Friday, January 18, 2019
A growing church filled with God's love in Jesus Christ for everyone

Sunday Sermon

How Long, Lord?                    
Habakkuk 1: 1-4
2/21/16 A teaching by Rev Dr Everett Parker

 Do you ever tire of the constant struggle we have to carry on with evil in our society; with our continual attempts to curb drugs and crime and poverty?
 We make so many efforts to try to keep violence out of our schools, and unmarried teenagers form having babies, and murder and adultery out of our TV shows.
 And yet, nothing seems to do any good, and we grow weary with it all.
 We even grow weary with the strife and contention in our churches -- with the constant fight against those who bully, those who intimidate and those who gossip.
 And we sometimes think that we would like to escape somewhere and leave all of the evil and strife behind us and not be bothered with it anymore.
 Well, that’s exactly what Jan and I will be doing in a few weeks, but that’s another story.
 The prophet Habakkuk (HAB-AH-KUK) felt the same way back at the beginning of the sixth century BC.
 He looked aound at his Judean society and saw people telling lies, and courts of law favoring the rich, and phoney religious leaders misleading the people, and ruthless powerbrokers getting away with murder, and he cried to God:
 “How long, O Lord must I call for help? Why do you make me see so many wrongs and look upon so much trouble? How Long, O Lord, are you going to put up with these evils?”
 There were good people in Habakkuk’s society, just as there are good people in today’s society. But the good people of Habakkuk’s time seemed utterly helpless to correct the evils.
 “The wicked surround the righteous,” he said. The wicked simply overwhelmed the good people, and every attempt to bring justice and peace and decent living to Judah was swept away by a deluge of indecency and wrong.
 Nothing seemed adequate in the prophet’s time to bring correction, and no program that we devise seems to clean up and restore our society to wholeness either.
 We set up a War Against Poverty decades ago, and now we are paying for it with millions of dependents overwhelming our welfare rolls.
 We have devised numerous educational plans and poured millions of dollars into our schools, but fully one-third of our high school graduates end up illiterate and can’t even make change working at McDonald’s.
 We challenged the authorities of the 1960s with cries for flowerpower and personal freedom and free love, and now we have a sexual revolution in which anything goes.
 And AIDS and millions of abortions and broken marriages and dysfunctional families wreak their awful toll on our society.
 Guns and violence sweeps our streets, and children are innocent victims of this crime, and we shrug and so, “so what?”
 Every program to bring correction, every righteous human effort seems to end in nothing but failure and futility.
 And we cry out with the prophet, “How long, O Lord? How long?”
 The point that we must not overlook, however, is that Habakkuk’s cry is directed TO God.  You see, the prophet knows some facts that we, in the midst of all our difficulties, sometimes tend to forget.
 We forget that human affairs are always in the hands of a soverign God, that God has not deserted us, even when we feel overwhelmed with evil, and that the Lord of our lives is still very much in charge of this world, as He is of the church.
 So when Habakkuk sees no end to the wrong and strife around him, when human history seems entirely opaque and gives no clues to its outcome, when good people seem entirely helpless to overcome the wicked, Habakkuk deliberately turns to see what God will say to him.
 Like a watchkeeper on a tower guarding a city, he stations himself and listens and looks intently to hear what God’s answer will be to his complaint.
 “And the Lord answered me,” he says. In other words, to those who live in prayerful communion with God, who worship Him with sincerity, and who daily seek His word, God reveals Himself and gives His reply to our complaints.
 God answers Habakkuk, but when He gives him an answer, the Lord does not want Habakkuk to keep it to himself.
 So, He says, get yourself a billboard and write my answer on it in such large letters that anyone running past will be able to read it.
 When God gives us His good news, He does not want us to keep it to ourselves.
 But what is the prophet to write? First of all, these words: “The vision awaits its time; it hastens to the end -- it will not lie. If it seems slow, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay.”
 That is the first part of the answer that God gives to Habakkuk and to us in a world full of violence and wrong-doing.
 Now that really doesn’t seem very comforting, does it, because we only have the faintest notion of what it means.
 A vision has something to do with the future, that we understand. And God tells the prophet there is a future out there in God’s plan that is surely going to come.
 Do you realize we pray for that future every time we come to church? “Thy kingdom come on earth, even as it is in heaven.”
 The vision that Habakkuk has is of the kingdom of God, of that time when human evil will no longer rule our lives, but rather will be overcome by the goodness and love of God.
 And God will reign supreme in every life and every society and every nation.
 The vision is of justice, when no one puts down another person, no one gossips, and no one tramples on the lives of others in order to puff themselves up.
 It’s a vision of peace, where there are no terrorists anymore, and no wars claiming the lives of innocents; when no one hurts or destroys in all of God’s holy earth.
 The vision of the kingdom come is of no more homeless, no more refugees, no more children hungry and dying; of every broken heart restored to laughter, and every weary soul given rest.
 Of every pain healed and every tear dried and life lived in all its fullness.
 Yes, the vision of the kingdom is of wickedness defeated and our sins forgiven and human life accompanied always by God, and of the joy and wholeness and goodness that comes from constantly living in God’s presence.
 God holds out before Habakkuk the vision of His kingdom, and He assures the prophet that such a kingdom is coming.
 It may seem to be slow in coming, God says, but wait patiently for it, for the kingdom surely comes, it most assuredly comes.
 Well, that assurance was given to the prophet almost 2,600 years ago. Evil and wrong and suffering still surround us on every side on our society.
 Were those just empty words with which God comforted His prophet for a moment? 
 Just pie-in-the-sky, by-and-by promises that would never come true?
 No, God continued working in the years after Habakkuk’s ministry, as He is always working, and so one day a young man named Jesus of Nazareth walked into the district of Galilee and announced, “The time is fulfilled, the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel.”
 “The kingdom of God is at hand.” In the person of our Lord Jesus Christ, God’s promised kingdom broke into our world.
 And there in Christ’s person we saw incarnated and embodied everything that God had promised -- one in whom God’s will and rule were supreme; one in whom there was no shadow of violence or wrong.
 In Jesus we saw One who healed the sick and gave joy to the sorrowing and restored justice to human relations; one who was only righteous and good and who reconciled neighbor to neighbor; one who spoke only truth and who gave a peace passing all understanding.
 Above all, in His Son Jesus Christ, God defeated the wicked.
 Human evil and violence nailed Him to a cross, didn’t they?
 All the blindness, crassness, indifference, hatred of God and other persons -- all the sin of our society and in your hearts and mine -- all of that evil led our Lord to Golgotha and hung Him on that tree.
 And when He died and was buried, it seemed as if wickedness had claimed the victory over the One who embodied God’s promised rule.
 But on the first day of the week, at dawn, when some women went to the tomb to annoint His body, they found Jesus Christ was no longer dead, and they heard the glad announcement that He was not there -- He is risen!
 With those words, all of God’s promises came true. The kingdom of God was shown never to be defeated by human evil.
 And so you see, the vision is still alive. God really is going to defeat all wrong and bring in His joy and justice and righteousness and peace on this earth.
 For He defeated our greatest wrong, our most serious violence on that first Easter morning, and that has begun God’s final victory over all the evil that surrounds our lives.
 Christ’s resurrection began God’s final victory, and so we know with certainty that God’s kingdom is coming.
 What does that mean for our living? Well, it brings us to the second part of the message granted to Habakkuk.
 God not only gave His assurance in Jesus Christ that His kingdom would come on earth even as it is in heaven,  but He also told Habakkuk how life should be lived in the meantime.
 “Behold,” God says, “he whose soul is not upright in him shall fail.” That is, the wicked have not a ghost of a chance of inheriting life in the kingdom.
 “But” -- but! -- God promised, “the righteous shall live by his faithfulness.”
 In other words, if you and I are faithful, we will be able to stand now, even in the midst of our evil, violent society, and finally, through the work of Jesus Christ, we will inherit eternal life in the kingdom of God.
 “The righteous shall live by his or her faithfulness.” In many translations of Scripture, that sentence read, “The righteous shall live by his faith.”
 But that last word is EMOO-NAH in Hebrew, the same root from which we get our word AMEN.
 That has about it the feeling of steadfastness, of solidity, of standing firm no matter what is happening around us. EMOO-NAH.
 There is much more involved here than the ways we sometimes understand faith, as simply believing the correct doctrines -- whatever they may be - or saying “Lord, Lord,” or claiming to be a Christian or going through all the motions of being pious.
 So, the proper translation is “The righteous shall live by faithfulness.”
 Faithfulness is thinking and believing and acting as if the kingdom had already come in its fullness.
 Faithfulness is getting out of bed every morning and determining we will let God rule our lives.
 It is turning daily to God in prayer and learning more about Him by reading and understanding the Bible.
 It is joining together with the people of God in this congregation and participating and caring for each other, not cutting each other down and demeaning each other.
 Faithfulness is making decisions, not according to what WE want, but according to the way Christ would make them.
 It is seeking good things for our neighbors and justice for the needy in our society.
 It is not about seeking money from people to come enjoy a spaghetti supper, it is inviting them out of the goodness of our heart in God’s name.
 It is not about eliminating brownies at the blueberry festival because the women don’t want to be bothered with baking them.
 Faithfulness is opposing evil at every turn and glorifying God by every word and deed.
 In short, faithfulness is putting one foot in front of the other, steadfastly, day in and day our, and walking resolutely in the way God wants us to walk.
 Now the final decision you have to make is this: is that empty idealism, setting forth a way of life that no one us can possibly achieve?
 No, the Christian way of life is no fairy tale, for countless people have walked that way before you and I and countless souls who will walk it after us.
 And so Paul could boast to the church as Thessalonica, “We ourselves boast of you .. for your steadfastness and faith in all your persecutions and in the afflictions which you are enduring.”
 The Thessalonians were undergoing trouble equal to and probably surpassing ours, and yet they were faithful because they lived in the power of God and let Him rule their lives.
 Steadfastness is faithfulness. What’s your answer?
Bad Breath & Smelly Feet
      Numbers 21: 4-9
A teaching given on 2/14/16 by Rev. Dr, Everett Parker

 Bad breath and smelly feet.
 They don’t exactly top the list of qualities we look for in romantic interests, friends or coworkers. 
 Hence the obsession by those who possess these smelly emissions to eliminate their social impact.
 Suggested home remedies for bad breath abound. 
  One can chew a whole clove, brush teeth twice a day with baking powder, suck the juice from a cut lemon, or chew a mouthful of sunflower seeds and then drink water.
  They can swallow probiotic enzymes to balance stomach digestion, gargle pineapple juice, eat parsley, or use dental floss that has been pre-soaked with tree seed oil. Wow!
 And for those who have fragrant, if not flagrant, feet, there’re plenty of gimmicks you might try as well. 
  You can change your socks twice a day, dust your feet with absorbent cornstarch, take daily oral zinc tablets, or slather armpit antiperspirant on your soles and between your toes (yes ... people do this). 
  However, the most commonly suggested remedy for embarrassing foot stench is to soak one’s feet in a black tea solution for 30 minutes each morning and evening until the smell slowly goes away over a couple of weeks. 
 You’ll need to have plenty of discretionary time on your hands, or more accurately, on your feet, for this approach to work.
 There must be a better solution for sufferers of these pungent maladies. 
  If we can put a man on the moon, view cell nuclei with microscopes, and create seedless watermelons, then surely science can offer some help for our potentially putrid parts.
  Well, perhaps. Scientists have already told us that smelly feet and bad breath are caused by bacteria that proliferate in those areas of the body. 
 But now British researchers have isolated certain bacteria that eat those bacteria which cause bad breath. 
 These potential stink-killers grow on and consume the smelly compounds found in the mouth and on the feet. 
 So imagine, if you will, the potential commercial applications.
 Fill your mouth with bacteria to take care of that mouth full of bacteria. 
 Or cover your feet with microorganisms to fix that sock full of microorganisms.
 Doesn’t that sound far too close to the absurdity of the childhood nursery rhyme “There was an Old Lady”? 
 You may remember that she swallowed a spider that wriggled and wiggled and tiggled inside her. 
 She swallowed the spider to catch the fly. I don’t know why she swallowed a fly. Perhaps she’ll die!
 It seems odd to swallow insects to kill swallowed insects. Or to eat bacteria to kill other bacteria. 
 But consider the similar absurdity of the biblical remedy for poisonous snake bites: Stare at a snake on a stake.
 That was the prescription offered Israel in Numbers 21.
  They had been wandering through the desert on their displaced pilgrimage between Egyptian enslavement and the eventual sacred home of the promised land. 
 The journey was frustrating, their homes always temporary, and the food sub-par and monotonous. 
 Just imagine camping with your family ... for 40 years!
  In Numbers 11 the people were fed up with the food - tired of eating manna bread, manna porridge, manna stew, manna omelet and manna pasta. 
 So they complained to Moses - “Give us meat!” And in God’s mercy, He granted them quail for food.
  Now in Numbers 21 they are complaining again: “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food” (21: 5). 
 But this time instead of sending his mercy through a banquet, God has had enought, and He sends his punishment through snakes. 
 He’s displeased with their complaining, and we might even imagine that he’s insulted. 
 They’re ignorant of his past and present provision, focused more on what they want God to do than on what he has already done.
  Maybe snakes will give them a better perspective on manna. And it does. Snakebites lead them to confession: “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you” (21:7). 
  They turn from their complaints and plead with Moses to seek God’s mercy on their behalf. The shoe is, if you will, on the other foot now.
 Like God’s mercy through the quails, he now grants mercy through forgiveness. 
 But the remedy for their consequences is an interesting one. 
 Like bacteria to deal with bacteria, or an insect to deal with insects, God offers them a snake to deal with their snakes.
 Moses fashions a bronze serpent and places it on a tree limb to lift up in front of the people. 
 When people afflicted by their snakes turn their gaze upon Moses’ snake, they are healed.
 While that might seem a bit absurd, it is actually quite beautiful symbolism. 
 God offers them a symbolic anti-venom.
 Moses doesn’t produce a magic snake that does the healing.
 No, not a miraculous serpent like Aaron’s staff-turned-snake that consumed the staff-snakes produced by Pharaoh’s magicians. 
God himself provides their healing and forgiveness. But he uses this snake symbol so that his people will recognize the connection between their complaining and their punishment. 
  It makes their forgiveness and healing an act of confronting the symbol of their sin as the means of receiving healing through that symbol.
 How poignant that must have been. In their confession and repentance, God simultaneously shows them their sin and his grace. 
 Problem and the solution in the same bronze serpent. 
  Someone said, “To see sin without grace is despair. To see grace without sin is arrogance. To see them in tandem is conversion.”
 Sin and grace in one symbol. Problem and solution in one moment. A work of God in response to the sin of his people ...
 For Israel, their sin and their healing were lifted before them on a tree limb. 
 And for those who would receive the forgiveness of Christ, our sin and our healing are lifted up before us on the Calvary tree.
  John 3: 14-15 says this: “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” 
 The cure for bacteria is bacteria. The cure for snakes is a snake. And the cure for death is a death on the cross.
 Our God is an artist, weaving symbol and reality together to paint the picture of his redemption story on our behalf. 
 And like all great works of art, this redemption picture has the innate ability to evoke a response in its viewer.
  For the Christian, the cross creates an intimate connection between our sin choices and the consequences they bore upon our Savior. 
 Thus our sin and God’s grace are contained in the same moment. 
  For the Israelites, confession of their sin of complaint involved recognizing their choice, proclaiming it as wrongful, but then turning to God’s healing symbol so that their sin and his grace would be recognized together. 
 Christian confession is the same, and it is only redemptive when it involves those same three movements.
 We pause to recognize that we have made a choice against the pleasure of our God, and there is healing in our recognition. 
  We proclaim these sins to him in our personal prayers, in our liturgy, and in our confession to those who care most deeply for us spiritually (James 5:16). 
 Again, there is healing in our proclamation.  
 And finally, we turn our gaze upon the reality of our forgiveness, the grace of Christ given us at the cross. 
 Ultimately, there is healing only in our Savior, whose physical death on the cross cures the spiritual death from our sin.
 Church history tells us that Martin Luther wrestled to come to terms with what pure and right Christian confession was. 
 Legend has it that he once sought it through the penance of bloodied knees.
 There is a marble stairway called the Scala Sancta or “Holy Stairs” inside the Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome. 
  These steps are said to have been taken in AD 326 from the staircase of Pilate’s palace in Jerusalem, the very stairs which Jesus descended after his condemnation to death. 
  Past popes declared that those who climb the Scala Sancta on their knees, saying a prayer of confession on each step, shall be given some relief from the pains of purgatory.
 The truth of Christian confession is that forgiveness and healing will never be found in our own pain or our own work. 
 We cannot make due penance, whether physically or in some appropriate amount of guilt and shame. 
 Only the pain of Christ brings forgiveness, thus only his cross is worthy of the receipt of our confession.
  The complete masterpiece of our God’s redemptive work of art happens only when the completed work of Christ’s cross meets our complete submission to forgiveness through confession. 
 It is God’s lavish grace curing our sin choices.
  That is a healing that bacteria application or spider swallowing or snake gazing can never provide. A death on the cross  to cure death. Our sin and God’s grace in one symbol, the Cross.
Breaking bread is always enough
Luke 24: 13-24
A Teaching on Feb 8, 2016
given by Rev. Dr Everett Parker

  I feel an immediate point of identification with this text. I know how these two disciples feel as the text begins.
  When they start to follow Jesus, they have high anticipation, high energy, high enthusaism. Much like our Walk of Emmaus graduates after they attend a weekend.
 But, time passes, and things happen, and before you know it, you’re standing on the road, feeling sad.
  You make a confession of faith in Jesus Christ. Then you are baptized or confirmed. People congratulate you. You set out to serve Jesus.
  When you get into the church and you hear what people say about one another behind their backs, or about the pastor, and you see people maneuvering for turf, money, power and ego.
 Someone tells you what someone else has said about you, and it’s not kind. 
  You go home, pour a cup of coffee, flop down in a chair, and ask yourself, “What has this kind of behavior have to to with following Jesus?”
 Doesn’t happen here, you say? We’re not like that? Think again. 
 We have students who enroll in seminary in response to something stirring in their hearts. 
  They think it is a call, although perhaps it could be pressure from gas in their stomachs resulting from eating too much highly spiced food.
 At the end of a particularly boring class, some of them get papers back. 
  After stopping in the hall to see what the professor wrote in regard to evaluating their papers, they hope no one sees their eyes as they make their way to the bathroom for a little time alone. Sad, isn’t it?
 Not long ago, a minister with high hopes talked about a new place of service. 
 At the installation service, there were banners and flowers and a covered dish supper to beat all covered dish suppers.
 Only a couple of years later, mouths start wagging and they want the pastor to go. 
 They want someone new who will do things their way.
 We don’t want change, they say. You want to do things differently than we’ve done it for the past 50 years. 
 We want you to go so we can continue living in the past and watch our church die. Sad, isn’t it.
 On the road, the two disciples are discussing the things that had happened in Jerusalem.
 Jesus had been put to death. They had hoped that Jesus would have manifested the reign of God afresh, but He was crucified.
 Remember, the report of the crucifixion was still unconfirmed to them.
  Today they are having a theological conversation. They are discussing contradictions among their tradition, their expectation, and their experience.
 The sense of inconsistency is almost overpowering. Sad, isn’t it?
 Their sadness is not just an emotion of the moment. 
  It is the deep sadness of the soul, that almost sick feeling that something is fundamentally wrong, that your understanding of the world may be mistaken.
 They have the bone-deep sadness of having invested themselves in something they think isn’t true.
  Someone is on the road with them. Perhaps this other traveler has had training as a counselor because he helps them with their sadness.
 He asks leading questions to help them surface their issues. “What are you discussing with each other?” 
  If we had watched that encounter on tape, I’m sure that we would have heard the kind of therapeutic sounds that counselors sometimes make. Mmmmm. Yes, mmmmm.
  However, I cannot pass up the opportunity of pointing out that when faced with this kind of difficulty, Luke says that the person on the road with them did not just listen to them sypathetically.
 This traveler began with Moses and the prophets and interpreted the Bible to the disciples. 
 It was a hermaneutical moment. It was a systematic theology moment. The traveler was teaching them.
 Teaching can be a form of pastoral care. And our experience can illumine the Bible.
  Obviously, our folks here don’t need much pastoral care since our weekly teaching session, called Bible study, only draws a handful.
  Two disciples. One teacher. Make no mistake about it. Luke is stressing the importance of interpretation of the Bible and our experience in Christian community.
 Sometimes we are too close to our own situations to understand them as we need to.
  Things can stand between us and mature Christian understanding: lack of information, desires, vested interests, prejudices, blind spots, the urge for power and control, bullying.
  Sometimes we need someone else to help us cut through the underbrush in our lives -- the briars and brambles, and the vines that grow so thickly that they cut out the light and the possibility of life.
 These three people reach the village of Emmaus about nightfall. The two disciples invite the other traveler to eat with them.
 At one level, this invitation is just a basic rule of hospitality in the ancient Near East.
 You invite a guest to eat with you. What could be simpler? We do that even today.
 These travelers just do what they are supposed to do. They don’t do something that is fresh, creative, beyond expectation.
 They just do what they are supposed to do ... and something amazing happens.
  Parenthetically, I might note that some Christians would be amazed at what would happen if they would just do what we are supposed to do in the way we are supposed to do it.
 But think what could happen if we did MORE than we were expected to do.
  An ordinary meal in an ordinary place. Read verse 30 of our text, “When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them.”
 This is the language of the Lord’s Supper, which we rejoice and participate in today.
 Took. Blessed. Broke. Gave.
  “And their eyes were opened and they recognized Him.” That’s where this narrative is leading us! “And their eyes were opened and they recognized Him.”
 To see that the breaking of the bread reveals the presence of Jesus in our midst.
  Jesus was on the road with them, talking with them, opening the Scriptures, but they did not recognize the depth and power of His risen presence with them until the breaking of the bread. Isn’t that still true today?
  I am grateful for the renewed emphasis in our time for thinking about Christian practices, part of which is helping us to see the Lord’s Supper as something we do intentionally and repeatedly to help form us as Christians.
 What we practice in the sanctuary helps us put Christianity into practice outside the sanctuary.
 We practice in microscale in worship so that we can live the ways of Christ in the macroscale of life.
  One purpose of the practice of the Lord’s Supper, according to this story on the Emmaus road, is to help us realize that Jesus sometimes comes to use as a complete stranger.
  We encounter the stranger in the text and at the table, and when we leave the sanctuary, we are able to recognize Jesus present to us as a stranger in our world.
  From this perspective, postmodern philosophers have said nothing new when they call attention to the roles that others -- strangers -- can have in helping us to clarify our visions of life, our understanding of ourselves, and our relationships and Christian community.
 The story is told of a friendly neighborhood tailor at the end of World War II. His name was Mr. Birnbaum.
 He said to a minister client, “Pastor, I have a problem. As you know, I am a Jew and my wife is a Christian.
 “Her brother was a violent Nazi when we were in Germany during the war. He hated me and did nothing to help us.
 “He was happy to get rid of us. He would have killed me if he had the chance.
 “Now he is in a prison camp and has written us asking that we send him some food. My wife says no, we send him nothing.
 “But I say yes, we should send him something. What would you think, pastor?”
 Well, the question is unanswered, one of those philosophical “meaning of life” questions so terribly difficult to answer.
 I don’t know how you would have felt, but I would have been humbled and ashamed of his Christian wife.
  But even more so, I would have been ashamed of myself for being unprepared to meet the stranger God recognizable on the lips of a pleasant Jewish neighborhood tailor.
  Christians I know have had the experience over and over as they visit prisons and jails, work at Love INC, and in the soup kitchen, or take a turn at a homeless shelter.
  This incident on the Emmaus road helps us to realize that we can meet the risen Savior when we encounter strangers on the road and do what we are supposed to do.
 But there are moments when the practice of breaking of the bread is its own end.
  There are moments in life when nothing else seems to penetrate the sadness and bring us to recogniton of the presence of Jesus with us in quite the same way.
  There were two older women in the congregation. They had known each other for decades. Now the older one, in her 90s, was losing her sense of reality.
  And it was ... sad. They often sat together in church, holding hands in the way that older women sometimes do, at least in my neck of the woods.
  They went forward for the bread and cup, and the younger one gently worked their hands apart and helped the older one with the bread and cup.
  And on the face of the older one, a flicker. I don’t know for certain what went on with her, but I think that the bread and the cup opened the eyes of her heart, and she recognized His presence with her in a way that transends our usual categories of understanding.
  I would like to think that when we recognize Jesus’ presence in the breaking of the bread, our behavior as a church would change, and we would be empowered to speak honestly and well with and of one another.
  I would like to think that when we recognize Jesus’ presence in the breaking of the bread, we would feel empowered to go out on a nice day and visit our neighbors and encourage them to come to church, and never, never, never stop trying.
  I would like to think that when we recognize Jesus’ presence in the breaking of the bread, we would feel so empowered that we would want to share our enthusiasm with others that would take us deeper into Christian service and Christian community.
 I would like to think that when we get together around the table, we are all one people in God’s presence.
 And indeed that God would “bind us together with cords that cannot be broken.” AMEN
"Tripping and Falling"    
  I Corinthians 10: 1-13
1/31/16 Teaching by Rev Dr Everett Parker

Tripping and falling are quite common, yet the results can be serious. So, if you are going to fall, do it in a good place — like in church.

“A wandering mind.”

That’s the reason travel writer Jan Morris gives for the number of scars on her body that are the result of several falls in locations around the world. Writing in a national newspaper last year, she said, “The sad truth is, I have been falling over for years. I have tripped, slid, toppled and collided with lampposts on several continents, often because I am reading a book as I walk, or contemplating a distant skyline. I carry with me always the scars of a wandering mind.”

She goes on to tell the stories of several of her more memorable falls, including one when she stubbed her left big toe so hard on an ice block on Mount Everest that every five years since the toenail has come off.

It turns out, however, that Ms. Morris may be mistaken about the reason for her falls. While inattention to where one is going can certainly contribute to toppling over, a recent study in Japan of fallers suggests other factors at play. In that scientific study, the researchers recruited volunteers who were 75 or older and divided them into two groups according to their history of falling. One group included those who had had at least two falls in the previous year. The other group was comprised of people who had not fallen in the previous year. The researchers then studied how the participants in the two groups walked.

For the study, the researchers placed retro-reflective markers on certain points on each person’s trunk and limbs, and then, with the use of a special video system and five infrared cameras, they tracked, measured and charted the gait of these people as they walked along a specified walkway.

What they discovered is that the fallers were distinguished by three things in how they moved: 1) During the swing phase of their gait, they had less clearance between their toes and the floor than did the non-fallers. 2) The inclination of the soles of their feet relative to the floor during the swing phase was less than that of the non-fallers. 3) And they had more lateral sway of the trunk of their body relative to how far apart their feet were spaced during the stance phase of their gait. The combination of those three factors predisposes those possessing them to trip and/or fall more easily. 

The apostle Paul commented on this tripping trauma, though he had spiritual spills, not physical flops, in mind. Writing to the Corinthians, he said, “So if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall.” In today’s passage, he drew upon the history of the Israelites in the desert to remind his readers of the dangers of not paying attention to their commitments to God and to the manner in which they lived.

Paul pointed out that those ancient Israelites were offered spiritual sustenance but many ignored it, relying instead on the fact that God was taking care of them. Thus they concluded that they didn’t need to be too scrupulous in how they behaved.

Paul, however, observed that many of them did not survive to enter the promised land. Paul wanted his readers to avoid the same mistake and not assume their bad behavior was okay simply because they had professed faith in Christ. “So if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall,” he said.

In other words, their actions need to match their testimony.

Now that’s hardly an unexpected message from the Bible, but when Paul uses standing and falling as a metaphor for moral and spiritual faithfulness and sinning, he’s not talking about a deliberate departure from the ways of the Lord. Nobody wakes up and says “I’ve decided to fall down today.”

Falls are by definition unplanned and unexpected events.

Nonetheless, the imagery of falling gives us a way to think about how to remain spiritually upright. Studies have shown that  something as simple as toe clearance during the swing phase of gait, when diminished by only a small amount — sometimes by as little as the thickness of a piece of tape on the floor — can increase the risk of something bad happening, like a fall. 

Applying that finding to life in general, one can say that while it is of course important to think about the big things, the big obstacles, the big dangers that we all face, it is equally if not more important to pay attention to the small things — or those that seem at least on the surface to be small.

In other words, this is a kind of turning upside down view — that the small things are really big, and the big things are not nearly as big as they appear.

That has special application for Christians, for the big sins are so obvious that it is hard to accidentally commit them. We know we are doing wrong if we head down those paths. But the smaller ones — ah, they can trip us up.

One of the images that’s sometimes used to illustrate spiritual falling is that of an archer shooting an arrow toward a target. His aim is right, but when he looses the arrow, it doesn’t make it all the way to the intended destination. Instead, short of the target, it falls to the ground. The bowstring wasn’t pulled back far enough. A spiritual fall can be like that. Unlike a deliberate sin, where we don’t even aim at the target God provides, in the smaller sins, our aim is okay, but we don’t put enough energy behind the arrow to get it to its mark.

William Temple, the Archbishop of Canterbury back in the 1940s, gave us another way to think about the little things that trip us up. As an undergraduate, he went to hear a well-known American evangelist speak  about God’s forgiveness of sins. This minister used the text, “Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow.”

Temple said, “Though I went to the meeting in a serious, enquiring spirit, I found myself quite unmoved, for, alas, my sins were not scarlet, they were gray — all gray. They were not dramatic acts of rebellion and violent self-affirmation, but the colorless, tired sins of omission, inertia and timidity.”

That is likely true for many of us. W.B.J. Martin was a pastor who later used Temple’s story as the opening for a whole book about small sins, titled "Little Foxes that Spoil the Vines."  Martin did not discuss major transgressions of the Ten Commandments. Rather he included chapters on careless listening, stopping halfway, discourtesy, flippancy, ingratitude, by-standing and similar topics.

The title of his book comes from a verse in the Song of Solomon(2:15): "Catch us the foxes, the little foxes, that ruin the vineyards — for our vineyards are in blossom."

That verse appears in the midst of a love poem (2:8-17) where a young woman is waxing rhapsodic over her boyfriend. The rest of the verses rejoice in her lover’s qualities and speak of how delicious his love makes her feel.

But then, all of a sudden, she drops in this comment about little foxes that ruin vineyards. She is in the blush of new love and is looking at her lover through rose-colored glasses, and she views their relationship as a vineyard in blossom. But still, she recognizes the possibility of little things happening in their connection that can diminish their joy. So she wants to catch those little foxes, the ones that come in and nibble from each grape cluster and wreck the whole vineyard.

We know what kind of little foxes damage relationships: being selfish, thoughtless, taking one another for granted, not listening, and doing similar small but hurtful things.

In the introduction to the study on falling, the researchers identified falling as a “public health problem,” which means that its ramifications can be as serious as those from such major health concerns as cancer and heart disease. The study said, “Falls often lead to serious injuries such as hip fractures, resulting in hospitalization, confinement to bed or death.” That’s a lot of damage from a little fox.

So Paul is telling us to remain upright, to be careful not to fall. We know he’s speaking figuratively, but in truth, are the chances that we will make it through life without a spiritual stumble any better than making it through life without a physical fall? Probably not.

So here’s a suggestion: If you’re going to fall occasionally, do it in good places. In her article about her personal falls, Jan Morris tells of toppling over on a main street in winter in Edmonton, Alberta. Slipping on the ice up there is pretty common, because no one took the slightest notice of her. But then she says that two good places to fall over are Trieste, Italy, and Manhattan. In the former location, she tripped on a paving stone (probably not enough toe clearance!) and landed flat on her back. She opened her eyes to find herself surrounded by dozens of anxious citizens offering commiseration and advice. In Manhattan, she fell over into a gutter near the horse carriages at Central Park and immediately received the solicitous attentions of the horse-cab drivers.

To translate this point to the falling metaphor, consider that if you’re going to be tripped up by a little fox, be in a good place: Be an active member of a caring congregation when it happens. Falling is not good, but it is better when there are loving people to help us clean up after it happens and get us back on our feet.

Sometimes when people take some moral tumble, the first thing they do is stop coming to church. Maybe they think others are going to judge them. Maybe they think it would appear hypocritical to come when some spiritual plummet has occurred. Maybe they are embarrassed or ashamed. But whatever their reason, they are cutting themselves off from a great source of help.

Think instead of a man in one church we know of who was accused of taking some money from where he worked. He was taken to court and eventually pled guilty in a plea agreement. While he served no jail time, he did lose his job and his pension. He did not, however, stop coming to church, and he shared with his fellow worshipers what had happened. That congregation rallied around him with moral support and encouragement, and they helped him to get upright again.

We are all susceptible to spiritual tumbles of one sort or another, to little sins or even big ones. But let’s keep our connection with our congregation active and strong. It’s one of the good places to be, if we happen to fall. It’s a good place to receive help to get upright again.

Dress code for Christians  
  Colossians 3: 12-17
A Teaching on January 24, 2016 given by Rev. Dr Everett Parker

 We Americans are now used to dressing casual for just about any occasion. 
 If circumstances warrant, we can even dress down -- to tank tops, straw hats and flip-flops. 
  Generally, we don’t like dress codes. But airlines do. They still reserve the right to boot us off a flight if our attire is deemed offensive. 
 This brings us to Colossians 3 where the apostle Paul talks about his tastes in fashion.
 Let’s begin by jumping in the “way-back-when” machine for a moment.
 Imagine it’s Christmas week in 1955 and you’re getting ready to board an airplane to head home to grandma’s for the holidays. 
  If you’re getting on the plane at all it means that you’re probably having a very merry Christmas given that your bank account must be fatter than Santa’s. 
 Commercial air travel is still a fairly new concept in 1955, and the tickets are outrageously expensive. 
  Of course, you might not mind, given that you’re served a meal of lobster on real china and glassware, and all your drinks (alcohol included) are free and unlimited. 
  You stretch out in your seat with the extra three to six inches of legroom and relax. Of course, before the flight even began, you arrived at the airport a half hour before the flight, strolled to the gate and leisurely walked out to the plane.
  And, of course, you are properly attired for the occasion. Flying on an airplane is a sophisticated adventure in 1955, which means “dressing to the nines” -- suit and tie for men, appropriate dresses for women. 
 The passengers look so good that they often line up for a group picture before getting on the plane. 
 Fast forward now some 61 years, and it’s an understatement to say that things have changed. 
  At the airport, you have to get through security, do the TSA striptease and produce ID, something our air-traveling ancestors never had to do. 
  You fight for space in the overhead compartment, you wedge yourself into a seat with less legroom than prisoners get in solitary confinement; you eat your six mini pretzels and wash them down with a half ounce of ginger ale.
  When you look around at your fellow passengers and notice that, while a few may be dressed for a business meeting, others look like they’re headed to a punk rock concert. 
  And 85 percent of the passengers are wearing flip-flops. The relaxed standards notwithstanding, if you’re dressed inappropriately, you could get tossed off the plane.
  Getting thrown off a plane for wardrobe infractions was virtually unheard of in the 1950s, but today it’s becoming more common. 
  One woman is reprimanded for showing too much ... well, let’s just leave it at that. A man with a four-letter expletive on his T-shirt is told to put something over it or get off the plane. 
  Another man is barred from a flight because his shirt says, “Terrists gonna kill us all” -- and yes, “terrorists” is spelled “terrists.” But we won’t even get into English spelling today.
  ell, air travel wasn’t an option in Paul’s day, of course, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t concerned about a dress code for those who would be traveling with the good news of Jesus Christ.
  If it’s true that you are what you wear, Paul is concerned that those who represent Christ “put on” clothes that never go out of style and are always worn with others in mind.
  Paul begins by reminding the Colossian church that it’s never been about marking ourselves as different and claiming our individual rights regardless of how they affect others. 
  If you are in Christ, he reminds the church, then you are a new person with a new wardrobe. “There is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free, but Christ is all and in all” (v. 11). 
  Our dress, our demeanor, our posture and our attitudes are to reflect the one who chose us in Christ, which means we have to “put to death” the “earthly” and self-serving desires that are so common in this world (vv. 5-8). 
  We “strip off the old self with its practices” and clothe ourselves with “the new self, which is being renewed according to the image of its creator” (vv. 9-10). 
  It’s not about calling attention to ourselves, in other words, but rather seeing our whole lives as pointing to the one in whose image we are made.
 Paul goes on to outline the dress code for those who would board "Air Jesus." 
  The five pieces of clothing listed in verse 12 are all designed to communicate Christ to others and to pay attention to their needs. 
  Compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience are virtues that we should have on us at all times, whether we’re boarding a plane or walking through the neighborhood. 
 Bearing this kind of character clothing demonstrates to the world that our agenda is always about reflecting Christ.
 Compassion is sympathy for the situations of others. 
  That guy who is struggling to find a seat on the plane or who is giving you a hard time at work is likely dealing with things you have no idea about.
  When someone is acting out, the issue is usually not the issue, be it lack of space in the overhead or a perceived slight from another person. 
 Most of the time our bad behavior is the result of something going on in our lives that has us stuck. 
 Compassion looks for the opportunity to care for people where they are, to love them in spite of their situation.
 Kindness is the active consideration for others and their needs. Think of it as compassion taking action. 
 Rather than categorize people by their dress and demeanor, we look for ways to care for them where they are. 
 We represent Jesus, whose kindness drew people to him rather than pushing them away.
 Humility helps us to see others as more important than ourselves. This is an important theme for the apostle Paul:
 With all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love (Ephesians 4:2);
  Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves (Philippians 2:3);
  Do not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think (Romans 12:3).
  And the apostle James adds, “Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom” (James 3:13).
 Saint Augustine said, “It was pride that changed angels into devils; it is humility that makes humans as angels.” 
  Yet, sometimes it would appear that not many of us are interested in being “as angels,” for the garment of humility is so infrequently worn these days. 
 It’s perhaps -- of all the items in the Christian’s wardrobe -- the one garment we’re likely to keep in the closet.
  The irony is that this garment of humility is also a garment that goes with anything! It never clashes with whatever else you’re wearing.
  Meekness or gentleness involves courtesy and consideration for others, waiving our rights to personal gain in order to lift up the other. 
 This piece of Christian clothing is sometimes mysterious to us. We’re not sure just what it’s about. 
  I would suggest we’ve lost the true meaning of meekness. Meek doesn’t mean weak. Jesus and Moses were described as meek, and they certainly were anything but weak. 
  Meekness really means strength under control. The Greek word referred to a wild horse tamed or medicine that could tame a fever.
  Patience is the ability to not become frustrated and angry when others intrude on us, but, instead, offer forgiveness for their shortcomings. 
  After all, Paul says, we ourselves have tested the patience of God with our own sin. So, “just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you must also forgive” (v. 13).
  And then there’s love. All of these virtuous pieces of character clothing are vitally important for the Christian traveler, but the one piece of clothing that goes over them all like a warm overcoat is love, “which binds everything together in perfect harmony” (v. 14).  Paul writes about this outer garment elsewhere in 1 Corinthians 13: It is patient, kind, not self-seeking, keeps no record of wrongs and always rejoices with the truth. 
  In short, love is the goal of the disciple’s dress code. It’s fashionable everywhere, and is always welcome when boarding a plane or anywhere else people gather!
 In fact, it’s love that puts the Christian on the journey in the first place. 
 Interestingly, the word for “binds” in verse 14 is the same Greek word for “ligaments.” 
 In the human body, ligaments keep the bones connected and enable the body to move. 
 If the ligaments of love are healthy in the Christ Body, then the church will always be on the move. 
 Without love, on the other hand, we stay buckled in place, unable and unwilling to go anywhere for Christ. 
 Building a wardrobe of love is thus one of the key tasks of our church.
 So how do we keep the wardrobe fresh?
How do we do that? How do we maintain this wardrobe in a world where people tend to dress their lives in ways that are hostile or tempting or offensive?
  We take our wardrobe to the cleaners, that’s how. Paul says we should take our character clothing to the cleaners, i.e., the church. 
  Worship and community are crucial. Paul calls the church to worship and practice love within the fellowship so that when the members are apart from one another, they are still uniformly dressed to take the gospel to the world.
  A style that is always fresh is peace. “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which you were indeed called in the one body, and be thankful,” says Paul (v. 16). 
  Cleaning agents: teaching and “admonition.” “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom” (v. 16). 
  We gather to hear the word of Christ, to teach one another, so that we can be equipped with the wisdom to wear and communicate Christlike character to those we meet.
  Accessories: praise and gratitude. And last, we express praise and gratitude. We worship “with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs to God” (v. 16). 
 An old Latin proverb says that as we worship, so we believe, and so we live. 
  We may (or may not) put on our Sunday best to come to worship, but the character we wear on Monday as a result of that worship is even more noticeable to the people we will meet.
  “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (v. 17). 
 If you’re going to wear any sort of message on your shirt or, better yet, on your heart, it’s gratitude. 
  We may not put on a suit to get on the plane to go home for the holidays, but we must always put on Christ, reflecting his influence in every word, deed and act of love.
 And speaking of dress codes, what is it about dressing up for church that we don’t do anymore?
  If you’re headed out the door in a suit or a smart outfit, and if you’re under the age of 92, I can say, with absolute certainty, that it is not Sunday and that you’re not going to church.
 You might be headed for a job interview, a seminar or a meeting with the boss. 
 You could be off to the art gallery, a fancy restaurant or a funeral. But you’re not headed for church. 
  This sad state of affairs is not the way it used to be. Getting ready for church involved a Saturday night bath, the ironing of a white dress shirt (and starching the collar), scrubbing the kids’ faces clean and getting out the Sunday clothes. 
 These clothes were the best and the brightest the family had. Maybe some of them were store-bought. 
 Nore likely, mom sewed the dresses or shirts on a treadle Singer machine. That’s what my mother did.
 When people go to church these days, they often dress like bedraggled hobos. Have you looked around? 
  Men might be in T-shirts mottled with coffee stains, or in ratty jeans, ugly shorts and flip-flops -- the most omnious sign in our times of the decline of civilization. 
 Women are wearing stretch pants, sweats, shorts and, yes, flip-flops. Thankfully, not here.
  We’re wearing essentially the attire of our Neolithic ancestors: a loincloth and sandals. If our clothes are a means of self-expression, we clearly loathe ourselves.
 Think about it: We’re daring to approach a transcendent God dressed like Neanderthals? Really? AMEN
Shadow work     
              I Corinthians 12: 1-11
A Teaching given on January 17, 2016 by Rev. Dr. Everett Parker

