Matthew 13:31-33, 44-46
He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”
He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”
“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.
“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.”
You know, I’m not much of a baseball fan. I’ve said this before, and I always feel a bit guilty whenever I say it. I feel a bit un-American in admitting that I don’t really like it. The reason why is that I didn’t grow up with baseball. Nobody took me to games, and the few times I played fastball I got hit by the ball, which really hurt. I also was always more interested in faster-paced, physical sports like ice hockey, lacrosse, and football. Baseball has always too slow for me.
With that said, I’ve liked listening to baseball games on the radio, even if I don’t like watching them live. The reason? t’s all the little tidbits that the announcers say in-between pitches: “The pitcher is getting the signal,… Did you know that this pitcher used to work on a crabbing boat during the summers when he was a kid? I guess that explains his weird wind-up,.. And there’s the pitch. Strike one!” You don’t get that kind of trivia in other sports.
Still, even though I don’t really like baseball, I do like baseball movies (golf movies, too, even though I don’t like golf much, either). My favorite baseball movies seem to be Kevin Costner baseball movies. He’s the perfect baseball movie star (and golf movie star—maybe I just like Kevin Costner movies).
When I think of our passages for this morning, I can’t help but think about the now classic film, “Field of Dreams.”I’ve always found it to be a deeply spiritual, mystical movie, even if it never mentions God. If you haven’t seen the movie, it’s not hard to find. The plot is simple. Kevin Costner plays an Iowa corn farmer named Ray Kinsella. One day, while out in the cornfields, he hears a mysterious voice, whispering, “If you build it, he will come.” Ray has no idea what is going on, but he keeps hearing the voice. He yells over to his wife, sitting on their porch, “Annie, what was that?” “What was what?” she replies. He hears it again, “Certainly you hear that?” he yells. “Nope, nothing. Come on in for dinner!” she yells back.
It takes him a while, but he finally figures out that the voice is telling him to build a baseball field, complete with stands and lights. It’s such a bizarre idea, but the voice keeps telling him to do it. So he does it. His wife doesn’t understand it, but she supports him.
After building the field, a baseball player wearing an old baseball uniform from the early 20th century appears. It’s Shoeless Joe Jackson, who died decades earlier. Other players mysteriously appear, especially players from the 1919 Chicago White Sox team that had been embroiled in a gambling scandal. These “ghostly,” but real, players begin playing baseball, and Ray is ecstatic just to watch them. As the movie continues, more and more people hear the voice, but at the same time, those who are closed off to it neither hear the voice nor see the players. They think Ray is going nuts, plowing under corn to build a worthless baseball field.
The field puts Ray close to bankruptcy. The cost of building the field, coupled with the tenuousness of growing corn, has put him in financial peril. His brother-in-law, Mark, desperately tries to convince Ray to sell the farm. Ray refuses. By now both his wife, Annie, and his daughter, Karin, also see the ballplayers. Each day they sit outside watching the baseball games between the dead-but-resurrected baseball players. People think he’s crazy, but what do you do when a mysterious voice calls out to you to do something that others don’t understand?
Watching this film, it’s hard not to think of one of our kingdom parables for this morning: “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.”
What seemingly crazy thing would you be willing to do if a mysterious voice called out to you? Our whole passage is Jesus telling us that there is a mysterious voice calling out to us. And it’s calling us to something better, something greater, something more,… but we have to be willing to take a risk to reach out to that greater life.
When Jesus talks about the Kingdom of Heaven, we often misunderstand what he’s talking about. What we think he’s talking about is the place we go after we die. He’s not. He’s talking about a present reality. He’s talking about God’s Kingdom that is already here!
He’s telling us that we live in the Kingdom of the World all the time, and that’s generally what we see. But there’s a deeper reality that’s also always here, and we don’t easily see it or live in it because we get so caught up in the Kingdom of the World that we lose our vision for God’s Kingdom that is always here. How can we see it if we aren’t looking for it?
It’s hard to explain the Kingdom of Heaven, and how it works, to people who don’t think about it or aren’t aware of it. All we can do is give examples of it and hope that people come to embrace it.
A great example of the Kingdom and how it works comes through something that Walt Kallestad experienced. My guess is that you don’t know who he is. He is the pastor of a Community of Joy Lutheran Church in Glendale, Arizona.
When he first came to Community of Joy, he had just graduated from seminary. He was armed with all sorts of ideas. Unfortunately, the members of the church didn’t like many of his ideas. He tried to push them to follow, but they resisted. Eventually many left, causing the church to dwindle from 200 to almost 100 members in his first year. He was so discouraged that one day he called the bishop, asking to be transferred to another church, saying, "If I stay here another six months, I'm sure I'll be able to close the place down." The bishop encouraged Kallestad to stay, but to also spend time alone in prayer seeking what God wanted.
During that time he complained to God, saying that the people weren’t listening to him, they weren’t doing what he was telling them to do, and they weren’t being church the way they were supposed to be. What he heard shocked him. In essence, he heard God saying to him, “I never put you there to tell then what to do.” “What did you put me here to do, then?” he asked. He heard, “I want you to be faithful to your calling. I want you to really love the people in your church."
So, Kallestad changed the way he did ministry. His sermons became sermons of love. Instead of just shaking parishioners’ hands every Sunday, he embraced and hugged them. He made a concerted effort to be loving in everything he did, and it made a difference. Slowly the church began to grow again. People wanted to be in this place of love. Eventually it grew from that small church to a church today of over 15,000 members. It’s not the numbers that matter, but the love that led him to live in God’s Kingdom.
Kallestad tells another story of living in God’s Kingdom. Years later they felt called to move their church to a new place on 25 acres. They wanted to create a church that would reach out to all people in love. They prayed for God to reveal the property God had chosen for them, and soon they found a perfect spot. But would the people sell? They initially focused on one particular farm of five acres that was key to the project.
Kallestad drove up the small dirt road belonging to the owners, and found a run-down trailer.
He knocked on the door and slowly the door was opened. According to Kallestad:
“An elderly man dressed in farmers’ bib overalls stood in the doorway. I introduced myself and explained that I was the pastor of Community Church of Joy. I explained that many at the church were praying about his orchard, wondering if God would provide a way for us to buy it and build a new center for mission with a worship center, a Christian school, a senior’s center, a place for youth, and much more.
The old gentleman grabbed my arm and pulled me in. He told me his name was Scotty and asked me to follow him to the kitchen table where his wife, Ruthie, was sitting. As I entered the kitchen Scotty said, ‘Reverend, please tell my wife what you just told me.’
So I told Ruthie about our dream of purchasing the land in order to build a new center for ministry. Ruthie started to cry. I noticed Scotty was crying too, large tears running down his grizzled face.
