Hang in There
John 4:5-10, 19-24
Do you remember the disagreement you had with your spouse, or parent or neighbor or child or friend, back in January of 2011? Perhaps you do, but probably not. Time passes, and our minds are filled with fresh memories, either of good times, or even of other times of conflict. But January of 2011, how clear is that one in your mind?
Things that are so important to us at the moment, seem to fade as time passes. It is like the children who get in a verbal fight one moment, and thirty minutes later appear to be the best of friends. Go figure. It is like traditional family feuds, a la the Hatfields and the McCoys, where no one can remember why they aren’t supposed to like each other, but they just know they aren’t.
That, I am afraid, has happened within various religions, and within our own Christian religion as well.
And, of course, it is easy to list some of the things that divide us as churches. To begin with, the very fact that we speak of churches, rather than the church, is a clue to our separations. And we start that dividing line as we draw in the sand between Catholics and Protestants. Then we subdivide the Protestants, and the Catholics make their own distinctions too. Then, as we consider the multitude of Protestant denominations, we discover that they each have their own factions, and so the splits continue such that if you drew it all out with lines, it would resemble a family tree where someone has included all the siblings, all the marriages and divorces, and has gone back far enough to take up several pages and wear out several pencils.
Then about a third of the way into the twentieth century, somebody read Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians and said, “wait a minute, Paul says don’t be divided. Oops.” Paul said don’t be divided. What, for heaven’s sake, and it is for heaven’s sake, can we agree on? What could we as the Christian Church, as followers of the one and only Christ, do together that would perhaps not start more of the divisions and arguments that already separate us?
And what these people came up with so many years ago is what we are celebrating today, World Communion Sunday. It started with the Presbyterians in 1936 and continues in most denominations today. And our denomination, which held among its early precepts the belief in Christian Unity, is a strong supporter of this day.
We are a part of Churches Uniting in Christ, which is a formal agreement among nine denominations in addition to our own, which seeks to bring us together in worship, in service and in dialogue.
If we believe the words of Jesus, then we must be engaged in the drawing closer together, rather than finding ways to keep each other at a distance.
When Jesus and the Samaritan woman meet at the well, one of the topics of conversation revolves around the true place for worship. For the woman and the rest of the Samaritans, it is there on that mountain. For the Jews it is in Jerusalem. This was a major dividing line between these two historically linked peoples. And Jesus makes the bold claim that in due time, and “indeed that time has come,” he says, true worshippers will worship God in spirit and in truth, regardless of where they happen to stand.
For God, you see, is not limited to the houses of worship in Jerusalem, or the tops of mountains. God is found in the quiet of your fears while you wait for someone to get out of surgery. God is found in the streets of skid row with people working to touch the lives of those who find themselves there. God is found in the confusing loss of direction when you lose a job, or a friend, a loved one or a pet. God is found in the ordinary, extraordinary, beauty of a day, and yes, God is found here, and in thousands of houses of worship the world over.
So much for our separate denominations having corners on the truth. And World Communion Sunday provides us with an opportunity to remind ourselves, and to say to a divided world, that we do believe that God moves in and through all people who believe in Him. It says to a divided church, we have much in common, let us celebrate.
And we have a table here that we know to be Jesus’ table, and we welcome EVERYONE to come and experience communion with him.
I want to share a story with you that speaks to the beauty and power of breaking the bread and drinking the cup. It is a power that is felt around the world, especially on this day, and by everyone willing to accept the invitation of Christ.
An Episcopal priest named Tom regularly goes to work in the soup kitchen of a homeless shelter. After the people have been fed, he will invite any who wish to go into the small chapel to receive communion. One evening, during the communion service, in which the bread and cup were offered at an altar railing in the front of the chapel, “he came to a man kneeling there who looked as though he had been out on the streets for quite a while. The man looked up at Tom and whispered, ‘Skip me.’
“‘What? Pardon me?’ Tom said.
