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.

Sermon January 27, 2019 Rev. Ginny Smith

I Corinthians 13:1-13 
Luke 4:16-30 


THE CHALLENGE OF INCLUSION
Sermon by the Rev. Dr. Ginny Smith

Corinth in Paul’s day was much like Chicago, New York City, and Toronto in our day. It was a large urban center teeming with diverse groups of people. There was racial, ethnic, cultural, and religious diversity.
The apostle Paul had gone to this metropolis to bring the Good News of Jesus Christ.
And the result of his missionary activity was a church, a congregation as diverse as Corinth itself. And this presented problems, problems that caused the breakdown of the church community with one faction fighting another.
People of diverse economic, cultural, and religious backgrounds were brought into relationship with one another through their common faith in Jesus Christ. And so the question became how would they relate to one another? How would they live in community?
Diversity can raise tremendous anxiety in any group, but churches can be especially
vulnerable. Our religious beliefs are at the very core of who we are. They form the basis for what we value, how we will live. They define who we are. If someone holds different beliefs or wants to do something that is different from which we are accustomed, we become anxious and fearful that if “the other” is included then we will be excluded.
As a pastor, Paul was worried, Paul was concerned. Here were all these new Christians
hungry to learn about Jesus wanting to grow in the faith and the bickering and pettiness were preventing them from deepening their spiritual lives and serving others. And so they contact Paul and he writes back to them, addressing their anxiety about the situation.
“It’s important that you realize you are the body of Christ. Each one of you has your own special gifts given by the Holy Spirit to be used for the building up of Christ’s body. No one is to deny anyone else the opportunity to use their gifts. Every person’s gift is necessary for the church as Christ’s Body to be complete.”
No one is to be excluded. All are to be included. And in this lies a challenge for all of us who profess to be Christ’s disciples. It is the CHALLENGE OF INCLUSION.
It was the challenge that the Corinthians faced as in their fear and anxiety they argued over people who didn’t speak in tongues. I Corinthians wasn’t written for weddings, although it’s read in just about every wedding I’ve been to. Paul wrote this letter because the church in Corinth was saying that people had to speak in tongues to be a part of the Christian community.
It was the challenge faced by the Jews who in their fear and anxiety were having difficulty accepting the Gentile widow and Gentile Naaman who was healed of leprosy. It was the challenge that the Religious leaders and people in Jesus’ hometown faced as in their fear and anxiety they drove Jesus out of town. It’s a challenge today wherever Christ’s Church is found.
Being inclusive is difficult. It is much easier to be with people whom we perceive are like us, whoever that “us” might be. In the Body of Christ, inclusiveness is essential if the church is to be faithful and move ahead in ministry for the glory of God.
Every human being is a unique creation of God. Paul knew this and Paul knew with so much diversity there were bound to be disagreements. And so he makes it very clear that Christian love is what holds the body of Christ together.
Frederick Buechner is his book Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC defines love this way. “In the Christian sense, love is not primarily and emotion but an act of the will. When Jesus tells us to love our neighbors, he is telling us to love them in the sense of responding to them with a cozy emotional feeling… On the contrary, he is telling us to love our neighbors in the sense of being willing to work for their well-being even if it means sacrificing our own well-being in the end. . . “