 If you’re older than a certain age, you remember how things “used to be.” 
 Jan says it’s my favorite expression because I’m over that “certain age.”
  Used to be that if we wanted a round-trip airfare to a domestic or international destination, we’d go visit the local travel agent. Not anymore. 
  Used to be that a gas jockey would pump our gas. I did that in high school when kids actually worked and went to school. Not anymore. 
 Used to be that we’d buy a bedroom dresser and have it delivered, perhaps even custom made. Not anymore. 
 Today, we do all of these things ourselves. And it takes up a lot of our time. It’s called “shadow work.” 
 Shadow work. Pumping our own gas. Assembling our own furniture. Booking our own travel, and so much more.
  In years past, other people used to do this work for pay. But now we do it ourselves, for free ... if you can make out assembly instructions from China.
 Clearly, these efforts take time. Lots of time.
 At home, we go to the Internet for guidance on our medical problems. 
 Over the past two decades, as technology has taken off, new tasks have been crammed into our already full to-do lists.
 Sure, some might say that this “do-it-yourself” approach is empowering. 
  But take a look at the consequences of all this “shadow work” or self-service. Shadow work makes us not just busier, but exhausted and isolated.
 We are interacting more with our screens than with other humans, and we are doing it at unreasonable hours. 
  Before you can hope to rebalance your time, you’d better first understand how you actually spend it. So how are you actually spending your time? Great question.
 A lot of it is devoted to shadow work.
  I got the idea for this from an article in the Harvard Business Review with the title: “Are you proud of how you’re spending your time?” 
 The author urges us to stop doing what seems to be most urgent, and start intentionally investing in what’s most important.
  There’s a difference between what is most urgent and what is most important. Answering that email, for example, is really not as important as attending your child’s soccer game.
 And this has a direct impact on how you attend church, and how much time you devote to church activities.
  It is so easy to lose track of who you are, what you enjoy, where you are in life and where you’re going, unless you purposely and intentionally take time to reflect.
 We must not only prioritize our lives, we must devote time, energy and finances to this church. Period. 
 We have got to lose the “I’m too busy” attitude and garner an additude of “What can I do to help?” 
  And that means getting rid of attitudes, hurt feelings and gossiping and getting on with working together to make this church grow. 
 We have, collectively, got to pull up our long pants and say we will work together.
 The apostle Paul has the very same concern, which is why he writes the Christians in Corinth about the gifts of the Spirit. 
  He wants them to be proud of how they are spending their time, and to make sure that they’re focusing on the “Spirit work” that they can accomplish as members of the body of Christ.
 One of the dangers of shadow work is that it distracts us from Spirit work.
 “Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed,” writes Paul in verse one. 
 “You know that when you were pagans, you were enticed and led astray to idols that could not speak” (v. 2).
  Amazing, isn’t it, how the truths of the Bible can leap the centuries and speak to us exactly where we are, here in this place, today? 
  We are still “enticed and led astray” -- maybe not by Greco-Roman idols, but by emails, text messages, social media, websites, Facebook, gossiping and innuendo. 
 Like the Christians of Corinth, we are no longer focusing on what is important.
  “Now there are varieties of gifts,” says Paul, “but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone” (vv. 4-6). 
 Notice that Paul is not saying that Spirit work is limited to a single gift, service or activity. 
 No, there are varieties of gifts, services and activities. 
 That unites this distinctive kind of work is that it all comes to us from the same divine source.
 What source is that? To each of us “is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (v. 7).
 Spirit work comes from one God -- Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And it serves the common good.
 When we grasp this, we move from shadow to Spirit. So what is Spirit work and what does this work look like? 
  Paul says that “to one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit.” (v. 8)
  New Testament scholar C.K. Barrett suggests that the “the utterance of wisdom” might deal with ethical matters while “the utterance of knowledge” includes theological matters. 
  Ethics talks about what we should do, while theology talks about what we should believe -- both doing and believing are important work, and both serve the common good.
 Ethical actions need to support our theological beliefs -- otherwise, people will rightly accuse us of being hypocrites.
  We cannot just say we love our neighbors; We must actually perform acts of love.
  We cannot simply believe in forgiveness; We must forgive those who hurt us.
  We cannot only talk about justice; We have to do justice.
  We wonder why people don’t want to go to church anymore. One researcher staked out a spot in a city park, and asked people why they weren’t in church. 
  One of the top responses he got was, “They’re a bunch of hypocrites.” Clearly, no one wants to go to a church where people say one thing and then do another.
  But there is more to this response. The same researcher said, “What bothers them is the sense that church people act like they have all the answers. That they’ve arrived. That they’re only interested in telling others what to do.”
 People are not impressed by “the utterance of knowledge” -- theological insights that support Christian faith. 
  f we are going to attract people to church, we need to act in ethical ways and support what the apostle Paul calls “the utterance of wisdom.” 
  That’s real, solid, down-to-earth wisdom. Such wisdom is grounded in concrete actions that give people an experience of the love of God.
 I’m in my 30th year of being in the pulpit, so I’m entitled to a few thoughts on church.  
 I believe most people are not looking for the “deep” theological trivia that seems to interest some pastors. 
  Interestingly, during my now going into five years at this church, I’ve seen one person leave because I was not “preaching the Word with hellfire and brimstone!”
  But in reality, I believe people crave something very simple. It’s not the Bible-thumping, hellfire preaching that some of you may think.
  Rather, we’re dying to be reassured that God is real, that he is more than a historical figure, that he is present today and that he is active in the lives of people around them.
  Spirit work assures people that God is real. Through simple actions, it shows people that God is present in the lives of members of the Christian community.
  Within the church, some are given “gifts of healing by the one Spirit,” says Paul, “to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues” (vv. 9-10). 
 This list describes a variety of skill sets, or gifts, that are in the believer’s toolbox. 
 The skills range from healing to the interpretation of spiritual languages. 
  The point is not that any one of these gifts is superior to the others, but that “all these are activated by one and the same Spirit,” says Paul, “who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses” (v. 11).
  Each of us has these skills. Not just the pastor, not just two or three of us ... but ALL have these skills and abilities. But are YOU using yours?
  Sometimes, the scale of these gifts is very small. One person recently said, “My purpose is simply to be the person ... who can pick up the phone and give you 30 minutes in your time of crisis.”
 That’s Spirit work. It serves the common good, and builds up the Christian community.
 How are YOU using your gifts for the betterment of this church? 
 Our challenge is to clear away our Shadow work so that the gifts of the Spirit can be put to use right here in this place. 
 We can begin by turning off our screens for a while and turning toward each other. 
 It’s only when we look each other in the eye and engage in real conversation that we can show each other the love of God. 
 This might not seem to be the most urgent of work, but it is usually the most important.
  But why won’t be do it? We have a monthly fellowship supper, but only about a quarter of our people attend. Why? You have to eat.
  We have a weekly luncheon after church, but only a handful of people stay and enjoy food and conversation. It’s where “church” really begins.
 But why don’t all of the others remain? Oh, I hear a lot of excuses, but not real reasons. 
 Someone got offended by something, one brings more food than another, etc., etc. Excuses, excuses. 
  We have weekly Wednesday night Bible study, but where are the vast majority of you? Certainly not in the Fellowship Hall at 7p.m.!
 We gotta pull up our long pants and get back to being church instead of being offended by everything and everyone.
 The good news about Spirit work is that it energizes us and connects us to one another. 
 Instead of feeling exhaustion and isolation, we begin to experience inspiration, community and unity. 
  We discover the truth of what Paul says to the Corinthians, “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ” (v. 12).
  The future of this church is up to you. When we do these things, we will find ourselves closer to God, closer to Jesus, closer to each other and better able to serve the common good.
Here is my servant  
                Matthew 3: 13-17
Teaching given by Rev. Dr. Everett Parker on January 10, 2016

  Today, we observe the baptism of the Lord, the beginning of that season after the Epiphany when we celebrate the revelation, the manifestation of God in Christ.
  We shall explore the texts in Isaiah 42 and Matthew 3, texts appointed for the baptism of the Lord as a way of exploring the peculiar nature of the One who comes among us as the Christ.
  Here is the Messiah, the chosen instrument of God. Yet early on, we come to learn that this is not necessarily the Messiah we expected.
 We did not expect to be saved by one so humble, so submissive to God’s will.
  The passage from Isaiah, specifically chapter 42, verses 1-9, is actually from a section that biblical scholars call “Second Isaiah.”
 First Isaiah was written to the Hebrews before they were taken into captivity in Babylon.
  Second Isaiah comes just as they are about to come home, and the prophet, convinced that they may have forgotten who God is, reminds them.
  Isaiah means for Israel to take heart. As last Israel’s cries to God have been heard! At last God is sending a “servant” who will lead His people back home.
 But when that servant appears, the servant does not appear in the form they had expected.
 The heart of the passage is found in the first nine verses. Reading from the King James Version:
  “Behold my servant, whom I uphold; mine elect, in whom my soul delighteth; I have put my spirit upon him: he shall bring forth judgment to the Gentiles. He shall not cry, nor lift up, nor cause his voice to be heard in the street.
    "A bruised reed shall he not break, and the smoking flax shall he not quench: he shall bring forth judgment unto truth. He shall not fail nor be discouraged, till he have set judgment in the earth: and the isles shall wait for his law. Thus saith God the Lord, he that created the heavens, and stretched them out; he that spread forth the earth, and that which cometh out of it; he that giveth breath unto the people upon it, and spirit to them that walk therein. I the Lord have called thee in righteousness, and will hold thine hand, and will keep thee, and give thee for a covenant of the people, for a light of the Gentiles. To open the blind eyes, to bring out the prisoners from the prison, and them that sit in darkness out of the prison house. I am the Lord: that is my name: and my glory will I not give to another, neither my praise to graven images. Behold, the former things are come to pass, and new things do I declare: before they spring forth I tell you of them.”
  Who is God? A bruised reed ... he will not break ... a dimly burning stick ... he will not quench, he will faithfully bring forth justice.
 First the grand announcement that this one is the servant of God.
 This servant comes to work justice. Well, finally, hooray! At last we are going to get some justice from God, the people think.
 But then the prophet speaks of this mighty justice worker from God as a dimly burning wick and a bruised reed.
 How in the world is such as frail, vulnerable servant going to do any good? Does this sound very effective?
 Unless ... the good that this servant does is congruent with God’s will for the world.
 Unless he embodies, in his life and work, God’s way of dealing with what’s wrong with us and what’s wrong with the world.
 Jesus appears, in today’s gospel reading from Matthew 3, on the banks of the river Jordan to be baptized. 
 But John hesitates and is confused. What kind of Messiah is this who submits to John’s baptism? 
 Like John, we, too, are surprised by the way God is in Jesus.
  This Sunday, when the gospel focuses on the baptism of Jesus, is a good time for our figurative baptism, a beginning anew, an Epiphany, in this life of this congregation.
 Baptism is the commissioning of new “servants” for Christ, the servant.
 From what I have observed in now 30 years as a pastor, most of us, in our heart of hearts, have a quarrel with God.
 What’s this you say, a quarrel with God? Certainly not me! That made you listen, right?
 This don’t mean to imply we are angry with God, although most of us from time to time do indeed become upset with God.
  What I really mean is that we are puzzled and perplexed by the way God is in the world, by what God chooses to do and how God chooses to do it.
  Or another way of putting it is this: if we were God, if we had God’s power, if we had God’s majestic and comprehensive presence in the world, things would be different, wouldn’t they?
 We would be God in a different way than the God of the Scriptures. But is that good?
  You may remember a number of years ago the delightful book Children’s Letters to God. One of those letters was by a little girl named Norma.
 She wrote: “Dear God, did you mean for giraffes to look that way, or was it an accident?”
  A retired theology professor said, “When I get to heaven, I’m going to stand before the throne of God with a cancer cell in my hand and ask, ‘Why? Why?’”
  When you get down to it, most of us, in our heart of hearts, have a quarrel with God, which is one of the reasons my systematic theology professor of old commented, “We keep producing revised standard versions of God.”
 Dissatisfied with the way God really is, we project onto God the way we wish God was, which is usually a version of ourselves.
 If we are athletic, then God becomes a kind of cosmic football player.
 If we’re sympathetic to workers, God becomes a kind of union organizer.
 If we are political conservatives, God becomes the patron of down-home American family values. 
 If we are an ardent capitalist, God becomes a chamber of commerce advocate.
 So we produce revised standard versions of the way we wish God really was. 
  This is, of course, idolatrous and one of the reasons that the Bible keeps coming to us, to refresh our memory, to knock down the false images of God that we create and project upon God.
 And to irrigate the fields of our religious imaginations with the truth of the way God really is in the world.
  That’s the purpose of the passage we just read in Isaiah -- to renew our understanding of the way God really is in the world -- and we may not like it.
  What Isaiah says first of all is that whatever agenda we wish God would have, the main intention of God in the world is to establish justice on the earth.
  Justice, in the vocabulary of the Old Testament, is another way of saying that God’s primary will is to repair creation, to make humanity and all creation the way God intended it to be at the beginning.
  This sounds like a good thing, of course, until we realize how much we have invested in the way things are now instead of the way God intended things to be in creation.
  This is why, as we heard last week, King Herod and “all of Jerusalem” shook when they heard that the Christ child had been born, because if the baby is king, we can’t be king.
 God isn’t the “king” I thought God was going to be! God is going to establish justice. Great! So why doesn’t God get to it?
 But the prophets say, “He comes not as a military conqueror, but as a gentle gardener and a lamp lighter.”
 A bruised reed ... he will not break. A dimly burning wick ... he will not extinguish.
 Why? I do not know. You do not know. God’s thoughts are not my thoughts, nor yours. God’s ways are not our ways.
  I do know this, though ... when we call down God’s justice on the world, we assume that it is justice for others and punishment for others.
  But the truth of the matter is, we, too, all of us, are bruised reeds and dimly burning wicks, and God chooses not to rain down wrath on us.
 But God climbs up on a cross and takes wrath upon Himself.
 Because a bruised reed ... he will not break, and a dimly burning wick, He will not quench.
 There is an incident that sticks in my mind as an illustration about God’s way with us.
 Late one spring, a young parishioner came by the church office for a cup of coffee.
 During conversation, she said, “I have a secret to tell you, pastor. I’m pregnant.”
  It was joyous news. She and her husband had a seven-year-old daughter, and they had been trying unsuccessfuly since their daughter had been born to have another child.
 Now she was pregnant. But the news was not what either of them expected.
  “We just got the test results and we know two things about our child. Our child will be a boy, and he will have Down’s syndrome.”
 The pastor said he knew she must be a bruised reed and a dimly burning wick. 
 “I don’t know how we are going to handle it,” she said, “but we are trusting in God to help us.”
 Months later, the pastor received a Christmas letter from the young woman, now relocated in another state.
 “After nine long months of unmitigated discomfort, at four in the morning, I knew the magic moment had come,” she wrote.
  “At 10:55 a.m., Timothy Andrew took his first breath ... and let out a heary yell. He was whisked off to the neo-natal intensive care unit where he spent the next three days before coming home.
  “He shatters daily our images of handicapped and special needs. He may need special help, but already he is no slouch in giving special love. We are blessed.”
 The Scriptures today remind us that God’s ways are not our ways; God’s thoughts are not our thoughts. And thank God for that!
 For a bruised reed, God will not break, and a dimly burning wick he would not extinguish. AMEN.

Our Epiphany        
        Matthew 2: 1-12
A Teaching by Rev. Dr. Everett Parker on January 3, 2016

  A child was singing with her cherub choir at a recent Christmas pageant in the fellowship hall of her church.
 All the delightful young voices in the choir were in cadence until the children reached the chorus.
  This lovely, little angelic girl was missing a singular word as three wise men slowly paced down the center aisle wearing plastic crowns.
 She sang unmistakably, “O star of wonder, star of FRIGHT, star with royal beauty bright.”
  While this child had mistaken the phonetics of a familiar Ephipany carol, she comprehended accurately the theology of this sacred season.
 She perceptively interpreted the awesome mystery of God’s epiphany through the birth of the Messiah.
 C.S. Lewis once confessed that he was amazed that people are not amazed when they hear the story of the Incarnation.
  This is the assumption of a human nature by God in the person of Jesus Christ. The narrative in Matthew’s gospel that tells the story of the Magi is an account of men who were astonished by what they saw.
 They were astrologers who pursued with fear and trembling the star that led them to discover history’s most profound mystery.
  They had consulted diligently the old Hebrew scriptures. They had worshipped with the prayer of the psalmist on their lips: “May all kings fall down before him, all nations give him service.”
 They had considered this coronation poetry of Israel as a hymn of praise devoted to the coming Messiah.
 They were acquainted with the prophet Micah, who wrote in chapter 5, verse 2:
  “But you, O Bethlehem, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule Israel, whose origin is from old from ancient days.”
  The Gospel of Matthew is our only source of knowledge concerning the Magi. We cannot even accurately assume there were three, for the text merely refers to them in the plural. There could have been two or six, or who knows?
 They were probably not kings. Christian legend renders names and identities, but the historicity of accurateness is vague.
  The great cathedral in Colonge, Germany is a sight to behold ... it is breathtaking. It is one of the greatest and most impressive buildings to see. It is massive.
  And it would never have been constructed over a 500 year period had not the people of the city not believed that the sarcophagus in the basilica’s chancel contained the bones of the Magi.
 These men from the East appeared mysteriously on the stage of history and continue to haunt our imaginations.
  They were bold. They were brazen enough to tell a pompous King Herod that they had come all the way to Judea to worship the REAL king of the Jews. Remember that from last week?
  They stood in Herod’s majestic Jerusalem court and announced that Herod’s dynasty would be eclipsed by the birth of a child in the tiny village of Bethlehem, from one of Judah’s most insignificant tribes.
  The Magi were pilgrims in pursuit of a promise. They were messengers of a great mystery. They followed a heavenly star in order to discover an earthly truth.
  Nearly five decades later, the apostle Paul wrote about the meaning of the Incarnation. He made no reference to the birth of Jesus. He disclosed no knowledge of the mysterious visitation of the Magi.
  But he shared their sense of awe and wonder. “In former generations,” he explained to his friends in the church at Ephasus in the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, 
  “In former generations, this mystery was not made known to humankind, as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophet by the Spirit.”
 Paul believed that God’s eternal mystery was revealed through the coming of Jesus.
 God’s plan for the world’s destiny was disclosed through the One born in Bethlehem.
 The Magi were drawn by the force of that mystery, and thus they followed the star.
 Herod and his court of well-paid wise men missed the significance of the moment.
 Within two years, Herod was dead. This savage, paranoid power-grabber became a footnote in history.
  The contrast of the Magi and Herod reminds one of this verse: “Two men gazed out prison bars. One looked upon the mud; the other focused on the stars.”
  Either we live our lives with an awareness of awe, or we miss the mysterious epiphany of God within the ordinary stuff of existence.
 Ephipany, defined, means a sudden, intuitive leap of understanding ... of comprehension.
  Not so long ago, the flamboyant author Thomas Wolfe delivered an astonishing address. He observed the uniqueness of this present moment in history.
  There are no rival superpowers. The Cold War is over. Despite the war in Afghanistan, the potential for an era of “Pax Americana” has arrived, he said, peace without mission.
 Wolfe then observed that the old intellectual models are breaking down.
  Freud has long since been debunked. French intellectuals who are not creationists have ripped to shreads the assumptions of Darwin. There is now no intellectual consensus.
 Perhaps Flannery O’Conner, a Catholic writer in Georgia, stated the truth most succinctly when she surmised, 
 “Life is more a mystery to be revered than a problem to be solved.” 
  The perpetual message of the church is that life is a glorious mystery. Life’s pilgrimage has a purpose and destination where we walk with Christ toward His future.
 The cue of life’s mystery is revealed through His life, death and resurrection. His life interprets our lives.
 We are not called to be problem solvers.
 We are beholders of and witnesses to a great mystery.
 We do not explain life. We celebrate it.
 We give thanks for the gift of life.
 We are absorbed into the sacredness of our life in Christ.
  Today, in a moment, we shall receive Holy Communion, our first in the New Year. As we do so, we should acknowledge that we live in the context of an exciting mystery and that God’s eternal promise has been carried out through the Messiah in whom we have access to God.
 When William Blake was a youngster, he rambled over the hills near his home in London. He was not inhibited in imagination.
 So he returned home one day to tell his parents that he had seen a tree filled with angels.
  His father started to punish him for telling a lie. But his wise mother rescued William Blake from his father’s blindness. It was in that moment that the heart of a great poet was born.
  As we launch into the new year, and the final few weeks that Jan and I will be with you, we can choose to live our lives immersed in mundane trivia each day.
 Or, we can choose to live an awareness of life as a holy, mysterious gift.
 We can arise fresh each morning and enjoy the sunlight shimmering through the silvery glow of nearby trees.
 We can be absorbed by the presence of the holy in ordinary occurrences in our families.
  We can see the face of Jesus in the countenance of the poor. We can gaze at the stars at night as did the Magi and view our lives as a pilgrimage instead of an apology.
  I invite you, therefore, as we receive Communion, to utter this prayer: “Today I am not too busy to taste the mystery, the majesty and the mercy of God.” Amen. 
In the days of Herod the king  
                        Matthew 2: 13-23
A Teaching given by Rev. Dr. Everett Parker 12/27/15

 On the Sunday after Christmas, like the Sunday after Easter, just about everything seems to have been said and done.
 There is an inevitable let-down that follows such a season of high expectation.
  If we had any sense or any money left, we’d have gone traveling, visiting with family out of town, or somewhere to ease the disappointment of it all being over.
 It seems we look forward to Christmas for so long that, when it’s over, the silence is deafening. 
  Perhaps you know those who begin their Christmas shopping in June or July, keeping an eye out for sales and bargains, and putting things away for the holidays. 
  By Thanksgiving, they are finished with their shopping. Don’t you just hate that? I mean, I’ve been known to haunt the stores on Christmas Eve trying to find gifts.
  In years of escorting bus tours, Jan and I would shake our heads in disbelief when we stopped at some beautiful or historic spot, whether the Grand Canyon or Yosemite or Quebec City, and the women would run for the gift shops as if their lives depended on finding something to buy. And, of course, missing out on why they were there.
  Some live for a secular Christmas, it seems, and are disappointed when it passes every year, as if all 12 months were keyed to December 25. What a letdown it must be on December 26.
  I forget now who it was that said, “Nothing is as over as Christmas when it is over.” 
 And it seems some years, what with the world in the state it’s in, that Christmas is over before it begins.
  Recently on the radio, someone said that over 2,000 people wold be killed and another 38,000 wounded in the 10 days around Christmas and New Year’s.
  And if that kind of thing isn’t enough to dampen the Christmas spirit, there is always other grisly news, especially in today’s heightened state of international terrorism.
 It all seems to mock the Christmas story, the story of angels announcing the arrival of peace on earth and good will to all.
  These things would be discouraging at any time, but there’s something about them happening at Christmas that makes them seem even more out of place, more shocking than usual.
 There’s something in me that wants the world and myself to change for the better at Christmas, to become uptoian.
 I have this fantasy that wonderful, impossible things will happen in these days.
  I imagine that armies will lay down their arms, that someone I’ve loved and is now gone will make a special Christmas appearance, that magical things will occur that are otherwise out of the question.
  The deadly sameness of life will be a thing of the past; the slate will be wiped clean; all the errors and sins and frustations of the past will be left behind, never to be brought to mind again.
 A new day will have dawned unlike the past in any way. But past experience has shown that none of this is true.
 Nothing seems to change. There is just a continuation of what’s gone before.
  All the problems and frustrations we have had to face will still be there. None of the world’s difficulties will have been resolved; none will have gone away.
  We’ll still be working hard, and the pile of work on my desk will remain. Why, already the IRS is sending forms in the mail to remind us that the year is passing away.
  It’s no wonder that no sooner than the dishes from Christmas dinner are washed and put away that there is a letdown that settles in and carries on through the bleak mid-winter until spring offers us yet a different kind of hope.
 In the days after Christmas, there’s a letdown because nothing is as over as Christmas when it’s over.
  This letdown after the spiritual and emotional high of Christmas is not unknown in the very story of Christmas itself as Matthew tells it.
  The kings, of the three kings fame, had gone to Herod to check on his knowledge of where the Jewish messiah was to be born. The magi are asking the established king of the Jews where to find the NEW king of the Jews.
 Matthew understates the case when he says that Herod was troubled and all Jerusalem with him.
  Herod waited to hear back from the itinerant magi, but no word came, so he called astrologers and soothsayers and decided on Bethlehem as his target area.
  He would kill all the male children under two years of age living in the city. It was reminiscent of Pharaoh’s order that all the Hebrew male children should be cast into the Nile, the order that issued Moses into the bulrushes.
  The horrible deed ordered by Herod is known in some denominations as the Slaughter of the Holy Innocents, and it is assigned by the lectionary to be remembered during the week after Christmas.
 It is often dealt with lightly in the commentaries; no one has much to say about it, perhaps no stomach for it.
 Its historicity is questioned by some, its meaning by many.
 But on one thing there is agreement -- Herod was not above such a thing, such an act.
  It was reported of him that he was given to fits of ungovernable rage and that in his lifetime, he had ordered three of his own children put to death.
  Caesar Augustus had even joked that it was better to be Herod’s pig, since, as a Jew, Herod would never think of slaughtering a pig, but seemed to have no problem with slaughtering his sons.
 So there it is, even in the New Testament, the joyful account of the birth of Jesus is placed back to back against murder.
  No sooner was Jesus born and the Wise Men leave the manger than Joseph is warned in a dream to escape with his family into Egypt lest he lose his newborn son to Herod’s sword.
  We should have known from the outset that Herod would not tolerate this business, he would never allow someone who could be asmighty as he to go unchallenged.
  “In the days of Herod the king,” Matthew begins his account of Jesus’ birth in the King James version. And we know from the beginning that nothing good could happen in those days.
  The power of one king is being pitted against the power of another. And let there be no mistake: there is power in Herod’s grasp.
 It is not the same power possessed by the King whom the Wise Men seek.
 But Herod’s power talks. And it has its day. We need only ask the mothers of Bethlehem for confirmation of his authority.
  “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation. Rachel weeping for her children, she refused to be consoled, because they were no more.” (v. 18)
  Lest we think that the Bible is a collection of fairy tale stories, an idealistic bit of nonsense framed in an unrealistic world, we need only look at the time of Jesus’ birth to see that he is born in the days of Herod the king.
 This was a day and time when life was cheap, and madmen ruled nations ... just like today.
 So much for the glow and sentimentality of Christmas. And so much, too, for the idea that Christmas is for children.
 After Christmas, in Jesus’ real world, infants are slaughtered and a homeless family must move or die.
  n the same way that high expectations and lofty hopes for peace and happiness are dashed for us by the realities of the days after Christmas, so too was the happy mood of heaven and earth dashed in the wake of Jesus’ birth by Herod’s decree. And this is not a point that we should lose.
  The story of the days following Jesus’ birth return us to the real world -- a world where there is danger ahead and unknown developments.
  A world where children die senselessly. A world in which parents like Joseph and Mary must be subject to tyranny and threat, and must give birth to a child in borrowed and temporary lodgings.
 A world where nations occupy others by force, and rulers are murdered.
  A world of harsh realities and cruel experiences where not every day is Christmas Day, but the majority are the days after Christmas.
  Harsh realities and painful experiences were to be the rhythm of Jesus’ life. Grown to adulthood, Jesus would know many bitter days.
  The leaders of His own religious community would be threatened by Him, and they would plot against His life and finally pay someone to betray Him.
 He would be misunderstood wherever He went, and even His own townspeople in Nazareth would reject His ministry.
  His hand-picked disciples would not get His message much of the time, and even His closest friend would deny that he knew Him when the chips were down.
  He met the force and fury of Roman justice, and another Herod played a role in His execution. Sadness and death stalked this man.
 But in spite of all this, there was a confidence in His life that was His comfort. 
  Beginning with the story of the slaughter of the innocents there is a subtle, sure, and certain thread that is woven within and through the story of Jesus’ life. 
 And the thread is that of the loving care of God, who is passionately involved with the affairs of Earth.
 Joseph, after all, does receive a warning and is led to Egypt for a time by God’s direction.
 And later, God leads Joseph to Nazareth to raise His son and provide for His family.
  Throughout the story is the affirmation that God is nearby, subtly but surely guiding His purposes to fulfillment through the promptings an instincts of very human people.
 Herod had his ways, no question, but so does God.
  What the story of the days after Christmas in Matthew’s gospel affirms is that the Christmas hopes for peace and for the coming of God’s kingdom on earth will not be prevented ... not by Herod, not any anything or anyone.
  It will not be denied in spite of our indifference to the poor and hopeless and hungry ones, nor our preoccupation with the mid-winter doldrums.
 The Kingdom which dawned at the birth of Jesus is a Kingdom on its way. 
  And no Herod, no head of state, no economic theory, no missile silo, no evil purpose, no terrorism, nothing can prevent it from arriving.
 For even if we wanted to stop it in its tracks, our efforts would be to no avail.
 We have a role to play in this coming, this Kingdom which has already dawned.
 Just as Joseph was given a role to play in fulfilling God’s purposes, so do we have things to do for the sake of the Kingdom.
 We can do more than read about the homeless and be moved; we can bring people in from the cold.
 We can take food to a friend who is ill. And call another who is alone. We can volunteer to help a child to read. 
 We can volunteer time to visit people in nursing homes and retirement centers. 
 You can befriend someone in your school who has no friends.
  There’s no end to things we can do to urge the Kingdom on its way and to fulfill the promise for the world that was born at Christmas.
  It’s all a part of God’s power on earth, that power which when we are a part of it, is greater than Herod’s power might ever hope to be. 
  The angels may be gone from the heavens, the shepherds back in their fields, and the kings returning on their way, but the hope that was born at Christmas is not gone, mid-winter letdown notwithstanding.
 Our moods have nothing to do with what God is doing on earth to usher in His Kingdom of peace and hope. 
 And may we be a part of it, not just at Christmas, but every day of our lives. The future is in God’s hands and so are we.

Recovering our wonder   
            Isaiah 7:10-16
Rev. Dr. Everett Parker on December 20, 2015

   Most of us today are not given to star-watching. I’m speaking of heavenly bodies, of course, the broad spectrum of stars, galaxies and nebula that stretch from horizon to horizon. 
 No, our society is such that we are much more prone to watch the television screen, computer or cellphone. 
  In large metropolitan areas, there is another reason people don’t spend much time gazing at the sky, and that’s the aura of city lights.
  The problem of diffused light and sky clutter is a serious one, something that we were never concerned with in the far northland.
  Few of us are like our ancestors who often stood in their backyards or on some grassy knoll staring at the austral luminations, feeling a sense of wonder at the vastness of creation.
  There is a story told that when Franklin D. Roosevelt was president, he and one of his closest friends talked into the night one evening at the White House.
  At last, President Roosevelt suggested that they go out into the Rose Garden and look at the stars before retiring for the night. 
 They went out and looked up for several moments, peering at nebulae with thousands of stars.
 Then the president said, “All right, I think we feel small enough now to go in and go to sleep.”
  As an aside, Jan and I have stood in that same spot in the Rose Garden and been awed at the history represented therein. Quite a wondrous feeling, indeed.
 We need that sense of wonder, don’t we? It is part of what it means to be human.
  We live among so many wonderful machines, even in our own homes and offices, that we forget to be amazed at the most basic wonders of existence -- the way babies are born, or the way our minds and bodies work.
  We drive ourselves on such relentless schedules that we lose sight of some of the most elemental miracles of our lives -- the way the sun warms our faces, or the way it changes our dispositions.
  we are such creatures of habit and routine that we cease to see and hear the most astounding sights and sounds of our environment -- the opening of flowers and the songs of the birds.
 The poet and playwright Christoper Fry once wrote an entire essay on the miracle of the way our hands work.
 Have you ever gazed at your hands and wondered about it? Probably not.
  All those nerves and muscles and bones work simultaneously to bend and flex the fingers, to form a cup, to hold a gripping tool, to make a fist, to open in supplication. 
 And we aren’t even aware of thinking about the commands we send it.
 Touching, caressing, holding, grasping -- you see, we do it all without being conscious of it, and it is so amazing.
  Now, extrapolate from that. From the hand to the arm, to the entire body, to the world outside ourselves -- it is a world of wonders and miracles!
 But we don’t live in awe of them because we don’t think about them.
  We don’t go through life on tiptoe, saying, “How wonderful! How marvelous! God has planted miracles everywhere, and all we have to do it see them!”
  One of the wonderful things about Christmas is that it is an annual reminder of the importance of seeing the miraculous in our midst.
  This whole business about a child born to be the Saviour of the world, and shepherds seeing angels on a hillside, and Wise Men following a star to Bethlehem -- what is is but an invitation to see and hear like children again?
 Did you know that children see and hear more than we do? 
 It’s true, and it is because adults have lived long enough to get in the habit of editing everything that comes to our senses.
  We select what we want to hear and we forget the rest. And I’m not speaking of what wives call “selective hearing” when it comes to wiping the dishes. 
  Children, you see, don’t do that. Their senses are more alert than ours because they haven’t been organized yet to see and hear certain things and screen out the rest.
 We naturally do a certain amount of this to improve our ability to function in the world.
  As adults, we don’t have the time to see and hear everything around us. If we did, we would never get through our lists for the day.
  but Christmas says, “Wait a minute! Maybe you’re too organized. What if you’re missing a lot of beautiful experiences in the world?”
  Suppose you slow down and look more deeply into things. Suppose you listen with fresh hearing to learn what is really happening around you?
  Wouldn’t it enrich your life to be more sensitive to the world God has created, and not to rush through it as if your only object was to get to the finish line?
  Virginia Owens, in her delightful little book And The Trees Clap Their Hands, says we are really put in the world as children to become “spies” and discern the meaning of things.
 We are expected to investigate the properties of matter and explore the realm of intelligence.
 But gradually, over time, something goes wrong. Here’s what she said:
  “The spy slowly begins to forget his mission. He spends so much time and effort learning the language, adopting the habits and customs, internalizing the thought patterns flawlessly, that somehow, gradually, imperceptibly, he becomes his cover.
  “He forgets what he’s about. He goes to school, grows up. He gets a job, collects his pay, buys a house, waters the lawn. He settles down and settles in.
  “He wakes up each morning with the shape of his mission, what brought him here in the first place, grown hazier, like a dream that slips quickly away.
  “He frowns and makes an effort to remember. But the phone rings or the baby cries, or he is distracted for the rest of the day.”
  Somewhere along the way, says Owens, everything becomes “merely” -- it is merely water or merely snow or merely fire or merely colored leaves or merely sand or merely matter.
 Its connection with the Lord of creation has somehow evaporated into thin air. 
 It no longer points to a heaven beyond, saying, “You think this is something, wait for the other!” 
 It is merely what it is, and no more. How sad.
 Christmas points us beyond that “merely.” Christmas is a “yes ... but.” 
  “Yes, it was merely a stable, BUT ...” “Yes, it was merely a noise those shepherds heard, BUT ...” “Yes, it was merely a star the wise men followed, BUT ...”
  And the “Yes, BUT ...” points to all the deeper meanings, to the things we were put here to spy out, to the mystery that drew near to earth that first Christmas.
  Just think, it is the “merely” quality of things that leads to the exploding crime problem. “It is merely a thing, I shall take it.”
 It is the “merely” quality of things that leads us to war. “We shall merely lose a few lives, but it is worth it.”
  It is the “merely” quality of things that keeps us from acting to improve the world around us. “These are merely a few people living in hunger and poverty and ignorance; it does not matter.”
 But once we get beyond the “merely” and see deeply into the significance of things, everything begins to be transformed.
 Things are not merely “things” -- they are the creations of God almighty.
  War is not merely war; it is an affront the Lord of the universe. People are not merely people; they are the dear children of the Divine.
 Our daily behavior is not merely daily behavior; it is the way we relate to the Supreme God. 
  Christmas says that nothing is “merely” -- not the stable, not the song of the angels, not the shepherds and their sheep, not the star, not the Wise Men and their gifts, not Jesus and His ministry, not the cross on which He dies, not the empty tomb in the garden.
 Everything in the world is charged with the beauty and grandeur of God, if we have but eyes to see and ears to hear.
  This is why the gospel puts such a premium on seeing and hearing. There is no salvation apart from being sensitive, from beginning to understand that God is somehow in and through and a part of what He has made.
 There is no redemption if we cannot take our hats in our hands and fall on our knees and worship before the wonder of it all.
  The greatest condemnation is to look at the world of Christmas -- at the greenery and the trees and the gifts and the lights and the faces of the children -- and not see anything.
 Not to see anything in it, not to be aware that God is somehow in all of it.
  Author Graham Greene dreamed he was present at the first Christmas, right there in the stable with the animals and the holy parents, but when he looked at the crib, he could not see the Christ child.
 For him, there was no Christ in the middle of it all, and he felt lost, condemned, hopelessly and forever undone.
 So he should, and so should we, if we cannot see where we look, if there is no magic and wonder in any of it any longer.
 So on this last Christmas we’ll celebrate together, let’s concentrate on recovering our wonder.
 Let’s pause as we hear the carols lifting up in church or in the department store and listen for angels’ voices.
  Let’s look carefully at the manger scenes and the glistening trees and the brightly wrapped packages, and let’s see the miracle of love and Incarnation behind them.
  Let’s open our hearts to the people around us who get excited about Christmas -- the children and store clerks and those sitting in the pews next to us -- and discover a world of caring and love and joy.
  Maybe -- just maybe -- we’ll stare at a creche in a store window and swear upon our lives that we saw something move in the tiny manger, that it was stirred by an angel’s breath, so that we thought we saw a foot move or an arm stir.
  And on Christmas Eve, we’ll find our way to church and sing the great hymns and carols of our faith, not because it is our tradition or routine to do so, but because something warm and vital stirs with us.
  Because we have gone beyond the merely seasonal feelings that once gripped us and felt the presence of the Christ Child Himself.
 Wouldn’t that be wonderful?
  It is said that a group of Princeton University students once went to sing their carols outside the home of old Albert Einstein, the great physicist.
  They had sung only a carol or two when the front door opened and the great professor himself stepped outside and began accompanying them on his violin.
  I like that picture -- arguably the greatest mind of our time, drawn out by a little group of carolers. But maybe it is also a picture of ourselves, drawn out this Christmas by the carolers and the lights and the traditions of the season.
  Something inside us responds and answers to something that happens outside us. And when it does, the whole world suddenly becomes a better place, and we want to join in the angel’s song of peace on earth, good will to all. AMEN.
Orville, Wilbur and John   
            Luke 3: 7-18
A Teaching given by Rev. Dr. Everett Parker 12/13/15

 Exactly 112 years ago this Thursday, jaws dropped. People were stunned. 
 And what was it that caused one of the greatest advances in the history of mankind? 
 Surely you remember what happened on December 17, 1903 at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.
  The news of the Wright Brothers’ flight was as shocking as the message of a baptizer who blasted the status quo by calling people to repentance.
 If people picked baby names on the basis of historical importance, the world today would be full of Orvilles and Wilburs.
  But it’s not. It’s amazing to me how we instantly recall all of the so-called movie stars, rock stars and the plethora of flash-in-the-pan “entertainers” and “reality stars” such as what’s the name -- Kard-e-shad-ian? Who can help me out here?
  We’ll, there you go ... we instantly know how to pronounce the name of some talentless wannabe “star” who has a good press agent.
 Still, few people have changed the course of history more than the Wright Brothers of Dayton, Ohio. 
  One hundred twelve years ago this week, these bicycle-making brothers soared into space with the “Wright stuff” at the command of a small, bi-wing airplane, achieving an altitude of perhaps 30 feet. 
  In the process, they developed steering techniques that are still being used in 21st-century airplanes, spacecraft, submarines and robots.
  On December 17, 1903, Orville won the flip of a coin toss with his brother, Wilbur, and took off from the Outer Banks of North Carolina, south of Kitty Hawk, and flew the gasoline-powered Wright Flyer for 12 seconds. 
 That same day, Wilbur piloted the plane for 59 seconds, covering a grand total of 852 feet. 
  The two of them thus became the first flyers, the first famous flyers, and first famous frequent flyers. And thus, too, the advent of the age of aeronautics.
 There’s an interesting anecdote to this story that primarily only historians know. 
 After many attempts, the Wright brothers were successful in getting their flying machine off the ground in December 1903. 
  Excited beyond belief, they telegraphed this message to their sister Katherine: “We’ve actually flown 120 feet. Will be home for Christmas.”
  Katherine hurried to the editor of the local newspaper and showed him the message. He glanced at it and said, “How nice. The boys will be home for Christmas.”
 He totally missed the real news, the big news that man had flown!
 On this day, people started to think differently. What had been heretofore impossible was now possible. 
 Worlds that before December 17 were inaccessible were now accessible. 
  Bill Gates puts it in perspective when he said,  “The Wright Brothers created the single greatest cultural force since the invention of writing. The airplane became the first World Wide Web, bringing people, languages ideas, and values together.”
 Not many such days come along in history when people from that particular moment on start to think differently. 
 We’ve had a few in our own time. The day Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak jerry-rigged a computer in their garage comes to mind.
 The day a baby was born in Bethlehem was such a day. With his birth, everything changed.  
  Witness the fact that over 2,000 years later, we’re still discussing the meaning and impact of that life that came into the world one night so long ago.
 There was yet another such day, about 30 years after the birth of Jesus.
  It was the day that John the Baptist said, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Luke 3:16).
 There was more, of course, including a call to repentance. 
  “You brood of vipers!” John says to the crowd by the River Jordan. “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” (Luke 3:7). 
 He blasts these baptism-seekers, comparing them to a nest of poisonous snakes slithering away from a fiery doom. 
  Like the prophets before him, John speaks of divine judgment and the wrath of God, predicting that an overpowering force from heaven will come to destroy the wicked of the world.
 This is not what you call a “seeker-sensitive” worship experience.
  But John is a world-shaker, not a community-maker. He is not “politically correct” in today’s super-sensitive, easily offended by everything American culture.
  Like the Wright Brothers of Dayton, Ohio, he’s not interested in staying home and tinkering with the bicycles of his friends and neighbors. 
 Instead, he turns his back on the comforts of community life and takes off in an unexpected direction. 
 He powers up his own prophetic flying machine, stunning the people of God with a radical call to repentance.
 John is all over this. “Bear fruits worthy of repentance,” he thunders (v. 8). 
  Turn yourself around and get yourself in line with the righteousness of God. If you’ve got two coats, give one to a person who doesn’t have one. If you are a tax collector, collect no more than what is right. 
 If you are a soldier, don’t extort anyone by threats or false accusation. 
  That’s righteous and ethical living, says John, and you better start practicing it if you want to escape divine judgment (vv. 10-14).
  How might the world be different if we started to think about repentance, and in this season of new things, actually repented of what is hurtful, harmful and hateful? 
 If what is petty, demeaning and belittling? Is today the day we start to think and act differently? Of course not. 
 Right here in this congregation, we hear what is being said, but we don’t acknowledge or do it. 
 We hear -- notice I didn’t say “listen,” nod our heads in pious agreement, but go on living sinful lives.
 The bottom line for John is that we’ve got to conform our lives to the will of God. 
  A strong spiritual heritage and a righteous religious résumé are not the wings upon which we can pull up and away from the fire of divine judgment. 
  “Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor,’” warns John; “for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.” (v. 8)
  They were “children of Abraham.” It was a common refrain. It was like a free pass. Heaven? We’re children of Abraham. Judgment? No, we’re children of Abraham. Repentance? No need, we’re children of Abraham.
  Does this sound familiar? We’re Christians, we go to church at Christmas and Easter. That’s all we need to do. We’re Christians.”
 John was speaking to a generation that saw themselves as privileged, as exempt, as beyond repentance. 
 Is that what it is for many American Christians today? Is that what it is for you, today?
  And the parallels with our own times should be obvious, especially in a season when the baby is scarcely visible in the manger, when the Christ is almost invisible to the consumer, and when the season has no reason except endless parties, consumer spending and gift-giving.
  John says, “Forget Abraham! God could raise up children of Abraham from the stones on the ground. What God can’t find are people who bear the fruits of repentance!”
  Now the people are starting to think differently! It’s an “Aha” moment. It’s a Wilbur and Orville moment. New ideas. New worlds. New possibilities. New territory.
  That John gives us in today’s passage is a kind of  “Copernican revolution,” a radical new approach to the world that rivals what Nicolas Copernicus did in the 16th century when he suggested that the Earth moves around the sun.
  Abraham, John says, is not the center of the universe. Get used to it. The “movie stars” and “reality stars” of today are not the center of the universe. Get used to it.
 And then he introduces the Center of the Universe, the one who “will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” (v. 16)
 And this is what Advent is about. Meeting the Center of the Universe. Meeting the Christ. Changing our thinking. 
 Finding a new source of power, and then turning it into the mighty wind that God has blown across the landscape of human life.
 Power and wind. Sounds like the formula for flying, doesn’t it?
  Jesus the Messiah baptizes us with Spirit and with fire, and invites us to soar with him into a life of repentance and righteousness. 
  With his mighty wind beneath our wings, we can ascend to a whole new level of living, one in which we are right with God and with one another.
 Whether it’s 1903 or 2015, this is the right flight to take.
The Day the Earth Stood Still  
        II Peter 3: 8-15
A Teaching given on Advent Second Sunday, 12/5/15

Seven years ago this week, 20th Century Fox released a remake of the 1951 sci-fi classic The Day the Earth Stood Still. The story is about a humanoid alien named Klaatu, who arrives on Earth accompanied by an indestructible, heavily armed robot named Gort.

In the 1951 version of the story, Klaatu was a kind of Christ figure, arriving on earth with a message of peace, staying among the common people, dying at the hands of soldiers but later being resurrected. On Earth, Klaatu used the name “John Carpenter,” reminiscent perhaps of Jesus as the carpenter’s son. I am told the new version of the movie essentially followed that same line. 

In the original film, before leaving the earth by spaceship, Klaatu steps out and speaks to the assembled scientists. He tells them that the earth’s proclivity for violence, coupled with this planet’s first steps into space, have drawn the attention of other space-faring worlds, who aren’t about to let that kind of violence and aggression spread throughout the interplanetary cosmos. 

Those worlds, Klaatu says, have created a race of robot enforcers like Gort, who had already demonstrated his power during this visit to Earth, and they have given the robots absolute power to deal with any outbreak of violence. Thus, Klaatu warns that the people of Earth can either abandon warfare and peacefully join other space-faring nations or they can be destroyed. “The decision rests with you,” Klaatu says. He then enters the spaceship and does his equivalent of the ascension.

Don’t linger too long on the irony of a message that says, “You stop the violence, or you will suffer a violent destruction.”

The film ends with a mixed sense of hope and foreboding — hope that perhaps the people of Earth will take the message to heart and change their ways, and foreboding that they will likely continue to be driven by their penchant for aggression and self-seeking. But if we were to write a sequel to the movie, which of these alternatives would we find most plausible? If we were seeking to be as realistic as possible, we’d likely show most people carrying on more or less as they were before the visit of Klaatu and Gort. And this would be especially the case if time had passed and no sign of the promised destruction appeared. After all, delay in threatened consequences often causes people to assume that the threats are not real.

That scenario is much the case behind today’s Scripture reading. The lectionary passage opens in midstream at verse 8, but to get the full story, we need to start at the beginning of the chapter. There, the writer warns the believers of “scoffers” who challenge the whole idea of Christ’s return and the end of history, saying, “Where is the promise of (Christ’s) coming? For ever since our ancestors died, all things continue as they were from the beginning of creation!” (v. 4).

