Southminster Presbyterian Church

We are a community of people encouraging each other, seeking to be like Jesus; serving God by loving generously, proclaiming boldly, and giving with grace and humility.

Please join us for our Sunday Worship Service at 10:00 am.

Called at Church

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: Isaiah 6:1-13; Mark 4:1-12

 [Preacher stands up and begins preaching]

(CELL PHONE RINGS.  He fumbles to get it out of his pocket, while apologizing to congregation.)

Preacher: I’m sorry.  This is so embarrassing.  I thought it had it turned off.  (Presses a button)  There, now it is turned off.


Preacher:  Oh for heaven’s sake.  (Again checks and presses button)  I’m sure I had it turned off.  Well, this time it is.


Preacher: What the ….?  I am so sorry.  Excuse me. (He leaves pulpit and crosses over to the other side of the chancel where he talks on the phone.)

Preacher (in a hushed voice): Whoever you are, this is not a good time to call.  I’m in the middle of church.

(The Lord answers over the sanctuary speakers)

Lord: When is a better time to call?

Preacher: Am I on speaker phone?  Any time is a better time to call, but don’t interrupt me in church.

Lord: Isn’t that the point of church?

Preacher: What do you mean?

Lord: Isn’t the point of church for me to interrupt your life and talk to you?

Preacher: Who is this?  I don’t recognize your number.

Lord: Whom do you think it is?

Preacher: Look, if you are some telemarketer, put me on your do not call list and hang up.  We are in the middle of worshiping God.

Lord: I know.  The singing was so heartfelt this morning, I thought I should respond.

Preacher: Who are you?

Lord: Think about it.  Who could call you in church, even if your cell phone was off?

Preacher (suddenly nervous and stuttering): I … I … don’t know.

Lord: I think you are starting to figure it out.

Preacher: Look, you don’t expect me to believe I am talking to the Lord, do you?  The Lord wouldn’t use a cell phone.  The Lord would send an angel or something.

Lord: That was before we had cell phones.

Preacher: You mean God has to use a cell phone?

Lord: I thought it would get your attention.  People are more likely to answer their cell phone than to answer me.  But I don’t have to use a cell phone.  Try hanging up.

Preacher: What?

Lord: Disconnect the call.

Preacher (pushes the button):  Okay.  There, that should take care of that scam.

Lord: Can you hear me now?

Preacher: Okay, you’ve made your point.  What do you want?

Lord: I want you.  That’s why I called.

Preacher: But what do you want me to do?

Lord: Ah, now that’s a little more complicated.  I want you to proclaim my message to people.

Preacher: Proclaim your message!  What do you think I’ve been doing all these years?

Lord: I know.  But this time I’ve got something special for you to do.

Preacher: Like what?

Lord: Tell people the truth.

Preacher: Haven’t I been telling them the truth?

Lord: Yes, but this time you are going to tell them the truth they may not want to hear.

Preacher: Why me?

Lord: Because I chose you.

Preacher: Lucky me.  I suppose you probably chose me because I’m a preacher, but preachers aren’t special.  We’re no better than anyone else.  You ought to know that.

Lord: I do.

Preacher: So don’t ask me to be your special messenger.  It is hard enough just being a pastor.  Sometimes I lose my patience.  Sometimes my pride gets in the way.  I am not always very generous, especially about giving my time to people who need help.  I am not the best example of being your follower; you should know that.

Lord: I do.  But I’ve taken care of that.

Preacher: How?

Lord: Earlier in the service, didn’t you pass the peace of Christ?  Didn’t you recite words of forgiveness?  Do you think those words are meaningless?  You’ve been forgiven.  Your sins are wiped away.

Preacher: It can’t be that easy.

Lord: No one said it was easy.  It took a huge sacrifice.  And I’m not talking about one of those Old Testament animal sacrifices.  It took the sacrifice of my own Son to forgive you.  Don’t think that was easy!

Preacher: But that does not make me worthy to be your special messenger.

Lord: I’m the one who decides whether you are worthy or not.  Now get going.

Preacher: But what am I supposed to say?

Lord: Tell people that they need to turn their lives around.  Tell them to quit worshiping their money or their career or their looks or their athletic ability.  Tell them it’s time to worship something bigger than themselves.

Preacher: I can’t say that to people.  They will be offended.

Lord: Exactly.

Preacher: They won’t listen to me.

Lord: Exactly.

Preacher (pause): You mean you don’t want people to listen?

Lord: I want them to listen, but I don’t expect them to understand.  I want them to hear my message but I don’t expect them to believe it.

Preacher: Then what is the point of sending me?  What is the point of this church or these people if you don’t expect anyone to believe our message?

Lord: Sometimes you have to make things worse before they can get better.  It’s like an alcoholic.  Sometimes you have to have a painful confrontation.  You have to say things the alcoholic doesn’t want to hear.  And when they refuse to listen, you have to let them suffer the consequences.  You have to stop protecting them and covering for them.

Preacher: So, you think we’re a bunch of alcoholics.

Lord: In a way.  You are addicted to things.  Some are addicted to possessions.  If you are not continuously acquiring new stuff, you are not happy.  Others are addicted to success or recognition.  Unless you keep getting more of it, you feel unfulfilled.  It is like drugs.  You need a bigger hit to feel the same buzz.

Preacher: So you want me to go around telling people that they are a bunch of alcoholics and drug addicts.

Lord: And hypocrites.  Don’t forget to tell them they are hypocrites.  On Sundays they worship me, but the rest of the week they act as if I don’t exist.

Preacher: Obviously, you have never read the books about to win friends and influence people.  You don’t change people by criticizing them or putting them down.  You change people by building them up and gaining their confidence.

Lord: I am not trying to change people, at least not at first.  I am trying to make them face themselves.  Your job is to tear away the pretense.  If you speak my word to them and they don’t listen, they can no longer pretend to be following me.

Preacher: Don’t you want people to follow you?

Lord: Of course.  But I don’t want them pretending to follow me.  If they don’t want me telling them how to live, let them try life on their own.  Let them discover what it is like to be free of all constraints, even God’s.  Let them go into the far country and eat the swill of pigs.  Until the prodigal son left home, he never realized what it meant to have a family.

Preacher: So you want me to drive people away from you, so they will discover what they are missing when you are not there?

Lord: You won’t have to drive people away.  Just tell them what they have to give up in order to follow me.  Tell them they must give up their pride, their independence, their lust, their greed, their grudges or resentments, their desire to get ahead by putting others down.  Tell people these things, and you won’t have to drive them out.  They will leave on their own.

Preacher: It sounds like you don’t want me to help the church grow.  You want me to close it down.

Lord: Sometimes things have to get worse before they can get better.  In the time of Isaiah I allowed my chosen people Israel to be conquered by the Assyrians and Babylonians.  They were determined to worship other gods, so I gave them into the hands of those gods.  But I never gave up on them.  Out of the stump that was left I grew a branch that produced Jesus, and from him came the possibility of new life.

Preacher: And now you hope to grow new life in us.

Lord: Exactly.  If you keep on proclaiming my message, if you keep on telling people about me, something may yet grow.  You may not see it.  There may be many twists and turns in a person’s life before it is revealed.  But I can tell you this: Your efforts to share my word will not be wasted.  As the rain comes down from the skies and does not return without watering the earth, so will my word that you speak.  It will not return without accomplishing its purpose.

Preacher: Let me see if I’ve got this straight.  You want me to share your word with people who won’t listen.  And when they reject your word and wander away from you, you intend to let them go, so they will discover what life is like without you.  Then, maybe, at some time in the future they will come back.

Lord: Yes, and do you know why they will come back?  They will come back because they will remember what you told them years earlier when you thought they weren’t listening.

Preacher: So you think they really will listen.

Lord: Call it delayed listening—like a message on your cell phone that you suddenly discover has been there for a long time.

Preacher (taking out his cell phone): Wait a minute.  Have you ever left a message on my phone?

Lord: It has been there all along.  You are just now listening to it.


Fake Gospels

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: II Corinthians 11:1-6; I Corinthians 15:1-11

             While studying our scripture passage for this week, I discovered a new image for what it means to be a minister.  I’m a matchmaker.  In days before online dating apps, the way you met a compatible person was often through a friend, someone who knew you and the other person and set you up on a date.  It was called matchmaking.  To me, that is a great image for what it means to be a pastor.   A church is not supposed to fall in love with its pastor; it’s supposed to fall in love with Jesus.  My job is to set up you and Jesus on a date, to get you and Jesus into a relationship.

             Which is what the apostle Paul has been trying to do with the Corinthians.  Verse 2: “I feel a divine jealousy for you, for I promised you in marriage to one husband, to present you as a chaste virgin to Christ.”  Okay, maybe this goes beyond matchmaking; it’s more like an arranged marriage.  But the idea is that Paul is an intermediary.  Paul is trying to get the Corinthians into a relationship with Jesus.

But something has gone terribly wrong.  Verse 3: “But I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by its cunnings, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ.”  The Corinthians are being seduced into a kind of spiritual adultery, taking up with partners other than the one to whom they have been engaged.

             But here is the tricky part.  The other partners are disguising themselves as the fiancé. They are masquerading as Jesus.  Paul warns about this in verse 4: “For if someone comes and proclaims another Jesus than the one we proclaimed, or if you receive a different spirit from the one you received, or a different gospel from the one you accepted, you submit to it readily enough.”  The Corinthians are being seduced away from Jesus by people who dress up to look like Jesus.  They use all the same words that are found in the Bible—Jesus, spirit, gospel—they use all the same religious words but give them a different meaning.

  In his book The Jesus I Never Knew Philip Yancey describes some of the interpretations of Jesus which he has heard from various people.  He writes,

Norm Evans, former Miami Dolphins lineman, wrote in his book On God's Squad, "I guarantee you Christ would be the toughest guy who ever played this game. ... If he were alive today I would picture a six-foot-six-inch 260-pound defensive tackle who would always make the big plays and would be hard to keep out of the backfield for offensive lineman like myself."  Fritz Peterson, former New York Yankee, more easily fancies Jesus in a baseball uniform: "I firmly believe that if Jesus Christ was sliding into second base, he would knock the second baseman into left field to break up the double play" (p. 19).

You see the problem?  People use the terms “Jesus” and “Christ,” but they use those words to picture a Jesus of their own creation, a Jesus who looks less like God and more like themselves.

How do we prevent that from happening?  The answer, I think, is to check sources.  The way to distinguish between a fake Jesus and the true Jesus is by checking the source.

By the way, I think this is also a good way to distinguish true news from fake news.  Check sources.  To begin with don’t accept anything as fact just because it is reposted on Facebook or re-tweeted on Twitter.  Go back and check sources, preferably multiple sources.

The apostle Paul operates in a similar way when it comes to claims about Jesus.  Listen again to what he says to the Corinthians in our first scripture reading—I Corinthians 15:3-8:

For I handed on to you as of first importance what I had in turn received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.  Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sister, most of whom are still alive, though some have died.  Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles.  Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.

            Notice how Paul uses sources for his gospel about Jesus.  Yes, he had his own personal experience of Jesus, but he checked out his understanding of Jesus with the people who actually knew him, like Peter and James.  When Paul wrote this letter, Peter and James were still alive.  Paul met them.  He describes this in his letter to the Galatians.  By the way, even the most skeptical, critical Bible scholars agree that the apostle Paul wrote the letters to the Romans, the Corinthians, the Galatians, the Philippians, and the first letter to the Thessalonians, and that Paul wrote these letter between about 60 and 70 AD.  Even critical Bible scholars agree that Paul knew at least some of Jesus’ first followers and that he wrote these letters only 30 to 40 years after Jesus actually walked the earth.  So Paul knows who he is talking about.

            There are a lot of people out there today who talk about Jesus and don’t know who they are talking about.  Back in the 1980s, there was a church in north Idaho called The Church of Jesus Christ Aryan Nations.  Their pastor, Richard Butler, talked about Jesus all the time, but the Jesus he described was a white supremacist, someone who believed that white people—I should add “white non-Jewish people”—were the chosen race.  But that flies in the face of the people who actually knew Jesus.  For Jesus, by all accounts of the people who knew him, was a Middle Eastern Jew.  That is the truth: Jesus was a Middle Eastern Jew who taught us about loving people beyond our own clan.  Richard Butler preached a fake gospel, a gospel that contradicted the best sources we have for what Jesus actually said and did.

            There are many other groups out there claiming to know the mind of Jesus on various issues.  Do they really know the mind of Jesus?  I think the only way to answer that is to check the sources.  Read the book, and not just a verse or two that fits the way you already think.  Read the whole thing, at least the whole New Testament, so that your picture of Jesus fits into the total context of what God is doing in Jesus and in our world today.  That’s what we are trying to do here on Sunday mornings and in Bible studies during the week, and if you want additional help, I can suggest other resources.

            A psychiatrist named Scott Peck tells a wonderful story about meeting Jesus again as a 40 year-old adult when he began reading the gospels for himself.  This is from Scott Peck’s book The Road Less Traveled:

There were all kinds of milestones on (my journey of faith), but perhaps the most important was reading the Gospels for the first time at the age of forty. ... I was absolutely thunderstruck by the extraordinary reality of the man I found in the Gospels.  I discovered a man who was almost continually frustrated.  His frustration leaps out of virtually every page: "What do I have to say to you?  How many times do I have to say it?  What do I have to do to get through to you?"  I also discovered a man who was frequently sad and sometimes depressed ... a man who was terribly, terribly lonely, yet often desperately needed to be alone.  I discovered a man so incredibly real that no one could have made Him up.

It occurred to me then that if the Gospel writers had been into PR and embellishment, as I had assumed, they would have created the kind of Jesus three quarters of Christians still seem to be trying to create ... (someone) with a sweet, unending smile on His face, patting little children on the head, just strolling the earth with this unflappable, unshakable equanimity, because with His mellow-yellow Christ consciousness, He's got peace of mind.  But the Jesus of the Gospels--who some suggest is the best-kept secret of Christianity--did not have much "peace of mind," as we ordinarily think of peace of mind in the world's terms, and insofar as we can be His followers, perhaps we won't either.  Perhaps that's not the point.

So that's when I began to suspect that, rather than being public relations specialists, the Gospel writers were … [trying to describe] the events and sayings in the life of a man they themselves hardly began to understand, but in whom they knew that Heaven and earth had met.  And that's when I began to fall in love with Jesus (pp. 159-61).

            You don’t have to go far to distinguish the true gospel from fake gospels.  Just read the book, and if you need help, ask me.  I am, after all, in the business of matchmaking.

Preaching for Free

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: II Corinthians 11:7-11; 12:13-18

             This is a dangerous sermon to preach at a time when our church is beginning to consider its annual budget.  I am not sure Paul’s example is one I want to emulate.

             The puzzling thing is why Paul does this.  Why does Paul insist on preaching for free to the Corinthians.  He does not do this in the case of other churches.  In our first scripture reading, Paul says, “And when I was with you and was in need, I did not burden anyone, for my needs were supplied by the friends [he is talking about church folks, brothers and sisters in Christ] who came from Macedonia.”  Paul is quite willing to accept support from the Christians in Macedonia.  So why not from Corinth?

             It is not because the Corinthians are too poor to support him.  Last week we read about a special offering Paul was collecting from the people in Corinth to help the starving Christians in Jerusalem.  In chapter 8 he says to the Corinthians, “I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need.”  That does not sound like a congregation unable to support its pastor.

             Here is something even more puzzling.  Turning down pay does not help Paul’s credibility with this congregation; it actually hurts it.  I have mentioned before that were factions among the church members in Corinth some of whom rejected Paul.  They preferred flashier ministers whom Paul derisively calls “super-apostles.”  I picture them like TV evangelists, with slicked back hair and fabulous wardrobes, traveling to conferences in a private jet.  These “super-apostles” dismiss Paul as an amateur hack, someone who preaches for free because that’s all his preaching is worth.