Trying to regain composure, Scotty eagerly said, ‘Reverend, my wife Ruthie and I moved to this land forty years ago. Five acres of these orchards belong to us. Nearly every day for the last forty years we walked around our orchard holding hands and praying that one day there would be a great church built here.’
I lost my composure and joined my tears to theirs. It was one of those holy moments when you sense the mysterious moving of God’s spirit.” (from Kallestade’s book, Turn Your Church Around)
This kind of Kingdom of Heaven stuff isn’t just true for churches, it’s true for life. I was reminded of this ten or so years ago through something a woman who attended Calvin Church before moving, told me. I got her permission back then to tell this story.
She had suffered through her husband’s suicide, and felt alone and isolated. She had been coming to Calvin Church because this had been a healing place for her. We talked about the times that she thought she had experienced God. She told me that during really bad times she had sensed God’s presence by seeing feathers. They seemed to convey messages from God to her during times of crisis, saying simply, “I am with you.” For instance, one particularly bad time she wondered where God was in the midst of her struggle. Crying as she walked outside, she saw seventeen feathers sticking up out of the grass. It was as though someone had planted them there. Another time she cried about her plight, and was amazed to find a feather sitting in the middle of her living room.
In one of our conversations she asked me a question about a book. She had met someone who had praised a book titled Illusions, by Richard Bach. It was very popular in the 1980s, and is about a man called to be the messiah, but who is reluctant. She mentioned that her friend had told her how much the book had changed his life, and she wanted to know if I thought it might help her.
I replied that the book may contain a message for her from God. I knew the book from my earlier days. Before I returned to the church at age 24, I had read the book and it had made a big difference to me. I figured that perhaps God was wanting to say something to her through the book just as God has spoken to me through it many years ago.
A few weeks later, after one of our worship services, she took me aside, saying that she wanted to show me something. After we talked she had remembered that she already had the book, having bought it at a garage sale several years before. It had sat on her bookshelf for five years. She then pulled out her copy of Illusions, and as she did she also pulled out of the book the feather she had found on her living room floor over a year before. It was a blue feather that matched almost perfectly—in size, shape, and color—the feather on the cover of Illusions. She then said, “But that’s not the really amazing part. Look at the inscription in the book.” I opened the book and read what it said: “Best wishes from Calvin Church.”
Apparently some member of Calvin Church had sold it, a member who had received the copy years before that. Our best guess is that it was a book that Joe Shields, a now passed-away member, had given to a graduating senior back in the mid-1980s. at any rate, this woman had received a message from God’s kingdom, a message planted many years before.
There’s a whole realm that we can live in even while we’re living in this realm. It’s all around us like the air, giving us life and the opportunity to live in harmony with God’s purpose for us. But we have to make the choice: will we live entirely in the world’s kingdom, or will we open up to God’s Kingdom?
at 9:45 AM
Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’
Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.
My guess is that you’ve never heard of Howard Storm. There’s really no reason why you should have. But it’s worth hearing about him because his life story is fascinating. Storm has a different life now, but a number of years ago he was a professor of Art at Northern Kentucky University. As a self-proclaimed intellectual and man of reason, he was an atheist, and an aggressive one at that.
He saw himself as being a very bright, aware, and awake man who understood life better than most. He had been living his life thinking he was so awake and so aware, when in reality he was dead. And it wasn’t till he actually died that he woke up and became alive. Due to a perforated stomach, he died in a hospital, surrounded by his wife and hospital staff. Let me share what happened next in his words:
Struggling to say goodbye to my wife, I wrestled with my emotions. Telling her that I loved her very much was as much of a goodbye as I could utter because of my emotional distress. I waited for the end. This was it, I felt. This was the big nothing, the big blackout, the one you never wake up from, the end of existence… To my surprise I was standing up next to the bed, and I was looking at my body laying in the bed. My first reaction was, "This is crazy! I can't be standing here looking down at myself. That's not possible."
Not knowing what was happening, I became upset. I started yelling and screaming at my wife, and she just sat there like a stone. She didn't look at me, she didn't move – and I kept screaming profanities to get her to pay attention… I wanted this to be a dream, and I kept saying to myself, "This has got to be a dream.” But I knew that it wasn't a dream. I became aware that strangely I felt more alert, more aware, more alive than I had ever felt in my entire life…. This had to be real. I squeezed my fists and was amazed at how much I was feeling in my hands just by making a fist. Then I heard my name. I heard, "Howard, Howard—come here."
Wondering, at first, where it was coming from, I discovered that it was originating in the doorway. There were different voices calling me. I asked who they were, and they said, "We are here to take care of you. We will fix you up. Come with us.” Asking, again, who they were, I asked them if they were doctors and nurses. They responded, "Quick, come see. You'll find out."
With some reluctance I stepped into the hallway, and in the hallway I was in a fog, or a haze. It was a light-colored haze. It wasn't a heavy haze. I could see my hand, for example, but the people who were calling me were 15 or 20 feet ahead, and I couldn't see them clearly. They were more like silhouettes, or shapes, and as I moved toward them they backed off into the haze… So I had to follow into the fog deeper and deeper.
As we traveled, the fog got thicker and darker, and the people began to change. At first they seemed rather playful and happy, but when we had covered some distance, a few of them began to get aggressive… They began to make jokes about my bare rear end which wasn't covered by my hospital dicky and about how pathetic I was. I knew they were talking about me, but when I tried to find out exactly what they were saying they would say, "Shhhhh, he can hear you, he can hear you."
All my communication with them took place verbally just as ordinary human communication occurs. They didn't appear to know what I was thinking, and I didn't know what they were thinking. What was increasingly obvious was that they were liars and help was farther away the more I stayed with them…. They began shouting and hurling insults at me, demanding that I hurry along…. Finally, I told them that I wouldn't go any farther. At that time they changed completely. They became much more aggressive and insisted that I was going with them. A number of them began to push and shove me, and I responded by hitting back at them.
A wild orgy of frenzied taunting, screaming and hitting ensued. I fought like a wild man. All the while it was obvious that they were having great fun. It seemed to be, almost, a game for them, with me as the center-piece of their amusement. My pain became their pleasure. They seemed to want to make me hurt by clawing at me and biting me. Whenever I would get one off me, there were five more to replace the one.
Each one seemed set on coming in for the sport they got from hurting me. My attempts to fight back only provoked greater merriment. They began to physically humiliate me in the most degrading ways. As I continued to fight on and on, I was aware that they weren't in any hurry to win. They were playing with me just as a cat plays with a mouse… To my horror I realized I was being taken apart and eaten alive, slowly, so that their entertainment would last as long a possible. At no time did I ever have any sense that the beings who seduced and attacked me were anything other than human beings. The best way I can describe them is to think of the worst imaginable person stripped of every impulse to do good… Basically they were a mob of beings totally driven by unbridled cruelty and passions.
