Sunday, June 28, 2015

Blessedness in Brokenness: Mark 5:21-43 - Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

Daybreak by James Marvin Phelps.  Creative Commons image on
21When Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered around him; and he was by the sea.  22Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw him, fell at his feet  23and begged him repeatedly, "My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live."  24So he went with him.
            And a large crowd followed him and pressed in on him.  25Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years.  26She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse.  27She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak,  28for she said, "If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well."  29Immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease.  30Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, "Who touched my clothes?"  31And his disciples said to him, "You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, 'Who touched me?'"  32He looked all around to see who had done it.  33But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth.  34He said to her, "Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease."
             35While he was still speaking, some people came from the leader's house to say, "Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?"  36But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the leader of the synagogue, "Do not fear, only believe."  37He allowed no one to follow him except Peter, James, and John, the brother of James.  38When they came to the house of the leader of the synagogue, he saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly.  39When he had entered, he said to them, "Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping."  40And they laughed at him. Then he put them all outside, and took the child's father and mother and those who were with him, and went in where the child was.  41He took her by the hand and said to her, "Talitha cum," which means, "Little girl, get up!"  42And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about (she was twelve years of age). At this they were overcome with amazement.  43He strictly ordered them that no one should know this, and told them to give her something to eat. (NRSV)
It’s become a regular occurrence around here that people call and ask if we’re accepting clothing donations.  In spite of the absolute deluge we keep receiving, we almost always say “yes.”  But sometimes we have to say no.

Case in point: two weeks ago, a man calls to ask if we’d accept donations of Christian books: seventy-five cartons’ worth, to be precise.  His brother had just died following a courageous, two-decades-long battle with Parkinson’s disease.  “These books were his lifeline,” said his brother.  There wasn’t much the doctors could do for him—so he turned to his faith.  He bought just about every book in print on the subject of faith healing.  He even spent tremendous sums of money to go see televangelists and faith healers in person.

His actions sounded extremely unreasonable at first—until I considered how terrible his sufferings must have been.  I don’t think anyone can understand unless you’ve had the experience yourself—of losing absolutely everything that you’d built your life upon. 

No matter who we are, our lives are built upon a foundation of building blocks: they include relationships with family and friends; physical and emotional health; skills and abilities; jobs and our finances.  Much of the time, when we suffer a loss, we’re able to endure and overcome because of what we still have.  As Christians, our faith and relationship with God gives us strength and peace.  A life built on many building blocks will not fall apart if you take one of them away. 

But what we see happening in today’s Scriptures is the complete devastation of everything.  The prophet Jeremiah is lamenting the complete destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians.  The twelve-year-old daughter of a synagogue leader named Jairus is at death’s door.  A woman has been bleeding for twelve years

This is the kind of suffering that no one could imagine, even in their worst nightmares.  What’s worse is the impact this suffering had on their faith.  For Jeremiah, there’s no question as to why Jerusalem’s destroyed: Israel had sinned and were suffering God’s judgment.  Then you have Jairus, a respected authority in Judaism—and yet in all of his power and wisdom, he could do nothing to help his child.  Then you have this woman whose bleeding would have made her a complete outcast—because her bleeding made her ceremonially unclean.  Most people would have done everything in their power to keep their distance. 

Make no mistake about it—all hope was lost.  No one could say “at least you have this, or that…”  So where do you go—and what do you do—when this happens to you?

And—as a person of faith, how do you begin to make sense of it all? 

In times like these, there are so many questions; but there is one thing no one can question in today’s Gospel—and that one thing is Jesus’ compassion.  You have a crowd of people, clamoring in desperation for Jesus’ attention.  But Jesus gives himself to them.  The unclean woman who seemingly steals her way into his presence, he calls “daughter.”  He takes the Jairus’s daughter by the hand. 

What they receive is so much more than just a simple cure.  In Christ, they see God’s compassion and mercy.  They see that they matter to God. 