             I will talk more next week about the battle between Paul and these other preachers.  But for this week I want to talk about why Paul refuses compensation from the Corinthians.  The reason is not budgetary; it is theological.  Paul wants the Corinthians to understand that the gospel is not something you pay for; it is a free gift of God’s grace.

  Paul makes that connection right away in our first scripture reading, verse 7: “Did I commit a sin by humbling myself so that you might be exalted, because I proclaimed God’s good news to you free of charge?”  Preaching the gospel for free is Paul’s way of emphasizing that the gospel is free.  You are welcomed into God’s family and God’s kingdom not because you have done anything or given anything but because of what Jesus has given for you.

In our second scripture Paul echoes God when he says, “I will not be a burden, because I do not want what is yours but you.”

That’s how God feels.  God does not need our money.  Seriously, friends, do you think the Creator of the universe is strapped for cash?  God does not need our money; God wants us.  God wants each of us to be part of God’s new creation, part of that great company of people accepting God’s forgiveness for the things we cannot change, receiving God’s support for the things we can change, learning to love others the way God loves us, knowing that God is not finished with us yet and that God’s grace is greater than anything we can do to mess it up.  That is what God wants for us, and you cannot buy that, you can only accept it, believe in it, and pass it on.

  And that is the only legitimate reason for preaching or giving.

  In the year 2000 a movie came out about an 11 year-old boy named Trevor who is given an assignment in his social studies class: come up with a way to make a difference in the world and do it.  Trevor proposes a plan which he calls "Pay It Forward."  The idea is to do something difficult, risky, and significant for three other people and instead of asking people to pay it back, ask them to pay it forward—to do the same thing for three other people.

When explaining it, Trevor emphasizes three essential details of his plan.  First, the gift or act of helping must be free.  At one point in the movie Trevor feels let down by his social studies teacher, Mr. Simonet.  He says to him, "You don't really care."  Mr. Simonet replies, "I care about you."  Trevor says, "You're a teacher; you're paid to."  That is exactly what Paul does not want the Corinthians to think.  The apostle Paul does not want the Corinthians to think that he cares about them because he is paid to.  He wants them to understand that his care for them is free, just like God's care for us in Jesus Christ.

Second, the gift or act of kindness must be hard, risky, and significant.  It must involve sacrifice.  One person in the movie is arrested for his act of kindness.  Another is killed for it.  Another must confront years of bitterness and pain in an extraordinary act of forgiveness. This is not your ordinary random act of kindness.  These are unearned, unexpected acts of significant personal sacrifice, kind of like what God has done for us in Jesus.

Finally, the gift or act must be accepted and believed before it can be passed on.  Near the beginning of the movie a criminal smashes a car belonging to a reporter.  As the reporter stands there looking at the wreckage wondering how he will get home, a man in a business suit comes up and hands him a key.  "You look like you need help," he says.  “Here take my Jaguar.  It's yours to keep."  The reporter grabs him and says, "What's the catch?  Will I get a huge bill for this?"  “No,” the stranger says, "it's a free gift.  Pay it forward by doing something significant for three other people."  As the stranger leaves the reporter says, "You're crazy.  I'll bet this car is stolen.  I'll bet it's rigged.  It will probably blow up the minute I turn it on.  There is no way I will ever get into that thing."  If he does not believe in the gift, there is no way he will accept it, and if he does not accept it, he has nothing to pay forward.

I have a theory that the reason many people have a hard time accepting God’s grace is because they have a hard time believing in it.  They think there has got to be a catch, or they think there should be a catch.

Now back to my original question.  Why does the apostle Paul refuse payment for preaching, but put on a full-court-press for giving to needy Christians in Jerusalem?  Answer: Paul does not want us to think that the gospel is something we pay back; it is something we pay forward.

In our second scripture reading Paul says, “For children ought not to lay up for their parents, but parents for their children.”  Have you seen the latest figures on what it costs to raise a child?  According to the U. S. Department of Agriculture a child born this year will cost $233,610 to raise up through age 17, which does not include the cost of college or if at some point the child moves back home.  There is no way any of us can pay back our parents for what they have given us; we can only pay it forward.  We can only try to give our children what our parents have given us.

The same is true for the gift of God’s presence and grace and forgiveness and hope in Jesus Christ.  You will never have enough assets to pay for it; but you don’t have to.  It's free.  It's already yours.  All you have to do is believe it, and accept it, and the best you can to help share it.

The Gain in Giving

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: II Corinthians 9:6-15; Psalm 112

 Introduction to scripture reading:

In II Corinthians, Paul devotes 2 of 13 chapters, over 15% of the letter, to a special offering he is collecting from the Gentile Christians in Greece to help the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem suffering from a famine.  We read about it last week, and Paul is still talking about it this week: II Corinthians 9:6-15.  [Read]


I once read a sermon where the pastor told about a young businessman struggling to make ends meet.  At one point the man had fifty dollars on which he and his family had to live for the next two weeks.  But that Sunday at church the man put the entire fifty dollars into the offering plate.  I was curious what lesson the pastor would draw from this. I would have said, “Wow, I don’t think he should have done that.”  I might have even quoted II Corinthians 8:13 where the apostle Paul says, “I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of fair balance.”  But that was not the point made by that pastor.  He told the congregation, “That man went on to amass one of the largest fortunes in the state.”

            There are a number of pastors out there preaching that giving to the church is a way of becoming rich.  And they quote the Bible, including II Corinthians, chapter 9.  In verse 6 Paul says, “The one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.”  Then in verse 11 he says, "You will be enriched in every way for your great generosity."

This would be a great way to get pledges.  If I could promise that pledging comes with a winning lottery ticket, or that for every dollar you put in the offering plate you will receive two dollars in stock options, we would have no trouble making our church budget.

But it doesn’t work that way, despite what some preaches say.  After all, who gave more than Jesus?  Yet at the end of his life he had no more money than he started with.  He was born in a borrowed manger and buried in a borrowed tomb.  The apostle Paul did not travel around in luxury.  He walked on foot and hoped he would find someone offer him food and lodging.  Anyone who preaches that giving to the church will make you rich has a hard time explaining Jesus, Paul, St. Francis, Mother Theresa, or almost any other saint in Christian history.  So what does Paul mean when he says, "Whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully"?

First of all, I think the English translation is misleading.  If we translated verse 6 literally from Greek, word of word, it would go something like this: “Those sowing sparingly, sparingly also will they reap, and those sowing on the basis of blessing, on the basis of blessing also will they reap.”

The key word is not bounty but blessing.  If we give out of a sense of being blessed, then the giving will be for us and others a blessing.

This is confirmed by what Paul says in verse 8: “And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work.”  Paul does not promise that the Corinthians will become rich.  He promises that God will give them what they need to be a blessing to others.  Which is exactly what God did in the case of Jesus, Paul, St. Francis, and Mother Teresa.  None of them were rich.  But all of them were unquestionably a blessing to others.  God gave them what they needed in order to be a blessing.

This idea is expanded in verses 11-12: “You will be enriched in every way for your great generosity, which will produce thanksgiving to God through us; for the rendering of this ministry not only supplies the needs of the saints but also overflows with many thanksgivings to God.”

            Notice, Paul does not say that giving will multiply riches; it will multiply thankfulness.  The gain in giving is gratitude.

            The same idea is found in our first scripture reading from Psalm 112.  Vs. 5-6:

It is well with those who deal generously and lend,
who conduct their affairs with justice.
For the righteous will never be moved;
they will be remembered forever.

Notice what is promised.  It is not that those who give will get rich, but that they will be remembered, and they will be remembered for their goodness.

This idea is repeated in verse 9:

They have distributed freely,they have given to the poor;
their righteousness endures forever; their horn is exalted in honor.

It is not that those who give freely will be rich, but that they will be remembered with gratitude.

            After church last week one of our church members asked me if Paul ever talked about tithing.  Tithing is the Old Testament practice of giving 10% of the crop to God.  Some churches encourage their members to give 10% of their income to the church.  In the Mormon Church I think it is even required.  But Paul never talks about tithing or any other percentage we should give.  He does not want giving to become a new form of law, a new kind of works righteousness by which we try to buy God’s favor.  The truth is we don’t have enough in our bank account to buy God’s favor.  We could sell our house and cash out our entire 401-K and still not have enough to pay for the love and grace and eternal life God has given to us free of charge in Jesus Christ.  We could never give enough to buy what God has given us.  All we can do is be grateful.

            So that’s why Paul says in verse 7: “Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.”

Several years ago Time magazine had a cover story called "The New Philanthropists" profiling some of the richest people in America and what they give to various charities and foundations.  We hear all the time about what the Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos of the world give to charity.  But the most moving story in this article was about an 81 year-old retired train engineer named Morris Popes.  Morris lived in Atlanta, GA, on a retirement income of about $1,700 a month--about $20,000 a year.  He gave about $3,000 a year to his church, the First Corinth Missionary Baptist Church, and another $1,000 or so a year to the Atlanta Food Bank.  In the article he says, "I look at how God has blessed me during my working years and raising my family, and I can't tell you how many times I've come to these homeless shelters and heard people say, 'My children haven't had a bite to eat today.'  Everyone should feel the pleasure of giving to others.  If they knew that, they would give too" (July 24, 2000, p. 51).

            At the church I served in Spokane, we had an elder on the Stewardship committee named Bucky.  Bucky was a regional vice president at Bank of America, so he knew a lot about managing money responsibly, both for individuals and for our church.  But come stewardship time Bucky sometimes did a talk in the church service.  We called it the Bucky talk, and he often concluded with this line: “Don’t give until it hurts; give until it feels good.”

             I would put it this way: don’t let guilt be your guide; let it be gratitude.

Disciplined Giving

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: II Corinthians 9:1-5, I Corinthians 16:1-4

Introduction to Scripture Readings

Our scripture readings this morning need a short introduction.  When a drought struck the territory of Jerusalem and Judea, Paul decided to collect a special offering for the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem from the Gentile Christians around the Mediterranean.  This offering was a huge deal to the apostle Paul.  He discusses it in the letter to the Romans, the letter to the Galatians, the first letter to the Corinthians, and the second letter to the Corinthians, where it gets two whole chapters.  For Paul this offering was a chance to bridge the relationship between Jews and Gentiles.  Some Jewish Christians were suspicious of accepting Gentiles into the church.  But now the Gentile Christians in Greek cities like Corinth had the chance to show solidarity with the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem by helping them during a natural disaster.  Sort of like people from blue states helping people from red states after a hurricane.  Both of our scripture readings this morning are about this offering.  Let’s listen.

 [Read scriptures]


             In 2005 there was a nationally telecast benefit concert called “Shelter from the Storm,” raising money for victims of hurricane Katrina.  It featured performers like Mariah Carey, U2, Alicia Keys, Garth Brooks, and Randy Newman.  Phones were answered on camera by celebrities like Ben Affleck, Jennifer Garner, Reba McEntire, Ellen DeGeneres, and Allison Janney.  There was even a competition between celebrities.  During the telecast Queen Latifah donated $100,000, and rapper Lil’ Jon decided to top that with a check for $250,000.  The concert was televised on all the major networks, and later released on DVD.  It raised $30 million dollars in one night.

Too bad the Apostle Paul did not have the resources of modern fundraising.  But he was not averse to using some of their techniques.  In II Corinthians 8, he tells the Corinthians:

For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich (II Cor. 8:9).

There is a definite pull at the heartstrings.  Then in verses 12-13 Paul says,

I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need … (II Corinthians 8:12-13).

It’s like flashing pictures of hurricane survivors, adding a little guilt to your motivation.  Then he brings in the celebrities, verses 16 and 18:

But thanks be to God who put in the heart of Titus the same eagerness for you that I myself have. … With him we are sending the brother who is famous among all the churches for his proclaiming the good news (II Corinthians 8:16, 18).

We don’t know who this famous preacher is, but apparently the Corinthians did.  Paul brings in the big guns for this fundraiser.

Finally he uses competition.  Chapter 9, verses 2:

For I know your eagerness, which is the subject of my boasting about you to the people of Macedonia, saying that Achaia [Greece] has been ready since last year; and your zeal has stirred up most of them (II Corinthians 9:2).

Paul may not have the technology, but he knows how to do fundraising.

            And yet here is where an interesting change takes place.  Paul says,

So I thought it necessary to urge the brothers to go on ahead to you, and arrange in advance for this bountiful gift that you have promised, so that it may be ready as a voluntary gift and not as an extortion (II Corinthians 9:3, 5).

Or as one translation puts it: “not as something wrung out of you.”

Paul worries not so much about the motivation of the Corinthians to support this offering as their discipline in following through on it.  Paul wants giving to be not just an emotional one-time response to a heartbreaking need, which is how most fundraising appeals work; Paul wants their giving to be a disciplined part of their Christian lives.

            Recall what Paul said to the Corinthians in his first letter:

Now concerning the collection for the saints: you should follow the directions I gave to the churches of Galatia.  On the first day of every week, each of you is to put aside and save whatever extra you earn, so that collections need not be taken when I come (I Corinthians 16:1-2).

Here again Paul wants giving to be a spiritual discipline.  That is probably why he suggests setting the money aside on the first day of the week.  In the early church the first day of the week was the day of worship in honor of Jesus’ resurrection.  That’s how Christians came to worship on Sundays, to celebrate the day of Jesus’ resurrection.  Paul wants giving to be a part of worship, not a one-time response to a need, but a disciplined part of our Christian lives.  If you notice, the word “discipline” has as its root the word “disciple.”

            It is often thought that character shapes habits.  An honest person has the habit of telling the truth; a generous person displays the habit of sharing with others.  But I wonder if doesn’t often work the other way around.  People acquire the character of honesty, because they practice the habit of telling the truth.  And people acquire the character of generosity by practicing the habit of giving.

There is a classic musical called “My Fair Lady” in which Henry Higgins, a speech teacher, takes on the challenge of transforming a poor uneducated girl from the streets of London into a high society debutante—a woman of such refinement and sophistication that none of the elite of London would ever guess her true origin.  In the case of Eliza Doolittle he begins not with her hair style, clothes, or manners, but with her habits of speech.

            This turns out to be one of the hardest thing for her to change.  She practices and practices, but it doesn’t help, until suddenly one day she says with clear, beautiful pronunciation, “The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain.”  Professor Higgins jerks his head around and says, “What did you say?”  Without a trace of Cockney accent she says, “The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain.”  Higgins leaps us and says, “By jove, I think she’s got it,” and they practice saying and singing the words over and over.

In a sense the Christian faith is like that.  It involves putting on the qualities of new life in Christ, even before we are comfortable with them.  It means practicing the disciplines of discipleship until we finally get the hang of it.  And in the process a change begins to happen.

            In the movie of the musical there is an interesting change that happens in Eliza Doolittle.  At the beginning Professor Higgins treats her with contempt.  He is, after all, a professor, while she is a tramp.  But by the end of the movie she will not tolerate this anymore.  She has spent so much time practicing dignity, she begins to have dignity.  She will no longer allow Professor Higgins to treat her in an undignified way.  She has rehearsed for so long at being a lady of sophistication and grace; she actually becomes one.

That’s how Paul sees discipleship.  We practice being a disciple of Jesus until we finally become one.  And that, according to Paul, is how giving works.

Death, Resurrection, and Judgment

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: II Corinthians 5:1-10; I Corinthians 3:10-15

This poem was given to me to read at the memorial service for a 55 year-old woman killed in a car accident.  It’s like many poems I have seen over the years telling family members not to weep at the death of a loved one.  But in this case I had a hard time reading it.  I could not imagine how the husband and children of this 55 year-old woman could stand at her grave and not weep.  But they wanted me to read it, so I did.  It went like this:

When I am gone, remember I'm with Jesus;

Then do not mourn because I have passed away.

Life holds so many griefs and disappointments,

And will you cry because I did not stay? ...

Grieve not because the eyes that looked upon you

Shall never see your face on earth again;

Rejoice, because they look upon the Savior

Who gave his life to ransom sinful men.

Weep not because I walk no longer with you;

Remember, I am walking streets of gold.

Weep for yourselves that you awhile must tarry

Before the blessed Lord you may behold.

