Sermon April 27, 2019 Rev. Ginny Smith

Acts 4:32-35 
John 20:19-31


FAITHING OUR FEARS


When I was on the faculty at McCormick Seminary in Chicago, one of the classes I taught was “Introduction to Christian Spiritual Formation.” An objectives for the class was to learn and practice spiritual disciplines.
One spiritual discipline I introduced was “lectio divina” or “holy reading.” It is a process that invites people to read a passage of scripture and then stop at a word or phrase that catches their attention. The person then meditates on the phrase, saying it over and over again until an outpouring of prayers is unlocked.
The first time we explored this spiritual discipline together, I selected one verse, John 10:11, rather than an entire passage. “Jesus is the Good Shepherd; the Good Shepherd lays down his life for his sheep.”
We then proceeded to pray for the meaning of the passage in our lives, asking, “What is God saying to me in this passage?” The class then moved on to the final step, contemplation, or “resting in God.”
At the close, when I asked class members to speak about what happened, most shared affirming experiences. But a couple of them, basically, said, “It didn’t come alive for me.”
As I was reading our passage today from John, this experience came to mind. And so I asked myself, what need to happen so that a passage from Scripture, so that the passage for today, can some alive for a church community?
At that point the word “community” jumped out at me. John had written this gospel to a new Christian community, probably late in the first century. And it was a community facing issues similar to those we face today as a church. Jesus hadn’t returned. Those who walked on earth with him were dead. It was a stressful time for Christians, with specific stress stemming from painful separation from the Jewish community to which many belonged and people whom they loved. New circumstances and separations; new ideas and different points of view. They take their toll on people, don’t they?
This community that John was addressing was scared, they were afraid. John knew this. His pastoral sensitivity told him that they needed inspiration, not simply information. And so he set out to tell them a story, a story that would transform their lives of fear, their lives of anxiety, their lives of confusion into lives of faith.

“These were written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and through believing you may have life in his name.”

One of the most accurate pictures of fear I have seen is the one John paints in just one word in half a sentence in our Gospel reading today:

“When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met with locked for fear of the Jewish authorities. . .”

Locked! Shut tight! Closed down! Stomachs tied in knots! Not even enough energy to entertain options. Fear blocking their ability to give credence to anything but that with which they were already familiar. Fear going so far as to convince them that even what they knew to be true just couldn’t be so.
The community of disciples that John portrays is not the only community locked away in fear. We see it in families; we see it in cities in towns; we see it in our nation; we see it in churches. And you know what? I wouldn’t be surprised if fear isn’t present in this church community as well. After all, fear operates in all people and all communities no matter who they are or what their size.
The key to unlocking the door is this. How we let fear use us or how we use fear. How we allow fear to drain the life out of us or how we use the energy generated by fear to live as people and communities empowered by the new life God has given us in Jesus Christ.
And God bless the Gospel writer, John. He gives us another golden nugget in the second half of this power-filled verse. “Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you!”
I know that the first time I read these words, all I wanted to know was how Jesus got into the room. But by stopping to try and figure this out, I got sidetracked, and I almost missed the inspiration that was transforming for my life and maybe you’ve missed it, too. How Jesus got into the room is the least of our concerns. The real miracle is fear-filled people huddled behind locked doors finding peace and finding freedom from fear!
The miracle of transformation occurs when we recognize Jesus is here in our midst. And this miracle won’t happen until we face our fears by naming our fears. Now that’s downright scary, isn’t it?
Lives locked behind fear of failure, fear of facing who they are, fear of letting go of ways of doing things that just aren’t working any more, fear that doesn’t allow others to have viewpoints, fear of people who look different than they do, speak a different language, are lives that not able to recognize Jesus and his gift of the Spirit, let alone receive the gift he brings.
Look at the community Luke describes in the book of Acts. When these believers prayed, the place in which they gathered was shaken. They were so filled with the Holy Spirit they told the story that gave birth to the Christian Church. They told the story of Jesus and his Resurrection as the Christ.
It is a story that turned a fear-filled and disillusioned community into people of hope. It is the story of God’s love for the world. It is a story of empowerment to be advocates for the poor, those who are relegated to the margins of society. It is a story that commands us to be seekers and doers of justice, to be salt of the earth, to be the leaven of society. It is a story that empowered them to faith their fears.
And herein lies our challenge as the faith community of First Presbyterian Church. Each of us has a story of our journey with God. This congregation has a story of its journey with God. Wouldn’t it be incredible to tell our stories, weave our stories, with the biblical story as we journey together? As we seek wisdom in the wisdom and in the listening, God will work miracles today in this community, as God worked miracles in the lives of our ancestors in the faith.
John was a sensitive and caring pastor. John knew his community and he knew they were afraid, scared. But, even more importantly, he knew Jesus, he knew the Christ, the One who breathed the spirit of life into all who believe. And so he told them a story that they might come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and in believing have life in him.
He told this story to guide them, and now to guide us to recognize Jesus in our midst, declaring that his peace is with us, encouraging us to face and faith our fears. He’s calling us to new life, empowering us to live that new life, and sending us out into all kinds places to make a difference – to make a difference by fearlessly bringing God’s love into every situation in which we find ourselves.
A I John 4 reminds us: “God is love, and those who remain in love remain in God and God remains in them. . . There is no fear in love, but perfect drives out all fear.” Amen.