Fighting well and hard for a long time, ultimately I was spent. Lying there exhausted amongst them, they began to calm down since I was no longer the amusement that I had been. By this time I had been pretty much taken apart.
Exactly what happened was... and I'm not going to try and explain this. From inside of me I felt a voice, my voice, say, "Pray to God." My mind responded to that, "I don't pray. I don't know how to pray." It was a dilemma since I didn't know how… I started saying things like, "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want... God bless America" and anything else that seemed to have a religious connotation. And these people went into a frenzy, as if I had thrown boiling oil all over them. They began yelling and screaming at me, telling me to quit, that there was no God, and no one could hear me. While they screamed and yelled obscenities, they also began backing away from me as if I were poison… I screamed back at them, "Our Father who art in heaven," and similar ideas. This continued for some time until, suddenly, I was aware that they had left. It was dark, and I was alone yelling things that sounded churchy. It was pleasing to me that these churchy sayings had such an effect on those awful beings.
Then a most unusual thing happened. I heard very clearly, once again in my own voice, something that I had learned in nursery Sunday School. It was the little song, "Jesus loves me, yes I know ..." and it kept repeating. I don't know why, but all of a sudden I wanted to believe that. Not having anything left, I wanted to cling to that thought. And I, inside, screamed, "Jesus, please save me." That thought was screamed with every ounce of strength and feeling left in me. When I did that, I saw, off in the darkness somewhere, the tiniest little star. Not knowing what it was, I presumed it must be a comet or a meteor, because it was moving rapidly. Then I realized it was coming toward me. It was getting very bright, rapidly. When the light came near, its radiance spilled over me, and I just rose up —not with my effort—I just lifted up. Then I saw—and I saw this very plainly—I saw all my wounds, all my tears, all my brokenness, melt away. And I became whole in this radiance… The luminous entity that embraced me knew me intimately and began to communicate a tremendous sense of knowledge. I knew that he knew everything about me and I was being unconditionally loved and accepted.
The light conveyed to me that it loved me in a way that I can't begin to express. It loved me in a way that I had never known that love could possibly be… This was more loving than one can imagine. I knew that this radiant being was powerful. It was making me feel so good all over. I could feel its light on me—like very gentle hands around me. And I could feel it holding me. But it was loving me with overwhelming power..
Then I... I didn't say it, I thought it. I said, "Put me back.” What I meant by telling the light to put me back, was to put me back into the pit. I was so ashamed of who I was, and what I had been all of my life, that all I wanted to do was hide in the darkness. How many times in my life had I denied and scoffed at the reality before me, and how many thousands of times had I used it as a curse?… The being who was supporting me, my friend, was aware of my fear and reluctance and shame. For the first time he spoke to my mind in a male voice and told me that if I was uncomfortable we didn't have to go closer. So we stopped where we were… For the first time, my friend, and I will refer to him in that context hereafter, said to me, "You belong here."
Facing all the splendor made me acutely aware of my lowly condition. My response was: "No, you've made a mistake, put me back." And he said, "We don't make mistakes. You belong."
Then he called out in a musical tone to the luminous entities who surrounded the great center…These beings were giving me what I needed at that time. To my surprise, and also distress, they seemed to be capable of knowing everything I was thinking… Our initial conversation involved them simply trying to comfort me… Next, they wanted to talk about my life. To my surprise my life played out before me, maybe six or eight feet in front of me, from beginning to end.
The life review was very much in their control, and they showed me my life, but not from my point of view… My life was shown in a way that I had never thought of before. All of the things that I had worked to achieve, the recognition that I had worked for, in elementary school, in high school, in college, and in my career, they meant nothing in this setting.
What they responded to was how I had interacted with other people. That was the long and short of it. Unfortunately, most of my interactions with other people didn't measure up with how I should have interacted, which was in a loving way. Whenever I did react during my life in a loving way they rejoiced.
Most of the time I found that my interactions with other people had been manipulative. During my professional career, for example, I saw myself sitting in my office, playing the college professor, while a student came to me with a personal problem. I sat there looking compassionate, and patient, and loving, while inside I was bored to death. I would check my watch under my desk as I anxiously waited for the student to finish.
Every time I got a little upset they turned the life's review off for awhile, and they just loved me. Their love was tangible. You could feel it on your body, you could feel it inside you; their love went right through you. I wish I could explain it to you, but I can’t.
I knew that they loved me and knew everything about me. I knew that everything was going to be okay from now on. I asked if I could get rid of my body, which was definitely a hindrance, and become a being like them with the powers they had shown me. They said, "No, you have to go back."
They explained to me that I was very underdeveloped and that it would be of great benefit to return to my physical existence to learn. In my human life I would have an opportunity to grow so that the next time I was with them I would be more compatible. I would need to develop important characteristics to become like them and to be involved with the work that they do. Responding that I couldn't go back, I tried to argue with them. I pled with them to stay.
My friends then said, "Do you think that we expect you to be perfect, after all the love we feel for you, even after you were on Earth blaspheming God, and treating everyone around you like dirt? And this, despite the fact that we were sending people to try and help you, to teach you the truth? Do you really think we would be apart from you now?" They said, "There are people who care about you; your wife, your children, your mother and father. You should go back for them. Your children need your help."
They assured me that mistakes are an acceptable part of being human. "Go," they said, "and make all the mistakes you want. Mistakes are how you learn." As long as I tried to do what I knew was right, they said, I would be on the right path. If I made a mistake, I should fully recognize it as a mistake, then put it behind me and simply try not to make the same mistake again. The important things is to try one's best, keep one's standards of goodness and truth, and not compromise those to win people's approval.
Howard Storm did come back to life, but he came back as a different person. Once he got well, he quit his job and went to seminary. Eventually he became a United Church of Christ pastor, and until his recent retirement he was the pastor of the Covington, Ohio United Church of Christ.
Ultimately, Howard Storm’s story is one of a man who thought he was awake, but who was asleep. But after he died he became awake. Our parable is about waking up to God. But even more, it’s about the fact that we can so be completely engaged in life in such foolish ways that we don’t know how to act with wisdom because we’re spiritually asleep. That’s what our parable is about—it’s about learning to wake up to what matters most in life. It may be hard to quickly get this lesson from the parable because we don’t understand ancient, Middle-Eastern weddings.
Our present-day weddings are fairly simple compared to the ancient Jewish ones. We go to the church for a 30 to 45 minute ceremony. We then go to the reception for a few hours, and go home and to recover the next day, as the couple goes off on a honeymoon.
Jewish weddings were a bit different.They lasted a whole week, starting with a procession, moving into the wedding, and ending with a week of the whole town waiting on the bride and groom, treating them like royalty. The procession began the wedding, and wound all through the town, taking anywhere from one to 24 hours, depending on how slowly the wedding party proceeded. The procession ended with the ceremony.