A loving relationship is to connect people to one another in any congregation, in any setting where Christians gather. Not the warm cozy type, although that might be a part of it,
but a love that pulls us out of our own ego needs. Remember what “ego” stands for? “Edging God Out.
The agape love that Paul is talking about can bind us together because agape love is powerful. Agape love is powerful because it has its origin in God and because love has its origin in God, it brings a sense of completeness to the various gifts members of Christ’s Body possess.
Love has the power to put aside self-interest so that we can work for the well-being of the person and, ultimately, the well-being of the entire church and God’s reign in the world.
During the 2-1/2 years I served as volunteer chaplain at what was Community General
Hospital, this biblical assertion became clearer and clearer to me. The healing process, whether it is physical or emotional, the healing of a bone fraction, or the acceptance that death is near,
Is not solely dependent on the doctor’s medical knowledge and expertise. It is just as dependent on the physician’s ability to love the patient, to seek the patient’s well-being.
I personally experienced this when I had throat surgery in Chicago. My ear, nose, and throat specialist, Dr. Griffith Hsu, offered me the most wonderful gift. Since he knew that I was a Presbyterian minister, we conversations about Fourth Presbyterian Church, Chicago. So, the day of my surgery, as I was waiting to be taken into the operating room, he asked if he could pray with me. It was amazing! He prayed that God would use him as God’s instrument of healing and he placed both of us in God’s care.
It is equally true for us as we serve Christ’s Church and use the spiritual gifts God has
given us. It is important to recognize that being intentional in seeking the well-being of others springs from a unique self-awareness – from seeing ourselves as loved deeply by God and seeing others as loved children of God as well.
When Jesus was asked what was the greatest commandment, he
told the questioner: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your strength and with all your mind . . . You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
The church as the Body of Christ cannot be held together until each of us
owns the fact that we ourselves are lavishly loved by God who is always with us. I love a counted cross stitch piece that my mother made for me. “If you feel far from God, who moved?”
Otherwise, new ideas and different ways of doing things cause anxiety and fear rather than being seek as opportunities to extend Christ’s ministry to places and people where it has never gone before.
When we don’t love ourselves, we can’t love others because we have no love to give. Lives lived in continual anxiety, churches that live in continual anxiety, have great difficulty responding in faith and love. We end up being negative, cynical, sarcastic, angry, controlling, resentful, and revengeful people. It happened in churches in Paul’s day. It can happen in churches today, and perhaps even in this one.
So what do we do? In I John 4:18 we read this: “There is no fear in love. But perfect love casts our fear.” And that perfect love is expressed in Jesus Christ himself. When Jesus Christ is Lord of our lives, we can affirm the person God created us to be and God’s love can work in us and through us.
The bottom line is that THE LOVE THAT JESUS MODELS AND THE LOVE OF WHICH PAUL SPEAKS IS A WAY OF ACTING. Love doesn’t insist on its own way. It cooperates with other members of the body. Love is being at peace with God and ourselves and what we value and hold dear. Then we can hear others and what they have to say and then seeing that somehow, some way, through our loving, respectful, conversations we just might come closer to God’s way of being Christ’s Church and giving ourselves for the well-being of others.