Sermon April 14, 2019 Rev. Ginny Smith

Psalm 118:1-2; 19-29
Luke 19:29-38; Luke 23:13-23

THIS DOESN'T MAKE SENSE

This doesn't make sense!  It doesn't make sense at all!  Jesus' ministry was going so well.  There was so much hope, such high expectations!  How did people's joy and excitement turn to bitterness and rage? How did they ever get to the point where people were demanding Jesus' death and shouting, "Crucify, crucify him!"?

            The first scene is dramatic.  Jesus triumphantly enters Jerusalem.  The crowds line the road, throwing their cloaks on the path before him and shouting, "Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!"  They were so excited to be there with Jesus, to be a part of the celebration of welcoming the Messiah, God’s chosen one.

But ----- just a few days later, the scene is just as dramatic and the people are just as excited to be a part of the crowd that demands Jesus’ death.  

When we put the two scenes together, we can see the shadow of the cross falling in Jesus' path as he rides into Jerusalem at the beginning of the last week of his earthly life.  We see ultimate goodness being subjected to the hypocrisy of humanity and horrendous suffering.  It doesn't make any sense!

How could they be so supportive of him one day and turn on him a few days later?  How could they allow Jesus, whom they proclaimed to be the one who comes in God's name, to be killed, while demanding that a murderer go free?  How could a person who had done so much good be subjected to so much suffering and evil at the hands of people who praised and honored him just days before?  IT DOESN'T MAKE SENSE!

But how easy it is to look back, point a finger at those who betrayed Jesus and sent him to the cross.  It’s easy now to see the evil that led to the crucifixion.  And yet I wonder, isn't Jesus still on the cross whenever people who profess to be his followers  harbor offensive and cruel attitudes, join in or condone activities that do harm to other people?

We see this throughout history. The crusades in Europe; slavery in the United States; the treatment of Native Americans; Naziism in Germany and eastern Europe, just to name a few. 

And we see it today.  Children dying in parts of the world due to war and starvation. We see it today when children and the elderly are neglected and abused.  We see it today in places where the drinking water is unsafe to drink and wash with.  We see it today when judgments how to help the poor and marginalized are made on the basis of how they will affect us.  We see it today when financial profits are the criteria for decisions. These patterns of behavior don't make sense.  

But then again, life itself doesn't make sense, does it?  Look at the pain, the suffering we see all around us each and every day with no apparent rhyme or reason.

            BUT ----- I believe life can make sense if we look beyond the dark side of human nature that we see reflected on the cross on which Jesus died; look beyond the suffering that seems so pointless and discover a word of hope and joy.