Peter, however, says that such scoffers forget that God brought judgment against the world before — with the great flood during Noah’s time — and he says that as God used water for that judgment, he will use fire for the next one, the one following Jesus’ return.

It’s quite possible that Peter’s references to a fiery judgment derive from the persecution then affecting the early church, but the language he uses suggests that he was thinking of a conflagration that was not limited to the relatively few places where Christians were being abused and martyred: “... the present heavens and earth have been reserved for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of the godless” (v. 7), Peter says. 

And further on, he adds with even more vividness, “But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire” (v. 10). And yet once more he speaks of it, saying, “the heavens will be set ablaze and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire” (v. 12).

There is an old spiritual that slaves sang in the fields that picked up that message. It includes the lines, “God gave Noah the rainbow sign / No more water, the fire next time!” 

The fire next time. We don’t know if Peter intended the reference to fire at the end of time to be taken literally. The only other mention of fire at the end of time anywhere in the New Testament is in Revelation, but there it’s clearly figurative and refers to a location, a lake of fire, to which the wicked are consigned, not to the burning of the heavens and the earth. There are a few Old Testament verses Peter may have had in mind that speak of the earth being consumed by fire (see Deuteronomy 32:22; Isaiah 66:15-16; Zephaniah 1:18), but all of those are poetic stanzas, and that suggests they are not intended to be understood as literally descriptive.

Nonetheless, it’s clear that the meaning of the second coming, for Peter and the early church, as well as the church ever since, is that at the end of human history, Christ is coming to finish what he started at Bethlehem 2,000 years ago, and that that will be at a time of God’s choosing. Therefore, the seeming delay of Jesus’ return, says Peter, is actually no delay at all but God’s purposeful plan.

What’s more, since that return will bring with it a winnowing of humankind, a final judgment, for which fire serves at least as a metaphor, the fact that God chooses to wait before bringing it about is to our benefit, says Peter. While waiting for Christ’s return, we should “strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish; and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation” (vv. 14-15). In other words, God’s forbearance, what the King James Version calls his “longsuffering,” gives us some time to discover we are on the wrong path and instead to start following Jesus.

The impact of the whole passage, however, is not on dallying since God is giving us some time, but on the certainty of the judgment eventually to come. The fire next time may be a symbolic way of describing the final judgment, but it does get in our face with the concept of an ultimate accounting, and we need to take that seriously. With the love of God being such a prominent teaching in the Scriptures, it’s easy to concentrate our teaching and preaching on that and ignore final judgment. But we cannot deny that judgment is a theme that occurs throughout Scripture. 

In fact, although the imagery surrounding this final judgment is symbolic, judgment itself has the ring of truth about it. If God wants a relationship with each of us, it must also be possible for us to reject it. And if we reject it, there must be some different consequence than if we embrace it. That consequence, according to the Bible, is ultimate separation from God — judgment. The only way for there to be no judgment would be for God to become indifferent to our fate, and that flies in the face of his love for us.

The fire next time is a symbolic way of saying that human freedom and human responsibility matter, that what we do matters and matters in the eternal sense. We will have to answer for the kind of people we are.

Unlike human judges, however, God also provides mercy and grace. No matter what we deserve, God sent his Son the first time to tell us about forgiveness so that if we accept it and start living lives of godliness, we have nothing to fear when he comes the second time, no matter what actual form that takes. That, of course, is part of the good news of the gospel.

In The Day the Earth Stood Still, Klaatu warns of a chilling response from a source beyond this world to humankind’s violent ways. In the New Testament, Peter warned of a fiery response from a source beyond this world to humankind’s many sins. Klaatu called for people to live in peace. Peter called for people to live “lives of holiness and godliness” (v. 11) 

The big difference is that Klaatu’s message said that if humankind straightened up, the response could be avoided. Peter spoke of the inevitability of the response, but told believers not to fear it, because for us, while we are waiting for it, we can regard the patience of our Lord as salvation (v. 15).

In truth, it’s impossible to know what to do with descriptions of a fiery end to Earth. It all sounds so science fiction. Yet it doesn’t take much imagining to contemplate our own end as individuals.

Fortunately, we have a gospel that tells us that beyond our end, beyond whatever comes, there will be “new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home."
A Teaching by Rev Dr Everett Parker on November 29, 2015

It’s time to wake from sleep and get to work — as a force for good in the world.

Exactly 228 years ago, an Englishman named William Wilberforce became an evangelical Christian.

Then, 20 years later, in the year 1807, the British slave trade was abolished.

An awakening of the spirit, followed by the abolition of slavery.

There’s a connection between the two.

For those who don't know, William Wilberforce was a front-line fighter in the British campaign to end slavery. He was also a passionate Christian who stressed the importance of sin and atonement. Today, English political progressives see him as a pioneer of campaigns for social justice, while conservatives see him as a faith-based leader of compassionate conservatism.

He is truly a man for all seasons.

So what can Wilberforce teach us today, two centuries after his greatest triumph?

For starters, he did not see his faith as a private and personal matter, nor did he make a distinction between social justice and Christian morality. He professed two goals in his life — to abolish slavery and to raise Britain’s moral tone — and he pursued them with united and unending passion.

For Wilberforce, the elimination of slavery was part of a broader project to bring people to God. Like so many great reformers, he was able to see the big picture, and he made connections that many people failed to grasp. For instance, he was alarmed at the frequency of executions by hanging that were occurring at the time. He knew that these executions were the penalty for serious crimes, but he also understood that lesser sins have a way of opening the door to greater offenses. So Wilberforce campaigned against licentious behavior, and tried to turn people away from gambling, heavy drinking and promiscuity.

He knew about slippery slopes, and tried to stop the slide from revelry into robbery, from quarreling into killing. He would have agreed with the apostle Paul’s words to the Romans, “Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy” (13:12-13). When you put aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light, you are going to find yourself poorly dressed for gambling, heavy drinking, robbery or murder. You are not going to be wearing the right clothes for participation in the slave trade, as Wilberforce discovered over 200 years ago.

Check the clock, writes Paul to the Romans — “it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep” (v. 11). Salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed in Jesus Christ, so it’s time for us to put on our Christian clothes and get to work. “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ,” says Paul, “and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires” (v. 14).

It’s time for us to follow the apostle Paul and William Wilberforce in living honorably in the day, paying attention to both Christian morality and social justice. We are challenged to be a force for good in our communities, our schools and our workplaces … a “Wilber Force.”

That’s exactly what the Christian community should be — a force that raises our nation’s moral tone while also working for a better society. We should be a Wilber Force.

The place to begin is where we spend most of our time, Monday through Friday — the workplace. This is where we spend the most conscious hours, after all — certainly more than in church. We need to practice our faith on the job if we are going to do God’s will in the world. This doesn’t mean trying to convert coworkers around the coffee pot, but it does mean finding ways to integrate faith and work, and to draw on the resources of Christianity for ethical guidance. Like William Wilberforce, we’re challenged to see the big picture, and work for good on both the personal and societal levels.

David Miller is a former investment banker who is now a Yale professor and author of the book God at Work. He’s convinced that business people now want to bring their whole selves to work — mind, body and spirit — instead of having to “leave their soul with the car in the parking lot.” Some use their faith as an ethical anchor, helping them to do the right thing and stand up to unethical practices, while others count on their faith to be a spiritual balm, providing serenity through workplace prayers and meditation. They want to “put on the armor of light” when they come to work — not a two-piece power suit woven out of the works of darkness (v. 12).

The good news is that organizations are now seeing the benefits of allowing people to practice their faith from 9 to 5. Within the Ford Motor Company, a group called the “Ford Interfaith Network” helped to calm anxieties about retaliatory violence against Ford’s large Muslim workforce in Detroit after the 9/11 attacks. The Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta has a popular and active “Christian Fellowship Group.” And there have been dozens of events for CEOs and business executives at the Yale Center for Faith & Culture. One conference was on “workplace chaplaincy,” in response to the fact that there are now at least 2,000 chaplains serving employees on the job. They meet the spiritual needs of workers by providing counseling and support in times of personal and professional crisis.

Members of the Wilber Force bring their whole selves to work — mind, body and spirit. They don’t leave their souls in the parking lot.

This movement promises to raise our nation’s moral tone while also working for a better society. Tom Chappell, CEO of the natural-toothpaste company “Tom’s of Maine,” entered Harvard Divinity School at age 43 and then used his theological education to create a mission statement and business plan for his company based on moral and ethical principles. 

Leaders of the Wilber Force are committed to creating an ethical and inclusive workplace community. They invite employees to act on their morals, beliefs and values.

Of course, stress can be created by the wrong expression of faith in the workplace. It can be a very negative experience in the workplace when a person becomes aggressive, arrogant or domineering about expressing his or her personal faith. It is not a good idea to practice evangelism on the job, and people in positions of power have to be very careful not to force religious points of view on their subordinates.

Not every expression of faith is going to succeed in bringing people closer to God.

So what can we do, in a positive way, to blend faith and work as members of the Wilber Force? In Branford, Connecticut, Vance Taylor is a pastor and real estate agent who attempts to link Sunday and Monday by demonstrating humility, fairness, concern and compassion in his real estate work — what Taylor calls “Christ-like actions.” The idea of servant leadership, first introduced by Robert Greenleaf of AT&T, stresses that leadership is a calling to serve others, and it pops up repeatedly in business literature.

Taylor says, “By truly first serving the other — thinking more of the other’s needs than my own — I believe I demonstrate a style in my business that’s atypical to many agents whose immediate concern is their commissions.” This kind of servant leadership is an excellent way to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ,” as Paul recommends, making “no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires” (v. 14). Vance Taylor tries to do his work in a faith-filled way, and finds that this approach often creates opportunities for conversations with his customers about his faith and ministry.

Members of the Wilber Force think of themselves as co-creators with God, and they evaluate their work according to how it follows the divine pattern of bringing order out of chaos, and creating something that is good (Genesis 1:1-5). Faith can be a powerful force for good in the workplace when it clarifies ethical standards, brings order out of disorder, and creates something of value. 

But of course, the values that the apostle Paul outlines in our text are not limited to their expression in the workplace. Indeed, the stuff he’s counseling against would get us fired if it took place on the job. To be a Wilber Force, to be a Christian, requires that we stop doing un-christian things, whether it’s at home, the office or at leisure.

There are some things that Christians, in any context, do not do.

And there are some things that Christians in any context must be sure to do.

The notion that our Christian faith places limits on our social behaviors may be new to many people. And if one should think that this is a burden too big to bear, it’s a fairly common idea in world religions. If you embrace a particular faith, then you’re expected to abstain from certain prescribed behaviors and practice certain other prescribed behaviors. In fact, the practice of certain behaviors sometimes identifies a person as an adherent of a particular faith. Buddhism, for example, famously has The Eightfold Path which encourages among other things “right speech, right intention, right livelihood, right action.”

When Christians live like party animals, God is not really glorified and others in dire need of the gospel are not brought closer to hearing it.

So Paul rightly says, “Stop it!” News flash: Reveling, drunkenness, debauchery, licentiousness, quarreling and jealousy are not a Christian lifestyle.

Everything we do — at home, church and work — should be part of a project to bring people to God. This includes personal morality, ethics in business, inclusiveness in the workplace and justice for all people.

We are the Wilber Force, with a mission to be a force for good in the world. It’s time to wake from sleep, and get to work.

Is There Room for One More?  
Matthew 25: 31-46
A Teaching on 11/22/15 by Rev Dr Everett Parker

  Is there room in your life this year at Thanksgiving for “one more” -- for the least, the lost, the lonely, the outcast, the shunned, the “other,” the forgotten and marginalized of society?
  When a national day of thanksgiving was established on the fourth Thursday in November, it was not because the fourth Thursday in November was a particularly thankful day. 
  It was intentionally chosen precisely because of its arbitrariness to remind us to say “thanks” on a daily basis for the bounties God has heaped upon our lives.
 But for Christians, every Sunday should be a Thanksgiving feast day. 
  Every Sunday at worship, we give thanks for the greatest event ever to hit planet Earth, the greatest “opening” in human history -- the open tomb, testifying to the resurrection of Jesus Christ. 
 Every Sunday for Christians is Thanksgiving Sunday. Every Sunday dinner is Thanksgiving dinner.
 It used to be that “Sunday dinner” was a really big deal. And so was Thanksgiving.
 What’s what I remember from my childhood days on the farm in North Yarmouth, Maine.
 In Sabbath-observant, church-going families, Sunday was the one day the family planned to spend together.
  First we went to church, in my case, the North Yarmouth Congretational Church -- still there -- then at home, almost always with relatives. 
 That’s what I grew up with, and likely many of you did as well.
  With a full house and expectant stomachs, Sunday dinner was a meal guaranteed to offer the magic combination of old favorites and once-a-week specialties. 
  Every family had its own Sunday dinner traditions: fried chicken, pot roast, plates of pasta, a nice roast of venison or moose meat, etc.
 Sunday dinner was usually the time when you could count on your ethnicity showing up on a plate. 
  Thanksgiving was a time when mom and perhaps grandmother slaved for hours preparing turkey, ham, and so many delicacies, especially mince and pumpkin pies right out of the oven. 
 No store-bought stuff ... always fresh, prepared at home by loving cooks working over a wood fired cookstove.
  If you don’t believe me, ask Roy or Carol what their Thanksgiving dinner will be this year as they celebrate their Italian heritage in particular.
  Along with the Sunday dinner, there has also been in some families another standard at this Thanksgiving feast, and it’s one I’d like you to consider this year: an empty chair. 
  On the coast of Maine, as it may be in your childhood, that empty chair stood ready to be filled or to be gazed on as a reminder that no matter how many were already present, there was always room for one more. 
  How many of you had a mother or grandmother who would always cook far more than was necessary on Sunday afternoon, or at Thanksgiving?
  Even if there wasn’t physically an “empty chair,” there was an extra plate and extra portions ready in case the unexpected visitor showed up. The tradition of the empty chair is also a fixture at the greatest Jewish thanksgiving feast of the year--the Passover meal. An empty chair at the table and a front door left slightly ajar, symbolically welcomed Elijah to join in the feast.
  Yet, as families have moved geographically farther and farther apart -- and further and further apart -- it has become increasingly difficult for everyone to “gather at Grandma’s” on the big Turkey Day, Thanksgiving. 
  As families have moved emotionally farther and farther apart -- through divorce, remarriages and different lifestyles, it seems now like a better choice to maintain a safe distance from one another.
  No matter how Thanksgiving is celebrated, no matter how many are hosted at the holiday feast, the tradition of the empty, expectant chair commends itself for our consideration -- if not physically, then at least spiritually.
 Fortunately, our national Thanksgiving Day is somewhat less commercialized than other annually commemorated celebrations. 
  However, the holiday itself is becoming a kind of great divide separating our American culture of the “haves” from the “have nots.” 
 For the “haves,” Thanksgiving is the starting gun for the first frenetic round of holiday shopping.
 As we giddily “hit the malls,” it seems that overindulgence in turkey isn’t the only consuming binge marked by Thanksgiving. 
 Isn’t this coming weekend the biggest shopping weekend of the year, with the biggest sales?
  For those living in more northern climes, those who “have” even more to splurge celebrate this long Thanksgiving weekend as time for the first skiing vacation of the winter.
 That’s how it is back home when Thanksgiving almost always meaning enough snow on Big Squaw Mountain to hit the trails.
 For the “have nots,” Thanksgiving marks a new beginning as well. 
 In the “have-not” culture, Thanksgiving is the first disappointment of the upcoming holiday season. 
  For the lucky ones, it’s a paper plate meal served cafeteria-style at a church or mission. The food is nourishing, the spirit welcoming. 
 But it is surely not the Thanksgiving of anyone’s dreams. 
 One of the most disappointing things about the “have-not” Thanksgiving is there are no leftovers.
  That means no left-over goodies to nibble on, no leftover family members to spend the long weekend with, no leftover feelings of security that a “have” Thanksgiving leaves in its wake.
 And you are thinking right now, “sure are glad there are none like that in our church!”
  But you’re wrong -- there are people right here in this congregation who will celebrate Thanksgiving alone, with no family, no friends -- right here, in THIS congregation!
 And I would ask, what are YOU doing about it? 
  As you partake of all of the goodies next Thursday, how about those right here in this congregation who would love an opportunity to sit at table with you and enjoy YOUR company?
  Is there an empty chair at your table this Thanksgiving? Is there perhaps someone sitting next to you, right here today, who you could -- should -- welcome on this holiday? 
  We’re all part of God’s family. Remember the commandment to love one another as we spoke of only a couple of weeks ago? Do you even remember?
  And aside from that, sadly, one of the greatest growth indicators in America seems to be the burgeoning of its underclasses -- those with the severest cases of the “have-nots.” 
 True, there are those growing richer than rich, stockpiling millions the way the rest of us stockpile cans for recycling. 
  But there are also far more who are so desperately poor, so utterly destitute, that even the barest essentials for existence are beyond their grasp. 
 The only thing equitable about this division is that it seems to cross all ethnic and racial lines. 
  In both black and white America, a small percentage of the population is amassing fortunes, while an ever-growing number is amassing misery. 
 There are a few more Michael Jordans and Bill Gates. 
  But there are many more abandoned babies with AIDS, homeless 12-year-olds, extended families of 20 crammed into tiny trailers, elderly men and women trying to choose between medication and food.
  And yes, that’s right here in Wellborn and Lake City, and I personally know that some of these are people who live next door to some of you.
  This great capitalist nation upon which God has blessed such bounty is failing to provide the minimal means for survival to an ever-growing segment of our population. 
 We should be shocked at the way the government has abnegated responsibility for meeting the most basic needs of the poor.
 Where are our empty chairs? Where are our extra portions?
  When did we decide to shut our hearts and find there is no more love to give, no more bounty to share, no more fellowship to extend to each other, right here in this church and in these communities?
 Why is it we can find room for one more holiday party? 
 .. room for one more piece of turkey? 
 .. room for one more car in the mall parking lot? 
 .. room for one more present hidden in the hall closet?
 .. room for one more charge on the credit card? 
 .. room for one more blouse or shirt?
 What will it take to get us to make room for 
 .. one more name on our “need to visit” or “invited to supper” list?  
 .. one more personal note jotted on a Christmas card?
 .. one more hour of volunteer work at a mission? 
 .. one more person in our hearts?

Genesis 28:10-19
A teaching by Rev. Dr Everett Parker on 11/15/15

The prayers of “natural” people are more about what they want than about what God wants. How can we learn to pray differently?

First we look at an old book, the KJV; then we’ll look at a new book; and then we’ll look at the old book again.

Those of you who cut your teeth on the old King James Version of the Bible probably get the meaning of "natural man" right away. For the rest, a word of explanation is in order. “The natural man” — or at least its Greek equivalent — was a phrase coined by the apostle Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians to refer to unspiritual people (1 Corinthians 2:14, KJV). 

By “natural,” Paul meant not outdoorsmen or nature lovers, but people who deal with life from their human nature rather than from the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Most modern translations of the Bible substitute the phrase “the unspiritual” (NRSV) or “the man without the Spirit” (NIV), but they are interpreting Paul’s original phrase, “the natural man.”

For Paul, the natural man — or the natural woman for that matter — is the opposite of the spiritual man or woman. The natural individuals are not necessarily bad people and not even necessarily ungodly. It’s just that they simply cannot make sense of the spiritual interpretations of life. As Paul explained it, such interpretations seem like foolishness to the natural person (1 Corinthians 2:14).

That’s not to say that unspiritual people don’t pray, however. They often do, especially in times of danger, want, desire and emergency. They’ll pray sometimes as a matter of routine, as in grace at meals. The only thing is, the prayers of the natural person tend to be more about what the person wants than about what God wants.

As a case in point, consider Jacob from our Genesis reading. Here’s a natural man if there ever was one. He looks only to his own instincts to interpret life, and when we pick up the story, he’s already made a hash of things. He’s more crooked than a road in east Tennessee. He’s cheated his brother out of his birthright, deceived his blind old man into giving him the blessing meant for his brother, and is now on his way to stay with relatives because things have gotten too hot for him back home.

No matter. God sees something valuable in this schemer that apparently even Jacob himself doesn’t perceive. And so, when Jacob, on the road to his new home lies down to sleep one night, God comes to him in a dream, promising to give Jacob many descendants who will be blessed and will occupy the land through which Jacob has been passing. What’s more, God promises to be with Jacob. And at this point, at least, God asks for nothing in return.

When Jacob awakes, he’s perceptive enough to realize that something very important has happened, and that although Jacob hadn’t expected it, the Lord really was in that place. And what Jacob does next suggests that he does take things seriously: He sets a stone on end as a pillar of memorial and pours oil on it as an act of worship.

He then prays to God, but what comes out of his mouth shows us that the divine visitation has not changed Jacob’s orientation. He is still very much a natural man.

His prayer goes like this: “If God will be with me, and (if God) will keep me in this way that I go, and (if God) will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God ...” 

Yes, we’ve added emphasis to certain words in that prayer, but that’s only to highlight the thread of the natural man running through it. The prayer is not at all about what God wants, only about what Jacob hopes to get out of the encounter.

Still, that’s not to say that he shouldn’t have prayed as he did. Better to have prayed what was really in his heart than to mouth some pious platitudes he had no intention of keeping. And, as we see if we follow Jacob’s story further, God heard him.

In the middle of the last century, British author David Head wrote a wonderful little book titled "He Sent Leanness: A Book of Prayers for the Natural Man,"  in which he talked about the unspiritual prayers we sometimes pray. He said that everyone has thoughts about God, but that we should “switch the heart on, and turn them into prayers.”

He goes on to say, “Prayers can be silly, harmful, childish, misguided and selfish, but a personality that reaches out toward God is never cast out. It is always better to pray foolishly than not at all, so long as you always remember that God is not in your pocket.”

In his book, Head also includes a number of prayers that he has deliberately distorted to show the kinds of thoughts that are sometimes in our hearts while we are mouthing more acceptable words of prayer.

Here, for example, is his prayer (loosely speaking) for the new year: "We are quite ready to admit that we have on occasion failed to live up to our highest standards, and we shall try to do a bit better in the new year."

Here is a prayer of confession (sort of) that he includes: "We have done wrong, but we hope nobody will find out."

Here’s one about being a soul-winner (so to speak): "Don’t let our witness for Christ make things awkward for us."

A prayer (as it were) before the sermon: "O God, I hope the sermon doesn’t last more than 15 minutes."

A prayer (in a manner of speaking) to be spared: "O Lord, if I can get away with it this time, I promise I’ll never steal again."

A prayer (as we say) of a man about to be married: May she be always useful and always beautiful, full of interesting conversation, witty in private and sparkling in public, blind to my faults, tolerant with my follies, never weary, never demanding, enjoying her own company when necessary, not getting too involved with female friends, performing miracles with her housekeeping allowance, and always grateful that I married her.

And here is one for people like us who live in the more wealthy parts of the world and think about people living in Third World countries: "We who seek to maintain a shaky civilization do pray most earnestly that the countries which suffer exploitation may not be angry with the exploiters, that the hungry may not harbor resentment against those who have food, that the downtrodden may take it patiently, that nations with empty larders may prefer starvation to communism, that the 'have-not' countries may rejoice in the prosperity of those that have, and that all people who have been deeply insulted and despised may have short memories. You can do all things, O God."

While Head distorts some prayers to make his point, others he is able to quote verbatim to illustrate prayers of the natural man. One comes from Jesus’ parable of the rich fool who prayed, more to himself than to God, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry (Luke 12:19).

Another is from the story of Adam and Eve’s sin in the garden, where they respond to God: The man said, The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate. And the woman said, The serpent tricked me, and I ate (Genesis 3:12, 13).

And for yet another example, Head quotes Jacob’s if-then prayer after his visitation by God in the night.

Read Head’s book and you’ll find yourself laughing out loud. But his points are for real. One of them is that we ought to pray, even when the best we can muster is a complaint against God or a self-centered demand. The fact is, when we’re talking to God, even if doing so resentfully or greedily, we are, in fact, making ourselves available for conversation with God. 

But Head’s larger point is that when we pray only out of our natural, unspiritual state, we miss out on the greater riches of God. The title of his book, "He Sent Leanness," is from a verse in Psalm 106. The psalmist had been talking about the people of Israel in the wilderness. He tells of God getting them out of Egyptian slavery and saving them from the pursuing forces by drowning that army in the Red Sea. But then, instead of trusting God to care for them, they start demanding drink and food and especially meat. The psalmist then observes, “And (God) gave them their request; but sent leanness into their soul” (Psalm 106:15 KJV).

That’s the problem with our prayers when they’re motivated only by what we want instead of by a desire to find what God wants. God may even give us what we ask, but it can come at the price of leanness of soul, of finding no lasting satisfaction.

So what can we take away from all of this? Simply this: Our prayers are to help us, not to help God. They are not to win God over to our side, to push him to do something we want. God already knows what we want. But we are shaped and molded by what we ask of God. Thus we should ask for his Spirit so that we can cease to be a natural man or woman and become a person guided by God’s Spirit.

If we are to pray honestly, our prayer for the Spirit may have to be one of the natural man, something like, Lord, I really don’t want to turn my life over to you. I want to do my will and not yours. That’s who I am but that is not who I am content to be. Please help me to want your Spirit within me.

It’s a start, you see. A prayer that says to God, “I want what I want but help me to want what you want” is the prayer of a natural man or woman, but it’s a prayer on the way to helping the pray-er become a person of the Spirit, experiencing not leanness but the fullness of joy in the Lord.

Here’s one more prayer. This one is from a person in the Spirit, the apostle Paul. Head mentions this prayer in his book, but it’s directly from Scripture, from the book of Ephesians:

For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name. I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God (Ephesians 3:14-19, emphasis added). 

So how is our prayer life? How are we communicating with God each and every day?

John 13: 32-35
A teaching given by Rev, Dr Everett Parker on November 8 2015
Two full-face photos: One of Elvis Presley, and the other Marilyn Monroe.

How do you tell these two celebrities apart?

You’re thinking, “Don’t be silly! Nobody’d ever take those two for look-alikes.”

True, for most of us. But for some, distinguishing faces is difficult if not impossible. These people suffer from a documented disorder called prosopagnosia, but because that’s such a mouthful, it is often referred to as “face blindness.”

Cecilia Burman, 38, who lives in Sweden, is one such sufferer. She can barely describe her mother’s face and struggles even to pick out her own face in photos. She continually loses friends because when they encounter Cecilia on the street, she doesn’t recognize them, and so she ignores them. They conclude that she’s stuck up or too self-centered to say hello, but in fact, they look like strangers to her. Prosopagnosiacs can see eyes, noses and mouths as well as anybody else can, but somehow they lack the ability to recognize a set of facial features when they next see them.

People with mild forms of prosopagnosia do manage to memorize a limited number of faces, much like the rest of us might learn to distinguish one rock from another, but those with the more severe forms can’t do even that. Gaylen Howard, a 40-year-old homemaker in Boulder, Colorado, says that when she is standing in front of a mirror in a crowded restroom, she has to contort her face to pick out which one is her. One of Howard’s family members, also afflicted with face blindness, could not distinguish between the faces of Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe.

Until a few years ago, prosopagnosia was thought to be extremely rare. Only about 100 cases had been documented worldwide, and most of those were thought to be the result of brain injury. The disorder was not even named until 1947 when a German neurologist called the condition prosopagnosia from two Greek terms: prosopon meaning “face,” and agnosia meaning “non-knowledge.” He had encountered the condition in three people, including a 24-year-old man who suffered a bullet wound to the head and lost his ability to recognize faces, including his own.

Recently, however, a team of researchers released the results of a study they’d undertaken on prosopagnosia. Published in the American Journal of Medical Genetics, their investigations revealed that the condition is much more common than previously thought. Based on their studies, it is likely that there are more than five million prosopagnosiacs in the United States alone. What’s more, their research found that many cases of face blindness are not the result of brain injury, but of a defective gene. That means the disorder can be inherited. If one of your parents has face blindness, there is a 50-percent chance of your being afflicted with it as well.

There is no known cure, but most prosopagnosiacs learn certain coping mechanisms. Many can distinguish people they know by looking at things like hairstyle, body shape or gait, or by listening to their voice. To avoid appearing to snub friends, some sufferers try to look as though they are lost in thought while walking. Others act friendly either toward everyone or toward no one.

If you spend even a few minutes thinking about how different your life would be if you could not remember faces, you’ll understand that prosopagnosiacs deal with significant problems every day.

Certainly face blindness was unknown as a diagnosis in the first century, but the New Testament has an actual example of it. On the first Easter, two followers of Jesus were walking on the road to Emmaus when Jesus joined them, but according to Luke, “their eyes were kept from recognizing him” (Luke 24:16). Only later, when he broke bread before them, did they realize that it was Jesus who was with them.

Of course, they were seeing the resurrected Jesus for the first time, so maybe that accounts for their temporary prosopagnosia.

But even before the resurrection, when Jesus was among his followers, he alluded to a kind of recognition problem that the world could have for which Christians are responsible. In his conversation with his disciples at the Last Supper, Jesus told them that he loved them and that they should love one another. In fact, he called that “a new commandment.” In one way, it wasn’t new at all, for centuries before, the concept was articulated in Leviticus: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). Yet there was a newness about what Jesus said, for he intended that his followers’ love for each other should be a plain feature of their identity.

Thus he said, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Although in other places, Jesus talked about loving neighbors and even loving enemies, here he is saying that acting compassionately toward fellow believers is the way that people outside the church will know that they are his disciples.

That’s a positive way to state it, but consider the flip side. Jesus implies that it’s possible for Christians to live in the world without being recognized as Christians. To bring it right to our own day, Jesus’ new command means that if the world can know we are Christians by our love for one another, the world can also fail to recognize us as Christians if we don’t love one another. The world can have face blindness when it comes to distinguishing disciples from everyone else.

If we don’t have love for one another, the world has every right to conclude that we’re not Christians, not disciples and that we know nothing about God. Their conclusion might be in error, but they’re reaching the conclusion quite logically. Love -- and the unity it attests to -- is the mark Christ gave Christians to wear before the world. Only with this mark may the world know that Christians are indeed Christians and that Jesus was sent by the Father. 

Now right off, there are a few things that contribute to this face blindness.

The first is that the practice of loving one another is not limited to Christians. Unquestionably, there are people who claim no allegiance to Jesus who nonetheless behave lovingly toward colleagues, friends, coworkers, family members, lodge buddies and other groups of which they are a part, as well as to strangers in need. And many more in the world at large at least hold loving one another as an ideal and even give it lip service. Hence the appeal of the pop song from a few years ago, that crooned, “What the world needs now, is love, sweet love. It’s the only thing that there’s just too little of.”

So there’s some difficulty distinguishing Christians from others by their love because we live in a society that honors love for one another even if it does not always practice it.

Another reason for the world’s face blindness about Christians is that we ourselves don’t always grasp the depth of love Jesus was calling for among his followers. Loving enemies, of course, is desperately difficult, and loving neighbors is often hard work, so it would seem that by comparison, merely loving our fellow church members should be a snap.

In some ways, however, that is harder. Doing something compassionate for someone on the other side of the planet or reaching out to a person we see only occasionally doesn’t require great emotional investment. But when it comes to members of our spiritual community, our Christian community, people whom we see up close and interact with frequently, it can be a different story. Just think how hard it can be simply to give the benefit of the doubt to certain members of our families who march to the beat of their own drummers.

One pastor tells of taking a team from his church to work on houses of low-income families in a financially depressed part of eastern Kentucky. While they were fixing one home, a minister who pastored a nearby church stopped by and thanked the team for the work they were doing in his community. Then, in private conversation with the pastor, he mentioned that some members of his own church also wanted to participate in work camps to help others, but he’d found that he had to take them somewhere other than their home area. “Around here,” he said, “everybody knows everybody else. When I propose fixing up the homes of some of our neighbors, people are reluctant, saying that that person doesn’t deserve it or doesn’t really need the help. But if I take them where they don’t know anybody, my folks will pitch right in and work hard.”

Sometimes it’s devilishly hard to really love those close at hand.

Yet another reason for the world’s difficulty recognizing Christians by their love for one another is that Jesus set the bar very high for relationships within the church. He said, “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”

Earlier that evening, Jesus had given one demonstration about what he meant by loving one another when he had humbly washed the feet of each of his followers. That alone should give us pause when claiming to love one another, but there’s even more reason to realize the seriousness of this new command from Jesus when we remember that the fullest expression of Jesus’ love for his disciples was his laying down his life for them. So we are to love one another that fully. Wow.

Of course, today, not many of us are required to actually die for our fellow believers, and foot washing isn’t needed either, unless we do it as part of a religious ritual. So what does loving one another within the church look like?

So certainly, one way to live out Jesus’ command to love one another is through charitable support. In that regard, however, the actions are much the same as might be extended to someone in need outside the church, in obedience to Jesus’ larger command to love our neighbor.

We need to express our willingness to apologize to one another, especially when we have been mistaken or failed to help or support one of our fellow Christians. Likewise, we need a forgiving spirit and being willing to make peace with those within the church who have hurt us is a fulfilling of Jesus’ command. We should deal with differences by first spending time in prayer about the issue, and then approaching the other person in a spirit of non-belligerence, with the goal being not to win the argument, but to solve the problem.

One other way we can get a handle on what it means to love one another within the church fellowship is to consider to what lengths we are willing to go for each other. Sometimes parents learn something about going to the limit when one of their children gets into serious trouble. We’ve known of parents who went to extraordinary lengths to help one of their offspring, far beyond what they’d ever do for themselves. Parents who normally are quiet and unassuming have called in personal favors, exhausted their bank accounts, pleaded with judges, appealed to teachers, prostrated themselves before authorities and accepted humiliation to try to help their kid in difficulty. As outsiders to those situations, we may sometimes wonder if the young person in question deserves such love, but it is hard to fault the parents who are trying to move heaven and Earth to save their child.

We can understand that, of course, when it is parents assisting their own child. But Jesus’ remark suggests that it is a hallmark of Christians that they do things like that for one another, people to whom they have no other connection than a common belief in Jesus Christ.

We cannot explain ahead of time what it will mean to be Christlike in every relationship with other believers. Relationships and human nature are complex things, and situations we could never have anticipated arise. But Jesus’ new command gives us not only a place to start but also a spirit in which to act and a goal -- unity -- toward which to move.

As we internalize this command and put it into practice, we go a long way toward dispelling the face blindness of those on the outside, and we enable them to see the features of Christ in the church he has called us to be.

They will know we are Christians because of our love for one another.
A New Test      
     Mark 12: 28-34
A Teaching given by Rev. Dr. Everett Parker on November 1, 2015

  If you’ve traveled much internationally, you know that Venice has its gondolas, Calcutta its pedicabs, and London its distinctive black taxis. 
 But, in the canyons of Manhattan, the yellow cab is king.
 Anyone who drives the streets of the Big Apple quickly learns that taxi drivers rule the road 
 The bumper stick that reads: “WARNING: I brake for nobody” is very much a true statement.
  New York cabbies pride themselves on delivering their passengers curbside in the least amount of time, even if it involves a nail-biting, careening ride through traffic-choked streets to make good on that pledge.
 And Jan and I know that from personal experience!
  One of the reasons New York cabbies are so good at their work -- besides their finely-tuned talent for automotive aggression -- is their encyclopedic knowledge of the city’s streets. 
 Until recently, new cabbies were required to pass a grueling 80-question geography exam covering all five boroughs.
  But no longer. Once the bane of new immigrants, the cabbies’ geography test has now been reduced to a paltry 10 questions! Seriously!? Are we kidding? No.
 The reason? Technology. Global Positioning Systems (GPS) are revolutionizing the taxi trade. 
  Emphasis in testing is now as much on safety as on geography. The new exam is a “practical modernization,” a “catching up to the times.”
  Another factor is competition from Internet-based freelance services like Uber. A city-issued hack license no longer seems so valuable when GPS-equipped amateurs can deliver the same service at a lower cost, using their own vehicles.
 Longtime yellow cab patrons are skeptical. This report on the status of cabbies caught my attention in the New York Times.
  It quoted a woman as saying, “If I got into a cab and the driver didn’t know where Penn Station was, that’d be ridiculous. “I mean, would you hire a chef who never fried an egg?
   The best of the old-time New York cabbies know the streets in an almost intuitive way. It’s second nature.
  It’s a matter of head knowledge and heart knowledge, and that provides an excellent segue into our lectionary reading for today.
 A scribe comes up to Jesus asking which is the foremost commandment of the law.
 And Jesus’ answer, likewise, has to do with deep, intuitive knowledge -- but of a different sort. 
 Love God with your heart, soul, mind and strength. Love your neighbor as yourself.
 That’s all. Jesus reduces 613 commandments to two! Seriously. And we’re not kidding.
 Mark places this encounter amid a series of theological clashes between Jesus and various temple officials. 
 Remarkably, this particular scribe isn’t hostile like the others. He’s not trying to pick a fight. 
 Quite the contrary: This is the only example in the gospels of a scribe actually agreeing with Jesus.
 The scribe’s question is a classic opening gambit of rabbinic debate. 
 The rich Talmudic tradition of scholarly argument is based on certain category decisions made by preeminent rabbis.
 Which are the most important Scriptural laws?
 Which ones follow after, by implication?
 Which classic midrashic interpretations do you cite to settle particular cases?
 Establish the properly-ordered legal foundation, and everything else follows in due course.
 The scribe asks a defining question, the opening gambit of his debating stance. 
 Depending on how Jesus answers, the scribe will ask him another question, then another.
 The hope is in eventually pigeonholing Jesus into the school of one great Talmudic interpreter or another.
 There’s no hostility evident in his approach. Engaging in debate is simply what Talmudic scholars do. Steel sharpens steel.
  But Jesus’ answer defies easy categorization. Far from delivering a heavily-footnoted exegetical response, Jesus offers a schoolboy’s answer. 
  He recites the famous shema (“Hear, O Israel ...”) followed by the command to love one’s neighbor as oneself (Deuteronomy 6:5; Leviticus 19:18). 
 Jesus is implying it’s not so important what believers think about the law, as it is how faithfully they live the law.
  Jesus demands so little of his disciples, and yet so much. Love God and neighbor perfectly, he says. That’s all. Know this -- do this -- and you are not far from God’s realm.
 We can see Jesus drawing a distinction between two different ways of knowing: head knowledge and heart knowledge. 
  A greenhorn New York cabbie with a GPS may be able to plot a course with the best of them, but is his machine’s data-crunching capacity truly the equal of the street smarts of the seasoned veteran? 
  Old-school cabbies intuitively intuit the ideal route as much as they think it. Their heart is their guide. Such is the essence of wisdom.
  Some of us would be perfectly fine with EPS-driven Christianity (that’s “Ethical Positioning System”). We’ve studied the Scriptures. We’ve memorized verses. 
 If we’ve got a passing knowledge of the church’s landmark confessions and catechisms, then so much the better. 
 We take pride in knowing what we’re supposed to do (or, if we don’t, we know where we can look it up right quick).
 The scribe who questions Jesus is like that. He doesn’t just own an EPS. He’s programmed the thing.
 But Jesus seems unimpressed by such hard-earned theological knowledge. 
  Who is it, in his famous parable, who stops to bathe the wounds of the mugging victim? Not the tall-steeple pastor. Not the seminary professor. They pass by on the other side. 
 It’s the immigrant of uncertain origin who sells lottery tickets at the convenience store down the street.
 Yes, rabbi Jesus is the source of endless surprises.
  The parent with cigarette in hand who warns the kids off tobacco with the admonition “Do as I say, not as I do” may be a cliché. 
  Yet, it cuts rather close to reality for many Christians. We imagine it’s our right belief that will get us into heaven. We’ve wagered heavily on that.
  I don’t really need to go to church, you see, or to Bible study, because I am a Christian. I go to church on Christmas and Easter.
 Yet, what if the test we’ll one day be given has not 80 questions, nor even 10, but just two? 
 Did you love God with all that is in you? Did you love your neighbor as yourself? How would YOU answer that? 
 Mark seems to imply the scribe is pleased with Jesus’ answer. “You are right, Teacher,” he concedes. 
  But has Jesus truly won this scribe over? We can’t analyze his tone of voice, nor can we observe the expression on his scribely face. 
  Mark leaves that to us to figure out -- although he does supply what may be a hint: “After that no one dared to ask him any question.”
  Maybe Jesus’ simple, straightforward answer comes a little too close to home -- not just for this confident scribe, but for a great many others as well. Maybe even us.
 So, would you pass the test?
  Sometimes, anticipating an upcoming exam, students will try to wheedle out of their teacher some hint of what’s going to be on the test. 
  In this case, such a move is unnecessary. There’s nothing secret about this examination question. It’s been posted since the beginning of term. The exam itself is open book.
 There’s no point trying to cram for this “Love God -- Love Your Neighbor” test. 
  While knowledge of the Scriptures is certainly a help, a sheet full of Scripture citations is not, in itself, sufficient for a passing grade.
  Passing this examination is not a matter of composing an essay, nor answering the requisite number of multiple-choice questions. 
 It has nothing to do with lab reports. This exam cannot be written on paper, nor tapped out on a computer keyboard. 
 Its two questions are answered not in the conventional way, but rather in the stuff of life itself.
 This defies every preconception we have about test-taking. We like things arranged in a more predictable way. 
 We like to have a clear series of intermediate goals to achieve, each one with its own rewards. 
  There’s a story, and I know it’s true, about a seminary professor of Christian ethics who handed out an exam that had 20 difficult questions. 
 The instructions said to read the entire exam before beginning to write.
 Most students, seeing the number of questions, despaired of answering them all in the time allotted. 
 They ignored the instructions and started right in on the first question.
  A few students wrote nothing at all. They just looked at the paper for a while, then stared glumly into space, as though they were trying to remember something.
 One student completed the exam in a matter of minutes, submitted the paper, and walked out of the room, smiling. 
 The others looked up for a moment, incredulous, then returned to their scribbling.
  That student was the only one who passed. That student was the only one who followed the instructions fully, reading through all 20 questions before reaching the final one. 
  The final question went like this: “Congratulations! You have followed the instructions perfectly. There is no need to answer any of the other 19 questions. Just answer this one. 
 This question is very simple, and it is the only one that counts. Write the name of the janitor who cleans this classroom.”
 It was a strangely appropriate question for a Christian ethics exam. 
  It sought to measure how hard the students tried to love their neighbor -- the janitor, whom most habitually ignored -- as themselves.
 What about you? Would you pass Jesus’ new discipleship test? Let us ponder these questions as we approach the Communion table.

