peace, which he handed to the bug-eyed child watching him.  I am not making this up. It all happened.

“In some ways it was like a dream and in other ways as if I had woken up from a dream. I had the feeling that I had never seen the city so real before in all my life. I was walking along Central Park South near Columbus Circle at the foot of the park when a middle-aged black woman came toward me going the other way.  Just as she passed me, she spoke.  What she said was, ‘Jesus loves you.’ That is what she said: ‘Jesus loves you,’ just like that.  She said it in as everyday a voice as if she had been saying good morning, and I was so caught off guard that it wasn’t till she was lost in the crowd that I realized what she had said and wondered if I could possibly ever find her again and thank her, if I could ever catch up with her and say, ‘Yes, if I believe anything worth believing in this whole world, I believe that.  He loves me.  He loves you. He loves the whole doomed, damned pack of us.’

“For the rest of the way I was going, the streets I walked on were paved with gold.  Nothing was different. Everything was different. The city was transfigured. I was transfigured. It was a new New York coming down out of heaven adorned like a bride prepared for her husband. ‘The dwelling of God is with men.  He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people …. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away’ (Rev. 21:3-4). That is the city that for a moment I say.

“For a moment it was not the world as it is that I saw but the world as it might be, as something deep with the world wants to be and is preparing to be, the way in darkness a seed prepares for growth, the way leaven works in bread.”

 

Wow! What a phenomenally unusual but everyday experience of the divine that Buechner was privy to in his trip into the city.  This is the very essence of Advent; seeing beyond the moment; beyond the dirt and grime of this world and the human traffic jams we make of our own lives, to what is really coming into the world.  Here is the answer to Danny’s question / sermon: “Reverend is this the way it is supposed to be?”  This is the call of hope that is at the every center not only of this Advent season, but the Christian life itself.  This is where we must build the kingdom of heaven … right where we are … and yet, … as Buechner concludes his sermon, I conclude mine:

“We cannot make the Kingdom of God happen, but we can put out leaves as it draws near.  We can be kind to each other.  We can be kind to ourselves. We can drive back the darkness a little. We can make green places within ourselves and among ourselves where God can make his Kingdom happen. That transfigured city. Those people of every color, class, condition, eating their sandwiches together in that quiet place.  The clown and the child. The sunlight that made everybody in those teeming streets a super-star.  The bum napping like a millionaire on his pile of two-by-fours.  The beautiful traffic surging all around me and the beautiful things that I could feel surging inside myself, in that holy place that is inside all of us. Turn that way.  Everybody.  While there is still time. Pray for the Kingdom.  Watch for signs of it.  Live as though it is here already because there are moments when it almost is …”

God-Chasers? – Mark 13:24-37 & Isaiah 64:1-9 – Advent 1: November 27, 2011

Rev. Martin R. Ankrum

“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down …”

Today marks the opening of the season of Advent.  It is the beginning of a new liturgical year in the Christian church.  The Christian year does not begin with New Year’s Day or with Christmas Eve festivities nor even with the American holiday of Thanksgiving; the Christian year begins not with a holiday, but a holy season: Advent.

Yet, we confuse Advent and Christmas in our society and sometimes in the church.  Advent is a season of preparation and expectation, not looking toward Christmas celebrations necessarily; but looking beyond this time to the final days of culmination or judgment in God’s kingdom.

If there is anything that you take away from today’s service, it is my hope that you take away an expectation for the future … a future that is definitely not owned or possessed by us, but a future that is fully and completely in the hands of God.  The texts for today speak of this expectation that it is God who holds all of our futures; that the future is actually beyond our manipulation or possession … a future that is surely and safely in the hands of the God whom we have known in the past and who abides with us even now, in our present.

But now, about the past … The people of Israel have been in captivity and bondage in Babylon.  They have been released from that captivity and have returned home to Jerusalem to find a horrible mess … the temple is in ruins, the streets are overrun and the people who have been left to inhabit the once great city are a dispirited and hopeless muddle of humanity.

It is here, in this condition and situation, that the great prophet Isaiah, the Third Isaiah as the scholars call him, writes this wondrous lament … this great appeal to God bidding God to intervene, to rend the heavens and come down. The people of Israel and Third Isaiah himself, have learned that though they can remember the past and inhabit the present, the future belongs solely to their God.  This is the very same lesson that the holy season of Advent bids to teach us … the God of our past and present owns the future.

Jesus adds much to this understanding when we hear the passage from Mark.  The passage from the Gospel as well as the lament from Isaiah can rightly be called apocalyptic.  Some would define apocalyptic literature and the apocalypse as being about that which is to come in devastating power and a world-turned-upside-down finality.  That is surely one definition of the passages we receive this day and Advent itself.

However, I like very much the explanation offered by Kathleen Norris, a Christian writer whom Wikipedia says currently divides her time between South Dakota and Hawaii … apparently it is good work if you can get it!  Anyway, here’s what Norris wrote:

The word apocalypse simply means to reveal, to uncover, and if facing reality brings us despair, we need to ask why. Above all, we must reject the literalist notion that apocalyptic literature is about a future pie in the sky. It is a command to come to full attention in the here and now. And that is hard to do.

“I think that Ms. Norris is on to something important about our texts this morning: the coming future of God’s reign that Advent celebrates and points towards is something that is to be lived in the here and now rather than in the sweet-by-and-by!”

Jesus’ words and the even more ancient sentiments of Isaiah call us to do the very thing directed by Ms. Norris: to come to full attention here and now and anticipate in our very living, the way that God will set to right this old world in the final judgment, in the final consummation.

Not too terribly long ago, I was talking with a member of our congregation about optimism and hope.  This person had great optimism for the way things could be set right, made better for others and for our community.  She had mentioned that there had been phone calls in her work that had indicated the opposite of that: fears expressed that if things were changed in some ways, if the patterns of the past weren’t repeated, things would go awry.  This did not dissuade her or her colleagues: instead, she chose to look upon the future with an optimism not based in naiveté, but rather in hope.

The conversation got me thinking about the hope we have as Christians, as followers of Jesus Christ.  We should never feel compelled to apologize for our optimism or maybe better put the hope that is based in God’s future.  Pessimism, however, should be challenged to offer a defense for its banal predictions of failing or status quo based on their “sure” view of a future that will always be like the past.  No, hope in God’s future should never have to apologize; we should just live it. For, as Christians, influenced by both passages of scripture that we’ve heard today, we realize and know that each day is both a gift and a judgment, thus signifying our great need for the grace that we are given by God. This too is the message of Advent.

Maybe it’s better to hear William Willimon’s take on this rather than mine:

“When we come to church and are exposed to such speech from Isaiah … we are beckoned out beyond the world of predictability into another world of thought and risk and gift, in which divine intervention enables new life to break our prosaic reductions, to subvert our tamed expectations, and to evoke fresh faith. One reason why the world doesn’t want you to believe in apocalyptic poetry is that the world knows that dangerous hope for the future leads to daring resistance in the now. It’s hard to be docile when you believe that tomorrow may be better today … Our actions may not be the sum of all actions in the world.  Tomorrow may not be exclusively in our hands, and knowing that can make a huge difference in how we live today.”

I believe that.  I believe that is right at the heart of the lessons of this holy season of Advent: trusting that God alone holds the future, and living courageously and faithfully into that future by acting today as if it were tomorrow already.

Thomas Long, my preaching professor, tells a great story about such things:

A minister friend of mine in Atlanta at a downtown church planned one evening to go out to eat with his wife to celebrate their anniversary. His wife met him at the church, and the two of them headed out to the parking lot to take the car to the restaurant. But when they got outside they encountered a crisis. An elderly woman, a desperate look on her face, was kneeling on the sidewalk beside a man, her husband as it turns out, who was lying on his back in pain clutching his chest. My friend’s wife ran quickly back into the church to call an ambulance, and my friend leaned over to comfort the man. “We have called for some help and they will be here soon . . . ,” he began, but the man interrupted him.

“Charlie, forgive me,” the man said.

“I’m not Charlie,” my friend said. “My name is Sam.” What Sam did not know until later is that Charlie was the man’s son, and years before the man had, in a rage over something, disowned Charlie, and the two had not spoken in years.

The man looked up at Sam and reached out and touched his hand. “Charlie, please, forgive me.”

“Just relax,” Sam said. “Somebody will be here soon to get you to the hospital.”

But the man suddenly clutched in terrible pain, and it was now clear that he would not make it to the hospital. With his last gasping energy he pulled on Sam’s arm and begged, “Charlie, please, forgive me.”

Sam followed his faithful instinct, reached out and put his hand on the man’s forehead as a blessing and said, “I do forgive you. I do forgive you.” Those were the last words the man ever heard in this life.