  Somehow this poem does not seem very comforting to the people who are left behind.  It reminds me of a famous picture taken at the end of the Vietnam War. This iconic picture shows Vietnamese civilians trying to board a U. S. helicopter to escape Saigon before it falls to the North Vietnamese.  I thought of this picture as I read the last four lines of that poem:

Weep not because I walk no longer with you;

Remember, I am walking streets of gold.

Weep for yourselves that you awhile must tarry

Before the blessed Lord you may behold.

It is nice to know that when we die, we will go to be with Jesus.  But what about the people who are left behind?  And what about all the places in the world where there is hunger, illness, loneliness, violence, injustice, and suffering?  Does God simply want to pull a few chosen people into the helicopter, leaving the rest to suffer?

Not according to the Bible.  In our second scripture reading Paul says, "For while we are still in this tent, we groan under our burden, because we wish not to be unclothed but to be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life."

Notice two things about this verse.  First, Paul says that in the present we “groan.”  In other words as followers of Jesus we mourn and weep over the way things are in the world.  Grief is not a sign that we lack faith. In the beatitudes Jesus said, “Blessed are those who mourn. … Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.”  Grief is not a sign that we lack faith; it is an appropriate response to the world as it is.  In Romans 8 Paul says,

We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.

            As Christians we do not look forward to leaving bodily life behind but to seeing the redemption of bodily life—its transformation and fulfillment in God’s kingdom.  That’s what Paul means in the second part of the verse: "… because we wish not to be unclothed but to be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life."  To be unclothed means to be rid of bodily life, which is what some ancient Greek philosophers aspired to.  But that is not what Paul wants.  "We wish not to be unclothed but to be further clothed."  God's goal for us and for the world is not to leave bodily life behind but to transform bodily life it into what God meant it to be all along.

            In verse 1 Paul says, “For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.”  Notice again how the image works.  The goal, unlike in ancient Greek philosophy, is not just for our souls to rise up to heaven leaving our earthly tent—our earthly body—behind.  The goal, as we say in the Apostles’ Creed, is the resurrection of the body.  The goal is for our lives to be made part of a new building from God—a new creation where those who mourn will be comforted, where those who hunger and thirst for righteousness will be filled; a place where the sick will be healed, where the homeless will have a home, and where refugees fleeing for their lives will finally feel safe.  That’s what Paul means when he says, “So that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.”

             The relevance of this becomes apparent when we look back at our first scripture reading.  In I Corinthians 3:10 Paul says, “According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building on it. Each builder must choose with care how to build on it.”

  There is a connection between receiving a new building from God and building on it with care.

             Let me be clear here.  We do not build the kingdom of God.  Eternal life in God’s kingdom—in God’ building—is a gift of God’s grace.  And yet, if we build with the right materials, we get to contribute to it.  Verses 12-15:

The work of each builder will become visible, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each has done. If what has been built on the foundation survives, the builder will receive a reward. If the work is burned up, the builder will suffer loss; the builder will be saved, but only as through fire.

            At the end of our second scripture reading—II Corinthians 5:10—Paul says, “For all of us must appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each may receive recompense for what has been done in the body, whether good or evil.”  It sounds like we are saved by our works, but that’s not what Paul means.  The judgment lies in whether the things we do in this life will be built into the new creation or whether they will need to be destroyed in order to make room for it.  In other words, the judgment is whether your life here in this world makes a lasting contribution to God’s kingdom or whether it ends up totally wasted.  If we build with love rather than hate, patience rather than anger, generosity rather than greed, courage rather than despair—then the things we do in this life can actually be incorporated into the new creation rather than being demolished to make room for it.

            This week I received a mailing from Habitat for Humanity in King County.  Habitat for Humanity is a Christian based organization helping families obtain a home through what they call “sweat equity.”  The family provides hundreds of hours of labor toward the construction or rehabilitation of a house, and Habitat provides the finances and other volunteer help needed to complete it.  The family’s labor constitutes their down payment, and the rest of the payments they make on the house, at whatever rate they can afford, go toward building homes for other people.  The mailing I received this week was their annual report.  In the back were a list of donors, and Southminster Presbyterian Church was listed under the Cornerstone Society, which means that cumulatively over the years Southminster has given over $50,000 to Habitat to help build housing for homeless people in South King County.  This puts us in the same giving category as Costco, Expedia, Nordstrom, and Safeco Insurance.

            Did any of you know that?  I had no idea.  Every year a part of our church budget (15%) is designated for Witness in Action to be used for mission in our community and around the world, and every year little by little we have been making what turns out to be an extraordinary contribution to help families in our community have an affordable place to live.

            That, I would humbly suggest, is the building material of God’s kingdom.  Paul says, “If this earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.”  We cannot take credit for this building.  It is a gift from God.  But one day when we look at it, we will see in the corner a little plaque inscribed Southminster Presbyterian Church.  And when we go inside we will meet all kinds of people we have never met before, people of all different races, nations, and languages.  And when they hear that we are from Southminster, they will say, “Really?  You are from Southminster?  I never thought I would actually meet someone from Southminster.  Thank you.”

Ambassadors of a New Creation

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: II Corinthians 5:16-21; Galatians 3:23-29


As a child I watched the old Superman television show almost every afternoon after school.  The special effects were terrible, but I still loved it.  So when the first movie version of Superman came out in 1978, with all new special effects, I was anxious to see it.  But it was not the special effects that impressed me.  It was the backstory of Superman, which you never got in the television show.  In the movie, unlike the television show, we saw how Superman came to earth and was found by a farm couple named Jonathan and Martha Kent.  We then watched as the young Clark Kent grew up, in many ways a typical adolescent: painfully self-conscious, trying to impress girls, wondering who he was.  He knew he had extraordinary speed and strength, but his adoptive parents would not allow him to use them.  So instead of being a star football player, he was the trainer on the football team handing out water bottles.  In one scene he complains bitterly to his father, "I could score a touchdown every time, every time!"  Jonathan Kent puts his arm around him and says, "You are here for a reason, I don't know whose reason, but it is not to score touchdowns."

Finally when Clark turns 18 he discovers a crystal containing a message from his birth father Jor-El.  Jor-El says to him, "There are questions to be asked, and it is time you did so."  The first question on Clark’s mind is "Who am I?"  As if anticipating that question Jor-El says, "Your name is Kal-El.  You have been sent to earth from the planet Krypton. You are different from others.  You have extraordinary powers, only some of which you have discovered.  It is now time for you to join your new world and serve its collective humanity.  Live as one of them, Kal-El, but discover where your power is needed.  They can be a great people, Kal-El, if they wish to be.  They only lack a light to show them the way.  For this reason above all, their capacity for good, I have sent them you, my only son.”

I had no idea the movie would be so theological.  Now I am not suggesting that Jesus was sent from the planet Krypton, or that following will him will make you a superhero.  But I was struck by two things that happened to Superman, two keys to his growing up: 1) discovering his identity and 2) discerning his mission.  Those are the two keys for all of us: discovering our identity and discerning our mission—understanding who we are and realizing why we are here?

Our scripture this morning can help us with that.  Paul begins by talking about how we look at people.  Verse 16: “From now on we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way.”  In other words, Paul says, we no longer judge people by appearances.  Often we judge people by looking at certain categories: their age, their appearance, their capabilities, and their affiliations.  Paul admits he once looked at people that way.  He judged them according to whether they were Jews or Gentiles, whether they were righteous or sinners, whether they were educated or ignorant.  And he regarded Jesus as a dangerous heretic for welcoming sinners and claiming to speak for God.

But all that changed when he met Jesus risen from the dead.  When Paul met Jesus risen from the dead, he realized he had been wrong about Jesus and by extension about everybody else.  In verse 17 he says, "So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new."

When you are baptized, when you become a follower of Jesus, you become part of a new creation--a new planet, so to speak.  You are given a new identity with a new purpose.

In many ways, of course, you are still the same person you were before.  You are still a member of your family, you are still a student in your school, you are still a worker at your company and a citizen of your country.  You don't cease to be Clark Kent.  But when you are baptized and when you commit your life to Christ, you discover that you have a new identity.  You are not just Clark Kent anymore.  You are Kal-El.

I have mentioned before in sermons how when God calls people God sometimes give them a new name.  After promising Abram many descendants who would bring blessing to the world, God changed Abram’s name to Abraham, which means “father of multitudes.”  Suddenly, this old childless man had a new identity.  He was the father of multitudes.  God did the same for his wife Sarai.  God gave her the new name Sarah, which in Hebrew means “princess.”  The migrant woman who came to Canaan from a foreign land is now royalty.  If you remember, Jesus did the same thing to one of his disciples named Simon.  He changed Simon’s name to Peter, which means “rock.”  It is like what happened to Clark Kent when he learned that his real name was Kal-El.  Outwardly he was the same person, but in a deeper sense he was a new person.  He had a new understanding of who he was and why he was here.

That's what happens when we are baptized and joined to Christ.  In Galatians 3:27 Paul says, "As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ." It's like the S-symbol on Superman’s chest, which I discover in the movie does not stand for Superman.  The S was a symbol worn by people on the planet Krypton.  When you are baptized you are clothed with a new identity.  As Paul says in verse 28, "There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus."  When you are baptized, you are no longer a Democrat or a Republican, you are no longer a Husky or a Cougar, you are no longer just white or black, Middle Eastern or American.  You are one in Christ.  When you are baptized, those old identities are transcended by a new one.

And with that new identity comes a new mission.  Listen again to II Corinthians 5:18-20:

All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.  So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us.

When Clark Kent discovered his true identity, he also discovered his true mission.  The same thing is true for us.  When you realize that through baptism you are an adopted child of God, you discover that your family has a mission: to invite the whole world back into the relationship with God and with each that we were meant to have when we were created.

While I was in Spokane I met a Presbyterian pastor from India named Philip Prasad.  Philip was born to parents who were Dalits—Untouchables—the lowest class in India’s Hindu culture.  He describes his childhood in these words:

By age of seven, I had mastered the art of behaving like an Untouchable!  I was growing up in a bleak, filthy, foul smelling, depressing to this day, Untouchable colony of Kot Mohalla. … On many days when I had nothing else to do, I tagged along with my grandmother on her rounds of removing human waste from 22 latrines. [Which she die by hand!]  I learned my basic lessons of behavior from my job of collecting the leftover chapati from the homes where my grandmother had cleaned the latrines.  [A chapatti was a round flat break, like a tortilla.]  When I reached a home which owed us a chapati for cleaning the latrine, I had to stand in the street and shout out aloud that their Bhangi was there.  [Bhangi was a derogatory term for an Untouchable.] Even going up to the door was prohibited for fear of my feet polluting that part of the house. … Someone would come out of the house and throw the bread like a Frisbee towards my basket which I would have to catch.  I became quite good at beating the dogs, though at times I had to fight for it. … Schools and education were not in the consciousness of the entire colony.  …. There seemed no other life possible for the Untouchables, as we were born in filth, worked in filth, and died in filth.

But then something happened to change Philip’s identity.  His parents became Christians as a result of a Presbyterian missionary who worked about a mile away.  For the first time his father realized that he did not have to believe in or obey the Hindu caste system and its rules laid down for Untouchables.  Instead he acquired some books, and with the help of a missionary he mastered both the Hindi and Urdu languages.  He then went to a Presbyterian seminary in India and was ordained to serve a circuit of 60 villages, which he did for 42 years.  He also taught his wife, who ran a school for Untouchable children in a rural village.  Philip himself eventually went to a Christian high school, graduated from a Presbyterian college in India, attended a Presbyterian seminary in Dubuque, Iowa, and returned to India to start scores of Christian schools and churches.  With his new identity, Philip discovered a new mission for his life: to be an ambassador of the new creation made possible by Jesus.

That’s our mission.  Like Clark Kent, we have an identity greater than our family name and a mission bigger than scoring touchdowns.  We are ambassadors of a new creation—little demonstration projects of what God can do in us and in our world, if we give God the chance.


Mirror, Mirror

2 Corinthians 3:7-18, 4:6-7, Exodus 34:29-35

By Rev. Aaron Willett

Mirrors are powerful things. In the tale of Snow-White, originally told by the Brothers Grimm and of course later made into a classic Disney film, a magic mirror drives the action.

I imagine most of us are familiar with the story. After Snow-White’s mother dies, her father, the king, remarries, and here we’ll pick up with the Brothers Grimm:

She was a beautiful woman, but she was proud and arrogant, and she could not stand it if anyone might surpass her in beauty. She had a magic mirror. Every morning she stood before it, looked at herself, and said:

        Mirror, mirror, on the wall,

        Who in this land is fairest of all?

To this the mirror answered:

        You, my queen, are fairest of all.

Then she was satisfied, for she knew that the mirror spoke the truth.

Snow-White grew up and became ever more beautiful. When she was seven years old she was as beautiful as the light of day, even more beautiful than the queen herself.

One day when the queen asked her mirror:

        Mirror, mirror, on the wall,

        Who in this land is fairest of all?

It answered:

        You, my queen, are fair; it is true.

        But Snow-White is a thousand times fairer than you.

The queen took fright and turned yellow and green with envy. From that hour on whenever she looked at Snow-White her heart turned over inside her body, so great was her hatred for the girl. The envy and pride grew ever greater, like a weed in her heart, until she had no peace day and night.

By her own request, the queen’s mirror was a mirror of comparison, and it became a mirror of envy. The forces of comparison all always around us. We have a lot of hand-me-down books in our house, and Laura and I were recently frustrated when reading Mercer Mayer’s “Little Critter’s Slumber Party” to Thea. The whole book is based on Little Critter being so impressed with his wealthy friend’s big house, big toys, and fancy things.

Comparison, and it’s corollary, envy, are all over.

Of course, in our passage today, Paul does his own comparison, but does not resolve with envy. In his comparison, Paul clearly deviates from the “simple meaning of the text” in Exodus. Exodus says nothing about Moses’ veil hiding the fading of God’s glory on his face. In his use of the Exodus passage, Paul is either plain wrong or powerfully right.

To Paul, the Law has come to be a code of death and condemnation that has lost its splendor. Before he was an Apostle of Christ, Paul was a zealous Pharisee, powerfully motivated by the Law as God’s revelation to humanity. So Paul’s argument that the glory of the Law is fading is derived from Paul’s own experience of conversion. In Christ, Paul experienced a glory beyond anything he had known. As he writes “Indeed, what once had glory has lost its glory because of the greater glory.”

While the Law is of God and is therefore has inherent and life-giving value, in comparing it to Jesus it is a passing glory, while Jesus’ glory just keeps on growing—it is a permanent splendor, written not on stone but on hearts. The law without Jesus is like confession without an assurance of pardon.

And so Paul find for us a new meaning of the revelation of God’s presence in Moses’ veiled, shining face—God’s glory was present in the Law, yes, but it has been powerfully surpassed by Jesus.

So great, in fact, is Jesus’ glory, that we reflect Christ to each other. Just as last week, pastor Ken preached about us being the aroma of Christ, this week Paul suggests we are the image of Christ. I don’t think we’re going to get to all five senses, but the case could probably be made—after all, we are the body of Christ in the world.

Verse 18 says, “And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.”

We shine God’s light, God’s glory, because we are being transformed. The glory of Christ surpasses the glory of Moses and the Law because Jesus gives us hope. Our hope in Christ frees us from the fear of death and condemnation, frees us to share in the permanent splendor of God. So we don’t need a veil, we are free to act in boldness.

I don’t think though that this boldness looks like a person with a megaphone meting out spiritual and auditory pain at the home plate entrance to Safeco. This is not the boldness of the Queen, rooted in her own beauty. This is not confidence in one’s own resume and pedigree. No, this boldness is rooted in humility. “We have this treasure in clay jars, earthen vessels, to show that this power comes from God and not from us.”

As with us, the Church in Corinth was full of flaws. Paul writes of the abundant tears he shed while writing his first letter (2:4). Yet he also suggests that this flawed church reveals God’s glory to each other and to the world. Friends, that’s good news for us!