How to call for help   
                Mark 10: 46-52
A teaching on October 25, 2015 given by Rev. Dr. Everett Parker

 Technology has made it easier for us to call for help when needed, and yet, Americans are notorious for not asking for help. 
 Bartimaeus reminds us that calling for help is actually the key to new life!
 “Help! I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!”
 You probably have seen this cheesy commercial -- it’s been around for years and still runs in various versions today. 
 If you’ve visited grandma in the assisted-care facility, or watched some daytime TV, chances are you’ve seen it. 
  You know, it’s the one for the push-button device that you wear around your neck that is supposed to summon help if you can’t get to the phone. 
 The commercial is aimed primarily at the elderly and disabled.
  But the senior lady on the floor in the commercial utters her call for help with such campy melodrama, that it became as big a commercial catchphrase as “Where’s the beef?” 
 Americans find it hilarious, even though the situations the button are designed to address are no laughing matter. Yeah, it is a pretty bad commercial, but maybe our laughter goes a little bit deeper than just making fun of horrible acting. 
  Perhaps the reason that we find it amusing is because, in general, Americans think of asking for help as something one does only in the most dire of circumstances.
  Strange, isn’t it? Our fiercely individualistic and bootstrap-pulling ethics make it hard to ask for help, even though we now have a myriad of devices that enable us to call for help whenever we need it, including the mobile phone that everyone carries around.
 Think about it. Asking for help is a universally dreaded endeavor. 
  Whether we’re struggling with getting that heavy bag in the overhead bin on the airplane, or fixing a flat tire by the side of the road, Americans are much more likely to say, “I’m good” instead of “Can you help?” unless it’s an emergency that involves calling in professional helpers like police and firefighters.
  If we fall and can’t get up, we’d generally rather crawl out to the street, and get in the car than inconvenience someone else, and thus reveal our problem or weakness. “I got this,” we’d prefer to say.
 There are a number of reasons Americans don’t ask for help, and try, instead, to do it on our own:
  We were never taught how to ask for help, and have few role models. Our grandparents were part of a generation that valued hard work and self-sufficiency. 
 Asking for help was only in play if one was, say, drowning at sea. That ethic of self-sufficiency has been passed down to us.
  We love our independence. Studies show that Americans are becoming more isolated from one another as attendance has decreased in clubs and community service organizations, including the church. 
 The advent of the Internet enables us to pretty much do most things on our own by tapping on a few keys. 
  We don’t need to go to a physical store for a lot of our shopping, nor do we need to even be present in a classroom to get an education.
 All this meanswe never have to interact with potentially helpful clerks or stuffy professors.
  We don’t think to ask. We have been so brainwashed by the American ethic of self-sufficiency that asking for help just never comes to mind. We’re so focused on caring for ourselves that we don’t even realize when we need help.
  It’s easier to do it ourselves. “If you want something done right, do it yourself” is a popular American idiom. 
 We don’t want to be indebted to anyone, and be in a position of having to reciprocate someday.
  We’re afraid to ask. We’re afraid of what asking for help might say about us. We’d rather die a thousand deaths than have someone else think that we can’t do things on our own.
  In short, we’re very good at trying to do it ourselves, achieving modest results, instead of getting real help and making real progress. We miss out on the gifts that someone else can give us.
  In our lectionary reading for today, Bartimaeus had no such qualms about asking for help, and the results for him in doing so were nothing less than miraculous. 
   He is an example of the kind of richness and blessing that can come to us if we’re willing to set aside our self-sufficiency for a moment, and seek out real help and healing from someone else.
  He was sitting by the roadside as the crowd followed Jesus and his disciples out of Jericho on the way up to Jerusalem, when he heard that Jesus was about to pass by. 
  Without hesitation, and without any sense of embarrassment, the blind man began to shout, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” 
  Even the crowd around him thought this was scandalous and sternly ordered him to “be quiet,” much like we’d be mortified to let anyone in public know that we had a problem. 
  But Bartimaeus continued to not only ask for help, but to cry out for it, and it’s through his story that we learn some important principles that can help us when we need to call for help.
  Name your need, and vow to remain open to other possible resolutions. 
 Bartimaeus was a blind beggar, which meant that his only hope for a productive life was to regain his sight. 
 He knows his need, but notice that he doesn’t lead with his need for sight, but rather his need to be seen by Jesus.
 He shouted, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me,” and not, “Have mercy on me, a blind man.” 
 Bartimaeus seemed to understand that his vision was not only clouded by cataracts but by his own need of spiritual healing. 
  He opens himself to the possibility that his healing might be physical or spiritual, with an outside chance that it might be both.
  Asking for help begins when we acknowledge that we have a problem -- the presenting problem, yes, but also the underlying ones. 
 While we may appear fine on the surface, we know that other needs are always lurking underneath. 
 Thus, the more we try to hide it, the more insidious it becomes. 
 There are certain things over which we are powerless, and sin is certainly one of them.  
 To get help, be it physical or spiritual, we first have to name it.
 Bartimaeus knows that, regardless of what’s going on with his eyes, he’s got even bigger problems. 
  He prays the original sinner’s prayer. He knows that Jesus can do something about the things that bind him, rather than the things that blind him. 
  He is eager for whatever help Jesus can give. Are we as open to the possibility that we can be healed by Jesus, or by others whom he might send to help us?
 Take a leap of faith and ask. We have to believe that we qualify for help before we can ask for help. 
  Bartimaeus believed that he was worthy of help, not because he was a great person, but because he was one of God’s children -- a Jew who had been looking for the arrival of the Son of David, the Messiah.
  So, when Jesus heard his cries, and said, “Tell him to come here” (v. 49), Bartimaeus responded by throwing off his cloak and leaping up to meet the one who could help him. 
  He puts himself in a position to receive help and risks further embarrassment in order to get close to Jesus. It’s an act of faith.
  Bartimaeus thinks to ask, and asking is the key to receiving most anything we need. Jesus, in fact, would tell his disciples, “Whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours” (Mark 11:24). 
  James, however, says that we “do not have because we do not ask” (James 4:2). Asking God for what we need in prayer and asking others for what we need in person opens the door to healing and wholeness.
 Jesus’ response to Bartimaeus is a question of invitation: “What do you want me to do for you?”
 Bartimaeus is ready with a reply: “Teacher, I want to see.” (v. 51)
 “What do you want me to do for you?” Can you imagine Jesus asking you that question? 
 What would be your response? What are your deepest needs that you haven’t asked Jesus or anyone else to help you with? 
 How might you take a leap of faith and ask, believing that you can receive all that you need and more?
 Jesus tells Bartimaeus, “Go; your faith has made you well.” (v. 52) Faith can make us well, too. 
  We may not receive precisely what we want, but we can be assured that Jesus is ready to supply our need. Faith is the catalyst for asking, and asking is the key to healing!
  Be grateful. One of the keys to asking and receiving help is gratitude. 
  When we have an attitude of gratitude, it tends to shake us out of our self-sufficiency, and allows us to celebrate what others have done for us. 
  In a way, giving thanks is the substance that unfreezes the wheels that drive community, and enables us to acknowledge our dependence on God and one another.
 When Bartimaeus received his sight, his first action was to follow Jesus up the road toward Jerusalem. (v. 52)
  Although we know where Jesus is going (to his confrontation with the powers of evil on the cross), Bartimaeus is happy to go along, grateful to Jesus for all that he has done. 
  His gratitude is not merely words, but the actions of a follower. He cannot reciprocate what Jesus has done for him, but he can give his life in response.
 He know how good it feels to receive gratitude when we’ve done a service for others.  
  That’s why we have day, mother’s day, dad’s day bosses’ day and secretary’s day and a host of other special occasions where we thank those who have done so much for us.
 It can feel just as good to give gratitude when someone has done something for us. 
 It’s not about quid pro quo, but rather about the simple act of saying, “Thank you.” 
 When we develop the discipline of gratitude, asking for and giving help becomes a lot easier.
  We live in a world that has fallen, and can’t get up on its own. We’ve fallen, too, and there are times that we need help in order to stand again. 
  Let us not be afraid to ask, to have faith, and to be grateful to the God who supplies all our needs, and be thankful for the people who are ready to help us on God’s behalf!

Locked-up lives          
 Mark 10: 35-45
A teaching given on October 17, 2015 by Rev. Dr Everett Parker

Some of you may have heard of it.Digital kidnappers are taking over personal computers through programs called “ransomware.” 
And they are demanding money in order to release the data back to the computer’s owner. 
 So I’d like to suggest that the ransom Jesus paid on the cross redeems more than our data; it redeems our whole lives.
 The scene has been played out in hundreds of old movies and TV shows: 
  Someone has gone missing. But then a note arrives with the words formed out of letters cut out of old magazines and glued to a page. 
 The note demands a large sum of money, and, in return, the missing person will be supposedly released safe.
  The kidnappers assumed that it would be virtually impossible to figure out who wrote the letter because no handwriting, typewriting or computer printing was involved.
 The truth is, however, that the multi-letter, glued-together ransom note is really more Hollywood than history. 
  Looking at some of the most infamous kidnapping cases in history (like the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby and Patty Hearst), we discover that most high profile ransom notes were handwritten, hastily scrawled for maximum timeliness and impact. 
  This was before the advent of the personal computer, however, and now it’s possible to send a ransom note without needing any paper at all.
 In fact, now the ransom note might be about your computer itself. 
  Criminals have discovered that often what’s most important to us isn’t just the people we care about, but also the data we store. 
 A new generation of digital kidnappers now can abduct the data in a computer through the sneaky installation of malware. 
 They then demand a ransom from the computer’s owner before releasing control of the data back to them.
 It’s called “ransomware” and it’s a major new crime in our digitally connected world.
  It works something like this: you get an e-mail or visit a website, which looks innocent enough, but when you click on the attachment or navigate in the website it releases the ransomware virus into your computer’s operating system. 
 The ransomware either encrypts all your files, making them inaccessible to you, or it locks your home screen. 
 A pop-up message then appears that states that it will cost you some money to regain access and control of your computer. 
 The ransom usually costs anywhere between $25 and $600, payable through a credit card. 
 Paying the ransom doesn’t guarantee you’ll regain full, private control of your computer, either. 
 You will always know that someone can take over your digital life at any time.
  Despite the proliferation of anti-virus software and digital protective measures, we know that we’re all vulnerable to this kind of cyber kidnapping. 
 It takes a software expert to get rid of it, and to keep us from being held captive by it again.
  But if this kind of hijacking of our lives can happen online, the Bible also tells us that our lives are even more vulnerable to abduction by sinister forces. 
  The ransomware called sin infects all of us, and we cannot be free of it unless an expert gets it out of our system.            
 James and John don’t realize that they are infected with the virus. 
  The particular virus that threatens to lock up their lives, and bring their spiritual lives to a frozen halt is pride and ambition. 
 They come to Jesus, not with a request, but a demand: “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” (v. 35)
 “What is it that you want me to do for you?” Jesus asks. (v. 36)
  It’s then that their pride and ambition are revealed: “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory” (v. 37).
  Jesus knows that, if this sort of attitude infects them and the other disciples, it will totally freeze their spiritual life and any opportunity to be of service in the kingdom of God. 
  So Jesus isn’t buying what they’re selling. He says, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?”
 “We are,” they reply.
  “The cup that I drink, you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptized you will be baptized, but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”
  When Jesus explains how he, himself, will offer his life as a “ransom” in order to unfreeze, unlock, bring to life those whose lives are mired in, stuck in, frozen in sin.
  The other 10 disciples were “indignant” when they heard about this exchange, perhaps because they hadn’t thought of the scheme first. 
  But Jesus, the expert, pulls them all aside, and begins to talk about the problem of sinful pride that’s been infecting them all. 
  “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them.” (v. 42)
  It is those in power, in other words, who tend to hold people hostage, requiring much from them while giving little or nothing in return.
  “But it is not so among you,” says Jesus to his disciples. “Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.” (vv. 43-44)
 Those who follow Jesus do not hold others hostage to their ambition and personal gain.  
 Instead, they pay dearly on behalf of others, giving of themselves and their resources to serve others. 
 It’s the paradoxical economics of Jesus: You only gain when you give away. Remember that we talked on this theme last week.
  hen Jesus explains what he will be giving away: his very life. “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (v. 45)
 This is foreshadowing, of course, of what Jesus will do on the cross. 
  He will address the problem of a people whose lives are locked and encrypted by sin by paying the ransom permanently, and doing a total system reboot that will keep them clean and secure forever.
  It is a steep price to pay, but the result is a scrubbing of our internal data and a redeeming of our sinful past, thus making it possible for us to run effectively the software of love and grace he installs in us when we follow him.
 It’s no coincidence that this theme of the cross as ransom is prevalent throughout the New Testament. 
  In I Timothy 2:5-6, Paul makes it plain that there is only one who mediates between God and humankind, bridging the gap in the relationship caused by the malware of sin: 
 “Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself as a ransom for all.” 
  Elsewhere, Paul reminds us that we were “bought with a price” (I Corinthians 6:20) and that “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us.” That’s in Galatians 3:13.
 The death of Jesus on the cross reboots us with his divine operating system which is based on sacrificial love. 
 We no longer need to keep paying the debt of sin in our lives because it’s been canceled. 
  We are set free to operate and work as God designed us to function; to give our lives on behalf of others so that they, too, may experience the freedom and new life offered by Jesus Christ.
  So keeping in this metaphor of computer lingo, what are some of the things that threaten to lock up our lives? What brings our lives to a complete halt?
 What causes a total freeze of our love and affection for the things of God and the welfare of others?
 For James and John, it was their ambition and pride. 
  Thinking only of themselves, they sought to gain a position in the kingdom that would elevate them even above their companions on the discipleship journey.
  Consider the classic “seven deadly sins.” For some, it is avarice that shuts down, not only our spirituality, but our humanity. 
  For others, it is lust that ruins relationships. Some find that envy and jealousy eats away the inner life until it is raw and bleeding. 
  Others are too lazy to care one way or the other. Perhaps it is anger and an abusive and controlling personality that keeps your life frozen and dysfunctional.
 Whatever it is, if the gospel is anything, it is about being freed from the things that freeze us. 
 It is about being set free! It is about being released to a new life!
 Don’t worry about the theological nuances of the word “ransom.” 
 For some theologians, ransom is an atonement theology that is out of favor. 
  Yet, Jesus himself used the word, and it describes his action on the cross as that which totally releases those who are bound, those who are captive, those who are in prison -- regardless of the particular nature of the malware that infects their lives.
  Experts tell us that one of the ways to prevent being infected by ransomware is to make sure that you have installed security software and to make sure that it, and all your software, is always up to date. 
 Keeping things updated ensures that your system hasn’t been allowed to develop holes that cyber kidnappers can exploit.
 That’s good advice for our spiritual lives as well. What can we do to prevent our spiritual lives from freezing up?
  Stay in God’s word. It’s amazing to me how few of our people attend Wednesday night Bible study where we delve into the deeper meaning of Scripture.
 The psalmist wrote: “How can young people keep their way pure? By guarding it according to your word.” (119:9)
 In that same psalm we read, “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (v. 105).
  Prayer. When worry and anxiety tie us up in knots, we’re instructed to pray: “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6-7). 
  Notice the “guarding” function of the peace of Christ! It’s a military image, but it can easily be translated to a computer metaphor. The peace of Jesus Christ guards us, protects us from the viruses that threaten us.
  Community. We find strength in numbers! It’s no accident that those who are in AA go to weekly meetings. It is a key to their sobriety. Likewise, the Bible reminds us “to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another.” (Hebrews 10:24-25)
  Many, if not most of us, have a personal computer or laptop, and, no doubt, every one of them has experienced a frozen screen, black screen or total lockdown.
 And those who have experienced this understand the absolute frustration, even rage, when it happens.
  But this message is to offer hope. Only a techie can unlock a computer screen, but Jesus, as a “ransom for many” does something so much more meaningful.
 Jesus gives us back our lives!
"Rich Fools"
A teaching given by Rev Dr Everett Parker on October 11, 2015
 Luke 12: 13-21

Jesus talks about a rich fool in his day, and there’s not much of a jump for us to quickly find the rich fools of our day.

Leisurely, Large, and Loaded. Let me repeat that. Leisurely. Large. Loaded.

That’s the less than flattering snapshot of today’s average American taken from the Statistical Abstract of the United States. Recently released by the U.S. Census Bureau, this 1,300-page “Tale of Too Much” reports statistical trends across numerous sectors of American life, and in short — we live a “Super-Size Me” life.

We’re media saturated. Americans will spend nearly 10 hours a day either watching television, surfing the Internet, reading books, newspapers and magazines, or listening to music this year. It’s easy to salt this away wondering how “those lazy people” waste all their time, but don’t discount that devotional reading this morning, the CD on while commuting, and all the e-mails that were sent today, not to mention time wasted on Facebook. All these things factor into the picture of the average American, with the means, the technology and the time for 10 hours of media connection a day. It adds up quickly.

We’re fat. Foreign travelers are stunned when they visit the United States and see the shape of our shape. The Abstract confirms what is obvious by walking our streets. Two-thirds of Americans are overweight, one-third of whom are medically obese! To compare our “one-thirds” to the rest of the planet, the World Health Organization estimates that while one third of the world is well fed, one third is underfed and one-third is starving.

An author visited Cambodia on a mission trip to an orphanage there. She wrote about "Fat Water:" “The people in the cities will not drink bottled water. We drink nothing but bottled water because the water here is not filtered. We even brush our teeth with bottled water. The hotel we were in had brown water. Some in our group went without a shower. Some poured bottled water over their heads and called it good.

“The reason Cambodians in the city will not drink bottled water is because they see all the Western tourists drinking it. And they think we’re fat! They think it’s the bottled water that makes Westerners fat! They may be on to something. They’re drinking bad water which probably has a parasite or two in it. We aren’t getting the parasites that so many Westerners could probably benefit from — to lose weight!! Now everyone in our group calls bottled water 'fat water.' 'One large fat water for me please — to go!!’”

The census report noted that Americans drink about a gallon of soda a week, along with a half-gallon each of milk, bottled water, coffee and beer. If you total the calories in a week’s worth of these beverages, we spend a day and a half’s allowance of calories just on our drinks. And that generously assumes we take our coffee black! It adds up quickly.

We’re rich. The Abstract throws some big numbers around when it comes to how we save and spend our money. Half of U.S. households owns stocks and mutual funds, which seems reasonable until you realize that one in six people worldwide lives on less than $1 a day.

According to another report, the average American’s net worth amounts to $144,000, more than 100 times higher than the average Indian or Indonesian, whose assets totaled $1,100 and $1,400, respectively.

But to measure our excess wealth with a simple indicator, Americans bought 2.1 billion pairs of imported shoes last year. That’s an average of seven pairs per person! Satisfying the world’s yearly sanitation and food requirements would cost only $13 billion — that’s the amount people of the United States and the European Union spend annually on perfume. Again, it adds up quickly.

Average Joe or Jane American looks like a fat, rich fool at this point. But the problem with reports like the Statistical Abstract is that we rarely see ourselves in the data. Unless the Census Bureau is lying to us, we must realize that we are the most over consuming people on God’s earth.

We’re a culture of stuffed barns. Stuffed barns. Where have we heard that before?

Oh, right. In this text, right here where Jesus takes up the issue of greed and accumulation after someone asks him to play arbitrator in a family inheritance squabble (v. 13).

Jesus rhetorically asks who made him to be the judge of the man’s fiscal fighting, and then immediately acts as the judge of his soul (v. 14). He makes the moment a homily opportunity and cautions his followers against the subtlety of greed and accumulation (v. 15).

His parable is a classic tale of the rich get richer. The rich fool — a wealthy farmer — has a bumper crop year that exceeds his storage capacity, so he decides to build bigger barns to store his blessing away (vv. 16-18).

While Jesus’ parable about the rich fool should make most of us in American churches a little uncomfortable, we typically consider him as rich. But he’s not — he’s just the Census Bureau’s average American when compared to the rest of the world. If he were living today’s Census Abstract averages, he’d be 30 pounds overweight and watching his $3,500 flat-screen TV.

The biggest challenge here is to find ourselves in the problem of Jesus’ parable. The abundance of possessions is so subtle and culturally accepted that it goes largely unnoticed. Consider the number of self-storage facilities, the “larger barns” of our day, if you will. They are a booming business in our country, and have only proliferated in our neighborhoods over the last 10 years or so. If you compare America with the United Kingdom and Australia, we have 10 times as much self-storage space per person as they do!

So let me ask you this. When is the last time you could not afford something you needed and not just wanted? How many times have they been unable to provide a meal for your family? Have you ever struggled to buy a gift for someone who seems to have everything? Or have you ever caught yourself being envious of the nicer car, home or clothes of someone else when you  aren’t lacking any of those things?

A lot of our storing up of treasures starts in our keeping up with the Joneses. We must choose to reject comparisons that lead to desires for the newer and nicer.

In Death by Suburb, Christian author David L Goetz discusses how comparison fuels accumulation in the suburban life: “The suburbs seem to promote a kind of vigilance on the possessions of others. It seems to be more than just good old-fashioned coveting … it’s ubiquitous, heightened vigilance — roving eyes, like a sentinel — eternally on point to compare myself to those I perceive have more than I do. I’m always weighing my immortality symbols against others.”

This is what Jesus is warning against when he says to “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed” (v. 15). He knows the appetite for more is subtle, so he says be intentional in looking out for it.

The Western life of success and excess needs a theological adjustment. The problem with the rich fool in this parable is not that he was wealthy or that he had a great harvest. The problem is that he did not understand the spiritual reality behind all he had. It's like the man who says that he has a strong work ethic, but no ethics in his work.

The Bible is consistent in the theme that:

• we are given to — so that we might give to others;

• we are blessed — so that we might be a blessing;

• we are loved — so that we might love;

• we are reconciled — so that we might reconcile;

• we are forgiven — so that we might forgive.

The problem with greed and accumulation is that rich fools — then and now — forget that blessings are intended to be used to bless others.

Have you ever seen the bumper stickers on people’s cars — “God bless America.” That’s patriotic, but the massive implicit oversight is that God already has blessed America! It’s like, what are we asking for here? When we look at our reality against the reality of the world around us, we realize how much we are the farmers building bigger barns. Instead of asking God to bless America, we need to ask how America can be a blessing to the world … through our choices.

So to be practical, here are some possible antidotes to accumulation:

• Go through your closets and drawers once a year. If you didn’t wear a piece of clothing that year, give it away.

• Consider shared ownership of possessions with your neighbors. There are tons of things we own which we don’t need exclusive use of. Do two homes need two lawn mowers? Sharing possession combats accumulation and builds relationships with the lost.

• Journal a list of all the things you need to live and another list of things you want for your life. Commit to purchasing only from the need list for the rest of the year.

• Make a list of your monthly budget categories in order of amounts spent on each. Look at how your charitable giving compares with your accumulation line items — clothing, eating out, entertainment, grooming, hobbies, etc. Does the order need to change?

• For the next month, every time you appreciate something that somebody else has, stop to pray for your own contentment with how you have been blessed.

• Christmas shopping starts again in three months. Declare a tight price limit on family presents, go with a no-gift Christmas, or spend as much sponsoring a local shelter as you do on gifts.

Our well-fed, sedentary, affluent lifestyle can lead us away from being “rich toward God” (v. 21). But the message of Jesus is that we are blessed to be a blessing. Leave the bigger barns to the rich fools of the parables and the rich fools of the census and commit to being better at sharing than at storing.

How Old Are You?

You know how old you are. Now, with a new program, it is not too hard to calculate your biological age. But how does one measure one's spiritual age?

Someone has said that there are four stages of life: Childhood, Adolescence, Adulthood and then "Gee you look good!"

People in this latter category may be the victims of the one ism that is so easy to ignore: ageism. It's not hard to detect the behaviors of racism and sexism, but ageism is a subtle bigotry with serious side effects.

Most of us would deny we're guilty of ageism. We do not discriminate in the work place against the old, and we're quite willing to help a gray-haired lady across the street - even if she doesn't need any help, thank you very much.

There you go. We're ageists. But there is good news. A new study suggests that real age is not the same as chronological age.

Men, if you suck down more than 10 servings of tomato paste per week, you may be younger than you think you are.

Women, if you have been battered by a divorce, you may be older than you think you are.

If we brush and floss faithfully, we may be as much as 6.4 years younger than we think we are!

How can this be? An age is an age is an age, isn't it? In the no-nonsense words of Nicodemus, "How can anyone be born after having grown old?" (John 3:4). As much as we may want to turn, twist and torque the hands of time, we can't do it, can we?

Perhaps we can. There is a book with an age reduction program that promises to help us live and feel up to 26 years younger than we are. The premise is really rather simple: There's a difference between our calendar age and our biologic age. Recall the surprise you felt when you learned that your coworker - whom you assumed was in his 50s - was really only 43. On the other hand, think of your neighbor who looks as if she's in her early 40s, but who's really 60. Some people are young for their age. They are physiologically and mentally as active and vibrant as someone much younger.

The youthful 65-year-old woman may have a "RealAge" of 45. She has learned how to slow the pace of aging by making simple but critical decisions about her lifestyle and behavior. By taking care of her body, she slows the pace of biologic aging and capitalizes more fully on her potential.

The RealAge program - splashed across a full-page ad in newspapers, and now in the form of a book, audio cassette, computer program and Web site - gives you a measurement system to calculate the biologic age of your body. Once you discover your RealAge, you can learn to evaluate health care decisions as diverse as putting tomato sauce on spaghetti or taking a jog, and then make informed decisions about each habit.

• Take vitamins C and E daily for their antioxidant and anti-aging power (6 years).

• Eat breakfast every day (1.1 years).

• Get a good night's sleep regularly (3 years).

• Maintain a constant desirable weight (6 years).

• Own a dog, and walk it (1 year)!

• Build social networks (2-30 years). That who have close friends and family members can help prevent aging from excessive stress.

On the other hand, if you want to age more quickly - and what fool among us does? - your best bet is to have unsafe sex, work at a job exposing you to pollutants and toxins, live beyond your financial means, smoke cigarettes, drink to excess, and abuse drugs. The key to looking and feeling older than your birth certificate usually comes down to self-abuse!

Unfortunately, not everyone gets it. In John 3, Jesus gives a night visitor named Nicodemus some hints about Spiritual RealAge when he insists, "You must be born from above" (v. 7). Actually, what he really says is, "You must be born anothen" - a Greek word that sounds like a fancy dietary supplement. Anothen is a word with a dual meaning - it means both "from above" and "again." To be born anothen speaks both of a TIME of birth - "again" - and the PLACE from which the new birth is generated - "from above."

But Nicodemus' language and imagination do not stretch far enough to grasp Jesus' offer. Sometimes when we speak of being "born again" we make the same mistake that Nicodemus did: We understand Jesus' words on only one level. We focus on being "born again" to the exclusion of being "born from above," and flatten the expression to only one meaning, roughly equivalent to an individual's private moment of conversion.

The "born again" metaphor speaks to the new context in which we function with others relationally. As a consequence, we speak, act and think differently toward those who are around us. Being born "from above" identifies the source of regeneration. The recognition that rebirth is a divine action in us removes from us any sense of Spiritual RealAge as something we can do ourselves apart from God's work in us.

So what does a person who is spiritually young look like? He's open to surprises from God - unlike Nicodemus, who was full of preconceptions about what God could and couldn't accomplish. 

She's willing to let the Spirit of God blow where it chooses, not knowing where it comes from or where it goes, racing far beyond human knowledge and control. 

He believes that Jesus is the one who moves between heaven and earth and who brings the two together; he trusts that "God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him" (v. 17). 

She trusts that she has been born again and born from above so that she can live in the unending presence of God, in an eternal life that never really ages and never finally ends.

Or, he does some of the 175 things that one magazine says a man should do before he dies. Not necessarily number 6, "Jump out of a Cessna," but certainly number 7, "Talk to God," and number 170, "Entertain the possibility that there is, indeed, a heaven and a hell, and treat people accordingly." 

It could be that a person with a young and vibrant Spiritual RealAge looks like - you! Like you when you attend worship and listen for God's Word ... when you pray every day ... when you build service to others into your regular routine ... when you participate in the activities and outreach of a caring Christian community.

Scientific, secular studies are unanimous: people of faith - those born again and born from above - always appear to be more alive, engaged and younger than their birth certificate says they are. 

Let us consider these things as we come to the Communion table.

"Ooops .. my bad!"    
     Luke 18: 9-14
A Teaching given by Rev. Dr. Everett Parker on August 30, 2015
   One afternoon a carpet layer had just finished installing carpet for a lady. He stepped out for a smoke, only to realize that he had lost his cigarettes. After a quick, but fruitless search, he noticed that in the middle of the room, under the carpet that he had just installed, was a bump. His cigarettes! “No sense pulling up the entire floor for one pack of smokes,” the carpet layer said to himself. So, he got out his mallet and flattened the bump.
   Not long after, as he was cleaning up, the lady came in. “Here,” she said, handing him his pack of cigarettes. “I found them in the hallway. Now,” she said, “if only I could find my parakeet.” Oops. My bad!
   Sometimes we know when we’ve made a mistake. Sometimes we don’t.
   It’s the ones we don’t see that can really bite us.
   There is a list of the 20 greatest mistakes in history. They include: The mistake that burned down London. On the night of September 1, 1666, the oven of the royal baker to the king of England sparked a fire. It wasn’t a spectacular blaze, and it seemed like no big deal at first, but the fire burned for five days. In the end, it wiped out 13,000 homes and leveled 80 percent of the city.
   The mistake that sobered America up. Prohibition in the United States lasted from 1920 to 1933, and during this period it was illegal to manufacture, transport and sell alcoholic beverages. It seemed like a great idea at the time -- outlaw liquor, and you eliminate a whole range of alcohol-related social ills. But Prohibition opened our eyes to the ways in which organized crime will meet this demand in profitable, violent and destructive ways.
   The mistake that killed John Wayne. Much of the filming for the movie The Conqueror was done in Utah’s Snow Canyon, which is located about 150 miles downwind from a nuclear testing facility. At least 91 of the 220 people who worked on the movie contracted cancer, and more then half of them died -- including John Wayne.
   A spark jumps out of an oven, and a baker fails to snuff it. A well-intentioned ban is placed on alcohol. A movie is filmed downwind from a nuke facility. These are small oversights, errors and miscalculations that we do not tend to see as major mistakes.
   But secret problems can hurt us. They can quickly get out of control and kill us. They should drive us to our knees, cause us to do some searching self-examination, and lead us to confess what the Bible calls “hidden faults” (Psalm 19:12). In other words, they should cause us to admit to God, “My bad.”
   Jesus tells the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, addressing it to people who feel self-righteous, and regard others with contempt (Luke 18:9).
   In other words, he is speaking to us -- average people who tend to see themselves as better than average. Studies show that nine in 10 managers rate themselves as superior to their average colleagues, as do nine in 10 college professors. And most drivers -- even those who have been hospitalized after accidents -- believe themselves to be safer and more skilled than the average driver.
   “The one thing that unites all human beings, regardless of age, gender, religion, economic status or ethnic background,” notes humorist Dave Barry, “is that deep down inside, we all believe that we are above average drivers.”
   Jesus says that two men go up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and one a tax collector (v. 10). The natural assumption made by anyone hearing this story is that the Pharisee is the devout person — the good driver! The tax collector, on the other hand, is the sinner, the bad driver.
   Sure enough, the Pharisee steps away from the crowd in order to maintain his purity before God, and launches into a list of all his religious accomplishments: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income” (vv. 11-12). He does everything right, according to the standards of the day, obeying all the religious rules of the road. In terms of keeping God’s commandments, he is way above average.
   Then the tax collector bows his head, beats his breast, and says, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” (v. 13). He’s feeling so ashamed that he cannot even raise his hands and look up to heaven, which is the standard position for first-century prayer. The tax collector doesn’t make any boasts or excuses -- he simply asks for God’s mercy.
   There’s no reason to assume that this tax collector is a particularly spectacular sinner. If he were a thief, a rogue or an adulterer, Jesus would say so. It’s much more likely that he is confessing a set of secret, hidden faults -- a collection of oversights, errors and miscalculations that only he would know.
   So the above-average Pharisee boasts, while the sin-sick tax collector says, “My bad.” They both make a connection with God, right?
Wrong! In a surprising twist, Jesus concludes the parable by saying, “I tell you, this (tax collector) went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted” (v. 14).
   The tax collector restores his relationship with God by asking for forgiveness, while the Pharisee moves farther away from God by boasting of his righteousness. This isn’t what the hearers of the parable expect. They’ve been taught that good behavior draws you closer to God, while bad behavior drives you away. But Jesus is insisting that unless we are aware of our secret faults, and humble enough to know that we need forgiveness, we’re going to discover that our minor mistakes can get out of control and destroy us.
   It’s always better to say “My bad” than to boast “My good.” Think again of the historical mistakes that seemed so small at first, but then caused enormous problems. Prohibition may have been a noble idea, and a spark from a baker’s oven may have seemed like no big deal, but both turned out to be huge problems. In the same way, the Pharisee’s fasting and tithing seemed noble at first, and his pride in his good behavior seemed to be a minor mistake, but together these factors created a disaster. Without humility, there was no way for him to be right with God!
   When you trust God, you get God. But when you trust only yourself, you get … only yourself. So, what are the mistakes we make, sometimes without knowing it? It’s time for us to do some searching self-examination, confess our hidden faults, and say to God, “My bad.”
   One mistake that can really bite us is our failure to see the image of God in the people around us. Go up to Washington, and step into a subway car, and you tend to see differences -- different skin colors, hairstyles, tattoos, piercings, body shapes and makeup choices. Some of these differences repel you and you step back, just like the Pharisee moved away from the crowd, not wanting to associate with unclean people. But these differences are all superficial, and most don’t reflect the true nature of a person. The really deep truth about a crowd of people in a subway car is that they are children of God, created in the image and likeness of God. That is what we ought to be looking at.
   Another mistake is to judge others more harshly than we judge ourselves. Think of the times you have felt your temperature rising as the line at the post office moves at a glacial pace, and then, when you get to the counter, the clerk messes up your transaction. You want to lash out, saying, “Pay attention and get it right!” We’re quick to judge others, but slow to judge ourselves -- in our own daily work, we go easy on ourselves because we know how hard it is to focus when we are ill or tired or distracted by a personal problem. Like the Pharisee in the parable, we see sin in thieves, rogues, and adulterers, but not in ourselves. And this leads others to see us as judgmental and hypocritical -- which is not always far from the truth.
   Finally, we err when we are not honest with God — or honest with ourselves — about our need for forgiveness. The tax collector saw himself clearly, and he confessed his sinfulness, saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” (v. 13).
   All of this begs the question: HOW do I get to a place where I see the image of God in others, show mercy instead of judgment, recognize my own need for forgiveness?
   You no doubt have a ready answer for that question. But you could suggest on the basis of this text, that the answer lies in this simple prayer, i.e., we should pray it -- regularly. How can you fail to see God in others around you when you’ve started your day by praying to God: “God, please show your mercy and grace to me today because I realize I am needy and must rely on your help”?
   Pray that prayer every morning and you’ll be less critical of others, you’ll look at yourself more honestly and at others with more compassion.
   And, let’s face it, this is a prayer that each of us can say, because each of us has an ongoing relationship with at least one of the seven deadly sins -- lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy and pride. Each of us needs to be forgiven, whether we acknowledge it or not, just as the Pharisee needed to be cleansed of the sin of pride when he said, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people” (v. 11). It’s time to get honest -- honest with God, and honest with ourselves. We cannot go home justified, restored to right relationship with God and one another, unless we admit that we need to be forgiven.
   The opportunity comes to us here, just as it came to the Pharisee and the tax collector in the temple -- the opportunity to see our mistakes, confess our hidden faults, and ask for the gift of forgiveness.
   It all begins with two words, honestly spoken: “My bad.”
Paul’s product proposal
  Ephesians 6: 10-20
A teaching given by Rev. Dr. Everett Parker On Augusr 23, 2015

 If you’ve been on a plane any time in the last 25 years, you probably took a moment to leaf through the SkyMall catalog. 
 You remember: This is the rather strange magazine that’s full of innovative and weird products you don’t really need.
 How about a sleep mask that plugs into your iPod or a pen that takes pictures?
  Leafing through that catalog on a long flight, you might have thought you really did need that replica Harry Potter wand or that voice-recognition grocery list organizer.
 But, alas, SkyMall filed for bankruptcy earlier this year. 
  Seems that now, in a world where gadgets are multiplying at a high rate of speed, people aren’t waiting until they fly to grandma’s to do their shopping for battery-operated ephemera.
 Gadgetry is now no longer novel. In fact, it’s totally passé, except for a few of the top gadgets of 2015.
 The best new gadgets of 2015 seem to feature wearable technology.
  Smart watches, activity trackers that you wear on your wrist (like Fitbit) and cameras that you can wear on your helmet, are becoming more common, as are other devices that have the potential to make your life more interesting, if not better. 
  The Ritot Projection Watch, for example, is a gadget that can display the time on your hand in beautiful digital colors because turning your wrist to look at a regular watch is, like, such a hassle.
 Hush Smart Earplugs will block out sounds you don’t want to hear, like your husband’s snoring or your neighbor’s yappy dog.
 But at the same time, it still allows you to hear sounds that you might want to hear, like the ringing of your phone.
  The ShotTracker device uses a wristband to track how well you’re doing at shooting a basketball, because simply keeping score clearly isn’t enough.
  But while a lot of this gadgetry is interesting, most of it isn’t essential, nor is it a cure-all for the inherent messiness of life. 
  A smart watch might make it easier to answer your phone or check your calendar quickly, but it won’t protect you from over-scheduling yourself. 
  Your helmet camera may record interesting videos of that epic ski run or downhill mountain bike ride, but it won’t keep you from bashing into a tree. 
  In fact, our reliance on tech sometimes gets us into trouble, like the people who hike with a wristwatch GPS instead of a map and are hopelessly lost when the battery runs out.
  But, what if there was wearable tech that never fails, is highly mobile, offers ironclad protection from danger and never runs out of power?
 Well, the apostle Paul offers us a catalog snapshot of just such a product, and the cool thing is that it’s free! 
  It’s a figurative “suit of armor” that’s actually functional, unlike the six-foot-tall Italian Armor Sculpture available in the SkyMall catalog.
  The Greek word for it is “panoply” which was the light, maneuverable, state-of-the-art armored kit of the Roman legionnaires who were seen all over the Mediterranean world. 
 It was designed to be used within the virtually impenetrable Roman phalanx.
  The panoply featured gadgets with both offensive and defensive capabilities that shielded the empire from its outside threats better than any anti-virus software for your smartphone could ever do.
 This was wearable tech at its most basic and most effective level.
  Paul saw the Roman panoply as a metaphor for the kind of tech that the church needed to wear in order to survive “the wiles of the devil” and stand against “the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (vv. 11-12). 
  Unlike the Roman legions, whose panoply was designed to “struggle against enemies of blood and flesh,” the church’s enemies are those powers that seem always to be poised to invade our lives, often through the very gadgets that we carry, wear and watch. 
  Glance at your cell phone, your tablet or your computer, and chances are you’ll see plenty of images and invitations that are contrary to the will of God, even if you’re not looking for them. 
 The more convenient our lives become, it seems, the more complacent we become in guarding our hearts and minds.
  Paul’s metaphor is thus an invitation for the church to band together to defeat the spiritual enemy that is always poised to strike at us. 
  The Roman panoply was such that an individual soldier was protected only so long as he stayed in ranks with his mates, their shields locked together. 
  The armor was designed to protect only the front of the legionnaire and not his back, which ensured that his front was always toward the enemy. 
  If an individual broke ranks, either to fight on his own or to run, he was vulnerable. The tech only works when it’s used in community.
  We miss this reality, particularly because in our highly individualized, cell-phone-staring, button-pushing and thumb-twitching world we don’t realize that we’re only as good as the community of people around us. 
 Ultimately, it wasn’t the armor that saved the Roman soldier in battle; it was his connection to the others.
  Paul urges the church to suit up and check their connections to each other if they are to “withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm” (v. 13).
  The apostle then goes on to describe each piece of wearable tech that, when used together, makes for a strong defense against the forces of evil.
 He begins with the “belt of truth” that is foundational to the strength of any group of people. 
 The ability to trust one another and speak the truth is essential to both soldiers and churches (v. 14). 
 This is one of the big faults of churches today where gossip rules think they rule things.
 The belt of truth enables the community to “put away falsehood” that “leaves no room for the devil” to operate (vv. 25-26). 
  Our gadgets can be used for gossip if we’re not careful, so Paul begins with truth -- the wearable tech that is most protective of the cohesion of the community of faith.
  The “breastplate of righteousness” and the “helmet of salvation” (vv. 14, 17) are echoes from Isaiah 59:17, where God himself puts on the armor to go out and repay his enemies for their evil. 
  God’s righteousness and salvation guard our hearts and heads in the knowledge that he has already defeated the enemy through the righteousness and salvation offered by Christ on the cross. 
  Like a heart rate monitor app on your smart watch, the knowledge of what God has done for us in Christ, revealed in the “word of God,” helps us to gauge our spiritual health. 
  The more we exercise the grace offered to us, the more likely we are to stay strong in the knowledge that we are eternally protected from the slings and arrows of the evil one.
 The Roman “caliga,” or boot, was one of the key parts of the panoply. 
 It enabled the legion to keep pace on the march with more precision than the step counter on your belt. 
  Here Paul uses the image to encourage the church to put on “whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace” (v. 15). 
  The best defense is a good offense, thus the church that’s constantly moving outside its walls to preach the gospel of peace in the community through both words and actions will be most equipped to “stand firm” even while moving out into the neighborhood.
  The shield was a critical piece of the legionnaire panoply, since it provided the primary protection for both the individual and the phalanx. 
  Shooting flaming arrows into the enemy’s ranks was a standard tactic in ancient warfare, since individual soldiers would have to drop their shields in order to put out the fire. 
  The Romans devised the counter measure of soaking the leather-covered shields in water before battle in order to extinguish the fires before they got started. 
 For the church, faith acts as a kind of shield against “the flaming arrows of the evil one” (v. 16). 
  A strong faith is not just the product of individual devotion, but is the result of a church that rallies together in defense of the gospel and holds up those who are struggling rather than cutting down each other and creating hurt feelings.
 Last, the “sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (v. 17). 
 One of the upsides of having all this wearable tech is that we have easy access to Scripture in our pockets and on our wrists. 
  The writer of Hebrews tells us that Scripture is a “sharp, two-edged sword” that cuts both ways -- it slices into the lies of the enemy and it can cut us to the heart when we are convicted of our sin (Hebrews 4:12). 
  The more we engage in reading Scripture daily, the more we are able to see the enemy’s catalog of temptations for doing evil for what they are: worthless junk that is harmful to both body and soul.
 SkyMall may be on the way out, but gadgets are here to stay. 
  New inventions are popping up all the time, especially with the advent of crowdsourcing that allows others to invest in a good idea. 
  Paul reminds us, however, that it’s the tried and true products that really stand the test of time, especially when it comes to guarding our lives in Christ.

Big time         
 Ephesians 5: 15-20
A Teaching by Rev. Dr. Everett Parker on August 16, 2015

 Do you know what time is it? Are you a clock watcher?
 From the small clocks on our cell phones to some of the biggest clocks in the world, humans are obsessed with time. 
 But yet, that doesn’t mean we’ve learned how to spend time well.
 Let’s take a quick survey: How many people in here today regularly wear a wristwatch?  
 How about a show of hands of those who use another device to tell time? Your cell phone, perhaps?
 Regardless of what timepiece you carry, it’s clear that we live in a world obsessed with time. 
  Rarely does anyone sidle up to you in the grocery store anymore and ask, “Do you have the time?” because everyone has it attached to their body in some way. 
 We have multiple apps for tracking our calendars, managing our deadlines and even timing our walk to the office. 
  We have time staring at us from the corner of our computer screens, from the dashboard of the car and from the digital clock on the bank sign down the street. 
  If you’re in a city, you might even look up and see a classic old clock fixed on a historic building which has been marking the time for generations.
  In some cities, in fact, telling time is literally a big deal. If you’re in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, for example, you can’t help but see the Abraj Al Bait Towers clock just about anywhere you go. 
  Its clock face is 43 meters in diameter, roughly the size of a luxury yacht, built on a tower that’s 601 meters (almost 2,000 feet) tall. 
  By comparison, Big Ben, arguably the most famous clock in the world, is just over six meters in diameter on a 96-meter-high tower on the bank of the Thames. 
 And take my word for it, if you haven’t heard old Big Ben chime the hour, you have missed something in life.
  Other cities around the world have similar “big time” clocks to help residents and visitors track the time, some even assisting with chimes or bells when the clock strikes the hour.
 You’d think that the plethora of clocks in our world would make us better at managing our time.
 But the truth is that time management is one of the biggest stressors in our culture. 
 We work too many hours, we have too many distractions, and we’re trying to squeeze in more work in less time. 
  Procrastination is often the result of being so overwhelmed with tasks that we keep putting things off, only to find that we’re now even more squeezed for time.
  The relentless ticking of the clock (or, in their case, the movement of the shadow around the sundial) is what the ancient Greeks referred to as chronos time, from which we get “chronological” time. 
  If you buy an expensive watch today (either to actually tell time or to make a fashion statement), the jewelry store personnel will likely refer to it as a “chronograph.” 
 It keeps the time that we’re always tracking, managing and running out of.
 The apostle Paul didn’t wear a watch or carry a cell phone, but he was nonetheless always aware of time. 
  It was a different sort of time, however, than you get by glancing at your watch or at a clock like the one at the Central do Brasil railway station in Rio De Janeiro, which is 20 meters in diameter and hard to miss. 
  Paul actually kept a running clock in his head, but, instead of tracking the chronos, Paul was far more interested in redeeming the kairos.     
 Kairos is the brand of time most often mentioned in the New Testament. You learn about kairos in Tres Dias and Walk to Emmaus.
 You won’t find it on the hands of the dial or the digital numbers on a screen. 
 Instead, kairos refers more to a decisive time -- the right time, the appropriate time. 
  The writers of the New Testament seem to understand kairos in relation to the moment when God intervenes or is about to intervene in human history. 
  But the word can also mean the time that God’s people have to prepare for the ultimate kairos, thus Paul’s admonition to the Ephesians to “make the most of the time (kairos) because the days are evil” (v. 16).
 It’s that kairos expectation that should fuel the management of our chronos. 
 Paul begins this section of the letter with a call to set the alarm clock. 
  The darkness of evil is about to be exposed by the bright dawn of God’s coming kingdom, thus Paul tells the Ephesian church to “take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but indeed expose them” because “everything exposed by the light becomes visible” (vv. 11, 13). 
  With the dawn about to break, Paul uses what may be a line from an ancient hymn as a wake-up call: “Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you” (v. 14).
 With that coming moment in mind, Paul urges the church, “Be careful how you live, not as unwise people but as wise” (v. 15). 
 Use your time wisely, in other words, by ordering your lives after the new reality that is breaking in. 
  In this way, you will make the most of the kairos and live in ways consistent with the coming day of the Lord and not in step with the present evil that governs the daily calendar of much of the world. 
  To “understand what the will of the Lord is,” and to do it, is the best time management strategy in light of the coming of the Lord (v. 17).
  For Paul, the way that we become better kairos managers is by being filled with the Spirit, which is a contrast to the time-wasting practice of getting drunk and indulging in debauchery (v. 18). 
  Many people in the ancient world believed that being drunk could produce inspiration or possession by Dionysus, the god of wine. 
  Many people in our day believe that they will get inspiration, or at least medication, from being intoxicated not only with drink, but with money, with sex or with power. 
  They structure their time and their lives in pursuit of these things, thinking that they will be fulfilled, but these are time-killers.
  Be filled with the Spirit instead, says Paul, and you will be able to face the present world not with songs of drunken parties, but the “psalms, hymns, and spiritual psalms” of worship (v. 19). 
 There’s an echo here back to the day of Pentecost, when the Spirit came on the gathered church. 
  As the tongues of fire and mighty wind of the Holy Spirit descended on the disciples, some of the bystanders looked at their ecstatic behavior and their speaking in new language and said, “They are filled with new wine” (Acts 2:13). 
  In response, Peter told the crowd to check their watches, since it was only 9:00 a.m. Instead, their behavior was a sign that the last days, the kairos of God, was at hand. 
  Quoting the prophet Joel, Peter preached, “In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh” (Acts 2:17).
 Life in the Spirit is life in kairos time, and the people of God set their watches and calendars by that standard. 
  These days we might have atomic clocks in our homes that are accurate to the second because they synchronize automatically by radio frequency with the National Institute of Standards and Technology atomic clock in Boulder, Colorado. 
 The watch on our wrist or the clock in the bell tower might be fast or slow, but the NIST F-2 clock is always right. 
  The same might be said of the Holy Spirit, which calibrates us toward being right with God’s time and accurate in our faith and practice.
 How we “make the most of the time” is thus a function of how well we use our chronos to focus on the kairos. 
 How does your calendar reflect time spent cultivating your relationship with God via the Holy Spirit? 
  Hoes your daily rhythm include time dedicated solely to prayer, “giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ”? (v. 20). 
 Do you search the Scriptures daily to “understand what the will of the Lord is”? (v. 17).  
  Are you regularly participating in weekly worship rather than whenever there is nothing better to do, where you can be filled with the Spirit and make “melody to the Lord” in your heart? (v. 19).
 Rather than just letting time tick away, put it to the Spirit’s use. 
  If you regularly carry a timepiece of some sort, be it analog or digital, consider the practice of saying a short prayer every time you check the time. 
 Wherever you are, whatever you’re doing, pray for whatever is happening or whomever you’re with at that moment. 
  Coupled with a disciplined and regular spiritual life, it’s a practice that makes the most of the time in a way that allows the Spirit to work in us and through us.
  Those clocks we see every day should be a reminder to us to keep awake, for the time is coming when the light of God’s glory will flood all of creation, pushing out the darkness and bringing the dawn of a new creation. 
  Whether it’s as small as a computer timer or as big as a seaworthy ship, every tick of the clock brings us one step closer to that day.
 That’s something to look forward to -- big time!