Later, when he learned what the circumstances were, Sam wondered if he had done the right thing. “I am not his son. The relationship was still broken. What right did I have to grant forgiveness,” Sam wondered. Then it came to him that his whole ministry was about this, that the whole Christian faith is about this. We have been given in Christ a restoration and a reconciliation that is already true, already whole, and we are beckoned from God’s fullness to live into God’s future and toward what has already been given as a gift.

Charlie’s father had failed to live today as if it were tomorrow; consequently hope for the future was beyond his ability to see.  Advent points us squarely towards a future that already is shining brightly into the present: a future that God owns and we are called to “live into …”

Royalty – Matthew 25:31-46 & Psalm 100 – Christ the King: November 20, 2011

Rev. Martin R. Ankrum

There is an old legend about a monastery that had fallen on hard times and great disrepair.  The monks quarreled amongst themselves, the work around the monastery just didn’t get done, and the place was a total mess.  The new Abbot didn’t quite know how he could change things.  He ventured out into the forest to speak with a Jewish mystic who had a small community of followers gathered around him.

When he asked the mystic what he could do to restore order, the mystic seemed a bit shocked.  “Don’t you know … I’ve been watching your men for some time and I have seen in a vision that one of them is the incarnation of the Messiah!”  The Abbot was greatly impressed by this news, having much faith in the perception of the mystic.

When he returned to the monastery, the Abbot gathered the monks and related the story.  The men were shocked and began to wonder to themselves just who was the incarnation.  In the days that followed, things changed.  Everyone was cordial to each other.  Each was eager to help and comfort the other.  All the work got done without bickering.  The village around the monastery sensed the change and began to picnic on the now lovely grounds of the institution.  The people in the village themselves began to reflect the kind actions of the monks and treated each other with greater respect and reverence.

Not only was the monastery saved, but all the village and the surrounding lands were transformed, all because the monks began to treat one another as if one of them were the living Christ …

Our ability and response to seeing the living Christ in the lives of those around appears to be the only criterion of the Last Judgment portrayed by the parable that we just heard read from Matthew’s Gospel.  This section of the Gospel of Matthew is the only New Testament representation of what the Last Judgment will be like.  There is no other description in the Gospels, Epistles or any other part of the New Testament: this is it … so if we want to know what the criterion is for us in judgment, these words of Jesus are the only ones we can go by.

John Buchanan, my favorite preacher in Chicago, wrote this about that:

“Students of the New Testament know that the only description of the last judgment is in Matthew 25.  There is nothing in it about ecclesiastical connections or religious practices.  There is not a word in this parable about theology, creeds, orthodoxies. There is only one criterion here, and that is whether or not you saw Jesus Christ in the face of the needy and whether or not you gave yourself away in love in his name.”

We hear all kinds of criterion for either ultimate blissfulness in Jesus or ways in which to live a Christian life faithful to the One who was and is faithful to us.  But here is offered the ONE criterion that Jesus gives for judgment at the Last Judgment … have we considered the plight of others and have we recognized the presence of Jesus Christ with those in need?  That’s it.  That is what is said here by Jesus.  Consequently, it seems pretty plain to me.

But, do we really do it?  Of course, that is the question that the parable is designed to elicit from each of us … do we really take the time and energy to reach out and give ourselves away in love of Jesus’ name?  That’s really it.  Do we allow God the room in our life to take time for others or do we fill up our life with only the stuff we want to do and the people we want to see? I’m not saying that any of this is easy; that’s why it is called discipleship!  It requires something of us!  I’m not saying it is simple; I’m merely saying that the criterion appears pretty plain to me.

Allow me to share with you another story; this one not a legend, but a reporting of something that happened in a specific place and at a specific time that is actually repeated throughout Christian congregations wherever they may be found and of course, here at First Church.  The story comes from Anthony Robinson, former minister to the Plymouth Congregational Church in Seattle:

The clothing bank was open from 10:00 to 4:00 every Wednesday in the church basement. The “bank” was actually a large closet with a section for hanging clothes and drawers underneath for boots and shoes. Piled high atop the closet were cardboard boxes stuffed with folded clothes.

On Wednesdays at about 9:30 Gertrude and Vernet came up the church walk. Even though Vernet, who had spent most of his life as a logger, was in his late 70s, he was still tall and lean. These days he tilted forward a little as he walked or stood, like a tree leaning with the weight of the years. His wife, Gertrude, by contrast, seemed almost as wide as she was tall. She was not, however, fat. She was simply a farm wife who had settled.

In the basement Vernet would climb a chair and pull down the cardboard boxes. Gertrude would carefully put the contents out on the tables. It always surprised me to see how many tables were filled. Boots and shoes would be pulled out and the closet doors opened to reveal heavy wool suits and long raincoats. As the day went on, anywhere between two and ten people would follow Gertrude and Vernet down the stairs into the basement. Often late in the day, when it was starting to grow dark on winter days, a mother followed by two or three children would descend the stairs. Gertrude would play with the children in a grandmotherly way while Vernet helped the mother find what she was looking for.

Gertrude and Vernet were not always in perfect spirits about the labor they had chosen. People would donate huge bags of unsorted, even unwashed clothes, and all manner of odds and ends for which Vernet could never find space. This irritated him. It also irritated him that some people made such a mess of the clothes as they looked through them.

Some of us wondered, more often in our thoughts than out loud, if this faithfully tended clothing bank did any real good. After all, the Northwest had major economic problems. Could a few boxes of clothing make a difference? It seemed that more large-scale efforts, such as government intervention, were needed. But on Wednesdays Gertrude and Vernet came, and so did those who needed what was stuffed in the big closet.

If I understand that parable that Jesus told about the sheep and the goats and the coming judgment, our faith requires us to see Jesus in the least of our brothers and sisters and actually do something about their suffering, their hunger, their lack, their need.  For all of us wanting to see the face of God, desiring to draw close to the source of love and grace and meaning, we know what we must do to actually see God and been drawn closer …

John Buchanan again, puts it very well:

“The God of Jesus, the God of the Bible, is not a remote supreme being on a throne up there above the clouds or out there somewhere in the mysterious reaches of the universe.  Jesus said, God is here, in the messiness and ambiguity of human life.  God is here, particularly in your neighbor, the one who needs you.  You want to see the face of God?  Look into the face of one of the least of these, the vulnerable, the weak, the children.”

No surer case exists for what we have been called to do in Jesus Christ.  It seems to me to be as plain as the nose on my face … now, the question remains to me and to you, as followers of the living Christ, as children of royalty, Christ the King, what will WE do?

“On Wednesday evenings, Vernet pulled his coat on and went down the walk. The year was heading toward its end and night was coming on, even though it was only a quarter past four. Into their old station wagon he and Gertrude climbed and headed back down the road. But even as darkness fell and a cold wind blew down off the hills, there seemed to be a light around that station wagon, and the world was a warmer place.”

To You I Lift My Eyes – Ps. 123 & Mt. 25:14-30 – Ordinary 33- November 13, 2011

Rev. Martin R. Ankrum

“To you I lift up my eyes, O you who are enthroned in the heavens!”

There’s a phenomenon that I’ve mentioned before that I’ve observed around weddings.  Have you noticed?  This most often occurs with non-member weddings, where the invited guests have no real relationship to our church or congregation other than a place where their two friends or beloved relatives are being married.

This phenomenon is observable if you are in the sanctuary fifteen minutes prior to the service.  Usually, there’s hardly anyone present that early.  Most of the guests wait until almost the last minute to find a place in the pews.  I don’t think that it is necessarily unfamiliarity with our church building or the location; rather I believe that is a fear that something might just happen to them if they hang around a church sanctuary too long.

Folks who are not members of a church, but members of our culture, get the idea that something important happens here; that some kind of communication with the divine occurs; that there is the awesome possibility of being confronted by God if you hang around a sanctuary too long.  It is a dread or a fear that seizes folks and helps to keep out of the sanctuary as long as they possibly can stand.  For if it is true; if this is the place where the human meets the divine, what just might be asked of them?

Maybe better put are the words of the Presbyterian author Annie Dillard, who as a child, attended Shadyside Presbyterian Church in nearby Pittsburgh.  Here’s what she wrote about attendance at even a staid sanctuary like Shadyside’s:

“On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of the conditions. Does any-one have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake some day and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.”

Maybe that is the fear: risking our comfortable lives for something a little more God-infused; something that might just lead us out into unchartered waters; something (or better put: Someone) who will lead us out of our satisfied, but troubled existence into a new life of risk and a call to trust in the One to whom we are called to lift our eyes?