We are humble, sinful, and flawed people, and yet, as we grow in faith, and as we hang around Jesus, we become more like Jesus. The more time we spend in Jesus’ glow, the more it sticks to us, the more it shines from us.

This is the Jesus pattern. In the Ancient Near East, uncleanliness was a contagion. The Law makes this plenty clear. A religiously clean person touching an unclean person did not produce a transfer of cleanness, but uncleanness. Stop to help a leper? Get ready for up to 80 days of purification rituals before you can be considered “clean” again. Touch a corpse? You’re unclean too. Have a discharge of bodily fluids? You’re out. This is the fading glory of the Law. Into this world came Jesus, and when Jesus touched the lepers, they were healed, and when Jesus came to his dead friend Lazarus, he raised him up. When the bleeding woman touched the hem of his robe, she was freed from her suffering. Jesus carries the contagion of holiness into our world and into our lives. Association with Jesus means we live by his life, and bit by bit his glory becomes revealed in us.

In the 1999 film, The Green Mile, John Coffey is a man falsely convicted of murder. But John Coffey seems to be a special agent of God, possessed with divine powers of healing and with a kind of “second sight” that allows him to see into people’s souls to learn the truth about them.

At one point in the movie, Coffey revives (resurrects!) a fellow prisoner’s pet mouse after a cruel prison guard on Death Row had smashed the little critter to death. At another point Coffey shares some of his powerful insights with Paul Edgecomb, a prison guard played by Tom Hanks, whom Coffey had also previously healed of a painful infection.

When the movie ends, we flash forward about 70 some years only to discover at the end that the mouse, Mr. Jingles, is still alive and so—now well into his 100s—is Paul. In explaining to a friend why Mr. Jingles and he now have such extraordinary long life, the long-since retired Paul Edgecomb suspects that when someone with as much divine life in him as John Coffey had touches you and heals you, sparks of that divine life get into you (even if you’re a mouse!).

(Green Mile Synopsis from Scott Hoezee,

Like Paul Edgecomb and Mr. Jingles, we have been touched by the contagion of holiness.

We are free to be bold in our humility and vulnerability. Our boldness does not come from our own light, but by the light of Christ. This little light of mine is the light of Christ. Our boldness can be as small as mentioning church in our conversations with others. It can look like speaking openly about how our faith has shaped our values and impacts our path in life. While boldness in humility sometimes looks like open mouths, it can also look like open hearts and ears listening to the stories of others.

We, the holy, common people of God, are privileged to bear Christ to each other and the world. In our flaws, in our failings, in our successes, in our triumphs, we don’t need metaphorical veils to hide behind, because in Christ we are being transformed from one degree of Glory into another.

What if the Magic Mirror had known this truth? How would it have responded? Maybe like this:

One day when the queen asked her mirror:

        Mirror, mirror, on the wall,

        Who in this land is fairest of all?

It answered:

        You, my queen, are fair, I guess,

        But next to Christ, you count as less.

        Snow-White’s alright it’s also true,

        But Jesus Christ’s the real view. 

And then the mirror grew bold:

        All you people, you all fall short.

        You’re a fading glory, a growing wart.

        But living with Jesus in your heart,

        You’ll find growing in you the better part:

        Grace abounds wherein Christ dwells,

        Earthen vessels then chime like bells.

        You can release your vicious envy;

        You can be free of your load, so heavy.

        So, now be a mirror to each other,

        Share God’s love with sister and brother.

        Let Christ’s light shine right through you,

        Then through God’s love you’ll be fair too.

Maybe if the mirror had said that, they all would have lived happily ever after? I don’t know. Let’s pray:

God of light and life,

make us carriers of your contagion,  

mirrors of your glory,

that we might carry your love, your light

into the world, that it might know life in you. Amen.

The Smell of Salvation

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: II Corinthians 2:14-17; Genesis 8:20-22

  I grew up in Tacoma, back when it was a city you could smell before you saw it.  Later when I lived in Potlatch, Idaho, I discovered the same thing was true of Lewiston.  When you approach Lewiston from the north, before you drop down the hill you can sometimes smell the city before you see it.  People in Lewiston told me it was the smell of money, which was probably what some people in Tacoma thought.  It depends on how you look at it.

Smells aren’t always off-putting.  When we lived in Potlatch, sometimes when we were baking a little boy would come over from next door.  He would stand by the back door screen and say, "If I stand right here it smells like cookies."  He usually got one.  Smells have a way of communicating, for good or for bad.  They alert you to the presence of something even before you can see it.

Which is why I find it interesting that Paul compares the Christian faith to an odor.  II Corinthians 2:14-15:

But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads in every place the fragrance [Greek: osme] that comes from knowing him.  For we are the aroma [Greek: euodia] of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing.

In the Bible there are powerful associations with these two words.  In our first scripture reading, after Noah gets off the ark, he offers a sacrifice to the Lord.  Genesis 8:21 says,

And when the Lord smelled the pleasing odor [Greek: osme euodia—fragrant aroma], the Lord said in his heart, "I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done.

God knows that even after the flood people will go on sinning.  God is not naïve about the human heart.  Nevertheless, because of Noah’s fragrant offering, God promises in the future to save humanity.  Noah’s offering was the smell of salvation.

In the New Testament this theme is picked up and applied to Jesus.  Ephesians 5:1-2:

Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering [Greek: osme euodia) and sacrifice to God.

Jesus was the ultimate osme euodia, the ultimate whiff of salvation.

            But it does not stop there.  Paul says that we also can be an osme euodia, a fragrant offering to God.  In his letter to the Philippians, Paul gives thanks for the financial support he has received from them for his mission work, and in Philippians 4:18 he says,

I have been paid in full and have more than enough; I am fully satisfied, now that I have received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent, a fragrant offering [Greek: osme euodia], a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God.

Jesus' sacrifice on the cross was the ultimate "fragrant offering" to God, but our little offerings--our giving, our sharing, our prayers, our serving in the name of Christ--these things share in the fragrant offering of Christ, and they allow other people to pick up the scent.

I mentioned at the beginning that sometimes you can smell things before you see them.  I think the kingdom of God is like that.  We can't see the kingdom of God yet.  The promise of peace on earth and good will to all people is still beyond the horizon.  But sometimes in a community of faith you get a whiff of it.  When we come here and sing hymns, we get a whiff of the kingdom of God where people of every race, nation, and language will stand before God singing their hearts out with gratitude.  And when we collect food for the food bank or provide meals for Hospitality House, the women’s shelter, or even when we do things that don’t involve food—preparing books for the inmates at the SCORE jail or hygiene packs for Children of the Nations or cisterns to hold rainwater for women in Kenya or school supplies for children at North Hill and Des Moines elementary schools—when we offering these gifts to help other people in Jesus’ name—we release an osme euodia—the fragrant aroma of God’s salvation.  And people can smell it before they see it.  People can get a whiff of the kingdom long before Christ returns to make it visible.

Of course, the aroma of faith does not smell the same to all people.  In II Corinthians 2:16 Paul says, "To the one [it is] a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life."  To a white supremacist the idea of people from all different races, nations, and languages gathering together around the throne of God smells like the stench of death.  To those who want to dominate, control, or exploit others—to them the gospel of Christ has a dangerous odor, like the smell of ozone just before lightning strikes.  But to those who yearn for God's kingdom, who dream of the day when people of different races and ethnic groups will live together in peace, when no one will go to bed hungry, no one will be homeless, no one will be unloved--to these people the aroma of faith is a breath of fresh air in smoggy world.

There is a wonderful illustration of this in a chapter from C. S. Lewis' book The Screwtape Letters.  I have mentioned this book before in some sermons.  For those not familiar with it, The Screwtape Letters are a series of imaginary letters from Screwtape, one of the devil's chief tempters, to his nephew Wormwood, a sort-of apprentice tempter.  The letters give Screwtape's advice on how Wormwood should handle one of his "patients," a new Christian whom Screwtape hopes to corrupt.  At one point in the book this patient falls in love with a Christian, a woman of devout, intelligent, and humble faith—all things which the devil deeply detests.  Here is Screwtape's description of her in one of his letters to Wormwood:

I have looked up this girl's dossier and am horrified at what I find.  Not only a Christian but such a Christian ….  She makes me vomit.  She stinks and scalds the very pages of the dossier.  [Notice how Screwtape reacts to the whiff of this woman's faith.]  It drives me mad, the way the world has worsened.  We'd have had her to the arena in the old days.  That's what her sort is made for.  Not that she'd do much good there, either.  A two-faced little cheat (I know the sort) who looks as if she'd faint at the sight of blood, and then dies with a smile. ... Looks as if butter wouldn't melt in her mouth, and yet has a satirical wit. …

Then, of course, he gets to know this woman's family and whole circle.  Could you not see that the very house she lives in is one that he ought never to have entered?  The whole place reeks of that deadly odour.  The very gardener, though he has been there only five years, is beginning to acquire it.  Even guests, after a weekend visit, carry some of the smell away with them.  The dog and the cat are tainted with it. ... We are certain (it is a matter of first principles) that each member of the family must in some way be making capital out of the others--but we can't find out how.  They guard as jealously as the Enemy Himself the secret of what really lies behind [this thing they call love].  The whole house and garden are one vast obscenity.  It bears a sickening resemblance to the description one human writer made of Heaven... (pp. 101-102).

Sometimes before you can see the kingdom of God you can smell it.  Our worship, our prayers, our gifts, our sacrifices, and our service in the name of Christ--all these things are the smell of salvation, giving people a whiff of what is to come.


Healing Painful Relationships

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: II Corinthians 2:1-11; Romans 5:6-11

             In the past I have shared theological insights from Calvin and Hobbes, but this morning I dug out of my files an old comic strip from Peanuts.  In this strip Charlie Brown meets Linus and says, “Where have you been?”  Linus says, “Church school.  We’ve been studying the letters of the Apostle Paul.”  You can already see the relevance of this.  Charlie Brown says, “That should be interesting.”  Linus says, “It is, although I must admit it makes me feel a little guilty.  I always feel like I’m reading someone else’s mail.”

             Which is part of the problem with II Corinthians.  When studying II Corinthians, we are reading someone one else’s mail.  Throughout the letter Paul refers to situations that the Corinthians know about but we don’t.  We must infer what happened from Paul’s response.

             In this case it appears that Paul and his ministry has come under attack.  We get clues of what was said from the way Paul responds.  For example, some called Paul wishy-washy for changing his mind about visiting them.  We read about that last week.  They also mocked his weak appearance and his unpolished speaking style.  Paul mentions this later in chapter 10, verse 10, when he quotes one of their attacks against him: “They say, ‘His letters are weighty and strong, but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech contemptible.’”  They mocked him for his appearance and speaking style.  Above all, they challenged his credentials as an apostle.  They point out that he was not one of Jesus’ original followers, and they question whether he is even Jewish, whether he is a legitimate descendant of Abraham, like the other apostles.  Paul was in fact Jewish, but his opponents sowed doubt about this to undermine his credibility.  They said things about Paul, including things that were not true, to undermine his authority and discredit his preaching.

             This apparently happened during a “painful” visit Paul mentions in verse 1.  He says to the Corinthians, “I made up my mind not to make you another painful visit,” implying that his last visit had been painful.  Apparently Paul had been stung and hurt by things some of the people in Corinth had said about him.  Even more he was hurt that the Corinthians as a whole allowed it to go on.  The majority in the church stood by and said nothing while Paul’s character and credibility were savaged by a few discontents.  So he cancelled his second visit to them, the one we read last week he had promised to make.  He cancelled it to avoid another painful visit.

             Which strikes me as one lesson we might learn from this scripture.  Sometimes the first response to a painful situation should be to give yourself space from it, a chance for things to calm down and for you to get a little perspective.  Being a follower of Jesus does not mean you must go on letting yourself be abused.  Whether it is an abusive boss, an abusive neighbor, or an abusive family member, being a follower of Jesus does not mean you should sit there and take it.  This helps neither you nor the abusive person.  So Paul starts by giving himself a little space—a respite from the abusive situation.

             But he does not stop there.  He then writes a letter.  He refers to this in verse 3: “And I wrote as I did, so that when I came, I might not suffer pain from those who should have made me rejoice.”  We don’t know for sure what he said in this letter, but if you want a taste of it, you can read II Corinthians chapters 10-13.  Some Bible scholars think chapters 10-13 is an excerpt from this painful letter Paul wrote to the Corinthians.  We don’t know that for sure, but whatever Paul wrote it was painful for him to say.

  This is important.  Paul did not write out of anger, he wrote out of anguish.  Verse 4: “For I wrote you out of much distress and anguish of heart and with many tears, not to cause you pain, but to let you know the abundant love that I have for you.”  Paul confronts the Corinthians not to punish them but to deal with the issues that are separating them.

             Here is the second lesson in this scripture: The first response to a painful situation may be to give yourself space, but it cannot stop there.  The second response should be to confront the abuse, not only for your sake but for the sake of the abuser.

             One of the things I appreciate about the “Me, too” movement is not only that women are standing up for their dignity but that men are being confronted about behaviors that are wrong, that they need to change for their own sake.  I hope the “Me, too” movement not only helps women to be the people God created them to be, but men, too.

             Paul feels pain about his relationship to the Corinthians, but it is the pain of love, the pain of caring about a relationship.

  In a sense God does not want to spare us from that kind of pain, because it is the same kind of pain God feels toward us when we turn away from God.  God grieves when we turn away from God to live self-absorbed lives, because God knows we are hurting ourselves.  When we live self-absorbed lives, oblivious or not caring about the hurt we do to others, then we are eroding our souls.  God knows that, so God confronts us, as did the apostle Paul.

             So what happened when Paul wrote his confrontational letter to the Corinthians?  We are not told how it affected the offending people, but we are told that the majority in the church censured those who had been saying hurtful things about Paul.  We know this, because in verse 6 Paul says, “This punishment by the majority is enough.”  The word translated punishment is a Greek word that more commonly means to rebuke or censure.  The Corinthians did not round up and beat the people who were disparaging Paul.  They publicly rejected the hurtful things they said about Paul.  Which as I mentioned earlier was Paul’s deepest concern.  By their silence the majority in Corinth were allowing a minority to discredit Paul and by extension the gospel he proclaimed.  But now by this public censure against the critics, they reaffirmed their relationship to Paul and their commitment to the gospel he proclaimed.

             Which brings me to the third lesson in this scripture.  In verse 7 Paul switches gears.  He says, “So now instead you should forgive and console him, so that he may not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow.  So I urge you to reaffirm your love for him.”

             Most Bible commentaries on this passage assume that Paul says this because the person or persons maligning Paul had repented of their actions.  But it does not say that.  Go back and look at this scripture carefully.  Paul does not say that the offending person has repented; he says that the punishment or censure by the majority is enough.  His concern is whether the majority of the Corinthians will reject this person’s slander and reaffirm their commitment to Jesus.  That’s Paul’s concern.  Having established that, Paul now invites them to be gracious—to give grace—toward the offending person in order to win him back.

             Does the offending person come back?  We don’t know.  The text does not say.  We cannot control what other people do.  The Bible does not promise that confronting people and seeking reconciliation will always work.  It doesn’t always work.  The other person may not want to be reconciled.

Nevertheless, the Bible tells us to try.  Why?  Because that is what God has done for us.  Our first scripture reading says, “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”  Jesus’ unjust death confronted us with the depth of own injustice and wrongdoing, while also opening the door to healing and reconciliation.  Now it is up to us whether we will walk through that door.  So it is with our painful relationships to others.  We can confront the wrong and open the door to healing, but we can’t control how the other person will respond.

  But even in the process of confronting and offering grace, there is a certain healing that happens to us—no matter how the other person responds.  When we confront a painful relationship out of love rather than anger, and when we open a door to reconciliation, we allow a certain healing to happen in us, even if the other person wants no part of it.  It is the healing that happens when we finally let go of a hurt, knowing we have done what we could about it, so that God’s grace can bathe the wound.