It is because of the cross of Christ that life can make sense. It is because of the cross that suffering, pain, humanity's inhumanity to one another can begin to take on a different per-spective.   It’s called “reframing.”  

As Christians, we do not have an insurance policy signed by God that says we will get everything we ask for, that life will always go our way, that we'll be without trouble, hardship, or difficult times.  What we as Christians are promised is that in Jesus Christ, we hear God speaking from within the human situation with all its joys and sorrows to each of us – to ALL of us.  And that’s the Good News!  That’s the Gospel!

The cross tells us that God in Jesus Christhas been where we have been and has been where we are at the present time. God’s unconditional love is there for us to hold on to with all that is within us.

When it seems as if hatred and evil are in control, that violence has seized the day and seems to render us powerless, “The cross of Christ,” in the words of one of my seminary professors, Dr. Daniel Migliore, “is God’s own gift of costly love, mediating God’s forgiveness and friendship in the midst of a violent world.”  The cross of Christ is God’s gift to turn evil into good, to turn death into life.

During my almost 37 years of pastoral ministry, I have spent time with many ordinary people like you and like me, whose life circumstances didn't make sense.  There were people such as:

But these people knew one thing that many have yet to learn.  They knew that God was stronger than any of their circumstances and this gave them hope and strength and grace to live within the contradictions of their lives. Their relationship with God didn't end their external condition of suffering and difficulty.  Rather their relationship with God enabled them to maintain a sense of well-being in the midst of all that was happening in their lives.  

Did they get angry at God?  Yes, they expressed anger at God and I was glad they did because it meant they continued to be in a relationship with God!

As I reflected on their situations, I found a common thread.  They were able to stay focused on Christ who was journeying with them as they experience great difficulties.  How?  They cultivated and nourished their relationship with God all. the. time!  They found a still place with God in the better times. Then when the tough times rolled in, they were able to draw on God’s strength because they knew how to listen and recognize God’s voice.  They knew what being with God felt like. 

            In the cross we not only encounter God's unconditional love, but we also see Jesus’ unconditional surrender to the demands of that love.  Jesus' act of devotion was costly and it brought suffering at its most intense degree.  But it was for you and for me so that life could make sense even at its most nonsensical.

In the cross there is the promise of peace, light, and hope in the darkness of a chaotic world.  No matter what life and the world throw our way, because of the cross we know Jesus Christ is right there with us, supporting us in whatever life brings our way; always equipping us to live at peace with ourselves so we can, in turn support others with caring, compassion, and love as Christ calls us to do.  Amen.

Pastoral Prayer

Holy and Gracious God

We give you thanks for the gift of life

for the gift of your Son

for the gift of your Spirit



Lead us through the trials

the suffering and sorrow

the challenges and struggles

the tired times and dark places



Be with those who weep

those who seek peace and healing
those who seek forgiveness and redemption



Lead us

with grace

with love

with peace



Fill us

with hope

with patience

with stamina



Transform us

in your image

in your wisdom

in your Name



Make us whole, O Lord,

so that we may be

the hands and heart of Christ.



Amen.

Sermon March 3, 2019

Holy, Holy, Holy

Prayer of Illumination:
Guide us, O God, by your Word and your Spirit,
that in your light we may see light,
in your truth find freedom,
and in your presence discover peace;
through Christ our Lord, Amen.


Listen for a word from God.


Exodus 34:29-35
29Moses came down from Mount Sinai. As he came down from the mountain with the two tablets of the covenant in his hand, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God. 
30When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, the skin of his face was shining, and they were afraid to come near him. 31But Moses called to them; and Aaron and all the leaders of the congregation returned to him, and Moses spoke with them. 32Afterward all the Israelites came near, and he gave them in commandment all that the Lord had spoken with him on Mount Sinai. 
33When Moses had finished speaking with them, he put a veil on his face; 34but whenever Moses went in before the Lord to speak with him, he would take the veil off, until he came out; and when he came out, and told the Israelites what he had been commanded, 35the Israelites would see the face of Moses, that the skin of his face was shining; and Moses would put the veil on his face again, until he went in to speak with him.