The Parable of the Talents as the writing from Matthew is often called is about just such risk-taking on behalf of the living Christ.  Jesus tells his disciples and followers a couple of parables here in Matthew all in succession that imply that something more than the status quo is expected of them.  The parables detail a division in the human race between those who hear God’s call and faithfully risk everything on behalf of it and those who do nothing or ignore the call.

Too often, this parable has been connected in preaching with the ordinary, annual stewardship drives of churches.  I suppose I’ve done that myself at some point in my ministry.  However, there is much more involved here than mere money or wealth: this parable is really about the things that we cannot fold, or jingle in our pockets or place in our checking accounts.  This parable is about our very souls and our response to God’s call to become involved in our life in God’s kingdom.

John Buchanan, great preacher at the Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago, puts it this way:

“The point here is not really about doubling your money and accumulating wealth.  It is about living. It is about investing. It is about taking risks. It is about Jesus himself and what he has done and what is about to happen to him. Mostly it is about what he hopes and expects of [his followers] after he is gone. It is about being a follower of Jesus and what it means to be faithful to him, and so, finally, it is about you and me.”

Buchanan goes on to say:

“The greatest risk of all, it turns out, is not to risk anything, not to care deeply and profoundly enough about anything to invest deeply, to give your heart away and in the process risk everything.  The greatest risk of all, it turns out, is to play it safe, to live cautiously and prudently. Orthodox, conventional theology identifies sin as pride and egotism.  However, there is an entire other lens through which to view the human condition.  It is called sloth, one of the ancient church’s seven deadly sins.  Sloth means not caring, not loving, not rejoicing, not living up to the full potential of our humanity, playing it safe, investing nothing, being cautious and prudent, digging a hole and burying the money in the ground.”

Wow!  Now that is the greatest sin for any of us who claim to be followers of the One who risked everything for the sake of humankind … not doing anything … not risking anything, but rather being smug and content in our own righteousness and faithfulness.  No, as followers of Jesus Christ, we can never faithfully choose to follow the example of the third slave in his parable; the one who dug a hole and buried his life in it!

That’s the way I see it: it is a kin to a form of practical or self-defensive atheism: believing that our life belongs solely to ourselves and that God, if there is a God, is so wrathful, judgmental and harsh, that it would be best not to get ourselves involved in life itself for the risk of losing it.  It is akin to burying what we have received from God and thinking that somehow the preservation of what we have received will guarantee our justification or salvation.  Somehow, we believe that if we just give back to God what he has given us, that that is somehow the safest bet.  This parable demonstrates just the opposite indeed.

As faithful followers of Jesus Christ, we are called to so much more than just the preservation of what we have received.  We are called to follow this One who, as Annie Dillard said so well, “may draw us out to where we can never return.”

Lindsay Armstrong, Associate Pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, has commented upon this:

“Faithful living is not static; yet, like this third slave, we are good at knowing without doing.  We are adept at holding on to a talent entrusted, knowing what we should do with it, but not doing so. We know what faithful living looks like, but we hesitate to live it. We bury too much goodness, time, love, treasure, and talent in the ground.”

This is one reason why I’m proud to be a Minister of the Presbyterian Church (USA).  Our denomination has taken risks all along that have not always been popular with the the standing culture, our Christians brothers and sisters of other denominations or our own membership.  We have taken those risks not because we felt it the popular thing to do, or the prevalent course of the culture, but because we have believed what we have read in scripture.  We advocated for the abolishment of slavery when it was not considered the most prudent course.  We ordained women to the ordered ministries of the church when the rest of the Christian church held its breath and counseled otherwise.

Our denomination has recently undergone great inner turmoil in providing a place of respect and full acceptance to folks within our congregations regardless of sexual orientation.  Our church has done all these things and more because we have refused to bury our talents and return to God nothing on God’s investment in us.  For this, I am proud of our denomination.

In a like manner, I am very proud of members of our congregation who have recently stood for elected office in our community.  These folks have risked much to seek election to office, not for personal gain, but to place themselves at the service of the public.  They have not buried their talents, but have offered them for the service of others.

Our history as a church and a congregation points up to me the merits of not burying our talents, our gifts from God, but actually risking them in their use.  This seems to me to be the point of this parable: that we are called by God to risk what we have been given, what we possess, for the sake of God’s kingdom; for the sake of reaching out to others and actually living the gospel.

Again, remember the words of that great preacher from Chicago:

“The greatest risk of all, it turns out, is not to risk anything, not to care deeply and profoundly enough about anything to invest deeply, to give your heart away and in the process risk everything. The greatest risk of all, it turns out, is to play it safe …”

We are at our best when we refuse to “play it safe” or bury what we have received from God.  We are at our best in following Jesus Christ when we take what has been entrusted to us and share with this world: whether it financial resources or the even more important treasure we have received: our very lives.  We are at our best when respond faithfully to God’s gift of life by actually risking it all in extending the grace and love we have received.

The greatest risk of all, or so it is said, is not to risk anything … just ask the third servant!

A Present Immediacy: Psalm 78:1-7 & Matthew 25:1-13 – November 6, 2011

Rev. Martin R. Ankrum

Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, “Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.” But the wise replied, “No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.”

Brothers and sisters in Christ: you have chosen well! On this beautiful, fall morning, you have chosen to be present in worship rather than the myriad of other places you could be, doing a multitude of different things.  You have chosen to be present in worship and indeed, you have chosen well.

Still, I am a Calvinist … the ultimate decision is not something that you have chosen.  Scripture assures us that God chooses us and not the other way round. I know that left to our own devices, when it comes to the ultimate decision, we would probably choose poorly!  Remember, I am a Calvinist after all!

However, like the parable indicates, we can be either wise or foolish and still be bridesmaids.  We can be either wise or foolish and still be a part of the party.  You have shown yourselves to be wise: you have sought to find oil for your lamps here, in worship, in association with Christ’s body, today.

The young couple was completely distraught and with good reason.  They had lost their child to an incredibly quick illness that baffled the medical professionals.  No one had any real answer for them: their child seemed healthy one minute and then was gone the next.  Even an autopsy had not given them any confirmation to the question of “Why?”

They were not members of any church and had no real religious attachments or expressed faith.  One of their friends was a member of my church and asked me if I would meet with the grieving parents and officiate at the funeral.  Of course I did.

Now, the death of a child is devastating to any set of parents, but this young couple, it struck me, had nothing to draw upon in their grief.  Their grieving was abject misery and nothing that I shared with them could touch the depth of the hurt and loss.

I expressed my concern about them to their friend who was the member of my church and he said something to me that I will never forget: “Well, I tried Martin to get them to come to church with me; maybe if they had a bit of faith they would have some hope.”

At first I thought this a callous statement from a well-meaning and well-intentioned younger member of my church.  I quietly hoped that he hadn’t said that to the couple and I’m pretty sure that he didn’t. However, after many years removed from the situation, I think what the man said to me was true.

Now, no one would have been prepared for such a tragic and miserable loss, but that poor couple just had no reserve of faith or belief to draw upon in the midst of their personal tragedy. It seemed to make their suffering ten times worse, I suppose in some ways.  I had a faith and a hope in Jesus Christ that I shared with them as the minister praying with them and planning and officiating at the sad little funeral, but I couldn’t give them my faith.  I could share what I knew to be the truth of God’s great love for us, but I couldn’t give them any confidence of that.  That was something that needed to be there in their lives beforehand.

It is not unlike what is going in this quizzical little parable delivered by Jesus to his disciples.  The ten bridesmaids are divided between those who had appropriately prepared and those who had not.  At first, one might be a bit bothered by the presentation of the five wise bridegrooms refusing to share with the five foolish some of their own oil for their lamps.  But then again, it might just be that they couldn’t.

It’s not that we have a limited amount of faith and to share it would endanger our own reserves of trust in God, rather it is like speaking a wholly different language to one who just doesn’t have the requisite preparation to understand.  Faith is something that is a gift from God and also something that we develop; something for which we prepare.  Our faith cannot be given away, just as the five wise bridesmaids could not give away their preparations: it just isn’t possible.

You folks have chosen well: by your presence in worship and your other associations with the Christ’s body in this world (the church), you are preparing yourselves for the time when a reserve of faith may need to be drawn upon in your life.

It doesn’t have to be major tragic moments like the young couple I described in the opening of the sermon.  There are enough challenges and events in our daily life to ensure that our faith and trust in God will be needed by us.

This is exactly why attendance to worship; attendance to service of Jesus Christ; attendance to the fellowship of Christ’s church is vitally important.  In all those little moments of participating in worship; serving Christ; fellowshipping with our brothers and sisters in Christ, we are being prepared to go back out into the world and be informed and strengthened by our faith and trust in God.  It is like added oil to the lamps of faith.