It’s Vacation Time            
      Matthew 11: 25-30
A teaching given by Rev. Dr. Everett Parker on August 9, 2015

  Many of our people are either on vacation or preparing for vacation. Vacations are wonderful opportunities to, as we say, “get away from it all.” 
 It is a period of time, set aside from life’s daily difficulties, when we unburden ourselves.
  Where there are usually alarm clocks, there may be sleeping until 8 or 9 a.m. Where there were bran flakes at breakfast, now, perhaps, jelly-filled doughnuts.
  The daily grind in the office or workplace is replaced with the arduous task of unfolding the canvas chair on the beach for an afternoon nap.
 God bless vacations -- marvelous, annual unburdening. But vacations can be difficult as well. 
  A minister tells of his first job as chaplain at a family campground in Myrtle Beach, S.C. Don’t laugh, because some campgrounds do indeed have chaplains.
 Many of these families were jumping out of the stress of the daily-work frying pan into the vacation frying pan.
  Sullen teenagers who wanted to be anywhere except at the beach with their dull parents, sunburn, chiggers, the particular stress of having nothing to do but “have a good time.”
 Some of the biggest challenges facing campground chaplains are family fights among the “happy” vacationing campers. 
  Have you ever tried to have a quiet marital discussion in a tent? Sometimes vacations relieve us of one burden only to have another placed on us.
  In today’s gospel, Jesus needs a vacation. In the Galilean villages and cities, He has experienced rejection, little but rejection. Sorta like some pastors face as they attempt to do their work.
  In great fatigue and perhaps even desperation, Jesus perhaps blows his top. In verses 16-19, He says: “To what shall I compare this generation? You are like a bunch of children.”
  Wow. He tells all those villages and cities who rejected Him that, on the judgment day, when God finally gives them what they deserve, it will be no better for them than it was for Sodom of Sodom and Gomorrah fame. It wasn’t one of Jesus’ better moments. But He was tired ... tired of rejection, exhausted by hard work without results, dog tired ... dead tired. He needed a break, a time to unburden, a vacation.
  It’s right here that this gospel lesson begins. Jesus prayed, “O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, thank you for hiding the truth from those who think themselves so wise and clever, and for revealing it to the child-like.
  “Come to me all who labour and are heaven laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
  No wonder that these are some of the most beloved of Jesus’ words. “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” Here is an invitation to vacation, sabattical, sabbath in the deepest sense of the word.
 In even the most invigorated life, there comes that day when our noble career in teaching means just one more lecture. 
  For the mother, about three in the afternoon, our dedication to the joys of motherhood is reduced to feeling that we would do anything to get away from the kids.
  You feel you will just die if you have one more dish to be washed, one more restaurant customer to serve. It gets old. Burnout is the acceptable social disease of our time.
  Some religion is a burden. Going to church, reading the Bible, family devotions, all can become tiresome, no more than a duty, a habit, kept going by inertia rather than commitment.
  And yes, even pastors are not immune. After 29 years in ministry, I have been known to silently pray, “Lord, help me through one more Advent and Christmas, or one more Easter.”
  Probably this was the burden of which Jesus was speaking in Matthew. Jesus later complained, as recorded in Matthew 24, about how religious leaders placed heavy burdens on people’s backs and would not lift a finger to remove them.
  The blessing of religion can become a burden, religious reduced to “should, ought, must,” a series of heavy, impossible commands.
 There are those who spend their entire lives getting over the damage done by “religion.”
  In the very next episode in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus’ disciples walk though a grain field one Sabbath. They are hungry, so they pluck some grain.
 “Look,” cried His critics, “your disciples are doing what is unlawful to do on the Sabbath.”
 Jesus replies that they have not perverted religion. God wants mercy, not sacrifice.
 And you can, no doubt, think of other examples of the way Jesus unburdened people from oppressive religion.
 “Come to me, all who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me... .”
  Wait a minute. Did Jesus say “yoke”? If you were listening, did you find it surprising that Jesus offered tired, burdened people what they seem least to need?
 What labored, heavy-laden folk need is a vacation, not a yoke. A yoke is a work instrument used to help oxen pull together.
 Jesus’ yoke may have been easy and His burden “light,” but a yoke is still a yoke, and a burden is still a burden.
  Just when we expect Jesus to offer us a vacation, He offers us a different yoke from the one around our collective necks, a new burden from the one we are currently bearing.
 Instead of escape, Jesus offers tired people new equipment. A burden. A yoke.
 Whatever the deliverance Jesus offers, it is not deliverance from responsibility and accountability.
  Martin Luther noted that Jesus could only say “Come to me all who are heavy laden” in one breath and “I will place around your necks a yoke” in the next breath.
  Perhaps Jesus dares to speak of giving us rest by placing His burden upon us because Jesus knows that the issue in life is not IF we shall be burdened, but rather WHICH burdens we shall bear.
 Which burdens? How many of us are bending and near cracking under the burden of affluence: two or three cars, a big mortgage?
 How many of our emotional or even physical illnesses are due to stress brought on by economic over-extension?
  “Honey, the dishwasher is not working. By the way, the hot water heater is on the blink. Wait here until the garage door repairman calls.”
  There are weeks when we appear to be victims of a revolt of our appliances and gadgets. We bought all this stuff to free us, to unburden our lives, and what happens?
  How ironic it is that we end up serving our machines rather than having our machines serve us. I wait for the plumber (if you can get one), therefore I am.
 Take my 10 years of installment payments upon you, for my yoke is easy and my burden is light.
  Back when Jan and I lived up on the Canadian border in northern Maine, we would escape to Florida for a week or so in January. We visited with Jan’s folks in their Polk County retirement community.
 A great segment of people in their community moved to Florida to retire ... and play golf.
 Do you know what a great burden it is to play golf ... to have nothing else to do but have a good time?
 Golf, or any sport, is not as much fun when you MUST play. Time ceases to be relaxing when the only time you have is time off.
  Who told our society that the goal of life, the chief end of our lives, is retirement to Florida ... or Arizona ... or California?
  Irresponsibility is ugly, whether it occurs in a 17-year-old or a 70-year-old. Our methods of unburdening have become a vast personal and social burden.
  We have a national drug problem. Yet we are told that people take drugs to take away some of the pain of living and that the most abused drug is not cocaine, but prescription drugs, and the great number of drug dependent persons are middle class, middle aged.
  There must be a great deal of pain to be unburdened from out there. How heavy a burden life must be to take on our backs the burden of drugs rather than bearing the burden life has put on us.
  I would suggest that sometimes we feel “burned out” not because we have too much to do, but because we have too much that is meaningless and unimportant to do.
 Life’s greatest burden is not having too much to do, but in having nothing worthwhile to do.
 Energy is a renewable resource. Good work appears to produce more energy to do more good work.
  People burn out not because they have too much to do, but because they become exhausted by constant engagement with the trivial and inconsequential.
  So the issue before us cannot be IF we shall become burdened, but to what shall we be burdened, not IF we shall be yoked, but to whom?
  Jesus appears to have no interest in unburdening us so that we can be free spirits, or liberated, or self-esteemed, or all of those other modern infatuations that are themselves such debilitating burdens.
  Jesus lifts one burden off our backs so He can place another ... removes the harness we forge for ourselves so that He can place around us His own yoke.
  Jesus' idea of a good vacation is not “getting away from it all,” but taking us someplace where we are given something significant to do: namely, participation with Him in ministry in Wellborn and to the world.
 “Make me a captive, Lord, and then I shall be free,” a hymn says. 
  When we are married, sometimes we think of marriage as a limitation. It is limiting, burdensome, to be so closely yoked to another human being, we may think.
  But often in marriage, one awakens to the realization that what one earlier perceived as a possible limitation or burden becomes true freedom and great joy.
 In marriage, one is free from the little games, the masks one must wear before others.
 Now, because fidelity is promised forever, no matter what, the promise of marriage has freed us rather than restricted us.
 What was once perceived as a burden is really a great blessing.
  More than that, we discover, in keeping the promises of marriage, that we have come more complex, interesting persons ourselves.
 In taking on the burden of the promise to be faithful to another person, we have really become faithful people.
 In bearing the burden of fidelity, you have become faithful in such a way that it really isn’t a burden anymore. 
 Now it’s the way you are. This yoke is easy. This burden is light.
  So let us pray for each other, for those who have come to Jesus on this hot August day when you could easily be on vacation, that Jesus not deliver you from all burdens and free you from all yokes.
 But that He will give you a burden worth bearing and a yoke worth wearing. Make me a captive, Lord, then I shall be truly free.
Feeding Five Million    
        Matthew 14: 13-21
A Teaching given by Rev.Dr.Everett Parker on August 2, 2015

 In 2008, hundreds of thousands of athletes, spectators and others decended on Beijing in China for the Summer Olympics. They will do the same thing next year in Rio de Janeiro during August. One thing in common with huge venues such as this -- everyone attending will be excited and hungry.
  When the 2008 Summer Olympics opened in Beijing, some 550,000 spectators from around the world decended on the Chinese capital to take in the action at the venues. That’s not counting the seven million tickets the Chinese government released at low cost so that its own citizens can attend the games, or the more than 11,000 athletes who competed, or the 16,000 journalists who covered the events. 
   That’s a lot of people converging in one place, and that means that while the world watched the athletes, the organizers were engaged in an even more challenging contest transporting, securing and feeding all those people. How many? Let’s just round it off at 5,000,000. Nice round number. And you think our church potluck is chaotic!
   Officials estimate that the Beijing Olympics will cost more than $40 billion and a big chunk of that revolves around logistics and food. For the athletes, food selection and quality is set by the International Olympic Committee, which will follow the pattern of previous Games. Most of the food on the menu is Western with some Asian food mixed in.
   For the spectators and others descending on the local economy, however, it seemed to be a mixed bag. China has been very careful to cultivate a sense of regulation and safety around food issues, particularly in response to some rumors that surfaced about food preparation. A story circulated, for example, that vegetables were being fertilized with beer and soy milk, and another news item claimed that workers were actually chopping up cardboard and mixing it in with the pork in the popular rolls. Both news stories were proven false, but nevertheless the Chinese government and the Olympic Committee were very sensitive to charges that they wouldn’t be able to feed the crowds adequately and expeditiously. The government established the Olympic Food Safety Command Center to make sure that there are no problems.
  It was a monumental task and you have to think that there was someone in an office somewhere in Beijing, the national capital of the People’s Republic of China, each day, praying — yes, praying — fervently that all of this worked out. One bad food-poisoning story, like one athlete doping story, has the potential to ruin all the effort put into showcasing China as a country moving out of its agrarian roots into a modern nation.
   Chinese officials know that when people gather together, whether it’s five, 5,000, or 500,000, eventually those tummies start rumbling and you have to be ready to meet that need. It’s always been that way, no matter the culture. Food is essential to both the physical and relational sides of the human experience.
   Eating is a cultural experience. In first-century Jewish culture, eating a meal was really more of an event than simply gobbling down fast food. Meals were about hospitality, about sharing, about bonding. If you ate with someone, it meant that you were engaging in a deeper relationship. 
   Jesus goes around eating with lots of people, from the religious elite to the outcasts of society — for Jesus, eating with people was a sign of things to come and was very much tied into his mission of proclaiming God’s kingdom. Jesus was acting out the idea that the kingdom is a worldwide reality where everyone is welcome and gets fed only the best. It wasn’t so much what Jesus ate, but who he ate it with that counted.
   The popularity of Jesus had grown to Olympic-sized proportions and people were following him everywhere around Galilee, listening, hoping, wanting to be healed. Jesus, however, had just heard about the death of John the Baptist (Matthew 14:1-12) and was trying to get away by himself, possibly to reflect on his own mission in light of John’s fate. The crowds were relentless, though, and like the paparazzi following star athletes and celebrities, they track him down.
   Rather than make a run for it, Matthew tells us Jesus saw the heart of their need and “had compassion for them and cured their sick” (v. 14). But here’s the logistical problem. Now it’s late in the day, everyone’s stomach is growling, and the nearest McDonald’s is about 20 centuries away. In the disciples’ minds, it was time to wrap it up and send the people away so that the team could finally relax. After all, their own stomachs were probably growling, too. The crowd could scrounge up dinner in the nearby towns. It was a reasonable request.
   Jesus’ response? “You give them something to eat.” In the training manual for Ritz Carlton Hotel employees, there’s a maxim that says, “If you see a problem, you own it.” To say, “It’s not my problem” or “It’s not my job” is not acceptable. If you see a problem, you own it — you take responsibility. Jesus doesn’t do the reasonable thing here, the rational thing, but turns the problem into an opportunity — a teachable moment. YOU give them something to eat.
   The disciples immediately begin to think practically as they do the math and realize that they don’t have the resources to do the job. Their own food supply is pretty meager, just five loaves and two fish, which basically amounted to “nothing” in the face of such a huge crowd (v. 17). They have crunched the numbers, added up the logistical formula, and it just doesn’t jive. But Jesus seeks to teach them a different kind of math based not on addition, but on multiplication.
   The disciples are thinking scarcity … Jesus is thinking abundance. Don’t tell me what you don’t have, show me what you do have. “Bring them here to me,” says Jesus, who looks at a meal that’s the equivalent of five dumplings and two spring rolls and sees a feast instead of a fiasco.
   Jesus had the people sit down on the grass, gave thanks to God and gave the food to his disciples. The connection to the Eucharist here is pretty obvious, but there’s even more to it than that. Actually, the Greek verb here suggests that he “kept giving” it to his disciples as they distributed it. A small amount of bread multiplies into a feast that feeds the whole crowd, and there is even some left over — no scarcity, only abundance!
   When a crowd gathers at our churches for worship, most of us are used to getting a morsel of bread or one of those cardboard wafers during the Holy Communion — something that’s easily mass-produced and can feed a multitude on short notice. It’s really not much of a meal and some think it should be that way. In fact, some traditions teach that excessive chewing of the communion bread is sacrilegious. So much for abundance!
   But maybe we need to think abundance when it comes to the Eucharist. A pastor was used to giving out crumbs until one Sunday when a little girl about three years old came to the front of the sanctuary with her mom to receive Communion. The pastor knelt down beside her and said, “This bread means that Jesus loves you very much” and gave her a little piece of the loaf which she promptly wolfed down. Instead of moving down the line, she held out her hands in the way that she’d seen the people before her do, looked at the pastor with hopeful eyes and said, “More?”
   More. With God there’s always more — more grace, more love, more room, more of everything. God takes the smallest that we can offer and multiplies it into more than we can fathom. We need to be able to ditch the diet of scarcity and enjoy the bigger hunk of grace God offers us.
   We can look at the world around us, a world needing to be fed physically and spiritually, and immediately begin to worry about our assets. Jesus, however, is calling us to look beyond the logistical problems of addition and think multiplication. The hungry multitudes — people hungry for their next meal, hungry for God, hungry for grace, hungry for a chance to change their lives — are always there, not just gathering for a quadrennial event. Jesus says to us, “You give them something to eat.” God promises to do the feeding; all we need to do is provide the resources.
   Rather than scratching our heads and throwing up our hands in futility when faced with the enormity of need around us, Jesus invites us instead to take inventory. What do we have to offer? More than we think. If Jesus can feed 5,000 people with the equivalent of a po-po platter, then multiplying us and our resources to feed the whole world is no problem!

The greatest gift         
            Ephesians 2:11-23
A Teaching given by Rev. Dr Everett Parker on July 18, 2015
  New Jersey. Drought-resistant wheat seeds. The Trojan Horse. The World Wide Web. Human freedom. Penicillin. A green bike. Jesus Christ.
 What do the items in this list, as diverse as they are, have in common? All are gifts. Maybe the greatest gifts in history.
 New Jersey was given as a present in 1665 by the Duke of York to two royalists, Sir George Carteret and Lord Berkeley. 
  Fortunately, the territory did not remain in their hands; it reverted to the English crown in 1702, and later became part of the United States. 
  If the land had not been returned, their descendants would now be in control of nearly nine million people and a half-trillion-dollar economy. 
 Not to mention Princeton University, the New York Giants, and the New Jersey Turnpike.
  Another great gift was much smaller, but was equally significant. A man named Norman Borlaug developed tiny wheat seeds that were resistant to drought and disease.
 You will remember we talked about him just a few weeks ago.
  These seeds were planted across Latin America and South Asia, and ended up feeding more than one billion people. They also put many poor countries on the road to self-reliance.
 Clearly, good things come in small packages.
 Then there is penicillin, another small but powerful gift. 
  In 1927, Alexander Fleming watched a common mold kill a bacterial culture, and this observation led to the discovery of the first true antibiotic, saving countless lives.
  Another significant gift was The Trojan Horse. Well, maybe it was not such a terrific present for the Trojans, since Greek soldiers hid inside the horse and then conquered the city of Troy. 
  But the destruction of Troy led to the foundation of Rome and the Roman Empire, which had a profound effect on Western civilization.
 Now about the present given to the world by Tim Berners-Lee? Tim Berners-who, you ask?  
  He gave us the World Wide Web, choosing to make it a public good instead of a personal cash cow. The benefits to people around the world have been tremendous.
  The idea of human freedom. This has been America’s gift to the world, from Thomas Jefferson to Abraham Lincoln to Martin Luther King, Jr. 
  Freedom for all people has always been the guiding light of our foreign policy. When we are true to ourselves, freedom is what America is all about.
 And freedom is what Jesus Christ is all about, and He is the greatest “gift of all” (see John 3:16). 
  He is our God-and-neighbor connector, our peacemaker and our wall-breaker. He becomes for us the cornerstone of a spiritual house, one that serves as a home for us all.
 And finally, advice columnist Amy Dickinson suggests two things that qualify as the greatest gifts in history. 
 First, she writes, “God did send his only son to Earth to heal us.” 
  Second, “there’s the green Spyder bike my mom gave me when I was 8. I don’t put these gifts on the same level, but that bike was great. And my mother wheeled it into the living room in the middle of the night to surprise me on Christmas morning.”
 The apostle Paul knows Christ’s worth, which he describes in lavish detail in his letter to the Ephesians. 
  Writing to a group of Christians who had grown up as Gentiles -- people outside the Jewish community of faith -- he reminds them that they were once “without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.”
  You might wonder about the problem of alienation. What did it feel like to be a Gentile in Ephesus? Well, it’s difficult to say, actually. 
  Archeology tells us only so much about what life was like for residents of this Roman city on the sun-baked coast of Asia Minor, which is modern-day Turkey. 
  But as we read the letter to the Ephesians, we can imagine what they were going through, feeling hopeless and cut off from God. 
  Paul says they feel like aliens (v. 12). We know what it is like to be alienated -- removed, withdrawn and estranged from a community and from God.
  Today, alienation can be caused by too much of a reliance on technology. Social media can isolate us and cause us a lot of harm. 
  We have so many opportunities to communicate today, using emails, texts, instant messages, Facebook messages, Twitter messages, phone calls and Skype.
 Such light-speed communication is great for making links. Which is good. This is not a Luddite, anti-tech rant. 
  Just saying, that, unfortunately, as we get bombarded by messages and make hurried responses, the content of our conversations gets dumbed down. 
  Conversation with depth and meaning -- the kind of thing that connects us as humans, often gets lost. This was the art of conversation from our parents and grandparents’ day.
 Some of you know I have a background in Maritime Archaic archaeology of the Arctic. 
  This was the depth of conversation I had just a few short years ago with Dr. Marianne Stopp, a world-renowed Canadian anthropologist.
  We were at Battle Harbour, a tiny island 12 miles out in the Labrador Sea. She was visiting the island with a team of graduate students from the Univesitie du Quebec et Montreal.
  We spent an enjoyable afternoon discussing the finer points of Inuit -- we used to call them Eskimos -- transportation routes, a subject on which I was writing a book.
  Sitting there, undisturbed by phones, email, or the Internet, conversation was deeper and more meaningful. And watching billowing white icebergs on a cobalt blue sea didn’t hurt, either.
  We find ourselves linked by technology, but, sometimes, we also (as a consequence) feel alienated, estranged from community and from God.
 Alone. Cut off. Isolated. Even in the middle of a bustling city.
 This was how the Ephesians were feeling, almost 2,000 years before the invention of the Internet. 
 But fortunately their lives were transformed by the gift of Jesus, who became their God-and-neighbor-connector. 
  Paul tells them that their alienation is over, for “now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ” (v. 13). 
 Through the death of Jesus we are forgiven and restored to right relationships with God and our neighbors.
 There is one gift that connects us -- the cross.
   The cross is a symbol of connectedness. 
   The sacrifice of Jesus brings separated parties together, and the cross itself serves as a symbol of this victory. 
 Just look at the structure of the cross: The vertical beam is a symbol of the new connection between people and God.
 The horizontal beam points to the connection between people, Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians, one to another. 
 Through Christ, those who were “far off” and separated by sin have been “brought near” and united through forgiveness.
 Christ is our peace-maker and our wall-breaker, says Paul, “in his flesh he has made both groups into one” (v. 14). 
  Christ makes peace between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians, between black Americans and white Americans, between Baby Boomers and Millennials, between immigrants and the native-born, breaking down “the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us” (v. 14).
  Hostility between different groups leads to separation, but walls break down when we identify ourselves primarily as Christians, as disciples of Christ and members of his body. 
  Today, on campuses across the United States, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship is trying to become more racially and ethnically inclusive.  
  Members are stressing racial reconciliation in large-group meetings for praise and worship, small-group Bible studies, and summer camps for leadership training. 
 Their focus is not on political correctness, but on the Bible.
  Leaders point to Jesus’ prayer in John 17 that his followers would all be one, and to Paul’s words in Ephesians about Christ breaking down the dividing wall between Jew and Gentile.
  Racial reconciliation is now part of the training for campus staff, with the goal that it will become part of ongoing small-group meetings.  
  The objective, according to Paul Fuller, an InterVarsity vice president and director of multiethnic ministries, is “to create witnessing communities on campus that are growing in love for every ethnicity.”
  Growing in love. Not just for our own ethnic group, but for every ethnicity. That comes only from seeing Christ as our peacemaker and wall-breaker.
 Paul tells us that Jesus is also the cornerstone of a spiritual house, one that serves as a home for us all. 
  It’s there in verses 21-22: “In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.”
 What a gift this is!
  In this house, we have access “in one Spirit” to God the Father (v. 18).
  In this house, we “are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God” (v. 19).
  In this house, we know that we are resting on something solid, “upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone” (v. 20).
  We live in an uncertain world, in which generous gifts can be taken away, such as when the gift of New Jersey suddenly reverted to the royal family. 
 We live in a dangerous world, in which gifts such as The Trojan Horse turn out to be curses in disguise. 
  We live in an ambiguous world, in which innovations such as the World Wide Web can be used to disseminate both digital treasures and digital trash.
  None of this is true with the greatest gift of all time, Jesus Christ.  He connects us to God and neighbor, makes peace, breaks walls and offers us an eternal home with God. 
 Jesus is the gift that keeps on giving, as we grow in love for God and neighbor as members of his spiritual household.
 Hold on to this gift. It will maintain its value forever.

Take nothing for the Journey   
Mark 6: 1-13
Teaching given by Rev. Dr. Everett Parker on July 5, 2015

  A lot of us have been traveling lately. Shirley is just back from an airline trip to Tennessee, and Kathy Lyons is back from a plane trip to Wisconsin.
 If you have been at an airport at all in the last 15 or so years, you know that you will have to pass through strict security.
 And you know there will be uniformed officials who will explain what you can and can’t bring onto an airplane.
  It will come as no surprise to anyone today that you can’t put guns, knives, crossbows, meat cleavers, box cutters, mace or similar items in your carry-on luggage and expect to be allowed to board an airliner.
 But what’s the problem with mascara, toothpaste, mouthwash, hair gel, yogurt, chocolate pudding or such in your bag? 
  A few personal care items are permitted in very small amounts and packed a special way, but not the other stuff in any quantity. 
  Explosives can be disguised to look like those innocent products, we’re told, so we have to either leave them at home or put them in our checked bags.
  Actually, the government would be happier if we all took nothing more than the clothes on our backs for our journeys by plane, but generally, that’s not practical.
  Still, that’s essentially what Jesus told his disciples when he sent them out in pairs to cast out demons, heal the sick and call people to repentance. 
  “Take nothing for the journey,” he told them. Actually, according to Mark, Jesus did allow them to take a staff and wear sandals, and of course, the clothes they were wearing.
  But Jesus, like the U.S. government, had a list of prohibited items: no bread, no bag, no money in their belts and no second tunic. 
 In variants of this story appearing in Matthew and Luke, Jesus doesn’t even allow the staff and sandals.
 Jesus had a reason for the items he banned: They could undermine the mission on which he was sending his disciples. 
  They were to depend on God to provide for them through the hospitality of strangers. How they traveled and were welcomed was to be itself a demonstration of God’s care.
  So, think about it, Jesus said that they were not to check any bags, and could only take one small carry-on. What a group they must have been! 
 Peter’s garments may have been too big for John. Phillip’s clothes no doubt smelled differently than Andrew’s. 
 The attire of Matthew, the former tax collector, may have been more costly than that of James, the fisherman. 
 Bartholomew’s tunic may have had a rip that made it identifiable as his own. 
  And maybe Thomas’ wife was such a good seamstress that the clothing she made for him was easily distinguishable from what the other 11 disciples wore.
 We don’t know all that, but here is a lesson for us: 
  When Jesus sends us out to be his people in the world, and tells us to rely on him and thus take nothing with us, we can’t help but take along who we actually are, including the “baggage” we normally carry. 
 And by baggage, we mean something other than suitcases or parcels. 
 That word is shorthand for burdensome personal history we drag with us that interferes with our living fully in the present.
  This baggage could be nonproductive ways of dealing with conflict, inappropriate responses that are triggered at inopportune moments, unaddressed fears from childhood, psychological damage from abuse, frightening ideas about God.
  In fact, it could be just about any holdover from our past that prevents us from getting on well in our relationships or with our daily responsibilities.
 Sometimes, such baggage gets so heavy that we need counseling or psychological help to unload it. 
  And that’s hard, because we may have cloaked ourselves so heavily in counterproductive attire that we’d feel naked if we really stripped it off.
 Probably most of us have some kind of baggage that travels with us even when we think we’ve taken nothing for the journey. 
 But there are a couple of helpful things we can note from this account of Jesus sending out the Twelve:
 First, while he tells them to take nothing for the journey, he never tells them to go buck naked. 
 They are to be vulnerable, but not that vulnerable. 
  They can take their shortcomings, scarred psyches and damaged emotions with them, and they can still do the work to which he calls them. They were still able to cast out demons and heal the sick.
 And second, they were working for the Divine Healer. 
  Matthew says in chapter 8 verse 17, after reporting a day when Jesus cast out spirits and healed the sick, that what Jesus had done “was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah, He took our infirmities and bore our diseases.’” 
  Note the word “infirmities.” Since it’s included in an account of Jesus healing several people, we might assume that “infirmities” is simply a synonym for “illnesses” or “diseases,” but, in fact, there are two activities named: healing (or bearing our diseases) and casting out spirits (taking our infirmities).
  The fact is, in the Bible, the meaning of the word “infirmity” or “weakness” seems to range from our sins, on the one hand, to our illnesses, on the other. 
 It’s reasonable to conclude that infirmities can include emotional baggage. 
 And for that kind of load, the Scripture suggests that what’s needed is neither forgiveness nor medicine, but divine healing.
 We Christians, who know the vocabulary of righteousness, may be tempted to label some of our hang-ups as sins. 
 Some can be, but don’t be too quick to go there. 
  The person who has too high an opinion of himself may be guilty of the sin of pride, but the one who flaunts his abilities may not be proud at all. 
 We may have such low self-esteem that his apparent pride is actually an attempt to hide how worthless he feels. 
 What he suffers from is not sin, but baggage. And what he needs is not forgiveness, but healing.
 Christians who suffer from persistent guilt may naturally conclude that they have some unconfessed sin in their lives. 
  That could be the case, but it’s also possible that those feelings of guilt may simply arise from the fact that their parents were severe and judgmental people, or that they grew up hearing a lot of hellfire-and-damnation preaching.
 In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus told his listeners not to be anxious about their lives, what they would eat, drink or wear. 
 He went on to point out that, instead of worrying, we should trust God to care for us, and seek God’s kingdom. 
 Since Jesus said those things, some Christians have concluded that worry and anxiety must therefore be sinful. 
 But that’s not what Jesus said. He said, “Don’t be anxious,” but he never said that the person is lost. 
  The tendency to worry about everything doesn’t mean we’re not faithful followers of Christ. It may mean, however, that we have baggage.
 Here are some things that might be helpful in dealing with our infirmities. They might even help us leave some baggage behind:
  Ask God to help us face our problems squarely and without rationalization. Admit to him the specific reaction that interferes with our relationships and keeps us from doing well.
  Empty the poison bottle. In other words, take a look at those whom we blame for certain of our hang-ups, and decide what we need to do to keep those memories from poisoning us today.
  Accept the responsibility for who we are today. 
  In terms of understanding where our various complexes originate, it may be helpful, briefly, to look at what circumstances in our past have contributed to the shaping of our present personalities. 
  But it’s far more important to say, “Regardless of how I got where I am, I am responsible for dealing with it now and for working to become the whole person God intended me to be.” 
 That may even mean ignoring certain gut reactions, and behaving, instead, in ways that are more adult.
  Lay the problem before God. We’re not suggesting that such things as counseling, support groups or psychiatry are inappropriate for baggage handling. 
  On the contrary, sometimes they’re the first line of help. But talking to God about the scars we bear is often a vital part of the healing process.
 There was a woman named Betty. Betty’s mother and father were not married when she was conceived. 
 In fact, her parents only married because of the pregnancy, and neither parent really wanted a child.
 When Betty was three and a half, her father walked out. 
  Even though she was young, she remembered the final argument between her parents and the moment when her father left for good.  
 For her, it was a terrifying moment, and it left an aching, malignant core of pain within her.
  In adulthood, Betty became a Christian and married a Christian man. But they experienced difficulties in their relationship, in part related to Betty’s continuing depression.
 Betty went to counseling and talked about her painful memory of her father leaving and of how she felt abandoned. 
  The counselor asked her to spend some time pondering and praying about the question, “Where was God at the moment of your conception?” That seemed a little weird to Betty, but she took the assignment seriously. 
  On the third day, as she thought about the question, she suddenly began to cry and an image occurred to her of how God was there loving her not only at her conception, but also at each moment of her life. 
 That was the beginning of her ability to handle her baggage and the start of a repair of her marital relationship.
  There are times when Jesus’ instruction to take nothing with us ought to be obeyed almost literally. It’s an opportunity to leave our baggage behind.

Teaching given by Rev. Dr. Everett Parker on June 28, 2015
 Luke 15: 1-15

Did you know that any lock can be quickly picked with a credit card or paper clip? Only in the movies.

So raise your hands if you have seen this in the movies: A cigarette butt tumbles in slow motion into a pool of gasoline, creating an enormous fireball.

Sure, just about everybody has seen this. It’s an ear-splitting, eyebrow-singeing, cinematic spectacle. Guaranteed to please the action-adventure crowd.

It’s also largely make-believe, one of the many things that happen — ONLY IN THE MOVIES!

Richard Tontarski is an expert in forensic fire at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms research laboratory in Beltsville, Maryland. He became interested in the link between cigarettes and gasoline because arson suspects frequently claim that a gasoline fire was started by accident. They say things like, “My girlfriend was smoking, I accidentally threw gasoline on her, and she burst into flames.”

So Tontarski and his colleagues went to great pains to create fireballs. Fun work, if you can get it. They dropped burning cigarettes into trays of gasoline. They sprayed a fine mist of gas at a lighted cigarette. In more than 2,000 attempts, the gasoline did not ignite. No fireballs.

Tontarski can only guess why. He thinks that perhaps the layer of ash on the tobacco prevents ignition, or that gasoline vapor naturally moves away from the hottest part of the cigarette.

And, of course, please do not try this at home. There are a ton of things that happen only in the movies, and they should never be confused with real life. The Nostalgia Central Web site lists 40 of them, including:

• It is always possible to find a parking spot directly outside or opposite the building you are visiting.

• The Eiffel Tower can be seen from any window of any building in Paris.

• Plain girls can become movie-star-pretty simply by removing their glasses and rearranging their hair.

• Anyone can land a 747 as long as there is someone in the control tower to talk you down.

• And, in line with the cigarette-and-gasoline phenomenon: Cars will explode instantly when struck by a single bullet!

Is this true? Only in the movies!

Reading the Bible is sometimes like going to the movies, in the sense that we encounter stories that don’t quite ring true. A man leaving 99 sheep to look for a lost one, or a woman throwing a party to celebrate the finding of a lost coin? Does anyone actually do that?

It seems unreal … like in the movies, when one person starts dancing in the street, and then suddenly everyone else starts to dance along with him. And they know all the steps!

The lost sheep and the lost coin. These are things that happen only in the gospel.

But maybe stories from Scripture point to a deeper truth, one that is even more real than the day-to-day existence we experience. Perhaps the stories of the gospel are God’s truth, not human truth.

Let’s go behind the scenes, and see.

As today’s passage from Luke begins, Jesus is crushed by a number of tax agents and lowlifes who have come to listen. This drives the religious crowd nuts because they have no respect for tax people whom they regard as collaborators with the oppressive Roman Empire, and they have even less regard for the disreputable who break not only moral laws but also the laws of Jewish ritual purity. With venom, the Pharisees and the scribes grumble, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them” (Luke 15:1-2).

In response, Jesus tells a couple of parables. The first describes a shepherd with 100 sheep who loses one, and then leaves 99 in the wilderness to go after the one that is lost. It doesn’t sound like sensible shepherding, but it certainly underscores the shepherd’s love for each and every sheep. He goes and finds the lost sheep, and then lays it on his shoulders and rejoices (vv. 3-5).

The shepherd’s success at finding the lost sheep — without losing the other 99 in the wilderness — is kind of like the remarkable fight scenes you see in martial arts movies. In those films, if you are heavily outnumbered in a fight, your opponents will patiently wait to attack you, one by one, dancing around you in a threatening manner until you have defeated the person right in front of you.

It would be easy to think that this type of shepherding happens only in the gospel.

But this story is not about a human shepherd — it’s about a divine shepherd. It is the Lord God who feels joy because he has found a missing sheep, and he invites us to lay aside our skepticism and rejoice along with him when he carries that lost sheep home. “Just so,” says Jesus, “there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance” (v. 7).

More joy over the tax collector who repents than over 99 Pharisees.

More delight over the prostitute who repents than over 99 scribes.

More rejoicing over the drug dealer who repents than over 99 clean-and-sober Christians.

More happiness over the career criminal who repents than over 99 law-abiding Americans.

Hey, wait — that doesn’t seem right, does it?

We’d like God to feel some joy toward us, but instead he says, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost” (v. 6).

This kind of stuff happens only in the gospel. And in the kingdom of God.

John Dominic Crossan, a prolific Bible scholar who specializes in the historical Jesus, makes the point that the parables “ask how God would run this world if God sat on Caesar’s throne.” That’s a fascinating perspective. We live in a world run by secular powers, one in which a succession of human leaders — some Democrat, some Republican — sit on Caesar’s throne. Their decisions shape our world, and influence our understanding of what is right and what is wrong, what makes sense and what doesn’t.

But what if God sat on Caesar’s throne? If he did, how would God run this world?

That’s what Crossan says this parable is all about.

But it is also about what gives God pleasure. God would run this world in a way that brought pleasure and joy. Obviously.

So what is it that gives God pleasure?

• When the lost are found;

• when the broken are healed;

• when the alienated are reconciled;

• when the sick are made well;

• when those who are dead are made alive;

• when the oppressed are lifted up;

• when the prisoner is released;

• when the humble have been exalted.

The religious leaders of Jesus’ day could not do joy. They didn’t understand the things that really made God happy. They couldn’t picture a God who is a fist-pumper and shouts “Yes!” every time a lost lamb finds its way back to the fold. They couldn’t see all the chest-bumping, the high fives, the fist-bumps going on in heaven when something like that happens.

That’s the action-call of this story: What has happened to our joy? What has happened to YOUR joy? What has happened to this church's joy? What has happened to this sublime sense of sharing in the pleasure of God when the brokenhearted are comforted, and when the weak are made whole?

It’s also the message of the second story. This parable tells of a woman who has 10 silver coins, each one worth about a day’s wage. It’s not a huge amount of money, but it’s quite precious to her, so when she loses one of the coins she lights a lamp, sweeps the house, and then searches carefully till she finds it. In this parable, it’s not the searching that seems odd, it’s the party that follows. She calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, “Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost” (vv. 8-9).

Can you imagine getting an invitation to a “lost coin found” party? Only in the gospel.

The point of the story is the celebration. And Jesus nails this down when he says, “Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents” (v. 10).

The question for us is this: Are we willing to join the celebration? If our lives are going to be in line with God’s truth, we’re going to have to put on party hats.

The problem is that Caesar is still on Caesar’s throne, and we tend to play by his rules. We reward people who do the right thing, and we commend those who stay out of trouble — as well we should. But you’ve got to wonder whether we have lost our sense of joy working with the lost: those who are candidates for restoration, recovery and discovery. We behave like the scribes and the Pharisees, and we tend to ignore the homeless, the harlot or the habitual user.

But God wants us to start behaving in ways that are seen only in the gospel. Jesus tells us that God’s kingdom is coming, and that Caesar will not be sitting on his throne forever. The challenge for us is to join God in feeling mercy toward those who are lost, and to whoop it up when they repent and return to the community of faith. Paul makes this explicit in Colossians 1: Reconciliation is what gives God pleasure. “For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things” (vv.19-20).

Moreover, when we share in God’s joy, it empowers and strengthens us to continue in the work of reconciliation, the “searching-for” enterprise described in these two parables. The ancient Hebrew leader,

Nehemiah, reminded his ragtag remnant of ex-pats that “the joy of the LORD is your strength” (Nehemiah 8:10).

When the lost are found, God throws a party and wants us all to join the celebration. There’s nothing unrealistic about it. May we be like the ancient Hebrews of old who, when they heard Nehemiah’s declaration, they all “went away to eat and drink, to send portions of food and to celebrate with great joy, because they now understood the words that had been made known to them” (8:12, NIV).

God the Father
Luke 15: 11-32
 It's Father's Day, and it's interesting -- if not ironic -- to note that the movers and shakers in most local churches are not fathers, but mothers; not men, but women.
   Out-numbering men, 60 to 40 percent, women are the heart and soul of the church. The ratio in some cases may run as high as 7 to 1. Women constitute the majority party in Christianity, and some Presbyterian or Methodist congregations are now practically bereft of men. Even in churches that ordain only men, the inner circle of laypeople who actually run things is mostly female.
   Is this late-breaking news? Not exactly. People who lament what they call "the feminization of the church" have got to be careful. It's nothing new.
   Leon Podles writes in his recent book, The Church Impotent, that "every sociologist, and indeed every observer, who has looked at the question has found that women are more religious than men." Men say they believe in God about as often as women do, but they attend church much less frequently than women, and they engage in private religious activities far less often. Most studies indicate that males are really less religious than females, and this appears to be true for all the Christian churches, denominations and sects in Western civilization.
   So what is the church to do? Throw in the towel and become a single-sex spiritual movement?
   Podles doesn't establish a correlation between the feminization of God and the decline in male participation in church. 
   It's Father's Day and what's our message here? First, what do you know about Father's Day?  Contrary to popular misconception, was not established as a holiday in order to help greeting card manufacturers sell more cards. In fact, when a "father's day" was first proposed, there were no Father's Day cards!
   Mrs. John B. Dodd, of Washington, first proposed the idea of a "father's day" in 1909. Mrs. Dodd wanted a special day to honor her father, William Smart. William Smart, a Civil War veteran, was widowed when his wife (Mrs. Dodd's mother) died in childbirth with their sixth child. Mr. Smart was left to raise the newborn and his other five children by himself on a rural farm in eastern Washington state. It was after Mrs. Dodd became an adult that she realized the strength and selflessness her father had shown in raising his children as a single parent.   
   The first Father's Day was observed on June 19, 1910, in Spokane, Washington. At about the same time in various towns and cities across America, other people were beginning to celebrate a "father's day." In 1924 President Calvin Coolidge supported the idea of a national Father's Day. Finally in 1966 President Lyndon Johnson signed a presidential proclamation declaring the third Sunday of June as Father's Day.
   Father's Day has become a day to not only honor your father, but all men who act as a father figure. Stepfathers, uncles, grandfathers and adult male friends are all to be honored on Father's Day.
   Still, perhaps it's time on this Father's Day to take a fresh, new look at God the Father. If we've killed off our understanding of the masculine side of God, perhaps it's time to resurrect it.
  Contrary to popular misconception, was not established as a holiday in order to help greeting card manufacturers sell more cards. In fact, when a "father's day" was first proposed, there were no Father's Day cards!
  Today's passage from Luke tells the story commonly called "The Prodigal Son." Of course, since Jesus himself didn't give a title to this tale, it might also be called the parable of "The Lost Son," or "The Waiting Father," "The Loving Father, "Joy and Repentance" or "The Prodigal and His Brother." There are multiple characters and themes in this popular parable, and each is present with equal force and focus.
  No need to retell the story. To cut to the chase, the young hothead is arrogant and self-centered. He thinks he can sell space heaters in Sinai. Now he asks for his share of his father's estate, in advance of his father's death, a request that would have been a terrible insult to a patriarch in the ancient Near East. He is saying, in effect, "Father, you are dead to me." The younger son is killing off his masculine role model, much as we have done to God.
  Of course, the kid returns home, humbled and acquiescent. And this is where we run into problems. Because we've developed a flat, one-dimensional "macho man" concept of fatherhood, we expect that if this father is true to his male genes, he'll either bar the gates and send his scoundrel son packing, or at the very least, he'll give him a job hosing the horses and let him live with his servants.
  That is the expectation of his older, very macho brother. Come on, Dad, give him what he deserves. He's got it coming. The father doesn't act that way, and in fact, behaves in quite the opposite manner, showing tenderness, forgiveness and mercy.
  Ah, we say! The father, as an image of God, has feminine characteristics. Let's embrace the fatherhood of God because, after all, God is not just stern, harsh and unrelenting - like typical human fathers, but caring, loving, and forgiving - like typical human mothers.
  Well, says who? We've got a male figure God and it has nothing to do with whether God is stern or soft, judgmental or forgiving.
  Scripture offers a view of God as Father and it depicts him using a metaphorically wide-range of human emotions. To argue that we need to reject the fatherhood of God as a useful metaphor today because the word "father" evokes negative stereotypes is sexist, naïve and theologically shallow.
  In our text, we get a glimpse of God's full acceptance of those who rebel and return. It's full acceptance that comes even before the prodigal makes his confession. The story demonstrates just how committed God is to reconciliation. After all, we're in a culture that is concerned about inclusive language, and careful about terms that could lock God inside a masculine box.     
  Bottom line, of course, is that speaking of God in terms of gender assignment is merely an analogous or metaphoric exercise to facilitate our ability to grasp the nature of the ineffable. But if one is going to assign gender to God at all (and Scripture does it frequently) it's helpful to remember that while Scripture does reference God in terms of the feminine, the gender-of-choice is male. 
  And for good reason. The male metaphor emerges not just because of the paternalistic milieu in which the Scriptures were formed, for God would not allow a defective image to portray his nature, whatever the cultural ethos. The masculine character of God allows for a more comprehensive understanding of his nature than the feminine permits. Biblical fathers, if they were true to their role, had hierarchical duties as the heads of families and clans to impose justice or show mercy. And they did both, as does God, and as we should as well.
  Today, the role of fathers as the "head of the house" has been culturally eviscerated, and the theological notion of God as Father has fallen into disrepute. You have to admit in the theological and cultural ethos of the church today, it's very "politically correct" to ridicule the Father, and hug the Mother.
  Enough's enough. Happy Father's Day, God! And we invite fathers to be true men in the model of God himself. We invite fathers to teach their sons what it means to be truly spiritual and what it means to have a deep connection with Jesus Christ. We ask fathers to renounce senseless violence and unbridled rage as being anti-male, and anti-God. Fathers, not mothers, are the key to strong and healthy families and offer the best prospect for sons and daughters who will grow up to love God and be committed disciples of Jesus Christ.
  No, we are NOT saying that single mothers can't raise their children beautifully. But we agree with countless studies, that all things being equal, children growing up in homes with the biological fathers do better in life than others less advantaged. And children with godly, spiritual fathers, do even better.
  The resurrection of God the Father may be a key to reconnecting men with the church, because it is often in relation to a good father that men discover how to be good sons. Jim Dittes, a professor of pastoral theology at Yale, holds up the image of the Son as a model for all men. 
  He makes the case that men are always looking for new life through death and rebirth - which is why they so often upset the settled routines of life, go on pilgrimages and adventures, change careers and commit themselves obsessively to work or play or sex, in a hope of finding new life.
  Sounds a lot like the Prodigal Son, doesn't it? So many males, in various ways, have played the role of the Lost Son at one time or another. But men behaving godly can do so by taking a page from Jesus the Christ. Macho spirituality frequently involves a struggle.
  Jesus struggled throughout his life. In the struggle of the garden of Gethsemane, he confronted God the Father and wrestled with his will. Jesus also struggled with temptation, with evil, with earthly opponents, with his own perplexed disciples - and he challenges us to enter into these battles as well.
  Through it all, God the Father is with us. He is like the father in the parable, accepting us when we rebel and return, when we wander and repent. He is the God of Gethsemane, laying challenges before us, but never abandoning us in our struggles. He is the God of resurrection, bringing surprising new life to those who have suffered and died in faith. He is a strong and compassionate God, loving us with the passion of a deeply committed parent.
  The challenge for men is to respond to such a heavenly father, on Father's Day and every day. To be like the Prodigal Son and return to him. To be like the Waiting Father in the parable and embrace your own children. To support your families through years of difficult and often unpleasant work, as men have done for centuries. To struggle with God and with temptation and with evil, as Jesus did throughout his own life. Sonship and fatherhood are two key concepts for Christian men to grasp, and they can give men a way to make a stronger connection with the church.