A proclaimer preceded the party, announcing their coming to all the people of the town. The bridegroom’s party took their time, wandering through the whole town, picking up townspeople as they went along. The bridal party never knew when they would show up—10 am, 3 pm, 11 pm, or 2 am. They had no choice but to wait. When the wedding party did show, they had most of the town in tow. The bridegroom’s party hoped that by the time they got to the bridal party, they’d catch them asleep, providing lots of laughs.
The bridesmaids waited with the bride, attending to her and keeping her prepared for the groom’s coming. They had to be dressed and ready, no matter how long it took. There were also some rules that the bridesmaids have to abide by. One was that if the groom’s procession wasn’t there by nightfall, each bridesmaid had to have a lit lamp. They were not allowed to wait at night without one. This is mainly for safety reasons. To make sure that the lamps stayed lit, they had to have enough oil to last them through the night.
Half the bridesmaids in our parable were lazy. They didn’t expect the wedding party to arrive at midnight. They were dressed properly, but they weren’t prepared. They tried at the last minute to get extra oil, but there wasn’t enough time. We think, “Why couldn’t the other bridesmaids share their oil?” Simple: then no one would have enough. They had to go get some, but the rule was that once the procession reached the place of the wedding, the doors were locked and now one else could come in.
Jesus’ point in the parable was that it’s not enough to be religious on the outside. We have to be prepared on the inside. The question from Jesus was, “Do you have enough oil in you to burn with my fire?” Are you ready to have faith when you need it?
It’s so easy to get distracted by life that we fall asleep. I think it’s always been easy for people to be distracted from what’s important, but today the ability to be distracted is unprecedented, which means that the ability to be foolish is unprecedented. In Jesus’ day people could be fools, but life was more serious. So people were more likely to pay attention to serious things, and that meant that people paid more attention to God. Today, so much of life revolves around entertainment that even coming to church, for one hour a week, in order to be grounded in God is filled with distractions—and these distractions put us to sleep.
Let me close with a short ditty that I think captures how easy it is for us to fall asleep because of all of our distractions:
Newspapers, Sunday Brunch, Steelers pregame, plans for lunch. A little bit tired, a little bit harried, can’t come to church with that person I married.
I’ve got chores to do, golf to play, a game to watch,… it’s a busy day. Don’t need no church to be a good guy,… I’ll just move to Colorado and maybe get high.
I’ve got Playstation, iPhones, iPods, headphones, internet, TV, iTunes,… love my Wii?
I watch CNN, Fox News, whose opinion should I choose? Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, stupid blogs, YouTube, Netflix, Twitter feeds, barking dogs.
My head often hurts when I think deep thoughts, and I don’t like to hear what I should or I ought. Perhaps I’ll pray when I get a little time,… I’m sure God’s busy and doesn’t really mind.
After last night I’m a bit hung over. I’ll go next week when i’m a little more sober. Perhaps someday I’ll get my life in order, when I have more time,… when my to-do list’s shorter.
I have a good life, and there’s nothing wrong with that,… and maybe something’s missing, but there an app for that!
Perhaps there’s a God who wants my affection, but I’m a bit too busy to pay much attention.
Of course when I start to have a little bit of trouble, I want God to fix it—right now, on the double.
I always say to others, “I’m spiritual, not religious.” Who cares if my beliefs about God are ridiculous?
Okay, so this passage tells me I need to be awake,… but how much time is this really going to take?
Our passage is simply about the fact that it is so easy to become shallow by becoming so focused on the realities of life that we ignore the reality of God. The question for us is whether we are willing to wake up to God’s presence in our lives, and be ready for God when the time comes either for us to die, or for us to live.
at 9:34 AM
1 John 2:7-12
August 26, 2014
Dear friends, I am not writing you a new command but an old one, which you have had since the beginning. This old command is the message you have heard. Yet I am writing you a new command; its truth is seen in him and in you, because the darkness is passing and the true light is already shining. Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates a brother or sister is still in the darkness. Anyone who loves their brother and sister lives in the light, and there is nothing in them to make them stumble. But anyone who hates a brother or sister is in the darkness and walks around in the darkness. They do not know where they are going, because the darkness has blinded them.
I am writing to you, dear children, because your sins have been forgiven on account of his name.
Recently I’ve been using a new app on my iPad and iPhone that’s supposed to help my eyesight. I’m like many people my age. I need reading glasses to read. I don’t mind wearing reading glasses so much, but what has started to bother me is the fact that increasingly I can’t read my sermons, no matter how big a font I use. The letters just get too blurry.
It had gotten to the point where I was close to making a decision about whether or not to wear my reading glasses while preaching. I’ve never wanted to be the kind of preacher who preaches a sermon while looking over the upper edges of my reading glasses. I especially have never wanted to be like that because we had a preacher like that in the church I grew up in. He used to preach angry, critical sermons while looking over his reading glasses. It was like going to church for our weekly scolding. I’ve always associated preachers who look at a congregation over their reading glasses with old, cranky preachers. The irony is that a few years ago I asked my father how old that pastor was when he was at our church. My father said, “Maybe early 30s.” Imagine what he must have been like when he actually was cranky and old.
So on the news one evening I heard about a new app called “Glasses Off.” The idea behind it is that by looking at a series of fuzzy shapes that we know what they would look like normally, it helps us see better. It reprograms our brains to interpret what was fuzzy into something sharper. It doesn’t change the fact that our eye muscles have become weaker. It simply changes what our brains see out of the fuzziness.
The app has been pretty good so far. My reading glasses had been 2.50, but now I seem to only need to use 1.50 glasses. What’s been more important to me, I can both read my sermon and the hymns in the hymnal without glasses.
Now I want to be clear. I am not suggesting anyone go out and buy the app, nor am I telling anyone that this product is good. I don’t know what the lasting effects are. It takes quite a bit of work to achieve success. Even though I’m using the app, I worry that there may be some sort of problems in the future. I’ve had a hard time finding independent voices that objectively say whether or not the app is good for us. What I do know is that I see more sharply what was once fuzzy.
When I think about the Presbyterian tradition, I’m reminded that our tradition asks us to train our brains to get a sharper view of life. Our tradition asks us to look at the fuzziness of the world, and to see it with more clarity—a clarity that comes from God. Our theology, our practices, and our traditions all are meant to help us look at life from a sharper perspective. I’m not saying that Presbyterians do “Glasses Off,” but we do practice a sort of “Gospel On” vision. In other words, one of the biggest practices and challenges we work on as Presbyterians is trying to look at the world through Gospel lenses so that we can live Gospel lives.
It’s a challenge to try to live according to the Gospel because it goes against so much of our nature. The Gospel calls on us to focus on God and others so that we can live according to God’s nature, which is love; while our drives and instincts lead us to live self-centered lives where the focus is on ourselves. The religious problem is that often we live out of our drives and instincts, but then manipulate them so that we can convince ourselves that they are really arising out of God’s nature. As the well-known author, Anne Lamott said, "You can safely assume you've created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do."