When Jesus says, “Your faith has made you well;” he’s not pronouncing a reward for their faith.  He is declaring that they are saved because Jesus is with them.  Salvation is not a reward for faith. Salvation is a gift we receive through faith, by reaching into the open arms of Jesus.  Salvation is trusting that Jesus will be your redeemer and your deliverer, no matter what happens to you.  It’s trusting that Jesus will move you forward, out of the misery and hopelessness of the moment, into new life.  It is holding onto Jesus, trusting that he’s holding onto you. 

We must cling to this promise—which is not easy to do—because so often, we set our hearts on God answering our prayers a certain way; giving us a certain outcome; moving us forward in a certain way.  Sadly, prayers are not answered the way we want.  Sometimes, the road to salvation is not the road we want to travel.  Sometimes, we even embrace our suffering to the point that it defines our lives. 

And yet, Christ can make the moments of brokenness into moments of blessedness.  The way forward begins with Christ’s promise of salvation, and our trust in it.  We live out this trust with prayer and immersing ourselves in God’s Word.  These acts of faith give us eyes of faith to see the ways Jesus is caring for us and leading us out of the darkness.  It’s okay to be angry with God and to question.  That’s normal.  Cast it all at the feet of Jesus.

On the road of salvation, Jesus will use you to bring others healing—for just as the wounds of Christ give us salvation; we heal others out of our own wounds.  One of the greatest truths of the Christian life is that those who are healed by Christ become healers for Christ.

Ultimately, nothing in this life is permanent—neither pain nor prosperity.  That is a very good thing.  The world offers limitless options by which we can take salvation into our own hands.  But thanks be to God that Jesus is giving us something far greater.  Salvation isn’t merely a cure-all for life’s problems.  It’s a relationship of trust in the living Christ.  It’s the peace of believing that even when everything in your world crumbles and falls, the arms of Jesus are open to you.  In Christ is your deliverance.

New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Oh, the Places You'll Go!: 2 Corinthians 6:1-13 - Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

Storm by Moyan Brenn.  Creative Commons Image on
As we work together with him, we urge you also not to accept the grace of God in vain.  2For he says,
            "At an acceptable time I have listened to you,
            and on a day of salvation I have helped you."
See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!  3We are putting no obstacle in anyone's way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry,  4but as servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities,  5beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger;  6by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love,  7truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left;  8in honor and dishonor, in ill repute and good repute. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true;  9as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see — we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed;  10as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.
             11We have spoken frankly to you Corinthians; our heart is wide open to you.  12There is no restriction in our affections, but only in yours.  13In return — I speak as to children — open wide your hearts also.
I remember my confirmation day as one of those days that I was so proud to be me.  I’d “fulfilled all righteousness,” so far as the church was concerned: I attended 3 ½ hour classes every Saturday, for two years.  I memorized my verses; I passed the public exam.  It felt like there wasn’t anything in the world I couldn’t do. 

It was like I was living in Dr. Seuss’s famous book Oh, the Places You’ll Go.  With my brains and my smarts, I was on my way up, to soar to great heights and see the great sights—except when I don’t, because sometimes I won’t. 

Far be it for me to compare the Christian journey to a Dr. Seuss book, except that it’s true.  I doubt anyone can ever imagine the places they’ll go with Jesus. 

Take the disciples: we’re only four chapters into Mark—but already, they’ve been to many places and served a lot of people in the region of Galilee.  Now, however, Jesus is loading them onto a boat—at night—which was generally not considered to be a wise decision.  With shoddy boat construction, rudimentary navigation techniques, and nothing to light their way, the disciples were embarking on a journey almost as perilous as going over Niagara Falls in a barrel.  Their worst fears would soon be realized as a great windstorm arises and begins swamping the boat.

Paul’s missionary journeys would prove every bit as perilous.  Beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger.  What’s more is that he was not highly-regarded by the Corinthian church he founded.  For one thing—he scolded the Corinthians in his letters—for their sexually immorality, for fighting with each other, and for giving preferential treatment to the rich and powerful.  On top of that, some so-called “super apostles” had come to town, who were wowing the church with powerful words and miracles.  In sum, Paul reaped very few rewards for all he did in Jesus’ name.

So why did Paul follow Jesus?  Why did the disciples follow Jesus?  And for that matter, why should YOU follow Jesus?