I say this is an encouragement because you are here.  Whether this is the first time you’ve crossed the threshold of this sanctuary or you’ve been here so much you might be mistaken as part of the furnishings (that’s a good thing); you’ve made a good decision.  You’ve placed yourself in the position of having oil added to your lamp that you might be ready and prepared when the call comes; the faith that has been developed and nurtured inside you comes to full maturity.

This is why, our faith, our attendance to the things that make for being Christian should never be taken for granted.  Like a muscle, faith must be exercised in order to remain strong and useful to God and informative to our living.  It really is that important.

William Willimon, great Methodist bishop, wrote of such ordinary, everyday preparations of faith being drawn upon in a present immediacy:

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.

You have chosen wisely … you have availed yourselves of opportunity to fill your lamps … now, let us go out into this world with our lamps burning brightly into any darkness that we might face; let us learn to count on the reserves that God has given us this day and each day.

A Generous Undertaking: Psalm 107:1-9, 33-43 & II Corinthians 9:1-15 – October 30, 2011

Rev. Martin R. Ankrum

            As you are well aware, this morning is Commitment Sunday; the day in which we collect the pledges for the ministry of the church in the coming year.  It is an important day; not because the financial secretary will spend the better part of next week tallying and the Stewardship Committee worrying until the results are announced, it is an important day because this is one of those days in which we are called as a congregation to respond to the grace of God.

This is an important day, because it is the day that we, for sure, get to ask ourselves the question: “How will I respond to the grace of God?”  Now, we should be asking ourselves that question all through our life of response to God’s grace, but today, we ask it both personally and collectively. How will we respond?  What will we give in response to the mercy and grace that we have received from God?

            Now, let me be clear about this: there will be no extortion offered here in order to get you to do something that you don’t want to do.  If you pledge in a grudging manner or because that is what is expected of you, don’t bother; I’m not sure if God can make use of such a gift.  So, take a breath; breathe easy … no one is going to make you do anything you don’t want to do.

            To this point, let me share with you something I read this past week in a commentary on this passage from II Corinthians, written by the biblical scholar, J. Paul Sampley:

“If we think about how hard we worked to arrive where we are, we are likely to become stingy, because there is something innately programmed into us to have us think either that by our hard work we deserve what we have or that we have been shortchanged and do not have enough.  If, on the other hand, we think about how many doors have opened to us, about how we have gotten where we are by the way things have surprisingly opened to or ‘broken for’ us (by God’s grace and the working of the Spirit), then we are more likely to think more generously.  No doubt some truth resides on both sides of those arguments. The issue is how we keep perspective. Paul may help us here.  God graces. God sows. We do not deserve God’s favor, but we receive it.  Such beneficence, especially when we know we do not deserve it, takes away some of our control of our lives and places us in a response mode. Grace received demands a response. The grace that comes from God finds it fruition as it flows through us to others.”

I think Dr. Sampley said that very well, don’t you?

I receive, via email, an alumni publication from my seminary.  It very often, as I’m sure your alumni publications do, features some former graduate who has done well by the seminary.  That is, this featured alumnus is someone who has done something significant with the education they received and then given back to the institution as a donor.

This past month, the featured alumnus was a retired Presbyterian minister; a man by the name of Thomas Fisher.  The Rev. Dr. Fisher graduated from Princeton Seminary in 1958 and then enjoyed a long and well-travelled career.

In interviewing the good reverend, the author commented that Dr. Fisher had “come to understand the blessed paradox that is at the heart of service.”  What Dr. Fisher said to enjoin that response from the author was this:

“Everything in life is about mutuality and reciprocity – you receive as you give, and you give as you receive.”

That sounds down-right biblical!  In fact, it sounds very much like the scripture that we just heard from II Corinthians:

“The point is this: whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.”

I’m pretty sure that this is a scripture with which Dr. Fisher is very familiar.  I’m confident that he, in his fifty year career, has had ample opportunity to reflect upon it, puzzle over it and even deliver a sermon or two on it!

The television evangelists love this passage.  They seem to never tire of preaching to their congregations present in their sanctuaries or out over the air waves, that if only they will give, God will return their gifts five-fold, ten-fold, even hundred-fold.

As a child, I remember my grandmother being devoted to Oral Roberts, one particular tele-evangelist notorious for preaching the “success gospel” as it is called.  She would sit in front of that old black and white television and call me to come and sit on the floor and together we would watch the telecast from Tulsa.

As an early adolescent, I attempted an experiment based on Dr. Roberts’ preaching: I sent in ten dollars to his ministry, the only ten dollars I had and then waited by the mailbox for the return on my divine investment.  It never came … or at least it never came in the manner in which I perceived it would be returned to me or in the manner that Dr. Roberts spoke so confidently about.

I guess that I was expecting a hundred dollar check or even a thousand dollar check from Oral Roberts Ministry.  It never came; but then Dr. Roberts never promised that HE would personally see to the fulfillment of a hundred-fold return.

No, what I learned from that, and many other experiences with giving since then, is to not actually look for a return.  When Julie and I decide upon our stewardship of what God has given us; when we consider the pledge card or the tithe, we count that as money gone … I’m not looking for any checks from Oral Roberts or even from First Presbyterian in response to my personal giving to God’s work.

The response that I do look for is in something that can’t be banked, traded or stolen.  I guess the response I look for and seek earnestly now is a freedom from my wallet and bank account.  Disciplined stewardship’s reward is freedom … freedom from thinking that I am validated by the amount that is tallied in the net gain column or some personal holdings statement.  Giving frees me from putting a number on my validity as a human being; as a child of a living, giving, gracious God.

I think that something like this was behind both Dr. Fisher’s statement and Paul’s.  Giving as freely as we have received from God liberates us to trust not in what we give or even in what we receive, but rather to trust ultimately in God.  Ultimately, my giving, my decisions, my commitment, my discipleship is a reflection of the trust that I have in God.  I’m not saying that the amounts or the dedication or the energy put forth is a barometric-type measure of that trust … I’m merely saying that the more I give, the more I am given to trust in God.  I hope that you find the same about your giving …

As a follow up to one of the illustrations I just offered, I have this … I shared with the elders and deacons at the Leadership Retreat a couple weeks ago that story about my adolescent donation to Oral Roberts’ ministry.  I told them about the ten dollars and expecting to find a letter and a check from Oral with my ten-fold return.  Well, one of them responded.

The week following the Leadership Retreat, I received in the mail an envelope with no return address other than simply the name: “Oral.”  I opened the envelope, not connecting it with the illustration and found a handwritten note which read simply: “Your faithfulness has paid off TENFOLD after all these years.”  As I opened the note, a crisp $100 bill floated down onto my desk.  It took me just a moment to realize what had happened; that this really wasn’t from “Oral,” but from one of you folks!

I want this anonymous respondent to know two things: First thank you for your response.  This is truly what giving is all about: simply responding.  And secondly, I did give that $100 bill to LuAnn to be put toward retiring the budget deficit; I didn’t keep it … I was tempted, but instead of seeing it as MY money, I saw it for what it really was: the Lord’s!

How will you respond to God’s grace in your life?  This is really what Commitment Sunday is about … what kind of relationship do we have with God and what will be our response?  It’s not so much about meeting a budget or gathering enough financial support to continue for just one more year … it is about God’s grace in our life and our response to God.  Paul said it best:

Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work.

Eagerness and Earnestness – II Corinthians 8 – Ordinary 30 – October 23, 2011

Rev. Martin R. Ankrum

I stumbled across something this past week that I thought important enough to pass along to you.  I received as a gift last year an old Book of Common Worship from the Presbyterian Church in the USA; a predecessor denomination to our own. The book was published in 1932, but the quote I want to share with you was actually a reproduction from the Minutes of the General Assembly of 1831. This is what I read:

“A particular Presbyterian church, so far as adults are concerned, is constituted and organized as such, by a number of individuals, professing to walk together as the disciples of Jesus Christ …”

What an absolutely appropriate and accurate definition of what it means to be a church!  That definition applied to the church in 1932 as well as 1831 and it applies to us still to this day: we are still “a number of individuals, professing to walk together as the disciples of Jesus Christ.”

That kind of definition would have applied to the folks who originally received the letter from Paul that we’ve heard in worship this morning.  We’re not that much different than the folks to whom Paul addressed himself in the First Century Corinth.  They were a number of individuals who were professing to walk together as disciples of Jesus Christ … just the same as we are.