Introduction

The eyes are the window to one's soul.

Well, that’s a beautiful sentiment… until you walk down the street and, God forbid, accidentally lock eyes with a stranger. Or until I, as your cruel pulpit supply pastor, ask you to turn to the person next to you and stare deeply into their eyes. Don’t worry – I won’t. Because I guarantee, after just a few seconds you’ll find yourself thinking, "Wow, this is awkward."

British researchers asked 500 participants to take part in a study on eye contact, trying to determine how long was too long before it turned weird. Each participant was asked to watch a video of an actor making eye contact with them for various lengths of time, and then their level of comfortability was evaluated. Nearly every participant was comfortable for an average of just three seconds. Universally – no matter the participant’s cultural background or personality differences – anything longer than this three-second average felt uncomfortable and awkward.

As author Faraaz Kazi once wrote, “Eye contact is more intimate than words will ever be.” The intensity of this kind of intimacy with another person’s soul can be overwhelming.

Recently, my husband made me watch a movie called, A Waking Life. It was one of those compromise movies that I’m pretty sure was snuck somewhere into our marriage vows. He has to watch HGTV with me; so I now had to watch a movie about philosophers debating the meaning of life with him. But there was one scene that really struck me. In it, two men are sitting at a table discussing life over cups of coffee.

“This moment is holy,” one of the men says. Every moment is a holy moment, he explains to the other man, but who can possibly live that way? Then he demonstrates just how hard it is to stay in a holy moment. “Let's do it right now,” he says. “Let's have a holy moment.” Suddenly, he stops talking, and he stares deeply into the other man’s eyes. And you can see this ordinary moment of two men talking over coffee transform into something sacred.

It’s beautiful. But then, after just an instant – even in this moment, even when they’re actually trying to create a holy moment – the other man just can’t seem to take it anymore. He breaks the silence. He’s obviously uncomfortable. And he begins rambling on – clearly he’d rather talk about sacredness than try to continue actually experiencing the sacred.


Trouble in the Text

This is the same challenge found in our text this morning. Admittedly, it’s a strange story. It’s not one we typically teach in Sunday School. When Moses comes down from the mountaintop, after speaking with God and while carrying the Ten Commandments in his hands, the text tells us that his face is actually shining. It’s like Moses took the lyrics of “This Little Light of Mine” a little too literally!

Funny as it is, though, it’s a powerful story. Moses has encountered the sacred. He has come face to face with God, and he’s now literally glowing with God’s light. And yet, the text tells us that his face was so radiant that the people were afraid to come near him. They were so afraid, that he has to veil his face. God’s holiness is so powerful and so radiant that they just can’t handle it. It has to be hidden away.


Trouble in the World

We spend our lives searching for the sacred. Desperately desiring intimacy. Longing to love and to be loved. To know and to be known. But then when we finally find it – when we see the sacred, when we find ourselves face to face with the holy, when we finally feel the presence of God – it’s too much. We can’t take it.

Try to meditate, for example, and quickly you’ll learn that trying to stop your mind from thinking is like trying to stop the wind – it’s impossible. There’s an Eastern teaching I love that describes the mind as being like “a drunken monkey bitten by a scorpion.” The mind relentlessly leaps from one thing to another, constantly distracted and busy. When you try to quiet it, it’s often just too noisy to hear the sacred. But the truth is, we fear the silence. We would rather fill the space of that dark void with chatter, with laughter, with questions — with anything our wild, drunken monkey mind can think of, just as long as we don’t have to be left alone with ourselves… or left alone with God.

Or, as another example, each and every service we start with a moment of silence, a time meant to center ourselves for worship. As the bulletin reads each and every week,

We come overfilled with life, unable to take in anything more because of our overload. We need to empty ourselves, so as to be able to take in and receive. We listen to sounds of silence, searching, knowing emptiness and hunger. Then in reverence, humbly coming to be replenished by God.