“In a louder whisper, the man said again, ‘Skip me.’
“‘Why?’ Tom asked.
“‘Because,’ the man said, ‘I’m not worthy.’
“Tom said to him, ‘Neither am I.’ And then Tom added, ‘I’ll tell you what. I’m going to serve Communion to these other people. Then, I’m going to come back and serve Communion to you, and then I would like you to serve it to me.’
“The man blinked in amazement and said to Tom, ‘Father, is it legal?’
“‘Yes, it’s legal,’ Tom answered.
“Tom went on down the altar and served all of the other people kneeling there. And then he came back to the reluctant man and said, ‘What’s your name?’
“The man replied, ‘Josh.’
“Tom placed the elements of the Lord’s Supper before him and said, ‘Josh, here is the body of Christ, and here is the blood of Christ given for you. Eat this and drink this in the remembrance that Christ came for you and Christ died for you. Amen.’
“Josh blinked back the tears in his eyes, and he received Holy Communion. Then, Tom knelt and handed Josh the trays of bread and wine and said, ‘Now, you serve me.’
“Josh nervously took the trays, and again he asked, ‘Father, are you sure this is legal?’
“‘Yes, it’s legal. Please serve me,’ Tom replied.
“Josh’s eyes were darting from side to side as he looked over one shoulder and then the other, as if he expected at any moment the police, the FBI, the CIA, or an Episcopal Bishop, would come rushing in to stop him, or worse, arrest him.
“Finally, Josh held the trays toward Tom, and as Tom received the Sacrament, Josh muttered, ‘Body – blood – for you. Hang in there!’
“Tom said later, ‘Of all the Communion rituals I have ever heard, I don’t recall the words “hang in there” in any of them. But at that moment for me, Holy Communion had never been more “holy.”’”
(story edited from James Moore, God Was Here & I Was Out To Lunch, pp. 45-46)
On this day, in this church, we affirm that Josh, and Tom, and everyone else, is welcome to come to Jesus’ table to receive his gifts. It is good to know that many other churches around the world, especially on this day of openness and unity, feel the same way.
(Message delivered by Rev. David McAllister on October 6, 2019 and posted on October 21, 2019)
Do You Believe It?
To preach on Easter Sunday is a privilege. To preach on Easter Sunday is a daunting challenge. To preach on Easter Sunday can be downright scary, even after all of these years.
The church, any church, is usually much fuller than on other Sundays of the year. This is the case with us, as you can see. And yes, people come in expectation of not only an uplifting worship experience, and the choir and musicians always help us a lot in that area, but people also expect a dynamic sermon. It should be good; after all, it is Easter. It should be a highlight sermon of the year.
And so, I sat and pondered these dynamics earlier this week. If I preach really well, you all will be pleased, and perhaps even touched in some way. On the other hand, if I bomb in my sermon, does that mean Easter is somehow a failure? And that one thought got me going…
For you see, this is God’s day. This is the day that God made, and this incredible event that happened almost two thousand years ago, that we celebrate again this morning, is God’s doing. It was God who raised Jesus to new life. It was God who left the tomb empty. It was God’s marvelous, miraculous, incredible act that took place in the early morning hours of that day.
And so, let me be frank; there is nothing that I can say or do to improve upon what God did. I may offer a great sermon, and you may like it, and you may even tell me I did great, but I can never outdo God. Or, I may end up boring you to the depth of your being, and leave you longing to just go have another helping of breakfast, but nothing I fail to do can diminish the powerful, mysterious, miraculous action of God on that morning long ago.
For you see, the resurrection is so much bigger than one sermon, one service, one day. The resurrection has eternal promise written all over it.