We have a tremendous instinct and drive for survival, self-protection, and self-promotion, and it is very difficult to overcome that with the Gospel, but that’s what being a Christian means:
- It means focusing on sharing rather than survival. In other words, our survival instinct leads us to protect what’s ours, to hoard it in case we run out. But God’s way is to share what we have, even if it causes us to struggle. It leads to generosity.
- It means acting out of kindness rather than self-protection. In other words, it doesn’t matter so much if our kindness may lead to our being hurt. What matters is that we treat others with kindness and respect.
- It means acting out of self-denial rather than self-promotion. The Christian focus is toward denying ourselves so that we can serve others, not promoting ourselves so that others can serve us.
When we live a Gospel life, we live life with certain words in mind:
* Humility * Kindness
* Love * Self-Discipline
* Gentleness * Uplift
* Patience * Faith
* Healing * Generosity
Living with Gospel Vision and a Gospel life means changing how we are in fundamental ways. It means changing how we are in marriage and relationships. Let me share what I mean. Would you like to know the one secret to having a healthy marriage and better relationships? John Gottman, a research psychologist with the University of Washington, has studied over 50,000 couples and their interactions with each other. He said that there is one thing that determines the health of a marriage: kindness. Most couples, when they fall apart, stop being kind to each other. Most couples whose relationship is healthy, are kind to each other. That’s the primary difference. If you want your marriage or your relationships to get better, find a way to emphasize the Gospel idea of kindness.
Another aspect of the Gospel life is that it means changing how we are with people who have hurt us. Do we remain angry or do we become forgiving?
Do you remember the name Darryl Stingley. You may not quite remember him, but if you are a Pittsburgher, you remember his nemesis of sorts, Jack Tatum. Jack Tatum was a defensive back for that hated football team, the Oakland Raiders. If my memory is correct, he gave the Steeler wide receiver, Lynn Swann, a concussion by slamming his head with his forearm. That was Tatum’s favorite move—to slam his forearm into a helpless receiver’s head as he was catching the ball, thus knocking out the receiver and knocking the football out of his arms.
In the early 1980s, Tatum hit Stingley, a wide receiver for the New England Patriots, in the head with his forearm. It broke Stingley’s neck, leaving him paralyzed. For a number of years afterwards, Stingley was bitter and angry at Tatum, especially since Tatum never really apologized for his illegal hit. The fact that Tatum penned a book titled, Call Me Assassin, made it worse.
Over time, though, Stingley realized that holding onto his anger was paralyzing his life. It was making him paralyzed in body, mind, and spirit. The only way to regain his life was to let go of his bitterness so that he would be free in mind and spirit, no matter what the condition of his body.
Years later, when Jack Tatum had to have his leg amputated because of diabetes, Stingley tried to reach out to him. When asked about this later—why he would reach out—Stingley said, “You can't, as a human being, feel happy about something like that happening to another human being. Maybe the natural reaction is to think he got what was coming to him, but I don't accept human nature as our real nature. Human nature teaches us to hate. God teaches us to love." That is the essence of a Gospel life.
We face a choice in each moment: will we live the Gospel of Christ, or live the gospel of the world? To be Presbyterian means making a decision to live out the Gospel in all of life. Amen.
at 2:13 PM
October 19, 2014
But he had to go through Samaria. So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon. A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.” Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!” The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”
Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you want?” or, “Why are you speaking with her?” Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” They left the city and were on their way to him.
Do you know how Calvin Church got started? Our church was started for people who felt rejected, or at least as though they didn’t fit in. Calvin Church’s start was a direct response to what happened after the town of Zelienople got started.
In 1802, Baron Detmar Basse founded the town of Zelienople in 1802. He was a German immigrant who purchased 10,000 acres of land, and then proceeded to lay out the village of Zelienople, which he named after his daughter, Zelie. A few years later, he sold 5000 acres to George Rapp, the founder of a German Lutheran sect he called the Harmonites. Calvin Church is actually in Harmony, even if we have a Zelienople address.
After 10 years in the area, the Harmonites sold all of their land to a group of German Mennonites, led by Abraham Zeigler, from the Lehigh Valley area. They established a Mennonite community in the area. Meanwhile, Rapp moved his followers to Indiana to a town they called New Harmony. In 1923, after his prediction of Christ’s return failed to materialize, they sold the town of New Harmony and moved back to this area to establish Old Economy down in the Beaver Valley.
What’s the common theme in this history so far? This whole area was established by Germans, and was basically the melding of a number of German communities. To fit in, you had to be German. But what if you weren’t? What if you were of Scottish or English decent? What if you didn’t fit in because your language was different, your food was different, and your customs were different? Even if you wanted to worship, there weren’t many non-German options. You could worship at St. Paul’s church, which was German Lutheran where they spoke German. Or you could worship at St. Peter’s Church, which was German Reformed, where they spoke German. Or you could worship in the Mennonite Church where Grace Reformed Church now sits, and where they spoke German. Perhaps you could worship at Old English Lutheran Church, but you would still be worshipping in German ways, only in English.
Calvin Presbyterian Church (it was founded as the Harmony Zelienople United Presbyterian Church) was started as a church by the rejected for the rejected. Our church got started for quintessentially Presbyterian reasons. It was a church that was intended to create a home for people who felt like they didn’t quite fit in. I’ve often called us a church for misfits because in many ways we are still like our original church.
If you look around, you will find many people here who have felt rejected in one way or another. We have a number of members who have come here after implosions in other churches where they felt like they were kicked out. We have a number of people who are divorced or are going through divorce. We have a number who have gone through the pain of unemployment, life changes, and crises. We have a number who have come here simply because they don’t feel like they fit in with the predominantly evangelical or semi-fundamentalist theologies of many of the churches in our region. We also have people here who struggle with Christianity, and they’ve found in us a place where you can be a Christian even if you aren’t sure you completely accept all that is Christian. There are a lot of reasons people have come here, but one theme stands out, which is that many of them have felt like they fit in here when they haven’t felt like they’ve fit in other places.
It’s this reaching those who feel rejected that makes us Presbyterian. Peoplel of our culture don’t think of Presbyterians in this way because they typically think of older denominations as being stuck in the mud and old-fashioned, but the fact is that the Presbyterian Church is, and always has been, for those who think differently and seek God differently. The Presbyterian Church is really a church by the rejected for the rejected.
Look at our history in Scotland and you’ll see this. It was founded by people who no longer felt like they fit in with either the Roman Catholic Church or the Church of England. They wanted to read scripture for themselves and discern God’s word personally. They wanted to be able to preach and learn in English rather than Latin. And they wanted to create a church grounded in what Scripture taught, not just tradition taught.