Hope in a seed 
 Mark 4: 26-34
A Teaching given by Rev. Dr Everett Parker on June 14, 2015
 We begin today’s message with a quick quiz. He’s been called “The man who saved a billion lives.” 
  Can you guess about whom we are speaking? Chances are, no one will know the answer: it’s Dr. Norman Borlaug -- definitely not a household name. 
 So it’s not surprising that absolutely no one guessed correctly, or even knows who this guy is once I told you his name.
 Mr. Borlaug was never one to seek fame, and the accomplishment that earned him this title took place 50 years ago in 1965. 
  That’s the year Borlaug shipped the first of his new wheat seed varieties to the Indian subcontinent, making possible the feeding of a billion people in India and Pakistan. 
 So this year is what we might call the “semicentennial” of that landmark event.
 It’s no exaggeration to say that Dr. Borlaug did, in fact, save a billion lives.
 After his seeds were introduced, there was a remarkable turnaround in this region of 1.1 billion people.
 Actually, Dr. Borlaug made possible the feeding of masses even before 1965. 
  He graduated from the University of Minnesota in 1942 with a Ph.D. in plant pathology and genetics, and then accepted an agricultural research position in Mexico.
 Here, he eventually developed short-stemmed, high-yield, disease-resistant varieties of wheat. 
 Those varieties helped Mexico turn its agriculture around so that, by 1963, Mexico became an exporter of wheat.
 So what happened with these seeds?
  The “standard” wheat plants on which India and other places in the world had been relying -- unsuccessfully -- to feed people had tall, narrow stalks with minimal kernels per plant. 
  As these kernels, few as they were, developed, the plants got top-heavy, and many of them fell over from their own weight, often rotting on the ground before they could be harvested.
  The varieties Dr. Borlaug developed, however, referred to as “semi-dwarf Mexican wheat,” have shorter, thicker stalks that not only remain upright (even on windy days), but also produce many more kernels per plant. 
 What’s more, his wheat resisted the diseases and pests that routinely afflicted the previous varieties.
 Thanks to Borlaug’s seeds, India today is self-sufficient in food production, even with its massive population.
  Dr. Borlaug also developed new rice plants, introducing varieties that improved those crops in countries that rely on rice to feed their populations.
 Not surprisingly, Dr. Borlaug has been called the father of the Green Revolution.
  For his work, Dr. Borlaug received the Nobel Peace prize in 1970 in recognition of his contributions to world peace through increasing food supply. 
  At the time, the Nobel committee chair explained, “More than any other single person of this age, Borlaug has helped to provide bread for a hungry world. We have made this choice in the hope that providing bread will also give the world peace.”
  Dr. Borlaug died in 2009 at the age of 95, but, almost to the end, he worked to keep hunger at bay, serving as a consultant to the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center in Mexico and as president of a foundation seeking to spread the Green Revolution to sub-Saharan Africa.
  It’s not a big jump, then, for us to go from Dr. Borlaug’s work to our focus text where Jesus compares the kingdom of God to seed scattered on the ground which then sprouts and grows, and, when fully ripe, is harvested.
 It’s useful for us, however, to contemplate the one point where Dr. Borlaug’s work and the parable diverge. 
  In the former, Dr. Borlaug had to have a deep understanding of the growing process in order to develop seeds that would prosper in the various soils in which they would be planted. 
  The differences in the soil types from one locale to the next had a bearing on why Dr. Borlaug produced more than one variety of his basic wheat seed.
  In the parable, however, the sower, who likely represents Christians who testify to or proclaim their faith to others, seem to have no real understanding of the growing process -- “the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how.”  
  But that doesn’t matter in the parable, for the sower trusts that the harvest will come. He doesn’t know how the growth occurs, but he knows that it does.
 Why do we suppose Jesus would tell a story like this?
 It was an important lesson for first-century Christians after Jesus was no longer with them in the flesh. 
  They could recall that Jesus had said the kingdom of God would grow like the seed toward harvest, and this would reassure them that the growth of kingdom was indeed proceeding according to God’s plan. 
  They didn’t know when the crop would ripen; indeed, this parable is sometimes referred to as “the seed secretly growing” -- but they could trust that, in God’s time, it would be ready for harvest, and, thus, they could live in unfailing hope.
 We who are followers of Jesus today need to hear this message as well. 
 We live at a time when, in many places, churches are not prospering, and we may find ourselves pessimistic about its future. 
  We are told the church throughout the United States is in decline, and mainline denominations such as ours are closing left and right for lack of attendance.
 Is the crop going to fail? Are the seeds of faith we’ve spread actually growing or not?
  Episcopal priest and author Barbara Brown Taylor comments on this, especially related to those mainline congregations that are in decline.
  She said,  “Sometimes when I visit these embattled churches, I feel almost like I’m working for hospice, visiting churches that are just scared to death they’re dying. 
 “You can almost smell the sweat in the room as they fret about what in the world they’re going to do.” 
 She goes on to talk about learning to work with what’s left, including the “remaining time, resources, relationships.” 
  She says, “Even for mainline Christians who are looking into the dark of decline, there is reconciliation and healing and intimacy and community that can take place in the dark. 
  “There’s also a lot of humility in the dark, which might be a great curative for a religious tradition that’s been on top for a long time.”
  There are those, however, who argue that the church isn’t dying at all, but that it’s going through a kind of shakeout, or, to stay with the agricultural theme of the parable, a time of winnowing.
  There are statistics which indicate 75 percent of Americans call themselves Christians, although most of those do not attend church. 
 We might divide them into three categories: cultural, congregational and convictional.
 We might define cultural Christians as people who are Christians simply because their culture tells them they are. 
 But they’re Christian in name only, and are not practicing a vibrant faith.
  Congregational Christians are similar to cultural Christians, except that they have some connection to actual congregational life, a church they attend at least occasionally.
 They are the ones who come at Christmas or Easter, or only for an hour on Sunday.
 Convictional Christians, on the other hand, are those who actually live according to their faith. 
  They are the people who would say that they have met Jesus, that he has changed their lives, and that their lives are centered around their faith in him.
 So where do YOU fit into this structure?
 The number of Americans who now identity themselves as having no religion -- the “Nones” -- is growing by leaps and bounds.
  But change is coming from defections from the cultural and congregational Christian categories, because there’s now less societal pressure to be “Christian.” 
 Perhaps these folks feel comfortable freeing themselves from a label that was not true of them in the first place.
 But we should quickly add that convictional Christians are not leaving the faith, not by a long shot.
  Christianity may be losing its top-down political and cultural influence, but Jesus spoke of His followers making an impact in a very different manner. 
 He taught that God’s kingdom was subversive and underground, like the seed secretly growing. 
  He used examples like yeast, which changes things from the inside, and mustard seeds, which are small and must be planted in order to grow up and out.
 We would add that Jesus also used the examples of salt and light. 
 Salt alone does not make a whole meal, but how different our meals would be without it.  
 Light is only one element of creation, but our planet would be dead without it.
 But my purpose here is not to debate whether the church is, or is not, falling on hard times.  
  Rather, it’s for us to hear and take confidence from Jesus’ parable which tells us that the gospel seeds we scatter are growing, even if we do not know how, and that the full grain will one day appear.
  In fact, Jesus told another parable, included in today’s reading, which we haven’t spent time on, but is worth hearing in conclusion, because it indicates that the yield from the scattered seed will be significant. 
  Jesus said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”
  So, this sowing and planting, no worries. This is not a harvest failing. We can sow the seed with confidence, anticipation and joy. The growth is happening, the harvest will come.
If we do our job, we need not worry about whether God will do God’s job.

When is a Church REALLY a Church?
A Teaching given by Rev. Dr Everett Parker on June 7, 2015
Mark 5:1-20
  Today’s message is probably one of the most important you’ve heard, but likely one you’ll not remember, or find boring. Theology is often boring.
  Likely it’s not something that excites most people, but there is a growing conversation occurring today among Christian leaders who believe the church should be totally incarnational and those who believe it’s fine for the church to be totally attractional
 And you might ask, what, exactly, does that mean, and why should I even be remotely concerned or interested?
  I believe you and I should be interested and concerned because it may be an avenue to encourage us to help our church grow in more than one way.
  There is a move afloat in theological circles to push Christianity on a totally different course than it has pursued for the past 1,600 years since Constantine made Christianity the official religion.
  On the other hand, many church growth experts continue to write and teach us ways to make the institutional church more biblical and attractional.
  Sandwiched in the middle of this conversation are hard to define emergent folks who want us to develop a conversation around a yet to be determined form of theology.
 What’s up with all this and what’s the difference, and as I said before, why should you and I be interested?
  It’s not overly dramatic to say that much of the future of Western Christianity lies at the heart of this conversation, so we had better pay attention.
 Most of today’s effective churches -- that is, the ones which are growing and prospering -- are called “attractional” churches.
  These churches evangelize by attracting people to its institution of worship, its church. The “incarnational” church, most of which are fledgling, often non-denominational churches, are missional in that they send people out into the culture, out into the streets to spread the seeds of Christianity.
  And don’t tell me we are not that kind of church here in this place. Don’t tell me that you can’t go out and spread the word, because that is what we are mandated by Christ to do.
  That’s at the very heart and foundation of what our beliefs and doctrines are. In Mark 5, Jesus tells the demon-possessed man he had just cured, “Now, go home to your friends and tell them what wonderful things the Lord has done for you and how merciful He has been.”
  In Matthew 28, at the end of the book, Jesus gave His Great Commission, saying, “Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.”
 That is exactly what we are told to do. There is no ambiguity. There are no shortcuts.
  The attractional model has a place for weekly worship that is institutional in nature; the incarnational church is able to worship anywhere and is organic in nature.
 The attractional model means bringing people to church; the incarnational model means taking the church to the people.
  It’s also seeking to bring the church back to its historical roots and free it from institutionally dominated understanding of what it means to be a church.
  In his book "The Forgotten Ways," Alan Hirsch makes a dramatic statement. He says that Christianity has forgotten what it means to be the church!
  Wow, how dramatic is that? Although I could agree with him on this point, it seems to me that a biblical church, which we are, can be either incarnational or attractional ... or both.
  It can be both as long as one thing happens: the primary thrust isn’t the growth of the institution alone -- filling the pews -- but the multiplication of the kingdom of God by sending people into the world to make disciples of all the people. And by that, the church will grow.
 But, alas, this seems to me to be what the established church in the Western world has forgotten.
  The incarnational and attractional conversation and the hard-to-define emergent conversation are not the conversations in which we should be engaged.
  I would suggest the primary conversation that should be causing us to stay up at night is this -- the vast majority of established churches in the West have not only forgotten what it means to be the church -- they have ceased BEING the church. This is being repeated over and over.
  We are indebted to the incarnational and the emergent folks for bringing our attention to the fact that the New Testament church prior to Constantine was nothing like what we see today.
  We need to hear them. Moreover, we should all be asking why they feel so passionately that much of Western Christianity is at best irrelevant and at its worst, a fraud.
  I think they’ve put their finger on the pulse of Western Christianity’s problem -- Western Christianity is nowhere near what Jesus had in mind when He sent His disciples out into the world to build His church.
  Although it’s a tremendous indictment on the church, I am willing to concede that most of our churches are spiritually dead and beyond revitalization or turn-around. Their only hope is resurrection.
Everything in a New Testament church revolves around the mission of Jesus being Lord of everyone and everything.
Everything an authentic church does emanates from Jesus. An authentic church is both biblically grounded and culturally relevant.
 As such, its message bubbles up out of the cauldron of its everyday experiences with non-Christians.
 An authentic church is a place to incubate new Christians until they are mature enough to be sent out into the world.
 As such, the church is a warm, welcoming group of trusting spiritual leaders, free from constant conflict.
 Transforming everyone into a disciple of Jesus is the primary mission of an authentic church.
  The mission is not reserved for the minister, but it carried out primarily by the laity who equip each other under the minister’s guidance. And believe me, it isn’t done by just coming to church for an hour on Sunday morning.
 Everything an authetic church does is missional. Mission is the mother of all its theology.
The focus of an authentic church is on the multiplication of the kingdom of God rather than the health or growth of the institutional church.
  Do you see the difference here? Do you understand? It doesn’t matter WHERE we have church, it only matters that we ARE the church. 
  We saw that yesterday at the blueberry festival where you passed out around 1,000 brownies and 150 balloons -- THAT’S being the church! It's in our book sale and bake sale at the same time, and the fact over 30 of our "folks" spent the day in miserable heat and humidity spreading the Word through mission.
 As such the church is fluid enough to do whatever or become whatever is needed to be on the mission field with Jesus.
 The ultimate goal of any authentic church is to send discipled people into the world with the message of Jesus Christ.
  And the mission field is wide open for each and every one of us. We don’t have to don pith helmets and head to deepest Africa. We don’t have to swim the Amazon or reach the darkest part of New Guinea.
  We have a wide mission right here in Wellborn among the unchurched. It’s a golden opportunity, and one we cannot -- we must not -- ignore.
 The church -- our church -- is straying away from its real purpose, its real reason for being.  
 The church cannot continue being a closed society of worshippers behind closed doors on Sunday morning only.
 Perhaps now you can see why this conversation lies at the very heart of the future of Western Christianity.
  If the basic mission of an authentic church isn’t its own health and growth, but how it contributes to the expansion of the kingdom of God, then the vast majority of Western Christanity is virtually dead.
  Few of our churches are warm, welcoming places for new Christians to incubate long enough to be able to go out into the world as missionaries for Jesus Christ.
 Few of our churches are more focused on the Lordship of Jesus than on their own institutional survival.
 The acknowledgment of this spiritual condition is why this conversation is so important.
  If our churches were making disciples and actually bringing the kingdom of God to bear on this earth, the conversation around the attractional, incarnational, or emergent approach to Christanity wouldn’t be necessary.
 But it is, and all of us had better take heart and listen to what is being said in this conversation.
If we’re listening, we can’t help but be impressed by the enormous potential awaiting the church as it frees itself from its institutional bondage and becomes involved in being THE CHURCH.
  I would suggest we witness the birth of what might be called the “Unteathered Church,” the church free to be the church where two or more are gathered together, whether it’s here in this century-old sanctuary, or at someone’s house, or meeting our neighbors at the corner store.
 So what exactly can we do?
 First and foremost, we must realize that with God, all things are possible.
 We must pay attention to the conversations going on today.
  For each and every one us us, the central question we must ask, and I ask that you reflect on this right now: “What is it about my relationship with Jesus that the world cannot live without knowing?”
  Indeed, an even deeper question each of us must ask is this: “Do we have ... do we REALLY have ... a personal, living relationship with Jesus Christ?” We’ll talk more about that another time.
  We must recognize that in order for this church to grow -- and I don’t mean just increasing the attendance on Sunday -- we need to spend time with people who don’t go to church. Period.
And we must focus on growing people, not just growing the attendance.
  We must focus on making our church -- this church -- so loving and warm that people can’t help but grow, AND others can’t help but want to know what it is we have that they don’t!
 We need to own up to the spiritual condition of the church -- this church -- and we must be prepared to find solutions.
 And whatever else we do, we need to look for where God is working in our area, and we need to be in the midst of it. AMEN.

What’s the difference?    
        Romans 8: 12-17
A Teaching given by Rev. Dr. Everett Parker on My 31, 2015

 Figuring out the real difference between, say, AM and FM on the radio requires a little research. 
 But defining the Trinity -- the three in one concept of God -- requires a whole new dictionary. 
  In the United Methodist Church and others such as the United Church of Christ (Congregatonal), which is my background, this is called “Trinity Sunday,” and it’s the day we come together to celebrate the three-in-one aspect of God.
  It is one of the toughest assignments for any pastor -- explain in simple, easy to understand, to grasp and comprehend terms just what the trinitarian God is.
  Even seasoned Christians continue to struggle to grasp the many complexities, so one can only imagine that new or baby Christians really must have perplexed looks when the discussion comes up: explain the three-in-one concept of God.
 Well, to ease into this, let’s take a short pop quiz. Consider the following situations and apply the proper term to each:
  1. A mosquito lands on your arm, and, feeling it alight, you slap it with your hand. Have you committed murder or manslaughter? (Or, perhaps, in this case, bug-slaughter?)
  2. You’re traveling in your car on a back road in the American Southeast, listening to a radio with crackling static in the background on which a song plays that prominently features stringed instruments played with a bow.
  Are you listening to an AM or FM radio, a fiddle or a violin, and is the music bluegrass or country? Okay, that’s three questions.
  3. You’re living in 19th-century England and helping to lace up your wife’s corset, which, you being an inattentive cad, you pull too tight. 
 She hits the floor unconscious. Has she fainted or has she passed out?
  4. Finally, you’re at the mall getting ready to pull into a parking space when, suddenly, some guy in a BWM intentionally swings into the space you were looking to occupy.
  You get out of your car and prepare to yell something. (Probably not a good idea in Florida any longer as you’re very apt to get shot!)
 But if you do yell, should you call him an idiot or a moron?
 Subtle differences, you say? Six and a half-dozen are the same? Not so fast. Let’s see how well you did.
  1. If you premeditated your attack on said mosquito, grabbing a fly swatter as a weapon, sneaking up on it and such like, you committed murder.
 Reactively slapping the little bugger out of momentary panic is manslaughter.
  2. If you hear static, it’s probably AM radio.And the fiddle or violin question? It’s the same instrument at a symphony or a hoedown, but if the devil goes down to Georgia in one, it’s called a fiddle.
  And if you hear more mandolin, fiddle and banjo than guitar, bass and drums, you can call it bluegrass and you’re probably listening to The Isaacs.
  3. Prudence in the corset has likely fainted (the Victorians called it “the vapors”) there in the parlour, indicating a short period of unconsciousness. 
 Passing out is more like deep sleeping and often involves an insurance claim.
 4. And finally, getting out of your car to yell definitely isn’t a good idea, as we said, but if you do, simply call out “Hey!”
 If the guy in the BMW answers with intelligible words, he’s a moron (IQ between 51 and 70). 
  if he doesn’t answer or merely makes a gesture -- we won’t go into what kind -- then you can correctly assume he’s an idiot (IQ between 0 and 24).
  Understanding and using proper technology is supposed to be a sign of higher intelligence, so you may want to study these and other nuances of langugage.
  Knowing these subtle-yet-important differences is key in church as well, whether it be in the parking lot, or in the sanctuary itself where words such as “Trinity” can evoke some serious head-scratching.
  Ask the quiz question, “What is the difference between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit” and you’re likely to get some blank stares.
 And after all, why should a 21st Century, postmodern Christian care? So what?
 Wwweellll, it’s because we describe ourselves as monotheistic -- we believe in one God.  
  But we affirm the diety of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, and this mysterious entity frequently identified as “God the Father.” Sounds like three Gods, not one God.
 And if one God, then it would seem that we have --truly -- an awesome God at work in the world today.
  This is One who invites us to be servants in the proclamation of the good news that through Jesus, we have been reconciled to God.
  All pretty heady stuff. Many have tried over the centuries to explain this concept that the Bible itself doesn’t lay out with clear delineations and definitions. 
 As example, the word “trinity” doesn’t even appear in the biblical text.
 Many children learned in Sunday School that the Trinity is like water, H2O, which can be a gas, a solid or a liquid, but is still and always H2O at the molecular level.
  Sort of like the egg with its yolk, white and shell; or the executive, judicial and legislative branches of government -- three in one.
 You can probably think of a lot more of these, all trying to explain the concept of being one-in-three and three-in-one.
  The mathematical approach is also attractive, as Maurice will likely attest, the equilateral triangle being the most popular math symbol for the Trinity. 
 And while 1+1+1 = 3 doesn’t work to explain the Trinity, 1 x 1 x 1= 1 works much better.
  Still confused, right? All these metaphors and explanations fall short and we’re left with little satisfaction by way of explanation.
  Despite our best efforts at explaining the Trinity, a full understanding seems to elude even those of us who’ve been lifelong churchgoers.
 But here’s a thought. In our desire to define all the terms correctly, maybe we’ve missed the whole idea altogether.
 Try to use definitive terms to describe God is a bit like nailing Jell-O to a tree -- eventually the thing falls apart.
 You might as well try to milk a gnat or sneak sunrise past Ralph the rooster -- it ain’t gonna work!
 Human language has distinctive limits in trying to define the devine.
  So rather than carping about the nature of Father, Son and Holy Spirit -- or Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier, or whatever terms are in use today -- maybe we should be focusing on the real essence of the Trinity -- the power of relationships.
 In Romans 8, Paul doesn’t try to line up a systematic theology of how God works.
  He uses trinitarian terms interchangeable -- the Spirit, Father, Christ -- but he doesn’t try to make it a treatise on metaphysics.
 Rather, Paul sees God at work in a uniquely relational way, both within God’s own nature and with humans.
  After admonishing his Roman readers in verses 12-13 to discern the difference between living in the flesh (NLT calls it “sinful nature”), and the Spirit (focusing on the God-oriented life), Paul then shifts the language to relationships.
  In verses 14-17, he says those who live by the Spirit are adopted by the Father as children of God and are co-heirs with Christ.
  Whatever the Trinity is in being, the purpose of God, the three-in-one and one-in-three, is to bring humans back into relationship with God, rescuing us from having to try to define ourselves through self-destructive pursuits.
 You can approach this passage and others that seem to reference the Trinity in two ways:  
  You can try to figure out which “person” (human term) of God is coming and going and doing what and when, like trying to determine a train schedule.
  Or ... you can simply focus on the fact that God’s very nature, God’s being, God’s focus, is internally and externally relational.
  Our connection with the Trinity is not to be a head trip where we simply meditate about the nature of God, but a heartfelt relationship that is made real through the Spirit of God/Spirit of Christ/Holy Spirit identified in verse 16.
  That’s a different view of God than you get from a chart. Perhaps we’ve made too mch of the distinctive shape of the Trinity, which we see most often depicted as a triangle with three hard sides.
 The thing is that triangles are not that common in the natural order of God’s creation.
  Think about it -- where do you see such hard edges naturally occurring? Rocky mountains jutting upward, maybe some leaf shapes ... but where else?
  You could make the case, then, that triangles are, more often than not, human creations and that our triangular, pyramid-shaped diagrams and explanations about God’s nature are just that -- human attempts at divine definition.
  So how about a different shape -- an alternative description, a subtle shift of perception? Stay with me here ... I know it’s difficult and we’ve got to think hard.
  John of Damascus, one of the early church fathers who lived during the late seventh and early eighth centuries, calculated reasoning about the Trinity and came up with a wholly different term for the oneness and threeness of God.
 He called it “perichoresis,” which loosely translated from the Greek means “circle dance.”
  In other words, the Trinity is not primarily defined by the distinctiveness or unity or “substance” of the persons involved, but rather as a circle -- a dynamic community defined by love.
  To see one is to see all -- to dance with one is to dance with all, being invited into the circle where we see God face to face, as children hold hands and dance with loving parents.
 Circles are natural, appearing everywhere from the sun and moon to the earth itself.
  Makes sense, then, that we should think of a circle as the thing that shapes our understanding of God’s creative and relational nature.
 You can’t define a circle by its points. You can only define it as a whole.
  And it’s pretty easy to differentiate a circle from a triangle ... easier, say, than trying to figure out the difference between art deco and art nouveau!
 The truth is that we’ll probably never understand the Trinity by trying to define it.
 Even Paul, one of the most prolific writers and theologians of his day, runs around the idea.
  The only way we’ll really understand the Trinity is to join the circle and live into that relationship. What a difference that would make!


A Teaching given by Rev. Dr Everett Parker in Pentecost Sunday

John 14: 8-17

In a world where Hallmark holidays abound, Pentecost gets no love in the greeting card rack.

With Mother’s Day recently passed and Father’s Day on the horizon, we pause for a moment to reflect on the true definition of what makes a holiday, or even a holy day.

This time of year we’re all running to the store at the last minute to buy a card for that “special someone.” If you bought a Mother’s Day card, it’s not enough to send a card to your mother; you’ll need to send one to your daughters who are mothers, or daughters-in-law, and every female relative who’s a mother. Same goes for Father’s Day.

And then there’s Grandparents’ Day” and even “Children’s Day.” You also have to remember Valentine’s Day. Even the workplace has its own days now with “Administrative Assistants Day” (used to be Secretary’s Day) and “Boss’s Day” kind of canceling each other out. There’s even a “Pastor Appreciation Sunday.” 

Some have disparagingly called the burgeoning number of card-worthy days “Hallmark Holidays” after the greeting card company that seems to invent new ways to obligate us to celebrate relatively ordinary stuff. But does that make these ever-increasing card-buying events “holidays” by definition? 

The very word “holiday” comes to us from “holy day,” which would imply that some kind of religious observance is involved. But other than the “biggies” like Christmas and Easter — the ones that bring out the crowds — most religious holidays don’t get a slot in the rack at the card store. 

If you were a Buddhist, for example, your big day would be Buddha’s birthday which falls on May 24 this year — but there are no Buddha birthday cards at the store and, even if there were, they’d probably be ignored in favor of more enlightenment (though cake would be existentially enjoyable). 

Mormons celebrate “Pioneer Day” on July 24 — the date in 1847 when Brigham Young and his followers pushed their handcarts over the mountains to the Salt Lake Valley in Utah. There, with the stink of the briny water in his nostrils, Young proclaimed, “This is the place.” The whole state shuts down that day with parades and celebrations. For the Latter Day Saints, it’s a bigger occasion for parades, fireworks, and jell-o based casseroles than Christmas and the Fourth of July combined. And yet, no card.

Up the hill in Park City, Utah, celebrities engage in the annual January festival of camera lights called Sundance, while in Native-American culture, the Sun Dance is the time of thanksgiving for the harvest. Lots of dancing in both places — but no cards.

Hindus do Diwali, Sikhs get down on Guru Nanak’s Day (which involves reading Sikh scriptures for 72 straight hours), and pagans celebrate Samhain on October 31 by leaving out food for the dead. Interesting stuff, but still not card-worthy.

The Judeo-Christian tradition has similar holy days that aren’t considered to be Hallmark holidays. While Hanukkah and Yom Kippur are great Jewish holidays, Shavuot, or the Feast of Weeks, doesn’t make the card cut. And while Christmas is the ultimate card-sending event and Easter a feast of chocolate bunnies, Christians and card writers tend to look past Pentecost.

Now, you’d think a greeting card giant like Hallmark would be all over this holiday. After all, what’s not to like? You got your fire, your wind, your speaking in other languages, your birth of one of the great religious movements in history, your built-in holiday Spirit — all the stuff that makes for a memorable event. It even lends itself to great slogans like “Hope you get fired up this Pentecost” or “More (Holy Spirit) power to ya!”

But the shelves of your local greeting card merchant are empty of Pentecost cards, kinda like our churches are empty on the holiday itself. Well, okay, maybe not more empty than usual, but you probably won’t have to set up extra chairs in the rear.

Granted, in some parts of the world Pentecost weekend is still deeper in the consciousness of people. In mainland Europe, for example, the Monday after Pentecost is still considered to be a bank holiday or, to put it in American terms, a “three-day weekend.” It’s one of the last holdovers of Christian culture in Europe, but it likely has more to do with the day off than with any consideration for the Holy Spirit. 

In 2004, the French government decided to cancel the Pentecost bank holiday as a way to raise more money to fund programs for the elderly, which caused no small amount of protest from working people and resulted in strikes and the shutdown of public transportation in several cities. People took the day off to party, but we’re thinking that they weren’t in an upper room waiting for the Spirit to fire up a church-themed birthday party.

So, has Pentecost simply been passed over in favor of more time off in the spring or is there something more at work here? Should we be making a bigger deal out of this day when the Christian movement was stoked by Spirit fire? Should we be trying to promote another holiday for our people to come back and fill the pews?

Maybe. It is, after all, pretty awesome to think about what happened that day and to come into a sanctuary splashed in blazing red. But then again, maybe the whole idea of Pentecost is less about celebrating the past event and, instead, embracing the present reality.

The text for Pentecost from John 14 gives us a clue that the work of the Holy Spirit was not a one-shot deal. Jesus was preparing to return to the Father and was preparing the disciples for his departure. Still confused about all that Jesus was saying, Philip spoke for the rest: “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied” (John 14:8). Give us a sign, make it plain.

Jesus’ response, however, was to remind Philip and the others that he had been doing that all along — all they needed to do was “believe.” That word is used three times in verses 10-11 as a way of linking Jesus’ work on behalf of the Father with their work as disciples. As God the Father dwelt in Jesus, so would the Spirit of Jesus dwell in them; so much so that the disciples would “do greater works than these.” Their belief was to translate into action, and their love for Jesus would find its foundation in obedience to his “commandments” or instruction (v. 12).

Jesus’ words were designed to comfort the disciples, who had no doubt relied on him for everything. They had been followers, hangers-on, students who rarely got the lesson. Jesus was leaving, but not leaving them hanging with only a memory of him to guide them. His departure was opening the way for another, the paraclete, to come as the one who would instruct, motivate, encourage, counsel, intercede, and be with them “forever” (v. 16). Jesus had already been a paraclete for them through his word and example, but now his work would continue in them through the Holy Spirit (v. 17).

While that would seem to be something to celebrate, Jesus was quick to remind his disciples that their association with him wouldn’t make them universally popular and revered. The Paraclete was the “Spirit of truth” — the spiritual equivalent of Jesus who called himself “the way, the truth, and the life” (v. 6). As the world did not receive Jesus, hanging him on a cross, the world also “cannot receive” the Spirit of truth “because it neither sees him nor knows him” (v. 17). In taking the Spirit of Christ into their own lives, the disciples would be making themselves subject to the same trials that Jesus faced as God’s representative.

The coming of the Holy Spirit should remind us that claiming to be followers of the historical Jesus is one thing, but allowing the Spirit of the risen Christ to fully dwell in us is another. The former can be confined to simply knowing a lot about Jesus — marking the Christian holidays — while the latter actually involves representing Jesus and acting every day on his behalf according to his model of life and faith.

If we do that, we’re likely to run into opposition from those who are comfortable with the world and its status quo. Jesus bugged people with the truth, and if we’re truly following him we’ll be doing the same. An invitation to a life of suffering and struggle isn’t exactly the kind of card you want to open and put on the mantel.

Pentecost was the catalyst for the explosive growth of the church as the Spirit moved among them. But that same Spirit would move many of those same people into dangerous and deadly situations where they were forced to rely fully on the Spirit indwelling Christ — the only “Advocate” they would have in front of mobs and murderous monarchs. While we may not be called to give up our lives in the same way as they did, if we take the Spirit seriously as the guide for our lives we may find ourselves living quite uncomfortably. Jesus promised the Spirit, but he didn’t promise that life would be easy.

As one seminary professor told a class, “Folks, when God calls you, he’s not doing you a favor.” There’s some truth to that!

But with the challenge of the indwelling Holy Spirit also comes a promise. The Holy Spirit would “remind” the disciples of what he had taught them (v. 26)). They would also be left with the “peace” of Jesus — not peace in terms of the absence of conflict or the false sense of security that the “world gives,” but peace born out of the life and love of Jesus himself. The vision of God’s peace and justice that had long been Israel’s hope and was being realized in Jesus and, in turn, through his disciples who would carry on the mission until his return. Having received that peace, the disciples were to not be afraid (literally, “do not be cowards”) in the face of opposition (v. 27). Through their work as representatives of Jesus, God would set the world to right.

Given the work laid before those first disciples and their mission, which we continue as their spiritual descendants, we might look at Pentecost as being a true “holy day” but not necessarily a holiday where we can kick back and reminisce about what once was. The coming of the Spirit is present, active reality — one that motivates us to work, to act, to represent Jesus to the world. You just can’t confine that to one day a year. Sure, we need to gather on Pentecost Sunday and be reminded. But, then again, every day should be a new Pentecost: a fresh wind of the Spirit and a firing up of our desire to serve God with our whole hearts.

And you don’t need a card for that!

When Life Gives You a Red Light  

           Jeremiah 32: 1-15

A Teaching given by Rev. Dr. Everettt Parker on May 17, 2015

It sounds like a dream come true for impatient drivers: a dashboard device that changes red lights to green at the touch of a button. Better to take a driving lesson from the prophet Jeremiah, who has a few tips about patience and trust.

We hate to wait. Whether we’re standing in line at the grocery, being put on hold by customer service, or sitting at a red light, we have a tough time remaining relaxed until our turn finally comes around. You see, we're busy, busy, busy being busy, busy, busy!

Some people even take the approach of Albert Einstein and observe that time itself is relative — they are convinced that the clock in a doctor’s office waiting room actually gets slower ... and slower ... and slower ... as their waiting time gets longer and longer.

Well, there’s nothing that can be done about grocery stores, customer service lines and doctor’s office waiting rooms. But red light delays are now being shortened by a high-tech tool.

A dashboard device has been put on the market that changes traffic lights from red to green at the touch of a button. According to The Washington Post, fire and rescue vehicles have had access to such equipment for years, but only recently have the devices become available to ordinary motorists.

Check it out. You’re running late for an appointment, and the light in front of you turns from yellow to red. Instead of having to sit around inhaling exhaust fumes, you simply punch a little button and give yourself permission to go. Thanks to advances in technology, you no longer have to feel hate while you wait.

Unfortunately, such traffic light switchers are a bad idea. Interfering with traffic in an intersection is illegal in most states, and the random switching of signals is bound to create significant safety problems. 

The traffic light problem is pertinent because the people of Jerusalem in our text feel as though they’re sitting — waiting — at a huge red light in their national, corporate, life. The army of the king of Babylon has surrounded the city of Jerusalem, and the people within the walls are desperate for relief. Some want God to remove the Babylonian army, some want to take up arms and fight, while still others want to find a way to escape. The army of Babylon is a huge, glaring red light — and it doesn’t look like it is ever going to change.

Finally, the word of the Lord comes to the prophet Jeremiah, but it doesn’t tell him how to build a traffic light switcher. Instead, God orders Jeremiah to buy a field in Anathoth, the town of his birth, outside the city of Jerusalem. The Lord promises Jeremiah that the light is going to change, but not for a long, long time. 

God wants the prophet to wait patiently for the green light, wait through the conquest of Jerusalem and the devastation of Anathoth, wait until that time when the exile in Babylon is over and people will be able to return and repopulate the land. “For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel,” reports Jeremiah: “Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land” (32:15).

What a strange command this is: to buy a piece of land in a town that is about to be destroyed by an invading army. The traffic light may be red, but God tells Jeremiah that he doesn’t have to feel stuck — he can use that time of captivity to take an action that shows his complete faith in God.

The message of this passage is that the Lord will not let us languish even when the world around us is full of red lights. God gives us a way to go, even when life seems to say “Stop!”

So Jeremiah buys the field at Anathoth, and carefully weighs out the money — 17 shekels of silver. He signs the deed, seals it, gets the proper witnesses, and then orders that the papers be put in an earthenware jar, in order that they may last for a long, long time (vv. 9-14). Jeremiah is prepared to wait for the light to change, wait as long as it takes. He trusts that God is going to create a better future for the people of Israel, but it’s not going to happen as quickly as the people would like.

When God is controlling the lights, there is no such thing as a traffic light switcher.

So what are we supposed to do when life gives us a red light? What are the actions that we can take when we are feeling stuck in our jobs, our schools, our communities, our social circles, our relationships? Each of us is going to feel trapped from time to time, put on hold by some omnipotent operator, but that doesn’t mean that we cannot make a move toward a better future. A great deal of good can be done while we are sitting at life’s traffic light.

One possibility is that we make a down payment on the future, as Jeremiah does when he buys the field in Anathoth. There are times when our faithfulness to God doesn’t appear to be a good investment, but it always is. Despite the fact that Anathoth is about to be burnt and destroyed, Jeremiah puts his hard-earned money into it. He trusts that God will restore the fortunes of his chosen people, and will make their land valuable once again.

For us, this down payment could mean working with integrity in a dead-end job, trusting that God will channel our best efforts to a positive end. It could mean being faithful to our spouse, trusting that the Lord will lead long-term partners to deeper levels of intimacy. It could mean being generous in our charitable giving to the church, trusting that God will use our gifts to accomplish good that we cannot see ... or even imagine.

“If I have learned anything from more than 70 years of living, it is that life is going to surprise me,” says Methodist pastor Thomas Lane Butts. Rarely is the future in the form that we expect it to be. “And so I do the best I can,” says Butts. “I may not be able to predict what my particular generosity may do, but it is a down payment toward God’s kingdom, and that I can trust.”

We can also trust God to turn impossibilities into possibilities, and wait with patience for God to work his purposes out. After buying the field, Jeremiah prays to the Lord, saying: “Ah Lord God! It is you who made the heavens and the earth by your great power and by your outstretched arm! Nothing is too hard for you.” (v. 17)

Nothing is too hard for God, but that doesn’t mean that God is quick to put his finger on the traffic light switcher right now — as this lesson from history illustrates.

The irreligious and the cynics who point to the Bible-thumping preachers in the South who used the Bible to justify slavery and segregation, don’t know about William Wilberforce.

Wilberforce was a member of the English Parliament two centuries ago, and in the course of his life he became convinced that the slave trade was contrary to God’s will. He committed himself to abolition, and saw his mission in life as the suppression of the slave trade.

But change came slowly ... painfully slowly. Wilberforce introduced a 12-point motion against the slave trade in May of 1788. The motion was defeated. Planters, businessmen, ship owners, traditionalists and even English royalty opposed his motion, seeing abolitionists like Wilberforce as dangerous radicals.

But Wilberforce refused to yield, introducing another anti-slave bill in 1791. It, too, was rejected. Another defeat followed in 1792. And in 1793. Others still in 1797, 1798 and 1799. And in 1804 and 1805.

It must have appeared that the light was never going to change.

But gradually the public came to support the abolition of slavery, and in 1806 Parliament abolished the slave trade throughout the British Empire. Wilberforce wept with joy. It took until 1833 to free all the slaves in the Empire, but Wilberforce remained committed to his cause, eliminating the greatest evil of his day by using the tools of faith, politics and persistence.

Great good can be done, even when the traffic light seems to be stuck on red.

Finally, we can remember that the Lord is always working to turn evil into good, and death into new life. Over the course of our lives, we will certainly experience pain and suffering, but punishment and defeat are never the last words in our story. “I will rejoice in doing good to them,” God promises, as he looks to the future, “and I will plant them in this land in faithfulness, with all my heart and all my soul” (v. 41).

It is natural for us to want to control our destinies, which is why a high-tech traffic light switcher is bound to be so attractive to us. But as people of faith, we are challenged to allow God to shape our futures with us, and this requires waiting for God’s guidance with open hearts and receptive minds. 

“To wait open-endedly is an enormously radical attitude toward life,” said the Christian writer Henri J. M. Nouwen. “The spiritual life is a life in which we wait, actively present to the moment, trusting that new things will happen to us, new things that are far beyond our own imagination, fantasy or prediction. That, indeed, is a very radical stance toward life in a world preoccupied with control.”

The challenge before us is to find a way to live with red lights. This means turning off our traffic light switchers, and letting go of our craving for control. Once our hands are off the switches, we can invest in what God is doing, move ahead with faith and persistence, and gain a clearer picture of the future that is being prepared for us.

When you travel in this direction, the light is always green.     