Now, a lot has changed since that time.  The world has grown older, the church has grown wealthier, wider and more influential … and then we have receded from those halcyon days when the church was at its heights of influence and importance … and yet, down deep inside, we are not that much different than those believers in Corinth who were professing to walk together as disciples of Christ.  At the end of any discussion about similarities or differences, stand surely the truth that we share more with the Corinthians than we differ from them, precisely because we profess to walk together as followers of Jesus Christ.

Paul wrote to them about a collection the entire church at the time was supporting for the poor in Jerusalem.  It was the main focus of Paul’s ministry and he traveled about from city to city, visiting and collecting from the early Christians for the sake of others.  This is the collection that Paul is challenging the Corinthians with in this Eighth chapter of his Second Letter.  Here’s what he writes:

“Now as you excel in everything – in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in utmost eagerness, and in our love for you – so we want you to excel also in this generous undertaking.  I do not say this as a command, but I am testing the genuineness of your love against the earnestness of others.  For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.”  AND …

“For if the eagerness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has – not according to what one does not have.  I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance.”

Paul asks of the Corinthians about both their eagerness and their earnestness.  He sets those two elements not in opposition to each other, but rather as a way of making a judgment: One’s eagerness to do God’s will is judged by their earnestness to actually fulfill it.

How did the Corinthian respond to Paul’s pleas?  How did they answer the challenge that had placed before them?  I don’t know exactly how, but we do know that they did.  They responded to Paul’s call and supported the collection. Now no scholar, no church historian, no expert on the New Testament, can tell us exactly how much was collected at Corinth or whether the church made their goal or not.  No archeologist has yet produced a plaque that continues the individual names of the donors in Corinth, thanking the ones who answered the call of God and the challenge of Paul.  No, those names and those figures are unknown to us, but we are the beneficiaries of their response; we are, in essence, the plaque that witnesses to their faithfulness!

Indeed, just as Paul had alluded to, their abundance has been an answer to our scarcity; their response in faith with lives lived in the faith of Jesus Christ, has lead to our relationship with God.  Without them, without all the saints of the Lord who have gone before us, we would not have the abundance of the Christian life: the abundance of faith, hope and love that we have found in Jesus Christ.  We would have had none of this, if others had not provided for us.

That is the challenge that is set before us in our Stewardship Campaign.  We are called upon by the leaders of our church to prayerfully rededicate ourselves towards generous support of the church.

We are faced with many challenges here at First Church, not unlike other churches of our ilk: the culture is not what it used to be; the sanctuary is not filled as it might have once been; the people of the community do not seem as willing to hear God’s call to come alongside of us and follow Jesus Christ … and yet, the challenge remains and is even now still before us.

We are in the same position as the Corinthians: called by God to give of ourselves for the sake of the ministry of Jesus Christ in the world.  We are called from our abundance to provide for others in their scarcity.  Certainly, those who have gone before us have provided for us! Consider: Who among us was present when the cornerstone of this great edifice for Christ was laid?  Who among us raised the rafters and set them into place?  Who secured the pews in their places?  None of us!  Yet, all this has occurred because those saints of the Lord who came before us answer the challenge, heard the call and committed themselves to the work of Christ!

The question today is: will we do it?  Will we respond with the kind of faith that inspires others, provides for from our abundance for the scarcity of others and represents a real sacrifice for us?  Will we do it?

Charles Hodge was a professor at Princeton Theological Seminary in the 19th century.  He was well-known for being proud that “no new idea” ever came from a Princetonian; he was that entrenched in tradition and the past … he was, in short, a good Presbyterian.  Anyway, Hodges wrote a commentary on II Corinthians in which he commented upon the subject of genuine response to a call for generosity.  He wrote:

“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.”

Dr. Hodge echoes the sentiments of Paul: it is a case of judging one’s eagerness by placing it alongside one’s earnestness.  To put it more succinctly: Genuine response to God’s call is not so much how we feel about it, but rather what we do about it.  What counts then is not so much the feeling, but the doing something about the challenge placed before us.

It is important here to revisit and expand that opening quotation I offered from the 1932 Book of Common Worship:

“A particular Presbyterian church, so far as adults are concerned, is constituted and organized as such, by a number of individuals, professing to walk together as the disciples of Jesus Christ, on the principles of the Confession of Faith and Form of Government of the Presbyterian Church, and the election and ordination of one or more ruling elders, who, by the ordination service, become the spiritual rulers of the persons voluntarily submitting themselves to their authority in the Lord.”

You will be glad to know that our spiritual leaders, the elders and deacons of our church, have answered the challenge that our current financial situation has placed before us.  As part of our Stewardship campaign this year, the Stewardship Committee held a Leadership Challenge Retreat to which the elders and the deacons were invited.  We met together, prayed together, discussed the church together, and worshipped together.  It was a wonderful morning and when the leaders were asked to make their pledges first, before the congregation, they did.  As you can see in the First View, the results were inspiring … The average pledge card came to just under $4,000 for next year’s budget.  The average increase from their pledge last year was just over 10%.  Now, that is leadership; that’s really doing something about the challenge that has been set before us for the sake of Jesus Christ.

Just as Paul gave the Corinthians an example in the Macedonians, so too have we received an example of leadership from our elders and deacons.  Is a ten percent increase appropriate for your answer to the challenge?  Would increasing your pledge to meet the average of your church’s leadership, at $4,000 be the appropriate answer for you?  I don’t know; you’ll have to answer that between yourself and God.

What I do know is this: We may not remember the names or the amounts of the donors and their pledges in Corinth, but we know that their answer to Paul’s challenge has provided for us. Because of them, we have learned of God’s love in Jesus Christ; we have come to be included in this great divine endeavor that we call church; we have had the scarcity of our lives in sin replaced with the abundance of God’s grace in Christ.  We know all of this because they answered the call … Now, what will we do?

A Simple Question – Matthew 22:15-22 -Ordinary 29 – October 16, 2011

 Rev. Martin R. Ankrum

Soren Kierkegaard, great Danish philosopher of the early 19th century, wrote a little treatise entitled: “Purity of the heart is to will one thing.”  I’ve thought of that title often over my years of ministry and I think that its sentiment is akin to what Jesus is saying in this passage we hear today from Matthew.  It’s an unfamiliar concept for most of us in this postmodern world, but Kierkegaard advocated that true discipleship of Jesus Christ included willing one thing amongst the many things that could be willed by the human soul.  Just as Jesus implied that there were competing claims for our allegiance (i.e. Caesar and God), Kierkegaard saw that only one allegiance was worth the will of the human soul: God.

I read an article this past week written by a Protestant minister that began with this story:

“I was emphasizing to parents of confirmands that the young people should be with their families in worship as part of their preparation for membership. ‘I’m afraid we don’t have time for worship,’ one mother told me after the meeting. Her words were soothing and gentle, yet they sounded condescending, as if she were explaining something to a not-very-bright child. ‘We’ve committed to soccer and cheerleading for my youngest on Sunday mornings. We have a full plate. Maybe in a few years.’  This same woman had been adamant that her children be baptized and confirmed. Although she and her family could fit in brief forays into religious rites, other activities were more important than a steady commitment to the church.

Not to sound too preachy here, but it is obvious that that woman has already answered the question that has been placed before Jesus to her own satisfaction whether she realized it or not.

Such compartmentalization of our faith and our faithful response to God is not that uncommon.  We all have competing claims upon our lives; just like those to whom Jesus directed his response to the question.  The people of Israel definitely had plainly defined and also insidious claims upon them, just as we do … and the most powerful of those claims came not from external sources, but rather from internal.

Remember, it was Kierkegaard who said: “Purity of the heart is to will one thing …”

In the same article that began with the story about the confirmands and the parents, Dr. Thomas Kelly, Quaker missionary and scholar is quoted:

“We are trying to be several selves at once, without all of our selves being organized by a single, mastering Life within us.  Each of us tends to be, not a single self, but a whole committee of selves …”

When I read this I was nearly panicked … a committee of selves within the one?  Oh my, not another committee!  I don’t know if I can take being on yet another committee!

            Studies have shown that a fair amount of folks drop out of participation in church when they have served on a committee.  Isn’t that strange?  Is committee work that wrangled, boring or inept that it causes us to drop out of activity or participation because we just can’t take it?

            I remember once hearing a story about a church in conflict.  One-third of the membership had stopped participating and were withholding funds.  A committee of five members of the Session was drafted to interview the disgruntled third and report back.  They did and they themselves resigned from the board and the church!  Amazing what a little committee work can do …

            Anyway, back to what Dr. Kelly has to say:

“Each of us tends to be, not a single self, but a whole committee of selves … And each of our selves is in turn a rank individualist, not cooperative but shouting out his vote loudly for himself when the voting time comes … It is as if we have a chairman of our committee of many selves within us who does not integrate the many into one but who merely counts the votes at each decision, and leaves disgruntled minorities … We are not integrated.  We are distraught.  We feel honestly the pull of many obligations and try to fulfill them all … Life is meant to be lived from a Center, a divine Center … Most of us, I fear, have not surrendered all else, in order to attend to the Holy Within.”