Let’s begin by looking at what the Gospel writers did with the events of that morning. We read the story from John’s Gospel, but the other three are similar in that they are rather sketchy, rather vague, and not all that detailed. In John’s version, they discover the empty tomb, first Mary Magdalene, and then the two disciples. Then, after Peter and John have gone back home, Mary takes a second look. There are two angels sitting where Jesus’ body had been. You might think this is pretty big stuff, but compared with the sky being filled with angels at the announcement to the shepherds of the birth of Jesus, these two are really pretty nonchalant. “Woman,” they ask, “why are you crying?” They don’t say in their best, deep voice, “Jesus has risen!” They don’t say, “Celebrate, it’s resurrection time!” No, they simply ask a question. And under normal circumstances, it would seem to be an insensitive question. A woman is crying in a cemetery, at the opening to a tomb. Why do you think she is crying? Especially since the body is missing. But, of course, the angels know something greater is going on. And so, when they ask, “why are you crying?” the unspoken part of the sentence is that “he told you he would rise again, don’t you remember?” The good news is there, but the tears have silenced it.
Then, Mary turns to see a figure who John is quick to let us know is Jesus, but whom she doesn’t recognize, and assumes is the gardener. And he too asks, “Why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?” And if we are paying attention, all the clues are there. Finally, when he speaks her name, “Mary,” it all comes together, she recognizes His voice, and the celebration begins. Indeed, she goes to the disciples to share the news: “I have seen the Lord!”
Now today, we hang on those elements of the story that speak of life. And yet, the celebration builds slowly those two thousand years ago. There is none of the fanfare of the entrance on Palm Sunday. There isn’t the drama like when Lazarus came walking out of the tomb as Jesus called him back to life. There aren’t a lot of fireworks and shouts of joy accompanying this event. Even after all the miracles that Jesus performed, this one, this Resurrection, was almost too much to believe.
So, even the Gospel writers, whose work has lasted all these centuries, and whose writings are among the most published of all time, they write a somewhat mild, low-key if you will, description of the events, so then this sermon, if less than brilliant, might be okay anyway. And maybe that is the point after all. For you see, the Resurrection stands on its own. The resurrection is such a special moment, such an unique event, such a magnificent, fantastic, dramatic, breathtaking, spectacular event, that it is almost beyond description. Resurrection isn’t something to just look at, it is something to be experienced.
It’s like the beautiful stained-glass windows that surround us. Now I could preach about these on the west wall, and have noted them in sermons before, but mainly they speak on their own. And the one behind all of you, that I gaze at every Sunday, it too has some elements that could find their way into a sermon, but again, it speaks more powerfully if I just allow it to do that on its own.
But the one behind the cross up here, it proclaims the Resurrection, the light of the world, the power of God. Yes, it is there for us to see, to experience, to draw into ourselves, yet no amount of preaching or explanation will make it any more spectacular. The spectacular happens when its message enters your heart.
And so, if the Resurrection is its own sermon, what is left for us? There is one question for us, actually. Do you believe it?
It is the most incredible news you will ever hear, but do you believe it? It really, truly happened, but do you believe it? It is what we have celebrated for over two thousand years, but do you really believe it?
As we opened our worship, I shared the brief story about the minister who heard, truly heard, for the first time, that he was a new creation in Christ. And he believed it.
Do you believe in the Resurrection? Do you believe in the marvelous, incredible power of a loving God who raised Jesus to new life?
That is what the Gospel writers are sharing with us. That is the message that the church has proclaimed for centuries. And I say it to you again this morning - Christ rose on the third day, he appeared to Mary and the disciples. He has touched countless lives ever since. And as I stand here, I can say, that I do indeed believe it.
If you are not yet sure, then let the truth continue to unfold within you. Let the stirrings of life, of resurrection, move around within you, such that you will come to know and proclaim for yourself that Christ is risen.
God raised Jesus to new and eternal life, and God gives to us that gift as well. Christ is risen! Christ Lives! And we sing Alleluia!