Helium God   
  John 15: 9-17
A Teaching given on May 10, 2015
by Rev. Dr.Everett Parker

  A young mother recently wrote enthusiastically on Facebook the following:
  “I just checked in on Debbie in school via the webcam. There was a little girl sitting in the corner, by herself, with her head down. 
 “I watched my daughter get up from the group she was playing with, and walk over to check on the little girl. 
  “She talked to her for a minute, gave her a hug, then took her over to the big group of kids, and encouraged her to play with everyone.”
 “If that’s not a ‘Proud Mommy Moment,’ I don’t know what is. My gosh, I was so proud of this little girl of mine!”
  This enthusiastic young mother described the event on Facebook, brimming with justifiable pride in her preschooler’s love of neighbor. 
  Her parenting experience is not new: Generations of mothers before her have marveled at their children’s emerging personalities and their growing capacity for caring.
 What is new about this mother’s experience is the particular way she observed her daughter’s behavior. 
 She simply turned on her computer and watched the live feed from the classroom.
 My how things have changed since Jan taught classes in kindergarden and second grade.
  Gone are the days when, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., parents entrusted their children’s education exclusively to their teachers. And, we might add, when teachers were totally in charge.
  Electronic technology has rendered classroom walls strangely transparent. A new generation of parents relies on technology to shadow their offspring, venturing across the once-sacrosanct boundary between home and school.
 This particular technology is not yet widespread, but it’s there, and it’s becoming more common. 
  Some day care centers use this tool, and it’s also used on school buses in some areas. Parents can check in on their children at any time, in practically any place and in any situation.
 And yes, this can be a loving gesture, but it can also be a hovering gesture -- or both. 
 Such technology, in other words, can be yet another tool in the hands of what we’ve come to call a “helicopter parent.” 
  This is the mom (or dad) who’s always hovering over and buzzing about the child -- controlling, manipulating, directing and micro-managing the child’s life.
  Remember we talked about something like this just a couple of weeks ago, about how we’re so busy, busy, busy with the busy-ness of being busy ... often without being busy.
 It’s manipulation and micro-managing. But, wait! We’re not about criticizing mom on Mother’s Day! 
 What we want to do is to honor moms, and to talk about moms. But we also want to talk about God. 
  That’s why you have to wonder if most people think of God as a “helicopter God” -- always buzzing around, controlling and yes, even interfering in our lives. 
 Or do most people think about mom -- and about God -- in a different way? And if so, in what different way?
 Perhaps as a “hand-on-the-string” mom. A “hand-on-the-string” God. Wow, what’s that all about?
 Think about the expression “helicopter parent.” It does have a negative connotation, doesn’t it?
 Perhaps we ought to think of a new variation: “helium parenting.”
 Perhaps we should hold on to our children as a child holds a balloon. 
 Let them rise, float on their own, but keep a grasp on the string so that they do not float away to unknown parts. 
  The time will come when we need to release the balloon, but, in the meantime, instead of hovering from above, we should be holding lightly from below. Think of it as parental string theory.
 The outcome of this style of being a mom, is different than being a helicopter mom or dad.
 I think we often forget that our goal is not to try to create “good kids,” but competent, kind adults. 
  Self-reliance is the fruit of practice, nurtured by failure, and encouraged by appropriate risk. Coddle a kid and you get a coddled kid. Let them soar and you usually get a competent adult.
 Okay, now, turn the tables. What if, instead of talking about kids in schools or homes, we were talking about ourselves? 
 And what if the educator or mom were not our teachers or parents, but God?
 What sort of maternal oversight do we prefer the Almighty to exercise over us? Hmmm. Gives pause to think, doesn’t it?
  Some of us might be inclined to visualize God as the consummate helicopter parent: always hovering overhead, training a spotlight on us to highlight our misdeeds. 
  This is a stern, judgmental ruler, the ultimate micromanager: surveying our lives with disapproval, swift to hand out punishment.
 Yet, what if God relates to us in a very different way? What if God is more like that concept of a helium mom?
 The concept where mom holds gently to the end of a string as we dance on the wind-currents?
  Thankfully, God doesn’t seem all that interested in micromanaging our lives. To the contrary, the Lord seems content to unleash us for long periods, with only the lightest of tugs on the balloon string. 
  Sometimes that touch is imperceptible, barely there. At other times -- episodes of trouble or temptation, in particular -- we may suddenly feel a strong pull on the line, calling us back into closer relationship.
  Truth is, our gospel text tells us how we want God to mother us. It tells us how we want God to take care of us. And how is that, class? With love.
 What does the text say about this love?
 It’s a love that is specific to you. “You did not choose me but I chose you.” (v. 16) 
  We love it, don’t we, when mom chooses us, singles us out for some love and praise. Jesus says that we, too, were chosen by him, even as God chose Jesus.
 It’s a love that gives us a job. We loved it when mom gave us a job, didn’t we? 
  We loved it when she asked us to help her, to work side by side with her -- whether it was helping to bake some cookies, or to put our finger in the string when she was tying a knot on some packages.
  It didn’t matter. We loved it. We weren’t crazy about doing chores, but we did them because we knew we should, and it was mom that needed us to do them!
  God loves us this way, too. We are tasked with helping God with the chores. We are called to “bear fruit -- fruit that will last.” (v. 16)
  It’s a love in which we remain. “Now remain in my love,” the text says (v. 9). Jesus says we remain in his love when we obey his commands. (v. 10) 
 So, in one sense, God’s love is conditional. Mom loved us this way, too. We remained in her love as long as we weren’t bad. 
 And she knew when we were bad, no matter how hard we tried to conceal it. And we felt badly when we knew that she knew!
  But, on the other hand, there’s a sense in which we can never be outside of God’s love, even as we were never outside of mom’s love. 
 Yes, she got put out with us. Yes, we exasperated her on many an occasion. Yes, she put us in “timeout.” 
 Yes, she might have stamped her foot or looked hurt and angry. But, we were always in her love.
 And, we are always in the love of God. You know the story in Romans 8:35-39. Nothing can separate us from God’s love.
  It’s a love that asks us to play nice and share. “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” (v. 12) 
 At the end of the reading, Jesus says it again: “This is my command: love each other.” 
 an’t you hear mom asking us to play nice? “Be nice to your brother!” “Take your sister with you.”  
 Well, God loves us this way, too. God loves us enough to ask us to share the love with others.
 It’s a love that is sacrificial. “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life.” 
  When we think about all that mom did for us, well ... it’s amazing. Is God’s love any less? Did not God in Jesus Christ lay down his life for us?
 All of this is suggestive, not of a helicopter God, but a helium God, a God whose hand is on the string. 
 We feel the tug at times. We sense the slack. But we always know the hand is there.
 The relationship we have (or have had) with our moms -- indeed, to any parental figure in our lives -- is complex. 
  This is no less true of our relationship with God, a relationship based on love, requiring a firm, but gentle, hand on the balloon line.
  Our spiritual relationship with God is often experienced in similar ways. At times we may feel God hovering, and at other times we feel the hand on the string, gently letting us rise.
  In any case, on Mother’s Day, we give thanks for those people in our lives who have been willing to make such a sacrifice, for our sake.
 The science lesson in the elementary school classroom that day was about magnets. 
  Beginning with what she thought was a very simple question, the teacher asked: “My name starts with an ‘M,’ I have six letters, and I am always picking something up. What am I?”
  A hand started waving madly in the front row. The teacher gave a nod and the answer came bursting out: “I know -- you’re a mother!”
  A mother whose only son was preparing for college wrote the following note to the college president:
 “Dear Sir: My son has been accepted for admission to your college and soon he will be leaving me. 
  “I am writing to ask that you give your personal attention to the selection of his roommate. I want to be sure that the person he will spend the next few years with is not the kind of person who smokes, drinks, uses foul language or is a trouble-maker or rabble-rouser. 
  “I hope you will understand why I am appealing to you directly. You see, this is the first time my son will be away from home -- except for his four years in the Marines.”
The Ethiopian Innovation 
            Acts  8: 26-40
A Teaching given by Rev. Dr. Everett Parker May 3, 2015

 Change is difficult. Let me repeat that -- change is difficult.
 It’s a challenge in families, in businesses, in churches, in communities and in entire countries. Change.
 In fact, probably the only person who really likes change is a baby with a wet diaper. That’s a welcome change.
 Throughout history, people have been afraid of innovation. Here are some examples.
 German writer Johann Heinzmann warned people in 1795 about reading. 
  He said that consuming words leads to a “weakening of the eyes, heat rashes, gout, arthritis, hemorrhoids, asthma, pulmonary disease, indigestion, blocking of the bowels, nervous disorder, migraines, epilepsy, hypochondria and melancholy.” 
 In other words, be careful about reading! 
  Then, in 1803, preacher Jedidiah Morse said, “Let us guard against the insidious encroachments of innovation, that evil and beguiling spirit which is now stalking to and fro through the earth seeking whom he may destroy.” 
   Safe to say that he wasn’t open to new forms of praise music in his Sunday services.
 In 1854, author Henry David Thoreau criticized the construction of a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas. 
 He said, “But Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.” I still wonder if that might not be the case.
 In 1906, composer John Philip Sousa lamented that phonographs were causing “deterioration in American music.”
 In 1926, the Knights of Columbus warned that the telephone would “break up home life and the old practice of visiting friends.”
 About the same time, a dean at Princeton observed that cars were becoming a threat to America’s young people. 
  “The general effect of the automobile,” wrote Howard McClenahan, “was to make the present generation look lightly at the moral code.” 
  He worried that youths with cars would begin to drive all over the place on Sundays ... everywhere but church. Hmmm ... maybe he had something afer all.
  And finally, in 2008, The Atlantic magazine asked the question, “Is Google making us stupid?” Likely the jury is still out on that one.
  Resistance to change is a constant in human life, even around innovations that have proved to be beneficial: Reading, telegraphs, phonographs, telephones, cars and the Internet. 
 Yes, there are problems associated with each, but, on the whole, they’ve been a huge help to people around the world.
 We have been studying the Book of Acts in Wednesday night Bible study, around coffee and snacks for just an hour.
 We’ve been in Acts since early in the year. But that’s nothing. It took us seven months to get through James.
  In the eighth chapter of Acts, which we just read two weeks ago, an angel of the Lord challenges a Christian named Philip to innovate. It’s also our lectionary reading for today.
 “Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” 
  This is, the Bible tells us, a wilderness road (v. 26). The angel is ordering Philip to leave the city of Jerusalem, and to go in a new direction off the beaten path.
  As he begins his journey, Philip meets “an Ethiopian eunuch, an important official in charge of all the treasury of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians” (v. 27). 
 This stranger has two strikes against him from a religious point of view: 
 First, he is a foreigner, and admittance to the assembly of the Lord is generally reserved for the Israelite community. 
 Second, he is a eunuch, and the Torah is explicit: men who served the king inside the palace were required to be emasculated.
 Over time, “eunuch” became synonymous with a high government official.
 But the Ethiopian eunuch believes in the God of Israel, and he is now on his way home. 
 We are told he is reading aloud from Isaiah. Why aloud, you might ask?  
  Well ... if you attended Wednesday night Bible study, you would know the answer: because in those days, all reading was customarily done aloud, even when alone.
 And here’s another tender tidbit. Recall we mentioned Candace, queen of the Ethopians in verse 27? 
  Candace wasn’t only a woman’s name, but the title given to the mother of the king. In Nubia, which was ancient Egypt, the job of managing the nation was given to the mother of the king.
  At this point, the Holy Spirit gives Philip another innovative order. “Go over to this chariot and join it,” says the Spirit, even though the man is an Ethiopian and a eunuch (v. 29). 
 This is a change from what Philip has been doing in Jerusalem and in Samaria. 
  But it doesn’t seem to bother Philip that God would take him from Jerusalem where he’s having huge revival meetings, performing many miracles, bringing many to Christ, and send him out to a desert to talk to one man, and a foreigner at that!
  The Bible says, “He got up and went” (v. 27). Notice that the “angel of the Lord” said, “Get up and go,” and Philip “got up and went.” 
 Simple. God says “Get up,” we get up. God says “Go,” we go.
 Philip immediately runs up to the chariot and hears the man reading the prophet Isaiah.  
  Fortunately, Philip did not share the concern of Johann Georg Heinzmann, who saw reading as the cause of “nervous disorder, migraines, epilepsy, hypochondria and melancholy.”
  Nor does he assume that the residents of Israel and Ethiopia will have nothing to talk about, as Henry David Thoreau assumed was the case with Mainers and Texans.
  He is not even worried about running alongside a chariot, a vehicle which might have earned the condemnation of the car-hating Princeton dean.
 So, Philip is willing to innovate. “Do you understand what you are reading?” Philip asks the man.
 “How can I, unless someone guides me?” the eunuch replies. And he invites Philip to get in and sit beside him (vv. 30-31).
  That’s precisely what we need to do today: take steps to sit beside and to guide. Call it the Ethiopian Innovation, if you like.
 So what happens when we sit beside and guide? We give straight answers to tough questions. 
  The Ethiopian eunuch asks, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” (v. 34).
  Philip doesn’t answer, “Well, I think you need to undertake a careful examination of present-day studies in biblical history in order to assess their diverse orientations and different methodologies, while, at the same time, not neglecting the risk that the exclusive use of one methodology runs vis-à-vis a comprehensive understanding of the biblical testimony and of the gift of God given in Christ.”
 Yeah, they talk like that in seminary. No, Philip simply says that the prophet is talking about Jesus. 
  He proclaims to him the “good news about Jesus.” He tells him that Jesus died on the cross like a sheep led to slaughter, to demonstrate just how far he will go to show his love for us. 
 And then, to prove that death is not the end, God raised Jesus from the dead and raises us as well.
  That’s the Jesus story, as simple as can be. It’s what the Ethiopian eunuch needed to hear, and what the outsiders of our society need to hear as well. 
 It’s a story we can tell IF we are willing to sit beside and to guide.
  Don’t fall victim to the fears of preacher Jedidiah Morse, who said, “Let us guard against the insidious encroachments of innovation, that evil and beguiling spirit.”
 There’s nothing evil about the Ethiopian Innovation, because it brings people to Christ. 
 That’s often the result of giving a straight answer and telling people about Jesus. 
  As Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch are going along the road, they come to some water, and the eunuch says, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” (v. 36)
  Philip cannot think of a single thing, so he joins the eunuch in the water and baptizes him. Then the Spirit of the Lord snatches Philip away, and the eunuch goes on his way rejoicing (vv. 38-39). 
 What might the eunuch have concluded about Philip? Well, you gotta come to Wednesday night Bible study to learn that tidbit.
  When we “sit beside and guide,” we give straight answers to tough questions. But what else can we do when we “sit beside and guide”?
  You see, we need change to grow. We cannot -- this church -- cannot stay in the 1950s and survive. That is becoming abundantly clear to our Hinton Project committee.
  We will be telling you over the coming months about several new and innovative ways our church will be heading as we grow into the future.
 The first we’re ready to announce now, and that’s what the committee chair Cheryl Norman calls our “Silver Club.”
  This is a large, loosely-knit group of people “of a certain age” who will do things together, watch out for each other, and enjoy each other’s company.
  It’s a group who may go out to eat now and then. We’re dove-tailing our Wednesday Bingo group into this club, and we’re talking about providing a noon luncheon each week.
 And it will involve our folks -- and you don’t have to be 65 to join -- going out and inviting others to come enjoy the fun.
 Along the way, we’ll develop our faith sharing in service and in worship.
  Another innovative project will be passing out brownies in Zip lock bags at the Wellborn Blueberry Festival, with information about the church attached.
 A delightful book found by our own Jinny Wilson, who serves on the Hinton Project Committee, will be our guide. 
  “Get Their Name: Grow Your Church by Building New Relationships” is the book she found. It will provide the blueprint for reaching others in our communities.
  You see, just playing church, and being a cloistered Christian community on Sunday only is no longer acceptable. Too much is at stake.

Christ Life: Not the Same Old Formula                                      
  I John 3: 16-24
A teaching by Rev.Dr.Everett Parker given on April 26, 2015

 The Old Testament book of Leviticus tells us in Chapter 19, Verse 18, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 
 That’s what God said to Moses and the people of Israel.
  As far as formulas go, it’s terrific. For thousands of years, it has worked well in a variety of forms in most of the world’s religions, not just Christianity.
 Jews believe that “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 
 Hindus affirm that “one should not behave toward others in a way which is disagreeable to oneself.” 
 Buddhists say that you should “hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful.” 
 And Muslims believe that “no one of you is a believer until he desires for his brother that which he desires for himself.”
 There’s nothing secret about this formula. Even Jesus endorsed it when he made it a part of his great commandment. 
 “Love the Lord your God,” said Jesus, and “love your neighbor as yourself,” it is reported in Matthew 22:37, 39.
 But surprisingly, in the first of his New Testament letters, the apostle John offers a new recipe: 
 “This is (God’s) commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another.” (v. 23)
 Believe in Jesus. Love one another. Not the same old formula. Have you ever noticed that if you spend time studying the Bible?
 In recent years, companies have learned how dangerous it is to change the ingredients of a successful brand. 
 Exactly 30 years ago, in April 1985, Coca-Cola changed its formula and introduced a product called “New Coke.” 
  You may remember that. The response was overwhelmingly negative, and within three months the original formula was back on the market. 
 Just how bad was it? The company hotline received 1,500 calls a day, almost four times what they usually logged. 
 Psychiatrists listened in on calls and heard people talking as though they were grieving the death of a family member.
  Here in the South, Southerners saw the change through the lens of the Civil War, describing it as yet another surrender to the Yankees. 
 Even Fidel Castro despised New Coke, reportedly calling it “a sign of American capitalist decadence.”
  Bottom line and moral of the story: Be careful when you change a successful brand. You might end up breaking something that doesn’t need fixing.
  At that time, Jan and I occasionally had a Coke, but most of the time it was a Coke offshoot called Tab or Diet Coke, if you remember those. 
  I guess Diet Coke is probably still around, but after learning what those products does to your insides, we stopped drinking them.
 So what is the apostle John up to in his lesson for today? 
 For starters, he wants to put a human face on the commandment to love one another: the face of Jesus Christ. 
 “We know love by this,” he says to his brothers and sisters in Christ, “that he laid down his life for us” (v. 16). 
  John knows that the problem with the love commandment is that it can easily become sickeningly sweet, with people enjoying the pleasant taste of tender emotions and charitable thoughts. 
 So he changes the formula to include the bitter sacrifice of Christ on the cross.
  Such a change of ingredients can actually change our behavior. “We ought to lay down our lives for one another,” insists John, following the example of Jesus, again in verse 16. 
 Under this new formula, sacrificial giving becomes a central part of the Christian life, one that simply cannot be denied. 
  John asks his followers, “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help?” (v. 17).
 Good question. Where do you see God’s love in such a person? You don’t. It’s just not there. It just doesn’t exist.
  Love, you see, is observed in action, not in words. It’s very easy to say we’re a “loving church,” but unless you see it in action, it’s a meaningless expression.
  And how do we see it in action, here in this place? I see it seven days a week through our Outreach Ministries program, where food, clothing and other necessitities are distributed without cost.
 I see it when men gather on a Tuesday morning as in this past week to fell a tree and remove all of the debris.
 I see it when free meals are served, and an evening’s entertainment in the form of a movie is provided. 
  I see it in people who spent hours and days in hospitals sitting with the ill and injured. I see it in so many, many ways, and so do you.
 John summarizes his new formula with the words: “Believe in the name of God’s Son Jesus Christ and love one another” (v. 23). 
  He links belief in Jesus with love for one another, knowing that the clearest example of love is the sacrificial life and death of Christ. 
  The result of this new formula is a close connection to God, one in which “all who obey his commandments abide in him, and he abides in them” (v. 24). 
 John says that we’ll know that God lives in us “by the Spirit that he has given us” (v. 24).
 The new link between belief and love create a new kind of life for us. Christ Life.
 Oddly enough, Coke has decided to change its formula once again, offering a new version called “Coca-Cola Life.” 
  It was launched in Argentina before being test-marketed in the United Kingdom, and may soon have its debut in the United States. 
 People are wondering if it is healthier than regular Coke, since its formula contains a sweetener from natural sources. 
 “Coca-Cola Life” will get its sweetness from sugar and stevia, which is derived from a plant in the chrysanthemum family. 
 Instead of regular Coke’s 140 calories per can, Life will have 89.
 Coca-Cola has just started offering Life, or will soon.
 Jesus Christ has been offering Life of a different kind for quite some time.
 Throughout the gospel of John, we hear the promise of life. 
  In fact, John 20:31 tells us the gospel was written “so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life.”
  The gospel begins with the Word of God taking the human form of Jesus, and we’re promised that “what has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people” (John 1:3-4).
 Belief. Life. Light. Put these ingredients together, and you can see that a new formula is beginning to emerge.
  John goes on to tell us that “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:16). Most of us know that verse by heart.
 So now love is in the mix. As well as a kind of life that extends beyond the grave -- eternal life.
  Describing himself, Jesus says, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life” (John 8:12). 
 “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). 
 “I am the way, and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).
 Life in his name. Eternal life. The light of life. Abundant life. The way, the truth and the life.
 Life, life, life.
 Christ Life -- not the same old formula. It’s a new one based on believing in Jesus and loving one another.
 Of course, not everyone is going to be happy with this new brand. 
  Changes can be met with fierce resistance, such as occurred with New Coke exactly 30 years ago. Christ Life is not going to be for everyone.
  There are those for whom church is on the edge of their conscious need. It’s an hour on Sunday, and they miss the diversity and complexity of all that is offered.
 I continue to find it amazing that so few of us can be bothered to attend Wednesday night Bible study.
 It is here that we delve into the complexities of the Bible, and find amazing answers to questions that many ask.
  We’re able to look more closely than possible on Sunday morning to exactly what the texts mean, and how our understanding of them are influenced by the original Greek or Hebrew.
  Often I hear someone say after Bible study, “So that’s what that passage means!” When you’re not there, you don’t share in that growth and understanding.
 And it’s true for so many other facets of church when you’re not taking part.
 But for those who dare to sip this new flavor, abundant life awaits. 
 Believing in Jesus and loving one another draws us closer to God and one another, and allows us actually to abide in God. 
 To abide is to live or to dwell in something, to accept, observe and follow a particular path.  
 So when we believe in Jesus and love one another, we abide in God and God abides in us. 
 “And by this we know that he abides in us,” says John, “by the Spirit that he has given us” (v. 24).
 So give it a try. You have nothing to lose, and a new life to gain.

Don't Make Me Think!  
              Psalm 4
A Teaching by Rev Dr Everett Parker on April 19, 2015

A study reveals that people don't particularly enjoy sitting down in a quiet place alone with their thoughts. In fact, some would prefer to administer an electric shock for the sheer stimulation and distraction. Yet, in our lectionary reading for today, the psalmist advises us in times of stress "to ponder." So how does this apply to us today?

The ancient psalmist advised, quoted in the Revised Standard Version, "When you are disturbed, do not sin; ponder it on your beds, and be silent." 

Good advice, no doubt. But we can't help but wonder if such "pondering" was as disliked then as it is today.

Recent research suggests that people don't like to ponder or think these days. The report summarized the results as follows: "In 11 studies, we found that participants typically did not enjoy spending six to 15 minutes in a room by themselves with nothing to do but think, that they enjoyed doing mundane external activities much more. ..."

We'd rather do something mindless and mundane than to sit still and think. Think about that for a moment. Oh, right ... we don't like to do that.

Participants in the study ranged in age from 18 to 77. They were told to entertain themselves alone in a room just with their thoughts, or to imagine doing one of three pleasant activities like hiking. Regardless of age, most showed no fondness for being alone and thinking. 

On a nine-point scale of enjoyment, their average rating was about in the middle. They consistently demonstrated that they would rather have something to do than to have nothing other than their thoughts for even a fairly brief period of time.

But here's the shocking -- literally shocking -- part: In one phase of the study, participants were given the option of administering a mild shock to themselves by pressing a button. Before starting their time alone, they all received a sample of the shock, and most said they would pay to avoid being shocked again.

Nonetheless, when placed in a room alone with their thoughts and no other distractions, 12 of the 18 males (67 percent) and six of the 24 females (25 percent) gave themselves at least one electric shock during the 15-minute period. "What is striking," the researchers wrote, "is that simply being alone with their own thoughts for 15 minutes was apparently so aversive that it drove many participants to self-administer an electric shock that they had earlier said they would pay to avoid."

Wow! That says something! In one phase of the study, 61 of the participants were invited to spend their alone time with their thoughts at home -- for only six to 15 minutes, mind you. But even there, about a third of the participants admitted that they "'cheated' ... by engaging in some activity, such as listening to music or using a cell phone. And they didn't enjoy this experience any more at home than at the lab.

Wow, what has happened to our society that we have to be constantly stimulated by outside sources and can't stand to be alone?

We might think that such findings can be explained by the pace of modern society or easy access to electronic devices -- smartphones, iPads and the like. But perhaps the devices are a response to the common wish to never be without something to do.

What should we make of this? The one thing that I have noticed more in the past few years than ever before is the number of people who tell me how busy they are. It's become a common excuse or mantra for not attending the many various activities of the church, including Sunday worship.

It's become the default response when you ask anyone how they're doing or why they haven't seen in church: "I'm soooooo busy!" It is, pretty obviously, a boast disguised as a complaint. And the stock response is a kind of congratulation: "That a good problem to have," or "Better than the opposite!"

I have especially noticed it isn't those of us who are working back-to-back shifts in the I.C.U. or commuting to three minimum wage jobs who complain about being "soooo busy." Those who do that or are 24 hour a day caregivers are not only busy but tired. Exhausted. Dead on their feet.

No, it's almost always people whose lamented busyness is purely self-imposed: work and obligations they've taken on voluntarily, classes and activities they've "encouraged" their kids to participate in. They're busy because of their own ambition or drive or anxiety, because they're addicted to busyness and dread what they might have to face in its absence.

Or, it's just an excuse. The present hysteria is not a necessary or inevitable condition of life; it's something we've chosen, if only by our acquiescence to it. Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life can't possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day.

Is it an indictment of our society, an indictment of our sinful nature, an indictment of a propensity to avoid hard work (which thinking is)? Or does it simply mean that we're hardwired to prefer an external reality rather than an internal reality?

There is no question the mind is designed to engage with the world. Even when we are by ourselves, our focus usually is on the outside world. And without training in meditation or thought-control techniques, which still are difficult, most people would prefer to engage in external activities.

But what does it mean for our spiritual life? We so often hear in church that we should have "quiet time" with God, and that personal devotions are a necessary discipline for spiritual growth. Those who have attended the Walk to Emmaus know what I'm talking about ... it was drilled into you every day. And in the Bible, we're rather regularly reminded about Jesus' practice of withdrawing to lonely places for solitary prayer (e.g. Mark 1:35; Luke 5:16).

But for some of us, this advice doesn't seem to work. There are those who say often God seems to speak to them more through my interaction, conversation and activity with other people. Often, quiet, thoughtful reading sparks new openness to the Spirit in them and they "hear" something from or about God that they haven't before.

So, when it comes to listening for God, is there anything inherently better about sitting in silence than about engaging in activity? Good question. The short answer, as I see it, is no. But just because we find something difficult to do and don't prefer it, doesn't mean we should avoid it, especially if it's beneficial, right? Could it be that the sins of laziness, fear and pride interfere with deep thinking?

To get at an answer, we return to Psalm 4. Here, the psalmist tells us not to sin, but to ponder.

Okay, let's say we agree. What should we spend this time thinking about? In one sense, there are no limits on that answer, but as a starting place for people who follow Jesus, perhaps we could spend some time "pondering"

- the Apostles' Creed,
- the Sermon on the Mount,
- the Lord's Prayer,
- our Wednesday night Bible study verses,
- our baptism and confirmation rituals.

But you say, "Boring."  We get it. Like, how many of us have sat still long enough to meditate on any of these topics?

Let's put this in perspective. We're talking about thinking, the pondering that the psalmist calls for, and we will follow up on this in a moment. But let's not forget that thinking alone and of itself is seldom enough for the fullness of faith. Certainly the Bible, and the book of James in particular, reminds us that true religion is a religion that moves us to moral action.

If such thinking is as vital to our spiritual life as it is to other parts of our life, and if, as the research suggests, most of use prefer activity to just thinking, perhaps it's worth considering how the two -- activity and pondering -- might come together effectively.

Truth is, we can be active and engaged in deep thinking at the same time. Deep thinking does not need to be done in a chair alone in some room. There is no particular virtue in that.

One writer describes his bicycle as "a marvelous thought machine." He says that, often, the activity of spinning the wheels down a low-traffic road seems to keep the "need to be active" part of him occupied so that his thinking process is less hampered. 

There's a kind of "silence" in that activity, he says. He reports that he often returns home from such rides having solved a problem or decided a course of action or even having had a spiritual encounter. These things are usually unplanned in advance -- that is, one doesn't ride expressly to have time to think, but that such "pondering with results" is often a fringe benefit.

Unfortunately for me, all I thought of during years of riding a stationery bike or using a treadmill is when the day's exercise would be over.

Brother Lawrence, the 17th-century lay monk, was assigned to work in the monastery's kitchen, and while there, he decided to try to pay attention to God's presence even while going about his duties. He reported that working in the kitchen like a common scullery maid was not much different than when he was alone in his cell meditating. "That time of business (in the kitchen) does not with me differ from the time of prayer, and in the noise and clatter of my kitchen, while several persons are at the same time calling for different things, I enjoy God in as great tranquility as if I were upon my knees at the blessed sacrament."

Not everybody can do that, of course; some, and perhaps most, people would find the hustle of the kitchen or the negotiating of a road on a bicycle too distracting to promote good thinking. It certainly wouldn't work for me. I prefer the quiet and solitude of our hundred acres of heaven in northern Maine, where we enjoyed so close to absolute silence that it almost hurt. Or sitting on a rocky jut of granite, gazing at astonishingly white icebergs floating on a cobalt blue sea in Labrador. That works for me!

The point is this: It's good for us to find whatever means works best for us to ponder not only the issues of life but also the things of God.

Good thinking is not enough by itself to do the work of God. But neither is mindless activity unguided by spiritual reflection enough by itself either.

But steered by clear thinking and powered by rich faith, we can be very much the people who do God's will.

Cyber Confessions          
              I John 1:1 -2:2
A teaching given by Rev. Dr. Everett Parker on April 12, 2015

  Our lectionary reading for today is an appropriate follow-up to the climatic experiences of Easter. But it’s not an easy text to speak from.
 It kind of hits you up side the head. It’s not something you want to talk about. But it’s at the core of our Christianity.
 That’s the one thing you’ve done that nobody else can ever know about? Gulp.
 The mere thought inspires a hard swallow and a pounding heart. Well, rest at ease. 
  There are now quick and convenient, anonymous and even aesthetic ways to deal with those nagging sins of yours: cyberspace confessions.
  Think of an online confessional booth as an electronic Post-it-Note. Those Post-its have brought a sticky, yellow-pad revolution to the absent-minded office worker. 
 That might Post-a-Sin do for the busy and guilt-laden pilgrim in need of conscience cleansing?
 Have some slip-ups to shake loose and can’t make it down to the parish priest? No problem.  
 Just have them absolved by posting them online at an e-confessional. You’re just a few keystrokes away from a clean slate.
 And what if you’re more of the artsy type who needs to get something off your chest? 
 Again, cyber-reality has a perfect solution for you. 
 There’s a web site where you can submit a postcard-sized artistic rendering of your transgressions. 
 Just include a statement of the issue that you need to reveal -- and by all means, you must keep it anonymous. 
  When these ownerless mail-in confessions are posted on the site so others can read your acknowledgment and admire the way you aesthetically captured it.
  A comment from a regular of the site reads: “I love this web site … makes me feel everything I’ve done is closer to human. I wish they would expand and update more often then once a week. I look forward to the new postings as they open up my eyes each time.”
 What a voyeuristic bonus! The rest of the world can get online and appreciate the splendor of your sinful actions. 
  And consider the therapeutic benefits here. Others can go look at the hideousness of what you confessed and instantly feel better about their own minor mishaps and pesky peccadilloes.
 Who needs a time of prayer anymore? And why bother with an expensive therapist to improve self-esteem? 
 We can get all of those needs met in one place. Anonymous, artistic, confessional and voyeuristic. Oh, this is brilliant.
 It’s no wonder that reality television and Desperate Housewives are dominating the Nielsen ratings. 
 You see, we love to wallow in other people’s garbage. It entertains us. It shocks us. It makes us feel better about ourselves. So why not bring the same benefits to confession? Quick. Easy. And tasty as well. 
  Okay. Critique is cheap. So we’re in a lot of trouble if our Christian beliefs don’t offer us something more tangible. More authentic. More personal. More real. And 1 John 1 gives us more.
  There is a false reality about which we seem too comfortable and silent. Christians who worship a God who is light still carry around dark things (vv. 5-6). 
 Dark thoughts. Dark words. Dark emotions. Dark actions. Dark omissions. We see it happen in our own church.
 The analogy 1 John offers is a great one. Walk into a room with the lights on and try to find a dark place. 
  It will always be the farthest distance away from the light source. Or it will be in a shadow, a dark place that is hidden from the light.
  When we fall short of thinking, feeling and acting in ways that reflect the perfection of God, we’re like darkness in a lit room. Far from God. Hiding from God.
  We typically view confession as “that Catholic thing” where people go to a priest. Or perhaps it was that one-time past activity that people associate with “praying a prayer” or “receiving Christ.” 
  Or maybe it is just a hyper-pious activity for the monastic and self-abasing types -- confessional cod liver oil, if you will: It’s supposed to cure us, but we’re not sure why.
 But in today’s passage, confession is different. It’s a normal part of healthy Christian rhythms.
 Confession will “cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (v. 9). Not “cleanse” in the past tense. “Cleanse” in the present tense. 
  An assumed ongoing activity. It’s how dark things close their distance from the light. It’s how they come out of hiding. Confession creates a clean relationship.
 An author offers an interesting perspective on confession. 
  He and his friends went to a festival on their college campus, which was renowned for the drunkenness, nakedness and drug consumption of the students who attended it. They went there to set up a confession booth.
  But it had a twist. The booth was not a place to come and confess one’s festival sins; rather it was a place to come and hear the confession of the Christians who ran it. 
  They recognized and apologized for all of the church’s atrocities which stood against the message of Jesus Christ. The Crusades. Televangelists. Politicized religiosity. Neglect of the poor and marginalized in our society.
  agan festival-goers came, fully aware of these blights upon the church. But at this confession booth, the church asked them for forgiveness. 
 Their response was respect. Curiosity. Tears. Appreciation. Healing.
 It was not only a great missional opportunity, but it is a great picture of the heart of confession in First John 1. 
  The campus confession was admitting what a disenchanted audience of nonbelievers already knew about the church: It was sinful and imperfect. 
  Christian confession is similar. It’s merely owning up to the reality of the ways in which we have not perfectly followed Christ. 
 God is already aware of these things, so confession isn’t an information transfer; it’s a relational healing.
  Confession restores right relationship with God. When we say something dumb to a spouse or a friend, things are a little stilted between us until we go and seek forgiveness. 
  Relationship is awkward when there is an offense between people. Relationship between God and his followers is no different when wrongs between them remain unrecognized and unreconciled.
  But confession also restores our relationship with other Christians. Coming out of the darkness and into the light grants us “fellowship with one another” it says in verse 7. 
 Confession places us back on the common ground of our identity in Christ -- as his co-followers, not as his co-offenders.
 And relationship with other believers can not only be the end of confession, it can be the means as well. 
 Those of you who attend our Wednesday night Bible study remember our intense examinaton of James. 
  You may remember that James 5:16 says to “confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed.”
  But how much do we balk at such a radical concept? Everyone likes to have their stuff all together. People don’t like to be wrong. 
  And for sure, nobody likes to admit they’re wrong even when they know they are. We’re consumed with being right and not getting right.
  That’s one of the plights of those who gossip and know what they are spreading is wrong: they don’t want to admit they are in the wrong.
  How many of us remember the old sitcom “Happy Days”? You may remember the two words that the Fonz could never make pass over his lips: “I’m sorry.” 
 He would stutter and stammer, but never get beyond “I’m s-s-s-so-so-so ...”
 Many of us are less-Fonz-esque and are able to apologize to one another when we wrong each other. 
  But how ridiculous is it for us to tell somebody else that we feel sorry when we wronged God? What does he have to do with something between God and us?
 well, apparently James and John see something in confessing to one another.
 When you were a kid, did you ever lie awake at night believing there were monsters under your bed or in the closet? 
 Or do your kids or grand-kids have those fears today? Perhaps they have greater fears today: drugs, non-stop violence.
  Well, two things are true of these nocturnal fear-mongers: They lose their power when Mom and Dad come into the room and they lose their power when the lights get turned on.
  Sin is the same kind of monster. It holds power and influence over us. It is tempting and attractive. It comes after us in dark places when nobody else is there. 
  But when we tell other people about the sins we wrestle with, somebody else comes into the room, the lights get turned on, and the monster loses its teeth.
 What is why Post-a-Sin is such a tawdry rip-off of the true spiritual rhythm of confession.
 Cyber-confession is anonymous. Christian confession is personal.
 Cyber-confession is the announcement of wrongs to an impersonal web site. 
 Christian confession is ownership of wrongs to a personal God and caring people.
 Cyber-confession results in entertainment for others. Christian confession results in connection with others.
 Listen to the rich words of this confessional liturgy:
  “Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We are truly sorry and we humbly repent. For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us; that we may delight in your will, and walk in your ways, to the glory of your name. Amen.”
  Not willing or ready to confess? An old-timer sat on the riverbank, obviously awaiting a nibble, though the fishing season had not officially opened.
 A uniformed officer stood behind for quietly for several minutes. “You the game warden?” the old-timer inquired. “Yup.”
 Unruffled, the old man began to move the fishing pole from side to side. Finally, he lifted the line out of the water. 
 Pointing to a minnor wriggling on the end of the lne, he said, “Just teaching him how to swim.”
 Confession, you see, is good for the soul. This is no dot-com entertainment. This is real Christian intimacy.
Empty Is Everything                       
Mark 16: 1-8

    Full is good. Empty is bad. At least, that’s what we’ve always been told, right?
 Given a choice, we prefer full to empty. Full sounds positive; empty sounds very negative. 
 Empty implies want and need, whereas full suggests abundance and blessing. 
 Yet, we might say that Easter is not for “full people,” but that Easter is for “empty people.” Huh?
 Well, there are two types of people in this world. Full people and empty people.
  And if one were to take a poll and ask the question, “Which would you rather be: full or empty?” most of us would probably say, “Full.” Right? Think about it. “Full” is good.
  Full Easter eggs? Good.
  Full church on Sunday? That’s really a good idea.
  Children full of respect and manners? Good.
  A home full of comfortable, plush furniture? Good.
  A marriage full of laughter and love? Good and good.
  A full stomach? Good.
  A full bank account? Good.
  A full pantry? Good.
  A full gas tank? Expensive. This holiday you might find yourself saying, “Sweetheart, give Daddy your Easter money. We gotta get home from grandma’s.”
  You get the point. A person who is “full” is one who’s able to look at her or his life and say, “Dang! Every need is met, every fear is silenced, and every obstacle is overcome.” 
  Most would say, “That’s what I want. That’s what I’m aiming for!” But as we look at our lives, is this what we are? Perhaps who we all are. We’re “full.”
  But let’s be terribly honest. If we believe that we’re complete, that our lives are as they should be, then this day, this message, this reality of the resurrected Jesus Christ just isn’t for us.
 Here’s the deal: Easter isn’t for full people. It isn’t for the “have-it-all-together-life-is-good” people. 
  So, Easter is for empty people. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is for those who’ve figured out that in this life, “full” is a fleeting feeling.  
  As an example, one analysis of the spending habits of American families reveals that the vast majority of income is spent on items that need constant replenishing. 
  We spend almost all of our treasure on food that will be eaten, gas that will be burned, clothes that will wear out and entertainment that lasts a moment.
  Some of us realize that no matter how many pounds of ham you put away or deviled eggs you down later today, that come Monday morning you’ll be hungry again. 
  Maybe you’ve discovered that this side of eternity the beauty of spring always fades, turning into a summer that’s Wellborn hot and Havana humid. 
  The cutest of Easter dresses on your daughter or granddaughter will be grown out of by next year, or stained and dirty before the end of the day.
 Some of us have felt the emptiness of losing someone close in the past year. 
 Others know what it’s like to have your health fading or your family fighting. 
 Think about this -- you don’t need to raise a hand, but consider those who have felt
  a prayer that’s unanswered,
  a fear that’s haunting,
  a depression that’s lingering,
  a faith life that’s stagnant,
  kids who are crazy,
  in-laws who are nuts
  or a future that’s uncertain.
 We could ask those questions, and it’s possible that eventually every hand would shoot up. 
 Yes, there are those who know that fullness is fleeting and what it feels like to be empty.
 And the good news is that for all who fall into that category, then they are the ones Easter is for.
 Faster is not for full people. Easter is for empty people.
 In fact, listen to these words from Mark’s account of the Easter story. 
  “And (the angel) said to them, ‘Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen; he is not here. See the place where they laid him. 
  “‘But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.’ And they went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid” (Mark 16:6-8).
 Did you catch the words like “alarmed,” “fled,” “trembling,” “amazed” and “afraid”?  
  Faster itself has its origin in the emptiness of heart that overwhelms disciples who’ve seen their Savior die, and the anxiety of mind that comes from expecting to see his body and instead hearing of a risen one.
   The temptation is to look at such emptiness and see it as a bad thing. But let’s not go there. 
 The truth is that our emptiness is a great thing. Our realistic view of this fleetingly full world is an essential thing.
  Look at 1 Corinthians 15. Here, the apostle Paul helps us understand the blessing of the empty tomb upon our fleetingly full lives. “... if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. 
  “Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied. But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15:17-22).
  Paul’s point is this: If Jesus is still dead, then all we have is another great teacher who promised the world but died before he could deliver -- like everybody else. 
  If his bones are still stuck in some tomb, then it means there’s still no clear path to the Creator, no certainty about our life after death, and no trustworthy teaching about why we exist in this world. 
 If he is still dead, all we have is our emptiness. But Christ is not dead. Christ is risen.
 But there are always skeptics. I would say to them, it’s time you stopped doubting the resurrection. 
  Sure, you saw some special on the History Channel that made you question it. But please, how much credibility can you give to a cable channel whose biggest shows are about pawnshops and Bigfoot? I mean, all these so-called reality shows are trying their best to improve ratings, and only flirt with the truth.
 The resurrection of Christ is not a myth or a rumor. It’s a fact. The disciples recorded it and later willingly died for it. 
  History says that more than 500 people were willing to attest to it. The Roman authorities never disproved or even attempted to argue with it. 
  Think about this. In a male-centric world, why would the gospel writers, like Mark, dare make up a story about women being the first to find Jesus? 
  They would be inviting scandal and scorn; unless, of course, it actually happened and eyewitnesses made them unable to say otherwise. The empty tomb speaks to a world of truth
 Therefore, since the tomb is empty, it means that everything Jesus ever preached or promised is true.
 And that is good news because Jesus has some amazing things to offer those of us who know the emptiness of this life. 
 The empty tomb means that Jesus’ death on the cross was, in fact, a work of forgiveness.
  It means that all of the mistakes we’ve made that leave us wondering whether or not God loves us have been punished and put aside. But that’s not all.
 According to Paul, Christ’s resurrection is a glimpse of our own future resurrection. 
  There will be a day when Jesus returns and gives to us the same experience he had on that first Easter. He will bring us back to life! 
  These are the promises that Christ places in the hands of those who are willing to admit they are empty and that only Christ and his promises can truly fill them.
 So what are you on this Easter Sunday? Are you empty or full? 
  It’s an essential question because if we truly believe that our life is full, then we have no room for and no need for the great things Jesus can give. 
  But if we’re able to admit that we’re broken, needy, and often empty, then the fulfilled promises of Easter are ready and waiting to fill us up.
 So are you one of the skeptics in the audience this Easter morning? 
  You may be at church because you were dragged here by a spouse who looked at her husband and said, “It’s Easter. All I want are chocolate bunnies and you in church!”
  So here’s what I would say to you: If you’re here and still refuse to believe that the resurrection is true, that’s fine. But consider this. At the very least you should want it to be true.
 Why? Because if Jesus is risen from the dead, it means death is not the end! That’s huge! 
 It means a kingdom is coming that will bring an end to all war. 
 It means poverty will someday cease, and everyone will have a seat at the table. That is also more than huge! 
  It means sickness will be destroyed and there will be no more need for cancer centers or children’s hospitals. Surely, you can get behind that? 
  The resurrection means that every husband who’s buried a wife, or every woman who’s lost a baby, will one day have his or her grief overshadowed by God’s glory at Christ’s return. 
 It means one day our tsunami-filled planet will be replaced with a calm creation. 
  It means that soon there will be a day when all those who can’t walk, or hear, and those whose minds are slow or bodies are broken will rise from their chairs, step out of their beds, leave all assistance behind and be whole. Totally amazing!
 We believe because Christ is risen, all of that is guaranteed for us tomorrow and can be tasted today. 
 You don’t have to believe it’s true, but no matter how full you think you are, deep down you should want it to be true.
 There are two types of people in this world: those who are empty and those who are full. Which one are you? 
  Empty isn’t a bad thing. An empty tomb means Jesus is alive. Emptiness in your life simply means you’re the one Jesus rose for, and that you’re ready to receive all that he has to give.
 Sure, full pantries, full gas tanks and full bank accounts are good. 
 But when it comes to Easter, empty is great.