Haven’t you felt just like that … tugged and pulled internally in so many different ways that you don’t know where to turn?  The pace of our culture and the activities of our children and those that attract us; the speed of media dissemination of news and the call to service of fellow humanity and neighbor; the pressures of work, familiar relationships and all else weighing down upon us.  Of course we have bifurcated souls; of course we have a committee of many selves in our heads: we are a divided people.  We don’t know with what we should align ourselves, pledge ourselves, and give ourselves.

As Kelly said, life is meant to be lived from the Center, a divine center.  Kierkegaard put it more succinctly: “Purity of the heart is to will one thing!”

Here’s the golden moment that Jesus’ words leap out at us from the pages of the Gospel of Matthew.  Asked whether or not it was okay to pay taxes, Jesus requests a coin be produced and after seeing the likeness of Caesar upon it proclaims that well-known, but little understood line: “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”

I say that it is little understood because it has been used to bolster the idea of the bifurcated soul.  That is, folks have pointed to this and have added in Aristotle’s: “All things in moderation” and come up with some kind of justification for a sacrifice free way of living out the Christian faith.

I’m sorry to disappoint you, but this is NOT what Christ is saying.

Dorothy Day, great Catholic advocate for the poor, has said this about the Matthew passage: “If we gave God all that belongs to God, there would be nothing left for Caesar.”  Amen?  I say Amen!

Or how about this little aphorism from William Sloan Coffin, former chaplain of Yale University and advocate in his own right:

“Then I saw another thing: that a broken pride does not make for passivity as I had thought.  ‘The world owes me a living’— that’s passive. ‘I owe the world and God a life’ – that’s active.”

Wow!  Now I like that!  I think that might be right at the point that Christ is speaking to his listeners in the Gospel of Matthew.  We owe God a life of service and devotion.  God owes us nothing.  We owe God.

I think that this particular feeling is rather foreign to our little self-committee holdings it’s raucous and noisy board meeting in our heart and our head.  It’s foreign to us to think that we really owe anything to God.  Isn’t everything from God free?  If it isn’t, where do I send the check?  To whom do I make it out?

Again, if that’s our response, and it’s sometimes mine I’ll admit, then we’ve missed the point.  It’s the life we owe to God.

Think about it.  What a wondrous and rare gift life is.  We all know that life can be gone in a shockingly brief amount of time.  The one who walked out of the door of the house with keys in hand confident that she would return by supper-time may be gone in an instant.  Life is precious and it is a gift from God.  Our lives must be lived then in response to God.

Here’s the point that Christ is making with his eloquent turn of the phrase and the flip of a coin: give to God what is God’s … your heart and soul … your loving devotion and thanksgiving … your work and your service … your whole self, without excuse.  Remember that you belong to God when you make decisions about what to do with your time on Sunday mornings and Tuesday afternoons.  Remember that you belong to God when you fill you that cards sent from the Stewardship Committee, including and most poignantly, the pledge card that is yet to come.

Remember that you have been called to a higher calling … to make a difference for Jesus Christ in this world … you … yes you with your little committee of selves already lobbying the chair of heart and head with all kinds of objections over the demand that Christ is obviously put on you.  Yes, you heard right: demands … the way of Christ in this world does make demands of us.  In Jesus Christ, God is loudly making his demands known …

So what in your life (or how much of your life) belongs to God?  Is it not your whole life, your whole committee of selves in that bifurcated soul of yours?  Of course it is.  It all belongs to God.  Now, let us, you and I, live our lives as if we believed that: Render to Caesar what is his, and to God … everything!

Proper Attire?  Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23 & Matthew 22:1-14 Ordinary 28 – October 9, 2011

Rev. Martin R. Ankrum

But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, 12and he said to him, “Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?” And he was speechless.

Mark Twain, great American author and humorist of the 19th century, rather famously said: “Clothes make the man. Naked people rarely have much influence on world history.”

Today’s parable from Jesus has much to say about having the proper attire at the right event.  It is a parable that is often misunderstood and, I believe, misinterpreted.  Yet, it is a difficult word from Jesus that we receive this morning.  We, however, should be getting used to that … Jesus seems to always be saying something difficult!

“Clothes make the man …” that’s how the old saying goes and that’s been a byword with me.  I learned early in my ministry that folks really do judge you as a pastor by the manner of your dress.  If the event calls for something formal, wear something formal; if the event calls for a robe, make sure that you have your robe handy.  These were lessons that I learned about my calling and the realities of living out that calling in our culture.

The Parable of the Wedding Guests echoes the sentiment of proper attire appropriate to the event.  The parable entails the treatment of the messengers who are sent out to collect the guest of the wedding.  They are beaten, abused and killed.  What a guest list!!!  The parable borders upon implausibility, for who, in their right mind, kills their mail carrier for delivering a wedding invitation?  Who would assault the limo driver who pulls up into your driveway to convey you to your boss’s daughter’s wedding service?  No, it just doesn’t seem right that the approved guest treated the servants of the king in such low and mean ways.

However, if you think of it this way, it comes a bit clearer:  What about all the folks who are invited to various events and find that on the appointed day they have other more attractive plans?  Folks who find that the Saturday morning tail-gating is more important to them than their own niece’s wedding?  Or people who find a trip to the mall as more compelling than cleaning up the highway; a day spent idling with their own concerns as more appealing than joining in a family reunion? Now, it sounds more plausible and more common to our own experience of the demands that are placed on our time and the decisions that we must make.  All of us, every one of us, have competing claims for our time, our talents and our treasure.

Of the many activities that my wife and I do together, one is the prioritization of our giving.  Sometimes we sit down and talk about weighty commitments that we make: the annual giving to the church or a pledge for a capital campaign of one of those institutions that we support. Other times, it’s a local push for a Day of Giving by many of the civic-minded organizations we support.  We’re bombarded with requests to give on that particular day so that our gifts might be more generous with the assistance of matching grants.  When those days come around, we sit down and decide what we will give to which institution and which of us will actually visit the website.  Regardless, it takes some time and commitment and decision-making … it is akin to donning the proper attire for the appropriate event … you have to think about it a bit and maybe even prayer about it a touch!

Some time ago, I was mortified by my own lack of preparation and appropriate consideration.  I was called on a dreary Tuesday morning by a funeral director wanting to know if I was coming to the do the service at their funeral home or not.  When I asked when, he said: “NOW!”

That’s right, I had done the one thing that no minister should ever do: I forget about a funeral service I was called to do.

I was not dressed appropriately: certainly, I had on a tie and shirt, but wore only a sports jacket and slacks, not a sincere, gray, pin-striped Presbyterian Pastor’s suit!  I couldn’t appear before those doubly grieved people in that manner. I say doubly-grieved because my forgetfulness and insensitivity in not showing up further added to the grief they were already enduring … I just couldn’t I appear to them in only a jacket and slacks.  So this is what I did: I took my robe with me.  I put that robe on and made my way through the service in the funeral home.  That robe covered, you might say, a multitude of sins, but it couldn’t cover my lack of attention to that family.  I could provide the proper attire by covering what I had on under my robe, but I couldn’t hide my insensitivity in letting other concerns that had been on my mind crowd out remembering my responsibilities to the family. I was mortified about it and am still to this day.

The man who is not dressed appropriately at the end of the parable is a man who has been thoughtless at best and arrogant at worst.  This becomes clearer when you consider the cultural context of Jesus’ parable. The man had to sidestep the offer of a robe that would have been provided for him as he entered the wedding space.  The tradition of the time and culture was that the host, the king in this case, provided wedding garments at the door for their guest.  This one, preferred to appear on his merit as it were, rather than to accept being covered by the gracious provision of the king.

Now, maybe it is getting even clearer: in Jesus Christ, we have not only been included in the great banquet of God’s kingdom, we have been clothed appropriately in his sacrifice for us.  We have been robed in Christ’s mercy rather than standing on our merits before God.  Any one of us who refuses to respond to God’s grace may find ourselves in the same predicament of the poorly attired guest.  But, then, who would refuse mercy and grace?