(Posted by Rev. David McAllister on April 23, 2019)
April Fools' Day
I remember, as a youngster, finding great glee in April Fools’ Day. Who doesn’t want to pull one over on their parents, and when everyone is scrambling around getting ready for work and school, what’s a more perfect time? After all, the success of April Fools’ Day pranks depends upon people not having time to really think about things, and especially upon one not realizing it is April 1st.
So, things like, “I can’t find my homework,” and “I need twenty dollars for the field trip,” and “you are supposed to meet with my teacher today at 10:00,” can all be disconcerting to a parent who is fixing breakfast or trying to get ready for work. Then, wait for it, “April Fools’.”
Of course, the flip side of that for me was to pay such careful attention at school that classmates wouldn’t be able to fool me. As I recall, the crafty ones still got me, and I may have gotten a few of the ones who were less crafty than even I was.
Nowadays though, most things seem so serious, and life is so stressful, that I don’t really plan any pranks. I mean, we could have had people show up at 10:00 and said to them, “What breakfast?” or had them come at 10:45 only to find a note on the door proclaiming, “April Fools’.” But those would have been counter-productive to being the church, to being a church family, and so they wouldn’t have served any good purpose.
I have begun with this “foolish” part of today, because that is, in essence, what the Romans tried to do in referring to the followers of Jesus. The Romans killed Jesus, and were secure in calling his followers a bunch of fools. Of course, come that morning on the first day of the week, very early on that day, it became obvious that something was going on, something beyond what the Romans had believed could have ever happened. Either someone had stolen Jesus’ body, or, don’t say it, it’s too outrageous, he actually rose like he said he would.
Interestingly, that first one, that Jesus’ body had not necessarily been stolen but had at least been removed, was one of the options Mary Magdalene considered. When she is met with the questions, “Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?”, she supposes the person asking is the gardener, and says, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.”
Now I don’t suggest that Jesus himself pulled off a really good April Fools’ Day joke, but his presence there, in the early morning mist, when only the gardener would have been expected to be roaming about, works just like one. But instead of revealing some kind of trick, Jesus reveals himself, simply by calling Mary by name.
With that, Mary recognizes the risen Jesus, and after a few moments together, returns to tell the good news to the disciples - “I have seen the Lord!”
Now Peter and John had run to the tomb when Mary first told them that someone had taken the body out of the tomb, while the rest of the disciples waited to hear their eyewitness account, which was of finding only the strips of linen and the burial cloth, but no Jesus. And now, Mary comes to them with something else entirely, saying that she has seen more, has actually seen Jesus alive.
Now if it had been me, after hearing the news from the first two, I think I would have asked Mary to take me to Jesus, so that I could see for myself. After all, we have moved from the first option, that someone had stolen or removed the body, to the second, more outrageous, option, that Jesus had actually risen from the dead.
Then, that night, Jesus comes and stands among the disciples, and gives to them his peace. Jesus, who had died – Jesus, who had been buried – Jesus, who was sealed inside the tomb – Jesus, whose body was nowhere to be found – Jesus, whom Mary claimed had come to her in the early morning mist – Jesus, appeared to them as well.
They now knew that this was no joke, no attempt to fool them. Here he was, standing in their midst. Jesus, risen from the dead.
Now, truth be told, that is still a rather outrageous claim to make. Not for you and me perhaps. After all, we are here. But even being here, don’t we too want to hear the story once again? Don’t we too want to be told the good news once again? Don’t we want to know for sure that it is true, that Jesus Christ is risen? Common sense, after all, tells us that this can’t possibly be true. This just couldn’t happen.
Now, we can understand new life. We can understand, and indeed witness, a butterfly emerging from a cocoon. We see buds on trees, and flowers blooming. We understand new life emerging. We see bulbs in the ground that appear to be dead, but from whom leaves and flowers emerge. We can understand new life. But new human life? That just can’t happen, right? How does that work?