In this country the Presbyterian Church has always been a church that has struggled to engage those who feel rejected either by religion, culture, economics, or life situations. We are a church where people are allowed to think for themselves, and aren’t bound to orthodox dogmatic or fundamentalist formulas. We grapple with modern issues, whatever they are, because we recognize that many people struggling with them feel rejected by Christians. We are trying to be like Christ, who welcomed the rejected.
I think all of us recognize that Jesus welcomed the poor, the sick, the hurting, and the rejected, but I’m not sure how aware we are of how extensive his acceptance was. Our passage for this morning is an incredible example of how Jesus accepted the rejected.
One problem when we read so many of the biblical stories is that we are 2000 years removed from the biblical culture, so we don’t pick up things that people of those times instantly picked up. This passage is a great example. On the surface it’s a simple story. Jesus speaks to a woman at the well who has had five husbands and is now living with another. He speaks to her of the fact that through him she can find living springs of water that will fill her life with God’s grace. She is sinful and he is offering grace. On the surface that’s a pretty simple story, but it goes much, much deeper than this.
First off, men didn’t talk directly to women in public. So Jesus’ talking to her was taboo, yet that didn’t stop him. His talking to her would have been scandalous to his disciples. Also, she’s been married and divorced five times, and is living with another man, so she is s sinful woman.
There’s more: she is a Samaritan. Right there this says that her sin is greater than just marrying and divorcing five men, and living with another. We are so used to hearing of the parable of the Good Samaritan that we’ve lost touch with who the Samaritans were to the Jews. They were worse than Gentiles. To Jews, all non-Jews were Gentiles, and therefore all sinful and unredeemable. But the Samaritans were worse. I don’t know if there’s a modern equivalent other than perhaps the way some Christians look at Muslims today as being unredeemable. The Samaritans were worse than Gentiles because at one point they had been faithful Jews. But then the destruction of the Northern Kingdom of Israel happened in 800 B.C. The remnant Jews created a pseudo-Judaism that integrated elements of other religions. They also set up their own temple on Mt. Gerazim, which competed with the one in Jerusalem. They taught that their religion was the only true Judaism, and that the Judaism set up by the returning exiles from Babylon was false. In other words, the Samaritans were competing for the title of being the chosen ones, and the Jews hated them because of it. To the Jews, they were no “good” Samaritans. And Jesus, being an observant Jew, knew this. So just talking to a Samaritan defiled him. So she’s worse than we thought.
Then there’s the fact that she’s there at noon. Why is that significant? Because women in those days came to the well either early in the morning or late in the afternoon when it’s cooler. Anyone who came to the well at noon was a rejected woman. She probably was, or had been, a prostitute, which may account for the many husbands, and for her present live-in mate, who might have been the equivalent of a pimp. She was an outcast even among the Samaritans. She’s much worse than we thought.
Then Jesus asks her for water, and just the fact that Jesus would have accepted a cup from her would have defiled him for seven days. Physically touching her was taboo. Yet he was willing to reach out to her, even though it would have defiled him and ostracized him.
Finally, Jesus charges her with telling the Samaritans that he is the messiah, and that God is reaching out to them just as much as to the Jews. Imagine: he’s asking a sinful, Samaritan outcast to preach to the Samaritans and to tell them the Good News of Jesus (she’s the first woman preacher). Everything Jesus is doing in this passage is taboo, but he’s doing it to reach out to a woman who’s rejected. He is modeling the way for us Christians, and for us Presbyterians.
Part of being Presbyterian means creating a church for those who feel rejected, rather than creating a church just for those who feel they fit in. A significant part of being Presbyterian is trying to be a church for others, including the rejected. The problem is that this is a very hard thing to do because the people we reject, or who feel rejected, don’t always feel like they fit in with us. It’s hard for us to figure out ways to help these people feel welcomed in our midst. But that’s our calling and challenge as Presbyterians.
I’d like to end by taking you out of our church and just making you aware of how this effort to reach out to the rejected is taking place on a grander scale in the Presbyterian Church (USA). You probably aren’t aware of this, but our denomination has started a venture called 1001 Churches, which is an attempt to create 1001 new Presbyterian churches all across the country. Many of these churches are intentional attempts to reach out to people who feel rejected. I want to close by inviting you to watch three very short, 2-3 minute videos of three of these churches:
- This is a video of Shalom Ministry in Atlanta: http://www.onethousandone.org/Inspire/Stories/Video-Shalom-International-Ministry.aspx
- This is a video of COMMUNIDAD LOS DEL in Detroit, which reaches out to the poor and homeless: http://www.onethousandone.org/Inspire/Stories/Video-Communidad-los-del-Camino.aspx
- This is a video of Beacon Church in Philadelphia that is intentionally trying to create a diverse, inner-city community: http://www.onethousandone.org/Inspire/Stories/Video-Beacon.aspx
As Presbyterians part of our calling is to reach out to people whom others reject or look down upon. It is to be like Jesus at the well.
at 9:07 AM
October 5, 2014
So that you may not claim to be wiser than you are, brothers and sisters, I want you to understand this mystery: a hardening has come upon part of Israel, until the full number of the Gentiles has come in. And so all Israel will be saved; as it is written, “Out of Zion will come the Deliverer; he will banish ungodliness from Jacob.” “And this is my covenant with them, when I take away their sins.” As regards the gospel they are enemies of God for your sake; but as regards election they are beloved, for the sake of their ancestors; for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. Just as you were once disobedient to God but have now received mercy because of their disobedience, so they have now been disobedient in order that, by the mercy shown to you, they too may now receive mercy.
Do you ever find yourself among people who make religious statements that you really want to respond to, but know you can’t? You know you can’t because
the person is so convinced that he or she is right that anything you say will make no sense. Still, you really want to say something because what the person is saying is offers a perspective that you know just isn’t quite right.
I feel this way every time I hear someone say: “I was saved back in 2001 when…” or “ever since I was saved,…” Why would that bother me? I’m a Christian, right? Shouldn’t I celebrate those times when they were saved? It bothers me because what they are saying is not quite the biblical belief, nor is it a Presbyterian belief. We Presbyterians have a different understanding of when and how we were saved, and it’s an understanding that is rooted in our scripture for today: “As regards the gospel they are enemies of God for your sake; but as regards election they are beloved, for the sake of their ancestors; for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.”
That sentence is a bit dense, but what Paul is saying to the Roman Christians is that God has chosen the gentiles (the non Jews) among them for salvation, just as God chose the Jews for salvation. Paul uses the word “election,” but it’s the same as “choice.” Paul is saying that salvation is based on God’s choice, not human deeds. Just because the gentiles haven’t lived by the law doesn’t mean that they haven’t been chosen by God. Salvation isn’t based on how well we adhere to the law. It’s based on how much God loves us. As a result, we were saved when God chose us, not when we experienced the effect of that choosing—when we had a “salvation” experienc. So for a Presbyterian, we would say we were saved when Jesus died on the cross for our sins, or when God chose us for salvation when God created us. But we would not say that we were saved in 2001 when we had an experience of God.