Again, this is such a beautiful sentiment! But how many of us actually do it?! Or in that moment, were you daydreaming about lunch? Or in that silence, were you going over your To Do list for the day? Or were you, like me, thinking about all the many, many things that need to be done for communion, or choir, or that committee meeting?

When we come to church, do we come expecting to meet God? Do we come here seeking the sacred? Or do we come to church simply to do the work of church?

Some of us have been going to church every Sunday of our lives – we could stand up, sit down, and sing all in our sleep. How terribly easy is it to just go through the motions, to never lift the veil and let the light of God shine?

Friends, why are you here? Why are you here in this place, in this moment on this wintery, March morning?


Hope in the Text

When the Temple of Jerusalem was built, a veil continued to separate the people from God. The Holy of Holies was the innermost and most sacred area of the ancient temple, and it was separated from everything else by a thick veil. This veil stood as a literal barrier between humanity and God. It was believed that God’s “eyes are too pure to look on evil,” and the veil was a reminder that a person could not just carelessly or irreverently enter God’s awesome presence.

But when Jesus died, an amazing thing happened: “When Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom.” The veil was torn! Humanity was no longer separated from God.


Hope in the World

Friends, through the power of Christ, we can dare to come before God freely. This is a sacred moment. This is holy ground. God’s love is shining here, radiant and powerful and beautiful beyond measure – through the Word and the music, through the bread and the cup, through each and every saint and sinner gathered here to worship God together.

Can you see it?! Can you handle it?!

That is why we are all here this morning.

We are here to worship the God of Moses, a God whose light and love shines so bright that it shines through us.

The moon, as bright as it is, doesn’t emit any light of its own. Its light is only a reflection of the sun’s brilliance. But in the darkest of nights, we look for the light of the moon, and it’s a reminder that the sun, though completely hidden from view on the other side of the world, is there. Like the moon, we are called to go from this sacred place, out into the world, and reflect the light of God.

Conclusion

I want to take a moment to try this again. But this time I really challenge you to listen. To lift the veil. To see God and not to hide from his holiness.

We come overfilled with life, unable to take in anything more because of our overload. We need to empty ourselves, so as to be able to take in and receive. We listen to sounds of silence, searching, knowing emptiness and hunger. Then in reverence, humbly coming to be replenished by God.

Amen.

Sermon Feb 24, 2019 Rev. Ginny Smith

Genesis 45:3-11, 15                                                                            

Luke 6:27-38                                                                                       

ACTING, NOT REACTING

While I was serving as a professor of ministry at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago, my husband, Richard, was serving as interim pastor at a church in a northwest suburb about 45 minutes away - without traffic!

When he and I would drive back drive back to the south side of the city on Sunday afternoons, we literally took our lives in our hands. The "weavers" would be doing their routine of going from one lane to the next, cutting off other cars as they sped along.

I remember one occasion in particular. Road rage took over and the driver in front of us took after the "weaver." He was blowing his horn and weaving in and out right behind him. I was petrified!

To avoid being right behind them, we pulled over to the right shoulder to wait it out. After a few minutes, we pulled out into the flow of traffic to continue our journey home. And then what to our wondering eyes should appear but a five car pile-up and a trooper in high gear. The two weaving and speeding cars had not only gotten themselves into an accident, but they involved three other cars as well.

                           PILE-UPS LIKE THESE ARE COMMON.

I remember driving past a school and seeing two children pushing and shoving each other so hard they knocked down two other children who were passing by. Then they all began to push and shove. A PILE-UP ON THE SIDE OF THE ROAD.

Then there was the time I was walking past a house and heard two adults arguing loudly enough for me to hear them from the sidewalk. A woman was yelling, "STOP IT! STOP IT!" Then she ran out of the house. A man about her age came running after her. She turned and began to hit him as she screamed "I hate you!"