Yes, No, and Maybe

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: II Corinthians 1:15-22; John 21:15-17

I don’t remember my children's first words when they were learning to speak, but I remember what seemed like their favorite word.  Their favorite word was "No!"  They said "No" when we tried to feed them broccoli.  They said "No" when we told them it was time for bed.  They said "No" when any of their siblings tried to pick up one of their toys.  They were quite good and quite clear at saying “No.”

Of course I know where they learned that.  They learned it from us, their parents.  It seemed like we were always saying no to them.  We said "No" when they tried to touch the fireplace.  We said "No" when they grabbed the cat by the tail.  We said "No" when they wanted a cookie before dinner.  Even when my children’s requests seemed reasonable, my instinct was always to hesitate, to not promise anything too quickly.  About the best my children could hope for from me was “Maybe."

Which seems to be the problem the Corinthians had with the apostle Paul.  We are not completely clear about the situation, but apparently the apostle Paul told the Corinthians that he would visit them twice: once on the way through Greece to Macedonia, and then on the way back.  But then he changed his mind for reasons we will read about next week.  But to the Corinthians Paul was like a politician who had broken a campaign promise.  They questioned his integrity and reliability, which to Paul was a serious issue, because if his opponents could question his integrity and reliability, they might also question the truth of his preaching.  If Paul's word could not be trusted about travel plans, how could it be trusted about Jesus?

Paul responds to this charge in our second scripture reading.  First he paraphrases their complaint.  Verse 17: "Was I vacillating when I wanted to do this?  Do I make my plans according to ordinary human standards, ready to say 'Yes, yes' and 'No, no' at the same time?"  In other words, am I like politicians who change their message from the primaries to the general election?  Do I say one thing when appealing to my base, and something else when trying to win over independent voters?  That is the kind of charge the Corinthians leveled against Paul.

Interestingly, Paul does not answer their complaint by defending himself, at least not until later in the chapter.  We will read about that next week.  But Paul’s first response is not to defend his record and integrity the way a politician would.  Paul’s first response is not to defend his own reliability but to insist on God's reliability.  Verses 19-20:  "For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, whom we proclaimed among you, Silvanus, Timothy, and I, was not 'Yes and No'; but in him it is always 'Yes.'  For in him every one of God's promises is a 'Yes.'"

Notice how Paul emphasizes that the message about Jesus which he preached to the Corinthians is the same message preached by Silvanus and Timothy.  It is not just about Paul’s reliability; it is about the reliability of the gospel.  The truth of the gospel does not depend on the trustworthiness of any single person who proclaims it.

This is important, because pastors are not always reliable, any more than parents.  We have seen that too often in recent years, not just in the sex abuse scandals in the Roman Catholic Church, but in various forms of clergy misconduct in all churches, sometimes sexual and sometimes financial.  And even when not guilty of a prosecutable offense, pastors often let people down.

Our Presbytery Executive in Spokane once stood up at a Presbytery meeting and said that at one time or another he had received complaints about every single minister in the presbytery.  We were all stunned.  We wanted to know who they were.  These were not sexual misconduct complaints, but some kind of complaint by people about their pastor, and none of us got off unscathed.

I hate to admit this, but it’s true: you cannot count on pastors to be an example of the gospel.  We’re not that good.  If you think we are perfect, we will disillusion you, just like parents.

But you can count on God.  That’s Paul’s point.

There are religions where God's promises are presented as "Maybe."  If you live a good enough life, if you do enough good things, if you give enough money to the church, then maybe you will make it to heaven.  Maybe you will be accepted by God.

That is not the God shown to us in Jesus.  There is no "Maybe" with Jesus.   In Jesus, every one of God’s promises is Yes.  Are you loved by God?  Yes.  Were you made a child of God in baptism?  Yes.  Does God have a purpose for your life here and now?  Yes.  Does God have a destiny for you greater than you have yet imagined?  Yes.  All the promises of God in Jesus are Yes, and no disappointing pastor or disillusioning parent can mess that up.

Don't get me wrong.  "No" is still an important word.  I am glad we taught our children to say "No," because "No" is the word which makes you a free and independent human being.  If someone at school or work offers you drugs or pressures you to have sex, you have the ability to say “No.”  If they want you to join in ridiculing people because of their race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, or even their politics, you have the ability to say “No.”  If your boss at work wants you to falsify a financial report in order to avoid taxes, you have the ability to say "No."  "No" is the word which makes you a free and independent human being.

"No" is a very important word, but it is not the most important word.  The most important word you will ever say is "Yes."  If "No" is a declaration of independence, then "Yes" is a commitment to community.  If "No" is the word that separates us, "Yes" is the word that draws us together.  You would not exist, you would not have a family or job or this church, if people in the past had not said "Yes" to some commitment.  "Yes" is the word of commitment which draws us together into a community.

How do we learn to say "Yes"?  The same way we learn to say "No"—by having it said to us.  You can see this in our first scripture lesson.  You may recall that when Jesus was arrested and put on trial, Peter denied knowing Jesus three times.  Three times Peter was asked, "Aren't you also one of Jesus' followers?", and three times Peter said, "No."  The good news, however, is that even when Peter said "No" to Jesus, Jesus did not say "No" to Peter.  After Jesus was crucified and rose from the dead, he appeared again to Peter and said, "Peter, do you love me?"  Three times Jesus asked Peter that question, and three times Peter said, Yes.  “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you."  Peter can say "Yes" to Jesus, because Jesus has said "Yes" to him.

All of you have or will say some important "Yeses" in your life.  You say “Yes” when you choose a college or career.  You say “Yes” when you get married.  You say “Yes” when you decide to have children.  All of you have or will experience crucial times in your life when you say "Yes."  But the most important "Yes" you will ever say is "Yes" to God.  When you are baptized or confirmed or join the church, when you bring your children for baptism or when you are ordained as a church officer—whatever the situation, the most important "Yes" you will ever say is "Yes" to God, and you can say that because God has said "Yes" to you.

Giving Courage

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: II Corinthians 1:1-7; Joshua 1:6-9

            One of the informal book groups in our church has been reading a book by Kate Bowler, a professor of religion at Duke University.  It’s called Everything Happens for a Reason, And Other Lies I’ve Loved.  It is a fascinating book.  Kate had always been a faithful, devout, believing Christian, even while doing scholarly research on American religion.  But suddenly at the age of 35, with a husband and young child, she was diagnosed with incurable stage 4 cancer.  As she waited for surgery she prayed, “Lord, take this cancer away.  Save me.  Let me be a wife and mom and professor who loves you and lives to tell of your glory” (p. 53).  She kept going over the same questions in her mind: God, why is this happening?  What does this suffering mean?

            Her friends tried to console her.  They too were believing Christians.  They said things like, “It will be okay, Kate.  Everything happens for a reason.”  Or “God is writing a better story for your life.”  Or even worse, “At least you have your son.  At least you have had an amazing marriage,” which, of course, were the two things causing her the most anguish: the thought of her son growing up without a mother and husband raising him without a wife.  Sometimes the things we say to console people only makes it worse.  I will come back to Kate in a moment.

            If you were counting as I read the scripture, the words “console” and “consolation” occur ten times in this scripture—ten times in 7 verses.  They translate the Greek word paraclesis, which means literally to call someone alongside you, to bring someone next to you.  You can see why it is translated by the word “console”—to bring someone alongside you, to put your arm around them.

            But in this case I don’t think console is the right word.  When I hear the word console, I think of patting someone on the back and trying to help them feel better.  But Paul has something deeper in mind.  In other parts of Corinthians where Paul uses the word paraclesis it is translated “encouragement,” which means literally to give courage.  Paul is not talking just about consoling people to make them feel better.  He is talking about giving people courage to face what comes next and to do what they need to do.

            I am going to read part of our scripture reading again, but this time instead of the word “consolation” I’m going to put in the word “courage.”  Listen to how it sounds in verses 3-4:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all courage who gives us courage [that is the verb form of paraclesis] in all our affliction so that we may be able to give courage to those in any affliction with the courage we ourselves have received from God.

            What helped Kate Bowler more than lame attempts at reassurance was to think about this question: What does her life mean now?  What is she supposed to do now in this situation?

            She was asked about this in an interview with Time magazine, and she responded by talking about parenting her young child.  She said,

I think I thought you just create a beautiful, Instagram-y bubble for your kid, and then that’s parenting. And then I realized that I was going to be the worst thing that happened to him if it went badly. I couldn’t live with that. I decided that my new parenting philosophy is that I can’t protect him from the pain of the world, but I can show him that there is truth and beauty in the midst of it. And if I can make him that person, then I have won as a parent.  (Elizabeth Dias, “Kate Bowler Talks About Her Cancer Diagnosis and Her Faith,” Time, February 5, 2018.)

          What I find striking about Kate Bowler’s book is that Kate did not reject her faith.  She continued to be a believing Christian.  She continued to believe that God raised Jesus from the dead and that one day God will create a new heaven and earth where death and suffering will be no more and God will wipe every tear from our eyes.  But the strength to face her diagnosis did not come from these future reassurances.  It came from remembering that Jesus also walked the path of suffering and walks it with us here and now.

            In the book she tells a powerful story of taking her young son to church on Palm Sunday.  As she carried him up the aisle with the other children waving palm branches, she realized that Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem was in effect a funeral procession.  He was walking toward this death.  And something about Jesus courage gave her courage.

            That’s what Paul tells the Corinthians in verse 5: “For just as the sufferings of Christ are abundant for us, so also our [courage] which is abundant through Christ.”

            In the opening chapter of II Corinthians, Paul makes it clear that he has been through some difficult times.  In verse 8 he says,

We do not want you to be unaware brothers and sisters, of the affliction we experienced in Asia; for we were so utterly, unbearably crushed that we despaired of life itself.

            We don’t know what happened to Paul in Asia, but whatever it was, it was overwhelming, just like what happened to Kate Bowler.  But that makes Paul’s words even more powerful.  Again let me offer my own translation of verse 6:

If we are being afflicted, it is for your courage and salvation; if we are being given courage, it is for giving you courage, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we are also suffering.

            In the Time magazine interview Kate Bowler was asked “Did Christianity fail you?”  She replied, “Sometimes it felt like that, in part because of the stuff people said using the Christian faith to be incredibly trite.”  But then she said, “Christianity also saved the day.  You really want a brave faith”—I was struck by that word “brave”—“you really want a brave faith, one that says, in the midst of crushing brokenness, that there is something else there, the undeniable, overwhelming love of God.”

            The Christian faith is not about vague reassurances that everything will be okay.  It is not consolation in that sense.  It is a brave faith enabling us to face suffering with a courage born of love, a faith that does not try to explain suffering or justify it, but instead reminds us that we do not face it alone.

            Now I am going to talk to our children, but you parents can listen in.  Children, you have been drawing pictures of things you think are scary.  I want you to take your pictures and fold them up so you can’t see them anymore, so that a blank piece of paper shows on the outside.  Then on this blank piece of paper, I want you to write or your parents to write Joshua 1:9, the last verse of our first scripture reading.  It says, “Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.”  Courage comes from knowing you are loved by Someone bigger than anything that might make you afraid.

W is for Worship: An Alphabet of Christian Worship

Psalm 145 (interspersed)

By Rev. Aaron Willett

Psalm 145:1-3

I will lift you up high, my God, the true king.

   I will bless your name forever and always.

I will bless you every day.

   I will praise your name forever and always.

The Lord is great and so worthy of praise!

   God’s greatness can’t be grasped.

“A” is for announcements, I suppose you could say,

but our worship is described in a more powerful way

if instead we declare “A” is for Acolytes

who bring down our aisle a flame as God’s light,

to be shared with all people, in word and in song.

Let us raise all our voices, for all here belong.

And with that, let us stand and sing our way into worship.

“B” is for “Be Still,” and “Bless the Lord” it is true,

but also for baptism and bread--here’s a clue--

our sacraments point beyond just your pew;

these are signs of God’s promise for me and for you.

Psalm 145:4

One generation will praise your works to the next one,

   proclaiming your mighty acts.

“C” is for children, who gather with us.

We welcome them all, even when they fuss.

We welcome them into God-blessed community,

for our worship here is equal-opportunity.

“D” is for divine, the presence of God,

mysterious, wonderful, awesome, and odd.

We catch little glimpses, like hints of a thing,

like the wave of a banner, or a bell when it rings.

Psalm 145:5-7

They will talk all about the glorious splendor of your majesty;
   I will contemplate your wondrous works.
6 They will speak of the power of your awesome deeds;
   I will declare your great accomplishments.
7 They will rave in celebration of your abundant goodness;
   they will shout joyfully about your righteousness:

“E” is for everyone, encountering God,

with our eyes and our ears ready to be awed.

“Do not be afraid,” the angles would say,

were we to encounter God in that way.

But here we trust God will elevate

our hearts and our souls, if only we wait.

“F” is for Family, but not based on kin.

See, the family of God has been forgiven.

For our Father in Heaven forgives all our failings

and all of our many spiritual ailings.

Prayer of Confession

Assurance of Pardon: Psalm 145:8-10:

“The Lord is merciful and compassionate,

   very patient, and full of faithful love.

The Lord is good to everyone and everything;

   God’s compassion extends, to all his handiwork!”

All that you have made gives thanks to you, Lord;

   all your faithful ones bless you!

Which brings us to “G” for God’s good gracious grace,

Free to you and to all the whole human race.

Generation to generation, our gratitude does increase,

as we share with each other our Lord, the Christ’s peace.

Sisters and brothers, may the peace of our Lord, Jesus Christ, be with you!

And now let us pass that peace with each other.

“H” is for hymns, like the one we just sung,

which lift up the hearts of the old and the young.

The Holy Spirit connects and lifts up our hearts,

with our hands and our voices engaged in the arts.

“I” is for intelligent, inquisitive minds

we bring to our worship, for we hope to find

God’s presence in things we don’t understand.

Sometimes in our searching, our thoughts God expands.

“J” is clearly for Jesus of course.

For Jesus revealed God’s love not by force,

but rather by truth, compassion, and justice;

God said through Jesus, “It’s OK to trust us.”

Psalm 145:11-13a

They speak of the glory of your kingdom;

   they talk all about your power,

   to inform all human beings about God’s power

   and the majestic glory of God’s kingdom.

Your kingdom is a kingship that lasts forever;

   your rule endures for all generations.

“K” is for king, and yes, God is ours.

We worship God only, not human powers.

God’s kingdom is here, among us, and when

We become like these kids, well then we’ll get in.

“L” is for love, that most powerful force;

it set creation in motion and us on our course.

One response to God’s love could surely be

the “work of the people,” what we call liturgy.

Psalm 145: 13b-14

The Lord is trustworthy in all that he says,

   faithful in all that he does.

14 The Lord supports all who fall down,

   straightens up all who are bent low.

“M” is for mother, mama, and mom.

For God’s like that too, it says in our Psalm.

By our side in our trouble, God shows us great care.

We can call God our mom too--if we dare!

“N” is for nature, where some God encounter,

But without community, long-term it's a downer.

No, I declare, I’m not being too flip.

I’m sure you’ll agree, it’s natural to worship.

“O” is for offering and offertory.

We open our hearts and give God the glory.

We give from what God has given us first,

The offering is God’s giving reversed.

And now would our ushers please come forward to receive the offering.

“P” is for peace and the passing thereof,

as we already practiced, earlier, above.

“P” is also for lifting our hearts up in praise,

and for prayers of all kinds that to Jesus we raise.

“Q” is for quiet, a good way to pray.

You see it’s not always necessary to say

all the things on our hearts, because God already knows

our joys and concerns, our highs and our lows.

Psalm 145:15-16

All eyes look to you, hoping,

   and you give them their food right on time,

   opening your hand

   and satisfying the desire of every living thing.

Prayers of the People

“R” is for ready, as ready as we can be

to meet here with God in this sanctuary.

God is righteous, more than we comprehend,

so we depend on God to refine us even to the end.

“S” is for Sunday, the day that we gather,

and the Sabbath rest we celebrate together.