Still, many Christians persist in believing that they can put a date on their salvation. I experienced this a number of years ago when I did a wedding. At the reception I was put at a table with a bunch of other pastors and members of a Pentecostal church. Great people. Nice people. But their perspectives were not quite rooted in this passage. A conversation started about when everyone was saved. So everyone at the table started sharing stories of when they were saved. One pastor said that it was when he was a teen. Another, the music director of their church, said it was on New Year’s Eve in 1994 when he had an experience of God as a bass player in a band playing “Auld Lang Syne” at a banquet hall as everyone else popped corks and kissed each other. In that moment he sensed that God was telling him that he was shallow like all of the people drinking and kissing, but he did have the option of living a different life. I think his experience was real, but that was not the moment he was saved. It was just the moment God broke in and let him know what he was loved, saved, and invited to live a better life.
Everyone around the table kept sharing when they were saved, and I desperately wanted to tell them that they weren’t saved when they experienced their salvation. They were saved when God “elected” them—chose them. Fortunately, just as the person next to me finished sharing her experience, the best man got up to make a toast. I was saved!
Now let me be clear. I’m not against the idea that these people were saved, but I always want to jump in and say, “you weren’t saved THEN… you just became AWARE of your salvation then.” I then want to say, “you were saved when God chose you, and God chose you before God created you.”
The issue of salvation is actually part of a bigger issue that people have in terms of trying to figure out what they need to do to get into heaven. A lot of Christians and non-Christians worry about whether or not they are doing the right things to get into heaven. OR people can become very confident that they are doing the right things to get into heaven. The problem is that, according to Paul, we don’t have to do anything to get into heaven. Getting into heaven isn’t up to us. It’s up to God. God choses who gets in and who doesn’t, and God’s criterion isn’t our good deeds. God’s criterion is God’s love.
Presbyterians don’t worry about whether or not they are getting into heaven. We put the matter into God’s hands and trust God to make the right decision. We also recognize that all the best deeds we can to don’t get us into heaven because God doesn’t chose us based on our deeds. The parable of the Prodigal Son teaches this. The son, who took his inheritance and rejected his father, now comes back after squandering his money and having lived a life of desecration as a pig farmer. His father doesn’t reject his son. He embraces his son and restores him to his inheritance. The story of the Prodigal Son is a story of our understanding of God and heaven. God loves us despite our bad deeds.
John Calvin understood this idea. He said, “Scripture clearly proves that God, by his eternal and unchanging will, determined once and for all those whom he would one day admit to salvation and those whom he would consign to destruction. His decision about the elect is based on his free mercy with no reference to human deserving…”
Basically, Calvin is saying something similar to what Paul says in our passage: we don’t get into heaven based on good deeds. We get into heaven based on God’s loving choice to let us in. Presbyterians today also have a bit of a different understanding than Calvin in this way. He s was convinced that God chose some for damnation, not salvation, based on God’s whims. In other words, God sent some to Hell simply because God had chosen to do so. Calvin believed this because he was convinced that many Roman Catholics were going to Hell. Today we don’t quite share Calvin’s beliefs. We believe that God offers an invitation to all because God is love and God loves all of us. That doesn’t mean everyone accepts the invitation, though. God does give us the freedom to reject God. But even that rejection won’t keep God from loving and choosing us. We have faith that we’ve already been chosen, not because we’re Presbyterian, but because we know that God loves us.
Does this mean that Presbyterians don’t need to do good deeds because we know we’re saved? No. It means we try to do good things because we want to share God’s love.
I was struggling a bit this past week with how to give a good metaphor for this whole idea of what it means to live trusting that we’ve been chosen for salvation versus living so that we can get God to save us. I called up our associate pastor, Connie Frierson, to get her ideas, and she gave me a great metaphor.
She said that people who live their lives in pursuit of salvation are like people trying to shake God’s hand after a negotiation. They see the process of salvation as being like a negotiation with God where we say to God, “If you save me, I will do this, this, and this,” referring to all the good things we will do to merit salvation. And then we shake hands on the agreement, hoping that we don’t breach the contract.
Meanwhile, we Presbyterians have a whole different understanding of the handshake with God. We think of salvation as being like the handshake you give someone when you welcome her or him into your home. We greet God with a welcome, and invite God to come in and share God’s love with us. We are inviting in a cherished guest who already loves us and wants to be with us. So our handshake is a welcome, not a negotiation.
Here’s the thing, in the end we Presbyterians know that we have been loved and chosen since before we were created. As a result, we don’t spend our lives trying to get God to love us so we can get into heaven when we die. We spend our lives trying to let God’s love work through us so we can share heaven in the world because we’re now alive.
at 8:51 AM
September 14, 2014
Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.
I think this is one of the most remarkable passages in the Gospels. Why? Because it shows something about Jesus that most neither recognize nor appreciate. It demonstrates his willingness to change and be transformed himself. This isn’t an attribute most people recognize in Jesus.
Many Christians tend to think that Jesus sort of came out of the womb fully formed spiritually. They think that he understood from the beginning what his mission was, and how to achieve it. They seem to think that he knew everything that was going to happen to him, and so everything that happened was pre-planned or at least pre-known.
What I find so powerful about this passage is that it says something quite different from what we tend to believe. It showed that Jesus was strong enough spiritually and mentally to change his thinking, and in the process to adapt his mission. In our passage, Jesus went from being a messiah to the Jews to a messiah for the world.
Reflect back on the story. Jesus is in the area around the Sea of Galilee, and he is preaching, teaching, and healing many there. Out of the crowd a Canaanite woman approaches him and asks him to heal his daughter, whom she says is afflicted by a demon. Today we might say has some sort of mental illness, although some do suffer spiritual illness.
The disciples urge Jesus to send her away because they believe their mission is not to peopple like her. A bit of background is helpful here. The woman is a Canaanite, one of the age-old enemies of the Israelites. You remember them from the Old Testament. They were the enemies when the Jews entered the Promised Land. They were the residents there, and the Jews pushed them to the lands outside what became Israel. From that time on, the Canaanites were enemies. Many battles were waged against them. The only reason the Israelites weren’t at war with them at the time of Jesus was that both people were under Roman subjugation. They didn’t have an opportunity to fight. But the disciples were right, at least in terms of what Jesus had taught them: Jesus had come only for the House of Israel.