                           A PILE-UP ON THE SIDE OF THE ROAD.

On several occasions, when I was serving as pastor at one church or another, I would have people tell me they wouldn't be coming back to church any longer because someone in the church had offended them. Oh, and by the way, their children wouldn't be coming either.

                  A PILE-UP ON THE SIDE OF THE ROAD.

How about the hockey players who egged each other on to the point where one chased the other with a stick and struck a spectator in the eye causing blindness.

                           A PILE-UP ON THE SIDE OF THE ROAD.

What’s behind this kind of behavior? I believe that the late Anthony de Mello helps us out with this.

         "If you take a look at the way you have been put together and the way you function you will find that inside your head there is a whole program, a set of demands about how the world should be, how you should be and what you should want."

         Where does this programming come from? Parents, society, culture, past experiences, religion. SOME of our brain’s default settings are helpful. But there are a lot that aren’t.

         And so for us as Christians, this is where Jesus comes in. In the entire Sermon on the Plain in Luke (Sermon on the Mount in Matthew), Jesus is teaching us about changing those default setting that are destructive and do harm to others.

What Jesus is saying to you and me is that someone has to break the cycle of reacting, reacting, reacting. And, as Jesus' followers, that someone is you and I, my brothers and sisters.

         "You have heard it said, 'An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth. ' But I say to you do not oppose those who want to harm you." Turn the other cheek, give not only a shirt, but a coat as well. Go the extra mile. Loan money when asked.

The “eye-for-an-eye law is called lex talionis,” the principle of exact retribution. It was needed in ancient times to define justice and restrain revenge when family and tribal feuds were common.

But then Jesus comes along, quotes the Jewish law, and says, if you’re my followers, you have to do better than this. You are the ones who are to break the cycle of revenge and retaliation; to stop reacting and start acting, acting out of the love grounded in God’s love for us and for all people.

But isn't this weakness? Not at all. In fact, it takes tremendous strengtha and character to follow Jesus’ teaching and example in doing this. It’s easy to push back, to run away and withdraw, react, retaliate because it’s what we see and experience in the world around us. It feels natural. It’s called the “reptilian response.”

But as Mahatma Ghandi said: "AN EYE FOR AN EYE WILL MAKE THE WHOLE WORLD BLIND."

When we react and retaliate, we are letting others determine how we will behave and live. Jesus is saying: take charge of your life. Take charge of your life. Take charge of the situation by taking the initiative in caring, loving, caring, giving, and forgiving. Stop wasting your time and energy by reacting to how others act.

Use your energy to act in ways that bring wholeness and healing to an already broken world. We can't control how another person behaves or lives, but we can determine how we will behave and live by acting in ways that are congruent with how God acts toward us.

Jesus teaches and shows in his own life that we are to break the cycle of hate, violence, and retaliation that bring pain, grief, and even death. Jesus teaches and models that to love, to pray, to give without strings attached is strong, active, and assertive, always looking to the well-being of others. It is the way God has shown us to act in Jesus Christ. JESUS IS WHAT LOVE LOOKS LIKE.

Love goes first. It doesn’t wait. Loves reaches out and embraces; urges reconciliation; celebrates restoration and return.

In the story of the Prodigal Son, we see that the way of the resentful older brother, is division, exclusion, rejection. The way of the father is wholeness and healing.

What if the older brother had gone out looking for the younger brother, reached out offered help, given food, brought him clothes. What if older brother walked with him, actively accompanying him on way home? What if when the grieving father spotted them, ran to them, and enfolded them in an embrace that included all three of them in a circle of love.

                  Love isn’t just what you do. It is also how you do it! The love Jesus always talks about means caring for both individuals and society. It's a love that takes action to deter evil and promote good. Jesus tells us that someone has to break the cycle of reaction, retaliation, and revenge, and that someone my brothers and sisters in Christ, is you and I.