It does defy so much of our human experience, thereby asking us to take a step in faith. The Romans weren’t able to take that step. They believed, knew, that Jesus’ followers were fools for believing this nonsense. And indeed, there are still those who consider Christians to be fools for believing that Jesus indeed rose from the dead. But we are a blessed people. We are part of the family where Jesus reigns as Christ, our Messiah. We in our faith know, without a doubt, that that incredible event, almost too good to be true, was indeed true. It was no trick. It was, and is, real.
We have believed in the power of God, bringing forth the new life Jesus experienced, coming to us as the best news ever. And I know it is true, because I have experienced the power of Christ in my own life.
And let those who won’t take that step in faith call me a fool. I would rather other people consider me as such, than for God to say to me later, “I gave you this gift, and yet you considered it mere foolishness.”
Yes, we are a blessed people. We have stepped closer to our God, accepting the greatest gift of all eternity, His Son, and we can truly believe that Jesus Christ has risen. For He has risen indeed.
(Posted by Rev. David McAllister on April 2, 2018)
What would you do with $50?
Most of you have probably heard this parable, the parable of the talents, at least a couple of times. When Jesus told it of course, as with his other stories and parables, he wasn’t just telling a story, but he was inviting people into the story. He was always inviting the hearers to imagine their place in the story.
Now, we could see ourselves as the harsh, demanding landowner, to start. If you crave power, that may be your choice. Or, if you want to seem as much like God as anyone in the parable, then the landowner would be your choice as well.
But I think what Jesus really wants us to think about is the three individuals to whom the money is entrusted. The first two, of course, double the money given to them. That’s a pretty good return in just about any setting. I know I would be happy with that.
After all, if you are making one percent on any savings account that you have, then you are doing better than just about anyone else. If you are making six to seven percent in the stock market, then you are doing well there too.
Now I admit that Jesus in the story says that the landowner came back “after a long time” away, and so profits may have compounded for those two people, but still, a one hundred percent return is very impressive indeed.
And, since they have shown themselves to be responsible with what they were given, which in today’s financial valuations equals about $5000 for the first man and $2000 for the second man, then they are given responsibility for more of their master’s affairs.
Then…then we come to the third guy. He was afraid of the landowner, afraid of his boss. Now before we start to get down on him too hard, have any of you ever been afraid of your boss, afraid that you could lose your job that you need so much? Have you ever been afraid of making mistakes and getting fired because of them?
Maybe not. Oh, but maybe so.
In any case, the third man is afraid. He knows his master’s reputation. So, he hides the money under his mattress. Maybe he just didn’t trust banks. After all, there was no FDIC insurance back then. But for whatever reason, he hides the money so that he can return it to the master intact, not one penny missing, well, not one drachma that is. And the master blows up at him. Then, as if to add insult to injury, the master takes the money, and gives it to the man who started with five and ended up with ten. Now do you hear that? He gives it to the one who has ten. That implies that each kept the money they ended up with. So, not only does the third guy lose face and gets fired, but he has the original money taken away from him, where he could have ended up with that one talent plus a little interest.
So, where do you see yourself in the story? I would expect that many of you would say you are the first person, who was dancing all the way to the bank. But maybe you see yourself as the second person, still having a job, but not in the financial department, or even the third person, walking out the back door with head hanging low, trying to not see any of your friends.
A teacher once asked a class of students, at the end of the school term, what they each thought they deserved in his class. The students came forward one by one and gave the grade they thought they deserved to the teacher. Then, when the grades were posted, each student got exactly what they said they believed they deserved.
Now, if you were honest and really thought you deserved a “B,” then you got that, and should have been satisfied. But if you were clever and thought, “If this guy is going to ask, well then I’m going to say I deserve an ‘A’ even if I don’t, because perhaps I will be rewarded for my resourceful thinking.” After all, the worst that could happen in such a situation would be that the teacher would say, “You have got to be kidding, you delusional student, you’re getting a “C” and lucky to be getting that.” But other than that reprimand, what did the student lose?