Sermon December 9, 2018 Rev. Ginny Smith

Malachi 3:1-4 
Luke 3:1-13 


THE CRY THAT HERALDS LIFE
The Rev. Dr. Virginia B. Smith

When I could stay awake after 10:00 PM without falling asleep, I loved watching the late night Johnny Carson Show. At the beginning of the show the lively theme music was played and Ed McMahan in his booming voice introduced the various guests who would be appearing. You could feel the anticipation and excitement building.
Then Ed, as only Ed could do, introduced the star of the show with a loud "HERE'S JOHNNY!" And then everyone would clap wildly and whistle as they waited for Johnny to come out from behind the curtain.
Without pushing the metaphor too much, I would say that Luke has set up a similar scenario in our Gospel reading today. We hear a full rundown of all the important leaders and rulers and then into the midst of all the pageantry and wealth steps a humble man, a man of the desert, a man named John, son of Zechariah, who introduces us to a new way of looking at life and a new way of living our lives.
This "John" is the Ed McMahan of our story. He comes on stage and begins to prepare the way for the one everybody has been waiting to see.

As John the Baptizer speaks, we can feel the build-up and tension,
until he exclaims: "HERE'S THE MESSIAH!" And then we all wait in great anticipation for the Messiah, the Christ, the one anointed by God to step out from behind the curtain.
This man, John, was called by God for a specific and a crucial task. He was the one God had selected as a messenger to prepare all people for the coming of the Messiah. John is "THE CRY THAT HERALDS LIFE." John is the announcer.
John had such authority and authenticity that mobs of people came to listen to him. They could sense that he was a special instrument of God. People from Jerusalem and all Judea were drawn to him. They took John seriously. They confessed their sins and repented. Then John plunged them into the cold water of the Jordan River to baptize them because they wanted to change their lives.
Keep in mind, there had been no authentic prophecy in Israel for about 400 years since the time of Malachi, which is the last book in the Hebrew scriptures. Oh, sure, there were probably prophets, but no one to whom the people paid attention.
BUT PEOPLE PAID ATTENTION TO JOHN!
Interestingly enough, they came to hear him in spite of the hard words he spoke. He had a passion for speaking the truth – God’s truth.
"Turn away from your sins, repent of all your wrongdoings, and be baptized. God has forgiven you.”
Yes, some were offended and others were made uncomfortable. But John was a desert athlete, a rough-hewn man utterly devoted to God, and what he said over 2000 years ago, continues to speak to us today.
There has to be a change in your life, folks, and here’s what you’re going to do. Get the road ready for the Lord! Make a straight path for him. Fill up every valley and level every mountain and hill. Straighten the crooked paths and smooth out the rough roads. Then everyone will see the saving power of God. No one is to higher; no one is to be around the bend and unable to see.
If we think the roads in Central New York are rough, they are nothing compared to the roads in biblical times. Before a royal person and his/her entourage could travel from place to place, the roads had to be fixed so that they could ride in comfort and the risk of accident could be minimized.
The ongoing joke in our area is that we have two seasons - winter and construction. But we all know that when a road is to be replaced, there has to be good preparation, no matter how aggravating it can be. Roadbeds and bridges must be prepared well and properly before the cement or asphalt can be laid. If not, disaster may very well result.
This is what John is telling us as he quotes from the prophet Isaiah. Prepare, get your life in order. It is only by taking a hard look at ourselves, naming and owning those ways we have separated ourselves from God and others and changing the direction in which we are going that we will be ready for the one whom God is sending.
John is the kind of leader we need today to point in the right direction. As an article in “Parade Magazine states it:
"We do not need a leader who confirms us in our cherished illusions and caters to our prejudices and insecurities. We do need a leader who will tell the truth, however painful, and who will trust the people with the truth...."
Leadership is lifting a community’s vision to higher sights, expecting those in that community to be the best God created them to be, always looking to the well-being and interests of others.
What better person than John could God have called to proclaim the Christ, the Messiah. John had guts – all people - you and me - to faith rooted in repentance. He chose not to live in fear. Fear blocks God! But as Scripture reminds us: “Perfect love casts out fear.” John was open and awake to God’s Spirit working in his life.
John knew there were many who came to him to be baptized who could talk a good game. They could say the right words so that they looked holy and righteous on the outside. But John knew that the change had to be evidenced in how they lived their lives. And it's the same for us today.
What in your life needs changing? What is keeping you from deepening your relationship with God - from opening your heart to Jesus Christ so that you can live obedient lives? Is it EGO (acronym for “Edging God Out); materialism; self-righteousness; guilt; greed; prejudice; being inattentive to others needs; negative attitudes; resentment; addiction; anger; fear? Perhaps it’s something else.
John the Baptizer had such a high commitment to the purposes of God that he submerged himself to the mission of preparing the world for God’s anointed one, Jesus Christ. NOW IT'S OUR TURN! JESUS NEEDS US! What will you and I do with this time and place in which we live and which God has given us?
What can we do so that our lives and the church will reveal in concrete ways how Jesus changed us on the inside because we have repented and opened ourselves to his transforming love?
What can we do so that Christ will be made present through us to the ill; those who are hungry; those struggling with the loss of a loved one; those in prison; those fleeing from their homeland; struggling with mental illness; those who don’t believe, but know their lives ae empty?
We are living in troubled times, but we are Christians living in troubled times, and we are needed to bring hope, peace, joy, and love into a world that assumes violence is the primary response to any disagreements and problems.
John is daring us to do something with the Good News God gives to us in Jesus Christ to make a difference in this world. The time in which we live needs a new introduction to Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace and new life. We are called by God to be the introducers, the preparers, the proclaimers of the Good News that Jesus came into the world to show God’s love by forgiving sins and transforming those open to him by giving new life and wholeness!
COME, LORD JESUS, COME!

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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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