The “super-apostles” of our day would say that with faith, you can satisfy all your heart’s desires.  “Name it and claim it,” they say.  “Have enough faith, be a good enough person, and you’ll move mountains.”  You’ll be successful in all that you do. 

Well, Paul had faith.  So did the disciples.  And Jesus had more faith than any of them.  But Jesus died on a cross.  Most of the apostles would have their lives brutally cut short. 

Yet the heart of the Gospel is that there is a life beyond this one—and, that there’s more to this life than everything we can accomplish and accumulate by our own strength, including fame, fortune, and success…  There’s more to this life than even what we can dream of.

Listen to Paul describe his life in Jesus Christ:
We are treated as impostors, and yet are true;
as unknown, and yet are well known;
as dying, and we are alive!
As punished, and yet not killed;
as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing;
as poor, yet making many rich;
as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.

Because we are baptized into Jesus Christ, he lives in us.  Make no mistake: he’s not a magic genie who makes dreams come true.  And the Christian life is not a magic carpet ride over all the perils and pains of human experience. 

It is, however, a life of dying and rising with Christ.  It’s dying to the life we know and the life we want, to be reborn into the life he desires for you.  It’s facing every day believing that Jesus has places for you to go; people for you to serve; plans for you to be uplifted with saving grace.  When the storms come along and you’re holding on for dear life, Jesus will be there to comfort you and give you his peace.  Jesus is faithful—and he keeps his promises.

I’m reminded of one of our VBS games, where the children were blindfolded and led through a maze by the words of someone else.  That is the Christian journey.  We don’t know the way through this world.  We may think we do, but only Jesus can show us the way to life; a life that’s “out of this world.” That’s why it’s so important to listen and pray; to love all God’s people; to trust and obey.

Faith is the journey that begins today, and only Jesus the Christ can show you away.

There’ll be bang ups and hang ups, it’s sad but it’s true, for sometimes bad things will happen to you. 
Sometimes you’ll feel lonely, with a really good chance, that the things you will meet scare you out of your pants…
There are some down the road between hither and yon
That will scare you so much you won’t want to go on
But on you will go, though the weather is fowl;
On you will go, though your enemies prowl
On you will hike, and you will hike far,
and face up to your problems, whatever they are…

Oh, the places you’ll go, because Jesus is Lord
Though you know not | what he’s taking you toward
So believe him and trust him, and most surely you’ll see
That he’s Lord of your problems and fears, yes indeed. 

Though he will lead you to faces and places unknown,
Always remember | that you’ll never be alone.

On you will go, as a beacon of God’s love
As Jesus gives you life that comes only from above.

Portions of this sermon adapted from:
Seuss, Dr. Oh, the Places You'll Go! New York: Random House, 1990.

Scripture quotation from:

New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

New Creation Mode: 2 Corinthians 5:16-17 - Third Sunday after Pentecost

"community gardens" by emdot. Creative commons image on 
6So we are always confident; even though we know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord —  7for we walk by faith, not by sight.  8Yes, we do have confidence, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.  9So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him.  10For all of us must appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each may receive recompense for what has been done in the body, whether good or evil.
             11Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we try to persuade others; but we ourselves are well known to God, and I hope that we are also well known to your consciences.  12We are not commending ourselves to you again, but giving you an opportunity to boast about us, so that you may be able to answer those who boast in outward appearance and not in the heart.  13For if we are beside ourselves, it is for God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you.  14For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died.  15And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.
             16From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way.  17So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! (NRSV)
I’ve never had much of an interest in video games—but they’re a big part of many young lives…

I was fascinated when one of our youth told me about the game Minecraft. 
The game is split into two separate game modes: Creative and Survival… If you’re interested in making huge structures from scratch with unlimited resources, Creative mode is your best bet. You won’t see any enemies, and you can pull blocks of all shapes and sizes out of thin air. It’s a peaceful world.
However, if you’d prefer to adventure into a world of danger, where you’re crafting and creating out of necessity, you’ll probably want to play in Survival mode. That world comes with gangs of monsters. You’ll need to protect yourself from the creatures that come out at night. 