So Jesus tried to shoo her away. At first he says, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” That doesn’t sway her. She asks for help anyway. Then he says something awful to her: “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Imagine being called a dog by Jesus. It was a worse insult then than now. Only the rich had dogs for pets. Most dogs in that age were mangy scavengers. They were mostly mongrels who hung outside of family homes, waiting for scraps and crumbs. To call her a dog was to say that she was nothing but a scavenging mongrel, unworthy of human attention. It really seemed as though Jesus only understood his mission as being one to the Jews. Up to that point he had few dealings with people outside the Jewish faith.
Then she courageously replied, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” That one comment changed Jesus. It seemed to transform him. Perhaps the Spirit was speaking through her. From that moment he understood that he wasn’t just for the Jews, but he was for all. He praised her for her faith and healed her daughter. And as a result, what became the church was transformed.
Jesus preached began to preach a message of unity not just for the Jews, but for all people, a message that Paul eventually took to heart and made tangible (as did the other apostles) by creating a church that brought together Jews and Gentiles, slave and free, male and female, rich an poor. No longer would differences keep people from God. Jesus preached a God who loved everyone, and called all people to come together.
Jesus had been formed in a particular way, but he was open to being continually reformed and transformed. This story highlights that idea, and it also brings out an essential principle of being Presbyterian: Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda.
Do you recognize those words. They are at the heart of what it means to be a Presbyterian. They mean, the church reformed, always being reformed. This is an idea that everything we do is built upon, but it’s also an idea that many Christians and churches resist. It’s the idea that we have to always be open to how God may be calling us to change our thinking, while at the same time always being grounded in God’s teachings. For us Presbyterians, it means keeping one foot in the past, while we always seek to discern where God is leading us in the future. Reformata, semper reformanda is rooted in our scripture for today, and also in Jesus’ constantly breaking the law in order to bring God’s reforming grace. He was constantly accused of breaking the law and of being sinful, but he understood that the law was made to help humans, humans weren’t made to simply serve the law.
What does reformata, semper reformanda look like on a tangible level. Look at our worship service and sanctuary and you can see how we Presbyterians are both reformata and semper reformanda. We are Presbyterian in structure, which means that our worship services always feature the reading of scripture at the center, along with praise, prayers, and reflections on scripture. But we also add other elements. We’ve added elements from other traditions, such as communion every Sunday in our first service which is a tradition taken from the Catholic, Episcopalian, Lutheran churches. And we offer wine and juice, combining the traditions of those other denominations with ours. We read scripture in the beginning of our service, which comes from the Baptist tradition. We sing contemporary, traditional, and other forms of music that come from gospel, Hispanic, Celtic, Taizé, secular traditions. We have art on our walls, where other Presbyterian churches often just have white walls stripped of all art. We integrated different elements. Why? Because we come out of a “reformed” tradition, but we are always open to how we need to change to meet the demands of a changing world. We were reformata, but we are always asking how we are called to become reformanda.
Our being reformata, semper reformanda also creates problems for us because some people only want to be reformata, while others only want to be semper reformanda. Some people want the church to always remain the same and resist change (for example, the Roman Catholic tradition), while others want to get rid of the shackles of the past and recreate the church, and even all religious pursuits (for example, the New Age tradition), in their own image. We take a different approach by trying to keep one foot in the past—in where we came from, which is the reforming of the church in the 16th century—and one in the future to where God is calling us.
What this means is that Presbyterians always grapple with how to be faithful to God in an ever-changing world, and it causes us to grapple with really difficult issues that other churches avoid. For example, how do we respond to war and terrorism? Many churches respond in simple, age-old ways: either embrace war against terrorism because we have to protect ourselves, or maintain peace because all war is wrong. Presbyterians struggle with it, and we debate it, and we fumble around in it, trying to come up with the answer that is rooted in our traditions, while also being open to how the present circumstances may call for a different response from the past.
We also grapple with how we are called to respond to world crises and poverty. When crises arise, we always struggle to figure out how to respond. In many ways, it is in these crises that Presbyterians are at our best. Most people don’t know this, but when there is an earthquake, tsunami, hurricane, or other natural disaster around the world, Presbyterians are among the first to rush to people’s aid, and among the last to leave. For example, Presbyterians are still heavily involved in places like Haiti, helping individuals and the country rebuild their lives.
We also grapple with how to live with and behave towards those of other religions, and because of that the way we see other faiths is different today than it was fifty years ago. Fifty years ago, there was skepticism about those of other denominations within Christianity, as Presbyterians felt comfortable asserting their preeminence over those of other denominations. Today, we accept those of other denominations as being equal to us, but as practicing their faith differently from us in ways that are still valid. The struggle today is whether we accept the validity of other faiths. A few years ago our General Assembly, the body that is responsible for making decisions in these more global areas of faith, sent a message out to churches encouraging all of us, when possible, to have joint worship services with those of other religions—specifically Muslims and Jews.
Just doing this caused an uproar in some circles, especially here in our presbytery, Beaver Butler Presbytery. There were a number of pastors and churches that said our having joint worship services, whether they be funerals, weddings, or other services, was a blasphemy against Christ. They were asserting an ages old belief that Muslims and Jews were not saved, and therefore inferior to Christianity. Their feet were in the church of the past, while many other Presbyterians were trying to see if God is calling us to be a different way in the future. This struggle to be reformed and always reforming isn’t easy for us.
It is because we are reformed, always being reformed, that the Presbyterian Church (USA) continues to grapple with the issue of homosexuality. We have made recent decisions that have to do with the ordination of homosexuals and with our stance toward marriage. It is bound to upset people. How could the Presbyterian Church do that? The reason is that we are reformed, and always reformed: reformata, semper reformanda. We grapple with these issues and ask the question, much like Jesus with the Canaanite woman, what is God calling us to do now? We may not get it right, but we try. We don’t simply say, “This is the way it was in the beginning and so now must be that way forever.” We are like Jesus, who broke the law at times in order to help people seek and serve God better.
Jesus constantly did things that were seen as blasphemous and lawbreaking in his time. He ate with sinners, he received a cup of water from a sinful Samaritan woman, he forgave people (an ability only reserved for God, according to the Pharisees), and much more. In all of these he broke religious laws and convention, doing things that would have made him ritually unclean and blasphemous. But that didn’t stop him. He grappled with the past while seeking what the Father wanted for the future. We do the same. It’s part of our Presbyterian DNA.
There are many times when what we do seems wrong to me. But I don’t leave our denomination because of it. I recognize that I am a person who is reformed, and always seeking to be reformed so that I can be transformed. And I’m part of a denomination that does the same thing. When we reform ourselves, we are being Presbyterian, and being like Jesus, who called the woman a dog and then praised her for having great faith.
If you can’t grapple with God’s call to be reformed and transformed, it is difficult to be a Presbyterian because we are a church that has one foot in the past and one in the future, when many would like to be one or the other. We are called to be both reformata and semper reformanda, both as a church and individually.
at 6:54 AM