Getting back to the parable, what would you lose by going ahead and saying that you see yourself as the first person in the parable?
Now I would still say that honesty is the best policy, but creativity and cleverness have their place in life as well. And I am going to give you an opportunity now to be creative, and perhaps even clever.
I wish I had the funds to do this in reality instead of in the hypothetical, but in your imagination I am going to give each of you $50 now, and you think about what you would do with it, because I expect you to do something with it and bring the results to me at the end of four weeks. Think about it. What would you do with that $50 in order to bring the returns back in a month?
Are you the first person in the story; the second person; the third person?
And let’s make this even better, let’s say that God, and not me, has entrusted you with money, with the $50. What would you do? For God, you know, has entrusted you with more than you realize.
It is interesting, of course, that in the reading in most translations, it is “talents” that are given by the master to the three persons. A talent would be worth, as I said earlier, about $1000 in our day. But it wasn’t lost on the youth that the word can also be used to speak of our skills, of things we are good at, of gifts that God has given us.
So, what God-given talents will you use in order to bring a return from the $50 that has been entrusted to you?
(Posted by Rev. David McAllister on May 9, 2016)
Forgiveness is such an interesting, and at times evasive, quality. We read about it repeatedly in the Bible. We pray about it often, in word and song: such as, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” - words, which I think at times hold great meaning for us, and at times stand in danger of becoming only words which we speak from memory and even in boredom.
Forgiveness. It’s hard to argue with it much. We long to feel God’s forgiveness ourselves. We want it. And, we hear Jesus’ commands to forgive one another.
There are really only two things that trip us up with forgiveness. The first one is, “Who can you not forgive? Who has done something, which is for you, unforgivable?” And the second issue with forgiveness is how many times we are supposed to do it. Peter asked that question of Jesus way back then. We still ask it. Even when we know the answer that Jesus gave Peter, which essentially was that the number of times is endless, we ask sometimes hoping that Jesus might give us a lesser number to achieve.
If Jesus ever had any reservations about the limits of forgiveness, he set them aside when, on the cross, he spoke words that echoed in people’s ears and hearts: “Forgive them, for they know not what they are doing.” Forgive them, because they have no idea about the consequences of their actions.
How often do we do things and then say, “Oh, I’m sorry, forgive me, I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings.” We too do things without thinking. We too say and do things without having an idea as to their impact on others.
Among those for whom Jesus intended forgiveness in those powerful words he spoke, was one who denied even knowing Jesus, and who did so three times.
Peter was scared. He was afraid for his own life. He was looking out for his own skin. And in some sense, he didn’t fully know what he was doing.
Jesus had told him, of course, that Peter would deny knowing him, three times before the cock crowed, three times before morning. Peter wouldn’t believe it, until of course he heard the cock crow and realized that Jesus’ horrible prediction had come true.
But with Jesus, forgiveness came naturally. Remember back earlier in his travels with the disciples, when the woman caught in adultery was brought before him? He didn’t negate the fact that she had sinned. Nor did he preach a sermon about sin and forgiveness. He simply invited the one who was there, who was without sin, to begin her punishment by casting the first stone at her. No one could do it. They all knew they had sinned in some way or other. Jesus didn’t condemn her either; he forgave her. Then he told her to go on her way, and to not sin again.
When we are forgiven, when someone graciously says, or God says, “I forgive you, because I truly believe that you did not know what you were doing,” then we are given a second chance.
And when we are forgiven, then what? We know, of course. We are to go about changing our lives.
Jesus told the woman whose life was spared to go and not sin again. Go and do things differently. Go and live differently. Go and be different.
And when we are forgiven, when we are given a second chance, then we too are to accept the gift and to go and be different. For truly, when we fully receive that forgiveness, when it touches the depths of our hearts, then we can hardly help but set out to be a changed person.
(Posted by Rev. David McAllister on April 5, 2016)