What I can tell you—is that if I was going to play Minecraft, I’d choose to play in creative mode, and the reason is simple: I’m the kind of person that likes to be in control.  I don’t want to have to deal with monsters and setbacks, and watch all of my hard work be destroyed.  I guess the thrill of victory comes with the impossibility of defeat.

I certainly wish we could live in “creative mode,” but that isn’t reality.  We have to contend with monsters—like poverty, pain and suffering.  Often times, the monsters are people.  Sometimes, the monsters are us.  Either way, there’s no monster we fear more than death.

And no one has to look very hard to see its carnage. 

Just take our community as an example…  This week, I heard someone describe Leechburg as “post-industrial…”   We see death in abandoned steel mills and boarded-up storefronts that once provided living wages for thousands of people.  We see death in decaying homes and vacant lots where families once lived.  We death in the rising crime rate and the infestation of illegal drugs. 

Some would look at us and call us a dying church. 

It is inevitable that death will strike—in separating us from our loved ones; in the aging of our minds and our bodies, and ultimately, in our own mortality. 

Because when death doesn’t take away the breath of life, it destroys quality of life—so that a person’s daily existence is ruled by fear, depression, and hopelessness.

Death is the biggest reason why we all despise change so much. 

I hate to say it, but death influences how we live and make decisions more than any of us care to admit. 

The Apostle Paul knew this full well as he wrote to the fledgling Christian church in Corinth.  The church had become what Jesus would call “a house divided against itself.”  It was a mess.  Controversy arose over issues ranging from authority and control to more practical questions of how Christians live in an immoral world.  Cliques had risen up among social classes, as well as behind certain leaders.  And we can’t forget that persecution and social ostracism was always an issue.  By all outward indications, this church was on a rapid decline. 

But amid all the fear and uncertainty, Paul’s message was clear: things are not what they seem.
Death may be hard at work in the world, but so is God.  Death is not going to have the last word.

Paul writes, that within our frail, weak, mortal human bodies, God is making a new creation. 
God is doing the same out in the world, working where the forces of evil and death do their worst.  New life is taking hold every time the Gospel is proclaimed and people come to faith.  It’s taking hold as the hungry are fed, the lonely find a friend, sinners receive forgiveness, and love overcomes the bitterest hurts.

It is by faith that God takes us beyond all the realities of death to believe and see what God is, in fact, up to.  God’s kingdom is not something we can always see or understand—and we can never control it.  But it is a promise coming to fulfillment; right here, right now. 

What some call a thousand-page sleeping pill, God gives as the Word of life and the Gospel of salvation.

What some would see as bread and wine, God gives to you as the bread and drink of new life in Christ.

With what some would call a dying church, Christ is alive and making a real difference in people’s lives—and impacting more of our neighbors than ever before.  The fact that we’re here this morning is proof undeniable that you matter to God.  The fact that we’re about to launch the most exciting vacation Bible school ministry ever is proof undeniable that the Kiski Valley matters to God.

In spite of all the death, God is in “New Creation Mode.”  We are called to follow Jesus beyond the realities of death, to the frontlines of his victory.  Even as death remains very much a part of our reality, in Christ in need no longer define our reality.  In Christ, we will not be victims.  We will not even be survivors.  In Christ, we are a new creation.  What death destroys, God is always making new. 

Remember this promise.  Put your trust in it.  Follow Jesus.  Live your live with him in “New Creation Mode.”

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Delivered from Evil: Mark 3:20-35 - Third Sunday after Pentecost

"Benner's Hill" by Jen Goellnitz on

20and the crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat.  21When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, "He has gone out of his mind."  22And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, "He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons."  23And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, "How can Satan cast out Satan?  24If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand.  25And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand.  26And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come.  27But no one can enter a strong man's house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.
             28Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter;  29but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin" —  30for they had said, "He has an unclean spirit."
             31Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him.  32A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, "Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you."  33And he replied, "Who are my mother and my brothers?"  34And looking at those who sat around him, he said, "Here are my mother and my brothers!  35Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother." (NRSV)
Late this past February, everybody was asking: “what color is this dress?”

Most people say, “It’s white and gold…”  Some say, “It’s blue and black…” So why the disagreement?  We can’t all be colorblind, can we? 