        

        

Sermon February 10, 2019 Rev. Jenna Heery

Peter's Power

Prayer of Illumination:

Guide us, O God, by your Word and your Spirit, 

that in your light we may see light, 

in your truth find freedom, 

and in your presence discover peace; 

through Christ our Lord, Amen.

Listen for a word from God.

Luke 5:1-11

5Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, 2he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. 3He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat. 

4When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” 5Simon answered, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” 6When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. 7So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink. 

8But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!”

9For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; 10and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. 

Then Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” 11When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.

The word of God for the people of God.

Introduction

In the Basilica in Vatican City, there is a statue of Saint Peter with no toes. Don’t get me wrong – Peter must’ve once had toes! However, over the course of time, so many pilgrims have bent down to kiss the feet of this statue that the metal has worn away, and his toes have been rubbed down so much that they’re now just little nubs that blend in with the rest of his foot.

Beloved by so many, Peter has long been revered as Christ’s first follower, “the Rock,” the “Prince of the Apostles,” the first pope.

Who was this man? Tradition tells us that after Christ’s death, Peter returned to Rome, and he served as the leader of the Christian community there. Shortly after, the Emperor Nero set fire to Rome and needing a scapegoat he blamed the Christians. A horrific persecution ensued. Peter was arrested and condemned to death. He was crucified. And according to legend, after his death, followers recovered Peter’s body and buried it at the present site of the Basilica.

Named the “Rock of the Church” by Christ himself, this fisher of men helped found a religion that has lasted over 2 millennia and now claims 2.18 billion followers worldwide. That is 31% of the Earth’s population!

Trouble in the Text

And yet, even the most papal-loving, foot-kissing follower would never declare Peter divine. A great leader, yes; but a Lord? Never. Peter the Rock, Peter the Prince, Peter the Pope – yes, yes, and yes. But – this is important – Peter was never considered Jesus’ successor.

No, Peter was all too hopelessly human. Mark portrays him as inept. Paul finds him shallow and unconvincing. John respects him but places far more importance on the Beloved Disciple (who, of course, is probably John). 

 

Peter often doesn’t understand Jesus’ parables. He tries to walk on water and nearly drowns. He chops off a man’s ear. He commits the ultimate betrayal and denies Jesus three times. And then, after Jesus’ death, Peter even gives up, he forgets his calling, and he goes back to fishing. For fish. 

 

This is the Rock? The Prince? The Pope? Even here, Peter falls down at Jesus’ knees and declares, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am just a sinful man!”

 

This presented a serious problem. How can you lead a movement with no clear successor? How could the Church possibly be led by such fallible followers? It could’ve been a fatal flaw.

All we have to do is look to our Sunni and Shiite Muslim brothers and sisters to see just how real this threat of division truly was. The question of who was to succeed after Muhammad (PBUH) was – and is – the central issue that split the Muslim community into several divisions. And still, even centuries later, these divisions have not been healed. Still, even centuries later, these divisions between the Sunnis and the Shiites often violently wage.

Following Jesus’ death, our own early Church also divided into various factions. As the Apostle Paul wrote to the church in Corinth,

My brothers and sisters, I have been informed that there are quarrels among you…One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Peter”; still another, “I follow Christ.”

During this time of transition and division, the truth is that the Christian Church may have never become Christ’s Church.

Trouble in the World

Division is still a threat to Christ’s Church. According to estimates from the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Seminary, there were 34,000 denominations worldwide in 2000. This number rose dramatically to an estimated 43,000 by the year 2012. Take that number in…

43,000 denominations

Just within our North American context, not including our Presbyterian brothers and sisters worldwide, in the Presbyterian Church alone you have us (the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), and then you also have…

  • the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA)
  • the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC)
  • the Bible Presbyterian Church (BPC)
  • the Cumberland Presbyterian Church (CPC)
  • the Cumberland Presbyterian Church in America
  • the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC)
  • the Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians (ECO)

and on and on and on…

The Presbyterian Church has split over the issues of slavery, revivalism, evolution, women in ministry, the Civil Rights Movement, and most recently over gay marriage and the ordination of LGBTQ ministers.