We saints gather here for Scripture and songs

sung ‘round God’s throne, where we all belong.

“T” is for tradition, passed down and down,

from Jesus to Peter to Clement of Rome.

A tradition of thanks, a tradition that’s true,

passed from your grandparents, to your parents, to you.

Psalm 145:17-18

The Lord is righteous in all his ways,

   faithful in all his deeds.

The Lord is close to everyone who calls out to him,

   to all who call out to him sincerely.

“U” is for universal, for God loves all people,

Not just those who have a big steeple.

God created everyone and the whole world too,

Jesus came for us all, not just a few.

“V” is for voices, let’s lift them up high!

The church needs your voice to magnify

the glory of the Lord, saving, profound.

“I once was lost but now am found.”

Psalm 145:19-20

God shows favor to those who honor him,
   listening to their cries for help and saving them.
20 The Lord protects all who love him,
   but he destroys every wicked person.

“W” is for wicked, for we all have our flaws,

and Jesus made clear mine are no worse than yours.

But it’s also for wonder at our God-given Scripture

The Word shows of our God a most gracious picture.

“X” is for the cross, if we turn it a little,

that tree where Jesus paid for our acquittal.

Because of the cross, we are all welcome here,

all people on earth God wants to draw near.

Celebrating with Children #2 (Addressing the children)

“Y” is for you, and your role in our worship:

your energy, ideas, your entrepreneurship.

We all have great hopes for what you will add;

God includes us all, and for that we are glad.

“Z” is the omega; God, our beginning and end.

Our service is over, but I would contend

that our worship goes on, out into the world,

in your life and mine, God’s love unfurled.

Psalm 145:21

My mouth will proclaim the Lord’s praise,

   and every living thing will bless God’s holy name

       forever and always.

Is God Always Happy?

Four Mini-Sermons on the Emotions of God

By Ken Onstot

Part 1: What makes God Happy?

Scripture: Luke 15:1-7


What makes God happy?

It’s not that profound.

God is happy

When people are found.


When people whose lives

Have gotten off track

Hear good news of God’s love

And begin to come back.


When all kinds of people

Of every nation and race

Rejoice in God’s gifts

And are quick to embrace,

Celebrating together

The good news of God’s grace.


That’s what makes God happy.


But some are not happy

About the people God seeks;

The Pharisees in Jesus’ time

Thought his followers were freaks.


Jesus welcomed people with issues,

Tax collectors and sinners,

People who even at their best

Were not what you call winners.


Some are not happy

About the people coming to God,

They see a sinner coming to church

As a spiritual fraud.


But from heaven comes a cheer:

God rejoices that you’re here;

God wants you here to learn and to pray

And to keep one another from going astray.


God’s happy you’re here

To praise God above,

And to practice with one another

The discipline of love.


But that requires being with people

In the presence of God,

Even those people

You might consider odd.


What makes God happy?

Loving God and one another,

Welcoming even people with issues

As your sister or brother.



Part 2: What makes God mad?

Scripture: Mark 3:1-5


What makes God mad?

It’s not just when people are bad,

But when people badly behave

Toward those God wants to save.


A broken man came to Jesus for healing

But the crowd in the synagogue

Was rather unfeeling.

They wanted him to go away;

They said, “There is no healing here

On the Sabbath day.”


But Jesus was angry,

Which means God was mad;

It hurt him that people were callous;

It also made him sad.


But despite their opposition

The hurt man was healed;

Despite the barriers

God’s love was revealed.


Still, it makes God angry

When people are hurt,

When they’re insulted or bullied

Or treated like dirt.

When children are orphaned

Or women demeaned;

Or people enslaved

Whom Jesus redeemed.

When we violate promises,

Or betray sacred trusts,

Or use positions of power

To satisfy lusts,

When instead of gratitude

We give into greed,

Or pretend not to see

The people in need,

Then God gets upset,

Like a loving mother,

Whose child has just hit

A sister or brother.


God created us for love,

And meant us for good;

So God gets upset

When we don’t do as we should.


But God’s anger does not last;

God’s love will abide;

It was for people like us

That on the cross Jesus died,

And when we turn back to God,

His grace is supplied.


Part 3: What makes God sad?

Scripture: John 11:32-37


What makes God sad?

There is one simple clue;

Ask yourself this question:

What brings sadness to you?


Jesus wept because Martha wept,

And so did her sister Mary;

Their brother was dead,

And his body they had to bury.


So Jesus cried because his friend had died,

A loved one newly departed.

He shed a tear while standing near

Those who were broken-hearted. 


In Jesus, God became flesh

Sharing our joy and grieving,

Not taking away the pain of loss

But helping us keep on believing.


But that raises a question,

Asked by both Martha and Mary:

When informed of Lazarus’ illness,

Why then did Jesus tarry?


Why did he not come right away,

And stop Lazarus from dying,

Instead of showing four days later,

When Lazarus was already lying… in a tomb?


Why does God not prevent

All the world’s suffering and sorrow,

Instead of telling us to wait

For a better tomorrow?


We don’t know why.


We don’t know why there’s suffering and sorrow,

Tragedy and grief,

Or why illness strikes people

With no sign of relief.


We don’t know why

People are taken

In disasters or wars,

Leaving their children forsaken.


But we know God does not abandon us,

Nor our sorrows disdain,

For God came into this world,

To share in our pain,

And to walk with us through it

To the life God wants us to gain.


What makes God sad?

When his children grieve.

And what makes God glad,

When they still somehow believe.


Part 4: How does God want us to feel?

Scripture: I Thessalonians 5:16-18


How does God want us to feel?

Always happy?  Always cheery?

Even when circumstances or weather

Seem particularly dreary?


No.  Not even God is always happy.

Sometimes God is furious;

Which means it’s okay to be mad

When something happens injurious.


It’s okay to be mad,

Or sometimes sad,

There are times when even God

Feels sort of bad.


It is not so much a feeling God wants

But an attitude;

In every circumstance God wants for us



This does not mean being happy

About every occasion;

There is nothing happy

About a foreign invasion,

Or a cancerous tumor or a nasty rumor,

Or going blind or losing your mind,


To be grateful does not mean

Always to be glad;

It means to see hope

Even in things that are sad.


Gratitude is the knowledge

That we’re still in God’s hand,

And that God’s will for our good

Forever will stand.


So gratitude looks forward

To what God does at last,

While allowing us to see backward,

At what God’s done in the past.


In gratitude we see

That God has always been here,

Even in hurt, even in fear,

Even when losing those we hold dear.


Gratitude changes our view

Of the past we regret,

By making us see differently

What we’d rather forget.


Gratitude helps us to see

How God never left,

And that even in the future

We will not be bereft.


Gratitude is the knowledge

That God reigns above,

And nothing past or future,

Can separate us from his love.


The Wasted Life

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: Mark 9:42-48, I Corinthians 3:10-15

Introduction to scripture reading:

            During the summer in our church services we are answering questions of faith submitted by people in the congregation.  I think it is good sometimes for pastors to address difficult topics related to our Christian faith.  However, when I planned this series of sermons, I did not take into account the Sundays of family worship.  Which means I did not fully realize until this week that on a family worship Sunday I would be preaching about hell.  But that is this week’s question of faith: What is hell?  So let’s jump in and see what we can learn.

[Read Mark 9:42-48]

            On my trip to Israel this spring I took this picture [Slide1] of a valley just south of the wall around Jerusalem. It is a pleasant looking valley, but it does not seem particularly striking or significant, until you know its name.  This is the Valley of Hinnom. [Slide 2] In Aramaic, the language Jesus used, it is called Gehenna. [Slide 3] This, ladies and gentlemen, is hell, or at least the place Jesus uses to describe hell.

            Here is another view of the same valley. [Slide 4]  It doesn’t look that bad. Evil often does not look that bad in its early stages.  For centuries this was an ordinary valley.  It seemed like a nice place.  But about 1000 B. C.—about 10 centuries before Jesus—dark things began to happen in this valley.  People in this valley began setting up images and altars to gods other than the Lord.  They were worshiping gods like Baal, which was an ancient god of military power.  Or they worshiped gods like Ashtoreth, a goddess of fertility, the god of sex and prosperity.  In this valley they built altars and offered sacrifices to these gods, and when they did not get what they wanted from these gods, when their sacrifices did not produce the power or the security or the prosperity they wanted, then they started making bigger and more elaborate sacrifices, until eventually they were offering their own children as sacrifices on altars built here in the Valley of Hinnom, what Jesus calls Gehenna. [Slide 5: Blank]

            It is kind of like Hitler in Nazi Germany.  Why did so many people follower Hitler?  Think about it.  He offered power, security, and prosperity.  He was the gods Baal and Ashtoreth rolled into one.  So people followed him and made sacrifices for him, sacrificing their freedom, their humanity, and eventually even their own children for the sake of his ambitious plan to take over Europe.

            That’s what the people of Israel did in the Valley of Hinnom, in the place Jesus called Gehenna.  They sacrificed their humanity and even their children to the gods of power, security, and prosperity.

            Then it all fell apart.  In 587 B. C. the Babylonian army conquered Jerusalem and destroyed the city, including the altars built in the valley of Hinnon.  Gehenna became a wasteland.

            Later, when the Israelites returned, they rebuilt the city of Jerusalem, but they left the valley of Hinnom as a wasteland.  In the time of Jesus it was landfill—the Jerusalem garbage dump.  Hence Jesus describes it as a place “where the worm never dies and the fire is never quenched.”  If you have ever been to a garbage dump, you know that a garbage dump produces two things: maggots and methane, and if the methane catches fire it can burn for a long time.

            So what does this mean?  Hell, as Jesus’ talks about it, is not a cauldron of burning oil into which God tosses people; it is the garbage dump of wasted lives.  It is the end product of people who devote their lives and sacrifice their families to false gods, who devote their lives and sacrifice their families to the gods of wealth or status or sex or substance abuse or anything else that might substitute for the God who created us and called us to love one another.  A life devoted to any other god will end up on the trash heap of history.  It will end up wasted.

            That’s why Jesus talks about not putting a “stumbling block” in the way of little ones.  Don’t devote yourself to false gods or false ambitions that will put a barrier in the way of your children or anyone else from coming to know God’s love.  That, according to Jesus, is a good way to waste your life.

            At the same time don’t allow things in your own life to cause you to stumble, to keep you from the life God wants for you and your family.  Power, wealth, status, sex, drugs, alcohol, even your own limbs are not worth keeping, Jesus says, if they cause you to stumble, if they keep you from the life of meaning and love that God wants for us all.

            But here is the good news: the life we live for God, the things we do to share God’s love with others, these things will not end up on the trash heap of history.  They will in fact be incorporated into God’s eternal kingdom.

            Recall our first scripture reading.  Paul talks about Jesus being the foundation of our lives.  But then he says, “Each builder must choose with care how to build on it.”  He goes on to talk about building materials.  We can build on it with gold, silver, and precious stones, or with wood, hay and straw.  This is symbolic, of course.  The gold and silver represent a life reflecting God’s grace and sharing God’s love.  The hay and straw represent a life lived for lesser things, like pride, greed, or control—the gods of Baal and Ashtoreth.  The good news is that the gold, silver, and precious stones will last.  They will not end up in Gehenna, the trash heap of history.  The things we do to show God’s love—even the smallest, the most feeble, even the imperfect things we do to show God’s love—will be built into the structure of God’s eternal kingdom, where they will be treasured and celebrated forever.

            That’s the opposite of hell.  If hell is a wasted life, then heaven is a life fulfilled, a life whose purpose and meaning is realized in unexpected ways.

            For me, that is the greatest hope of a parent or grandparent.  Because when it comes to our children and grandchildren, there are so many things beyond our control.  We can bring our children for baptism, but there are so many influences on them and things that can happen to them that we can’t shape.  We have to trust them to God every day.  But the promise is that the things we do to show God’s love to them—the things we do to help them love God and love other people—these things will not be wasted, ever.  They may not be fulfilled in our lifetime, but in God’s kingdom they will reappear as part of God’s amazing construction project, shaping lives in ways we never anticipated.

            That’s the opposite of hell.  If hell is a wasted life, then heaven is a life fulfilled, a life for which it is worth sacrificing our pride, our self-centeredness, even our bodies; a life that will be treasured and celebrated forever.

God Our Mother

Rev. Erin McArdel

Scriptures: Genesis 1:26-31, 1 Corinthians 12:12-14, 27

I’m going to say something shocking…are you ready?  God is not an old white man with a long white beard as say, this image might have us believe.  

far side.jpg

Of course, most of us understand that God is not literally a man, and yet the language and characterization of God most often used as we try to conceptualize God—He, Him, Father--is predominantly masculine.  For some, the predominant use of masculine images of God can be off-putting and may even cause a barrier in one’s relationship with God.  For all of us, the use of predominantly masculine language for God presents limitations in our ability to deepen our knowledge of and relationship with God.  Episcopal Bishop Moore goes so far as to say that our spiritual growth is obstructed, incomplete, and unrealized if it does not embrace femininity. He writes, “If the objects of devotion are only male, one cannot fully experience one’s own spirituality.  Everyone’s prayer life is impoverished if we can only relate to a male God.”

Today, we continue with the summer sermon series, “Questions of Faith,” with the question, “If Jesus of Nazareth refers to God as the Father, and he came to earth as a man, does this then mean that God is more akin to males or conversely  that males are more like God?   

The answer, is of course a resounding no…As we read in our Genesis passage, God created all of humankind in God’s image, both male and female.  Thus we as females and males are coequals and we both reflect the image of God.  According to the Harper Collins commentary on Genesis, made in the image of God we may all look in part like God since we collectively represent God on earth and embody some of God’s qualities and characteristics with respect to moral, spiritual, and even political qualities in so much as God calls us to live in relationship with one another and in stewardship over all other living things.

Likewise, in our New Testament passage, Paul discusses how each of us is baptized or reborn into one body, that is, the Body of Christ-the church.  He uses the image of the human body to illustrate how unity can exist in compatibility with our diversity.  Our individual and diverse attributes, including our masculinity or femininity, all come from the same spirit of God and are collectively reflective of God’s attributes.  We cannot therefore say that we have no need of any one particular attribute or function of the body, and we should have equal concern for each.  Since both males and females make up the body of Christ and since both the qualities which are traditionally (albeit stereotypically) characterized as more masculine or as more feminine are reflective of God’s qualities, we should have language in our churches and culture which reflects this inclusion.  When we refer to God exclusively in male terms, we repress God in that we miss out on or ignore attributes that may draw us closer to God, and furthermore, we oppress entire groups of people who may feel that their voices and experiences are somehow stifled or less important than the voices of their male counterparts.  This is humorously illustrated by a little girl in the popular, “Children’s Letters to God” books.  She writes, “Dear God, are boys better than girls?  I know you are one, but try to be fair…”    

In reality, God is not male or female.  As theologian Lynn Japinga wrote, our “Language about God should help us to understand and encounter God, but we should not confuse the reality of God with the limits of our language.” God is transcendent and incomprehensible, and all of the language that we use to describe God is limited and imperfect.  God is beyond our ability to name or imagine God, and the images we do use in an attempt to know God are limited, including when those images denote a particular gender.  Our images for God convey something which is both true and false, true in its ability to enrich our understanding of God but false in its limitations.  God is neither male nor female, and yet God has attributes that are like males and like females.  If we are willing to expand our use of metaphors for God to include feminine metaphors, our experience with God can be enriched, and we are all liberated to discover and affirm the divine and feminine attributes in each of us—male and female, since each of us is created in God’s image. 

The invitation to expand our use of metaphor is often met with resistance or discomfort, consider for a moment what it would feel like if, for example, we sang the doxology as “Praise Her all creatures, here below…”  We tend to be more used to depictions of God like this:


but we wiggle in our seats a bit when God is depicted like this:


However, the concept of female metaphors for God is not a radical feminist movement.  Though scripture does predominantly use masculine language to describe God, which is both a product of the cultural norms of the time at which it was written and is reflective of the patriarchal systems in place at the time of the canonization of the Bible, feminine language for God does have scriptural backing and was a part of early Christian history.  We will briefly explore some of those scriptural feminine images now.   