Andrew Purves, a professor at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, wrote this about our passage:

“…the parable carries us into the subtle relation between the grace of election (all were invited) and the obligations of the obedience (to be clothed with Christ, to live in Christ).  Grace is freely given, situating us in God’s company by an act of loving election.  As a consequence, we are obliged to live as God’s people, according to God’s will for our lives.  To do so is to give honor to the king, to God, and to live in terms of God’s claim upon us. The failure to do so is to scorn God’s love, God’s choice of us.  It is to assert our autonomy, to live in pride, which means that we are found clothed with ourselves rather than with Christ.”

So, the proper kingdom attire is really being clothed not with our own achievements, but rather to be clothed in Jesus Christ.

This means trusting in God’s love and mercy in Christ more than in our own abilities to fulfill the law or be good people in and of ourselves.  It means accepting Christ’s work on our behalf as more valuable than our own work in this world.  It is a hard learning … a difficult parable … but finally, and completely, it really is the only proper attire … the very attire of grace in Christ.  Thanks be to God!

Who Owns the Church? Psalm 19 & Matthew 21:33-46; Ordinary 27 –October 2, 2011

Rev. Martin R. Ankrum

Early in my ministry, a long time ago now, I was sent to visit a man in the hospital who had miraculously survived a very serious accident.  He was a former member of my church at the time and I expected to find him grateful for having been preserved in the face of death.

Instead, I found the man angry.  He told me of all the clubs and jobs and institutions of which he had once been a part and then left.  He left one country club because they didn’t manage the putting greens well; he left the one that he joined after that because the wait staff didn’t show him suitable respect … “they didn’t know their place …”  He married and had children and then left those relationships to form new ones.  He had been a Methodist until they held a building campaign and then left them to become a Presbyterian.  I never learned why he had left the Presbyterian Church, but I don’t think it very much mattered.

What amazed me was this man’s self-consuming anger that just completely blotted out any realization that his life had been spared and that it might have been appropriate for him to be grateful.  His life, such as it was, was indeed a gift of God and therefore something good … why did he appear to hate it so?

How can anyone hate what is good?  It is a kind of philosophical question I suppose, but in the context of this morning’s readings from scripture, it is much more a theological queston: “How can anyone hate what is good?”

The workers in the vineyard of Jesus’ parable for this morning hate what is good.  They do not want to be reminded that they owe the fruit of the vineyard to the owner of that vineyard.  They would rather react violently to efforts of that same owner to collect upon what was duly and rightfully his than to actually acknowledge their dependence and need for that owner.  They do not want to acknowledge the good; they rather turn to the dark side and stake their own claims for that which is not really theirs.

Too many commentators have, over the years, resorted to making this simple parable an allegorical statement of condemnation of the Jewish people.  In their eyes, it is simple: God is the owner, the people of Israel are the workers, the slaves sent who are battered and beaten are the prophets and, of course, finally, the son who is sent and killed is obviously Jesus.  The logic runs: the people of Israel not only mistreated the prophets but they killed the Son of God, Jesus Christ and are therefore, deserving of all the condemnation that we can heap upon them.

Nothing could be further from the truth!

The parable is about recognizing that we are all dependent upon God and are therefore accountable to God for the gifts of life.  The parable is about the vineyard of life and about the workers who are given so much and so much is expected from them.  The parable is about how we, the workers, are called to care for the vineyard and be receptive to the visitations and expectations of the owner of the same vineyard, God himself.

You see, the problem in the parable is that the workers within that vineyard began to see that they owed nothing to the owner of the vineyard.  They had worked long and hard in amongst the vines and they felt that they deserved ultimate sway, ultimate say and ultimate choice over what was and what wasn’t theirs.  They came to believe that they actually owned the vineyards themselves and they offered only ridicule and violence to those who were sent by the owner to tell them otherwise.

If we are honest, this may be our very stance when it comes to our lives.  We conveniently forget that we had no hand in the making of our lives.  We did not decide when we would be born or to whom or where.  This is where I agree with the Christian Existentialists who say that we have “thrust into being.”  None of us decided when or where we first saw the light of day; all of us understand innately that life is a gift and if it is a gift, there is certainly a Giver: God.

No, we understand that, but we continue to believe that our lives are just that: OUR lives.  We believe that we can do with them as we wish and that we will be the ones who have to face any consequences from the common, ordinary course of life.  We, sometimes, forget that there are consequences beyond just what we might face in this world for poor life-decisions … there is the ultimate consequence that comes from denying to God what really is God’s.

This is why there are some moments in our lives when we might catch ourselves actually hating what is good.  We don’t like to be reminded of the ultimate goodness of God because we know that to acknowledge that means that we must acknowledge we are NOT gods ourselves! We are not the masters of our ultimate fate, only God is!  We are not self-made men and women; we are made by God and, most importantly, we are made FOR God.

The chief priests and scribes did not like to hear this parable; not in the least.  There are parts of our own heart that causes us to shrink from the import of Jesus’ worlds and scramble to offer a different, alternative interpretation, such as saying it was the fault of the Jews or it was the fault of the religious leaders.  All the while, we know the truth in our own hearts: it is us.  We are the people who have refused to listen when it has mattered most and preferred our ways to God’s new and living way in Jesus Christ.

This is why communion is so very important to us.  Here is a reminder that we cannot claim to be divinity; that we cannot claim to have ultimate sway over our own lives.  We belong to the Lord … the only legitimate response for us is gratitude!  In Jesus Christ, God has reached out to us and provided us with a vineyard called life.  God has set table in the kingdom of heaven and transferred it to here in our midst and bid us to come, partake of these gifts of God and acknowledge that we, the church, belong not to ourselves but to our God.

I am reminded of the opening lines of the old Heidelberg Catechism that seems almost a direct response or antidote for the behavior of the workers in the parable of today:

Q. 1. What is your only comfort, in life and in death?

A. That I belong—body and soul, in life and in death—not to myself but to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ, who at the cost of his own blood has fully paid for all my sins and has completely freed me from the dominion of the devil; that he protects me so well that without the will of my Father in heaven not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, that everything must fit his purpose for my salvation. Therefore, by his Holy Spirit, he also assures me of eternal life, and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.

And so, as the old confession says, let us be made wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.

Lessons in the Way: Romans 9:1-5 & Matthew 14:13-21; Ordinary 18-July 31, 2011

Rev. Martin R. Ankrum

21   15When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, ‘This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.’ 16Jesus said to them, ‘They need not go away; you give them something to eat.’ 17

Right now, the balance between scarcity and abundance appears to be sharply defined.  We live in the wealthiest society in the history of humankind and yet our elected representatives are engaged in a much publicized struggle in order to save the nation from bankruptcy.  The whole nation appears to be holding our collective breath over what might just happen between now and the deadline of two days from now.

Into this milieu of panic and concern enters our text for this 18th Sunday of Ordinary Time: the story of “The Feeding of the Five Thousand.”  I believe that this story says so much to we who profess belief in a generous and loving God; those who profess belief in a compassionate and wise Savior, Jesus Christ; those who have faith and trust that the world is not really just about what is tallied and counted, but rather about what is given and received and the abundance of life in the midst of a persistent tendency in the human heart to take scarcity of resources and scarcity of love as the norm.  This little story speaks volumes to us in our need and in our hope.

So, in composing this sermon, I decided to do something a little differently.  This sermon is not so much my commentary on the text as much as it is a compilation of some of the abundance of illustrations that others have used to shine a light on this old story.  So, without any further ado, hear now from others … others who have either contemplated this text or have illustrated it without even knowing it.

Gandhi, the great Indian mystic and activist has said: “There is enough for our need, but not for our greed.”1

From a sermon entitled, “You Provide the Bread,” delivered by the Rev. Dr. William J. Carl, III, President of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary hear these two fascinating stories:

There was once a missionary in the Philippines who worked in the gold-mining communities of Bagio. He led many worship services in little huts that had been put up on stilts because of the monsoon rains. One Sunday he went up into a little hut only to find it packed with people. It was communion Sunday. In the front was a little table covered to the floor with white cloth. On it were a little piece of bread and a tiny Dixie cup filled with grape juice. He wondered whether these elements would be enough for this large group huddled together. But he forged ahead. He said the words over the bread and passed it around. Somehow, miraculously, a small corner of it came back. Then he took the little cup in his hand as he had held that silver chalice many times back in the states and said, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Drink ye all of it.” He passed it around. It made it through the first two rows and came back. It was set on the table in front of him, empty. They looked at him smiling as if to say, “Produce some more now.” He looked about frantically for a bottle of grape juice. There was none in sight. He prayed, “Lord, help me” and suddenly a little brown arm came up from under the table and snatched the cup off. The missionary smiled at the people nervously and then pulled up the cloth only to see a little Filipino man with a pitcher of water and four packages of grape fizzies! Dropping the cloth quickly, the missionary looked back at the crowd smiling confidently. Pretty soon a little brown arm came up and placed a full cup of grape juice on top of the table. And off they went with the rest of the service. “You provide the bread; let me take care of the miracle.”