Science explains the phenomenon as a function of genetics—and their influence on the construction of our eye sockets.  I must be a mutant—because I see the dress as blue and gold…

But what about the colors of good and evil in the world?  Like most of you, when I think of evil, I think of ISIS; of Hitler and Nazi Germany.  That being said, if I asked you to write down the ten greatest evils in the world, I’m sure we’d have some diverse answers.  We don’t all see the same world the same way…

In today’s Gospel, however, we see how wrong human beings can be in choosing good over evil…

Jesus’ ministry has just begun, but already, the religious “authorities” have come down from Jerusalem to investigate him.  So far, Jesus has freed people of unclean spirits; he’s cured leprosy, fevers, and paralysis.  But—he doesn’t fast and hold to the traditions of the elders.  He heals on the Sabbath.  He befriends tax collectors and sinners. 

It is for these reasons the “experts” conclude: Jesus is the devil.  He’s Beelzebul—the lord of the flies

Isn’t that awful?  While Jesus sees evil in human suffering and the ostracism of “sinful,” “unclean” people—the religious experts see Jesus as evil—because he’s not “religious” like they’re “religious.”  He doesn’t “play” by their rules.  While Jesus has nothing but compassion and love for lost and hurting people, the experts would have said that God was punishing those people…  That they were no good anyway—and didn’t deserve anyone’s sympathy…

What we see here is the tremendous power of the devil to confuse and completely distort a human being’s sense of good and evil.  It’s the same thing the serpent does in Genesis: the forbidden fruit is seen as pleasing to eye and useful for gaining wisdom.

All human beings are born with an innate sense of right and wrong—and yet this knowledge does not give you the strength to choose what’s right.  Evil lurks within what’s appealing and beneficial to you; the good things you can gain at minimal cost; what feels good in the moment.

What’s more, is that we define “evil” in terms of what’s most threatening to us.  Evildoers are the people who are most unlike ourselves; who do things and believe things we could never imagine even in our worst nightmares. 

All the while, we’re not seeing the undeniable truth: that evil exists in our own hearts.  Even though none of us would ever dream of joining ISIS or the Nazi party, we share that same potential to do evil.  This isn’t something that happens in an instant.  It’s always a slow fade.  Apathy is that slippery slope; that little voice that says “that’s okay,” when it’s not okay.  It’s what leads us down the path of least resistance.  It’s what gives us a permission to turn a blind eye to human suffering.  Sins of omission combine with sins of commission to slowly submerge communities, societies, and entire countries into absolute chaos. 

We must own the truth about ourselves—that we’re sinners.  We think better of ourselves than others.  We tell lies, say hurtful ways, act in deplorable ways, and look the other way when action is needed.  We seek life in the treasures of this world.  But it is here in the depths that grace begins. 

He comes into the bondage of our sin and the misery it brings.  He comes into the depths of our sorrows and fears.  He comes into the mess this world is in right now, to make all things new with his forgiveness, his mercy, and his love. 

Jesus is God’s answer to evil and death.  Jesus has bound the devil.  His fate was sealed on the cross.  His days are numbered.  Victory belongs to Jesus.  Make no mistake—he’s not going down without a fight… Yet as disciples of Jesus, we’re invited to follow him to the front lines of victory.  That victory begins in each one of your lives and in the life of this church; right here, right now. 

The way forward could not be clearer—because we see it in the Gospel.  Jesus is giving us his heart for the despised and rejected persons of our world.  Jesus is giving us his heart for broken families and hungry children.  He’s giving us his heart for those who’ve lost hope and who languish in the depths of fear and doubt.  He’s giving us his heart for people who’ve lost their way and desperately need his deliverance. 

What we need is for Jesus to give us his eyes and his heart to see the evil he sees—and the will to do the good he’s doing. 

Be warned—the grace of forgiveness and redemption is not to be taken lightly.  Jesus says, “Whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never be forgiven, but is guilty of eternal sin.”  We can all embrace evil as what’s good for ourselves, and lose everything in the end.  But today, Jesus is embracing you and me and this world.  There is nothing more beautiful and precious than Jesus and his grace. 

We walk by faith as he delivers us from all evil, and brings us to everlasting life.