In the very opening of Genesis, there is imagery which illustrates the feminine characteristics of God. The creation story describes that God’s spirit moves over the primordial waters prior to speaking creation into being.  The Hebrew word often translated as moves or hover, “racaph” can also be translated as “brooding,” as a mother bird does over her eggs to bring forth life.  So God is described not just as speaking creation into existence but as brooding or birthing creation into being.  This birthing image is repeated throughout the Old Testament.  In the book of Job, God challenges Job to consider from whose womb was creation birthed?      In Deuteronomy, Moses refers to God as the one who bore and gave birth to the Israelites.  In Isaiah, God says, “like a woman in labor, I will moan, pant, gasp…”  The birthing metaphor is used in the New Testament too, for example when Jesus tells Nicodemus that in order to see God’s kingdom, he must be born anew and when the apostles speak of themselves as birthing and nurturing the churches they’ve founded.  The birthing metaphor is useful in describing the roles of both the Creator and the created, roles which involve suffering and risk, but which result in redemption and new life. 

            God is also compared to a nurturing and compassionate mother, one who does not forget her child, who feeds her suckling infant at her breast and who is a source of sustenance and comfort.  These metaphors are found in both Isaiah and the Psalms.  In the book of Hosea, God is likened to a loving mother who taught her child, Israel, to walk, took him up in her arms, lifted him to her cheeks, bent down to feed him, healed him with her kindness and love. 

Though nurturing and compassionate, God is also described as protective and willing to fight like a mother bear separated from her cubs and to challenge her young like an eagle who hovers over her young, yes, but also pushes them out of the nest, though she is ready to catch them when they fall.  Jesus mourns over Jerusalem, lamenting at their disobedience and sharing his heart and desire to protect and comfort them from the suffering that lies ahead, “How often I have wanted to gather your people just as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings.”  Jesus too, knows that we must be pushed out of the nest, though he is there to comfort us and catch us when we fall.   

There are also nonmaternal images of God found in scripture.  In the New Testament, the God is compared to a woman searching for a lost coin and a bakerwoman making yeast bread.  Perhaps even more notable is the use of the feminine word for God’s wisdom, the Hebrew word “Hokmah” and Greek word, “Sophia.”  Thus books such as Proverbs, which speak of God’s wisdom, would have been understood in their historical Jewish context as describing feminine aspects of God.  Theologian and author, Marcus Borg, argues that Christ, the incarnate God on earth embodies the Sophia wisdom of God.  This is not to detract from Jesus being a 1st century Nazarene male.  That,he was.  However, Christ, the divine part of God in the flesh, like God, embodies both facets which are traditionally thought of as more masculine and those traditionally believed to be more feminine.    

I always believed that becoming a mother would help me to better understand God’s love for me, and this couldn’t have been truer.  As a mother, my children have my whole heart.  I would do anything for them.  When they hurt, I ache.  When they feel happy, I rejoice in their delight.  I have been for them, as my mom was (and still is) for me, a source of emotional support, nurture, love, and sustenance.  They depend on me, and though I know I sometimes fail in my role as a mother, I strive not to let them down.  How much more is our Mother God, who doesn’t fail, who is our dependable provider, sustainer, source of love, nurturer, supporter, rejoicer in our delights, bearer of our pains and sorrows. 

Most of you know that I work as a palliative care and hospice chaplain at the VA Hospital in Seattle.  The importance of expanding our understanding of God to include maternal God has been evident to me in my ministry there.  As chaplains, we hope to bring something of God’s presence into the room with us when we visit a patient, to be for and with the patient an embodiment of God’s compassion and hope.  My boss has often said that we female chaplains at times seem to have an advantage over our male counterparts amongst our population of veterans which is predominantly male.  He has said of his own preferences, “When I am lying on a hospital bed, I would much prefer a female to sit with me and provide me comfort….someone that reminds me of my mother comforting me when I was sick as a child.”  Recently, I visited with a man, Mr. A who had been abandoned by his father but also had felt emotionally abandoned and abused by his mother.  As is so often the case, having been abused, he himself went on to perpetuate the cycle of abuse---and though he had turned his life around, as he lay on his deathbed, he was paralyzed by a tremendous amount of guilt and self-hatred.  He could only imagine God as angry and punitive—and he wanted nothing to do with that God.  It struck me that much of his fears and feelings were rooted in the sad reality that he had never experienced unconditional love from a parent or from anyone, and thus how could he relate to a God of unconditional love.  In that moment, I hoped more than anything as I sat with Mr. A, that I could convey something of God’s feelings toward him of unconditional love, compassion, and forgiveness.  I felt toward him as a mother feels toward her hurting child, and I pray that he might have experienced—through my presence with him the embodiment of Mother God, who has not and will not ever fail him, even though his earthly mother had.  The image of Mother God is needed in our language and consciousness of God’s character.     

There is a risk of emphasizing any one metaphor for God over another that the metaphor itself can become a form of idolatry.  Therefore it is important that we use, what Dr.Christena Cleveland of Duke University Divinity School calls a “chorus of metaphors” to describe God, so that we might start to expand the boxes in which we try to stuff God and the boundaries and margins by which we try to define God.  Each of the feminine metaphors for God I’ve mentioned serve to provide a more integrated and fuller understanding of the mystery of God and builds a theology which promotes unity and equality amongst females and males created equally in the image of God.  I would challenge us today as a church to be willing to step outside of our comfort zone and of the status quo, to resist the predominant use of masculine metaphors for God, and to expand our vocabulary and make room in our hearts for use of feminine language and conceptualization of God.    We may be surprised at the transformation that could occur as a result. Amen.


God, Science, and Faith

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: Genesis 1 (selected verses); Hebrews 11:1-3

            As I said in the church eNews this week, one of the children in our church recently said to his mother, “I’ve been thinking.  If Santa really exists, why doesn’t he show himself and prove it.”  Then he added, “I wonder the same thing about God.”

            Which just happens to be almost word for word a question asked in a Calvin and Hobbes comic strip.  It’s Christmas time, and Calvin says to his pet tiger Hobbes, “This whole Santa Claus thing just doesn’t make sense. Why all the secrecy?  Why all the mystery?  If the guy exists, why doesn’t he ever show himself and prove it? And if he doesn’t exist, what’s the meaning of all this?”  Hobbes says, “I dunno.  Isn’t this a religious holiday?”  Calvin says, “Yeah, but actually, I’ve got the same questions about God.”

            In our recent high school confirmation class I showed a movie called Contact.  Jodie Foster plays an astronomer named Dr. Ellie Arroway who uses large arrays of radio telescopes to listen for transmissions from intelligent life in distant galaxies.  She is befriended by an ex-priest name Palmer Joss, played by Matthew McConaughey, who now writes books on science and religion.  Early in the movie they attend a dinner party at which they begin a running conversation about science and God.

Ellie: What’s more likely, an all-powerful God created the universe and then decided not to give proof of his existence, or that he does not exist at all, and that we created him so we wouldn’t have to feel so small and alone.

Palmer: I don’t know.  I couldn’t imagine living in a world where God doesn’t exist.  I wouldn’t want to.

Ellie: How do you know you are not deluding yourself?  For me, I’d need proof.

Palmer: Proof.  (Pause) Did you love your Father?

Ellie: Yes, very much.

Palmer: Prove it.

            In our first scripture reading, Hebrews 11 says, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”  Faith is not something you can prove.  It is more like the question, “Do you love your father?  Or your spouse?  Or your children?”  It is not a matter of proof, it is a matter of commitment, a commitment that changes your life precisely because you make it.

            Let me illustrate using the story of creation in Genesis 1.  For some the Bible creation story is itself a barrier to faith.  One of the questions of faith submitted this spring asks, “How does the Old Testament creation story connect to science?”

            On the back of the bulletin insert are some scientific descriptions of creation.  According to science, the world came into being over billions of years, but the Bible says it happened over seven days.  For some that is a contradiction disproving the whole Biblical idea of creation.

            But only if you don’t read Genesis carefully.  Because if you read Genesis carefully, you will see that the reference to “days” in Genesis 1 is symbolic.  It is not meant to be taken literally; it is meant to be taken symbolically.  The proof is in verses 14-19.  These verses describes the creation of the sun and moon, and it says they were created on the fourth day!  What does a day mean, if the sun and moon are not created until the fourth day?  Clearly, the word “day” in Genesis 1 has a symbolic meaning.  What does it symbolize?  I will come back to that in a minute.

            But notice how Genesis describes creation as a process.  Verse 11: “Then God said, “Let the earth put forth vegetation: plants yielding seed, and fruit trees of every kind that bear fruit with the seed in it.”  This is not all that different from the biology text book quoted on the back of the insert.  The middle paragraph says,

Just how atoms and smaller molecules are assembled into the intricate patterns of organic molecules is a matter of great interest to biochemists today.  Somewhere in this maze of cell chemistry must lie the key to life.

            In Genesis, God says, “Let the earth put forth vegetation….”  There is nothing in Genesis that excludes the idea of a process by which inorganic material—the earth—becomes organic material, and then a living thing that grows and reproduces.  The Bible in no way requires that we turn our back on science.

            But science does not give us the whole key to life.  Despite what the biology text book says, you won’t find the key to life in the maze of cell chemistry.  Science can try to explain how we got here, but not why.  The Bible deals with why we are here.  You may be the result of a process that took billions of years; you may even be the end product of millions of years of evolution, but that is not the whole story.  The Bible says you are here on purpose.  You are not just an accident, a random collision of molecules that after enough tries finally produced a human being.  You were put here by Someone who wanted you here, someone bigger than your family, bigger than your school, bigger than the whole world.  You are here, because the Creator of the universe wanted you here.

            Why?  That brings me to verse 26: “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness….”  There have been many interpretations of what it means to be created in the image of God, but the best explanation, I think, is that we are created with the capacity for a relationship to God.  I have no problem with the idea of evolution, but somewhere in the process God made human beings capable of knowing God and loving God.  That’s what I think it means to be created in the image of God.  It means we were created with the capacity to experience God’s love for us and share that love with others.

            Now back to the question of why creation is described as happening over 6 days, culminating in the 7th day?  By describing it this way, the Bible makes clear that creation is unfolding toward a goal.  According to the Bible, nature is not an endlessly repeating cycle, which is how nature is portrayed in many other religions.  Many religions portray nature as an endlessly repeating cycle.  But the Bible sees life as an unfolding plot, a story moving toward a goal or climax.  And that goal is symbolized by the 7th day of creation, which in the Old Testament is called the Sabbath, the day of rest and worship.

           One of the confessions in our Presbyterian Book of Confessions is called the Westminster Shorter Catechism.  A catechism is a confession of faith in the form of questions and answers.  The first question asks, “What is the chief end of man?”  Or to put it another way, “What is the goal of human life?”  Answer: “To glorify God and enjoy him forever.”

            That is why the Bible describes creation symbolically as unfolding over seven days culminating in the Sabbath.  The Sabbath is the day of rest and worship.  It is the day for glorifying God and enjoying God’s gifts along with the whole creation.  All the hopes for life in the Bible—for peace, fulfillment, joy, hope, right relationships, and blessing for all people—all these hopes are symbolized by the seventh day of creation: the Sabbath.  That, according to Genesis, is the goal of creation: to glorify God and enjoy God forever.

            You won’t find that in any science book.  Did you notice how Genesis repeatedly says that the world is good?  You won’t find that word in a science text.  Science may try to tell us how the world came into being, but it cannot tell us that the world is good, because that is a value judgment.  It is not an empirical observation; it is a statement of value by the world’s Creator.  Unlike science, the Bible explains why we are here, where we are going, and why we matter to Someone who is greater than we are.

            In the movie Contact Ellie Arroway finally makes contact with radio signals from deep space.  Eventually these radio signals are decoded and found to contain complete drawings for making a space craft capable of traveling to a remote part of the universe and making contact with the intelligent beings who sent the radio signals.  So NASA builds the space ship and Ellie is chosen to fly it.  She makes the trip, but because the travel involves a time warp, it appears that she never left.  From the point of view of observers on earth she is gone for no length of time and has no proof that she went anywhere.  But she did go somewhere, and it was a life changing experience.

            Near the end of the movie Ellie is summoned to testify about her trip before a committee of Congress.  And here is the scene where Ellie has to explain and justify what she has experienced.  A counsel of the committee accuses her of being deluded, and the committee chair says to her, “Are we supposed to take all this on faith?”  In response Ellie says,

I had an experience.  I can’t prove it, I can’t even explain it, but everything I know as a human being, everything I am tells me it is real.  I was given something wonderful, something that changed me forever: a vision of the universe that tells us how undeniably tiny and insignificant and how rare and precious we all are, a vision that tells us we belong to something greater than ourselves, that none of us is alone.  I wish I could share that; I wish that everyone even for a moment could feel that awe and humility and hope.

            I cannot prove to you that we were created by God.  But I can offer you a vision of how small and insignificant and rare and precious we are, a vision that tells us we belong to Someone greater than ourselves and that we are not alone.  I wish for every one of you that awe and humility and hope.

The Difference Between Resurrection and Reincarnation

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: Romans 6:1-11; Genesis 2:4-8

            Once again our question of faith for this week is anticipated by Calvin and Hobbes.  They are sledding down a hill, and Calvin turns to his pet tiger Hobbes and says, “I have a question. Do you believe in life after death?  You know, reincarnation?”  Hobbes says, “You just steer, okay?”

            Did you notice how Calvin equated life after death with reincarnation? I once visited with a man who believed that reincarnation was simply another way of talking about resurrection.  He said to me, “They are both about life after death, aren’t they?  Why aren’t they compatible?”

            Which is our question of faith for this week: Is reincarnation compatible with Christianity or the Bible?  In a word, No.  At this point we guess we could sing the final hymn and go home.  But there is a little more I need to say about this.  Genesis tells us that humans were created by God out of the dust of the earth.  There is no indication in the Bible that humans had a prior life before they were born.  The one exception to this is Jesus.  The gospel of John says that the eternal word of God became flesh in Jesus, but that is never said about anyone else.  None of us except Jesus existed before we were born.  But God does want us to live with Jesus after we die, and that is the difference between resurrection and reincarnation.

            There are two problem with reincarnation that we need to understand before we can appreciate the grace that God has shown to us in Jesus.

            Problem #1: Reincarnation overestimates human beings.

            One of the games I remember from my childhood and the childhood of my children is Chutes and Ladders.  You spin a spinner to see how many spaces you move trying to get to the top—square 100.  Sometimes if you land on the right space you get to climb a ladder that takes you on a shortcut higher up the board.  Often that square has a picture on it of a boy or girl doing something nice.  Do something good, and you get to climb the ladder.  But if you land on the wrong space, which often has a picture of doing something bad, you slide down the chute to a lower square.

            That, to me, is a picture of reincarnation, at least the traditional Hindu version of it.  The idea in reincarnation is that we keep recycling through life until we get it right.  Or to put it another way, we work our way up the ladder by being good and faithful creatures at whatever level we find ourselves.  If you are a lower class human, struggling with oppression or poverty, but are nevertheless good, kind, and faithful, you might come back the next time as a person with a higher station in life.  But if you are not good, when you die you slide down a chute.  You come back as a person lower down on the scale of being where you must face the consequences of the things you’ve done and work through those issues in your life before you can climb back up again.

            Inevitably, whenever I played Chutes and Ladders, just when I was getting near the top, I would hit one of those chutes and slide back down.  Then I would have to work my way back up.

            That, for me, is like reincarnation.  Reincarnation is a program for works righteousness, a method by which we try to earn our salvation.  You keep cycling through until you get it right.  But the Bible tells me that we are never going to get it right, not on our own.  Because sin is not just this or that misdeed we have done for which we need to atone.  It is a chronic problem from which we need to be delivered.  In Romans 6 the apostle Paul says that we are baptized into Jesus so that “we might no longer be enslaved to sin.”  Those are Paul’s words: that “we might no longer be enslaved to sin.”