And …

What preacher who has spent a lifetime preaching in a pulpit has not known the frustration of a sermon that seemed limp on Saturday night, but soared Sunday morning by the power of the Spirit? “You provide the bread. Let me take care of the miracle,” says the Lord.

And so it happened with a little man in North Carolina named Mr. Beam. He was a minister for a while in small country churches. Oh, how he loved to preach the Word, to stand before a little huddle of God’s people and preach the Word from the Book. He considered it the greatest honor and privilege a person could ever have. But then he developed a problem with his throat. And that was the end of his preaching. It nearly broke his heart — the man who loved preaching so much.

When he died, he left all he had to a church in Charlotte for “purposes of evangelism” he said. What he left grew and grew and now, single-handedly supports the weekly television ministry. And it is said around Charlotte that in a single service on any given Sunday, more people hear the message of Christ than Mr. Beam ever preached to in a whole lifetime. “You provide the bread. Let God take care of the miracle.”2

As a kind of homiletics bridge hear this commentary about the Feeding of the Five Thousand from Amy B. Hunter, Episcopalian poet and minister:

Jesus insists that his disciples make such compassion their own work as well. This feeding is not a razzle-dazzle spectacle to boost Jesus’ image with the crowd. It begins with the insistence that the disciples themselves give the people something to eat. This story is not one of a wonder worker and his astonished onlookers, but the much bigger one of Jesus charging those who follow him to be agents of God’s compassion and power.

I have a friend who has been described as, among many other things, “a Buddhist, Anglican sympathizer, and an-tirealist about God.” Although he’s not a Christian, he loves chapels and likes to kneel quietly beneath stained glass. He imagines that others perceive him to be trespassing in “our space” and in “our story.” Paul and Jesus challenge me to see that there can be no possibility of trespass, because the story is always larger than we imagine. Paul claims that no one is “out,” neither the people of Israel for not accepting the Christian story nor the non-Jewish people for not being part of Israel’s story. God’s story is a far greater story, one able to hold all the stories and characters.

Even more, Jesus insists that the story is one of enveloping compassion. All that the people have to do to be fed is be hungry and in need. No creeds, no spiritual or cultural pedigrees, no vows of loyalty are required. “You give them something to eat,” Jesus charges his disciples then and today. To all who come, whether to be healed, to be fed, to doubt or simply to kneel beneath stained glass, Jesus insists that the church claim a story big enough to hold them all.

They need not go away.3

Rev. Hunter has a great point … we, the church, has been called upon, like those disciples in the story, to help be the conduit for God’s abundance in a world dominated by impossibilities and scarcity.

William Willimon, the United Methodist bishop, has a story made to order:

I know a church in the heart of one of our large cities. It once was a large, thriving downtown church. Over the past two decades it has shrunk to nearly nothing. A young woman went to be the pastor at the church. In a sermon one Sunday she noted how impressed she was by all of the children who walked past the church each afternoon after school, all of the children who played in the church playground in the afternoons.

“Few of those children have parents at home in the afternoon. That means that most of them go home to an empty house or else hang out on the streets on their own, and you know what that can lead to,” she told the congregation. “I wonder if God is calling somebody here, this morning, to respond to this. I look out and I see experienced, wise people who, in their day, were masters at raising children. Is this your day to step up and raise someone else’s child?”

That next week six of her members, among them one of the oldest people in the congregation, volunteered to begin an after school ministry at the church. They were soon joined by a dozen others who provided recreation, homework tutoring, and refreshments for the children every afternoon from four until six.

Out of that ministry there has arisen a new church. That congregation is now thriving with an influx of families and people from the neighborhood.

“You don’t have to be a great church to have a great ministry,” the pastor commented. “The American family is in such lousy shape, there are so many kids out there who are forced to fend for themselves, all you need is a surplus of older people. God had already given us all we needed to have a future as a church.”4

Or more to the point, a story about this abundance of love which originates from God between two persons and the sharing of that abundance totally overcoming the scarcity that one person has been experiencing:

In her memoir, The Whisper Test, Mary Ann Bird, tells of the power of words of acceptance in her own life.  She was born with multiple birth defects: deaf in one ear, a cleft palate, a disfigured face, a crooked nose, lopsided feet.  As a child, Mary Ann suffered not only physical impairments but also the emotional damage inflicted by other children. “Oh, Mary Ann,” her classmates would say, “what happened to your lip?”

“I cut it on a piece of glass,” she would lie

One of the worst experiences at school, she reported, was the day of the annual hearing test.  The teacher would call each child to her desk, and the child would cover first one ear, and then the other.  The teacher would whisper something to the child like, “The sky is blue” or “You have new shoes.” This was “the whisper test”; if the teacher’s phrase was heard and repeated, the child passed the test.  To avoid the humiliation of failure, Mary Ann would always cheat on the test, secretly cupping her hand over her one good ear so that she still hear what the teacher said.

One year Mary Ann was in the class of Miss Leonard, one of the most beloved teachers in the school.  Every student, including Mary Ann, wanted to be noticed by her, wanted to be her pet.  Then came the day of the dreaded hearing test.  When her turn came, Mary Ann was called to the teacher’s desk.  As Mary Ann cupped her hand over her good ear, Miss Leonard leaned forward to whisper.  “I waited for those words,” Mary Ann wrote, “which God must have put into her mouth, those seven words which changed my life.” Miss Leonard did not say “The sky is blue” or “You have new shoes.” What she whispered was “I wish you were my little girl.” Mary Ann went on to become a teacher herself, a person of inner beauty and great kindness.5

Finally, I close with the inspiring words of Charles Allen from a sermon delivered in 2002 about that original story we heard about The Feeding of the Five Thousand:

This story invites us to see that what’s most true about it is what we can’t explain. It means to break open our chronic tendency to shrink God’s generosity down to the limits of whatever we happen to think is possible. No doubt miracle stories grow in the telling. And I’m not about to suggest adding a prayer for multiplication to the Prayer Book – we probably all agree on how well that one would work. But we do tend to shrink God’s generosity to fit our versions of the world.

And that shrinking tendency lies behind most of the rotten things the church has done to people in Christ’s name over the past two thousand years. Just last week, Boston’s Cardinal Law, speaking at a youth gathering in Canada, tried to shift attention from his own scandals in the time-honored Christian practice of attacking somebody else.

First, he said that Catholics shouldn’t even attend gay union celebrations. (So don’t bother sending him an invitation.) And then he promised that women would never be ordained as priests. These are his words: “It’s one of those things that I don’t think about, because it can’t change … Just rest comfortably in the faith, and understand that this has nothing to do [with] equality.”Right.

It can’t change … Just rest comfortably in the faith … I don’t think about it. Those are pretty revealing phrases. And it wasn’t that long ago that most Episcopal bishops said things like that too, though our current bishop takes a different view. But do you hear that shrinkage at work? God’s generosity only works this way, not that way. It can’t change – no women priests, to say nothing of bishops, and no union celebrations. They’re just not possible.

When Jesus’ disciples said certain things just weren’t possible, he had a different response. He took their stingy little worlds, then he blessed them, then he broke them open, and then he gave them out. And the impossible happened.

He took, he blessed, he broke, he gave. That’s not the only time he performed those four actions. And we’re about to perform them too. Now we call them the Offertory, the Great Thanksgiving, the Fraction, and the Communion. We take, we bless, we break, we give. And then, we’re promised, impossible things can happen.

Maybe you’ll find you can afford to forgive somebody after all. Maybe you’ll get forgiven. … Maybe we can make more of a difference around here than we ever dreamed. Maybe you’ll find that you still have more faith than you know what to do with, just when you thought it had run dry. If you listen to people’s stories here, you know that impossible things like these happen every week, every day. The limits of our world break open, and we’re awash in God’s generosity.6

1.             Summers, Charles A., Interpretation, 59, No. 3, July 2005, p. 298.

2.             Carl, William J, III, “You Provide the Bread,” from Church People Beware! Sermons for Sundays After Pentecost (Middle Third).

3.             Hunter, Amy B., “Living by the Word,” Christian Century, July 26, 2005, p. 18.

4.             Willimon, William H., Pulpit Resource, Vol. 39, No. 3, p. 23.
5.             Long, Thomas G., Testimony: Talking Ourselves into Being Christian, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2004, p. 86 – I am indebted to William Willimon for this resource.

6.             Allen, Charles W., “A Sermon: When Worlds Break Open,” Encounter, 65, No. 1, Winter 2004, pp. 75-76.