The Celebrity Christ
              Matthew 21: 1-11
A Teaching given by Rev.Dr. Everett Parker 3/29/15

 We live in a world where you can be famous for being famous. 
  On Palm Sunday, for a few brief moments, even Jesus was the object of adoring fans. He refused to be swayed by their demands of him, with predictable results.
  If you are driving in the Los Angeles area, you might see a billboard showing a model who drapes her body over a pink Corvette, or waves to drivers from a pink Cadillac.
  Her name is Angelyne. Years ago, she hired an agent to make her famous, and so he plastered her picture on billboards throughout the city.
 But she does not advertise pink Caddys or ‘Vettes. As far as I know she doesn’t type.
 The only thing she advertises is herself. And you can purchase her latest video over the Internet.
 We live in a world where you can be famous for being famous. 
  Once, not so long ago, one was considered famous only after making a life-changing discovery (think Jonas Salk, if you remember who he was), or after orbiting the earth three times (John Glenn), or after displaying extraordinary talent (Van Cliburn), or after achieving some other great, historic endeavor.
  Today you can be a celebrity if you merely spend time with other celebrities, or if you engage in illegal behavior, or if you have no shame (Jerry Springer).
  The Time-Life Corporation was really on to something when they created People magazine in 1974 as a respectable alternative to tabloid fare. 
  How many tens of thousands of readers pore over celebrity magazines every month? To satisfy an unquenchable thirst for celebrity news, new infotrash rags are born every week. 
  News magazines cannot survive without including news on the rich and famous. Specialty magazines on everything from cigar smoking to furniture refinishing use celebrities to adorn their covers. 
One can become famous for a myriad of not so noble reasons.
  The special annual issue of People magazine which highlights “The 25 Most Beautiful People,” displays the faces and bodies of the physically blessed: beautiful actors, beautiful musicians, beautiful politicians. 
 These people are famous for being beautiful.  
 And, I am told, it is one of People magazine’s best-selling issues.
  If you think that’s shallow, you don’t even want to know how many consumers purchase “The 25 Most Intriguing People” double issue. 
  The celebs in this issue ostensibly arouse our curiosity. Today we find people whom we once considered crude or banal to be “intriguing.”
 For a first-rate celebrity, the story never ends. All of the Hollywood “stars” will always sell magazines and books. 
  We will forever be “intrigued” by celebrity mysteries: do we remember how we wanted to blame the Kennedys for Marilyn Monroe’s death? 
  Would Diana, the princess of Wales, have survived if taken to a different hospital? What exactly did these people eat for their last meal?
 Well, can you imagine if Jesus had been treated like a 20th-century celebrity as he rode into Jerusalem?
  CNN might have reported on rumors that Jesus planned to disrupt temple business.
  Pundits would have argued about who he “really” was.
  There would undoubtedly have been a psychological profile for Vanity Fair.
  Some tabloid would investigate Jesus’ relationship with “the woman at the well.”
  There would be in-depth analysis by cult specialists and modern-day Pharisees on Fox News.
  A council of church officials would be in place to study the authenticity of Jesus’ feeding the multitudes and walking on water.
  As He entered the dusty city, hundreds if not thousands would have held high their call phones, taking pictures.
 Top TV “news” (with quotation marks) celebrities (again with quotation marks) would stand by to offer color commentary.
 But it was not like this at all, was it? The celebrities of today are famous because they have hired promoters and agents.
  Jesus was celebrated by a relatively small number of followers who were not quite sure why they were there, except for the fact that something drew them to this teacher, this holy man. 
  He could heal them. He spoke in mysterious parables. He was very different from anything they had seen before. And he loved them in a way they had never before experienced.
  There was something about him. In a cruel and violent world, where most people were interested in basic survival, Jesus regularly stirred up enough trouble to risk his safety. 
 In a culture where people shamelessly promoted themselves, Jesus told those He healed to “tell no one.” 
 He was not swayed by current trends. He was not concerned with money. He had no problem with challenging those in power. 
 His ministry was guided, nourished and planned by the only Power that really matters.
 The Bible, of course, is a best seller. One could make a case that it is a celebrity best seller. 
  It is not exactly a “tell-all” book, however. And yet, while most best sellers about celebrities chronicle every possible detail about the subjects’ lives, from what the celebrity ate for his or her last meal to what the celebrity “would have wanted” after death, we have relatively few details about the life and death of Jesus. 
 Most Christians are unconcerned with the precise details of Jesus’ crucifixion, much less the details of his last days.
 So what was it? Did Jesus ride into Jerusalem on a donkey or a colt? 
  Matthew’s account of the first Palm Sunday makes it sound like Jesus sat on both animals at the same time (though it probably means that he rode the mare with the young colt at its mother’s side). 
 The other gospels tell us that Jesus rode only on a colt. Does this really matter? 
 And exactly who was there with Jesus when he entered Jerusalem? 
 Matthew’s gospel tells us that there were great crowds both in front of and behind Jesus as he rode into town. 
 But in Luke’s version it sounds as if the crowds were not part of the procession at all.
 Does it really matter?
  Our faith does not rise and fall on such details. We do not need to “make sense” out of seemingly inconsistent or inconsequential particulars.
 Palm Sunday marks the beginning of the last week of Jesus’ life. We know some, but not all, of the details.
  He was not particularly young, considering the life expectancy of a man of his time.
  He probably looked nothing like People magazine’s idea of “The Sexiest Man Alive.”
  He was most definitely not rich.
  His groupies were limited to 12 men of limited resources and a few women of uncertain reputations.
 And while his followers often could not believe that he could really die, we know that he could and he did. 
 It was as senseless to his disciples then as, on the face of it, it is senseless to us today.
 The one detail we know for certain is that this story never ends.
 It did not end in a procession in Jerusalem.
 It did not end on a cross.
 It did not end in a cave on the property of Joseph of Arimathea.
 The story continues. It continues in the lives of people like you and me in whom the living Christ continues to work wonders.
 The story continues in us who are called to keep it alive.
  The story continues. It may not continue on the pages of People magazine, and therefore, it is not “need-to-know” material for many. 
 But it is an irresistible story, a life-changing story for those of us who have, by grace, found ourselves following Jesus. 
 We do not know many of the details of that last week of his life on earth.
 But we do have a pretty good idea what he ate for his last supper.

A teaching given on March 22, 2015 by Rev. Dr Everett Parker
based  on Numbers 11

   They thought she was a mute. After all, most eight-year-old children tend to talk endlessly.
   When they found her, she was battered, cigarette-burned and starving.
   The call had come from a concerned neighbor who said that something seemed fishy in the apartment next door.
   He was right. She was covered in her own body wastes. Her mother was asleep on the couch, drunk and drugged out.
   She said nothing as they hacksawed the shackles off her legs and then arrested the mother. She only stared and seemed unable or unwilling to speak.
   After three days in the hospital, she began to show some signs of alertness. One evening, as a nurse gently washed her face, the little girl spoke for the first time.
   Her words were faint and difficult. What she said cut to the core.
   "If I die, do you think my mommy will love me then?" When you spend years in law enforcement, you hear the worst. And I can guarantee you, it doesn't get much worse than that.
   "If I die, do you think my mommy will love me then?" When your world is scary and your spirit is broken, it's not so bad being a mute.
   Israel knew about muteness. The people had existed in the frightening world of Egyptian slavery and despairing spirits.
   They learned quickly how to become mute mud brick makers and to keep silent.
   But they discovered that silence was not power. It was only weakness when no one could speak for the other.
    As theologian Walter Brueggemann reminds us, "Moses and Israel had learned that muteness leads to brick quotas. Silence results in oppression."
   Henry Curry was the first black man to serve as a county commissioner in McIntosh County, Georgia in the mid-1960s.
   Even though Mr. Curry was the only black official in McIntosh County to that point in the 20th century, he discovered that he was still a slave in Pharaoh's Georgia.
   For two years, Henry Curry faithfully attended the commission meetings and sat as the quick, half-shify business swirled around him like muddied water hiding dangerous rocks beneath the surface.
   In two years, they never clearly explained a thing to him, nor deferred to his outlook.
   You see, he'd been tapped for the position not because of his wisdom, experience, or even his age, but for the black-skinned, grizzle-haired fact that his parents had been slaves, and his great-grandparents, Africans.
   This, too, he might have accepted, perhaps even seen as just, except that they would not let him speak.  
   He seemed to himself not a representative of the people, but an adornment for the commission table ... sheer ornamentation like an artificial plant or a centerpiece. And this was beneath his dignity.
   Even for those who are oppressed or powerless, the demonic dignity of muteness can burst and throaty groans begin to sound.
   By the time of its history in Numbers 11, Israel had long since left Egypt and had been wandering in the wilderness of free speech.
   But instead of voluptuous voices, Israel's muteness had given way to mealy-mouthed whining and complaining, moaning and groaning.
   Would this sound familiar to any of us? Is there applicability for us in this story? Do we focus on whining about situations and complaining rather than attacking problems where they lie?
   Or do we take the voice of mediocrity and wash our collective hands: "I don't care, do whatever you want. I'm not interested. I don't care. Don't ask me to help."
   Israel preferred to speak the language of insincerity and apathy as recorded in Numbers 11: 4-6:
   "If only we had meat to eat! We remember all the fish we used to eat for free in Egypt. And we had all the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic that we wanted. But now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at."
   Wilderness freedom had numbed Israel's collective memory, but silenced the country's voice into mealy-mouthed tones of disgust aimed at the lack of variety in their diet.
   Israel remembered its muteness fondly now as a time when there was a richness of appetizing foods.
   Sometimes we complain and moan and groan about a situation, only to find that it could be much worse and the alternatives much less desirable.
   At least when they were mutes, they were well fed and there was security in mud brick making.
   But now all they had were mealy-mouthfuls of mundane manna. They were bored and demanded that Moses fix it with God.
   Now Moses was no mute, nor was he a mealy-mouthed whiner. He was angry and he laid out his frustrations before God. Moses was insistent and assertive in his speech.
   "Why have you treated your servant so badly? What have I not found favor in your sight, that you lay the burden of this people on me? Did I conceive all this people? Did I give birth to them, that you should say to me, 'Carry them in your bosom as a nurse carries a suckling child' to the land that you promised on oath to their ancestors? If this is the way you are going to treat me, put me to death at once, if I have found favor in your sight, and do not let me see my misery." (Numbers 11: 11-12, 15)
   Wow, sorta the same cry pastors make when people are recalcitrant and obstinate and there is no clear vision for the future or even how to survive.
   It was because of Moses' open prayer that God responded to the needs of the community. It was this way of speaking that brought hope and new life to Israel.
   Walter Brueggemnn reminds us that new conversations and new possibilities with God are difficult when the human partner remains mute.
   We, the church, must speak publicly if we are to live out the gospel in our world of sin and injustice.
   Moses can model for us what the wonderful and terrifying experience of speaking to God for those who are powerless and muted in our society.
   But our speech has to be courageous, honest, and passionate and not merely mealy-mouthed platitudes.
   In the mid-1970s, Thurnell Alston became the third black commissioner in McIntosh County, Georgia, and became known as the "Black Moses."
   Unlike the muted Harry Curry, Thurnell Alston decided to speak for the people and bring to public the hidden same of poverty, injustice and repression.
   When Moses finished speaking, God answered him by appointing 70 elders to help Moses oversee the community.
   These 70 received the Spirit of God as prophecy -- the ability to speak for and to God.
   Verse 25 tells us, "Then the Lord came down in the cloud and spoke to him, and took some of the spirit that was on him and put it on the 70 elders, and when the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied... ."
   There were two others -- Eldad and Medad -- who also received this gift, even though they were not with the 70 elders. This created some jealousy and Joshua wanted them to stop.
   Moses gave the following answer, as recorded in Numbers 11:29: "Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord's people were prophets and that the Lord would put His spirit on them!"
   As pastors and as laypeople in the body of Christ, the hope-filled prayer of Moses rings out: "Would that all the Lord's people were prophets."
   Yet, many of us lip-synch among the mutes when it comes to proclaiming the word of God -- if we proclaim the word of God at all.
   We need a common goal, a unified approach as a church in a lost and sinking world. We need a vision for the future, and a plan of how we are to go boldly into that future.
   We need forgiveness and power to speak publicly and boldly through the Scriptures. Indeed, we may find ourselves daring to speak with the mouth of Moses in new and powerful conversations with God and our community.
   After all, Moses is our model and Christ is our power. As it says in Mark 13:11: "do not worry beforehand about what you are to say; but say whatever is given to you at that time, for it is not you who speaks, but the Holy Spirit." AMEN

Jesus, the Transformer                
    Mark 9: 2-9
A Teaching given by Rev. Dr, Everett Parker on February 15, 2015

  I know very little about movies. Part of the problem was where we last lived, it was so remote that it was a 150 mile drive to see a movie.
 We haven’t been to a movie in probably 30 years or more.
 But there is a series of movies I’m told people find exciting. It’s the “Transformers” series. 
  Transformers 5 is in the works. But don’t get your hopes up for anything new. Supposedly, it’s going to be the same old story of shape-shifting aliens. Which, come to think of it, is a lot like Transfiguration Sunday.
  It will be the year of Transformers. A blockbuster film, featuring the fantastic world of shape-shifting, alien robots that can disguise themselves as man-made automobiles and morph into flying, fighting, sentient super-machines, will again take over box offices world wide.
  If you’re into movies, you might be saying to yourself, “But wasn’t 2014 the year of the Transformers? I distinctly remember taking my children to see a movie that was nothing more than cool cars becoming cooler robots that nearly destroyed the planet via really, really cool special effects.”
 You’re right. 2014 was also the year of the Transformers.  As was 2007. And 2009. And 2011. 
 It seems the movie makers just can’t get enough shape-shifting super robots. Don’t believe it? 
  Consider this: the four previous Transformers movies have grossed more than $3.6 billion in revenue, making it one of the most successful film franchises of all time. 
What’s that mean? We’re going to see a lot more talking robots. That’s what it means.
 There are many theories as to why these movies - despite their poor critical reception are such a hit with moviegoers. 
 Some point to the nostalgia factor. Transformers was a popular series of toys in the late 1980s. 
  Those boys and girls who went crazy for Transformer toys are now moms and dads eager to show their sons and daughters how cool it can be when a rusty tractor-trailer morphs into a talking, flying superhero. 
  There’s also the fact that for some, they’re just plain fun to watch. Amazing special effects, non-stop action and beautiful people diving for cover is good entertainment any way you slice it.
 But perhaps what intrigues us most about Transformers is the transforming itself. 
  There’s magic and allure to the idea of something so basic and familiar becoming something so powerful, so mysterious and so downright awesome. 
 It makes us see the world around us, just for a second, as filled with new and exciting potential. What if my car wasn’t just a car? What if my desk wasn’t just a desk? What if my toaster wasn’t just a toaster? That would be an interesting world! And so, every few years, we find ourselves sitting in a theater with our sons and daughters, and grandchildren, loaded down with popcorn, and ready to watch the same story all over again.
  You may think it a stretch, but a line can be drawn between the Transformers film franchise and the transfiguration of Jesus, as given to us in Mark’s gospel. Think about it. The tagline for the toys and films is, “More than meets the eye.” Isn’t that true for Jesus? And the transfiguration is the moment that the disciples got a glimpse of who Jesus really was, when they saw for certain that he was more than just a man. 
 Jesus stood before his disciples, on the top of Mount Hermon, and before their eyes he changed. He changed from a rabbi with a keen connection to God into a God-man, even God in flesh, who was greater than Moses and Elijah put together. This glimpse of who Jesus could become -- of who Jesus really was -- left the disciples slack-jawed and stunned.
 The world suddenly had new and exciting potential. “What if my rabbi isn’t just a rabbi?!” See the connection?
  But there’s more. Just as many respond to the idea of another Transformers movie with a sigh, there are many who hear about Transfiguration Sunday and let out the same disinterested puff of air. 
  “It makes sense for us to circle back to Christmas and Easter. Those are the biggies. But why must we circle back to this? After all, hasn’t it become clear that Jesus is God? Haven’t we established the fact that he’s not just a man but divine? Seriously, we just saw this movie. Why do we find ourselves here again?” Even I thought this as I sat down to write this sermon.
  But let us assume that, in the words of a well-intentioned and awestruck Peter, “... it is good for us to be here” (v. 5). 
  Let’s assume that the reason we tread the familiar ground of Jesus’ transfiguration is not just because it’s what’s given to us in the lectionary, but because it’s actually good for us as his disciples.
 Why might that be? Here’s at least one good reason. We spend a great deal of energy as people trying to transform Jesus. 
 We try to morph and manipulate him into something he’s not, something that fits our agenda. 
 And it’s good for us to be confronted with the truth that Jesus is not who we’ve made him out to be. Not even close. 
 He’s greater than we’ve assumed. He’s holier than we give him credit for and better than we’ve imagined. 
  We need the transfiguration because it breaks our idolatrous and self-serving ideas of Jesus and brings us back to the jaw-dropping, breathtaking truth of Jesus.
  Like a child of the early 1980s, pulling and twisting a tiny action figure that’s promised to become something exciting if we manipulate it in just the right way, we’re all guilty of trying to transform Jesus. 
 Whom have you tried to make Jesus into? How are YOU transforming Jesus into someone He’s not?
 Several years ago there was a bestselling T-shirt that said, “Jesus is my homeboy.” 
 Maybe you’ve crafted a picture of Jesus that is simply that of a divine affirmer. 
  This Jesus never lovingly confronts you with the law in order to draw you back to the gospel, but is only there to say, “I got your back, buddy!”
  Perhaps you have transformed Jesus into a political trump card to be conveniently laid out as a means of winning arguments and shutting down debate on social media. 
 Or perhaps you’ve seen him portrayed as the “genie for the faithful.” You know how this Jesus works. 
 If you pray enough, believe enough, or just plain try hard enough, Jesus will grant your wish for a spiritual breakthrough. 
  Or maybe you’ve recently greeted your daughter home after her first full year in college only to find that her Intro to Philosophy class has turned her into an enlightened know-it-all, and the professor has helped her transform Jesus into the likeness of a simple, first-century guru. Nothing more.
 This is why we need the transfiguration. This is why we revisit this familiar territory. 
 We come back to this particular storyline because in the last year we’ve built a false picture of Jesus. 
 We’ve laid our assumptions, our agendas and our designs upon Jesus. 
  We’ve sat with him -- knowing that there is more than meets the eye -- and tried to turn him into something that suits our fancy. 
 Transfiguration Sunday exists to remind us of who Jesus really is and who we need him to be.
 Jesus is not just a great teacher. He is greater than the great teacher Moses and the great prophet Elijah. They bow to him.
 Jesus is not just an enlightened man. He’s God in flesh and his glory shines brighter than clothes could ever be bleached.
  He’s not your card to be played in arguments or puppet beholden to your commands; he’s the Father’s “beloved Son.” We listen to him. He rules over us.
  Every once in a while we need him to bust out of whatever box we’ve placed him into, transform into his glorious self, and remind us that he is the one true God.
  And when Jesus transforms from car to alien robot -- correction -- from an apparently mortal man to glorified God in flesh -- there’s just one response to be had: repentance and worship. 
  It’d be a great exercise, if we had time, to lead this congregation through a call and response of repentance, naming the things we’ve tried to morph Jesus into and asking him to forgive us. 
  It’d be great, after confessing that sin and hearing God’s promise of pardon, to then sing a hymn, a praise tune, extolling both the might and mercy of Jesus. 
 When Transformers 5 is released, we’ll likely leave the theater raving about the special effects.
  In the same way, we must leave our annual pilgrimage to Mount Hermon extolling the awesomeness of Jesus and thanking God that he uses that power to forgive our sins rather than scorch us for our idolatry. 
 We must say to ourselves, “Yeah, okay, the story wasn’t anything new but it still makes me say, ‘Wow!’”
 So why do we need another Transformers movie? Some would argue that we don’t. Four is enough. 
  But consider that there were eight Harry Potter films and 25 James Bond movies. Did you know there have been 10 Batman movies? So maybe five Transformer films isn’t all that bad.
  At the very least, every once in a while, we need a Transformers movie to remind us how truly awful it would be to live in a world with talking cars.
  And every once in a while we need the transfiguration to remind us that, even though anthropomorphic alien robot cars do not exist, Jesus does.
 And he could crush them all -- those alien anthropomorphic cars. Now that would make for a great movie.

What gift did you get me?  
A Teaching by Rev. Dr. Everett Parker  on February 7, 2015
Romans 12: 1-8

So did any of you bring me a gift today? No? Why not? Don't I deserve a gift today?

All parents whose work takes them out on the road inevitably fall victim to the dreaded, genetically linked "traveling parent disease." This rarely discussed disease kicks in just as you finally enter the airport to begin your flight back home. Suddenly, visions of your small offspring, sadly moping around the house, rise to your consciousness, and you are obsessed with the unshakable need to buy these little loved ones an "I'm back now" gift. 

Though seldom talked about, the widespread nature of this malady is evident by the large number of airport gift shops whose entire inventory is devoted to these poor, gift-searching parents. Why else would our airports be filled with exorbitantly expensive stuffed animals, designer felt-tip marker sets, thousands of tiny-sized T-shirts and replicas of every Disney creature ever imagined. You will also note that all these shops are doing quite well.

The unfortunate side effect of this gift-giving syndrome is not just the huge dent it makes in you wallet at the end of every business trip. There is also the fact that now, whenever you finally drag in the door of your home-sweet-home, the first words your little darlings greet you with are not "Welcome home, Mommy," or "We missed you so much, Daddy"--but "What gift do you have for me?"

Often it seems we childishly accost God with the same question and with about the same grace as our kids. We expect that God will present us with some fully developed, nicely wrapped package. We envision God saying, "Yes, I have given you the gift of teaching--now take this and go out and teach!" Or "For you, the gift of leadership. From this point on, you shall stand at the head of the church and lead it forward." Yeah, right.

The problem with having such a literal expectation of God's spiritual gifts in our lives is that most of us end up standing around waiting for some "special delivery" package that we never receive. We think the gifts God will visit upon our lives must come from somewhere else--that they must be flown in to us by some distant deity. But Paul's message points to another location for the "gifts of God for the people of God." 

Paul urges his Roman Christian brothers and sisters to "be transformed by the renewing of your minds" (v.2). The transformative power of a renewed mind--of a mind freed from the old restraining conformities of our past--is the power that opens us up to the presence of all God's gifts already at hand in our lives. This is a gift we can take home to our families every day. And it's also an important message for our Boy Scouts to hear on this Boy Scout Sunday. It is the ability to rise above the behaviors and attitudes that are forced upon us by the demands of the world and to allow ourselves to be transformed by the unpredictable power and presence of the Holy Spirit.

There are a lot of new books out now on spiritual gifts, on the whole concept of "giftedness." The problem with most of these is that they are still fixated on finding that specially wrapped, little box hidden somewhere in Daddy's or Mommy's luggage. For too many of these studies, a "spiritual gift" is something we can hang onto, fix our identity to, claim as our own personal possession, but any "spiritual" gift that would conform to those norms would be about as "spiritual" as an MBA. 

If the divinely ordained presence of a genuinely spiritual gift comes from having a "renewed mind," then these gifts themselves must be a constantly recyclable resource--taking on different forms and fulfilling different tasks in every new incarnation. Spiritual gifts are not unchanging "things," possessions that are ours "forever and ever, amen." Spiritual gifts--like the minds they take shape in--are constantly renewed and transformed. God's gifts to us are always surprise packages.

Right now, each one of us is nurturing a profound spiritual gift within ourselves--and we don't even know it. Most of us are just plain too scared to try out what we think our "gift" might be. Often we are conscientiously avoiding situations where our gift might inadvertently slip to the surface.

Are you really a leader?... Don't you dare volunteer to help organize that new building committee.

Are you really a speaker?... Don't you dare speak those words that keep leaping up into your brain.

Are you filled with compassion?... Don't you dare offer to help out the homeless and hungry that populate the streets of your town and the pews of your church.

Are you really a teacher?... Don't you dare demonstrate how easily you can communicate ideas and reveal information to others.

Are you really filled with a prophetic word for your church?... Don't you dare suppose that anything you might say could make a difference.

Moses tried to avoid the reality of his spiritual gifts once his mind was filled with the transformative Spirit of God. But God had other plans. Despite his disreputable status, and even though evidence suggests he may have had a speech impediment of some sort, Moses was given the gift of leadership and called to speak out to Pharaoh on behalf of all the Hebrew people.

Psychologists joke that the two most stress-inducing experiences of human life are approaching death and public speaking. When God offers up the gift of speaking, how many of us would be inclined to run forward begging, "Me, me, oh please let me be the public speaker!" But sometimes the spiritual gifts God gives us may not be what we think we are any good at--or what we find particularly pleasing or enjoyable to do. Sometimes God has need of us. Our spiritual "gift" may be something we have to work at long and hard before we feel any modicum of expertise. But a transformed mind cannot be conformed, either by the expectations of the outside world or by the limitations of our own self-concepts.

Every time that absentee parent comes home, he or she is expected to bring a new gift. No parent wants to see that lower lip quiver and hear that pathetic little voice whisper, "You mean you didn't bring me anything?" As Christians, we can rest assured that we are constantly receiving God's gifts in our lives. Even during spiritual "dry spells," our potential for "giftedness" is still there. Especially during these desert-moments, we should be bold enough to go looking for our spiritual gifts. When we try on new possible roles that might enable us to find and claim new spiritual gifts for ourselves, we are renewed. God never approaches us empty-handed.

The reason God offers us these gifts of the Spirit is not to glorify our abilities or highlight our weaknesses. As members of the living Body of Christ, we are responsible for the health and maintenance of that Body. The gifts of love and leadership, compassion and counsel, prophesying and portfolio-building are all exercises we perform for the sake of the Body's health.

Fitness experts preach, "If you don't use it, you lose it." Each of us must flex our spiritual gifts in order to keep the Body of Christ fit and strong.

So what gift do you have for us?

Broken Windows
 II Thessalonians 3: 6-13
A teaching given by Rev. Dr. Everett Parker on February 1, 2015

Major cities have discovered that when you attack small problems like broken windows and graffiti, voilà — you gain the advantage over much bigger problems as well. 

Shattered glass.

Take a tour of a major metropolis, and you’ll notice a striking contrast: Some buildings are beautiful and well-maintained, while others are ugly and covered with graffiti. You might be surprised to learn that it isn’t the age of a building that causes it to fall apart, or its location, or even the finances of its owner. Instead, there is an intriguing trigger mechanism at work here, one that quickly turns a lovely, well-preserved, inhabited building into an ugly, dilapidated, abandoned hulk.

A broken window. A single broken window can trigger the downward spiral of a once-proud urban structure.

When I was completing a master's degree in criminal justice administration at Rollins College back in 1980, were were told about research in the field of crime and urban decay that has discovered that one shattered pane, left unrepaired for a significant period of time, causes area residents and residents of the building to feel a sense of abandonment. 

They begin to believe that the owner doesn’t care about them or the building, or they believe the building has been abandoned, freeing them to toss a brick through another window. Soon there’s litter and junk collecting in the doorways. Graffiti appears, and no one cares enough to scrub it off. Serious structural damage begins, and in a relatively short time the building becomes damaged beyond the owner’s desire to fix it. The sense of abandonment felt by the residents suddenly becomes reality.

All because of a piece of shattered glass. This “Broken Window Theory” has inspired police departments in New York and other urban areas to crack down on the small stuff in order to keep out the big stuff. 

Some years ago, New York mayor Rudy Giuliani applied the Broken Window Theory to crime. He found that when you crack down on the little infractions — when you fix the broken windows — you end up catching criminals that otherwise would have gotten away. 

Attacking small and petty problems is rarely a waste of time, according to Broken Window Theory. Instead, it helps you to manage the major issues, and prevent the condition of your building — or your city — or your self — from spiraling out of control.

The apostle Paul seems to have this theory in mind in the text before us. Notice that he doesn’t focus on the big theological issues of the Christian faith, talking about the importance of trust in God or faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. No, he advises the Thessalonians to attack petty problems and fix the broken windows of the Christian community.

“Now we command you, beloved,” writes Paul, “to keep away from believers who are living in idleness” (2 Thessalonians 3:6). Paul reminds them that he himself was never idle when he was visiting their community, but instead he worked night and day and paid for his own bread so that he would not be a burden to anyone. Paul did this to set an example for the Thessalonians, and quicker than a New York minute, he lays down the law: “Anyone unwilling to work should not eat” (3:10).

Hearing this, some Thessalonians probably thought Paul should take his medicine and relax. After all, idleness is hardly the worst of the seven deadly sins, and it doesn’t even make Paul’s own list of the 15 works of the flesh: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness and carousing. He warns that “those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God” (Galatians 5:19-21).

But idleness? It just doesn’t seem like such a biggie.

The problem with idleness is that it’s a broken window. Left uncorrected, it creates larger and more destructive difficulties. Grandmother’s counsel still rings true: Idle hands are the devil’s workshop.

So where is the small sin of idleness creating big problems for you?

Say to this congregation that the problem in their lives is idleness, and you’ll laugh me out of church. Idleness is the one luxury we would love to partake of.

Instead, too many people feel that they’re busy beyond belief, not idle. Their lives are full of parent/teacher conferences, athletic contests or concerts for their children, volunteer work at church, visiting grandchildren, and the list goes on and on.

Here’s the deal: What’s the difference between being idle, and being busy doing other stuff? There’s no difference. Paul alludes to this when he says, “They are not busy; they are busybodies” (3:11 NIV).

No, attending piano recitals and basketball games, and doing your job, and going to parent/teacher conferences are not stupid things. They’re wise, good things. But somewhere in our lives, we have important time decisions to make, and if we don’t repair the broken windows, that is, clean up the nonproductive, ill-spent activities, the whole structure of our lives is going to crash and burn.

This catastrophe theory will emerge in broken relationships, a soured marriage, a barren spiritual life and a lack of time to do things that nurture both your self and your family and community. “Brothers and sisters,” Paul concludes, “do not be weary in doing what is right” (3:13).

So, again, we pose the question: Where are the broken windows? What needs to be repaired? What have you been meaning to address in your life that for some reason you still have not gotten around to?

What would a friend, a brother, or sister, or parent, or spouse, say are the broken windows in your life? Other people can often see the damage better than we can.

When we crack down on the small problems in order to keep out the big problems, we are doing our work quietly and faithfully and well. When we fix our broken windows so that our personal spiritual structure will remain attractive and healthy and strong, we are following Paul’s advice to “not be weary in doing what is right.”

New York City had a problem with graffiti — even on garbage trucks. As an example of focusing on the small stuff, Mayor Giuliani refused to allow a single garbage truck to leave the lot and start picking up trash until the truck itself was tidy. Yes, the trash truck itself had to be clean and free of graffiti. Through the combined efforts of 20 city departments, graffiti was all but wiped out in the city of New York.

We can take a lesson from airline mechanics, who know that fatal accidents can be avoided by taking care of the little stuff before it turns into big stuff. This includes the cleaning of a plane, which might seem to be a rather menial task, beneath the dignity of a mechanic ... but it’s not. The rules require that aircraft be cleaned, and what better way to find a cracked, corroded or broken part than the close examination that happens during cleaning? 

The closer and more personal mechanics get with the products they work on, the more problems they’ll find. Our challenge is to put our best effort into doing what is right. This is not the most awe-inspiring and exciting aspect of the life of faith, but it remains foundational for our spiritual health. We can be most useful to God when we’re not spiraling out of control, and when our bodies are safe and secure structures for the Holy Spirit to live in.

So let’s take a close and personal look at ourselves, and determine where we need cleaning. Through honest self-assessment, we can identify our cracked and corroded parts, and take the steps we need to fix what is damaged within us. When we acknowledge our brokenness before God, we can be restored to wholeness by the gift of forgiveness.

God wants us to be solid and strong, not shattered.


Avoid Decision Fatigue
A Teaching given by Rev. Dr. Everett Parker on Jan 25. 2015     
  Psalm 62: 5-12
  I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of making choices. When we are exhausted by excessive choices, God provides rest and peace.  
 Let’s say you need a toilet brush. Fine. Please choose from among 1,161 options. 
  Or, take a look at the toothpaste section at the grocery store. How hard is it to make toothpaste? Does it really matter? How do you choose? 
 Some people don’t. They go home, weary from all the decision-making. Amazon sells 1,161 different kinds of toilet brushes.
 Not just 10 or 20 or even 500. One thousand ... 100 ... and 61. That’s a lotta scrubbers.
 One Jane Porter discovered this when she spent an evening trying to choose one for the bathroom in her new apartment. 
  “Nearly an hour later,” she wrote, “after having read countless contradictory reviews and pondering far too many choices, I felt grumpy and tired and simply gave up.”
 She was suffering from decision fatigue.
  Fortunately, after a good night’s sleep, she went out and “happily bought the only toilet brush the local dollar store offered.”
 The one brush turned out to be the right brush.
 We love having choices in 21st-century America, don’t we? But too many options can exhaust us.
 Even worse, they can make us unhappy and cause us to flee from making decisions. I call this “choice overload.”
 And it’s not just choosing toilet brushes that can overwhelm us. Do you know how many kinds of milk you can buy in the grocery?
  There’s skim milk, two percent milk (is the other 98 percent water?), there’s homogonized milk, there’s pasturized milk, there’s powdered milk, there’s condensed milk.
 Whatever happened to good old milk like I used to get on the farm, right from the source?
 Speaking of milk, remember Yakov Smirnoff? 
His standup comedy routine was based on his impressions of the United States after fleeing the Soviet Union. 
  One thing that made a big impression on him was the sheer variety of choices in American supermarkets, after the empty shelves of Soviet-era grocery stores. Here’s one of his most famous bits:
  “On my first shopping trip, I saw powdered milk -- you just add water, you get milk. Then I saw powdered orange juice -- you just add water and you get orange juice. And then I saw baby powder, and I thought to myself, ‘What a country!’”
 Even worse, an abundance of choices in our creative and professional lives can cause problems.
  Years ago, if your last name was Baker you would work as a baker. The Carpenter family labored as carpenters. Smiths were black smiths, Potters made pottery, and Farmers worked in the field.
 But today, a young woman named Jessica Baker can be anything from an attorney to a zoologist. 
  A man named Jeremy Carpenter might choose to build houses, but he could also join the Coast Guard, work for a cable company or be a crime scene investigator. 
 There are more than 2,100 occupations available today, far exceeding the number of toilet brushes on the market.
  Choices. We’ve got a ton of them. And unfortunately, as the number of options increases, the cost -- in time and effort -- of making good choices also increases. 
 And, as we are presented with more and more choices, the level of uncertainty we have about our final choice rises.
 The more choices we have, the more anxiety we feel about someday regretting the choice we have made.
 In a famous jam study in California, two tasting booths were set up in a grocery store.  
 One contained six flavors of jam and the other contained 24 flavors of jam. 
 People were six times more likely to buy a jar of jam if they saw six than if they saw 24. Too many choices can by paralyzing.
 From toilet brushes to jams to careers, we have a lot of options these days. 
 And such seemingly endless options can lead to uncertainty, anxiety and decision fatigue.  
 As the old saying goes, “A man with a watch knows what time it is. A man with two watches is never sure.”
 Just think about buying a camera. Do you think that’s a simple job. I remember in the late 1960s buying a Nikon camera. 
  My only choice and concern was whether it had a telephoto lens. Now, to buy a camera (which really isn’t any more...), you have to consider a myriad of options.
 Should I get a 3-, 4- or 5-megapixel camera? How much optical zoom? How much digital zoom? 
  Should I care about battery life? About weight? About delay between shots? Should I get a point-and-shoot model or one that allows the user to play around with settings and controls? 
 Which cameras interface most easily with our Macintosh computer? What about printers? Photo-editing software? 
 Which brands are most reliable? Should I buy online or at a store? ...
 The bottom line of all this, I would suggest, is that too many options can be too much of a good thing.
 So what is the best path forward, one that will help us to be happy and decisive and free of fatigue? 
Psalm 62, a song of trust in God alone, gives us three words of advice: Wait, pray and obey.
 And if we obey, says the psalm-writer, then God will repay.
 When exhausted by excessive choices, the Lord provides a path to rest and peace.
 First, wait. The writer of Psalm 62 is not in a rush to make big decisions. 
 Instead, he says in verse 5, “For God alone my soul waits in silence, for my hope is from him.” 
  So often we feel pressure to make choices quickly, whether we are rushing to declare a major in college, or jumping at the first job that’s offered to us. 
 But when the choices are serious, we almost always have time to wait.
 So how should we wait? Wait in silence. Wait for God. Wait for the One who is our source of hope. 
The psalm-writer says that God “is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall not be shaken. 
 “On God rests my deliverance and my honor; my mighty rock, my refuge is in God” (vv. 6-7).
 This God is worth the wait.
 When we wait in silence and trust our rock-solid God to help shape our decisions, we usually make a better choice. 
 The very same is true when we’re wrestling with a big decision and decide to “sleep on it.”  
  Porter, the writer who became so stressed by toilet brush choices, says that it’s advisable “to make your most important decisions in the morning rather than at the end of an exhausting day when your energy has been depleted.” 
  She points to a Columbia University study that found that judges were more likely to give prisoners a favorable ruling in the beginning of the day than they were at the end of the day.
 Next, pray. Waiting in silence is not enough -- it’s also important to pray. 
 “Trust in God at all times, O people; pour out your heart before him; God is a refuge for us” (v. 8). 
  We pour out our hearts when we ask for guidance in our decision-making, and when we pray about the various options that lie before us. 
 Taking the time to discern God’s will can help us to eliminate a number of options that will lead us in the wrong direction.
 Imposing restraints can often actually lead to a better decision. 
  You can do this by eliminating choices that don’t align with your understanding of the Bible, that is, that don’t fit with your Christian ethics or theology. 
 If the proposed option doesn’t line up with your understanding of God’s will for your life, scratch it off!
 Letting yourself have fewer options can actually lead you to a better outcome. 
 Restricting the choice of creative inputs actually enhances creativity.
  So pray about it. Pour out your heart before God, and let the Lord be your guide and your refuge. You’ll end up with a better decision.
 And finally, obey. After you wait and you pray, it’s time to obey. 
  “Put no confidence in extortion,” says the psalmist, “and set no vain hopes on robbery; if riches increase, do not set your heart on them” (v. 10). 
 Make sure that any decision you make includes obedience to the laws of God and the teachings of Jesus.
 A professor of business at Columbia University has studied the relationship between choice and religion. 
In particular, she has looked at whether having a lot of choices makes you happy. 
  She started her investigation by asking a psychology professor the question, “Wouldn’t people of more fundamentalist faiths become more depressed because they have so many more rules imposed upon them and so much less choice and control over their lives?”
It’s a good question. To answer it, she and the psychologist surveyed people from nine different religions, from fundamentalist faiths to liberal ones. What they discovered surprised them.
  They found that liberals were more likely to become depressed. They found that liberals were more pessimistic about the future of their lives. 
 That showed me for the first time that constraints on choice could give people a feeling of more control over their lives.
  The point being made here is that, when you have clear boundaries and constraints -- wherever your persuasions -- you’re more likely to be at peace with yourself. 
 So one of the keys to happiness is to obey the laws of God and the teachings of Jesus. 
 You will have fewer choices, but you’ll end up with a feeling of more control over your life.
 Once you wait, pray and obey, then God will repay. 
  “Once God has spoken,” says Psalm 62, “twice have I heard this: that power belongs to God, and steadfast love belongs to you, O Lord. For you repay to all according to their work” 
 This verse reminds us that God rules the world in power and in love, and that God is working for good in our lives. 
 When we trust this God, we’re given the gifts of rest and peace. 
  In fact, the word “repay” in this verse is related to the Hebrew word shalom, which means “peace.” So an alternative translation of this verse could be, “For God will give peace to all according to their work.”
 God will give peace to us, according to our work. If we choose peace, we will be given peace. 
 If we choose justice, we will be given justice. If we choose mercy, we will be given mercy.
 God repays all according to their work.
  In a world of decision fatigue, Psalm 62 invites us to trust in God at all times. “For God alone my soul waits in silence,” says the psalm-writer, “for my hope is from him. He alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall not be shaken” (vv. 5-6).
 Our challenge is to trust in “God alone.” To wait, pray, obey ... and believe that God will repay. 
 This kind of faith is the secret to making good choices in every area of life, while avoiding the stress of decision fatigue.
 In the face of many options, there is only one Lord. God alone, the source of rest and peace.

"God in Quiet Mode"    
  A Teaching Given by Rev. Dr. Everett Parker January 18, 2015
   Exodus 1: 8- 2:10
 Many centuries ago, Isaiah declared, “Truly, you are a God who hides himself, O God of Israel, the Savior” (Isaiah 45:15). 
  Since then, many people in every generation have had the same thought, and some have taken it to a further conclusion: that God does not exist at all.
 The Bible, however, never goes there; in fact, it regards those who say there’s no God as “fools” (see Psalm 14:1; 53:1). 
 Nonetheless, the Bible acknowledges that sometimes God can be difficult to perceive in the midst of troubled situations.
  But is this really God hiding himself? Perhaps there is a different way to characterize God’s activity when God seems to be not present in our times of trouble. 
 Think back to Pharaoh’s oppression of the ancient Hebrews and the slaying of their male infants. 
 This was a mini-holocaust in which people must have wondered where God was in their time of trouble.
 Pharaoh created terror while God seemed to provide no comfort to help people. 
  Yet ... God was there after all, as He is in conflict today. He was in a quiet mode, content to work behind the scenes through ordinary means of reproduction and birth.
 Hmmm. God in quiet mode. That suggests not so much God being hidden as being unobtrusive.
 What is “quiet mode”? Here’s an example: QM is a function of the Norton AntiVirus program for computers. 
 It has a “quiet mode” that refers not to absence or to hiddenness, but to a suspension of certain activities. 
  When you’re using your computer to perform tasks that require higher utilization of your system resources, Norton automatically suspends the background activities and lets the task use the maximum system resources for better performance.
 But the Norton program doesn’t cease to function; it continues to display alerts and notifications during the session.
 Now take the idea of “God in quiet mode” back to the story in Exodus 1-2. 
 Between the close of Genesis and the opening of Exodus, a great change in fortunes has occurred to the descendants of Jacob. 
 When Genesis closed, Jacob’s 12 sons and their families were living in Egypt as welcome immigrants. 
  One of Jacob’s sons, Joseph, was Pharaoh’s right-hand man, holding an honored and responsible position high in the government of Egypt.
  But at least 400 years go by between the end of Genesis and the beginning of Exodus, and, in that time, Jacob’s descendants have grown numerous. 
  Over those same centuries, various pharaohs have come and gone on Egypt’s throne, and, by the time Exodus opens, another king has arisen over Egypt, one who, of course, did not know Joseph. Since Joseph had died centuries earlier, that’s no surprise.
 However, this particular pharaoh felt no obligation to honor an ancient promise of hospitality to the Hebrews.
  This was a promise made by one of his predecessors on the throne long before. This pharaoh, in fact, sees Jacob’s descendants as a potential threat to Egypt.
  There’s not the slightest suggestion that the Hebrews have done anything threatening; it’s simply that they have been prolific and “filled the land.” 
  But the Egyptian king sees their very numbers as dangerous and suggests that, in the event of a war, the Hebrews might side with Egypt’s enemies, or they might escape from Egypt.
 And presumably, he’s concerned about them taking with them a significant labor force.
 So, thinking to assert his power over the Hebrews, Pharaoh introduces chaos into their lives. 
 He enslaves them, putting them to work on massive government building projects.
 The Hebrews did the work, but they also continued to multiply. 
 This leads Pharaoh to call in two Hebrew midwives, Shiphrah and Puah. 
  He instructs them that when they deliver girls to Hebrew women, the infants can live, but when they deliver boys, they are to kill those babies. 
 The midwives, however, “fear God” more than they fear Pharaoh, and they ignore his directive.
  Later, when Pharaoh sees that his orders have not been carried out, he calls the midwives in again, and these two brave women tell him that the Hebrew women give birth so easily that the babies are delivered before the midwives can get there. 
 And like most men, who had no idea what really goes on in the birth process, he believes them. 
  Unfortunately, Pharaoh was not to be stopped, so he next tells the Egyptian populace to seek out male Hebrew children and drown them in the Nile. 
  The Bible doesn’t record how many boys were killed during that time, but the threat sets the stage for the birth of Moses, whose mother hid him in a basket in the bulrushes. 
 And Moses eventually would be the deliverer of the Hebrew people.
 Now here’s the irony: Pharaoh’s target was male children. He evidently assumed the females were no threat. 
 He completely fails to see that two Hebrew women, the midwives, have defied him and saved many children. 
 He doesn’t realize that it will be a Hebrew woman, the mother of Moses, who will foil his plans with a simple woven basket. 
  He doesn’t know that it will be a Hebrew girl, Moses’ sister, who finds the baby, and suggests that Moses’ actual mother be employed as a wet nurse for him -- and get paid for doing it! 
  Pharaoh apparently doesn’t even realize that his own daughter, an Egyptian woman, has saved a Hebrew baby -- and that it’s this baby who will grow up to undo Pharaoh’s designs on the Hebrews.
 So where’s God in all this?
 And why have we reviewed the major aspects of a story you already know?
 Here’s why: If we read today’s passage with an eye for the work of God, we’ll see that God is not much mentioned. 
  Other than the comment that the midwives feared God and that God gave them families, God is apparently absent from the action of this story.
 But that’s not the case. God is there in the prosperity and growth of the Hebrew people.  
 God is operating -- you might say -- behind the scenes, or in quiet mode.
 You are no doubt familiar with the expression “working behind the scenes.” 
  The phrase suggests that if something is going on “behind the scenes,” it is happening secretly, especially when something else is happening publicly. 
 “Working behind the scenes” is activity that is done quietly, in a way that does not attract attention.
 We have a lot of “working behind the scenes” in this church.
 The phrase originally referred to those who worked on a theatrical piece but do not appear on the stage. 
  They were the people who ensured that the performers got what they needed, when they needed it and in a manner in which they needed it. 
 Those working behind the scenes changed the sets, removed props, added props, turned the lights up or turned the lights down. 
  To suggest God is someone who is working behind the scenes is to suggest that God, although hidden from view, is quietly working so that our “performance” might be the best possible. 
  God is working so that we have the best light, the best props -- in short everything we need to pull this off, even when the performance we are called upon to live is one of incredible suffering.
 Of course, we need to know our lines, and be ready to engage.
  The comment that the midwives feared God also tells us that God was active in the birth of the children, and it sets us up to understand that, when Moses is born, something momentous from God has happened. 
  On the one hand, it’s an ordinary birth. No angel announces it. There’s no statement of Moses being chosen before his birth to be the savior of Israel. 
 There are no special instructions in a dream to either parents of Moses.
  Yet when Moses’ mother plots to keep him alive, she sets him afloat on the very river in which the Egyptians were drowning the male children they found. 
 What was she thinking? What prompted her to choose that place to hide her baby? 
  Who worked it out that the Egyptian who found the baby was not only a woman of power and wealth, but also one kindhearted enough to ignore her own father’s command? Do you think it wasn’t planned?