            Sin is less like an action and more like an addiction.  It starts out as an action, like excessive drinking or gambling, but it becomes an addiction.  It becomes something that has us in its grip.

            And that’s why I think reincarnation overestimates human beings.  It assumes that if we have enough second chances we will finally get it right.  I don’t think so.  In fact the very effort to “get it right” plays into our pride, which is part of the problem.  If you think you can climb your way up to salvation, you are not overcoming your pride, you are reinforcing it.  And the pride of accomplishment will lead you to look down on those below you.

            The only antidote for pride is grace.  We will be finally liberated from pride and the arrogance that looks down on others only when we realize that eternal life is a gift of God’s grace.  We cannot climb our way to the top.  We must be airlifted there by Jesus.

            And that brings me to the second problem with reincarnation. Not only does it overestimate human beings, reincarnation underestimates God.  In Romans 6:9-10 the apostle Paul says, “We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him.  The death he died, he died to sin, once for all.”

            Jesus is not an example of reincarnation.  He is the forerunner of resurrection.  He did not have to die and be reborn over and over to get to God.  He was raised never to die again, and that is the gift we are given when joined to him in baptism.  Hence Paul says in verses 3-4:

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?  Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.

            Jesus’ death and resurrection was a once-for-all event that opens the door once and for all to eternal life.  We receive this gift only by God’s grace, not as an accomplishment of our works.

            This week I had a wonderful conversation with Walt Edmiston following his colon surgery.  He was physically weak, but he was in a surprisingly chatty mood.  He actually told me quite a bit about himself.  One story he told was about boot camp in the army.  He said that during boot camp he finally understood what it was like to be a slave.  All day every day someone is yelling in your face telling you what to do.  It’s like being a slave.

            Interestingly, boot camp is also a lot like reincarnation.  If you mess up you get recycled.  You have to start over.

            In boot camp Walt experienced what it was like to be slave.  But one day, it was announced that any recruits who wanted to could go to chapel on Sunday morning.  Walt was stunned.  The drill sergeants never let them do anything.  Every moment of their day was prescribed.  But here were the drill sergeants giving them a couple hours off to go to church.  Walt said he thought, “Wow, someone around here has real pull.”  Then he realized it was God.  He said that when he realized God had more power than the drill sergeant, he became a lot more interested in Christianity.

            That’s what Paul is telling us in the scripture.  Pride, selfishness, and greed are not things you are going to overcome by yourself.  We are enslaved to these things.  Thinking we can overcome them on our own will only make them worse.  Deliverance from these things requires someone with more pull, a once-for-all act of God’s grace, and accepting that gift will change our lives forever.

Beyond Death

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: Philippians 1:18b-26, I Thessalonians 4:13-18

            I mentioned last week that many questions submitted to be answered in sermons this summer are already found in my collection of Calvin and Hobbes comic strips.  For example, Calvin says to his pet tiger Hobbes, “I wonder where we go when we die.”  Hobbes replies, “Pittsburgh?”  Calvin says, “You mean if we’re good or if we’re bad?”

            What happens when we die?  That is this week’s question of faith.  More specifically, a person in the congregation wrote, “Many people think the soul goes straight to God at death.  The Bible states we rest in the grave until Christ’s second coming.  Which is it?”

            The idea that we “rest” in the grave until Jesus’ second coming comes from several places in the Bible, but particularly from our first scripture reading in I Thessalonians 4. In verse 13, the apostle Paul says,

“But we do not want you to be uniformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died [in Greek “those who sleep”], so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.”

The idea of “sleeping” in the grave suggests that our consciousness is in a sense on hold until Jesus returns and raises us from the dead.

            Notice, however, that Paul expects this to happen fairly soon. Verse 15:

For we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died.

He says that the dead in Christ will rise first.  Then he says in verse 17,

Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will be with the Lord forever.

Paul expects Jesus’ return and the resurrection of the dead to happen at any moment, possibly during his lifetime.

            But then we come to our second scripture reading in Philippians chapter 1.  At this point Paul is in prison, probably for preaching that Jesus is Lord instead of any other gods, including the Roman Emperor.  Paul knows that such talk could get him executed, so at this point he is not so sure he will still be alive when Jesus comes again.  But he is not afraid.  Verse 19: “For I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance” [in Greek salvation].

            What does he mean?  Is Paul expecting deliverance from prison, or is he talking about his ultimate salvation even if he dies?  Probably both.  The point is that either way he wins!  Verse 21: “For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain.”  In other words, if he lives he gets to serve Jesus longer, and if he dies he gets to be with Jesus now.  Verses 23-24: “I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you.”

            Paul does not say anything here about resting in the grave until Jesus returns.  He talks only about going to be with Jesus if he dies.

            So which is it?  When we die do we go immediately to heaven to be with Jesus?  Or do we rest in the grave until Jesus comes again?  According to the Bible, both are true.

            How does that work?  The classic explanation is that when we die our souls go immediately to be with Jesus, while our bodies are cremated or decay in their graves.  Then when Jesus returns we are raised from the dead with a glorified body that is united with our soul and we live with Jesus forever, body and soul together.

            I don’t know if that is the best explanation or if it is better to think that in heaven time does not mean the same thing it means here.  For us there is a time gap between a person’s death and the resurrection of the dead when Jesus comes again.  But maybe for those in heaven there is no time gap.

            But either way we win!  That’s Paul’s point.  If we go to be with Jesus immediately after we die, or if we “sleep” in the grave until Jesus wakes us up and takes us to be with him forever, it does not matter.  Either way, death loses and life win!

            As an aside, let me say here that as Presbyterians we have no problem with cremation.  If God can raise from the dead a body that decays for decades or centuries in a grave, or a body buried at sea that has long ago been eaten by the fish, then God can certainly raise us from the dead if our ashes have been scattered on a hillside.  Cremation is not barrier to resurrection.

            But here is why the resurrection is important.  If all of us who believe in Jesus go to be with God when we die, then we win, but God doesn’t.  Because the world is left behind still in the same mess it has always been.

            The Christian faith is about more than our personal immortality; it is about God’s redemption of creation.  It is not just about God collecting a bunch of disembodied souls to inhabit heaven.  God wants to save a messed up world.  That’s why we believe in the resurrection of the body.  God is not out to get rid of bodily life but to transform it.  God intends to create a new heaven and earth where death and suffering will be no more, where there will be no more hunger, violence, disease, poverty, injustice, or hate, where people of all nations, races, and languages will be stand around the throne of God shouting “Hallelujah!”  That is how the book of Revelation describes heaven.  The immortality of our personal souls is not the whole story.  God wants to redeem the whole creation, making it the good thing it was intended to be all along.

            Beginning in 1993 Jonathan Kozol spend a year interviewing children and families in the South Bronx of New York.  He wrote a book about these interviews called Amazing Grace: The Lives of Children and the Conscience of a Nation.  At the time, South Bronx was one of the poorest districts in the country.  In 1991 the median household income was $7,600.

            One of the children he interviewed for his book was a 12 year-old boy named Anthony.  Anthony was an acolyte at St. Ann’s church in the heart of the South Bronx.  One day they were talking about heaven and the kingdom of God, things Anthony had been learning in church.  Pointing to his street Anthony said, “This out here is not God’s kingdom.  A kingdom is a place of glory.  This is a place of pain” (p. 84).  Then Jonathan Kozol asked Anthony what he thought heaven would be like.  So Anthony went home and wrote an essay about it.  He called his essay: “God’s Kingdom.”  He wrote,

God’s Kingdom.  God will be there.  He’ll be happy that we have arrived.  People shall come hand-in-hand.  It will be bright, not dim and glooming like on earth.  All friendly animals will be there, but no mean ones. … No one will look at you from the outside.  People will see you from the inside.

Anthony was African American.  I wonder if he meant that people will no longer look at him suspiciously because of his race, but will respect him because of his heart.  He continues,

All the people from the street will be there.  My uncle will be there and he will be healed.  You won’t see him buying drugs, because there won’t be money.  Mr. Mongo will be there too.  You might see him happy for a change. … No violence will there be in heaven.  There will be no guns or drugs or IRS.  You won’t have to pay taxes.  You’ll recognize all the children who have died when they were little.  Jesus will be good to them and play with them.  At night he’ll come and visit at your house (pp. 237-238).

            I was struck by how realistic Anthony’s picture of heaven was, and how bipartisan.  No taxes: that will make the Republicans happy.  No guns: that will make the Democrats happy.  No drugs: that will make everyone happy, except maybe the pharmaceuticals.  It is a very bodily picture of heaven, very down to earth, but it’s a transformed earth.

            That’s why as Christians we believe not just in the immortality of the soul but in the resurrection of the body.  The resurrection means that God will not give up on bodily life.  And every time we feed the hungry, every time we heal the sick, every time we visit the lonely, every time we work to reconcile broken relationships, every time we invite others into a life with Jesus as part of a family of faith, we demonstrate how this new life will look and get a taste of it, even while wait for its coming.


What Do Passover, Communion, and Independence Day Have in Common?

By Ken Onstot

Scriptures: Exodus 12:21-28; Luke 22:14-20

            The question in the sermon title this morning is not one of the questions of faith asked by someone in the congregation.  We will get to more questions of faith next week.  The question this morning is a riddle I would like ask you:  What do Passover, Communion, and Independence Day have in common?

The answer is not one thing but three things, so this is going to be a three point sermon, a rare chance to take notes if you want to.  What do Passover, Communion, and Independence Day have in common?  First, Commemorating the Past.

            During her last two years of life my mother lived in an assisted living facility near our home in Spokane.  At that point her memory was beginning to fail.  Sometimes when I came to see her she would say, “Oh, I am so glad to see you; it has been so long,” and I would say, “You mean since yesterday?”  And she would say, “Oh, did you come yesterday?”  And I would nod, and that’s kind of how it went.

            But one time when I went to see her, out of the blue she said to me, “I love that song ‘In the Garden.’”  “In the Garden” is a song about Mary Magdalene meeting Jesus in the garden outside his tomb on Easter morning.  Then my mother, without hesitation, began singing the whole song, all the verses including the chorus:

            And he walks with me and he talks with me,

            And he tells me I am his own;

            And the joy we share as we tarry there,

            None other has ever known.

            I said to her, “Mom, sometimes you don’t even remember when I have been here.  How do you remember all words of that song?”  She said, “Sometimes when I sit here feeling sad and lonely, I remember this song, and I know I’m not alone.”

            That’s what I mean by commemorating the past.  When her memory was failing, my mother was sustained by her faith because she had spent her life commemorating it; not just remembering it, not just reading about it, but commemorating it—singing about it, celebrating it in worship, embodying it in rituals that were repeated over and over.

            In our first scripture reading Moses instructs the people of Israel on what to do during the Passover.  God was determined to set the Israelites free from slavery, so God sent a plague on the Egyptians to force Pharaoh to let them go.  Moses told the Israelites to sacrifice a lamb and put its blood on the door frame of their houses so that the plague would “pass over” their houses and not affect them when it came upon the Egyptians.

            Admittedly, this seems kind of weird.  Why does God need lamb’s blood to know which houses belong to the Israelites?  I will come back to that in a moment.  But here is what I want you to notice at this point.  Moses does not intend this to be a one-time act.  He wants it to be a repeated celebration, an observance passed on from generation to generation.  Moses tells the people of Israel,

When you come to the land that the Lord will give you, as he has promised, you shall keep this observance.  And when your children ask you, ‘What do you mean by this observance?’  you shall say, ‘It is the passover sacrifice to the Lord, for he passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt, when he struck down the Egyptians but spared our houses.’”

            More than telling the story of the Passover, the Israelites are told to commemorate it.  They are to re-enact it and celebrate it in worship, so that it becomes embedded in their souls.

            Independence Day has different rituals—fireworks, parades, and dressing in red, white, and blue, but the idea is the same: to commemorate the gift of freedom we have been given.

            Jesus does the same thing at the Last Supper.  To help them understand his approaching death, he takes a piece of bread and says, “This is my body given for you.”  Then he says, “Do this in remembrance of me.”  He establishes a ritual—an act of worship—that can repeated over and over, so that the meaning of his death would be embedded in our souls.

            I have seen this work.  I have taken communion to people in nursing homes, people who could not remember who I was or even who some of their family members were but who recognized that little tray of bread cubes and those little cups of grape juice, and who could say the Lord’s Prayer with me word for word.  The memory of communion and worship was embedded in their souls where dementia could not get at it.

            And that brings me to the second thing all three have in common: First is Commemorating the Past.  Second is Anticipating the Future.  When the delegates to the Continental Congress signed their names to the Declaration of Independence, they were still a long way from independence.  At that point the Continental Army had about 17,000 troops.  On the other side, the British had more than 40,000 troops.  By the end of the year the British were in control of the very building where the Declaration had been signed.  But the Declaration of Independence anticipated a future that did not yet exist, just as the Passover anticipated the future freedom of the Israelites that did not yet exist.

            In the same way Jesus’ last supper also anticipated the future.  During the supper he says to his disciples, “I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.”  Jesus’ last supper anticipates the future kingdom he came to bring, a kingdom of freedom, justice, and peace for all people.

            But there is one more thing in common between Passover, Communion, and Independence Day.  First, Commemorating the Past.  Second, Anticipating the Future.  And third, and this is perhaps most important point, Making Sacrifices in the Present.

            Why did God need the blood of a lamb to identify the houses of the Israelites?  Does God need GPS to know where we live?  I don’t think so.  I think God used the lamb to make a crucial point: that freedom always comes with a sacrifice.  Jesus made the same point at the last supper.  Freedom from sin, freedom from evil, requires a sacrifice, and when we are talking about evil on a global scale, God had to be the one making the sacrifice.  That’s why we believe God was in Jesus reconciling the world to himself.  The defeat of sin and evil on a global scale requires a sacrifice only God can make.

            But it does not end there.  Because remembering Jesus’ sacrifice, setting us free from sin and death, forces us to ask, “What sacrifices are we called to make so that others may experience the blessings of freedom and new life that God wants us to have?”

            There is a Calvin and Hobbes comic strip where Calvin says to his pet tiger Hobbes, “A lot of people don’t have principles, but I do!  I’m a highly principled person! I live according to one principle, and never deviate from it.” Hobbes says, “What’s your principle?”  Calvin says, “Look out for number one” (Complete Calvin and Hobbes, vol. II: 372).

            I don’t think that was the goal for which God set us free.  We were not given freedom by God so we can be self-indulgent, so we can think only of our own interests. [Slide 6: Blank]

            Which brings me back to the question: What sacrifice are we called to make so that others may experience the blessings of freedom and new life that God wants for us all?  I have come to know a lot of people in the church who have made sacrifices for their family, even if at times they have had to confront them.  I also know people in this church who have made sacrifices for our community and our country, in order that the blessings of freedom and new life in Christ might be experienced by others, including the next generation.

            But right now I am also wondering what sacrifices we need to make so that people of other countries may experience the freedom and blessing God wants us to have.  As I think we all recognize, that is not happening when children are forcibly separated from their parents in a strange land and taken someplace far away from them.  So how do we deal with this?  Here I think we need to ask ourselves a deeper question: How do we help people on both sides of our border have a better life?  Because as Christians we have to be concerned about people on both sides of the border.  We have no choice, because the Kingdom of God has no borders, and when the Bible says “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son,” it means just that.

            We have some great Presbyterian mission workers, as well as other Christian organizations, working in Central America and other places to make life more of a blessing for people in their own countries.  But they will need a lot more support than we have given them so far.  A lot more.  And we may also need to think about the policies we pursue in those countries and the effect they have on the people most desperate to leave those countries.

            But as Christians, looking out only for ourselves is not an option.  To do so would desecrate the freedom we have been given and demean the sacrifices that made it possible.


"Come, let us bow down in worship, let us kneel before the LORD our Maker; for he is our God and we are the people of his pasture, the flock under his care."

Psalm 95:6-7