Friends, we know all too well that the threat of division hovers over any time of transition in a church. This threat of factions rising and divisions forming is a great fear during any transition period in a congregation. We worry church attendance may drop. Pledges may decline. The momentum may slow. Power shifts. No doubt, in this interim period before the Interim Pastor is found, in this time of transition and change, this may be our own fear. Maybe it is your fear this morning.

Hope in the Text

No, Peter was not Jesus’ successor. Nope, he was flawed and he was a fallible follower – a fisherman with no toes. And he went on to lead a flawed and fallible church. And that, my friends, that is precisely Peter’s power!

I don’t know about you, but I find great hope in the fact that those first bearers of this faith that I hold so dear never divinized Peter. He was one of them; he is one of us. He was no god; he was just a fisherman. Just a fisherman trying his very best to follow Jesus.

Peter’s humanity is ultimately Peter’s power. It is a leadership by grace – a grace that always, always, always turns back to Christ, back to God. It is a leadership that sets us free.

There is a line from John Calvin that I love, and I am reminded of it every time that I step into the pulpit. He says, “It is the Word itself which is preached, and not the minister, that preaches; for even if a minister was evil and a sinner, nevertheless the Word remains still good and true.”

How liberating is that?! Who knows – you may be thinking to yourself, “Pastor Jenna’s nice and all, but her sermons are a little shallow. And unconvincing. She’s definitely inept! And maybe even a little bit evil.” To that I readily respond, “Yep! I am just a sinful woman!” And that is okay! I hope that you hear the Word of God anyway.

Hope in the World

When he had just been newly elected, almost 6,000 journalists gathered at the Vatican to attend an audience with Pope Francis. And now, as one of the most powerful men in the world – who in the Catholic tradition now holds the mantle that Peter has handed down from pope to pope to pope through the ages – Pope Francis said,

           

“The Church is certainly a human and historical institution with all that that entails… the Church is the People of God, making their way to encounter Jesus Christ. It is Christ, (not the Pope) not the successor of Peter, who is at the center. For without him, Peter and the Church would not exist or have reason to exist.”

That, my friends, is the answer to our fear this morning.

Yes, factions may flare. Power may shift. And the threat of division may stand between us. That may happen. Who are we kidding – that likely will happen. After all, we are all just flawed and fallible followers. We too are all just fishermen (fisherwomen? fisherpeople?) doing our best to follow Jesus.

But that is the answer – we are following Jesus. We are following Jesus.

Conclusion

Friends, I want you to do something a little bit weird with me this morning. As you are able, I want you to stand and stretch across the aisle…. Bear with me. I know that many of you are now definitely convinced that I may be a little bit evil. And I am okay with that…. Hold hands with the people beside you…. Come on, be brave….

Do you feel it? Do you feel that power?

Standing together, we are no longer the center of our own universe.

Standing together, we are no longer alone.

Standing together, Christ is here among us.

Standing together, Christ is at the center.

Not us, not the pastor, not this pulpit or these pews, not this building – Christ is at the center.

Christ is the Rock, Christ is the Prince, Christ is Head of our Church.

Christ is the center of this church.

And if we remember that, if we promise ourselves and promise each other that we will seek to put Christ at the center of this church in every decision that we make and in everything we do, then we will be transformed by that grace.

We can and we will unite together even in the face of fear.

Friends, do you feel it?! This is the power that led Peter, just a fallible fishermen, to help found a church that spanned over 2000 years and has more than 2 billion followers.

Standing together, united by the power of Christ, who knows what we are capable of?!

Amen.

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The First Presbyterian Church of Skaneateles is the oldest congregation in the village. It was organized July 20, 1801, by the Rev. Aaron Bascom, who ...

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Presbyterian Church (USA)97 East Genesee Street
Skaneateles, NY 13152 / Directions
Phone: (315) 685-5048 / Email Us
Worship @ 9:30am every Sunday